Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: April 2008

Review: The Soul of Baseball

The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America, by Joe Posnanski
8.5/10, a terrific look back at the Negro Leagues through the eyes of its most enthusiastic ambassador

I grew up a Philadelphia Phillies fan, becoming aware of baseball some twenty years after Jackie Robinson made his historic debut. In the mid-to-late seventies, the Philly press had still only grudgingly accepted African-American ballplayers onto their club: Mike Schmidt was the hero of that team, Greg Luzinski the slugger, Larry Bowa the scrappy shortstop. Garry Maddox, who served just as faithfully in center field for years, was one of the only non-white players on the team, let alone starting.

A kid growing up in a liberal household had no idea that there were differences or attitudes. It was only later that I recall my father telling me how cold the Philly fans and press were to embrace Maddox, compared to the affection they lavished on Schmidt and the others. In my mind, his is the only name I can remember the announcer saying, the name, “GARRRRY LEEEEEEEEEE MADDOX” echoing through the ballpark.

I had no idea the Negro Leagues existed until college, and then it seemed to me that they were a loose, patchwork show, a bunch of guys who weren’t allowed to play baseball in the bigs, so they got together just to play, like a grown-up sandlot league. I had never heard, nor heard of, Buck O’Neil.

In the past few years, his name has been all over, from his famous Hall of Fame snub until his death last year. Joe Posnanski, a Kansas City sports columnist, traveled with Buck for a year, admitting that he himself didn’t know what the book was going to be about until he started to write it. He found his topic in Buck O’Neil himself, the man more than the collection of his stories.

Not that the stories aren’t great. His “Nancy” story is worth all the buildup. But the stories are only pieces of the whole, the experience of the men in the Negro Leagues, including Buck himself, who played as fiercely, as colorfully, and as competitively as their “official” counterparts.

Buck’s story, encompassing the stories he tells over the course of the book, is compelling and moving. There are some former players who are consumed by bitterness at the discrimination they suffered, others who have learned to live with it. Buck, magically, seems to be free of it. And that is at the heart of “The Soul of Baseball,” the paradox of this man who experienced firsthand the worst in people and chose to see only the best.

Posnanski’s writing is skillful and evocative, crisp and colorful as a sportswriter should be. In fact, my main complaint about the book is that he doesn’t let enough of himself show. I picked up the book because of Joe’s blog, a consistently entertaining and insightful look at sports in general and baseball in particular. The personality of the author is one of the great delights of the blog. But in this book, I understand his dilemma: the book is about Buck, and to color it with himself would be to overshadow Buck. I think he made the right choice, but it wasn’t the book I expected to read.

It’s still a great read, even if you’re not a baseball fan or a Joe Posnanski fan.

The Fight Against Evil

In lieu of my own words, some wise ones from Eleanor Arnason, explaining her aversion to “quest against evil” fantasy novels:

In so far as evil exists, it is people, and they are evil either because they have malfuctioning brains or because they have become corrupted. Evil is not creatures with many legs that remind you of spiders, and it isn’t dark lords who loom in the distance. It is the greed heads and power freaks who decided to invade Iraq and destroy a nation to meet their personal needs, whatever those may be.

If fantasy is going to help us understand the world, then it ought to come up with descriptions of evil that help us recognize evil in the real world. Tolkien does this in Saruman, Wormtongue, Boromir, Denethor, the thugs in the Shire and so on. He shows us a wide range of corruption: those who intimidated by evil, those who are tempted, those who utterly corrupted.

I guess what I am saying is, evil is not The Other. It is right here in our neighbors and allies and the leaders we trust.

I like that. I’ve always thought that the corrupted friend was a better villain than the guy who was just “evil” for whatever reason. Even though I do write some fantasy, I don’t think I’ve often, if ever, written a “pure evil” villain. The villains in my stories are, as Eleanor says, the people among us who feel themselves above our moral codes, better than our society, more important than you and me.

Last Day for Voting

Hi all!

Today’s the last day for voting in the Ursa Major Awards. If you haven’t already, it’s important to go vote for your favorite works!

(Especially if, y’know, those works happen to be a certain novel or magazine…)

Busy busy!

Apologies for the lack of posting, if anyone’s noticed. I have been traveling the last three weekends, and am trying to wrap up layout on two Sofawolf books for the summer. Hopefully this weekend will see the bulk of that work done. I have a book to review and writing to talk about, so look for more postings soon! And keep an eye on http://yourtablesready.blogspot.com for restaurant reviews and maybe a neat surprise…

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
9/10 because I love history and science and Bill Bryson and this has all of that

One of my favorite books during my childhood was Isaac Asimov’s “The Universe,” a non-fiction* exploration of how we have looked at the universe from historical times to the present day. It’s where I learned about the Cepheid yardstick being wrong, about the redshift discovery of the universe’s expansion, and about the steady-state vs. Big Bang controversy. Along comes Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” a sort of updated and expanded “The Universe,” focusing more on Earth than on everything else. Asimov, for instance, spent no time on the evolution of man or the history of Earth except insofar as it related to our understanding of the age of the universe.

* It’s interesting, I think, that when we want to say a book is based on fact, we have to specify that it’s “non-fiction.” I was trying to think of another adjective and could only come up with “fact-based” or “factual,” neither of which sounded right. We just assume a “book” is fiction unless told otherwise.

Bryson’s “History” (technically, that is the subtitle, footnoted to a picture of the Earth, but I’m too lazy to find a picture of the Earth to put everywhere I want to show the title), conversely, does cover the establishment of our view of the universe, but only to show how we view our place in it. Fully half the book is devoted, lovingly, to the history of the Earth itself and the development of life thereon.

The strength of Bryson’s work has always been his stories about people, and in this book, he humanizes the science by focusing on the scientists. He tells us that one of the scientists really responsible for the discovery of the structure of DNA (who was never recognized with the Nobel that Watson and Crick received) was a scientist who jealously guarded her findings because, as a woman, her male colleagues never stopped trying to take advantage of her. We learn about the great international project to map the transit of Venus in 1761, for which scientists were dispatched around the world, including one tragic Frenchman who missed not only the 1761 transit, but the subsequent one in 1769, and whose story just goes downhill from there.

Every chapter is full of these stories, balancing the enormity of the discoveries with the humanity of the discoverers. From Aristotle’s greatest insight to Einstein’s greatest mistake, from cyanobacteria to antibiotics, Bryson shows us not only the history of our humble home, but our place in it, concluding with a moving chapter on our responsibility to our fellow inhabitants.

Not as consistently entertaining as Bryson’s other non-fiction work, but just as engaging and more informative, “A Short History of Nearly Everything” is a great read and a great story, and best of all, we’re all characters in it.*

* Not really.