Good grief am I behind on these. That makes total sense, though, because my reading pace has slowed to a level not seen in years. I’ve finished just one book in the past four weeks. I went nearly three weeks without starting my next reading project. Normally I break out in hives if I don’t immediately start a new book. I guess I needed a break.
Open – Andre Agassi
I don’t know why I never read this. It got tons of attention when it was first released, and was almost immediately hailed as one of the best sports autobiographies ever released. Just after this year’s US Open a newsletter I read recommended it and I was reminded that I hadn’t knocked it out.
All that hype upon its release was legit. As the title suggests, this is one of the most open and honest sports books I’ve ever read. Agassi, who was one of my favorite tennis players, walks through his entire tennis career, from childhood to final professional tournament. He spares no one, himself included, along the way.
We learn of how his father was emotionally and verbally abusive as he forced young Andre to play tennis. The elder Agassi built a court in their backyard and kept Andre on it for hours returning balls from a machine the family dubbed The Dragon. After seeing Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy featured on 60 Minutes, he finagled a way to send Andre to it.
Andre grew to hate the game from the pressure his father and his coaches put on him and acted out horribly during his time in Florida. But he was so good, the academy leadership largely ignored his behavior. He quit school, drank and used drugs, stole, and destroyed property at the tennis school. But as long as he kept winning, no one raised an eyebrow while other, lesser players were punished for their bad behavior.
Once he turns pro, Agassi runs through the many highs and lows of his career. His rivalries with the other great American players of his generation. Everything is offered from his perspective, so you naturally take his stories with healthy doses of skepticism, but he has an unflattering story about just about every tennis star of the ’90s.
One of the more interesting tidbits is how he was indifferent to the ad campaign that came to define his early career: the Canon Rebel “Image is Everything” ad. As he tells it, a director at a commercial shoot told him to say that line, he said it, and never thought about the implications. While some of that seems a bit self-serving, much of the first half of the book details how he was a lonely, confused, angry kid who was struggling to define himself. HIs indifference seems consistent with someone who is just going through the motions.
He shares other low points in his life. He shares the times he lost interest in tennis, for one reason or another, and let his fitness fall apart. There were times when he drank too much. And even a brief spell when he used meth.
In between the tennis, the final quarter of the book is also focused on his courtship of Steffi Graf, the former tennis pro he eventually married and remains married to today.
It’s a fascinating and compelling story. And it made me a little wistful for that era of men’s tennis, when there were so many interesting players of varying styles and nationalities and the game got more attention than today.
Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead
One of the most anticipated novels of the year, from one of the most acclaimed American novelist of the moment. Perhaps all the attention this novel received before it was published set the bar too high, as I struggled to get into it. It took me well over a week to get even halfway through it, and it’s not like some 800 page story.
Ray Carney owns a Harlem furniture store. Although he has a thriving business, surviving in Harlem means keeping at least a toe in the underworld. In Carney’s case, he fences stolen items: taking them off the hands of crooks and selling them to businesses in other parts of New York City. This connects Carney with both the criminal world of Black New York and the mercantile world of White, Jewish New York.
The story is told in three different parts, each taking place a few years apart, from the late 1950’s through the mid 1960’s. A cousin, Freddie, who is like a brother to Carney, gets involved in a caper that involves some big-time hoods. When it goes wrong, Carney is pulled in and soon is dealing with some of the most notorious criminals in Harlem, plus an assortment of crooked cops.
Throughout, Carney constantly feels the push-pull of attempting to carve out a niche as a respected, progressive business owner who is trusted by his white suppliers, the need to protect his family, his loyalty to his cousin, his desire to escape the shadow of his father, and the attention of thieves and hitmen who see his business as the perfect cover. Also intertwined in this is Carney’s efforts to ruin a banker who both ripped him off and embarrassed him.
It’s all a really good story, told, as always with Whitehead, very well. But something was missing that kept me from loving it, and I’m not sure exactly what that was. Perhaps if I read it in a different moment/mood I would have connected with it better. I started a new book on Tuesday and am already about 200 pages into it, so I’ll chalk up my indifference towards Harlem Shuffle as a momentary lapse in my reading enthusiasm.