John Feinstein is one of the big names in sports journalism. He’s written books on a number of headline-getting sports stories and consequently can be heard often on sports radio as an expert guest. Feinstein’s background is as a newspaper guy, writing for the Washington Post among others. The Last Amateurs is about college basketball in the Patriot League, a (mostly) non-scholarship league that struggles to survive in the world of big time college ball. To Feinstein, this is one of the last bastions of unadulterated amateur basketball in the United States. These kids play for little more than the love of the game and the glory of winning the league’s one berth to the NCAA Tournament. He follows the seven teams from schools like Holy Cross, Lehigh, and Navy through a whole season, focusing on the personalities, on the struggles peculiar to this one of a kind league, and on the great basketball games that never came close to showing up on a Sportscenter highlight reel. Feinstein’s newsy writing and copious background anecdotes keep the book moving at a fast pace. It isn’t, however, the transcendent sports writing of a Roger Angell. Instead, the book reads like a dozen Sports Illustrated articles strung end to end. As such, this is a fantastic book for fans of college basketball, as it really captures what is best about that game.
I recently found myself compelled to revisit Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried for lots of reasons, not the least of which was reading Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s remarkable new collection of war stories, Brief Encounters with the Enemy. I wanted some context for the experience. In fact, after reading Brief Encounters…, I asked several friends and colleagues if they were asked to suggest a work of war literature, what would it be? The responses were what you’d expect: The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22, some recent examples, like The Yellow Birds, or Tree of Smoke, but overwhelmingly the book suggested was O’Brien’s. It was the first book I’d thought of, too, and so I dug around for my copy.
The first thing that struck me was the epigraph, taken from John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary:
This book is essentially different from any other that has been published concerning the “late war” or any of its incidents. Those who have had any such experience as the author will see its truthfulness at once, and to all other readers it is commended as a statement of actual things by one who experienced them to the fullest.
What struck me was how this epigraph could just as well work for Sayrafiezadeh’s book, for very different but no less relevant reasons.
And it is.
The Things They Carried wants to convey viscerally and poetically what it was really like, over there. Which for O’Brien means disorientation, confusion, fractured sensory experienced, amorality, and a memory that cannot be trusted. Truth is entirely up for grabs. Probably my favorite story in the bunch is the often quoted and practically protean “How to Tell a True War Story,” which opens with a short, sly, and pretty bold statement: “This is true.” O’Brien then proceeds to dismantle a few presumptions regarding truth: “A true war story is never moral;” “If a war story seems moral, do not believe it;” “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it be skeptical;” “Often in a true war story there is not even a point;” there’s plenty more. Prior to O’Brien, the mission of the war story was mostly to tell civilian readers what it was like over there, “there” being a main point. In fact, think of the mythic narrative that surrounds the “thereness” of war: from the seminal American anthem, “Over There” (here’s a colorized clip of Jimmy Cagney singing it from Yankee Doodle Dandy), to Dalton Trumbo’s award-winning novel Johnny Got His Gun, inspired by the anthem’s opening line (“Johnny get your gun, get your gun, get your gun”), to Metallica’s video for “One,” a song inspired by Trumbo’s novel, the video cut with clips from the novel’s infamous film adaptation. But O’Brien’s story decries these three versions of truth. In fact, the story closes with: “in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war.” Which brings us back to Sayrafiezadeh’s book, a dynamite collection of war stories, with hardly any war in them at all.
Sayrafiezadeh is no stranger to writing books that artfully navigate contemporary politics. His 2009 memoir <i>When Skateboards will be Free is basically the story of a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, and his strained adult relationship with his father. But it also happens to be the engrossing story of a youth spent in the Socialist Worker Party, and the best firsthand account of American fundamentalist ideological indoctrination I’ve ever read (I’ve read quite a few, I have my reasons…). What makes Brief Encounters with the Enemy such a singular book is not so much Sayrafiezadeh’s attempt at conveying what war feels like right now, but his choice of location. This is not a book about there. It’s about here, what America feels like, here, and now, while at war.
The stories are linked by way of subject and space, set in what feels eerily like your average and somewhat depressed American city (Wal-Marts and convenience stores, suburbs, city blocks, and bus routes), sometimes hilariously referred to as an “Emerging International City,” but one that refuses to name itself. That refusal lends the collection a strange sort of intimacy from its opening pages, a dreamlike déjà vu. And Sayrafiezadeh’s subject: how does a nation go about its daily business while its young men and women kill and die at war for more than a decade already? There are parades, yes, of course, like in “Paranoia,” when the narrator and his friend Roberto drive to downtown to see the 4th of July Parade: “The turnout was extraordinary,” and “[p]eople applauded, but the applause seemed to disorient the veterans.” But parades can’t happen everyday, and so for the remainder of each year, we lose our jobs, and get new jobs, house-watch for friends, and fall in love on the coffee line. All of which happens in Brief Encounters… Which is to say, we are at war and we simply go about our business. But such a state of schizophrenic complacency does have its price.
The entire collection is marked by a mix of malaise and foreboding that feels uncannily like American life right now. Uncertainty about weather and “the war” pervade these stories: “It was winter now and it was cold and the bus drivers were on strike. And the war was coming, everybody said so,” says the narrator of “Cartography;” “When April arrived, it started to get warm and everyone said that the war was definitely going to happen soon and there was nothing anybody could do to stop it,” from “Paranoia.” The sense throughout is of an anxious culture, a culture in which war looms, almost naturally, cyclically. And one that shares a kind of secondhand collective (mis)understanding, “everybody said so.” A culture in which military imagery and heroic language is appropriated by daily routine and has no meaningful corresponding relationship to its real world referent: a bus rider on a cramped bus describes sweating heavily, “rivulets ran from my armpits down my sides and collected in the elastic of my underwear. This is what it must feel like for soldiers on the transport heading to battle;” line cooks “come to the aid of another who has fallen far behind, as if in battle,” and they scald themselves with boiling water like “grenades had gone off” in their hands, and still they “continue marching onward up the hill.” In “Operators,” Wally comes back from the war “to great fanfare, that I felt undeserved,” says the narrator. “He had departed to great fanfare too — which was also undeserved.” What follows is a totally uncomfortable, and poignant, and just plain funny tug-of-war between two co-workers for the attention of the pretty office girls. Now seems like a good time to say how funny all of these stories are, and I don’t mean punch line funny, I mean tragicomedy along the lines of Bellow and DeLillo.
There is one honest to goodness story here about a young soldier at war, the title story, in which the soldier finds himself mostly getting bored: “Instead of getting in shape, I started to get fatter.” He does have a cool gun, however, so cool and creepily like a sort of militarized iPhone, that it not only shoots bullets, but tells the time and temperature too.
Plus it could kill a man from a mile away. You hardly even had to pull the trigger. If you put your finger in the proximity of the trigger, it sensed what you wanted to do and it pulled itself. Poof went the bullet, and the gun would vibrate gently, as if you were getting a call on your cell phone.
Among all the things this soldier carries — “it was the lightest thing on me.”
Brief Encounters with the Enemy does something rare in that it contributes something new and “essentially different” to the literature of war — our stories, about what it’s like over here. It’s discomfiting, and surprising, and illuminating to say the least. I’ve not read anything like it before.
With my personal sport of choice – professional basketball – surging towards the playoffs, I felt a need to read about sports. I needed to read about jocks and sweat and champions and the like.Instead, I read about gambling. And politics.Oh, and a little bit of about sports.(First, though, an aside. I read three books this month – not very many, I know, but it was a shorter month. One of them was To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.Yes, it was better than Hey Rube. But with To Kill a Mockingbird being selected as South Dakota’s “The Big Read” selection for this year, I figured it would be getting as much press as it could handle [“No, he’s not being ironic. Corey is from South Dakota” — Max]. So I’m going with number two.Back to the review.)Really, Hey Rube, a collection of Hunter S. Thompson’s ESPN.com columns, isn’t about sports at all. It’s about gambling, mostly, with a little counter-culture political rants thrown in to balance things out. There’s a fair bit about his friends, all of which involves gambling and politics. Still, every once in a while Thompson brings it back to sports.The primary focus of Thompson’s rants usually leans towards the NFL – widely though of as “the gamblers’ league” – and with rightful cause. Here you’ll delve into the mind of a degenerate gambler; one who understands the subtle difference between getting 10 points against the Colts compared to a measly 9. You’ll begin to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a man that loves his friends, but loves even more to take their money.Above all, though, you’ll see the fine line between politics and sports. While both seem incredibly different, you’ll find they’re not – at their cores, both subjects are nearly identical. Both deal with competing forces that, often times, exhibit nearly opposite styles. Both find themselves hotly debated at all times of the day, regardless of a person’s knowledge or competency in the subject. The only real difference is that political leaders are chosen, while in sports the leaders are determined after a long and brutal physical battle.In fact, politics would be a lot more interesting if they adopted the “physical battle” concept.Hey Rube is not for the faint of heart. It’s vitriolic. It’s spit out with a forked tongue. It’s full of anti-administration propaganda and cursing. Never before has anyone felt so pained while talking about his favorite sport. Thompson rages that “watching the Baltimore Ravens play football is like watching scum freeze on the eyeballs of a jackass,” a line that is as true a sports criticism as “steroids ruined baseball” or “the NFL Pro Bowl is no longer relevant.”The odd thing is how attractive he makes everything sound, while at the same time seemingly hating every minute of it. Thompson’s obsession with gambling, football, and his own twisted thoughts sounds unnatural. It is. Still, Hey Rube left me longing to join him. It couldn’t have been that horrible to hang out and watch football with Thompson, except for the fact that you might get shot.Or even worse – you might be convinced to run a marathon with Sean Penn.Listen, we all miss Hunter. It’s still incredibly chic to mention his name and blabber on incessantly about how he was a literary genius and how he’ll never be replaced.In all actuality, this is not Thompson’s best book. It’s fractured, and it’s not in his usual wheelhouse. But it is very good. And if you like sports more than politics, as I do, you’ll find more pleasure in Hey Rube than you might find in any of his campaign memoirs.And as far as his genius is concerned, well, it’s true. He was a genius. He filled a specific niche that not everyone respected – and that’s fine. Some like him, some revere him, and others can’t stand him. That’s all part of his shtick. Regardless of your feelings, you have to admit he made an impact.Even if it was only by pointing out the importance of never betting against Duke basketball.-Corey VilhauerBlack Marks on Wood PulpFebruary 2006 CVBoMCJanuary 2006 CVBoMC
In winter of 1814, British sailors recorded seeing “clouds of ashes” at the peak of Mount Tambora, a volcanic mountain in the East Indies. A few months later, in the spring of 1815, Tambora exploded with huge, jet-like flames, a column of fire known as a “Plinian” eruption, after Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. But Tambora burned hotter than Vesuvius, and it was so powerful that it ejected rock, ash, and other materials into the stratosphere, where they remained suspended, wreaking havoc on global weather patterns for the next three years. 1816 was known as “The Year Without Summer”—a relatively mild title for a year that brought famine, disease, and poverty. In the United States, there was snow in June, destroying crops and bringing the country’s first economic depression. In Ireland and China, unremitting rains flooded fields; while in India, monsoon season never arrived. Bacteria flourished in these stagnant, impoverished conditions, and outbreaks of typhus and cholera can be traced back to that dreary, volcanic winter.
I learned these and many other historical details from Gillen D’arcy Wood’s Tambora: The Eruption That Changed The World. Tambora is a new book, but one I discovered haphazardly, through that great portal of haphazardness: Wikipedia. I was fact-checking an overwrought simile (re: procrastinating) and landed on the Wikipedia entry for Frankenstein, where I learned that the great fictional monster was the indirect result of “The Year Without Summer.” I’d never heard of “The Year Without Summer” and in its addictive way, Wikipedia provided a link to an article on the subject, which in turn provided a link to the 1815 Eruption of Mount Tambora, which in turn provided a link to the Pacific Ring of Fire, which in turn led to an article about plate tectonics, which in turn led to a page about super-Earths, which in turn led me to wonder about the origin of the universe and what is the meaning of life on Earth, which I believe is that state of existential confusion to which all Wikipedia rabbit holes eventually lead. I am grateful that on this particular foray, it only took six steps—and also, of course, that it led me to read Tambora, which gave me a glimpse into a startlingly dramatic period in history.
To get back to “The Year Without Summer” (which at this point in July sounds like a marvelous situation) and the creation of Frankenstein, you must transport yourself to a storm-lashed villa on Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. There, sitting in front of a roaring fire, is Percy Shelley, Mary soon-to-be-Shelley Godwin, Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, and also, Lord Byron’s doctor (whose presence is somewhat irrelevant, but who I will include, anyway, in the spirit of Wikipedia). This privileged, literary bunch has been driven indoors by unseasonably cold weather, driving rain, and spectacular thunderstorms—all due to Mount Tambora, although of course they don’t know it. Bored and perhaps tired of reciting poetry, they decide to have a contest for who can tell the best ghost story. Mary’s late entry is a tale about a student, Victor Frankenstein, who discovers how to bring life to inanimate material. Frankenstein uses this power to create an eight-foot tall “creature” who is never given a name, but who eventually kills Frankenstein’s wife and escapes to the North Pole. It’s not a ghost story but a monster story, one inspired by Shelley’s extensive readings into science and myth.
Wood argues that Frankenstein was also inspired by the stormy, Tambora-induced weather, and that “the pyrotechnical lightning displays” raging outside Shelley’s villa windows were written into the novel. He cites a passage from Frankenstein in which a teenaged Victor Frankenstein witnesses an oak tree catching fire after being struck by lightning: “As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared and nothing remained but a blasted stump.” This is Frankenstein’s moment of inspiration, or as Wood writes: “In the fierce smithy of that Tamborean storm, Frankenstein is born as the anti-superhero of modernity—the ‘Modern Prometheus’—stealer of the gods’ fire.”
That small extract gives a taste of Wood’s prose style, which can veer toward over-the-top, but one of the things I liked about Tambora was its generous dose of literary criticism. Not only does Wood mention the influence of Tambora’s volcanic weather on Frankenstein, he also writes about the ways that Shelley’s 1826 post-apocalyptic novel, The Last Man, may have been inspired by the cholera epidemic that emerged in the wake of Tambora. Wood also discusses the poetry of Shelley’s fireside companions, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley; and in his chapter on China, Wood quotes from the verse of Li Yuyang, who chronicled the heavy rains and flooding that came as a result of Tambora: Rain falls unending, like tears of blood/from the sentimental man/Horses sink and shudder/like fish in the rippling water. Reporting on the effects of Tambora on America, Wood turns to the writings of Thomas Jefferson, whose Edenic vision of America and in particular, his home state of Virginia, was challenged by the inexplicably cold weather brought on by Tambora. Even more challenging was the real estate bubble and economic depression that followed The Year Without Summer, thanks to what we would probably now characterize as “fluctuations in the global marketplace.”
Today, we understand very well how the weather affects local, and even global economics. (And in fact, while I was reading Tambora, I heard a radio story on NPR’s Marketplace about the ill-effects of this past long winter on the American economy.) We may also have a better understanding of how the weather, and in particular severe weather, affects literary imagination. It doesn’t take an especially sensitive critic to link the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic novels to headlines like “Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat By Military” and “In Sign of Warming, 1,600 Years of Ice in Andes Melts in 25 Years.” But the extent to which the human imagination can actually understand and foresee global environmental change is harder to gauge. It’s telling that many post-apocalyptic novels focus on the survival of an individual or a family or perhaps a very small group of people. The story has to be scaled down, otherwise the prospect of a post-apocalyptic future is too big, or maybe just too depressing, to imagine.
With Tambora, Wood doesn’t have to imagine anything—or maybe it’s fairer to say that he doesn’t have to make anything up. He frequently has to imagine what it would have been like to experience extreme weather, disease, and famine, without any scientific understanding of why it is happening. Wood acknowledges this problem in his preface: “The formidable, occasionally mind-bending challenge in writing this book has been to trace cataclysmic world events the cause of which the historical actors themselves were ignorant.” He sees the eruption of Tambora and its devastating after-effects as a case study for rapid climate change, arguing that the years post-Tambora offer “a rare, clear window onto a world convulsed by weather extremes, with human communities everywhere struggling to adapt to sudden, radical shifts in temperatures and rainfall.” Wood further argues that the influence of Tambora on this period of history has been overlooked because “the Tamborean climate emergency followed hard upon the devastations of the Napoleonic Wars and has always remained in the shadows of that epochal conflict.” I like that Wood uses the word “epochal” to characterize the importance of the Napoleonic Wars, because an epoch is also a unit of geological time and seems to hint at the irony that Wood is exposing: human societies have been mostly profoundly shaped by environmental factors thousands of years in the making, yet we continue to look to recent historical events (usually wars engineered by Great Men) to understand our predicament.
Rules of Civility is a great deal of fun. A gas! A lark! “Driver,” says secondary character Bitsy, “find Madison Avenue and start driving up it.” All the characters are snappy-talking New Yorkers. Rarely is a conversation had without cocktails.
The novel tells the story of three people — boardinghouse roommates Katey Kontent and Eve Ross and the rich young banker, Tinker Grey, who they meet on New Year’s Eve. They become fast friends, due mainly to Eve’s lack of inhibition, and spend the whole of 1938 exacting large influence in each other’s lives.
Katey is the quieter, smarter of the girls, a daughter of Russian immigrants, always reading Dickens and having to borrow clothes to look stylish. Eve is the headstrong instigator of mischief who cut ties with her family in Indiana to climb the Manhattan social ladder. Tinker, the poor lamb, is exactly what both girls want — for Katey a serious, well-read young man who is easy to talk to, for Eve an eligible bachelor who will buy her dinner at The Explorers Club.
Before this love triangle can become a real problem, the three are in a car accident which leaves Tinker and Katey unscathed, but Eve with a scar and a bum leg. Because he was driving and feels responsible, Tinker has Eve move into his Upper West Side apartment for her rehabilitation, and Katey starts drifting out of their lives.
Katey narrates the novel in the past tense. From the novel’s opening, which takes place at a Walker Evans exhibition in the 60s, we know that she is happy and married and on the wealthy side, so her retelling of her volatile 20s is in a voice combining an outsider’s vulnerability and a veteran’s wisdom. It’s reminiscent of Fitzgerald or Waugh, in that “what gay parties we all had in those days, until our inner demons simply couldn’t be repressed any longer” vein.
The tone may border on nostalgic. Amor Towles describes 1930s clothes and equipage and restaurants like they’re all magical. The dialogue may border on caricature, such as this intoxicated party exchange:
Dicky bowed, knocking a glass of gin into Roberto’s lap.
—“Mon Dieu, Roberto! Be a little more fleet of foot, man!”
—“Fleet of foot? You’ve ruined another pair of khaki trousers.”
—“Come now. You’ve a lifetime supply.”
—“Whatever the state of my supply, I demand an apology.”
—“Then you shall have one!”
But neither tone, dialogue, nor characters ever fully fall into camp. Everything is balanced by Katey’s calm, and Towles’ tendency to inject these merry scenes with advice, like “be careful when choosing what you’re proud of — because the world has every intention of using it against you,” or “As a quick aside, let me observe that in moments of high emotion — whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment — if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say.”
I find it fascinating that Amor Towles took on this particular subject and era. As I was reading, it was impossible to forget that the book is a 47-year-old investment banker’s debut novel. In an interview, he said, “I prefer to put myself in an environment that’s farther afield and look through the eyes of someone who differs from me in age, ethnicity, gender and/or social class. I think a little displacement makes me a sharper observer.” And yet, Towles doesn’t relish giving Katey girl friends. Besides Eve, Katey spends most of the book talking to men.
Observation is certainly Katey’s greatest gift. “The couples at the tables around us were engaged in conversations they’d been having for years,” she says, when Tinker takes her out for dinner. She spends the book bouncing back and forth between upper and lower class Manhattan. She doesn’t have Eve’s social ambition, but she does get around. Unmoored for a while from Tinker and Eve’s dominating personalities, she comes into her own.
Rules of Civility takes its name from the famous guide to decorum that George Washington copied down as a young man, which Tinker keeps with him. The novel examines how, by changing your attitudes, behaviors, and manners, you can reinvent yourself, and how Katey, Tinker, and Eve all did this in 1938. When Katey admires a sales clerk’s red hair, the clerk replies, “If I may be so bold, Miss Kontent, the color of my hair is available to you on the second floor.” In 1938 New York, it would seem that everything was available to you if you knew where to find it, how to dress, and how to hold your liquor.
So, while I was at work yesterday, I finally picked up Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book has been in stores for a while, and yet people continue to talk about it in glowing terms, so I decided I ought to take a look. Considering that this is a book about baseball, I was surprised that people have continued to talk about it even though it’s been out for two months. Usually baseball books interest only the baseball fans who read them, and that’s that. Moneyball, however, appears to transcend the ghetto of sports literature. I manged to breeze through about a hundred pages yesterday, and I have to say, I can’t wait to get back to reading it. The interesting thing about this book is that in discussing the mini revolution that has occurred in the business of baseball, it touches upon a variety of disperate topics. This book is a must read for baseball fans, but it should also be read by anyone who is interested in economics and psychology, as well as by anyone who enjoys a good character-driven, non-fiction book. It’s good stuff.