Mark Kreidler, author of Four Days to Gloryis a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and contributes regularly to ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.
So, why high school sports? I’ve written so much about professional sports over the last 10 or 15 years, and over the last decade, almost exclusively. There’s nothing like watching people do something at an elite level, whatever that is. The problem is that [pro athletes] really are so insulated from the world we live in that they become, as subjects, as people to write about, brittle. I really loved sports in the beginning, at the high school level, and I think a lot of people got their connection with sports at that level because it’s where towns are identified. I found myself looking for some story that would illustrate that that connection is still there.
Why focus on wrestling? I had read a story somewhere … of this wrestling tournament in Iowa. I found myself thinking, This is something I want to see. [The] arena was filled with 11,000 people, all in groups of about 150 because they all came from tiny towns around Iowa. [T]here are eight different events going on at one time. There’s this sort of cacophony of cheers going on at odd times, because the people at one end of the arena suddenly realize their kid at the other end of the arena just did something great. I remember hearing that described and thinking it would be so great to go back to a place where that’s still possible, where [there’s] genuine enthusiasm.
What was it like to interview high schoolers after all your time with pro athletes? I’m used to dealing with pretty slick operators. Most of the people I interview have been interviewed hundreds of times. This was different in that the kids were so unguarded.
Did it worry you? A little. I just found that if I’m making a fair effort to draw them fully, then I don’t have to worry about any one thing. Kids are contradictory just like adults are. They have contradictory impulses. They want to be seen for not just who they are but who they think they are. That’s all apparent in the book.
What did you learn? [The] connection between sports and small towns is as strong as it was when I was a kid and, I’m sure, when my parents were kids. At the high school level, it’s still completely possible, completely, to be a hero in your hometown for nothing other than being good at a sport.
Michael D’Orso has written books on topics ranging from politics to race to spinal-cord injuries. The idea for Eagle Blue, his 15th book, started with a magazine article he wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1993.
Why is basketball so important in Alaska’s bush villages? [When] the pipeline was put in [in the 1970s], almost every village got at least a very small school, and almost every one of those schools had at least a very small gymnasium. They became the de facto community centers for every village. They were multipurpose, but, along with that, they brought this game. Here are these gyms, these clean, well-lighted places, and here’s this game you can play in them. So basketball just became like a drug. Basketball — which [the kids] love as much as any inner-city kids do, and there are a lot of analogies with inner cities because of the social context of poverty, no future, a horrible education system, life looking pretty grim, lots of drugs and alcohol, lots of teenage pregnancy, suicide — is one thing that they just rally around.
What does the game mean to kids in the villages? Kids who play basketball anywhere in the lower 48 have so many other options and … things to do, from malls to whatever. Up in these villages, still, there is absolutely nothing else going on. It is literally the only game in town.
Edited by Sean Manning (Da Capo, $17)
Taking the cue from other entertainment essay anthologies like Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island and O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors, New York City–based editor Sean Manning rounds up a varied and fascinating crew of scribes to recount their most unforgettable live-music experiences. The bulk of the project’s contributors work in the field of fiction — though a handful of notable rock and jazz writers (Gary Giddins, Charles R. Cross, etc.) do offer their memories as well. The prominent names checking in include Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler, Brokeback Mountain screenwriter Diana Ossana, novelist Rick Moody, and pop-culture commentator Chuck Klosterman. The approaches to each essay are as varied and distinctive as the authors themselves; the pieces range from personal memoir to artistic interpretation, detailed reportage to broad cultural analysis. Mostly, though, the stories are simply good old-fashioned yarns: Kevin Canty recalls a chance sighting of legendary soulman Clarence Carter in a seedy Florida backwater; Robert Polito recounts how he took members of the Pogues, Irish folk-punks, to a Red Sox game and tried to explain, with considerable difficulty, the rules of baseball; and comic-book creator Harvey Pekar tells how free-jazz giant Joe Maneri came to perform in his Cleveland living room. Elsewhere, husband and wife team Robert Burke Warren and Holly George-Warren pen separate accounts of the same performance by Van Morrison, whose music remains an integral part of their romance and relationship. The best and funniest effort, however, comes courtesy of Carl Newman of Canadian indie-pop group the New Pornographers. Newman recounts how a concert and postshow encounter with retro-pop fetishists Redd Kross set him on the path to his own musical career, and the upshot of the story offers a brilliant left-hook punchline. Interestingly, no matter what artist or show, the universal, almost tribal quality of the concertgoing experience — and the significance and memories attached to that experience — is bound to echo a bit of your own personal feelings, as well, making for an engrossing and thought-provoking read. — Bob Bozorgmehr
My Country Roots: The Ultimate MP3 Guide to America’s Original Outsider MusicBy Alice Randall with Carter and Courtney Little (Naked Ink, $15)
Though there haven’t been any empirical studies to support the idea, it’s a safe bet that country-music fans are among the last segment of the population to tap into the downloading phenomenon. Given that, My Country Roots serves a dual purpose: to function as a handy guide for tech newbies and as a road map for MP3-savvy music fans looking to take their first steps into twang territory. Compiled by a trio of Nashville songwriters and featuring a foreword by George Jones — which is funny in itself, as it’s hard to imagine the Possum firing up an iPod and donning a set of headphones, thus disturbing his perfect silver coif — the book is thorough, tapping into mainstream tastes while also getting into the more obscure corners of country-music history. Reading through the book, you also get a sense of the range of what constitutes country — after all, what other genre can legitimately claim artists as diverse as Ray Price, the Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, and Toby Keith under its banner? Broken down into six overarching sections (“Who We Are,” “What We Do,” “How We Feel,” etc.) and 100 different categories divided along musical, stylistic, lyrical, and even geographic lines, the selection offers well-thought-out playlists that feel like personalized mix tapes from a friend with a great record collection. — B.B.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and WorkBy Martin Geck (Harcourt, $40)
Johann Sebastian Bach may have died over 250 years ago, but the critical and academic analysis of his work has continued unabated since then. Yet somehow Martin Geck’s Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work offers, if not an entirely new perspective, perhaps the best understanding to date of what we know about the man widely regarded as the greatest composer of all time. Geck, a professor at the University of Dortmund, originally published the book in his native Germany in 2000. This English-language edition (heroically translated by John Hargraves) is, at a dense 752 pages, quite a staggering work. Chock-full of minute details and offering a well-rounded look at the man, this is not a tome for the fainthearted. While it will certainly engage classical music aficionados, it makes for a difficult read for the uninitiated. Yet those willing to slough through the tougher passages will ultimately be rewarded, as Geck pins down the various motivations — personal, musical, and historical — that shaped Bach’s oeuvre. Bach made his way from being a humble traveling organ tuner to becoming a key influence on the work of future titans like Mozart and Beethoven. Along the way, he clashed with the church and the aristocracy, but he managed to completely change the definition of a composer’s role, from technician to true artist. Like Shakespeare’s, much of Bach’s life remains shrouded in mystery, and Geck is forced to rely on speculation at various points to fill in the gaps. But as recent efforts on the subject have proven, the composer remains a fertile subject matter for biographers and musicologists, and Geck’s effort certainly ranks among the best pieces of Bach scholarship in recent memory. — B.B.
FROM AN AMERICAN WAY CONTRIBUTOR:(Rutledge Hill Press, $25)
Celebrated Weekends: The Stars’ Guide to the Most Exciting Destinations in the World By Mark Seal
The Celebrated Weekend feature in American Way, wherein a bold-faced name lets readers in on a few of his or her favorite things about a particular city, is almost always the most-read story in each issue. The brainchild of Mark Seal, Celebrated Weekend (which got its start in December 1990 under the banner of Celebrated Places, with Jackie Collins’s Hollywood) has long offered a unique peek behind the curtain and into the lives of the rich and famous, without stooping to the “They’re Just Like Us!” theatrics of Us Weekly. More than 300 celebrity interviews later, Seal has compiled about 60 of them into a best-of that ably covers a sizable chunk of the globe, from Denzel Washington’s New York City to Harrison Ford’s Jackson Hole to Jodie Foster’s Berlin to Anthony Hopkins’s Florence and on and on. The result is a travel guide that might not be quite as thorough as a Frommer’s guidebook but that is certainly more entertaining. Unfortunately for Seal, the example he used to get the idea the green light, Jack Nicholson’s Los Angeles, has become his white whale. Maybe he’ll be in the next book. — Zac Crain