Friday, December 01, 2006

BooksFirst - November 2006

Books Read

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis
Spy: The Funny Years by Graydon Carter, Kurt Andersen, and George Kalogerakis

Books Bought

Spy: The Funny Years by Graydon Carter, Kurt Andersen, and George Kalogerakis
Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen


Michael Lewis is a journalistic genius. His first book, Liar’s Poker, is the undisputed classic of the 80s genre of Big Business Exposé. Proving that he is no one trick pony, he has written authoritative books on baseball and the internet among other topics. He brings a clarity and perspective on any topic that is technical, comprehensive, and enlightening.

This book is a little misleadingly sub-titled "Evolution Of A Game", suggesting a broad history of football, which it isn’t. It does give some overview on the metamorphosis of the left tackle into a highly paid skill position. From my perspective it also sheds light on how and why so many awful quarterbacks from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went on to success at other teams.

Instead, it is a case study of how Michael Oher (not his birthname, but the name he goes by), the large but quiet son of a ghetto crackhead, gets adopted by a wealthy football crazy family and gets Henry Higgens-ed into a star college football player. Not until the very end of the book does Lewis acknowledge that the subjects of the book are personal friends of his, and whether he admits it or not, that knowledge colors the slant of the story.

The tale is told as an O. Henry-ish happy ending about a poor kid that gets a big break. It could just as easily be a cautionary warning about the horrors and hypocrisy of the college football/NFL farm team industrial machine. Oher, whose elementary education was non-existent, gets tutored and dragged educationally through a segregation academy in suburban Memphis because he is big enough to win football games all by himself. Every (admittedly hypocritical and counter-productive) NCAA eligibility rule is abused and loop-holed well beyond recognition. As Lewis admits, nobody is out there searching public housing projects and taking in the future accountants of the world.

While some find this an uplifting tale of overcoming adversity, I found it a depressing acknowledgement of how much human potential is being ignored and abandoned in the slums of our very own country as well as the prevalence of the win at any cost rabidness that infects sports at every level.

The much lamented Spy magazine inspired me to entitle my blogroll "Blogrolling In Our Time". Their publicist friendly movie reviewer, Walter Monheit®, was also the subject of one of my very early blog posts. It turns out that Walter was a real person and a minor socialite in his own right. That is one of the many amusing anecdotes in this large and sprawling history of America’s snarkiest magazine ever.

I discovered Spy about two years into its brief life. After a few newsstand issues, I was hooked into a subscription. After reading it, I would bring each issue to work and donate it to the company library. All the running gags and celebrity exposés became office in-jokes. Then I changed jobs and at about the same time Spy vanished. I found it again years later a mere shadow of itself. The format was the same, but all the wit had been sucked out of it. It read like a high-brow Maxim without the cheesecake spreads (Much like Esquire in it’s heyday was Playboy for guys that really read the articles).

Spy: The Funny Years is borderline coffee-table sized and heavy enough to be dangerous to read in bed. The large pages allow for long full reprints of some of Spy’s epic stories. I had forgotten how dense and journalistic all that side-splittingly droll irony was. The hagiography of Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen is comprehensive, but ultimately lacks a narrative arc. That clubhouse “kids left loose with a mimeograph machine” attitude is described but never evoked. The frequent editorial footnotes leads one to wonder who actually wrote the book since the semantic flair of the magazine is sorely missing.

Carter and Andersen and a lot of the original staff have long been co-opted or assimilated into other magazines in such a way that the Spy DNA is apparent in nearly anything from the newsstand that I bother reading. They taught the world that snark sells, but it has been watered down and made publicist safe. That hell-bent-for-leather damn-the-torpedoes sense of they-didn’t-just-say-that lives on in only the most cynical websites like Gawker where advertisers and celebrities don’t yet call the shots.

In a way, Spy was doomed from the start. The candles that burn the brightest burn the shortest. I will always miss Spy.


Anonymous said...

In contrast, I love the iSpy children books where you have to find the hidden objects. I'm really good at it.

Anonymous said...

Tell me how you like Nature Girl, I'm thinking of buying it. Of course I have a lot of other books I still have to read first so take your time.