by Hugh Gilmore
Tens of thousands of ground balls have been hit to shortstops since I last wrote about books I’ve enjoyed reading. The shortstops scooted over to accept them into their gloves with easy graceful motions and tossed them to a baseman with practiced ease. While they’ve been reenacting that beautiful ritual, I’ve been home catching bloopers on that playing field known as the printed page. That’s why I’ve written more columns about writing than reading lately. Dedicated readers might wonder if I read at all anymore.
Rest assured, I do, though my numbers are considerably down this year. I’ve been looking at the stats, trying to analyze why, guessing that perhaps there’s a flaw in my stance. I probably need to open up a bit more and stop choking up.
Okay, that’s the end of the baseball parallels, so relax and read on. I wanted to mention two books I read on vacation up in Lincolnville, Maine, at the end of August/early September. Belated reviews, but authors don’t mind their books being praised at any point in their lifetimes. I never bring books with me on vacation, a strategy that forces me to go into town and support the local bookstores. I bought both of this year’s books at Bella Books, 135 High Street, Belfast, Maine, a small, charming shop that carries both used and new books, mostly used. Good, clean literary paperbacks, just the thing for vacation. Nice folks there, too.
On my first visit there I bought “The Yellow Birds,” (2012) by Kevin Powers, an American poet, writer, and Iraq war veteran. This debut novel was a 2012 National Book Award finalist, a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award winner and one of the New York Times’ 100 Most Notable Books of 2012. This pedigree impressed me, but my sincerest reason for wanting to read it was that I try to read every memoir (or novel) I can get my hands on that was written by a combat veteran of an American war that happened during my adult life. That interest starts with Vietnam and extends to such recent wars as Iraq and Afghanistan (e.g., “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10,” (2007) by Marcus Luttrell).
“The Yellow Birds” is a novel based on Kevin Powers’13-month tour of duty in Iraq in 2004/2005. The military aspects of the book: slogging, waiting, and waging intense fire-fights with the enemy, followed by more slogging and waiting, are written with meticulous precision. The emotional toll on the young soldiers, whether they’re killing, or being killed, is described with brutal honesty. Some of the soldiers break down, most go numb, some few come alive from the release all of restraint. The military life and battle campaigns Powers describes are embedded in a buddy story of two young soldiers who vow to look out for one another.
I found the story quite gripping until it started reading like a work of imagination rather than of memory. The non-military aspects of the characters seemed invented and incredible. And the narrative slowed down time and again to offer poetic descriptions of the landscape. Description is vital in a book like this, but the writing is quite deliberately and self-consciously “writerly.” I’m glad I read it though, because the action sequences and the mental make-up of the soldiers are rendered through the mind of a poet, with a poet’s exquisite language and eye for detail.
I read “The Yellow Birds” in three days and went back to Bella Books. After much indecision (I don’t know why choosing a book to read gives me such agita, but it does. Maybe it’s because the screened-porch setting of our borrowed cabin is so ideal, I need to find a book worthy of the experience.), I “took a chance” on Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding” (2011).
I worried from the title that it was just another goopy book about baseball, but I bought it anyway, hoping it lived up to all the praise it has garnered. It did. I marveled at its charm, humor and complexity. For the next month, I praised it to everyone I knew. I’ll never watch a shortstop field a baseball again without thinking of this book and its hapless Henry Skrimshander.
You don’t have to know much about baseball to enjoy this seriously whimsical, inventive story. Nearly every character who seems like a cameo walk-through returns to get his or full development and then get wrapped around, under, and through the story. I’d sum it up by saying “John Irving meets Kurt Vonnegut in Winesburg, Ohio, on their way to chase Moby Dick.” (SIC: the character, not the book title) At 528 pages and about 100-pages per day, the rest of my vacation porch time was spent with this book.
A call-out: I’m wondering in closing today if any of you have a book you enjoyed this year that you’d like to tell us about. I’ll publish your message in a column dedicated to this topic. Include your name and your community, and briefly describe why you liked the book. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks — Hugh