Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Baseball and the Butterfly Effect

Opening Day of baseball is upon us and while I’m not a diehard fan, I do enjoy an occasional good diversion.  My all time favorite game was one I saw in early September awhile back.  I had front row seats in a company box right over home plate.  It was Cal Ripken’s final day to play against us, the weather was amazing, as only a clear warm autumn Seattle day can be, and my team even won.  A couple of days later the world would become a little darker and change us all, but that one afternoon was perfect. 

I was drawn to The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, originally because of its connection to baseball, and though baseball is featured in the book, it is about so much more.  When I first tried to write, I found myself creating a book report which was not my intention.  There are plenty of good reviews online, I wanted something else.  Instead, I stepped away and read another book, How it All Began, by Penelope Lively.  It was then I realized some similarities between the books, since both were, at some level, about chaos theory.  Or it is also known, the butterfly effect.

In each, as a group of characters goes about their lives, something happens that reverberates through their existences.  In one, Henry, an enormously gifted college baseball player makes a bad throw and someone gets seriously injured.  In the other, Charlotte, an elderly school teacher, gets mugged on the streets of London.  What transpires is a series of events that might not have happened otherwise: people are thrown together who might not have met, mistakes are made, connections are missed, links are made, relationships break up and new ones are started.  The trajectories of lives change direction.  

How does one misguided 14 year old affect the marriage of two people he’s never met and most likely never will in the future?   Or, why does one bad throw of a baseball take down a college president?  But both happen.  

It made me speculate about how much we affect each other’s day as we wander.  That smile you got or gave might ripple out, perhaps to one whose life was on the brink and it was what they needed to brave out another day.  What about the reverse of that?  Consider what might happen if you’ve dumped your bad day on another?  What unknown person will feel the effect of that growl?  I’m not saying we’re all responsible for everything another feels, but when we review our lives and think of the choices made along the way and how they may have hurt or helped another, it does make you pause a bit. 

How It All Began, set in London, directly addresses the tentacles of chaos theory and how this one small mugging affects a group of mostly ordinary and mostly middle aged people.  The Art of Fielding is set at a small Wisconsin college, next to Lake Michigan. This story takes us through the challenges that face four college kids, who, already on the edge, go into a tailspin after the accident.  Plus there’s the added bonus of the poor decisions by the fifth key character, the college president, who really should have known better.   

Though they are very different books, in each, there were choices that changed lives, some for the better, some not.  What I found curious is that once things returned to semi-normal, there were people who changed a little less or who were able to more easily settle back into their lives.  I guess there are always some who simply learn how to adjust to life’s trials better than others do.  Or, is it that they’re more changed than we know but simply accept that and know how to hide it better?  Is the glass half full or half empty?  Do we know?

For me, though, I guess I’d prefer to look at it as half full.  So it is the perfect September afternoon at Safeco Field that I choose to remember, not the dark days that followed.  And though each book was compelling in its own way, I think I should read something a little more fun next.  Perhaps a good old fashioned murder mystery…


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Darkness Prevails

Darkness, thy name is Seattle, at least in winter.  Fortunately, the clocks have just sprung forward and while there are some heavier clouds approaching, there were at least a couple of sun rays shining through today.  That, and a nice bunch of daffodils on my counter, tells me spring and the time for more light is imminent. 

Perhaps it is the very darkness here that draws me to Scandinavian crime fiction.  What is it about the Scandi-crime writers that make their work so dark?  Is it their lack of light in winter or do they have something else going on?  I'm curious but whatever it is, I’m enjoying it, even if there is some unadulterated evil in the stories told.  I’ve made the rounds through Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and to some extent, Jo Nesbø.  With each series, I’ve found brilliant but exceptionally flawed anti-social heroes who generally have an array of unhealthy habits and a lack of consideration for those who would befriend them.  To these, I’ve added Danish author, Jussi Adler-Olson, who is new to American audiences with his Department Q series.
Our protagonist, Carl Mørck, has just returned to the police force.  Physically, he has mostly recovered from the shooting that left one partner dead and the other permanently paralyzed, but the trauma of the attack is still with him.  For his boss, he’s an enigma.  Like most brilliant detectives, he solves cases.  Unfortunately, he’s not a guy others like to play with.  The only partners who worked well with him are out of the picture, so what to do with Carl is now a problem.  The police have been given money to develop a task force, Department Q, which will focus on cold cases.  They delegate Department Q to Carl and have him set up his office in Siberia, also known as the basement, far from the rest of the force.  He’s also assigned a somewhat quirky Muslim immigrant named Assad to be his assistant/office cleaner.  Problem solved. 

In The Keeper of Lost Causes, Carl’s first case is to discern what happened to a political leader who disappeared five years ago.  She is presumed drowned but her body has never been found.  What has happened to her is so far beyond most people’s comprehension, that at times, I found it challenging to read.  Yet, I had to find out how the story progressed, despite my personal abhorrence of her situation, and so I soldiered on.  It was well worth it.

Much to Carl’s surprise, he and Assad work well together as a team.  Between them, they begin to unravel what nobody else has been able to do since the women vanished.  Though he’s very different from what Carl is used to, Assad has a curious and intelligent mind; there is more to Assad than meets the eye and though we catch a glimpse here and there, much is hidden.  Perhaps we’ll learn more as the series continues.   
I've read a review that said it wasn’t hard to figure out the mystery in the book.  I would have to agree but this book was so character driven, I found it didn’t matter.  The number of eccentric personalities, both at police headquarters and those in Carl’s complicated personal life, among them, an ex-wife, her son, her lover(s) and a somewhat unconventional roommate, made the story interesting.  Then there is his injured partner Hardy, who while not happy to be here, still lends his mind to some of the cases when asked.  

Though there are more books published in this series, this is the only one currently in English.   Danish not being a language I know, I’ll just have to wait until the rest of Department Q’s cases make their way over to the U.S.  

Where’s a good looking Dane to translate when you need him?