This week’s book reviews


Here are condensed versions of this week’s book reviews:

“Bigger Than the Game: Restitching a Major League Life” by Dirk Hayhurst; Citadel ($14.95)

Being a major league baseball player isn’t particularly fun.

Oh, it’s a grand existence if you’re, say, Derek Jeter or David Wright: The money is big, the endorsement opportunities are ceaseless, the fans know your name and worship the ground upon which you step.

Behind the stars, however, are men who jump from team to team and live paycheck to paycheck, just hoping to grab a final roster spot and a fat per diem check.

Men like Dirk Hayhurst.

Not much was remarkable about a pitching career that spanned eight years, and included only a couple of cups of coffee in the majors. Yet, Hayhurst’s story — which he chronicles with both humor and heartache in “Bigger Than the Game” — is worth telling.

“Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” by Mark Harris; Penguin Press ($29.95)

The Five were the top writing and directing talent of American cinema’s prewar Golden Age: John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens and a charger named John Huston, who wowed Tinseltown with his first directorial effort, “The Maltese Falcon” (1941). Capra, the highest paid of the lot, racked up Oscars for such classics as “It Happened One Night” (1934). Ford wasn’t far behind in pay or awards, notching three best director wins between 1936 and 1942. Wyler was a genre all-rounder who helmed everything from low-budget westerns to literary adaptations like “Wuthering Heights” (1939), while Stevens was known for comedies that traded on sass and urban sophistication.

In his new book, “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and The Second World War,” film historian and Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris chronicles this formidable quintet’s wartime experiences as soldier-filmmakers who strove to bring World War II to the screen. Advancing into middle age, they took pay cuts when they signed up; during the war, they made everything from documentaries to training films to cartoon shorts.

“Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade” by Walter Kirn; Liveright ($25.95)

Walter Kirn’s new profile of the serial liar and convicted murderer known as “Clark Rockefeller” is no ordinary work of true crime and literary journalism.

“Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade” is the chronicle of Kirn’s ill-fated friendship with the con man. And it’s surely one of most honest, compelling and strangest books about the relationship between a writer and his subject ever penned by an American scribe.

Kirn is a magazine writer and author of novels such as “Up in the Air” and “Thumbsucker.” But he was an insecure and not especially successful writer when he first met “Clark” in 1998. The faux Rockefeller was a preppy bon vivant who claimed to be estranged from his famous family. A mutual friend asked Kirn to do Clark a favor — deliver a semi-paralyzed dog from Montana, where Kirn was living, to Clark’s home in Manhattan.

Unbeknown to Kirn, “Clark Rockefeller” was the latest in a series of identities adopted by the German immigrant Christian Gerhartsreiter. As Clark, Gerhartsreiter hid his Bavarian roots behind a genteel, patrician accent and stories of his jet-setting lifestyle. Kirn, a son of working-class Midwesterners, was smitten. Like many an ambitious writer, he thought the charismatic and odd Clark might make a good character for a magazine article or even a novel.

“A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing,” Kirn writes. “A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours too.”

“The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel” by Benjamin Black; Henry Holt ($27)

Raymond Chandler is among our most stylized writers, an innovator of what we might call high noir, with its cut-glass imagery, its cynical world-weariness (although never ennui). Such a posture defines him — or, more accurately, his detective, Philip Marlowe — as a wise-cracker with repartee as sharp as a fedora’s brim.

And yet, the more I read (and re-read) Chandler, the more I appreciate his vision of Los Angeles, the “big angry city” he described as “no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness” in his 1953 novel “The Long Goodbye.”

This issue of place, it turns out, is one of the challenges faced by Benjamin Black’s “The Black-Eyed Blonde,” a new Marlowe book written under the auspices of Chandler’s estate. Black is the pseudonym of Man Booker-winning author John Banville, who since 2007 has published a series of crime novels that take place in Dublin, where he lives. As he admits in the acknowledgments, Southern California is a less familiar territory, and one it appears he had no particular inclination to learn.

“After I’m Gone” by Laura Lippman; William Morrow ($26.99)

When the center of your universe — husband, father, lover, the sun around which your whole life revolves — suddenly blinks into darkness, how do you re-order your life?

That’s the task of the characters surrounding the murder and disappearance at the heart of Laura Lippman’s “After I’m Gone.”

“Almost every writer I know dreads the moment when someone tries to give you an idea,” Lippman writes in her author’s note. But when the guy making the suggestion, David Simon, was a writer and producer for HBO’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” and creator of “The Wire” — and your husband — I guess you don’t just nod politely.

Lippman used his suggestion of writing about a real-life Baltimore club owner who chose to vanish in the face of a 15-year prison sentence as a jumping-off point, focusing instead on the women he left behind.

“Gemini” by Carol Cassella; Simon & Schuster ($25.99)

“Gemini” suffers from “what genre am I?” syndrome. It’s partly a mystery, with a Jane Doe patient brought in to a Seattle hospital after a serious accident on the rural Olympic Peninsula. Although the mystery of Jane’s identity will be solved for even the most haphazard reader within 50 pages or so, we’re still left to wonder how this woman ended up critically injured by the side of the road. Was she hit by a car that fled the scene? Was it attempted murder?

The book is also part medical-ethics drama: Jane remains unconscious and unidentified as her condition worsens, so who should make the possibly end-of-life decisions that must be addressed? Finally, it’s part relationship saga, as we learn about both Raney and Bo, a couple whose fraught relationship begins in childhood, and Dr. Charlotte Reese (Jane’s primary caretaker) and her science-journalist boyfriend.

If you don’t set your sights too high, “Gemini” is an enjoyable read. But if you want Cassella at her best, go back to “Oxygen.” We’ll hope for a return to that quality with Cassella’s next offering.

 

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