The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross

I have been exploring quite a bit of “new music” recently, and in my various internet searches I came across this book.  Alex Ross is the music critic at the New Yorker, and he writes the musical history of the twentieth century very well.  This is the second non-fiction book I’ve read this year, and where I read The Machine in two nights, this book took two weeks of concentrated effort to finish.  That fact  is entirely due to the amount and depth of information imparted by Ross.  It’s not a slog through page after page of facts, but you will learn something in every section.

The Rest is Noise doesn’t approach musical history as a separate entity, instead the entire book is set in the historical events of the 20th century, and how wars, prosperity, and politics influenced the composers.  Nor does the book include each and every detail of each and every musical movement.  Chapters start broadly, then focus on one particular composer demonstrating one particular musical philosophy (often through description and analysis of one particular piece).  From there multiple offshoots present themselves, and Ross follows some, ignores others, and often returns to a point of divergence many pages later to explore the other path.

The best parts of this book are the descriptions of the specific pieces.  I’ve listened to some classical music in my time, but I would by no means consider myself an expert (I took one music theory class in high school, nothing in college), so it’s enlightening to hear what a studied, eloquent music critic hears in the pieces.  I was introduced to a lot of pieces, composers, and movements reading this, and I liked the “recommended listening” portion of the appendix, so I thought I would include a couple of pieces that I discovered and enjoyed because of this book.

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The Machine by Joe Posnanski

I feel I’m safely in the majority among the online baseball community when I say that I love Joe Posnanski’s writing.  If you have had your fill of people pointing out how awesome he is, you may want to just skim the rest of this, because there’s nothing but praise for Joe here.

I will start by saying that I don’t care about the 1975 Reds.  They had played and retired by the time I was old enough to follow baseball, I grew up following the Twins in the American League, when they never played the National League Reds.  I’ve only ever known Pete Rose as a gambler, and Joe Morgan as an announcer.  The only reason I picked up this book was The Soul of Baseball, which is right up there with W.P. Kinsella’s books for my favorite baseball books.  I read some of the excerpts posted at Sports Illustrated’s website and decided this was worth a read, just because Posnanski can write baseball so well.

The entire lineup (one of the most famous in baseball history) is discussed, with tidbits and such about each players relationships with each other, with manager Sparky Anderson, and with the media.  As you read, you feel like you’re on Joe Poz’s shoulder as he interviews these players for the book.  It definitely reads like a memoir, not a documentary – and I think that’s intentional, and a good thing.  This is a book about a team that dominated the author’s childhood years.  He can’t possibly tell this story objectively, and it’s a better story because he doesn’t even try.

I went to one of Joe Poz’s book signing events here in Kansas City* and when he talked about this book, he talked about how different it was from his other one.  Where The Soul of Baseball was a personal story that he felt very deeply about, The Machine was just a fun book that he wanted to write.  I think that’s evident upon reading this book.  The conflict of Buck O’Neill trying to impress his memories upon the sport that drove the previous book is gone here.  This book defines an ‘easy read’ – a really good baseball story written by a really good baseball writer.

* Yes, I got my copy signed.  Yes, I had him sign it “Gardy’s a genius!”  Yes, he was a great sport, and a generally nice, engaging person.**

** That’s right – a Pozterisk in an entry about Posnanski’s book.  How meta is that?

The Mind of Dwayne Hoover – New Spring

Here’s a question I’ve been wrestling with:  How long do you stick with a series once it loses its steam?  I just did a week’s worth of posts on music, movies, and books I’ve partaken of in the past year (and, in the case of movies, the last ten) and there are a myriad of examples of this question in each of these media  – How many Offspring albums can I convince myself to buy?  If there was a fourth Matrix movie, would I go see it?  and finally, how many more books can there possibly be in the Wheel of Time series?

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2010 Books to Read

10 books I’m looking to read in the coming year:

  • The Machine by Joe Posnanski

Anybody who follows baseball on the internet knows Posnanski, and his first book about Buck O’Neill was awesome, and I’m really excited to read this one.

  • The Gathering Storm by Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan

With 12 books and more than 9,000 pages, one would hope that there would be an end in sight for the Wheel of Time series.  This is the first of a three part finale to the fantasy epic that I started reading in high school.  I’ve started at the beginning of the series to refresh my memories and I anticipate finishing the new book sometime in this decade.

  • Liberation by Brian Francis Slattery

Been looking for this book for awhile, and finally my darling wife procured me a copy.  It’s sitting on the bedside table, and once it works its way to the top, we’ll knock this one out.

  • Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

Supposedly this is a really great graphic novel.  Looking forward to it.

  • To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Recommended to me as being similar to The Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy.  That’s one that will get me every time.

  • Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Sci-fi short stories?  Yes, please.  Highly recommended to me.

  • Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Keep running into this book on my recommended list, seems kind of interesting.

  • The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross

A critic’s look at twentieth century classical music, something I’ve found myself very interested in recently.

  • Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell

An entire novel written with only questions, might be too out-there for me, but it caught my eye.

  • The Strange Hours Travelers Keep by August Kleinzahler

One poetry book.  To be read when the mood strikes me.

What are you looking forward to reading this year?

2009 Books Read

Here’s my five favorite books that I read this year.  I read about 20 books in total this year which is pretty good, although I definitely went through some long stretches where I wasn’t reading anything.  Tomorrow I’ll have some books that I have my eye on for the next year.

  • 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

I wrote this when I finished the epic 2666.  Having had some time to reflect and absorb it, I really enjoyed reading (and being challenged by) this book.  Generally, these types of books are the ones that I really enjoy; those that are dense, intelligent, and challenging.  You’ll probably see that reflected in a lot of these choices.

  • The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

The story of a child genius who undertakes a cross-country trek on his own, while trying to understand the family dynamic he’s running from.  The book is illustrated with T. S.’s drawings and kept me entertained throughout.

  • The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Steampunk novel in which an automaton making her own living as an alchemist attempts to win her independence from her creator in the midst of a political uprising.  This was an excellent book, one that I loved as I was reading it, and one that I didn’t have to think twice about including on this list.

  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Very good book. Don’t read the last few chapters anywhere someone might look askance at tears running down your face. One of the reviews on the back mentions Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and this did remind me a bit of that. But where Slaughterhouse Five has a bit of a “cracked” look at WWII, The Book Thief plays it straight for the most part. Similar to Vonnegut’s famous “So it goes.” to mark the passing of the countless dead in World War II, the narrator, Death itself, unrelentingly reminds us of how overworked it became in those times. The story is fantastic, with enough dark/dry humor to make the inevitable tragedies of war bearable.

  • The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

So, remember when I mentioned “dense, intelligent, and challenging”, this book pretty much embodies all of those things.  Pynchon is legendarily difficult, but this one was short enough that it didn’t get overwhelming.  I remember starting Gravity’s Rainbow a couple years ago and giving up a couple chapters in, but I’m glad I came back to this author.

Some other books I read this year are listed below, most of these I liked – but there are a couple on here that I wouldn’t recommend (Drood and Outliers).  Just about everything I read are novels, with a volume or two of poetry thrown in every now and then, but if there’s anything spectacular that you read this year, drop it in the comments.

Reading

Shadow Country

Shadow Country

by Peter Matthiessen

Finally finished the book I’ve been reading for the past month or so.  Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen revolves around the shooting of E. J. Watson in the Everglades in 1910.

I enjoyed the book, this was a really engrossing read.  E.J. Watson is a remarkably interesting subject, and Matthiessen keeps this entire massive novel on point.  The setting of the Everglades frontier in the infancy of its development allow for a multitude of themes (racism, environmentalism, vengeance) but none of them are presented with a heavy hand.

The book is split into three parts, first comes the accounts of those who lived with Watson, second is the consequences, as Watson’s son attempts to piece together his father’s legend and sort out fact from fiction and last the entire story of Watson himself right up to his final moments.  When the entire Watson legend has been revealed, causes and effects, there is no great feeling of justice being served, or rage at a great injustice.  Rather it seems that this was the end that fit the story very well.  Perhaps ‘fate’ from the history of ancient Greece that Watson carries with him is the best way to describe it.

Up next, I’m excited to get to The Ancient Book of Sex and Science by a few Pixar artists who are doing a series of these.  I haven’t managed to get my hands on the first book in the series, but from what I’ve seen of the newest one (perhaps NSFW), it looks pretty cool.

The Ancient Book of Sex and Science

What’s Next?

I don’t have any kind of system for choosing what I read next, so I thought I’d open this up to the multitudes of regular readers here.  If you have an opinion, let me know.  If you don’t have an opinion, pick one at random.

Kay Ryan is the current National Poet Laureate, August Kleinzahler won the National Book Critics Circle Award this year, and the Philip Schultz book was the other book I was thinking of when I chose the Doty collection.

My Alexandria by Mark Doty

My Alexandria by Mark Doty

I chose My Alexandria because I wanted to read something by Mark Doty, who came to my attention when he won the National Book Award in poetry for his collection Fire to FireMy Alexandria was an award winning book in its own right (it won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993), and I found a copy that was available for free, so I decided to start there.  These are long poems, most go at least three pages, some significantly longer, and the book is divided into three sections.  I thought the final section was by far the strongest, nearly every poem in that section struck me in some way, and I found myself rereading that section a couple of times after I had finished.  There is an underlying feeling of doom in a lot of these poems, AIDS is a persistent theme (as is the related theme of death), and it makes for an intense experience at times.

From the final poem “Lament-Heaven”

if we are continuous,
rippling from nothing into being,
then why can’t we let ourselves go

into the world’s shimmering story?
Who can become lost in a narrative,
if all he can think of is the end?

Doty works with a deft enough touch that the theme of sickness and death doesn’t become a preoccupation, but rather a filter which informs a lot of the observations and poems in this collection.  I have seen this book classified as ‘queer lit.’ and perhaps that is because it dealt with AIDS at a time where that disease was considered synonymous with the gay community, but I didn’t find much that resonated with my perception of that classification.  Granted ‘queer lit.’ isn’t a genre I’ve explored much, so it is entirely possible that there is more to the book than I appreciated.

The poems in this collection were not particularly dense, with a couple of passes through each one I felt like I grasped the key metaphors and messages.  After reading this piece written by Doty on his poetry-writing process, it seems like that’s how he constructs his poems.  He teases out the metaphors from his experiences and tries to write them into his poems.  I think his poetry succeeds because of these keen observations and beautiful writing, not due to some ability to pack haystacks of meaning into a mere needle’s worth of words.

I really enjoyed this collection, it was dark and a bit morose at times, but the poetry was lyrical and beautiful, and I appreciated a great number of the compositions.  My particular favorites were “Human Figures” about private moments that become public; “No” which begins with children and a turtle, but turns into an almost theological query; and “Brilliance”, a poem that approaches death head on, but does it in such a beautiful way that you can’t help but be moved.

…he says I can’t have

anything I can’t finish.
He says it like he’s had enough
of the whole scintillant world,

though what he means is
he’ll never be satisfied and therefore
has established this discipline,

a kind of severe rehearsal.
That’s where they leave it,
him looking out the window,

her knitting as she does because
she needs to do something.
Later he leaves a message:

Yes to the bowl of goldfish.
Meaning:  let me go, if I have to,
in brilliance…

FOODGWOP

I have come to the realization that I don’t have any interest in writing the Series Previews anymore.  Part of it is the uninspiring Twins season so far this year, part of it is that they take a lot of time to put together, and part of it is that with the move and everything starting to come together here in Kansas (after three days, we found an appropriate coffee table!) I haven’t been terribly inspired to spend time on the same stuff for this site.  So there will be a bit of a shift in direction here whilst I figure out how the schedule is going to go in the new stage of my life.  Bear with me.

With some time off betwixt my triumphant completion of graduate school and the beginning of my postdoc appointment, I’ve actually had some time to do a fair amount of reading.  One of the books I finished was a collection of poems by Mark Doty, My Alexandria.

I’d been distracted from this one for a while, but in finishing it up last week, it re-awakened my interest in poetry.  Now, I am not a poet (occasionally I’ll knock out a verse or two for Mrs. Mak but I’m not sure that really counts), nor have I read any extensive amount of poetry.  In fact, I can count the poetry collections I’ve read on one hand.

E. E. Cummings – ViVa

Robert Hass – Praise

Mark Doty – My Alexandria

The Cummings book was bought on a whim during my college years at the bookstore – and yes, all the punctuation and capitalization makes it odd, which is kind of what initially appealed to me, the ideal of intellectual, borderline pretentious rebellion.  But what ended up sticking with me from that collection is the finishing lines in poem XIX:

… i mean the
Rain is no respecter of persons
the snow doesn’t give a soft white
damn Whom it touches

I don’t think it was any deep understanding which caused those words to catch my eye, I just liked the verse, lyrically.  Since then, I’ve tried to occasionally pick up some poems here and there.  So here’s my plan, in recognition of my scratching the poetry itch again, I’m going to declare this the First Occasional Official Daneeka’s Ghost Week Of Poetry (FOODGWOP).  My plans are as follows.

Mon – introduction (you’re reading it right now)

Tue – My thoughts on my most recent poetic adventure

Wed – A favorite poem -or- some discussion of relevant links/sites

Thur – What poetry will I read next?

Hopefully, I’ll be able to stick to that (at least partially)

The Mind Of Dwayne Hoover: Where The Wild Things Are

where-the-wild-things-are-posters

This will be without a doubt the shortest book to be reviewed in this series.  I have vague recollections of reading this story at a very young age.  As it is with books and TV shows of our youth, nostalgia has convinced me that this book is a pinnacle of children’s literature.  I make no claims as to whether or not that thought is accurate, but the recent release of the theatrical trailer for the movie adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s tale caught my eye (see the end of this post).  First of all, the movie looks absolutely gorgeous, and I’m excited to see it as soon as I can (I’m not sure if I will wear my wolf suit).  Since it has to have been around 20 years since I read the book, I decided to revisit it.

The book is beautiful to look at, and still fun to read, and the great part about it is that it’s even more fun to act out – you can imagine me dancing about the room with all the Wild Things.  I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this part of my childhood, here’s hoping the movie is just as fun.  The temptation is to ascribe all these high-arching themes to a children’s book, but that ends up sounding like a high school English class essay, so I’ll just say that there are parts of this book that resonate with me at this point in my life.

As I’m sure most people reading this know, I’m currently a graduate student in the last few months of the journey toward a doctorate degree in organic chemistry.  Chemistry is without a doubt what I want to do in my life, but there are days where graduate school has felt like a trek ‘over a year, in and out of weeks, through many, many days’.  I’ve had unruly projects, untameable bosses, and ridiculous co-workers who have all made me want to make mischief of one kind and another.  So I can empathize with Max’s troublemaker side.  Unfortunately, no one has named me king of the chemistry lab yet so I have to continue to slog my way toward that Ph.D.  [As a side note – there’s going to be one hell of a ‘wild rumpus’ once I finish this degree.]

But back to the book.  Imagination is wonderful, and the pursuit of your dreams is something we are all entitled to, but when we tire of pursuing our wild fantasy, when our hobby/career/education has ceased consuming us (‘We’ll eat you up, we love you so’), when we return to the real world, those of us who are the luckiest have someone waiting for us with a meal that is still hot.

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Postscript – My wife is starting her pursuit of a masters degree this August.  A couple months before the start of the program, the school has a dinner to “thank in advance the significant others of the students for their patience throughout the completion of the program.”  I love the idea, because I know it’s not easy to be the spouse of a graduate student, so, since my wife didn’t get a special dinner devoted to her, instead she gets a post on her husband’s stupid blog.  Thanks, Mrs. Mak – I know it ain’t easy, but you pull it off wonderfully.

Books Read and Unread

outliers_cover

I just finished reading Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.  It was interesting, but I wouldn’t really say that I enjoyed it, or was terribly impressed with the conclusions that Gladwell draws (Blink was better on both counts).  I won’t be writing this one up for the Mind of Dwayne Hoover series (check out my most recent entry 2666 by Roberto Bolaño), but I’m betting that I will write up the book that I’m starting today once I finish it.

I’ll be reading Blindness by Jose Saramago.  I’m really excited to read this one, hopefully it’s as good as I have heard.

The Mind Of Dwayne Hoover: 2666

This is another entry in “The Mind of Dwayne Hoover”. If you’re wondering what that means, check out the introductory post for a full list of entries in this series. Enjoy!

First of all, this is a bit of an imposing novel.  It’s long, it’s convoluted, and, other than the five books it’s comprised of, there aren’t really any stopping points.  I started reading this around the new year and due to my focus on other things I didn’t finish it until early March.  There was a significant chunk of time where I didn’t read at all, so when I say I had trouble keeping the whole story in my head, that is probably part of the problem.  2666 is the masterpiece of Roberto Bolaño, who died while in the final stages of preparing it for publication.  It revolves around the town of Santa Teresa, in northern Mexico, where, for years now, dozens of women have been murdered.  Law enforcement has had no successs stopping or solving the crimes.  For ong stretches of the book, you wouldn’t know this of course, because the narrative is following some literary scholars on their pursuit of reclusive German author Benno von Achimboldi, or it’s following a New York reporter covering his first boxing match, or Archimboldi himself through World War II.  Did I mention this book is imposing with a lot going on?

As I mentioned above, the novel is divided into five separate books.  Apparnetly Bolaño wanted to sell each of the five as separate novels, but upon reading them I have to agree with the publishers who combined them into one whole.  Even though the parts can be read in nearly any order (which is really cool, I’m actually excited to re-read this at some point in a different order), they intertwine and support each other book to create the entire story.  Actually the ability (or inability) to see the entire story is part of the narrative itself.  The title supposedly refers to the year 2666, a date which is never mentioned in the novel.  Instead it represents the perspective of the reader/narrator who has had time to collect all these stories and assemble them, even though there are unkown things about each of the characters that can never be explained regardless of how much perspective one has.

In contrast to the narrator, the characters struggle through the novel completely unable to know any of the entire story they are part of.  The literary scholars fly to Mexico to find Archimboldi based on a rumor of his whereabouts, without really knowing what it is they’re looking for.  The reporter spends considerable time researching, interviewing, and gathering information about a Mexican heavyweight challenger who goes down early in the first round.  The entire fourth book “The Part About the Crimes” was the most difficult of the books to read, a seemingly endless recounting of the murders without any meaningful breakthroughs for the characters struggling against them.

The story isn’t ever straightforward, and there are digressions galore in all of the books.  Fortunately, Bolaño is a fantastic storyteller, and I willingly followed him down each digression.  I already mentioned that I plan on rereading this one, and I would certainly read other novels of his.  A lament from the novel:

What a paradox, … now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unkown.  They want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrrifies us all, that somthing that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

I feel like this is Bolaño’s pre-emptive strike against criticism of this expansive work, and I’m glad I took this on.  I’m not sure that I emerged victorious, but it was certainly an interesting and entertaining struggle.

The Mind of Dwayne Hoover: A Graveyard for Lunatics

This is another entry in “The Mind of Dwayne Hoover”. If you’re wondering what that means, check out the introductory post for a full list of entries in this series. Enjoy!

Graveyard for Lunatics

 

A Graveyard for Lunatics by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors, in high school I read a few of his books and a lot of his short stories, but it has been quite a while since I read anything by him. I was recently recommended some of his later work, so when I was at the library I found a book of his that I hadn’t read yet and had a go at it. A Graveyard for Lunatics follows a screenwriter who’s Halloween becomes eerily disrupted by the appearance of a dead body. This is only the beginning though, soon people are disappearing, and his friends, both current and former, find themselves in danger.

Our narrator and his friend Roy have always been fascinated by fear. When they were young it was monsters and scary movies that frightened them. They pursued that fear into movie-making careers, where their love of that thrill is the motivation behind all of their work. They are finally working on their dream project, a horror movie, but they need a monster that will live up to their memories of their childhood fear. Through an anonymous tip, the perfect monster for their horror flick is discovered in the flesh late at night hidden in the back corner of a Hollywood diner. Inspired, the two childhood friends work themselves into a creative frenzy recreating this monster.

They are not the only people on the lot at Maximus Films fascinated with fear. Someone else is causing fear and panic by dredging up memories of the late, great founder of the studio. Pretty soon the current studio heads are running scared, trying to control the efforts of the mystery manipulator while our narrator and his friend observe their panicked moves. The two of them are surprised when they unveil their beautiful, terrible creation only to find they have incited more fear in the studio heads with their creation. It results in both of them getting fired and Roy being run off the lot and into hiding.

Now the fear is focused on the narrator, and yet he thrives under these conditions, producing a screenplay that necessitates an overhaul of an entire movie in order to live up to his grand ending (he got rehired after the initial firing). This man’s inspiration is one of several reactions th the fear that is spreading through Maximus Films. The bigwigs lash out, becoming irritable and almost sinister, while, on the fringes of the story, an autograph seeker is paralyzed into inaction by his fear. Perhaps because of his childhood affinity for this thrill, the narrator provides some of his best work in this situation, gaining more and more information about who is rattling the cages of everyone at the studio.

The ending had some twists (some of them more obvious than others). Normally, I enjoy twists at the end but in this story I wasn’t really with them. I didn’t feel like they fit with what I had learned about the characters. That was my one complaint about this book. Some of my favorite writing of Bradbury’s is about the necessity and wonder of fear. Something Wicked This Way Comes approaches it from a child’s eye view and is my favorite novel by Bradbury. Also excellent are the short stories Pillar of Fire and Usher II which are both odes to Edgar Allen Poe, the master of literary fear. This book didn’t quite reach the level of my favorite Bradbury stuff, but it had enough good writing that it was certainly an enjoyable read.

The Mind of Dwayne Hoover: The Iowa Baseball Confederacy

This is another entry in “The Mind of Dwayne Hoover”. If you’re wondering what that means, check out the introductory post for a full list of entries in this series. Enjoy!

The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, by W. P. Kinsella


“My name is Gideon Clarke, and, like my father before me, I have on more than one occasion been physically ejected from the corporate offices of the Chicago Cubs Baseball Club.”

In Big Inning (beginning?), Iowa there was baseball. Gideon Clarke knows this, just like his father knew it. Gideon’s father was struck by lightning and imbued with an encyclopedic knowledge of a baseball league called the Iowa Baseball Confederacy. The catch is that there is no evidence, physical or anecdotal, that this league ever existed. Old newspapers don’t have any box scores, former players, owners, even the commissioner deny the existence of this baseball league. The Chicago Cubs front office certainly will not acknowledge that, in 1908, the Cubs traveled to Big Inning to play an exhibition double-header against a team of Iowa Baseball Confederacy All-Stars. The town of Big Inning has since been renamed Onamata and the old baseball field is gone. It is as if every trace and memory of the Confederacy has been wiped from the face of the earth.

Gideon inherits the knowledge of the Iowa Baseball Confederacy when his father dies. He also inherits the obsession of finding proof that this league existed. After years of searching, one man reveals to Gideon that he remembers playing in the Confederacy, and with his help, Gideon finds himself transported back to July 4, 1908, the day of the scheduled double-header pitting the Iowa Baseball Confederacy All-Stars against the Chicago Cubs. Stan, a career minor leaguer, who has pursued his dream of a major league opportunity for far too long, accompanies Gideon on his travel back in time. This date is important, because this is the point that the Clarke family’s memory of the Confederacy stops. After this date, there is no mention of the league in their memories, nor is there any mention of why it ceased to be.

What happened during this game that ended the Confederacy?

It turns out that nearly everything happens over the course of over 2,000 innings of baseball. The Cubs and All-Stars battle each other in a ridiculously protracted game, whenever the Cubs score to take the lead in the top of the inning, the Confederacy comes back to tie the game in the bottom. Gideon’s friend Stan finds himself playing in the game, which is as close as he has ever come to fulfilling his dream of playing in the big leagues.

That is one of the themes of this book. While Stan is coming so close to fulfilling his obsession, Gideon is witnessing the vindication of his and his father’s years of research and frustration. Both of them have found everything they could have ever wanted in this baseball game.

“Why not baseball?” my father would say. “Name me a more perfect game! Name me a game with more possibilities for magic, voodoo, hoodoo, enchantment, obsession, possession. There’s always time for daydreaming, time to create your own illusions at the ballpark. I bet there isn’t a magician anywhere who doesn’t love baseball. No mere mortal could have dreamed up the dimensions of a baseball field. No man could be that perfect. … The field runs to infinity,” he would shout, gesturing wildly. “You ever think of that, Gid? There’s no limit to how far a man might possibly hit a ball, and there’s no limit to how far a fleet outfielder might run to retrieve it. The foul lines run on forever, forever diverging. There’s no place in America that’s not part of a major-league ballfield.”

But the game continues on. It is unmoved by the obsessions and dreams of those involved with it. Numerous times Stan and Gideon marvel at the fact that this game is essentially the same as the game played in the present. Similarly, the game played by the semi-pros of the Confederacy is exactly the same as that played by the best team in the game, their opponents, the Cubs. Indeed, the game chews up its participants and spits them out. Players go mad and leave the game. When Gideon faces Cubs pitcher Three Finger Brown, he describes “His uniform rotting off his body; the sole of his left shoe, flapping. He looks back from his blue-glazed face, weary, but his eyes burn so much I feel I can see the electric glow of them.”

It is not just the player’s obsessions that try to influence the game. The Cubs front office (business) tries to order them back to finish the Major League season, but the team remains in Iowa while they fall further and further behind in the standings. The U. S. president, Theodore Roosevelt (politics) drops by to give his thoughts on the game, but he takes his turn at bat, is struck out, and the game continues. Nature sends a never-ending downpour and lightning strikes, but the game continues on unabated. Even Leonardo DaVinci (science) appears and considers tinkering with his invention (he claims baseball as his own). But he can’t find a way to improve the game. Religion also takes its turn, in the form of the Twelve-Hour Church of Time Immemorial. Their constant refrain of “we shall not be moved” could be construed as the theme song for this particular game, but, in the end, they find themselves washed away with everything else, leaving only baseball.

Unfortunately for Gideon, he comes to realize that the Confederacy is doomed. Once the game is finished, he will be returned to his own time and possibly lose everything he has gained through this game. As he is told in the early stages of the game:

“Then you have learned one thing – that accomplishing your heart’s desire is not all as wonderful as you expected.”

For Kinsella, baseball is a magical game that has untold layers and reflections in American society. Kinsella is the author of Shoeless Joe, the book that is the basis for the movie Field of Dreams. He has also published a lot of short story collections, mostly having to do with baseball and Iowa (I think we all see the theme here). Portions of The Iowa Baseball Confederacy initially appeared in some of those short story collections. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy was a book that I considered my favorite for a while in junior high. Mostly because I really liked Shoeless Joe, but whenever I would name that book people would start talking about Field of Dreams (which I hadn’t seen). So, being the contrarian that I am, I chose Kinsella’s lesser known book as my favorite, even though I knew it probably wasn’t as good. This book was a pretty easy read (I finished it in a couple of sittings). It was enjoyable the second time around, as when I read it the first time I was probably 12 or 13 years old, so this time I was able to appreciate a lot more of the book. There are a lot of unexplained and mystical events, which some people have found difficult to swallow. I would recommend Shoeless Joe before this book, but if you like Kinsella’s style, this book has that in spades.

The Mind of Dwayne Hoover: What is the What

This is the first entry in “The Mind of Dwayne Hoover”. If you’re wondering what that means, check out the introductory post I put up a couple days ago. Enjoy!

What is the What, by Dave Eggers

What is the What is the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Displaced from his home by the civil war in Sudan he spent several years in refugee camps before being relocated to the United States. The book is a fictional biography, so it is designated a novel, but most of the events happened in the life of Valentino Achak Deng. The story is told in two threads, the first is his account of a burglary which happens in Atlanta where he has been relocated. Throughout the burglary, the assault that accompanies it, and his subsequent trip to the hospital, Valentino mentally tells his story to the people he encounters. The purpose of his telling changes from person to person but the common thread is the explanation that though he may seem like he does not belong or fit inhere in this country he has endured hardships which easily trump what he is dealing with now.

The story he tells is of his wandering as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan after his village is overrun and destroyed as a result of Sudan’s civil war. On his journey he witnesses atrocities, starvation, and the harshness of the African wilderness. I’m not of a huge fan of documentaries or non-fiction, so this is probably a reflection of my personal preference, rather than a literary criticism, but these recountings were the parts of the book I could take or leave. It wasn’t that they were too graphic. Rather, it just seemed like so many pages were devoted to showing how horrible the conditions were when a select few of the anecdotes could have served just as well. However, there was certainly more to the story than the recounting of Deng’s hardships in Africa and the U. S.

Deng grew up in a village in southern Sudan populated by people of the Dinka tribe (whose most famous member is former NBA player Manute Bol). Achak’s father tells the story of the What. When God created the first Dinka he was offered the choice betwixt a cow and the What. The first Dinka saw that the cow would provide him with a renewable source of meat and milk and almost everything he would need for survival in southern Sudan. So he chose the cow and from then on the Dinka people were herdsmen who relied on the cow for their livelihood. Of course, his father relays this story as evidence of the superior intellect of the Dinka. Rather than succumbing to the temptation of the unknown What, he chose the sensible choice which he knew would provide for him and his people. This choice however, doesn’t satisfy everyone’s natural curiosity. Every time the story is told it is followed by the question that is the title of the book, “What is the What?”

Over the course of his displacement from his village and his long, arduous walk to Ethiopia, Achak is thrust into the unknown. His village and family are gone, possibly forever. Old friends from his previous life appear and disappear only to reinforce the fact hat everything he previously knew is now uprooted and set adrift in this new, frightening, violent world.

We are told about this hardship as we are also learning of Valentino’s struggles in America, where he is robbed and beaten by strangers who have forced their way into his apartment. Even after his escape from Sudan and the refugee camps of his childhood, he is still living in an unfamiliar world, with new dangers he has never faced and could not anticipate.

This is the answer to the question. This is the What. The unknown, the unsafe, the unfamiliar are all what the man in his father’s parable turned away from in favor of the safe, docile life of a herdsman. This is no longer an option for Valentino Achak Deng. He has been thrust into the What and he must learn to succeed while he is playing by rules he is picking up as he goes along.

It’s not all bad. Throughout the book, Deng meets many people, from his sponsors in the United States to aid workers in refugee camps, who help him toward success and allow him to bring some certainty into his otherwise uncertain journey. Therein lies the allure of the What. It represents not only uncertainty, but also opportunity. Over and over the Lost Boys are told that they are the future of Sudan. They have been afforded opportunities that have never been available to other Sudanese children. This story is an account of one of those boys coming to terms with this realization while surrounded by the upheaval of a civil war which has plagued his home for most of his lifetime.

This was the first book I have read by Dave Eggers, and I enjoyed the reading. Although the subject matter wasn’t exactly my favorite, the story was a very good one. It was a little bit longer than I thought it needed to be, but there was no point at which I was laboring through the book. Overall, I would recommend the book if you haven’t already read it. If you have read it, what did you think? Let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!