The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I really want to give this excellent book 4.5 stars, because as much as I loved the characters and writing, it was pretty freaking depressing and stressful. Now, I don't look for uplift from the novels I read, but the level of stress -- in combination with the level of reality -- got a little oppressive at points. In the end, though, given how much I cared about the characters and outcome -- not to mention the excellent subtle prose style -- I have to round up to 5 stars, rather than down.
Combining a collegiate setting, the topic of baseball, and a focus on interpersonal dynamics, this book turns a perfect triple play (barf, sorry) for me personally. It's Franzen-esque in its insight and writing, but skews younger and less preachy. (I certainly hope Chad Harbach is the next Jonathan Franzen...but no pressure there, Chad!) In fact, The Art of Fielding joins Freedom as the only two books I've purchased in hardcover in quite some time. This, of course, says nothing about their quality, only that I was equally eager to read both.
My only criticisms are:
1) the aforementioned way reading about all these lives unraveling made me a stress-case;
2) the absolutely preposterous cavalcade of ridiculous names: Henry Skrimshander, Geurt and Pella Affenlight, Adam Starblind, Miranda Szabo, et al. I'm sure there's both great meaning and various worthy Melville references in those names...but enough's enough. You can get away with Henry Skrimshander OR Guert Affenlight, not both. And Adam Starblind just has to go.
But these are silly criticisms.
As usual, I carefully avoided reading any reviews or anything about this book beforehand, but the hype surrounding it was unavoidable -- it was on every list of "books to read" I've seen for the last 8 months or more. Yet the careful narration, perfect pacing, and thoughtful characterizations made for an absolutely excellent book, well worth reading, regardless of hype. It felt like an important book, tackling important themes, without ever treating itself as Important and Tackling Important Themes. Some books -- even good or great books -- can become over-saturated, weighted down with their own worthiness. The Art of Fielding felt human and relate-able throughout. As much stress as it gave me, it gave me 100 times more joy and pleasure.
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