A young British jockey is pulled from his mount by his excessively wealthy father. His new job is to assist as his father runs for a local council seat in his first political election. Someone tries to kill dad while he is campaigning. Then tries again. And again. Benedict Juliard, an amateur jockey not yet 18 years old, has exceptional sleuthing skills and then the book wanders aimlessly and pointlessly. Francis probably wrote the book in a weekend. In just a few pages about a dozen years of history fly by. Dad moves up from his local council seat to become Prime Minister of England. Benedict gets into Oxford, or Cambridge, it hardly matters, gets a job in the best horse-related company in the country and within a couple of years, and a couple of pages, moves up to a position of exceptional responsibility. Finally, the only suspect in the story shows up in parliament and at last Francis gets on with a conclusion.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown **** (of 4)
On the face of it an uplifting story of a group of eight hayseeds from Washington state who come together to become the world’s best rowing team. They stand for all that is good in America — hard work, optimism, rags-to-riches, democracy, talent, and above all a can-do attitude — when they compete for gold in Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. Brown’s writing is so evocative that you can feel the cold wind on Lake Washington during a late-fall practice, endure the doubt inside the mind of every student-rower anxious about paying for an upcoming semester during the height of the great depression, crane your neck watching a tight race, and in the end, when all goes right, fly on a boat with eight oarsmen working in perfect synchrony. You really do want these guys to beat the Nazis.
Includes everything you ever wanted to know about swimming: Greek mythology; the history of swimsuits and swimming pools; the beauty of open water swimming and how to make the most of counting laps; the evolution of the four basic strokes; the physiology of exertion; and the health benefits of a sport that won’t let you breath when you want to. As a dedicated swimmer I thought I would love Sherr’s paean, but to my surprise what surprised me most is that there are people out there who love swimming. Men and women who get into the water and feel free, weightless both physically and mentally, unbound from the strictures of noise and sight. I mostly find swimming to be difficult and though the book was breezy and easy to move through, it would have been a better magazine article.
Calico Joe by John Grisham *** (of 4)
Warren Tracy, a journeyman pitcher for the 1973 New York Mets, beans Joe Castle of the Chicago Cubs during the August run at the National League pennant. Tracy is a mean-spirited, over-the-hill, mediocre pitcher fighting to stay relevant to baseball and himself when up to the place comes the most sensational rookie ever to break into the big leagues. Tracy sets him up with two outside pitches, low and away, and then lets him have it. Paul Tracy, Warren’s son, was eleven years old at the time, simultaneously proud of his professional father, fearful of his drunken rages, and utterly enamored of the rookie phenom. It is Paul’s story to tell. Thirty years later the father, the son, and the hit batsman still bear the scars. Grisham’s paean to baseball is like the game itself: warm as a summer afternoon, patient, yet punctuated with bursts of excitement.
Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon *** (of 4)
Four horse races are run at a bottom-of-the-barrel track inWest Virginia. The horses are knock-kneed, belligerent, over-the-hill, lazy, or used-up. So are the people that populate the track as their grooms, trainers, riders, and no-good-for-nothing hoodlums trying to make a fast buck. Gordon provides a view of people and horses I would never in my life meet and does so with such intimacy and accuracy that I felt I was in a neighboring horse stall peaking through a crack in the wallboards. Her races come alive, but somehow they don’t seem to be the main point. What Gordon wants us to see is that everything has a price. A horse can be bought, a race fixed, a trainer’s allegiance redirected, and even love can all be purchased. She captures each character’s manner of speech and thoughts with deadeye accuracy, but curiously, prints her dialogue with neither quotations nor attribution, leaving the reader to discern when words are spoken aloud and by whom. For that she won the National Book Award and though I couldn’t really put the book down it gave me a headache.
The salary gap between rich baseball teams in large cities like New York or Boston and small market teams in places like Kansas City, Minneapolis, and Oakland had grown to embarrassing proportions by the start of the 21st Century. Conventional wisdom had it that the more you spent on high quality ballplayers, the better your team. Moneyball is the uncovering of the emerging science of sabremetrics used by Oakland A’s General Manager, Billy Beane. Using dispassionate statistical analysis in ways quite contradictory to the traditional measures used by hide-bound baseball men, Beane assembled inexpensive teams of broken-down and marginal players capable of playing with the big boys. For a fraction of the cost, Beane created playoff contenders. Moneyball effectively argues that geeks with computers and no experience ever playing the game transformed the sport of baseball.
A book about and probably for young adults, and not a very good one at that, about a high school farm boy accepted at a small, fictional, liberal arts college in Wisconsin who becomes the best shortstop in the storied history of the college baseball team . The first one hundred pages of the book is a spot-on parody of liberal arts Presidents, students, and faculty in all their self-important insistence on political correctness, academic freedom, and carbon neutrality. Then the plot grinds on, the characters never rise above juvenile mistakes, even the old people, and the book loses sight of making a point beyond the fact that guy buddies can be close friends and then enemies without ever really talking to each other in more than monosyllables. The critics loved it, but I bet they didn’t read closely past the first fourth of the book.
Until the 1950s scientists and athletes believed that running a mile in under four minutes was physiologically impossible when suddenly three athletes — a Brit, an Australian, and an American — had the goal within their sights. Until their attempts, training for running events was a largely haphazard affair. It was not uncommon for top flight athletes to smoke, drink, and workout less than two hours a day. The world’s attention was suddenly directed at John Landy, Ed Santee, and Roger Bannister as separately, but fully aware of the other’s incremental approaches to four minutes, they trained harder than any preceding milers. Similar to Seabiscuit in style, but not as compelling, the book is strongest in recounting races, but wanting in the intervening weeks and months when describing the runner’s lives.
The story of the longest baseball game on record: A 33-inning minor league game. Apparently full of philosophy, “Because we are bound by duty. Because we aspire to greater things. Because we are loyal.”
Heinrich does his best to combine science writing, nature writing, the physiology of running, and entymology. The only part I liked was the running. Granted, I know enough science and nature that I didn’t learn anything new from his writing, not even new perspectives on old things, but he failed in one critical aspect. He didn’t make me care either about him or the places he was writing about. Except the fact that he came from a family of Nazis and refused to admit it. February 2008.