There’s so much to read in the world, and so little time! But I sneak in my moments… The minute this kid dozes in the car, I have a stack of books waiting for me. I think I might actually cackle with glee as I peel into the nearest parking lot and peruse the small library on the floor of my van. Then I crack open a warm diet Coke, because I have bad habits. (I don’t prefer warm diet Coke, I should clarify, but it, too, is kept in my van, although if I’ve been in a shady spot for a while it can tend toward pleasantly tepid rather than all-out hot-and-frothy). Then I sit back and I enjoy my little slice o’ heaven until my two-year-old wakes up again. You wouldn’t think you’d get a lot of reading done in stolen moments, but somehow my recent reading has added up, and I realized the other day that I’ve read quite a few good things this way in recent weeks. Worth mentioning, in my humble opinion:
1. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach — one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time. This one was sitting in the little free library at our YMCA. The free library is only two narrow shelves tall, back by the women’s locker room and the big standing scale where my son always asks to be weighed in the hope that he will finally have broken 46 pounds. It’s full of lots of James Patterson and Nora Roberts, but when I spied The Art of Fielding I pounced on that bad boy before you could say “Henry Skrimshander” (the novel’s unassuming hero). Further piquing my interest was the fact that whoever left the book there had somehow scored an advanced reader’s copy, with the publisher’s publicity plan outlined on the back and all the acknowledgments still forthcoming. In our midst at the humble YMCA was a local literary scene-maker, perhaps, some reviewer or critic who scored an ARC and then passed it on for the benefit of the hoi polloi.
Anyway, I dug into the book, and laughed on nearly every page. I laughed out loud, in my car with a sleeping toddler, and later in a handful of public places, and I didn’t even care who heard me chortling away. The Art of Fielding is just a darn good story, the tale of four unlikely friends at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin, three of whom are baseball players and one of whom is the daughter of the college’s president.
The young fellow at the heart of the story is a shortstop, the aforementioned Henry Skrimshander, a prodigious talent who’s devoted himself to an almost spiritual athletic practice following in the footsteps of his hero, major-league player Aparicio Rodrqiguez, author of the Zen-like manual called, also, “The Art of Fielding.” In the opening chapter of the book Henry is spotted by the baseball team captain, a lovably depressed Classics major named Mike Schwartz, who then makes it his life’s mission to recruit Henry and nurture his talent in the hope of bringing their beloved team, the Harpooners, to postseason glory.
The characters are so good-natured and well-meaning, to a man, that about halfway through I felt the slight misgiving that the book was taking on a sitcommy feel. But it roped me back in again, because there’s depth here in addition to all the good humor and patient striving. The relationship between Mike and his adoring protege Henry is especially well-done. When Henry’s lifetime of startling talent takes a sudden plunge and he goes on a streak of bad luck, the pain he feels is very real. There’s clarity, Harbach posits, in doing just one thing and doing it well — a virtue lauded again nowadays, at least among epicureans and hipsters, with a newfound championing of niche crafting and artisans — but what happens when someone suddenly cannot do that one thing? Who are they, and how can they go on?
And for Mike, ever the lovingly forceful teacher (a common refrain among this crew is the oddly affectionate promise, “I’m gonna run you til you puke”), the questions looms: who will he be when he is no longer the guru Henry needs?
I loved this book, and it made my toddler-naptimes pass all too swiftly.
2. Relatedly, I’m also reading Moby Dick. Embarrassingly, I’m an English major who’d never read in its entirety. This was a great companion read to The Art of Fielding — which is, oddly for a novel set in the upper Midwest, an homage to Moby Dick and to Mellville.
Anyway, when my smarty-pants sister-in-law and I both realized that we hadn’t read the whole book (in her case, it’s excusable — she’s a landscape architect), we vowed to read it together, one chapter at a time. Ishmael is even funnier and more manic than I remembered, and I found myself jotting down phrases and notes all over the place as I read. (“Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.”) So, while I will not be reviewing Moby Dick here on the ol’ Mil Spouse Book Review (“Has anyone heard of this hidden gem of a novel?!”), I am greatly enjoying it.
3. I devoured Katey Schultz’s collection Flashes of War, and shared a few thoughts on it here.
4. Lastly, I re-read Amanda Coplin’s gorgeous sprawling novel, The Orchardist, and reviewed it here. Wonderful wonderful, as Lawrence Welk would say.
5. Really lastly, I’m reading Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War and Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, and am so full of thoughts that my response to them is starting to look like a senior thesis.