Field Notes: Victorine, Moneyball

VICTORINE

SYNOPSIS: Maude Hutchins’s recently revived 1959 novel about a 13-year-old girl’s slow-burning sexual awakening.

CONDITION: Classic paperback from the New York Review of Books, bought remaindered from Chapters a few months ago.

THOUGHTS: Man, what a treat—a licentious book about free-flowing sexual politics that’s also brilliantly written. Much to be admired in Hutchins’s approach to all things carnal, of course, but even more impressive as a piece of writing. Wanders only to those places deemed interesting or relevant enough; there’s no beating (pardon the expression) around the bush (ditto). The breezy tone, too, is more in tune with the European tradition than anything North America usually produces—yet Hutchins is American, and Victorine was written in the ever-stuffy 1950s.

So: liberated, but never lurid. Victorine does close out the book a virgin, after all. Very little is consummated for anyone. More a meditation on the ways sex permeates all societies—how obvious it is, if you know where to look. The misguided undertones of brother-sister roughhousing. The sheer quantity of farm-animal penises one can see in a day. And, in the end, how permeable are categories like love, lust, devotion, and plain old curiosity. The innocent delight taken with sex and sensuality is almost Edenic.

To wit: “As she had lain for those few moments on her back, half naked, caressing herself, waiting for male co-operation, she had been, perhaps, neither good nor evil, just an anthropological specimen.”

And all this accomplished with a writer’s writer’s attention to imagery, structure, and sentence-by-sentence pleasure. I can only imagine how this gleefully tossed cherry bomb made Hutchins’s male critics blush.

* * * * *

MONEYBALL

SYNOPSIS: Michael Lewis’s 2003 account of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and the rise of sabermetrics, a revolutionary but under-appreciated method of using statistics—boatloads of them—to predict future successes.

CONDITION: The very same paperback I gave my dad as a present last year. Thanks, pop.

THOUGHTS: During the four days I spent inhaling this book, I saw a few reviews of a new title by Bill James. This is the same guy, it turns out, who laid the foundations for sabermetrics in a series of funny, sharply written (and self-published) baseball almanacs in the 1980s. Until Billy Beane, James’s ideas were never adopted by anyone inside the game; by the end of Moneyball, he’s been hired as a senior consultant for the Boston Red Sox. It’s nice to know he found success as a writer, too, beyond the diamond.

Look: I don’t know anything about sports. I mean, I logged many years on various fields growing up, and many years in front of various TVs watching the Blue Jays and Canucks in the mid-’90s. But as an adult, I literally don’t have the time to even watch them anymore. I still like reading about sports. I especially like the idea of sports, or sports as a metaphor—your End Zones, your Friday Night Lightses. (And, who am I kidding, I like watching highlights [usually on planes on mute].)

Still, Moneyball is obviously a master class in about five things at once. Michael Lewis handles structure and character-based set pieces with absolute poise. He’s also a contrarian with impeccable attention to detail. The book takes no small amount of joy in taking crusty old baseball wisdom—notions about “manufacturing runs”, clutch hitting, and player physique, among other things—and turning it on its ear. And, considering we’re talking about a bunch of laptop nerds reducing baseball to a cold, hard science, Lewis deserves many brownie points for remaining empathetic above all else.

A saying I don’t much care for in book reviews is “it’s not just a great ____ book; it’s a great book, period.” Yet Moneyball fits that formulation to a tee. At heart it’s a book about ingenuity and the human condition. Rather than the nuts and bolts of baseball as a sport, it’s an invigorating look at the network of people who play, manage, watch, and spend all day thinking about it.

So of course it’s about to be turned into a movie—one that attracted the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Aaron Sorkin, and Brad Pitt. Any laptop nerd could’ve told you that.

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