Friday, September 30, 2011

Review: The Art of Fielding

Summary: 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.

Henry's fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry's gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners' team captain and Henry's best friend, realizes he has guided Henry's career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert's daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth,
The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment--to oneself and to others. -- Little, Brown

One of the books that was getting a ton of buzz at this year's BEA was THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach. I was fortunate enough to score an autographed copy of this novel and spend a minute or two chatting with the author. When he described his book to me, I had a feeling that I was going to enjoy it. (I love both coming-of-age stories and baseball!) And, I have to say that I found THE ART OF FIELDING to be a very special novel. I just adored it!

THE ART OF FIELDING is a book about baseball and baseball players -- or it it? At first glance, it seems like the novel delves deeply into Henry, a stellar short-stop on the Westish baseball team, along with a few of his friends and fellow team members. However, I can assure you that there is much more than just baseball players living within the pages of this novel. There are also some fascinating supporting characters including the college president and his daughter. And when all of these interesting characters get together, their interactions are extremely entertaining. So here's my message for all of you non-baseball fans out there: Do not disregard THE ART OF FIELDING as a "baseball story" because you will be missing out on a terrific novel.

There was love, friendship, and camaraderie between the characters which I enjoyed a great deal. There was also humor, symbolism and creative use of metaphors by Mr. Harbach.  But it was the universal themes about human nature that really touched my heart and made me think. And quite frankly, how Mr. Harbach presented these complex characters to the reader and how he showed their honesty and vulnerabilities is really what made this book a stand-out to me.

Even though I finished this book a few days ago, I can't get it out of my  mind. These characters were so vividly drawn for me that they seemed like real peoplel. I found each and every character discussed in this novel to be fascinating and complex, and also seriously flawed. But there are lots of books with characters like that, right? So why was THE ART OF FIELDING so special to me? I've thought a lot about this and I think it's because Mr. Horbach created such incredibly interesting dynamics and exchanges between all of the characters. For example, these characters depended on each other and, at the same time, competed with each. (And that's one simplistic example of what was going on in this novel.) I loved thinking about what the various characters' motivations were, and I also liked seeing how they evolved throughout the story both as individuals and members of a "team."

While there is a lot going on in this novel about the various characters' lives, THE ART OF FIELDING still does have a quite a few baseball references in it -- Mr. Harbach is kind of a baseball expert as you can see in his magazine n+1. I happened to love all of the baseball talk, and I especially appreciated the reference to Steve Blass Disease. For those of you who don't know, Steve Blass was a terrific pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early 1970s. For some unknown reason, he pitched one day and couldn't get the ball over the plate -- no way, no how. It destroyed his career and he was forced to retire. I grew up a big Pirates fan and it wasn't too long ago that my grandfather and I were discussing Blass's career while watching a Pirate game. So when Henry fell "ill" to Steve Blass Disease in THE ART OF FIELDING, I found myself fascinated and forced to do some more research.

I highly recommend THE ART OF FIELDING to book clubs -- both male and/or females ones. My only hesitation is that the book is quite the chunkster. It comes in at well over 500 pages, but I promise that it's a fairly quick read (or at least it was for me -- some critics/reviewers might disagree.) There are just so many themes to discuss in this story that you definitely wouldn't lack for book-related conversation. My only warning is that, because there is so much to discuss, it might be helpful to use a discussion guide to keep things on track. Some of the topics you might want to explore include family, expectations, pressure, friendship, teamwork, romantic relationships, change, love, commitment, monomania, perfections, sacrifice, and competition. My mind is still reeling from this novel and I'm dying to discuss it with friends. That's certainly a testament to the power of this book!

Honestly, I just loved THE ART OF FIELDING and I didn't want it to end. It's a well written story about all types of love and relatioships as well as all types of commitment, and I highly recommend it!

13 comments:

blog said...

OK, I've added this to the list of books to consider for my book clubs. I've been hearing lots of general buzz about this one, but I haven't been sure it would be interesting to someone that is not a baseball fan. It sounds like there is plenty there!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Well, it is still going strong because at SIBA it was still all the buzz. I have heard so many people rave about this book - people I really trust. So I guess this is one I must read before the the end of the year.

Beth Kephart said...

I've been waiting to hear from a friend who had read this book. So glad you loved it. It eases me toward a purchase. Hope all is well!

Mary (Bookfan) said...

I may have to get this one - I'm a baseball fan and it sounds like a great read. Thanks for your thoughts - you sold me :)

bermudaonion said...

I'm not a huge baseball fan, but I do love great characters and dialogue. It sounds like there is lots to talk about with this book.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I'm so sad I missed out on this one at BEA! Now I have it on my to-buy list though!

Karlie said...

Great characters and baseball? I think that I would love this book.

Serena said...

I love books that you can't shake for days and weeks. Sounds like a good read...even for those not as crazy about baseball.

Beth Hoffman said...

I have zero interest in baseball, and yet everything I hear about this book has made me want to read it!

Alison's Book Marks said...

Oh great review! I've wanted to read this one. I'm addicted to baseball, and the majority of non-fiction books I read are about the game and its players. That in addition to my love for lit fiction, I have to read this one! Chunky, yes...but the weather is changing, and begging for a book I can sink my teeth into!

Laura Fabiani said...

I'm not a huge baseball fan either but seems like the author is talented in his storytelling and character development. Great review!

Melanie said...

I loved this book. And it so isn't about baseball. There are so many layers to it. I'm recommending this book to everyone, and it will go on my book club schedule for next year.

hanktheblog said...

Thanks for this review. I loved the book so much I am hosting a live discussion of the novel on Monday, Nov. 7, at 7pm (Central Time) on my blog, www.acertainsolitarypleasure.blogspot.com. Please join me!