Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Big Fella is a big disappointment

A solid, rousing “meh” is a fitting description for the two books just added to my 2019 reading list.

In 2002, Jane Leavy wrote Sandy Koufax, A Lefty’s Legacy. It ranks among the finest baseball books I’ve read.  In 2010, she wrote The Last Boy Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood. It was as bad as Koufax was good.  

Leavy’s newest book is The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created. It’s falls squarely between Koufax and Mantle; neither good nor bad, but wholly disappointing.

The disappointment is explained in the sub-title, Babe Ruth and the World He Created. The Big Fella is less a biography or a book about baseball than a failed attempt at social history.  The book is also burdened by Leavy’s quirky emphasis on certain events in Babe’s life. 

During a barnstorming tour, Babe posed for photographs with a chicken who laid 173 eggs in 173 days. She was proclaimed the Babe Ruth of Layers. That’s a cute little footnote, but Leavy spends pages on it. Pages! By the time she’d dispensed with the chicken I was ready to wring both their necks. (Leavy and the chicken, not Babe.)

Babe was a phenomenon, who generated excitement and crowds whenever he made a public appearance.  Yet did he shape the world in which he lived or was he shaped by it? A more straight forward biography, that lingered on the man’s feats on the baseball diamond, would have come closer to answering that question than Leavy’s awkward effort.

Wish You Were Here, a 2011 novel by Graham Swift, lacks the emotional resonance of his Booker Prize winning novel, Last Orders

A line that re-occurs in the novel goes to the essence of this book. “People can help in all kinds of ways . . . by dying — death is a great solution.”

There’s a lot of death and dying in Wish You Were Here. Herds of cattle are put to death. Early on, out of fear of mad cow disease and, later, because of an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease. Over the course of time, the protagonist, Jack Luxton loses his mom and dad. His wife, Ellie, loses her father to cancer, while her mother abandons the family when Ellie is only sixteen. Such abandonment is a kind of death.

But it’s the death of Jack’s brother, Tom, that triggers events in Wish You Were Here. On his eighteenth birthday, Tom flees the family farm in middle of the night.  He joins the army, never to return until he is shipped home in a coffin.  

Where Swift falters is that all the events in this novel are turned inward.  Everything is filtered through interior monologues, the thoughts of Jack or Ellie.  Consequently, the reader lacks the emotional distance needed to properly judge events as they unfold.   

Wish You Were Here isn’t a bad book, but we’ve come to expect more from Graham Swift. 
Books read -- January
1.   Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2.   Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3.   Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Kubert
4.   Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman
5.   A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
6.   Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos
7.   Neptune's Brood, Charles Stross
8.   Perish Twice, Robert B. Parker
9.   The League of Regrettable Sidekicks, Jon Morris
10. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming
11. Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor

Books read -- February
12. The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley
13. The Problem of Susan and Other Stories, Neil Gaiman & P. Craig Russell
14. The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross
15. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
16. Shrink Rap, Robert B. Parker
17. Wish You Were Here, Graham Swift
18. The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created, Jane Leavy

Currently  Reading --
Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson
School Days, Robert B. Parker
Comics & Sequential Art, Will Eisner

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