Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Jürgen Klinsmann on the Hot Seat

First-time U.S. Men's National Team soccer coach Jürgen Klinsmann, a former German National Team player, seems to have made his personnel decisions very personal.

Klinsmann recently made the inexplicable decision to not only bench the face of U.S. Men's soccer, Landon Donovan, but to leave him off the U.S. roster for the upcoming World Cup tournament in Rio de Janeiro altogether.  In NFL terms, he's tried to avoid a quarterback controversy by shooting the charismatic incumbent.

We can reasonably conclude that the Donovan decision took on the dimensions of a ego-supremacy battle for Klinsmann.  In the immediate aftermath of the roster decision, his teenaged son crowed at Donovan on Twitter, an immature and classless act but one that also suggests the promulgation of a "Him vs. Us" mentality around the dinner table.  It would appear Daddy has been taking his work home with him.

The Donovan episode reminds me of another battle of wills: German engineers vs. American test pilots in the early days of NASA, as depicted in Tom Wolfe's book and the subsequent movie "The Right Stuff".  The control-minded engineers had designed a faceless, windowless capsule, and barely bothered to disguise their contempt for the pilots, viewing them essentially as laboratory animals; whereupon the daredevil astronauts-in-training rebelled, demanded windows and aircraft controls, and insisted their vessel be recharacterized as a human-piloted spacecraft.

Even if Klinsmann is technically right about Donovan's late-career decline, the roster snub is a crude attempt to squelch the essentially American character of the U.S. team by eliminating its signature player, the one individual whom history suggests can save their bacon in stoppage time. It's a hostile and contemptuous act by an insecure leader.

Landon Donovan's place in U.S. soccer history is secure, with or without Rio.  All he's done since Jürgen Klinsmann's roster debacle is surpass the all-time MLS goals record.  Meanwhile, as the result of one blinkered decision, Klinsmann's tenure in the Western Hemisphere may be over almost before it's begun.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Blues Brothers 2015

Downtown Milwaukee prepares for the filming
of the new "Blues Brothers" movie sequel

[photo credit: @danteswardrobe]






Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Rank Reveal

Ian, Ian, Ian. You were so close to a five-star rating.

In The Black Book, the fifth novel-length installment in your Inspector Rebus mystery series, you've manufactured a rebellious hero with a worthy crime to solve, eight or nine threads of misdirection, and enough stops in the pub to outdo Masterpiece Mysteries' Inspector Morse. Your story has winningly wise-ass sidekicks, frustratingly bureaucratic bosses, and belligerently boastful bad guys. You continue to describe the Edinburgh milieu colorfully with each new Inspector Rebus episode, with most of the colors being browns and grays. Your well-paced plot kept me turning pages through an entire four-day visit to Schenectady (but that's another story).

And then, Mr. Rankin, you do this: you have a hell-raising suspect disclose the final reveal in the form of a narrative, eight-page diary entry -- eight pages! -- written as fully and articulately as you yourself write. Why, it reads as though it could have been an early plot outline that you'd prepared for your editor, or even a short story worthy of inclusion in The Hanging Game.

Such a pity. You were so close. Oh, Ian.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bob's Best Books of 2013 - The Top Ten, and Then Some

This is a purely personal list of books that I've read, finished (mostly), and enjoyed during 2013, regardless of publication date.  A more complete catalog of books I've read, along with 1-star to 5-star ratings and occasional capsule reviews, is on my Goodreads.com page.

Now, without further ado...the best of 2013!

1. Fisherman's Beach by George Vukelich (1962)A moving, well-written story of a patriarchal family and way of life in crisis and transition. The Upper Great Lakes setting is visceral and pervasive; the writing is crisp, colorful, and powerful in its simplicity.  Comparable in quality and tone to the German novella, Der Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse).  I'm astounded that this regional work from the late Wisconsin writer didn't receive wider attention, although an excellent Madison Magazine profile of the author's life and a new edition of his novel may help to rectify that.

2. The Unlikely Secret Agent by Ronnie Kasrils (2012).  In a year that ended with Nelson Mandela's passing, this suspensefully plotted memoir of a young woman's small-scale, clandestine operations against the South African apartheid regime in the 1960s, in concert with the ANC and other revolutionary elements, serves as a testimony to her pluck, persistence, and resourcefulness under the constant threat of capture and harsh treatment.  Written by her admiring husband following her death, the book also serves as an internal snapshot of the organizational and personal alliances the two of them formed in pursuit of their activities.

3. Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey by Karen Wilkin (2009).  I became aware of cartoonist Edward Gorey, the comically morbid heir to Chas. Addams and progenitor to goth-graphic filmmaker Tim Burton, in the 1970s.  The Loathsome Couple (1977), Gorey's illustrated tale of two macabre anti-heros for whom a mundane life gets worse and worse, was a staple of my personal wry humor collection for years.  Elegant Enigmas is a comprehensive, curated survey of Gorey's masterful career -- although I agree with one commenter who suggested that those wholly unfamiliar with his work check out some of his original storybooks first.

4. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963) and The Looking Glass War (1965) by John le Carré.  I'm still catching up on the George Smiley series by British espionage master le Carré.  This pair of iconic, acclaimed, literary spy thrillers elevated le Carré from his erstwhile status as part-time mystery writer, whose "detective" happens to be a middle-aged ex-spy, to a recipient of worldwide acclaim as a deep explorer of immorality, deceit, and duplicity by agencies and assassins on an international scale.  His characters' harsh actions are justified, at first, by a sense of patriotic duty.  The further one reads in the Smiley series, however, the harder it is to tell the good guys from the bad.

5. Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (2012).  This short book serves a profound, dual purpose: it is a frank, autobiographical documentary of the grinding, mundane realities of the author's diminishing quality of life as his terminal disease (esophageal cancer) overtakes him; and it is a stark defense of his strident, lifelong atheism.  As a mathematics student, I was once taught the value of testing general propositions under extreme conditions.  By examining his own debunking of faith during episodes of his failing health, an extreme condition that leads some to bargain with one or more deities with whom they haven't previously communicated, Hitchens provides the generous gift of transparency to his readers not presently in such dire straits.  He reaffirms his godless philosophy -- to his own satisfaction, at least.

6. A Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone (1964).  Must confess, I haven't finished A Hall of Mirrors just yet.  However, any literary debut that uses colorful description, well-drawn characters, and brilliant dialogue to send up both sleazy, fly-by-night rescue mission preachers and rightist media polemicists in its first 120 pages gives me great hope for the remaining 280.  Set in New Orleans, the book is comparable to John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (completed 1964; published 1981).  One wonders if Stone and Toole had made each other's acquaintance.

7. Hoot (2002) and Chomp (2012) by Carl Hiaasen.  I've accumulated almost a whole shelf of Carl Hiaasen's comedic, ecologically moralistic novels, now stacked on my overburdened books-to-read bookcase and waiting for a scrap of my attention.  So naturally, rather than start on those, I've been reading his books for kids instead.  Same wackiness, same eco-morals, same sticky come-uppances for the defilers of nature; just a bit quicker to read.  Or, in the case of Chomp, to listen to as an audiobook on an overnight Amtrak trip to Schenectady.  Even Hiaasen himself might not have calculated the comically disruptive effect of the repeatedly spoken character name of "Wahoo" on a railroad passenger and his seatmates.

8. The Third Man by Graham Greene (1948).  Conceived originally as the mere outline for the classic suspense movie of the same name, The Third Man is a detective novella with cinematic detail and more literary exposition than one would expect from a text that the author did not imagine the public would see.

9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013).  Touting a book by the ever-popular pop-goth fantacist Neil Gaiman feels a bit like following the herd, but in this case it's a genuine recommendation.  Just as portrait artists who work in oils create self-portraits in their own style, Gaiman has created an artful, fictional self-portrait using nonfictional events and settings from his childhood.  The latest output from the groundbreaking graphic novelist known for the Sandman series, Ocean can also be taken as Gaiman's own, personal superhero origins story -- or, more simply, as a narrative answer to the one question that plagues all successful authors: "Where do you get your ideas?"

10. Humor in Craft by Brigitte Martin (2012).  Ever since I saw a talented friend throw and carve a cartoonish firehouse mug on a potter's wheel, with a firehose for a handle, I've been intrigued by the ability of artists to create humorous works of high wit.  Humor in Craft is a collection of such works in multiple media from a cross-cultural perspective.  Only two complaints: I wish some of the photographed exhibits were larger, and I wish certain craft techniques were at least introduced so that readers who take inspiration from the collection might be able to follow in the artists' funny footsteps.

Honorable mention:

Six Days of the Condor by James Grady (1974).  One Man Against the Machine Award.

The Odessa File by Frederick Forsythe (1972).  Suspense with Horrifying Historical Elements Award.

Knots and Crosses (1987), Hide and Seek (1990), Tooth and Nail (1992), A Good Hanging (1992), and Strip Jack (1992) by Ian Rankin.  Bob's Found a New Mystery Series Award.

Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith (1992).  Bob's Other Favorite Mystery Series Award. 

Free Country: A Penniless Adventure the Length of Britain by George Mahood (2013).  Light-Hearted Travel E-Book for Settling Down and Trying to Go to Sleep Award.

The Babe and I by Mrs. Babe Ruth (1959).  You May Be Beloved But They Still Won't Make You a Manager Award.

Post Office by Charles Bukowski (1971).  And You Thought Your Job Was Unfulfilling Award.



Thursday, December 12, 2013

Goodreads, and My OneNote Wiki Trick, Part II

[See Part 1, posted Oct. 16, 2012.]

As a bucket load of "Best of 2013" book lists is dumped upon us, the tools I've used to make order from the chaos of infinite possibility have continued to serve me well.  Goodreads, now under the Amazon corporate umbrella, is still my go-to web service for tracking books read, books anticipated, and books flung against the wall in disdain (or, more broadly, set aside).  I still cut-'n'-paste lists of fiction and nonfiction works by my favorite authors from their respective Wikipedia pages into Microsoft OneNote.

What's new is the omnipresence of a smartphone in my pocket (oh, grow up!).  I carry a Motorola Photon 4G (MB855), a nifty, if prior generation Android 2.3 unit on Ting, a low-cost MVNO (mobile service reseller) that completes calls over the Sprint network.  I've loaded the Goodreads Android app onto the phone, which allows me to enter new books and reading updates remotely.

However, for my stubby fingers on a medium-sized smartphone in the dim light of a library or at a yard sale, it's still a nuisance to search the Goodreads app for a complete list of an author's works, such as all books in Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko series, especially if I need their chronological order.  I want to know quickly: have I read this particular title by Tom Robbins or Tom Sharpe before?  Do I have a copy at home?  Also, as I mainly use Wifi (free, on Ting) instead of 3G/4G (which costs) for mobile data, how can I access my book lists when I'm out and about, and not near a Wifi hotspot?


The solution I've fastened on is to make small notations in my OneNote author lists, which I use to annotate the cut-'n'-pasted Wikipedia pages.  I'll type "Finished" or "Started" by a title.  If I've already purchased, say, the third-from-now Inspector Rebus novel by Ian Rankin and stockpiled it on my overburdened bookcases at home, I'll mark that title with an 'x'.

Crucially, Microsoft OneNote on my Windows 7 PC can sync data with the OneNote Android app on my Photon 4G.  It takes a bit of set-up, but then it syncs the data via Microsoft SkyDrive whenever I'm near a Wifi hotspot and click on the corresponding OneNote folder on my phone.  Voilà: instant mobile access to my reading lists, want-to-read lists, and notes -- including which books I already own so I don't buy duplicates at the ten-cent sale.


In truth, it's not much different than carrying around a small, paper-based diary or notebook of your reading lists, except the OneNote solution scales and organizes free-form lists with your changing whims.  It would take a long time to write out all the book titles by all your favorite authors by hand instead of utilizing the ol' cut-'n'-paste routine.  Also, books are just one category for which you might like quick, remote access; you may also be interested in carrying pages of your CDs, DVDs, sports tickets, or wine cellar inventory.  Do you want to carry a paper diary for each one?

In summary: Yes, OneNote continues to be an excellent list-keeping tool.  Yes, it's now in my pocket.  And yes, I'm happy to see you.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How Many Lanes Must Neil Gaiman Walk Down?

While many readers will take The Ocean at the End of the Lane as a parable for an adult's hazy recollection of the intense feelings and dark fears and fantasies of childhood, a more specific perspective is possible: this is Neil Gaiman's gothic self-portrait, in the sense of a painter who depicts himself looking in a mirror, his bemused image standing out centrally if tentatively, embedded as it is in the composition among his favorite semiotic objects.

Fittingly for a creator and writer of comics, it's also Gaiman's superhero origins story, presenting how a figurative, residual hole in the author's heart from childhood traumatic events has led to his lifelong, genius ability to access his sharp, surrealistic imagination for popular consumption and illumination.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

Free Country

Everyone loves a crazy stunt, especially one that's perpetrated and documented by two mostly congenial guys on holiday: in this case, author George Mahood and his cranky friend Ben. Cycling the length of Britain starting without bicycles (to say nothing of money, clothes, food, or a tent) qualifies. Mahood's Free Country is a winning entry in the time-tested "Wry in the Rye" genre, which Jerome K. Jerome founded with his classic, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), and to which Bill Bryson contributed, entertaining trail-walking wannabes with A Walk in the Woods.

Reading any two consecutive chapters of these English lads' travelogue will put the most hardened cynic in a cheerful mood. My only complaint is the author's repeatedly mocking his own turns of phrase every tenth sentence or so in a flat-tired attempt at cleverness. Other than that, the chain stays on the metaphorical bicycle, so to speak -- unlike the one on the author's sorry two-wheeler.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bank Shot

This second installment of Donald E. Westlake's "Dortmunder" series combines familiar, bumbling criminals, a reluctant, curmudgeonly mastermind, and oblivious members of the constabulary, to lighthearted comedic effect.  This is a Robert Redford caper movie in novel form, with Bugs Bunny dialogue, only slower and with less Mel Blanc-sy voices; in contrast, however, Robert Redford and Bugs Bunny always come out on top.  Here, you get the feeling after each episode falters that John Dortmunder will invariably be back on his home turf, conning moms and widows out of their tens and twenties in his fallback encyclopedia sales scam, shortly after the big bank job that he and his henchmen have conceived, planned, and taken farcical pains to execute washes away, just out of reach.

The second novel in a series is the hardest, so they say.  Westlake succeeds by reducing the degree of difficulty, relative to the series opener, the serial gem heist caper The Hot Rock, while maintaining the same mad, mad sensibility.  It's a comedy writer's version of productivity growth: the same laughs for a simpler book.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Moose Jaw

Aw, crap.  I had to downgrade this enjoyable nightstand read by Mike Delany from four stars to three stars to protest its hackneyed, supernatural ending.  The occult explanation of events that had been vaguely foretold and lightly foreshadowed was never relinquished, only rationalized.  The characters didn't so much solve the mystery as have the spooky solution revealed unto them. 

Pity, because I'd been engrossed in the adventure.  The novel's first half included several well-written chapters depicting Alaskan outdoorsmanship and backwoods cabin life, among the best I've read.  The third quarter placed the protagonist in more and more danger, but events still lay within the bounds of plausibility.  I was sure that within the denouement we would learn some natural explanation of weird happenings: something in the spring water; some hallucinogenic plant inadvertently consumed; some mental health issue spurring the protagonist's prodigious consumption of alcohol and increasing paranoia.  Some prankster in a bear suit.  Something.

But this magic-laced ending, as ripe as a hunting party after a two-week Alaskan fishing trip?  Aw, crap.

Side note: there's a touch of arrested development in the author's Hefneresque depiction of a relationship with a damsel in distress, a-heh, a-heh.  (Spoiler: goose grease.)


Monday, April 1, 2013

Opening Day - It's Here!

We've raked, burnt firewood, and exchanged gifts.  We've huddled, shoveled, and whined.  We've counted the weeks until Spring Training and the days until the Major League Baseball season starts.

It's here.  It's Opening Day.  The 2013 Milwaukee Brewers are ready to play ball, three miles from our house.

It's still freakin' cold.  Doesn't matter.  We've got a roof - eat your heart out, Minnesota!






Monday, February 25, 2013

Dr. Koop Speaks Out

[Originally posted October 30, 2009]

President Reagan's Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, M.D., noteworthy for his public health pronouncements based on scientific facts during the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, is now 93 years old. With his penchant for truth-telling, Dr. Koop recently described a troubling aspect of the mindset of Mr. Reagan's largely conservative cabinet in an interview that was printed in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine:

"The attitude of President Ronald Reagan's cabinet was that the kind of people who got AIDS -- promiscuous women, homosexual men, drug addicts, people on heroin -- deserved what they got. Americans hadn't treated prisoners of war as badly." (DAM, Nov/Dec 2009, p. 96).

Dr. Koop is an equal-opportunity critic; in the same interview, he questioned the necessity of President Obama's wholesale reform of America's health care system. Such skepticism -- the laudable practice of looking before one leaps -- is a proper function of conservatism as a countervailing force to ambitious political agendas.

What Dr. Koop's observation about his fellow Reagan Administration political appointees confirms, however, is that the Republicans' attitude toward the defining public health disaster of the 1980s and 1990s was a matter not of principled, conservative caution but of active contempt for certain disfavored segments of citizens. It's a worthy contribution to the historical record from the former official who is still, in some minds, America's Physician.

*  *  *

Epilogue: According to a Dartmouth College statement, "Former Surgeon General of the United States C. Everett Koop ’37, MD, a pioneer in the field of pediatric surgery, a leader in the fight to create a smoke-free nation, and founder of the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, died peacefully at his home in Hanover, N.H. on February 25, 2013. He was 96 years old."


Friday, February 1, 2013

Lyle Overbay: Fan Instructions

As a Milwaukee Brewers fan, it is incumbent upon me to instruct Boston Red Sox fans [ed. update: as of March 26, 2013, New York Yankees fans] [ed. update #2: as of January 20, 2014, the next generation of Brewers fans!] in the proper procedure for welcoming their newly signed free agent, journeyman first baseman and former Brewer Lyle Overbay, to the batter's box for his plate appearances during the upcoming Major League Baseball season.

The Preparation

Step 1: Set beverage in a safe location.
Step 2: Assume an attentive posture, either sitting or standing, depending on the game situation.
Step 2a: If sitting, sit upright and swivel torso slightly in the direction of the batter's box.
Step 2b: If standing, face the batter's box, balanced evenly and comfortably over the soles of both feet in a "ready" position.

The Positioning

[Note:  The following Steps 3 through 9 are performed in rapid succession.  Practice until you have achieved a competent speed and smooth motion.]

Step 3: As Mr. Overbay leaves the on-deck circle, raise arms above head, as if you are signaling a touchdown.
Step 4: Flex the elbows until the fingertips touch.
Step 5: Flex the elbows further, lowering the point of fingertip contact along the vertical axis above the head by approximately 3".
Step 6: Pull elbows back slightly until your arms occupy the same vertical plane as the non-intersected line segment between your ears.
Step 7: Bend the wrists slightly to form a rounded, approximately circular arc from each shoulder to the fingertips.
Step 8: Open mouth into an "O" shape.
Step 9: Take a deep breath.

The Catharsis

Step 10: Sing the poetic word "O" as if it were the first word of the song "America the Beautiful" being sung after midnight in a fraternity basement.
Step 11: Hold the "O" as a whole note for eight measures or until you run out of breath, whichever comes first.
Step 12: Repeat Steps 9 through 11 for the duration of the at-bat or until your neighbors threaten to call the usher, whichever comes first. 

The Denouement

Step 13: Lower arms.
Step 14: If standing, retake your seat.
Step 15: Inform your Beloved Spousal Unit, who did not stand and therefore did not see the play as it transpired, of the outcome of Mr. Overbay's plate appearance so that she may properly enter it in the scorebook.
Step 16: Close mouth before the flies, gnats, and mosquitos sign a lease and take up residence. 

The Epilogue

Step 17: Pick up beverage.



***
Update: Lyle Overbay was granted a release by the Boston Red Sox on March 26, 2013, making him a free agent.  The instructions presented above remain fully applicable and may be transferred to a new team.
***
Same Day Double-Update: Doubles hitter and free agent Lyle Overbay was signed by the New York Yankees on the same day that he was released by the Red Sox, following in the footsteps of former Bostonians Babe Ruth and Johnny Damon. My Two Innings looks forward to posting reports of the echoing "O-O-O" calls, if not actual doubles, careening around the Yankee Stadium monuments.
***
UPDATE: WELCOME BACK TO THE BREWERS!  Milwaukee signed Lyle Overbay to a minor league deal, with an invitation to Spring Training, on January 20, 2014!  A whole new generation of Brewers fans will require instruction in the basics.  "O-O-O-O-OOOOOOO!"

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fire Watch

"Fire Watch", the title story in the 1985 short story collection of the same name, is the departure point for Connie Willis's series of novels featuring time-traveling Oxford historians of the future. For their practicum, the graduate students of the history department are sent back in time to observe and participate in crucial events: in this case, the heroic, yet mundane civil defense efforts by Londoners facing the German firebombing of St. Paul's Cathedral during WWII.

By turns imaginative, speculative, wry, and shocking, "Fire Watch" combines the educational virtues of the historical fiction genre with a futurist's deft treatment of alternative explanations and outcomes. The result is a discourse on the pragmatic role of history and historians and an illustration of the need to overcome the emotional attachment to the one course of events that has actually occurred.


Monday, November 19, 2012

The Dog Stars

Globetrotting author Peter Heller writes adventure, travel, and other non-fiction, often involving dangerous situations.  His first novel, The Dog Stars, is a post-apocalyptic Western set in Colorado, with wonderful, lyrical writing about private piloting, mountain stream fishing, and a beloved canine companion.  Replace the commas with slashes and you have an epic survivalist tale in free verse.

The book includes rich explorations on meanings and purposes in a new, harsh reality (i.e., shoot high-caliber weapons first, explore meanings and purposes later).  Heller's protagonist Hig, a Cessna pilot and outdoorsman turned aerial scout and turf-defender by necessity, has a sliver more heart and hope than his physically and emotionally bunkered neighbor, but you wouldn't know it by his lethal actions against both hostile and non-hostile intruders.  Even so, while his partner tends their airfield arsenal, Hig entertains the notion of a life beyond, fueled by a chance radio reception which leads him to a journey of peril and discovery.

(I've got Olivia Wilde as the doctor; that's probably just me.)

My fellow Dartmouth alumni will appreciate Heller's drop-in references -- he also spent four years in Hanover -- including an impassioned, fitting sidebar on Eastern Establishment condescension toward the West.

I look forward with anticipation to reading more of Peter Heller's adventurous works.  While I'm more of a National Geographic than a Field and Stream fan, anyone who can turn the end of civilization into a nature appreciation treatise while his hero dodges bullets is worth a gander.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Maybe If I'd Been a Cage Rat...

When I was 11, I was selected to play for the Niskayuna Rotary Little League team.  I'd hit pretty well at the A and AA levels, and I could catch a fly ball in left field.  I'd been too sick to attend four out of five weeknights of major league tryouts, so unlike my more qualified peers, I had the crucial advantage of not yet having demonstrated my incompetence to the coaches.  I got the call!

(Similar logic by Internet analysts -- buy anything that hasn't publicly failed yet -- explains in large part the NASDAQ tech bubble of the late 1990's.)

That first year in the majors, I batted two hundred points below the Mendoza Line.  (You might say, I had a NASDAQ crash of my own.)  Needless to say, Kevin Long was not my hitting coach.

Fortunately for the New York Yankees, Kevin Long is their hitting coach.  Even better, he's a good coach, the 2012 postseason notwithstanding.  He's written a book, Cage Rat, describing his years as a minor league player and coach, ultimately getting the call to join the Yankees and serve as a second pair of eyes for All-Stars Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixara, Robinson Cano, and the rest of the Bronx Bombers.

Even more fortunately for Little Leaguers, Cage Rat presents Coach Long's instructions, with photos, on how to stand in, balance, stride, sit "dead red" (assume a fastball is coming), and keep your head still so you can see the pitch without distortion.  For the professional ballplayers, Long spends hours upon hours in the video room and the batting cage (his "office") analyzing, deconstructing, and reconstructing the mechanics of each player's swing.

Imagine a book by an auto mechanic who absolutely loves being an auto mechanic.  He may be a bit shallow, personally, but he knows absolutely everything there is to know about steering linkages.  He also knows how to sweet-talk and persuade the especially balky steering linkages into yielding willingly to his wrench.  The steering linkages love him for it.  That's the tone of this book.

Mostly, however, this is Long's personal and professional story.  He struggled as a minor league player for eight years in the Kansas City organization, never quite achieving a promotion to the majors (maybe he should have feigned illness during tryouts?).  He restarted his career as a minor league coach, working his way up and eventually shifting to the Yankees' organization.  As minor league salaries are less than table scraps, he was supported financially for more than a decade by his wife Marcie, who worked crazy hours at restaurants and bars to support their three children.  The wisest move K-Long made in writing this book (with the assistance of sportswriter Glen Waggoner) was to hand Marcie the pen for a chapter plus several more passages.  The lady more than earned the right to tell her story, and to sport her Yankees-blue playoff scarf proudly.

The behind-the-scenes views of the Yankees' clubhouse and batting cages are limited to various stars' pregame routines.  The limited look through the peephole in the fence that we're allowed isn't nearly as salacious as a true clubhouse exposé -- this is no Ball Four, despite a few personality and work habit descriptions -- but it should satisfy fans who are truly interested in the mechanical aspects of hitting and the detailed work that goes into daily game preparation.

It also serves as an excellent cover letter and resume for one Kevin Long, Professional Hitting Coach, should the need ever arise.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Shopgirl

Where the hell is the three-and-a-half stars option?  In this Europeanish relationships fable, Steve Martin's nuanced depictions of his characters' emotions and thought processes and keen eye for decorative detail create from whole cloth a highly credible protagonist, two suitors who could not be more different (rich man, poor man), and a comedically villanous archrival in hot, competitive pursuit of the same affection-givers.

Martin's singular accomplishment in an era of contemporary literary bombast is to depict an introvert as his fully human lead.  Indeed, she's a normal introvert, not someone who's scary, unbalanced, or traumatized, though she does have a depression issue.  A rare, unambitious heroine, Mirabelle is the invisible worker we all pass by daily, in the store or on the street, without stopping to think about their story; Martin provides the story and creates empathy.

Where the book suffers slightly is when he lets his jokey side off the leash and starts to describe bedroom activities to unnecessary degrees of resolution.  Also, I found Mirabelle's source of continuing financial support to stretch credulity; one can almost hear Martin's fellow comedian Judy Tenuta bleating out, "Hey! It could happen!"


Monday, November 5, 2012

Lightning Quick

Lightning: A Novel, a small volume from a new hybrid genre of fictionalized biography, insinuated its way into my towering library borrowings stack.  It was a quick read with an educational payoff.

This is biography as storytelling, a narrative speculation on the life of neurotic, revolutionary inventor Nikola Tesla. The fictionalized specific events, closely based on the history of Tesla's inventions, and the author's speculations into Tesla's emotional state as the picaresque tale of his business dealings unfolds, place the book in the shaded area between historical fiction and popular history; the former is emphasized by the word "novel" on the cover and the use of "Gregor" rather than "Nikola" as the name of the protagonist.

French author Echenoz creates a story arc not through technological developments but through the use of recurring, colorful details as markers: Gregor's fondness for aviary companions; his fastidiousness of dress; his obsessive-compulsive habits. The product is a breezy, accessible introduction to the life of Tesla that could serve as a treatment for a one-man stage play.

My only hesitation in recommending this book, and others from the same author and genre, is that the story framework has the depth of a Wikipedia article; indeed, the sum of the author's background research could have been the Wikipedia article on Tesla.  By calling the book a novel and by emphasizing the subject's mindset over his technological contributions (other than to mention them serially as new examples of his propensity to get cheated), the author seems to be communicating the message: this is a work of narrative art, not history or technology; please don't criticize me for not including citations.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Ahhhhhhhhhh...Gotta Go!

Farewell, Nyjer.  Milwaukee just won't be the same.









Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Goodreads, and My OneNote Wiki Trick

The ol' cut-and-paste maneuver has transformed my life, yet again!

First, I started using the Goodreads web site (http://www.goodreads.com) to track my books.  When I say "my" books, I'm not using a strict definition of ownership; my tracking entries include books that have penetrated my gray cells at some point, whether I've owned them, borrowed them from the library, obtained them and later exchanged them at a Little Tiny Library, pre-read and re-gifted them, found them at a yard sale and resold them, donated them in overstuffed bags and collapsing bankers' boxes to some Friends of the Library sale or Goodwill, flung them against the wall after a screamingly bad paragraph and broken their little spines, or used them for fireplace kindling when we've run out of sticks.

The titles, thus entered, are categorized into books I've read, books I'm reading -- several at a time, usually, in various states of perusal --, books I intend to read, and books I've started but set aside, either indefinitely or permanently.  It's way more fun than it sounds; if you include your childhood Dr. Seuss and Hardy Boys treasures, as I do, your personal catalog can be very large indeed.

Why do this?  It's something akin to a line from the movie "Clockwise", spoken by the time-obsessed Headmaster played by John Cleese: "The first step to knowing who you are is to know where you are and when you are!"  To this, I would add: what you've read, seen, listened to, or otherwise experienced.  No doubt, The Baseball Encyclopedia or one of its competitors now has an app where you can track all the games you've attended; recalling and entering that data could keep me occupied for weeks!

Tracking books I've read has been both fun and motivational; I'm eager to recall what I've read and even more eager to finish reading books to expand my list.  It can also be social, if you learn that an acquaintance also has a book-tracking obsession.  (Friends and readers of this blog are welcome to view my collection, such as it is; my current reading list can be found in a sidebar to this blog.)

Still, even with Goodreads, something was missing from this rare instance of semi-obsessive organization on my part: the ability to ascertain at a glance when in a favorite author's career a particular book was written, and in what sequence.  I'm pretty sure Sue Grafton wrote A is for Alibi before B is for Burglar, but I'd have a harder time putting Carl Hiaasen's Sick Puppy, Tourist Season, and Double Whammy in the right order.  This is oddly important when you find a copy of, say, one of John le Carre's George Smiley spy novels on a thrift store shelf and want to know if he already knows what you know he will know.

Enter Microsoft OneNote and Wikipedia.  I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Carl Hiaasen, scrolled down to his bibliography, highlighted it, and cut-and-pasted it into its own page under an Authors tab in OneNote.  Now, rather than doing a Wikipedia search every time, I click into OneNote on my Windows 7 system tray, and with two more clicks I can see that Tourist Season was Hiaasen's first solo novel.  Easy and quick.


This isn't a patentable idea -- is it?  Surely not, but it's made my reading life more enjoyable and organized.  Now, if I could only keep my bookcases as tidy...


Thursday, October 4, 2012

My First Smiley

Call for the Dead, master spywriter John le Carré's first novel (1961), introduces George Smiley, the rumpled, curmudgeonly British operative, to a generation of suspense enthusiasts.  Short and squat, Oxford-educated, shrewd yet scarcely able to defend himself in violent encounters, Smiley is the anti-Bond, a dogged Inaction Hero without a hint of handsome, with only a reluctant, undashing dash of derring-do.

Structured as a simple mystery, with a murder investigation at its core and only tangential reference to geopolitical intrigue, le Carré's story presents Smiley and his surrounding cast in sharp relief, without the shadowy double-crosses and moral murkiness of his later novels.  Accordingly, this book is an easy read, save for a few quid worth of English colloquialisms, with simple exposition, only a handful of characters to follow, and several recapitulations of "what we know" as the unfolding proceeds. 

Invitingly, Call for the Dead draws the reader into the Smiley oeuvre with this initial foray into the world of old-school spycraft.  The beleaguered agent's life will soon become vastly more complicated.


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