I’ve accumulated five books that require discussion. I’ll try to make this quick, but you know me, so strap in.
*The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever* – Mark Frost
I knew nothing about this book or the event it covered until I heard a discussion of it on a podcast. The focus is the 1956 match between professional golf legends Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson and young amateurs Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward. Played in the week leading up to the annual Bing Crosby Clambake (Now the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am), it was viewed as a clash of golfing cultures.
Frost gives an accounting of the actual match – won by Hogan and Nelson one-up – while sharing back stories of the four golfers as well as a history of the game to that point and a preview of where the sport was headed.
Frost claims that this was the day that golf changed forever. I think that’s overstating things. His argument is that it was the final moment in which amateur golfers still mattered and could go toe-to-toe with the best pros in the world. In truth, as Hogan, Nelson, Sam Sneed, and others had already proven, the transition to professional golfers being the most powerful and respected athletes in the game had already occurred. Besides, Hogan and Nelson, for all their acclaim and prestige, could hardly be seen as standard bearers for professional golf. Hogan was in poor physical health and his best golf was many years behind him. And although Nelson could still really play, he was no where near his peak, having been retired from tour golf for nearly a decade.
To me, it’s difficult to argue that two past-their-prime legends beating two up-and-comers in a casual round was a true turning point in the long struggle between pros and amateurs.
That quibble aside, Frost tells a good story and it was interesting to learn about a part of golf history I didn’t know much about.
*The History of Gangster Rap* – Soren Baker
This was a quick and enjoyable read about, well the title kind of sums it up. Other than originator Schoolly D, who was from Philadelphia, the book almost exclusively focuses on West Coast-based rappers. He works through Ice-T, NWA, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and other golden age rappers, then through the waves that followed them.
I will say this is more celebratory than critical, as Baker rarely takes any of the rappers to task for the content of their lyrics, some of which were inexcusable no matter what their original context was.
Still, it was a delightful reminder of a genre of music that I was deeply into for five or six very influential years. The only downside is that it is tough to listen to the music it covers with my girls around. Another reason they need to go back to school, so I can blast the playlist I put together while reading the book without fear of scarring them forever!
*In the Garden of Beasts* – Erik Larson
Not sure how I’ve never read any of Larson’s books. After hearing several friends talk about his latest book, *The Splendid and the Vile*, I jumped on library waiting list for it. In the interim, I checked out this, his story of William Dodd, the US ambassador to Nazi Germany from 1933-1937.
It is a fascinating tale. Dodd, like many Americans at the time, believed in giving the Nazis room to operate without pressing them about their policies. Some of this was because of barely disguised anti-Semitism in the US. Another big factor was that Germany owed American banks huge amounts of money because of high-interest loans taken out after World War I. The US business community believed the Nazis should be allowed to operate without interference so Hitler’s government would continue to service these debts.
Dodd took his adult children with him to Berlin. His daughter Martha made quite a stir, dating several Nazi officials, a French diplomat, and having a long, rather serious relationship with an NKVD agent assigned to the Soviet embassy. There’s no delicate way to put this: Martha got around, which was scandalous both for the time and for the daughter of a diplomat. Her love life gave the family an extra inside view of the political machinations of the country at that time.
At first, the Dodd family was largely neutral about the Nazis. Martha even defended them during her first year in Berlin. But as they began to see the reality of what the regime’s aims were, they shifted. Dodd pressed officials in Washington to adjust official US policy toward pressuring the Nazis to moderate their views. Martha became an outspoken opponent of the regime, and in the years after World War II worked with Soviet intelligence services, eventually being forced to flee the US and live the bulk of her life out in Czechoslovakia.
What makes the book really shine is that the Dodd family left so much correspondence behind for Larson to dig through. There were Dodd’s letters back to President Roosevelt and others in the government. There were the family’s private letters. And official government documents. It allows Larson to give a pretty full view of the challenges the family faced and how they did their best to adjust how the US viewed Hitler and his supporters.
Dethier is one of the best, young writers currently covering golf. Not yet 30, he has a staff position at *Golf* magazine and co-hosts one of the magazine’s podcasts. He is a terrific writer, who combines reverence for the history of golf without being beholden to it.
The year after he graduated from high school, when his classmates were moving on to college, he spent 12 months traveling around the continental US in a battered Subaru station wagon, playing golf in all 48 states. He learned how to sneak food from hotel buffets at which he was not a guest, how to leverage the power of the press to help him gain access to private courses, how to gamble, developed a gambling problem during a wet week in California, nearly got hustled by a pro hustler on a course in Las Vegas, battled with his emotional health while spending months largely alone, nearly fell down a steep hill in Wyoming, and played both some of the best and most basic courses in the country. Oh, he lost his virginity along the way, which was kind of fresh.
This book is the accounting of that trip. It’s good, although you can tell he was quite young when he wrote it. A few moments feel like he’s trying too hard. But overall it’s a terrific read.
The book nearly derailed his college golf career, though. You can read all the details here, but the NCAA, in its infinite wisdom, decided that a Division Three golfer who was about to publish a book was no longer an amateur and banned him from playing for Williams College at the national championships his junior year. It is classic NCAA stupidity and Jay Bilas makes an appearance. Dethier’s article about his experience is worth the read.
*The Postmortal* – Drew Magary
I didn’t realize there was one more Magary novel out there that I needed to read until my brother-in-law asked me if I had read it. I quickly added this to my Kindle and knocked it out while we were in Florida.
Once again Magary pulls in sci-fi elements into a fairly standard novel. The story is told through a series of transcripts of verbal journal entries by a man named John Farrell over a span of 60+ years. That time range is important, because Farrell was a Postmortal: someone who right around 2020 took the newly found cure for aging which caused his body to freeze at his then-current 29 years old.
This cure was a big deal, and caused many issues in Magary’s alternative earth. Some thought the cure was an abomination against God and nature and demanded that it be banned. Others cried that by not making the cure legal, the governments of the world were condemning them to death. Farrell got the cure illegally before most governments relented and made it legal. Shortly after he receives the cure, his roommate and best friend is killed in an attack on the apartment where she had gone to get the cure for herself.
The book jumps ahead in 10-year leaps. Farrell is a divorce attorney and helps to craft new divorce and marriage agreements that reflect the new reality that people really don’t want to stay married forever when they are going to live forever.
Eventually, as the books jumps forward, the inevitable environmental and resource issues begin to destroy society. The US has a population of over 750 million people, and just finding food and water becomes a huge task. Jobs are scarce. Housing nearly impossible to find. The Russians have given their entire army the cure and are using its 150 million men to slowly take over the world. And the Chinese begin nuking their own cities in order to kill off large swaths of its massive population.
All this stuff is great, especially considering it was Magary’s first novel. However, in the final 50 pages or so, things kind of fall apart. Farrell falls in love with a woman he has been chasing since the explosion that killed his roommate back in 2019. When he fakes her death, he is forced to flee off the grid. They do so just as the US and the other powers start nuking each other. That relationship felt strange, forced, and wrong. But I cut Magary slack for knowing that he learned his lesson and ended his next two novels in highly satisfying manners.