Book Review: Becoming Manny by Jean Rhodes and Shawn Boburg

When Manny Ramirez played in Boston, I enjoyed watching him play and always thought he got a raw deal from the Red Sox fans & media who accused him of being selfish, lazy, and disruptive (among other things I can’t print here).  I always got the sense that Manny was shy and just wanted to play baseball well and not deal with the stresses of public scrutiny, which I can find understandable.  Becoming Manny: Inside the Life of Baseball’s Most Enigmatic Slugger (2009) by Jean Rhodes and Shawn Boburg confirms my understanding of Manny, although my esteem for him has fallen since he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs (ill-timed for the release of this book as well).

Still this is a well-written and informative biography, especially the parts about Manny’s early years before he reached the major leagues.  Rhodes is a psychologists and offers some great insights through he lens of Manny Ramirez of children of immigrants, the extremes of poverty and strong community in inner-city neighborhoods, and the life of youth athletes.  There is a special emphasis on coaches teachers, and friends who mentor young athletes.  In Manny’s case there are older and wiser men to guide him through most of his life, most importantly Carlos “Macaco” Ferreira a Little League coach and lifelong friend.

Manny-lovers and more importantly Manny-haters should check this book out.  It’s an excellent example of baseball biography at it’s best.

Becoming Manny : inside the life of baseball’s most enigmatic slugger / Jean Rhodes and Shawn Boburg.
Publisher: New York : Scribner, 2009.
ISBN: 9781416577065
Description:304 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
Edition: 1st Scribner hardcover ed.

Book Review: Brideshead Revisited

The William & Mary Boston Alumni Chapter selected the Evelyn Waugh classic Brideshead Revisited (1945) for our May meeting. The novel is the reflections of Charles Ryder upon his relationship with the aristocratic Marchmain family after coming upon their crumbling homestead Brideshead while serving in the military in wartime England.

In the first section Ryder flashes back to forming a friendship with the younger son Sebastian Flyte while they both studied at Oxford (I use “studied” loosely here as they spend much of their time partying).  Sebastian has two characteristics that stand out: one he is Catholic, and two he is barking mad (or batshit insane as we’d say here in the States).  A third characteristic emerges over the course of the novel.  Sebastian is a depressive alcoholic and Charles is his codependent enabler.

The second part of the novel is much less interesting as Sebastian, the novel’s most interesting character, is only discussed second hand.  Here Charles returns from traveling abroad for his art, indifferent to his wife and children and instead strikes up an affair with Sebastian’s sister Julia.  This leads to the climax of the novel in which deus ex machina leads Julia to remember she’s a practicing Catholic and calls off the affair and plans for divorce.

From what I understand about Waugh, he was a convert to Catholicism and wrote this as a Catholic allegory.  Yet the Catholics in this novel are portrayed as lazy, selfish, drunken, and foolish.  That the novel is told from the point of view of the unsympathetic agnostic doesn’t bode well for a positive image of Catholicism either.  One of my  book club friends felt the Catholic message of this novel is that “God will get you in the end.”  That may be.  As a critique of England’s crumbling aristocracy, the novel’s other theme, this book works much better.  But overall I’m none too impressed.

Author : Waugh, Evelyn, 1903-1966.
Title : Brideshead revisited : the sacred and profane memories of Captain Charles Ryder, a novel / by Evelyn Waugh.
Published : London : Chapman & Hall and the Book Society, 1945.

Book Review: “Currency” by Neal Stephenson (Book 7 of the Baroque Cycle)

The seventh book of the Baroque Cycle and the the second part of the third volume The System of the World (2004) by Neal Stephenson is “Currency.”  Continuing where “Solomon’s Gold” left off, Daniel Waterhouse, Isaac Newton and other members of his philosophical club attempt to track down Jack Shaftoe for his counterfeiting crimes and tampering with the Pyx.  Meanwhile Eliza aids Princess Caroline of the Hanovers as her life is threatened amid the scheming over the successor to Queen Anne.  It all comes to a head as warring militias gather in London and the Whigs and Tories face off.

The Baroque Cycle gets better as it goes along and builds on past introduction of themes, characters and ideas.  I admit I’m guilty on not earlier paying enough attention to “minor” characters like Ravenscar and Bolingbroke whose significance becomes prominent in this episode.  Despite that this is another excellent novel of political intrigue, history, and humor.

I look forward to reading the final book, but also feel a bit sad that it will come to an end.


Book Review: The Plot Against America

I’ve sworn off Philip Roth novels in the past but the premise of The Plot Against America (2004) intrigued me enough to check out the audiobook.  It’s a good thing too since I like this more than any other Roth book I’ve read.  (Previously: Portnoy’s Complaint, Goodbye Columbus, and American Pastoral).

The premise of the book is that in 1940 the Republican party nominates Charles Lindbergh as their candidate and the aviation hero coasts to victory of Roosevelt on an isolationist America First platform.  Before Pearl Harbor this was actually a popular movement in the United States to stay out of Europe’s wars and Lindbergh was a prominent proponent.  In the novel, the Lindbergh administration signs an agreement with Hitler and Pearl Harbor never happens.

The real Lindbergh was also known for anti-Semitic sentiments and actions that many see as sympathetic to the the Nazis.  So the novel is grounded in historical basis of the potential for a Fascist administration in the United States.

What makes the novel great though is that it is told as the memories of a young Philip Roth growing up in the Jewish section of Newark, NJ.  Everything in the novel is filtered through the views of Roth’s family and neighbors and historical characters like Walter Winchell who becomes the most vocal opponent to the Lindbergh administration.  In this way Roth never makes it actually clear that Lindbergh is actually the Nazi collaborator that Philip’s father fears he is or if he is simply a pragmatist trying to keep America out of war as many other Americans believe.  A prominent rabbi who befriends and supports Lindbergh and Philip’s older brother are two more characters who add to the uncertainty. Alternating with this alternate history is the more personal and sometimes mundane story of Philip’s coming-of-age in 1940’s Newark, where many of my favorite parts of the novel take place.

A lot of criticism takes the ending of the novel to task.  I feel much the same way that it is too clean and abrubt, but think it would work better if Roth hadn’t tied up the national story before telling the personal story of the Roth family in the wake of anti-Semitic riots.  Swap those last too sections and I think the ending would be much stronger.  Also, I’m a bit perturbed by events in American history that seem to be exactly the same despite that alterations Roth has made in the novel.  For example he has the 1942 World Series results exactly the same neglecting that with America not at war there would be star players at home who would change the balance.  Similarily he has Nazi Germany surrendering to the post-Lindbergh US in May 1945 even after stating that the Nazi’s strengthened their hold on Europe by the US not getting involved in 1941.

These are minor quibbles though as this is a well-written and thought-provoking novel.

Author Roth, Philip.
Title The plot against America [sound recording] / Philip Roth.
Publication Info. Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, p2004.
Edition Unabridged.
Description 11 sound discs (13.5 hr.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.