The Browser's Bookweb
Non-Fiction Shelf

A False Spring by Pat Jordan

"What would I be without baseball? I could think of nothing. I stopped at a red light, an interminable red light. And it was then, for the first time, that I began to wonder...why?"

Jacket text:

    Behind every major leaguer stands a score of players in the minor leagues hoping to take away his job. And behind each of them are hundreds who never even come that close to their dream and can only watch from the sidelines.

    Pat Jordan knew the glory of that first step: high school hero, local celebrity, signed to a big bonus contract by the Milwaukee Braves when he was just eighteen years old. But that spring of greatness and promise was a false spring; Jordan spent three years in the backwaters of baseball, in towns like McCook, Nebraska, and Waycross, Georgia, watching his dreams die. A False Spring is his unforgettable memoir of those years; rueful and bittersweet, it is a story of failure but one redeemed by his ability to tell it.

    "His spring may have been false, but not his prose. He is as unsparingly accurate and perceptive in his portrayal of himself as he is in his treatment of the often sad people and towns that make up the mostly bleak landscape of minor league America...A False Spring is one of the most fabulous failure stories of our times."
    —Kansas City Star

    "A major triumph...always pleasurably stimulating, and often poignant."
    —The Philadelphia Inquirer

    A False Spring, by turns rueful, amused, nostalgic and disgusted, is just fascinating, probably the best book imaginable about baseball's underpinnings."
    —The Boston Globe

    "One of the fifteen sports books everyone says you must have."
    —Sports Illustrated

    "Jordan is a major-league writer and has written an unforgettable book."
    —Los Angeles Times

    "One of the best and truest books about baseball, and about coming to maturity in America."

I wouldn't watch any other sport if you paid me, but I love baseball (even when my beloved Orioles are this pathetic). The sport has a certain mythic aura to it, and A False Spring manages to both capture and deflate that myth. Yes, it's a story about baseball, but it's also about all the little towns around the country that exist solely for the sake of baseball, and about the people and players that populate them.

Other bookweb baseball books: The Dreyfus Affair, Shoeless Joe

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Mushroom: The Story of the A-Bomb Kid by John Aristotle Phillips and David Michaelis

"This is the story of a Great American Whoopee."

Jacket text:

    John Aristotle Phillips is the Princeton student who became world-famous when he designed an atomic bomb both to demonstrate the dangers of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and to fulfil his academic requirements.

    Prior to this, John had average grades, played the cowbell in the Princeton Marching Band (before he was fired), auditioned to become the Princeton Tiger Mascot (and got the job—because no one else showed up for the tryouts), rode his unicycle around campus, and started a pizza delivery service.

    But once he designed the bomb, it wasn't long before newspapers interviewed him, television filmed him, girls chased him, foreign governments approached him, spies contacted him, the United States Senate congratulated him, Hollywood beckoned with its bent finger, and a Madison Avenue book publisher fought off the competition for the right to publish his story.

    This is the story, then, of what happens when an Obscure Individual becomes a Personality. It is the story of instant fame, of idealism, of success at a very young age, of college life today, and of a friendship that has resulted in the writing of this funny, fetching, edifying memoir of a glorious time spent in a marvelous cause.

    Here is one kid who set out to make a point and change the world. Here is one kid, triumphant.

Written in 1978, Mushroom is startlingly current. Its tale of instant celebrity sounds like something from today's headlines (the media apparently hasn't changed much in 20 years), and its warnings about the dangers of nuclear power are still powerful. It's interesting, though, to see how the ideas have aged: America's attituide about the likelihood of nuclear war has changed. But bombs and celebrity and college hijinks is only part of what Mushroom is about. At its heart, Mushroom is actually a surprisingly tender story about the unusually deep friendship between Michaelis and Phillips.

Mushroom is out of print but easily found: Amazon will usually turn it up in a day or so, and the Advanced Book Exchange usually lists a dozen or so copies.

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Only Spring: on mourning the death of my son by Gordon Livingston, M.D.

"Deeper than the silence of death is the fear of forgetting."

Jacket text:

    The loss of my son has illuminated for me the true definition of love: the giving of oneself, body and spirit, to another. His death, like that of any child, is a story of withered hopes and unfulfilled dreams. In this book, I have tried to capture a few remembered strains of the brief, glad music of his life. These are all I have of him now, and they comfort me even as they break my heart.

    The loss of a child is every parent's most unspeakable fear. Gordon Livingston survived that tragedy not once but twice in successive years. His story, etched here in lyrical prose, will touch the heart of every man and woman who knows the singular intensity of a child's love and the rare strength it can inspire.

    Livingston, a psychiatrist and writer, lost two of his sons—one to suicide, the other to leukemia. Only Spring, the journal he began keeping when the family was given six-year-old Lucas's diagnosis, traces the excruciating ordeal of witnessing his child's courageous battle and the agonizing cycle of faith lost and regained as Livingston begins to heal from Lucas's death.

    Crafted in a present-moment narrative barreling toward its inexorable climax, the journal carries us through stretches of hope, torment, and even joy as Livingston, his wife, Clare, and family watch Lucas's condition fluctuate and ultimately decline, and then begin to rebuild their lives without him. Despite his medical training, Livingston finds himself terrifically ill-equipped for the emotional anguish and helplessnss he feels as he tries to hold himself and his family together. Yet this heartbreakingly beautiful account of his struggle to maintain hope and strength—first for Lucas and then for himself—has a poignant irony. For it is from Lucas that Livingston gains real strength and learns that love is the ultimate act of faith.

    As a memorial, Only Spring will introduce you to a remarkable child whose legacy of love and hope can enrich us. As a portrait of survival, it will infuse us with the strength and faith to confront the greatest challenges in our lives.

Note: I've linked the above to so that you can read the comments and reviews of the book, but it looks like they won't have copies available for a while. The best way to order Only Spring is it order it directly from Dr. Livingston.

Two years ago, I was at a meeting of the Howard County High School Student Writers Alliance when a strange coincidence occured that changed my life. At each meeting, a professional writer attended and spoke with the group; at this particular meeting, Dr. Livingston was the guest. At the time, I don't think any of us knew of Only Spring. Also at each meeting, members brought a piece to be critiqued by this group. At this meeting, I brought a narrative essay called "M&Ms and Daffodils." It was about my mother, who had died of cancer the year before. I rarely talk about my mom with other people—"M&Ms" was somewhat of an abberation for me. Looking back, I still can't quite believe I happened to bring it to the one meeting where it would be read by someone who had lived through something so similar. Dr. Livingston not only gave me a copy of Only Spring, he helped me find a publisher for my essay (it eventually ran in several newspapers and was syndicated by Scripps Howard News Service). It was my first major publishing credit, and it has helped me enormously in my pursuit of a writing "career." More importantly, the letters I recieved from people who read my essay still serve as a powerful reminder to me of why I write: to join my thoughts and memories with those of others.

So for all those reasons, this bookweb is dedicated to Dr. Livingston and Lucas, who continues, six years after his death, to change peoples lives for the better. And, of course, to my mother.

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Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet by Michael Wolff

"It had happened so quickly. Where other industries developed over decades, the Internet had popped into being overnight. Who was prepared for it? Not corporate America, not the technology business, not the media industry, and, above all, not the people who suddenly had to create profitable businesses."

Jacket text:

    For much of the 1990s, starting up a business on the Internet offered young go-getters with a taste for risk the fastest route to glittering prosperity. Our light-speed economy has made possible a new American dream, to take an idea overnight from the kitchen table to hundreds of millions of dollars in market value. But the desperate Internet entrepreneur knows — every day, every night — that the chances of success and survival dwindle at the same rate as the cash evaporates. Make the right deals, announce the right products at the right time, and the investors will beat down your doors with money. Falter, and the venture capitalists will eat you alive.

    Michael Wolff was one of the first to see the potential of the Internet and one of the pioneers of new media. As he labored to build his own company, Wolff, a former journalist, knew he had stumbled on the seminal business story of the 1990s. Burn Rate is about the heart-in-your-throat struggle of being an entrepreneur. It is about witnessing an industry being born: the founding of Wired magazine, the launch of Time Warner's much-touted Pathfinder, the conflict between content centered on the East Coast and technology on the West Coast, the rise of search engines, the dominance and dysfunctionality of America Online, and the thud of Microsoft stumbling and falling down on the Net.

    In the precarious world of the Internet, where income is a rosy projection and profit little more than a hope and a prayer, a company is no better than the confidence it radiates to its potential partners. After the freewheeling early years of the World Wide Web, the financial prospects of fledgling Web businesses collectively dropped in one stunning month when Wired, the most famous Internet company, failed to launch its stock. Wolff found himself at the head of a rapidly expanding company with seven weeks of capital remaining, trapped between the insatiable needs of his business and the chilling machinations of his investors. With the clock ticking, his only hope was to strike a winning deal.

    With mordant wit, Burn Rate portrays life on the bleeding edge of capitalism — a realm where your savior, the venture capitalist, may also be your undoing. A Faustian figure, the venture capitalist reveals to Michael Wolff the secret workings of business, as well as the human dimensions of how companies are made, bought, and sold. But the price he asks in return is steep. He never risks too much of his own money but makes sure that he will profit best and first from the entrepreneur's work.

    As Wolff builds his business, you'll get to know the geeks, billionaires, weasels, and, of course, visionaries he meets along the way. Louis Rossetto, the unemployed expat who creates Wired. Walter Isaacson, the prince of Time Warner, who throws the resources of America's largest media company behind the Web. The boy investor, the "dumb money" who backs Wolff's company. Halsey Minor, the executive recruiter who founds a publishing empire on the Net. The CMP boys, the computer magazine publishers who are desperate to get into the Internet game. Robert Maxwell's children, whose high-flying company is one of the first bubbles to burst on the Internet. Even Barry Diller, who advises Wolff that getting in on the ground floor is only good if you're still standing at the end.

    Wolff discovers, much to his own consternation, that his work, inspiration, and imagination entitle him to no more than a minor share of his own company's wealth. And, in the end, he may only be along for the ride.

OK, I'm recommending this book somewhat reluctantly. The book itself is fascinating. The author has what we shall gently term "character issues." Everyone in Silicon Alley has read the book and can't wait to point out an inaccuracy or six. Wolff's ex-employees have horror stories to tell and still want blood. Still . . . the book is fascinating.

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Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

"I read more than other kids; I luxuriated in books. Books were my refuge. I sat in corners with my little finger hooked over my bottom lip, reading, in a trance, lost in the places and times to which books took me. And there was a moment during my junior year in high school when I began to believe that I could do what other writers were doing. I came to believe that I might be able to put a pencil in my hand and make something magical happen.
"Then I wrote some terrible, terrible stories."

    No jacket text.

Every bookstore has a section filled with books with title like Thirty Days to Your First Novel! and Secrets Every Writer Needs to Know. Anne Lamott isn't interested in the details of manuscript formatting and landing an agent. Her book is about the strange determination that drives people to spend hours pounding away on keyboards and how to turn those hours into productive ones. It's about life, and capturing it on paper. It's also extremely funny.

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Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

"I agree that readers are often poorly served when an author writes as an act of catharsis, as I have done here. But I hoped something would be gained by spilling my soul in the calamityís immediate aftermath, in the roil and torment of the moment. I wanted my account to have a raw, ruthless sort of honesty that seemed in danger of leaching away with the passage of time and the dissipation of anguish."

Jacket text:

    When Jon Krakauer reached the summit of Mt. Everest in the early afternoon of May 10, 1996, he hadn't slept in fifty-seven hours and was reeling from the brain-altering effects of oxygen depletion. As he turned to begin the perilous descent from 29,028 feet (roughly the crusing altitude of an Airbus jet), twenty other climbers were still pushing doggedly to the top, unaware that the sky had begun to roil with clouds . . .

    In this definitive account of the deadliest season in the history of Everest, Jon Krakauer takes the reader step-by-step from Katmandu to the mountainís deadly pinnacle, unfolding a breathtaking story that will by turns thrill and terrify.

    "A harrowing tale of the perils of high-altitude climbing, a story of bad luck and worse judgement and of heartbreaking heroism."

    "Wrenching . . . lucid . . . it is impossible to read this book unmoved. "
    Entertainment Weekly

    "Every bit as unnerving as his 1996 bestseller Into the Wild. "
    The New York Times

    "Ranks among the great adventure books of all time.
    The Wall Street Journal

This one was a bestseller with good reason: the story is gripping and the storytelling so clear and natural itís easy to overlook how tricky this story must have been to write, both emotionally and technically. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I've heard Krakauerís previous book, Into the Wild, is equally brilliant.