Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Henry Skrimshander is a flawless shortstop at Westish College, until an errant throw knocks out his roommate and knocks out Henry's confidence in his throws.  Thanks to Henry, and his Svengali, Mike Schwartz, Westish has risen from the depths of oblivion to a contender for the national baseball title.  Henry's plunge from superstar to head case costs the team a few wins, and, next thing you know, Henry is warming the bench, and the attention from pro scouts has dwindled.  The team hangs in there, though, with a capable replacement shortstop and some dynamite pitching.  Meanwhile, Henry literally wastes away, depressed and shrinking from all his friends' attempts to resurrect his spirit and his sanity.  A second storyline follows another fall from grace, as the distinguished president of the college, Guert Affenlight, becomes romantically involved with Henry's roommate, Owen—nicknamed Buddha for his calm and insightful demeanor—and draws the attention of the school's administration.  Perhaps a liaison with a female student would have been less odious, but the fact remains that Guert has stepped out of line, even as he finds the companionship that his life has always lacked.  His story is more tragic than Henry's, but I found it less compelling.  I kept waiting for Henry to find the magic dust that would restore his confidence and put him back in the lineup, but that would wrap things up a little too neatly, and Harbach has other plans for Henry, who ultimately redeems himself through sacrifice, and I don't mean a bunt or a sac fly.

Monday, June 25, 2012

BLEACHERS by John Grisham

I personally think that John Grisham needs to stick to legal thrillers, but I guess he feels the urge to do something different now and again.  Bleachers is Bear Bryant meets Friday Night Lights.  Revered Messina High School football coach Eddie Rake is dying and a number of his former players are having a reunion of sorts to relive the glory days.  Neely Crenshaw was an All-American whose knee was destroyed in a college game.  He has stayed away from Messina for years in order to forget the accolades and unrealized expectations.  It turns out that Neely is not the only one with mixed feelings about the past.  Several of his former teammates credit Coach Rake with having turned their lives around, but Neely and others have had a difficult time getting past a locker room incident that pales in comparison to the tragedy that eventually led to Rake's firing.  Neely's real struggle is about making peace with himself over the way he treated his high school girlfriend.  This aspect of the book seems a little forced, but I guess a star quarterback is likely to leave some broken hearts in his wake.  The whole thing seemed a little cheesy to me.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

WILD FIRE by Nelson DeMille

I hate it when one of my favorite authors disappoints me, and it's happened again.  Detective John Corey just doesn't seem to be as witty and clever as he was in Plum Island and The Lion's Game.  His wife and boss, FBI agent Kate Mayfield, doesn't seem to have much appreciation for Corey's shenanigans, and I guess a steady diet of sarcasm and droll quips could get a little old in a marriage, but Corey seems to have lost his ability to make me laugh.  In that case, the plot needs to be top-notch, and it's just not.  It is a little scary, though, to think that some right-wing highly-placed crazies might want to bomb a couple of American cities, pass the attacks off as Islamic terrorism, and then trigger an automatic response that wipes out most large cities in the Middle East.  When Corey's friend and colleague Harry Muller turns up dead while on a surveillance assignment in the Adirondacks, Corey becomes his usual renegade self, dragging Kate along with him, on a mission to find out what happened.  Obviously, Harry ran afoul of Bain Madox, an oil baron who owns the exclusive and secretive hunting lodge that was the object of Harry's surveillance mission.  The reader follows Kate and John's piece-by-piece unfolding of Madox's horrific scheme, but since the author has already disclosed the whole plan, the plot seemed a little flat.  I knew that Kate and John would somehow stop the bomb detonation, so there's just not much suspense here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot

Middlemarch is a town in early nineteenth century England and serves as a microcosm of English life at that time.  And it's not just about the landed gentry.  It covers many walks of life and includes a kaleidoscope of characters who are not comfortable with their wealth or lack thereof, their choice of spouses, their family history—you name it.  There's Fred Vincy, who's been educated for the clergy but doesn't feel he's cut out for preaching.  He fancies Mary Garth, who's pleasant and plucky but plain.  Mary loves Fred but can't abide his aimlessness or his financial follies.  Of course, Fred and Mary can't come right out and express their feelings for each other.  Dorothea Brooke has it all—beauty, thoughtfulness, sufficient resources--but chooses to marry an older, unappealing, wealthy scholar.  She realizes her mistake during the honeymoon but does her best to make it work until he conveniently dies.  She has a penchant for her husband's cousin Will but can't admit this, even to herself. Her husband was obviously more attuned to the situation than Dorothea or Will, as his will makes it impractical for the two to marry.  In fact, there are lots of scandals involving Will's heritage and relationship to Bulstrode, an unsavory, overly pious character, who is being blackmailed by an old acquaintance.  Tertius Lydgate is the new doctor in town who hopes to make his mark in medicine and is Dorothea's male counterpart in the altruistic department. His reputation, however, suffers from his liaison with Bulstrode, and he finds himself buried in debt and married to a beautiful but frivolous woman who can't appreciate his aspirations.  This is a sort of Victoria soap opera with lots of misunderstandings and even some political turmoil, which was lost on me, even with the assistance of the notes at the end.

Monday, June 11, 2012

THE PAINTED VEIL by W. Somerset Maugham

This novel has one of the most intriguing opening scenes I've ever read.  A tryst is taking place in Hong Kong between Kitty and Charlie when they discover that someone is outside turning the latches on the shutters—her husband, no doubt.  The tone becomes much more somber, however, from this point forward.  Kitty's husband Walter, a bacteriologist, issues an unpleasant ultimatum which results in her accompanying him to a cholera-infested town in China.  Both Kitty and Walter find that they despise themselves and that perhaps this move is a suicide mission.  The story is really about Kitty's maturity process as she confronts her own frivolousness and tries to live up to the standard of kindness, industry, courage and integrity that Walter exemplifies.  A pivotal moment is when she finds herself pregnant and is faced with the task of telling her husband that she does not know who the father is.  As Kitty is in the process of transforming herself, she is faced with one last temptation.  Her handling of that situation proves that she's come a long way but is still human.  This book packs a powerful punch in a short number of pages.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

KILLSHOT by Elmore Leonard

I didn't realize that this book was made into a movie, but now I have to see it, even if it did go straight to DVD.  Honestly, I don't know how Hollywood could mess up a plot this good, but then I'm not a screenwriter.  Armand Degas is a hired assassin, who joins psychopath and dangerous hoodlum Richie Nix in an extortion plot of a real estate brokerage.  They get more than they bargained for when they try to shake down their target at the real estate office but instead get chased off by Wayne Colson, an ironworker.  Wayne's plucky wife Carmen wields a mean shotgun herself when the situation calls for action.  The author is striving for entertainment, not realism, here, and that suits me just fine.  And Carmen is my kind of heroine.  She gets nervous and frightened and she may even cry, but she's someone you want around in an emergency.  Wayne may not be the perfect husband, but he's not a simpering fool, either.  When these two go into witness protection in a rundown house in Missouri, with a super-slimy U.S. Marshall in charge, I thought they might lose their edge, not to mention their marriage.  Meanwhile, Armand and Richie know that they have to take out these two amateur adversaries, before yet another of Richie's senseless, murderous escapades lands them behind bars.

Monday, June 4, 2012

ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac

I find that novels written in the 50s, such as this one and Revolutionary Road, date themselves with funky dialog like no other era.  Dialog, though, is not the only period-specific aspect of this iconic semi-autobiographical novel.  Kerouac's fictional name here is Sal Paradise, and his maniacal friend Dean Moriarty stands in for the real Neal Cassady.  These two traverse the country multiple times and finally foray into Mexico so that Dean can get a quickie divorce and marry his third wife.  Their means of transportation varies depending on how much money they have on hand, from GI benefits or short-term odd jobs or the good will of friends and relatives.  If they're flush with cash, they can travel by bus or perhaps even buy a jalopy; otherwise, they hitchhike or join other travelers in a sort of carpool arranged by a travel bureau.  Maybe Kerouac invented this ride-sharing idea for the purpose of the book, because it certainly seems outlandish that anyone would allow these itinerants to drive a Cadillac cross-country.  Wishful thinking, maybe?  I originally read this book in the 70s and don't remember my reaction.  Now that I've reread it, I have to hope that the movie, if it is ever released, will be an improvement, because the nonstop drinking and carousing just didn't make for an appealing story.  Also, there's no plot per se; it's just a drunken-buddies-on the-road saga with exactly zero strong women characters.  I can live with that, but the men are too immature and wayward to inspire much empathy.  I'm not surprised that both Kerouac and Neal Cassady died in their forties.  Theirs was not a healthy lifestyle.