Sisters, sci-fi, baseball, shipwrecks; BOOKS OF THE REGION


As officially as possible, let us now add the town named Runnymede to the map of literary Maryland. East of Emmitsburg and west of Lineboro, athwart the state line, Runnymede also sprouts from the forehead of Rita Mae Brown, novelist. Earlier, Runnymede was the locale for "Six of One" and "Bingo"; now it is the battleground for "Loose Lips" (Bantam, 375 pages, $13.95 softbound).

The time is the 1940s: before, during, after World War II. The town is on guard against German bombers and uneasy over what, after Pearl Harbor, was done to a Japanese-operated meat warehouse. Young people enlist or go to Washington, not everyone returning. But the real battle is between sisters: Julia Ellen and Louise (Juts and Wheezer), married and entering middle age, whose maturation stalled just after two-for-flinching. Louise has two daughters; Juts, jabbed at for childlessness, adopts a baby. Their workaday husbands mostly seek safety in the background.

Twenty-some novels (and film and TV scripts, and activism in causes) have made Rita Mae Brown a national personage. "Loose Lips" (sink ships, in the wartime phrase) is a model of major league control, pace, dialogue, story line and personality depiction. Also, this may be the funniest book in the store.

A Baltimorean driving around in search of this North American Brigadoon should understand that Runnymede has an adjoining, same-name counterpart in Pennsylvania. When you meet people who pronounce Nicole as Nickel, you're getting close. Brown herself started out in Hanover, Pa., just above the Mason and Dixon Line. By now she lives deep in Virginia, and a coating of Confederacy dusts her conception of Maryland.

Off in the opposite, or future, direction, a new object is visible in the science-fiction firmament. She is Catherine Asaro of Columbia, whose fifth novel in six years has led to that stepup in format magnitude, from softbound to hard. Her latest book is "Ascendant Sun" (Tor Books, 380 pages, $24.95).

It's 2277 A.D., and outer space is populated by several trillion people, the first of whom left Earth in 4000 B.C. Three main groups are at very-high-tech odds: the Traders or Eubian Concord; the Skolian Imperialate with its Ruby Dynasty; and (weakest among them) the Allied Worlds of Earth. Kelric, the hero figure, is a Skolian who escapes Trader captivity, only to be recaptured.

Female readers go for golden-boy Kelric, males for the anti-matter gunnery in interstellar combat. The terms coined by Asaro, who has a strong grounding in chemistry and physics, impress the ear. Her humans grow very big and old, but still act and react like humans. One puzzlement: why, in futurist fiction, are new and improved modes of governance so infrequent? To drop elective representatives for reigning families is to go backward.

In Lucille Clifton's poetry one looks for feelings, for individual, often subjective, emotion. Inanimate objects? But there they are, with a life of their own, on the back cover of her latest collection, "Blessing the Boats" (BOA Editions, 132 pages, $15, softbound). Boats? But of course, for this distinguished professor of humanities at St. Mary's College on the edge of Chesapeake Bay.

"Boats" and other poems published previously make up much of the book; biblical themes, medical difficulties, Sayles and Clifton family matters. But many poems are new, and topical. "Dialysis" shows patients in misery. "I am alive and furious," the speaker cries. "Blessed be even this?" In "Moonchild," she is back at age 10, amid moments of paternal oppression.

Then there are "The Times" we live in now, and a motif that echoes from Colorado to Florida and beyond: "Another child has killed a child ..." Hard to say which heart beats louder, the poet's or the reader's.

Lefty Grove was born in 1900, arrived at the major leagues in 1925, was first chosen the top left-handed pitcher in 1950, and died in 1975. Only in 2000 is there at last an understanding, knowledgeable, praiseworthy biography: "Lefty Grove, American Original" by Jim Kaplan(Society for American Baseball Research, 314 pages, $12.95, softbound).

Even while today's sports pages desert him for Randy Johnson and others, baseball students have grown more respectful toward Grove. Lonaconing, where Robert Moses Grove was born and where boys went to work in mine or factory after eighth grade, may not be doing as much for him now as Sudlersville is for Jimmie Foxx, let alone Baltimore for Babe Ruth; but among boxscore-scholars Grove, with his early, wild speed and later craftiness, is now esteemed for his many appearances in relief, on top of his regular, complete-game starts.

Kaplan, a Massachusetts writer, is a nephew of the late Sara Lamport (Mrs. Louis) Azrael of Bolton Hill. He has delved into the pitcher's genealogy; his answer to the old spelling question, Grove or Groves, is that previous generations wrote it Groves. Tellingly, Kaplan reconstructs Allegany County and then the home-game settings for Grove's career: Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston (five years at International League Oriole Park, nine at Shibe Park, eight at Fenway; 408 games won, 177 lost). Grove gave off occasional flashes of anger; but he quit while still ahead, and his was a relatively tranquil later life. Kaplan narrates all this so well the words seem to go on for fewer than nine innings.

In March 1952, the Merchants and Miners Transportation Co. was down to one ship, the tugboat Apollo; so M & M dissolved. Sad, for a Baltimore company that had operated passenger liners, freighters, tugs and barges, up and down the coast from Boston to Miami (but ignoring New York), with a workforce of as many as 3,200 people. Downright grisly, for a firm one month short of its centennial.

However, as Edward A. Mueller makes plain in his "Queen of Sea Routes: The Merchants & Miners Transportation Co." (Steamship Historical Society, 185 pages, $37.50), there was no arguing with World War II's fleet depletion and the postwar competition from road, rail and air transport. Painstakingly, Mueller relives the good times aboard Baltimore-Boston and Baltimore-Jacksonville passenger runs, though stressing that freight mattered more.

What makes good copy for shipping history is, alas, the disasters. The first Johns Hopkins, destroyed by fire in 1889 at its Locust Point dock. The Fairfax, in a 1930 Cape Cod fog, smashing into the tanker Pinthis, all 30 of whose crew perished. But the sinking that stays in mind happened in 1943, near Greenland. M & M's Dorchester (named for the Shore county, and converted into a troopship) was torpedoed by a U-boat. Among the 675 persons who died, of 904 aboard, were four Army chaplains who "led those on board the vessel in prayer, and gave their own life jackets to others."

James H. Bready writes a monthly column on regional books. Previously he worked as a reporter, editorial writer and book editor for The Evening Sun.

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