Monday, May 31, 2010

Book #25

The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons offers more than just a completely in-depth look at the NBA from birth to present: it is quite simply the funniest book I have ever read. Not just funny, but burst-out-laughing-uncontrollably at least once a page. A couple of times I simply could not stop laughing for a half hour.
It is that funny.
However, as I said before, Simmons also offers the most comprehensive and astounding book yet written on the NBA. He weaves together a litany of pop-culture, NBA greats, awesome moments and random teams ("Best Bearded Team", "All Name Team") to make a stew of pure readabilty. You will devour this book and his witty references. Plus, I learned more about the NBA than I ever wanted and it made me love the game that much more.
Of course, the book is not without (Len) bias. Be warned Lakers fans, this will be tough to get through yet it is ultimately a worthwhile and rewarding read, bookended by Simmon's Hall of Fame Pyramid and arguments on who is the greatest of all time. While the answer may not be a mystery to many - SPOILER ALERT it's MJ - the reasons why and who comes before him are nonetheless compelling.
Highly recommended for sports fans and non fans alike. If you only pick up one book on the NBA in your lifetime, this is without a doubt the one to read.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Redemption of...Steve Alten?!

Is Steve Alten actually evolving into a decent writer? Steve Alten, you ask - the same dude who wrote The Trench? Yes, the same Steve Alten who wrote Meg 4: Hell's Aquarium (which meant that not only did he write Meg 4 but he also had to write Meg 3: Primal Waters to get there) is potentially becoming a better writer.
Alten, of course, is the guy best known for the book pictured above: Meg which was a slam bang ride of a thriller which featured a sixty-foot shark as the protagonist. This novel was a best selling phenomenon for several reasons:
1) It was nearly impossible to put down. This was Jaws for the next generation and made people scared to go in the water again. It was not exactly the most "literary" of novels, but I have seen worse and Alten's ability to create tension and a shattering conclusion was virtually unmatched.
2) This was Jurassic Park for the freaking ocean! The main character was a disgraced former Navy Deep Sea diver / paleontologist (wow, it was more believable then I remember) who spotted a Meg years before the main narrative and panicked, killing a sub team in the deep ocean. Naturally, he goes back to the Trench and is proven right and finds some redemption. The novel was also able to inform the wide variety of readers about the Marianas Trench, which even to this day remains mostly unexplored. Alten used this to create a fascinating lost world where literally anything - even a massive shark not seen since the bloody Jurassic period - could be waiting.
3) Finally, the book came out at the write time and the right time. It was able to capitalize on the summer reading season (when everyone reaches for a page turner) and also on the success of Jurassic Park the movie. Everyone wanted more prehistoric giants and this book, like it or not, delivered.
Of course, Alten was unable to sustain the massive amount of hype and went through several Meg movie options, never really finding the right spot for development (seriously, will someone just make this movie so we can pan it already!). Then, he rushed a sequel which was critically panned and had an even worse sales reception. He looked like a one hit wonder, doomed to James Rollins-esque obscurity.
Then something happened.
Alten seemingly decided not to write crap anymore. His next effort Domain was about the Mayan Doomsday propehecy of 2012. While, it was written on the level of Steinbeck, Alten's research and theories / predictions were staggeringly well thought out. Keep in mind this is the guy who wrote Meg and 4(?!) sequels. For him, Domain was a massive and potentially alienating novel. He showed no fear in moving away from his core base of fans and he should have been massively rewarded for it. Domain is a fascinating novel that works on more than just a simplistic sketch outline and included more history than most textbooks.
Naturally, Alten wrote a sequel: Resurrection (which explored the concept of the afterlife / religon), and then several Meg books.
Not helping my cause Steve, not at all...
However, just when he seemed ready once again to drift into obscurity Alten went all in with The Loch a book which dealt with the history of the Lochness Monster and theorized on what it may actually be. Alten had written another "creature feature" but this was a well documented and thoroughly researched book (seriously...this book has more info and more up to date facts than Scientific American) that was impossible to put down. (Currently it is being fast tracked for a movie). Yet, on a different level Alten also showed an increasing maturity as a writer - his characters were a littler deeper, his plot more thought out. The Loch, which I devoured in a couple of days, was a surprisingly good read that really opened my eyes to a lot of Scottish History that tends to be neglected.
At that point, Alten, although lacking huge success had the makings of a solid career. Unfortunately he went through publishers like Michael Jordan went through poker tables and did not have the steady consistency he needed.
It is borderline miraculous then that this next book was as...small sigh...good as it was. Actually. I love The Power of the Dog which detailed the history of the rise of the Mexican Drug Cartels and Alten's next book The Shell Game reads like the big oil version. It was a stunning book, again, deeply researched and his conclusions are incredibly insightful. Of course it does needs to be taken for what it is - a "thinking persons" thriller. That said, it was a harrowing, powerful and ultimately poignant read. I know, I know. It takes a "what if" we run out of oil scenario and turns it into a sprawling epic of corruption. Yes...sprawling epic. At this point in his career this is Alten's The Power of the Dog, he may never write another book as good, but you keep hoping he will.
Take the number of reviews for The Shell Game: currently 115 (all the one star reviews are attacks on Alten's his "biased, nonsense opinions" - as they are say the least) and the overall rating stands at an average of 4.5 stars. That is pretty impressive and I implore you to read this book as it may not be a classic but it is a darn good read. You will learn something and you will enjoy it. (Please...please...please learn something and enjoy it!)
It is his next book, due out in October, titled Grim Reaper: End of Days that has me excited to read a Steve Alten book again. I know, I cannot believe I am writing this, yet here we are at the end of a very long post in which I have now convinced myself I am more of a Steve Alten fan then I originally thought.
Yet, this is also the guy who wrote Meg's 1 - 4 (Steve, just so we are clear, I will take back this entire freaking column if you write Meg 6).
Why, you may ask, am I so excited for this book by a man who has written 4 books about giant, prehistoric sharks? Check out the description on Alten's website which posits it as a cross between The Stand and Dante's Inferno (random, but I can actually see it working well), and has it as classic hero journey through good and evil and the nature of redemption. Oh, and the style is allegedly "reminiscent of (wait for it, wait for it...) Cormac McCarthy". Wow.
October suddenly cannot come fast enough...I am excited about a Steve Alten book.
Steve if you must turn this into a new series (and I am not so crazy about "end of days" being hitched to the title - just nitpicking) please make it a trilogy. We are in the midst of great trilogies and, let's face it, book #4 is always kind of a letdown.
Steve, just saw the cover for Meg 5 for the love of...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Article of the Year

Gareth Thomas is a rugby player and the subject of the best article I have read this year by SI's master Gary Smith. The article details Smith's reasons as to why Thomas is the World's Bravest Athlete - namely that he is:
"6'3 and 225 pounds of muscle. He's broken his nose five times, fractured both shoulders and lost eight teeth. He's drunk his mates under the table and brawled by their side. He's been named to the Welsh national rugby team more times than any other man. And, among active players in major professional team sports, he's...the only openly gay male athlete."
What follows is another example of why Gary Smith may just be the best magazine writer - possibly writer - of his generation. Time and again Smith has captivated his readers with a tale they did not even know they wanted to be told. His prose takes one beyond the game and his stories are so gripping, so powerfully haunting and so evocative that they are nearly impossible to put down.
He has written some good ones (about Mia Hamm, the last Yankee) and some great ones (about a black coach in Amish country, about a first nations basketball team, about Andre Agassi) and every time one of his stories appears in SI it is a cause for joy. He has two collections of stories out and his work has been featured in "The Best American Sportswriting" more times than any other author.
With this story, he lives up to his stellar reputation. He gets inside the torment Gareth Thomas faced in fighting to come out, and he asks why, no one in American professional sports has come out while they are still active. We live in a society that accepts everyone (except for a few fringe religious elements) and it is time we got past our preconcieved notions of pro athletes.
Thank you again, Gary Smith, your writing is truly precious, not only for its entertainment, but also for its message.