on 5 January 2012
I hate watching sport, know nothing about baseball and haven't enjoyed a sports themed book before (not that I've read many - I tend to avoid them), but increasing enthusiasm for The Art of Fielding persuaded me to give it a try. I'm pleased that I did as this is a modern classic that will be talked about for years to come.
The first few chapters did their best to put me off - I could see the writing quality, but the endless baseball references did nothing for me.
"Henry played shortstop, only and ever shortstop - the most demanding spot on the diamond. More ground balls were hit to the shortstop than anyone else, and then he had to make the longest throw to first. He also had to turn double-plays, cover second on steals, keep runners on second from taking long leads, make relay throws from the outfield. Every Little League coach Henry had ever had took one look at him and pointed toward right field or second base. Or else coach didn't point anywhere, just shrugged at the fate that had assigned him this pitiable shrimp, this born benchwarmer."
Without the hype I would probably have abandoned this book after the first few pages, but I persevered and at page 50 I was rewarded with chapter 6 which didn't mention baseball at all. Instead it introduced Moby Dick, an English professor and a glimpse of the magical writing Chad Harbach is capable of when he talks about something other than sport.
As the book progressed I became increasingly attached to the characters in the book and completed its 500 pages in a surprisingly quick time, but on reaching the end I found I was quietly impressed rather than bowled over with excitement. I didn't find anything particularly new or interesting in The Art of Fielding. It is simply a well written book about American college life - and I have read a lot of those, although I admit this is one of the best.
I think those who have been through an American college will have a far greater appreciation of this book than I did. I found it very similar to The Marriage Plot in terms of both style and subject matter - with The Art of Fielding being the better book in terms of consistency and message.
I'm also sure that I missed some of the relevant baseball references and their significance on the bigger picture. I'm afraid that those who claim this book will give the reader a passion for baseball are wrong, but I agree that it isn't necessary to enjoy the sport to appreciate this book.
Despite my criticisms I do think this is a very good book. It is a simple story, but one that is very well told. It is hard not to feel compassion for the well developed characters. I just hope that next time Chad Harbach will devote his time to writing a book that doesn't contain any sporting references.
Recommended, especially to American graduates.
"The Art of Fielding" is basically a US-style campus novel featuring baseball. There are similarities in style between this and many of John Irving's works, with baseball substituting for Irving's wrestling focus. This, to the UK-reader, raises the first potential barrier as we are, as a rule, largely ignorant of the US fixation with the intricacies of baseball. Certainly you don't need an in depth knowledge to appreciate this story - it is really a story of friendship, ambition and the sporting dreams of youth - but despite a loose understanding of the sport I felt that I would have benefitted from more knowledge particularly towards the end when there is a climatic baseball match. You kind of get the point, but I certainly felt that I was missing out on a little of the tension, in much the same way I'd expect a US reader to be perplexed if the story had been based on say, cricket. It's a minor flaw though and it would be a shame if potential readers dismissed it for this reason.
For me, a more serious issue was that after a strong start - as a young Henry Skrimshander, a baseball fielding prodigy in the Roy of the Rovers manner (to horribly mix sports) is spotted by college über-jock Mike Schwartz and encouraged to enroll at the preppy but academically minor Westish College - the middle of the book loses it's way a little and kind of drifts along for a while, before things rush to a slightly unsatisfying and unbelievable ending.
Once arrived at Westish, Henry is roomed with gay, fellow teammate (although he appears to do little to warrant his place on the team preferring to read on the bench), Owen. Also thrown into the main story are a charismatic College Principle, the 60-something year old Guert Affenlight and his errant daughter who just happens to return to her father having fled a depression inducing marriage to find that her father appears to be falling in love again, although that strand of the story does rather stretch belief.
The characters are thinly drawn and perhaps even a little cliché. After 500 pages of so of a novel, I would expect to have more understanding of the motives and drivers of the characters that I had here. It's not a "great novel" in the manner of say the campus-featuring Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" and is not even as complex as the early John Irvings that it so put me in mind of. But it's undemanding and enjoyable for all that.
When Henry's impressive run of zero errors comes to an end in a freak accident, his struggle to regain his confidence and overcome doubts that he never had before, together with the relationships between Henry and his teammates - particularly the influential Schwartz - are interesting and largely entertaining. The passages devoted to the Affenlights (father and daughter) never really convinced me though. Affenlight snr's affair is somewhat difficult to believe and once free of her marriage, the formerly depressed Affenlight jnr, Pella, appears to show an almost complete recovery in no time at all and becomes something of a rock for the students.
As an undemanding read, it has plenty going for it if you don't look too deeply into its flaws though.
on 16 November 2013
"The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach is a debut novel that somehow resembles classic "Moby Dick" novel although instead whaling, the main motive is baseball.
This novel actually has five main characters, students in campus, although sometimes it seems that the most important only one named Henry, whose life paths are interwoven in good in bad way through a whole book that although entertaining seems in its last third sometimes too long (without the need).
And although the baseball is its main motive, it doesn't require to even knowing the rules for it, even after you will read it maybe you'll want to look a match or two.
The story starts with an unimportant tournament when guy named Henry Skrimshander will impress student coach Mike Schwartz, who will recruit him to Westish College in Wisconsin and they two will become good friends.
The novel's title is a fictional book about baseball that is Henry's inspiration and gives him strength whenever he is feeling low, that was written by a retired guy who holds record for number of games without any any errors.
Henry dreams about meeting him and even beat his record, but achieving it would need him to go through lot of crisis, and lacks of confidence.
Also here is the Owen character, who is Henry's roommate, a smart guy, who is not so more into baseball but his role will be shown important later in the novel.
Also, there are two more important characters.
First is Guert, who is college president looking much younger than his 60 having one daughter named Pella who run away and married an older architect, and whose only obsession is Owen which continuously destroys his life.
Last one is Pella herself, who was young and stupid, and now she is back home trying to rebuild her life.
Reader will participate in some original twists that are sometimes emotional or encouraging, sometimes even both.
And while story will unfold, a reader will be like in a baseball game taken on a game of second chances and balls that are hardly, or almost impossible, to catch...
Chad Harbach debuted with this novel, and as mentioned earlier, the biggest flaw that can be assigned to this work is its length that is unnecessarily long making it in last third sometimes difficult to finish.
Also, he invented characters names that are so innovative and hard to forget that you will remember them long after you forget the plot of the novel.
Therefore I can recommend this book even to those who doesn't know anything about baseball, because any other sport could be chosen as background story, although please be advised to have some patience near the end of the book...
A couple of years ago while on a road trip in the States I stayed in Cooperstown, an idyllic American small town at the tip of Lake Otsego in New York State that is home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I did think about going in there in order to gain an insight into America through its national game but then I remembered that I don't have the slightest interest in cricket, let alone baseball.
Although the action of `The art of fielding' does centre around a mid-western college baseball team, ultimately the book isn't really about baseball but about people and relationships. I would have possibly got more out of the novel if I had understood the finer points of the game but I liked the book fine as it was and you can kind of get the drift of what is happening. In fact I really liked this book, it's one of the best novels I've read in years and it completely sucks you into the cloistered world of Westish College. We are introduced to a cast of marvelous, flawed characters including Henry Skrimshander, Mike Schwartz and Guert Affenlight all of whom I found totally believable. I was a little disappointed by the cliched ending - both on the diamond (which resembled many of the numerous films depicting baseball) and in the cemetery - but in many ways this fitted in with the sentimental tone of the rest of the book.
Overall this is an amazing accomplishment for a first novel - self-assured, very well written and at turns both poignant and very amusing. I shall look forward to reading more of Chad Harbach's work
on 16 June 2012
That was my reaction when I was told this book was about sport but I was so wrong. The Art of Fielding is a brilliant read because the characters are so involving and original. You care what happens to them and you are in turns devastated and encouraged. You will debate who your favourite character is and best of all they will be real for you.
I relished learning about the context of baseball which was a complete unknown to me. Set in a university in the American mid West this book is very accessible for English readers and surely has to become a classic read. It has taken ten years for Chad Harbach to write it such is the accuracy of the detail. I hope his next will be published sooner but even so, it would be worth waiting for.
on 23 December 2013
This novel feels manufactured, written by a committee. It does not flow as a natural story would, you can clearly see that parts of the story added just to complement the initial idea.
Despite being long enough, even the main characters are one-sided, not developed enough and the story drags on in some parts.
The main two seems to be asexual and removed from the outside world until the dean's daughter is introduced in the story with no credible actions.
I struggled up to the end and after the grave digging final scene, more appropriate for a Mark Twain novel for teenagers I ended up asking myself - which is the audience this book was written for?
Not for me.
i loved this book, and grew to care about the characters, especially Henry, the gifted college baseball player, whose game falls apart at almost the worst possible time. This is a very American novel, based around college life in the States and baseball, but it also a highly enjoyable look at the human condition anywhere. Love, ambition, personal demons, friendship, what it is to be an individual and also part of a team, relationships between parents and children, and our capacity for self harm are all here - rendered with warmth and empathy.
A great book which i have loved reading, and am sure will linger long in the memory
on 30 December 2014
In The Art Of Fielding, promising young baseball player Henry Skrimshander is spotted by sporty college kid Mike Schwartz. Somewhat improbably for a person apparently in their second year at university, Mike has the power and influence to make sure Henry gets a scholarship to a minor New England college with a tenuous association to the novel Moby Dick. From there a novel about sports in college ensues.
In terms of the prose it flows well, and feels well written, it's not necessary to know anything much about baseball to know what is going on. The characters are in general likeable and Henry's journey from invincible to tormented can be compared to any number of successful sportsman. Alas, the problem is not prose nor characterization, but plot.
On the one hand you've got Henry's story, and all in all that side of it works well, but the blurb reads something like "when a throw goes wrong, 5 lives are changed" and the idea that they were changed simply by that ball and not by the disastrous choices made by the individuals themselves which aren't particularly related to the foul ball, is silly at best.
The other side of the plot-coin is the Dean, Guert, his fractured relationship with daughter Pella, and his dangerous obsession with one of his students. On the one hand it reminded me in tone of John Williams' Stoner. On the other hand this novel is two different college stories, in which a poor effort has been made to shoehorn them into one and establish tenuous links between Guert and Pella and Henry and Mike. They just don't connect. Even the plot twist that brings this side of the story to crisis point doesn't hold much water and feels quite forced. The denouement, after a character passes away, belongs in a much lesser, much more melodramatic novel
That said, did I enjoy it as I read it? Yes. It was only after I closed the book, and thought about writing a review that it just seemed faulty somehow. And it didn't 'stay with me' as other recommendations assured me it would. I had to look up what some of the characters names were because I just didn't remember.
An admission and an approval: I read this book at least a year ago, before I had read many press reviews; before I read the Vanity Fair article recounting the long road Chad Harbach travelled in writing the novel; before I knew if there would be a backlash, or even any lash at all; before it became a 'talked about' novel.
But don't think this is some stake in the ground. Some attempt to claim a better, lonelier knowledge of the book. Some 'understanding'. No. This is merely to say I think about these characters, these incidents, at least once every week, and have done since I read about them.
I remember (and I'm refusing to internet-enquire any of this, including the spelling) Affenlight walking across the campus grounds. I picture him with a gown that follows obediently, like a water dog. I remember Owen's glasses, Owen's face, Owen. I remember Mike Schwarz and Henry, obviously. I remember the details of their training: the running up stadium steps, the lifting of weighs in a basement room; I remember Henry climbing a tree so easily because he has become conductor of his elegant body through years of sweat and sick and toil. I hear the sound of a baseball hammering into a leather glove. I feel the rush of Henry's arm as he releases the ball to first base, beating the runner by three steps. Which is to say: evocative.
My memories of the book are my biases. I like baseball. I watch baseball. I've played sport and trained for it too. But I also love reading. And I'm a fan of modern American novels. So The Art of Fielding is almost algorithmically designed to entertain me.
But that said, shouldn't it mean something that I think about it still? It counts as a recommendation, no? I do like books whose characters hang around: for different reasons, Mae (also, Bailey) in Dave Eggers's The Circle, which I'm reading at the moment, are bugging me in a good way; I've lost their names, but things the characters do in Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot stick with me too. These three, I realise, are campus novels, and big enough you have time to tuck their people into your memories, safely under your folds. And whether you like sports or not, I think it's worth watching Henry strive to get better at something he already does well. Be that life or baseball.
on 3 May 2013
Char Harbach received a $650,000 advance for The Art of Fielding. An almost unheard of amount of money for a debut novel, which also meant it received a flurry of free publicity in literary circles before it came out. These high expectations perhaps would make it easy to dismiss the book as overrated trash but it's actually very good. It's a compelling story with richly drawn characters that are all muddling through their believably messed up lives.
The story focuses on the life of a baseball playing college student who is on the cusp of greatness but is risking throwing everything away just as he's about to get everything he ever wanted.
The story revolves around a college student called Henry who's got the potential to be the greatest shortstop in baseball history. I've no interest in baseball, the tactics or the skills that the players have to learn to become great but somehow this book made me care.
Not in a way that means I'm going to go sing up to my nearest baseball team (living in England I'm guessing that it would involve a reasonably long journey). But the long descriptions of baseball games are excellently written and add an element of action to a book that might otherwise have involved a bit too much navel gazing.
There are four main characters in the book, Henry the up and coming baseball star, Mike the inspirational leader of the baseball team, Affenlight the President of the university and Pella the daughter of the president. All four experience their own kind of crisis throughout the book.
The circumstances of these crises, though linked, are all different. The do however share a common theme of doubt. Doubt in what the future holds, doubt in their own ability, doubt in the choices they've made or are about to make. It's all very uncertain. Each character is given chance to fully explore their moments of doubt and you are offered an insight into their internal world as they wrestle their demons.
One of the strengths of the book is that you never really know how things will play out. With Hollywood films training us to expect a happy ever after at the end of every story, it's a relief to read something where you genuinely don't know how things will work out and characters are capable of behaving surprisingly without seeming unrealistic.
The Art of Fielding - HBO TV series
One thing I've spotted online is that HBO have bought the rights and plan to turn the book into a TV series. It's reasonable to worry whenever a great book is going to be turned into a TV programme or a film but if any production company would be able to this story justice it would be HBO.
A film might have been possible but it would have involved cutting vast amounts of storyline to trim it down. A full length TV series should give the story more time to breathe and I'm hopeful that in the right hands the story could be given a wider audience, it certainly deserves it.
Rating - four stars
I'm going to give the book four out of five. It's a compelling read and it had it felt like it had a real substance to it. There were a few passages were it perhaps meandered a little bit and the main character Henry had a distance that made it hard to connect. This was compensated by the rich quality of the writing and the supporting characters had plenty about them to keep the reader interested.
At 500+ pages it is possibly a bit on the long side for the story it was telling but I found that I still got through it pretty quickly and was disappointed when I finished.