Lisa Halliday, “Asymmetry”

Read Asymmetry for the humor and lightness in “Folly,” the first half, and read this for the frustrating governmental craziness in “Madness,” the second half. Or read this for the curious remembrances of Ezra Blazer, the famous writer in “Folly,” who shows up in the third half (really a kind of coda to the rest of the book) to fill in the gaps of how he became the crusty but lovable elder artist as he selects his favorite all-time desert island discs for a BBC radio program.

Alice—Ezra calls her Mary Alice—is the focus of “Folly.” She is twenty-five. Ezra is much older; he has already won “multiple Pulitzer Prizes.” (Halliday based the “Folly” section on her own affair with a much older Philip Roth.) Alice and Ezra meet on a New York City park bench. “Alice knew who he was—she’d known the moment he sat down, turning her cheeks watermelon pink—but in her astonishment, she could only continue staring, like a studious little garden gnome, at the impassable pages that lay open on her lap. They might as well have been made of concrete.”

Their love affair starts quickly. (If anything, the brisk pace of “Folly” is anything but impassable; it starts like a fighter jet.) For Alice, It’s possible that living in the shadow of Ezra Blazer’s fame will make it harder for her to become a writer. Life with Ezra becomes its own wonderland—he sends her on many searches, in fact—but the May-December relationship leaves Alice wondering about the artistic mark she’ll leave. Ezra has everything figured out—the best doctors, the best Little Scarlet preserves, the best clothing stores, the best deli, the best Chinese Food. But the interplay between them is caring, funny, and touching.

Ezra has a series of old-age aches and pains, even as he continues to write. She gets an abortion. They go to concerts, watch a classic American League Championship series between the Red Sox and The Yankees, and have lovers’ quarrels, too. When she expresses an interest in writing about war and world affairs, he has advice. “Forget about world affairs. World affairs can take care of themselves.”

Alice’s tart reply: “They aren’t doing a very good job of it.”

Ezra wants her to write about those close to her, like her father. Alice doesn’t think the subject is important enough. Alice imagines writing about those she doesn’t know so well, like the Muslim hot dog vendor. Ezra is relentlessly prolific. She imagines that crushing Ezra’s skull might free her own creativity—even as she carefully tends to his ailments, including an extended stay in the hospital. Alice wonders “really rather seriously whether a former choirgirl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of a Muslim man.”

And “Madness,” the second book/novella, is about a Muslim man—but no hot dog vendor. Amar Jaafari is an economist. He’s the son of Iraqi Kurdish immigrants. We are suddenly in the business of “world affairs,” but in a kind of microcosmic/bureaucratic way because Amar is in an awful kind of purgatory, detained at Heathrow Airport on his way to Iraq. His talented, piano-playing brother has vanished. He needs to go through Heathrow, from L.A., to get there.

We are reading Alice’s writing. (Well, Halliday’s—in a remarkable shift of tone, style, and theme.) The fact that this is, in fact, Alice’s work isn’t fully revealed until Ezra Blazer references it in part three, “Ezra Blazer’s Desert Island Discs.”

Ezra is telling the BBC radio host about his occasional bouts of depression when he reveals: “A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots on our own. It’s a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with the author, but in fact is a kind of provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.”

Ezra declines to say Alice’s name on the radio but at that point, we know Alice penned “Madness,” that Alice penetrated the looking glass and imagined a life.

Suddenly, in Amar, we have a character who seems to relish his own emotional interiors and his family, where Alice eschewed any opportunity to reminisce or self-examine.

Amar is a man trapped by bureaucracy who himself must rely on his memories and imaginings to recall many thoughts about his family, as well as life in Iraq.

And we come full circle with mirrors and imagination when Amar recalls looking in a mirror near his brother’s new piano.

“I didn’t look like a man teeming with so much potential. One the contrary, in my eleven-year-old jeans, a week’s worth of stubble, and a fraying windbreaker from the Gap, I looked rather more like the embodiment of a line I would later read—something about the metaphysical claustrophobia and bleak fate of being always one person. A problem, I suppose, that is entirely up to our imaginations to solve. But then even someone who imagines for a living is forever bound up by the ultimate constraint: she can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes—she can even hold it such that she herself remains outside its frame, the better to de-narcissize the view—but there’s no getting around the fact that she’s always the one holding the mirror. And just because you can’t see yourself in a reflection doesn’t mean no one can.”

Back in “Folly,” Alice is seated in a jury pool when she observes a man whose laptop screen saver shows a photo of himself with someone of identical complexion and facial features, each wearing the same brand of windbreakers. Is that a direct reference to Amar in “Madness?” Well, at least, it’s the sign of a writer grabbing details from real life for her own storytelling purposes. The truth is all three stories are dotted with points you can connect—and have fun doing so. One could scour every paragraph of Asymmetry and race down hundreds of such rabbit holes, looking for such details to connect. The bolder strokes are obvious—music (lots of music) and war and mirrors; freedom and loneliness; and themes about artistic originality; and, yes, rabbit hole and wonderland references too. A book club could spend several meetings pulling Asymmetry apart. Writers? Much to ponder, especially about “the metaphysical claustrophobia and bleak fate of being always one person.”

A review in The New Yorker said this: Asymmetry is “a meditation on who we might be when the most obvious components of our identity—age, religion, ethnicity, gender—have been stripped away. The coda, which confirms with the lightest of touches that Amar sprang from Alice’s head, suggests that our inner lives hold more nuance than can be contained in the boxes we check on a census form.”

Like Amar’s census form—a man literally trapped by immigration bureaucracy, who has answered many technical questions about his identity, conjures the scope of his life through the sheer power of his memory and imagination. It’s a story written by Alice, who is demonstrating her own ability to imagine beyond her “claustrophobia” and empathize with a Muslim man.  And of course, it’s all a brilliant novel by Lisa Halliday, who seems to have no trouble looking squarely in the mirror.


A.J. Finn, “The Woman in the Window”

Three things to enjoy about last year’s megahit, The Woman in the Window.

One. A ridiculously simple setup. To wit: an agoraphobic woman in New York City who  witnesses a murder and must persevere through her own self-doubts, which are further inflamed by authorities and others, to prove she’s right—that someone was killed. The main story covers about three weeks’ time.

Two. Attitude. Psychologist Anna Fox is loaded with opinions about everything, including her own squalid home. And life. Her barbs are relentless. She’s far from boring. (How they’ll pull off all these internal musings when the movie comes out next year, with Amy Adams in the Anna Fox role, is beyond me. The movie launch was delayed to re-edit; maybe that was the issue.)

Three. Clever writing. Part of this goes back to the second point, but some of the lines are gems.

“I study myself in the mirror. Wrinkles like spokes around my eyes. A slur of dark hair, tigered here and there with gray, loose about shoulders; stubble in the scoop of my armpit.”

(My spellcheck didn’t like ‘tigered’ but what the heck.)

“My visions fills like a Polaroid print. I’m looking at the ceiling, at a single recessed light socket staring back at me, a beady eye.”

“I spot Jane and Ethan on a candy-striped love seat. She wears a butter-yellow sweater that exposes a terse slit of cleavage; her locket dangles there, a mountaineer above a gorge.”

(That’s Anna spying through her Nikon camera; must be one long lens for that much detail but, still, great line.)

Three “um” moments:

One. Anna Fox’s drinking is endless. Can anyone function after glugging that much merlot? Seriously?

Two. The big twist dealing with Anna’s husband and daughter. It’s well timed to make us further doubt Anna Fox’s mental faculties, but please. Cheap. Maddening. Almost did not finish at that point. I almost threw the book against the wall and I love books and love my walls. The moment reminded me that Dan Mallory, who wrote this book as A.J. Finn, fabricated stories of his own battles with cancer and later had to apologize, once he was exposed by The New Yorker. I wanted Mallory/Finn to apologize for that storyline trickery, too.

Three. The movies. Anna Fox is a big fan of all the Hitchcock classics and classic noir stuff. She watches a film every night. A few, she watches repeatedly. It’s just so on-the-nose, too perfect. And it’s overdone, a bit too meta, as if Finn is saying he can simultaneously reference and riff on prime source material.

As the climax approaches:

“On screen, Jimmy is forcing Kim Novak up the bell tower. ‘I couldn’t follow her—God Knows I tried,’ he cries, clutching Kim by the shoulders. ‘One doesn’t get a second chance. I want to stop being haunted.’

I want to stop being haunted,’ I say. I close my eyes, say it again. Stroke the cat. Reach for my glass.”

(That’s my definition of on the nose.)

Oh, and four: the length. Yes, the pages fly along due to three-word sentences and the invisible paragraph mark that is more common than a period, but the middle is drawn out. Once Anna Fox witnesses the murder, the long mushy middle of her attempts to raise red flags to the authorities and others simply takesRE too long.

(A lesson from Hitchcock might have been in order; “Suspicion” only runs one hour and 39 minutes. Sure, it’s always hard to compare books and movies, but the fast-gallop of the first third of A Woman in the Window slows to a trot through the sticky middle.)

Three final thoughts:

One. It’s worth reading. The ending is intense. The final twist of is well-done (and then drawn out). It took a brilliant bit of plotting to make it work. (Wish we could have gotten here a whole lot more quickly.) And Amy Adams is a terrific choice to play Anna Fox. Hand her the Academy Award now–edit, re-edit, whatever.

Two. Anna’s agoraphobia felt painfully, painfully real. The house across the park is a “theater for (her) unquiet mind” and we are completely immersed in her world view. The simple idea of this is terrific: how do you investigate a murder while emotionally and physically trapped? (As to Anna’s somewhat loose approach to counseling other agoraphobics in the online chat rooms? Didn’t seem very, um, professional. But it works for the plot. Don’t skip these interactions.)

Three. There are many, many mystery-thrillers out there that are equally as smart, character-driven, and tense—and don’t have some of the issues detailed above. Not sure why this became a must-read.  Good, but.

Tyler Kepner, “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches”

There are 1.5 billion reasons why baseball is a fascinating sport and one of those reasons is that it’s a defensive player who puts the game in motion. The game starts with a pitch. The game starts with defense.

Another one of the fascination points is the ability of a pitcher to throw a baseball at Reither top speed or top level of deception in and around a strike zone sixty feet and six inches from the mound.

There is a generally accepted speed, or range of speeds, at which that baseball needs to be thrown to be successful at the major league level. There is also a generally accepted fact that a pitcher needs at least two pitches in his arsenal, preferably three or four, and five would be fantastic. If you can mix your speeds and execute control with all them for a decade or fifteen years – and take the mound every fifth day from April through September or even October – well, welcome to the Hall of Fame.

What appears to be an arduous but perhaps vanilla task to a casual observer — throwing the ball—actually involves remarkable variety. And if you doubt that, read K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches.

“There is, indeed, no limit to the kinds of options available to a pitcher, or how he can use them,” writes Kepner in the introduction. Lance McCullers Jr., who called (Mike) Mussina one of his favorite pitchers to watch, threw 24 curveballs in a row to close out the American League Championship Series for Houston in 2017 … There was no rule against, only convention.”

Based on hundreds of interviews with pitchers, hitters and coaches, and written with a fine flair, K is a fun and fascinating read. (‘K’ is a baseball scorer’s notation for a strikeout.)

The Slider. The Fastball. The Curveball. The Knuckleball. The Splitter. The Screwball. The Sinker. The Changeup. The Spitball. The Cutter.

Tyler Kepner dives into the history and science of all ten, illustrating each pitch through its chief aficionados and in riveting or colorful moments from key games.

Tidbits abound.

The Slider: “In 1971, J.R. Richard tied a record for strikeouts in a major league debut, with 15 in a complete game victory in San Francisco. Willie Mays struck out three times.” Richard could hold eight baseballs in one hand. Richard threw his slider at 98 miles per hour, often with better control than his fastball.

The Curveball: It’s not as dangerous to a pitcher’s arm health as the slider. However: “There are far more young pitchers than there are coaches qualified to teach a safe curveball.” Nolan Ryan agrees with this. It’s all about your hand position on the ball and a consistent arm slot.

The Knuckleball: Jim Bouton, who wrote Ball Four and who won two World Series games for the New York Yankees in 1964, was still throwing knuckleballs at age 78 (Kepner visited him in Massachusetts). Bouton, who died last week, built a cinder-block backstop and still hit the strike zone “most of the time.” So Jim Bouton.

The Changeup: Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg used to sit in the left field seats as a teenager at Petco Park in San Diego to watch Trevor Hoffman warm up. Strasburg admired Hoffman’s changeup. Hoffman also inspired Cole Hamels to learn the changeup, which is one of the most difficult pitches to learn to throw. Who knew?

Two final thoughts.

First, K is clearly the product of a smart enthusiast with a gift for telling stories. It’s no wonder Tyler Kepner is the national baseball writer for The New York Times. (I want his job.)

Second, it’s not just the 10 pitches. It’s the variety of characters and attitudes on the mound. Ten pitches, sure, but hundreds and hundreds of colorful characters throughout baseball history who brought emotion and competitiveness (or anger, humor, craftiness, etc.) to the art and science of throwing a baseball.

Ten pitches, sure, but the guys on the mound? Humanity is endless. Kepner captures the personalities of the sport as well as he writes about the pitches themselves.

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.