Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “CynicalJerk”

CynicalJerk’s #CBR4 Review #04: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In The Garden Of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts is the latest book by Erik Larson, who is still best known for his breakout book, The Devil in the White City, about a serial killer and the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.  In his newest book, he turns his attention on Berlin during the 1930s, and manages the dubious feat of making the Nazi Party less intimidating than a single 19th Century serial killer.

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CynicalJerk’s #CBR4 Review #03: Those Guys Have All The Fun by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales

Those Guys Have All the Fun is an oral history of ESPN, consisting almost entirely of direct quotes from interviews with hundreds of people involved either directly or indirectly with the cable sports empire.  At this point, if you’re not already interested, you can pretty much stop right now.  Because while ESPN’s story is a fascinating one, and while there are a lot of really fascinating anecdotes gathered in this volume, ultimately the book suffers from enough flaws to render it a good read only for those who are really interested in ESPN.

Now, I am one of those people.  ESPN is both a part of my daily life (I’m sure I’ve interacted with it, either on my TV, my computer, or my phone, just about every day for the past 15 or 20 years), and a source of fascination to me as one of the most astonishingly successful brand names in corporate history.  That there would be a 24-hour sports network on cable was probably inevitable.  However, it was not inevitable that the first one on the field would dominate it from day one, without ever facing serious competition.  The story of how it came to pass that this one company has outperformed not just all other sports channels, but arguably all other cable channels is in this book.  Unfortunately, so is a lot of other stuff.

The problems with this book start with the lack of editing.  The book is a real brick, 745 pages long, and I am quite confident that it could have been cut down to around 500 pages without losing anything vital.  Do I really need to hear everybody’s perspective on every merger, acquisition, change of ownership, or management shakeup in the 30 year history of ESPN?  However, while trimming the dead weight would certainly have improved this book, there would still be problems with the tone.  The book calls itself an unauthorized biography, and it certainly does cover topics and points of view that ESPN is probably not happy about.  That said, the very nature of the book demands that nearly all the interview subjects are people that don’t particularly want to get on ESPN’s bad side, whether because they work for them directly, or because they work in the field which ESPN dominates.  Moreover, the narrative sections which are interspersed between the interviews are off-puttingly breathless and dramatic.  The whole thing has the feel of a Behind The Music episode about ESPN, stretched out to 8 hours and then transcribed.  There’s a fascinating story buried in all this, and interesting anecodes scattered throughout, but this book is probably best experienced by having a friend read it and tell you all the good parts.

CynicalJerk’s #CBR4 Review #02: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff is stunningly good book.  This was not exactly a surprise to me, it had been almost universally critically acclaimed, so really all I can do here is add my voice to the throng.  Stacy Schiff takes one of the most legendary, almost cartoonish characters in Western History, tears down all the myth, and rebuilds her from the historical record into a figure no less outsized and fascinating for being grounded in fact.

Obviously, I don’t have the historical chops here to properly evaluate the research behind this book.  But from my laymen’s perspective, it seems impeccable.  I never felt that facts were being strained to fit a story, or that inconvenient facts were being hidden from me.  There are many things we simply do not know about Cleopatra and the events of her time.  When that is the case, the author is very clear about what we don’t know, but also very good at explaining what we do know about the time, and what that would lead us to suspect might fill the gaps in the historical record.  Her voice is confident, informed, and inviting.  She always has a useful fact on hand when needed, but unlike with some authors I’ve read, the tidbits never feel show-offy or extraneous to the story being told.

That said, and not to take anything away from the author: Cleopatra is the star of the story.  She was the supremely confident heir to a proud, ancient dynasty (with ties both to Alexander the Great and the Pharaohs), a brilliant and resourceful politician who nearly succeeded in holding off the Roman Empire’s relentless expansion throughout the chaos of multiple civil wars.  She was undeniably compelling, both as a politician and as a woman, and throughout her career pulled off one coup after another, keeping Egypt’s fragile independence through countless shifts of power in the ever-threatening Roman Empire.  However, her final bet on Antony failed to pay off, and she killed herself at age 38.  She was the last person to rule an independent Egypt for almost 2000 years, and one of the most powerful women in all of history.  Almost any biography of her would be interesting.  This one is a must-read.

CynicalJerk’s #CBR4 Review #01: T Zero by Italo Calvino

I found T Zero on my apartment building’s free giveaway shelf, with the dust jacket missing.  I only picked it up because a.) it was free, and b.) Italo Calvino was a name that I’d frequently come across in crossword puzzles.  Other than that, I knew absolutely nothing about the book going in.  And in a sense, I still don’t.  I do recommend that you read it, but if you ask “Why should I?” I don’t know what I’d say.  I wrote a few drafts trying to explain the appeal, but the book is so idiosyncratic in structure, in theme, and in authorial voice, that it would take me a 10,000 word essay to really get across what I like about it.  And as much as I would like to write that essay (I was reminded of David Foster Wallace, Franz Kafka, Neal Stephenson, Umberto Eco, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez at different points while reading it, and would love to draw out all those connections), I simply don’t have the time.  So let me just give you a brief outline, and if you’re interested you can explore further on your own.

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