What I Read in February

March 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

The short list makes it sound like I didn’t get a lot read this month, but in truth I’m in progress on a few different titles. Plus I’m in the middle of a book purge, which I’ll write about later, and getting ready for AWP. In the meantime:

Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Megan Mayhew Bergman. A lot has been written about this collection already, particularly with regard to the book’s animal themes, which felt to me like not so much a connecting thread as a heavy, taut cord. Bergman is trying to get at something valid: that our animalistic natures enter at odds with, and are sometimes the driving force behind, our moral decisions. And so in Birds we see a lot of ambivalent pregnant women, aging parents losing their faculties, and ailing beloved pets becoming weights around the necks of the people who care for them. What I think gets overshadowed by all this, though, is the quirky honesty of Bergman’s characters, the fact that she lets them run around bruised and fucked up.

I liked “Another Story She Won’t Believe,” about a recovering alcoholic who volunteers at a center for endangered lemurs, and is called in to help with them when the power goes out during an ice storm. She is supposed to look after the lemurs, but instead ignores them in favor of the building containing the aye-aye:

That’s the only place I want to go right now, a familiar place. The pressure is getting to me. I can’t look at the other lemur houses; some of these things are the last of their kind. They break my heart on an ordinary day—but today, when it feels postapocalyptic outside, when I’m here by myself—I know I’ll see them as they really are, alone. Finished. Hepburn in On Golden Pond.

The character’s train of thought references a lot of classic cinema (she wears a trench coat given to her “when I was in what I call my Gene Tierney stage”), suggesting, perhaps, a yearning for a dream world of burnished beauty and safely pre-scripted outcomes.

Bergman’s prose throughout the collection is fluid. This one was a quick read.

Fourteen Hills, Vols 18.2 & 19.1. The cover design of this journal out of San Francisco State University reminds me of the 1986 Topps baseball card, with the title a cutout against a black border stripe at the top. There are solid selections in both issues, but naturally the one that stood out to this league bowler was “A Foursome Bowling”, by Peter Stenson, in Vol. 18.2.

The foursome in “A Foursome Bowling” is a double date between two married couples: serious bowler Jorge and his controlling wife Becca, and alcoholic Sandy and her husband Daniel. Becca and Daniel are both recovering 12-steppers, and in the early throes of an extramarital affair.

Stenson divides the story into three sections, each aligned with a different point in the match: “First Frame,” “Fifth Frame,” and “Tenth Frame.” Each character brings his or her own buried agendas. Jorge wears his own wrist brace and keeps to himself as he concentrates on his game. This bothers Becca, who had embraced the outing as a social occasion, perhaps as a means to cover up any suspicion of misbehavior between her and Daniel. Sandy is an alcoholic who goes through most of a pitcher of beer (though why a pitcher, if two members of the party are in recovery?). As she falls further into the abyss, Sandy forces the rest of the group to scratch and scrape to reestablish their dignity. Daniel tries to elude the humiliation brought on by Sandy’s behavior by convincing himself that he’s in love with Becca. Meanwhile, Jorge is working on a perfect game.

Stenson does a good job of letting underlying resentments find the precise points to reveal themselves. Bowling is a notoriously lonely sport, one that avoids confrontation (even in head-to-head matches, since there is no defensive element), where you stand away from the audience (Sandy acknowledges advice with a bob of her ponytail) and your loudest opponent is your inner demon, and so Stenson lets omniscient narration ratchet up the tension:

Daniel stood and tried to make his last glance meaningful and have it be with Becca and it was, both with her and meaningful, and Daniel felt like the looks they shared—first across the decaying Uptown Alano Club from over the rims of white Styrofoam coffee cups, months later across forkfuls of strawberry and brie salad at the Lexington, her telling him about the miracle of the mundane and letting go and letting God and the joy of living clean and sober, and then just two months ago, the look they shared in Room 107 for the first time, the guilt of breaking vows and taboos and the excitement and the secure knowledge they what they were doing was okay because their partners didn’t understand what it was like to battle a foe more cunning and baffling than cancer—were better than anything, a secret, an understanding.

Bowling with some regular old pros, [Becca] said.

Maybe Jorge here, Daniel said. He slapped Jorge on the shoulder. Becca knew this was a mistake, that Jorge hated being touched. She went to squeeze her husband’s hand but was greeted by his bionic arm. Then it was Sandy draining another glass and peering at Becca, saying things about wrist guards and arrows, and Daniel had been right, her drinking was bad. They’d been there…what, twenty minutes, and she was already openly mocking her husband.

No wonder he cheats.

Francona: The Red Sox Years, by Terry Francona with Dan Shaughnessy. What is strange about this tell-all from the former Red Sox manager is that it’s written in the third person. It’s Shaughnessy’s book, not Francona’s, even though the latter gets top billing. Shaughnessy, a longtime columnist for the Boston Globe, has developed a bit of a reputation among savvier members of Red Sox Nation as a gleeful savager who seeks out narratives of sports personalities who, at their peak, could do no wrong in the eyes of the team and its fickle fanbase, only to be ushered out of town in disgrace once the bloom falls off the rose. He frames this one no differently, but with Francona being the protagonist, the writer makes sure he emerges with his dignity intact.

There are enough moments of candor, involving not just the players and management but lesser-known personalities behind the scenes, to keep the reader compelled, and the insinuations—primarily, that ownership got away from its own successful philosophy in favor of pursuing household-name players to keep casual fans interested—jibe with what fans have seen on the field at Fenway for the last three seasons. If fewer fans indeed turn out at Fenway this year, as we have been warned, they will at least be armed with a keener understanding of how the team got to where it is.

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