Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

This book had a lot of promise. A youth librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself attached to a precocious ten-year old patron. The kid "kidnaps" the librarian and they travel across the country finding adventure along the way.

Add in the fact that the librarian has a bit of bite to her wit, and I found myself really enjoying the beginning of the book. Then it went downhill.

The kid's parents are nutjobs. They (and apparently other people) think that the kid, Ian, is homosexual and they have been sending him to religious classes to "cure" him. The mother is very strict and is very particular in what she lets Ian read. The librarian, Lucy, sneaks Ian some of these "bad" books like Roald Dahl or books with wizards.

One night Ian hides out in the library and when Lucy comes in the next morning she finds him and agrees to take Ian to his grandmother's house. Only Ian is sort of fabricating the destination and they end up leaving Hannibal, then Missouri, then Chicago, then Pittsburgh, and ultimately find themselves in New England. The longer they are away, the more terrified Lucy gets at being caught and accused of kidnapping and the more difficult it is to extricate herself from the situation.

Along the way, though, she finds out a bit about herself. When Ian does finally return home, Lucy does not join him and she moves and pursues another career.

The book had some potential to be an uplifting story but it got a little too outlandish for my liking. Lucy's parents are from Russia and apparently still have some ex-mob connections. The whole kidnapping thing is a bit preposterous. I think the most annoying thing, though, was the attempts to cure Ian's homosexuality and how everyone seemed to think Ian was gay. Really? At age 10 the entire world can identify a child's sexual preference? Was it the subscription to Playgirl or his preference for show tunes and fashion design? Sadly, there wasn't anything so stereotypical to suggest why EVERYONE thought Ian liked guys. It just was a noticeable fact about Ian and that bothered me. I also thought Lucy, despite starting off as a strong figure, really is rather weak as the story develops.

This once again was a between ratings book and I'm siding with the lower rating again. Outlandish and disappointing despite a promising main character and it being a generally feel good story.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cooking for Gracie by Keith Dixon

I reviewed Dixon's novel, the Art of Losing, a year ago. Dixon came across my review and left a nice comment so I figured I'd read his newest book, Cooking for Gracie, when it came out.

I got around to it and I enjoyed it. Unlike Art of Losing, this is a memoir and not a novel. Dixon enjoys cooking. He and his wife have their first child, Gracie, who is born four weeks premature. Dixon finds that his life is turned all topsy-turvy and he has to make adjustments from his pre-kid life (go figure).

I have to admit I was skeptical about liking this. As any parent can tell you, life changes dramatically when you add kids to the mix. I thought to myself, "Gee, Keith. Really? You don't have time and energy to do something you enjoy anymore because you have a kid? Welcome to the club". It had the potential to get worse. Dixon goes on to detail the first year of the life of his child and the changes he and his wife have to make.

If there's one thing I really can't stand, it's new parents. I may have been the same irritating way but I really hate the "Look what Junior is doing!" accolades and the "discovery" of parenting techniques practiced by gazillions of parents before them. Your kid isn't special and you aren't reinventing parenting. It's all been done before for thousands of years. So I really had my doubts. I figured in the end I'd be reading some good writing but rolling my eyes at the story itself.

I was wrong. Dixon didn't go too overboard. And Gracie is special in a way. There was some sort of genetic disorder involved that is pretty much fatal to the kid before it's born 99.9999% of the time. So Keith and his wife were fortunate.

And while I'm complaining about all these things I thought the book might be, it really wasn't. It's a strange book in that it is part cookbook. Almost every chapter, each which roughly covers a month of Gracie's life, ends with recipes that Dixon fixed for one reason or another. When Gracie initially had troubles after birth with eating, Dixon made some changes hoping to influence his wife's nutrition and in turn, Gracie's. When Gracie wasn't finding a sleep pattern, other changes were made and other things were cooked. As Gracie became more attached to Dixon's wife than to him, Dixon adjusted his attitudes. When Gracie got teeth, yet more changes.

So despite not being entirely positive about this book (I really doubt I would have even wanted to read it if not for Dixon's comment), I found myself enjoying it a lot. I fixed a couple of the recipes and enjoyed them. It would have been nice as a two-book set, one the memoir and the other the cookbook. If I had bought a copy instead of borrowing a library copy, I'd have a tough time figuring out where to house the book; the kitchen or the bookshelf.

Although it took me a long time to find something worthwhile, it was nice finally reading something this year that was a good story (with good writing to boot).

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

Yet another book trapped between ratings. The Leftovers was a captivating read. I knocked it out quickly because I didn't want to put it down.

The story takes place in a town where a rapture-like even has taken place. One afternoon, people all across the world just vanished. One moment they are there, the next they aren't. No explanations. No traces of evidence. Just gone.

The people who remain are left trying to determine the reasons why this happened and why some people were gone and others were not. There seems to be no rhyme or reason and naturally, religion is called into question. A local minister is furious that he was not "called" to be one of the vanished. One woman's entire family disappears. Husband, kids, but not her.

Cults form. There's the Guilty Remnant (who have a great website), a group that has taken a vow of silence and walks around witnessing sin. There's also a fellow who has discovered he can absorb people's emotional pain and has started the Healing Hug movement where people can come to him to have their pain removed.

The book focuses primarily on the mayor's family. The mayor's wife joins the G.R. and his son leaves college to run off to assist Mr. Healing Hug (he has a name, I just forget it) leaving the mayor alone to raise his teenaged daughter.

Time passes quickly in this book. The daughter sort of loses her own way, hanging out with the wrong crowd. Mr. Healing Hug impregnates a member of his legally underaged harem with the "chosen child" but when Mr. Healing Hug is put in jail, the mayor's son is left to care for the girl and then the child (who turns out to be a female and not the anointed male he is supposed to be). The G.R. has their own secret agenda. The mayor falls for the woman whose family vanished.

The book ends all tidied up. It has a happy, albeit forced, ending. Sort of. And while there's no real casting of stones, the book does seem to be a cynical commentary on organized religion.

Perrotta's style is captivating. Although the story seems to be about how people cope (which I don't particularly find fascinating) and the characters didn't interest me much, I couldn't put it down. I'm giving it one star for the writing even though the story itself didn't quite merit it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Baseball Book Club #2 - Satch, Dizzy and Rapid Robert

For the next baseball book club book, we're going to go with Timothy Gay's Satch, Dizzy and Rapid Robert. Please leave a comment if you think you're going to read it. Probably shoot for an early April discussion.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery

I really enjoyed Muriel Barbery's book The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It started slow but thanks to a precocious kid as a main character, it ended up being a real pleasure to read. So when I saw Gourmet Rhapsody took place in the same building that Elegance was set in, I was really excited about the possibility of an entertaining sequel.

The book is about a food critic living in the building who is on his deathbed. The chapters alternate between him and (mostly) people he knows. In his chapters, he recalls meals he has had as he searches for something he craves but cannot quite place. In the other chapters, we find out more about what a jackass he is. That's assuming that you can't figure it out from the fact that the guy is on his deathbed and only cares about finding something to eat. The hell with the actual people in his life who care about him.

It turns out that he has pretty much always been that way. People don't matter to him. Food does. When the book concludes, he seems to have come to a bit of a realization about himself but by that point, I didn't really care.

I also didn't care for the style of the book. Despite every other chapter being told from the point of view of someone else in his life, they don't sound different at all. Everyone, male or female, young or old, has the same vocabulary and tone. Nitpicking?

When the guy's cat says, "I would instantly jump up onto my velvet paws and make a beeline for the hall and there, on the somewhat ochre kilim, between the coat rack and the marble console, I would wait obediently", you have to wonder. Most cats I know say things like "Meow". Most people I know don't know what the word kilim means (and Blogger thinks it is spelled wrong) and I'm to believe that this learned cat knows? Why isn't the cat performing heart surgery and saving his master for crying out loud?

All in all, I didn't like it. There were no character crossovers from Elegance of which I was aware which sort of made the whole point of keeping the setting the same a tad silly. No likable characters. A lack of discernible voices. Blah.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford

This was the other book mentioned in the article in The Millions that I cited in my review of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. Crawford is an interesting fellow for a variety of reasons and I think I would have liked to have read more about his life than about his philosophies.

Crawford joined a commune at age nine and rather than go to school, he moved around to various abandoned hotels with the folks of the commune. Because he was small compared to the adults, he was recruited for fix-it projects where his diminutive size was an advantage, such as electrical wiring. He could squeeze into crawl spaces and such.

This was his first exposure to manual labor and despite going on and earning a doctorate in philosophy and working for a Washington, D.C. think tank, he missed working with his hands and left the think tank to start his own motorcycle repair shop.

Crawford waxes poetic on the pleasures of working with one's hands and feels that our move to an information society has caused there to be less of an appreciation of "blue-collar" labor. Shop classes have vanished in schools. He questions how we have pushed people to become educated to take "white-collar" jobs which often require little to no thought or creative energy to do the work. This was one of the reasons I moved out of statistics. People thought that since they had the software, they could push a button and get results, ignoring the actual skill involved in interpreting and understanding which I, as a statistician, brought. But that's neither here not there. I think Crawford is right that more and more work is done automatically and that the human element has been removed.

Crawford has claimed that the arguments he makes in the book are "nested" but it seemed more repetitive to me than anything. He does tend to philosophize too much and sometimes the book seems to be more of a defense of his choices than an actual demonstration that there is a problem with societal trends. Because of this, I struggled yet again in determining where in my rating system this book belonged. I'm going to go with zero starts but I could certainly be convinced otherwise. I think Crawford's tone could rub people the wrong way and it's one of those books that isn't something to just pick up and read. I think you have to want to read about the subject matter. If you do, though, I think it's pretty good. He has some good ideas.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Wrapping up Catcher Was A Spy and the next baseball book club choice

If there's anyone else who wants to chime in with their thoughts on Catcher Was A Spy, please do so. Otherwise, I'm going to bring this one to an end and see if anyone is interested in another book. I think we had more readers than commentators judging from the post traffic.

I liked Mark's idea of doing Satch, Dizzy and Rapid Robert by Timothy Gay. I know Gay from SABR and he does nice work both researching and writing. He has also done a biography on Tris Speaker. I also think this would be a good choice in that we have some interesting characters in Satchel Paige, Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller. Lastly, I used this book to do research while I was at the Hall related to a question on Paige's barnstorming so I have a soft spot for it.

Other suggestions are welcomed as well but unless we get a couple "No way, forget it" comments, I'd like to make this the next book. You in?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What makes a good book - A response to Jason

In the previous post, Jason asked me "Can you have a good book without an interesting subject?". I think it's a good question and worth a post. In addition, he had wondered more about the scholastic essay competition I had mentioned in a previous post.

My first thought in regard to this question is, "Who am I to judge?". I'm just an avid reader. For all my degrees and attempted degrees, never have I pursued English or journalism as a field of study. I've done a lot of proofreading, reading, editing and writing in my lifetime but I've never been educated in a related field (except library science which is more than books). I mention this because I believe writing is an art form. No matter how hard you try, you're not going to please everyone.

For example, one of the most popular writers on the planet, James Patterson, is a writer whose prose I find completely insipid, whose stories do not grab me, and who I believe is the hallmark of the downfall of our society (OK, I'm exaggerating a little bit). Yet he's one of the most popular writers on the planet. There's books for kids, adults, non-fiction, fiction. I have my doubts about the actual writing that a man named James Patterson does but the Patterson brand appeals to a lot of people. So is he good or not? It's up to you to make that call.

For me, there are many ways for a book to be good. When people ask me about writers I like, I often make sure I separate between who I think is a good writer versus who is a good storyteller. Jeanette Winterson, for instance. Amazing writer. Her stories I often find blah, though. It's like going into an art museum an seeing a beautiful painting of a parking garage. You can appreciate the talent but you sure wish they would have gone with a better subject.

On the other hand, you have great storytellers who may not be great writers. Jay McInerney comes to mind there. His prose is nothing special. It's good, don't get me wrong, but I've never come away from a McInerney book thinking, "Wow, that guy has a great command of the English language". Peter Cameron is another guy like that for me.

Then you have that rare breed who can do both. T.C. Boyle. Michael Chabon. Even though I think of both of them as more talented writers than storytellers (I'm pretty sure I could read a book about a sofa written by either of these guys and think it was good) they usually combine both real well.

This then gets me asking myself, "Why do I read what I do"? You're not going to find Animals of the Third Reich on a bestseller list. You won't find much of what I read on bestseller lists. Part of that is a professional choice. Working in a library, I know people are going to read the popular stuff. I'm going to here about it. I'm going to read reviews about it. It's not pressing for me to grab something everyone else is reading. There are certainly exceptions but for the most part, my feeling is there are a gazillion books out there, I should try and be selective as to what I read (along those lines, there is nothing that makes me want to throttle a library patron more than the person who comes in and complains that there is nothing to read). Take a chance.

I think really that's what prompts my reading selections. Taking chances. I started reading at an ungodly early age. Then I kept getting pushed by my teachers and librarians. When I was in kindergarten, I was pressed to sign out books in the non-fiction section and move away from Babar (it took me some getting used to that. All my classmates were being read to and I was off browsing the dinosaurs). In the early grades, the librarian sent me to the older grade section (where I got to read about cryptography). I think never being where I was "supposed to be" helped lead me to being a varied reader.

I like fiction and non. I tend to favor male writers. As of late, I've turned towards books published by small presses. I tend to read smaller books (less than 300 pages) because then I can read more books. I don't always read books by my favorite authors. If you look back over my reading lists, you'll see I rarely, if ever, read an author more than twice a year. There's still a ton of Boyle books I have yet to read, for instance. I like books that challenge me. Challenge my vocabulary (Chabon), challenge my ways of thinking, challenge my knowledge base. I knew nothing about animals in the Third Reich. Now I do. Does it have any "use"? Doubtfully. But it was something I knew nothing about and wanted to learn at least a little so I read it. Was it a good book? I gave it zero stars. I thought it was dry. It didn't meet my expectations. But I learned something and I'm not sure there's a whole lot more on the subject that has been written. So to an extent, yes, I think it was a good book.

But really, I don't know. I don't like ranking and rating books because it is hard to compare. I do it anyway, but I don't really like it. For instance, take my "top three" books from last year; Running the Books, Eleven and Ghosted. What made them good? What made one better than the other? I found Running the Books to be well-written, informative, inspirational. It was a unique story told from a unique point of view. It resonated with me. I liked Eleven a lot, too. It was a great story, one of the best I've read in a while. Wonderful characters. Watson isn't a great writer but he told his story in a very capable and appropriate manner. If Chabon writes that book, it isn't as good. It gets dragged down in descriptions and vocabulary. It's still probably a really great book but it's not Mark Watson's book anymore. And Mark Watson wrote his book really well. As for Ghosted, well, there's not a book like that anywhere. That book doesn't get published by a big press because it's too out there, it's too disturbing, it's too long and rambling. It's not a book a lot of people are going to "get". For those who do, though, whoa! It's because of books like that that I am grateful for small presses who will take a chance and realize that just because a book doesn't have mass appeal, it will certainly have some appeal.

So to answer Jason's question in one word, "Yes". I think a book can be good for a variety of reasons.

And I'll talk about the writing competition since this post is already absurdly long and since it is related because I had to judge writing. The competition is a nationwide scholastic one with a variety of ways kids can enter (journalism, short stories, poetry, etc.). Kids are judged regionally by people with literary backgrounds (mostly, if not exclusively, teachers and librarians). The top ranked kids (in my area, about the top 40%), get prizes with the top echelon (just shy of ten percent I believe) having their entries moved on to, I believe, a statewide competition then from there, nationally.

Judges were asked to rank the areas they wanted to judge in priority order. I think I got my two preferred choices; high school journalism and older age (11th and 12th grade) short stories. We were to read a number of works (I did 15 journalism and 30 short stories) and judge them on originality, voice, and to a lesser extent, technical skill. Each piece was to be scored out of 30 points and we were provided a rubric which was a horrible guide and of very little help.

So as a judge, how did I decide what was good, especially given that I was to discount technical skill, an ability I value highly as a reader? First I looked at originality. Was there anything special about what the kid wrote, from either a topic or perspective viewpoint? There were a few that made me say, Hmmmm....interesting". They got good scores on originality. Some were completely dull. Some made no sense and made me wonder why they even bothered.

Then I looked at voice. This was tricky as we were to look for "emergence of their own voice". What I looked for was an attempt to escape straight fact-telling, fiction or not. Jim woke up, he went to school. Aliens attacked the school. Jim found the secret self-destruct button on the spacecraft and saved the school. If you told me about Jim and the school and the alien and gave me detail and did it in a way that seemed like you weren't trying to be someone else, then I gave you good points.

But then it was tricky again because I think it takes technical skill to be original and demonstrate a voice. If you're spelling things wrong and using improper punctuation, I'm going to find your story more difficult to read. How can I tell what your voice is if your sentences aren't coherent?

I tried to compare the works to one another and not T.C. Boyle. I wanted to be fair. Even still, there were some really brutal works, especially, as I mentioned before, this was an optional contest. Kids who entered either enjoy and/or think they are good at writing. Some certainly need a lot of work.

No worries, though. Each work was judged by multiple judges so individual judge quirks should have been eliminated.

Whew! This was a crazy long post. Hope y'all enjoyed this little insight into what I look for in a good book.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Baseball book club continued

I know there's more people reading. So how about some responses? We've had comments on Berg that have turned into comments on the book. What are your thoughts on the book? I agree with the comment that it was well-researched, to an extent. I'm always dubious about books that rely primarily on interviews and in this case, the primary individuals who would have been nice to interview - the Berg family - were unable to be interviewed without an Ouija board. Dawidoff did manage to track down a wide range of interviews which I found impressive.

I can't say I enjoyed reading the book. There was so much of the mundane. Berg traveled here and met with this person and ate here. He put his fingers to his lips and said shhh. He visited with this person. He traveled here. And I've already made mention of my skepticism of Berg as a decent book topic. So I didn't like it, even discounting for the fact that I don't think there are many well-written baseball books.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Catcher Was A Spy Book Club Discussion Begins

All right, let's start talking about it. What were your thoughts about Moe Berg the person, the ballplayer, the spy as Dawidoff portrayed him?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink

In a way, this is the book that I hoped Buyology would be. Wansink is a food researcher and has conducted a wealth of studies to explore what causes people to eat more than they should.

What doesn't? From plate size, to fancy menu listings to who we eat with to the speed at which we eat, it seems like everyone and everything is conspiring to make us eat more.

Because there are so many ways that we are influenced, Wansink proposes, for those trying to lose weight, to focus on one or two ways and make gradual changes.

The reason why I compare this book to Buyology is that like that book, Mindless Eating explores how external factors influence our decisions, usually unbeknownst to us. Whereas in Buyology, Lindstrom spends as much time touting how great he and his work are, Wansink actually appears like the researcher he is and lets the research speak for itself. Wansink also has had his results published in journals, lending much more credence to their legitimacy compared to the work Lindstrom has done.

Wansink is a far more entertaining writer than Lindstrom. For being in academia, his writing is very light and easy to read. Almost too much so given the wealth of information he imparts. I'm writing this review several weeks after I read the book and find that I don't remember as much of it as I would hope. Not good to go mindless when dealing with mindless eating.

It may have been, too, that I was frustrated with how cool of a job Wansink has and why, as a kid, you never hear about things like professional food researcher as possible things to grow up and be. Getting to come up with studies to figure out why people eat a lot? That actually sounds like fun to me. I don't actually think my frustration influenced my enjoyment of the book but what do I know?

Make sure you check out his website. It's pretty good and covers a lot of the material in the book.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Just one fewer ground ball with eyes....

"That means if you get just one extra flare a week - just one - a gorp... you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes... you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week... and you're in Yankee Stadium."  -- Crash Davis in the movie Bull Durham talking about the difference between hitting .250 and .300.

My goofy mind got rolling on some thoughts. Here's the ride it took for your edification. Last week Thorzul wrote a post that referenced an episode of Parks and Recreation. In that episode there was a baseball card shown that, it turns out, was manufactured by the show but made from a Walt Terrell card (pictured in that link).

On that card, it says that Terrell threw his first major league one-hitter in 1986. My reaction to that was "First?!?!?! Walt Terrell threw multiple one-hitters?" I was right to react in that fashion because that one-hitter was Terrell's one and only. I guess Topps was feeling optimistic about Walt's career.

Just as when most people think of no-hitters and immediately think of Nolan Ryan or perhaps Sandy Koufax, when I think of one-hitters, I think of Dave Stieb. Rightfully so, as Stieb threw five one-hitters in his career.

THAT got me thinking, what if Dave Stieb had got just one fewer extra flare in those games, just one? One fewer groundball with eyes, one fewer dying quail. What if Dave Stieb, instead of throwing five one-hitters, had instead thrown five no-hitters? I think he's in the Hall of Fame.

And that got me looking at one-hitters (for clarification, I'm talking complete game no-hitters). Who do you think has more career one-hitters, Steve Trachsel or Roger Clemens? Steve Trachsel or Greg Maddux? Steve Trachsel or Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux combined? The answers are Trachsel, Trachsel, and it's a tie (3).

Bert Blyleven had five one-hitters. Think his HOF candidacy is as protracted and full of argument if those are no-hitters?

Nolan Ryan had 12 one-hitters which may be as amazing as his seven no-hitters. Except for the fact that Bob Feller also had 12 one-hitters (say, wouldn't a Baseball Book Club involving a book about Bob Feller be a good idea (hint, hint)?).

Charlie Hough is the only player from 1919 on to have lost two one-hitters in his career, the only two he threw (and somehow he gave up two runs in both games).

Eight pitchers have thrown one-hitters and lost where their one hit was a home run. None of those were walkoffs which would have been downright torture for those pitchers. One pitch and you lost the no-hitter, the shutout and the game. It's still bad to have your one hit be a game deciding homer but if it's in the third inning, I don't think it's as painful as the bottom of the ninth.

But then maybe a one-hitter isn't that big a deal. I mean if Steve Trachsel threw three, how hard can it be?

Don Drysdale never threw one. Nor did Jim Bunning or Catfish Hunter. Andy Pettitte? Zero. The Forsch brothers and the Reuschel brothers never threw one (though both Niekro brothers did). Dwight Gooden never threw a one-hitter. Lots and lots of pitchers never threw one. Yes, it's not as rare as a no-hitter but it's still quite an accomplishment.

I don't really have a point to all this. Just thought I'd put down one of my random explorations. But anytime you get to mention Dave Stieb and Steve Trachsel, I think it's a good thing.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Animals of the Third Reich by Boris Sax

This was one of the books that I tracked down after reading Blood Horses. I thought it seemed an interesting topic. For all that one learns about the Nazis and World War II, there isn't much mention ever made of what went on with animals. Pets, wildlife, food - animals were greatly affected by World War II. I thought this book might shed some light on that aspect of the war.

Not really. The book is divided into four parts. The first deals with national socialism and how it came about in Germany with a little bit about animal symbolism. The second part goes even more into symbolism, discussing the Nazi viewpoints towards six different animals (ape, lamb, pig, wolf, dog and horse). The third part explores the treatment of animals, in part with the use of animals for research purposes. The final section looks at death and sacrifice, both of humans and animals.

The book can be summed up pretty easily. The Nazis were full of contrasts and oxymoronic behavior. How can a group pass laws protecting animals while slaughtering people? In the sections on symbolism, it was clear that there were conflicting opinions on whether a given animal was viewed positively or negatively (for example, a dog could be viewed positively as a predator but also used in a derogatory sense (that Jew dog)).

Sax doesn't help matters much. I thought his style was very academic and boring. At times it read like a Powerpoint presentation. I nodded off several times over the course of my reading. And I often like academic tomes. Sax often would throw in little tidbits here and there which felt like he was stuffing them in because he found them and they seemed interesting, even if it didn't really further his point at all. He did this a lot by citing fictional works (oh, well this German short story mentioned it, so it must have been a pretty common happenstance. Uh, no).

It's a different book and I might have learned something (especially through my subconscious as I dozed off). It's not unique and interesting enough for me to recommend, though, and the tone will likely turn a lot of people off.

Oh, and I didn't even start the second book that Blood Horses inspired me to get. The book, Cavalry, didn't appeal to me very much. It was published in the 1970's and was chock full of pictures, reminding me of the kind of book you used in fourth grade to write book reports. Like I said, a rough month for reading.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X

All right. Time to catch up on some book reviews. this was the second book I read in January and one I had wanted to read after reading this review in The Millions last year (and I will be reviewing the other book in the review shortly as well). The author, maintaining his anonymity by using the pseudonym Professor X, is an adjunct English instructor at both a private college and a community college. He writes about the sorry condition of colleges today, the symptoms, and some of the causes.

Over the years Professor X has found that a good number of students attending college really don't have the skills to be there. Especially in the community college setting, where many of the students are older than normal college age and are attending solely to improve their job standings, he sees students that have no idea how to write coherently and/or do research.

Professor X cites the pressure to sustain the myth that everyone should attend college as the primary problem. Colleges, of course, aren't going to fight that perception since more students means more income. So more and more students are admitted without having the necessary skill set to succeed.

Sadly no one, according to Professor X, really cares if the students do succeed. Especially for part-time students, failure means having to take the class again which again means more profit for the school. Professor X spends a good amount of time talking about his struggles with grading and failing students. He rarely encounters work that merits an A and has no problem failing students. He doesn't believe (rightly so, in my opinion) in promoting mediocrity but still realizes that his students are people with dreams and who may be trying hard but lack the ability to succeed.

Interestingly, while I was reading this, I was also serving as a judge for a scholastic writing competition where I judged high school students' entries in short stories and journalism. While I was aghast at Professor X's assertions about the caliber of work in colleges, I witnessed some of the same myself. This was a writing competition. The kids who entered this are those who either enjoy or think they are good at writing. The writing should have been a decent caliber just due to self-selection. Yet I would say only 40% of the journalism entries and probably less than 15% of the short stories were what I would call better than average writing. Worse, we were encouraged to not hold students to a high standard in technical competence, focusing instead on originality and voice. In other words, promote mediocrity as long as it entertains.

I'm no F. Scott Fitzhemingway. I'm casting stones, but I am not without sin. But I am not Professor X, either. I am not on the front lines, with the capability of making things better by providing instruction to these students. Professor X argues that he does not have the time over the course of the semester to provide the level of instruction to get the students to be mediocre. He also feels that it is too late by the time students reach college. They need to have better instruction before they even get to college.

I have to agree and this is where I feel our government does a disservice by cutting funding to schools and libraries. I also feel that society as a whole is promoting bad habits as more and more people turn to texting, Tweeting and using Wikipedia as their sole source of research. Rly? U thnk this mite b prt of prob?

Returning to the actual book review, Professor X also cites the use of adjunct instructors as part of the problem. Adjuncts are paid by the class. They cannot earn tenure. They're part-time workers. Most don't have offices or office hours. They are to professors what most of the students X cites are to, well, college students. They use the same buildings, they teach and study the same subjects, but they're not the same at all.

This was a tough month for me with reading. A lot of the books I read, including this one, weren't clearly in one of my rating zones. The book had a lot of merit. But Professor X plays the martyr a lot, writing a lot about his own life and how he turned to teaching because he overreached when he and his wife were pursuing the American Dream and buying a house and then needed more money. As I said he doesn't feel like he can make much of a difference which I found frustrating. And for being an English professor, I didn't think he was that good of a writer himself. So because of that I rated it zero stars despite subject matter I found interesting.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Better than a Rudy May-Vida Blue duel

Pitching, speed, defense. That's what I love about baseball, maybe in that order. Deadball baseball, the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, the 1896 Baltimore Orioles. Those are my kind of teams.

I think my ideal game would be a ten inning pitchers' duel (have to have a bonus inning) with no score through the first 9 and a half innings. Lots of strikeouts and great defensive plays. In the bottom of the tenth, with two out, the home pitcher comes to the plate and laces a ball down the line, hoofing it into third for a triple. Then, surprising everyone, the pitcher breaks for home and steals victory for himself.

That would never happen for a number of reasons. Pitchers don't work ten innings anymore, they aren't allowed to bat in late inning, close game situations and they certainly aren't allowed to steal home, especially with two outs. So unless Kevin Costner comes to see me while filming Field of Dreams II: The Astrodome, I'll never witness my ideal game.

And I never saw the game below either. It might be a few too many innings for my liking, but you won't come across a pitchers' duel like this ever again.

The game I reference in the post title is this one. May and Blue hold the record for most strikeouts by two starting pitchers in a game (30) and the combined 43 strikeouts in a game by both teams is the major league record. A mere seventeen shy of the total in this game.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

I figured Jay Bell was better than Babe Ruth in this case

I've been researching an early minor league and it makes me laugh to see the number of games where a player has hit a home run AND had a sacrifice hit in the same game. Granted, the league I'm researching played during the Deadball Era but I think to myself, "What sort of manager asks a guy with home run power to bunt. This isn't Mr. Baseball".

So I took a look. I figured this must be an antiquated practice. Turns out I'm wrong. 40 times last season a player had a home run and a sac bunt in the same game. Some of those who did it were good hitting pitchers - Cliff Lee, Dontrelle Willis, Kevin Millwood. That makes sense. They're guys mostly asked to bunt but have the potential to hit a home run if they don't have to bunt.

Some of the other names, though, surprised me. Howie Kendrick did it twice, for instance. Almost all of the players to accomplish the feat batted 1st, 8th or 9th. Kendrick batted second in one game and third in the other. It surprised me, too, that more American League players did it (22) than National (18).

Then I looked some more. Brandon Phillips is the last cleanup hitter to accomplish the feat, back in 2009. Dave Kingman, who had only 16 sac hits in his career, twice hit a homer and had a sac bunt out of the cleanup spot.

By this time I was wondering who the career leader was. I figured Jay Bell must be since he's the only player in history to have 30 home runs in a season and 30 sacrifice hits in another season. I was wrong. Bell is tied for fifth with 14 games. The all-time leader in games with both a home run and a sacrifice bunt is Babe Ruth. 28 games Ruth gave up an out to advance a batter, twice the number of Bell. And in case you're interested, Lou Gehrig is right behind Bell with 13. Who knew that Murderer's Row liked to give themselves up to move the runner up?

Looking at the numbers, it becomes clear that Jay Bell should be in the Hall of Fame. Check out the top dozen on this list:

Ruth (Hall of Famer) 28
Rogers Hornsby (Hall of Famer) 18
Ken Williams (the former Brown, not the White Sox GM) 17
Jim Bottomley (Hall of Famer) 16
Al Simmons (Hall of Famer) 14
Harry Heilmann (Hall of Famer) 14
George Grantham 14
Bill Terry (Hall of Famer) 13
Chuck Klein (Hall of Famer) 13
Lou Gehrig (Hall of Famer) 13
Roberto Alomar (Hall of Famer) 13

Nine of the top 12 are in the Hall. Seems like a no brainer to me. Jay Bell should have a plaque in Cooperstown.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Baseball Book Club - Discussion starts Feb 8th

Since it seems like there are a number of people still reading (myself included), we'll hold off on discussion until next Wednesday.

I'm going to try and get some more posts done. I have two baseball related ones lined up and then I need to get back to book reviews (somehow I read seven books in January despite feeling I had no time to read. The Catcher Was A Spy is not one of them which should give an indication of my feelings about it).