Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Watching the World Series

I'm trying not to root against the Red Sox. They are, objectively speaking, the better team in this World Series. I'm trying to root for the Cardinals, instead.

But it's not easy. As I watch David Ortiz destroy the ball I can't helping thinking... 38 years old, indicted in the same unsealed, supposedly anonymous drug testing that originally entangled Alex Rodriguez, a user who denies using, who is abetted by the media (I think) because he is friendly and engaging where Rodriguez is aloof and self-centered.

As I watch this entire Red Sox team, now only a game from a championship, I can't help thinking...
Their starting shortstop hasn't played over 100 games since 2010, until this year.
Their starting catcher turned in a near All-Star season after years as a backup, posting a batting average and OBP 30 points better than his career averages, this year.
Their 32 year old right fielder had his best season after years of gradual decline, this year.
Every member of their starting rotation produced a better WHIP and ERA than last year, this year. (Except Ryan Dempster, who was just as awful as last year, but at least he wasn't worse).

Maybe steroids have finally ruined baseball for me. Because I know flukes like this happen.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Review: Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

When I don't know, I turn to Wikipedia: 
In 2012, Peter Hitchens wrote that The Daughter of Time was "one of the most important books ever written."
On its publication Anthony Boucher called the book "one of the permanent classics in the detective field.... one of the best, not of the year, but of all time."
Dorothy B. Hughes also praised it, saying it is "not only one of the most important mysteries of the year, but of all years of mystery".
This book was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list by the UK Crime Writers' Association in 1990.
But why?

I am not a mystery reader, but The Daughter of Time came up in my book club, so I read it.

Most mysteries fall in one of two camps: the transparent mystery, where we know the guilty party by the end of the third chapter and merely mark time until the hero figures it out; or the deus ex machina mystery, where the hero has deduced some vital clue that is withheld from the readers until after the final confrontation (you could also call this The Sherlock).

Daughter of Time is neither of these. Our hero is bedridden, convalescing after being injured while capturing the last baddie. Stuck in his bed, Daughter... breaks one of the cardinals rules of story-telling: almost none of the action happens in front of us. Instead, characters enter the hospital room, tell the hero what's happened and then leave to have more adventures while hero stays home.

In this way, Daughter... has elements of psychological thriller and melodrama. I was far more interested in how the hero handled his incapacitation than I was in the mystery that he was engaged in.

Maybe we live too much in the reality tv era. CSI and Law & Order regularly take their fictional characters into contact with "real world" cases. But I'm sure this must have been a novel approach for a novel in 1951.

Is that what made reviewers hail Daughter... as an instant classic? Or is there something else I'm missing?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Word of the Week



noun: An awkward young fellow.

Of uncertain origin. Earliest documented use: 1540.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review: Hutch by Shannon and Hannig

From Hutch: Baseball’s Fred Hutchinson and a Legacy of Courage
© 2011 Written by Mike Shannon Illustrated by Scott Hannig
by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc.
Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. www.mcfarlandpub.com.
NB: Having received permission to use the image on the right from the kind folks at McFarland & Company, I'm reposting this review to draw attention to Scott Hanning's lovely art work.

While the Pirates rolled over the Reds on Tuesday night, I read Mike Shannon and Scott Hannig's graphic novel biography of Fred Hutchinson, Hutch.

An under-appreciated pitcher in his era, Hutch boasted great command but never racked up enough wins to garner more than a single All-Star appearance. His Tigers teams of baseball's golden age were overshadowed in the American League by the Yankees, who would take the pennant in seven of Hutch's ten seasons. In the only World Series appearance of his career, at age 20, he pitched one inning, gave up a homerun and walked a batter.

Clearly, this is the story of a good man who never stood at the peak of his craft, but who loved the game and worked hard anyway. He'd become a player-manager with the Tigers, and then win Manager of the Year for the Cardinals. Then, he'd lead the Cincinnati Reds to the 1961 pennant. But the Yankees in '61 where the Yankees of Mantle and Maris, and the Reds would lose in five games. That was Hutch's last pennant; in the spring of 1964, he'd share with the world that he was battling lung cancer, and 3 weeks after the end of the season, he died. Baseball would create the Hutch Award in his memory.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Ban All the Classic Books

And the Washington Post for the win:
“Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,- Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!”
Moby Dick


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Word of the Week



verb tr.:
1. To humiliate, shame, or embarrass.
2. To discipline (one's body) by self-denial, self-inflicted suffering, etc.

verb intr.:
1. To endure self-denial, self-inflicted pain, etc.
2. To become gangrened or necrosed.

From Latin mortificare (to kill). Ultimately from the Indo-European root mer- (to rub away or to harm) that is also the source of morsel, premorse, mordant, morbid, mortal, mortgage, nightmare, amaranth, and ambrosia. Earliest documented use: 1382.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Review: Ulysses by James Joyces

This is not so much a review of Ulysses (since I've already written about it twice in the last few weeks) as an effort to sum up my feelings as I finished it.

Because I think Ulysses is just about three people whose lives are a mess.

Stephen Dedalus, the young man with life before him but who is unsure of how to grasp it. His friends are unreliable, his finances are in shambles, and he's unable to bring any of his great ideas to fruition.

Leopold Bloom, the older man whose marriage is falling apart because he cannot communicate with his wife. He indulges his appetites (physical, sexual, imaginative) as a way to mask the lack of control he has over his life.

Molly Bloom, left cold by her husband's refusal to sleep with her in the ten years since their son's death.

When Carol and I last re-organized our bookcases, we split most of the fiction between "Lonely Men" and "Awesome Women" because, tongue in cheek, it seems like these could encapsulate all fiction. But here is a book that epitomizes the lonely men. Neither Bloom nor Dedalus can speak their feels to the important people in their lives. Dedalus would not kneel to pray at his mother's deathbed and now she is gone, and his father is too distant. Bloom still grieves for his infant son and cannot come to Molly's bed, and so their marriage dies.

These emotionally stunted men have no examples to draw on, no one to show them a better way of life. But, in Ulysses, Molly is no better off. When she's finally given the room to speak in the book (which is to say, when she is silent and dreaming because she never does really say what she is thinking out loud), she is a whirl of memories and mixed emotions. She is guilty, but she feels (I think, rightly) forced into her action by a decade of Bloom's inaction and grief.

And that's my overwhelming impression of Ulysses: it is a portrait of grief, of the greatness lost to three people who, despite all the words swirling in their heads, can't really speak to the people who care about them.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Happy Aaron Boone Day

This was ten years ago today.

I was sitting on my raised bunk in Middle Hall, trying to teach a girl about baseball. 3 outs, tagging up on an out, the double play, extra innings.

Boone swung, and I leapt up so high I cracked my head against the ceiling.

Ulysses and Intimidation

I would tell friends I was reading Ulysses, and they'd look at me and ask "Why?"

Sort of like climbing Everest, the answer seems (to me) self-evident.

But as I finished Molly's famous chapter over the weekend, I was struck by how misplaced the book's reputation is. The book is profoundly difficult reading; I especially struggled to force myself to slow down and really read the long section presented as dialogue and stage directions. I suppose everyone must have at least one section that makes them want to give up.

But somehow, book lovers tend to conflate "I understood it" with "I enjoyed it." But I feel that not understanding was part of the joy- it's like wonder over the ending to Inception or imagining how a cancelled series like Firefly would have turned out if given the time to develop.

I read it. I loved it. I think I got it, but I might be wrong (more on that tomorrow).

Monday, October 14, 2013

Happy Columbus Day

There's a lot of anti-Columbus going around.
....a despot who ruled his subjects with an iron fist...
...routinely tortured slaves and starved his subjects...
...forbade natives from baptism so they could used as slaves...
And I say, "So?" A guy in the 15th century conformed to the normal norms of the era, viewed people different from himself as less human, and sought to aggrandize himself and build a colony thousands of miles from "civilization" through autocratic rule. And I bet if you'd give that same opportunity to any number of European aristocrats, they'd have conducted themselves the same way.

Now, if you want to whitewash all of history, then yes, let's get rid of Columbus Day. Let's re-name Columbus Circle and the District of Columbia.

But let's be reasonable: Thanksgiving wasn't the pastoral gathering we learned about in grade school, and George Washington was a slave-owner, too. It's easy to be judgmental in retrospect. But that doesn't make it fair.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Word of the Week



adjective: Relating to fermentation.

From Greek zym- (ferment). Earliest documented use: 1817.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Happy Friday

Christmas shopping? Cleaning the house for a visit. General shenanigans.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Rewriting Shakespeare's Histories

I dislike Shakespeare.

Glad I got that off my chest.

I understand the reverence in which he is held to an extent. He is, for an early modern playwright, remarkably accessible. And his writings cover a range with more talent than anyone else in the era. If you want one many for histories and tragedies and comedies and sonnets, well, you can do no better than Shakespeare.

But, and I know this is not a new or original critique, if you want one thing executed perfectly, never look to Shakespeare. None of Shakespeare's tragedies can touch Marlowe's Edward II (which I suppose is more properly a history) or Faustus. I prefer Beaumont's Knight of the Burning Pestle and Johnson's Alchemist for comedies, and I favor Donne and Milton as poets.

So maybe the proper thing to say is not, "I dislike Shakespeare" but "I disagree with the notion that he is the greatest playwright of his era, let alone the argument that he is the greatest ever."

All the same, I'm always a little appalled when someone tries to re-write Shakespeare, and especially appalled when that person is a homophobic whacko. It has been demonstrated time and again that the internet was specifically designed to mock people like that.

But the Scott Lynch piece I linked above reminded me that just a couple weeks ago, a friend and I were working on a five act adaption of Henry IV 1, IV 2 and Henry V.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Word of the Week



1. Something light, thin, or insubstantial.
2. A soft sheer gauzy fabric, used for veils, etc.
3. A fine, filmy cobweb or its thread seen floating in the air in calm weather.

Thin, light, or delicate.

From goose + summer. The term is believed to have originated as a name for late autumn when geese are in season and then transferred to cobwebs seen around that time of the year. Earliest documented use: 1325.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Ulysses, First Thoughts on a Second Reading

I'm determined to read Ulysses as part of my 30 Before 30. It's one of the 4 books I've never read in the Modern Library's Top 100.

Though it's disingenuous to say I never read Ulysses, because I did read more than half of it during Spring Break of my senior year of college. I read it for fun, so there are plenty of plot points I missed then, and I'm sure there are some I'm still missing, but that's not why I'm reading it.

To read Ulysses for the plot seems a little like listening to Mozart to analyze the chord progression; sure, I could do it, but isn't that missing the larger point?

One of my favorite professors once told me that the proper way to read Joyce's masterpiece is aloud while drinking Jameson or Guinness. He is a wise man.

It's the sounds I love most, the tongue twisters and the smooth sections. But I also love the graphic side of Ulysses too: the headlines that punctuate the scene in the newspaper shop and the end of the second section which becomes a play, complete with dialogue and stage directions. I feel that if James Joyce were alive today, he'd be a big fan of Christopher Ware.

I'm nearly done with the second section, which is where I recall running out of time in college and having to return my copy to the library. This weekend, I dive into uncharted territory in one of the greatest works of literature. Life is such fun.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

On Fables and Poems

I've lost my copy of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. Most likely, I've lent it to someone, said, "You have to read this, you'll love it." And it's gone. I need to replace it and re-read it myself.

In many ways, the Just So Stories are the quintessential fables- origin stories that also impart a lesson. How did the elephant get his trunk? Why, by being too nosey (get it?) about what the crocodile had for dinner.

I often think of good poems as fables- little encapsulations of a moment or a feeling. They have an arc, a moral, and (at their best) an impossible moment that just feels right. It is human life distilled to its most essential ingredients.

I think about Robert Frost's Birches, which is one of the poems I've re-read and re-listened to most in my life. The impossible moment is perfect:
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.  50
May no fate wilfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
Without this moment, Birches is an old man wishing to be young again- to swing from trees, to have the innocence to believe that the bent birches along the road were brought low by being swung from too often. But because of the plea "May no fate wilfully misunderstand me" this a poem about a man who recognizes that for all life's hardships, for all the broken ice and slow thaws, no life could be better than this one.

I wonder who has my copy of Just So Stories. If I could remember, I could call them up and asked if they ever read it. I wonder if they love the stories' simplicity as much as I do?