Music update, June 2017.

Huge month for new music – 31 songs on this playlist is a new record for me, but this is after I cut a few tracks just to try to limit it to the best songs I’ve heard since June 1st. You can access the Spotify playlist below or via this direct link.

Oh Wonder – High On Humans. I know a few of you are big Oh Wonder fans, but they’re pretty new to me, and so far I’m a fan – this is good, smart, alternative pop.

Portugal. The Man – Rich Friends. Their latest album Woodstock dropped two weeks ago and is really strong, their usual mix of bombastic, melodic rock, with more R&B influences than I’ve heard on previous records.

The Amazons – Black Magic. Fairly new English band from Reading who’ve gotten a ton of hype in the British music and mainstream press; I’m a fan of the huge guitar riff driving this song.

Sløtface – Nancy Drew. The Norwegian punk-popsters who gave us “Empire Records” last year are back with another subtly poppy track with slightly twisted lyrics.

Waxahatchee – Never Been Wrong. Katie Crutchfield’s next album, Out in the Storm, comes out on July 14th, and this track is more in the folk-rock vein of 2015’s “Under a Rock.”

The Preatures – Girlhood. This Australian quintet is about to release its first album since 2014, with a similar ’60s British pop/rock vibe. Also, I couldn’t figure out what the repeated line was in the verse, but according to my Internet it’s “a morning girl.”

Beach Fossils – Tangerine. Brooklyn indie-rockers Beach Fossils just released their latest album, Somersault, of stoner/surfer/lo-fi tracks, with this track offering the best hook on the album.

The Districts – If Before I Wake. I didn’t love the Districts’ acclaimed 2015 album, A Flourish and a Spoil, but this song is absolutely anthemic.

No Win – You’ll Be Fine. Apparently No Win is a side project of a member of FIDLAR, although I’m not a big fan of FIDLAR’s music so I was totally unaware of this, but hey, this song rocks.

Ride – Lannoy Point. The shoegazers’ first album in 21 years, Weather Diaries, starts out very strong and has probably four songs that would fit in very well with their vintage output, but I felt like it tapered off towards more maudlin lyrics and less inventive music.

Radiohead – I Promise. Radiohead has reissued OK Computer for the seminal album’s 20th anniversary in a two-disc set called OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017, including three previously unreleased tracks from the recording sessions, including this melancholy acoustic track, which would have fit very well on The Bends.

Manchester Orchestra – The Alien. Speaking of melancholy acoustic tracks, one of two new singles from Manchester Orchestra off their upcoming album A Black Mile to the Surface, is a surprisingly melodic, gentle song from a band I typically associate with huge, crunching guitars and with Andy Hull screaming himself hoarse.

Birdtalker – One. Another acoustic track, this one more like vintage folk with some smart and incisive lyrics, from a new Nashville band founded by the wife-and-husband duo of Dani and Zack Green.

The War On Drugs – Holding On. At least this time, the boys kept the song under six minutes! The Bob Dylan overtones can still be a bit much but this song has a driving, memorable hook that really powers the track even when Adam Granduciel starts to sound more like Richard Belzer doing a Dylan impression.

Liam Gallagher – Wall Of Glass. Yep, that’s the former Oasis singer, with what sounds like a solid post-Be Here Now sort of Oasis track.

Death From Above (1979) – Freeze Me. They’ve dropped the ‘1979’ from their name, although it still appears on Spotify. After a decade-long hiatus, they’re about to release their second album in three years, with this lead single probably my favorite track from them yet.

Washed Out – Get Lost. To borrow a malaprop from my daughter, I’m just so-and-so on Washed Out, the nom de chill of Ernest Greene, whose latest album Mister Mellow drops on Friday. This song encapsulates what I like about Washed Out – a melodic, upbeat, highly layered track that brings more complexity than just calling it a dance song would indicate.

Sparks – What The Hell Is It This Time?. Sparks have been around since the early 1970s, although if you know them at all, it’s probably from their one-off collaboration with Jane Wiedlin, “Cool Places,” which reached #49 on the Billboard 100 and became a staple of new-wave compilations. Now aged 71 and 68, the brothers Mael are about to release their 22nd album, Hippopotamus, and this very catchy lead single finds them just as weird as ever.

Floating Points – Kelso Dunes (Edit). Experimental music is an acquired taste and I won’t pretend to be an expert, but I’ve liked some of Sam Shepherd’s stuff so far, and not just because he’s a neuroscientist who happens to make music.

Phoenix – Ti Amo. The title track from the Grammy winners’ latest record is a throwback to the two-step/garage era of the early ’90s on top of the new wave stylings they usually bring.

Arcade Fire – Creature Comfort. I liked “Everything Now” more, but that’s a top five track of the year for me, so that’s not exactly a slight to this second single from their upcoming fifth album.

Queens of the Stone Age – The Way You Used To Do. Anything from QotSA is an automatic inclusion. Their upcoming album Villains comes out August 25th.

Royal Blood – Hole In Your Heart. The duo’s second album, ?How Did We Get So Dark? , came out earlier this month and it really rocks – it’s a step ahead of their debut – with this, “Lights Out,” “Hook, Line, & Sinker,” “I Only Lie When I Love You,” and “Where Are You Now?” my favorites.

Wolf Alice – Yuk Foo. The first single from the British quartet’s upcoming sophomore album, Visions of a Life, is harder and harsher than anything I remember from their debut album, which had a great balance of hard, fast, driving rock and mellower passages that showcased singer/guitarist Ellie Rowsell’s vocal range.

A Giant Dog – Bendover. It’s so loud and obnoxious it’s almost shtick, but it works on this track.

Superchunk – Up Against the Wall. Not only have Superchunk not changed their sound in their nearly 30 years of recording, they don’t even sound like they’ve aged on their new two-track release (the other song, “I Got Cut,” is more of the same).

Jason Loewenstein – Superstitious. Hard rock from one of the guitarists in Lou Barlow’s Sebadoh and the Fiery Furnaces.

Big Boi with Troze – Chocolate. Big Boi’s album Boomiverse is … fine, I guess. I like his vocal style, but I think the album suffers from too many guest spots and from some mediocre beats. Highlights include this track and “Kill Jill” (with Killer Mike and Jeezy).

Ice Cube – Good Cop Bad Cop. A bonus track on the 25th anniversary reissue of Death Certificate, this new song has Ice Cube actually sounding a bit like his old self on a very angry track about police shootings of unarmed black victims and the blue wall of silence that protects the perpetrators.

Less Art – Pessimism as Denial. The new band featuring Ian Miller (Kowloon Walled City) and Riley Breckenridge (Thrice) of the old Productive Outs podcast and of the, uh, grindcore (?) band Puig Destroyer strongly reminds me of early ’90s post-hardcore acts like Quicksand. This first single is off their first album, Strangled Light, due July 28th.

Danzig – Skulls & Daisies. Here primarily for its novelty, as Glenn Danzig is now 62 and sounds it throughout his namesake band’s latest album, salvaged on this track by the guitar work of Tommy Victor, whose main band, Prong, also has a new album due next month.

The Handmaiden.

A psychological and erotic thriller built around a classic con story, the South Korean film The Handmaiden made a number of critics’ top ten lists for 2016, but wasn’t even submitted by the Korean Film Council for consideration for the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film even after the film was generally praised on release at Cannes that year. Directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst), The Handmaiden manages to combine a double-cross story worthy of Hitchcock, a drawing-room mystery worthy of Charlotte Heyer, and erotica worthy of Cinemax into a single, stunningly shot film that still manages to compel even as Park’s train wobbles off the tracks in its final third. It’s free on amazon prime and can be rented via iTunes.

Adapted from the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is told in three parts, beginning with the story of Sook-hee, a peasant thief who is recruited by the con artist “Count” Fujiwara to become handmaiden to a wealthy heiress and convince the ingenue to marry the fake count so he can then dump her in an insane asylum and make off with her money. Sook-hee agrees after negotiating a better cut of the proceeds for herself, only to fall in love with her mark, Hideko, and lose her commitment to the con. No one’s motives are truly clear here, and Lady Hideko’s uncle isn’t merely the reclusive rare book collector he appears to be; once the first part of the con is revealed, the narrative shifts back to the beginning and shows much of the same material with missing details restored. Everything you see in part one has a purpose, even if it takes most of the film to discover it.

The con drives the plot, but the power of The Handmaiden resides in the scenery and the lead performances. The film is gorgeously shot, from the uncle’s mansion to the Japanese gardens even to the night scenes among the trees, with Park manipulating light and dark or introducing bursts of color to enact quick shifts in tone. There are very obvious parallels to Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and there are scenes in the gardens on the estate where you’d expect to see the girl from Fragonard’s The Swing swaying to and fro.

Kim Tae-ri, making her feature film debut as Sook-hee, nails the urchin’s mixture of overconfidence and naivete, while Ha Jung-woo is perfect as the suave, unctuously charming con man Fujiwara. (The two are both in the upcoming South Korean drama 1987, about the student protests that year that brought down South Korea’s military regime.) Kim Min-hee won several awards for her portrayal of Hideko, perhaps the most thankless role of the three because so much of the script requires her to act numb, although the character gains complexity once the depravity of her uncle becomes apparent in part two; her role just seems less demanding, other than the makeup and hair she’s required to wear while Hideko delivers readings of the books in her uncle’s collection.

The film would almost certainly have received an NC-17 rating here for the two sex scenes between Sook-hee and Hideko, which some critics have tabbed “soft porn” but which would probably escape remark if they involved a hetero pairing. If there’s something objectionable here, it’s the scenes’ length, or some of the dialogue, perhaps badly translated, from Sook-hee that I think was supposed to show that she’s just as naive as Hideko. (Waters herself defended the scenes, saying the women are appropriating a very male pornographic tradition and that queer audiences welcomed them.) Establishing the attraction between the two women as genuine is critical for the credibility of the overall story, and while the second scene is probably too long by half, skipping them entirely would have left the film worse off. The movie’s conclusion, however, brings the off-screen violence from implication to reality with a needlessly grisly torture scene that would have survived just as well without showing us any severed fingers; I haven’t read the novel but I believe that scene was Park’s invention.

I doubt any film would have topped The Salesman for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, given the political circumstances around the latter’s nomination, but I would rank The Handmaiden above the four other nominees. You can argue it’s pornographic, but I think those scenes are both transgressive and true to the original author’s intent; the violence is far more disturbing and less essential to the plot. And the plot is reason enough to watch the film – it’s an old con done up in a new way, with double dealing and secret schemes, by actors who fully inhabit the devious characters they’re portraying. It’s easily among my top ten movies of last year.

The Windup Girl.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2010 novel The Windup Girl, which won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for the best sci-fi novel of that year, manages to be both fantastical and realistic, with an all-too-believable setting in a world after a series of environmental catastrophes where food supplies are controlled by “calorie” companies and nations have fallen under their extortionary practices. The title character is a genetically modified human, grown in a lab in Japan as a sort of modern servant and concubine, whose mistreatment will lead to the fall of the Thai government and a shift in the area’s ongoing power struggle. Bacigalupi’s story is violent and his worldview bleak, but in a time when the world’s largest economy is pulling out of a worldwide agreement to try to slow man’s effect on the global climate, it seems entirely plausible – and his take on corporate ownership of genes and species doesn’t seem quite so cynical as it might have even seven years ago.

The multifacted plot gives us Anderson Lake, ostensibly an American managing a foreign factory in Thailand but in reality a researcher hunting for unusual genes and species bred or developed by Thai scientists – especially the location of the country’s seedbank, a potential goldmine of new genes for Lake’s employer to use to create new species of grains and other plants to resist the latest waves of diseases and pests. (Bagicalupi has created a rather terrifying-sounding array of these biological threats, including the evocative “blister rust.”) The factory Lake oversees uses animal power to create kink-springs that are used in this post-petroleum world as portable power sources, while also growing species of algae to help generate power to be stored in these springs. He stumbles on Emiko, the “windup girl” of the title, who is now owned by a strip club owner after her original Japanese owner decided to abandon her in Thailand rather than pay the dirigible fare to fly her back to Tokyo. The Thai government’s power is split between two warring factions, Trade and Environment, each of which plays a role in protecting the insular kingdom from outside threats and influences – like the importation of plants carrying new diseases – with each requiring its own sets of bribes and connections before shipments of outside goods can enter the country. When one of Trade’s enforcers, Jaidee, goes too far in punishing an importer who hasn’t paid sufficient bribes, it sets off a chain reaction that will eventually envelop Lake, Emiko, Jaidee’s forces, the heads of Trade, Environment, the army, and the queen’s regent in a political cataclysm that threatens to bring the country down.

The story is violent, especially to Emiko, often way beyond anything necessary for the plot to move forward. While the one major scene where she’s raped and forcibly sodomized leads to a revenge sequence that is integrated into the political storyline, there’s just more detail of her degradation than any reader should need – or than any author should want to offer. It engenders sympathy for her character, but she’s already such a pariah in this society that this is superfluous. Instead it seems like pandering to the worst elements of the audience.

Yet beyond Emiko, is there really a compelling character anywhere in the book? Lake is a blank page; his compassion for Emiko doesn’t fit with the rest of his behavior, and if it’s just sexual attraction, that doesn’t exactly explain the compassion either. There’s no explanation for why he’s one person in his work mode and someone else entirely once he encounters Emiko and ends up saving her from officials chasing her in the street a day or two later. The closest thing to a fully-developed second character in the book is Kanya, Jaidee’s top lieutenant who ends up taking over his squad and finds the agency that Emiko lacks. Their paths don’t intersect – Kanya has a marked disdain for the windup who temporarily helps her hunt for Emiko – but they do represent contrasting sides of the issue of women establishing any sort of control over their lives in a male-dominated world.

Post-environmental catastrophe novels have been around a long time – A Canticle for Leibowitz, set after what appears to have been a nuclear disaster, won the Hugo over forty years earlier – but Bacigalupi manages to fold a number of current problems or concerns into his setting that make it seem immediate where others in the subgenre have been remote. Global temperatures have risen with predictable consequences like higher sea levels. Food insecurity is a political destabilizer in this world, and food shortages are exacerbated by more tumultuous weather patterns and new plagues that evolved around monocultures foisted on the world by GMO food monopolies. Petroleum is gone, presumably exhausted, and methane use is tightly regulated. That means airplanes are gone and cars are luxury items. Air conditioning doesn’t seem to exist, which is particularly relevant to Emiko, who has been designed with smaller pores that mean she can’t sweat properly to cool her body. None of this seems that improbable or that far off, especially with our current government backpedaling on virtually all initiatives to protect the environment.

This novel winning major awards makes sense given the themes it tackles and the level of detail Bacigalupi has invested in his world, but I don’t think it’s that great of a novel in a literary sense due to the lack of compelling central characters. It’s thought-provoking, as many of the great sci-fi novels are, and there’s an immediacy here that stories of interstellar travel or time-shifting can’t bring. After I finished, however, I found the characters had completely vanished from my mind – the setting stuck, but none of the individuals did. That keeps it from the top echelon of sci-fi novels I’ve read in my run through the Hugo winners.

Unrelated, but “Bacigalupi” sounds like something the Hoobs would say.

Next up: I’ve run through three short books since finishing this, including Fritz Lieber’s Hugo-winning novella The Big Time, which is free for the Kindle because it’s in the public domain but which I found boring, and am now reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

Land of Mine.

The Danish-German drama Land of Mine (Under Sandet) was one of five nominees for the Best Foreign Language film at the most recent Academy Awards ceremony and swept the Robert Awards, the Danish equivalent of the Oscars, last year. The story is fictional but is based on the real-life effort after World War II where 2000 German POWs, many of them teenagers or elderly men, were forced to come to Denmark to clear the up to two million landmines the Nazis had planted along the country’s western coast. Half the Germans either died or were maimed in the work, and the question of whether this constituted a war crime still hangs over Danish history. Land of Mine is sparse and taut, rarely sentimental until the very end, and doesn’t let the Danes off the hook one bit for the choice to force children to pay for the sins of their fathers. (It’s available to rent/buy on amazon and iTunes.)

The kids forced to clear the mines arrive at a Danish beach under the command of Captain Ebbe and Sgt. Carl Rasmussen, both of whom appear to be completely unconcerned with their charges’ welfare – they are human fodder for clearing the mines, and if they die in the effort, that’s the Germans’ fault for placing the mines there in the first place. One boy doesn’t even make it out of the initial training. The group includes Helmut Morbach, who is either the most realistic kid of the group or just an asshole, depending on your view; Sebastian Schumm, who is the de facto leader of the troop; Wilhelm Hahn, a naive kid oblivious to what’s ahead of him either in Denmark or after a return home; and the twins Werner and Ernst Lessner, who plan to go home and become bricklayers to help rebuild Germany now that the war is over. There’s no question over their volition here: the boys are barricaded in their little hut at the end of each work day and aren’t even fed for the first few days at the beach.

The kids don’t stand out much as individual characters, but are vehicles for telling the greater story, including how Sgt. Carl (Herr Feldwebel to the kids) ends up caring about their welfare in spite of his own misgivings and the commands from above to treat them like slaves. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to mention that some of the 14 kids in the original group aren’t going to live to the end of the movie – they’re crawling on a beach looking for and defusing land mines, so of course there will be casualties. The movie’s impact comes more from how they’re injured or killed than how many, such as the effects of failing to feed the kids adequately, and in some of the cases we don’t really know the characters well enough to feel their losses as individuals.

Sgt. Carl, played by a relative novice actor in Roland Møller, is the moral center of the film, and his evolution over the course of the film becomes the movie’s conscience – he doesn’t want to think of the boys as people, comes to see them that way once the suffering and death begin, then is reminded of how they all ended up in this situation in the first place before he has to make one final decision to do the ‘right’ thing. Møller’s performance is dominant because most of it is so understated, and because his character gets the emotional complexity Ebbe’s and even the boys’ characters lack. That makes the ending of the film a little harder for me to accept – it’s the one true moment of sentiment, and the only part of the script that didn’t ring true. When he develops a little camaraderie with the boys, it seems only natural; he’s with them all day and starts to see them as real people, and struggles to transfer his hatred of the Nazis or the Germans over to them once he knows them. Whether the end works may depend on how much you buy into his personal transformation from the initial scene of abject hatred to the last day of work on the beach.

The characters of the POWs aren’t that well defined, but the young actors playing them at least give them depth in their emotional responses to the series of catastrophes that follow their assignment to the beach. They’re afraid every day, and every time the script seems like it’s giving them a few moments of calm, another mine explodes, setting off a new chain of emotional reactions in the survivors. Joel Basman delivers a strong performance as Helmut, the least likable of all of the boy soldiers, while the twins, Emil and Oskar Belton, playing Ernst and Werner get a small subplot of their own that gives Emil in particular a powerful scene in the back half of the film. The script also adds little details, like Sebastian answering a question about whether his father’s still alive with a long pause followed by a remote “I don’t know,” to flesh out the emotional states of these children even without giving us much in the way of biographical details.

Land of Mine is almost old-fashioned in its anti-nationalism; the easy thing to do in any historical drama about World War II is make any German characters the villains and move outward from there, but the protagonists of this movie are all Germans and don’t show the slightest hint of Nazi sympathies or even of German nationalism. They’re just kids, and all they want to do is survive and go home. The Danes are the nationalists, carrying forward their rage at the Nazi atrocities on to prisoners of war who had nothing to do with the mistreatment of Denmark. Sgt. Carl has to face the reality that the kids who’ve been conscripted to clear these mines are victims of the Nazi regime too, and the difficult decisions that the script gives him could apply to any conflict and any attempts at postwar reconciliation too.

Stick to baseball, 6/24/17.

I wrote two new pieces for Insiders this past week, one looking at teams that just drafted their new #1 prospects and a minor league scouting piece on Phillies, Cleveland, Red Sox, and Astros prospects. I held a Klawchat on Thursday.

Smart Baseball got a nice sales bump last week from Father’s Day and from George Will’s favorable review in the Wall Street Journal (subscriber link). Ty Duffy also mentions the book in passing in a smart piece on how analytics are changing the game on the field, possibly for the worse. Thank you to everyone who’s purchased it. I hope to see many of you at my upcoming signings/appearances:

* Toronto, The Sports Gallery, June 26th
* Miami, Books and Books, July 8th
* Harrisburg, Midtown Scholar, July 15th
* Berkeley, Books Inc., July 19th
* Chicago, Volumes, July 28th, 7:30 pm
* GenCon (Indianapolis), August 17th-20th

Still working on Brooklyn and Phoenix for later this summer/fall, and I believe I’ll be signing at PAX Unplugged in Philadelphia in November. Bookstores interested in hosting should contact Danielle Bartlett at HarperCollins; we’re trying to accommodate everyone we can within my work schedule.

And now, the links…

Klawchat, 6/22/17.

Questions go in the frame below, not in the comments!

My latest Insider posts look at which teams may have just drafted their #1 or #2 prospects and at some Phillies, Cleveland, Red Sox, and Astros prospects I’ve scouted recently.

Keith Law: I still find it so hard to say what I need to say. Klawchat.

addoeh: What was the first MLB game you attended?
Keith Law: You’d have to ask my parents that – I definitely remember going to a Mets game when I was around 7 or 8, but it’s possible I went to one (Mets or Yanks) when younger that I don’t recall. But baseball was always on TV in my house.

Josh: My Royals have played themselves squarely into the middle of the pack. Should they trade what they can by the deadline and plan for the future, or should they just play out the string and make everyone QO’s after the season and let guys walk?
Keith Law: Very hard to see a team this bad at getting on base getting to the postseason. And if they don’t sell, they’re going to end up in terrible long-term shape going into 2018, with one of the game’s worst farm systems AND a terrible ML roster.

HankQ: Sean Newcomb has had good success in his first three starts with the braves. That said, his walk rate in the minors has been high, his stuff and walk rate remind me of Mark Langston. Would you say in the best case scenario that Langston’s career would be Newcomb’s upside?
Keith Law: No way. Mark Langston had a 50 WAR, 16-year career. He’s a Hall of the Very Good pitcher. That might be a top 1% outcome for Newcomb.

Eduardo: Which MLB teams have the strongest presence in Brazil? And what do you think about Eric Pardinho? Obrigado. Valéu!
Keith Law: I’ll have a note up on Pardinho and a few other top July 2nd guys – just the elite names – at the end of next week. He did a bunch of events outside Brazil, including the PG event in Jupiter, so every team had a chance to see him. The Rangers, Rays, Mariners, and Jays have all been active in Brazil, but my understanding from scouts (and that great Pedro Moura series of articles from two years ago) is that it’s a very insular, corrupt baseball community there.

Max: 3 months ago Bellinger was, according to everybody, a better prospect than Judge. Who you think will have the better career? (I still think Bellinger will be better, if slightly)
Keith Law: Bellinger by a lot. He’s more than three years younger than Judge, and he’s a 70 defender at first who can also handle centerfield. There’s no comparison for me here – and I think Yankee fans can vouch for my longtime optimism about Judge.

Brad: Knowing that he was just sent to AAA to “clear his head” a bit, do you have any opinions on what Schwarber has done differently this year that has negatively affected his hitting? Chasing too many pitches? Slow bat? He’s been so much better than this thus far in his career…Thanks!
Keith Law: I really don’t have any good insight to offer on this, sorry.

Dog: Do you think Jonathan Villar’s 2016 was a mirage and his 2015 and 2017 seasons are more reflective of who he is as a player?
Keith Law: I think his 2016 power spike was a mirage. But in 2015, he had just 128 PA – I don’t think that was reflective of anything about him.

Andrew: If you had to re-rank the top three Padres prospects as of today, would there be any change from your pre-season rankings? I believe you had Espinoza, Quantrill, and Margot. Does Tatis crack that group as of today?
Keith Law: I answered this in the link at the top of this chat, on which teams just drafted their new top prospects. San Diego is on there.

Phils Guy: How should a first-time author, who may lack positional assets including name recognition and twitter followers, decide whether to pursue a traditional publisher versus independently publishing an e-book?
Keith Law: My decision was easy – I had access to a literary agent through my regular agent, and when we put a proposal out, a traditional publisher bought it right away. If that’s an option for you, pursue it. The worst that happens is no one bites and you choose to publish yourself.

Ruben Amaro Jr: Keith, the Phillies seem to have a comparatively poor rate relative to MLB in having draft picks contribute at the major league level. Development (see Williams, Nick and Crawford, JP) seems to stagnate, even players on the roster (Franco, for one) don’t seem to break out. Is this a failure to develop talented players, or simply an inability to identify talent in the first place?
Keith Law: I don’t think there’s a single cause, and some of those issues cross regimes, too. Williams didn’t stagnate so much as become the player he’s always been. Crawford, on the other hand, is a major concern – I had a scout who saw him this year say he’s “swinging uphill” and covering much less ground at short – and if he isn’t a 60 or better, then who in that system projects as anything more than an average regular?

Preston: Who has a higher ceiling, Sean Newcomb or Kyle Wright?
Keith Law: Wright.

danny: Why are the Braves going far over slot value for Wright? Would he turn down the slot value at #5? (alternative question: Freeman to 3B? Really?)
Keith Law: My guess? That was worked out beforehand, so that Wright would turn down underslot offers at picks 1-4 if any arose. As for Freeman to third … I’m less disturbed by the thought of him playing there than I am the idea that this is to accommodate Matt Freaking Adams.

Adam: Is Alex Verdugo an elite prospect?
Keith Law: He’s really the Joe Flacco of prospects.

Matt: Do you ever write any articles on potential trade candidates and what teams may be targeting them and willing to give up?
Keith Law: No, because I hate reading those articles. They’re kind of bullshit.

James : Hi Keith, Huge fan of your work. I remember you had Luis Carpio as a guy to watch in the Mets system, but then he tore his labrum and missed most of 2016. Is he still someone who piques your interest? Potential top-100 prospect in a couple years or nah?
Keith Law: I haven’t seen him this year – weather & travel killed me when Columbia came north, but the good news is I also missed the washed-up quarterback – and reports I’ve had from other scouts say he’s definitely lost something, including throwing, post-injury. I wouldn’t give up on him, but I was hoping for a little more this year.

Chris: I was just reading the piece you linked at the top about prospects from PHI, CLE, BOS, and HOU. About Francisco Mejia you said that, because his pitchers weren’t holding runners very well, he still gave up a couple stolen bases. Has that ever been a real problem for you while scouting: a legit prospect being held back (for lack of a better term) by the talent around him? If a team is made up of 24 org guys and one prospect, does that make it harder to scout him?
Keith Law: No, that was more an explanation of why I would say he’s got a great arm but, hey, they were 2-2 off him stealing that night.

Judlow: Suppose you’re Bobby Evans. (Sorry.) Do you read 2017 as bad dream and push through it retaining core of position players intact? Or are you witnessing in real, excruciating time that Span / Pence done, Crawford / Panik / Belt just not that good? If latter, would you blow up team as much as you could?
Keith Law: Joe Sheehan raised the question of how much they really have to deal if they do blow things up. Cueto is hard to price because of the player option (note: teams should never give out player options, and this is one reason why). Crawford would have value, I think: low-OBP plus defender at short who’ll hit a few mistakes into the seats every year. Lot of teams could use that guy. Shark has very little value in trade, I think, given the contract and inconsistency. So what could you really do?

Neema: Do you think AJ Puk’s performance so far this year is more a reflection of his relatively weaker competition in high Class A or has he made significant improvement since he was drafted? Is he a legitimate top 50 prospect now?
Keith Law: My understanding is that he was overpowering high-A hitters – and that his stuff is consistently better than it was last spring too. So, yeah, I think he’s a little better, but also he needs to face better competition too. Not a top 50 guy at the moment, although I won’t actually assemble a top 50 list until after the Futures Game.

Kris: I read your recent post regarding Phillies prospects. Regarding Pullin and his approach (or lackthereof), I know it’s only one game, but doesn’t his seeing only six pitches in four plate appearances expose a pervasive plate discipline issue within their minor league system? Guys like Cozens, Williams, Alfaro all project a similar lack of patience — and graduates like Franco, Herrera, etc have been exposed at the MLB level by demonstrating this flailing approach.
Keith Law: I don’t think they’re really preaching or rewarding patience, but in their defense, how are you going to tell guys like Kingery or Pullin to change their approaches when they’re both raking in AA? Franco would be the one guy in that whole system whom I might argue was allowed to reach the majors without showing sufficient development in his approach … but then he was good his first half-season anyway and it’s possible that his trajectory to this point wouldn’t have been any different.

Andrew: Great timing with scouting notebook including Pullin today – promoted to LHV. Thanks for all your work.
Keith Law: I found that out about a half-hour after the article was posted.

Vin: Is there anything that the stat line isn’t telling us with Ahmed Rosario that is leading Mets mgmt to say he isn’t ready and leaving him in the minors in spite of huge glaring needs and a season rapidly slipping away? What sort of stats can we expect when he is called up?
Keith Law: Any hitter stat line in Vegas may be fool’s gold. I happen to think he can really hit anyway, and he’s a better defender than Cabrera or the domestic abuser, so I don’t know why they won’t call him up.

Dr. Bob: Joe Sheehan ranked Mike Matheny as the last major league manager for tactical managing. Making the sting even worse here in the midwest is that MM finished behind Scioscia, Ausmus, Collins, and Mattingly. Man, if you can’t finish ahead of that group, you are bad.
Keith Law: And I think Joe was spot on. Matheny is really overmatched by in-game tactical decisions. It really shows when he’s managing against one of the better tacticians.

Ron: Could you see Gordon up with the Twins in September and either Polanco or Dozier traded at the deadline? Thanks!
Keith Law: Gordon, no, zero reason for them to do that. Dozier, maybe, but only if they get a sizable return, I think. Again, no real push for them to do so.

Matt: At this point can we assume Dominic Smith is James Loney trapped in a Mo Vaughn-like body? His power numbers in Vegas seem to say “yes”.
Keith Law: That’s not what his numbers seem to say at all.

Sim: I saw your article on drafted players who would be their team’s No. 1 or No. 2 prospect but didn’t see Heliot Ramos on there. Where do you think he’d rank with the Giants?
Keith Law: No higher than third.

kim: Love the chat. Have you been back to TO recently? the city is exploding. Wondering what was your favourite restaurants here. Also the Tulo Hoffman trade – while not quite Dickey Thor debacle – is looking like worse each day. comment? thanks, Keith!
Keith Law: Monday’s PitchTalks event – I think there are still a few tickets left – will be my first trip to T.O. since 2005. Not sure any of my old favorite haunts still exist – and I understand there’s a huge culinary scene there now. Hoffman isn’t going to post a 7% HR/FB rate as a Rockie for very long.

Rob: Rutherford, Andujar, Sheffield & Florial for Quintana. Who says no?
Keith Law: You must be a White Sox fan.

Rick C: I know he can’t run a .400+ BABIP and 2.0- BB% forever, but could Johan Camargo be a guy? The Braves apparently felt he was worth protecting from the rule 5, and he hit well at AAA this year.
Keith Law: Nope.

Jonathan: Thoughts on the new Ride album. Also, with Chavis and Devers now both in Portland, does this mean Devers goes to Pawtucket and/or does one of them switch positions?
Keith Law: Front half of the album is superb, vintage Ride but maybe with cleaner production. It loses steam towards the end. Devers is a better 3b now than Chavis, so I wouldn’t expect them to move him.

Dr. Bob: I am baffled by the number of players expected to be taken in the first couple rounds of the draft of whom it is said, “has no position” or “1B/DH only.” If I were the parent or coach of a player who looked like he had a hit tool, I would try to teach them to play a position. These are decent athletes, right? Couldn’t many of them learn a position if they started early enough? How does this happen?
Keith Law: A lot of them aren’t very good athletes, but they can hit. Or maybe you could say their athletic ability is limited to their swings.

MAS: How does Gleyber Torres recent injury impact his future development? Would it be better for a prospect to play well in AA/AAA as a 20 yo then have a major injury or struggle/ do OK at AA all year and remain healthy.
Keith Law: No impact. Non-throwing elbow, misses half a season of AB. Sucks that he won’t get the callup in September, but long-term I don’t think this means a thing.

JP: Is David Dahl is basically a clone Michael Brantley at this point? Very toolsy, but probably not playing more than 100 games/year?
Keith Law: I’m worried the back issues will be (or are) chronic.

Larry: Question about draft approach. For a team like Atlanta with a loaded farm system, they went all in with their money on basically three draft prospects — Wright, Waters, Tarnok. Do you like that approach or the one they used last year to spread the money out throughout the draft?
Keith Law: This draft class was not a good one to try to spread money out – the 2016 class had a lot of good prep arms to overpay, which they did, but the 2017 class didn’t..

Ben: If Russia hacks affected voter registration & prevented certain people from voting, that’s terrifying. And that our president & other republicans don’t seem to care is worse.
Keith Law: And the cynic in me wonders if the Democrats only care because it may have cost them some elections. But yeah, it’s terrifying, and the national apathy over it is even more so.

Stevie: Shed Long was recently promoted to Double-A after destroying High-A. Has his prospect status changed this year?
Keith Law: It has not.

Brian in ahwatukee: As an A’s fan, did “I believe in Stephan Vogt” ever have trade value?
Keith Law: I think he did at the All-Star Break in 2015, and even suggested it on our SF area radio affiliate at the time, for which I was insulted, flamed, sworn at, etc.

Devin: in your opinion, does heliot ramos project to be a plus center fielder?
Keith Law: That’s probably more than I’d project on his defense.

Nolan: Hey Keith, any thoughts on the Rizzo-Hedges play? A few things bug me about it, mainly: 1. That MLB told Rizzo he broke the rule but has no punishment system in place, and 2. Rizzos comment that “every ump I ask says if the C has the ball he’s fair game.” Is Rizzo lying, or do umps not even understand the rule? Does he go around asking when it’s okay to railroad catchers?
Keith Law: He pretty clearly targeted the catcher, and I certainly wondered if his status as a very popular, face-of-baseball sort of player on a rather important franchise had any effect on MLB giving it a big shrug.

Angel: Keith 2 in one .. chavis was promoted from AA Why the Yankees can’t do the same with Andújar?.. and do you think Torres will be fine after the surgery?.. I mean you think he will change because of that?
Keith Law: Andujar was promoted to AAA the other day.

Jonah: Has then ship sailed on Appel ever becoming a big leaguer?
Keith Law: He just had his best start ever in pro ball, so your timing is curious. He’s clearly going to be a big leaguer. The question is what kind of big leaguer.

Darren: Whom do you believe will be promoted to the majors first. Senzel, B Rodgers, Eloy or Rutherford? Would a good guess for all 4 be in that order?
Keith Law: Yep, that’s just the order I’d suggest.

Jorge: Having read that the Yankees may soon be looking to the trade market to resolve their first base issues, I imagine Matt Adams is a potential target (This Freddie Freeman to third business is nonsense posturing I hope). If a trade like that were to happen, in what prospect range (1-10, 11-20, 21-30) would you put a potential return for the Braves? And could you see a prospect (11-20) included with Matt Adams to get to a (1-10) range? Thanks, reading your book on my iphone while my dad reads the hard copy I bought him for father’s day. We are both really enjoying it.
Keith Law: Really doubt they get a top prospect for Adams. He’s a platoon player, really.

Drew: We know S Romero was kicked off his team for fighting with a teammate, as well as marijuana use. Does his overall character concern paint him as more of a “young guy who needs to grow up”, or a legitimately bad guy you dont want in your clubhouse?
Keith Law: I think there’s enough risk of the latter that I would have passed on him in the draft, especially where he was taken. Let someone else roll that die.

BD: What did the Orioles do to Kevin Gausman and is it fixable??
Keith Law: Kept changing his delivery, moving him on the rubber. They changed Bundy. They changed Harvey and wrecked him. A lot of this is Rick Peterson, who’s now gone, but at some point don’t Buck & co. have to answer for this stuff too?

Darren: Hi Keith, thanks for the chat. We were having a discussion on sending back food at restaurants, and as a general rule I will not do it and ask for a new meal. If it’s completely inedible I will just ask for my money back and eat later. I’ve heard too many horror stories from people that work in the industry. What are your thoughts?
Keith Law: I will only send something back if there is something truly wrong (e.g., I didn’t order that) or if it’s cooked so poorly that it’s inedible. I don’t think I do this even once a year. If I just don’t like something, I simply leave it. If the server asks, I’ll (very politely) explain the issue, but I don’t ask for anything at all – not a refund, not a replacement, nothing.

Buck: Am I right in thinking that Tyler Mahle will be making a big jump onto the midseason list? JJ Cooper recently said he has “front-end stuff” and the AA stats sure seem to back that up. Do you agree? Do you like him better than Luis Castillo?
Keith Law: I don’t think it’s front end of the rotation stuff? I like him, had him on the “just missed” list, think he’s a big league starter, but wouldn’t forecast him as a future #2.

Brad: Son’s team won a 13u championship last week in East Cobb. Played against a kid throwing 84. Now another team from Texas is playing in the Semi-Finals of a perfect game 13U tournament at LakePoint. Game is currently in the 10th, but team from Florida has a kid that is sitting 84-86 and has hit 88. That is harder than most HS teams will have on their team next year.
Keith Law: That just strikes me as “not a good thing.” You never really know – the issue isn’t how hard the kid throws, but whether he’s throwing at the max end of his velocity range. But it sounds bad.

norman: now that we’re past the asg would you challenge vladito and bichette with high A? if that even is a challenge for them?
Keith Law: I don’t think it’s imperative, but I’d do it with Bichette before Vlad, given their ages.

Mark: Just want to say first how much I enjoy the chats and appreciate the effort on your end. Food question…When making Marinara sauce I know you have said in the past adding wine is key. I usually let the wine reduce down as I saute the garlic , onions, etc. My first question is , Red or White ? I tend to use red , but I think sometime it overpowers the sauce a bit. My second question is , is reducing the wine the right way to go or should I just add to the sauce as it cooks ?
Keith Law: Tradition says red. I use white. I think it’s less overpowering, and reducing red wine can concentrate its bitter flavors. You can simply add with the tomatoes and let the alcohol simmer out – if the sauce is even gently simmering that’ll cook out most of the booze.

Nick: Should the Braves just trade
Keith Law: Probably yes.

Nils: Can we get this out of the way early? Yes, player _______ on your favorite team is going to sign before the deadline. Thanks.
Keith Law: Yep. Last year two players didn’t sign in the top ten rounds. Unless a guy flunks a physical or was never going to sign anyway, he’s signing.

Chris: Just curious of youre aware of this insanity of Mike Francesa seeing nothing wrong with saying “Oriental-Americans”, claiming CNBC used it first (no proof), and thinks finding one single Asian-American person to back him up vindicates him. Shocking that Mike’s a Trump guy.
Keith Law: He probably loves the attention. I doubt any of this was an occident.

Jay: Recently had a chance to see Brady Aiken start and chat with him after a game. Velo was only 88-90. One of the coaches sounded like he was going to reprimand me because he thought I was asking Aiken about his velo. That’s gotta be a red flag they are worried?
Keith Law: The coach is out of line if he thought he was going to do something to you. But yes, he’s only upper 80s now and yes I believe they are concerned.

Ben: So Missouri voted to allow employers to fire women who use birth control? What the fuck, Keith. This country’s going to shit real quick. Idk what to do anymore.
Keith Law: This is proposed, not passed, right? Still, that it is even reaching the legislature floor is absolutely ridiculous. The attempt to roll back basic women’s rights in this country is brazen – just as one side tells us there’s no “war on women” happening.

John: Before this year Zach Granite looked like a 4th OF at best. Has something changed, or are we just seeing SSS at work?
Keith Law: It’s just 200 PA of BABIP madness. Although I look forward to lots of puns if he’s called up.

Wade: STL signs 7th round JR (pinder) at 110k over slot … really necessary there given their situation this year?
Keith Law: That’s really strange. I thought he was great value in the round, but he wasn’t a top 3 rounds talent for me.

Aaron C.: Favorite Mobb Deep track? Or was their heyday after your divorce from rap music?
Keith Law: Flavor for the Non-Believes. I know it’s not considered one of their best, but I thought it showcased their flow best and I like the minimalist feel.

Adam: Any thoughts on Newcomb past that crazy Langston comparison? Command has looked pretty good so far. The walks are up from one bad inning where he was squeezed a bit
Keith Law: You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who walked as many guys as he did in the minors and then just stone-cold stopped in the majors. Let’s give him some time.

Jeff: I have a daughter that is going to be a senior in high school this coming year. She’s starting to explore her college options and I was curious if you had any tips on picking a school. She thinks she wants to go to med school afterwards but isn’t sure. We are a middle income family and she is smart enough to get a decent amount of scholarships, but not enough to pay her way. What do you think we should look for? Should the school have a med school or can she undergrad elsewhere? In-state vs. out of state? Overall price? The education she’ll be getting? Overall comfortability with the school? Thanks for your tips.
Keith Law: I couldn’t advise you on the med school aspect, having never gone that route, but on the undergrad part itself, I don’t think paying more for private school or going out of state makes sense if you have a reasonable in-state/public option. Few private universities have the brand name to provide sufficient ROI to match what you’d get by her going to state school and, if your daughter is a good student, excelling there.

Lilith: Who would you say was a better comp round pick? Jeter Downs or Taylor Trammell? Who has the better upside?
Keith Law: I think Trammell, but to be fair, I think in hindsight i was light on Downs.

Ben: Writing a book can take a long time. What did you do to keep yourself motivated and to write every day & get it done? I’ve always wanted to write (have many ideas), but I lack patience and discipline to do so.
Keith Law: Knowing that you have a deadline, and that there’s a big check coming when you finish the manuscript, both help tremendously. I tend to write fast, especially under pressure, so that pushed me too.

Dennis: 1st round picks this year, what % had a deal/agreement in place before the pick was made?
Keith Law: I don’t know what you mean, Dennis. Everyone knows predraft deals are illegal. /rolls eyes so hard my retinas detach

Harrisburg Hal: I’m thinking of ducking out of my Mom’s 70th birthday party to see you in Harrisburg. If there is a book left there for you to sign for me at your appearance, it’s because I thought better of it…or more likely my idea was shot down by my better half.
Keith Law: I’ll sign another one for your mom, then.

Stephen: How many variables do you consider when grading someone’s fastball? Velocity is and will always be the top measure. How much can movement, though, make up for lack of premium heat?
Keith Law: A fastball grade should be about velocity. Fastball movement is typically its own category.

Lisa: What % do you think are females asking you questions?
Keith Law: People seem to think I’m more likely to take questions from women. It’s not true – I don’t look at the names other than to make sure there’s nothing offensive there.

Frank Underwood: Do you watch my show? If so, what did you think of Season 5?
Keith Law: Since I don’t know who you are, I think it’s safe to say I do not watch whatever show you’re on.

Ricky: What % of questions go unanswered each week if you had to guess?
Keith Law: 75% or more.

JG: Do you know much about Landon Leach? He wasn’t in your top 100…
Keith Law: I do … and he wasn’t, indeed.

Andy: Sounds like you got a bad look at Mejia. Any way this influences your outlook? Had you heard other things about trouble with offspeed pitches?
Keith Law: Not really, it’s just one night, but it’ll be something I watch for in the future and ask other scouts about.

Jason: When should teams move minor leaguers who are blocked at the big-league level to another position? I remember you thought the Braves moved Peraza off short too early.
Keith Law: Only when absolutely necessary. They did hurt Peraza’s trade value by doing that. That was a Wren decision, though.

Andy: You’ve commented that the 73% gender wage gap is overstated? Why is that?
Keith Law: There is a wage gap (by gender), but the 73% figure doesn’t consider other independent variables that might explain wage differences. Women do get paid less for equal work, though, and that’s a social problem that requires a political solution.

Steve: Austin Slater isn’t gonna slash .310/.365/.466 at the end of the season, but he is now and has always hit. Think he’s a 3 win player next year?
Keith Law: I’d take the under on that. But I do think he can hit. I had him as a top 100 draft prospect in 2014, but the Giants got him in the 8th (!) round. He’s always had a good swing and I saw him hit good velocity in college.

Chris: Not as timely a question as it could be, but since I’ve missed your last few chats: were/are you a fan of Denis Johnson?
Keith Law: I didn’t care for Tree of Smoke.

Franklin: Please help me decide an argument. Is Happ overmatched right now? He has great power and some good peripheral numbers, but he strikes out a ton, usually swings at the first pitch and if he doesn’t hit it out of the park he’s likely to get out.
Keith Law: He’s always struck out quite a bit, even in college, so that doesn’t concern me. The better question is this: are the Cubs better off with him killing AAA again, or trying to develop his approach in the majors? I think the latter, even if he produces less than they need from that spot.

Michael: Any thoughts on what more we as concerned citizens can do to stop the Republican health care bill? The way they have managed this process in darkness, combined with the awful things the bill does, are very frightening.
Keith Law: Probably not much, other than calling all your elected reps and making sure they are aware you oppose the bill. And then get out in 2018 and get involved. I intend to.

Rob: Micker Adolfo seems to have turned a corner this year. Is there still potential there?
Keith Law: I think so but he’s still a longshot with that approach.

Franklin: You’ve been a big Addison Russell fan and (appropriately) against domestic violence. If you are the GM, there have been no charges brought and he’s publicly denied anything. How would Klaw handle that situation?
Keith Law: Wait for the MLB investigation’s results. If they find sufficient cause for action – and you know my bar on that is pretty low – then I’d make a move.

Estuve: How much movement does Hunter Greene’s fastball have?
Keith Law: Not much – it’s a four-seamer, so it’s hard, but it’s up. I think the Reds have a number of things to try to develop here – he needs to pick one breaking ball, and he needs to throw that changeup more too.

Goody: How far off is a Tyler Mahle comparison to Mitch Keller?
Keith Law: Way off. Keller has better stuff.

jon: Didn’t Clay Buccholz had character issues when he was drafted out of college? Was his character issues different than Seth Romero?
Keith Law: He was arrested for stealing computers. One incident, but a very stupid one that speaks to bad character. Romero has had a variety of incidents.

Jared: Orlando Arcia was one of your breakout candidates this year and I now see why. His defense is incredible and his bat is coming around. What kind of player can he become?
Keith Law: I think he makes some All-Star teams … but maybe not this year.

PJ: Do you feel weird signing autographs?
Keith Law: No, especially not since it’s usually my book I’m signing.

Jeries: Should the White Sox put Carson Fulmer in relief? He’s been getting shelled in AAA again.
Keith Law: I have said this since he was in high school. I can’t see him ever commanding anything enough to start. But he could be pretty damn good for one inning.

Jeff: Do you think the Diamondbacks season is sustainable?
Keith Law: I think it’d take a catastrophe for them or the Rockies to miss the playoffs.

NYTT: You talked before about the Braves cleaning up Bryse Wilson’s mechanics a little bit. Anything you’ve heard to believe he can stay a starter?
Keith Law: I saw him. He can start.

JR: Dilson Herrera – still have a chance to be an everyday 2b, or has that ship sailed?
Keith Law: Based on what I’ve heard from scouts this year it has sailed.

Josh: Help! I’ve got 1 day in LA next month, top 2 places to eat?
Keith Law: Need more than one day for LA! Any of the Jon & Vinny places (Animal, Son of a Gun, Jon & Vinny’s, Petit Trois). And find that Guerrilla Taco truck!
Keith Law: That’s all for this week. I hope to see a bunch of you on Monday at PitchTalks in Toronto, and I’ll be back next week to chat before a brief trip to Bristol. Thank you all as always for your questions and for reading.

Advise and Consent.

“If you do that you won’t be liked,” a fatherly fellow Senator had advised him on some controversial matter soon after he arrived. “I don’t give a damn about being liked,” he had retorted impatiently, “but I sure as hell intend to be respected.”

Allen Drury’s dry political thriller Advise and Consent, winner of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is set in an alternate universe where the Senate gives careful and thorough consideration to a candidate for a Cabinet post who is nominated by a bullying coward of a President. It’s a quaint novel, built on the extraordinary idea of a Senator standing on principle, even when opposing his own party, for the good of the country. It’s also too long by half and might be the most blatantly white male-centric Pulitzer winner I’ve read, without a single female character of any merit whatsoever in its 600-plus pages.

Drury never mentions political parties in the novel, instead simply casting them as the Majority and the Minority, with the President, also never named, in the Majority party. The novel revolves around the President’s nomination of Bob Leffingwell, a dove on relations with Russia, to be his new Secretary of State, casting aside the current occupant of the position as too hawkish. The book’s four main sections each focus on one participant in the deliberations over Leffingwell – the Majority Leader, Bob Munson; a longstanding Minority Senator, Seab Cooley; a young Majority Senator from Utah with a secret in his past, Brigham Anderson; and Orrin Knox of Illinois, the idealized Senator who is faced with a choice between the Right Thing and his own Presidential aspirations. Each character is richly drawn in two dimensions – we get a tremendous amount of detail, including biographies of each from childhood, so much of it unnecessary – but lacks the real complexity of actual people.

Over the course of the first half of the book, the accusation that Leffingwell was once a member of a communist discussion group comes to light, is disproven, then resurfaces, and the second time the news gets to Sen. Anderson, who had a brief affair with another man while serving in the Navy in World War II in Honolulu. Now married with a young daughter, from the conservative state of Utah, Anderson is an easy mark for blackmail, and when information on his dalliance comes to the hands of the President, he has no compunction about using it. (The entire episode is modeled after the true story of Sen. Lester Hunt, who killed himself in his Senate office after colleagues tried to blackmail him over the arrest of his son for soliciting sex with an undercover officer.) The consequences of this extortion attempt put Leffingwell’s merits on the back burner and put his opponents, including Sen. Knox, in direct conflict with the President, who refuses to withdraw his candidate even with the evidence of his previous flirtations with communism known to him.

The book is as slow as it sounds; Drury’s pace is leisurely and his sentences tediously long. It’s not a book of action, but it’s also not a book of much dialogue, either, which slows its pace further and left me wondering how Drury intended to push the plot forward. There are maybe a half-dozen memorable scenes in the book – the first hearing where Leffingwell confronts his accuser and the resolution of Brigham Anderson’s section come to mind – and far too much time showing the Senators spending time with their generic wives or chatting with the stereotyped ambassadors from India, Russia, France, and England. The backroom dealing that determines the fate of the candidate should be front and center, but Drury distracts the reader from the good stuff too often.

Anderson’s story could have been the center of a better, if less ambitious, novel, but would never have seen the light of day in 1960. As it is, Drury evinces some empathy for his character, but every discussion of his past transgression is in the light of what a terrible sin it was, even beyond what it might have meant for the character’s political career. It doesn’t make the book flawed – every work of art should be evaluated at least in part based on the time in which it was created – but it does make it seem very dated.

There’s also a lot of setup here for future books, ones Drury did eventually write, that brings nothing to the table in this one – notably the marriage between the children of two of the Senators in the story and the decision by that son to begin his own political career. It’s all prologue but for a book I have no interest in reading, and only served to make this book longer. And if you strip out all this extraneous content I’ve identified here, what are you left with? The story itself is quite thing beyond the Anderson scandal, and that’s the one area where Drury gave us too little verbiage. Add to that the fairy-tale idea of Senators who take their job to evaluate nominees seriously beyond mere partisan rubber-stamping and you get a book that seems to talk about an America that never existed in the first place.

I’m down to eight unread Pulitzer winners, the most recent of which is Mackinlay Kantor’s mammoth 1955 novel Andersonville.

Next up: I’ve got about 100 pages left in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl.

Everybody’s Fool.

I loved Richard Russo’s peak novels, including Empire Falls, Straight Man, and Nobody’s Fool, all of which combined great characterization (of men, at least), well-developed settings, and a mix of humor both lowbrow and high to present slices of life in declining Northeastern mill towns. The last one I mentioned followed the exploits of Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a charming ne’er-do-well who twists the folk hero archetype around and makes us cheer for him as he puts one over on his various nemeses in their small community. Sully returns in a sequel, Everybody’s Fool, set ten years after the original story, and while it’s a pleasant read on its own, it can’t stand up to the shadow of its predecessor.

This time around, Russo gives us two protagonists, Sully and the cop he was jailed for punching in the first book, Doug Raymer, who is now the chief of police, and is Sully’s antiparticle. Where Sully is confident to the point of rashness, Raymer is constantly worried that he’s doing the wrong thing, whether in his job or in his now ended marriage to a woman who died by falling down the steps as she was preparing to leave him for an unknown lover. Raymer and his assistant, Charice, are clearly going to end up an item by the end of the book, although he’s hesitating both because of their work relationship and because they’re different races. Meanwhile, Sully has ended his affair with his paramour Ruth, but her daughter Janie is now a mother herself, and Janie’s ex-boyfriend is an abusive asshole who keeps showing up despite an order of protection. Carl and Rub are still around from the first book, Wirf and Miss Beryl aren’t. Peter, Sully’s son, just shows up in passing; the missing cobra at the heart of the funniest subplot gets more page time.

Everybody’s Fool is similar to the first book, but it’s not the same because it can’t be, even though Russo seems deadset on recreating the past. By setting this book ten years in the future and continuing the stroke of good luck that hit Sully at the end of the first book, Russo has flipped his world upside down and has to give Sully a new stroke of bad luck – a bad diagnosis on his heart from a VA doctor – to try to rebalance the scales, but it doesn’t work. Sully was charming in the first book because he used his charisma and wiles to get by; now that he’s living on Easy Street, he comes off as more of a jerk. His best friend, Rub, is a pathetic character, and Sully’s good natured ribbing now appears mean. Carl probably deserves what Sully gives him, but there are moments where Carl is at least trying to reach across the divide for a moment of shared humanity, and Sully can’t be bothered. I loved Sully in the first book, but here, I found him exasperating.

Raymer, meanwhile, ends up with more time at center stage, and the results are mixed, as he’s certainly not as compelling a lead as Sully was. Russo tries to infuse some depth to him by giving Raymer a sort of devil on his shoulder (after he’s hit by a lightning strike) who pushes him to be bold and decisive where Raymer would ordinarily be reticent. In some scenes, such as the resolution to the cobra story, it works beautifully, the sort of serendipitous denouement at which Russo excels; in others, it comes across like Russo is trying to make Raymer sound like a crazy person, and it instead feels like a bad comic device.

I can understand an author wanting to revisit some of his favorite creations, both characters and places, but for a second novel in the same setting to work, it has to tell us something new, and I don’t think Everybody’s Fool accomplishes that in the least. Russo creates new problems for old friends and solves them in mostly expected ways. The one surprise of the book is a new character, Jerome, Charice’s brother, a side character whose depth is slowly revealed over the course of the book, and who probably should have been its main character after all – although if Russo were anxious about writing a book with an African-American protagonist, I could certainly understand that. Jerome and Charice were just what this fictional town needed: a dose of something completely different, an injection of otherness into a sea of white blue-collar folks that could have made Everybody’s Fool feel like a fresh look at an old milieu. Instead, we get a pleasant read that breaks no new ground. It’s like a Pixar sequel, where we’re glad to see the characters we loved, but realize at the end that we didn’t learn anything new about them.

Next up: I mentioned yesterday that I’m reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and the next review will cover Allen Drury’s Pulitzer winner Advise and Consent.

Blackout and All Clear.

Connie Willis’ time-travel novels are a marvel; she’s created an alternate universe where time travel isn’t just possible, but plausible, because it’s intrinsic to her plots but not to the characters or the setting. The first full-length novel, The Doomsday Book, sent a character back to the period of the Black Death at the same time that a pandemic hit Oxford in 2060, where the time-traveling historians reside. The second, To Say Nothing of the Dog, was a comedy of manners that parodied a Brit Lit classic. Her 2010 diptych Blackout/All Clear is a magnum opus in scope and length, a single novel published in two parts because the combination runs over 1100 pages, sending three historians back into World War II only to have everything go awry for them. The duo swept the major sci-fi novel awards (Hugo, Nebula, and Locus) despite some reviews that criticized the books’ length. I adore Willis’ writing and character development, so while the books are long – it took me just over two weeks to finish the pair – my only regret at their length was that I was dying to get to the resolution.

Willis’ time-travel universe keeps that physical impossibility to something of a minimum. Historians travel backwards in time for research purposes, and of course are charged with staying out of the way of history lest they find they alter it. Spacetime itself has a defense mechanism, however; it won’t allow time travelers to land at a point in history where their mere presence may change its course – so, no, you can’t go back and kill baby Hitler, even in fiction. Those who try end up displaced in time or location from their target, and the gap is called “slippage.” Meanwhile, returning through a portal, called a drop, to 2060 is also complicated – the drops must not be seen by “contemps” from that time period, and if the location isn’t secure, the drop won’t open and the historian can’t return home until the next rendezvous. It’s an elegant, concise way to introduce time travel and all of its attendant problems into serious literature that would otherwise collapse under the weight of the details.

Unlike Willis’ previous two novels in this setting, nearly all of Blackout/All Clear takes place in the past. Once the historians start to step through the portal into World War II at the start of the first book, we don’t get back to Oxford until well into All Clear; this is a novel of three historians stuck in World War II, simultaneously trying to find a way back to their present and to avoid doing anything that might alter history … which could in turn mean that time travel is never invented, creating a paradox with unforeseeable consequences (none of them good, though). Michael Davies wants to research heroes, but ends up in the evacuation at Dunkirk. Polly Churchill wants to research the conditions and behavior of people who sheltered in Tube (subway) stations during the Blitz, but ends up in a shelter below a church and falls into an amateur theatrical troupe. Merope Ward wants to research the lives of evacuated children in the English countryside, only to find herself saving one of her ward’s lives and bringing some of the children back to London to an uncertain fate during the bombings. The three all realize soon enough that something’s amiss, between the slippage and the failure of their drops to reopen, and start to look for each other in London to seek a way out before the paradoxes of time travel overtake them.

Willis’ prose captures the cadence and flow of great British authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries, even though she’s an American author writing today, with the clarity and wit of a Wodehouse and a bit of the descriptiveness of Dickens (but not too much). She also creates wonderful characters, a few of whom, like department head Mr. Dunworthy or young Colin Templer, we’ve seen before. Merope, who goes by Eileen in the past, and Polly are a little bit too similar to each other, although some slight personality distinctions emerge in the second book, but the characters around the core trio are wonderfully diverse and well filled-out, from the actor Sir Godfrey to the aging fisherman Commander Harold to the imps Alf and Binnie who plague Merope’s existence. Willis has given her world depth and texture by populating it with believable, three-dimensional characters, even unlikable ones, so that reading her novels, especially this two-part tome, becomes an immersive experience. I was very much reminded of watching the Foyle’s War TV series, which is set almost entirely in World War II and even has one episode that occurs in part in a bomb shelter; Willis recreated that setting in words to the point where I could lose myself in the story.

Blackout itself isn’t much of a standalone novel because it ends mid-story; there is absolutely zero resolution at its end, not even so much as an answer to the question of why these historians have gotten stuck when their colleagues had gone to other points in history and returned without major incident. If you’re going to read one, you’re committing to read both, and that does mean that you’ll be in the past with the trio of trapped heroes for a long time. I’m completely comfortable with that – I will happily spend all day in Connie Willis’ words if my schedule permits.

Next up: I’ve read a few books since this pairing, but just started another Hugo winner, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which definitely sounds like something other than a critically acclaimed sci-fi novel.

Stick to baseball, 6/17/17.

I recapped the drafts for all 15 NL teams and all 15 AL teams on Friday and Thursday, respectively, and previously had reactions to day one and day two of the draft, as well as a Klawchat during day two.

I did manage to squeeze in a boardgame review for Paste, breaking down the family-level tile-laying game Bärenpark, which has a Tetris/Patchwork-like mechanic and plays well with four but needs a few rules tweaks to keep it fair.

Smart Baseball continues to sell well, according to my editors, so thank you all for buying, reading, and talking it up. I have signings coming up in Toronto (6/26), Miami (7/8), Harrisburg (7/15), Berkeley (7/19), Chicago (7/28, details to come), and at GenCon 50 in Indianapolis (August 17-20).

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I was a bit busy this week, and was offline most of the day Thursday as we went strawberry picking, which means we now have jam and strawberry-rhubarb pie, so the list of links is pretty short. I should be back to normal next week.