Yesterday my friend Yakut emailed me the article “Federer as Religious Experience” by David Foster Wallace, which appeared in the New York Times’ Play Magazine on August 20, 2006 (available here). Wallace penned an immaculate piece on Roger Federer, who also happens to be my favorite tennis player these days. As per his custom, Wallace resorts to 17 footnotes, provides detailed accounts of what he terms “Federer Moments” from the Nadal v. Federer Wimbledon Final of 2006, comments – in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, of course – on the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and the tournament’s rules. It is a great ode to Federer, and contains a healthy rebuke of Nadal – who happens to be my least favorite pro these days. If you’re a tennis – and DFW – fan, enjoyed his essays in Consider the Lobster, and do not have the guts to restart Infinite Jest just yet, but would like to continue reading some brilliant prose, you should definitely check it out.
As the baseball season gets underway, it looks like this summer’s big off-the-field story will be steroid use. (More serious allegations are beginning to surface as the San Francisco Chronicle reports that federal investigators were told Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield all received performance enhancing drugs from a lab that is currently under investigation.) But last year’s story, the fallout from Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, still has legs. The March 1st issue of Sports Illustrated (on newsstands last week) contains a vociferous epilogue to Moneyball in which Lewis catalogs some of the more outrageous responses that his book received from baseball insiders. He takes to task particularly egregious offenders, like Joe Morgan, for continuing to dismiss the book out of hand. It’s a must read for anyone who was swept up in last summer’s Moneyball furor.
I think it is appropriate that a cartel of organizations, many of which you have heard of and one or two of which you may have even been a part of, self-sloganizes with the term ‘Madness.’ This cartel relies on the complicity of its member organizations to achieve a singular goal: making large amounts of money. Of course, as Pablo Escobar could have told you, trading in such a market, to the enrichment of a few, also involves the exploitation of many. However I speak not of Colombian cocaine, but of American college sports, headquartered far from Medellin, in Indianapolis. It is the National Collegiate Athletic Association, it is March, and business is very good.March Madness means that the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is upon us, along with its redheaded stepchild, institutionalized gambling. This is the real madness of the tournament: American businesses losing billions of man hours to the ubiquitous office pool (I should know, I ran the operation, back when I worked in an office), and dollars changing hands like so many dominoes and darts in the back rooms of bars. Devilish pursuits, and oh-so-American. As March Madness becomes more and more imprinted on the national calendar and the collective sports zeitgeist of millions of young men and women, most of whom can part with a ten or a twenty for the possibility of a big score, and the certainty of some televised excitement, as Vegas chews away on ever growing mouthfuls of greens, and as the cartel piles up larger and larger stacks of the same each year, the NCAA continues to be Teflon to the accusations that its practices are nothing short of exploitative toward the very individuals responsible for its undeniably superior product: the athletes. Don’t the athletes want, sometimes need, and even deserve a cut of all that action? Have they ever decided to rise up and take what is rightfully theirs?Yes, yes, yes, and, oh my, yes. And here we should get to the bookish side of things, because, if you’re like me, you may be spending some time in front of the TV in coming days. College basketball was plagued by a number of scandals in the 50s and early 60s that threatened to undermine, indeed, destroy the integrity of the game. In 1951, Kentucky and CCNY (then one of the best teams around) were the main schools implicated in a point-shaving operation that involved seven teams, dozens of players, and the orchestrated outcome of as many as 86 games. As a result, CCNY, the only team to have ever won both the NCAA and NIT tourneys in the same year, all but abandoned their program. But only a few short years later, on the upper west side of Manhattan, the father of modern basketball point shaving would rise from those ashes. His name was Jack Molinas, and he played for my own dear alma mater, Columbia.The Wizard Of Odds: How Jack Molinas Nearly Destroyed the Game of Basketball, by Charley Rosen, is a solid read, one of the best examinations of the machinations that went on in college gymnasiums all over the country in the years after the CCNY scandal (you didn’t think the bookies just packed up and left town, did you?). It is also a fascinating character study of a man who pulled more strings than a master tailor, while managing to cut himself loose of every lifeline to salvation. A lean, tall Greek kid from the Bronx, Molinas would bet on raindrops dripping down a window pane. He was said to have a genius level IQ, but it was his incredible talent on the basketball court, combined with his intellect, that enabled him to single-handedly control the outcomes of the games in which he played. Molinas would know the point spread before stepping on the court, and often would lead his team to the win, while making sure that they failed to cover the spread, according to the pervading winds as judged by the bookies who would then give him his cut. This is simple point shaving, but Molinas elevated it to an art form.There is plenty more to the story, such as his expulsion from the fledgling National Basketball Association, then desperate to free itself from the specter of gambling that was so plaguing the college game, after his rookie season, for gambling transgressions. After that, Molinas practiced law, while helping the mob orchestrate the next great college basketball betting scandal in 1961.It doesn’t take a genius IQ to recognize how the machinery of college athletics is vulnerable to sabotage in the form of gambling-fueled game orchestration. This is why the NCAA has such draconian rules involving student athletes and gambling. Would March Madness be March Madness if there was any question as to the competitive integrity of the contests? While this thought is frightening to some, it was the singular goal to which Jack Molinas devoted his life. Score one for the little guy.
Avery, a new literary magazine out of Madison, Wisconsin, bears the subtitle, “an anthology of new fiction.” They’ve just come out with their third issue (I haven’t bought it yet but I am lusting over the beautiful cover), and already they’ve been featured in Poets & Writers, and published writers like Dan Chaon and Ander Monson.Today the Avery blog starts a series of interviews with authors, either about writing or some other topic. The inaugural interview is with one of my favorite writers, Lorrie Moore, who chats with co-editor Emma Straub about music:I don’t believe writers are mopier than anyone else. I think dentists are famously depressive. And writers, when writing, are usually having a really good time. There are certain kinds of songs I just love, the knife-in-the-heart kind, also the Live in Vegas kind, but the writers I know tend not to share my taste. In fact, when referring to it, they refuse even to use the word “taste.”
Alone (I’d be willing to bet) among the Millions staff, I am a reader of Vogue. Not, I often think, a sensible choice: Much of what one finds to read between the covers of the average monthly issue is utter tripe, I willingly admit – at least if you’re not an heiress. The ideal reader of Vogue is a lady who lunches (preferably in New York and on two lettuce leaves washed down with fine white wine) and many of the magazine’s readings reflect this demographic: For example, Sally Singer’s dead-earnest account of how hard it was for her to get back in shape for a gala at the Met after having a baby, or Tomasin Day-Lewis’ equally un-self-aware recounting of how scary it was when her son almost, sort-of got hurt while skiing. Depending on one’s mood, these pieces can be hysterical, infuriating, or fascinating (as anthropological bits of evidence in support of Fitzgerald’s assertion that “the rich are different from you and me”). But these are not what keep me a reader.No, I read Vogue for Jeffrey Steingarten – one of the finest food writers on the planet. The irony of finding The Man Who Ate Everything in the midst of pages and pages of photographs of 100 pound, six-foot-tall women is hardly one I am the first to note, but a man of Steingarten’s superbly well-developed sense of humor, I imagine, relishes this irony anew every month. Steingarten’s style of essay is a delightful mix of personal narrative and culinary reportage, and while he occasionally (not always) finds himself in rarified surroundings, he has the blessed sense not to pretend they’re otherwise (as many of Vogue’s contributors – to other, unintentionally comic ends – do). He is both dyed-in-the-wool food enthusiast, connoisseur, and self-deprecating comic hero, and his contribution to the November issue, “Temptation Island,” is a fine example of his gifts, both comic and culinary. (Which is to say that if you find yourself in a hair salon or a doctor’s office and see the issue with Jennifer Connolly in a dark blue dress on the cover, do yourself a favor and turn to page 379).Since I cannot offer a link to the text of this article, I offer instead a few liberal quotes from Vogue as a Steingarten-ian aperitif. This month’s article is an account of his trip to a resort in the Maldives with his wife, a trip he approaches with trepidation, fearing both resort group activities and (more grave) that there will be nothing good to eat. Reminiscing about resort group activities past, he writes:I particularly remember a nightmarish diving excursion off the coast of Maui into the spectacular crater of an extinct volcano called Molokini, led by a guy who believed he was Don Ho, and his partner, who answered to the name of Snorkel Bill and had an unbreakably amiable demeanor, at least until an unexpected storm arose and we all tried to climb back on board up a ladder that gyrated so violently that some of us were thrown back into Molokini and one was knocked out, while a half-dozen sharks circled beneath the boat – but that’s a story for another time.And of his wife’s spa treatments:By this time my wife was carefully plotting her visits to the spa. The first of these, an Ayurvedic treatment for her long-standing sinus condition, took place the next morning, before breakfast. The Ayurvedic practitioner had her lie on a wooden massage table, which he then tilted to lower her head as he squirted a mixture of 62 herbs into her nose. Before long, the liquid had flowed down into her mouth. The doctor was surprised when this caused my wife to throw up, but, she recalls, he got out of the way in time; once this emergency had passed, and for the following month, my wife’s sinus condition was cured! She was meant to return for two more meetings with the 62 herbs but quietly let the opportunity slip by.And, finally, a morsel about Maldivian food:Our first Maldivian dish was a clear tuna soup called Garudiya that, I had been told, every Maldivian family eats every day of the year; pieces of yellowfin tuna are boiled with vegetables and red and black pepper, and the result is pungent and deeply flavored. There were five other dishes, including a stir-fry of squash with mustard seeds and sweet ketchup; a redfish curry; a bright yellow sweet potato curry; a salad of the sweetest lettuces with fresh coconut, chili, and onion. It would have taken us a month or two to exhaust this place, in all of its novelty and variety, but far less time to exhaust our bank account.These morsels do not quite do Steingarten justice. Excerpts never do, I suppose, but I promise delight to those who seek out the full text.And, for those averse to Vogue reading, Steingarten can also be consumed in book form: The Man Who Ate Everything, and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate. (But you do thereby deny yourself the strange sensation of disjunction caused by reading about a spring roll binge on a page flanked by images of the waifiest of waifs.)
It’s tough times for newspapers in many American cities and Philadelphia is no exception. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News were bought by a group of investors under the name Philadelphia Media Holdings following the split up of the newspapers’ former parent Knight Ridder. Already in decline due both to the cuts of its corporate owners and the negative climate for newspapers, the pair of papers has struggled even further under their new owners.Earlier this month, Inquirer book editor Frank Wilson departed and described the machinations of newspaper management that led him to step down. The story is fairly familiar to anyone who has followed the industry over the last few years.While cost cutting and streamlining have become almost mundane at America’s newspapers, a new story emerging regarding one of Philadelphia’s most storied journalists is a bit more strange. As reported by Steve Volk for Philadelphia magazine, the newspaper company is now going after Pete Dexter, a one time Philadelphia journalist who has gone on to have a fruitful career as a novelist. Last year, he hearkened back to his days as a newspaper columnist in Philadelphia and elsewhere by publishing a collection of his old columns, Paper Trails.However, there must’ve been some miscommunication along the way because Philadelphia Media Holdings is now asking for a chunk of Dexter’s $60,000 advance, which Dexter gave to his editor Rob Fleder who did all the work of digging through the archives at compiling the collection. Meanwhile, the book’s paperback release has been delayed. In the above-linked article, it appears as though Dexter and Fleder acted in good faith, though the introduction to Paper Trails does describe the somewhat cavalier attitude with which Dexter and Fleder approached the book. In it, the reader is told that the 82 columns and articles we are about to read will lack dates and any indication as to where they first appeared because, basically, Dexter and Fleder didn’t want to dig them up. This adds to the collection’s charm but doesn’t exactly lend an aura of due diligence.Regardless, it’s hard to get behind what Philadelphia Media Holdings is doing here. By Philadelphia magazine’s account, the paper is attempting to intimidate Dexter and his agent, with little regard for the papers’ already bad reputation. One would think a compromise could have been reached over a relatively minor sum.As an aside, earlier this week, we looked at books for fans of HBO’s Deadwood. I would say that Paper Trails is a must read for fans of another HBO hit, The Wire. I posted my thoughts on Paper Trails early last year.