31 January 2012

Book Review: "The Natural" by Bernard Malamud

Generally regarded as perhaps the greatest baseball novel of all time, The Natural is not without its flaws.

First and foremost among those flaws is our protagonist, Roy Hobbs, and his unfortunate lack of likable traits. Roy is stubborn, shallow, and selfish; everyone and everything in his life seems to only serve the purpose of appeasing his voracious appetite.

For what does he hunger? For greatness, on the surface. To be the best at what he does. To fulfill his potential. To have it all. Certainly fine and noble goals for a fine and noble hero, but Roy Hobbs, as written, isn't that fine and noble hero. Maybe Robert Redford's sly grin brings about the best in Roy on the silver screen, but on the pages we only see him consistently act like a fool unworthy of our compassion.

I struggled at times to get behind the New York Knights' 34 year old rookie, the mysterious stranger who bursts onto the scene out of nowhere to become the league's best player.

The readers are privy to exposition unknown to anyone else but Roy and we are supposed to feel sorry for him as a victim of unfortunate circumstances, his career having been postponed by a tragic event detailed in the book's introductory chapter. But to truly join Roy's team, we need to see a little bit of good from him to counter the crummy things he does, the poor way he treats people, and the bitter loner attitude he portrays to the world. I often found myself frustrated with Roy when I felt I should feel sorry for him. We as readers want a hero who redeems himself, a man who overcomes his troubles to retain his humanity. Throughout the entire book (and even before the early incident that nearly derails Roy's career), we are forced to settle for an arrogant protagonist who never quite learns to ease off his cockiness.

Despite these character issues, Malamud's poetic language and magical realism redeems the book and paints a vivid backdrop for Roy's saga. Pitchers and batters huff and puff like steam engines while the Knights run the basepaths like Mississippi steamboats. The team's reclusive owner sits in the darkness, the ash at the end of his cigar the only thing lighting the room. These images come alive in the reader's mind, a testament to the author's ability.

Roy's legendary bat Wonderboy exists as an entity of its own, its magic clearly understood by the characters but never fully acknowledged. It's a tremendous conceit and goes well with a number of story elements seemingly beyond the realm of reality yet accepted by the story's universe as 'just there.'

There's a lot of great stuff about heroes, manhood, retribution and fulfilling one's destiny in The Natural, and it's a pleasant, vibrant read for most of its 215 pages. The one thing that keeps it from being truly great is Roy Hobbs, the hero we wish we could have liked just a little bit more.


I managed to snag the copy of this book for $1.50 at the Montgomery Country Friends of the Library Bookstore in Rockville, MD. I also came away with a copies of Candide, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Stranger. The entire purchase cost me $5. I'd recommend if you're out book hunting to peruse your local used bookstore before ordering off of Amazon or trudging into a dying supergiant like Barnes & Noble. You never know what you might just happen upon at a small bookstore and there's something special about getting your hands on something that's been shared throughout its shelf life.

28 January 2012

Jimmy Stewart and Central Pennsylvania

One of my plays, Bride and Groom in the Graveyard, was an official selection at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Region II Festival in Indiana, PA this month. It got a full staged reading and respondent session. The whole experience was really beneficial in many ways and meeting a lot of new & exciting people was a lot of fun.

Also, Indiana, Pennsylvania is the hometown of Jimmy Stewart. There are crosswalks in town that feature his voice telling you how much more time you've got to cross the street.

Here's a video of that:

I recommend starting at about 0:25.

Get the feel for the town? Now imagine it snowing and 17 degrees.

16 January 2012

2011 Book List

Long time no post. In 2011 I read over 60 books. My reading/writing habits have waned in the past few months for reasons I'm altogether hazy on. I feel DC might be an inhibitor of these two things. I feel I may just be lazy. Regardless, here's my top 10 of books I enjoyed in 2011, followed by my entire list. I chose not to include plays or short story collections in this top 10.

10. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

One of those classics in the canon of essential reads, it's basic Hemingway.

9. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

I read all three of these books over winter break last year. Although the series dipped a bit in the 2nd and 3rd books, I was still hooked and devoured Hornet's Nest with excitement.

8. Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

A fun little novel in the vein of Cannery Row, one of my favorite books.

7. Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony

A fascinating biography that tells the story of the first man in space and the Soviet space program that screwed over him and dozens of other cosmonauts.

6. The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs

A fascinating and funny memoir about a writer's attempt to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica cover to cover.

5. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Perhaps the most famous novel by a writer out of Africa, it certainly deserves its spot in the canon of great 20th century literature.

4. Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

Part memoir, part novel, pure Vonnegut.

3. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I was surprised that I loved this book as much as I did considering its reputation. I felt such empathy for Esther and was hooked to the beautiful language throughout.

2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

This was a re-read so it may not count, but Kesey's great novel is one of my top 5 favorite books of all time.

1. Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut again, this time a historical spy novel dwelling on themes of guilt and culpability.

Honorable mentions include Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and The Call of the Wild by Jack London.

The list:

One quick disclaimer, when you're doing as much reading education-wise as I've been doing, it's hard to quantify what constitutes a "book read." For example, I read a ton of Shakespeare plays out of an anthology. I read Othello out of a book. I included Othello but not the others. I only included books I read cover to cover.

The Boy of Summer by Roger Kahn
Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson
Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion
Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger Jr.
Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The Female Marine by "Lucy Brewer" (Nathaniel Hill Wright)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Holy Land by D.J. Waldie
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman
Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella
The Hidden Hand by E.D.E.N. Southworth
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chboksy
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
The Heroic Slave by Frederick Douglass
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin
McTeague by Frank Norris
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Take Ten II: More Ten Minute Plays, edited by Eric Lane and Nina Shengold
A More Perfect 10 by Gary Garrison
Dear John by Nicholas Sparks
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Take Ten, edited by Eric Lane and Nina Shengold
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony
Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs
Otherwise Engaged and Other Plays by Simon Gray
Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut
Five Great Short Stories by Anton Chekhov
The Visitor by Maeve Brennan
The Prince by Niccoló Machiavelli
Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner
The American Dream and the Zoo Story by Edward Albee
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard
Playwriting: Brief & Brilliant by Julie Jensen
Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika by Tony Kushner
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Proof by David Auburn
Hedda Gabler by Henrick Ibsen
Iphigenia in Tauris by Euripides
The Shoemaker's Holiday by Thomas Dekker
Othello by William Shakespeare
The Art and Craft of Playwriting by Jeffrey Hatcher
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
Secrets of Acting Shakespeare by Patrick Tucker
The Player's Passion by Joseph R. Roach
Good Brother, Bad Brother by James Cross Giblin
Naked Lunch by William Burroughs