Monday, October 28, 2019

The Universal Baseball Association by Robert Coover (novel #139)

[baseball] It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart ~ Bart Giamatti, former commissioner of Major League Baseball

As the full title states, Henry (J. Henry Waugh), is the proprietor of the Universal Baseball Association (UBA): a fantasy roll playing game of Henry’s own creation, ruled by dice and elaborate charts. Henry plays out entire seasons, and keeps meticulous records – alone, at home, on his kitchen table. But in spite of that rather pathetic picture, Henry is not the socially awkward loner you might imagine. 

But running the UBA is his greatest passion. In the middle of the 56thseason, a rookie pitcher completes one of the rarest feats in baseball, a perfect game*: no runs, not hits, no errors. To celebrate Henry visits the local bar, engages in playful banter with the barkeep, and has a tryst with one of the denizens. 

Henry is flying high, until a few games later, with the rookie phenom back in the lineup, successive rolls of triple six brings out the “Extraordinary Occurrences” chart and one more roll. But this roll, brings about an event so extraordinary, that it rocks Henry’s world.

The novel begins with the perfect game in progress that I thought was a real game. But, there were random references to Henry (wait, who’s Henry?), or the dice (wait, what?), that slowly reveal what is going on – brilliant! Throughout the novel Henry slips into his created world, and back to the real world. He has developed personas and drama in the lives of his players, and though he knows his creation is not real, he is personally invested. 

One of Henry’s few regrets is the inability to share his creation. There is no one to exult with over the perfect game – no one would understand. The games are real to Henry – not in a deluded sense that he thinks the players are living beings – but the games are real, the outcomes are real, determined by rules, probability, chance; they have integrity, tradition, sanctity.

So, Henry invites Lou, a friend and colleague from work to join him. Lou is a decent chap, but rather a simpleton. He finds the game complicated and makes irrational lineup changes, not respecting the realism that Henry observes – such as not starting a pitcher with only one day rest. Henry is exasperated by Lou’s ignorant and irreverent approach, and Lou leaves without completing the game. It was a painful and poignant chapter. I hurt for Henry. 

I really wanted to love this novel. I’m a baseball fan, and I love stats, history, records, and legends. I did love the story in the beginning. The game itself is impressive. It is an elaborate system of die, charts, records, bios, even a Hall-of-Fame. It truly seemed like a fair approximation of baseball. I wanted to play. But after the extraordinary occurrence, I was let down a little with the turn the story took. It’s very existential, contrasting creationism, determinism, randomness, and free-will (J. Henry Waugh is probably an allusion to Jawheh – the Hebrew name of The Creator). At a crisis point Henry struggles with the option to intervene – he has the power and the right as creator – or to let things play out according to the rules he created. I liked the struggle, but wasn’t completely thrilled with how the narrative depicted it. It is told mostly from the point of view of the fantasy players who reveal Henry’s rule of his universe. I wanted to learn more of what was going on in Henry’s life. Still it was an unusual and entertaining novel.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 Stars

I read this to coincide with the 2019 World Series.


And so, finally, he’d found his way back to baseball. Nothing like it really. Not the actual game so much – to tell the truth, real baseball bored him – but rather the records, the statistics, the peculiar balances between individual and team, offense and defense, strategy and luck, accident and pattern, power and intelligence. And no other activity in the world had so precise and comprehensive a history, so specific an ethic, and at the same time, strange as it seemed so much ultimate mystery.

*Perfect Game: In the real world there have been only 23 Perfect Games in 150 years of Major League baseball, or approximately once every 10,000 games. In 2010, Armando Galaragga of my Tigers was robbed of a perfect game, which inspired me to write the following about perfection: Splendid Failure


Monday, October 21, 2019

Dracula by Bram Stoker (novel #138)

…the world seems full of good men – even if there are monsters in it. ~ Mina Harker

Pure evil dwells in the hills of Transylvania, but this remote terror takes on epic proportions when blood-thirsty Count Dracula seeks richer feeding grounds in the teeming metropolis of London. The vampire threatens something worse than death to its victims; who are condemned to a hellish existence after death. The small group of innocents caught up in this tale are in a struggle against pure evil with their very souls at stake.

For if we fail in this our fight he must surely win; and then where end we? Life is nothings; I heed him not. But to fail here, is not mere life or death. It is that we become as him; that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him – without heart or conscience, preying on the bodies and the souls of those we love best. To us for ever are the gates of heaven shut; for who shall open them to us again? We go on for all time abhorred by all; a blot on the face of God’s sunshine; an arrow in the side of Him who died for man. ~ Van Helsing

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an epistolary novel: told through letters, diaries, news articles, and other correspondence. I’m not always a fan of the technique, but in this case I thought it worked very well. It allowed Stoker to tell the tale through frequently changing first-person narrators. And even though I knew the premise of Dracula, I still found it riveting, terrifying, and a little creepy – in the way a horror novel should be creepy. Stoker did a masterful job, though his narrators, portraying their slow, and then in some cases sudden, realization of the unimaginable horror they were facing.

In the horror genre, there is Dracula, Frankenstein, and everything else. I would argue that Frankenstein, though classic, is not truly Horror, leaving me of the opinion that Dracula is the Gold-Standard of the genre. Like Frankenstein, Dracula has been retold so often it is nearly cliché, but the numerous renditions seldom do justice to the original – or even resemble it. For me, the greatness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula transcends the genre. An epic contest between good and evil, yes; but there is much more to this masterpiece. The terror, like a vampire, sneaks up on the reader subtly, and then manifests suddenly. But stoker, uses this mastery of subtlety to weave other themes among the terror, themes of courage and duty (of course), mercy, and sacrificial love. 

My rating: 4 1/2  of 5 Stars

I read this, along with a few other spooky stories, for the R.I.P. XIV Challenge.

Two disclaimers: This is not your teen girl’s sexy vampire – though there is a seductive sensuality in Stoker’s version, it is – at the risk of over using the word – subtle. Also, though considered a horror story, the blood, death, and violence is not terribly graphic, and I would recommend it even if you do not ordinarily read horror.


Listen to them – the children of the night. What music they make! ~ Count Dracula referring to the howling of wolves

God keep me, if only for the sake of those dear to me! ~ Jonathan Harker

I am encompassed about with terrors that I dare not think of… ~ Jonathan Harker

Away from this cursed spot, from this cursed land, where the devil and his children still walk with earthly feet! ~ Jonathan Harker

God does not purchase souls in this wise; and the Devil, though he may purchase, does not keep faith. ~ Van Helsing

We want no proofs; we ask none to believe us! This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care; later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake. ~ Jonathan Harker

Vampire trivia: In some vampire legends (not Stoker’s version), vampires are afflicted with arithmomania – the obsessive need to count their actions or objects in their surroundings. This obsession can even be used as a defense by spreading seeds, or grains of rice in their way – which will confound them with the need to count the grains. And now – The Count, of Sesame Street fame, doesn’t seem quite so absurd does he?


Sunday, October 13, 2019

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare 

Some innocents scape not the thunderbolt ~ Cleopatra

Not that Cleopatra was innocent mind you. Ugh, what a shrew.

Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy by Shakespeare, though some call it a problem play – neither clearly historical, comedy, nor tragedy. It is of course about the turbulent love affair of Marcus Antonius, one of the triumvirs of Rome, and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.

The historical events of Antony and Cleopatra follow the assassination of Julius Caesar, which was portrayed in Shakespeare’s play of that name. After Julius Caesar, Rome was ruled by the triumvirate of Lepidus, Marc Antony, and Caesar Octavian (adopted heir of Julius Caesar), later known as Caesar Augustus.

But already, the triumvirate is challenged externally, and eroding internally. Antony is in Egypt while Octavius needs help back in Rome, holding off challenger Pompey. Antony delays his return, as he is loath to leave the beguiling queen.

Antony’s own men know that Cleopatra is making a fool of him, as one of them describes Antony as:
          The triple pillar of the world transform’d
          Into a strumpet’s fool

Though they are not without sympathy, as all men admire her charm and beauty:
          Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
          Her infinite variety: other women clay
          The appetites they feed; but she makes hungry

Eventually Antony can ignore the summons to Rome no longer, particularly when he learns his wife (yeah, he was married), has died. He tears himself away, in spite of Cleopatra’s protests and returns to Rome to patch things up with Caesar. The two have some terse words, but Antony eventually confesses his negligence, and to seal the renewed loyalty, Antony agrees to marry Caesar’s sister Octavia.

Cleopatra is not going to like that. In fact, there is a comical scene when a messenger brings word to Cleopatra. She makes it clear, she only wants good news and will punish the bearer of bad news.
          Messenger – Madam, he’s well
          Cleopatra – Well said
          Messenger – And friends with Caesar
          Cleopatra – Thou’rt an honest man
          Messenger – Caesar and he are greater friends than ever
          Cleopatra – Make thee a fortune of me
          Messenger – But yet, madam…
          Cleopatra – I do not like but yet!

When he breaks the news that Antony has remarried, she beats him.

He learns his lesson though, as later when she summons him again and asks him to describe Antony’s bride, who was a beauty herself – the messenger tells the queen that Octavia is short, fat, and dull. 

Let me warn you about these people (Shakespeare’s characters): they are as fickle as a Michigan spring. It’s back and forth, up and down, love and hate, friendship and treachery. And it’s a tragedy, so you know it doesn’t end well for the principals. Antony, takes his own life, not so much for losing in battle to Octavius, but for betraying his friend and ally. Cleopatra takes her own life, not so much for losing Antony, but because she isn’t about to be paraded through the streets of Rome as the conquered Queen. 

Caesar Octavius is magnanimous throughout. When he learns of the death of Antony, whom he was just battled against, he laments:
     The breaking of so great a thing should make a greater crack:
     The round world should have shook lions into civil streets
     And citizens to their dens

I did not care for this play as much as the prequel. I admired Antony in Julius Caesar, so it pained me to see him reduced and so ignoble. Cleopatra? Didn’t like her all. Octavius was pretty steadfast, but the play isn’t really about him, so it didn’t quite compensate. Still, and again, it is a tragedy and it is Shakespeare – a very compelling tale.

Other excerpts:

O this false soul of Egypt! this grave charm
Whose eye beck’d forth my wars and call’d them home ~ Antony

And I especially like this line from a soldier, who advised Antony to fight on land, and not at sea:
Let the Egyptians and the Phoenicians go a-ducking: we have used to conquer standing on the earth


Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Greek Interpreter – a Sherlock Holmes short story

The Greek Interpreter – a Sherlock Holmes short story

Also known as The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter* by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a Sherlock Holmes short story from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection. According to The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, it was Holmes 18thcase.

It introduces Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother. Modern film and television adaptations of Sherlock Holmes give Mycroft a greater role than he actually plays in Doyle’s stories – wherein Mycroft makes only four appearances.

I was as excited as Dr. Watson when Mycroft’s name came up – Watson had not yet any idea that Sherlock had any close living relations. In a bit of a surprise, Sherlock freely admits that Mycroft possesses even greater powers of observation and deduction than he does himself. When Watson mistakes the assertion as humility, Sherlock retorts:
My dear Watson, I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues. To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to under-estimate oneself is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers. When I say, therefore, that Mycroft has better powers of observation than I, you may take it that I am speaking the exact and literal truth.

Mycroft however, being somewhat portly, is not suited for the legwork of sleuthing, so he limits his crime solving activities to an occasional assist to Sherlock.

In this case, when Sherlock takes Watson to visit Mycroft, simply as a curiosity, Mycroft acquaints Sherlock with the case of the Greek Interpreter. The brothers collectively solve the case.

It was fun to meet Mycroft – though to be honest, film renditions portray a more intriguing relationship between Sherlock and Mycroft. Still it was an interesting case. The Holmes brothers, and Watson of course, manage to save one life, though one is lost and the culprits escape, though they word reaches Holmes sometime later that they have succumbed to poetic justice in their flight.

*Many of Doyle’s short stories, that were originally published with titles such as The Greek Interpreter, had the titles changed to THE ADVENTURE OF the Greek Interpreter, when the stories were collected into volumes such as The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.


Sunday, October 6, 2019

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (novel #137)

It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. ~ Ghost of Christmas Present to Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge is such a miser and curmudgeon that his name has become a byword for both. He is unpleasant at all times, but is particularly hateful during the season of brotherly love. 

The fates, – Dickens that is – find something worth redemption in the bitter old churl, as they spend the whole of Christmas night reclaiming his soul.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read Dickens’ classic novella. I tend to focus on the central character Scrooge, and for good reason. I wish I could say, I've never had a Scrooge-like thought, never looked down my nose at the less fortunate, never blamed them for their own misery, never wished them away, but I make no such claim. A Christmas Carol is a gentle – or perhaps not so gentle admonishment – to beware such poison. 

But for all Scrooge's vices, there are beautiful, positive virtues in this tale as well: The goodness of Bob Cratchit, the devotion of his wife, the optimism of Tiny Tim, the unconditional love of nephew Fred, and the innocence of the “remarkable boy” in the street. I’ve said elsewhere on this blog that I believe A Tale of Two Cities is Dickens’ greatest work, and I stand by that, but A Christmas Carol may be his most delightful.

I give it 4 of 5 stars

I know it's an odd time of the year to read this, but it is after all a ghost story, so not completely inappropriate for October. I read this for R.I.P. 14 as well as the Classics Club Spin #21


“What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.” [Scrooge to nephew Fred]  

 “Come then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough”

Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”

…for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is, and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! To hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!” ~ Ghost of Christmas Present

 This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. ~ Ghost of Christmas present