Book Review: ‘1Q84’ by Haruki Murakami

The first thing you need to know about Haruki Murakami’s hefty slab of a novel1Q84 is that it sizzles. Seriously. Pick it up off the display at your local bookstore. It’s like 5 pounds and it’s wrapped in this higher-test version of cloudy tissue paper and there must be an electric power source, a fork in an outlet, something, coursing through this thing. At the very least, magnets. Touch it. You’ll see.

The story centers on Aomame, a sleek and level-headed assassin slash physical trainer, whose world shifts a little to the left after she climbs down a super-secret ladder during a traffic jam on an expressway. She’s late for a date involving a sharp weapon, an abusive businessman, and a discrete spot on the back of his neck.

The cab driver who alerts her to this exit warns her that if she takes this route off the expressway, not to be surprised if the world changes. Sure enough, she starts noticing subtle differences right away and begins referring to the year formerly known as 1984 as 1Q84. When Aomame isn’t stealthily killing bad men or tweaking people’s muscles into sweaty submission she likes to dress in her one remotely sexy outfit and get nuts with anonymous balding men in hotel rooms. Occasionally this involves a tag-team effort with her new friend, a bi-sexual female cop.

At the same time Tengo is a solid writer whose work lacks that certain something. His all-knowing editor comes to him with a proposition: He has discovered a 17-year-old girl with a great story, “Air Chrysalis.” Fuka-Eri just needs someone solid to re-write it and she has the potential to become a bestselling sensation — as long as no one outside the inner circle ever finds out the truth about the ghost re-write. This solitary math teacher by day, writer by night reluctantly takes the job. The book becomes a hit, but it unleashes a hoard of mysterious troll-sized critters with a pretty serious religious affiliation.

The second thing you should know is that 1Q84 has that signature Murakami-ness to it that makes it feel like he is this wordy puppeteer who blurs the landscape into something dreamy so everything feels like you’re still awake, but not awake enough to know that, I don’t know, your second grade teacher wearing a Superman costume? Or in this case, the world doesn’t have two moons. It feels enough like Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for a reader to know that these two books have the same birth father.

It goes without saying when it comes to Murakami that there are plenty of places in this book to shelve your disbelief. The difference between him and other writers is that you don’t slam the book shut and say: REALLY, HARUKI?! These Shrinky Dink beings just crawled out of a dead goat’s mouth? Or REALLY, HARUKI? You’re going to convince me that this hulking, immobile pedophile is a misunderstood conduit of religious truth and that part of this sacredness involves his . . . boner? It only seems whack when you say it aloud.

You should also know that sometimes reading Murakami’s sex scenes feels a little clinical, but clinical in this way that is like your homeroom teacher saying the word “genitalia” multiple times in a really long drawn out way.

This book is long. It’s divided into three sections and the first two slide by seamlessly, but the third is an alright-already-old-man, get-on-with-it that includes some nonessential subplots, repetition, and some almost-coincidences that are a frustration because of all the actual coincidences we’ve signed on for. It’s a little sitcom-y in the style of: one character walks into a bar looking for a character who has just left through the back door, times, like, 100. At the same time, it never settles into a boring sputter, so. Anyway, fun read.

This review was originally posted on December 27, 2011, on Minnesota Reads.

Book Review: ‘It Chooses You’ by Miranda July

At first I didn’t like Miranda July. She seemed too precious. Her first book of short stories, contrived quirkiness. Like watching Zooey Deschanel shop for leg warmers at Goodwill. But I didn’t like Miranda July in that way that meant I’d be peeking out from behind the curtains to watch her walk down the street. I didn’t like her in a way I understood to mean that I didn’t like her right now, but that wasn’t necessarily my final verdict.

Then I loved Miranda July. It was her movie “Me You and Everyone We Know,” which she wrote and starred in. It was different. Nice. A little uncomfortable. Mostly different, with clever characters whose motivations I didn’t understand, made better for the not understanding. There was minutia, and I’m really into minutia lately. It was funny, but not obviously funny. It was an hour and a half I didn’t regret at all. And now. And now.

Miranda July tipped me over with It Chooses You, the memoir slash journalistic exercise she wrote while she was supposed to be doing something else, namely the screenplay for another movie. It’s a familiar moment she describes, and the reason why my boyfriend and I — both in the middle of other creative projects — first started a basement rock band, then started a web comic (although neither lasted long).

“The funny thing about my procrastination was that I was almost done with the screenplay. I was like that person who had fought dragons and lost limbs and crawled through swamps and now, finally, the castle was visible. I could see tiny children waving flags on the balcony; all I had to do was walk across a field to get to them. But all of a sudden I was very, very sleepy. And the children couldn’t believe their eyes as I folded down to my knees and fell to the ground face-first with my eyes open.”

July starts contacting people who are selling things in the Penny Saver: a suitcase, a leather jacket, cats, a blowdryer. She doesn’t want their stuff, she wants to meet them and talk about stuff. She takes along a photographer, Brigitte Sire, who has her work included in this book and July’s assistant Alfred “… to protect us from rape.” She trades about $50 for a session with these people and asks them about their lives and when they were the happiest. She meets a mid-transition transsexual (selling a leather coat) and a teenager selling bullfrog tadpoles and at a house where a woman is selling a blowdryer, the woman’s daughter sings for them “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus.

And somewhere in Los Angeles, July meets Joe, an old man who has spent years writing dirty poems for his wife. Lots of “tits-and-twats” stuff. He inspires a direction shift in July’s script and then role in her movie “The Future.”

I’m not sure where a person in the book business shelves this. At our local bookstore it was with films/movies/TV. But I’d give it more of a memoir, memoir-y, memoir-ish label. She has a very favorite-blogger voice, funny and a collector of stories, circumstances and non-event events. Just kind of honest sounding. Maybe I’d even stick this book somewhere near Bird by Bird, the quintessential “How to Write Good” guide by Anne Lamott. Especially when it comes to the short personal bursts, writing “The Future” or doing anything creative, actually. She talks about her style when it comes to creating films, being grateful that she is a part of it, but:

“I was desperately trying to remind myself that there was no one way to make a good movie; I could actually write anything or cast anyone. I could cast ghosts or shadows, or a pineapple or the shadow of a pineapple.”

Just pages later she has left a copy of her script untouched. She’s trying to become unfamiliar with her main characters. She imagined it curing like ham, the longer she left it. She also tries to trick herself. She’s a snoopy housekeeper who has stumbled upon this packet of words:

“‘What have we here,’ I said to myself, peeking at the first page and then slyly glancing over my shoulder.”

How many times, how many times.

This review was originally posted on December 1, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Book Review: ‘Sophie’s Choice’ by William Styron

In August I read an essay by Alexandra Styron that partly recounted the first time she tried to read her father’s most famous work. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron was still in galley form, and I suppose, symbolically, so was she. Alexandra made it about as far as the narrator’s erotic dream before she worried about barfing on her loafers. Then, despite the hullabaloo that surrounded the movie and the fact that she, herself, became a writer, she didn’t double back until she was in her 30s and curious about the man she remembers as less hands on and more Great Male Artist.

In reading it, she meets young Stingo, the young writer her father was when he first moved to Brooklyn in the 1940s.

“The experience was, well, death-defying. Thrilling and nausea-inducing and I communed with my father in the full bloom of youth. Not Stingo, but Daddy, so vivid and living so close I felt I could turn around and touch him back through the years.”

And that’s how a writer I’d never heard of sold me on reading a book I’d only heard of.

Sophie’s Choice stars Stingo, a reluctant virgin who has moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn with plans to write his debut novel. His first two experiences with his upstairs neighbors include a domestic bloodletting and a wicked ceiling shaker of a sex scene. He meets Sophie, a Polish immigrant with a tell-tale tattoo from time spent in a concentration camp — though she is not Jewish, and Nathan, who is. Nathan is also a commanding presence, smart and dramatic. Stingo falls in love with the former and craves affirmations from the latter. They become a friends-forever threesome, hanging out at the bar, traveling to Coney Island — when things are good. But Nathan is prone to sudden bursts of paranoid fury that always end in snot and tears. And when he darts out into the night, hurling insults and vowing its over between all of them, Stingo and Sophie nurse each other and talk about her chilling background.

Huge chunks of the book flash back to Auschwitz, where Sophie and her children are taken when she is discovered illegally carrying meat. She describes the sights, sounds, starvation, and smells — and the survival tactics that haunt her. Then Nathan will cool down, return to the scene, and everything is like Paris in the 20s all over again.

The characters are so complete, between the balance of likability and flaw. Stingo is naive and a people-pleaser, guilty about his Southern upbringing. So resentful of his virginity that he goes from Mr. Nice Guy to a Chaffed Loin Jerk every time he feels like he has paid his dues at first base and is ready to take a lady to a grand slam land. Sophie is sad and the more she talks, the more Stingo realizes she has actually told him less. She has a bare bones version of the truth. Then there is the truth. Then there is the whole, whole truth. The one that plagues her (and has become a metaphor for people who must choose between two impossible things). Nathan is just crazy. From day to day he might stir his friends into a frothy lather of happiness, or whip them into shells of their former selves, stripping them of any sense of self worth.

In one of my favorite parts of Alexandra Styron’s essay, she writes about answering the phone at her childhood home and taking messages from a series of accented women from around the country, each claiming to be Sophie.

This review was originally posted November 8, 2011, on Minnesota Reads.

Book Review: ‘The White Album’ by Joan Didion

Dear Shevaun,

You left a self-addressed envelope, the size of a note card, in the Duluth Public Library’s copy of The White Album, a collection of essays by Joan Didion. Your name as both the sender and receiver. Both address labels indicate an association with the University of Florida. One is decorated with a UF, the other a cartoonish profile of a cartoon gator, its snout hanging out of a decorative oval. Neither label is very artistic minded, not the finest work of a graphic designer. I doubt this is your fault, that you are the graphic designer in question, though you might have selected these two designs from eight other versions and you most certainly were the one to decide they were at least good enough to stick to this envelope.

I assumed, Shevaun, that you were older. Perhaps of the same generation as Didion. That you had checked out The White Album for the same reason I might revisit the movie “Adventures in Babysitting” or Debbie Gibson’s “Shake Your Love.” A nostalgia for the late 1960s in California. The Manson era. Black Panthers. The Doors, sans Morrison, trying to record an album without the vocalist known for wearing black leather pants without underwear. I imagined you looked like Didion, whom Michiko Kakutani ofThe New York Times once described — using Didion’s own words from A Book of Common Prayer — as possessing “an extreme and volatile thinness. . . she was a woman. . . with a body that masqueraded as that of a young girl.” I imagined you as widowed and crafty. A woman keeping the same strict schedule for almost half a century. A woman who could write a recipe book filled with meals starring Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. A woman with things that went in certain places.

I was wrong. I Googled you. You are maybe in your mid-30s or en route. And your education is of a certain level that damn-near paralyzes me when I consider the quagmire of student loan debt you must be seeped in. My wallet weeps for you, Shevaun, and it’s weeping louder than my admiration for your commitment to furthering your education.

Did you finish The White Album? Or did the envelope mark the spot where you said: “I’m feeling you, Joan. But I just can’t, right now, give a shit about water treatment and highway systems. I was with you through the piece on the end of the 1960s. And if I’d gotten there, I might have enjoyed the one about your migraines and how you’ve learned that suffering through them is like a form of yoga.” Then the book was due and you just didn’t renew it?

Or maybe that envelope marks the point where you said: “Screw this rental. I’m buying!” I don’t remember where you parked your envelope, but if this is the case I bet it is where Didion says:

“I am a thirty-four-year-old woman with long straight hair and an old bikini bathing suit and bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a tidal wave that will not come.”

That’s the sentence I read over and over again while sitting at a tall top table at Subway, unsure of why it snagged my attention. It’s an easy sentence. A descriptive sentence. The sentences around it provide perspective: her marriage is on a precipice. There have been tidal wave warnings. Literally. They are in Hawaii. Her daughter wanted to go for a swim. Maybe it’s just the idea of picturing Didion as a thirty-four-year-old when for all of my life she has been post-thirty-four. And maybe it’s because I have a fortune teller’s view of her future.

Many decades later the tidal wave will come and that tidal wave is The Year of Magical Thinking. Writing, Shevaun, is a weird thing. I’m cooking up a theory on Didion as the OG blogger.

I can give or take Joan Didion. Her curiosities aren’t necessarily mine — the essays on water treatment and the the highway system. But when she turns an eye on herself, buying a dress for Linda Kasabian, witness in the prosecution of Charles Manson or on her first book tour and ordering a Shirley Temple from room service for her daughter, I take her. I take her like the Lothario on the cover of a bodice ripper, chest like fine leather upholstery and hair like a windsock.

Best Wishes,
Christa

This review was originally posted on October 17, 2011, on Minnesota Reads.

Book Review: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

In my 1980s, video games did not even play a supporting role. We didn’t own Atari. My parent’s loathed fads, ‘it’ items. Things advertised between cartoons and things that made moms trample moms in the Toys R Us parking lot. Plus it was expensive. Addictive. An indoor sport. The first in a long line of begats: Atari begat Nintendo begat Marijuana begat Satanism.

Occasionally there was Pac Man. A local pizza parlour, owned by the then-mayor, had a decent game room. We would both get a single quarter to wait out our pie. First my brother ripped and jerked the joystick. Then, at the dizzy ‘Game Over’ spirals, he took my quarter and lost again. Back at home he drew me a detailed picture of a Pac Man board on loose leaf paper. Bite sized nuggets inside a maze with tiny jagged ghosts. Pac Man’s mouth open wide, paused with a look of a triumphant roar. My brother told me I could play with that. (Give me a break).

Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, in all its geeky 1980s glory is a vision of 1980s pop culture — it’s not my vision of 80s pop culture and I did have to Google a few things related to Dungeons & Dragons.

The gist: All the world co-exists on OASIS a pretty realistic non-reality online world, multi-purposed as fun and educational. When the creator James Halliday dies, a contest is announced in which savvy gamers vie for his fortune. Finding Easter eggs he has hidden within OASIS. This hunt requires plenty of 1980s pop culture knowledge — for instance, being able to quote verbatim a character’s lines from an entire movie and being able to get a perfect score on Pac Man. Our hero is Wade Watts, who has little money and less family, but has spent his whole young life studying Halliday’s interests. He and his posse, including a bestie he’s never met IRL and a girl whose blog he has stalked, take on the evil corporate America to win the prize.

This story is a heckuva lot of fun, even without Jelly Shoes and Madonna. It’s boundary-less and inventive and the brain graphics are amazing.

Cline’s debut novel had me thinking a lot about my 1980s.

My 1980s had two rubber bracelets, linked connected ovals on my right wrist. Plain barrettes woven with alternate-colored ribbons that hung so long they hit my shoulders. White Keds, followed by red Keds, and denim Keds. Jeans decorated with thin white pinstripes.

‘I’ll never in my life not wear pinstripe jeans,’ I told my mom.
‘I don’t believe that’s true,’ she said.

In my 1980s I bought florescent pink Wet & Wild lipstick at Woolworth. I wore homemade shorts that hung to my knees, a starchy collage of busy designs. My hair was too fine to hold a perm or a plume of bang so I went hay-straight the ends turned under, bangs hard with spray yet barely made a fan.

In my 1980s, I listened to Madonna — but not ‘Like a Virgin,’ only her self-titled debut. My mom knew what ‘virgin’ meant, though I did not, and didn’t think it was appropriate. I listened to Tears for Fears, Wham!, Lionel Richie, and Phil Collins. Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Debbie Gibson.

Some songs from the 1980s remind me of roller skating at Skate Country, where it was always dark and the lights made neon patterns on the smooth oval floor. Perfect for holding hands with a boy while listening to Journey, then skating to the snack bar for Laffy Taffy. Some songs remind me of roller skating in my basement, grey boom box plugged into the wall, skating in circles while Casey Kasem counted back the Top 40 hits of the week. Some songs remind me of rainy days on a school bus, the smell of rubber seats. And some rainy days remind me of kindergarten and the embarrassment of wearing a yellow slicker in public.

The ‘Footloose’ soundtrack, the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack, the ‘Dirty Dancing’ soundtrack. Loverboy, Guns ‘n’ Roses, LL Cool J. In my 1980s, I took a short piece of historical fiction called ‘Paul Revere,’ plopped myself on a stool, and held it open for my classmates to see. I eschewed the actual words of the story in favor of ones written by the Beastie Boys:

‘Now. Here’s a little story, I’d like to tell,’ turned the page, ‘About three bad brothers, you know so well.’ Flip. ‘It started way back, in history, with Ad-Rock, MCA and me, MIKE D!’

In my 1980s I liked ‘Goonies.’ We watched ‘Stand By Me,’ rewinding and rewinding a part where an old man says ‘Loony, loony, loony’ and then we would cackle. I liked Wil Wheaton best. (Still do). I thought ‘Dirty Dancing’ was stupid, but watched it anyway at every slumber party I went to. Later we would crawl across the floor singing, ‘Sylvia? Yes, Mickey? How do you call your loverboy? Oh, loverboy. And if he doesn’t answer? C’MERE LOVERBOY.’ I liked both Coreys in ‘License to Drive,’ and thought Mercedes, with her thick chunks of blonde spiral, had the best hair in the world. The volleyball scene from ‘Top Gun’ set puberty in motion and ‘You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling’ would become a song I would never not know.

The only poem I’ve ever memorized, I memorized watching ‘The Outsiders.’

In my 1980s I most related to Mary Stuart Masterson. Denim shorts to her knees, drum sticks in hand. It was the unrequited-ness of her crush on Eric Stoltz’s character in ‘Some Kind of Wonderful.’ That moment when he practices kissing her.

‘Pretend I’m her, Amanda,’ she goads him. ‘I know it’s a stretch. But try it.’

His hands on her hips, morphing into claws as they turn up the heat. She realizes she’s a little too into it and pulls away.

‘You’re cool,’ she says.

In the 1980s I loved ‘Fame.’ Leroy, with his perky buns wrapped in tight grey sweatpants. I loved ‘The Young and the Restless.’ When it was over for the day, it was time to walk to kindergarten. This only became an issue when the storyline involved Nikki as a stripper. My favorite show became more real when Michael Damian, who played the rock star Danny Romalotti, had a real song on the real radio. ‘Rock On.’

I loved ‘Scooby Doo’ and its antithesis ‘Three’s Company.’ ‘Facts of Life,’ and ‘Silver Spoons.’ ‘Punky Brewster,’ the real-live show but not the cartoon. ‘Smurfs,” though.

Alex P. Keaton has always reminded me of my brother.

In my 1980s, I could moonwalk and do the worm, kind of, in a spastic seizing way. I had choreography for ‘Eye of the Tiger’ that I performed in the front yard and loved to scream ‘GHOSTBUSTERS!’ ‘I could do a back handspring, but not the splits. I could take a soccer ball and kick it in a way that it went over my head and landed in front of me. I had a T-shirt that said Orange Crush, I had a sweatsuit that said “Let’s Get Physical.” I had a two-toned baseball-style shirt that said “Totally Awesome” in glittery balloon letters.

I took the Pepsi Challenge, and picked Coke every time. I bought a copy of ‘The Get Him System,’ a self-published book about winning boys advertised in the back of a magazine. It didn’t work; I didn’t even try for the money-back guarantee.

I had an Esprit bag slung over my arm and kept my pencils in a LeSporte sac. My stuffed Garfield was dressed in a jogging outfit. I ripped photos of cute celebrity boys from magazines and hung them in a fort. The smell of paper when I matched my lips to Rob Lowe’s.

Where Cline’s novel has that glowing green tint of an old-school game of Pong, my lean was more Hubba Bubba pink with a side pony.

This review was originally posted on October 10, 2011, on Minnesota Reads. 

Book Review: ‘Visible Man’ by Chuck Klosterman

It’s obvious where Chuck Klosterman came up with the premise for his novel The Visible Man. Old Red Beard’s 2009 book of essays Eating the Dinosaur includes a chapter about watching through the window a twentysomething woman who lived in an efficiency apartment similar to his own in Fargo. Making dinner, working out on a NordicTrack, cooking an elaborate dinner, and then fighting with her boyfriend.

Did she watch him, too? He suspects she did. Maybe even watched him barf one night. Or maybe that was a dream.

‘For two years I watched a revolving door of nonevents that never stopped intriguing me,’ he wrote.

Thus the invention of the character with the alias Y__. Victoria Vick is a therapist who has begun sessions with Y__, who reveals that he was involved with a government project that resulted in the creation of a series of sprays and creams that make it possible, through light refraction, to travel through the world unseen. He’s not invisible, per se. He’s just deeply camouflaged.

Y__ takes advantage of this invention — a project that was abandoned by his fellow creators and forgotten by the government — to slip into people’s homes and observe them. He is fueled by the belief that you can never really know someone unless you see them when they are alone. That their public self is merely an adaptation that shifts depending upon who they are with.

Y__ doesn’t necessarily want a therapist. He wants to unburden himself of a secret. The nights spent silently watching a woman go for a run, come home and go nuts on a bong, binge and run some more. Eventually he feels he has to intervene. He believes that if he throws off this cycle, she will find some relief from her addictions. He eventually intervenes with bad results.

Then Victoria becomes a little too interested in Y__ and his unique lot.

The novel is played as a series of meetings with Y__ that have been compiled for publication. It includes summations of sessions and emails that she wrote to herself afterward, the standard note-taking of professionals who have to record inane details about your life so that the next time you get a cavity filled you can resume a conversation about pets and vacations.

The Visible Man suits Klosterman’s strengths as a writer, debater, and pop culture expert in a way that his debut novel Downtown Owl did not. His forte is the hypothetical scenario that includes a wild card element — then giving it fan fiction treatment. With Downtown Owl, the wild card was merely a looming storm. The end result was Klosterman squeezing himself into some sort of mold of what a novel should look, feel, and sound like. It was better than okay, but it felt like Klosterman wearing Jon Hassler’s face paint.

Chuck Klosterman has a very distinct and powerful voice. Like, if you spent too long with him or read his entire canon, you would be in danger of catching it. This is a pro when it comes to his essays; a detriment to his work as a novelist. The three main characters in Downtown Owl sounded like incarnations of the same person, all saddled with the burden of a Klostermanian accent. Almost all of The Visible Man‘is the in the words of Y__. So when he leans Klostermanian, it works because he isn’t pitted against another version of himself. (Adversely, with the character Victoria Vick, Klosterman seems to have over-corrected and written a woman who is pretty dim and seems like an unlikely candidate for a career in therapy).

Klosterman still makes a better essayist than a fiction writer, but with The Visible Man he gets pretty damn close. This is a super fun read that leaves you watching yourself a little more closely in those alone moments, wondering ‘What would Y__ see?’

This review was originally posted September 26, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Book review: ‘The Art of Fielding’ by Chad Harbach

By this time last year, the world of contemporary fiction had me dizzy with a one-two whammo of love and envy. Shit was tight. I wouldn’t pay $50 to press my breasts against the stage while my favorite band played. I’d have paid $50 times 50 to scrape gum off Jennifer Egan’s shoes or observe Gary Shtyngart with his lips wrapped around a bottle of top-shelf vodka. And then there was Freedom and then there was House of Tomorrow. Panic ensued: Which one did I want denting my cheek when I went to sleep? Would Hilary Thayer Hamann be my little spoon?

This year has been a dud. I say that as of right this second. There is a lot of promise in that yet-to-be-released queue. But if someone dangled me by the ankles over a body of water teeming with water snakes and said: “Give me your Top 10 of 2011 or you’re going down, kisser to forked-tongue-kisser!” I’d end up with a face full of belt material.

I’d have my number one, though. Reading it felt like a sigh. Finally something I can strap to this dismal year to keep it afloat. Thanks, Chad Harbach.

The Art of Fielding, Harbach’s debut novel, has that Irving-collegiate chill to it, though it’s coming off the Great Lakes rather than an East Coast bay.

The story is built around Henry, a kid from small-town South Dakota with no life plans, but who is pure poetry at shortstop. He’s complicated in his lack of complications. For more than 500 pages, little else about him will be revealed. Baseball genius, reads and re-reads his idol’s book The Art of Fielding. No favorite foods, no lust, no introspection, no humor. Just baseball and what it takes to get better at baseball and what happens when he hits a terrific and ill-timed slump.

Henry is discovered by Mike Schwartz while playing summer ball. This lumbering loaf of an athlete, hopped up on the pain pills it requires to play Division III football and baseball, sees Henry’s potential and takes action. He gives Henry the hard sell, sends for his high school transcripts, goes suave on Henry’s doubting father and gets the kid enrolled at Westich College. Schwartz is a dynamo. A big body who makes things happen for other people, yet cannot kick the pills, get into an upper tier law school or finish his thesis.

The university’s president Guert Affenlight has taken a shine to Henry’s super-cultured, eco friendly, gay roommate Owen. The 60-year-old, who looks 50, falls hard in his only homosexual crush. Also: his daughter Pella has left her husband in California and is auditing classes. She’s whipped the Westich boys into a froth, but it’s Schwartz who lands her.

Then, disaster. When agents and scouts start dangling dollar signs in front of him, Henry makes a bad throw, the first presumably of his life, and everything goes haywire. He starts thinking too hard, questioning speed and aim, pausing too long and making the first baseman work way too hard. This, in turn, throws off everyone around him.

This buzz-book has gotten enough chatter that it’s impossible to not give it an extra finicky read. So you secured a $650,000 advance, eh Mr. Harbach? Big numbers for a rookie, huh? Well I don’t like the pacing of the first 50 pages! A reader might think to herself. Then that same reader might re-evaluate the critique after a bit of self-analysis: It’s not so much that Henry jumps grades within a single paragraph. It’s that he is so fun to read about that you don’t want to grow up too fast.

The novel is proof that fiction doesn’t have to start itself on fire. The story isn’t surprising or twisting or heart wrenching or cruel. It’s easy. Sometimes its predictable, but sometimes it dekes left and goes right. Hot damn if I didn’t love every single character — enough at one point to want to order 50 pizzas to Harbach’s house to get back at him for what I thought he was going to do to one of them.

Now. I need to find nine more books that sing before that ball drops.

This review was originally published on Minnesota Reads on September 18, 2011.