Review: Chopra’s Shapeshifter

Shapeshifter: The Evolution of a Cricket Fan

(awaiting publication)
Samir Chopra

For many sports fans, myself included, our personal lives are intertwined with the fortunes of millionaires we have never met. I remember watching, with my father, when Brett Favre threw for four hundred yards the night after his own father died. I remember the fights I got into with my relatives around the coded racism of the country’s hatred for Barry Bonds, and I remember the joy and anger I felt, holding my infant son, when I watched Shabbazz Napier win the national championship and talk about how he’d gone hungry while leading UCONN to a multi-million dollar pay day.

This is what it means to be a sports fan – to have your personal history tied up in the history of sports teams. A critique can be made of caring this much about sports, but I’m not the one to make it. Just before writing this review, I checked the chances of the Giants making the post season. It’s not looking good.

Shapeshifter, by my friend, the philosopher Samir Chopra, is a memoir of a sports fan. A cricket fan, specifically, and the ways that he and his cricket fandom changed over the years. As Samir moves from a boy in Delhi to a man in New York City, his thoughts on the game, and his team allegiances change. In part, these changes are due to his changed circumstances, but also because of the changing nature of the teams themselves and geo-political upheavals. Its difficult to parse out how these things happen, but Samir focuses closely on his own feelings and rationalizations and paints a compelling picture of how our taste for the game effects our lives, and our lives our taste for the game. Along the way, Chopra pulls for Australia, Pakistan and India while also losing loved ones, immigrating, falling in and out of love, and wrestling with what it means to be a Indian-American, a husband, and a father.

There’s a lot of cricket in this book, and (like the stereotype Samir calls out) I do not understand cricket. That didn’t stop me from loving this book. While much of the cricket talk went right over my head, I could still appreciate the voice of a fan, explaining the sport he loves, and how that fandom reflected and informed everything else Though Samir’s sports and life story are different, I see a lot of myself in this work. I imagine other sports fan will as well.

Recommended.

Review: Mahler’s Ladies and Gentleman the Bronx is Burning

This, and many more reviews I’ve been posting lately originally appeared in 2007 on a now defunct livejournal.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City

Jonathan Mahler

This is exactly what a journalistic history book should be. Fast, fun, and informative, as the book reviewers would say. Plus, it’s about baseball, riots, tabloid journalism, politicians and serial killers all in New York in the 1970s. What’s not to like?

Its kind of hard to remember now, but New York in 1977 was a city on the verge of total and utter collapse. We’re talking bankruptcy, massive civil unrest, serial killers. Oh, and Reggie Jackson. If you give a shit about baseball and New York, or just really good writing, you should read this book.

Recommended.

Review: Braudel’s Perspective of the World

This review originally appeared in a now long defunct livejournal sometime around 2007.

The Perspective of the World: Civilization and Capitalism 15Th-18th Century, Vol. 3

Fernand Braudel

The final volume of this magnum opus tracing in minute, painful, detail the creation of capitalism in the west, and the precursors and repercussions of that creation in the rest of the world. For my reviews of the other two volumes, check here and here.

My tolerance for the detailed economic historiography that makes up a lot of this book is pretty low. The breadth of Braudel’s scholarship is still deeply impressive, but as I got to the last hundred pages, I found myself wanting to skip more and more of the detailed recounting of other authors scholarship.

The main take away from Volume Three is something that most people who are interested in the industrial revolution probably already agree on – this wasn’t a revolution in the modern Russian revolution sense. It was a change in the means of organizing society that few noticed while it was happening, and few even tried to understand until much later.* This of course leads to one of the questions that lefties are always arguing over – if one of the greatest reengineerings of society happened without anyone really knowing it was happening, then why on earth does anyone think they can come up with the next great plan by a decision by a central committee? Braudel doesn’t answer this, but all the evidence he gives would point to the conclusion that planned revolutions are a pipe dream.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

* Even Adam Smith, who came a little late to the party, didn’t really grasp what was going on.

 

Review: Levy’s Nothing Serious

This review (and the dozen or so others I’ve posted tonight) are all from a now long defunct livejournal and have been only minimally edited.
Nothing Serious
Justine Levy
Justine Levy is Bernard-Henri Levi’s daughter. This is her novel about life with a famous father she worships and how all her boyfriends both hate and want to be her father and how none of them can win her love like her father can.

It is basically crap. When I realize I have read things like this, sometimes I wonder about myself.

Not Recommended.

Review: Ferguson’s Colossus

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
Niall Ferguson

Ferguson is by far my favorite right-wing writer*. He is a skilled stylist and isn’t at all afraid to take his theories to their logical conclusions. For Ferguson, the problem isn’t the US is an empire, it is that it does a poor job of being one.

 

Though it is only one example, the way Ferguson deals with the war in Iraq is illustrative of his thinking. I don’t know if Ferguson’s position on the war in Iraq has changed, but at the time of the writing of this book (late 2004) he wasn’t opposed to the occupation, he thought there weren’t enough troops to pull it off. How to get enough troops for the mission? Give away citizenship to those who would fight for it and amnesty to prisoners who will fight. There’s nothing wrong with being the new Rome, Ferguson seems to be arguing, just don’t halfass it.

This is a minor, overtly poltical work by Ferguson. His Rothschild books display a totally different person – one who is a careful, detail oriented historian (though one not without political assumptions). I prefer the historian, and this book quickly feels dated, still it was worth the read, if only to disagree with a smart man.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

*I obvious disagree with Ferguson’s categorization of the American Empire as being a positive force in the world (though I don’t disagree with his assertion that it is a shittily run empire) but I do appreciate his ability to write.

 

Review: Waid and Ross’s Kingdom Come

Another in a long line of review written a million years ago (2007) for a now long defunct livejournal.
Kingdom Come

Mark Waid and Alex Ross

I think this is supposed to be a sort of post, post “adult” graphic novel where we come full circle from the flawed superhero back to the super-super hero. Maybe? I don’t know. I’m really not comicbook literate anymore.

Maybe I’m just not capable of getting into superheroes again, or maybe Ross’s retro superheroes-as-good-guys thing is just not for me. Either way, I not only didn’t like this, I fundamentally thought it was worth the time. Give me a Batman who isn’t just crabby, but sociopathic, and I might be interested. But good old fashion good guys? Boring.

Not recommended.

Review: Delany’s About Writing

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews

Samuel Delany

I am a huge fan of the writer Samuel Delany. A writer at the heart of what I think the best of “new wave” science fiction, Delany has gone on to write memoirs, literary fiction, pornography, comics books and much else in between. Though not all of his works are good, in the aggregate all of it is important. Delany  is, overall, one of the most interesting and important writers alive today.

This book collects Delany’s writings on the craft of writing. It isn’t particularly good. Books of this sort are notoriously difficult and often bad. Unfortunately, this is one of the not very good ones. Delany is an at times inspired writer (there are passages in Dhalgren, his masterwork, which are straight up gorgeous) but he also has a bit of logorrhea and can be hopelessly long winded and circular. Sometimes, this works to his advantage, at other times, it doesn’t. When discussing his early years in the East Village in the Motion of Light in Water, his penchant for the detail brings light to the world; but his circuitous, at times free form, style doesn’t play well as an instructional manual on writing. If you’re going to read Delany, and you should, this isn’t the book to read. For brilliant Delany, read Dhalgren. For a good book on the craft of writing, surprisingly (since I’ve never read one of his books), I’d recommend Stephen King’s On Writing.

Not recommended.

(ok, ok, recommended for the Delany completist, i.e. me).

 

Review: Kolchin’s American Slavery

Ed. Note – this is one a 100 or so book reviews I wrote for a now long defunct livejournal. I’m posting it, and many others like it for my own records and hopefully your enjoyment.
Name Your Link
Peter Kolchin

If you’re going to read one overview book on the history of slavery in America, and you want it to include not only the racism and sexism that were endemic in the slavery era, but you also want a good discussion of the economic consequences of slavery, and at least some explanation of why the practice was beginning to fail both morally and economically by the late 1800s, you could do worse than read Kolchin’s book.

How’s that for sentence? Read Kolchin, and you’ll get a number just as long.

All kidding about Kolchin’s sentence structure aside, this is one of those rare books which walks the line well between the exhaustiveness of an academic work and the readabilty of popular history. While it isn’t as good as Battle Cry of Freedom, the book on the Civil War, if you ask me, it comes close.

And in fairness to Kolchin, in some ways, a history of slavery is a harder thing to write. The subject matter is unrelentingly horrific. And yet, if you are to do the subject justice, you need to more past the horror to the economics and politics behind it not in a way which trivializes the plight of the enslaved, but goes at least part of the way towards explaining their enslavement. Walking that line is difficult, and Kolchin doesn’t always succeed, but its clearly what he is going for in this work and for that he should be applauded.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: The Davinci Code

Ed Note: This review originally appears in a now defunct livejournal account in 2007.

 
The Da Vinci Code
Dan Brown
challenges, to forget. Sometimes what you need after a hard week is Jack Reacher setting the world right and getting the girl. There is nothing to be embarrassed about in enjoying that. There may, however, be something embarrassing about having read the Da Vinci Code.

It is horrible. The writer is awful, the characters poorly drawn and the plot so out-of-this-world unbelievable that not even I, reader of monsters in space science fiction, could stomach it. .

I suppose part of the reason this became such a phenomenon was the conspiracy angle.. Here you’ve got the Jesus, you got the blasphemy and pervy S&M monks bent on world domination. Maybe that’s the appeal – to read about something that transgresses basic Christian belief yet it so incredibly implausible that no one would give it any credence.

By now you know the basic plot of the book – Jesus married! His descendants live! It’s a conspiracy theory that’s been around for whole. In fact, much of this is taken from Holy Blood, Holy Grail a book I read as a teenager that left a strangely deep impression on me. (Holy Blood, Holy Grail is also not a very good book, by the way, but I’ll take it over this trash any day. ) Its juicy stuff, and could be done much, much better in the hands of oh, say, Umberto Echo. But here’s its played for cheap thrills and pushed forward with the worst sort of “as you know Bob” explanation. It’s really unforgivable that this thing was a bestseller.

America, I will never understand thee.

Not recommended.

Review: Burrough’s Barbarians at the Gate

One among many reviews originally published on livejournal in 2007 and now reposted here for posterity.

Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco

Brian Burrough

I am a connoisseur of the business bestseller. I read ‘em all, and this one is among the best featuring conniving and scheming on a massive scale. Extremely unlikable rich assholes brought low by equally unsavory, but way smarter, rich people. I don’t know what this says about me, but I find it strangely satisfying to read as one ultra-wealthy businessman is out maneuvered by another.

It’s the story of an attempt to take RJR Nabisco private, and then a series of takeover attempts that were instigated by the original privatization plan. Johnson, the CEO of RJR comes off as a dick, and not very smart at all. He’s like a frat boy who gets by glad handing people and buying rounds of drinks – i.e. the kind of rich guy I hate the most. Kravis, of legendary take over firm KKR, is the smarter man who comes in for the kill. He is portrayed here like a financier god. Brilliant, pushy, and beyond you puny human morals. Guess who gets the company in the end.

If business tell-alls are your thing, you’ve probably already read this classic of the genre. If not, do so.

Recommended for the enthusiast.