Monday, September 28, 2020

Color Blind, by Tom Dunkel

 Every baseball fan knows about Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in Major League baseball in 1947, and whose jersey number, 42, was permanently retired for all of MLB.  As important as that step was for baseball, for professional sports, and for racial equality, the history of black athletes playing professional baseball is much older and more varied than Robinson's putting on a Dodgers uniform.  Tom Dunkel tells the story of a Bismarck, North Dakota semipro baseball team that rose to national prominence, including a national tournament championship, while fielding a team of both black and white players.

Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball's Color Line is a colorful, entertaining historical account of American life in the Roaring Twenties and into the Great Depression.  In small towns like Bismarck as well as in big cities, baseball was a source of entertainment and civic pride.  Amateur and semipro teams abounded, representing their cities and towns, companies and civic organizations, and touring the country.  Since the Major League teams didn't permit black players, black teams and leagues formed.  Many of the players on these teams had more than enough talent to compete in the Majors, had they been permitted.  Imagine telling a player, as some scouts told black players in Color Blind, I would recruit you to the Majors if only you were white.

Satchel Paige was one of those black pitchers who could have dominated batters in the Majors.  When Neil Churchill, a car dealer in Bismarck, needed a pitcher for his semipro team, he didn't care what color his skin was.  He knew Paige was the best pitcher around, and Churchill convinced him to come to North Dakota.  In fact, he pulled black players from all over, building a roster split between black and white players.  This mixed team beat black and white teams to win the 1935 national semipro tournament.

As remarkable as the race mixing on the team was, it didn't seem all that remarkable to the teammates, at least in Dunkel's telling.  These were athletes who saw the value in their teammates on the field and, in many cases, socialized off the field as well.  Overall, the impression I got was that few people truly wanted racial segregation in life and in baseball, but few were fully prepared to buck the norms of the day.  When Churchill's team arrived for the tournament in Wichita, the hotel, surprised to see that the team was not all white, refused to let the black players stay.  This could have been a great moment of team solidarity, with the white players insisting that their black teammates stay with them, or agreeing to stay in lesser accommodations in the black part of town.  Alas, they bid their black teammates adieu, settling into their rooms while their black teammates set out to find their own places to stay.  That's just how it was in the 1930s.  

The tournament organizers did, in fact, break new ground by inviting both black and white teams to play.  A few conflicts broke out on the field amid the racial tension, but teams came to play, not to display racial grievance.  (However, some felt the tournament organizer arranged the brackets not only by seeding, but also in order to keep white teams from the Deep South from playing black teams.)

Color Blind is not only a delight to read for baseball history buffs, but it's also a great ground-level history of popular culture in the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s.  In the time before television, and before going to the movies was even very common, going out to a ballgame was a prime entertainment choice.  When every town had a ball team, the players became local heroes, with the whole town behind them.  After World War 2, and the many changes that came in the 1940s and 1950s, this part of our culture died out.  Color Blind tells this story amid the story of changing racial attitudes before the Civil Rights movement.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Blitz: Trump Will Smash the Left and Win, by David Horowitz

David Horowitz's book Blitz: Trump Will Smash the Left and Win is perhaps better subtitled something like Trump Will Smash the Left and, if Reasonable People Get Out and Vote, Ought to Win in 2020.  Even though Horowitz doesn't quite measure up to the bluster and confidence of the title, Horowitz lays out a great case for Trump.

In sum, Horowitz reviews Trump's successes throughout his first term.  He details the harsh, unfair treatment he has received from the press.  He describes the many ways that elected officials, appointees, and government bureaucrats have conspired to obstruct his administration.  In the face of this opposition, it really is remarkable that he has accomplished as much as he has.

If you're looking for a strong, thoroughly sourced defense of Trump's first term, Blitz is a good place to start.  Let's hope, for the sake of the country, that the prediction of Horowitz's title comes true in November.

Friday, September 18, 2020

A Cry from the Far Middle, by P.J. O'Rourke

P.J. O'Rourke is one of the funniest observers of American political life in the last half century.  Some of his books are classics.  His newest title, A Cry from the Far Middle: Dispatches from a Divided Land, is a worthy addition to his oeuvre, but it does show signs of his growing old[er] and [more] curmudgeonly.  

O'Rourke consistently has terrific insights as well a gift for pithy one-liners.  The world of Twitter and 24 hour news has given so many opportunities to hear people's opinions that O'Rourke's statement sums up political discourse perfectly: "What this country needs is fewer people who know what this country needs."  Amen!  Fewer opinions and smaller government are consistent themes for O'Rourke.  He leans hard toward libertarianism: "Our government is so bad at everything that it can't even do nothing right." 

Underneath the snarkiness and one liners, O'Rourke consistently has great insights as he communicates political and economic ideas in memorable and entertaining ways.  For example, his discussion on the political theory of rights as Getoutta here Rights and Gimmie Rights.  Individual rights and free markets guide O'Rourke's thinking and, really who can argue with that?

(As a side note, O'Rourke won points with me with this line: "Some fast food is delicious by any standards-- In-N-Out Burger, Chick-fil-A, Whataburger."  I'll forgive him for liking the sub-standard burgers at In-N-Out, and everyone loves CfA.  But his familiarity with and praise for my hometown regional burger chain--which has no locations anywhere near O'Rourke's Massachussetts home-- demonstrates his great taste and wisdom.)

There aren't many writers who have such keen insights into current affairs and who are endlessly entertaining to read.  A Cry from the Far Middle won't thrill hard-core Trump fans, but O'Rourke is an equal opportunity offender and a thoughtful interlocutor across the political spectrum.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, September 14, 2020

Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, by Ellen Vaughn

Like many American Christians, I have held a long-time admiration for Jim Elliot and his companions, missionaries who were killed by people to whom they wanted to extend friendship and the gospel.  His story made such an impression on me that I named by eldest son Elliot.  So I was eager to read Ellen Vaughn's new biography of Elisabeth Elliot, Jim's wife, who bravely continued their work in the jungles of Ecuador.

Becoming Elisabeth Elliot fully met my hopes and expectations.  Vaughn covers Elisabeth's life from her childhood, to boarding school in Florida, to Wheaton and courtship with Jim, and to mission work in South America.  There were several points about which I was surprised and appreciated Vaughn's insights. 

Vaughn clearly has the greatest admiration for Elisabeth, but doesn't make her out to be a superhero or saint.  For example, I was not aware of the simmering rivalry she had with Nate Saint's sister Rachel.  (Nate Saint is the pilot who was with Jim Elliot when they were killed.)  The two ladies lived among the Waodani, befriending the people responsible for Jim and Nate's murders.  Rachel was a missionary with Wycliffe Bible Translators/SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics), while Elisabeth was basically independent, under the auspices of the Plymouth Brethren.  They ended up butting heads over the New Testament translation work, with Rachel excluding Elisabeth from her work, and ultimately damaging their friendship and working relationship.

For this and related matters, Vaughn describes Elisabeth's frustration with Christian leaders and institutionalism.  She grew weary of hierarchies that stifle the gospel and lack the ability to reach other cultures, not to mention the hypocrisy she observed among some Christian leaders.  Elisabeth was very concerned about cultural imperialism.  She wanted to be careful about introducing the Waodani to Jesus without their understanding being corrupted by Western culture and modern amenities and prosperity.  Even with her deeply engrained personal modesty, she was comfortable with their nudism and lack of privacy about sex.  She became troubled when they started wearing clothes, feeling guilty that she and the other missionaries were guilty of tearing down Waodani cultural norms and traditions.

As anyone who knows anything about Elisabeth's story and writings knows, she led a remarkable life and deserves a place among the heroes of the faith.  Vaughn writes about Elisabeth's frustration when, for years after her husband's death, well-meaning people would ask whether it was worth it, entering into a calculus of how many lives were saved or impacted because of his sacrifice.  Elisabeth felt they were asking the wrong questions.  It's not a matter of results, but a matter of obedience.  Whether he became a famous hero of the faith or a martyr forgotten in obscurity didn't matter; what mattered was his obedience to follow where God directed him.  That is the choice we Christians face day by day, and, if you are looking for a guide, Elisabeth is one who has gone before.  I'm grateful to know more about her example thanks to Becoming Elisabeth Elliot.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

LEGO Still Life with Bricks: The Art of Everyday Play, by Lydia Ortiz and Michelle Clair, photographs by Patrick Rafanan

At first I ask, Why?  But quickly that changed to Why not?  This is so cool!  The Lego creations in Lego Still Life with Bricks: The Art of Everyday Play are not what you typically expect from Lego.  Designer/illustrators Lydia Ortiz and Michelle Clair took buckets of Lego bricks, combined them with everyday objects, and created some pretty intriguing images.

As you would expect from the title, the selections are still life per the classic art tradition.  Per Wikipedia, "depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which are either natural (food, flowers, dead animals, plants, rocks, shells, etc.) or man-made (drinking glasses, books, vases, jewelry, coins, pipes, etc.)"  Examples of many of those are included in Still Life with Bricks.  Obviously, since these are kids building toys we are talking about, there is a tongue-in-cheek element.  

I love the colorful, creative designs, especially the ones that show a sequence, like popping a balloon.  I especially like the series that depicts striking a match, lighting candles, then snuffing the candles and the smoke wafting away.  So cool and creative!

Some of the images use just a handful of bricks.

LEGO Still Life With Bricks Preview | BricksFanz

Other, hundreds.  Thousands?

The effect reminds me of a movie where the live action shots morph into animation.  

These images, photographed by Patrick Rafanan are fun to look at, and it's fun to imagine what you might do if you had thousands of Lego bricks laying around!

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Tribes, by Marc Gimenez

Starting with his 2006 debut The Color of Law, Marc Gimenez has written some of the most entertaining legal fiction around.  His newest novel, Tribes, marks the fourth appearance of A. Scott Fenney, the SMU football star who ditched his high-dollar law firm job on principle and was eventually appointed a federal judge.  

Tribes opens with FBI agent Cat Pena, whom we met in The Absence of Guilt, taking part in a raid on a Dallas gang house.  She heroically takes out the gang members, rescuing a dozen girls who had been kidnapped for sex trafficking.  But when the dust settles, she discovers that one of the shooters was a 12-year-old black boy.  Why was he in the Latino gang's house?  Why is there no powder residue on his hands or fingerprints on the gun?  Did she really need to kill a black boy?

The story jumps right into today's headlines, and the streets erupt in anger over yet another innocent black boy killed by a white cop (yes, she's Latina, but still tagged as white).  Desperate for legal help, she calls on her estranged lover Fenney.  When she tells Fenney she's pregnant with his son, he decides he has no choice but to step down from the Federal bench and defend the mother of his son.

His daughters Boo and Pajamae are in fine form in Tribes, the highlight of the book.  They are precocious and full of wisdom and insight for their father.  Fenney seems to be getting more attractive with age; perhaps the power of the Federal bench draws women even more strongly.  Everywhere he turns, women are throwing themselves at him, especially the D.A. who is charging Cat.  Her power-hungry personality and her chosen means of advancement--using the men around her--reminded me of a certain D.A. on the Left coast who has come to prominence of late. . . .

Per his habit, Gimenez is not afraid to take on sticky subjects.  In this case, let's just say that Tribes probably won't be chosen for the BLM book of the month.  But he presents the issues in a thoughtful, reasonable way.  Whether discussing black crime, police brutality, or the application of the Supremacy Clause, Gimenez lays out the case straightforwardly and with legal clarity. 

Gimenez might be found guilty of overplaying Fenney's magnetism, or of overplaying the D.A.'s seductive evil, but I won't press charges.  I enjoyed the book thoroughly, with its twists and turns.  The denouement made me gasp, but left me gasping for the next Scott Fenney book.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Candidate Spectrum, by Brian Cato

Spectrum, an alien superhero in the tradition of Superman, longs to make a difference in the world.  Sure, he can save lives and prevent destruction with his ability to fly and to manipulate molecular structures, but what about the bigger problems?  Inequality, hunger, sickness, economic woes, unrest, how can a superhero address these?  In Brian Cato's Candidate Spectrum, Spectrum, a.k.a. Grant Goslin, decides to step aside from his career as a superhero to enter political life, where he thinks he can have a greater impact.  He has no trouble being elected governor of Missouri, Congress finagles a way to allow him to run for president, and he joins the fray in the 2020 election.

This is a clever set-up for the story, and Cato has some fun with it.  Spectrum's reflections on public service and the life of the superhero are at times interesting and engaging.  As the story gets rolling, the story-telling style is very straightforward: this happened, then this happened, then this happened.  I kept thinking, OK, Cato is setting the scene for the meat of the plot.  Unfortunately, by the time in the book where you think it's bound to get more entertaining, Cato shifts to a lot of speechifying.  

Here's the feeling I have.  Rather than thinking, "I'm going to write a book about a superhero.  As part of the story, I'll have him run for president, and that will frame the adventures and conflicts of the novel," Cato thought, "I have some political ideas and ideals I'd like to write about.  I'll create a superhero story to communicate those ideas."  In other words, this is a political pamphlet with the barest story, rather than a superhero story in which the superhero runs for office.

So, take it for what you will, but if you are interested in a new superhero backstory, with adventures in crime fighting and heroic deeds, you'll be disappointed.  Spectrum is not terribly original, and really only serves as a mouthpiece for Cato's political ideas.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!