A Bell for Adano.

John Hersey is probably best remembered today, to the extent that he’s remembered at all, for “Hiroshima,” his mammoth piece for the New Yorker that took up all of the periodical’s August 31st, 1946 issue, and was later republished as a standalone book. A year before that remarkable piece of non-fiction, first-person journalism, however, Hersey won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his satirical war novel A Bell for Adano, a spiritual precursor to Catch-22, one that allows the absurdity of military life and bureaucracy to satirize itself while also humanizing the American occupation of Italy through one character, Major Joppolo, who becomes the wartime mayor of the Italian town of Adano.

Adano has lost much in the war; the people are starving and thirsty, and the ousted Fascist mayor was a corrupt coward. But no loss seems to matter as much as the loss of the town’s 700-year-old bell, recently taken by Mussolini’s government and melted down to make more munitions. As Major Joppolo attempts to restore order to Adano, reestablishing basic services and some semblance of the rule of law, he also makes it his main mission to find the town a new bell, one that has some historical significance and will have the “right tone.” Of course, other military officials think he’s crazy, and the General overseeing that part of the occupation, based on George S. Patton, is a single-minded tyrant. The scene in Patton where the titular character shoots a local merchant’s donkey appears here, and, like much of the book, is based on an actual incident; the shooting and Major Joppolo’s response to it sets up an obvious if poetic conclusion to the story that also creates some comedic pressure for the Major to find that bell before his time in Adano runs out.

While Joseph Heller’s book spares nothing and no one in its farcical look at the pointlessness of war and the human machines we build up to wage it, Hersey grounds his story in reality and lets the book’s rich humor come from very believable personal interactions, from the concupiscent Captain Purvis’s unending attempts to seduce Italian woman with whom he can’t communicate, to naval Lieutenant Livingston, whose snobbish first impressions of Major Joppolo give way when the latter employs a little bit of flattery. The return of Mayor Nasta and his subsequent arrest are almost slapstick comic moments. The memo that describes Joppolo’s countermanding of General Marvin’s order stopping all carts from entering Adano takes the most circuitous route imaginable to the latter’s desk as various underlings try to “lose” it before it does any harm. Some parts of the book were just laugh-out-loud funny, and most of it was smile-inducing, other than the occasional intervention of the details of the war, or the strongly sentimental notions connecting Joppolo and the citizens of Adano.

So why hasn’t A Bell for Adano endured as a work of American literature, especially war literature, when it’s based on true stories from the occupation (Major Joppolo himself was modeled on an actual American officer), is funny, and would be easily accessible to high school readers? I’ve long been appalled at how little of the American canon we present to American students; many great authors are omitted from even honors or AP reading lists even though books like Adano could be read and covered inside of a week. Perhaps it’s just been overshadowed by later works – it may have inspired Heller’s novel, but Heller’s book was funnier, more vicious, and covered far more ground – but it’s worth pushing it back on to the modern bookshelf.

Next up: Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

NYC eats, August 2015.

I’ve got two posts up for Insiders today, one on sustainable breakthroughs so far in 2015 and one on this weekend’s Metropolitan Classic high school tournament.

I had quite a run of food in the city (that’s New York for all you non-New Yorkers; the qualifier simply isn’t required for the rest of us, nor is capitalization) over the weekend, between a pizza pilgrimage, an artisan coffee roaster, and a restaurant crawl with the O.G. Top Chef Harold Dieterle.

Pizza first … I’ve heard for years about Paulie Gee’s, a small pizzeria in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that’s only open in the evenings and can easily run two-hour waits. They’re considered one of the best pizza joints in the country, including a spot on that 2013 Food and Wine list that I’ve been using as a sort of travel guide. (I’ve now eaten at 25 of the 47 that are still open, including all but one of the NYC entries.) By going solo I was able to get right in and sit at the bar, which had a rather convenient reading light right by my seat. The pizza is thin-crust, cooked in an Italian-built wood-fired oven, with various preset options ranging from the traditional to the bizarre. I went with a mostly traditional option of fresh mozzarella, arugula, and prosciutto, but – and I know I won’t get a good reaction from the crowd with this – the pizza was overcooked. The edges were too charred, and there were small parts of the center of the dough that were burned underneath. I have no complaints with the toppings and it probably would have been outstanding had it come out of the oven as little as 20 seconds sooner. Fortunately for me, they’re planning to open a second location in Hampden near Baltimore, so I’ll get to try them again.

The coffee spot was Blue Bottle, a roaster based in San Francisco with a couple of outlets in the city, and that is some damn good espresso. They offer a number of varietals in pour-overs, but as I was pressed for time both mornings (and particularly desperate for caffeine on the second morning), I went with espresso, which they make with blends rather than single-origins. Their roasts are light (“third-wave”) so you can still taste the flavors of the beans.

Harold Dieterle, the winner of the first season of Top Chef, is a huge Mets fan and reader of my stuff, so we’ve been in touch for a while and trying to get together for a food crawl in Manhattan, which finally happened on Friday night. The first stop was Cata, a tapas place on the Lower East Side where the alcohol consumption began – they specialize in gin and tonics, and I got one with Fever Tree tonic and lavender – and we had a handful of small plates. I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d had jamón iberico, the Spanish version of prosciutto made from black Iberian pigs, often fed just on acorns. It’s less salty than prosciutto and the meat has a luxurious, buttery character with a distinct nutty flavor. It’s carved to order from a leg that’s sitting on the bar counter and costs $29 for a plate. We tried a handful of other tapas, best of which were the smoked oysters, the patatas bravas (fried potatoes, but not really French fries) served with an aerated aioli, and the marinated anchovy toasts.

Danny Meyer’s restaurant empire continues to grow, as the entrepreneur best known for creating Shake Shack is behind the new place called Untitled at the Whitney Museum. Head chef Michael Anthony (not the guy from Chickenfoot, although that would be cool) has created a vegetable-focused but not vegetarian menu that changes very frequently to reflect whatever’s most in season. We had at least a half-dozen dishes, some of which were gifts from the kitchen (for Harold, not for me), and the standouts included a tomato/melon “sashimi” that highlighted the spectacular tomatoes with just a little salt and I presume olive oil; a plate of grilled pole beans with squid and toasted hazelnuts, presenting a vegetable I rarely see in a way I hadn’t tried before; nectarine “toasts,” again taking a central item from the produce section and making it the runaway star; pork fritters, opulent little balls of shredded pork shoulder just barely breaded and fried, served over a corn relish; and duck sausage with mustard sauce, which turned out to be the second-best duck dish I had on the evening. The only dish I didn’t love was one of their most famous, the smashed cucumbers with black sesame seeds and soba noodles, which ended up lost in the sea of liquid underneath it, a hazard of working with high-quality in-season cukes. The space itself is very cool, with high ceilings and long pendant lights, plus lots of glass looking out on Gansevoort. Chef Anthony came out to chat and is an incredibly nice guy who’s a fairly serious Reds fan.

The last spot, and the most decadent, was Cosme, a Mexican-inspired upscale restaurant that, according to Harold, has one of the best duck dishes in the city: Duck carnitas, a whole braised duck leg served in a cast-iron skillet with thinly sliced onions and radishes, served with blue-corn tortillas, salsa verde, chile de arbol salsa (I tried it; it’s hot), and lime wedges. The duck shreds like smoked pork shoulder, but has a softer, smoother texture, and it stays moist between the braising and the way it’s served under the browned skin. It’s more than enough to share, but it’s also a steep $59. Whether that’s worth it depends on your budget, but I will say it’s probably the best duck dish I’ve ever had in a restaurant.

We also had Chef Enrique Olvera’s now-famous dessert, a pavlova he calls “Husk Meringue with Corn Mousse,” with burned and powdered corn husks in the giant meringue, which is served cracked in half so that the corn mousse (made with mascarpone) appears to be spilling out of the center. You can see pictures of both dishes in the glowing NY Times review from February. If Olvera’s name rings a bell, he appeared as a judge in one of the Mexico City episodes of the last season of Top Chef.

The Buried Giant.

I held a Klawchat on Thursday, and I reviewed the Spiel des Jahres-nomianted family boardgame Broom Service for Paste.

Kazuo Ishiguro wrote two of my all-time favorite novels, the very British stiff-upper-lip story The Remains of the Day and the brilliant dystopian tragedy Never Let Me Go, along with a handful of lesser books that featured his gorgeous prose but couldn’t match the two peaks for storycraft. His latest novel, The Buried Giant ($5.99 for Kindle right now), is a welcome return to form for the English author, offering a plot of simple scenes that lends itself to vast philosophical interpretation, in an unfamiliar milieu that blends beautifully (if anachronistically) with his classical prose.

The Buried Giant takes place in pre-medieval England, where the Saxons are gradually taking over from the native Britons and the land is shrouded in a mist that has caused all people enveloped within it to lose access to many of their long-term memories. An old couple within one settlement, built into a hillside network of caves, sets off on a journey to visit their son, who has moved to another village for reasons no longer clear to his parents, Axl and Beatrice. The pilgrimage goes awry quickly – unsurprising, as the pair don’t even know where their son might be – as they’re co-opted into a larger endeavor involving the warrior Wistan, a mysterious orphan Edwin, the Arthurian knight Gawain, and a dragon whose actual existence is unclear until the very end of the book.

Ishiguro’s Victorian phrasings are stilted in the mouths of his Germanic and Celtic characters, but the language seems to fit his fabulist aims – and, of course, an accurate rendering of their language would leave the book unreadable. Fable it is, however, without the pedantry of traditional fables, instead opening up ruminations on the weight of cultural trauma, coming to grips with the sins of the past, and our individual and collective abilities to move on with or without those memories. Is our ability to forget, at least at a superficial level, an asset or a liability? Is there true reconciliation without reckoning?

Axl and Beatrice end up in between two forces taking contrary approaches to these questions, one seeking to lift the fog, the other to preserve it, and are given the choice of sides to support, knowing that neither option is perfect. Choosing to lift the fog may advance the cause of the people of the region, but expose dormant conflicts between the two of them that have been lost to the mist. It’s the question every country’s leaders face after some horrible internal conflagration or genocide: will the long-term gains from a “truth and reconciliation” commission exceed the short-term pain and renewed enmity from reopening wounds so recently closed?

Ishiguro paints his characters in broad strokes here because the mist he’s created all but demands it; the characters feel round but vague, as if the mist itself is between the reader and the page. The precise, modern English in which the characters speak only adds to the perceived distance from us to the action – and there is action, by the way, not just a Tolkienesque walk through New Zealand landscapes with a lot of talking. Ishiguro plays with his narrative prerogative, shifting his view at times away from Axl and Beatrice, although they remain at the heart of the book, such as scenes that serve to emphasize the objection entrenched forces might have to any reexamination of the past. Oligarchy takes a beating here, but The Buried Giant is no polemic, so while Ishiguro concludes the book with a firm decision by the main characters, the ending is neither happy nor straightforward, much as post-war authorities must struggle with the question of lifting the fogs over their battered nations and dealing with the sins of the recent past.

Next up: Anita Okrent’s book on artificial langages (like Esperanto and, yes, Klingon), In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius.


I’ve had three Insider pieces go up in the last 36 hours, on the the Johnny Cueto trade, a few Binghamton Mets prospects, and the Tyler Clippard trade.

Bill Nye’s Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation should be required reading for every American high school student, and I’d hand the book to anyone who indicated s/he plans on voting in our next election. Nye demolishes the many ignorant anti-evolution arguments out there, while eloquently and ardently presenting a case for science in a world of denial and fear-mongering.

The title refers to the persistence of evolution deniers, those folks who refuse to accept the scientific proof of evolution because it interferes with other aspects of their worldview. Nye engaged in a well-known debate with a particularly ardent denier, Ken Ham, who also refuses to accept the actual age of the earth, substituting his own fiction (I believe he says it’s 6000 years old, although some other deniers go with 10,000 years, not that it matters in the least because they’re wrong) for geological fact much as he substitutes his own fiction (that the first book of the Christian Bible is the literal truth of our creation) for biological fact. That debate, in which Nye clowned Ham, who continually referred to the Bible as his “evidence,” was one of the spurs for Nye to write Undeniable, but it serves more broadly as a frontal assault on the anti-science/anti-intellectual movement that hinders or prevents us from facing major societal or global problems, from disease eradication to feeding the planet to slowing anthropomorphic climate change.

The book should convince anyone who still denies evolution yet is willing to listen to some basic facts. We know now that all mammals descended from a common ancestor that lived some 70 million years ago, something demonstrated by patterns in the fossil record and the similarities between our DNA and those of many species seemingly unrelated to us. We’re barely distinguishable at the DNA level from chimpanzees, sharing 99% of our DNA with the related primates called bonobos, while we share about half of our DNA sequences with bananas (themselves the product of cloning; every yellow banana you eat is a Cavendish and is genetically identical to all of the other Cavendishes in the world). NOTE: I edited the common ancestor bit, as I conflated two numbers when writing this review from memory. Thanks to the readers on FB who pointed this out.

He attacks some of the most common (and dumb) creationist arguments against evolution, swatting them down like so many genetically-similar-to-human fruit flies. The argument that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics fails because that law only applies to closed systems, whereas the Earth – getting energy from that big yellow ball in the sky – is very much an open system. The argument from irreducible complexity, that current organisms are too complex to be explained without an Official Designer™, fails on multiple counts, not the least of which is all of the suboptimal designs we see in nature; Nye even mentions ulnar collateral ligaments for pitchers in an amusing aside on this topic. He points out more significantly that the only reason you’d see the “designs” we see in nature are as the result of a process of incremental changes through genetic mutations, and that the “what good is half a wing?” variation of this argument misstates how features like wings evolved. He takes down the false dichotomy of macroevolution versus microevolution (which creationists claim is only “adaptation”), including how the latter is the inevitable result of the former – and how there’s plenty of tangible proof of the latter, despite what Ken Ham might claim.

Once Nye has explained the theory of evolution by way of the various insubstantial criticisms levied at it by creationists, he takes on multiple issues that are related to or follow naturally from our understanding of evolution, all of which are significant issues in the science policy sphere.

* GMOs. Nye has already walked back some of his criticisms from this chapter after taking fire from the scientific community at large, although the concerns he raises about the introduction of DNA from distant species into food crops – notably that their effects on the crops’ ecosystems are difficult to predict – are valid. Humans are particularly terrible at foreseeing unintended consequences, as explained in The Invisible Gorilla and demonstrated in nearly every public-policy decision or the entire Bud Selig reign in MLB, and such genetic modifications entail lots of unpredictable ramifications. Nye has continued to raise the alarm about the massive reduction in the monarch butterfly population thanks to the widespread use of glyphosphate, the enzyme-inhibiting herbicide marketed as Roundup, which has decimated the natural supply of milkweed plants. You should plant some in your yard if you’re in the right part of the country; we have for the last two summers and were rewarded in 2014 with several visiting monarch caterpillars.

* Abortion. Nye points out that the claim that life begins at conception is untenable, as a successfully fertilized human embryo may fail to implant in the uterine wall or fail to successfully undergo gastrulation; if such eggs are considered to be alive and human, then a woman who miscarries for these reasons has committed murder. Nye broaches the topic when discussing stem cells and the concerns, most of which are baseless, about harvesting such cells from fertilized embryos that would otherwise be headed for the sewer.

* Antibiotic drug resistance. If you’ve read my stuff for a while, you know this is a huge issue for me, particularly as it relates to food safety. The problem exists because evolution is true: bacteria that have beneficial mutations that allow them to survive an antibiotic purge reproduce and eventually spread, leading to resistant strains that defeat our drugs. We can’t ever win this battle, but we can certainly fight it more intelligently than we do now.

* Race. It’s not real – that is, not biologically real. Race is a social construct, and Nye explains why.

* Space exploration. Ah, here’s where Nye and I diverge in our views. Nye discusses the possibility of life on other bodies within our solar system, naming a few likely candidates (Mars, Europa, Enceladus), and argues in favor of fairly expensive missions to try to determine if there is life of the microbial variety on any of these planets or satellites. I won’t try to paraphrase his case for fear of doing it an injustice, but I did not find the case satisfactory. A multi-billion dollar mission like this has to have a significant potential payoff for us, and he doesn’t provide one. Knowing there’s life on other worlds would be interesting, but does it advance our knowledge in any practical or meaningful fashion? How would it? Perhaps we’d find microbes that can produce energy in a novel way, or that can consume chemicals that are pollutants on earth … but he doesn’t even broach those possibilities. And, of course, that $10 billion or $20 billion mission has a very high probability of finding no life at all, so the potential payout has to exceed the cost by a significant factor.

* Another chapter, on the evolutionary explanations for altruism, also fell a bit short of the mark for me, but for different reasons. I’m strictly a lay reader on this, and can’t put my opinions on the matter on par with those of Nye or his sources, but it seems even after reading Nye’s explanation that the evolutionary psychology explanation for human altruism is too post hoc – crafting a narrative to fit the facts, rather than working from the facts forward as evolutionary biologists have done. The comparison of human altruism to altruistic behavior in other species also struck me as facile, an argument by weak analogy that did not address the extent or nuance of human altruistic behaviors.

Nye does not explicitly offer any arguments against religion or theism, although he is arguing heavily against creationism, Intelligent Design, and any sort of Creator force behind life on this planet. He also makes several points that are inherently anti-religious, such as the fact that we are not “special” from a genetic perspective and the fact that we aren’t the end product of evolution because evolution has no end product. Nye points out that some readers may find these points depressing, but says he finds evolution and the march of science inspiring, especially because of the breadth of knowledge out there waiting for us to discover it.

I listened to Nye’s narration of the Audible audio edition of Undeniable, and there is no question in my mind that he made the book more enjoyable for me. He brings tremendous enthusiasm to the subject, and his comic timing and delivery are effortless and natural. It’s hard to hear him exude over these topics and not feel his excitement or his indignation. Nye says he wrote this book because teaching anti-scientific topics like creationism hurts our children and our country, a point with which I agree wholeheartedly. Hearing those words from his mouth made the message seem more potent.

Inside Out.

Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out, lived up to all of the hype and praise it’s received so far, a visually stunning film that hits all of the bittersweet notes that have made Pixar’s best films – especially WALL-E and the Toy Story trilogy – masterpieces not just of animation but of cinema. It’s also, in many ways, one of Pixar’s riskiest ideas, thanks to one of its least conventional plots yet, making the ultimate success of the film even more remarkable. (Full, if obvious, disclosure: Disney owns Pixar and ESPN.)

Inside Out is a metaphysical coming-of-age story that manages to encapsulate a buddy comedy, a psychological thriller, and an Arthur Clarke-style sci-fi story all set inside of the head of eleven-year-old Riley Anderson, whose family has just removed her from her idyllic life in Minnesota so her father can work for a startup in San Francisco. Riley’s personality is determined by a pastel-colored world run primarily by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, each voiced and drawn in distinctive fashion (and helpfully color-coded). Riley’s memories each bear one of those five colors, although we learn early on that Sadness (Phyllis Smith) can turn any memory blue (her color) with a touch, a sort of King Midas meets The Old Guitarist-era Picasso. When Joy and Sadness are inadvertently tossed from Headquarters, where the five emotions live and work, along with Riley’s core memories, her whole personality starts to crumble into depression and negativity. Joy and Sadness have to try to find their way back from the archives of Long-Term Memory while the other three emotions try without success to steer the ship.

The five emotionsJoy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is in essence a yellow-skinned, blue-haired, fuzzy Leslie Knope, full of enthusiasm and as much of a leader as the quintet of emotions can have; she was there first, Sadness second, and there’s an uneasy (but not antagonistic) relationship between the two. Their pairing in exile isn’t an accidental bit of plotting, as the film needs the two to play off of each other, even when they run into Riley’s largely-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) and end up in a series of misadventures as they try to get back to headquarters. (My favorite: their trip through abstract thought, where the three are transformed into cubist images, then deconstructed.) Some of the resolutions are a little obvious – Pixar writers have always taken the maxim of Chekhov’s gun very seriously – but the three writers do an excellent job of managing three disparate plot strands: the Joy/Sadness journey, the three knuckleheads still in HQ, and Riley’s real-world interactions with her befuddled (but never distant or cliched) parents.

The Joy/Sadness adventure – and that’s what it is, a buddy comedy with serious consequences for the other storylines – is the primary plot thread of the movie, and the relationship between the two characters, matched in Poehler’s and Smith’s voicing, is more oil/water than acid/base: Sadness doesn’t want to bring anyone down, but she can’t help it, while Joy remains indefatigable in the face of unfathomable odds. Sadness wants to be more like Joy, while Joy looks on Sadness as a well-meaning nuisance, so you can see who’s going to learn what lesson in the end. It’s how we get there that makes most Pixar movies such memorable experiences for the viewer – if you have a kid, you’ll probably get a little weepy, as I did at a few points during Inside Out – and such great art. The ending is happy, happier than, say, Toy Story 3, but it’s yellow with a few spots of blue.

The great achievement of Inside Out‘s plot isn’t the ending, or the adventure in Long-Term Memory, but the fact that the film works so beautifully without an antagonist. There’s no villain, no Big Foozle, no evil queen, hell, there’s no princesses (not that I’m anti-princess but a change of pace is always welcome). Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are not set in opposition to Joy, but are depicted as essential elements of human personality. We don’t get the Dragon of Solitude or the Alienation Wraith; when Riley’s emotions have to fight their way back, they’re fighting something fundamental, not an artificial plot-contrivance bad guy whom they have to kill to get to their goal. Inside Out‘s tension is built around time, not threat, yet the film never drags for the lack of a foil for our twin heroines.

Inside Out is full of Easter eggs, as most Pixar flicks are; I only caught a few of them, including the music in the nightmare, the Chinatown reference, and the homage to Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field.” I didn’t realize the two jellybean-like things guarding the subconscious were actually voiced by Frank Oz and Dave Goelz, longtime Muppet performers. There are apparently several I missed in the classroom scene, although I’m not sure I would have caught any without a remote control in my hand to pause it.

I’m kind of bummed that my daughter is too old for the Inside Out Box of Mixed Emotions, five books, one per emotion, aimed at 3- to 5-year-olds. It looks like Driven by Emotions is more age-appropriate; I’ll report back if we read that one.

Lava, the short animated feature that preceded Inside Out, is a cute but insubstantial love story, remarkable mostly for the quality of its animation (especially the landscapes on the sides of the two volcanoes) and the film’s song, which reminded me of the late native Hawai’an singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Known as Israel K., his cover of “Over the Rainbow” is the only version of that song I can stand, and Lava‘s main voice-over actor, Kuana Torres Kahele, even sings in a similar fashion to Israel K.’s style.

The Graveyard Book.

Neil Gaiman won his first Hugo Award for Best Novel for his modern epic American Gods, a masterful blend of pagan mythology and magical realism that breathes some life into the generally-overused Chosen One plot structure, thanks in large part to Gaiman’s prodigious imagination. After withdrawing the related book Anansi Boys from consideration for the same honor in 2006, he won the prize a second time for his young adult novel The Graveyard Book, which brings his same charming prose style and clever world-building mind to a gentler story without most of the violence or sex that populate those two earlier works.

There’s an exception to that last bit, and it’s at the start of the book, perhaps the most overused trope in all of young-adult literature (and not a few Disney movies): The orphaned child protagonist. The toddler to soon be known as Nobody “Bod” Owens wakes in a house where his parents and sister have just been knifed to death in their sleep, escaping only due to happenstance and his own wanderlust, ending up in the local disused graveyard where the deceased denizens protect him from the killer. Bod grows up in the graveyard, raised by the Owens (dead for a few hundred years), watched by the not-quite-dead guardian Silas, forbidden to leave the cemetery grounds for fear it will expose him to his would-be murderer, Jack.

Of course, you know the story has to end with Bod facing Jack one final time, and since this is a children’s book, Bod’s going to come out all right, so the onus is on Gaiman to create tension within each of the episodes leading up to the 80-page chapter where the final confrontation occurs. Gaiman infuses Bod with the curiosity of most children, only partly sated by the attempts of the graveyard’s dwellers to educate him, leading him to various excursions outside of and underneath the cemetery itself, setting up the series of events or points of interest that will all come into play in the last battle.

The core story is straightforward, as you’d expect in a self-contained, 300-page young adult novel, but Gaiman has populated his necropolis with a small cast of eccentrics – I suppose expecting the shades to be simply drawn was unreasonable – that bring to mind everyone from Robert Altman to Jasper Fforde. They’re not weirdos, just dead and a little outdated, and have much to teach Bod (and the young reader) about the value of life and living it with just as much (or little) fear as is necessary.

But the book is just as much for the parent reading with or alongside the child; this is very much a book about rearing a son or daughter and learning to let go the older the child gets. Bod’s search for independence and agency is far from unusual; all things considered, he’s a rather compliant child, curious but only occasionally reckless, bailed out a couple of times by Silas or one of the other spirits who’ve been raising him. He touches something hot (metaphorically speaking), gets burned, and learns not to do it again; no matter how many times you say “don’t touch that,” you know the child won’t really believe you until s/he tests your admonition out in the flesh. And when Bod has to fight the final battle without Silas’ protecting, albeit with lots of help from his noncorporeal family, he comes of age right before us in a satisfying but far from entirely happy ending.

My daughter just turned nine, but I think the traumatic introduction where Bod’s family is killed offscreen might upset her a little too much; she was fine with Lily and James Potter dying, but that occurred before page 1 and it’s a lot less real to read of someone dying via spell than dying via blade. I’ll keep the book and leave it to her own judgment to decide when she wants to tackle it.

Next up: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.


Whew! I’m glad that’s over. For Insiders, my recaps of the drafts for all 15 NL teams and all 15 AL teams are up, as well as my round one reactions and a post-draft Klawchat.

Charles Seife’s Proofiness: How You’re Being Fooled by the Numbers is a beautiful polemic straight from the headquarters of the Statistical Abuse Department. Seife, whose Zero is an enjoyable, accessible story of the development and controversy of that number and concept, aims both barrels at journalists, politicians, and demagogues who misinterpret or misuse statistics, knowing that if you attach a number to something, people are more inclined to believe it.

Seife opens with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s famous claim about knowing the names of “205 … members of the Communist Party” who were at that moment working in the State Department. It was bullshit; the number kept changing, up and down, every time he gave a version of the speech, but by putting a specific number on it, the audience assumed he had those specific names. It’s a basic logical error: if he has the list of names, he must have the number, but that doesn’t mean the converse is true. He rips through a series of similarly well-known examples of public abuse of statistics, from the miscounting of the Million Man March to stories about blondes becoming extinct to Al Gore cherrypicking data in An Inconvenient Truth, to illustrate some of the different ways people with agendas can and will manipulate you with stats.

One of the best passages, and probably most relevant to us as the Presidential election cycle is beginning, is on polls – particularly on how they’re reported. Seife argues, with some evidence, that many reporters don’t understand what the margin of error means. (This subject also got some time in Ian Ayers’ Super Crunchers, a somewhat dated look at the rise of Big Data in decision-making that has since been lapped by the very topic it attempted to cover.) If done correctly, the margin of error should equal two standard deviations, but many journalists and pundits treat it as some ambiguous measure of the confidence in the reported means. When Smith is leading Jones 51% to 49% with a margin of error of ±3%, that’s not a “statistical dead heat;” that’s telling you that the poll, if run properly, says there’s a 95% chance that Smith’s actual support is between 48% and 54% and a 95% that Jones’ support is between 46% and 52%, with each distribution centered on the means (51% and 49%) that were the actual results of the poll. That’s far from a dead heat, as long as the poll itself didn’t suffer from any systemic bias, as in the famous Literary Digest poll for the 1936 Presidential election.

Seife shifts gears in the second half of the book from journalists to politicians and jurists who either misuse stats for propaganda purposes or who misuse them when crafting bad laws or making bad rulings. He explains gerrymandering, pointing out that this is an easy problem to solve with modern technology if politicians had any actual interest in solving it, and breaks down the 2000 Presidential vote in Florida and the 2008 Minnesota Senate race to show that the inevitable lack of precision even in popular votes and census-taking mean both races were, in fact, dead heats. (Specifically, he says that it is impossible to say with any confidence that either candidate was the winner.) Seife shows how bad data have skewed major court decisions, and how McCleskey v. Kemp ignored compelling data on the skewed implementation of capital punishment. (Antonin Scalia voted with the majority, part of a long pattern of ignoring data that don’t support his views, according to Seife.) This statistical abuse cuts both ways, as he gives examples of both prosecutors and defense attorneys playing dirty with numbers to claim that a defendant is guilty or innocent.

For my purposes, it’s a good reminder that numbers can be illustrative but also misleading, especially since the line between giving stats for descriptive reasons can bleed into the appearance of a predictive argument. I pointed out the other day on Twitter that both Michael Conforto and Kyle Schwarber were on short but impressive power streaks; neither run meant anything given how short they were, but I thought they were fun to see and spoke to how both players are elite offensive prospects. (By the way, Dominic Smith is hitting .353/.390/.569 in his last 29 games, and has reached base in 21 straight games!) But I’d recommend this book to anyone working in the media, especially in the political arena, as a manual for how not to use statistics or to believe the ones that are handed to you. It’s also a great guide for how to be a more educated voter, consumer, and reader, so when climate change deniers claim the earth hasn’t warmed for sixteen years, you’ll be ready to spot and ignore it.

Next up: I’m way behind on reviews, but right now I’m halfway through Adam Rogers’ Proof: The Science of Booze.

The Broad Fork.

My updated ranking of the top 25 prospects in the minors is up for Insiders.

Hugh Acheson’s newest cookbook, The Broad Fork: Recipes for the Wide World of Vegetables and Fruits, is the book that’s been missing from my shelf for years: a book devoted to all manner of fruits and vegetables, ranging from simple recipes to involved ones, that’s largely but not exclusively vegetarian. I’ve tried seven recipes so far, and they all worked on the first try and produced results that made me want to make them all again. (Disclaimer: I’ve met Hugh and he sent me a copy of the book with a signed card that said he hoped this would be “the knuckleball” of cookbooks – weird, but it works. I’d say that’s accurate.)

Acheson writes that his inspiration for the book was a friend who received some kohlrabi (a member of the Brassica family, like broccoli and cabbage, but with a larger stem and sweeter flesh) in his CSA allotment and asked Hugh what the hell he could do with such an odd and uncommon vegetable. Acheson has organized The Broad Fork by season, to align with those of you in CSAs or folks like me who prowl local farmstands for whatever’s in season, although some of these recipes will work just fine with out-of-season items because of the preparations or seasoning involved. He also includes numerous preservation recipes, including pickling and fermenting, so that you can taste the bounty of one season well into the next one.

The two biggest hits so far have been recipes that star one fruit or vegetable but build it up with a sauce or other accompaniment that works in many other dishes as well. Acheson’s take on the classic Italian dish prosciutto e melone (cured Parma ham, which is very salty, along with half-moons of cantaloupe) adds a blended charred-onion vinaigrette that bridged the gap between the salty-fatty meat and the sweet fruit … and also turned out to be an ideal accompaniment for a grilled New York strip steak the following night. The griddled asparagus with pipérade and creamy grits and poached eggs would make a complete meal at brunch, and I used the remaining pipérade – a spanish preparation of onion, garlic, tomato, red pepper, and sherry vinegar – on my fried eggs the next day at lunch. (The grits in the main recipe came out too thin, but I found stirring a little flour and baking powder into the watery leftovers made an excellent savory pancake batter to have with those eggs.)

His pickled hot pepper recipe is simple and extensible to pickling other vegetables (although he has numerous pickling recipes throughout the book), and it leads into the next recipe, a salad with sliced pickled peppers, chickpeas, olives, oranges, mint, and feta cheese, which had a fantastic panoply of flavors but was too difficult to eat with a fork. (A tablespoon did the job just fine, though.) His carrots Vichy are simple and quick and complement the fresh spring carrots we’re getting around here right now without overwhelming them with butter or cream, including just a small amount of each in a recipe that cooks a pound of the roots. Even the honeydew agua fresca, which balances the sweetness of the melon with a cup of lime juice, was an immediate hit around here, one I’ll save for when east coast melons start to show up at our markets later this summer. He does call for the occasional hard-to-find ingredient – bonito flakes, Espelette pepper – although their availability is increasing thanks to Whole Foods and amazon.

Acheson includes a lot of kohlrabis – vegetables you might barely recognize, much less know how to prepare – in the book, including sunchokes, salsify, fiddlehead ferns, yacon (the tuberous root of a type of daisy; I’d never heard of it), endives, okra, and more. He doesn’t limit himself to fruits and vegetables either, with sections on pecans and various mushrooms (by season!), and the book includes numerous asides on subjects like poaching eggs, curing yolks, making vin cotto and citrus ponzu sauce, preparing a roux, preserving lemons, and making dashi and chicken stock (two ways – pressure cooker and slow cooker). He gives us a photo of his cookbook collection and a note on how he uses old books to develop new ideas, and lots of the dry wit that has made him popular as a judge on Top Chef. I’m always looking for new ideas for cooking vegetables, and the fact that Acheson has covered so many plants with easy to understand and easy to modify recipes (because the underlying ratios or concepts are so clear) make this cookbook a new essential.

A Tale for the Time Being.

I get book recommendations from lots of places, many from all of you and many from friends who are bookworms like I am, but Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being came to me via a new route – call it Strangers on a Plane. I was on a flight at some point last year, I think heading to the AFL in October, and the guy sitting next to me was reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful dystopian novel Never Let Me Go. I mentioned that it was among my favorite novels, and asked if he’d read any Murakami, which he had, spurring a brief and very rapid-fire chat about modern Japanese (including Japanese expats) literature. He mentioned Ozeki’s novel, which I’d never heard of, recommending it very highly given what else I said I liked. It’s not quite like Murakami or Ishiguro – both of whom are idiosyncratic enough to make it hard for anyone to be “like” either of them – but Ozeki, a Zen Buddhist priest who lives in British Columbia, has a similar knack with magical realism as Murakami does: A little bit goes a very long way.

A Tale for the Time Being is two stories woven into one, a duality even reflected in the book’s title, as a “time being” is a Buddhist concept (uji) developed by the writer D?gen Zenji, who believed that all time is being and all beings are therefore time. (Whether time is a flat circle he did not say.) Time is a flow, comparable to a river, and all beings exist within time, even though our lives here are momentary. The protagonist of the first story, named Nao (pronounced “now,” another allusion to time and temporality), narrates her own story through entries in a diary she intends to leave for someone else to find at random, a story she refers to as “for the time-being.” Her diary does indeed make its way to someone, a woman on a remote island in British Columbia named Ruth, who lives with her husband Oliver and their idiot cat Pesto. The diary washes up after the 2012 earthquake and tsunami, spurring speculation among the 50 or so residents of the island, but discusses events from over a decade earlier, including Nao’s father’s repeated attempts at suicide and her own intention to do the same when she finishes the diary.

And then it gets really weird: Although the two stories are separated by time and geography, they begin to bleed into each other in ways that don’t quite add up, eventually culminating in the disappearance of text from the last few pages of the diary – a lack of resolution in Nao’s story that Ruth herself has to fix. Saying more would spoil the book’s denuouement, but Ozeki employs this one instance of magical realism (everything else is hyperrealistic, but not actually impossible) to tie her main story and the quasi-metafictional diary story together.

That connection itself lends itself to many interpretations. There’s a crow who keeps appearing on Ruth’s island who may be spiritually connected to Nao or her family. Ozeki alludes to several quantum concepts, including Schrodinger’s cat paradox and the many-worlds interpretation of the effect observation has on quantum phenomena, and may even be teasing the concept of the ‘quantum soul,’ itself an odd marriage of hard physics and the metaphysical. While there’s nothing as cataclysmic as Ray Bradbury’s “The Butterfly Effect,” I found the similarity between the classical statement of this effect – a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa leads to a hurricane in the Americas – and Nao’s struggles to find her own wings eventually affecting Ruth across another vast ocean to be improbably coincidental.

Magical realism and the specific ribbon Ozeki uses to interlace her two narratives aren’t the source of the book’s narrative greed, however, nor is it her fictional version of herself, especially since Ruth’s conversations with Oliver veer into pretentiousness too often. It’s Nao herself, precocious rather than pretentious, a bright teenager who is at-risk due to a disastrous home life, a suicidal father who’s lost his career and self-respect, a mother largely turning a blind eye to her husband’s abdication of his duties, and schoolmates who scorn, taunt, bully, and physically abuse her. She’s a fragile teenager who doesn’t want to show a fragile side, and who’s asked to be stronger and more mature than any teenager should have to be. Her story is the compelling one, and Ruth’s story is more about her own connection to what she reads in Nao’s diary and her attempts to unlock some of the riddles Nao herself couldn’t solve than it is about Ruth herself.

The resolution relies on the collapsing of space and time into a temporary singularity, a metaphorical bridge Ruth can cross to get to Nao’s story and provide her with the resolution she can’t give herself. It’s sweet without becoming maudlin, although it abandons the largely realistic tone of the preceding 300-odd pages. Along the way, Ozeki gives brief introductions to basic concepts of Zen Buddhism, notably zazen, the type of seated meditation that is at the heart of the practice (and may have real physical health benefits as well), but to her credit it never overwhelms either of the core stories. She even has the brief stomach-churning passage of the violence of Japanese soldiers during World War II that marked Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. If you like that novel or Murakami’s work in general, take my seatmate’s advice and pick this book up too.

Next up: I’m bouncing around in my reviews, but I’m currently reading Wizard of the Crow, the 766-page opus from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, one of the greatest post-colonial writers to come out of Africa, less well-known than Chinua Achebe but writing with greater depth and a biting satirical slant. It’s set in a corrupt African dictatorship, where allegiances change with the wind and a new power emerges in the form of an inadvertent charlatan calling himself the Wizard of the Crow.

The Invisible Gorilla.

I’ve got two posts up for Insiders looking back at the 2005 draft, one redrafting the top 30 picks and one examining the sixteen first-round “misses” from that loaded class. I’ll be chatting today at 1 pm ET.

Since reading Daniel Kahnemann’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow about this time last year, I’ve been exploring more titles in that subgenre, the intersection of cognitive psychology and everyday decision-making, particularly in business settings. Kahnemann discusses the phenomenon of inattentional blindness, which was first demonstrated in the experiment by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris that you can take here. That experiment gives The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, the book by Simons and Chabris that explores six “everyday illusions” that distort our thinking and decision-making, its title, but the scope goes well beyond inattentional blindness to expose all kinds of holes in our perception.

(Speaking of perception, the short-lived TNT series of that name, which just ended its three-season run in March, devoted an episode called “Blindness” to two of the cognitive illusions discussed in The Invisible Gorilla, inattentional blindness and change blindness, even reproducing the experiment I linked above. It’s worth checking out when it reairs, even with its hamhanded crime story.)

The Invisible Gorilla is one of the best books of its kind that I’ve encountered, because it has the right balance of educational material, concrete examples, and exploration of the material’s meaning and possible remedies. The authors take a hard line on the six illusions they cover, saying there’s no way to avoid them, so the solution is to think our way around them – to recognize, for example, that just because we don’t notice our inattentional blindness when we talk on the phone while driving, we’re still prey to it. Yet the book remains instructive because forewarned is forearmed: if you know you’re going to fall for these illusions, you can take one more step back in your decision-making processes and prepare yourself for the trap.

The six illusions the authors cover are easy to understand once you hear them explained with an example. Inattentional blindness occurs when you are so focused on one task or object that you don’t notice something else happening in the background – for example, the gorilla wandered across the basketball court while you’re counting shots made by players in white. Change blindness is similar, but in this case you fail to notice the change in something or even someone when you’re focused on a different aspect of the person or image – which is how continuity errors end up in movies and escape the notice of most viewers, even when somewhat glaring once they’re pointed out. The illusion of memory revolves around our false confidence in what we remember, often to the point of being convinced that a story we heard that happened to someone else actually happened to us. The chapter covers the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, including a compelling (and awful) story of a rape victim who actively tried to remember details of her attacker’s face and still identified the wrong man when police arrested a suspect. The illusion of confidence involves overrating our own knowledge and abilities, such as the oft-cited statistic that a wide majority of American drivers consider themselves to be above-average at the task. (I’m not one of them; I dislike driving because I know I’m not good at it.) The illusion of knowledge is our mistaken belief that we know more than we do; the authors give a great test of this, pretending to be a child who keeps asking you “but why?” to show that, for example, you may think you know how a toilet works until someone actually asks you to go into detail on its operation. The sixth illusion, the illusion of potential, seems a bit forced in the context of the first five, even thought I enjoyed the authors’ attacks on pseudoscience crap like using Mozart or other classical music to raise your IQ (shocker: it’s bullshit) or the use of subliminal messages or advertising to change your thinking (the original subliminal advertising stunt in a movie theater was faked). It encapsulates the belief that we can improve our cognitive skills more quickly and easily than we actually can, or that improvements in a small, specific area result in more generalized improvements than they actually do.

The two “blindness” illusions make for the best stories, and are even applicable at times in baseball (how often have you been at a game, focusing on a particular player, and not realized that the pitcher had changed or another player had changed positions?), but the illusions of knowledge and confidence resonate more with the work that I do for ESPN. I’ve accepted and even embraced the fact that I will be wrong frequently on player evaluations, especially of amateur players, because that’s just inherent in the job: there’s far too much unpredictability involved in the development of individual players, so scouting relies on heuristics that will often miss on outliers like the Dustin Pedroias of the world. It’s also why, at a macro level, projection systems like ZiPS beat individual guesses on standings or overall player performances. (Projection systems can miss outliers too, like pitchers with new pitches or hitters with new swing mechanics, but that’s a different and I think more easily addressed deficiency.)

Even understanding the illusion of knowledge puts scouts in a quandary, as they’re expected to offer strong, even definitive takes on players when it would be more rational to discuss outcomes in probabilistic terms – e.g., I think Joey Bagodonuts has a 60% chance to reach the majors, a 20% chance to be an everyday shortstop, a 30% chance to end up at another position, etc. No one evaluates like that because they’re not asked to do so and they’re not trained to think like that. I’m in a similar boat: I tell readers I think a certain pitcher is a fifth starter, and if he has a few good starts in a row I’ll get some trolling comments, but when I call anyone a fifth starter I’m giving you a most likely outcome (in my opinion, which is affected by all of the above illusions) that doesn’t explicitly describe variance over shorter timeframes.

The illusion of confidence comes into play just as frequently, and to some extent it’s almost a requirement of the job. How could you offer an evaluation of a potential first-round pick or pull the trigger on a trade if you had an accurate view of your own limitations as an evaluator or executive? Would a proper system of safeguards to cover this illusion just lead to “paralysis by analysis?” I don’t know that I could ever have enough information to make me feel properly confident (as opposed to the illusory sense of overconfidence that the authors describe here) to decide who to take with the first overall pick in this year’s draft; I think Houston’s predraft process last year led them to take the right guy, and they still ended up with nothing because of a sort of black swan event with Aiken’s elbow. The authors express the need for readers to recognize their confidence in their own abilities is often exaggerated, but taken to its logical end it seems like a persuasive argument against getting out of bed in the morning, because we’re just going to do the wrong thing. In my position, at least, I’m better off pretending I’m a slightly better evaluator of baseball talent than I actually am, because otherwise my writing would be peppered with conditionals and qualifications that would make it unreadable and probably not very helpful to those of you looking for information on the players I cover.

Simons and Chabris present a very compelling if sobering case that the human mind, while highly evolved, has some serious holes in its approach, and that we need to understand five of the six illusions (or failures of intuition) to make better decisions, whether it’s improving our awareness to avoid hitting a motorcyclist on the road or dismissing misplaced self-confidence in our investing acumen to make better choices with our retirement accounts. It seems applicable to just about any line of work, but reading it from the perspective of my thirteen-plus years working in baseball – perhaps now I’m subject to the illusion of independent thinking – I found it immensely applicable and valuable as a reminder of how easy it is to fall into these traps when trying to evaluate a player or a team.