The Football Grinch Has Come To Town.

As I polish off my forties, I gotta be honest with you, I'm just DONE with a lot of things.

Football is one of them.

Football2I recently sat through a PTO meeting at my kid's middle school, and we talked for some time about how to raise five thousand dollars from a fun run/walk that we have the kids do. We do use the money for actual educational "enrichment"--we invite teachers to ask us for specific tools and resources they can use in the classroom--but still, the event is a lot of work and I'm not sure the kids enjoy it. Then, after we were done fussing about this five grand, our school superintendent came in to give a presentation on the state of the school district.

You know what she had to share? She's really pleased that the district has already raised $1.3 million to refurbish the high school's football stadium, and the district "only has to raise $1.7 million more."

(Yeah, I know. Don't worry. I've already tendered my resignation as PTO secretary and will be done at the end of this school year.)

In all honesty, I've been done with football since I read Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity. But I've always wanted to read Steve Almond's Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto, so last week, I did.

It's a good read. I'll admit I've always had a soft spot for Almond, but I like the way he admits he is a lifelong football fan, and yet's getting harder for him to look at the game. You'll learn a lot of information in this book--about how the NFL is a tax-exempt nonprofit that makes billions of dollars a year, about how athletes are suffering from brain injuries, about how everyone looks away from the violence and racism that run through the sport's many and various levels.

You might also get a laugh. Here's the section where Almond discusses the derogatory emails he got after wrting a New York Times Magazine article questioning the moral complexities of football, most of which included references to his vagina:

"I swear to you, nearly every piece of hate mail I received made reference to my vagina, which was usually characterized as very large.

As the son of two psychoanalysts, I suppose I am obligated to speculate on this odd size fixation. Fine. On one level my correspondents simply wish to convey the exaggerated nature of my femininity (i.e., larger vagina = more feminine). Still, it's hard to ignore that a large vagina suggests an unconscious fear of male inadequacy. Is it possible that merely asking these guys to examine their motives for watching football made them feel small?...

For the record, my vagina is slightly smaller than average." (pp. 98-99).

Yeah, I like Steve Almond a lot. If you're starting to question our nation's maniacal focus on football, you might find this an informative read.

I love hearing authors on the radio.

So yesterday morning the little CRs and I were munching through our Cheerios* and listening to Wisconsin Public Radio, and a guy was on talking about football. And normally, I'm not all that interested in football as a subject. So we listened for a bit, and I thought if I got bored we'd turn over to one of CRjr's favorite CDs (he's still on his Jackson Browne kick). But then I just started enjoying the author.

Which was perfect, as it turned out the author was Steve Almond, of whom I have always been very fond. He's got a new book out called Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto.

Of course it was a timely topic, because the Packers played their season opener on Thursday night. And I must say, I have always been a Packers fan. But the last few years? I just haven't felt like watching. I always thought perhaps a bit of the thrill went out of the game when Brett Favre was done quarterbacking. And frankly I can't really enjoy watching players crunch into each other anymore, after all the concussion news. But I'm not really militant about not watching football, or telling other people they shouldn't.

And neither is Steve Almond. I won't be reading this book--he'd just be preaching to the choir with me and I don't have the time--but you should consider it, if you're interested, or at least listen to the radio program. He's well worth a listen.

*Okay, I was having Fiber One cereal, because I am old, and pretty much the only thing that I really believe in anymore is regularity.

Reading (rather than watching?) the Olympics.

I have always really enjoyed the Winter Olympics.

Don't ask me why. Perhaps because winter is my second-favorite season, after fall. Perhaps because I really do like watching figure skating. I was particularly excited about the Olympics this year, because CRjr really enjoyed watching a lot of the events in the Summer Olympics, which came along when he was 2 (he was particularly into the swimming races, for whatever reason), and I thought he might enjoy the Winter Olympics too. But, correct me if I'm wrong, it seems like all they're showing this year is snowboarding and this new "slopestyle" skiing and snowboarding stuff. And if there's anything more boring to watch than slopestyle, I challenge you to find it.*

So that got me thinking about reading the Olympics. The other day I saw this list, suggesting fiction titles related to the Olympics. I also remembered reading a book called The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games, by Tony Perrotet. This is what I had to say about that book in my reference guide to nonfiction, The Real Story:

 "Perrottet describes the historical details of the original Greek Olympic games in muscular and fast-moving prose**, using such historical documents as a Handbook for a Sports Coach, a third century training manual, and numerous illustrations from drinking vessels and other primary sources to flesh out his account of the events at the original games, training regimes, customs, and spectator involvement.  The details can be quite earthy (such as his description of the thriving prostitution business that grew up around the festivities) and the author’s skill in weaving them into a comprehensive narrative is admirable."

If I remember correctly, I really enjoyed the book. You might too, even if you're bored by the real thing this year. Perhaps I'll re-read it until NBC decides to put a few different events on the air during prime time.

*I was up feeding CR3 at 3 a.m. this morning and actually got to see some luge. It was a real treat.

**Yeah, yeah, "muscular and fast-moving prose," I got carried away a little bit writing some of the annotations for that book. I was a lot younger when I wrote it!

Almost makes you smell the pool.

Yes, I'm still (slowly) making my way through some books that were considered 2012's best. I continue to be a bit underwhelmed.

Swimming Studies
by Leanne Shapton

The latest such title I brought home was Leanne Shapton's Swimming Studies. Other than it appearing on a lot of the year's best lists, I can honestly say I probably wouldn't have looked at it otherwise--I hate swimming and always have. I learned, a bit, when I was little, but I never did learn to tread water and I never really did get used to the sensation of being in a pool. I forget where I was or if it was during lessons or what, but I clearly remember once trying to do the crawl the length of the pool, and no matter how far to the side I turned my head, I kept getting water in my mouth when I was trying to breathe. And I thought, this is stupid. Why I am making it harder to breathe? I don't think I've been in a pool willingly since.*

Anyway. This is a memoir of sorts, of the time Shapton spent swimming, training, and competing in swim tournaments in her youth and throughout her adulthood, even participating in the Canadian Olympic trials (and finishing respectably, although she did not make the Olympics cut). Interspersed throughout the chapters are samples of Shapton's art--including a series of "swimming studies" paintings; a couple of pages of what looks like paint splotches, which correspond to certain smells; and photos of swimming suits she's owned and for what purposes she's used them. If you like your nonfiction a bit eclectic, and you enjoy highly descriptive writing (and the idea of pools doesn't make you throw up) you might actually enjoy this. To her credit, the fact that she could make me remember how pools smelled and felt, really viscerally, says good things about the power of her writing:

"Here is what it sounds like to lane three at the wall: A low thump as her hands hit the touchpad. Brief cheering at an intake of breath, collapsing into bubbles as her head, aligned and steady, dips back and under again at the turn. This is followed immediately by quiet. There is a rippling during the long stroke of her underwater pullout, a tight, thin sigh of effort, a gruff exhalation of air, a grunt at the dolphin kick." (p. 33.)

Shapton is also the author of the humor book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, which I read seemingly a million years ago and wasn't all that fond of. Although she seems like a very nice person (and she's Canadian--my favorite!), Shapton always leaves me feeling that I am not quite smart enough or artistic enough for her. Actually, I'm sure that's true. And it's okay.

In other review news: Mr. CR hated the cover. Mr. CR's been starting to talk up a bit lately with his nonfiction opinions, and I must say it's been lovely to hear them. Even if it's just on the cover art.

*My goddamn high school installed a pool LITERALLY the last year I had to take a gym class. I refused to get in and told my gym teacher I had my period for the four week duration of the unit. By the third week she said, "You do not." And I said, "Are you going to check?" And that was the end of that. I got an F for the unit but it was so, SO worth it. Stupid phys ed.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Sports

Two categories left in our exploration of Time magazine's 100 Best Nonfiction Titles list: today Sports, next time, War. YAY!*

So here's what Time had to say about the Sports category:

Ball Four, by Jim Bouton
The Sweet Science, by A.J. Liebling

Well, this is another category where Time didn't wear itself out suggesting titles. I've not read either of them, although I do like Liebling and the Ball Four book, first published in 1970 as an "inside story" about baseball, sounds pretty interesting. As long as they were going to have a sports category, I'm surprised they only listed two books, but hey, to each their own. It's a bit tricky to list what I think are the best Sports books--I already mentioned at least one in the Biography section (Pistol, by Mark Kriegel).

Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand. Yes, I know pretty much everyone has read this book already. But it's that rarest of rare nonfiction books: one that lives up to the hype. Anyone who likes a good underdog story will enjoy Hillenbrand's historical narrative about Seabiscuit, the little knobby-kneed horse that could.

The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw, by Michael Sokolove. A heartbreaking book about baseball players who make it, against all odds, to the big leagues, and then still suffer from things like drug addiction and not knowing how to handle success and money.

Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity, by Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry. A particularly timely read, in light of the Penn State scandal; this is an eye-opening read about exactly how much violence and criminality people are willing to allow in their college sports program culture (warning: it's a lot, including rape, savage beatings, and shootings). The authors, journalists both, focus primarily on the University of Washington football team.

I thought about listing The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis, but I think Michael Sokolove's book covers much the same ground (impoverished youth making it through sports--spoiler alert: Darryl Strawberry's life story and struggles with drug addiction will make you cry) without as much sentimentality, and is a superior read, although I do feel The Blind Side is a very good book.

*Not yay, war; yay, we're almost done. Although I may still do a couple of lists of Investigative, Travel, and True Crime: three huge categories Time ignored, for whatever reason. I guess I can see leaving out Investigative and True Crime, but Travel? Come on.

Edgar award, baby!

Scoreboard I'm so excited--a book I indexed last year, Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity, is up for an Edgar Award in the True Fact Crime category.* I hope it wins--it was a great and thought-provoking read, if disturbing, which pretty much describes all good True Crime. If you do read it you should be warned: you'll probably never look at college football players the same way again.

The full list of Edgar nominees is up at the Reader's Advisor Online, if you're a mystery/crime/true crime reader and are looking for some good suggestions. Now: go forth and have a great weekend.

*I'm really excited and all I did was index the book. I'd hate to think how excited I'd be if I'd actually written the book.

Icky, but definitely educational.

As March Madness gears up for another weekend, I thought now might be an appropriate time to recommend a university press book I recently indexed, titled Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity, by reporters Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry.

Scoreboard It's about the University of Washington (in Seattle) Husky football team that won the Rose Bowl in 2001, but it's less about their triumphs on the field (although there's plenty of that action too, for sports readers) than it is about the difficulties many of the football team players caused others and themselves. The two highest profile cases discussed in the book are a rape case and a burglary involving a shooting, so these are not trivial crimes being investigated.

What's REALLY fascinating (in a horribly sad way) about the book is the numerous ways in which family members, friends, team members, school administrators, sports boosters, the legal community, and especially the coaches were complicit in helping to either cover up or delay the cases so that the players being charged with very serious crimes could keep on playing. I was particularly disgusted by the local judges' (many of whom were Husky fans, naturally) lenient sentencing and the prosecuting attorneys' offices reluctance to try cases at all. (They had one suspect dead to rights with both DNA evidence AND an eyewitness and still declined to prosecute.) Another aspect that was eye-opening is how afraid those in power were to "mess up" an athlete's future with criminal charges--as if the victims of the athletes' vicious attacks and crimes hadn't had their futures messed up.

In many ways it's a hard, hard book to read, but it's also very, very educational. And it's very well-written; intensively researched and yet very quickly paced. It's a university press book, but it deserves to be in every public library around, and as a $19.95 paperback, it packs a lot of punch for its price.