Tag Archives: Chad Harbach

Book Review: “The Art of Fielding,” by Chad Harbach

In Chad Harbach’s outstanding debut novel, The Art of Fielding, Henry Skrimshander is a college baseball star who plays one of the most important positions in the game: shortstop. His Bible is a book called The Art of Fielding, a sort of Zen baseball guidebook penned by his idol, the fictional Hall of Fame shortstop, Aparicio Rodriguez, a cross between Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith. The book is filled with such wisdom as this:

26. The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.

59. To field a ground ball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension. One moves not against the ball but with it. Bad fielders stab at the ball like an enemy. This is antagonism. The true fielder lets the path of the ball become his own path, thereby comprehending the ball and dissipating the self, which is the source of all suffering and poor defense.

And then there are these passages:

3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.

33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.

213. Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does.

The plot of Harbach’s novel turns on a single error, an errant throw that plunges poor Henry into a state of “paralysis by analysis.” Henry is about to tie Aparicio’s NCAA record for consecutive errorless games. Late in the game, Henry uncorks a wild throw that strikes teammate Owen Dunne, who is reading a book in the dugout, in the face. Dunne is hospitalized and Skrimshander becomes unglued.

At the heart of Harbach’s story is the concept of human error, not the kind that occur on the baseball diamond. Henry has trained his body to act like a machine, a “thoughtless being,” but it is his thoughts and doubts that haunt him. He loses his ability to throw the ball accurately, an affliction known as Steve Blass Disease, after the former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher. It is a malady that has struck a number of elite athletes, including Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax, Rick Ankiel, Mackey Sasser and Dontrelle Willis.

But Henry isn’t the only character who suffers from self-doubt. The five major characters all find themselves at a crossroads of some type.

Henry is the star player for Westish College, a Division III school located in northern Wisconsin on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Henry’s mentor is Mike Schwartz, the captain and firebrand leader of the club. Schwartz discovered Skrimshander two summers earlier during an American Legion tournament and took him under his wing, arranging for a scholarship at Westish.

Dunne, who introduced himself to Skrimshander as his  “gay mulatto roommate” is a precocious young man possessed of an inner calm that earned him the nickname “Buddha” from his teammates.

While Henry struggles in the field, the college president Guert Affenlight, becomes obsessed with Dunne. The college president embarks on a risky affair with the student. Complicating matters, Affenlight’s daughter, Pella, returns from a disastrous marriage and moves into the president’s apartment. Pella becomes involved with Schwartz, who is having trouble coming to grips with the end of his baseball career. Schwartz is also turned down by several elite law schools, leaving his future in doubt.

Henry has no life outside of baseball. Unless he can figure out what’s causing his throwing errors, he will lose his chance to be drafted by a major league team. Guert finds himself at the age of 60 attracted to a young man, knowing he is risking everything for love. Pella is adrift and finds in Schwartz a person who is everything her aloof husband is not.

The errors in this book center on the individual’s basic fallibility, the frailties of human emotion that drive people and overrule rational thought.

While Harbach is an excellent writer, there were a few flaws. Owen gets hit in the face by Henry’s throw because he is reading a book in the dugout. As a young sportswriter in college, I covered college teams and American Legion teams. I’ve never seen a coach who would allow a player to read a book in the dugout. I also found the ghastly event that takes place near the end of the novel (I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it), completely unbelievable. Also the way Guert’s crisis is resolved (again, I won’t spoil it) I found to be an author contrivance.

These are minor “nits.” On the whole, The Art of Fielding was an absorbing novel about characters that are all-too-human. Harbach’s manuscript triggered a bidding war among publishing houses and one can see why. He is a self-assured writer who has developed a poignant story based on sharply drawn characters and a multi-dimensional plot.

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My Favorite 2011 Book: “Faith,” by Jennifer Haigh

There were a lot of great books published in 2011. I enjoyed The Adults, by Alison Espach, The Red Thread, by Ann Hood, The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson, In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard, and The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. My favorite book published in 2011 was Faith, by Jennifer Haigh.

Faith tackles big issues. The plot centers on the sexual molestation scandals in the Boston Archdiocese, but the story explores family secrets, the role of religion in family life, loyalty, compassion, and those opposing twins, faith and doubt. The main character is Sheila McCann, a lapsed Catholic whose half-brother, Father Arthur Breen, is accused of molesting a young boy. The main character conducts her own investigation, which is described in a dispassionate manner. While Sheila has doubts about the church, her faith in her brother is also shaken.

The story centers on the events of the Spring of 2002, the height of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in Boston. Father Breen was abruptly summoned to the Cardinal of Boston’s Residence on Good Friday. He was shown a letter from a law firm that told of charges against him and the Archdiocese placed him on administrative leave. His mother, whose life revolved around the church and her oldest son, refused to believe the charges, but was nonetheless crushed. Her brother, Mike McCann, launched his own ill-fated investigation and became convinced his brother was guilty.

Haigh skillfully peels off the layers behind the events leading up to the charges against Father Breen and the aftermath, while at the same time probing the family’s difficult and complex history. Sheila related a story about how she found out about the charges from Mike, who thought their mother had already told her. Sheila reflected on her family in this brilliant passage by Haigh, “Evasion comes naturally in my tribe, this loose jumble of McGann, Devine and Breen. The reasons for this are not so mysterious. My father is a man of shameful habits. My mother is lace-curtain Irish. She will settle for correctness, or the appearance of it; but in her heart she wants only to be good. The space between them is crisscrossed with silent bridges, built of half-truths and suppressions. The chasm beneath is deep and wide.”

Sheila then offered further insights into her family’s history of deception. “Those same bridges exist across the generations: my mother and her parents, my father and his. On both sides, we are a family of open secrets. When I was a child they enclosed my innocence like a tourniquet. Without knowing quite how I knew it, I understood what might be said, and what must be kept quiet. If from the outside the rules appeared arbitrary, from the inside they were perfectly clear.”

Later, when Mike pressed his sister for proof behind her opinion that Arthur was innocent of the charges, she said, “‘Sorry, Mike, but sooner or later you have to decide what you believe.’ It was a thing I’d always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision. In its most basic form it is a choice.”

Haigh’s novel looks at the child molestation scandal from all dimensions: its effects not only on the victims, but on the accused. It would be easy to write a preachy novel about the subject, but Haigh manages to create a story that is poignant, sad, tragic and at the same time illuminating. Haigh raises legitimate questions regarding the impact of the priest’s life of celibacy on the outbreak of sexual abuse cases. Toward the end of the novel, Sheila reflected, “Like many people, I have wondered: is celibacy to blame? That renunciation of human closeness, of our deepest instincts: is it, in the end, simply too much to ask? Good men–sound, healthy men–can’t make the sacrifice, or don’t want to; has Holy Mother settled for the unsound and unhealthy? Has the Church, ever pragmatic, made do with what was left?”

Father Breen’s tragic story could be interpreted as the story of the church or the story of any family that refused to face its darkest secrets. As Sheila reflects, “Art’s story is, to me, the story of my family, with all its darts and dodges and mysterious omissions.”

Haigh, who lives in the Boston area, is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Condition, as well as Baker Towers, winner of the 2006 PEN/L.L. Winship Award for outstanding book by a New England author. She also wrote Mrs. Kimble, which won the PEN/ Hemingway Award for debut fiction. Haigh’s short stories have appeared in the Atlantic, Granta, the Saturday Evening Post, and many other publications.

My favorite non-fiction book of 2011 was Keith Richards’ Life. You don’t have to be a fan of rock music or the Rolling Stones (I am a fan of both) to appreciate this spirited autobiography, which offers keen insights into the life of one of rock and roll’s most colorful and enduring figures.

What was your favorite book of 2011 and why?

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My 2011 Reading List

You’ve read this before. Aspiring fiction writers should read widely across all genres. This will give the novice writer a better understanding of the craft of fiction. I believe new writers cannot improve their own writing unless they read quality fiction. It also gives all writers an appreciation for great literature.

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. I try to sprinkle in some non-fiction books in addition to the fiction books I read. Once in a while, I re-read a classic, as I did this year with To Kill a Mockingbird. I also make an effort to read e-books by new authors, as I did this year with Victorine Lieszke’s Not What She Seems and A.D. Bloom’s Bring Me the Head of the Buddha. Full disclosure: Aaron Bloom is a fellow member of the West Hartford CT Fiction Writers’ Group and a very talented writer.

Here is a list of books read this year:

Fiction

The Adults, by Alison Espach

The Red Thread, by Ann Hood

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Burritos and Gasoline, by Jamie Beckett

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson

Faith, by Jennifer Haigh

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Whiskey Sour, by JA Konrath

Not What She Seems, by Victorine Lieszke

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Eagan

Lethal Experiment, by John Locke

Baker Towers, by Jennifer Haigh

Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

Who Do You Love, by Jean Thompson

The One That I Want, by Allison Winn Scotch

Solar, by Ian McEwan

Bring Me the Head of the Buddha, by A.D. Bloom

Northwest Corner, by John Burnham Schwartz

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Innocent, by Scott Turow

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

The Broker, by John Grisham

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

While I Was Gone, by Sue Miller

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Good Mother, by Sue Miller

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

Non-fiction

Life, by Keith Richards

Decision Points, by George W. Bush

Decoded, by Jay-Z

Professional Development

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Mass

Write Away, by Elizabeth George

Later this week, I will reveal my favorite book of 2011.

How many books did you read in 2011? Which one did you enjoy the most and why?

 

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