Book Review: A Day in the Bleachers by Arnold Hano

HanoNFL Football is a sport that is much better on television than in person. The concentrated bursts of action between long periods of inactivity are enhanced by instant replay, color commentators, and beer commercials featuring scantily clad women. Anyone who has ever watched an NFL football game in person knows that  inevitably fans at the game end up watching the game on the stadium jumbotron as if they were home in their livingrooms anyway.

Not so with baseball which is best experienced in person. (The next best option, of course, being radio.) Television ratings for the two sports bear this truth out.

In 1954, writer and editor Arnold Hano took in a baseball game and wrote a book about it. The fact that the game he went to was Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, that Willie Mays made “The Catch,” and that Hano is a wonderful and observant writer, has created one of the 10 best books about baseball ever written– a true “classic” in every sense of that over-used word.

From his perch in the bleachers, Hano gives an inning by inning narration of the first post-season game between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants. In Hano’s capable hands the game takes on mythic proportions with all-time great Willie Mays and his catch of Vic Wertz’s long, long drive taking center stage.

Like a novelist, Hano lets us get to know the characters of the drama that enfolds before him: Mays, Wertz, Larry Doby, Bob Lemon, Sal Maglie…. His understanding of baseball is thorough, his prose is wonderful and evocative, his insights about the game enlightening, his passion for both the nuances and the grand gestures of a game quite evident.

In A Day in the Bleachers, one great game in 1954 with the greatest of all great catches has clearly found its great witness.

 

Book Review: Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann

“There’s nothing wrong with the Little League World Series that locking out the adults couldn’t cure.”  ~Mike Penner, Los Angeles Times

DohrmannIn 2000 George Dohrmann wrote a series of articles for the St. Paul Pioneer Press that ruined University of Minnesota basketball for me and a lot of Gopher fans… while winning for himself a Pulitzer Prize. In Play Their Hearts Out, Dohrmann has done the same thing now for amateur youth basketball, following a team of kids from Southern California and their monomaniacal coach over a number of years to write this highly readable and compelling book about a game that had to stop being fun for most of the participants well along the way.

Penner’s quote about the Little League World Series (that was once upon a time limited to just the championship game being broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, but has this summer (2010) become a daily staple on ESPN) applies equally well to the youth basketball Dohrmann followed from the inside for a number of years to research this book. Youth basketball would be much better for those who play it if adults– parent, coaches, and corporate sponsors– were locked out of the gyms.

Sports is big business. Maybe more so at the amateur level than even the professional level. Shoe companies and colleges lavish gifts on amateur coaches and player representatives. The goal is to find the next LeBron and the millions that go with him. The methods used Dohrmann learned are all too often intimidation, manipulation, and exploitation.

Basketball is a simple game. That is the myth. It is popular in the inner-cities because it is so cheap to play. You need hardly any space or equipment, only a ball and a hoop and blacktop heroes are born.

The reality is much more complicated. Sports have always been seen as the “way out” in America for the underclass. In the early part of the 20th Century the sport was baseball. The sons of coal miners and share croppers fought cleat and nail to get out and make the show. Before Jackie Robinson, of course, it was a color-divided dream they chased….

The youth basketball that Dohrmann describes is born of the same desperation that has always given America its sports heroes… and is tainted with the same under and overtones of race and class.

Dohrmann has done a great service with this book. Whether it will make a difference when so much money and hope is on the line… only time will tell. We can only hope.

Music Monday: Coltrane and Getz

John Coltrane and Stan Getz

 

Jazz like everything good in life is an acquired taste: coffee, beer, bourbon, members of the opposite sex. You need time to grow into certain things, to acquire the attitude and maturity necessary to discriminate and appreciate things with edges.

I came across this video of Coltrane and Getz playing together. As far as I can discover with my minimal research (a few hours one afternoon), it is the only somewhat decent recording of these two saxophone giants on one stage.

It is grainy, but keep your eye on Stan Getz as he listens to Coltrane, an artist appreciating art.

Book Review: Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes

tales-from-ovid-191x300At first blush, the marriage between Ovid that most latin of poets and Ted Hughes would seem as unlikely a match as any you could imagine. Not in ability, of course, but in language and temperament.

Hughes as a poet has always seemed to me one of the most earthy, physical, and Anglo-Saxon of all contemporary poets. Classical Ovid and the dactylic hexameter (the poetic meter form used in classical epic poems such as Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad, often called the “heroic” hexameter) would seem to be polar opposite of Hughes. Yet Hughes pulls it off, creating one of the best books of poetry I have read in a very long time.

When I think of Hughes I think of poems like “February 17th” which is about a farmer struggling to help a still-born lamb to be delivered to save the mother. Such lines as these seem so earthy, so removed in style and substance from what we think of when we think of the heroic:

The corpse that would not come. Till it came.
And after it the long, sudden, yolk-yellow
Parcel of life
In a smoking slither of oils and soups and syrups –
And the body lay born, beside the hacked-off head.

Yet in these lines we also see what Hughes does best, perhaps better than anyone ever: he sees and gives voice to the natural and nature in a way simultaneously factual and mythic.

In Tales from Ovid, Hughes picks and chooses which of Ovid’s many stories he wants to translate and re-tell. His choices include some of the most violent and disturbing stories that Ovid wrote: ‘Echo and Narcissus,’ ‘Bacchus and Pentheus,’ and ‘Jove’s rape of Semele’. But in the same way that the language of “February 17th” transfigures the brutality and tragedy of a still-born lamb, in Hughes’s poetry even Ovid’s most violent stories and images become transcendent as in these lines from the story of Semele:

Her eyes opened wide, saw him
And burst into flame.
Her whole body lit up
With the glare
That explodes the lamp –

In that splinter of a second,
Before her blazing shape
Became a silhouette of sooty ashes
The foetus was snatched from her womb.

Ovid’s stories are of change, metamorphosis. In the late 20th and early part of the 21st century, it is a theme that seems most relevant… and obviously one that attracted Hughes the poet/prophet. But beneath the theme of change runs the deeper current of love. Ovid, even in the most violent and brutal of his stories, is always writing about love. It is after all love (sometimes broken and warped love in the form of lust and jealousy) that creates the action between the gods and the people in these familiar stories. Certainly in the late 20th and first part of the 21st century the theme of love remains as relevant as when Ovid first penned these stories centuries ago.

 

The Fine Line

2005_fishing_stamp2-230x300I do not get to fish as often as I would like, but I can still read and collect  quotes about fishing. Fishing, like baseball, lends itself to great writing. The pastoral nature of the pursuit in its purest form leads inevitably to contemplation. And contemplation leads inevitably to expression.

Here are some of my favorite quotes about fishing. Enjoy!

The gods do not deduct from man’s allotted span the hours spent in fishing. ~ Babylonian Proverb

Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after. ~ Henry David Thoreau

The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.  ~ John Buchan

Fishing provides that connection with the whole living world. It gives you the opportunity of being totally immersed, turning back into yourself in a good way. A form of meditation, some form of communion with levels of yourself that are deeper than the ordinary self.  ~ Ted Hughes

Fishing is much more than fish. It is the great occasion when we may return to the fine simplicity of our forefathers. ~ Herbert Hoover

If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there’d be a shortage of fishing poles. ~ Doug Larson

A bad day of fishing is better than a good day of work.  ~ Author Unknown

The fishing was good; it was the catching that was bad.  ~ A.K. Best

It has always been my private conviction that any man who pits his intelligence against a fish and loses has it coming.  ~ John Steinbeck

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  Teach him how to fish and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.  ~ Author Unknown

Calling fishing a hobby is like calling brain surgery a job.  ~ Paul Schullery

Three-fourths of the Earth’s surface is water, and one-fourth is land.  It is quite clear that the good Lord intended us to spend triple the amount of time fishing as taking care of the lawn.  ~ Chuck Clark

You must lose a fly to catch a trout.  ~ George Herbert

A trout is a moment of beauty known only to those who seek it.  ~ Arnold Gingrich

Scholars have long known that fishing eventually turns men into philosophers.  Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to buy decent tackle on a philosopher’s salary.  ~ Patrick F. McManus

You know when they have a fishing show on TV? They catch the fish and then let it go. They don’t want to eat the fish, they just want to make it late for something. ~ Mitch Hedberg

There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot. ~ Steven Wright

Book Review: The Ruthless Range by Lewis Patten

“For the judging of contemporary literature the only test is one’s personal taste. If you much like a new book, you must call it literature even though you find no other soul to agree with you, and if you dislike a book you must declare that it is not literature though a million voices should shout you that you are wrong. The ultimate decision will be made by Time.” ~ Ford Madox Ford

RuthlessRange1The distinction between literary and genre fictions (mysteries, westerns, fantasy, and sci.fi.) is largely an artificial one. Those who still insist on making anachronistic literary distinctions do it for the same reason that all snobs make such declarations, self-aggrandizing assholery.

The only distinctions that can legitimately be made in literature are between good writing and bad writing and good stories and bad stories. When a work of fiction takes hold of your imagination, when the language continually invites you to turn pages the writer has done his or her job. When the book haunts you and you can remember it years and years later, the writer has written a masterpiece.

Having said all that, and believing all that to be true, I nonetheless make the following self-consciously ironic statement: The Ruthless Range by Lewis B. Patten is fully and completely a genre-fiction western in both its execution and delivery. It is not great literature by any stretch of the definition, but I did enjoy it as I enjoy all Lewis Patten books.

Patten writes in the western noir style. His stories are not as bleak as H.A. DeRosso’s but they are also not as sunlit as L’Amour. His characters are haunted and hunted men. They are driven by fate and circumstances, they are broken and break others. Violence touches them and touches those they love.

In The Ruthless Range, a gunfighter longs to hang up his guns. But in every town he goes to there is someone who wants to prove that he is faster. Shot to hell and pursued into the mountains by a crooked posse the main character, Jase Mellor, is rescued and put back together by a rancher. When the rancher is murdered, Jase has to save the ranch from the many people who want to destroy the ranch and kill Mellor. At stake are the lives of his ex-wife who had been forced into a  life of prostitution and the life of the ranch widow who has become Mellor’s love interest.

In the story there is nothing new that is not in a hundred westerns. It is Patten’s style and the grim, relentless pacing that makes the book, makes any Patten western, worth the reading. Patten does not give his main character or his reader any chance to rest. Like Mellor we move with grim fatalism and no sleep from violence to violence, from defeat to defeat. The end result is a highly readable western with icons and cliches just edgy enough for us to sink our teeth into.

On Reviewing Poetry

yeats1-226x300Reviewing a volume of poetry is much different than reviewing some genre of prose work. It is so difficult that many literary publications have stopped doing poetry reviews all together. The difficulty is usually presented as four-fold.

First, to use mere prose to talk about poetry is an extremely difficult task. With few exceptions (Edward Hirsch) the best practitioners of this kind of cross-species translation are poets: T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Donald Hall, Dana Gioia. To be fluent and articulate in two mutually exclusive kinds of language usage is as rare as a five-tool prospect in baseball.

Second, it is almost impossible to define your audience. How can you possibly write about poetry in a way that would make people who currently do not read poetry (outsiders) want to pick up the particular volume you are highlighting and at the same time talk meaningfully to those who already regularly read poetry (insiders).

Third, unless the reader of the review is a frequent and habitual poetry reader (and how many people truly are?) there is the very real problem of shared experience and language. Any novel reader knows what a reviewer is saying when he writes, “the characters are multi-dimensional and their quick-paced dialog moves the story well.”   But only a “poetry insider” understands when a reviewer says of a poem, “the Alexandrine lines fit the elegy forms the poet has chosen well.”

Fourth, and finally, there is in poetry that indescribable “personal” quality that makes objective standards difficult. Since a poet routinely creates and breaks his or her own rules and since so much of modern poetry is so “personal” in theme, criticism is seen as extremely difficult. I do not “like” this kind of poetry and hence it is bad. I “like” this other kind of poetry and so it is good.

While the first three difficulties are legitimate. The last one is not. Art has standards. If I were to compose a piece of music and Henryk Górecki composed a piece on the same theme and we compared them it would be objectively clear which piece was truly music. While it is admittedly more difficult in poetry, it is clear that what Seamus Heaney writes and what a 7th grader writes for language arts class are as different as oceans and mud puddles. We do not need to be shy about making the same kind of distinction in poetry as we do in music.

Book Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales by Forrest Carter

The-Outlaw-Josey-Wales2-185x300In summer we often gravitate to “lighter” fare, summer blockbuster movies, quick-read novels. What is it about long days that make us want to shy away from heavy lifting?

The movie, The Outlaw Josey Wales, is one of Clint Eastwood’s most memorable westerns – great characters, memorable lines (“Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.”), and great scenery.

In High Plains Drifter, Eastwood arrived as a true western star, in Josey Waleshe fully completes the work of art. In the spaghetti westerns the rough outline is there, but like the scenery of those films Eastwood as western star and the West as a place of grandeur and limitless vistas is greatly diminished, cramped and small, a European’s vision of the West and the western myth. Eastwood directedHigh Plains Drifter and Josey Wales so they are two of his first real Westerns. In the end, only an American can direct a true western, for the western hero, or western anti-hero, is the most American of all icons.

The movie The Outlaw Josey Wales is based on a the book that was originally called something like Gone to Texas. The story of its author, if Wikipedia is to be believed,  is almost as interesting as the book itself and mirrors the story in many ways.

Forrest Carter (Asa Carter) like his fictional outlaw was apparently an unrepentant confederate. A Klansman and speech writer for George Wallace, Carter fought against integration and the Federal government for years. Finally like Josey Wales he fled to Texas and tried to put his past behind him, something he was for the most part able to do. The book now called The Outlaw Josey Wales was his first novel.

As a western novel, The Outlaw Josey Wales is very satisfying. In story and tone the movie follows the book very closely. Most of the great lines from the movie come from the book, except the best line, “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy” (here a screenwriter or Eastwood made a great decision).

In the movie, the female love interest is played by willowy and wimpy Sondra Locke. Carter’s love interest is more Spillanesque (for those not fluent in Mickey Spillane, read that statuesque), the picture is of a dreamy Velma. For Carter, one theme stressed in the book is of men and women big enough for Texas, big enough to live in the West. The pale and sickly looking Locke would be only big and strong enough for a cramped and tiny eastern state like Rhode Island.

The Outlaw Josey Wales – the movie and the book –are worth spending a few summer evenings with. Settle into your favorite chair, pour yourself a few fingers of good bourbon, and enjoy. This is, after all, what summer is all about.

Music Monday: “Jerusalem Tomorrow” by Dave Olney

Dave Olney is another musician that my friend Bob introduced to me via cassette tape. Olney is from Nashville, that is where Bob first met him. Emmylou has sung some of his songs, as well as a number of other country greats.

I have seen him twice in person. Both times he performed alone, just him and his acoustic guitar. Once was at the Fine Line in downtown Minneapolis. The other time was at a dinky little coffee shop in St. Paul. In St. Paul, Sue and I had the best seat in the house: a front row love-seat that was the only padded furniture in the room. Most of the small audience had to stand.

“Heading to Jerusalem” is my favorite song he does.

Book Review: Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

“…there are not many English novels which deserve to be called great: Parade’s End is one of them.”  ~W.H. Auden

Parades-End_Ford-Madox-Ford1When I was in college, I had to make a choice one semester between taking Romantic Literature or Victorian Literature. Knowing just enough about everything to get myself into trouble, I chose to take Victorian Literature. Romantic poetry did not sound like something a Montana kid grown up on Hemingway would want to read. Only much later, years and states away, would I discover how wrong I was….

The Victorian sensibility that pervades Arnold and Browning – the interest in the ordinary and common day, the moral purposefulness, the unmooring clash with science, the search for the Victorian ideal – seemed cloyingly myopic and dark. I admired much but was never able to get my sea legs.

Years later on a whim, walking through a bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan,  I picked up a copy of Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. The big paperback caught my eye because of the size and the price, $1.00.

By then, I knew a little about Ford: his relationship with Conrad, his literary influence, his reputation for untruth (though hardly a vice in a writer), his bad relationship with Hemingway. I knew of, but had not read, The Good Soldier, his most celebrated and read work. I think, but cannot be sure, that I may have read by that time some of his literary reminiscences, which (whether “embellished” or not) remain in my mind some of the best of that genre ever written.

I put the book on a shelf and carried it for a few moves. Through years of reading the once neglected Romantics, through expanding my familiarity with Irish poetry beyond Yeats. [In those days, before kids and domestic distractions, I created, as I continue to do, my own courses of study but, of course, had much more time to concentrate and ruminate.] Finally, one dark winter day in my little studio on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul I picked up the big book and began to read.

Parades End has been called the last Victorian novel. And I suppose it is. So much that is Victorian is in this book, and yet… there is something of the lost generation in here also. It is in my mind a transitional novel, the last hurrah of the Victorian and a first tentative peek at the modern. Or more properly perhaps, the first description of the Modern by a Victorian: “No more hope, no more glory, not for the nation, not for the world I dare say, no more parades.”

Ford, always an admirer of Henry James, lived by the credo: why say it in 4 words when 24 will do better. His is the anti-Hemingway style. His sentences and paragraphs go on for pages… and yet, I found myself enthralled in the same way that James enthralls me. So exotic does their language usage seem that I feel I am reading another tongue altogether. A language at once more ornate and expressive and beautiful than I could even dare to imagine – the term baroque comes to mind (although unlike baroque music, James and Ford are almost always satisfying).

The four separate novels that make up Parade’s End (Some Do NotNo More ParadesA Man Could Stand Up, and The Last Post) tell the story of Christopher Tietjens, a man struggling to survive personally and publicly. His  wife is unfaithful to him, he is betrayed by friends and colleagues, and the modern, post-war world is changing everything he once thought he knew.

Those who have read The Good Soldier will recognize some familiar themes, but in Parade’ End will enjoy Ford at his most expansive. Why Ford has fallen so out of favor, and this novel in particular has been all but forgotten, is one of those peculiarities of taste and time.

Ford himself once said, “Only two classes of books are of universal appeal; the very best and the very worst.” It is certain that Parade’s End belongs in the former class. Certainly it will again be “rediscovered” by some generation of writers. It’s quality and execution demand it.