Sue Hinkin, “Low Country Blood”

Low Country Blood has energy to burn. It’s a mystery with a modern thriller mentality set in and around the not-so-sleepy city and port of Savannah. Sue Hinkin’s lively writing illuminates a rich cast of characters. She slips into the head of her antagonists with ease and populates this rich tale with a wide variety of memorable characters.

The main focus is Beatrice Middleton. She’s a Los Angeles TV reporter.  Well, was. Chasing a possible job offer in Atlanta, she makes a visit home to Savannah amid horrible news—the murder of her teenage nephew.

Soon, Bea’s son Dexter arrives in Savannah—Bea’s current and past relationships are varied, but easy to follow—without Bea’s direct approval. Dexter is a budding documentary filmmaker. His father is a “newly retired Los Angeles Lakers point guard with a good heart, bad knees, and an emotional maturity level just south of junior high.” Dexter starts a bit of amateur sleuthing—and vanishes.

To complicate (er, enrich) matters, Bea’s brother Luther is a rural county sheriff and the “blood” of Low Country Blood is not only the sniper-like killing of budding violinist Jayden Middleton, it’s the secrets and entanglements of family blood, too, and how those secrets have shaped Bea herself. Bea’s search for the killer is also a search for firm footing with work and family. Bea knows herself well at times, wishes she knew herself better at others.

Hinkin’s writing shifts from first-person Beatrice to third-person for other points of view with a round-robin flavor that keeps the story moving. Hinkin refuses to let the action sag. The observations are wry and colorful, original and clever.

“Our little jet came into Savannah Hilton Head International Airport fifteen minutes early. We had one heck of a tailwind and enough turbulence to loosen my teeth.”

“His smile was feline. The hairs on my neck rose. I could envision the caterpillar in Alice of Wonderland saying ‘Whoooo…are…you?’ while puffing God-knows-what-kind of smoke from his hookah.”

“Azalea bushes appeared crushed and spiritless, like ex-cons heading for their next incarceration.”

Hinkin, who lived in Savannah for five years, weaves in a healthy dose of traditional Southern atmosphere lifestyle along with ample views of Savannah’s scenery. But she writes just as easily of international trade and the giant shipping port. Low Country Blood serves up several nasty antagonists, muscular chase sequences, and an emotionally satisfying final showdown that allows Beatrice to close a very big loop stemming from her own suppressed teenage trauma.

Low Country Blood, published by small but mighty Literary Wanderlust in Colorado, measures up with mainstream mysteries from major publishing houses. The story immerses in a taut yarn and takes us to a land that is “malleable and shifty as quicksand.”

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Rob Neyer, “Power Ball”

One single game as prism for understanding today’s game of baseball, Power Ball is fascinating. It’s an ordinary regular-season game—September 8, 2017. Oakland A’s versus the Houston Astros.

Rob Neyer uses each half-inning of action to riff on a facet of the game. Written in a colorful, snazzy style—including a plethora of a footnotes; David Foster Wallace would approve—there is plenty of analytics here for the baseball geeks and ample good storytelling for less intense baseball fans.

“In many ways, this was a meaningless game,” writes Neyer in the prologue. “if you remember who won the World Series seven weeks later, you might think this was an important game on the way to that vicREtory. It was not.” The game is simply a window.

Neyer tasks himself with blending and updating George Will’s Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, and Dan Okrent’s 1985 offering, Nine Innings.

“Will’s primary interest was in how the players did their work. Lewis’s on how management did their work, and Okrent seems to have been interested in everything. I’ll cop to all of the above, while leaning toward management and taking a great deal of interest in those managing the managers: the people who run Major League Baseball, and the people who run the union.”

Each half inning is a touchstone for a topic.  Usually, it’s a smorgasbord of topics. One thing leads to the next. Yes, there is a thread to the story of the game. Neyer picked a good one. The construct is a bit artificial, but who cares? Neyer clearly loves the game and loves thinking about it even more, the changes in starting pitchers to the use of the C-flap helmets (to protect the face), from the strange fact that there are no “out” gay major league ballplayers (only one ump), to the disappearing ranks of U.S.-born black baseball players. And on and on. Neyer injects ample opinion. He isn’t afraid to scold MLB for how poorly it supports youth baseball or weigh in on the various strategies being deployed to speed up the game.

Neyer goes micro and macro—even pondering the evolution of stadium styles and questionable locations in many coastal cities, where sea levels are rising.

The game has changed. The game is still changing. Neyer peels back the layers, takes us the behind the scenes, and occasionally just sits back and asks a question about the culture in the clubhouse, the future of umpiring (robots are on the way), or some simple question about why pitchers don’t wear protective helmets (comfortable pitching headgear exists).

Baseball has problems. Neyer points to all the reasons why change is hard, with billionaire owners and millionaire players more concerned about their welfares and futures, all at the expense of fans. Some teams are bent on mediocrity and go ahead and plan on losing 100 games because they can’t win ninety.

Neyer’s book certainly won’t convert non-believers into rabid baseball fans, but any baseball fan who reads Power Ball will watch the next game with a keener eye, a deeper sense of what’s going on down on the field, how the game got to this particular point in its history, and where it might be going. Like a pitcher with many options, Neyer throws great stuff.

Agnete Friis, “The Summer of Ellen”

My review of The Summer of Ellen by Agnete Friis for the New York Journal of Books.

 

 

Q & A #75 – Mark Obmascik, “The Storm on Our Shores”

Full disclosure: I worked alongside Mark Obmascik at The Denver Post as a reporter years ago and he’s been a friend for a long time. He’s an award-winning (Pulitzer & more) journalist with two books under his belt–The Big Year, abut competitive bird watching, and Halfway to Heaven, about his ascent of the 54 mountains in Colorado that top 14,000 feet.

Halfway to Heaven was the winner of the National Outdoor Book Award for Outdoor Literature.

Doing the research for The Big Year (later given the Hollywood treatment starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson), Obmascik found the seeds for The Storm on Our Shores, one of the most gripping and simultaneously moving war books you might ever read.

It’s a book about one American soldier, Dick Laird, and one Japanese soldier, Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi. It’s also about a forgotten and costly battle, the only one during World War II to be fought on American soil.

A full review follows.

First Mark, who had already been grilled by 60 Minutes, subjected himself to a few emailed questions, which begin with a question about the American, Dick Laird.

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Question: Having studied Dick Laird so carefully, do you think there was something in his character that made his post-war search unusual? Or do you think many or most Americans would have been haunted the same way?

Mark Obmascik: I think Dick Laird had pangs for killing a man who, like him, had lived in and loved America, and who clearly was devoted to his wife, daughters, and faith. Also, Laird loved school, but he was forced to drop out at age 14 to support his family as an underground coal miner in Appalachia. By contrast, in war Laird had killed a man who had achieved the pinnacle of academic success as an accomplished surgeon.

Question: How did one Japanese soldier’s diary “go viral,” so to speak, long before the internet? What was the essence of that diary that made is so compelling and how do you think it became such a thing?

Mark Obmascik: The diary of the Japanese surgeon was not at all what US troops had expected. All the pre-battle training had been that the Japanese were ruthless, heartless killing machines.  Yet here was a journal showing that Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi loved his wife and missed his daughters, and that he didn’t want to be in Alaska any more than the Americans. In war, it’s easy to kill an enemy, but it’s much harder to kill a man. US commanders were concerned about the emotional power of the diary, and ordered all copies to be confiscated. But ground troops were so taken with it that they passed it between themselves with handwritten notes and mimeographed copies. I ended up finding 10 different translated versions of the one original diary.

Question: So when you were researching The Big Year, when did you come across the World War II history on Attu and what was the process in finding this particular story about the diary and everything else? At what point did you think you had the seed of a book?

Mark Obmascik: My first book was about competitive birding. Key parts of it took place on Attu Island, the westernmost point of the Aleutian chain of Alaska. While researching the history of Attu for the birding book, I learned that the Japanese had invaded and conquered that part of Alaska during World War II, and that it was the first US soil lost since the War of 1812, and that it was the only land battle of World War II fought in North America, and that the Battle of Attu had a casualty rate exceeded in the Pacific War only at Iwo Jima. Almost every account of the Battle of Attu mentions the diary of the Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi, the American-trained Japanese surgeon. It took me a long time to track down Tatsuguchi’s surviving family. When I did, I learned that the Tatsuguchi children had reconciled with the American war hero who had killed their father.

For a writer, the themes here were terrific. What is the duty of a father to his family, his country, and his religious faith? To what lengths will a man go to ease his conscience? What can or should a younger generation do to settle the disputes of parents?  Could you grant peace and forgiveness to the man who killed your father? The Lairds and the Tatsuguchis were ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Yet these families who were enemies in war set an inspiring example of how to reconcile in peace.

Question: The letter from Laura Tatsuguchi Davis—when did you first read it? Come across it? What did you think when you read it?

Mark Obmascik: Laura gave me a copy of that letter when I visited her at home in Los Angeles. After publication of my book, a producer asked me to read the letter aloud for a radio interview, but I couldn’t do it. I knew too much about the pain and suffering and heart and atonement that went into it. Laura Tatsuguchi Davis is an intensive care nurse, not a professional writer, but her letter to the man who killed her father is remarkable and powerful. It chokes me up every time I read it.

Question: Was it even harder to fathom the military strategy of taking Attu, or fighting to take it back, once you had been there?

Mark Obmascik: Yes. Attu is one of the most remote and unforgiving places on Earth. More than 90 percent of the shoreline is cliffs. The interior is filled with ice-encrusted volcanic mountains that rise 3,000 feet. Only eight days a year are free of snow, rain, sleet, or fog. The closest current civilian population is about 500 miles away at Adak Island. When our small chartered propeller plane took off from Adak, the weather was so unpredictable that we had no idea whether we’d be able to land on Attu. We were really lucky to have the fog lift to 1,000 feet just as our plane approached the island. It was very difficult to get a pilot, two 60 Minutes crew members, and me on Attu during peacetime. It’s hard to imagine moving thousands of men onto Attu while being bombarded by an enemy army.

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Mark Obmascik’s website

60 Minutes story.

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REVIEW:

Before he died, the journey of Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi was already unusual. And epic. Raised in Hiroshima as a Christian, he fell in love with the United States, proposed to his Japanese girlfriend in Yosemite National Park, included Niagara Falls on his honeymoon itinerary, and earned his medical degree at Loma Linda University in California. His favorite Bible passage was from Deuteronomy, “choose life.”

After he died, during a banzai attack as a surgeon alongside Japanese troops defending a useless hill on the far western tip of the Aleutian islands, in a vastly overlooked moment of World War II history, the journey and legend of Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi became no less impressive.

That’s because Tatsuguchi kept a diary that went viral in the way that things went viral in the 1940’s—via paper copies getting passed around.  The translated diary was a hit among U.S. soldiers who fought on Attu and, once ships carried the copies to the mainland, among a wider military audience and a hungry media, too. In death, “Tatsy” was instantly famous.

The nuts and bolts of Tatsuguchi’s cross-cultural, circuitous, and remarkable life are readily available on an extensive Wikipedia page, along with some key excerpts from the diary itself.

The rough outline is powerful. In The Storm on Our Shores, Mark Obmascik makes it a two-man story, contrasting Tatsuguchi’s life with Ohio coal miner Dick Laird, who killed Tatsuguchi and seven other Japanese as the brief but horrific Battle of Attu entered its final phase. Laird, who dropped out of school at age 14 and who killed a man who pursued education through medical school, would be haunted for decades by the moment and everything he’d done.

Tatsuguchi’s story has been told. The Storm on Our Shores contrasts Tatsuguchi and Laird in riveting detail. The contrasts couldn’t have been more striking, with Laird belonging to a family in which the parents “seemed to look for any excuse to deliver a whupping.” The family was so poor that a wounded mule might be become stew. The family moved ten times through the Appalachian coal mines before Dick Laird was six years old. His father drank and gambled to oblivion. Dick Laird loved school, but he was forced to quit to help work in the mine to help the family coffers.

The human portrait is powerful and beautifully sets up Laird’s earnest search for closure and humanity. After the war, Laird sought redemption by reaching out to Tatsuguchi’s family and, well, you need to read the book. Synopses, for the emotional part of this saga, won’t do it justice. Among its many strengths, The Storm on Shores is impeccably timed for maximum emotional punch.

Start to finish, the Battle of Attu was baffling. Attu is about as remote as remote gets. The Japanese took it with about 2,000 troops, hoping to distract the United States into defending its home soil (1,500 miles west of Anchorage). The island was lightly inhabited and easily taken by the Japanese.

The United States waited a few weeks and then sent 15,000 soldiers to take it back—only to see soldiers and sailors die trying to land and fighting the elusive Japanese, who used the foggy mountains to their strategic advantage. Planning, execution, communication, coordination—the assault on Attu took military ineptitude to a new level. Five hundred and forty-nine U.S. soldiers lost their lives fighting on Attu. More than a 1,000 were wounded.

Obmascik goes back centuries for history of Japanese religion, its isolation, earlier wars, and the all-important “true Holy Writ of Japan” that demanded “essential loyalty” to the emperor over wife, children, everything. The code taught that Japanese soldiers that death is “noble and purifying” and as “light as a feather.”

And here is where it gets so hard to imagine that a devout Seventh Day Adventist like Tatsuguchi (again, “choose life”) would agree to serve alongside his fellow Japanese soldiers and commit to the banzai attack. “Only thirty-three years of living and I am to die here,” he wrote. “I have no regrets. Banzai to the Emperor. I am grateful that I have kept the peace of my soul which Christ bestowed upon me…”

The Storm on Our Shores is, quite frankly, almost impossible to believe. Almost. We all know truth is stranger than fiction. This story is proof of that. Don’t ponder the odds of some of the coincidences that emerge from the fog (and muck and misery) of this story. You are better off letting the surprises happen mid-story.

Obmascik’s meticulous research and straightforward narrative style make this non-fiction account a gripping page-turner with genuine heartache. Could you grant forgiveness to the man who killed your father? Would you? And, if so, why?

A godforsaken location, an under-reported battle of World War II, and two remarkable characters—one whose life was cut short and one who survived but was never the same. The Storm on Our Shores is a trip you won’t forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane Leavy, “Sandy Koufax – A Lefty’s Legacy”

Where to begin with Sandy Koufax? Which mark is bigger, the one he left in terms of wins and losses, strikeouts, clutch games and no-hitters? Or the one he left as a person, an individual who stuck to his way of going about his life?

“No other baseball immortal in memory retired so young, so well, or so completely,” writes Jane Leavy in the preface to this energetic biography. “He may be the last athlete who declined to cash in on his fame. He has refused to cannibalize himself, to live off his past. He remains unavailable, unassailable (and) unsullied.”

Immortal? For lots of reasons. If the stat sheet didn’t glow, nobody might care how Koufax lived his life and went about his work. But the pitching record is crammed with “wow” numbers and amazing feats—six straight All-Star appearances, four no-hitters, one perfect game, twice the World Series MVP—and despite the fame he moved through the world in a very private way.

Was Koufax simply inscrutable? Merely aloof? Or just an athlete who wanted to define his own terms? Yes. Did Koufax’s character contribute to his success on the mound? It had to—right? Koufax was as tenacious about maintaining his privacy as he was about striking out good hitters.

Jane Leavy’s biography, written with Koufax’s awareness but without his direct involvement, is remarkable. Leavy writes that Koufax made it clear that he didn’t want the book to be written “but if it was going to be done, he wanted it to be done right.” Koufax gave friends approval to talk and verified some biographical details. But Koufax got Leavy to agree not to bug his close relatives. “You don’t need to know everything to write the truth,” writes Leavy. “You just need to know enough.”

Well, Leavy spoke to 469 people and it’s hard to imagine there’s another truth out there. Leavy covers all the basic details of Koufax’s family, youth, and early days in sports as a budding basketball player (yes, basketball) and all his struggles for his first few yeas as a big-league pitcher. Crammed with telling details and colorful anecdotes, Sandy Koufax is as much about the player as the era. It’s also about one pitcher working to figure out the art of pitching and then perfecting everything that goes into it—preparation, technique, mental attitude. Everything.

It’s about the move of the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, about the rise of players standing up for their share of baseball revenue (Koufax and fellow Dodger Don Drysdale raised a ruckus before the whole battle over free agency), and about one man maintaining his personal integrity from start to finish. Even the Jewish community wanted to claim Koufax as the “Chosen One” but Koufax, as in all aspects of his life, had things to say (or not say) about being pigeonholed in any aspect of his private life.

Sandy Koufax-A Lefty’s Legacy recounts the highlight-reel games and provides ample, gritty detail on the deterioration of Koufax’s elbow—along with Koufax’s stoic battle to pitch through the pain until he could pitch no more.

The world of sports, in my humble opinion, could use a few more unique forces like Sandy Koufax. Perhaps no one anecdote illustrates Koufax’s reluctance to do the autograph circuit (where he could make a fortune to this day). Occasionally, Koufax signs stuff—he does so every year at the annual dinner held to raise money for indigent ballplayers who came of age before free agency. The lines at Koufax’s table are long.

“What is this impulse, this need for a shred of greatness, a name scrawled on a sweet spot?” asks Leavy. “Koufax doesn’t get it. The need mystifies him; he is dubious about his ability to fill it. But he does the best he can, within the bounds of taste and decorum, bringing dignity to this most undignified pursuit—the sycophantic elevation of one human being over another and the exploitation of that difference for material gain.”

If we had more athletes (and celebrities of all sorts) who better understood that distinction, the world would be a better place.

 

Q & A #74 – Rachel Howzell Hall, “They All Fall Down”

Rachel Howzell Hall’s new standalone, They All Fall Down, launches on April 9. After four books featuring L.A. homicide detective Elouise “Lou” Norton, fans of Hall’s work are in for something new and different. I believe Hall’s work stands right alongside Michael Connelly (and I’m a Connelly fan).

My full review of They All Fall Down is on published by the New York Journal of Books. Suffice it to say that it’s a snazzy, sassy, sleek, and shiny update of the Agatha Christie classic, And Then There Were None.

Rachel Howzell Hall is a New York Times bestselling author of seven novels, including The Good Sister, co-written with James Patterson, and the critically-acclaimed Detective Elouise Norton series.

The third in series, Trail of Echoes, received a coveted Kirkus Star and was one of Kirkus Reviews ‘Books That Kept Us Up All Night.’ Land of Shadows and Skies of Ash (Forge) were included on the Los Angeles Times’ “Books to Read This Summer”, and the New York Times called Lou Norton “a formidable fighter—someone you want on your side.” Lou was also included in The Guardian’s Top 10 Female Detectives in Fiction.

A featured writer on NPR’s acclaimed ‘Crime in the City’ series and the National Endowment for the Arts weekly podcast, Rachel has also served as a mentor in AWP’s Writer to Writer Program and is currently on the board of directors of the Mystery Writers of America. She was named one of Apple iBooks’ “10 Authors to Read in 2017.” She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.

Rachel was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail (below).

Special note to Colorado writing community: Rachel is coming to Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs next month (May 2 – 5). Do not miss a chance to learn from (and maybe hang out with?) one of the best writers going.

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Question: What was the spark for They All Fall Down? And what was the appeal of writing a locked-room—or in this case, locked-island—mystery? Was writing this a bigger challenge than mapping out a police procedural?

Rachel Howzell Hall: Yes, I wanted to write something different than the procedural—but I wanted to write this story long ago. I just didn’t know how to do it and writing the Lou Norton series gave me the chops I needed.
The story came to me when I saw the movie “Seven.” Not too long after that, I read And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I can point back even farther than that—as a kid growing up in church, I’d always been fascinated by sin and punishment, what happens to you when you do bad. So all of this, combined with my formal education as an English and American Literature major (reading Dante’s Inferno and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales), it just seemed… natural.

They All Fall Down was a challenge—mapping this out was different than a world where I’d lived all my life, and for the Norton series, through four books. I was starting over again and that scared me some.

Question: Did you study up on this particular, specific sub-genre? Have any favorite locked-room mysteries you’d care to recommend?

Rachel Howzell Hall: Once I set out to write this book, I did dedicate time to read—from Agatha Christie to Ruth Ware. The English seem to have this genre on lock-down (lol). My favorite, though, was And Then There Were None. I also read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Although that is considered horror, it is still locked-room and people staying in the house for different reasons, being haunted for different reasons.

Question: Without giving anything away, did you know when you started writing how it would end? Did you weigh other options—again, without any spoilers?

Rachel Howzell Hall: Because of Christie’s plot, I knew how the story had to end. But I wanted to tell this story in first-person—that’s kinda hard to do if you know the ending. So coming up with that ending took a moment—maybe during the third draft, I figured it out. That was one part of the story that I kept re-writing because it had to be perfect.

Question: Was there a specific case of a parent taunting and humiliating a teenager by social media that prompted you to set the moral compass for They All Fall Down?

Rachel Howzell Hall: I started writing They All Fall Down during those months when there were so many cases of parents getting in the middle of their children’s fights. Some parents were beating up kids, and bullying kids on-line. There were court cases with parents going to jail for bullying kids on-line.
I am a mother and my daughter, at 15, experienced racism early—preschool. While it broke my heart, it also awakened my worst tendencies and if I was Miriam, I would’ve struck out and hurt those kids and their parents. Knowing this, I wanted to translate that anger and sense of helplessness, combine it with unconditional love, and see what would happen.

The internet helped tremendously in my search for stories about parents being assholes. And there was one BIG story that I found but won’t mention because that may be a spoiler for my novel.

I wanted to modernize Christie’s story, and I wanted to make Miriam’s sin relevant. Really, every character is dealing with a contemporary issue—from bullying and police misconduct to race and sexuality. I wanted They All Fall Down to be more than just an entertaining read.

Question: I must say it looks like you had a great time developing the wide characters who are lured to the island. Yes? I guess there’s not much of a question here. But they all had to have one thing in common, right, that they could be tempted in the same way?

Rachel Howzell Hall: Yep, they could all be tempted because they were all sinners.

Hell, the seven on the island are us. We all have shortcomings and nothing we do is entirely altruistic. With They All Fall Down, I simply wanted to amplify what we all are go through—how extreme our actions can be. We are those people on reality TV—we just don’t have a camera following us to the bathroom all the time.

Question: Is there a “Mictlan Island” or something equivalent? Been there? Been to the area? How did you settle on the Sea of Cortez as the location? Did you have to endure some rugged research in that area?

Rachel Howzell Hall: I wanted somewhere close to Los Angeles but not Catalina Island (lol). She can’t do crazy things on Catalina Island.
I wanted a place that was exotic and at the same time, familiar. People travel to Mexico all the time to lose their minds, to drink on bar tops at Senor Frog. At the same time, I wanted some of the characters to fear the Other. You know: drug dealers with their pit bulls and Uzis. I wanted to show how our perception of the Dangerous Other can be ridiculous since we are the Dangerous Other. Just look at this country’s history and behold.

The seven on the island should not fear the drug dealers and their pit bulls—be fear the people sitting next to you at dinner, be scared of yourself.

Question: What’s next? What’s happening with Lou? Do you find yourself thinking in terms of more standalones?

Rachel Howzell Hall: Right now, I’m focusing on writing more standalones and reading good books. Lou is on hiatus but and I hope one day to bring her back to readers. I love her so much.

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Rachel Howzell Hall’s website.

Previously reviewed:

Skies of Ash 

 

 

 

Land of Shadows

 

 

Lori Rader-Day, “Under A Dark Sky”

When Eden Wallace arrives at the Straits Point International Dark Sky Park in northern Michigan, she is deeply confused. She is expecting solitude. She is expecting that the reservation, made months ago by her husband before he died, would be serene and peaceful. The reservation was intended to celebrate their anniversary, after all. Their tenth. Her late husband, Bix Wallace, had started to dabble a bit in astronomy. So when Eden discovers the reservation after Bix dies, it kind of makes sense that he would book a place with minimal light pollution. (Bix died in a car crash that also claimed four other lives.)

But, no peace. No quiet. Eden discovers that she’ll get a room in a house with six others—five college buddies and a new girlfriend to one of the buds. She immediately plans to bolt. Hanging around with youthful frivolity and a crowded house? No. “This was the permission I needed,” she thinks. “I could get back in the car and, if I drove quickly enough and made no stops, be home before dark.”

Because Eden Wallace is afraid of, yes, the dark. She is the kind of person, in fact, who notices “aggressive daylight.” In fact, driving from Chicago to Straits Point Dark Sky Park (modeled after the real-life Headlands international Dark Sky Park) required Eden to overcome all her “despair and inertia and doubts.”

When Eden discovers the “no refunds” policy, she opts to spend one night. “I was angry and, worse than that, I was going to have to spend at least one night here on principle alone, refund be damned, and worse even than that, I was scared. I hadn’t known if I could go through with any of this on my own, and now I would have to find out what I was made of in front of an audience.”

That audience soon includes the authorities because one of the housemates is found dead that night, a screwdriver impaled in his neck. And Eden, the outsider, is a natural suspect. In fact, the suspect list is quite short in this quasi locked-room mystery.

Rader-Day’s mysteries (I have now read three of the four) come with deep interiority. Her characters exude a biting wit. They are keenly aware of their strengths and limitations. They move through the world with clear, abundant opinions. Attitude. Rader-Day’s writing  puts you deep into her character’s skin. So when the “uh-oh” moment comes—and Under the Dark Sky comes with a doozy—we feel it even more. In fact, the murder mystery leads Eden Wallace to double back and begin to ask questions about, well, enough said here.  Eden may think she prefers day to night, but the spotlight shining down in the crevices of her life, a spotlight that might not have shined around had she not taken this seemingly random trip, may not be exactly what she had in mind. A word to wise: always keep an eye out for those who plan carefully (meticulously?) ahead.

Under the Dark Sky’s murder mystery elements are meaty. The death-by-screwdriver isn’t the only crime. There are park authorities, town cops, photographs, a sabotaged banister, poisoned drinks, and one of the college buddies makes an ill-advised pass at Eden. Eden sorts out the tricks of the day (and night). Stuck in a place where she can peer into the depths of the universe, should she choose to do so, she is forced to look harder at her immediate surroundings. A rich, three-dimensional portrait of Eden Wallace comes into sharp focus. She learns about herself, and sorts out the key killer, in lockstep with us. Rader-Day’s fourth standalone mystery is a special brand of darkness.

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Previously reviewed: Little Pretty Things

Brian Kaufman, “The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song”

Is there a better setting for hopes and dreams than a baseball diamond? Probably not.

Brian Kaufman exploits the sport to great effect in The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song. The title will tell you where this one is headed or at least how it will end. The novel starts in a bleak motel room. Parker Westfall, wannabe big-league ball player, is six beers down. He wants to play with the Mets. He gets a call from the Fort Collins Miners, an independent ball club. Double-A, two rungs down from the bright lights.

The word on Parker is that he has a year or two left. He might be out of shape. Parker is trying to get himself fired up for a team that can’t afford soap for the showers. “He’s hit bottom. The majors have given up on his as a prospect. He hit 31 home runs, and no one noticed.”

Soon, it looks like gimmick time. The team is bringing in a girl to pitch. She is Courtney Morgan. “Her eyes are a wink and murmur of something dark.” She throws a knuckleball and the team wants Parker Westfall to “smooth the way” for her as a teammate.

Is Courtney’s hiring a publicity stunt? Or does it mean a genuine chance for the team to improve? Smartly, Kaufman keeps it real. (At every turn, in fact, Kaufman takes the unsentimental choice; grit over cheap tricks). Courtney is not an immediate sensation. She needs coaching and guidance, and thus begins a long battle to gain her trust and show her how to improve her effectiveness on the mound. But there’s more to The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song than Courtney’s integration into the world of snarky, joking jocks.

There are bar fights, on-the-field scuffles, strange promotional events, road trips to Utah and Nebraska and beyond, and events from the real world (of true life and death) that play a role, too. There are losing streaks, there are winning streaks. The chapters are quick; Kaufman packs a lot of story into 187 pages—to great effect. Kaufman shifts gently from Parker’s point of view to Courtney and also to the Miners’ new manager, Grady O’Connor.

“Grady stands at the far end of the dugout, one leg on the steps. His team is up by two runs. The crowd is small, but vocal. The summer sun won’t set for another 30 minutes, but the evening air is crisp. Pink and orange clouds hover over the mountains to the west, painting the sky with color. He removes his cap, allowing the breeze to cool his forehead. Grady scowls and spits sunflower shells.”

Kaufman’s matter-of-fact style is also a cool breeze. Kaufman steers clear of clichés and easy choices. Think wonderfully messy “Bull Durham,” not the too-nifty structure of “The Natural.” Like Scott Glasser’s excellent Battle Creek, Kaufman’s minor league landscape is a crossroads. Not every career arcs up. Not every fly ball is a home run.  A terrific book about baseball and much more. The truth, as Parker knows all too well, is a “great deflator.”

Q & A #73 – Wendy J. Fox, “If the Ice Had Held”

Wendy J. Fox’s new novel If the Ice Had Held launches on May 1.

I’ve been a fan of Wendy’s work since reading the first sentence of the first short story, “Apricots,” in her collection The Seven Stages of Anger.

That sentence: “As children growing up in the eastern Washington desert, on the dry side of the Cascades, we learned to speak of rain the way we spoke of the dead: with reverence, with longing, without hope of return.” Yes, you must keep reading.

If the Ice Had Held casts its own kind of spell.  I recommend not getting too worried at first about trying to keep track of who is who or what happened when. Close reading is rewarded. All is revealed. There are several moments you won’t see coming and, believe me, they pack a punch. You will feel better about the world around you when you finish reading it; that’s quite a feat given the tragedies within.

Wendy was kind enough to answer a few questions about If the Ice Had Held by email (below) and a full review follows.

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Question: Accidents, fate, mortality, pregnancy, families, fatherhood, motherhood, love, and simple human connections—the themes and issues in If the Ice Had Held are many. The fragile nature of life is palpable on these pages. Does that ring true with what you were trying to explore?

Wendy J. Fox: Yes—absolutely, and mostly, human connection. This novel is set partly in a time where social media exists (but is not as ubiquitous as it is now) and partly in the mid 1970’s in a wholly pre-internet era. While there is plenty of valid criticism of social media, it illuminates something of network theory—or essentially the relationship between discreet entities, or what we think of as discreet entities. In our Facebook friends or LinkedIn connections, we can see where the cross-pollination is between one set of contacts and another, and sometimes it is really fascinating to find two people who I know who also know each-other. That discovery of mutual friends is not an accident of an algorithm, it’s part of what makes social so compelling and keeps us logging in, but of course these connections existed before the internet made it plain, right there on our screens.

In terms of the novel, I wanted to surface the links we have to one another, even when we aren’t consciously aware of what our touchpoints are, either through secrets or buried histories or honestly even disinterest.

Question: Can you tell us how this novel germinated? Was it one particular scene and one character or did the whole extended family characters come to you at the outset?

Wendy J. Fox: This novel began as an exploration of a challenging workplace environment. I’m a writer with a day job, and my day job is in technology marketing. I was in a company that was in heavy transition after an acquisition (all that is public knowledge; I’m not spilling the beans here), and then one of our co-workers died.

I didn’t know how to process that—there are these people who you see every single day at work and even if you are not best friends with them, they are part of your world, your orbit. I had understood that at other jobs, but it just was hammered home when this coworker passed. We weren’t even particularly close, just friendly in the work way that people can be.

I had been working on trying to write this experience and to write corporate culture, and in a workshop, someone said to me—who actually is this woman (the main character, Melanie)? What is her story? At that point I realized that I didn’t really totally understand Mel’s story, I was just trying to type my way to some kind of understanding about what the people I work with mean to me.

That’s not a novel, so I began to try to answer the question: who is this woman? That meant building a life and a context and a history for her.

Question: There are echoes and patterns across the generations, perhaps the most obvious being the career choices of Brian and Simon (though there are many others). Was this a theme you wanted to play with, too, the traits and tendencies that pass from generation to generation?

Wendy J. Fox: I think echo is certainly the right word. As a much younger person, I had this idea that I could completely remake myself into any image I chose. And maybe some people can do that, do actually do that. What I realized as I went forward personally, was that I will always be influenced by having grown up rural, by being from a family that is rural, and these experiences are imprinted me. We can all choose to accept them or reject our own past—either way is fine, frankly—but for me it’s something that has turned out to stick, even though I’ve been an urbanite for many years.

I thought much more about plot in this novel than I had in my prior works; I subscribe to the perspective that plot, if that’s what you’re doing, should feel inevitable, so I wanted to look closely at the way that experience and history quilts together to turn us (or our characters) into the people who we are now.

So those echoes become less nebulous when we put some pressure on them. Blood family or chosen family, we find common ground.

When I am in my hometown, with my family, even though there are many ways in which our lives diverge, there are also so many ways in which they come together. It’s hard to ignore it.

Question: At one point Irene recognizes the fact she doesn’t have any “true memories” of her mother—“only scraps and fragments she had pieced together from a handful of ragged photographs.” The style of the novel, moving back and forth across the decades, gives readers this same feeling of observing scraps and fragments (though from multiple points of view) until we put them together into a whole picture. Were you purposely trying to give readers the same sensation Irene experiences?

Wendy J. Fox: None of the characters in If the Ice Had Held are entirely sympathetic, though at the same time, none are entirely unsympathetic either.

Irene is probably the best of any of the people in this novel of knitting experience into conclusion, and also of getting right with what that means.

My intention was that we all have something to learn from her.

Question: The structure and order of events seem like they it might have taken some time and thought to sort out. First, did you ever ponder going at this novel with a strictly linear fashion? And, second, how did you land on your final order of events?

Wendy J. Fox: The early drafts of this book were actually much more linear, in terms of time, and the back and forth sections were much longer.

I wanted to give readers a sense of discovery as the full picture of the narrative emerged, which is, to your point, how many of the characters experience their part in the unfolding of the story.

Initially, I wrote this book over a period of a year, 150 words every day—that’s what I could do, as a day jobber, and it was a good every day practice—which gave me a 55,000-word draft. As you can imagine, it was incredibly fragmented, but it was a starting point.

So then, I threaded things together in a more linear way, and then I broke it apart and organized by character, then by themes, then by time.

This novel has its structure via very intense revision, much of which was informed by early, trusted readers who helped guide the manuscript into the book it is today.

Question: The whole ‘damp’ theme—care to share? Did that come naturally?

Wendy J. Fox: Dampness was not thematic at the onset of early drafts, but as anyone who writes knows, sometimes themes emerge out of free writes and discovery exercises. As one starts to build a longer work, the linkage starts to make sense.

Question: The relationship between Irene and Kathleen—based on anybody you knew? Kathleen’s major decision to … step in? (A question asked without including spoilers.)

Wendy J. Fox: The relationship between Irene and Kathleen is not based on any specific, named folks, but loosely based on the people I grew up with. I dedicated this book “To my sisters” – I have no biological sisters. My sister-people know who they are. Kathleen, if I had to attribute her to someone, is inspired by my mother, because of her toughness.

Question: One thing beginning writers are instructed (ad nauseam) is to “show don’t tell.” To me, If the Ice Had Held relies on telling—there is an omniscient flavor to the writing. Care to discuss your thoughts about how you approached the narrative style?

Wendy J. Fox: It’s true there is a lot of narrative summary in Ice.

I think that the instruction of “show don’t tell” is actually very useful, but I also think that sometimes there is ground to cover and as writers we can move in and out of the moment of the immediate scene.

My style has because something that some reviewers have described “at arm’s length,” which I think you are correct to call “omniscient flavor” but not fully omniscient.

Personally, the best advice I ever received was “write what you want, call it what it is,” and I think about that every time I’m embarking on a project.

Sometimes the lens of the telling is very close in, sometimes it’s at a distance.

Question: Thirty-seven chapters and seven individual voices. Of the chapters, the guys get four cracks at telling their story. Did you think at any point about not including Brian or Simon?

Wendy J. Fox: In the early drafts, there actually were actually more chapters that gave voice to the male characters.

I never thought of completely cutting them out, but as the manuscript progressed, I kept asking, “whose story is this?” Brian and Simon are definitely important, and the book can’t exist without them, but they are not the ones, in this particular tale, for whom the stakes are the highest or for who have the most to lose. So, they get less time.

Question:What’s next for you?

Wendy J. Fox: In the near term, I’m on book tour for Ice, and the longer term I have a manuscript of shorts (my first love) that I’m shopping.

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More at Wendy J. Fox’s website

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Review:

We are deep into the If the Ice Had Held, a brisk novel told from seven points of view across more than three decades, when 14-year-old Irene thinks about her mother, a woman she never really knew.

“Irene was not sure she had any true memories of the woman,” writes Wendy J. Fox, “only scraps and fragments she had pieced together from a handful of ragged photographs.”

As a whole, If the Ice Had Held comes to us in those same brisk, jagged scraps and memories. We are given pieces. Shards. And we have the pleasure of seeing the pieces come together as we understand how they connect, as we see the players react, interact, and impact each other’s lives.

Irene, however, is not alone. This is primary Melanie’s story. Of the 37 chapters and seven points of view, Melanie’s story gets 16.

When we meet Melanie, she is working in a non-glamorous corner of the dot-com world. She works in Colorado Springs in “the ground-floor wing of a crumbling office park where the air-conditioning was troubling and unreliable.”  Melanie is restless. She has a constant “feeling of spinning.”  On a road trip, she breaks one of her rules, to never sleep with a co-worker or a customer. She dubs him San Antonio Man. He’s a co-worker. Melanie thinks hard about the quality of her life, her work environment, her home, her relationships. She is a professional adult in a professional world and she is also adrift and searching.

We learn that Melanie is Irene’s daughter and that Melanie’s father was Sammy, Kathleen’s brother. Sammy is the subject of the title—if the ice had held, if Sammy had not fallen in the cold river to his death, Melanie might have been raised by very young teenage parents and then, well, who knows?

Think I’m giving away too much? I doubt it. There is much more to Melanie’s story—what we learn about Kathleen and why she stepped in to supplant Irene’s role as mother, what we learn about the relationship between Kathleen and Irene, what we learn about the stories that were concocted because it was the 1970’s and stories were required. What we learn about the first responders to Sammy’s accident, too.

In fact, It was when Fox switched to the one chapter told from the point of view of Simon, the father of a character named Brian, that the novel really clicked into place and I marveled at the kaleidoscopic effect that Fox gives readers of the connections across time, across families, across life.

This is Melanie’s story—maybe? If the Ice Had Held starts and ends with Kathleen. It’s her gesture (much too small a term) that gives the story its spark and its heart. Well, at least, one of them. In a novel riddled with accidents and tragedies, there more than a few lump-in-your-throat moments when Fox reveals connections and encounters you won’t see coming.

The story starts with Sammy plunging into an icy river and water seems to ooze its way, in one form another into every scene. The cascading effects from this one accident ripple across time, the proverbial pebble in the pond but the pebble is a human being and the pond is life. its Fox’s writing is cool, serene and stripped clean of sentimentality. She is a dry-eyed documentarian with a keen eye and a terrific ear. The construction of this novel carries a quality like the way David Hockney played with photographs—the farther you step back, the more you see. But it was a singer I heard as the novel layered in connections and details, David Byrne. If the Ice Had Held asks us to wonder, well, how did I get here? “Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground…”

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Previous Q & A with Wendy J. Fox, The Pull of It

 

 

 

Previous Q & A with Wendy J. Fox, The Seven Stages of Anger

 

 

Ausma Zehanat Khan, “A Deadly Divide”

Senseless.

When he confessed to killing six people and injured nineteen others in an attack on a Quebec City mosque in 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette said: “I do not know how I committed such a senseless act.”

Yet Bissonnette, as Ausma Zehanat Khan points out in her Author’s Note in A Deadly Divide, was not charged as a terrorist. It would have too big a prosecutorial challenge to prove terrorist intentions or connections to terrorist organization. So why not just secure the conviction and lock up the perpetrator? (Bissonnette was sentenced to life—and won’t be eligible for parole for 40 years).

If not a direct act of terrorism, what fueled so much hate?

With the Bissonnette case as inspiration, Khan dispatches Esa Khattak, the Toronto-based head of Canada’s Community Policing Section, and partner Sgt. Rachel Getty into the murky fallout of a mass murder. Khattak and Getty arrive mere hours after the attack to find a brutal scene. The sight is “more devastation at a single crime scene that Esa Khattak had ever witnessed.”

The small town is Saint-Isidore-du-Lac, in the Province of Québec. At least on the surface, it’s quaint. “In daylight, under the warm wash of sunlight, the town’s charm would have been apparent: Gabled houses and stone cottages jumbled together along narrow, cobblestoned streets. And at two opposite ends stationed on rolling green hills, the university and the church, the secular and the sacred, each carving out a sphere of influence.”

The attack takes place in a “small, bright mosque” that is trying to fit in. “No exterior arches, no dome or minaret. A uniquely Québecois mosque? Or the sign of a community in hiding?”

The local police are led by Inspector Christian Lemaire, a complex and complicated cop. A young Muslim man is quickly arrested. A priest, who is revered in the community and who was holding the murder weapon when authorities arrived, is briefly quizzed.

Khattak, a devout Muslim, knows he has been brought in to manage the perception of how the murder investigation is handled. He is to act as a buffer, perhaps, on behalf of the small-town cops and any pushback form the community. But readers know Khattak and Getty aren’t there to work up talking points or to explain cop work in fluffy public relations messaging.

Hardly. Soon, Khattak and Getty are deep in the investigation. There are groups to explore, such as the neo-Nazi Wolf Allegiance, institutional veneers that need cracking, and a blowhard radio talk show host. Khan takes us straight into the chatter among the gutter-dwelling haters, who exchange their vile opinions in secret online chat rooms. Saint-Isidore, it turns out, has it all. Khan doesn’t flinch at recording the filth. (These sections are integral to the plot; skim at your peril.)

Tackling their fifth case, Khattak and Getty have changed and grown since Khan’s debut, The Unquiet Dead, a murder mystery that drew the pair into the horrors of the genocide at Srebrenica. There are nifty references to previous cases, both overseas and at home.  As outsiders to Saint-Isidore, Khattak and Getty measure and manage relationships with locals, with each other, and with their fellow police officers, too. Getty is at first drawn to Lemaire—his distrust of politicians is appealing. And she’s given reason to reconsider, shocked at her own inability to remain on guard. Khan writes about the interpersonal space between characters like few others; she’s a keen observer of body language and nuanced dialogue, too. A Deadly Divide is built for understanding, not cheap thrills.

Getty, who is ever-protective of Khattak and respects his serene and heady approach to investigations, nonetheless is pushed to a point where she believes Khattak is in trouble. A Deadly Divide gives the reserved Khattak a chance to lay his cards on the table, both in his personal desires and with the case at hand.

Extremely well-populated with a rich cast of characters, A Deadly Divide explores one of the darkest issues of modern society, the conditions that make it acceptable to turn the idea of hate into destructive, senseless action. Unfortunately, anger and hate are in the air we all breathe. Not everyone is what they appear to be and, as Khan has taught us before, the language of secrets is a tough one to crack.

Kick Butt, You Say?

Some background on the development of the Allison Coil character.

A guest post over at Chicks on the Case. Here.

Walter Mosley, “Down the River unto the Sea”

Cue the mournful saxophone. Sink down into Walter Mosley’s boiled-clean prose. And get to know a new protagonist in Mosley’s ever-growing stable, former New York cop turned private detective Joe King Oliver.

Yes, the cop-turned-P.I. bit is an old one in crime fiction, but King’s career switch wasn’t a matter of turning in the badge one day and hanging out a shingle the next.

King spent time at Rikers—rough time. He emerges a changed man. Why was Joe King Oliver in prison? Because he was framed.

And soon the King Detective Agency (Joe King and his daughter, Aja-Denise) gets two cases. One is his own—and that’s because a key witness in the case that led to his time in Rikers wants to atone for her false testimony. And there’s also a black militant journalist on death row who had been arrested, three years prior, for killing two police officers. The man is Leonard Compton but goes by the moniker A Free Man.

King still bleeds blue, at least a little. Should he take a case to help an alleged cop killer go free? “I still considered myself a cop. In my days on the force I’d been sucker-punched, spit on, shot at, and singled out by a thousand videophones. Every time I’d make an arrest the community seemed to come out against me. They had no idea how much we care about them, their lives.”

Was A Free Man wrongly accused? King knows his own story, so isn’t it at least possible? “I knew that three was no direct link, but the similarities might be a way for me to solve a case close enough to my own so that I might feel some sense of closure without returning to Rikers.”

Free the guy known as A Free Man, King thinks, and he might be able to free himself.

Maybe.

There’s a thematic connection to both cases and King Oliver (named for Louis Armstrong’s mentor) pursues leads and conversations and sources where the trail leads, often involving long walks or putting around in his Italian-made Bianchina, “a microcar that’s so small it almost brings its own parking place with it.”

King is a brooder. He has experienced betrayal on every level. He knows good food. He’s got a wary eye on his daughter (who is a terrific character). He’s a dedicated reader and he knows his jazz. He’s partial to Thelonius Monk. “Monk always had a good group of talented musicians with him, but while they played deep melodies, he was the madman in the corner pounding out the truth between the fabrications of rhythm and blues.”  King keenly accounts for the endless variety of skin tones in New York’s endless sea of humanity. He deploys disguises and ends up in gleaming offices and the darkest holes of New York City.

Shot through with keen observations about race and class, and carried along on Mosley’s smooth prose, Down the River unto the Sea never gets ahead of itself. The pace is steady. King walks and thinks and walks some more. King’s work is dogged, but its never so frenetic that he can’t stop for a quick meal, sip a cognac, or whack the heavy bag at a boxing gym, even when he’s pretty sure he’s going to die.

King’s knowledge of inside prison workings comes in handy. He bounces back and forth between the two cases with a steady drumbeat. King starts to feel more and more like he’s regaining his old vigor. And we get the feeling that King will be back—he’ll be the guy in the corner pounding out the truth amid all the fabrications and outright lies.

Chad Harbach, “The Art of Fielding”

As baseball novels go, this isn’t one.

The Art of Fielding starts with baseball and ends with baseball but by the time the novel wraps up, 512 pages later, we are asked to care about a wide cast of characters and many off-field issues and characters. Many.

The focus of the novel is shortstop Henry Skrimshander. At first, he is a wonder. He is recruited from his Legion baseball team in South Dakota to come play for Westish College on the Wisconsin shores of Lake Michigan. The quaint liberal arts college long ago rebranded itself around Herman Meilville because a student discovered Melville visited the campus for one day during a lecture tour. So the Westish baseball team is the Harpooners (hello, Moby Dick) and even though Skrimshander was recruited to the school his surname is an obvious nod to scrimshaw and whale bones, well, The Art of Fielding plays, at times, with that level of literary cute.

The story starts strong. In his junior year at Wetish, Skrimshander is on the verge of breaking the NCAA record for most consecutive errorless games by a shortstop. The record is held by Aparicio Rodriguez, who has written a guide book called, yes, The Art of Fielding. Skrimshander keeps a beat-up copy of the book in his pants pocket. “By this point in his life, reading Aparacio no longer really qualified as reading, because he had the book more or less memorized; He could flip to a chapter, any chapter, and the shapes of the short, numbered paragraphs were enough to trigger his memory.”

We are given glimpses of the bromides that deal with baseball and related bits of wisdom that are in the mode of “ah, grasshopper.”  The tips include “The true fielder lets the path of the ball becomes his own path” and “Throw with the legs.”

With the record within his reach. Skrimshander loses his touch. For the first time in forever, the boy with the golden arm throws an errant throw to first base during a game. The bad throw sails into the dugout and seriously wounds and may have even killed Skrimshander’s roommate and teammate, Owen Dunne.

All this would be fine, perhaps, but The Art of Fielding leaves Henry Skrimshander for long excurions with many other characters. There is Guert Affenlight, both the former student who discovered the school’s Melville connection and, later, Westish’s president.

Affenlight, a widower, falls in love with and pursues a romantic relationship with Owen. (Yes, Owen survives his brush with death.) We are also given Affenlight’s estranged daughter Pella, who flees a broken marriage in San Francisco to come in surprise fashion to live with her father—and ends up in a relationship with two lovers (hey, no spoilers here) at Westish. And there’s Mike Schwartz, who spots Skrimshander’s talent and becomes his mentor and also gets tangled up in the romantic complexities, too.

Too often, The Art of Fielding is in “tell” mode, relating with precision the characters’ thoughts. “Henry knew better than to want freedom. The only life worth living was the unfree life, the life Schwartz had taught him, the life in which you were chained to your one true wish, the wish to be simple, and perfect.”

Of course there is The Harpooners’ attempt to have a winning season and go to the playoffs in the first time since forever and Skrimshander gets his juju back (sorry, I lied; that’s a spoiler) in a most unlikely way, by literally taking one for the team in fairly horrific and high-risk manner. He wakes up in the hospital and doesn’t realize what happened after he got beaned, but it involved running to first base and, later, scoring the winning running in dramatic fashion.

The novel introduces us to so many characters, and asks us to care about them all, that I found it too sprawling and unwieldy. There are some beautiful moments, not all of them baseball, within. Having raised all the caution flags above, there is also a steady tug to the novel. Will Henry get his arm back? Will Affenlight pay any price for pursuing a student? (In many ways, The Art of Fielding is Affenlight’s book, but only deals with his late-in-life sexual interest in other men indirectly.) And who will Pella land with, especially after the ex-husband shows up?

Baseball is certainly at the heart of The Art of Fielding but the story’s early traction doesn’t hold up.

Phil Knight, “Shoe Dog”

Shoe Dog has its feet on the ground. (Sorry; couldn’t resist.) This memoir by the guy who started global megabrand Nike is clear-eyed, frank, and compelling. Once you get rolling, you’ll want to go for the long run—and it’s an easy read told for us regular non-business types.

How many obstacles did Phil Knight overcome? Did anyone out there count? Knight’s sheer persistence is remarkable. Told in first-person, Knight recounts every setback and every all-hope-is-lost moment in plain terms.

Nike started as a “Crazy Idea” from a paper Knight wrote at Stanford. This notion turned into an obsession—the kind of obsession that endured many bleak, black hours.

That idea was this: if the Japanese had cornered the camera market (way back in 1962) then the Japanese might also be encouraged, cajoled, or somehow enticed into dominating the running shoe business.

Yes, 1962. Long before the jogging craze.  Long before The Complete Book of Running (Jim Fixx). Long before Frank Shorter, Jim Ryun, Bill Rodgers, Carl Lewis, and Steve Prefontaine (who plays a big role in Shoe Dog). There was a time when street joggers were a rarity. Yeah, hard to believe. But Knight seemed prescient about what was coming and worked relentlessly, for years, to pull it off.

What makes Shoe Dog interesting is how Knight changed and adapted his strategies as the idea took hold and as the business took shape, particularly as Knight navigated and negotiated deals with suppliers in Japan. Knight is a self-professed worrier, thinker, brooder, analyzer.

Shoe Dog touches on all aspects of how the business came together—shoe designs and innovations, marketing, manufacturing, delivery, the early street-level sales force, the first retail efforts, legal entanglements, balking banks, trademarks, fighting off waves of competitors, and the first early celebrity endorsements.

Knight gives full credit to all those who helped him along the way. Knight assembled an odd, often quirky team of believers. If anything, Knight’s chief skill was finding and developing talent. He cared little about looks or polish, only smarts and savvy. There’s Bill Bowerman, who was Phil’s old track coach in Oregon. Jeff Johnson, Nike’s first full-time employee, is a major character. There’s numbers guy Del Hayes, wheelchair-bound Bob Woodell, and an unlikely lawyer named Rob Strasser. And, of course, Knight’s wife Penelope, who played a major role in the early days of Nike and provided the glue on the home front, too. All are given full, three-dimensional treatments by Knight.

Knight is upfront about his own mood swings—and how he handled the wide-ranging variety of personalities among his team as small victories were celebrated and then next potential death blow was confronted.

This book wraps up the moment-by-moment memoir in 1980, although he includes a recap from the perspective of 2007 with a few suggestions:

“Seek a calling,” he suggests. “Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. If you’re following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.”

But Knight cautions true entrepreneurs. “I’d like to remind them that American isn’t the entrepreneurial Shangri-La people think. Free enterprise always irritates the kinds of trolls who live to block, to thwart, to say no, sorry, now. And it’s always been this way. Entrepreneurs have always been outgunned, outnumbered.”

Anyone out there with a “Crazy Idea” would do well to run a few miles down Knight’s long road.

 

 

 

Bob Tewksbury, “Ninety Percent Mental”

Ninety Percent Mental takes its title from the old Yogi Berra quip “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.”  Tewksbury (with baseball writer Scott Miller) makes a convincing case that Berra was right. It’s hard to imagine a better account than this one of the mental skills required to be a pitcher in the major leagues.

Tewksbury isn’t necessarily the guy you would figure to become one of the best thinkers about developing and instilling the perfect baseball mindset. A 19th-round draft pick in 1981, Tewksbury climbed the New York Yankees’ minor league system “rung by rung” before surfacing in the MLB in 1986. In all, in fact, Tewksbury was sent from the major leagues to the minors a total of seven times.

By the time he retired from playing in 1998, Tewksbury had played for the Cubs, Cardinals, Rangers, Padres and Twins as well. He was with the Cardinals for seven straight years in the middle of his career. Faced with shoulder and arm problems off and on, Tewksbury became known as a control pitcher. In 1992, he went 16-5 on the season with a 2.16 ERA.

One stat really jumps out: In 1993, Tewksbury came very close to ending the season with more wins than bases on balls allowed. He ended the season with 17 wins and 20 walks. Twenty walks all season.

What does that kind of focus require? That’s what Ninety Percent Mental, in deliciously granular detail, is all about. Tewksbury, who was in the vanguard of those who realized that it might be a good idea to help young players develop mental skills alongside their physical ones, came to the mental skills issue organically through observation and self-analysis and a burning desire to survive. Part memoir, Ninety Percent Mental grounds us in Tewksbury’s modest New Hampshire upbringing in a tense household full of financial stress and marital tensions.

A chance encounter with Og Mandino (The Greatest Salesman in the World) led Tewksbury to devour Mandino’s books and then also absorb the positive-thinking world of Norman Vincent Peale. Tewksbury was—a reader. Go figure. “Always, in the down moments, something consistently led me into those self-help sections. I had a strong, natural interest in the subject but, really, no resources for learning.”

Early in his career, Tewksbury incorporated breathing exercises and self-affirmations into his daily routines. “Three decades late, I believe today what I began to believe while listening to that tape all of those minor league locker-room floors. That my improved performance on the field that month happened from the inside out. The change—real, productive change—occurs in a person from the inside out.”

You’ll know if you are a true baseball fan if you enjoy the chapter titled “Perfect Game.” (I did.) This is a blow-by-blow, moment-by-moment deconstruction of one of Tewksbury’s games as a Cardinal against the Houston Astros on August 17, 1990.  Tewksbury came into the game on a hot streak and got hotter that night, not giving up his first hit until the eighth inning.  In “Pitch Perfect,” Tewksbury goes through every batter—a nearly 20-page recap. The chapter includes some keen insights on the nature of perfection in baseball (or any sport). “Perfectionists tend to have low self-confidence, making it difficult for them to cope when things don’t go as expected. And in search of gaining confidence, they practice more and more, which increases the risk of burnout. The constant striving for perfection creates high levels of anxiety, they worry more about what others think of them and they focus more on their failures than on their successes.”

Modest throughout, Tewksbury pays credit to those who came before him. He devotes an entire chapter to Joe Torre and Torre’s natural ability to connect with, and inspire, athletes. Tewksbury has worked with Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester, and Andrew Miller (among many others). The individual ups and downs of those three players, particularly Lester, make for convincing testimony that success in baseball requires a keen sense of self and a keener sense of self control.

Looking for a step-by-step “how to”?  Well, it’s here, but it’s embedded throughout the entire narrative. It’s about controlling what Tewksbury calls the ‘Little Man’ who tries to thwart your performance with negative thoughts and dark vibes. (The book is co-written with award-winning baseball columnist Scott Miller, who no doubt played a key role in the dramatic shape of the book and its colorful style). More than anything, Ninety Percent Mental makes you realize these are real human beings out there on the mound and that, like anything else in life, how you go about your work is every bit as important as your talent. Yes, baseball is ninety percent mental. At least.

Marc Levy, “The Last of the Stanfields”

Review of The Last of the Stanfields for the New York Journal of Books.

2018: Top Books

Highlights from reading in 2018.

Order is irrelevant. These are form titles I read last year, not necessarily published in 2018.

Fiction

1. Mad Boy by Nick Arvin

2. The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

3. Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

4. Golden Havana Night by Manuel Ramos

5. Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing by Tim Weed

6. November Road by Lou Berney

7. Don’t Skip Out on Me by Willy Vlautin

8. The Swing of Things by Linda Keir

9. A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee

10. A Dangerous Crossing by Ausma Zehanat Khan

11. The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry

12. Dodgers by Bill Beverly

13. An Aegaen April by Jeffrey Siger

14, Dead Stop by Barbara Nickless

15. I Bring Sorrow & Other Stories of Transgression by Patricia Abbott

16. A Sharp Solitude by Christine Carbo

17. Sleep Not, My Child by Christopher Bartley

18. Dominic by Mark Pryor

19. Mr. Tender’s Girl by Carter Wilson

NON-FICTION

1. Black Postcards by Dean Wareham

2. The Game From Where I Stand by Doug Glanville

3. The Phenomenon by Rick Ankiel (with Tim Brown)

4. The Long Haul by Finn Murphy

5. American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee

Dean Wareham, “Black Postcards”

A 2014 article on Stereogum included this great line about Galaxie 500: “One imagines the walls of the Galaxie 500 rehearsal space lined not with bikini girls with machine guns, but with posters of Buckminster Fuller and Trotsky.”

Galaxie 500 was slow-core, low-core, lo-fi, low-dive, down-tempo, moody, fragile and earnest. I loved ’em.

And Rolling Stone, listing Luna’s “Penthouse” among the top 100 albums of the 1990’s (No. 99), said this: “Dean Wareham made his name with the Eighties dream-pop trio Galaxie 500, but he really found his muse in these scandalously beautiful guitar ballads. His foxy voice slinks along the languid guitars as he plumbs his foolish heart in the back of a New York cab, going home alone after another night of fancy drinks and lucky toasts. Wareham purrs some sly one-liners (‘It’s no fun reading fortune cookies to yourself’) but the music celebrates the pleasures of being too young, too rich, too pretty and too single, shopping for true love while getting lost in Chinatown.”

Luna offered more of a glossy sheen, more accessible melodies, and a bit more 4/4 punch, but you can still hear the rootsy, organic earthiness of G-500 and Dean Wareham’s matter-of-fact singing style.

Wareham led Galaxie 500 for (roughly) four years in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and then Luna from 1991 through 2004, when their seventh studio album, “Rendezvous,” was released. They toured after that record was released, claiming they were done; a farewell romp. Luna then went on a deep hiatus but returned a few years ago, releasing an album of knockout covers in 2017 (“A Sentimental Education”) along with a disc of instrumentals (“A Place of Greater Safety”).

For my money, Luna always hits that sweet spot where killer grooves, sharp lyrics, and blissful guitars come together. In concert, Wareham is understated, low-key, and pose-free (as is the rest of the band) as the rhythms build and the melodies soar. “Penthouse” and “Romantica” haven’t lost a step over the years, but I’m a fan of every album they recorded. Yes, “scandalously beautiful” stuff. The guitars rock harder than you think, but you have to hear them. No leaps off the drum riser, no rock-god poses with a showy boot up on the monitor.

Black Postcards, Wareham’s memoir of his youth up through the buildup and breakup of Galaxie 500 and through Luna’s entire first incarnation, came out in 2008. It’s blunt, funny, wry, poignant, sad, melancholy, frank, painful, inspiring, and heartbreaking all at once.

There are drugs, there is sex, there are parties—and boredom. There are dumb fans and bleak hotel rooms. If you ever wondered what it’s like to be in a band that tours—if you want to feel the grind, taste the tedium—Black Postcards has got you covered. (So does a DVD documentary, Tell Me That You Miss Me, an unflinching look at their last–though it wasn’t–tour).

For rock fans of a certain age, reading Black Postcards is a musical memory trip. There’s Salem 66 at The Rat in Boston, Throwing Muses at the 9:30 Club, The The and The Ramones at The Lorelei Festival in Germany, and Veruca Salt in Valencia. (There are plenty of brutal assessments of fellow musicians along the way, including a diss of former Denver act 16 Horsepower. “I confess I didn’t like them. I mean, I didn’t know them personally, but I didn’t like their music or their instruments or their porkpie hats.”)

The first half or so of the book is devoted to the rise and fall of Galaxie 500, in which Wareham battled the voting bloc of two fellow high school chums, who later became fellow Harvard students, drummer Damon Krukowski and bassist Naomi Yang. Krukowski and Yang saw eye to eye on everything, later married. Krukowski and Yang thought Wareham quit the band seeking more fame. Wareham, believably so, rejects that notion.

“The suggestion is that I broke up Galaxie 500 for the money. No, it was not the money. There was no money. I had a hundred reasons, ranging from petty annoyances to major structural problems in the band. The bottom line is I quit because I couldn’t stop thinking about quitting … I didn’t want to be in a cult anymore. I wanted to be free.”

Black Postcards is intensely personal. Wareham takes us through marriage counseling and divorce with his wife Claudia, shows us the arduous process of recording with exacting producers and fellow musicians (ahem, guitarist Sean Eden, a.k.a. Meanderthal) who feels like he must try a hundred ways to nail a guitar solo.

Wareham details label deals and observes industry changes and the endlessly frustrating business of earning back advances. You can feel the changing of the guard, the upended music biz adapting to streaming and file sharing and the great fade of the almighty CD. Wareham is clear about his own secret (at first) coupling up with new bass player Britta Phillips, a move he knows will cause a major rift in the Luna dynamics, and he’s blunt about his relationship with fans, too. (Some good, some weird.)

Wareham shows us how much work he puts into lyrics as well. “I had patched the ‘IHOP’ lyrics together from an episode of Wheel of Fortune, my own readings on André Breton, and an article about the Khmer Rouge in The New York Times. They seemed to make sense. The song was about a cad.”

Throughout Black Postcards is the same dry wit that shows up in Wareham’s lyrics:

  • “Next up was Bordeaux, where we played in a legendary little punk-rock called Le Jimmy. A punk rock club can become legendary just by having booked some cool bands back in 1980, and then staying in business. If the toilet’s don’t flush, so much the better.”
  • “You can generally add a star to the review if you announce that the band is breaking up. People are nicer to you when you’re on the way out, or dead. Cher, for example, said the nicest things about Sonny Bono after his tragic skiing accident.”

Wareham is both jaded and clear-eyed. He didn’t push Galaxie 500 farther than it was supposed to go. He didn’t insist on Luna’s existence when the end was near (and clear). Wareham is an observer, keenly aware that bands are doomed from the moment they start.

“…the truth is that rock and roll does kill your life, just a bit. It can lead you down the wrong path, into a double life, perhaps, or a life of drink and cigarettes and other vices. To be rock-and-roll is to be self-destructive, right? Think of Gene Vincent, Dee Dee Ramoe, Sid Vicious, Brian Jones. You have to take it all with a grain of salt, and not get caught up in it. It can be fun, living a rock-and-roll life, but it’s a slippery slope. Some can dabble. Others are swept away.”

Wareham remains a dabbler (check his post-Luna solo output, including some fine collaborations with Britta, whose 2016 solo “Luck Or Magic” is also worth tracking down). Wareham brought Luna back for a tour in 2018, including a stop in Boulder to a fairly full house at the Fox Theatre.  (A great show.)  Does Luna live? Maybe.

Sure, I’d love a few more Luna records. But the band has left its mark. Nostalgia is for suckers.  Hats off to Luna (and Galaxie 500).  And thanks to Dean Wareham for taking us on a ride in Black Postcords. If he’s been keeping notes for the past 10 years, I’d read another account of the past decade, too.

++

A few clips to sample Luna:

Tracy, I Love You

(Live on KEXP)

Black Postcards

23 Minutes in Brussels:

(Credit sequence from the film “Tell Me Do You Miss Me”)

 

 

Kayla Rae Whitaker, “The Animators”

The Animators rocks along on the strength and depth of the entirely relatable narrator, Sharon Kisses. Yes. Kisses. It’s a great name for a character who has a hard time getting up close and personal with anyone, who keeps her ambitions and yearnings to herself, who wants so badly to be something, well, more.

As a college student in the visual arts program, Sharon meets fellow student and star pupil Mel Vaught. The two soon bond over cheap beer and their mutual love of animation—everything from Looney Tunes to “Fritz the Cat.” Mel Vaught can look at one of Sharon’s static drawings and see if it has the “potential” to move.  “She gestured to the paws,” recalls Sharon about Mel shortly after they first met. “The wavery sense of them I spent hours getting just right. It was true. It was what I thought about whenever I sat down to draw something. The story. Where has this been? Where is it going next? I’d never said it aloud, but somehow Mel had known.”

Mel informs Sharon that the “greatest thing you can do for something” is “giving it movement.” Or, at least, the possibility.

Soon, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses travel together from New York City to Florida to identify the body of Mel’s mother, Melody, who has died in prison. When the body is rolled out of the metal drawer in the morgue, Sharon notices the strong family resemblance between mother and daughter. Melody’s jaw is shut, Sharon observes, “but the possibility of movement is still loosely, dangerously there, as if her mouth could open at any moment.”

The Vaught-Kisses friendship is a rich one. Vaught is the outgoing, brash and fearless lesbian whose childhood and upbringing, including Mel’s dicey relationship with her mother, inform their first film collaboration, “Nashville Combat.”

Sharon is more reserved and analytical, more isolated and, at first, passive. Sharon’s sister told Sharon she couldn’t play with the “big dogs.” Her reputation is well-established: not worthy of prime time. Together, Vaught & Kisses are a memorable duo. They are each fierce in their own way. They share a love of storytelling and a fundamental belief in the power of art and the voice it gives them. Both are outcasts, though for different reasons. And both, throughout the course of the The Animators, find a way to help each other cope.

“I pursued my life as if it were the loose end of something I abandoned at birth and, at eighteen, set out to reclaim,” Sharon tells us. “I became an artist because I wanted to make a world in which I was not the pursued but the pursuer; because I needed to discorporate. I struggled. I was afraid I wasn’t very good. I was jealous and lonely. I was frequently sad.

“But even as my mind forgot, my body never did. I felt my animal hackles rise when in a room with large, silent men. I scrabbled for closeness, feeling myself shut closed like when the time for intimacy came.”

As if Sharon wasn’t already feeling alone and already unable to float free of day-to-day worries, Sharon has a stroke. This gives Mel a chance to re-animate Sharon and if you are thinking this section might be sad and filled with tropes, it is anything but. Whitaker gives a fresh voice (utter humanity and three-dimensionality) to a stroke victim as easily as she captures the details of drafting and producing an animated movie. In fact, the plot picks up after the stroke, not that it was flagging before this, and Sharon is back home in Kentucky finding love, confronting her mother, and wondering over and over why she is the one who broke free from the “family tunnel vision” that has lasted for generations.

The next Vaught-Kisses production is drawn from an incident from Sharon’s childhood, an incident that left her “feeling that I’d been marked, but I didn’t know by what, or how.”  This incident / moment casts a shadow over Sharon’s entire personality and sours both her relationship with her mother and a new boyfriend. The new movie is called “Irrefutable Love” and during the worldwide promotional tour that Sharon finds herself, if it’s possible, even more alone.

Story summaries don’t do The Animators justice. Whitaker uses every scene and exchange between Vaught and Kisses (and all the others they encounter) to build character and add depth. The book flies. Motion isn’t a possibility, it’s a thing.

There may be a thousand ways to end any novel (or movie) as Sharon Kisses knows all too well. But the ending to The Animators feels like the only one that makes sense and it’s high-grade lump-in-your-throat stuff. You might even find yourself discorporating—the absolute best thing that can happen when you’re reading a good book.

Final note: I listened on Audible and narrator Alex McKenna does a terrific job distinguishing Sharon from Mel and post-stroke Sharon from pre-stroke Sharon.

Doug Glanville, “The Game From Where I Stand”

Doug Glanville’s The Game From Where I Stand offers a winning combination—a likable narrator and a mountain of colorful details about life off the field and inside the game of baseball.

Minor leagues. Opening days. Glove selection. Coaches. Stress. Anxiety. Relationships. Autographs. Game preparation. Contracts. Money. Retirement. Winter ball. Dealing with reporters. Spring training. Hitting. Traveling. I’m hard-pressed to think of a subject Glanville doesn’t cover and he does it all with an appealing style. What does it feel like to be a professional baseball player? Glanville puts the reader solidly in one player’s cleats.

Glanville, who has written columns for The New York Times and other outlets, comes across as likable and easy-going. Glanville played in the majors from 1996 to 2004, primarily with the Philadelphia Phillies. He also also had two stints with the Chicago Cubs and one year with the Texas Rangers. This book was published in 2010 and, well, my only wish is for a more current account that includes how a player views the heavy-duty use of analytics in the game today.

What Glanville does explore, however, seems relatively timeless—particularly the kinds of attitudes ball players develop in order to survive. Glanville did not take being a major leaguer for granted. He played worried. He played with the daily concern that either performance or injury might lead to being demoted or traded. “One team’s trash is another’s treasure,” writes Glanville “I can say I have been both, and either way you slice it, you can’t help but feel like property, even if only for a moment.”

Glanville thanks Jimmy Rollins, who was his protégé, for a poignant piece of advice: Do it afraid. “A healthy amount of fear can lead to great results, to people pushing themselves to the brink of their capabilities … Yes, baseball players are afraid. A player’s career is always a blink in a stare. I retired at the ripe old age of thirty-four following a season of sunflower seeds and only 162 at bats. I had been a starter the year before. In this game, change happens fast.”

Coming up behind every major leaguer is a new crop of players who are younger, faster, stranger (and don’t cost as much). “There is a tipping point in a player’s career where he goes from chasing the dream to running from a nightmare. At that point, ambition is replaced by anxiety; passion is replaced with survival. It is a downhill run, and it spares no one.”

Glanville makes it clear that being a major league baseball player requires living inside a bubble. Glanville is particularly blunt here about the focus and dedication required—as well as the fallout from that level of commitment. “No one keeps statistics for DFP (Depressed Former Players) or DAR (Divorces After Retirement), but I assure you they are plentiful … Behind the bluster and bravado, they are as uncertain and fragile as any other human beings.”

That’s the over-arching flavor of this account, a real human being living a life inside the game. Glanville’s details are terrific—like seeing Randy Johnson eating breakfast at iHOP or his warm-hearted tales from playing winter ball in Puerto Rico—and his reactions at every turn seem genuine. He’s not afraid to reveal how he misplayed a ball that could have kept a no-hitter intact, for instance, and he gives a thoughtful analysis of the whole Steve Bartman alleged interference debacle (Glanville was with the Cubs at the time).

Unlike so many others, Glanville did not become another DFP or DAR stat. He had a level head and open eyes about every phase of the game—and the same thing applied when it came time for Glanville to plan his post-career life (which from all accounts has been successful both in broadcasting and business). Like baseball itself, this book is very much about the game and, of course, it’s about everything else, too. Baseball is life.