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Tag Archives: good reads

A Notable Novel, “The Art of Fielding”

Here’s my short assessment of “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach. It’s a fine book with a fabulous first half. As a reader and evaluator, I’m so overwhelmed by the unfulfilled promise of that first half that I may be underestimating the second.

But to back up–this is a baseball novel combined with a coming-of-age story. Its focus is Henry Skrimshander, a remarkable shortstop. Henry’s fielding ability is witnessed by a catcher who is able to wangle Henry a place at Westish College. Henry’s magical talent transforms the team…until he loses it. And then his friends, his teammates, and all who have been introduced in this novel adjust their orbits around his misery.

Other aspects of the story include the life of a small liberal arts college, the first motions toward a gay relationship by the college president, the return of the president’s prodigal daughter, and the coaching brilliance of that catcher.

Harbach is a wonderful writer, combining a sense of Henry’s transcendent talent with the everyday details of college, of roommates, of part-time jobs. He takes an often wry approach, even as he describes scenes artfully, maybe wistfully. I thought to myself that he strikes the tone that I sense Jonathan Franzen going for, of telling a story with a clever voice, from a perch that allows the teller to know an awful lot, when the teller honestly likes the characters, warts and all.

I absolutely loved the first half of this book, with Harbach introducing characters in lovely order and a perfect pace. This part of the story seemed so clean, so lusciously straightforward and true. What happens after that just didn’t live up to the promise. The drama of sexual betrayal, the ongoing suspense of Henry’s inability to play, the awkward introduction of a counselor who untangles Henry’s issues, they seemed like too many condiments on a perfect hot dog.

I can’t bring myself to dislike “The Art of Fielding,” and I do think it’s fair to describe it overall as a good book, a fine baseball story. I’ll recommend this to fiction readers, to people who enjoy contemporary settings, to baseball fans, and certainly to book groups. It’s easy to see how it earned its place on this year’s Notable Books list.

From the Notables List, “Turn Right at Machu Picchu”

I just finished “Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time” by Mark Adams, one of the nonfiction titles on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books List.

Adams alternates chapters of his own recent trek to Machu Picchu with chapters describing the travels of Hiram Bingham, the Yale professor who “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911.

Adams travels to Machu Picchu via the ancient Inca Road, using routes that allow him to see what Bingham saw. He includes himself very squarely in this story, offering many personal opinions, observations, and conversations with his guide and the Peruvians who manage the donkeys, food and gear. This works. As a travel writer, Adams achieves that delicate balance where his own personality enlivens the story with overpowering it.

There’s something about Machu Picchu that remains eternally interesting. Recent developments regarding the ownership of many Inca items that Hiram Bingham transported back to Yale have added an additional measure of interest to Bingham’s portion of the story.

Adams explores several theories about the function of Machu Picchu, describes well the mountainous area where it is, and draws connections among stories, geography, and personalities. He deepens his own experiences with deft study of others, including those who have always lived in the area, the early white explorers who sought the Lost City of the Incas, and the thousands who visit the site each year.

Although this is not a deep academic study, I’ll recommend it to people with an interest in this area. In particular, I will mention it to those who have visited or intend to visit Machu Picchu, to readers who enjoy travel books generally, and to fiction readers who will enjoy a nonfiction book of it’s “a good story.”

First Notable of 2012–“We the Animals”

The 2012 American Library Association Notable Books List was announced last Sunday–and that made January 22 a Recognized Holiday at my house. I’ve got several notables checked out, a few more on hold, and I have finished my first–“We the Animals” by Justin Torres.

After last year’s rants about LONG books dominating the list, I can ease up this year. In fact, “We the Animals” is only 128 pages.

It’s a series of short stories told by the youngest of three brothers in a contemporary family. Their father is Puerto Rican, and their mom is anglo, both from Brooklyn originally, although the family lives now in upstate New York.

The stories reminded me of Andre Dubus III’s “Townie” in their mix of profound family chaos, fierce love, and edginess.

In one story, the boy is alone left too long at a Niagara Falls museum. To keep himself occupied, he ends up dancing in front of a film that nobody else is viewing, enjoying the movement and the lights on his body. He realizes that his dad has finally returned, and has been watching him, perhaps for some time. His dad realizes how “pretty” his son is. That begins the movement toward the book’s end, as the young man realizes he’s gay, and engineers his first sexual encounter.

When I finished this, I noted that I felt like I was either in the presence of genius, or needed a shower. The scenes in this book so often put the narrator and his brothers in situations that were dirty or grimy or slightly dangerous or mean. And yet there remained that sense of love and solidarity. How did Torres manage that?

Torres writes in a deceptively simple way that seems just to describe, but that also sets a tone.

I will recommend this to people who appreciate spare writing, who seek varieties of experiences, and who can tolerate edginess. I’ll also bring it to the attention of book groups.

Steven Johnson’s “The Invention of Air”

Over the weekend, I read “The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America” by Steven Johnson.

Basically, it’s a book about Joseph Priestley, the 18th century scientist/pastor/political writer who is credited with discovering oxygen. Priestley was born and lived most of his life in England, moving to the United States in 1794 after a mob angry about his writings burned down his home.

I liked it partly because it reads quickly–I’ve been working on a suitable descriptor for a book that moves along at a fast pace–and is relatively short, at 215 pages. As a reader, I prefer a fast pace. I know plenty of readers who love a slow-moving long book. They might have felt cheated by this one. I mention that pace because one might expect that a book about a historical figure who was a scientist/pastor/political writer might move along slowly.

That said, Johnson diverges fairly often from Priestley’s story to take a broader look at his times, and often also the filter of certain themes from which to consider the 21st century. For instance, Priestley was part of a group of London men who often had coffee together, a group called “The Club of Honest Whigs.” They talked into the evening on all sorts of subjects, and with them, Priestley was able to articulate and develop his own points of view. This ability to share ideas, to stay in close communication, to build on each others’ work, was new to the times. The broadmindedness of the group certainly played into its role in developing ideas, but that ability to communicate was key. Johnson compares that to what the Internet offers to scientists and thinkers to day–unparalleled access to each others’ thoughts.

There’s something about this era of “amateur” scientists such as Priestley that so clearly is a thing of the past. Johnson reflects on the impact that leisure time had. Priestley was well-educated, curious, and had time. Others, for example, Thomas Jefferson in the United States, showed similar lifelong avocations of science combined with political pursuits. Johnson laments the way that politicians now leave science to others…and perhaps are proud of their lack of scientific understanding.

Johnson places much more emphasis on Priestley’s scientific work than on his religious thinking (he’s prominent in the history of the Unitarian church) and political writing, but Johnson certainly sees the breadth of his interests as key to Priestley’s success.

From time to time, I wondered if Johnson might be standing on some fairly thin ice when pulling the big ideas from this one life and applying them to our time. And yet there is a compelling sense in which it would be easy to imagine Johnson himself around the coffee table with the Club of Honest Whigs, building one idea on top of another, sometimes getting a little beyond himself.

For that reason, I may not recommend this to serious and well-read students of the science of history. But I will recommend it to my reading friends who enjoy history, who want to ponder the big ideas that connect one time with another, and who may not know enough about this intriguing man.

“Silver Sparrow” by Tayari Jones

I’m continuing my reading of “best of the year” titles, this time from Library Journal.

Silver Sparrow” by Tayari Jones begins with a fabulous first sentence, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”

The novel is told by Witherspoon’s two daughters, both growing up in Atlanta in the 1980s.

The first section is told by Dana Lynn Yarboro. She is the “outside daughter.” Her mother knew from the start that Witherspoon was married to someone else. As she approached Dana’s birth, she and Witherspoon went across the state line and married. Dana grows up feeling herself second best, watching her mother work hard to ensure that Witherspoon provide well for Dana, sometimes “surveiling” the other wife and daughter. Dana begins to engineer ways to interact with her half-sister.

The second section is told by Chaurisse Witherspoon, that half-sister who is just four months younger than Dana. Chaurisse grows up not knowing about the other family. In contrast to Dana and her mother, Chaurisse and her mother consider themselves plain. Chaurisse’s story begins to include Dana, who Chaurisse describes as a “silver girl,” someone who is pretty and presents herself stylishly, someone different from Chaurisse. Inevitably, trouble happens with the two, and the secret family comes into the light.

The third and final short section returns to Dana, as an adult with a baby girl of her own. Chaurisse has “surveiled” her, and they have a brief conversation that reveals that the two are no longer connected. And yet it is clear, they will always be connected.

I enjoyed this as an old-fashioned story, told in a straightforward way. I liked how Jones included much about the working lives of the adults in the story, and her picture of African American middle class culture of the 1980’s. She develops these characters well, makes them distinct from each other, even as they all revolve around the one man, James Witherspoon. She explores themes of friendship, family, secrets, and love.

I’ve noted previously that often I’m impatient in “braided story” novels because I end up finding one person much more compelling than another. In this case, I found both girls equally interesting.

I’ll recommend this to people who enjoy novels about regular people reacting to crazy events. It’s a perfect book group choice, with so many secrets to explore and people to analyze.