Thursday, December 30, 2010

Why The Leafs Suck And How They Can Be Fixed by Al Strachan

I hate the Toronto Maple Leafs. Part of this is due to being a Senator fan. If truth be told, however, I mostly hate the Leafs because they have insulted, mocked, screwed over, abused and flipped the bird to their fans for decades, while their sadomasochistic fans continue to cheer them on.

In this book, Al Strachan chronicles the horror that is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Whether it's blowing a chance to have Wayne Gretzky as a player (unbelievable), Scotty Bowman as part of management (amazing) or Don Cherry as a coach (OK, that wasn't such a bad outcome), the Leafs have, time and again, chosen poorly.
The scouting team and drafting choices of the Leafs have also been abysmal. Here are just some of the players that the Leafs overlooked in the draft over the past 30 years: Bobby Clarke, Billy Smith, Bryan Trottier Mike Bossy, Darryl Sutter, Jarri Jurri, Grant Fuhr, Dominik Hasek, Luc Robitaille, Joe Nieuwendyk, Joe Sakic, Teemu Selanne, Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Saku Koivu, Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff, Zdeno Chara and Martin Havlat .
How would things have been different for the Leafs if they had picked one or more of these players in the draft? Considering how incompetent the Leafs have been with trades, they probably would have traded them for a 32-year-old over the hill player!
By the end of the book I felt something that I had never felt before for Leafs fans, namely, pity. For how can you be angry at a group of people who been abused, kicked down, laughed at and treated like garbage by their own team for so long. Which made me ask yet again, why does anybody cheer for Toronto?
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer by Beau Dure

A sports tale can be written in many different ways. Among the most common: the unimaginative stats dump (e.g., “the Yankees won 5-6 with nine hits and two errors for their third straight win"); the superlative (e.g., “the heavens opened and the angels sang when Messi scored with his exquisite right foot”); and the academic-cum-fan analysis, which consists of discussing sports in a political, social, historical and/or cultural context

In this book, Beau Dure makes use of all three of the above techniques. At its best, this book provides a convincing analysis of how Major League Soccer has not only survived but also started to thrive in the North American landscape. At its worst, however, this book contains too many passages that are pure, 100 per cent boring stats dump, coupled with the odd superlative that overstates the role of MLS.

If you are a fan of soccer (like me) then you will find this book interesting. For those who are not enamoured with footie, however, this work is likely not for you.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Star-Spangled Soccer: The Selling, Marketing and Management of Soccer in the USA by Gary Hopkins

This book reminds me of MLS soccer games: flashes of brilliance here, a little show of fervent passion there, but way, way too many mistakes to be considered a top-rate work. At his best, Gary Hopkins makes a convincing case that soccer has a very bright future in the United States. For instance, in one part of the book, he argues that if a super league was formed in the United States with such clubs as Real Madrid, Arsenal, Barcelona, Manchester United and Boca Juniors, it would likely rival the attendance figures -- though not TV audience -- of the NFL, and surpass the audience for MLB, NBA and the NHL. For proof of this, one simply has to look at the phenomenal attendance figures for friendly matches by super clubs that have become a regular fixture during the North American summer. With this and other arguments, Hopkins makes a convincing case that the U.S. already has a large soccer fan base. (It goes without saying, of course, that the MLS is still not tapping into this potential).

The key problem with this work, however, is its horrible editing. Intriguing charts and fascinating arguments are all too often undermined by numerous typos and incorrect figures. If this were a college thesis and I were the teacher, I would give it an A- for content, but an F for style due to all the spelling mistakes and other stylistic errors.

2 out of 5 stars

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

For years my friends have encouraged me to read Kurt Vonnegut. After choosing other authors for a long period of time, I finally decided to take the plunge and was not disappointed. This highly-enjoyable book reminded me of the first time I read Tom Robbins, or Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49". Like the work of these latter two authors, the plot for Cat's Cradle is fairly silly, and in the hands of a weaker author could come across as slightly stupid. But with great skill, Vonnegut is able to craft a profound book from a group of eccentric characters who live in the strange island state of San Lorenzo. Among others, their is Newt the midget, Bokonon (a holy man who is also a calypso singer), and one of the fathers of the atomic bomb.

4 out of 5 stars

The Beckham Experiment: How the World's Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America by Grant Wahl

In 2007, David Beckham (former captain of the English national team, and star player for Manchester United and Real Madrid), shocked the sports world by announcing that he had signed a multi-million dollar contract with the LA Galaxy of MLS. The ensuing circus saw the Galaxy rake in millions and millions of dollars in ticket and jersey sales, while the actual team collapsed on the playing field. This intriguing book details the absurdity of the Beckham Experiment, while raising the omnipresent question of whether Beckham's move to the U.S. had anything to do with soccer at all.

4 out of 5 stars

Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask by Jim Munroe

Ryan is a university student who can turn into a fly, while Cassandra is a waitress that can make things disappear. Soon they begin to date (having met in the greasy spoon where Cassandra works) and start fighting corporate evil in Toronto under the superhero names of Flyboy and Ms. Place.

This quirky plot is the wonderful setting for this fun read. It also captures perfectly the student university ethos. (As I turned the pages I almost had a flashback of my days working in the student press in Toronto). That said, parts of this novel are uber politically correct. Not that two anti-corporate superheroes aren’t great (in fact, the idea is fantastic) but rather that the revolutionary spirit sometimes comes across as a cliché poster rather than as a natural evolution of the story. Putting this minor flaw aside, however, this is still a brilliant book that I highly recommend.
4 out of 5 stars

More Than Just a Game: Soccer vs. Apartheid: The Most Important Soccer Story Ever Told by Chuck Korr

During the dark, terrible days of apartheid in South Africa, numerous political prisoners (including Nelson Mandela) were imprisoned in Robben Island, located off the coast of Cape Town. This hell hole is now known the world over as an infamous symbol of the former racist white regime.

What is less known, however, is how the political prisoners at Robben Island were able to form (despite all the odds) a full functioning soccer league that provided hope to the imprisoned men. Fighting brutal and racist prison authorities, the inmates slowly won the right to form their own league, complete with a referees union, a football association, dedicated fans and most importantly full functioning football clubs. Among the leagues participants who were imprisoned at Robben Island were Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa, a couple of future cabinet ministers, a future constitutional judge, and numerous academics and business tycoons who rose to prominence in post-apartheid South Africa.

This remarkable organization, known as the Makana Football Association, would later be given honorary membership in FIFA in recognition of their courageous struggle against apartheid. This remarkable tale is truly breathtaking, and was an inspiration to the jailed men. (Thanks to the success of the soccer league, the prisoners eventually were able to organize other sports, such as a rugby league, tennis and athletics).

That being said, If there is one critique of this book it is that it has a slightly academic feel. Rather than allowing the characters to tell this wonderful story, this book reads at times like a university paper. Despite this small flaw, however, this story is a wonderful tale of how sport can be an empowering force in the fight for social justice.

3 out of 5 stars

Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami

This is the story of a group of young, lost friends in Japan during the 1970s who live near a U.S. military base. Told in an unconventional format (this novel is comprised of a string of drugged-out, sex-filled vignettes) it provides a hallucinatory vision of Japan.

Whether you enjoy this book will depend on your tastes. Newsweek called it, "A Japanese mix of Clockwork Orange and L'Etranger," in praise of its bleak commentary on
stoned-out, urban isolation. For other readers, however, this novel simple echoes a genre that has been milked to the death (see William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, etc.). In short, whether you find this book to be a gritty tale of tragic youth filled with worthwhile insights, or a cliche account of annoying, drugged out and stupid children, will depend on what you are looking for.
That being said, this book is very well written, and it succeeds in its goal of portraying a gloom and bleak reality. Nevertheless, for a reader in 2010, it does not offer that much of a fresh perspective, given the copious amount of books, music, movies and comics that discuss the theme of urban isolation and the tragic (or is it pathetic?) world of the drug addict.
3 out of 5 stars

How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot: The inside story behind the coalition by Brian Topp

This interesting memoir tells the story of the Canadian coalition crisis in November / December 2008, when the NDP and Liberal parties almost formed a coalition government with the support of the Bloc Quebecois. Written by Brian Topp, the NDP's national campaign director during the 2006 and 2008 federal elections, and one of the lead NDP negotiators during the coalition crisis, this book describes in careful detail how the Conservative Party was almost replaced by the opposition. Overall this is a good read for anybody who is interested in Canadian politics.

3 out of 5 stars

Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

This is a delightful (and surprisingly insightful) look at the world of international soccer. Modeled on the bestseller Freakonomics, this book debunks numerous myths that exist in the football world. For instance, according to one popular folk tale, many distraught fans kill themselves after their team is eliminated from a major competition. In reality, international soccer tournaments actually decrease the number of suicides in participating countries. Then there is the myth of underachieving England whose national team repeatedly lets their country down. This "reality", however, hides the fact that England has been punching above its weight for a very long time.

Then there is the cliche prediction, which has been given for decades now, that an Africa team will one day win the world cup. According to the books authors, however, China, the United States, Japan and even Iraq -- yes Iraq -- are a better bet to win future world cups than any team from Africa. Like Freakonomics, Soccernomics is a captivating read that truly captures the imagination and the intellect, and is a very fun read.

4 out of 5 stars

A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park

This could be the worst book that I have read in the past five years. The plot seems straightforward enough: A teenage girl in the U.S. is suddenly transported to an alternate world with two of her friends where Romania (or Roumania is the parallel world) is a global power. With this interesting beginning -- and I did enjoy the first 50 pages or so -- the reader is taken through a fantasy ride. But then things completely fall apart. In fact, I wonder if the expression, "losing the plot," was not invented specifically for this novel. The main story is such a mess that the reader has no idea what is going on. I ended up forcing myself to finish this book out of principle, but in the end all I did was confirm that this book is just awful.

1 out of 5 stars

Therefore Repent! by Jim Monroe and Salgood Sam

Following the rapture two lovers, Mummy and Raven, arrive in Chicago looking for a place to stay. With the help of a local boy they move into an empty apartment that use to belong to inhabitants that ascended into heaven. Those left behind on earth are split between Splitters (humans who strive to become Christians in order to ascend to heave during the hoped for second rapture), and those who reject religion outright.

As the world begins to get used to its post-apocalyptic reality, a series of strange events begin to unfold: Mummy and Raven's dog begins to speak; militaristic angels dressed as modern soldiers start to kill sinners with
machine guns; and the use of magic begins to appear.

This ingenious plot -- and it truly is brilliant -- is coupled with amazing illustrations that are absolutely gorgeous. The only downside (if I can use that word) is that this fantastic story is not allowed to fully develop. The relatively short length of this book left me with the sensation that the story was rushed. That said, this is a truly wonderful graphic novel that should be read by anyone who loves fantasy, cyberpunk and / or first-rate comic stories.

4 out of 5 stars

Cell by Stephen King

Struggling artist Clayton Riddell has finally landed a contract for a graphic novel when all hell breaks lose. All around him people with cell phones suddenly start going mad, and soon turn into violent, zombie-like creatures. In the subsequent hours and days, he discovers that a pulse from an unknown source has flooded the wireless network, and has somehow managed to blank out the minds of those who answered their phones.

This horror / apocalyptic book falls neatly into the zombie genre. After meeting up with a group of normies -- people who didn't have a cell at the moment of the "pulse" -- he begins a journey to find his lost son, while dealing with a chaotic world that has gone crazy.

Stephen King is a wonderful story teller and even his duds are fairly good. I must admit, however, that I found this story to be ho-hum, and nowhere near his best work. If you like zombie stories then this book could be of interest. For everyone else, on the other hand, you wouldn't be missing much if you decided to take a pass on this novel.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

The Cartoon Guide to Physics by Larry Gonick

Is it gauche to say that a cartoon book about physics is too simple? As a fan of both science and comics, as well as an admirer of Larry Gonick (who has a reputation for penning excellent illustrative works on a variety of science topics), I was looking forward to reading this book. To my disappointment, however, I found this book a bit too difficult for children, not that interesting for adults, and with little to offer and grab the attention of the teenage mind. So it wasn't clear to me who the audience is supposed to be. That said, if you enjoy quirky science discussions, then I would recommend that you pick up a Gonick book, though not this particular title.

2 out of 5 stars

Lisey's Story by Stephen King

This a brilliant but deeply flawed book. The beginning is extremely slow (at times I had to force myself to continue slogging through the book) while large sections of the middle section seemed like excessive acts of literary self-indulgence on the part of Stephen King. To be blunt, the narrative was such a rambling mess at times that I thought on more than one occasion of quitting this book.

Despite these flaws, however, one must confess that the plot is wonderful. Based on the story of Lisey Landon, the widow of the late best-selling author Scott London, the novel is a captivating love story that revolves around two main plots: the life of Lisey (pronounced LEE-see, which rhymes with cc) after her husband's death; and the life history of her late husband, with a particular emphasis on his troubled childhood.

Though the story is way too long (the paperback is more than 650 pages, with at least 200 of those pages been prime candidates for cutting) it does contain a wonderful mash of different styles, somehow managing to mix romance, horror, fantasy and -- especially at the end of the book -- wonderful writing that is pure literature. If you can survive the rambling beginning, and don't get frustrated after 200 pages, you will find that the ending is well worth the read.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Sphereland: A Fantasy About Curved Spaces and an Expanding Universe by Dionys Burger

This book is the sequel to Flatland, the peculiar fantasy novel by Edwin Abbott that was released in 1884, and which tells the story of the mathematician A. Square who lives in a two-dimensional world. After coming into contact with a being from a higher dimension, A. Square discovers the wonders of three-dimensional space, and postulates the existence of even higher dimensions. Instead of being declared a hero, however, he is jailed for preaching the heresy of higher-dimensional worlds.

In the sequel Sphereland, which was Published in 1965, or more than 80 years after Abbott's book's first appearance, the reader is introduced to A. Square's grandson, who discovers that Flatland is actually made up of curved space. This amazing discovery leads him to postulate that the third dimension, which is home to bizarre figures called homo sapiens, is curved by a fourth dimensional world..

From a purely geek perspective, this book is an interesting thought experiment. From a literary point of view, on the other hand, the written is unfortunately quite wooden. As a science fiction fan I often let poor writing slide if the idea is interesting. In this case, however, the weak narrative structure does not make up for the interesting mathematical ideas. That being said, I enjoyed this book, though I must also confess that I like books with characters called A. Square, so I understand why this novel would not be everyone's -- if not the vast majority of people's -- cup of tea.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Me and Kaminski by Daniel Kehlmann

Sebastian Zöllner is a cranky, ambitious, but not very successful 31-year-old art journalist. In attempt to make a name for himself, and to beat his bitter rival Hans Bahring, the unpleasant Sebastian begins to work on a biography of Manuel Kaminski, a world-renowned painter who is almost blind. In the ensuing story, Sebastian tries to manipulate Kaminski, his daughter Anna, the housekeeper Anna, and anyone else who can help him into giving him what he wants so he can publish a book that will make him famous. As we progress through the book, however, we soon realize that it is Kaminski who is the true manipulator.

This book is very well written and the story is intriguing. The literary sketches of the characters and the various scenes are also quite impressive. That said, this novel (though quite good) also did not fascinate me. Nevertheless, this short book is a fun read.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Quick, does this plot sound familiar: a teenage boy, who is unhappy with his life, suddenly finds himself in a mysterious school that teaches magic, where he begins a series of adventures that reveal his destiny? If you said Harry Potter you are not alone, for even The Magicians can't help but make reference to the book series by J.K Rowling, as if to say, “yes, Ms. Rowling, I know I stole your idea.”

If that wasn't bad enough, this book is riddled with awful dialogue that sounds like an over eager child trying to look cool. “I drop the F-bomb!” the book seems to proudly boast. “And I mention things like sodomy, and the drug ecstasy, as well as other controversial things.” But instead of being intrigued (or for that matter shocked), the audience is left rolling their eyes.

As a big science fiction and fantasy fan this book was not a complete waste, for I enjoy tales of magic and parallel worlds. Objectively speaking, however, this book was pretty awful.

1 1/2 out of 5 stars

Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person's Answer to Christian Fundamentalism by David Mills

It's too easy to make fun of creationists and believers of intelligent design. The latter views are so wacky, illogical and -- let's be frank -- down right idiotic that it doesn't take a genius to see that they are wrong. Making fun of these views, however, is not particularly enlightening, nor does it provide a basis for thoughtful debate. Unfortunately, too many popular atheists (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher) give into the temptation of ridiculing religious fundamentalists, rather than focusing on why atheism is a more reasonable position than religious belief. That is why this book was such a pleasure to read. For unlike other atheists (see above), David Mills spends the vast majority of his book describing the philosophical strengths in atheism, rather than wallowing in a chorus of, "religious people are stupid." That being said, Mills does occasionally make fun of religious zealots, but unlike, say, a Bill Maher, his focus is on presenting a logical argument for atheism, rather than reciting a series ad hominem attacks against an easy target.

4 out of 5 stars

One to Nine: The Inner Life of Numbers by Andrew Hodges

Imagine you are a mathematician who is drinking in a bar with your buddies. Several hours into your drinking session, a half-drunk friend says the following, "hey, I bet you can't write a book about the numbers 1 through 9." Intrigued by the challenge, you proceed to take up the drunken bet, and write a book about the first nine integers. The book contains some interesting parts -- such as the relationship between the prime numbers and 4/4 musical time -- but it also contains long passages that come across as aimless rambling. In other sections, meanwhile, it seems that you are not interested in providing insights to the reader, but are rather using the book as an excuse to show-off all of your scientific knowledge. In a nutshell, that is how this work came across to me. Without a doubt, it contains a lot of interesting ideas, and if it were structured differently it could have provided a great learning tool. Sadly, however, I was largely put off by the book, and by the last pages all I wanted was for it to end.

2 out of 5 stars