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

Baseball Prospectus 2014
Sam Miller, Jason Wojciechowski

This book is the heir to the old Bill James Baseball Abstract. I used to rush out and devour Baseball Abstract as soon as it arrived. Today, we have far more knowledge and far better tools, and where Baseball Abstract was always tinged by the derision of the baseball world, many modern Sabremetricians are honored (and employed) throughout the major leagues.

But it’s a lot less interesting and a lot less fun.

Why? First, I think I watch less baseball now. I miss it, sometimes, but there’s never time and you can always tell yourself you’ll catch a game tomorrow. I used to go to Fenway or Wrigley six or eight times a year, usually on the spur of the moment; now, it’s just too expensive.

But when Bill James wrote about Rickey Henderson’s place in history, he was writing first about history and only incidentally about Henderson. Today’s Baseball Prospectus comments are focused entirely on the player and his immediate prospects, mostly with an eye to fantasy drafts. I understand: I buy the book for my own fantasy draft. I’ve been part of the Eddie Plank League since 1993. But I’d much rather read about the game than whether this scrub might help my team a bit.

Anyway, I just fouled up my whole season by writing a “10” next to the name of Anibal Sanchez. Or, rather, I intended to write a “10” but actually wrote a “0”. So welcome my new ace starter for his third stint with the Mallards (sigh), Anibal Sanchez. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.

James used to write about topics that were fascinating even if they didn’t help with your Rotisseries league. What would Mike Schmidt hit if he always batted against the Cubs? Is taking the Cubs to win the series at 100-1 a reasonable proposition? Was it going to harm the characters of promising rookies Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco to be stuck on the hapless A’s? (That was an interesting question, before we knew the answer.)

March 19, 2014 (permalink)

Old, blind violinist Max Jacobus makes an unlikely mystery detective, and the dense and unlikely plot does not make his efforts easier. Yet there are some very good scenes here, and some fine ideas about music and some musicians.

March 19, 2014 (permalink)

A diary washes up on a beach in British Columbia. In Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, a Japanese-American Canadian novelist named Ruth finds the diary, wrapped in freezer bags and protected by a Hello Kitty lunchbox. In its pages, she finds a fascinating story of Nao, a suicidal Japanese schoolgirl, and her friendship with her great grandmother Jiko, a radical feminist Buddhist nun who was 104 years old and whose gentle, philosophical son died in a kamikaze attack on the American fleet.

This is a charming little story about growing up, and also about getting past writer’s block. There’s also more than a little reflection on the meaning of being Japanese: Ruth is an American nisei living in Canada, and Nao thinks of Sunnyvale, California as home and her life in Tokyo as an exile imposed by her parents’ failure. This is quite good. The book ends with a quantum-mechanically flavored coda that is less so, but even that is redeemed by the cat Pest — short for Pesto, which is itself an informal name because the cat’s proper name is Schrödinger.

March 12, 2014 (permalink)

Lily Koppel, a celebrity reporter for the New York Times, moved into a room on Riverside Drive just as building management was cleaning out the storage room. In a dumpster, she finds old hatboxes and suitcases and a battered leather diary that Florence Wolfson has kept from 1929 to 1934. At the start of the diary, Florence is fourteen and a high school student; at the end, she’s graduated from college and toured Europe and started to host literary parties that attracted Delmore Schwartz, Erica Jong’s mother, and a host of New York poets.

Florence lives for love – boys or girls, she doesn’t much care which, though she wonders about that a lot. She lives for art. And she lives a long time: in 2009, it turns out she’s alive and well and moving back and forth between Florida and Connecticut, and she’s quite happy to flesh out the details from the diary.

It’s a limited account, to be sure. While Florence was editor of the Hunter Echo, her staff apparently rebelled and the revolution was only quieted with considerable difficulty. The problem may have been staff suspicion that Wolfson was a lesbian, or resentment that she was too butch, or conceivably resistance to what they perceived as their editor’s sexual exploitation of the staff. In the nature of the thing, the details are unrecoverable, but all the interest of the episode really lies in the details. Yet this is fascinating social history, told by a young rebel who was determined to be unconventional just like her friends.

March 10, 2014 (permalink)

Simon Mawer

A haunting tribute to the British intelligence services of World War II, set as what seems to be a melodrama which nevertheless veers away — often at the last moment — from the trite and the familiar.

February 23, 2014 (permalink)

Peter F. Havill

A good if overly convoluted police procedural, set in the southeast corner of New Mexico and introducing an attractive young under sherif in a police department in which a surprising number of officers seem to be young women.

February 21, 2014 (permalink)

Ellen Kushner

Interesting early urban fantasy, set in a (fairly) realistic world in which noble duels are commonplace and where duels are typically conducted by hiring a professional surrogate swordsman to literally fight one’s battles. This is the story of one such professional and his friend, a failed academic. The book is now fairly conventional, but its frank homosexual undercurrents doubtless raised eyebrows and hackles when it was newer and it retains a certain raw sincerity about reclaiming Manners for the rest of us.

February 17, 2014 (permalink)

A joint biography of the four daughters of Edward Darley Boit, and of John Singer Sargent’s wonderful painting.

Sargent’s Daughters

Boit was a wealthy American painter — his wife was a Cushing. Like Sargent, the Boits moved freely between London, Paris, Rome; the girls learned lots of languages. None of them married, and we know surprisingly little about them.

But they were interesting people. Florie, the eldest girl, the one who is not looking at us, was probably responsible for introducing golf to the US. She had a Boston marriage, played the violin, suffered some sort of psychiatric episode during the war years, and died in 1919, probably of influenza.

Janie, who stands next to her, went mad: she was already difficult in 1882 when the picture was made and became much more difficult in the coming years. Just what the difficulty was, unfortunately, seems to be unknown: in surviving letters and records, everyone is worried, annoyed, anxious, and upset, but nobody really explains. She played the piano compulsively, was in and out of institutions, and in the end lived in a Paris apartment with two attendants, at enormous expense.

Issa, the girl in red, seems to have left little trace 0r memory.

Little Julia took up watercolors, settled in Newport, and died in the 1960s a cheerful and well-loved old lady, a local character.

February 6, 2014 (permalink)

This fascinating campus novel doubles as a formal experiment in genre mystery. The classic mystery begins with the first body – sometimes literally a corpse but always an upset in the natural order of things. The first body here is that Professor Steve Brookman is working out the best way to break up with his student lover, whose hair is indeed black. This upsets the natural order of things twice: Brookman, who seems like a nice fellow, is having an adulterous affair with an undergraduate student, which violates the rules if not the law, and we are beginning with the end of the affair, where the campus romance always begins with the beginning.

We continue in this vein, first leaning on and then pushing against the formal constraints of the mystery. Stock characters appear on cue – the girl’s father is a New York cop, the guidance counselor is a former nun – but suddenly emerge as three-dimensional characters. It’s a neat trick.

January 30, 2014 (permalink)

The Bully Pulpit
Doris Kearns Goodwin

Following on from her magnificent group biography of Lincoln’s cabinet, Team of Rivals, Goodwin’s new volume looks at Teddy Roosevelt, his protégé William Howard Taft, and the talented group of journalists centered at McClure’s Magazine who were the engine the drove the Progressive movement.

Interestingly, this book views Roosevelt’s Progressivism more optimistically than other recent treatments, especially Edmund Morris’s Theodore Rex and James Chace’s 1912. It is interesting, too, to see the interplay between Roosevelt, the first real master of modern press relations, and a circle of brilliant, cynical, and committed journalists. At one point, struggling under the weight of letters, telephone calls, and White House visits from Upton Sinclair, Roosevelt begged Doubleday to “tell Sinclair to go home and let me run the country for a while.”

Like Taft himself, this book is ponderous – large in size and broad in scope — yet so intelligent and genial that it turns out to be remarkably good company. Goodwin is, I think, the only major historian of the period who truly likes Taft. The bones of tragedy are here: a great statesman betrayed by his disciple, a bitter-fought campaign between the two of them that hands the Presidency to the Democratic Party they both despised. Yet Taft did not much want the presidency, was not terribly distressed to lose it, and later he received the Supreme Court chair which was the only thing he had wanted all along.

January 30, 2014 (permalink)

Like its heroine, this mystery is engaging, energetic, and unpolished. Maggie Hope is a young American, a recent Wellesly graduate who is looking forward to her MIT doctorate, when she is dispatched to London to sell the house she has unexpectedly inherited. She winds up stranded in the blitz, naturally, and inevitably lands a job in Winston Churchill’s typing pool. This is a fine setting, but we also have a cast of villains, plots, secret codes, and cliff-hangers that would provide ample plotting for three novels and that leave Maggy and the reader alike bemused and rather breathless.

The history is pounded home – would a typing clerk really have been in the gallery for “we shall fight them on the beaches?” – as if the reader had not heard of the war; I sympathize, but novels and even mysteries in 1940 London are not uncommon, and the typical mystery reader has read a few mysteries. We’ve just been here with Connie Willis, and then with Sarah Waters, and we’ve got Simon Mawer’s Trapeze on the stack; perhaps we could take some of the more familiar elements as read and aim for something fresh.

January 21, 2014 (permalink)

American Elsewhere
Robert Jackson Bennett

Mona Bright, a down-on-her-luck and depressed ex-cop, is surprised to learn that she has inherited a house in Wink, New Mexico. She is even more surprised to find that Wink appears on no maps. It is strangely hard to find, but when she does find it, the people there are strangely happy.

This novel has echoes of American Gods and a healthy dose of Burroughs, but what it chiefly recalls is John Varley’s Gaia trilogy – especially Wizard and Demon. Dealing with superior intelligence is no picnic, and writing about such encounters from the point of view of the inferior species is seldom very satisfactory. Bennett manages about as well as can be.

January 12, 2014 (permalink)

This interesting Dutch novel returns us to that modernly post-modern realm, the unreliable narrator. Our narrator here is both unreliable and unlikable, and he is determined not to enjoy the family dinner which is the entire compass of the novel. He does not like his brother, he will not like the pretentious Dutch restaurant, he will hate the check which his is determined to pick up.

The narrator’s brother is a prominent Dutch politician who will soon begin an important campaign. Two couples meet to enjoy a nice dinner, and perhaps to discuss the problems of their teenage boys. The narrator thinks that this dinner will mark the end of a happy family, happy like all other happy families, because his family is in fact becoming unhappy in its own distinctive way. He is not wrong.

January 9, 2014 (permalink)

Chris B.Brown collects long form essays from his intriguing web site, Smart Football. These are written for the serious student of football, or perhaps for coaches, but will not be completely impenetrable for fans, and they provide useful perspective on the development of football strategy on both sides of the ball.

The answer to one recurrent puzzle about professional football is, I think, implicit in these pages. Until 2001, most SuperBowls were won by dominant teams. You could easily believe that, most of the time, the year’s best team won the championship, and when the winner was a surprise, that surprise could often be explained by injury or under-appreciated excellence. Since 2001, on the other hand, lots of SuperBowl winners have been won by teams that seemed mediocre, teams that were given no chance before they won it all. Is this simply a statistical anomaly? If not, what changed?

One change that The Essential Smart Football clearly indicates is that lots of smart high school and college coaches, starting in the 1980s, spent a great deal of work developing strategies that might enable a team to succeed even though its opponents would often have better players. The Air Raid, the spread offense, the 46 defense, the 3-4 defense: they’re all concepts based on hiding weaknesses and utilizing the abilities of whatever good players you do have. Learning to exploit high variance strategies matters a lot if you’re, say, the 2001 Patriots and you’re double-digit underdogs to the Rams, but it matters even more if you’re the coach of a weak high school team. Win a few big games, you could get a college job; win a few big games there, and you could get a good college job. In much of Red State America, the highest-paid public official in the entire state is the coach of the university football team. That’s a lot of incentive. On any given Monday, a lot of coaches are dreaming of winning next week’s game, even though it’s basically hopeless, and only a few coaches of powerhouse teams have the luxury of thinking about using dominant players against inferior opposition. It’s not parity – or it’s not just parity: the entire industry is focused on finding ways for weak teams to thrive.

December 27, 2013 (permalink)

Anita Shreve

In the wake of Tam Lin and my musings about a course on the campus novel, I reread this well-crafted and sensitive story of disaster at a New England prep school. The best chapters, in the end, are those told from the point of view of the most peripheral characters – a worker in the school cafeteria, the harried and irritated roommate of the freshman girl whose sex tape causes so much heartbreak, and the mother of one of the three boys on that tape. The coda might be too long, the plotting just a little too neat, but it’s a fine book.

December 27, 2013 (permalink)