The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is an odd book with several point of view characters, although the focus seems to be on Henry, a fielding phenom who arrives as a “freshperson” at Westish College, a small school in Wisconsin that has some connection to Herman Melville. Henry is mentored by Mike Schwartz, a year ahead of him, a young man who has ambitions outside of sports but is having trouble realizing them. Henry seems destined for MLB. The college president is a factor also, because he has a crush on a male student and also because his troubled daughter arrives and begins dating Mike. Meanwhile, Henry is losing confidence in himself and begins to make errors on the field, killing his chances in the MLB draft. Although there are a lot of plot twists and turns here that I didn’t appreciate because they seemed implausible, I can’t deny that it’s a very engaging book, told with skill.
The Book of Men: Eighty Writers on How to Be a Man, curated by Colum McCann is a collection of 80 pieces, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, supposedly about being a man, which is what you might expect from Esquire Magazine, where McCann is (or was?) a contributing editor. I can’t imagine that I bought this book, but I did subscribe to Esquire for a while, so maybe I got it as a gift when I renewed? Anyway, there isn’t really much point to a book like this, where the pieces are really too short to have much of an impact and the views are so diverse. Still, some of it I enjoyed very much and a few of the pieces are by people I know in real life.
Father, Child, Water by Gary Dop is an eclectic collection of poems, many of which reflect the author’s slightly off-beat humor. The last 12 poems in the collection are all about or from the point of view of a man named Bill Bitner, who seems to be childlike, someone who hasn’t quite learned how the world works and doesn’t care. I worried that the poems were in some way making fun of a disabled person, but I’m inclined to think that the point is that the world isn’t welcoming to its Bill Bitners, and still they are here, among us.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson is a powerful book that equates the “caste” systems of India, Nazi Germany, and the United States. There are problems with the analogy, I think, but they don’t really affect the strength of her conclusion that African Americans have always been treated as the lowest of the low in this country, no matter how far they’ve risen above the class into which they or their ancestors were born. She herself is an accomplished journalist, and yet she feels dismissed constantly—at conferences, on airplanes, etc.—by white people, that is, people of the “dominant caste,” as she calls them. She recounts anecdote after anecdote to support her assertion (rather than hard data), but that doesn’t make her case any less compelling. She doesn’t offer a solution, but she does hint at one in the very last anecdote. A plumber came to her house and at first is brusque and dismissive. On a gamble, though, she makes a personal connection about their deceased mothers. That seems to turn the tide and from then on he goes out of his way to be helpful.
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer is one of those novels that traces the lives of a group of friends. In this case, they meet at a summer camp for the arts in Western Massachusetts, bond, and then continue their intertwined lives. The focus of the book appears to be on Jules, a girl who goes to the camp on scholarship and is befriended by a clique of wealthier kids who begin to call themselves The Interestings, and especially on her friendship with Ash Wolf, the beauty of the group. Time passes and we see various members of the group grow and change over the years, just as their relationships grow and change. While the book is readable, and I’m interested enough in the characters to want to know what becomes of them, the book doesn’t ultimately thrill me, because I’m never quite sure what the problem is. Okay, so Jules feels like an outsider at summer camp and that feeling never goes away, and everyone goes through rough patches in their lives, I can’t really point to a story that the book is telling.
Adele and Tom: The Portrait of a Marriage by Chella Courington is a novella in flash. The title pretty much says it all. Adele and Tom meet and marry. Their marriage has ups and downs, but they seem devoted to each other. The novella gives us a deeper look into Adele’s past than Tom’s, but the present is what concerns the book. Both Adele and Tom are writers, which provides for some tension between them and even some competition when they submit to the same venues.