Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Last Best League, by Jim Collins

The Last Best League: One Summer, One Season, One Dream, by Jim Collins

While I like baseball, I admit I'd never heard of the Cape Cod Baseball League before reading this book. I found it fascinating: a detailed look at what is often the last phase of amateur baseball prior to a professional career. The juxtaposition of an amateur league run largely by volunteers and low-paid managers that attracts the attention of top MLB scouts and whose players routinely receive six or seven figure signing bonuses was interesting. The players—mainly 20 and 21 year old college students—know that playing well on this stage can mean serious money if they do well, or kill any dream of playing professionally if they don't. The coaches are there for the love of the game, knowing they'll never see the kind of money many of their young wards will. The Last Best League captures the emotion of this situation well, following one team through the summer season of 2002.

One of my favorite aspects of baseball is that there is no clock; no matter how far behind one team gets, it is theoretically possible to close the gap in a single inning. Collins takes this truth and uses it as a metaphor to capture the beauty of baseball through the years. "The game had the awesome ability to stop time. There is no clock in baseball. The players out there on the field were twenty years old, just as they were last year, five years ago, ten. Nothing had changed—that was the illusion. Forget that the big electronic scoreboard in left field was new. ... Forget that this little old-fashioned club had spent $60,000 in the off-season on field improvement... That was real grass out there, those were wooden bats. The generations blurred. Mike MacDougal, Mike Lowell, Jeff Bagwell, Thurman Munson, Johnny Schiffner watched from the dugout. These were the same kids out there, chasing the same dream, giving the same gift." While baseball is often seen as being reluctant to embrace modern technology, this reluctance helps give the sport a timeless quality. Collins gives us a compelling glimpse into this aspect of our national pastime through the eyes of young men with dreams of playing at the highest level.

First Sentence:
For John Schiffner the summer of 2002 began at four o'clock on the eighth of June.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

When the Mob Ran Vegas, by Steve Fischer

When the Mob Ran Vegas: Stories of Money, Mayhem and Murder, by Steve Fischer

Fischer opens this series of Las Vegas anecdotes with the story of the Kefauver committee and its investigation into organized crime. While the visibility and findings of the committee are what eventually caused the mob to close their illegal casinos and concentrate in Vegas, the hearings are much better known for when Bugsy Siegel's girlfriend Virginia Hill announced on live television while under oath, "I'm the best damn cocksucker in the United States!" When the Mob Ran Vegas is a series of stories about the early days of Las Vegas and organized crime's role in its growth. It isn't a traditional history filled with footnotes and a thirty page bibliography, but more of a casual retelling of various legends from an enthusiastic aficionado. Most of the stories are pretty interesting, although a few devolve into lists of people with brief bios, but the last one about the closing of the Sands runs a bit maudlin with the author reminiscing about seeing Buddy Hackett perform or sharing an elevator with Doris Day. After reading I felt more like I'd spent an evening hearing tales about the not-so-good-old-days rather than learning about the history of the City of Lost Wages, but it was certainly an entertaining evening!

First Sentence:
From March 13 to March 30, 1951, the living room at our house was the place to be.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George

Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George

The Lynley novels have been uneven lately, but I haven't quite given up yet. Believing the Lie is just good enough to stand on its own, but still not as impressive as the earlier outings. The mystery is solid—George keeps us guessing as to the outcome until late in the novel—and the side-plots with one exception are intriguing as well. Homophobia is a major plot driver, with several minor characters showing a violent intolerance and others fully accepting; sadly nobody is ambiguous towards the topic at all removing the opportunity for any serious comment on the issue—everyone is a stereotype on one side or the other. At this point, though, we don't read this series for the plot but for the characters.

Inspector Lynley continues to act out after his wife's death, continuing his ill-advised affair with his alcoholic and unlikeable boss. Simon St. James is largely in the background here which is unfortunate. Deborah St. James however remains virtually intolerable; I don't understand how the reader is expected to believe people with the character and intelligence of the other leads would put up with the self-centered antics of Deborah who seems to exist only as a plot device. Barbara Havers continues to be my favorite; here she demonstrates the same grasp of Spanish I do: "I can't—of course—read the caption since it's in Spanish, in which language I can actually say una cerveza por favor but, believe me, nothing else."

Believing the Lie is better than the last few outings, but still not what I'd hope. The last few pages, however, cause me to eagerly await the next volume which looks to focus on Havers and Lynley. Hopefully Deborah will stay off page and quiet!

First Sentence:
Zed Benjamin had never been called into the office of the editor before, and he found the experience simultaneously disconcerting and thrilling.

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