I have read only a very few graphic novels, but the ones I have read all seem to tread the same emotional ground. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and now I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. Their stories center on a sort of teenage emptiness that inspires a combination of pity and fascination in me. Visually, however, the three are quite distinct with Brown’s artwork being far more spare than the other two. Brown’s jagged panels placed asymmetrically on the page are surrounded by black, drawing the eye to his simple lines. (Unfortunately, later editions of the book have replaced the black pages with white.) His panels are devoid of details and instead focusing of the setting, the reader dwells on the characters, primarily young Chester himself. Brown’s picture of himself is both funny and sad, and while the book touches on his mother’s death, the focus is on his interaction with girls. He tells his friend Sky that he loves her but doesn’t know what to do next. His neighbor Carrie has a crush on him and they engage in this strange wrestling ritual as a stand in for actual communication. Girls are drawn to the odd, artistic boy but they are also repulsed by him. In the end, the book is about Brown’s inability to engage emotionally – with these girls, with his mother, with the rest of his family. It’s a poignant and quick read (it took me about an hour), but Brown’s dreamy artwork will stay with you.
My father in law has a huge collection of radio programs that he has taped and cataloged over the last two or three decades, and several years ago he gave me a couple of interesting tapes from the late 1980s. They contain a recorded performance of a baseball-themed show put on by the late baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti and one of my favorite essayists, New Yorker staffer and renowned baseball writer Roger Angell.The show, which is about two hours long, consists of readings of baseball essays, stories, and poetry. The work of John Updike is represented as is that of Garrison Keillor, but when I listened to the tapes, I was most interested in an excerpt from a book called The Glory of Their Times: The Story of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It, a book that was put together by Lawrence Ritter, a former economics professor at NYU who died in 2004. Ritter was also a big baseball fan, and shortly after Ty Cobb’s death in 1961, inspired by the outpouring of myth and legend that occasioned Cobb’s passing, Ritter decided to record for posterity an oral history of the early years of professional baseball. Over the next several years, Ritter traveled 75,000 miles, crisscrossing the country, tape recorder in hand, seeking out the game’s oldest living veterans, men who played in the decades leading up to and after World War I. The result, first published in 1966 and updated and expanded in 1984, is among the most cherished baseball books around.With the baseball season hitting its sweet spot, I cracked the spine of my tattered copy of Ritter’s compilation, and what I found within was a look into a lost period of time – before radio, before TV, and before even the prevalence of still cameras – brimming with color about the game’s rough beginnings as America’s national pastime.To give just a sample of the gems contained within the Glory of Their Times, this is what I learned reading Fred “Snow” Snodgrass’ chapter, a representative sample of the sorts of details in the book that are sure to amaze any fan of today’s game:Christy Mathewson “never pitched on Sunday, or even dressed in uniform,” but “he made a good part of his expenses every year playing poker.”Snodgrass wore a baggy uniform to try to increase the chances of getting hit by pitches, and, failing that, he would dive for the ground on an inside pitch and pinch his arm to raise a welt so he could show the ump where he got “beaned.”There was more than one deaf and dumb ballplayer during this era, and, judging by this book, they were all nicknamed “Dummy.” Dummy Taylor, who played on the Giants with Snodgrass, “took it as an affront if you didn’t learn to converse with him,” and consequently everyone on the team learned sign language.A mysterious man named Charles Victory Faust emerged from the stands before a game in 1911 and told the Giants that a fortune teller had told him that if he pitched for the team, they would win the pennant. Superstitious manager (and baseball legend) John McGraw took Faust on the road with the team, and “every day from that day on, Charles Victory Faust was in uniform and he warmed up sincerely to pitch that game.” Of course, he never actually pitched, but the Giants did win the pennant in 1911. Faust joined them again in 1912, and again the Giants won the pennant. By 1913, Faust had become a fan favorite and McGraw let Faust come in and pitch an inning, much to the fans’ delight. Needless to say, the Giants won the pennant again in 1913.In 1908 Fred Merkle lost the pennant for the Giants because of a famous, “bonehead” play. He was on first and Moose McCormick on third in the bottom half of the ninth inning in a 1-1 ballgame against the Cubs in the last week of the season. Al Bridwell hit a single to center and McCormick scored from third. The fans rushed the field and Merkle sprinted to the clubhouse to avoid the madness – without stepping on second. Cubs shortstop Johnny Evers (of the famous Tinkers, Evers, Chance infield) noticed this, found the ball in the crowd, got in a tussle with the Giants third base coach, tagged second base for the force out, and then convinced the umps to come back out onto the field to reconsider the play. The umps overturned the win, ruling in the Cubs favor.There was a rumor that as a nervous habit, Phillies pitcher Harry Coveleski, “always carried some bologna in his back pocket and chewed on that bologna throughout the game.”In 1914, the Boston Braves went from last place on July 4th to contending for the pennant by season’s end. Interest in the team was so great that “they put ropes up in the outfield and thousands of people were sitting and standing and standing behind the ropes, right on the playing field.”Snodgrass, playing the outfield, got into a shouting match with the Boston fans, and the incensed mayor of Boston got out of his box seat and marched onto the field and demanded that the umps remove Snodgrass from the game.There is a sense that the modern game has lost much of its charm, that it is all spectacle. The game 100 years ago was certainly charming, but, as The Glory of Their Times makes clear, it was perhaps more the spectacle back then, a game of colorful characters and nicknames, brawls and backroom dealings, and fights over money with capricious owners. Some things just don’t change. It’s also true that for a game that we seemingly know so much about, the book shows just how little we know about professional baseball’s formative days.Ritter’s amazing chronicle of the early years of baseball is essential for anyone with a deep interest in the game.
The first thing you’ll notice is the urgency. Our hero’s youthful voice flirting with maturity, ready to move and ready to take you with him, whether you’re ready or not. Even when he’s waiting, you sense the activity, the plans and schemes to move his life along, to leave for pastures greener, or in the meantime, to bear the ten thousand bombs falling all around him.Ten thousand bombs. This is Beirut – 1982. The civil war has been raging in Lebanon since the mid 70s and would continue for many more years. For Bassam and his best friend George, this is the only life they’ve known. In DeNiro’s Game, the first novel by Rawi Hage, that life explodes onto the page, as Bassam dreams of escaping the day-to-day horrors of a city under siege. A city at war with itself.Fuelled by longing, by testosterone, Bassam does whatever desperation demands of him to acquire the money to leave. All the while we sense Beirut’s past weighing heavily on Bassam’s shoulders:”I climbed onto George’s motorbike and sat behind him and we drove down the main streets where bombs fell, where Saudi diplomats had once picked up French prostitutes, where ancient Greeks had danced, Romans had invaded, Persians had sharpened their swords, Mamluks had stolen the villagers’ food, crusaders had eaten human flesh, and Turks had enslaved my grandfather.”Bassam’s childhood friend George eventually joins the militia, plunging head-first into the hell that governs their lives. George lives life one step closer to the extreme, constantly tempting fate. This is where the title comes in: George is nicknamed DeNiro by many of his cohorts, who share his fascination for the Russian Roulette game played out in the film The Deer Hunter, literally a death-defying game which becomes almost a rite of passage for George and others in his group.Meanwhile Bassam deals with life in a broken city. The horrific and the mundane become one:”Ten thousand bombs had split the winds, and my mother was still in the kitchen smoking her long white cigarettes.”And an awareness of mortality mixes with youthful arrogance. Bassam tempts fate in his own way:”Death does not come to you when you face it; death is full of treachery, a coward who only notices the feeble and strikes the blind. I was flying on the curved road… I was a bow with a silver arrow, a god’s spear, a traveling merchant, a night thief. I was flying on a mighty machine that shattered winds and rattled the earth underneath me. I was a king.”Less a political tract than a survival story, DeNiro’s Game illustrates how a war breeds anarchy which then gives way to militia rule. Thuggery. And for two young men living by their wits, it’s eat or be eaten.I left Beirut when I was two years old. The civil war was still a few years off, but the whole region was unstable. And so my parents, with little Andrew in tow, packed up what we could, left behind a lot more, and abandoned the life we knew to begin a completely new one in Canada.Bassam’s neighbourhood – that’s where we had lived. The town in the mountains outside of Beirut where Bassam and George would temporarily escape the city – that’s where my grandfather was from – and was basically our second home. These neighborhoods and towns had existed for me as idyllic pre-war photos that my parents and I would periodically pore over in our comfy Canadian living room. Then on the evening news, a different Beirut – a Beirut of snipers and militias and bombed-out neighborhoods.This novel is the first thing I’ve read that draws it all together and takes it home. It would have been simple for my family to not make the life-changing decision that they made. Then I would have been like Bassam or George, growing up in a perpetual state of civil war surrounded by drug-running and siege-survival. And while my temperament, even as a youth, tended to be gentle and contemplative, I wonder how a brutal youth would have changed my very nature. And on the flipside, how different Bassam and George would have been had they been spared the never-ending rain of ten thousand bombs.
Readers of this blog know that Kapuscinski is among my favorite writers. He was born in Poland in the 1930s and lived through World War II. He would go on to write for Poland’s national news service (their version of the AP) as a foreign correspondent. He covered the “little wars,” the insurgencies, revolutions, and coups that are barely reported in the western media. His point of view is fascinating: a man living behind the Iron Curtain serves his country by reporting on terrifying conflicts in the most inhospitable parts of the world. When you read Kapuscinski’s work you may at first feel like something is missing, and then you realize that what’s missing is a Western perspective and the presumption and detachment that comes with it. Kapuscinski, like no other writer I’ve read, is able to delve into the psyche of his subjects and produce remarkable insights about their nature and the nature of their oppression. Which isn’t to say that his writing is dry. More often than not, the episodes he relates are quite harrowing. Shah of Shahs is no exception. Quite unexpectedly, I found this book about the Shah and his overthrow by Ayatollah Khomenei to be very relevant to today’s conflicts, specifically, the difficulties inherent in replacing a brutal and oppressive regime without falling prey to extremism. His discussion of the horrors of the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, is astonishing, and his insight into the vulnerability of the Iranians as they attempted to move on from decades of oppression is fascinating. In assessing the difficulties of undoing the damage of a regime like the Shah’s, the parallels to today’s struggles in Iraq are hard to ignore, and, as such, the book was especially interesting to read at this moment in history. I have one book by Kapuscinski left to read, and after that, I can only hope that some benevolent publisher decides to put out more of his work.Those interested in politics and media may want to read a new book by John Powers called Sore Winners. When I lived in Los Angeles, Powers’ column “On” in the LA Weekly was a must-read for me. Powers strikes a great balance between intelligence and humor, and he has the classic ability of Angelinos, living far from the nation’s capitol, to deliver an unfettered, outsider’s perspective.