Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Duke for All Seasons

Tunis, John. Iron Duke. Harcourt, 1938.

Iron Duke is possibly my favourite of all Tunis' novels, and the one that I would recommend, in particular, for first-time readers of this great sports novelist. Like, in particular, Champion's Choice, Iron Duke is a novel about much more than sports, and its protagonist is caught up in a balancing act of life and loyalties that make the novel, at its heart, a study of humanity and choice.

Protagonist Jim Wellington is a small-town boy whose hard work in high school pays off with an acceptance to Harvard College, where he dreams of playing varsity football and following in his father's footsteps. Once in Boston, however, he finds that the university life he imagined is more difficult to obtain than he could have known, and he struggles to survive in athletics and, soon, to stay ahead in academics.

Jim--soon nicknamed "The Duke"--eventually makes two friends, "McGuire" and the posh "Fog," whose exploits get him into trouble from time to time but also provide him with the encouragement he needs to persevere in the face of disappointments and frustrations. The adventures of the three men, eventually known as the "Dunster Funsters," provide the novel with some lighthearted humour, but the friendship that develops over the course of the novel is thoughtfully composed and presents a strong underlying support for the more lighthearted and athletic scenes that make this book so remarkable and readable.

As this is one of my favourite books of all time, it would be difficult to award the "monthly favourite" title to any of the other excellent volumes enjoyed this month. Although currently out of print, this excellent book is a must-read, and well worth a trip to the library or a used bookstore.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Apple (Bough) of a Reader's Eye

Streatfield, Noel. Apple Bough. Lions, 1999 (1962).

This is, perhaps, a splendid book to read for previous fans of Streatfield's work, although I would not recommend it for first-time readers of the author of such splendid texts as Ballet Shoes or the less stage-struck novels of his I read earlier this summer. Apple Bough tells the story of a family of six: young Sebastian is a gifted violinist, and his siblings, while talented in other areas, have not attained the levels of skill that enable Sebastian to embark upon a world tour, instrument in hand and family in tow (for a time).

The bulk of the novel is spent describing the increasing dissatisfaction with which siblings Myra, Wolfgang, and Ethel approach their life as travellers in their brother's wake, and the many plots they hatch in secret, hoping that their family can settle down again. The focus of the book is upon family ties and the importance of familial unity, and Streatfield drives his plot home, as it were, with focus and determination. While the characters are not as compelling as those in many of his other novels, and the plot grows stale to the reader as the incessant travelling grows dull to the children, the themes thus portrayed work elegantly within this context, and the book itself would provide an important starting point for a number of valuable discussions that parents might wish to have with their progeny. Otherwise, this is a book for Streatfield's diehard fans, and one that is unlikely to leave too lasting an impression in the wake of his finer works.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Daunted by Discourse: A Stab at Tolkien

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine, 1994 (1954).

What, really, remains to be said about The Fellowship of the Ring? It is beloved by readers and geeks the world around, and to even hint that bits of it are slower than others is to arouse the wrath of many thousands of the author's fans. This reading of the book was my second (I have, since September, revisited it a third time) and it captivates me only slightly more each time.

So: if you are not a lover of Tolkien, but you feel you ought to try the Fellowship again, three things:

1) Read the poems aloud. Seriously. They seem long, and possibly irrelevant, butthey are better aloud, and they have much to say about Tolkien's world at large. And, on their own, they are actually very good works of poetry.

2) Read the book in smaller chunks. I am a fan of dashing through a novel, but to do so with Tolkien, being less of a fan than many others, finds me getting bogged down in description I'd rather be skipping. If the book bores you, set it aside for a while, and come back to it later.

3) Read the book as a history, rather than a novel. Tolkien's world, I am slowly learning, is larger than I ever dreamt, and the books, for all their excitement and plots, are filled with allusions to his greater histories (now, and slowly, being published). If Tolkien doesn't provide literary relaxation, approach him as a good historian, and savour the details he provides of this world that exists only in the imagination.

My understanding and appreciation of Tolkien is ever-so-slowly expanding, but it has taken reading him as a scholar to appreciate his fiction.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

'Champion's Choice' Always a Delightful Choice

Tunis, John. Champion's Choice. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1990 (1940).

Although John Tunis is best known for his numerous baseball novels, my two favourite books in his canon depart from this tradition and showcase, instead, athletes in tennis and track. Champion's Choice tells the story of Janet Johnson, a little girl whose surprising talent with a tennis racquet catapults her from a working-class home onto the courts of a local country club whose members and instructors soon give her a chance to go much further afield.

Although Janet becomes a tennis player, and descriptions of her matches feature prominently in Tunis' novel, Champion's Choice is not really a book about tennis. Rather, this exceptional novel is a grown-up version of the coming of age novel: it explores the tensions and confusion that occasionally make it difficult for this budding protagonist to define herself. Is she Janet Johnson the tennis player, or Janet Johnson, woman, daughter, and friend? Janet is gently prodded through this process of self-awareness by her childhood friend Rodney, whose friendly advice on the court and off keep Janet alternately pleased, bewildered, and annoyed. Fans of tennis will enjoy the descriptions of matches, courts, and grueling practice sessions, but fans of character studies will find that Tunis' sports characters are far from stock athletes: Janet the character is fresh, exciting, and as fun to study on my fifth read of the book as she was on the day I first cracked the pages. Sadly out of print, this is a must-read for all.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Veteran Tunis Fans Will Find 'Rookie' Makes the Cut

Tunis, John. Rookie of the Year. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1987 (1944).

Fans of John Tunis' baseball novels should find Rookie of the Year quite as expected: this story revisits the Brooklyn Dodgers of past fame, picking up a little later in their fictional trajectory, and focusing not on Roy Tompkins, but on now-manager Spike Russell, secretary Bill Hanson, and the rookie players Bones Hathaway and Clyde Baldwin. Rookie of the Year is a story about baseball only as much as it is a story about trust and growth, and Tunis' skillful descriptions of characters and their motivations lie at the heart of this book's value.

At the beginning of the book, the Dodgers are a few games behind the league leaders and determined to win. Manager Spike Russell puts them under strict orders to abstain from alcohol and late nights and to hustle on the field, and adherence to these rules quickly becomes a point of contention for Bill Hanson and many of the team's younger players. Hanson is swiftly revealed as the villain of Tunis' plot (although his motivation is never actually explored, let alone explained) and the key pawns in his attack are pitcher Hathaway and his roommate Baldwin. As the pennant grows closer and tensions run high, Spike must separate the deceitful from the misled, and guide his team with both firmness and grace. An enjoyable read, though not the most compelling of all Tunis' novels.