Book Review: Moneyball By Michael Lewis

Several years after purchasing the book, I finally decided to read Moneyball. Although familiar with the popular meaning of the term and in possession of vague memories of an early 2010s film starring Brad Pitt, something had always kept me from it. On reflection, I suppose I had a pre-conceived idea of what the book would be like based on its central idea: that a cash-strapped Major League Baseball team, through the adoption of a data-informed approach to player recruitment, could outperform its wealthier rivals. I imagined myself choking on statistics and reading equations spanning several lines. In other words, I thought Moneyball would be no fun at all. Its greatest triumph is that it knocks this particular assumption, as baseball fans would say: ‘out of the park’.

The book reads like a novel and every baseball term and statistic is skilfully woven into the story of the characters that were pivotal to the instigation of arguably the most transformative experiment undertaken in modern sporting times. Top of the list of those involved is Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s, a compulsive, obsessive and anger-prone former baseball player, who happens to be the perfect captain of a ship that according to the tobacco-chewing, cliché-loving baseball commentariat is on a one-way voyage to oblivion. Once the most sought-after baseball prodigy in America, Beane, having been earmarked for greatness by scouts, endured an underwhelming professional career despite all of the game’s supposed experts endorsements. With the help of Havard Economics graduate Paul DePodesta, Beane is subsequently able to cut through the scouting tropes that incorrectly singled him (and many other young baseball players after him) out as future stars and build a revolutionary data-led method of constructing a team in which player selections are informed not by whether a player will look good fronting an ad campaign, but the statistical merits of their sporting performance.

Living in today’s world, this may be appear as little more than common sense, but given that Beane’s experiment was undertaken during the turn of the last millennium and ran into the early noughties, a time when technology was much more primitive, there is little doubt that he and his team’s work was at the time, ground breaking. As the approach unsurprisingly begins to bear fruit, details of the baseball scouting fraternity’s attempts to dispel it are relayed. Here the desperation and denial of a previously unchallenged ‘old boys club’ accustomed to justifying their endorsement of a player simply by spouting a few aphorisms as sagely as possible is laid bare and provides unrelenting tension throughout the book. Billy Beane and his team know that the earth is round, but no matter how loud they shout it and how many photos they show, the baseball establishment just will not listen.

The lines are drawn. Beane et al are the innovators and the rest of baseball world are burying their heads in the sand. Moneyball good. Baseball bad. But is it as simple as that? Personally, I didn’t think that it was. Clearly Beane and his team are pioneers in one sense, but are they pioneers for the better? There are several mentions of Wall Street in the book and at certain points Beane is described as buying and selling players as though they are little more than shares in a company. For me this left a sour taste, not with Beane or the sport of baseball in particular, but for the way in which capitalism has managed to slyly interweave itself with all of the world’s most popular sports. Players are not sentient breathing beings, they are commodities to be bought and sold at will in the pursuit of sporting success and to hell with the real-life consequences. Beane is simply a stockbroker who managed to ‘short’ conventional market wisdom.

Rating: 4/5 While I’m not sure Moneyball is altogether a good thing for the world of sport, this was by far the most engaging sports book I’ve ever read.  

Book Review: Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck

After recently re-reading J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye, I decided, when faced with another otherwise unfilled day in lockdown, to revisit another 20th century classic and one of all my all-time favourites, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men. A novella revolving around little and large migrant ranch workers George Milton and Lennie Small, it is a story that examines both friendship and loneliness.

My overriding memory from my initial reading several years previously was the point the relationship of the two central characters made about how friendship can often be driven by compromise, with an imperfect relationship generally considered to be preferable to loneliness. This is illustrated through George’s willingness to tolerate the frequent gaffes of his well-intentioned but bumbling friend, despite the trouble that Lennie’s faux pas regularly land the duo in.

As I read the Of Mice And Men for the second time however, my attention was drawn not to the two main characters, but one of the secondary figures in the story, Curley’s wife. Married to the ranch owner’s ill-tempered son, Curley’s wife’s arrangement has effectively stripped her of her own identity, rendering her merely an extension of her husband, something that is emphasised by the fact that her actual name is never revealed. Expected to stay in the house like a supposedly ‘good wife’, she seeks companionship with the ranch workers, most of whom shun her advances due to their own fear of her husband’s reaction. This leaves her alone and devoid of any hope in her future. Worse still, her rejected attempts to interact with the workers result in her being labelled ‘a tart’ who should remain in her husband’s house. I found the hopelessness of this character’s reality truly horrifying, especially when I considered that despite this story being more than 80 years old, there are still so many women in the world treated as little more than the property of their spouse. These women face the wretched dichotomy of either spending their entire life in a suffocating relationship or potentially being shunned by their social circle should they attempt to sever the ties restraining them.

Like much of Steinbeck’s work, Of Mice and Men is focused on oppressive institutions and their ruthless propensity to strip ordinary people of the most basic elements of the human experience. Curley’s wife’s marriage is just one of many examples of this, but that doesn’t it make any less impactful.

Rating: 4.5/5 A bonafide classic that can be easily read in a day.      

Book Review: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

A story of two friends who make a euthanasia pact following the death of a woman they have both loved, Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam revolves around the selfish actions of the two men in the aftermath of bereavement.

Both characters Clive, a composer intent on writing his magnum opus symphony, and Vernon, the editor of a flagging newspaper, attempt to stay busy following the death and throw themselves back into their respective professions. This presents both of them with opportunities in which they elect to serve their own interests as opposed to those of others. In both instances their choices backfire, but far from leading to reformation, both outcomes serve only to cement them in their selfish ways. There is once again however, consequences and these are borne out in shocking fashion in the book’s final pages.

Probably the most chilling thing about this story is that both characters are completely believable, and this realisation prompts one to ponder how many untold stories there are in the world of the sort of callousness that both characters embody. One feels that their mentalities are linked intrinsically to their careers and this may have a lot to with their believability, for in a contemporary society that champions individual achievement and wealth over integrity and community, platitudes promoting the notion that single-mindedness is a pre-requisite for success can be easily found. What McEwan does, is highlight in brutal fashion, the bludgeoning consequences of the rise in such attitudes.

Rating: 4/5 Decimates the idea that rampant selfishness can bring prosperity.

Book Review: Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

In my eyes, for a book to be re-readable it is needs to be of a certain calibre. Even in a lockdown, life is too short to be wasted on mediocre stories.  So when I scanned my bookshelf looking for a novel that was worth revisiting, there were few better candidates than J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye. Having first read the book when I was considerably younger, my enduring memories were that it was an outstanding piece of work with an instantly recognisable voice that thousands of writers have probably tried to emulate since. But I felt sure a second reading would enable me to draw a more detailed conclusion on what makes this book one of the most celebrated pieces of 20th century literature. And so, for the second time in my life, I dived in.

I did not have to look too far when searching for further explanations as to why the book is so brilliant. Holden Caulfield is quite simply a fascinating protagonist that constantly keeps you guessing, with his actions forming a narrative that urges you devour the book as quickly as possible. Wrestling with anxiety, depressed by his inability to form a meaningful platonic relationship and haunted by his failure to lose his virginity; Holden is a character swamped with issues who appears to have boarded a runaway train headed straight for implosion. And yet in spite of his problems, he shows flashes of wit that render him undeniably entertaining. As depression threatens to dampen him permanently, his sense of humour appears to represent the dying embers of a personality that we hope will survive the trauma of growing up. The fact that Salinger manages to make us a sympathise with a privately educated son of a lawyer, is testament to his writing, and, more specifically its tone; with Caulfield’s narration more than seventy years after initial publication remaining as distinctive as ever.    

Through the eyes of an unforgettable lead character, Catcher in Rye’s exploration of eternal issues such as loneliness and growing up make it a book that is unlikely to lose its relevance any time soon.

Rating: 4.5/5 Salinger famously retreated into a reclusive lifestyle following the novel’s success. But as far as I’m concerned, any writer who produces something as good as Catcher in the Rye should thereafter be entitled to a life-long sabbatical if they require one.                

Book Review: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

A bunch of schoolboys find themselves stranded on a desert island. What could possibly go wrong? The answer, as anyone who has read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies will testify, is plenty.

While the boys initially form a harmonious community, greed and a desire for power amongst one of their number quickly causes a division on the island. With this parting of the ways marking the start of many of the boys’ descent into savagery, the story examines the madness that the fundamental instinct of survival can potentially drive human beings to. With the split on the island seeing a society of self-preservation superseding one of harmony and community, the story prompts us to consider our own approach to life and which side of the island our behaviour would be most likely to place us on.

Although most of us do not live on desert islands, we all must go out into the society we exist within and make our attempts to survive. Along this journey we will encounter opportunities to gain power at the expense of others. While our society may not necessarily tell us there is anything wrong with this, the fact remains that personal gain in one instance may directly instigate loss in another. Knowledge of this gives this us the opportunity to either take a step back and re-evaluate our decisions, or to simply say ‘so what’ and continue to make self-serving choices. Lord of the Flies is as disturbing a reminder as any in literature of the ills of choosing self-preservation over community. The horrors that unfold as a result of some its characters choices are, if nothing else, a call to readers everywhere to ensure that, when they put the book down and continue with their lives, they ensure they remain on the right side of the island.   

Rating 5/5 William Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 and on this evidence, it is easy to see why. A masterfully paced story with dialogue that seeps with tension, Lord of the Flies is a novel that manages to be both profound and primal.

Book Review: The Trial by Franz Kafka

Detailing a hellish world in which citizens can be arrested without valid cause, Franz Kafka’s The Trial is a story that underlines the powerlessness of the individual against the machine of society.

Initiated through the arrest of protagonist Josef K, the novel charts K’s attempts to try and clear his name and understand the forces working against him. Efforts, which ultimately lead him to the depressing realisation that true freedom can never be achieved. Written between 1914 and 1915, prior to the rise of totalitarian states that left lasting scars on the world, history has proven the story to be chillingly prophetic; cementing its status as an epochal novel. But arguably most unnerving of all is the question surrounding freedom that it raises. K’s hopeless situation though thankfully not a direct reflection of today’s world, serves nonetheless as a disturbing reminder that the price of life within a civilised society is a lifetime bond to bureaucracy. Bureaucracy which can, at any point in history, be manipulated to form an all-conquering juggernaut.

Published after Kafka’s death, The Trial is a story clearly written from a place of deep disillusionment with society and dismay at the futility of any attempts to escape it. Kafka’s failure to complete the story before his death (his literary executor Max Brod instigated its eventual publication) appears in many ways fitting. Almost as though Kafka’s frustration with life was such that he ultimately ran out of time express it fully within his work. Like Kafka’s life, which ended at the age of 40 due to tuberculosis, The Trial is a tragic story, but its impact, nearly a century after its brilliant but troubled creator’s death, endures.

Rating: 4/5 Sucks you into a confined world from which there is no way out. A book that prompts one to ponder the ideal of freedom.  

Book Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Answering the never-before-pondered question of whether man can survive on a life boat in the middle of the ocean with nothing but a tiger for company, Yan Martel’s Life of Pi, is undoubtedly unique.

However, far from being an exuberantly invented castaway story, Life of Pi despite the absurdity of its premise, is focused on much deeper questions. The book is in effect a meditation on divinity, with Pi, the narrator, using his story to plead the affirmative case. Although this only becomes apparent during the novel’s latter stages, the groundwork is laid meticulously during the early chapters, in which the narrator outlines the merits of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, all three of which he claims to practice. The religion-focused chapters are punctuated with several explanations of how to keep animals, information that it proves itself conveniently relevant as the story progresses. This makes for a long set-up that in its early stages, especially with respect to the religion-based chapters, leaves one uncertain as to where everything is leading. Arguably the book’s greatest triumph is its navigation of these early stages with crisp measured, prose that remains purposeful and never feels self-indulgent. Penned by an inferior writer, Life of Pi’s opening could be described as one long backstory dump, but Martel makes this part of the book promise rather than perturb.

The telling of a farfetched story in manner that oozes realism and the narrator’s pointed delivery of his closing argument in the denouement, well and truly delivers on this early, if ambiguous, promise.

Rating: 4/5 A bizarre story, superbly written with plenty of meaning beyond the surface.