Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy - Jane Leavy

More than just a biography of arguably the greatest pitcher of all time, Jane Leavy's work chronicles baseball as it moved into the modern game we have come to recognize. Koufax, because of his contract holdout with fellow Dodger Don Drysdale, may have played no small part in the coming age of free agency baseball, but what seems more pertinent to Koufax's career, particularly in contrast to the manner in which players are handled today, is how he was brought into the Dodger organization and how he was used early in his career. In essence, Koufax, like many other players, was left to develop and fend for himself. When revisiting his career it is important to note that Koufax was absolutely dominant for five years, but prior to that he was considered erratic at best.

And then he was gone. Inextricable from the Koufax myth is the manner in which he walked away from the game, at the peak of his powers, something virtually unprecedented at the time. Stripping away the myth, Leavy reveals the increasing levels of pain Koufax was dealing with in his left elbow and his almost super-human efforts to make every start the last two years of his career. That he was able to do so while compiling perhaps the two greatest years ever put together by a pitcher is a feat that, simply given the care with which multi-million dollar athletes are no handled, will probably not be replicated in our lifetime.

That Koufax was a great is unassailable, that his peak was all-too-short seems a bit tragic (in the classical sense of the word), that his legend continues to grow only redounds to the place of baseball, and indeed sports in general in the American psyche. Famous before sports and celebrity became entirely intertwined, Koufax was among the first generation of athletic superstars. Yet he continues to shrink away from the spotlight. One gets the sense from Leavy's book that Koufax would have been much happier to go about his work and let his on-the-field efforts have the last word. This is not to intimate that he was taciturn or closed-off, rather he remains unwilling to play the role of public commodity, and indeed sees little reason why it should be expected of him. At a time when many athletes strive to become "global brands" Koufax remains, largely because of his seeming elusiveness, to grow in our mythology. By refusing to submit himself to public ownership he has become something much bigger, a living legend.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Truman - David McCullough

When Mother Wallace, Harry Truman's mother-in-law, was invited to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom by the newly ascended President, her response was purported to be, "I'd rather sleep on the floor." Born in 1854, Mrs. Wallace was a proud daughter of the confederacy. A woman who had seen perhaps the greatest century of technological and civilized change in the world's history it was no surprise to Truman or his wife that Mrs. Wallace retained some of her olden time sensibilities and even prejudices.

Harry S Truman ascended to the Presidency in perhaps the most formative years of America's role on the world stage.Within the first four months of his residency in the White House, victory would be declared in Europe, Truman would travel to Potsdam to meet with Prime Minister Churchill and Generalissimo Stalin to discuss the eventual dividing of war-ravaged Europe, and, supported almost unanimously by his advisers, Truman would execute the orders to drop two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus ending the war with Japan. That these four months could be handled with such grace, determination and care by a man who may have been uniquely unqualified to the office of the President may be perhaps the greatest testament to the strength of the American political system; it certainly resounds to the credit of Harry Truman.

David McCullough's biography of the 33rd President - a title Truman hated, claiming that counting Cleveland twice was simply asinine - traces the roots and path of a man born to a world very different from the one he would have to steer in the years following World War II. A child of the plains of Missouri, as a young man Truman's ambitions scarcely surpassed those of being a local alderman. McCullough's biography traces the almost accidental nature of Truman's political career. His seemingly untainted rise through the powerful Pendergast political machine, his barnstorming senate election campaign and his seemingly incidental choice as FDR's Vice President in 1944 almost seem to convey a man who was simply lucky to be a man of character, in the right place at the right time.

Yet that he was a man of exceeding character is without question. If McCullough's biography has a glaring shortcoming it is his insistent focus on the doings and character of Truman himself, often giving short-shrift to the complexities of issues which Truman was forced to wrestle with. Yet with this singular focus the reader emerges with a view of what we would term a "late-bloomer" but of a man whose dogged determination, hard work and total dedication to ensure that government remain an instrument of the people saw him through to the highest office in the land. While perhaps a man born to another time, Truman's conviction that government existed primarily to guarantee the welfare, liberty and self-determination of the individual transcended the coming of a new technological and world order. Though he may have seen out of place sitting and the table with Stalin and Churchill, or hopelessly naive in the corridors of Washington, Truman's perseverance, drive and commitment to governance, not just within the borders of the United States, but internationally as America would become a greater player on the world stage, helped see the country and indeed the world out of the era of war and into the second half of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid - Bill Bryson

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid takes us through the many adventures, wonders and worries about that unique and oftentimes terrifying experience of negotiating childhood. With a flair for hyperbole and a wonderful eye for character, Bill Bryson takes us down the streets and fields of Iowa, where humor and even excitement can be found in the everyday. Though many of his stories shimmer in the details, it is the category of experience that he has uncovered which makes this memoir so enjoyable, and, at times, downright hilarious.

As myself a product of the American midwest the spirit of Bryson's work resonates strongly with many of my own formative experiences. The annual pilgrimage to the State Fair, storm-systems that move in across the plains, concoctions of "chemistry" experiments to amuse friends and terrify siblings, all of these were no-less important thirty years later. Being of midwestern extraction means being formed in a certain way, and having a particular take on the world that, as we grow older, we find never leaves us. Bryson captures this indefinable quality admirably.

Growing up during the 1950s, Bryson recounts an American past, and, he would argue, long gone. In addition to being a memoir this work is a lament, at times even a dirge, for ways of living and organizing lives and livelihoods that seem to have disappeared. While the fifties were arguably the greatest of height of American prosperity - albeit for Bryson's admitted midwestern, white, well-off background - the end of the decade would see a rise in consumption and subsequent necessity of working harder. With the birth of franchising and the shrinking of the world through communication and transportation, Des Moines, like many other middle American cities, would come to resemble every other place between the coasts in many ways. This gives Bryson's nostalgia an air of sadness and forces us to wonder at questions addressing what we hope for out of this life? While Bryson's particular childhood could never have transpired anywhere else, the larger concern is that, with the potential death of place-rootedness, we will lose something of the formative aspects of our character. When everywhere is the same how are we to know what it means to belong anywhere?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Thus Spoke Zarathustra - Friedrich Nietzche

One of the greatest works of philosophy since the Enlightenment, Nietzche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra is at once lighthearted and dark, simple and endlessly complex, subtle and obvious. I offer no pretense that I understood 1/10 of what is most likely actually going on - Nietzche's subtitle hints at his works opacity: a book for all and none. Nietzche's work is often cloaked in the long history of religion and philosophy, at times he is clearly answering others while at other times thinking only on his own. That the work combines  the bare-bones approaches of many eastern philosophical tales with the highest longings of western philosophers does little to help the reader make sense of all that is going on.

Having said all that, the work is certainly a classic, infectiously easy to read and thoroughly thought-provoking and enjoyable. Set against our modern times Nietzsche is saying nothing terribly novel, set against his predecessors he is saying much indeed. Removing man's best spirit from the immortal world beyond - take that Plato - Nietzsche finds his greatest world all around him. Separating aspects of the spirit from the "I" (or transcendental ego) Zarathustra, the protagonist and subject of this bildungsroman, refuses to separate the good life from the world he inhabits. For him this means a retreat from the maddening crowd of the marketplace, to spaces of seclusion and thought. His goal is to find his own place within the eternal recurrence of time and truly understand the ensnaredness, the entangledness of all things. Zarathustra claims that, at least for him, this is impossible in society, as he is greatly weighed down by the leveling proclivities of men - what he calls gravity.

Much of what Zarathustra finds to be crucial to his happiness could read as a very eastern rebuttal to western philosophy.

"Everything goes, everything returns; the wheel of being rolls eternally. Everything dies, everything blossoms forth again, the year of being runs eternally."

This can be read in Zarathustra's constant searching, and the sense that the path itself, or the world, is really where the journey's value lies. While much of this may seem like half-baked philosophizing, the reason that such ideas gained a foothold in the western world is precisely because of Nietzche's work. In effect we are seeing the original upon which much of twentieth century western philosophy would build itself. Moving the world of western men away from lofty goals of another plane, and doing away with rigid ideologies that are meant to guide everyone without recourse to circumstance, Nietzche's thought, redefines our relationship to  the society around us. Have we truly grappled with the questions Nietzche posits? To what extent have we envisioned a philosophy for each of us?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Rome: The Book of Foundations - Michel Serres

Returning to the possibility that history and myth are less differentiated than we might assume, Michel Serres examines upon what foundations our own history is built. The singularities that get chosen among the vast potential multiplicities that could be brought into an historical narrative, are, for Serres, built on corpses and deaths, for the prizing of any point of view is the simultaneous ignoring of other possibilities. History is, for Serres, at its heart a continual tension between the single and the multiple. It is the recurrence between the two, and the violence of each upon the other that has made the event differentiated from that which precedes it.

To make clear this passage between the single and the multiple, Serres revisits the founding of Rome and the tangled uncertainty surrounding how the greatest of cities arose from the swamps and the River Tiber. Using Livy as his primary source, Serres traces the birth of Rome through the travels of Aeneas and back to the Trojan War. He brings along Romulus and Remus and the latter's death at the hands of the former. We also see Hercules investigating stolen cattle, the sack of Alba and regicide of Romulus. All of these together, and none of them in isolation, are the stories of the origin of Rome. Serres tells us that foundations are built upon destruction, the destruction of rulers or mobs, what we would call progress and the ordering of confused multitudes. The tension between harmony and noise, amalgam and melange, and singularities and multiplicities are what Serres hopes to uncover. In his trademark way, he is successful.

Unreconciled history is for Serres a wobble, a series of fits and starts. This is why Rome deserves many myths/histories of its foundations. These wobbles of difference and movements in differing, often contradictory directions, are replaced by the stability of history. Yet, when the wobbles are ignored in favor of relatability of a singular history then certainly something is lost; this is as familiar as the dictum "history is written by the winners." Michel Serres has written elsewhere and echoes the belief here that the violence of reason (two terms he would say are synonymous) straight-jackets and destroys the multiple; this is the first, and recurrent, tragedy. He answers this tragedy with an attempt to understand the ebb and flow of multitudes; how whatever arises does so only when the possibility of the multiple is allowed. Indeed, without the multiple there could never be a singular arising. An awareness that such is the case is crucial if we are to not only situate ourselves within history, but if we are to move forward in a manner that favors the potentiality of the multiple - not always sacrificing it to the logic of the singular.

"Behind history, behind tragedy is the distribution of multiplicities. Sandbanks, turbulences, a mob, a crowd, a harvest we have lost account of." p. 246