Portrait of the artist as a young resistance fighter

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

A COUNTRY ROAD, A TREE. By Jo Baker. Read by David Rintoul. Random House Audio. 10 ½ hours; 9 CDS. $40. Also available in print from Knopf.

Ah, what a heady thing to be an aspiring young writer in Paris – until the Nazis come countrygoose-stepping in. In her new novel, A Country Road, a Tree, Jo Baker vividly brings to life the horrors of the German occupation of France in World War II.

Baker is the British author who gave us Longbourn, a delightful retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the downstairs servants. Her new novel is a triumph of imagination applied to real, historical events and specifically to the effects living in a world of horrors had on one sensitive, introspective and brilliant young man.

Although she does not tell us his identity in the main part of the novel, the young man Baker is writing about is Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright and poet. If reading the book prompts you, as it did me, to do some research, you will see that Baker’s fictional account closely follows Beckett’s real-life story.

This book is intensely personal, showing us the impact of the historical events on this young man who would survive and become a considerable literary presence. With him, we see the Nazis assert control over Paris. Through his eyes, we see what it is like to, somewhat hesitatingly, join the resistance, and to live with constant fear for himself and his friends and associates.

Eventually, the young man and his girlfriend, Suzanne, must flee Paris and seek refuge elsewhere. This is not so much a story of wartime resistance as it is a story of how a creative soul who wants to be a writer deals with a world gone mad, and how those experiences help mold the writer he eventually becomes.

The book starts off slowly, establishing the young man’s sense of inadequacies and following him as he decides to return to Paris even though, with war on the horizon, he would be safer staying with family in Ireland. In the audio version, David Rintoul’s reading helps to draw the listener into the increasingly powerful story.

Baker describes the young man’s relationships with Suzanne and with other writers and expatriates in Paris, most notably James Joyce, whom Beckett admired greatly. She makes readers feel the hardships, the tedium and pain of long treks across rural France, the hunger brought on by food shortages, the fear of discovery and death. Our young man does not regard himself as a hero, but rather seems surprised whenever he finds himself taking part in the resistance. He finds himself thinking mostly about survival; writing would be a luxury.

Those who are familiar with Beckett’s works will, no doubt, find references and allusions in the novel in addition to its title, which applies to the setting of his famous play “Waiting for Godot” as well as a scene in the novel. But those of us who have only a passing acquaintance with his plays and poems can also be mesmerized by this story of how a creative person dealt with the immediate horrors of war while also processing them into images, thoughts and memories that would live on in his work.

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Channeling Robert B. Parker

A new writer is keeping an old favorite series alive, and Bob Moyer thinks that’s quite OK.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

Robert B. Parker’s SLOW BURN: A Spenser Novel. By Ace Atkins. Putnam. 304 pages. $27.

slowburnRobert B. Parker may have passed from this mortal coil, but Spenser, his iconic Boston P.I., still packs a pistol under his tailored jacket and a passion for his sweetheart that makes it feel: “…like Gene Krupa was practicing” in his chest.

Parker’s estate asked Ace Atkins, no slouch as a series writer himself, to take over the series. In five novels, he’s done more than just continue the series; he channels Parker in so many ways. Most Spenser fans will agree Atkins has achieved an uncanny continuity; his voice doesn’t disturb the characters we carry around in our brains after dozens of Parker novels. The great banter still pours across the pages.

Spenser and his sidekick Hawk are still the “…Martin and Lewis of beating the crap out of people.”  His apprentice, the Indian Z, still plays kemo sabe to Spenser’s Lone Ranger, and his main squeeze Susan is by his side. Or under him. Or on top. You get the picture. Actually, you don’t get the picture, because, like Parker, Atkins invites you into the banter, but not the bedroom for any erotic escapades. Pearl the dog can still catch a piece of donut in mid-air, and no donut within arm’s reach is safe around Spenser — especially a maple bacon one. Bellson and Quirk the cops still cooperate begrudgingly with Spenser, and the bad guys still have it out for him.

Now that he’s established how things can stay the same, however, Atkins sets us up here for some change in the future. The plot is not a particular page-turner; Spenser takes on an arson case as a favor to a firefighter friend. That case leads to a possible connection to a series of set fires, and we know early on whodunit. We are privy to the whodunit’s thoughts, so it’s a slow reveal to how Spenser will catch the guys. Meanwhile, Bellson gets promoted, Quirk gets a new female captain, Z may be moving to the West Coast, and Spenser suffers a personal loss that forces him into a major decision — which won’t happen until the next book. Neither will the rematch with the gangster’s henchman who fights Spenser to a standstill. Spenser is eagerly awaiting that moment.

So are Spenser’s fan. “Yeehaw,” as he would say.

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Keeping the seas safe in a perilous world

Here’s another reviewing collaboration with my U.S. Navy officer son, currently assigned to the U.S. Naval Academy as an instructor in seamanship and navigation. Although the two of us approach this book from markedly different backgrounds, we both heartily enjoyed it. That statement in itself is quite a commendation.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson and Lt. Samuel F. Brinson

SYREN’S SONG. By Claude Berube. Naval Institute Press. 219 pages. $26.95.

syrens_song_020316Connor Stark is back in fine form in Claude Berube’s second military thriller, and, we’re happy to report, so is Damien Golzari, his nemesis turned ally from the first book in the series, The Aden Effect.

Syren’s Song takes up not long after the first book closes. Stark, a former officer who was dishonorably discharged from the Navy for reasons that remain mostly mysterious, is back at work at his private maritime security company in Scotland, when, once again, international events call him into action.

The Tamil Tigers have re-emerged with a vengeance, launching a devastating attack on the Sri Lankan navy. The Sri Lankan government issues Stark a letter of marque (yes, more or less licensing someone to do what otherwise would be piracy, as in the storied olden days), hoping he can stop the terrorists and restore order.

The U.S. Navy gets involved, too, and Berube also brings back some of the personnel we met in the first book. As in the first book, he puts his experience in the Navy, at the Naval Academy and in Naval Intelligence to good use in his fiction.

One of the many strengths of Berube’s novels is that, even though the books are relatively short, he manages to weave in a wealth of material that goes beyond the surface. Readers increasingly see the complexities of the main characters, and many of the minor characters have considerable depth as well. No one is even close to a super hero; everyone has been knocked back by life in one way or another, and we admire Stark and Golzari all the more for the way they have pulled themselves together and continued to serve as best they can, to work for what they believe is right. Even Berube’s portrayal of the U.S. Navy is realistic, showing that there are good officers and there are also some who probably should be doing something else.

Golzari, a diplomatic security special agent, is in the area investigating the murder of a fellow agent, which at first would seem to be unrelated to Stark’s mission. Making things even more interesting, Melanie Arden, a veteran journalist who turns out to be Golzari’s ex-wife, is in the jungle trying to track down a story on the Sea Tigers’ mining operations and exploitation of local people, including children.

The development of recurring characters and the questions of right and wrong, justice and fairness, that they face, enrich the book. But don’t think for a minute that Berube skimps on tension and intrigue. This book is tautly plotted, with enough action to satisfy any fan of military thrillers.

While some of that action is on the high seas, Berube also takes us this time into the jungles for some different challenges and adventures. And there’s a lot of cutting-edge technology as well. The Sea Tigers have a devastating new weapon with horrifying potential. Berube describes maritime warfare and weapons that haven’t actually been put into use, and he does so in a way that’s both plausible and frightening. It’s interesting, too, that when Berube has the U.S. Navy lend warships to the Sri Lankans, they are the controversial new littoral combat ships – and, the fate of these LCSs in his story suggests he’s among those concerned about possible flaws.

(Those fans who aren’t familiar with all the Navy acronyms will be pleased to see that Berube provides a handy list this time.)

Syren’s Song is a fine book, one that makes Berube’s growing number of fans eager for the next Connor Stark adventure. Readers will look forward to another plot that’s intricate yet understandable, to plenty of action, and to spending more time with these increasingly intriguing characters. It is, however, time that Ensign Bobby Fisk becomes a LTJG. He’s proved himself.

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One war ends, another simmers

Bob Moyer takes a look at the latest book in a series about a detective in Germany during the World War II era.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE: A Bernie Gunther Novel. By Philip Kerr. Putnam. 400 pages. $27.

The-Other-Side-of-Silence-e1458288166948Some things change. In this accomplished series about the moral and physical dilemma of German detective Bernie Gunther during World War II, the war is finally over.

Bernie isn’t in Germany; Bernie is in France, and Bernie isn’t Bernie anymore. He’s Walter Wolf, the concierge at the Grand Hotel du Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the Riviera. His duties don’t approach the life-or-death dilemmas he faced in the German army. He jokes that his sleuthing is reduced to peeking through a keyhole to check if that blonde is really a blonde (most of them aren’t he claims) and answer stupid questions from rich guests, with a smile. He plays bridge, too, and comes to be included in the circle of W. Somerset Maugham, the legendary writer who has an estate nearby. No royalty involved, but a lot of queens, a kind of company Bernie isn’t comfortable with.

Some things, however, never change. Bernie ends up in the middle once again. Maugham blackmails Bernie into assisting him because he is being blackmailed, by someone from Bernie’s past. That man, one Harold Heinz Hennig, told Maugham about Bernie. During the war, Hennig practiced his trade for the benefit of his Gestapo superiors, and to the demise of two people close to Bernie in Konigsberg. Now, he has compromising pictures of Maugham, once an English spy, and some companions cavorting in the nude. That’s just a teaser, however. Hennig soon pulls out the big prize, a tape in which famous English spies who defected to Russia name names. Bernie is the messenger, and, as always, people try to kill the messenger.

True to form, Bernie gets hooked by a “fish.”  That’s gay slang here for a woman, who disappoints Bernie (so what’s new?), and almost gets him killed in a script put together by the Russians to fool the British. Bernie, finding himself mixed up with some bad actors, puts on a bravura performance, improvising with the few facts he has. It’s all just foreplay for the Cold War that’s heating up, and Bernie comes out of it in one piece.

At the end of the book, he stands at his desk, waiting – for the next guest, and for his next adventure, coming out next year.

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Saucy Jack strikes again

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LOST AND GONE FOREVER. By Alex Grecian. Read by John Curless. Books on Tape. 9 CDs; 10 ½ hours.

LostWhen reviewing the newest book in a series, I usually try to judge whether someone who hasn’t read all the earlier entries will understand and appreciate the new one. This time, I really did approach Lost and Gone Forever with very little background. I had read one of Alex Grecian’s Scotland Yard Murder Squad books, The Black Country, No. 2. But, unlike in the other books, Jack the Ripper does not figure prominently in that one.

I can report that while not having read the earlier books will put the reader/listener at something of a disadvantage, the disadvantage is not insurmountable. There was a moment while listening to Disc 1 that I almost gave up, both because I lacked a lot of the history and because the story begins in a way that is dark, even grim. But before I could hit the “eject” button, I was so engrossed in what was happening that I forgot I’d ever had such a notion.

My solution to the problem of not having read most of the previous four books in the Scotland Yard Murder Squad series is now simple: Having enjoyed No. 5, I hope to do the same with the earlier ones. Those who are already fans of the series won’t need to read reviews; they need only to know there’s a new book for their reading pleasure.

This is a historical book as well as a thriller, and Grecian does a superb job of drawing the reader into the world of Victorian England, particularly the darker side of that world. The murder squad, hampered by a shortage of resources and manpower, has been unable to stop the serial killer known as Jack. No matter what happens, Jack seems to reappear and resume his murderous ways. He’s a clever and crafty villain as well as a ruthless one.

As this book opens, Walter Day, one of the murder squad detectives, has been missing for a year. Some rumors have it that Jack the Ripper might be involved in Day’s disappearance, although no one has been able to determine the truth of the matter, or even why Jack might want Day. Day’s wife has been struggling to keep their family going.

Nevil Hammersmith, Day’s friend and protégé, has lost his job with the squad because he is too headstrong. Hammersmith has set up a detective agency, but the only case he pursues is that of his missing mentor. He is determined to find Walter Day.

Then various people begin reporting that they have seen someone who greatly resembles Day in London. If Day has really returned, why doesn’t he get in touch with his wife, or Hammersmith or the Murder Squad? As viewpoints shift, we sometimes see matters through Day’s eyes, and as he gradually realizes what has happened and is happening, readers also gain more understanding.

Meanwhile, a husband-wife team of assassins for hire arrives in London with a mysterious mission. The more we learn about them, the more they seem as frightening as Jack himself. And there are the Karstphanomen, members of a secret society of prominent Londoners that operates outside normal legal channels.

Grecian does a fine job of depicting the gritty side of 1891 London. He also creates characters with considerable depth, women as well as men. Both those on the side of law and order and the villains in this book are all the more fascinating because of their complexities – and sometimes we wonder who falls into which category.

This is a literate, thought-provoking and sometimes hair-raising thriller. John Curless’ reading enhances the already dark atmosphere.




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From morning sickness to mortal danger

We’re all blessed when Bob Moyer takes time out from his world travels, drama, poetry and petanque to review some books.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

MOST WANTED. By Lisa Scottoline. Delacorte Press. 438 pages. $27.99

Chances are Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe never had a “best friend forever” who Wantedsaid “Ruh-ro” like Scooby Doo. Never did we hear Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade “chirp” his suburban sedan doors open and closed. And Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer certainly never put together a classroom bulletin board.

None of them were ever pregnant, either.

Lisa Scottoline’s Christine Nilsson does all three of the former, and is the latter. She may be the first elementary school reading specialist in the history of mystery to become an amateur sleuth. After years of trying to get pregnant, she and her husband decide to use a sperm donor. At her retirement party, she glances at the TV screen in the teacher’s lounge, and sees the picture of a suspected serial killer —who looks like her sperm donor.

Now, two mysteries immediately emerge. First, is he her sperm donor?  But, second, since this is page nine, how can the author possibly come up with enough obstacles to that question’s answer to fill the remaining 429 pages?

With a page-turning flurry, that’s how. Our amateur gumshoe swings into highly entertaining if also highly improbable action. In short order, she poses as a journalist, falls for the guy’s line, hires him a lawyer, gets a job as a paralegal, troops through crime scenes, confronts suspects and puts up with the worst whining husband in the world.

Along the way, Scottoline slips in boilerplate indictment of the sperm donor industry, and supplies mind-numbing details of an elementary teacher’s routine that sound as though she’s been storing them up in a notebook.

As the story hurtles to a conclusion, Christine moves from morning sickness to mortal danger. Neither she nor the reader sees the curve that comes up at the end, but the reader can see the husband’s redemption coming a mile away. Scottoline readers will be satisfied with her fast-paced action, in spite of some of the cardboard characters and improbable occupations she takes up. The rest of just wish she would stop “chirping” her car doors locked and unlocked.

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Parting words from a fine writer

Bob Moyer has taken a respite from his travels long enough to pay tribute to the last book from a favorite author.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE ANCIENT MINSTREL. By Jim Harrison. Grove Press. 255 pages. $25.

Harrison“No one has ever read novellas”: In an interview shortly after his last book came out, Jim Harrison said his agent told him that when he started writing them. Probably very few did, until he started writing them. His Legends Of The Fall became a critical and popular success, a well-made film, and just one of many that made Harrison’s fame and a bit of a fortune. Nobody does it better, though some have tried.

Rather, did it better. Harrison died in March, shortly after Ancient Minstrel was published. This collection of three novellas is a fitting and poignant conclusion to a phenomenal career; it contains, no, it brims with what he has always done best. The title story, a “fictional” memoir, has us matching up facts with the randy, aging but rambunctious novelist who narrates — the blind eye incurred in childhood, the death of his sister and father, the illicit sex with students. Even without these details, however, the story surges with the life force Harrison always injected into his prose — hunting, the outdoors, the love of animals (pigs in this case), love, period, and lust, infinitely. Harrison will be missed for his iconoclastic syntax that produced sentences no other writer would think of, let alone write down.

And writing down is the key here. All told, this narrative is about the writing life, what feeds it, how the writer fails it, and what frightens the writer — in this case, Ancient Minstrel that show up in his dreams. Aspiring writers could parse a primer on how to write out of these pages, as Harrison doles out wisdom learned from having done much of everything wrong at some time or another. The essence of Harrison’s writing, the driving force, appeared in the aforementioned interview. He mentioned how the death of his father and sister  “… served to fuel me to write totally without compromise.”

His fiction, however, rings more viscerally than biographical fact. At the book’s conclusion, he phrases the experience this way:  “If this can happen to the ones you love you may as well follow your heart’s wishes in your time on earth.”  Harrison’s writing about the craft of writing is testament to his place in the pantheon of American writers.

So is the second novella, Eggs, a poignant product of the craft Harrison writes about. Placed in rural Montana during a World War II/post-WWII time frame, the setting affords the author the range best suited to his writing:  farming, long walks, cooking, hunting and man’s relation to animals — in this case, a woman’s love for her chickens. From the age of 7, Catherine was in thrall to chickens. Returning from an arduous journey, she puts a cot into the chicken coop for her first night home. She chased a likely paramour off the property when he kicked a chicken and killed it. And she fired the lawyer who laughed when she said she wanted her ashes spread in the chicken coop. This complex relationship is juxtaposed with her developing struggle to get pregnant as she ages:  “Eggs were the fundamental fact among all females in the mammalian and most other species.” Her ob/gyn friend makes fun of her for bringing eggs to her appointment, and her difficulty is exacerbated by “…the vacuum in her soul where the love of men should have been.”  It is with some relief, then, when she manages to get one of hers activated. Harrison makes the journey an engaging, and elementally profound, one.

In the last novella, Harrison settles a score with those critics who have excoriated him over the years for his “political incorrectness,” i.e., his writing about dirty old men such as ex-state cop Sunderson and his dirty doings. Although The Case Of The Howling Buddhas is the premise here, it is not the point. Sunderson has been plagued by a penchant for underage girls in previous books; this fixation is viewed by many a reviewer as Harrison’s hang-up. Few understand that there is little joy for Sunderson. His suffering, his conflict, is greater than the prurience evoked in any description. That conflict burdens the narrative with foreboding, and, sure enough, Sunderson commits an exquisitely described suicide. In other words, Harrison kills off a controversy by killing off a controversial character. No one will have to hear from Sunderson again.

And, sadly, no one will hear from Harrison again. RIP, you rascal you.



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Lifestyles of the rich and vapid

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

DISHONORABLE INTENTIONS. By Stuart Woods. Read by Tony Roberts. 7 CDs, 8 hours. Penguin Audio. $35.

dishonorableWhen a prolific author cranks out books in a series with astonishing rapidity, a reviewer is often left with little to say other than that those who like this series will probably like the latest offering. That’s true unless the latest offering is not really up to par, which I fear is the case with No. 38 (but who’s counting?) in Stuart Woods’ Stone Barrington series. This one may be worth a listen, but probably not worth a read.

The basic elements are here in Dishonorable Intentions, of course: Stone, a former New York City detective turned incredibly wealthy lawyer who doesn’t ever seem to do much work, lives a life such as most of us could hardly imagine. Flying his private planes, he jets around the world to his various luxurious homes. He’s first-name or even more intimate friends with all sorts of people in high places, including the (female) president of the United States. Money is no object. Servants take care of most of life’s troubling necessities. Stone and his friends can eat and drink lavishly, never gain a pound and only occasionally suffer even a minor headache.

And there’s sex, of course, lots of sex, but all very polite. Women – wealthy, well connected and elegant, of course – just fall into bed with Stone.

In the better books in the series, all this elegant and indulgent lifestyle is the backdrop for some sort of crime that Stone, often with the help of his buddy and former NYPD partner Dino (now New York police commissioner), must solve.

But this time out, Stone is just trying to deal with the annoying, not to mention dangerous, activities of the Russian ex-husband of his current lady friend, Gala, who seems even shallower than the usual eager beauty. The couple jets around trying, in vain, to lose the angry ex and his Russian mob henchmen. Along the way, they have some largely gratuitous sex adventures involving a highly placed third party, an arrangement that strains credulity. Would a woman with a highly sensitive job really put herself at risk in this way?

As an audio book, Dishonorable Intentions is a reasonably amusing way to spend a few hours while, for example, traveling. Tony Roberts’ reading allows us once again to gape at a fantasy lifestyle. With no real plot, though, the print version would offer little incentive to keep turning pages.


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Benedict Arnold: The rest of the story

Paul O’Connor, student of history, takes a look at a new book about one of the most reviled characters in America’s past.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

VALIANT AMBITION: GEORGE WASHINGTON, BENEDICT ARNOLD AND THE FATE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. By Nathaniel Philbrick. Read by Scott Brick. Penguin Audio. 13 hours, 30 minutes. $45. Also available in hardback. Viking. 448 pages. $30.

arnoldMost Americans, even the service writer at my car dealership’s garage, know of Benedict Arnold: Traitor. Scumbag. One of the characters on the AMC TV series TURN.

Yes to all of those characterizations. But there’s always more to these stories than we got in eighth grade American history, and Nathaniel Philbrick in Valiant Ambition has delivered the fuller context of Arnold’s treachery.

In addition to all of his negatives, Arnold also had some considerable positives. He was one of the America’s best generals in the Revolutionary War, the genius and hero of a naval encounter on Lake Champlain that spoiled British efforts to follow up on their capture of New York, and again both the genius and hero of the decisive stages of the Battle of Saratoga. He may have been whipped in Connecticut and at Quebec, but he proved his courage repeatedly, exacting heavy British casualties as their price for field success.

He was twice wounded seriously in combat, and he expended nearly his entire fortune, which he had earned in the years before the revolution, in the patriot cause.

So, what led a man who had given so much to the cause of independence to commit treachery against his own people? This is where Philbrick tells Arnold’s side of the story.

For reasons that we today would probably consider political corruption but which were seen as essential in the 1770s, Arnold was repeatedly passed over for promotion. The glory and honor he deserved for his courage in battle and his genius in the field were frequently stolen by others, namely Gen. Horatio Gates after the Battle of Saratoga. Lesser officers were promoted over him, while less competent commanders disregarded his sound advice and counsel.

The last straw came in Philadelphia, where he was military governor after the British evacuation. Joseph Read, the scoundrel who several years before had betrayed Washington after the loss of New York, was head of the civilian council and hell bent on establishing republican and egalitarian purity in the city. He tried to have Arnold tried in civilian courts and then succeeded in pressing military charges. Only one minor charge stuck, but that was too much for Arnold’s exalted sense of honor to accept. He went over to the British for a sizable reward.

Philbrick doesn’t take Arnold’s side. The general had plenty of faults, had clearly tried to profit illegally from the war and was dangerously self-centered. Arnold, Philbrick tells us, was going to do what was best for Arnold, not for his nation or for anyone else.

Having thus set Arnold’s treachery in context, Philbrick is then able to provide a more complete telling of Arnold’s failed attempt to surrender West Point to the British.

Philbrick is a master storyteller, but he falls short in explaining the significance of Arnold’s betrayal. The author relates the relentless internal politics of the American forces during the war, their self-serving leaders and a civilian leadership that was inept at best and either corrupt or delusional at worst. Philbrick posits that Arnold’s treachery shook both military and political leaders out of their self-serving coma and into the reality that they would lose the war if they did not act for the greater good.

But he doesn’t provide sufficient evidence to make his case that Arnold was the catalyst of this transformation. Fortunately, this theory appears only in the prologue and the final few pages. The great bulk of this book is solid reporting on a fascinating episode in American history.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.





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Dean, Mike and Jimmy

Yes, I went to Wake Forest College/University (it changed names midway through my student days). But Wake Forest had moved from Wake County to Winston-Salem in the 1950s, and although as a student I quickly learned that beating Carolina, especially in basketball, was a Big Deal, and even though we still talked about the ACC’s Big Four, we Demon Deacons were no longer really in the college-basketball crucible in the heart of the state of North Carolina. The greatest intensity was among Carolina, Duke and N.C. State.

Even though Wake Forest was on the periphery of the great rivalries, I believe I have a reasonably good perspective on the subject of this storied rivalry. I married a Duke alum (and ardent fan) in the mid-1970s, and we soon moved from Baltimore home to North Carolina, where for at least five months every year, college basketball was all consuming. As TV coverage of the games and tournaments expanded over the years, so did the intensity of emotions during basketball season. Every winter and early spring, our collective sense of wellbeing rose and fell with the outcomes of basketball games.

Though one of them went to Wake Forest and the other to the Naval Academy, our children to this day are unable to wear that light shade called Carolina blue. The older son texted me from his home in Las Vegas a couple of years ago to say there was a great sale on outdoor chairs at a local store, but they were all Carolina blue and he just couldn’t bring himself to buy any. That son had a stuffed toy dubbed Danny Furry back when Danny Ferry was a Duke star. The other son had a Bobby Hurley jersey and refused to dress as anything or anyone but that Duke star every Halloween. Even though I have been proud to teach at Carolina’s fine journalism school for several years, there are no Carolina bumper stickers on my car, no Carolina blue to be seen anywhere.

So it was with some curiosity that I placed the first CD of an audio version of John Feinstein’s new book, The Legends Club, into my car’s player. Would I find it tedious to hear about games and controversies I’d lived through? Would this be more insider basketball than I really cared about?

Little did I realize what a treat I had in store.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE LEGENDS CLUB: DEAN SMITH, MIKE KRZYZEWSKI, JIM VALVANO AND AN EPIC COLLEGE BASKETBALL RIVALRY. By John Feinstein. Random House Audio. 13 CDs; 15 ½ hours. Read by the author. $50.

9780399565656You think you remember these things, but you don’t. I’d forgotten, for example, that a young Mike Kryzysewski became the new head basketball coach at Duke the very same year (1980) that a young Jim Valvano took on that position at N.C. State.

John Feinstein’s riveting new book, The Legends Club, reminds us of those details, and also tells us a lot more we never knew. He relates, for example, the few choice words that Coach K’s wife, Mickey, uttered when she heard that Valvano was also coming to the heart of Atlantic Coast Conference country and would be coaching in Raleigh, just a few miles from their new home in Durham. Valvano had been on the New York coaching scene at Iona while Coach K was at West Point, and she’d been looking forward to a respite from his overwhelming personality.

Both the the new coaches, in their early 30s, would labor to build their programs in the shadow of Dean Smith, who was already a larger-than-life presence at the third ACC school in the Triangle, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For the next 10 years, the three teams competed against one another and on the national stage. They won national championships – Carolina in 1982; State, most improbably, in 1983; and Duke, finally, in 1990. And then, also at the end of the 1989-90 season, Valvano was dismissed in disgrace from State.

But the story doesn’t end there, of course. Feinstein goes on to tell of Valvano’s struggle to figure out what to do after he was no longer coaching, and of his valiant fight against the cancer that took his life in 1993, at age 47. He describes the evolving rivalry between the two greats who remained, Smith and Coach K, and eventually Smith’s retirement, decline and death. And he talks about how Coach K has grown and changed over the years, both as a coach and as a person.

Feinstein, a noted journalist and author who began his sports-writing career at Duke and graduated just three years before Coach K’s arrival, has added a great deal of research to his extensive first-hand knowledge of the great rivalry among these three coaches who are all now college basketball legends. He drew stories and insights from not only the coaches, but also their families and those who worked with and played for them.

The result is a wonderful book that does many things. It enables fans to relive the ups and downs of many years of memorable (and sometimes forgettable) basketball seasons, with more insight and less emotional stress than the first time around. It reminds us of such great players as Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and James Worthy, just to name a few who graced the courts in central North Carolina. (These were the days when many good players stayed in college until they graduated, or at least for more than one year.) When I’d arrive at some destination after having listened to the book while driving, I’d find myself wondering why everyone wasn’t talking about what I’d just heard, so vivid is Feinstein’s reading of his own words.

But The Legends Club is far from just a recounting of past basketball games and seasons. One indication of the scope of the book is that Feinstein doesn’t write in strictly chronological order, but rather moves back and forth in time when doing so helps give context and perspective.

That context and perspective are part of what makes this book great. Feinstein helps us to see things more clearly than we could in the excitement, jubilation or heartbreak of the moments. We see both the bigger picture about college basketball, and the even bigger picture about how basketball fits into the world beyond the gyms and arenas.

Feinstein also helps us see beyond the legends to understand more about these three men who have had such a presence in college basketball and American popular culture.

The personal stories, the insights Feinstein gives us about the three and their evolving relationships are perhaps the most memorable part of the book. Coach K was with Jimmy V when Valvano died. In one way or another, all three men came to respect the others and value the rivalry that helped elevate them all. And even in the throes of intense, often cutthroat competition, there are higher values. It’s interesting how often Feinstein quotes one or another of these men as saying he did something, maybe something unexpected or seemingly out of character, because it “was the right thing to do.”

The book brought tears to my eyes several times, and not a one of those times involved the outcome of a basketball game. And there are also passages that will have you laughing out loud. There’s the story, for example, of how Dean Smith’s wife, having just given birth to one of their daughters, was sure the baby’s life was ruined when, lying in a hospital, she heard that Duke had beaten Carolina. And how one of Coach K’s daughters was apparently a result of his celebration after that same game, and the two sets of parents were seated side by side several years later when the two girls were performing in a piano recital…

I can’t really speak to how enjoyable this book will be for someone who’s not a fan of one of these basketball teams, but I suspect anyone with any interest in sports will find The Legends Club highly entertaining, informative and moving. For those of us who’ve lived and breathed this rivalry, the book is a gem.






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