Moneyball by Michael Lewis
I know nothing about baseball.
I grew up in Omaha, NE. While Nebraska is more strongly associated with football, it has baseball ties as well. It’s home of the College World Series and the city has a pretty strong softball culture. Yet, as with all sports, I had no exposure to baseball while growing up. Sport wasn’t valued in my family and was avoided as much as possible. I’ve come to see the error of that attitude, but I still don’t have the patience for baseball. So, what’s the deal with reading Moneyball?
I first came across Michael Lewis’s Moneyball while looking through a list of books that friends had read or wanted to read via a Facebook application. This was before I had heard of Lewis’s The Blind Side. The intersection between economics and sports sounded intriguing to me despite my general lack of interest in baseball as a sport. On a dramatic level, I do like baseball stories. Cut out 4/5th of the playing and baseball becomes more about the sport and less about waiting for the sport.
The book proposes the question: how does a baseball team with a very small budget (the Oakland As) compete against teams that can afford stars? To avoid sounding dumb, I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of Lewis’s findings. The most interesting aspect of the narrative to me is the uphill battle with common wisdom that was waged by Billy Beane and the proponents of sabermetrics. Baseball insiders with their traditional wisdom valued all the things that “rich” teams could afford. No one had thought to question traditional wisdom. Do those valued things win games? Bill James and other sabermeticians were asking those questions, seemingly into the wind, until Beane was forced by lack of money to put the system to the test. The lesson here is that common wisdom needs to be tested when it can be.
I enjoyed the book. Lewis has a knack for finding personalities and stories while presenting information in an understandable manner. He is, in fact, good enough at this that his non-fiction, non-overly-dramatic books are made into movies. I am amused this morning to find the trailer for the movie version of Moneyball has been released. (Funny thing: I still don’t remember if I’ve seen the movie version of The Blind Side. I think I may have, but I am maybe just imagining it.)
Torn Wings and Faux Pas by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
I hated grammar in grade school and high school. Grammar was all about learning rules, but many of the rules seem to have more than two exceptions and are therefore very tenuous rules at best. I seemed generally to get by as a writer on sound alone and to not worry too much about looking like an idiot if I violated one “rule” or another. During my second-to-last semester in college, I took a grammar course. In some ways it was more of a philosophy of grammar course. We learned about the history of the English language and about how it is continually changing. Rules aren’t rules at all, but guidelines to clarity. This time, grammar’s guidelines finally made more sense to me. I started to care more about what guidelines I was wildly diverging from.
To keep grammar fresh in my mind, I read a grammar book every-so-often. My favorite is Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Deluxe Transitive Vampire. While Torn Wings and Faux Pas tries to be a companion to Transitive Vampire, it doesn’t really succeed.
The pieces are there. Gordon uses Gothic Victorian examples, baroque explanations, and slightly creepy clip art, but this time the quirkiness is too much. The explanations are sometimes not clear and the examples are too ornate for the mistakes and corrections to be clear. (I think I had this problem with Transitive Vampire too, but to a much lesser degree.) There are some additional “characters,” fictional grammar specialists, that don’t add much other than exhausting paragraphs of prose. And the clip art is more along the line of doodles than the wood-cut demonic putti of Transitive Vampire.
In the end, I did learn one or two things and was reminded of a few others. Unfortunately if I hadn’t read it straight through, and instead dipping in and out of it, I probably would have missed those things.
Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg
I was first introduced to Natalie Goldberg and the concept of free writing during my first semester of college. That first composition class was a revelation to me. It was exactly what I needed at that time in my life: an affirmation that this writing thing wasn’t completely crazy. Or rather, it was crazy, but I wasn’t alone in it. *I* could be a writer. Even if I was a biology major at the time, I was a writer.
That was 18 years ago.
Being a writer is a belief. Any belief is subject to doubts. I need reaffirmations. Reading and re-reading books like Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind give me assurance, even more than so than all the writers I know online.
Of course, the weight of 18 years of my experiences as a writer color my reaction to this book. I believe that writing is work, hard work, that can be broken down to a process. So, some of Goldberg’s fuzzy spiritual aspects leave me a bit cool. Truly, any advice about writing only works for some of the writers some of the time. But at its core, Goldberg’s philosophy is this: Shut up and write.
And that’s what I need now.
(Read this book as a part of #ToBeReMo and Read Me Baby, One More Time. I also mentioned Wild Mind over at my LJ.)
Here is the remarkable story of how Helene Hanff came to write 84, Charing Cross Road, and of all the things its success has brought her. Hanff recalls her serendipitous discovery of a volume of lectures by a Cambridge don, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. She devoured Q’s book, and, wanting to read all the books he recommended, began to order them from a small store in London, at 84, Charing Cross Road. Thus began a correspondence that became an enormously popular book, play, and television production, and that finally led to the trip to England – and a visit to Q’s study – that she recounts here. In this exuberant memoir, Hanff pays her dept to her mentor and shares her joyous adventures with her many fans. (via Goodreads)
Of all of Helene Hanff’s books, I’ve probably reread Q’s Legacy the least. 84 Charing Cross Road is, of course, her touchstone work. Underfoot in Show Business is the “young writer” book. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is her England book, and Apple of My Eye is her New York book. And Q’s Legacy? I misremembered it as being about Hanff’s early life, which is well covered in Underfoot. It isn’t. Instead, it’s about what happened *after*.
What fortune teller would have had the nerve to predict that the best years of my life would turn out to be my old age?
As a part of my failed Blogging from A to Z attempt, I posted about how important Helene Hanff has been to me. I’ve always loved the fact her fame didn’t come about as she intended, and she always seems befuddled by that. Since Q’s Legancy is about this sideways fame, you’d think it would be my favorite book of hers! But there’s a bittersweet tinge to Q’s that was maybe a little too bitter for an optimistic 22 year-old writer. (Fine. Optimistic is a strong word to be used in relation to me. Let’s say: Glass was only 45% empty.)
At 36, I’m nowhere near old age, though my joints might claim otherwise. I have more years of writing ahead of me than behind me, but I have a different appreciation for Q’s Legacy. Helene looks back and asks, “What do [I] have to show for it?” and I’m closer to knowing what she means. I suppose that’s the interesting thing about rereading books. Sometimes, they work better for you the second (or third…) time.
I disagree with Chance’s view of this story.
Gaitskill does seem to be pitting normal and abnormal against each other, but does not do it in a subtle or hinting kind of way. We are given an array of situations here. The narrators mother has been abused in the past and is continually abused psychologically by boyfriends. His wife has a history of being a sort of peer-pressure co-abuser. The society around him continually shows women in a violently victimized light. His childhood friends joke about what bitches women are (though he suspects that they don’t mean it).
The narrator is kind of a distillation of all these things. He has seriously fantasized about hurting women, but given the opportunity, doesn’t. On the surface, he’s the good guy that takes his kid fishing. He’s not the ski-masked rapist, he’s the nice guy you might have coffee with.
A Sense of Where You Are by John McPhee
Subtitled A Profile of Princeton’s Bill Bradley. Which is exactly what it is.
I’m not a big sports fan. I didn’t grow up with sports. Attending UNL made me into a mild ‘Husker fan. I’ve never been to a Nebraska football game, and I had never watched a basketball game at all until Eric decided to take me to one on a whim back when we were still on campus in 1998-ish. Incongruously, I picked up a slight interest in non-collegiate tennis before I met Eric.
Moving to Arizona intensified my sports fandom. Part of that is because I am now “out-of-state” and sports are a means of maintaining allegiance to my home state. Part of this is because I now play a sport and am around more people who are sports fans, Eric included. And part of it is also because sports have become my seasons. The move from NE to AZ meant no more seasons as I knew them. No falling leaves, no snow, no thaw, no bloomin’ spring, but lots of what a Nebraskan might consider summer. It started with football season becoming my fall. Tennis (French Open, Wimbledon, US Open) became my respite from the heat of summer. And basketball has become my winter. I’m a newbie fan to all these things. My history/knowledge of theses sports only goes back a few years, so I pick up a sports book here and there.
Conversely, I’ve always enjoyed a good sports story. I’m a total sucker for overcoming the odds and triumphs of the spirit. A Sense of Where You Are isn’t one of those sports stories. It’s a profile. Bill Bradley was an outstanding player. While he himself might have downplay his physical abilities, he was not particularly handicapped in any manner. Growing up, he had support of his ideas and goals. From McPhee’s profile, it seems that Bradley took what ability and talent he had, worked damned hard and became an outstanding basketball player. While he obviously had passion for the game, it wasn’t his end goal and that’s an interesting story in itself, but not one told in my edition of the book.
My edition, published 1967, only includes Bradley’s collegiate career. It is assumed, at the end of this edition, that Bradley will go on to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, utterly leaving basketball behind. This older edition kind of leaves off in the middle of the story. But still, I came way with a slightly better understanding of basketball and bit of its history. That was worth the quick read.