Saturday, December 31, 2011

Baseball Book Club - Deciding the first book

It looks like we have some interest in having an online baseball book club so let's get under way and pick our first book. If you're interested in taking part, please leave 1-3 books that appeal to you RIGHT NOW in the comments. Feel free to make a case for them if you'd like. If someone suggests one that appeals to you, say so. I'd like to avoid setting up a poll and taking up more time but if need be, we will. It would be nice to just find a book that a lot of us want to read and we can try and get it and get reading.

I'd like the book to be easy to acquire, published or reprinted relatively recently (say in the 2000's) and have at least some mass appeal. All three criteria aren't completely necessary, especially since we have some serious baseball fans taking part, but they're nice to consider.

The three books that strike me as good candidates are:

Mike Sowell's The Pitch That Killed. I had initially eliminated this from consideration as I thought it would be difficult to get. Turns out it has been reprinted and might be easily attainable for purchase or libraries. It's about the Carl Mays - Ray Chapman incident and the 1920 season. 1989 Casey Award winner.

Joe Posnanski's The Soul of Baseball. The 2007 Casey Award winner. I know we have fans of Posnanski and fans of Negro League baseball who read this site so this biography of Buck O'Neil seems like a good contender.

Jonah Keri's The Extra 2%. Sort of the Moneyball of the New Era. Looks at the 2008 Tampa Rays and how they have used experience in the financial markets to run the Rays.

We'll see how things look around Tuesday and go from there. Look forward to seeing what other folks want to read.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Friday Faves #8 - Favorite books of 2011

Here it is the end of the year and what better thing to look back and reflect on than the books I read over the course of 2011. I read 85 books this year, the second most I've read in a year (I haven't tracked this number all my life but it's probably second most regardless) and 2009 being the most I've read which just goes to show, if you want to read a lot of books, being a librarian is a good way to go about doing it.

2011 had some really fantastic books, as well as some serious clunkers, but all in all I felt that it was a good reading year. I learned a lot, was entertained a lot, revisited some old favorites and found some new authors that excite me. These five, though, stood out.

#1 Running the Books by Avi Steinberg - A clear cut standout. Usually when you get out into the tail of the bell curve, the differences between any two points isn't that large. Not the case with this. No other book I read this year came close.

#2 Eleven by Mark Watson - My feelings about Steinberg's book say a lot because Watson wrote a really good novel. I would almost always rather read a good work of non-fiction, though, and so while Watson wrote what I almost consider a perfect novel, it's still a distant #2.

#3 Blood Horses by John Jeremiah Sullivan - I wish there was one book on baseball even remotely as good as this. This is a book that made me more passionate about something of which I was pretty passionate already. I'd think about making it number two on the list but I may be overweighting it because of its recency. No shame in being third on this list anyway. And Pulpheads will be read in 2012. Of that there is no doubt.

#4 Ghosted by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall - If not for the one scene, this might be #2 or 3. Unlike Eleven which is just done so well but is sort of "traditional" in a sense, Ghosted stands out because of its being so entirely different from anything I've read. And as much as I hated the one scene, it will help me remember this book decades from now (not that the rest of the book really needs help being remembered).

#5 Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer - Those damn Foers with all their writing talent. I can't wait for one of them to write something else.

Honorable mention:
Art of Possibility and A Barn in New England - I could put these two at 4 and 5 and be fine with it but they are re-reads so I will exempt them from the list. I wrote about them yesterday and so am not relinking.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand - At the start of the year I thought it would be hard to top this book. It speaks to how great a year in reading this was for me that this doesn't crack the top 5.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender - My friend and co-worker JJ were looking over our reading lists the other day and we discovered that she had read six or seven of my two-star books from this year after I had read and recommended them. This was the only one of those she didn't like. I said in my review that this is a no-middle ground book and she helped prove that out (my friend Jason read it and loved it). I thought it was great but then I also have a Aimee Bender bias/crush.

How about all of you? I'd love to have some reader input on these for a change? Anything you read this year that stood out to you?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Art of Possibility by Benjamin and Rosamund Zander

It's sort of funny that I had four re-reads this year. Given the number of great books out there I want to read, I'm not really one to go back and read a book over and over. There's a reason for everything, though. As I wrote yesterday, Walk Through the Woods was the literary equivalent of channel surfing and coming across The Shawshank Redemption. I was bored and nothing else appealed to me. Emergency I re-read because I got a copy for my son. I was feeling restless and hot this summer so had to read A Barn in New England.

I don't know if was the restlessness continuing or what that made me feel the need to read Art of Possibility again. I think I needed some positivity. 2011 was a very difficult year for me in some ways. In others it was a great year. Actually, if it weren't for my weight and finances, I'd probably say it was a great year. Those are two important negatives, though, and I desperately need change on both counts which is why I turned to this book.

The Zanders do such a good job of putting life in perspective and showing how reframing thoughts can be beneficial. It's a very useful book both for the motivation it provides and also by providing the tools to help open yourself to possibility. There's a lot of self-help schlock out there. This is not one of them.

And since I did read it twice before (in 2009), I'll link to those two reviews. And since it's always worth watching, here's a TED talk Ben Zander did:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

You know how it is. You come home after a long day of work, throw yourself down in a chair and look for something to entertain you. Some options are too serious, some you've come across a zillion times before. You just don't know what you want. Finally something captures your eye (or you're just too tired to care) and you say, "Fine, I'll read that" and reach over and open the bookcase (you thought I was talking about channel surfing, didn't you?) and pull it out.

You might not know this about me, but I love to read. It's a shocker, I know. I take great pride in the fact that every room of my house except the basement (because of mold issues, most likely) has books in it. I've got bathroom reading, cookbooks in the kitchen. I even have home repair books in my mud room.

The majority of my books, close to 1600 of them, can be found in my library. That makes sense. When you have a lot of books, a library is a good place for them. Those are just baseball books, though. I keep my non-baseball books, of which there are probably only about two hundred, in a barrister bookcase which is where I found myself sitting in front of in the opening paragraph. I rarely acquire books that aren't baseball and so most of the books in the case are ones I've bought and read and felt the need to keep.

I mention this bookcase because it is a treasured possession. It belonged to Judge Jonathan Langham, who was a neighbor of my grandparents. When he passed away, my grandfather purchased the bookcase and it has been passed down to me. I like the idea that a piece of furniture I own has some history. I digress. Back to the book.

I don't remember when I first read A Walk in the Woods or even how I came to have a copy of it. It was probably around the time I was really into hiking. That would make sense given that this is about Bryson's attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen.

Bryson and Stephen discover it isn't all they expected. They begin at the southern end of the trail, in Georgia, and make their way north. They hike for several weeks and come across a rest area in Tennessee that has a map of the trail. When they discover that for all the effort they have put in - through all the difficult terrain and bad weather and poor eating and sleeping, they haven't hardly begun - they decide to give up on hiking the whole thing. They leave the trail and find their way to Roanoke, Virginia. Having decided they aren't going to do the whole thing, when the Virginia portion of the trail is lackluster, they halt their tandem efforts.

Bryson makes road trips into Pennsylvania to hike short sections of the trail but discovers the Pennsylvania portions of the trail are perhaps the most lacking in scenery. He does parts of the trail in New England (where Bryson lives) and he reunites with Stephen to do a portion of Maine at which point they are so sick of hiking you wonder if they'll ever do so again.

If you're looking for a book to inspire you to hike, this probably isn't it. If you're looking for something that is a pretty accurate description on what it's like to hike for weeks on end, it's a good book. Bryson is funny, likes to delve into the history of things, and doesn't pull punches when he encounters things that bother him. Sometimes he has a holier than thou attitude about him which rubs me the wrong way.

While I claim this isn't a book to inspire one to hike, it actually made me realize that I miss hiking. My oldest son and I have been talking about some hiking achievements we would like to accomplish (coincidentally, he recently wrote a paper for school about our attempts to hike the Maryland portion back in 2006) and we've decided we're going to do some hiking in 2012. I'm looking forward to that and who knows, maybe I'll find something to write about that will be as entertaining as Bryson.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Blood Horses by John Jeremiah Sullivan

I read various things online about books. I'm always on the lookout for something new and interesting to read, something out of the ordinary, or just plain old good writing. Everyone is doing their end of the year reviews (don't worry. Mine is coming soon.) and time after time I have been coming across the name of John Jeremiah Sullivan. I don't think I have read a single negative thing on his newest book, Pulpheads, which is his second book. Blood Horses is his first and given my love for the horsies, I thought I would read it first.

If you couldn't care less about horsies, you'd still love this book. I've been trying to communicate my feelings about this book to a few people and I haven't been able to adequately express it. Reading this book made me feel smarter. This is different, I think, than what you think. There are many books that I read where I learn something. That makes me more knowledgeable. Sullivan makes me feel smarter. It's as if he found a way to ignite my brain cells to understand and explore things in ways I never have.

I think a lot of this comes from Sullivan's style. While this book is about horses, it's really about everything. Sullivan grew up in Kentucky and his father was a sportswriter so he has had a lot of personal connection with the sport of horse racing. He weaves his own personal history into his own personal present and ties it in with historical and current equestrian issues. He'll be talking about his Dad and next thing you know he's talking about Hitler. And even though you're suddenly reading about something you don't think you were reading about a page or two ago, you really are. Sullivan entwines everything marvelously. The changes aren't jolting. There are no non sequiturs. The transitions are smooth.

Sullivan does fantastic research and tells great stories. He has a gift for detail which is just amazing. After finishing the book, I found that I had made note of four books he referenced in the text that I wanted to read some more. Two are on their way to me now through Interlibrary Loan. And readers of this blog know that one of the things I look for in good non-fiction is how much it makes me want to learn more about whatever it is the author covered.

The book itself is really comprised of a lot of different essays of various length. They work so well together, you don't even realize that these are all separate components. It reads like a book, not a collection of essays, if that makes sense.

The only downside of the book were the illustrations. There are a large number of them but they are all in black and white and very little, if anything, was done to them to enhance the image quality. Some are so dark as to be undefinable. There are some neat photos and some interesting piece of equine art pictured and it would have been nice if more effort had been made by the publisher to showcase them rather than make them seem like filler.

If you received an Amazon or Barnes and Noble's gift card for the December holiday of your choice and are looking for something on which to spend it, it will be well worth using your card on this book. As for me, I'll probably try and read Pulpheads in 2012 and will review the two books that Sullivan led me to sometime in January.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Faves #7 - Favorite baseball seasons where a player led the league in hits and walks

Killing two birds with one stone on this one. I hadn't given the Friday Fave a lot of thought this week but had been looking at various baseball related things. I started with the Hall of Fame ballot which got me thinking about a smaller Hall of Fame which got me thinking about a statistical based Hall where certain thresholds have to be met to qualify. Personally I think it's a horrible idea because the game changes and so criteria meaningful now might not be in the future, but it is sort of fun. Like I was toying with the idea of limiting the Hall to those players with a .400 OBP and 250+ combined SB and HR. No reason except that it narrows the Hall to about forty players. 21 current HOFers like Musial, Cobb, Collins, Gehrig, Ruth, Mantle, Williams. Then 18 guys who aren't in, my favorite being Roy Thomas. Of those 18, though, thirteen played in the past decade and seven are active. A definite imbalance. Like I said, a bad idea.

But then that got me thinking about getting on base. The thirteen above who have played in this decade were all power hitters in the heart of the order (Bonds, Thome, Ramirez, Thomas, Chipper, Pujols, Bagwell, Giambi, Walker, Berkman, Helton, Edgar and Giles). Where are the leadoff hitters? That got me wondering what leadoff hitters led the league in both hits and walks. I figured there would be a bunch of them. After all, that's what you want from a leadoff hitter; a guy who gets on, ideally by hits and walks.

So I looked and there have been a whopping total of six players to have achieved the feat, one of whom did it twice. Blew me away. I wouldn't think it was that tough. Heck, I thought some non-leadoff hitters might make the cut. Like Lou Gehrig. Gehrig had seven seasons of 200 hits and 100 walks. He never led the league in both categories, though (he was second in both categories in both 1927 and 1934).

Not having a Friday Faves lined up, I thought I'd cheat and make this my topic for the week. Here are my favorite performances by players who led their leagues in hits and walks in the same season.

#1 Rogers Hornsby, 1924 St. Louis Cardinals - This was my favorite for a number of reasons. First, Hornsby achieved the feat batting third and despite missing eleven games. He did it primarily by hitting .424. His 227 hits led the league as did his 89 walks which gave him an OBP of .507. It doesn't seem right to me that a major leaguer can achieve an OBP over .500. Getting on base every other time to the plate? Wow. Hornsby also led the league in doubles and was second in homers giving him a SLG of .696. Yet he only drove in 94 runners which might explain how the Cardinals went 65-89 that season. One man can't carry a baseball team.

#2 Ross Barnes, 1873 Boston Red Stockings - Barnes was the first player to lead his league in hits and walks, pacing the National Association in 1873. It doesn't look too impressive on the surface because the Red Stockings only played 60 games. So Barnes' 20 walks look a little mundane. Given that he led the league in runs, hits, walks, doubles, triples and steals, though, the relative performance is mighty fine, even if the raw counts don't boggle the mind.

#3 Ross Barnes, 1876 Chicago White Stockings - Barnes also was the second player to lead his league in hits and walks. Different league, different stockings. 20 walks again, 138 hits again. Kind of spooky. This was the end of the line for Barnes. Injuries curtailed his career and he never experienced any degree of success after 1876.

#4 Sliding Billy Hamilton, 1891 Philadelphia Phillies- When you get on base 290 times in a season and your nickname is "Sliding Billy", you might expect a lot of stolen bases. Hamilton did just that, tying his own record of 111 and marking his third straight season with over 100 stolen bases. He would also steal 100 more in 1894, a season where he had an OBP of .521 (led the league in walks and was second in hits) and score 198 runs, a record that still stands.

#5 Richie Ashburn, 1958 Philadelphia Phillies - I think my preference for old-timey baseball is shining through on this list as Ashburn is the first player on this list to play after Babe Ruth ruined baseball. Ashburn comes in at #5 because I liked him as a broadcaster. His season leading the league in hits and walks is probably the most "empty" as his SLG (.441) just eked out his OBP (.440).

Honorable mention:
Carl Yastrzemski, 1963 Boston Red Sox - I've never appreciated Yaz and I think it is because my birth coincided with his decline. Up through 1970, he was definitely one of the elite players in the American League. The 1963 season was just his third in the majors and there he was, leading the league in hits and walks. In 1967, of course, he won the MVP as he paced the league in average, homers and RBI (and OBP and SLG). In 1968 he won his third batting title. In 1970, he led the league in OBP and SLG again. From 1971 to 1983 he was "just" a star player. The only thing he lead the league in over those thirteen seasons was runs (in 1974). By the time I saw him play, he was old and slow and a decent hitter. Sorry, Yaz. Your timing was off.

Lenny Dykstra, 1993 Philadelphia Phillies - By contrast, I saw Lenny Dykstra play at his peak, which was this season. If you remember this season, you remember how out of nowhere it was and how Nails credited his "good vitamins" for his successful year. After this incredible year, Dykstra played just 186 more games in his major league career. Of course, Lenny has been in the news a lot in the decade and a half since his retirement. A lot of people, especially in Philly, appreciated his hard nose play. Me, I found it hard to get past the constant tobacco spitting.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

What's Gotten Into Us by McKay Jenkins

This was a book I had meant to read for some time and didn't until it came time to remove it from the new book shelf at work. I know the author in passing from my time as a Public Administration student at the University of Delaware. My specialization was watershed management and I did some volunteer work with the Water Resources Agency on campus that brought me in contact with Jenkins a couple of times. My first encounter with him was when he was the keynote speaker at the Drinking Water 2001 conference. His talk was incredible and I thought that anyone who speaks as well he does, has to be a good writer, too.

I had read one of his books, The White Death, previously, and it was fantastic. My ex bought it for her Dad for Christmas and he, too, liked it. She bought him two other books of Jenkins' which also were appreciated. So needless to say, I had an expectation of this being a good book.

Unfortunately, I don't feel it was. I felt like a good portion of it was a bit of shock journalism. Jenkins explores how things we encounter in our every day life are causing illnesses and disease. Not things like Jenny McCarthy's accusation that vaccines cause autism but more stuff like lawn care chemicals causing health problems.

Jenkins' biggest issue seems to be with phthalates. These are substances added to plastics to make them more flexible and durable. They are found just about everywhere and they presumably cause health problems.

I say presumably because, really, what doesn't? I have read several times this past year that 1 in 2 people will develop cancer during their lifetimes. It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to figure out that much of the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the things we use, cause illness. And it doesn't take much to figure out that there is little reason for the companies that provide us with this stuff to change. We can get in an uproar over lead paint in toys from China while we inhale chemicals from our carpets or phthalates that come from our electronic devices aging.

Jenkins cites some studies of people living in rural areas, presumably away from a lot of these contaminants, whose bodies are loaded with toxins. You can't escape it. And the world grows and gets more congested and more contaminated and eventually we'll hit a breaking point and the apocalypse will arrive. That last bit is from me, not Jenkins.

Jenkins is a little more optimistic. He thinks we can make changes to personal lifestyles that will enable us to avoid some of the detrimental junk. Eat organically, for instance. Use cleaners made only of natural substances. An assortment of other options available primarily to those with money.

I'm letting my personal feelings get too entwined in this review so let me focus more on the straight content. Jenkins' viewpoint is very one-sided. He looks for things to support his case but doesn't really explore the possibility that stuff might not be as bad as he is making it out to be. Like I said, it felt like shock journalism. There isn't a wealth of scientific evidence cited. What there is tends to be limited in scope and not entirely conclusive.

It didn't surprise me either that I thought the best chapter in the book was about water and it relied heavily on the work of Jerry Kauffman, who heads the Water Resources Agency. That chapter just felt like it was the most grounded in actual science.

Although I didn't care for the book, it might make a good primer if you aren't as naturally cynical as myself and it hadn't occurred to you that your environment is killing you. You might get something out of it. For a McKay Jenkins fix, though, you ought to read The White Death. Awesome book.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

I am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak

After reading The Book Thief, I wanted to read the book Zusak had written immediately before, I am the Messenger. Someone donated a copy to the library and so I thought it would be a good time to read it.

I am the Messenger is about a group of people in their late teens, early 20's who live in Australia. There are four friends, all of them sort of struggling to find their way through life. The main character, Ed Kennedy, is a taxi driver whose most notable characteristic is that he is in love with his best friend, Audrey. Audrey appreciates Ed's friendship but never wants to let their relationship evolve into more. In the meantime, she sleeps around, driving Ed nuts.

The story begins with Ed standing in line at the bank with his friend Marv, whose defining feature is hoarding all his money while driving what is arguably the worst functioning automobile on the planet. While the pair are in line, the bank is robbed. The robbery does not go smoothly and the robber's getaway vehicle takes off without the robber. The robber grabs Marv's keys, drops his gun and tries to escape. The car, naturally, doesn't start, and Ed retrieves the gun and holds it on the robber until the police come to apprehend him.

Ed becomes a minor hero in the papers. He is surprised one day to find a playing card of the Ace of Diamonds with three addresses on it. Ed comes to the realization that he is to provide a message to the people living at these addresses. What the messages are and how he is to deliver them is uncertain.

Ed eventually figures out a way to accomplish his task which then leads to another card with another cryptic assignment. All four aces arrive in Ed's hands, the last one relating to his three friends.

Upon completion of the tasks, the reason behind Ed being chosen for these messages is made clear but the ending takes on a bit of a meta-fiction feel which I didn't much care for.

All in all, I did like the book, even with an ending that was a little empty. The characters are different. There's a level of shallowness in them but enough depth to keep them interesting. The book is intended for a young adult audience and so there is nothing special about Zusak's language and the writing. He's just a good storyteller. If anything, it made me appreciate The Book Thief all the more.I feel like the shortcomings in I am the Messenger were eliminated in The Book Thief. It definitely feels like Zusak grew as a writer between the two stories.

Can't go wrong with either but The Book Thief is considerably better.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman

I liked this book but was disappointed by it. I had a lot of hope for it and was motivated to read it after watching the trailer for it.

The book consists primarily of two characters. A psychologist by the name of Victoria Vick and a patient of hers known as Y. The book begins as if Vick is writing it and she is writing the publisher concerning events in the story. The story is told as if this is the draft of the publication she is submitting.

Vick's contact begins with a phone call from Y. He is trying to understand more about what he does and is seeking psychological/moral guidance. After a few phone calls, Y comes in to the office and their sessions continue.

It turns out that Y is a scientist but has been bothered by the question of the true natures of people. He sets out to see if he can understand better by observing them when they are alone.

As the pair continue to meet, their relationship evolves into something more than your standard patient/therapist situation.

I apologize in advance for the crummy review of this book but to say more reveals the story and it is one that shouldn't be spoiled. My disappointment came from the direction the book went. This had a lot of potential, at various times through the book, to be more dark and gripping. It never went that direction. It felt like getting into a Ferrari and finding it had a spoiler that prevented you from driving above 50 mph. Yeah, you're driving a Ferrari but what's the point? I felt the same with the book. It should have been creepy. Don't you think the trailer is creepy? That's what I was expecting. Never got there.

I liked it. It just didn't meet expectations.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Baseball Book Club

In my last post I mentioned that I wanted to read more baseball books in 2012. After the success of the baseball book draft (both in terms of the fun Jason, Mark and I had as well as the number of comments and e-mails I received after the fact from folks), I think there might be enough interest among folks reading this blog to have an online baseball book club.

Here's my proposal. We take six weeks for each book. Two weeks to choose and acquire, two weeks to read and two weeks to discuss. That gives us eight books over the course of the year and gives us four weeks to play around with in the event we choose to read Art of Fielding or something and need some extra time.

The decision as to what books to read we'll figure out based on the number of participants. If it's a small number, we can alternate choosing. A large number and we'll put it to vote. Or maybe we'll put it to vote regardless. We'll see.

Ideally, I'd like to read books that are readily available to everyone regardless of their preferred method of acquiring and reading. For example, I wouldn't mind reading Mike Sowell's The Pitch That Killed but it would probably require everyone trying to find a used copy through a dealer or something (or heated bidding wars among our members on eBay). Most libraries aren't going to have it and I doubt it is available as an eBook.

That still leaves a lot of books. I think this could be a lot of fun. So how about it? You in?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Faves #6 - Favorite Books I Read in School

I've decided that in 2012 I'm going to mix up my reading a little bit. I have two objectives. One, I want to read larger (500+ pages) books. Two, I want to read more baseball. I'll have more on the latter in the near future. In the meantime, I got underway on a large book which I figure I'll finish right around the new year. Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention was a finalist for the National Book Award in Non-Fiction this year. Unfortunately, Mr. Marable also passed away this past spring.

I wanted to read this book because I really enjoyed The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I read it in high school. I questioned whether a biography was really necessary given Malcolm X's autobiography but so far, I'm enjoying Marable's work.

So that's what spawned today's faves. Here we go:

1. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. A hysterical novel on World War II. Most notable for the ridiculous characters. I passed down my copy to my son and it is one of his favorite books, too. Hopefully, he'll find a pdf to give to his children.

I've read some other Heller works and nothing even comes close.

2. Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand. One of the few plays I enjoyed reading in school.

3. Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X. Just an eye-opening book for me in many ways. History, biography, cultural differences. I learned a lot from this book.

4. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. Loved everything about this book. I think this was one of the more powerful books I read in school in terms of feeling like I got everything the author wanted me to get. Not an easy thing to achieve with a high schooler.

5. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. If you're going to write one book, it might as well be awesome. This one also found its way to my son but he hates it. Must be his mother's genetics.

A rare case where the film and the book are equally excellent.

Honorable Mention:
Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare - I think it's a shame that kids are made to read Shakespeare before college. I just don't think it is possible for most kids to appreciate it and so they grow up thinking Willie is overrated. If we let kids mature a bit more and expose them to other literature, I think Shakespeare can be better appreciated. I know I couldn't stand anything but this and Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare - I read this in eighth grade and it makes the cut because of Mercutio and a quote from the book. We had to memorize a section of the play and present it to class. Everyone did "Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou". Me? Strangely, I avoided the mainstream and went with a section involving Mercutio in Act II, Scene IV:
An old hare hoar
And an old hare hoar
Is very good meat in Lent.
But a hare that is hoar,
Is too much for a score.
When it hoars, ere it be spent.

And yes, I just typed that from memory.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison - I grew up in a rural, somewhat wealthy area of Pennsylvania. It was a very homogeneous population. We had four African-Americans in the whole school during my time there, three in my class, one who ended up transferring to our rival school and then found his way to a reform school. This resulted in him being an answer to a trivia question I proposed during a three-team track meet - "Who is the only person competing today to have attended all three schools in the meet?". I digress.

My point is, much of my initial exposure to other cultures came from reading. I like to think that the powerful nature of books like this and Malcolm X's helped me be open minded and appreciative when I finally got out of my insulated environment.

That's the list. I definitely read more interesting things that I "had to" for high school than I did college. College English was horrible. Oh, I'll include a couple other things. Anything by Edgar Allen Poe (I had to read a lot of his work starting in junior high). And D.H. Lawrence's The Rocking Horse Winner. I'm sure you never would have expected that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Catch Me If You Can by Frank Abagnale

I grabbed this as part of a mixup at work. A fellow had requested this book, came in to pick it up, and it turned out he wanted the movie. So I grabbed the book. I know I have seen the movie but I remember nothing about it outside of the fun theme song.

Having read the book, it's no wonder I don't remember the movie. I don't know how exactly you make a movie out of this without taking a lot of liberties. Abagnale was a con man but not a very interesting one. He was handsome, apparently looked a lot older than he actually was, and was able to dupe people, largely by producing fake documents. Most of his cons involved flying for free and writing bad checks with an occasional getting to play grown up here and there.

Writing bad checks and making fake checks was his primary con. Get rid of that and you have a guy who pretended to be a pilot so that he could travel for free ("deadheading"), taking advantage of airlines perks for flight personnel. Once he got busted for that, he pretended to have gone to law school to land a job as an attorney. He eventually passed the bar and practiced law briefly which says more about the profession, I think, than Abagnale. He also pretended to be a doctor but worked off hours and let residents handle any actual medical work.

He eventually got caught and spent some time in prison in a few countries. When he finally was turned over to the U.S., he negotiated a lighter sentence in exchange for helping government agencies fight against the same practices he had done.

I just couldn't appreciate his cleverness if there was any. Abagnale is very egotistical in the book. He repeatedly talks about how he would never hurt individuals, even as he often did. I didn't find him interesting at all. As I said, I don't remember enough about the movie to say anything about it but don't recommend the book at all.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

This was a fun twist on your typical Western. The Sisters Brothers, Charlie and Eli, are hired guns. They work for a fellow known as The Commodore and The Commodore has asked them to go to California to track down and kill a man by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm.

The book is narrated by Eli, the younger brother, and the more thoughtful of the pair. Eli is overweight and sometimes seems like he may be viewed as the lesser intellect of the brothers. Eli is clearly the conscience of the twain and wants nothing more than to return home to his mother and open up a hardware store. Charlie, though, wants to be rich and powerful. He dreams of one day supplanting The Commodore. He also enjoys killing because he's mighty good at it (and drinking).

As the duo make their trek towards Sacramento where they are to meet an associate who is watching Warm, they have numerous encounters with an interesting cast of characters. The reactions to these encounters, especially those of Eli, are what make the book so good.

Perhaps some of what makes Eli seem a little light on the intellect side is the writing style of the book. It is very simple. DeWitt finds a good balance between making Eli seem uneducated (and hired guns during the Gold Rush Era aren't going to have degrees from St. Olaf's) but doesn't try and over do it and make him a caricature. But his apparent lack of intellect may also be due to a bit of naivete. At one point he falls for an innkeeper, giving her a good deal of money and dreaming of one day returning to her and making her his wife. Meanwhile, she's had sex with Charlie which Charlie paid for along with his bath.

Upon finding the associate and Warm, they are faced with a conflict that involves them going against The Commodore which results in a bit of an unexpected ending.

The contrast between the two brothers is nice even if they are a little too polar opposite for my liking. The story being told exclusively by Eli also makes things a little too limited. I liked how pretty much every scenario the brothers face results in some sort of moral and ethical analysis. Deep thinking by hired killers....whoda thunk it?

It was a really fun book and one I recommend but it falls short of the top echelon of books for the year.

Seriously, Google?

I'm getting tired of "smart" devices and software thinking I know better than I do about what I want.

Google, when I do a search on bibliography, I was not searching for biography and my clumsy fingers slipped and inserted an extra "bli". Come on. I don't even get one of those stupid "Did you mean" options. Google just assumed I wanted biographies.

Are people really that dumb that Google assumes the person was more likely to have made a mistake than they were in typing correctly?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Timbuktu by Paul Auster

I had somehow almost made it through the year without even thinking about reading something by Paul Auster and then a patron returned Timbuktu.

Timbuktu is told from the perspective of a dog, Mr. Bones. Mr. Bones lives with Willy, a down on his luck man who spends most of his time homeless. Willy has suffered from a terrible cough that is only worsening and the two make their way to Baltimore in an effort to find an old English teacher of Willy's.

Willy knows his life will be ending soon and tries to prepare Mr. Bones for his departure. He calls the afterlife Timbuktu. Mr. Bones is worried about whether or not he'll get to see Willy again in Timbuktu.

Willy passes on and Mr. Bones is left to fend for himself. He strikes up a friendship with an Asian boy but has to leave him once school starts. Mr. Bones is then adopted by a family in Virginia where he spends the rest of his days until he is reunited with Willy.

Typical solid effort by Auster. The story being told from the dog's point of view is really interesting, especially dealing with things like the afterlife. Never mind the idea of smells, the vet, getting fixed, and a host of other concepts. Definitely a fun book and far less bizarre than most of Auster's works.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday Faves #5 - Favorite Left-handed Pitchers of My Lifetime

My friend Jason wrote me this week. He had found a list of pitchers that threw left-handed and batted right-handed. As part of this quirky group himself, he liked the list. Furthermore, some of his favorite pitchers of all-time were on this list. He then asked me about my favorite pitchers which spawned today's fave list. But as if I needed more motivation, yesterday I came across this review of a book on left-handedness. It's a sign, I tell ya.

As a baseball researcher and historian, I've developed a level of appreciation for pitchers of the past, especially the Deadball Era. If I don't think about it, I would likely just rattle off Christy Mathewson and Addie Joss as being two of my favorite pitchers. But would that be a reasonable statement to make? Can someone you never actually experienced pitch be a favorite? I can appreciate them and think highly of what I know about them as both players and people but can they really be my favorites? I don't know. Maybe it's just an issue of semantics. Regardless I opted to limit this list to left-handers during my lifetime. Guys who I at least theoretically saw pitch. But even that's shaky. I didn't have cable television until I was 17 so the only American League pitchers I saw pitch were the handful of Orioles games I made it to live. Should that limit consideration of Mark Langston and Frank Tanana? Because if you asked me as a kid who my favorite left-handed pitchers were, those would be the two I would probably name. So take this list with a grain of salt that even though these are my favorites, I really have no idea what I'm talking about because I've overthunk this too much.

And please feel free to link to your own lists or post yours in the comments, for this and other Friday Faves. This isn't a fascist blog.

#1 Dave Righetti. Easy enough choice. I'll add something else, though. I'm hoping with Tony LaRussa retiring that the talk starts picking up for pitching coach Dave Duncan being added to the Hall of Fame. Why? Because then he'll open the door for Righetti.

First, Righetti has been the pitching coach for the Giants for ELEVEN years. Right there you know that he's doing something right. He's coached Tim Lincecum to two Cy Young wins (a mere mortal coach might have tinkered with Lincecum's unorthodox delivery). Matt Cain, pretty universally known as a guy with zero stuff, has been a top notch pitcher for them. He got 1500 innings out of Kirk Rueter (more on him in a minute), for crying out loud! Plus, there's this. Hall of Fame.

#2 Steve Carlton. My oldest son is named after him. He's probably the lefty I saw pitch most growing up. He was called "Lefty" for crying out loud. I don't think I really need to say a lot about Carlton.

#3 Ryan Karp. Yeah, a guy who pitched 17 innings in the major leagues makes this list. I never looked forward to seeing someone pitch as much as I did as Karp in Greensboro in 1993. If he was on the road, I was scrambling to find a newspaper with a boxscore. At home, I was there in the stands.

For Greensboro, Karp made 17 starts, going 13-1 with a 1.81 ERA. The Hornets kept him at Greensboro until he lost a game at which point he got promoted to Prince William. His final stats at Greensboro included 132 strikeouts in 109 innings. I still vividly remember a 12 strikeout performance because it seemed like 27 K's, he was so dominant.

I managed to buy Karp's Prince William jersey at the end of the season which is another blog post of its own someday. All in all, my favorite minor league pitcher of my lifetime.

#4 Kirk Rueter. I loved this guy. I could put him #2 on this list and be fine with it. Has anyone done more with less?

I need to make something clear when I say that. Kirk Rueter was a major league pitcher for a long, long time and while I feel he (and others) benefited from Righetti's tutelage, all those guys have talent. When I say Rueter did a lot with less, I mean he was atypical. He didn't have the zippy fastball. If you give someone in baseball a choice between someone who had Kerry Wood's stuff and someone who had Kirk Rueter's stuff, they would choose Wood every time (quick, name Kerry Wood's pitching coach when he got hurt). But what I liked about Rueter was that he found a way to get it done with all the little things. Let me drop some science on you. I always loved looking at the STATS Major League Handbooks and seeing where Rueter showed up on the goofy leader lists. Beginning with the 2002 season they started looking at pitch type. Let's take a gander:

2002: 2nd slowest fastball in the National League (85.1 avg). Yet threw the fourth highest percentage of fastballs among NL pitchers (70.7%).

2003: He didn't pitch enough innings to have pitch data but at the end of the season, he had the lowest career SB% against percentage of all active major league pitchers and the 8th highest GDP rate.

2004: 2nd slowest fastball again. 6th highest fastball rate.

This was at the end of his career. He's not throwing junk. He's throwing slow balls across the plate. He's about contact. Runners get on, he's getting double plays and making sure they don't steal bases.

He was about contact at the plate, too. In 740 PA, Rueter struck out just 105 times; less than 1/7 of his PA. The only guys in the post-expansion era to have had more plate appearances with such a slow K rate were Livan Hernandez, Rick Rhoden and Fernando Valenzuela - all known for their great hitting.

Rueter wasn't a great hitter. You might think, "Oh, he wasn't striking out but he was hitting into double plays". Just 9. And 86 sac hits. Just like when he was on the mound, he did every little thing right.

He fielded his position well, too. He was in the top 5 in the league in assists four times in his career. He had a better fielding percentage than his peer, eighteen time Gold Glove winner Greg Maddux.

Rueter did nothing great but every single little thing at least pretty well. His was a career that I enjoyed a lot.

#5 Mitch Williams. I have to admit, I appreciated Mitch Williams more at the beginning and end of his career than in the middle. At the start of his career, he seemed dominant. He was a hotshot rookie with the Rangers who used him in over half their games his first two seasons. He then got sent to the Cubs in a lopsided trade for Rafael Palmeiro where Williams made his only All-Star team. That was the beginning.

Then he came to Philly and I got to see him pitch a lot more as their closer and that was a level of excitement no baseball fan needs. Then there was the Joe Carter home run.

I got to see Mitch on the comeback trail pitching for the Richmond Phils (with their dandy young third baseman Scott Rolen) and I loved it. Same Mitch Williams. Throwing as hard as he could. Falling off the mound each time he did it. No idea where the ball was going. Mitch Williams pitched his own way right to the end and he was unlike any pitcher ever to take the mound.

Think I'm exaggerating? Here is a list of every pitcher in major league history to throw more than 500 innings and who walked more than seven batters per nine innings:

Mitch Williams

Or how about a list of every pitcher to throw 500 innings and walk more batters than they gave up hits to:

Mitch Williams

You have to be something special to be allowed to throw that many innings while walking that many people. Mitch Williams was special.

Plus, another memorabilia story. I went to a Cubs-Phillies game in 1990 and Williams was playing for the Cubs. Before the game I asked him for his autograph on a Bowman card which had a facsimile autograph. He looked at it and said, "Whose autograph is that? That's not mine. Let me fix that", and signed the card. Wait a minute. Let me see if I can dig up the card. Yep. here it is:

Honorable mention:
Mark Langston and Frank Tanana - I may have seen each of them pitch but I don't remember so I don't feel like I can include them. I would have loved to see Tanana pitch as an Angel when he could still bring it. It always amazed me that after a lifetime (and five years in the majors) as a power pitcher, he was able to rework himself into a finesse pitcher and threw 3000 innings as a 100 ERA+ guy the rest of his career. That's impressive.

Chuck McElroy - I started a fan club for him and his glasses in high school/college. Even sent out a newsletter for a while. But in an era of pre-internet (when you couldn't follow the minors real easily), when he threw 14 horrible innings in the majors, I hung it up to pursue other things.

Steve Avery - My oldest son is named after him. My wife and I decided that we were going to name our first son after two great left-handed pitchers (I'm a southpaw, too). She ruled out Ford Gomez. So we went with Carlton Avery. Lest you forget, Steve Avery was one of only 12 lefthanders to win 50 games in the majors by age 23 (CC Sabathia became the 13th). He looked like he could be one of the greats. Alas.

John Smiley/Denny Neagle - The appeal of baseball has changed for me over the years. From the age of 7 until the late eighties, I loved baseball for the numbers. All I cared about were baseball statistics. Then from the late eighties into the early nineties, I really grew to appreciate the game itself, the beauty and art of what was going on on the field. I still do but at some point in the nineties (probably about the time I really started developing my research library), I shifted yet again and really began to enjoy the wealth of history on the game.

When I thought of this list, these guys immediately came to mind. I loved watching them pitch. They were traded for each other. They are each on the others' list of top ten similar pitchers ( I feel like they cover all three phases of my appreciation of baseball. Not sure if it makes sense, but it does to me.

Tom Browning - We share the same birthday. I fondly remember him being a terror on the basepaths (FIVE stolen bases!!!). A perfect game. Another guy who always seemed better than he actually was.

I need to stop this post before I end up with 1,742 honorable mentions.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reviews of a couple of things I didn't finish

I wanted to review a couple of things here because even though I didn't finish them, I think they're really good and that a lot of people would enjoy them.

First is a baseball book I had never heard of until a few weeks ago. That in itself is something. I like to think I'm aware of 98%+ of books written about baseball. The book is called Baseball Hacks by Joseph Adler. I borrowed a copy because I'm developing a baseball website and this looked like it had some potential in giving me some useful tips, particularly with PERL.

The book is really two books in one. Part of the book talks about the "new-fangled" baseball statistics. The book came out in 2006 so for most of you, I would expect, you'd be like me and not get a lot of out of that portion of it. We're beyond a lot of those "new" metrics like WHIP and ERA and OPS+ .

The other part of the book involves writing code to access data from baseball websites. If you have a little bit of programming experience and would like to have a way to pull together statistics for your fantasy league from a website, for example, you can understand how to do that from this book. You can see what all is contained in the book here. It was a neat book and it would have been nicer if I had known of it five years ago. Alas.

My other review is of the audiobook version of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. I love Lolita. I think it's a brilliant book. But as you probably know, as much as I like reading to people, I really can't be read to. This audiobook, though, looked to be the best candidate to change that.

Jeremy Irons is the reader and he does an absolutely fabulous job of reading the book. He captures Humbert Humbert so well. His pacing and his timbre and his volume and his enunciation.....just perfect.

I'm always astounded by this book in that Nabokov wrote this is his second language, English, and writes better than most people do in their native tongues. Irons captures all the literary twists so well. The alliterations, the humorous little comments. Irons is downright musical in his reading. I was completely right in thinking that an audiobook could not be done better.

It didn't matter. I still couldn't enjoy listening to it. I found myself "translating" it in my head. I would hear Irons speak then turn his words into printed words in my head and then read those printed words with my mind's eye. Is that whacked? I think so. I could either enjoy Irons' reading or try to enjoy the story as it was written. I couldn't do both. Audiobooks just don't work for me.

If you do like audiobooks, though, I honestly cannot imagine anyone doing one better than this. Definitely, definitely check it out.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Inspirational and funny

Not safe for work the last minute and half because of some profanities by the MC. Don't let it keep you from watching the first 8:30.

courtesy Stellar

Fascinating guy.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

In the King's Arms by Sonia Taitz

One of my favorite places to read about reading and small presses is The Next Best Book Blog. Lori, who runs the blog, had a contest in October to give away copies of this book. A condition of winning was to take part in a book discussion on Goodreads involving the author. I entered, won, and read it.

I thought it was an absolutely horrible book. Every time I picked it up, I found myself groaning within a few paragraphs. The story is about an American girl, the daughter of Holocaust survivors (and when I noticed a new novel in our small press collection also was about a Holocaust survivor, I commented to a co-worker that there seems to be more novels about Holocaust survivors than there were Holocaust survivors), who goes to Oxford for graduate school, and I don't mean Ole Miss. She falls in love with a shallow, good-looking guy who happens to be the brother of a friend of hers. The family of the brothers are anti-Semitic, apparently for no other reason than as a plot device. The heroine gets impregnated, the lover flees, they find themselves back together for some reason. The end.

It's supposed to be a tale about love conquering all but it was just so bad. The dialogue is brutal. The heroine is fanatical about being the daughter of Holocaust survivors and the injustices done to her parents, but her Judaism seems to be important to her simply as a point of contention, just as the anti-Semitism by the boyfriend's parents lacks grounding in anything. The characters are downright insipid. They're empty husks whose sole purpose is spouting the awful dialogue.

Part of the reason I wanted to win a copy of the book was to put it in the small press collection. The publisher, McWitty, is new on the scene, having only put out five books of which this is one. They didn't help matters. The covers of the book (it's paperback), mysteriously curled. I've never had that happen to a book before. There were a couple of typos I noticed and several spots in the dialogue where it was difficult to determine whether they were typos or the character was supposed to be stammering and it just wasn't printed in a clear fashion.

Something I found strange, too, is the author wrote this book 25 years ago. In the discussion I asked why she waited so long to try and find a publisher and I also wondered whether she had made any changes when she submitted it to McWitty. The answers were she knew the publisher was the right fit for the book and no.

I really wish that someone had opted to make some changes with the book. I feel that the quality of the book, both the content and the physical manifestation of the book itself, doesn't help promote small presses.

Others have rated the book on Goodreads and given it decent marks. I'm hoping the discussion enlightens me as to some merit this book has because right now I think this beats out Time Travelers Wife for worst book I've read.

Update: Well, the Goodreads discussion ended and nothing good came out of it from the standpoint of appreciating the book. There was no actual discussion of the book and I wondered if any of the other winners read the book. One said she had not.

On the other hand, Ms. Taitz was very entertaining and engaging. She realizes that her writing isn't for everybody and is cool about that. She has a wonderful optimism about herself and her writing that I appreciated a lot.

Nice author, horrible book.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

December Fools! The real Friday Faves #4 - Favorite Christmas songs

I was just kidding yesterday. I was cracking myself up with the idea of someone just loving Little Drummer Boy and all the possible variations on it. According to Wikipedia (pardon my usage of Wikipedia), there are over 220 recorded versions of Little Drummer Boy. I honestly do like the Jars of Clay variation. That was nicely done. Justin Bieber's version was downright horrible as was The Almost. I can't believe that someone somewhere - whether it be Biebs himself, his agent, the song's producer, someone - didn't speak up and say "Biebs, this song is a really, really bad idea".

I like Johnny Cash but his version wasn't very good either. Outside of Jars of Clay, I would likely never deliberately listen to any of the ones I included yesterday. All in good fun.

Today I have my actual favorite Christmas songs. I hope you find them more enjoyable.

#1 Gabriel's Message by Sting. I first heard this as a kid and it took me forever to get a copy of it. Even now, the album that has this song, the Very Special Christmas album, released in 1987, is sold at full price whenever you find it at stores. Sort of ridiculous if you ask me. Thank goodness for the ability to buy single songs digitally now.

#2 Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy by David Bowie and Bing Crosby - I actually do like The Little Drummer Boy a lot and I really enjoy this version by two greats.

#3 O Holy Night by Johnny Mathis - This song epitomized Christmas for me, more than any other song. My folks would play it every Christmas. It's well done, it captures the spirit of Christmas, and I think Johnny Mathis is greatly underappreciated here in the 21st century.

#4 Hallelujah Chorus by the Opera Company of Philadelphia et al - There's a lot better renditions than this one and I really don't like it being done with a pipe organ normally (I think singing Christmas songs in church is too stuffy and I associate pipe organs with singing in church), but this was just an awesome effort organized as part of the Knight Foundation's Random Acts of Culture. I would have loved to have caught it live instead of just hearing about it.

#5 Carol of the Bells by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir - It was tempting to make this song an honorable mention for two reasons. One, it's really hard to find a good rendition of it. It's too easy for the lyrics of this song to get muddled because of instrumentation and choir size (as well as overestimating your middle school choir's ability). Two, it's a really short song. I love it, though, and I do like this particular recorded version as opposed to others by the MTC. I think a lot of their live versions have that muddling. The instrumentation here is nice and the lyrics stay somewhat crisp.

Honorable mention:
This Christmas by Yutaka - The first Christmas album I bought as an "adult" was A GRP Christmas Collection. I immediately liked this song as a then-modern song that captured the holiday season unlike, say, songs like Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. It was refreshing to hear something other than the Christmas classics that still epitomized the Christmas spirit a bit.

Happy Holidays by Andy Williams - You have no idea how many Christmas songs were disqualified from consideration on this list because I played the bejeezus out of them as a saxamaphonist. Especially in high school where I had rehearsal every day, it got really tiring playing the same song over and over and over and over in preparation for concerts.

One song, this song, was an exception. I played this as part of the University of Pittsburgh's Marching Band. We only rehearsed it for a week or two since we only performed it for the last football game of the season. Even that was miserable, though. We practiced at night and night time in a football stadium in Pittsburgh in November is never a fun time.

What made things worse, though, was that the assistant band director, Dave Moi, got to "produce" this song, the only song he got to do over the course of the season. He took it WAAAAAAY too seriously and pretty much angered all of us. We'd do the regular show in the freezing cold, be ready to go back home, to the dorms, or really anywhere, and then Dave would get to take the reins and grind us into the ground for what seemed like another seventeen hours.

During the song, parts of the band were to stop playing and actually start singing "Happy holidays" with another part of the band responding like Andy Williams does with his chorus in this recording. After a few rehearsals, the response to "Happy holidays" was "Dave Moi's an ass". Even now when I hear this in a store or something, I'll respond to Andy Williams with "Dave Moi's an ass". Totally in the Christmas spirit.

Last Month of the Year by The Kingston Trio - The particular recording I have below is poorly done but it's the only one I can find. My folks wore out this record at Christmas time and I really didn't care for the Kingston Trio except for this song.

Having put together this list, I'm not entirely sure it's better than a whole lot of versions of Little Drummer Boy but when Christmas comes around, these are the songs I think of and want to hear.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday Faves #4 - Favorite Christmas songs

It used to be that after Thanksgiving, one or two radio stations would go to an all-Christmas format, playing Christmas songs and Adam Sandler's Hanukkah Song, until December 26th when they returned to ordinary programming. Now it seems that only one or two radio stations keep their traditional programming. So having been inundated by Christmas songs whenever I'm in my car, I thought it would be a good Friday Fave to list my five favorite Christmas songs.

#1 Little Drummer Boy by Jars of Clay. Is there a better Christmas song than Little Drummer Boy? I like the instrumentation and vocals on this version.

#2 Little Drummer Boy by Johnny Cash. Is there a better Christmas song than Little Drummer Boy? Who better to sing it than the Man in Black?

#3 Little Drummer Boy by Justin Bieber and Busta Rhymes. Is there a better Christmas song than Little Drummer Boy? When you take the greatest musical artist of the 21st century, AutoTune him, and add a legendary rapper, you have something that completely omits the religion from Christmas and turns it into crass commercialization. I love how Biebs brings the sexy on this one.

#4 Little Drummer Boy by The Almost. Is there a better Christmas song than Little Drummer Boy? It's even a good song when you have someone who isn't trying to hit the right notes.

#5 Little Drummer Boy by The Toasters. Is there a better Christmas song than Little Drummer Boy? I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Yeah, those are some good versions, but I like something I can listen to when I'm enjoying some greenery, and I don't mean my Christmas tree". This version is for you.

Honorable mention:
Little Drummer Boy by Hoodoo Gurus. This makes me think of the Brady Bunch tiki episode guest starring Vincent Price which makes me sad because Christmas isn't Christmas without Vincent Price. Otherwise this would make the top 5.

Little Drummer Boy by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Like I need to explain this one.

Little Drummer Boy by Marlene Dietrich. It isn't Christmas without at least one song in German and what better song than Little Drummer Boy?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Fantastic Women by Rob Spillman

Fantastic Women is a collection of short stories edited by Rob Spillman and published by Tin House Press. There are eighteen stories, each written by a different female author and each being quite odd.

I've mentioned recently how the short story has been growing on me and how I've been learning to appreciate them more. This book was a mixed bag for me. Some of the stories were done very well. Some I thought did not make use of the short story mode adequately, being too abrupt. Some of the stories I just didn't like.

The stories are presented in alphabetical order by author and the first one was the one I enjoyed most. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was by Aimee Bender, my second favorite female author. Her story, all of six pages long and titled Americca, involves a ghost who leaves gifts for the narrator's family.

Then came four stories I didn't like, followed by a bizarre "story" by Lydia Davis called Five Fictions from the Middle of the Night which seem to be ideas for stories. Each is one or two paragraphs in length. By this time I was starting to weary of the book but then Rikki Ducornet, author of Netsuke, revived my interest with a dandy of a story called The Dickmare. It is also very short (six pages) and was about the relationship of a couple of oysters.

After a couple of odd, well-written stories that I didn't particularly like, Miranda July put forth an awful one. I have never understood Miranda July's appeal. I don't get her as an actress. I don't get her as a filmmaker. I don't get her as an artist. I don't get her as a writer. I didn't get her story Oranges. I don't understand why people are gushing about her new project, It Chooses You other than it's Miranda July. Ooh, ah, ooh. If Sean Hagins or Jenny Hohensee did this, no one would care. If I ranked all eighteen stories in this book, July's would be 18th, even behind Davis' lame effort.

The last half of the book is strong. Kelly Link writes the longest of the stories, Light, which is a strange sci-fi feeling piece. I will definitely look for more by her to read. Plus, she and her husband operate Small Beer Press, a well-regarded indy publishing house.

Three other writers in the latter half of the book - Lydia Millet, Gina Oschner and Karen Russell - also wrote stories so good and so well done that I'll be looking for more to read by them. Millet had a collection of short stories that was a finalist for the Pulitzer. Karen Russell has written two novels that have received a lot of attention. A former volunteer at the library had read both and thought they were mediocre and so I held off on them. No longer.

I liked this book as a sampler of authors. I found some unfamiliar names that I'd like to explore further. I reaffirmed my likings and of Ms. Bender and Ms. Ducornet and my dislike of Ms. July. And I read some folks I'll probably never read again. All in all a solid book and one I'd recommend, despite it's unevenness.