Tag Archives: literature

Summer, Books, and Baseball

Summer means extra time to read books, and to watch baseball. Sometimes the two come together in a magical confluence, combining the pleasures of the mind with the pleasure of sport. My baseball reading list isn’t long, regrettably, but these are the baseball themed books I love:

2967641. “The Thrill of the Grass” by W.P. Kinsella

“The Thrill of the Grass” by W.P. Kinsella has to be one of the most perfect short stories ever written. Combining insights about family, change, and baseball, the only problem with this gem is that it’s a short story and ends all too quickly. Kinsella is famous for his baseball themed literature, most of all for his 1981 novel Shoeless Joe, which will live forever as the basis for the classic movie Field of Dreams. I first heard “The Thrill of the Grass” on Selected Shorts, a NPR radio show that features actors reading short stories. Humorous moments, such as the narrator’s feelings of betrayal as his daughter chooses to watch the game from the “other”, third base, side with her boyfriend, rather than his customary first base side, are abundant. The ending leaves the reader smiling, and perhaps a bit teary.

167052. Summerland by Michael Chabon

Quite possibly the best quote I’ve ever read about baseball is from this book:

The fundamental truth: a baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day.

Michael Chabon, Summerland.

Summerland is a difficult book to describe. Eleven year old Ethan has been selected by the ferishers (fairy-like small people based on Native American mythology) to be their champion on their baseball team. The villain, Coyote, is trying to bring about Armageddon, and he’s kidnapped Ethan’s father, who is the inventor of the personal zeppelin. All this sounds odd and convoluted, but trust me, it’s enjoyable novel and many games of baseball are played.

109963423. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

What happens when you get what you wish for? Will you choke and be unable to handle it? Will you embrace your dream fully? And what if it wasn’t your dream, but someone else’s dream for you?

Henry Skrimshander is a college shortstop phenomenon, about to break the college record for innings without errors, when he lets loose a wild throw that sends his roommate and fellow teammate into the hospital. How Henry handles his vulnerability is at the heart of this novel, but the other characters face equally terrifying self revelations. The character of Mike Schwartz, Henry’s mentor and baseball team captain, is a compelling portrait of a college athlete with worn out knees, and a possible painkiller addiction.

Henry’s personal bible is a book called The Art of Fielding, written by a major league shortstop. I found this metafictional aspect of The Art of Fielding especially fascinating, since Summerland also uses this device. Summerland‘s fictional reference is called How to Catch Lightning and Smoke, a reference book for would-be catchers by E. Peavine, and is the “source” for my favorite quote above.

The zen-like wisdom from the fictional The Art of Fielding is both a guide and frustration to Henry. Mulling over some of the wisdom of the fictional The Art of Fielding, I stumbled upon this very well written blog piece: The buddhist-baseball-wisdom-of-aparicio-rodriguez. The author and I have a different approaches to The Art of Fielding – he comes to the novel through an enjoyment of sports themed literature, while I enjoy the literature and am surprised by the sports themes.

But I believe that this is the most basic truth about baseball novels: they are never really just about baseball.

As always, if you can recommend any other baseball themed books you have enjoyed, please let me know the title in the comments section. Thanks!

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Awkward Book Inscriptions #1

You’ve received one, admit it. An overly sentimental inscription written in a book of fairy tales from your Aunt Myrtle. A gruff inscription from your father. Or a giggly inscription from your sister with way too many exclamation points.

A book inscription sounds like a lovely idea, preserving a moment, creating a memory for the book giver and receiver. The reality turns out to be much different: awkward, stilted phrases found on secondhand books.

Recently, the local chapter of the AAUW held a huge book sale. It’s one of my favorite book related events in my hometown and a great opportunity to pick up some terrific books at even better prices. My parents enjoy this event, too, and picked out a book to give to my husband, who is a big fan of University of Delaware football. IMG_1431

So far so good. It’s a bit dated, but that’s ok. We open it up and discover this:

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To David: Hope the operation was a success! Best Wishes – Jaime Young

Poor David! What kind of operation is it where people give you books about football and hope it’s a success? I blush to think…

I am hoping to make this a regular feature of Biblio-filia – please feel free to send me photos of the awkward inscriptions you find!

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Plodding Through a Good Book: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

262065Why do some novels take you forever to read, and others you zip through in hours? What is it that calls to the reader, “Keep reading! Don’t put me down!” or “Do you really want to keep going with this one?”

My father-in-law used to say that he felt guilty about not finishing a book, particularly if a friend had recommended it. He also felt he had an obligation to the author to finish reading their work, even if he wasn’t really enjoying it, simply because they had worked so hard to write it. I’m not sure I feel so strongly about finishing a book if it’s a clunker of a novel, but how to approach a novel that is critically acclaimed but not singing to you?

Recently I worked very hard to finish The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, a novel that I had been looking forward to reading for a quite while. It had been recommended to me by several friends who have similar reading taste to mine, which is always a good sign. However, I found the first section of the novel tough going. I found myself appreciating the novel rather than getting sucked in and enjoying it, which is never a great sign. When I find myself self-consciously overanalyzing my reading rather than simply reading, I know something hasn’t clicked.

So what was it in The Fortress of Solitude? I think for starters, I felt physically lost. Lethem sets the first part of the novel in Brooklyn of the 1970s, and I felt physically lost. I have no idea what the neighborhood looked like, and my visualization felt inadequate. But honestly, that can’t be the whole reason. I’ve read plenty of novels where I have no personal familiarity of the location, such as Anna Karenina. I certainly have no learned understanding of the farms and cities of 19th century pre-Revolutionary Russia – but the novel captivated me anyway.

I also felt lost, culturally. I am a suburban kid, with only a passing acquaintance with American city life. And the racial struggles of the 1970s are a piece of history that I read about, but never really confronted in the way that Dylan and Mingus, the main characters, do. The escalation of the drug culture through the novel, progressing from the pot smoking of the 70s to the crack addiction of the 1990s is another slice of American life that I have not experienced. But again, elements of cultural differences did not slow my reading of other books like The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, or Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan.

Perhaps I was misled by the jacket blurb, which says:

This is the story of what would happen if two teenaged boys obsessed with comic-book heroes actually had superpowers: they would screw up their lives.

I think Dylan and Mingus were well on their way to screwing up their lives before the superpowers ever make an appearance in the novel. The superpowers are incidental, and not the big game changer that I thought they would be.

I also found myself distracted by all the music references. I lost many hours of reading time searching for recordings online. This gem of a song plays a strong role in a  scene, which I found on YouTube: 

When the novel ceases to be about their childhood, and explores the effect of their childhood on their adult lives, that’s when my reading speed increased. And more interesting than the teenage approach to the superpowers is Dylan and Mingus’ adult approach.Lethem writes of the evolution of Dylan and Mingus’ superpowers, and it’s brilliant. Mingus puts away the ring that gives him the power to fly. He’s flying everyday, smoking crack, flying from high to high, from score to score. When Dylan uses the ring again, it does not give him the power to fly. Instead, he is invisible, an outward manifestation of his desire as a white kid to walk down the street without being hassled or “yoked.”

So while I plodded through The Fortress of Solitude – it took me a month to finish!- I am glad I did. The difficulty I had with the first section of the novel was secondary to the pleasure of the insights in the rest of the novel.

Please let me know your thoughts! What keeps you going in a novel if it seems to be going slowly? Do you keep reading, or set it aside?

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