Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Dodgers Move West, by Neil J. Sullivan

This book was great. It was basically what I was looking for when I read Brooklyn's Dodgers. Sullivan reviews the history of the Dodger franchise, starting at its inception. This is important because the way in which Ebbets Field was built factored heavily into the Dodgers' negotiations with New York officials when the part became antiquated. The history of the team through the 1950s is not given the "you all know this already" treatment that Prince used in his book, and the ties to the community, while important and included, are never reduced to the navel gazing I thought I saw in Prince.

From what I read recently in the other baseball books I got for my economics paper, the standard interpretation of events is that Walter O'Malley was a jerk. Sullivan disagrees with that angle and, it seemed to me, made a case for a dual villain of Robert Moses and Robert Wagner (not the dude fromHart to Hart, but rather the mayor of New York).

I also enjoyed the way this book taught me things that have been on the periphery of my "I should know more about that" file, such as Robert Moses and the incorporation of Brooklyn into New York. Where the book fell a little short was in its analysis of the Giants' coincidental move to San Francisco. Sullivan does give it a few pages, and he does try to excuse himself my noting that it deserves its own history, but it is difficult for me to believe that it was such a non-factor in O'Malley's decision, especially since O'Malley himself said the teams' fates were probably linked, and the Giants made their decision first. Sullivan's coverage, though, is basically limited to "Horace Stoneham also hated his ball park and got a city to build one for him." I think, given the way O'Malley was so set against a municipal stadium for the Dodgers, it would be interesting to have learned more about how the Giants moved west (though not interesting enough to read an entirely separate book, since the Giants suck).

The book follows the history of the Dodgers up to the time of publication (just before the Dodgers' 1988 World Series victory). I understand why the history of the club after the move is important, but as more and more of the ties to Brooklyn have been severed, the history into the late 1970s and early 1980s seemed a little unnecessary. I also would have liked more about the Brooklyn response to the Los Angeles Dodgers, especially after the Mets began play in 1962 and the Dodgers returned to New York as a visiting team. There is just a paragraph thrown in about former Ebbets Field groundskeepers ambivalence towards the Dodgers' 1959 World Series championship.

For clarification, it also appears the date "1953" on page 77 should actually be "1956." I'm not sure, but it makes more sense that way.

These are minor criticisms. On the whole, I really enjoyed this book. Even with my primary baseball allegiance to the Pittsburgh Pirates, I could appreciate this story and the way it was told.

As an aside, I noted Sullivan writes, " baseball team has moved since 1972, when the expansion Washington Senators shifted to Arlington, Texas" (214). Last summer I read The Baseball Economist by J.C. Bradbury, wherein he wrote, "...MLB teams have been known to move cities. However, this movement is rare, as only one MLB team has switched cities since 1971--the Expos moved from Montreal to Washington, DC, to become the Nationals" (214). I'm guessing that Bradbury's 1971 event is the Senators move Sullivan dates to 1972 (and I think it's sort of spooky the way they both wrote about it on page 214 of their respective books). It probably depends on the definition of "move," since the decision was made in 1971 to play the next season elsewhere. However, most people (including Sullivan) agree the Dodgers moved in 1957, even though the first game in Los Angeles did not come until 1958. This 1971/1972 issue reminds me of the way in which the history presented in John C. Batchelor's "Ain't You Glad You Joined the Republicans?" became riddled with inaccuracies as soon as he began relying on memory instead of sources. When an author makes a mistake you KNOW is a mistake, it makes you wonder how much of the other stuff isn't true, too. (I had a similar problem with a college history professor, who seemed to really know his stuff until he made something up off the top of his head.)

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

The Borrowers, by Mary Norton

This book tells of the adventures of tiny people who live in the walls and floors of a British house. They have a tweenish daughter who befriends a normal-sized boy visiting the house. My kids liked the whimsical explanations of how the tiny people make use of the small things they can steal or "borrow" from the humans, though lots of it was lost by virtue of my kids now knowing what blotting paper or hazelnut shells are. The occasional one that they understood, though, would provide big laughs.

I don't know about this book. It was more enjoyable to read to my children than some of our recent outings (The Littles to the Rescue and Bubble and Squeak are pretty bad), but there were still some things about it that bothered me. Specifically, young 21st-century American children don't appreciate character dialog written in late 19th-century working-class British dialect, and are just confused by anachronisms that Norton didn't have to explain to her initial readers in 1952. Also, the structure of "a story in a story," with old Mrs. May retelling when her brother was a young boy and met the Borrowers, was pretty advanced for my kids (ages six and five, though because I am a modern parent, I think they are such geniuses that they are probably on the autism spectrum), especially since Mrs. May disappears for over 100 pages, leaving the reader to forget that the narrator is anyone other than a nameless omniscient presence. Lastly, I was a little put off with the way the REAL narrator tells us Mrs. May's shifty mannerisms, raising issues of her reliability. I mean, come on, this is a kids' book, not high literature. If the narrator is unreliable, say so.

My kids generally liked it, though. They were happy to learn that there are more Borrowers books, and they want to get them from the library soon. I can't really see how the Mrs. May narrator device would work in any sequels, so I'd be more inclined to read them. The chapters were a little long for my liking, causing us to have to split most of them. My kids accept chapter breaks pretty uneasily but relent to the unseen authority that decided this was a point in the story at which we need to stop for the night. When it's just me declaring that we'd reached a good stopping place, mutiny is never far afield.

In my diligent preparatory research for writing this review (also known as Wikipedia reading), I learned that there has been a more-recent movie adaptation of this book, and that it was critically well received. I should probably write movie reviews of films based on books I've read, comparing them, since lately we've been very disappointed with book-based kids' movies. If I end up seeing the movie, I'll be sure to include a review of it here.

Rating: 4 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dare to Prepare, by Ronald M. Shapiro

I went to the city library to tutor some kids, and when they didn't show up, I browsed the shelves of new books. There was this book, with a finger pointing at me, telling me to prepare. I had just decided which graduate program to attend in the fall and was feeling inadequate to the task before me, so I decided I would read this book and learn how to prepare for what awaits.

Having read the book, I'm not too satisfied with the results. It is heavy on "here's why you should prepare" and pretty light on "here's how to prepare." Well, I don't know. Each chapter that is full of stories of the benefits others have realized from preparation covers a particular aspect of preparation. I guess I just feel this book would be really useful as an outline with hyperlinks. If any aspect of the outline is interesting, you could click on the link and learn more, but otherwise you've learned the essential points from the outline. This book also would be useful as a reference, when you are trying to prepare for something and you want to make sure you're approaching it correctly or using the most effective methods.

The actual act of reading was difficult sometimes because of the way the author used compound subjects with his verbs. It made it so I thought I'd come to the verb when really it was part of the subject, so later when I got to the verb, I had no idea what the sentence meant and had to re-read. That's just a matter of his writing style and my reading style being out-of-whack. One example was when he wrote, "Not only do Ray and his department head peers face the normal budgetary tug-of-war that define [sic] any such entity; they also are highly competitive achievers at the pinnacle of their game" (209). I thought the subject was "Ray and his department," the verb was "head," and the direct object was "peers." Then I got to the verb "face" and had to start over to see the subject was "Ray and his department head peers." Again, no one is right or wrong here; I was just confused a lot.

What I was looking for, though, wasn't quite what this book was written to be. This book is more for discrete events that can be planned and seen to a conclusion. With my current task, it seems impossible to identify counter-party desires or to script how I would ask the hard questions. There really isn't a counter-party and there aren't any hard questions to ask. But in terms of getting me to think about the process I'm about to start and formulate ways to be successful, this book led me to that, if only by showing me that the book wasn't going to get me there.

Rating: 3 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Alphabet of Manliness, by Maddox

I learned about this book from a comment in an online discussion forum, wherein the commenter said it was the funniest book he'd ever read. Most of the time when I hear this, it's more a signal of the speaker's stupidity than the book's hilarity. After all, there are people in the world who love the show “Momma's Family.” (Which sucks.) This particular forum, however, is generally pretty funny, so when someone there said they thought a book was funny, I thought I might, too. The distinctive cover, with a man punching a gorilla, made the book easier to remember.

Later that week, I was at the library waiting for the woman whose kids I'm supposed to tutor even thought they never show up to call me and tell me that she wasn't going to show up. To pass the time, I decided to see if our library had a copy of this book, and was surprised that they did.

Maddox is the blog alias of the creator of “The Best Page in the Universe,” a caustic, funny website. For this book, he's written an entry on something “manly” for each letter of the alphabet. A is for ass-kicking, B is for boners, and so on.

Here's the thing about me and funny: I think I have a pretty high tolerance for humor, meaning it takes quite a bit to make me laugh. Things are often humorous, and might elicit a smirk, but rarely are they funny, and seldomly do they entice me to laugh. I realized this for the first time, I think, when my then-girlfriend (now-wife) took me to see a taping of the television show “Friends.” One of the actors would deliver a laugh line and I would smile, but what the producers wanted wasn't a smile but a loud guffaw. (What was most surprising to me was the way that, during the eighth take of what was once a funny scene, the production staff would come onto the set to fake a laugh for the purposes of the laugh track, since there's only so much thoughtless laughter you can expect the average American to supply.)

That being said, I thought this book was funny, and it even made me laugh, more than twice. A smattering of funny lines: “Sometimes a wet fart is known as a 'juicy dialectic'; that is to say, it's a constant struggle between nasty and awesome. Exercise caution when you decide it's time for a wet one” (56-7). “If I had my way, hot sauce would be the primary only ingredient in baby formula” (69). “His mom started yelling and screaming, then she tried to punch me, so I stepped to the side and she accidentally tripped and fell down four flights of stairs, and then she accidentally got peed on” (71-2). “These wet blankets downplay their breasts and trivialize them as just being 'bags of skin and fat.' If you think about it, babies are also just bags of skin and fat, but that doesn't stop women from cradling them” (90).

This book is the type of funny that you would not admit to enjoying at a family gathering or church function. I would not recommend this book to a family member because a lot of the humor and language is off-color, but having learned that a family member read and enjoyed this book, I would think that family member must be much cooler than I'd given him credit for.

Rating: 5.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Littles to the Rescue, by John Peterson

Sometimes I wish I were one of those white-trash dads that didn't read to his kids. Like when my kids pick crap books they want me to read to them. This book, while not as bad as "Bubble and Squeak," is still bad enough that it counts as a counterargument to the First Amendment. "Sure, freedom of the press is great in theory, but then it gives us crap like 'The Littles to the Rescue.'"

One of the biggest problems I have with this book comes from the fact that we're also reading "The Borrowers" right now, which highlights just how much of a Borrowers rip-off the Littles are. I am reminded of the crap direct-to-video movies that exist solely because there is money to be made from unsuspecting movie renters who think that, since they were sent to the video store with instructions to rent "Treasure Island" and the movie they hold in their hands is named "Treasure Island," it must be the right one. If "The Borrowers" is the original big-budget version starring Will Smith, "The Littles to the Rescue" is the knock-off version starring Rutger Hauer.

All this, of course, is lost on my kids. They don't care if "The Borrowers" is the steak to John Peterson's Spam. In fact, I think my kids liked the Spam best because the dialog wasn't 19th-century English working class dialect, so they understood it more easily. And if my kids think the Littles are great, all I have to do is help my daughter become a better reader and farm these books out to her. She already reads Megan McDonald's "Stink" books to my son, not because I don't like them, but because they like them too much to wait for me to work them into the rotation.

The bigger problem with the Littles, as I see it, is the amoral narration. Characters are constantly saying questionable things and there is no indication in the story that their views are wrong. Uncle Pete tells the women to stay inside while the men solve the problem. Stubby Speck drums up fear of the Ground Tinies because they are different. Whit Snippet tells his wife to be quiet and let him make the decisions. And at the end of the book (SPOILER ALERT, I guess), the Littles, fearing the Snippets will kill their relative, decide to blow up the Snippets' living room, only later finding out no one was inside, and never thinking it might not have been a good idea.

Rating: 1 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Brooklyn's Dodgers, by Carl E. Prince

I wrote a paper about discrimination in the market for baseball memorabilia, so to pad my material and get the paper to a less-laughable length, I decided to include a section about the history of discrimination in baseball in general. I went to the university library and got a few books about it, and this was one of them.

This is a book of modern history, which consists of the notion that what everyone experienced in the past wasn't really what was going on at all. This is how you get things like "Lesbian Militantism in Chaucer." I understand how this trick is somewhat necessary in helping young historians keep the wolves from the door, as it were, but it is still tedious to spend time reading something by someone who thinks he's so clever. I am thankful, though, that this book doesn't have too much of it, and while there is still some material about how women's liberation advanced during the 1950s, it's mostly him quoting others for the purposes of disagreeing.

The audience for this book seems pretty small. Prince seems to have written for the academic who is well-versed in Brooklyn Dodger history and personnel. That's not me, nor is it most people aside from Prince himself. But if you're Carl Prince, you probably would think this is a great book. Unless you're pretty familiar with ancient baseball history, you may find yourself lost when Prince casually refers to the Giants' 1951 "miracle" without further explanation of said "miracle" (or why it requires ironic quotation marks), or when he mentions Leo Durocher's 1947 suspension but leaves it to Wikipedia to tell me the details. (It turns out Durocher was riding a dinosaur to William the Conqueror's birthday party when an alien landed and turned him into a Communist. Wikipedia don't lie, son.)

Sometimes Prince pushes things too far, like when he argues that the Dodgers were more of a uniting force for Brooklyn's immigrants than other teams were for their cities' immigrants, or when he argues that the Brooklyn sports bar was unique among American sports bars. I understand liking your childhood team, but come on, they didn't cure cancer. (Wikipedia now says that I cured cancer, actually.)

Rating: 2 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Moneyball, by Michael Lewis

This is another book I got from the library when I got a stack of baseball books. I had heard a lot about this book, since I hang out with economists and there's a particular type of economics nerd who tries to deny his nerdiness by applying economics tools to baseball. “See, I'm not a nerd,” he says, “I'm analyzing something cool, like sports!” He has a bit of a convincing argument until he goes and ruins it all by calling himself a sabermatrician. Only a total nerd would have a name like that for himself. A cool guy would call himself a stats jockey. Well, this book is about how sabermetrics came to be, how baseball people generally dismiss its conclusions, and how one small-market club, the Oakland Athletics, has tried to use sabermetrics to gain an advantage over the clubs that dismiss it.

It was enjoyable because I'm an economist and a baseball fan. The economist in me enjoyed the rational analysis of baseball performance, and the baseball fan in me enjoyed the inside look of how a baseball team works. It was fun to read about players' conversations in the video room, and it was touching to read about Scott Hatteburg's wife spending the winter months hitting ground balls to him off a tee for him to prepare for a transition from catcher to first baseman. It was also enjoyable reading this book a few years after it was written, because some of the players who were just draft prospects when the book was first published are now major league players, like Mark Teahen, Kevin Youkilis, and Nick Swisher.

I would recommend this book to any baseball fan, not just economists. It's an interesting look behind the scenes, and the analysis is explained enough that non-economists can understand. (One of the most interesting things I learned from this book is that the author is married to former MTV News anchor Tabitha Soren.) When my wife writes book reviews she has to count the instances and varieties of profanity, because some of her readers care about that. Since most of the principles in this book are career baseball men, the language can be fairly salty. If that's a deal-breaker for you, then be forewarned. That's not a deal-breaker for me, though, and that's why I'm generally more well-read than you are, sucker.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.