‘The Cactus League’ by Emily Nemens – A Dramatic Fun Baseball Novel for Adults

 

‘The Cactus League’ by Emily Nemens (2020) – 272 pages

Like many young boys, I was a huge baseball fan from about age ten to fourteen. I knew the name and batting average or earned run average of every player on every club and had a huge baseball card collection. I was such a fan of baseball that I would actually listen to the game on the radio if it wasn’t on TV.

Most baseball novels are written for kids like I was or overgrown adult kids who still love baseball. They are simplistic, innocent, suffused with hero worship, and concentrate mostly on the actual play on the baseball field, They are nostalgic, male-centric.

‘The Cactus League’ is different. The author Emily Nemens knows that baseball is much more than the game and the players on the field, and her novel deals with many of the behind-the-scenes circumstances that are going on. Her novel covers all of baseball: the players, the baseball wives, the coaches, the managers, the agents, the groupies, the other hangers-on, the new rising stars, the falling stars, the owners, the washed-up. Even the concession stand workers at the park.

It takes place in Scottsdale, Arizona where the Los Angeles Lions do their spring training each year before the regular season begins. A lot of players are invited to try out for the team during spring training, but only a select few will actually make the team. Those select few pretty much have it made, while the others will get sent back to a minor league club where they will get a subsistence wage.

In a lot of ways, baseball players are like other men. Some of them are dummies, some of them are mad, some of them are suspicious, shallow, arrogant. Some are so driven they’ll just about forget there’s a woman in the room, even if she’s dressed up sexy or screaming her lungs out, even if she’s the mother of their children. But the difference separating ballplayers from everyone else is that they care about something tremendously, and have since they were little.”

In many ways, ‘The Cactus League’ deals with the social etiquette of the entire baseball subculture. Emily Nemens has a dramatic way of presenting these baseball stories from a more complex sophisticated angle than most baseball novels dare. Since all of the stories are interconnected, together they form a novel.

Sometimes when the baseball wives are not busy with shopping and restauranting, they will come to the game to watch their husbands play.

That row, usually reserved for the more senior baseball wives, a line of skinny white women with too much makeup and fake-looking hair, is empty.”

The Los Angeles Lions do have a superstar named Jason Goodyear who makes millions in product endorsements as well as an exorbitant salary. No wonder so many women – baseball groupies – hang out at the park to entice these men, much to the indignation of the baseball players’ wives.

They look familiar, but he’s not sure if it’s because he’s seen them before or if it’s because they look like every dolled-up divorcee in town.”

Even a superstar can have problems and get into trouble, and then we get an owner’s lament:

No, he definitely has not heard their $150 million dollar investment had a run-in with the law.”

‘The Cactus League’ is a vivid fun baseball novel for adults by an obviously talented writer.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘Nothing to See Here’ by Kevin Wilson – Preposterous

 

‘Nothing to See Here’ by Kevin Wilson (2019) – 254 pages

 

‘Nothing to See Here’ has a preposterous plot. Our female narrator Lillian is taking care of 10-year old twins Bessie and Roland who automatically catch on fire. Yes, the two kids spontaneously combust when they get upset. The fire does not hurt the kids themselves, but it can start furnishings and buildings on fire. Thus they must be watched constantly and carefully.

Of course this is absurd (Why doesn’t the kids’ clothing start on fire?), but somehow the plot seems to work.

My experience with listening to audio books rather than reading has been varied. I give up on a lot of audio books that I lose interest in or I just don’t follow the story well enough. (But I also frequently give up on novels that I’m reading.) I find I have the most success in audio with novels that have well-defined plots, and my greatest audio success was probably ‘News of the World’ by Pauline Jiles. ‘Nothing to See Here’ also worked well as an audio book. Sure the plot is preposterous, but it is clever and well-defined.

In this novel Kevin Wilson has, as I mentioned, a female narrator. Wilson pulls this off well as we become involved in her story.

Lillian is from a poor family, but her good grades get her into an elite college. At college she meets a girl named Madison who is from a rich and renowned family. They become best friends, so when Madison gets into trouble and is about to be kicked out of school, Lillian takes the fall for her instead after Madison’s father offers to pay Lillian some money.

Lillian could have been successful if she had stayed in college, but since she was kicked out, she works at a Tennessee Save-A-Lot store.

About twelve year’s later Madison calls up Lillian to ask if she will take care of her step kids. By this time Madison has married a Senator whose wife has died and who has these twin kids who spontaneously combust. Lillian agrees to do this, and that she does so is nearly as preposterous as the twins’ catching on fire.

Madison and her husband are more concerned about their political family image than about the welfare of these two kids, so they offload their kids on Lillian.

They were me, unloved, and I was going to make sure that they got what they needed. They would scratch and kick me, and I was going to scratch and kick anyone who tried to touch them.”

Perhaps because ‘Nothing to See Here’ is a rather simple story with a simple point, it does work in the audio format despite the plot being preposterous.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘Processed Cheese’ by Stephen Wright – “Well, reality is not as real as it used to be.”

 

‘Processed Cheese’ by Stephen Wright (2020) – 392 pages

Who would want to read a novel entitled “Processed Cheese” except for one or a dozen random mice? I would. There is no modern writer whose novels I await with more happy anticipation than Stephen Wright.

One could read ‘Processed Cheese’ solely for its demented humor. One could also read ‘Processed Cheese’ for its devastatingly deep insights into today’s over-cluttered money-crazed world. ‘Processed Cheese’ is a mad look into the United States in free fall.

The main subject of ‘Processed Cheese’ is money, what it can buy, and what it does to people who have it. MisterMenu is a multi-billionaire who lives with his wife in a penthouse apartment fifty-two stories above the street. He keeps huge canvas bags of his money around him, because they make him feel good. One afternoon his wife MissusMenu gets angry with him for screwing around with one of his several female friends, and she tosses one of the bags of money out of the window.

The bag of money falls on this flat-broke guy Graveyard who is out looking for a job. As soon as he recovers from the impact, Graveyard takes the bag of money home to his small apartment and to his girlfriend Ambience, who works in a toll booth.

Graveyard and Ambience go on a buying spree. At first, it’s just small stuff.

They liked snacks. All things salt and sugary. They had SnookerChips. They had BangoNuts. They had CheesySubs. They had ToastedPepperWhackers. And FruityPatooties. And LoopyCrisps. And FudgieWudgiePugies. Their favorite. A cookie inside a cookie.”

But soon Graveyard and Ambience move on to buying bigger things. Of course they buy a brand new giant 103″ HootchieCootchie flat screen TV. Soon their small apartment is crowded with deluxe packages of new merchandise from boutique shops. Stephen Wright has a lot of fun with all these product names. Ultimately they buy a brand new car, “The HomoDebonaire 3000. Top of the line. Runs on sunshine and fresh breezes. It’s greenly green.” Wright does make fun of how advertisers use people’s environmental concerns to sell their products.

Graveyard also buys guns including a MadderRose114 with moonscape sites and an insect-shell finish. Also a HyperSniperM98 bolt action with a CosmicHiBeam scope and adjustable check piece, of course. He gets his ammo at the BulletBoutique.

Graveyard’s attitude toward his cell phone is quite similar to mine.

Graveyard had a what-me-worry? relationship with his cell phone. He would never have even bought the damn thing if he hadn’t been told repeatedly by friends and utter strangers he absolutely had to own one of the irritating devices in order to participate fully in the modern carnival. He didn’t care. He could be in or out.”

Of course MisterMenu wants his big bag of money back.

At first it all seemed cartoonish. It felt like Stephen Wright is sacrificing empathy for his characters and coherence in his story for humor. It took me awhile to come to the conclusion that this comic strip of a novel is a brilliant study of our modern so-called society.

I trust Stephen Wright. I have read all of Stephen Wright’s novels. I trust he will ultimately provide a supremely meaningful narrative. And he does here.

But some essential ingredient had gone missing from his life, something lighter than air that had helped elevate the leaden chain of days you drag behind you like an anchor.”

Many of Wright’s riffs on various facets of contemporary society hit home for me. Of course there’s all that fun about buying stuff. Then there are set pieces about Graveyard and Ambience visiting a garish casino, visiting their relatives who still live out in the boondocks, internet dating sites, etc. Stephen Wright is a perceptive observer of the way things are today.

Yes, ‘Processed Cheese’ is a cartoon, but isn’t much of modern life cartoonish?

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘The Dry Heart’ by Natalia Ginzburg – “I Shot Him Between the Eyes.”

 

‘The Dry Heart’ by Natalia Ginzburg (1947) – 88 pages              Translated from the Italian by Frances Frenaye

‘The Dry Heart’ has a dramatic opening as a woman confronts her husband of four years:

I shot him between the eyes.”

Yes, in this short novella an unnamed woman tells the entire circumstances from the time she first met her husband Alberto until this final shot. This is an unsentimental angry account of how she came to shoot her husband.

At the beginning our unnamed young woman is living a lonely isolated life in a boarding house room and working as a school teacher.

When she meets Alberto who is somewhat older than her, she imagines how wonderful it would be to be married and have a house of her own.

When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence, with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenceless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her.”

Alberto seems like a nice enough guy, but she doesn’t delude herself into believing she is in love with him.

A girl likes to think that a man may be in love with her, and even if she doesn’t love him in return it’s almost as if she did. She is prettier than usual and her eyes shine; she walks at a faster pace and the tone of her voice is softer and sweeter.”

Nor does she fool herself into believing Alberto is in love with her.

Before we were married, when we went for a walk or sat in a cafe, Alberto enjoyed my company even if he wasn’t in love with me.”

Alberto does tell her that there is another woman whom he has been in love with for years, but he couldn’t marry her because she was already married. But finally Alberto does ask our young unattached woman whom he doesn’t love to marry him.

Soon after they are married anyway, Alberto begins taking unexplained business trips for weeks at a time, and our young wife begins to suspect that he is seeing this married woman friend again.

I won’t go into any further detail on this simple plot.

– Natalia Ginzburg –

I write about families because that is where everything starts, where the germs grow.” – Natalia Ginzburg

‘The Dry Heart’ is impressive in that it avoids all sentimentality and is written in a restrained personal style. Natalia Ginzburg wrote in a genre that was known as neorealism which she called “a way of getting close to life, of getting inside life, inside reality”.

‘The Dry Heart’ raises the question, why don’t more wives kill their husbands?

 

Grade:    A

 

 

Alice Adams – One of my Favorite Writers of the 20th Century

 

Alice Adams

Born:  August 14, 1926                Died: May 27, 1999

A lot of my reading in the 1980s and 1990s centered around two Alices and an Anne – Alice Munro, Alice Adams, and Anne Tyler. They were probably my three favorite contemporary writers at the time, each of them brilliant and dependable in her own way. Anne Tyler was solely a writer of novels, Alice Munro wrote mainly long short stories, and Alice Adams wrote both novels and stories.

Whereas Alice Munro’s stories are expansive, Alice Adams’ stories are compact. Her long-time editor Victoria Wilson said of Alice Adams’ writing thus:

She was sort of a magician, she managed to give you a dimensional quality of people and place and situation in a very, very condensed amount of space. You’d be reading three simple sentences and have the whole resonance of a person.”

As I went about writing this article, I was quite gratified to find out that a 508-page biography of Alice Adams, ‘Alice Adams – Portrait of a Writer’ by Carol Sklenicka has just recently been published. Not many fiction writers warrant a 508-page biography, and Alice Adams is one. Thus I had no lack of material for this article.

What makes her writing special?

Adams got stuck in an unhappy marriage at a young age and was divorced in her early thirties. She had one son from the marriage and never remarried although she had a number of intimate relationships with men. One of her main themes in her fiction is women searching to find ways to live lives free of controlling relationships. Divorce is usually a positive event in her work. She was born in North Carolina but lived most of her adult life in San Francisco. From a young age she knew she would be a fiction writer, worked hard at her craft, and made a lot of friendships among other writers.

Her first novel was not published until she was forty.

I think I probably am a good example of life begins at forty – I’m forty-eight – [Those eight years after forty] have all been a vast improvement. I began to come together after a long period of floundering.”

In her work she explores ways that her characters can break free of those things that can deprive them of their individual freedom. A story of hers first got published in the New Yorker in 1969, and she ultimately had 26 stories published there.

No one wrote better about the tangled relations of men and women or about the enduring romance of friendship,” said Fran Kiernan, an editor, who edited her New Yorker stories for 10 years, beginning with ”Beautiful Girl” in 1977. ”She was a great romantic, with the highest expectations of life. As a writer, she was unfailingly wise.”

Where to start with the author Alice Adams?

For me, the first novel that I read of Alice Adams was ‘Listening to Billie’.  Several other novels by other writers have evocations of Billie Holiday singing live in her prime in the 1930s and 1940s, and ‘Listening to Billie’ probably outdoes them all. That novel got me started and I wound up reading quite a few of her novels including ‘Families and Survivors’ and ‘Caroline’s Daughters’ as well as several of her story collections. If you are more interested in stories than novels, read the collection ‘Beautiful Girl’ or ‘Return Trips’.

A Quote about her

What Adams accomplishes in a rather slim, two-hundred-page novel is a representation of the complicated story of a main character’s movement toward strength and independence over a thirty year period in which virtually all the details come together in a mosaic of contemporary American life.” – Bryant Mangum discussing Adams’ novel ‘Families and Survivors’

Quotes from Alice Adams herself

I really have no imagination at all, just a terrific memory.” She took real people and events from her own life and transformed them into fiction. This made for some interesting and strong, sometimes irate, reactions to her work.

But, Jack, you know I don’t care for plot at all!” Adams’ work is very much character-driven rather than plot-driven.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Lives Other Than My Own’ by Emmanuel Carrère – When Bad Things Happen to Good People

 

‘Lives Other Than My Own’ by Emmanuel Carrère (2009) – 243 pages       Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

Is this book a memoir or an autobiographical novel? I’ve seen it called both. Carrère writes with such verisimilitude that I usually equate with the telling of facts. For me, that is not a particularly good thing as I much prefer fiction to non-fiction, the reasons for which I will not go into here.

However Emmanuel Carrère is one writer for whom I pay attention even to his non-fiction. Notice that even the famous French translator Linda Coverdale will translate his books.

‘Lives Other Than My Own’ is Carrère’s personal reaction to two tragedies.

One of the tragedies is the tsunami tidal wave caused by an Indian Ocean earthquake on December 26, 2004 that killed about 280,000 people, mostly in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Carrère and his family happened to be vacationing in Sri Lanka at that time, and they escaped unscathed. However a French couple which are their friends lose a four year-old daughter who was swept away in the giant wave.

The wave carried away her future along with her past.”

Carrère is quite eloquent in describing the devastation of this mother and father. As my mother used to say, “life goes on for the living”.

At least the deaths in the tsunami were quick and relatively painless deaths. The next death that Carrère discusses is a death due to cancer, a slow and painful death. His wife’s younger sister dies at age 33 of a recurrence of the cancer she had as a child.

This woman was a French judge, and a secondary theme of this book seems to be the handling of bad debts, debtors, and creditors by the courts. Altogether too much time and effort in the book is spent in explaining the intricacies of French consumer law.

Most people who have lived long enough have experienced a few personal tragedies during their lives, someone in their family or a close friend dying or becoming gravely ill at a relatively young age. “I can’t go on; I will go on.” Carrère deals with the two families’ grief in a heartfelt and empathetic manner.

Every day for six months I deliberately spent several hours at the computer writing about what frightens me the most on this earth: the death of a child for her parents and the death of a young woman for her husband and children. Life made me a witness to these two misfortunes, one right after the other, and assigned me – at least that’s how I understood it – to tell that story.”

Here Carrère is plain-spoken with little artistic embellishment. It does not always make the most interesting reading, but his heart is always in the right place, and he makes sure you know that.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

‘Gargoyles’ by Thomas Bernhard – A Doctor’s Rigorous Unsentimental View of His Patients and His Neighbors

 

‘Gargoyles’ by Thomas Bernhard (1967) – 208 pages             Translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston

‘Gargoyles’ is a rigorous accounting of people’s lives rather than a sentimental accounting.

Our narrator in ‘Gargoyles’ is a young man who accompanies his doctor father on his rounds. The doctor sees the sometimes ugly truth in his patients’ lives. He sees people get sick and die close up, and sometimes it’s their own fault. He sees people’s families during these rough times in their lives and sees the breaking points within the family. In his village many of the men are cruel and spend all day drinking in the bar and then come home to beat their wives and children. These men are frequently anti-Semitic. There are two doctors in his town and the only Jew in town, Bloch, has “relieved the other doctor of the lasting shame of having to treat a Jew by consulting my father”. Now Bloch is one of the very few men in town in whom the doctor can confide.

‘Gargoyles’ begins with a senseless barroom murder of one of our doctor’s patients.

All these long drinking bouts end badly,” my father said. “And in this region a high percentage of them end in a fatality. The innkeepers’ own wives are often the victims.”

This doctor is familiar with the underside of townspeople’s lives, not the false fronts people put forward but the reality. There is the daughter-in-law who has only scorn for her mother-in-law and barely speaks to her.

Her daughter-in-law had always hated her. It had started as spontaneous dislike at their first meeting and had grown ever stronger over the years. “My son doesn’t dare to love me any more because of the way his wife hates me.” And by now, Frau Ebenhöh said, she was “crushed” by the more and more revolting stories her daughter-in-law concocted about her.

Another patient is a father who is depressed about his son’s slowness in school. The doctor is even willing to confront the difficulties in his own family. The doctor’s wife died five years ago when his son was 16 and his daughter 13, and he has now noticed that his daughter has become increasingly sullen and uncommunicative.

Among cheerful people who take life easily she was wretched. Pleasant surroundings irritated her. A bright day plunged her into still deeper melancholia.”

The doctor tries to instill in his own son this rigorous sense of reality.

I found the doctor’s words to his son to be brilliant, some of the deepest and most meaningful passages in all of literature. That is the first third of the novel.

However then the doctor and his son visit another patient, the Prince Saurau of Hochgobernitz in his castle. The Prince goes into a long deranged rant which is sustained over many pages. This rant is difficult to follow perhaps because it is so deranged. The actual German name for this novel was not ‘Gargoyles’ but instead was ‘The Derangement’ which is a much more meaningful name.

Over half of this novel ‘Gargoyles’ is taken up with this insane rant by the Prince Saurau. I must say this diatribe is for the most part incoherent and nearly impossible to follow. Because of this long, long incomprehensible rant I would not recommend ‘Gargoyles’ to readers who are new to Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard is one of my very favorite writers, but the last one hundred pages of ‘Gargoyles’ are extremely difficult to follow. ‘Gargoyles’ is one of Bernhard’s early novels, and in my view he had not yet perfected his techniques for getting deeply inside people and society.

I can strongly recommend at least four Thomas Bernhard novels which unlike ‘Gargoyles’ are complete successes. Those novels are ‘Extinction’, ‘The Loser’, ‘Woodcutters’, and the short novel ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’. Thomas Bernhard is one of the most original distinctive novelists of the twentieth century, and I would strongly recommend you read his works, but save ‘Gargoyles’ for later after you have developed some familiarity with his method.

In ‘Gargoyles’ Thomas Bernhard has succeeded all too well in capturing this rant of a deranged man. Most of the rant is incomprehensible to a reader, and I don’t think it is only to just this one reader.  But be sure to read one of the other Bernhard novels that I recommend above.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

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