Commonwealth.

I’ve been a devotee of the fiction of Ann Patchett since reading her magnum opus, Bel Canto, an ensemble story that takes inspiration from the 1997 incident when Tupac Amaru fighters took over the Japanese embassy in Peru and held 72 people hostage for four months. Patchett built from that story to create a deep, rich web of complex characters and wrote a literary fugue that she later said was her attempt to recreate Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. (I’m not a fan of that book, so I’d say there’s no comparison.)

Her latest novel, Commonwealth, is the only other novel she’s written that tries to tell the same sort of broad tapestry of a story, with at least five and as many as ten well-defined, realistic characters in a book that plays with time as she reconstructs the history of two families. The book starts with a christening party and a drunken kiss between a husband and a wife who are married to other people, a kiss that begets an affair that begets divorces, marriages, a death, and six children becoming stepsiblings and forging bonds that will last for decades.

This isn’t Bel Canto in format, however; that book had epic scope but was told in linear fashion. Commonwealth jumps around in time based on what details Patchett wants to reveal, a gambit that started as disorienting but improved as the story went on because each section reveals something about one or more characters that proves useful in the next. I still might have preferred a linear timeline here, largely because that makes it easier for me to immerse myself in a story, but Patchett is such a skilled storyteller that she can make the future into prologue and still have it all tie together.

Although the four adults involved in the two marriages that become an affair, two divorces, and another marriage set the plot in motion, this book is much more about the kids involved than anyone else: two sisters from one marriage, then four kids, two of each sex, from the other. They’re not an easy mix at any point, but because Bert and Beverly, the couple who kissed and eventually divorce their spouses to marry each other, are kind of half-assed parents, the six kids end up partners in crime, the older ones mostly taking care of the younger, but also getting into all sorts of trouble, some trivial, some tragic.

Each story focuses on different kids, but Albie, the second-youngest of the six children, is easily the most interesting, I think because Patchett has written him as someone who today would be considered “on the spectrum” of autism but who in this book’s time period would never have been diagnosed. He’s just weird in the eyes of his siblings, who hand him Benadryl tablets and tell him they’re candy so he won’t be such a pain, and grows into a self-medicating, risk-loving teenager who can’t stay in school or keep a job and really doesn’t find any stability until at least his 20s. But as he gets older and the family situation keeps changing, some of his bonds with siblings, especially his stepsister Franny (the second best-developed character in the book), become the novel’s true center.

There’s also a bit of fun metafiction within Commonwealth, where Franny, who feels as I do about books (hand me a supply of books and then just leave me alone for a few weeks), meets a literary idol of hers, Leon Posen, and eventually becomes his lover and sort of amanuensis. Leon eventually takes her stories of her childhood and writes them into a novel, Commonwealth, that restarts his literary career, becomes a bestseller, and narrowly misses winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That last bit may prove prescient; the book is considered one of the favorites to win this year’s award, which will be announced on Monday, April 10th, but is probably less likely to win than Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

Patchett’s prose is as lush as her characters, and here she marries the two with a story worthy of her words; when she hasn’t succeeded, it’s been in books with weak stories, like Run or Taft. Commonwealth is a huge success, however, a story of and for everyone, one that is simultaneously about nothing and about everything. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and Patchett gives us a whole new unhappy family to enjoy.

Stick to baseball, 12/10/16.

I wrote a bunch of stuff this week to cover all the major transactions before and during the winter meetings, including:

The Cardinals signing Dexter Fowler
The Yankees signing Aroldis Chapman
The Nationals’ trade for Adam Eaton
The Cubs/Royals trade with Wade Davis and Jorge Soler
The Rockies signing Ian Desmond
The Rays signing Wilson Ramos
The Red Sox trading for Chris Sale
The Red Sox trading for Tyler Thornburg
The Giants signing Mark Melancon
The Yankees signing Matt Holliday
The Astros signing Carlos Beltran

I also held a Klawchat on Friday afternoon.

Over at Paste, I reviewed Terraforming Mars, one of the best new boardgames of 2016, and one that will place high on my ranking of the top ten games of the year when that’s published in the next few days.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

State of Wonder.

Thursday’s Klawchat had a lot of Hall of Fame talk plus some prospect content. The Top 100 prospects package will run the week of January 27th.

Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder marks a return to form for the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, Bel Canto, where she pays homage to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain while drawing on the real-life hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru. In between those two books, Patchett wrote just one novel, the embarrassing Run, a not-even-thinly-veiled love letter to then Senator Barack Obama, whom Patchett clearly hoped would run for President and win. That novel lost all of what made Patchett special, even in the quality of her prose, but State of Wonder brings everything back together.

Marina Singh is a pharmacologist working for a major drug researcher that has been funding a long-running development project deep in the Amazon basin, where the women in a tribe of natives, the Lakashi, maintain fertility well into their 70s. The eccentric researcher running the project, Dr. Annick Swenson, has cut off nearly all contact with her benefactors, and another researcher sent to locate her and report back on her progress, Marina’s colleague Anders Eckmann, died of fever while still in Brazil. Marina, who studied under Dr. Swenson over a decade earlier before an incident pushed her out of obstetrics into pharmacology, draws the short straw and has to go track down her former mentor, but finds that her mission is more complicated in both a practical and philosophical sense than anyone realized.

The lead characters in State of Wonder, Marina and Dr. Swenson, stand alongside Patchett’s best characters from Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant as smart, three-dimensional personas. Their thinking is complex and real without becoming unrealistic; Dr. Swenson is a genius, and a different sort of person, but her character is logical and thinks and behaves in logical ways. Marina’s back story is more involved, and her character, while very intelligent, is less mature, and she’s still grappling with the fallout from that incident that caused her to switch her specialty during her residency. (The novel would also pass the Bechdel test if it were made into a film.)

Marina spends a few weeks in the (real) Brazilian city of Manaus before finding Dr. Swenson and heading into the remote jungle location of the research labs, encountering some oddball, entertaining side characters that make up for some of their two-dimensionality with their injection of humor. But Patchett’s renderings of the settings, both Manaus and the Lakashi region, are beautifully detailed, and she represents the natives, by any Western definition a “primitive” people, without resorting to condescension over their way of life, even though it would likely be warranted.

Patchett has commented in interviews that her book was inspired by several films, notably Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (TL;DW), but there’s also a clear evocation of Evelyn Waugh’s demented A Handful of Dust, where one of the protagonists, Tony Last, meets perhaps the worst non-death fate of any major character in literature, all in the remote jungles of the Amazon basin. (Patchett slips in some Dickens references which make the allusion to Waugh obvious.) State of Wonder also steps back from the overwrought political leanings of Run, instead presenting soft arguments, pro and con, on environmental subjects and treatment of isolated peoples like the Lakashi, without detracting from the central story, one of delayed emotional development for Marina. Her professional success hasn’t been mirrored by happiness, and Patchett matures her without giving her a forced Hollywood ending. Marina ends up having to make a choice with huge moral implications before leaving the Amazon, the kind of decision that ages you emotionally when you face it but that was necessary to conclude the story without turning it into a saccharine mess.

Next up: Still slogging through Robert Tressell’s socialism-pamphlet-cum-novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Taft.

Just recorded my one Baseball Today podcast of the week – I’ve had to skip two due to early-morning flights. Also, Thursday’s chat will take place after I get off the College Baseball Live set, at either 7:30 pm or 8 pm EDT, because (weather permitting) I’m seeing Javier Baez play at the usual chat time.

In an afterword to her second novel, Taft, Ann Patchett laments its status as her least-known novel even though she’s extremely fond of it, a situation she credits to everything from the title (admittedly not the optimal choice) to the way it was superseded by her later works, notably the mesmerizing Bel Canto. But Taft showcases Patchett’s skill for characterization as well as her beautiful yet readable prose, and compares favorably to the novels that came before and after it. (Her most recent novel, Run, was by far her worst effort.)

The Taft of the book’s title is already dead before the book begins. Ray Taft was a husband and father of two in a rural town in eastern Tennessee who died of a heart attack, leaving his family emotionally adrift and buried in bills. His wife, daughter, and son move to Memphis to live with their wealthy aunt and uncle, but the daughter, Fay, chooses to work and ends up in the bar run by the narrator, former blues drummer John Nickel, a black man more than ten years her senior. Nickel gives Fay a job and ends up enmeshed in her new domestic drama, largely revolving around her brother, Carl, for whom the loss of his father has meant the loss of an anchor and a descent into increasingly serious trouble. Meanwhile, Nickel himself is grappling with his own loss, as his ex-girlfriend has moved to Miami with their seven-year-old son, Franklin, leaving him with limited contact with his only child.

The present-day stories of Fay/Carl and Nickel/Franklin are interrupted by what are either flashbacks or Nickel’s own interpolations of Taft’s story, including the switch in Fay’s and Carl’s personalities after their father’s death and a poignant scene where Taft interacts with a local boy selling candy door to door to raise money for his school science class.

If there’s a reason for Taft‘s relative lack of success, it might be that the book seemed less substantial than her other novels. The Patron Saint of Liars revolved around a terribly broken woman and the daughter she is destined to disappoint. The Magician’s Assistant is about a woman dealing with the death of her longtime business partner, who could never requite her affection for him. Bel Canto is a masterpiece, a story of hostages and terrorists in a Latin American embassy where, over time, the barrier between captor and captive begins to break down. Major things happen in Taft – if you’re familiar with Chekhov, you’ll see the biggest event coming a mile away – but the results aren’t that different from what preceded the big stuff. Characters aren’t much changed, and little is resolved at the end of the book. I was fine with that because it’s a well-written slice of life, but if you like your novels to come with firm beginnings and ends and a cherry on top, this isn’t the book for you. And that’s fine too.

Next up: Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. She might have been the original Debbie Downer.

The Patron Saint of Liars & The Whore’s Child.

Ann Patchett’s debut novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, showcases the kind of insightful, compassionate writing that helped make her magnum opus, Bel Canto, such a critical and commercial success, although Liars lacks the same degree of storycraft found in Bel Canto or in The Magician’s Assistant. It is, however, one of the best sad books I have ever read, as the story of a woman who is hopelessly broken inside and yet can’t help but damage the people close to her through her inability to deal with her own fears and insecurities.

The primary liar in the book is Rose, who flees a comfortable marriage in California when she discovers she’s pregnant and “realizes” – or decides? – that she isn’t actually in love with her husband. She ends up at a Catholic home for pregnant girls who want to have their babies and give them up for adoption, but Rose ends up staying on well past her ninth month – and keeps her daughter as well, only to find herself unable to be a mother to her child or even much of a wife to her second husband. Patchett gives us a window into Rose’s sadness but never much of an explanation for it beyond the death of her father in a car accident when Rose was three. Her own daughter, Cecilia, reaches her early teens before her mother leaves the picture, but Rose is unable to mother her and Cecilia ends up forming bonds both with the nuns who run the facility and the girls who come in for six or seven or eight months and then mostly disappear from her life.

The book comprises three sections, and though Rose is the central character in the book, she only narrates the first third, and her motives for lying and leaving were never fully clear to me. Son, the groundskeeper she meets and marries at St. Elizabeth’s, narrates the second part, and Cecilia handles the third, and both were more compelling, deeply drawn characters with the ability to process and communicate their own complex emotions in ways that Rose’s character cannot. And Sister Evangeline, a sort of grandmother-figure/mystic in the group of otherwise grey, dour nuns is a scene-stealer whenever she appears.

The Patron Saint of Liars is a sad book, but not a bleak one. Rose is clearly depressed and her lack of progress or recognition is heartbreaking, especially as it threatens the lives of those closest to her. But there are streaks of hope not for Rose but for Son and especially Cecilia, who wants her mother to be a mother but has also has the strength to find that nurturing from others and is, at the book’s end, developing into a healthier, fuller person than her mother ever was. It is imperfect, from Rose’s scant motives to her ambiguous fate in what becomes Son’s and Cecilia’s story, but Patchett writes about emotions so clearly and empathetically that I moved through the book’s pages as I might through a novel of action.

Richard Russo’s first short story collection, The Whore’s Child and Other Stories, feels almost like a collection of rarities and B-sides, with a few outstanding entries that, in total, wouldn’t be enough for a full volume, so the publisher stuck in a first draft and a few throwaways to provide some bulk, although the hardcover edition still barely reaches 200 pages even with generous line spacing. The highlights are vintage Russo, though, and it’s worth going through the collection to find those stories and moments.

The main thrust of these stories seems to be failure, especially confronting failure of the past with the uncertainty of the future among his mostly middle-aged protagonists, many of whom are professors, writers, or other sorts of artists. The title story is told by a creative writing professor who has an unusual student auditing his class, one who becomes the star of the show for her brutally honest writing that turns out to be an exploration of her own sad childhood. Several stories revolve around failed marriages – I found “Monhegan Light,” in which a successful cinematographer chooses to meet the man who cuckolded him, only to find himself the loser in the confrontation, very disturbing – and “The Farther You Go” is the ancestor of his novel Straight Man, condensing the story of the narrator’s daughter throwing her husband out of the house.

My main problem with the novel is that the inherently brief nature of the short story limits Russo’s ability to introduce the local color of side characters and the comic relief of subplots and running gags. Instead, we’re left with a sort of stark, gloomy fatalism about lives lived wrong without hope of a turnaround or just a temporary uptick. Only the final story, “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart,” brought that mix of humor and sadness in a sort of of coming-of-age story with a number of baseball-related scenes, but the attempts to decipher a complicated adult relationship through the eyes of the ten-year-old title character felt blurry.

I’ve enjoyed the five Russo novels I’ve read, especially Empire Falls and The Risk Pool, but I’d recommend The Whore’s Child for completists (like me) only, as the title story alone isn’t enough to justify buying the whole book.

I received a review copy of a new short story collection by Justin Taylor called Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, but the collection doesn’t live up to the title. I found the stories crude and immature, with the young writer’s obsession with sex (and with using sex as the primarily vehicle for meaning in the lives of his characters) and an evident lack of life experience. The characters were uninteresting, sometimes two-dimensional and largely self-absorbed, and their actions struck me as forced.

The Magician’s Assistant, etc.

I loved Ann Patchett’s breakout novel, Bel Canto, in every way imaginable – for its plot, for its prose, and for its rich, wide array of compelling, well-drawn characters*, but found her follow-up, Run, to be a thin, hackneyed love letter to then-candidate Barack Obama disguised as a novel.

*The Q&A with Patchett at the back of her last novel had an enlightening line from her about how, to her, all her novels are alike, because each is her attempt to rewrite Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I got about 40 pages into that book and bailed, because the prose was maddening, but knowing the general plot I can see the correlation between it and Bel Canto. So, nice work, Ann – I think you rewrote it in a way that people are more likely to finish it.

The Magician’s Assistant precedes Bel Canto in Patchett’s bibliography and shares its theme of people from different worlds thrown together by fate, although its cast is smaller and there are some elements of magical realism that weren’t in either of her two later novels. The novel opens as Sabine, the assistant of the title, finds herself suddenly widowed after the magician she assisted for twenty years suffered an aneurysm. But it turns out that the magician, Parsifal, was gay, and their marriage was one of convenience, with Sabine’s love for her boss-turned-husband unrequited, and Parsifal’s partner, Phan, died not long before Parsifal did. And after Parsifal’s death, Sabine finds out the family he claimed died in a car accident is, in fact, alive in Nebraska, and when they learn of her existence, they fly to Los Angeles to meet her, which results in a trip for Sabine to Nebraska to explore her late husband’s past.

The novel is filled with people, nearly all women, in various stages of broken, with Sabine perhaps at the top of the list. She’s confused by Parsifal’s refusal to confide the details of his past in her, and grieves in part through dreams or visions of Phan and eventually Parsifal in some sort of afterlife. While she’s looking for direction, the women in Nebraska – Parsifal’s mother and two sisters – are each looking for something different, closure for the mother, an escape (or simply an answer) for the older sister, a connection to a lost brother for the younger one. It’s not devoid of action, although some of the most active scenes are told through flashbacks, but the book is driven by the emotions of the central characters, and other than a sentimental (but, I confess, moving) ending, these emotions felt very real throughout the novel.

Patchett was still rounding into form in this novel, and the book suffers from its lack of a decent male character – decent in the sense of well-formed but also as a comment on their behavior. Sabine’s father is wonderful, but a cipher in the context of the book. The two best male characters to get any screen time are both dead. Parsifal’s father, brother-in-law, and younger sister’s fiance are all two-dimensional and either jerks or wallflowers. Bel Canto had far better developed male characters as part of its amazing menagerie of hostages and terrorists, each drawn clearly and fully in ways that the men of Magician’s Assistant are not. It’s worth reading, but only after you’ve read Bel Canto.

I mentioned starting Walter Moers’ Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures, but quit after 150 pages because the book wasn’t going anywhere and I had 500+ pages to go. I loved Moers’ The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear and liked The City of Dreaming Books, but he repeated himself in Rumo and the latter book didn’t have the whimsy or character development of the other two novels.

Next up: I’ve got about 50 pages to go in Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, which for some unknown reason is only $6 on amazon.com.

Run.

My analysis of the Halladay/Lee series of deals is up on ESPN.com. I’ll be on Sirius 210/XM 175 at 8:35 pm EST tonight.

Ann Patchett’s Run, the long-awaited followup to her masterpiece, Bel Canto, is, like its predecessor, a beautifully written and sensitive book, one that moves quickly despite its slow treatment of time, with most of the book’s action occurring in a 24-hour period. Unfortunately, it’s also lightweight and sentimental as Patchett overplays her political theme at the expense of any conflict in the story itself.

Run covers the Doyle family, comprising the father Bernard, an Irish-American former mayor of Boston; his two adopted African-American sons, Teddy and Tip; the unseen older biological son, Sullivan; and, for the opening chapter, the mother, Bernadette, who is dead when the story opens. Bernard, Teddy, and Tip are attending a lecture given by Jesse Jackson at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on a snowy Boston evening, after which a traffic accident turns their insular world upside down when one of them is hurt and a bystander is critically injured.

Where Bel Canto had complex three-dimensional characters, Run has simple, entirely sympathetic ones. Tip, Teddy, and the young African-American girl Kenya who witnesses the accident are all thinly drawn; they are all runners (how stereotypical) and Tip and Teddy are each monomaniacal in their personal interests. Sullivan eventually appears, and his backstory is typical and excuses just about everything in his itinerant lifestyle, even the reason why he had to flee Africa to return to Boston unannounced. The closest we get to a complex character is Tennessee Moser, the woman injured in the traffic accident, whose conversation with her dead friend – Patchett wisely leaves the question of whether this is a religious experience, a dream, or a hallucination up to the reader – was, for me, the only truly compelling passage in the book, like a brilliant short story around which Patchett built a novel.

Patchett herself says in a Q&A at the end of the paperback edition that the story is primarily about politics, not family, and in a second note she fawns a little over the then-candidate Barack Obama. Kenya is the blatantly obvious Obama symbol, from her name to her sudden appearance on the scene to the way the plot unfolds where she is the person the Doyle family has been waiting for since the death of the mother (John Kennedy, perhaps?) almost twenty years earlier to the way she spurs Tip and Teddy to greater personal heights and even helps Sullivan straighten himself out … it’s too much, another example of the completely unrealistic expectations heaped on President Obama, who could turn out to be our greatest President ever and still fall short of the hyperbole. It’s ham-handed and a little condescending, and Patchett seems to have worked so hard to craft and protect this savior-character Kenya that she left virtually no conflict in the book – there is no unsympathetic character, no one working against the protagonists, little question of where we’re ultimately going. She offers one plot twist, but it turns out to have little effect on the plot, just some symbolic value that I won’t mention here for fear of spoiling it. I’m fine with books that are full of metaphor and symbolism, but give me plot and depth, too. The result here is a quick read and a warm one, but it’s a little maudlin and lacked the richness of the soaring epic of Bel Canto.

Next up: An “entertainment” from Graham Greene, one of his later spy novels, The Human Factor.

Bel Canto.

All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected we knew how.

Several readers have recommended Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto to me, and while I intended all along to read it, I didn’t realize that there was a copy already in the house until my wife was about to lend it to a friend of ours to read. She raved about it as well, and with good reason, as it’s a beautifully written, intelligent novel with one of the best-developed character ensembles I have ever found in a work of literature.

Bel Canto is based on the 1997 hostage crisis in Lima, where fourteen members of a fringe guerrilla group invaded the Japanese embassy and held 72 people hostage for four months, at the end of which the Peruvian army stormed the embassy and killed all of the terrorists, with one hostage dying of a heart problem in the assault. Patchett’s version is in an unnamed, poor, Spanish-speaking country, in the Vice-President’s residence, where a party is being held in honor of a Japanese executive, Mr. Hosokawa, who may be about to bring a large capital investment to the country. However, he only agreed to attend the party when the organizers agreed to fly in Roxane Coss, a world-famous opera singer and Hosokawa’s favorite artist.

Patchett tips us off up front that the eventual murder victims will be the terrorists, not the hostages, although of course the characters don’t know that as we follow them through the ordeal. Patchett has created an amazing number of fleshed-out characters, showing skill both at delving into human emotions and at painting characters with the flourishes that give them definition. Once the initial period after the raid has ended, each character, terrorist and hostage alike, finds his or her niche within the makeshift commune, like the Vice President who becomes the housekeeper, or the poor priest with a secret love of opera. (In a flashback scene, Father Arguedas confesses his love of opera to his priest, who responds, “Art is not sin. It’s not always good. But it’s not a sin.” The priest asks Arguedas if he prefers Verdi or Wagner, and when Arguedas responds, “Verdi,” the priest answers, “You are young. Come back and tell me again in twenty years.”) But more impressive is the way Patchett takes the relationships between some of the hostages and some of the terrorists beyond simple Stockholm Syndrome territory, showing how factors such as age, size, gender, and skill define interpersonal relationships and building a web of interactions on that basis.

If there’s a flaw at all in Bel Canto, it’s that Patchett made her terrorists too sympathetic. Most of the rank and file members are just teenagers without ideology, and each of the leaders has some distinct humanizing trait. It’s good writing, but also the book’s biggest departure from reality.

Bel Canto lacks a linear plot, instead telling the stories around the shift from the captor/hostage dynamic to a commune that is so tranquil that some of the hostages find they lose their desire to leave. Whether this is because they’re truly happy or because they’re happy to be escaping from the tedium or stresses of their daily lives is left to the reader to decide.

Next up: I owe you reviews of Embers and the nonfiction book Manhunt, but the next book for me to read is a behemoth, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.