Fantasyland: True Tales from America’s Most Compulsive Fantasy League by Sam Walker

Around this time of year I am always tempted by books about baseball. The weather is warming up. The teams are about ready to open up the season. This year is bittersweet due to the sports stoppages in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yesterday was meant to be Opening Day and I miss the game terribly. Still, I did my baseball reading with Fantasyland: True Tales from America’s Most Compulsive Fantasy League. Our author, Sam Walker, is a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal and he takes part in the only Fantasy Baseball league in which you need an invitation from its creator; and he’s in it to win.

The year is 2004 and Sam Walker is ready to take part in Tout Wars, the most exclusive Fantasy Baseball league in the country. Not only does Walker want to make an impression on this league, he wants to win. There is no money involved (except for the auction draft) only bragging rights. This league is filled with several baseball bigwigs. Jason Grey who, today, is a fantasy analyst on ESPN; Ron Shandler, the creator of Baseball Forecaster, the year’s guide to every baseball player; and Lawr Michaels who worked for Fangraphs.com. Walker is so determined to win that he goes to the Winter Meetings to badger GMs and managers about players. He even hires two “helpers” to draft and manage his team: Nando is in charge of scouting. He’s the humanist of the group. It’s his job to find out everything about every player. Have they recently signed a big deal? Gotten married? Lost a family member?; Sig Mejdal is the numbers guy. He works for NASA as a day job, but his dream is to work for a major league team as a stats guy. His job is to look at players by stats only. Are they worth spending big on at the draft? If we trade David Ortiz, can we get anything equal in return? Walker spends nearly $46,000 and travels across the country to try and make his mark in this ultra-exclusive fantasy league. Despite all of their hard work, the trio comes in 8th out of 12.

By far, my favorite part of this book is the description of the draft. Tout Wars’ 2004 auction draft is AL only and takes place in a Wyndam Hotel conference room. Each league member has $260 to spend for his roster. They work each other over by driving prices up on players they don’t want each other to have. Or they nominate players they don’t want and hope someone will spend their money on him. Walker goes into the draft wanting elite pitching. He walks away with Mariano Rivera and Curt Schilling so he did his job. He also walks away, however, with a pitcher he wanted no part of: Sidney Ponson. Walker nominated the pitcher himself and put him put there for $12, about $6 higher than he should have. Absolutely no one bid on Ponson who, at the time, was far too overweight and had off-the-field issues. It was hilarious to read Walker’s description of his blunder.

I love playing Fantasy Baseball myself so it was really cool to read about someone else’s experience. Granted, I don’t let it claim control over my life quite like Walker did (he was at Yankee Stadium watching a couple of his players when his wife told him she was pregnant), it still holds a special place every season. Hopefully we get some form of baseball season this year. The game is dearly missed.

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Home by Julie Andrews

Ever since I was little I’ve loved Julie Andrews movies. Now, I’m not old enough to have known her in her prime. I’ve not seen My Fair Lady or Camelot, or even listened to their Broadway soundtracks. But I have seen Mary Poppins, one of my favorite Disney movies; and The Sound of Music remains my second favorite musical movie ever (Chicago‘s music is way too good for me not to love it the most). When I found out that Julie Andrews wrote a biography I had to have it. I was curious about her life since I’ve only ever thought of her as an actor and not really a person. It’s written in parts, Home is her early life and through Broadway, so no Poppins or Sound of Music.¬†

I read a few short reviews on Goodreads from others who had read her book. One said something about thinking they were going to read about a little girl from a well-to-do English family getting a crack at stardom. Up until right before opening the book, I don’t really recall what I was expecting. Maybe not well-to-do because Julie Andrews’ humor is too dry for that. But I was not expecting to read about a young girl who grew up impoverished and from a broken home. She talks about living near London during the Blitz; having to go into bunkers and tube stations for safety. She talks about moving to the country and having to take care of her two brothers when her mother and step-father were too drunk to be of any use. There is a surprising moment when Julie’s mother introduces her to a man that she later informs her is her real father. Julie is thrown for a loop and heartbroken because she had lived nearly eighteen years thinking that the man she loved above anyone else was her father. It was an emotional scene to read.

My favorite thing to read was the fact that Julie and Carol Burnett are good friends. Oh what I wouldn’t give to get to be a fly on the wall for that friendship. There must have been some laughs between the two of them. Julie Andrews’ life has been a tough one, but you would never know it from the strong woman she has become. Homework is the continuation of her story and I will continue to see the world through Julie’s eyes.

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Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker by Gregory Maguire

I’ve discovered that alternate fairy tales are kinda my thing. I read and reviewed Lost Boy by Christina Henry, an alternate tale of Peter Pan and Captain Hook. I am in love with the story of Wicked by Gregory Maguire, the alternate Oz story and also hit Broadway musical. Now Hiddensee is my latest find. This book is also by Gregory Maguire and it is an alternate tale of a holiday favorite. I think the title is a little misleading though, because technically the book is not about the nutcracker, but about his creator Dirk Drosselmeier.

We follow Drosselmeier as a young boy who lives in a dark forest near Bavaria. He lives with an elderly couple that he is aware are not his parents. He suffers a near-death experience which opens his eyes to the magical qualities of the forest around him. We follow him through the Bavarian countryside as he works for several families and befriends the children. Finally as a man he is a close family friend of the Stahlbaum family and is very close with Felix Stahlbaum and his two sons whom he makes toys for. Drosselmeier eventually becomes the godfather of Felix’s grandchildren Fritz and Klara. Klara is a frail, fanciful child whom Drosselmeier learns is very ill and her symptoms make themselves known when she starts speaking nonsense about a Mouse King coming to carry her away.

I enjoyed the other little bits of fairy tales that made their way into this book. At the beginning, Dirk hears a story about a brother and sister that venture into the woods and meet an old witch who tries to kill them. Near the end, he asks himself where the little elves come from that help hobbled shoemakers. There is even a cameo by one of the Grimm brothers looking for stories to record. It’s also nice having a background to Drosselmmeier’s story now. Before, he was always the mysterious godfather with an eye patch that no one could pin a life on. Some may argue that now his mysterious character is ruined for the ballet, but I think it helped him. It definitely helped Klara’s character. Giving Klara and illness as an explanation to her fantastic story was, I think, genius of Maguire. Godfather Drosselmeier gives Klara the legendary nutcracker in order to protect her from the Mouse King that she is hallucinating, but it goes to show that he understands the children when their parents scold them for their flights of fancy. It brings out Drosselmeier’s inner child, which we see in the book he never gets to embrace. I believe he also sees himself as the brave nutcracker soldier trying to rescue Klara from a terrible fate.

I highly recommend this book for those of you that like alternate fairy tales. It deviates from the ballet a little, but that is the point. Take a journey with Herr Drosselmeier as he learns to navigate life and love.

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An Arrows Flight by Mark Merlis

Greek myth has never been so fun for me. An Arrows Flight tells the story of Neoptolemus, or Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles. It’s not the story you think though. This book throws Pyrrhus and his peers into modern times. He is a gay man who lives in the city with a roommate, waits tables at a failing restaurant, and struggles to make ends meet. Pyrrhus then becomes a dancer at the hottest gay bar around until Odysseus comes to recruit him to the Trojan War. The combination of ancient happenings with modern tools/people/communication really pulls you in.

Now this book is first and foremost about the fact that Pyrrhus, the son of the manliest man to ever grace the earth, is gay. Merlis is an advocate for gay rights and really shows it in his writing. The book is also pretty erotic. Much more so than I was expecting, but honestly that made it a better read. Merlis did a great job at character development for Pyrrhus throughout the book. Pyrrhus starts as a super-spoiled prince of an island who has not a care in the world. When he moves to the city, his ego is even more inflated because he’s the best looking man anyone has ever come in contact with. But when Odysseus shows up and takes him aboard his ship, his world is turned upside-down. Pyrrhus also must try and get Philoctetes on board the ship in order to fulfill a prophecy about the Trojan War and ends up falling for him and we really see him grow as a character.

Only one thing kind of bummed me out about this book. They focused a lot on who being gay was a taboo in Greece, and how weird it was for Achilles to have a gay son when he was a brute athlete and the manliest of the Greeks. However, it’s speculated that Achilles had a lover in Patroclus during the Trojan War and we never touched upon the subject in this book. Wouldn’t it have been quite a twist for Pyrrhus to find out that his manly father was queer like him? That he so loved Patroclus that when Patroclus died, Achilles flew into a rage and killed a bunch of people? I just feel like it was a big part of the myth of Achilles that was left out of a story that had to do with gay men.

The book was really good and I would recommend it to others. It sucks you in with the erotica, but it keeps you reading with the story and the decisions Pyrrhus must make.

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The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Alexandra is fresh off of a plane in Sofia, Bulgaria when she runs into a family struggling to get into a taxi. She offers her help and comes away with an unexpected adventure in the form of a piece of luggage she accidentally took from them. Inside that mystery bag is an urn with the ashes of a deceased musician named Stoyan Lazarov. To return the urn, Alexandra enlists the help of her own taxi driver and several of the deceased man’s family. She learns of his troubled past and his passion for playing the violin, and when she finally finds the family to which the urn belongs, she is in for a twist of fate.

I’ll tell you… Kostova sure knows how to tell a story. Her characters are so well-developed throughout the entire book. And there are a lot of them. That’s what I think impressed me most about this book. With so many characters introduced, usually we don’t get to wrap everything up, but Kostova managed to leave me satisfied with everyone’s story. Every character, even the ones who die, are summed up by the end. The other impressive element in Kostova’s writing is her detail in describing the landscape in which the story is taking place. Never have I felt the urge to visit Bulgaria until I read this book. Her descriptions of Sofia and the small villages that surround it are incredible. But the description of the mountains is what got me. What I wouldn’t give to visit those mountains.

The only criticizing I have to do for this book is the ending. I also read Kostova’s “The Historian” and, if I recall correctly, I had the same complaint. The ending was too quick. Kostova does such a good job at weaving the story and creating twists and turns that it seems she ends everything quite abruptly. While everyone’s story is summed up in the end, it is summed up very quickly and I feel like she could have made it somewhat more detailed in the end.

Regardless of the quick ending I thoroughly enjoyed this book and hope I get to read more by Elizabeth Kostova. I am interested in learning more about Eastern Europe from her stories.

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The Heretic’s Wife by Brenda Rickman Vantrease

The Heretic’s Wife the story of Kate Gough, the fictional wife of John Frith, who was a refugee during the reign of Henry VIII. Kate is a well-educated, Lutheran-sympathizing woman in Tudor London who meets John Frith, a man accused of being a heretic for translating the Bible into English so that any man may read the word of God. The couple lives most of their lives in Antwerp, where English law, mainly Thomas More, cannot touch them. The story mostly follows Kate’s everyday life, but we occasionally get the insight of Thomas More, the King’s Chancellor who seems obsessed with burning heretics; and Anne Boleyn, the woman Henry VII breaks with Rome for in order to set aside is very Catholic Spanish Queen Katherine. We get a look at how each character is dealing with the religious crisis of the day.

I thought the writing was good. I’m glad Vantrease decided to not only stay with Kate. It gave us a little variety on the thinking of the people of the times. Kate and Anne, for instance are sympathetic to the Lutheran cause. They believe William Tyndale, the man working to translate the Bible into English and distribute it to as many Englishmen as possible, is an inspiration. Why not let every man interpret the Bible for his own? While Thomas More is perhaps the man most strongly against such thought. He believes the Lord is supreme power and that the church has the only right to determine what His words mean. He is hell-bent on burning everyone who says otherwise. I also like that Vantrease decided to write Kate as an educated woman. Most women of the era were illiterate and that would have made for a very boring story.

Kate though was not as revolutionary as I would have liked. Yes she was educated, and yes she kind of dropped everything to help with the cause, but she was still reigned in by need/want for children. I would have thought a woman like Kate would not want the burden of children during such a dangerous time. Which leads me to the other thing I dislike about the book and every other historical fiction book set in this time period. The miscarriage. There is ALWAYS a miscarriage in these books. I’ve read a lot that take place anywhere between the War of the Roses and Elizabethan England and each one has a woman losing a child they so desperately wanted. It just feels cliche at this point.

Overall I enjoyed the book because it’s hard for me to hate a book that is written about the Tudor reign. My favorite era in world history is hard for me to criticize too much.

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Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows

Officially titled Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America¬†which is a mouthful to put at the top. James and Deborah Fallows are reporters who decided to travel across the United States and write about what they saw in the towns that no one visits. They went to these so-called “fly-over” cities and dug into what really makes this country so appealing. They visited some cities that we’ve heard of such as Fresno, California and Columbus, Ohio, but most of the cities I had never heard of such as Ajo, Arizona; Duluth, Minnesota; Eastport, Maine, and so many more.

What they did when they got to these cities was met the people. They met people in these tiny cities who had lived there all their lives. They met people who came from big cities like New York and L.A. and fell in love with the small town they were relocated to. They met small-town mayors who were working their tails off to better the city in any way they could. They met with school officials who were making a difference in the lives of children that would probably otherwise be forgotten. The Fallows’ wanted to know what made America tick, and they found it in these little po-dunk towns.

Schools were a big theme I found in this book. Every city they went to there was a school mentioned. Many different schools. In a few cities there was a school that was rundown. Small classrooms, not a whole lot of supplies. But the students were proud of their city still. They wanted to help raise it up. In other cities there were schools doing extraordinary things. Schools that started a community garden and sold their crops at local farmers markets. An elementary schools that had a sole focus on engineering. I read about a high school that went from a 44% graduated rate up to a 96% graduation rate because the students were given the help they needed to prepare for college. These are the leaders of tomorrow and they love the little towns they grew up in.

My favorite cities were Duluth, Minnesota and Winters, California. Duluth because it sounded kind of similar to my hometown of Morgan Hill, California. Not the smallest city, but cozy. Has a downtown where restaurants and boutiques thrive. I liked Winters because it was the town I always wished I did come from. So small that all of the kids at the high school had gone through all schooling together. Families that had known one another for generations. All packed tightly in the woods near Yosemite. I think maybe I’ll retire to Winters.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book for those of you looking to find hope for this country. Or maybe for those of you searching for a new home.

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The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn

Roger Kahn is a Brooklyn-born newspaper reporter who recounts his years following the Dodgers baseball team before they moved west. The 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers team is the stuff of legends even though they had trouble winning pennants. Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Pee Wee Reese are only a few of the names that took the field for this baseball team during the time Roger was reporting on them. He got to meet, and became close with these players. He got to do things most of us only dream of doing.

Kahn begins the book by telling his own story. He remembers growing up in Brooklyn and taking the train to Ebbet’s Field. He talks about his parents. His mother and father were university professors and regarded intellect as the real measure of human culture. His mother never understood his love for the game of baseball. His father loved the Dodgers as much as Roger did and took him to games to feed his hunger to see the boys play. Kahn tells of how he came into the newspaper business. Starting as a copy boy and working his way up to be the field reporter for the Dodgers.

Next, Kahn recounts the years he followed the Dodgers team around the country watching them try to win pennant after pennant. He tells of how Jackie Robinson came to the team and the reactions of his teammates. He remembers his friendships with Campy and Duke, and about how sometimes he made them unhappy because of what he wrote. All these boys wanted was to win a world series and he reported on their sorrow when the season ended with no pennant. He also reported on his own sorrow when the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

Lastly, Kahn tells us readers about individual players after their baseball career. He visits each one in their current hometown and writes what they’ve been doing, what they remember about their playing days, and how much they miss the game. He reports about how to get to each city they are currently residing. What surprises him about each player’s lives now that they don’t have to take the field every day. We meet their families and friends. We learn if they have to work or live comfortably with no job. He ends the book with the funeral of captain Pee Wee Reese and the reaction of his team when their leader was gone.

The most intriguing part of this book for me was that it read so much more like a narrative than a biography/autobiography. Each of these players was a character for me rather than an actual person who lived and played the game. Kahn did a wonderful job painting the pictures of cities and people. His writing made this book incredibly enjoyable especially for someone who loves baseball. The Dodgers are in no way my team, but reading about their lives in Brooklyn, and their lives after Brooklyn was such a wonderful experience.

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As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires by Bruce Weber

This book is about a New York reporter who decided he would like to know what its like to be a professional umpire. Weber put himself through umpire school in Florida where he met and spoke to several other young and old men (and one woman) who were, as they say, “livin’ the dream.” Weber also spoke to members of the umpire hierarchy. Men who were in charge of the umpires still working their way up in the minor leagues. Men who are currently in charge of those same umpires. Men who work for Major League Baseball in the department that deals with Major League umpires. What Weber wrote about was very surprising to me.

Weber, of course, mentions in the book how the umpire is the one guy on the baseball field that no one roots for. No one watching the game knows their names, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. They are supposed to be invisible. We all know, though, that the moment they become visible and the crowd aware that they are there is a bad sign because that’s how you know they got a call wrong. Or at least wrong in the eyes of the fans. I knew all of this going in. I’ve been watching baseball my whole life and I know who the umpires are supposed to be. I know that they are human and they get things wrong sometimes and I think fans can be too harsh on them. Much of what Weber writes is anecdotal. Tales from former and current umpires of times they made a call and paid for the result. Times they were supposed to make a call but lost sight of the ball or bag. Times they’ve fought with players and managers because they believed their call was made correctly. I’ve seen a lot of this go on in the games I’ve watched.

What Weber wrote about that I was not aware of in professional umpiring is how these men are treated before they get to the majors. There was an anecdote that Weber wrote about an umpire who was travelling. The umpire was in a dumpy motel and was robbed at gunpoint. Shaken, the umpire could not go back to work for anxiety. He was nearly fired for not being able to work 48 hours after a traumatic experience. The staff in charge of the minor league umpires don’t seem to care what happens to them. They stick them in run-down hotels, give them a daily allowance that can feed them only in fast food, and run them ragged with their schedules. Now, many of the umpires know this going in to the job, and I respect that. But I was totally unaware that the minor league umps were treated as poorly as the minor league players. I have a whole new level of respect for these men that spend years in a crappy situation just to one day feel the joy of umpiring a major league game.

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The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Jude and her sisters were taken to Faerie after their new father figure murdered their real parents. Now they live among the Folk as daughters of the most militarily powerful man in the land. They learn with the gentry children, go to royal balls, and mingle with the royal family of Faerie. The problem is that Jude’s main enemy happens to be the youngest Prince Cardan whose cruelty toward her outdoes even the man that killed her mother in front of her. When plans are set into motion to replace the royal family of Faerie, Jude must learn to work with the person she despises over everyone. Can she and Prince Cardan deal with each other long enough to save Faerie?

I both love and hate teen fantasy at the same time. The stories are usually so entertaining. They are full of magic, fantastical beasts, and lots of fighting action. But it never fails that I always wind up wishing that this book was written for adults instead of teens because the writing is so juvenile. It’s not a bad thing really, I just always want characters to react how I would I suppose. I want them to curse. I want good sex scenes. I don’t know, maybe Game of Thrones has completely ruined fantasy novels for me.

What I did like was they was this story had so much strategy in it. The twists and turns had me trying to guess what was going to happen next, and honestly it did not end the way I expected it to. Black has an excellent mind for battle descriptions and how a military mind might think. The whole book was like watching a chess match of royal siblings that Jude and her family happened to be a part of. It was a very promising start to what should be a great series.

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