The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

This interesting and sensitive mystery about Laos deploys an arsenal of fine writing to explore a strange and complex place and time. The Laotian monarchy has ended, the revolution has suddenly come to pass, and aged Dr. Siri is now the national coroner. The book is written as a series of tableaux — nearly, but not quite, independent short stories. The shifting points of view, the magic realism, the shifting of points of view and ambiguity of motivation, recall a quieter John Irving, and if the sun occasionally sets mauvely or the bear’s point-of-view seems a bit strained, Cotterill and Siri are each so competent that we know things will work out (more or less) in the end.

September 24, 2009 (permalink)

A respected baseball writer Twittered that he learned a lot from this book. I think he was being more than somewhat generous, because I myself am a rather casual fan and I knew most of the things in his book by the time I was in sixth grade – and so did every other boy in the class. (This was the dark ages, when girls weren’t expected to know important stuff like batting averages until their late teens.)

OK: I did get two two things wrong. If a ball deflects off the pitching rubber and goes into the dugout, it’s a foul ball. I’ve never seen it happen, I'm not sure it could happen, but OK, when I took the 12-question foul-ball quiz, this one got me. And, yes, I’ve believed since sixth grade that errors did not count as a time at bat and this turns out not to be the case. Someone sixth grader misinformed me. Don’t think I don’t remember who.

The book’s subtitle, “a professional fan’s guide for beginners, semi-experts, and deeply serious geeks” is wrong. This is what we, in sixth grade, would have called “a book for girls” — that is, a book for people who don’t really know much about baseball but might like to watch it. For that, it’s a fine book. (We will not mention at this point that the evening guy on WEEI dropped the ball on a question about the infield fly rule the other night.) I wouldn’t mind having the soccer version of this book, or the cricket edition. I once watched a Rugby final in Sydney, and it sure would have helped to have a pleasant and amiable read like this.

It’s a shame, though, because there’s a ton of interesting stuff about baseball that I’d like to know. Here are a few:

  • What is the best way to score a game at home? In a modern radio booth, who scores the game? On paper? On computer?
  • Do teams really differ in teaching fundamentals? How? People used to talk about the Orioles as being driven by fundamentals; true? What about scouting philosophies?
  • Some teams have had historically bad runs: the Cubs, the Pirates, and the Orioles have all had a rough time in their own way. In the past, you could point to Cleveland after the Colavito trade, or the Phillies after the breakup. Why were each of these teams so bad? Was it just luck, or poor judgment, or a fundamental misunderstanding?
  • Hample says that modern batters, like Ted Williams, deign to take advantage of the overshift. That’s not true: the modern overshift, as I understand it, was revived for David Ortiz, and he does try to go to the opposite field, or bunt. He generally fails, but he’s trying. Am I wrong?
  • Hample says the last left-handed catcher was a Pirate in ’89; I could have sworn that the Red Sox used a southpaw emergency catcher more recently.
  • Someday, a woman will play in the majors. What will her position be? (My best is 2B, but you could make a case for C)
  • OBS strikes me as a bastard statistic; you can’t add two ratios and expect the sum to mean much. What says the defense?
  • What are the odds that a runner on first, no outs, will score? How about the expectation value for an inning with the bases loaded, 2 out?
  • In the late 1980’s, Bill James started an analytic revolution. How has this changed the game? How has it failed to change the game? Where has it proven wrong?
  • There are dozens of little things players do, because something that never happens might happen. Third basemen are supposed to back up the pitcher after a pickoff play. On a popup to short center with a man on first, who covers second in case the runner tags? A compendium of these little things would be nice to have.
  • How exactly do options work? (In the next labor negotiation, should the union demand a way for players to get more options? Or should the owners?) Why do teams want to name players later?
  • How do baseball fundamentals differ in other places? What strategic moves might you see in Korea or San Pedro de Macoris that you don’t see in the Bronx?

September 10, 2009 (permalink)

The American Nazi party is marching in Skokie, gathering steam and frightening the neighbors. When Gershon Levin, a pious survivor of the camps, is found dead by cyanide poisoning, the police call it suicide, his rabbi reluctantly agrees, but his friends and neighbors and his energetic Israeli brother Uri team up to figure out what really happened. Moulton believes the Nazis to be a real and specific threat, not mere sad kooks, and she makes the argument with force and conviction in this engaging mystery. I worry that this excuses Christianist Republicans who believe in the same things and pursue the same methods but use a new logo. The Republicans have better resources, more money, and their own television network. Just as worrying, the story is weighed at the outset by buckets of exposition reviewing the outlines of the Holocaust; I’d have said, “Everyone knows this,” but Moulton’s long career as a history teacher (I was once her student) doubtless gave her reason to conclude they do not.

September 8, 2009 (permalink)

Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) returns in a superb mystery thriller. Among the best of the year, and deserves to be discussed among the best ever. Fascinating perspectives on Sweden, on the grievances and cruelties the human spirit can find even in socialist paradise, on the construction of a thriller without artificial peril and without buckets of firepower, and on the problem of a Watson with self-respect.

September 5, 2009 (permalink)

Holly Bkacl and Cecil Castellucci

Recommended by Corey Doctorow, this anthology collects intelligent stories about intelligent young people with unusual interests. The editor’s own story, “Once You’re a Jedi, You’re a Jedi All The Way” is terrific fun: a Chinese-American Klingon girl wakes up at a science-fiction convention to find herself with a terrible hangover, in bed next to a Jedi. Scott Westerfield’s “Definition Chaos” is a curious project brilliantly executed, and Kelley Link’s “Secret Identity” is the story that really sells the collection, a terrific excursion into what I’ve come to think of as the Greco-Emswhiller Territory.

It’s shameful that we continue to find talent, intelligence, and passion to be a defect that young people must overcome or transcend, but these “stories from the nerd herd” are more fun than a barrel of kobolds.

August 30, 2009 (permalink)

Theodore Roosevelt probably expected to lose his third-party bid for the presidency in 1912, but nonetheless found the electoral trouncing a bitter disappointment and 1913 a grim, grey time. To make some money for his children, he accepted a lucrative speaking offer in Brazil. To amuse himself, he planned a pleasant country excursion to the rain forest.

The excursion ramified and expanded until it became an expedition. Why go to someplace everyone had been when you might easily go someplace more remote? Why go to someplace anyone has been, when you might just as easily make a contribution to Science?

The result was more adventure than anyone would have desired, as Roosevelt and his companions descended the Rio Duvida (Doubtful River) despite disease, rapids, hostile Indians who remained unseen, and ever-dwindling food supplies. The story makes compelling reading, especially regarding the interplay of the heroic Roosevent and the fascinating Brazilian pioneer, Candido Rondon, who insisted that surveys be accurate, aborigines respected, and that under no circumstances whatsoever was anyone to shoot an Indian — even if the Indians decided to attack.

August 25, 2009 (permalink)

I've been reading Clotilde’s book , and so naturally a lot of her ideas crept into dinner.

What most interests me about Chocolate and Zucchini, the pioneering food weblog, is its emphasis on how one might plan and think about cooking and eating. In one of the first posts I read, I remember that Clotilde had a bottle of wine she wanted to drink with her friends. “What will be nice with the wine?”, she asked. I’d always asked, “What wine would suit this dish?”

Tonight featured a good old-fashioned cooking disaster. These things happen. I wrapped a nice big chunk of my home-cured pancetta in a foil packet, and wanted to cook it gently, gently, in a very low oven for hours and hours. Because my big over would be busy, I used the toaster oven. Voila!

Except somehow the toaster oven’s rheostat founds its way to 400° (200°C) when I meant 200° (95°C). This meant the confit was way over. But it was mostly edible, and it certainly was as lean as pork belly can be!

  • corn-chipotle muffins
    • margaritas
  • carpaccio of summer squash, goat cheese, cilantro sprigs, pear vinegar
  • home-smoked duck breast, confit of pancetta-cured pork
    • white Rueda
  • asparagus and cod en papillote, with shallots, orange zest, dill, thyme, and crème fraîche
  • duck stew (fresh figs and apricots, turnips and potatoes from the farm)
    • a modest super Tuscan
  • blueberry tarte with almond cream
  • coffee and lemon sablés

August 23, 2009 (permalink)

Recent years have seen fresh controversy over the nature of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Did Rome actually fall, or did it merely transform itself by degrees into Medieval Europe? Did the Germanic Barbarians cause the destruction of a civilization, or simply join it? Goldsworthy concludes that there can no longer be serious disagreement that the end of the empire in the West was, for almost everyone, a disaster, and turns to the pressing question of mechanism and blame: how did the disaster occur, and who was at fault?

In the end, Goldsworthy concludes that great institutions of Rome – the bureaucracy and the army – forgot their business. Distracted by centuries of incessant civil war (itself the product of technological failure, since communications delays made it impossible to know what was happening or who to trust), the short-term goal of preserving the life of the current emperor overrode everything else – including sound government and prudent defense. In the end, the barbarians won because no one was doing their proper work

August 18, 2009 (permalink)

The Ghost
Robert Harris

The author of Imperium, Pompeii, and Fatherland visits the present in this thriller, a portrait of the ghost-writer to a former Prime Minister who is, unmistakably, Tony Blair. Oddly, while Harris’s historical novels seldom subvert history to the needs of the story, in this book atmospherics sometimes trump realism. The ghost-writer flies (business-class) to meet his new client, who is living in a billionaire’s compound on Martha’s Vineyard. But no one meets him at Logan; he’s told to catch the bus to Wood’s Hole, the ferry to the Vineyard, and a cab from the ferry. This does a nifty job of Isolating The Hero, sure, but does it make sense? Of course not: they’d have called a limo service.

Occasional false notes — the casual rudeness of a politician’s wife, the cheap artwork in a billionaire’s beach house, the klaxon call of a wood pigeon in the dune scrub of Martha’s Vineyard — are small irritations. Hornby thought this an angry book, but the anger at the Prime Minister is nicely restrained. The women surrounding him – his wife Ruth and his chief advisor Amerlia Bly – are the subject of a deeper and more corrosive anger.

July 29, 2009 (permalink)

Mary Russell and her husband, Sherlock Holmes, return to their Sussex cottage after an adventurous and exhausting year abroad. They find Mrs. Hudson, of course, but also an unexpected visitor: the brilliant and troubled surrealist painter Damian Adler, son of the late Irene Adler whom Holmes once knew. This diverting volume is, I think, the first half of a longer work. Though it leaves much unresolved and many loose ends untied, it’s a fine way to spend a few evenings.

July 25, 2009 (permalink)

Anna is 13. Her big sister has leukemia; all he life, Anna has given her sister umbilical blood, bone marrow, stem cells, platelets.

Now the sister needs a kidney, and Anna wants to say “no”. The ensuing drama, a legal thriller crossed with a romance, is engaging, and (narrowly) avoids the merely sentimental. In particular, Picoult makes sure we see Anna’s adolescent selfishness, immaturity, and weakness while never making her unlovable. (Picoult is less generous to Jesse, the brother who rounds out the family). The book’s ending is contrived but not unsatisfactory, because its contrivance reminds us that sometimes things simply happen. But by insisting that every character be uncertain, tentative, loving and lost, Picoult ultimately filters out all the ideas from the book; we have four points of view but they are all equally and equivalently muddled.

July 12, 2009 (permalink)

I knew nothing about this brand-new account of a writer’s move to Italy. As I was about to embark on a visit to Italy (albeit only for a week and not, as Cusk intended, to transform Existence) this attractive book seemed ideal plane reading.It’s a studiously old-school travel story, moving from I Hate It Here to Amusing Vexations En Route to Colorful Old Townspeople And Their Lovely Daughters.

The writing is studiously fine. Sometimes, it slips the leash and runs around the garden. Of the Uffizi:

Inside, the building is deep and tenebrous and hushed.

My apartment is dark as well as damp. And this is 2009: readers who buy books like this one and for whom “tenebrous” holds no terrors have a pretty decent chance of having been to Florence. I’ve known some deep, tenebrous, and hushed places, and theUffizi doesn't come close to the Pearl Street Bar after Pedro’s disaster, or the great kiva at Aztec NM, or the basement herpetological collection of the old Chicago Academy of Sciences.

Silvio is as hard to corner as the hare I sometimes see standing proud and alert in the empty garden, that bounds away at the slightest noise. But one day I offer him coffee, and though he looks at me gravely he does not refuse.

In Italy, even the wild rabbits drink espresso!

But the real problem here is that the trip (and thus the book) is patently an occasion for short essays on Various Topics, and I’m never confident that Cusk’s impressions are substantial. The notes on painting are good, but are they better than Ruskin, or Vasari? We need a bit more assertiveness, a reason to stop and regard these ideas, a sense that they take into account what others already have proposed. There’s a bit on Italian food considered as sentimental, but the argument seems thin, focusing more on “Italian” food as Britons view it rather than on any particular Italian cuisine. A lot of what Cusk views as typically Italian (a focus on one or two ingredients, simplicity, and freshness) seems to apply just as well to many regions of France, not to mention American Regional or New Australian.

Twice, I simply don’t know what is going on. The author is travelling with her daughters, and at a hotel they have met two American girls their own age.

Later, I hear the American girls talking about their mother. She’s really sick, the older one says. I sit up: I want to explain to my daughters what that means.

I want her to explain it to me, too, because – depending on age and region and tone of voice, I could see these words indicating that (a) Mom is dying of leukemia, (b) Mom is addicted to controlled substances, (c) Mom is a suspicious and restrictive disciplinarian with whose religious fanaticism my sister and I do agree, (c) Mom is having an affair, which is gross, (d) Mom has a wicked sense of humor, or (e) my sister and I are 11 and 13.

There’s a similar passage on the subject of a fresco at Pompeii (The Catechism With Young Girl Reading), which strikes me as an innocuous decoration and which Cusk sees as depicting “the mystery and brutality of the pre-Christian world.” I think this is a stretch: even if we assume (as I guess Cusk assumes) that the next step in initiation involved sex with the priests, it would have been consensual by the standards of the time, the girl is old enough by the standards of the time, and it’s Someone Else’s Religion. Besides, where’s the evidence? Herodotus, maybe, but he's writing of other people and he's five centuries earlier. Maybe at these initiations they just taught you the secret handshake, or showed you pictures, or taught you how to dance.

Between many Madonnas and a visit to Assisi, Cusk begins to build an inchoate argument for appreciating Renaissance art while holding reservations about Catholicism. In principle, this could be interesting. In practice, it doesn’t work. Apparently, she was shhhh'd at the Basilico di San Francesco by crowds more interested in relics and masses than in frescoes, and I’m not unsympathetic. But still, they’re here for the Intended Purpose, and she’s there to look at their paintings; one could wish for more grace and generosity of spirit, but she’s a tourist and she’s a foreigner and she’s in the way. The effect, in this old-fashioned book, is an (presumably unintentional) return to the spirit of the 17th or 18th century Briton In Italy, enjoying the paintings while deploring popish superstition and ceremony. But Gibbon does it better with his barefoot monks in the Temple of Jupiter, and he only mentions it to explain how he came to write The Decline and Fall.

But, you know: this was one of my least favorite books for the last year or two, and look how much fun I had!

July 5, 2009 (permalink)