A few years ago, I began highlighting some books the week before Father's Day, hoping to give you an alternative to the tie or the dozen golf balls for the man who has 300 of each. This year, I've scaled it back to five books -- books I can heartily endorse because I think every one is special.
I'm concerned about how little I've read the last few years. Maybe it's e-mail, maybe it's the voluminous easy sites that magnetize you to them four or five times a day when 10 or 15 years ago I'd have sat down and read something of substance. I'll pick up the latest Grisham (I've loved them all except Playing for Pizza, which seemed nonsensical to me) and have it done in two days. Harlan Coban's very good, too. But what I hoped to do this year is hit on some I think an audience of football and football/general interest readers would like.
I've picked one about the searing brutality of war, one thriller, one story of a little-engine-that-could high school football program in Michigan, one cautionary tale about trying to cover up a horrible mistake, and one spell-binding story I will never forget, about the death of a minor-league coach struck by a foul ball.
I'd love to hear from you about the books if you pick up one or two of them. I'll run your responses on my first Tuesday column back from vacation, July 21. In no particular order, here are the MMQB Summer Five:
1. Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath, by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, tearsinthedarkness.com).
It chronicles the story of the worst defeat in American military history through the eyes and emotions of young Montana soldier Ben Steele -- still alive today in Montana despite his harrowing 41-month imprisonment in the Phillippines and Japan in the 1940s. But it also tells the story of the war from the Japanese side, with incredible clarity and more empathy than any American veteran (particularly one such as Michael Norman, a former Marine who served in Vietnam) would normally show.
There is nothing anywhere like a book that transports you from the chair you're sitting in reading the book back to the time and place and into the heads of those who felt the story.
Pafko at the Wall by Don Delillo comes to mind, or one of the Halberstam pennant-race books. I raced through this book, fascinated by the minutiae and interesting detail; even the numbing military stuff was spell-binding, like this passage about what it's like to have your base, in this case Clark Air Base in the Philippines, hit by a warhead with 100 pounds of explosive:
"... a burst of blinding white, a sharp, painful crack! Followed by an enormous rip, a tearing of the air, then, finally, a deep shudder in the ground, the earth set atremble. A bomb blast is lethal science, fluid mechanics meant to maim. First, the shock wave, a surge of air that hits a man like a wall of wind, hits him so hard his cerebrum starts to shake concussively in his skull, swelling at first, then hemorrhaging, rivulets of blood running from his nose and ears ... The atmosphere turns hot and dense, high pressure sucking the low pressure from every recess around it, from a man's lungs and ears and eye sockets, leaving him gasping for breath and fighting the feeling his pupils are being pulled from their eye sockets.''
The temptation in a war book is to make one side full of good guys and the other side the bad guys, and the Normans could be forgiven for making the Japanese the bad guys in this war story. You'll see why; the Japanese atrocities still make my stomach turn even now, a couple of weeks after reading the book. But the Normans made the Japanese soldiers as human as the Americans, writing that on the morning of one attack, Japanese lieutenant Ryotaro Nishimura "woke his men at three o'clock and huddled with them at breakfast: miso soup and an egg over a thick porridge of barley and white rice. Japanese soup always reminded the men of home, but on this morning the troops complained the miso had a 'strange' flavor, and Ryotaro Nishimura knew that the men had awakened with the metallic taste of fear in their mouths.''
I mean, wow. It's like that for 398 pages.
2. American Youth, by Phil LaMarche (Random House, phillamarche.com/american_youth).
LaMarche tells the story of Teddy, a boy growing up in a semi-rural northeastern community torn by the recession. Teddy is suffering from adolescent dislocation. His father had to move away to find work and Teddy stays behind with his mother and his few friends. The sudden accidental death of one of those friends by a gunshot propels Teddy into a lie and leads him eventually into a gang, which serves only to make him feel more threatened and alone.
Teenage problems at home, problems at school and problems with friends are nothing new in life or in fiction. But in the hands of LaMarche, the story is fresh and vivid and the characters feel real. Watching Teddy's life unravel is painful, believable and tragic. As a friendly cop tries to advise him: "I've seen other boys like you, Ted -- boys who never get it and they just keep screwing up and screwing up, just like you're doing now. If you don't come clean, you don't have a chance. I know it."
Anyone who's ever screwed up will understand Teddy's unraveling and his brave struggle to get back to the truth. A smart read and a compelling tale.
3. The Champions of St. Ambrose, by Rick Gosselin (August Publications).
So when I heard he was writing a football book, I figured it'd be good. Maybe something about the Cowboys, or the old teams he covered in Kansas City. But then I heard it was a high school story, about his old football team in Detroit. St. Ambrose High is a city school, and its story of greatness two generations ago bears retelling. Gosselin does it vividly.
St. Ambrose was the Hoosiers of football, a school of 200 students that won five city championships in an eight-year span, beginning 50 years ago ... despite not having a football field to its name. They did it with talented, driven coaches such as Tom Boisture and George Perles, both of whom had careers that culminated in Super Bowls. But ask them about their happiest times in football, and St. Ambrose High will be mentioned before the Giants or the Steelers. Gosselin tirelessly explains why.
There are some things that can happen only in high school, like the bus ride home from a winning road game for St. Ambrose. A block away from the school, the team would sing the school fight song. Pulling up to the school, most of the parish, plus the nuns, plus the priests, plus three-quarters of the student body, would be there to welcome home the team, loudly. "Then the players would troop that half block up Hampton for the final prayer of the night -- and the week -- at the church steps,'' Gosselin writes.
That's the feel you get from the book -- a community with football and the parish as the glue, as so many communities in America were in the last 50 years.
4. Heart of the Game: Life, Death and Mercy in Minor League America, by S.L. Price (Ecco).
The book alternates between the lives of Coolbaugh and Tino Sanchez, telling the melodramatic stories of how each classic baseball lifer got to the diamond in North Little Rock, Ark., where the foul ball struck Coolbaugh in the neck and killed him almost instantly. Price puts you there. He puts you in the first-base coach's box with Coolbaugh, in the batter's box with Sanchez, on the pitcher's mound with the hurler feeling guilty for throwing the pitch resulting in the fatal hit and with the trainer who, months later, still can't forgive himself for a coach on his team dying on his watch. Powerful, powerful stuff.
But the redemptive quality of the story is also powerful. The family forgives Tino Sanchez almost instantly, something that may have saved his life. The parent Colorado Rockies brought Coolbaugh's two boys to Denver to throw out dual first pitches at their playoff opener that fall -- then gave the family a full playoff share of some $230,000, even though Coolbaugh had been working for the organization for just 18 games. Price hasn't written a good book here. It's a great book.
5. Gone Tomorrow, by Lee Child (Bantam Dell, bantamdell.com).
This is my first of this series of Jack Reacher books -- he's the tough-guy, genius-type who solves every crime-drama known to man -- and I plan to read more. Armen Keteyian turned me on to Lee Child, and he's very good, very detailed. He grips you. "Taut'' and "page-turner'' would be two apt ways to describe this book. It brings together the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of Washington politicos that eventually brought terrorism to this country. Reacher unravels the mystery of the suicide bomber, going through and over and around Al Qaeda thugs, hapless feds and the NYPD. Warning: graphic, horrific torture scenes in New York are tough to take. I just wish Jack Reacher was real and on our side.
Tweetup Updates. I'll be having four of these before the start of the football season, assuming I can figure out what they are. I'd tentatively figured out my training camp trip, and I tried to build in some time when I'd be able to meet with fans along the way, so we put the six sites up to a vote. Here's how it came out: Indianapolis 2,921 votes, Albany 2,062, Kansas City 312, State College 259, New Orleans 166, Denver 134. So Indy and Albany have won. I'll also be doing one in Los Angeles and one in Boston. Preliminarily, I'll be at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Monday, July 13 (with Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times); in Albany on Monday, Aug. 3; in Indianapolis on Monday, Aug. 10; and in Boston in early September at a site to be determined.
NFL Truth & Rumors