This Week in Books

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November 27, 2021

This Week in Books, 11th Ed.

 Grand Opening of a New Local Bookstore

    We have a new bookstore that opened here in Northern Kentucky. Okay, it's not exactly new, but it is the second location of our wonderful Roebling Books & Coffee.
    Let me repeat! We have a new bookstore location in Northern Kentucky. It's two miles from my house, and a block away from where I work. This might be dangerous.

    It opened Saturday, Nov. 27, which coincidentally is Small Business Saturday. It's at Sixth and
Overton in Newport's East Row neighborhood, a little more than a mile from its main store near the Suspension Bridge in Covington. So it's a local business -- and a bookstore. 
I everything  right about this.

    It being Opening Day, it was a little short on stock -- but heavy on coffee and tea, and atmosphere, and comfortable chairs, and wonderful art and antiques throughout. It's so much more than a bookstore.

    It's a local cafe. It's a community meeting center, fitting for its location in a residential neighborhood. It's a place to browse, to find new books, to explore new ideas. It is using a new way to present books -- with their covers facing out, giving them room to show off, to present their best selves, to speak to you, the reader.

    And a slow browse gives you the opportunity to listen, to hear the book call out to you, to whisper what it has to offer. Maybe it's a new experience, presenting a new culture, or showing new way of looking at life. Maybe it's a salve for a troubled soul. It might be a gift for a treasured friend.

    Or maybe it's promising a magical tale, a tour from the faeries into another dimension, a read to remember. What spoke to me was A Darker Shade of Magic, from V.E. Schwab, a wonderful writer who also penned The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.


November 25, 2021

Book Review

 Smart Baseball, by Keith Law

  • Where I bought this book: Volumes Bookstore, Chicago
  • Why I bought this book: I read a few opening pages of several chapters and liked them

    Baseball is like physics. The concepts are getting more esoterical, and the math is getting harder. But that math is proving many of  the old beliefs to be myths, and those new statistics to be correct.

    Actually, the major flaw in this book is that it is five years old -- and this edition was updated in 2017. Thus, keeping with the physics analogy, it's operating in an earlier dimension from what is happening now. Still, Law says the major explosion in data and its uses came about as he was writing the book, and the future changes will be more incremental, not expotenial.

    Its major point is how the statistical analysis in baseball -- and the sheer types and amount of data that are becoming available -- is changing the very nature of the game. The old stats, easy to compile or calculate, and simple to understand, were just plain wrongheaded and at best useless. At their worst, they measured things that didn't matter, or left out large parts of the games.

    For instance: RBIs, once thought as an ultimate measure of a player's offensive worth, in reality favored players who had teammates who got on base in front of them. Wins and losses, once seen as being the definition of a starting pitcher's importance, instead gave one man credit based on what others did on the field.

    The great benefit of the old stats is that they were simple to understand, readily available, and intuitive. The new ones are a bit more difficult: Not everyone has access to or can understand the data, the calculations can be difficult, and they must be explained. 

    But they are immeasurable better: On-base percentage and slugging percentage are far superior to mere batting average, which leaves a lot out of the equation and can mislead about a player's worth. New pitching stats give a better indication of a pitcher's performance, unlike, say, the save, which is worse than useless and ruined the game for the last 40 years. (Law's takedown of the save and how it was used is a major reason I bought this book.)

    These new stats are here to stay. They give greater insight in what players do and what they can do. The collection of information is staggering, and still being evaluated. They have lead to a revolution in the use of fielders. They may be able to predict -- and thus prevent -- injuries. 

    Teams are hiring entire staff -- many with doctorates in analytics -- to think about, gather, and use the numbers now available. Coaches, managers, and front-office staff are becoming better attuned to hard data. Players are recognizing the benefit to their games and careers.

    It's time for the fans to come along, and learn to accept -- and even love -- the numbers. Dump the save. Embrace WAR. 

November 19, 2021

Book Review

Not Even Immortality Lasts Forever: Mostly True Stories, by Ed McClanahan

  • Where I bought this book: Kentucky Book Festival, Lexington
  • Why I bought this book: McClanahan is Kentucky's best unknown writer


    I first fell in love with McClanahan's writing soon after I moved to the commonwealth some 40 years ago, and a colleague suggested -- nay, insisted -- that I read The Natural Man, McClanahan's first novel.

    I did. I was hooked.

    McClanahan has led an extraorinary 20th Century life. Born in Brooksville, the seat of rural Bracken County, he was a part of the pre-war generation -- too young for World War II, and smart enough and pacifist enough to avoid the Korean War. McClanahan is a contemporary of the legendary Kentucky poet and author, Wendell Berry, along with Pulitzer-prize winner Larry McMurtry and beat/hippie author Ken Kesey. He ran with the Merry Pranksters. He was an author, professor, and lecturer under the moniker, "Captain Kentucky." Along with Mason, Berry, James Baker Hall, and Gurney Norman, McClanahan was part of the group called the "Fab Five" of Kentucky literature.

    In Not Even ..., McClanahan pens a ragtag collection of tales stretching from his boyhood days to his current elderly strolls around Lexington. The result is funny, yet touching, a feeling that you are listening to an old man in the latter years of his life lightheartedly recalling his earlier days of glory. He explores his relationship as the hippie, ne'er-do-well son of an upright, businessman-father who brokers little nonsense and was unusually proud of the cut of his nose.

The nose, my father firmly believed, is composed of certain pliable matter that one can mold and shape over time like a lump of gristly modeing clay, if -- if --one develops the proper habits of life and sticks to them assiduously. Such as: When said olfactory apparatus itches, son, do not scratch same by rubbing it with the heel of your hand as if you want to smear the gaddamn thing all over your counternance. Rather, delicately grasp it between the thumb and forefinger, just below the bridge -- thus; yes; just so -- and gently pull forward and down, thereby addressing the offending itch while simultaneously helping the nose to become all that it can be, which is to say a nose not unlike the paternal beezer itself.

    Some of the stories may be true -- one he claims to have video proof he found on the Internet. Others, like the one above, he admits, might be a teensy bit exagerrated.  There are those he says are true to the best of his recollections. A few, perhaps, might just well be, perhaps, merely allegorical. 

    It's a memoir in the best sense of the term -- self effacing, forgoing sentimentality if he chooses, grumbling about memory loss if it provides a convenient escape hatch.

    It's short, and sweet, and funny as hell. Go read it.

November 10, 2021

Book Review

That Old Country Music, by Kevin Barry

  • Where I bought this book: The Book Loft, Columbus, Ohio
  • Why I bought this book: Kevin Barry may be Ireland's best current writer

    To get a sense of Kevin Barry's Ireland, read two successive stories in this collection -- Who's-Dead McCarthy, and Roma Kid.

    The first revolves around death and is light and funny. The second is about life but is sad and melancholy. Both, however, are classic illustrations of the art of writing a short story, and quintessential examples of Barry's exquisite work.

    In his latest collection, Barry gifts us 11 tales of Irish life by featuring the character at the center of the story. The title story, for instance, is told through the thoughts of a 17-year-old pregnant girl as she awaits in a decrepit van -- and "clawed at the greasy vinyl of the seat" -- for her older finace to return from robbing a local gas station. "It was the second Monday of May. She was little more than four months pregnant. ... (He) was 32 years old and it was not long at all since he had been her mother's finance." 

    You can learn a lot about someone in 14 pages.

    Barry is in a class by himelf in the present age. Within Ireland's history of world-class writers -- James Joyce, Anne Enright, Oscar Wilde, Maeve Binchey, William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, among others -- Barry has written himself into the pantheon.

    In stories that are less than 20 pages, Barry introduces, presents, and concludes the essense of a life amid hard times. In Who's-Dead McCarthy, an old man who has a preoccupation with death sets himself up as a town crier to inform his small town who has passed on -- with wit, charm, and tears. 
You'd see him coming on O'Connell Street -- the hanging jaws, the woeful trudge, the load. You'd cross the road to avoid him but he'd have spotted you, and he would draw you into him. 

    In Roma Kid, a young immigrant girl leaves her family in despair and travels the country looking for food and a new life.

Her mother had told her nothing but the girl knew that soon the family would be sent home again and she would not go back there. She was nine years old and chose for her leaving the red pattern dress and zipped her anorak over it.

    Both are narrarives and character sketches, tightly and extraordinarily written, that leave you laughing our loud and crying in hope and despair. You intimately know these people, their dreams, their desires and their fears.

    In most of the writings here, the actual story is limited or is pointless. What is important is Barry's style, his descriptions, and his characters. His words are meticulously chosen, sculptured with care, and with preternatrural sense. He shows a variety of voices, yet his characters are familiar as a favored aunt or hated uncle.

    Read this book. Savor it. Re-read it again and again and discover anew the sheer pleasure of great writing.

November 6, 2021

Book Review

Under the Whispering Door, by TJ Klune

* * * * * * *

    The main transfer station in the afterlife is a tea shop. With scones and a baker who enjoys blasting punk music on the radio.

    I can live (or die) happily with that thought. And Klune's novel, while a bit long-winded in parts, truth be told, is an  uplifting story about how we can overcome what life and death may throw at us. 

    Charon's Crossing Tea and Treats is a homey, if unnerving place. You are taken there after death by a reaper to meet people whose stated purpose is to help you cross over. But to where? That they don't say.

     You're upset, scared, and disbelieving. Eventually you meet the proprietor, one Hugo Freeman, who is mellow, soothing, and gentle. He offers you a cuppa tea, and calmly explains what happens next. You may or may not believe it. You may or may not need more time to figure things out.

    For Walter Price -- a meticulous, prideful, and implacable attorney in his life -- Hugo doesn't make a good first impression. Walter demands an end to the nonsense, and insists on leaving. When he does flee, he discovery why he should listen to those who know more..

    So he returns and winds up spending time with Hugo; Nelson, Hugo's wisecracking and wise ghost of a grandfather; Apollo, grandad's ghost dog, and Mei, the reaper who found Walter at his own funeral and brought him to Charon's Crossing. She's also the punk fan and scone-maker at the shop, and the force who holds everything together.

    We learn a lot about them, their lives, their loves, and their fantasies. A potential gay romance. Other characters come in and out, and while they add to the tale, their asppearance could have been shortened and written tighter.

    Walter is in the middle of all this -- sometimes exasperated, sometimes accepting, sometimes questioning. In life, he was a lawyer focused on the prize. In death, he's trying to figure it all out.

    And that's the genius of this novel -- like Walter, you'll yawn and wish you could slip past the parts in the middle. But by the end, you'll be wanting more.