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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Book Report

Just wanted to check in with some thoughts on a couple of books that I finished recently. First off, The Game, by Ken Dryden.

If there's anything I can say I took away from this book, it's a tremendous respect for Dryden. Here's a guy who won a national championship while at Cornell, then, during his first few years as a pro with the Canadiens, worked double duty and went to law school at McGill simultaneously. Then he actually took a year off from his hockey career in order to do that apprenticeship thing that you have to do to pass the bar in Canada. On the ice in Montreal, all he did was win six Stanley Cups in eight seasons. That's something that'll never be approached again. And Dryden walked away at his peak, winning the Cup in his final year and never returning to the ice. As a nice postscript to the book, Dryden went on to become the Maple Leafs' GM and then recently left that job to become a member of Canadian Parliament.

The book reminded me in a way of Jim Bouton's baseball classic Ball Four, although it's not written in the same style (a season's diary) or with the same intent (to show the sport, warts and all). Rather, the book is written, chronologically at least, as a look into a week in the life of Dryden during the final year of his career, but the book is peppered liberally with flashbacks to Dryden's youth and a little bit of his Cornell days, as well as with very candid observations of his teammates. This, I think, is where the book shines. He dissects various players on the team, always respectfully, both in terms of their roles on the team and their personalities. Ultimately, it is this that provides such a magnificent window into the wide array of characters inside a hockey organization.

Finally, I was just impressed with Dryden's writing ability. Unlike many sports bios, Dryden wrote this himself, and he's an outstanding writer. I'm sure Dryden would bristle at such a description, but he truly is one of the few athletes who combine physical ability with an intelligent worldview and the capability of expressing it. In the 2003 edition of the book, which I read (the original was released in 1983), he concludes the new final chapter with a poem that is amazing, whether or not it was written by a professional athlete, politician, or a poet.

I'd recommend the book to any hockey fan, or anyone who wants a well-written insight into how athletes view the world - because Dryden not only represents his take on life as a pro athlete, but he also gives some insight into what his teammates think about life.

The other book I recently finished was Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs. It's really a collection of 18 individual essays on pop culture, and Klosterman, who I suppose is about 35, reaches into the most esoteric subjects of the last 25 years (as well as some very common ones). The essays on Saved By The Bell (naturally) and life with a Guns N' Roses cover band were my favorite of the group, but there's also some other good ones.

The first essay, like most of them, brings up a thought-provoking, although debatable point. Klosterman claims that, basically, we've all been so exposed to movie-style romance that we can never be satisfied with the real deal. He uses the example of John Cusack in Say Anything (a movie that I haven't seen). He claims that women all have this image of the real John Cusack as his character from that movie; when he steps off the set of High Fidelity, for instance, he acts in real life as his character from Say Anything. I gather that this character is a sweet, romantic guy who girls in the '80s were gushing over. The point was that this isn't reality - nobody is actually like that. I kind of agree with that - the other day, while I was sitting in traffic and there was a guy on the median strip selling roses, I thought about how in the movies, it would be a classic move to buy a dozen roses for the cute girl in the car ahead of you and give the vendor a slip of paper with your number on it and nothing else to hand to her with the roses, and girls watching the movie would probably complain to their friends that nobody does that for them. Meanwhile, if I had actually tried that, I'd never get a call and the roses would probably have been thrown out the window at the next light. Anyway, I'm getting off-topic a little, but you see what I mean when I say that some of the essays are thought-provoking.

However, my favorite part of the book is one of the interludes (between each chapter there is a short interlude - a mini-essay, if you will). This one is about "[t]he twenty-three questions [he] ask[s] everybody [he] meet[s] in order to decide if [he] can really love them" (note the appropriate Bluebook-style alterations there). Anyway, these are some questions that you could have some fun debating with friends (or maybe that's just me, but I think it would be interesting). For example:
Every person you have ever slept with is invited to a banquet where you are the guest of honor. No one will be in attendance except you, the collection of your former lovers, and the catering service. After the meal, you are asked to give a fifteen-minute speech to the assembly. What do you talk about?
I don't want to list a bunch of the questions here, but some are more creative (and bizarre) than that. By the way, when I read that, I was reminded of a quote by Tommy Lasorda: "I've stopped telling people about my problems. Eighty percent of people listening don't care, and the other 20 percent are glad I'm having problems."

Right, so anyway, back to the book. It's well-written and pretty entertaining. I'd say that if you consider yourself a connoisseur of the last quarter-century of pop culture, then by all means take a look at this book. If, on the other hand, you were 30 by 1980, most of the references will probably sail over your head.

There's one other book I'd like to give a quick shout-out to, and that's A Great And Glorious Game by A. Bartlett Giamatti, who hopefully will never become more well known for being Sideways star Paul Giamatti's father than for being the last great commissioner of baseball and one of its most outstanding writers. You might have noticed that I put a Giamatti quote at the top of this site; I think I'll leave that there until another quote strikes me as being appropriate as a header to this site. Giamatti was the youngest president of Yale in the school's history, but he gave that job up to become the president of the National League in 1986. In 1989, Giamatti became the commissioner, and in his unfortunately brief tenure (154 days, ended by a fatal heart attack at age 51), he etched his name in baseball history by (correctly, in my opinion) banning Pete Rose for life.

Giamatti's prose on the game of baseball is beautiful. A Great And Glorious Game is a collection of his writing on baseball. One of the best pieces from the book is actually an official 13-page denial of Phillies pitcher Kevin Gross's appeal of his 10-day suspension for scuffing a baseball. Despite the formal situation in which the ruling was written, Giamatti's writing is brilliant. That piece is actually the reason I want to pick up the book from my home back in Philly when I visit home this weekend. I think with nearly a year of law school under my belt, I'll have a new appreciation for Giamatti's vigorous defense of the integrity of the game. Yep, I need to reread that book.

I found one of his essays ("The Green Fields Of The Mind") online, and in it, I think Giamatti, reflecting on baseball at age 40, somehow captured a huge reason I love going to games, often alone, to take in the serenity of a stadium that might be filled to capacity:

"I was counting on the game's deep patterns, three strikes, three outs, three times three innings, and its deepest impulse, to go out and back, to leave and to return home, to set the order of the day and to organize the daylight."


  • At Sunday, April 24, 2005 12:01:00 PM, Anonymous Jerseygirl said…

    Your recap of the movie is really outstanding, Alex, but what we really want to read is how it felt to be at the historic first meeting of the Mets and Nationals at Shea. I hear Piazza was looking really good....


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