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Stand By Me

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; $25.00; 192 pages)

“I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories…”

Pat Conroy is the ultra-successful author who has been disparaged by some as a mere “storyteller” and “Southern writer.”   Both are labels he gladly accepts, in fact he revels in the descriptions that are often used to damn him with faint praise.   Conroy is a writer who has remained true to his craft, to his own personal style even if it is not the fashion of the hour or day with critics.   Fortunately, writers are not politicians who must appeal to the majority; nor need they comport with the latest trends.

For this reviewer, Conroy is far from being a minor writer.   In fact, his true story My Losing Season remains as perhaps the best sports-related memoir ever written, one that fairly balances the rewards, life lessons and harsh punishments of competition.   My Losing Season chronicled Conroy’s role as a successful athlete on a far from winning basketball team at The Citadel.   Anyone who has played competitive sports at any level will recognize themselves in the eyes of the young and still naive Conroy.

This memoir might well have been titled My Life in Books, My Favorite Authors and Books, or In Defense of Great Writing.   Conroy, now in his mid-sixties, claims to have read 200 pages a day since early in high school.   In My Reading Life, he gets to serve as the reader-reviewer-judge of a lifetime of books.   He is clearly partial to the works of southern male writers, some of whom served as his instructors or idols, and all of whom served as substitute father figures.   Which brings us to the one big problem with this memoir…  Anyone who saw the film or read the book The Great Santini knows how much Conroy hated his father.   Everyone knows that and yet in this memoir Conroy constantly drags the dead horse of his hatred for his father around, as if it were some type of perverse trophy.   His father has been long-buried, so when is Conroy going to be satisfied with putting his sad childhood to rest?   Enough already.

To his credit, Conroy does not idolize all of the authors he references in this work.   Clearly he never “got” whatever it is that was supposed to be so strong and moving in the works of Ernest Hemingway, and he quite accurately points out that Hemingway’s skills – however one measured them – quickly eroded.   Conroy also paints a cold picture of the hazards of fame, something that – if it should come either too early or is poorly timed – can paralyze a writer like Hemingway or James Dickey.

Conroy does pay fine tribute to three writers, two male and one female:  Thomas Wolfe (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe), Leo Tolstoy and Margaret Mitchell.   Atlantans will find the book worth purchasing simply for Conroy’s profile of Mitchell, his mother’s cultural idol.   Conroy’s mother attended the Atlanta premier of Gone With the Wind, and taught him to hate General Sherman with every fibre of his then-young being.

Of Tolstoy, Conroy writes, “…Tolstoy makes us strive to be better people:  better husbands and wives, children and friends…  Reading Tolstoy, you will encounter a novelist who fell in love with his world and everything he saw and felt in it.”   He also makes the case that with Tolstoy, “There has never been a writer of his mastery who wrote with such clarity and ease.”   This reader wonders, however, whether one could rate a Tolstoy above an English writer whose name was William Shakespeare?

As one reads My Reading Life, one revisits his/her favorite books of a lifetime.   As we revisit these favorites we may well find that something has been lost in modern storytelling.   So many novels these days (as reflected in the quotation from Conroy that introduces this review) appear to be over-told, overly complicated and overpopulated with characters.   Return to a classic from an earlier time, such as Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning story All the King’s Men (1946), and you can see Conroy’s point.   Regardless of how one comes down on this matter of the past versus current writing talent, Conroy’s memoir is a loving tribute to writers, words and the plain but so often brilliant tales of human life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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The Ragged Tiger

Paper Tiger:  An Obsessed Golfer’s Quest to Play with the Pros by Tom Coyne (Gotham, $15.00)

Yes, 7 and the Ragged Tiger was my favorite album from the 80s mega rock-disco group Duran Duran.   This book’s title has no connection to that band, nor – as one browsing Borders might think – to Tiger Woods.   But it is about the maddening sport of golf.

Tom Coyne has authored two other well-received books about the sport, A Gentleman’s Game and A Course Called Ireland.   The one-time college golfer is one of those guys who has had a few beers with his friends in the clubhouse and wondered what it would be like to devote a year or two of one’s life to nothing but the game.   He has a bit of talent, so would dedicating himself completely to golf turn him into a PGA qualifier?

You can probably guess what the answer is, but to Coyne’s credit he gave it a very good shot.   In one year he hit 75,000 range balls to practice his old killer swing, and he woke up early and hit until dark while living in an apartment that joined the greens in Florida.   What did he find out?   That even with the best technology (free Mizuno high-tech clubs) and the best in coaching (Dr. Jim Suttie) you can’t turn a paper tiger into a roaring lion.

Statistically, amateur entrants into a U.S. Open qualifying tournament have a .893 percent (less than nine-tenths of one percent) chance “of making it into the final field this year.”   So it’s not a shock that our hero – a rusty and overweight golfer when he begins his links journey – does not manage to accomplish the impossible.   But the fun is in the read, following an Everyman who’s as likely to flame out under the pressure of possible success as any one of us mortals.   To paraphrase what someone else said, Coyne tried to play with the killers on the course and they killed him.

The Philadelphia Inquirer got it right when the newspaper wrote that Paper Tiger is, “A breezy, poignant read…  Hilarious.”   The book contains several very funny true stories and scenes, the best of which is when a rookie caddy mistakes the author for the great lefty Phil Mickelson!   Under the pressure of attempting to “be” Phil, Coyne shoots an 89 and finishes his 18-holes with the young caddy screaming at him – “It’s about G– Damn time!”

This one is quite funny.   Look for the trade paperback at a large bookstore and then take it along on your next multi-hour plane or train trip.   It will well be worth it.   Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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