Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Review: Coach (2012)

By Rosie DiManno

While reading "Coach" in December 2012, I took a look at amazon.ca to see what the reviews were like from readers.

There were two. One was from Pat Burns' first wife, and it said that the book was inaccurate, filled with lies and incomplete. The former NHL coach was a much worse person than he was portrayed, she claimed.

Then there was a review from Burns' sister, who loved the book.

Hmmm. Couldn't wait to see how a non-family member, meaning me, might react at that point. While realizing that there are two sides to every story, "Coach" comes across a good accounting of Burns' life, particularly in regard to his hockey career ... which is why most people will read this in the first place.

Let's get one point out quickly though. Author Rosie DiManno makes it clear that Burns was no saint, particularly when he was a young adult. He did get married and divorced rather quickly and wasn't much of a father in those early days. Burns also could be a loner, particularly when hockey wasn't going so well. The stories about Burns' life as a policeman are a little vague at times, in part because Burns was known to exaggerate about those exploits. But the stories are still entertaining no matter how much truth is involved.

Burns sort of stumbled into a hockey career, serving as a coach to young players while working around his career with the police. Eventually that led to a stint in junior hockey, which led to a job in the minors. Before he knew it, Burns was the coach of the most fabled franchise in hockey, the Montreal Canadiens.

He did fine there for a while, and - take it from someone who attended news conferences for him - he always projected presence and attitude. My guess is that you always knew Pat Burns was in charge if you visited the locker room. His time in the Montreal fish bowl is well covered.

Even so, DiManno turns up the power of the microscope when Burns arrives in Toronto to coach the Maple Leafs in 1992. The Leafs surprised everyone by advancing to the conference finals, losing Game Seven to the Kings in a memorable playoff series in 1993. Even in eventual defeat, the Leafs had quite a ride. DiManno is all over that season, covering it with a few chapters in detailed fashion.

The story picks up in speed once Burns leaves Toronto. He coached in Boston and then in New Jersey, where finally he won a Stanley Cup - the missing item on his resume. Burns never had much of a chance to add to that record, as he was diagnosed with cancer after the following season and battled health problems for several years before dying.

There's one important part of DiManno's research that clearly elevates this a notch. She talked to everyone she could find after Burns' death. That means the book just doesn't have quotes from the time, although there are plenty of those, but everyone felt free to speak openly about relationships with Burns. It's fascinating to read what former Bruins' general manager Harry Sinden had to say about Burns' time in Boston with the perspective of hindsight.

"Coach" is a rather well-done portrait of a man who seemed so intent on moving forward that it took him until his dying days before he remembered to look around as he traveled. It's particularly good for Leaf fans who remember that surprising run from 20 years ago. But remember, relatives may have a different opinion.

Four stars

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: Honey, Do You Need a Ride? (2012)

By Jennifer Graham

A while ago on this site, I reviewed a humor book about running and didn't find it funny. I always worry in such situations that's something wrong with me.

Now, having read "Honey, Do You Need a Ride?", I'm convinced that I didn't have a humor bypass operation somewhere along the way.

Because this is a funny book. It's also equally poignant.

Jennifer Graham has been a journalist and freelance writer over the years. She gave up some parts of her career to get married and have children. Obviously, based on her resume, Graham is pretty good at the writing part of life.

The main theme of the book is, as you'd expect from the cover, about her attempts to become a "runner." The big problem is that she's always been on the heavy side. OK, Graham herself subtitled the book "Confessions of a Fat Runner." The line between heavy/fat/obese has always been unclear, but Graham's doctor has indeed told her to lose weight. Time then for her to put on some running shoes and head for the streets.

Despite her attempts to make light and put down those running efforts, Graham became a relatively slow but steady runner. She's done half-marathons, which puts her in the small minority of the running community. Still she was never fast enough to be satisfied, and the weight never came off for good. The description of those runs, and the weight-reducing efforts, are frequently laugh-out-loud material.

What's more, this all rings true for everyone. One of the best parts of running is that it's open to everyone, but the catch is that not everyone is very good at it. This is not a problem for those playing, say, basketball, since LeBron James isn't likely to show up at the local gym. But runners are in the same race as some really good athletes in many cases, making comparisons too easy, and those fast people look a lot better in shorts and a t-shirt than most. Many women have been fighting the battle of trying to fit into someone else's ideal body type, and life just doesn't work that way.

Yet there's more at work here, and that lifts this book into a higher class. Graham is quite open about her entire life. She was married to a general radio talk show host for several years, but eventually was divorced. Ever try to raise four kids and two donkeys (long story, but true) mostly by yourself? You might turn to ice cream every so often as well. It's very, very easy to root for Graham as she battles a variety of everyday woes, in part because she's so engaging in telling the story.

The book isn't exactly a straight-forward life story of running and life, and thus comes off as being a little disorganized in spots. Perhaps it started as a series of blog and journal entries, and was adapted into a book. We don't hear much about her ex-husband after he gets remarried, and the donkeys (no, not a synonym for ex-husband) enter and leave the story without much detail.

OK, it's not perfect, and none of us are. "Honey, Do You Need a Ride?" is a very enjoyable read that goes by quickly. Practically anyone who owns running shoes will like it, and those who identify with Graham's battles will love it. This is a writer who seems like she'd be worth reading no matter what the subject is.

Four stars

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Review: Team Canada 1972 (2012)

As told by the players with Andrew Podnieks

It's easy to think that Americans aren't exactly the target audience for this book.

"Team Canada 1972" takes a look back at the Summit Series, the now-legendary hockey matchup between Canada and the Soviet Union. Spoiler alert; Canada wins in the final moments of Game Eight.

It's easy to guess that much of Northern Ontario is missing some forests because of the paper needed to print all of the books that have been written about the series over the past 40 years. This is another one, obviously, published for the anniversary.

It's difficult to know the business side of the book from this side of the border. It's called "the official 40th anniversary celebration of the Summit Series,"  and has a special logo designed for the occasion. There's no obvious benefactor, though.

The format for the coffee-table book is rather simple. Andrew Podnieks, who has a long list of books to his credit, talked to everyone involved with Team Canada that he could. (Sadly, there have been a few deaths over the years.) That includes coach Harry Sinden and the young players who came along to be the hockey equivalent of tackling dummies in practices (for example, John Van Boxmeer, fresh out of junior). The missing people do get short biographies, sometimes based on old interviews.

OK, so how is the book? It's good looking for starters. The photos are used to good effect, with each player getting a full-color portrait from the time. Each player gets a couple of pages to tell his story, and there are brief descriptions of each of the games as well as other background information. There also are five appendixes, which might be a record, with statistics.

You'd expect all of that, and it's there. Still, the idea has to rise or fall with the players' comments, and after a while the stories become similar or redundant. Every potential player received a relatively late phone call with an invitation to join the team, thus interrupting his time at a hockey school. The memories of the games don't offer many surprises -- the team was surprised by the Soviets, it took a while to get in shape and come together as a team, Moscow was awful, etc. This might be a sign of reading too many books on the series, but I would guess Canadian hockey fans might have a similar reaction.

There were a few exceptions here. The comments by some of the lesser players, including those who went home early because of a lack of playing time, come off as fresh. Not unexpectedly, the most insight comes from Ken Dryden. His take on the reason for Canada's comeback is that Canadian hockey players played games, and plenty of them, and thus had much to draw on during difficult situations. The Soviets, meanwhile, practiced more than they played, and while that produced skilled players, it wasn't as helpful in such a pressure-packed series.

(By the way, I know this is designed for a Canadian audience. But it would have been fun to have all of the Soviet players give their stories as well somehow.)

At $45, this is a rather expensive volume. "Team Canada 1972" probably isn't the one book to read if you have to pick only one of the many to find out what happened in that memorable series, but it does add a bit to the overall story and looks good while doing it. Those who still tear up at Paul Henderson's goal ought to like it.

Three stars

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