REVIEW: The Words of the Pitcher by Kei Swanson
“When the Cleveland Chiefs baseball team signs Kentaro Ikuta as their new star pitcher, they are faced with a man unable to speak English and a media frenzy clamoring for his words. Management turns to the renown linguistics department of Case Western Reserve University for help. Doctoral candidate Claire Ferris is chosen to act as interpreter and English teacher for Kentaro and finds herself suddenly thrown into the glaring fast-paced world of Major League Baseball.”
Dear Ms. Swanson,
Frequent readers here know that I like to seek out the unusual whether in settings, place or characters. In a recent article here, Jane provided us with a luscious photo of Asian mantitty and in the comments, people lamented the lack of Asian characters in books and suggested other phwoar-worthy subjects. One of the posters mentioned your book and I decided to track down a copy.
The first thing I noticed is that the team the story uses has been renamed the Cleveland Chiefs. I assume you did that to get around MLB restrictions or some such even though Chief Wahoo is mentioned. The team is in the correct League and during the season plays other teams in the American League and, when they make the World Series, play a team from the National League. You have Claire down at spring training with the team and go a bit into that and some of the regular season stuff before the playoffs arrive.
There’s some – to me – slightly wonky stuff then such as when Kentaro injures his pitching hand and no team trainer much less doctor even appears to take a look at it before Claire zips him off to her manicurist to repair the completely split nail or Claire questions the pitching coach about why Kentaro isn’t playing one evening and when said coach reminds Kentaro he’s pitching that night in the final Series game. Would he not know which games he’s to play? Would a coach not get pissed at Claire questioning his decisions? And wouldn’t a major league team have a doctor on staff to look after their star pitcher? I would think so but then I know very little about baseball. Still, you appear to get most things correct so far as I can tell which might make some readers very happy if this is of major interest to them.
As for the romance….I love seeing an Asian hero in a contemporary story. Hell, any period story for that matter. But for the first half of the story, I didn’t get much of a feel for Kentaro. Here he’s in a foreign country, learning a foreign language and I learn nothing about how he feels about this. What does he like about Cleveland, about the people, about his team mates and is playing US baseball living up to his childhood dream? But also what does he miss about Japan, what foods does he crave, what or who does he long to see? I’d have like some insights about this. The story starts with mainly Claire’s point of view and for a little while I was afraid the book would remain there but even in the scenes from Kentaro’s POV, the man remains an enigma for a long while.
On the other hand, there’s a lot about and centering on Claire. Claire does a good job as an interpreter and by the end of the story she’s got Kentaro up to speed with his English language skills but Claire can also snap at people and be a little whiny at times though when Kentaro jerks her around romantically, I can understand her anger. It takes them a while to get past Kentaro’s natural reserve but once they’re a couple, it’s hot sex – though please, no more “forested lips” in the purple prose department – all around. That is until an arranged marriage rears its ugly head and, as I referred to earlier, Kentaro won’t either break the engagement nor give up Claire. When his Japanese American agent finally urges Kentaro to grow a pair and fix the situation, he finally – finally! – does so but not before hurting everyone. And why does his Japanese fiancee have to be presented in so negative a manner? She morphs from sweet childhood friend to clingy, sycophant just when the plot demands it. The break ups and make ups tried my patience as well as Claire’s.
I have to reluctantly say that the writing style feels a little clunky and stilted at times when neither Claire nor Kentaro uses any contractions in their speech. I could see Kentaro not doing so but Claire? I do applaud your decision to only sprinkle a bare minimum of Japanese through the text and merely indicate which language Claire and Kentaro are speaking then present it in English.
I’m glad someone mentioned the book and also that I gave it a try. Kudos to you for writing it in the first place and then pursuing what it took to get it into print. Though parts of it didn’t work well for me, maybe others will find it exactly what they’re hoping for.
NOTE: This is an older book (I believe from 2000) so I don’t think there’s an ebook version.