Tuesday, June 30, 2009

'Breaking the Slump' By Jimmy Roberts

Reviewed by Joe Logan

Philadelphia Inquirer

When you plow into a book subtitled How the Great Players Survived Their Darkest Moments in Golf and What You Can Learn From Them, you sort of expect to come away having, you know, learned something.

Ha! The joke's on me.

Not that Roberts' book isn't a pleasant, breezy read, ideal for the beach or - let's be honest here - a last-minute gift for that golfer in your life. Just understand that while this gift might get you off the hook, it won't get rid of his or her hook.

It's the first book for Roberts, a solid, likable golf correspondent for NBC Sports. (In the acknowledgments, Roberts writes that when he called his older sister to tell her he was writing a book, there was silence on the line until she said, "I think Mom and Dad would have been happy if you just read a book.")

Breaking the Slump is literary cotton candy. It's chock-full of fun stories and anecdotes about some of the biggest names in, and out, of golf, such as Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson, Paul Azinger, Johnny Miller, Ben Crenshaw, Arnold Palmer, the first President Bush, and Jack Nicklaus.

Jack Nicklaus? Who knew that Nicklaus, who remains the greatest player in the history of golf so long as Tiger Woods continues to chase his record of 18 major championship titles, ever had a slump?

I write about golf for a living, and I'm old enough to remember Nicklaus in his heyday, and I didn't recall a slump.

But, hey, there was one year. It was 1979, 17 years into his career, when Nicklaus was pushing 40. He'd already famously dethroned the beloved Arnold Palmer, and he had won the PGA Tour money title six times. But in '79, inexplicably, Nicklaus stunk the joint up. He didn't win once. He didn't even finish second. He only had one third-place finish all year, and he fell to 71st on the money list.

"I mean, you wouldn't believe how pathetic I was," Nicklaus told Roberts.

So, what did Nicklaus do? Nothing. He took four months off.

Come January 1980, when he was rested and ready, Nicklaus went back to his old coach, Jack Grout, like he was a fresh-eyed kid.

"I started from scratch," said Nicklaus. "OK, Jack Grout, my name is Jack Nicklaus and I want to learn how to play golf."

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Monday, June 29, 2009

'Conquest of the Useless' By Werner Herzog

Reviewed by JANET MASLIN
New York Times

This is what “a beautiful, fresh, sunny morning” was like for Werner Herzog during the Sisyphean miseries that plagued the shooting of his Amazonian epic “Fitzcarraldo” (1982): one of two newly hatched chicks drowned in a saucer containing only a few millimeters of water. The other lost a leg and a piece of its stomach to a murderous rabbit. And Mr. Herzog realized, for the umpteenth time, that “a sense of desolation was tearing me up inside, like termites in a fallen tree trunk.”

These and other good times have been immortalized in “Conquest of the Useless,” Mr. Herzog’s journal about his best-known filmmaking nightmare. Already published in German as the evocatively titled “Eroberung des Nutzlosen” in 2004, this book, translated by Krishna Winston, seemingly recapitulates some of Les Blank’s film “Burden of Dreams,” the 1982 documentary that captured the “Fitzcarraldo” shoot in all of its magnificent, doomy glory. When he spoke to Mr. Blank, Mr. Herzog used the phrase “challenge of the impossible” to describe his heroic, arguably unhinged struggle to complete his film.

But “Burden of Dreams” never penetrated Mr. Herzog’s rogue thoughts, at least not in the way his own mesmerizingly bizarre account does. That’s understandable: Mr. Blank could concentrate on such external diversions as hauling a steamship over a hill in the Amazon rain forest, which was the pièce de résistance of Mr. Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” scenario.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

'The Favorites' by Mary Yukari Waters

Reviewed By Janice P. Nimura

LA Times

True fluency in two cultures is a privilege -- and a burden -- granted to few. Mary Yukari Waters is one of these. Her Irish American father met and married her mother in Kyoto, Japan, where Waters spent her early years. At age 9, she moved with her parents to California, where she still lives, while remaining close to her Kyoto relatives. Strikingly Caucasian-looking to the Japanese, more Japanese at heart than Americans suspect, Waters is unusually able to explain them to each other.

Six years ago, Waters published "The Laws of Evening," a collection of quiet, precise stories that brought the submerged trauma of postwar Japan to agonized life. Each story was an intimate ink drawing, expressing volumes of pain and stubborn hope with a few eloquent strokes. They were exquisite, and complete in themselves, but to Waters, it seems, they were just a sketchbook.

"The Favorites," her first novel, borrows liberally from many of the stories, repeating images and characters in a larger format, one perhaps not as well-suited to her minimal style.

The novel's first half is an expanded revision of Waters' semiautobiographical story "The Way Love Works." In the summer of 1978, 14-year-old Sarah Rexford and her mother, Yoko, arrive in Kyoto from California for an extended visit with Sarah's sprightly grandmother, Mrs. Kobayashi.

After five years of expatriate unease, Yoko has returned to her natural element, and Sarah watches in wonder as her mother reclaims her place as charismatic "queen bee" of the neighborhood and apple of her mother's eye. Sarah, used to rolling her adolescent eyes at Yoko's cultural gaffes at home, is startled at the pleasure she now takes in her mother's reflected glory.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

'The Signal' By Ron Carlson

Reviewed By J.K.
Chicago Tribune

Mack's father has been gone from this Earth a good long time, but he's still a daily part of Mack's life. That gives "The Signal" (Viking), the new novel by Ron Carlson, special resonance on a Sunday devoted to dads.

They ran a guest ranch in Wyoming, did father and son, until the father passed away unexpectedly, at which point Mack's life fell apart: "At the ranch, everything was tilted, weird; it was more than something missing. Gravity had changed. Mack saw to the horses and painted the small barn, but there was no center for him without his father there."

Yet as Mack divulges in the course of this uncommonly fine novel, his father lives vividly in his memories. Mack undertakes a mysterious trip in the wilderness, taking along his estranged wife, Vonnie, and his father's words and rules are often all that stand between Mack and disaster.

Carlson's writing is crisp and blunt, much like the very Wyoming landscape he describes. In his last novel, "Five Skies" (2007), he did the same thing: He echoed the raw topography with the simple beauty of his words. "I pay attention to every sentence," Carlson said in a recent phone interview.

"I work very hard in my book to make them about real places," he added. "In a lot of books today, we have a lot of general, floating life, life in apartments, urban stories. I'm much more interested in the West. I work from particulars."

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Monday, June 22, 2009

'Black Water Rising' By Attica Locke

Reviewed by JANET MASLIN
New York Times

On the day he is to meet with the Houston mayor, Jay Porter takes special care not to wear his best clothes. That’s because as he dresses, he is being watched by Bernadine, his very pregnant wife, and because the mayor, Cynthia Maddox, is an old flame.

The year is 1981. Eleven years earlier, as a student at the University of Houston, Jay wore a dashiki, a goatee and a militant air. Cynthia, Jay remembers, was a noisily outspoken member of Students for a Democratic Society, a white girl drawn to black radicals “as sure as if the Temptations had come to town.”

Now Cynthia has a stiff blond head of helmet hair, an important office and a politician’s survival skills. Jay has a struggling law practice and a deep, gnawing sense of self-doubt. If he often feels as if others might betray him, he can thank Cynthia for some of that; she fell right out of love with him when he faced trumped-up charges of conspiring to incite violence. She vanished when he stood trial.

Attica Locke’s “Black Water Rising” uses Jay’s unease as a determinative character trait, one that will shape much of his behavior during Ms. Locke’s atmospheric, richly convoluted debut novel. Her story begins on a dark and watery night. Jay has taken Bernie (as she is known) on a bayou cruise when he hears cries for help, dives off the boat and rescues a damsel in distress. Knowing full well that only suckers rescue such damsels and that this may be “the oldest con in the book,” Jay nonetheless saves an expensively dressed white woman about whom he knows exactly nothing. The false assumptions that he makes about her will add a layer of interest to Ms. Locke’s deeply nuanced story.

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

“Home Game” by Michael Lewis

“Home Game” by Michael Lewis
New York Times

Michael Lewis’s “Home Game” is meant for the man who has everything — including a grudging attitude toward raising his own children. Affecting a curmudgeonly stance that owes something to Professor Henry Higgins, Mr. Lewis writes of how he deigned not just to let a woman into his life, but also three children.

While his wife figures only tangentially in the book, is given scant credit for her efforts and is referred to as “incubator of the source material,” the children become the center of Mr. Lewis’s universe, much to his initial horror. “Maternal love may be instinctive,” he writes, with a touch of candor in a book that is otherwise gruffly facetious, “but paternal love is learned behavior.”

“Home Game” is about Mr. Lewis’s learning process. Based on a series of columns he wrote for Slate, the book frames a series of anecdotes about child rearing in terms well suited to Father’s Day. (Four years ago Mr. Lewis hailed that holiday with a conveniently timed book about his high school baseball coach.) No greeting-card saccharine here: Mr. Lewis manages to work business, baseball and golf references into stories about his children’s behavior. And no analogy is too manly to be out of place. When he takes his oldest child to school so that his wife and new baby can sleep, he writes, “I am the good soldier who has leapt on the hand grenade, so that others may live.”

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