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.”

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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.