Monday, July 30, 2012

The Might Have Been: Baseball, Life, and Living With Regret

In life as in baseball, regret stings. Whether that regret is a result of poor decisions or horrible quirks of fate doesn't make it less haunting. You're still left wondering "what if." This is the idea Joseph Schuster explores in his fantastic debut novel The Might Have Been.

Thirty years ago, Edward Everett Yates got an unexpected call-up with the Cardinals, just when it was looking like his baseball career was about to flame out. But he blew out his knee before he was able to record an official major league plate appearance (one sacrifice bunt, and four hits washed away by a rainout). When the Cardinals release him on the day after Christmas (insult to injury!) he gives up, and consigns himself to the has-been bin, moving back to his small hometown in Ohio where he helps his uncle sell flour.

Baseball is life, though, the rest is just details — as the Tshirt cliche goes. And Edward Everett can't quite get baseball out of his system. Fast-forward three decades, and we find a 60-year-old Edward Everett, still in the game, now managing a Single A team in a po-dunk town in Iowa.

Despite being a socially awkward, somewhat dimwitted dude, Edward Everett demands our sympathy. We want him to find his peace and we want the game he depends on to finally give back to him. In fact, the question becomes, has Edward Everett's life-long dedication to the sport he loves — despite it being the cause of many of his life's calamities — admirable or pathetic? Has a life in baseball made it worth many of his poor life choices and biggest regrets? If not now, will it ever be?

I loved this novel, but especially the second half, as we meet all of Edward Everett's minor leaguers — from the egocentric, "rules-don't-apply-to-me" bonus babies destined for Major League greatness to the fringe players just barely hanging on to their baseball dream. The story of one player in particular, a light-hitting outfielder whose days in professional baseball are numbered, highlights the tragedy of

If you're a baseball fan, you'll love this novel (published just this past March), too. It really is one of the finer baseball novels you'll find. It's a quick read with A+ storytelling. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A "Riotous" Debate on The Art of Fielding

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot last week. But it was such fun to work on, and the feedback has been so fun to follow, I thought I'd re-post here to give New Dork Review readers the chance to weigh in, as well.) 

If you’re like me, your first reaction when someone doesn’t love a novel you loved is to get defensive. But that’s not healthy or smart or really very grown-up. So when Rebecca tweeted that she’d just finished Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, and thought it was more of a swing-and-a-miss than the grand slam I thought it was (hey, might as well own those cheesy baseball analogies, right?), after a few deep breaths, I thought it’d be fun to talk out our differences.

And so watch this: Rebecca and I are going to prove you can have a conversation on the internet about something you don’t agree on that doesn’t devolve into “your mom” comments and/or suggestions about where to ram things. At least I hope.

So, let’s do this thing.

GZ: Rebecca, one of your comments was that the novel felt “insubstantial.” I thought that was interesting, because that’s the exact word Keith Gessen used to describe an early draft of The Art of Fielding in his How A Book Is Born essay in Vanity Fair. What about the book made you choose that word?

RJS: Besides the stupid 140-character limit on Twitter? What I meant when I said that was that it seemed like Harbach set out to land a heavy hit — and he certainly chose some weighty themes in sexuality, the complexities of male friendship, and the value of sport — but it didn’t quite connect. (In the absence of baseball metaphors, I shall resort to boxing references!) TAOF isn’t light, at least not in the sense of being fluffy, but it felt empty to me.

GZ: Fair enough. As I read, other than a vague notion of John Irving-ness (as well as all the references to Moby Dick — and whatever implications you can draw from those), I didn’t think too much about how weighty or empty or fluffy or full the novel seemed. I was often so dazzled with the baseball — that it was actually written authentically — and so entranced by the story, I just assumed it was weighty enough thematically to pass muster. Plus, Henry (the shortstop) and Mike (the man’s man of a catcher) are great characters — and I thought their mentor/student relationship was rendered really well.

RJS: I did love the baseball writing (I’ve absorbed enough baseball in ten years of living with a St. Louis Cardinals fan to appreciate what Harbach did there), and I agree with you about Henry and Mike’s relationship. The tension between their mentor/mentee dynamic, that is by nature unequal, and their friendship — especially as Henry grew into his own and excelled beyond Mike’s skill level — was authentic and deeply felt. But I had a hard time buying the rest of the relationships. The Pella/Henry thing came totally out of left field (ugh, sorry), and the Owen/Affenlight bit could’ve gone somewhere, but it wasn’t fleshed out. Actually, I didn’t really feel like any of the characters were fully formed — Harbach has the outlines of a bunch of interesting people, but just the outlines.

GZ: You know, that criticism about the lack of depth to the characters seems to be a common one among folks like you who weren’t fans. But I wonder how much of that is because the characters — especially in the case of Affenlight and Owen — did surprising things that went against readers’ initial ideas of them. Or maybe it’s that there wasn’t enough there about them to make anything they did surprising. And therefore they were uninteresting? Either way, to me, there was enough background, and we had enough of each character’s internal monologue (especially Affenlight’s) to give them the extra dimension. At any rate, we agree on Pella/Henry thing. Really silly.
By the way, now seems like a good time to mention that Harbach himself is quite a character. I caught him at a reading in Milwaukee last October — and he joked that when the signing was scheduled, his first thought was that he hoped no one would show up…because that would mean his beloved Brewers were playing in a World Series game that night and everyone would be watching the game. Alas…

RJS: Heh, readers know how to keep their priorities straight! I think you’re onto something with your second hypothesis about where the lack-of-depth criticism comes from. I actually didn’t feel like we got much of Affenlight’s internal monologue — we got Harbach telling us what Affenlight felt, instead. It was ye olde problem of too much telling, not enough showing. Best I can sum it up is this: they are Franzen-esque characters who make Irving-esque decisions, and those pieces just don’t work together.

Now, speaking of Irving, can you believe Harbach says he’s never read A Prayer for Owen Meany? I mean, how do you write a book in which the first big catalyzing event is a baseball accident involving a character named Owen purely by coincidence?

GZ: I didn’t know that, but I’m willing to give a guy the benefit of the doubt who took less money on his advance to work with David Foster Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch. You know, like Ken Griffey, Jr. taking less money to play for his hometown Reds, ‘cause he’d always been a fan. (Sadly, that didn’t work out too well.)

RJS: I dunno, Greg. That lower advance he took was still huge (like, ginormous) by publishing standards, AND he got pretty much all of Little, Brown’s marketing money last year. Some sacrifice…

GZ: Yeah, well – your mom! (Dammit!) Actually, Harbach did acknowledge at the reading that he went with Little, Brown, in part, because of the marketing muscle. So, you’re right — not a gigantic sacrifice.

RJS: I love you, so I’mma let you slide with that mom comment. I will say this for Harbach — when he is good, he is very good. Parts of the book are polished to a near-perfect shine. But as a whole, it’s inconsistent. And in this video (which is equal parts awesome and totally awkward), he says that some sections were edited repeatedly, while others not so much. I’d have been more forgiving if it were tighter as a whole. But really, I didn’t hate it.

GZ: Nice back-handed compliment! I have no idea if TAOF will take its place among other beloved baseball novels, like The Natural and The Brothers K, but I do know this — many of my friends who rarely read, did read this, and, to a person, really enjoyed it. I realize that’s not exactly proof positive of the quality of a novel, but it is something.

You’re up, readers! Loved it? Hated it? Lukewarm? And more importantly, why?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Hologram For The King: Waiting for Abdullah

There's a very good reason that the world of business consulting is under-represented in literary fiction. If "interesting" is Tokyo, tales of "win-win" and "streamlined synergies" are London. But that didn't stop Dave Eggers from making his main character of his new novel, A Hologram for the King, exactly the kind of business bonehead whose natural habitat is the airport hotel bar.

Eggers' novel is like an Office Space on downers. It's better than you'd expect a story about business consulting or sales to be, but it still doesn't exactly "meet its fourth quarter projections."

Alan Clay, a former executive at Schwinn, who has failed trying to start his own bicycle business, is now working as a consultant to try to pay his debts and make ends meet. Alan parlays a (tenuous) relationship with King Abdullah of Saudia Arabia's nephew to convince an IT company to send him and a team of young go-getters to the Kingdom to pitch IT for King Abdullah's newest pet project — a city rising from the desert called King Abdullah Economic City. (This is a real thing. You can read about it here.)

But it soon becomes clear that business in Saudi Arabia isn't conducted as it is here in the U.S., and Alan has to wait several weeks for the King (lots of other reviewers have compared this aspect of the story to Beckett's Waiting for Godot, if that helps), passing the time by drinking by himself in his hotel room, having a tryst with a Danish woman, hunting wolves (what?!), and worrying about the lump on his neck he's sure is cancer.

Along the way, we get several little anecdotes about China taking over the world — and how China's less-than-ethical business practices is pushing it past we stalwart Americans. Yes, doing business in Saudia Arabia is infinitely frustrating, but is it better or worse than the business environment in America, where a job you've been at for 30 years can be outsourced on a whim?

Eggers writes in the same sparse, unadorned prose he used in Zeitoun. In Zeitoun, the "Hemingway impression" worked really well to chronicle that emotionally charged issue without overt editorializing. The story stood for itself. With this novel, however, while the issue of outsourcing is equally urgent to many Americans (and the novel itself is a sort of allegory or parable or something else where the story isn't the whole story), it doesn't quite have the same emotional punch as racism and racial profiling. So the writing (and, hence, the story) just feels flat, and fairly uninteresting — just like our protagonist Alan (who, even when he tries to do interesting things, doesn't even seem like he's that interested).

So, while I've loved everything else I've ever read of Eggers', this I wasn't completely a fan of — but the uniqueness of the story (who would've thought to tell a story about a middle aged white guy trying to sell IT in Saudia Arabia?!) and the side anecdotes nearly save the novel, but not quite. Finally, it's worth noting that this is one of the more attractive hard cover novels I've ever owned — it's worth buying, just as a collectors item. Rating: 3 stars.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hot Pink: Tales of the Absurd

Adam Levin, who absolutely dazzled the dozens of us who traversed his thousand page novel The Instructions, is back with a slim volume of short stories titled Hot Pink. Again, like The Instructions, this book has drawn comparisons to David Foster Wallace — Levin's stories are hedged in logic, philosophy, and goofy-to-the-point-of-grotesque characters. (Sherwood Anderson must be standing up and cheering in his grave!) But Levin is a little more light-handed on the experimentation and postmodern acrobatics than DFW ever was. Indeed, the few stories here that aren't "straightforward," are the weakest ones, in my opinion.

If there's a common theme here, introduced with the fantastic title of the first story in the collection, Frankenwittgenstein, it's about how we find meaning — in words, in others' actions, in symbols, in the unexplained. Here's a quote from one of the stories that illustrates that:
"Whenever I smoked marijuana, I'd stare, and whatever I'd stare at would seem important. All images became imagery, sophomoric imagery, the symbolic meaning of the non-symbolic things on which my eyes fixed wholly independent of their actual functions."
If you're not familiar with the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, he had one of those embarrassing philosophical moments halfway through his life, when he realized everything he'd done up to a point was wrong. And so he spent the rest of his life refuting everything he'd written in the first part of his life. DFW was a fan of Wittgenstein's early ideas — that words have specific means and language specific rules that don't (or shouldn't) change. (This is a horribly oversimplified definition of prescriptivism, which DFW discussed in his essay Authority and American Usage.)

What emerges in Hot Pink is that Levin seems to be more of a descriptivist — that language and "things" that denote meaning change depending on the situation, as well as over time. This is most overt in the title story Hot Pink, in which a thuggish character is trying to puzzle out why, when he yells at a poor guy on the street and steals his bag of grapefruit, the things he says could be taken differently in different contexts and if said with different emphases. 

By far, the best story in the collection, and a good representative of many of the others in the collection is titled Scientific American. It's about a married couple who discover a crack in their bedroom wall that oozes a disgusting gel, and they can't figure out why. The man drives himself crazy trying to figure out what the oozing crack means. Does it really mean anything, though? Turns out, there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for the continuously reappearing crack — so the story seems to be poking fun at people who assign almost mythical meaning to things simply because they don't understand something? (A subtle satire of organized religion, perhaps?)

Like DFW, Levin is also a clever, funny writer — often mixing the low- and high-brow seamlessly. That's one of the reasons I love his stuff. The story titled The Extra Mile is four pages of old guys sitting around talking about cunnilingus. In another story, he gives one of his characters — an uber-logical wheelchair-bound teenage lesbian — this line: "Any ass worth spending all this time on must be some really good ass."

I read these ten stories over the course of about a month and loved the majority of them. Again, there were two or three — the stranger, more experimental ones — that were a bit of a drag. But overall, yes, if you're a fan of DFW's short fiction, definitely check this out.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Gone Girl: A Manipulative Mystery...In a Great Way

Gillian Flynn pulls off the greatest of tricks with her new novel Gone Girl — not only is she an expert puppet master, pulling the strings on an intricately plotted story in which her characters are constantly manipulating each other. But also — and this is the best part — while you're reading this story, she's manipulating you, as well!

When I finished this book it felt like my brain had curled up in a ball, mewling, like a kicked puppy. But in a good way, if that's possible.You go through such a range of reading emotions, such a range of feelings regarding these characters, that when you're finished, and you see how it all came together, you're're just curled up in a mental ball. 

Gone Girl is far-and-away the it novel of this summer. Everyone's reading it. Everyone's raving about it. Since it was published in early June, the buzz has steadily grown and the positive reviews have flocked in (it currently has an average of 4.14 on Good Reads — which is very high). And, in my view, all of its success is well-warranted.

The story is about two mid-30s Manhattanites, Amy and Nick, who meet, fall in love, and marry. But then both lose their magazine jobs, due to the crashing economy, and the couple moves back to Nick's po-dunk hometown in Missouri, ostensibly to care for Nick's ailing parents, but in reality because they're broke and have few other options. Suddenly, Amy disappears — but is Nick a killer?

What happens over the course of the next 350 pages of novel — told in Nick's and Amy's alternating points of view — is so intense and unbelievably good and often gut-punch-level surprising, that all I can really say about it, is this: Just go freakin' read it. Trust me, you do not want to know anything else about this novel going in, except the basics — because as I said at the beginning, the greatest trick and the best part of this novel is how adeptly Flynn plays on her readers' emotions, empathy, and ability to be surprised.

One final note: As a bit of icing on the cake, on a granular-prose level Gone Girl is one the most clever, witty, funny, sharply written novels I've read in a long time. Flynn is an ex-TV-reviewer for Entertainment Weekly, and it is very clear how plugged-in she is to pop culture and modern humor. She's Yep, it's all that good. Five stars.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The World Without You: Family Squabbles

Joshua Henkin's new novel The World Without You won't strike you as earth-shatteringly original or as a work of immense literary flair. It knows what it is — a contemporary tale about a falling-apart family — and it feels no inadequacy in that regard. It's a quick, character-driven read that means to show how a tragic event can drastically rearrange the dynamics of a family. And it's one of my favorite kinds of stories — modern, smart, and realistic.

Indeed, if you want to feel better about your own relationship and your relationship with your family, I'd suggest giving this novel a go. The members of the Frankel family have loads of problems, but finding someone to argue with ain't one. The three mid-to-late-thirties Frankel daughters have gathered at their parents' summer house in the Berkshires to memorialize their younger brother Leo — who was killed a year ago working as a journalist in Iraq.

Long-standing problems come to a head in the emotionally charged environment of the forced "family reunion." That's especially true for the parents Marilyn and David, who have decided to end their 40-year-marriage, ostensibly because each reminds the other too much of their dead son.

Now, they have to tell their daughters, who each is struggling through her own relationship issue. Most interesting of these is the youngest daughter Noelle, now in her mid-30s, but whose teenage and early-20s basically involved screwing anything that moved. But she found found religion and settled in Jerusalem as an Orthodox Jew, where she and her lazy, angry-at-the-world husband Amram are struggling to raise their four boys.

What's more, Leo's widow Thisbe (and the couple's three-year-old son Calder, who barely remembers his father) is in attendance. And she has a few secrets she can't begin to fathom how to reveal to the family.

The World Without You is a quick read. It's not too cerebral, and it certainly won't trip you up trying to puzzle out all the hidden meanings or literary fireworks. I'd even go so far to describe it as a "literary beach read." This is the second Henkin novel I've read, after his 2007 novel Matrimony, and I've enjoyed them both. If you're not familiar with Henkin, here's a great interview with him at The Millions to help you get to know him a little better. And if you like modern, character-driven fiction about families and their troubles, The World Without You is definitely for you. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Arcadia: A Story of Idealism and Idyll

I've never not wanted a book to end as much as I didn't want Lauren Groff's absurdly good tale about a hippie commune in upstate New York to end. In four sections chronicling four distinct times in the life of our protagonist Bit, the novel is told in brief, dazzling, poetic snippets that are so alive, so evocative, you're almost surprised you can't actually taste what these characters are eating or smell what they're smelling.

But you can feel what they're feeling — and that's one of the qualities of this novel that gave me that feeling in my stomach I can't explain, but only get when I've read a novel I really love. This is a novel you read (and savor) as much for the writing as for the story. Both are fantastic.

We start in the mid 70s when Bit is five years old. Arcadia is in its formative years (like Bit), and we see the struggles and successes of creating a "utopian society," and the potential pitfalls of shielding children like Bit and his friend Helle, the daughter of the commune's founder/de facto leader Handy, from the Outside. Next we see Bit as a teenager, now in love with the tragic Helle — who bears more than a passing literary resemblance to Jenny from Forrest Gump. Helle has spent time on the Outside and has acquired a wild streak, now thinking that her and Bit's parents' dream of a communal utopia is misguided and naive.

Indeed, as we move on to the final two sections — Bit in his late 30s in modern times, now with a child and sad story, and then Bit in his mid-50s in the future, caring for his aging mother Hannah (his symbol of constancy and love) — one of the constant themes of the story is how expectations or intentions (even the best ones) often clash with harsh reality. Life can be disappointing, even for the most noble.

One of my favorite — and perhaps most heartbreaking — passages in the book describes Bit seeing a fat woman sitting on a bench in a train station, crying. Bit is appalled that no one will stop to comfort her, to ask her what's wrong. So he walks towards her, and notices a sign that says "crying woman" and a hat for donations; a weird piece of performance art. But Bit realizes that life is cruelest when it tricks you into sympathizing, but as a result of something that's not genuine.

The inside flap blurb for Arcadia alludes to Groff as "one of our most accomplished literary artists," which sounds a little high-falutin, bordering on pretentious. But I can't think of a better way to describe this novel than as a literary work of art. It's absolutely incredible — not just one of my favorite of the year, my favorite in a long, long time. Five stars.