For this review and other thoughts about underwhelming books check out: The Scruffy Rube, my independent website.
I wanted to like Summerland so very desperately. I had enjoyed Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay, I often enjoy young adult literature, I almost always enjoy baseball literature…this was as tailor-made for me as a four hopper to short is tailor-made for a double play.
But sadly, seeing all the separate enjoyable components does not automatically create an enjoyable whole (as anyone who has shared a shrimp, jalapeño pizza with me can attest). Though Chabon is talented, Summerland doesn’t show it. Though young adult literature has exploded into a range of superb genres and subgenres, Summerland doesn’t want to fit in any of them. Though baseball is, perhaps, the greatest thing ever invented (next to hyperbole of course) Summerland doesn’t show it.
Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the book is that Chabon seems to rely on the natural magic of baseball to carry through, allowing him to flit around the edges of the game with random bits of fairy stories and folklore creatures. Baseball is magic. Few people argue that point as often and vociferously as I do (for more proof of this see my nerdy baseball blog). However, baseball’s magic isn’t as simple as saying the word or alluding to a few bits of play-by-play. The magic of baseball and sports in general (for those who are truly consumed by it) is deeply personal, emotional to its core and needs to be treated with the same depth of description as Hemingway uses for war, or Marquez uses for…well…everything.
Without evoking the personal impact for himself, Chabon seems guilty of that greatest baseball book sin: “using the game to prove a point” (looking at you Bernard Malmud). Baseball is his way into a hyper-magical land of giants, fairies, pixies, sprites, demons and Bigfeet (bigfoots?). That glossing jars hardcore sports/literary nerds like myself. But if he were to take the time and let a lover of the game unfold the sport it might be a better complement to the magical world…or maybe I’m just picky.
At this point, I read this book about 2 months ago. I’ve been putting off the review – for no particular reason at all but general busywork. I absolutely loved it The Art of Fielding. I thought it was a fantastic novel. Even if you have no interest in baseball whatsoever, it’s still a great novel. I was just skimming through HelloKatieO’s review from last year, and I think she summed it up well – it’s similar to The Marriage Plot (which I read last year) and Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (although I think that might be better) and she also compared it to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit to the Goon Squad. They fall in this realm of (very) good literature that offers a critique of American culture, has beautiful prose, flawed/tragic characters and for me at least, I absorb the books in sort of a dream-like state.
If you have enjoyed any one of these novels, you’ll definitely really enjoy reading The Art of Fielding, which brings together a bunch of undergraduates at Westish College, all rallying around the baseball team and it’s underdog cum star player cum potential washout, Henry Skrimshander.
Throughout the book, Harbach uses baseball as a metaphor, but also as the ‘show’ part of ‘show and tell’ for Henry, his friends, his life, and the mental state of characters. The way Harbach describes baseball perfectly captures the grace and agility that makes it such an interesting (or if it’s not your thing, boring) sport to watch. The ways in which characters quietly strive for perfection, on and off the baseball field, are all united in their team’s struggle to become viable champions. Henry is originally recruited by Mike, a senior player on the team, and struggles to bulk up, to prove his worth to the team, but eventually becomes the leader, the bellwether of the team’s strength and capabilities. I’m not quite sure how to talk more about the book without summarizing the plot – but that’s not to say that it’s not worth enjoying, or that there aren’t deeper themes running through.
Sports movies rock. I even think the reason I like Babe so much is because it’s essentially a sports movie. An under-dog winning against the odds? A charismatic sportsman following his dream despite disappointments and nay-sayers? Bring it on. So I was mad about the movie Moneyball, it delivers on every level. And then I read the book, and was totally blown away. Wow. It’s so great.
The received wisdom in baseball is that money will buy success, and that without money any success you have is a fluke. Moneyball tells the story of the cash-strapped Oakland A’s and their General Manager Billy Beane, who clearly didn’t get that email. In 2002 they broke an American League record when they won 20 games in a row on their way to the playoffs. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The book is a fascinating thesis on a new way to look at baseball, a way to read stats and challenge convention that has lead Beane and his team to success the rulebook says should be impossible. I’m not a baseball fan, in fact before reading The Art of Fielding I had next to no idea of the rules of the game. When you’re in the grips of Moneyball though, that doesn’t matter. The psychology of players, the unexpected things that add up to success, the passion and vision of Billy Beane are utterly engrossing, whether you’re a sports fan or not. Read this book!
This was an unexpected present from a good friend, which automatically makes me like the thing, although the description did not sound like my cup of tea at all: A new housekeeper is sent to work for an ageing Math professor, whose short-term memory only spans 80 minutes, while he remembers every math problem he’s ever solved. The housekeeper quickly adapts to the challenges of this particular job, and comes to enjoy spending time with the professor and the world of maths. All this in a book that’s quite short – it made it seem rather arty. It is the perfect book for a book club discussion, but it turned out to be a lovely little book (I’m afraid at least half of this sentence is meant to sound condescending…).
The story is quite straightforward, without much pondering and soul-searching, which, along with the detached narrative voice and the fact that the only names used are those of Baseball players, keeps it out of the arty/overdone camp that I can’t stand. It’s as much about the setting and the atmosphere as it is about the plot that could have easily been made into a much, much bigger book. As it is, neither the math parts nor the slightly irritating baseball connection is dwelled upon too much, and what remains is a melancholic story about unlikely friends and the importance of memory. And baseball. (Seriously! It should have been cricket. It’s the original mathematical game. I would have read a 600-page novel about THAT. Instead, I just sat there shaking my head, wishing they would get back to the mathematical formulas…)
In short: Don’t let the subject or the review blurbs put you off this book. ‘Tis lovely.