Saturday, January 3, 2009

Favorite books of 2008

While these may not be the best books of 2008 they are my personal favorites.

My favorite non-fiction book of 2008 was "Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets" by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh.

This book is a sequel of sorts to one of the most popular chapters of the popular "Freakonomics" by Steven Levitt, called "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?" It tells the true tale of a University of Chicago grad student who goes into the housing projects of the south side of Chicago to try to learn more about the people that live there.

While the title of the book makes it seem like an examination of gang life in Chicago the book is much more than that. Ultimately the book is about life in the Robert Taylor homes and how the residents there survived. Things that we typically take for granted, such as calling 911 for an emergency and getting a response, are completely different in that world. This book shows how hard things were for the residents of the Robert Taylor homes but also how resourceful these residents were in overcoming the odds that they faced.

This book hit home with me on a personal level because I lived in the Hyde Park area of Chicago in the late 80's early 90's when the events in this book were taking place. I worked at the University of Chicago for a number of years during this period as well. I may have well bumped into the author on campus. I also can't imagine going to the Robert Taylor homes and hanging out with the people there. I often passed by the Robert Taylor homes on the way to White Sox games and a chill would go up my spine. To get an inside glimpse into the lives inside the buildings was an eye opening experience for me.

My favorite fiction book of 2008 was "The End of Baseball" by Peter Schilling Jr. In 1944 Bill Veeck tried to purchase the Philadelphia A's and integrate baseball by creating a team of stars from the Negro Leagues. In reality, when baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis found out about Veeck's plan he quickly put it to an end, and it wouldn't be until 1947 when Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers integrated baseball.

In "The End of Baseball" Peter Schilling imagines a different past were Bill Veeck was able to outsmart Landis and put his team of Negro League superstars on the field. The book imagines a team full of some of the greatest stars from the Negro League era, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Martin Dihigo, and gives them personality and life. For this fan of baseball history it was a great read.

Josh Gibson is the tired old gladiator, beaten down by his past, Satchel Paige is as colorful as always and easily dispatches American League hitters, and Martin Dihigo is portayed as a baseball superman, able to play any position better than anyone else. Bill Veeck starts a promotion where a random fan comes on to the field before the game to spin the Martin Dihigo wheel to see what position he'll play that day. One of the options is for Mr. Dihigo to play an inning at every position.

Basically I found this book to be a fun read and a good time. Any fan of baseball history and especially of the Negro Leagues would find this enjoyable as well.

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