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.

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