Up, Up, & Away – Jonah Keri

Keri’s first book, The Extra 2%, was destined to disappoint. Its focus was the small market, small budget Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays and their rise to become perennial contenders in the American League East. That was a problem, because it was impossible not to compare it to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, his look at a small market, small budget team’s rise to prominence. As good a writer as Keri is, he’s not in Lewis’ class, and Moneyball is one of the all-time great sports books.

Fortunately, with his second book, Keri went with a subject close to his heart and in a realm of sports writing – the broad, organizational history – that isn’t dominated by one accepted classic. The result is a much better, and more enjoyable book.

Keri follows the history of his hometown team, the Montreal Expos. He begins in the days before big league ball in Montreal, when the AAA Royals were the farm club for the Brooklyn Dodgers and home to Jackie Robinson before he broke the big league color barrier. He moves through Montreal positioning itself to get an expansion franchise in 1969 and the struggles to build an ownership group and stadium. Then he dives into not only the early years of the franchise on the field, but also into their efforts to obtain young talent. Quite similar to the Kansas City Royals, the Expos drafted a ton of great, athletic players in the early and mid–70s that resulted in an incredibly strong roster beginning in about 1979. Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine, Steve Rogers, Tim Wallach, and Tim Raines to name just a few. Where the Royals kept running into the Yankees in the playoffs, Montreal always seemed to come up just short within their division. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or St. Louis were always just a little better.

Until 1981’s flukey schedule, thanks to the two-month player strike, that gave the Expos their only playoff appearance and saw them achingly close to reaching the World Series before Rick Monday’s two-out home run in the ninth inning of game five of the NLCS.

By 1994, the Expos were loaded again, with Pedro Martinez, Cliff Floyd, Moses Alou, Larry Walker, and Marquis Grissom. That group led Montreal to the best record in baseball before another players strike wiped out the last six weeks of the regular season and entire postseason. From there it was a long, sad slide until the team fled Canada for Washington, D.C. in 2005.

Keri strikes a nice balance. He offers a rich and humorous look and the franchise’s often checkered history. He got terrific insights from former players, members of the management, and folks around Montreal. And he sprinkles his own vivid memories in at key moments.

This is a terrific read about a forgotten franchise.

Murder At Cape Three Points – Kwei Quartey

A fine, brisk mystery set in Ghana. I loved the little linguistic elements Quartey, a son of Ghanaians who is a physician in California, inserted into his dialogs.

Dark Star – Alan Furst

A few years back I found a list of Must Read espionage novels, with this making the cut. So I was a bit chagrined when, as I was roughly halfway through it, I discovered it is book two of a 13-book series. Crap.

As it turns out, I believe the series is a little like Olen Steinhauer’s Yalta Boulevard series, where although there are characters and historical features that carry over through each book, they are also all just fine read on their own. Still, I’m going back to book one next.

Where the Yalta Boulevard series explores Eastern Europe during the Cold War years, this series (Night Solidiers, named after the first book) focus on the same area before and during World War II.

In this entry, the main character is AndrĂ© Szara, a Polish Jew by birth, who works as a roving correspondent for Pravda, the Soviet news agency. Over the years he’s done a few favors for the NKVD, the Soviet intelligence agency. As Europe hurtles toward war, though, the requests become more involved. He spies on people of interest, runs agents in Germany, investigates a link between the Soviet and German intelligence agencies in France, until, gradually, he is more agent than journalist. Through all this he must navigate the tricky political waters of Soviet bureaucracy which, in the age of Stalin, always means a wrong step can cost you your life.

As Szara’s immersion in the intelligence world gets deeper, so to does the drama of the story. The first 100 pages or so meander along as pure setup. It took me over a week to get to page 200, but then knocked out the last 200+ pages in about a day. The final section is especially harrowing, as Szara gets caught in the German invasion of Poland that kicks off the war.

Furst hits a fine balance between pure story and exploring the details of the life of a spy in the lead up to war. It would be easy to get bogged down in the internal politics Szara faces, or brush against those too lightly. He gets it just right.

So it looks like I have another series to read.