Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Arena, by Rafi Kohan

The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport, by Rafi Kohan

I really wanted to like this book, and I'm not entirely sure I didn't. Watching sports is a big part of my life: we have had season tickets for Longhorn football since 1992 and it has been longer than that since I've missed a home game1. When I travel, seeing a local event is one of my favorite pastimes, especially in a stadium I've not seen previously. So when I was gifted The Arena I was pretty excited, especially with a subtitle like Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport. Sadly, there is more content about the people that inhabit these arenas than the arenas themselves.

It starts strong with a chapter that reads like a love-letter to some of the greatest old-school stadiums in America: the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field; Fenway Park, home of the Green Monster; and, the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. Later there is a chapter dedicated to the groundskeepers (whose work is seemingly only noteworthy when it is terrible), and later still a wonderful picture of the logistical nightmares of running these behemoths. All great stuff, and I wish there was more of it.

There is an entire chapter about the Superdome in New Orleans, but most of the detail is around the role the building played during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—and much of the Katrina rhetoric fell into the same quagmire as most other writing about the disaster, giving the impression that Katrina affected New Orleans and no other part of the country. Most disappointing was the chapter on college stadiums; all that is covered is the Penn State sexual abuse cover-up and Joe Paterno's legacy. So many collegiate cathedrals out there—the Rose Bowl, the Big House in Ann Arbor (there was a picture of this but no real discussion), Death Valley at LSU, hell, even Kyle Field—but instead all we get are the details of a vulgar scandal.

I'd recommend this unhesitatingly to any casual sports fan. The stories following the people in and around the buildings (scalpers, half-time entertainment, and unruly and misbehaving fans) are compelling and made the book hard to put down. I was hoping for more stories about the buildings themselves though, and ultimately left unsatisfied. A very good book, but a misleading title gave me a misleading impression.

First Sentence:
By the time I meet the mayor of Lambeau Field, he's already had a few.

1My mother went to hear the author speak in Dallas, and they gave away a door prize to the person that had been in the most professional, semi-pro, or collegiate stadiums; I believe the winner was in the low 50s. This idea fascinated me, so I went through my history and tried to record all the places I've seen some sort of organized sport. Turns out it is quite a few, but I have multiple friends that leave me in the dust here. I look forward to expanding this list over the coming years!

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Legacies, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Legacies, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Modesitt is a prolific author, and I've read literally dozens of his novels—and enjoyed them all. Legacies is the first (of eight so far) of yet another series, and it follows the same basic pattern as most of his work: young man discovers he has a once-in-a-lifetime magical talent, teaches himself how to use said talent while keeping it hidden from everyone, learns to be an exceptional soldier and leader, and single-handedly disposes of a horrible oppressor that was threatening the world at large. That said, the pattern is still quite entertaining and compelling enough I read this nearly 600 page book in a single day. One thing I don't remember in other Modesitt novels is how the music is so recognizable; in several places people sing and the lyrics are clearly all based on popular tunes such as "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" and "Seven Drunken Nights". When reading "Saddled, and booted, / and bridled rode they..." it was easy to picture the mournful tune and the loneliness of the vocalist. This extra dimension allowed the songs to be performed rather than just read, bring that much more impact to these scenes.

While the villain is obvious, the effects of her villainy are not as blatantly evil as in most fantasy tropes. The Matrial has enslaved all men (and uncooperative women) in her lands with a magical collar; free will still exists, but the all-female ruling class can punish or kill anyone with a collar that has been accused of a crime. The overseers can also tell when someone is lying, so theoretically justice is harsh but fair. As a result, the land is largely peaceful (but aggressive towards its neighbors) and both scarcity and abuse have largely been eliminated. However, men aren't given a choice about wearing collars (the situation of children isn't addressed; unclear when a boy is equipped) and POWs are all forcibly fitted and made to serve in the army. The ruling women aren't all bastions of honor either; in one scene two accused criminals are put to death, when it was clear to the judge and executioner that one was innocent. After living in this world (with a collar) for a year or so, our hero is conflicted, wondering if the end justifies the means as this land is seemingly much more equitable than his homeland, where poverty and vice is common, and the rich have unbalanced power over the poor. Urban and rural, rich and poor, male and female, freedom and slavery, right and wrong—all these dualities are examined and the results are thoughtfully not always black and white.

First Sentence:
In the quiet of the early twilight of a late summer day, a woman sat in a rocking chair under the eaves of the porch, facing east, rocking gently.

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