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Friday, February 17, 2012

What I'm Reading: The Art of Fielding

Well, while I am making good progress on my New Year's resolution to read 2 new romance authors this year, I am quite far behind on my resolution to keep up on my reviews.  Of the 6 books I have finished reading in 2012 (with 2 more that I have to finish in the next week for work), I have only written 2 reviews so far.  So I am 4 (about to be 6) behind already!!

I will only be getting further behind, so today I am going to buck up and get going.  Also, I have a bunch of boring paperwork to complete today, so writing a review will be a nice procrastination option.

As I mentioned at the end of this post, I saved the consensus best book of 2011 to read to start 2012.  I really did enjoy The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, but I feel like it is cheating for me to read and review.  Why?  It had so many elements that I like if only one of them appears in a book, but this one literally had everything but a circus (one of my other favorite frames; click here to see more on that) and if it had been set in NJ instead of WI, I might have exploded with happiness.

Seriously, here is a cross-referenced list of the things I love to see in any book which are all in play in The Art of Fielding:
  • Baseball
  • Liberal Arts College Setting
  • Moby Dick references
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson references (this one is even key to the final dramatic moments)
  • My actual alma matter shows up and is made fun of, but in a fair way.  It made me laugh.
  • Book within a book frame. (The Art of Fielding is a book that the characters in the book refer to often.)
The Art of Fielding also features some of my favorite story telling techniques:
  • Told as a "slice of life"-- The novel is one year in the life of 5 characters. You learn a bit about their life before this pivotal year and nothing about what happens after, but you are wrapped up in every detail of the year in which the book takes place.
  • Told from multiple charcaters points of view.  The story bounces back and forth between 5 protagonists.
  • Interesting but extremely flawed characters.  Each of the 5 protagonists is a good person deep down, but they all have a serious flaw that propels the story along.  In the end they mostly redeem themselves and come to terms with their flaws, but as a reader you are not sure that these flaws are completely overcome.
So all of this being said, I am a bit freaked out by Harbach.  Does he know me? Are we similar people? I don't know the answers here, but I am not going to complain.  That being said, I will again say I might not be the best person to take advice from on this book.  I was predisposed to love it.

Now more general appeal comments.  This is subtle storytelling.  You are meant to dive in and experience this novel.  You live with the characters, get wrapped up in their problems, and come to feel like they are your friends.  They all hit some pretty low points during the course of the book, but manage to pull themselves out (for the most part).

As a result of these low points, there are some darker moments in this novel.  There is one particualrly darkly humorous scene towards the end, but overall, the novel was realistic, thought provoking, bittersweet, and hopeful.

This is not the best book I ever read, but it was extremely well executed (it is hard to believe this is a first novel) and compelling. I was happy to spend a few days immersed in the world of Westish College.  I was sad to finish the book because I so enjoyed my time reading it, but I felt like the ending while open, was satisfying.  All things do not turn out well, nor do all turn out badly.  I will definitely read Harbach's next book.

Notice I  haven't said much about the plot here.  This is on purpose.  The plot itself is not the issue.  How the story is told will determine whether you like it or not.  Plus, this book has been reviewed to death in the last few months, so if you just want a basic plot, go here.

Three Words That Describe This Book: slice of life, multiple points of view, character driven

Readalikes:  The first book I thought of was another one of 2011's best, Swamplandia! because it shares all three of the story telling techniques I mentioned above. Click here for my full review of Swamplandia!.

Many reviewers have called The Art of Fielding Franzen-lite.  I agree completely.  In Harbach's novel the characters are more likable, less annoying, and the story more nuanced. Click here for my review of Freedom by Franzen for more.

The backlist title I most thought of while reading The Art of Fielding was Richard Russo's Straight Man.  The protagonist here is the Chairperson of the English Department at a liberal arts college.  He reminded me so much of the Westish College President who is one of the 5 narrators of The Art of Fielding.  Another good campus life/politics novel is Moo by Jane Smiley.  I have read both the Russo and Smiley, but years before I started this blog. Both are worth a trip to your local library to check out.  Interestingly, both authors are masters at writing quintessentially "American" novels that are critically acclaimed yet accessible. I think Harbach can be placed in their cannon for now.  I hope he stays there and becomes as reliable as these 2 have been over their long careers.

Underworld by Don DeLillo is another suggestion.  It too uses baseball as a frame without being a "baseball novel."  There is a fluctuating point of view in Underworld, but the story is much broader in scope.  In Underwold, the story is that of the last 50 years of the 20th century, while in The Art of Fielding, we are following one academic year.

Monsters of Templeton by Laura Groff could be another suggestion.  From my original review:
Willie Upton returns to her home town of Templeton to recover from a disastrous relationship with her graduate professor. Willie, is a direct descendant (on both sides!?!) of the town's founder. Here Templeton is a stand-in for Cooperstown, NY complete with a James Fenimore Cooper stand-in and a "baseball history museum." But Templeton has something the real Cooperstown does not, a sea-monster, long a part of town folklore, rising to the surface of the lake, dead, in the opening pages of the novel. What follows is a complex novel in which Willie searches through the town's historical documents for the identity of her father. Goff has the dead speak, giving them entire chapters of monologue, and she incorporates some of Cooper's more famous characters into the story.
I think if you are okay with the speculative elements here, the tone, characterizations, and style are very similar.

I mentioned Moby Dick above.  If you feel you did not get the Moby Dick references, a quick look at Nathaniel Phlibrick's compelling and fun Why Read Moby Dick? will clear it all up for you.


Tracy said...

What a fabulous, well articulated review of a book I loved! And, unlike you, I was NOT predisposed to liking it. (Not a sports person, although the college setting, Moby Dick references, and flawed characters quickly won me over.) I really enjoyed Swamplandia!, too, btw, though I never drew the comparisons you did. I never noticed how much I am drawn to fiction with multiple P.O.V.s. (Although in my case, I think it's more about strongly developed, distinct characters.)

Donna said...

Just finished the book this weekend and really enjoyed it. Baseball scenes rang true to me. I generally don't like Franzen (HATED The Corrections), but these characters are much more likable. Swamplandia has been on my TBR pile and I may jumped to that based on your recommendation.