Wednesday, February 20, 2019

On the Coffee Table: Alejandro Danois

Title: The Boys of Dunbar: A Story of Love, Hope, and Basketball
Author: Alejandro Danois
Image result for boys of dunbar
via Amazon
I am rarely one for impulse buys in general and I am particularly methodical (some would say compulsive) in my book purchases.  But when I learned of The Boys of Dunbar, I knew I had to have it.  It is, among other things, the story of two of my favorite athletes of any sport or era: Reggie Williams and Muggsy Bogues.

Williams was an All-American superstar in both high school and college.  He was the captain of the 1986-87 Georgetown Hoyas, dubbed "Reggie and the Miracles" by their coach John Thompson, the team that made me fall in love with college basketball (more on that here).  He never made it big in the pros, partly due to injuries but more because he was undersized for his natural position, a more common problem than most NBA fans probably realize.  Still, a 10-year career in the league with a double-digit scoring average is nothing to sneeze at.

Williams's best friend growing up in Baltimore was Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues.  It's far more likely  you've heard of him: at 5'3", the shortest player in NBA history.  He outdid his buddy, playing in the pros for 14 years.  He is, by any reasonable measure, one of the most extraordinary athletes who has ever lived.  See video highlights here.

Williams and Bogues were the two best players on what is widely considered to be the greatest high school basketball team of all-time: the Dunbar Poets, 1981-82.  Two other players from that team went on to the NBA.  David Wingate's defensive genius kept him in the league for 15 years.  Reggie Lewis played for the Celtics for six seasons before his life was cut short by a congenital heart defect.  Lewis wasn't even a starter at Dunbar, yet he was the only one of the four to be named an NBA all-star.  The Boys of Dunbar tells the story of this team, its coach Bob Wade and the community from which it spawned.

As a sports fan, I usually pull for the underdog and truth be told, Dunbar wasn't much of one.  The Poets began the season ranked #5 in the country and won all of their games, average margin of victory 30 points.  That's not to say there weren't hardships to overcome.  All of the players came from poverty, East Baltimore suffering from the same drug-fueled violence as many other urban centers in that time period.  Included in the book are the stories of other Dunbar greats whose aspirations were destroyed by addiction.  Long-term success was not taken for granted.

Bogues is the star of the tale.  In the pre-YouTube world, opposing teams often took him as a joke when Dunbar showed up for an away game.  His competitive spirit fueled by the doubts of others, he only needed a few seconds of game time to set the record straight.  Muggsy wasn't merely good enough.  He dominated every game he played at the high school level.  He developed an unconventional approach, knowing that if he played the same way everybody else did, his height would be a liability.  Incorporating not only basketball skill but also the instincts of the champion wrestler he'd been in middle school, he could steal the ball seemingly anytime he wanted it.  He ran the fast break expertly and in the half-court, made sharp passes even his teammates didn't always see coming.  By game's end, the same hostile crowds who jeered him on the way in often gave him standing ovations.  With Muggsy at point guard, Dunbar was literally unbeatable.  In his two years at the school, the Poets had a combined record of 60-0. 

The story connects strongly to both of the college teams I grew up with.  Both Wingate and Williams played on Georgetown's 1984 national championship team, Williams named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four as a freshman.  Coach Wade went from Dunbar to the University of Maryland, assigned to clean up the program after the death of Len Bias.  Unfortunately, scandal ran too deep for even Wade to handle and he never coached again after leaving the job in disgrace three years later.  Add the triumph of Bogues and the tragedy of Lewis and the '81-'82 Dunbar team remains one of the most remarkable stories in basketball history.

I loved the book, though I was always going to.  If my affection is colored by my affection for the subject, so be it.  While I will concede that Danois could probably have done with a better editor, I would gladly read more books like The Boys of Dunbar.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Squid Mixes: Brandy Sour

The sour began its rise to prominence in the 1860s.  Whiskey was the most common base liquor but brandy, rum and gin sours were also popular.  I got my recipe from David Wondrich's Imbibe: brandy, water, sugar and the juice of half a lemon.  As with many older drinks, it's mixed directly in the glass, though more recent recipes call for shaking.  I prefer whiskey but brandy's nice for a change of pace.

Monday, February 18, 2019

On the Coffee Table: The Fade Out

Title: The Fade Out, Act One
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Author: Sean Phillips
Image result for the fade out act one
via Wikipedia
Comic book noir.

Charlie, a struggling screenwriter, wakes up in an unfamiliar bath tub after a little-remembered evening of drunken carousing.  On the living room floor, he finds a beautiful starlet strangled to death.  As he works to piece things together, the dark, manipulative, misogynist world of late '40s Hollywood unfolds.  Every man's a womanizer.  The studio boss has a casting couch (maybe?) and secret passages.  The more we learn, the more twisted the tale becomes.

The Fade Out is just the sort of story my wife loves so it's no surprise she discovered it first.  Act One collects the first four of the twelve-issue run, originally published from 2014-2016.  So far, the protagonist narrator is one of the least interesting characters though that changes as we gradually learn more about him, including the fact he worked with Clark Gable on his war documentaries.  The artwork is dark and pulpy, a good fit for the genre.  Definitely an R rating: nudity, violence and language.

I'm certainly in for this one through to the end.  Gotta know what happened!

Friday, February 15, 2019

A Window Above: I'm Going to Go Back There Someday

Song: "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday"
Writer: Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher
Original Release: 1979
Performer: Gonzo (voiced by Dave Goelz)
Album: The Muppet Movie: Original Soundtrack Recording

"There's not a word yet
For old friends who've just met."



This song comes up at a low point in The Muppet Movie.  Our felted friends are stranded in the desert, their trip to Hollywood seemingly put on permanent hold.  In a wistful moment, Gonzo sings this song.  It's sad.  It's sweet.  It's beautiful.  It's every bit as enigmatic as Gonzo himself, the tune capturing the mood perfectly but the lyrics not quite connected to the rest of the story.  The scene and song would eventually be used as a premise for Muppets in Space, a film released 20 years later.

Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?

Enjoy: A Window Above

What are you listening to these days?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

On the Coffee Table: The Magicians of Caprona

Title: The Magicians of Caprona
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Image result for magicians of caprona
via Amazon
The Magicians of Caprona is the fourth book of Diana Wynne Jones's The Chronicles of Chrestomanci series, according to the author's recommended order.  More on that in a bit.  My previous reflections on the series can be found here and here.

Synopsis: two households, both alike in dignity...  Half-joking but the Romeo and Juliet allusions are undoubtedly intentional.  Caprona is a fictional Tuscan dukedom where two magician families feud.  Furthermore, someone is playing the Montanas and the Petrocchis against each other in an effort to distract both from looming external threats.  Just as with R&J, the story is told from the perspective of the children, drawn together by narrative if not always romantic forces.  Perspective jumps around but if the story has a main character, it is Tonino Montana who is abducted along with his Petrocchi counterpart, Angelica.  As we learn over time, Tonino is a more powerful magician than he or anyone else realizes - a frequent theme in Jones's stories.

Our daughter still claims this series as her favorite and this book as her preference among the bunch.  As a result, the real-world Tuscany was high on her wish list for our family trip to Europe last summer.  While that didn't pan out, her interest hasn't waned.  I enjoyed the story but don't think I would choose it as my favorite.  Jones has a wonderful gift for drawing likeable heroes and detestable villains.  I also appreciate the prominence of cats this time.  She usually favors dogs.  However, there are way too many characters to keep track of - so many uncles and aunts!  Plus, there's a Punch and Judy motif.  That story always creeps me out.

I accidentally read this book out of series order.  I realize that might not seem a big deal to most people but it's the sort of thing that drives me crazy!  In terms of narrative, the order matters little.  Each book is a stand-alone story.  The author, though, did have a recommended order.  Unfortunately, not every publisher has respected her wishes.  The author suggested The Magicians of Caprona as #4, whereas in the edition my daughter owns, it is #3.  In my own compulsive brain, reading a series out of order is a far greater sin than leaving it unfinished.  I'll need to rectify the situation at some point.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Squid Mixes: Pink Lemonade

You're right.  It's not pink.  It smells pink and it tastes pink.  But it doesn't look pink.  Seems a crucial detail.

One benefit of the mocktail hobby is that you can add alcohol to the surplus supply for the adults in the house.  My pink lemonade recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide: vodka, maraschino liqueur and fresh lemonade.  The liqueur is the key to the pinkness.  It's quite tasty and one could certainly add a splash or two of grenadine if anyone is likely to get hung up on appearances.

"Real" pink lemonade is a contrivance anyway.  Even pink lemons - an actual thing - juice clear.  In contemporary commerce, the color is achieved through artificial chemical magic.  If you're interested in the drink's origins, this article from Smithsonian Magazine offers some unsavory theories.

Friday, February 8, 2019

A Window Above: Wagon Wheel

Song: "Wagon Wheel"
Writers: Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor
Original Release: February 24, 2004
Band: Old Crow Medicine Show
Album: O.C.M.S.



"Wagon Wheel" has an amazing story.  Bob Dylan wrote the melody and the chorus - but no verses, at least not coherent ones - back in 1973.  He never finished the song and therefore never released it but it made it on to a bootleg recording:



The tape came into the hands of a young Ketch Secor some 20 years later when he was a teenager at Philip Exeter Academy.  He wrote the verses and when he and his friends formed the band Old Crow Medicine Show in 1998, the song became part of their standard set.

The song became bigger than the band.  It never got significant radio air play but took on a life of its own, making its way around country/bluegrass/folk circles by word of mouth and was eventually certified platinum.  Seemingly everyone learned to play it, enough that it became a popular song request at all concerts, not just Old Crow Medicine Show's - effectively the acoustic world's "Free Bird."  In fact, it became so cliche that many venues have banned the song.  In 2013, Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish fame released a cover that went triple platinum. 

Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?

Enjoy: A Window Above

What are you listening to these days?