A novel that can make you laugh, cry, and stand up and cheer, The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown, $25.99) by Chad Harbach is a smart, funny, big-hearted story. Henry Skrimshander is a sure-handed shortstop from a small town recruited by the team’s captain to join the squad at fictional Westish College, a Div. 3 school in Wisconsin. His dedication to his position is mystical, owing much to his well-worn copy of the Tao-like Art of Fielding. When the national record for errorless innings is within his grasp, though, and an errant throw nearly kills his room-mate/team-mate/best friend, the irrepressible Owen, everything Henry has taken for granted is thrown into question. One of the most talked about books of this year and for good reason, The Art of Fielding is more than a baseball book. It’s as knowing about relationships as it is about sports. It also displays in equal measure the author’s passions for literature and baseball.
A three-week voyage across the Indian Ocean from Ceylon to London lies at the center of Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The Cat’s Table (Knopf, $26). The title refers to the table farthest away, in physical distance and therefore in social standing, from the captain’s table. One of that table’s regulars is eleven-year-old Michael, who, with his two friends Cassius and Ramadhin, has the adventure of his young life. Whether spying on other passengers, doing the ignominious bidding of eccentric adults, or being shown the mysterious realm below decks, the three find the journey a priceless education. Later, looking back from the vantage point of adulthood, Michael and his friends see that the relationships formed and the experiences shared on the voyage have left an indelible impression on all of them. Ondaatje captures the freedom and brightness of adolescence and brilliantly contrasts them with the responsibilities that come with adulthood.
Do you remember college? Jeffrey Eugenides does, and he brings all of the dizzying highs and emotional lows to brilliant life in The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28), his first novel since he won the Pulitzer Prize for Middlesex ten years ago. Eugenides follows a trio of Brown University students through the early 1980s. Cloistered on Providence’s College Hill, they immerse themselves in literature, philosophy, and semiotics—but how can mere texts help them in love, or in navigating the paralyzing recession they graduate into in 1982? No one makes these themes vibrate as freshly as Eugenides. There is no better send-up of that gorgeously experimental undergraduate phase, when trying on a new identity was as easy as switching your major, and when books really did have the power to change your life.