About a month before the film adaptation was released and about eight years after the rest of the world finished up their water cooler conversations, I finally read Moneyball, Michael Lewis' investigation into the conflict between tradition and statistics in baseball. He famously follows the low-budget Oakland A's in his quest to discover how a poor team can be so consistently successful, violating the understanding that the rich teams who buy the best players can't lose.
This is sharp, clean, clear nonfiction that has been at once enormously influential and not influential at all (or enough) on the game. I was most interested in the history of baseball statistics, particularly in the story of Bill James, and particularly in the quoted writing of Bill James, which I should probably just read directly. Lewis' portrayal of the feisty mathematically-inclined minority tradition of baseball enthusiasts that created the world of sabermetrics had me staying awake past bedtime. Lewis is admirably unafraid to risk strong conclusions: at one point, he speculates that the traditional preference by scouts for high school players, in spite of reams of data showing that players recruited out of high school perform far less well than players recruited from college, is a manifestation of the American backlash against intellectualism.
Moneyball falls flat when trying to dramatize actual games in light of the unconventional strategy of the A's. Action felt stilted and slowed by explanations. And his characterizations of the people in this book felt a bit cumbersome, out-of-proportion: lots of visual detail on a guy we see for half a chapter, for example. In the end, though, I think Michael Lews is mostly right about how baseball, really, works. And I'm glad to be persuaded.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
This is Alexie's first foray into young adult fiction, and it promptly won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. It is one of the newer members to the Banned Books Club; it's apparently challenged for language, racism, violence, sexual explicitness, and for being "unsuited to age group." Echoing in my mind as I read it was Alexie's brilliant essay on why the best kids books are written in blood. Because this book is.
Junior is a teenage cartoonist and a self-proclaimed geek growing up on a Spokane reservation. He makes a lot of enemies when he decides to transfer to a high school off the reservation for his freshmen year — to a school peopled by wealthy white farm kids who have an Indian as their mascot. Junior becomes a stranger in this new place twenty miles from his home, and he becomes a stranger — rather, a traitor — to those still living the life he was supposed to live: his angry best friend, his parents, his neighbors, and his sister who, also, reaches for a different kind of life. When the two schools play basketball in a home game for the Indian team, the crowd on the rez is ignited against Junior.
The story is bracing, funny, heart-rending, true. Ellen Forney's illustrations — offered to us as Junior's art — broaden and deepen the voice of the kid otherwise known as Arnold Spirit, Jr. Humorous asides are juxtaposed with one of the better renderings of both grief and poverty I've seen in any kind of fiction. “My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people,” Junior says to us. This book spans a school year. It is a story of survival, and also of joy.
Reading Dorothy Parker is like curling up under a warm, colorful blanket. Penguin put out an appealing "mini modern classics" series designed to make very good writing accessible and portable. I found a full slate of the series on a Nairobi bookshop and it made my heart beat erratically. While I was tempted to spend my shillings on Truman Capote and Italo Calvino and Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Donald Barthelme, I chose Dorothy Parker. I chose well.
In the five stories collected here, you will not be surprised to learn that Parker explores the relations between men and women in love … or at least, in romance … or at least, somehow in relationship to each other. The tautly-crafted stories are rich in dialogue and all its textures: distance, intimacy, humor, bad manners, longing, fear, defensiveness, the desire to explain and present ourselves. In one conversation, it feels as if whole lives are lived. The title story is my favorite: humor disarms the readers and opens us to the heartbreak.
I could've finished this little collection in about 45 minutes. I stretched it out over four days. Each story was a sweet good thing in my day.