Book catch-up time.

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini.
As I mentioned in my last Reader’s Notebook post, somehow I never read this book. I know my wife read it. In fact, I bet there’s a copy tucked away somewhere around our house. Several friends read it and raved. I know it was on my list of books to read for ages, but for some reason I dropped it a few years back. I finally cracked when I added one of Hosseini’s newer books to my list and wanted to go back and start with his first big novel.

Man, what was I thinking putting this off so long? What an amazing book. It’s beautiful and powerful, filled with a wide range of emotions, hit on both the history of Afghanistan at a time when the US was actively fighting a war there and the immigrant experience in America. It deals with fathers and sons, lost mothers, and how sometimes we can’t help but hurt the ones who love us the most. It has brutal twists and turns and a closing scene made for the movies.

Sometimes you read a book that was lavishly praised and the process of reading it doesn’t measure up to the hype. In this case, every ounce of the hype was accurate. Shame on me for not getting to this a decade sooner.

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
Speaking of books with a barrage of praise, this was, arguably, the most praised book of last year. Earlier this week it added the Pulitzer prize to its haul of hardware. And like The Kite Runner, it delivers.

Whitehead’s tale takes place in the era before the US Civil War, and focuses on Cora, a slave seeking to escape her plantation in Georgia as her mother had done before her. As some of you have likely heard, Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is literal: a network of abolitionists have somehow secretly built a sprawling system of railroad tracks buried deep beneath the US that assists in carrying escaped slaves toward freedom in the north and Canada.

Cora’s path to freedom is long and full of peril. She kills a white teenager who is part of a party attempting to capture her. She lands in a seemingly safe community in South Carolina that turns out to be more interested in making sure no more blacks are born in the US than actually helping former slaves find freedom. She is pursued by the most notorious slave-catcher in the country, caught twice, but in each case manages to slip away. She sees a farming community built by freemen and escaped slaves in Indiana overrun by white farmers who feel threatened by them and duped by their leader, a light-skinned black man they took for white.

Her travels are difficult, but she is constantly driven by the urge to never return to Georgia, or slavery, again. Despite the times she lives in, and the horrors she experiences, Cora remains a hopeful person.

This book has a lot going on. Whether you read just for an interesting story, or want to dig deeper into allegories and metaphors for deeper meanings, you should be very much rewarded for your efforts.

Ahead of the Curve – Brian Kenny
My first baseball book of the year. And it was a fine read as well. Kenny was a longtime ESPN host and has been on MLB Network for several years now. He’s become an outspoken proponent of advanced stats on his various shows. This book is like so many of the advanced stats books out there: he lays out how he came to embrace the modern approach to baseball’s numbers, talks about why they’re important and how they help to explain the game better, and then uses them to explore issues from who should be in the Hall of Fame, how MVP voters have been very wrong often through history, whether Alex Gordon is a superstar, and breaking down the epic summer of 1941, in which both Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio had legendary seasons.

I’ve always liked Kenny’s TV persona, and it comes through on the page as well. He’s combative, but not dismissive of other viewpoints. He never forgets that baseball is a game meant for our enjoyment. He allows that the casual fan is free to ignore modern stats if they want to. But throughout the book he rips baseball writers who refuse to dedicate the time and effort to understand them and instead write whiny columns about how advanced stats are ruining the game. Recommended whether you’re down with the new stats, or need convincing that they add to the game.