Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Google a Googly

Oxford University Parks Cricket Pavillion

I've had a lot of questions about the novel that I’ve just started writing, NOT CRICKET (renamed A MATCH FOR EVE). The first question was: how can an American woman write a book on cricket?

I’m not really writing a book on cricket (it is NOT CRICKET.) My novel is about two generations of American women at Oxford University for junior year abroad. Cricket is popular world wide and ever so charmingly English, but Americans just don’t get it. What a perfect metaphor for the cultural divide!

I love to play around with words. The expression “that’s not cricket” means not playing by the rules of gentlemanly conduct, and my novel revolves around a moral dilemma. The central male character is captain of his college cricket team at Oxford.

The rules of cricket are way too complex to explain in a novel. The last thing I want to do is bore the reader who is looking for a good story or the cricket expert who already knows more than I do.

There will be some cricket in the narrative, but on the level that even an American woman would find interesting. Guys look awfully good in cricket whites, and then there are the champagne and strawberries.

Since its inception in 1787, cricket has evolved. Back in the 1980’s (the first time period of my novel) college and university teams would have played in cricket whites. In the 2000’s (the second period of my novel) the lads are sporting bright colored nylon and spandex: pink, black and red!

Cricket reds?
It just doesn’t ring true. The same was so for the Oxford vs. Cambridge Universities match in shades of blue nylon. It’s a mirror of cultural convergence, but the differences remain below the surface.

Cricket is good fun to watch on a sunny summer day. I’d have watched more matches only it was the rainiest spring/summer ever, or so people said. The English always say the weather is worse than normal. Games get rained out all the time. Can you imagine keeping those cricket whites white?

I like the college matches (like intramural sports) because they are played fast in just a couple of hours. A professional cricket match can last days. Yes, days. Five days is normal. Can you believe it?

So how did I become interested in cricket? When I was 15 my family visited England. My father had gone to business school with Sir T. We were invited to a cricket match at their sons’ school. We sipped champagne and nibbled strawberries while one handsome son in his whites tried to explain the game as his older brother played. The son was also an avid reader, and we had a fun conversation about literature. Another day we toured around gorgeous Oxford University.

My mother claims I imprinted on Englishmen that vacation like one of Konrad Lorenz’s goslings. Six years later at college I fell madly in love. That would be with my English husband Henry, an avid cricket fan.

We have a cricket bat in our umbrella stand. Maybe that’s not so strange, but the umbrella stand is in a mudroom in Maine, USA. The practice came in handy during our two sabbaticals in the U.K. Our daughter is quite good at cricket, even by English standards. She played during P.E. at her state school when we were living in Oxford last year.

My son’s wood-working project at the Abingdon School was to make a cricket ball carrier. His model was the fastest and built with the least expensive material. It ran on rubber band power. How’s that for Yankee ingenuity?

Henry’s great grandfather, Stephen Wildman Cattley, played professional cricket for Surrey. Stephen’s claim to fame was once catching out the cricket legend W.G. Grace. The heirloom ball was engraved for Stephen’s skill in the 1879 match against Kent. Stephen’s brother also played for Surrey.

Henry bought me a good short book What is a Googly? Rob Eastaway specifically wrote the book for his confused American friends or for “cricket widows” (ie clueless wives of cricket players.) It has become my well-underlined manual.

Cricket is full of odd terms, one of which is the googly. Eastaway defines it as “a ‘trick’ ball bowled by a leg spin bowler which spins the opposite way to the way the batsman is expecting.” Huh? That one I needed to see demonstrated by Henry. Bottom line: it’s a tricky ball to hit.

Actually all cricket balls are hard to hit: the ball is hard, bowled fast and bounces unpredictably on the grass. Even worse, the fieldsmen catch it bare-handed. The game requires nerve, skill and bravery. Aren’t you a little hooked?

I’m not the first one to recognize the symbolic beauty of cricket in representing the gap between Americans and cricket-playing nations. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland looks at the opposite situation of my narrative. His book centers on immigrant men playing cricket in the USA. His protagonist, Hans, have moved to NYC from London and is the only white man playing cricket that season.

The cricket in Netherland is used metaphorically to demonstrate the sense of being “the other.” Chuck Ramkissoon from Trinadad umpires cricket matches on Staten Island (NYC), “You want a taste of how it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of the cricketeer. Put on white to feel black.”

The novel takes place in the months after 9/11 and centers on disillusionment. Although events in Netherland are contemporary, the language and structure O’Neill employs to tell his story draw more from late 19th century literature. The prose is beautiful if wordy, and the plot is as convoluted as a Henry James novel.

I’m a native New Yorker, and still O’Neill, an immigrant himself, revealed a side of my city I never knew existed. I was surprised to find another novel connecting Americans to cricket since I started researching mine over a year ago. Released in May 2008, Netherland has sold well on both sides of the Atlantic, hitting the NYT bestseller list. Americans can be interested in cricket if the story is good.

Anyway, don’t take just my word for it. Here’s my husband Henry on Netherland:

Netherland, I should admit up front, is almost written for me, with the plot revolving around a European banker who moves from London to New York and loves cricket. O’Neill captures many of the sentiments, new joys and estrangements that I’m familiar with. What makes the book special, though, is the use of cricket to explore ideas of belonging, identity and nationhood.

The transplant Hans looks back proudly at his boyhood skills as a batsman. But the elegant ground shots which worked so well on manicured European pitches quickly come to grief in the tangled weeds of derelict New York outfields. Yet he can’t quite bring himself to slog the ball high on the volley -- a scything batting style dismissed by English commentators as “haymaking” -- even as he realises his old approach is failing him in the New World. His resolution of this dilemma is one of the more enjoyable high points.

Meanwhile, Chuck Ramkissoon is determined that he will make Americans accept cricket rather than abandon cricket to be accepted by Americans. From his insistence that cricket has a longer American heritage than baseball to his dream of creating a first-class stadium in the city, it’s a glorious conceit - part Gatsby, part Ahab - and O’Neill makes you hope and believe that Chuck will pull it off.

I loved Netherland, although I should warn you that reading it is at times like watching Yorkshire batting great
Geoffrey Boycott defending a difficult wicket: you know there’s a master craftsman at work, but does it have to be so SLOW?

Anyway, it’s great for ex-pat cricket fans like me and my good friend Michael, seen here in Maine fascinating each other but boring our friends on the vital topic of whether England or the West Indies suck worse.

Blog Watch: Anil P. is a cricket fan so we’ve been thinking about him today. Visit Windy Skies where Anil blogged about the terrible floods and famine in his part of India.

25 comments:

Cindy said...

Sarah ~ It's very interesting to read a little about cricket. I guess since your children are back to school you are switching over to your writer's hat. I hope your transition is going well.

willow said...

Interesting post! Even cricket bats are cool. We have one from our travels. Great idea for a book!

tina said...

I think that whatever you write about, it will be interesting, well researched and fun. Cricket or not:)!

Ottayan said...

A bit of cricket trivia. They recently trialed pink cricket balls.

walk2write said...

Your title intrigued me when I saw it on my sidebar this morning. I just had to find out what a googly is. I envisioned some kind of critter with bulging eyes before I started reading your post. As usual, you have enlightened me and piqued my interest in reading a new book. I'm looking forward to reading yours too. Moral dilemmas keep me riveted.

Sally said...

Sarah, I was going to the White Hart Pub in Whytham at 1pm on the July Friday you left Oxford. As we drove through Wolvercote I spotted you on the corner, yellow coat on, looking wistfully at Port Meadow. It was difficult not to request my English lady friend to STOP as Sarah is LEAVING ON A JET PLANE and I want to hug her good bye and give her a kleenix. I did scream and the English host ask me whatever was the matter and I told her my friend was saying goodbye to Oxford and I wanted to say good bye to HER.
I am still in Oxford for another couple of weeks. Two weeks ago we stayed at Down Farm with Judy Foss because of your great post about the Devon Coast. Also ate at Cricket Inn in Beesands because of your recommendation. I was glad we didn't have a rental VW as there would not have been room for the advertised third coat of paint on the vehicle! After the Saturday am coastal hike to Start Point Lighthouse we drove cross West Country to Tintagel to check out the Cornwall Coast. Thank you Sarah for your suggestions; they are appreciated.
Sarah, please let me know about your mother. Sally in Oxford (today went to Buckler's Hard where the British Royal Navy built and launched their ships that created the British Empire, over to sea side town Lymington for lunch and then finished the day at Beaulieu where my friend and driver was delivering a Lagonda for a vintage auto sale.

Bee said...

I just read a really interesting article about O'Neill and "Netherland" in this Sunday's Observer magazine. He is a Turkish/Irish/English/New Yorker and he has some really interesting comments to make about expat life and those who don't really belong to any one country. It really made me want to read his book, and now I'm even more motivated!

We went to lots of cricket matches in Trinidad and I never could get the hang of it. Maybe I should read your googly book? Probably I'll just wait for yours . . .

Good luck writing!

Sarah Laurence said...

Cindy, transition is the key word. I’ve had a bunch of art business to attend to: a sale, an upcoming art show and tax stuff. I can spend as much time on that as on painting. I’m also STILL unpacking my office from the move back from England. I’ve managed to fit in some good research time and will be writing any day now. Not today – my daughter’s baby tooth split in half so we had to go to the dentist to have it extracted. I’m juggling 3 hats: artist, mom and writer.

Willow, it’s so good to hear from an American women that cricket is cool.

Tina, that’s so sweet of you to say that. I’m digging up fun material and reflecting on my fabulous sabbatical. This book will practically write itself.

Pink cricket balls?! Welcome to my blog, Ottayan, and thank you so much for the amusing cricket trivia. You have a cricket blog too. I’ll be visiting.

W2W, how funny. I couldn’t resist the title. Googly is right up there with a gaggle of greylag geese. A moral dilemma is fun to write because there is no obvious outcome. There is so much room for the imagination. An ending that one person would call happy and the other wouldn’t intrigues me.

Sally, that would have been me looking wistful and taking that one last photo of the cygnets for my NYC Limbo post. I’m sorry to miss your goodbye as I could have done with that Kleenex, even now. I get pangs looking back at my posts from that magical year. I’m so glad you stayed at Down Farm. I promised Judy we’d be back, and we will. As for my mother, she is recovering from her second leg break but doing well. She’s a doctor’s dream – doing all her exercises. How lucky you are to have two more weeks in Oxford, but I’m sure you’ll be happy to be reunited with your children back in the USA. It’s so nice to hear from you again.

Bee, O’Neill does have a fascinating background; thank you for sharing it. Expats can certainly relate to his story, but it goes deeper than that. O’Neill taps into the America experience as we are a nation of immigrants. There’s a brilliant section on the DMV and how American bureaucracy makes life extra unpleasant for resident aliens. Henry now has American citizenship to avoid similar hassles. I’ll be curious to hear what you think of Netherland.

Thanks All, this positive feedback is motivating me to get going on NOT CRICKET.

Les, Zone 8a said...

Although my ancestors left England nearly 400 years ago, I am an anglophile at heart. My 40th birthday present to myself was a horticultural trip through the mother-country. One of my favorite stops was a much needed break from the group intinerary in Oxford. I spent the better part of an afternoon watching men play cricket, and not understanding a thing about it and not caring about either. I spent the rest of the afternoon watching the boats on the river and drinking in a riverside pub. I could not have asked for a better day to induldge my anglophilia.

Anil P said...

Wonderfully evocative post as always. 'American and Cricket' is bound to throw up an interesting debate.

And I must admit I was pleasantly surprised to see a group of adults, in proper whites, playing a game of cricket in a patch of garden in New York. And play it by the rules as well. I was mightly thrilled to see it. Kids played on the swings adjacent.

Thanks for linking to the Bihar post and helping get the word out. If geography were to limit someone from being able to help in a tangible way as in stepping up to the flood relief counters than even their empathy on reading of the plight of the flood victims would make a difference in itself. I'm wont to believe that if minds were to will something strongly enough than they might actualy be able to influence a change collectively.

Experience India once in the cricket season :)

Sarah Laurence said...

Les, I’m also from English stock but only on my mother’s side. My father’s family was originally from Lithuania. That sounds like a perfect 40th! Sigh, I do miss the river and pubs. I’m meeting friends for a drink on Friday, but a bar just isn’t a pub.

Anil, I hadn’t realized you’d been to NYC. How interesting it must have been to see proper cricket there. I’d love to see India one day, but your blog is the next best thing. I do hope the flood situation improves soon.

Merelyme said...

well...I must say...I know absolutely nothing about cricket but now I am intrigued. I was just browsing blogs this evening and found yours. I will be back to read more of you.

Elizabeth said...

I'm afraid I'm a dead loss as a cricket fan and have become besotted with baseball which moves faster.
I grew up just by a cricket green and used to love seeing the players in their whites as I bicycled by.
Should stay white if you ask me.
Your book sounds really interesting.
I'm off to England for 2 weeks on Tuesday........

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

May I say how impressed I am with your son's cricket ball carrier! It's beautiful! But now I'm wondering why a ball carrier is needed and why is it good that it's fast? Maybe I should try to catch a game and find out! I'm up for champagne and straberries :-)

Sarah Laurence said...

Welcome, merelyme! I think most Americans have never thought of cricket. I’ll definitely come visit your blog too.

Elizabeth, that’s interesting that you’ve become a baseball fan as an expat. I’m glad to hear my book sounds appealing to a not-a-cricket fan. Have a wonderful time in England!

JAPRA, the school project was designed to intrigue English teenaged boys (with no practical application.) You’d expect a trade-off (ie a motor would be fast but would cost a lot.) It was a surprise that my son’s design won both speed and cost. He’s dreaming of Cal Tech or M.I.T. Wouldn’t it be funny to see his contraption zipping pink cricket balls across Lord’s Cricket Ground in the future? As for me, I’m with you on champagne and strawberries. Cheers!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I must admit, I've watched bits of cricket on BBC, and never could figure out what in the world they were up to. Quidditch, yes, cricket, not. Everyone seems to be having so much fun and I am looking forward to your book to help me out a bit.

I do remember a reference to a "googly" in Alan Bennett's latest book The Uncommon Reader. A very funny sentence it was and I wondered at the time if the word was a sporting term, so I am quite grateful that you cleared that up for me!!

Netherland looks interesting too. Thanks for the tip!

Happy weekend!

Sarah Laurence said...

Pamela, how funny. I bet most Americans have a better sense of quidditch than cricket. The English love nicknames and archaic terms so mastering the vocabulary helps. The game is easy enough to follow in a general sense if someone explains the basic concept. So much of cricket is the scene; it’s so different from American sports. “Civilized” and “refined” are the words that comes to mind. “Slow” is another.

mss @ Zanthan Gardens said...

Your comments on cricket as a metaphor for cultural differences reminded me of the wonderful Indian movie, Lagaan. I highly recommend it to anyone curious about cricket...and even to those who are not. Although the plot revolves around a cricket game, one doesn't have to know anything about cricket to enjoy it. It's a beautiful movie.

Sarah Laurence said...

MSS, thanks for the recommendation. I’ll have to see that movie. It sounds more fun than watching famous matches on DVD, Henry’s advice. He loves that I’m finally showing some interest in one of his favorite sports.

Anil P said...

Add "Iqbal" to the list. It charts the cricketing dream of Iqbal, a rustic villager from the hinterland.

But Iqbal's father is against the very idea of Iqbal playing cricket.

Nasseruddin Shah brings the movie alive with his cameo.

Sarah Laurence said...

Anil, I'll add it to my list. I love that you are all helping me with my research. Thanks!

Rose said...

Such an interesting post, Sarah! I must admit I've never understood cricket. I am a huge baseball fan--Chicago Cubs!--but the rules of cricket have confused me. It's hard to have the patience sometimes to watch a 3-hour baseball game; I can't imagine a five-day cricket game. The "googly" sounds like cricket's version of baseball's curve ball.

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose, thanks for the translation. I fear I'm almost as unfamiliar with baseball since I grew up in Manhattan. I'm also hopeless at ball games of any description. Toss me a pen or a paintbrush instead! I still find I learn a lot about people from their attitude to sports.

Cosmo said...

Hi, Sarah--I'm obviously WAY behind in my reading--a sign it's September. I really enjoyed the preview of your book and the review of O'Neill's. I spent the summer of '05 in Cambridge, in the middle of some major cricket championship, listening to and absolutely fascinated (if totally bewildered by) the games. But then again, I don't really understand football, either. Great to catch up with you.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cosmo, you might find this funny: Tuesdays tend to bring more traffic than usual. It’s like my readers suddenly remember that I post on Wednesdays. I can’t understand cricket commentators at all. It’s much better live, especially with tea or a fruity Pimm’s cocktail. It is good to catch up!