Archive for June, 2012

Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding: A Novel

June 21, 2012

Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding: A Novel is a winner for its in-depth characters, empathetic exploration of troubled relationships, and consideration of how books shape our worldview. The basic plot revolves around a young baseball player who gets recruited from middle-of-nowhere hicksville to a midwestern college. The story is told from a variety of perspectives, including Henry (the young ball player), his self-appointed coach/fellow student Mike, the president of the college, and the president’s daughter Pella. The central story line is Henry’s bumpy career in college baseball and self-discovery along the way. But several subplots also unfold, including a spoiled marriage, gay lovers crossing generational and professional boundaries, and college despair in various forms.

Harbach does an excellent job delving into his characters’ emotions and thought processes during these events. Even more difficult, he also makes his characters empathetic. As a reader, it was almost scarily easy to see oneself reflected in this troubled lot of people. But the humanity shined through so clearly that it was truly a pleasure.

The book’s title invokes a well-known baseball classic, and Harbach quotes Aparicio’s The Art of Fielding throughout the novel. But he also invokes several other texts, usually one associated with each major character. The most climactic scene even directly mirrors an event well-known from literary history (and referenced in the novel itself). Harbach weaves together other works and his novel to show, in part I think, how what we read shapes who we are and what we become.

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John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany

June 21, 2012

John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany is a sort of strange coming-of-age story about two boys, Owen Meany and John Wheelwright, who grow up in New Hampshire in the 1950s-60s. The story is told largely as a kind of flashback as John, now an adult, remembers his childhood. One gets the sense that John never really grew up in a way, or at least he struggles throughout his life to come to grips with who his friend Owen was, what he did, and what it all means. John doesn’t arrive at any moment of zen, so far as I can tell, but rather keeps searching as he puzzles over the events of his youth, along the way exploring small-town American life and questions of religion and ethics.

If you look at the book another way, however, the plot is quite familiar: an alleged divine birth and a man who struggles with his fate to save humanity. Irving makes no attempt to hide his reliance on the story of Jesus Christ and also gives no hint that, as a result, his narrative is really quite odd. Owen Meany is a strange character from the get-go, and those around him struggle to understand Owen while admiring him. Owen, even as a child, is convinced of what he has to do and the question throughout the novel in my mind was: will Owen be correct? Without spoiling the ending, let me say that I think Irving intended his readers to ask another question: How do we deal with things we cannot explain or even fully understand?