34-Ton Bat – Steve Rushin
Here we have a book that is perfect for summer and browsing through while a baseball game buzzes in the background. Rushin tells a story of the history of baseball not through on the field actions, but rather through all the ephemera that is attached to the game. The development of uniforms, where nachos came from, how the modern bat industry came about, the man who kicked off the game day giveaway craze (and in the process made the Dodgers a Southern California institution), and on and on.
Rushin tends to be too clever at times. But any baseball fan will enjoy these bits of trivia.
The Maid’s Version – Daniel Woodrell
No author is perfect. Even the best with swing and miss sometimes. I think that’s the case with Woodrell here. This isn’t a bad book. But it also doesn’t stack up to his best.
A rapid unspooling of a family history, centered around an unsolved explosion that killed dozens during the Depression. There is always the hint of evil that is present in Woodrell’s work. But the book never really goes dark. I missed that.
For another author, this might be a fine book. But Woodrell is a victim of his past success.
The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling The Pacific – Paul Theroux
The final act in my recent re-read jag, I went back to one of my favorite books ever. This is at least the fourth time I’ve read it, the first coming sometime in the spring of 2000. I’ve read it in an apartment in Missouri, on the beach in Mexico, and now at least twice in my home in Indiana.
This is Theroux’s epic accounting of his trip, mostly via collapsable kayak, through 51 islands in the Pacific during 1990 and 1991. When he began his trip, in New Zealand, his marriage was collapsing, he feared he may have cancer, and American troops were massing in Saudi Arabia for the coming war against Iraq. Over the coming months he became divorced, received a clean bill of health, and as fighting began, continued, and ended in Kuwait, he paddled around, following the path of human migration from South East Asia through Melanesia into Polynesia, ending up in Hawaii.
It’s a great, great book, considered by many to be one of the finest travel books ever written. It kicked off a long period where I read tons of travel writing.
As I read it for the fourth (fifth?) time, I couldn’t help but be struck by the differences in the world from when Theroux first set off, beck when I was in college. All he had to keep up with the world then was a shortwave radio, via which he listened to broadcasts of the BBC and Radio Australia to follow the war and other news. He plotted his course with paddling maps, some based on charts made before World War II. Today, no sane person would follow his path without a GPS and satellite telephone, at minimum. Occasionally, in larger ports, he would send faxes back to his agent in London, or make international calls at the post office. Today all that function would be in the phone or laptop stashed in a waterproof bag amongst his camping gear. Theroux helped pass the hours crossing wide channels listening to his Walkman, often one tape over-and-over. Today…obviously he could carry thousands of songs on a device, stream music from a satellite, or even listen to live programming via that same satellite signal.
I also thought about how I had changed since I first read the book in 2000. Then, paddling around the Pacific seemed like a lovely, major lifetime goal. One of those you slap on your list with the understanding it probably wouldn’t happen, but if everything went right in life over the next 20 years, I might be able to pull it off. Now, though, with a family and mortgages and a profound lack of personal time, taking off for even a couple hours to go paddle in a local lake with a friend seems like a luxury.
Then again, Theroux was 50 when he spent his year in the Pacific. Perhaps there still is time…