Bad advice from the useless bibliophile

I have no idea what your New Year’s Resolutions are, but if your house is like most houses that I’ve been in, I can offer some suggestions.  In most of the houses in which I am a guest, I look around and think “Yes, yes, this is very nice house, but what they really need around here is some more books.”  I do not say this out loud, because most of the time I wish to return to the house, but this is probably my most common thought, typically followed by  “Stop apologizing that your house isn’t clean.  It is, and I wouldn’t care even if it wasn’t.”

So, in the odd event that you have decided to ignore resolutions about diet, exercise, finally purchasing healthcare, or watching all the stuff that’s been piling up in your Netflix queue, and you’ve decided that what you really need to do is to own more books, however, then please allow me to help.  What we don’t want, here, is for you to walk into a bookstore without a plan, or you might end up accidentally purchasing all of the Twilight books or one of those enormous coffee table books that your Aunt Fran gave you last Christmas when she couldn’t think of anything else.

Books, obviously, can say things to you when you’re reading them.  The problem with a book – assuming, of course, that it’s not an electronic book – is that when it’s lying around, it’s saying stuff about you.  If you’re the sort of person that is willing to leave a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey on your living room table, this says something about you. 1  Somehow, this sort of statement is far more disturbing than being the sort of person that just wants to read it. 2

So, with all that in mind, here’s some unusually unhelpful book-buying advice:

Cookbooks:  You should have some cookbooks lying around in order to give the impression that at least some of the meals that you eat at home do not come from the Chinese take-out place that’s just down the road. The type of cookbook you buy, of course, can make a difference: if you buy one that features the right sort of ethnic food, it can make you seem adventurous and exotic.  Thai and Vietnamese cookbooks are good for this, particularly if you’re trying to give the impression that you’re a world traveler.  The cookbook, let’s not forget, is substantially less expensive than the plane ticket.  Or you can get a copy of The Joy of Cooking which is probably the cookbook that your mother had around the kitchen when you were, let’s face it, much younger than you are now.  Owning a copy of this doesn’t commend your sense of adventure, but it says that you like comfort food and you want to cook like your mom did when you were growing up. 3

Anything by Julia Child is excellent, as long as no one expects you to actually cook from it.  French food is never out-of-style, and if you buy a used copy, you can tell your impressed guests that you got it from your grandmother.

Cookbooks featuring celebrity chefs, while less useful for actual cooking, can be a better conversation piece.  Pay extra for a chef that your guests have heard of.  On the other hand, I would avoid cookbooks featuring celebrities that are not known for being chefs.  If your kitchen has a cookbook that features Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, this gives the impression that you’re far more interested in being a rich person than you are in cooking good food for your guests.  While this may be true, it’s best to avoid this impression.

Biographies: Whose biography you’re willing to read – or at least purchase, and leave on the living room table, to give the impression that you have read – can say a lot about you.  Nelson Mandela?  Fantastic.  Thomas Jefferson?  Great.  Snooki?  No, no, not good at all, and you should not leave this on your table. 4

Sports biographies can also be interesting, although there are compelling reasons to avoid books by or about superstars:  I think we can all hazard a guess that a book about Alex Rodriguez might have interesting parts, and while it might have parts about baseball, the parts that are interesting are not going to have anything to do with baseball, and the parts about baseball aren’t going to be remotely interesting.  On the other hand, I think that we can safely assume that a book by Peyton Manning would likely have no interesting parts at all.

If you’re going to purchase sports autobiographies, I’d recommend that you procure ones by more obscure players such as Nate Jackson or Dirk Hayhurst.  It makes you appear to be a more serious sports fan than you probably are, as presumably you wouldn’t buy an autobiography of someone you have not heard of.  And should you actually decide to read them, these books are substantially more interesting.

P. G. Wodehouse: I do not know anyone whose library would not be improved by swapping out all of their Danielle Steel and Nicholas Sparks novels with a bunch of Wodehouse.  You may not have heard of Wodehouse, but you’ve probably heard of his most famous creation:  Jeeves.  The stereotype of the supremely competent British butler stepping in to save the bumbling rich guy wasn’t a stereotype before Wodehouse invented it.  The resulting books are one of the rare finds in literature: books that English professors will tell you are wonderful that are actually fun to read.  No one understates incompetence as elegantly as Wodehouse, and his books can be just as fun as modern American humor, but bring a bunch of class to the table, as well.  And looking like an Anglophile is always fun, and in the right company, can give the impression of culture and sophistication.  Cultivate a British accent for bonus points, here, and use it whenever you discuss Wodehouse or quote Winston Churchill.

Will Wodehouse books make you cultured?  Well, no, not really, but neither are a lot of things that aren’t nearly so much fun as reading Wodehouse.  But they are the sort of books that cultured people read when they’re not trying to be cultured, so they make you appear as if you’re cultured, but not working hard to give the impression that you are.  For many of us, that’s close enough.

Malcolm Gladwell:  This isn’t really a genre, at least not for another 20 years, but Gladwell, along with the guys that are writing Freakonomics, are probably the best-known practitioners of the subcategory of non-fiction that is designed to appeal to geeks.  Having geek non-fiction scattered around your house can be useful as bait, as it will allow you to determine who is likely to be an interesting party guest and who would likely be happier troubleshooting your  wireless printer.

Overall, books like this can be invaluable to have scattered around the house during a party, as the wireless printer guys will get themselves stuck reading them, and are therefore far less likely to hold all the dinner guests hostage by telling long stories that conclude with lines like ” ‘Ah hah,’ I said to myself.  ‘Then it occurred to me that there was probably a bug in the compiler!’ ”

You don’t want to sit through one of these stories.  Trust me.  I’m one of the people that likes to tell them, and I’ve found that telling them is only a good idea if you do not wish to receive any more dinner invitations from anyone present.

Religion:  If your idea of a deeply meaningful religious book is The Secret, then I’m not sure you’ve been paying attention, and this is probably all we need to say about that. Let’s move on.

Politics: If you have biographies by any television or radio talk show hosts, or any political book in which the person writing it has put a picture of themselves on the cover, then the best thing that I can recommend is small controlled fires, set well before your dinner guests arrive.

Books of Essays: It can be awfully impressive to leave these sitting around, but there’s an element of risk if you are ever asked to discuss anything in these books, as we both know you’re not going to crack the cover on any of these things.  Less risky options are essays that do not generally make reference to much outside themselves, such as a collection of Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Woebegone” monologues. 5  They’re fun to read, to boot.  Essays in which other books are discussed can be more risky, as you’ve got substantially more homework to do if anyone wants to discuss the book with you.  If you actually read the book, then you’ve got a larger problem of suddenly wanting to read the books that it discusses, and eventually your house may look like two bookmobiles had a head-on collision in your living room.  Be careful.

Novels: Here we must tread carefully, for selecting books from this genre can be fraught with peril.  Here are some ground rules:  (a) if everyone has familiar with it, then it won’t impress very many people, and (b) if no one has heard of it, people may not be really impressed, either.  You’re looking for something that something that people have heard of, but they’re not sure why, and they certainly don’t own a copy of it themselves.  Dan Brown?  Possibly not the best choice.  John le Carré?  Better.  Something you’ve heard them discuss on Morning Edition?  Even better. 6

This rule changes somewhat if we’re talking about classics, because if no one has heard of it, then it’s not really a classic.  There are also classics that can be interesting to read (and here I’m thinking of anything by Dostoyevsky or Jane Austin), and those that are the exclusive domain of graduate students in the English department (and here I’m thinking of something like Moby Dick).  If you’re going to have a copy of Moby Dick around, I’d recommend using it for English graduate student bait.  Encourage these people to talk to the folks that are troubleshooting the wireless printer.

*****

So, good luck impressing your friends!  Next time we’ll discuss the sort of books that you should buy if you’re actually interested in reading them.  There’s a surprising amount of overlap.

  1. I’m not entirely sure what. []
  2. And seriously, don’t bother to read it.  It’s terrible. []
  3. I own a copy, which says more good things about my mother than it does about my culinary prowess. []
  4. I’ve got to assume that this has not sold that well, as I can’t imagine that the intersection between the group of people that are Snooki fans and the group of people that regularly purchase biographies is not a large demographic. []
  5. This also makes you appear to be a NPR listener, which certainly gives a classier impression than the Blue Collar Comedy channel that we both know is on your XM radio. []
  6. If you paid attention, you can even discuss the book without having read it! []

The Huntsville Brewery

Nearly everyone that I know that considers themselves to be any sort of foodie has various ticks, for lack of a better word, that they’ll use to judge a restaurant or food that’s in an area. If you walk into a place that has your entree out in less than 5 minutes, for example, it’s a pretty good bet that no one in the kitchen had to do anything to it other than throw it in the microwave.  Additionally, I’ve always thought that the quality of the restaurants in a town can be judged by how busy the local Olive Garden is: if it’s busy, this is generally a bad sign.  If the staff has to run out of the establishment and physically drag people into it, this is generally a good sign that there are better restaurants elsewhere.1 Of course, it’s possible to have fantastic restaurants with a clientèle that’s not willing to go to them, but – to borrow a point from Tyler Cowin’s excellent book, here – this sort of thing is less sustainable than you might think.  Counterintuitively, It’s probably more important for a restaurant to have quality diners than a quality chef, at least at the beginning.

As you might expect that we don’t generally frequent our local Olive Garden, and you’d be right.  Nothing against Olive Garden, per se, but most of the time, we’re looking for places that aren’t just thawing frozen dinners shipped in from somewhere in the Midwest, and generally this means that we’re avoiding nationally known chains.  Supporting locally owned places, will – if we look years down the road – contribute to a more interesting restaurant and food culture in Huntsville than we would expect to get if we all spent all our time eating at the culinary equivalent of big box stores.

All that to say:  it’s worth supporting locally owned restaurants, and so we’ve been one of the enthusiastic early adopters of the latest one to pop up – eventually, it’s going to be a brewpub, though the brewing part is not operational just yet.  So what we’ve got now is a bar and restaurant that has good Cajun food, and a good beer selection that will eventually be great.

As an added bonus, they’re located in the building that housed 801 Franklin, which Huntsville foodies may remember as one of the nicer fine dining spots downtown, at least prior to the arrival of James Boyce.  It’s nice to see this building back in action.

Anyway, the name of the place is the Huntsville Brewery.  Here’s their Facebook page. Other than that, they don’t have a website yet as far as google.com and I have been able to determine.

They’ve been open less than a week, so there are still some kinks in the works: not all the beer taps are hooked up yet, and they do not yet have anything in the way of wine or a full bar, though both of those are on the way.2 The waitresses are still trying to get their bearings, and as a result of new taps being hooked up, we saw a couple people get the wrong beer. After watching the staff troubleshoot these problems, though, I’m confident that they will be fixed before too long. The food was fantastic – I got a chicken salad, and my wife got corn fritters some boudin sausage balls, and we split a piece of chess pie for dessert.  Service was great, and the atmosphere is nice.  They’ve got St. Bernardus Abt 12 on draft, and so far as I am concerned, if that’s in place, very little else is necessary.  This is going to be a good place.

The closest comparison to an existing Huntsville bar is Below the Radar or possibly The Nook, which I’ve discussed here before. The Huntsville Brewery will have two things that the Nook will not, though, and they are: (a) a kitchen in the building, which lends itself to better – or at least more consistent – food, and (b) a brewery located in the building, although due to local laws about restaurants and breweries, is apparently still a few months down the road. 3  According to the staff, a restaurant has to be established for a few months before they’re allowed to start brewing.  It baffles me that there is actually a law in place for this, but it would not be the first weird thing in Alabama law that I’ve heard of, so . . . well, draw your own conclusions. The brew house is located in what used to be the private dining room of 801 Franklin, so if you’re looking to have a private party, this isn’t the place to do it.  That seems to be about the only thing that they don’t have, though.

Still, it’s already better than the Olive Garden.

*****

UPDATE: I went back a few days later (11/22) for lunch, and here are a few more thoughts:

  • The prices are such that this place fills a needed niche in the downtown food scene.  Right now, downtown a substantial number of very nice places that more formal and correspondingly on the more expensive side, but the number of places that have good food at prices that are more reasonable seems seems a bit low.  This helps.
  • They’re continuing to hook up beer taps, and the selection is already a lot better.
  • Wait times are not great:  they’re still getting a handle on what’s going back in the kitchen, and so we waited just over 30 minutes for entrees to show up.  This isn’t really a problem in the evenings, but for a “Oh, I’ve got to get back to work” lunch, this isn’t great.  The owner came out and apologized for the wait, though, and explained that they were expecting that to get better.
  1. The number of rules about this sort of thing is considerable, and if you’re interested in being better at tracking down good restaurants, I’d recommend that you pick up Tyler Cowin’s excellent book on the topic. It’s fantastic. []
  2. When we went tonight, they had only received their liquor license about 6 hours earlier. So perhaps we should let this slide. []
  3. I believe that Below the Radar was going to attempt to do this at some point, but last I heard, that part of the venture still hasn’t really gotten off the ground. []

Changes around here . . .

Well, for the extremely low number of regular readers of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that there have been a few changes around here. We’ve got a new (minimalist) sort of theme, we’ve got a new title. The writing, however, will not really change. Everything else is just sort of catching up to that.

I’ve found myself, over the last year or so, writing more about baseball and less about theology, which has led to some arguably unhealthy sort of introspective reflections: am I becoming a less deep person, if I want to write about baseball? If I’m not writing about theology as much, is this some sort of indication that I’m becoming a person that is less interested in the more serious things of life? Is God being replaced by watching overpaid men swat a small white ball?

Possibly, but my inclination is to say no: the previous title of this blog was “Stumbling Back to Orthodoxy,” which may have been more a reflection of what my thought processes were at the time, even if this wasn’t necessarily reflected by whatever the blog posts were.

These are issues that I now feel that I have worked through, and there’s no need to keep stumbling back to orthodoxy, as it were: I’m there, and after a lot of contempation about the matter, I’m not planning on leaving. This may sound like the surrender of intellectualism to evangelicalism, but I don’t really see it that way. There are certain principles that must be accepted without active doubt if anyone is going to avoid intellectual schizophrenia, and something like the existence of God is one of these sort of things, at least when we’re talking about theology.

There’s an quote from Issac Asimov that goes something like “I don’t know that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect that he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.” This reflects my feelings on it, though in the opposite way: as a Christian, Jesus is the way that I understand God, and if there’s anything in or about the life of Jesus that I feel that is not able to be explained by worldviews other than Christianity, then I think that it’s safe to hazard a guess that there’s something, anyway, to Christianity. Like Dr. Asimov, I’m not entirely sure that this is true, but I so strongly suspect it that I do not want to waste my time.

Contemplating the Stars

We’re rolling to the end of another Southern League baseball season here in Huntsville, and – as seems to be an annual tradition, here – there’s also been the typical hand-wringing that attendance isn’t what it should be, typically followed by speculation that we may lose the baseball team entirely.

It’s easy to see why this has become an annual discussion, if you’ve ever been to a Stars’ game: attendance is typically fairly small, and the majority of the fans that are there are not really paying attention to the game. It’s been a long time since the Stars’ were ever in the Southern League Championship, and I think it’s been a couple years since they’ve had a winning record. There are major league teams with great farm systems, but the Brewers, alas, are not one of these teams.

The “we might lose the Stars” discussion may have more weight than normal this year, thanks to (of all things) the BP oil spill: part of the money from the settlement is being used by Biloxi to build a new stadium. So far, they don’t have a team, but they’re making overtures to a couple teams in the Southern League, and the Stars’, presumably, are one of them.1

The allure of a new stadium is powerful: Joe Davis Stadium – where the Stars play – had the great misfortune to be built at the wrong time.2 It was built in 1983, which is when everyone was still convinced that multi-use stadiums were a good idea. Joe Davis isn’t used for anything but Stars’ baseball, now, though it once hosted high school football games, but it’s difficult to see how the stadium could be much improved without spending more money than anyone’s willing to put into the team.

Not coincidentally, there’s been talk in Huntsville about building a new stadium here, too. The demographic that seems to be most enthusiastic about this are the same sort of people that are also interested in downtown revitalization, and both of these ideas have been combined into the following plan: let’s build a new baseball stadium downtown.3

In my experience, it isn’t immediately obvious, when being confronted with this idea, if I’m talking to someone who thinks this would actually be good for baseball in Huntsville, or if I’m talking to someone who’s willing to exploit whatever they have to in order to turn Huntsville’s downtown into Chattanooga’s. While having a new baseball stadium downtown would almost certainly benefit the downtown area, I don’t see it doing much of anything for baseball.

It seems to me that there are some things that the Stars’ could do to draw more people that would not require spending $30 million for a stadium downtown.

Right now, the concession stands food and prices are one of the bright spots of being at Joe Davis. There are frequent beer discounts, there’s a good selection of items, and prices are generally reasonable. Still there are a few ways that this experience can be improved:

  • Right now, if you’re getting anything from any of the concession stands, they only take cash. This isn’t just for vendors in the stands, or people in little booths – this is everywhere. If you didn’t remember your credit card or ATM card (there is, thankfully, an ATM in the stadium), you’re out of luck. It would be great if there were a few places – not necessarily even all of them, but just a couple – that accepted credit cards.
  • Lines: attendance is usually light enough that lines aren’t really a problem, but on the days that attendance is higher, I’ve seen lines become stalled if one person orders something that isn’t sitting there under a heat lamp. Some express lines, or beer-only lines, or some sort of “Wait here, and I’ll take the next person’s order” queue. The line shouldn’t be completely halted if someone orders a Philly Cheese Steak.

Also, until fairly recently, it was only possible to get Bud Light, Miller Light, etc., if you wanted a beer. As the beer situation in Huntsville has improved, the situation has improved at the stadium. There are now a few microbrew beers on draft there, and the selection of mass-market brews has improved, as well.

However, there are plenty of people – and here I’m thinking of quite a few of the women I know, including my wife – that do not, in general, prefer to drink beer, and that’s been the only drink selection outside of a brief period last year where someone was selling decidedly mediocre frozen wine coolers. Getting more of a drink selection shouldn’t be that hard, here – when I went to see the Brewers’ Single-A team in Florida, there was a full bar on the berm behind the left field fence, and you could sit there and watch the game from the perspective of the bored relief pitchers in the bullpen. A full bar would be nice, but if that’s two difficult to pull off, just some place that made margaritas or some sort of signature mixed drink would be nice. Or a wine bar. Something.

Additionally, can we do something about reserved seats? As anyone that has been to a game recently can attest, the entire stadium is general admission. While this hasn’t really bothered me – I personally enjoy the freedom of being able to move around – it’s bothered quite a few people that I know, who are annoyed by the potential to find someone in their seats if they all go get concessions.

The reason the Stars’ did it this way, from what I hear, is that the computer system that kept track of tickets crashed 20 minutes before game time a few years ago, and rather than have an empty stadium and a parking lot full of annoyed fans, they just declared that everything was general admission. That’s fine as a temporary stopgap, but I’ve got to think that, if this is seen as a permanent solution, there’s some sort of revenue that they might be missing out on, here.

In order to save money, the Stars’ have a yearly herd of presumably underpaid interns in lieu of having a full-time marketing person. Perhaps having a pile of interns on staff helps them in some way that I have been unable to discern, but the end result does not seem to work as well as if they just hired one experienced marketing person and gave them the budget to do what they do best. There are numerous sports teams around Huntsville, and I think that I see less advertising for the Stars’ than I do for anything else. Hire an experienced marketing person, so they can come up with all the ideas that, well, the fans and bloggers have missed.

Finally, fix the scoreboard already. There are enough engineers in town that you could probably get someone to fix it just for the fun they would have taking it apart and seeing if they could get the stupid thing to run their favorite Linux distribution.4

Now, none of these proposals are going to fix the problems that are inherent in Joe Davis Stadium – that may take an expensive remodeling of the stadium that may be even less politically viable than tearing the thing down.5 If Huntsville decides to build a new stadium, though, I think there are reasons to doubt that it would be any sort of magic bullet:

Consider, right now, that Huntsville has the cheapest ticket prices that you’ll find at any baseball stadium, anywhere: right now, with all the discounts that are available, I generally pay – and keep in mind, this is general admission seating, so I can sit in pretty much the best seat in the house, if I’m willing to get there more than 10 minutes before the game starts – $4.6

To get an idea of what ticket prices are in a city with a new stadium, I pulled up the Birmingham Barons’ website, and if I want to sit behind the dugout, the ticket price is $14. That’s still reasonable, but if we’re talking about bringing a family of four to the game, suddenly what was a $16 outing has turned into $56, and we still haven’t gotten any popcorn or beer.

This makes me skeptical that buying a new stadium is going to make all the attendance problems go away. I know I wouldn’t go as frequently, and I’m not sure I know too many people that would want to make the changes necessary to afford to do that weekly.

The problem becomes even more acute when listening to this scenario described: “Well, it’ll be great! We can go downtown, go out to eat, go to the game, and then go to (insert some name of trendy bar) afterwards! The whole downtown experience! Yay!”

Well, I hope your loan will be approved so you can finance that sort of evening: while Huntsville has made great strides in getting places to eat downtown, we still don’t have much in the way of places of family-friendly restaurants for folks on a budget.7 Even for just me and my wife, I’d estimate that going to a typical downtown restaurant, going to a baseball game, and going out for drinks – we’re looking at about a $100 for an evening on the town. Fine for a special occasion, but that’s not happening two times a week during the entirety of baseball season.

Finally, who’s going to pay for the thing? It’s difficult to expect the city to pay for something that’s not going to be a multi-use facility without some sort of benefit – like owning part of the team. Another multi-use facility, though would not solve the problem: if there’s anything that we learned from the facilities built in the 1980s, it’s that multipurpose facilities generally always end with a fairly horrible baseball experience.

*****

I’m fairly sure that we’ll still have baseball in Huntsville for another year, but I’m not as optimistic about its long-term viability. I’d like to see the Stars’ fix some of the issues, but even if they don’t, I’ll keep coming back. So will a few other folks.

There was a time when the the Stars were interesting to lots more of Huntsville than they are now, though, and that’s unlikely to change by itself.

  1. From what I’ve heard, the other is the Tennessee Smokies, and at the moment it looks more likely that they’ll be moving to Biloxi, whenever they get the stadium built, which is unlikely to happen by next spring. []
  2. The Stars’ press releases refer to the stadium as “The Joe,” but no one that I know calls it that. The nickname that’s more popular with the fans is “The Mausoleum” for what are fairly obvious reasons once you’ve been there. []
  3. This is not really a new idea, even in the Southern League: Chattanooga’s stadium is downtown, and the stadium – if not the whole of downtown – is a pretty good model for what many Huntsvillians seem to want. It’s been there a few years, now, and this has been Birmingham’s first season in their new stadium downtown, as well. []
  4. Note to anyone from the Stars that is reading this: I would probably be on, ahem, board with this. []
  5. It’s not like we’re talking about a nostalgic or historic baseball park, here. I don’t think anyone would protest if it was torn down, really. []
  6. Unless, of course, it’s on Tuesday, in which case you get in for $2 if you have Mountain Dew cap, of all things. []
  7. To be fair, the people that paint the above scenario are mostly trendy singles who are not so worried about family-friendly anything. I’d give their opinions more weight if any of them actually went to baseball games. []

Opening Day, 2013

For those of us that don’t live in a town with a major league team, it’s difficult to decide when, exactly, baseball’s opening day transpires.  Is it the home opener for the major league team that we follow? Or, since I’m not in that city anyway, when they start playing, even if they’re away? Or the home opener of our hapless local minor league team?  This year, I went to see an exhibition game that the Stars – our local AA team – played against a local college, two days before the minor league season officially started.  With a low of around 36 degrees, and a total of 40 people in the stands, it didn’t feel much like opening day, but at least it was live baseball. (With the low attendance that we get, here, even the real opening day doesn’t feel much like opening day, either.)

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