The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin Tuesday, May 8 2012 

Downton Abbey fans who miss the hit period drama as much as I do will want to give Daisy Goodwin’s The American Heiress a try. This novel will at least partially fill the void until the Crawleys and their servants return in late 2012 or early 2013 (depending on which side of the Atlantic you reside).  A review blurb on the front cover of my paperback edition said as much, so needless to say, I was intrigued right away.

Originally published in the UK as My Last Duchess, The American Heiress takes place in the 1890s and tells the story of Cora Cash, heiress to a vast flour fortune. Cora is a beautiful, charming young woman who is the belle of New York and Newport, and she is widely believed to be the richest girl in America. However, Cora’s domineering mother wants a title for her daughter, and such a thing cannot be found in the United States, even for the wealthiest people. So, Cora travels to England to join the growing number of American heiresses seeking husbands among Britain’s titled aristocracy. Early on in her stay in England, Cora meets the handsome, mysterious Ivo Maltravers, Duke of Wareham. The two are soon engaged and married in a lavish New York wedding.

Of course, Cora’s marriage to Ivo is no fairy tale. Cora finds her new husband mercurial and difficult to understand, and it is hard not to wonder if he loves Cora or just her money. To make matters worse, Cora is irritated by her new mother-in-law and overwhelmed by the traditions and rules of England’s centuries-old aristocracy, where the servants can be as snooty as their employers. As more secrets and traps emerge, Cora often feels lonely and confused, sometimes even longing to return to America. If she is ever to be happy in her new life, she must become stronger than the shallow young woman she was when she first arrived in England.

The American Heiress is not a great literary work that offers in-depth analysis of the class systems of the late 19th century. However, it is a very entertaining novel, and I think it might offer a better understanding of women like the Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey (whose name, incidentally, is also Cora) and what they went through early on in their marriages to British dukes and earls. As any good historical fiction book should be, it is full of vivid detail of the clothes, houses, and social lives of those lucky enough to be rich in the 1890s. I loved reading about the incredible gowns the women wore and the lavishness of the Newport parties. Those details alone make the book a worthwhile read if you’re just looking for something fun. I can only imagine how magnificent a film adaptation of this book would look.

The characters, though not particularly multidimensional, are well drawn and interesting enough to keep readers’ attention. While I would have liked to see some more significant development in Cora herself, I found her to be likable and was rooting for her as life in England got more and more frustrating. The most compelling character, I thought, was Cora’s African-American maid, Bertha Jackson, who faces challenges that neither Cora nor most of the other characters can truly understand. Bertha’s subplot is a bit sloppy at times, but Goodwin does a good job of conveying how isolated Bertha often feels; it’s clear that even Cora, who feels like a shut-out foreigner through much of the book, cannot fully grasp what life must be like for her maid. As for the Duke, Cora’s new husband, he is an intriguing but often irritating figure. While I pitied him for the difficulties he had faced in his life, I was also constantly wary of him and sometimes even wishing ill on him. I think Goodwin may have been trying to channel some of the romantic or Byronic heroes of British literature when she wrote this character, but Ivo is no Mr. Rochester, and he’s certainly no Mr. Darcy. Nevertheless, he is a very suitable central male character for a novel like this one.

I believe this book will prove a fun, escapist read for historical fiction fans. It takes place earlier than Downton Abbey and doesn’t have nearly as many characters, but anyone who enjoys the show’s beautiful sets and costumes and its captivating drama will find much of the same to appreciate in The American Heiress. Don’t be surprised if, like me, you start casting that hypothetical movie adaptation in your mind before you finish reading it.

Mariano Rivera: A Yankee Legend Friday, May 4 2012 

Mariano Rivera gets his record-breaking 602nd save, September 19, 2011 at Yankee Stadium.

It’s unusual, if not unheard of, for a baseball team’s fans to love their closing pitcher the way Yankee fans love Mariano Rivera.

Then again, it’s unusual to find someone like Mariano Rivera, on or off the baseball field.

That’s why last night’s news hit us all so hard. A collapse on the warning track at Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City turned out to be a torn ACL. This certainly means that Rivera is out for the year, and quite likely it also means that his pitching career is over. While many fans have assumed that Mo would retire at the end of the 2012 season, this isn’t how any of us imagined his incredible career ending.  It was supposed to end with fanfare—ideally, of course, when Rivera recorded one last out in a deciding game of the World Series, bringing the Yankees their 28th championship. Instead, last night we were watching with tears in our eyes as Mo said that he wasn’t sure he’d ever pitch again, that he’d let his teammates down, and that he was staying in Kansas City for the time being so that he could “be there for the guys.”

Such an ending feels incomplete, unfair, and just plain wrong. Yet, as heartbreaking as it all is, it also reminds me of why we Yankee fans have been so blessed to have Mo on our team for so many years.  So now, sad as I still am at this news, I want to shift my focus away from how Mo’s time in baseball is apparently ending and celebrate what has been an amazing, inspiring career.

There generally wasn’t a whole lot of suspense when Mariano Rivera took the mound in the 9th inning. Most of the time, the Yankees had the lead, and with Mo pitching, they were going to keep it and win. The lack of suspense didn’t matter then; the excitement came from watching one of the most talented players in baseball at work. No matter how many times we saw Rivera throw that famous cutter, and no matter how many batters we saw him strike out or saves we saw him record, getting to see him pitch was a treat. Most of the Yankee home games I’ve been to weren’t particularly eventful, but I’ve never minded, because I always enjoyed seeing Rivera get the save, not to mention the thunderous standing ovation as he jogged onto the field to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”

The numbers for Mo’s career are certainly impressive. He’s recorded 608 regular season saves and 42 postseason saves (how fitting).  He has career ERA of 2.21 and a WHIP of 1.00, as well as 1,119 strikeouts. I’m sure that someone better versed in advanced statistics than I am could offer some more insights on that front. However, as remarkable as these numbers all are, they don’t tell the whole story. Yes, Mariano Rivera is the greatest closing pitcher in MLB history, and of course his incredible talent has a lot to do with that. But he is also the greatest because of his dedication to the game and to his team. Every game mattered to him in its entirety, whether he was going to get a save opportunity or not. By all accounts, he is an excellent teammate who is as consistent in being a friend and counselor to his fellow Yankees as he is in getting those saves. Though confident in his abilities (and why shouldn’t he be?), Rivera is also known for his humility and his quickness to give credit to his teammates for their successes. It’s never just about him.

Perhaps, though, Mariano Rivera has been at his most admirable on those occasions when things haven’t gone well. His blown saves are few and far between, for sure, but they’re so rare that they’ve always gotten noticed. Failure is difficult for any athlete to deal with, but Mo always faced the screw-ups and scrutiny with dignity. He took responsibility for his infrequent failures and promised to do better next time. Even with the disappointment of a loss, it was impossible not to admire his graciousness, and we Yankee fans knew that he would indeed do better next time. Greatness isn’t just about how rarely you mess up; it’s about coming back from those unusual failures as good as ever. Mariano Rivera has exemplified that throughout his baseball career.

Even with the speculation running rampant all over the Internet, I think it’s way too soon to know whether Rivera will want and be able to pitch during the 2013 season, or whether this really is the end of the road for him. Obviously, my fellow Yankee fans and I are hoping for the former. But whatever the future holds, though, this much is true: upon his retirement, Mariano Rivera will leave one of the greatest legacies in the history of professional sports, both on and off the field. His pitching talents are certainly something for younger players to aspire to, but his devotion to his teammates and his humility in the face of unprecedented success are even more so. Whether an athlete on the field or a fan in the stands, his example is one that we can and should all be proud to follow.

It’s perfectly understandable for Yankee fans, and baseball fans in general, to be sad right now, regardless of what you’ve heard about crying in baseball. Last night’s news was tough to hear, and the uncertainty in the air isn’t any easier. But despite this unfortunate, heartbreaking injury, Mariano Rivera remains dedicated to his beloved team, continuing to demonstrate why we’ve admired him all these years. Wherever his journey takes him next, we fans will certainly have something to feel sad about when he retires, but we will have far, far more to celebrate.

P.S. Mariano Rivera to reporters today: “I’m coming back. Write it down in big letters. I’m not going out like this.”

This is exactly what I’m talking about. We’re all rooting for you, Mo!