Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kiss it Good-bye by John Moody

Kiss It Good-bye: The Mystery, the Mormon, and the Moral of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates was a trip down memory lane for me. Moody grew up in the Pittsburgh area in the late 50s and early 60s and relates how the city and especially the Pittsburgh Pirates influenced his life. This is such an easy concept to which I can easily relate. I spent most Sunday afternoons at Forbes Field watching double headers with my family. My mother would pack us a picnic lunch/dinner (usually ham salad sandwiches and potato salad, cookies and lemonade) and we would make a day and sometimes an evening out of it if a game would go into extra innings. Those were the days when you could bring food into a ballpark and not have to worry about having your children hear inappropriate language. It didn't matter that the Pirates were a horrible team, they were our city's baseball team and we knew all the player stats and had our own family favorites. My brother loved Bob Skinner, my dad, Bill Virdon, Mom's was Dick Groat and mine was Bill Mazeroski. We kept score for every game we saw and loved the Bucs. When we weren't at Forbes Field we sat on our patio and listened to Bob Prince and Jim Woods on the radio as he announced the games. We all knew his nicknames for the players, his signature phrases and most of all we enjoyed the way his excitement became ours.

In Moody's book we are able to relive this era as the author tells the story through the eyes of Vernon Law, the Cy Young winner of 1960. Law, the ace pitcher of the team, is a devout Mormon who distanced himself from alcohol and profane language. He was recruited by a member of the Pirate Board of Directors - Bing Crosby. The mystery is the accident that happened on the plane after the Pirates clinched the pennant in Milwaukee. Many of the Pirates were drunk that evening and celebrating, during the course of which Law's ankle was hurt. This change the course of the rest of the season and World Series. It had never been revealed who had been responsible for the injury until the publication of this book.

The desire of Danny Murtaugh, Law and the Pirates that year was to bring a pennant to the long suffering city. Their resurgence was a parallel to the renaissance that the city was experiencing. It was through hard work and a few instances of luck that this happened. It was then that they should bring a World Series title to complete the year. But against the Yankees? Anyone who grew up in Pittsburgh at that time knows the rest of the story and the joy that was felt when Mazeroski hit the 9th inning home run. For many of us, we didn't have voices to scream at that point because of Hal Smith's tying home run the inning before. October 13, 1960 was a glorious day.

Throughout the book are those remembrances from days gone by: Ed and Wendy King's Partyline and the nightly Party Pretzel, the Jenkins Arcade, Pittsburghese galore, and often forgotten Pirates like Gino Cimoli, Ducky Schofield, and Rocky Nelson. It was an uplifting read for the middle of a most dismal baseball season for Pirate fans. Maybe the present day owners should look to the past and see how to bring a team back. Surely there is another Murtaugh and Joe L. Brown out there who can work a little magic for us. Please.......

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Lion by Nelson DeMille

It is 13 months after the WTC bombings in New York and John Corey, an ATTF detective, and his wife, Katherine Mayfield, an FBI agent, are on their way to Sullivan County, NY to participate in a group sky-diving challenge. Any reader of DeMille knows that it can't be that simple. As the title suggests, Asad Khalil is back in Corey's life and is willing to strike in the most inopportune moments. Let's just say Hannibal Lector is a pussy cat compared to Asad's lion.

It is hard to really give a plot summary of this novel because any description would be tantamount to giving the plot and twists away. The premise is that Khalil has returned to the United States to finish the job left undone in The Lion's Game. The Libyan terrorist is determined to eliminate all those pilots and any other accomplices who had a hand in the bombing that killed his family members that fateful night of April 15, 1986. He has nearly completed his mission with only a few remaining. It is that mission that he will attempt to accomplish on this trip to the U.S.

DeMille has penned an exciting thriller this time around. It seems much more cerebral than some of his previous novels with an extraordinary cat, make that lion, and mouse game going on between Corey and Asad Khalil. There is, of course, much violence and bloodshed, but always a twist or an unexpected turn of events, especially the ending. The action stretches from San Diego to Hollywood to Sullivan County to Manhattan and Brooklyn and keeps the reader on the edge of her seat. Corey is an irascible man, a total alpha male and a master of one-liners. He very much reminds me of the British Inspector Morse, especially with his love of alcoholic libation. In all the tenseness of the novel, there is still the occasional laugh-out-loud comeback or observation that does for a fleeting second lighten the mood. The secondary characters, those men and women of the ATTF and F.B.I are well-developed and secretive enough that the reader can't always be sure that they are on "our side."

A great read that ended too quickly.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

WOW! What a well-crafted book that was. Wolf Hall is the fictionalized account of Henry VIII's break with the church in Rome and his obsessive desire to have a male heir to the throne. This story has been told countless times, but what sets this Man Booker Prize winner apart from other accounts is that it chronicles the events from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell.

Cromwell was a self-made man who extricated himself from an abusive childhood, joined the French army because France was where wars were fought, memorized the Bible, and learned numerous languages. He returned to England and became a secretary to Cardinal Wolsey. The two had a close and symbiotic relationship until the Cardinal and King Henry became embroiled in the Supremacy struggle as Henry sought to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. Cromwell witnesses that Wolsey will not broker this divorce and ingratiates himself with Henry. He becomes the king's most trusted adviser and through his machinations brought about much of the changes (reforms) in both the political and religious realms.

Mantel's novel brings together all the players in this historical time period. For the casual reader and even those steeped in the scholarship of this time, there is a cast of characters for all the venues in the book. From Cromwell's beginning in Putney, to his Austin Friars neighborhood in London, to Westminster, the court, France, and Wolf Hall - home to the Seymours, she identifies those who so impacted the course of English history in the 1520s - 30s. Henry's loss of interest in Catherine, his spurning of their daughter Mary, and his infatuation with Anne Boleyn serve as a backdrop to all of Cromwell's actions as he covets and wields power. As he did with Wolsey, Cromwell does philosophic battle with Thomas More, author of
Utopia, who believes in the papal supremacy. And we all know how that ended.

The novel's impact is heightened as it is told in present tense with flashbacks. Mantel has infused humor and great description into the story. One notable passage is Henry's reaction to the birth of Elizabeth, the princess and future queen. All had expected her to be a him and Henry laments her birth: "The princess, unswaddled, had been placed on cushions at Anne's feet: an ugly, purple, grizzling knot of womankind, with an upstanding ruff of pale hair and a habit of kicking up her gown to display her most unfortunate feature."

One of the most interesting secondary characters was Hans Holbein, the court painter. Holbein was commissioned to paint the important people of his era. His political beliefs can be analyzed through his paintings. Compare his treatment of both Cromwell and More. I was a little amused to read his critiques of Lucas Cranach, a German painter close to Martin Luther. Cranach is my great grandfather - to the 12th power.

This is one of those books that you don't want to end. But then you realize that it will be one that you will revisit in the years to come. An absolutely wonderful read.