Thursday, August 27, 2009

The HoG25: The 25 Best Books Of The Past 25 Years (Part One)

We're back again, with another batch of nonsense to disagree about. In this series, the Iron Triangle of the House of Georges has ranked our favorite quarterbacks (Parts 1 & 2), movies (Parts 1 & 2), and hitters (Parts 1 & 2) of the previous quarter century. Today we tackle books.

We can't really rank these tomes, however, since none of us have read anyone else's titles. I suppose we're a bit peculiar about our literature here in the House. So here's a dozen or so books that kick ass--should you ever feel the need to read something longer than a HoG post consider these your bona fide suggestions. We'll be back tomorrow with a dozen more.

Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman (2001)

Old No. 7: I'm not at all ashamed to admit that Bill Simmons turned me on to Chuck Klosterman. The Sports Guy did the same thing with Malcolm Gladwell, whose books and magazine work are in my opinion the best of this entire decade. Although Simmons is somewhat reviled in Blogifornia, we in this medium need to recognize him for what he is--the Godfather of sports comedy blogging.

Simmons' book on the 2004 Red Sox was not good, though. It's not on this list, and I suspect that his upcoming basketball screed won't make future lists either. Simmons has devolved into a bit of a repetitive hack, a flaw that is merely annoying when read regularly online yet fatal when you're locked on an airplane with hundreds of his pages.

But this ain't about Bill Simmons. It's about Chuck Klosterman, nerdy metal cheerleader.

Klosterman's impetus for this book was that he's completely obsessed with 80s hair metal and felt the genre needed serious archival documentation. Fargo Rock City is that effort, and it's filled with grandiose claims about the historical relevance of Ratt and Vince Neil. It also has personal anecdotes from Klosterman himself about how he grew up smoking brown weed and jerking off to Lita Ford posters. Great stuff, go get it RIGHT NOW.

The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip through Buck O’Neil’s America by Joe Posnanski (2007)

Bankmeister: This book is important for more reasons than I could hope to capture here inside the humble House of Georges. For starters, the obvious: the Negro Leagues of baseball. Having read this book and visited the museum, it’s clear to me now just how fantastic some of those guys were, how unfortunate it was for those awesome athletes to be intentionally overlooked in terms of playing in Major League Baseball, and most importantly, this book helped illustrate the pain that results from hatred and bigotry. Below the surface, this book is also about baseball and what it means to our country. This book is phenomenal because the man who wrote it is one of the greatest writers of our lifetime. This book is amazing because of all the venues it covers. But most of all, this book is incredible because of the way it embraces what every human being should be like.

Now that’s a tricky notion to boast, I understand. I appreciated all of the fascinating pieces of trivia, history, all of the anecdotes. I loved the learning. I loved the fact that the motif of jazz was so successfully piped into the writing, but what I took from this book was this: Buck O’Neil was the kind of human being that, if you’re not striving to be somewhat like him, you’re basically failing. The way O’Neil spoke, oftentimes in what appeared to the author as poetic was blunt, concise, and beautiful. The gift he had for making someone feel good, for exceeding the expectations of others, regardless of the personal toil, for appreciating women, and for those who “could really play” will never be matched, all neatly assembled in one person. It’s impossible.

The Soul of Baseball is one of those books that make you want to sacrifice sleep. You start off thinking about knocking out 20 pages, and 70 pages later you want to just keep going. It’s that good, and a must-own for anyone who appreciates good people, good writing, and good baseball.

The Starr Report by Kenneth Starr (1998)

Cecil: No one thinks The Starr Report is a good book. It is basically a transcript, for one thing, and it came into existence thanks to a crazed partisan campaign to destroy Bill Clinton’s presidency. Ken Starr is a dickbag of Brobdingnagian proportion and the people who enabled him the worst kind of venal, anti-democratic ideologues. I did notice a woman reading it on the train once, and far as I know, that’s the only time I’ve ever even seen a copy in person.

So how did it manage to get on this list? Because unlike the many fine novels and non-fiction works and glorified funnybooks that we’ve listed here, The Starr Report made a meaningful impact upon American society—not a good one, no, but meaningful nonetheless. Prosecutor Ken Starr became synonymous with the Right’s crusade to rid themselves of a man that they (curiously, in my view) saw as a kind of Arkansan Mephistopheles. His name flew across the evening news and over water coolers nationwide. His report, full of semen stains and Linda Tripp, became acceptable pornography for the kind of lumpen conservatives who gloated over the political demise of Bill. Like it or not, it changed the face of American political discourse.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (2000)

Old No. 7: My mother-in-law bought me this book for Christmas one year, because she knows I like to cook. I doubt she knew that within its pages were descriptions of doing drugs, fucking waitresses and petty theft. It's not a cookbook, more of a memoir of a life toiling in the trenches of the restaurant industry.

I related, because I too put in my time in the biz--on and off for more than 10 years. I was not a classically trained French chef like Bourdain, nor did I spend most of my time in the kitchen. Mostly I tended bar and waited tables, although I did have stints on the line of a Mexican joint and prepping at a brewpub. Bourdain has mostly disdain for front-of-house pansies such as myself, which is fine--cooking is much, much harder than refilling Sweet & Lows and reciting side dish choices.

Still, if you've worked in a restaurant at any position for any amount of time, you will devour this book. You know the hours, you know the grind, you know the asshole customers and owners, you get it. And if you haven't toiled in the industry, fuck off. Seriously--there's no place for you in the House of Georges.

Bourdain is now a big TV star, of course, which is ironic because he was so critical in Kitchen Confidential of the Emeril Lagasses and Bobby Flays of the world. I suppose one wanted to label Bourdain a hypocrite or sellout one could, but to be fair it's not like he's doing Applebee's commercials.

I Sailed with Magellan by Stuart Dybek (2003)

Bankmeister: Stuart Dybek, with as little as he’s written, might be my favorite living fiction writer. It seems that you’re either a short-story kind of person, or you’re not. If you think you’re not, give Dybek a shot and see if he doesn’t change your mind. I’ve read Magellan and Coast of Chicago, two short-story collections that, well, take place in Dybek’s native South Side of the Windy City, and they both rock, but if Coast is his Frank Thomas, Magellan is easily his Albert Pujols. Short-story collections can be tricky. You can take a chance and have completely different themes going on from story to story, or you can tie the themes, and occasionally the characters, together and almost give the thing a novelesque feel, which is what Dybek does with Magellan.

Adolescence, music, sports, and sex are the primary motifs Dybek tackles in his collection, they are spot on, stimulating, and a ton of fun. The adventures his characters tangle in in Magellan are purely American, full of conflict, and twisted with emotion, like this excerpt from ‘Breasts’ where he writes about pigeons:

They fly in a dimension perilous with hawks and the ack-ack fire of boys armed with rocks, slingshots, and pellet guns. Fog and blizzards disorient them, storms blow them down, and yet instinct brings them home on a single wing, with flight feathers broken, missing a leg or the jewel of an eye.
Dybek’s selection of stories in Magellan is masterful, craftily selected in a way that keeps the reader moving, learning, and entertained. Never before, and perhaps never again have I so thoroughly enjoyed reading the work of someone of whom I’d never heard, but I plowed through Magellan like he was Shakespeare, Thomas Wolfe, and Ezra Pound all rolled into one.

Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut (1990)

Cecil: Hocus Pocus was…uh…er…

OK, I’m going to be totally honest, here. I barely remember Hocus Pocus. I think it has something to do with convicts imprisoning a right wing radio talk show host and being far more civilized than he, but that’s about all I have, and I know there was a lot more to it. I have it on here for two reasons: it was written in the past 25 years, and it was written by Kurt Vonnegut.

Somehow, some way, I had to get a Vonnegut novel in here. The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of his work pre-dates our 25 year limit. I would have loved to have written about Cat’s Cradle, for instance, and the lies of Bokonon within, about Ice-Nine and wampeters. I’d have given my eyeteeth, whatever those are, to chat up Slaughterhouse-Five, about which so much has been said or written that anything I’d have had to say would be utterly superfluous, but still. Most of all I’d have enjoyed chewing the fat over Breakfast of Champions, one of my of time favorites, a truly heart-rending work of modernist fiction that says more with less than possibly any book I’ve ever encountered. It wasn’t one of his favorites, interestingly enough. Maybe it was a little too close to home.

But none of those were in the kitty. So I’ve got Hocus Pocus. Read it, it’s a good book, as I recall.

I’d also like to add the final words typed by Vonnegut, in the last book he wrote:
When the last living thing
Has died on account of us,
How poetical it would be
If Earth could say,
In a voice floating up
From the floor
Of the Grand Canyon,
"It is done.
People did not like it here."

The 9/11 Commission Report by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (2004)

Old No. 7: For the record, I drafted this boring government memo before Cecil picked The Starr Report. Why, when trying to separate 25 great books from literally millions and millions of choices, do we end up with multiple federal transcripts?

One reason is we're complete nerds who never get laid. Another much more important one is that this is our history, people. Everyone always complains about media bias and how much of the real information is filtered out and how much meaningless crap is left behind--true, true, true. But come on, if you work at it just a little bit you can get to the dirt and find out (literally) where the bodies are buried.

Instead of listening to whackjob talk radio or hanging out on loony-tunes message boards or taking as gospel what your cuckoo neighbor tells you, read this report. I guarantee you will find hundreds of incredibly fascinating facts that you'd never heard before. We were attacked, yo, they were hijacking airplanes and knocking down buildings and it was the most panicky insane fuck-nuts thing any of us will ever see. Don't just consign it to the press to dig this stuff up for you, get first-hand accounts yourself.

Is it all there, and is what's there all true? Of course not. There are surely thousands of omissions, cover-ups and political agendas within these pages. The Warren Commission issued one of the most widely disregarded pieces of fluff in history, and this report may someday be equally discredited. Until then, though, try and get a direct feed on our most impactful recent history.

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy (1994)

Bankmeister: Cormac McCarthy might be the most important American writer of the past century. The American West is one of the most important themes in American culture in the last 200 years, and various themes have been explored within it, but no one has successfully tackled the Southwest with such accuracy and with many of the same implications that authors and movie producers attempted regarding the West. McCarthy’s Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) explore a barrenness similar to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” one in which worlds mesh in an unpreventable fashion, one with harsh realities, choices, and yes, that good, old-fashioned loss of innocence.

The Crossing is an important book because its prequel takes place in New Mexico, and the conflict experienced by its characters are important to that story itself, but also to what will happen in Cities. McCarthy takes a unique approach with Crossing and all but abandons the characters from Horses, giving us new faces, new conflict, and different-but-similar themes. They are then fantastically folded into one another in Cities, but the contrast of Crossing from Horses is wonderful; that McCarthy was bold enough to attempt the trilogy in the fashion he did, praiseworthy. He was also not afraid of using Spanish, or leaving quotation marks and other punctuation out of his dialogue, which only added to the mystique of his prose, the idea of loss that he illustrates so well:
One of them boys that left out of here with the horses had a rifle in his boot.
I seen it. I aint blind.
Boyd turned the horse and they set out back west along the road. The dog fell in and trotted at the horses offside in the horses shadow.
You want to quit? Billy said.
I never said nothin about quittin.
It aint like home down here.
I never said it was.
You don’t want to use common sense. We come too far down here to go back dead.

There is no place in this country like the Southwest. The earth, the people, the culture, the history, the access to so much more of the world. The fading from civilized America, the trickling into a mysterious other world, the danger in becoming an adult, the quickness with which life can be over are but a few of the many things McCarthy works with in Crossing, and he does so with a realistic engagement unique to anything else ever attempted.

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman (1989-1996)

Cecil: Another graphic novel from Cecil—I really do read other books, but I’m pretty sure none of you wanted to hear about the Whiskey Rebellion, the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 or the problem of Copperhead political representation in the North during the Civil War. If you did, apologies. Instead, you get Neil Gaiman’s modern day comic epic, The Sandman. There’s no great overarching point, here, no real commentary on modern culture, no lit-crit deconstruction of the “superhero” archetype like Watchmen made famous (a book I’ve never even read, to my recollection—take away 4 geek points from my tally), just an engrossing, old-school comic book epic.

The hero, of sorts, is the actual embodiment of sleep and dreams, a supernatural being named Morpheus. The plot travels hither and yon across time and space, but the major point—spread over several books and one-off adventures—is that Morpheus ends up being forced to take over Hell when the Devil gets bored and retires to a beach in Australia. The strength of Sandman is in creator Neil Gaiman’s writing: measured, exact prose that belongs less in a comic and more in a novel or screenplay (though I do believe that Gaiman did both). Morpheus is entirely approachable as a character for being so resolutely non-human, and the various sub-plots along the way are satisfying and clever. Aficianados of the genre will put this one higher up than I do—personally, I have it behind both Jimmy Corrigan and Maus—but if they’re angry, they can send me examples of their fan fiction in which I die in a variety of disgusting ways.

Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis (1989)

Old No. 7: I had to get Michael Lewis up here, it's quite possible he's the best writer working today. Sure, there may be a novelist who's more creative, or a humorist who'll make you laugh harder, but Lewis is, for my money, the finest pound-for-pound wordsmith on the block.

In the wide world of sports, Lewis is best known for penning Moneyball. Do you hear me Joe Morgan? BILLY BEANE DID NOT WRITE MONEYBALL. Lewis' background is in finance and financial journalism, how did he end up producing the most revolutionary piece of baseball literature this decade? Well, he's a fan, for one. Beyond that, his background in finance and financial journalism leads him to find trends in marketplaces and those exploiting the inefficiencies therein. Moneyball was set to become a Brad Pitt movie, which is just about the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard, but the project has apparently been shelved by people with brains.

Another Lewis sports book, The Blind Side, was made into a movie. An awful one, apparently. Feel free to skip it, but read the text if you like football and stories about poor people.

Liar's Poker was Lewis' first published book and it deals with his time as a trader for Salomon Brothers in New York and London. Reading this account of the tail end of the Wall Street 80s now, after our most recent financial implosion, is jaw-dropping. How such brilliant people can repeat the same mistakes out of greed and short-sightedness makes me think we're all doomed.

Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut (1987)

Bankmeister: This might be my favorite Vonnegut novel ever. Granted, I haven’t come close to reading them all, but this was the one that sold me on Vonnegut as one of the best writers of our lifetime. I’ve enjoyed most everything by him that I’ve read, but that speaks solely to the writing itself. In Bluebeard, it’s the idea that he tackled that I love just as much, if not more, than the writing itself. Vonnegut, like any good writer, takes on themes of importance, but unlike many writers, he loads his stories up with good clean fun, and Bluebeard is no exception.

The protagonist is an older guy, one that has seen perhaps most of what he cared to see in his life, and now, he’s ready to be left alone, to enjoy the little time on Earth he has left. On the surface, it seems too simple to be complex, but Vonnegut takes three of life’s greatest pleasures – painting, romance, and the idea of food and cooking – and mixes them in a perfect blend via the world’s greatest medium: writing. A master of all tools of the trade, Vonnegut is perhaps best at creating excellent characters, and those in this story are no exception. Take Edith Taft Fairbanks, for example, the woman “who would be my second wife…a magical tamer of almost any sort of animal, an overwhelmingly loving and uncritical nurturer of anything and everything that looked half alive.” Bluebeard is full of great characters, poignant plot elements, a unique setting, and hysterical dialogue. I’m not sure why Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions , and Slaughterhouse-Five are heralded as Vonnegut’s greatest work. The simplicity, the joys of life, and secretly not-so-secret ways of cramming history and art into just over 300 pages was matched by none in the last 25 years. But I am sure that never in a million years will a reading audience wonder with such fervor about just what’s in a potato barn again.

Sons & Brothers by Richard D. Mahoney (1999)

Cecil: Longtime readers of this blog will recognize that I am a whacked-out conspiracy loon when it comes to the subject of Kennedy’s assassination.

Even if its own conclusions are somewhat more guarded than mine own, this book provides a good deal of backstory to validate the idea that it wasn’t—as basically everyone knows but will ever be officially admitted—just Lee Harvey Oswald, who wasn’t then just randomly murdered by Jack Ruby. Sons & Brothers is the work of one Richard Mahoney, whose father was a friend of Bobby Kennedy and an appointee of John F.’s, and who takes the long view of what became of America’s dominant political family.

For one thing, he doesn’t shirk from the spectre of Joe Kennedy, the Machiavellian opportunist who grew rich before the Depression and even richer during, a man who actively campaigned to appease Hitler (and who, like the scion of 20th Century America’s other great political clan, Prescott Bush, did business Nazi Germany), who bought John F.’s election with help from the Daley Machine and who had deep roots with organized crime. It’s Mahoney’s conviction that the sins of the father were at least part of the demise of the sons—although he gives plenty of credence to suggestions that Cubans on both sides of the water had reason enough to be involved, and doesn’t slam the door on the possibility of domestic involvement, specifically from the wealthy cadre of Texas oilmen who hated democracy as much as they hated taxes and black people (read: H.R. Hunt and his sons, along with Clint Murchison, longtime owner of the Dallas Cowboys).

It’s a hell of a read, and a must for anyone who is still amazed that a sitting President of the United States was murdered only 46 years previous—with no credible, official explanation of what occurred.

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James (2001)

Old No. 7: For such a God-awful franchise, the Kansas City Royals have sure blessed the world with a ton of great baseball writers among their fan base. There's Joe Posnanski, a Cleveland native who has adopted KC as his hometown while writing for the Star. There's Rob Neyer, arguably the most prolific baseball blogger in history. There's Rany Jazayerli, rabble-rouser supreme. And there is, of course, Bill James, the Dean of statistical analysis for our nation's pastime.

James lives in Lawrence, Kansas and has been a Royals fan most of his life, although he now serves as a consultant for the Boston Red Sox. Since his hiring in 2003 by stat-geek owner John Henry and stat-geek GM Theo Epstein, the Sox have captured two World Series championships. Meanwhile the Royals, whose management has shown an open disdain for statistical analysis and the kind of open-minded thinking James champions, have gone 451-647 (.410) since James took the job with Boston.

Prior to his official career within baseball, however, James cooked up stats and wrote books about them. He invented the concept of Win Shares, which compresses all the numbers that a player manufactures into what that player does to help his team win games. He created the Pythagorean Expectation, a metric commonly used today to see which teams are playing above, below or right at their expected won-lost levels based on run differential. Stuff like range factor, secondary average and replacement level, again all commonplace now, were born in the fertile mind of Bill James back when the average baseball writer and fan saw nothing past a player's batting average, win total or number of errors.

He started writing his Baseball Abstract in the 70s but ceased its annual publication in 1988 because its sheer mass kicked his ass. James did put out a Historical Baseball Abstract in 1985 that ranked the greatest players in history based on Win Shares, and in 2001 he updated that with the New Historical Baseball Abstract.

This book has but two weaknesses. The first is bulk, it runs over 1000 pages and weighs more than a dead cat. The second is that it's out of date--its final season was 2000, so comparing today's stars with the all-time Goliaths of baseball is problematic. But as a modern take on the history of the game it has no equal. For a math dweeb, James is a really smooth writer and very, very funny. My favorite aspect of his style is that he carries little vitriol and almost no snark--he rips bad players and bad managers and bad baseball but he holds no grudges.

The Bill James Abstract has sat on my bedside table for years. I'm nowhere close to reading every word in it, but at any point I can rip off a chunk of the 1930s or the best defensive right fielders or the flukiest power-hitting seasons or a complete list of baseball's submarine pitchers. Or I can chuck it at burglars, knocks them out cold every time.


Cecil said...

Bank, I gotta know: do you really feel that Vonnegut's best work was not represented by the Cat's Cradle/Slaughterhouse-Five/Breakfast of Champions triumvirate?

I've never read God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or Sirens of Titan, and he supposedly liked those better than any of his others, with the exception of Slaughterhouse, but I've beaten down several more by him and I don't think any of them--while all fine books, the guy was incapable of writing a bad one--touch those three. Particularly Slaughterhouse and Breakfast.

bankmeister said...

Absolutely. I do agree that he was incapable of writing a bad one, and I definitely enjoyed Cradle, Slaughter, and B.o.C., but to me, Bluebeard is the best. It tickled my fancy, floated my boat, and buttered my bread far more than anything else of his I've read. It was that good.

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Dylan said...

Is susan a robot?