Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker

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Books in the Air

How do I occupy myself during the hours upon hours that I must spend in my car each week? My boredom with the music offered on commercial radio stations and (sadly) LA’s current array of noncommercial radio stations has led me more and more to listen to the various talk radio outlets, both public and commercial. The fact that my car doesn’t have a cd player exacerbates this situation, and the selection of tapes scattered around my car, under seats and wedged in pockets, is a sad bunch, indeed. And too often, in fact there are several blocks of time during the day when this occurs, there is nothing the least bit compelling on the talk outlets. In this situation I am resigned to listening to either music I don’t like or talk I’m not interested in, which is why listening to the audio version of James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street last year was such a revelation. Having a good book to switch over to when radio went bad was a lifesaver. And you must understand, driving in Los Angeles is a life and death situation, and often your sanity is the first thing to go. Many people I know here have complicated arrangements which keep them entertained. Some have industrial-sized binders of cds that they rotate in and out of their cars, always fearing that a criminal might wipe out their entire music collection by breaking just a single pane of glass. Others resign themselves to staying on top of every trend in car and/or portable audio and month after month discmen give way to mp3 players followed by cd/mp3 players followed by iPods and the inevitable satellite radio, the current savior of all who must spend hours in transit. I fit in to neither category, and books on tape and cd are both costly and bulky, so I am always searching for my own solution to the mobile entertainment dilemma… Here, maybe, is a solution: an interesting article a while back in the New York Times about the digital revolution in audiobooks caught my eye. It’s already in the pay-to-read archives at nytimes.com , but I found a mirror of it here. Of course, in order to take advantage of this I would have to purchase some sort of digital audio device (an iPod would be pretty sweet), but the fact that I could use it to listen to books as well as music makes the idea much more appealing. Digital audiobooks are much more convenient and much cheaper than their cd and tape counterparts, and with the proliferation of portable digital audio devices, I suspect that this will be big trend in books this year.

An Oral History of Baseball

My soon-to-be-father-in-law has a huge collection of radio programs that he has taped and cataloged over the last two or three decades, and recently he gave me a couple of interesting tapes from the late 80’s. They contain a recorded performance of a baseball-themed show put on by the late baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti and one of my favorite writers, Roger Angell. The show, which is about two hours long, consists of readings of baseball essays, stories, and poetry. The work of John Updike is represented as is that of Garrison Keillor. I was most interested in an excerpt from a book called The Glory of Their Times: The Story of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It, a book that was put together by Lawrence Ritter, an economics professor at NYU. Ritter also happens to be a baseball fan, and shortly after Ty Cobb’s death in 1961, inspired by the outpouring of myth and legend that occasioned Cobb’s passing, Ritter decided to record for posterity an oral history of the early years of professional baseball. Over the next several years Ritter traveled 75,000 miles, crisscrossing the country, tape recorder in hand, seeking out the game’s grizzled veterans. The result is a book that is, I am now learning, cherished by aficionados of baseball literature, and since, I suppose, I must consider myself a member of this group, my copy should be arriving via post shortly.An AddendaI knew I had forgotten at least one of the books I read last year, and I think I forgot because I didn’t actually read it; I listened to it. Thanks to a friend who gave me a copy, Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker by James McManus was my driving companion for a week or so, which both doubled my reading output and made that much more tolerable the vast amount of time that I, like any Angeleno, must spend in his car.

It Begins

It’s that time of year. “Best books of 2003” lists have begun to appear. So let’s dive in: the editors over at Amazon have released their Best Books of 2003: Top 50 Editors’ Picks list. According to them, the best book of the year is James Frey’s addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces. I know a lot of people who read this book and really enjoyed it, but I personally am not a huge fan of addiction memoirs or messed-up-childhood memoirs. I think I find them to be too internal and personal, and I’m not usual that interested in getting up close and personal with someone I’ve never met. So, does it deserve to be named best book of the year? Maybe top 25, but not number 1. Some books that I actually did read and enjoyed that appear on this list: Moneyball by Michael Lewis, which my friend Patrick anointed “book of the year” months ago, comes in at #4. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem is #6, and Positively Fifth Street by James McManus is #9. Publisher’s Weekly has a very interesting interview with one of Amazon’s editors, who explains how this list was created, justifies the inclusion of certain titles, and comments on how relevant this list is to the prevailing tastes of the reading public. It’s a good read.

Paperback Notes

Some good new fiction paperbacks have come out in the past days and weeks. Today’s new arrival is Porno by Irvine Welsh. This one apparently resurrects the characters from Trainspotting and chronicles their foray into the world of adult films. I read Trainspotting while I was staying with my friend Derek and his folks at their house in Maine. I loved the book; I was thrilled when I found myself thinking in the thick Scottish accent of the book: bairn for baby, bird for girl, etc. It was the summer after my senior year in high school. I was of an age and at a moment for which Trainspotting was perfect, plus there is something special about a book read while vacationing, when huge chuncks are read at a time, and nothing that happens in between these reading sessions is weighty enough to detract from a full immersion in the story at hand. I became sufficiently attached to Renton, Sick Boy, and the rest that had Porno been around, I probably would have begun reading it the moment I set down its predecessor. Instead, with the intervening pause approaching ten years, I never mustered the interest to read Porno. Maybe if I ever read Trainspotting again, I will read Porno as well. Also out recently in paper: After the Quake by Haruki Murakami. Since Murakami’s stories appear frequently in the New Yorker, and since I read the New Yorker each week, by the time this earthquake-centered collection came out I had already read many of the stories. Once some time has passed, a decade perhaps, I will buy this book and read all the stories again. I feel confident that Murakami will remain in print. One day I would also like to reread his book Norwegian Wood. It is a favorite book of mine, in large part bacause it reminded me of that great feeling you get when you find one that’s really good. Life of Pi by Yann Martel, I suspect, may be able to deliver that same feeling. This one, since it came out, has had an ever-growing swell of support, cresting with it’s being awarded the Booker Prize. My grandmother, whose taste in books I trust considerably, found this book to be remarkable. Out of all the books I’m mentioning today, I’ll most likely read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer soonest. I read an excerpt of the book many months ago in a “New Fiction” issue of the New Yorker. I was both surprised by and somewhat skeptical of its more daring stylistic flourishes. There is no denying that this is a good book though, unless I’m foolish enough to go against the recommendations of several of my trusted fellow readers.A Small but Important Poker AddendaIn my mention of Positively Fifth Street, I forget to mention a related book that, at the very least, I would like to have on the record so that I remember to read it one day. The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez is another account of the World Series of Poker and is, from what I hear, a must read for all poker fans. Plus, Chronicle Books is the publisher, which is why it looks so cool.

It’s a good thing I’m broke or I’d probably be in Vegas right now

For some reason I’ve always been wary of audio books. For one thing, they are expensive and for another the whole idea of listening to a book seems antithetical to the author’s original task of putting words to paper. Recent events, however, have alleviated this wariness. A friend of mine has suddenly gained access to free audio books, and when she offered me some titles to choose from, I couldn’t help myself. I am in a constant struggle to read as many books as possible, and, working at the book store, my list of must-read books increases at a far greater rate than I am able to manage. With my newfound acceptance of audiobooks, though, I have mbeen able to greatly increase my reading productivity. In fact, I finished listening to a terrific book on the way to work today, Positively Fifth Street by James McManus, and I must say I was sad to have it end. McManus’ book did wonders for my terrible Los Angeles commute (I know, it’s such a cliche, but LA traffic is no joke). This book has been very popular since it came out a few weeks ago, and many had been eagerly anticipating it ever since the Harper’s magazine article that was the book’s progenitor. McManus was sent to Vegas to cover the both the trial of the murderers of Ted Binion and the World Series of Poker that Binion’s father had created and that the family he left behind continued to run every year. Upon his arrival, McManus makes the fateful decision to use his advance money for the Harper’s article to enter the tournament, and, though he has never played professionaly, he makes it all the way to the final table. He paints both the trial and his no limit poker travails with vivid prose, and he really makes you root for him. The Vegas setting combined with the participatory journalist angle reminded me a lot of Fear and Loathing, and though the books are very different, Fifth Street is easily as invigorating as the original tale of a lost weekend in the desert.Books I’d love to read (but will I ever get around to it?)As I mentioned above my list of books to read is monsterous and ever-increasing. In fact, my list is so long that there are quite a few books on my shelf that I fully intend to read — that I would love to read — but are constantly being bumped farther down my list by books that I deem to be of a higher priority. Long gone are the days when I would casually finish up a book and then blithely wander around the local bookstore hoping to come across something that piqued my interest. My backed up piles now stare up at me plaintively, wondering if I will ever get around to reading them. Since, I’m not sure when I will ever get around to reading some of these, I will do what I have determined arbitrarily to be the next best thing: mention them here. A casual glance at the book shelf behind me reveals several books that are waiting out their purgatory: The Hole in the Flag is Andrei Codrescu’s account of the fall of the oppressive regime in his native country. I want to read this because I love Codrescu’s commentary on NPR and because I visited Romania almost ten years ago and have been fascinated by the country ever since. I hope to read Mr. Jefferson’s University by Garry Wills for similar reasons. Wills is a masterful historian and biographer, and I attended the college that is the subject of the book. Plus, the National Geographic Directions series of travel writing, of which this book is a part, has proven, in my experience, to be very much worth reading. Down to Earth by Ted Steinberg is about nature’s role in American history. I read about this book when it came out last fall and it reminded me of Guns, Germs, and Steel the Pulitzer Prize winner by Jared Diamond. I loved that book so figured I’d be into this one as well. I snagged an advance copy of An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson when it appeared in the book store last summer. I had just finished John Keegan’s masterful history of The Second World War, and so I couldn’t pass on a free book about the Allies liberation of North Africa. The book has since won the Pulitzer and I haven’t even cracked the spine. I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point. Well, there are many more to name, so I think I’ll stop there before this gets too depressing. So many books to read.Leonard Michaels RIPIn my rant about that 70’s O. Henry book yesterday, I neglected to mention the collection’s first story “Robinson Crusoe Liebowitz” by Leonard Michaels. The story centers around a man hiding in his lover’s bedroom. He is persecuted by twin tormentors: his fear of being discovered by his lover’s fiance and his burning need to urinate. It is a dark and clever story. It stuck in my mind, and when a customer mentioned today at the store that Michaels had recently passed away, I remembered poor Liebowitz and his straining bladder. I don’t know much about Michaels, though I would like to read his novel The Men’s Club if I can manage to track it down, so I’ll let his obit tell the rest of the story.

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