Archive for March 31, 2009

New Dylan Song: Beyond Here Lies Nothin’

Fans of Bob Dylan were happy yesterday to learn that his new song, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” was made available for FREE DOWNLOAD. Offer expires at midnight tonight (I think), so as they say in the old advertising game: Don’t delay, act now.

You can hear the track by clicking on the video. Nothing earth-shattering — this isn’t a new masterpiece. Bob’s basically an old bluesman now, like a living Robert Johnson, and this is a cool R & B tune featuring the great David Hidalgo (Los Lobos) on accordion. The full album, “Together Through Life,” releases in late April.

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Oh well, I love you pretty baby
You’re the only love I’ve ever known
Just as long as you stay with me
The whole world is my throne
Beyond here lies nothin’
Nothin’ we can call our own

Well, I’m movin’ after midnight
Down boulevards of broken cars
Don’t know what I’d do without it
Without this love that we call ours
Beyond here lies nothin’
Nothin’ but the moon and stars

Down every street there’s a window
And every window made of glass
We’ll keep on lovin’ pretty baby
For as long as love will last
Beyond here lies nothin’
But the mountains of the past

Well my ship is in the harbour
And the sails are spread
A-Listen to me pretty baby
Lay your hand upon my head
Beyond here lies nothin’
Nothin’ done and nothin’ said

—–

If I strike you as obsessive about Dylan, it’s because I am. With most celebrities, we know way too much, and the more we know the less we are interested. Then there are those rare people, like Dylan or Nixon, who strike me as endlessly fascinating. The more you know, the more you want to know.

Here’s the just-published book I’m reading right now, by Clinton Heylin, author of the wonderful, 800-page Dylan biography, Behind the Shades Revisited:

My Ten All-Time Favorite Baseball Books

I always like to read a baseball book around this time of year. So I just ordered Ron Darling’s new one, The Complete Game: Reflections on Baseball, Pitching, and Life on the Mound. Here in upstate New York, we’re in the mud stage, where the fields are not quite ready, but hope is in the air. We can feel it coming, outside, playing that game we love.

To make any kind of all-time “Top Ten” list of books is ridiculous, because I keep coming across potentially great books that I haven’t read (yet!). Or read so long ago that my memory is unreliable. Ball Four? It’s been more than 30 years. It was funny, right? But why let that stop the fun? So those caveats aside, here’s a list of ten favorite baseball books, in no particular order.

THE GLORY OF THEIR TIMES: THE STORY OF BASEBALL TOLD BY THE MEN WHO PLAYED IT

by Lawrence S. Ritter

A no-brainer, my all-time favorite. No other book touches closer to the heart of the game. From an Amazon review: “An oral history of the game in the first two decades of the century, Glory sends out its impressive roster of players to tell their own stories, and what stories they tell–the story of their times as well as of their game; the scorecard includes Rube Marquard, Babe Herman, Stan Coveleski, Smoky Joe Wood, and Wahoo Sam Crawford. A delight from cover to cover, Glory is the next best thing to having been there in the days when the ball may have been dead, but the personalities were anything but.”

A DAY IN THE BLEACHERS

by Arnold Hano

A few years ago, I took a men’s team down to Texas for a hardball tournament for ages 38 and up. I was GM, manager, and player. One of the players gave me this book as a gift. Hano captures one glorious day, September 28, 1954, when he attended the first game of the 1954 World Series. At age 84, Hano recently recalled: “When I subwayed home six hours later in a state of delicious languor, I decided to write about my day. The book I wrote, A Day in the Bleachers, does not deal just with the game. Oh, it does that too — the famous catch by Willie Mays takes up nine pages — but mainly it is about my day. I banter with a Brooklyn Dodger fan nearby (she carried a flag proclaiming her allegiance). I mutter incantations of hope during the not-quite 10 innings of strife. I wince at Cleveland pitcher Bob Feller’s valiant attempt to get himself in shape by doing push-ups in centerfield during batting practice, his backside too high. I marvel as Alvin Dark of the Giants intercepts a ground ball with his bare hand in the eighth inning. And I recall one final picture that day, umpire Larry Napp running down the right field foul line, indicating that a ball struck by New York’s Dusty Rhodes was indeed a game-winning home run. Immediately, all I had seen began to percolate in my brain. I had a book to write.”

THE UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION, INC.

by Robert Coover

I like this line from a July 7, 1968 review in The New York Times: “Conversely, not to read it because you don’t like baseball is like not reading Balzac because you don’t like boarding houses. Baseball provides as good a frame for dramatic encounter as any. The bat and ball are excuses.” Coover was an experimental writer, an innovator, and this is possibly the most creative, imaginative of all the baseball books I’ve read. In brief, with pen and paper and three dice, a man, Henry Waugh, creates his own world, peopled with vivid characters — in this case, the Universal Baseball Association, Inc. Genius. The book had added appeal to me, personally, because as a boy I filled notebooks with imaginary games I played by rolling dice — very much like Henry Waugh did in the novel.

THE BOYS OF SUMMER

by Roger Kahn

A classic. I read this one as a teenager and it was one of the first books — of any kind — that blew me away. Even moreso, I suppose, because the Dodgers were my mother’s favorite team before they broke her heart and moved to Los Angeles. Kahn, too, rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers as a child. He later covered them in the 1950s as a beat writer. According to a review in the blog, Curled Up with a Good Book, “In The Boys of Summer, Kahn reflects on the Dodgers and his own boyhood following the team. He visits with the Dodger greats to find out about their life after baseball and their own reflections on the team. What makes this arguably the seminal sports book, the book against which all other books in this genre should be judged, is Kahn’s ability to both paint a lyrical, moving account of his heroes and allow us to share intimate times on and off the field with icons such as Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, and Duke Snyder . . . This is a book that belongs on every sports lover’s bookshelf. It is a literary masterpiece that masquerades as a sports memoir.”

THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL

by Phillip Roth

Published in 1973, this satiric book involves another fictional baseball league, the Patriot League, and could be the funniest take on baseball. If you haven’t read it, you must. The set up for the story takes Roth about 40 pages before he gets on firm ground, and then the story rolls and the laughter ripples. From a review in The New York Times: “The ballplayers of Roth’s fable, though they bear the names of deities, are anything but images of perfection. The Mundys consist of 50-year-old veterans who have tottered out of retirement, a French-Canadian refugee from the Japanese League, adolescent boys, an alcoholic ex-con (“the Babe Ruth of the Big House” when he played for Sing Sing), a peg-legged catcher, a one-armed outfielder, a midget relief pitcher and so on. Named for their founder, the legendary Glorious Mundy, they are the sacrifices implicit in his credo (“baseball is this country’s religion”), and their season of shame, relieved only by an 11-game winning streak powered by a secret diet of synthetic Wheaties concocted by a teen-age genius, culminated in a 31-0 loss to the pennant- winning Tri-City Tycoons on the final day of the season.”

THE SOUL OF BASEBALL: A ROAD TRIP THROUGH BUCK O’NEIL’S AMERICA

by Joe Posnanski

Buck O’Neil, a former star from the Negro Leagues, teams up with the great Joe Posnanski — one of my favorite bloggers and sports writers working today — and together they tour the country for various public relations events and ballgames. While Posnanski documents the journey, recounting Buck’s baseball memories along the way, it is the spirit of Buck O’Neil that shines through: his hopefulness, his zest for life, his grace, his humility, his soul. I found this book poignant and uplifting. A joy. For a nice interview with Joe Posnanski, click here. Said Leigh Montville: “This book is flat-out terrific. If Gandhi had played baseball, he would have been Buck O’Neill.”

SHOELESS JOE

by W.P. Kinsella

I haven’t read this book in a long time, my memory of it is vague, and it may not be a fashionable pick due to the Hollywoodization of the film adaptation. But I remember being struck by Kinsella’s magic realism, his richly imaginative take on the baseball novel — Kinsella, for me, took the typical baseball story and brought it to a whole new place; and in doing so, opened up my own thinking about baseball and books and the realm of what was possible. Of course, even non-readers know the movie, The Field of Dreams, the at-times smarmy film starring Kevin Costner. At his best, Kinsella is lyrical and deep, writing not only about baseball but also love and memory, fathers and sons, dreams and truth. Many writers tend to go a overboard when talking about baseball  — the prose too purple, too much religion in it — and Kinsella shares those faults. But there are other times when he absolutely nails it. An important book for me, since it came out in 1982, right around the time in my life when I first dreamed of becoming a writer.

MONEYBALL

by Michael Lewis

Absolutely the right book at the right time. Lewis is a great nonfiction writer. His research (thanks to incredible access to Oakland A’s GM, Billy Beane) is thorough, he organizes his information beautifully, and much like Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis has a knack for conveying complicated ideas in a clear, accessible, entertaining manner. That is, he’s a hell of a writer — but not in a way that you’d necessarily notice at first, since it’s not so much about style as it is about substance. Here’s what Tom Wolfe had to say: “What does it take to turn a subject like baseball statistics into a true-life thriller not even a baseball-loathing bibliophobe could put down? Answer: saturation reporting, conceptual thinking of a high order, a rich sense of humor, and talent to burn. In short, Michael Lewis. Moneyball is his grandest tour de force yet.” Word is that they are going to make a movie based on Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt. Really. Fun fact: Lewis is married to Tabitha Soren, former MTV reporter.

JOHN McGRAW

by Charles Alexander

McGraw is one of the game’s great originals, a mercurial character whose career spanned the early decades of baseball, as it grew from its rough-neck, pugnatious roots into the national pasttime. Here’s a review from Amazon, written by Jeff Silverman: “Alexander’s marvelous biography of McGraw does what McGraw’s own My Thirty Years in Baseball couldn’t: it lets the volcano that was the man erupt in all its raw glory. A true baseball original, McGraw, as Alexander describes, ‘ate gunpowder every morning and washed it down with raw blood.’ He loved to win, but he hated losing more, and as manager of both the old Baltimore Orioles and New York Giants, he’s the only skipper in the game’s history to win almost 1,000 games more than he lost. McGraw was so outsized, flamboyant, fiery, and, at times, sentimental, that it would be easy to caricature him; Alexander’s remarkable achievement here is that he doesn’t (nor does he succumb to hero worship or bubble bursting). His triumph is letting McGraw stand on his own two spikes; the man — and the legend — have no problem standing up for themselves.”

FIVE SEASONS

Roger Angell

Hands-down, my favorite baseball writer ever, but that claim places Mr. Angell in too small a box. Sentence for sentence, Roger Angell is one of the great American writers of the past 50 years, period. And I’ll punch anyone in the nose who doesn’t think so. I love the shape of his sentences, his language, insight, and humanity. But because his form is most often the essay, Angell really hasn’t written a great (great, great) full-length book. Don’t get me wrong, his collections are wonderful and I own them all. When I was writing Six Innings, it was all I could do to limit the amount that I stole from Angell, the master. I’ve written one fan letter in my life — and it went to Roger Angell. Still, I had to pick something from his work, so I went with Five Seasons, probably because it focuses on baseball in the middle 70′s — perhaps the last truly great era of the game. From The New York Times Book Review on Five Seasons: “A book for people who miss good writing, who miss clarity, lucidity, style and passion. It’s a book for all seasons.” Since 1956, Angell has worked as an editor for The New Yorker, where most of his eloquent writing has first appeared. His stepfather was E.B. White, not a bad writer himself.

—–

AND THE LIFETIME AWARD GOES TO . . .

Bill James

I’ve had a love/hate/love relationship with Bill James, but he may be the most influential baseball writer to ever put pencil to scorecard, purely in terms of changing the way we’ve come to know the game. His annual “Abstracts” — which often exposed the foggy thinking behind baseball’s most cherished “conventional wisdoms” — were must-buys for me throughout the 80′s. Over the years, James seemed to grow increasingly bitter and his writing got snarkier, more unpleasant. Despite his growing legion of fans, the baseball establishment appeared to reject and ignore his ideas. A rebel and provocateur, James loved the role of gadfly, of misunderstood outsider, yet at the same time seemed to pine for the game’s warm embrace. After years of writing in the wilderness, James finally gained full acceptance in 2003, when he was invited inside, hired into the progressive, sabermetrically-inclined front office of the Boston Red Sox. Smart club, those Sox. A wonderful baseball blogger named Rich Lederer did an outstanding series of articles called, “Abstracts from the Abstracts,” where he brilliantly details the importance of each book. Fantastic stuff. And for a quick sample of James, here’s a famous extract taken his 1988 Baseball Abstract. The brief piece is now widely known as “The Bill James Primer.

———

AND FINALLY, A LITTLE BIT ABOUT . . .

SIX INNINGS

One of the early influences for the format for Six Innings was a landmark book, titled Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game by Daniel Okrent — a man largely credited with inventing Fantasy Baseball. The format is essentially one game, a nothing game, June 10, 1982, Brewers vs. Orioles, including everything that happens on the field and, more importantly, inside the head of Mr. Okrent. Some folks consider this to be one of the most significant baseball books ever, in part because of Okrent’s analytical, Jamesian approach. It used to be out of print, and I’m glad to see that it’s made a comeback, hopefully with more success than Oil Can Boyd. Many other baseball books have taken that “one game” structure, including For the Love of the Game by Michael Shaara , The Last Nine Innings by Charles Euchner, and as I mentioned above, A Day in the Bleachers by Arnold Hano. With all those books in mind, and more, I knew that I was very much writing Six Innings within that tradition, and for that tradition, and that knowledge gave me the confidence to proceed.

I was tempted to make a long list of Honorable Mentions . . . but figured maybe you’d like to help. So, come on, which books did I forget to mention?

Check Out My Interview

Over at Feiwel and Friends, they are celebrating the publication of Mighty Casey like it’s 1999. They are even blogging about it. Please click the link because Matthew Cordell just interviewed . . . me! Their blog is pretty great even without us (imagine that!) because other F & F  authors and illustrators contribute often, most recently John Coy and Maria von Lieshout.

Here’s two brief excerpts from that longer piece.

—–

MC: I can assume that many writers, like many illustrators, are particular about how they work and where they work. Where do you like to do your writing? And what are your tools? The pen, the old-timey typewriter, word processor, or personal computer?

JP: Matt! Let me begin by saying — and since this is your first interview, no one would expect you to know this, but — you don’t actually have to sit on my lap during an interview. It’s not like a Santa thing.

MC: Whoops!

—–

MC: What do you see are the major differences in crafting picture books vs. novels? With the novel format, you generally have the space to open up and write more at length. Less confined, I’d imagine, than picture books, where you really have to choose words wisely. Do you prefer writing one over another?

JP: Well, there are two things at play here: picture books are dependent upon illustrations, so the writer is already in a strange position. With novels, you have more control over the finished product. Secondly, novels probably better suit my sensibilities. I find that I can’t force a picture book, which tends to be concept-driven and needs to perfectly distill an experience to its essence. With a novel, you have more opportunity to wander in and out of different rooms, and I think that better reflects how my mind natively operates.

New TV Show Idea

As I complained on Wednesday: I’ve got a cold and I’m feeling grumpy. Wheezing, sneezing, stuffed up, head in a fog.

No one has suffered with a cold the way I am suffering now. I feel achy! My throat itches!

Just look at me:

I’m supposed to write in this condition? I can’t even open mail.

Of course, if you talk to my cold-hearted wife, Lisa, she acts as if I’m just a big baby. I called her on it. I said, “You resent that I’m sick. That’s it, isn’t it? You don’t believe me, and you resent it. In some twisted way, you are jealous!”

So she looks up from the newspaper and says, “It should be a new TV show. I’d make a million dollars. HUSBANDS WITH A COLD. Every woman I talk to, it’s like, ‘I’ve got to get a haircut at 4:00, do grocery shopping, my house is a mess . . . and my husband has a cold.’”

Then she laughed in a cruel, mocking manner. My own wife! And the laugher, dear reader, was directed at me — and husbands everywhere. Men, we are under attack!

Ah-choo! Ugh. The tissue box is all the way across the room and I can’t get up in my condition. Hold on a sec. “Honey? HON-EY??!!”

Where The Wild Things Are Trailer

Who knows!

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Fan Mail Wednesday #35

I’ve got a cold and I’m feeling grumpy. Wheezing, sneezing, stuffed up, head in a fog. Nothing can possibly make me happy . . . except for FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY!

It’s better than Vicks VapoRub!

Here’s one that asks a simple question and gets a complicated answer.

Dear Mr. Preller,

Hello my name is Isabella M. I am 8 years old. I like to play soccer and I like to read. I read your book, The Case Of The Snowboarding Superstar.  I wanted to know how did you come up with the idea of the book?

Love,
Isabella

I replied:

Isabella,

Thanks for your email. The idea for that book was originally suggested by my editor, Shannon Penney, at Scholastic. She wanted something with a winter theme. I immediately liked the idea, because my family had recently been on a family ski trip to New Hampshire. Even better, I once edited a book by my friend, Joe Layden, called No Limits, that profiled some of the world’s best snowboarders, including Ross Powers and Shaun White.

So I already knew something about that world. I also liked the idea of getting Jigsaw away from school — and away from Mila. It would be interesting to see how he’d do without his partner, in a strange new place. Of course, as usual, Mila does manage to provide some key help along the way.

Here’s a paragraph from the book:

It was too late in the day to ski, so we gathered around a fireplace in a big open room. A large window gave us a view of the ski trails, the lifts, and the mountains looming high overhead. Snow fell softly from the sky, like tiny white marshmallows. Life was good. And so was the hot chocolate.

Don’t you just want to go there? I do. Sitting by a fire, watching the snow, sipping hot chocolate? Sounds good to me. Maybe you could describe a place you’d like to be. A beach? A park, under a tree? Where is that special place? Can you picture it? How would you put that picture into words? What feelings does it give you? What do you smell?

I also loved the slang of snowboarding, the hipster lingo, with tricks named “McTwist” and “Switch 540 Backflip Indy Grab.” After doing more research, I learned the meaning of words like gnarly, wack, boost, bail, faceplant, pow-pow, rag-dolling, and more. It was especially fun writing Chapter One, when Jigsaw’s brothers try to teach him how to “talk cool.”

Thanks for your letter, my dear Isabella!

JP

Hanging the Net

This weekend I got around to hanging the net.

Fortunately I had some help . . .

. . . but not much.

Have you figured it out yet?

Here’s another hint:

The view from inside the cage . . .

And from another angle.

That’s right . . . we’ve got a batting cage. How baseball-crazy is that? And no, it didn’t come with the house.

Sleeping in the Baseball Hall of Fame

Living in Delmar, NY, we’re about 75 miles from Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Beautiful little town in the middle of nowhere, with a gorgeous lake and a lost-in-time feel. The museum offers a program called “Extra Innings,” where groups may come to spend the night. So a group of 36 local children, most of them accompanied by an adult, arrived at the museum at 6:00. The kids played a baseball trivia game, then had a scavenger hunt that brought them all over the museum — which was empty except for us. At 8:30, they watched “The Sandlot” in a small theater, lights out at 11:00. Didn’t sleep so great, but it was a great experience for young and old alike.

Here’s a few snaps:

We all slept in the Gallery, where each Hall of Famer has his own plaque. While my favorite old-time players are Ted Williams and Christy Mathewson, we are Mets fans to the end, and there aren’t many Mets in the Hall of Fame. I believe the grand total is one. So we found Tom Seaver’s plaque and claimed our spot.

I enjoyed wandering around the near-empty museum, where I found a famous shoulder to lean on.

Here’s Gavin, just about ready for bed.

Maybe to most folks, that just seems like a bad night’s sleep. But we  counted ourselves lucky.

The Difference Between Dogs and Cats

This is one of those jokes that float around the internet, with one difference: This one is actually pretty funny.

Go figure.

How To Give a Cat a Pill

1.  Pick up cat and cradle it in the crook of your left arm as if holding a baby. Position right forefinger and thumb on either side of cat’s mouth. Gently apply pressure to cheeks while holding pill in right hand. As cat opens mouth, pop pill into mouth. Allow cat to close mouth and swallow.

2. Retrieve pill from floor and cat from behind sofa. Cradle cat in left arm. Repeat process.

3. Retrieve cat from bedroom.  Throw away soggy pill.

4. Take new pill from foil wrap. Cradle cat in left arm, holding rear paws tightly with left hand. Force jaws open and push pill to back of mouth with right forefinger. Hold mouth shut for a count of ten.

5. Retrieve pill from goldfish bowl and cat from top of wardrobe. Call spouse from garden.

6. Kneel on floor with cat wedged firmly between knees. Hold front and rear paws. Ignore low growls emitted by cat. Get spouse to hold head firmly with one hand while forcing wooden ruler into mouth. Drop pill down ruler and rub cat’s throat vigorously.

7. Retrieve cat from curtain rail. Get another pill from foil wrap. Make note to buy new ruler and repair curtains. Sweep shattered figurines and vases from hearth and set to one side for gluing later.

8. Wrap cat in large towel. Get spouse to lie on cat with head just visible from below armpit. Put pill in end of drinking straw, force mouth open with pencil and blow down drinking straw.

9. Check label to make sure pill not harmful to humans. Drink one beer to take taste away. Apply Band-Aid to spouse’s forearm. Remove blood from carpet with cold water and soap.

10. Retrieve cat from neighbor’s shed. Get another pill. Open another beer. Place cat in cupboard, and close door onto neck, to leave head showing. Force mouth open with dessert spoon. Flick pill down throat with elastic band.

11.   Fetch screwdriver from garage. Put cupboard door back on hinges. Drink beer. Fetch bottle of whiskey. Pour shot, drink. Apply cold compress to cheek and check records for date of last tetanus shot.  Apply whiskey compress to cheek to disinfect. Toss back another shot. Throw away T-shirt  and fetch new one from bedroom.

12. Call fire department to retrieve damn cat from across the road. Apologize to neighbor who crashed into fence while swerving to avoid cat. Take last pill from foil wrap.

13. Tie the little bleep’s front paws to rear paws with garden twine and bind tightly to leg of dining table. Find heavy-duty pruning gloves from shed. Push pill into mouth followed by large piece of steak. Be rough about it. Hold head vertically and pour two pints of water down throat to wash pill down.

14.  Consume remainder of whiskey. Get spouse to drive you to the emergency room. Sit quietly while doctor stitches forearm and removes pill remnants from right eye. Call furniture shop on way home to order new   table.

15. Arrange for SPCA to collect mutant cat from hell. Call local pet shop to inquire about hamsters.

How To Give A Dog A Pill

1. Wrap pill in bacon.

2. Toss it in the air.

Note: Thanks to Paul for passing this along.

Bloggy Blogness: Around the Horn

A few things:

* My Best Pal in the World Whom I Never Actually Met, Matthew Cordell, gets the “Random Illustrator” Feature over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. They do a first-rate job over there, always.

* The fabulous Brenda Bowen — most recently of Bowen Press — has dusted herself off and started a new blog, called Bunny Eat Bunny. Just a thought: Maybe Brenda should have named it Bunny Dust Bunny. Or not! Anyway, Brenda is in the process of reinventing herself (she’s like Madonna that way) and I know many of us are eager to see what’s next. In the meantime, Brenda’s blog is just a nice way to stay in touch, to see an active, insightful mind at work.

* For bright bursts of optimism, beauty and creativity, is there any place on the web better than Color Me Katie? It’s a visual site, very little reading, and always a pleasure and an inspiration.

* I’d say this spot has been my favorite children’s literature blog of late: consistently excellent.

* The first, early review of Bystander, due out in Fall of ’09 (Feiwel and Friends).