Sunday, November 20, 2016

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)


This is Book #2 after White Teeth on my reading list to counteract the overwhelming base of white male authors that comprise the Flying Houses review archive.  Actually, if you look back at the past 3 years, it's not so bad, but no further excuses.  A lot of people consider me "well-read," but I think that term is misleading.  I've read a fair number of books, but really not that many (I'm sure many critics that review books as their job have tackled 5-6 times my number), and really not that many from different cultural backgrounds.  Americanah was time well spent.

Have I read anything close to Americanah?  A long time ago, before I started Flying Houses, I picked up What is the What by Dave Eggers and got maybe halfway through it before finding it too tedious and painful.  It's a bit of a different book, because it's specifically about one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, his struggles in Africa, and his struggles as an immigrant in the U.S.  Eggers interviewed him extensively and transmuted the experience into literature.  Still technically a white male author though!

Americanah is quite different, and does not concern itself as greatly with human rights atrocities.  Rather, this is a book about being an African in America, and then being an American in Africa.  There are so many people that would be able to identify with this book, it's not even funny.  Because Adichie does not restrict herself to the female perspective.  True, it is a female perspective in America (and only a male perspective in England), but the alternating "Parts" are both a strength and a weakness of the novel.  Let me be clear: I am trying to be more picky about what I call the Best Books reviewed on Flying Houses, and many times, I felt this belonged there.  Maybe after I finish this review, I'll put it there.  But on my "scale," I would say it's better than White Teeth, definitely, and on par with The Goldfinch (which did not quite make the list).

The plot concerns Ifemulu.  Every single time I read her name, I wondered if the voice in my head was mispronouncing it.  Here is the way I heard it in my head: Eef-ay-moo-loo.  Ifemulu is a young girl growing up in Nigeria, who meets a young man, Obinze, at school, high school I guess.  They go to college together for a while, but then separate, as she decides to move to the U.S., as her aunt has done to become a doctor.  Ifemulu and Obinze are definitely an "item," and all of their friends pretty much presume that they will get married and be together forever, but this emigration effectively destroys their romance.

Though it is certainly about a different era, this book does have more than its share of similarities to Brooklyn.  I just realized that now.  I prefer Americanah because it's about our present age.  Actually, on the morning of the election last week, I was reading the section about the 2008 Presidential Election, and how Ifemulu liked Hillary Clinton a lot, but just had to support Obama.  Obama is a major figure in this book.  This book contains a recommendation for Dreams from my Father, which I'm sorry to say I haven't read.  Let me briefly give a shout-out to President Obama as one of the finest we have had.  My only complaint is the Affordable Care Act.  His heart was definitely in the right place with it, but these 2017 premiums off the Exchange are off-the-charts high.  Also the interest rates on my student loans are way too high.  Back to the book...

After Ifemulu arrives in America and enrolls at a college in Philadelphia, she has serious struggles with money.  She finds her footing after being hired as a nanny to an affluent family.  Through them she meets Curt, a cousin of the family, who falls in love with her and asks her to move to Baltimore with him, where he pulls some strings and helps her get a job in public relations.  Then one night she randomly hooks up with another dude in their apartment building, and Curt dumps her.  Shortly after this, she starts her own blog, Raceteenth or Curious Observations by a Non-American Black on the Subject of Blackness in America.

I think it is fair to say that we are in the midst of a civil rights renaissance, an acknowledgement that a guarantee of equal rights (i.e. equal treatment and equal opportunity) is little more than a rhetorical facade.  And so Americanah is a book that came at the perfect time.  Many of the chapters in this book end with a post from the blog.  (I am also having a sort of wonderful feeling of irony by reviewing a book about a blogger.) Almost all of the posts are highly-quotable, and written in a very different tone from that of the novel.  The most epic one is not at the end of a chapter, but read aloud by a friend at a dinner party, over pages 403 to 406.  I'll excerpt the end of it:

"Finally, don't put on a Let's Be Fair tone and say 'But black people are racist too.' Because of course we're all prejudiced (I can't even stand some of my blood relatives, grasping, selfish folks), but racism is about the power of a group and in America it's white folks who have that power.  How?  Well, white folks don't get treated like shit in upper-class African-American communities and white folks don't get denied bank loans or mortgages precisely because they are white and black juries don't give white criminals worse sentences than black criminals for the same crime and black police officers don't stop white folk for driving while white and black companies don't choose not to hire somebody because their name sounds white and black teachers don't tell white kids they're not smart enough to be doctors and black politicians don't try some tricks to reduce the voting power of white folks through gerrymandering and advertising agencies don't say they can't use white models to advertise glamorous products because they are not considered 'aspirational' by the 'mainstream.'
So after this listing of don'ts, what's the do?  I'm not sure.  Try listening, maybe.  Hear what is being said.  And remember that it's not about you.  American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame.  They are just telling you what is.  If you don't understand, ask questions.  If you're uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway.  It's easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place.  Then listen some more.  Sometimes people just want to feel heard.  Here's to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding." (405-406)

While this is definitely Ifemulu's book, Obinze is the other main character.  I would say 66% of this is Ifemulu and 33% is Obinze.  At first I thought the alternating book-by-book perspective was a weakness, but I grew to appreciate Adichie's ability to develop a male counterpart.  His experience in London, detailed in Part 3 of the novel, is one of its highlights.

And generally, the romance between Ifemulu and Obinze is the true highlight.  It exemplifies the cliche phrase "achingly beautiful."  There have been few other novels where I have rooted more for its characters to end up together.

I don't mean to get all gushy here, but I hope you've experienced the phenomenon of reading a book that seems eerily connected to your present situation, which then provides an extra layer of appreciation and meaning.  It happened for me with Americanah, dealing with a frayed, broken and resuscitated relationship, and an election that inspired more dialogue (or monologues) on racism than any other I've seen in my lifetime.

Did this book change the way I thought?  Not really.  Did it open up my mind to the experiences of others in a different position than me?  Sure.  Most importantly, was it entertaining?  Yes.

And that is why I think it is better than White Teeth.  White Teeth almost seemed to be going out of its way to be clever or comic in sometimes absurd situations.  Americanah simply rolls through a story with incredibly well-developed characters whose adventures are amusing, more often than not.  Of course when the "adventures" are more like "travails," the book remains gripping.

I feel like this is a hard book to know where to start and stop to avoid spoilers.  I will note that its structure is quite unique, and vaguely similar to what I did in my third book in that it uses a hair cut (really a hair-braiding) as a framing mechanism.  Ifemulu is getting her hair braided in New Jersey, having recently decided to quit blogging, to leave Princeton and to return to Lagos in Nigeria.  I don't really remember why she does this, but I guess underneath it all, she still subconsciously wants to be with Obinze.  In any case, the novel primarily occurs in a series of flashbacks and returns to the present in the hair salon, before a traumatic event involving Ifemulu's younger cousin, Dike, temporarily disrupts her plans (the NY Times review remarks that, "Early on, a horrific event leaves Ifemulu reeling, and years later, when she returns to Nigeria, she's still haunted by it."  I don't think this is the same traumatic event and I can only assume this is a reference to the soccer coach episode, but maybe my memory is hazy.  Was it something else?  Is that really as horrific as what happens with Dike?).

That is something I will not spoil, but I would like to say it was validating to find that Dike is an actual name, when I was given much grief over using "Dike96" as a screen-name for AOL back in 1996, probably because my youngest sister called me something like that as a baby (before she could pronounce my first name).  Moving on...

I wish Flying Houses were as popular as Raceteenth.  I find the notion that Ifemulu would become quasi-rich-and-famous from a vociferous blog on race a bit far-fetched, but then again the blog is portrayed as a "safe space" where millions of disenfranchised people of color come to share their grievances and make one another stronger.  As a white male who is responsible for his own lack of opportunities in life, I can't really fathom "starting a blog" about anything except books, and the entertainment industry in general, and I've written before about how unpopular Flying Houses is and I don't have any illusions that one day people are going to wake up and realize that it carries some of the best reviews on the internet.  Absolutely not; this is not the New York Times and I am the only editor.  I'm still only at $33 earned after 8.5 years of this, payment threshold at $100.  Hopefully one day somebody will give me a MacArthur Genius Grant because they feel bad for me and realize that I've made a valuable contribution to the field of literary criticism.  More likely is that I will just die and be forgotten and my legacy will be a bunch of crappy status postings on Facebook that people will only notice for a few days or weeks after my death.  It's depressing as hell but I guess that is why I am starting to believe in reincarnation, as the only "fair" result of existence.

Wow that paragraph went dark places!  But the blog is an important element of this book because it speaks to the issue of "how to make a living." Ifemulu is invited to give "diversity talks" after her blog gains traction; she doesn't make all of her money off AdSense.  She also receives large donations from an anonymous supporter, so maybe I should set up some kind of funding portal...

It's quite difficult for me to think of anything else to say about Americanah.  It's pretty much everything you could ask for in a novel, but it's quite sad to read about the 2008 election:

"On television, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and their two young daughters were walking onto a stage.  They were carried by the wind, bathed in incandescent light, victorious an smiling.
'Young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled, Americans have sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of red states and blue states.  We have been and always will be the United States of America.'
Barack Obama's voice rose and fell, his face solemn, and around him the large and resplendent crowd of the hopeful.  Ifemulu watched, mesmerized.  And there was, at that moment, nothing that was more beautiful to her than America," (447-448)

Contrast that with the way many of us have felt over the past 12 days.  I suppose the lesson that we should keep in mind is that, though it feels like we have taken a step backwards, we haven't undone all of the progress we've made. Books like Americanah should remind us that our country, and the literature we produce, is enriched by an inclusive ideology.  They can teach us how to be better to one another, and to open up our minds beyond ourselves.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Special Comment: Chicago Cubs 2016 Report Card

Well, we did it.  We knew we were close last year, and we knew we were building something the year before.  Things were dismal the year before that, but we were told to have faith in Theo.  I doubted him, because the Cubs were cursed, and I was jealous of him: what makes him so qualified to be a baseball expert?  Did he play?  Sometimes I think I could do just as good a job as some of these guys, but whatever, no one is ever going to give me a chance.  Speaking of doing as good a job as someone:

Joe Maddon: A



I gave Maddon an A+ last year, and he probably deserves the same, but I am dinging him down to an A for giving everyone a collective heart attack over the past few games of the World Series.   He will probably win Manager of the Year again, and he deserves it.  He made some great bat-shit crazy moves, like the way he moved Travis Wood around into left field so he could hit and then pitch later.  I didn't even know you could do that!  I mean, I knew you could do that, but there was some other element about it that made it extremely clever.  He is the perfect manager for the Chicago Cubs and he has done what so many before him have failed to do.  Several managers came into town and were all like, "I am going to be the one to make history with this team."  Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella came close, but Joe Maddon is one of the most special managers/head coaches in all of sports.  I love him, and as I said last year, I hope he stays in Chicago for another 10 years, or however much longer he wants to keep managing.  Having said that, I disagreed with how he used Aroldis Chapman in Games 5-7 and Jon Lester in Game 7.  I think when Jake Arrieta saw him walking out to the mound in Game 6 he shouted, "Fuck me!" That is the way I felt over pretty much the entire World Series.  Hendricks had settled down and was pitching like the superstar he became this year and removing him kind of screwed up the game, but it all worked out in the end.  While I may have disagreed with him, sometimes you just have to trust in Joe because he knows best.  I wish I could meet him and give him a hug because he was an absolutely essential component to the championship and he brought great happiness to millions of people.  

Jake Arrieta: A


Jake threw the second no-hitter of his career this year, but everyone knows that he was better last year.  People talk about the Cubs having 3 Cy Young contenders, but really it was just 2.  Jake had a great year, make no mistake, but he was not nearly as dominant as he was last year.  As a hitter, he improved, and he probably deserves to win the Silver Slugger.  Also, a lot of people started talking about how he wasn't going to be on the Cubs much longer, that he was going to ask for more money than they'd be able to afford.  This is sad and I hope it's not true.  Jake should stick around at least as long as Lester and Hendricks do.  He's now eligible for arbitration, whatever that means.  I do arbitration all the time, but I still don't understand what it means in the baseball context.  He will be a free agent in 2018, whatever that means (I feel like he's actually a free agent next year).  He earned $10.7 million this year.  That is a great salary.  I hope he doesn't get too greedy.  Please, ask for no more than $15 million per year, and the Cubs will pay that.  Lester is making $20 million per year.  Maybe he'll ask for that, but I hope he realizes that money is not everything, and that he probably already has more than he will ever need.  I'd be happy to make $10 million in my entire life, let alone one year.

Anthony Rizzo: A+

While we're talking about money, let's see how much Rizzo made in 2016.  $5 million.  Now there is a player worth every penny.  Rizzo blossomed a couple years ago, but this year he established himself as a bonafide MVP candidate.  The only reason he won't win it is because Bryant had more impressive numbers.  As a leader of this team, however, Rizzo is going to be taking over from David Ross.  Leadership is an intangible that you can't attach a dollar sign to, but damn if Rizzo wasn't the best deal of 2016, I don't know what was.  He probably deserves a Gold Glove at first base.  I also appreciate the fact that he isn't married because a lot of baseball players get married too early and I think it's boring.  My sisters have always conspired to marry Cubs players, and if my youngest sister, 22, could marry Rizzo then I would say I had died and gone to heaven to have him as a brother-in-law.  On a similar note, now that the Cubs have won the World Series, I can die (relatively) peacefully.

Travis Wood: A-


I gave Travis Wood a B+ last year and I think his numbers were quite a bit better this year, so I'm giving him an A-.  On another note, this is the first GIF I have ever posted on Flying Houses.  I think this play says everything about his year.  I'm not sure how much he made this year but it was a little bit more than Rizzo, I think, just under $6 million.  Wood is a very valuable member of this pitching staff and the team in general.  He has become a long reliever par excellence, he can do a spot start as #5 in the rotation, he can hit, and he can field.  I hope he stays on this team for the next 10 years.  If he does, by that point, he might be even more beloved than that other Wood...

Kris Bryant: A+

Bryant won Rookie of the Year last year, and he will win the MVP  this year.  His numbers are outstanding.  And I was wrong when I said Rizzo was the best deal of 2016.  Bryant made a paltry $652,000 in 2016.  Bryant is humble, a good person, and yes has gotten even more attractive than he was last year.  Last year I suggested more Cubs should give him "sensual hugs."  I'm not sure if that happened or not, but if it did, it worked.  There is a giant billboard outside of Wrigley Field, an ad for Express, showcasing Kris Bryant the model.  He's proven that he's not just a pretty face.  He's a superstar.  He's 24 years old.  Now he's signed through 2016, but he's arbitration-eligible in 2018, and a free agent in 2022.  I have no idea what the fuck that means.  I guess it means he's going to get a lot more money next year.  He's worth $20 million per year.  Actually he's probably worth more than that.  He also deserves a Gold Glove.  As with Travis Wood, I hope that "Brizzo" continues to remain the greatest 2-3 punch in baseball for the next ten years.  They belong together, like Banks and Williams, or Sandberg and Dawson.  Those guys are Hall of Famers, and unless there's some horrible reversal, these guys will be Hall of Famers in about 20-25 years.

Kyle Schwarber: A+

If you are looking for an even better deal than Bryant, Schwarber only made $522,000 in 2016.  Again, I have no idea why he is only signed through 2016, but arbitration-eligible in 2018 and a free agent in 2022, but I guess it means he'll got a lot more money next year.  Now, Schwarber does not quite warrant $20 million yet.  Maybe a 1-year deal for $10 million.  However, I think if he plays a full season, he may actually be better than Kris Bryant.  Obviously, Schwarber was the best Cubs story of 2016.  After suffering an injury very early in the season, before he had even gotten a hit, it looked like he'd be out til next spring.  The day after the Cubs won the NLCS, they announced that he'd probably come in for the World Series.  He did that, and he kicked major butt.  He should be the World Series MVP, though he didn't have any really huge moments.  He just hit extremely well and scored a few runs and made the Cubs a significantly more fearsome team than they otherwise would have been in Cleveland.  The Cubs are very attached to Schwarber, and he promises to be an extremely valuable component of this team for years to come (the next 10?).

Chris Coghlan: B-

Again, I don't really know what to say about Chris Coghlan.  He was off the team, and then they got him back from Oakland.  I gave him a B- last year and nothing has changed.  He had a serviceable regular season in the limited time he was with the Cubs, and he had a disappointing postseason.  He posted a .000 batting average in the 2016 postseason but did manage to score a run.  It seemed like it came down to him and Heyward and Soler platooning in left and right field, none of whom made a very big impact.  I think the single most noteworthy thing about him was indirect: instead of demoting him to AAA, the Cubs demoted Tommy La Stella, who had slightly better numbers.  La Stella infamously did not report to AAA and instead went to his home in New Jersey, considering an early retirement.  Eventually he returned to the fold, went to AAA and then made the roster for the NLDS.  Coghlan made the roster for the NLCS and World Series, but whatever, the team won, we should all just be happy.

Jorge Soler: B-

Soler had a weaker 2016 than 2015 in general.  His postseason was not nearly as strong.  He is signed through 2020, but I think he may be trade bait.  I feel like he is not going to be traded immediately in the off season.  He's still young, and he didn't play as often as last year, appearing in roughly half of the regular season games.  Put it this way, for making just under $4 million this year, he is a bargain in comparison to Jason Heyward.

Dexter Fowler: A

Maybe an A is a bit inflated, but I gave him an A- last year, and I think he played slightly better this season.  He was definitely a very important part of the playoffs.  His leadoff home run in Game 7 of the World Series was a classic moment in a game that would have many more.  Infamously, he was not on the team, and on the verge of signing with the Baltimore Orioles, when he showed up basically unannounced at spring training as a surprise signing.  The team did well to re-sign him, and as I said last year, should bring him back.  I am not sure exactly how much he got paid this year.  One place I saw $13 million and two other places I saw $8 million, which I think was less than last year.  I really should stop commenting on salary if I can't report it accurately.  I do know that he has already rejected the $9 million mutual option for 2017, so the situation is TBD.

Miguel Montero: B
I copped out last year by grading Montero with the phrase "He is good."  I guess I'd give him a B+ last year and a B this year.  He recently tweeted, "Do you guys remember my batting average this year? who cares lmao." (It was .216 FYI).  And that kind of sums it up.  His role has shifted somewhat, as he took a backseat to David Ross and his retirement farewell tour, and Willson Contreras as another rookie catcher heir apparent (after Schwarber last year).  Obviously he had the grand slam in the NLCS which was a big momentum shifter.  He is signed through next year, and I would be surprised if he is brought back as an "elder statesmen" after that, but anything can happen.

David Ross: A-

I also copped out last year by saying "He is okay," about David Ross.  He was a team leader and a good catcher to Jon Lester, certainly strong defensively, but less of a threat as a hitter than many pitchers.  For whatever reason in 2016, that changed.  Instead of 1 home run during the regular season, he hit 10.  His batting average went from .176 to .229.  Okay .229 is nothing to write home about, but he basically just made better things happen this year.  Look no further than his RBI total: 32 this year, as opposed to 9 last year--and last year he played in 5 more games.  He hit 2 home runs in the postseason, including a big one in Game 7 of the World Series.  He's a fan and team favorite all around, and he will be sorely missed.

Javy Baez: B+

Baez significantly increased his playing time in 2016 and put up much better numbers.  He was a hero in the playoffs, making excellent plays in the NLDS and earning the MVP of the NLCS along with Jon Lester.  His defense became his flashiest attribute, and he established himself as one of the fastest on the team.  He cut down on his strikeout ratio--until the World Series.  He struck out a lot in the World Series, but he redeemed himself slightly in Game 7.  He also earned a quasi-rookie salary of $521,000 this year, and though he is only signed through 2016, he is apparently arbitration-eligible in 2019 and a free agent in 2022.  He was trade bait last year, and while he may still be trade bait next year, his stock has gone up a lot.  He is a valuable middle infielder and I hope he is another one of these players that will stick around for the next 10 years.

Addison Russell: A-
Russell is kind of a mystery.  I raised his grade from a B+ last year to an A- this year, but his batting average dropped to .238, 6 points lower.  However, in just 50 more at bats this season, he drove in 41 more runs.  But he only had 10 more hits and 7 more runs than last year.  He did have 8 more home runs, and basically what all this means is that he is one of the few players on this team that you want up with runners in scoring position.  He had a record-setting Game 6, hitting a grand slam and driving in 6 runs.  He was an all-star, which I found a bit surprising, but he played like one most of the time.  Basically I feel similarly to him as I feel about Baez, though he really did play a lot more than Baez, and is part of the core of young infielders that I will hope will remain together for the next decade.

Jon Lester: A+
Lester is the highest-paid player on the team, and he performed like it in 2016.  He came back in a big way from last year, when he went 11-12.  This year he went 19-5.  He also improved his ERA from 3.34 to 2.44.  He did strike out 10 less batters than last year, and pitched 3 less innings.  His hitting improved too, and he managed to drive in 6 runs.  For some reason, I never realized last year that he had some kind of phobia about picking off runners, because he was afraid of throwing the ball away.  People tried to take advantage of this, but he still managed to have an outstanding year.  He endorsed Kyle Hendricks for the Cy Young.  I disagreed with bringing him in later in Game 7, and there was a blunder, but fortunately it all turned out fine.

Kyle Hendricks: A+

Hendricks was under the radar for the last couple of years, but now that is no longer the case.  I don't know if he or Lester will win the Cy Young, but I think both deserve it.  Can't they be co-winners?  He had the record for the lowest ERA in all of baseball in 2016, he won the clinching game of the NLCS, and he started and pitched wonderfully in Game 7 of the World Series.  I disagreed with when he was taken out of the game, but it turned out okay in the end.  The single most important thing this team can do to remain successful is to keep Lester, Hendricks and Arrieta together.

Jason Hammel: A-
We didn't get Cole Hamels but Jason Hammel performed admirably.  Really his numbers are not all that different from last year, but he did go 15-10, as opposed to 10-7 last year.  He actually struck out 28 less batters in 4 less innings, and he needed to go on a potato chip regimen to deal with low potassium in his system.  He didn't pitch in the postseason.  Overall though, something about him this year made me more confident in him.  I believe he has an option for next year, and I would keep him if we could.

Hector Rondon: B+

He got replaced by Aroldis Chapman, and it seemed as if Joe Maddon lost confidence in him, but before they got Aroldis, he had a decent year.  Not nearly as good as last year, but he should be kept in the bullpen and used as a setup man.  Though it is quite unclear what is going to happen with Chapman next year.

Pedro Strop:  B+
Strop appeared in far less games this year, but had similar stats.  He had some problems with the Dodgers in the postseason, but again it turned out alright.  It's questionable whether he'll be back next year.  If there was anything that gave Cubs fans pause during the last two series of the postseason, it was the way that the team managed their bullpen.

Justin Grimm: B
Grimm appeared in a few more games this year, but his ERA jumped from 1.99 to 4.10.  He did not perform very well during the World Series, and it is also questionable whether he will be back next year.  However he played an important role on the team and everyone contributed in their own way.

Jason Heyward: C+

Jason Heyward was the most exciting off season pickup, and also had the most disappointing year.  He gets a C+ because he played excellent defense and he may very well win a Gold Glove.  But his hitting was not where it needed to be, at .230 with 7 home runs and 49 RBIs.  Actually, he has not been a big power guy for a while.  He did hit 27 homers in 2012, but over the past four seasons he has hit 14, 11. 13 and 7.  He will become the highest paid player on the team next year, and it would be nice if he can turn it around.

John Lackey: A-

Lackey became the team's fourth starter and was brought in for his postseason experience.  Overall, he performed admirably, with an 11-8 record and a 3.35 ERA, 188 IP and 180 strikeouts.  Of course I didn't have quite as much confidence in him as the top 3 in the rotation, but he was a solid pickup that did what he was supposed to do for the team.

Ben Zobrist: A
I've decided to stop looking at stats and salaries and things of that nature because it makes this whole process too time consuming.  I watched part of the rally yesterday and Zobrist said something about hoisting the 2015 World Series trophy and I was like, what?  What team was he on?  What team won?!  Then I felt like a huge idiot looking it up and seeing it was the Royals.  I guess Zobrist was the "ringer" and he did a great job this year.  He was the World Series MVP, and I think he was a relatively quiet MVP.  He didn't do anything that was really flashy or noteworthy.  He just kept hitting and getting on base and scoring when they needed it.  And in a way, that's perfect for this team, because that's the way they've done it all year.  Zobrist was an All-Star.  My roommate and I have just had a little discussion about players getting better as they get older.  Barry Bonds got better as he got older (but also because he was likely cheating).  I expect Ben Zobrist to have at least 2 more really good years in him.

Willson Contreras: A-
Before we discuss Willson, I want to provide the link to a story that is a much better summary of the team and the various contracts and expectations of return: Cubs roster breakdown: Players expected to return, depart for 2017 season.  Okay, my feeling on Contreras is this: he is Kyle Schwarber Part 2. Just like Schwarber, he came up around the halfway point of the season as a rookie catcher.  He impressed, and he made the postseason roster, and played a critical role in it.  It is interesting to compare him to Schwarber because their numbers are close.  Kyle had 232 at bats and Willson had 252.  KS had 16 homers to WC's 12.  WC had a batting average of .282 to Kyle's .246.  Kyle had 43 RBIs and Willson had 35.  In short, excellent rookie half-campaigns.  Not quite Rookie of the Year worthy, but damn impressive.  I'll admit, Contreras slumped pretty badly versus the Indians, but he was extremely impressive against San Francisco and quite good against Los Angeles.  A lot of people will probably say that you don't need both WC and KS, but they can play other positions too.  Also, Contreras bats righty and Schwarber bats lefty, so they kind of are the perfect catcher combination.  In summary, another player I hope sticks around for the next decade (but let's not get ahead of ourselves--let him prove himself over 162 games).

Mike Montgomery: A-

Yes, Montgomery was on the mound when the Cubs won the World Series, so he has one of the most special moments to "tell his grand-kids about."  He pitched well in 17 appearances during the regular season and started 5 games.  Like Travis Wood, he can occupy that #5 starter/long reliever position, but I still have greater faith in Wood at this juncture.  He performed admirably in the postseason, probably a little better than the regular season.  Guys that step it up (rather than disappear) in the postseason are special players that you hope to keep on the team.  So I hope Montgomery stays.

Carl Edwards Jr. B+
I'd prefer to call him C.J. since I am also a C.J. but I guess his middle name is technically Fleming.  Whatever.  C.J. (Carl Jr.) is highly-touted and he pitched about as well as Montgomery.  These are two guys that should be kept in the bullpen for the next few years.  He gave up a couple critical runs to the Indians, but on the whole he had a great postseason.  But I don't really have much else to say.  It's hard to write about relievers unless they're Andrew Miller or....

Aroldis Chapman: A
I first became aware of Chapman during the 2015 All Star game.  He was on the Reds, the host city, and I had never seen him pitch before.  He was a lot of fun to watch pitch, like nobody I'd seen since Hideo Nomo or other guys with crazy windups.  There hasn't been anyone else like him (though Betances and Familia have seemingly followed in his footsteps)--and I didn't mean by getting domestic violence charges (in Familia's case).  You could make a bad joke about that--watch out for those fireballers.  DV was the elephant in the room that made Chapman's tenure with the Cubs bittersweet, because he served a suspension for it at the beginning of the season per MLB policy.  Many DV advocates wanted to boycott the team when they signed him, and I would imagine for many victims that adulation for his accomplishments, the love that he has been shown, is hard to swallow.  All I can say in response to that is, he is loved for his accomplishments, not the type of person he is.  And he has shown remorse for his past, and the Cubs did address the issue by saying that they have zero tolerance for DV.  If you look at his performance in the year, the signing made sense.  He's an expensive arm to keep on the team, like at current Jon Lester/Jason Heyward levels.  But a bunch more guys are going to enter that category over the next few years and I imagine the Cubs will have some "HARD CHOICES" to make.  Chapman's performance in Game 5 of the World Series was nothing short of legendary, and his eventual blunders in Game 7 can be forgiven as a sign of overuse, a kind of validation for me as deeply questioning the propriety of bringing him in for Game 6.  I'm afraid he'll cost too much, though, and I suppose the Cubs will groom one of their current players for the closing role, or they'll find someone else.  Regardless, his signing was another very exciting moment for me--I had admired him from afar, and now he was going to be on our team!  It's pretty much the same way I felt about Dennis Rodman coming to the Bulls in 1995.  I'd like for him to stick around for a 3-peat too, but let's get a 2nd before we get too full of ourselves.  And keeping Chapman seems like more of a pipe-dream generally.

There are a few other players I could mention (Matt Szczur, Albert Almora Jr., Trevor Cahill, Rob Zastryzny, Joe Smith, Tommy La Stella) but this feels longer than last year already.  It has been a fun ride but I think I am just about ready to stop talking about it--for another 4 months at least.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer (2016)


Oeuvre alert: Amy Schumer has no other books, but she is apparently going to follow this up with one called NOTHING (the answer to the question of what is better than pigs in a blanket) and another called Juggling Dicks (which she and Vanessa Bayer were not doing).  But she also said her next book would be called The New Guy Told Me the News While His Fingers Were Inside Me and My Ovaries Were Being Squished so who knows for sure.  I watched Trainwreck a few months ago on HBO Now and I saw one sketch off of "Inside Amy Schumer," which was very funny.  So my exposure to her is somewhat limited, though it seems like she is in the spotlight every day.  Just this morning she comes up in the news for getting "slammed" for a "Beyonce parody." The week before people walked out of her show in Florida because she was ripping on Trump too much (note: it boggles the mind that there is any overlap between hers and Trump's fans).

I do want to say one thing about how she came to prominence, because I think it is unique.  Her popularity came about rather abruptly sometime in 2014.  She had actually been trying to make a name for herself for the previous 7-8 years.  She was nowhere, and then suddenly she was everywhere.  I am most happy for her because she is the type of stand-up comic that I would be: all I would do is make fun of myself.  I learned that lesson sometime in 2000 or 2001.  It is not good to make fun of other people during a stand up act; it is best to make fun of yourself.  I saw too many comedy shows in New York that never seemed to grasp this, and I thought they were stupid.  One thing Schumer does not write about is the practice of making fun of people in the audience.  I'm sure she's done it, but in a way that wasn't mean.

There are a couple things that everyone is going to mention about this book.  First, the footnoted journal entries.  These are some of the funnier chapters in the book, but really, almost every chapter is funny.  These chapters--four of them, at ages 13, 18, 20 and 22--more than anything else, show that young people interested in the arts should keep a journal.  There is no more valuable tool in reconstructing past events.

Second, this is a feminist text.  Feminism is the major theme of the book.  Oftentimes, as it must, it goes dark places.  Fortunately, Schumer does not come off as heavy-handed.  The two most harrowing chapters detail how Schumer lost her virginity via "grape" (gray-area rape) and how she survived (and later briefly re-entered) an abusive relationship.  Both of these chapters still manage to be funny, and Schumer is fairly generous with these two particular exes.  Certainly, she condemns their behavior, but she also seems to understand why they acted that way, and how their underlying problems made them believe that what they were doing was "okay."  As if it needs to be repeated again, the stories in this book are rallying cries to women to claim ownership of their bodies.  But it is also a good book for men to read, to understand how to treat women better.  There is also a story about a really huge cock.

Now perhaps in the really huge cock story, Schumer hits a nerve center.  It's not so much the events of the story (which comes at the end of a chapter detailing some random celebrities and athletes she dated), but the conceit of it.  In a certain sense, a major theme of Schumer's career has been body-shaming.  Few topics loom larger.  I would never say she is "fat" or even "overweight," but rather "average" and just not anorexic, which yes, all models must be, unless they are plus-size models, which need to be identified as such, and that's a problem.  And she does make a poignant observation near the end of the book about how women's bodies have been scrutinized and analyzed in ways that men have never known--but which we may soon:

"The nickname 'Pancakes' (and also sometimes 'Silver Dollars') stuck around long enough that its life span and evolution could have been slowly, carefully chronicled in a Ken Burns-length documentary.  At least that's how it felt.  But really it was just the remainder of the summer.  I was HUMILIATED and didn't think I'd ever live it down.  Of course, by now I've been around a lot of different women and watched a lot of porn, and I know that our body parts come in all shapes and sizes.  (Men's too!  Did you know their body parts also come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but strangely, the media almost never discusses it?) At the time, I was stunned to learn that my silver dollars were not the norm." (312)

So what does this huge cock story have to do with anything?  I don't know, but Schumer spends a fair amount of time writing about her vagina and how bad it smells.  Imagine a man, writing about his own huge cock.  It would come off as bragging; the reader would not like them.  Imagine a man, writing about his own small cock.  It would come off as pathetic; the reader would feel bad for them.  I feel like the conceit itself is trying to tell the reader something.  Like, it's so shocking to read about because it seems so embarrassing.  Not for her, though not many female celebrities have written about such encounters in the past, but for the man.  She later acknowledges that calling the situation "sad" is completely ridiculous, but I feel like, in this story, she is trying to get at something deeper, like, this is the only way you can body-shame men, the only you can give them a taste of the anxieties of womanhood.

The idea of this book is that you need to love yourself.  It's a very positive message and I laughed a lot while I read this book and I definitely will recommend it (would even rate it on equal footing with Bossypants, if not higher) but there are also problems with this book.  First, Schumer brags too much about being rich.  Of course, she tempers this by also describing how poor she had been for many years, before she could even consider herself a "struggling comic," but it feels kind of empty.  Like, she does mention how she got paid $800 for 1 hour of comedy at a college, when she was just starting out, but she doesn't say how much she makes from hosting "SNL," for example.  If you are going to write about money or being rich, you might as well be as transparent about that as you are about everything else in the book.

Which is one of the things I love very much about this book!  The brutal honesty.  Like for example the story about blacking out and waking up to getting head.  This, it seemed, was fine, was not "grape," as in the earlier scene--just a misunderstanding on the guy's part that she was brain-dead when she put him into a sexual situation.  She does not consider herself an alcoholic, and she has not stopped.  She says that she doesn't like to get really drunk anymore, just a bit tipsy, but then admits she blacked out just a few weeks earlier.  So yes, one of the things I like a lot about this book are its messy contradictions.  Nobody is perfect or can live up to a code that is completely stainless.

Second, sometimes the book feels "padded" with lists or, to borrow a criticism from one Amazon reviewer, biographies of stuffed animals.  I actually sort of like the stuffed animal chapter because it's short and it's a nostalgia trip--anyone could write a similar chapter if they remember those things they held dear as a child.  Really, there is a ton of nostalgia in this book, and one of Schumer's descriptions of her own personal appearance cracked me up:

"Here's to the old man who was still living in my apartment on the day I moved in.  My roommate and I had to pack all of his clothing and box up his huge collection of vintage nudie magazines.  One of them featured a girl wearing a varsity sweater, and she looked so much like me.  The magazine was called Babyface.  I was flattered there was a market for girls like me, who resemble that eighties doll Kid Sister or one of the Garbage Pail Kids." (246)

Finally, there is the writing itself, which is not always very even.  Sometimes, she actually writes quite beautifully.  That almost sounds like a joke but I'm serious.  There are some truly beautiful, sad and funny moments, all at once, in this book:

"We both went through security, shoes on--the good 'ol days--and started walking down the long hall to my gate.  That particular terminal was under heavy construction at the time, so we had to be careful where we walked.  We still had a ways to go when my dad took a sharp right turn and beelined it to the side of the hall.  I stopped walking and turned to see what he was doing.  He shot me a pained look, pulled his pants down, and peed shit out of his ass for about thirty seconds.  Thirty seconds is an eternity, by the way, when you're watching your dad volcanically erupt from his behind.  Think about it now.  One Mississippi.  That's just one.
People quickly walked past, horrified.  One woman shielded her child's eyes.  They stared.  I yelled at one chick passing by, 'WHAT?! Keep it moving!'
After he had finished, my dad stood up straight and said, 'Aim, do you have any shorts in your bag?'
I opened my suitcase and grabbed a pair of lacrosse shorts.  I handed them over, thinking, Damn, those were my favorite.  He threw his pants in the trash and put the shorts on.  I went in for a top-body hug good-bye.  I didn't cry, I didn't laugh, I just smiled and said, 'I love you, Dad.  I won't tell Mom.'
I started to walk away from the whole scene when I heard, 'I said I'd walk you to the gate!'
I turned around to see if he was joking; he was not.  To the gate we walked.  I was mouth breathing and shooting dirty looks at anyone who dared to stare at him.  Once we got to the very last gate in the goddamn terminal, at the end of a very long hall, he kissed me goodbye and left." (54-55)

Other times, she seems to just kind of free-associate with her writing and it meanders.  Sometimes it's really funny too, though, so I can't even call this a complete criticism.

Really, the overwhelming point I wanted to make about this book, is that it is critic-proof, sort of like Schumer's brand of comedy.  You cannot hate this book and you cannot hate this woman.  To do so would put you in the same boat as all the internet trolls that comment on any story about her and call her fat or ugly or unfunny.  Honestly, I don't even think she's that funny in this book.  I thought the first 30 minutes of Trainwreck were hilarious but this book is nearly as educational as it is funny.  There is no more educational chapter than "How to Become a Stand-up Comedian." This is probably the most "epic" chapter in the collection and reveals a handful of truths that one could expect to encounter in trying to start a career in that field.

To sum it up, it is likely this book will make you laugh and provide a modest dose of entertainment.  I'm not sure I would tell you to buy it, but it is definitely worth reading if you're looking for something light, or trying to figure out what to do with your life.  It was worthwhile for me, at least.

Friday, October 7, 2016

White Teeth - Zadie Smith (2000)


On August 17, 2016, a little over a month ago, I posted my "15 authors" list on Facebook.  The first comment was, "This is a lot of dudes."  And yeah, right after I posted, I noticed to my horror that all 15 authors were male, and perhaps even worse, all were white.  Apparently my worldview is extremely limited and I can only appreciate authors that reflect my privilege.  But let's put all that to the side, because the real point of sharing such a list was to find out other writers I should be reading.  My friend Melissa suggested about a dozen other authors, most of them female, most or all of them non-white.  From that, I asked her which books she would recommend the most highly.  This was not an easy decision, but she settled on White Teeth and Americanah.  Well Americanah will be picked up from the library shortly, and White Teeth was a good read.  Will it be named to the "best books" list?  No, but I would still highly recommend it.

Here is the plot: as the novel opens, Archie Jones, 47, white English male, is attempting suicide by asphyxiation in his car.  He is depressed over the departure of his wife.  On a side note this was a very good way to open up a novel.  A list of "compelling opening scenes" should be compiled at some point.  In short it was immediately engaging.  Anyways, his attempt is thwarted, and he goes to a kind of hippie commune that same day and meets Clara, the 19-year-old daughter of a Caribbean immigrant.  This takes place in roughly 1975.

The novel then jumps to the perspective of Samad Iqbal, Archie's friend of 30 years.  They first meet while serving together in World War II.  Samad is originally from Bangladesh, and also marries a much younger woman around 1975, Alsana.  Both women become pregnant around the same time: Clara with a girl, and Alsana with twin boys.  These children--Irie, Millat and Magid--eventually drive the narrative to its climax.

And that's kind of my problem with the novel.  It's not that the material with Irie, Millat and Magid is inferior to the rest of the novel; it just feels like it was written to have a "real plot."  The "real plot" of the novel does not get introduced until page 343 (out of 448).  I'm not saying the last 100 pages are bad, I'm just saying they are not as good.  Regardless, many may actually find the ending to be the best part, because it does pose some interesting questions, and there is a delightful twist of sorts at the very end.  But I say this for my own personal feelings on the novel.  It is at its best when it is examining and developing the interior lives of its characters.

I read in City Lit bookstore in my neighborhood that Smith received an advance of 350,000 pounds for the novel at age 24.  To me, it feels like she got the advance, and still had to write the last 100 pages.  I am probably completely wrong with this, but that's what it felt like.  Certainly, she makes a good case that she deserved an advance of that size, but for me personally, it felt like the end of the novel feels padded.  Particularly when, for example, in the final denouement, characters make commentary on the way other characters talk:

"...Archie says Science the same way he says Modern, as if someone has lent him the words and made him swear not to break them.  'Science,' Archie repeats, handling it more firmly, 'is a different kettle of fish.'
Mickey nods at this, seriously considering the proposition, trying to decide how much weight he should allow this counterargument Science, with all its connotations of expertise and higher planes, of places in thought that neither Mickey nor Archie has ever visited (answer: none), how much respect he should give it in light of these connotations (answer: fuck all. University of Life, innit?), and how many seconds he should leave before tearing it apart (answer: three).
'On the contrary, Archibald, on the bloody contrary.  Speeshuss argument, that is.  Common fucking mistake, that is.  Science ain't no different from nuffink else, is it?  I mean, when you get down to it.  At the end of the day, it's got to please the people, you know what I mean?'
Archie nods.  He knows what Mickey means.  (Some people--Samad for example--will tell you not to trust people who overuse the phrase at the end of the day--football managers, estate agents, salesmen of all kinds--but Archie's never felt that way about it.  Prudent use of said phrase never failed to convince him that his interlocutor was getting to the bottom of things, to the fundamentals.) " (432-433)

Within that example of what I consider "padded writing," there are some alluring turns of phrase, so even though I may accuse Smith of tacking on a few words, there is no doubt that she is an extremely talented writer.

***

Sometimes when I'm struggling to figure out what to say about a book, I go on the Wikipedia page.  There I found that White Teeth was apparently named one of the 100 best books from 1923 - 2005 by Time Magazine.  It seemed like an alluring list, so I tried to check it out, but it's in one of those annoying slideshow formats where you have to click every time you want to see the next novel.  I thought I'd make a list of the things I hadn't read, but there were already many in the A-B section (The Adventures of Augie March, Appointment at Samarra, An American Tragedy, Animal Farm, Are You There God?  It's Me, Margaret, The Assistant....) and then upon revisiting it, realized you may view it by simply clicking "view all."

I'm not sure how I feel about this, but I guess people feel this book is pretty special.  I mean, I'm certainly open to the idea of reading more of Zadie Smith (I think she has a new book coming out very soon--Swing Time, due out November 16, 2016, upon investigation).  But I feel like none of her books after this have really made as big a splash.  I mean, she is like, eight years older than me, and she published this sixteen years ago!  It's kind of an old school preternatural literary debut.  Who knows, her best work may still be ahead.  (Of special note, this list does also include Watchmen in the W section so we agree at least on one book, and a few others it seems--I didn't formally name American Pastoral to the list, but I feel it belongs there.  So maybe that's a project for another day, updating that list--it's on my Profile to the right if you don't know what I'm talking about.  I haven't added anything to that list since January--but let me put it this way: I really liked this book, but I also really liked The Goldfinch and I think that book moved me more deeply.  And on that so-called "second tier" I would still place higher Then We Came to the End.)

***

In a way I read this book to try to understand my own privilege as I have lately been accused of being blind to it.  Once I was attacked upon an argument involving the issue, and directed to read an article online that someone had written, a white girl who had every conceivable woe foisted upon her, including a particular poverty-stricken childhood, and who had doubted her own privilege until she made a certain realization.  One of them was seeing a person of your own race on the front of the newspaper.  The most poignant passage on the topic comes on the heels of a brief conversation about Salman Rushdie, though he is not mentioned by name (it has to be Rushdie, right?):

"'You read it? asked Ranil, as they whizzed past Finsbury Park.
There was a general pause.
Millat said, 'I haven't exackly read it exackly--but I know all about that shit, yeah?'
To be more precise Millat hadn't read it.  Millat knew nothing about the writer, nothing about the book; could not pick out the writer in a lineup of other writers (irresistible, this lineup of offending writers: Socrates, Protagoras, Ovid and Juvenal, Radclyffe Hall, Boris Pasternak, D. H. Lawrence, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, all holding up their numbers for the mug shot, squinting in the flashbulb).  But he knew other things.  He knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelled of curry; had no sexual identity; took other people's jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state; or gave all the jobs to his relatives; that he could be a dentist or a shop-owner or a curry-shifter, but not a footballer or a filmmaker; that he should go back to his own country; or stay here and earn his bloody keep; that he worshiped elephants and wore turbans; that no one who looked like Millat, or spoke like Millat, or felt like Millat, was ever on the news unless they had recently been murdered.  In short, he knew he had no face in this country, no voice in this country, until the week before last when suddenly people like Millat were on every channel and every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat recognized the anger, thought it recognized him, and grabbed it with both hands." (194)

I am still not adequately convinced.  At least by the character of Millat.  There are a couple elements to the book that I find uneven, and one of them is Millat and his embrace of KEVIN.  I mean, I've just got to say, Millat to me, as a character, does not scream "underprivileged."  Much is made of his attractiveness, and how he sleeps with tons of girls starting when he is like 13.  He is one of the most popular kids in his class.  Ultimately his character flaws show by how sarcastic and casually disrespectful he is towards seemingly everyone, but that does not mean one would not want to have his life (or think he had any less options than them).  He seems to have it pretty good--so why would he join KEVIN?  I think if this book were written today, he would not be nearly as popular at school.

***

This review has taken a long time to write because a lot of things happened during the month of September.  I feel that I've said enough, but a quick summary, as I read through the plot summary on Wikipedia:

(1) Yes, the book starts on a high note--and opening up a book with a major character's attempted suicide seems like it was pulled out of The Crafty Author's Bag o' Tricks (not a real book).

(2) The scene set in World War II is particularly memorable, and the "twist" at the end (despite my general misgivings about the "plot") is almost masterful, one of the highlights of the novel.

(3) All of the stuff about Mangal Pande is boring, to me at least.  I think it's funny how the other characters are also bored by it, and the novel seems to keep putting off telling his story, even seeming to refer to it in one of the "years" that the chapters of the novel are organized by, only to skirt over the story briefly, which turns it into an intriguing delusive move.

(4) The Chalfens are an interesting curveball to throw into the novel, to set the plot in action, and actually the last "set" of chapters before the "plot" commences at page 343 is probably my favorite part of the book.

(5) Irie is the one character that rings most true in the novel.

(6) I do not believe that Samad would get away with sending Magid to Bangladesh.  That is another major element of the novel that I just do not find realistic, I'm sorry.  Not that he would go, but that he would go in the manner he does.

Now I've also found that a television adaption of the novel was made for Channel 4 in 2002.  Perhaps I'll seek that out.  Even though I am kind of drawn to the idea of reading and watching The Girl on the Train, in the same way that I did with Gone Girl, that movie isn't getting very good reviews and I feel like this would be a more interesting adaptation to see.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Bossypants - Tina Fey (2011)


This book was sitting out on my back deck for about a year.  I think my roommate got it from a Goodwill for $3.00.  I was waiting for a new book to arrive from the library.  I read it during the week I was off from work.  The opening pages were hilarious.  Most of the book is very funny.  It is very self-deprecating, which makes it reassuring.

There isn't really a plot, because this is a memoir.  The best I can provide is an overview.  For the most part, the book is chronological.  It starts off with a trio of chapters called "Introduction," "Origin Story," and "Growing Up and Liking It."  The title of the third chapter is a window into the type of memoir Fey has written: this is not a memoir about deep pain and psychological torment.  However, the chapter does delve into the experience of getting her first period and defining the moment when she "knew she was a woman" and no longer a girl.

The next chapter, "All Girls Must Be Everything", is particularly affecting, as Fey points out all of the different ways that women's bodies may be deemed imperfect, and how ideal conceptions of female beauty changed in the 90's, particularly when "JLo turned it butt-style." (22)

The following chapter, "Delaware County Summer Showtime!", is much longer and details her time over two summers at the end of high school working for a youth theater program  in her hometown.  This seems to be where she got her real start on her career path, but it is more about how she came to befriend and accept many different types of people (i.e. gays and lesbians) beyond their role as "props" in her life where she preferred them to stay in the "half closet."

The next chapter is about her father, and basically about how he made her fear for her life, and how she didn't really get into trouble as a result.  There is a very funny anecdote about his attempt to shampoo their carpet.

This doesn't seem like a very good review, does it?  I mean I am just kind of going chapter by chapter here (or more accurately, "essay by essay").  Overall, this is how the book feels to me: it's not something that was sitting in Fey's mind just screaming to get out.  It's something that was done because she's a celebrity, and a very intelligent one that writes very well.  It was to capitalize on her success, which arguably hit its peak in 2008 when she returned to SNL as a guest to portray Sarah Palin, all while she was working on 30 Rock, which should go down as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.  (She is remarkably self-deprecating about its popularity, as with everything else.)  Bossypants hits its climax when she describes her life during that period.  It feels like the apex of a career.  Not to say that Fey has not done excellent things since then (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - which I have only seen a few episodes of - has been a modest success; though I heard Sisters was not), but she is not the type of celebrity that wants to have the spotlight all the time.  Of course people would want her and Amy Poehler (who crosses paths with Fey at both Second City and SNL) to host the Oscars, but she only wants to do it if it's fun.  She probably makes a very comfortable living and does not need to keep lining her pockets, and from what she writes in the book, it seems like she prefers a simpler life than the one in showbiz that she's been dealing with for the last 20 years or so.  She's still quite young (same age as my oldest sister) and has accomplished a lot, so it is interesting to think of what she might do next.  It doesn't seem like she will do anything unless she really wants to do it.

I first got my glasses at age 17, and around that same time, Fey began her tenure as co-host of "Weekend Update."  At the time, my dad told me that I should be successful, because I looked like Tina Fey.  Or something to similar effect.  Whatever, weird anecdote.  Only time my father told me I looked like a girl and it was a compliment.

But that is just what Fey can do--turn my father, who is not exactly always the most progressive person in the world, into a fan of her wit and perspective.  She is one of the most important entertainers over the past three decades and a great deal has to do with her intellect.  Or rather, when she deprecates herself and makes herself appear less intelligent than she really is.

One thing she does not address in Bossypants is the question that I would ask her: how much of Liz Lemon is Tina Fey?  It would appear that there is little to no difference between the two, except that Tina Fey is married and has a child.

"Climbing Old Rag Mountain" reads like a short story, and is one of the best parts of the book.  It details an adventure she had with a pseudo boyfriend of hers in college, who invited her on a date to go hiking up a mountain at night, and then also invited his roommate.  Her pithy asides are hilarious in this chapter:

"There was a kid, older than me, an architecture student who did plays in the drama department on the side.  I won't use his name real name because I think he'd find out about it and it would give him too much satisfaction.  I'll refer to him instead by how he looked at the time, which was like a handsome Robert Wuhl.  Go spend an hour trying to picture exactly what that could be and pick up the book again when you've got it.
Welcome back." (59)

"Young Men's Christian Association" is another highlight of the book (perhaps just this back-to-back section may be its strongest single part) and details Fey's time working at a YMCA in Evanston, IL when she first moves to Chicago in the early 90's.  I particularly liked how she would reward herself with Giggio's Pizza once a week in Evanston because I also would have that same pizza, but perhaps a couple years later.  More like the mid-90's.  This is the only mistake I can find in the book, though, because it is actually Gigio's, with one g.  Regardless, the anecdotes in this chapter are amongst the most affecting.  It actually reminded me a bit of the book which is the subject of our previous post.

From there she chronicles her time at Second City in "The Windy City, Full of Meat" and follows it up with the story of her honeymoon cruise with her husband which is a take off on David Foster Wallace and is another serious highlight of the book.The next few chapters are focused on beauty and body image.  To me this was kind of a retread of "All Girls Must Be Everything" and there are a few chapters in this book that definitely feel like padding.  I mean, it's consistently entertaining--Fey is a talented writer and storyteller.  But it just feels like there's a few things she knows she needs to write about, because they're such good stories, but then there's a few other chapters that feel like less "significant" humor essays.

"A Childhood Dream, Realized" is about her time starting at SNL.  This is the beginning of the run of chapters that will probably be most interesting to readers, because there are so many celebrities involved.  Fey does not drop any major bombs, though, except that Sylvester Stallone would smoke a cigar during meetings for the week he hosted, and it made him look like kind of a bad-ass.  "Peeing in Jars with Boys" continues in this vein and there are some nice behind the scenes stories from SNL.  There is a short essay tribute to Amy Poehler, and then another essay on "beauty" or what have you, about how to prepare for a photo shoot.  On a totally serious note, I think this is probably a really insightful and useful essay for those of us that manage to make it to the point of being featured in a major photo spread, or on the cover of a magazine.  Of course it's goofy and silly, but it also seems really practical.  "Dear Internet" is another short "humor essay," but it is actually probably my favorite of such in the book, because its such a perfect idea for Fey to respond to internet trolls for a few pages.

"30 Rock: An experiment to Confuse Your Grandparents" comes in at page 169, and  Fey goes on for another approximately 100 pages covering that era from 2005 to the present (2011).  It seems clear that she has more to say about 30 Rock because it really is her show in a lot of ways.  She had many collaborators on both, but 30 Rock seems like more of a major creative statement, overall, than the many brilliant moments she had on SNL.  It seems more autobiographical and compelling, though perhaps it is only because there is no "Best Of" DVD like there is for Amy Poehler.  I guess the problem is that being a host of "Weekend Update" does not make for the best "Best Of" DVD.  Of course all of her Sarah Palin appearances would be documented, and Fey describes this as probably the highlight of her career at SNL, which is really kind of like a mini post-career.

This chapter, "Sarah, Oprah, and Captain Hook, or How to Succeed by Sort of Looking Like Someone," is probably the highlight of the book as a whole, as she tells of how she was getting Oprah to appear on 30 Rock and preparing to play Sarah Palin on SNL.  It's a very long and detailed chapter, but it effectively develops a kind of "frenzied" state of storytelling.

From there the book goes onto motherhood.  The first chapter about this period is basically all about breastfeeding versus formula.  The next chapter is actually one of the more charming ones, detailing how Fey and her family travel over the Christmas holiday to see both sides of their family.  The next chapter is about raising her daughter with the use of a babysitter and how she disapproves of how short she cuts her daughter's fingernails.  There is then "The Mother's Prayer for Its Daughter," which is humorous, and "What Turning Forty Means to Me," which is three sentences long and kind of perfect.  It then ends with "What Should I Do with My Last Five Minutes," which reads a lot like its title implies.  It does however end on a touching and funny anecdote.

So overall, there is far more good than bad, and whatever criticisms I make are probably not all that valid.  Yes, it feels a tiny bit "padded" to me, but approximately 75% of this book is excellent.  Fey is a cultural icon that will be remembered for generations to come, and she has done well to leave behind a document like Bossypants.

Oh and that is a really crazy cover.  Perhaps it is worth noting that the edition I read was the hardcover without a cover jacket.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Then We Came to the End - Joshua Ferris (2007)


I first heard about Then We Came to the End when it came out back in 2007.  I was taking a writing class at the time at StoryStudio Chicago and one of my classmates mentioned it.  I remember nothing substantive about the comment, but my guess is that it had something to do with its narrative voice.  The first thing that most people hear about this book is that it is written in the first-person plural (i.e. "We" rather than "I").  The second thing most people hear about this book is that it is about life at an ad agency during a period of layoffs.  It is about office life. Because of its "experimental" narrative voice, it reminded me of Bright Lights, Big City, which was written in the second-person. Both are very good books, but I actually liked this one slightly better.  I'm flirting with whether to add it to the "best books reviewed on Flying Houses" list.

I will say this about one of the characters.  You know how sometimes, when you forget your password for something on the internet, they ask you a secret question to confirm your identity?  Sometimes that question is, "who is your favorite fictional character" and I never have a good answer.  Well, this book gave me a good answer, for once.  I mean, anybody can say Holden Caulfield, anybody can.  That's easy to guess.  But now I have a good answer: Tom Mota.  And I'm probably really screwing that up by writing about it, but so be it.  Tom Mota is a great character; he's sort of everything I wish I could be in a professional setting--but that would never be acceptable.  He's a kind of fantasy character.  Take, for example, the epic e-mails he writes addressed to everyone in their office:

"The subject line read, 'I Consign You and Your Golf Shoes to Lower Wacker Driver.' 'The tomatoes in my garden are not coming out,' he continued.  'Maybe because I only have the weekend to work the garden, or maybe because the garden keeps getting mowed over by the goddamn Hispanics who tend to the grounds of the apartment complex I've been living in since the state forced me to tell my house in Naperville and Barbara took the kids to Phoenix to live with Pilot Bob.  Do I have an actual garden?  The answer is a big fat no, because the goddamn woman in the property office won't listen to reason.  She keeps insisting that this is a rental property, not your backyard.  Flower borders, that's all we want, she says.  So the goddamn Hispanics go out and tend the marigolds along the borders.  But do you understand, I'm talking about fat, ripe, juicy, delicious red tomatoes that I want to grow with my own two hands through the bountiful mystery and generosity of nature!  That dream ended when Barb started sleeping with Pilot Bob and we gave up Naperville.  Anyway, would I like a garden?  YES.  Matter of fact I would like a farm.  But at the present moment I'm afraid all I have is apartment 4H at Bell Harbor Manor, which is neither a harbor nor a manor and contains NOT ONE SINGLE BELL.  Which one of you wizards came up with the name 'Bell Harbor Manor'?  May your clever tongues be ripped from their cushy red linings and left to dry on pikes under the native sun of the cannibal land.  Ha!  I will be called into the office for that one but I'm leaving it, because what I'm trying to get at here is that I'M NOT SURE ANY OF US KNOWS just how far we have removed ourselves not only from nature but from the natural conditions of life that have prevailed for centuries and have forced men to the extreme limits of their physical capacity in order simply to feed, clothe and otherwise provide for their families, sending them every night to a sweet, exhausted, restorative, unstirred, deserved sleep such as we will never know again..." (37-38)

That's only about half of the e-mail but I don't want to break the record for the longest excerpt on the blog.

There is no main character in this book, but a few hold center stage more often than others: Lynn Mason, Benny Shassburger, Joe Pope, Carl Garbedian, Marcia Dwyer, Karen Woo, Janine Gorjanc, Old Brizz, Jim Jackers and Chris Yop, Amber Ludwig, Larry Novotnoy, Hank Neary, and Don Blattner, apart from Tom Mota.  The plot is basically the drama of their lives.  Lynn Mason is basically the boss of all the other employees and may or may not have breast cancer.  There is an interlude in between the two "parts" of the novel ("Enter a New Century" and "Returns and Departures") called "The Thing to Do and the Place to Be" which breaks out of the first person plural voice and focuses directly on her, so she feels more significant.  Joshua Ferris, in an interview excerpted in my edition of the novel, also refers to this section as the emotional core of the novel, and the part that takes it beyond a basic farce.

This novel is very, very funny.  The words fly off the page and I was pretty much "into it" from page one.  While it was very engaging, it tended to lose me for just a little while, towards the end of the second book, where something sort of faux-dramatic happens.  That's probably the only reason I won't add it to the "best books" list--and it probably deserves it anyways.  Because I would have rolled my eyes at the faux-dramatic scene if it had just been dramatic instead.  Instead, it's sort of funny and lighthearted.

In terms of the other characters, Benny Shassburger receives a strange bequest from Old Brizz and has a crush on Marcia.  Joe Pope is effectively second-in-command and everybody resents him, except for Genevieve who is basically the most attractive person in the office.  Carl Garbedian starts acting strangely and has issues with his wife Marilynn, who is a very understanding doctor.  He starts taking medication prescribed for Janine Gorjanc, whose young daughter was abducted and strangled, who then got divorced and has a somewhat bizarre grieving ritual uncovered by Karen Woo, who is basically the biggest "gossip" in the office--though really this whole book is basically gossiping.  Jim Jackers is sort of pegged as an idiot and has a great uncle that comes up with brilliant marketing campaigns for him.  Chris Yop has a sort of ridiculous situation develop with the office chair that he has taken from another employee that was laid off.  Larry Novotnoy has an affair with Amber Ludwig and gets her pregnant and keeps hoping she'll get an abortion.  Hank Neary and Don Blattner are both writers, the former of failed novels and the latter of failed screenplays.

In short, the plot of this novel is very episodic, and exists primarily in the stories that the co-workers tell about one another.  It's almost like a collection of short stories.  It reminded me a lot of a children's book I read, Sideways Stories from Wayside School.  That was one of my favorite books ever growing up (as was its sequel, Wayside School is Falling Down), so maybe you can see why I liked this.  Those stories were a little ridiculous, but I could identify with them because I was in school too.  Now the stories in this novel are also a little ridiculous, but I could identify with them because I work in an office too.  In the interview after the book, Ferris does admit that the office of an ad agency is able to "get away" with more ridiculous behavior than would fly at say, a law firm, so maybe that accounts for some of the more unbelievable aspects.

Mainly I liked this book for the idiosyncratic reasons that I usually like books: while sexual confusion and substance abuse are not major (or even minor) themes in this novel, suicidal depression certainly comes up a few times, so I can dig it:

"We fought with depression.  One thing or another in our lives hadn't worked out, and for a long period of time we struggled to overcome it.  We took showers sitting down and couldn't get out of bed on weekends.  Finally we consulted HR about the details of seeing a specialist, and the specialist prescribed medication.  Marcia Dwyer was on Prozac.  Jim Jackers was on Zoloft and something else.  Dozens of others took pills all day long, which we struggled to identify, there were so many of them, in so many different colors and sizes....
Yet for all the depression no one ever quit.  When someone quit, we couldn't believe it.  'I'm becoming a rafting instructor on the Colorado River,' they said.  'I'm touring college towns with my garage band.' We were dumbfounded.  It was like they lived on a different planet.  Where had they found the derring-do?  What would they do about car payments?  We got together for going-away drinks on their final day and tried to hide our envy while reminding ourselves that we still had the freedom and luxury to shop indiscriminately."  (56-57)

A couple other things worth mentioning: this is a great Chicago novel.  There are not many novels about modern day Chicago.  Most are about New York.  There is a sequence in the "interlude" where Lynn Mason's sometime-boyfriend Martin blindfolds her and takes her on a Ferris Bueller-esque series of adventures around the city, quintessential Chicago things.  I found it a little bit cliche, but what can you do?  It was still a sort of sweet scene.  The book takes place in 2000 and 2001 and Potbelly gets referenced once or twice, back before it expanded around the country.  There are spot-on references to outlying suburbs like Palatine and Schaumburg and neighborhoods like Bridgeport and traffic routes like the I-88.  So basically this book might make you feel like your existence is worthy of being the stuff of literature if you live in Chicago rather than New York.

Another thing: this book was timely.  It came out in 2007, in eerie anticipation of the recession to come, what with all of the material about layoffs.  It's not about the same kind of market forces that fueled that decline, but it's a portrait of a more innocent time in our history, when "the game" didn't feel as "rigged."

This is turning out to be kind of a short review.  I thought I'd have all the time in the world to write it because I'm on my first "vacation" in nearly 10 years, but I digress.  If it's not already clear, I really, really liked this book, and I highly recommend it.  I am definitely interested in reading Ferris's follow-up novels and will hopefully get around to reviewing them in the not too distant future.