Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Pitch That Killed - The discussion continues

Carl Mays - sympathetic figure or bad guy?

Well, I think the Carl Mays part is an interesting question. Did he try to make him look bad? I'd argue no - I think that Carl Mays was a jerk. Sure, part of it was the Boston media which still crucifies players and managers today, but because this book was so well researched and contained so many quotes and anecdotes, I came to the conclusion that Mays was just an asshole. However, once he hit Chapman with the pitch, he became sympathetic. Maybe it was because he kept his mouth shut. Maybe because anytime anyone wanted to talk to him it was about the pitch. He didn't seem to say things to make him seem like as much of a jerk, just a bit defensive, which given the situation is understandable. Maybe he seemed worse in comparison to Chapman as there was not a negative thing said about him. Yes, he seemed like a great guy, but because he died young, I would expect more to be hidden about him than Mays.

I don't remember a single bad thing said about Chapman. Maybe it's because as members of society we view speaking of the dead in any negative light as bad taste. Still, it's hard to believe he was perfect. Mays was not perfect, but I think that's a more reasonable portrait of most people. It's not that Mays is a bad guy, it's just against the "angel" that is Chapman, anyone would look like a jerk.

I think Mike portrayed Mays as he was perceived by the players in AL. He had virtually no friends even on the Yankees. He was known as a head-hunter even before Chapman.(he had 54 hit batters up til then). While he did express sympathy to Chapman's widow, he showed up for work and never missed a start.That didn't say much to me about his character. He did nothing to explain his pitch except when the Yankees told him to cooperate with the D.A.Those are facts that Mike objectively set forth.Mike does emphasize that Mays was a very fine pitcher in his era.

Mr. Haverkamp:
I agree that Sowell was pretty hard on Mays, but if he was reading accounts from Baseball Magazine in the 20's and 30's I have no doubt to its authenticity.

I think Sowell probably overdid playing up Mays as a bad guy. I don't think he threw at Chapman intentionally. Mays hit batter to walk ratio isn't out of line for top pitchers of that era. And he was a top pitcher. Because of that, I do find him to be a sympathetic figure. Much like Fred Merkle or Jack Chesbro, I feel like an error he made on one play overshadowed the rest of his career.

What did you think of the depiction of the 1920 pennant race and the role of the beaning in the context of the Indians season?

As for the best part and the pennant race, what I like best is the fact that I didn't know when Mays hit Chapman with the pitch. Every time the Yankees and Cleveland played, I'd get a knot in my stomach just because I was worried about Chapman and I didn't want him to go. I felt tension and impending doom even though the title told me as the reader what would eventually happen.

I found the pennant race to be thrilling especially because of the depression and hurt felt by Tris Speaker and the team's catcher.

I liked how Sowell used the pennant race between the Yankees and Indians as the greater conflict leading up to the Mays/Chapman incident. It made for a much more interesting read.

What did you enjoy the most about the story? Least? Did Sowell make you want to learn more about anything?

Off the top of my head, things that make me a bit more curious were the history of nicknames of the various major league teams. I kind of want to read more about the White Sox season of 1920 (since this was more about the Yankees and Indians and the White Sox definitely had some issues hanging over their heads.)

I was inspired by the book to create a modern day legal suspense novel called A Pitch For Justice that takes Mike's book one step further.What would happen today if a fatal bean ball were thrown? Would there be a homicide prosecution.

Mr. Haverkamp:
On page 12, I felt I had discovered a factual error in Lowell's research (he claimed that Harry Hooper and Duffy Lewis had graduated from St Marys College in OAKLAND, instead of Moraga, CA; I live 20 miles away) and I had that in the back of my mind while I continued through the book.....if he was to make an error like that, then how many other factual errors did he make? About 3/4 through the book during the recap of the 1920 pennant race, I decided to confirm what I thought was true (wikipedia)....and found that St Marys moved from Oakland to Moraga in 1928....and Sowell's research was accurate. So I deemed myself the idiot, and thoroughly enjoyed the entire book. Great stuff about Joe Sewell, I did not know much about his background at all. This book definitely deserved the Casey Award in 1989.

Definitely a good read. I enjoyed that there was a story told. I didn't like that Mays was treated so poorly and Chapman so highly. As Jason said, I don't think there was a negative thing said about Chapman which I believe to be as much of a function of creating a good guy/bad guy scenario than Chapman being some morally superior human being. Nothing struck me as something I wanted to check out later which to me is a sign of good non-fiction so that's a minus. Still enjoyable.

So along those lines, what did you think of the book as entertainment? Can you see a non-baseball fan enjoying it? What did you think of Sowell's style? How does this compare to other baseball books you've read? Other books you've read?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Pitch that Killed - the discussion begins

Let's start with the story itself. Carl Mays - sympathetic figure or bad guy? Do you think Mike Sowell provided a balanced account or tried to make Mays look worse than he was?

What did you think of the depiction of the 1920 pennant race and the role of the beaning in the context of the Indians season?

What did you enjoy the most about the story? Least? Did Sowell make you want to learn more about anything?

We'll start with that for now. I'll refrain from commenting until others have commented and put them all together into one nice post.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Baseball Book Club: Pitch That Killed. You ready?

I've been offline for a bit lately so I wanted to check in and see if everyone who is/was reading Mike Sowell's The Pitch That Killed is ready to begin discussing. I believe there were at least three people other than myself reading. Where do you stand?

Also, given the size of the book, we will postpone discussion of David Maraniss' Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero until the end of April so everyone has time to read it.

I have two baseball books to review as well as my February book wrapup. I'll try to get those up in the near future.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Return of book reviews: January's reading (admittedly late)

Back when I gave up writing this blog, I wrote that of all the topics about which I write here, the one I would miss the most would be book reviews. But as I wrote upon my return, I've become even more out of hand with my reading with every passing year. Last year I read 102 books, 26,000 pages, and I vowed that this year I was going to read fewer books, read more books of my own (as opposed to library books), read more baseball books, and read longer books. The thought being that all this might help me become a less manic reader (and if you don't understand how where a book comes from make a difference, try working at a library on a slow day and see how many books you end up requesting to be delivered to you from other libraries).

I thought reading fewer books would be a requirement for me to return to reviewing books. 102 books in 365 days? That's a lot of book reviews to try and get in. Fewer books. Longer books. Fewer library books. Much easier to review. So how did I do in January (and I know it's almost March, I'm catching up)?

I read ten books; eight of them library books, two books over 400 pages in length, and one baseball book.

So I'm not doing all that well with my goals.

Yet I still want to give a little more of a book review than just the Goodreads 5-star system. But I also don't want to write paragraphs of reviews for everything I read. So I've decided to go with a sort of "digest" form of book reviews. I'm going to write about what I read and make note of what I feel merits notation. So here we go:

I wrote about Popular Crime and Connie Mack already. Nothing to add there. Those were the two long books and Mack was one of my personal books and the only baseball book. The other book of my own that I read was The Girl in Hyacinth Blue. This book reminded me a lot of the movie The Red Violin, in that it traced the history of an object, in this case a painting by Vermeer, through its owners. As a fan of Dutch culture and of Vermeer (because of the amount of art forgery involved with him less than appreciation of his work), I enjoyed the book a lot. But I'll take music over art any day, especially when it includes a great soundtrack like The Red Violin does.

Two other novels were read in January, one good and one mediocre. The good one was Pigeon English which did not have that much to do with pigeons which would have made it a five star book I'm sure. It's about a boy from Ghana who moves to England and gets caught up in a gang war. Very sad ending and the main character is almost unbelievable in his kindness/naivete. The middling book was Stephen Dixon's Meyer. Dixon's title character is trying to write a book but finds he cannot write. Since the book is in first person, you have in essence Dixon writing a book about how he cannot write a book which is sort of interesting in a metafiction kind of way.

I also read two collections of short stories. The style of writing of the one, Vicky Swanky is a Beauty, was compared to that of the above mentioned Stephen Dixon. This was just horrible, though. The stories were incredibly short, and I found them to be pretty pointless. McSweeney's published the book which usually bodes well but not in this case. You can check out four of the stories on McSweeney's site. The good news is that the stories were so short, I was done with the book very quickly.

The other collection was an old one (originally published in 1905) by G.H. Chesterton called The Club of Queer Trades. Chesterton creates an anti-Sherlock Holmes detective hero who prefers to solve cases by sociological rather than deductive means. The stories were entertaining but came across as very dated. They don't hold up near as well as those by Doyle.

On the non-fiction side, The Little Book of Talent was a brief collection of ways to improve your skills in things. Most came across to me as mere platitudes and I did not find much benefit from the book. How to Sharpen Pencils is an odd book in that it seems to be an instructional on sharpening pencils but it's a very funny book. It's cataloged as humor in the library system but it makes you think about what can be turned into an art form. I despise pencils but after reading this, I wished I didn't.

The last book of January was the most disappointing in terms of failing to meet expectations. The magician Penn Jillette is very vocal about his atheism and he has a lot of intelligent things to say about religion and religious beliefs. I had hoped and expected that Every Day is an Atheist Holiday would demonstrate some of that. Not really. It was mostly a pointless and aimless memoir that had very little entertainment value and very little to do with religion (or atheism). This from a huge Penn Jillette fan. Without a doubt the first thing he has done that has disappointed me.

Look at that! Ten reviews in one post....sort of. I'll do February's books sometime in early March.

Book I'd recommend reading the most from this month: How to Sharpen Pencils.
Post written while listening to Episode 150 of Other People.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

RIP Delilah

I was saddened by the news that my favorite wolf at the Wolf Sanctuary of Pennsylvania passed away recently. Delilah was ten years old and had been born and raised at the Sanctuary.

Delilah, like Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer, was heterochromic. That was part of the reason I liked her. I think the other part was that I felt a little sad for her. She was the Omega wolf, meaning that she was at the bottom of the pack hierarchy. Perhaps part of my liking her was a sort of rooting for the underwolf thing. I don't know. I just liked her. And unlike say an underdog in sports that can rise up and topple those above them, you don't see that with Omega wolves. Her mother passed away last year and apparently that made life all the more difficult for her. I'll miss her.

The Wolf Sanctuary is a really neat place and I coordinated a library program with them a couple of years ago which is when I first encountered Delilah and I kept pictures of the wolves in my office at the library. If you live near the area, I strongly suggest you go visit. And if you ever come see me, we'll go up to the Sanctuary and you can see what a cool place it is. OK?

In the meantime, the Sanctuary is always in need of support. If you would be so kind as to make a donation, that would be awesome of you.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Baseball Book Club The Movie

For those of you who might have been holding off on reading The Pitch That killed because you thought, "Oh, it can't be that good. No one has made a movie out of it", well, you no longer have that as an excuse.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Plugging Baseball Book Club

If you aren't reading this month's book, Mike Sowell's The Pitch That Killed, I strongly recommend finding a copy and joining us. Without question, this is the most enjoyable book that we've done and one of the better baseball books I've read.

The Casey Award winner for 1989, this book examines the 1920 season, focusing primarily on Ray Chapman's death via pitched ball. Sowell tells the story of Chapman and Carl Mays, the submariner pitcher that threw the ill-fated pitch but also examines the exciting 1920 pennant race, Babe Ruth changing the face of baseball, and so much more. I've really been enjoying it and hope that there will be at least a few of us willing to discuss it.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Baseball Book Club - Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball

I'm going to make the assumption that no one else read this for Baseball Book Club and just give my review for it. If you did read it, please feel free to leave your comments in the comments. Next month, as you can see from the book list I put forth in December, the book for February is Mike Sowell's The Pitch That Killed. If you think you might like to try and read it this month and discuss it and such, please let me know. I really would like to make this more like a real book club and discuss this with others. I'd also like to try and add some contextual history in posts leading up to it. If no one else is out there who is interested, I'm not going to bother with the extra stuff, at least for this month. If there is interest, though, I will by all means do my best to spice things up a bit.

I had looked forward to reading Norman Macht's first volume in his trilogy on Connie Mack. I've known Norman for decades (you can't be part of SABR for any length of time and not) and know that he has devoted well over thirty years of his life researching Connie Mack. He has written many books on baseball and is a good writer and researcher. I've always felt that Norman looks like Connie Mack a bit, too. Not that that means anything. All things considered, I was expecting a pretty good book.

There was some concern, though. Readers of this blog know that I find baseball writing to generally be lacking compared to writing in other fields. The fact that Macht's book is in excess of 700 pages made it a tad imposing, especially if it turned out to be unreadable.

If you check out my new Goodreads widget (site redesign!!!) or click on through to this link, you will see I gave this two stars. I must have been wrong in my expectations, huh?

Yes and no. It's probably a three star book but my being let down probably made me go two. It is well written and readable. If you want to learn about early baseball, you could certainly pick up a lot reading this book. If you want an enjoyable baseball read and are willing to sit through 700 pages, again you could do a lot worse than read this. It took about 500 pages or so before I started to weary of it and wanted it to be over which isn't too bad. It took Audrey Niffenegger about three pages.

There are a number of things that just rubbed me the wrong way. Not surprisingly, given the amount of time Macht has spent studying his subject, he is a tremendous fanboy. Connie Mack (I wrote Connie Macht before I edited. Too funny.) can do and did no wrong. How he wasn't named President of the U.S., Pope, and Miss Universe is beyond me. To say this book is a biased treatment is an understatement.

That in itself wouldn't have been so bad (well, maybe it would be. I groaned out loud sometimes at how unabashedly Macht revered Mack and if he had toned it down a bit, he probably could have shortened the book). A lot of authors, especially those of biographies, tend to view their subjects with rose-tinted glasses. You have to present your subject somehow. If you want to cast your subject in an ultra-positive light, fine. But leave me with some sources so that if I want, I can read up and formulate my own opinions.

Aye, there's the rub. In a 700+ page book by a noted baseball researcher, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research for almost as long as it has been in existence, this is the number of citations Macht gives us.


At the end of the book he has a page and a half with the header "A Word about Sources" where he says he "was not the kind of diligent source-noter who warms the hearts of academic PhD thesis advisers. So I cannot cite date, page, and column whence cometh all the raw material of this book. Nor do I think most readers care".

I beg to differ. I think that most readers of 700 page baseball biographies are very much like me. They want to know where information came from. They were expecting that after decades of research by someone with Macht's pedigree that these biographies would become the highlight of the canon of Connie Mack research. That future generations of researchers would turn to these books for information on Macht, the Philadelphia Athletics, and early baseball. But if virtually nothing is cited (Macht does drop an occasional newspaper name in the text which makes it possible to find something given the chronology of the book but there are no formal citations), how is anyone to really know if what is found on these pages is actually true? Macht even concludes this section by talking about previous Mack biographies and saying that My 66 Years in the Big Leagues "contained nothing reliable". Isn't that being a little hypocritical? How am I to know how reliable this book is if I cannot find anything without conducting huge amounts of research on my own?

That killed my perception of this book (in case you couldn't tell). The fact this was published by a university press (Nebraska) in this fashion I found astounding. Sure, I understand if you've been at this for as long as Macht has, and probably well before he even thought he might write a book(s) on Mack, he might not have cared or remembered where things came from. But to then omit ALL sources - I can't accept it. There's material in the book that counters common wisdom, there's interesting factoids, there's good stories. Citations can't be given for some of them? Not one?

I need to stop. I'm getting overly worked up about this. I can't help it. It just astounds me.

But speaking of common wisdom, perhaps part of my problem with the book, too, has to do with the "villain" of the book. I guess Macht felt that there needed to be some conflict, a bad guy to play the devil to Saint Cornelius.

So who do you think the bad guy might be? John McGraw would immediately come to mind for me. Manager of the rival New York Giants of the despised National League. A man who cursed and gambled and would go to any means to win ballgames. That would be a hell of a guess and it would be wrong. McGraw is painted in a pretty good light. How about Ty Cobb then? He was an asshat. Star of the rival Detroit Tigers. He must be the bad guy. No, not Cobb. Too early for Hal Chase. Maybe in volume two. Johnny Evers? He was a jerk but he played for the Cubs and didn't have much to do with Mack and the A's. Now you're just reaching.

No, the bad guy in this book, the guy that Macht castigates more than anyone else in this book, the bad, bad man who could do no good is....Christy Mathewson.

Now I'm a huge fanboy of Mathewson. I'll even call him Matty because I'm such a fan. The one picture from the Hall of Fame that I got when I interned there was of Matty. The Celebrant is my second favorite baseball book. I'm not going to like it when someone casts him in a negative light. But I'm also knowledgeable enough to know that he had faults. But Macht takes every fault and singles him out. Contract jumping between the National and American Leagues in their early years? Not an unusual practice and one that Mathewson, among many players, engaged in (not that Macht cites it). But Mathewson is especially singled out and criticized for it and then the point is rehashed over and over later in the book, well after the point where it should even be an issue. Macht almost gloats when Matty loses a playoff game. It was inexplicable. Not as inexplicable as not including any sources, but pretty bad.

Most people, myself included, and most folks of that era regarded Mathewson as a good person. He was often viewed as the Yin to McGraw's Yang. I think if you asked folks who best embodied moral behavior among ballplayers of the Deadball Era, Mathewson would be atop that list. And perhaps this is why Macht chose to berate him so. By taking someone who was regarded as well as Matty, perhaps someone who personifies the saintly characterization as much as or more so than the great Connie Mack, and knocking him down a few notches, then maybe that makes Mack look better. I don't know. I thought it was a very odd tack to take and again, without any original sources cited that might explain why Mathewson transgressions were worthy of the vitriol, it just rubbed me wrong and made me like the book even less.

For all the negatives, I'll probably still get the other books of the trilogy. I think that they are important books and while the sources cannot be easily found, perhaps another aspiring researcher in the future will take Macht's passion and cite everything better. It is a shame that the output of so much effort and energy from a great researcher and writer is diminished because of the decision.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Popular Crime by Bill James

The first long book I read of 2013 was Bill James' book on popular crime called Popular Crime. I have always been a fan of Bill James' writing. For all of the talk of Bill James being the Father of Sabrmetrics and all, it is often overlooked that part of the reason he was able to open people's minds to analysis was because he could write well and in an entertaining fashion.

Back in the 1980's James launched his Abstracts which were then somewhat copied by the Elias Sports Bureau and their Analyst books. I always felt there were two differences between the two books. One, Elias just threw out numbers without really trying to determine what analysis was valid and what wasn't. That's why you had so much negativity early on towards the use of statistical analysis. Elias would give you who had the best batting average on Thursday nights with a runner on second and one out and a left-handed pitcher on the mound. James would actually try and figure out what numbers actually told you and how to use them. And of course the other difference was the writing. One of my favorite books of James' is the book This Time Let's Not Eat the Bones which was some of the best writing from his Abstract books. No numbers.

So I was looking forward to Popular Crime. I'm not a fan of popular crime in the least. I don't really understand the appeal. Art crime, love it. Murders and kidnappings I can do without. I was hoping that James might at least spark some appreciation, if not interest, in the subject matter.

Just wasn't the case. James covers a zillion instances of popular crime from the late 19th century until the present and covers them in odd ways. In some cases, he takes a straight reporting approach. In others, he puts forth some ideas as to who the perpetrator of the crime may have been. James is an avid reader of the popular crime oeuvre and for some cases, he provides book reviews of which books did the best of covering a particular crime. Every now and then he tries to take a quantitative approach, building some sort of scheme to classify or quantify crime, making it seem like he feels the need to live up to his Father of Sabrmetrics billing. It doesn't work.

Really nothing about the book worked for me. James seems to think his readers come to the book with a level of knowledge and interest similar to his own. He references "Dreyfus stories" a number of times without ever explaining what those are or why they are important. He talks about the popularity of recent cases as if the reader is tuned in to every cable news network and newspaper story that covers any sort of crime and so should be thoroughly knowledgeable of the aspects of the case. Perhaps if you shared James' passion for the subject, the book would be more enjoyable than I found it. If you don't have already have an interest in popular crime, I don't think this book is going to change that for you.

The highlight of the book came in the index. After yet another mention of Dreyfus stories, I turned to the index to see on what page the term was defined (it never was defined). I turn to the D's and lo and behold, there I am in the index! If I had known I was in a Bill James book, I would have expected it to be a baseball book but there I was in his popular crime book. Oh, wait. That's right. The serial killer. I share a name with a serial killer (which I also believe killed off any hope of me ever finding internet romance. Whenever someone Googles you and finds a serial killer, they usually don't call to see what time you're picking them up). James talks about him in the book and not me. Alas.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Best books of 2012 - Part II

Here is the continuation of my best books of 2012. Numbers 6 through 10 can be found here.

#5 The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin

Part of my early year run of Russian novels. It was a surprise to me that fiction topped my reading lists for the year. Even more surprising to me, of my top five, four were first-time novels by their respective authors. It just shows to go you that open-mindedness to new experiences can be a rewarding thing.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov is one of those first novels. Grushin was born in Russia (the same year as I was born which will be brought up again in this post) and moved to the United States in her late teens. The title character is a former artist who abandoned his art for an opportunity to work for the Soviet government editing a journal on world art. In that position he became a spokesperson for the Communist party, and was called upon to belittle and criticize art and artists that he had once loved.

The book bounces between the present and the past until the two are blended. Sukhanov is called upon to write a critique of the artist Marc Chagall, a task Sukhanov believes is a test of his loyalty to the party. Sukhanov initially is an unlikable fellow but as we learn more about his past and the choices he has had to face, it becomes a question over whether he had choices and if so, whether he made the right ones.

For a novel, it is important on many levels. One, it is a look at those who "sell out", sacrificing their talents or passions for money, their families, their government, what have you. Two, like Rasskazy, it is a great look at modern Russia while still tying the present to the past. Three, it makes you think about how much choice we actually have in life.

#4 Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is another first novel written by someone about my age (Cline is a year younger). The story is set in 2044 where people, in response to a horrible economy, have turned to virtual reality experiences in the form of an online simulation game. When one of the game's creators dies, he leaves a video with clues on how to solve a puzzle. The person who solves the puzzle will receive part ownership of the company as well as the remainder of the game creator's fortune.

The game creator grew up in the 1980's and the puzzle, as well as the novel, is rife with eighties music and games. Those trying to solve the puzzle immerse themselves in eighties culture in an effort to try and understand the game creator and the references.

Because the quest takes place online, the characters in the novel are represented in the game world as their avatars. Their representations in the game are nothing like the real people behind them. A group of young gamers bands together, there's some love interest involved, and eventually the chase for the final solution comes down to this small group against the corporate-backed internet service provider who is also trying to claim victory.

I question how enjoyable this book would be to someone who is not a male in their late thirties, early forties. Or males in that age group who weren't geeks, nerds, dorks, etc. during their teens. The title, Ready Player One, references the announcement that prefaced the game play on many early video games. There are references to many video and arcade games as well as Dungeons and Dragons. Movie references and song references galore, too. It references Real Genius, for crying out loud, so you know I liked it.

If you're not in what I deem the target audience for this one, beware. If you grew up when and as I did, I think you'll like it.

#3 Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

My dream is to one day be able to play Krzhizhanovsky across two triple word scores in Scrabble.

I think you can figure from the name that this is yet another book by a Russian author. Unlike the other two in my top ten list, which are modern works, this is a collection of older short stories but reads like something that has been written during my lifetime. Siggie (as I will call him) was born in the 1880's and worked as an editor of an encyclopedia in Russia. Siggie's stories were ahead of their time and some had a little bit of a subversive tone to them. He would show them to friends but never had them published, being fearful of either rejection or repercussion. When he died, his wife gave his works to the state archive where they sat for decades until they were discovered by a scholar then eventually compiled, translated and published.

What a boon for us. For someone who didn't like short stories here I am with two books of them in my top ten. Unlike Rasskazy, this is solid from beginning to end with no disappointments (of course, it's a smaller number of stories (7 versus 22) and by one author as opposed to 22).

It's almost like this book combines the best parts of Rasskazy and the Dream Life of Sukhanov. The writing has a very dreamlike quality to it and there is much blurring between past and present as well as, sometimes, life and death. All the stories have a dark quality to them but not morbidly or even depressingly so. There's actually a bit of lightness and humor to all of them. It's a neat trick to be darkly entertaining. Tim Burton in book form perhaps. There are the necessary political elements but not overly so, nothing so symbolic as say, it's near peer Master and Margarita (another favorite). Just strong, entertaining stories.

#2 The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka

Technically, this is a second novel written but the first published by Karunatilaka (who while possessing a long name does not have the Scrabble potential of Siggie). Shehan is also a near peer (four years younger than me) which is making me think that there is something about being the age I am and being able to relate to the writings of my peers, even in novel form. I may be crazy, I don't know. Just seems a little too coincidental.

One of the reasons I love this novel is because I can absolutely see myself in the shoes of the main character, WG Karunasena or Wije. Wije is a longtime Sri Lankan sportswriter who has developed a type of writer's block. He believes he can only write when intoxicated. That's not the particular pair of shoes I see myself in. At a party, Wije gets into a discussion of the greatest cricketers of all time. Wije brings up Pradeep Mathew,  who seems to be a legendary bowler yet no one has heard from him (an interesting conundrum) and Mathew has long since disappeared from the face of the earth.

Wije and his neighbor Ari decide to rekindle awareness of the greatness of Mathew as well as determine what happened to him. As Wije digs, he discovers talk of match-fixing, cricket politics, and love all being behind Mathew's vanishing after his brief domination of the cricket pitch.

I came into this book with no knowledge of cricket and none is really needed. I did want to learn more afterwards and I have to say that I enjoyed watching highlights on YouTube, especially those of Brett Lee. I can't say I have any desire to watch an entire match. Seems a little endless but as a fan of the pitcher/batter matchup in baseball, it is just about as much fun watching the bowler/striker conflict in cricket.

Beyond the cricket, this is just a fun book. As the tale progresses, the legitimacy of Wije as a narrator comes into question and the end of the book brings an interesting twist to that particular question. Just a great book. As for the similarities between myself and Wije, I tend to have my interest captured by topics (see pigeons this year) and will delve into them with great fervor. Wanting to bring attention to and/or passionately following an overlooked athlete, I can see myself doing that.

#1 Banned for Life by D.J. "Duke" Haney

The book that helped me stop blogging. I won this book in a contest on The Next Best Book Club where a condition of winning was taking part in a book discussion with the author. The book was fantastic but the discussion was even better. I enjoyed learning about Duke's adventures in the publishing world (this is one of two books published by the defunct And/Or Press and it took him nine years to get this published) but enjoyed even more getting to know him better and reading his writings. I had hoped to write a review that would be remotely close in caliber to the book but that just isn't going to happen.

This is Duke's first novel and he is the least close in age to me of the other novelists in my top five (he's eight years older than me). So maybe I am in the trees with my theory.

In Haney's tale, musician turned filmmaker Jason Maddox begins a search for the vanished punk singer Jim Cassady, a vocalist that Maddox enjoyed in his youth but has become a matter of speculation since the suicide of girlfriend. Maddox manages to track down Cassady on the other side of the country, morbidly overweight and living with his mother. Maddox falls in love with a married Yugoslavian actress and struggles to maintain his relationship with her as he tries to revive Cassady's life and career and deal with the memories of Jason's deceased friend and former bandmate Peewee.

Like Legend of Pandeep Mathew, an appreciation of the general theme, in this case punk rock, isn't necessary for appreciation of the book. You also have the quest by the main character to find a lost individual who had special meaning to him. The vast difference between the two books is the writing. Whereas Wije is questionable as a narrator, the biggest question about Maddox is whether he is fictional. Haney's writing is so emotional and detailed and filled with people who seem real that the story comes across as being almost autobiographical which it is not. It is a rare novel that is able to capture characters so well. Haney writes about people. You and me people. People who love and hate and laugh and cry and shout and whisper and live ordinary lives. Just a fabulous book.

Haney has a collection of non-fiction out called Subversia, the first book published by The Nervous Breakdown, a great website that Haney writes for.

There's the top ten books I read last year. I hope you check some of them out and enjoy them as much as I did.