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May 9, 2021

Book Review: The Natural

The Natural, by Bernard Malamud

    In the long, long ago, an old college friend handed me a copy of this book, telling me I should read it because it is the best baseball book ever written.

    I put the book aside, somehow ignoring it for the next four decades. But earlier this year, while meandering around a used-book store, I landed across the book. Not knowing where my original copy was, I decided to pick it up and actually read it this time.

    It was good.

    But the best baseball book ever written? I think not. I'd have to list at least five or six novels by W.P. Kinsella ahead of it. And perhaps a few others. 

    Maybe time has caught up with The Natural. It was, after all, published in 1952. It was made into a movie, with a then-middle-aged Robert Redford in the lead role, way back in 1984 -- long after an even younger Redford helped break the Watergate scandal.

Malamud is considered one of the greatest Jewish authors
of the 20th Century. Later in his writing career, he won a
Pulitzer Prize for The Fixer, his novel about anti-semitism in
the Russian Empire. The Natural is the first novel he published.

      The Natural begins with a young rube by the name of Roy Hobbs headed on a train to Chicago for a tryout with the Cubs. Something happens, and Hobbs' career stalls. Some 16 years later, Hobbs is signed as the new left fielder for the down-and-out New York Knights. Hobbs brings along his special bat, which he has named Wonderboy. He refuses to hit with anything else.

    It's unclear whether the bat has magical powers, or Hobbs just thinks it does. And while fueding with his veteran, old-school manager, Pop Fisher, Hobbs beomes the star of the team and starts leading the sad-sack Knights toward the pennant. As Hobbs gains fame and fortune, a cloud begins to surround him, and a deep, dark secret in his past is hinted.

    Each chapter of the book reads like a short story, self-contained but presenting a snippet of the whole. It's well written, and the baseball stories and tales in the dugout and clubhouse seem realistic for the era. But it sometimes falls into common baseball tropes -- the aging manager who's seen it all, the obnoxious superstar, the long-suffering fans. I also question some of the math -- in one sequence, a team is four games behind another in the pennant race, wins a four-game series, but then is just one game behind.

    But it's the magical sequences that are most problematic. Are they dreams? Mystical happenings? Or simply extended metaphors? 

    I don't know. And I am afraid the book's failure to properly deal with those is its major flaw.

May 4, 2021

Book Review: Witch's Heart

 The Witch's Heart, by Genevieve Gornichec

    Gornichec could do for Norse gods what Madeline Miller and Margaret Atwood did for Greek mythology: Rethink and rewrite them, making them accessible for a new group of readers.
    If you're like me, what you know about Norse mythology begins and ends with Thor and his hammer. If that's the case, this well-writen and enjoyable novel is an excellent primer into the ancient worlds. An attached appendix, which you will refer to often, is an essential addition.

    Most of the charcters here are from the Norse mythology. Gornichec takes their stories, re-imagines them, and tells new tales.

    But even here, gods are needy, violent, and vindictive. The witch is a counterpoint to them, although she has her issues -- which start with her being burned three times, having her heart cut out, but remembering little of who she is.

    So she -- known as Gullveig or Angrboda -- winds up retreating to a cave in Ironwood, a forest in eastern Jotunheim. There she lives her next life -- or, perhaps, a continuation of her previous lives -- as the gods seek to use her talents for their own benefits. This is all laid out in the opening of the book, giving you the background on the characters, their motivations, and their relationships. Pay attention here. It will be worth it.

    Loki, a "blood-brother" of Odin -- he's the top guy -- meets Angrboda and returns her heart. Literally. He hangs around. They have kids -- interesting kids, I might add -- and adventures, together and separately. But this is largely Angrboda's story, told from her perspective, and her loves and interests are the key to the tale.

    Many of the people and events are from the Norse mythlogy, which like its counterparts in the ancient world, have contradictions, discrepancies, and variations. This is another one.

    The Witch's Heart is about love and longing, about deeds and desries, about protection and rejection. It a great tale, finely written. Whether Gornichec stays on this path as a writer and novelist is up to her. But I am eager to see more.

April 17, 2021

Book Review: Shade

 Shade, by Neil Jordan

    A ghost who sticks around to relive and review her life is the focus of this novel that reads like a movie script.

    Not that it is lines of dialogue. But the writing -- the descriptions, the settings and shifting of scenes, the lengthy thoughts and soliloques -- shows Jordan's background as a playwright and screen-writer.

    As you get into the book, you can almost see the images on a screen.  It's a commendable style, but its takes a while to get used to. 

    Jordan shifts the narration from character to character, sometimes jumping around in time, other times telling simultaneous stories from different perspectives. The chracters may be in different places at different times in their lives, with the alternate stories overlapping.

    As a movie or play, one might follow along without fail. But as a novel, it can be confusing because when a new story begins or returns, it's difficult to tell who is speaking and whose tale is being told. An unseen narrator simply begins.

    When we first meet Nina Hardy, she had just been killed by a childhood friend, who cut off her head with a pair of graden shears and dumped her body in a cistern. (None of this is a spoiler; it's all told in the opening pages.) She exists as a spirit, able to return to various points in her life and witness the days she lived, and able watch her friends and family in a new light.

    We see her loving father and uphappy mother. We meet her small group of friends -- the half-brother she first met as a young teenager, the strange but sensitive boy who wound up killing her, and that youth's small and relatively inconsequential sister.

    Nina's early years are set in rural County Louth, along the River Boyne, in an Ireland torn between Catholic and Protestant, with the desire for independence amidst loyalty to the king. It continues through World War I and beyond.

    Their stories jump around in time and space in the early going, and while the tales continue to meander at times, they eventually join to form a cohesive narrative. It's a about loss, and love, and family. It's about war and peace. It's about independence and loyalty. 

    It's about friendships, and saving lives, and avenging death.   

March 28, 2021

Book Review: Clay's Quilt

Clay's Quilt, by Silas House 

    If you want to know Kentucky, you have to live Kentucky.

    But for those born and live outside the commonwealth, know that it has spawned an extraordinary group of native writers. One of these is Silas House, born in Corbin, the heart of Laurel County, and reared in nearby Lily, a town of some 3,000 people. House was schooled at Eastern Kentucky University, and Lousiville's Spalding University. He currently teaches at Berea College.

    So he has a taste for the soul of the state, an ear for its finely turned music and  language, and an eye for the dignity and exuberance of its people.

    That talent is on firm display in Clay's Quilt, the first of three books that showcases the coal country and mountains of Southeastern Kentucky. The trilogy is not a series, although it is related in charcters and story lines.

    In House's debut novel, Clay Sizemore is a good-ol'-boy but a righteous one. He has a job in the coal mines, a hankering for country music, and a rowdy best friend. But he's a youth adrift and uncertain about his future. He yearns to know more about his mother, who died when he was a toddler. But his loyalty to his family, and his sense of place, gives him something to grasp and aspire to. But he struggles to find more.

    The writing in this tale is superb. You can hear the Eastern Kentucky accents in the voices and the setting. House is a master of storytelling, and the book reveals its secrets in every chapter.

    The setting explores the creeks and hollers of the mountains, and the breadth of Eastern Kentucky culture. It's all there: the diverse and beautiful music, the sometimes smothering nature of its religiosity, its joys of home and community, its random, often brutal violence.

    House tells it all without fear or favor. It's his culture, so he knows its strengths and lives with its scars.

    It's a portrait that only an honest and loving native son can paint.

March 21, 2021

Book Review: Later

Later, by Stephen King

    You read Stephen King for the writing, of course. His is elegantly simple, using a working clsss language of good, useful words and descriptive phrases. It's not a style in which you pause and savor every word, but it gets the job done.

    And you read King's books for the stories, and the plots. Sure, sometimes he repeats anecdotes or plays with different perspectives of the tale, but it's always a story where he pulls you along and has you eager to get to the end. 

    King is typecast as a horror writer, but that has rarely been true. And now that he's often switching genres -- he's really gotten into detective and mystery tales recently -- it's even less true. He is, as one critic wrote, just a guy who puts ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances -- usually with a twist of the supernatural, or tearing a hole in reality to show another dimension.

    But mostly, you read King for the characters. One never tires of, or forgets, King's characters. Sometimes, they come back.

    I won't deny he uses tropes -- the magical Negro, the disabled hild with mental superpowers. But he has has a cast of characters that often look like Ameica -- and he is getting better at that. He shows strong people who are good, and evil people who are bad. Mostly, thought, you can identify with his characters because you know them. They are based on regular people, with their thoughts and fears and biases

    And sometimes those ordinary people have a mystical or supernatural power. It's a King thing, OK?

    Which gets us to Later. It's about a boy who sees -- and can hear and talk to -- dead people. We first meet Jamie Conklin as a young child, but it is his older self telling the story. He introduces us to his mother, Tia Conklin -- a white woman of privilege and single mother who had fallen on hard times. We also meet her lover, Elizabeth "Liz" Dutton, a police officer with questionable ethics.

    This being King, we can probably tell what is going to happen -- someone will want to exploit Jamie's abilities. But that's something King can tell us, better than I could, and better than most writers.

    It's a short book for King, clocking in at less than 250 pages. 

    So pick it up and enjoy. You know you will.