America’s Favorite Pastime – “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach

UnknownI don’t enjoy watching baseball.  But I get the nostalgia of it. If you love baseball it is likely someone special took you to your first game and you sat shoulder to shoulder, squinting into the sun, just watching together. There was the smell of peanuts and popcorn, blue skies, the crack of the ball. It is a pastime that is greatly loved.  I have avoided this book because I just didn’t want to read a book about baseball, sorry to all the baseball fans.  But just like the movie “Field of Dreams” really isn’t about baseball, neither is this book.  I am just still trying to figure out what it really is about so pardon the fumbling here.

This is novel is set at fictitious Westish College, a small school on Lake Michigan.  Henry is a talented sophomore short stop, who is being scouted for the draft. He has been training with Mike, the Westish baseball team leader, to get better and bigger and faster.  Henry is graceful and agile and destined for baseball greatness. But then he throws that one ball that hits his friend Owen in the head.  And in a cloud of self-doubt and second guessing, he loses whatever baseball magic he had.

Every description of this novel, makes it sound like it is this bad throw that changes everyone’s lives. The school president, his daughter, Mike and Owen all are thrown in upheaval because of this one throw.  But to me it is not really the pivotal moment and I think that is a lazy way to talk about this book.

The novel, to me, is more about how we have certainty at points of our life and that is nice.  But really that is not how we find ourselves.  At times in our lives , we are sure we are in love or clear on our path to success or certain that our future is set. But when that all falls apart what do we do? That is the measure of greatness.  And every character in this novel, finds themselves at a crossroads and has to decide what next. So yes, there is the bad throw, but there is also the bad marriage, the crossing of boundaries that leads to bad decisions and consequences, the hiding of the truth which isolates. For each character they have their own bad throw that lands them somewhere dark and alone.

Harbach is a talented writer.  Sadly, parts of this novel dragged for me even with the brilliant writing.   What I find most intriguing about this novel, as I think about it, is that Harbach combined America’s favorite pastime, baseball with each character’s journey of self-absorbed doubt and introspection – the finding yourself that the talk shows all claim is so important.  I think with this combination Harbach is hitting on something else. Americans love these personal stories of finding ourselves through adversity.  In truth this is our other favorite American pastime.  Peanuts, cracker jacks and finding ourselves. It’s a home run every time.

October 12, 2015 at 12:50 pm 2 comments

Sometimes all you can do is just eat the cherry cobbler – “Redeployment” by Phil Klay

This collection of short stories is bitterly heartbreaking, comical, insightful, and some of the stories are simply amazing.  Phil Klay served in Iraq for 13 months as a Public Affairs Officer and his writing is beautiful.  Don’t get me wrong here, it is rough, harsh, and descriptive in a way that makes you wince, but it is beautiful.  Not to grandstand, but this is a book that everyone, particularly Americans, should read.

The stories begin with a marine returning home to his wife after a tour in Iraqi.  His long anticipated return is awkward and not exactly what he had been looking forward to:

“Getting back feels like your first breath after nearly drowning. Even if it hurts, it’s good.”

They had been thumbs_military_policemen_on_security_patrol_outside_tq_-_shooting dogs in Iraq for sport and the soldier returns to his beloved dog who is old and sick.  It is awful to think of shooting dogs, so this book was a rough start for me, but there is an important point Klay is making.  This is who the soldier becomes. The man, who has a dog that he loves and misses and cares for at home, can put that piece of himself or herself away and think of dogs as target practice.

And the stories take you through all these pieces of being a soldier – the mundane day to day tours, the house raids, the mind-numbing administrative positions, the frustratingly stupid foreign politics, etc.  Klay doesn’t miss the ridiculous either, the all Iraq needs is baseball or widow beekeepers to recover moments are in there and they are head-shakingly funny.   But most compelling for me is how we place these people in extraordinary situations, with guns and death and nightmares in the making, and then we expect them to be able to handle the “normal.”   Once you go through this experience a simple trip to the mall with crowds of people takes on a whole different meaning of awareness.

The story that really seemed to the best example of that expectation of normal  was early on in the book. After a raid on a Iraqi home, after cleaning off the blood of Iraqis and fellow soldiers, the men sit down in the mess hall to dinner with their choice of any kind of cobbler.  For one young kid this was the first time he had killed anyone and he just sits there staring.  The other guys get him cherry cobbler, it is supposed to be the best, and hand him a spoon.

It is the best illustration that there are these moments in life where all you can do is keep going, even if that means you are just committing to do a small everyday thing.  Because really, if you think about it, we were told we were fighting this war to hold onto the small everyday things that make our lives meaningful.  Even things as simple as cobbler.

“Maybe you didn’t understand American foreign policy or why we were at war. Maybe you never will. But it doesn’t matter. You held up your hand and said, “I’m willing to die for these worthless civilians.” 

August 30, 2015 at 9:21 am 3 comments

Disappointment can be so…well…disappointing – “Second Life” by S.J. Watson

I will start off by tipping my hat to S.J. Watson’s first book “Before I go to Sleep.”  It was a great suspense.  That makes this review all the more painful for me because I was very excited for Watson’s new book.  And I understand that sometimes that sophomore effort can be so hard, particularly when the first book was so successful.  But honestly, does this Unknownpoor author have no one in his life who, over a morning cup of coffee, would say to him “don’t publish this…no seriously it is bad. Cream in your coffee?”

Julia has a sorted past.  But like all heroines (not sure this is really the right word for her), she has come out stronger and a better person.  She is married to a lifelong friend. She has adopted her sister’s (Kate) son because Kate was unable to take care of him.  She is taking pictures again.  Julia has it together.  Until she receives a call that Kate has been murdered in a dark Parisian alley.  Then things start to unravel for Julia.

In an attempt to piece together who murdered her sister, Julia begins logging into a dating website Kate used for casual hook-ups. Not a couple days into her research, Julia meets someone online.  They begin talking, and one thing leads to another and Julia’s shunning her perfect life for hotel hook-ups.  But what about Kate’s murder and solving the mystery you say? Well sure she is doing that kind of too, but mostly she is hooking up with one guy she met online.  And poor Julia, she wants to stop but she can’t. Did I mention she is a recovering addict?  So, what is a girl to do really? Like all books with this type of storyline, there is always the tension that the husband will find out, that the son will hate her, that her whole life will crash but of course she having such a great time.  Life is no picnic when your sister is murdered and you start having an affair.

The themes and twists and turns in this book have been written before – hundreds of times.  The predictability of the story is painful at best and maddening at worst.  And Julia is so terribly unlikeable. She makes so many stupid decisions that you really are kind of relieved when there are consequences – it just seems fair.

Maybe Watson was on a tight deadline and just had to churn something out. Maybe he had some personal problem that affected his writing so severely that this is where he ended up. Or maybe, and I don’t like this one but still, “Before I go to Sleep” was it for him and it is all downhill from here.  But regardless, he has his work cut-out for him in the writing of  his third  book.

Oh, and, Mr. Watson, perhaps the next book could not end in a silly cliff-hanger. Please. Cream in your coffee?

August 9, 2015 at 9:49 pm 6 comments

The best find of the Summer – “Bittersweet” by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

18339743I am going to go far out on a limb, dangerously so, and say this is by far my favorite summer read.  I bought this book because I happened to read the description and it took place in Vermont. I was headed to Vermont for vacation so it seemed like a good match.

Mabel is the stereotypical nerd – frumpy, uncomfortable in her skin, insecure (you get the picture).  Her first semester in college she finds herself rooming with Genevra (Ev) Winslow.  Ev comes from a long line of the rich, the beautiful, the moneyed.  In short, she is everything Mabel is not.  Oddly, after months of Ev’s disdain, the girls bond and Ev invites Mabel to come summer at her family’s compound in Vermont.  Eager to avoid returning home, Mabel agrees and off they go to the beautiful, idyllic Lake Champlain and the Winslow’s blue blood summer estate “Winloch.”

Winloch has one main dining hall where all the different branches of the family gather to eat.  Otherwise, the property has cottages for the various Winslows to stay in. They are named after the local vegetation “Queen Anne’s Lace,” Goldenrod”, etc.  Ev and Mabel are placed in “Bittersweet” which is to be a part of Ev’s inheritance.  There is swimming, picnics, plays, tennis (of course), boating and other manner of blue blood summer sports. It is everything Mabel never knew she wanted. Of course, nothing is that perfect.  Mabel runs into Ev’s eccentric Aunt Indo who insinuates that there are family secrets to be discovered and assigns Mabel a research project.  This leads her to discover some ugly truths about the Winslow family and about her friendship with Ev.

This book is highly predicable, so I am not claiming it is original.  But the setting and the characters make it fun. And even though Mabel is drab and a bit stereotypical you can’t help but want her to succeed.  So I guess I am saying this book is a blast, with the caveat that it is not going to amaze you with its new ideas or inventive storyline.  Sometimes, this is just the kind of book you need to read.  That and really who doesn’t wish for an invitation to a place like Winloch?

 

Other summer reads that have been fun but not as good as this one:

  • “Natchez Burning” by Greg Iles
  • “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” by Fanny Flagg (yes, even if you saw the movie you should read it)
  • “Silver Bay” by Jojo Moyes (not as good as her other books but a fun, light read) 

August 1, 2015 at 3:52 pm Leave a comment

Round peg meet square hole – “Dollbaby” by Laura Lane McNeal

UnknownLet me begin this review by saying please publishers, for the love of all things holy, stop comparing every book where there are African-American servants to “The Help.”  That was not the first book written about the topic and we are not all looking for the next great book that is like “The Help.”  It was a fine book but it did not redefine the literary world or create a ground-breaking forum for racial discussion. Okay, now onto this book (which has been compared to “The Help”).

After her father dies in a bike accident, Ibby (Liberty) Bell finds herself dropped off by her unstable mother at her grandmother’s house in New Orleans.  Ibby has never met her grandmother before and finds her awkward teen self living in an old house with weird decor and African-American servants who teach her about life and her family’s history. Yep, that about sums it up.

This novel is McNeal’s first and it is just crammed with a bunch of stories, deaths (way too many to be believable), mental illness (also, a lot of this interlaced with the death thing) and poorly crafted descriptions.   Nothing seems to fit right.  The author tries to make the story relevant by setting it during the Civil Rights movement and having Doll, one of the African-American servants, protest at a Woolworth’s counter. But that part of the story line never goes anywhere so I am not sure why it was even necessary.   The characters did not resonate with me either, and I found myself wishing I cared more about someone, anyone, so I could connect better with the story.

McNeal also has a narrator problem. While it would seem we are crafting a story told by a third person omniscient narrator, the omniscient part of the narrator comes and goes.  So at times, there is a whole back story that is thrown in  while at other times, well, who knows what anyone is thinking or why they are doing what they are doing – and what is behind door number 2 on the second floor.  It is just awkward and confusing.

Perhaps equally bizarre is the author’s note that this is a tribute to New Orleans, when in fact there really were not a whole lot of descriptions of New Orleans as a city and most of the story takes place in Ibby’s grandmother’s old, rickety Victorian home.  I really don’t know what to make of it.

This book is like a patchwork quilt without any kind of plan – and the result is just uncomfortable and sad, because you know it took a lot of work.  But even knowing all the work that went into it, you still want a quilt to look pretty and a book to tell a well-crafted story.

Oh well, onward.  Have you heard about a book called “The Help”…

June 8, 2015 at 4:24 pm Leave a comment

The Schools out It’s Time to Read List

I have been reading a lot, and a lot of the books have been fun.  So here is what I think you should be reading while malingering by the pool.

1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: This was one of those big hype books that never sounded particularly like my kind of genre.  But it is just so good. Admittedly, it is another of those futuristic, lots of people die from a disease, stories. But the way the story is linked with the life of a celebrity actor is just fascinating.  The novel also takes  an interesting look at theater and how it changes as the world changes. Celebrity acting is such a disconnecting/lonely thing but a traveling troupe of actors connects people and towns.  I can’t guarantee your money back or anything, but this book is worth the leap of faith.

2. The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon: This book is creepy and scary and all of those good things that a creepy-scary book should be.  Below the floor boards in an old house, surrounded by encroaching woods,  someone finds the diary of a woman who was murdered in 1908.  This is really all I need to say, right?

3. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: You know from the first sentence of the book that Lydia is dead but her family does not.  Lydia is the teen daughter of a mixed-race marriage in the 1970s.  Her father is Chinese and her mother is Caucasian.  While it is a mystery through-out how Lydia died, it is not the driving force of the book. It is instead driven by the dreams that parents have and how the unspoken force of these dreams can do great harm, even when they are meant with the best intentions.  This novel was amazingly insightful, particularly in how Ng examines how broken people carry their brokenness into parenthood.

4. At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen:  I didn’t think this was a stunning novel.  And it was extremely predictable, almost painfully so, but it took place in Scotland and that made me inexplicably happy.  It is set during WWII, when three American socialites Maddie and her husband Ellis, along with his friend Hank, decide to head to Loch Ness to find the infamous monster.  They are spoiled, rich kids with a ridiculous plan.  While Ellis and Hank spend their days drinking on the shores of Loch Ness, with binoculars, Maddie sits at the pub and waits.  There is a sully maid and a burly pub keeper – so one gets in a fight, another woman gets pregnant, etc.  I think you get the idea but it is a fun, mindless read for the summer.

IMG_0498Swim, read. Work, read. Have a cocktail, read. Have two cocktails, read.  Whatever happens just make sure it ends with a book. Cheers.

May 26, 2015 at 7:05 pm Leave a comment

The veteran parenting art of trickery

I have been thinking a lot lately about what I knew about parenting before I actually was a parent.  It would appear that what I thought about parenting was in no way what parenting actually was.  I feel like my naive introduction into parenting can only be blamed on one group of people, other parents.  You know what I am talking about.  Those people who are already parents and are encouraging you to be a parent by telling you…well, by telling you lies.  So, in the interest of full disclosure to you non-parent-but want-to-be-parents parents, I am dispelling this veteran parent trickery.

Here are the top lies I heard:

1. Pregnancy is amazing. So this sounds like a positive statement when it is spoken. And indeed, yes, your body making another tiny mini-body is truly something.  But after that tiny person has been laying on your sciatic nerve and you are in Target just wondering how you will ever reach the other end of the store, it really doesn’t feel like that kind of positive amazing.  It feels more like the “it’s amazing I don’t just lie on this floor” kind of amazing.

2. Babyproof everything.  I feel like for liability purposes I must state that baby proofing is a great idea.  And it sounds like very solid, veteran parenting advice. But this cuts both ways.  You will either find yourself locked out of the scissor drawer at some extremely pressing moment when you really need scissors (this feels panicky, I promise) or, as in my case, you will have a child who defies all baby proofing.  So regardless of best intentions, your two year old will create a climbing apparatus out of the oven or somehow end up with a hammer. I guarantee it.

3. Your dog will love your children as much as they love you.  Dogs are amazing, loving creatures.  But my dog was an only child for a few years prior to children.  No one can tell me that she doesn’t long for the days of lounging, terror-fear, being the center of my attention as opposed to now where someone under 3 feet tall seems to continually be chasing her with salad tongs. And no, I have no idea what is going to happen with the salad tongs because I would never do that to my poor dog who, wisely, may be planning the demise of my children.

4.  Introduce your children to a variety of foods when they are little so they will not be picky eaters.  Again, this sounds logical. Right? Before the age of two my kids ate tofu, all kinds of seafood, broccoli rabe, brussel sprouts, radishes, lima beans (yep, I know).  But at three years of age something happened. My eldest got opinions. Do we make her eat a variety of food still? Yes. But in truth, I owe a solid apology to the parents I used to judge for saying their kids only eat hot dogs.  Because if my daughter had her choice she would live on saltines and crusty bread (which sounds more elegant than the mess it makes).

5. Two kids is no more work than having one kid. You are already doing everything for one kid, what is the difference? Let me be clear. I love both of my kids. But let me be even more clear, it is twice the work.  I so wanted to believe this one – however, in retrospect it defies logic.  It is like some crazy, new brain washing where someone said “you see 1+1= 1, because you already had one.” See that makes no sense.  In truth, you go from one person needing something most of the time, to two small people needing something most of the time – that becomes ALL of the time.  Your sitting days are over, except for that sweet time of the day from 9:30 p.m…nope someone needs water…so from 9:45 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. where you can relax. Unless you fall asleep.

I am only six years into this parenting adventure so I only have a list of 5 lies so far. But I remember all of the things that my veteran parenting friends have said about the teenage years (something about them being their best friend and having fun at concerts together) that makes me wonder how long this list will get.

And for those of you looking at the parenting world from the other side, you should come on over but I am not going to lie, it is a tough, dirty, grimy world. But it is worth it.  I have to go find someone’s blankie.

 

May 13, 2015 at 10:16 pm 2 comments

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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