July 11, 2006

Reading Review

Gotta love voluntary summer reading. In one life's many small ironies, the once despised task of reading assigned books for the upcoming school year has segued naturally into a preference for reading my own selection of books during the warm months. The hard part is forcing myself to read actual literature, not just books about poker. That being said, here's a sketch of the books I've read so far this season:

The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King, Michael Craig, nonfiction. The tagline for this book appearing under the title on the cover is "Inside the Biggest Poker Game of All Time." Craig's text is easy to read, without suffering from the downright childishness that plagues some other poker non-fiction. The story he unfolds is unavoidably compelling, even for anyone who doesn't know who Howard Lederer, Andy Beal or Ted Forrest is.

What the book does most successfully, even beyond its incisive and accurate accounts of the fabled "Big Game," is to portray the nature of these larger-than-life individuals who willingly and literally risk millions on the turn of a card every day. The glitter and pomp of Texas banker Andy Beal's challenge to the top professional poker players for nearly every dollar they could scrape together is not only an interesting poker tale, but a curious depiction of our shared humanity. The need to gamble is a mutated over-grown aspect of that which afflicts these great players. Only the most talented can overcome their addiction by finding a way to channel it into success. Terrifying and thrilling.

The Gambler, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, novel. I saw a cartoon once, I think it was a FarSide. It showed a man reading on the beach being confronted by an officer, "Sir, Dostoyevsky is not appropriate summer reading." Book police. Talk about delving into the depths of humanity. I have never previously read any Dostoyevsky (D.), I managed to dodge Brothers Karamozov in high school and didn't take a second glance. It was only after reading references to his work in two of the great poker non-fictions (Alvarez's Biggest Game in Town and McManus' Positively Fifth Street - both of which I've re-read also this summer) that my interest was piqued. The line quoted by McManus appears near the end of the novel, and is roughly, "The mere sound of chips nearly sends me into convulsions," spoken reflectively by the story's anti-hero Alexis Ivanovich, a void college graduate with dubious employment history, relying on gambling to meet his needs (um....).

He theorizes, "Russians are too richly and mutifariously endowed to be able to find a decent form for themselves very quickly. It's a matter of form. For the most part, we Russians are so richly endowed that it takes genius for us to find a decent form. Well, but most often there is no genius." Needless to say, I associated deeply with the D.'s thoughts spoken through Ivanovich. Again (as I am told is common to D.) the ending is dark and cryptic (sort of like death, no?). You know you're back to good literature when there is no distinct ending and it's at least implied that the main character dies painfully. Good book, definitely not appropriate summer reading.

One of a Kind, Nolan Dalla and Peter Alston, nonfiction. "The rise and fall of Stuey 'The Kid' Ungar, the world's greatest poker player." I found this book to be excellent. It may not be as literary as Dostoyevsky, or even Alvarez for that matter, but the story that it tells is rich with meaning. Stu Ungar isn't in Rounders and you won't hear a lot about him on ESPN commentary, but the often unspoken fact is that he won the main event at the World Series of Poker an unprecedented three times. While he was alive he was undisputed as the world's best gin player. His mind was truly...well, the title of the book pretty much gets it. Like the players depicted in Professor, Banker, Suicide King, Stuey had the gift/curse. His life was amazing, tortured, blessed, enviable, and pitiful. He epitomizes the great tensions that strain humanity: glimpses of pure greatness at odds with the chains of compulsion and addiction. Although the text does not portray him as the most personable guy, I would like to have met Stu.

Those are the three I've read already. I started Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, but it's like a bujillion pages long and I'm beginning to second guess the decision to buy the $8.95 verion with teeny-tiny print crammed into small pages over the $20 one with good production value. Maybe I can check out a readable version from the library and leave my copy on the intellectual trophy case (aka bookshelf).

9.17 Update

Sophie's World, Jostein Gaarder. This self described "novel about the history of philosophy," was basically an intro philosophy textbook thinly disguised by a fairly disposable plot. Nonetheless, I did enjoy refurbishing my limited knowledge of said philosophical history. The story was vague and peripheral for over half the book, but it did take an interesting turn. However, I thought the plot disintegrated at the conclusion. Tricky to recommend for anyone other than intro philosopy types, probably hard to plough through all the textbooky stuff if philosophy isn't your thing.

On Art and Life, John Ruskin. A pamphlet actually, from Penguin Press's "Great Ideas" series which include other pamplets by the likes of Machiavelli, Payne, Nietzche, Darwin, etc.. Ruskin was actually referenced briefly in the previous Gaarder text, which I thought was interesting, considering I acquired both books at random. Anyway, this is one of those looks smart on the coffee table kind of books, a real pain to actually read. But when I finally did get around to forcing the old-timey english down I found remarkable relevance in Ruskin's ideas about division of labour and originality and creativity in the workforce. He calls for a "humanizing" of the worker, have the worker think and the thinker work. Now if I could just get a job.

"You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both."

Back to the Island

The last time I went to Peaks Island was in 2003. At that time I was home after the first year of college and working two jobs simultaneously. Remarkably, myself and two high school friends all found correlating time off work around the 4th of July to shoot up to Maine for a few days (the island is a 20 minute boat ride from Portland). That was three years ago, and a lot has changed in my life since then. I've finished with college; the following three years of which contributed (detracted?) to some major shifts in thinking. Honk if you think enlightenment sucks.

All of the crap that clutters our lives (for me it was poker, academic b.s., job search, etc.) causes us to forget. What I forgot is that life is good. It took a long overdue return to Peaks to remind me of that fact. No matter how much manufactured, contrived, structured garbage was cluttering my thoughts, one whiff of cool sea air, one glimpse of ancient rocky shores and stark evergreen treelines was more than enough medicine to overcome the pathetic woes of post-college existence. I forgot about fishing! Swimming! Hell, mowing the overgrown meadow at the foot of the hill! Despite the wealth of things that contribute to the Peaks' allure, the best part is the people. Sure, it's getting more crowded as more people leak the secret (you didn't hear about Peaks from me). The houses change, the stores and restaurants change, but in my lifetime a special community has remained in tact. That constancy is uplifting, but the idea is better.

There are places in this world where peace and harmony abound. Perhaps the answer is not to seclude ourselves there, but to emanate even a faint reflection of the island-lifestyle everywhere we go and with everyone we meet. But I hate making new year's resolutions, so I won't do it now. But still, maybe...

My uncle Phil and me "fishing" (aka casting in vain). We caught only two striped bass over the whole week, neither was a keeper.

The float in Spar Cove has been a yearly tradition for about 6 or 7 years now. This year's version is an improvement to previous incarnations, the water is still pretty cold.