Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Several months ago, a friend gave me an article in Vanity Fair about a debut author named Chad Harbach who had spent ten years writing a book that took as its starting point a college shortstop who makes one terrible throw, gives his teammate a concussion, and loses all confidence in his arm. Many rejections and revisions later, the book is a NYT bestseller. (A happy thing for all of us that Harbach didn't lose all confidence in his pen.) And it's not a baseball book. The novel is set in a small college in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin. (Wisconsin was my stomping ground for two winters ... as in stomping the snow off my boots for six months of the year; but I remember it fondly.) There are five characters whose lives are intertwined: Henry the phenom shortstop, his mentor Mike Schwarz, Henry's roommate Owen, the president of the college with whom Owen is having an affair, and the president's daughter who has fled her mistake of a first marriage. Fielding serves as a metaphor, but it's done with a light touch. Of the five, I think the most sympathetically drawn character is Mike Schwarz, the catcher for the team; he doesn't take good care of himself, but he catches people as they fall.
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
My pal Jody gave me this one, a compelling, well-written non-fiction about the Annawadi slum next to the slick and shiny Mumbai International Airport. Boo, a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist out of Washington D.C., spent three years following a group of people as they sift garbage, sell garbage, and have it stolen from them; are accused (falsely) of burning a neighbor and go to trial (where the stenographer doesn't understand most of what they're saying); run a school, survive a monsoon, and try to figure out who they need to pay off and who they don't (which I found completely bewildering). The title comes from a wall that divides the airport from the slum; it advertises Italianate floor tiles, with a corporate slogan running the length of the wall: Beautiful Forever Beautiful Forever. But the "divide" of Beautiful and Ugly isn't as rigid as the wall. Boo offers a nuanced picture, beyond the standard heart-rending one; she describes people who are entrepreneurial, wary, observant, aspiring, and capable, as well as corrupt and deceitful and desperate. The explanation of what happens to all the donations and efforts of well-intentioned human rights groups is pretty discouraging, however.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
It looks like a basketball book, which isn't my usual pick. But the story is really an underdog tale about a high school (St. Anthony's) in New Jersey that, with very few financial resources but one very determined coach named Bob Hurley, keeps kids out of gangs and churns out amazing basketball players year after year, including Hurley's own son. The chapters aren't really sequential--I found myself wanting to follow particular students of interest, but they sort of fade in and out, around stories about Cindy (Bob's wife) going into the hospital and other events. I also felt that the "pep talks" that Hurley gives are in a different language from my own. Or the excerpts are odd, as if they're taken out of context. Or maybe I just don't understand basketball pep talks. Like this one: "Freakin' Mosby. This is a character issue right now. Well, you better fuckin' grow up. Because if this continues in the North Jersey championship game, we lose." There's one point where Beanie (one of the players) says of Hurley, "He's really confusing." I felt sort of the same way, but I have to admire a coach who sticks with a penniless program, when he could have coached college for more money and prestige, and keeps these kids on track as well as he does.
BLOG should, in my case, stand for Belated Log. I've been reading and not posting ... and I've been reading books and not finishing them. I recently started Child 44, which is well-written; but it begins in 1939 starving Stalingrad and in the first chapter, a scrawny cat is being hunted as food by two children, who are then hunted as food. One dies, and the other is killed by, or near, a train. I flipped forward and things did not look up. I like to read before bed, and though I'm not a terrific wuss, I thought I couldn't hack this one. Then I tried a history of the fall of Berlin in 1945. Murder and several kinds of rape. I should've known, I guess. Again, I set that aside. Then I found Green's book, started, finished, loved it.
It's a well-written, touching and at times painfully raw YA about a girl who has cancer and the boy (in remission) whom she loves. The book has fun with an author named Peter Van Houton, who wrote a book called The Imperial Affliction about his own daughter's battle with cancer and then went off to Amsterdam to become a drunken recluse. This is how Peter takes his Scotch before breakfast: "We pour Scotch into a glass and then call to mind thoughts of water, and then we mix the actual Scotch with the abstracted idea of water." In describing The Imperial Affliction, Hazel (the narrator) says that it's not a cancer book; and this (Fault) isn't either. It skewers all kinds of beliefs about how cancer patients should be and turns Maslow's pyramidal hierarchy of needs on its side. Of the two main characters Augustus (aka Gus) is the more lively, the more obviously charming; he's like the John Cusack character in Say Anything, whereas Hazel is more the Ione Skye. But, as Gus says, Hazel treads lightly on the earth; and she has plenty of heart and wryness to make us love her. Spoiler alert: Be prepared to cry.