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In which a book that appears to be about baseball is more accurately about the human condition

Title: The Art of Fielding

Author: Chad Harbach

What it’s about: Baseball is Henry Skrimshander’s life. His bible is The Art of Fielding by Cardinals shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez. It teaches him to be a leader, to play with intensity and calm, and to never, ever make an error. What Aparicio’s book can’t do for Henry though is get him out of the no-name club team in Peoria with a losing record. For that, he needs Mike Schwartz, a college ballplayer and unofficial student coach who catches Henry’s postgame practice after a local summer game. Mike sees talent in the scrawny, underweight kid, so much talent that he practically promises Henry a scholarship to Westish College in northern Michigan, a promise he delivers on. At Westish, Henry develops under Mike’s training regiment of grueling stadium runs at 5 am and Powerboost shakes with every meal. Soon he’s in the running the break Aparicio’s streak of errorless games. Until he makes a terrible mistake.

I know that synopsis makes it sound like this is a book about baseball, but it really isn’t. Well, it is, in the sense that it centers on a team of college players. But the book is bigger than the team and spends a lot of time off the field and outside of the gym. We see Mike’s struggle with pain after years of back-to-back football and baseball seasons that have ruined his knees and his resistance to being a coach (those who can’t coach) even though it’s the thing at which he excels. We see Henry’s roommate Owen, a passionate eco-activist who clips a reading light to his cap in the dugout and whose afternoons with the university president develop from friendship into something more. At least half of the story revolves around President Affenlight, a Melville scholar who has dedicated his life to Westish College, his favorite place in the world, and who is reconnecting with his estranged daughter Pella, who is running from a failing marriage that started too young and falling for the friendly and appreciative Mike Schwartz.

These five people form a tapestry, making this a human drama rather than just a story about sports. I’m not a huge baseball fan, so I wasn’t particularly excited to read this book, but I’d seen so many good reviews that I decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did. The book is brilliantly written with flowing prose and nuanced characters. I flew through each chapter, enjoying the different voices and the care that’s taken to balance thought and action. The story is thoughtful but exciting, has depth but also simplicity. It has the emotional scope of The Corrections with none of the cynicism and a ton of heart.

Would I recommend? Definitely. If you’re not a baseball fan, don’t be discouraged! Sports is really just the entry point to a complex and moving story about five people trying to learn who they are and who they want to become. Don’t miss it!

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In which I don my red scarf and join the ranks of the rêveurs

Title: The Night Circus

Author: Erin Morgenstern

What it’s about: The circus arrives without warning. It opens at nightfall and closes at dawn. You enter through a star-filled tent, only to find yourself in a black-and-white world of acrobats and jugglers, labyrinths and ice gardens, a bonfire burning white and the scent of caramel and popcorn in the air. It is Le Cirque des Rêves, the circus of dreams, and it delights patrons around the globe with tattooed contortionists, fortune tellers, and a lovely young illusionist by the name of Celia Bowen. What few people know if that Le Cirque des Rêves is merely a venue for a magical competition, two student magicians bound by rules that neither of them fully understand. Celia was bound by her father, the great illusionist Prospero, who endlessly drilled his child to shatter and fix teacups or pull birds from the air. The opponent in the game is chosen by Prospero’s longtime rival, the man in the gray suit. He selects an orphan boy, Marco, who studies ancient symbols and signs. While Celia’s education is visceral, Marco’s is cerebral. The final battle is to be a test of philosophy and much as it is skill. But to Celia and Marco, this test is so much more. It’s their entire existence. They’ve never known anything but the coming challenge, the mark burned into their fingers that signifies the bond. And after years of training and study it’s finally come in the form of something delightful. They each find themselves falling in love with the circus, challenging themselves to create more wonderful attractions and deepen its mystery, only to find that while they are supposed to be competing they are unquestionably also drawn to one another.

The Night Circus is one of the best books I’ve read all year and I’ll add it to my list of all-time favorites. What appealed to me most was the absolutely mind-consuming beauty of the narrative. I left this book with a deep, deep longing to visit The Night Circus, as if Morgenstern had pulled a hidden place from my mind and breathed life into a dream I’d always carried. The circus is almost supernatural in its pull. The story is magic, mystery, intrigue, and romance all at once. It reminded me a bit of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in terms of language and atmosphere, but it doesn’t have the density of that book and it adds desire. The Night Circus is written in a series of vignettes or scenes, which really adds to the mystery and otherworldly or dreamlike feeling. Morgenstern is able to craft striking, almost haunting images that stay with you long after you close the book. I flew through it.

Would I recommend? Most certainly! What a stunning debut! I may find it hard to forgive Ms. Morgenstern for instilling such a burning hope that the Night Circus exists, but I’ll certainly pick up her next book (and read this one again!).

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In which a Dutch clerk fights for love, honor, and country at the closed doors of secluded Japan

Title: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Author: David Mitchell

What it’s about: It’s 1799 and the Dutch East Indian Company has the only window into shuttered Japan, a tiny island called Dejima in the harbor of Nagasaki, from which they are allowed to trade sugar, cotton, and other goods for Japanese novelties and precious copper. Clerk Jacob de Zoet’s coming to Japan is less by choice and more by necessity, as he hopes to win the blessing of his sweetheart Anna’s family on his return to Holland. But five years is a long separation and Jacob finds his heart captured by Orito, a bright Japanese woman who is studying medicine and midwifery from the Dutch doctor. Troubles of the heart are the least of his worries though, as he has few allies on Dejima. He’s been tasked with investigating corruption from the previous administration and his findings are exposing the misdeeds of those still in power as well. His principles make him even less popular as he refuses to turn a blind eye as officers skim money and goods.

A natural linguist, Jacob begins to illegally learn Japanese and befriends some of the interpreters who are never far from the Dutch officers. Still, navigating foreign politics and protocols can be dangerous, as Jacob finds himself in a battle of wills with the powerful Lord Abbot Enomoto, master of a mysterious shrine from which recruited nuns never again emerge.

Though David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors, I was originally apprehensive about the plot of his newest novel. I love historical fiction, but not necessarily the colonial period, which can be a but dreary and heavy on nautical themes. But I shouldn’t have doubted Mitchell, because although there are plenty of ships, he has crafted a beautiful human drama that encapsulates a love story, political struggle, murder, intrigue, and mysticism. The cultural clash between the Dutch and Japanese is one of the most fascinating elements as we see the Japanese slowly coming to terms with the wider world and realizing that their isolation may have irreversibly handicapped them. My favorite section actually takes place away from Dejima, in the heart of Japan in Lord Enomoto’s cloistered shrine. I won’t give any more away.

Would I recommend: Yes! Mitchell is a master of language and a captivating storyteller. His Cloud Atlas is still one of my all-time favorite books because of his stunning ability to capture voice. He’s able to do what many writers of historical fiction cannot: paint a picture of the past that is both accessible to a modern audience but also authentic and raw. Though I maintain that the title is far too long, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a wonderfully fulfilling read.

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In which three intertwining stories explore how we develop an identity and how easily it can be lost or replaced

Title: Await Your Reply

Author: Dan Chaon

What it’s about: Await Your Reply is a book that you discover page by page. Each sentence, each word, reveals something new until suddenly, like a freight train, it hits you and you get it. Interestingly, an interview in the back of the book suggests that even the author had this experience. Chaon says that he began the book with a series of vignettes–a lighthouse motel on the edge of a dry lake in Nebraska, an old atlas marked up with imaginary landmarks, a magician suffering a heart attack onstage–and expanded them into a story, getting to that same aha moment when he suddenly felt the story coalesce.

That moment of realization is one of the major draws of the book, so let it be known that everything I’m about to tell you about the plot happens in the first couple chapters. And that’s saying a lot. Await Your Reply follows three different characters. The first is Ryan, who is in a speeding car on the way to the hospital with his father. Ryan’s severed left hand is resting in a bucket of ice beside him and he’s wondering if he’ll survive the night. He’d been trying to reinvent himself, he’d given up his old life for something new and daring, but it’s all breaking up now, it’s clearly taken a wrong turn.

Lucy is trying to be someone new as well. She’s run off with her high school history teacher, George Orson, and they’re holed up in an abandoned motel owned by his family in Nebraska. George has promised they’ll be rich and his Maserati and Ivy-league past made her believe him. She imagines a glamorous new life for herself in Rome or Paris, but instead she’s spending her days watching old movies while George holes up in the study, ostensibly planning their future together. She is slowly realizing that George Orson’s plans aren’t entirely legal and that their idyllic times as just “Lucy and George” are about to come to an end.

Miles, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have much of a future. His life has been dominated, overwhelmed, by his search for his missing twin brother, Hayden. Miles receives a letter or a phone call every now and then and he tries to compile evidence for or against Hayden, but it’s increasingly clear that his twin has a very tenuous grip on reality. Hayden lives in the world they invented as children. He’s a paranoid schizophrenic, believing he’s being hunted by the government, committed to living the ruin lifestyle, outside the law and off the grid. (more…)

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In which all your nightmares about getting the family together for the holidays come true

Title: The Corrections

Author: Jonathan Franzen

What it’s about: In anticipation of Franzenmania descending with the release of his new novel, Freedom, my book club decided to read the book that started it all for him: The Corrections. Written about ten years ago, The Corrections made Franzen a star. Then he dropped off the face of the planet and spent a decade working on his next novel. He’s the first living author in a decade to have appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He was selected for Oprah’s book club, but turned her down. Yes, this is a man whose book was so successful, he could say no to Oprah. (Note that he and the Big O have made up. She selected Freedom as her next book and he has gracefully agreed to appear.) So, did his first book live up to all the hype? Yes, I think it did.

The Corrections is the story of a midwestern family, their dysfunctional history and often misguided and unsuccessful attempts to connect and understand one another. Now in their golden years, Enid and Alfred are still living in their old house in St. Jude, where Enid rages a daily battle with her husband, who is rapidly losing his mobility, bowel-control, and mind to Parkinson’s disease. Once the proud patriarch, Alfred has begun to hallucinate, but hides in the basement hoping to fight off his demons and keep his children from truly seeing the extent of his dementia.

Meanwhile, each of their grown children is dealing with their own demons. Chip has lost his job as a professor following a torrid affair with a student. Now, his revenge fantasy centers on an overwrought screenplay that’s a thinly veiled story of his life. Living in New York without a steady income and recently dumped by his married girlfriend, Chip jumps at the chance to travel abroad to conduct some business of questionable legality. Gary is struggling every day with the realization that he’s becoming more and more like his father. His childish wife Caroline has him questioning his sanity as she slyly hints that he’s depressed and turns his children against him in a plot to stay away from St. Jude, Enid, and Alfred at all costs. Denise has all the trappings of success as the executive chef of the best restaurant in Philadelphia. But she is coming apart at the seams as she realizes that she’s perpetually the other woman, falling again and again into impossible relationships. It all culminates in Enid’s dream: one last Christmas in St. Jude. More than anything she wants to gather her family around her and celebrate in their home for what she realizes may be the last time.

One of the strangest things about this book is that there is no hero. (more…)

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In which yellow flowers fall like rain and I find a new favorite book

Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Author: Gabriel García Márquez

What it‘s about: Let’s start out by saying that there is a lot of debate over whether One Hundred Years of Solitude is a great book. Critics almost unanimously say it’s a masterpiece; after all, it did win the Nobel Prize. But many average readers I’ve spoken with find it boring, or give up several chapters in. I’m in the first category, though I understand why some people not might be moved by the book. It’s an acquired taste, a different type of literature than we’re used to. To me, Márquez is a modern Dickens. The appeal of his story lies in the characters, and just as in Dickens, his story is complex and spans huge amounts of time. Not everyone has a taste for Dickens; his books require a commitment on the part of the reader, and Márquez’s masterwork is no different. That said, I am officially moving this book into my Top 10 of All Time, a coveted position that I do not give away lightly.

Here’s why I loved One Hundred Years: It’s like reading a beautiful and sad dream. It’s extremely atmospheric, simply written yet emotionally complex. The breadth of the story is astounding, following the lives, loves, and deaths of six generations of the Buendía family and the town of Macondo, founded by the family’s patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendía. At first the most prominent family in town, over time the Buendías fall into decay until their great history is all but forgotten. It would be almost impossible to describe the twists and turns that the narrative takes, but the story is utterly captivating. It’s also one of the greatest examples of magical realism, which is what gives the story its dreamlike quality. Yellow flowers fall like rain, a woman ascends body and soul into heaven, rain falls for four years, a man is followed everywhere by swarms of butterflies, and men die from the intoxicating scent of the most beautiful woman in the world, but these are facts, not fantasy. It’s all part of life in Macondo and no one there would recognize these events as any more fantastic than sweeping the front porch.

To really get a feel for the book, you have to see a little of the language. Here’s one of my favorite passages, describing the death of the patriarch. (more…)

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