WATCHING BASEBALL SMARTER by Zack Hample

In the last few years, I have become increasingly obsessed with baseball. I love it, but I am definitely an amateur in terms of my understanding of the game. I’ve come to appreciate that baseball is played on many simultaneous levels. There’s the simple movement of the players through the bases, and the strikes and balls and outs. But there’s also strategy in the pitches, the communication between the catchers and pitcher, the simple act of rubbing dirt onto a ball before throwing it. There’s strategy around quick decisions, like where a second baseman steps on base when he has a runner sliding in. There’s a world of statistics to measure every aspect of a player’s performance. There are rule changes and weird stadiums and gestures and a whole vocabulary of baseball terms that you need to know to really understand the game.

Thanks to Zack Hample’s Watching Baseball Smarter, I have a much better appreciation for the game. His book is readable, entertaining, and full of information about baseball, from umpires and pitchers to fielders, hitting, stadiums and stats. I didn’t understand everything in the book (the anatomy of pitches seems to be outside my grasp), but I followed most of it, and retained quite a bit. I’ve been watching some 2016 pre-season games, and I already see a big difference in how I watch and what I notice.

A few caveats:

  • Watching Baseball Smarter is probably too basic for the “deeply serious geeks and semi-experts” the subhead suggests that it’s for. For someone like me, it was perfect. It reinforced what I already knew and introduced me to a lot that I didn’t.
  • It’s outdated. It was written in 2007 and could use an update.
  • There are a lot of baseball terms that Hample uses throughout the book but only defines in the glossary. This can be annoying, because you have to keep flipping back and forth to the glossary as you’re reading.
  • There is a lot of information here. Sometimes it can be a bit much to absorb.

I am glad to have read Watching Baseball Smarter and plan to keep it on hand to refer to as the season evolves. I recommend it for casual baseball fans like me who want to take their viewing to the next level. I’m going to give it to my 11 year-old daughter to read next, and I think she’ll enjoy it too. Maybe you have a fan in your life who would enjoy this resource as well?

ELIGIBLE by Curtis Sittenfeld

When one of your favorite authors does a “modern retelling” of perhaps your favorite book of all time, it can go one of two ways. You’ll either end up terribly disappointed or you’ll be thrilled with the results. I am happy to report that in the case of Curtis Sittenfeld adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the result fell into the latter camp.

As part of The Austen Project, Sittenfeld has recast Austen’s beloved Bennet sisters in 2013 Cincinnati in her upcoming novel Eligible. Lizzie (now Liz) is a NY-based writer for a woman’s magazine called Mascara. Jane is a yoga instructor in New York, and the three youngest Bennet sisters still live at home with their parents in Cincinnati. The younger two, Kitty and Lydia, are rather vapid Crossfit addicts, and Mary doesn’t really have much of an identity at all.

The sisters all end up in Cincinnati when Mr. Bennett has heart surgery and faces a long convalescence at home. Mrs. Bennett, who is exactly like the Mrs. Bennett in the original, is too busy to care for her husband, as she is planning a benefit lunch that takes up all of her time. But she’s not too busy to get involved when a new, eligible doctor enters the Cincinatti scene – Chip Bingley. She is all too eager to set him up with her aging, unmarried daughters, in the hopes that one of them will finally get hitched.

All of our favorite characters are here: Mr. Collins (now Liz’s dotcom millionaire cousin), Charlotte Lucas, Ms. de Bourgh, and of course, the dreamy Fitzwilliam Darcy. They’ve each been given a 21st century update, but they play their parts perfectly.

Here’s what I admire most about Eligible: Sittenfeld must have carefully diagrammed the entire plot of Pride and Prejudice, marking the precise points in the novel when Liz and Darcy have chance meetings, when she learns certain things about him, when various scandals plague the Bennets, etc., and then crafted the Eligible plot around those points, because it is just perfectly paced. She’s such a great storyteller already, but having her story match and adapt Austen’s equally compelling storytelling is just a treat.

A few warnings: there is a lot of sex in the book (some of which happens quite a bit earlier in Eligible than in its predecessor), and the end gets a bit absurd. It’s all a lot courser than Austen’s refined 19th-century England. Which is of course the point – how would a family like the Bennets fare in present-day America?

If you’re a Sittenfeld fan, you’ll enjoy Eligible. If you’re an Austen fan, you’ll appreciate Eligible. And if you’re a fan of both, you’ll be in heaven. (Due out April 19.)

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout

I am a big fan of Elizabeth Strout’s; I read a few of her novels before she won the 2009 Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge, including Amy and Isabelle (pre-blogging) and Abide With Me, and I was really looking forward to her latest, My Name Is Lucy Barton. It was well-reviewed by critics and Goodreads readers, so I bumped it up the TBR list this winter. Unfortunately, when I finished it, I was left wondering what I had missed.

My Name Is Lucy Barton is about a woman in her late 20s living in New York City in the 80s who develops a mysterious illness after an appendectomy. She ends up spending nine weeks in the hospital in a mostly feverish state as her doctors try to figure out what’s wrong with her. Her husband is busy with work and their two young daughters, so Lucy spends a lot of time on her own in her hospital room. One day, she looks up to find her mother sitting in the room – a woman she hasn’t seen in many years and from whom she is basically estranged.

Most of the book relates what Lucy and her mother talk about during the week her mother spends by her side. Lucy’s family was very poor when she was growing up, and her parents were cold, withholding people who rarely showed affection or love to their children. Her father fixed farm machinery, and her mother took in sewing. Lucy and her siblings never had much, and were often embarrassed at school by their clothes and appearance. Lucy worked hard and earned a scholarship to college, and from there lived her own life, getting married and having children, with little contact with her family.

Lucy is very surprised to see her mother in her hospital room, and the two women spend most of their time together talking about people they knew in their small Illinois town. Divorces, scandals, tragedies – Lucy’s mother is most comfortable relating the misfortunes of other people, rather than addressing her own behavior as a mother and her relationship with Lucy. And Lucy doesn’t press the issue. She turns into a little girl again in her mother’s presence, calling her “Mommy” and becoming the unassertive, passive child she was in Illinois. Ultimately, nothing is really resolved between the two of them. Whenever Lucy inches toward something uncomfortable – raising a painful memory or questioning her mother’s distance over the years – her mother basically shuts down and changes the subject. Lucy knows her mother cares about her, as evidenced by her getting on a plane for the first time and flying to be by her side, but her mother still shows little affection.

My Name Is Lucy Barton meanders its way to its end. Strout’s writing, which I admired in the past for its spare elegance, is repetitive, with sentences literally repeating themselves with a word or two reversed. The conversations between Lucy and her mother meander, and the chapters that take place in the present meander too, with Lucy jumping from topic to topic, memory to memory. I got really frustrated with the writing as I made my way through My Name Is Lucy Barton – I think it needed a good edit.

I appreciate the book’s treatment of messy, unresolved relationships, and the way that a lack of resolution and clarity can eat at you over the years. But other than that, I didn’t take away much from My Name Is Lucy Barton. Lucy was passive and seemed emotionally detached from her own life at times, perhaps a symptom of the cold childhood she endured. But she was sort of frustrating to follow as a reader.

I listened to My Name Is Lucy Barton on audio. It was narrated by Kimberly Farr, and I think she did a decent job with the material. Her narration took on a meandering quality, like the book, and she gave life to a rather passive character. She was good at conveying when Lucy felt lonely and sad, and her voice inspired empathy. Her narration enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

 

SPY SCHOOL by Stuart Gibbs

My 11 year-old daughter starting hounding me to read Spy School by Stuart Gibbs as soon as she discovered it – and him – last year in 5th grade. She read Spy School and then its two sequels, and then anything else by Gibbs that she could get her hands on. And when it came time for me to pick the books for our Mother-Daughter book club this year, she insisted that I include Spy School.

So I finally read it for our book club meeting yesterday. And she was right – it’s great! It’s not my usual fare – thriller/adventure – but it was quite entertaining. Spy School is about a 12 year-old boy named Ben who is chosen to leave his typical public school to attend spy school run by the C.I.A. outside of D.C. Spy school is exactly what it sounds like – training grounds for kids who have shown aptitude to become a spy, with classes like self-defense and cryptography. At first, Ben is thrilled, as this is his dream come true. But once he gets to the school, he realizes that may not be cut out for it… and that he might be there under false pretenses.

As the plot unfolds, Ben finds himself being chased by an assassin, bullied by a dumb upperclassman, collaborating with the coolest girl in the school, and let down by the administrators who are supposed to protect him. There is a lot of action, as Ben is constantly on the run from danger. It’s a relatively lighthearted book, despite the high stakes of the story, with a lot of humor thrown in. Ben is a typical 12 year-old: nerdy and girl-crazy, quick to question authority, but underneath it all excited and earnest about what he’s doing.

Some reviewers complained about bad language – “damn” and “ass” – but that it didn’t bother me, and it didn’t come up during our discussion yesterday.

I am impressed by how much my daughter enjoyed this book and its sequels. She was totally involved with the story and loved trying to figure out who was after Ben and why. Some of the girls in the book club didn’t like reading a book with a male protagonist, while others didn’t mind, and in fact enjoyed getting a boy’s perspective.

Don’t be bothered by the fact that Spy School is totally implausible. (Why would these kids be in spy school in 8th grade? And how could so many high-ranking intelligence officers converge at this school and be unable to figure out who is trying to infiltrate it?) Gibbs has created a really fun world for middle-grade readers to experience without the weightiness or complexity of the typical spy or adventure novel.

 

THE EXPATRIATES by Janice Y.K. Lee

The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee is about the intersection of three women’s lives in Hong Kong. All three are American expats who have found themselves in Hong Kong, and each is deeply unhappy. Margaret is married to a successful businessman, but has suffered a terrible loss: the disappearance of her youngest child during a family vacation to Korea. Hilary is a friend of Margaret’s, and lives in Hong Kong because of her husband’s job at a law firm. She is dealing with infertility and a shaky, distant marriage. Finally, Mercy is a young Ivy League graduate who is adrift in Hong Kong with no job or much of a social life. She played a role in the disappearance of Margaret’s son and has not recovered.

The Expatriates revolves around the theme of motherhood: motherhood desired, motherhood lost, motherhood tested. Men are bit players here (and mostly interchangeable); it’s the women who Lee explores and analyzes. They are each flawed but doing their best under challenging circumstances. The plot of The Expatriates verges on soap opera melodrama and coincidence, with these three women crossing paths in very convenient ways and an ending that wraps things up on an implausibly positive note. Lee is a good writer, and I found The Expatriates to be an enjoyable read, but it’s not terribly deep.

I did enjoy the aspects of the book that focused on life as an expat in Hong Kong. That was much more interesting to me than the drama of the women’s lives. I liked hearing about the circumstances that bring people to Hong Kong, the different types of lives they lead there, and the interactions between expats and native residents. Lee is a great social observer and there is a lot of see there.

I listened to The Expatriates on audio. The narrator, Ann Marie Lee, was too breathy and dramatic for me, and she read slowly, which made Lee’s occasionally repetitive writing more pronounced and a bit annoying. But overall it was a satisfying read and listen.

I MARRIED YOU FOR HAPPINESS by Lily Tuck

Lily Tuck’s I Married You For Happiness takes place as Nina, a woman in her late sixties, lies in bed next to her husband Philip, who has just died suddenly of a heart attack. The book is not linear, but instead jumps around in time and topic as Nina passes the night next to her husband.

Nina is a painter and Philip is a mathematician. They met in Paris, but now live in Massachusetts. Much of the book consists of Nina’s memories of how they met and their early lives together, but Nina’s thoughts also touch on their daughter Louise, trips they took as a family, Philip’s math lessons, and even affairs she had with other men. She flits from topic to topic in a stream of consciousness, as memories spur other memories and images swirl around in her mind.

I admire Tuck’s effort to capture how people really think (or at least how I think), with detours and interlopers intruding on whatever is occupying her mind at the moment. She also paints a poignant picture of Nina and Philip’s marriage, with many moments of humor, passion and affection compiled from years of meals, trips and just general coexistence. Nina is not perfect – she sometimes lies and sleeps with other men – but she is devoted to Philip and absolutely devastated by losing him.

Math themes are woven throughout the book – theories of probability and attempts to solve questions about death and human behavior. The contrast between Nina’s artistic sensibilities and Philip’s mathematical mind shows up repeatedly in their marriage, through her impatience with his need to solve everything and his impatience with her inability to understand complicated concepts. But Tuck convincingly establishes the foundation of their marriage, from their first meeting in a café to their comfortable academic life in Massachusetts.

I liked I Married You For Happiness, but I didn’t love it. I’ve enjoyed other books written in a similar stream of consciousness style – Susan Minot’s Evening comes to mind, which I read ages ago and adored – but found this one sort of boring. Maybe it’s because the same things kept recurring – beach vacations, meals, Philip’s math, other men finding Nina attractive. The image resulting from Tuck’s many brush strokes wasn’t as rich as I’d have liked. It was all pleasant, but I had no problem putting the book down.

Depressing-o-Meter: The book is sad because the husband has just died, but that’s really the only depressing thing that happens.  5 out of 10

Room: Book vs. Movie

download (25)I haven’t done a book vs. movie post in a while, even though I have seen movies in the last few years that were based on books I’ve read (like Gone Girl). But I was inspired to write this post after seeing the movie adaptation of Room by Emma Donoghue, a book I read in 2010. Both are excellent.

Both the movie and the book versions of Room deal with a very painful and difficult subject: the imprisonment of a young woman and later, her son, in a small garden shed for 7 years by a sadistic man who kidnapped her off the street when she was 17. Ma, as she is known in both versions, has worked to create a stimulating and nurturing world for her son Jack, while protecting him from witnessing the nightly visits from her captor. The space they live in is tiny and claustrophobia-inducing, but she manages to get through the years with toys made from recycled trash, five books, a TV and her son’s imagination.

Shortly after the book and movie open, Ma decides it is time to make an extremely risky move to try to save herself and Jack. The escape from the shed is extremely harrowing, both in print and on screen (I actually had to watch it sped up even though I knew what was going to happen). Its immediate aftermath is also extremely intense.

The second half of both book and movie are about their lives in the world after they are out of the shed. It isn’t as stressful as the first half, but it’s just as intense emotionally, as Ma (named Joy in the movie) tries to reconnect with her parents and suffers a breakdown after a few weeks at home. Watching Jack try to deal with new relationships, an entirely new physical existence and his mother’s moods, is difficult. But both book and movie end on a hopeful note as you see each of them trying to move past what happened.

Emma Donoghue wrote the book and also adapted it for the screen. The book is told from Jack’s perspective, while the movie shifts more broadly to cover Joy’s worldview too. The book is more quirky (it’s told from the mind of a 5 year-old), and, like most movie adaptations, there are a lot of details in the book that are left out in the movie. I think Ma in the book is a little harsher than Joy in the movie, though Joy in the movie is hardly sunny.

Ultimately, I can’t say that one is better than the other. The visual impact of actually seeing the shed, aka Room, and watching the escape, made watching the movie a very intense experience for me. I was crying pretty much through the entire first half of the movie and some parts of the second. It’s one thing to try to imagine the hell Ma lived through, and it’s another to see it. The acting is fantastic – Brie Larson did a great job as Ma, and Jacob Tremblay was perfect as Jack. He remained true to character the whole time, never cloying or overacting. He beautifully conveyed bewilderment, fear, anger, affection – all of the emotions a boy in his situation would have experienced. And Jack’s relationship with his mother was beautiful. Not perfect, but beautiful.

I know there are people who avoided reading Room given the subject matter, and I am sure there are many people who won’t see the movie for the same reason. I won’t try to talk them out of it because I found both to be difficult. But they were so worth it. It’s a story I won’t ever forget.

Advantage: Both.