Book Review: ‘God’s Middle Finger’ by Richard Grant

'God's Middle Finger' by Richard Grant

God’s Middle Finger
Author: Richard Grant
Genre: Travel Narrative
Original Release: March 4, 2008

Although I have only been averaging one (usually small) trip a year, I am a traveler at heart. I love visiting new areas, learning about their culture and soaking up as many sights as I can see. Unfortunately, travel is expensive, and I have nowhere near the resources to go abroad as often as I would like. That’s where my addiction to travel narratives comes in. I am a huge sucker for a good travel book so I can romanticize about places unseen and live vicariously through the authors. It’s also fun to read about places that would not be at the top of my must-visit list, especially those that are generally considered dangerous for American tourists (or anyone in general).

God’s Middle Finger is one such travel narrative that caught my eye while perusing Portland, Oregon’s legendary Powell’s Books. Author Richard Grant, a thrill-seeking Englishman, decided he wanted to visit the infamously lawless land of the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. Widely considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the world, the Sierra Madre is almost entirely controlled by narcotraficantes (drug traffickers). Law enforcement is sporadic, and the majority of officers are corrupt. It’s basically anything goes, and murder, rape and kidnapping are all common occurrences.

Map of the Sierra Madre

Map of the Sierra Madre

Generally it’s a bad idea to visit the area, but Grant was lured by his sense of adventure as well as his genuine interest in the way of life of its civilians. His initial plan was to follow the nearly 900 mile long range from beginning to end, all while finding locals to act as guides. The beginning of his journey is essentially a game of “pass the gringo”, as he is transferred from one local to another, working his way through the mountains. He is frequently told not to travel alone, but he grows cocky the farther he goes, and eventually rides solo.

Not smart. The book’s prologue directly tells us what’s to come — it opens with Grant being hunted in the middle of the night by two drunk men. Naturally, this happened while traveling alone, unarmed, and in the dark. It’s a hell of a way to open a book, and I was hooked immediately after that point.

It takes a long time for the book to come back to the prologue, and when it does, it ends rather abruptly, but the journey to that point is a very fun read. Grant encounters a number of ridiculous people on the way, most of whom are either heavily armed and/or drunk. He attends religious ceremonies that feature natives getting piss drunk and beating the hell out of each other. He goes treasure hunting with a friendly Mormon, snorts cocaine with the local police, binge drinks with forceful drug lords, and even attempts to teach English at one of the rare local elementary schools. And, of course, he gets hunted in the wild.

As you would guess, there is a lot of craziness contained in this book, and it makes for a very quick read. Grant also generously shares some fascinating history lessons that provide some insight into the Sierra Madre’s culture. It’s hard to imagine that such a ruthless land exists mere minutes from the U.S. border, and it’s also shocking to hear just how much the Mexican economy relies on its drug trafficking (most of which is purchased here). Fans of adventure, travel and/or history should look up God’s Middle Finger — you won’t be disappointed.

8/10

 
As a companion piece to this novel, tomorrow I will be writing about the 1948 classic film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Book Review: “The Book of Basketball” by Bill Simmons

"The Book of Basketball" by Bill Simmons

The Book of Basketball
Author: Bill Simmons
Original Release: October 27, 2009

Bill Simmons’ “The Book of Basketball” is huge. Well, perhaps “huge” is an understatement. This sucker is massive, a full 700 pages of material. This is the Sports Guy given free reign to write as much as he wants about his favorite subject, basketball.

The Book of Basketball is essentially split up into two main sections. The first half of the book is all over the place, but its main focus is on the history of the sport from its inception through 1984. Why stop at 1984, you ask? As Simmons says, “I needed something extra for the paperback.” Outside of the written history, Simmons lists his top 33 “What If?” scenarios and includes a lengthy chapter on the immortal Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell debate (his take? Russell, easily). In the second half of the book, Simmons creates his fantasy Hall of Fame in what is essentially his list of the top 96 players of all time, all of whom are ranked in different tiers. It is a very, very long list, and ideally could have been a full-length book in its own right. He also writes about the best teams of all time, and his theoretical best lineup using players of all eras. To put it mildly, this is an exhaustive book.

Given the elongated nature of this opus, it is not surprising that Simmons has a tendency to ramble. He gets off on tangents very easily, often writing about random pop culture nuggets in comparison to the NBA. He is able to get away with this for the most part by including footnotes at the bottom of nearly every single page in the book. Seriously, the dude has a footnote fetish. Some pages have footnotes that take up at least half of the text. This bizarre format definitely takes some getting used to, but the notes are usually entertaining.

This free-form rambling is both a gift and a curse, although Simmons does have a knack for some well-timed jokes. He is a genuinely funny writer, and I found myself laughing a lot while reading. I could have done without some of his 80s pop culture references (was a rant comparing Kobe Bryant to Teen Wolf really necessary?), but for the most part this is a wildly entertaining book.

If you are a fan of the sport, you will enjoy The Book of Basketball. While its excessive length is daunting and could have been trimmed a bit, I found the book to be a surprisingly quick read. Nearly every subject in NBA history is touched upon, and really, who doesn’t enjoy reading lists about the greatest (of anything) of all time? Bill Simmons is a man who knows the game inside out and isn’t afraid to tackle any issue, even discussing racial differences at length, and this makes him all the more gratifying.

8/10

– Helpful tip: If you do end up reading this book, make sure you have this Interactive Guide open in your browser. It has video clips and other helpful media to correspond with what Simmons is talking about.

Silent Bob Speaks: The Collected Writings of Kevin Smith [2005]

Silent Bob Speaks: The Collected Writings of Kevin Smith

Silent Bob Speaks: The Collected Writings of Kevin Smith
Author: Kevin Smith
Original Release: April 2005

Kevin Smith is a fat-ass fashioner of marginally successful films who isn’t hung very well. Now before you hang me out to dry for that remark, it should be noted that those are *his exact words*, not mine. If you aren’t familiar with the popular director (Clerks, Mallrats, etc.), then you will quickly realize that much of Smith’s banter in his writings is very self-derogatory. The dude thinks very little of himself and doesn’t understand how he has a following. While these ramblings are occasionally amusing, Smith beats this to death by bashing himself over and over again.

Silent Bob Speaks is a collection of writings that Kevin Smith posted on the internet in the first half of the last decade. Self-bashing is a common thread, as mentioned earlier. There are also equal parts discussing his “heterosexual man crush” on Ben Affleck, random comic book ramblings (including his thoughts on the first Spiderman movie), and reports on his issues with morbid obesity. Since the essays were published at various times, there is a lack of cohesiveness between them. Perhaps as a result, the writings are very much hit-and-miss.

There are a handful of great chapters in here, such as Smith’s interviews with Tom Cruise and Ben Affleck (especially funny to hear Ben talk with such optimism about his upcoming roles in Daredevil, Gigli and Jersey Girl — how did that turn out again?). And of course, Smith is actually quite gifted with his humor, although sometimes his lack of confidence causes him to be crude just to try to get a laugh.

Silent Bob Speaks is a quick read, but only hardcore Smith fans will get maximum enjoyment out of this. I like the guy, even though his work has lately been spotty at best, but I just wish he would lay off the self-deprecating tangents. Look, Kevin, you are a genuinely funny guy. Stick to your guns and write with confidence — your work will be all the better for it.

6/10

Moneyball [Michael Lewis, 2003]

Moneyball [Michael Lewis, 2003]

Moneyball
Author: Michael Lewis
Original Release: 2003

Moneyball is the story of the Oakland Athletics and their general manager Billy Beane, back in the early 2000’s when they were winning games left and right despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the league. While there have been a number of small market teams in recent years to have found success (the Twins and Rays, to name a couple), the story of the A’s is novel because of Beane’s approach to building a team. Beane and his trusting group of assistants threw traditional viewpoints out the window and focused on cold, hard statistics to lead the way. In lieu of paying much attention to standard stats such as RBIs, steals and batting average, the A’s front office focused on OBP (on base percentage) and slugging percentage. Beane, his top assistant Paul DePodesta and others were avid fans of Bill James and his followers of Sabermetrics. These guys wanted players who would take pitches and get on base, not guys who would swing for the fences all of the time or took “unnecessary risks” by attempting to steal a base. This strategy produced outstanding results. In 2001 and 2002, the A’s won 102 and 103 games respectively, and they made the playoffs every year from 2000-03. With their $41 million payroll, they were putting up comparable results to the Yankees, who were spending in excess of $125 million.

The fact that Oakland was able to compete at all with that budget is just outstanding, and reading about the methodology and the management’s thought processes behind their moves is fascinating. Michael Lewis really excels with Moneyball, as he makes baseball statistics seem as exciting as an action thriller. There are so many great stories intertwined in the book that provide even more insight into the team. We learn about Billy Beane’s failures as a baseball player and what ultimately made him pursue a job in the front office. We read about Scott Hatteberg, a former Red Sox catcher who was unable to play behind the plate anymore due to injuries and therefore lost any appeal to 95% of baseball’s teams. Beane coveted Hatteberg since he was a guy who got on base a lot, signed him to a paltry deal and then stuck him at first base where he had no experience playing (every ground ball hit his way gave him a “mini panic attack”). Hatteberg proceeded to put up some impressively consistent numbers and grew confidence on the field. There’s also a chapter about Chad Bradford, an unorthodox relief pitcher stuck in AAA hell with the White Sox, who Beane savvily acquires for practically a bag of peanuts, and then goes on to become one of the key components in the team’s bullpen. Perhaps most intriguing are the moments where we get to listen in on Beane trying to pull a fast one on other general managers, essentially working his ass off to find trades that benefit him yet make the other GMs feel like they got a “fucking A” trade. Never mind the fact that certain teams refuse to even talk to Beane since they got swindled one too many times before. The man has a gift, and he sure knows it.

There’s also a large portion of the book dedicated to the now-infamous 2002 MLB draft in which the A’s selected a bunch of guys in the first round who weren’t even on other teams’ draft boards. Although they did get some players who have had lasting success in the big leagues (albeit to varying degrees) such as Nick Swisher, Mark Teahen and Joe Blanton, they also had their fair share of busts like the “fat-bodied catcher” Jeremy Brown, Ben Fritz and Stephen Obenchain. Still, it was very interesting to look into Beane’s mind and experience his wide range of emotions when he realized he was going to be able to get all of the players he wanted.

Since Moneyball was published in 2003, other teams have adapted to Oakland’s strategy, and many have incorporated the theories into their own systems. There are still critics of Beane’s ideas, especially since the A’s never found much success in the postseason despite winning so many games in the regular season. The aforementioned playoff run from 2000-03 had the same result every year — a heartbreaking game five loss in the first round. Still, you can’t deny that the team really had something special going on during that time. It’s always fun to see David stand up to Goliath, isn’t it? Moneyball is an excellent read from beginning to end, providing insight into a creative front office while delivering entertaining side stories along the way. This is one of the best baseball books available, and I highly recommend it if you are into the sport at all.

9/10

– Also, it should be noted that Moneyball is currently being made into a movie starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and it is coming out in September of this year. Could it turn out as well as The Social Network? One can only hope…

Questions For The Movie Answer Man [Roger Ebert, 1997]

Questions For The Movie Answer Man [Roger Ebert]

Questions For The Movie Answer Man
Author: Roger Ebert
Original Release: June 1997

In my latest trip to the library, I decided to peruse the movie book section. Naturally, being in Chicago, there were a large number of books by Roger Ebert sitting on the shelf. I decided to pick up a couple of them since I have been gaining a larger appreciation for his work as of late. One of these books, Questions For The Movie Answer Man, is a compilation of his newspaper columns in which he would answer questions about movies submitted by his readers.

Since this book was published in 1997, it is obviously rather dated. Ebert frequently brings up CompuServe, VHS tapes, LaserDiscs and other technological mediums that are indicative of the time period. A good portion of the book’s content is based on popular movies during that time as well — there are multiple Q&As about Forrest Gump, Independence Day and Pulp Fiction, just to name a few examples. Some of these references are laughable today, as are many of the questions that readers have sent in. It’s hard to find any utility in this book in this day and age since we now have the ability to use IMDB and Wikipedia to obtain movie information, and even Snopes to learn about urban legends (i.e. the infamous munchkin hanging from Wizard of Oz).

I have no doubts that in 1997 this book would have been a fun, quick read. However, not even Ebert’s quick wit can make this dated publication worth reading today. While I got a chuckle out of a handful of his occasional snarky replies, I can’t help but feel I should have just watched a movie instead of taking the time to read this. Do yourself a favor and go to the cinema instead — I’m sure even Ebert would approve of this behavior.

5/10

1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die [2010]

1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die

1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die
Author: Tony Mott, et al.
Original Release: October 26, 2010

Generally speaking, I am a fan of the “1001 (x) you must do before you die” book series. While none of them can hardly be described as the definitive source on their subjects, they are typically well-written and diverse enough to be good coffee table books. The series’ latest addition, 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die, was awfully intriguing to me. Unfortunately, it has a number of issues that make it the weakest edition I have read yet.

First and foremost, the book caters heavily toward recent games. While there is a surprisingly healthy portion dedicated to early 80’s arcade games, at least half of the book focuses on games from 2000 to present. This is a little ridiculous considering how many great 8 and 16-bit games were omitted from the list. Several lesser-known systems such as the Turbografx-16 were woefully overlooked as well.

Now, onto bitching about games missing and/or included. There are some absolutely painful omissions. Suikoden III is included, but not I or II? Neither of the NES Contra games are listed, or any of the NES Castlevanias for that matter. No Crash Bandicoot games at all? Does every single Grand Theft Auto game (including separate entries for the GTA IV expansions) need to be included? Are four Rock Band and five Guitar Hero games really necessary? There are also far too many subpar 360/PS3 games included, such as Just Cause, Prey, and The Darkness, just to name a few. These could have been fleshed out with actual, genuinely good classics from previous eras.

I feel the overall book could have been edited a bit more. There are a handful of odd little inaccuracies listed, and some of the writeups really don’t say much about the games themselves. Also, I can’t help but mention that Ico is name-checked in the foreword written by Peter Molyneux as one of his favorite games, yet it is not listed in the top 1001. Huh?

Truth be told, although the book has its share of faults, it is still a fairly interesting read and can provoke some interesting discussions amongst gamers, which is exactly what a coffee table book of this sort should do. It’s not a *bad* book by any means, but it’s just disappointing as a whole. If you are a video game fan, give it a look but don’t go into it with high expectations.

6/10

For those curious, someone did post the complete list found in the book @ http://pastebin.com/r7zqbbvu It should be noted, however, that the book lists the games via year rather than ABC order.

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas [1971]

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas
Author: Hunter S. Thompson
Original Release: November 1971

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

This is quite possibly my favorite opening sentence from a novel, and it sets the tone for the drug-addled adventure that is Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. The story is an exaggerated account of Hunter S. Thompson’s pursuit of the American Dream in Las Vegas. Accompanied by “Dr. Gonzo,” his faithful attorney, Thompson (as Raoul Duke) is initially sent out to Vegas to report on the off road race known as the Mint 400. However, this work is quickly scrapped in favor of just getting blitzed and then becoming involved in random bizarre adventures.

Fear and Loathing is absolutely hilarious, and is certainly one of the funniest books I have ever read. Duke and his attorney find themselves in some very precarious situations. On their ride into Vegas in the “Great Red Shark” (their rented red Chevy convertible), they pick up a hitchhiker who quickly becomes scared shitless by their drug-induced craze. In Vegas, Dr. Gonzo brings a Jesus and Barbara Streisand loving innocent young girl back to their hotel room, where he proceeds to give her acid (when she had never even gotten high before). There is also an extremely amusing encounter with a hotel maid who stumbles into their room when both Duke and his attorney are stark naked. The dialogue is just incredible here, and Thompson’s unique way of writing makes everything even more entertaining.

As mentioned earlier, there is a lot of drug use in this book. The characters are frequently in a state of paranoia because of this, and often see some ridiculous hallucinations (which are brought to life by Ralph Steadman’s amazing illustrations). Just read their drug haul that they brought with them to Vegas:

“We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”

If you think that sounds insane, well, you are absolutely right! Some people are turned off from this book because of the drug binges, but if you do so you are missing out on a wildly entertaining and witty novel that also indulges in biting satire. I have lent my copy of this book out to many friends and family members, all of whom have also loved this. Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas is one of my favorite books of all time, a rare novel that I can read over and over again without losing interest. If you are able, pick up the Modern Library version of the book, which also comes with two of Thompson’s short stories. I cannot recommend this book enough!

10/10