Books May 2002

New & Noteworthy

Summer between hard covers; the century in a house

Baseball: A Literary Anthology
by Nicholas Dawidoff
The Library of America, 721 pages, $35.00

The writer Barry Lopez has described the Eskimo concept of perlerorneq, an extreme wintertime depression that can drive sufferers to run half-naked out of their igloos, screaming into the noonday darkness, and devouring malamute scat. Baseball fans will know this bleak phenomenon by its more common name, the off-season—which, by virtue of a calendrical oddity no one has adequately explained, somehow lasts a little longer every year. The Library of America's indispensable new anthology may just be perlerorneq's only known antidote.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Ballpark Memories" (October 15, 1998)
As the historic 1998 season heads into its final days, here's a look back at some memorable baseball moments from The Atlantic's archives.

For make no mistake (as the most gaffe-prone man in the country is forever telling us)—this anthology is summer between hard covers. The editor, Nicholas Dawidoff, played some second base for Harvard, and his range is something to behold. He gives us the crooked World Series of 1919 not only from the Chicagoan Nelson Algren's perspective ("Every bleacher has-been, newspaper mediocrity and pulpit inanity seized the chance to regain his lost pride at the expense of seven of the finest athletes who ever hit into a double play") but also from that of the undersung writer James A. Maxwell, who at age seven refused to believe that his beloved Reds hadn't won it fair and square. And sure, Dawidoff gives us the black sportswriter Wendell Smith's contagious pride at Jackie Robinson's first minor-league game, but he gives us Amiri Baraka, too: "So out of the California laboratories of USC, a synthetic colored guy was imperfected and soon we would be trooping back into the holy see of racist approbation." (Not USC, in fact, but UCLA—as a footnote might've told us.)

The greater any second baseman's range, as any student of the game will tell you, the more errors he'll make on balls a lesser glove man might not even reach. So it is with Dawidoff. His collection has exactly one consistent flaw, but it's a humdinger: the book too often neglects cities other than New York except as straight men, sparring partners for the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers to work out their heroic destinies against. As a hardened Red Sox fan, Dawidoff should've known better. He tries to inoculate himself against this charge in his otherwise beguiling introduction, pleading defensively that "the people whose business it is to make ballplayers interesting have tended to cluster in the nation's biggest city." Reasoning this circular would make a baseball look square. It's publishers who cluster in Manhattan; interesting writers can and do live anywhere. Dawidoff compounds his crime by suggesting that players in St. Louis, for example, "never had someone like Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton, Roger Angell, or Joel Oppenheimer to watch over them." Oh, yeah? A St. Louisan named David Carkeet wrote The Greatest Slump of All Time, a baseball novel so funny that audiobook manufacturers hesitate to record it for fear of vehicular liability. That it doesn't get a call-up from Dawidoff does little for our confidence in his knowledge of baseball writing outside the Northeast.

Of course, second-guessing the lineup card is a tradition as old as baseball. No amount of razzing from the bleachers should detract from the unalloyed joy of reading such players as Sam Crawford, Moe Berg, and Keith Hernandez, or such reporters as Angell, W. C. Heinz, and Roger Kahn. When it's not players and reporters, it's essayists—John Updike, Willie Morris, Jonathan Schwartz—or fictioneers such as Bernard Malamud, Ring Lardner, James Thurber, Don DeLillo, and the unheralded Eric Rolfe Greenberg, whose sole novel so far, The Celebrant, marks him out as a mysteriously sidetracked natural to rival Malamud's own. Dawidoff also gets good production from several poets—including Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams, all playing out of position in prose. Alas, a few literary forms go unrepresented here. Dawidoff wisely finds room for some terrific oral histories, but misses the chance to transcribe any poetry from those impromptu bards, the broadcasters. And if he's going to include a scene from Damn Yankees (again, wisely), where's one from Ron Shelton's screenplay for Bull Durham?

But only an ingrate walks home from a no-hitter wishing for a perfect game. Just don't try to read all 721 pages of Baseball: A Literary Anthology in one sitting. As my uncle Albert (a semi-pro second baseman who once almost played Cleveland's Johnny Hodapp out of a job) used to say about his nephew's Dodger Dog intake, pace yourself. Save some for December.

—David Kipen

A House Unlocked
by Penelope Lively
Grove Press, 240 pages, $23.00

Many of Penelope Lively's fine novels, stories, and children's books, notably Moon Tiger (1987) and A Stitch in Time (1976), have dealt in one way or another with the subtle but tenacious links between historical forces and personal memory. Now, with A House Unlocked, she presents herself and her family as direct participants, albeit frequently passive and unconscious ones, in the feverish drama of the twentieth century.

Lively has chosen to examine the century through Golsoncott, the large Edwardian country house in west Somerset that was occupied by her grandmother and then her aunt from 1923 to 1995. Going through the familiar rooms in memory and imagination, Lively picks out particular objects and observes their significance in terms of larger trends. "The entire place—its furnishings, its functions—seemed like a set of coded allusions to a complete sequence of social change and historical clamor." Quiet, rural, intensely conservative, Golsoncott would appear to have been untouched by the modern world; yet, guided by Lively, we can see unmistakable traces of international tragedy and upheaval. There are, for example, the framed photographs of the foreigners who sought refuge there and became, for a time, part of the family: a Russian woman and her children who fled the Bolsheviks in the 1920s; a Viennese boy who fled the Nazis in 1939. A sampler stitched by Lively's grandmother in 1946 depicts not only the estate's lily pond and stables but also six cockney children, billeted at Golsoncott during the London Blitz. Thus the house bears witness to "one of the great human themes of the twentieth century—that of those displaced in time and space."

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