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Sports writer Jane Leavy's 'The Big Fella' sheds new light on Babe Ruth

Kirkus Reviews
"The Big Fella" by Jane Leavy

Does the world need another biography of Babe Ruth (1895-1948)? If it’s Jane Leavy's "The Big Fella," then the answer is an emphatic yes.

The ever-excellent Leavy brings her considerable depth of knowledge of sports history to her latest project. She also brings considerable empathy for a man who, though notably boorish, at least made an effort to be civilized. Ruth had reason not to be influenced by the world’s niceties. After all, as Leavy writes, he was only 7 when his parents sent him to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible and Wayward Boys on the outskirts of Baltimore. As an adult, he was “six foot two and 215 pounds when he was in trim and made everyone else in uniform look like the boys who later played in youth leagues named for him.” He was also decidedly unsubtle: He smashed and hurled and fielded balls with a giant’s force, and he “taught America to think big — expect big.” Much of the narrative is a fine you-are-there reconstruction of Ruth’s big moments, including the 1927 race in which he smacked 60 home runs, led a Yankees four-game sweep of the World Series, and then went off barnstorming with friend and teammate Lou Gehrig. There’s tragic inevitability aplenty in that friendship, but Ruth’s end, a terrible death to cancer, is particularly jarring. Fans of the latter-day Yankees should wince, too, at Ruth’s excoriation of the designated hitter. After another World Series sweep in 1929, Ruth “was back to offering opinions on things he knew about, expressing his disdain for a proposal to add a tenth hitter to the batting order to hit for the pitcher. He said it would take all the strategy out of the game.” A skilled strategist and nearly peerless player, Ruth proves himself worthy of, yes, yet another biography, this one warts-and-all but still admiring.

"The Big Fella" is a sparkling, exemplary sports biography, shedding new light on a storied figure in baseball history.

The tensions of life in a police state

In her third novel, "Milkman," which won the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Anna Burns writes again about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, delivering a blistering feminist perspective on a community at war.

With an immense rush of dazzling language, Burns submerges readers beneath the tensions of life in a police state. It’s “the great Seventies hatred,” ostensibly in Belfast (where Burns was born), where “two warring religions” have endured “eight hundred years of the political problems.” Daringly, the novel’s 18-year-old narrator, known only as “middle sister,” claims that “every weekday, rain or shine, gunplay or bombs, stand-off or riots, (she) preferred to walk home reading (her) latest book.” Her father’s dead. She’s one of 10 children. She has a job and a boyfriend she might move in with, studies French and helps her mother with her three precocious little sisters. But in recent months, “one of our highranking, prestigious dissidents,” known in the district as the “sinister, omniscient milkman,” has decided to stalk her, a nasty business that has ended thanks to his being “shot by one of the state hit squads.” His death ignites the tale, told in short jumps forward and backward in time, as the teenage narrator navigates the near-lethal rumor that she’s actually dating milkman and has joined “the groupies of these paramilitaries.” Less a coming-of-age story than a complex psychological portrait of Dostoyevskian proportion, each page bursts (at times repetitively) with inventive, richly detailed depictions of how “gossip, secrecy and communal policing” warp life doubly for those fighting injustice under an occupying foreign power. Burns was living on government assistance when she won the Man Booker, and her portrait of the way women, queer people and the mentally ill in poverty eke out moments of joy despite intense surveillance, curfews, snipers, car bombs and throat-cuttings is gripping and full of survivors’ humor.

A deeply stirring, unforgettable novel that feels like a once-in-a-generation event.

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