• May 4, 2012

From the emerald diamond to a walk down the mean streets of New York City, travel with this week's snapshot to places new and familiar.

Where would you like to visit? Our reviewer Bob Luke recommends The Emerald Diamond, about how the Irish transformed baseball in America. Or you can leave the baseball diamond for a stroll with Walter Mosley down the mean streets of his morally complex and always fascinating new novel All I Did Was Shoot My Man. From the comfort of your favorite reading chair, you might want to visit Lauren Fox’s second novel and “the first years after college, when close friends, a vague sense of potential and the job of carving out an identity are paramount.” Or, if you want sterner stuff, the novel Coral Glynn, which is “a story about love … not a romantic story, and not one … to lighten the mood.”

The Emerald Diamond: How The Irish Transformed America’s Greatest Pastime
by Charley Rosen
320 pp.

The contributions of the Irish to baseball are, Rosen tells us, “largely unknown and absolutely unappreciated.” His book fills that gap with a detailed, straightforward, chronological narrative using sparse prose and colorful vignettes to display the achievements and antics of the famous and the not-so-famous major-league players, managers and owners of Irish descent. He depicts the challenges faced by all Irish, beginning with Ireland’s 1840s potato famine that drove thousands to seek a better life in America, only to find harsh living conditions and discrimination in such port cities as New York and Boston. Those who moved west to dig a meager living from the coal mines of Scranton, Penn., found life no better. He devotes a chapter to the Molly Maguires. The friction between Irish Catholics and English Protestants forms a central theme. Many Irish young men took easily to baseball, playing on town and company teams, with some finding paying opportunities. Those who played professionally in the late 19th century contributed many significant firsts to the game, including the curve ball (William Arthur “Candy” Cummings) and the grand-slam home run (Roger Connor, whose career total of 138 home runs stood as the world’s record from 1888 until 1921, when Babe Ruth hit his 139th). “Slide Kelly, Slide” became a popular song, and audiences far and wide enjoyed renditions of “Casey at the Bat.” Years later, Charlie Finley, owner of the Kansas City Athletics, showed his Irish colors with green and yellow uniforms for his players and, for a few exhibition games until Commissioner Bowie Kuhn nixed the idea, orange baseballs. Throughout the book, Rosen recounts the actions of managers including Charles Comisky, Connie Mack, Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel, touting their baseball savvy as well as their quirks, prejudices, temper tantrums and misguided decisions. Rosen not only raises our appreciation of their many contributions, but also gives us a history of the game in which, for many years, more players and managers came from Irish stock than from that of any other country. An index would have been useful, and in a number of instances Rosen’s citations leave the reader uncertain about the accuracy of some information. He credits Baltimore with being the original home of the Kansas City Athletics, when the A’s actually relocated there from Philadelphia. That said, Rosen accomplished what he set out to do and produced an engaging book of Irish baseball history.
~Bob Luke

All I Did Was Shoot My Man
by Walter Mosley
Riverhead Books
336 pp.

Walter Mosley, with his sly, dead-on social and political observations, is a direct heir to Dashiell Hammett and his comprehensive detective fiction. You enter a universe replete with ethics, politics, treachery, corruption and the dilemmas of all types of fascinating characters. Although we have left behind the trials and tribulations faced by his earlier African-American sleuths, “Easy” Rawlins and Fearless Jones in 1950s Los Angeles, Mosley still gives insight and opportunity to meditate on who we are as a people. All I Did is another absorbing page-turner plunked in the middle of today’s New York City. On the first page we stand in the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 42nd Street with Leonid McGill, a former criminal whose particular talent was manipulating evidence and framing people for crimes they did not commit. He is there to meet a former victim, Zella Grisham, who is newly released from prison, having served seven years for the heist of $58 million, a crime she did not commit. Leonid is now a successful New York private investigator who hopes to redeem himself by finding out who did commit the crime he framed her for. To do so, he must hold his own life together. Not so easy. For starters, he has a low-grade fever and is functioning but not clear-headed. As Leonid encounters grueling dangers to track down those behind the heist, we see that the evil-doers, like his friends and the many well-drawn, often vaguely dangerous characters that inhabit his life, are diversions from the real issues haunting him: his rage and despair at his father who abandoned him as a child; his blonde wife’s worrisome depression, alcoholism and slowly gathering breakdown; his angst for his sons, one a has-been criminal like himself who is moving coolly away from that world, and another leaving the family nest for a Russian prostitute; and the losses he sees reflected in his daughter’s affair with an older, married man. Leonid’s fever has been likened to the sickness in our country’s economy and democracy. Though Mosley’s solitary private investigator is still a black man, race is only one of many distractions in Leonid’s complicated, modern New York life. To dwell on racism is a luxury that he cannot afford. Get over it, Mosley seems to be saying. We’re in a lot of trouble in America, but the problems we must resolve have nothing to do with skin color. Look at your personal life, your family, your past and the choices you have made. Through Leonid’s feverish pursuit of redemption, Mosley exhorts us to take charge of our failures, fess up, recover our humanity and our health. We would do well to look up and listen while we charge through these pages.
~Katharine A. Lorr

Friends Like Us
by Lauren Fox
Alfred A. Knopf
288 pp.

In Fox’s clever and heartfelt second novel (the first: Still Life with Husband), she takes the reader back to the first years after college, when close friends, a vague sense of potential and the job of carving out an identity are paramount. In lieu of money, there is savage wit. In lieu of accomplishment, dreams and ego. During this idealistic sliver of life, you test yourself and others to sort out your capacity for kindness and selfishness. In tone, Fox nails this time period. The quips fly around the kitchen with bounce and bite. Willa and Jane have been best friends forever. They share an apartment, and work at unfulfilling jobs that barely pay the rent (Willa writes slogans to put on tea bags; Jane is a housekeeper and babysitter). They’re happy enough with their friendship as they wait for life to begin. Willa becomes reacquainted with her old friend Ben from high school, who admits to having harbored a crush on her. In a generous spirit, Willa introduces her two pals. Jane and Ben become a couple. When they get engaged, Willa’s generosity shrivels. You can predict what comes next. You can see the plot unfolding from the first few pages. The magic of Friends Like Us is in how narrator Willa — a flawed heroine if ever there was one — wrestles with her actions and decisions. She says, “Before I’m myself, I’m not the woman I am: desperate, hungry, plumbing the depths of my own treacherous psyche and capable of unpleasant surprises. In that blissful, disorienting blankness, I could be anyone.” By book’s end, Willa knows better who she is, what she’s lost, and what she can hope to build in the mysterious future.
~Valerie Frankel

Coral Glynn
by Peter Cameron
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
210 pp.

Coral Glynn is a nurse assigned to care for a terminally ill elderly woman at her home in the English countryside. In her free time, Coral takes long walks in the Sap Green Forest next to the house where she witnesses children playing a disturbing and dangerous game. After trying to stop them, she gives up and returns to her responsibilities. Before long, her patient dies, and Coral has no place to go. The patient’s estranged son, “The Major,” who has been burnt and made lame in the war, asks her to marry him and she accepts. Since Coral has no friends and no family, she is begrudgingly adopted by the housekeeper, and more enthusiastically by Robin and his wife, Dolly, friends of the Major’s. Complications ensue when a child in the forest dies and Coral is questioned intensely on the day of her wedding. Coral is a passive character who accepts what life throws at her. She is the title character, but the others are as well defined. As the plot evolves she seems to become the tool that others use to define themselves. The author’s descriptive powers are extensive when it comes to background, and yet we have no idea what Coral looks like, except that she is beautiful. This is a story about love, or denial of it, but it is not a romantic story, and not one to be picked up to lighten the mood.
~Susan Guthrie Knight

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