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Review: Power Ball

power ballIt is more or less a coincidence that I am following up a Bill James book with a Rob Neyer book.  Neyer is a James protege and a really good writer in his own right.  Truly enjoyed his book about going to every game at Fenway Park for a season, for example.

I picked up his new book, Power Ball, right around polar vortex time so I could read about something associated with summer.  As an English major, we were taught about framing tales, in which a story existed within a bigger story.  Hamlet and the Canterbury Tales are good examples.  Well, in this case, the framing tale is a very close following of one game–between Houston and Oakland.

This is not an original idea.  Daniel Okrent wrote a similar book called Nine Innings…and Neyer references it many times during this writing.  I will say that the Neyer book is pretty thin on paying off the concept of it being about one game…entire innings get summarized in just a paragraph.

That’s fine, though.  Because what you do get is a state-of-the-union address for baseball, except not provided by the Commissioner but by an outside party willing to point things out.

Neyer dives DEEP into modern baseball–launch angle, scouting, analysis, tanking, drafting, pitching…all of it.  It is an education, even if you think you’re a fan.

The most important takeaway is that the game is not in great shape.  Yes, TV money keeps coming in because all these sports networks need something to show in the summer.  But ratings and attendance are much softer.

Why?  Well, he notes a couple things I will call out.

First, because of the salaries, teams have a philosophy that they either want to win 90 or lose 90.  When teams are trading and slashing salaries, it gives the local fan little reason to watch a team that is either trying to lose or indifferent to winning.  Baseball doesn’t help by using the trade deadline to generate interest.  I saw an MLB Network segment on opening day last year that was “Buyers and Sellers.”

The other issue is the pace of play.  Baseball has focused on the time of games, which Neyer contends is a kind of target of convenience.  It’s relatively easy to fix.  But the larger problem, he suggests, is the lack of action during the game.  I would agree.

Who cares if you cut 8 minutes off a game time–and you can’t, anyway?  Most of the people left in the 7th inning.  What is killing baseball is the “two outcome” philosophy, which is a home run or a strikeout.  Less stuff happens.  There’s way fewer balls in play, fewer good catches, less baserunning, fewer close plays, stolen bases etc.  (Neyer provides evidence for all this).

Just as an example, I remember Adam Dunn coming up to bat for the Reds with two outs and a runners on base in a decisive situation.  Crowd cheering, people clapping.  Exciting.  Except he took six straight pitches, struck out, and walked back to the dugout.  Perhaps what the analytics said to do…but not what the fan wants to see.

When people like Neyer and John Thorn, baseball’s OFFICIAL HISTORIAN, see it this way, it seems like people would be interested.

There’s no irony lost on the fact that James and Neyer were at the vanguard of the intellectual revolution that lies behind most of these changes.  Neyer does offer a prescription…which involve pretty radical changes to the rules, but nothing out of scale based on baseball’s history.

This book is good, even given its flimsy frame.  If you care about baseball, it is “mind candy,” as advertised.

Review: The Man From the Train

So here’s the thing.

I don’t like true crime.

Except every time I read a True Crime book, I like it.  So go figure.

Like the Mardi Link books from up North.  Or The Adversary.  Or the Monster of Florence.  Darker Than Night.

No, I don’t like it.

I think the whole label thing is a distraction and unproductive.  Good storytelling is when the page turns.

Save that thought.

So, Bill James is mostly a baseball writer.  He’s famous for being a baseball writer.  He popularized Sabermetrics, which changed (and possibly ruined) baseball.  The reason he became famous while the other quants who had done much of the work didn’t is that the man writes like a dream.  He can write as a storyteller, as an explainer and as a persuader.  He could write about numbers and history.  His writing also has a conversational style–speaking right to you, essentially through a literary fourth wall–and an energy, passion and joy that were infectious.

Those original Baseball Abstracts were unforgettable.

Today, James works for the Boston Red Sox.  He has also indulged a new hobby…true crime.

So, I picked up The Man From the Train.  Co-written by his daughter, the book is the story of a serial killer who brutally murdered entire families with the blunt end of an ax in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  His nickname came from the fact that his crimes took place near trains…he would commit the murder and then hop on a train and skip town.

It’s a great story.  The details…even after all this time… are just shocking and captivating.  This is a truly evil individual.  In fact, depending on how tolerant you are of counting murders that are similar but not identical to the straight MO, he could be the biggest serial killer in US History.

Even using only the strictest definition, he’s one of the worst.

The book promises more than just storytelling, though.  It promises to solve the crime.

And a solution is proposed.  It hardly solves the crime, because such a thing is not possible at this point.  The proposed killer is a plausible solution–probably the most plausible–but a lot of suppositions and assumptions are supporting it and it’s just as likely that someone else no one ever heard of committed the crimes.

Let us not let that distract us, though.  It actually doesn’t matter who really did it.  The solution they found is impressive for the depth of research it took to find it and take it to its full conclusion.

Three things stand out.

First, the book is entertaining and educational.  Who cares if it over-sells the conclusion a little?

Second, the book reveals something about human nature.  Many of these murders occurred relatively near each other and they were sensational and made big news.  Yet, whenever one did occur, the idea that someone hopped off the train and killed this family more or less at random and certainly without any previous connection was unthinkable to authorities EVEN THOUGH IT HAD HAPPENED RECENTLY ELSEWHERE…possibly because it is so dark, evil and unthinkable that it is less threatening to find other solutions.  Because a killer like that is a mythological monster who puts everyone at risk.

And yet, just as the defense lawyer at Fyodor’s trial in The Brothers Karamazov says, there are these/this dead bodies and something has to be done about it.  So, the second thing was that the reason the crimes weren’t solved as they were happening was that everyone dismissed the real answer out of hand.

Much like me and true crime.

The third thing is the effect of the second.  If it wasn’t someone random, then it had to be someone with a connection.  Which (since we know it isn’t true), requires the shoe-horning of reality into fantasy.  It reminds me a little of the alternate theories that were created by astronomers during Copernican times to explain the obvious fact that the earth rotates around the sun–something everyone knew but couldn’t accept, for one reason or another.

Back in the Man From the Train, what happened in more than one community was a kind of mass hysteria where a town turned against a completely innocent man because that was the only solution available, once you eliminated the one that happened.  This mass hysteria was so strong that it kept even professional investigators from noting what was happening in other communities.  In one town, a whole human carnival came to visit, with a private investigator–a kind of sick Henry Hill type guy who maliciously prosecuted a man who was innocent in a patently obvious fashion.

The ability to mobilize a community behind fear and false facts should give us pause today.  Also, those who believe that privatizing government services is the way to go should read this book and see how it worked when the US had effectively privatized detective work.  (Those are bonuses).

So, with all that, who cares if the actual solution is more of a suggestion.  The story is entertaining and grimly absorbing.  The killer, whoever he was, was a cold, brutal killing genius.  The insights into human nature make the book a learning experience as well.

Review: The Dakota Winters

dakota wintersWhen we were in Ann Arbor a couple weeks ago, we went over to Nicola’s books.  (Literati, we’ll catch you next time.)  One of the things I like to do is go over to the Staff Picks section and see what’s there.  Buying and reading one of those books will tend to keep you out of ruts.

I don’t have a system.  I try to find some literary but not genre-y.  Which led me to The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash.  The book isn’t about the winter in South Dakota.  It is about a family named Winters who live in The Dakota, and by that I mean THE DAKOTA, as in the place where super-rich people live and John Lennon was killed.

As readers of this blog know, reading about rich people is a guilty pleasure.  In this case, the head of the family is a Johnny Carson-like talk show host who had a nervous breakdown on the air and his family, including the main character, who has come home after catching malaria in the Peace Corps.

The book is set in the late 70’s in New York, so sort of before it got all cleaned up, and we all know what’s happening in the early 80’s at the Dakota.  And, our character gets to know John Lennon, going so far as to teach the great man how to sail.

A lot of the reviews of the book discuss this as a book that is a story of its time and place and I would definitely agree.  I found myself absorbed into the world of the book–much like Gentleman from Moscow.  It takes you to Hollywood, the 1980 Olympics, and, of course, The Dakota.

It is extremely readable.  The characters are strong, you root for them, and the whole thing unfolds elegantly and effortlessly in a way you have to admire.  The book is funny and not overwrought.  There’s emotion, but we’re not overdoing it or turning it into Anne Tyler.

The main thing that bothered me–and this was next to nothing, but not nothing–was some of the Lennon dialogue.  He’d be having discussions with a group of people and he’d say something, sort of out of the side of his mouth, like “just like Paul, on a power trip,” and it was jarring to me.  It happened three or four times, and it took me out of the moment for a second.

It just felt forced and artificial.  It’s entirely possible that you could never write fictional dialogue for John Lennon that would please me–I had a serious John Lennon phase in the 80’s–but I do feel like you could have gotten the same thing done with the story with Lennon never talking about the Beatles.

My feeling on this receded a little bit when I read the acknowledgments and saw the amount of research that Barbash did on Lennon to make the writing realistic.  He truly did his homework.  (In fact, if you should read the book, the sailing trip to Bermuda is real.)  Still, jarring is jarring.

Yoko is mentioned but never appears, FYI.

But that’s like four sentences.  The book is really enjoyable and smart.  There are good riffs (get it?) on stardom, mental health, family, redemption, etc.  And you get a free ride along with celebrities.  It’s a well-earned four stars from me.

Review: American Emperor

american emporerSo, as you might have gathered by now, we’re big Hamilton fans.  We went in November to Chicago to see the show and we’ve both listened to the soundtrack about 950 times.  Can sing all the words.  Etc.

So a co-worker loaned me this book (American Emporer by David O. Stewart) about Aaron Burr, mostly after he shot Alexander Hamilton.  It’s excellent and recommended.  Difficult as it might be to believe, Burr’s life was even more tormented and treacherous after the duel than his life was before shooting Hamilton.

Truly, it’s a Shakespearean Tragedy.  When you get to the end–when his grandson dies and then his beloved daughter dies in a shipwreck on her way to see him for comfort–within days of each other–you’re seeing a life in complete collapse.

We actually heard some of this story when I was in middle school.  We did one of those long-term projects that centered on Blennerhassett Island–a Marietta-area island in the Ohio River that was owned by a rich family (eponymously) and was the location of much of the intrigue.

Stewart captures this perfectly.  It was an idyllic island, beautiful, self-sufficient, wealthy…and then…

Into this Eden slithered Burr.

The Blennerhassetts were no revolutionaries.  They were innocents who were duped by the flattery and persuasion of Aaron Burr–eventually losing everything.  (You can visit the island today, including their mansion.  It is a West Virginia State Park).

Maybe the most interesting thing about the book, though, is that it offers another linkage between books–in this case, The Brothers Karamazov.

So, Burr was put on trial for treason, which history shows us he was 100% guilty.  Much like Dmitry, who was put on trial for a crime for which he was 100% not guilty.

Beyond that, both trials were public spectacles, with huge rooms filled with spectators and more people following the trial in the newspapers.  And in both cases, an all-star team of defense lawyers battled a group of competent but overmatched government bureaucrats.

But the most important difference was that neither trial was actually about what it was supposed to be about.  In Dmitry’s case, he was convicted because there was a dead body and somebody had to be responsible, and he was the only one available to do that.  The arguments were not about whether he did it, but whether his actions afterward were the actions of a man who did it.  Whether it fit with the patterns of before and after.  Or whether there had been a packet of money or not.

But the trial did not turn on whether or not he actually killed his father.

My view is that Dostoyevsky was telling us that the as pure as ideals like justice might be, their translation into human life is naturally flawed.  He made similar observations about the Church.

Burr’s trial was similar.  The actual battle was over a bizarrely bad indictment written by prosecutors, the Framer’s very narrow definition of treason and the fact that Chief Justice John Marshall could not stand his cousin, President Thomas Jefferson.  The drama spun on this, while Burr’s guilt sat in the middle like the eye of a storm.

This is an era of our history that I was less educated on.  In fact, Chernow’s Grant biography combined with this one suggests that we might have been over-taught on the wars and under-taught on the aftermath.  Just one thing to illustrate.  Following the Revolution, there had been a bunch of secession crises in the US, including in New England.  The idea that the West might secede–as Burr dreamed of–looks a little less delusional in the right context.

Beyond all that, this is a great story told well.  To answer the inevitable question, not sure there’s a rap musical in this.  But there is a tragedy–for the stage or film.  Recommended.

One Book, Two Book

So, recently I had one of those interconnected things where I read an article that reminded me of one book I had loved and then it connected me to another book I had read.sweet season

Let’s start with the first book.  It was Sweet Season by Austin Murphy–and it was one of the best sports books I have ever read.  Murphy is the real deal.   He wrote for Sports Illustrated, which in the day was the best sportswriting (and among the best writing) available anywhere.

Murphy was spending his time interviewing prima donna athletes in strip clubs and feeling kind of icky about it.  So, he went and spent the year with his family in Collegeville, MN at St. John’s College.

St. John’s is a DIII school where your professor is probably a monk.  They were coached by John Gagliardi, a legend in college coaching.  Gagliardi had many odd tactics, including never cutting anyone from the team and never blocking or tackling during practice.

Murphy talks to the monks, talks to real student-athletes, follows their season and reflects on his life.  It’s like Season on the Brink except there’s no brink. It’s an excellent book that will make you feel good and teach you something about whatever you do in your life.

So, over Christmas, I was reading something online and I ran across this article by Austin Murphy.

I Used to Write for Sports Illustrated. Now I Deliver Packages for Amazon.

It is the same guy.  After my initial shock, I read the article.  The upshot is that SI downsized, he wasn’t making enough money freelancing.  So, went to Indeed and got a job delivering packages.

He relays how he is ashamed to go to a holiday party and tell people what he is doing.  I think most people can identify.  You think…I could lose my job, and work at Starbucks and have to serve people I formally worked with.  The disgrace!  The embarrassment!  I would be completely miserable.

That’s how we see it.  And yet, that’s not how it felt when it happened.

When I’m in a rhythm, and my system’s working, and I slide open the side door and the parcel I’m looking for practically jumps into my hand, and the delivery takes 35 seconds and I’m on to the next one, I enjoy this gig. I like that it’s challenging, mentally and physically. As with the athletic contests I covered for my old employer, there’s a resolution, every day. I get to the end of my route, or I don’t. I deliver all the packages, or I don’t.

Which connects the second book, Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert.  The point of stumblinghis book is exactly this.  When we have something good we want, we overestimate how good it will make us feel.  Life has a regression to the mean effect.  Other things come up.  You worry about new things.  Your real happiness in that future state–even when achieved–will never pay off the promise.

The same thing works in reverse for the downsides of life.  We think we would be miserable if we lost our job.  Had a severe injury and became disabled.  We think life would be unlivable.  But Gilbert former Speaker Jim Wright to show that not only are you not miserable but, in the case of Wright, you are happier.  We have a coping mechanism that levels out the decline.  Good things in life still exist and some bad things are gone.

Murphy’s story is exactly that example.

Anyway, that’s one of the great things about reading, when two ships dock in your head.

 

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

16201This book was gifted to me. (Thanks Amber!) It was not on my radar, but I am very grateful to Amber for giving it to me.

I loved this book. It was funny, inventive and relevant.

The premise is that a fictional country/island, just off the coast of South Carolina. It is named after Nevin Nollop, the fellow who authored the sentence “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” – which contains all the letters of the alphabet. (I know I age myself here, but I spent a lot of time in typing class pecking out this sentence…yes typing on an actual typewriter.) The island council starts banning letters as they fall from the memorial statue of the founder. The book is written via letters between the characters.

(Note: following on BJ’s review of the book, my 9th grade typing teacher was Miss Gilchrist.)

This is a book with many levels. First, it’s quirky and cute – I mean, look at the cover. Second, it’s well written. The characters are well formed and you get to know them and empathize with them through their correspondence.

The other level of this book demonstrates what happens to society when your basic rights are taken away. Language is such an elemental function of our lives and our society and it’s something we take for granted. This illustrates how slowly and stealthily these changes take place. Today you can’t use the letter ‘Z’ and tomorrow you can’t use the letter ‘N’, and then all of a sudden the government is reading your letters and people are being deported because of too many infractions.

In the reviews I read, people criticize this because there are ‘better’ dystopian novels out there. I would agree 100% (I’m looking at you Handmaid’s Tale). However, this is not that. What I appreciate about the author is that he embraces what the book is and runs with it – see earlier comment re: quirky and cute. But there is this undertone of fear and evil to it. That, in my opinion, is what makes this a 5 star book.

The other extremely cool thing about the book is because the book is written in letters between the characters, they have to abide by the new laws and not use the banned letters. This could be a ‘look ma no hands’ ploy to show-off, but it doesn’t come across that way. Kudos to the author for writing the last part of the book using 10 letters (or whatever it ended up being).

What I took from this book, and what I think is 100% relevant today is that innocuous changes and rules can end up with dire consequences. It’s the old ‘frog being boiled’ scenario – if you put it in boiling water, it jumps out, but if you put it in and slowly warm the water, bam!

Overall you can read this on any level you like – it’s a quirky cautionary tale that is more relevant today than it was when it was written in 2001.

 

Review: Ella Minnow Pea

16201So a friend of ours gave Barb a copy of this book, Ella Minnow Pea, which we have both just gotten around to reading.

It’s a really good book.  Here’s the basic idea.  This group of people lives on an island devoted to the man who created the pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” something I used to type every day in TYPING class, when, you know, we took TYPING as a class.

That was the 9th grade.  Teacher was Mrs. Lemmerbrock.

Anyway, the whole island worships this guy and they have a sign up that has the phrase on it, except one day the “z” falls down and the island’s leaders decide to outlaw any use of the letter, which seems minor but is a big deal…it causes the entire library to close, for example.  The penalties are stiff–first, a public reprimand, second time a public flogging or stocking, and third time is permanent banishment.

It is a novel of letters, which makes it fun because you get to see the residents attempt to correspond, first without using a Z and then without other letters as the sign continues to fall apart.

It’s just a clever book.  It can be read on many different levels.  In looking around online, a lot of people have chosen to read it as a dystopian novel about authoritarian societies, which is fine, but this is no Handmaid’s Tale.

I preferred to read it another way:  as hilarious.  It is just very funny, especially as people are down to writing with 14 letters or something.  The characters are good as well and reveal themselves in how they respond to the ridiculous edicts of the leaders of the island.

It is also a writing feat of the first order.  First, of course, all of the letters conform to “the law” as it might stand at any given time.  This is a writing challenge that gets more difficult as it goes along.  Second, there is a plot where the people are trying to come up with shorter pangram than the original one, and he comes up with a bunch, which is also no small feat.

So, if you like language and laughter, I’d recommend the book.  It’s 100% farce and pure hilarity.