Tuesday, May 01, 2018

"Grant" by Ron Chernow - A Treasure Trove of Information and Insight

Like many readers, I became familiar with the work of Ron Chernow through the back door - through his association with Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Broadway musical "Hamilton." That revolutionary work of art is, of course, based on Chernow's excellent biography of Alexander Hamilton. Having seen the musical, I was prompted to go to the source and read the book. I was not disappointed. Chernow is unique among historians in that he combines meticulous research and scholarship with an engaging narrative style that draws the reader into the lives of the persons being described. Having enjoyed the Hamilton biography, I was eager to dive into "Grant." Chernow is consistent, for the same accolades I gave to "Hamilton" can be applied to "Grant."

I learned a great deal about Grant, about the Civil War, about Reconstruction, and the struggles of America to knit itself back together after the bloody War Between The States. Grant emerges in this book as a complex figure. He was a reluctant West Point cadet, a failed businessman, a frustrated junior officer, a brilliant strategist as a general, a passionate defender of former slaves, and a naive judge of character who was perpetually fooled and bamboozled by those he trusted too long and too deeply. Chernow addresses the issues of Grant's reputation as a heavy drinker, and gives praise to Mrs. Grant and General John Rawlins, Grant's personal conscience and Jiminy Cricket, for keeping him mostly sober during the Civil War and during his White House years.

Even for someone familiar with this turbulent period in American history, this book will prove instructive and illuminating.



Thursday, April 12, 2018

Review of "Insight Pitch" by Skip Lockwood - One of the best baseball books I have ever read - chock full of insight and intrigue

"Insight Pitch" is one of the finest baseball books I have ever read - and I have read plenty of them. Former Mets closer Skip Lockwood brings an unusual literary sensibility to the task of inviting the reader inside the mind of a major league pitcher, and ushering the reader onto the mound as Skip faces tough opponents hovering at home plate. His use of metaphor in describing baseball situations adds a depth of expression and style that is a rarity among sports books. The author wields language with the same finesse that was the hallmark of his years as a closer in having pinpoint control over where the baseball would go when it left his hand.

The saga begins with Skip's halcyon days growing up in Norwood, Massachusetts, and starring for Catholic Memorial High School's baseball team. He shares a fascinating account of the day when the representatives of five MLB teams made the pilgrimage to the Lockwood home in an attempt to sign the young baseball phenom to a professional contract as a "Bonus Baby." Skip's parents decided to leave the room while Skip was negotiating with the scout from the Kansas City Athletics. The account of how young Skip handled that negotiation is one of the most fascinating and insightful chapters of the book.

After struggling for several years in the minor leagues - unable to hit a professional curve ball with any consistency - Skip took the advice of those in the Athletics organization who had invested in him, and turned himself into a pitcher. He pitched for several teams, most notably the Mets. He finished his injury-plagued career signing as the first free agent inked by the Boston Red Sox.

Mr. Lockwood's intelligence is on full display as he shares deeply held convictions and astute observations about the game of baseball and the role it has played in his life. He earned an MBA from MIT as a Sloan Fellow. He shares in great detail the techniques he developed for visualizing a game and an encounter with a batter before they would ever happen in real time. He would visualize the situation once as if he were viewing it dispassionately from the stands. But then he would also visualize the same situation as if he were peering through his eyes from the pitcher's mound. That dual approach is exactly what Skip Lockwood the author offers to his readers here. We get to observe, as if in the stands, the life of a successful ballplayer. But we also get to see, hear, and feel what it was like inside his mind and heart as some of the ups and downs of his career played themselves out. The result is a thoroughly engaging and instructive window into America's game. Along the way, we get to experience Skip's encounters with the likes of Satchel Paige, Yogi Berra, Tom Seaver, and many other familiar baseball names.

The book is chock full of deep insights into baseball, handling both success and disappointment, balancing pursuit of excellence with a realistic assessment of strengths and weaknesses. If you love baseball, you will not want to miss reading this book. If you are lukewarm about baseball, reading this book may turn up the heat, and you may never watch a baseball game the same way ever again.