I really enjoyed this book. Perhaps that's because I wear straight-leg dark wash jeans and use Bumble and Bumble hair product (both endorsed by Mindy...moreI really enjoyed this book. Perhaps that's because I wear straight-leg dark wash jeans and use Bumble and Bumble hair product (both endorsed by Mindy Kaling). Or perhaps it's because it's a smart book of comic essays. Probably a little of both.
My favorite essay, I think, is the titular essay, about her high school posse of friends and the moment she knew she was drifting away from them. If you can't relate to that essay, I suspect you went to one of those boarding schools in Switzerland. with the oil heirs. And as such, I hate you. (Just kidding. Loan me some money!)
I also really loved her take on romantic comedies. I love to sit with my wife and watch romantic comedies and just think about how ridiculous they are. My favorites are movies made in the last three years that portray the magazine or book business in a crazy glamorous light. Oh yes, I'm sure the associate editor at that publishing house has a 1,400 square foot office with a view of Central Park. There's no way she tends bar to pay her bills and lives in Jersey City, right?
There are plenty of great insider-y things in this book. If you're a fan of The Office, you'll love the behind the scenes glimpses of the writing room. The Saturday Night Live chapter is not to be missed. And I really loved hearing about the Matt & Ben play, which I'd never heard of, and which I now really want to see. Can someone lend me a DVD?
"Now I see that your dystopia is more of a Fruitopia."
Ready Player One had a lot of trouble getting on its feet. The first 100 pages are 99% summary,...more"Now I see that your dystopia is more of a Fruitopia."
Ready Player One had a lot of trouble getting on its feet. The first 100 pages are 99% summary, much of it explaining how the world of the book works, what its rules are, and what the stakes are. This made it difficult to create John Gardner's "vivid and continuous dream" that I'm always hoping for in fiction. Every time I wanted to get into the story, to be carried away by it, the narrator would stop to explain how some arcane rule of the virtual reality world worked. The best speculative fiction manages to convey the nature of its world without belaboring how it came to be. This book couldn't pull that off. It was also set in that nebulous time "the not too distant future." Companies like Ebay and YouTube continue to exist, but there's no real mention of Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads (Seriously, we couldn't have worked in a Goodreads reference once? "I went to Goodreads and did a quick search of my Halliday-Canon shelf." Or something like that?), or AT&T, GE, etc. Difficult to pull that off. Couple with some fairly flat and sometimes even stock characters (An aside: Am I the only one who always thinks of that Metallica documentary whenever I use the word "stock?" "It's just stock, man." Okay then.) and the result is a book that feels like it doesn't fully respect the reader.
That being said, once it got up and running, it was a fun and sometimes very clever story. There are a couple of satisfying twists, including one that seems to argue the importance of anonymity without being too over the top about it (Other themes -- such as the danger of corporate monoculture -- were significantly less subtle). And there are a bajillion pop culture references from the 70s and 80s. Again, when the author wasn't taking the time to explain the reference, these were pretty great (I liked catching "Setec Astronomy" a reference to the bitchin' Robert Redford movie Sneakers, part of Redford's Anti-Technology Cycle), but too often, he had to completely unpack the reference for anyone who might have slept through the 1980s (And for those who somehow managed to avoid the band Rush until this book, I envy you. Tell me your secret.). Imagine a Woody Allen movie where instead of just making a joke about Marshall McLuhan, he stopped to explain to everyone exactly who Marshall McLuhan was. It got tedious.
I was happy that the book forwarded the notion that it's tech corporations -- rather than the federal government -- that represent the greatest risk to American's freedom, though I also have a few issues with the way this played out in the book. For instance, fairly early on, there's a discussion between Parzival or whatever his name is and Art3mis about what they'll do if and when they win the hundreds of billions of dollars that are at stake. Parzival will give up on humanity while Art3mis will try to save it. Fine. Okay. I doubt there was a single reader who doubted how the book would end at this point, but whatever. What I found myself wondering was "If this James Halliday guy was such a righteous dude, why didn't he do something to save humanity? Or, failing that, why didn't he at least come up with a succession plan that did something other than put his fortune and company (and, in a weird way, all of civilization, at risk?" It seemed to me that James Halliday, genius though he may have been, was actually kind of a dick. It's like, I know you're afraid of girls and everything, but pull your shit together and come up with a legally structured will that will stop a rapacious corporation from seizing control of your legacy. Or don't, you know. It's a free country. Sort of. The book seemed more than a little bit enraptured with the idea of the tech icon -- Jobs, Gates, Bezos (An aside: Whenever I think of Jeff Bezos, I say his name like Conan O'Brien used to say John Stamos' name. "BEZOS!") -- the maverick genius who can do no wrong. I felt a little bit about the book like I did after Inception, where they have all this cool high-stakes dream-hopping but the result is that one corporation gets to beat another one. Well, la-di-da.
In the end, this is a fun book, but I wanted it to be more nuanced, more subtle, and more complex. It reminded me a bit of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, though I greatly preferred that book. It suffered from some of the same over-explanation, but since it was explaining things like proxy servers rather than Ladyhawke, I was somehow okay with it.
To end on a positive note, this book did make me want to play some old 8-bit video games. I was always more into sports games, so it's not quite the same (though if you know of a place I can play RBI Baseball online, I'll be forever in your debt). Here's a fun anecdote from my youth. The summer after my senior year of high school, I worked at a video store. In addition to renting video cassettes (DVDs were not yet invented, I don't think), we also had a large selection of video games. One day, a guy came in with an older woman and was browsing the video games. I assumed they were mother and son, but who knows (I have a big thing for Patricia Clarkson, so...don't judge). Anyway, they came up to the register and his mom picked up an NES game (not the Super Nintendo, but the original Nintendo system, which was already a relic). I think it was Castlevania, but I'm not sure. "Why don't you get this one?" she asked. He scoffed -- literally made that sound that is a scoff! -- and said, "Mom? Hello? 8-bit action? I don't think so. I play on a Sega Genesis gaming system." I wonder if that guy looks back at himself now and is like "You fool! That was only 32-bit action!" I hope so, in a way. I also hope he finds this book, because he would totally dig it.(less)
This is as good a behind-the-scenes for contemporary publishing as I've read. I'm a Keith Gessen fan. I think he can really turn a phrase, but more im...moreThis is as good a behind-the-scenes for contemporary publishing as I've read. I'm a Keith Gessen fan. I think he can really turn a phrase, but more importantly for a work like this, he has a brain that can handle the complex web of relationships, connections, and constituencies involved in producing a book like The Art of Fielding.
Highly recommended for anyone who wants an entertaining and yet still thorough account of the literary side of publishing.
One note: There's so much focus on the money The Art of Fielding made, and I would like to recommend that anyone who reads this also read Gessen's excellent "Money" as a kind of antidote. I will be chased off the site for saying this, maybe, but I don't really think $650,000 is that much money -- on a per-hour basis -- for the work that went into the book. That's not to say that the publisher should've paid more, but merely that this does not make Chad Harbach overpaid in any way shape or form. For more on the realities of book advances (even biggish ones), also check out Emily Gould's "More than $1K Worth of Clothes I'll Never Wear Again."(less)
Does it ever seem to you like everything sucks? Not just your own life -- with its minor setbacks and Pyrrhic victories -- but the entire existence of...moreDoes it ever seem to you like everything sucks? Not just your own life -- with its minor setbacks and Pyrrhic victories -- but the entire existence of mankind. You know, all of humanity? I think that sometimes. When I'm filling up my car with gas, for instance, and I see a guy wearing scarves as shoes. And then later that day, the person in front of me orders a coffee drink with more than two modifiers (half-caff and no foam and part-skim). Or whenever I accidentally listen to sports talk radio for more than ten minutes. I'll sit there in my car, listening to that ad for Dockers and think, "When all of this is over, when the world comes apart and we're back in the streets chucking rocks, I'll throw a freakin' party."
But there are also moments -- tiny triumphs or glimpses of beauty -- that make me think I'll really miss this life when I'm grilling a squirrel in the bombed-out husk of an Albertson's. I'll miss my family, of course, if they don't make it through The Troubles, that should go without saying. But I'll also long for Google Maps and continuously-hopped IPAs and raw denim jeans and all the other accoutrements of modern American life.
Which brings me to Zone One. Zone One is a novel about zombie-like creatures called 'Skels,' a plague of which has destroyed human civilization at some point in the near future. As the plague goes into remission, the survivors begin putting the pieces back together, starting with lower Manhattan, where the military has walled off a segment of the island. Sweeper teams -- civilians with assault rifles -- comb through the city killing any remaining skels and stragglers (half-skel creatures that lurk about the world in a frozen state of unconsciousness). Our hero, Marc Spitz, works with one such sweeper team, and it's through his eyes that we learn about the end of the world and its potential rebirth.
But Zone One is really an elegy for the modern world. Marc Spitz and his comrades reminisce frequently about the good old days, the days before "Last Night," the night when all hell broke loose, literally. Marc Spitz says he misses all the same things that everyone missed -- "the free wifi" and whatnot -- and there's the sense that this is what he misses, the conveniences of life. But its in the moments when he makes a fleeting connection with another person that the book really delivers. In a world where 95% of the people are dead (or worse), finding another person you can love is a rare and precious moment. Of course, the same is true in a world without zombies. And that's sort of the point of Zone One.
Zone One is both achingly, heartbreakingly sad, but also laugh out loud funny (LOL, as they used to say, before the fall). Its sentences will carry you along more than its story, and you can't miss the subtle longing that seeps through every page. It seems to be saying "This place we're living now? This life? It could be so much worse." This is the rare novel that simultaneously critiques the world as we know it today and reaffirms its existence. That it does so while inhabiting the body of a zombie novel is, I think, just another of its many miracles. (less)
William H. Gass writes eloquently about his desire to find his ideal reader, one who was perfectly suited to the material, the tone, the subject matte...moreWilliam H. Gass writes eloquently about his desire to find his ideal reader, one who was perfectly suited to the material, the tone, the subject matter of his work. He writes for this reader, whoever he or she might be, probably never fully expecting to find such a creature. I am the ideal reader for The Art of Fielding. To wit, a Venn diagram:
I'm sure there are others out there, a secret brotherhood of ivy-loving, two-seamer fetishists, lurking in dank hallways dreaming about spring and middle relief. Perhaps that's why this book is so popular -- perhaps I'm not all that bizarre. It's comforting to think so, actually.
For a book that I was more or less put on this earth to read, The Art of Fielding took awhile to hook me. Partially, I felt that defensiveness that we all feel when someone tells us something is perfect for us, or so funny, or amazing. "Well, we'll see about that." I kept looking for the tiny flaws in the book, the places where my own knowledge of baseball surpassed Harbach's. And there were a few such moments -- it seems unlikely that a Venezuelan citizen like Aparicio Rodriguez would be a record holder at the NCAA level, for instance. A player of that lineage would likely have gone from a baseball academy to the minor leagues then on to the majors without ever setting foot in an Intro to American Lit class. But it's a small thing, and for the most part, Harbach clearly knows the game.
What tripped me up more was the tone of the book. It has a nostalgic mood, one that sometimes felt at odds with the book's humor or irony. As I noted early on, the novel felt like it took place in the 1950s but with iPhones. In a way, it reminded me of another great baseball novel, The Brothers K. But where that book took place in the 50s and 60s, The Art of Fielding happens, more or less, now. The result is a sort of unreality, the feeling that the book takes place in a world much like ours, but not ours at all.
Adding to this feeling are the sometimes outlandish names. There's Guert Affenlight, the president of Westish College, the location of most of the action in the book. His name is the first of many Melville allusions in the book (Guert Gansvoort was a commodore in the US Navy and a cousin of Herman Melville's, or so Google tells me). Henry Skrimshander (another Melville allusion). Adam Starblind, Craig Suitcase, Pella Affenlight, and on and on. Even Aparicio Rodriguez, an odd portmanteau of shortstops, seemed labored. It's hard naming characters, I imagine, and I appreciate a well-named one, like Le Carre's, but sometimes these felt a bit too interesting. I was happy whenever Mike Schwartz appeared on the page, simply for his sturdy workmanlike name.
And despite all of this, I loved this book. It started with Mike Schwartz, a character I wanted to know, wanted, at times, to be. It probably stems from my infatuation with athletes who hit their ceilings at the high school or college level. I'm talking about people who can play well and sometimes even dominate at a lower level but are not good enough to go pro (or on to college, depending). They're poetic creatures, these athletes, and Harbach has created a great one in Schwartz. He's a moral compass, an anchor for his otherwise somewhat light story, and the beating heart of this novel. Much like his name, he felt the most real of any of the characters in the book. He broke my heart.
Guert Affenlight, despite his unwieldy name, came to life, as well. My favorite chapter of the book is probably Affenlight's backstory, how he discovers the transcript of a rare Melville lecture that sets him on the path that would be his life. It reminded me a bit of Stoner, by John Williams, another great campus novel. Affenlight finds more love in his life than Bill Stoner, thank god, and when the novel begins, he's fallen for a boy named Owen Dunne, another baseball player, and Henry's roommate. I know that others have had trouble with Affenlight's plot, deeming it unrealistic, but I found it to be among the more moving parts of the book. I don't know how often men who've been straight their whole lives become gay, but I believed it of Affenlight. And his struggle to navigate his love not just for Owen and his daughter Pella but for Westish College, as well, was engaging throughout.
Schwartz recruits Henry Skrimshander, the greatest shortstop he's ever seen, to come play ball at Westish College, in Wisconsin. There, he molds Henry into a player good enough to do something nobody at Westish had ever dreamed of doing -- turning pro. Schwartz wills Henry to be better, cajoling him into lifting weights, running stadium steps, hitting endless BP. And it all pays off. Henry plays so well that he ties the great Aparicio Rodriguez's streak of errorless games, a great accomplishment for any shortstop. But then Henry hits his roommate and teammate Owen in the face with an errant throw -- the first of his career -- and everything spirals towards oblivion.
Putting aside the issues I had with the tone of the book (as well as the ending, which I'll let someone else decry), Harbach is a sensationally talented writer, and there are more than a few lovely passages. I loved this quote in particular: "The ability to throw a baseball was an alchemical thing, a superhero's secret power. You could never quite tell who possessed it."
I admired so much of the writing in this flawed but heartfelt book that I would recommend it to people who didn't know a thing about baseball. You don't need to know anything about the game to admire writing like this:
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn't matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren't a painter or a writer -- you didn't work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn't just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability...Can you perform on demand, like a car, a furnace, a gun? Can you make that throw one hundred times out of a hundred? If it can't be a hundred, it had better be ninety-nine.
Good stuff, and consistently good throughout. As one of his own characters would say, "Chad Harbach, you are skilled. I exhort you."(less)