Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review: Soul Cravings – Erwin Raphael McManus


This work is an apologetic that assumes acceptance of the idea that the totality of faith is greater than the sum of its parts. Therefore what characterise it as being different from usual apologetics is that it does not seek to be reductionist with faith. Reductionist techniques seek to provide a response to questions and objections of the secular world; faith to McManus is the greatest longing of the human soul, spirit, emotion, mentality, and this is where he begins and grows his exposition of faith.

The book is written in four movements of journal entries under headings of 'Cravings', 'Destiny', 'Meaning' and finally 'Seek'. The book is not difficult to read, and flows easily in conversational style.

It took this reader two thirds of the work to begin to gain much from it. This bothered to a great extent and despite good willed intentions of the writer it looked as though this book was going to be ranked lower rather than higher. But as it was further read, the work began to open up my mind and soul and to recognise that when reading an emotive exploration one must accept that it cannot speak to every person all the time.

Through reading over the book you may need to reapply known learnings and already held understandings but eventually you will find a gem that grows you further. It was only in the fourth movement, its title 'Seek' in hindsight speaks exactly to this, the purpose of book became clear. The book is to encourage journeying in faith, if you have not yet begun it tells you to get started, if you have been a believer for a lifetime it tells you to keep searching and not be satiated with where your understanding is.

There is one major weakness. For the purposes of this work the level use of scripture quotations is appropriate, however I believe McManus does let himself down in trying to meet his objectives by quoting far too many philosophical statements. Statements requiring the reader to be either highly educated in niche topics such as classic literature, philosophy and history or be alienated by the work. When you are trying to appeal to the inner being of everyone, such alienation could be fatal to their continued reading.

Tangible apologetics of someone like Lee Strobel, where objectivity is prided and designed to respond to known objections are provided, remain required; however such a work does sit neatly beside reminding you that even though you may know everything, by definition God is God and always going to greater than human understanding. But you can still have faith, according to McManus, without answer to every question because your inner being wants it so much. Tennis Balls.

Cover Image thanks to bookdepository.co.uk

Friday, December 23, 2011

Review: What a Ride – An Australian Pursuit of the Tour De France – Rupert Guinness

I think the difficulty for Rupert Guinness (an incredibly talented wordsmith on this most gruelling of sports) is that in the past 25 years that he has covered Le Tour, thanks largely to his own impeccable efforts, Australian sporting fans have become all too familiar with it. No longer is this a totally foreign event raced by very few outside of continental Europe, it has become an Australian obsession each July. No longer are highlights packages wedged into unholy hours on television, but front and centre every night as Mum, Dad and the kids sit down for tea.

Courtesy: fishpond.com.au
This book by Guinness are his perspectives, memories and hindsight reflections from a year in year out love affair he has had with the event since the mid-1980s. Guinness over this time has elevated himself not just in the eyes of the Australian cycling fan fraternity but in the eyes of the tour as a whole.

The book is actually more a memoir of Guinness' time as a cycling journalist, centred around the one race every year that everyone really cares about. The sophistication of his writing methods, connection to those in and around the peloton, and his courage in tackling stories front-on grow with each passing years description of what he got up to during July.

Because of our increasing familiarity with the tour, and its marathon rather than sprint character, we have all been granted time and space to become couch bound experts on just what each rider is doing, planning to do, or should have done. The stories in the book therefore are all too familiar and repetitive, and shed no further insight on what occurred in the race.

There are a couple of redeeming features that make the work worthwhile for the more passionate cycling fan to have a copy of it on their bookshelf. Firstly, Guinness does not just focus on the Australian riders who have become our staple diet. O'Grady, McEwan, Evans, Stephens and Anderson all receive pages of description on their heroics, but lesser known guys happy to have just been in the event in the first place such as Scott Sunderland, Allan Peiper, and Matt White are extolled also and provide the reader with a more rounded education of how Australia has grown to be a major force in providing talent to the tour.

Secondly, that the Australian sports journalism landscape is dominated by craftsperson's who have cut their teeth writing on football (be it any code) the tendency for them to miss the point of cycling stories or just describe them poorly is common. Guinness comes from this background also (Rugby Union) however his immersion in the sport of cycling has him better placed to write comment on difficult issues such as doping, and his rhetoric is enjoyable and far more enlightened than others. Marbles.

Note: The book finishes at the conclusion of 2010s tour, therefore does not include description of Cadel Evans' General Classification win in 2011.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review: Finding Faith: A Search for What is Real – Brian McLaren

Carved away from the extended work “Finding Faith” which includes “A Search For What Makes Sense” this is Brian McLaren's work for the person like me – easily at home with discussing the theoretical, the abstract, the measurable, but who struggles to take faith to heart, to feel faith, to live faith naturally not cerebrally.

McLaren is a post-modernist thinker on evangelistic Christianity. Such labels mean little, simply my opinion from reading only these words of him is that he is a man who possesses one of the greatest desires I have experienced to deepen his complete knowledge (heart and head) of the human condition. While he has a strongly rooted biblical theology the tone and direction he takes his discussion of why his heart tells him his Christian faith is not exclusive, but inclusive.

Cover Image thanks to bookdepository.co.uk
In a world where more and more we are driven to categorise everything so to control and manage it is far easier to talk about the 'what' than the 'why'. Here lies what I believe the aim of McLaren's work is to this world. What is stated may still be correct to ones mind, but without ones heart the message will have no effect.

McLaren's technique's and application (or facilitation may be a better word) of Christian principles will grate with those who have had little experience (or desire) to move beyond binary approaches to faith, but this is their loss and not McLaren's fault. Though he may be accused of being, he is not a theological lightweight nor a populist. The discussion is rooted in scripture and does not shirk difficulties.

This work drew me out of the cerebral and excited my heart. I could read it 10 times over and remain challenged however its purpose is not to draw consensus, but to push further exploration. My first taste of McLaren's offerings and I will return again – Basketballs.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Admin: Welcome to the new-look BwB

Welcome to Books with Balls' new look!  We decided after nearly a year that our former theme and presentation was due for an overhaul.  If you like our new look, let us know by commenting below!

Book review: Basketball Junkie, by Chris Herren and Bill Reynolds

Over the past twenty years the NBA has a remarkable success rate at weeding out drug addicts. In the mid-eighties, the league instituted a three-strikes policy aimed at ridding the league of the American popular image of '70s pro basketball: that of overpaid and over-coked players who cared more about fighting than defense. Several of the league's top talents fell victim to nose candy in the 1980s: David "Skywalker" Thompson and Walter "The Greyhound" Davis managed to sustain effective NBA careers. However, guys like Chris Washburn, Richard Dumas and Roy Tarpley - I could name a dozen more off the top of my head - couldn't, and found themselves banished to eternal European ball.

Of all of these players, the one common denominator was talent. Each of them, from Thompson, who could have been the best player in the game, to Washburn, who was drafted third in 1986, was supremely gifted and capable of multiple All-Star games. Many were unable to control their habit, let alone sufficiently enough to function at NBA levels.

The same could be said of Chris Herren, one of the best ballers ever to come out of New England. His memoir "Basketball Junkie" portrays the life of an athlete blessed with talent, but cursed with addiction.

http://www.basketballjunkie.net/where-to-buy/
Herren was born to be a basketball star, and followed his brother as one of the greatest players in the history of Durfee High School, a storied Massachusetts basketball programme. At sixteen, he was so good - and messed up by "maturing" in small, working class Fall River - he was the subject of the best-seller "Fall River Dreams". The book, by journalist Bill Reynolds (with whom Herren collaborated in writing Basketball Junkie), reported the licence afforded teen athletes in a town where basketball is king.

Chris Herren managed to play two NBA seasons around the the time of the last NBA lockout. I use the verb "managed" because he did played while fighting, and eventually succumbing to, addiction to alcohol and opiates (including oxycontin and heroin). That he had the talent to play basketball was for a time perhaps his one saving grace, even though it was no longer a game for him: it was expectation, pressure and success. At his leve, playing basketball - in Denver, Boston, Italy, Turkey, China or Iran - meant he had the money to buy the drugs he needed to function.

There are two striking features of Herren's memoir: how easy it is to slip from "partying" to addiction; and secondly, simply, how functionally dependent he (and by extension, other addicts) became on opiates. What started as "Hey, I'd like to party with you" turned into mailing packages of Oxycontin to hotels he would be staying at on road trips so he could sustain his NBA form - and pay cheque. Herren wasn't addicted to getting high, but his body so craved the gear that he was completely unable to function without it. Graphic descriptions of withdrawal symptoms and his fear of both those symptoms and his future make for compelling and memorable reading.

His yearlong spell as a Celtic is effectively a haze, as it was for him at the time. He writes about how he could obtain drugs in almost any setting, from deepest, darkest China and Iran to flying into Providence airport, finding a dealer and then flying out again. The lengths he went to in order to score - like driving around Fall River with a needle in his arm and his baby daughter in the back seat.

He writes frankly about substance abuse beginning in his teen years to final, gut-wrenching, sobriety in 2008. This should-be joyous occasion, isn't so much celebrated as Championship victory but, in typical Herren matter-of-fact fashion, describes the rehab facility and every fearsome slip he made throughout.  You can sense some of the hallmarks of rehab in his words: ownership, reality and an almost total lack of astonishment at his past.

 The rehab process is depicted with the same grit and fear characterising the rest of the narrative. There is only one epiphany, the choice he describes as leading him to the choice he says all recovering addicts have to make in order to survive.  There's no trophy at the end of this longest season, only normalcy most take for granted.

This isn't a basketball book. Because Chris Herren scored more in back streets than in the NBA, it's an addict's memoir where the author is also good at basketball. There's little doubt in the reader's mind he would have been in a similar, but less fiscal, situation had basketball not taken him out of Fall River. The young Herren didn't dream of the Lakers, but Durfee High School and State championships.

To lose one's independence is a frightening thought; in fact, it may be the very concept people fear most. To become utterly dependent on a chemical is even more of a scary concept. Basketball Junkie tells how Chris Herren became totally dependent and later details the factors which allowed him to regain his life

Basketball Junkie is dirty, honest and frightening. Basketballs.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: Excalibur, by Bernard Cornwell

Just when you start leaning away from a storyline, you find yourself captured within it again. In Excalibur, Bernard Cornwell follows perhaps his most dreary - Enemy of God - with his most exciting work. I loved this book.

The master of historical adventure once again throws his reader straight into a complex system of political intrigue and glorious - but frightening - battles. There really isn't much more that I can say about Cromwell's style and evident skill, having written some four previous reviews of his books.

Nor can I compare again the similarity between heroes, the intricate characterisations, the utmost respect he afford women - especially "thinkers" - or that the impeccable research that allows him to describe past events so clearly and vividly. At this stage, it's best to focus solely on story.

Excalibur is one giant, 440-page climax. It's Return of the Jedi, but not crap. In fact, I enjoyed this book as much or more than any of the author's works since his superb Grail Quest series (which in fact rate amongst the best books I've ever read). To quickly end a tawdry analogy, where Enemy of God, much like Empire, was slower-paced and acted as scene-setter, this Excalibur starts quickly, accelerates further and ends with a final confrontation set within a greater skirmish.

Better still, none of the heroes inexplicably turn into chumps.

All the individual story lines are deftly woven together to form a Bayeux tapestry not of Hastings, but of Dumnonian politics in the sixth century. The novel of course ends with the Battle of Camlann, leading Arthur to sail into the fog accompanied by characters who would otherwise have made for frustrating loose ends, Guinevere and Galahad.

While refusing to wholeheartedly embrace magic - and therefore delve into the fantasy that Arthurian fiction usually occupies - Cornwell still utilises mystical characters Merlin and Nimue at key junctures, often accompanying each appearance with some sort of explanation for their spells. There's a symmetry in Nimue assembling an Army of the Damned and further circular resolution brought to Derfel's faith (and paternity), Mordred's Kingly "reign" and the romance of Guinevere and Arthur, thought so fractured at the preceding book's conclusion.

Even though so much occurs, there are still moments of peace and pace; the signs of a master craftsman. To draw even further on a Star Wars thread, what made the first movie so great was it's pacing: fast, but narrative and smooth. Empire had much the same feel at a slower, expository amble. Fiction, no matter what the genre, works best when it's paced well.

In retrospect it's this uneven pacing that made Enemy of God (even though it scored okaaay) a heavy read. The conclusion paced so as for maximal enjoyment and narrative pleasure. Conclusions always fall into two groups - those that satisfy, and those that don't. This one, without question, is a most wonderful closure. Basketballs.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review: Hemingway's Chair – Michael Palin


Michael Palin is more famous for his Monty Python exploits and latterly his adventurous travel documentaries that have drawn many in as he explored relatively ignored tourist destinations. But he does have another string to an incredibly large bow, he has a genuine knack for story telling.

Hemingway's Chair was written and published in the early to mid 1990s when Britain (and in fact much of the western world) began to make tough decisions to sell off to private interests government enterprise. Although in the end much of the change was inevitable, the decisions did leave scars as many perceived that what used to be the pillars of British society were being knocked down.

No 'pillar' destruction potentially tugged more at the heart strings of communities than the sale of the local post office, and around this is where, in the fictional East Anglian town of Theston, Palin takes up his story. An assistant Post Office Manager in Martin Sproule finds his dreams of making the full step up to Manager of Theston's post office are taken away by the privateers. Martin however does not go down without a fight, his strength drawn from his encyclopaedic knowledge of the works of and man himself in Ernest Hemingway.

The book is an engaging as well as light hearted story that is in no way predictable. The characters are mad to begin with, and just keep getting madder. Martin idolises his 'Papa' (Hemingway) and as his life unravels further he is drawn into living a life parallel to the tragic authors. The ending comes suddenly, and with no wrapping up of perceived loose ends that takes strength as a reader to accept as reasonable.

Palin is a devotee himself of Hemingway's work. One of his travel series took him to the corners of the earth that the author inhabited during his life. The knowledge that he has of the man through research and having read his work no doubt comes through the story subtly, however lives well below the perception of someone like myself who has no familiarity with Hemingway.

Despite my own limitations it is an entertaining read, and if you are knowledgeable on Hemingway it may be even more so. Tennis Balls.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Review: Enemy of God, by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell is nothing if not formulaic.  His historical novels are set around major turning points in English military history, his heroes enlightened and their heroines broken free of the servitude inherent in Dark Age womanhood.  Like that masterpiece of 1980s computer gaming Double Dragon, the hero must face a powerful enemy at the end of each novel, signalling his progression into a knowledgeable and wise being, rather than a smart, love-lorn warrior.

In Enemy of God, Lord Derfel Cadarn beats a familiar path in moving from impetuousity to a respected, sage Warlord, aided by the love of a good woman - perhaps Cornwell best drawn heroine, stands by his lord, Arthur, and drives the plot forward in simple, easily digestible morsels.

Courtesy: Tower.com
Does this sound familiar?  It bloody well should, because I said exactly the same things about his latest Saxon Story, The Burning Land a six months ago.  And could have said much the same of the past four in that series.  The Warlord Chronicles aren't derivative as they predate the Saxon Stories by a number of years, but they certainly bear a close resemblance to one another.  Given some historian's perception that Arthur in fact took his name from King Alfred the Great, this is hardly surprising - but does make for a predictability which is actually now unwelcome.

That's not to say that the book is poorly written at all - it's his usual masterpiece of research, hijinks and intrigue.  Religion, as was it's wont at that time and still is now, plays a tremendously significant role in politics of the era, leading to the Arthur's titular role.  Arthur is portrayed as sympathetically as any of Cornwell's heroes and indeed heroines but with only one difference: despite all indications to the contrary throughout the text, like main protagonist Derfel, are simple one-layered men.  This explains why Derfel's tone throughout writing this first-person account is so loving - they are kindred.

In fact, the same one-layeredness could be said of almost all the men in the novel: from Saxon kings Aelle and Cerdic, to Lancelot, Galahad, Cuneglas, Mordred, Culwhch ... all have personality woven through their descriptions, but are at best single-tiered characters with a minimum of complexity.  What they do, they do well - as was the truth of those times.  As with The Burning Land, the most thickly layered characters are women; especially Guinevere, but also Nimue and Ceinwyn.  

Cornwell once stated that the Warlord Chronicles were his favourite completed works.  They are easy reads and tell a great story with a new vigour and outlook: one of the only accounts of Arthur which doesn't bury itself deep in fantasy.  For that, the author should be respected - but his ability to surprise now must be called into question.  Currently, I'm buried half-way through the final book in the series, Excalibur.  There are few surprises - just consistently excellent writing.

Tennis Balls.

Click here to see the review of Part One of the Warlord Chronicles: The Winter King
Click here to see the review of Part Three of the Warlord Chronicles: Excalibur

Monday, October 31, 2011

Review: Honour Among Thieves – Jeffrey Archer


Authors of the Archer style are the perfect fit for a long weekend where the weather is poor and you are desperate to forget those things you forgot to do, (but recalled unfortunately later that evening), before you left work for the extended break. A page turning plot, but not too complex that your mind seeking absolute relaxation will be called into further action than to try and pronounce an authors attempt at a foreign name.

Honour Among Thieves turned out to fit that bill perfectly as I lifted it from the shelf for a read. In fact it outdid expectations. The story revolves around simultaneously occurring plot lines where one country's secret agents plot to do harm to their enemies, or find out what harm is planned for another. Archer wrote this book in the early 1990's at the conclusion of the first Gulf War giving the chief protagonists as being the USA (with Bill Clinton as President), Israel (Yitzhak Rabin as Prime Minister) and Iraq (Saddam Hussein as President).
Cover Image thanks to bookdepository.co.uk

The Iraqis seek the USA's humiliation, the Israelis for blood (Saddam's) and the United States information on what the other two nations are up to. The Iraqis have hatched a plan to steal the USA's Declaration of Independence while at the same time the Israelis plan to assassinate Saddam Hussein. Although predictably these plot lines converge for an expected ending, the book leaves the reader turning to the very end before finding out just how it works.

Archer among others has had instances in free flowing thrillers such as this as leaving the reader hanging until the end, but then wrapping up the story with an impossible turn of events that somehow must be accepted as the end of the story. Honour Among Thieves has not fallen into this trap. The ending is of course improbable (but then so are all the events of this and most novels) but it is worthwhile given the investment of time the reader has put in.

Because there are so many different characters Archer has not tried to give background on each of them too extensively. In such a story he has found the balance right between giving enough information for each, but not overburdening the reader with descriptions of any character in a book where all are equal contributors to the story.

Archer, as is his regular will, does have a passionate love affair written in between the American agent Scott Bradley, and the Israeli agent Hannah Kopec (who just happens to be a former resident of Parisian catwalks). Archer can get carried away with his descriptions of love affairs in his works that border on being perverse rather than helpful to the read, but in this book he gets the balance right. You know there is passion, but you don't need a fifth of the book to know it either.

One of his best and perfect for an entertaining read without excessive mental exertion. Tennis Balls.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review: Future King by Larry Pontius

Did you ever see the movie Air Force One?  The one where Harrison Ford plays the US President whose plane is kidnapped by terrorists. Being an average movie, he - in the words of IMDb - works from hiding to defeat them.

Courtesy: Amazon.com
In his book Future King, former Disney executive Larry Pontius essentially channels this 1997 movie in his sequel to T.H. White's The Once and Future King.  The generically power-mad politician orders the kidnap of King Charles and his Queen Consort Camilla, only for the impish scamp Prince Harry, Merlyn and King Arthur to come to his rescue.

Let's break this down, slowly.  And I'll put it in bold text just to emphasize the stones Pontius has displayed in doing so - he turns Prince Charles into an action hero - complete with witty catchphrases!  Charles brandishes a 9mm assault rifle, gives "a tramp" the finger and also engages in repeated saucy banter with Camilla.


It goes without saying that this isn't, strictly speaking, a sequel.  It uses some of the same characters, but the tone and style is so markedly different that there really isn't a comparison which pays appropriate justice to both this work and its inspiration. 

It's essentially an engaging action thriller in which characterization of the royal family is a complete work of fiction.  In fairness however, such Royal personality (if any exists) must be inserted either through surgical or imaginative means.  Pontius is obviously bound - to set the novel any further forward in time means for difficulty painting a believable future landscape.  However, it would also allow for completely fictional protagonists rather than inserting real people who may be delivering ill-fitting lines.

The pages will keep turning.  You're never sure what to expect on the next page, aside from the occasional familiar set piece.  Future King is an amusing read. Tennis Balls.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: Barassi by Peter Lalor

When my grandfather died in 1991, I was eleven and before we left his house in Warrnambool for the last time, my sister and I were invited to take with us anything small we'd like. Being a sports nut, I went straight to the bookshelf and prised away the Courage Book of Brownlow Medallists (the up-to-date 1975 version), Run Digger by Bill Lawry, Crackers by Peter Keenan and two near-ubiquitous football books: Boots and all! and Captain Blood by Lou Richards and Jack Dyer, respectively.

I also found a scrapbook from 1964 made by my then 14-year old mother for her father, exclusively detailing Ron Barassi's move from Melbourne to Carlton. Coming from an age of relatively free player movement (remember the mid-season draft? Trevor Spencer!! Bret Bailey!! Andrew MacNish!!) I was astonished that so much newsprint could be devoted to one man moving clubs.

Mum explained that it was "a pretty big deal" back then, but I couldn't comprehend how important Barassi was - not just to the Melbourne Football Club - but to Australian Rules Football. With the passing of longtime friend Ted Whitten, Ron Barassi is Australian football's elder statesman and greatest advocate.

Peter Lalor's book Barassi follows the footballing fortunes of a man whose influence is so great one needs reminding that he spent the first fifteen years of his public life overshadowed. He began a football career defined by his father - a former player killed at Tobruk - and then became coach "Norm Smith's boy" due to a close relationship with the club coach.

He had to break free of public opinion and did so by agreeing to coach Carlton. He reiterates that the move was the best thing he ever did because it gave him his own identity. It is an identity with which every Victorian (Australian?) can associate.

The book doesn't provide much information about Barassi's personal life simply because outside football, he had had little personal time. It briefly details the breakup of his first marriage and elements of his current relationship, but his life is one lived almost entirely in footy. This makes the book, in essence, a year-by-year catalogue of Barassi's life which while at times informative also leaves the reader slightly flat. There are periods of detail mixed with passages of summary - which while sounding like the ideal mix, leaves the reader with questions.

courtesy: qbd.com.au
Like his mentor Smith, he was demanding of himself and his players but was tactically more astute than the Red Fox. He had strong ideals about how the game should be played and how players should carry themselves. Ron Barassi - according to former player "Crackers" Keenan - is the most honest man he's met. He learned about the importance of integrity from family (and extended family), tactics at the knee of the Smith brothers and of marketability from club presidents like George Harris and Allen Aylett. Those traits defined him - and his clubs.

It was to Barassi that the AFL turned when the Sydney Swans were so shambolic in the early nineties - only a coach, a personality even, of his magnitude could turn around what had become a major embarrassment to the league.

Lalor reveals that, on taking over a floundering Sydney franchise, Barassi lined the club's back-room staff up against one wall of the bowls club used as the club's HQ, then asking each member of the playing group to name the support staff. None of the Swans could - a sign of lingering disrespect for those around them . As the Swans matured, they made a run to the 1996 Grand Final.

Ron Barassi has a strong claim to being the most recognizable Victorian of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Since then, only Shane Warne and Nicole Kidman could challenge him. Barassi tells most of his tale. Footballs.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Review: Sacred Hoops – Phil Jackson


Phil Jackson is one of the greatest and the most respected coaches in the modern era. Jackson is famous for being the man who moulded the Chicago Bulls from being almost solely reliant upon Michael Jordan, into a NBA championship force as a team (with a lot of help from Jordan as well). Following from this he was able to control the egos of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal as he coached the Los Angeles Lakers to championships as well.

Cover Image Courtesy of bookdepository.co.uk
Jackson is also described as being not your a-typical personality of professional sports and someone a little 'left of centre'. Although this may be true one must recognise the following: 1) That in the egotistical world of professional sport it is hardly difficult to be considered different; and 2) having read this book I wonder how much of the perception of Jackson is objective and not down to his own self prophecy.

Sacred Hoops purports to be a description of the spiritual journey that Phil Jackson has gone on during his life and career in basketball and also the spiritual journey he sought to lead the unstoppable Chicago Bulls on as they won six championships in the 1990's. At best it is a philosophical reflection as rarely could it be said that Jackson describes his research or reflection as looking beyond his self for the divine.

In reality as I read through the book it felt more like a cobbled together series of quotes from Christianity, Buddhism, and Native American tribal culture that speak to the events in Jacksons career with the benefit of hindsight. This probably is not a 100% true statement, Jackson no doubt is widely read and has been for a great proportion of his life, but it appears too cute in places during this read that these single quotations from religious texts can speak wholly to the scenarios described by Jackson without reference to the greater contexts of the religious texts themselves. One could even go as far to say that it is disrespectful to practitioners of each of these religions that Jackson seemingly cherry picks bits and pieces that suit him and his story.

For those of us who grew up through the 1990's and loved Basketball and the Chicago Bulls for a period will get some satisfaction from reading back through the history of these great seasons where basketball glory rained heavily on the Windy City. Jackson does provide an honest insiders view of what he believed made the Chicago Bulls tick during this period and what helped them to be one of the most successful teams in history.

But it is not a great read. Particularly so if you reflect back (with greater hindsight) that if Jackson truly led this team (and its individuals) on a spiritual journey to betterment should they have obtained some more permanent value? Why is it then that most have seemed to continues living as ego-maniacs post their playing days?  Marbles.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review: Man in the Middle, by John Amaechi

John Amaechi's NBA career comprised a series of "What if" moments. What if he hadn't been spotted in the street by a basketball talent scout? What if he went to a different college? What if he hadn't turned down $17 million guaranteed from the Lakers to stay in Orlando for one thirtieth the salary?

In his memoir "Man in the Middle", he adds one more: what if he had stepped out of the closet during his basketball career?

When England wicketkeeper Steven Davies came out this year, his actions were seen as heroic and a positive step in the battle to fight bigotry in the testosterone-fuelled major leagues.

When Amaechi published his autobiography in 2007, it was met with disdain from Tim Hardaway and comments from stars like Charles Barkley and LeBron James which were equal parts helpful and harmful. The truth is that no matter how much it may have helped others, John Amaechi would have been seriously disadvantaged - or unable even to play in the League - by admitting his sexuality. Telling a teammate would almost certainly result in pariah status and significantly lessen his chances of making a difference in the world.

courtesy: barnesandnoble.com
Where some deny themselves snacks, business opportunities or even a normal social life to play in the NBA, Amaechi denied himself so much more.

A nerdy kid encouraged to take up basketball in his late teens, Amaechi worked hard to go from Manchester to the NBA via high school in Ohio and a couple of colleges (Vanderbilt and Penn State). First discovering his true sexual orientation at Penn State, he kept it a secret for nearly a decade before coming out to a counsellor from his alma mater while struggling to live with crippling loneliness playing in Greece.

His book isn't a tale of victories, stats or achievements. He was good player in certain situations, but not a star; his book is a tale of a man who enjoyed basketball, but found it a means to an end. He seems more settled and comfortable now, excised from a me-first environment and running his business, Animus Consulting.

There's a certain amount of egotism - but surely Amaechi has more to be proud of than the average basketball star. His most telling statistical indicator is not a matter of average, but of luck - he scored the first basket of the year 2000. While at college, he was active in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program and basically adopted a bunch of kids coming from unfortunate backgrounds. He did likewise in Orlando - leading, along with a bunch of enjoyable teammates, to his infamous rejection of the Lakers' millions.

Basketball autobiographies are often a glimpse into the psyche of the athlete, no matter how flat-batted they attempt to be. For example, Larry Bird's Drive is without question the most boring autobiography I've ever read - but this indicates much of the man. He is boringly obsessed with basketball. Bird the player was admirable - Bird the man, not so much. Drive, like Bird on anything other than hoops, never says anything worth reading. Amaechi is the polar opposite - basketball provides a background to which he nods occasionally, but his life seems so much broader.

You never get away from Amaechi's sensitive - and frequently pretentious - nature. But to deny either would bear false witness of the man. Any pretentiousness isn't overpowering - just his manner. But certainly, you can see how he wasn't universally liked (especially by Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan) simply because he refused to adhere to the overwhelming jock mentality of regular basketball stars. Where others pay lip service to the importance of basketball, Amaechi does not.

Man in the Middle is an easy read. It's rewarding, as well. Like many sports stars, his perspective has become his reality - events large for him sometimes not seen as such by others - but his perspective is panoramic, rather than focused intently on basketball. In fact, Man in the Middle is one of the first books in a long while that I've made time to read. Footballs.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Review: How The Mighty Fall – Jim Collins


I am a big fan of the work that Jim Collins and his colleagues have done over an extended period up until now. This more recent work, 'How the Mighty Fall' (HTMF), is an extension of what was delivered in their previous work 'Good to Great' (GTG), which itself was an extension of the even earlier work 'Built to Last' (BTL). In reviewing HTMF I am torn between awarding it the extreme rating at either end of the Books with Balls scale, therefore with brazen cheek I am going to award it both 'Basketballs' and 'No Balls' at the same time. I will begin with the negative take on the book.

Cover image thanks to bookdepository.co.uk
No Balls – As I mentioned earlier HTMF is a further extension on previous research published by Collins. Collins is a self titled 'student of companies' seeking to truly understand what makes them tick. BTL began by asking the question for the reader 'why is it that some companies have been around for such extended periods?' Post this GTG extended the analysis by asking 'what is the difference between a good company (that still may be a household name), and a truly great one?' Now lately the question of HTMF was 'why is it that the seemingly infallible company can actually fail?'

This was a piece of research begun prior to 2008 global economic struggles, yet by the time it was published (in 2008) actually spoke with seeming clarity on the state of the world economy at the time. My criticism of HTMF is simple, having read both BTL and GTG previously I am unsure of what is actually different in the conclusions drawn between books.

Collins could no doubt point to extensive extra research that identifies clearly that the conclusions drawn in HTMF are very much their own. However Collins' works great marketable strength is also its great weakness. What Collins is able to effectively do is communicate clearly the conclusions of extensive and detailed academic research to an audience not taken to reading long journal articles, or pouring over endless statistical analysis. Though Collins never can be accused of 'dumbing down' his work, eventually while reading HTMF I felt as though I had read it all before and the conclusions were not only obvious but very familiar.

Based upon this I cast my mind back to the previous two works, stacked them up against HTMF and asked the question, which of them is the most useful? For mine it clearly is GTG for two reasons. Firstly it, like BTL, has a positive disposition that HTMF does not. GTG is a presentation of evidence backed 'should do' behaviours that lead to positive results. In terms of leading a reader on a journey to betterment telling them what they should do is in my opinion more effective than only telling them what they should not do.

Secondly, I believe it has far greater application than just Collins area of research companies. The research presented in all books has wider application yet the method of presentation in GTG makes it easier to apply to other organisations, and critically for individuals. Its promotion of what Collins calls 'Level 5' leadership is an excellent read for application in more facets of life than just business.

To conclude in this section if you had to select just one of Collins works to read, go with GTG.

Basketballs – That all being said, if circumstance arose whereupon you were thrust with the opportunity to read HTMF without that which to read GTG, you will not be disappointed. HTMF presents in clear prose and example what the research believe to be the five cascading stages in decline for a company. At each stage the contention made is fully explored along multiple lines and backed up with choice data from the academic research. You will read through this book and be amazed by its depth yet simplicity of outcomes.

Although the basis for each of the books questions is the performance of companies, the answers are never a reflection on company behaviour or corporate decision making. As with all their work, Collins and his team allow their research to guide, and as always it is more a comment on human behaviour. What should shock you is just how obvious the conclusions are, in hindsight.

There is great benefit to be obtained through reading HTMF and entering into self-reflection based on Collins' principles. While they may not fully suit every situation in our minds at the very least they should encourage thought, discussion and hopefully growth both corporately and personally. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Review: In Defence of Food – Michael Pollan


The key for whether this book was going to be rated a success or failure lay in the authors willingness post all of the criticism of his readerships diet to provide genuine responsive actions that one can take. In this Pollan can be said to be a resounding success.

Cover image thanks to bookdepository.co.uk
Pollan's contention is that the West became throughout the the 20th century so focussed on the individual nutrients and other bits and pieces that made up food that it lost sight of the reality that food is more than the sum of all its parts. In the West's quest to understand every little part of every food not only have we (I am a Westerner myself) lost the vast majority of the physiological benefits of food, but also the cultural, sociological and spiritual benefits that for thousands of years humans have derived.

The author, Michael Pollan, is a vehement critic of the western diet. An American, he believes that it has solely been the influence of economics, and the selfish quest for more, that has led to the West now facing a problem of over-nourishment (obesity) than the malnourishment that has more often been humankind's problem for centuries.

For those of us not from the USA we need to read the criticism with a grain of salt. The problems still do exist in our societies, however they will be to differing degrees. The greatest learning I gained from the book was a view of just how far culturally we neglect some of the greatest purposes of eating. Meals and food for thousands of years have been cultural centrepieces through which we interacted with each each other. In a time when mental health is deteriorating it may be worthwhile for us to consider the changes made to the human condition from its natural state rather than seek an answer in medicine.

The responses Pollan gives to the problem of poor diet are well thought through, and very practical. They are difficult to read for us as society who have previously placed so much faith in what we thought was correct, but they are not without basis. Pollan does not shy away from the fact that change is hard, and there are sacrifices to be made, and this is commendable as even the thought that a set of recommendations might make our lives more difficult can dramatically affect book sales (the more preferred option often is 'Lose Weight in just 5 minutes a day!').

Give this book a read and ask yourself the hard questions about diet and society. Not only may you improve your health physically, but your life will probably be fuller also. Basketballs.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Review: Chocolate Thunder, by Darryl Dawkins and Charley Rosen

Darryl Dawkins is nothing if not an entertainer.  The names he gave his dunks were awesome, his proclamations about coming from the planet Lovetron were - and still are - amazing, and he was an effective NBA center for a decade before succumbing to injury.  He broke two plexiglass backboards during his days in the League and another one when playing for Torino of the Italian League - dude was a beast.

His book, penned alongside experienced basketball ghost-writer and free spirit Charley Rosen, is therefore a very entertaining read.  In fact, it's one of the books I've most enjoyed going back to pick up in recent times.  It's lightweight, honest, good for a chuckle and well worth a read.

At the same stage, it's also hardly a work which will truly describe the NBA's Dark Times to younger generations with the appropriate reality.  While it ploughs head-on into drug use - especially the casual stuff of Dawkins and the sadness of teammate Micheal Ray Richardson's addiction - it also presents most authority figures as broken men trying to compensate for a lack of control. 

In fact in places, it appears as if Dawkins - always the most likeable of souls - is simply unencumbered with an accurate version of reality.  The rate at which he bitches about referees and - without the same malice - most of his NBA coaches enlightens the reader as to why he wasn't the All-World player his talent said he should have been.  While refs did perhaps victimise DD (kiiiiind of), he was a notoriously bad defender and bought up-fakes like they were Internet futures in 1996.


courtesy: sportclassicbooks.com
We've been writing at Books with Balls for a while.  Chocolate Thunder is also the first book I've ever read where I've bookmarked certain pages for either being so deluded they're worth mentioning in and of themselves.  Examples?  How about when he suggests Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry is so bad "he must have a photo of an NBA GM f***ing a goat or something"(pg 135).  Or when he says he "practically won Game 5 [of the 1980 NBA Finals] on my own".  In reality, Kareem led the Lakers to a huge win after really badly spraining an ankle and Magic Johnson jumped center in the decisive Game 6.  Maybe that's what he meant by "practically".


Some inaccuracies, like "Fast" Eddie Johnson being dead, or Micheal Ray Richardson embarrassing white Point guards like Mark Price (whose NBA career only barely overlapped "Sugar's") can be put down to poor editing.  Others can only be thought of as fallacies brought about by a combination of ego and a grasp on reality which perhaps occasionally slips, unhelped by the cocaine he freely admits to taking during his playing days.

Despite the obvious ego, there's a real sense that Darryl Dawkins loves life, no matter how hard it has occasionally gotten for him.  In fact, he comes off as a really admirable guy, which in itself is testament to his likeability.  For his words to burst off the page as they do, the reader is left not only with a sense of DD's conviction, but also of his irrepressible joy.  Naming dunks, sleeping with maybe 1000 women and enjoying coaching as much as he does are all signs of la joie de vivre.  And Chocolate Thunder's got that in spades.

Darryl Dawkins is a fascinating man and in some ways it's a pity he's chosen to deliver such a lightweight memoir.  In other ways, however, apart from his physical size, Dawkins is a man driven by levity.  That in itself makes this book about a "coodabeen" well worth the 220-page read.  Recommended, but only if your knowledge of basketball history doesn't object to occasional inaccuracies.  Tennis balls.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Review: The Once and Future King by T.H. White

You know what?  It's hard to review this work for what it really is.  What it is - four books written over two decades - is overshadowed by its status as the "ultimate" Arthurian novel, the definitive fantasy novel instrumental to the characterisations in everything from Excalibur to Doctor Who and Harry Potter (but everything has influenced both Who and Potter).

Each book of the quadrilogy is markedly different both in tone and style to its brethren.  The first sees King Arthur as a boy, the second as a young leader and introduces the Orkney clan, the third almost entirely deals with Lancelot and the final with the war which eventually rent Camelot in two.

courtesy: indiebound.org
As White moves from the optimism of youth into the darkness of a young leader, it's obvious that this chapter of the narrative was penned during the early years of World War II.  As he ages - to all accounts, becoming quite a bitter older man - he retains the uncanny ability to dispense chunks of wisdom in bite size pieces; this allows the reader discomfiting glances at the state of the world during that war and it's chilly successor.  On the other hand, however, the tale of friends Lancelot, Arthur and Guinevere in wrapped in a sadness not felt in almost any Arthurian sequences.

As is now the norm - but TOAFK begets - only the man whose ambition destroys all that Arthur - who in the end loses faith in justice - had judicially achieved, is portrayed as evil and motivated by hate.  His brothers - a few of them co-conspirators - are unlikeable or selfish, but none so evil as Mordred.

White's obvious gift was in taking an idea and running with it - The Sword in the Stone could praecied as two hundred pages of one boy's experiences as a pike, hawk, goose and frog.  That Merlyn, a proto-Who/Dumbledore, lives backwards in time only serves to highlight an almost futile existence.

It's certainly languid, expansive and a little self-indulgent, but enjoyable nonetheless.  It'll take you a fair amount to get through, but this isn't a typical light-hearted swords-n-sorcery epic.  This is big, sad and will always be theArthurian novel against which all are judged.  Footballs - but I preferred The Winter King.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Review: Shoeless Joe – W.P. Kinsella


I have great difficulty in reviewing this book objectively. The movie version of this book, 1989s 'Field of Dreams', formed such a spine to my imagination as I read through 'Shoeless Joe' I admit I will never be able to provide objective review of the book. Therefore I have not sought to be objective, but to weigh off the merits of one of my favourite movies of all time against the book which inspired it.

Blessedly, the book is different enough so as to make differentiation and create points of discussion. Primarily, Where in the film we go on a journey with Ray Kinsella, finding purpose along the way for other characters but not knowing what is the ultimate purpose for Ray is until the very end; in the novel we are presented up front clearly what Ray wants in the end but its the journey teaching him about why he wants it. A change in emphasis making the book deeper and more worthwhile I feel.

Upon instruction from a mysterious voice, Ray builds a baseball field among his corn crop in rural Iowa. Building the field elicits visitations from disgraced yet oft forgiven ex-baseballer 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson, followed by many other former players who look for a chance to play the game they love more than any other. Strangely although the book is named after him, the character of Shoeless Joe has very little part in the story.

The characters of the book are very different to Field of Dreams that may prove challenging for lovers of the movie. Ray Kinsella in the movie is a soul somewhat lost in life, having rejected the great passion that he and his father had for baseball. In the book he remains an obsessive fan of the game and litters his narration with facts from its history. The movie used baseball as a vessel to try and bring a moral story, the book is more deeply entrenched in the history of America's summer pastime describing how it touches each of the characters lives.

Reclusive author J.D. Salinger (based on the genuine reclusive author of the same name) is harder and less emotive than the movies equivalent reclusive author character Terence Mann. The dialogue between him and Ray reads as more terse, giving a feeling that although they need each other to continue to journey together they often pull against each other. Archibald 'Moonlight' Graham is an objective and a driven character, lacking the genteel nature that the movie brought him as.

Ray's wife Annie has little influence on the story. Lovers of the movie will no doubt remember the unquestioning devotion she has for her husband Ray. The relationship for the movie is a highlight, but although Ray states in the book just how much she supports and means to him we do not observe this. Without the movie it may not have ever come to my attention as a flaw, however it has and it to mine is a great shame.

The movie allowed the viewer the freedom to not have much interest in baseball and keep pace with the story. The book does call upon the reader to at least be familiar with its terminology and gameplay. That you are well aware from the start the story is of the journey towards ones dreams rather than the dreams being an end in themselves keeps you reading on and on. The difficulty is how would Kinsella close out this story – he does not, giving it the perfect ending.

My review here is not at all objective, and I make no apologies for this. For mine having watched the movie and now read the book I believe both could be improved by unique elements of each. For a book that I rate Footballs this means it falls short, but still worth reading.

Cover image thanks to bookdepository.co.uk

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review: Killing Rommel, by Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield has built an impressive folio of historical fiction works: The Legend of Bagger Vance achieved him notoriety in the movie world, while his novel The Gates of Fire has become almost required reading for the US Marine Corps.  To paraphrase former Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks  - "Selling out storyline for a pot of historical reality" is not what Pressfield's about.

His novel Killing Rommel is, much like the war in the desert, gritty, realistic and slightly overglorified.

Of all the Generals of World War Two, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was probably the most respected by both sides.  He was close to the Fuhrer, displayed bravery and leadership beyond that of many other generals and a respect for the rules of war that others in his position failed to emulate.  He was also, alongside Patton, the most awe-inspiring General, manning a staff car alongside the advance ranks of his men rather than being secreted far behind.

He was also a Nazi.

Given Pressfield's willingness to sacrifice some plot aspects for storyline, he pitches the Long Range Desert Group - a group of British and New Zealanders in trucks - in a series of long-range missions aimed at demotivating their German and Italian opponents by assassinating their inspiring leader.  Who, in this universe, isn't a Nazi and displays a code of honour that even Judge Judy couldn't match.

courtesy: tower.com
Occasional historical dalliances aside, the greatest failing of the book is in the mechanism of the narrative.  It is pitched in the time-honoured style of  "a manuscript discovered"; in this case an American who's adapted a memoir bequeathed to to him by a mentor who was an English member of the LRDG.  Pressfield's talent is for describing real-life battles and their consequences, not for understanding "Britishness", resulting in overuse of phrases and hackneyed British stereotypes.

However, he more than almost any other historical fiction author, fully allows the reader to grasp the combination of the vital importance of the North African campaign, the gravity of dying comrades and the incredible comradeship found amongst men on the battlefield.  Pressfield attempts to take his readers of a journey of what it meant to be part of a force comprised of individuals but larger than the the sum of those people.  It is unfortunate that he doesn't completely succeed.

While not an exciting, compelling read, Killing Rommel is enjoyable and can be ploughed through quickly.  It also has it's share of poignant moments strewn amongst intimate descriptions of battle.  Tennis balls.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Review: The Appeal – John Grisham


I have long been a fan of the work of John Grisham who has carved out the market of legal thrillers to be his own over the last 20 years, but in this instance he has fallen well short of his own standards. The Appeal lacks much when compared to Grisham's earlier works.

It appears that Grisham's desire to write more widely, including dramatic works such as 'Bleachers' or youth novels in his Theodore Boone series has weakened his ability to write on his original genre. This book lacks the grittiness of 'A Time to Kill', 'The Chamber', 'The Firm' or the 'King of Torts'. Though set up to have the reader ask questions about the decisions of major corporations and there effect on humanity, the story goes nowhere near hitting the mark as it skips along with surface concerns without truly opening up the true issues and character roles.

The plot is so thin has the ability to resolve itself within 200 pages yet Grisham feels the need to over-explain everything about the legal system that the story operates within which becomes tiresome as the book is pushed out to 500 pages for little return. By the time the end comes it is concluded briefly with no thought to wrapping up the questions readers have that it has gone nowhere near answering during the story. This leaves the reader feeling as though the time spent reading through the book have been a waste.

Another fault of the book is its inane desire to provide the political position of the author and explain to great detail that is just annoying. Whether you sympathise with the political position presented or not, the time spent on explaining these peripheral issues to the actual story adds to the confusion and frustration the reader feels that the book goes nowhere. Any frustration and confusion is only heightened by the 'Author's note' at its conclusion where he highlights these political issues as the core of the story.

Confusing, frustrating, and ultimately a fruitless read, this book from Grisham isn't worth investing time and money into. No Balls.

image courtesy of jgrisham.com

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Review: Blood, Sweat and Treason – Henry Olonga, My Story


If you were looking to pick up a book that is not the 'bog' standard ghosted autobiography of a sports person, then this is the read for you. That former Zimbabwean cricketer Henry Olonga has been allowed to tell his story in his own words was incredibly refreshing for this addict of cricketing literature. Most sports persons biographical works use clichéd wording and structure to try and breath life into their uninteresting lives. This story has not been manipulated to make good reading; recognition that Olonga's story itself is good reading. 
 
Although maybe more widely known as a cricketer who took a political stand against a tyrannical regime, Olonga speaks of himself throughout the book always as just a man. Cricket is a part of a life where it intertwines with music, art, faith, family and politics. Predominately told in chronological order, events move seamlessly between these topics as life was lived for him.

Take Olonga's Christian faith for an example. Often an individuals faith will either be minimally mentioned in an introduction or 'covered off' in a specific chapter under advisement from publishing house editors worried about sales. But here we find Olonga regularly referring back to his faith and prayer life, it ebbing and flowing as his life ebbs and flows. 
 
He is a deep thinking and sensitive soul, keen to explore in retrospect the events of his life and make apology where he believes he wronged others. His stand along with Andy Flower during the 2003 Cricket World Cup is not told in a heroic manner. Presented with an opportunity to stand up against Robert Mugabe and the wrongs perpetrated, Olonga made the decision that he could not stand passively by any more while his country suffered. 
 
Olonga does not dwell on describing the terrible atrocities committed in Zimbabwe in recent history. Selected examples of events affecting his life up until the point he went into exile serve the purpose enough of educating the reader on his motives. Despite the terrible events, and the struggle that life in Zimbabwe is for most of her citizens there is no bitterness in Olonga and a substantial amount of love for his country still. In an amazing passage of the book Olonga describes his shock at the poverty in Bangladesh. This is not the shock of an upper middle class westerner on their first visit overseas, but of a man well versed in what injustices exist in the world.

Olonga's life needed and received much blessing post his 2003 stand, but it has not been easy nor necessarily freeing for him. Nevertheless he chose to tell his story that reaches far beyond the 'faux' battle that is the professional sports field. Basketballs.