Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation (Book Review)

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Segaaaaa

I was a Sega Genesis kid.

Sonic the Hedgehog, Toejam and Earl, Echo the Dolphin, Aladdin, Super Street Fighter 2, NBA Jam, NHL 94, and other games defined my early videogaming childhood. Even today, I still use phrases from NBA Jam in conversation when possible, and still hear the 8-bit versions of the songs from Aladdin instead of the actual soundtrack from the movie. Sega (for better or worse) set me on the path of videogaming that would eventually lead to my love of the Playstation as well. Childhood me was sorely disappointed when the Dreamcast ended up being a relative commercial failure and Sega got out of the console making business.

Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation details the rise and fall for one of history’s greatest video game companies, Sega. Although there are times when the book focuses on Nintendo, the book is largely recreated from the view point of Tom Kalinske, President and CEO of Sega of America from 1990 to 1996. The book is written in a third person narrative as Kalinske joins Sega from Mattel to overthrow the giant Nintendo, who at the time of Kalinske’s hiring had over 90% of the market share while Sega had 5%. The book was recreated thanks to interviews with over 200 with former Sega and Nintendo employees.

Whether you love Sony or Microsoft, all video game consoles and publishers (except Nintendo) owe a debt to Sega. Kalinske came into Sega and challenged Nintendo, who had such an advantage in the industry that many called it a monopoly. Publishers were unhappy with Nintendo because of their perceived arrogant attitude, but nobody had the slingshot to take down Goliath until David (Sega) came along. Sega showed there was a market for video games for more than just kids, making games that teens and adults would enjoy thoroughly as well. Games such as Mortal Kombat, which ultimately drew the company and industry a great deal of criticism and ire from Congress (since they apparently had nothing better to do than try and regulate video games).

Sega took risks as a company, having an in-your-face attitude and gave consumers an alternative to Nintendo. No matter what your feelings about Nintendo might be, it’d be hard for anyone to deny that competition in the video game industry is good or having a variety of choices makes for better games. Sega also deserves credit for bringing us a standard release day among other innovations both technological and marketing wise. Although it’s worth noting that the companies sometimes brought out the worst in each other. This also includes the eventual civil war between Sega of America and Sega of Japan which destroyed the company more than anything.

The book is a fairly straightforward account of Sega and to a smaller extent Nintendo, from Kalinske’s arrival in 1990 until his resignation in 1996. The book does take the time at different points to examine the earlier history of both Sega and Nintendo. The book also takes the time to look at Sony, a company whose’s new console “Playstation” would in a few years take the world by storm. The book offers up some extremely interesting what-if moments, including the almost partnership between Sega and Sony. It’s fascinating to imagine a Sega Dreamcast with games possibly such as Metal Gear Solid, Crash Bandicoot, etc.

The book does take the time to mention the games, but it spends more time focusing on the behind the scenes marketing, advertising, politics, and business of the industry and company at the time. It’s really interesting getting to learn the story behind some of the most beloved video game characters or events. Personally, I like the author’s approach because we already know about the games, heck, a lot of us played them to death. So any criticism that it focuses too much on the business side of things is looking at it wrongly.

Overall, any fan of video games, any fan of Sega, or any fan of a generally good story should consider picking up Console Wars. I know reading this book makes me want to break out my Sega Genesis and play some Sonic the Hedgehog.

Action Comics, Vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel (Review)

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Superman is arguably the most iconic comic book character of all time, perhaps only being eclipsed by Batman within the last two or three years. Action Comics is iconic too considering it was the first Superman comic and the real comic that kicked off the superhero craze that currently earns billions of dollars a year between all the comics, movies, and merchandise. Really makes people regret burning comics in the 50’s, huh? So point being, there is obviously a lot of pressure on whatever writer gets the reins for the reboot in the New 52 and on DC itself.

Superman as a character generally never interested me too much growing up, I was admittingly more of a Batman kid. My problem with Superman was he came off as a God in a world (excluding characters like Wonder Woman) generally weren’t Gods or had God-like powers. Outside of his policy on killing, Superman always felt like a character that belonged more in Marvel’s universe. Also, 90’s Superman with the mullet among the different colors of Superman didn’t help matters.

DC decided to reboot their line of comics in 2011 (wow, it’s already been 3 years this month) to streamline continuity and make it easier for new readers to jump on. Something that I agree with since seeing #705 on the shelf can be daunting and often comics are their own worst enemy by being bogged down by continuity. All of that being said, DC decided to give the reins of Action Comics #1 to Grant Morrison, who was in the midst of finishing an 8 year run on Batman and had previous work including Animal Man and Justice League. I was a fan of the latter two work by Morrison but hated his Batman run.

My verdict on his Superman run through the first volume? Mixed.

Pros: Superman is humanish! My biggest problem with Superman as a character in recent years as written as some god-like being who readers can’t connect with as a character. He feels pain, he laughs, but generally he just has emotions. Not only that, being a deaged Superman, Morrison has done a good job of writing a young Superman that is cocky and quite confident in his abilities. I also have to give him a great deal of credit for his series involving Clark Kent, although I question so many people already knowing his “secret” identity.

I thought it was good of Morrison to introduce iconic Superman villains Lex Luthor and Brainiac (maybe?) in the first arc, something that was a must considering the stakes of the success for the New 52. I also enjoyed Steel helping Superman save the day.

Arguably my favorite part of Vol 1. were the backstories to be quite honest. Not just the stories involving Steel but the ones involving Jonathan Kent and Martha Kent. Also the story of Superman leaving Smallville for Metropolis. Which brings me to…

Cons: No Martha and Jon Kent. I’m not sure if this was an editorial mandate from DC (I assume it was) so I can’t blame Morrison for this one likely but the lack of Superman’s parents in the New 52 is sorely disappointing. Ma and Pa Kent were his anchors to humanity and added an extra touch of emotion to stories. I’m not really sure what was DC’s thinking on this one but I feel they really dropped the ball.

The origin story was done weird I thought, especially since this was the same guy who gave us All-Star Superman. Furthermore, I felt that the execution of Lex Luthor was done semi-poorly and I thought that it was confusing for readers whether the Colony (which it’s referred to at first) is Brainiac or sent by Brainiac but it’s never really explained. After issue four I felt there was a disconnect between what happened in the first four issues and it really hurt the second half of the arc.

On an unrelated note, I did enjoy the art for the most part throughout the first Volume.

Overall, Action Comics, Vol 1 is worth reading as an introduction to Superman in the New 52 but the second half of the first volume makes me question the direction that the book is taking. But I guess my thoughts on that will be left for Volume 2.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Book Review)

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Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by (now President) Barack Obama is a book that cannot be judged from an entirely objective standpoint. It’s impossible to pretend otherwise considering your views on President Obama or his policies both consciously and unconsciously seep into your mindset of how you ultimately feel about this book. Some individuals will cherry pick what they would like from this book, whether they agree or hate Obama. In fact, some of the passages from this book (his prior drug use, hanging out with Marxist professors, etc) was used against him in 2008, and as was his association with Rev. Wright. Which is a name I haven’t heard in years despite for how many weeks, if not months the media went on about it.

At it’s core, Dreams from My Father is a book about a young man’s journey to find his place not only in the world but within himself. Written in 1995, long before any Presidential aspirations, Obama wrote what can be considered one of the most candid books of any politician. Especially one that would later run for office. Obama has no qualms about sharing his prior drug use as previously stated, but we also learn about his childhood and family history in the process. We learn as Obama comes to terms about who he is as an individual and his inheritance. As a white man, I can never begin to imagine the internal debate that he must have gone through, considering his background.

We also get to learn about Obama’s community organizer days before we proceed to see his first trip to Kenya, his father’s homeland. We see the stark differences of not only how Obama is treated here versus the United States but how he feels about matters from a family standpoint. His desire for acceptance and community are things that any individual, no matter what their background might be, can relate and emphasize with.

He is candid in his introduction, even pointing out that he feels he could cut 50 pages out of the book (it could use a little trimming) but overall it is an absolutely wonderful read. Considering it’s his first book as an author especially, Obama’s writing skills shine through in this book and even then he was a really good writer. His prose is extremely easy to read, and his points are succinct.

Overall, Dreams from My Father is worth reading for a multitude of reasons, but especially because ultimately it is a well-written book that just so happens to be written by the future President of the United States. Any individual could find something to take out of this book no matter what their background or political views might be.

Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano’s Story of Life in the Mafia (Book Review)

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Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano’s Story of Life in the Mafia is an autobiography from the former Underboss of the Gambino Crime Family and at the time of his trial the highest ranking mafia member to ever flip. Sammy Gravano’s story is an interesting one for a multitude reasons, if only because we get a close-up look at the inside world of one of the most powerful crime families in American history from the 1970s through the early 1990s. Along the way we get a look at some of the inner workings of crimes (including murder) committed and of course a look at his working relationship with the infamous John Gotti.

As with all autobiographies, Gravano’s should be taken with a grain of salt. Gravano paints himself as someone who saw being a member of the Gambino Crime Family or Cosa Nostra as a honorable life. The men who would eventually be his boss, including Paul Castellano and John Gotti, made him eventually believe otherwise. While Gravano does seem to talk himself up a bit (you learn quite often how he has some big balls), I don’t doubt the validity of many of the stories or doubt that he would have no problem killing someone considering the number of murders that he committed. While Gravano for the most part avoids trying to act like he was ashamed of the murders because it’s murder, instead he feels guilty when killing guys that he felt shouldn’t have been murdered (including his own brother-in-law). But as you learn in the life of the mob, an order is an order and it’s not an after high school special.

My only problem with the book outside of the usual qualms that come with autobiographies is the attempt at the end to paint himself as someone who’s changed his ways. Gravano’s book was published in 1999, but by February 2000 he and 47 other people (including his ex-wife and kids) were arrested on state and federal drug charges. Gravano eventually pled guilty to both charges and was sentenced to 9 years in prison, and will not be eligible for release until 2019. Considering the majority of events in this book are from Gravano’s point-of-view, this causes someone who can already be considered a unreliable narrator to be completely unbelievable and calls into question some of the events of the book.

Overall though, Gravano has some interesting insights about working within a crime family and you’ll certainly learn some interesting things. Those interested in learning more about the mafia (Gambino family in particular) should consider giving this book a read.

Visions of Jazz: The First Century (Book Review)

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Visions of Jazz: The First Century is a mostly comprehensive look at Jazz through the first 100 years of its existence as a music genre. Giddins breaks up the book into eight parts, including Precursors, A New Music, A Popular Music, A Modern Music, A Mainstream Music, An Alternative Music, A Struggling Music, and A Traditional Music. Giddins looks at some of the figures that continue to loom over jazz today (Armstrong, Ellington, Davis, Coltrane) but also gives room and attention to some artists that don’t typically make these books. Budd Johnson, Spike Jones, Chico O’Farrill, and Dinah Washington are just a couple examples of this.

The book itself is fairly straightforward, with each chapter examining each musician, some of their biggest contributions to jazz as a genre, and their place within the context of when they were active. Fans of music theory will be happy as Giddins takes the time to discuss it thoroughly for a number of musicians. Individuals that fall within the Traditionalists camp for jazz music will also be pleased as Ellington receives almost 50 pages in a book where the majority of artists receive 10 and the author does a fair job examining jazz’s roots. Although the constraints the author mentions in the introduction (no Paul Whiteman, no Diana Krall, no Wynton Marsalis, and no foreign music) come off as odd in the larger context of jazz.

My biggest gripe with this book is the complete disregard for jazz fusion and 90s jazz for the most part, which the author even admits to in the introduction of the book. It irritates me every time a jazz writer decides to completely disregard a certain subgenre because of their personal tastes. It would be like a rock historian ignoring punk rock or ignoring everything after 1979 until Jack White. This book becomes a disappointment to me because of that in what is otherwise an enjoyable read and actually makes reading some of the later chapters less enjoyable. The author also just about completely writes off Miles Davis’s career after 1965, saying that Davis’s albums didn’t sell well as evidence that it’s not legitimate. Except the author has no problem discussing artists and their music either long after their sales declined or even their relevance. There’s also the weird treatment of Coltrane’s career, where the author seemingly decides to cast Coltrane’s career almost entirely within the free jazz context by mentioning “Chasin the Trane” and “My Favorite Things” at least 10 times combined but Giant Steps gets one mention.

Readers looking for an interesting read about the origins of jazz through the early 1990s should definitely give this book a read. Any reader looking for major developments in jazz after 1965 in the realm of fusion or similar areas will find themselves sorely disappointed.

The Letters of John F. Kennedy (Book Review)

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I can’t remember the last time I’ve received a handwritten letter, never mind the last time that I wrote one. It makes me wonder if one day I’ll be reading a book called “The E-Mails of Barack H. Obama” but I digress.

The Letters of John F. Kennedy by Martin W. Sandler is an interesting book that contains a variety of letters that President Kennedy wrote and received throughout his life. The individuals from whom he receive letters from include former Presidents, former rivals, Heads of State, Civil Rights Leaders, children, and numerous others. This book gives a different look at Kennedy, giving more of a first-hand account throughout letters with accompanying context at the start of each chapter and each letter. The letters in this book humanize Kennedy, showing him being humorous and empathic.

Despite his flaws, it is readily apparent that the author likes Kennedy but that’s not a bad thing. Sandler does a good job of giving enough context around the series of letters involving JFK’s Presidential Run, Foreign Policy, and Civil Rights without giving an overabundance of information. It certainly helps that Kennedy was a man who could immerse himself in many circles, allowing the reader to see letters from individuals ranging from Harpo Marx to Martin Luther King Jr. to Nikita Krushchev and others. It also makes for a far more interesting book.

Overall, fans of Kennedy and history alike will get something interesting out of this book. At the very least, I was interested in the letters between Kennedy and former Presidents.

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Book Review)

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Reading Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington gave me the strong impression that the author Terry Teachout did not particularly like Duke Ellington. Understandably, the individual in Teachout’s book could be someone hard to love, Ellington is cast as someone who is manipulative, a womanizer, an individual who takes credit for the work of others despite his own genius, a procrastinator, and other labels that do not cast him in a positive light. Teachout just about completely writes off Ellington’s autobiography Music is My Mistress as essentially a pack of lies. The author quotes the book extensively for Ellington’s views of events while contrasting about what actually happened.

It’s not necessary in my opinion for a biographer to like the figure they’re writing about, and in some cases it’s understandable that it would be the case. However, as another reviewer points out, Teachout does a good job of examining Ellington’s weaknesses but not so much his strengths. One example from Page 116 of the edition I read: “It was true, and those who have spent time around geniuses know that some of them cannot bear to be thought less than perfect” comes off incredibly negative. Even Ellington’s positive contributions or actions seem to be written off in some manner within the book.

The book itself is a fairly straight forward biography of Ellington’s life. Teachout examines Ellington’s womanizing ways in great detail alongside his major musical pieces and other work as an artist. His rise, fall, and comeback in 1956 are all chronicled here. Unfortunately, I feel like the author sometimes fell into the trap of giving too much information about side characters that don’t really ever show up ever again, and it sometimes feel like padding in a book that only clocks in at 361 pages. Another problem I had with the book is the constant references or comparisons to classical music, a common cliche where Ellington is called “America’s Mozart” instead in this book he is compared to Bach on several occasions.

Overall, I did enjoy reading Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Teachout. The book does a good job of covering extensively the major components of Ellington’s life. While I do sometimes feel it dwells on Ellington’s weaknesses too much and not enough on his friendships with other jazz artists, I think it certainly does it’s job of being a biography. Ellington and Jazz fans alike should consider picking up this book and at least giving it a read.