Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien

book cover

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Books exist in time and place and our experience of them is affected by the specific time and place in which we encounter them. Sometimes an uplifting or inspiring book can change the path of a life that has wandered onto a wrong course. Sometimes a book, discovered early on, can form part of the foundation of who we are. Or, discovered late, can offer insight into the journey we have taken to date. Sometimes a book is just a book. But not The Hobbit. Not for me. In January, 2013, I pulled out my forty-year old copy in anticipation of seeing the recently released Peter Jackson film. It is a substantial book, heavy, not only with its inherent mass, but for the weight of associations, the sediment of time. The book itself is a special hard-cover edition published in 1973, leather bound, in a slipcase, the booty of new love from that era. The book, while victim to some internal binding cracks (aren’t we all?) is still in decent shape, unlike that long-vanquished relationship. Not surprising. I had read the story six times and been there and back again with this particular volume five.

The Hobbit had first come to my attention in 1965 or ’66. I was then a high school underclassman, and my eyes were drawn to it at a school book fair. That was probably the ideal age, for me anyway, to gain an introduction to Tolkien. Not too far along into adolescence and an appreciation of the reality of the world to have completely tarnished my capacity for child-like wonder. That is what one must bring to a reading of this book, openness and innocence. Tolkien was a step sidewise for me, as I was a fan of the science fiction of that and prior eras. It was also, of course, a gateway drug for the grander addiction of LOTR, still my favorite read of all time.

One might think that looking at this book again with old, weary fresh eyes might lend new insight. After all, I have read literally thousands of books since, and have picked up at least a little critical capacity. And yes, there are things I notice now that perhaps skipped past back then. Of course that begs a specification of which back then one considers. While I first read the book as a high-schooler, I read it again when I was gifted with this beautiful volume, in my twenties. That makes two readings. But there would be more. I well recall reading the book aloud while sitting in a chair by my son’s bed. And yes, each of the major characters was delivered with a distinct voice. I went as deep as I could for Gandalf. I vaguely recall giving the dwarves a Scottish burr. Bilbo was definitely a tenor. My Gollum was remarkably like the sound of the one created by Andy Serkisssssss. (patting self on back).

Of course, my son was not the last to arrive at the gathering. Some years later there was a daughter, and more bedside theater. It was a bit more of a struggle then. Life was rather hectic. Nerves were often frayed. Sleep was in short supply. And there were far too many times when my eyes closed before those of my little gingersnap. But reading it that fourth time, one couldn’t help but notice the absence of any significant females. Who might my little girl relate to here? It is certainly possible for folks to identify with characters of another gender, but the stark absence of representatives of the female persuasion did stand out. Somehow I managed to keep my eyes open long enough to get through the volume.

But the party was not yet complete. There would be one more arrival, and one more opportunity to sit on or near a daughter’s bed and read aloud, sometimes to an upturned, eager face, sometimes to a riot of ringlets as she settled. My capacity for consciousness remained an issue. By then, my voice had also suffered a bit with the years, the reward for too many cigarettes, too much yelling, too much ballpark whistling, and the usual demise of age, so it took a fair bit more effort and strain than reading it aloud had done previously. I am pretty certain I made it through that third time aloud. Truthfully, I am not 100% certain that I did.

You probably know the story, or the broad strokes anyway. In the quiet rural village of Hobbiton Across the Water, in a land called Middle Earth, an unpresupposing everyman, Bilbo Baggins, lives a quiet existence. He has a smidgen of wanderlust in him, the genetic gift of ancestors on the Took branch of his family tree, but he is mostly content to enjoy hearty meals and a good pipe. One day, Gandalf, a lordly, father-figure wizard Bilbo has known for many years, comes a-calling and Bilbo’s life is upended. Gandalf is helping a group of dwarves who are on a quest. Led by Thorin Oakenshield, a dwarf king, they aim to return to their home, inside the Lonely Mountain, somehow rid the place of Smaug, the dragon who has taken up residence, and regain the land and incredible treasure that is rightfully theirs. Gandalf has recommended that Bilbo accompany the group, as a burglar. Bilbo, of course, has never burgled a thing in his life, and is horrified by the prospect. But, heeding his Tookish side, Bilbo joins the dwarves and the adventure is on.

One need not go far to see this as a journey of self-discovery, as Bilbo finds that there is more to him than even he realized. This raises one question for me. How did Gandalf know that Bilbo would be the right hobbit for the job? Bilbo faces many challenges and I betray no secrets for any who have not just arrived on this planet by reporting that Bilbo’s dragons, real and symbolic, are ultimately slain and he returns home a new, and somewhat notorious hobbit. Bilbo serves well as the everyman, someone who is quite modest about his capacities, but who rises to meet the challenges that present, acting in spite of his fear and not in the absence of it. He is someone we can easily care and root for.

Elements abound of youthful adventure yarns, treasure, a map to the treasure, a secret entrance that requires solving a riddle to gain entry, a spooky forest, foolishness and greed among those in charge, a huge battle, and, ultimately, good sense triumphing over evil and stupidity. Oh, yeah, there is something in there as well about a secret, powerful ring that can make it’s wearer invisible. Sorry, no damsels in distress.

(Rivendell remains a pretty special place. If I am ever fortunate enough to be able to retire, I think I would like to spend my final days there, whether the vision seen by Tolkien or the Maxfield Parrish take as seen in the LOTR films.)

There are magical beings aplenty here. Hobbits, of course, and the wizard and dwarves we meet immediately. A shape shifting Beorn assists the party but remains quite frightening. There are trolls, giant spiders, giants, goblins, were-wolf sorts called wargs, talking eagles, a communicative, if murderous dragon, elves of both the helpful and difficult sorts, and a few men, as well. Then there is Gollum.

IMHO, Bilbo is not the most interesting character in Tolkien’s world. Arguably there is a lot more going on with Gollum, an erstwhile hobbit riven by the internal conflict of love and hate, corrupted, but not without a salvageable soul. While he is given considerably more ink in the LOTR story, it is in The Hobbit that we meet him for the first time. He is the single least YA element in this classic yarn, one of the things that elevates this book from the field and makes it a classic.

The Hobbit was written before Tolkien’s ambitious Lord of the Rings. While there are many references to classic lore, the bottom line is that this is a YA book. It is easy to read, and to read aloud, (something that is not the case with LOTR. I know.) and is clearly intended for readers far younger than I am today. It remains a fun read, even on the sixth (or so, I may have dipped in again somewhere along the line) time through. Were I reading it today for the first time, I would probably give it four stars. But as, for me, it bears the weighty treasure of memory, I must keep it at five. If you are reading this for the first time as an adult, or an antique, the impact is likely to be different for you. If you are a younger sort, of the adolescent or pre-adolescent persuasion, particularly if you are a boy, it might become an invaluable part of your life. Maybe one day you can sit by your child’s or grandchild’s bedside and be the person who reads these words to them for the first time, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” and begin the adventure again. To see the glowing young eyes as the tale unfolds is nothing less than absolutely precious.

PS – I would check out the review offered by GR pal Ted. He includes in his review outstanding, informative and very entertaining excerpts and comments re info on The Hobbit from JRRT’s son Christopher.

========================================EXTRA STUFF

Here is a lovely article on JRRT, from Smithsonian Magazine, January 2002

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Filed under Fantasy, Literary Fiction, Reviews

News From Heaven by Jennifer Haigh

book cover The news is not always good.

Jennifer Haigh, clearly mining a favorite seam, manages to hit the motherlode again in her new tales of Bakerton, PA. Her 2005 novel, Baker Towers, painted a three-decade portrait of the small mining town, from 1944 into the 1970s, focusing on the lives of its residents, and most particularly, the five siblings of her fictional Novak family. In returning to Bakerton, Haigh brings back several of the characters from her earlier work, completing some unfinished stories of the family, and expanding her scope as well. There are plenty of faces, even beyond those of the Novaks, that will be familiar to readers of the earlier book. In News From Heaven Jennifer Haigh demonstrates once more the immense talent for which she has rightfully come to be known.

She has not been idle in the eight years since she introduced Bakerton, PA to the world. In 2008, The Condition , was released, an excellent a multi-generational family drama set in New England. In 2011, she produced the exquisite Faith, about a priest accused of sexually abusing a child. In that novel and in other work she showed a power that put her at the top level of contemporary fiction writers, and she just keeps on getting better. But, apparently, Haigh had been puttering with Bakerton tales ever since Baker Towers came out.

I didn’t, for a long time, imagine publishing them as a collection. I wrote them one at a time, in between novels or drafts of novels. And after about ten years of this, I realized that they belonged together in a book.

So in a way, despite moving from Pennsylvania to the Boston area, one could say that in News from Heaven, Jennifer Haigh returns to Bakerton. But in a very real sense she never left.

This is a book about longing, loneliness, about secrets, about wanting to flee the stifling confines not just of small town life but of responsibility and living with one’s choices. Maybe about pleading with fate. Yet it is also about the pull that our homes can have on our hearts. The stories are filled with yearnings, some met, many not. Disappointment shuffles through these stories. Secrets are revealed, often to dark effect. These are stories about change, in the world and in her characters.

…good fiction always begins with complex, well-developed characters, and to write those characters I have to know where they came from. I imagine them as children, their fears and frustrations, the rooms where they slept at night, and I find it all so interesting that I have to write about it. I have come to accept that — in my hands, anyway — every story becomes a family story.

As with Baker Towers, most of the action in the book takes place in Bakerton, with a few forays beyond, and the great majority of her characters are women. There are ten stories in the collection. All of them will make you feel. Four of the first five look upward, in their titles at least, while the latter five seem to look down. There are moments of awakening, moments of glorious freedom and possibility that shine through this sooty, declining place, lives that find meaning, whether real or faux, whether passing or permanent. But it seems that for most of the inhabitants, whether they remain in Bakerton or have sought greener pastures elsewhere, the news from on high is that they have to get by with what they can and not look for a paradise on earth. That said, Haigh’s writing is heaven-sent, her ability to portray real, breathing people is celestial and her talent for portraying place is rapturous.

It is not necessary to have read Baker Towers in order to appreciate the strength of the writing on display here, but it certainly helps to have done so in order to get the fullest picture of her players.

=========================================THE STORIES

Beast and Birds opens the collection in the past. Sixteen-year-old Annie Lubicki is engaged to work in the household of an Upper West Side Manhattan Jewish family in the 1930s. The family has a son whose destiny it is to become a scholar. We are given a servant’s eye look at life in NYC as Annie experiences it on her first time away from home. On a weekend while the adults are away, Annie is charged with caring for the young man. He is unwell and cannot accompany his parents on their trip. He and Annie have developed a relationship that is nothing but sweet.

There are many words for what she’d felt as she watched him sleep, many words in many languages, but the one she knows is longing

Did they or didn’t they?

In Something Sweet, an ironic title, Haigh brings back teacher Viola Peale from BT. She is much taken with a student, a boy who has a natural way with girls, is a gifted salesman who also demonstrates a flair for decoration. He offers her a lemon drop. “It’s nice to have something sweet,” he says. Of course he incurs the wrath of those maybe not so smooth. During the summer visit of a young relation Viola is smitten with a hunky second cousin who is very wrong for her–In a trance of longing, Viola sat on the grass, hugging her knees to her chest–and her desire is harshly rewarded. The young student knows he will never be accepted in the town and looks for a way out. The sweetness here is of the bitter variety.

In Broken Star young Regina has a magical month in the summer of 1974, when her cool Aunt Melanie comes to stay with the family for a spell, and provides a wonderful assist during a time of growth and change. Gina thrives with Melanie’s encouragement but still has concerns about life, and her future, a girl born to a farming family, who is not all that interested in the land, a girl who fears getting stuck.

My uncles…were like all the men I knew then, soybean and dairy farmers who spoke rarely and then mainly about the weather. Yet unlikely as it seemed, I accepted that these men had the power to transform. My aunts had been pretty, lively girls—one stubborn, one mischievous, one coquettish, according to my mother—though somehow all three had matured into exactly the same woman: plump, cheerful, adept at pie making and counted cross-stitch, smelling of vanilla and Rose Milk hand lotion. That I would someday become that same woman terrified me. My only greater fear was that nobody would choose me, and I would become nothing.

Years later, after marrying, living abroad and having written a book, Regina learns a tragic secret about her aunt, and the cost of her own separateness.

A Place in the Sun continues the unfinished story of Sandy Novak from BT. Despite his charm, beauty and certain skills, Sandy has never managed to get or stay ahead. He seems always on the run and has a gambling compulsion. Still, he and his sister, Joyce, maintain some sort of a connection, even if that usually means her sending him money. Trying to straighten up he takes a job at a diner in North Hollywood

She had hired him off the street. Bleary, hungover, he’d wandered in for breakfast after an all-night card game. A sign in the window said HELP WANTED. Can you cook? Vera Gold asked.
He looked down at his greasy plate. Better than this? Sure. You bet.

It is not long before Sandy and statuesque, red-headed Vera are an item, to the chagrin of Vera’s much older husband. Of course this complicates Sandy’s relationship with a young Canadian cutie, who is looking for more from him that he is interested in giving.

”That’s where I used to work,” he said, pointing. The familiar sign filled him with an old longing, the looping S with its tall graceful curves


“Is that where we’re going?”
For a moment he was tempted. The town had a short memory, and seven years had passed. Still he wouldn’t chance it. He’d been known there, known and recognized. Sandy from the Sands. It wasn’t worth the risk.

And across it all he ponders his family back east, and the odds of life taking a positive turn.

To The Stars looks at the town’s reaction to Sandy’s passing, with particular focus on Joyce, and her feelings about her own choices. Sandy was once a chauffeur to the stars but never managed to become a star himself.

She is thinking not of his death but of that earlier departure, his disappearance like a magic trick, as dizzying and complete. His manic and determined flight from Bakerton, from the family, from her…and yet Joyce could never leave them [her family], run off to California or to Africa, as her younger siblings have done. Freedom is, to her, unimaginable, as exotic as walking on the moon.

Thrift introduces Agnes Lubicki, a nurse who has lived her life in service to others and found herself with no way to have anything for herself. Until a man enters her life, and Agnes gives up everything for him. Is this what she’d been saving for?

In Favorite Son, Mitch Stanek, a studly jock, had been expected to coast to a career in professional sports. But something is amiss when he goes away to college on a full scholarship. We see him, back in Bakerton, married with kids, and out of work when Mine #11 shuts down, putting 900 out of work. Joyce Novak’s daughter, Rebecca, narrates the tale, and has special knowledge about Mitch, that tells us whether he was destined for fame, or not. It is in this story that we get the quote that births the collection’s title: The white flakes landed like news from heaven: notes from elsewhere, fallen from the stars.

The Bottom of Things introduces Ray Wojick, 52, back in town for his parents’ 50th anniversary party, with his pregnant second wife. Ray is looking to get to the bottom of things, his ultimate impact on his late brother’s fate, how his father was able to raise him, when he married a woman with a three-year old, how Ray’s first marriage came to be and came to end, his alienation from his children from that marriage, and how to cope once he learns what he needs to know.

Sunny Baker used to be a joyous kid, thus the name, but in What Remains we see what has become of her. When her parents were killed in a plane crash her life took a dark turn, and she never quite recovered. We see her through a series of relationships, each of which add more junk to her property and take a piece more out of what is left of her. The story is paralleled by the town wanting to attract construction of a new prison. Do the math.

Finally, Desiderata closes the book with Joyce Novak mourning the death of her husband, and remembering her dead son, and how he was lost. It also tells the tale of an inspirational teacher and a husband who had married a woman who did not or could not love him enough.

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Reviews, Short Stories

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

book cover What on earth is happening to the bees? They say it is an ecological disaster, an environmental holocaust. Every day I wonder what the blazes can be causing this abuse of our ecosystem. Chemicals I hear, pesticides. I don’t understand it, really I don’t. Our planet faces extinction and yet nobody seems to care. Am I afraid? You bet your bottom dollar I am.

The environment in which sisters Marnie and Nelly find themselves does indeed look poisoned beyond hope. How can anything survive? This is working class Glasgow and the girls are alone. The book opens with one of the better first paragraphs I have read.

Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.

Marnie’s little sister Helen, aka Nelly, has gone and done it. Put the pillow over her father, Gene’s, drugged out face and completed for him the self-destruction he had made his life work. He would abuse her and Marnie no more. Mom, Izzy, made another in a lifetime of awful decisions and headed off to the shack to add her name to the list of those who have gone before. Consider it addition by subtraction. No more need to worry about all potential food money going up noses, into veins or being poured from amber bottles. No more concern about other sorts of abuse, too. But if the authorities find out, the girls will be separated for sure, tossed back into foster care, with who knows what sorts. The solution? A quiet back-yard burial. Who is to take care of these two?

I suppose I’ve always taken care of us really. I was changing nappies at five years old and shopping at seven, cleaning and doing laundry as soon as I knew my way to the launderette and pushing Nelly about in her wee buggy when I was six. They used to call me wee Maw around the towers, that’s how useless Gene and Izzy were. They just never showed up for anything and it was always left to me and left to Nelly when she got old enough. They were never there for us, they were absent, at least now we know where they are.

Author Lisa O’Donnell grew up in public housing to very young parents. In an interview with Powell’s (link at bottom) she talks about the Thatcher-era environment in which she was raised. The primary inspiration for this story came from her days in Scotland, but they were reinforced when she saw similar horrors after she crossed the pond and was living in East LA, children put in charge of children, wastrel parents, childhood denied.

Across the fence lives an old man, Lennie, still mourning the loss of his soul mate of forty years. That boy from whom he sought temporary comfort in the park was not as old as he claimed and now Lennie must endure vandals spray-painting his property and enduring the shame of being on a sex offender list.

Actual parents do not come across very well in O’Donnell’s world. Teacher sorts are a mixed lot and the state agents base their actions on formulae instead of reality. O’Donnell paints a very bleak portrait of working class life in Glasgow. The girls have been damaged by their upbringing. Marnie helps a local drug dealer and relieves her stress with shagging. Nelly insulates herself from the world by speaking in a queenly manner. She plays the violin beautifully but completely freaks out when encountering reminders of her precarious state.

Will the girls be able to keep their ruse going long enough for Marnie to reach 16, when the state will consider her an adult and allow her to legally take care of Nelly?

When the girls’ long-absent grandfather pops into the picture, looking to atone for a lifetime of being a bloody horror, things get even more complicated. He may mean well right now, but born-again or not, this is the guy who had a hand in creating one of those awful parents. His sobriety is not to be presumed, and there is a history of abandonment and violence to boot.

Marnie’s friends add to the pile of woe, coping with their own missing family members, and travails of one sort and another.

There is enough sadness here to fill a cemetery, but there is sweetness to come.

As dark as things appear, a glimmer of light shines through. Lennie is not only no sexual predator, he is just a lonely man with a need to care, and care he does, slowly taking the girls in, offering them the sort of loving home life they had never experienced from their biological parents.

There is plenty of tension in this book. Will Lennie’s dog, Bobby, succeed in his relentless mission, trying to dig up the buried remains? This bit does seem rather clichéd. Can Grandpa be trusted? Will the drug dealer kill them trying to retrieve money owed him by a dead parent?

I know, I know, it sounds pretty dark. And a lot of it certainly is, but there is such warmth in this book, such humanity, such caring, that you will be cheering by the end. Can Lennie’s light shine these girls past the darkness? And there is redemption from another quarter, as Marnie provides the vehicle for a baddie to tuck away his stinger.

These are teenagers and that means coming of age. The sisters in O’Donnell’s tale begin at somewhat extreme ends and move towards each other over the course of the story. Marnie, world weary at fifteen, with the help of people who actually care about her, despite some self-destructive behavior, begins to find her inner softness, her inner vulnerability, her inner child. The decidedly odd Nelly matures, moving from being a very dependent child to someone with much more appreciation for the world and her place in it.

There are multiple, alternating narrators here. Lennie talks to his dead love, Joseph. Marnie and Nelly narrate their sections as well, and speak in distinct and appropriate voices. O’Donnell is a screenwriter, so has a keen ear for dialogue.

There are some rough edges here. Nellly is described early on as a Harry Potter fanatic, but nothing much is made of it after that mention. The girls manage some significant work in places where it is surprising that their labors go undetected. O’Donnell relies too much on coincidence in constructing her climax. Would this or that person really have shown up where and when they do? Nevertheless the beauty here is in how two damaged, abandoned girls can be welcomed, nurtured, and allowed a real home and how a lonely soul can provide it, constructing the family they all desperately need. There is plenty of redemption to go around in this dark place. I was reminded a bit of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, another tale that casts love and hope against an intensely bleak background, the better to draw our attention to the light. The Death of Bees may not be a perfect book but does celebrate the triumph of hope over despair, and it is certain to generate a lot of buzz.

========================================EXTRA STUFF

There are a few interviews I came across that add to one’s appreciation of this book.

USA today from December 2012

NPR from January 5, 2013


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Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry

book cover In the song Take Me Out to the Ballgame there is a particular line that comes into play here. Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack. I don’t care if I never get back.

That sentiment was put to the test on April 18, 1981, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, when the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings played the longest game in professional baseball history. Given that the song is generally sung in the middle of the 7th inning, or after six and a half innings of play, the fans, had they been of a mind, could have sung the tune four more times before the game was finally concluded.

Dan Barry, a sports columnist for the New York Times, a guy who had lived in Pawtucket for four years, uses this singular game as a structure around which to build his depiction of minor league baseball, more particularly Triple-A level baseball, using the example here to stand in for the whole.

His approach is one that would give anyone with a generous dose of OCD a thrill. I did not keep track of the number of individuals who are mentioned and for whom Barry offers at least a little biographical info, but I expect it easily squirts past the defenders into triple digit territory. There is no index available for cheating and coming up with a credible number. Leave it that if a cat had wandered into the field during that game, Barry probably interviewed it, and I expect had he been able to identify the gulls that were in attendance, they would undoubtedly be pretty sick of him asking them about the game, and checking their eggs to find out if the unborn heard anything their feathered parental units might have mentioned about it. I do not mean this as a knock, but merely to offer a sense of Barry’s overall approach. It is reminiscent of an actual baseball field, a wide swath, covered in grass, only inches deep, but with particular parts that emerge, and form the more significant elements of his story, the mound, the bases. One or two deserve mention.

In one of the true rarities in baseball, the owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox sounds like he was a pretty decent guy. We learn about him lending a helping hand when the help really was for someone else and not just a roundabout way of helping himself. The best element was Barry’s look at Dave Koza, a career minor-leaguer who was known for his home runs, but whose major league career only had warning track power, a Crash Davis sort. Barry looks at Koza (really, someone must have nicknamed him “Lost”, but we never come across that here.) His story carries all the hope-and-dream elements that drive so many of these young men. Dave was the fellow who would get the game-winning hit in the bottom of the 33rd.

Barry gives us an illuminating look at the history of the stadium in which the game was played, tells us about the umpires, the ball boy, the intern, the security guard, the where-are-they-nows, the whole nine yards innings, or in this case thirty three. In a way it struck me as having something in common with rain delays, when hapless broadcasters (yes, he looks at those guys too) have to work extra hard to come up with material to cover the dead air between pitches. Barry certainly does work hard, and manages not only to fill in the blanks, I think he may have actually created some to give himself more time to fill.

If you are a baseball fan, this is a fun book. It is nice to know that Rich Gedman, Wade Boggs, Bruce Hurst, Cal Ripkin Jr,. Bobby Ojeda, and a few other eventual pros took part in the game, and that a game of such duration was ultimately made possible by a cut-and-paste failure in the updating of the league rule book. It is nice to learn of Bobby O’s role in sparking behavior that had once gotten a batboy ejected from a game. It is fun to hear that Mike Hargrove’s extended at-bat preparations earned him the moniker “The Human Rain Delay.” If you are not a baseball fan, Bottom of the 33rd offers a look at a piece of American culture that is as true today as it was over thirty years ago.

I can tell you from painful personal experience here in New York City that it is generally a bad idea to go to a ballgame in April. Hell, May and maybe even June, can feel like a wind-blown tundra in our stadiums. And farther north and east it must be even worse. It is no shock that only nineteen spectators made it through the entirety of the game. The book will take a lot less time to read than the game took to be played, and you will not be in danger of having bodily parts crystallize and drop off while you are completing it.

Bottom of the 33rd may not be a grand slam, but it is at least a hustle-triple. And it is definitely a good idea to Root, root, root for the home team.

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Filed under Baseball, Non-fiction, Reviews

Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh

book cover Baker Towers is a family saga set in the fictional mining town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania.

It begins with the death of the Novak family head in 1944 (although there are references to events that happened before this) and ends in the 1970s, when the town has begun to fall into decline. Haigh tracks the lives of the Novak family through the intervening decades, chronicling the impact of change in American society on this small town, and its characters. There are five children in the Novak clan. When we first meet them, George, the oldest, is serving in the military; his youngest sibling, Lucy, is piping hot out of the oven. Haigh has a talent for giving each of these very different siblings a unique voice. Some have more stage time than others (a flaw she tries to address by tying up some loose ends in a later book); but those in the spotlight are shown clearly and to great effect.

Haigh brings to life diverse aspects of Bakerton life, from the drudgery of factory work to ethnic and religious divisions, from union elections to the plague of black lung, from young love to adult desires, from a wedding with old-world elements to a town dance that summons an image of the Kaaba in Mecca. Haigh looks beyond the town for a bit, describing the experience of single women in DC during the war, and one woman’s post-war experience in the military. But mostly she concentrates on changes in the town and in her characters as the outside world evolves and time marches on. Cars and telephones become ubiquitous. Presidents are elected; one is murdered. But to the citizens of Bakerton, and the Novak family, the world seems distant, an echo over a far hill. But no matter how insulated or isolated they are in this close-knit small town, change seeps into their lives, shaping them in unexpected ways. Haigh offers us temporal touchstones in each chapter, helping orient us in US history.

As might be expected in any tale of a small town, there is much here about longing, but not nearly so much about escape as one might expect. The yearning for fulfillment is at the center of her characters’ lives, along with the fear that this small place may never offer a way to satisfy wants and needs, and might even extinguish hope.

Bakerton did this to people: slowly, invisibly, it made them smaller, compressed by living where little was possible, and where the ceiling was very low.

Not only are opportunities limited in the world of work, the range of the possible in romance is likewise narrow:

It was, she reflected, a dangerous pastime, mooning over the handsome, clever men on the screen. It doomed you to disappointment; it made you expect too much. [She] had never been in love, but felt herself capable of it. She could love Fred Astaire or Clark Gable or Errol Flynn, an elegant, cultivated fellow who wore wonderful clothes and possessed all sorts of hidden talents, who sang and danced and even fought in a way that looked beautiful; who even when he drank was witty and articulate and gentle and wise. The harder job was loving what men really were—soldiers and miners, gruff and ignorant; louts who communicated mainly by cursing, who couldn’t tell you anything about life that you didn’t already know.

The strength of the novel, only Haigh’s second, is her characters. Male and female (well, mostly female), these people are made real. Their desires are made as clear to us as they are to themselves, and we feel an investment in how things turn out for them. Like moviegoers loudly telling the little girl in the horror movie not to go back for her dropped teddy bear. (No, no, don’t do that. He’ll get you!) Or cheering when something right wins out over the opposition of time. (You go, girl!)

Haigh was born and raised in the great metropolis of Barnsboro, PA, a mining town that provided the model for Bakerton. Her grandfathers were miners. I have a bit of an in-house expert to consult on this. My wife was born and raised in Wilkes-Barre, PA, a more easterly version of Bakerton, a place with street names like Carbon Lane and Anthracite Street, and public spaces like Coal Street Park and Miner’s Park. She tells me that when she read this book some years back she felt as if Haigh had been writing about her town. So we can take it from a local that Haigh nailed it.

One caveat is that there are a lot of characters in this book. While one might be tempted to keep track of them all, to do so might induce madness. Stick to keeping up with the Novaks.

Baker Towers opens with coal cars heading in to town and ends, decades later, with Amish buggies. New, plain residents have emerged, and while they begin to re-green the land, the history that lies beneath remains. Lives go on, or don’t. Directions change, or don’t. Hopes are realized and dreams are dashed. Love is found and squandered. There are satisfactions and regrets. As Haigh makes clear, where you are from may not determine what your life will be, but it has an indelible impact on the person you will ultimately become

PS – I must add that in a rare exception to my usual strictly solo practice, I called on my wife personal editor extraordinaire for some assistance after completing an almost-final cut, and feeling unsatisfied with the result. She deserves partial credit (but no blame) for the contents, as the final edit was mine alone.

PPS – Haigh, eight years after Baker Towers was published, wrote a follow up, News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories.

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