Sunday, June 19, 2011

Four books that include a cop's life and a sacrifical ballplayer

I hate writing about four books at once, but I also hate the stack of books lurking near my computer, reminding me that I need to say something about them. Let's say this -- they are all good books and I'd recommend each one.

Now for something a little more personal about each book.

Book 63: The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass

There's an inherent appeal to a novel that features not one, but two tree houses as is the case with The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass.

I have enjoyed her novels since she made her debut with the award-winning Three Junes.  Glass's novels have their share of dysfunction, heart ache and disappointment, but there is also a joy that emerges in her work, a celebration of life despite its pain and misfortune. 

The Widower's Tale is the story of 70-year-old Percy Darling, a sharp-tongued curmudgeon who continues to mourn the passing of his wife decades after she drowned. As the novel progresses unexpected events, from a late-life romance to acts of eco-terrorism, help Percy shed his grief and embrace life and all it quizzical turns.

Book 66: A Well-Paid Slave by Brad Snyder

"A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave." Curt Flood

As author Brad Snyder notes Cardinals' outfielder Curt Flood was not baseball's first free agent. Nor did his lawsuit, which ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court, create free agency or result in the elimination of baseball's reserve clause.

"But," Snyder writes, "his legal battle set the stage for free agency in baseball."

It's possible, I suppose, to see Flood as other than heroic. His decision to reject a trade from St. Louis to Philadelphia, to leave the game when he was among its highest paid players and to sue baseball, to challenge the reserve clause, directly led to the game we know today.

How you view that game will go a long way in determining how you view Flood.

The owner's contended that without the reserve clause baseball could not survive. Yet, today, the game flourishes. What owners surrendered to players was a share of the game's wealth.

Flood, whose baseball career and whose future in the game was wrecked because of his defiance, always knew that he would never benefit from his suit, but that other players would.

Snyder's challenge, and one that he meets with verve, is to make the legal aspects of this book -- which are at its very heart -- as spellbinding as the baseball.  He provides a balanced portrait of Flood, a great player who struggled with alcoholism, and provides intriguing portraits of other men who played a role in this courtroom drama from labor leader Marvin Miller to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

Book 67: The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

Novelist Arthur Phillips ruptures the veil between the worlds of fiction and reality as he casts himself as the central character in this comic novel of a dysfunctional family with an obsession for William Shakespeare.

Phillips is the unreliable narrator of what is putatively the foreword to a newly discovered play by Shakespeare, but which quickly develops into an often whiny memoir of how his daddy loved his twin sister more.

Daddy has spent most of his life in prison for various schemes involving fraud and forgery, which naturally leads Phillips to suspect that this new play by Shakespeare -- stashed in his father's safety deposit box for decades -- wasn't written by the Bard, but dad.

As Phillips argues that the play isn't what it appears to be, everyone else -- from his sister, who has memorized huge swathes of Shakespeare's works, to university professors -- line up to proclaim that Shakespeare does indeed appear to have written this brilliant new play.  Even Random House, Phillip's publisher in the novel and real life, gets in the act.

More than two-thirds of The Tragedy of Arthur is devoted to the memoir. Roughly another 100 pages feature the play, of the same name, which Phillips (the real one) wrote. I'll willingly confess I didn't read it.

So I read The Tragedy of Arthur, but not The Tragedy of Arthur, which makes perfect sense to anyone reading the newest novel/foreword/memoir by Arthur Phillips, real and imagined.

Book 68: Rizzo’s Fire by Lou Manfredo

It's the insider's understanding of a cop's day-to-day world that make Lou Manfredo's novels about Brooklyn detective Joe Rizzo such a pleasure to read.

Manfredo understands that a cop's life is about the quotidian chores of filing reports, canvassing the neighborhood and exploring unlikely leads, rather than the glamour of car chases and shoot outs. Yet, he manages to make the mundane magical.

Rizzo, who is only months from retirement, is a complicated figure.  He's proud of his career, but strongly resists a daughter's efforts to follow in his footsteps. He's given to lecturing his new partner or to offering advice to a medical examiner on the scene of a murder out of a mistrust of motivation.

And he will cut corners to nail a bad guy, advance a partner's career or secure additional overtime to pad his retirement.  He's quick to give a favor or ask for one.

He's a cop who is passionate about his work, but who also understands that at the end of the day it is a job that exacts a heavy price, a price he's always been willing to pay.

Rizzo's Fire and Manfredo's first book, Rizzo's War are terrific novels for their exceptional insight into a cop's life, the challenges he confronts each day and the trade offs he must make.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Miéville's novels are complex narratives, rich with ideas

Book 62: The City and The City by China Miéville
Book 65: Embassytown by China Miéville

Complex, challenging novels that are occasionally infuriating and always entertaining is how I would characterize the novels of British writer China Miéville.

These are not the pared-down, movie-script-as-a-novel books that Michael Critchton cranked out in his last few years. Rather, these are complex novels that reward the patient reader with a rich story that strikes the rare balance between ideas and action.

The City & The City -- co-winner of the 2010 Hugo Award with Paolo Bacigalupi for the delicious The Windup Girl --  is a noir-ish detective story in a science fiction setting. Yet because Miéville is faithful to both genres the novel never feels like a gimmick.

The novel begins as a conventional police procedural. A body is found, dumped near the ramps of a skateboard park. "Nothing is still as the death are still," observes Police Inspector Tyador Borlú́́, who is called in to investigate the murder.

Those opening pages -- a body unceremoniously dumped by a skateboard park, the police soberly looking on -- is the last time, the only time, that this novel is on familiar ground. Now it gets strange.

Borlú́́ is an inspector in the city of Besź́́̀́́el, which shares the same physical space, the same geography, as the city of Ul Qoman. 

Miéville never explains why these two cities overlap, we're only told they do.  It first appears as if there's been some quirky dimensional overlay from out of the pages of Marvel Comics.  But that's not what's happening here.

Instead, it appear that the residents of Besź́́̀́́el and Ul Qoman have intentionally decided that one city is now really two.  It's as if all the residents of a New York borough woke up one morning and decided that based on style of dress, the make of car, the architecture of a house, or the presence of certain colors, that their neighbor doesn't fully exist.

You can see them, but you try real hard not to. You can even visit this other city, but to do so, to visit a neighbor who literally lives across the street, requires that you pass through a checkpoint and a wear badge that identifies you as a visitor.  And once you've done that you can't simply walk back across the street to your own home -- you have to pass through the checkpoint again to do that.

To complicate matters, part of the landscape seems to belong only to Besź́́̀́́el, part to Ul Qoman. Some overlaps and other areas aren't a part of either city.

And to complicate matters even more, all of this, this separation, is enforced by a shadowy presence known as the Breach.

This separation between the two cities is important to Borlú́́ because it appears the young woman was killed in one city, her body dumped in another. In the course of his investigation, Borlú́́ learns that the woman may have been murdered because she uncovered evidence of a second shadowy group of people living in the interstice of the two cities, a shadowy group that may be a threat to the Breach.

Miéville challenges the reader by not explaining everything -- either the words he's coined (both novels cry out for a glossary) or the reason that the two cities exist as they do. 

Embassytown is just as challenging, just as potentially confusing.  In this novel, we find ourselves on a far distant world where humans have established a small outpost, an embassy. The world's sentient life form, the Ariekei, have two mouths. 

As a result, the Ariekei hear human speech, but are unable to perceive it as language. Nor are they capable of perceiving a normal human as an intelligent creature.

To communicate with the Ariekei, or the Hosts as they are known to the human residents of Embassytown, humans rely on the "Ambassadors," human twins, doppels, that share an empathetic connection and who separately represent each of the Hosts' two mouths. The Ambassadors are bred in Embassytown.

A crisis erupts when an Ambassador arrives from off world.  This Ambassador is not a twin, but two distinct humans, and his/his speech is instantly addictive to the Ariekei.

Both races embark on efforts to free the Ariekei from this addiction. The solution found by the Hosts involves a severe form of self-mutilation that leaves them free of addiction, but unable to speak. The solution found by the human involves teaching the Ariekei to lie.

Further explanations elude me.  It's all tied up with the idea that for the Ariekei language is literal. And it has to do with a small number of humans who literally become part of the Ariekei language. As a little girl our narrator becomes a simile in the Hosts language.

Describing Embassytown is as a challenging as reading it. It is a complex novel that demands multiple readings to reach a full understanding of what Miéville is trying to achieve -- if that's even possible.

One reading, or many, Miéville's books are among the most provocative to appear in years.  His novels, and the ideas within them, defy the casual read. Yet despite the complexity -- or perhaps because of it -- Miéville also produces a gripping narrative of unparalleled richness.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman another fine entry in the American Presidents series

Book 61: Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman

Sadly, the American Presidents series from Times Books is coming to an end. Less than a handful of books remain to be issued. 

The most recent in the series is Millard Fillmore by Paul Finkelman.  To me, this book encompasses all that has been good about the series.

First, the series provides us with brief biographies on each of the Presidents. The books are small, generally running less than 200 pages.  Second, while providing an overview of each man's life, the books focus on their tenure as President.

Third, the books are uniformly well written and impeccably researched. There have been stand-outs such as Elizabeth Drew on Richard Nixon, but all of the books have met a high mark; erudite, but not plodding; balanced rather than tendentious.

Finally, and here is where Millard Fillmore is a fine example, the books have featured ALL the presidents and not merely Washington or Lincoln, Adams or Jefferson or Kennedy.  Martin Van Buren, Warren G. Harding, John Tyler and, of course, Millard Fillmore.

Fillmore is what Finkelman calls an "accidental president." Zachary Taylor dies in office and Fillmore, an obscure politician from New York, ascends to the presidency.  He was also a terrible president, generally deserving the anonymity with which history greets him.

Fillmore was a doughface, a Northern who sympathized with Southern causes, especially slavery.  He was stubborn, vindictive and a bigot. The 1856 Presidential nominee of the Know Nothings, he opposed Catholics, immigrants and foreigners of every stripe. While President his support for the Fugitive Slave Act and its aggressive enforcement helped escort this nation into civil war.

"In retirement, Fillmore opposed emancipation and campaigned for a peace that would have left millions of African Americans in chains," Finkelman concludes. "In the end, Fillmore was always on the wrong side of the great moral and political issues of the age: immigration, religious toleration, equality, and, most of all, slavery."

Sunday, June 05, 2011

A quote from You Know When the Men Are Gone

In my haste to finish my post on the short story collections of William Trevor and Siobhan Fallon I neglected to include the following quote from one of Fallon's stories:

"Their fate depended on whether Carla walked out of the room or stood next to her husband. She bit her lip and wondered if this was the sum of a marriage: wordless recriminations or reconciliations, every breath either striving against or toward the other person, each second a decision to exert or abdicate the self."

The short story flourishes in collections by Trevor and Fallon

Book 60:  Selected Stories by William Trevor 

Book 64:  You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

My reading in late May and early June includes two superb short story collections

The collection from Irish native William Trevor is hefty, encompassing 48 stories and 567 pages and representing more than a half century of work. 

The second collection, belonging to American Siobhan Fallon, is a slender volume of only eight stories and slightly more than 200 pages. It is her first book.

Trevor and Canadian writer Alice Munro are the two finest short story writers today.   Fallon joins Maile Meloy, whose entrancing collection Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It debuted last year, as two of the most promising young writers practicing the short form today.

If we use art as a metaphor, the novelist is a muralist working on a vast surface with an extensive palette and numerous subjects. The short story is a miniature, the palette limited. The short story writer has a narrow focus. It is about subtle detail rather than broad strokes.

The stories by Trevor and Fallon are both rich in detail and observation. The best writers take us inside a world we do know not, allowing us to savor its foreign elements, while finding areas of identification and affinity. We come to understand the commonality of the human experience.

Trevor deftly maneuvers through the world of farmers and priests, lovers and loners.

Fallon's eight remarkable stories are focused the American Army base at Fort Hood outside of Killeen, Texas. Whether she is writing about soldiers or the wives who are left behind she taps a deep well of empathy for the men and women who have sacrificed the quotidian American life for a life ruled by uncertainty, separation, the whims of war and arbitrary military protocol.

In these two collections, a master of the short form, and a student, have both produced closely observed works of rare beauty, power and insight.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Collins' Lost Souls is a dark but honest portrait of a small Midwestern town

Book 59:  Lost Souls by Michael Collins

The petri dish of small town America has always been a rich source of experimentation and exploration for writers. 

In this unrelentingly bleak 2003 novel, Irish writer Michael Collins, who now calls America home, trods ground previously covered by authors as diverse as Sinclair Lewis and Grace Metalious, to uncover a malignant strain of greed, boosterism and fundamentalist Christianity.

On Halloween, a three-year-old girl wanders away from her home. Her body is later found beneath a covering of leaves along the roadside. There is reason to believe that the quarterback of the high school football team may know something about her death.  

But the mayor -- who owns a used car lot -- doesn't want the quarterback implicated. Through his leadership, the team is poised to capture an elusive state championship, which can put this small Indiana town back on the map.

There's also a promising college and professional career to think about.

Lawrence, a small town cop with big problems, is recruited by the mayor and police chief to clear the young man. It is hinted that Lawrence, who is divorced, depressed and deeply in debt, will be made police chief when the current chief retires later in the year. "Everything in this town works together," says the mayor, "or it doesn't work at all."

And so the cover up begins. The lessons we learned from Watergate are retaught: Lies that are the foundation of a cover up lead to more lies and still more lies until finally the whole rickety edifice crumbles amid recrimination, finger pointing and back peddling, followed by the search for a scapegoat.

Lost Souls is a dark but honest portrait of a small Midwestern town trying to reclaim its lost glory and of men and women seeking their share of happiness, wealth and love. Yet what's true for the town is also true for the men and women who inhabit it -- the redemption they seek is just beyond reach, an elusive memory that cannot be reclaimed.