08 April 2015

2015 Reading List, January - March

Peter Morris, et al, Base Ball Founders. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013.

  See full review here.

Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls get the Blues. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

Don’t confuse symmetry with balance, the Chink tells Sissy. We learn this bit of ‘wisdom’, and how a band of cowgirls highjacked the last flock of whooping cranes, from Sissy’s shrink, Dr. Robbins, who is not only ethically challenged, but an even more obtrusive narrator than Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut has the decency to stay behind his sunglasses describing events, only entering the plot when addressed by others. Robbins, on the other hand, helps Sissy understand why she hitchhikes, compels the invalid hygiene magnate who employes her to give the cowgirls a ranch, then climbs a mountain to be with Sissy again. Quite a gal, that Sissy, to inspire such authorial affection.

Doug Glanville, The Game from Where I Stand. NY: Henry Holt, 2010.

Doug Glanville spent nine years playing center field in the Major Leagues. This is his first book, and it is slightly disappointing. Glanville, an Ivy League engineer, writes an occasional column for The New York Times, in which he has shown both a clear, comfortable voice and a (publicly) rare insight into baseball’s workings. This work created unrealistic expectations.

The problem is simply that From Where I Stand tries to do too much. Glanville is both reflecting on his own career, including how losing his father affected it, and laying out descriptions of (or guidance for approaching) various off-field elements of the game such as preparation, relationships, and integrity. Both are interesting, but the final effect is a bit jumbled. Discussions of steroids also play too prominent a role. While the book is easy to read and provides a wee glimpse of lifestyle behind the scenes -- complete with Tyra Banks and Michael Jordan -- it does not really add anything to our understanding of the game.

Glanville has more than a personal story to share, though, and this conflicted structure, mixing his own narrative and reflections upon various subjects, comes from wanting to say everything at once. It didn’t quite work here -- in fact, From Where I Stand does the opposite. It demonstrates that Glanville deserves another book. Having gotten the memoir out of his system, perhaps now he will tell the story of the 2002 negotiations between Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association over their expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement.  Or delve into social issues in the system, like inter-racial differences in treatment, or the impact extreme income distribution between Majors and minors has on minor league performers and their development. We can expect good things from Glanville, should he decide to continue writing.

Karel Capek, Rossum’s Universal Robots. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2001.

This short Czechoslovakian play (three acts, less than sixty pages of text) from 1922 introduced the work “robot” --derived from a Slavic form of “work” or “drudgery”. It shares (or inspirers) much with Cat’s Cradle: an isolated group, questions about what it is to be human, the end of the world. “It was a great thing to be a man,” intones one of the characters near the end. “There was something immense about it.” Yes, imagination enough to envision and enact our own extinction. Such a hopeful piece.

Nicole Engard (editor), More Library Mashups. Medford, NJ: Information Today, 2015.

This is Engard’s second volume of examples and illustrations of how libraries are using open data sources to provide better information tools and services. Mashups, or combinations of distinct products into something new (like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups), look for ways to use free tools to aggregate, distribute, and increase access to information. Examples in the book range from an automatic weather search triggering a tweet about library closure status to integrating book cover images into the card catalog, creating computer availability maps, or using drupal to create a library calendar.

The projects aren’t terribly technical. They are meant to show what can be done with available tools, and to inspire further investigation and development by readers. The authors vary, of course, but most chapters are clear and easy to follow. More than any single project, though, these ideas are valuable for developing new ways of thinking about what our users need and how we can help them get and utilize that.

Bill James, Guide to Baseball Managers. NY: Scribner, 1997.

Bill James asks questions about baseball, and when no one else will provide answers, goes and finds them himself. That’s what he did here. He tracked down answers to a series of questions about the men who direct the field action and put them in a book, because it hadn’t previously been available.

Going decade by decade from the 1870s to the 1990s, James explores who was successful and why. We get biographical sketches of some of the truly great ones, lots of interesting stories about interpersonal conflict, and discussions of strategy. We also get a rubric for evaluating and ranking managers, and a template for the back of their baseball card statistics. Really, an incredible amount of easily-digested information that is otherwise unavailable.

Gordon Cochrane, Baseball: The Fans’ Game. Phoenix: SABR, 2013.

Black Mike, the Hall of Fame backstop on World Series champion Tigers and Athletics teams of the 1930s, knew a few things about baseball. And the Boston University man could write, too (though he was perhaps over-fond of exclamation marks)! While this volume is full of stories from Cochrane’s career, it isn’t a memoir or autobiography. Instead, it’s essentially a how-to guide, in the tradition of John Ward’s How to Be a Player, with advice for added enjoyment as a spectator or participant. The anecdotes serve as illustration: this is how Mr. Mack told us to do it, or how Ty Cobb did it, orhow i mastered the skill. There’s really no inside dope -- unless tales of handling unwanted advice count as gossip. It’s just a delightful infomercial for the game, in print form.

Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker, Poodle Springs. NY: Berkley, 1990.

Chandler left four chapters, the start of a new Philip Marlowe novel, when he died. In it, Marlowe has just gotten married and moved to the suburbs. Chandler went out in style, with these final lines:

    Look, I don’t get my women by violence.
    Well, perhaps. But I seem to remember being forced into somebody’s bedroom.
    Force, my foot. You could hardly wait.
    Ask Tino to give you some lunch. Any more of this conversation and I’ll forget I’m arranging my dresses.

Parker picks up from here and gives Marlowe an admirably tough time of figuring out how to make this new situation work.

Lou Hernandez, Baseball’s Great Hispanic Pitchers. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015.

Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez... some of baseball’s greatest, and most recognizable, pitchers have been Hispanic. Hernandez takes on the task of selecting seventeen of the very best among these players. Some, like Pedro, Marchial, Martin Dihigo, and King Felix, are obvious choices. Some, like Ramon Arano and Ruben Gomez, never made a Major League impact, but starred in the Latin American leagues; Adolfo Luque and Camilo Pascual played long enough ago to have been largely forgotten. The rest are familiar names and all recognizable as very good; Hernandez’s efforts shine a light on how very good they were relative to all pitchers -- Luis Tiant and Dennis Martinez were near Hall of Fame talents -- and gives us biographies of a group that has, largely, been overlooked in the baseball book business. Argue his choices if you will, that’s what best-of lists are for. But each of these men is worth knowing more about, making this a welcome addition to the literature.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind. NY: New Directions, 1958.

This collection contains the title poem cycle, and also the jazz-inspired (two were even recorded on Poetry Readings in the Cellar) “Oral Messages” and selections from Pictures of the Gone World, Ferlinghetti’s first book.

We could discuss Junkman’s Obbligato and Christ Climbed Down as biting indictment of Eisenhower’s America, or explore the implications of line placement on the page, but that is not why one reads poetry. No, as Ferlinghetti notes in 15, we read it to watch as “the poet like an acrobat / climbs on rime / to a high wire of his own making”. Ferlinghetti is on a wire in these poems, balancing over great deep voids, and danger demands an audience lest he end up, as in 25, “a foolish fish which tries to draw / its breath from flesh of air / And no one there to hear its death.”