When is a book about baseball not a baseball book?
When the book is Jonathan Schuppe's brilliantly realized A Chance to Win. What began as a feature article about a Little League team by a crime reporter turned into a tale of the long struggle to rebuild Newark, NJ. It's a story about the permanent underclass build by draconian drug laws, failed schools, and shattered families. It's a story about the shadow economy created by the shortfalls of the welfare state. Most of all, it's a story about how everyone involved in the generational tragedy that is Newark wants something better, but bereft of viable options, struggle to find a new path.
Rodney Mason is an ex-con, a part-time drug dealer, a onetime standout baseball player rendered paraplegic by a drive-by shooting, and coach of the South Ward Little League's Elizabeth Avenue Eagles.
Schuppe masterfully draws together the Eagles' story, as a Little League team and after. As he establishes a personal connection with Mason, the kids and their families, I couldn't help feeling just as drawn into the experience as he surely was. The families' success are encouraging, their errors are deflating, and their struggle to stay focused on the future in the midst of a world where life is cheap is inspiring.
This is not the kind of feel-good book that will be made into a movie. The kids are poor. Only a couple have ever played baseball before; they come to their games without equipment and uniforms, and they come lugging all the baggage of poverty. But it's a book about the underdog's hope. It's a great read for spring.
A Chance to Win doesn't come out for sale until May 7th, but you need to put your order in today. It's the best piece of non-fiction you'll read this season....more
When the folks at Book Riot sent me a copy of their new e-book Start Here: Read Your Way Into 25 Amazing Authors, I was super excited. Long form blogging (packaged as an ebook) is right up my alley, and I love the this author vs. that author, this novel vs. that novel parlor game.
This is not a book to be picked up and read. It's really an invitation to an old argument. How much of an author's work do we need to read before we can declare love and hate, before we can rank authors. Start Here tries to establish a gateway, the way I was told to read Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before considering Ulysses.
I read the first couple chapters in order, then started jumping around. One day I'd read a chapter on someone I already know; the next day I'd read about an author I'm not familiar with. The essays are short and accessible.
Give the Book Riot folks credit- I've not read a word of 12 of their 25 authors. They're mostly authors whose names I know: E.M Forster and Philip K. Dick and Cormac McCarthy and Zadie Smith, and so on. I've got some of their books in my house, but for one reason or another, I haven't gotten to it yet.
And Start Here lived up to my expectations: some chapters are better than others, as is to be expected when you pull together 25 writers to write about 25 different authors. My favorite chapters are the most clinical; the chapter on Margaret Atwood actually did lead me to Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, and the chapter on Italo Calvino makes me want to try again with If on a winter's night a traveller. Some of the chapters had a little too much fanboy/girl glee in them, but for the most part the reviewers were even-handed in their assessments (I'm thinking especially about the chapters on Hemingway, Miller, Dickens and Bradbury).
Of course, reading a book like this only makes you want to continue the argument. Why Hemingway but not Steinbeck (whom I consider to be a writer of greater depth and breadth)? Where's Vonnegut and Roth? Why is Neil Gaiman the only graphic novelist; where's Otomo and Moore and Miller and Morrison? Aren't we all sick of Dickens and Austen on every must read list; why not George Eliot instead?...more
On the same road trip when I listened to The Year of the Flood, I also listened to Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.
Maybe it was too much dystopia, or maybe I just spent too much time in the car (hello Pittsburgh!), but Oryx and Crake wasn't as riveting.
A lot of my enjoyment of a book comes from the narrator. Even if I didn't always love both narrators of Year of the Flood, they were distinct, and the point of view shifted often enough to keep one voice from going stale. In Oryx and Crake, we have only the voice of Snowman, gone mad with loneliness and grief.
Having read Year of the Flood first, the fact that Snowman is the only narrator also tips the author's hand that there will be no other people in this book. Much more than Robinson Crusoe or The Shining, Oryx and Crake is about what it's like to be the last man on Earth.
Oryx and Crake also suffered from the prequel problem (since I listened to the two books out of order): there were plenty of mysteries in the first book, and they don't all have to be explained away. Trying to understand without knowing is a part of life, and it's a part of the best fiction. Many of the scenes in Oryx and Crake I would have been most willing to cut involved the development of the technology that was taken for granted in Year of the Flood like ChickieNobs and pigoons.
Much like knowing the ending to a mystery novel, knowing a piece of the ending sapped some of the joy from Oryx and Crake. I'm not sure what I was hoping for, but I'm sure I didn't get it....more
On a recent road trip, I brought along Margaret Atwood's stupendous The Year of the Flood unabridged audiobook. It was good- five star, top shelf, rave to your friends until they're sick of hearing about it good.
The Year of the Flood is about the end of the world. While the book's structure is divided between the time before and the time just after a pandemic that pushes the human race to the brink of extinction (the "waterless flood" the novel's religious zealots warn about), human life was over long before the disease's outbreak.
Atwood writes about people trying to build a life in the ruins of civilization. As power and wealth concentrates to the elite few, how do the rest of us forge a life? Can you get a decent job, find a decent place to live, raise a family? Through the eyes of two survivors, Toby and Ren, Atwood shows us a world in which the corrupting power of oligarchy's decadence and self-service rips civilization apart.
Dystopic fiction is by its nature less escapist than most sci-fi and fantasy. But when it's done poorly, it drifts into sentimentality or (worse) nihilism. Atwood walks a fine line with her sinister, all-powerful CorpSeCorps. As in The Lord of the Rings, the bad guys are unstoppable, and the good guys are too fractured and divided to win without a lot of good fortune.
The God's Gardeners, the religious zealots who shelter and adopt Toby and Ren at different points in their lives, are working to build a second Eden without attracting too much attention from the CorpSeCorps' goons. The group's theology is barely coherent, featuring "saints" like Rachel Carson of Birds and Jesus of Nazereth the Fish Conservationist, and indulging in debates over what level of genetic modification and invention qualifies a creature as "real." But, the Gardeners save Toby from an abusive situation that was rapidly deteriorating.
Against the comedy of the heroes rests an avalanche of very real horrors. Both Toby and Ren are sexually abused. Both women trade sex for food, safety and survival. Both women find that their lives before the Flood are not as safe as they would have liked to believe.
At its heart, The Year of the Flood is about the human capacity to dream, the ability to imagine that this must be the worst it can get and that things will turn around soon. I think that this hopefulness is why Atwood infuses so much humor into the Gardeners- because she believes that the human ability to laugh at ourselves, to enjoy ourselves no matter what the circumstances must be as strong (if not stronger) than our tendancy towards self-destruction. As Ren observes towards the end of the novel, “The Adams and the Eves used to say, 'We are what we eat,' but I prefer to say, we are what we wish. Because if you can't wish, why bother?”...more
Before I dig into In Search of Lost Time as the central pillar of my 30 Before 30, I checked a few books out of the local library to help me get started.
The most disappointing was Samuel Beckett's Proust.
I think my disappointment stems from my sincere enjoyment of Beckett's fiction, plays and poetry. I expected insight and connections from a writer of such cerebral work. Instead, most of Proust was just the kind of psuedo-psychological garble that reads like a parody of Foucault.
It's a slim novel and I was only able to wade through two-thirds of it. Beckett's thoughts weren't organized in a way that I could follow. Having not read Proust's work yet, I can hope that once I begin some doors will open, but despite my excitement at reading one master's views on another, this was the wrong book to start with....more
Art Spiegelman's Maus was one of the most difficult graphic novels I've ever read.
Not difficult because of the subject material- though it's hard to think of a book about the Holocaust as light reading.
Maus is hard to read because it's literarily hard to read. The colorless frames have very little gray; what might seem to be gray at first glance is in fact minutely cross-hatched black and white. This leaves the eye (or, at least, my eye) very little time to rest.
As a story about storytelling, hardly a frame goes by without a word in it, and in most frames, the words overlow. The dialogue bubbles interfere with the images; there's just not enough room for the words and images to co-exist. If that's not trouble enough, Spiegelman's hand printed writing slants and tumbles just enough to make it impossible to scan. Every page is a labor (and maybe it's supposed to be that way).
While the anthropomorphized animals might give a reader the emotional distance to deal with the tragedy (and while Jews-as-mice, Nazis-as-cats motif might help a grade school student keep track of good guys and bad guys), the truth is that none of the main characters are drawn distinctly enough to help me keep track of who's talking to whom across the disjointed and often interrupted narrative. Spiegelman's play on traditional expectations of animals in comics was subversive at the time (compare these Holocaust surviving mice to Donald Duck, Mighty Mouse and Garfield), the artifice doesn't hold up. Comics have come a long way in being appreciated as an artform since Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
Am I harder on Maus than on so many other graphic novels because of how highly recognized and praised it is? Yeah, probably.
I mean, Maus has everything I love in a novel.
Start with the framing tale, the son talking to his father, and his father's story relayed across a barrier of language and years. It's so Heart of Darkness that I could just about squeal with joy (would that make me one of the Polish pigs?).
There are questions built into the narrative about the power of memory to contaminate life, the power we allow our families to have in shaping our adult lives, the difficultly of finding a space of our own as children that still shows sufficient respect for the sacrifices our parents made to bring us this far. Plus, as a graphic novel without anyone wearing spandex, Maus meets one of my personal criteria for graphic novel greatness.
But while Maus partnered with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in the late '80s to bring comics for adults into the mainstream, the other two book are just so phenomenally more readable, that I have a hard time imaging I'll ever pick Maus up again....more
I suppose that if you love, love, love DragonLance, and if you love, love, love the Chronicles series, and if you've read every single book in the serI suppose that if you love, love, love DragonLance, and if you love, love, love the Chronicles series, and if you've read every single book in the series, then yes, you might as well read this one, too. That's why I picked it up. Unfortunately, the willpower required to finish the book makes it unworthy of even a "beach reading" rating....more
Among the many things I loved about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, my favorite is the narrator. I have a soft spot for narrators who are characAmong the many things I loved about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, my favorite is the narrator. I have a soft spot for narrators who are characters (in both literature and drama); I am enchanted by the power to step out of the narrative to comment, to reflect, to frame, to misdirect. The best narrators do all those things at once.
That is what captivates me about Brief Wondrous' narrator, Yunior. He positions himself as the machismo ideal, the athlete, the womanizer, the champion of the world; yet, he reveals himself by degrees to be deeply steeped in the nerd culture that he contemptuously tries to pull Oscar out of. Either Yunior is not the man he claims to be, or else his "sham" friendship with Oscar (he claims to have faked it all) was layered with a complexity that Yunior may not fully understand.
Yunior's voice is unique, as his perspective. Most of the great narrator characters tell their own story. It's a tried and true device to allow the audience into the mind of the protagonist: Holden Caulfield, Nathan Zuckerman, Humbert Humbert, and Huckleberry Finn all live at the center of their own storms. Yunior belongs to a much smaller class of narrators who relay to us what happened to someone else. The two closest comparisons (and ones I do not make lightly) are both anonymous: the narrator of Slaughterhouse Five (who tells us the story of Billy Pilgrim) and the narrator of Heart of Darkness (who tells us the story Marlow ostensibly told to him).
In all, Brief Wonderous is a fantastic read (or if you're an audiobook lover like me, a fantastic listen). If it's spend the last couple of years in the midst of your to-read list, it's time to put it at the top of the stack....more