Reviews for Art of Fielding

Booklist Reviews 2011 September #1
*Starred Review* Sports fiction has a built-in plot problem. The drama usually rides on a team's success or failure as it moves through a season to the Big Game. The team either overcomes adversity and wins, following in the clich-strewn tradition of everything from The Bad News Bears to Rocky, or it loses, a literarily more resonant route, to be sure, but inevitably unsatisfying if the reader has become a fan along the way. First-novelist Harbach finds an inventive and thoroughly satisfying solution to the Big Game problem, and it works because the reader doesn't live or die with what happens on the field. This sprawling multiple-story saga follows the coming-of-age and midlife crises of five characters at Westish College, a small liberal-arts school in Wisconsin. At the center of it all is Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop of phenomenal ability who has led the school's baseball team to unprecedented heights. Then a wildly errant throw from Henry's usually infallible arm provides the catalyst for game-changing events not only in Henry's life but also in those of his roommate, Owen Dunne; his best friend and mentor, the team's catcher, Mike Schwartz; the school's president, Guert Affenlight; and the president's daughter, Pella. In an immediately accessible narrative reminiscent of John Irving, Harbach (cofounder of the popular literary journal n+1) draws readers into the lives of his characters, plumbing their psyches with remarkable psychological acuity and exploring the transformative effect that love and friendship can have on troubled souls. And, yes, it's a hell of a baseball story, too, no matter who wins. Copyright 2011 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2011 September
A debut swinging for the fences

You don’t have to like baseball to savor Chad Harbach’s sumptuous debut novel, a wise and tender story of love and friendship, ambition and the cruelty of dashed dreams, featuring an appealing cast of characters.

From the day he discovers Henry Skrimshander on a sun-bleached American Legion baseball field, Mike Schwartz is on a mission to turn the gifted shortstop into a major-league-caliber player. Mike, the team captain who’s writing his senior thesis on the Stoics and quotes Schiller in his pregame speeches, persuades Henry to enroll at tiny Westish College, a school with a charming, if eccentric, attachment to Herman Melville that stems from the unearthing of a long-forgotten lecture the novelist gave there in 1880.

Thanks to Mike’s obsessive coaching, Henry is on the fast track to a hefty signing bonus, until the day a routine throw to first base sails wide, nearly killing his roommate, outfielder Owen “Buddha” Dunne, probably the only player in baseball history to read Kierkegaard in the dugout. But Owen is much more than a victim of Henry’s errant arm. He’s the lover of Guert Affenlight, Melville scholar and Westish College president, whose 23-year-old daughter Pella appears on campus, fleeing her brief marriage, and eventually falls into a relationship with Mike Schwartz. The ensuing intricate emotional dances only add to the growing tension as the Westish Harpooners improbably claw their way to the Division III national championship game.

Harbach demonstrates an impressive gift for balancing his exploration of these fragile entanglements with an absorb[Thu Aug 21 22:08:12 2014] Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\ line 249. [Thu Aug 21 22:08:12 2014] Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\ line 249. ing, well-plotted story, so we’re rooting as hard for the small company of troubled souls as we are for the ragtag Westish nine.

There aren’t many books of 500 pages that feel too short. But like a true fan enjoying a game of baseball as it scrolls its leisurely signature across a summer afternoon, there are moments when you will find yourself wishing The Art of Fielding would never end. It’s that good.

Copyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2012 May
New paperback releases for reading groups

Caleb’s Crossing is another expertly wrought work of historical fiction from Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks. Set in the 1600s on Martha’s Vineyard, the novel is based on the true story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. The book’s narrator, Bethia Mayfield, is the daughter of a Calvinist preacher. Smart and curious, Bethia is thirsty for a good education—the kind that only boys get. When she meets a Wampanoag Indian named Caleb who shares her love of learning, the two strike up a secret friendship. Bethia’s father—eager to help the Wampanoag people—recognizes Caleb’s intellectual potential and steers him toward Harvard. The story of Caleb’s remarkable journey from the wilderness to the classroom is nothing less than epic thanks to Brooks’ skillful use of detail, dialogue and dramatic incident. Readers who enjoyed her best-selling novels Year of Wonders and March will relish this mesmerizing mix of fact and fiction.

Chad Harbach’s home run of a debut, The Art of Fielding, is a compelling tale about the culture of sports—and so much more. Baseball whiz Henry Skrimshander has hopes of making it to the big leagues. At Westish College, the school he attends in Michigan, he’s the star of the baseball team. But when Henry makes an error during a game, injuring his teammate, Owen, he begins having difficulties on the field, and his future suddenly looks less than bright. Meanwhile, Owen, who is also Henry’s roommate—and gay—engages in a risky affair, while Guert Affenlight, president of the college and a resigned bachelor, falls deeply in love. Harbach deftly fleshes out multiple storylines while focusing on Henry’s plight, as he struggles to get back in the game. This compassionate, beautifully conceived novel earned Harbach well-deserved critical acclaim. It’s a book that fans of literary fiction—and baseball—will savor.

Ann Patchett, the best-selling author of the acclaimed Bel Canto and four other novels, returns with a darkly fascinating story about the nature of scientific inquiry. In State of Wonder, pharmaceutical researcher Marina Singh is tasked with finding out what happened to her co-worker, Anders Eckman, who died in the Amazon jungle after joining a research team. Contending with snakes, heat and mosquitoes, Marina connects with the field team, which is led by Annick Swenson, an ambitious gynecologist researching a tribe whose females have remarkable childbearing abilities. Annick was once Marina’s mentor, and encountering her brings back a past Marina is trying hard to escape. Giving readers access to the recondite world of drug research while exploring the impulses that motivate us all, Patchett has crafted an intriguing novel, filled with complex issues that will generate lively book club discussion.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2011 August #2

An amiable, Middle American, baseball-centric coming-of-age tale.

Henry Skrimshander seems bound for nowhere special, and fast. He's good enough out on the field, but not quite good enough for the Majors or the Ivy League; as he knows, "College coaches were like girls: their eyes went straight to the biggest, bulkiest guys, regardless of what those guys were really worth." Through good dumb luck, though, catcher Mike Schwartz discovers Henry and gets him a scholarship at Westish College, a middling but OK school up by Lake Michigan, which, though not of Ivy standing, doesn't lack for cliques and cabals. Henry feels somewhat adrift there, though he's steadied by the odd wisdom of the book that gives Harbach's its title. "Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does," runs one of its apothegms, even though death seems less a part of baseball than of, say, bullfighting. Henry's parents are somewhat more than adrift when they learn that he's bunking with a gay roommate who helpfully buys their son clothes so that he can fit in; their small-town heads are in full swoon, but no more than the school's eccentric president, who decides that he might be in love with one of his students at the time that his divorcee adult daughter returns home to whip up storms of the heart all her own. The tale takes turns reminiscent of The World According to Garp, though the influence is incidental; Harbach would seem to owe as much to Twain and Vonnegut as to anyone else. In the end, nothing ever quite turns out like anyone expects, which, as grown-ups know, is the nature of life. The recognition of that truth can lead novelists and their characters into cynicism or lazy contempt, but Harbach's keep both stiff upper lips and smiles on their faces. 

A promising debut—and one guaranteed to draw attention, for it commanded an unusually big advance and will likely be pushed accordingly. Stay tuned.

Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2011 April #2

Having founded the estimable literary journal n + 1, Harbach was ready for the next challenge: his first novel. His hero, Henry Skrimshander, is a rising baseball star at Wetish College whose life goes off course when he throws a wayward ball. Henry starts to doubt himself, even as team captain Mike Schwartz pushes Henry's career. Meanwhile, Henry's gay roommate pursues a risky affair; college president Guert Affenlight falls hopelessly in love; and Guert's daughter, Pella, returns to campus after ending a disastrous marriage. Harbach's smart reputation and obvious sense of whimsy are pluses, and there's that intriguing stack of relationships. Great publisher expectations, too. Check it out.

[Page 68]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Library Journal Reviews 2011 September #1

In this deft first novel, a baseball prodigy comes to Westish College, a small school in upper Wisconsin. Henry Skrimshander is recruited by Mike Schwartz, who plays at Westish and recognizes Henry as one of the greatest shortstops ever. Henry's roommate, the pot-smoking, gay, African American Owen Dunne, also joins the team. College president Guert Affenlight develops a passionate crush on Owen, with whom he improbably begins a clandestine relationship. Unfortunately, as Henry closes in on a fielding milestone, he loses his confidence and falls apart. Guert's long-lost daughter, who has returned to Westish after the collapse of her marriage and hooked up with Mike, tries to help Henry find his throwing arm again. Meanwhile, the ongoing affair between Owen and Guert becomes increasingly difficult to hide as the book climaxes at the Division III national championship. VERDICT Succeeding on many levels, this highly enjoyable and intelligent novel offers several coming-of-age tales set against the background of an exciting and convincing baseball drama. Harbach paints a humorous and resonant portrait of a small college community while effectively portraying the Wisconsin landscape and a lake that provides an almost mystical source of solace and renewal. This should be a popular novel. [See Prepub Alert, 3/14/11.]--Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta

[Page 99]. (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2011 July #4

Recalling works as disparate as Chaim Potok's The Chosen, John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Scott Lasser's Battle Creek, Harbach's big-hearted and defiantly old-fashioned debut demonstrates the rippling effects of a single baseball gone awry. When college shortstop phenom Henry Skrimshander accidentally beans teammate Owen Dunne with a misplaced throw, it starts a chain reaction on the campus of Westish College, "that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin." Owen is solicitously visited in the hospital by school president Guert Affenlight, a widower, who falls in love with the seductive gay student, a "serious breech of professional conduct" that sends potentially devastating ripples through the school. Affenlight's daughter, Pella, after a failed marriage in San Francisco, returns to become part of a love triangle with Henry and Mike Schwartz, the team captain and Henry's unofficial mentor. And just when Henry's hopes of playing for the St. Louis Cardinals come within reach, he suffers a crisis of confidence, even as his team makes a rousing run at the championship. Through it all, Henry finds inspiration in the often philosophically tinged teachings found in The Art of Fielding ("Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does"), by a fictional retired shortstop. Harbach manages incisive characterizations of his five main players, even as his narrative, overlong and prone to affectation, tests the reader's patience.(Sept.)

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