Friday, July 8, 2011

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I was going to write about Beloved next, seriously I was, but then The Art of Fielding knocked my socks off and I just can't seem to go about doing anything else until I get them firmly on my feet again by getting all my thoughts out of my system.  See? This is what happens when I don't have anyone sitting next to me to absorb the energy when I finish a great book: I go blog-wild.

(Now, if you are trying to comprehend how a book about baseball could steal the limelight from a literary classic such as Beloved, (especially when literature wins over sports every day of the week in my mind,) the answer is simple: baseball is much more fun than slavery, even if you aren't a fan of the sport in general.  And it's summer, so fun wins the day.)

The Art of Fielding doesn't come out until the beginning of September, (many thanks to the publisher for sending me my copy!) but the synopsis is simple and should become fairly familiar before long (I'm expecting to see this book pop up more and more the closer we get to September).  The bare bones description goes like this: At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.

Sure, this book might be about college, about baseball...and about Moby Dick, (an interesting addition I wasn't expecting,) but more than those things, it is about the people: real, layered, complex, flawed people.  I can't say that I'd want them all in my life, but I adored being able to spend a bit of time with them.  Their idiosyncrasies were exaggerated just enough to make them humorous while still being a great example of the quirks we all have.

President Affenlight and his daughter Pella are definitely not the most stable family--if you can call them a family at all.  They both have some level of obsession with appearances and expectations, although they would most likely deny it. Honestly, I wouldn't be able to spend much time around these two before wanting to slap them upside them head.  I don't think either of them really knew what they were doing.

Henry and his roommate Owen make odd additions to the college baseball team in very different ways.  Owen is one of those people that comes off as incredibly self-assured, (which still has me wondering what drives him,) while Henry--in some ways the person whom events revolve around--is one of those guys that is a mystery even to himself.  And not in the mysterious/captivating sense, more in the content-being-behind-the-scenes sort of way.  You just aren't sure (and he probably isn't either) how many layers you'd find if you were to try to get to know the real Henry.

And then there's the gruff, lovable Schwartz. Schwartzy.  Shorts.  I loved Mike Schwartz, even though he didn't take care of his pain (or his apartment) properly.  He put others first, just as a way of life, and I wanted to give him a big teddy-bear hug more than once.  I don't know if I would have washed his dishes for him...but maybe...even though I think washing dishes is about on par with scrubbing toilets.  Schwartz carried this book for me; he made me care.

For characters that are so brilliantly portrayed, in situations so keenly felt, there is a surprising elusiveness to them.  Instead of feeling underdeveloped, though, this is an element that adds to the novel's depth and meaning.  None of them are perfect--far from it--but that's part of the joy and charm behind this book.  If anything, they show us that we are all on a journey to know ourselves and figure out why we do the things we do.  Perhaps their mistakes can help illuminate our own.

What else do I want to say? I know I'm going to leave something out...
  - For a chunkster (500+ pages) this was remarkably quick to read.  The writing is spry and full of humor, the observations are entertaining and witty while retaining a remarkable amount of insight.  The pace is great, balancing detail with fascinating plot turns.
  - For a sports UNenthusiast like myself, the baseball factor was (surprisingly) not a barrier.  In fact, it had me fondly remembering the year when I played T-Ball (too bad the one photo of me holding a bat is proving un-findable).  There's something patriotic about baseball for me...or there was until the strike in the mid-90s which destroyed my lingering fancies of old-fashioned sports-related romantic political chivalry.  I won't go as far as to say that the book has made me like baseball again, but close.  Pretty close.
  - A warning on some of the content...the mild locker-room humor, language & antics really weren't a big deal.  The bigger thing for me was the rather casual attitude toward sex, especially [*possible spoiler*] between Affenlight (the 60 year-old president of the college) and Owen. Hrm.  [*that's all*]  Nothing sexual was ever described in detail, it's more the idea behind it all that bugged me.  I was able to set aside my opinions and enjoy the book, otherwise it could have affected my reading experience.

How does a book with so many apparent strikes against it from the get-go leave me sad that I'm done, reluctant to pick up a different book, and eager to read it all over again? Talented writing, insightful observations, depth in the characters, and a sense of humor.  If you enjoy it as much as I did, you might consider nominating for the Indie Lit Awards--out of the 2011 fiction I've read so far, this is certainly a contender.

Title: The Art of Fielding
Author: Chad Harbach
Pages: 509
Published: Liitle, Brown 2011 (release date is September 7)
Read For: Review--Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy!
My Rating: 5 stars
Eligible to be nominated!

13 comments:

  1. You've convinced me: Must read! Wanna trade? Beauty Queens? I Wore The Ocean In The Shape Of A Girl? Or go look at my list of reviews: If I have it, I might be convinced to trade.
    And I so admire and trust your reviews: glad you're out here on the interwebs.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hmmm...I think I lost my comment. Anyway, I first heard about this book at BEA at the Book Buzz panel and I dutifully made note of it, but I never really thought I'd read it. But then I read your review, which is the first one that has convinced me that maybe it'd suit me quite nicely after all. Thanks for posting!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm so glad the baseball factor wasn't an impediment. I'm no fan either and I was worried about that. I have the book to read too and can't wait to start it!!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Oh Laurie I don't know if I could bear to part with it, as silly as that sounds! I actually hesitated to post my review so far before the release date because I hate the feeling of needing to read a book I can't get my hands on. :( Thanks for your comment...led me to discover that somehow I wasn't following your blog, but I am now. :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. As the Crowe, I was drawn to it only by the vague idea that the writing was unique and fun; I'm so glad that I wasn't disappointed. You never know with books that are surrounded by publicity buzz.

    Aths, I know what you mean...when I received it I was a little worried about committing myself to 500+ pages of sports. (scary idea!) I hope you enjoy it!

    ReplyDelete
  6. No worries, Melody! I've seen this novel publicized so much that for a moment I lapsed and forgot it was an ARC. How wonderful that you feel so strongly about this book. I'm with Crowe & Aths: Time to put in on my TBR list.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi, just wanted to let you know I've added your entry to the literary blog directory: http://tinylibrary.blogspot.com/p/literary-blog-directory.html
    Hope you find some great blogs through it and also get some new readers. There's a button on my blog for you to use.

    And I've always wanted to read Star of the Sea so I was happy to see it on your favourites list :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. It's been hailed by Jonathan Franzen as "fucking awesome". Seems like the charm spreads to the bloggers also. Looking forward to it.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Laurie, I do look forward to hearing what you think about it!

    Sam, thanks for hosting the directory, I'll def. go grab the button. :) I hope you get around to Star of the Sea soon, it's a special one.

    Ben, that might be the most convincing reason to read Franzen that I've heard. Any opinion on where I should start?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Okay, just wanted to post back and let you know that I did read Fielding and loved it. I'm also going to forward a link to your blog so that my coworkers can read it because I think it would make a great choice for my bookstore's first editions club.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm so glad you liked it--thanks for letting me know! Hopefully your co-workers will be up to giving it a shot too. I'm looking forward to reading more blogger reviews of it.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I am not certain the sexuality of the book is a hinderance to enjoyment of the novel. It is handled well, but doesn't feel as organic to the novel as it should, more of a plot device than true development. I did think the relationship between Henry and Schwartz was more honest than the one between Owen and Affenlight. If you are interested, I am hosting a live chat on the book Monday, November 7 (at 7pm Central Time) on my blog, www.acertainsolitarypleasure.blogspot.com. Stop by for a further discussion.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Really looking forward to this title! You can find it and even more best sellers at PremierAudiobooks.com

    http://premieraudiobooks.com/sql/nyt/nyt_best_sellers.php

    ReplyDelete

I'd love to hear what you have to say, leave a comment!

There was an error in this gadget