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Thursday, September 19,2013

Notes from Neil

by Neil Rajala

Having written this newsletter for the first couple of years from my office in the former downtown GR Schuler, I can't tell you how odd it feels to not be smack dab in the middle of ArtPrize for the first time. It was always such a rush of excitement and new faces (and big art), it kinda feels like I'm missing the year's biggest holiday celebration. Here's what we're reading:

The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College FootballJeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian.
A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Fourth and Long, John U. Bacon's analysis of the current health of NCAA sports as reflected in the football programs of four Big Ten schools. The System is Mr. Bacon's book blown up to a national level.   

The authors were granted years worth of all-area access to major and minor colleges around the country. Rather than creating a narrative version of a beast as large and complex as NCAA athletics, they present a series of loosely related snapshots of various aspects of Division 1 and BCS football programs, players, coaches, donors, students, television networks and assorted hangers-on. There are positive and inspiring stories of athletes and teams overcoming adversity; young men from troubled backgrounds whose lives were turned around. There are also negative stories - universities' willingness to look the other way at criminal activity by star players, the increasing risk of serious injury for the young players, the influence of wealthy alumni and shady agents in the recruiting process, and the enormous obstacles the NCAA itself faces when trying to investigate violations. At the end, I had no doubt the approach the authors took was an effective one. The level of insight into a very complicated world is impressive. (For local fans, the story of the Detroit Lions' Ziggy Ansah's journey from Ghana, where he never saw American football, to being an NFL first round pick in just a few years is one of the book's most inspiring stories.)   

Dissident Gardens - Jonathan Lethem.
Some authors are first-rate storytellers, they can concoct a plotline so compelling that there's no choice but to keep turning pages long past your bedtime. Others are sublimely gifted wordsmiths, able to create sentences that make the reader proud of the English language. Mr. Lethem is a master of both.  

At the heart of this wonderful novel is Rose Zimmer; Communist organizer, single mother and the intimidating moral and political center of Sunnyside Gardens in Queens. Her daughter Miriam, whose sole purpose in her younger years is to rebel against Rose's domination, finds herself as an adult with her mother's passion for activism. In Miriam's case, it's aligned with the blossoming Greenwich Village folk music/social protest scene. But all things change, and just like Rose's cause disintegrates following Khrushchev's Secret Speech, so do does Miriam's with the arrival of Bob Dylan, whose new form of art blows apart the cozy NYC folk scene. The genetic thread of organization continues through subsequent generations, right up to the Occupy Wall Street movement.  

Besides being one of those premier storytellers, Mr. Lethem's prose and dialogue crackle and jump with whip-smart humor and emotion. He takes the reader down a few alleys and side streets at times, away from the main plot, but does so with so much skill and dazzling wordplay every tangent adds to the overall satisfaction of reading the book. Highly recommended.  

Wild Tales - Graham Nash.
N was always the nice guy, right? The rational one hanging out and making music with the self-destructive egos of CS & (sometimes) Y? That was always my perception of Mr. Nash, at least, and his relationships with Crosby and/or Stills and/or Young. After reading Wild Tales, I don't feel too much differently about him. He was the most sensitive of the quartet, a heart-on-his-sleeve romantic, the ever-loyal friend to drug addicts and alcoholics, not to mention the only one of the four able to write a Top Ten hit for the group. But can he write a book?   

I felt a disconnect while reading between the "aw-shucks" voice of a narrator who seems genuinely awestruck by his own luck and success, and the description of the fully indulgent world of sex and drugs he describes in unflinching detail (and in which he was a willing and enthusiastic participant). There's a tension created by that disconnect that I found gave the book a satisfying edginess, and made him seem more like a real human being than the central characters of most rock star memoirs. So yeah, I think he can write a very good book.    

Once again, I received some fascinating emails in response to last week's newsletter. Thanks to everyone who wrote, and I'm looking forward to hearing from you this week.  

Until next week,
Neil

NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.

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