This Time Let's Not Eat The Bones, Bill James
Like Rocket Ship Galileo, this is a stand-in for all the Baseball Abstracts and Baseball Books I dug into when I was falling back into love with baseball in the winter of 1989-1990. I don't think it's an understatement to say that Bill James changed the way a lot of fans looked at baseball; he coined the word "sabermetrics" and over the course of his twenty-plus years of writing has begun to have an effect on the way some front offices work. The thing is, most people assume that he's a "figger filbert", some kind of mad statistician who thinks everything can be explained by the numbers, when in fact he's gone to a great deal of trouble explaining why that attitude is pure bullshit. What Bill James is, really, is a scientist who has turned the scientific method on baseball. What are the facts, and what do they mean? This is the question he constantly asks in all his books, and when you get right down to it, it's the reason he's working for the Red Sox now, because John Henry don't want to hear no jockstrap bullshit, he wants to know what the facts are and what they mean, and between Bill James and his disciple Eddie Epstein, I don't think there's two better guys for coming up with the answers to those questions.
Bill James is responsible, along with the fellow who wrote the article in Smithsonian on the League of Nations rotisserie baseball league, for restoring my love for baseball after Bob Short killed it in 1972 by moving the Washington Senators to Texas, recapitulating my father's loss of interest after the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee twenty years earlier. I got interested in Rotisserie baseball, then involved in a Pursue the Pennant league, began scoring for STATS, Inc. during the horrible summer that was the 1990 Twins season, and wound up reading (and buying) a metric buttload of baseball books. Not too surprisingly, a lot of them (The Politics of Glory, to name but one of many) were written by Bill James, but I would recommend this one as a good starting point. It's out of print, but there are plenty of used copies out there; maybe one of these days some savvy publisher will get James to polish it up so they can offer a second edition.
Sharpe's Rifles, Bernard Cornwell
This is one of several books I went looking for after seeing the TV or movie adaptations, although since I hadn't seen the credits to the show I thought I was looking for Rifleman Dodd by Forester. Fortunately, the folks at the now-defunct Baxter's Books were able to get me pointed in the right direction, and so I began a long hunt through the libraries and bookstores for more books about the scarred, ill-starred officer of the 95th Rifles. Unlike Forester's books, these are not stories suitable for children: there's enough gory death and violent sex (to say nothing of rape) to earn these books an R rating at the very least, if they were ever faithfully brought to the big screen. They do have the virtue of being accurate, though; Cornwell has unquestionably done his homework - which is more than one can say for the idiot who cast Daragh O'Malley as the hulking Sergeant Harper in the TV series. On the other hand, casting Sean Bean was pure genius, so I guess overall it's a wash.
The Sharpe novels are historical novels at their best: they give you an unflinching look at life in the period when they take place, and England during the Napoleonic Wars was a damned interesting place. One sees both the extreme poverty of the London rookeries and the often-corrupt but quite stylish Court society, sometimes all in the same novel (Sharpe's Regiment) while other novels delve into the shadowy world of espionage and counter-espionage in which even strong men like Richard Sharpe are just pawns in the hands of the game masters. (Sharpe's Sword). Some people draw parallels between Cornwell's Sharpe and Fleming's Bond; this isn't fair to Sharpe, who isn't the sociopath that Bond rather obviously is. Sharpe loves his men and his wives in a way that Bond never could, and I would argue that leading men from the front in the Napoleonic Wars takes a sight more courage than facing off against SPECTRE or SMERSH, if only because Sharpe knew he couldn't rely on H.M. Government to take care of him if things went sideways. Excellent, excellent fiction and a worthy complement to our next book...
Beat to Quarters, C. S. Forester
Unlike the previous two books, I discovered the shy, solitary captain of the Lydia one winter when I was a child, sick abed and plowing through a set of Reader's Digest Condensed Books for Children. I'm a sucker for a complex, sympathetic character, and Horatio Hornblower certainly is one; also, I was a sucker for a heroic fight against long odds, and Hornblower's cruise was definitely one of those after another, even without the romantic subplot involving Lady Barbara Wellesley. (Oh, my! #^_^#) Like Sharpe's Rifles, this book sent me off on a hunt for the other books in the (quite extensive) Hornblower saga, which I someday hope to sit down and read IN ORDER for the first time.
What can I really say about the Hornblower novels that hasn't already been said a million times? Forester's lonely captain has been the inspiration for dozens of others, including one starship captain from Riverside, Iowa and another whose career was less spectacular but arguably more colorful. Oh, yes, there's the Salamander as well. Still, Forester's novels deserve to be read for their own sake and not as some literary archetype. They're great sea tales and wondeful stories. Read them, and read them to your kids.