book review: the art of fielding

i first saw ‘the art of fielding’ at the bookstore near my apartment in dumbo.  when i picked it up and read the back cover, i decided to pass, mostly because i didn’t feel like reading a book about baseball.  fortunately, however, my book club decided to read this for its august book, and once i started reading, i quickly realized the error of my quick judgment; i absolutely loved this book.  yes, the backdrop of the novel is baseball, but it is so much more than that as well.

the novel takes place at westish college, a small liberal arts school in michigan.  there is a lot going on in this novel, and the story went a much different direction than i originally thought it would take.  when we’re introduced to henry skrimshander, he’s a flawless baseball player who just keeps getting better and better at the game.  i was anticipating a story about his path to fame, but once henry starts to lose confidence and question himself, the novel goes in a completely different direction.  you can’t help but feel bad for henry – i just wanted to shake him and make him get out of his head – but of course this wasn’t possible.  instead, and i just kept reading and hoping things would turn out okay for him.

while henry is fighting his own battle, we’re introduced to the other characters.  mike schwartz is one of those people everyone likes – athletic, hard-working, charismatic – but he’s also wrought with disappointment when he discovers he did not get into graduate school.  his shattered hope corresponds with henry’s failings, and the two friends drift further and further apart – even more so when mike starts dating pella, the college president’s daughter who has recently left her rocky marriage to a much older man.

in a book filled with baseball, pella is a welcome addition.  but like the other characters, she’s much too self-conscious, and is plagued with a history of depression and unhappiness.  she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life and comes back to westish to try and sort things out.  her father, guert affenlight, the president of westish college, looks forward to repairing his relationship with his daughter, but he unexpectedly  becomes distracted when he falls for henry’s roommate, owen.  as would be expected, a relationship between college president and male student can’t go anywhere but down, and we watch as guert becomes much too careless and preoccupied with owen.

i found all the characters interesting and two-dimensional, and though the book is long, it didn’t drag for me.  i also enjoyed the melvillian references throughout the novel.  the college’s baseball team is named the harpooners, and the college itself has a melville undertone, complete with a statue of herman himself in the middle of the campus.

overall, this book is not to be missed.  highly recommended.

book review: the westies

the westies is based on a true story of the irish mob in new york’s hell’s kitchen during the 60s, 70s and 80s.  the story focuses on mickey featherstone, one of the prominent members of the west side gang, who ends up becoming a government informant and key witness involved in bringing the westies’ rein of power to an end.

having never heard of the westies prior to this book (and being a new yorker myself) i was intrigued by the story.  its crazy to think about how such gruesome events happened less than a couple decades ago.  some parts really did feel like i was reading something out of a movie like donnie brasco or the godfather – dismemberment and throwing bodies into the east river included.

however, while the storyline was interesting on a historical-basis, i wasn’t completely drawn into it.  as much as english tried to explain featherstone’s past and link his PTSD to his actions, it was hard to sympathize with him.  i found myself upset with the ending.  yes, he helped bring down the notorious jimmy coonan and the infamous westies, but he was also a key participant in many murders.  it really made me think about the justice system and how some people can literally get away with murder.

i’m glad i read the book, even for the simple fact of having a better understanding of the history of hells kitchen.  but would i read it again?  probably not.

book review: 1Q84

i’d never heard of haruki marukami before reading his latest novel, 1Q84, at the recommendation of one of my friends.  i read every day on the subway ride to and from work – about 35 minutes each way – and at 1,040 pages, i was glad to have the electronic version of this particular work.

the story focuses on 2 main characters – aomame, a fitness instructor who moonlights as an assassin to abusive men, and tengo, a cram school teacher who spends his free time writing literature.  aomome ends up getting involved in a situation that brings her precisely-calculated life to a halt; while tengo becomes engrossed in rewriting the novel of fuka-eri, a beautiful young girl whose background involves a religious organization that revolves around “little people”, and which she fled from at 10 years old.  the two story lines are intertwined in a fantasy-like alter-world, nicknamed “1Q84″ by aomame,  this world’s most distinguishing characteristic is 2 moons in the sky, the regular moon, and a smaller green mossy moon.

the story is interesting, especially in the beginning, but i can see this novel becoming monotonous for some people (i don’t usually mind novels that drag somewhat – i guess that’s from reading all those large russian novels over the years!).  my one disappointment, however, was with the ending – there seemed to have been quite a few loose ends and unanswered questions that weren’t exactly explained/tied up.  but after thinking about it for awhile, i realized that maybe those things didn’t really matter – because at its heart, the novel is a love story – perhaps not the most conventional, but a love story nonetheless.  is it worth the time investment?  while i certainly enjoyed it, i’m honestly not sure.  i’d say 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

 

book review: birds of america

i don’t typically read short stories – i like deep, complicated characters and plots – but i can’t say enough good things about lorrie  moore’s short story collection, birds of america.  i was recently introduced to moore’s writing with a gate at the stairs, a coming-of-age novel set in the midwest, and both books are impeccably written and definitely worth reading.

the beauty of birds of america is that even though the stories are only a handful of pages long, you become fully immersed in the characters and what they are going through.  moore has a keen eye in identifying the peculiarities of relationships, and each of these stories offers a little glimpse into these intimate worlds.  i found myself interested in all the stories, and wishing for more when i finally came to the end of the collection.  i think this is a good introduction to moore’s style as a writer.  she’s witty in a non-obvious way, and has a great overall voice.  highly recommended.

book review: unbroken

i’m not typically a fan of biographies or war novels, so when my book club decided to read unbroken by laura hillenbrand, i didn’t have high expectations.  however, this is one of those instances where i was completely wrong and fell into that old ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ snafu.  the book tells the story of louie zamperini, a former olympic runner, and his experiences during WWII.  when zamperini’s plane goes down in the pacific, he’s subjected to one horrific event after the other.  it’s one of those situations where you can’t imagine things getting any worse, and then, for some awful reason, they do.  zamperini is beaten, abused, and degraded – but the amazing part of the story is that he somehow manages to keep himself together through all of this.  it really is a story of survival (as cheesy as that sounds), both on a physical and emotional level.  the other thing i really liked about the book was the historical nature of it – i didn’t have much background on what conditions were like in the pacific during WWII, and this book gave me a new appreciation of what those soldiers went through.  hillenbrand does an amazing job of making the book readable, despite the heavy content.  she conducted over 75 interviews with zamperini, and it almost feels like he’s writing the book himself.  a definite page-turner; highly recommended for any reader.

book review: the savage detectives

i finished reading the savage detectives by roberto bolaño, an award-winning chilean author, on thursday night.  published in 1998 and translated from spanish by natasha wimmer in 2007, belaño is considered by some as the best latin american writer of his generation, and has been compared to gabriel garcia marquez, author of the acclaimed one hundred years of solitude (if you haven’t read this book, pick it up immediately).

the book follows a group of young poets known as “visceral realists”, through the 1970s-1990s.  the leaders of the group – arturo bolano and ulises lima – are loosely based on roberto himself and his best friend mario santiago, who pioneered a group called infrarealism in mexico during 1976.  In terms of structure, the book is divided into 3 parts, the first part is from the diary of 17-year old juan garcía madero and his introduction to the visceral realists; the second part is divided into sections which are narrated by a wide array of characters – some of them repeated and others never heard from again – and their recollections/experiences with bolano and lima; the final section picks up where the book started, with madero’s narrative.

this book isn’t for the faint of heart (there are more than a few racy scenes) or those who want an easy read.  it took me awhile to get used to the style, but once I stopped trying to remember everyone’s names (there are a lot of minor characters – though only a handful of major characters), i really started to enjoy it.  the style and language reminded me of the beat writers like bukowski and kerouac, but with a rebellious, poverty-stricken, passionately-devoted latin american poets.  i felt myself immersed in the culture – or, more accurately, counter-culture – of the characters.  their pitfalls and heartaches are described so vividly by bolaño that as you turn the pages you can’t help but feel nostalgic for their lost youth.

if you’re looking for something a little different, something a little raw, then i highly recommend it.  the initial challenge is well worth the reward.

book review: the marriage plot

I finished the marriage plot last night on the subway ride home from work.  it was one of those instances where i wanted the ride to be just a little longer so i wouldn’t have to put down the book before the last pages were completed.  but, thankfully, i read the last word as we were pulling into the york street station.

i’ve never read jeffrey eugenides before (even though i love the virgin suicides, a film adaptation of his first book) and i was happily surprised with this book.  about a month ago, i read a gate at the stairs (also very good) by lorrie moore , and the marriage plot reminded of that – a ‘coming of age story’.  the novel is set in 1982 and follows 3 recent brown graduates  - a manic-depressive, a scholar exploring his faith, and the female heroine caught between the two of them.  she’s writing her college thesis on 19th century literature, and the book somewhat mirrors the themes from these classics.  i think eugenides does a fantastic job of making you feel like you’re immersed in the characters’ experiences, and i liked switching point of views between them.  it was a mildly easy read (i’ve hear some people complain about the amount of literary references, but i think this was more of a positive than a negative feature of the book) with an interesting, thought-provocing plot.  overall, highly recommended.  4 0ut of 5 stars.