Monday, June 4, 2012

May Reading

Here's what I read in May

1. The Whore of Akron by Scott Raab

My wife and I have an understanding.  When the Steelers lose, I get one 45-minute sulking period in which I am exempt from all domestic duties, when and am free to pout, curse, and generally act like a baby.  

When my forty-five minutes are up, it's time for me to behave like an adult again.  Some losses take longer to get over than others, but when my heart gets particularly pulverized I remind myself that I am a fully-formed adult who should be able to act like one.  When my time runs out, I get over it.  Or pretend to.

Scott Raab has no such time limits over his reaction to disappointment, and The Whore of Akron is a 300-page screed about LeBron James's disgraceful abandonment of his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and the pain it caused a faithful nation of Cleveland fans.  So, when LeBron leaves Cleveland at the end of the disgusting hour-long ego-stroke known as "The Decision," the wound is not only devastating--it's also self-affirming.

Get over it?  Why would Raab want to do that?  He's a Cleveland sports fan, and they've been getting their hearts kicked in since the last time any of their teams won a national title (the 1964 NFL championship, when the Brown beat the Colts--Raab was there).  Furthermore, he's a Jew, taught to be thankful for his blessings in the face of his suffering.  The Hebrew dayenu becomes his motto, even while he travels around the country just to watch Lebron lead the 2010-2011 Miami Heat to victory after victory.

This book is shocking and filthy and hilarious, and I didn't want to put it down.  As you might imagine, it's not about LeBron James as much as it is about Scott Raab, a man looking back at his 57 years of broken marriages, drug and alcohol addictions, regrets, and redemptions.  

And that's where The Whore of Akron gets it right.  Despite what Ken Burns, Bob Costas, or Doris Kearns Goodwin would have you believe, sporting events are not always meant to be remembered in soft focus, or in sepia tones, or with poignant piano music tinkling in the background.  Sports are not a metaphor for the self-renewing miracles of life; sometimes they are the whip one uses to flagellate oneself.  

Take Raab's account of "The Catch," the goosebump-inducing grab made by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series, and a catch that, remember, helped defeat the Cleveland Indians:
It always begins with The Catch, when Willie Mays snared Vic Wertz's 420-foot drive in the eighth inning of Game 1 of the 1954 World Series.  There were runners on first and second and no outs; the game was tied 2-2.   The Giants won that game in the bottom of the tenth on a pop-fly home run down the right-field line and went on to sweep the Tribe--whose 111 regular-season wins that year stood as the major league record for another 44 years.
Willie was twenty-three at the time; I was two.  I'd say I've seen The Catch at least 500 times, and every time I see it I say the same three words: F*** Willie Mays. 
 Only a real sports writer could type those last words and make you understand.

2. How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish (didn't finish)

I spent a lot of time on this book before finally giving up.  I recommend this book only to English majors who find their literary criticism readings to be too stimulating and want something a little more pedantic.

3. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

There has been a lot of hype surrounding this novel, and from the first moment I heard about it, people were talking about what a fantastic feat it was.  Everyone seemed to have read it and loved it, and I wanted to get in on the action, too.  But I'm such a cheapskate that I didn't want to buy it in hardback, and then when it came out in paperback I chose the free books from my library instead, and finally my wife, God bless her, went out and bought me a brand new copy.

Now, I liked The Art of Fielding--I really did.  I'm not sure it lived up to the acclaim it received, for reasons I will mention below, but let me begin by saying that I enjoyed the novel and found it to be well-written, compelling, sophisticated (though maybe not as sophisticated as it thought it was), and more or less satisfying.

Let's get right down to the overarching flaw of the novel--it's about baseball.  Baseball is one of my main passions in life, and I've read many stories and novels on the topic.  The problem with books about baseball is that there are so many dreadful cliches about the game and its players that it takes a writer with a strong will to avoid them all.  (The same goes for my other passion--rock and roll, though that is another blog post entirely.)

The Art of Fielding starts off on a hot, dusty ballfield in South Dakota, where a catcher, who had been "roasting like a beetle in his black catcher's gear" (what a wonderful simile), watches a skinny kid field ground balls.  The skinny kid turns out to be a defensive protege and devotee of a Zen-like hall-of-fame short-stop named Aparicio Rodriguez, who wrote a book called The Art of Fielding that includes helpful tips such as this one: "The shorstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense.   He projects this stillness and his teammates respond."

Ok.  Not a cliche in the bunch there.

The book ends, however by falling into he trap of almost every narrative about a sports team--the championship game.  The climax of the novel takes place as a disgraced ballplayer is called (unexpectedly!  almost miraculously!) to the plate in the bottom of the ninth of the final game of the season, against a team of cooly efficient baseball-playing machines.  And I don't want to spoil the ending of this story, but let me tell you that the result of the at-bat is even more disappointingly weak than what you are imagining.

Writers of the world, listen!  It doesn't have to be this way!  It's lazy to assume that an athlete or team needs a bottom-of-the-ninth, two on, two out, three-and-two count situation to express the meaning of being an athlete.  The meaning of sport or being a member of a team can just as eloquently be expressed from a pedestrian loss in the middle of a long road trip, or a failed try-out, or, I don't know, fielding ground balls on an infield in South Dakota.

Think of the stories you know of that fall into this trap.  There are the terrible movies, like Major League or The Best of Times.  Hoosiers is in there somewhere.  Then there are beloved works of Americana, such as "Casey at the Bat," or The Natural.   (If you don't know this already, the end of Malamud's fantastic novel, The Natural, is quite different from its dull film version, but both end in a climactic at-bat at the end of a title game.)

You know what movie got it right?  Bull Durham.  That's right.  That movie didn't end with some tedious championship game at all.  It ended with the wise old catcher (though there's a cliche right there) attending to the whimpering end of his career while the young hot-shot got called up into a world of major league uncertainty.

Bull Durham owns.

To leave the plot of the novel aside, there are many admirable qualities of The Art of Fielding, including its well-drawn characters who are all infuriating and a little bit unbelievable, but who you sympathize with anyway.  If I had it all to do over, I would certainly read this book again.  It was an enjoyable experience and a truly artful book, but it was not perhaps what I wanted from it.

(Side-note.  I love The Best of Times.  I don't want you to get the wrong opinion from what I wrote about it above.  I've seen that movie many, many times.  When you talk about the movies I've seen more than any other, you've got The Blues Brothers, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Jaws, but following shortly behind is The Best of Times.)

4. Treasury of Illustrated Classics: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I found this middle-school version of Moby Dick in my classroom library, and thought it would be fun.  Moby Dick and Herman Melville loom large in The Art of Fielding, and I felt afraid that I was missing half the story because I am woefully ignorant of the details of Moby Dick.

In The Art of Fielding, one of the main characters is an expert on Melville, who helped create a center of Melville-ania on his school's campus.  There's a statue of Melville on the grounds, the baseball team is called the Harpooners, and the bar that the characters frequent is called "Bartleby's."  There's a Skrimshander in the book, as well as a homosexual relationship revolving around a Billy Budd-like object of desire.  And there's a watery burial.  There's a lot in there.

So I read this book!  It was a lot of fun to read something intended for fifth-graders, but I feel that I now have a better understanding of the story of Moby Dick than I did before I started.  I was never clear about who Ishmael was, since I knew that Ahab was the captain, but now I know.  You know what?  Jaws was a total rip-off of Moby Dick!

This book is written for schoolchildren, and I found it hilarious that the editors found it necessary to revise the first sentence of the book.  Apparently, "Call me Ishmael" is too difficult a sentence for young readers.  So they changed it!

Whoa!  Really?  You though that was a good idea?
Moby Dick is not on my list of books to be read, but maybe some day I will find the motivation and time to read it.  Until then, I'll always have the Treasury of Illustrated Classics version to tide me over.

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