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.