Saturday, 17 January 2009

It's Not All About The Benjamins: Moneyball by Michael Lewis

This isn’t, at heart, a book about baseball. On the surface it’s about the how the Oakland A’s, who should be the equivalent of the kid in the old Charles Atlas adverts getting sand kicked in their faces, live with the big financial bullies of the league. How they compete in the only major American sport that doesn’t have a salary cap to provide a level playing field. The difference is this kid didn’t send off to get the muscles, he simply got smart instead. This book is about how being smarter than your opponents can work. Even if you’ve got zero interest in baseball, it’s an absorbing, intelligent read.

There are two real threads to this book. The first is the rise in sabermetrics, which tried to take the elements of luck and judgement out of baseball statistics and actually measure a player’s performance – for example, fielders being judged on how few errors they made when an error was obviously a subjective call. And the second is how Oakland’s general manager Billy Beane, originally a can’t miss prospect who missed, determined that the conventional methods of building a team were wrong and set about some unorthodox methods of constructing that team.
The threads intertwine as Beane, with the help of his assistant Paul DePodesta, uses the sabermetric system, rather than the conventional league approved ones, to analyse the truly important underrated stats and pick up cost effective players who performed well in these categories. In short, he takes advantage of crucial data that other teams ignore in favour of the more gaudy stats. It’s fascinating to see Beane rebuild the organisation using these stats as a basis. He fires the scouts, who look only at what they want to see - who looks good and athletic, who pitches the fastest, who runs the swiftest. These scouts, who’ve been trained by convention and accepted wisdom, are all booted in favour of those who’ll look beyond the appearances and to actual performances. And with the help of his new scouts and sabermetrics Beane takes the equivalent of rescue dogs from Battersea Dogs Home and transforms them into stars. And if they don’t work out, or work out too well he trades them to his advantage. And as the book clearly shows the methods are wildly successful – the A’s consistently have one of the league’s lowest payrolls yet consistently make the playoffs.

Beane’s a fascinating central character, a GM whose own experiences of being the can’t miss prospect who missed lead him to question the whole system of talent evaluation. He’s an intriguing mixture of gambler, thinker and horse trader, even not watching his own team’s games because it might bring cloud his judgement on players. It’s clearly his failure to make it that drives him to prove how wrong the league is when it comes to selecting players, and use that failure to outsmart the rest of the league. Michael Lewis clearly conveys the passion that drives him and the pleasure he derives from building his team. He doesn’t shy from portraying Beane’s ruthlessness either, mixing the fairytale pickups of Chad Bradford and Scott Hatteburg with Mike Magnante, who’s cut immediately before a game his wife and children had turned up to watch, effectively ending his career four days short of receiving his full pension benefits.

By the end of the book a couple of other teams have started to cotton on and follow Oakland’s methods, rather than dismissing them as a freak situation. Only a few though, the majority of baseball still cling to their received wisdom. When you finish reading this book the new afterword will give you the impression that the powers that be in Major League Baseball are like the Spanish Inquisition trying to silence anyone who tells them the world isn’t flat or the centre of the universe, suppressing and ignoring knowledge that might improve them and their teams.
It’s a great story which Michael Lewis tells fluently and clearly, meaning the baseball stats and often complex trades are rendered clearly to outsiders. It fires what Beane and DePodesta are dong through a business perspective, showing clearly how the often hollow business mantra of more efficiency, fresh perspective and exploiting previously unknown holes in the market can work even applied outside the traditional business arena. It focuses an already great story through a prism of fresh perspective, although naturally it’s an occasionally harsh perspective on Beane treating his players as commodity. Each chapter focuses on some aspect of Beane’s thinking and the background to it, meaning the methods he uses are vividly and clearly illustrated, even to those with little or no interest in baseball.

In the end the book is best summed up by a rare example Lewis gives from a game. A television analyst is explaining exactly why Oakland always fail in the playoffs, whilst in the background the team are actually doing what he’s saying. Naturally his lecture goes unquestioned, even in the light of hard evidence from the game. If there’s one favour a sports fan can get from Moneyball it’s to realise how little sportscasters engage their brains when ‘analysing’. In fact, how little most teams seem to be using their brain, instead favouring received knowledge.

This is a book that can be read, digested and enjoyed even by non-baseball fans, hell even by non-sports fans. In that respect, Moneyball is simply one of the greatest sports books ever published.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

There's A Club If You'd Like To Go - Phonogram Vol 2 Issue 1 - Pull Shapes

Hey, more comics! Less Nazis though. Or mice.

The first series of Phonogram was my favourite comic of 2006 for all sorts of reasons, but mainly because the whole damn book captured all the reasons pop music owns my soul. The whole use of Britpop was just a surface bonus, the big ribbon on the best present you’ve ever had. I’ve been looking forward to the second series from the nanosecond I finished Issue 6 of the first series.

First impressions are that, as all good series do, it’s developed. It’s gotten more vibrant, more pop than ever. Instead of the album cover pastiches of the first series, the covers here are modelled on club flyers. It’s a shameless attempt to be eyecatching, as is the largely pink cover. And inside – my God, they’ve gone colour! And they don’t waste it, the whole nightclub concept wouldn’t be half as effective without Matthew Wilson’s sympathetic colouring capturing the colours and atmosphere. It’s tough to review the main strip as it’s a portmanteau plot, a series of short stories which’ll build up to tell a story. Gillen’s story feels like it could’ve been told in the British teen girl magazines of the 70s and 80s, featuring as it does much dancing and unrequited love for a good looking fashionable young lad. He’s smart enough to give the story enough flavour to avoid that though, there a satisfying happy-ish ending and the musical references are as well chosen as ever – Laura Heaven, who seemingly exists just to quote lyrics from the sadly late Long Blondes is a favourite. And for we music fans who’ll spot the lyrical and visual references it’s a sharply observed contrast of the ethos and attitudes of the Long Blondes and one of the other bands who made 2006 a joy, the Pipettes. It’s not essential to know but it does give an extra appreciation of the story. Perhaps the story’s a little straightforward but there’s enough off unexplained key hints to suggest we’ll be able to view it in a different perspective later on.

Backup strips are well chosen, effectively contrasting and complementing each other. Visually and thematically, She Who Bleeds For Your Entertainment is reminiscent of Sandman, art and story combining for a creeping claustrophobic intensity that makes it genuinely unsettling. On the other hand Murder On The Dancefloor is an appealingly goofy throwaway joke with a decent punchline. Of course, there’s also McKelvie’s splendidly opinionated ‘sleevenotes’, playlist and essay material which were an essential part of Phonogram’s charm last time.

Pull Shapes then is like the perfect first single from the second album – it’s still got enough familiar elements hanging around to remind you what you loved about the band in the first place, but it’s changed enough to give you enough new thrills to replace the sensation of hearing something that blew your mind first time out. Oh, and they’ve got a load of irresistible hooks and the effortless cool to make the most of their greatness. In short, it rocks like a bastard. Again

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Maus by Art Siegelman

How do you bring home the horror of a tragedy that’s been dulled by familiarity and the distance of time? Sure, you can tell a survivor’s story, as Spiegelman does here, you can even give it a family angle. But that’s not enough. Spiegelman’s twist of genius is to fuse the ideas of Hitler and Disney, playing the Nazi portrayal of the Jews of subhuman against the Disney conception of mice as cute and sympathetic. Somehow, substituting innocent animals for humans does the impossible and brings home the horrors of the Holocaust – the burning mice portrayed twice in the second chapter of Part II is amongst the most disturbing images I can remember, certainly in a graphic novel. It’s a story that would have been diminished, less powerful in any other medium, the imagery equally as crucial to the success of the story as the words. And Spiegelman never resorts to gratuitous gimmicks to tell the story, instead the artwork and words used are kept as simple as possible. It’s therefore arguable that Maus is the most mature and intelligent use of comic storytelling yet seen.

We get not only an account of the horrors of the Nazi treatment of Jews but how it had lasting consequences too. Spiegelman carefully and subtly lays out how the Auschwitz ordeal left its mark, inevitably warping the survivors , through his portrayal of his father. Spiegelman’s father isn’t a particularly sympathetic protagonist, particularly as an old mouse. What we get is far better, a character who, despite being a mouse, is more human for all the flaws he demonstrates. Eschewing the simple option of a lovable, heroic narrator for a complex and flawed ‘human’ being is another brave move that emphasises the horror. A hero would, by nature, react heroically, a human being’s actions are more recognisable as the ones we probably would make, as opposed to the ones we’d hope we would make. It gives the persecuted a more recognisable face and character.

If there was a minor niggle I can’t say Spiegelman’s exploration of his difficult relationship with his father engaged me, it’s one of those elements that’s been worn into meaningless by overuse, particularly in American fiction. But it’s inextricably linked with the telling of the story, the device that allows him to frame the recollections and bring them to life.

In lesser hands the cocktail of cute animals, cannibalisation of family history and the horror of the Holocaust could have ended up seeming maudlin or exploitatitve. Instead, the strength of the storytelling and characterisation means it This is a story that simply wouldn’t have been half as powerful or effective in any other medium. In short, Maus is the single most powerful argument you’ll ever see for the graphic novel.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Pure Pleasure by John Carey

Yeah I know, eight months and no posts. So much for good intentions. A+ for intention, D- for effect. Anyway, I'll try and be a little better about it this year. So anyway, about this book...

I love John Carey’s attitude towards the arts. He doesn’t hold with the reverence endemic in British attitude towards arts which, he argues, means a lot of people won’t even try to engage with arts seen as highbrow and scary – opera, classical music, theatre, art, sculpture and vast swathes of literature are all seen as museum pieces, to be admired at best rather than enjoyed and engaged with. Carey’s righteously angry with this attitude, propagated by what he sees as a self proclaimed intellectual elite who proclaim the quality of art. Part of this is the cheap listmaking that fills space in cultural magazine – all those all time or end of year 'best ofs' that proclaim to you what the best albums/books etc have been. So when Carey was asked to write a series of articles for the Sunday Times on the best books of the twentieth century he eschewed the usual ‘best of’ lists, or a chance to show off his undoubtedly wide range of reading and intellectual prowess. Instead he came at it from the angle of writing about books which had given him the most pleasure. This book collects those articles.

Aptly for Carey’s crusade to bring literature in particular out of an intellectual ghetto Pure Pleasure impresses by being concise yet rigorous about the books it covers. None of the articles covers more than four pages, yet each one manages to give a flavour of the book and exactly why Carey found them so much of a pleasure. Carey performs the balancing act of using accessible prose yet conveying complex ideas with aplomb, and his obvious enthusiasm means this is far less dry and more engaging than similar works which seek to enshrine classic status for their chosen artworks.
As with all such books, you’re unlikely to agree with all his choices, but here that’s hardly the point. It seeks to make the reader more active in their appreciation of literature, to bring it back to being an enjoyable activity rather than a slog through heavyweight classics. To remove the stigma from those who don’t enjoy sitting through six hundred pages of Victorian prose but may find a shorter, wittier or more recent book far less intimidating. Of course, given his Oxbridge background, Carey’s choices come from literature rather than including the huge selling likes of Stephen King or Catherine Cookson. That’s what he enjoys, that’s the point here.

The only point I found myself wondering about was exactly where this book was aimed – it’s probably not going to create many literary converts, and it’s appearance in an upmarket broadsheet paper (and now as a book by itself) was hardly ever going to lead to a resurgence in popularity for the likes of Auden or S J Perelman. However, if it was aimed at readers who like to read more than the holiday blockbusters it’s perfectly targeted, providing a wide enough range to intrigue almost any possible reader. I can only judge it a success, soon after finishing I’d ordered five books I’d either never heard of or knew by repute, and added a fair few more to my wishlist. Which probably proves that the most effective reviews talk about why they enjoyed the book rather than why it should be admitted.

Thank God it wasn’t any longer and only included one book per author though, otherwise I’d probably be selling the Big Issue by now.