The Father's Day Book Section.
It's come to my attention that America doesn't read anymore. I know I certainly fall within that category. For that reason, I'm expanding the book recommendations of the past few Father's Days to a beefier list with longer explanations why I recommend them. My hope is you don't get Dad a tie, or another golf app for his iPhone. Get him a book. Let's get some reading done. Here goes:
End Game: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall -- from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness, by Frank Brady (Crown). Actually, the name of this book could well have been, "Don't You Dare Ever Try to Tell Me What to Do.'' That's how Fischer lived his life. And thank you, Mike O'Hara (my old friend from Detroit) for telling me I positively, absolutely had to read the story of one of the most compelling figures of our lifetime.
This is the best piece of nonfiction I've read in a while. (Sorry; the Stieg Larsson trilogy is still the best in any genre.) End Game is a richly detailed, incredibly thorough biography of the child chess prodigy who should have gone down as the best chess player in history but was ruined by such paranoia that, page after page, you shake your head and wonder, Why didn't this guy get help? Why wasn't someone able to lasso him and get him some kind of therapy?
Many of you have heard of Fischer but don't know his story. At 13, and into his later teens, he was winning international matches against chessmasters the world over. I was 15 when a strange mega-event happened -- a chess championship between the two best in the world at the time, Fisher from Brooklyn and Boris Spassky from the Soviet Union. The attention it got was incredible. Richard Nixon talked about it often, Henry Kissinger called Fischer. Magazine covers. For chess.
But Fischer was the kind of guy you couldn't make a fair deal with. Because if you offered it, in his mind, you were screwing him and getting the better of the deal. Consider the arrangements for the championship, held in Iceland. It would offer the biggest purse in chess history -- $78,125 to the winner, $46,875 to the loser. Amazing. The winner would make in a month almost what the best baseball player in America, Johnny Bench, made in a full season. (Bench made $80,000 in 1972.)
But that wasn't enough for Fischer. The deal for the match was made, and then Fischer said he wanted 30 percent of the gate as well. The wrangling brought the match to the brink of cancellation, until a British millionaire said he'd give Fischer an additional $125,000 to play the match. He agreed. But he still couldn't accept the deal and live by the sportsmanship terms of the international chess community. To protest that he still wasn't getting what he felt was fair, Fischer didn't attend the pre-match draw. And even though he knew the match would be televised, he found the cameras intrusive and went on strike during the competition until all cameras were removed.
Weird man. Very weird.
Yet like so many young and great athletes, his brilliance made everyone kowtow to him, and Brady's excruciating detail reels you in from the first page to the last. Fischer turned down $5 million to play the next Russian champ, Anatoly Karpov, in Zaire after the Ali-Foreman fight there ... because it was less, he said, than Muhammad Ali got.
Brady takes us down the long, ruinous path of Fischer, to Skid Row in Los Angeles, to his hatred of Jews, to his hatred of America. An incredible story. After the Twin Towers were destroyed on Sept. 11, Fischer told a radio interviewer, "This is a wonderful day. [Expletive] the United States. Cry, you crybabies! Now your time is coming.''
I wouldn't exactly call End Game uplifting. But I'll be surprised if it takes you more than three or four days (or very late nights) to read it. And the good thing about getting it for your dad -- in many cases -- is he'll remember Fischer, and have a perception that the guy was off-center. But Brady will make him, and the era, come to life.
In the Long Run: A Father, a Son, and Unintentional Lessons in Happiness, by Jim Axelrod (Farrar Straus Giroux). Got an urgent "you've got to read this book'' note from buddy Armen Keteyian, and I'm glad he was insistent. I can quibble with a few structural things in this valuable-to-today's-world story of a CBS News correspondent (who lives in my old hometown of Montclair, N.J.) who gets beaten down by his job and rediscovers the important things in life ... and who sets as a life goal running a marathon. Too much running minutiae, when I wanted more of the nitty-gritty of how he almost blew life with a wonderful wife and family. But there's quite a bit of that, and it's occasionally riveting. Like the time his wife broke a rib and Axelrod, who'd been a career-chasing nimrod way too much, stayed out on a weekend with the boys while the wife was in agony.
Most riveting to me was how Axelrod had to be slapped in the face a few times to understand his priorities were badly misplaced. We've all been there. We've all had to make choices about family and work. I've regretted some of my choices; we all have. Not that working a 60-hour week isn't important in many weeks of your life. But Axelrod got on the treadmill of work and never got off until it was very nearly too late.
What Axelrod does best in the book is to get slapped around, exposing a side no one would want to show. Like the time CBS institution Bob Schieffer was getting set to retire, and there appeared to be an opening on Face the Nation that Axelrod badly wanted. He went in to sell himself to CBS News president Sean McManus, and as Axelrod writes of McManus: "He raised his hand to cut me off, like a traffic cop irritated by a new driver who was still unclear on the rules of the road. 'Jim, even if Bob does retire, and I'm not sure he will, I'd need an established star to replace him. I'm talking about someone who can carry that broadcast ... I'll be frank. I don't mean to be hurtful, Jim, but I don't want to waste anyone's time. There's no way I would consider you.' ''
In the prime of your career, you're told the prime of your career ain't good enough. But the home run Axelrod hits is in these 11 words deep into the book, and deep into his career, about coming to the realization that he was killing his own family: "I was lucky. Before I did any irreparable harm, I failed.''
Good read, and some very good lessons.
A note about football books. There are a couple of them I recommend very highly. Both have been out since late 2010. Please read Blood, Sweat and Chalk. The Ultimate Football Playbook: How the Great Coaches Built Today's Game, by SI's own Tim Layden (SI Books), if you have not already. It's been out almost a year now, and I've had readers and people in the game tell me how impressive it was in finding the real coaching geniuses and what they've meant to the long-term history of the game.
Layden extols the virtues of Don Coryell as perhaps the most influential coach in pro football history, because it's he who was most influential in installing the downfield passing game we see everywhere today. And I hear Layden when he says, "Coaches and athletes like talking about their jobs more than their lives, and we probably don't ask them enough about their jobs and too much about their lives.'' When you ask about their jobs, you're liable to get 45 minutes with Bill Belichick discussing the Single Wing offense.
Similarly, you'll get educated, though not lectured to, by The Games That Changed the Game, by Ron Jaworski with Greg Cosell and David Plaut (ESPN Books). I wrote about this book last December, and will repeat part of that here. There's a chapter on Buddy Ryan and the rise of the 46 defense, and another on Belichick and his game plan that beat the 14-point-favorite Rams in the Super Bowl a decade ago. Jaworski didn't like Buddy Ryan, the man who yanked him as the Eagles' starting quarterback, but he recognized Ryan's genius in molding what was important in today's game -- intense defensive pressure. And he lauded Rex Ryan for taking his dad's defense further.
"I think Rex has expanded the scope of the 46 in ways his father could not have envisioned. Rex will take a linebacker from one side of the field and move him to cover a wide receiver and rotated his down linemen in unconventional ways, with coverage concepts I've never seen before. Rex is vigorously responding to the many new looks he sees from offenses, figuring that he needs to be aggressive in order to stay ahead. In that respect, he's a chip off the old block. Mike Singletary has noticed the resemblance, saying, 'It's obvious Rex is carrying on his father's legacy. He's so much like Buddy, it's frightening.' ''
As Jaworski concludes, Buddy Ryan, and now his son, so well understood how the game was headed toward an aerial showcase. Buddy was ahead of everyone in creating schemes to stay ahead of the smart offensive guys.
I haven't read When the Cheering Stops: Bill Parcells, the 1990 Giants, and the Price of Greatness, by William Bendetson and Leonard Marshall, but I know it has some insightful stuff not before revealed about the game plan of Belichick in the 20-19 Super Bowl upset of the Bills by the Giants. That should make it worth the price for Giants fans 20 years later, and for Pats fans who can't get enough of their zenmaster.
And a few notes about baseball books. I'm a big fan of those too. I really liked The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, by Jane Leavy (HarperCollins) ... and not because of the unending string of events where Mantle acted like a bum. It's because Leavy explained why. The crushing expectations of his father, the free-alcohol and love lifestyle of the New York star, and the lifetime of pain caused by the severe knee injury he suffered before he ever got great. Because orthopedics weren't advanced 60 years ago, the horrific knee injury tormented him for the rest of his career -- yet he still won three MVPs and was the most feared American-Leaguer of his day once Ted Williams retired. Leavy bashes Mantle enough. She also understands him.
Jonah Keri's The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League baseball Team from Worst to First (ESPN) was fascinating to me as a follower of the Red Sox. I'd wondered about Tampa Bay's strategy of spending a fifth of the Red Sox and Yankees, yet competing with them evenly ... and this book was revelatory in explaining it.
The Rays valued defense more than most teams. They began talking with Evan Longoria about a half-a-lifetime contract when he was still in the minor leagues, and what resulted was a nine-year deal worth up to $48 million, which today looks like an incredible bargain. Could it have backfired? Certainly, if Longoria stunk the place up. But if the Rays did nothing, Longoria surely would be gone when he could first test free agency.
Very smart book, and well set up with history about how incompetent the franchise was for years. I'm not smart enough to see how it translates to other businesses, but there have to be some allegories about how Alamo competes with Hertz, etc.
Box 21, by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom (Picador). My thriller of the summer actually came highly recommended by Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta, who was a huge fan of the Larsson trilogy and passed along this Swedish thriller. DeCosta said the book was more realistic than Larsson's sometimes incredible flights into physical unreality with Lisbeth Salander. He's right. This story has some gore and some gruesome elements to it (more than some, really), and name after unfamiliar name with the funny accent marks makes you concentrate hard until you've got the characters down pat. One more thing: I know nothing about the sex slave business, but it's explored in depth here with a key character, and let's just say it's not for the faint of heart.
What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown and Company). This compilation of 19 of Gladwell's long-form magazine pieces is great for the train, the beach ... anywhere you think you don't have time to read a book, and then you look up after spending four days on and off with it, and you're done. The book is two years old, and I'd read a few of the essays (including a great one on why it's so hard to pick quarterbacks in the NFL, featuring then-Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel) in the New Yorker. But I'd missed his piece on dog-trainer/dog-psychologist Cesar Millan of Los Angeles. It's spectacular in its thoughtfulness. Gladwell points out that dogs are students of human movement, and no matter how unruly a dog is, he'll always respond if the human is in control of the situation and moves confidently. You'll be stunned when you read about a Chihuahua that's taken a family hostage. Sort of. Even if you've read some of these, Gladwell's so good that a half-hour with the Chase Daniel essay is like a half-hour with "The Nip'' episode on Seinfeld. It's just as good the second time.
Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer (Penguin Press). The premise of Moonwalking With Einstein is that we can all be better, perhaps hugely better, at remembering if we just learn the ancient techniques that have been all but discarded over time. Foer, a magazine journalist, stumbled upon memory athletes who compete in U.S. and European championships that involve memorizing the order of shuffled decks of cards, long lists of digits, poems and other random lists of information. Imagine one champion, Ben Pridmore, who memorized 1,528 digits in one hour and the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in 32 seconds.
Some of Foer's journey into memory is a bit too academic. Most readers will want to get to the techniques -- the how-to part -- which is ultimately too brief. Most interesting was Foer's discussion of overcoming plateaus in learning what separates amateurs from professionals and good athletes from elite athletes. He says people plateau at a level of competence and don't go beyond that unless they're willing to do the tedious work to improve the things they don't do well. He writes of his father, an average golfer who loves the game but never improves ... because he doesn't work at the weak points of his game over and over.
The author tells us early on that he routinely forgets where his car keys are or why he opened the refrigerator door, and describes his memory as "average at best." Foer asks one international champion to teach him to be a memory athlete, and Foer makes it to the U.S. Championship. I won't spoil the outcome for you. But be forewarned: Memory training, especially competitive training, is tedious, exhausting work and it could very well be humiliating too.
In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson (Crown).If there's a father on your list who loves history, especially World War II, add this book to your shopping cart. It's a compelling story of the personal lives of the U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany in the '30s, William Dodd, and his family, most especially his bright, beautiful and flirtatious daughter Martha, and their years in Berlin observing the disturbing rise to power of Adolf Hitler. As Larson points out in the book's prologue: "One has to put aside what we know now to be true, and try instead to accompany my two innocents through the world as they experienced it."
Dodd was a history professor called on by President Roosevelt, after others turned him down, to be the German Ambassador. Dodd was surprised by the harsh militarism and covert brutality he encountered in Berlin when he and his family arrived in 1933 and believed that Hitler would likely not survive as Chancellor for very long. He was restrained in his criticism of the Nazi regime by a State Department in Washington more concerned with Germany's ability to repay American banks its enormous debt than with Hitler's anti-Semitic campaign.
The book shows the disconcerting ability of humans to look away from evils displayed right before their eyes. And it is ultimately about a man who draws on moral courage in the face of all those in denial about Hitler around him. "In the end," Larson writes, "Dodd proved to be exactly what Roosevelt had wanted, a lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness."
I'd intended to get to Albert Brooks' new book, 2030: The Real Story of What Happened to America, and I have to apologize for not doing so. I spent the last couple of weeks cramming these books in, and I just ran out of clock. I have the book, and I'll get to it on vacation.
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