Monday, November 19, 2012

The Dog Stars

Globetrotting author Peter Heller writes adventure, travel, and other non-fiction, often involving dangerous situations.  His first novel, The Dog Stars, is a post-apocalyptic Western set in Colorado, with wonderful, lyrical writing about private piloting, mountain stream fishing, and a beloved canine companion.  Replace the commas with slashes and you have an epic survivalist tale in free verse.

The book includes rich explorations on meanings and purposes in a new, harsh reality (i.e., shoot high-caliber weapons first, explore meanings and purposes later).  Heller's protagonist Hig, a Cessna pilot and outdoorsman turned aerial scout and turf-defender by necessity, has a sliver more heart and hope than his physically and emotionally bunkered neighbor, but you wouldn't know it by his lethal actions against both hostile and non-hostile intruders.  Even so, while his partner tends their airfield arsenal, Hig entertains the notion of a life beyond, fueled by a chance radio reception which leads him to a journey of peril and discovery.

(I've got Olivia Wilde as the doctor; that's probably just me.)

My fellow Dartmouth alumni will appreciate Heller's drop-in references -- he also spent four years in Hanover -- including an impassioned, fitting sidebar on Eastern Establishment condescension toward the West.

I look forward with anticipation to reading more of Peter Heller's adventurous works.  While I'm more of a National Geographic than a Field and Stream fan, anyone who can turn the end of civilization into a nature appreciation treatise while his hero dodges bullets is worth a gander.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Maybe If I'd Been a Cage Rat...

When I was 11, I was selected to play for the Niskayuna Rotary Little League team.  I'd hit pretty well at the A and AA levels, and I could catch a fly ball in left field.  I'd been too sick to attend four out of five weeknights of major league tryouts, so unlike my more qualified peers, I had the crucial advantage of not yet having demonstrated my incompetence to the coaches.  I got the call!

(Similar logic by Internet analysts -- buy anything that hasn't publicly failed yet -- explains in large part the NASDAQ tech bubble of the late 1990's.)

That first year in the majors, I batted two hundred points below the Mendoza Line.  (You might say, I had a NASDAQ crash of my own.)  Needless to say, Kevin Long was not my hitting coach.

Fortunately for the New York Yankees, Kevin Long is their hitting coach.  Even better, he's a good coach, the 2012 postseason notwithstanding.  He's written a book, Cage Rat, describing his years as a minor league player and coach, ultimately getting the call to join the Yankees and serve as a second pair of eyes for All-Stars Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixara, Robinson Cano, and the rest of the Bronx Bombers.

Even more fortunately for Little Leaguers, Cage Rat presents Coach Long's instructions, with photos, on how to stand in, balance, stride, sit "dead red" (assume a fastball is coming), and keep your head still so you can see the pitch without distortion.  For the professional ballplayers, Long spends hours upon hours in the video room and the batting cage (his "office") analyzing, deconstructing, and reconstructing the mechanics of each player's swing.

Imagine a book by an auto mechanic who absolutely loves being an auto mechanic.  He may be a bit shallow, personally, but he knows absolutely everything there is to know about steering linkages.  He also knows how to sweet-talk and persuade the especially balky steering linkages into yielding willingly to his wrench.  The steering linkages love him for it.  That's the tone of this book.

Mostly, however, this is Long's personal and professional story.  He struggled as a minor league player for eight years in the Kansas City organization, never quite achieving a promotion to the majors (maybe he should have feigned illness during tryouts?).  He restarted his career as a minor league coach, working his way up and eventually shifting to the Yankees' organization.  As minor league salaries are less than table scraps, he was supported financially for more than a decade by his wife Marcie, who worked crazy hours at restaurants and bars to support their three children.  The wisest move K-Long made in writing this book (with the assistance of sportswriter Glen Waggoner) was to hand Marcie the pen for a chapter plus several more passages.  The lady more than earned the right to tell her story, and to sport her Yankees-blue playoff scarf proudly.

The behind-the-scenes views of the Yankees' clubhouse and batting cages are limited to various stars' pregame routines.  The limited look through the peephole in the fence that we're allowed isn't nearly as salacious as a true clubhouse exposé -- this is no Ball Four, despite a few personality and work habit descriptions -- but it should satisfy fans who are truly interested in the mechanical aspects of hitting and the detailed work that goes into daily game preparation.

It also serves as an excellent cover letter and resume for one Kevin Long, Professional Hitting Coach, should the need ever arise.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Where the hell is the three-and-a-half stars option?  In this Europeanish relationships fable, Steve Martin's nuanced depictions of his characters' emotions and thought processes and keen eye for decorative detail create from whole cloth a highly credible protagonist, two suitors who could not be more different (rich man, poor man), and a comedically villanous archrival in hot, competitive pursuit of the same affection-givers.

Martin's singular accomplishment in an era of contemporary literary bombast is to depict an introvert as his fully human lead.  Indeed, she's a normal introvert, not someone who's scary, unbalanced, or traumatized, though she does have a depression issue.  A rare, unambitious heroine, Mirabelle is the invisible worker we all pass by daily, in the store or on the street, without stopping to think about their story; Martin provides the story and creates empathy.

Where the book suffers slightly is when he lets his jokey side off the leash and starts to describe bedroom activities to unnecessary degrees of resolution.  Also, I found Mirabelle's source of continuing financial support to stretch credulity; one can almost hear Martin's fellow comedian Judy Tenuta bleating out, "Hey! It could happen!"

Monday, November 5, 2012

Lightning Quick

Lightning: A Novel, a small volume from a new hybrid genre of fictionalized biography, insinuated its way into my towering library borrowings stack.  It was a quick read with an educational payoff.

This is biography as storytelling, a narrative speculation on the life of neurotic, revolutionary inventor Nikola Tesla. The fictionalized specific events, closely based on the history of Tesla's inventions, and the author's speculations into Tesla's emotional state as the picaresque tale of his business dealings unfolds, place the book in the shaded area between historical fiction and popular history; the former is emphasized by the word "novel" on the cover and the use of "Gregor" rather than "Nikola" as the name of the protagonist.

French author Echenoz creates a story arc not through technological developments but through the use of recurring, colorful details as markers: Gregor's fondness for aviary companions; his fastidiousness of dress; his obsessive-compulsive habits. The product is a breezy, accessible introduction to the life of Tesla that could serve as a treatment for a one-man stage play.

My only hesitation in recommending this book, and others from the same author and genre, is that the story framework has the depth of a Wikipedia article; indeed, the sum of the author's background research could have been the Wikipedia article on Tesla.  By calling the book a novel and by emphasizing the subject's mindset over his technological contributions (other than to mention them serially as new examples of his propensity to get cheated), the author seems to be communicating the message: this is a work of narrative art, not history or technology; please don't criticize me for not including citations.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Ahhhhhhhhhh...Gotta Go!

Farewell, Nyjer.  Milwaukee just won't be the same.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...