Friday, April 21, 2006

Can A Book Be Pop Culture?

Note: if you’re hear for the previous entry, roll past this one … and then come back to read it.

For this entry, yes it can be. Every few months I try to post a few book reviews of things that I’ve read since my last book reviews. This edition’s is a bit more eclectic than the last one as there really is no common thread between the three books. Maybe there is, I guess you could say that history is the common thread, but that sort of ruins my point, so forget I ever said that.

The first book on this tour was one that I picked up while in San Antonio. You might think that it would be a book about the Old West or injuns. Well, you’d be wrong. It’s called, “Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling” by Ross King. Across from the hotel I was staying at was a really cool exhibit on the Vatican. It had a bunch of the old treasures, Popeware and other relics. This book was in the gift shop.

I have to say, I was a little hesitant about reading it because I bought it on a whim as a memento of the exhibition, but overall it was a more than decent book. It was about exactly what the title suggests, Michelangelo and Pope Julius II. To put it simply, Julius was a dick, as was Michelangelo. This wasn’t very surprising as both of them were at the tops in their fields and got there by doing things their way.

Michelangelo didn’t really feel like doing the Sistine Chapel, he’d rather have sculpted Julius’ tomb—which he thought would cement his legacy and Julius was constantly telling him what to paint … and more importantly, how to paint it. It would’ve been a pretty quick book if that’s what the entire thing was about, good thing that King decided to have equal parts Michelangelo and equal parts Julius.

Julius was a bad motherfucker and during his day, Popes weren’t the docile peace-keepers that they are now. They were corrupt, many of them had a ton of children and would bribe and extort, and were almost warrior kings. Julius was no exception, there were a couple of instances during the painting of the ceiling where Julius led the Holy Roman army against the French and kicked their asses. Of course, he needed the help of the Swiss (which screwed him over a couple of times), the English and the Spanish.

For some reasons, Julius kept the Swiss around and later had Michelangelo design their uniforms. Look at these freaking things:

I guess Julius got his revenge.

BTW, when the ceiling was unveiled it was a huge hit … everyone thought it was awesome. And here’s another thing, Michelangelo did not paint the entire thing by himself, he had a bunch of apprentices that helped him, he was paid very well for the time (he paid his helpers shit) and they did not paint on their backs. Anyone who tells you that is retarded.

This next book was something along the lines of reading about the time you lost your virginity: it was awkward, scary, really messy and you’d rather not see any evidence of it again. The book is called “The Bad Guys Won” and was written by Jeff Pearlman.

As you may remember, Pearlman is the Sports Illustrated writer who made John Rocker a household name back in the late 90s. It was him who wrote the story about Rocker and the wacky things he said about gays, New York City, etc. Pearlman isn’t a one-trick pony though and is actually a pretty good writer, though in this book he went way overboard in the overwriting department and forced a lot of “cute” similes. It would’ve been a much stronger book if he cut down on them and just wrote it straight.

As you can tell by the book cover, this book is about the New York Mets … in particular the 1986 New York Mets. You might remember them, they were a team that beat some other team from the northeast in a silly little tournament called the World Series. I can’t remember the whole course of events, but if you go here you will:

RBI Madness

The above is sort of one of those things that you watch after you’ve seen “Faith Rewarded” and the entire 11-disc 2004 Red Sox MLB playoffs.

Despite the obvious “pinnacle” of the book, it was a decent read. As much as I hate that the Mets broke my Sox cherry, it was going to be done by one team sooner or later, I have to admit that they seem like a pretty fun group. Pearlman does an excellent job of getting a bunch of the stories from that year and pulling no punches. There is one story about shortstop Rafael Santana that is really hilarious, I’m not going to spoil it, but you’ll never look at the guy the same way again.

Another thing that I liked about it is that Pearlman didn’t just interview the stars like Gooden, Strawberry, Hernandez and Carter. He talked to just about everyone including guys like backup catcher Ed Hearn, reliever Doug Sisk and supersub Kevin Mitchell. Another great part of the book is the way that it traces the end of the supposed dynasty and the mistakes that the Mets brass made.

Whether you like the Mets or not, and I certainly am not a big fan of them, this is a terrific book, made especially more interesting for me as it was the year that I really started to follow baseball and collect baseball cards. That’s the one thing that constantly ran through my head as I was reading this book, an off-color story would be told about someone, I’d recall their 1986 Topps baseball card and think, “I wonder if Lenny Dykstra knew that he would lose $20,000 on a poker game when this picture was being taken?”

Basically, I’ve always viewed my baseball card collection as a representation of my innocence. When I was younger, I thought that these guys were gods (maybe not Marc Sullivan), but it turns out that they were just regular, flawed human beings, just like everyone else. Does that discolor my view of that time? No. That’s just the way I was back then and I’m sure my son will be the same way when he gets into cards. To add a point, it’s not like after reading this book my eyes were suddenly open as to the debauchery that occurs in major league clubhouses, I knew that … this only reminded me of when I didn’t.

Did you know that there was a huge influenza pandemic in 1918? I had no idea until I read “The Great Influenza” by John Barry. No, it’s not Jon Barry the journeyman basketball player, it’s another dude.

This was a well-researched book, let me say that straight up. Apparently it took Barry seven years to write this thing and it completely shows. He obviously took his time and scoured every corner of this country for any mention of this pandemic in any newspaper, journal or magazine. It must’ve have been easy.

That’s not to say that I loved it. I liked it, I’m glad I read it, but probably won’t read it again. The reason? The way I look at it, this book was broken up into three distinct parts: the doctors/researchers/medical institutions, the politicians and the biology of the disease.

The biology was the least amount of the three and I basically skipped over that part. I’ve never been a big science guy and the parts of science that I liked did not have to do with biology. I found it to be a tremendous bore.

Of the other two parts, I found the politician reaction to the disease to be the most fascinating. Since we were in the midst of World War I, any bad news was considered criminal. This included newspapers writing about the disease and how it’s wiping out scores of military personnel and moving into the big cities and destroying them too. Thus, by the time the word got out it was almost too late.

Because of this shroud against “anti-Americanism” people were more scared and confused than if the government just gave them the new straight. The death toll rose so high in cities such as Philadelphia (where their city government’s workings made Tammany Hall look like Romper Room), Boston, New York that there was literally no place to bury the dead. Much like when the plague slammed the Middle Ages, there were death carts being pulled through the cities stacked high with bodies.

Even President Woodrow Wilson was affected by the disease, which in turn impacted his four nations (England, France, Italy and the US) meeting at the end of World War I. He was so weak from influenza that he gave into the French delegate’s wishes of making Germany completely and totally culpable for WWI. This plunged Germany into a gigantic tailspin of depression that was only rescued by the Nazi party. If Wilson had been more healthy, maybe he wouldn’t have given into the wishes of the French of things would’ve been different.

The parts about the doctors and researchers, while interesting and essential, tended to drag a bit. Maybe it’s because I was able to relate to the “normal” folks who were terrified and got the disease and was fascinated by the what ifs of the end of the war, but I was not as interested in the medical aspects.

That’s not to say that it entirely sucked, there were a bunch of interesting anecdotes and these men were heroes.