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Category Archives: Nonfiction

The Ice Balloon by Alec Wilkinson

Wilkinson describes several attempts to reach the North Pole in the late 19th century, focusing on Swedish explorer S. A. Andree’s failed attempt to reach the pole by hydrogen balloon.

Fascinating. As I read, I thought back to David Grann’s Lost City of Z, which described Percy Fawcett’s attempt to find a lost civilization in the Amazon. Like Andree, he never returned. The amount of faith each of these men had in their cause amazes me. I can think of no reward for which I would leave my home and family for at best a few years and probably more, risking serious injury and possible death. Yet they and many others did so, with the glory being nothing more than being the first to discover some remote location. I’m not sure if I should admire their courage or look with contempt at their irresponsibility.

Then again, sometimes it would not be such a great sacrifice. Right now, with temperatures in the triple digits, being stranded on an ice flow in the arctic sounds kind of nice.

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Posted by on July 21, 2012 in Nonfiction

 

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

I first saw this book in the library over a year ago. The title caught my eye. The synopsis, though, made me scoff and put it back on the shelf. Even a former defense attorney and all around cynic like myself found it too much. So what is the thesis? That today’s criminal justice system serves the same role as Jim Crow.

Sure, I thought, the vast majority of people in prison are black. But whose fault is that? Does she really expect me to believe there is some kind of system wide conspiracy to imprison blacks? Isn’t the simpler answer that they commit more crimes?

That certainly is the simpler answer. Wrong, too. In fact, black people commit crimes at about the same rate as other races. Sometimes less, as with marijuana. They are, however. Much, much, much more likely to be arrested for those crimes. That difference, both the reasons for it and the results of it, is the crux of the book.

Powerful, passionate, infuriating, well reasoned: All adjectives that come close to describing The New Jim Crow. Anyone who has the slightest concerns for liberty, equality and the lives of anyone other than themselves needs to read this book.

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2012 in Nonfiction

 

Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry

I’ve heard there are two kinds of sports books:

They either turn their subject into a metaphor for something vast and unrelated to the outcomes of relatively meaningless games (the strongest examples being Friday Night Lights and the more recent Scoreboard, Baby), or they attempt to expose how things “really” are behind dead-bolted locker room doors (Jim Bouton’s Ball Four being the genre’s progenitor and Jeff Pearlman’s Boys Will Be Boys serving as the most entertaining contemporary offering).

Bottom of the 33d fits both.

While describing the longest baseball game ever – a minor league contest starting the night before Easter, pausing in the early hours of the next day, and then finishing over a month later – Barry spends plenty of time behind the locker room, and front office, doors. He provides details on some of the players who would make it to the big leagues, and, in the case of Cal Ripken and Wade Boggs, the Hall of Fame. He also spends a lot of time on the ones who never made it. Not much is breaking news, but it’s all interesting.

It’s also Dan Barry writing. To his credit, the stories about the ones who didn’t make it are more interesting. Both career coaches and players are his real interest. Those stories are where the literary part takes over. Now the theme expands beyond baseball to dreams, and determination, and finding meaning when, in spite of all the determination, dreams die.

Of course, Barry’s writing gets on my nerves from time to time. Too consciously literary, I think. And I lost count of how many times he emphasized some player or coach’s minor league bona-fides by listing, or more like chanting, the many mid-sized but not terrible important cities through which the pilgrim had passed: “From Shreveport to Rochester to Little Rock to Yadda, yadda, yadda, another minor league town.” By mid-book, whenever I saw the name of a town, I just skipped to the next paragraph. Kind of like I do whenever Tom Wolfe mentions an article of clothing.

Even with the at times overdone language and style, I enjoyed the book. If nothing else, my next Captains experience certainly differed from previous visits. That’s a place where dreams die; our local independent minor league team, the Captains are the hospice of professional baseball. Having read Bottom of the 33d, though, I appreciated the hustle, work, and desire these guys all had. None of them are going anywhere, yet they all still play as if they could. At one time I would have called that pathetic, now I’m more sympathetic. They’re chasing a dream, and who am I to fault them, even if the dream is obviously winning.

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2011 in Nonfiction