Baseball fans can be divided into two types, those who are exasperated at attempts to make over-arching abstract observations about the game and those who see baseball as a metaphor for something else, usually life itself. How Life Imitates the World Series, Why Time Begins on Opening Day, the Big Bang theory of run scoring, and the baseball park as the Garden of Eden.
The last is the beloved metaphor of Bart Giamatti, Renaissance scholar, Yale president, etc. At the end of his life he made his way to the garden and died as Commissioner of Baseball, his second most beloved game.
“I have always found baseball the most satisfying and nourishing game outside of literature.” This is a man who enjoys playing with words and in this book he has applied that game to baseball in a strikingly original and satisfying way.
He is not alone in his love of baseball language. Bill James as described in Moneyball:
“Language, not numbers, is what interested him. Words, and the meaning they were designed to convey. ‘When the numbers acquire the significance of language,’ he later wrote, ‘they acquire the power to do all of the things which language can do: to become fiction and drama and poetry . . .’”
And so it was for Giamatti. In this little book of essays that he wrote just before his death in 1989, he describes baseball as an ever-repeating return to the Garden of Eden from which we are all expelled at the end of the game, at the end of the season. For him as for James, baseball “ . . . is grace, glory, consistency, sacrifice, courage, it is success and failure, it is frustration and bad luck, it is ambition, it is overreaching, it is discipline. . . . a safe deposit box containing life’s secrets.”
Thursday it rained all day, an unusual thing here in semi-arid Spokane, and it has turned colder here finally, with highs in the 50s. So the other day was perfect for the combination of hot tea, cats, a warm radiator, my gold chair, and an Agatha Christie mystery.
The mystery was Thirteen at Dinner and it is one of the best Christie's I've read. As with many of the Hercule Poirot books, it is a slice of London life in the 1930s. If you were a gentleman or a lady, others of your kind would take you up and you would find yourself in a whirl of social activity. Even if you were originally a Belgian refugee and a wee bit peculiar. I find Poirot exceedingly charming so I shouldn't be surprised that many of the characters in the mysteries featuring his little grey cells feel the same.
This is a seemingly complex mystery with lots of possible perpetrators. The original murder (it is not letting any cats out of any bags to let you know there will be more than the one murder) - the original murder is of Lord Edgeware, a particularly disagreeable man who is unhappily married to an American film star who takes the prize for self-centeredness. She wants to marry the deeply religious Anglo-Catholic Duke of Something or Other but Lord Edgeware won't give her a divorce. She engages Poirot to appeal to her husband to let her go.
When he is found dead the butler reports that Lady Edgeware (the American actress) arrived at the house at 10 PM, the approximate time of the murder, and went into the library to talk to the victim. She soon came out of the library and left the house.
Inspector Japp sees this as an open and shut case but for some reason he is dissatisfied and goes to talk to Poirot about it. Poirot finds a piece in the newspaper reporting that Lady Edgeware was at a dinner party from 9 to 11 that night and couldn't possibly have done the murder as she has 12 people who vouch for her alibi. Perplexing situation.
Of course, Poirot figures it out, and I'm proud to say so did I, even with half a dozen red-herrings that complicate what turns out to have been, if not exactly open and shut, at least not that complex after all.
This is a good Agatha Christie to start with if you haven't read one before. You could keep lists of characters and motives and set up a time line and plot alibis, but none of that is necessary if you just want to read along and enjoy. The photo above is of a book with the alternative title, Lord Edgeware Dies, as I couldn't find an image of the cover of the book I read.
This title must have come to my attention from somebody's blog because it's just the sort of book my blogging friends like most, a bit like an Elizabeth von Arnim novel with a touch of Rebecca superimposed. The story is based on the experience of the author's great-aunt, who as a young woman left Vienna for England before World War II and worked as a domestic at an English estate. The house and village that the fictional Elise comes to love are also based on a real story, that of the lost village of Tyneham on the Dorset coast.
It's a lovely story about a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna who have realized by 1938 that they need to leave their beloved city. One daughter, a musician, and her husband, an astronomer, leave for California where a job teaching is waiting for him. The younger daughter, the protagonist of this novel, Elise Landau, is taken on as a parlormaid in the house of the Rivers family in Dorset. The parents are awaiting a visa which will allow them to go to New York where the mother, an opera singer, and the father, a well-known Austrian novelist, can make a new life for themselves.
But things don't go as planned and even as Elise begins to feel at home in England and falls in love with an Englishman, she worries about her parents as their visa is delayed and they find themselves trapped in Austria.
The novel is pastoral, with scenes of haying and loving descriptions of the birds and flowers of the English countryside. Elise is with the fishermen as they bring in their first mackerel catch of the season. She comes to admire the grey stone walls and cottages of the village and the golden stone of the Elizabethan manor house. Until the violence and reality of the war intrudes on their little valley and threatens everything Elise has come to love.
I watched an hour of financial news on CNBC this morning because Michael Lewis was on. He is the author of the blockbuster Liar's Poker from 20 years ago (soon to be a major motion picture, by the way.) Lewis has recently done a bit of "financial disaster tourism" as he calls it and the results are in his latest book, Boomerang.
I bought it for Wilhelm but made the mistake of leaving it lying around and yesterday I did what I said I would not do and started reading it. And couldn't put it down. Fortunately it's short.
In an attempt to figure out what happened to the euro and what is likely to come of it, he went to Iceland, Ireland, and Greece, three of the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Iceland, Greece, and Spain) whose economies are so bad the entire country may go into . . . what do you call it when a country defaults on it's financial obligations and can't get a loan? He finished up in Germany because if help is to come from anywhere, it will come from the Germans.
Lewis will make no friends in Iceland, describing them as he does as belligerant and self-absorbed people. He wanted to answer the question: What made these people think they could run a financial system?
There is a charming lack of financial experience in Icelandic financial-policymaking circles. The minister for business affairs is a philosopher. The finance minister is a veterinarian. The Central Bank governor is a poet. [The Prime Minister], though, is a trained economist - just not a very good one.
They do things differently in Iceland. They looked around them at their stunningly beautiful country and tried to find something they could do to create a modern economy. Tourism. Great, that's one. Fishing. Let's privatize the fish and make some people enormously wealthy. It will trickle down. And it did, more or less.
But the big thing is geothermal energy. It's everywhere in Iceland. What needs a lot of electrical power? Aluminum!
So they went to Alcoa and Alcoa visited and thought it was a fine idea to build a plant in Iceland. They picked their spot and assured themselves the energy was there. Then the project stalled.
Before Alcoa could build its smelter it had to defer to a government expert to scout the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it. It was a delicate corporate situation, as an Alcoa spokesman told me, because they had to pay hard cash to declare the site elf-free, but, as he put it, "we couldn't as a company be in a position of acknowledging the existence of hidden people."
It should have been a surprise to no one when Iceland went bust.
On to Greece, which has peculiarities of its own. In an appallingly corrupt economy, one Greek monastery has the reputation of being the most corrupt entity in the country, so Lewis wanted to interview the abbot.
This monastery is on Mount Athos. Which is not a mountain. It's an island. Except that it's not island. It's a peninsula. The monks have built an enormous wall so that you can't get to the peninsula by land. They allow no women on the island. Not even female animals. Except cats. They allow female cats.
Back in Athens, Lewis interviews a finance minister about how Greece ever got into the European community in the first place when their financial situation was clearly not healthy.
The finance minister stresses that this isn't a simple matter of the government lying about the expenditures. "This wasn't all due to misreporting," he says. "In 2009, tax collection disintegrated, because it was an election year."
"'The first thing a government does in an election year is to pull the tax collectors off the streets."
Now he's laughing at me. I'm clearly naive.
And so the three nonfiction books to read in the rest of 2011 are down to two.
Yesterday's New Year's Resolutions still hold more than 12 hours later. I have done the Nancy Pearl thing on about half a dozen library books and put them in the tote to go back unread with half a dozen still to peruse. This doesn't mean they are unworthy. It was a hard choice deciding which to read and which to shortlist.
And the winners are:
Confidence Men by Ron Suskind. Fascinating book, purporting to tell all about the Obama White House as the administration struggled with the failing economy and the financial crisis. I'm more than half through the 515-page book so I have too much invested to quit reading now even if it weren't so interesting.
The Quest by Daniel Yergin. You will remember Yergin from his 1992 Pulitzer winner, The Prize, a history of oil from Spindletop to 1990. This book picks up where The Prize ended and is about energy alternatives as well as oil. It's another whopper at 804 pages.
A title to be named later. The shortlist includes:
Christopher Hitchens' new book of essays, Arguably
Neill Ferguson's Empire - Fortunately Ferguson's next book, The Cash Nexus isn't going to be published in the US until February so it won't be competing for the three slots between now and 2012.
Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens - I know it hasn't been published yet but her previous biographies, most recently of Thomas Hardy, are so delightful I think I'm going to be starting a Dickens Project, reading the biography and then, finally, the novels, of which I've read only four. Question is, should it wait for 2012?
Charles King's Odessa - this book really intrigues me but it really made the short list because it's only (only) 336 pages long.
As for the other resolutions, I'm killing two with one book, Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse, which I have in the Library of America edition.