Recommended Reading: Faithful, Bringing Down The House

Read a couple decent nonfiction books over the holidays, but both suffered from the same problem in the end–insufficient vision to take their stories from the merely fascinating into the realm of the epic. First up–Stewart O’Nan and Stephen King’s “Faithful,” a tale of the Boston Red Sox’ memorable 2004 world championship season. Since it was published about a month after the Red Sox recorded the final out in the 2004 Series, it necessarily suffers a bit from rushed production, but it’s still a damn good recap of the marathon that is the baseball season. Don’t know how much post-Series editing the guys did on their work, but the prescient touches, like wondering how badly pitcher Derek Lowe will screw up (he didn’t, ending up winning all three playoff-clinching games) are interesting minor ironies. This is mostly a book for hardcore Sox fans, and I’ll admit to skimming through some of the dog days of August in here–everybody knows how the season’s gonna end anyway, so why not jump to the good stuff? Of the two writers, I preferred King’s analysis, which was generally more big-picture than O’Nan’s, which tended to focus on minutiae like Nomar’s ability to go to his right or Kevin Millar’s tendencies at the plate. Interesting for Sox fans, but for the rest of us–not so much. Still, I do want to read more from O’Nan. Really, the only place where the quality of the writing suffers is after the big wins over the uberchoking Yankees and the Cards–it’s as if both writers just didn’t try hard enough to capture the astonishing feel of these epic moments and just punted. Still, a good read–the literary equivalent of a ballgame on in the background on a summer evening.

Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House is the absolute embodiment of the airplane book–an interesting story delivered in rapid-fire, surface-level prose. Here’s the story–a bunch of MIT kids (the cover says six, but I counted about twelve at various points) use a variant of the traditional card-counting system to win at blackjack and reap millions from casinos. It’s an interesting exercise in could-I-do-that?, but the problem is that there’s nothing really at stake here. Worst case scenario–you get caught with your system and you’re asked to leave the casino. That’s it–no “Casino”-style vises to the skull or desert burials, not even a selling-grandma’s-wedding-ring-and-turning-tricks-for-dockworkers-to-pay-off-gambling-debts scene. The characters have an amazing run, get found out, get bounced from casinos, and turn around and invest their winnings in more reputable enterprises. The author also has an annoyingly unnecessary habit of injecting himself into the story, interviewing associates and members of the gambling team to unrealized purposes. The moments when the players are sitting at tables and catch sight of pit bosses headed their way are suspenseful, but when it ends up that the bosses are only coming to ask them to take their action elsewhere–where’s the payoff? It’s an interesting plane read, but one that’ll probably be mostly forgotten after you stow your tray tables and return to the upright and locked position.

Jay

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