"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Art of Fielding, Etc

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Little Brown bought this book (a first novel) with a $650,000 advance. Harbach was offered more, but ultimately accepted the offer from LB because Michael Pietsch, Executive VP and one-time-editor of David Foster Wallace, offered to personally edit the book. Which, just... whoa, you guys.

The book is about an extremely good shortstop on a college baseball team. It's also about the president of that college, his daughter, some other players. Henry (the shortstop) begins to over-analyze and then lose his talent, the president finds himself in an unexpected relationship with one of the students... Etc!

This is a good book, and I'm glad I read it. It's a big social novel in the style of John Irving--super accessible writing, a good balance of seriousness and fun (with slightly more emphasis on the fun), a big cast of characters, and a fairly complicated story. It's the kind of book you can enjoy if you just want to be entertained, if that's your deal, and it's also the kind of book you can spend a little more time with and ferret out thematic and stylistic statements.

Not that I did, obvi. One thought though: it seemed to me that the book was more interested in the college years of a person's life (though not exactly the college experience itself) than it was interested in baseball. The ending in particular seems to suggest the importance of that weird time between being a kid and being a real adult. Which disappointed me a little?

And the book also ended up feeling a little insubstantial to me. Not bad, just thin. Where Franzen, for example, saturates the reader in the inner lives of his characters, the characters here often felt distant to me. In some novels, the characters' actions end up seeming inevitable you get to know them so well, but there were more than a few instances here where I don't know if I could fully explain why Character X did this or that.

And that's fine. It's a good story, a really good story. And the writing has momentum and poetry. But novels are best when they let us feel the inside of someone's mind, and I very rarely got a sense of that here. So, good stuff, just not--at least not for me, at least not now--anything transcendental.

Still: mucho luv!


Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I probably read this book when I was in middle school, because I remember it being popular, but I don't know for sure. It's the true story of a disaster on Mt. Everest in the 90s wherein several climbers died, written by a journalist who was present. The last third of the book deals with the disaster itself, and as emotional as that stuff gets (it is genuinely sad at times), I didn't find it as compelling as the earlier chapters about mountaineering in general.

I know enough about Krakauer to know he takes his work seriously and that he wouldn't put anything in print that he hadn't qraudruple-checked. My impression was that he wrote the book because wanted to understand what happened up there on the summit. But I'm not sure there was any person or idea or situation to blame, and I'm not sure there really is anything to learn from the situation except that for small reasons and big reasons sometimes bad things happen and people die who don't deserve to.

The first section of the book, which describes the culture and history of mountaineering, was much more interesting to me, and reminded me a lot of Born to Run, which I enjoyed a lot. There's probably something to say about the fact that some sports seem lend themselves to introspection and reflection and good books, where others seem not to.

Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins

This is my favorite Collins collection, I think. It's less cute and less winking than some of his other stuff, though there are still moments of playfulness. It's also really long! Lots of poems! Collins is getting older, and, as the title suggests, this new book focuses a lot on death. The opening poem, for example, begins with a narrator standing at his parents' grave, asking them if they like his new glasses. Some of my other favorite moments: a poem where he sits and divides a landscape into those things which were there 500 years before (sky, water, the wind through the grass), and those which weren't (houses, boats, himself), and a second poem where he notices the empty chairs that we all seem to have on our front porch and imagines a day when everyone comes out and sits in the chairs they probably thought they would use more often.

Everything and Nothing by Jorge Luis Borges

A very small collection of essays, stories and lectures. I'll need to revisit Borges some other time, because I did not especially enjoy these pieces. The stories are not really stories, in the traditional sense. Things don't really... happen in them. They are descriptions of situations, mainly. Which is fine! But I didn't take the time to settle into their rhythm and logic, and so they mostly felt strange and thick. The essays were more interesting. I can admire his playfulness, his imagination, and the breadth of his reading... but admiration isn't the same thing as appreciation, and I was glad to speed through these and move on. Better luck next time, Jorge!

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