Review: The Professional

The Professional

A tale of middleweight contender Eddie Brown, The Professional is a novel by legendary sportswriter W. C. Heinz. What’s interesting is comparing it to Malamud’s The Natural, as they take extremely different paths but arrive at the same level of quality. This deserves more explanation.

Malamud did not know much about baseball. Heinz knew boxing inside and out. Book Roy Hobbs is an ass that you’re not supposed to root for. Book Eddie Brown is meant to be a decent, sympathetic figure in a bad sport. The Natural loved making flourish and mysterious performance shifts depending on the plot. The Professional is grounded and realistic to a fault. The Natural is a third-person book. The Professional is a first-person book. The prose is blocky in both, but while Malamud is excessively flowery, Heinz is very Hemingway-esque (not surprisingly, that author loved the book). And yet both come across as being stilted, pretentious, and dated.

Its main characters are not very good. Brown is not a bad protagonist but he can’t make up for the faults of the other two, which are massive. The two other central figures are Brown’s hideous Mary Sue of a trainer/manager and the first person sportswriter narrator, who fits the “character as camera” archetype I’ve seen in other negative reviews of first-person books.

As for the book itself, it consists of realism-as-padding, outright padding, and expects the reader to treat the technical decline of boxing as some great tragedy. I could be a little harsh on it because it would be far more novel and revealing to a 1950s reader who only knew boxing from television and the pulps (not surprisingly, there’s a scene where Heinz, via one of his mouthpieces, swipes at them for their inaccuracies). But to someone much later who’s read a lot of excellent nonfiction on the sport, it just felt plain and empty.

Review: Friday Night Fighter

Friday Night Fighter

Troy Rondinone’s Friday Night Fighter is the story of both a boxer and a time period. It is the story of boxer Gaspar Ortega. It is also the story of a huge-in-its-day sporting event, the time when boxing aired en masse on network television and attracted a viewing share comparable on the low end to the NFL playoffs today. It is the story of a far more unified sport than the later “alphabet belts”.

Rondinone’s writing is excellent and Ortega, a boxer who appeared on television many times, is arguably the perfect figure for this age. On one hand, he was much more than a small journeyman who appeared on television a few times. On the other, he wasn’t the kind of already-immortal figure that everyone already knows about (ie, Marciano, Patterson, Liston). A contender who never got to actually wear the belt, he illustrates the time period exactly.

Another impressive element of this book is that it rarely sinks into Good Old Days nostalgia despite boxing being the one sport where it’s the most viable. It makes it clear that boxing gave up on network TV because network TV gave up on boxing, with viewership substantially down even before Benny Paret’s death. Yes, TV played a role in diluting the talent pool and closing down the old clubs and gyms that served as the fighter pipeline, but so did simple demographic change. And it doesn’t hesitate to tackle the sleaze in the sport.

The best complement I can give to this book is that it truly takes the reader into another time, and that’s something a lot of history books just can’t manage. Friday Night Fighter is one of the best works of sports history that I’ve read, and I highly recommend it.

Review: Gil Thorp

Gil Thorp

Fuldapocalypse now turns its attention to the so-called “funny pages”, the coleacanths that linger in newspapers across the country. One of these living fossils is Gil Thorp, a sports comic that has been running nonstop since 1958. The comic has a simple premise. It follows the title character, a coach/athletic director of the fictional Milford High School, and his students as they play through the seasons and have off-the-field drama. (The name is a combination of real star players Gil Hodges and Jim Thorpe).

One thing in the strip’s favor is that it’s been timed to match each real sport in its real season. So you have baseball/softball in the spring, football in the fall, and basketball in the winter. Of course, this means that the summer, when school’s out, leads to huge segments of nothing but non-athletic filler.

There have been several artists drawing the strip, none of them particularly good. This was an issue in one arc where two characters thirty years apart in age looked almost exactly alike, which drew some confusion-and this was reading the strips in hindsight. Beyond that extreme example, you have tons of barely distinguishable, interchangeable, moving-in-and-out characters.

Which brings me to the next problem, and one that shows why this particular type of comic strip has been mostly destroyed. It turns out that soap-opera style arcs told one three-panel strip at a time are not the most ideal way to tell a story. That the storylines themselves fall into an awkward melodramatic-yet-tame-enough-for-the-mainstream-papers uncanny valley and are frequently repeated can be forgiven/understood, even if it doesn’t help. But no matter the quality of the plots as a whole, the format just does not lend itself to good reading.

This was the first work of fiction I really binge-read in some time. And while I liked the goofy experience, there’s a reason why most other storyline strips like it have sunk into the depths.

The Big Baseball Business What-If

There’s an underappreciated what-if concerning the business of baseball that I’ve considered worth exploring. Too much sports alternate history simply shuffles players, teams, and outcomes around. It feels both obvious and unsatisfying to me, the equivalent of the Red Sox unloading not just Babe Ruth but the entire core of what would become the 1923 champions on the Yankees or the A’s “Mustache Gang” all leaving in free agency when they got the chance. This is something different and could have changed the entire business model to be more like what’s in our time a vastly different type of sports.

In the 1950s, the Dodgers were intrigued by a company called Skiatron, offering pay-TV services. The technology did exist at the time but was very rudimentary. The possiblities were obvious. After all, even at a dollar per game, a six figure audience could translate to that much every home game, a huge sum at the time.

In OTL, this did not come to pass in this form. Besides the obvious ferocious opposition from the existing broadcasting industry, Skiatron’s technology and finances just weren’t viable at the time. But if something like that could be done (and I don’t know the exact plausibility-I’m not that kind of technical expert), it would be, no pun intended, a game changer. The obvious is that there’d be a big jolt of money, getting the historical broadcast windfall in earlier.

There are easy ramifications. There’d be more money in the sport, which would increase the pressure by players to get more of the growing pie for themselves. A historically unsuccessful team that used this to its advantage would result in the championship races being different. But there’s also more thoughtful ones.

One on-the-field change I could see resulting from this could be in pitcher usage. Here I’m kind of extrapolating from the “overworked for the sake of attendance” policy of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych (which may have contributed to his severe injury). I’m also extrapolating from boxing and MMA, which historically have leaned the most on PPVs. Put simply, more people have been willing to pay to see Connor McGregor than to see Valentina Shevchenko. And I’d bet more people would be more willing to see Sandy Koufax than Ned Garver.

Another, sleazier one is the notion of small-market/poor team owners simply giving up and advertising the players on the opposing team for the PPV spectacle. “Hey, [Small City], do you want to see the Yankees? The Dodgers? The [other good team with an exciting player]?” There are possibilities here.

Review: Strategy

Strategy

B. H. Liddell Hart’s Strategy will always be a book I remember, although not necessarily for good reasons. It was one of the first history books where I’d become well-read enough to reasonably question its thesis. While Liddell Hart’s life and career has no shortage of controversy around it, I want to focus this review purely on this specific book.

Liddell Hart talks up the “indirect approach” big time, listing a huge number of historical examples. Unfortunately, the history is a cherry-picked list of questionable ones. Even when much younger, I remembered Liddell Hart skipping over several attempted indirect approaches in the American Civil War that failed and brushing off the battle of Guadalcanal (while falsely saying it was a project of MacArthur. It wasn’t.)

As for the theory, well, this kind of “maneuver warfare” talk is the kind of thing that’s uncontroversial in general principles yet doesn’t always translate to specific goals. Sometimes a “direct” approach is desireable. Many more times it’s necessary, for better or worse. What one can see Liddell Hart going for is wishful thinking, where fancy footwork alone can break an enemy without the need for any kind of attritional phase. This is utopian.

Is this book totally bad? No. I’d say it’s useful if you know the context. With that in mind, it’s useful for looking at how one school of thought approaches history and doctrine. But it shouldn’t be anyone’s first book on the subject.

Review: British Battleships

British Battleships

Oscar Parkes’ 1957 British Battleships: Warrior to Vanguard is exactly what it says: A gigantic encyclopedia on every large armored warship the Royal Navy operated from 1860 to the then-present. This has been one of the oldest, rarest, biggest, and most expensive books I’ve owned, and it’s amazing. This is a big, comprehensive look at British capital ships, from the famous ones of the World Wars to weird 19th Century contraptions.

The mid/late 1800s are the most interesting time period as battleship design zigzagged around, but every part of the book is effective. There are numerous cutaway drawings, and they’re well done. The writing is descriptive and engaging as well.

Yes, being made in the 1950s means a lot of it is dated now. Yes, it’s a little more broad than it is deep, a consequence of having to cover so much ground. But it is still an amazing, incredible history book. When published, the age of the battleship had just ended, making this book a fitting tribute.

Review: The Natural

The Natural

Sports fiction strangely suffers from the exact same problem that political fiction does. Because there’s so much available in the true world, both past and present, fiction has to be either an obviously forced and exaggerated version or often come across as feeling simply redundant. While success is not impossible, it’s an uphill climb.

One of the classic sports novels is Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, famous for its enduring reputation and movie version that sits alongside Starship Troopers in the field of “movies completely different from the book”. Having read the original book, I have to say: I don’t like it.

There’s one big problem with this book about baseball, which is that Malamud didn’t know that much about the sport. While others have gone into more detail, I’ll say this. There’s some errors like talk of a past World Series between the A’s and White Sox (two AL teams), but the bigger issue is simple. Hobbs comes across as what someone who doesn’t know that much about baseball would think a great player is.

Hobbs is good (unless the plot calls for him not to be) and good in a very boring way, simply hitting and hitting and hitting, not even rising to the level of classic Paul Bunyan baseball stories like how Cool Papa Bell supposedly got hit in the back by his own line drive simply because he ran so fast. Nope, it’s just four home runs in a game and “wondrous averages”. This isn’t a John Rourke or Blaine McCracken of the diamond, it’s a guy skilled in the baseball equivalent of “Special Forces, Ranger, SEAL, and gutter-fighting”.

Without that frame of reference, a lot of it is just references to various baseball legends-Babe Ruth, in the form of the Whammer. Fred Merkle’s baserunning fail, in the form of Fisher’s Flop, the Black Sox (in the form of the ending), and so much more (as the Gerry O’Connor article points out). A modern version would incorporate versions of Bill Buckner, Steve Bartman, and the 2004 lunar eclipse, to give you an idea of how blatant it all is to anyone who knows the slightest bit about early 20th century baseball.

So why am I suddenly so hard on realism and accuracy, when I’m clearly not when it comes to other books? Because the book is self-serious, for one. It’s like trying to write a literary novel about the life of a man who was a soldier, making the battle scenes right out of a stereotypical John Wayne movie, and sometimes descending to Ian Slater levels of technical inaccuracy. Would that interfere with the tone? Definitely.

Especially since, with the benefit of hindsight, this just looks like an exaggerated version (remember the introduction) of the Capital N Narrative approach to sportswriting, the clumsy and inaccurate reduction of a game into a tale of personal morality and internal struggle, applied constantly to real games by sportswriters of dubious quality (sometimes with extra crass humor).

Finally, the prose simply isn’t very good. It’s blocky, incredibly “lush”, and everything is either overdescribed or underdescribed. None of the characters are particularly interesting. And to be honest, in many ways the book feels just as shallow as the movie, only with a different morality. Give me saccharine goo that knows it’s saccharine goo over pretentiousness that doesn’t know its own subject any time.

Review: HMS Ulysses

HMS Ulysses

A rightful classic, HMS Ulysses is, in my opinion, the greatest naval action novel of all time. Author Alistair MacLean, a veteran of the Royal Navy in World War II, could draw on a lot of personal experience, and it shows in this masterpiece. People who know their naval history can look at the obvious parallels between the actions of the book and the ill-fated Convoy PQ-17 (which MacLean served on), but that doesn’t change its effectiveness.

The way MacLean sets a tone is hard to describe, but he succeeds brilliantly. The travails of the convoy, in no small part thanks to the PQ-17 historical experience, are both dramatic and plausible-seeming. The feat of squaring the circle cannot be applauded enough. Historical military fiction, at least to me, has had the issue of “it’s going to be either realistically dull and un-dramatic, in which case I’ll read a history book that makes no pretense at narrative, or it’s going to be exaggerated, in which case I’ll read a cheap thriller that doesn’t have to be bound to an existing war.”

This avoids both of them by throwing one (plausible) German threat after another at the convoy and emphasizing the wear and tear the climate and stress imposes on the sailors. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Review: Foundation

Foundation

foundationcover

Now I can add Isaac Asimov to the list of famous authors reviewed on Fuldapocalypse, and what better book than his masterpiece, Foundation?

I’m somewhat leery of reviewing massively successful books by famous authors. A part of me has this guarded “it can’t possibly be as good as they say” feeling, and I like giving more obscure stories a platform. But I felt I had to.

The story of the decaying empire and genuis Hari Seldon’s plan is very Shakespearean. By which I mean it’s a well-done story that nonetheless has gotten retroactively treated as something a lot more highbrow than it was upon first release. This isn’t a mere spacesuit commando book, but it’s still much closer to Ken Bulmer than it is to Stephen Baxter.

And while this isn’t Asimov’s fault, a lot of this is dated. There’s the obvious, like treating “nuclear power” as some kind of super-technology. There’s the historical conceits, like taking Edward Gibbon’s view of ancient Rome too closely. Then there’s the central premise of a triumphant technocratic process, the sort of thing embodied most by… Robert McNamara.

Yet I don’t want to come across as too negative. This is very readable, and it’s been so influential for science fiction that seeing where a lot of the tropes became popularized is also fun. This is a “classic” I do recommend.

Review: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers

sstcover

Ah, this book. Starship Troopers is a misunderstood classic. It’s also something where the influence is worse-considerably worse- than the content of the book itself. Heinlein’s famous tale of the Mobile Infantry deserves a lot of scrutiny, and it’s very, very hard to give a “conventional” score.

For the book itself, if the average military sci-fi cheap thriller is an apple, this is definitely an orange. Viewed as a coming of age story, a training story with realistic drudgery, and (however worthy or unworthy the politics) a political piece, Rico’s story is better than it would seem from the perspective of “how many explosions are there?”. If I had to give a critique of the orange that’s independent of that, I’d say the writing tone is a major problem.

The book is written in a sort of, for lack of a better word, “Gee-whiz” style that I recognized from another Heinlein book of the time I read, Tunnel in the Sky. This style happens to not go well with any of the elements. Not the “Space Herman Melville”, not the politics, and not what action there is.

If it was just an orange,  I’d feel better about it. It’d just be a type of orange that I could personally dislike to a degree, but still understand why others would like the taste. However, it’s an orange that influenced a whole lot of apple farmers.

 

When reading military sci-fi and then reading what I call “contemporary action”, there are differences that drag the former down. Perhaps the most obvious, and the most obviously taken from Starship Troopers, is filling every first part of the first installment with training. Contemporary action heroes, in contrast, tend to just stride in wholly trained. There are exceptions, but those are the trends I’ve seen.

Imagine if, somehow, the romantic-ish Vigdis subplot of Red Storm Rising made the book popular to readers of romance fiction (let’s just assume the zombie sorceress mind control was particularly effective that day). Now imagine that what sometimes feels like every fluffy romance novel you read adopts the structure of a technothriller, with a lot of viewpoint characters, a lot of sitting in conference rooms giving details of little particular relevance to the (crowded out) main characters, and a general “big-picture” scope that doesn’t seem to fit the small, intimate story you’d expect from a romance. And you just stand there going “no, no, Red Storm Rising wasn’t a romance, it was the story of a third world war! It didn’t really fit but people are copying it anyway!”

That’s what Starship Troopers has done to military science fiction. I don’t want to put too much blame on it or any one book, but it’s a definite influence in that negative direction, and, apple or orange, I don’t see the original as being good enough to make up for the way it pushed its genre down the road of the (pun very much intended) “spacesuit commando.”