Posts Tagged Howard Frank Mosher

Mosher’s “The Great Northern Express”: One Great (Writer’s) Memoir

 Howard Frank Mosher’s THE GREAT NORTHERN EXPRESS is a memoir of Mosher’s cross-country trip promoting his writing.  But putting it in such a basic way misses the point entirely, as Mosher’s writing — and his descriptions of what happens while he takes this cross-country trip in a wholly unreliable car — is well worth reading.

Mosher decided to go on his trip at the age of sixty-five after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  Getting such a diagnosis was a wake-up call, and it made him wonder why he’d never taken that trip he’d promised himself.  Mosher had always believed that the MacArthur Fellowship (one of the most prestigious writing awards out there) could eventually fall to him, and of course he hoped it would.  As that Fellowship gives a substantial grant to worthy writers (to the tune of a half a million dollars), you can see how it could fund many cross-country trips.

But with Mosher’s cancer diagnosis looming in the background, he suddenly realized, “What’s stopping me from taking a trip on my own?”  Which is why once all of his radiation treatments had been completed, Mosher decided to hit the road despite not having all that much money (something most writers will sympathize with).   Mosher’s official excuse — er, reason — for going on this trip is because he must promote his writing, which is also why he planned on visiting as many independent bookstores as he could find.  (Of course, as he wryly admitted in the narrative, his loving wife, Phillis, knew better than this, but she wasn’t ever going to tell anyone.)

Mosher then set out in his twenty-year-old Chevrolet Celebrity with 280,000 miles on it, and proceeded to discuss everything that happened to him along the way.  But in case that wasn’t enough, Mosher also included many stories from his life.  Some of these stories dealt with how he ended up in Vermont of all places, what he thought of his first career as a high school English teacher and the colorful people he met in Vermont.  Perhaps Mosher’s best story was when he described the “Eureka!” moment he had when he realized he’d finally found his writer’s “voice,” as his crystallized encapsulation of how he felt when that occurred was spot-on and extremely memorable.

This “trip and real life story” narrative is inextricably woven into Mosher’s overarching story, which (of course) is that life should be celebrated, even when it’s tough.  And that all people have a story, whether they realize it or not; it’s the writer’s job to describe that story, which Mosher does brilliantly during good times and bad, and whether he’s talking about himself or someone else.

Bottom line: this is the best memoir by a writer I have ever read, hands-down.  But even if you’re not a writer, you owe it to yourself to read Mosher’s funny, witty, and often touching memoir because it’s just that good.  (Expect THE GREAT NORTHERN EXPRESS to be on my top ten books of 2012 list, folks.)

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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“Waiting for Teddy Williams:” A Baseball Fable with Heart

 Howard Frank Mosher’s WAITING FOR TEDDY WILLIAMS is a baseball novel written by a baseball fan and coach (who also happens to be an outstanding writer).  Here, Ethan Allen (otherwise known as “E.A.”) comes of age in a small, sleepy Vermont town where everyone lives and dies with the Boston Red Sox; as he has a great love for baseball, E.A. grows up to idolize the Sox and does his best to maximize his playing ability from the get-go.

As this is a fable, you might expect that E.A. eventually does reach the Sox — and you’d be right.  But most of the fun in WAITING FOR TEDDY WILLIAMS is getting there; the descriptions of baseball, life (E.A.’s relationship with his charismatic and somewhat kooky mother, Gypsy Lee, who homeschools him, is a standout), and his unusual relationship with his baseball-playing father, E.W. “Teddy” Williams, all highlight the fact that life is a gift that should be appreciated even in its dullest moments — and that baseball is a gift that for the true fan will always keep on giving, even if your team is losing 14-5 in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Now, as to the particulars of this novel: E.A. lives in a small hamlet in rural Vermont called Kingdom Common.  Most of the people who live in Kingdom Common, including the local judge, are extremely quirky; some are good, upstanding people, but the sinners are far more fun — and the sinners are led by E.A.’s free-spirited mother Gypsy Lee.  Gypsy Lee got pregnant when she was away at college, which is the only reason why her singing career and/or life in general has never quite taken flight; despite being the salutatorian of her high school class, the only way Gypsy Lee has to make enough of a living to support her aged, wheelchair-bound mother (who took to the chair after Bucky Dent’s homer in 1986 ended the Red Sox’ playoff hopes) and E.A. is to become an “escort.”  Gypsy Lee sees this as purely a business decision; she is a clear-eyed rationalist who teaches her son about plants and the Constitution by day and allows men to play out their wildest fantasies by night.

E.A.’s escape from financial poverty — and from his mother’s unusual way of making a living — is to play baseball.  He practices fielding, hitting, and later on, pitching; along the way, he meets up with a drifter who gives him baseball tips.  This drifter, of course, is his father, E.W. “Teddy” Williams, and is the best baseball player Kingdom Commons ever saw — but Teddy never got his shot at the majors or minors due to a quirk of fate (which I will not reveal).  Over time, E.A.’s love affair with baseball blossoms, and eventually he does get his shot with the Red Sox (note this was written before the 2004 Red Sox actually won the World Series, when the most ardent Red Sox fan could only hope somehow that one day their team might actually go to the World Series again and win); these later scenes, complete with a Red Sox owner who’s a young idiot and a manager with a talking Macaw called “the Legendary Spence,” while fun to read, are more like “baseball as creation myth” rather than feeling like something that could happen (and probably did somewhere along the way).  But that’s not a bad thing in this context, because this book is all about life, baseball, and everything — and in life, or in baseball, just about anything can happen, and probably will if given time.

Mosher’s writing style is somehow both spare and momentous (a neat trick), and he imbues his characters with a charm most novels lack.  This is why you can’t help but care about E.A. from the start; he might not know who his father is at first, but he always knows who he is.  E.A. loves baseball, you see — he loves it unconditionally, and he wants nothing but to be the best baseball player he can possibly become.  This might be seen as naïveté by some, but I saw it as a fresh take on the joys of baseball and enjoyed it immensely. 

This is a wonderful story about a boy and his love of baseball; it’s well-written both as a coming of age story for E.A. and as a baseball “romance” of sorts.  Mosher is one of the best American “mainstream” novelists working today, and it shows.

So what are you waiting for?  Go grab this book today!

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb


Note: I’m well aware that the novel’s title is a pun; the Boston Red Sox, in all the years they waited to win another World Series, were definitely waiting for a second Teddy Williams.  That this novel’s Teddy Williams fathers a son who gets a chance with the Red Sox just adds to the enjoyment of this novel.

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