So, while I was at work yesterday, I finally picked up Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book has been in stores for a while, and yet people continue to talk about it in glowing terms, so I decided I ought to take a look. Considering that this is a book about baseball, I was surprised that people have continued to talk about it even though it’s been out for two months. Usually baseball books interest only the baseball fans who read them, and that’s that. Moneyball, however, appears to transcend the ghetto of sports literature. I manged to breeze through about a hundred pages yesterday, and I have to say, I can’t wait to get back to reading it. The interesting thing about this book is that in discussing the mini revolution that has occurred in the business of baseball, it touches upon a variety of disperate topics. This book is a must read for baseball fans, but it should also be read by anyone who is interested in economics and psychology, as well as by anyone who enjoys a good character-driven, non-fiction book. It’s good stuff.
Pitting a novel entitled Am I a Redundant Human Being? against Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love may initially seem like an imbalanced match. Eat, Pray, Love is more than double its length, a best-seller turned blockbuster movie, an inspirational book devoted to the pursuit of sensuality, spirituality, personal independence, and love. Mela Hartwig’s Am I a Redundant Human Being? is a conspicuous underdog, a slight volume in translation written by the Austrian actress turned novelist Mela Hartwig who befriended Virginia Woolf in Woolf’s final years. Gilbert’s book is a travel memoir that recounts a year-long pilgrimage in search of personal enlightenment that Gilbert the writer planned to chronicle well before booking her flights, while Hartwig’s is a bildungsroman, centered on the ineffectual Aloisia Schmidt who aspires to significance as she bemoans the dullness of the existence she was born into. The titles alone reveal the divergent natures of the two books, and demand that you answer, as a reader, are you drawn to pleasance or neurotic self-doubt? The Library of Congress classifies Am I a Redundant Human Being? primarily as a book about “self-realization in women,” which is the topic of Gilbert’s book, too: the process of growing into the person you dream of becoming (or, in Schmidt’s case, of failing to do so). Gilbert’s path to self-actualization is fairly clear-cut: first stop Italy, where she learns Italian and binges on pasta and pizza merely because she wants to, next an ashram in India in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, and a final stop in Bali for balance, where inevitably, it’s no secret, she falls in love. As Gilbert states towards the end of her journey: “I think about the woman I have become lately, about the life that I am now living, and about how much I always wanted to be this person and live this life, liberated from the farce of pretending to be anyone other than myself.” However inspiring or cloying or annoying you find Gilbert’s self-satisfaction by book’s end, this becoming one’s ideal is exactly what Hartwig’s Aloisia Schmidt yearns to do, so desperately in fact that she’s willing to destroy her life in this pursuit. Aloisia Schmidt is wonderfully insufferable. She recounts the sad events of her insignificant life in tireless detail. She is neither beautiful nor ugly, intelligent nor stupid, good student nor bad: the sum of her life is one large zero, or at least that’s what she would lead you, dear reader, to believe. However, Schmidt has penetrating insight into her own inadequacies and shortcomings, as well as the strength to willfully unravel her unexceptional life, as her first boyfriend, Emil K., accuses: “it’s hubris, Luise, to think so little of yourself… You’re acting as if you’ve been singled out. As if it’s your destiny to feel this way.” She rejects suitors with good intentions in favor of caustic affairs, erodes the faith of others, especially lovers, with her own self-doubt, and alienates anyone who believes in her - true to Groucho Marx’s adage, she wouldn’t care to join any club that would have her as a member. Gilbert, on the other hand, identifies as being “social and bubbly and smiling all the time,” and makes friends wherever she goes. Her tone conveys personal warmth. She speaks plainly, offering intimate details and asides as if confiding in a good friend. In India, Gilbert admits her lifelong desire “to be the quiet girl,” but then counters this quickly with: “Probably precisely because I’m not.” She is the well-intentioned socialite, and never, however much she halfheartedly wishes, the despondent wallflower. However, Gilbert’s glibness and sometimes pussyfooting make one wonder about her depth. We need not forget that Gilbert is on a professional mission. Following her divorce and failed love affair, the self-proclaimed “administrator of my own rescue” had the wherewithal to pitch her book, pack her bags, and journey solo around the world for a year, under the pretense of finding herself. Gilbert is closer in nature to one of Schmidt’s prep school classmates who are better dressed, better prepared, just more advantaged in general, something that Schmidt later identifies as “two-faced arrogance that comes with money and social position - things I completely lacked, and still lack.” When she has moved on to office life, Schmidt becomes “conscious of my pathetic tendency to be impressed by anyone the least bit self-assured.” Lacking confidence distinguishes Schmidt from the women she both envies and admires, and this distinguishes her from Gilbert, too. Schmidt later befriends an actress (uncannily) named Elizabeth, who she wants so much to be that she imitates her, and this emulation becomes Schmidt’s one inspired role. After Elizabeth’s suicide, Schmidt attempts to inhabit her character, wanting “to make her fate my own, to experience it as a dream and desire.” Aloisia Schmidt is like Eve Harrington, the cunning understudy in All About Eve, though it’s not Elizabeth's fame and prominence she covets, it’s her entire existence. Where Gilbert grows into her ideal self in the end, Schmidt’s ideal self is someone else entirely. Of the two books, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is the one Aloisia Schmidt would prefer to read. Of her reading habits, Schmidt says, “I read in order to forget myself, to slip from one life into another, to identify myself with my newest heroine… When I read, I lived on credit; I literally borrowed from the author what I myself so painfully lacked - namely, fantasies. I dreamed, you could say, at the author’s expense. But wasn’t it his job to dream for me?” Gilbert speaks to fantasies, specifically the twenty-first century American variety of jet-set enlightenment by way of paradisiacal settings, and reassurance that broken hearts mend to love again. The fantasy is so persuasive that her book has singlehandedly augmented spiritual tourism in Bali. Eat, Pray, Love owes no small part of its success to the fantasy it sells to multitudes of readers who, à la Aloisia Schmidt, question the significance of their lives, who find, if not hope, then escape from their thwarted aspirations and dreams. Schmidt would prefer to lead Elizabeth Gilbert’s life, and honestly, if I had to chose between their lives, I would, too. But as a reader, I find that Schmidt’s hand in her own downfall and her relentless refusal to settle for redundancy make her a more interesting if also more complicated character. Bonus Link: Zen and the Art of Image Maintenance
Football is the most popular sport in America. Baseball, basketball, hockey, and even sometimes that suspect endeavor known as soccer all have their adherents. But when it comes to true rallying power, no other athletic contest outside of the Olympics can reliably achieve critical mass like professional and college football. This is a truth rarely acknowledged. Football knocked baseball, that lazy and pastoral game of grass diamonds and poetic sinkers, off the perch sometime after the Second World War. Baseball is still referred to as the national game. But a glance at how the country comes to a nacho-sated halt on Super Bowl Sunday but barely misses a beat during the World Series tells the true story. Maybe that’s because Americans know there is something intrinsically negative about the institution of football itself. Maybe we as a country would rather think of ourselves as fans of baseball than football. Spectators at the Roman Coliseum, after all, knew there was something untoward about watching one gladiator sever another’s limbs, no matter how lustily they egged him on. Ken Burns will never make an 11-part PBS documentary on football. If popular sports constitute a feedback loop with society, each reflecting and influencing the other, it’s difficult to argue that football’s dominance is a positive thing. With the steady drip of grim news about crooked stadium deals, domestic violence, and the ever-mutating and worsening concussion scandals -- and that’s without even getting into college players who read at a 5th-grade level and the various high school team mass-rape outrages -- what’s a football lover supposed to do? How much should they care? What’s the ethical thing to do? Is it possible to simply watch and yet not be complicit? What, if any, are a fan’s responsibilities? Steve Almond wrestles with a swarm of similar quandaries in his short, lacerating new bar-argument of a book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. It isn’t an argument he was itching to have. Almond is a bone-deep fan of the game: “I am one of you.” This is a crucial bona fide for somebody churning up this kind of imbroglio. To describe with any authority what is truly awful about football, it helps to love it and to know it. In the first place, for all its seeming simplicity of quadrilateral lines and battle formations, football is a wildly complicated game studded with arcane rules that take some time to appreciate. Secondly, since football discourse’s tenor trends toward tribal defensiveness and instantaneous fury, any negative opinion about the game from a non-fan is dismissed even quicker than if said by a true believer. Like most of us, Almond thought he was immune from modern sports mania’s entanglements. We all know (and some of us resemble) the type, eyes scouring for the nearest screen showing SportsCenter, phones lit up by fantasy scores and trash-talk, ears always full of the angry drone of sports talk radio. No matter the mountains Almond would move to watch his Raiders lose time after catastrophic time, he thought he could stay above the fray. In the preface, Almond describes a newspaper article he pasted to the wall of his office, which contains a quote from running back Kevin Faulk after he took a head-rattling hit. Faulk’s words were clearly those of a man who had suffered a significant blow to the brain. Almond writes, “I thought it was funny:” I assumed, in other words, a posture of ironic distance, which is what we Americans do to avoid the corruption of our spiritual entanglements. Ironic distance allows us to separate ourselves from the big, complicated moral systems around us (political, religious, familial), to sit in judgment of others rather than ourselves. It’s the reason, as we zoom into the twilight years of our imperial reign, that Reality TV has become our designated guilty pleasure. But here’s the thing. You can run from your own subtext for only so long. Those spray-tanned lunatics we happily revile are merely turned-out versions of our private selves. The whores we hide from public view. Almond is disturbed by what he sees as a pernicious blend of unthinking brutality and fooling-ourselves mass consumption. There is the hypocrisy that leads thousands of fans in stadiums and TV rooms to first shout at their guy to take the other guy’s head off, then sit quietly once the poleaxed player is crumpled comatose on the turf, and then applaud in self-congratulatory fashion when he limps off the field. Wisely, Almond doesn’t spend much time on proving the concussion crisis; which is less a new crisis than an inherent part of the game that is only now considered a crisis because it is being recognized. After years of long-form newspaper investigations to Frontline's damning “League of Denial” excoriation from last year, there is little left to argue about, even as the National Football League’s minions fold, mutilate, and spin the truth like those Big Tobacco lawyers and lobbyists of old. The evidence gathered points to the average football player being, because they spend so much of their time slamming into large powerful men (who, thanks to specialized training and all those drugs the teams don’t know anything about, get larger and more powerful every year), more likely to die younger and have some kind of brain damage than the average citizen. Suicides, mental illness, depression, violence; it’s all the legacy of that slam-bang contest we fans cheer for. This barbarousness is allowed to continue in a civilized society, Almond argues, because of how the NFL has stage-managed the sport. Having the help of a lamprey-like “bloated media cult” certainly helps. To Almond, the spectacle of modern football means watching “aggression granted a coherent, even heroic, context.” That line will ring true to anybody enthralled as a child by the exploits of those gigantic, larger-than-life combatants. We are not meant to see mere athletes out there, but warriors. This sleight of hand is helped along by a few factors: the sport’s militaristic nature (coordinated units, tactics, maneuvers, lines of assault, blitzkriegs); those gorgeously snow-speckled and slow-motion Homeric epics churned out by the league’s “ministry of propaganda,” NFL Films; and actual military involvement. Fewer football games today are absent a visit from one branch of the armed services, not to mention the fluttering of flags on the giant display screens and even flyovers. Some games are so thick with patriotic militarism that it wouldn’t shock to see a procession of portable missile launchers being saluted, Soviet premier-like, by the good commissioner Roger Goodell. For an illustrative example of what Almond terms our “imperial decadence,” witness the scene from the 2010 de Tocqueville-lite BBC series Stephen Fry in America. The British wit is happily taking in the Iron Bowl (Auburn University vs. University of Alabama), only to drop in fright at the sound of jets screaming overhead. Being British, Fry didn’t understand that an American college sporting event couldn’t be properly enjoyed without a display of military might. Almond threads his critique of the Pentagon-NFL axis into a broader appraisal of how the American citizenry simultaneously valorizes and dehumanizes its heroes, whether on the football field or the field of battle: The civilian and the fan participate in the same system. We off-load the moral burdens of combat, mostly to young men from the underclass, whom we send off to battle with hosannas and largely ignore when they return home disfigured in body and mind. It is a paradoxical dynamic. After all, part of what it means to be a football fan is that we have a sophisticated appreciation for the game, and a deep respect for the players who compete at the highest level...But it turns out that our adulation...is highly conditional. As soon they no longer excel on the field, they become expendable. Almond stalks through his arguments against the modern state of football at a pace that is both clipped and highly personal. There is a lot of shame here, a discomfort with being complicit in that “system” lying at the root of his angry screed. Like many a blue-state fan, his liberal nature is offended by being complicit in the advertorial-spewing, money-mad agglomeration of celebrity and cruelty that is the NFL and its media courtiers. Some of Almond’s arguments tip toward a to-hell-with-all-that disgust. That sense is heightened in his vitriol against the league’s anti-labor practices and corporate welfare-piggery, which makes it all the more difficult to ever enjoy sitting in a stadium mostly built by public funds but the profits of which mostly go to whichever billionaire owns the local franchise. He doesn’t quite take it to the level of Noam Chomsky arguing in Manufacturing Consent that professional sports being just another way of “building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion...it’s training in irrational jingoism.” But he’s not far off. The book’s tenor becomes so heated, in fact, that when Almond executes a deft spin into a “what do we do with football?” epilogue that tries to address what fans can do to humanize the corporate monster of football, the whiplash is severe. There is something rushed in this book, as though it were powered out in a few heated marathon sessions. It leaves some of the book feeling thin. But this is a manifesto. It’s a broadsheet in book form meant to be powered by heat and what Almond refers to as his “obnoxious opinions.” As such, Against Football doesn’t have a strong and satisfying conclusion. No such piece written by a true fan likely could. Short of calling for abolition, there’s no easy way to resolve the issues raised here. Football is wired too deep into the national identity for it to be yanked out or wholly reworked without some pain. In 1947, E.B. White published a playfully predictive New Yorker two-pager called “The Decline of Sport.” He imagined a future in which “sport gripped the nation in an ever-tightening grip” and the workweek was reduced to three days, “to give everyone a better chance to memorize the scores.” The mania builds and builds until, at a game with 954,000 spectators, a deranged man shoots one of his team’s receivers dead after the player dropped a scoring pass. The bubble bursts: From that day on, sport waned. Through long, noncompetitive Saturday afternoons, the stadia slumbered...the parkways fell into disuse as motorists rediscovered the charms of old, twisty roads that led through main streets and past barnyards, with their mild congestions and pleasant smells. Against Football is a book that kicks and prods and fights with itself and ourselves. Almond is asking himself and us to drop the ironic distance, open our eyes, and truly look at the dangerous, vile, beautiful, fun, highly corrupted, and horrifically corrupting corporate behemoth we spend so much of our money and leisure time enraptured by, and know what it is that we are doing, and what we are supporting. Part of that process might be just taking a couple steps back, shaking off the spell. Maybe a few more drives down old, twisty roads would do us all some good.
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Fans of historical fiction set in far flung lands will likely enjoy Jane Alison's new book Natives and Exotics. It's a multigenerational tale set in South America and Australia that spans the twentieth century. The publisher notes liken the book to W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants, which is a lot to live up to. PW describes the book thusly: "More impressionistic than narrative, Alison's third novel is a lush evocation of the way people love and alter (and are altered by) the environments they inhabit."Closer to home is Steve Amick's debut The Lake, the River & the Other Lake. The center of the book is the small town of Weneshkeen, Michigan. And as is so often the case, this small town buzzes with odd characters and neighborly conflicts which are exacerbated by the summer presence of inconsiderate tourists. PW says this: "Bitterly comic and surprisingly meaty, this roiling tale of passion, anger, regret and lust is dark fun for the Garrison Keillor demographic." So I guess it's like a much less saccharine Lake Wobegon. There's an excerpt available here. And if that's not enough for you, try this short story from the Southern Review.Rick Bass' new novel, The Diezmo, is garnering comparisons to a pair literary adventure classics, The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, both favorable and unfavorable. Still, I love this sort of book so my interest has been piqued. Bass' setting for the novel is the rough borderlands between Mexico and the Republic of Texas in 1842. Here's a mixed review of the book from the Denver Post, and here's an excerpt so you can make up your own minds.Ann Beattie doesn't need much of an introduction. She's one of America's better-known short story writers, and her latest collection, Follies received the hard to come by Michiko Kakutani seal of approval with the declaration, "Ms. Beattie has hit her stride again." Here's an excerpt.
Last week I wrote a brief post about football books and wondered why there aren't more of them, especially compared to baseball. In yesterday's Baltimore Sun, reporter Childs Walker takes that same idea and runs with it much farther than I did in his comprehensive article. Walker's impetus for writing the piece is a trio of recently released football books: John Feinstein's first pro football book, Next Man Up, David Halberstam's book about Bill Belichick, The Education of a Coach, and Allen Barra's bio of Bear Bryant, The Last CoachWalker cites many compelling theories as to why baseball books dominate the sports literature landscape even though football is the more popular sport (at least in terms of TV ratings)."It's funny how few good books get written about the passions of people who don't read books," Michael Lewis wrote in the New Republic. "There are vast tracts of human experience that, because of the sort of humans having the experience, go ignored by talented writers. Football is one of them."Baseball is the older game, having risen to popularity at a time when the written and spoken word were the only ways for many fans to experience players and games. Football, by contrast, found much of its audience through television, and its early history feels cut off.Walker goes on to run through several football books that are worthy of the mantle "sports literature," starting with the two books I mentioned last week, George Plimpton's Paper Lion and Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer, a guard for the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, and Dick Schaap. Also mentioned are a pair of novels - progenitors of the Oliver Stone film Any Given Sunday, it seems - North Dallas Forty by former Cowboys receiver Peter Gent and Semi-Tough by Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins. And finally several non-fiction books about football: H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's book "of a Texas town's obsession with high school football" in Friday Night Lights (also recently a movie); Mark Bowden's study of the Philadelphia Eagles, Bringing the Heat; When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss' bio of Vince Lombardi and Mark Kriegel's bio, Namath. These books all sound like a great way to pass the time for those six days between Sundays.
The majestic tawdriness of L'Affaire Edwards had us scrambling for literary precedents - The Scarlet Letter?, Silas Marner? - but, amid the swirl of rumors, we almost overlooked The McInerney Connection. Luckily, our trusted fellow readers at The New York Times were there with the scoop: In the mid-1980s, John Edwards' apparent paramour, Rielle Hunter - then known (somewhat less mellifluously) as Lisa Druck - ran with New York's literary Brat Pack. Indeed, Jay McInerney based a book on her. Mr. McInerney told the Times that his 1988 novel, Story of My Life, was narrated in the first person from the point of view of an ostensibly jaded, cocaine-addled sexually voracious 20-year-old who was, shall we say, inspired by Lisa...This revelation was apparently enough to vault Story of My Life into Amazon's Top 500 books.In an impressive feat of commitment and/or masochism, Peter Miller of the Freebird Books and Goods blog actually sat down this weekend and read Story of My Life in its entirety. His findings are fascinating and suggestive. Of an older conquest, for example, Lisa/Rielle/"Allison" tells us, "I never thought he was very good-looking, but you could tell he thought he was. He believed it so much he could actually sell other people on the idea." And: "He seemed older and sophisticated and we had great sex, so why not?"
Back in 1996, Imani Josey wrote a 60-page draft of a story she called “The Secret Cave,” about three girls who travel to an alternate universe and discover they are fairie princesses. Josey now cites this the first draft of The Blazing Star, a young adult fantasy novel about three black girls who time-travel to ancient Egypt that she self-published last fall. For years after that draft, though, Josey didn’t write publicly. She was busy being a student and a beauty queen—she was crowned both Miss Chicago and Miss Black Illinois USA—as well as a dancer. She still wrote, keeping journals, penning stories for her friends, and composing fan fiction that, she says will “never see the light of day.” She did her writing privately until, around 2011, she felt ready to dive back in. The story on her mind? That same one from 1996, the one that had stuck with her through all the years and would blossom into her debut novel in 2016. Josey has written before about the importance of black girl magic, and her novel features three black female protagonists, which, in 2017, is still unusual, even while books featuring black girls and women continue to prove themselves in the marketplace (Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, for example, has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 21 weeks now). Josey felt passionately that her girls’ stories deserved to be told. “It’s important to tell black girls’ stories with agency because it normalizes blackness,” she says. “These stories ensure we’re not ‘othered.’” She added that her parents surrounded her, in childhood, with images of black girls being normal, through dolls and books with black protagonists. “These images showed me that I could be a well-rounded, complex person with likes and dislikes and experiences that matter like anyone else’s, and who knew her black skin was beautiful just the way it was,” she said. “It was my parents’ mission to ground my normalcy in my agency, not in my proximity to whiteness.” So, in her book, Josey gives her girls agency. The Blazing Star is the first book in a projected trilogy, with each book written from the point of view of one of the main characters. The Falling Star, its sequel, will be released in February 2018. The book is published by Wise Ink, an self-publishing company. Josey said she originally tried to go the traditional publishing route, but was rejected by countless agents. Nonetheless, she believed in her story, her characters, and her mission, and says her confidence paid off: the book sold out on release day. “I was hell-bent on my book series doing what traditional pub is dragging its feet to do—fixing the representation gap—a major component of why I went indie,” she said. “I’m not sure how many other black girls are on the cover of YA fantasy book series, and I’m not sure how many lead their own stories as protagonists. But judging by Lee & Low’s annual research, the number is incredibly low.” In fact, Lee & Low wrote a blog post in March of this year revealing that, while the number of protagonists of color is increasing, the number of authors of color is not: last year, “Black, Latinx, and Native authors combined wrote just 6% of new children’s books published,” the post reports. Josey gave a bit of advice for white allies who wish to support the work of black creators: make use of their privilege to ensure black writers get their voices heard: “It means being vocal advocates, suggesting marginalized authors for mainstream events, giving their books as gifts and signal boosting crowdfunding projects,” she said, “as well as supporting marginalized traditional and independent authors.” Josey said she loves that self-publishing allowed her the “freedom to make [the book] exactly how I wanted,” but adds that the self-publishing road is hard. She said it’s been a struggle, especially when it comes to marketing and large-scale distribution. But she considers herself a fighter, a tough person, traits she partially attributes to her pageant history. “Pageants made me tougher,” she said. “[They] taught me about scrutiny and rejection...They taught me about marketing. They taught me about chasing big dreams, even when you don’t know if everything will turn out alright.”