MONEYBALL for Cardinals fans … THE CARDINALS WAY by Howard Megdal

No St. Louis child born since 1902 has reached age 25 without seeing a World Series championship parade in his town.”

 

51pj6ykpc6l-_sx328_bo1204203200_The most impressive aspect Howard Megdal’s THE CARDINALS WAY is the access Megdal gains to key St. Louis Cardinals personnel, including not only key figures such as John Mozeliak and Jeff Luhnow, but also included Bill DeWitt, Jr., former general manager Walt Jocketty, and countless other front office personnel.

Especially early in the book, I wasn’t impressed with Megdal’s writing and constantly found myself rewriting sentences in my head. However, as the book progressed, I found myself doing this less and less.

Megdal doesn’t give away any major trade secrets, which certainly isn’t surprising, but he does an excellent job of providing value anyway, providing a macro view of the Cardinals’ organizational strategy, and making a strong case that the Cardinals’ belief in analytics was not a sharp change in direction but merely a continuation of the principles that led Branch Rickey and George Kissell to success with the birds on the bat.

Megdal is especially thorough in documenting Kissell’s impact on Cardinals culture before approaching the Luhnow hire. Megdal is somewhat successful in describing the Jocketty/Luhnow tensions with an anecdote or two, but it’s obviously not something the people he spoke to really want to dive into. It was interesting, though, to read Jocketty’s thoughts on those days and see how he has changed his mind — at least somewhat — regarding analytics since his Cardinals days.

Maybe the most interesting portion of the book related to the draft, as Megdal sat in with Cardinals executives and scouts as they created their draft board and discussed the pros and cons of different players. This scene really gives readers an inside look at how difficult a scout’s job is, and how challenging it is to be a general manager or scouting director who must take all these scouting reports and various opinions and make decisions with long-term ramifications.

As a Cardinals fan, this was an insightful read. For baseball fans interested in roster construction, scouting and organizational decision-making, this book could serve as a worthy sequel to Michael Lewis’s MONEYBALL.

HALF A WAR by Joe Abercrombie

Words are weapons.

They should be handled with proper care.

There isn’t much room for sentimentality in a Joe Abercrombie novel. Even if it has been tabbed as “young adult,” a term which HALF A KING, HALF THE WORLD and HALF A WAR have convinced me I don’t understand in the least.

For anyone who hesitated in picking up these books because they were marketed as Joe Abercrombie’s first young adult series, there was little cause for concern — most of the point-of-view characters are coming of age, but Abercrombie isn’t pulling any punches here. There’s just as much death, destruction and anguish as in THE FIRST LAW TRILOGY, and many of Abercrombie’s familiar themes regarding regret and the ability to change once again pop up. If he adapted his writing style for this trilogy, it’s impossible to tell.

Abercrombie’s credentials as an author with the ability to write from the perspective of a wide assortment of characters was established well before he ever brought us to the Shattered Sea, and he continues that tradition throughout this trilogy. HALF A KING introduced readers to the crippled prince Yarvi and his desperate attempt to find a place in the world. HALF A WORLD focused largely on Thorn Bathu and Brand. In HALF A WAR, we are introduced to a new cast of young characters — Skara, a princess-turned-queen, whose family was killed and kingdom was shattered by Bright Yilling and his army; Raith, a young warrior assigned to Skara’s service; and Koll, Yarvi’s apprentice, who must choose between life with Rin, the woman he loves, and the ambitious life of a minister.

The characters we’ve come to know and — in some cases, at least — love, are still around. Father Yarvi is a crucial player to the action, as are Thorn and Brand, but they are no long point-of-view characters. Instead, now that they are older, and for good or ill have established their places in the world, we see them from the perspective of the next generation, and are no longer witness to their inner dialogue and deepest fears.

It’s probably for the best. We’ve seen the trials and tribulations Yarvi and Thorn have faced, and seen it change them into unbending, unrelenting forces of nature. In HALF A WAR, we view them from the outside, and see just how terrifying they can become. Each is willing to do anything, terrible things, to destroy their enemies.

Meanwhile, Skara, Raith and Koll each make different decisions, leading us to believe at the end of the trilogy that they might have slightly better futures than the generation preceding them, precisely because they do compromise. Skara’s plotline mirrors Yarvi’s from HALF A KING, but whereas the death of Yarvi’s father and brother leave him metaphorically twisted, Skara emerges stronger, and avoids many of the mistakes Yarvi made.

Koll too serves as a comparison to Yarvi — given the choice between a relatively normal life and that of a minister, advising kings and queens and plotting the course of nations, Koll eventually chooses the path that makes him happiest.

Maybe it’s that hopeful tone of the latest generation making better decisions that makes this a more hopeful series than anything Abercrombie has written previously. There’s still plenty of death and destruction and shattered dreams, and just as in all Abercrombie novels, plenty of characters feel adrift and out of place by the end, but there’s also a touch of hope for the future.

Maybe the Father of Grimdark is going soft on us. But probably not.

CASINO ROYALE by Ian Fleming

I picked up CASINO ROYALE on an impulse after seeing it available as a Kindle Daily Deal for $1.99. I had already watched all the Bond movies on Netflix, and especially enjoyed Daniel Craig’s debut in the CASINO ROYALE movie, so it certainly seemed worth two bucks to see the source material and get my introduction to Ian Fleming and his writing style.

As a novel, CASINO ROYALE allows us an insight into Bond’s thoughts and inner dialogue that the movies can’t replicate, and to be honest, it isn’t pretty. Seeing how Bond’s mind works in assessing situations and determining his course of action is interesting, but the Bond of the novel is far more overtly chauvinistic than even his movie counterparts, and you begin to see several ways in which the movie version toned down Bond’s very worst impulses.

Bond is annoyed by the presence of Vesper Lynd, and while he readily admits he would like to sleep with her, his thoughts regarding her contributions to the mission read like a parody nowadays:

This was just what he was afraid of. These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men?

Twice, including in the final line of the book, Bond refers to Vesper as a bitch, demonstrating a crudeness it’s hard to imagine Bond demonstrating on the silver screen.

While Fleming’s action scenes are gripping, he never quite figures out how to write Vesper as a character. I was never completely certain I understood why she was there (the movie gave her a far more concrete role, even if the reason for her being present in the casino seemed sketchy at best), and Fleming never really seems to want to explain why Bond likes her other than that she looks good in a dress.

It makes Bond’s declaration that he loves her and plans to leave the service so he can be with her feel hurried and unclear. Bond indicates that she is easy to speak to and spend time with, unlike most women, but Fleming never successfully demonstrates this easy camaraderie. In this respect, the movies have captured the source material very well.

At the same time, Fleming does spend a chapter on a conversation between Bond and Mathis that explores Bond’s view on morality, and his frustration at chasing other spies when he would rather chase the villains behind the spies. It lends some depth to Bond that doesn’t always translate to the big screen, and seems to set up his missions moving forward through the rest of the series. Once the book reaches its conclusion, Bond returns to this moral exploration and decides to fully commit to his path — chasing the bad guys behind the bad guys, such as it is.

I think in reading CASINO ROYALE, you have to recognize it as a product of its times. It’s not an excuse, but at the same time I think it’s easy for the misogyny to overshadow Fleming’s unique voice, his exceptional ability to write action, and his ability to take readers into an extravagant world where every room is packed with glamour, high stakes and intrigue.