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.

Book review: ‘Lola, California’ by Edie Meidav

Last summer I fell in love with a wordy piece of coming-of-age fiction starring an emotionally mute young woman and a doomed love affair with an older, even more emotionally mute man, a boxer. Thinking about that book now I just see long, hot weekends on our deck with a glass of water and all of my outdoor reading accessories in a pile next to the lounge chair. I’d read. Stop. Look at the cover. Flip back to pages where I’d folded a corner and re-read. It took forever to get through and, uncharacteristically, that’s what I wanted. To never finishAnthropology of an American Girl. It totally fit this sort of inspired, albeit unfocused fit I was having. I sometimes wonder if I’d still five-star it if I’d read it in, say, November.

This past month I fell into a similar relationship with Lola, California by Edie Meidav, this massive mix of a lot and not enough.

Rose and Lana are best friends in that way teenaged girls are best friends. Barely distinguishable, two personalities pooled into one that they call Lola — after the song, of course. At night they roam the streets of Berkeley, inventing false back stories and torturing frat boys. They have this impenetrable-ness — literally and figuratively — because they are always together. By day, whether they like it or not, they are under the tutelage of Lana’s guru father Vic Mahler, who probes them with questions and then probes their answers. He has legions of fans and followers who sometimes camp in the Mahler’s front yard.

This decade-jumping story reveals early that Mahler is in his final days on death row, but also sick with brain cancer. He is tended to by an empathetic jailer who provides human contact. He mostly wants to see his daughter while it’s his daughter’s friend, who is now a lawyer, who wants to see him. The Lolas haven’t seen each other for two decades. Not since the two were living together in New York City, a tandem act at a strip club, and Lana saw on the news that her dad had done the thing that landed him in lock up. What he did and whether he is guilty is not necessarily a secret, but it’s only eluded to late in the story.

Rose re-connects, not necessarily by chance, with her old friend at a spa near the prison. Lana is living on-site as the girlfriend of a former Mahler follower who is trying his own hand at influencing packs of people. She is with her twin sons from a previous relationship that ended in suicide.

This book is dense, word and concept heavy. The plot just seems to be a place where Meidav has parked so she can make deliciously descriptive and slow meandering sentences. She’s like a super-skilled Frisbee player: The venue doesn’t matter.

The years later portrait of the former friends has its surprises. Rose has been consistent in her infatuation with Lana. And Lana has spent the years regularly reinventing herself — unable to do anything about what is at her core — trying to avoid association with the Mahler name. Vic Mahler is a humbled version of himself, the last bounces of an ego with an air leak.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of reading this one on Kindle. This is one of those books you want to flip pages on and fan yourself. Carry it around and touch the cover. But since I just have inked dot words that have been beamed down to the page from the sky, it feels like reading it was a mirage. I don’t own the book any more than I own a song that gets stuck in my head. Rookie error.

Review: ‘The Astral’ by Kate Christensen

In 1975, the world was overrun with infants named Christine or Kiersten or Kristen. At least this is how my mom imagined it. My dad, in a fit of divine improvisation, plucked a variation out of the sky. He invented the name Christa. He just made it up. Took two syllables, rammed them together and bam a name — according to family lore.

Strangers marveled at it. Relatives older than 50 bumbled it. (Even my dad eventually misspelled it on a permission slip). And for six years I was the only Christa on my planet. Then on the first day of first grade in a tiny classroom in a tiny school, there was Christa S. She was a colorful Christa who if born in a more now era she would probably have a prescription to snort Ritalin off the school nurse’s thigh before recess.

Technically, my dad still could have invented the name. She was a few months younger than me.

Regardless of the crowd of Christas in Mrs. Carr’s class, it was still an unusual name not found on magnets, pencils, mini decorative license plates or mugs, which meant the name didn’t exist in the same was as, say, Katie or Kelly. I searched every corner of every card shop and T-shirt hut at the mall. Lots of variations. Never a Christa. I had to spell it for people, twice. “No, C-H,” I’d say. Even now it bleeds into my last name for a garbled finale: “Crystal Waller?”

“No.”

In the mid-1980s, Billy Joel’s album “An Innocent Man” included a track called “Christie Lee.” It’s not his most famous song. It was never a single. It seems to have been written for his then Uptown Girl Christie Brinkley. Spelling aside, this was better than 100 Christa rainbow stickers and 100 pieces of Christa stationery. It sounded like he was singing “Christa Leigh, Christa Leigh.” Just like me.

There is a Christa in Kate Christensen’s novel The Astral. She’s the blonde pseudo-guru. She’s the leader of what seems to be a religious cult. She is described in a mish-mash of unflattering ways. She’s been imprisoned for fraud. She’s hoodwinked and bilked. She has convinced the protagonist’s 20-something son that he is the chosen one and she’s decided to marry him. She’s not smart. She’s a surfer girl. She can’t be trusted. And every time she was described in the book, I read the sentence like it was born in a fortune cookie.

She’s a minor character. But I’m still a little bit 8, pointing at someone with the same name and looking around to see if anyone else noticed.

Aside from that, The Astrallives up to its billing as a summer read. Harry Quirk is an old-school poet who hasn’t done much in recent years. His fiery wife Luz kicks him out of their home because she suspects he has been diddling his longtime best friend, who is recently widowed. He actually hasn’t been, but since he has had an indiscretion in his past there is no way to convince Luz otherwise.

So he couch-surfs and apartment hops. He tries to convince her that she has misread the evidence, a book of his poetry he is working on that she thinks is an admission of guilt. In the meantime, his freegan daughter is playing intermediary and his son Hector has fallen in with a cult-like group of religious fanatics — led by Christa.

This book is just okay.

The character of Harry feels incomplete and a bit of a contradiction to himself. He’s billed as bossed and berated, but seems to have these outbursts that are incongruent with that image. At one point he has a conversation with his exwife that is very hostile, aggressive that is probably supposed to be cathartic, but just kind of makes his “growth process” into something ugly and snarling and hard to root for.

His daughter Karina is a playground worth of potential, but her freegan lifestyle isn’t really explored and instead she just plays this sort of flat voice of reason, void of any imperfection. And Hector’s foray into an Oz-style of religious figure is a strange direction for this fanatical bible banger to lean.

This review was originally posted on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘When the Killing’s Done’ by TC Boyle

TC Boyle’s novel When the Killing’s Donepits dueling factions of animal-diggers against each other in a bloody battle.

In one corner is Alma Boyd Takesue, a researcher bent on killing the zillions of rats who have unnaturally come to inhabit a small island off of California. The furry-faced rodents are mucking up the ecosystem, killing off birds and throwing things out of whack. In the other corner is a dreadlocked veggie-head named David LaJoy, who believes it is ethically irresponsible to kill anything that is living, so he protests and vandalizes and invents a way to foil the attack on the rats.

What a snoozer, right. Like having the flu, losing the remote control in the couch cushions and being forced to watch a very special 10-hour PBS special in which people scream at each other while chained to a McDonalds.

Wrong.

The story opens with a scene that could be held spine to spine withGulliver’s Travels or Robinson Crusoe. It’s truly a a leg-numbing, page turning adventure tale. It’s a flashback to when Alma’s grandmother Beverly was a newlywed trying, with her husband and brother-in-law, to get into the fishing business. After sunny times with beer and sandwiches and sea sickness, there is a wicked storm that demolishes the boat. The husband and brother-in-law drown and Beverly perches on a floating cooler, dehydrated, for days. Eventually she makes her way to a rat-filled island where she is presumably saved.

The kicker: She was unknowingly pregnant. At one point Boyle, who has a Type A control of words and applies them in a Type B sort of way, stops the story so the reader can imagine Alma telling this story across a table at a bar.

David LaJoy’s girlfriend Anise, a big-haired folk singer, has an equally gut-punching back story involving time spent on an almost deserted island as a child while her mother worked as an in-house cook for a handful of men who were tending the island’s sheep population. Anise is caught in a bloodletting when the owners of the property allow hunters to come in and bag some animals. And so she will never eat anything with a face again.

Aside from the two major digressions from the heart of the story, the rest of the plot involves Alma’s struggles with the aggressive David as the issue moves from Save the Rats to Save the Pigs. The vandalism, the chance meetings. She plays the straight-laced, government-on-my-side researcher to his sneaky, outside the rules counter attacks. It is, in true TC Boyle style, fun, funny and done with ease.

This review was originally posted on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘Stone Arabia’ by Dana Spiotta

In the winter of 2007 my boyfriend and I invented a game called “Let’s just see where the day takes us.” This would start with taking a bus downtown and end eighteen hours later passed out in a stony booze coma, snoring out a toxic mix of carbon dioxide and alcohol fumes. A few days ago he found photographic evidence of one of those days. The shots taken early in the night are quiet and abstract: a series of match books lined up on the counter of the bar, a pint of beer, candid portraits before our faces turned slack and putty-colored.

His animated face fills the screen in one blurred shot. He’s surrounded by smears of red lighting consistent with all photos ever taken in the back bar area of Pizza Luce.
“I remember the exact moment I took that,” I said, leaning over his laptop.
“It was the header on my blog for awhile,” he said.

Maybe I didn’t remember taking that. Maybe I just remembered the photograph, and remembering the photograph had replaced remembering it in actuality. And then I was able to call on something I had just read within the past twenty-four hours from Dana Spiotta’s novel Stone Arabia.

“I believe — I know — that photos have destroyed our memories. Every time we take a photograph, we forget to embed things in our minds, in our actual brain cells. The taking of the photograph gets us of the hook, in a way, from trying to remember. I’ll take a photo so I can remember this moment. But what you are really doing is leaving it out of your brain’s jurisdiction and relying on Polaroids, Kodak paper, little disintegrating squares glued in albums.”

I love it when that happens. It’s so AP English.

Spiotta’s novel has memory at it’s base: What we remember, what we think we remember, how we are remembered. The story is from the perspective of Denise, a 40-something with a quiet life, world’s biggest fan of her older brother who goes by the rock star name Nic Worth. The two have a remarkable sibling link having grown up without supervision in 1970s Los Angeles. Dabblers in eye liner and weed, anonymous sex and punk rock.

In the novel’s early pages, Denise is reading a fictitious letter from herself to her college-aged daughter Ada, a part of Nic’s life work called Chronicles. Having never achieved rock and roll fame, Nic has created a fictional buzz about himself and his music. He makes albums that he releases to just a handful of family and ex-lovers. He writes reviews of the albums, assigning them fake bylines of fake writers for Rolling Stone or LA Weekly. When real Nic’s dog dies, an event that makes barely a ripple in his actual life,Chronicles reports fans sending sympathy cards and an album dedicated to the dog. Everything is intricately catalogued and filed and complete to the point that if an anthropologist stumbled on this time capsule in 200 years, they would believe that Nic Worth had been Elvis-ian in stature.

He has concert posters, concert souvenirs, T-shirts. He has fictional anthologies written by the fake Rolling Stone writers.

“The readers would find them entirely plausible,” Nic tells Ada, who is making a documentary about her reclusive uncle. “It would be hard to believe they are conjured from nothing. Particularly when I have all the music. I kept close track. I kept the internal logic and continuity. I have the accompanying scholarship. Verifications could be made.”

The truest art, his sister believes, is made without an audience.

Denise’s defining characteristics are that she is enamored with her brother’s work as well as breaking international news. She is in a pleasant, albeit loveless relationship with a man who keeps her rich in Thomas Kinkade Chaser of Light trinkets. She has a bestie relationship with her daughter and her mother is in the early stages of dementia. She is a blurred character when the story opens, but becomes more intriguing as she comes into focus as a former wild child and a hunter of breaking news about Abu Ghraib.

It doesn’t take teenagers in a psychedelic van to see where the story is headed, but it still unfolds in this really lovely way. Like being on a long slide and deciding halfway down that you don’t want to be on the ride but really, you do. Spiotta also takes Denise on a sort of bizarre side bar that seems a little forced in that put-the-character-on-a-road-trip, a technique that so many novels employ.

This story starts out a little cold and clunky, but it’s purpose starts to reveal itself — not unlike a Polaroid. And then it is a total pleasure.

This review was originally posted on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion’ by Ron Hansen

If ever a novel was to be played out in black and white, fogged with cigarette smoke, with images of spinning newspaper headlines, it would be Ron Hansen’s A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, the writer’s fictional account of a highly publicized 1920s murder in New York City.

Hansen gets to the guts early. In the opening scene, nine-year-old Lorraine Snyder wakes up to find her mother bound in the hallway. Ruth Snyder tells the little girl to forget about untying her, go find a neighbor to help. Her husband Albert is found dead in their bedroom amid a chaotic and nonsensical crime scene and Ruth doesn’t do a very good job of hiding her involvement and that of her dippy married lover Judd Gray.

Flashback to the meeting between Ruth and Judd. The former is a chesty young sex kitten, a real flirt with a soprano purr, a social woman married to a preoccupied man with hobbies she doesn’t share. Judd is a lingerie salesman with tortoise shell glasses, a people person who has fallen into a loveless rut with his wife Isabel. His live-in mother-in-law makes his home life even less satisfying with her cutting remarks about how much he travels and drinks. They meet through a mutual friend and fall into a wild affair, messing up bed sheets in Manhattan hotels as well as those along Judd’s sales route.

Hansen paints Ruth as a master manipulator who easily plays the hapless Judd. She seduces him, stripping down to just her tan lines so he can apply lotion to her body in the moment that ignites the affair. Judd is a mess of guilt in the aftermath and tries in vain to stay away from her, ignoring her letters and burying the flashbacks. Ruth continues her full-court press, snags him hardcore, then wanes a bit to make sure he’s hooked. She tells Judd that her husband treats her like a prostitute. That he’s verbally abusive. She whips Judd into a tizzy about her home life until he’s practically foaming. Then she starts dropping hints about how she wishes her husband would just die. We know from the start of this easy-reader tabloid tale that Judd will eventually comply.

At about the point Ruth reveals the death-wish she has for her husband, this novel shifts into a black comedy. Albert has unknowingly signed on for a huge life insurance policy when the jack used to prop his car gives out while he’s working beneath it. A gas pipe is nicked while he’s napping alone in the house. A whole host of accidents befall the character, and Ruth is always standing beneath the shaky ladder or next to the broken jack when he emerges unscathed.

It’s impossible to tell, though, whether the duo’s love scenes fall into the bodice ripping noir area or whether they are purposely written in a hokey way. Worst love scene of the story:

“Shall I kiss you down there?”
“Oh, that’s all right. I’m ready.”
“Shall I pull out?”
She pouted. “No. I like the seed inside me.”

Judd walked into her and sneered a little as he entered the soft and velvety caress of Ruth. She wryly gasped with false wide eyes as if he were enormous, and he smiled as he jammed himself in and out, holding off as long as he could, and then feeling his semen lash out of him with such force he loudly cried, “Ah!”

Judd is the better-drawn of the two characters. His feelings and intentions and misgivings are all revealed. His knows he is completely under Ruth’s spell. He struggles with confessing their involvement to his wife. He tries to back out even in those final moments before beaning Albert. Ruth is a trickier call. Does she actually love Judd or is he the neon exit sign in front of a door leading to the alley? Ruth’s version of her husband is one of a verbally abusive man who treats her like a prostitute. While he certainly comes across as a bit of a prick in scenes from their home life, definitely inattentive and condescending, but not nearly the monster she has cooked up. Is she smitten? Or is she a sociopath?

Also, the narration is a bit self-conscious. Most notably when Ruth goes on a business trip with Judd and rides along in the car during his sales calls. She waits for him in the car but is bored because, as the narrator says, car radios hadn’t yet been invented. It’s a weird detail that takes a reader out of the 1920s and into the future, looking back on the 1920s.

This story was all the rage and sold zillions of newspapers as the facts came to light and the couple landed in court. While it isn’t surprising or mind-blowing or different from any of the illicit-affair-turns-grizzly stories that crop up all the time, there is a deliciousness to the Prohibition Era setting and overwrought players involved. It’s not going to make anyone’s brain bigger for the effort, but it is a gooey summer treat.

This review was originally posted on Minnesota Reads.

 

Review: ‘My Sister’s Continent’ by Gina Frangello

The good twin stayed close to her Chicago home. She found a nice, albeit taupe mate named Aris, whom she plans to marry. They live together in a little loft in Chicago. She has a college degree. She makes nice with her parents and is still malleable in their hands.

She’s also got a wicked case of the runs.

It’s chronic. It is billed as being the side effect of pre-wedding jitters. But it is debilitating. Splurge on a few slices of pizza, and Kirby will spend the next few hours on the can. It’s so bad that the idea of coming in contact with her wedding dress is like a scene out of a horror film written by a filmmaker who wonders: “What could be messier than dumping pig’s blood on the prom queen?”

Gina Frangello’s debut novel My Sister’s Continent is an oozing, gooey mess of plop and slop about family and family secrets and memories, bodies, and pain. It’s written as a modern take on Freud’s “Dora” case study, but having just a Wikipedia-sized knowledge of the controversial study doesn’t seem to detract from the story.

Two years after the disappearance of her twin sister, Kendra, Kirby responds to a case study written by her own analyst, in which she believes she was mis-represented. She doubles back to tell about the 10 months, during which she was a  patient-no-client of the doctor, in her own words and alternately in her sister’s words, using old journals to fill in gaps.

Kendra returns to Chicago after a back injury makes it impossible to continue on with the New York City Ballet, where she is a dancer. She is a prickly sort, as prone to tantrums as Kirby is to tears. Her return is a messy mix of starvation, chemical cocktails, diddling with the exboyfriend she originally swiped from Kirby, and an eventual sexual relationship with her father’s partner Michael Kelsey, a man whose taste runs toward ladies who are bound, gagged, splayed, burned, and whipped. Kendra has some ill will toward her parents, which intensifies when it is revealed that her father has AIDS.

Kirby acts as an intermediary between Kendra and the family, but has her own stuff going on. Namely that she has gone gaga for Michael Kelsey’s ex-wife, also a friend of the family, who had an affair with her father and is now making Kirby’s wedding dress.

This book is intense. There were points where my jaw dropped at the raw realness of Frangello’s super complete characters and the detailed descriptions and her total control over the subject. What an honest, unflinching writer.

This was most surprising because I was struggling to get into the book. The “Dora” link kept me from picking it up in the first place, not being familiar with the case study. And the opening bits didn’t grab me, introducing this as a missive to a former analyst. But as soon as Kendra lands at the airport, this novel becomes un-put-down-able.

Frangello writes like the opposite of a person who carries hand sanitizer in her purse. She writes like a person who would dive face-first into a vat of mystery meat to find out what makes it that color. She writes like no one is watching, when really everyone should be.