Two for early 2020

Christopher Beha, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts (Tin House Books 2020).Index of Self-Destructive Acts

The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is the total number of hits batsmen, wild pitches, balks and errors by a pitcher, per nine innings.

Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2003).

No spoilersBaseball, math, crime, and faith in New York City! What could go wrong? Beha follows his two earlier novels with a beautifully written narrative about a wealthy family and those who intersect their lives.

Frank Doyle is a baseball writer turned political columnist turned pariah whose career may be jump started by a magazine profile written by Sam Waxworth, wunderkind baseball statistician turned political prognosticator turned writer about all things that succumb to numerical analysis. Frank’s wife, Kit, is on the back end of a lucrative career in investment banking. Their adult children (Eddie and Margot) are largely directionless, but in interesting ways. Eddie has wandered into and out of the military, Margot has wandered into and out of graduate school in poetry. There is a rich collection of secondary characters who alternately stress and soothe the Doyles and Waxworth.

Beha’s characters have to deal with the central question of the novel: “What would you change if you knew it was all going to end?” For some of them the question is prospective—”What choices do I have going forward?” For some of them the question is retrospective—”What can I change about the choices I have made in the past?”

For all, like pitchers, they grapple with their tendency to self-destructive acts.

Highly recommended.

Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020).*

The Glass Hotel

No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven 106 (2014).

Emily St. John Mandel made our wait pay off, as she has matched her brilliant 2014 fourth novel with an equally brilliant 2020 followup. Although The Glass Hotel is superficially different than the post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, the two novels clearly come from the same pen.

Mandel again weaves chronology and biography to form a pattern which does not become quite distinct until the last pages. This time the fragile narrative winds through the lives of at least ten major and perhaps another thirty minor characters, but with fewer chronological jump-shifts. (Two characters even reappear from Station Eleven, though the two novels cannot quite share the same timeline.) These characters range from the owner and employees of the Hotel Caiette; to the staff and executives of a Wall Street investment company; to the executives and crew of a shipping concern. There are more than a few musicians, artists and addicts.

No spoilersNo spoilers, here, but the many characters glide into and out of “the kingdom of money,” in which the subjects carry themselves with “with the tedious confidence of all people with money, the breezy assumption that no serious harm could come” to them. P. 44. In the kingdom of money, it becomes all too possible for the servants to become invisible. (“[F]or him coffee appearing out of thin air was so commonplace an occurrence it didn’t merit acknowledgement.” P. 70.)

But for Vincent no one ever becomes invisible, and she enters and exits the kingdom with a high degree of intentionality and clarity, even when her decisions may later prove wrong. At one point she thinks I’m paying a price for this life,  . . . but the price is reasonable. P. 65. She may have miscalculated, but she was not naïve.

Other characters are not so self-aware, and Mandel describes their predicaments with her typical crystalline prose:

A revelation earned only in hindsight: beauty can have a corrosive effect on character. It is possible to coast for some years on no more than a few polished lines and a dazzling smile, and those years are formative. (p. 95)

It’s possible to both know and not know something,” he said later [and] he spoke for several of us, actually, several who’d been thinking a great deal about that doubleness, that knowing and not knowing, being honorable and not being honorable, knowing you’re not a good person but trying to be a good person regardless around the margins of the bad. (p. 168).

“If we are to be honest with ourselves,” [he] said, “who among us has never made a mistake?” But this was an error, [she] saw that immediately. . . . Could [he] see the error, too? Impossible to tell. . . . He’d made a mistake but he pressed on with the story, like a boy following a dwindling trail into the woods at nightfall. . . . (pp. 216-17)

Mandel’s characters don’t always live in reality, or they flinch from reality’s glare, and so delude themselves to survive.

This is not a perfect book, and Mandel, a Canadian, stumbles over some minor technical American legal points (FBI investigators are “agents” not “detectives”; the attorneys in the trial she describes would have been federal, not state prosecutors), but her sense of the relevant psychology is perfectly lucid—the lines crossed are evident to her characters only on reflection:

He left the office in a daze, but by the time he reached the corner, he realized he couldn’t pretend to be shocked, . . . , because he was already complicit, he was already on the inside, and had been for some time. “You already knew this.,” he heard himself murmuring, speaking aloud. “There are no surprises here. You know what you are.” (p. 192)

Mandel, like Vincent, plays with light and shadows, creating a precise recording of necessarily imprecise subjects—victims who are perpetrators, innocents who choose guilty actions, insightful people who are blind. In the end, the ghosts are all real, but the dreams are nothing but delusions.

Highly recommended.

*This review originally appeared online in The Englewood Review of Books [link].

Worth reading this week:current reading 2

Most of this article is actually pretty funny, but the conclusion is one of those Mockingbird-esque kickers, which I will give away (even as I suggest you read the whole thing.)

If the Super Bowl is the last great community event holding America together and we put it on a shrink’s couch for psychological analysis, here’s what we have. While it’s true that we all likely had some sort of representation through the carousel of celebrities shilling us premium brands, it turns out we’re all afraid of getting older and dying. We’re grasping at straws to find some sort of common bond that holds us all together. We’d all love some way to atone for the wrongs we have done, and if we can’t fix the things in our world that are broken, we’ll probably just distance ourselves from them and wash our hands of responsibility. And maybe, just maybe, there’s the hope of agape, the hope of a love that will act on us when we cannot achieve it ourselves.

Bryan J., “Super Bowl Psychology: What This Year’s Commercials Tell Us About Ourselves” Mockingbird (Feb. 3, 2020) [link].

Alan Jacobs is no longer doing much at Snakes and Ladders (subscribe to his newsletter, instead), but this was a nice piece of anachronism (in two senses):

The Devil chooses to deceive some people in the following way. He will marvelously inflame their brains with the desire to uphold God’s law and destroy sin in everyone else. He will never tempt them with anything that is manifestly evil. He makes them like anxious prelates watching over the lives of Christian people of all ranks, as an abbot does over his monks. They will rebuke everyone for their faults, just as if they had their souls in their care; and it seems to them that they dare not do otherwise for God’s sake. They tell them of the faults they see, claiming to be impelled to do so by the fire of charity and the love of God in their hearts; but in truth they are lying, for it is by the fire of hell surging in their brains and their imaginations.

Alan Jacobs, “understanding Christians (and others) on social media” Snakes and Ladders (Feb. 2, 2020) [link] (quoting from the 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing) [link].

Not that we know anyone like that.

And, just in time to fend off the sportsfans who want baseball to be more like football (I’m looking at you, Hank), Kirk Goldsberry and Katherine Rowe point out that football has even less “action” than baseball: “How Much Football Is Even In A Football Broadcast?” FiveThirtyEight (Jan. 31, 2020) [link]:

Our findings reveal that while different sports produce wildly different broadcast experiences, NFL broadcasts are among the most interrupted and least action-packed broadcasts of any sport. Simply put, there’s not a lot of actual football in a football game.

The numbers are startling. An average NFL broadcast lasts well over three hours, yet it delivers a total of only 18 minutes of football action.

That’s no problem. Until Sunday it was football, but baseball’s coming.


Solving for x

God’s surprising approach to outsiders
August 14, 2016 | John 4

Solving for x
Not to bring up unpleasant memories, but do you remember high school algebra? Do you remember “solving for x”?

The teacher would give you an equation like this

2x + 3 = 7


4 + 4x = 22 – 5x


3x2 + 12x + 6 = 42


15x3 – 100 = 20

Your job would be to “solve for x” in each of these different equations. It wasn’t always easy, was it? Once you got out of school, you may not have had so much opportunity to “solve for x,” but “x” still represented the unknown. Part of the reason why we use “x” for the unknown, is that xenos in Greek means strange or foreign. (There’s a TED talk which gives another reason.)

In math and in life, we always have trouble with the unknown.

The statistical website fivethirtyeight recently asked about people in the Northeast about baseball and politics:

In the survey, [we] asked 1,071 people which baseball team they supported (if any), how strongly they supported the team, and then . . . asked them this:

How upset would you feel if you had a son or daughter who married a Boston Red Sox/New York Yankees . . . fan?

Red Sox fans were asked about marriages to Yankees fans and vice versa.

Eitan Hersh, “What The Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry Can Teach us about Political Polarization” (Aug. 11, 2016).

It turns out that about 1 in 5 baseball fans would be upset if one of their children married a fan of a rival team. (Let me just be clear about one thing — if any of our kids gets married to a Red Sox fan, Katherine is going to be way beyond “upset.”)

Continue reading Solving for x