Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: Encounters that Changed the World, by Rodney Castleden

In Encounters that Changed the World, Rodney Castleden has constructed a highly informative summary of some of the most influential meetings of the past without also getting too "history-heavy". Arranged neither by significance, date or location, he allows for easy passage through a sizeable tome by categorizing each encounter by the type of meeting: the book begins with nine "Encounters with God" and concludes with "Great Creative Encounters of the 20th Century". Each encounter ranges between four and eight pages which allows for plenty of context and relevance yet is succinct enough to allow the reader to decide the importance of each encounter.

Another enjoyable aspect is the global perspective the author's attempted to capture. This book isn't America-, England or Christian-centric, but takes in a wide variety of people, places, religions and races and none is given any more weight than another. It stands to reason that fleeting encounters - say, Newton and Leibnitz - are given fewer words, as are those comings together about which history has recorded little, as in the case of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. I can understand how frustrating it may be to print undeniable, recorded fact at the expense of mountains of hearsay, but it is this restraint which makes this book so educational.

Though it runs to 500-plus pages, Encounters is a surprisingly easy read, broken up into bite-size chunks of the past and larger, meal-size portions which one is easily able to read in one sitting. It provides just enough detail to satisfy the curiosity without overloading one with weighty background. Recommended - tennis balls.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review: The Book of Basketball, by Bill Simmons

The Book of Basketball is Bill Simmons' magnum opus. His seven-hundred-plus page tome devoted to the sport which made his writing famous, his podcasts ESPN's most downloaded and his "in the moment" diaries of games and drafts attracting ridiculous attention. Simmons is perhaps the most influential sports-writer in the USA today. And his thing is basketball.

There's one overriding theme of The Book of Basketball, that of "The Secret". He recounts which players and teams got it and which didn't; it's apparent he believes the only way to win is to fully embrace it in all it's rawness. To this end he describes in the foreword meeting an angry Isiah Thomas, who Simmons roundly and correctly pilloried for his shambolic period in charge of the New York Knicks, and how the discussion turned from "What have you got against me?" to "The Secret" within minutes: both realised they had cottoned on to the idea independently (as one must). The epilogue is a recorded conversation with Bill Walton (who also makes the book's "All-Bearded Team"), an iconic figure who, it seems, always knew "The Secret".

How do you fill 700 pages with basketball? Easily, apparently. Simmons' columns are usually in the region of 5000-7000 words and have been known to top out above 10K. To give you an idea of how much text that is, so far Books with Balls boasts only 10114 words in its three-month existence: a lazy weekend for The Sports Guy. What makes his schtick so readable is that it feels so conversational, rather than strident - language like he's at the bar with his mates.

The BoB is much more than a lengthy homily to winning in the NBA. There are few better-informed observers of NBA culture and history than The Sports Guy and he takes the opportunity to walk us through the past sixty-five years of the League: key moments, the best players - his childhood, teen and adult memories intermingled with the thoughts of those involved. His bibliography, touchingly, isn't arranged alphabetically but in order of the usefulness and entertainment value of the book. Bill Simmons has long been anointed the voice of the educated sports fan in America. With the Book of Basketball, he confirms it.

This may be the most appropriate ranking in Books with Balls' short history: Basketballs.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Reviw: A Game of Our Own - Geoffrey Blainey

The promotional types at the Australian Football League will probably not appreciate the work of Geoffrey Blainey in producing this brief history of the game of Australian Football, but I have. Blainey is an esteemed historian, though one who has not avoided controversy throughout his career. This work is more likely an act of personal interest than a desire to educate his readership as others have been, but for the appreciator of Australian football it most definitely is a worthwhile read.

Though just a couple of years ago we celebrated the 150th anniversary of Australian football, in reality the modern game, even the game of the past 100 years, has borne little resemblance to the anarchical contests played out in the mid 19th century. The thriving colony of Victoria, with Australia's then largest city in terms of population, became entranced by the prospect of developing a game of football of its own. Football games were all at this stage in their infancy, neither Rugby (Union) nor Association Football (Soccer) were close to being codified, and the Gaelic game even more obscure. In prose not too cumbersome so as to bore the reader, Blainey paints you the picture of this game that grew out of a desire for sporting pursuits to occur during the Victorian winter very quickly into a cultural obsession.

The game fought fiercely within its ranks to codify rules. Largely accepted has been Tom Wills' letter which supposedly drove the formation of the rules committee in total, but in reality there were more factors at play and Blainey describes these with clarity. Wills did chair that committee, however based on the evidence collected by Blainey this plainly was very much only the beginning.

It wasn't until the breakaway Victorian Football League movement in 1897, and the subsequent innovation required in competition by the remaining Victorian Football Association, that the game started to fully forge its identity beyond the other codes. Such analysis of Blainey should, to some extent, shut many of today's critics up who argue incessantly the game shouldn't be changed so often (when constant innovation for the first half a century is exactly what it took for the game to truly come into being).

The read will challenge many with long held beliefs on the origination of the sport. Blainey presents that it does appear that Australian Football was primarily a game evolving over time from the Rugby and Association Footballing traditions primarily, rather than a simple whim of an individual one day – but this does not diminish what a revolutionary game Australian Football was, and Blainey has produced a work capturing that revolution perfectly. Ironically, Basketballs.

Cover image courtesy of

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Crashed and Byrned - Tommy Byrne & Mark Hughes

Golf, Tennis and Formula One motor racing tend to be eyed as being the richest of individual sports. The glamour that follows being at the top of these games is immense. What is always neglected is the picture of the rear of the fields – the group teeing off first, the match on outside court 42, and of course for motor racing the back of the grid. This is a story of that rear grid position.

Supposedly Tommy Byrne of Ireland was the greatest driver that the world never saw. A man blessed with natural talent yet not with the opportunities. Byrne isn't shy of telling his story, but true to his story other motor racing figures of note have indicated their appreciation of his talent. Ayrton Senna is accused of actively avoiding racing against him, and the F1 establishment of taking steps to prevent the Irish Catholic boy from the wrong side of the tracks achieving anything.

Having never heard of Tommy Byrne, nor knowing much of the racing categories below the premier class in F1 it was interesting to read cold what racing for him and at this level looked like. Even in this time when it can be argued F1 was in its heyday racing from the back of the grid was not all that attractive. Byrne got five F1 starts with a little known team, 'Theodore', but that was the extent of his career at the top.

Fans of Senna or of the McLaren team will probably not be all that thrilled at the criticism that Byrne levels at them. He was (and admits to still being) an abrupt personality who lost more friends in the sport than he made. Post his brief F1 career his life became simply a hedonistic pursuit and ultimately led him to the world of drug lords and crime – not that his early life was all that far from such matters.

The book is told in the first person, keeping the story flowing. It's like a man narrating an autobiographical film, or sitting in a drinking establishment regaling all who would listen to the story of his ‘could have been’ life. There is even no editing of punctuation and extensive use of colloquialism to further increase the feeling of his raw Irish roots.

Though admittedly Byrne can see some error in his ways, enhanced by the colloquial speech is a feeling that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. To refer to a sexual liaison with a prostitute as ‘giving her a seeing to’ indicates some element of masculine pride at the incident and a lack of repentance for infidelity (he was married at the time). Life is supposed to teach you things and change you – it isn’t particularly evident here. Maybe Byrne is proud of how his life finally may make him a fortune he desperately wanted, albeit from book sales rather than a motor racing career.

This is Angela’s Ashes meeting Days of Thunder meeting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Its nothing special, and needs reading with a grain of salt given some of the claims, but it will keep you entertained for the couple of hours reading it. Tennis Balls.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: Sword Song, by Bernard Cornwell

As always, in Sword Song, Bernard Cornwell tells a great story: there's panache, artistic licence intertwined with historical accuracy, likeable characters, a definite plot and pleasing conclusion. Indeed, his ending to the novel could well be the piece most definitively "Bernard Cornwell" in the book's 400-plus pages. As in all the works of his I have read, there is a battle at the end - the result of which could sway an over-arching war one way or another. It is thus with Sword Song

- the hero of the Saxon Chronicles, Uhtred, is decides on one particular course of action yet ends up in another, a fight.

But that's OK - who reads Bernard Cornwell for the romance? It's satisfying to see characters you like end a novel happy (or alive) and equally pleasing to see those agreeable ones treat women in a way the Dark Ages wouldn't have regarded as enlightened, but madness. You read Cornwell for his ability to shape major historical events into his fictions and to learn a little of the society of the day based around "guy stuff" - shagging, sickness and slaughter. In his Saxon chronicles - of which Sword Song is the fourth and perhaps most gratifying - he expands upon a world he brought to life in his prior works on the period.

As we posited in The Winter King, the Saxon Chronicles comprise many Cornwell staples: our hero's rank, back story, education, society position and profession. It ends with a suitably climactic battle - a climactic trade negotiation obviously a contradiction in terms - after a more straightforward plot even though the maturing Uhtred learns to curb his impetuousness. As much as the first three books in the series were jammed close together, time has passed by this volume and as such it's a relief to read a continuing dialogue which has the characters visibly maturing.

Sword Song also surrounds our hero with strong women who serve both as major plot points and as window-dressing: this volume bases itself around Alfred the Great (the only English king to bear that name) and his daughter, Aethelflaed. Indeed with Cornwell his view of history is obvious: he treats all characters with respect and gives them motives; yet his heroes positively gleam off the pages. He wants you to admire the people he appreciates. And though Uhtred is the hero and you can't help but like him, Cornwell's touch is evident in that his background characters, male and female, all leave you wanting to know more about them.

Much of what I learned early about history, I picked up from watching and reading the early historical stories of Doctor Who. By the time I was ten, I knew Marco Polo was a Venetian trader serving in the court of Kublai Khan, not just a silly pool game. I knew more about the Battle of Culloden than my history teachers. I have David Whitaker and Sidney Newman to thank for that. Now, as I continue my education about times past, it is led by interest generated by the works of Bernard Cornwell.

In summation, Sword Song is one of the best of his Saxon Chronicles, scoring footballs.

ed: Sword Song is book four of the Saxon Chronicles, a continuing cycle starting with The Last Kingdom and continuing with The Pale Horseman and Lords of the North.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Review: Frith on Cricket - David Frith

Within a few pages of reading this compilation, my feeling was that I would struggle to put this book down – in fact, I may have been happy reading this forever. Lovers of cricket would find it hard to not be swept away by the passion and eloquence for the game that David Frith has, and has had for over half a century.

Frith is one of the greats of cricket writing, so highly regarded that even Sir Donald Bradman was led to highlight his passion and dedication to his craft. Having written for a number of publications throughout his career, this book centralises his career to the benefit of the reader. It is a journey of cricket; not just over the 50 years of Frith's writing career, but owing to the great passion and love Frith has for cricket you are taken back to test cricket's earliest days.

Not all of the writings are explorations of the past, though of course even his comment pieces are now read with the benefit of hindsight. But true to his expertise it is hard to fault the logic of the writing compiled at the time without this benefit. As Frith writes you are taken into past when events happened, and you go as close to being able to watch the matches yourself as if you were there. In addition Frith for the compilation has added an explanatory note on each piece that helps paint the picture further.

So involved with his subject and immersed in its culture Frith was able to compile what was one of my favourite pieces where he conducted a mock interview with the youthfully deceased golden age master batsman, Victor Trumper. I have very little doubt that the message of astonishment at the modern game he conveys from Trumper would be true of the man.

Frith has a fierce protectionist attitude owing to his love of the game's history and desire for its betterment. He was, and still remains, never one to temper his opinion on matters cricket and the writing is better for it, though he does admit to at least one lost relationship because of this strength of opinion. Interestingly his first piece included in the book is a school essay on his meeting with the former England bowler Alec Bedser at age 13. The style and character of Frith's writing we observe has not changed significantly in the ensuing years since his youth.

One personality trait that always fails to endear itself to me is that of name dropping. The difficulty is with Frith that when he name drops, and he does regularly, I am torn between the distaste for the habit and severe envy for the company he has kept since even his earliest years. Imagine as a youth having to make the choice whether you purchase your cricket equipment from either former Australian wicketkeeper Bert Oldfield's or former Australian batsman Alan Kippax's sporting goods stores.

Perhaps cricket is the only sport where great figures of its history include not just those playing or coaching but those working in the media. The famous cricketing names of Cardus, Johnston, Arlott, and McGilvray are not recalled expressly for on-field feats. I envisage Frith being added to them in the future. Basketballs.

Cover Photo thanks to