Random Friday Question: What to Read at the Beach?
If you were going away to the beach this week, which I'm not, you'd want to take along a pile of books, and if you're like me, you'd never be quite certain about which ones to carry along--Do you do the fun, easy thriller, catch up on the bestseller that folks were talking about a few months ago but aren't anymore, or dip into the classics that you don't have the time or attention span to tackle the rest of the year?
I usually try to take a bit of each of those categories, but this year, I'm looking at a particularly enticing stack of non-fiction, much of it with strong local connections. Check these out as you make your choices:
Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade, by Linda Perlstein.
Perlstein, a former Washington Post education writer and author of a terrific book on middle school life called "Not Much Just Chillin'," spent a year inside Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis to learn just how the No Child Left Behind revolution has altered the lives of children, teachers and parents. Result: She saw a system that has lost its soul, as the proud and historic mission of infecting kids with a love of learning is pushed aside by the grim focus on test scores, to the exclusion of the sense of discovery and search that the best schools can foster and enhance in children.
In "Tested," you see the sand tables, the play time and the naps vanishing from kindgergarten, replaced by administrators who insist on an absolute concentration on teaching reading skills. You hear the superintendent say that "Time is very precious. It's nonsense, as limited as our time and resources are, to pay teachers and teacher assistants to say, 'At 1:30, we're going to turn off the lights and you're going to lie down and sleep for 30 minutes."
And then you see how NCLB's relentless focus on reading and math is squeezing history, science and writing out of the school day, and you start to get very, very angry.
Vogel, a Post reporter who (full disclosure) worked with me in the Germany bureau of the paper in the early 1990s, has produced a biography of one of the world's most famous and iconic buildings that manages to avoid the dry and bureaucratic and become instead a fascinating story of human achievement.
The tale of the building of the Pentagon is one of almost inconceivable determination and speed, at least by today's lax standards. The thing was conceived on a Thursday, planned by Monday, approved by Tuesday and built in a mind-boggling 17 months. No one worried about determining which particular species of bug or bird might live on the site; they just built the building, and Vogel takes us inside the worksite, so intimately that you even meet the guy who handed out the $1 an hour cash payments to the construction workers.
That same insider view returns in the last portion of the book, where Vogel takes you into the 9/11 attack that Hollywood forgot, in a riveting account that continues straight through the reconstruction of the Pentagon, which was accomplished, interestingly enough for those who are all caught up in today's debate over immigration, largely by Salvadoran construction workers who spent their lunch breaks over at the tamales and pupusas truck.
Maske, who covers football for the Post, brings the Moneyball approach to coverage of the NFL, taking you inside the business of the sport to see how the agents, team owners, union bosses, and the commissioner create the illusion that it's all about the action on the gridiron, when really pro football is a corporate behemoth that devotes far more energy to TV contracts, revenue-sharing arrangements and media manipulation than to tackles and touchdowns.
For Washington readers, the scenes that will jump out from this taut tour of a year in the life of one of pro sports' toughest divisions are the intimate views of Redskins owner Dan Snyder, whose endless battle against the independent media that dare to cover his franchise without his approval leads him to cut off most access to daily reporters. Maske pierces the veil: You see the terrible reality of Snyder having to eat a meal without having his personal nutritionist on hand, and you see how late in a lost season, the brash young owner somehow manages to delude himself into believing that something big can still happen--you see, in the end, the boyish hope that beats on in the heart of a guy whose own mania for message control has turned his public image into that of a heartless prig.
Willis Conover: Broadcasting Jazz to the World, by Terence Ripmaster.
Ripmaster, a historian and jazz writer, delivers the first biography of one of the most famous Americans who most Americans have never heard of. Willis Conover was, to generations of people in Asia, Africa, Europe and almost everywhere except this country, the voice of America, the pied piper of American creativity and achievement. As the premier jazz deejay on the Voice of America, our country's shortwave radio outlet to the rest of the planet, Conover brought people, especially behind the Iron Curtain, a view of this country as a place that was confronting racial divisions, supporting the expression of renegade perspectives, and embracing the message of freedom and hope that jazz delivers.
Conover was everything that the United States, in its image abroad today, is not. In places all around the world where America is hated today, the name Willis Conover still draws smiles and releases a reserve of goodwill, yet the bizarrely narrow and smug Ken Burns PBS series on jazz a few years ago managed not even to mention Conover. For several decades, Conover was, along with Muhammad Ali and James Brown, one of the best known American names in the world, and Ripmaster takes us to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where Conover was particularly revered, for a view of how our country still has the power to make friends and demonstrate the American ideals that seem so very lost today.
The Voice: Mel Allen's Untold Story, by Curt Smith
Curt Smith has been a presidential speechwriter, a baseball blogger, and the author of a dozen books, including the classic Voices of the Game, about the great radio play-by-play men in baseball history. Now, he's put out a biography of Mel Allen, the broadcaster who was the Voice of the Yankees from the 1940s to the 1960s and later made "This Week in Baseball" a TV classic. Allen's voice will live on in history, as he was the guy who narrated 3,000 20th Century Fox newsreels, always concluding with the famous sign-off, "This is your Movietone reporter."
Allen's home-run call, "How about that!" has inspired latter-day broadcasters to come up with their own signature calls. Much of the book is devoted to the kind of cool baseball stories that will have fans staying up deep into the night, but the "untold story" of the sub-title refers to Smith's reporting on just why the Yankees sacked Allen in 1964, a media shocker that was never publicly explained.
Allen had become unreliable, given to strange, rambling public speeches, weird silences on the air, and oddly unfriendly behavior. But when the Yankees replaced him with Joe Garagiola, there was no explanation. Smith concludes that Allen was addicted to speed, prescribed for him by the same "Dr. Feelgood" who had supplied amphetamines to John F. Kennedy. It's not exactly proven here, but the story is a compelling one.
Please feel free to add your own selections for this summer reading shelf....
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