the-art-of-fieldingHello Fellow Book Lovers! How did your August reading adventure go? Did you find a great sports themed book? Were you inspired by the Olympics to try something different? Or did you finish off the podium this month?

I’ve been laid up this month (fully on the mend now and returning soon!) and expected to read multiple books – I had stockpiled a lovely stack of enticing titles. But the truth is, I was often just too tired to do much beyond my physical therapy exercises other than stare at the tv (or nap!) Thank goodness for the Olympics! I am not a fan of daytime tv but the Olympics proved to be a great source of inspiration and drama. Because I was home during the day I was able to watch many of the “obscure” sports that I only see during the Olympics such as flat water canoeing and equestrian and badminton and lacrosse and trampoline (!). I was especially intrigued by the rowing contests, having loved Dan Brown’s brilliant The Boys in the Boat; I felt I had at least an inkling of what those athletes went through to reach the pinnacle of their sport and also now knew a bit of the sports’ history and background. It was a prefect example of books enriching your life.

I did manage to read a sports themed book this month, although it’s the non-Olympic sport of baseball. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach may center on college baseball, but it’s real heart is the lives of the characters and the long-reaching consequences of one random mistake. Henry Skrimshander is spotted playing during a summer baseball tournament by Mike Schwartz, the catcher of Westish College, who sees Henry’s potential  – Henry is an artist on the field, snagging every ball that comes his way and throwing with precision and accuracy. Schwartz manages to get Henry a scholarship to Westish and helps him train and practice. Suddenly Westish has a bona fide pro prospect playing for them and baseball scouts begin showing interest. Henry flourishes as his skills improve and he becomes a student of the game. The future opens before him, bright and promising.

Until one day Henry throws a ball that goes wildly off course, hitting his friend and roommate Owen, sitting in the dugout, in the face. It wasn’t out of malice, it was simply a slip with a wet ball on a windy and rainy day. Except for an impressive shiner, Owen is fine and never blames Henry, but Henry loses his nerve and suddenly, the magic that was his fielding is gone; he simply cannot play the game anymore. The consequences of this one slip and it’s effect on Henry and his friends and teammates make up the bulk of the book – how Henry struggles with and copes (not always constructively) with his panic, how his friends and teammates rally around him, how people are brought together that might never have met, of learning to find purpose again when your life suddenly changes course. A warmhearted, thoughtful book; highly recommended.

How about you – what did you read this month? Let us know in the comments!

And a quick note – many thanks to my guest editors Allison and Stephanie who have been keeping the blog afloat for me! See you next month!

throwbackJason Kendall is an All-Star catcher who has seen just about everything during his years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland Athletics, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, and Kansas City Royals. He’s a player’s player, a guy with true grit – a throwback to another time with a unique view on the game that so many love. Reminiscent of such classics as Ball Four and Men at Work, Jason Kendall and sportswriter Lee Judge team up to bring you the fan, player, coach, or curious statistician an insider’s view of the game from a player’s perspective.

Throwback is a book about pre-game rituals, what to look for when a pitcher warms up between innings, the signs a catcher uses to communicate with the pitcher, and so much more. Some of baseball wisdom you will find inside: * What to look for during batting practice. * The right way to hit a batter. * Who’s a tough guy and who’s just posing. * How to spot a dirty slide. * Why you don’t look at the umpire while you’re arguing.

Based on Kendall’s 15 years of professional MLB experience, Throwback is an informative, hilarious, and illuminating look into the world of professional baseball – and in a way that no one has ever seen before. (description from publisher)

A lot of great championship teams have come out of Chicago – the Bears of Ditka and Peyton, the 2013 Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks, the glory years of Michael Jordan and the Bulls – but baseball (despite the White Sox finally winning the World Series in 2003, just 89 years after their previous victory) has been mostly littered with tears and crushed hopes. Yet we remain loyal fans, clinging to the glory days (even though most of us aren’t old enough to have seen them!) and holding onto the belief that, maybe this will be the year they win it all.

Well, while you’re licking your wounds yet again (although the Sox are hanging close!), here are some great new titles about Chicago’s boys of summer.

before wrigleyBefore Wrigley Became Wrigley by  Sean Deveney

This book explores the early years of Wrigley Field, when it bore a different name and housed a different team. Sean Deveney has mined documents and resources from baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, as well as the Chicago History Museum, to supplement the reports in newspapers and magazines of the day, giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at the origins and birth pangs of the park.

johnny eversJohnny Evers by Dennis Snelling.

Johnny Evers was the heartbeat of one of the greatest teams of the 20th century and the fiercest competitor this side of Ty Cobb. This is the biography of a man who literally wrote the book about playing his position and set the standard for winning baseball.

 

turning the black sox whiteTurning the Black Sox White by Tim Hornbaker

Charles Comiskey was a larger-than-life figure – a man who had precision in his speech and who could work a room with handshakes and smiles. While he has been vilified in film as a rotund cheapskate and the driving force, albeit unknowingly, behind the actions of the 1919 White Sox who threw the World Series (nicknamed the “Black Sox” scandal), that statement is far from the truth.

wrigley fieldWrigley Field: the Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines by Stuart Shea

In spring 1914, a new ballpark opened in Chicago. Hastily constructed after epic political maneuvering around Chicago’s and organized baseball’s hierarchies, the new Weeghman Park (named after its builder, fast-food magnate Charley Weeghman) was home to the Federal League’s Chicago Whales. The park would soon be known as Wrigley Field, one of the most emblematic and controversial baseball stadiums in America.

victory seasonThe Victory Season is the triumphant story of baseball and America after World War II.

In 1945 Major League Baseball had become a ghost of itself. Parks were half empty, the balls were made with fake rubber, and mediocre replacements roamed the fields, as hundreds of players, including the game’s biggest stars, were serving abroad, devoted to unconditional Allied victory in World War II. But by the spring of 1946, the country was ready to heal. The war was finally over, and as America’s fathers and brothers were coming home, so too were the sport’s greats. Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Joe DiMaggio returned with bats blazing, making the season a true classic that ended in a thrilling seven-game World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals.

America also witnessed the beginning of a new era in baseball-it was a year of attendance records, the first year Yankee Stadium held night games, the last year the Green Monster wasn’t green, and, most significant, Jackie Robinson’s first year playing in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ system. The Victory Season brings to vivid life these years of baseball and war, including the little known “World Series” that servicemen played in a captured Hitler Youth stadium in the fall of 1945. Robert Weintraub’s extensive research and vibrant storytelling enliven the legendary season that embodies what we now think of as the game’s golden era. (description from publisher)

a nice little placeIn A Nice Little Place on the North Side, columnist George Will returns to baseball with a deeply personal look at his hapless Chicago Cubs and their often beatified home, Wrigley Field, as it turns one hundred years old.

Baseball, Will argues, is full of metaphors for life, religion, and happiness, and Wrigley is considered one of its sacred spaces. But what is its true, hyperbole-free history? Winding beautifully like Wrigley’s iconic ivy, Will’s meditation on “The Friendly Confines” examines both the unforgettable stories that forged the field’s legend and the larger-than-life characters – from Wrigley and Ruth to Veeck, Durocher, and Banks – who brought it glory, heartbreak, and scandal. Drawing upon his trademark knowledge and inimitable sense of humor, Will also explores his childhood connections to the team, the Cubs’ future, and what keeps long-suffering fans rooting for the home team after so many years of futility.

In the end, A Nice Little Place on the North Side is more than just the history of a ballpark. It is the story of Chicago, of baseball, and of America itself. (description from publisher)

mr wrigleys ball clubChicago in the Roaring Twenties was a city of immigrants, mobsters, and flappers with one shared passion: the Chicago Cubs. It all began with the decision of the chewing-gum tycoon William Wrigley to build the world’s greatest ball club in the nation’s Second City. In this Jazz Age center, the maverick Wrigley exploited the revolutionary technology of broadcasting and attracted eager throngs of women to his renovated ballpark.

Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club transports us to this heady era of baseball history and introduces the team at its crazy heart – an amalgam of rakes, pranksters, schemers, and choirboys who take centre stage in memorable successes and disasters. Readers take front-row seats to meet one Hall of Famer after another – Grover Cleveland Alexander, Rogers Hornsby, Joe McCarthy, Lewis “Hack” Wilson, Gabby Hartnett. The cast of characters also includes their colorful if less-sung teammates and the Cubs’ nemesis, Babe Ruth, who terminates the ambitions of Mr. Wrigley’s ball club with one emphatic swing. (description from publisher)

class aAn unforgettable chronicle of a year of minor-league baseball in Clinton, Iowa town follows not only the travails of the players of the Clinton LumberKings but also the lives of their dedicated fans and of the town itself. Award-winning essayist Lucas Mann delivers a powerful debut in his telling of the story of the 2010 season of the Clinton LumberKings in Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere.

Along the Mississippi River, in a Depression-era stadium, young prospects from all over the world compete for a chance to move up through the baseball ranks to the major leagues. Their coaches, some of whom have spent nearly half a century in the game, watch from the dugout. In the bleachers, local fans call out from the same seats they’ve occupied year after year. And in the distance, smoke rises from the largest remaining factory in a town that once had more millionaires per capita than any other in America.

Mann turns his eye on the players, the coaches, the fans, the radio announcer, the town, and finally on himself, a young man raised on baseball, driven to know what still draws him to the stadium. His voice is as fresh and funny as it is poignant, illuminating both the small triumphs and the harsh realities of minor-league ball.

Part sports story, part cultural exploration, part memoir, Class A is a moving and unique study of why we play, why we watch, and why we remember. (description from publisher)

For this installment of Amazing Audiobooks, I have a jumble of fun, funny, exciting, just-plain-great fiction that didn’t fit with the previous three categories. But you have my word: all these are winners!

  • Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. You’ll laugh out loud at this one, in which the Apocalypse goes all wrong when an angel and a demon accidentally swap out the Antichrist for a normal human boy.
  • The charming Flavia de Luce Mysteries by C. Alan Bradley, beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  • Calico Joe by John Grisham
  • 11th Hour, the latest from James Patterson (or if you’re new to the Women’s Murder Club series, start at the beginning with 1st to Die)
  • …In Death series by J.D. Robb: a futuristic police procedural – particularly recommended for those who like listening to sexy, seductive, lilting Irish accents.
  • The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, a novel about a college baseball phenom (I reviewed the novel in June)
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A deeply sad but very sweet and rewarding novel; tells the story of a girl who learns about death and love while helping her parents hide a Jewish man from the Nazis in a small German town. Appropriate for teens and older kids as well as adults.
  • Stephen King’s latest hit, 11/22/63, about JFK’s assassination and time travel.
  • The Night Circus, a lovely atmospheric love story brought to life by Jim Dale. Lexie reviewed this on the blog back in October. There’s a movie version in development scheduled for a 2013 release, so get in on the ground floor of opinionated ‘book-was-better’ arguments by reading the book first!
  • Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella: listen to Lara, a twenty-something Brit, spar with the ghost of her great-aunt Sadie, whose 23-year-old form has come straight out of 1927 to beg the living girl to track down her missing necklace. It’s a hoot!

The Art of Fielding follows the tale of Henry Skrimshander, a naturally gifted shortstop, blessed with a powerful throw, catlike reflexes, and an almost supernatural gift for seeing the ball’s path as it comes off the bat. But when his can’t-miss aim misses, breaking the cheekbone of a teammate, Henry’s life – and the lives of his teammates and friends at Westish College – is thrown into chaos.

This novel has generated a lot of buzz and was mentioned on a lot of ‘best-of 2011’ lists. The hype, for the most part, is justified. Multidimensional characters and a lot of pretty language are the strong points; baseball may be boring, but Harbach’s sentences describing it are not. The weaknesses (occasional point of view problems, a plot that requires some definite leaps of faith, and just tons of baseball) are minor. The best thing about it may be the setting: Westish College, a fictional Wisconsin liberal arts school, feels very like Augustana (my alma mater), and a campus novel is always a treat.*

Westish and its people share a near-obsessive devotion to Herman Melville, who (in the fictional universe of this novel) visited the school late in his life and gave a speech. That visit turns Westish into an unlikely center of Melville scholarship, and an adoptee of a new mascot – The Harpooner – in honor of the author. If you’re a fan of Herman Melville and Moby-Dick, you’re going to love the packed house of literary allusions: if not, rest easy. Luckily for most of us, you don’t need to be a Melville scholar (or a baseball fanatic) to enjoy this novel.

*If, like me, you enjoy reading about campus life, by all means check out the novels of David Lodge, especially Small World. Jane Smiley’s Moo and Richard Russo’s Straight Man are also excellent choices.

On an overcast September day in 1993, Jim Abbott took the mound at Yankee Stadium and threw one of the most dramatic no-hitters in major-league history. The game was the crowning achievement in an unlikely success story, unseen in the annals of professional sports. In Imperfect, the one-time big league ace retraces his remarkable journey.

Born without a right hand, Jim Abbott as a boy dreamed of being a great athlete. Raised in Flint, Michigan, by parents who saw in his condition not a disability but an extraordinary opportunity, Jim became a two-sport standout in high school, then an ace pitcher for the University of Michigan.   But his journey was only beginning.   As a nineteen-year-old, Jim beat the vaunted Cuban National Team. By twenty-one, he’d won the gold medal game at the 1988 Olympics and – without spending a day in the minor leagues – cracked the starting rotation of the California Angels. In 1991, he would finish third in the voting for the Cy Young Award. Two years later, he would don Yankee pinstripes and deliver a one-of-a-kind no-hitter.

It wouldn’t always be so good. After a season full of difficult losses – some of them by football scores – Jim was released, cut off from the game he loved. Unable to say good-bye so soon, Jim tried to come back, pushing himself to the limit-and through one of the loneliest experiences an athlete can have. But always, even then, there were children and their parents waiting for him outside the clubhouse doors, many of them with disabilities like his, seeking consolation and advice. These obligations became Jim’s greatest honor.

In this honest and insightful memoir, Jim Abbott reveals the insecurities of a life spent as the different one, how he habitually hid his disability in his right front pocket, and why he chose an occupation in which the uniform provided no front pockets. With a riveting pitch-by-pitch account of his no-hitter providing the ideal frame for his story, this unique athlete offers readers an extraordinary and unforgettable memoir. (provided by the publisher)