Ball Four is one of those books that I always thought I knew what it said and what it was about, and never had the least interest in picking it up and reading it. Although I would describe myself as a above average baseball fan, and my general interest in all topics baseball as high, for some reason, it had just never struck me that this was a book I should read. Maybe it was the fact that I knew Jim Bouton had been a Yankee. Maybe it was the fact that I knew the book had been controversial and somewhere along the way I had heard critical opinions of it. Maybe it was that noone ever grabbed me and said, "Byron, you should read this book!" (Or if they did, I didn't hear them.)
But over the past four years, I have become a ravenous listener to audiobooks, and over the last two years, have discovered that I have missed a lot of reading in my life. Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill have all caught my attention with their classic works. Then, last month, I starting browsing the baseball related books, looking to shift gears, and Ball Four caught my eye. When I downloaded it, I noticed that the book was read by the author. I didn't notice until I started the book that it also include three updates at 10 year intervals after the initial book was published. More about those updates in a minute.
I found the book somewhat interesting initially. Bouton starts at the beginning of the 1969 season, when he was playing for the expansion Seattle Pilots, and he makes frequent reference to his glory years with the Yankees earlier in the 60's, but he also makes it clear early on that things went sour for him in New York, although he never really presents the New York history in story-telling form. His focus stays on the 1969 season, and he presents it in almost diary format, where he bounces back and forth from things that happened or were said each day to reminisces from earlier in his career, with a particularly humorous way and seldom flattering way of describing current and former teammates. At times, he is absorbed with his own sense of self-importance, trying to figure out why he doesn't get respect from management or teammates.
A few weeks into the season, I began to wonder if I really wanted to finish the whole book. This was going to get tiresome going through the whole season, and I knew the Seattle Pilots did not have a good season, so there wasn't going to be any good baseball story there, I thought. But, perhaps for lack of a ready alternative, I hung in there, kept listening, and began to find myself absolutely absorbed in the season, and recognizing how incredibly thorough of a look inside the life of baseball players in the 1960s I was receiving.
By the time we got to the end of the season, and the end of the initial book, I felt thoroughly entertained and appreciative of the service Bouton had provided to me to bring the major league of my youth to life in a new way. There were times, as Bouton read his own book, when he would chuckle at the stories he was telling, which was annoying a couple of times, but on the whole, added to the read. Even as he poked fun at his teammates and managers for their foolishness, you saw that the pot was calling the kettle black, and I can to appreciate that Bouton was both egotistical and self-deprecating, and I decided I really liked the guy. If I had been a player, I would probably have been a lot like him.
It was clear why the book had been controversial. It was probably the first tell-all book, and he mocked some of the greats of the game. He portrayed Joe Schultz, the manager of the Pilots, and Sal Maglie, the pitching coach, as men without a clue as to how to make strategic decisions to win games, and he revealed the incredible cheap-ness of the owners. Bouton was earning a salary of $22,000 in 1969, so this was back in the days before any Tom, Dick, or Harry could strap on a glove and earn a million dollars, and the stories he tells on the owners are priceless.
Stopping at the end of the original Ball Four would have left a good taste in my mouth, and I would have written a 4 star review, and all would have been well. But, Bouton added the three updates, from 1980, 1990, and 2000, and this book jumped from 4 stars to 5 stars plus in my estimation.
Now a disclaimer here, the last update is tough...it involves a crying Bouton telling the sad story of the death of a family member. I'm a sap.. I appreciated it. You may not. It is not long, and if that's not your cup of tea, speed through it and move on.
But the richness of the updates come in two other ways: 1) he gives incredible insight into life after baseball. Going to visit the former teammate who now has a plumbing business was just wonderful. 2) he discusses the evolution of the response to the book, which was not well received my many teammates or by the baseball establishment. It was notorious, far beyond what it deserved in my opinion, but that just speaks to the shallow-mindedness of so many of the people in baseball. But through the updates, one gets a 30 year retrospective of how one man tried to take a stand, and to my way of thinking, we are better for his efforts.
If you are an Old baseball fan and have not read this book, get the audio version with Bouton reading it, and indulge yourself. If you are a young baseball fan, and don't know who Jim Bouton is, and did not know there was ever a major league team called the Seattle Pilots, let me introduce you to some baseball history. I think you will find it hard to believe much of what you read, but in the end you will realize the magnitude of the cultural change of the past 40 years since the concept of "free agency" was introduced into professional sports.
What a clever code name for a double agent. Unfortunately, someone else beat me to it, and this well-researched and well-told true story of Agent ZigZag is fascinating. What made it most interesting to me was the insight it gives into the world of British and German espionage during WWII.
The story of Agent ZigZag is itself most remarkable because he was such a miserable human being prior to the war, and then during the war, he turns into a heroic figure. While sympathetic to the Agent, the author consistently tries to present the information in a way that allows the reader to see both the good and the bad.
This is the first of at least three books by Macintyre on WWII espionage, and I am moving right on to Book #2, the story of Operation Mincemeat. I can't wait!
Gone Girl is a cleverly written story that compelled me through to the end. There was only one well-timed lull in the middle of the book where I questioned whether the book would keep my interest, but once it passed, I was hooked.
There were two aspects of this book that merit comment. First, Flynn has succeeded in writing a book that entertained me with a fascinating cast of characters (I love contemplating who might play which role in the movie version). But of the characters, there were none that I "liked". Normally, if I don't like a character, I don't enjoy reading the book, but in this case, there were other things about the story that captured my attention.
Second, the book interestingly illustrates the dilemma that exists when a celebrity's personal dramas are played out on a very public stage. Everyone is so quick to form opinions about the celebrity, and those opinions are fickle. The book adds to this drama by recognizing that these celebrities become preoccupied with managing these public opinions, with fascinating results.
Finally, I would comment that the audio version of this book was particularly good, performed by two voices, one male and one female, corresponding to the structure of the book.
I was first introduced to Hart about three years ago with his book The Last Child, and having already read his third and fourth books, I finally got around to reading this debut book. And we are now 4 for 4.
This novel about a lawyer and his family is much more about dysfunctional family relationships than it is about anything having to do with the law, so it is more of a murder mystery than a legal genre. But there is a fair amount of insight into both the process that law enforcement uses to focus on suspects and on the strategy that one might use if they wanted to present themselves as an alternative suspect, diverting attention from a family member who may be the one who is truly guilty.
What I enjoyed most about this book was the author's method of back-filling the story. You meet the characters and then, through one device or another, you eventually get to find out the story about that character. The entire book is told from the perspective of the main character, "Work" Pickens, who could best be described as a pompous, arrogant, and only marginally sympathetic, jerk. My negative reaction to him was heightened by his self-absorbed perspective in the story. In his eyes, almost everyone in the story is a villain, and I would have to assume, that had I been in the story, he would not have liked me either.
Enough about the book... go ahead and read it. But I want to further compliment Hart. In his first 4 books, he has written four very different books. The common element: they all end well. The highest praise I can give Hart is that I am satisfied with his endings. Not saying I necessarily "liked" the endings, but that I feel like he finishes the book by resolving the issues he has created through the course of the book. I can enjoy a book that does not finish well, but it sure is more satisfying to feel like the author has successfully taken you on a journey that arrived at the intended destination. I can't wait for book #5.
About halfway through this very long book, I came very close to calling it quits. After a particularly disgusting introduction to the "unsullied," a specially set apart army of eunuch slaves, the book then proceeded to some equally repulsive thing or another that I started shutting it out. I was on the verge of concluding that the book was not worth the time and energy I was investing in it, and that it was time to move on to some lighter reading.
But at some point in the middle of this book, perhaps in the fourth of the six Audible segments when downloaded to listen on your device, the book shifted gears, and over the remaining chapters, Martin treats us to a series of "breakthroughs" in the story. I went from plodding through to rushing along, eager to see the next twist, or to figure out the outcome of the previous one. In some cases, Martin's character-based segments did not jump from one part of the Seven Kingdoms to another, but rather stay in the same place, just changing perspective.
Book 3 has about 6 to 8 different breakthroughs or what I will call "plot trophies" in the last third of this book, starting with the red wedding and going through until the end. Martin has rewarded the reader for sticking with him, and as I finished the book, I felt very satisfied that I had accomplished something.
For those of you watching the TV version, Book 3 takes you much farther than Season 3 does.
Despite this rewarding finish, I am not eager to move on to Book 4. The length of the book, and the incredible volume of storylines and people, and the blood, gore and guts has taken its toll on me. I will get back to it in a month or two, but for now, I am going to take a breath.
Finally, three books into this series, and I just love Roy Dotrice. I don't know how he pulls it off!
It took me a while to get into Nicholas Nickleby, but one I muddled through the extended misery that begins the book, there was reward aplenty.
It struck me that was a book of heroes and villains - and much like a fantasy adventure, the central Hero, Nicholas, must engage his band of heroes to defeat the villains that he encounters. The object of the adventure - well, nothing more than a life of happiness and being with those one loves.
The villians are dastardly. Wackford Squeers, the schoolmaster, is as cruel, greedy, and false as a character can be, and by casting himself as the great father to the poor boys pawned off to his oversight, the depth of his evil is unrestrained. His minions, Mrs. Squeers, daughter Fanny, and son Wackford, all reflect this evil core. You might recall that Squeers' "methods of teaching" were admired by Roald Dahl's headmistress Miss Trunchbull in the delightful children's book Matilda.
Sir Mulberry Hawk, the lecherous egomaniac that sets his lusty designs on Nicholas' sister Kate. His has the ability to appear gallant and charming, making Nicholas' and Kate's mother think he is a Hero, but all the while he is conniving to sordid mischief. His minions included the very efficient Misters Pluck and Pike - ready to do anything for Hawk at any time, no matter how base or vile. Lord Verisopht is another of Hawk's minions, but not due to an evil nature, but to a combination of extreme naivete and apparent innocence. Too late, he recognizes Hawk's nature and how he has been used for evil purposes.
Walter Bray, the father of Nicholas love interest, does his best to ruin his own family, playing the role of ungrateful, tyrannical father to a beautiful young lately who has won Nicholas heart just by crossing his path on two occasions in her life.
And the central villain, Nicholas' Uncle Ralph, a man of money and influence, who from the beginning seems unwilling to give Nicholas even the least morsel of respect, and instead, interprets Nicholas every act as being to embarrass and stain him, and sets as his life course the utter destruction of Nicholas and his quest for happiness and love. Ralph associates with the other villains, and a lesser villain named Arthur Gride to bring misery to Nicholas.
Contrasted with these mean villains are the clan of Heroes:
Newman Noggs actually works for Ralph, and at times, must do errands that contribute to Ralph's evil intent, but he befriends Nicholas, and eventually emerges as the hero inside the villain's camp who can help save the day. There is so much to like about Newman Noggs.
Vincent Crummles is the head of the theatre troupe where Nicholas' fortunes begin to turn. A chance meeting betweeen two is the place where Nicholas adventure turns from one of flight and exile to one where Nicholas becomes a man of talent and personality that will pay off in his future endeavors.
John Browdie is the muscle of the party of heroes in this story. There is also much to like about John Browdie; he is the guy you want on your side because of the combination of a can-do spirit and a winsome personality, but when his ire is raised, he becomes decisive and impactful.
Ned and Charles Cheeryble are angelic in their heroism, full of generosity and a willingness to intervene to make the path straighter. I found their lack of spouses and children of their own somewhat unbelievable, as they were so magnamious to a degree that seemed to beg to be shared on the most intimate level. Whereas Noggs was a hero who has some specific and very obvious skills to be used to help Nicholas achieve his quest, the Cheerybles are more transcendant in their ability to effect good.
And then there is Smike. Smike is the initial catalyst in turning this from a story of drudgery to a story of hope and adventure, and the relationship between Nicholas and Smike is a story of loyal devotion and companionship. Nicholas saves Smike's life, but that favor is returned in both tangible and intangible ways.
And most importantly, the Hero of Heroes, Nicholas Nickleby. I think Nicholas is more purely good to the core than either David Copperfield or Pip in Great Expectations, a couple of other great Dickens heroes I have recented gotten to know. And Nicholas is fighting a more intentional evil. As this is only Dickens 3rd book, Nickleby is far less complex than the later heroes. For example, his love for Madeleine is overly simplistic, especially when you compare it to David Copperfield's two great loves, both of which were fraught with complexity.
I cannot pass without commenting on Nicholas' sister Kate and his mother. Kate is a loyal and devoted sister who plays a significant role in the book by daring to resist the lewd advances of Sir Mulberry Hawk. But, I would again describe her character as simplistic.
The one character who is not simple is the mother. Given to long rambling monologues, Dickens shows a tremendous appreciation for this woman's beloved role in the family. While you know everyone around her is wishing she would shut up, you are so grateful that she is asserting her place in the middle of everything. Sometimes she is foolish, stupid, and downright embarrassing, but at others she is just humorous and pitiable. But in all, she is Mom, and she is loved.
This is the 4th Dickens book I have devoured over the past couple of years, and I continue to be amazed at his characters. I liked David Copperfield a bit more, perhaps because of the aforementioned digging into Copperfield's feelings about the women he loved. This book had some very good drama, and did a nice job of intertwining the characters.
Bottom line, don't get discouraged by the early misery of the book. Plod on through, and you will be rewarded!
Rocket Boys lived up to the hype, a good nostalgic, heart-warming story about small town adolescence in the late 1950's. There was much I could identify with, despite being 9 years behind the author. I don't remember the Sputnik vividly, but I do remember standing in our backyard and pointing at Telstar, the American satellite, as it crossed the sky in the early 1960s. The beginning of the space age was a remarkable period in our history that spanned my youth, with the historic landing of man on the moon coming in the summer after my senior year of high school.
So this story is set against that backdrop, and it is a combo story about the Big Creek Missile Agency and its attempt to build rockets that would fly several thousand feet in to the sky, but it also a story about teenage angst in relationship to family, other teens, and the community at large. And as much as I enjoyed the rocket building portion of the story, I found Hickam's teenage musings about the people around him very enjoyable. At times it got a little sappy. At other times, I felt a bit embarrassed that he was being so critically honest about the shortcomings of his parents. But on the whole, they were not bad parents, and clearly fit the maxim that we did not have perfect parents, and none of us have become perfect parents.
One of the things I thought this book did a great job of was giving you the typically skewed caricature that individuals have of others, but then eventually opening the window to see that the person was really much more than the caricature initially perceived. This happened both with the author's peers and with some of the adults in the community with whom the author interacted. I think back to the teachers and administrators and youth group leaders with whom I interacted as a teenager, and realize now how little I really understood of who they were in the limited contacted we had. This is particularly true of teachers, who we evaluated totally on the basis on how we saw them in the school, when many had so much more going on in their lives that would have been relevant.
Finally, in light of the current anti-labor union mood of our country, I find it scary that many seem to want to return to the days like those presented in this book, where workers were at the mercy of the owners, and the outcome was often unpleasant. But that is another issue.
You would think a book entitled 1776 would be about the seminal event of 1776, the Declaration of Independence. But you would be wrong. This book is about the Fight for Independence in 1776, focusing entirely on the revolutionary war from a military and strategic perspective, with only reference to the Declaration of Independence as it affected the battles.
Having recently read Ron Chernow's very good and thorough book on Washington, this book covered much of the same ground for the year in question, except that it gave much more detail to the fateful battle for Brooklyn and Long Island, and also gave some interesting insight into the British declarations by the King about the rebellions.
My first reaction when my daughters told me that they were reading The Hunger Games, with a brief summary of the gist of the story, was not positive. Why would you bother? However, I watched both daughters become obsessed with reading and finishing not just this first book, but the whole trilogy. But still I assumed that this was not for me, and would best be left to the younger generation.
As I found that most of my younger friends had read it and even some of my young friends of similar age to me had read it, I began to become curious. I saw the fuss about the movie coming out, and finally decided that in the interest of staying current with popular trends, I should read it. I was still reluctant, and questioned whether I would be able to enjoy the book.
When I started the book, I quickly recognized that this was the "1984" of the current generation. My daughter told me that the author had said the effort was inspired by a combination of greek mythology and reality TV, I realized that the author really had captured a generally realistic vision of a future authoritarian regime in American. My interest was finally sparked, and I began to get into the book.
However, as the Hunger Games began, I faced that obstacle that I commonly experience when I have an emotional reaction to the theme of the book, and I have to force myself to keep going. It is that "I don't like what I am reading. In fact, I abhor it. I don't think I am going to like how this ends, even if the ending seems to be a good one. I want to read something else." But I pushed ahead and finished book one, then took a break before listening to books 2 and 3. So, I am acknowledging that I write this review after having finished all three, but this review is only about book 1. In my review of Book 3, I will talk about the series.
First, let me say that I think is a work of genius. And it is written with a sense of pace and perspective that is absolutely fascinating. Like my daughters had demonstrated, this was a compelling read... one that from a book reading perspective, was very enjoyable.
The story, the concept, however, is deeply troubling. What is it that allows us to be entertained by things that involve the suffering of others? Now it is one thing if it is boxing or football where participation is voluntary, and the goal is to win the game or match, not to injure or kill the other participants (although it occasionally morphs into relishing the injury to others).
But it is the Reality TV phenomenon that makes this so relevant. Do we have limits to what we will watch? Or is it a circular reasoning pattern in which we watch it because it is on TV and is entertaining, and the producers feel justified that they are just giving viewers what they want to watch. And the more dramatic, the more risky, the likelihood that you may see somewhat do something mean or cruel or stupid makes its more compelling to watch.
I have avoided most forms of Reality TV... the Survivor stuff, for example.. I think I watched one episode the first season. Last year, I watched American Idol beginning to end for the first time, and for the first time understood why it was so compelling, but also found myself uninterested this year in doing that again.
Anyway, that is what the first book in the Hunger Games opened for me... this realization that if we extend Reality TV to its ultimate climax, this might be where it winds up.... must more horrible than earlier takes on the extension of Reality TV to something like the Truman Show or EdTV - both offensive and extreme, but neither having the "watching people die" component.
By all means, read this book, and see if you think this is a realistic projection of where we might be headed, and whether you can get past emotional distaste for the plot to appreciate the questions that it raises.
This book is similar to the others in that it was entertaining and personable, but for the first time I found the storyline unbelievable. The transformation of a 97 score in secretarial school into master mechanic and master manager of young men was a stretch. It was as if the assistant had some kind of magical powers. Plus, the portrayal of the lead detective as someone who accidently promotes the assistant to a special position in her fiance's garage seems foolish, and totally inconsistent with her normal ability to maintain control of conversations to achieve her desired ends. Finally, I found the depression of Mr. JLB Mataconi as a phony, pretend storyline that detracted from the character development in the prior novels because it did not fit. Here we have a man who has just gotten engaged and has accepted responsiblity for two special needs children, and now he suddenly abandons his work, and ignores his wife-to-be and these children, and he can't get up the energy to get out of bed. Now maybe, the engagement and responsibility for children could induce depression, but that was not the story line. Instead, the trigger for his depression is never discussed; nor is any mention that this has been an issue for him previously. I really felt like the author was checking "Depression" off his checklist of things he wanted to cover in the various books, and it did not matter that it did not fit.
The beauty contest was also a little shaky as a story line, but it seemed to fit the story better. Despite these weaknesses, the book was entertaining in its way, and I will be moving on to the next installment.
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