The Bad Guys Won! (Book Review)

The Bad Guys Won! (Book Review)

This book is a few years old already, so this review is definitely about a decade late, but I just finished reading it, and decided to write about it anyways.

First off, I love books about baseball. No other sport has created volumes of great work, created so many timeless stories, as baseball has. Perhaps it has something to do with the pace of the game being slower than other major sports, perhaps it is because it is easier to describe a one-on-one pitcher versus batter matchup, than it is to describe the actions of 22 men on a football field, or all of the insane action on the ice in a hockey game.

Books about baseball are the best. My bookshelves are packed with them. I find that I will read about anything, since the history of the game is so chalk full of great characters, heroes and villains, stories of the impossible, or improbable.

The story of the 1986 New York Mets is a great one. And it is put together extremely well in The Bad Guys Won!

badFrom the beginning, Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman paints the ’86 Mets as being a group of degenerate, hard-partying, self-obsessed, overly cocky jerks, who happen to, together, be one of the great teams in baseball history. People didn’t like them, other teams hated them, there was even a fair amount of self-loathing going on in the locker room. They knew that they were crazy, and they were mean to each other, but they won together.

Often, the ’86 World Series is remembered best because the Boston Red Sox blew the series, and Bill Buckner went down in infamy. The fact is, the Mets were the favorites to win it all (according to experts, and to the players themselves), and they were a team coming off a 108-win season, which is nothing to sneeze at. They were good. And they knew it.

Pearlman pieces together the season, including the lead-in years where the Mets were a league laughingstock. Smart moves, drafts, and trades created a team that was poised to dominate for years. With these Mets, and their hard living ways, they ended up having one great season, and then been broken apart, bit by bit. Some of their destruction was due to their own foolishness (just look at the nefarious careers of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry), others due to poor decisions after winning it all in ’86, and part was due to an organizational shift in philosophy, where ageing veterans were favored over youth. The fact is, the Mets were an incredible team, but they were only truly incredible once, which makes them that much more magical. Because it never happened again.

Rightfully, Pearlman laments the death of the fun ballplayer, of which the Mets had several. Today, people are trained on being politically correct, saying the right thing at the right time. The Mets were trash talking, rude, destructive. And they could back it all up on the field, by being a great team.

The narrative here is strung together well, and the book reads at a fast pace, much like the way the Mets lived. Pearlman doesn’t get too bogged down in unwanted details, instead focusing on what is important. He doesn’t spend too much time discussing the debauched evenings the Mets had (and I’m sure there would be a million more stories), as that can be saved for a Motley Crue biography. He talks about the partying, focuses on some of the major stories, and moves on. Even the cocaine problems that were rampant at the time are discussed, but not dwelt upon. If someone wanted to read a history of Darryl Strawberry and cocaine, there are plenty of other sources. The Bad Guys Won! is about the whole team, and for this, it is a very interesting read.

There is enough in here for baseball geeks to sink there teeth into, as there is no shortage of statistics or descriptions of games. For those who are not huge fans of the game, there is still much to savor here, mainly the rowdy off-field behavior and personalities of the players.

As a kid (I was 7 at the time), I remember these Mets, and I remember them winning that World Series. I thought Doc Gooden was the greatest pitcher even, and that Gary Carter was the best catcher I would ever see. Maybe I was partially right. Reading this book now, gave me insight into that team I never could have imagined as a kid, and I’m glad I did.

After reading The Bad Guys Won!, it is easy to wish for the athlete who spoke his mind, for the team that knew it was great, and was willing to tell the world about it.

But, at least for now, we are stuck with our heroes giving their tired cliches, trying not to offend anybody on the entire planet.

Makes us wish for those ’86 Mets again.

A great baseball read.

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The Naturals (Book Review)

The Naturals (Book Review)

The first thing I noticed in looking for a cover image of Jennifer Lynn Barnes’ latest novel, The Naturals, is that there are a lot of really bad covers for this book. The version I read is fairly non-descript, something that suits the crime mystery novel inside of it. Alternate versions of the cover make the book look more teeny-bopper than it is, even though there is plenty of that.

naturalsThe Naturals is about a group of teens that are recruited by the FBI because of their special skills. Not super powers, thankfully, but simpler things, like lie detection, profiling, and ability with statistics. The kids are chosen and moved into a house near Washington, where they will be trained and eventually allowed to help the FBI solve cold cases- murders gone long unsolved by the Bureau.

Cassie joins the team, because she is tired of her ordinary 17-year-old life as a waitress, and maintains ideas that she can solve the unsolved murder of her mother, which happened five years before.

The novel is pretty squeaky-clean as far as YA goes, and it does little to push the boundaries in any of the areas that it dabbles in. This is good, in the sense that it is an easily recommendable read for almost any teen. You don’t need to worry about sex, drugs, swearing, and gore in this novel. Despite being about the hunt for a serial killer, The Naturals does not have the graphic violence that a novel like I Hunt Killers had.

There is an awkward, unnecessary, and fairly baseless love triangle that develops in the house, and really, it has very little to do with the story. It it far too predictable, from the moment Cassie walks into the house, and it does little to develop any of the characters, or push the plot in any direction or another. But, Barnes keeps it clean, and even though it is pretty much there only to appeal more to a female audience, it doesn’t do any real harm.

As for the mystery itself, it is pretty good. While being trained how to read crime scenes and files, Cassie and the FBI agents are thrown into the solving of a case that is eerily familiar to Cassie, as all the new victims bear a resemblance to her dead mother. And Cassie seems to be next on the list for the killer. This leads us on the chase for the new killer in town, before it is too late for his next victim, or to see if Cassie is his next victim. Barnes provides us with a few good hints along the way, and a couple of possibly killers, and does a pretty good job of keeping us guessing throughout the novel, as to who did it. I don’t know that the end was terribly satisfying, but at least I was kept guessing, which not all mysteries are able to do.

I think that The Naturals is an entertaining read, and it won’t take most readers long to plunge through the 308 pages of the book. It is not high-end literature, but it serves well as a relaxing book where we want to be taken on a fairly interesting journey to discover something bad.

Barnes has written a novel that has a fairly broad appeal. Despite having a female protagonist, and the aforementioned love story, boys might like this book as well because of the crimes, the idea of serial killers, the typically male characters, and the sultry character of Lia. As I said, for a crime novel, there is little that is offensive in here, to the point where there are some lines like, “…to figure out what the Hello Kitty went on the night before.” Case in point. Barnes took the time to ensure her novel wouldn’t write itself into a corner, and would be okay reading material for as many teens as possible.

There is nothing particularly special about The Naturals. Okay characters, pretty good story, solid mystery. But, overall, it is a pretty decent read.

Grasshopper Jungle (Book Review)

Grasshopper Jungle (Book Review)

In his acknowledgements at the back of the book, Andrew Smith states that he began writing Grasshopper Jungle as though no one would ever read it. He had decided to give up publishing his work, until he was convinced halfway through the novel that this one should see the light of day as well.

grasshopper-jungleSmith has created another fun, fascinating read, but one that lacks a distinctive audience. Jungle is too old for most YA readers, and too young for most adult readers. The true audience for this novel falls somewhere in between. Even though I did enjoy the book, I would find it hard to recommend to any of my students, even the high school ones, because of the language and some of the material in the novel. And I will pretty much recommend anything to students. Sex, violence, swearing. It’s all fine. But endless discussion about sperm, a fair amount of sex (both human and insect), frequent discussion about erections, and a goodly amount of swearing, makes this one a tough sell for me to give to a teenager (not because they can’t handle the material, but because I don’t want to field the parent phone call about the book I gave their kid). At times I found myself wishing that he would have dropped some of the language and edited parts of the sexual discussions, because it was a fun read that I could have seen myself giving to several people. Or, going in the opposite direction and making it purely a book for adults. That way, he could have gone all out and not censored any of his ideas.

Grasshopper Jungle is basically about two friends living in a boring Iowa town. They skateboard and smoke cigarettes. Austin and Robby have been friends since forever. Robby is gay, and in love with Austin. Austin is not sure what he is, as he is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, and Robby as well. He is confused, as he states time and time again throughout the novel. Eventually, the end of the world comes to town, in the form of large, man-sized, praying mantises that only like to do two things: eat and breed. The friends must figure out the mystery of the events leading up to the infestation, how to try and defeat it, and how to survive it together.

I found this novel difficult to get into. I liked the story just fine, but it was the way it was written that was a bit of a struggle for me. The repetitive style that Smith writes in worked wonderfully well in Winger, but often became irritating in Jungle. It seemed like everything was going around in circles for the first 150 pages. But, when things get going, they really get going in the novel. Once the infestation begins, the novel is a fun, action-packed book that is pretty hard to put down. Once the gang of Shann, Austin, and Robby find Eden, it becomes very interesting, and the whole purpose of the novel falls into place.

Austin is obsessed with history, and spends hours each day writing and drawing the history of his own lives. As the novel progresses, we see how everyone is connected through their history, and this is the brilliance of an Andrew Smith novel. While it is about giant insects eating all the people of a town, it is also about those connections, and what keeps us together and tears us apart. The relationships developed over the course of the novel are strong, and we get to feel the plight that each of the characters are going through. We understand Shann’s anger, as the boy she loves may possibly be gay, and may be in love with his best friend. We understand that Austin is confused, and he is trying his best to deal with his sexual urges, his feelings for the people closest to him, and his place in the small world they have created for themselves.

Despite not adoring the style in which the novel was written, Smith gets the job done. The frustrating repetition of the start of the novel slowly fades away, and when it is used during the second half, it tends to serve a more understandable purpose.

The novel ends satisfyingly as well, which is rare with books that could be deemed as being YA. I will assume that this will not be the beginning of a series, as Smith is not traditionally a series writer. Because of this, the ending is something that readers can be very pleased with, as we are given a conclusion that satisfies the story created.

While Grasshopper Jungle is not as laugh-out-loud funny as Winger, it has a distinct cleverness to it that is often hard to resist. As Austin goes through his life, recording their history as they live it, we are drawn into the strange world of Ealing, Iowa, the unique lives of the people that live within it, and the way that we are all connected through the stories of our past.

2014 MLB Predictions

2014 MLB Predictions

Even though I will surely regret trying to pick the standings for the upcoming season, I might as well give it a shot. Last year, I was way off in my bold prediction of a Washington Nationals vs. Kansas City Royals World Series. I guess there is no harm in trying again! Except for my inevitable hurt pride in being so wrong about things.

AL East

  1. Tampa Bay Rays
  2. Boston Red Sox
  3. Baltimore Orioles
  4. Toronto Blue Jays
  5. New York Yankees
  • raysAlways the most difficult division to pick, because there are three very good teams in here, and two others that have great teams on paper but have yet to deliver it on the field. It’s hard to argue with the Rays’ success over the past years.
  • So much went right for the Red Sox last year, it will be difficult to duplicate that. But, they made some smart, low-cost moves over the summer, and should very much be in contention again. I like these guys, because they are tough and scrappy.
  • Yes, I’m picking the Yankees for last place. That rotation is just a huge question mark for me, and that starting infield is brutal. One injury to their old men roaming the shale, and they’re done. Their outfield is definitely improved, but that is only three of nine positions. Brian McCann is an upgrade at catcher, however.
  • I thought about going with the Orioles to win this division, but they are always such a tease. Third is where they belong.
  • Those poor Jays. Even if they put together a year that is injury-free, they will have too tough a time getting past the other monsters in the division. Too many questions in the rotation, as well.

AL Central

  1. Detroit Tigers
  2. Kansas City Royals
  3. Cleveland Indians
  4. Chicago White Sox
  5. Minnesota Twins
  • tigersHard to pick against the pitching of the Tigers. They can basically roll out three aces in a row, and the rest of the rotation is pretty solid, as well. I think their bullpen is improved.
  • This year, the Royals start to put it together. After a few seasons of expectations, they started to get it together in the second half of last year. They keep it going. Definitely a team trending upwards.
  • The Indians put together something special last year, making it to the one-game playoff. I don’t think they can do it again, but they are another fun, scrappy team. Love what Francona has done there.

 

AL West

  1. Oakland A’s
  2. Texas Rangers
  3. Seattle Mariners
  4. LA Angels
  5. Houston Astros
  • a'sNot much changing at the top. The Rangers have still more firepower, but there is something about this team that is lacking over the past couple of years, and doesn’t seem to be fixed. It’s finish. They lack finish. Prince Fielder could have a huge year there, if he doesn’t wilt in the Texas sun.
  • The A’s are just consistent. They are a good team, even if they seem to lack good players.
  • Finally, an off-season where the Angles don’t overpay someone. Trout is incredible, but the aging lineup around him won’t do much to help him out.

 

NL East

  1. Washington Nationals
  2. Atlanta Braves
  3. NY Mets
  4. Philadelphia Phillies
  5. Miami Marlins
  • natsThe Mets will actually probably be the bottom of this division, because there is a lot to like about the young Marlins.
  • I feel that last year was a season-long mistake by the Nats. They are better than what they showed last year, after their success the year before. They pull it back together this year.
  • Is it just me, or does the Phillies just seem like a collection of dinosaurs at this point?

 

NL Central

  1. St. Louis Cardinals
  2. Pittsburgh Pirates
  3. Cincinnati Reds
  4. Milwaukee Brewers
  5. Chicago Cubs
  • cardsShould be the most interesting division race again this year.
  • Impossible to bet against the always-consistent Cardinals. That rotation is excellent, arguably the best in the NL.
  • I think the Pirates contend again. They had players last year, on their miracle run, that had off-years. If they get it going as well, they can be good. Exciting team to watch, as well.
  • The Reds just kind of stay the same. Pretty good. Not excellent.

 

NL West

  1. LA Dodgers
  2. Arizona Diamondbacks
  3. San Francisco Giants
  4. San Diego Padres
  5. Colorado Rockies
  • dodgersThat LA payroll is crazy. As is their roster. Even with the inevitable injuries, they have bought the depth to stay competitive. Another very good stable of pitchers. Seems like they have a dozen starters to choose from.
  • Arizona is building, and this division always seems to have tons of movement in it.
  • The Giants are usually good every second year, and this would be their year again. Don’t count them out, but I feel there are a few too many gaps to oust the Dodgers here.

 

AL Wild Cards: Red Sox, Royals

NL Wild Cards: Braves, Pirates

AL Champion: A’s

NL Champion: Nationals

World Series Champion: Nationals

 

Smashed (Film Review)

Smashed (Film Review)

Ah, Netflix. I love you because of your random suggestions. Since I watched Drinking Buddies, I might also like…

Smashed.

A quick film about a young married couple (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul), who have issues with drinking. Like, they enjoy it too much. Both of them are alcoholics, and the film centers around Winstead wanting to get clean, Paul’s refusal, and the way in which alcohol, or the lack of it, drives them apart.

smashed_headerAt the beginning, Smashed seems like it will be a harrowing journey into the lives of alcoholics, in the way that so many substance abuse movies are. We will watch them have fun, then things will turn bad, then they will go through the torturous withdrawal on their way to redemption. I will give this movie credit, in that it isn’t as cookie-cutter perfect as it could have been.

The movie opens with Winstead waking up hungover, getting ready for work, drinking in her car, then throwing up in front of her grade 1 students. Seems like our abuse film is right on track. This leads to a side story, where Winstead says she is pregnant, causing her to be ill. While the story line initially seems kind of pointless, it does lead to a redeeming part later on, so there is definite purpose. Later on, she smokes crack with a stranger. A quick escalation, and we see that she could easily become a complete train wreck.

The best part of the movie is Winstead’s performance. She is confused, and angry, with the choices she has made, and she comes across as genuine throughout the film. She is able to create the performance of someone who is broken, and ready for a change. She drank because it made her feel good. And then it made her feel bad. So she stopped.

And this is the problem with the film. It all seemed too easy for Kate. She went to a couple of meetings, with the guidance of a fellow teacher (played awesomely by Nick Offerman- he has the most memorable, and most awkward, scene in the movie when he is in the car with Kate and admits he has a crush on her), found a great sponsor, and got clean. Sure, there is the inevitable relapse, but Smashed keeps us away from the physical pain of detox. There is no real indication that Kate as any issues with being around others that drink, which I would imagine, is one of the most difficult things for a recovering alcoholic to do. She carries on with her life, does better at her teaching job, before the drift with her husband occurs.

It is nice to see the opposite side of the coin, however, in that alcohol was the thing that kept this couple together. We are more used to seeing how the presence of booze will drive a couple apart. For the most part, it becomes the absence of alcohol that creates their marital issues, as it was something that they could bond over for so many years. For that, Smashed offers a slightly different perspective on the issue.

For the most part of the movie, Aaron Paul is underused. He is a good actor, but the majority of his performance is basically a spinoff of the early Jesse Pinkman on the first couple of seasons of Breaking Bad. He could have been more. He gets to show his acting chops as the movie progresses, but for the most part, I feel he could have done more.

In all, Smashed is just ok. It could have been dark, and gritty, but it only gave us glimpses into that side of alcoholism. This film is carried by the actors that are in it, and for them, it is worth viewing. As a movie that focuses on the pain and desperation of addiction, it does fall a little flat.

Drinking Buddies (Film Review)

Drinking Buddies (Film Review)

There is nothing about the premise of this film that I do not like. Friends who own a brewery, their complicated love lives, a “they belong together but are they clever enough to figure it out” relationship, beautiful women, strong acting performances.

drinking-buddies2
Johnson definitely as scruffy in this photo as he is in the film. He gets to sport an awesome beard.

Drinking Buddies, which is now on Netflix Canada, is a very strong movie, and it is led by the amazing performance by Olivia Wilde. In this film, she is best defined as being a beautiful disaster. She definitely isn’t glammed up at all in the movie, spending most of it with bags under her eyes, hungover, and in some fairly ratty tank tops. But there is still something about her that is incredibly desirable, and that speaks to the level of her performance. She is a complete mess, going through a breakup with her boyfriend, who could possibly the most boring human ever, and has no chemistry with her. But she is a mess that you want to know, because she is a cool girl, and one who is willing to down beer after beer with her friends. You can’t help but love her.

The movie also has a great supporting cast, including the always great Ron Livingston (seriously, him in Office Space and Band of Brothers is amazing) as Wilde’s dull and ill-fitting boyfriend, Jake M. Johnson (from New Girl) playing Wilde’s co-worker and best friend, and the always fantastic and sedate Anna Kendrick (if you are not yet a fan and only know her from Twilight, you are missing out. Check her out in Pitch Perfect and Up in the Air). The foursome makes this movie what it is, which is a quiet story about friends and falling in love.

This is Olivia Wilde's best performance.
This is Olivia Wilde’s best performance. Even roughed up, she is still beautiful.

Throughout the film, there is an understated jealousy between all of the characters, based on the nature of their relationships, and this provides the depth, and the warmth, of the film. There is nothing over-the-top to be seen here. There is no scene where the characters are running through an airport trying to tell someone that they love them before they leave their lives forever. No hammy romantic gestures that destroys the relationships that we learn to respect over the course of the hour and a half run time.

The movie is calm, and understated. Not a collection of drunken adventures. It is based in realism, and this is why I liked this movie so much. It is something that can happen, that has happened, and will definitely happen again. So many of us have been in situations like this before, where we don’t necessarily realize that the thing that is most perfect for us is sitting right before us. Sometimes it is painful to watch the realism, but this is the way things are in real life. It isn’t always fireworks and crazy hookups and insane parties. Sometimes it’s quiet conversations about the possibility of marriage, getting too drunk and trying to make a bonfire, or running into the ocean after far too many. Sometimes it is all about sitting quietly next to your friend over lunch.

This simplicity is what makes Drinking Buddies a movie worth watching. If you are in it for a rip-roaring drinking comedy, keep searching. This is not that film. This one is definitely something more than that, something that feels a little bit more important.

Well worth a watch.