Friday, October 28, 2011

The Baseball Codes delivers

Book 113: The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow w/Michael Duca

The 2011 major league baseball season ends tonight with a World Serious title for either the Texas Rangers or the St. Louis Cardinals.

The season ends for MLB, but it doesn't have to end for the baseball fan. There is an entire lineup of baseball books begging to be read during the winter months.  The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow (with Michael Duca) is one of the all-stars in that lineup.

Like all professional sports, baseball has a fat rule book to control the action on and off the field. Unlike other professional sports, baseball also has an unwritten rules that have as much influence on the game as the rules presided over by the Commissioner.

In one lively anecdote after another, Turbow provides the reader with a guided tour of the unwritten rules of the game -- from running into the catcher to stealing base, from sliding properly to never -- ever -- showing up an opponent to perhaps the biggest unwritten rule of them -- cheating is OK, until you get caught.

Most baseball books are biographies of a player, capture a special season or series or are an expose of the game.  No one's ever written a book quite like The Baseball Codes. It's inside baseball at it's best.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Twenty-five years later, White Noise still teems with power, mordant humor

Book 112: White Noise by Don DeLillo

The shape of our fears has changed since Don DeLillo wrote White Noise in 1985.

In DeLillo’s mordant, prize-winning (National Book Award), post-modern novel our fears take amorphous shape: in an “airborne toxic event” created by a chemical spill, in waves and radiation, in the background noise of our daily lives, in experimental drugs, in the unknown expressed by noxious smells and men in Mylex suits.

Today, our fears are no less threatening, but more concrete: planes fall from the sky, pulling down buildings, forcing people to choose between leaping to their death or dying in a crush of concrete and steel; in removing our shoes before we can board an aircraft because of the threat of shoe bombs; in the chilling, perplexing phrase “home-grown terrorist” and the mythical promise of WMDs.

Bluetooth. Wi-Fi. Tablets. Smart phones.

What would White Noise look like if it were written today, 10 years after 9/11 rather than 16 years before that nation-transforming day?

So many changes since the 26 years when White Noise first appeared. The cultural context has shifted, yet DeLillo’s novel remains powerful – and powerfully amusing – because the fears DeLillo taps into have not changed.

NSA. TSA. U.S. Cyber Command. CSS.

White Noise is the story of the Gladney family. Jack is a professor at The-College-on-the-Hill, where he is a pioneer in the field of Hitler Studies. Married five times to four women, Jack and his current wife, Babette, are parents to a brood of children and step-children. 

After toxic chemicals spew into the air following an accident in the train yard, the Gladneys must flee their home, although Jack resists.  "These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas," Jacks tells his family. "Society is set up in such a way that it's the poor and uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters . . . I'm a college professor."

Jack is briefly exposed to the chemical cloud and assured by some nameless man with a computer that he is dying.

Erectile dysfunction. Viagra. Cialis.

Both Jack and Babette share an extreme fear of dying.  Her fear leads Babette to search out chemical solace through an experimental drug.  She confesses to Jack that her in desire to obtain the drug, which promises to free her from her fear of death, that she engaged in a month-long tryst with the drug's designer. Her confession leads Jack down dark roads. 

On the surface, DeLillo explores our fear of death and dying. But a closer look reveals DeLillo is examining our fear of life and living. The threats to our existence – then and now -- are so pervasive, so unfamiliar and impossible to defend against , that death takes on a certain appeal. 

Google. Facebook. Twitter. Wikipedia. Dropbox.

The humor in White Noise is the darkest shade of black.  Some of the richest moments are when the Gladneys are all together (inevitably in their car) and engage in a serious, but uninformed discussions.  Discussions that a smart phone, Google and Wikipedia would stop before they started today.

Authors have been known to re-visit their creations.  I can’t think of another author whose take on modern times I’d like to read quite as much as DeLillo. 

DeLillo’s mordant, knowing voice perfectly captured the world of 1985.  It seems suited for our times too. 

*  *  *  *  *

The completion of White Noise brings me near the end of the Internet reading challenge issued by The Roof Beam Reader. The 2011 TBR (To Be Read) Pile Challenge is to read 12 books from your to-be-read pile in 12 months. The challenge began in February, so I am in good position with a few months remaining.

I have started Mr. King's Under the Dome. It's fat book, but once it's finished I will have only two books remaining:

1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
3. War and Peace by Mr. Tolstoy
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
5. The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
6. Under the Dome by Stephen King
7. White Noise by Don Delillo
8. Yogi Berra Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra
9. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
10. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
11. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
12. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich  

Friday, October 21, 2011

Millard weaves a rich tale of murder and madness in Destiny of the Republic

Book 111: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

It's an almost impossible task for a writer to create and sustain narrative tension when the reader already knows how the story is resolved.

Impossible for most, perhaps, but not Candice Millard.

Her first history, the riveting The River of Doubt, chronicled Teddy Roosevelt's arduous journey down an uncharted Amazon river.  Students of history knew Roosevelt survived the journey, yet Millard had the reader hanging on every sentence.

Teddy's survival was known, but just how narrow his escape from death wasn't.  Through Millard's vivid prose, the reader was able to understand the extent of Roosevelt's courage and tenacity, and just how closely he came to death.

Millard once more fashions familiar material into a gripping tale in her new history, Destiny of the Republic, an account of the assassination of President James Garfield. 

Packed into less than 300 pages, Destiny of the Republic ranges from Garfield's reluctant nomination as the Republican candidate for president in 1880 to his election and subsequent assassination to his brave, but futile fight for life.  

Garfield's foil is his assassin Charles Guiteau, a frustrated office-seeker who is convinced that God wants him to kill the president and that Americans will proclaim him a hero for gunning down Garfield in cold blood.  Guiteau anticipates that both fame and fortune will be his.  

Garfield and Guiteau are not the only figures who step from the pages in vivid relief in Millard's fine account. Inventor Alexander Graham Bell and British surgeon Joseph Lister have cameo roles whose importance far outweighs their brief appearance in these pages.

Millard illustrates how Garfield's assassination changed the course of the lives of Vice President Chester Arthur and D.C. physician Willard Bliss -- one for good, the other's reputation tarnished forever.  

Arthur was an ally of Garfield's most implacable political opponent, New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. Many Americans briefly believed that Arthur and Conkling conspired with Guiteau to assassinate the president. Many more were concerned that Arthur, who had never held elective office prior to the vice presidency, would be Conkling's puppet once he ascended to the presidency.

But Athur, grief-stricken by Garfield's death, emerged as his own man.  He shook off Conkling's control and honored Garfield's legacy during his single term in office.

Bliss joins Guiteau as the villain of this sad tale.  He emerges as an insecure man more concerned for his reputation than in saving the president's life.  

And it is that story, the stubborn ignorance and arrogance of the medical community, which doomed Garfield quite as much as Guiteau's bullets, that makes for the most interesting, yet dismaying, part of Millard's book. 

Left untreated, it is likely Garfield would have survived. Instead, Bliss and other medical men probed his wound with their unsanitary fingers and medical utensils. When he died, Garfield's body was riddled with infection.

As Millard illustrates, Garfield died, not from the wounds he received from an assassin's bullets, but from the treatment he received after being shot.  In his trial, in his own defense, Guiteau argued that Garfield was not fatally shot, but died from malpractice. True, perhaps, although it did not persuade the jury that convicted Guiteau and ordered him hung.

As one would expect from a political history, there is also a political debate, concerning the spoils system, woven through the Destiny of the Republic.  The fate of that issue, which contributed to Guiteau's motives, was resolved soon after Garfield's death.

Admittedly, Millard has rich material to work with in telling what the book's sub-title proclaims is a tale of "madness, medicine and murder." Yet it is also clear that the author is richly talented.

And that she knows how to tell a story.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Katrina lacks power in Salvage the Bones

Book 110: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones, a story of a poor black family in Mississippi, builds toward two climatic moments -- a dog fight and a hurricane.

The story is able to support one of those moments, while the other slips away along with the novel's promise. 

Unfortunately, it's the dog fight that emerges as the most powerful and telling moment of this ambitious novel.  It's the narrative high point of the novel and all that follows, including the impact of Hurricane Katrina is anticlimactic. 

Katrina arrives late and leaves quickly. The family's escape from rising flood waters reads like a cheap adventure novel and the family responds to the wake of Katrina'ss devastation as if it were the newest ride at a Disney theme park. 

Salvage the Bones is told through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch, the only girl in this family of five. Mom died years earlier give birth to the youngest child, Junior.  Dad is a distant figure, earning the occasional buck on a rare odd job. Most of the money he makes is spent on alcohol.

Esch has two older brothers. Randall's trying to find a way out of poverty via basketball. Skeetah is absorbed with his pit bull, China, who whelps a litter of pups as the novel opens.  Those pups represent the promise of a huge payday for Skeetah -- if they can survive all the forces bent on their destruction.

Skeetah and China form the most compelling story in the novel. The hurricane looms in the background, building in power over the Gulf of Mexico.  The father attempts to prepare for its arrival, boarding up the windows of their home, hoarding water, stashing food, but the four children give it little thought.

Esch is concerned -- rightly -- with her newly discovered pregnancy. Randall with a bad knee and paying for basketball camp. Skeetah with China's poor response to medication and an effort to poach one of the pups.

The children's effort to survive from day to day invests the novel with dignity and power that the storm leaches away.  One element that never rings true is Esch's focus on the story of Jason and Medea. She's reading, we're told, a book on mythology and see parallels with Medea in her own life.

It's difficult to ever accept this line of thought by Esch. What 15-year-old, black or white, rich or poor, is absorbed with ancient Greek myth? Not many.

Esch's preoccupation with mythology ultimately emerges as an authorial device. Through Esch, Ward characterizes Katrina "as the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone . . . "

It feels false.  Overwriting and overreaching by an author rather than a characterization that rings true. 

Salvage the Bones might have succeeded with only one story, either the dog or the hurricane. Pick one and tell it. But the two stories throw the narrative off balance with the result that neither quite works.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Art of Fielding a book of rare generosity, insight and skill

Book 108: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach 

One hundred and seven books preceded The Art of Fielding in 2011.  One hundred and seven books of various quality, interest and appeal, yet none so luminous or evocative as this extraordinary first novel by Chad Harbach.

Set in Westish College, a small, liberal arts institution nestled along the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, The Art of Fielding is the story of five intrepid individuals' search for perfection --  in love and life, in one another and on the Elysian fields of the baseball diamond.

Chief among them is Henry Skrimshander, a quiet, self-effacing student, who truly becomes larger than life when he steps onto the baseball field.  A shortstop of unassuming proportions, Henry is the rare athlete who brings elegance and intelligence to his craft.

Henry's own drive for excellence is a given a boost by Mike Schwartz. Catcher and team captain for the Westish Harpooners, Schwartz is Henry's friend, mentor and coach -- although an admittedly reluctant one:

"That was why he didn't want to go into coaching . . . He already knew he could coach. All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself. And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily  en route to his final triumph . Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer as long as the suffering made sense."

Initially, Henry's suffering takes a simple form -- his willingness to endure one punishing workout after another, day after day, season after season, in the pursuit of the perfect and a championship season.  But Henry's suffering soon ceases to make sense.  The failure to grip the ball just so, a quirky breeze from off shore and Henry throws the ball beyond the reach of the first baseman. It sails into the dug-out and strikes Henry's roommate, Owen, full in the face.

Owens survives the encounter, Henry barely.  His streak of error-less games vanishes as Henry is suddenly unable to throw the ball with accuracy or confidence.

Schwartz, Owen, Westish President Guert Affenlight and Guert's daughter, Pella, all undergo their own unique forms of suffering.  It is as if Henry's errant throw has unstitched the bonds that holds their lives together. Now, all that remains is to see if their suffering -- and they are suffering mightily -- can lead to triumph.

The Art of Fielding is baseball as a metaphor for life, but it would be wrong to dismiss it as only that. Harbach has written a book of rare generosity, insight and skill.  The characters are vivid and in the course of 500 pages we come to care for them deeply.  The narrative arc is as beautiful as a well-thrown baseball -- the novel ends as it begins with Schwartz and Henry together on the baseball diamond.

And the themes that emerge -- the value of suffering in our lives, the need to strive for perfection, the importance of friendship and love -- tell a story as eloquent and as complete as that most elusive no-hitter.

Book 109: Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie 

In Luka and the Fire of Life, Salman Rushdie joins the family of notable authors who have tried their hand at juvenile fiction.  

It is a clumsy and disappointing for such an accomplished writer.

Luka's father is dying.  The 12-year-old enters the Magic World to steal the fire of life, which will restore his father's health.

Rushdie's Magic World is a mish-mash of old gods, legends and myths that will be lost on most of the book's young readers.  In a futile effort to appeal to those same readers, Luka's quest is presented as a video game.  Soon after entering the Magic World, Luka discovers that he can accumulate hundreds of lives and that he can "save" stages of his progress.

That overlay -- of a video game -- feels as if Rushdie did not have confidence in his main story.  That lack of assurance is justified, but the author's effort to modernize the quest fails too.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Just My Type is, well, just my type

Book 103: Just My Type by Simon Garfield

 If you have a favorite typeface -- and I do -- than Simon Garfield's Just My Type, subtitled A Book About Fonts, is the book for you.

If you don't have a favorite typeface, you might after reading Garfield's book. It's a fascinating look at how fonts are created, their importance in everything from branding products to signage and their recent proliferation due to the emergence of the home computer. 

No surprise that the brilliant Steve Jobs and his first Macintosh computer make a cameo appearance in the introduction. That Macintosh, loaded with a choice of fonts, "was the beginning of something," Garfield writes, "a seismic shift in our everyday relationship with letters and with type. An innovation that, within another decade or so, would place the word 'font' . . .  in the vocabulary of every computer user."

My favorite font is Palatino, a serif typeface designed by Herman Zapf. Release in 1948, Palatino is prized for its legibility and is one of the 10 most widely used serif typefaces. Zapf also later created Zapf Dingbats -- and who hasn't found a use that font?

Book 107: Stan Musial An American Life by George Vecsey

Stan Musial, one of the greatest ballplayers in the history of the game, deserves better than this disappointing biography by George Vecsey.

It feels as if Vecsey collected a few anecdotes, assembled them in chronological order and -- Voila! -- a biography of Musial.  

Yes, some of the anecdotes are entertaining. Very much so.  Baseball anecdotes have that attribute about them.  But this book simply doesn't compare with the fine biographies of Yogi Berra and Roger Maris that emerged last year.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Supergods disappoints

Book 101: Supergods by Grant Morrison

For this kid who has devoured comic books for the best part of six decades, contemplating Grant Morrison's survey of the history of comics was like the promise of a hot bath after a long run.

The trouble is sooner or later the bath water always cools. 

Supergods is launched faster than a speeding bullet as Morrison opens with the creation of the sun god, Superman, and four chapters that comprise a brilliant exposition on the Golden Age of Comics.

The Silver Age, which is where I enter the picture, follows in equally brilliant fashion. Morrison serves up Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, the Fantastic Four and Spider-man. Marvel madness grips the world of comics, and it's never the same again.

(In the interest of disclosure: I am a Marvel fan.  Make Mine Marvel. It's clobbering time. etc. etc. etc.)

It's in the final two sections  -- The Dark Age and The Renaissance -- that the book falters.  What began as an astute history of the comic books becomes Morrison's personal story.  

Some overlap between the two is expected -- Morrison is a towering figure in the industry today, but an unpleasant smugness filters through the book in the final half. Morrison begins to channel Dire Straits (money for nothing and chicks for free.)

That's bad enough, but what had been a balanced and thoughtful approach to comics goes a bubble off level as Morrison contemplates his peers.  Morrison isn't a great fan of Alan Moore's The Watchmen. (For what it's worth -- neither am I.). He's willing to acknowledge the impact Moore's had on comics, but that's about as much as he'll concede.  Frankly, he's a bit pissy about Moore's success.

Some of us feel that way about Morrison. I didn't like his work on the Justice League or Batman & Robin. I thought it a bit overrated.  WE3 was clever, but I'm starting to realize that it's the work of illustrator Frank Quitely, not Morrison's writing, that draws me in.

Back to Supergods.  It's OK. Only that.  Starts strong, but tapers off.

In the current parlance of comics, Morrison is no meta-human.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Sense of an Ending a haunting, beautiful novel

Book 98: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Like an aging welterweight, The Sense of an Ending is lean, slow of foot, but scrappy, hanging around until author Julian Barnes can deliver one final devastating punch for the knock-out.

Shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize, The Sense of an Ending begins with Tony Webster recalling his school days when Tony and his two pals are joined by Adrian Finn, "a tall, shy boy who initially kept his eyes down and his mind to himself" and who the fulcrum of this slim novel.

Adrian is the kind of boy all the others want to be like.  Self-possessed and clearly smarter than his mates he seems destined for certain success.

In university, Adrian begins dating Tony's former girlfriend. Later, Tony learns that Adrian has killed himself.

Tony marries, has one child -- a daughter -- and later divorces his wife, although they remain friends. Tony leads an altogether bland existence.  He goes to great lengths to avoid the upsets common to most lives. He is smugly proud of his ability to live a life that is comfortable, yet also free of any meaningful relationship.

Tony's comfort is disrupted when he receives an unusual bequest -- a gift of money from his former girlfriend's mother and Adrian's diary.  The money is quickly paid, but the girl friend, now a dour woman, withholds the diary and later burns it.

Tony is determined to unravel this minor mystery.  Why did a woman whom he'd met only once leave him a small gift of money on her death? What was in the diary? Why did Adrian take his life?

Tony makes several guesses, all of them wrong.  The answers, which Barnes skillfully withholds until the pages -- are unexpected and powerful. The impact lingers long. For Tony. For the reader.  

As Barnes writes in the closing of this haunting, yet beautiful novel:

"You get towards the end of life . . . There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest."

Friday, October 07, 2011

Two mystery writers deliver gripping tales, one falters

Peter Robinson, Steve Hamilton and Lee Child -- three great mystery writers, but one of them let me down. 

Book 102: Before the Poison by Peter Robinson 

A few pages into Robinson's newest mystery, Before the Poison, and I was waiting for DCI Banks to take the stage. He never did. 

Ultimately, I realized Robinson's new book is not a part of the Inspector Banks series, but a one-off. 

Chris Lowndes composes musical scores for movies.  After the death of his beloved wife, he's flees L.A. for a remote estate in his native England.  He soon learns that the large house he purchased has a history.  

Fifty odd years ago, on a snowy night, the local doctor died in the house.  At first it appeared to be a massive heart attack, but suspicions were raised, leading police to believe the doctor was murdered by his wife. She was convicted and hung.

The solitary Lowndes hears things go bump in the night. Then he starts to see things.

Now it appears Robinson has written a ghost story. But it doesn't take many pages to realize the book that isn't an Inspector Banks mystery, isn't not ghost story either.  And that's the problem with Before the Poison. It's not much of a mystery.

Lowndes sets out to prove that the doctor's wife is innocent. Innocent or guilty there's nothing at stake here. She's long dead, and any evidence long-vanished. There's no ghost to exorcise and nothing, absolutely nothing, riding on the outcome.

It's unusual to encounter such a disappointing effort from Robinson.  I've often felt his long-running Inspector Banks series was the equal to the work of Ian Rankin.  But Before the Poison doesn't come up to par. Both Lowndes and Robinson would have been better off leaving this mystery unsolved.

Book 105: The Hunting Wind by Steve Hamilton 

Each book by Hamilton in his Alex McKnight series is better than the last. In the case of The Hunting Wind, the first McKnight mystery not in the Upper Peninsula -- this one's set in the Lower Peninsula --  it all starts with the first sentence:

"When the left-hander found me, I was sitting in my usual chair in front of the fire, trying to stay warm."

The left-hander and McKnight haven't seen one another in some 30 years when they were teammates in the minor leagues. The left-hander was a pitcher with a trick pitch and McKnight was his catcher.

Now, 30 years later, the left-hander needs McKnight's help again. He spins a story of a search for a long lost love.  Of course, his tale tends to be as unreliable as his pitch once was and McKnight is caught up in a deadly mystery.

The pitcher may not deliver, but Hamilton does.

Book 106: The Affair by Lee Child 

A few books ago I thought Lee Child might have jumped the shark.  His Jack Reacher series just didn't have the spark that characterized a dozen earlier efforts.

Boy, was I wrong.

The Affair is vintage Lee Child. Vintage Reacher.  Not only for the quality of this altogether gripping thriller, but it's set in 1997. Reacher's still part of the U.S. Army and dispatched to a military outpost in Mississippi after a women is murdered.

It's not the only murder. There were others. In his efforts to solve the murders, Reacher is caught between the military, who are convinced the murders are the work of a local, and the local sheriff, who is convinced the murders were the work of a solider.

Did I mention the local sheriff is a retired Marine, and that she's hot?  

No one writes quite like Lee Child and no one has a character quite like Reacher.  Unique -- that's the word to describe this series and this book. Also, fast-paced, gripping and fun.  Jumped the shark, my ass.