Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Is This a Great Game, or What? (Tim Kurkjian)

Any watcher of Baseball Tonight knows what a Web Gem is. For those of you who are staring at your screen blankly, 1. Baseball Tonight is a daily ESPN show that airs during baseball season. It is awesome. 2. A Web Gem is a spectacular defensive play, the best of which involve outfielders catching a ball while running backward into a wall, or a shortstop just barely throwing out the runner at first while on his knees. They are also awesome. This past season, there were a few new features to Baseball Tonight, including the Kurk Gems (named in the spirit of the Web Gem but for the baseball writer Tim Kurkjian). A Kurk Gem goes something like this: Tim Kurkjian's voice over (in a tone that is somewhat professorly with a touch of monotone, but in a likeable way) telling you that X player hit into X number of double plays in the month of July, which is a new record, but only in away parks and only off left-handed pitchers named Joe. It's a lot of information thrown at you at once, some of it weird, some of it awesome. In this past season's Rangers/Orioles game at Camden Yard where the Rangers beat the Orioles 30 to 3 (mind you, in the Oriole's own field), the Baseball Tonight crew got Kurkjian, who was at the park that night, on the phone. The joy in his voice rang through loud and clear, his voice cracking as he tried to not to get his words out through his laughter, he said something like, "And the Ranger's closer! He got the save!" It was probably one of his happiest moments.

Tim Kurkjian's book Is This a Great Game, or What? is awesome. It is awesome like Web Gems are awesome. It's full of stories, much like the Rangers game I mentioned above. I think I read half the book aloud to Jim because it was so funny that I kept laughing so hard. I'm afraid to pick small sections to highlight here because I might not do them justice, so consider this a small sampling:

  • On how the White House was a perfectly good place to discuss Pokey Reese:
[Baseball writers] are seamheads; we are the unlaundered, often overweight, usually unathletic baseball nerds who are trained only to cover baseball. We have covered winter ball games, Instructional League games, Arizona Fall League games, simulated games, and we have traveled two hundred miles to watch a "B" game on a back field in spring training. The White House? We know more about pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander than we do about Grover Cleveland. The opera? When you say Placido, we think Polanco, not Domingo.
  • On the not so smart players:
I promised never to reveal the name of the player who was told in the early 1990s that Major League Baseball might be moving a team to Washington, D.C. And the player said, "The league can't give Washington a team. It already has two teams, Baltimore and Seattle."

That guy wouldn't do well in the geography category on Jeopardy, but Jeopardy was on TV in the Charlotte Knights (AAA) clubhouse one September day in 1994. I was doing a story on the minor-league play-offs since there were no play-offs in major leagues due to the players' strike. I was watching the show out of the corner of my eye. The Final Jeopardy category was Poetry. Suddenly, a Knights' player ran out of the player's lounge screaming as if he had won the lottery. "Did he get the Final Jeopardy answer in Poetry?" I asked, incredulous. "Oh no, that's not how we play," said Tim Jones, a Knights infielder. "The way we play, if you guess the Final Jeopardy category, you win. Hey, we're baseball players."
  • On Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia's reports he makes players give during Spring Training:
One spring, Angels pitcher Jarrod Washburn, and a couple of young players, were assigned to cover a local ostrich festival. For $150 and a couple of autographed balls, Washburn, the team prankster, convinced the workers at the festival to bring the ostrich to the Angels' clubhouse the next morning. . . . "At 9:30, in they walked with the ostrich. It was chaos. Guys were screaming with laughter." Scioscia was one of them. "[Pitcher] Ramon Ortiz jumped in his locker," he said. "He was holding on to the walls and yelling, in Spanish, 'Get that big chicken away from me!' Washburn smiled and said, "It was hilarious. I don't think anything we ever do will ever top the ostrich."
First baseman Scott Spiezio did . . . in a way. "He was given the word 'erudite' to research," Scioscia said. "He got all mixed up and researched the wrong word. He researched 'hermaphrodite,' not 'erudite.' So he's up there talking about all this sexual stuff, and everyone in the room is laughing. From 'caveat' to 'hermaphrodite,' I've learned a lot of new words."

I agree completely with Kurkjian when he says that the best four words in the English language are "Pitchers and catchers report." This book is for baseball lovers, baseball geeks, and baseball nerds. Read it, but only in places where it's okay to laugh out loud. It would make a great present for your friends who love baseball, even if you don't understand the game at all.

Overcoming Life's Disappointments (Harold S. Kushner)

The Wisconsin Book Festival, an annual free event every October, took place a few weeks ago. Madison is a city full of readers, and the festival takes over downtown over the course of 5 days with many venues.

The Sunday of the festival there were two sessions that I wanted to attend, but the timing on them was pretty bad. One went from 4 to 5:30 and the other from 6 to 7:30. For any normal person who does not have the tendency to cry when they get too hungry or who does not go to bed at 9 so they can go to the gym at 5:30 in the morning, this would not be a problem. For us, however, this was monumental. The only way we were going to get to eat dinner that evening at a reasonable hour was for me to make a decision: Which should we attend? I ended up choosing the first session, Rabbi Harold Kushner discussing his book Overcoming Life's Disappointments. Like the Dalai Lama, Rabbi Harold Kushner gets quoted a lot in Body + Soul magazine, and I've had a couple of his books on my list to read. So we headed downtown, got to the Orpheum Theatre for the reading, and there were signs on the doors: Kushner's reading has been canceled. Due to bad weather in Boston, he couldn't make it. Jokingly, I said to Jim, "Well, if I had already read his book, then I would know how to overcome this disappointment." (It turned out to work out fine. I got to go to the other session I wanted to, but I'll talk more about that one in future reviews.)

Being neither Jewish nor particularly religious, I didn't really know the story of Moses (or really any Biblical stories beyond that whole Jonah and the whale thing). But Kushner uses Moses's story fairly seamlessly as the basis for his book about handling life when life is not what you expect. Even more, Kushner also quotes Buddha scholars, therapists, movies, and other popular culture references that I found quite surprising. It's a really nice read and helps to remind you about what is good in people and how you can continue to be a good person to others (keep your promises! Kushner's really big on that one). I read the book not really having any large disappointments to overcome at the time (or now for that matter), but still felt like I got a lot out of the experience. It made me thankful for all I have and it made me feel more conscientious of how I treat others. I think I was an especially kind and helpful person to everyone I met for at least a week after I finished it. (This is not saying that I am not kind in everyday life, but that week I was the person who would REALLY go out of my way for you. Like when I offered to take a man's luggage through the turnstiles at the CTA station in Chicago, and then was fairly surprised when he agreed by giving me the piece of luggage that was almost half my size.) I'll definitely read more of Kushner's work.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Searching for Bobby Fischer (Fred Waitzkin)

I’ve been wanting to read Searching for Bobby Fischer for a long time—I’ve seen the movie three or four times, and I’m one of those people (sometimes to Maria’s dismay) who enjoys sitting on the couch with baseball on the TV and a book of tactical chess puzzles in his lap. It was inexplicably not available in our previous library system (despite my repeated detailed submissions in their “Suggest a Purchase” section), but fortunately it didn’t come to that with our current system.

It’s always interesting to read something after having seen the movie version of it, to see how they’ve reshaped the material to fit into a two-hour film. Both focus, of course, on the early life of young chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin. The movie sets up its conflicts in a straightforward, concentrated, dramatic way—the slow, serious chess of Josh’s teacher, Bruce Pandolfini, vs. the wild blitz chess of Vinnie, the Washington Square Park vagrant; the all-consuming, completely chess-focused life of Josh’s rival, Jonathan Poe, and his almost robotic desire to destroy his opponents, vs. the Waitzkins’ struggle to have Josh live some semblance of a well-rounded life. The Vinnie character in the movie, played by Laurence Fishburne, is essentially a wholesale invention, or at least a composite—a man named Vinnie is mentioned briefly in the book, but wasn’t anyone especially notable, and certainly didn’t come to the national championship with Josh and his father. Bruce Pandolfini wasn’t ever thrown out of the house by Josh’s mother after he comes down hard on Josh for not concentrating during a lesson. And, interestingly, at the national championships that end both the book and the movie, Josh didn’t beat the boy the Jonathan Poe character was based on—a kid Josh’s age named Jeff Sarwer, whose father really did keep him out of school so he could study chess full time—nor did he offer a draw in a won position out of empathy for his opponent: instead, he was able to work a tricky draw out of a lost position to finish in a tie, leaving Josh in first place based on the tiebreaker rules. (I was delighted, however, that at the end of the book Josh actually says the line to his younger friend Morgan that ends the movie.)

So although the movie is terrific (with a first-rate cast—highly recommended if you haven’t seen it), it naturally takes plenty of liberties with the source material to fit the story in, and leaves plenty out. The book approaches the same themes in a more complicated and often darker way. Waitzkin struggles constantly with what chess is doing, or might do, to his son and to their relationship. He wants his son to succeed, to fulfill the potential of his inexplicable talent for this game, but is always aware of the sacrifices that have to be made to reach the highest levels. He worries about whether working Josh too hard will cause him to lose his love for the game and quit it, and at the same time worries about the kind of life he might have if he does continue, and succeeds—the book is shot through with grandmaster-level players living in poverty, unable to support themselves on the one thing in life they are truly exceptional at, seemingly taking little joy in grinding out one win after another but at the same time unable to stop playing.

The book was also written in the 1980s, when the Cold War was still on and the Soviet Union still intact, and one of the longest and most interesting sections of the book that was left completely out of the movie is devoted to a trip Waitzkin, Josh, and Pandolfini took to Moscow in the summer of 1984 so Waitzkin could cover the first Karpov–Kasparov World Championship match. In contrast to America, chess is a serious, well-respected pursuit in Russia, where top-level players could live comfortable lives supported by the state. But at the same time, the game was almost absurdly politicized: tournament players were regularly asked to throw games if it would help certain favored players do well, or prevent certain disfavored players from winning (particularly Americans and Jews), and the battle between Karpov and Kasparov was fought as much behind the scenes as on the board, with each maneuvering through their political connections to gain advantages or to force concessions from the other side. When Waitzkin tries to arrange to visit Soviet chess classes for children, he’s told that that won’t be possible; all the schools are close for repairs. When he finally gets a teacher to let him sit in on a class, the visit is conducted like an undercover casing of a military facility—the teacher nervous, urging the Americans not to speak at all, to just nod if anyone speaks to them.

Waitzkin also goes to considerable lengths to track down a high-level player named Boris Gulko whose outspoken political views had left him under house arrest, and who, when he was allowed to play in tournaments, was excised from news reports of the results (if he won, they would simply not mention the winner):

I was told that Gulko would be willing to discuss the politics of Soviet chess, as well as the problems of Jewish chess players in the Soviet Union. . . . “To find Gulko, you’ll need to contact a man I know who is a well-known grandmaster, an expert in the endgame,” said the Russian American, who gave me a name and a Moscow phone number. “He is also a KGB agent, but don’t worry, he is totally corrupt. The first day you meet him, give him a present worth fifteen or twenty dollars—a digital watch, maybe. Don’t expect him to speak candidly at first. Most likely he’ll seem apathetic. But I know this man, and you’ll have aroused his curiosity. He will suggest dinner. During the meal present him with pornographic books and magazines; then the chances are he will arrange for you to meet Gulko.”

In case this approach didn’t work, the man gave me the name of a second grandmaster to bribe with a few digital pens; he wouldn’t be as expensive. He cautioned that I must never mention the name of the second grandmaster to the KGB grandmaster because they were enemies.

The KGB seem to be everywhere, although they rarely know for sure when or if they’re being monitored. When they are planning to leave, Waitzkin has to go to the American embassy and arrange to have them transport his notes and interview tapes back to the U.S.—a process arranged by writing on scraps of paper while the Americans loudly assured Fred that they could not help him with anything, to fool the KGB bugs—while he went back with fakes in case anything was confiscated. (“What madness, I thought. My chess notes were hardly espionage material.”)

If you like chess or liked the movie, definitely give the book a read. And for those who are interested—Josh eventually gained an international master ranking (one level below grandmaster), and is also a Tai Chi champion.


Update: Also, by the way, it looks like Jeff Sarwer has reappeared in the chess world this year after a long absence, and that his sister is writing a memoir of their childhood.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Díaz)

The New Yorker does this thing that drives me crazy, where they publish excerpts from soon-to-be-released novels without mentioning that they are excerpts from soon-to-be-released novels. So I read them, occasionally think “Man, that was a good story,” and then four or five months later, when I hear that the writer has a novel out, discover that this “short story” was actually an excerpt from that novel. Ian McEwan’s Saturday (or “Saturday,” as it was presented in the magazine) leaps to mind. So does Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (or “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”).

But although I might wish they gave some little indication when what they’re publishing might have three or four hundred more pages to it lying around somewhere, it’s difficult to fault them on Oscar Wao. They published the excerpt in 2000, four years after Díaz’s excellent debut story collection Drown—and now here’s the novel, published seven years after that. So it’s been a while. Fortunately, all that time seems to have been well spent, because this is a first-rate book.

Narrated by Yunior, an ultra-male, girl-chasing Dominican American (although with hidden corners of nerdery), the story revolves around a cursed Dominican American family and both the life they have in the United States and the ties they still have back in the Dominican Republic. Although the focus initially seems to be on Oscar—a nerd’s nerd, a virgin’s virgin, unable both to stop himself from falling in love with unattainable women and to get those women to fall in love with him—one of the main pleasures of the book is the way it continually opens up, drawing back, turning to different characters, incorporating lengthy footnotes on the history of the Dominican Republic under the dictator Trujillo, who both seems to lurk at the edges of every scene and is central to the fukú curse that sits at the story’s center. It moves back first to a lengthy section on Oscar’s mother, and then back again, later, to her own parents—an upper-class family ruined by Trujillo, her sisters dead, herself left orphaned for years as a young child before being rescued by her aunt.

The narrative voice is a slangy mix of street talk, uncountable allusions to other books (mainly sci-fi and fantasy), and Spanish. The Spanish was certainly the most frustrating part of the book, because although some of it was clearly incidental, other parts seemed hugely important—and online translators can only tell you so much, and don’t do well at all with the idiomatic speech Díaz uses so heavily. It helps me a little bit to have Google tell me that, in its opinion, Tú ta llorando por una muchacha means “You ta crying for a girl”; less so to have Coño, pero tú sí eres fea return “Jesus, but you do you are ugly.”

“I don’t write enough,” Díaz admits in a Powell’s interview (in response to the weirdly job-interviewish question “What do you consider your greatest weakness as a writer?”). I hope I don’t have to wait eleven years for another book, but hey, if that’s what he needs to produce a terrific novel like this, I’ll happily see him in 2018. (And Junot, I’ll see if I can learn some Spanish by then.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Little League, Big Dreams (Charles Euchner)

For me, it all started with a skinny, short second baseman nicknamed "Mouse." It was during ESPN's broadcast of the Little League World Series one year, and as soon as Mouse stepped up to the plate, I said two things to Jim: 1. Look how cute he is! and 2. What's a strike zone?

I love the LLWS, so I was incredibly excited to read Charles Euchner's book Little League, Big Dreams, which focuses on the 2005 LLWS. Unfortunately the book has some major structural problems. First, the book assumes you know who won the 2005 LLWS. (That being a year that we moved and were without cable for a month, I had no idea. Plus even if I had watched the game at the time, I probably wouldn't be able to tell you now off the top of my head.) This is incredibly distracting and takes away some built-in tension/organization/reason to keep reading to find out what happens. Second, the organization of the book doesn't make sense to the reader. The most organic structure for this kind of book (and one that has been used quite successfully in other baseball books such as One Day in Fenway) is the natural time frame of the World Series tournament format. When reading Little League, Big Dreams, it was easy to forget who was on which team and which team made it to what level in the series. And why some chapters went where (or why some material went in them in the first place) was unclear, such as a section about pushy parents in a chapter about faith and religion in the sport. There's also a chapter titled "The Greatest Little League World Series Ever" but it was never clear to me why this particular one was the greatest. I really wanted this book to succeed. But in the end, I was disappointed.

I did come away with some new knowledge about Little League. For example, it's not considered the highest level of competition for youth baseball (with PONY leagues, travel teams, and Ripken baseball all above it), but what it has that the others don't is the television broadcast.

For now I'll just have to settle with grown men playing baseball in a grown-up World Series (as the Cubs are out, go Rockies!).

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Century in Food (Beverly Bundy)

Three words. Coffee table book. I don't understand coffee table books. Are they that popular that they get their own category? Who buys them? Do people who buy them place them on their coffee table and read them there? Or do they buy them for their guests? And wouldn't it be kind of rude to ignore your guests and expect them instead to read your coffee table books while you go about your business? Seriously, if anyone understands the mystery of the coffee table book, please share it with me.

The Century in Food: America's Fads and Favorites by Beverly Bundy is a coffee table book. It presents information without information, meaning it tells you some things, but not all things, or even related things. For example, at the end of the first chapter is the recipe for Perfection Salad. Aha! I thought. She's going to tell the story about this unusual salad and where it came from. No. Just the recipe. Which would seem pretty random and meaningless to anyone who didn't know the history of the salad.

There are some neat historical ads, photographs, and quirky bits of information, with the best sections being the timelines presented by decade from 1900 to 2000. Here are some highlights:

1902: Nabisco introduces Barnum's Animal Crackers. The crackers appear just before Christmas in boxes topped with white string so they can be hung from Christmas trees.

1911: Procter & Gamble introduces Crisco, the first solid vegetable shortening. The product is a hard sell for women who had been taught to cook with butter and lard. To promote its product, the manufacturer suggests glazing sweet potatoes with brown sugar and Crisco, and spreading sandwiches with Crisco mixed with an egg yolk, Worcester-shire sauce, lemon juice, and vinegar.

1917: The hamburger becomes a "liberty sandwich" and sauerkraut is "liberty cabbage" during World War I.

1927: Pez is introduced in Austria as a peppermint breath mint for smokers. In 1948, the plastic dispensers are introduced and the United States begins to manufacture the brand and market to children.

1937: Sylvan Goldman . . . devises a shopping cart by fabricating lawn chairs into a frame that holds two hand baskets. He figures if the shoppers can carry more, they'll buy more. But the first shopping cart is a hard sell. Men find the carts less than masculine and women don't see the point---they're accustomed to shopping often. Finally, Goldman pays "shoppers" to cruise the stores using the carts.

1946: Earl W. Tupper invents resealable food containers. The inventor's plastic, a lightweight but sturdy "Poly-T," was probably first used in gas masks worn on European battlefields.

1958: Tang Breakfast Beverage Crystals is introduced nationally. . . Contrary to playground myth, Tang is not invented for the astronauts, although it does go into space with Gemini 4 in 1965 and on all manned U. S. flights throughout the rest of the century.

1962: John Glenn says that his first meal in space, applesauce through a tube, is nothing to write home about.

1974: The first product printed with a UPC (Universal Product Code)---a 10-pack of Juicy Fruit Gum---is scanned at March Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. An IBM engineer is credited with the patent, although several companies are working on the project at the request of a group of grocery stores.

1980: Whole Food's Market opens in Austin, Tex., with a staff of 19. By the end of the century, through growth and acquisition, the chain is the No. 1 natural-foods grocer in the U.S.

19992: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barbara Bush duke it out with rival cookie recipes published in Family Circle.

The Reach of a Chef (Michael Ruhlman)

I've previously reviewed two other Michael Ruhlman books (The Making of a Chef and The Soul of a Chef), and The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen is the third book in this informal series. Ruhlman’s writing is good, the kind of good where you don’t even notice it because you’re so caught up in the story he’s telling. I am also a frequent reader of his blog, which I recommend because it not only provides good food discussion, but he actually engages in conversation those who comment, and you just never know when Anthony Bourdain will stop by and guest blog, going on one of those juicy, expletive-laden (but in the best way possible) tirades it is in his nature to do. Life is never boring at

Ruhlman begins this book by explaining how confused we are as a country about food:

Since the end of World War II, this country has been out of sync with the natural order of sustenance and nourishment, embracing processed foods, revering canned goods, “instant” breakfasts, and frozen dinners, then elevating fast food to a way of life with such force that its impact has become global, then simultaneously abhorring animal fat for health and dietary reasons, while still becoming the fattest community on earth, then turning around to proselytize on diets composed entirely of salt-rich protein and animal fat, and banishing bread of all things---the staff of life was now the evildoer, and just when bakers in this country had figured out how to make it well. We completely upended the food pyramid we’d always accepted as undeniable and good common sense. Ours is a country that for years held out a silver cross at eggs. Eggs are bad for you. Eggs! The most natural food on earth, a symbol of life and fertility, a compact package of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates whose versatility in the kitchen, pleasure at the table, and economy at the store is unmatched by any other food. We learned to hate the egg! Do you need any further proof that something is seriously wrong with this country that teaches people to avoid eggs?

He also returns to the Culinary Institute of America (the subject of the previous two books mentioned above) to see how the school has changed since the rise of the celebrity chef:
[Eve Felder] suggested the change in the dynamic may have begun in 1989, when the school first gave students teacher-evaluation sheets, officially called "Feedback Forms," to fill out at the end of each block. This was a revolutionary idea (and not a very pleasant one) to a chef who had been pretty much allowed to do what he wanted in his own kitchen. "My staff gets to evaluate me? Grade me?"

The Reach of a Chef focusing on some newer talents, two especially: Grant Achatz and Melissa Kelly. Grant Achatz (who worked for Thomas Keller at the French Laundry) is the executive chef of Alinea, which is among the first Chicago restaurants to get the a four-star New York--restaurant amount of press for the quality of the food and the sheer creativity. (“the PB&J. . . A peeled green grape, still attached to its stem, had been glazed with peanut butter, sprinkled with chopped peanuts, and rolled in a very thin slice of bread, then lightly toasted”). [A brief update on Grant: Doctors recently found a cancerous tumor in his tongue, needing aggressive cancer treatment. The standard treatment would mean loss of part of his tongue and most likely loss of his taste buds, which would be a tragic fate for one of the country’s top chefs. However, a team of doctors at the University of Chicago is working on an alternative treatment for him, trying to take care of the cancer, while saving his sense of taste. So far the initial stages of the treatment have been quite successful. I do wish the best for Grant.] Melissa Kelly seems to be at the opposite spectrum as Grant. While both chefs are centered in classic technique, Melissa takes a different approach, cooking food her grandfather would love. She and her husband own Primo in coastal Maine, located in an old Victorian house and have a large garden on the grounds they use for their restaurant, focusing on fresh food, new menu items daily. No foams, no deconstruction. Real fresh food, heirloom food, cooked well.

Ruhlman also discusses “the branding of the chef”---Wolfang Puck soups, chef’s outposts in Vegas, Emerilware---and talks some about both Rachael Ray and Emeril. Oh, and the chef consensus on Emeril? While everyone may not love what he’s doing on TV, they all say what a nice guy he is. Even Tony Bourdain.

If you like food, read Michael Ruhlman. That's really what it comes down to. Read his books, read his blog, watch him in the Cleveland episode of Bourdain's No Reservations. Watch him on his upcoming show The Next Iron Chef America (which starts this Sunday on the Food Network). I don't think you'll be disappointed.