Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Book review: Curse? There Ain’t No Stinking Cub Curse and Other Stories about Sports and Gamesmanship

Curse? There Ain’t No Stinking Chicago Cub Curse by James Wolfe and Mary Ann Presman (Rensselaer Publishing Group, 2010), 204 pages

The first two stories in "Curse? There Ain't No Stinking Chicago Cub Curse" find the Chicago Cubs making a run toward the World Series and a man named Henry Crawford going on a lucky streak at a blackjack table. If you know me at all, you know I loved the beginning of this book.

There are many reasons to participate in sports and games: to try to win the World Series, to pass the time at a family gathering, or as the background to a first date, just to name a few. James Wolfe and Mary Ann Presman explore these and many other reasons that people engage in friendly--and sometimes not-so-friendly--competition in a collection of 11 short stories (four by Wolfe, seven by Presman) that's sure to bring a smile to your face if you've ever played Scrabble, tried to master golf, or dabbled in almost any other competitive activity.

The book's first story is by far its longest. In it, we find that the Cubs have a new head honcho, Johnny, and that he's not your typical MLB owner. Johnny purchased the Cubs because 1) he loves the team, and 1a) he thinks that being the owner might enable him to throw on a uniform and get some major league playing time. He operates the team with the help of his loyal but outspoken brother Frank, the narrator of the story and the lifelong brains behind Johnny's bravado.

Johnny makes George Steinbrenner look like Ebenezer Scrooge as he immediately lures the game's premiere manager and stockpiles many of its most expensive players. How does he afford it? With billboards at Wrigley--rather, at Goldman Sachs Field--fireworks nights, and hefty increases in concession prices. With Johnny's free-spending methods vaulting the Cubs into a comfortable lead, Johnny harasses the manager to find playing time for--Johnny.

A low draft pick years earlier with a professional career that fizzled quickly, Johnny obviously hasn't let go of his childhood dream. Johnny weasels his way into a couple blowout games, which baseball's commissioner does not find amusing. There's no doubt Johnny causes his share of headaches, but he's doing so as the Cubs sit atop the division standings. So Cubs fans are left to debate: is the dream of a potential World Series ring worth the nightmare of Johnny's style of ownership? The story's timing couldn't be better as the real-life Cubs embark on a 2010 campaign under new ownership.

Two of Wolfe's stories deal with a game that is as frustrating for almost everyone who plays it as baseball can be for Cubs fans: golf. "If profanity improved the golf game" brings us Jack, a "straight-laced, God-fearing CPA" who looks down on the friends in his foursome for their contributions to a troubling "trend of acceptable language in society in general." But when Jack accidentally lets the s-word slip after a bad bunker shot and it leads to a sand save followed by a birdie on the next hole, his M.O. changes dramatically. If only this simple solution worked for all of us hackers out there ...

While Wolfe's stories deal with baseball and golf, Mary Ann Presman takes the reader on a scenic route of less popular--but no less enjoyable--games. I laughed at Sylvia, the cranky middle-aged woman who takes a traditional Mother's Day game of bocce ball way too seriously: "She was in favor of strictly enforcing the rules and playing her best, even when the game was 'Candyland.' ... It prepared the kids better for the real world."

I cringed as 13-year-old Lucy agreed to an innocent game of pool with her grandfather at the local pool hall, only to find herself on the listening end of her most straightforward sex talk to date: "Just 'cause a guy gets all hot and bothered whenever you come into view doesn't mean he's hopelessly in love and wants to marry you ... It just means he's got a hard-on and you can give him great pleasure by taking care of it."

And I was touched by the seemingly innocuous game of H-O-R-S-E between Neal and his younger brother Teddy, a game played just after Neal's return from Iraq on the heels of their father's death: "Teddy stepped back a few paces, bouncing the ball. He stopped, clenched the ball. 'But I thought you couldn't wait to get away from here?'
'Away from Dad maybe. But not this place.'

is a quick read, and an enjoyable one. Whether Wolfe and Presman are exploring sports as power, as diversion, as tradition, or as a way to connect, they draw you in with their unique characters and engaging narrators. The short story format enables them to traverse a variety of sports and games and to analyze some of the many ways in which people compete with one another. Whether you're a sports addict, you enjoy the occasional game, or you just like a good story, Curse? will have something for you.

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