28 February 2010

Sunday Book Banter: Feb. 28, 2010

Well, the Washington Post has been letting me down lately. They didn't deliver during Snowmageddon (understandable), or the next weekend (even after I reported my paper as undelivered), or the weekend after (though they did bring it on Monday). Today I got my paper on time, and the Book World section didn't have a single book that I found compelling. So after a few discouraging weeks, I'm changing the name of this to "Sunday Book Banter" and expanding the scope to the big book sections across the nation on Sundays. Expect it to focus mainly on the WaPo, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, but if something else catches my eye, it may pop up here too. Cue the (new) logo!

Today's book comes from the Sunday Book Review in the NYT. It's the much-anticipated new biography of Willie Mays penned by James Hirsch. Reviewer Pete Hamill immediately begins waxing poetic about the yesteryear of baseball, while showing the fact that it's not a topic he writes on with any regularity:
A long time ago in America, there was a beautiful game called baseball. This was before 30 major-league teams were scattered in a blurry variety of divisions; before 162-game seasons and extended playoffs and fans who watched World Series games in thick down jackets; before the D.H. came to the American League; before AstroTurf on baseball fields and aluminum bats on sandlots; before complete games by pitchers were a rarity; before ballparks were named for corporations instead of individuals; and long, long before the innocence of the game was permanently stained by the filthy deception of steroids.
Ahhh, we're in for a "the game used to be good" screed. Well, before you get on the bully pulpit of baseball, make sure you come to terms with the face that no one uses periods in DH (or 1B, RF, LF, SS, et al. for that matter). I don't mind older scribes going on and on about the beauty of the game (in fact, I often enjoy it), but I want a certain base level of knowledge to be demonstrated before I can take them seriously.

Well, Hamill goes on to list his bona fides as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I suppose I can't blame him for not keeping up with baseball after his team was ripped from him in 1957. Knowing that Hamill grew up a Dodger fan when the Mays-Robinson rivalry was so heated made me expect that he would be a bit bitter about Say Hey.

But he isn't. Hamill describes how he stopped caring at all about baseball after the Dodgers left, and writes that Hirsch does a splendid job of filling him in on what he missed. How Mays could have probably had more than 700 home runs had he not played in the notoriously windy Candlestick Park in San Francisco. How Mays got to play against Sandy Koufax (could that be the best pitcher/hitter combo to ever grace the game?). And how Mays would spend his spare time helping out in the community, long before that was seen as just another good PR move.

Hamill's writing here is good, but I didn't really need any convincing. I'm a baseball fan, so I feel I need to read this book. More than any other sport, baseball has an ever-present relationship with its history. Certainly, the steroids era has has killed some of it, but we can compare our players today with those of yesterday. I know it sounds corny, and probably a bit hackneyed, but part of what I love about baseball is that history. So the Willie Mays book is kind of a no-brainer for me. But if I needed any more convincing, Hamill gives me one last great reason: "Willie Mays brought us joy. All of us."

26 February 2010

Review: Up In The Air

A couple of weekends ago, I had a free Saturday. I had no idea what to do, so I started trying to see if I could find any movies that I would want to but Victoria wouldn't. I saw that Up In The Air was playing at the Gallery Place theatre. Now, I will see pretty much anything with George Clooney in it, and I had heard enough good reviews to make seeing this in the theatre worth it. Turns out, I freaking loved the movie. Some nice humor, nothing too over-the-top, a bit of dark human drama. Pretty much everything I could ask for in a movie.

I decided to pick up Walter Kirn's novel of the same name on which the movie was based. I of course expected some changes, but the general plot would be the same, right? Absolutely not. The book and the movie share a few things:
  • Ryan Bingham is the protagonist and narrator
  • Alex is a love interest
  • Ryan's sister is getting married
  • Ryan is attempting to reach a high number of frequent flier miles (the actual # is different)
  • Ryan fires people for a living
Now that seems like a pretty substantial list. But there are some major differences. The book's Bingham looks forward to not flying. The movie's would find this insufferable. The book's Bingham is based out of Denver and spends most of his time in the West, while hoping for a job in Omaha. The movie's is based in Omaha and is trying to keep his job there while flying across the entire nation.

But the biggest difference between the two is who Ryan Bingham really is. In the movie, I saw Bingham as a fairly down-to-earth (despite all the flying) guy with some definite family and social issues, but nothing you wouldn't expect from a guy who spends his life in the air (to the tune of 10 million miles, all domestic). In the book, we are led to believe that Bingham is either insane, or just very amnesiac. (It's worth noting that other people have seen the insanity in the movie's Bingham. In his review of the movie, Will Leitch writes "Isn’t Ryan Bingham, all told, kind of insane? Just a step or two removed from Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan in Punch Drunk Love, he’s obsessed with American Airline frequent flier miles, a loner misfit who can’t interact with another human being longer than it takes to pay a bar tab." So there is that.)

Also, the book's Bingham has a strange fascination with drugs that leads to an episode in Las Vegas which was one of the most disenchanting passages I've read in a while. It is completely out of the realm of possibility to think that the movie version of Bingham would have this same thing happen. And here's where I am a bit confused. Did I find this passage so horrible because I was upset that our "hero" becomes an antihero? I'd like to think I've got enough appreciation for dark literature/film/etc. to like a good antihero, but here I'm not sure. I was really pulling for Bingham to have some sort of fulfillment, and he doesn't get it. Part of my problem though is that the Las Vegas scene doesn't seem entirely believable. Maybe it's partially the movie image of Bingham I had, but I never was able to fully believe that even book Bingham would go on a Vegas bender. It seems too cliché.

All of this said, would I recommend it? Sure. It's a really fast read, and it does have some interesting bits. For instance, this take on materialism (note: Great West is the made-up airline Bingham flies):
I know of no pleasure more reliable than consuming a great American brand against the backdrop featured in its advertising. Driving a Ford pickup down brown dirt roads. Swigging a Coke on the beach in Malibu. Flying Great West over central Colorado. It's a feeling of restfulness and order akin, I suspect, to how the ancient Egyptians felt watching the planets line up above the Pyramids. You're in the right place, you're running with the right forces, and if the wind should howl tomorrow, let it.
So yeah, if you've got nothing better to read, pick up a copy of Up In the Air, but I don't think it's anything you should specifically make time for.

22 February 2010

Review: Right Ho, Jeeves

I had read somewhere about the P.G. Wodehouse "Jeeves & Wooster" stories. I'm not sure where, and I don't quite remember when, but for some reason it piqued my interest. They were described as riotously funny British humor, and that tends to be something up my alley. After some searching, I found out it didn't matter what order one read the stories in, as none of the plots relied on one another. So I dove into one I found for free on Project Gutenberg: Right Ho, Jeeves. Let me go ahead and ruin any anticipation by saying: go buy this now.

That's Stephen Fry as the butler (actually, valet, but we'll go with butler) Jeeves, and Hugh Laurie as Bertram Wooster. Jeeves is your (stereo)typical tight-lipped butler, always willing to do what is asked of him despite what may be obvious defects in a plan. Bertram Wooster is a well-meaning dunderhead, as well as our narrator. Everything he touches gets all mussed up, and it falls to Jeeves to fix it. In Right Ho, Jeeves alone Wooster messes up (and Jeeves fixes)

  • The engagement of his cousin
  • The love affairs of a school-friend
  • The state of employ of the French chef Anatole at his aunt's estate
  • The viability of his Aunt's newspaper
  • A speech giving awards at a local grammar school
The typical formula is as follows: Jeeves wants to fix something, Wooster thinks he can do better, Wooster fails, Wooster fails some more, Wooster proves that there is no floor to failure, Jeeves fixes it all somehow. This seems like it could get tedious, but Wodehouse writes with such concise wit that it never does. 

Another part of why this book was so delightful is that it's an early-30s period piece. What a fantastic time to set a story in. Neat cars, lots of fine drinks, trains to Cannes for the summer, and the leftover sexual inhibitions of the Victorian era coexisting with a more liberal ideology.

I think it's best just to have a few quotes here. They're taken entirely out of context, but you don't really need the context to get the wit (though it does make it even better).

And yet, if he wants this female to be his wife, he's got to say so, what? I mean, only civil to mention it.

I studied it in a profound reverie for the best part of two dry Martinis and a dividend.

I could not but remember how often, when in her company at Cannes, I had gazed dumbly at her, wishing that some kindly motorist in a racing car would ease the situation by coming along and ramming her amidships. As I have already made abundantly clear, this girl was not one of my most congenial buddies

Uncle Tom, in addition to not liking burglars, is a bloke who has always objected to the idea of being cooked in his sleep, so when he bought the place he saw to it that the fire bell should be something that might give you heart failure.

And finally, on Jeeves:

To the best of my knowledge, he has never encountered a charging rhinoceros, but should this contingency occur, I have no doubt that the animal, meeting his eye, would check itself in mid-stride, roll over and lie purring with its legs in the air.

The whole thing is delightful, like reading a period version of The Hitchhiker's Guide or the novel on which half of Monty Python was based. If you've got any taste for British humor, it's an absolute must-read.

11 February 2010

Review: The Iliad

I finally finished The Iliad yesterday after having it slowed a bit by reading Pride and Prejudice. It was a phenomenal book, but tended to get a bit repetitive in parts. But there is even a reason for that, and it's one I can understand. What the story does really well is portray some characters very deeply, and make them really connect with the reader. I'll break this review down into the good and the bad.

First, the bad: the battle scenes tended to blend in my mind. Though the battles themselves are described in incredible detail, the acts of heroism become redundant after a while. I get that big Ajax is really quite strong. As is Hector. As is Agamemnon. As is Patroclus. As is... you get the point. There are only so many times I want to read something along the lines of "He challenged the son of _____ and called on (insert God here) to help him. He let fly his spear and it hit the buckler in the middle and pierced through. The dark death fell over _______'s eyes." Unless I am invested in the person, why do I need to know their background?

Now, there's a reason for this. The Iliad is a sort of history, but it was also originally sung or recited. The repetitiveness makes two things possible: comprehensiveness and flow. So that's why, while it bugged me, the nitty gritty wasn't a dealbreaker with this story. Which leads me to...

The good: the breadth, emotion, horror, and beauty of this story are unbelievable. Those characters that do play major roles are well-developed. You can't help but feel terribly as Achilles weeps over the death of his friend Patroclus. And the same goes for Priam as he tries to regain the body of Hector. The Iliad really doesn't hide the emotion and pain of war at all, be it through graphic descriptions of killing or heart-rending passages about those affected by the war. There is a reason this story has survived for thousands of years: it's incredibly compelling. Sure, in our modern time some of it seems unbelievable, but I think that added to it. Two armies fighting seems stupid. Two armies fighting while a group of gods do the same on the same field? That seems epic, and as if it is somehow more important. Does it make sense that way? Not really. Nevertheless, that's what I ended up feeling when I read this.

If, like me, you've waited this long to read The Iliad, don't hesitate any more. Go out and get Robert Fagles' translation (it was amazingly good, and never got bogged down in weird turns of phrase) and read it soon. At some point in the near future, I'll be diving into his version of The Odyssey, so expect a report from that in the next couple of months. I need a break from epics for a bit though. So next up will be P.G. Wodehouse's Right Ho, Jeeves, which I'm already halfway through. Look for that soon!

07 February 2010

Book World Banter: Feb. 7, 2010

I wasn't sure if I'd do this today, since we didn't get our paper (thanks Snowmageddon), but since the series is only one-week old, I figured I ought to. Book World today reviewed a number of interesting books (Henry Paulson's insider take on the financial crisis, and a book about the effects of nuclear power on the American government), but I'd like to focus on what may be the most harrowing. Joseph Kanon's The Last Train from Hiroshima provides an in-depth look at the effects of the atomic bomb on those who survived and were killed by it. Reviewer Charles Pellegrino does an excellent job of balancing the horror we feel at reading about this terrible event, and the fascination which comes from something that so few of us actually understand. What is a nuclear explosion actually like?

Apparently Kanon addresses this from both the human and the scientific standpoints. The horror of living with radiation poisoning and  the biological effects of the plasma cloud that accompanied the explosion. The book focuses on a large cast of characters, and traces the events of the day and their lives afterwards. Like so many books in this style (think The Boys of Summer):
cross-cutting fatigue inevitably sets in, and Pellegrino's account of what happened to everyone later, the legacy, lacks the cohesion of the earlier day-by-day approach. 
That said, the book looks absolutely fascinating and terrifying. One other note that I'm glad to read is that Kanon doesn't address the question of "should we have dropped it?" Certainly, it is still a relevant debate (though no amount of debate will expunge the event from history), but it has its place. A book describing the effects is not that place. If we want a look at the "should haves" we should look elsewhere. This book, however, will be going on my to-read list for sure.

Review: Pride and Prejudice

Take another "Why have I not read this?" book off of my list, and mark it as a resounding success. I finally got around to reading Jane Austen's seminal classic Pride and Prejudice. It was absolutely phenomenal, and I'm glad that Victoria prevailed upon me to read it.

I'm not really sure how much can be said about this book, though. I certainly have nothing profound to offer to the discourse of one of the most popular and written-about books of all time. But I do have a few minor observations from my read.
  • Charlotte, Elizabeth's best friend, has a rather amusing observation about the amount of affection ladies should show to men in order to get the point across:
    "In nine cases out of ten a woman had better show MORE affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on."
    We men have the stunning ability to be quite dense about these things. When it can be painfully obvious to the word that someone likes us, we'll hem and haw until the opportunity has passed. Austen (through Charlotte) has absolutely nailed it here.
  • Austen has an absolutely superb wit, and a really graceful way with words. For instance, we might say "Because Bingley's sister was insincere to Jane, Elizabeth disliked her." Austen gives us:
    "their indifference towards Jane when not immediately before them restored Elizabeth to the enjoyment of all her former dislike."
    Elizabeth relishes disliking these people, and as a reader, I certainly did too. I'm glad that Austen didn't try to make contempt seem bad, because in many cases it's warranted.
  • Another word for the ladies, from Mr. Darcy:
    "All this she must possess," added Mr. Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."
    Spot on Mr. Darcy.
  • Mr. Bennet is one of the best characters I've read in a while.
  • Wickham really struck me as being quite similar to Alfred Jingle in The Pickwick Papers. I wonder if Dickens was reading much of Austen's work?
  • Finally, Elizabeth gives Mr. Darcy some of the best advice I've read in ages:
    "You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure."
If you haven't read Pride and Prejudice, go out and get a copy post haste. It's really fantastic, and quite shameful that it took me 24 years to get to it.

06 February 2010

Snowmageddon (or whatever it is we're calling this)

We take a break from the frenetic pace of book blogging to bring you an update on the Super Snow-mageddon-ocalypse. If you want better updates, with prettier pictures, I'd recommend taking a look at VPO. She doesn't haven anything up right this second (other than a delicious cookie recipe), but she's been a shutterbug all storm and I'm sure her post will do it more justice than this.

Anyhow, I went and shoveled some snow with our neighbor last night. First time I've ever shoveled snow. This Washington state boy is all grown up, now. Maybe. But, as of 9ish last night, here's the view up our street.

Since then, in the ensuing 13 or so hours, we've probably added a foot. Yeesh. I'll probably go walk around tomorrow once it's all said and done and take a few more pictures, but this looks like it might actually live up to what the forecasts told us! Stay warm, everybody!