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By Andrew Ervin
Sunday, August 13, 2006

Holy Training

As author of The Pontiff in Winter and the bestselling Hitler's Pope , about Pius XII's ties to the Third Reich, John Cornwell has proven himself to be one of our foremost contemporary historians of the Catholic Church. Like Thomas Merton before him, Cornwell writes of matters of the spirit in a way that speaks clearly to those of us living far less examined lives. In Seminary Boy (Doubleday, $24.95), he takes as his subject his own formative, teenage years growing up in London's East End and in a junior seminary called Cotton.

Cornwell looks back on those times with a combination of dread and nostalgic reverie. His transition from pint-sized cockney ruffian to pious man of God didn't come easily. He appreciated the routines at Cotton and the holiness he found in the rural surroundings but suffered crisis after crisis, most of them brought on by various temptations of the flesh. Eventually, the short temper that served Cornwell so well back at home flared up as he prepared for graduation, costing him the chance to move up to a prestigious senior seminary in Rome. One hopes that the author will someday address the crisis, only briefly noted here, that led him to abandon his faith for a short time in favor of agnosticism.

Cornwell elucidates even the most subtle shifts of his spiritual composition. That he's currently a historian and not a Catholic priest may or may not provide a clue to how this touching memoir ends, but godliness takes many forms, and his secular work, like this book, maintains an ability to inspire.

The Old Man of Summer

There's something annoying about most baseball books. Maybe it's the implicit assumption that fans need laptop-toting eggheads with press credentials to explain the blindingly obvious. Only a few titles actually contribute anything significant to our understanding of or love for the game. There's Jim Bouton's Ball Four , of course, and Pat Jordan's A False Spring . Maybe even Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King's more recent Faithful . It's safe to say that many admirers of the national pastime would add Roger Kahn's Boys of Summer to that list. Kahn's new memoir, Into My Own (St. Martin's, $24.95) allows the legendary sportswriter to reflect on more than just the game. Subtitled The Remarkable People and Events that Shaped a Life , it focuses as much on the poet Robert Frost and Kahn's own son as on Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese.

The opening section on the great sports writer R. Stanley Woodward is required reading for anyone interested in the history of journalism in America. The final chapter, about Kahn's troubled and ill-fated son, will send you scurrying for the Kleenex box. In between, the chapter about the great Jackie Robinson, called simply "The Pioneer," reads like the story of our nation in the 20th century.

Kahn writes at times like a retired politician tending to his historical reputation. Though occasionally prone to sentimentality, Into My Own is also fair and even-handed in its treatment of its subjects. There's no whitewashing here, and in exposing the flaws of his heroes, such as Reese's casual anti-Semitism (which he later abandoned) and Robinson's temper, Kahn makes them all the more real. Into My Own proves that Kahn's not only a great baseball writer but also something rarer: a great writer whose subject happens to be baseball. "Writing from the heart and gut and succeeding makes life sweet," he tells us. He should know.

Life and Times of a Roustabout

The Boy Who Invented Skiing (St Martins, $24.95) is a collection of short vignettes that resemble the tall tales usually told between happy hour and last call, if not on a mental health professional's couch. Swain Wolfe's loose-knit informality, however, is this book's greatest asset, as it matches his itinerant life, from a childhood running wild in rural Colorado to jobs in a slaughter house, a 3,200-foot-deep mine and at the head of a firefighting crew.

As a child, Wolfe suffered abuse from both parents, who eventually split up. He moved around quite a bit, living for a while in a log cabin and for some time in a tent shared with the friendly horses his mother rented out to tourists. "My favorite horse was Joe," he recalls. "He liked to hang his head over the gate at night and put his muzzle next to my cheek. Sometimes I would wake up to his warm breath on my face. If I lay still and pretended I was asleep, he would snort. I could never fool Joe."

Real tragedy pervades this memoir, including his sister's murder by a serial killer, but it's frequently balanced with resigned humor.

The misadventures Wolfe so vividly describes have clearly made him wiser and prone to philosophizing. Among his clever and hard-won insights he reminds us that the "last generation whose parents had unrestricted whipping rights was the one that challenged the Vietnam War." And "There's a limit to dirty, after which dirt won't stick to you." Wolfe is a gifted storyteller whose natural curiosity and fascination with the world around him come through on every page, and they're entirely contagious.

Confessions of an Islamist

By some estimates, the Algerian civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002, claimed more than 200,000 lives before the government managed to crush the rebellious Armed Islamic Group. I, Nadia, Wife of a Terrorist (Univ. of Nebraska, $50; paperback, $24.95), underwritten in part by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the fascinating autobiography of a young woman who found herself inextricably caught up in that conflict. Her story, told in a long interview with the Algerian journalist Baya Gacemi, has been translated by Paul Côté and Constantina Mitchell.

Nadia was the oldest of 10 children (and counting) born to a poor family in a village outside the capital city of Algiers. Contrary to her parents' wishes, she married Ahmed, a local hooligan who quickly grew militant in his beliefs and became the "emir" of the local jihadist cell. She didn't share all of his convictions: "Other women got to listen to music, dance, and be happy on their wedding day, but I had to pray and read the Koran." As Ahmed devoted himself to armed struggle, Nadia was forced to work like crazy to feed his compatriots, who used their home as a base of operations. "One day they planted a high-caliber bomb in front of the hospital in Benramdane, right near a police station. It killed about ten policemen and patriots. Ahmed was happier than I'd ever seen him."

Nadia, by now pregnant, was eventually arrested because of her support for the Islamists, and only the intercession of an aid organization allowed her to get free of Ahmed, who even after his death still causes her considerable anguish. Nadia's is a rare, firsthand account by a female Islamist extremist, and it reveals the personal, domestic dramas underlying the political turmoil of our times.

Up the Ladder of Drugs

"I don't know why crystal is called tweak and I don't care," Patrick Moore writes early in his devastating Tweaked: A Crystal Meth Memoir (Kensington; paperback, $15). "The sound of 'tweak,' like a stretched rubber band being snapped, just makes sense." What follows is a sordid account of his addiction to methamphetamines, otherwise known as crystal meth or speed, and eventual (and ongoing) recovery from a serious addiction.

"Crystal completed, with amazing efficiency, a trajectory that had begun with alcohol, moved through psychedelics, and escalated into a whirlwind of pills and cocaine," Moore writes. The memoir gracefully shifts back and forth in time. He intersperses stories about "the terror of being gay in as homophobic a place as Iowa," his college years in Pittsburgh, and the wild gay-bar scene of New York in the 1980s with the account of the painful reckoning with his past as told from present-day Los Angeles. After the death of his partner and in need of a change of scenery, Moore moved to the West Coast, where for a short time he led group therapy sessions for other addicts, and he identifies all too well with their struggles.

A writing job provided the excuse to return briefly to New York, where the flood of hazy memories threatened to overwhelm him. Relapse became a distinct possibility as his former life intruded in unexpected ways. In Tweaked , as in his therapy sessions, Moore spills his guts not only for the sake of relieving his own conscience but also, it appears, to remind himself and those around him that recovery is possible. A visit to his ailing grandmother, described in the book's coda, seems to have put many of his troubles in perspective. Through it all, Moore writes fearlessly, drawing from a newfound and remarkable inner strength. ·

Andrew Ervin is an assistant editor at the magazine Ninth Letter and a frequent contributor to Book World.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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