Monday, December 31, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I am not much of a sports fan -- except for the occasional football game or a rarer basketball game, which have tenuous holds on my attention. However, ice hockey has a place near the top of my list, but it seems as if the entire season will be canceled for the second time in the last decade. But I do enjoy baseball. Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding rose to the top of my TBR pile, because it is the last of my Christmas 2011 book presents, so I thought I would read it before the next sure-to-be excellent pile would appear on December 24th. I had delayed reading it, because I thought it would be another sports story about a sad-sack team of misfits saved by the talent, hard work and charisma of a young phenom. I sure did strike out on this at bat!

The Art of Fielding tells the story of Henry Skrimshander, skinny, talented ball player obsessed with the fictional career, a fictional book by the fictional Aparicio Rodriguez, The Art of Fielding. Henry reveres Aparicio. He has the book memorized, and carries it with him at all times. This young man comes under the notice of Mike Schwartz, a sophomore at Westish College on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin.

This seems to be the cliché-filled story of the aspiring athlete, the mentor, and a rags-to-riches team of college athletes going through the motions of playing baseball. But this is not the full story. Several characters slowly enter the story, and all become intertwined. Henry’s roommate, Oscar, also on the team, has earned the nickname “Buddha” because he always has a book in his hands – even as he sat on the bench during a game. The college president, Guert Affenlight, opens his home to his daughter, Pella, after she leaves her husband in San Francisco. These five characters orbit around each other and interact in surprising and interesting ways.

Henry’s manual almost becomes a character itself, guiding him and eventually other members of the team. The Zen advice in the book can also be applied to many of life’s daily activities. The book provides Henry with more than 200 aphorisms and ideas for conducting his daily life. For example, “3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being. 33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.” [Italics Harbach’s] (16). These principles become the key to Henry’s actions on the field. He becomes an instinctive player, a machine, who can anticipate the direction a ball will take based on the pitcher, the swing of the hitter, and the sound of the bat.

Harbach’s prose mesmerized me, and the pages flew by faster than I would have imagined. The lives of these five characters move in surprising ways, and the final resolution of the novel was completely unexpected. Pella begins dating Mike, but his relationship as Henry’s mentor casts a pall over them. Harbach writes,

“And had Pella said boo about any of it? Had not said for instance, that Henry was an adult or nearly adult person who could fend for himself; nor had she said that being occasionally unable to throw a baseball from one place to another with perfect accuracy didn’t exactly qualify as tragic; nor had she said – for instance – that Henry would start throwing the ball better when he felt like throwing the ball better; and maybe everybody should just leave him alone for a while and let whatever was going to happen happen. It was amazing the way people hemmed each other in, forced each other to act in such narrowly determined ways, as if the world would end if Henry didn’t straighten himself out right now, as if a little struggle with self-doubt might not make him a better person in the long run, as if there was any reason why he shouldn’t take a break from baseball and teach himself to knit, to play the cello, to speak Gaelic – but no, God, no, he had to work hard and stay focused and grind it out and keep his chin up and relax and think positive and keep plugging away, subscribe to every stupid cliché Mike or anyone else could throw at him, working and worrying until he started having panic attacks, for Christ’s sake, which wasn’t tragic either but was far from a promising sign.” (247-248)

This paragraph consists of only three sentences and encapsulates the wildly different viewpoints of dedicated athletes to their passion and casual observers. Fascinating, fun, sad, and yes a bit tragic, but in the end … things work their way to some surprising conclusions.

Recently released in paperback, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach has room for enjoyment by sports fans and avid readers of literary fiction. 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/31/12

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Red Bird by Mary Oliver

This slim book of poetry – recommended by a good friend – contains 61 poems. Until this recommendation, I had never heard of this poet, but I really do appreciate finding another poet who reminds me of my favorite, Billy Collins. Mary Oliver’s Red Bird contains poems with simple language, clear imagery, with profound insights into the human condition.

The best thing I can do is to quote a few of the many favorites I found in the collection, most of which focus on nature. “Of the Empire” has a timely theme:

We will be known as a culture that feared death and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity for the few and cared little for the penury of the many. We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke little if at all about the quality of life for people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All the world in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity. And they will say that this structure was held together politically, which it was, and they will say also that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days, was small, and hard, and full of meanness. (46).

Some poems have a Zen-like quality. In “Both Worlds,” for instance, Oliver writes,

“I rise from the chair,
I put on my jacket
and leave the house
for that other world –

the first one
the holy one –
where the trees say
nothing the toad says

nothing the dirt
says nothing and yet
what has always happened
keeps happening:

the trees flourish
the toad leaps
and out of the silent dirt
the blood-red roses rise.” (51-52)

Many others have a philosophical bent. This short poem packs a lot into six lines. “I Ask Percy How I Should Life My Life (Ten)" sums up many of Oliver’s sentiments.

“Love, love, love, says Percy. And run as fast as you can along the shining beach, or the rubble, or the dust.

Then, go to sleep. Give up your body heat, your beating heart. Then trust.” (55)

In the waning days of 2012, this poem takes me back to Christmas weekend -- a mere week ago -- and the honeymoon we never had. Port Aransas, Mustang Island, Padre Island, the gulf, the hotel pool, walks at night and in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening and with quiet dinners alone. How closer can I connect to a poem than that? As I near thoughts of retirement, Oliver and Percy have found the truth: “Love, love, love.”

Mary Oliver’s collection, Red Bird, deserves a read, and a second closer read, and a third, even closer, and a fourth… 5 stars.

--Chiron, 12/30/12

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín writes novels which tend to the dark and intense while thoroughly examining the angst and joys of his characters. His prose tends toward the simple – without an ounce of simplicity – the sublime and, as one reviewer wrote it is, “elegant and complex.” The Testament of Mary, however, takes a slightly different tack. Based on a play, this novelization examines the life of Mary, the mother of Christ, years after her son’s crucifixion.

Tóibín portrays Mary as a skeptic in regard to her son’s divinity and the character of the men surrounding him during his public ministry as recounted in the New Testament. Those apostles are now her caretakers, providing her with food and shelter, all the while quizzing her for details of her son’s life. She clearly does not want the attention neither from strangers nor from those “misfits,” (6) as she refers to them. She holds an empty chair for his return, but deep down, she her skepticism touches even this basic tenet of Christianity. Tóibín writes,

“‘He was the Son of God,’ the man said, ‘and he was sent by his father to redeem the world.’

‘By his death, he gave us life,’ the other said. ‘By his death, he redeemed the world.’

“I turned toward them then and whatever it was in the expression on my face, the rage against them, the grief, the fear, they both looked up at me alarmed and one of them began to move towards me to stop me saying what it was I now wanted to say. I edged back from them and stood in the corner. I whispered it at first and then I said it louder and as he moved away from me and almost cowered in the corner I whispered it again, slowly, carefully, giving it all my breath, all my life, the little that is left in me.

“‘I was there,’ I said. ‘I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it’” (79-80).

Mary carries an enormous guilt for not staying with her son as he expires. Rather, she slips away with the others to save herself.

Mary also treasures a small silver statue of the Goddess,

“I do not go to the Synagogue now. All that is gone. … I move quietly. I speak to her in whispers, the great goddess Artemis, bountiful with her arms outstretched and her many breasts waiting to nurture those who come towards her” (80).

This novel will most likely upset true believers, but Tóibín has captured the anguish of a mother who has lost her son for a cause she neither believes in nor understands.

Twice short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín’s Testament of Mary strikes at the core of sorrow, love, regret, and her longing for death. A truly noble and elegant story. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 12/8/12

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize. The novel tells a fictionalized account of the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry Tudor – Henry VIII – in 16th-century England. This interesting story of one of the most famous – and infamous – families in British History tops at an imposing 604 pages. But every single page carries the story forward. Reading this novel causes an imperceptible and complete immersion into the story. Interestingly enough, Mantel became the first woman – and only the second person – to win two Man Booker Prizes, when the committee awarded her the 2012 prize for the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. I collect first editions of Booker Prize winners, so I will have to wait for a reading copy before finishing the story.

Thomas Cromwell, the clever son of a blacksmith, became secretary to Cardinal Wolsey through the later years of his powerful position as Cardinal and Chancellor of England. When Wolsey fell, partly through the machinations of Anne Boleyn once she was queen, Thomas attracted the attention of Henry, who gradually raised him to the highest office beneath the king: chancellor.

As I have written several times, I find the Tudor period one of the most fascinating in English history. This novel – with its meticulous detail – has added greatly to my understanding of this time and its many interesting characters. In addition to elaborate family trees, Mantel provides a list of the characters in each of the important locales of the novel.

In one early passage, the “sweating sickness” has struck Thomas’ daughter, Anne. Mantel writes, “Mercy hangs outside their door the signs of the sweating sickness, She says, how has this happened? We scour, we scrub the floors, I do not think you will find in the whole of London, a cleaner house than ours. We say our prayers, I have never seen a child pray as Anne does. She prays as if she’s going into battle.

“Anne falls ill at first. Mercy and Johane shout at her and shake her to keep her awake, since they say if you sleep you will die. But the pull of the sickness is stronger than they are, and she falls exhausted against the bolster, struggling for breath, and falls further, into black stillness, only her hand moving, the fingers clenching and unclenching. He takes it in his own and tries to still I, but it is like the hand of a soldier itching for a fight” (139).

This passage conveys the desperation of the tragedy. The “sweating sickness” was a devastating disease that struck England and Europe in a series of epidemics from 1485 to about 1551, when it mysteriously disappeared. It struck without warning and frequently resulted in death within hours. We still do not know its cause.

While prior knowledge of the Tudors is not necessary, some familiarity enhances the read. For example, Mantel mentions, “John Seymour’s daughter” several times. This daughter, Jane, spent her days at the side of Anne Boleyn as one of her “ladies in waiting.” Knowing she would become Henry’s next queen following the execution of Queen Anne, added to my enjoyment.

But the thing I love about the Tudor’s involves the parallels to our country today. Thomas tries to deal with the rebellious Percy family. Mantel writes, “How can I explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and the click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the pages of the promissory note that pays for the gun and gunsmith and the powder and the shot” (349).

For history buffs, for lovers of historical fiction, for aficionados of romance and mysteries and spy thrillers, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall will captivate the discerning reader. 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/16/12

Friday, December 07, 2012

Rust by Julie Mars

Rust, by Julie Mars, tells the story of Margaret Shaw, a critically acclaimed artist, who cannot land a show in a prestigious gallery. She begins wondering if she has chosen the right career. After reading a random article about coyotes wandering the streets of Albuquerque, she uses most of her savings earned as a waiter in a bar to move to New Mexico. Thus begins the heroic journey of a confident woman, who suffers from occasional bouts of self-doubt.

She has decided to move her art to three dimensions, and, in order to accomplish this, she begins collecting an assortment of rusted machine parts. Her next step involves learning to weld. Rico Garcia, widely known as “El Rey,” because of his skill as a welder among low-rider enthusiasts, agrees to teach Margaret this skill. The two become close friends and sets them both on paths of introspection.

Margaret’s parents abandoned her as a young child, and she grew up under the care of her grandfather. Rico’s marriage slowly disintegrates as he tries to figure out why his loving, passionate wife has turned cold. Interspersed among the chapters, Mars describes the life of Vincent. On a trip to India, he has found himself imprisoned for some unspecified drug crime. He begins a journey of his own, which brings him into contact with Margaret and Rico.

Now, my faithful readers might think they know how this novel will turn out, but they would be wrong. Rust is Mars’ fourth novel, and I can assure you, I am already on the hunt for the first three. Her prose shines like the sun in the Southwest desert. Early on, Mars writes,

“On Sunday, Margaret woke up moody. After she had taken her morning shower, for example, she threw her towel to the floor and studied her naked body in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door. This was a sure sign of a coming storm. Whenever she experienced the urge to stand outside herself and technically review her body, which in these moments she tended to equate with her cage, her jail cell, or her hostage closet, she was already in trouble. It meant the restlessness, the discontent, was upon her, and she was trapped in it” (52).

Margaret encounters an entirely new world in Albuquerque, and this world helps her tie up a lot of the loose ends resulting from her unraveling in New York. Julie Mars’ novel, Rust is an interesting and imaginative novel and deserves a look by all serious readers. 5 stars

--Chiron, 11/16/12

The Ogden Nash Pocket Book by Ogden Nash

I found this handy little pocket book, published in 1943, at a yard sale. The excellent Introduction, by Louis Untermeyer, reminds me of the early days of The New Yorker magazine. The cover proclaims Nash as “America’s Light-Hearted Laureate.” I couldn’t agree more. While his short poems are most familiar, some of his longer ones really demonstrate his skill at twisting words and spellings a circus contortionist would envy. Here is a poem – “A Brief Guide to New York” -- with all the wit and humor which made Nash famous: "In New York beautiful girls can become more beautiful by going to Elizabeth Arden And getting stuff put on their faces and waiting for it to harden, And poor girls with nothing to their names but a letter or two can get rich and joyous From a brief trip to their loyous. So I can say with impunity That New York is a city of opportunity. It also has many fine theaters and hotels, And a lot of taxis, buses, subways and els, Best of all, if you don’t show up at the office or at a tea nobody will bother their head They will just think you are dead. That’s why I really think New York is Exquisite. And someday I’m going to pay a visit." Chiron, 12/7/12