Time for some book chat.
The Marsh King’s Daughter – Karen Dionne
I hate it when books that come highly recommended don’t hit me with the same impact they hit others. I found this book on some “best new thrillers” list, and its jacket featured some positive blurbs from other authors I’ve enjoyed. But the story just didn’t work for me.
It tells the story of Helena, a woman in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan who was raised in captivity. Her father kidnapped her mother when she was 14 and kept her and Helena hidden in a swamp from the world until Helena herself was 14 and the women managed to escape.
One half of the story takes place in the present, with Helena’s father escaped from prison and setting a trail for her to follow. The other half tells the story of her childhood, when she worshipped her father as he taught her his Native American ways and how to live on what the land gave her.
All of that was interesting and well-done. It all hit a little harder because there are some moments of stark violence, and Dionne’s author pic in the back jacket shows her to be a friendly, gray-haired (likely) grandmother. Not the author I expected to write this story!
However, Dionne uses a literary trick to help explain how Helena solves the problem of escaping in her childhood and surviving in her adulthood that I simply did not buy. It drug down what was otherwise a pretty solid story.
The Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season – Barry Svrluga
There’s maybe no better trick if you want to write about sports than using an entire season to dive into all the little details of a sport/team/athlete. John Feinstein has made a career out of this. Daniel Okrent’s Nine Innings is one of my absolute favorite sports books ever. Michael Lewis’ Money Ball is another terrific example.
Here Svrluga writes about the 2014 Washington Nationals, for which he was the beat writer for The Washington Post. Rather than a deep dive into all the nitty gritty of a baseball season, this is more of a high-level view. Svrluga selects a few topics and uses them to illuminate how the length and intensity of a baseball season affects those involved. He looks at a veteran player, a scout, the GM, a starting pitcher, a player’s wife, and so on.
The book suffers some in comparison to the classics from Okrent and Lewis as Svrluga is more concerned with painting these brief sketches than digging into all the ebbs and flows of a baseball season. I’ve read both Nine Innings and Money Ball multiple times because, even though they are now dated, they are so good at showing you these deep details of baseball in the moments they were written.
The Grind feels more like a series of Sunday profiles for the paper. Which makes sense since Svrluga was still a beat writer at the time and not on hiatus to do an authoritative accounting of the 2014 season. The result is a nice, quick read for any baseball fan, but not one that reaches the level of the classics.
The Cold Millions – Jess Walter
I did not realize the labor wars of the West Coast mining industry in the early 1920s would make for such a compelling story. This was a terrific read.
Gig and Rye Dolan are orphaned brothers who have landed in Spokane after searching throughout the west for work. Gig is the older, wiser, and more charismatic brother. When he is arrested at a labor rally, 16-year-old Rye immediately jumps into the fray and is quickly arrested as well. As a minor, his cause gets taken up by labor attorneys who have come in from the Midwest and East coast to fight for the miners’ rights. Rye soon becomes an integral part of their strategy, traveling around the west with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a (real) firebrand of the labor movement through much of the 20th century.
There are double-crosses, unfortunate alliances, and in the end a tragic event that separates the brothers permanently. There is also a large swath of tremendous supporting characters.
The idea of a labor war seems quant in 2021. But a century ago they were common, often violent, efforts to somewhat lessen the difference between the haves and have-nots. While all of that is interesting, what truly carries the book is the love between the Dolan brothers, Rye’s innocent desire to follow anyone he trusts, and the final steps the brothers take to protect each other.
The Last Days of John Lennon – James Patterson with Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge
The title is a lie: this is not just about John Lennon’s final days in 1980 before he was murdered by Mark David Chapman. Although there is plenty about that, especially Chapman’s activities leading up to the murder.
But the bulk of the book is a breezy history of both the Beatles and Lennon’s life between the band’s breakup and his death.
I’ve read at least three books about the Beatles and/or Lennon, but it’s been awhile. This book was a good refresher for someone with my reading history. If you’ve never read a Beatles book, this can be an excellent jumping-in point.