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Masters of the Games: Essays and Stories on…
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Masters of the Games: Essays and Stories on Sport

by Joseph Epstein

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is a remarkable collection of essays on sports, written in a serious manner by a man who is surprisingly (unexpectedly?) knowledgeable about sports. Some of the usual suspects for a sports essay are present, such as gambling, but others are quite unusual, such as the author's love of John R. Tunis sports books for boys.

The essays are at their best when they're personal and Epstein speaks of his love of baseball and of the various Chicago teams, as well as some of his sports experiences growing up, playing tennis, for instance, in Chicagoland.

There is some annoying redundancy but yet, for a reader who is looking for serious, yet interesting, essays on sports, this is the book for you. Highly recommended!! ( )
  lindapanzo | Oct 22, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Epstein is an engaging and humorous writer and a long-time sports fan with a strong interest in the ethical aspect of sports, as well as an appreciation for athletic greatness. As a collection, some repetition becomes evident, as we regularly learn that the author was good, but not great, at many sports. It was a bit startling to have made peace with the author's recurrent fascination with athletes of Jewish heritage, only to then find him lamenting in another piece that other authors made much of the fact that certain athletes were black. "Just focus on them as athletes, period." Was Epstein's advice to these writers, advice that he himself most certainly had not taken.

The plus side to the collection was watching Epstein's trajectory from enthusiastic young fan to disillusioned middle-aged cynic to resignedly addicted old couch potato. From "Sports are great!" to "Sports are fake." to "I'm in too deep to quit watching."

And special kudos to Rowman & Littlefield - this is one of the most well-presented, nicely bound books on my shelves. Having received hastily glued ARC's before, this finished product was a treat. ( )
  cjsdg | Aug 13, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book will find two kinds of readers: those who will read anything about sports, and those who will read anything by Joseph Epstein. I happen to be the second kind. Epstein is a fine stylist, and that is reason enough to read him, but his principal merit is that he has what is sometimes called an interesting mind but is more properly an interested mind. If writers were classified like baseball players he would be known as a utility writer: whatever the subject, he can find something to say and say it pretty well, though he does, like utility players, tend to play the percentages with certain stock moves because they work. This tendency comes to the fore in the present book, which collects pieces across several decades. Reading it is rather like listening to a master conversationalist, the sort who is never at a loss, but whom you catch, if you spend enough time in his company, recycling the same anecdotes and clever illustrations. If the habit bothers you, this book will bother you; it doesn’t bother me.

Sports fans might hope to find in Epstein an eloquent advocate for the merits of watching nominally adult strangers play games which, under multitudinous scrutiny, do not even look as if they can be very much fun to play. Likewise those of us who do not see the merits, and would rather watch a little league game (at least if our kids are playing), might hope to learn to be edified by the spectacle of “professional players” (a term to boggle at). There is an oft-rehearsed case, which inverts the adage that if a thing is worth doing it is worth doing well by arguing that if a thing can be done especially well, it is worth doing (and, by extension, worth seeing done). At the highest levels of skill, the thought goes, sports are as much art as game, and that is why it’s worthwhile watching major league baseball instead of your kid’s game—in which there is, I must admit, no artistry though there is plenty of excitement and a much higher quotient of the unexpected than in the big leagues (you can spend every afternoon for fifty summers watching The Game on the tube and never see an inside-the-infield home run; and when was the last time you saw an NFL team run the old Statue of Liberty, than which there is nothing more fun in football?) If the person making this case is of a literary bent (as Epstein is) you will hear much about the poetry of the athlete, and sooner or later he will say something beginning “Ever since Pindar....” (However, dirty little secret: only those who have never tried to read Pindar can understand him.)

It’s a respectable case, and Epstein makes occasional half-hearted feints at it, but even these are often undercut by Epstein’s characteristic deadpan, as when, at once evoking and dispelling a Keatsian formula, he calls a graceful play “a thing of beauty and...a joy for about a second and a half.” For the most part it’s remarkable how little full-throated praise of sports he’s inclined to muster. Although Epstein does have a few pro heroes whom he can make us imagine and admire when he wants to—and none more so than Joe DiMaggio, the essay on whom is compelling, as is that on Bob Love, whose peculiar abilities he brings vividly onto the page—Epstein reserves his warmest appreciations for the amateurs (including himself), the casual talent, the naturally good, and the never quite good enough.

It is, I suppose, to be able to write about that last category—the sports star manqué—that Epstein turns to fiction. For as a writer of fiction, Epstein is a very good essayist. Indeed, his stories, which occupy a fair stretch of the middle of the book, read, in the main, like essays that happen not to be exactly true; and one gets the sense that he has simply fictionalized in order to avoid gratuitous unkindness in writing about a kind of athlete who never makes the big time, but whom he admires more than most who do.

The chief persona Epstein adopts in these essays, which will annoy some and amuse others, is that of the bookish man unaccountably mesmerized by sports. This affords him the opportunity for a comedy of delicacy, as when he paraphrases an athlete calling the fans “Oedipuses Rex,” from which translation you have to, as it were, derive the original; or when he sighs over John Madden’s oafishness, and fantasizes that Madden might be “working on a translation of the poetry of St. John Perse during the long commercial breaks.”

The chronology of the essays is not clear, since they are sorted into types, but one gathers the impression that Epstein grows gradually more cynical about pro sports, and about himself for watching them. Certainly he develops a recurring case of mental fidgets about the time he devotes to spectatorship. He chastises himself for listening to sports talk shows, and calls the essay “A Secret Vice”. Late in the book, Epstein goes so far as to disavow and even attack his own introductory essay, calling himself “the stupidest man on the face of the earth” for sticking to the sports habit; and one of Epstein’s running gags is imagining the languages he might learn to read or instruments he might learn to play if he weren’t parked on the sofa watching grown men whacking balls.

Ultimately, Epstein in these essays is not so much watching sports as watching himself watching sports. To some this may sound like advanced navel-gazing. Maybe it is. But Epstein does it very well, and if a thing can be done well, well, you know the rest.
2 vote ndrose | May 7, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Joseph Epstein is one of the foremost living practitioner of the art of essay writing in our English world today. His choice of subject is eclectic, ranging from the serious to the whimsical. So it is with some trepidation that I approach reading this book, because a serious essay writer coming down from Mount Olympus to regale us with him impressions and thoughts on the quite different realm of sports is somewhat surprising. I also did not want to lose my image of Joseph Epstein, erudite essayist and serious minded commentator. My fears were that he would not be able to translate his facility with the English language onto the subject of sports. or worse, I feared that his nimble mind was not able to grasp the simplicity and beauty of sports.

I need not have worried. Not only is Mr. Epstein quite adept at the sports genre, he is quite impressively, an erudite and opinionated observer and fan of the sporting world.

The book itself is a series of essays written throughout the years, mostly having to do with his beloved hometown of Chicago and their sports teams. If one knows anything about Chicago sports, one knows that the fortunes of those teams varies widely, the average Chicago sports fan of course are on a vertiginous roller coaster ride of emotions. From the depth of despair that is the Cubs to the ascendancy of the Blackhawks and the Bulls. Mr. Epstein travels the same tracks as the average Chicago fan, but he expresses his opinions and observes the foibles of sports with such clarity and expressiveness that it seems to this reader that I am re-examining the events with fresh eyes, even though we are treading old grounds.

The chapters helpfully delineates the general flow the topics: Essays, Jocks, Stories, Short Takes, Opinionations, and Summing up. It serves somewhat effectively to guide the reader to the essays that he desires to read. Collections like these fairly screams for the reader to pick and choose through the selection as the mood strikes him. The pleasure comes partially from the work the reader has to do to decipher the topic through the titles.

In general, Mr. Epstein did a magnificent job in presenting his viewpoint, as only a master of the art are wont to do. Though I did not fully agree with all of his arguments, his viewpoints did cause me to deliciously ruminate and digest his thoughts, which is what a book of essays should do: make the reader think.

One thing that struck this reader is the magical conciseness and precision that Mr. Epstein was able to effect in these essays. not a wasted word or thought was offered in his writing, every word offered was necessary and sufficient.

In short, it was a pleasure to read this book, I highly recommend it. In fact, I wish the usual suspects who call themselves sports writers would study this book as a primer on efficient and effective use of the English language as applied to sports. ( )
  pw0327 | Apr 19, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The book is a nice collection of essays and stories from a fluent writer with his own, local, biases. These works are, fortunately, short, as anyone not especially interested in Mr. Epstein's subject may simply turn a page or two to get to a different matter. These are well-written works, but grammar aside, the person only casually interested in the thesis subject of any particular piece would be just as well off picking up a local sports page. I will leave this one for the windy city. ( )
  tommyarmour | Apr 9, 2015 |
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In this collection, his twenty-fifth book, Joseph Epstein departs from writing about literature and culture to indulge his fondness for the world of sport in all its forms. In these essays and stories, Epstein turns writing about sports into an art at once penetrating and highly amusing.… (more)

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