What I’ve been reading

Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football, by John U. Bacon. I actually read this long ago when it first came out**, so I am late to the party. I thought it was a surprisingly entertaining and brisk read, as I finished it in a matter of days during an otherwise busy time. And many of the insights — particularly centering around Rodriguez’s time at West Virginia, the immediate transition, and the agendas of some of the local Michigan media — were fascinating both purely on the level of gossip and as an insight into the weird world of college sports. And if I have any complaint is that it is a profoundly Michigan book: I didn’t go there and I don’t have any particular affinity to the school, so some of the detail is relevant only to someone who deeply cares about the minutiae of the school (as Bacon clearly does) and, less generously, the narrative voice often veers into an extremely fan-centric view where everything Michigan is “proud” or “dignified” or “respectful” while every other Big 10 schools’ fans are “unruly” or “rude” or their coaches manipulative, and so on.

For a book that attempts to (and often succeeds) at telling a rather nuanced story about a complicated coach during a complicated time, that the book resorts to such tropes is not a plus, at least for those of us who didn’t spend four years in Ann Arbor. More interestingly, of course, is the portrayal of Rodriguez. He comes across generally well though rather naive — “What, you mean I must say the right thing and play some internal politics at Michigan?” — and then as the losses mount he basically appears to lose it, alternatively throwing furniture or crying after games. And yet he still comes across better than those around him, including Lloyd Carr. So I recommend the book if you have an interest in Rodriguez or Michigan (especially if you care about Michigan and can handle that perspective), and if you ever plan on being the head coach of a BCS school, there are many good lessons of the what-not-to-do-variety embedded in here.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. This melancholy novella was the winner of this year’s Man Booker prize. I am unsure if I would say it deserved the prize, but I completely understand why it won: the writing is crisp and, at times, beautiful; and the story, which centers around a man and his immediate circle during their school days and his attempts to remember certain details some years later under unique circumstances, is generally tightly wrought and even has some (sort of) plot twists. It also felt extremely manipulative at times, as Barnes set me with mysteries, threw out some bizarre and somewhat implausible plot details, and then purposefully left the ending completely fuzzy (I have a particular interpretation which is, without giving anything away, that I still do not completely believe the narrator’s final account of the events at the end of the book). The best thing I can say is that at a short 140 or so pages, it was the perfect length for what it is, whatever that may be: I don’t regret at all buying or reading it, and, true to the book’s theme, I’ll probably remember the book more fondly than I initially experienced it.

The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon.

With some recommendations from twitter I picked this up and am about halfway through: It’s bizarre, finely-wrought, and well told, with I’m sure more weirdness as it goes along. The purpose of course of reading this is to determine whether I have it in me to tackle the main event, Gravity’s Rainbow. Regarding that, I’ll have to wait and see.

The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor, by Howard Marks. I may have mentioned this book before but I finally finished it. It was OK: I expected Marks, the Chairman of the Oaktree funds, to eventually get into a bit more detail as the book went on, but it generally stayed at the level of nod-your-head-knowingly platitudes about cyclicality, market behavior, and so on. Only for the hardcore investment professional or junkie.

** Disclosure: The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.

  • gbusshart

    I always enjoy these “What I’ve been reading” posts.  I do, however, wonder where you find all of this time to read, as well as the discipline to shut off the laptop, cell phone, etc. and actually sit down and READ.

  • Grateful Reds

    Stick with The Crying of Lot 49 – maybe pick up a companion book that fleshes out all the obscure references. Gravity’s Rainbow is well worth it & I liked Vineland, also. Some of the critical commentary is helpful for Rainbow BEFORE you read it,  so you have a reason to keep chugging along – I did that one on a solo backpacking trip thru Europe.

    Great blog & Grantland posts – consistently top notch analysis AND context. Cheers & good reading…

  • Anonymous

    Traveling and transport helps a lot. Subways, trains, flights, etc is often my best reading time. I agree that the laptop, cell phone, iPad etc are killer. One hope for the end of football season is to maybe (hopefully) pay less attention to these and more to those pursuits requiring more quiet and patience.

  • Paul Meisel

    Regarding “Three and Out”, Chris — trust me as someone who spent a lot of time within 100 miles of Ann Arbor, being around Michigan people will make a Buckeye and Spartan fan out of almost anyone.

  • Thom Propson

    There are two glaring omissions in Bacon’s book.  First, the other side of the story from Michigan’s landed gentry.  Of course, he couldn’t tell that side of the story because Lloyd Carr, Mary Sue Coleman, and Bill Martin wouldn’t talk to him.  So we are left with a one-sided account that, frankly, sounds contrived in some spots.  But a writer can’t control who will talk to him.

    But Bacon also fails to tell us, in any convincing fashion, just what happened with the massive part of the equation that Rodriguez and his staff could control.  Why did Rodriguez hire Scott Shafer and Greg Robinson but then ask them both to run variants of the 3-3-5?  Why did it appear that there was a turnstile installed at Schembechler Hall (especially on the defense — even after the initial wave of Lloyd Carr defectors had departed)?  Are the criticisms of Rodriguez’ shotgun recruiting style — and his apparent failure to adopt a more systematic approach to running his sales organization — accurate?

    In short, WTF happened?  Not just outside the lines, but in terms of the things Rodriguez could control?  Because it appears to some observers that even if every member of the Wolverine Nation had been “All In,” Rodriguez and his staff made some major blunders that would have doomed his tenure regardless of how much Lloyd Carr may dislike him.

    And, finally, what, if anything, does Rodriguez think he would have done differently?  Rodriguez’ public statements have always pointed the “transformation” he thought needed to take place, the impact of some “bad Februarys” under Lloyd Carr, and the lack of support from the Michigan fanbase and administration.  But is that really it?  Three historically bad defenses that got worse each year (and that Greg Mattison righted in one short season), the worst season in school history spent trying to pound a square Threet into a round hole, and an offense that could put up pinball numbers against poor teams but crapped the bed every time they played a decent defense?  And it’s all Lloyd Carr’s fault?

    Bacon had a juicy subject, but we’re left with one side of a fascinating story.  Too bad.  It could’ve been a sports classic — think Season on the Brink — but we’re left with “I Didn’t Take Stupid Pills When I Left West Virginia” (as told to John Bacon).

  • Pass on Gravity’s Rainbow.  The book and the experience of trying to wade through it are nothing like The Crying of Lot 49.