Tag Archives: Baseball

Book Club Reflection: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

11 Apr

As a special birthday gift to me, my book club met last Monday to discuss The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. I brought cupcakes to celebrate. I absolutely loved this book, as you can see from my review I wrote a few weeks ago. We stuck to the discussion questions pretty well and there were some really great discussion starters.

One of the over-arching questions of the entire book is, “Why did Henry loose his throw?” It affected all of the other characters in one way or another but we never really get a definitive answer. We have a bunch of different theories, but they all wind together into one. The game where he first miss-threw and hit Owen was the first one where the scouts were watching him. Henry was just a boy from South Dakota who never thought he’d amount too much but had his world rocked with the opportunity to play in college. The further opportunity to play in the pros might have stressed him out. In Aparicio’s book, he says, “There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Though. Return to thoughtless being.” We felt that Henry wasn’t able to make the return to thoughtless being because he felt so much guilt at what happened to Owen. For most of the game, he’s stuck in ‘thought.’ I suspect that he wasn’t thinking when he sacrificed himself for the team in the championship game and that finally allowed him to return to ‘thoughtless being.’

The summary of the book lists the five people affected by Henry’s stray throw as Guert, Pella, Mike, Owen, and Henry himself. Of these characters, Owen is the only one whose point of view we do not hear. Most of us never thought about this consciously, but it affects what we thought of him. It made him seem more wise and sage than he would have had we heard his thoughts. It helped him become the Buddha his teammates thought of him as. We admitted that we didn’t know Owen as well because he never narrated, but at the same time, we didn’t know Henry very well even thought we were in his head sometimes. I personally feel that Owen was affected the least by the throw (you can argue if you want) and that’s part of the reason he never narrates.

Mike and Henry have a very unique relationship. We questioned if Mike gives too much of himself to Henry and why. I think Mike gave too much before the main action of the story, but by the time the book began, he had stopped giving so much. He was keeping his school acceptances secret from Henry and then later his relationship with Pella. I feel he had given too much and no longer had much to gives. We suspected it had to do with how Schwartz grew up, with an absent father and his mother dying. I think he wanted to care for someone in a way no one else cared for him.

After Henry’s miss-throw, he punishes himself physically in a way he’s never pushed his body before. Why would he do this? We believed that hard work was the only frame of reference he had to improve himself. When he wanted to move from a scrawny farm boy to a college athlete, it was by hard work and eating well. To move from his error back to error-less ways, the only thing he could think to do was work harder.

The part of the book (as I mentioned in my review) that bothered me the most was the time when Henry and Pella had a ‘relationship’ together. I hesitate to say it was a real relationship because of how dysfunctional it was, but they were together in a loose sense. We asked each other why this would happen. We suspect that Pella was willing because she was being driven away from Schwartz because of Henry. All Mike would talk about for a long time was how Henry needed him to improve and how Henry was going to be okay. Pella was sick of feeling like the mistress in her own relationship. Henry was looking for something to cling to that he could see as ‘normal,’ something that would make him feel like things were going to be alright after all. He was completely using her, but I think she was using him as well. (I still like my theory that he was trying to become Schwartz, but I don’t have much evidence to back this up.)

We talked a lot about Guert and Owen’s relationship. For much of the book, we felt that it was one-sided, with Guert putting a lot more of himself out in the open and risking a lot more to be with Owen. At the very end, when they bury Guert at sea, I finally saw Owen’s emotional attachment to Guert and understood that they had a mutual understanding and caring.

Even though Guert is so much older than the students, there are several ways in which he was a lot like them. He was rather immature in a lot of ways and still acted like a student. He had been in academia his whole life, never even moving off campus. He still lived in a glorified dorm, spent money like he was poor (except the Audi), and didn’t recognize life outside of campus. He never really had to fend for himself and could stay hidden in the bubble of Westish. I feel this is part of the reason Owen could relate to him so well.

We talked about if Owen goaded Guert into their relationship and there was some disagreement. Owen was the more obvious flirt but as the older and authoritative figure, was Gert responsible? I personally feel that at 20 or 21, Owen was fully aware of what he was doing and the risks it involved. I think Guert was confused about his feelings for most of the book but though Owen might have pushed him, he was better off for it.

We talked a lot about Harbach’s decision to have a gay teacher-student relationship and how it affected the story. Many of our members felt that if Owen had been female, the punishment would have still existed, but the stigma wouldn’t have been so harsh. Some also felt that this book is a product of its time because has this been forty years ago, not much would have happened if a male administrator was having a relationship with a female student. But this was a modern gay relationship. Was Harbach trying to ‘make it different?’ Why would he choose this tool? I personally think a part of it was to flip Pella’s world and change her view of her own father completely. We also brought up how Owen fit a lot of gay stereotypes and we couldn’t reach a conclusion as to if this was rude or not. I usually find blonde stereotypes rude but if they’re true of one character, are they really stereotypes? Guert didn’t have many of these characteristics (clean freak, well dressed, etc.) yet he was still gay.

Do others besides athletes go through what happened to Henry? Of course. Writers and artists can have a writing or creative block. But unlike athletes, writers and artists suffer through their block alone and in private. Athletes have to suffer through it in front of an audience watching their every move. Even though I’m a writer, I still feel that what athletes have to go through is worse.

The term ‘monomania’ means the pursuit of a single thing. It’s a big theme in Melville’s Moby Dick. In The Art of Fielding, some of the characters are chasing whales as well. Henry in pursuit of his throw and Guert in pursuit of Owen come to mind. Schwartz is an interesting character when one considers this question He had high standards for himself as to what he would do in life. He wanted to be a politician and would only attend one of the best law schools in the country. He wouldn’t work as an athletic director at Westish because he was going to do better on his LSAT. Some of our group felt that he was setting himself up for failure by having such high expectations. I think he wanted as much for himself as Henry did and had the same single-minded way of going about it. As for what Owen and Pella are chasing, I think it’s less clear. However, I think Henry’s single-mindedness affects them all.

When Henry sacrificed himself for the team, I argue that was when he returned to ‘thoughtless being.’ Until then, he had never had to give anything up for the team before. They other boys were a platform where he could show how good he was and give himself the opportunity to go pro. When they made it to the national championships without him, Henry realized he had to give something up for the team they way they gave up for him.

We were surprised that Henry went to the game at all. He had eaten so little that he could barely walk. We thought it was a flaw in the plot of the book that Henry deteriorated so much physically at the end yet was still able to function. It seemed almost unreal that he could absorb so much with so little food or activity.

When the characters exhume Guert at the end of the book, it’s a strange tribute to pay to the man most affected in the novel. It’s also amazing they did it while so intoxicated. I believe the reason Pella wanted to do it was so that she would have some control over her father’s death. What she knew about him had changed so extremely right before he died that Pella must have felt she knew him less than she had thought. When the Dean told Pella about the timing surrounding Guert’s death, I feel she felt that she knew his death less than she did before. She’d believed a heart attack and yet again everything she thought she knew was thrown into the air and rained down around her in a beautiful mess. If she buried her father, if she knew where he was and no one else did, she would finally have some control over their relationship and he couldn’t surprise her any more.

This book was great for book clubs and if you’re looking for a good read right at the beginning of baseball season, this is a great one. You don’t have to know baseball very well to appreciate it. I hope you can pick it up and enjoy.

Until next time, write on.

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Book Review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (5/5) Renewed my faith in baseball

20 Mar

I wish I could like all book club selections as much as I liked this one, but then there wouldn’t be much debate, would there? I guess the debate is good and I’m wondering who the dissenters in our numbers will be. As a note, I’m changing up my format for book reviews. Let me know if you like this better or if I should go back to my old style.

Cover image via Goodreads.com

Cover image via Goodreads.com

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Chaos theory says that a butterfly beating its wings can cause the end of the world. One errant throw by Westish College shortstop Henry Skrimshander changes the live of five people by the end of the season. Missing the throw and breaking his streak of error-less games gets into Henry’s head and won’t come out. Westish College President Guert Affenlight has to face being a father again and falling in love with a much younger man. Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, is escaping an unhappy marriage by coming home to her father and pursuing the education she skipped out on before. Owen Dunne, is injured by Henry’s errant throw and finds comfort from someone he didn’t expect. Mike Schwartz, Westish catcher and captain, can’t understand why his tutee Henry can’t throw and why Pella Affenlight is so irresistible. As their lives crash and intermingle during baseball season, the ripple effects of one mistake overwhelm the reader.

Now for the spoiler’s summary. If you haven’t been here before, I like to discuss endings. Pella meets Mike soon after arriving at Westish and the two start dating. She takes a job in the kitchens to ear her own money and finally starts to feel in charge of her own life. Schwartz starts to realize he’s given himself up completely to Henry’s training and is becoming resentful. He starts keeping things from Henry, his relationship with Pella included. Meanwhile, Owen and President Affenlight embark on a strange and dangerous love affair. Owen feels like a plaything to Guert and the two take a small vacation together on the eve of the division championships. At the championship game, Henry decides to quit the team and walks off of the field mid-game. His depression continues for a few days and when he doesn’t make the bus for the play-offs, Mike sends Pella to fetch him and send Henry to follow in a car. When Pella gets to his room, Henry refuses to go and the two sleep together, ruining Pella’s relationship with Schwartz and embarking on a relationship with Henry. On the eve of the national championships (always on the eves, huh?), the dean of Westish tells Guert that he’ll be investigated for a relationship with a student. He gives Henry his plane ticket to the game and dies in his apartment that evening.

There is so much to talk about with this book. I think it will make for a great discussion at our book club meeting. I don’t really like to rehash plot so much, but if you’re going to spoil the ending for yourself and read the paragraph above, You’ll need to know these details for my discussion here and in my book club reflection. This book is so well written and the audiobook was done beautifully. I was concerned that this would be a ‘boy book’ that I wouldn’t like and that my female-heavy book club would not get into. I was surprised to find that though the book focuses on baseball, the technicalities of the sport were minimal and Henry’s path to become an athlete was a lot more universal. After the initial bad throw, baseball really becomes a background to the characters’ lives.

I loved the unique names in Harbach’s story. Guert and Pella were a little out there, but almost crazy last names like Starblind, Arsh, Skrimshander, and Affenlight were so realistic it made me smile. I liked how complicated of a character Mike Schwartz was. He had some of the jock stereotypes about him but at the same time, he was very driven to achieve highly for himself and not rely on his physical abilities and had the brain power to go places. Maybe not the places he wanted to go (Yale, Harvard), but places. On the other hand, I felt that Henry was a very flat character for a lot of the book. He didn’t have much of a personality until the last quarter of the book and I would liken him to a robot because he did what everyone else asked of him.

My favorite character has to be Owen Dunne. He was so quirky that I fell in love with him early on. Henry has pegged him as such a hippie-brain that when he tries out for baseball, Henry’s in complete shock. Instead of being a stereotypical athlete like Schwartz, he reads in the dugouts and takes the coach’s comments seriously when he’s yelled at. I could picture it so perfectly and it was all so believable. Harbach really created a three-dimensional character with Owen.

Even though I loved and was very invested in all of the characters, I couldn’t find one that I really related to. Pella, as the only woman, was the most relatable, but her decisions seemed rash and hurried to me and I couldn’t sympathize with her ruined marriage or depression. I think I felt a level of camaraderie with most of the characters because of the college setting. I went to a small private liberal arts school (though not in Wisconsin) so I could understand the underfunded sports, feeling of knowing everyone in town, and seeing the president at a sporting event. Part of what drew me in at the beginning was the school and how much it reminded me of my alma mater.

My favorite part of the book would have to be when Owen and Mike are looking for Henry after he walks away from the game. I loved that they didn’t find him and that instead they find a teammate and Henry’s sister and that all the quirks of Owen and Mike (cleanliness and bossiness respectively) show while they’re looking through the bar for Henry. I thought it was very believable and I could see it happening in a small college town.

The part of the book that really angered me was when Henry was living in Pella’s house. They decided to be together on such short notice, without having really talked to each other before they had sex and knowing that it would hurt Mike. I understand that some things can be helped, but it seemed obvious to me that Pella knew it was a mistake yet she let Henry stay on. And then after Henry’s concussion, it was as if that had never happened. I was really frustrated with the characters.

If I’d written the book, I think the only thing I’d do differently is to write in some more female characters. I guess this isn’t surprising as a woman criticizing a male writer, but I thought he wrote Pella pretty well and could have done another female lead with equal ability.

I loved this book. It’s a great book for college students through adults and will appeal to men and women. I give it a full 5 out of 5 stars.

This book fulfilled ‘Wisconsin’ for my Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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