My Life in Piles
The piles are everywhere these days. Several, like paper-based condo units, have sprung in the office, of course. The priciest property is my desk, where two or three constantly changing titles—not just sports books—are designated for work and future paychecks. There’s a bookcase behind me, but it’s packed like a tenement, leading to an impressive shantytown on the left side.
Then there’s the living room end table, which is decidedly more uptown—better views and good landscaping thanks to the potted plant. John Updike’s Odd Jobs, a mansion onto itself, sits there, a reminder that an intimidating intellect doesn’t spring from channel surfing. The nightstand in my bedroom is the sad part of town. My wife’s doctoral dissertation and a copy of Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife have sat there unfinished for months, victims of too little free time and my scrambled priorities.
My house is in the throes of overdevelopment. Books to review always arrive. Christmas means an annual bounty. This year, I received six books as gifts. Then I bought another nine, thanks to my wife sharing her Barnes & Noble gift card and an indulgent trip to a book warehouse. Then, a month ago, in Florida visiting my parents, my dad bankrolled another buying spree at a wonderful used bookstore.
I bought at least seven more books. All are stored down south until March, when my parents will pack them in the car for the trip back north. Yes, clichéd as it sounds development has now crept into Florida.
A good portion of my life is devoted to whittling away these piles, which are reflected in my writings at BiblioBuffet. The column is not all I’ve done to keep from drowning in paper and fonts. I review books for other publications and I read for fun. (Note: The day I just read or watch movies for money is the day I start applying to law schools.) Here are my actions as zoning board commissioner of a constantly sprawling book metropolis.
Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman.
After covering three states in three days to visit family for the holidays, an endeavor that felt like the Bataan Death March with sugar cookies, my wife and I were fried. After December 26, we floated through the remainder of the week, allowing me to tear through one of my Christmas gifts, Pearlman’s wonderful book on the famed Chicago Bears running back. Pearlman has always been a great reporter, but his gradual unveiling of Payton’s troubled, dissatisfied soul demonstrates that the best biographies are like great novels: ripe with memorable characters, a gripping storyline, and full of narrative flair.
Too Big To Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System—and Themselves by Andrew Ross Sorkin.
A thorough, lengthy, and absolutely terrifying account of the 2008 stock market collapse, Sorkin’s book is good justification to keep our savings under a mattress. Why did I read this for fun?
Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark by Brian Kellow.
Any biography where the author admits to admiring her or his subject usually should be read after an insulin injection. Thankfully, Kellow explores the legendary film critic’s contributions and personal life with equal vigor. For all of her feisty brilliance, Kael was leery of competition, dismissing protégés like Owen Gleiberman and Carrie Rickey who strove to become peers. She was so dependent on her daughter, Gina James, that many friends felt Gina never became her own woman. Some felt that Kael’s criticism became too dependent on superlatives and affected her friendships with directors. As Kellow’s superb effort reveals, the talent that kept Kael aloft also revealed her flaws.
Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies by Mikey Walsh.
Walsh, a pseudonym, is the son of a Gypsy bare knuckles fighter. He was expected to follow suit, a prophecy that remained unfulfilled and resulted in savage beatings. But worse than living under the terror of a brutal father and a pedophile uncle is this: Mikey is gay, branding him a pariah in a band of societal outcasts. What Walsh endured to escape into the real world is unimaginable in its luridness, but it’s his lyrical, lean prose that breaks your heart and keeps you reading.
Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport [Mostly Baseball] by Donald Hall.
It doesn’t matter who’s playing, all that matters to Hall, a renowned poet, is the game. Sports allow the child in him, temporarily, to play, he writes in the introduction. Unburdened with a beat and the accompanying cynicism, the results here are glorious in their diversity. One piece has the middle-aged Hall participating in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training, which elicits memories of his late father, a former semi-pro ballplayer. Another has Hall describing the surge of temporary confidence that came with being “Ace Teenage Sportscribe.” He rages against “as told to” baseball books (which “display a splendid disregard for history in the service of myth”) and professional football’s celebration of barbarism. Today, fans can express their thoughts on sports anytime, anyplace. Even twenty-eight years later, Hall’s eloquently personal prose stirs our souls. In writing about sports, Hall writes about us.
Books mentioned in this column:
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (Black Swan, 2009)
Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport [Mostly Baseball] by Donald Hall (North Point Press/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1984)
Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies by Mikey Walsh (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012)
Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism by John Updike (Random House, 2012)
Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark by Brian Kellow (Viking, 2011)
Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman (Gotham Books, 2011)
Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System—and Themselves by Andrew Ross Sorkin (Penguin Books, 2010)
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, AMC Filmcritic.com, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and The Weekender, and maintains a movie blog. A longtime Mets fan, Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA, which is Phillies territory. Pray for him. Contact Pete.