Book Review: I’m Keith Hernandez by Keith Hernandez

I’m Keith Hernandez
A Memoir
Keith Hernandez
Little Brown and Company, May 2018
ISBN: 978-1-3350-1692-8

Full disclosure:  A Die-hard Mets fan, I have had full-season tickets for 32 years, and attend an average of 75 games each season.  I have also been an avid fan of Keith Hernandez, formerly the Mets first baseman and currently a member of the broadcast team that announces each Mets game, and the author of this wonderful memoir.  So I cannot lay claim to impartiality.  That said, this book is every bit as terrific as were/are the talents of its author.  When a book begins with the words “I Love Baseball,” what else can it be to its readers, most if not all of whom feel the same emotion?

To say that the book is replete with statistics and historical recreations of wonderful moments in the sport would be an understatement.  But that is all to the good!  To quote the author: “I want to talk about my development as a baseball player and how it got me to the major leagues; I want to talk about how I gained the confidence to thrive in the bigs despite a grueling haul; and, finally, I want to talk about how my development as a young player affects how I see the game today from my seat in the broadcast booth.”  And he does all of that, and more!  As he also says: “I want to get to the core of my baseball story.”  And he does just that, and more.

The tale begins in 1972, when Keith Hernandez “was getting ready to go to my first spring training.”  I should state here that the biggest influences on this young man – 18 years old at this point in time, were, and always continued to be, his father (a former professional baseball player), and his brother Gary (the starting first baseman for the University of California Golden Bears baseball team), to both of whom he pays tribute throughout the book, deservedly.  His Dad is a first-generation American, his parents having emigrated from Spain via the Pacific, arriving in San Francisco in 1916.   His father “broke all kinds of school records, leading his team to a championship game at Seals Stadium, Mission High School, was named MVP, and was christened by the city as the next big star to come out of the Bay Area.’ Keith had been signed by the St. Louis Cardinals minor league team, whose spring training complex was in St. Petersburg, picked in the 42nd round of the June 1971 amateur draft, one of the 500 players taking part in the spring training games, with a mind-set of “baseball superstar or bust.”  At age 18 he played in the Florida State League in 1972  “Some execs, scouts, and coaches claimed that young Keith Hernandez was the best defensive first baseman – at any level – they’d come across in quite some time.”  He talks about Pacifica, in 1961, when he was 7 and Gary 9, both trying out for Little League.  We then jump to the time after the 1972 season in St. Pete, when he was “itching to get back home to San Francisco.” But unexpectedly he joined the Tulsa Oilers, the Cardinals’ AAA team, at his father’s insistence.

The author’s prominence in his chosen field of endeavor is indisputable.  He earned more Gold Glove Awards (11) than any first baseman in baseball history.  Since 2000, he has served as an analyst on Mets telecasts for the SNY, WPIX and MSG networks, and is a member of the Fox Sports MLB postseason studio team.  Personally he and Gary Cohen are the absolute best in the business, and if I ever have to miss a game, at least I make sure I always have his play-by-play in close proximity.  His book is reflective of all of that brilliance, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2018.

Book Review: House of Nails by Lenny Dykstra

house-of-nailsHouse of Nails
Lenny Dykstra
William Morrow, July 2016
ISBN 978-0-0624-0736-8

In a very interesting autobiography, subtitled both “The Construction, The Demolition, The Resurrection” and “A Memoir of Life on the Edge,” this wonderful professional baseball player lays it all out on the line:  His almost obsessive determination to play professional ball from his youngest days, through his accomplishing that and much more, setting all kinds of offensive records in the greatest game in sports (OK, I am not the most objective person in that regard), through his losing almost everything when incarcerated, and then recovering his life when released and finding great success in the business world.

In what the author describes as “the greatest World Series in baseball history,” in “the best sports city in the world, New York,” at age 23, he played in an historic manner, helping the New York Mets win it all.  (On a personal note, that end to the 1986 baseball season is what made this reviewer become a full-season Mets ticketholder, and I have attended nearly every ensuing game for the past 30 years.)  I clearly remember Lenny Dykstra as an incredible player, giving it everything he had, and throwing himself up against the center field wall when a ball came his way, with no thought to the cost to his body.  He is gracious in recounting the end of that game and noting that Bill Buckner’s error which cost his team the game, and the Series, was only one of the factors leading to that outcome.

Lenny Dykstra’s career highlights included a walkoff homerun in the NLCS in 1986, and a World Series homerun in both 1986 and 1993.  The author had great talent as a ballplayer, and, in what I’m guessing is almost a necessity when achieving what he did, also seems to this reader to have an enormous ego.  He says what is undeniably true:  “. . . ask anyone to dispute the fact that not too many players have played at the level that I rose to, or accomplished the things I did in the postseason over my career.”  But as this book nears its end, he admits “I know I have many flaws and have made many mistakes over the years.  I know, too, that I will make more mistakes as I continue to work on regaining a life built with happiness and contentment; a life that I can be proud of.”  Dykstra was not happy during the years he played for the Mets, chafing over being platooned at center field with the great Mookie Wilson [one of my favorite all-time Mets players].  Not long after, he left to join the Philadelphia Phillies.  Of that time, he says “other than a little drinking here and there, I didn’t even know what drugs looked like then.  Steroids were not on the radar yet.  I know it’s hard to believe, but I would then make up for my innocence when I played for the Phillies.”  He describes himself in 1993 at age 30 as being “put together like a Greek statue.”

Dykstra has strong opinions about most of those alongside whom he worked and played ball, e.g., he calls Davey Johnson, the Mets manager in the ‘80’s, an “overrated and underachieving manager,” although he credits many of his colleagues with being great ballplayers.  He does not make excuses for his own forays into heavy drinking and use of steroids, cocaine and amphetamines, and credits that use with his becoming an All-Star in 1990.  He at one point owned his own private jet, which he used to fly, among other places, to Paris, where he purchased a bottle of a 1936 wine for $3,000, and Germany, where he paid $75,000 cash for a “genuine German shepherd.”  He proudly writes of his “good friends” Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen, among others. He made enormous amounts of money, both in baseball and in his off-the-field business [known at one point as the Car Wash King] and real-estate investments.  Some of those moves, however, landed him in prison in 2011, ending his life as he then knew it.

This is a fascinating book [albeit, be warned, laced with profanity], for one who is a dedicated baseball fan, and a very fast read, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2016.

Book Review: Teaching the Cat to Sit by Michelle Theall

Teaching the Cat to SitTeaching the Cat to Sit
A Memoir
Michelle Theall
Gallery Books, September 2014
ISBN 978-1-4516-9730-8
Trade Paperback

Ms. Theall bares her heart and soul honestly, yet delicately, in this magnetic memoir; and I am forever grateful to her for doing so. I won’t pretend to possess the capability to clearly articulate how reading this book made me feel; or even how just one little line has stuck with me, becoming my mantra, holding me up, allowing me to cling to hope while releasing those nagging questions that will never have satisfying answers.

My gratitude extends to Ms. Gail Storey, an accomplished author, kind soul and just all-around awesome person, for writing such a captivating review and recommending this gem to me. Despite an almost insurmountable stack of To-Read and To-Review books that beckon to me from every room in my home; I purchased Teaching the Cat to Sit immediately after reading Ms. Storey’s review. Upon arrival, it settled into a Some Day Stack, patiently. The waiting period was brief.

Recently, feeling emotionally raw and shattered, in need of a maternal parental unit that I no longer have, I desperately turned to Ms. Theall, and my healing began. I don’t have real problems. Ms. Theall did, and continues to; yet these issues that could bury the average person do not define her, nor does she allow them to limit her. As I read about the brutality, harassment and persecution that she has been subjected to, I felt deep sadness, empathy and an over-all disappointment with the many humans that treated her this way. Then I became angry. No, furious is more accurate. Ignorance should no longer be “bliss”, it should not even be acceptable, and the “everyone’s entitled to his opinion” should be amended to “everyone’s entitled to his informed opinion.”

While I feel bitter, nasty and downright hateful towards those that caused Ms. Theall, her partner, and their son grief and suffering; Ms. Theall is clearly the better person, cruising right along on the High Road. That, to me, is true inspiration.

With a soft, but strong voice, Ms. Theall becomes that girlfriend that you immediately and completely relax with. She possess that unique and enviable trait of seeing herself honestly. With a strong sense of humor, compassion that can’t be hidden or even understated, and the simple, sure sense of always doing the right thing, Ms. Theall’s story is captivating, charming, honest and hopeful; catapulting her to the top of the list of awe-inspiring, formidable women that I admire…..think Cheryl Strayed, Gail Storey, Maggie Stiefvater and Marie Manilla to name a few. These women would deny the accolades, maybe blush, and say that they are no different than anyone else, and they do believe that; but I know better. They are courageous, strong, resilient and tenacious. I will go right on admiring them, singing their praises, and attempting to emulate their outstanding, admirable traits.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2014.

Book Review: Wherever I Wind Up by R.A. Dickey with Wayne Coffey

Wherever I Wind Up
R.A. Dickey with Wayne Coffey
Blue Rider Press, April 2012
ISBN: 978-0-399-15815-5

This is a fascinating tale, about a fascinating man.  R.A. Dickey is much more than a talented pitcher: He is a former English lit college student; he once [attempted to] swim the Missouri [and was partially successful]; and most recently climbed to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, a height of over 19,000 feet, for charity, in an effort to raise awareness and funds to stop human trafficking and prostitution in Mumbai.  He is a devout Christian, and though at times less than perfect as a Christian, husband and father, that is no longer the case, and there can be no doubt as to his love for and devotion to his wife [his childhood sweetheart], his children and his God.

Nominally, and obviously, a sports book, this novel is much more than that.  To the author’s credit, he names names, and is generous in his praise while being candid in his assessments when circumstances warrant it.  In addition to an insider’s view of the game of baseball, there is the occasional quote from ancient Greek or Chinese philosophers.  In 2011 he completed his 15th season of professional baseball, in a remarkable story.  Despite some horrific abuse suffered when he was eight years old, detailed in the book, he overcame great odds to be where he is today, also detailed in the book.

Full disclosure:  This reviewer is a passionate fan of the New York Mets, the team where Mr. Dickey is now a trusted part of the five-man pitching rotation, and I have been a Mets full-season ticket holder for 25 years, attending at least 70 [out of 81] home games each of those years.  But my admiration for the author goes beyond the obvious – he is a courageous human being as well, as this book makes clear.  Called a “phenom” when he started out, he was the Tennessee State player as a senior in 1993, an All-American at the University of Tennessee and a starter for Team USA in the 1996 Olympics.  After playing in the minor leagues over a long period of time, he is offered a signing bonus of $810,000 by the Texas Rangers.  It is the realization of his dream.  Until he undergoes the routine physical examination required before the contract can be signed, and it is found that he was apparently born without an ulnar collateral ligament – the main stabilizing ligament – in his elbow, and the offer is summarily withdrawn.  Ultimately, he signs for $75,000.00.  How he proved himself, remained in the major leagues, and became one of the premier – and few – knuckleball pitchers pitching today, is quite a tale.

The book is highly recommended, for readers who are baseball fans certainly, but for those who are not as well.  As you can probably tell, I loved it.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2012.

Book Review: My Dark Places by James Ellroy

My Dark PlacesMy Dark Places
James Ellroy
Vintage Books, 1997
ISBN 0-679-76205-1
Trade Paperback

James Ellroy, prolific Los Angeles crime writer, takes us on a rock-strewn, rutted road through his internal landscape in this memoir, which has at its heart, the loss of his mother to an anonymous murder.

This intimate view of the inside of James Ellroy is not for the faint of heart.  As one reads it, one feels the jagged edges, the desperation, the loneliness and lostness of a boy turned man, still boy, trapped with the feelings of a 10-year-old toward his beautiful, red-headed mother, like a fly trapped in amber.

Mr. Ellroy will be the first to tell the reader, and with frequency, that he transmogrified his feelings toward his mother’s death into his fascination with crime in Los Angeles.  He is one of our living literary giants of noir.  Reading this book shows one how he got there. He lived noir.  He is noir.

Yet, there is redemption.  He should have ended up incarcerated.  He should have wound up dead of an overdose or acute alcohol poisoning.  He should have died an ugly death at the end of a short, tormented life, but he did not.  He lived to thrill us with tales of the dark side, the shadow side that lives in us all.  His courage, talent and genetic midwestern work ethic pulled him out of the muck that wanted to kill him.  The reader is the beneficiary, with not only this memoir, but his L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz) and his other crime books and essays.

Reviewed by Marta Chausée, December 2011.

Book Review: Sex and the Kitty by Nancy the Cat

Sex and the Kitty
Nancy the Cat
Plume Books, September 2011
ISBN 978-0452-29742-5
Trade Paperback (e-ARC)

Nancy’s first memoir—she’ll certainly need more as she gets older and, as she says, she’s leaving the door open for possible sequels—sets the record straight on her birth and early life in a small town as she awaits her destiny. Anyone with Nancy’s charm, beauty and wit is bound to find fame and adventure and Nancy’s journey to the high life begins with her jaunts to the local pubs where she develops a human fan base.

She also puts together Team Nancy, a group of local cats whom she instructs on how to be proper fans. Team Nancy includes her cranky stepcat, Pip, as well as Brambles, a Siamese with germophobia, OCD and Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Bella, who’s afraid of being abandoned again, and the adventurous devil-may-care Murphy. Not included in Nancy’s posse for various reasons are Bish, Bash and Bosh, a trio of erudite pet rats, Bruce, a Jack Russell suffering from small dog syndrome and Dennis, the neighborhood alpha cat.

Nancy lands a part in the community theatre production of Animal Farm. Things don’t go too well—suffice it to say chickens are involved. Next thing you know, Nancy has a blog and a Facebook account and then it happens—she gets an agent who promises her stardom but she’ll have to move to London. With a few regrets, Nancy leaves her family and friends behind and heads off to the big city and all it has to offer such a special feline, including the possible attention of that most handsome of kitties, Baron Romeo III. Will this superstar of Kit-E-Licious cat food bring love and happiness to our Nancy?

I confess I’m a solid, hardcore cat lover but, I ask you, how could anyone resist such a feline as Nancy? This little kitty is certainly narcissistic—what cat isn’t?—but she’ll still charm the socks off anyone who’ll give her a chance and she has written a must-read bestseller. Go on, you know you want to.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2011.

Book Review: A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron

A Dog’s Purpose
W. Bruce Cameron
Read by George K. Wilson
Tantor Audio, 2010
ISBN 978-1-4001-1645-4
Unabridged Audio Book
Also available as a Forge trade paperback

A puppy plays in the woods with his mom and his siblings but this is not an entirely idyllic scene. The puppy and his family are feral and the mother dog has taught her puppies to be afraid of humans but the worst happens—all but one are captured and taken to a shelter. This is a private shelter, though, not the pound, so there is hope for their future. And so begins the tale of a dog who lives through one existence after another, remembering his past each time.

There’s no such thing as an animal-centric novel that doesn’t make you cry as far as I know and this one is no exception. It’s a natural cry, though, meaning that the moments of sadness revolve around the dog’s deaths and that is tempered by the humor and joy that occur during each of the dog’s lives. Along this journey, the dog learns much in each life—discovering love, saving a boy’s life, working in search and rescue, having a great adventure—but always feels that something is missing, his true purpose in being a dog.

Told from the point of view of the dog, the reader/listener is treated to the full gamut of emotions from fear to joy to pure happiness and the narrator, George K. Wilson, does a nice job of making the dog’s “voice” seem natural. This is no cutesy tale with an animal who talks to humans but we hear his thoughts, including his very entertaining interpretations of what humans mean by certain words and gestures. This is a story that will engage any reader who appreciates dogs—just be prepared for those occasional two-tissue moments.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2011.