One-Minute Book Reviews

August 7, 2007

Mark Kreidler’s Peak Peformance in Sportswriting, ‘Four Days to Glory’

Teenage wrestlers hurl themselves at their limits as the Iowa state championship approaches

Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland. By Mark Kreidler, 262 pp., $24.95

By Janice Harayda

Read enough books by newspaper sportswriters and you will eventually begin to question the principle of freedom of speech. It’s not that these journalists are lazy or unintelligent. But they typically write books about superstars who are so young and so focused on one sport that they have almost nothing to say. And because the athletes are in high demand, they also have little time to give to a book. The sportswriters have to stretch an inadequate number of interviews to tissue-thinness, then flesh them out with tedious rehashes of games that were far more dramatic on ESPN. To see how unedifying the result can be, you need only to read Moving the Chains, the 2006 biography of the Patriots’ Tom Brady by Charles Pierce of The Boston Globe. Any six-inch news story on recent events in Brady’s personal life might tell you more about the quarterback.

Meet Mark Kreidler, a sportswriter who makes you glad that the founders of our country wrote that Bill of Rights. The dust jacket of Four Days to Glory says he has worked for two California newspapers, but his book is far from the usual hagiographic cut-and-paste job. It’s a terrific portrait of high school wrestling in Iowa, a powerhouse in the sport, and a fascinating look at a subculture almost unknown outside the Midwest. If you think the people who bark after every touchdown at Browns games are obsessed, you should meet Iowa wrestlers.

Four Days to Glory tells the story of two high school seniors, Jay Borschel and Dan LeClere, both three-time state champions who aim to join the elite who have won a fourth title. But Kreidler has expanded his focus to include the boys’ families, coaches and teammates, so that his book is always about more than wrestling: It’s about the gut-wrenching impact of the quest on everybody involved. It’s also about the complexities of Iowa, a place where tickets to the state high school wrestling final sell out months in advance, yet nobody scalps tickets because, as one father said, “It would be unsportsmanlike to scalp at an event like this.”

As he follows Borschel and LeClere to the tournament, Kreidler avoids digressions into the less savory aspects of their sport – the steroids, the latent homoeroticism and the potential for eating disorders among athletes who must weigh in for every match. This may disappoint anyone looking for the wrestling equivalent of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, Joan Ryan’s superb exposé abuses in gymnastics and figure-skating. But Four Days to Glory works beautifully on its own terms. Kreidler says that Iowa wrestlers adopt slogans such as PAIN IS TEMPORARY, PRIDE IS FOREVER. And although his young subjects may not know it yet, this book gives them another reason to feel proud.

Best line: Four Days to Glory has two great walk-offs in the endings for the book and its epilogue. They are close to perfection. Unfortunately, quoting them would be like telling you who dies at the end of the new Harry Potter novel.

Worst line: Kreidler says that Dan Gable, who won a gold medal in wrestling at the Munich Olympics in 1972, was “the most acclaimed athlete of his time.” Mark, does the name Muhammad Ali mean anything to you? How about Hank Aaron, John Havlicek, Mark Spitz or Billie Jean King? The statement about Gable is so bizarre, it has to be a mistake: Kreidler must mean that he was the “most acclaimed” in wrestling. You hope.

Recommendation? Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, remember this one when you’re looking for a gift for that sports-loving teenage boy in December.

Editor: Dave Hirshey

Published: February 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 13, 2007

Maybe Check Out This Golf Novel for Father’s Day?

Filed under: Novels,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:45 am

What do great caddies have that others don’t?

I’ve read only the first 20 pages of Billy Mott’s just-published golf novel, The Back Nine (Knopf, $24), about a man who returns to golf as a caddy after 25 years away from the sport. So I’ll save most of my comments on it for later in the week. But you may want to check out the book before then if you’re looking for Father’s Day gift ideas for a golfer who loves to read (or if you’ll be opening the packages and are hoping to avoid getting another tangerine-colored polo shirt).

The first chapters of The Back Nine include this memorable description of what the best caddies have that others don’t:

“The best ones are in control of their wits, able to stay with the shot and think ahead at the same time. They’re admired, revered, and paid for their cool, for the knowledge and ease with which they carry out their tasks. They keep every club clean, are there when needed, and most importantly, know when to leave their player alone. And a good caddy always knows where the ball is; no matter how far off line, deep in the rough or the woods, he’ll find it and within seconds know the play, always aware of his position on the course and what shot to hit. He’ll know if his player should try to run the ball up to the green or just punch out, take his medicine and try to save bogey, maybe hole a putt and make par. ‘No, no,’ he’ll quietly insist. ‘You can’t make birdie. Forget it. Play for par.’ He gives just the right amount of information so his player can swing freely, play to his strengths and avoid his weaknesses. A nervous caddy makes mistakes, says the wrong thing and gets blamed for a bad shot or, worse, the whole round. And in a way, he is responsible. Indecision and lack of clarity are at the root of every bad shot.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 5, 2007

Lorne Rubenstein’s ‘A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands’

A memoir of playing on the best golf course you’ve never heard of

Sports books sell in inverse proportion to the size of the ball, publishing lore says. Golf books sell better than baseball books, which sell better football books. And apart from athletes’ memoirs, the best-selling golf-books tend to be instructional manuals (like Golf for Dummies) or coffee table–toppers (like the opulent Where Golf Is Great: The Finest Courses of Scotland and Ireland).

A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands (Citadel, $14.95, paperback) transcends those categories. Globe and Mail golf columnist Lorne Rubenstein offers a beautifully written account of a summer that he spent living in the Scottish Highlands and playing golf at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club, a place with a cult following instead of the superstardom of spots like St. Andrews and Gleneagles.

But Rubenstein’s book is about more than the mystique of this remote and storied course. A Season in Dornoch is about Scottish history, Highland music and the allure of playing on links (“a landscape of blown sand created by the action of the wind on the seashore”). Sean Connery, the world’s best-known Scottish nationalist, wrote the foreword. And five-time British Open champion Tom Watson rightly says in a blurb: “Rubenstein gives the reader a feel for what makes the appeal of the Highlands so enduring. He brings the place and its people to life.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 4, 2007

A Football Book That Deserves a Super Bowl Ring

Filed under: Memoirs,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:26 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The return of one of the great sports books of all time

How can you keep the thrill of pro football alive after the Super Bowl ends? Read the new edition of Instant Reply: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer (Doubleday, 2006), by Jerry Kramer with Dick Schaap, with a foreword by Jonathan Yardley. This unsurpassed account of the Packers’ 1967 season takes you inside the locker-room and onto the playing field with Coach Vince Lombardi and such titans of the sport as Bart Starr and Ray Nitschke. Kramer gives his take on the book at, his Web site. A great Valentine’s Day gift for a football fan, this modern classic proves that Frank Gifford was wrong when he said — we may hope, in jest — that “there’s no place in sports for intelligence.”

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 31, 2007

Joan Ryan’s Exposé of Abuses in Gymnastics and Figure Skating

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Reporting,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:24 am

Aiming for the Olympics in a glamour sport can mean living with eating disorders, crippling injuries, and tyrannical coaches

Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters: Revised Edition. By Joan Ryan. Warner, 243 pp., varied prices.

By Janice Harayda

You think the steroids scandals in baseball are bad? Try reading this chilling exposé of the exploitation of America’s best young gymnasts and figure skaters, which grew out of an award-winning series that Joan Ryan wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. Some of the abuses described in Little Girls in Pretty Boxes are worse than any in baseball because they affect athletes who are much younger and more vulnerable.

Many people have written about the dangers of Olympic-level gymnastics and figure skating, such as the high risk of eating disorders. But Little Girls in Pretty Boxes unique for its powerful documentation of the abuses, typically through heartbreaking stories of well-known athletes and the physical and emotional damage they suffered at the hands of parents, coaches, and federations that ignored the obvious dangers in their sports. Ryan spoke with former stars like skater Elaine Zayak and the Bela Karolyi–coached gymnast Kristie Phillips about the lasting pain of their exploitation in their peak competitive years. She also interviewed the mother of Julissa Gomez, who died after breaking her neck on a practice vault at a meet in Tokyo.

First published a decade ago as a book for adults, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes has become a modern sports classic. It has also found a strong following among adolescent girls. It’s heartening to know that if adults don’t recognize all the dangers in glamour sports, this book may help young athletes spot them on their own.

Best line: “In staving off puberty to maintain the ‘ideal’ body shape, girls risk their health in ways their male counterparts never do. They starve themselves, for one, often in response to their coaches belittling insults about their bodies. Starving the body shuts down the menstrual cycle – the starving body knows it cannot support a fetus — and thus blocks the onset of puberty. It’s a dangerous strategy to save a career [in gymnastics or figure skating]. If a girl isn’t menstruating, she isn’t producing estrogen. Without estrogen, her bones weaken. She risks stunting her growth. She risks premature osteoporosis. She risks fractures in all bones, including her vertebrae, and she risks curvature of the spine. In several studies over the last decade, young female athletes who didn’t menstruate were found to have the bone densities of postmenopausal women in their 50s, 60 and 70s.”

Worst line: This book appeared in a revised second edition in 2000, so the text doesn’t reflect rules changes that have occurred since then.

Recommended … to parents and coaches of young gymnasts, figure skaters, dancers, cheerleaders and others involved in sports that favor the young, thin, and pretty. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes may also appeal to many teenage girls and adults who like books such as Alex Kuczynski’s recent Beauty Junkies. It is easily one of the best books — maybe the best — on women’s sports of the past ten years.

Published: 1996 (first edition), 2000 (revised second edition).

Furthermore: This book was made into a 1997 movie. If the direct link at the end of this line doesn’t work, search for Little Girls in Pretty Boxes at

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 28, 2006

Paul Hornung and Friends Remember Vince Lombardi

As if we didn’t know it, players and others tell us that he believed in winning

Lombardi and Me: Players, Coaches and Colleagues Talk About the Man and the Myth. By Paul Hornung with Billy Reed. Triumph, 161 pp., $24.95.

This book tells you little about Vince Lombardi that hasn’t been said – and said better – elsewhere. This, of course, is like saying that a book tells you little about Jesus that hasn’t been said better in the Gospels. As the journalist Dave Maraniss reminds us in his contribution to Lombardi and Me, Lombardi was the rare coach who transcended his time and sport.

“During his nine-year tenure with the Green Bay Packers (1959–1967), he did more than build and maintain one of the most colorful and efficient dynasties in the history of the National Football League,” former sports editor Billy Reed writes in the preface. “He became a folk hero, a cultural icon, a symbol of excellence and discipline and all those qualities that define greatness.”

What made him tick? Paul Hornung, the legendary halfback and onetime playboy who was suspended for a season for betting on games, tries to pin it down in this slim collection of interviews with former teammates and others. He has assembled an all-star cast, including such players as Bart Starr, Sam Huff, Jerry Kramer, Sonny Jurgensen, Willie Davis, and Max McGee.

But the men’s comments are often contradictory. Lombardi believed in treating players humanely but refused to let them drink water during practice, even in 90-degree heat, on the premise that dehydration was a sign of “being out of shape.” He believed winning but, while coaching the Washington Redskins, chewed out Jurgensen for throwing a first-and-goal touchdown pass from the four-yard line when the team was behind. “You’ve got to get everyone on the team involved in scoring a touchdown,” he said. “We want the line to be happy. We want the backs to be happy … You can [throw for a touchdown] on the third down, but don’t ever do it on first down again. We want everybody to be involved, not just you and the receiver.” This is interesting but begs the question: Which was more important — winning or keeping the defense happy?

So Lombardi and Me has limited value for anyone seeking a definitive analysis of the man behind mystique. It will no doubt appeal to some hard-core Packers fans and school and other coaches. But its oversized font — at least 16-point, by my guess — may be the biggest draw. Packers fans and school coaches aside, this book may have appeal most to people old enough to remember watching Lombardi lead his team to victory in Super Bowls I and II on a rabbit-eared television set. That large font is as easy on aging eyes as a game-winning Hail Mary pass with three seconds on the clock.

Best line: A quote from Jurgensen: “The coaches today want to choreograph everything. They call plays and don’t give the quarterback an opportunity to think through games the way we did. They’re mechanics now. They’re made it a coaches’ game instead of a players’ game. That’s too bad. A quarterback in the huddle has a better feel for the game than a coach on the sidelines.”

Worst line: Paul Hornung on Frank Gifford, whom Lombardi coached at the Giants: “I used to kid him about being Mr. Kathy Lee Gifford.” You’re a card, Paul.

Recommended if … you’re the sort of Packers fan who would schedule your own wedding around Green Bay games.

Published: September 2006.

Consider reading instead: Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer (Doubleday, 2006), by Jerry Kramer and Dick Schaap, just reissued after a decade out of print in an edition with a foreword by Jonathan Yardley. The revelations in Kramer’s classic diary of the Packers’ 1967 season may seem tame in the age of the Balco steroids scandal. But Instant Replay is the real thing, a trailblazer among inside-the-locker-room chronicles and still one of the best books ever written about professional football.

Posted by Janice Harayda

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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