Monday, February 1, 2010

Review: Brooklyn Nine by Alan Gratz

Found via: Bill at Literate Lives

I came across Literate Lives via the Comment Challenge while bloggers Bill and Karen were running a series of Newbery predictions. I know next to nothing about the Newbery award, since most of my reading is now focused on Printz-level books, but I really wish Brooklyn Nine had been at least an honor, 'cause this was an awesome book.

Brooklyn Nine is a series of nine short stories following a family through nine generations of baseball. While mostly set in Brooklyn, there are two stories that step outside of New York - one into Virginia during the Civil War, and another back to my home state of Michigan during WWII with a female baseball player. How could I not love a book that combines baseball, women's baseball in WWII, AND my two home states?

What I found most fascinating was the mix of baseball history and American history that was woven into many of the stories. For example, I had no idea that pre-Civil War, it was accepted that you could get someone out by catching the ball after it bounced. It takes a few generations for the game to evolve into the one we recognize today. Additionally, major and minor historical events are integrated - stories take place during the Civil War and WWII, and in 1981, boys playing little league are teasing each other for seeing Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones a dozen times each, and debating who Yoda meant when he said one other person also had the force (no one guesses its Leia!). In between, characters face racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and regular run of the mill bullies.

My favorite stories were Frankie Schneider in 1926, a numbers genius who has given up on the idea of going to college because she's a girl and is a fan of the dismal Brooklyn Robins, Kat Flint in 1945, the newest member of the Grand Rapids (Michigan!) Chicks, and Michael Flint in 1981, who's in the process of pitching a perfect game.

Michael's story is actually one of the most beautifully written stories I've read, possibly ever. Gratz does an amazing job amping up the tension as we follow Michael through his first ever perfect game. Gratz says in the notes that he based Michael's ninth inning on the ninth inning of Sandy Koufax's 1965 perfect game as called by Vin Scully. You can read the transcript of the inning here, or listen to it in your browser here. I definitely think Gratz nailed it.

In the first story, Gratz has also written one of my favorite descriptions of New York City - and coincidentally, Felix Schneider is hanging around the neighborhood I work in when he says:

Felix found it easy to lose himself in Broadway's foot traffic, to be swept up by the rush and hurry of Manhattan, to hear the clatter of iron horseshoes on cobblestones and the catcalls and insults of the city's famously rude cabbies like a lullaby. On Broadway Felix was not a poor German Jew from Bremen walking the streets of a strange metropolis. Here, he was a New Yorker.

This isn't just a book for baseball fans - while baseball is the theme of these stories, for most of the stories the sport is window dressing. This is a collection to be read by fans of historical fiction, short stories, and just all around beautiful writing as well. Another book that is going on my early "Best of 2010" list.
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