Sunday, September 25, 2011

Ghosted



Let's just get this nipped in the bud right now. Baseball suicides, Legend of a Suicide, No Lease on Life, and now another book heavy into suicide. Should you be worried about me? No, at least not in that sense. No Lease on Life is just a play on words that happened to be squeezed between two readings on suicide. And I didn't really realize how big a role suicide played in Ghosted until I started reading it. So no fretting, OK?

This is the first book that I have read of my new small press collection at the library. Written by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall and published by Soft Skull Press, Ghosted is about the life of Mason Dubisee, a semi-aspiring writer and an addict of almost every shape and sort. Alcohol, drugs, gambling. Mason finds himself in Toronto where his long-time friend, Chaz, now resides. Chaz is a successful drug dealer who sets Mason up with an apartment and a job, an arrangement that works really well for Chaz given Mason's predilection for drugs and gambling (and his lack of skill at the latter).

The job Mason has is working as a hot dog vendor with the brand name Dogfather. Mason befriends one of his customers, a man named Warren who is afraid of just about everything. Warren discovers that Mason is a decent writer and asks Mason to write Warren a love letter for this girl he longs for at the video store. Mason, always interested in making a buck, does so. Warren is found dead and the love poem is deemed to be Warren's suicide letter.

This provides Mason with inspiration. He'll start a little side business writing suicide notes for people who are looking for an exit a little more literary. The problem with Mason (and he only has this one problem) is that he wants to help people. He finds he wants to save people instead of helping them towards their self-inflicted deaths (but he still doesn't mind taking the money for their notes).

The story is really entertaining. Chaz, at least at the start, has his own sort of lingo ("are you flapjacking me") going which unfortunately vanishes as the novel goes on. Mason, despite being a ne'er-do-well who can't seem to get his act together, is extremely likeable as a main character. So much so that he drives you nuts with his bad choices. You want to reach into the book and strangle him when he sits down yet again to play cards with Chaz after doing drugs he bought from Chaz.

Then you have the other characters. The potential suicides are all really quirky characters. There's the drug counselor with her own set of odd characteristics. You also have Mason's love interest, a heroin addict in a wheelchair who has feeling in one side of her body but is paralyzed on that same side. The side he can control has no feeling.

So two-thirds of the way through this book, I'm loving it. Debating whether it might be able to top Eleven for best fiction I've read this year. I'm liking it that much. Then it careens into one of the darkest, most depraved things I've ever read in my life. It came completely out of nowhere and was really disturbing. At that point I was left wondering how I felt about the book. Up until this point the book was a really entertaining and unusual story. Suddenly there's this psychopath involved and the entertainment factor is lost. Then it becomes a bit of an action story. Can Mason save the day?

All the loose ends are tied up, some in a manner a little too forced for my looking and some a little too out there for my liking, but the story returns to it's previous charm. Chaz even gets some of his lingo back.

That left me with my review and rating. The writing was spectacular. I didn't ever want to put the book down. The characters are great. Unlike, say, Savages, where the characters are involved in activities generally frowned upon by society, I liked these characters and were rooting for them. I didn't view Mason as a bad guy. I saw him as someone with problems who wasn't happy with his lot in life.

Speaking of which, the title comes from the idea that we have these goals and achievements we want for ourselves in life. We picture ourselves as a writer or an astronaut or a professor at Minot State. But life takes it's crazy turns and we don't always reach our objectives. Nonetheless, these pictures of ourselves stay with us and are "ghosted", haunting the recesses of our mind, making us think of what might have been.

There are a number of scenes where we learn about Mason's past and I think that helps make him more sympathetic to the reader. The oddball nature of all the other characters give them appeal as well (with the exception of one). And the story, while it goes every which way, is captivating. Without a doubt, I will remember this book for a long time.

But then there's that crazy dark section. It's part of the reason I'll remember this book. It's disturbing. I don't know that I've ever winced from a story I was reading before (bad writing, yes, but not the story).

I think, much like Lemon Cake, this isn't going to be a book for everybody. I can see some people putting the book down when the story turns. But it's still an awesome book and will be one of my favorites from this year.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Say it ain't so, Shoaib. Say it ain't so.

Courtesy of John Thorn, the fixing of Pakistan cricket matches is quite similar to the Black Sox scandal of '19.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

No Lease On Life



I mentioned in another post that I have started a small press collection where I work. One of those presses, Red Lemonade, publishes the works of Lynne Tillman. Her newest release, Someday This Will Be Funny, sounded like it might be good but I thought I'd give some of her earlier works a try instead. This may seem stupid since part of the Red Lemonade publishing model is making the books available online to be read. Here's Someday This Will Be Funny. But I hate reading things online. So I went the old-fashioned route and got a couple of books; No Lease on Life and Books & Co.

I thought I would really like the latter. It is a non-fiction account of Jeanette Watson and her seminal New York City bookstore, Books & Co. Tillman didn't really write it, though, so much as she compiled it. The book is mostly an oral history of Watson but after every couple of paragraphs of Watson talking, Tillman inserts comments from others involved in the story that mostly pertain to what Watson just said. It made for a very disjointed reading. Between the style and not really being able to get excited about Watson's challenges (her father was head of IBM and when she started her bookstore she asked him for money. Sure, if you put up $150,000, I will too. Guess she had been saving her allowance for a while), I gave up on it. As I said, it was more compiled than written and wasn't really giving me a sense of how Tillman writes.

I got a much better sense from No Lease on Life. The novel is a day in the life of Elizabeth Hall, a low-paid proofreader living in rent-control squalor in New York City. It begins late at night with her being unable to sleep because of noise and hooliganism going on outside in the streets below. Her boyfriend has no problem ignoring the noise every night and seems to accept their living conditions much more readily than she does which only contributes to her rage and anxiety.

Ultimately, that is what this book is - 179 pages of rage and anxiety. There are no chapters, per se. Instead, blocks of thoughts are broken up with jokes. No mention is made of who is telling them or why but you get the sense it's a way for Elizabeth to cope with the stress.

Once the morning comes, you find out more about the other people in the neighborhood and the problems Hall has had trying to get anyone to do anything about the living conditions, the most prevalent difficulty being junkies shooting up in the entryway to the building.

The ending comes with some relief for Elizabeth but it is a small victory. While not a real happy or satisfying ending, it is a somewhat realistic ending. It's not Richard Gere climbing up the fire escape to whisk her away in a limo.

The stress made the story difficult to want to read but Tillman's writing is really good and made it palatable. I think the lack of chapters and the shortness of the book aid in making it readable. I think if there were chapter breaks, I might be tempted not to come back to it. Because the story never really pauses, I found it hard to want to stop reading. Some of the jokes are entertaining, too.

After both of these, I will read more Tillman and may put Tillman's newest on the "to acquire" list for the collection. I recommend checking her out.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Browsing my library - Part IV

It has been a while since I showcased a book from my collection. The other morning, my sons were talking about school with each other as they waited to go to the bus stop. Somehow science came up and my oldest, never one to avoid the opportunity to belittle my interest and knowledge in science, proceeded to do so.

I know more about science than I let on. I don't really know why science rarely interested me (outside of watershed management). Maybe it was because my mother was a science teacher. Maybe it was dissections and fruit fly breeding. Fruit flies still rattle me. Regardless, I usually take the Sherlock Holmes point of view towards science: "What the deuce is it to me? You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work." That attitude gives my son a sense of supremacy since he does care and is knowledgeable.

So my son is mocking me and I say "Hey, I know about the science of baseball and that's all that really matters".

He walked right into it. "Science of baseball? There is no such thing."

I walk over to a shelf and pull this book off.



Touche!

This book by Byrd Douglas, who was a player and coach for Princeton and then a coach for Vanderbilt before becoming a judge, examines the scientific play of all the positions. Pre-Babe Ruth, scientific or "inside" baseball was considered the peak of playing. Teams that used strategies and nuances in play to help them win were considered scientific with John McGraw, who wrote the forward for this book, being considered the king of scientific ball.

Much of the science is standard fare today. The book covers such commonplace things as pitchers covering first on bunts, shortstops using the "science" of signaling who should cover the bag on a steal attempt, and second basemen being able to turn the double play well. Some smart things then seem to get ignored but are finding favor once again in modern ball. For example, Douglas writes: "The first man in the batting order of a team is looked to by the coach as the best player he has for getting on bases, either by a walk, by being hit, by speed or by safe hitting." With greater awareness now compared to say the 1980's and even the 90's of on-base percentage as opposed to speed, we are seeing guys leading off who have the capacity to get on base and not just run fast.

For a book published in 1922, it's a mighty good one for instructional advice. There is indeed a science of baseball.

Best of all, I still have a hole card the next time my science skills are criticized: Robert Adair's Physics of Baseball.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Legend of a Suicide



I've been working on a little side project recently involving baseball suicides and when I came across an interview with the author of this book, David Vann, I figured I'd go ahead and read the book. Legend of a Suicide is five short stories which surround a novel Vann wrote, all about his father's suicide. His father shot himself when he was thirteen and Vann wrote these tales throughout his twenties as a means of coping and trying to understand his father's death.

While Vann's book is fiction, there are elements of truth throughout the stories. His father was a dentist with two failed marriages caused by his infidelity. He quit his dental practice to move to Alaska and live off the land and it is there that he shot himself. His father tried to get Vann to move to Alaska with him and spend his eighth grade school year with him but he said no. The novel, which is by far the most powerful and gripping story in the book, is Vann's take on what might have happened if he had gone.

The short stories weren't near as enjoyable but they were captivating. Despite the gloomy subject matter, Vann keeps the stories moving. I was trying to figure out what exactly made his writing so compelling. I think part comes from Vann writing simply but capturing the other senses to describe things. The sounds and smells and textures provide detail in a better way than if he just wrote what the characters saw or what was happening. I'm not entirely sure. Whatever it is, it grabbed me and kept me moving along.

There's a line in the fourth short story where Vann says his father "had inflicted avoidable pain on everyone around him but who must have suffered some himself". Suicide is horrible. For Vann to put together stories about suicide and make them good enough to want to read I think is an achievement. That being said, if I weren't already in a mindset about suicides, I don't know how willing I would be to read this. I mean, there's a reason why it took Vann another decade to get this published after he had finished it. Who wants to read about suicide?

It's a tough call. Vann's writing is good. It's not like I can recommend checking out one of his other books either (though I have not read any others) because their subject matters aren't all that chipper either. His book Caribou Island also deals with failed marriages and suicides. A Mile Down has some potential as it is about his failed attempts to restore a boat and start a chartered tour company in Turkey. He has a book coming out in the near future which is a creative non-fiction work (a genre of which I am not keen) about a school shooting. Not all sunshine and lollipops with Mr. Vann's writing.

I think ultimately I have to go with a zero star rating on this. While the writing is by far the redeeming quality, the subject matter (and the fact that there are many, many writers who write well about more enjoyable topic matters) make it that I can't recommend it on a general basis.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Worthy



About a week ago or so a co-worker and I got talking about author biographies on dustjackets; those few sentences that usually tell what awards the author has been nominated for and/or won, where they live and how many pets they live with, maybe where they got their MFA, and what they're currently writing about now that the book you have in your hands is done.

I told my co-worker that my all-time favorite author biography was Will Clarke's, the author of the novel Lord Vishnu's Love Handles. Clarke's bio read, "Will Clarke doesn't want you to know where he lives or what he's doing next." Thinking about Clarke made me want to see if he had written anything else. Lord Vishnu's Love Handles was pretty good, particularly for a first novel.

Clarke also wrote this novel, The Worthy. I didn't find this one near as good. Subtitled "A Ghost's Story", it is about a college student at Louisiana Statr, Conrad Sutton, who dies in a pseudo-hazing incident. Conrad had been hazed pretty harshly by the the head of the fraternity he had been pledging, Ryan, and was being pushed a bit too far by the fellow. Conrad, who has been drinking a lot, punches Ryan, realizes his error in judgement, and tries to flee. Ryan catches Conrad and pushes Conrad down a flight of stairs. Conrad breaks his neck and dies.

Conrad is astounded to find that he is now a ghost and seeks revenge on Ryan. The frat house cook, Miss Etta, can communicate with spirits and she tells Conrad that he's not supposed to seek revenge. As Ryan and the other members of the fraternity do bad deeds, Conrad finds it more difficult not to want to get retribution. But in the end there is a sort of happy ending.

I didn't enjoy the book very much. It was just one hazing incident after another. Ryan is just an over the top bad guy. He tries to date rape one girl, kills another, he beats his girlfriend when he's not off sleeping with his favorite prostitute. And then there's the hazing. And more hazing. And more hazing. And yet some more hazing.

I liked the choice of LSU as a setting as the novel had a nice old boy feel about it. It was also refreshing to have novel characters attend a school that wasn't Ivy League. I gave up on The Cookbook Collector a few weeks ago, only slightly in part because the main character had graduated from Columbia and her sister had gone to Harvard and now ran a fancy tech firm. You never read about someone going to St. Olaf College or Minot State. So I'll take LSU as a pleasant change.

Nonetheless, I just couldn't care about Conrad and while Ryan gets his comeuppance, I couldn't really care about that either.

As for Clark'e dustjacket bio this time around, he repeats his desire to keep you ignorant about his life but adds a line saying that he does want you to read Lord Vishnu's Love Handles. That's not a bad recommendation.

Friday, September 9, 2011

You Are Not A Gadget



At the library where I work, I recently started a collection of books from small presses. I try to follow the independent, smaller publishing scene and the books that come out of it but am frustrated by libraries not acquiring them. It makes sense. With budget cuts virtually every year, libraries have to be selective and it is much easier to purchase the new James Patterson that a gabajillion people will want to read than take a chance on some cutting edge literature about which few people have heard.

One of the books I wanted to acquire (and did) was Garth Risk Hallberg's book A Field Guide to the North American Family. Hallberg writes for The Millions, one of my favorite sites, and he linked to an interview he did with The Faster Times (another great website) and called himself "A poor man's Jaron Lanier" in doing so.

I wasn't familiar with Jaron Lanier. But I like Hallberg so I figured I'd have to like Lanier.

Lanier is the father of virtual reality so I don't see what the connection to Hallberg actually is to make Hallberg think he is the poor man's version of Lanier. Nonetheless, Lanier's book, You Are Not A Gadget is an interesting intellectual, philosophical look at technology. Reading it, you would be probably be surprised that Lanier has such a strong technology background as he can seem at times to be very much against technological advancements. He is more against the usage of technology without clearly thinking out the ramifications of introducing it.

Lanier presents his thoughts very clearly and makes many valid points. He talks about how the open source community has helped reduce creativity and innovation. He bemoans how the "cloud keepers" are really the only ones who are making money in the internet world. He talks about how people reduce themselves to fit into categories online. Just a lot of stuff. And with his background, he is able to point out where wrong turns have been made and express how things might be able to get back on track.

I would not label myself an optimist, generally speaking, and reading this book didn't help matters. I agree with Lanier on a lot of things. As someone who regularly does research and who works as an information professional, helping others find things, one of my biggest frustrations is with the usage of Wikipedia. Never mind the accuracy of it. What is it? An online encyclopedia. All this technology available and what is done with it? The encyclopedia is reinvented. And an encyclopedia with more flaws than your typical one. Why? Because of who works on them and uses them. Want to know something about someone in pop culture? Wikipedia is a great source. Entries regarding science? Sure. Why those areas in particular? Because you have a collection of people who care about those subjects and are willing to make the information current. But what happens when you have masses of people working on the same thing? In the sciences, where there is a history of academic cooperation, conflicts are resolved in a congenial manner. But with other areas you get the equivalent of shouting matches.

There is also a lack of voice in Wikipedia. In the old-fashioned encyclopedia, the editing staff was entrusted with creating a uniform voice throughout the texts. Who does that for Wikipedia? It is the voice of the group and it is this group voice that concerns Lanier (and me).

Lanier believes there is hope, though. Myself, I think we're too far gone down some of these roads. I was working in the public sector years ago and read Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, about the disintegration of social structures, and I feel that technology has eroded those structures even further. I don't know. It frustrates me sometimes to look around and feel like I'm the only one who has these concerns.

Returning to Lanier and his book, I think it's an interesting read. It has a very strong philosophical bend to it. It's not a light read despite it not being a very large book and not very complex in terms of language. It's just a lot of food for thought and it took me a while to read because of it. I had to read, then stop, ponder a bit, get back to it, ponder some more, etc. If technology means more to you than a means to know what your 400 best friends are doing, I think it's worth reading this book.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Better mail than I got from Rowland Office

Matthew over at Number 5 Type Collection recently had a contest where he was asking people to nominate their favorite baseball card with an error. That was easy for me since I had such fond memories of looking for this one.

Back in 1988, my friend KB and I bought a bunch of Topps rack packs and opened them, recording the sequence of cards because it was pretty well known at the time that Topps inserted cards in their rack packs following a sequential order. You could flip over a rack pack, look at the numbers of the three cards on the back, and know what every single card was in the pack.

We each had our own players whose rookie cards we were trying to stockpile in an effort to become extremely wealthy before we even graduated high school. KB loaded up on Sam Horn of the Red Sox and Joe Magrane of the Cardinals. My early retirement plan involved Houston's Ken Caminiti and Kansas City's Gary Thurman. I thought Caminiti would be Wade Boggs but with more power and speed (Caminiti actually had more steals than homers in the minors). As for Thurman, he was coming off of his third straight season of fifty stolen bases and had seen his batting average dip to a mere .293 after two season over .300. I thought I'd be dining with Warren Buffett sometime soon.

There was one other rookie that we both wanted. It wasn't because we thought he was going to be any great player, it was because Topps had botched his card and then corrected it. Here's the two versions:



The picture on the left is of Steve George. The one on the right is Leiter. Sadly, poor Steve George never got a major league card of his own.

So that was my nominee and I was fortunate enough to be selected for the prize, a 1948 R346 Blue Tint of Johnny Mize:



I believe this is the only card from the 1940's I own. Mize is shown wearing a St. Louis cap, even though by the time this card had come out, it had been six years since he had donned the cap (so Rowland Office would have mailed any autograph request Mize had made to St. Louis) as he had been playing for the Giants since 1942.

Thanks a lot for the Mize card, Matthew. I like it a lot.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The most amazing TTM autograph response ever

A week or so ago I was talking to my ex-wife on the phone and she mentioned that I had received an SASE in the mail from an autograph request I had sent out.

"Really?"

I moved to where I live now almost three and a half years ago. So the request had to be at least that old. I asked her to open it up and see who finally responded to me after all these years and so I could check my database and see when I sent it. She opened it up and out came two Rowland Office baseball cards. Here's a picture of one of them:



For those of you who are uninitiated to the majesty of the 1982 Topps card, that autograph you see is not Rowland Office's. It is a facsimile that Topps printed on the card. The cards were returned unsigned.

When did I send that request out? According to my database, I mailed the request out on March 9th, 2007. Being as my SASE had a 39 cent stamp on it (which the post office delivered without requesting extra postage), that sounds about right.

So Mr. Office has sat on my cards for over four years, doesn't autograph them (and I sent a nice letter with my request), and then sends them back to me (years after I have moved from the address on the envelope). But wait.....it gets better.

There was nothing else in the envelope but my two cards. Check out the back of the envelope, though:



Mr. Office went and had a stamp made requesting $25 to sign cards. He doesn't say who to make a check out to or even if he'll take a check. He doesn't say where the money is going to go. He doesn't give a mailing address. Oh, and I like that he puts the dollar sign after the 25 instead of before and then still writes out dollars.

But beyond that....$25 for Rowland Office? By contrast, his HALL OF FAME teammate, Andre Dawson, signs for less than that with the money going to his foundation for children.

Let's recap. Rowland Office, a man who had a Wins Below Replacement of 3.9 according to baseball-reference.com (yes, I wrote below. His WAR was negative), sits on my autograph request for over four years, stamps the back of my envelope asking for money with no other details and sends it back to a place I no longer live. What is the rationale? Does he need money? Say so then! Why did he take so long to respond? Is he in poor health? Has be been moving around and he just got done unpacking the box that had his fan mail from 2007? I'm tempted to write him again to get the story but I figure by 2016 I won't really care.

Thanks, Mr. Office, for at least returning my cards. Even if it was four years later.