Monday, December 27, 2010

When the Game Was Ours - Jackie MacMullan (with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson)

An examination of the perhaps the greatest individual rivalry in American sports, When the Game Was Ours chronicles the relationship between Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird and Los Angeles Lakers floor general Magic Johnson.  Relying heavily on interviews with not just Bird and Magic, but a hole host of NBA legends, Jackie MacMullan shows us not only how these two superstars defined themselves and their basketball success by one another, but how they came to respect each other and became friends, bonded by their love of basketball and competition.

Here we see Bird and Magic pushing each other throughout their careers.  Win or lose in their NBA Finals match-ups, each of them was driven to always work harder, to be a more complete player, knowing that, across the country, the other was pushing himself just as hard.  In candid interviews both Bird and Magic explain their almost single-minded focus on one-upping each other throughout their careers.  Knowing that, if the Celtics could beat the Lakers, or vice-versa, surely either team could dispatch with the rest of the NBA.

At its best the book captures the essence of the era in which the NBA became a global brand.  Without Larry and Magic, without the Celtics versus Lakers rivalry the landscape of professional basketball the world over would be drastically different.  It is a lament for a lost era, but one certainly worth reliving and retelling.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Greatest Show on Earth - Richard Dawkins

If evolution has an advocate it is Richard Dawkins and in The Greatest Show on Earth, this preeminent and broad-ranging thinker on the questions of how evolution has come to create the world we see today, he pleads for a greater understanding of the processes first elucidated by Charles Darwin.  Primarily written as a critique of and response to creationists, Dawkins' work makes the case for why evolution is not only a true understanding of life on this planet, but also how it can be beautiful and empowering to those with the eyes to see.

It is at this juncture of science, natural history, grace and wonder that Dawkins is at his best; one cannot help but marvel along with him as the reader is brought across time and space to see the intricacies of the life of cells, or the great arms race between predator and prey.  The process of natural selection and its impacts on absolutely every aspect of life on this planet are the star of the show and Dawkins makes them quite an attraction indeed.  The book is most valuable in the scope and scale of its explanatory power and if Dawkins' work has a greater utility it is to allow the reader to draw together the seemingly disparate strands of organisms, environment, genetics and natural selection.

That evolution needs a defense at all may strike the reader as strange, however Dawkins is livid at the notion that , so he claims, 40% of Americans believe in creationism in some form.  That Dawkins is so bent out of shape over this is wonderful for the community of readers, if, for no other reason, then that it means he will continue to provide works of this seamless integration and nuance.  However, one cannot help but think that the work is so much preaching to the choir.  The writing slows down greatly as Dawkins attacks creationism and, by certain extension, anything but the most scientific of epistemologies to viewing the world around us.  What remains unclear at the end (though this is supposedly the realm of his recent bestseller The God Delusion) is why it is so important that everyone view the world as Dawkins does?  Besides the intangible benefit of seeing our universe as it "truly is", what measurable impact does a defense of evolution hope to achieve?  We are no closer to being able to answer these thorny questions at the end of his work.

All of this is not to diminish the results Dawkins has achieved here.  One can argue with his motives and positions concerning social betterment, what is unimpeachable are his prose and ability to view the multiplicity of life on this planet and bring accounts, studies, research, and various disciplines to bear upon one another.  In this realm he is perhaps the most free-thinking and far-seeing advocate for the scientific view of the world since Darwin, and that is no mean feat.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Heart of Africa - Sihle Khumalo

On the move by public transport from Johannesburg to Kibuye, Rwanda, Sihle Khumalo provides a black South Africans' take on moving across the continent he calls home.  In many ways a typical fish-out-of-water story, Heart of Africa obviously takes on a different tenor because it is a rare travelogue written by an African on the move in Africa.  Much has been written by men and women of northern/western extraction about their movement across the developing world, but these works often idealize the lives within developing countries and the people they encounter.  Khumalo is at his best showing westerners that there is a grand diversity in the African experience and that we view the continent without differentiation only through our ignorance and to our loss.

Frequently Khumalo wrestles with his identity as a South African and how that impacts his views of people he meets along his travels.  All-too-frequently he is concerned for his own safety and the safety of his belongings.  This is far less a comment on the location of his travels then on his experiences living and working South Africa.  Though it is an easy dig at South Africa to complain of the country's crime problems, coming from the perspective of a South African the true pervasiveness of the problem is hard to escape; concerns for his safety have clearly affected Khumalo to the point that he has trouble feeling safe in crowds or trusting strangers.  It is to his unending credit that Khumalo is first, willing to undertake this journey anyway and, second, examine his assumptions and see that they do not fit with the countries he is moving through.  It is this willingness to examine the circumstances around him and the manner in which he responds to them that makes Khumalo's work so insightful.

If the book has any drawback it is that too much time is spent focusing on the logistics and not enough on how Khumalo's understanding of the world he is seeing and experiencing is changing and growing throughout his journey.  As a reader one cannot hope for any meaningful hard and fast conclusions from Khumalo that would not read as temporal and trite, however, given that we have come along with him on this very enjoyable trip, you are left hoping for a little more insight surrounding his relationship to himself and how that has grown and changed throughout the adventure.  Khumalo writes, "I hate it when life happens to me... I want, at all time to happen to life."  At its core, travel is often about letting life happen to you and understanding what that means for the person you are.  Khumalo has written a nice narrative about his travel, but we cannot hope but wish for a little more critical examination of his role in them.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Education of Henry Adams - Henry Adams

Perhaps America's most famous autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams chronicles the life of perhaps the last generation of true American aristocracy.  Son to an ambassador, grandson and great-grandson to presidents, of the Boston Adams, Henry Adams came of age during the explosion of the industrial revolution, served during the civil war and closes his narrative after the dawning of the new century and the birth of the age of Teddy Roosevelt.  Throughout the narrative is held together by Adams constant search for "education".

The prose sparkles most where we are given insights into Adams' impressions of politics, diplomacy and the great men of his time.  Witness the awkwardness and inward-focus of President Lincoln, the frustration of the American embassy in England or the stern presence of his grandfather President John Quincy Adams.  In his life Henry Adams serves as a bridge between the bygone days of the revolution and its characters, through the Civil War and into the twentieth century.

A constant theme of the work is Adams lamentations and confusions over the coming world of industry and technology.  One cannot help but identify with a man who feels the world passing him by; as speed, industry and global industrialization run-away with the future Adams wistfully wonders whether he isn't a man born to a time that has no place in the modern world.  In many ways he is the model for the modern American.  Striving, torn, in search of ideals perhaps forever out of reach - a model of what he would call the American character.

"The American thought of himself as a restless, pushing, energetic, ingenious person, always awake and trying to get ahead of his neighbors... [also, he is] a quiet, peaceful, shy figure, rather in the mold of Abraham Lincoln, somewhat sad, sometimes pathetic, once tragic; or like Grant, inarticulate, uncertain, distrustful of himself, still more distrustful of others, awed by money." p. 297

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Ecological Indian - Shepard Krech III

Taking the famous 1970s environmental advertisement portraying Iron Eyes Cody - the crying Indian - as his jumping-off point, anthropologist Shepard Krech examines the validity behind popular notions of American Indians as having lived in harmony with nature prior to contact with Europeans.  Critically examining modern conceptions, Krech employs historical and archeological evidence to attempt to paint a picture of how numerous Indians across time, throughout the American continent, actually interacted with the world around them.  In chapters focusing on the disappeared Hohokam, Indians' use of fire, and different tribes relationships with game animals, Krech convincingly portrays the dynamic relationships of Indians and the natural world.  Though it may seem like an obvious conclusion, one of Krech's most important assertions is that there were, and indeed continue to be, as many different ways of interacting with and thinking about the natural world as there are peoples and individuals engaged in their natural context.  By getting away from culturally-reliant and overly-simplified definitions of Indians' interactions with the non-human world, Krech has done much to flesh out these first Americans less as myth and more as complex, thoughtful, insightful as well as at time profligate, wasteful and careless people.  This is crucial because it allows for the beginning of a dialogue in which we can think about Indians as real, dynamic people who did exist on this continent for thousands of years.

Though at times rambling and overburdened with redundancies Krech does provide a more fulsome understanding of Indians situated within their specific historical context.  The important take away from this work is that we have much to learn about Indians as people and dynamic cultures and would be well-suited to asses their worldviews and reactions to change in light of our own dynamic culture and natural world.