Tuesday, December 30, 2008

James Buckley, Jr., Perfect: The Inside Story of Baseball's Seventeen Perfect Games

It is remarkable that throughout baseball's long history, there have only been seventeen "perfect games" thrown. For those unfamiliar with the term, a perfect game is when 27 batters are retired (by the same pitcher) without having gotten safely on base. Not to be confused with a no-hitter, wherein a batter can get walked, a "perfecto" is a rarity that Buckley celebrates with statistics, anecdotes, interviews, and an obvious love for the game of baseball!

Each chapter is devoted to one of the perfect games, moving chronologically from J. Lee Richmond's performance in 1880 (back when the sport was still called "base ball" and the term perfect game hadn't even been invented yet) to Randy Johnson's 2004 outing for the Arizona Diamondbacks (where, at the age of 40, the Big Unit became the oldest pitcher to ever throw a perfecto). The author captures memorable moments, like Don Larsen's perfect game for the Yankees in 1956 (which initiated the iconic image of the catcher jumping into the arms of the pitcher, thanks to Yogi Berra) and Sandy Koufax's perfect game on September 9, 1965 (a then-record fourth no-hitter for the man). However, Buckley's true passion for the game shines through as he highlights the contributions of each pitcher's teammates toward achieving each perfect game -- the unsung heroes backing up the pitcher. And although the book is filled with those wacky little stats that all lovers of baseball enjoy throwing around over beer and pretzels, it never distracts from the compelling story behind each game.

Written in a conversational, leisurely tone that complements the storytelling nature of the subject, yet filled with tons of stats, research, and interviews to give the reader to good feel for the era of each game, Perfect is an excellent book for you baseball fans out there. Enjoy!

Friday, December 19, 2008

"More? What the Dickens are you talking about?"
Thu Dec 18, 2008 2:03pm EST

LONDON (Reuters) - Oliver Twist wouldn't have needed any more gruel in real life, scientists said Thursday.

The picture painted by Charles Dickens of starvation rations in an 1830s workhouse north of London is wide of mark, according to an analysis of menus and other historical evidence.

Dickens' eponymous hero famously asked for more of the "thin gruel" doled out three times daily in the grim institution for the poor where he grew up.

In fact, contemporary recipes suggest such workhouse gruel was substantial, with each pint containing 1.25 ounces of best oatmeal, and servings supplemented by wholesome coarse bread.

Historical data also shows large quantities of beef and mutton were delivered to workhouses, pediatric dietician Sue Thornton of Northampton General Hospital in central England and colleagues wrote in the British Medical Journal.

Such a diet, comprising three pints of gruel a day, would sustain growth in a nine-year-old child like Oliver, unless he was exceptionally active.

"Given the limited number of food staples used, the workhouse diet was certainly dreary, but it was adequate," they concluded.



By the way, today is the anniversary of the 1843 publication of A Christmas Carol.


Friday, December 12, 2008

David Eddings, Pawn of Prophecy

I have a colleague who, several years ago, recommended Eddings's Belgariad series to me. Pawn of Prophecy is Book One in that series.

Truth be told, I wasn't terribly impressed with this. Now, maybe I'm just not in the mood right now for reading fantasy -- a tough pill for me to swallow as it is -- but I found this book extremely difficult to get into. There were several aspects of this book that easily reminded me of Tolkien, and the whole time I was reading this I found myself wondering how it is that certain elements and motifs in Tolkien have simply become part of the fantasy style: names that harken to Anglo-Saxonry, like "Garion" and "Aldur" and "Torak"; mystical settings that seem elemental (fire, air, water, and rock); social structures that are based on monarchy; the traditional "quest" narrative structure, etc. Not that I have any problem with it, but it seems that in the forty-five years spanning Tolkien's and Eddings's respective works, not much has really changed in the genre. Am I right?

Again, I'm not a big fan of fantasy ... so I am just likely not "getting" it. But as far as I'm concerned, the fantasy genre begins and ends with Tolkien, and the rest are just wannabes.

Someone out there please prove me wrong! Show me what I'm missing.

In the meantime, I wouldn't waste time reading Pawn of Prophecy when I can re-read The Return of the King ...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield

Having spent the last four years reading Dickens novels, criticism, and scholarship, I find myself somewhat fascinated by the books that would have made up young Dickens's readings prior to his going into that blacking factory at the age of twelve. As a young boy of gifted intelligence, Charles Dickens was exposed to a number of works popular at the time -- Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling; Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe; Tobias Smollett's The Adventures of Roderick Random; and Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield -- and I would like to read (and see) just what influence it had on Dickens's writing.

Tonight, I just finished Wakefield.

Written from the POV of the titular vicar, the novel is actually pretty funny in its depiction of a henpecked husband and harried father as he weathers the storms of existence. If there is a Dickens connection to be made here, the most obvious one is not only the tone of the comedy but also the picaresque hardships suffered by the Job-like Dr. Primrose, the vicar.

But while the first half of the novel seems to showcase the amiability of the vicar despite his personal and professional calamities, the second half of the novel presents a Swiftian tone to the satire. It's an interesting development in the course of a relatively short book (my Oxford World's Classics edition is only about 165 pgs.), and what Dickens accomplishes in tonal development over the course of sixteen novels, Goldsmith conveys in less than 170 pages.

The Vicar of Wakefield is a quick, painless read ... and it gives you a glimpse of the some of Dickens's most cherished stylistic devices.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008