Book reviews: Notes from Neil

By Neil Rajala

Spring, Beer and Baseball

Thursday, Mar. 20 — Happy First Day of Spring! There was a point around mid-February when I wouldn't have given you even odds that it would ever get here, but I can see parts of my yard again, my driveway has been revealed to be made of cement, as I remembered, and the back door onto my deck can be opened for the first time in months. I'm willing to say buds, robins and baseball season can't be far behind. Here's what we're reading:

Ben Tarnoff

Mr. Tarnoff's new book is a great double dose of American history. One one level, it presents a very compelling case that what can now be called American literature began in late-19th century San Francisco. A small group of writers - Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith - found each other and their voices in the Civil War-era city. Their mixture of bawdy humor, biting satire, western tall tales and melting pot vernacular was unlike anything that came before. Once they left San Francisco (save Coolbrith) their fortunes soared or crashed, or both, but the work they did in a few brief years changed everything that followed.

The other half of the story is a wonderful snapshot of the city itself, populated by a variety of characters who found themselves needing to create their own society after the gold rush ended. The Civil War, from which they were largely exempt and isolated (although the city passionately supported the North's cause), was a monetary boon for the population. The transcontinental railroad, which they waited for anxiously and celebrated prodigiously, ironically brought San Francisco's Golden Age to a halt as a select few became very wealthy while unemployment and crime soared. The group of four Bohemians was no more by then, but their legacy has certainly endured.


Steve Rushin

There's no question, one of baseball's main attractions is its quirkiness - the slow pace, superstitions and arcane rules, both written and unspoken. I've read few books that are as delightful a celebration of that quirkiness as Mr. Rushin's. He chose the objects associated with the game - balls, bats, gloves, caps, concessions, etc. - and by telling their unique histories since the earliest days of the game, creates a timeline of the national pastime unlike any other. The stories are as diverse and colorful as the memorable characters populating them. I could throw out (pun intended) hundreds of examples: The arrival of the baseball led to contests involving dropping them from great heights, even airplanes, to see if they could be caught. The earliest mitts were leather gloves with the fingers cut off, worn only by those who were willing to risk being called unmanly by the other players. The first uniforms were heavy wool, long sleeved and buttoned to the neck, worn even during heat waves that caused the players to collapse during games. The American League came into being soley to sell beer at Sunday games, which the National League prohibited. There's a ton more just as fascinating - probably 34 tons.

Kevin Revolinski

And as long as we're talking about baseball, let's talk about beer, too - a natural accompaniment to the game. The dizzying rise of microbreweries and brewpubs in Michigan is hard to follow, so a good guide is indispensible. Mr. Revolinski's book is that guide. Pick a town, any town, and the book will tell you everything you need to know about where your thirst for beer can be satisfied. The brewery's staple lineup, what rotates through the taps, the popular favorite vs. the brewmaster's, and even a snapshot of what businesses surround the pub, to give you ideas about how to plan your visit. A great book to keep in the glove compartment as you hit the road this summer.

Every so often I have to let you all know how much I enjoy and appreciate the emails I receive about Notes. That you read the newsletter and enjoy it, and take time out of your busy day to drop me a line is something I never take for granted, and I offer my sincere thanks. It's the best part of the whole process for me.

Until next week,


NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.