Saturday, May 26, 2012

Grisham Hits A Home Run with "Calico Joe"

I do not consider John Grisham to be a great writer.  My literary Pantheon includes Dickens, Dostoevsky, John Irving, Arturo Perez-Reverte and a handful of others; it is a tough major league to break into.  But I do appreciate Grisham's ability to tell a moving and memorable tale.  He does this with aplomb in the little gem that is "Calico Joe."  The novel contains elements that reminded me of Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe," Malamud's "The Natural," and the innocent baseball novels of John Tunis.

The story is told through the eyes and voice of Paul Tracey, son of a journeyman pitcher with the 1970's Mets. Toggling back and forth between 1973 when he was 11 years old, and 2003, Paul weaves together the threads of a Greek tragedy - the beaning of his hero, phenom Joe Castle(Calico Joe), by his father, headhunting old school pitcher, Warren Tracey.  Thirty years after their worlds collided at Shea Stadium, Warren Tracey is dying and a crippled Joe Castle is the groundskeeper the high school fiedd names in his honor in Calico Rock, Arkansas.  Paul  decides to try to engineer a final meeting between these two former major league ball players - who have not spoken to each other since Tracey's fastball ended Castle's career.

The timing of my reading of this book could not have been better.  I finished the book the same night that the current edition of the Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays renewed their long-standing "bean ball war." Is it just part of "old school baseball" or is it a practice that needs to be retired?  Grisham'scharacters  wrestle with that age-old question.  Reading Grishman's novel brought back to me in all of their pathos the thoughts and feelings I had as a young baseball fan when Tony Conigliaro's promising career was ended by a Jack Hamilton fastball to the face.  The story of young Joe Castle is eerily reminiscent of Conigliaro's star-crossed career.

If you love baseball and good storytelling, you will enjoy this book.



Thursday, May 24, 2012

Observing a Naval Academy Tradition - The Annual Plebe Climb of the Herndon Monument

2012 Herndon Monument Climb

"Annapolis Naval Academy freshmen make a human wall to climb the Herndon Monument which is covered with lard, on May 22, 2012 in Annapolis, Maryland. Each year the freshman class, known as 'Plebes,' climb the monument at the Naval Academy to retrieve the Plebian Sailor's hat and replace it with an officer's hat. The tradition is one step in marking the end of wearing freshman headgear and moving up to headgear more like a U.S. Naval officer." (USNA photo)
I got to check one more thing off of my "bucket list" this week.  My good friend, John Byington is a U.S. Naval Reserve Commander, and a graduate of the Naval Academy Class of  1990.  Knowing that I would be coming to Baltimore to visit with him and is family, and to support the Red Sox at Camden Yards, John invited me to join him in observing the traditional Plebe attempt to ascent to the top of the Herndon Monument that had been thoroughly greased with Crisco by the Class of 2014.

For 2 hours and 20 minutes, we were among thousands of midshipmen, graduates, parents and neighbors who looked on as chaos eventually resulted in victory as Andrew Craig finally dislodged the cap and thereby dislodged the Class of  2015 from the category of  "Plebe"

"Students who are closing out their first year at the U.S. Naval Academy have completed the traditional climb up the Herndon Monument.  The climb is made extra challenging by greasing the 21-foot monument with about 50 pounds of lard.

It took 19-year-old Andrew Craig, of Tulsa, Okla., a little over two hours and 10 minutes on Tuesday to replace a first-year student's "Dixie cup" hat with a midshipman's cover on Tuesday.
Students began the yearly event in 1940. They added the symbolic placement of the cap on its tip seven years later. In 1949, upperclassmen began smearing as much as 200 pounds of lard on the monument to make it more difficult."

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Manifesto for Gender Tolerance - John Irving's "In One Person"

John Irving's latest novel, "In One Person," is his most political book since "Cider House Rules."  In the earlier work, he addressed the incendiary issue of abortion.  In this latest work, he tackles the complex and smoldering issue of gender and sexual identity.  He has created a cast of characters who are finely wrought, memorable, idiosyncratic and - for the most part, likable.  I genuinely cared about how each character's story might end.  And that is part of Irving's genius and his mission - to humanize those who had heretofore too often been marginalized.

I had a very profound experience in reading and preparing to review this novel.  I might even call the experience "preternatural" - one of the favorite words used often by the first person narrator, William/Bill/Billy.  As I was making my way through the story, about two thirds of the way through the book, it became very clear to me that Irving was very masterfully nudging the reader to embrace characters who might otherwise have been avoided, shunned or dismissed as freaks.  The thought occurred to me that he was doing exactly what Shakespeare had done in "The Merchant of Venice," when Shylock gives his famous speech about being a Jew.  I took a break from Irving and turned to Shakespeare to re-read the famous speech, to reassure myself that the same elements were present in the classic play as well as in the new novel.  Satisfied that I had hit upon an apt analogy, I returned to reading "In One Person."  In the very next chapter, Irving springs the "Merchant of Venice" trap and makes explicit what I had already discerned.  It was both gratifying and spooky that I have read so much of Irving that my mind begins to anticipate where he may be gong in his own thought patterns.

The monologue bears repeating here:

The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1


Reading a much-anticipated new novel by John Irving feels to me like making a nostalgic return to a beloved, bucolic and quaint New England hometown.  There are still many familiar elements, but some new people have moved into the old Jones house, and the old downtown pharmacy is now vacant.  The expected Irving elements are all there: Vienna, New England, the wrestling room at Phillips Exeter Academy with the overhead hanging wooden track, wrestling as a metaphor for nearly everything, prep school life, characters grappling with having been abandoned by their fathers, sexual gymnastics, and frequent citings of classic writers - from Shakespeare to Dickens to Flaubert.

In some ways, the story feels like "A Catcher in the Rye" on  estrogen.

How deeply  was I drawn in by the story and the inhabitants of the tale?  I stayed up several hours past my usual bedtime because I needed to know how all of the threads would either weave together or fray.  Would Billy see Kitteredge again and solve the mystery of who he really was?  What about Miss Frost?  What would become of her?  Would Billy's mysterious and absent father make an appearance?  Who would and would not succumb to AIDS?  What would happen to "Poor Tom's" family?  Would Billy ever use the "duck-under" move he had been practicing for so long?  Would they find a male actor with balls enough to play Juliet?  Will Billy's friendship with Elaine endure?

Irving's first novel was "Setting Free the Bears" - a story that involved, among many other elements, uncaging the animals at the Vienna Zoo.  In this present novel, he comes full circle and tells a tale that begs the reader the "bear with" the messiness of those who struggle to free themselves from cages of identity and confusion and scorn as they strive to set themselves free.

Irving speaks through the transsexual librarian, Miss Frost, in making a plea for understanding:

“My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me--don’t make me a category before you get to know me!”

Should you read this book so you can get to know Miss Frost and Billy and Elaine?  Yes!  Go on Amazon and "bi" it.



Friday, May 18, 2012

Allied Mindstorm - A New Approach to Encouraging Innovation

I am excited to share with you a new approach to encouraging  innovation.

Meet Allied Mindstorm


Allied Minds builds startups from university and government-funded research. We think we’re smart people, but sometimes we see new technology and we’re stumped.
What can we do with plastic batteries or silver ink pens that conduct electricity?They sound really sci-fi, but we have no idea what to do with them (and sometimes the scientists don’t either). But we’re hoping that you do.


  • Glory
  • An outlet for your inner geek
  • Access to smart and interesting peers
  • Resume building
  • And maybe a little cash: $500 to the best idea per challenge and $25,000 to any Thinker whose contribution results in a company.* 
We hope to provide you with all of the above, but more than anything, we want you to have fun and feel like you’re a part of our entrepreneurial community.


Our goal with this project is to move research forward instead of letting it go stale in a lab. 
And if we can start a company that offers new products and create jobs, we’re happy with that too.

The folks at Allied Mindstorm were kind enough to highlight me in their Blog as one of their "Thinkers."  

Meet one of our first Thinkers: White Rhino aka Al Chase. I’m not entirely sure how to organize my thoughts around Al. To say that he’s multi-faceted isn’t quite right. Scientists around the world agree that there are 3 dimensions (4 if you include time). String theory suggests that there are even more dimensions, maybe up to 26, but no one’s been able to prove it. I’d like to offer Al as evidence that these multiple dimensions exist.  
PROFESSION: By day he’s an executive recruiter with a specialty in placing entrepreneurial “Renaissance Men and Women”, many of whom have had a distinguished military/service career and hold MBAs from top-tier business schools. By night, he’s a professional actor. Stints include: Mr. Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors, Sancho Pancho in Man of La Mancha, Willy Wonka, and Wilbur the Pig in Charlotte’s Web.
DISPOSITION: Engaged with the world. A self-described Les Miserables junkie, for the past few years, Al has hosted a Socratic Roundtable every Sunday at a local restaurant in Boston. The purpose: encouraging a broad diversity of opinion and any disagreements are handled with civility.  Recent topic: First thing that comes to your mind & heart when you think of Whitney Houston. Discuss.
EDUCATION: Sociology (Wheaton College), Theology (Fuller Theological Seminary, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary)
COMPANIES HE ADMIRES: Companies that value good management skills and great leadership. LinkedIn (obviously). Google because they give people time off to work on their own projects. Pepsico because of their outstanding leadership. Al shares a story of a Marine reserve who accepted a position at Pepsi only to called be for deployment a few weeks later. After giving Pepsi the news, the company not only held the position for him, but paid to relocate the Marine’s family. It was all worked out on a 10 minute call.
FUN FACT: Al earned this nickname soon after college in St. Paul, MN.  He played street ball in the inner city and due to his level of aggression, the neighborhood players used to say “Watch out, here comes the White Rhino.”  He Off the chart adrenaline junkie, parachuted, scuba, solo pilot,
So that’s just a tiny glimpse into Al and I didn’t describe him justly. Given what I’ve learned about our Thinkers and their life experiences, I’d say there is more than enough evidence to prove string theory.

Check out their Blog and website and let me know what you think.


Monday, May 14, 2012

A Promising Beginning for a First Time Novelist

Emily Jeanne Miller's first novel, "Brand New Human Being," is a richly textured and complex story of a troubled marriage within a convoluted extended family.  Logan Pyle and his wife, Julie, are struggling with balancing his failing family business, her burgeoning legal career, their emotionally regressed four-year-old son and a growing chasm of distance in their marriage.

What I loved most about this book is the author's finely tuned sense of the kinds of conversations and small gestures and non-verbal signals that make up any relationship - especially one that is struggling to stay alive.  The narrative is even-handed, in that I sometimes found myself siding with Julie and at other times taking Logan's side.

Logan's Dad, Gus, recently deceased, hovers over the family, and his widow, Logan's step-mother, Bennie, who is too close to his own age for comfort, plays an important and ambivalent role in the family constellation.

There are no easy answers or facile  solutions offered as the threads of the story come together.  The reader comes to feel that Logan and Julie will continue to struggle after their separation and tentative reunion.  Yet there is a reasonable expectation of hope that everything will turn out - not perfectly - but alright.



Timothy T. Schwartz, Ph.D. has added his voice to the growing chorus of those who are delineating the numerous ways in which NGOs and some mission-based organizations have failed Haiti. The subtitle of his book is apt: "A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, food aid, fraud and drug trafficking."

Before reading this book, I felt that I had a fairly sophisticated understanding of what makes Haiti tick - or, more precisely - what keeps it from ticking. I learned a great deal from Schwartz's research and anecdotes. He writes about Haiti from the vantage point of having lived as a "participant observer" in a remote Haitian village. From that base of operations, he conducted research on behalf of a number of NGOs. His conclusions are both shocking and believable. He did his research and offered his conclusions before the devastating earthquake, but the disaster has only exacerbated the problems that this book identifies.

The author identifies himself as a cynic, and his political philosophy and ideologies clearly impact the way in which he views Haiti and those organization that purport to be helping the Haitian people. Having observed first hand many of the dynamics and phenomena that the author describes, I conclude that his observations and conclusions need to be taken seriously. They should force well-meaning organizations - faith-based or secular - to examine their methodologies in attempting to get help into the hands of the poorest of the poor. I serve on the boards of several organizations that focus on helping Haiti to stand on its own and to create sustainable economic foundations. I have already offered Schwartz's work as a mirror against which we will examine ourselves and our effectiveness.

My only reason for giving four stars rather than five is the sloppiness of the editing. I read the second edition, and found on almost every page typographic and grammatical errors. If the author wants to be truly taken seriously in his diagnosis of Haiti, the next edition will need to be edited more effectively.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Left Turn in Harvard Square - "Woody Sez" at the A.R.T.

The American Repertory Theater is offering "Woody Sez" as its final Mainstage production of the 2011-2012 season.  The timing is set to coincide closely with the 100th anniversary of Wood Guthrie's birth in Okemah, Oklahoma, only five years after that state had entered the Union.   The evening is a loose leaf notebook of Woody's songs, stitched together very loosely with commentary and some of Woody's pronouncements.  The evening felt much more like a hootenanny than a play, so I could not help but wonder why it was not set at Club Passim, rather than in the A.R.T.'s Loeb Theater.  I enjoyed the music, much of which I grew up listening to, but I never felt emotionally engaged by the story of Woody's life and career.

To be fair, most of the audience seemed to love every minute of the evening's entertainment.  I cannot help but feel that politics accounted for their enthusiasm as much as appreciation for the music.  Every time there was a specific or oblique reference to Woody's left-leaning politics, the audience erupted in spontaneous cheers and applause.  "I think we should make a left turn a little ways ahead - and so should the country!"  Applause, applause, applause.

The music and sketchy characterization of Woody was devised and ably performed  by David M. Lutken, backed up by Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein, playing a wide assortment of folk instruments.   The quartet dressed simply in clothing that evoked the epoch of The Great Depression, when Woody got his start as a musician and social commentator.

"Woody Guthrie is a musical hero of legendary proportion who transformed folk music into a vehicle for social protest and evoked the restless spirit of the Dust Bowl generation.  Woody Sez brings the giant to life in a joyous, toe-tapping, and heartfelt theatrical portrait that uses Woody's words and songs to transport the audience through his fascinating, beautiful, and sometimes tragic life. Featuring many classic Woody tunes including "This Land is Your Land" and "Bound for Glory," Woody Sez captures the heart and spirit of Woody Guthrie and the stories of America.

In Woody's spirit, the A.R.T. is hosting post-show hootenannies after select performances led by cast members and other local artists. You are invited to bring your instruments and join in a free-form musical celebration."

If you are a fan of folk music in general, and Woody Guthrie's songs in particular, you will enjoy the show.


Click here for more information.

Friday, May 11 after the 7:30 performance - Brendan Hogan
Wednesday, May 16 after the 7:30 perforamnce - Alastair Moock
Saturday, May 19 after the 7:30 performance -Miwa Gemini
Wednesday, May 23 after the 7:30 performance - Marylou Ferrante
Also join the cast after each Thursday night performance.