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December 16, 2003

Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker
James McManus
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2003
Rating: 4.0
Positively Fifth Street, a positively gripping first-hand account of one man's immersion into the unique world inhabited by professional poker players, is a must-read for anyone with an affinity for the "sport." And that would be a very large group: statistics indicate that over 20 million Americans participate in regular games, with the bounty ranging from a few bucks to millions (with the odd article of clothing thrown in). McManus, one such weekend player, took off for Las Vegas for the 2000 World Series of Poker -- with over $5 million in prize money, the world's most lucrative individual championship -- expecting to report on the event's increasing female presence. But in an act of hubris, he decided to risk thousands of dollars of his own money to enter the competition, which is open to the public (non-pros like McManus are referred to as "dead money"). Fifth Street is a detailed chronicle of what happened next: McManus's shocking advancement in the multi-day tournament, where he ultimately finished in the Top 10. The author has no trouble conveying the exhilaration, shock and awe he experienced staring down some of the world's greatest players (some of whom authored books McManus used to learn the game) in nationally televised, million-dollar hands. Readers who aren't familiar with terms like "fifth street" or "the nuts" will find the author's lengthy glossary and diagram helpful in understanding the rules of Texas No Limit Hold 'Em (the variation played for the World Series). McManus also spends a fair amount of time detailing his personal life and a related murder mystery involving the family that owns the host casino of the World Series. But it's the detailed, step-by-step recounting of his incredible winning streak that hooks the reader, resulting in a true page-turner.

::: Eric Grossman

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September 16, 2003

Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover's Courtship, with Recipes
Amanda Hesser
W.W. Norton & Company, 2003
Rating: 3.7
From accomplished New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser comes a contemporary dating story wrapped inside a colorful cookbook (or is it a cookbook nestled inside a dating story?). Anyway you slice it, Hesser's second book is a relaxed, pleasant read, as light as many of the desserts she describes inside. A detailed chronicle of her relationship with the New Yorker's Tad Friend (aka Mr. Latte), Cooking for Mr. Latte begins with the pair's first date, ends with their wedding day, and packs a ton of cutesy, personal vignettes (and loads of accompanying recipes) in between. As one would expect, Hesser is at her strongest when writing about the memory foods of her youth, as well as the dishes she prepared for Friend throughout the different stages of their courtship. Her only missteps occur when she panders to her single, female readers by including detailed personal information (e.g., the type of underwear she chose for her wedding day), much of which isn't essential to the book. Nonetheless, Cooking for Mr. Latte is a must-read for foodies, especially those with a great interest in the amazingly complex New York dining scene.

::: Eric Grossman

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August 04, 2003

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
Michael Lewis
W.W. Norton & Company, 2003
Rating: 4.0
A must-read for any baseball fan (casual or otherwise), Michael Lewis's Moneyball has been the talk of Major League Baseball this year. The book's central figure is Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, whose statistical-based approach to running a team has changed the way many baseball insiders look at the game. Lewis found a most compelling central character in the form of Beane, a former can't-miss prospect who struggled to put together a journeyman career with several teams before becoming one of the sport's most respected decision-makers. His recent success as a front-office figure is unrivalled anywhere in sports, the A's having managed to stay competitive and make the playoffs despite having one of the game's lowest payrolls -- around $40 million for the 2002 season that Moneyball examines (as a point of comparison, the mighty Yankees paid their roster more than three times that amount, but had fewer victories). Throughout the eminently readable Moneyball, Lewis examines the question of just how the A's, with their owners' reluctance to loosen the purse strings because of limited revenue streams, manage to compete with the game's big boys. Beane offers his answer by way of a clever anecdote, explaining that he's in the business of finding productive baseball players (using a myriad of statistical analyses), and not "blue jean models" (athletes who have all the tools and look like ballplayers but actually aren't). Lewis delves deep into the formulas used by Beane and his Ivy League-educated statisticians to demonstrate where the A's have deviated from the MLB norm -- a lengthy passage is devoted to the A's drafting of a slow and overweight, but terribly productive, college catcher no one else wanted. In Moneyball, much as he did with his previous best-sellers Liar's Poker (an inside look at Wall Street) and The New New Thing (Silicon Valley), Lewis takes an in-depth look into a subject that would normally appeal to only a limited audience and turns it into a compelling read, regardless of one's previous level of interest.

::: Eric Grossman

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April 2, 2003

Back Story
Robert B. Parker
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2003
Rating: 3.4
Sad as it is to say, perhaps it's time for Spenser, Robert B. Parker's literate sleuth with a strong moral compass, to consider retirement. After all, Spenser's surrogate son Paul Giacomin, first introduced as a surly 15-year-old kid in 1981's Early Autumn, is now in his thirties. Pearl, the dog Spenser shares with longtime lady love Susan Silverman, has passed on. And quite frankly, Spenser -- much like the series of novels in which he stars -- isn't aging well. Character traits that seem charming for a detective hero in his thirties and forties -- a healthy appreciation for the female form, an instinctive dislike for large organizations -- begin to seem sexist and willfully immature for a man who must be well into his sixties. And while Back Story is a fairly compelling, if lightweight, entertainment -- the central mystery, involving the decades-cold suspicious death of a woman with ties to a small-time group of hippie revolutionaries, unspools with deceptive ease -- the chinks in the armor are all too evident. Like almost all of Parker's detective novels of the last few years, the plot here turns on the actions of an emotionally underdeveloped and unsympathetic woman -- a device so prevalent it points to possible issues in Parker's own psyche. Parker still proves adept at constructing twist-y scenarios in which to have his characters face off against one another, and the (all too infrequent) action scenes and moments of weighty introspection are carried off well. But ultimately the precision-clockwork plot serves as little more than a backdrop for Parker's increasingly anachronistic form of macho posturing. One hopes Parker can correct this tilt -- as last year's Widow's Walk showed signs of doing -- before one of the genre's most popular and distinctive characters devolves into dissolving caricature.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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April 2, 2003

Oz -- Behind These Walls: The Journal of Augustus Hill
HarperCollins, 2003
Rating: 3.2
This coffee table book -- timed to commemorate the end of the groundbreaking HBO prison drama Oz -- is a curious curio, a surprisingly insubstantial souvenir of one of television's most compelling and confrontational series. The bulk of Behind These Walls takes the form of the fictitious journal entries of Augustus Hill, the wheelchair bound narrator played on the show by the talented Harold Perrineau. Almost two hundred pages are taken up with Hill's accounts of certain pivotal moments in the show's increasingly soap-operatic run, interspersed with sidebars running the gamut from topical and informative (brief snippets on capital punishment, drugs, prison violence and other issues) to helpful (a season-by-season breakdown of the show's many, many deaths) to the frivolous (poetry by the actor muMs, who portrayed the inmate known as Poet). An episode guide (incomplete, as it doesn't cover the final season) proves slightly more substantial, although many entries are frustratingly vague, like capsule descriptions found in TV Guide. But there's precious little here that pays tribute to the show's overlooked thematic resonance, the gripping (if often devolving into silliness) writing or the uniformly proficient cast that brought the show to life between 1997 and 2003. Such is the nature of coffee table books, it's true, but given Oz's status as perhaps the most overlooked of HBO's original series, one wishes this companion piece had as much bite as the program it seeks to honor.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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January 18, 2003

Fat Ollie's Book
Ed McBain
Simon & Schuster, 2002
Rating: 3.7
Ed McBain's enduring series of 87th Precinct novels, at their best, show a master storyteller deftly manipulating conventions to blur the boundaries of formulaic serial fiction (think Will Eisner's legendary work on The Spirit, playfully bending the rules of both his medium and his chosen genre). But that kind of momentum is impossible to sustain over a career spanning almost 50 years, as Fat Ollie's Book, McBain's latest, makes all too clear. The main conceit at work in Fat Ollie's Book is this: Ollie Weeks, a corpulent, racist and generally unlikable cop from the neighboring 88th Precinct, has written a crime novel, most of which gets stolen from his car while investigating the murder of a local politician. As McBain shows us in hilarious snippets, it's a masterfully inept shaggy-dog tale of a book, woefully inadequate even as a short story (which, in its brevity, it more closely resembles). In a clever twist that certainly recalls Eisner, the book ends up in the hands of a junkie who thinks it's a real-life letter from an endangered female cop caught up in a plot involving diamonds; the junkie inevitably traces its clues to a real-life police raid led by 87th detectives Eileen Burke and Andy Parker. It's a slight premise at best, and the attempt to elevate the noxious Weeks from bit player to main character is a creaky one. Unfortunately, the book's main plot, involving the murdered politician (and, thankfully, if briefly, series "star" Steve Carella), is even sketchier, generating little to no suspense and possessed of far less tension or intelligence than a typical episode of Law and Order. That's not an insult to the long-running, well-executed series, but McBain's compelling, no-fat procedurals are usually meatier than a typical L&O. But while Fat Ollie's Book falls short of the mark of its immediate predecessor, the smart, taut Money, Money, Money, there's enough evidence of McBain's wit and inventiveness to tide fans over until his next offering.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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