Friday, October 28, 2011

Briefly Noted

Sometimes after I read a book I find that I just don't have much to say about. That's what happened to me with Bobbie Ann Mason's An Atomic Romance. So I'll just give you the bullet points.

What I Liked:
 - Main character Reed Futrell and his feisty mother
 - The Atomic half – Futrell works at a uranium enrichment plant, and Mason does a creditable job of laying out why an intelligent man might end up there.
- Mason's sense of humor, especially with her quirky, complex minor characters

What I Didn't Like:
- The pace is awfully slow
- The Romance half – Futrell's on again/off again relationship with microbiologist Julia Jensen seems added on just to create some tension

Friday, October 21, 2011

I Love Baseball

Yes, I do love baseball. So I'm sure I would have enjoyed Chad Harbach's first novel The Art of the Fielding anytime of year, but it is especially enjoyable to be reading it during the World Series. Last night I watched Texas Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus make a play that Harbach's hero Henry Skrimshander would surely have admired.

“The Art of the Fielding” is also the name of the dog-eared book that Henry studies and reveres. Written by a Hall of Fame shortstop named Aparicio Rodriguez, the books dispenses wisdom such as “The shortstop is a source of stillness in the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond”. And that pretty well defines Henry, a freakishly talented and graceful shortstop . His arrival on the baseball team at a small Wisconsin college called Westish propels the Harpooners, so named because Melville briefly visited the school on a book tour, from mediocrity to improbable success. Henry and his best friend, catcher and team captain Mike Schwartz, form a powerful alliance of hard work, loyalty and dedication to baseball, generously sprinkled with the literary references that Mike supplies for every occasion.

Harbach clearly loves baseball and I hope that even non-fans will appreciate his ability to describe the beauty and the grit of a baseball game.  But this book is not just the baseball equivalent of “Hoosiers”. He is tackling big topics – friendship, failure and redemption, first loves (both gay and straight), errors made both on and off the field. It's about coming of age, and there's a little Ahab in each of the characters as they deal with their own versions of the elusive white whale. 

PS Harbach was no doubt tipping his hat to Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio with the first name of his fictional author, and I guess the last name could be an homage to the many players with the last name of Rodriguez. But I prefer to believe he was thinking of hardworking catcher Pudge (much like Mike Schwartz) rather than pretty-boy A-Rod.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Back to the Woods

If you read Charles Frazier's best-selling novel “Cold Mountain”, the suspenseful odyssey of a Civil War deserter making his way home to the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, you may remember Frazier's talent for evoking the beauty and mystery of that landscape. He returns to that locale in his latest novel Nightwoods. Even the covers are similar, but this time the black silhouetted mountain scene has a red sky rather than a blue one. (Seems a little obvious, Random House).

This time the story is set in the early 1960's, but it takes a while to determine that, because the main character Luce is living virtually off the grid in an abandoned mountain lodge. Her self-imposed isolation is disrupted by the arrival of her niece and nephew, twin children of her sister Lily, who has been murdered by their stepfather Bud. The kids are clearly damaged goods – feral and unwilling to speak, fond of starting fires and killing roosters. And rotten-to-the-core Bud has found a smart lawyer and beaten the murder charge. Add to the mix Stubblefield, son of the deceased lodge owner, who has returned to examine his inheritance. (For some reason he is known only by his last name while all the other characters are called only by their first names). Seeing Luce rekindles in him a teenaged crush he had developed when he saw her at a poolside beauty contest, wearing sunglasses and eating a frozen Mars bar. And it's just that kind of detail that makes Frazier so enjoyable to read. He's a great storyteller, and always slips in just the right detail to make his characters come alive. Here's how he introduces Bud: “He had a criminal record by the time he was barely a teenager, caught shoplifting a coat pocket of yellow Sun 45s from a dime store”.

There's little Carson McCullers in this book (like her, Frazier has some characters not painted in shades of gray but clearly defined as good or evil), and some of Cormac McCarthy's malevolent intensity, but neither matches Frazier's ability to make you see, hear, smell, feel the woods of Appalachia. And the suspenseful last section of the book (other than the too tidy last chapter) kept me riveted.