Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Cheater's Guide to Baseball (Derek Zumsteg)

Derek Zumsteg wants to make one thing clear: in baseball, there are “cheaters,” and then there are cheaters. The difference between the two is often subtle, and things that most fans might consider cheating (think of that pine tar on Kenny Rogers’s hand in game 2 of last year’s Cardinals-Tigers World Series) are actually considered “cheating” by most of the players themselves (recall that Tony La Russa didn’t make nearly as much of a fuss over that pine tar as, say, Joe Buck did).

Sticky stuff on a pitcher’s fingers to get a better grip on the ball? “Cheating”—at least as long as the hitters don’t come back to the dugout complaining that the ball is doing crazy things. Stealing signs? “Cheating”—at least as long as the as the team doing the stealing doesn’t have a guy sitting behind the scoreboard with a pair of binoculars and a walkie-talkie.

Zumsteg, in The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball, notes that that all sorts of things that are technically against the rules—a runner sliding far outside second base to break up a double play, a shortstop dancing across the base without actually touching it to make that double play, a catcher blocking home plate—are a traditional and accepted part of the game, so much so that many might be surprised to learn they’re illegal even in a technical sense (I know I was). And without players trying all sorts of rule-bending maneuvers early in the game’s history, the game would be less strategically rich today.

The distinction he makes between this sort of “cheating” and real cheating is a basic one: If everyone did this, would it fundamentally damage the game itself?* A hard slide into the opposing shortstop at second base does not. Throwing games (the 1919 Black Sox) or betting on baseball (Pete Rose) does. So does steroids, although the line here is less clear. (Does it damage the game when a pitcher takes steroids to help recover from an arm injury that, in the past, would have ended his career? Probably not—in fact, the game probably benefits. But what if those steroids, incidentally, also add a couple miles per hour to his fastball?)

Cheater’s Guide covers the broad and colorful history of cheating both with and without the quotation marks, from the win-at-all-costs approach of the 1890s Orioles (who routinely tripped and elbowed opposing players trying to run the bases and distracted and intimidated umpires, but also invented the modern hit-and-run and other strategies), to spitballers like Gaylord Perry and corked bats like Sammy Sosa’s, to the unexpected power groundskeepers have over visiting teams, to—yes—the notorious Black Sox, Pete Rose, and Barry Bonds.

The book is informal and colloquial throughout—broadly informative, but not scholarly by any means—and full of weird and occasionally unfortunate sidebars based on extended riffs that don’t quite work (“A hypothetical conversation between the commissioner and a team stealing signs”; a whole series of “What a conversation with Pete Rose would be like if he hit your car while you were standing next to it and you caught the whole thing on video”; the almost non-sequitur-caliber “A discussion of Jason Giambi with Fulbright scholar Jeff Shaw”). But it’s a quick read on an interesting subject, and certainly worth picking up for anyone wondering exactly what a spitball does, what Will Clark has to do with pitchers covering their mouths during mound visits, and how they can finally start corking their own bats.

* A rule that brought back unpleasant memories of all-night arguments about Kant while studying for an undergrad philosophy final.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union (Michael Chabon)

I’d read a few of Michael Chabon’s stories before being handed a copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (thanks, Mom!), a sprawling, genuinely amazing novel about the intersection of comics, World War II, escapism, revenge, art, and love that includes Antarctica, the premiere of Citizen Kane, and Salvador Dali in a diver’s helmet. (What’s not to like?) I’ve read it three times, and I assure you that the Pulitzer committee got this one right.

So it’s not really a criticism to say that his new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, doesn’t match Kavalier and Clay—it’s still an idiosyncratic, inventive, thoroughly enjoyable ride, with the same fluidity in the writing that has always been Chabon’s greatest asset. Set in an alternate time line in which Israel failed and a temporary Jewish home was established in Sitka, Alaska (as was apparently actually proposed by Franklin Roosevelt at one time), the story follows alcoholic, divorced, entirely unhappy police detective Meyer Landsman after a murdered man is discovered in the hotel where he’s been living. Hanging over every moment is the imminence of Reversion, when Sitka ceases to be an independent district for Jews and becomes just another part of America, one where Sitka’s current residents may or may not still have homes. Reversion has brought a sense of weary fatalism to almost everyone in the story, one that comes out again and again as Meyer investigates the case and confronts both the barely concealed underworld of Sitka and the various broken pieces of his own life, including a sister who may or may not have been murdered herself, his ex-wife, and their long-ago unborn baby.

If I have a criticism, it would be that at times the story leans to heavily into the conventions of detective noir—Meyer too much the alcoholic, unhappy detective, his partner Berko (despite having the singular distinction of being a half-Jewish, half-Tlingit giant) too much the buddy sidekick, the ghosts of Meyer’s past sewn up a little too well into his current troubles. But the vibrancy of the setting, the pleasure of Meyer’s stubborn, self-destructive quest—the pleasure of all stubborn, self-destructive quests in the face of tidal historic forces—and Chabon’s writing make up for a lot. Sure, Landsman is too much the alcoholic, unhappy detective, but I’m a sucker for a well-turned metaphor, and it’s difficult to resist exuberant ones like these:

According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Landsman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with the crude hammer of hundred-proof brandy. But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead. . . . The problem comes in the hours when he isn’t working, when his thoughts start blowing out the open window of his brain like pages from a blotter. Sometimes it takes a heavy paperweight to pin them down.

Or this description of Meyer as a boy playing chess with his father, a skilled player unable to understand his son’s incapacity for the game:

Satisfied, burning with shame, he would watch unfold the grim destiny that he had been unable to foresee. And Landsman’s father would demolish him, flay him, vivisect him, gazing at his son all the while from behind the sagging porch of his face.

Or this sleazebag American muckraker attempting (and failing) to speak the Yiddish native to Sitka:

“I want a story,” Brennan says. “What else? And I know I’ll never get one from you unless I try to clear the air. So. For the record.” Once again he lashes himself to the tiller of his Flying Dutchman version of the mother tongue.

It’s the kind of writing where, whatever other flaws there are, every once in a while you have to stop reading and shout, “Yes, dammit! That is how it is done!”

Saturday, September 22, 2007

How to See Yourself as You Really Are (The Dalai Lama)

A few weeks ago, we walked to the library to pick up the books I had on hold. Once inside, I noticed that all the hold books were behind the librarian's counter, meaning I had to talk to an actual person to get my books, and that this actual person would check out my books for me, looking over the crazy assortment of books I've chosen (a book on cheaters in baseball and one by the Dalai Lama? Really?) and judge me. I've spent the last two years in California, where I didn't interact with one single person to get my library books. I searched for them online, requested them online, and then in the library I picked up my books from an unguarded hold shelf, and used a self-service checkout machine. No one needed to know about the Bollywood dance workout DVD I checked out. No one.

But so far, after two trips of what will become many, this actual personal interaction hasn't been bad at all, which is good, as they're going to see a lot of me, given my library book habit. And really, it's the Wisconsin Public Library's system's own fault I'm hoarding their books right now---I have a lengthy list of books to read, many of which I couldn't find in the San Jose system, and the Wisconsin system seems to have them all.

How to See Yourself as You Really Are
by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (oh that the poor Library of Congress worker who got stuck working on the cip data for this book. I can see her saying, the official author name is what?) is one of the books on my list, probably jotted down after reading an article in some issue of Body + Soul magazine. I thought, if you want to know the secrets of true happiness, who else would you go to but the Dalai Lama, himself?

It turns out that the Dalai Lama and I are two very different people. And we live in two very different worlds. The book is translated and it reads like it is, so much so, that I had a hard time connecting to it. Most of the language was abstract, even in the examples given, and one example he kept mentioning was sewing (I have no idea why), and how sewing may seem to be a beneficial task, but it may keep you from seeing yourself as you really are. (Okay, he didn't say it that way, but he did point it out as a form of procrastination---which in my life, is usually the opposite case. Like right now? I'm writing this review, procrastinating from the sewing I need to do!)

I don't need a hipster version of the book, or it dumbed down, but I do need a version that applies more to my life as it really is. I'm sure the Dalai Lama and his translator get his message across to many people, but in the end, the book made me feel like I would never really see myself as I really am, according to the Dalai Lama, because I do not speak the language to get there. But I'll try some other books that may be more on my level and report back again. In the mean time, if you see me, let me know.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Underworld (Don DeLillo)

A friend and I once had a lengthy late-night argument—as only heavily inebriated college-age people can—about what meaningful distinction there was between liking something, and actually thinking it’s good. Playing devil’s advocate, I was arguing that it’s absurd for someone to say, “I don’t like X, but I think it’s good”—that this was a straight cop-out. “No, I didn’t really like 2001, but I thought it was good.” By not liking it, don’t you really think, deep down, that 2001 was bad in some basic way, even if you can’t articulate it? Or, similarly, if you claim to like something while simultaneously admitting it’s bad, doesn’t that mean that you secretly think it’s good?

Which is a roundabout way of getting to the book I was slogging through before our Great Cross-Country About-Face: Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Because here’s the thing about DeLillo: He’s very good. Very, very, very good. And I just don’t like his books at all.

Granted, I’ve only read one other: White Noise, seven or eight years ago. At the time I was on in a postmodernist phase, reading a lot of Donald Barthelme and John Barth and Robert Coover and Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino and so on, and DeLillo’s name popped up from time to time in a similar context, so I figured I’d try him out.

What I remember (vaguely) was thinking that White Noise felt far too anesthetized—the atmosphere, the characters, everything had this sort of cold fluorescence about it, drained of blood and emotion. Given the book’s subject, I don’t doubt that this was intentional. I didn’t even really think it was a bad book. In fact, it was undoubtedly a very good book.

But I didn’t like it. I didn’t particularly care what happened in it, or what happened to the characters. At the time, I was willing to put up with a lot from books where caring about the characters wasn’t really the point. But I find that lately that’s become much more of a deal-breaker for me. (Although Barthelme can still hook me with his sentences alone, and with his gonzo, Dr. Seuss-ish logic.)

I had the same reaction to Underworld as I did to White Noise. It’s obviously very, very good. Great writing. Highly accomplished. But when I had to return it to the library a few days before we moved, 350+ pages in, I didn’t feel any real need to finish it. I just didn’t care about any of these people. In spite of whatever ostensible passions they had, or longings, or betrayals, there was something robotic about them. One of them was having an affair: Didn’t care. One of them was tracking a baseball: Cared a little bit, but not a lot. And so on.

You get the impression that DeLillo himself doesn’t particularly care for his characters—that rather than involving himself with them, or approaching them with empathy or understanding, he’s critiquing them. Or using them as a vehicle to critique “society” or “modern America” or some similar abstraction. And I find that I’m just not interested in reading an 800-page critique these days, even one as well crafted as this. If I’m going to live with these people, I want to care about them. I want to care what happens to them, and I want to care about what they care about.*

I should make two caveats. First, of course, is that I obviously didn’t finish the book. It could be that DeLillo weaves everything together marvelously in the second half, and that had I finished it, I would’ve ended up liking it. But somehow I doubt it.

The second is that the long prologue, originally published separately as a novella titled Pafko at the Wall, is phenomenal. Loved it. Fully worth reading on its own. I had read it before as part of an anthology, and it was actually because I had liked that novella, and because Roger Kahn kept mentioning Andy Pafko, that I started reading Underworld in the first place. Set at the 1951 Giants-Dodgers game when Bobby Thomson hit his famous pennant-winning home run for the Giants, it starts with a bunch of kids leaping the turnstiles to get into the game and then wends its way around the stadium, picking up Russ Hodges in the radio booth, Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason and J. Edgar Hoover in their box seats, the players themselves, and one of those turnstile-leaping kids who first befriends the man sitting next to him and then ends up fighting with him over the game-winning ball.

The ball is one of the centerpieces of Underworld—the kid takes it home and, unable to resist, shows it off to his father, who steals it later that night with the intention of selling it. The book then jumps forward into the 1990s and works its way backward, with the ball popping up now and then with different characters, one of whom is trying to track its lineage of ownership back to the game itself, to prove that the ball is really the ball. Finishing the prologue was, unfortunately, the high point for me for the next couple hundred pages. The original theft of the ball was resonant in all sorts of ways, and involving in a way the rest of the book was not, maybe because the kid’s complicated attitude toward it—as a prize, as a talisman of power, as a bit of luck in a down-and-out sort of life, and then as an embodiment of the naïve trust he had in his father and his own need to impress him—had a genuine emotional heft to it that everything else lacked. I wouldn’t be surprised, again, if that were intentional, and if DeLillo was making some point about how America had changed since then, how nobody cares about anything anymore the way people cared about that game, and that kid cared about that ball. But that made it awfully hard to care about the book, too.

But enough of that. Next up, the book I read instead of going back to Underworld, which I both liked and thought was good: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

* This is a very different thing, and much harder, from making characters “likable.”