Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ishmael - Daniel Quinn (1992)

Ishmael was another book purchased at the Printer's Row Lit Fest this year, along with How to be Alone--but it was not purchased by me.  My friend (who previously reviewed Anna Karenina) picked it up, recalling that it was the best book that had been assigned for reading in middle school.  I told him that if I had to read Ishmael, he would need to read Our Band Could Be Your Life.  I kept up my end up the bargain; he did not.

My feelings on Ishmael are not that conflicted.  I found it difficult to slog through the end.  It is not a hard read, but I found it repetitive and "padded."  It seemed to me that Quinn knew what he wanted to say--and the real value of the book is that he certainly does have something to say--but that he did not need a 263 page novel to say it.  To me, this books seems like it could be "The Grand Inquisitor," which was a 20 page excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov that was assigned to me in a college course, and sold in the bookstore for about $1.99.  "The Grand Inquisitor" is definitely worth a read--and if Ishmael was condensed down into a 20 page excerpt it might be as well.  But I did not become actively engaged in this novel until the last 50 pages or so, and while those 50 pages may be a reasonably compelling portion of the text, I was more exasperated than enthralled by the majority of it.

Ishmael is not your typical book.  It reminded me of Plato's Socratic dialogues.  However, unlike those, it is not always easy to tell who is speaking.  Moreover, Socrates always advances along with his student along a minutely logical plane.  Sometimes, this dialogue just leaps across logical barriers, and says "things are so because of this, and that's just the way it is." I don't necessarily disagree with the wisdom of this book--just the way it arrives there.  And if it's not already clear to you, Ishmael does not have much of a plot.  The point of the book is to lecture the reader.  The plot is secondary, but I must admit that the when the "plot" of the book took over near the end, I was most interested.  Regardless of this form, Ishmael is a very popular book.  I have seen people reading it on the El, and its cover was oddly familiar to me before I saw my friend pick it up.  I was worried it was going to be like The Celestine Prophecy--thankfully, it was better.  I would say the two books are similarly popular as "new age" mainstream philosophical dispatches on how to live a better life.  Many people read them, and recommend them to their friends.  Ishmael is better and does not concern itself with the "energy" we project onto others.  It presents a different way of looking at the world.  When I asked my friend what it was about, he replied that it was about how humans are just insignificant little playthings for God, or something.  That was not the best description so here is mine:

It is about a middle-aged man who answers an ad from a person seeking a student.  The ad is very brusque and new age-y: "TEACHER seeks pupil.  Must have an earnest desire to save the world.  Apply in person."  (4) He shows up to an office and a gorilla is sitting there.  Then, the gorilla communicates with him telepathically and engages him in prolonged dialogues on a different interpretation of human history.

It sounds absurd, and Quinn mostly knows this, and it does make for a few good comic moments.  I do not really have a problem with the plot; my problem, as stated above, is that the book treads over the same territory repeatedly, and does not seem to advance.  Eventually, Ishmael (who is the gorilla) retells the story of Genesis, and this seems like the turning point in the book.  Up until this point there is much conversation about the agricultural revolution and how human beings changed from being hunter-gatherers to stockpiling up their food supply, and the resulting issue of overpopulation.  This is pretty much the main topic of Ishmael and as noted, I agree with its message: we all waste too much, and there is no reason that millions of people across the planet struggle to get enough to eat--it is all a result of corrupt human institutions.  The point where I disagree is when it conveniently dismisses any attempts that "advanced" human beings have made to restore nature to its rightful place.  The book was published in 1992, and its message is no less important today, but I do believe that people are generally more environmentally-conscious than in the past.  Having said that, plenty of people still don't believe in global warming.  Also, a side note: this book would probably be longer if written ten or fifteen years later and devote a fair portion of text to how the internet has, contrary to its lofty ambitions, effectively shrunk the worldview of its users:

"Mother Culture teaches you that this is as it should be.  Except for a few thousand savages scattered here and there, all the peoples of the earth are now enacting this story.  This is the story man was born to enact, and to depart from it is to resign from the human race itself, is to venture into oblivion.  Your place is here, participating in this story, putting your shoulder to the wheel, and as a reward, being fed.  There is no "something else." To step out of this story is to fall off the edge of the world.  There's no way out of it except through death." (37)

Basically the world is divided up into Takers and Leavers.  Takers are essentially colonists, and Leavers are essentially tribal people.  Ishmael would probably have been a better book if it had been a more scholarly, anthropological work of non-fiction.  However, its message would not come through nearly as clearly.  I do think the best parts of the text are the brief snippets that discuss certain obscure moments of ancient human history.  There was one great passage that mentioned a certain tribe of natives in Arizona, and their name was only familiar because the stadium where the Chicago Cubs used to play their spring training games in Mesa, AZ (until this year) was named for them:

"And if they got tired of being agriculturalists, if they found they didn't like where it was leading them in their particular adaptation, they were able to give it up.  They didn't say to themselves, 'Well, we've got to keep going at this even if it kills us, because this is the right way to live.'  For example, there was once a people who constructed a vast network of irrigation canals in order to farm the deserts of what is now southeastern Arizona.  They maintained these canals for three thousand years and built a fairly advanced civilization, but in the end they were free to say, 'This is a toilsome and unsatisfying way to live, so to hell with it.'  They simply walked away from the whole thing and put it so totally out of mind that we don't even know what they called themselves.  The only name we have for them is the one the Pima Indians gave them: Hohokam--those who vanished." (168)

Ultimately, Ishmael arrives at its greatest and most powerful claim--that industrialization has prevented human beings from evolving into anything more than homo sapiens--and I have a hard time accepting it, for the evolutionary process takes much longer than humans have been making and recording "history."  It is an interesting thought, but like most of the book, while wisdom is being liberally offered, deeper and greater details about the factual claims are left out in the favor of "readability" or "entertainment."  When I did not find it all that entertaining (the ending being the exception), then it is a problem for me to recommend it.

But this book is still very popular and has apparently achieved "near classic" status--I haven't read any reviews, but I would presume it is more popular with readers than critics.  So I won't try to talk anyone out of reading this book.  I just hope they will know what to expect.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Special Comment: Chicago Cubs 2014 Report Card

By all accounts, the Cubs are now "rebuilt."  People expect them to compete in the wild card race next year.  Their best players will have advanced to the major league level, and they will have shed the majority of their old contracts, allowing them to sign an all-star or two as free agents.

This is the myth, at least.  On paper, the Cubs players were terrible.  If it feels like the franchise has "turned the corner" as an article today in the Tribune suggests, it is because they went 73-89, which is their best record since 2010.  Finishing 16 games under .500 looks much better than 40 games under .500.  And there were flashes of excitement from some of the new players, as well as resurgences for "proven" former prospects.  But I have a hard time believing the Cubs will compete for a playoff spot next year.  They might be able to approach .500, but they will need to be a bit better than that to make the playoffs, and I just don't think that kind of rapid turnaround is going to happen over the off season.

The organization is spending a ridiculous amount of money to refurbish Wrigley Field, which has just now begun.  Of course I am happy they are showing that they plan to be there for a good while longer, but it's like they've just been sacrificing their payroll to pay for the park.  Also, while this isn't exactly different for any other MLB team, it's not really affordable to spend 3 hours at a ballpark, unless you can resist all the beer and snacks that are constantly being shoved in your face.  Moreover, no team in the National League has more expensive tickets

So obviously I am still cynical about this team, but I still watch games when they are on WGN, and I still follow them relatively closely.  I just wanted to make the point that I think the media and the franchise are overselling the team right now--right as tickets for the 2015 Cubs convention go on sale.

Individually, the players on this team were a complete joke--with a few exceptions:

Anthony Rizzo: A

Last year I gave Rizzo a C-, and felt bad about it.  But he deserved that, and he deserves an A this year.  Even batting a relatively pedestrian .283, he deserves an A (he would have gotten an A+ if he were over .300, considering the NL Batting Champ hit .319).  Notably he was #2 in the league in home runs with 32 and had a very high OPS (which means on base + slugging percentage, which I didn't know until a couple days ago--and I still can't really tell you how to arrive at slugging percentage).  He made the All-Star team, and quietly proved that he could bounce back from a slump and show the fruits of the Cubs efforts at investing in young talent.  So many other times prospects will just fizzle out at the major league level (which is the main reason I have bemoaned the rebuilding effort over the past several years), but Rizzo made good--he's getting paid pretty well for himself now too, but he contributed that value to the team.

Starlin Castro: A

Any even bigger comeback, as last year he was given a D+.  And truthfully he did not have as much of a standout season as Rizzo, but his .292 average put him at the top of the team, and not far from the top of the league.  That is good for 47 points higher than last year.  He made 15 errors, which is the most on the team, but what can you do as a shortstop.  But I don't even think he plays shortstop anymore.  Nor is he the type of player I expected him to be.  He was even more pathetic in stolen bases this year than last (4), and he is not a fast lead-off hitter.  He actually was batting third or fourth, I think.  And sure--put Rizzo after him, but put Castro at #2.  I guess he may be moved to second base?  I don't really know the fielding situation.  I just know they have another shortstop and 2nd baseman.

Jake Arietta: A

I gave Arietta a B+ last year, which was better than Samardzija.  However, this year Samardzija would get an A, and Arietta probably deserves an A-, but he gets an A because he showed strong leadership at the end of the season.  His numbers were good, but probably just borderline All-Star due to the Cubs shitty offense.  Regardless, it was very hard for a pitcher to be over.500 either this year or last, so Arietta's 10-5 record is almost a miracle.  He had an excellent ERA of 2.53--up there with the best in the league--and easily established himself as the ace of the staff.  He wasn't exactly Clayton Kershaw (who obviously would get an A+), and he didn't put up 200 IP.  But he became an almost dominant starter near the end of the season, and his stats are impressive despite a string of a few weak performances around the middle of it.  If he can pitch consistently at this level, he will easily make the All-Star team next year.  Any team would be pleased to have him in their rotation, and the Cubs have been fortunate to see him flourish.

And then of course there was everyone else.

Javier Baez: C-

Everyone was very excited about Javier Baez at spring training last year, and that resumed when he made his debut.  He started out with a bang, but soon established himself as another free-swinging strikeout king.  He finished with an anemic .169 average and 95 strikeouts in 213 at bats.  That is really terrible.  That would be like an everyday player striking out 225 times.  I give him a C- because D+ sounds too harsh when he didn't play the whole season and did show genuine flashes of greatness. But I think it's really premature to say he is one of the cornerstones of the franchise before he has proven himself.

Jorge Soler: A-

He came out of the gates with one of the best hitting streaks ever by a rookie and proceeded to quiet down a bit, but finished with much more impressive numbers than Baez, with whom I will always associate him.  He only played in 24 games, but he matched Starlin Castro at .292 and put in an impressive 20 RBI's in 26 hits.  I also think it's premature to say he is going to be a huge star for the Cubs, but he does seem like he could be the real deal.

Chris Coghlan: B

I don't know who Chris Coghlan is, so he gets a B.  Apparently he had a decent year and played in more games than everyone else except Castro, Rizzo and Valbuena.  Batting .286 seems like a victory, but I don't remember him.  Perhaps he deserves a B+.  There is nothing else I can really say.

Luis Valbuena: C+

He played in more games than anyone else, but he didn't have very impressive numbers otherwise. He's listed as a third baseman, but I'm pretty sure he is a utility player, and that Mike Olt became their de facto third baseman this year.  I suppose he can be applauded for finishing second in home runs on the team, with 16.  He seems to have become more of a "power hitter" this year, and having a pinch hitter like that is nice to have in your back pocket.  But not necessarily when they hit .249.  He seems to have stayed a consistent non-demotee to AAA this year, and certainly established his most active season in the majors.  And I'd rather have him playing than Olt.

Mike Olt: D

He became known as their starting third baseman this season, and a disappointment.  He was one of the most buzzed about players during spring training (along with Baez), with the media planting expectations that he would rise quickly.  Maybe his promotion was premature.  In 89 games and 223 at bats, he managed just 26 hits, putting his average at .160.  He hit 12 home runs, and while he did not strike out quite as frequently as Baez, he managed to get the same number of hits in 37 less games.  Maybe he came in for more late games as a defensive replacement.  I don't know, but Baez only had 12 fewer at bats--so his average sucked pretty hard too, and maybe he deserves a D+, because Olt pretty much hit for better power, despite Baez's flashiness.

Arismendy Alcantara: C

There's not much you can say about Alcantara either, except that he is another "star of the future" and hit 10 home runs and stole the most bases on the team with an impressive 8 (Emilio Bonifacio would have won with 14 but he is now on the Braves--and to be fair he should not be mocked for that as he only played in 70 games).  He did well at AAA and I can see why he was brought up, but, like Olt and Baez, he really hasn't convinced me that he is an all-star caliber player.  More and more it seems like when I read about the Cubs plans to storm the league and all the prospects that have now "developed" and are ready to play at the MLB level, it just seems like they've cobbled together a mediocre team and overselling the potential explosiveness of their players.

Welington Castillo: B

I gave Welington Castillo an A- last year and I just realized I spelled his name wrong, with to Ls  That may have seemed high for a .274 hitter, but I gave him that primarily on his defense behind the plate.  And he was probably even better defensively this year, but I had to drop him to a B because anybody who is hitting .237 probably doesn't deserve a B unless they are a pitcher.  He had 14 less hits and 13 less runs in the same number of at bats as last year (380).  He also had 5 more home runs and six more RBIs, so you can also say he made more of his hits count this year.  He was a reliable presence behind the plate, and I am totally fine with him as the starting catcher--though apparently there is another prospect in AAA who is supposed to be an amazing catcher.  I just like Welington and I will always root for him.  I expect him to retain his position next year, and maybe to share time with their prospect.  I don't think there is any need to bring in a new catcher.

Junior Lake: C

Lake played in a lot more games than last year, and he was not nearly as impressive as last year.  I gave him a B+ and I thought he deserved it, hitting .284.  Now he's hitting .211.  That's a big step back.  I would definitely not feel comfortable with my starting left fielder hitting that.  I would still give him another chance to turn it around as he did show promise previously.

Travis Wood: B-

While his win-loss record was only slightly worse than last year at 8-13 (last year at 9-12), his ERA was almost two points higher.  He was still something of a workhorse, though he hit 200 IP on the nose last year and only went about 173 this year.  Notably, he had a pretty good year at the plate.  I don't blame him for his win-loss record on this team, but he gave up many more runs and hits this year.  He also walked 76 (66 last year).  I think he should still be part of the rotation, but maybe in the fourth or fifth slot.

Edwin Jackson: D-

I don't think he deserved a C last year--maybe a C- (but see that his ERA was lower than Wood's is this year--4.98 versus 5.03)--but this year he definitely deserves barely above an F.  He is not the pitcher the Cubs were expecting.  But what are you going to do when you sign this dude to a 5 year contract?  They expected him to stick with this team through all of the growing pains, but what would you do?  If you knew that even if you pitched really well, all that would matter is whether you make the All-Star team, because it wouldn't make a difference in helping the team make the playoffs.  He was infamously moved into the bullpen at the end of the season, rather than getting his last start.  He knows his situation, and maybe he can turn it around--if he could turn back into the pitcher he was 5 years ago on the Tigers, I think the Cubs would be ecstatic.  But he will need to do a lot of work this off-season to figure out where he has gone wrong, and what he can do to resurrect his career.  He just turned 30 and is signed through the next two years.  So here is hoping he doesn't just collect his paycheck and suck again next year, forcing the Cubs to release him and eat his contract.  It would be a pleasant surprise if he could pitch like an All-Star next year, but I am not sure he will get the opportunity to make that showing.

Kyle Hendricks: A

He belongs at the top of this list, because he was fucking amazing.  Of course he is not going to win Rookie of the Year, but he deserves to be in contention.  If he can maintain this level of excellence, he deserves to be #2 in the rotation right behind Arietta.  Certainly, he was one of the happiest surprises of the season.  I was going to give him an A-, but his numbers were every bit as good as Arietta's--maybe even slightly better.  Of course he only played half as much time this season, so next year will be his proving ground.  But he has definitely shown that he can be a top of the rotation type of guy.

Hector Rondon: B+

Apparently he became the closer over Fujikawa and Pedro Strop.  I presumed the Cubs just had a terrible closer, but his ERA is pretty good at 2.42.  He blew 4 saves so he is not perfect, but he converted 29 out of 33 opportunities.  I just thought they sucked in the bullpen, but they are actually not that bad.

Pedro Strop: B+

Same story as above.  I thought he just kind of sucked because he apparently did not get the closing position, his ERA was even better than Rondon's at 2.21 in about the same number of games and innings.  I guess he is their setup man?  I have no complaints about those numbers.

Neil Ramirez: A-

I didn't even know this guy was on the team, but damn 1.44 ERA.  So it looks like they have a quality string of guys for the 7th, 8th and 9th innings.

Justin Grimm: B+

He led the team in appearances, and though his ERA was a bit lower than these other few guys above him, maintained a pretty good number at 3.78.

I could go write about Wesley Wright, Tsuyoshi Wada, Carlos Villanueva, Brian Schlitter, and maybe a few other pitchers, as well as several other position players, but I feel like I've hit the wall with these grades,

Rick Renteria: B-

I was thinking he deserved a C+ as manager, but then I thought that he could be oddly clever in the way he has dealt with the media.  It is really hard to hate him because he comes off as being this super nice guy who doesn't want to say anything negative--though he has been honest when necessary regarding players not putting in decent performances.  Previously I lamented that they ended up going with him over someone like Bob Brenly (only because Ryne Sandberg--by far my first choice, despite how bad the Phillies sucked this year, too--was no longer an option).  Maybe Brenly is done managing though, and I have warmed up to Renteria.  Quietly he led this team to what at least appeared to be a much better position than last year, despite still finishing dead last.  He did the best that he could with this team, but he will need to do much better to get an extension on his contract after next year.

In sum, my feelings should be obvious.  The hype is still hype.  Unless the Cubs make a few big moves over the off season, I fully expect next year to be more of the same: a slight improvement over the previous year.  Maybe they will not finish in last place next year, but with the team in its present state, they still need at least one more star pitcher (there have been many rumors that Cole Hamels might be that person, and I would bank on him) and need to establish better offensive consistency.  I do believe the team is in much better shape, and as noted, there are many players that have already proven they deserve to stay on this team for many years to come,  Despite this, my skepticism remains, and I will not believe they are for real unless they are hovering near the top of the division come next June or July.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami (2014)

          My husband Dickson belongs to a book club, and last week we hosted his group’s bi-monthly meeting, when six or eight or sometimes ten literary men gather to drink beer, discuss books and eat whatever snacks the host has kindly provided. For this meeting they had read, at my suggestion, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, because the club is mostly made up of runners and Rabbit Angstrom’s story has a decidedly athletic feel. Even though I didn’t attend the meeting (it’s a boys’ club, so I stayed upstairs), when I came down after they were done, the conversation had turned to the newest Murakami – a far cry from Rabbit and his troubled relationship with Janice – and the excitement many club members had about reading his new work.
            I had already finished Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage three days after I bought the book, and the members of Dickson’s club asked me what I thought. Was it as much of a slog as 1Q84? Was it as otherworldly as A Wild Sheep Chase or Kafka on the Shore? Or was it quieter, like Norwegian Wood, or Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running? I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer. So much of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is like much of Murakami’s other writing, thick with descriptions of simple meals and lonely men and strange, often very strange, sex – yet other parts of it also felt fresh and new. In sum, it was a decent new book from a man who has perfected his own subtle style. Colorless won’t make anyone turn away from Murakami, even if they’ve never read him before, and it’s engaging enough for his diehard fans. I don’t consider the three days I read it misspent.
As we sat in my living room discussing Murakami, we realized that, between us, we had read almost all of his work, and there were things we could all recite as commonalities between his books. In an interview from 2011, Murakami told a Spanish audience that he was a lonely child, and the three things that filled his quiet hours were “cats, books and music.” You can see the vapor trails of each of these things in the work Murakami has since produced, as each is filled with those reoccurring themes playing distinct roles in his characters’ lives.
In this sense, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is no different. There are mentions of cats and their tiny, silent feet, and music, particularly the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s piano solo “Le mal du pays.” Books, whether the characters are active readers or not, also merit mention time and time again, whether in descriptions of people’s bookshelves or as ways to pass the time. And, as usual, there are descriptions of the other things that constantly fill Murakami’s world: of simple meals stirfried with whatever is in the fridge, of physical deformities (six fingers on each hand, like in Wind Up Bird), and of physical activity, this time spent in the pool. There are the now-customary discussions of sexual proclivities that border on the phantasmagoric, but are always told in Murakami’s simple, matter-of-fact voice. And, like Tengo in 1Q84, Tsukuru’s sexual dreams merge frighteningly into reality, blurring the lines (and the effects) between what happens in bed, awake or asleep.
It is, like much of his work, the story of a single man, one searching for something he doesn’t understand, and who may find love or may screw it up. (My bet is usually that he’ll screw it up.) But Tsukuru Tazaki is more lonely than most, and that’s what makes Colorless a remarkable book.
Tsukuru Tazaki lives alone in Tokyo, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, but you’d hardly know it from Murakami’s descriptions of the place. Except for the train stations where Tsukuru spends most of his time (he’s an engineer working to make stations more streamlined and accessible), Tsukuru rarely participates in social life and other people rarely infiltrate his world.
Tsukuru seems to prefer it that way. Save for a friend named Haida and a slowly-blossoming romance with a woman named Sara (who may or may not also be dating an older, mustachioed gentleman), Tsukuru lives, sleeps, eats and exercises alone. And, alone, his life is no big party either. He spent the bulk of his time in college contemplating death, not eating, barely drinking, attending classes to pass the time. Now, at age 36, he’s thin and stark. He eats like a bird and never finishes an entire beer. He knows what he is but can’t seem to change it: the man is boring even to himself.
What could have caused such a sad, desolate life? Herein lies this book’s charm: no one becomes a Tsukuru Tazaki unless something truly traumatic has happened, and Tsukuru’s trauma is dramatic indeed. After his first year of college in Tokyo, Tsukuru is abandoned by his high school friends, all four of whom remained in Tsukuru’s hometown Nagoya after graduation. This group, which had originally numbered five, was once so close they saw themselves as fingers on a single hand. So it came as an abrupt shock when they summarily dismissed Tsukuru with a single phone call, telling him that they never wanted to see or hear from him again, with no explanation as to how or why. And Tsukuru being Tsukuru, he didn’t feel the need to ask.
The title’s reference to Tsukuru being “colorless” comes from the nicknames of these four friends. The two men in the group were nicknamed Red and Blue (or Aka and Ao in Japanese), while the two women were nicknamed White and Black (Shiro and Kuro), with all of the colors culled from their family names. Tsukuru, whose name is a homophone for the Japanese word meaning “to build or make,” has no color; he is colorless, though his engineering degree makes a kind of onomastic sense.
The “pilgrimage” of the title is also apt, since Tsukuru goes on one of these as well. It’s Sara who pushes Tsukuru to contact his old friends (would a guy like Tsukuru ever do that on his own?) when she realizes that there’s something stuck in him that cannot be undone until Tsukuru has learned why he was dismissed. So on this pilgrimage he goes, first back to Nagoya, and then on, surprisingly, to Finland. He contacts each of his old friends in turn to learn why and how, years ago, they could so quickly and completely abandon one of their own.
I won’t reveal the outcomes of Tsukuru’s pilgrimage since that would defeat the purpose of reading Murakami’s book, but I will suggest that, as Murakami ages, we see him treading on familiar ground while, at the same time, invoking something relatively new. Reading Colorless will feel familiar, like reading Wind Up Bird or 1Q84 or Kafka or Norwegian Wood. But parts of it will also feel thrillingly unique, fresh in the increasing span of his decades-long oeuvre. For example, Murakami has never written so movingly about friendship, especially since so many of his protagonists are often alone, and, despite her possible ongoing affair with another man, Sara is one of Murakami’s most competent and least-batshit-crazy female characters yet. It would be lovely to see more of this real emotion explored, especially for the women who are still a minority in Murakami’s world.
But Colorless may also be a sign of the times, or at least a sign of Murakami’s ever-increasing age (he turned 65 earlier this year). In Running, Murakami described the “wells” in his mind, and how a new one must be tapped for each book to emerge. He feared, in his 2008 memoir, that his reserves would eventually run dry, and that at some desperate point the drilling would cease and his career as a writer would dry up as well. The good news is that this clearly hasn’t happened yet. The bad news, however, is that many of the same wells are being used, often at the expense of his writing anything completely exciting or new.
Like Kurt Vonnegut (blessings upon his name), Murakami is getting repetitive with age. (Did A Man Without a Country contain anything we hadn’t read before?) The direct lines between Murakami’s life and fiction are clearer now than they used to be, and themes forming between books (cats, books, music, sex, stir fry, physical deformities, dreams-with-real-consequences, men stuck in wells) are getting easier to track. Aomame, the assassin-protagonist of 1Q84, is clearly based off of Murakami’s own physical therapist, whom he described at length in Running. (A tiny woman who stretches stiff gym-going men? Who uses surprising levels of force to bend and pull stubborn muscles into submission? Who toils and works until both the masseuse and the massaged are drenched in sweat from exertion? Wait a second, we’ve seen this before!) We can see Running’s real gym masseuse in Tokyo transform into Aomame in 1Q84 in the same way we can see a woman with six fingers pop up in Wind-Up Bird and again in Colorless, or in the same way Tengo’s orgasm with Fuka-Eri in 1Q84 results in Aomame getting pregnant while Tsukuru’s dream of sex with Shiro may have resulted in something strangely tragic happening to her in real life (it’s a spoiler alert if I say what this is). In Murakami’s world, the same weird story often gets told, but each time it’s revealed in a markedly different way.
Like the bulk of his characters, Murakami feels most comfortable when treading regular ground, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like reading it every time. Ultimately, what I liked the most about Colorless was how it showed Murakami evolving as a person. Colorless was clearly written by a middle-aged man who has his own struggles with aging and death, and who understands that the past, no matter how painful, can never be completely changed. His characters are getting deeper too: Tsukuru is a thoughtful guy, whose pilgrimage (even if it wasn’t initially his idea) is done with a sense of purpose and commitment. He’s less swept along by the winds of fate, as so many of Murakami’s characters have been before, than he is actively trying to understand his own past, and his confrontations with his former friends are deliberate and calm.
Perhaps this is suggestive of Murakami’s own more purposeful track in life, or at least of the maturity that comes with advancing age. Would a younger Murakami have written a character like Tsukuru, who willingly confronts those who unceremoniously dismissed him years before? Would anyone under the age of 65 be comfortable doing such a thing? For me, at less than half of Murakami’s age, the idea of confronting those who hurt me in the past is terrifying, but perhaps I’m still too young to be judicious about such things. I’d rather lick my wounds than have the cojones to understand why people were once dicks, and this could be the difference between a novel from a 31-year-old versus an aging baby boomer like Murakami. Despite the book returning to his ever-present themes, a younger Murakami could never have written Tsukuru. He could only appear from a more mature, evolved voice.
Ultimately, despite treading this familiar ground, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will hardly disappoint any Murakami devotee. You can’t separate a writer from his or her themes, and why would you want to? After all, there are probably a dozen literature Ph.D.s whose degrees wouldn’t exist if Murakami didn’t write the way he does. And the world Murakami has created is a good one, a place that millions of readers regularly like to call home. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the things we see can expect to see, Murakami has created a pleasant, often exciting and certainly always perplexing place, where readers can walk on cat-like feet, alone in moments of quiet contemplation, while cooking a simple meal out of whatever they can find in the fridge.
-Emily Dufton

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The November Man - Dir. Roger Donaldson (2014)

Sometimes I get manic and I get crazy ideas that sound brilliant at the time.  Then later I go back on another bipolar cycle and I don't think doing anything is a good idea.  The request that led to this post is a result of the former state.  
I thank Jay Maronde for spending his $5 to see this movie and write this review for me without any offer of monetary compensation.  However, it is with a sense of unfortunate timing that Richard Kiel (a.k.a. Jaws) passed away today.  Maybe as an homage, the next James Bond film after the one scheduled for production (Bond #25) should involve a plot eerily similar to 9/11.  I digress--I only saw Kiel in Moonraker, but it is easy to see there why he is such an important part of the James Bond Canon.  He effortlessly played a very likable villain that seemed like he could be your friend, to the point that he does become Bond's friend.  I am glad that I can mark his passing with this Bond-related post (and expect it to get more hits than any obituaries posted here previously).   

The November Man (2014)
Dir. Roger Donaldson

Pierce Brosnan Executive-Produced His Own Funeral
by Jay Maronde

About 2 weeks ago, I received an e-mail from my editor with the subject “November Man.” He implied that he would like a review of the movie (yes my turn around time is slow).  I Googled this film, and found that it was all new in theaters and starred Pierce Brosnan (one of my favorite Bonds) as a spy. Not wanting to know another thing I went to the theater the next Tuesday and the best thing I can say about this film is that I’m so glad I waited till $5 movie night.
                Let me start with Pierce Brosnan, who, as executive producer, deserves at least his fair share of blame for this stunning atrocity. (I would like to note that I mean atrocity because this movie is very difficult to watch, and not in some sort campy cult following way either.) I will admit I love Pierce, I really do, I liked him a lot as a washed up drunk spy in The Matador, The Thomas Crown Affair was a tasteful remake, he was classic as Remington Steele, and one of the few actors lucky enough ever to portray James Bond.  However, it appears as though Pierce wasn’t satisfied with his current body of spy/action work and decided to executive produce his own funeral in the genre.
His hair still looks great, he doesn't seem winded or tired, but he’s not in his most prime physical shape. There’s at least one scene later on in the movie where it’s quite obvious that the director instructed him to hold his arm across his body as the best method for distracting one’s eye to the fact that apparently all the James Bond money has Pierce eating pretty good.  Brosnan isn't the only villain here though so let me spread the blame around.
                There must have been a really good harvest of medical marijuana in California during the period of time in which all creative meetings for this film took place. I’m not kidding or being hyperbolic in any way: thinking back on this film it truly seems as if a bunch of stoners sat around smoking some great weed and said:
                “Hey man let’s make another Pierce Brosnan spy movie.”
To wit a fellow stoned movie executive set down his bong and retorted:
“Awwww man he’s so old.”
And the first chimed back:
“So we’ll make him a retired spy!”
And the second said:
                “See man, we’re geniuses, this shit writes itself.”
Because that’s exactly what the writing is in the movie: Hollywood drug-fueled schlock. The story is extremely convoluted and requires the viewer to make such logical LEAPS that sitting there you feel like you are the CIA agent, investigating what the hell is going on in this movie.  The movie drags so bad the viewer knows what a dolphin feels like caught in a tuna net.  Before checking my watch I would have sworn it ran over an hour longer than it was. A major part of this dragging feeling is that no person a party to this film seemed to have any idea whether they were making a buddy picture, a spy movie, or some sort of variant of the Liam Neeson Taken film series—not the actors, not the directors, not the producers, not this critic.
                Let me get to some of the better parts of this film. I will give some credit to the director that while the film drags, using the magic of very good music and pretty good cinematography the viewer definitely finds themselves perpetually on the edge of their seat. The eye candy is good-to-better also: Olga Kurylenko (another James Bond connection) is, as always, stunning in her beauty and her acting is better than most women that beautiful. The male lead besides Brosnan—relative newcomer Luke Bracey, playing Brosnan’s protégé in the CIA—does a decent job of playing a young confused agent while providing eye candy. The action sequences are good-to-better, and at no point did I get that weird CGI magic feeling so common in modern action movies.  The problem with some of the action is quite the same as the rest of the movie: you feel like the whole situation has grown entirely convoluted for no reason, but as a fan of action films, I can agree that the sequences were well-filmed and convincing. 

I've seen much worse, but in truth, I’m really glad I went on $5 movie night. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Fighting Chance - Elizabeth Warren (2014)

I don't know where to start with this review.  I was thinking maybe when I first became aware of Elizabeth Warren.  I was thinking maybe a warning that if you are a conservative, you should avoid reading so as to not give yourself a headache and start a thankless debate with me on some social media platform.  I was thinking maybe an actual quote from the text:

"Near the end of the line was a young man: early twenties, medium height, sandy-brown short hair.  When I reached him, he stepped forward and, with no preliminaries, blurted out that he had done everything he was supposed to do.  Counting on his fingers, he punched out the list.  Worked hard in high school.  Went to a good university.  Got good grades.  Graduated on time.  Everything--check, check, check.
And then...nothing.  No job.  No new apartment.  No bright future.  He'd been looking for work for more than a year, and still nothing.
Actually, it was worse than nothing.  Every day he fell a little further behind.  His student loan debt got a little bigger.  His stretch of unemployment got a little longer.  His fear that he would never build a secure, independent life cut a little deeper.
Now he had moved back in with his parents--and he had no idea when he would move out or how he would get his own life under way.
I met him in Worcester.  But I heard the same story in Falmouth and Dorchester.  In Marlborough, Marshfield, and Methuen.  In Weymouth and Westport and Ware.
I heard the story over and over and over, until I wanted to shout to the rooftops on behalf of these young men and women.  They were trying so hard, but they felt like their futures had broken apart before they had even begun." (274)

Everyone else reviewed this book when it came out--about three or four months ago (I put it on hold at the CPL and just got it now).  And they all pretty much started the same way: Elizabeth Warren says she is not running for President, but maybe, oh pretty please, she might!  And after this summer, and the multiple times she has reaffirmed that she has absolutely no intention of running, and after reading this book (which provides a pretty thorough treatment of the extraordinary anxiety she endured while mounting her senatorial campaign), I believe her, and I don't blame her.


The quote from above illustrates why I care enough about Elizabeth Warren to read her book.  All too often in this world it seems like nobody really looks out for you except for your family and friends.  It's passages like this in her book that reveal why Elizabeth Warren has become one of the most important political figures in the 21st century.  She really does care about serving the public.

A Fighting Chance is broken up into a prologue, six chapters, and an epilogue.  The prologue is her thesis statement, so to speak, in which she explains how she was able to build a life decidedly worth living from the foundation of a lower-middle class background.  And how it probably couldn't happen today:

"Here's the hard truth: America isn't building that kind of future any longer.
Today the game is rigged--rigged to work for those who have money and power.  Big corporations hire armies of lobbyists to get billion-dollar loopholes into the tax system and persuade their friends in Congress to supports laws that keep the playing field tilted in their favor.  Meanwhile, hardworking families are told that they'll just have to live with smaller dreams for their children." (2)

The first chapter, "Choosing Battles," is 42 pages long and is basically the purest "autobiography" in the book.  It tells her story from her childhood in the early 1960's through her second marriage and professorship at Harvard Law in the early 1990's.  It's pretty concise and appropriately details all of the sometimes idiosyncratic changes she made over the course of thirty years.  It will again prove to anyone that life is not always a straight path with obvious signposts along the way to help you achieve the best possible outcome.

The second chapter, "The Bankruptcy Wars," is 34 pages long and is probably my favorite section.  I am sure plenty of people expect that reading about her efforts to maintain actual consumer protections in the law that would come to be known as the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (or BAPCPA) will be boring--unless they happened to study it, and realize how fascinating it can be.  To those unfamiliar with BAPCPA, the first thing to note is that its title is extremely misleading.  The banking industry began lobbying for changes in the Bankruptcy Code sometime in the late 1990's, and Elizabeth Warren served on the National Bankruptcy Review Commission.  I won't talk about the changes--I am sure you can look it up on wikipedia.  But I was particularly surprised to see how the number of bankruptcy filings fluctuated over the years.  In 1980, there were 287,570 non-business bankruptcy filings.  In 1990, there were  718,107.  In 2004, there were 1,563,145 filings (however I think this figure includes business bankruptcies).  In 2005, before BAPCPA kicked in, the number hit 2,039,214.  The next year, it dropped down 597,965.  Just reading Warren try to explain these figures is illuminating.

The third chapter, "Bailing Out the Wrong People," is 54 pages long and primarily about the 2008 financial crisis and her role on the Congressional Oversight Panel (or COP, which she loves the idea of being).

The fourth chapter, "What $1 Million a Day Can Buy," is 43 pages long and reads like an extension of the previous chapter.  There doesn't appear to be much appreciable difference about the content or tone.

The fifth chapter, "An Agency for the People," is 44 pages long and details her efforts at starting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  While I laud the CFPB, it seems pretty much impossible for me to get a job there, so reading this chapter made me feel slightly depressed.

The sixth chapter, "The Battle for the Senate," is 65 pages long and will probably be the highlight for most readers.  I had followed Warren's campaign in 2012 pretty closely and I remembered a lot of the events she described, so it was very fun to read about her private thoughts on formerly public matters.

The epilogue briefly mentions her bill to cap student loan interest rates.  Like most of the legislation she has tried to affect, her dreams did not completely come true--compromises were made, but a few more people would be helped:

"And student loans?  No, I didn't get the Bank on Students Act passed.  But at least the final deal on student loan interest rates was better than where it started: $15 billion better for students over the next ten years.  An, in the end, I wasn't alone.  More than a dozen senators from around the country stood up with me to say no to any deal in which the government makes a profit off the backs of our students.  That's not a bad place to begin the next round in this battle--and believe me, we will come back to this issue again." (275-276)

That may be cold comfort to people with 6.8% and 7.8% interest rates on debt with a principal of $95,000, especially since the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act was blocked (thank you, Mitch McConnell).  Nevertheless, after reading A Fighting Chance, I am confident that Warren is not going to stop until she secures another victory--even if it is only a partial one.

To be honest this feels like kind of a toothless review.  I like the way Warren breaks up each chapter into mini-chapters.  The book is very reader-friendly.  It's very detailed, and I enjoyed reading it.  I am a huge fan of Senator Warren so obviously my review is going to be a bit biased.  I must admit that sometimes the book feels repetitive--in particular it seems like she mentions the support of the Firefighters in Boston twice, where the second time is a more detailed account (and includes the only f-bomb, expurgated, in the text--earlier on Warren spells out "Bullshit Whistle" and apologizes for the dirty word).  Sometimes certain turns of phrase show up several more times than seems necessary.  But I suppose this is all part-and-parcel of writing a "political" book.

One of the most annoying things to me in the world is reading internet comments after news stories.  I have to admit that it is a guilty pleasure of mine, and an interesting way that the "marketplace of ideas" from the First Amendment plays out.  I do it, but I hate myself for doing it.  Some stories on Warren are filled with comments that say how wonderful she is and proclaim that they will write her name in at the next Presidential election; others snipe that she lied about being Native American so that she could get treated favorably for a job at Harvard.  It's a pretty pathetic attempt to attack her, considering it seems like it's just been made out of thin air from the paranoid fantasies of privileged white conservative pundits, but Warren's description shows just how crass they can be:

"Right-wing blogs took to calling me 'Fauxcahontas.'  Someone took out a billboard with a picture of me in a Native American headdress, declaring, 'Elizabeth Warren is a joke.'  One sunny afternoon, as I marched in a parade and shook hands and waved at people, a group of guys standing together on a corner started making Indian war whoops--patting their mouths as if they were some kind of cartoon braves.  It was appalling." (240-241)

Warren is salient on the details of bankruptcy, TARP funds, and consumer protection.  Plenty of lay readers will have a good start at exploring more complex areas of financial regulation with this book.  It doesn't really talk about the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, but Warren does mention that after BAPCPA passed, third-party debt collectors were telling the people they called that the new law made it illegal to file for bankruptcy, or so difficult to qualify that they would never be eligible.  No doubt some details will bore a fair number of readers, but Warren is great at practically explaining what complex changes to the law mean in real-life terms.

She also writes extensively about her family, and her series of dogs in very loving terms.  And then some moments of the book are downright hilarious:

"Vicki Kennedy called with thoughtful advice borne of years of campaigning across the state.  Former governor Mike Dukakis, who was now in his late seventies, took Bruce out to show him the finer points of knocking on doors, setting a blistering pace that kept them half-running from house to house.  At one home, no one answered the front door, but the governor thought perhaps someone was in the backyard.  While Bruce was thinking about the laws of trespass--he's a professor of property law and takes this sort of thing pretty seriously--the governor bounded to the side of the house and began fiddling with the gate to the backyard.  Just as he got it open, a big dog came racing around the corner, barking wildly, slobber flying everywhere.  The governor never missed a step.  After jumping onto a small side porch, he called over his shoulder to Bruce with the first lesson of political door knocking: 'Ignore the dog.  You won't change his mind anyway.'" (242)

At another point, a couple of supporters wave and shout at her from across the street, and she waves back and walks straight into a telephone pole.

This is about as good of a political autobiography as you can do while you are still in office.  I am not sure exactly what the reason is for it--Warren also writes about earlier books (the influential but policy-oriented The Two Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke and its more utilitarian follow-up All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan) and they seem to deliver the same kind of information she researched in her bankruptcy studies.  This may be a way to bring more attention to the legislation she supports, rather than an effort to publicize herself for the presidency.  It seems she is happy with what she can do as a senator, and is aware of the parameters in which the President must operate.  It may also be a way to help other Democratic hopefuls in this election year--by publicizing herself, when candidates drop her name, more voters will know what kind of issues they support.

In summary, A Fighting Chance is similar to My Beloved World.  They're both very compelling, but I'm tempted to say I like My Beloved World better.  That is just a matter of preference.  Justice Sotomayor seemed a little more unpredictable and allowed her narrative to unfold in ways that sometimes felt more like literary fiction.  By contrast Warren is very business-like in her prose.  Regardless, the book is a pleasure and I am very grateful that Senator Warren has sacrificed herself in a way (certainly opened herself up to many painful attacks) on behalf of struggling Americans.  I have yet to feel any relief on my own putrid financial state, but I am optimistic that something positive may happen in the next few years.  In short, this book can give you hope.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Karaoke Singer's Guide to Self-Defense - Tim Kinsella (2011)

Flashback 14 years to Fall 2000, my senior year in high school, chatting on AOL Instant Messenger with a friend I had gotten to know the previous year in an English class.  He was pretentious.  Definitely not popular but so weird and laconic and humorous that he carried his own cultural cache which others had to respect.  We started by giving feedback on college essays we were writing.  We wrote short stories and sent them back and forth (his were much better, or at least seemed to be written by a much older and more intelligent person) and he contributed a couple iconic lines to a play I was writing.  Five years later we'd stop speaking, and I wrote my first novel as a kind of response to that rejection.  He'd later describe the event as an "epic falling out" to a mutual friend, though it seemed anything but that to me (swift, no words, little explanation).

However, back in those idyllic late high school times, I was very into three bands, in this order: Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, and Rage Against the Machine.  The Beastie Boys and Foo Fighters, among others, took up lesser spots, but these three comprised the majority of my listening.  My friend saw a problem with this, and he did me the favor of lending dozens of CDs to me over the next few months.  Some of these bands would go on to become my favorites: Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Fugazi, and the Velvet Underground, to name a few.  But more interesting was a sub-set of music that shocked: emo.  It shocked because it did not fit in with this refined adult taste.  He was weirdly looking forward to the new Weezer album, which would be their follow-up to Pinkerton (which I never heard until I got to college).  He said Sunny Day Real Estate was emo.  He said Cap'n Jazz was emo.

I was surprised I liked Cap'n Jazz because they were so obscure.  By that point in my life honestly I had never really made the effort to give "underground" music a chance.  My friend had told me, "Just play the first track and wait til the end."  I did that, and to say it changed my life would be an overstatement, but it sort of changed my life.  Cap'n Jazz was not necessarily "underground," but I am pretty sure you could go out on the street and ask a bunch of people in Chicago (their hometown) who they were and 95-99% would profess ignorance.  So while my friend and I may be "separated," and while I was pretty mad at him for a while, I will always be grateful for making me his "project" and turning me on to indie rock, because it's been one of the few enjoyable pursuits afforded me in this miserable life.

Fast-forward to July 2010 when a re-formed Cap'n Jazz played the Wicker Park Festival and I promptly lost my shit for an hour.  Flashback to April 2002 when I went on what I considered a very romantic date to an Owls concert at North Six in Brooklyn and sat on the bleachers and watched the members of Cap'n Jazz play weirder songs, but still catchier ones than Joan of Arc put out.  Fast-forward to December 2005 when I went alone to see Make Believe play with Islands at Beat Kitchen.  Fast-forward to some other time in 2006 or 2007 when I saw Make Believe at the Wicker Park Festival.  Fast-forward to July 2014 when I saw Owls play at the Wicker Park Festival on the heels of their well-received 2nd album, 13 years in gestation.

It's possible you're reading this and wondering what the hell this has to do with a book--but more likely, if you know the name of the author, you know why I started the review off this way.  Tim Kinsella's reputation precedes him, and with his recent literary output as well as the new seemingly more mainstream Owls record, it may appear he is in the process of shaking that off.  However, if the Owls performance three weeks ago is any indication, he will never stop being obtuse, inscrutable, and defiantly anti-establishment.

As previously mentioned here, I saw him read at the Printer's Row Lit Fest (more than 2 months ago already - sad that the summer is wearing out).  He read from his second novel, Let Go and Go on and on, and I approached him afterwards and told him I didn't have the money to buy a book, but would he sign my journal?  He graciously complied and I told him I would be reading "the Karaoke Singer" soon and I review every book I read and would he like to see the review?  "No...I don't really try to pay attention to reviews."  I wouldn't pay attention to reviews either with the way he has been skewered by Pitchfork in the past (The Gap at 1.9, How Can Any Thing So Little Be Any More EP at 2.2, So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness at a nearly-favorable 4.2, In Rape Fantasy and Terror Sex We Trust improving to a 5.0, Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain... at an almost-respectable 5.3, Joan of Arc: Presents: Guitar Duets at a near-median 3.5), but it seems like he knows how to get better reviews when he's not trying to be experimental or engaging in the practice of obfuscation (Owls' S/T record came in at 7.0 and Two got a 7.3 and the two Make Believe albums that were reviewed came in between Joan of Arc and Owls, generally).  Pitchfork never reviewed Analphabetapolothology but there is no way they could give it anything less than an 8.7, if not a 10.  It's just ridiculously inspired and influential and if you haven't heard it already and are even the slightest bit aware of "emo" as a genre (even if you hate what it represents), you owe it to yourself to at least listen to "Little League" (and especially the end of it).

So Tim Kinsella is carrying a lot of baggage going into publishing his first novel, and it seems like his fans will stick with him no matter how far out into left-field he wants to stray.  But books and music are two different mediums, and I am happy to report that The Karaoke Singer's Guide to Self-Defense is "more mainstream" Kinsella, and that people who might be completely unaware of his indie icon status over the past 20 years will probably find this book intriguing--if not exactly a masterpiece--provided they can get past page 100.
This is because up until page 100 the reader may find themselves lost, and unable to figure out just where the narrative is heading.  However, around that point it all begins to make sense.  Then the book shifts to "Part 2" and some confusion is likely there as well.  But I will try to sum it up for you without spoiling too much.

This book is probably 45% about a family, 35% about a bar, and 20% about two random characters.  The family is comprised of Mel, Will and Kent, three siblings who have come back together for their Nana's funeral.  Ronnie is their mother, Dell is their estranged father, and Joe is Ronnie's new boyfriend.  Kent works at a toothpaste factory and is married with kids.  Will is the youngest of the three and has had problems in the past with fighting.  Basically, he went through rehab because he got into fights as his hobby.  Mel works as a bartender at The Shhh...

The Shhh... is a bar owned by Norman, who inherited it from his father Rich.  Norman is the closest thing this book has to a villain, and a certain proposal made towards the end of the book is the closest it comes to reaching a "climax":

"Mel understood.  She would tell Will everything if Kent weren't around.  How she hid the pregnancy at first so she could keep dancing.  How she could've had the baby if she could have kept dancing but couldn't keep dancing if she had the baby--Goddamn it, maybe she probably should've had the kid.  How Norman had been squeezing her and couldn't Will maybe do something, even just scare him, just this once?
But Kent was talking about his remortgaged subprime tax break insurance kid's sports team past glory with a snappy comeback Florida getaway I prefer a bargain or something.  It was getting late.  Will lit a cigarette." (248-249)

A side note: the book starts at a scene at The Shhh... and is also the closest the book comes to being about emo or punk rock because Cap'n Jazz has a song titled "Planet Shhh..."  So what I'm trying to say is, you're not getting a traditional novel here, nor some kind of thinly-veiled autobiography about life as a relatively obscure indie rock icon (which would be awesome).  However, there is a fair amount of material on the art of karaoke (mostly from Norman, who specializes in it) and there is this passage about another character, Gus.  Gus runs the kitchen at The Shhh... and he is also Mel's roommate and a poet:

"Too old to have really been a punk, Gus turned thirty in 1978, but loved Public Image so much that he began every karaoke session of his life with the same disappointment, looking up 'Public Image' by Public Image Limited.  No karaoke place ever had it.  Though its two note riff with no surprises was perfection itself to Gus, it would, he had to admit, be a very tough song to sing karaoke.  The 'melody' was all in the sneering attitude.  Except for the repetition of the words 'public image,' few lyrics were comprehensible after the opening line, 'You never listen to a word I'm saying.'" (74)

Side note: this is the 2nd review on Flying Houses in recent months to reference PiL.  I liked 85A, but I don't want to compare the two.  While they were both debuts and published not too far apart from one another, they're completely different books.  However I would have liked this book better if it had taken place in Chicago.  I do not know why Kinsella set the story in Stone Claw Grove, MI rather than Chicago, but apparently Stone Claw Grove is a fictional town.

But maybe the setting is why I liked this book in the first place: it is not a sugar-coated version of reality like so many other novels.  The characters are distinctly working class, and the disappointments in their lives are palpable and ring true.  In other words, reading the book as an underemployed attorney with a debt well on its way to six figures, I felt less alone.

Kinsella recently taught a class in experimental fiction at the University of Chicago, and that appointment was probably based on the strength of this novel.  It is "experimental," but it's straightforward enough that I could see it making a cool movie.  It's experimental in the sense that the action is constantly flipping backwards and forwards in time.  Primarily it takes place before and after Nana's funeral, but it jumps back to 9 months before the funeral (i.e. around the time Mel got pregnant) and other earlier points in time as well.

Another "experimental" aspect is the way Kinsella writes in the third person, but manages to imbue the narration with the personality of the character that is the focus of a particular section.  This is also a confusing trope at first, but by page 100, the reader should be able to figure out what is happening.  As mentioned, most of the characters are working class and the narration is appropriately down-to-earth, but Sarah Ann has a more intellectual inner monologue that makes her a very interesting but underused character.

The same can be said for the other two random characters, Wallace and Jesse.  I haven't read any other reviews of this book so I may be alone on this, but to me the chapters about Wallace and Jesse are the strongest in the book.  I'm just not sure they fit in all that well with the rest of the story.  Regardless, they are compelling.  They are not totally horrifying, but they are disturbing and sometimes deeply so.  Oddly enough, they are the most topical parts of the book, as the last few years have seen several young adults in the news break free from their captors who basically tortured them by forcing them to be their companions.  Wallace eventually does the "right thing" but the wrong way, and the depiction of Jesse's reaction almost made me want to break out in tears.

All throughout, the writing is strong, and I may have only picked up one typo.  Kinsella read from Let Go and Go on and on at the Lit Fest this year.  He sat in front of me with his mom, and then he got up to read and nobody seemed to laugh or "get it."  He was reading something about cockfighting and people living out of their car.  It didn't seem as "mainstream" as this book, but I am really glad I read this and may read that in the future.  Nobody may ever "get" Kinsella, but I feel like I understand where he's coming from a little better after reading this book.  I don't think I'm alone in hoping that Cap'n Jazz reforms yet again (I read one shocking interview where he said Owls' Two was almost released as the 2nd Cap'n Jazz album--which seriously would have fucked with everyone), but so long as Kinsella remains a stalwart on the indie publishing scene in Chicago, I can deal (fingers crossed that I get a copy of S/M out to him and that he's tickled by the fact that a scene in the novel takes place at a Make Believe concert and consequently considers me worthy of Featherproof's support).

Sunday, August 3, 2014

How to be Alone - Jonathan Franzen (2002)

I picked up How to be Alone at the Printer's Row Lit Fest, so it shares the dubious honor of being the second book after Rick Moody's Purple America to be purchased there and reviewed here.  I liked Purple America and I liked How to be Alone but for different reasons.  How to be Alone is a book of essays, and I don't know, I just kind of like reading essays.  Let me put it this way: I prefer to read "essays" over "articles," and I hope that my posts on Flying Houses are considered "essay-like reviews" rather than "article-like reviews."  But I digress - we must discuss the author.

The only time I read anything by Jonathan Franzen before was when I read a chapter from The Corrections that was re-printed in an anthology released for the 50th anniversary of The Paris Review (ironically, also purchased at the Printer's Row Lit Fest(!) - a decade ago when it was called the Printer's Row Book Fair).  I didn't really get into it.  So I never checked out that novel, or anything else by him.  But he seemed like the real deal after Freedom got so much attention so I figured I should give him a chance when I saw this book for $5.00.  And after reading it I will definitely check out more of his work.

But I can't go on without mentioning that I was put off by him before because he seemed like a kind of vanilla great writer--doing everything right, but lacking the ability to really engage the reader--from that little excerpt I read in that Paris Review anthology.  Mainly I compared that with "Little Expressionless Animals," a short story by David Foster Wallace that was also in there and is probably the best (and only) thing I have finished by him, and decided that Franzen just wrote pretentiously.
The book starts off on an almost impossibly high note with "My Father's Brain."  This is a remarkable essay that should be anthologized for any collection of 20th or 21st century writers studied by high school students (it could almost be an essay by Richard Selzer).  Franzen ties together autobiography and science to produce an extraordinary tribute to his father that is highly emotional as well as educational.  Having lost a grandmother to Alzheimer's disease, it was especially poignant for me when he mentioned how his father could still recognize the people around him as familiar, but could not identify their relationship to him.  To be clear, the last time I saw her before she went to a nursing home, she referred to her son and his wife (who had moved in with her to care for her) as two nice people who were letting her stay with them for some unknown reason.  Franzen's father similarly retained familiarity with his family members, but probably only thanked them for coming to visit in the nursing home because (apparently) Alzheimer's patients retain their manners and politeness, and other learned, ingrained social pleasantries.  This, along with several other observations and scientific hypotheses, tells the reader everything they need to know about Alzheimer's.  But what makes this essay even more amazing is the way Franzen branches off to discuss the nature of memory, and how writers employ it:
Before I go on, a confession: it has taken me a very long time to write this review.  Not because I have complicated feelings about it, but because I've been lazy.  Also I couldn't find a good quote from the first essay, so we move on.

"Imperial Bedroom" comes next and at this point I need to say several things: (1) that is the title of an Elvis Costello album; (2) that is almost the title of a Bret Easton Ellis novel; (3) a few days after starting this book on June 30, 2014, Bret Easton Ellis linked to an old interview he did on Facebook which referenced the most infamous essay in this book and also commented on Donna Tartt in June 1999; (4) this essay is about the Starr Report and was published in 1998; (5) this essay references the "zone of privacy" codified by the Supreme Court in the late 1800's, (6) this essay feels dated in a very charming way, like many of the other pieces in this book.  I will get more into this later.  But basically, this essay was o.k.:

"Walking up Third Avenue on a Saturday night, I feel bereft.  All around me, attractive young people are hunched over their StarTacs [!] and Nokias with preoccupied expressions, as if probing a sore tooth, or adjusting a hearing aid, or squeezing a pulled muscle; personal technology has begun to look like a personal handicap.  All I really want from a sidewalk is that people see me and let themselves be seen, but even this modest ideal is thwarted by cell-phone users and their unwelcome privacy.  They say things like 'Should we have couscous with that?' and 'I'm on my way to Blockbuster.'  They aren't breaking any law by broadcasting these breakfast-nook conversations.  There's no PublicityGuard that I can buy, no expensive preserve of public life to which I can flee.  Seclusion, whether in a suite at the Plaza or in a cabin in the Catskills, is comparatively effortless to achieve.  Privacy is protected as both commodity and right; public forums are protected as neither.  Like old-growth forests, they're few and irreplaceable and should be held in trust by everyone.  The work of maintaining them gets only harder as the private sector grows ever more demanding, distracting, and disheartening.  Who has the time and energy to stand up for the public sphere?  What rhetoric can possibly compete with the American love of 'privacy?'" (53)

Okay, I'll admit sometimes I don't get exactly what point Franzen is trying to make, but let's just say he sounds like a curmudgeon in 1998 and he must totally want to kill himself with the state of things in 2014, as do I.  So I make this offer to him: the next time he is in Chicago, he should contact me and we should take the El together and yell at everyone staring down at their phones.  [Note: I have absolutely no problem with people reading Flying Houses on personal electronic devices].

The aforementioned infamous essay comes next.  "Why Bother? (The Harper's Essay)" is one of the main attractions of this book, but not for the right reasons.  I am sure there are plenty of people that would defend this essay as a "tour de force" and one of the finest essays about literature in the 1990's, but most people (and Franzen himself) probably consider it embarrassing and pretentious.  Originally titled "Perchance to Dream" and published in April 1996, Franzen writes that when he actually opened up the magazine to read it, "I found an essay, evidently written by me, that began with a five-thousand-word complaint of such painful stridency and tenuous logic that even I couldn't quite follow it." (4) He "cut the essay by a quarter" and retitled it, and hoped "it's less taxing to read now, more straightforward in its movement." (5) It is 43 pages long and only wasn't taxing for me to read because I was stuck on an airline commute from hell that majorly comprised a 15 hour travel day. Also, it was not taxing because I kept waiting to see what ridiculous thing Franzen was going to write next.  It is a gold mine for ridiculousness, but some valid points are made along the way.

As is the case for most of the essays here, it is spurred by something Franzen recently read.  In this case it is the short novel Desperate Characters by Paula Fox published in 1970. (As a side note, Franzen name-checks many, many writers throughout this book, most of them a bit more obscure than the usual names mentioned.  So it can be helpful also in terms of discovering new writers.) He writes a lot about how simple and beautiful this novel is and how symbolic it all is.  He also writes about his first novel The Twenty-Seventh City and how his ideas of what literature should be shifted throughout the years.  Now, I kind of want to read his first novel now, and I kind of get where he's coming from, even though I don't agree entirely with his stance.  But maybe I'm confusing this with the later essay "Mr. Difficult," which I think is probably the strongest essay in this book ("Why Bother?" done right).

He writes a lot about Shirley Brice Heath and the observations she made about the reading public.  He basically complains that nobody reads anymore.  There's a lot of confessional stuff about his own writing, and he is usually pretty funny and occasionally lands solid moments of truth:

"Unfortunately, there's also evidence that young writers today feel imprisoned by their ethnic or gender identities--discouraged from speaking across boundaries by a culture in which television has conditioned us to accept only the literal testimony of the Self.  And the problem is aggravated when fiction writers take refuge in university creative-writing programs.  Any given issue of the typical small literary magazine, edited by MFA candidates aware that the MFA candidates submitting manuscripts need to publish in order to obtain or hold on to teaching jobs, reliably contains variations on three generic short stories: 'My Interesting Childhood,' 'My Interesting Life in a College Town,' and 'My Interesting Year Abroad.'  Fiction writers in the Academy do serve the important function of teaching literature for its own sake, and some of them also produce strong work teaching, but as a reader I miss the days when more novelists lived and worked in big cities.  I mourn the retreat into the Self and the decline of the broad-canvas novel for the same reason I mourn the rise of suburbs: I like maximum diversity and contrast packed into a single exciting experience.  Even though social reportage is no longer so much a defining function of the novel as an accidental by-product--Shirley Heath's observations confirm that serious readers aren't reading for instruction--I still like a novel that's alive and multivalent like a city." (80)

I can see what he's saying about the MFA contingent (and I've complained about them several times over the years here), but I have to admit that, even though I can't consider myself part of that group (because I didn't get in to one of those programs, I'm more of the novelist that lives and works in a big city), I feel like I have to retreat into the Self, at least for the first couple major works.  I feel like you can't truly understand the world until you've thoroughly examined yourself, and to give an idea of your perspective, you should publish at least a couple books that present it.    

I seriously could write an entire blog post about each essay--and this one is a doozy for sure.  But I have to move on as I'm doing the entire book and I think I've given an idea about the notoriety of this essay.  Bret Easton Ellis said it wasn't a good essay in its original form, and I'm not sure if he thinks it's any better in its revised form, but it's certainly worth reading because you can't help but have strong feelings about it.

"Lost in the Mail" is an essay about the decline of the U.S. Post Office in Chicago in 1994.  I loved it because so much of it is about Chicago, but as I was reading it I was paranoid that my city sticker wouldn't arrive that day in the mail, and that I'd get penalized for not having a new one on my windshield on July 1, but in reality they didn't start enforcing that until July 17th this year (and ironically, my city sticker arrived right after I finished the essay).  As is the case for most of the essays here, it feels dated, but then again I don't live on the South Side.  I feel like the Post Office has cleaned up its act over the past 20 years, but this is still an entertaining read because it is the first "live reportage" type essay here and feels like it's "from the front lines" and "an insider's look."

"Erika Imports" is probably the strangest thing in the book, but it's nice.  It's like four pages long and is a brief nostalgia trip about the first summer job Franzen ever had, working for his neighbors.  Maybe I only thought it was nice because it was so short though, and was such a counterpoint to the 30 page essay I was expecting.

"Sifting the Ashes" is a great essay about cigarettes.  However, I was confused at the beginning as to whether Franzen had actually quit at the time he was writing it.  Again, he references a recent book he read, Smoke Screen by Philip J. Hilts.  Though this essay was published in 1996, it doesn't feel that dated.  The only thing that's changed is that cigarettes have become subject to much higher taxation and have been banned from most indoor establishments across the country.  I feel like somebody needs to write an essay about marijuana right now so that in 18 years we can consider whether it feels dated.

"The Reader in Exile" is the 2nd example of the "quintessential Franzen essay" in this book, after "Why Bother?"  You can guess what it is about.  He references A is for Ox by Barry Sanders, but mostly talks about Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte.  I mainly remember this essay for Negroponte's relentless positivity about the rise of technology, and Franzen's skepticism.  It makes me feel like Negroponte was an early proponent of the robo basilisk paranoia, but I digress.

"First City" is an essay about New York City.  It is also about the nature of cities, and how they differ in Europe from the U.S.  Some interesting comments are made about urban planning.  He references Witold Rybczysnki's book City Life.  Further comments are made about The Encyclopedia of New York City, which are entertaining.  In general, this is a paean to New York as the most European city in the U.S. and it makes me want to write an essay titled "Second City."

"Scavenging" is probably the 2nd strangest thing in the book.  He also gripes about new technology here, waxing nostalgic about his rotary phone.  He kind of jumps all over the place in this essay, but he mostly writes about using outdated technology.  And it is here that we reach a milestone.  For I read this essay right before I accidentally destroyed my old laptop's screen, and felt very sad, but then felt very proud like I would blog on a semi-broken machine.  And I did that for a while, but at this moment, this post is the first post being written on my new laptop.

"Control Units" is about super maximum security prisons, and is a really great essay, actually.  It's not quite on the level of "My Father's Brain," but it's like a more compelling "Lost in the Mail."  Basically, Franzen is in full-on journalist mode here again, and he makes some great comments about the prison system in a particular Colorado town, and though it was published in 1995, this is another essay that has only grown more true as time has gone on.

"Mr. Difficult" is my favorite essay in this book.  It is mainly about William Gaddis.  I have never read anything by Gaddis but it made me want to--sort of.  Franzen gives Gaddis the highest compliments imaginable, but also openly admits that some of his later work is a mess.  This is one of the most fascinating essays in the book because Franzen seems openly enthusiastic about the material, and his opportunity to make a statement about it.  There is also the interesting revelation that the title of The Corrections is meant as a nod to The Recognitions.  Franzen also writes about his failed attempt to write a screenplay, because somebody told him that his movie seemed to plagiarize Fun with Dick and Jane (which seems weird for some reason).  He also talks about books that he couldn't finish.  He references The Sot-Weed Factor, and that is another notable example of a book that I tried to read while starting this blog, but failed to review as "incomplete." I guess this is about a certain period of American authors.  Franzen says he didn't particularly like any of them that much except for Don DeLillo and Gaddis.  Generally, I liked what he did with this essay.  Franzen seems to have a deep understanding of Gaddis's oeuvre, and I can appreciate an essay on this sort of subject matter.

"Books in Bed" is another essay that is kind of like "Imperial Bedroom" but is mostly about sex rather privacy.  It is also about watching CNN in airports.  He again references recent books he has read  This time it is The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict, which is a compilation of sex scenes in literature.  Franzen seems to view the culture's obsession with sex, and literary sex scenes, as another indication of the sad state of the modern world.  But along the way, as usual, he is entertaining:

"Until the Rules become universal, though, such comfort as can be found in the market economy comes principally from norms.  Are you worried about the size of your penis?  According to Sex: A Man's Guide, most men's erections are between five and seven inches long.  Worried about the architecture of your clitoris?  According to Betty Dodson, in the revised edition of her Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving, the variations are 'astounding.'  Worried about frequency?  'Americans do not have a secret life of abundant sex,' the researchers in Sex in America concluded.  Worried about how long it takes you to come?  On average, says Sydney Barrows, it takes a woman eighteen minutes, a man just three."  (273)

"Meet Me in St. Louis" is the last longer essay in the book, and is about Franzen's experience becoming a member of "Oprah's Book Club" and how a promotional movie was shot in St. Louis about his life.  It's awkward and is one of the other major highlights of this book.  In a way, it is similar to "My Father's Brain" because it delves into personal details about his life and his parents.  It's entertaining and emotionally engaging to see how a bigger promotional machine can twist the meaning of a work of art into something different than its meant to be in search of a bigger return.

The collection ends with a trip that Franzen took to see the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001.  It's breezy and short--only "Erika Imports" is shorter.  But it makes a stronger impression than that essay.  It reads like a combination of "Journalist Franzen" and "Skeptical Franzen."  It seems like a reactionary piece to the Bush v. Gore decision, and it feels very raw and angry.  Obviously your political views may tint how you view this essay, but it seems like the vast majority of Frazen's fans will not take issue.

On the whole, How to be Alone is a nice collection, and was worth buying for $5.  I'm not sure I'll revisit it anytime soon (maybe in a decade, who knows), but it was a thoroughly entertaining collection that made me feel very literary for reading.  Anybody that wants to be a well-respected author that sells a lot of copies should read this to see inside the mind of one of them.  Franzen is generous in that regard.  Still, I can't help but feel that 50% or more of modern-day writers may claim he is full of it and you don't need to live the way he does to write great books.  I'm not sure how I'll review his fiction, but I hope to have the chance soon.