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Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times

Mark Leibovich. Penguin Press, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-0-399-18542-7

In this skewering and witty cultural study, Leibovich (This Town) takes an insider look at the National Football League. Leibovich hangs out with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady at his New York City skyscraper residence; schmoozes with team owners at the league’s annual meeting in Boca Raton, Fla.; attempts to interview a very distracted NFL commissioner Rodger Goodell on the sidelines of Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.; and tailgates with shirtless fans at Green Bay’s frozen Lambeau Field. A lifetime Patriots fan, the author weaves his personal experiences chasing Brady for interviews into a charged narrative that calls out the NFL for its willful obliviousness to the physical and mental toll pro football takes on its players, as well as the league’s chest-thumping defense of its logo, “the Shield.” He also refers to the NFL as “the country’s most polarizing sports brand” and explores the impact President Trump is having on the league by taking players to task for kneeling during the national anthem. Leibovich questions throughout whether the NFL is doomed, not only due to the sport’s violence but also because the people who run it seem place the league over the players. Enhancing his casual reporting with cynical commentary, Leibovich provides entertaining reading. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Only Girl: My Life and Times on the Masthead of Rolling Stone

Robin Green. Little, Brown, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-0-316-44002-8

In this ribald memoir, Green describes her rise from aimless college graduate to rock journalist and writer/producer for The Sopranos and Blue Bloods. Green grew up in Providence, R.I., and attended Brown University in the late 1960s, where she became the only woman on the editorial staff of the Brown Daily Herald. In 1971 she got an interview with Alan Rinzler, an editor at Rolling Stone, and soon had her first assignment from Jann Wenner to write a feature on Marvel Comics, which became the cover story. While Green never goes deeply into how it felt to be the first woman on the masthead or her own personal and professional struggles at the magazine, she does write of her worries that others viewed her as “sleeping her way” onto the masthead (especially as she was in a relationship with an editor). Green wonderfully tells of her various assignments, including a failed interview with a stoned and evasive Dennis Hopper (so “cruel, so high”) and how she escaped his compound and later wrote an eviscerating article; riding in a car with Annie Leibovitz, with Hunter S. Thompson at the wheel loaded on Wild Turkey and pills; and sleeping with RFK Jr. in his dorm room at Harvard but refusing to write about him. Green stopped writing for Rolling Stone three years after she got the job because of disagreements with Wenner. Green’s book is an entertaining look at the early era of Rolling Stone and rock journalism. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Sky Is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism

Peter Biskind. New Press, $25.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-62097-429-2

Biskind (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) breathlessly excavates the last two decades of popular culture, hunting for clues about the rise of political extremism in America. According to the author, since 2000, “extremist shows” (Biskind’s blanket term for both movies and television) have exploded in popularity, moving from the left- and right-wing fringes to the mainstream with their unabashed “Us vs. Them” themes. Biskind chronicles the exploits of revenge heroes and individualists such as 24’s Jack Bauer, Batman, and Deadpool, who take justice into their own hands when institutions either fail or become corrupt. He then illustrates how movies such as The Blind Side (in which Sandra Bullock “plays a wealthy, obnoxious white evangelical”) and the Left Behind book series have paralleled the infiltration of the government by religious fundamentalists, as, he argues, is evidenced by Vice President Pence’s outspoken beliefs. He also threads in recurring commentary on James Cameron’s Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time, and writes that it “dramatically underlined the breakdown of postwar consensus.”. It’s an ambitious book, one that at times feels too caught up in explaining how shows qualify as “extreme” at the expense of making more robust analogies to today’s political climate. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Bitwise: A Life in Code

David Auerbach. Pantheon, $27.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-101-87129-4

With wit and technical insight, former Microsoft and Google engineer Auerbach explains how his knowledge of coding helped form him as a person, at the same time showing how coding has influenced aspects of culture such as personality tests and child-rearing. Auerbach is a natural teacher, translating complex computing concepts into understandable layman’s terms. The anecdotes from the engineering front lines are some of the most entertaining sections, especially when he recounts the rivalry between MSN Messenger Service (which he worked on) and AOL Instant Messenger, and considers Google’s evolution (“Everything was bigger at Google than it had been at Microsoft”). Connections to specific literary and philosophical works stretch a reader’s patience, and lengthy asides into coding parallels in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and early text-based video games will entertain gamers but require too much explanation for the uninitiated. That said, his observations on child-raising are written with such charm that they’ll resonate with readers (he would play “Flight of the Valkyries” when his daughter tried walking because “her struggle and determination reminded me of the triumph I felt on getting a particularly thorny piece of code to work correctly”). The coding details aside, this book is an enjoyable look inside the point where computers and human life join. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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More Than a Game: A History of the African-American Experience in Sport

David K. Wiggins. Rowman & Littlefield, $36 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4422-4896-0

Wiggins, a veteran sports writer and professor at George Mason University, looks at the history of black athletes seeking equal participation in American sports in this enlightening history. Wiggins begins with the “cruel institution of slavery,” in which slaves competed in such work tasks as “log rollings, hog killings, and quilting bees”; from there he quickly moves to black sportsmen during the Jim Crow era, highlighting the athletes who broke the color line, such as boxer Jack Johnson, football player and activist-singer Paul Robeson, runner Jesse Owens, Olympic runner Wilma Rudolph, tennis player Althea Gibson, and the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson. Wiggins is at his strongest when discussing outspoken athletes during the civil rights era, including basketball’s Bill Russell, baseball’s Curt Flood, and boxer Muhammad Ali. He doubles down on his coverage of the achievements of black athletes during recent times, including tennis star Serena Williams, basketball player LeBron James, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who speaks out against police brutality. While he’s optimistic about the future representation of black athletes in sports at all levels, he points out that “one major hurdle that needs to be overcome is the overall participation rates of African American women.” This is an enlightening, strongly presented look at African-Americans in sports. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story of Surviving the Music Industry

Dorothy Carvello. Chicago Review, $26.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-912-77791-7

In this hard-hitting, profanity-laced tell-all recounting 19 years at some of the biggest recording companies, Carvello takes readers inside the pre-digital music industry of the 1960s through the ’80s. At age 24, Carvello became secretary to Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, and describes his tirades that fostered a company culture of “toxic masculinity.” Though Carvello rose to become Atlantic’s first female A&R executive, she never broke through the glass ceiling (“In a man’s world I had to work twice as hard for half as much”), and the book reads as a means of settling scores. When Carvello was a teenager, a teacher told her that “Men are going to try to break you”; here she reveals the truth in that statement as she describes the music industry as “a circus mixed with an orgy” run by men who thought nothing of steeling royalty payments and engaging in payola with radio stations. Tales of parties (Skid Row, on tour in Ft. Lauderdale, are described as “animals, running and jumping over everything”) occasionally lighten the litany of dark stories in which Carvello helps male colleagues succeed in their careers only to receive no credit and, soon after, be fired. Carvello is piercingly honest in this discouraging look inside the music industry. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Briefing: Politics, the Press, and the President

Sean Spicer. Regnery, $28.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-62-157814-7

Nearly a year after leaving his post as President Trump’s press secretary, Spicer is back with a flimsy memoir in which he eschews meaningful reflection for bitter recriminations against the media. A blue-collar kid from Rhode Island, Spicer recalls how he scuffled his way into a senior position at the Republican National Committee and attained his “dream job” in the White House following Trump’s upset win. But the administration got off to a rough start, and Spicer famously lashed out at the press on day one over the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. Spicer’s combative briefings would go on to make him a national punch line on Saturday Night Live. Spicer spends the bulk of the book litigating examples of the media’s alleged malfeasance, pinning his own (and the administration’s) troubles on the press’s “relentless negativity.” He’s quick with a clumsy metaphor (White House communications work “is like being Nik Wallenda walking a tightrope while bricks are being thrown at you”), but light on self-reflection (“I had found my footing... but I still faced a media that reported rumor as fact”). And his recollections of the president range from tame to obsequious: he calls Trump “a rock star” and “a unicorn riding a unicorn over a rainbow.” Like his tenure in the White House, Spicer’s memoir is short, fact-challenged, and forgettable. (July)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride: The Thrills, Chills, Screams and Occasional Blackouts of an Extraordinary Presidency

Major Garrett. All Points, $28.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-18591-4

Mistakes, malignancies, and some real achievements emerge from the chaos in this rollicking, perceptive history of President Trump’s first year in office. Garrett (The Enduring Revolution) observes the Trump administration from his perch as CBS News’s White House correspondent, devoting chapters to the warp-speed staff turnovers, uproars over immigration policy and NFL anthem kneelers, and diplomatic U-turns that changed Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un from trash-talking enemies into buddies. Drawing on his own encounters with the president, Garrett paints a sharp portrait of Trump’s domineering personality. He also explores the president’s hidden, fitful processes of governance as they spectacularly fail, as in the collapse of health-care initiatives in Congress, and sometimes work, as in the smooth passage of the “transformative” tax cut bill. Although he allows that covering Trump left him “physically exhausted and mentally traumatized” after the firing of FBI director James Comey, Garrett’s assessment of Trump manages the difficult task of being both hard-hitting and even-handed, as well as smartly entertaining. (Trump’s deregulatory program, he writes, “has not so much drained the swamp as stocked it with pro-business piranha.”) The result is one of the best accounts yet of Trump’s impact. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Deep State: How an Army of Bureaucrats Protected Barack Obama and Is Working to Destroy Donald Trump

Jason Chaffetz. Broadside, $28.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-06-285156-7

The “deep state” is less a sinister conspiracy than a risk-deflecting bureaucratic juggernaut, according to this wonky jeremiad against the executive branch. Chaffetz, a Fox News commentator and former Congressman who was chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, paints federal agencies as a “vast, self-perpetuating bureaucracy” that will “weaponize everything in their power to destroy President Trump,” but devotes just two chapters to that ostensible struggle, with sketchy rehashes of anti-Trump intelligence leaks, anti-Trump emails by two FBI employees, and foot-dragging on Trump’s immigration agenda by ICE higher-ups and sanctuary cities. Most of the book recounts bureaucratic obstruction of Chaffetz’s committee work during the Obama administration, including investigations into sexual harassment at the EPA; the ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious, which facilitated arms sales to Mexican cartels; and Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. He paints this as a war of attrition, with bureaucrats stymieing his inquiries by ignoring subpoenas, lying under oath, withholding documents, retaliating against whistle-blowers, and sending a State Department lawyer to shadow him during a fact-finding trip on the Benghazi consulate attack. Chaffetz’s “deep state” dudgeon is overheated—his subject’s main crimes seem to be incompetence and dodging blame, not subversion—but his critique of executive branch corruption and secrecy is cogent and timely. Agent: Dave Larabell, CAA. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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How to Cuss in Western: And Other Missives from the High Desert

Michael P. Branch. Roost, $14.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-161180-461-4

This essay collection from Branch (Rants from the Hill) depicts his home, the high desert of Nevada’s Great Basin, as a setting for austere natural beauty as well as a place which lends itself to colorful, eccentric lifestyles. Some of these pieces (most of which were originally published online in High Country News) are broadly humorous, like the title essay on western “cussing,” which carefully parses the distinction between chickenshit and horseshit. Some tell stories about the problems of home ownership in the desert, such as the times he “lost” his septic tank or was unexpectedly appointed “road captain”—the person responsible for maintaining the tiny road connecting his neighborhood to the main road. But Branch is at his best when reflecting on the existence of life in a seemingly barren place. In “Lone Tree,” he writes of the importance of a single juniper tree on his property; in “Shark Mountain,” Branch and his daughter journey to the top of a nearby mountain to leave behind sea shells and shark teeth, in a kind of imaginative reconnection with the desert’s prehistoric past as ocean floor. As it was for Branch’s literary heroes, Henry David Thoreau and Edward Abbey, the wild emerges here as a place of unlimited possibility. By turns hilarious and thought-provoking, Branch’s collection will not disappoint. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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