Review of Books
Recently published books of Irish and Irish American interest.
The Bottom of the 33rd:
Hope, Redemption and Baseball’s Longest Game
Dan Barry, renowned New York Times columnist and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, saw something in the longest game in the history of professional baseball: that it was about much more than baseball.
It was an April 1981 Triple A minor league game between the Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox. With a tied score of 2-2, the game continued until 4:00 a.m. on a cold Easter Sunday. A misprint in the 1981 Minor League Handbook had excluded the guidelines for games that went into excessive overtime, so the teams played on until the Red Sox managers finally contacted the league president, who advised them to pause the game. It resumed in July and finally ended after 33 grueling innings.
Barry does much more than relay the facts of the record-setting game, he gets to the heart of it. From the first page, when his narrative slowly zooms in on the quiet town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island and settles on the decrepit, depression-era McCoy Stadium, Barry begins to build a stunning panorama of a baseball game, a moment in history, and all the lives involved.
Though ostensibly about baseball, The Bottom of the 33rd is also about America. Barry sees beyond, for example, the announcer’s calling of the players’ names: “If Drew had rattled off the birthplaces of each player, rather than their names, he would have sung an anthem of the Americas...From the mill towns of New England to the suburbs of the Pacific Coast; from the housing projects of the Midwest to the sugar-cane fields of the Caribbean: a ballad of bus fumes and ambition.”
But it isn’t just the ballplayers. Barry overlooks no one: the team owners and managers, the Pawtucket Coach Joe Morgan (of later Boston fame), down to the bat boy, the clubhouse manager, and the brave few attendees who lasted in the stands through the cold night and morning.
A masterful storyteller, he deftly decides when to tell and when to hold back what is already known to history. The fate of Wade Boggs the third baseman for Pawtucket? Those not quite as familiar with the baseball greats of the 1980s learn early on that he will make it to the major league. And what of Dave Koza, the PawSox’s first baseman, “baseball old” at age 26 and dying for a real chance in the majors? Not until the very end do we find out what became of Koza – who would likely be the main character if it could be said that this collage of a book had one – and what became of many of the other people brought together that night. The research this must have involved and the empathy Barry has for each individual is astounding and makes for a wholly engrossing and affecting book – for lovers of baseball and lovers of literature alike.
– Sheila Langan
(288 pages / Harper Collins / $26.99)
Those who read to escape reality, to immerse themselves in a fictional world more interesting and more exciting than their own, probably won't be very taken by Bullfighting, Roddy Doyle's second collection of short stories. Unless, that is, they happen to find something particularly exotic in the everyday lives and inner-most thoughts of thirteen middle-aged, middle-class Dublin men.
Famous for realistically, humorously, and empathetically chronicling the lives of often overlooked Dubliners in novels like The Commitments, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and the Booker prize winning Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha, Doyle now turns his attention to fathers and husbands of a certain age, quietly puzzling over or simply going about their lives. Some of them, like Hanahoe in “Recuperation,” have lost track of things. On his daily walks up the highway for exercise (doctor’s orders following a brief, unexplained health scare) he wonders when and how things got so bad between him and his wife without him even noticing. Others, like George in “Animals,” obliquely question their purpose now that the kids are grown and out of the house. But others, like the narrator of the final story, “Sleep,” are – more or less – content, “shockingly happy” even, by what life has brought them. Doyle explores these states of mind and being without the slightest trace of sentimentality or unwarranted cliché. The stories are not the most exciting or action-filled, but then, neither, for the most part, is life. Bullfighting is all the more important and moving for that very honesty and plainness
– Sheila Langan
(215 pages / Viking / $25.95)
Set in modern-day Dublin, Maeve Binchy’s Minding Frankie chronicles Noel Lynch’s dramatically changing life as he learns that a former fling is pregnant with his child and is dying of lung cancer. Though struggling with alcoholism, Noel takes custody of the little girl, Frankie, and with the help of his American cousin Emily, builds a support system of family, friends and neighbors all willing to help watch Frankie. The only person not happy with these arrangements is Moira Tierney, the social worker in charge of Frankie’s case, who believes the little girl would be better off in foster care.
Here, Binchy explores how everyone in a community can positively contribute, as Noel and his neighbors work to disprove Moira’s belief that a “proper” home consists of a mom and a dad: sometimes it really does take a village to raise a child.
Binchy deftly creates an intriguing and diverse cast of characters, from problem-solving Cousin Emily to the uptight social worker, Moira. True to current events, Binchy does not shy away from Ireland’s economic troubles and their influence on the lives of several people in the novel. Though it may take new readers a while to figure out who’s who, loyal Binchy fans will recognize some of these characters from previous works.
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