Sunday, February 19, 2017
Photo: from the book's Wikipedia page
This is a book of historical fiction about a real Jewish book, saved, during the real bombing of a real museum in World War II, by a real Muslim. The real Muslim was a real librarian in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and he really saved the Sarajevo Haggadah, twice, from the Nazis.
If you've read my blog before, you undoubtedly see where I'm going with this. I'm not very subtle when I'm angry. (Or, when I'm not.)
People of the Book is a novel in many parts, in many POVs. Normally that irks me, but it's handled very well here, as you'd expect it to be, since Brooks wrote it. The story starts in 1996 Sarajevo and ends in 2002 Sarajevo, but it also jumps around to other countries and continents, in other times, as far back as 500 years ago. It's a book also of many cultures, including those of Sarajevo (Bosnia), Africa, Spain, Italy, Austria (Vienna) and Australia, to name a few. It's also a book of many religions, including Catholic and Muslim. In the end, an Aussie falls in love with a Bosnian. I don't know if Europeans move around a lot more in Europe than Americans do in America, or if I've just seen too many James Bond and Jason Bourne (notice the similar initials) movies and read too many books. But it sure seems that way. There seems to be less fear and more acceptance because of this.
You're probably seeing where I'm going with that. I apologize for my lack of subtlety.
Turns out, most people of most faiths and cultures are peace-loving people, running from wars and oppression and ignorance. That includes Catholics, Hebrews and Muslims. But people of most faiths also start wars of oppression and ignorance. In this book, those people are also Catholics, Hebrews and Muslims. These faiths have works that go back millennia. The Sarajevo Haggadah, the book of the title, is one of those. It was created with love and honor and faith by someone (actually at least two someones, as one drew and another wrote) who tried to create a masterpiece to honor the faith.
Brooks's book has one overall message: culture and books should prevail over wars and ignorance. And the first sign of oppression and evil is the suppression, and burning, of books. Keep a watchful eye out for that. Nazi Germany wasn't the first killing tyranny to burn books, but doing so is the first sign of an ignorance and an oppression. That, and shutting down the press and universities.
Keep your eyes open for that, no matter where you are.
Many hands have undoubtedly touched the Sarajevo Haggadah, which is a very real book, as many hands undoubtedly have created it. This is the case of all old books.
Yes, all of them. Many hands will create many errors, especially in print, especially if the words have been created and put together over many centuries. If you've read my blog, you probably know where I'm going with that. If not, read the book, and you may.
Of all the sections of Brooks's book, she is at her best in those of historical fiction. The most memorable to me is the section of the book's travels out of World War II. There's a scene on a frozen lake that you won't soon forget. The part about the writing of the Haggadah is also great. So is the section about the real signature and inscription, and the fictional wine and blood stains.
Less great are the parts of the main character, Hanna, necessary to set the outline of the novel. She is asked to restore the book, as it's many hundreds of years' old. While doing so, she notices missing silver clasps, a butterfly's wing, a white (cat's) hair, a drop of wine, and another drop of what turns out to be blood. There's also a signature and inscription by a censor of the Inquisition--a real guy named Giovanni Domenico Vistorini. All that is known about this real man is his signature and inscription; other books from the Inquisition also have his name and notice. He had surely not signed hundreds of other books, many of them old even by 1609, thereby fating them to the flames. This one he let live--a strange book for an Inquisitor to pass. You'll have to read Brooks's book to see why.
So this is a great, literate book, about a real book, and the message is that books and cultures are cool. It's got a Travelling Pants kind of frame--Remember the movie with different segments about characters who all come across the same pair of pants? (Well, I didn't read the book or see the two movies, either, but I'm aware of the writing frame.) If not, how about Cat's Eye?--that really works here, even if Brooks is obviously more at home with the historical fiction parts, and less proficient with Hanna's modern day. She tries to hard, IMHO, to portray a sassy and independent Aussie. I found what she did for a living more cool than her character. That's just me--though she does have a memorably Lady Macbeth-like surgeon mother, who admits a whopper at the end.
Ultimately I prefer Brooks's March and Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, but this--her third book--is also a wonder of a sort, and well worth your time. Though I think it's her third best at the time of its writing, it's still better than the best of most, including your humble reviewer. Actually, a piece of this gave me inspiration for a book I'm writing, that also takes place over many generations, with many characters, nations and problems. My book didn't have a MacGuffin--which is essentially what the Haggadah is here--nor did it have a Citizen Kane-type narrative frame, which is what Brooks's book is. The stains, the inscription and signature, the hair and the butterfly wing--they're all Rosebud, get it?
Knowing different cultures and religions makes you smart. They are not to be hated, oppressed or expelled. See where I'm going with this?!?
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Photos: from my own collection
A little side note before we begin: Bagwell signed one of the most player-friendly contracts ever. In 2005, he had 100 at-bats and 25 hits, and for this he got paid $18,000,000. Yes, that's 18 million bucks. That's $720,000 per base hit. Yes. What most professionals get paid in 10 years, he got per base hit, just in 2005. But it gets better. In 2006, he got paid over $19,000,000. Yes, 19 million bucks. That was #1 for all of baseball that year. He got paid more than anybody. For how many hits? 0. That's right, 0. He was injured and couldn't play, but that money was guaranteed. Like Pablo Sandoval last year for the Sox, he got paid $19M in 2006 not to play. For his career, he made over $128,000,000. Today, because of 10 years of inflation, that would be worth $169,000,000--an increase in 10 years of $41 million. And all he had to do was sit down and watch it happen. $41 million for doing nothing more than counting his money. If I ever hit it big doing anything, I want his agent.
And a little side note about Ivan Rodriguez: He's the 2nd catcher I've ever heard of nicknamed Pudge, and both guys are in the HOF. You should be ashamed of yourself if you don't know the name of the other guy.
See Bagwell's stats here.
See Rodriguez's stats here.
Anyway, these two cards--both from the 1991 Topps Traded Set--are in PSA Gem Mint 10 Condition and can be had at decent prices.
My Rodriguez card cost $22.67 total, including shipping. This was a decent buy, as I saw some for about $2 to $5 less, but I also saw it go for a heckuva lot more than that. Some of those bought prices were crazy--up to $40+ for a card worth about $20. Craziness. There were a few who paid overall a couple of bucks less, and a couple of bucks more, than I did. I got this one from a Woonsocket place, not too far from my neck in the woods, and it was delivered the next day. I might drive up there sometime and check out his store. His ebay handle is rwm8218, and it was at a good price at next-day delivery, so if you're in New England and you're looking for cards, and you want it fast, give him a look on ebay. I was the only one who bid on this one, and the bidding started at $20--which is about average for the card--so his store on ebay is still small enough that you're not bidding against a ton of people. This is a highly sort after card, since Rodriguez just made the Hall of Fame, so the fact that it's been selling for more, but that I was the only one to bid on it at the asking price, tells you something. Sure, by pressing Sold Listings on ebay you can see that the top one sold for $20 +$2.67 shipping--that's me--and then the next one says it sold for $39.99 + shipping--that's the crazy one. Others sold for about $15 + shipping, so they paid a little less than I did, but that's followed by some $22 to $27 buys, all of whom paid more. So mine was about average, discarding the crazy high one and a crazy low one. As Rodriguez is just in the HOF, I expect this card to go up a little, so this will prove to be a slightly better than average buy.
The Bagwell card cost me $29.01 from someone in California. In all honesty, I made a rookie mistake here: I didn't look at the shipping before I bid. Had I done so, and seen that it was $4, I wouldn't have bought this. Overall I paid about $5 more than many, and about $5 less than a few. Overall, an average buy, not a steal, because of the shipping. I had first seen it at rwm8218, where it sold for $20, and someone else was the only bidder. That was a helluva price, a nice steal, better than the deal I got on his Rodriguez card and a helluva better deal than I got here. I'm still happy with the buy, and as Bagwell is just in the HOF as well, this will go up, so it'll prove to be an average buy, probably. But the lesson, again: If you want a deal, it's usually in the shipping, not in the price. Grrrrrrrrrrr...
So, the players...
Bagwell--if you're old enough, you already know this--was infamously traded by the Red Sox to Houston in 1990 for Larry Anderson, an average relief pitcher who'd had a helluva year in 1989, which overinflated his value. The Sox were constant losers in the playoffs--usually to the Oakland A's at the time--and were trying to get over the hump and advance further in the playoffs. They also had a 1st baseman at the time named Mo Vaughn, who was a consistent home run threat until he ate himself into an Angels uniform and then his career quickly ended. (All the Lady visits didn't help.) Anyway, Bagwell was a 1st baseman / DH type, which the Sox had a lot of, so they dealt him.
Bagwell was brought up immediately and won the Rookie of the Year Award, and then an MVP a few years later, and played 15 years--a short career derailed due to a bad back and shoulder--for Houston. He and Biggio made Houston legit for a few years, really put them on the map. They've been mostly legit since, with a few hiccup years in there. The bottom line about Bagwell--and you should see his stats here--is that he played the vast percentage of his team's games over the years, hitting more homers and drawing more walks than any 1st baseman, consistently, in the National League. His on-base %, RBIs, walks and his homerun totals are amongst the best ever, and baseball-reference.com's JAWS shows him to be the 6th best 1st baseman ever, after the likes of Gehrig, Foxx, Pujols and Cap Anson (and Roger Conor, and look at that guy's stats, please, because I know you've never heard of him), and higher than Miguel Cabrera (after 14 years) and Frank Thomas--which is damn impressive. If you're younger, you may not have ever heard of Bagwell because he played in Houston and because he was very, very quiet and shy to the media. Had he been a Yankee or Red Sox, he'd be a household name today. There is the steroid taint on him, of course, and he did balloon from a stick to King Kong, but don't get me started about how HOF writers shouldn't moralize, because I can show you that probably 85% or more of the best players of his era used. I don't condone it, of course, and it is extremely unhealthy for you...His election, and Piazza's, means that the writers are officially ready to open the door for players of this era who probably used. Bagwell was never accused officially, nor officially caught, using steroids, ever. Those whispers means he made it to the HOF on his 7th try when he should've made it on his first. JAWS says he was a better player in his career than Miguel Cabrera is now. Think about that for a second. He was the best quiet player I ever saw. If he and Biggio, who had over 3,000 hits and got on base almost as frequently, had had any quality players in the lineup with them at all consistently over the years, the Astros would've been a playoff powerhouse. Alas, not the case, and they rarely had the pitching as well. I've been making the Bagwell for the HOF case for a few years, as you know if you've read this blog, so I'm glad he's in.
Ivan Rodriguez--Pudge--also had the steroid whispers follow him around, mostly because of his remarkable durability at the toughest baseball position. People my age remember him as the only guy we've ever seen who crouched behind the plate with his right leg stretched out all the way, his left knee on the ground. From this truly unique position--without moving from it--he could throw out runners trying to steal second with a career-long consistency over 46%. Most years he was over 50% and 60%. For those of you who don't know, today 35% is fair and 40% is good. Most years he was between 50% to 60%. He won 13 Gold Gloves as a catcher, including 10 straight. Take that defense--by far the best all-time at that position--and throw in almost 3,000 hits. He finished with over 2,800 hits, but would have had well over 3,000 had he played any other position. He was so good defensively that he was maybe the best hitting catcher never moved away from the position, because you would waste all that ability putting him anywhere else, including DH. Even Yogi Berra played a ton of games in left field, and Piazza played some at first. In 21 years, Rodriguez played just 57 games at DH and just 8 at 1st base. He played 2,427 games behind the plate, the most ever. That, from a guy who had almost 3,000 hits, is remarkable. Rodriguez always--and I mean every day--played the game with a huge Cheshire Cat smile, and a lot of happiness and energy. He never complained about anything--as well he shouldn't, also having made more than $122,000,000 for his career, or over $156M with inflation since his retirement. You should see his stats here, and you can see the money at the end of the page. All stats and dollar figures for this entry via baseball-reference.com. That website has him as the #3 catcher of all-time, behind Bench and Carter. We remember him from the Texas Rangers, of course, but in his spare time in 2003 he helped the Marlins win the World Series, which I actually remember. He had the NLCS of his life that year, and won its MVP, mostly with his bat.
Both guys were quiet, though Pudge's defense made him look flashy. I watched the careers of both guys, who both started in 1991, and I'm happy as hell to see them in the Hall, especially Pudge.
By the way, Pudge #1 was Carlton Fisk. You knew that, right?
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Photo: from google.com/books, at this address
Another very appealing Bolitar novels, again proving the series is better than the stand-alones. In this one, a 13 year-old boy needs a bone marrow transfusion. A donor has been found, but then goes missing. Can Bolitar find him?
He can, and does, of course, and along the way he punches a bloated, soft-in-the-middle lawyer, kidnaps a millionairess, captures a serial killer, gains a great client, annoys the feds, and deals with daddy issues--with himself, and with his own father. The result is another mystery in the series that works well because it deals well with the real problems of its main character, problems we all face, especially guys in our 40s, as both Bolitar and myself happen to be.
One aspect here--the identity of an older man living by himself--was as obvious to me as it will be to you, but that's okay. You want to get some it yourself, right? Umberto Eco and James Joyce are great writers, but they're smarter than we are, too--and who wants to be outsmarted all the time, and condescended to at the end because the writers know they're too smart for us? I'm not calling Harlan Coben a dummy here--and he wouldn't want to be thought of in the snooty vein anyway. I'm saying the opposite: Coben knows his genre, and he knows he can't outclass the reader all the time. You've got to let them in on the fun sometimes.
I've said before that Coben, like Bolitar himself, tries too hard, and he does here as well. It's an okay too hard, like when he always (and I do mean each and every single damn time) admits to the cliche before he springs the cliche upon us. Sometimes he admits the cliche so he doesn't have to spring it upon us--but by doing so, he's springing it upon us, and it's cliche at this point to admit to the cliche in this way, and for this reason, anyway. But he makes it work. If you know the genre, you know the cliche, and you know the admission of the cliche, and when it comes, and you're already expecting it, he's got you in his hands, don't you see? It's all part of the game. Coben knows you're smart enough to know it, and he knows you'll be happy to know that he knows you're smart enough to know it. So in the end he's giving the reader what he wants. And, if you listen closely to the minor characters in this one, he's telling you why you're so happy to be acknowledged and pseudo-complimented.
And how easy it is to just go along with the game all the time. We stay on that path, right?
Sunday, February 5, 2017
Photo: Brady is congratulated by Patriots coach Bill Belichick after New England beat the Colts 44-13 in Brady's first career start on Sept. 30, 2001. Victoria Arocho, AP. From usatoday.com at this address.
Just a quick post about today's game, due to start in about 2 hours. Any given Sunday, of course, but:
--I'll pat myself on the back for a second: long before the Vegas oddsmakers made the Pats a 3-point favorite, I said weeks ago that the Pats would win a close one by 3.
--My overall score pick: Pats, 40-37 or 41-38. High scoring game, and by 3. That's been my stance since both teams won two weeks ago.
--Why? Overall, because the offenses may cancel each other out, but the Pats defense is better. It's that simple.
--The Falcons were bad against the run this year. The Patriots, surprisingly, were in the top-5 rushing. The Falcons' running game was average at best.
--The Falcons were a good, but average good, 11-5 this season. The Patriots were 11-5 a few years ago and didn't make the playoffs. So 11-5, while good, doesn't knock me outta my socks.
--Sure, the Patriots schedule this year may have been easier than that of the Falcons (or of anyone, really), but that doesn't mean it's not a great team. They had a hiccup of two games in there, one of which they lost with Brady, but overall it's possible they were a great team with an easier schedule.
--The schedule thing evens out, by the way. Next year could be brutal.
--The Patriots also have an edge with experience. An inexperienced team can win, of course--like the Patriots in 2001. But I'll take it when it's used mentally and productively, which Belichick and Brady seem to do. They visualize and channel well. Brady in particular could have a post-sports career on the self-help lecture circuit.
--Speaking of Belichick, he's an edge, too. His reputation precedes him and it can mess with you. Just ask Pete Carroll and Marshawn Lynch. Belichick is one of the few coaches whose name is as well known as his best players. Who's the Falcons coach? (Atlanta, don't answer that.)
--The Falcons have one truly great receiver. The Patriots have 3--and 4 if you count The Gronk, who--of course--isn't playing.
--Another edge the Patriots have is the very large chip on Brady's shoulder. It's actually about boulder size, and can be seen for miles with the naked eye. I mean this, by the way, as a compliment. The man is a HOFer, a millionaire perhaps literally hundreds of times over, is married to a gorgeous supermodel, has incredible homes and cars, is famous outside the sport--and he's as angry and petulant as a foot-stomping teenager. Except, he focuses better and is more driven, but still...Most guys in his position would've mailed it in a long time ago. Not him. He wants to be perfect, and believes he can be (and often is, on the field), which is why he may come across as arrogant and bossy. But he's earned the right to be that way on the field. His players like and respect him, which is all that really matters.
--Though I can do without his politics. Curt Schilling needs to step away from the political mike, too.
--By the way, Brady went on vacation for those 4 games, all over Europe, with his gorgeous supermodel wife and his undoubtedly perfect kids. If Roger Goodell thinks that's punishment, he doesn't understand the word or the concept. And, note to Goodell: The Patriots were 3-1 in those 4 games. And good job finding, finally, the right judge for you. How many millions of lawyers' fees did that cost you? Because Brady's were paid by Robert Kraft, who has more money than God--and much, much more than Roger Goodell.
MVP: Brady. Possibly Hogan, if he repeats his AFC game.
Still, it'll be a close one. Either team could, and maybe should, win. Having said that, Patriots by 3 in a high-scoring game, 41-38.
I've got a small pile of dirt from my backyard in a little cup, in case I need to eat some in about 5 hours.
Saturday, February 4, 2017
Photo: from its Goodreads page, here. And can someone write a Wikipedia article for this book, please? The one there now is offensively terrible. Thanks.
This one's got a thesis statement for an opening sentence: "When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter." Every single word in the whole book revolves around this first sentence, and it's a doozy.
Very entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking mystery. A man is suddenly shot twice, almost dies, and wakes up in the hospital to hear that his wife also was shot to death and his three month-old daughter was kidnapped. His sister later dies, and his ex-girlfriend--the real love of his life--is heavily involved, as is his safety net best friend. His ex's almost ex-husband also was shot to death, and she's a former FBI agent, as was he, and they were both extremely depressed, and she still is, and there's a gorgeous, psychotic and rather cagey woman involved, and she's a former child star, and she has a man the size of Nevada helping her out, and the day is really saved by a rural yokel with a mullet and a gorgeous mail-order bride who wouldn't be able to enter this country as of today...yeah, in lesser hands, this could've been a God-awful mess, but it's all handled well, and all of these disparate odds and ends all come together, as is Coben's trademark by now. It's very compulsively readable, though you may wonder about the ability of the cops and agents who circle the action but who don't do much of anything. They reminded me of the cops and the agents Johnson ("No, the other one.") from Die Hard.
This is one of those books that makes you wonder how the genre can stand the way these mysteries have all these characters who somehow don't need to eat, sleep, change clothes or go to the bathroom, and yet handle incredible stress and pressure that would've given a coronary to a meditation guru, all while running around each other, driving around (and over) each other, and shooting each other around the state of New Jersey and the City of New York. They all end up at the beginning, literally, which instead of giving the book a bookending feeling, instead gives the reader the feeling that he's been reading in circles for almost 400 pages. But the mystery goes that way, and, what the hell, life pretty much feels that way, so it all somehow works.
It works overall a little less well than Coben's Bolitar series, because he can't infuse the supporting characters with enough life for us to care about them. They're all a little too sharply drawn, a little too extreme, a little too down or a little too out there. We care about the main character, though more for his mystery than for him, if you follow me. I mean, why was he shot, and his wife killed, and his daughter kidnapped? The answers aren't pretty, but then his life wasn't, either. Then again, none of the characters have a good time of it. For a living, he courageously battles the messes to the face that wars make upon its victims throughout the world; his wife (and his ex's almost-husband) are manic-depressives; his sister is a drug addict; his father has Alzheimer's; his wife's mother was in and out of institutions, and abused her; his artsy neighbor was sexually abused and she's a mess; his father-in-law is a rich asshole, and this man's son is his asswipe, and...yeah, it's a mess, and everyone's a mess. And that's kind of the whole idea: Helping each other through this messy life.
And, in these times of Walls and immigrant bans, there's a nice message about helping out our fellow man, and about being there for each other, especially our families and our kids. If any of those folks would care to read anything, this one's got dozens of alternate titles and alternate editions in foreign countries to satisfy those who need alternate facts...