12 July 2016

2016 reading list, April - June

Charles Bukowski, Pulp. NY: Ecco, 1994.

Part of Bukowski’s response to his publisher’s observation that fiction sells better than poetry, Pulp is a genre spoof in which Lady Death hires the hard-drinking narrator, the self-proclaimed best dick in L.A., to track down the apparently not yet dead French author Celine. By the end, he has closed this, and several other, odd cases.

Dedicated to bad writing, the last Bukowski novel published in his lifetime is an example of a great talent tossing off something in a different, but related, field with a shrug while saying, “that’s easy”, complete with the flaws that come from careless, or unconcerned, inattention. And it is a lot of fun.

Mike Bryan, Baseball Lives. NY: Pantheon, 1989.

Baseball Lives is a collection of oral histories from those who do not play baseball, but earn their living working in and around the game, providing the view from baseball’s back stage. Bryan talks to everyone from the owner to the bus driver; from pitching instructor to orthopedist; player agent, grounds crew, and bat factory employee. This book creates a deep and vibrant backdrop for the game by foregrounding the support that makes our on-field entertainment possible.

Gore Vidal, Kalki. NY: Ballantine, 1978.

What if the Vedic Texts are true, and Siva will destroy the world with a kiss?
What if someone wanted them to be true?
Jim Kelly wants to make them true: he is inhabited by, or becomes, Kalki, who will dance to end the age of Kali and bring an end to this age. Vidal’s propulsive plotting and prose make it hard to put down this putative account of the aftermath.

On a side note, the copy I read was discarded from a high school library. I doubt a book about one man ending the world would now be considered appropriate for such audiences.

Ben Lindbergh & Sam Miller, The Only Rule Is It Has to Work. NY: Henry Holt, 2016.

Baseball, we are told, is a game of failure: where but the batter’s box can one fail seven of ten times and be a star? And ultimately, this delightful book is about failure. It tells the story of an independent league team, the Sonoma Stompers, and two internet stats guys who spent the summer of 2015 trying to use their new ideas to build a winner. Some of their ideas -- like a five-man infield -- worked, they had a lot of fun, and they got to the championship game, but along the way they came to understand a brutal calculus: Baseball is a game of failure. Every game fails to forestall death.

Jonna Russ, The Female Man. Boston: Beacon, 1975.

Despite heavy feminist overtones that may distract some readers, this should be recognized as an important piece of science fiction. The narrative voice is reminiscent of Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim; it is not unreliable, but unstuck and self-aware, switching between embodiments of the same person in different, parallel universes who are, eventually, all brought together for a common goal. One of these universes, Whileaway, may be the model for Sheri Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country, as it is a world without men.

Yet all of this is predicated on accepting that “there must be an infinite number of possible universes (such is the fecundity of God)”. Quantum physics makes the fiction possible, creating science fiction, one of literature’s only safe spaces: a world, sufficiently removed from our own, in which any subject (in this case, the role and rightful place of women) can be explored. Russ may not be generally appreciated as such, but this book demonstrates that she is a master of the genre.

A.B. Guthrie, Jr., A Field Guide to Writing Fiction. NY: HarperCollins, 1991.

It’s twenty-five years since I first read this book, and the re-reading is overdue. It is, to fiction writing, what Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is to prose stylists. The forty chapters are short, but contain much that may as well be tattooed on the writer’s flesh as his brain: show, don’t tell. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Put words on paper, one at a time, in the best fashion you know how. Good enough, isn’t. They aren’t all Guthrie’s words, but his collecting and illustrating them is crisp, insightful, and never dull.

John Thorn, The Relief Pitcher. NY: Dutton, 1979.

In 1979, Rollie Fingers was at the height of his powers and Mariano Rivera was ten years old, so this history is obviously dated. Yet, as a study of how relief pitching developed from an injury-only substitution to the high-leverage specialization seen today, it is impressive. Breaking baseball into ears based on how pitchers were used, Thorn integrates interviews and biography to illustrate the changes, interspersing the story with in-depth examinations of his “Ten Best” -- three of whom, Ron Perranoski, Dick Radatz, and Mike Marshall, attended Michigan State University.

Kathleen Norris, Mink Coat. NY: Pocket, 1949.

A World War II romance, in which a small-town girl marries an engineer and is happy until he enlists, then, swept off her feet by a rich man, divorces the engineer and remarries. She only begins to regret the decision when her new husband also enlists and the first returns, injured, and also remarries.

Yet, thanks to the horrors of war, it all works out. Notable not for the somewhat incredible plot or overly-lush language (originally serialized in Cosmopolitan, Norris was clearly paid by the word), but as an unexpectedly insightful meditation on marriage.

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. NY: William Morrow, 2013.

Gaiman has written a small book, like a duck pond, that reached depths unimagined from the shore. Set in a single afternoon’s remembering, it tells of childhood dreams, death, hope, and horror. The magic it recounts may be imagination or mis-remembering, but serves to remind that some placed do, and will always, provide a special strength and solace, and that we must sometimes revisit them.

H.G. Wells, The History of Mr. Polly (ed. Gordon Ray). Cambridge, MA: 1960, Riverside.

Mr. Polly is a fine, aimless young man who “seemed to stand about a great deal, to read -- an indolent habit -- and presently to seek company for talking.” He comes into some money when his father dies. Being bored with life as a shop clerk, he naturally marries and opens his own shop. After fifteen years, be burns it down in a bungled suicide attempt.

Surprisingly funny and direct, one of only four “serious” novels between Wells’ Sci-Fi and propaganda periods, Mr. Polly is ramblefunctious, and holds up better than much of the era’s fiction.

Robert Dance, Illustrated by Lynd Ward. NY: Grolier Club, 2015.

Lynd Ward, 1905- '85, was a graphic artist who mostly illustrated books. He won a Caldecott Medal in 1953 for The Biggest Bear, and twice illustrated Newberry Award winners. His most important work, though, was a series of pioneering “novels” depicting the Great Depression in wood engravings, produced between 1929 and 1937. Illustrated by is part biography and part current catalogue of Ward’s work, and my be of interest to Art Deco scholars, graphic novelists, and bibliophiles.

Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country (translated by Edward Seidensticker). NY: Berkley, 1956.

Shimamura, an idler who might as well spend his time in the mountains as anywhere, visits a hot spring resort in Japan’s snow country and meets the young geisha Komako. Kawabata chronicles their relationship as it develops through Shimamura’s retrun visits.

T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone. NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1963.

The first installment of The Once and Future King, White’s contemporary retelling of the Camelot stories, shows young Arthur’s education. As Merlyn’s magic allows him to experience a variety of new perspectives, Arthur makes the friends who give him strength to become King.