Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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Cardboard Gods: the paperback!

March 7, 2011

The “According to the Gods” 2011 team-by-team preview continues today with a stomach-churning look at Lou Piniella and the New York Yankees, but I wanted to also mention the rapidly approaching March 15 release date of the paperback version of Cardboard Gods, published by Algonquin Books. [Update: the book seems to already be available in at least some stores.]

I should be roaming the land a little bit in May and June for a handful of readings with a couple other Algonquin authors and, if all goes according to plan, free beer. I’ll be adding details as I get them to the Cardboard Gods “book tour” page.

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Cardboard Books: The Year in Reading

December 29, 2008

When I’m not working or sleeping or staring at baseball cards or the television, I’m reading or walking to the library to get some more books. I guess there are a couple other miscellaneous activities I engage in now and then, but that’s pretty much what my life boils down to.

This year, for the first time in my life, I kept track of what I read. Good thing, too, because if I hadn’t done that I’d have surely forgotten most of the books that passed through my brain. I forget most things that happen to me. Whole years go by in a blur.  But at least this year I know what I read.

I’d like to keep this brief, just pass along a few titles that stood out to me and turn it over to you all for thoughts on any books you’ve read this past year that stood out. I’ve already got a stack of books waiting for me in 2009, but I always like hearing suggestions on what I should add to the pile. (I have an annoying habit of not getting around to following people’s suggestions for years, but a few baseball books mentioned by readers in comments on this site—The Celebrant, False Spring, The Greatest Slump of All Time—did make their way into my reading list for 2008.)

One thing my list-keeping told me was that my reading basically breaks down into four major groups: fiction, sports, music, and the rereading of favorites. So here are my 2008 highlights from each category.

Favorite Revisitation of a Personal Favorite
On the Road: the Original Scroll, by Jack Kerouac

This 2007 publication may not actually qualify for this category. The scroll, in fact, is an altogether different book from the previously published classic, one of my all-time favorites and maybe the most important book, personally speaking, that I’ve ever read. The scroll is more direct, more honest, wilder. Allen Ginsberg got it right in his first reaction to the scroll years ago, when he called it “dewy.” The real question for me is, when I go to revisit On the Road again in a year or two, which version will I turn to? I think I might go for the Scroll.

Honorable mention in this category goes to Bruce Jay Freidman, one of my all-time favorite guys. A year would not be complete without a dip into one of his classic novels from the 1960s and early 1970s. This year’s selection was About Harry Towns, a sad and hilarious novel about a middle-aged man adrift in the coke-addled early stages of the Me Decade.

Favorite Music Book
This year I read and enjoyed an oral history of the Replacements, a short book on the greatest album of the 1980s, a bio of Townes Van Zandt, and two books on Dylan (one about the making of my favorite Dylan album, another a song by song analysis), but the one that stood above the others was a biography of Iggy Pop called Open Up and Bleed. I timed the reading of the book perfectly, finishing it just in time to diverge briefly from my daily rituals to see The Stooges in concert for the first time in my life.

Favorite Sports Book
I mostly read baseball books this year, and my thoughts on a few of those books have shown up on this site (if you’re interested in seeing those appreciations, type “Cardboard Books” into the Google search window on the right-hand sidebar and they should all come up), but the top book for me was one about soccer, of all things: Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby. It’s probably pretty obvious to anyone who reads this site that I’m interested in tracing the connections between sports and personal life. Hornby did a great job of doing just that for his own life, and while his season-ticket-holding version of being a fan is a lot different than my own perpetually-distant, fantasy-glutted, past-haunted version, his story shed a lot of light on my own, giving me more conviction than ever in my belief that a life on the sidelines is not a completely worthless life after all.

Favorite Fiction Book
OK, before I get to my favorite fiction book of the year, which in any given year is going to be my favorite book of the year, a couple honorable mentions.

First, a salute to Australian writer Tim Winton. He was my favorite “discovery” of the year. It’s pretty silly to consider him a discovery, since it’s not exactly a secret that he’s one of the best fiction writers in the world, but the sad fact is I hadn’t heard of him before this year. I read a couple of his books this year, The Turning and Breath, and loved them both. The first is a book of interconnected short stories about working class people in a somewhat desolate coastal region in Australia; the second is a coming of age novel in the same setting.

Second, some shout-outs to the novels that yanked me all the way out of this world and into that other world behind the page: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Netherland (the only book I read all year that actually came out in 2008), and The Road. I read a lot of good books this year, but these were the ones that stood out in their ability to pull me into their worlds, which after all is what I’m most looking for when I read. It sounds like I’m looking for escapism, but why would I want to escape, for example, to The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s horrifically convincing gaze into the apocalypse?

I’m not sure why, but maybe there’s something in all us readers that wants to connect with a wider, deeper current of meaning than the one that we’re connected to for most of our waking hours. I know I’m always feeling better about things if there’s a good book bouncing around in my knapsack.

Anyway, my favorite book that I read this year was actually the first book I read in 2008: Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. I’ve already mentioned this book at some length during my long Born in the USA series, so I guess I’ll just wrap things up, finally, and turn it over to you.

So how about it, what were some of your favorite reads this year?

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Cardboard Books: Dirty Water

November 7, 2008
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The gripping new novel Dirty Water, coauthored by mystery writer Mary-Ann Tirone Smith and her son, Jere Smith, begins inside Fenway Park in the midst of the Red Sox’ 2007 championship season. I was, of course, instantly hooked. But I can’t say that I was surprised. As a grateful fan of Jere Smith’s rabidly passionate and generous blog, A Red Sox Fan from Pinstripes Territory, which brings readers along for the ride (with copious photos, videos, and pointed descriptions) every one of the many times he goes to cheer his voice hoarse for the Red Sox, I would have been surprised if the book had opened anywhere but Fenway. (Smith, using the name of his blog as a commenter name, shows up in Cardboard Gods comments from time to time, most fittingly in terms of the discussion here as a keen-eyed detective of the moments depicted in baseball cards featuring action shots.)

From that opening scene, in which a newborn in seemingly dire health is mysteriously abandoned in the Red Sox clubhouse, the well-plotted, plausible novel hurtles forward with the help of well-drawn characters and a deep and satisfying sense of setting. The Red Sox themselves show up periodically to contribute to both of these rich elements of the book. The appearances by the players, which if handled poorly would have doomed the book (at least for baseball fans), is handled by the authors with a pitch-perfect ear for how, for example, Jason Varitek would act when confronted with an ill infant in his clubhouse, or what Big Papi would do if a player in the Sox’ minor league system came to him for help in a very difficult situation.

The book also features an innovative way of propelling the action forward by periodically inserting entries and accompanying reader comments from a fictional Red Sox fan’s blog. The blogger in the novel comments on the ongoing mystery that began in the Red Sox clubhouse and offers as-yet unrevealed details, which at times gives the blog entries an ominous feel as the reader can’t help but wonder how he knows so much about the case. Additionally, the reader comments serve brilliantly as a kind of Greek chorus lamenting and celebrating the downs and ups of the mystery (and the Red Sox’ season).

At the core of the lived-in, baseball-saturated world of the novel is the police detective working to solve the case, which comes to involve not only the abandonment of a baby but kidnapping, murder, and international human trafficking. This detective, Rocky Patel, is an excellent character, unusual and compelling, and unshakably dogged in his pursuit of the truth below all the fascinating and grisly murk of the mystery. Because of his magnetic presence, I would have been drawn forward by the book even if it hadn’t so richly and authoritatively portrayed a world in which the Red Sox are as intrinsic to life as water or air. Lucky for me, and for all fans of baseball and of fiction with deep roots in the world it describes, Dirty Water gleams in the glow of the brilliant light stanchions of Fenway.

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Cardboard Books: The Celebrant

July 11, 2008
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Day in and day out, I follow sports. I’m sure even on the rare days when I’ve been unable to fasten myself to some form of mass media outlet—snowed in and batteryless at the unabomber cabin I lived in for a year, say, or backpacking on the Appalachian Trail—I’ve at least thought about sports. About statistics. About lists. About the actions of uniformed strangers. This makes me a fanatic, to use the extended version of the term most often applied to individuals exhibiting my behavior. Another term often used is spectator. So I’m either mentally unhinged or passive or both. That sounds about right. But is that all there is to it?

Eric Rolfe Greenberg offers with the title of his 1983 novel, The Celebrant, a third term to describe those of us whose lives are colored and even defined by our devotion to sports. The book, one of the best baseball novels ever written, suggests we celebrants may have much more at stake in this lifelong passion than we are willing to admit.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Cardboard Books: Black Diamonds

June 25, 2008
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In the 1989 oral history Black Diamonds, author John Holway leads a gritty, fascinating tour through the too often neglected world of the Negro Leagues. Among the many players interviewed are a slugger nearly without peer (Hall of Famer Willard Brown); a forerunner of Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn in the highest level of batting wizardry (Gene Benson); a pint-sized flamethrower that some say was every bit as fearsome as Satchel Paige (Dave Barnhill); and one of the greatest competitors the game has ever seen (Chet Brewer, pictured here). As in the oral baseball histories of Donald Honig and Lawrence Ritter, the greatest pleasure in Holway’s book is getting a sense of the distinct shape and character (and characters) of the game as it was actually played. It was a whole different world in the Negro Leagues, with shorter rosters and longer, more perilous road trips forcing the players involved to not only be more well-rounded, worldly, and tenacious than their white contemporaries, but also making them, in general, more passionate and innovative in their study of the game. It’s foolish to generalize about any group as varied as the collection of men who played Negro League baseball, but the impression I get from reading Black Diamonds is that no group ever loved baseball more.

A lot of this is all new to me. When I was a baseball-hungry kid I learned next to nothing about the subject. Sometimes Topps included cards that celebrated the more distant reaches of the history of the game, but there was never anything about the Negro Leagues; the baseball encyclopedia I pored over made little or no mention of the Negro Leagues;* and the baseball books from the nearby college library only included enough information to make me think of the Negro Leagues as a shadowy, somewhat backward wilderness, a place to try to flee. About all I knew about the Negro Leagues was that Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron had escaped (the latter’s escape one and the same, in my mind, with leaving behind the seemingly laughable habit of batting cross-handed).

*(Hey, my first Posnansterisk!) I no longer have this encyclopedia, which disintegrated, and the names of the authors—which were never that important to my stat-greedy kid mind—escape me now, but it was one of the greatest books of my life; I prefer it to others because its focus was not so much on individual players but on highlighting teams and the year-by-year narrative procession of the game (at least the white version of the game), giving each year a title (“The Year It All Became Official”; “Greenberg’s Grand Return”) and offering entire rosters and stats for each team. Does anybody know what book I’m talking about? Does it still exist? And how have I been able to get by without it?)

The only exception to this early general misperception of the quality of play in the Negro Leagues was the idea I got somehow, I’m not sure from where, about Josh Gibson. I was first drawn to him because he was the only professional athlete I’d ever heard of that shared my first name, but what made him more than a curiosity was the number associated with his name. I don’t know where I read it, but somewhere I got the idea that Josh Gibson had hit 800 home runs, a number I believed in immediately because my belief in the truth of all baseball numbers was total; conversely, my inability to grasp a general admiration of Negro League players had almost everything to do with the fact that they didn’t have numbers attached to them, or not enough numbers to make them seem substantial. Nothing like 800 home runs. And since Josh Gibson was the only Negro Leaguer with a number like that attached to his name, he was for many years the only African American from the pre-Robinson years to gain entry into the baseball sanctuary in my mind.

With his book, John Holway has helped expand my conceptions about this rich expanse of baseball history. (Bill James has dubbed Holway’s work “the most indispensable original research [on the Negro Leagues]”; my thanks to Baseball Toaster commenter Eric Enders for providing a heads-up about Holway in an earlier discussion about baseball books.) I plan to keep reading more about the legends of the Negro Leagues, and would love to hear suggestions for further study. I want to read more oral histories, but I also want to get a sense of the wider arc of the Negro League story. I’m talking partly about the people who shaped the leagues, but I’m also talking about the defining contests. It seems to me a great book could be written detailing the ten best (or fifteen best or whatever) games in the history of the Negro Leagues. Because of the more chaotic nature of the Negro Leagues (players constantly on the move, teams and even whole leagues folding overnight), it’s a little harder to get a strong hold on the whole of that history than it is with the major leagues; I think a book looking in detail at a few definitive games (the players, the stakes, the context, the goats, the heroes) would be a way to help provide some landmarks for someone new to the territory. Anyone versed in this history know of any suggestions for that list? The one that comes first to my mind is the 12-inning duel in 1930 between Chet Brewer and Smokey Joe Williams. Brewer recalls the game in Black Diamonds, bemoaning the bad hop that led to the only run of the game in a way that speaks to his own competitive fire and his deep respect for his counterpart, a man he said “could throw the ball harder than any I played against.”

“If that ball had just bounced around the infield,” Brewer says, “we would probably be playing yet.”

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Cardboard Books: A False Spring

May 30, 2008
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“It was a land of horizons.” – Pat Jordan, A False Spring

The first maps of the world I ever studied were the ones comprised of lists of place-names and numbers on the backs of baseball cards. Some of those maps, the ones on the backs of the best cards, contained only the names of cities I knew. Major league cities. Other maps, the ones on the backs of the untested, the mediocre, the obscure, had places I’d never heard of. The bottom line of statistics on every card totaled only the numbers accrued in the major league cities. Accomplishments in unknown towns didn’t count.

Looking at these maps, I began to understand that the world had horizons, edges, and that it was possible to drift beyond the horizon, where nothing mattered. More troubling still was the nature of many of the maps of the least of the Cardboard Gods, where the list of place names flickered back and forth again and again between major and minor, between known and unknown, between counting toward the total in the bottom line and not counting at all. These complicated maps suggested terrain where the borders are impossible to discern. You won’t even be able to tell when you’re walking off the edge of the world.

Pat Jordan should have been one of my Cardboard Gods. Many of the players he played with and against as a young man in the minor leagues made it onto the baseball cards I collected as a kid in the 1970s, but few of them matched his raw talent. He threw hard when he entered professional baseball as a sought-after 18-year-old bonus baby, and he threw even harder when his still developing frame filled out the following year. Like many flame-throwing phenoms, he often struggled with wildness, but on those days when he had command of his pitches he was dominant, nearly unhittable. To that point all the baseball stories that had been told, all the maps of the world that had been made available to baseball fans, suggested that Pat Jordan would one day have a baseball card showing his walk totals and ERA decreasing from year to year as the darker edges of the world receded. He would be featured on a baseball card that had no room on the back for minor league cities, no room for oblivion, no room for doubt.

Jordan was not the first to live a coming-of-age baseball story that went in the opposite direction, toward ever-greater oblivion or doubt, but he was the first to tell about it. In his classic memoir, A False Spring, he provides a map of uncharted territory that remains every bit as arresting today as when the book first came out in 1975. Since that time, narratives about the fringes of professional sports have become more familiar—as I read Jordan’s book I was reminded at times of both Slapshot and Bull Durham. But when these films came to mind (in the former when Jordan describes how all the minor leaguers at spring training would gather in the morning to watch a television fitness show featuring a limber, voluptuous female host; in the latter when Jordan describes his Nuke LaLoosh-like desire to stubbornly blast brainless fastballs by everyone) Jordan’s version of the minor leagues always seemed by comparison darker, more painful, more real.

This is not to say that the book is without humor, or that its sharp, harrowing focus on the failures of a young, unhappy loner precludes a rich and varied cast of characters. We see future career hit-by-pitch-leader Ron Hunt as a teenager who calls every older woman in his life “Mom”; we hear of a player who disappears from the team one day after it was discovered (by a young Phil Niekro) that he’d been cheating his teammates at poker; we get to spend time with a beer-swilling minor league manager named Bill Steinecke, who conducts the following seminar in the middle of a game after noticing that his players don’t seem to comprehend a remark he just made about sex:

“I don’t suppose any of you know what I’m talkin’ about? No, I expect not, You think it’s just push-push and goodbye, huh? Well, Podners, it’s time you got educated. With a woman you gotta do things. Make them happy, too.” And then, while we listened with rapt attention—and the opposing team loaded the bases—Bill gave us our first course in sex education. His course was very thorough, touching all the bases: physical (various positions, unusual acts), anatomical (a description of the female body); medicinal (prevention of disease), and psychological (“Make them happy, too.”) It was very graphic and, at appropriate moments, punctuated by darting little gestures of his tongue, while his eyes, no bigger than Le Suer peas, gleamed. (p. 115)

Of course, the most vivid character of all, thanks to the author’s refusal to varnish anything about his younger self, is the one glowering in the photograph at the top of this post. Throughout A False Spring the young man simultaneously unraveling and growing up at the center of the action comes across as immature, arrogant, even unlikable. Early on, his recounting of his high school career suggests that he cared very little about his teammates, thinking of them as useless background figures in his quest to get a big signing bonus from a major league team. Upon entering professional baseball he expands this general disdain into a complete lack of interest (when he’s not pitching) in whether his team wins or loses; in fact, he roots against the success of other pitchers on the team. Outside the ballpark is not much better, his aloofness setting him apart from townspeople and his teammates, his lack of social skills making many of his rare interactions awkward, even ugly, such as when he approaches two older teammates talking to local girls on the street and asks, loudly, “Who’re the cunts?”

He’s not an easy figure to root for, but you begin to root for him like you would root for yourself. You too were once young, arrogant, awkward, self-centered. You too once thought you’d live forever, that the fastballs would paint the corners, that doubt and oblivion would dwindle then vanish, that the winning would find a way to start and never end.

Off in the distance is the dream, a big league callup, and there are days when you feel young and strong, and those days the dream seems close, a sure thing. Other days, the majority of days, you can’t find the strike zone, you feel yourself getting older, weaker, ever more uncertain, you pass the empty hours roaming aimlessly and alone. Here is the challenge laid down by A False Spring, by all great books: Stop dreaming. Open your eyes.

Welcome to the land of horizons.

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For more Pat Jordan, check out the recently published The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan, edited by Alex Belth.

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Paul Mather in . . . The Nagging Question

May 21, 2008
  
Early in Hang Tough, Paul Mather, three kids in little league uniforms stop on their way to a game to talk to two brothers who have just moved to town. The younger of the brothers starts bragging about his older brother’s pitching abilities. The three uniformed boys are skeptical, and when the older brother at first refuses to show them what he can do, they begin to mock him. He holds the ball they’ve handed to him. It feels good in his hands. Too good.

I was reading this scene on the subway this morning. I’d read it dozens of times before. Even so, I started to get tears in my eyes.

By this point in the novel, it has become clear that the older boy, Paul Mather, lives for baseball. But there have been hints of a serious medical problem. He’s not supposed to be playing any baseball, not until he gets permission from a new doctor, a specialist the family has moved across the country to be near.

I didn’t think of Hang Tough, Paul Mather during Jon Lester’s no-hitter two nights ago, but the connection between the real and fictional pitchers began to dawn on me the following morning as I listened to an interview with Lester’s father. Until that point I’d resisted the cancer-survivor angle because Lester himself expressed a desire to move beyond it. But Lester’s father marveling about a no-hitter his son threw in high school conjured images of the star pitcher as a kid, the kind of pitcher who might have thrown three no-hitters in little league, just like Paul Mather. And Lester’s father saying that the only thing that mattered was that his son was healthy and cancer-free made me think of Paul Mather’s father, whose melancholy, seemingly overprotective presence provides the novel with an ominous tone long before the word cancer is ever mentioned.

The most telling scene involving the father is the scene that I started describing above. In the end, Paul gives in to the temptation of the ball that feels so good in his hands. He starts pitching, just lobbing it at first, but soon he unleashes his entire awe-inspiring arsenal. He stops when his blazing pitches have made his catcher’s hand red and swollen, but he’s on the brink of going even farther, of walking off with the boys to their game. His father stops him by calling his name and telling him to come back inside. But what’s telling about the scene is that his father, according to a feeling Paul gets, had “been standing there for some time watching.”

He wants to protect his son, keep his son from hurting himself, yet he can see the joy his son is getting from playing the game he was made to play. Below is Paul himself describing that joy, from just after unleashing a breaking ball so nasty the catcher couldn’t handle it.

Monk came back with the ball. He held it. “I guess I’ve seen enough.”

“No, you haven’t,” I said.

I was bitten. It had been a long time since I had pitched, and I wasn’t going to stop now. I hadn’t wanted it to start up again, but now that it had started, I wanted it to go on and on and on . . .

I was beginning to feel in the groove. I was sweating. Sweat lubricates a pitcher. It gets all his moving parts working together. I was beginning to get a rhythm. It was like I hadn’t taken a year’s break at all. This was what it was all about. This was what you lived for and why you lived.

I first read the Hang Tough, Paul Mather when I was eight or nine years old. I’d read other baseball books before—in fact, other than Spiderman and Fantastic Four comics, baseball books were all that I ever read—but I hadn’t fallen in love with any of those books. Hang Tough, Paul Mather was the first. The story’s striking familiarity drew me in instantly. Like me, Paul Mather was one of two brothers. Like me, he was an outsider, part of a family that was new to their town. Like me, nothing was more important to Paul Mather than baseball. But the vital difference in our life stories was what drew me in even further. Here was a boy who lived for baseball who was having baseball taken away.

The book was so important to me that after I lost the copy I had as a child I bought another copy somewhere. But some years after that, my aunt, an elementary school librarian a few towns away from the town where I grew up, found a book with my name in it in a pile of books the library was giving away. The favorite book of my childhood had found its way back to me.

What was your favorite book as a child?