Monday, July 14, 2008

Top Shelf Reviews: God Save the Fan and Saved

But first! I'm really not a huge fan of the Home Run Derby. Home runs are not my thing. I think it gets pretty boring watching them after a few minutes and the Derby seems to get longer every year. Something that would be a fun little 30-45 minute exhibition is forced into being some kind of spectacle and it doesn't work for me. But I tuned in this year to watch Lance Berkman and thank goodness I did because Josh Hamilton's display in the second round was amazing. I won't repeat his whole story here because chances are you've heard it, but if you're not familiar with Hamilton I highly recommend this recent Sports Illustrated piece. He's an amazing story. I admit it, watching Hamilton stand at home plate with an ear-to-ear grin on his face while the crowd went crazy made me a little teary-eyed. Just one of those fabulous moments where you're watching so much more than just a sporting event.

Okay, moving on...

It's the off-season and I recently had a week off from work - Regents exams gypped me out of my usual two weeks this year - so I had a little bit of time to sit down and read a few books. A couple of the books I read were sports-related so here are a couple of reviews for your enjoyment. While I fully endorse you reading all the hockey blogs you want, especially this one, you should think about reading a book too, especially if you haven't done so recently. It won't hurt, I promise.

First up is God Save the Fan: How Preening Sportscasters, Athletes Who Speak in the Third Person, and the Occasional Convicted Quarterback Have Taken the Fun Out of Sports (and How We Can Get It Back) by founder Will Leitch. (I actually started reading this a few days before school ended but it was tough to hide that cover from the kids.) Before I get into the review I'll admit that I have mixed feelings about Deadspin. Obviously, I'm pro-blogs and blogger, and I think Leitch and company have done a tremendous job of providing coverage for fans who didn't feel like they were getting what they wanted. I think the site is often well-written and funny. But I'm not a regular reader for a few reasons. One, I never got over their site re-design, requiring you to click through to read every single thing which is just a weird quirk I have.* Two, you have to wade through a lot of basketball and football which I don't particularly care for to get to the baseball and hockey. Three, its target audience is clearly very male. So while I was definitely interested in reading this book, I'm not a huge Deadspin devotee.

The book is a group of essays, some shorter than others, split into four groups: Players, Owners, Media and Fans. Each section concludes with a glossary that goes along with that section's theme. As an example, here's the entry for Buffalo Bills fans: "Still shell-shocked from those four Super Bowl losses, now happy to just have the team hanging around to make living in Buffalo at least slightly interesting. That is, until the team leaves for San Antonio or Los Angeles. Thinks O.J. is innocent."**

I hate the glossaries. I read every entry and while a few of them are really funny, most of them are space-fillers and a lot of them repeat something Leitch already made a point of in one of the essays or in a previous glossary. If he was really attached to this idea, it should have gone at the end of the book, I think.

Unfortunately, I think the essays are pretty hit and miss too. Again, some of them are very funny and occasionally insightful, but most of them are only mildly amusing and they don't really say anything that hasn't already been said, especially if you're a Deadspin reader. Only one of the essays is a direct rip from (the very amusing John Rocker interview) but most of them are ideas and thoughts that have been expressed there so there's nothing that feels new or different here. You're not really reading a print copy of the blog... but you kind of are.

The one essay I remember a couple of weeks later is entitled "What Athletes are Talking About When They're Talking About God" and while I'm always interested in hearing about how pro athletes weave their religious and spiritual beliefs into their very unorthodox and temptation-filled lives, I think part of the reason it stuck with me is because it seemed so un-Deadspin. Leitch writes about Zach Johnson, the unexpected winner of the 2007 Masters, and how immediately after the win he said, "Jesus was with me every step of the way," and then started crying. Reporters groan and wait for him to say something interesting and fans roll their eyes and complain that no one ever thanks God when they lose and that God doesn't care who wins or loses and I admit, I fully expected the essay to go right along with that idea. Leitch went completely the other way on me though:

While we (non-Christians) see someone acting as if he won because Jesus Christ decided he deserved to win more than the other guy - as if Jesus said, "Hey, Johnson's a nice guy, let's move his ball closer to the cup on that drive" - a Christian sees it as something else entirely - that is, a humble acknowledgment that nothing any person does can be attributed to themselves. It's a guard against pride... Just because they believe Jesus was with them while they won, that doesn't mean they believe Jesus was only with them... Why this bothers us more than, say, LeBron James flashing his Nike logo every time he talks to Jim Gray is bewildering.

And while it's possible that yes, I just quoted the one essay in the book that the average sports fan might not care about, I think the book could've used more pieces like this. It's a perspective we haven't heard over and over about an issue that doesn't get as much press as how much ESPN sucks. I understand why so much of the book deals with why so-and-so and such-and-such suck - that's what the Deadspin Empire is built on - but it's all very been there, read that. But like I said, I'm not a huge devotee of Deadspin and therefore probably not the target audience for God Save the Fan. If Leitch had wandered too far from what got him to this point it's possible that I would've really liked the book but everyone else would've hated it.

Back when I first started watching hockey, I immediately went out looking for hockey books of any kind. I didn't know anything about how the game worked, I knew very little about the sport's history, and I didn't know any of the characters beyond the obvious stars of my youth so I had a lot of catching up to do. (Note to writers: More hockey-related books, please!) My favorite out of that first batch of books I read - maybe my favorite still - was Jack Falla's Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds. It's pretty much what the title suggests and has nothing to do with the NHL, but I loved it almost immediately. I've never set foot on a backyard rink - although we did have a frozen pond once, just for a few days - but it made me feel like I had and the feeling that I really needed to learn to ice-skate started way back then. If you've never read Home Ice I highly recommend it. It's one of those books that's about sports on the surface but really about something deeper - how sports can connect us to the people and places we love even years later. It's really lovely.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised to find Saved, Falla's first novel on the new book shelf at the library not that long ago. Saved is the story of veteran goalie J.P. Savard and his best buddy and Boston teammate Cam Carter. Both guys are veterans who know their window for winning a Stanley Cup is just about to close. Nothing earth-shattering happens and chances are you might figure out some of the plot points before they come but that's okay because the book is funny and sweet and tough and seems realistic. Falla covered hockey for Sports Illustrated among other places and his characters and the situations they find themselves in are totally believable. My only complaint would be how every character uses sports cliches and references in their daily life. One of the characters, newly married, says he and his wife are going to enjoy themselves for a while before "pulling the goalie." Maybe athletes really do talk like that but if so, well, thank god I didn't marry one because I don't think I could handle that. It's a minor complaint though. Saved won't change your life but it's perfect for a nice, relaxing read while on vacation or wrapped up in a quilt on the couch.

* - In addition to hating having to click through to read complete posts, I also hate those links that show little pop-up images of the site being linked to. Ugh.

** - Not true. When my brothers-in-law went to Canton for Jim Kelly's Hall of Fame induction they took a picture of one of them strangling O.J.'s bust. I think most Bills fans think of O.J. (allegedly) murdering his wife as one more example of why God hates them.


twoeightnine said...

Best part of GSTF is page 289.

Anonymous said...

Heather, Try Dave Bidini's "Tropic of Hockey". One of the most interesting hockey books I've read. Bob

Katie said...

While I fully endorse you reading all the hockey blogs you want, especially this one, you should think about reading a book too, especially if you haven't done so recently. It won't hurt, I promise.

As an English major, I fully support this idea!

I'm so glad that someone else found Saved, too! I've been meaning to review it for a few weeks now because I really enjoyed it. Like you said, it was kind of predictable, but its flaws paled in comparison to its heart. It seemed very believable, which made it a very easy read.

Oh, and I loved that Josh Hamilton article, too - he really is a terrific story.

sabresfan88 said...

Oh man, you better not be the one who's had the library's only copy of God Save The Fan for the past month and a half. I requested it like a month ago and it's still out.

sabresfan88 said...

Actually, I was waiting for Saved too, now that I think about it. You're a trouble maker.


Heather B. said...

Isn't page 289 the best part of every book? Or is this one just extra special?

Bob, I read Tropic of Hockey last summer during all the free agency frenzy and it was the perfect tonic. I definitely recommend it to anyone who hasn't read it!

Sabresfan88, I don't have Saved anymore and didn't have it for very long. I do, however, still have God Save the Fan even though I've been done with it for a while. Sorry, man! Taking it back immediately! :-D

Vanek's Hair said...

The best part of the home run contest was when Chase Utley said the "F" word to the mouth breathers that were booing him. Gotta love the hot mic moments.

twoeightnine said...

Well considering I did they illustration on page 289, I think this one's much better.

You know what would make Josh Hamilton's story that much better? If he didn't blow $4 million on drugs and ruining the lives of those around him.

Anonymous said...

I agree concerning GSTF. While Leitch has done a lot for the blogging business his books seem to leave me pretty disappointed. When I started reading deadspin a few years ago, I went back and read all of the old "Life as a Loser" columns and bought both that book as well as "Catch".

Whereas I really enjoyed "Life as a Loser" both "Catch" and "GSTF" seemed rushed and lacking focus. In particular "GSTF" seemed to cater a little bit too much to commenters of the site. Which I seeing as how they would be the ones buying the book and all, but well, I was kind of hoping for something more. I guess that is better than disliking the books. I don't know, maybe I just need to read them again.

If anyone needs a copy of GSTF, I will be more than happy to pass mine on. Assuming it will be returned for further judgment.

Heather B. said...

Vanek's Hair, I read about that but sadly I missed it live. Still... I'm with you. Anyone who tells Yankees fans to eff off is aces in my book.

Well considering I did they illustration on page 289, I think this one's much better.

Ohhhhhh! Very cool! You're getting rich off it, right?

You know what would make Josh Hamilton's story that much better? If he didn't blow $4 million on drugs and ruining the lives of those around him.

True. But I like this story better than the one where he never finds himself, blows $12 million on drugs, loses his marriage forever, and destroys his young children's' chances of ever having a healthy father in their lives. A lot of my kids have grown up in houses with drug and alcohol abuse and having seen what it will do to a child and how hard a cycle it is to break, I'd say what Hamilton has done to straighten himself out is pretty remarkable.

FirstTimeLongTime, I was wondering if Leitch's other books were any good. Thanks for the opinions.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your kind words re: my essay collection HOME ICE and recent novel SAVED.
The follow-up to HOME ICE -- an essay collection entitled OPEN ICE -- is due out in late August and is up on Amazon now for pre-release discounted sale.
Am also working on another hockey/humor novel.

Jack Falla
Natick, MA.

S.A.M. said...

Ahh those hockey books look wonderful! I hadn't heard of either, but they are on the list now.

I just read Tropic of Hockey and it was really incredible.

May I recommend- (I think I already did this to you Heather, but I'll throw it out again)
Zamboni Rodeo-Jason Cohen
They Don't Play Hockey in Heaven- Ken Baker
*both of those books offer some unique insight into minor league hockey- they are fun book, especially for anyone who has been bitten by the minor league bug. (like me)

Ice Time-Jay Atkinson. This is a fantastic book- it basically follows a Massachusetts high school hockey team for a season but delves a bit into the game of hockey in a local, shinny-on-the-pond, play for the love of the game sort of way.

All Roads Lead to Hockey- Bill Boyd- he visits and profiles cities all across North America where hockey is king. It's a great read.

Putting a Roof on Winter (can't think of the author and don't have the book at the moment)- basically a chronicle of organized hockey- but with so much attention to detail and info about the characters of the NHL/hockey in general that it reads more like a novel than a history book. It's great.
Blades of Glory Minnesota HS hockey is serious stuff. This book makes me cry every time. It's really quality though.

I own all of the above-mentioned books, as well as Tropic of Hockey- and would be happy to lend them to anyone who wishes to read them. Also in the collection are Brodeur:Beyond the Crease; Breaking the Ice-(by Angela Ruggiero); Pavel Bure: The Riddle of the Russian Rocket; The Code:The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL; Yzerman: Heart of a Champion.

Those are the noteworthy ones. I also have a couple of compilations- hockey humor, hockey stories and hockey fiction. Like I said, I'd be happy to lend them to any of you guys to read- just shoot me an e-mail. :)

Yay BOOKS! :)