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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods (2011) falls firmly in the former category. It’s a memoir about baseball and baseball cards, both subjects close to my childhood heart. Growing up in 1970s Vermont with a mother heavy into the counterculture, Wilker had to endure the absurdities of an “alternative” school on one hand and the townies’ taunts of “hippie dipshit” on the other. Baseball and, especially, baseball cards delivered the constancy young Josh craved—the players’ photos on the front of the cards, crisp and clean, and the statistics on the back, which spoke of a well-ordered world in which one hit in three at-bats always equaled excellence. My parents, a couple of decades earlier, were about as far from the still-nascent counterculture as it was possible to be, but I found my own kind of beauty in those cards and the excellence they enshrined, so different from my own bumblings on the Little League playing fields of Dallas, Oregon.
Much closer to my own experience are the deeply felt autobiographical essays in Willie Morris’ Always Stand In Against the Curve (1983), about a young boy’s infatuation with sports in the 1950s. In the title essay, Morris is cautioned about the importance of not bailing out when confronted with a curve ball; stand in, his father counsels, and don’t be afraid of being hit. A metaphor, of course, but purely practical advice, too—and not easy to follow. The young pitchers didn’t throw many curve balls in my little league, but at the merest hint of one heading toward my body, I could invariably be found in a puddle on the ground, having failed not only to stand in but also to stand at all.
The only game I was ever much good at as a kid was golf, but with plenty of opportunity to play and a fine golfer for a father and coach, I was definitely an underachiever—good but always falling a little short. All golfers know the experience of never quite reaching their potential—it’s that kind of game—which could be why there are so many excellent golf memoirs by writers who respect the game’s melancholy core (John Updike, among them). My favorite golf memoir, though, is Andrew Grieg’s Preferred Lies (2007), about Scottish poet and novelist Grieg’s return to the links following brain surgery. This lyrical celebration of golf is the perfect antidote for anyone whose love of the game has been tainted by its unfortunate association with a certain disreputable chief executive. Grieg celebrates golf’s “inner-directed, individualistic pleasures . . . those moments when the same body that weds us to pain, aging, loss, and death becomes also our delight in this world.” Can’t imagine the chief exec saying that.
Having been a wimpy kid, I was never a boxer. In fact, I’ve never hit anyone with a fist in my life, though—at age 10 or so—I was the victim of a one-punch knockout when my friend Rob delivered a crushing right cross to the bridge of my nose during a poker dispute. I was a great boxing fan, though, and count Sugar Ray Robinson and, of course, Muhammad Ali among my top sports heroes. But my favorite boxing book is Jonathan Rendall’s This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own (1998). It’s the story of Rendall’s marriage to and divorce from boxing, as a writer, manager, and promoter, and it’s one of those books, like Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (1968), in which the words seem to bleed their way onto the page. Like Exley, too, Rendall writes about his own pain with astounding humor.
We end with poker. I played some poker in college and a fair bit as a kid (see episode of the broken bridge above), but when it comes to Texas Hold ’Em, I barely know the turn from the river. So why do I so love Colson Whitehead’s The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death (2014)? That subtitle is probably reason enough, but, really, it’s because of what the book isn’t: another account of math whizzes going to Vegas and making a gazillion dollars. Yes, Whitehead does go to Vegas, staked to a seat at the World Series of Poker, but he doesn’t last long—long enough, though, to observe those nine other people at the table, their “weathered faces showing the underlying narrative of their decay.” Whitehead calls his book “Eat, Pray, Love for depressed shut-ins,” and that pretty much says it, if you remember that the eating part is mostly about beef jerky and the praying is for aces. This is one of those books that never stops surprising you, and that’s reason enough to love it.
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