When it comes to baseball, the mind is unreliable and selective in what it remembers. Games and seasons blend into to one another and most second basemen or relief pitchers fade from view forever soon after they leave the diamond for good. Old teams and players live on only as lines of statistics in massive baseball encyclopedias or deep historical databases. Lost, too, are the millions of moments that make up every game. But Roger Angell has been quite good, over the years, at capturing those moments and preserving them as though in amber. And so, in reading his collection of baseball pieces that span more than forty years, one feels a bit like the lucky archeologist who has stumbled upon magnificent specimens so exquisitely preserved as to seem positively lifelike. Angell writes with almost scientific precision: “With the strange insect gaze of his shining eyeglasses, with his ominous Boche-like helmet pulled low… Reggie Jackson makes a frightening figure at bat.” Angell is not just an observer; he is also the ultimate fan, rooting for childhood favorites or for a team whose story has caught his fancy that particular year. Game Time is laid out like the baseball year, with pieces about the languor and anticipation of spring training in the beginning and closing with multi-faceted recollections of several past World Series. The many pieces taken together are like one long summer spanning forty years, a summer when you went to the ballpark frequently but listened to most of the games on the radio on the back porch at dusk.
Wow. Sports Illustrated has just published an excerpt of Game of Shadows by SF Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams that lays out what can only be described as incontrovertible evidence that Barry Bonds has been a rampant steroid user for the last several years. This is going to rock the baseball world, and I hope it really does shake things up – I’d love to see the game get back to the way it was before wierdly beefy guys started launching home runs night after night. This is big book news too. I got a breathless “news alert” from a publicist pointing to the impact the SI excerpt is having on the book’s sales. As of this writing, yesterday’s Amazon rank for the book was 119,745 and now it’s up to 75, and climbing I’d assume. So here’s to a clean, non-chemically enhanced baseball season. Can we make it happen this year, please?
At the bottom of Ian McEwan’s new novel The Children Act, a brisk tour of the English family courts, is the same bitter pill the writer has been mulling over since his early work, refusing to swallow. A youthful and artistic idealism must be sacrificed to responsible administration. In The Cement Garden, McEwan’s first novel, a house of orphaned adolescents ward off government services for a time by storing their mother’s body in an elaborately cemented trunk kept in the basement. But this doesn’t eliminate the need for those children to implement grotesque variations on the lost parental order. The state’s eagerness to do more — to midwife the parents — is in turn skewered by The Child In Time’s mammothly dysfunctional Official Commission on Child Care, the recommendations by its 14 subcommittees always mired in political and commercial interests, its members plagued by personal tragedies.
For McEwan, neither the citizens nor the bureaucrats seem up to their end of the social contract, which is why the impersonal law persists to safeguard the sovereignty of individuals in the private, domestic sphere while protecting victims from those who abuse their parental privileges. To be a grown-up worthy of commanding the law is truly a higher, almost divine, calling. So McEwan, stalking secret wellsprings of authority through steady production in five decades, tilts his frame from the easy drama of arguing attorneys to the fallible hand that hands down the judgment. Even a discipline as seemingly objective as Nobel-level physics, as witnessed in Solar, could decay into a Ponzi scheme with the right human contamination. The trendy sociologists in that book, explaining how the discovery of a specific gene or subatomic particle was socially constructed, were supposed to be academic court jesters. McEwan continues to demonstrate how similar social truths can best be delivered elegantly by a novelist.
In The Children Act, High Court Judge Fiona Maye, 59, is highly esteemed and remains invigorated by the cases passing through her Family Division, each exotic claim and novel circumstance “assimilated at speed.” She believes in her work and considers it “a significant marker in civilization’s progress” that the law favors the needs of children over their parents, as coded in the statute that lends the novel its name. The law is an esoteric language, a forbidden fruit whose knowledge causes litigants to lapse. “Parents soon learned the new vocabulary and patient procedures of the law, and were dazed to find themselves in vicious combat with the one they once loved.” After 35 years, Fiona’s marriage is stagnating, and her husband Jack, a Classics professor, candidly asks her permission to pursue an affair with a 28-year-old statistician, Melanie. When he leaves, she changes the locks.
McEwan tailors his sentences for each book, but tends toward Jamesean intricacy, rigging each clause with multiple detonations of meaning. Here is McEwan introducing Solar’s physicist, Michael Beard:
He belonged to that class of men — vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever — who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue.
This plume of competing impressions — physical details and projected airs — is anchored by the storyteller’s pretense to contain his man and pin him to a type. Beard’s elusiveness makes him seem more real. In The Children Act, McEwan uses a closer third-person that mimics Fiona as she coolly itemizes the relevant facts in one of her cases, or in the marital ordeal that consumes more and more of her attention:
Her days were full, and in the evenings recently, various dinners…and taxis, Tube trains, dry-cleaning to collect, a letter to draft about a special school for the cleaning lady’s autistic son, and finally sleep. Where was the sex? At that moment, she couldn’t recall.
Tracks often switch mid-paragraph. Self-pity in others embarrasses the judge, but she can’t help but feel victimized by the ruthless decision her husband makes in favor of a fling. Out of all her courtroom experience, Fiona observes kindness as the “essential human ingredient.” She can sometimes pursue this one humanist virtue in the law by using it to save a child from an unkind parent. The problem is that kindness is voluntary, unwarranted by law.
Circumstance can also prohibit kindness by forcing the choice between two evils. Fiona is still haunted by a famous case of Siamese twins, which left her to decide between a surgery that would result in the death of one brother and letting both die by doing nothing. She cites the trauma of this decision as a turning point, when sensual pleasure between herself and Jack ceased. The case that takes up the bulk of The Children Act offers a medical solution, but to get there Fiona must first grapple with religious fundamentalism. Adam, a cancer-stricken teenage Jehovah’s Witness, refuses a lifesaving blood transfusion. He is 17, not 18, but can be ruled responsible for his elected martyrdom by a standard he easily exceeds.
The judge and the novelist are interesting analogues. McEwan already offered a look in the narrative kitchen with Black Dogs, a literary son-in-law sniffing out one side, then the other, of an estranged marriage that withered away with Communism. As an allegory, the compassionate wife and the sharp-minded husband served as the synthesis absent from Communism’s historical moment, but they could just as easily stand for the two best sides of Fiona. She is entirely credulous about the law. She’s made it her fate. And she can play it like the baby grand that sits in her living room, jazzing up her judgments with Aristotle and John Stuart Mill.
The Children Act is light by McEwan’s standards. It arrives at big questions too easily. Its simplicity nonetheless exposes the limitations set on a society that sees only in laws and how to profit from them. Fiona expresses a typical cynicism when we are given her impressions of a pervasive greed. The children become counters in a game, and every petty grievance is a money grab. Contrasting this “moral kitsch” is an alien display of substance that logically slides toward self-annihilation. Fiona determines that she needs to visit Adam in the hospital in order to rule, and finds that he’s only too aware of the consequences of his conviction. He is intelligent, charismatic, brave, and shows ambition, if not promise, as a poet and violinist. Is moderation even possible?
Fiona is reminded by her many nieces and nephews of just how much of her own life her ambitions have gobbled up. What shines through her legal mastery is McEwan’s commitment to a clear-eyed reckoning of the forces at play in his world, even his own circle, whether through a bitter divorce or the zealous death threats leveled at fellow-writer and friend Salman Rushdie. To remain a prominent, serious novelist in this culture — and not merely among novelists — requires a certain level of engagement with the headlines, and maybe a certain accent. What keeps McEwan afloat is an almost callow ambition sustained, from book to book, by an amateur’s curiosity.
Sometimes subject matter is secondary. John McPhee, for example, can write about long-haul trucking or lacrosse, subjects I’ve got no interest in, and I’ll read each word and marvel at how he’s able to make the topics so compelling, rich, and human. Kerry Howley’s subject matter, in her potent and consuming debut Thrown, falls into the same disinterest bin as trucking and lax, but she brings such vigor and aliveness, such seductive use of detail and tension, that it’s impossible not to lose oneself in the bloody, funny, brutal, balletic world of mixed martial arts. In other words, I don’t care about cage fighting, ultimate fighting, MMA; Kerry Howley made me care.
Bored and disillusioned at an academic conference on phenomenology, Howley, an essayist who’s written for the Paris Review, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, and a graduate of the University of Iowa’s non-fiction program, wanders off for a break from the blowhards. She happens upon a sign that announces the Midwest Cage Championship, and takes a seat in the crowd. She’d never seen a fight before, and is taken in immediately, the blood and spectacle in righteous opposition to the chatter about Husserlian intentionality she’d just fled and academic ivory-towerdom in general. “It was as if someone had oil-slicked my synapses,” she writes, “such that thoughts could whip and whistle their way across the mind without the friction I’d come to experience as thought itself.” This first fight, witnessed by accident, is a path-changer, and Thrown is the account of Howley inserting herself into the lives of two cage fighters. Sean is an aging jab-eater, a fighter looking at his last chances who moves “like a fat man on hot coals”; Erik is a rising star, tall and lean, “a slippery-fast blossoming prodigy.” Howley gains her place as a “spacetaker,” a step up from a groupie, part of a fighter’s inner posse, with access to most aspects of their living, from the size of their burritos and videogame habits to fraternal feuds, possible parenthood, forehead sutures, and months and months of training for minutes of combat in the octagon.
She gets close to Sean and Erik both and masterfully builds tension in the lead-ups to fights–not only will they or won’t they or how well will they do, but will she still be welcomed into the fray. Howley is aware of the fragility of her role, how tenuous the position of spacetaker is–a trusted member of the group can be snubbed at any moment. It’s necessarily a physical book, and there’s sex between some lines: “I lay in bed at night picturing Erik thrown back in the swell, all his perfect plenitude, the pressure of his abundance, the way it would overbrim its boundaries at some unknown date and time. I could only wait, the energy all gathered and damned up in my limbs, for the moment of release I knew to be coming.” These fights for her are orgasm, are ecstasy.
What Howley finds during the first fight she stumbles on, and what she chases afterwards is exactly that experience of ecstasy, and she places the sport, and herself as a spectator, in a long tradition of ecstatic spectacle. The Lotus Eaters, the frenzied maenads, spirit questers on peyote. To experience this sort of ecstasy is to be removed from oneself, to be stripped of the body’s tired reminders of hunger, thirst, need. “The categories of sight and sound no longer applied,” Howley writes, “for a mind in the throes of ecstasy had expanded outward, beyond these rough tools of perception, to greet the universe without the interference of anything so frail as an eye or an ear.”
So it’s not just the drama of busted elbows, landed punches, and split brows, though Howley’s descriptions of bodies in fight are memorable; something much greater is at stake. There’s epic poetry in the cadence of her sentences, a Homeric sort of rhythm: “When the man in charge ran out of fighters he’d ask the fighters to fight again, and Sean always said yes. He never lost an amateur fight, not once. Thirty times he fought this way.” Howley signals with the elevated language, and with references to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, that what we’re dealing with here is not just two dudes kicking the shit out of each other on a mat, but something on the level of war and wandering of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and perhaps even more elevated than that.
It’s a brushing up against the eternal, the infinite, and it’s antithetical to paying bills on time, desk jobs, and high fiber cereal. One of the most striking aspects of the book, and one I found most compelling, is Howley’s disdain for conventional middle-class life. I suspect some will find it offputting when she writes: “I would not fraternize with the healthy-minded; better to leave them to their prenatal yoga, their gluten-free diets, their dull if long lives of quietest self-preserving conformism.” Or “Should I ever decide to spawn a nuclear family and enjoy their dull companionship between bouts of desk-ridden drudgery–to live, that is, in what Sartre called “Bad Faith–I shall return with all due haste to [my hometown]. But until then, I resist the temptation, lest the comfort and simplicity of a conformist life suck me back into its maw.” The fights and her fighters serve as antidote to the “entangling mundanities of the ordinary world.” There’s an electricity here, a welcome and unexpected fervency in opposition to the widespread messages we get regarding rest, weddings, carbohydrates.
We’re all of us looking for people to justify and reinforce our own choices (which is why some no doubt will feel scoffed at by Howley), and she justifies hers with a quote from Nietzsche: “A preference for questionable and terrifying things is a symptom of strength.” One’s left wondering what pulls Howley in those directions. Early in the book, she makes short and offhand mention of a fact about her parents which I had to read three times to make sure I understood, and it raised questions the answers to which could only be guessed at. What we know: Howley seeks to flee the self and the battles serve as an expressway to that end. But if fighting is a fleeing, so is storytelling: “All narrators are fiction,” Howley writes.
The book is about fighting, yes, about an extreme sport and some of the men involved, who maybe aren’t, after all, Odysseus or Hector, but possessing of a more earthbound sort of humanity and heroism. It’s about the the strong pull of home, the powerful binds of blood, and the press, everpresent, of time. In what we seek, Howley shows us what we fear. We flee ourselves–in fights, in sex, in the light hitting the trees in the late afternoon, in the bottom of a third glass of wine–to find something else, to escape time and entangling mundanities, in an effort, ultimately, to avoid the experience of being alone.
When was the last time you read something from the humor section? It’s probably been a while. If memory serves, that particular bookstore ghetto is filled with quickly dated political humor, books of redneck jokes, and similar diversions: Books some people might buy as gifts for non-readers, but never for themselves. Others wisely steer clear of the section altogether. As such, it’s possible that people have gone through their reading lives without happening upon a book like Woody Allen’s Without Feathers.Though Woody Allen, of course, remains a household name because of his films, readers of my generation may not be aware that he is an equally accomplished humorist and his work was collected in a trio of books in the 1970s. Without Feathers was published in 1972, but 34 years later it remains hilarious.The book contains an assortment of sketches, often take-offs of scholarly writings, like “Early Essays” which references Francis Bacon’s Essays, in which Allen observes that “The chief problem about death, incidentally, is the fear that there is no afterlife – a depressing thought, particularly for those who have bothered to shave.” Allen also returns again and again to words and phrases that he finds funny for whatever reason, like “chives,” “herring,” “smelts,” and having a hat “blocked.” The book also includes a pair of manic, absurd plays, “Death” and “God.”It’s hard for me to describe how funny this book was except to say that it may be one of the funniest books I have ever read. I kept Mrs. Millions awake because I kept guffawing as I read it. Instead of taking my word for it, though, here’s a particularly funny tidbit from the first chapter, “Selections from Mr. Allen’s Notebook”:Play idea: a character based on my father, but without quite so prominent a big toe. He is sent to the Sorbonne to study the harmonica. In the end he dies, never realizing his one dream — to sit up to his waist in gravy. (I see a brilliant second-act curtain, where two midgets come upon a severed head in a shipment of volleyballs.)Bonus Link: Millions contributor Andrew’s look at Without Feathers and Allen’s other two collections, Getting Even and Side Effects.
I’ve written in the past about World War II fiction. I especially appreciate how the genre can illuminate elements of the conflict that history books cannot, for want of specificity and seriousness. I had a child’s school-taught understanding of the war until I read a novel, actually. The second part of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement tells of the British evacuation from France at Dunkirk after the Germans overran the country. It was an important event in the war, but one that I had never really learned much about, and McEwan’s rich storytelling made me want to learn more.I’ve since read quite a bit of World War II non-fiction, but I’ve returned to novels set during the period as well, as they now help flesh out and humanize the history. In Liberation, novelist Joanna Scott takes us to the island of Elba, off the Tuscan coast, whose inhabitants are caught between the wars great powers. Ostensibly once loyal to Mussolini but then occupied by Germany, Elba is by 1944, as the novel’s title suggests, in the midst of a whirlwind liberation by French forces that included an amalgam of colonial outfits, among them a battalion of Senegalese soldiers. Among the Elbans themselves, the chaotic liberation inspires mixed feelings of relief and fear, with the latter being directed toward the African liberators in particular.The story is primarily told in flashback through the eyes of a precocious ten-year-old girl Adriana, who spends the first night of the liberation tucked away in a cabinet, out of sight of any marauding soldiers. Adriana’s mother Giulia sums up the turmoil and confusion of occupation and liberation:Elba had been liberated. Grosseto had been liberated. Rome had been liberated. What did any of this mean? Not what she’d said to her daughter — mai piu, a promise much worse than an outright lie. The Germans were retreating? The occupation was over? What, exactly, had they occupied, besides beds and rooms and lavatories?Into Giulia’s home, bucolic even in wartime, wanders a Senegalese soldier, Amdu Diop, 17, who decidedly lacks the temperament for war and fancies himself blessed, “chosen” by God and able to perform minor miracles if he puts his mind to it. Impressionable young Adriana becomes infatuated with Amdu, by his otherness mostly, and he with her for similar reasons. And though some of his countrymen are rampaging through the countryside, Amdu’s intentions remain pure and he resolves to come back and marry Adriana one day. He is a gentle young gentlemen.Of course, not everyone else in Adriana’s web of relations and family friends is nearly as enamored of Amdu, and the climate, with bullets and bombs still flying overhead, is one mostly of mistrust. Before long Amdu is cast out.But Liberation isn’t a star-crossed love story – and perhaps this is its main shortcoming. Instead it is recalled in a dreamy reverie by a much older Adriana, now living in New York, as she rides the train into the city. These scenes go into fussy detail about Adriana’s fellow commuters yank the reader from the Elban recollection in a not entirely pleasant way. Similarly, Mario, Adriana’s uncle and the main “villain” of the novel, occasionally assumes the role of narrator and pulls us away from the book’s most engaging characters, Adriana and Amdu. Child and childlike, Adriana and Amdu manage to elevate the book, and Scott crafts a delightful ambiguity for the reader to wade through in the pair’s few scenes together. In broader strokes, she paints an atmospheric picture of one of the war’s minor episodes.