Archive for April, 2016

Review: Watching Baseball Smarter

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

I have been trying to reconnect with major league baseball (MLB)for a while.  Baseball is  my kind of spectator sport.  It’s essentially an excuse to sit in the stands and have a few beverages and jaw about the game.  That game is paced to encourage speculation about strategy, rumination on the history, and statistical analysis of any aspect of it.  Perfect for me.

Lately, though, I’ve been noticing that there’s lots of little stuff that’s just understood about the game that I missed out on as a casual fan.  I’ve been looking for a primer that I can use to fill some of those gaps.  Something like David Benjamin’s The Joy of Sumo, but for baseball.  Zack Hample’s Watching Baseball Smarter is a cut at it.

Hample’s a hardcore fan who comes at the game from interesting angles.  He’s also published a blog and book about the best ways to freely acquire baseballs used in games.  For example, those works describe the best places and techniques for catching foul balls (I think).  He’s not just a collector, though; he’s a student of the game and enthusiast.

The good thing about Smarter is that it covers a lot of ground without getting too deep into any one thing.  That’s its limitation as well.  Hample writes intelligently about everything from the basics of fielding and positions to the statistics fans quote most often.  The stats description shows how the depth is set.  Baseball is undergoing a revolution as amateur and professional analysts are mining MLB’s vast troves of data looking to understand and predict the game better.  Smarter recognizes this without attempting to lead the fan/reader too deep into that area.  I came away with a clear impression that there’s more to know and a good description of the most commonly used stats (as in the ones an announcer would mention).

Of course, the broad coverage means that there are areas one would like to know more about that get short shrift.  I expect that there are areas I want to delve into that were completely unmentioned.  I don’t think of that as a terrible shortcoming. I came in with knowledge and ideas of what I want to know more about.  More importantly, Hample’s focuses largely match my own.  Overall I both enjoyed Smarter and learned some things.


Review: The Stainless Steel Rat For President

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

There are people who will assert that Mary Sue characters are solely the product of female writers.  These people have never read a Stainless Steel Rat novel.  Harry Harrison’s Slippery Jim DiGriz only fails to fit the bill by being older.

I hadn’t read a Stainless Steel Rat novel since I was in high school, but I remembered them rather warmly. I did remember that I stopped reading them after a few because they had become formulaic. I was right.  Even with a couple decades of time off, the formula is pretty easy to spot.

It’s a shame that Harrison’s execution leaves me so cold.  There are a few fun ideas running around in here, including the basis of the series.  The idea is that in the future as authority gets more repressive and effective, criminals must similarly become more ruthless and effective to continue their trade.  The insights that we’ll always have rule-breakers and that evolution improves everything are well taken, as is the To Catch A Thief conceit that some criminals – like DiGriz – will use their skills to help society.

But, like I say, the execution leaves much to be desired.  DiGriz and his family of hyper-competent criminals are never challenged by any of the plot twists.  None of the main characters experiences the slightest self-doubt or concern about taking on a planet of corrupt officials.  No one ever breaks a sweat or really slows down to do anything but compliment DiGriz.  The rest of the family are machines, right down to having no agency.

Worse than simply being lazy writing, it undermines the main premise.  Everyone outside the DiGriz family is so ineffectual that the very idea that society bred a super-criminal is unbelievable.  If these guys are all DiGriz has to go up against, he’d never develop the super-competency that he needs.

There are a couple nice set pieces in here.  DiGriz is an atheist with a code against killing.  Harrison supports those positions simply and clearly, and it’s a welcome change from today’s bloody action heroes.  Still, overall I can’t recommend the Rat.

Review: Why We Broke Up

Friday, April 15th, 2016

I hope Daniel Handler made a huge amount of money on those Lemony Snicket books, so he can continue breaking my heart with the projects he publishes under his own name.

Why We Broke Up shares a lot of setup with and many of the merits of The Basic Eight. Both capture and breathe life into the vulnerability and rush of adolescence.  Handler’s recreation of being in love and being in study hall both resound with authenticity.

To its considerable benefit, Why We Broke Up is more intimate and personal than The Basic Eight. Everyone in Why We Broke Up has real depth and motivation.  No one is a symbol or a plot device.  Or just those things.  Everyone has irredeemably bad moments and inexplicably selfless ones.  Everyone has best and worst times, and no one gets away with being words on paper.

Its a deep trifle and a moving read.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The Bone Clocks

Friday, April 15th, 2016

David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is a sprawling, intricate novel constructed of well-crafted parts.   It is literally broken into sections that are broken up further into individual narrative bits – usually a day’s events – that interconnect to form the decades-spanning whole.  The sectioning is clear and explicit. Mitchell seems to be pointing out the parts that make up the whole.  At the same time, the whole is economical and sleek, though it didn’t feel that way as I read it.  It felt like it meandered in places – pleasantly – but on reflection there was no wasted prose.

Each section covers a different age of the world and a character. Most are told from different character’s points of view. Mitchell does an excellent job making each novelette stand on its own.  They all have a strong sense of place and time.  Each seems its own self contained work.  In addition to the strong location and point of view, each is tonally and thematically complete unto itself.  They feel like individual novels, but also link together in terms of plot and larger themes and tones.  It’s an impressive effect, this holographic fractal structure.

Bone Clocks has a significant fantasy component, complete with magic and secret societies that are largely unseen by mortals.Mitchell is such a good writer that these elements often seem unnecessary.  Several times I noticed that I preferred to escape the escapism parts and get back to the characters’ day-to-day lives. One of the characters running away from home and breaking her heart felt more important than the brushes with a secret society that led to. Mitchell’s literary skills are on vivid display there, making the prosaic more engaging than the magical.

The magic is key to the literary power and vice versa, though.  I think Clocks is ultimately more engaging and interesting for its inclusion.

Overall Clocks is a vast clockwork of ideas, passions, and interconnections that is well worth exploring and chewing on over time.

Strongly Recommended.