Another thing I thought I didn’t like

TPR_podcast_Hadada_whiteline1I’ve probably taken the opportunity to write here on this very blog that I don’t want to hear readings when I listen to a podcast.  I don’t know why I said that.  I’ve listened to audiobooks and enjoyed it on occasion.  So I don’t know why I didn’t want readings.  One thing is that I find it hard to listen to literary fiction in the car.  My audiobook tastes tended more toward John Sandford (who I met once and he made fun of my name) or biographies. With literary fiction, if you miss one sentence while you are working the turn signal you can miss the whole story.

Anyway, I was out and about this week and was listening to the Paris Review podcast.  And they promised a reading of Bangkok by James Salter.

This was of interest to me.  During my Valentine’s Day post I wrote about James Salter and A Sport and a Pastime, a filthy sexy literary book.  So this had potential.

Add to it that Dick Cavett was reading the story–a professional reader.  I was talking about this to Barb and she noted that readings can be good when they are done by readers, but they suck when done by authors.

So, I listened.  It was so good.  Cavett–along with some very judiciously used sound nighthawk_man_and_woman-300x172effects and background music–gave the whole thing a noir feel.  Honestly, both of the characters felt like they had stepped off an Edward Hopper painting.

The story is so good.  Salter was just the best.  His has the power of juxtaposition, to put two sentences next to each other in a way that makes 25 words turn into a million, an infinite set of feelings and understanding.

She had been coming out of a restaurant one time, down some steps long after lunch in a silk dress that clung around the hips and the wind pulled against her legs. The afternoons, he thought for a moment.

And how’s this for a “show don’t tell” plot advancement with a featherweight touch.

He was leaning back in the chair. For the first time she had the impression he might have been drinking a little more than usual these days.

You can’t do much better than that.  Just to let you know, the filthy quotient doesn’t get short-changed here either. (This is dialogue, FYI, without punctuation).

We’re going to stay in Bangkok for a couple of months, perhaps come back through Europe, Carol said. Molly has a lot of style. She was a dancer. What was Pam, wasn’t she a teacher or something? Well, you love Pam, you’d love Molly.

You don’t know her, but you would. She paused. Why don’t you come with us? she said.

Hollis smiled slightly.

Shareable, is she? he said.

You wouldn’t have to share.

It was meant to torment him, he knew.

Eeeesh.  Anyway, I’d recommend Salter and this story.  It is in the Paris Review archive, free to subscribers (yes, the whole thing).  It may be available elsewhere in a collection.  It is worth reading.  Or you could download the podcast and listen to Dick Cavett read it.  That’s free.

Review: The Soul of Basketball

soul of basketballThere are clearly seasons in the life of a sports fan.  You have football season, college basketball, March Madness…and then baseball kicks in along with the NBA and NHL playoffs.  (Yes, I am a book nerd and I love sports.)

So, I requested to do a preview of this book, The Soul of Basketball, which I thought would be a good way to get myself in the mood for the NBA playoffs, which also open next week.

I enjoy basketball a lot and have followed the NBA for my entire life.  When I was 10 to 12 years old, I followed the Cleveland Cavaliers VERY closely.  We didn’t get the games on TV and I spent my evenings listening to Joe Tait (normally when I was supposed to be in bed) call the Cavs during the Miracle at Richfield season.  (The Cavs had a Bowling Green (Ohio) connection, both through their owner Nick Mileti and their backup center Nate Thurmond…and their Coach Bill Fitch).

The Soul of Basketball is about the 2010-11 season, which is the first year after The Decision.  It is an excellent book and anyone who is interested in the NBA would find it a great read.  In fact, it’s a great character study of people responding to the highest level of competitive pressure and would be interesting as a study to anyone interested in that slice of life.

The book is written by Ian Thomsen, who is a writer for Sports Illustrated.  SI was known is the highest level of sports magazine writing.  What appeared on those pages was of the highest literary quality.  My high school teachers encouraged us to read SI when we were learning to write.

This is what I would consider classic SI writing.  First, there’s incredible access…long interviews with important people in this story, including Pat Reilly, Doc Rivers, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant…the list goes on.

Next, there’s a commitment to telling a story about people, not sports.  What the reader leaves with is an essential understanding of the humanity of the people involved.  Their upbringing, their fears, their motivations, their biases, their strength.  And Thomsen shows us the humanity of players (stars and subs), yes, but also of coaches, referees, owners, scouts…everyone involved in the making of the 2010-11 edition of the annual NBA drama.

There’s also an angle to the book that places all of what is happening in a historical context.  The NBA was trying to find its way in the post-Jordan era and LeBron was supposed to be that guy, but he had just botched The Decision.  You also have the influx of AAU-influenced players and a lot of questions about how the league is going to succeed. (For more on what the AAU is and what’s wrong with it, check here or here.)

There were a couple parts that really stood out to me.  I found the Gregg Popovich sections especially interesting.  He’s a guy I admire and I admire how his teams play.  Turns out, he built the concept by focusing on foreign players who had not been infected by AAU mentality.

I also really enjoyed the stuff with Kobe Bryant and didn’t expect to.  I have often heard people say that a certain team doesn’t “know what it takes to win.”  I always kind of scoffed at that, but the way NBA basketball is played, a star player has to be able to shoulder the burden in key moments and the team has to be really tough to win a title, not just good.

Anyway, this is an outstanding book.  It is not great sportswriting, it is great writing and will make a great companion for the NBA playoffs, when the league really puts on its best show.

Full disclosure: I received this book from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. (Thanks NetGalley!)

Who is Rich?

who is richI ran across this book on a podcast and thought it sounded like my cup of tea, to the extent that it was a comic novel that would send up rich people, always a proud moment for the folks at home.

The book has been very well reviewed and deservedly so.  This is Klam’s debut novel, and he has a great grasp of the language and the art of storytelling.  The story is about a struggling/failing graphic novelist who teaches in the summer at a seaside conference where functioning adults with a passion for a wide variety of different art forms come and take classes from practitioners.

The narrator is married and seemingly unhappily, though he has trouble making up his mind on that topic.  The descriptions of the struggles of a mature marriage with kids and then with his wife and the lack of sex are so effectively descriptive they border on the hard to read.  Meanwhile, he has been carrying on a mostly email-based affair with a student from the conference. She is married to a financial manager who makes $120M a year.

The book was advertised as funny, and it is.  It was never laugh-out-loud funny…and for reasons to be discussed below occasionally lost the humor in poor assholeness…but there are some excellent lines, as in here:

…I’d heard from Amy how hard he worked to unlock potential value in undercapitalized industries. I worked just as hard to unlock the business in her pants.

Klam also has the ability to compile lists–long lists–that are funny and descriptive…and incredibly perceptive.  He has an eye for the life we are living and it cannot be denied.  As in here as he describes his mistress’s kitchen:

The marble island was the size of my kitchen and covered with stacks of home design magazines, cookbooks, baskets of fruit, onions, pads of stationery, phone chargers, mail, a box of essential oils, a basket of ribbons, scissors, a stack of delicate-looking white bowls that, when I touched them, turned out to be made of rubber. The island was entrenched with things that could’ve gone in a drawer, Scotch tape, stapler, pie weights, cutting boards, a pewter mug of unsharpened pencils. It looked like the staging area for a yuppie war.

“Things that could’ve gone in a drawer.”  That’s writing.  Anyway, Klam seems to know how good he is at this, because he trots it out on a frequent basis and maybe a little too often, as opposed to looking for another super-power.

The reviews of the book have talked about things like the “Literature of Infidelity.”  I guess that will get the conversation started, but I want to focus on a couple of challenges this book presented to the storyteller.

The first is that the narrator is difficult to like and difficult to root for.  He’s sort of Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways…with a seriously poor track record at making decisions.  I found him abrasive and it was sometimes jarring to keep reading about a guy who is as wantonly and knowingly self-destructive as this guy is.

Which Klam gets done.  I mean, I did finish the book.  There were just times when I wanted to slap the narrator.  I kept reading because the narrator was funny, but there was also a morbid, grim sense of watching to see how bad it could get.  He can’t stay his big an asshole, can he?

The other challenge was to keep the story moving along.  When you (the author) present a character as pretty much unredeemable and fucked up in the early pages of a book, you have made the choice to forego showing the process of him getting fucked up and brought yourself face to face with the question of how do you make the rest of the story happen.

Klam’s choice was to heap more stuff onto the narrator, some from self-destruction and some from a malevolent world throwing ill-timed bombs.  It literally keeps getting worse and worse over the few days of the conference.

But what you are left with is a long-rally Wimbledon match, with the two poles of his life going back and forth.  He can’t live without his mistress/he hates his wife.  He hates his mistress/he loves his family.  His mistress fucks him/his wife won’t fuck him.

There’s a cycle on that that maybe ran a couple iterations too long to make the book really great.

The most interesting idea in the book is the one that dealt with the narrator as creator.  He’s an artist and he’s considering resurrecting his career with a graphic novel about his adultery.  This is a really interesting paradox.  He views the novel as a creative and financial redemption and then also a personal redemption (or revenge) against the two women he is involved with.   And while it is a redemption, he recognizes that it would destroy both relationships and leave him estranged from everything.

Then, having spent 300 pages in this guy’s head, we start to wonder about the world he’s describing.

Is it real?  Or has he neurotized it into being?  Whenever he had a phone conversation with his wife, she seems reasonable and mostly stressed because he’s away at a conference and she’s alone with two difficult children.  Finally, this thought occurs to him:

There’s no such thing as a reliable narrator. There’s more reliable and less reliable, but any light that passes through that lens is shaped, bent, divided.

Such is the power of myth, and here we are reminded that we all build myths every day, and the stories a novel tells us are no different than the stories we tell ourselves to explain our day and feed our righteous indignation at the world.

Ultimately, I found this book almost good.  It hit painfully close to home in many parts and is well-written, funny and perceptive.  As in…Klam sees everything in front of him and looks without illusion.  It’s just an awful lot of time in the narrator’s head, chewing the same things over and over again.

 

A sub-story from Grant

Everyone is aware that Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography was adapted into Hamilton: The Musical, a transformative work of genius.  I’m not sure there’s a musical inside of Grant, but I’d like to suggest a novel/film which occurred to me from the lesser known parts of the Grant bio.

To be clear, there are enough movies about Gettysburg.

It would center on the massive swindle that Grant was involved in after his Presidency.  This is an incredible story, with huge implications for the economy.  Grant–and his entire family–were victims of an incredible Ponzi scheme.  Two banks closed because of it.  It was huge.

It is also a great story.  You have the angle of the Grants–who entered the Civil War the most pedestrian of families–being obsessed with money and the social status it brought.  They were desperate to retain their position they held in the White House and then on a two-year world tour where they dined in palaces.

Grant had a history of being too trustful and when that met the desire to be rich, the conditions were right for a con man.  His name was Ferdinand Ward.  Also driven by a childhood of poverty, Ward was an extremely effective con man who would make a great character on his own.  This is a story as fresh as today.  He created the illusion that he was making great profits, and people bought with great enthusiasm.

The story gets even better because an important part of the con was Grant’s involvement.  Ward would whisper to potential marks that Grant was using his influence to get government contracts.  Because Grant’s reputation was not the best, this seemed like it could be true, and the money flowed, even though there were never any contracts and no use of Grant’s influence.

ferdinand wardThe scheme not only brought down Grant–who was worth $18 when it was over–but also his children and their in-laws, as well as famous cartoonist Thomas Nast.

It’s 100% a story that stands on its own.

(Note that there is a book about Ward, written by Geoffrey Ward, his great-grandson.  Ward is an award-winning historian who principally wrote the Ken Burns Civil War series, among others).

 

Editors/producers…you know where to find me.

Chernow’s Grant: A Review

grantSo,  I finished Chernow’s Grant…all 958 pages of it.  It was worth it.  Chernow is great and his reputation is well-earned.  Great biographies are still stories and great biographers have to tell stories.  I understand that academic biographies might be different, but for readable, popular biographers are storytellers.  And this is a great story, told really well.

History buffs are probably pretty familiar with the Civil War parts of the history.   And, to a somewhat lesser degree, the pre Civil War story of Grant’s struggles, selling firewood on the street, etc.

What was newer to me was the Presidential history–including Reconstruction–and what was completely new to me was the post-Presidential stuff, including the world tour and how he was swindled in a high-profile Ponzi scheme that caused the collapse of two banks.

Another way of saying that history has to be good storytelling is that it has to read like fiction.  Which brings us to the old saw…truth is stranger than fiction.  That could certainly be true.  What I think is actually truer is that truth is more complicated than fiction.  A novelist has the ability to simplify the world she creates.  A biographer deals with a real and complicated world.

This is an issue that comes up often when dealing with reporters.  The true story behind many investigative pieces is often tortuously complicated and that level of complication is often not reflected in the end story for a variety of reasons.

Let me suggest a couple of examples from this book.

Was Grant an alcoholic?

The answer is almost certainly yes.  Bad stuff happened when U.S. Grant drank.  There are no two ways about it.

But, that’s not really the whole story.  Because the fact is that he almost never drank.  Chernow has looked at this closely.  Grant rarely if ever drank and there are just a lot of contemporaneous accounts that support this idea.  Even on his world tour, freed from any responsibility, he was reported numerous specific times to turn his wine glass over at banquets.

But when he did, it seemed to always end up badly.  In another day, we would have said that he couldn’t “hold his liquor.”

So where did the idea come that he was a raging alcoholic?  Two places.  First, he had been discharged from the service for drinking…a story that was repeated time and again, but in normal military gossip channels and then in attacks from political opponents, of which there were many.  Second, some of the stories were simply made up.  Chernow does a good job of rooting out the “newer” allegations and demonstrating either that they were likely fabricated or at worst exaggerated.

A second example is the Grant presidency.  After reading the book, I came to the conclusion that my history education had served me well in learning about the corruption of the Grant administration–and his hapless role in it–but much more poorly when it came to Reconstruction.

Having grown up in the North, I am not sure how I ended up being taught that Reconstruction was a bad thing, but it seemed to have happened.  I understand that military rule is oppressive, but in this case the story is also more complicated.  The richer story is that the South was overturning the results of the Civil War right under everyone’s eyes and even many Republicans–a party founded on abolition–were willing to look the other way and let mob rule terrorize the South.

The key point is that Grant stood with the freed people long after people in his own party had abandoned them.  I knew that it took 100 years before those freed people really began to have civil rights, but I did not realize the level of mob rule that existed during Reconstruction or the North’s complicity in it.

Well, when you have 958 pages, you can deal with some complexity.  To come full circle, though, is to remember that doing so in a way that is still a compelling story is the skill of a great biographer like Chernow.

Opening Day: Baseball Fiction

celebrantSo with Spring Training underway and baseball games on TV and radio now, I thought it was good time to come out about a former reading obsession of mine, which was baseball writing and, mostly, baseball fiction.

My senior thesis at Bowling Green State University was called Huck Finn Plays Ball for Arcadia:  Social Criticism in American Baseball Literature.  (Italics added ironically).  The books were The Great American Novel by Philip Roth, The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh Prop, by Robert Coover, The Natural by Bernard Malamud and Shoeless Joe by WP Kinsella. My wife now reminds me that Kinsella would be under “Canadian Baseball Literature” but that point literally escaped all of us at the same time.

There’s a lot of baseball fiction, more than other sports, and people have thought a lot about why.  Among the reasons is that baseball is a game with a lot of spaces that require imagination and therefore attract writers.  Another reason is that baseball was at one time (believe it or not) considered to be hardwired in American culture.  Until the 1960s it was the only significant professional team sport in the US.  And because baseball represented American culture, it became a prism through which to examine the society and a good way to demythologize the US and tear down myths.

So it wasn’t always easy to find these books.  Before Amazon.com, I was known to pore over used bookstores looking for baseball fiction.  The books were hard to find and there was no master list to pore over.

Because of this perceived scarcity, I rationed my baseball reading for the long, cold winter–between the World Series and Opening Day.

So, what are some of the great baseball books I’ve read.  To start with, in my movies post, I mentioned The Celebrant and If I Never Get Back as examples of great baseball books that I ran across.   A few others include…

Things Invisible to See by Nancy Willard.  A fantastic novel set in Michigan where a man bets with Death on a sandlot baseball team.

The Dixie Association–Robert Hays.  Hilarious novel about a minor-league team in Arkansas that is filled with misfits and worse.

The Conduct of the Game.  John Hough Jr.  An incredibly beautiful novel about an umpire.

The Thrill of the Grass  More Kinsella.  Frankly, as good as his writing was, it did devolve into sort of the same thing over and over again.  On the other hand, his writing celebrated baseball and this story collection is very good.

A non-fiction book that deserves mention is The Prophet of the Sandlots.  Written by Mark Winegardner, it is a bio of Tony Lucadello, perhaps the greatest baseball scout who ever lived.  This is a truly tragic story but it a great read.

Also, yet I know about Art of Fielding.  It was great as well, but the other books are all of a certain era of my life.

Obviously, there are many others.  I’ve sort of evolved out of this and I don’t read as much in this genre as I once did.  But, if you love the game, literature is a great enhancer.

Should have been a movie…

leoOK, so the Oscars were Sunday.  I posted on Sunday about books that had been adapted into movies that won Oscars.  Now, I’d like to play Junior D-boy and suggest some books that I think would be great movies.

Should anyone in the actual movie development business be reading right now, you should hire me before dinner tonight.  I’d be awesome.

Also, I expect to be informed one of these actually was made into a movie and I didn’t know it.  Which would only prove I was right.

It isn’t as easy as you think.  You need some kind of conflict and a love story, typically.  It can’t just be a story.   There needs to be a bad guy.  Now, that’s what we were taught for all fiction, but it seems truer for movies.  A book can get away with a man against himself easier than a movie, I think.

Nonetheless, I would have loved to have seen Bill Murray or Robin Williams in their prime play the lead in A Confederacy of Dunces.

Other books I think would make great movies.

If I Never Get Back— Darryl Brock.  A classic time travel story of 19th Century baseball that includes an Irish insurrection from Canada as well as the undefeated Cincinnati Red Stockings.  There’s a love angle.  It’s a nearly perfect story.

The Celebrant–Erik Rolfe Greenberg.  Another baseball novel, this one related to a jewelry maker and his awestruck relationship with Christy Mathewson.  This is a great story about art and technique.  Would be a great Indie.  No bad guy, really.  Great chance to introduce America to Merkle’s Boner.

Blue Latitudes–by Tony Horwitz.  This is the story of Captain Cook’s journey around the world.  Would be incredibly visual, some creative license would need to be taken with a sabotaging crew member or financier to make a film, but would be captivating.

Tecumseh–by John Sugden.  Why this is not a movie, I do not understand.  The Prophet, Tecumseh’s mystical brother would be a great plot addition.

Darker than Night–by Tom Henderson.  A story of a brutal murder near Luzerne, Michigan…along with the long battle by a lonely state police officer to bring the killers to justice.  Lots of Winter’s Bone like characters combined with a chance for a Peter Falk like investigator.

Playing For Pizza–John Grisham.  The story of an American playing in a low-wattage semi-professional football league in Italy.  Would be perfect.  And there’s a love story.

The Sister Brothers–Patrick DeWitt.  Paging the Coen Brothers.

Heart of Darkness–Joseph Conrad.  HA HA.  I kid.

A Gentleman in Moscow–Amor Towles.  Well discussed on this here blog.  Would be an awesome movie.  Also, since it mostly takes place in one building, has potential as a stage play.

Caravaggio–Helen Langdon.  The pansexual art genius would be the hero for today’s times.  Also there’s a murder.

Five Days at Memorial-Sheri Fink.  The inside story of life and death in a hospital during Hurricane Katrina has Oscar potential and would ignite debates and have people talking.