Monday, November 30, 2009

The things we find (literally) inside books

One of my favorite places in the entire world is the clearance section at Half Price Books (any Half Price Books, really, but the clearance section inside the Westport location is the best around). I love used books and used bookstores. Not only can you find amazing deals (no book over $3 in the clearance section!), but it's fascinating to flip through books that have been owned and read by somebody else. I'm sure somebody could write a whole book on the inscriptions found inside the front covers at a used bookstore (hey, that's not a bad idea).

Oftentimes I'll find things inside the books. Little scraps of paper. Matchbook covers stripped of the matches. Receipts. Postcards. They help to date and place the book and assign it in my mind to a specific reader.

Just now I'm cleaning up the wreckage in my study from one of my cats jumping on the top shelf of a bookcase and knocking the contents on the floor (that's for another post). One of the books that fell off was Mark Harris' "Diamond," which includes selected baseball writings by the author of the Henry Wiggen series. It even contains the complete screenplay to the movie version of "Bang the Drum Slowly." I bought it several months ago and stuck it up on the shelf.

As I prepared to slide the book back in its place, a long, narrow piece of paper fell out.

Across the top are the words "WELCOME TO THE UNITED STATES." It's a customs declaration form from the Department of the Treasury, U.S. Customs Service.

The form was printed in 1995, but that doesn't really help to "date" the reader. The Customs Service might still be using this form. But it helps paint a picture of the reader. He or she is obviously an international traveler. The form is blank, so who knows if he declared anything at customs or if he just picked up the form to use as a bookmark. The book itself, which I purchased for $2, is in pristine condition, so the traveler either took good care of his books or he didn't read this one very much.

So I'll tuck the customs form back in the book, where it belongs. To me, the customs form is part of the book now. Maybe when I get around to reading it, I'll use the form as a bookmark.

To me, that customs form makes the book infinitely more valuable. And it makes me eager to go back to the clearance section and find what else is tucked between the pages.

--Matt Kelsey

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Novel notes: "The Veracruz Blues." Plus, a great book on a terrible war

A couple months ago, I mentioned on this blog that I'd exhuasted my personal baseball fiction library. Not long ago I discovered I was wrong. I was overlooking a baseball novel, and a good one at that: Mark Winegardner's "The Veracruz Blues."

In John Lofflin's baseball fiction class, this book was an "optional" read, but in the pantheon of baseball fiction "The Veracruz Blues" holds a special place in that part of the book is narrated by a woman - the only baseball book, to my knowledge, with this distinction.

More about "The Veracruz Blues" later. But now, truly, I HAVE exhausted my baseball library, and once again I'm open to suggestions on what to read next in the series.

In the meantime, I'll mention another great book I recently read: Jon Krakauer's "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman." As you may know, Pat Tillman was a football player for the Arizona Cardinals when, after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, he became an Army ranger. A few years later he was killed in Afghanistan, and his enlistment and heroic death were held up by conservative pundits as a model of patriotic glory.

The truth, though, is far, far different. Pat Tillman vehemently refused to let the Army and the Bush Administration put him on a pedestal (even though they did anyway, both before and after his death). What's worse, Tillman was actually killed by friendly fire, a fact the Army tried to cover up so as not to sully the fabricated story of their most well-known fallen hero.

It's one of those books that makes you sad and pissed off and furious all at once. The book is not only the story of Pat Tillman's amazing life but also a scathing critique of the Bush administration. As such, I consider it a must-read.

--Matt Kelsey

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"It's more fun to win a game than it is to win an award" -- Zack Greinke

Zack Greinke won the Cy Young award yesterday.

He gave us all chills during the season as we watched him carve up hitters like Thanksgiving turkey. And, the more we knew about him, the more we tried to guess along with him because we realized his very original mind was always at work, never content with just striking out the side.

We learned he sometimes toyed with base stealers, showing them a particularly slow first step to the plate to lure them into running because he wanted to see them test Miguel Olivo's arm. We already knew he could get bored in the middle of a game... or the middle of a count. We knew he prized hitting and probably believed he was the best shortstop on the club.

But he gave us a gem in an interview this morning, a gem we should all turn into posters and mount on our walls. Pressed to express SOME excitement about one of the most prestigious awards in any sport, he looked into the camera with disarming honesty and said:

"It's more fun to win a game than it is to win an award."

I'll be honest. That's instructive to me. I'd forgotten. I'd forgotten I once felt that way about newspaper awards. Heck, I'd forgotten I once felt that way about playing ball. I'd forgotten it was more fun to win a game than go four-for-four and lose. In my job as a teacher, I'd forgotten how to say what I still felt -- that it was much more fun to be part of a great classroom session than to "exceed expectations" in my hopelessly contrived annual review. Much more fun.

Thanks, Zack. Again...


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A self-imposed Palin embargo

I'm resisting the urge this week to click on links, read stories and watch videos related to Sarah Palin. And I certainly have no intention of buying her book.

I figure if people stop paying attention to her, she'll go away. The only reason I would read stories about her at this point is to find new ways to dislike her (and isn't it amazing how many possibilities there are?). But even doing that fuels the fire.

So I've quit. Cold turkey. And I encourage you to do the same.

Let's relegate Sarah Palin to the lunacy of the late 2000s right next to Octomom, Jon and Kate and the Balloon Boy.

(I guess that means we should stop paying attention to those three things as well...)

--Matt Kelsey

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Indefensible Position: for breaking news and event coverage, Fox News is the best

As much as I hate to give any praise whatsoever to Fox News, but I have to admit: when there's breaking news, like the recent Balloon Boy fiasco, or a big, live event, like today's Fort Hood memorial service, Fox News offers the best coverage among the cable news stations.

Usually when a big event happens and I'm home to watch it, I find myself flipping between the cable networks to find the best coverage. More often than not I land on Fox. For the memorial service today, Fox was being by far the most respectful. MSNBC featured Brian Williams interviewing some no-names who added nothing to the dialogue, and over at CNN Wolf Blitzer, perhaps the dumbest person among the big-time names in TV news, was blathering on in his idiotic manner.

Fox News let the images tell the story. For several minutes leading up to the beginning of the service, Fox News anchors stayed silent while the cameras panned over images of soldiers in mourning. Powerfully effective, it was.

But breaking news and live events are the only times I'll turn to Fox. I can't stomach their biased and ignorant coverage the rest of the time.

--Matt Kelsey

Monday, November 9, 2009

How far LJ has fallen

The Kansas City Chiefs released Larry Johnson today, ending the drama surrounding a player who has been almost nothing but trouble since he was drafted in the first round six years ago.

I say "almost" because, of course, at one time Larry Johnson was the undisputed star of this team and one of the two best running backs in the whole National Football League, division rival LaDanian Thomlinson being the other.

But now... this has gotta be some kind of rock-bottom for the guy.

I don't at all agree with the Chiefs' decision to release him. Yes, he said some boneheaded things (definitely the homosexual slurs were uncalled for, but what he said about Todd Haley really ain't that far off the mark, is it? Still, he shouldn't have said it) and he should have been punished for them. But the best punishment for LJ is to make him continue playing for the Chiefs. I think Jason Whitlock said it best a few weeks back (and I'm paraphrasing): Let LJ run the ball 35 times a game the rest of the season. We aren't gonna win any more games, so why not just let him grind away? Get every penny's worth out of him.

Now I'm sure LJ will sign with another team, where he'll be running with that famous "chip on his shoulder." He'll probably run for a thousand yards this season wearing somebody else's uniform.

--Matt Kelsey

Friday, November 6, 2009

Get thee to the Hen House Holiday Celebration

The lovely wife and I took a trip to the Overland Park Convention Center this afternoon for the Hen House Holiday Celebration.

It was awesome.

Five bucks each for admission. Then, they loaded up our Hen House shopping card with $500 worth of assorted coupons and discounts. And then, oh my God, there were the free food samples.

We had our lunch there. I kid you not, we each got probably 50 samples, ranging from pizza to honey-baked ham to cookies and crackers and orange juice and apple cider and egg nog and ice cream. We left the place stuffed to the gills with food.

If you're not doing anything Saturday or Sunday, you need to go to this event. It's worth it even if you don't shop at Hen House. But if you do shop at Hen House and you don't go, you're just missing out on free food and cheaper grocery bills.

--Matt Kelsey

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Phillies hanging on by their teeth

Game 6, coming up.

The Philadelphia Phillies, facing elimination last night, hung on to win and force a Game 6 back at Yankee Stadium. I don't have a rooting interest in the Series other than the fact that back in July I predicted a Phillies dynasty. It would be fun to see this series go to seven games, especially since for the first time in a long time I believe the two best teams in baseball are actually facing each other in the World Series.

If it does go to Game Seven, the Yankees will have their ace, CC Sabathia, back on the mound. You gotta wonder if Charlie Manuel is regretting not pitching Cliff Lee on three days' rest so he could pitch three Series games. Instead, it looks like he'll send Pedro Martinez to the mound tomorrow night, and probably J.A. Happ if there's a Game Seven.

Can Pedro conjure up the same magic he did for five innings in Game 2? Against postseason hero Andy Pettitte, no less?

I can't wait to find out.

--Matt Kelsey