Tag Archives: Harper

Livin’ La Vida Loca

The Reason You’re Alive: A Novel by Matthew Quick (Harper, $25.99, 226 pages)

reason you're alive

Living the Crazy Life

The Reason You’re Alive is, supposedly, a novel about a Holden Caulfield-like character who has reached the age (68) at which he has a seven-year-old granddaughter.  He’s angry (of course) at the government that sent him to Vietnam in his youth, ultra-conservative (OK), and perhaps more than slightly deranged.  However, author Quick (The Silver Linings Playbook) begins the story with his version of charming writing.  There is, for example, a scene in which the main character, David Granger, sits down to an imaginary tea party with granddaughter Ella.  It’s sweet and cute.  And the reader is informed that it just so happens to be the case that Ella is the “spitting image” of Granger’s dead wife – by suicide (naturally).

Jessica Granger was a painter who apparently did little else with her life – David screamed at her on what proved to be her last night on earth, “You have to contribute SOMETHING!” – except for providing Granger with a son; a son which he did not father.  Quick, as Granger, writes beautifully about Jessica:

I feel like shedding a tear or two when I think about a nineteen-year-old Jessica looking up from a canvas as big as her, smiling at me with paint smudges all over her face, like camouflage.  Her long, brown hair is always braided with pigtails, and she is perpetually in overalls, as if she were a farmer riding on a tractor.  All she needed was a piece of hay hanging out of her mouth.  You could see the light in her eyes back then.  It was as bright as goddamn June moonbeams shimmering off ocean waves still warm from day’s sun.   

At this point in the novella, not a novel, the story is quirky with some parallels to the style of The Catcher in the Rye.  But this style on the part of the writer does not last, does not hold.  It’s not long after one’s approached the halfway point of the story that Quirk goes haywire on us.  The suspension of disbelief disappears as he relates events that ring as fully implausible.  The story goes from Catcher in the Rye to Catch-22; from simply quirky to fantastical, that is, odd and bizarre.

The outright crazy part of the book focuses on a bonkers Native American soldier, Clayton Fire Bear, who Granger served with in ‘Nam.  Fire Bear – who took scalps from dead Viet Cong soldiers, sounds like a character that one would have found in Catch-22.  Granger is determined to find Fire Bear in the U.S. and achieve some type of closure with him.  There are other inane things that the story focuses on – things which I won’t waste time relating.  Suffice it to say that, in the words of a Beatles song, it’s all too much.

There are two possible explanations for the author’s diversions.  Perhaps Quick decided to transform Granger from a more than slightly unstable individual to a fully insane unreliable narrator because he believed it was clever from an intellectual – “brilliant author,” standpoint.  If so, it’s too clever by half.  The other explanation is that Quick was simply enjoying himself at the reader’s expense, setting the reader up for what seemed like a serious journey only to drop him/her into the twilight zone.  If the latter is the case, then Quick has fashioned a work that is intentionally and illogically unrestrained.

At the least, this work is inconsistent and unsatisfying.  It starts off as an engaging look at a troubled human being – one the reader can partially relate to, and concludes as a work whose faults will be overlooked by those who prefer convoluted, strange literary forests to sensical, sensible trees.

Bottom line: This book is not The Catcher in the Rye and it’s quite far – incredibly far, from being enjoyable.  Do yourself a favor and pass on it.  You have better things to do with your time.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Arm

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The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports by Jeff Passan (Harper, $26.99, 376 pages)

One of the first things nearly all of us who picked up a baseball as a little boy – dreaming of one day playing in the major leagues, heard was, “Now remember, son, you only have one arm.” Jeff Passan has written a must read for any baseball fan called The Arm, which delves deeply into the mystery of how this limb withstands the continued trauma of throwing a baseball until it finally breaks down.

Anyone who has taken the pitcher’s mound in any relatively competitive situation from youth travel ball, to varsity high school baseball, to college, to pro ball, has said on numerous occasions, “I can throw. Gimme the ball.” That is how pitchers are wired. In the pitcher’s mind, he can’t pitch and beat you if you don’t give him the ball. But, how much is too much? What is the right number for a pitch limit? How much rest is required under what circumstances? What types of training, conditioning and preventive measures work best? What actually causes the arm to break down? According to Passan, nobody knows for sure. He faults organized baseball for not being more proactive in this regard, though he does cite some progress in this area over the past couple of years.

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In 1974 Dr. Frank Jobe made history by drilling holes into Tommy John’s elbow and weaving a new ligament into it to replace John’s torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL). This, of course, came to be known as “Tommy John surgery,” which now seems about as common for pitchers as putting their spikes on. According to Passan, instead of naming the surgery after himself – which is common when coining an innovative surgical procedure – he deferred to John, who he said is the one who had to undergo all of the pain and hard rehabilitative work.

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Two hundred and eighty-eight major league pitchers have had Tommy John surgery. Just two have had it twice: journeyman reliever Todd Coffey, and Dan Hudson of the Arizona Diamondbacks. A significant portion of the book chronicles their professional and personal highs and lows as they attempt to return to The Show.

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The book addresses how travel ball and specialization has taken over youth sports and delves into one of the preeminent organizations in the country, Perfect Game. It goes back in time to trace the evolution of arm care, from Sandy Koufax and the premature end of his career, all the way up to Kyle Boddy of DriveLine baseball in Kent, Washington, and his controversial training approach using over and underweight balls. Also included are discussions of alternatives to going under the knife.

While Passan seems intrigued at the possibilities offered by some of the new approaches to training, prevention, and treatment, the book does not conclude with an answer as to how to better protect young and old pitching arms. That’s because nobody has the answer. It may be that throwing a baseball as hard as you can, thousands and thousands of times – over decades beginning at age eight or so, is simply a destructive act.

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One final note: assuming both World Series teams carry 12 pitchers on their roster, 12.5% of the pitchers throwing in the 2016 World Series have had Tommy John surgery – John Tomlin of the Cleveland Indians and John Lackey and Hector Rondon of the Chicago Cubs. Tomlin was drafted in 2006, reached the big leagues in 2010 and had Tommy John surgery in 2012. He went 13-9 this year in 29 starts and sports a 49-39 career win-loss record. Lackey was 11-8 this year in 29 starts, and boasts a 176-135 win-loss record over 16 seasons. He had Tommy John surgery in 2011. Rondon, a reliever, had 18 saves this year and has a 14-14 career win-loss record. He missed some playing time this year with a non-arm injury and had Tommy John surgery performed in 2010.

While The Arm does not supply a solution as to how baseball can protect the arms of Little Leaguers and college pitchers and professional throwers like Tomlin, Lacky and Rondon, it performs a service in focusing attention on the ongoing issue of constitutionally fragile arms. It’s a good start.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Arm was released on April 5, 2016.

Dave Moyer is a school administrator in Illinois, a member of the Sheboygan A’s Baseball Hall of Fame, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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We’re All Alone

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Delta Lady: A Memoir by Rita Coolidge with Michael Walker (Harper, $25.99, 225 pages)

In the Acknowledgments, Rita Coolidge states that from the age of four she “dreamed of writing a book.” Sadly, this memoir does not read as if it was written. It reads as if it was dictated onto audio cassettes and transcribed by the writer whose name is found beneath hers in small letters. There’s simply no voice, no style present that gives it personality; thus, one never feels like time has been spent with the singer-musician.

Coolidge concedes that people usually think of her as the woman who was once married to Kris Kristofferson. Those wishing to find out something about that marriage may be satisfied with what they read in these 219 pages. But those wishing to learn more about her life in or out of the music trade may be left wanting.

One frustrating thing is that Coolidge makes bold statements before walking them back. For example, she’ll state that musician Joe Blow used too much cocaine, and then retract that by saying it’s not for her to say what too much is. Tentativeness in a “tell all” is so unsatisfying.

It seems like Coolidge waited decades to tell her story and then hedged in the telling.

Delta Lady back cover

Note:

Delta Lady could have used assistance from a strong editor. There are awkward statements and content throughout. For example, at one point we read this about Janis Joplin: “She drank too much than was good for her…” And Coolidge tells us that after her mother died, “I had a gig on the eighteenth and knew she wouldn’t want me to not do that gig.” Ouch!

There’s also noticeable repetition in the account. For example, one particular background singer did some work with the Rolling Stones. So every time her name is mentioned, we’re told – with but one exception – that this woman once sang with the Rolling Stones. These may seem like small points, but they’re not so small when you’ve shelled out $26.00 for a finished work.

Finally, there may be some issues with factual accuracy. Coolidge states that the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour left Joe Cocker physically and financially impoverished. Other accounts note that Cocker’s poor physical state was due to alcoholism. And the Mad Dogs and Englishmen double-album made Cocker rich. It was the second-best selling album in the U.S. when it was released, and was very likely the best selling recording on college campuses. A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss stated, “‘The Letter’ (from the Mad Dogs album) was the first hit for Joe… The record went (Top 10) platinum and sold well… That whole group was incredible, and it was an amazing experience – what they did live and on record was magnificent. After that success, we were able to get Joe back in the studio to make more great records.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Down the Drain

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Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss, & The Decline of a Detroit Dynasty by Frances Stroh (Harper, $25.99, 336 pages)

“The house (my father had purchased in New York City when I was six) and most of its contents would soon be gone, just as the brewery was. We’d somehow allowed ourselves to be pinned into place by these things; and in our search for freedom, some of us had self-destructed.”

Despite the title, this poor little rich girl memoir offers no insight into the brewing industry. That’s because Frances Stroh, a one-time partial heir to billions of Stroh Brewery dollars – all of which vanished into thin air, was far removed from the family’s management (and mismanagement) of the company. As with most of these memoirs, Frances did not realize early on how rich her family was. In her bored teen and early adult years she carelessly used and abused alcohol and drugs. And as a grown-up she learned to mourn the fortune she would never acquire.

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However, the rich are different. Even as Frances writes about Stroh’s going down the drain, she makes sure to inform the reader that she flies first class; she lives in a fine abode in San Francisco. And when her spendthrift brother came to visit her in The City, he’d rent out entire floors of swank hotels for parties and feast on the best food and drink from room service.

Stroh’s was a “beer giant… in the eighties and nineties…” But Frances has no explanation for the Detroit company’s rapid downfall other than to admit, “we’d simply blown it.” Indeed.

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Beer Money is a pointless, meaningless tale of privileged denial.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Note: According to Forbes magazine, the Stroh Brewery Company blew through $9 billion in profits. That’s a lot of beer money.

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Two Of A Kind

Two British Authors With Different Approaches to Crime

The Stone Wife (nook book)

The Stone Wife: A Chief Superintendent Peter Diamond Investigation by Peter Lovesey (Soho Press, $26.95, 368 pages)

Witty British mystery stories can be addicting. The reader knows that a satisfying one is like an escape from the mundane, an opportunity to spend time with detectives who are able to cut through the confusion and trick the villains into revealing their responsibility for evil deeds. Peter Lovesey has added a 14th Peter Diamond tale to his long list of publishing credits. The Stone Wife is most certainly a member of this charming and addictive genre. The opening pages are reminiscent of the Lovejoy television series wherein the main character is an antiques dealer who susses out the real from the fake, often at auctions.

The Stone Wife begins at an auction where masked gunmen interrupt contentious bidding for a slab of carved stone. The current high bidder boldly intervenes as the masked men are poised to whisk away the stone slab. Alas, the bidder’s actions result in a nasty abdominal wound that is quickly followed by his demise. Of course, the local police are summoned and Peter Diamond, head of the Bath Criminal Investigation Division (CID), and his team begin their search for the masked men.

Lovesey fills the story with easy dialogue and a good balance of description and action. The reader is provided background regarding Chaucer’s life and writings. This information ties to the carving on the stone slab, which becomes a nagging reminder of the unsolved case in Inspector Diamond’s office. The CID team members, including Ingeborg Smith and Paul Gilbert, put themselves in harms’ way to assist in untangling a rather convoluted interplay among some really nasty criminals.

Infidelity and envy are motivating factors for the crime. The twisting and turning of the plot can be a bit off-putting. By comparison, Skeleton Hill, an earlier book in the series, is more like a well-crafted game of Clue.

Recommended.

Under a Silent Moon: A Novel by Elizabeth Haynes (Harper, $25.99, 359 pages)

Under a Silent Moon

Every little thing felt like flirting where Hamilton was concerned. Did he do it to everyone, or just to Lou? And how did you stamp your authority on the working relationship when there was this sort of history between you? Two months ago she had been a DI, and his ranking equal… Her swift rise to DCI was all due to her grim determination to get her head down and concentrate on work rather than let herself be distracted by men, or one man in particular – Andy Hamilton.

A deliberate timeline, memos from the detective chief superintendent, illustrations of reports throughout and elaborate charts at the back pages of Under a Silent Moon set this police procedural apart from others of its genre. Author Elizabeth Haynes prefaces the book with an explanation of her use of IBM computer software to simulate an actual murder investigation. She assures the reader that the characters are pure fiction.

The suspicious death of a very pretty young woman kicks off this tale. Detective Chief Inspector Louisa (Lou) Smith catches the case, her first major crime as a senior investigating officer. Smith is anxious to get it right, not mess up on the case. She needs to assert her leadership role with the members of her team, including Andy Hamilton, who is both brash and intimidating. By contrast, Smith favors a calm and warm approach to policing. Her style may not suit the promotion she has recently won.

The scene of the crime is the upscale neighborhood of Briarstone. The victim, Polly Leuchars, is not just beautiful; she is also known for her promiscuity with both men and women. Her brutal murder touches many residents, both current and past, of the country town. A second murder adds to the urgency and pressures that DCI Smith feels from the upper echelons of the police department.

Haynes provides a large cast of characters, many of whom seem to be deliberately confusing. These characters include Taryn and Flora, their fathers and several police officers – both male and female. Thankfully, there’s a roster at the front of the book to assist the reader when the names become overwhelming. Timing plays an important role in the solution of both of the crimes.

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Despite the in-your-face presentation, readers of thrillers will most likely enjoy the specificity and details that make this more than just another procedural. Clearly, this is not your tame Miss Marple-style of British mystery. Under a Silent Moon is promoted as the first in a new series from Haynes. It will be interesting to see whether she is able to maintain the tight format and specificity of this compellingly tense novel.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Just About a Moonlight Mile

Moonlight Mile (nook book)

Moonlight Mile: A Kenzie and Gennaro Novel by Dennis Lehane (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 336 pages; Harper, $9.99, 368 pages)

Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile is a typical crime novel that weighs in as above average, but not enough to be considered a great work. The book relies significantly on dialogue. When an author’s story rests on a foundation of dialogue, the dialogue had better be good. In this case, it is strong at times but cheesy at others. All in all, the results are mixed.

While Lehane’s earlier novel, Live by Night, was a superb novel with a crime backdrop, Moonlight Mile is more of a stereotypical crime novel; although there are high points found throughout, it is basically “run of the mill.”

Private Investigator Patrick Kenzie and wife, Angela Gennaro, are caught up in the sequel to Gone, Baby, Gone, in which the enigmatic Amanda resurfaces twelve years later. As in any good crime novel, Russian gangsters are somehow prominent and, in this case, baby smuggling is the theme/motive. Dre, the Doctor that becomes entangled in the enterprise, is introduced well on into the story – which makes it a bit difficult for the reader to track and become emotionally involved. However, the doctor’s dereliction of duty provides an explanation for how and why everybody involved is involved. Sadly, the character development is lacking.

Kenzie and Gennaro struggle through the fact that they are in a relationship in which one person is shot at on a regular basis. Luckily, they remain attracted to each other. Okay.

While this is, overall, a good book with an exciting conclusion that some – or even many – will enjoy, I found it to be just passable. One would be better advised to pick up and read any Frederick Forsyth novel.

Recommended for less demanding readers.

Dave Moyer

Dennis Lehane

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dennis Lehane also wrote Mystic River: A Novel.

Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Coming Up Next…

Moonlight Mile 2

A review of Moonlight Mile: A Kenzie and Gennaro Novel by Dennis Lehane.

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