One-Minute Book Reviews

June 17, 2009

Joke of the Day — Literary Wit From ‘Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend’

Filed under: Humor,Joke of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:08 am
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A white reporter who watched Satchel Paige pitch in the Negro Leagues in the 1930s said that when Paige threw the ball, you saw only something that resembled “a thin line of pipe smoke.” Janet Maslin writes in a review Larry Tye’s new Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend (Random House, 392 pp., $26).

“When asked if he threw that fast consistently, Paige, who would become famed for choice aphorisms, replied: ‘No, sir. I do it all the time.’”

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April 21, 2009

Is ‘The Glory of Their Times’ the ‘Best Baseball Book Ever’?

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:41 pm
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Jonathan Yardley wrote recently in the Washington Post that Lawrence S. Ritter’s 1966 collection of interviews with early 20th-century baseball players, The Glory of Their Times (Harper, 384 pp., $14.95, paperback), “may well be the best baseball book ever.” How can I not have heard about that one until now? I thought it was generally agreed among critics who know more about the sport than I do that “the best baseball book ever” was Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer.

January 27, 2009

Kadir Nelson Celebrates Titans Like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in His 2009 Coretta Scott King Award-Winner, ‘We Are the Ship’

A California author has won two children’s-book prizes for his account of the days when black baseball teams sometimes had to sleep in jails or funeral homes because hotels wouldn’t rent rooms to them

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. By Kadir Nelson. Foreword by Hank Aaron. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, 88 pp., $18.99. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Remembering Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and other titans

Quiz time, all of you who see yourself as experts on children’s literature: When was the last time you read a picture book that had a story told through first-person plural narration? Or that used original oil paintings for art instead of watercolors, collages, pen-and-ink drawings, or other more popular picture book media?

If you don’t know, you may have a sense of why Kadir Nelson has just won two major awards for We Are the Ship, an illustrated history of Negro League baseball. Nelson relies entirely on plural narration — a down-to-earth variation on the royal “we” — to tell the story of the black ballplayers who had to compete against themselves in a segregated America. And he illustrates his text with dozens of full-page oil paintings of celebrated players, owners, managers and umpires.

We Are the Ship reflects lapses you wouldn’t expect in an award-winning book, and Kevin Baker described some in his review in the New York Times Book Review. But it brims with vibrant details served up in a relaxed and conversational tone, all woven into stories you might hear from a ballplayer with his feet up on your porch in the off-season.

George “Mule” Suttles isn’t as well known today as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and other Negro League titans. But Nelson shows you his appeal in a few sentences:

“We had a fellow named George ‘Mule’ Suttles, who played for the Newark Eagles. He was a big ’un. We used to say he hit the ball like a mule kicks. Fans would yell, ‘Kick, Mule, kick!’ and he’d take a great big swing like, Babe Ruth. He’d even thrill you when he struck out. Darn near screwed himself into the ground when he struck out.”

Nelson might have prevented some confusion if had he said up front that he was writing in “a collective voice, the voice of every player” instead of describing this postmodern device in an author’s note on page 80 that many children may never read. And some of his language may be anachronistic for a speaker of its day. (Would a player in the early decades of the 20th century have said “kinda,” “Hall of Famer” and “The man was awesome”?) The art is slick enough that paging through this book is a a bit like viewing a collection of high-quality movie stills.

Even so, We Are the Ship is informative and entertaining. Nelson shows the cruelty faced by players who at times had to sleep at the local jail or funeral home because they couldn’t afford rooms on the road or hotels would rent only to whites. But he balances such stories with lighter ones that keep his book from becoming bleak. How much of the fun has gone out of baseball in the era of steroids, big money and free agents? Nelson offers a clue when he reminds us that, in the early days of Negro baseball, Lloyd “Pepper” Basset used to catch some games in a rocking chair.

Best line: Manager Andrew “Rube” Foster sent signals to his pitchers from the dugout instead of having his catchers send them: “He’d puff signals from his pipe or nod his head one way to signal a play. One puff, fastball. Two puffs, curveball. Things like that.”

Worst line: No. 1: “The average major league player’s salary back then [in the 1940s] was $7,000 per month.” Dave Anderson of the New York Times, perhaps the greatest living baseball writer, says in The Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s (co-authored with Rudy Marzanot) that it was $7,000 a year, not a month. No. 2: Nelson says that the Depression–era numbers game (which involved betting on random numbers that would appear on stock-market pages or elsewhere): “Back then, it was a 100 percent illegal business; but nowadays it’s known as the lottery, and it’s run by the government.” This line is glib and misleading. The numbers racket and state lotteries have always been separate.

Recommendation? We Are the Ship has the format of a coffee-table book and, although marketed to children, may appeal also to adults.

Published: January 2008. We Are the Ship is the No. 1 children’s baseball book on Amazon.

Furthermore: Nelson lives in southern California. His first name is pronounced Kah-DEER.

On Monday We Are the Ship won the 2009 Coretta Scott King Award, which the American Library Association gives to “to African American authors and illustrators for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions.” The book also received the Robert F. Sibert Medal for “the most distinguished informational book” for young readers.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 16, 2008

Ring Lardner’s Baseball Stories for All Ages, ‘You Know Me Al’

Classic tales of an overconfident White Sox rookie are still print in different editions for adults and children

An egocentric pitcher. A coach fed up with his player’s excuses. A team that can’t win on the road. And — to spice things up — a little girl trouble in the background.

Sound like a team in the 2008 playoffs? Actually it’s what you’ll find in Ring Lardner’s collection of humorous short stories about baseball, You Know Me Al (Book Jungle, 248, $16.95, paperback), written for adults but likely also to appeal to many teenagers.

First published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1914, these tales are a masterpiece of tone. They take the form of rambling, misspelled and ungrammatical letters written by a rookie White Sox pitcher named Jack Keefe to his friend Al while traveling with his team during the baseball season. Jack has a comically misplaced self-confidence that feeds a low-grade persecution complex. (“I hit good on the training trip and he must of knew they had no chance to score off me in the innings they had left while they were liable to murder his other pitchers.”) Lardner’s stories about his anti-hero remain entertaining partly because they deal with emotions that still exist in any locker room.

But a little of Jack’s bombast goes a long way, and young readers may prefer an anthologized excerpt from You Know Me Al. One of the best for tweens and teenagers appears in Alan Durant’s outstanding Score! Sports Stories (Roaring Brook, 264 pp., 264 pp., ages 9 and up), a collection of 21 modern and classic sports stories just out in a new paperback edition. Durant’s brief introduction suggests why young readers may enjoy excerpt: “The story is full of jokes – mainly at the teller’s expense, as Keefe constantly gets on the wrong side of coach Callahan with his often idiotic remarks.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 4, 2008

A Good Sports Book for Middle-School and Older Students

Good news for anyone who is looking for a well-written sports book for middle-school and older students: Phillip Hoose’s Perfect, Once Removed: When Baseball Was All the World to Me (Walker, 176 pp., $10.95, paperback, ages 10 and up) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/16/ has come out in paperback. In this lively memoir Hoose www.philliphoose.com remembers when he was in the fourth grade and his cousin once removed, Don Larsen, pitched a perfect game for the Yankees against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series. Walker Books www.walkerbooks.com/books/catalog.php?key=614 is rightly cross-marketing this book to adults and adolescents, both of whom may especially enjoy its moment-by-moment account of Larsen’s perfect game. The bright new cover art for the paperback edition, shown here, should heighten its appeal for young readers. Perfect, Once Removed was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2007 by Bill Ott for the American Library Association’s Booklist.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 5, 2008

Baseball Poems – One of Poetry’s Power-Hitters Picks His Favorites

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:31 am
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Edward Hirsch, the poet and National Book Critics Circle Award winner, lists baseball poems he likes best

Part of the fun of having a blog like One-Minute Book Reviews is that you can rarely predict which posts will be the most popular. Often reviews I expected to have little appeal — and almost didn’t write — end up among the Top 10 on the site.

A case in point is Baseball Haiku (Norton, 2007), a book of American and Japanese haiku about baseball edited by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura. From the start I liked everything about this book — from the high quality of the poems to their thoughtful introductions and handsome packaging. But Baseball Haiku sat on my shelf for weeks. I wondered if by writing about it, I might be trying to thread too small a needle: How many people would want to read about a book of baseball poems, none with more than 17 syllables?

You’d be surprised.

My review of Baseball Haiku appeared on the morning after the 2007 World Series and at first attracted only modest traffic www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/29/. Like a pitcher recalled from the minors, it blazed back at the start of the 2008 season and has since ranked often among the Top 10 posts.

What are some of the best baseball poems in forms other than haiku? You’ll find answers in a lucid essay on baseball poems in Poet’s Choice (Harcourt, 2006), a collection of popular columns written for the Washington Post Book World by Edward Hirsch www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=3173, the poet whose many honors include a National Book Critics Circle Award www.bookcritics.org.

Hirsch writes:

“My shortlist of favorite baseball poems includes May Swenson’s quirky ‘Analysis of Baseball,’ Robert Francis’s study of a pitcher [‘Pitcher’], Michael Collier’s ‘The Wave,’ B. H. Fairchild’s ‘Body and Soul,’ Robert Pinsky’s ‘The Night Game,’ Michael Harper’s ‘Archives,’ Linda Pastan’s sly lyric ‘Baseball,’ and Richard Hugo’s class-driven ‘Missoula Softball Tournament.’”

Hirsch’s essay also includes the text of Hugo’s villanelle, “The Freaks at Spurgin Road Field,” and comments on baseball poems by Donald Hall, Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams and Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 19, 2007

Understatement of the Century About Barry Bonds – Quote of the Day (Jim Brock via Terri Dougherty)

Jim Brock, who coached Barry Bonds at Arizona State University, says this about the ballplayer in Terri Dougherty’s Barry Bonds: Jam Session Series (ABDO, 2002) www.abdopub.com, a picture-book biography for roughly ages 6-9:

“I don’t think he ever figured out what to do to get people to like him.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

 

October 24, 2007

Winners on the Field, Losers in Hardcover — Why Are So Many Books by Star Athletes So Awful? Quote of the Day (Jane Leavy)

Why do so many bad books come from good athletes? Jane Leavy, left, a former sportswriter for the Washington Post, says:

“Sports autobiography is a peculiar genre: ghostwritten fiction masquerading as fact. In the literature of sports, truth has always been easier to tell in fiction – Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty and Dan Jenkins’s Semi-Tough are among the best examples. It wasn’t until Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season and Jim Bouton’s Ball Four that a semirealistic view of the baseball locker room emerged between hard covers. The authorized life stories of America’s greatest athletes form an oeuvre of mythology. What are myths if not as-told-to stories?”

Jane Leavy in Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (HarperCollins, 2002) www.harpercollins.com. Sandy Koufax, the great pitcher for the Dodgers, earned a second fame when he refused to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Far more than many contemporary stars, he is a worthy hero for young athletes, and Leavy’s book is a good starting point for teenagers and others who want to know more about him.

Comment:
Leavy is right that sports memoirs are a cesspool of journalism. But the reasons for it are changing in the era of what Joyce Carol Oates has called “pathography,” or biography that focuses on the pathological. Mickey Mantle and other vanished titans might have nodded in their memoirs to old idea that hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. But more recent stars, like Lawrence Taylor and Dennis Rodman, have used their books to flaunt their vices until you might welcome a little hypocrisy. The fashionable theme in sports memoirs today is, “Yo, virtue! You’re history.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 19, 2007

Waving a Red-and-White Towel for ‘Veeck — As in Wreck’: The Best Book Ever Written About Cleveland Baseball?

He sent a midget to the plate in St. Louis, inadvertently caused a fan riot in Chicago and brought the first black player, Larry Doby, into the American League in Cleveland

By Janice Harayda

One of the first things I asked my new co-workers after I moved to Ohio to become the book editor of the Plain Dealer was, “What are the best books about Cleveland?” Many people mentioned the memoirs of the most colorful owner in the history of the Cleveland Indians, Veeck — As in Wreck : The Autobiography of Bill Veeck, by Bill Veeck with Ed Linn, with a foreword by Bob Verdi (University of Chicago Press, $16, paperback).

I later learned that ardent baseball fans regard this straight-talking book as one of the best ever written about the sport. And its admirers include the ex-baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who listed it among his five favorites in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.

“Bill Veeck’s memoir is an irreverent and funny account of his days as an unorthodox baseball owner — and indeed he did try some silly tricks to draw crowds,” Vincent wrote. “Sometimes he went over the line, as with Eddie Gaedel, the midget he sent up to bat for the St. Louis Browns in 1951, and ‘Disco Demolition Night,’ which turned into a fan riot in 1979, when he owed the Chicago White Sox. But Veeck also made a serious and singular contribution to the game in 1947 when, as the owner of the Cleveland Indians, he brought the first black player, Larry Doby, into the American League. But because Jackie Robinson preceded Doby into the major leagues by a few months, both Doby and Veeck have been somewhat overlooked … Bill Veeck may have been a bit of a wreck, but he deserves much more attention and credit than he has received.”

One sign of the enduring importance of Veeck — As in Wreck is that its latest edition comes from the distinguished University of Chicago Press (which, it’s safe to say, is not going to be publishing Dennis Rodman‘s Bad as I Wanna Be a half century from now). You might say that the book, first published in 1962, is the rare sports memoir for which fans still wave the literary equivalent those red-and-white Tribe towels that you’ve seen if you’ve watched the American League Championship Series. You can read an excerpt from Veeck — As in Wreck on site for the University of Chicago Press: www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/852180.html.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 13, 2007

Three Good Picture-Book Editions of Ernest L. Thayer’s Classic ‘Casey at the Bat’ – A Poem for All Baseball Seasons


Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

— From Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”

By Janice Harayda

“Casey at the Bat” is one of the few poems that nearly all American children like. Yet it is hard to say exactly why this is so.

The story told in the poem almost couldn’t be simpler. A home team is losing a baseball game – perhaps not even an especially important one — when its star player gets an unexpected chance to bat in the last inning. Everybody is sure that “mighty Casey” can bring victory to the Mudville Nine. Instead, he strikes out and the team loses.

This is hardly a riveting drama compared with what children read in contemporary books or see in the movies and on television. And you can’t say that author Ernest L. Thayer makes up for it with brilliant poetry – he doesn’t. Thayer tells Casey’s story in rhyming couplets of iambic heptameter, a nearly obsolete verse form known as the fourteener because a line typically has 14 syllables or seven iambic feet. But he has a slack enough grip on that form that you can’t always tell whether he meant a phrase to be read as iambic, trochaic or anapestic meter. Some of his baseball terms are unfamiliar today, too, such calling a weak player as a “cake.”

Generations of Americans have responded to objections like these with, “Who cares?” First published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, “Casey at the Bat” transcends its limits by appealing to a universal human desire – the wish to have heroes and yet also to see them fail sometimes, letting us off the hook for our own failures. Like all good heroes, Casey is like us and not like us. And three illustrators revitalize him in picture books that use the full title and subtitle of the poem, “Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888.”

Thayer’s Casey plays in an adult league. But Patricia Polacco www.patriciapolacco.com turns Casey into a freckled-faced boy — an updated Norman Rockwell character more impish than arrogant — in her winsome 1988 Casey at the Bat. Polacco adds brief prose bookends that allow her to give Casey a baseball-loving sister and a long-eared dog in this paperback edition of the poem, which is hard to find but available in many libraries. If you click on the link for the book on her Web site, you can send a free electronic postcard bearing a picture of Casey. Her youthful characters and bright, airy illustrations, which abound with primary colors, make this a good edition for preschoolers.

School-age children may prefer the 2003 Casey at the Bat (Simon & Schuster, $16.95) www.simonsayskids.com, illustrated by the gifted C.F. Payne. Casey has a handlebar moustache and mythic Paul Bunyan-esque proportions in this atmospheric book that evokes the flavor of 19th-century baseball. Payne’s book ends with an excellent four-page note on the history and afterlife of the poem, which explains some of its real-life parallels and how vaudeville helped to make it famous.

Christopher Bing won a 2001 Caldecott Honor award from the American Library Association www.ala.org for his ambitious Casey at the Bat (Handprint Books, $17.95), printed on pages that resemble yellowing newsprint with halftone pictures (the kind you find in the Wall Street Journal). Each spread is a pastiche that includes more than lines from the poem and a picture of the game. It also has overlaid images — reproductions of the ticket stubs, baseball cards and newspaper editorials about the game. One editorial supports fans outraged by advent of the baseball glove: “They justifiably see this move as a disgrace – perhaps the first step in the calculated and tragic emasculation of the game.” At times the supplementary material can be distracting, a case of what the British call over-egging the pudding. But much of it is fascinating and a feast for detail-oriented children in grades 3 and up.

Each of these editions has virtues. But no one needs to buy a book to enjoy Thayer’s poem. “Casey at the Bat” is out of copyright and available for free on many sites, including that of the Academy of American Poets www.poets.org. (The punctuation varies on the sites, reflecting that of different editions that have appeared in the past century.) It’s also short enough that you could read it to children during the seventh-inning stretch of a playoff or World Series game. And would you really prefer that they hear another beer commercial instead?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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