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I’m a sucker for sports history. It doesn’t even really matter the sport – I generally lean toward the Big Four, but honestly, any discussion of the athletic past will work. I have my sporting foci – baseball and football foremost among them – but as a general fan, I can derive joy from coverage of just about any athletic endeavor.

The moral to the story is simple: With the right pairing of subject matter and author, a work of sports nonfiction can really sing.

Longtime Boston sports journalist Leigh Montville is one of the best to ever do the gig, with a decades-long body of work covering some of the most iconic moments in American sports. His latest book is “Tall Men, Short Shorts – The 1969 NBA Finals: Wilt, Russ, Lakers, Celtics, and a Very Young Sports Reporter” (Doubleday, $29), a look back at the series that would ultimately mark the ending of the lengthy Celtics NBA dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s. A series that saw a certain bright young man – just 24 years of age and setting out on what would become an iconic career as an ink-stained wretch – crisscrossing the country as part of the now-legendary NBA Finals matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers in 1969.

It’s also a wonderful bit of autobiographical writing, a reflection on the beginnings of a storied career. Those moments of memory and memoir are what elevate this book from what would be a perfectly adequate work of sports history into something more, a wry look back from someone who understands that the person he once was had a lot to learn.

Published in Sports

A lot of the best comedy comes from darkness. For many of our funniest, the shadows are where they find the biggest laughs. As it turns out, one can mine a lot of jokes from battling with one’s demons.

Comedy connoisseurs are certainly aware of Tom Scharpling. He’s likely best known as the creator of the beloved long-running radio show-turned-podcast “The Best Show,” where he and his partner Jon Wurster have spent some two decades crafting a bizarre and absurdist call-in program that is probably one of your favorite comedian’s favorite things.

And now, he’s written a memoir.

“It Never Ends: A Memoir with Nice Memories!” (Abrams Press, $27) gives readers a window into who Scharpling really is. It’s an exploration of a troubled past rendered with self-deprecating frankness, walking us along the path that brought him to his current place. There’s an earnestness to it all, despite the constant self-awareness – an unwavering honesty, even in the face of clear misgivings about sharing these stories in their entirety.

Published in Buzz

Video games are big business.

Now, anyone with any sort of cultural awareness understands that the video game industry is a big one, but when you stop to really look, the numbers are staggering.

We’re talking a LOT of zeroes here, to the tune of some $180 billion (yes, with a B) just last year. That number outstrips the global movie industry. It outstrips the North American sports industry. And oh yeah – it’s more than those two COMBINED.

So yeah – big money.

But with big money comes big pressure. The companies that make these games, whether we’re talking about the major-name studios doing the distribution at the top or the multitude of smaller shops that tend to the lion’s share of the developmental work to bring these games to life, are faced with massive expectations. When those expectations are not met, there are of course consequences, but even success is no guarantee.

Jason Schreier’s “Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry” (Grand Central Publishing, $17.99) takes a look behind the scenes at the video game industry, digging deep and investigating the stories that spring from every game development experience. Some of them are good, some not-so-good, all populated by designers and developers who want nothing more than to make great games – even if the success of those games doesn’t always trickle down to them.

Through first-rate reporting and dozens of first-hand interviews, Schreier walks us through the process of making games through the eyes of the people who make them. We also get to explore the business side of things, watching as executives insert themselves into the process regardless of whether they actually know anything about video games.

As they say – mo’ money, mo’ problems.

Published in Tekk

Sports biographies are tricky things.

The history of professional sports in this country is built on a foundation of legacy. The lionization of athletic giants is an underlying tenet of pro sports, with the games in a constant conversation with their own history. Protecting that history – that legacy – is paramount to many if not most pro athletes.

At the same time, leaving that history unexamined does a disservice to the reader. A simple and glowing account of an athlete’s feats, all buffed glossiness, is nothing more than hagiography – overly simplistic, unchallenging … and incredibly dull.

And it only gets trickier when the subject isn’t directly involved.

That’s the juggling act Scott Howard-Cooper has undertaken with his new book “Steve Kerr: A Life” (William Morrow, $28.99). It’s the story of the rich and fascinating life lived by Steve Kerr. From his globetrotting boyhood to an underdog basketball journey to the pinnacle of his profession, Kerr’s is a tale almost too interesting to be real, marked by triumph and tragedy.

Published in Sports

The notion of Yankee ingenuity is one that has long been engrained into the cultural consciousness of New England. The twin tenets of “needs doing” and “making do” are huge parts of the region’s history, with generations of people finding ways to accomplish what needs accomplishing via utilizing what’s on hand through general cleverness.

As you might imagine, this also means that there is a lengthy history of invention and innovation that springs from the region. And a great deal of that inventing and innovating has taken place in the state of Maine.

Author and historian Earl H. Smith has taken it upon himself to celebrate Maine’s inventors with his new book “Downeast Genius: From Earmuffs to Motor Cars, Maine Inventors who Changed the World” (Islandport Press, $17.95). It’s a quick-hit breakdown of over 50 Mainers whose creations made an impact on the world – some big, some small, but all entertaining.

The work of these innovators spans the decades, reaching from the waning days of the 18th century to the cusp of the 21st. These inventions also impact a wide variety of industries, from the agricultural age to the electronic. And each of these people – and their work – is brought to our attention in eminently readable bite-sized fashion. A fun, quick read – engaging and informative.

Published in Style

It’s hard to believe in a world that has been shrunk so significantly by technology, but there are still mysteries that remain to be solved. There are things that we can’t explain, no matter how hard we try. And when we do try, our efforts are dismissed as delusions or mistakes or hoaxes.

So it is with Bigfoot.

The legendary cryptid has been a part of American legend for hundreds of years. And while it is best known for roaming through the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, there are plenty of other places in this country that could conceivably play host to the elusive beast.

Places like Maine.

Michelle Souliere’s new book “Bigfoot in Maine” (The History Press, $21.99) digs into the cryptozoological phenomenon’s history here in the State of Maine, delving deep into various archives and reaching out to a variety of eyewitnesses, bringing to life the beast’s ongoing presence in the Pine Tree State.

It’s a well-researched and well-written tome, built on a foundation of testimonies – some drawn from aged newspapers, others from the mouths of those who saw … something … with their own eyes. Souliere’s hypothesis is simple – Bigfoot has and may still walk the woods of Maine.

Published in Adventure

Some of the best narrative nonfiction springs from when an author is able to get really granular with the subject at hand. When the writer digs deep, vein after vein of precious literary gems can be unearthed, painting vivid and compelling portraits of people and places. These stories are captivating and enlightening in the best of ways.

Some of the WORST narrative nonfiction starts in the same place. These are the stories wherein the author treats the subject(s) as some sort of vaguely anthropological study, holding themselves above the people with whom they are engaging. They parachute into a place and imagine that their brief dalliance is enough to bestow actual understanding.

The State of Maine has unfortunately seen a bit more of the latter treatment than the former in recent years, with this place and its denizens being rendered simplistically and/or stereotypically – junk shop kitsch instead of fine art.

I honestly wasn’t sure which I was going to get from “Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America” (Harper, $27.99), the new book from Gigi Georges. I’ve been around long enough to know that these efforts to somehow “unlock” the truth of rural America often wind up being little more than condescending confirmations of the author’s already-extant attitudes, cherry picked to prop up whatever thesis they sported upon their arrival.

This book is not that.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 19 May 2021 11:01

‘Total Olympics’ goes for the gold

I love the Olympics.

There’s something so captivating about watching someone at the peak of their performance do what it is that they do best. This notion of being recognized as the literal best in the world at something – fascinating.

And that’s what the Olympics do. They celebrate the glory of athletic achievement (as well as nationalistic jingoism and bureaucratic graft, but still).

There’s more to the Olympics than the winners, however. For every famous gold medalist’s face gracing a Wheaties box, there are scores of stories of those who were just as excellent, yet now linter in obscurity. Not to mention those who, for whatever reason, never quite reached the same iconic pinnacle. And just like anything that has been around for more than a century (or centuries, if you start counting from its Greek origins), a lot has changed – both good and bad.

These are the sorts of stories that you’ll find in Jeremy Fuchs’s new book “Total Olympics: Every Obscure, Hilarious, Dramatic and Inspiring Tale Worth Knowing” (Workman Publishing, $22.95). Yes, you’ll get stories of the giants of various eras – Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz, Mary Lou Retton, Michael Phelps – but you’ll also be reminded of (or learn for the first time) names of exceptional athletes with less longstanding cultural resonance.

In addition, Fuchs has brought forward numerous tales of Olympic history, digging into some of the behind-the-scenes chicanery that came with hosting the event and revisiting some of the wild and weird competitions that were once part of the proceedings.

It’s a compact and fun trip through the history of the Games, a catch-all of trivia, biographical sketches and fascinating forgotten moments. Anyone with affection for the Olympics will find plenty to enjoy in these pages.

Published in Sports

Fame can be fleeting. No matter how talented a person, no matter how renowned in their time, oftentimes it comes down to mere chance whether an artist is forever feted or ultimately forgotten.

For the author Rachel Field, the latter was true. Field, best known for her Newbery Award-winning book “Hitty, Her First Hundred Years,” was also a winner of the National Book Award among other accolades. For years, she spent her summers in a house on Sutton Island, a small private island off the southern coast of Mount Desert Island. She was incredibly prolific and generally beloved by both critics and readers.

And I had never heard of her.

Thanks to author Robin Clifford Wood, however, I have been relieved of my ignorance. Wood’s new book is “The Field House: A Writer’s Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine” (She Writes Press, $16.95), which tells the story of this notable woman of letters who produced celebrated work right up until her untimely passing at the age of just 47.

But this isn’t your typical literary biography. While Wood undeniably digs deep with her research into the life and work of Rachel Field, the book’s strength lies in the author’s connection with the subject matter. Her fascination with Field plays out in many ways throughout the book, binding together Wood’s own story with that of the once celebrated and now obscure writer.

Published in Style

The personal essay boom of the past decade or so certainly makes sense as part of the ongoing explosion of internet content. The current landscape is ideally conducive to, well … talking about yourself, taking the old adage “Write what you know” to its most extreme logical conclusion.

This isn’t always a good thing. Too often, this sort of writing devolves into solipsism, a kind of self-celebratory navel-gazing that winds up reading equal parts indulgent and disingenuous. But on those occasions that it works, it’s as impactful as any formal autobiography, giving readers a glimpse at the kind of unexpected truth that can only come from someone else’s experience.

The essays in Lauren Hough’s new collection “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing: Essays” (Vintage, $16.95) work. This selection of 11 stories drawn from Gough’s checkered and fascinating life coalesces in a remarkable way. Through these tales of a unique journey – a childhood spent in a cult leads to a turn in the military followed by a rough-and-tumble awakening of her sexuality, all while simply trying to understand the world in ways many of us take for granted.

Hough’s lacerating wit hits many targets, though none so often or so bitingly as herself. There’s a brutality to her honesty and to her self-deprecation that is compelling as hell to engage with. These alternatingly heartbreaking and hilarious tales stand strong on their own, but as a unit, they form a multi-faceted memoir-in-stories that is a true delight.

Published in Style
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