Thursday, June 24, 2010

50 books as mid-year approaches

The Trade of Queens, Book Six of the Merchant Princes by Charles Stross

Beyond writing his own brilliant brand of science fiction, Charles Stross has an absolute knack for reviving sub-genres created by other writers.

There is, for example, the absolutely weird, but totally captivating "Laundry" series that blends the creepy "things-go-bump-in-the-night" imaginings of H.P. Lovecraft with the thrilling espionage novels of Len Deighton.

In his "Merchant Princes" series, Stross taps into territory mapped out by the late Roger Zelazny. (Stross also credits the influence of H. Beam Piper.)

The Trade of Queens is the sixth and -- for now -- final installment in the Merchant Princes series. Although Charlie leaves this particular series with more questions than answers, one can understand his desire to explore new ground.

It's a good series, not a great one. Inventive, as all Stross books are, and throughly entertaining. Where else would you find Dick Cheney conniving to lure an alternate-universe group of narco-terrorists into bombing Washington D.C. (dispatching both the President and his residence) so that he can seize the reins of government? That's not really a question, the answer is nowhere.

Don't worry, Cheney's reign as President doesn't last long, although his successor is no prize either. I'll miss the series, but I'm confident that whatever Stross cooks up to replace it will be equally satisfying. In the meantime, I have one installment of the Laundry series yet to read.

Roger Maris, Baseball's Reluctant Hero by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary

The authors of this overdue biography spend far too much time at the beginning of the book exploring a rift in the Maras family. Yes, Maras. Roger and his brother and parents changed the spelling of their name after moving from Minnesota to North Dakota.

The undue focus on the Maris family feud is the only quibble I have with this biography. The authors' knowledge of the game is sound and they do an especially good job of placing Maris' career in perspective.

A few observations gleaned from the book:

  • Maris was a talented, all-around athlete who had a deep understanding of the game of baseball. He was no mere slugger who got lucky in 1961. His defensive skills have historically been over-looked and under-valued.

  • In a 12-year career, he played in seven World Series, winning three. He was a four-time All-Star and two-time MVP. His teammates, whether the Yankees or the Cardinals, universally respected him as a man and an athlete. Mantle sobbed at his funeral.

  • George Steinbrenner emerges as a hero in the Maris story. Treated abysmally by the Yankees ownership while a player there, Maris nursed a long and bitter grievance against the club. Steinbrenner finally convinced Maris to return to Yankee Stadium where he was gob-smacked by thunderous applause.

  • The New York press in 1961 was mean-spirited and irresponsible.

  • Cardinal fans were much more knowledgeable about the game than their New York counterparts.
There's a preponderance of baseball bios in print just now. This one belongs at the top of any sports fans reading list.

The New Yorker, June 14 & 21; June 28
The New Yorker unveiled its "20 Under 40" list -- 20 writers under 40 that the magazine believes are among the best of their generation.

My thoughts on the stories of these writers in the two issues listed above:

The Pilot by Joshua Ferris: Ferris is always interesting. This story is a little creepy, but in a good way.

Here We Aren't, So Quickly by Jonathan Safran Foer: Mercifully brief. His novels were better.

What You Do Out Here, When You're Alone by Philipp Meyer: Meyer's American Rust was good, but not great. I liked this short story a lot.

The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire by Rivka Glachen: Must be part of a novel.

Lenny Hearts Eunice by Gary Shteyngart: I couldn't finish it. I liked Absurdistan a whole lot more. At least I finished it.

Dayward by ZZ Packer: Part of a novel that I really want to read.

The Kid by Salvatore Scibona: I liked this better than his novel, The End, which I didn't like much at all. Again, this must be part of a larger work.

Twins by C.E. Morgan: Promising.

The Young Painters by Nicole Krauss: Part of a novel? I certainly hope so, it didn't make the grade as a short story.

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