Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Short Form: The Apology, A Gentleman in Moscow, The Long Accomplishment

The Apology - Eve Ensler

This is a book unlike any other. Certainly, there are books with dead narrators (The Lovely Bones, which - full disclosure - I never read). But this is not a novel, though it is the length of a prototypical novella. This is probably one of the greatest exercises in empathy attempted in the literary realm. This Apology has nothing to do with Socrates but rather, is a memoir by the author's father, looking back on his life from a kind of nether realm (purgatory or hell, I can't recall) and trying to redeem himself by acknowledging his atrocious behavior on earth. 

As it opens, Ensler gives a remarkably empathetic portrait of her father as a young man, and the insecurities and failures and seeming mediocrity that he grappled with as he met her mother and eventually became a relatively rich and powerful ice cream company executive. Eve is then born, and he dotes on her and then realizes that he actually loves her more than her mother--because part of her is made from him. Then there's a turn and it's extremely difficult to read the next twenty pages or so as she recounts the years of sexual abuse he inflicted upon her, roughly between the ages of 5 and 10. As deeply disturbing as these pages are, Ensler acknowledges that they still could have been even worse.

When she realizes what is actually happening, she resists and he feels betrayed. The next turn is that he spends the rest of his life hating her and subjecting her to every other form of abuse imaginable, because he is afraid of what she knows he did. It becomes extremely bizarre and surreal when, for example, both she and her father end up outside for a smoke after the ceremony for her graduation from Smith College, where she has just delivered the commencement address as valedictorian. He makes some kind of backhanded compliment or slight. It's not a stretch to say that he hopes she would die. 

He has now been dead for more than 30 years and it took Ensler that long to come to grips with the legacy of pain left in his wake. The book ends on an uncertain note. I can't recall exactly--as I read this months ago and it's back at the library--but there is a certain ambivalent hopefulness that comes through. There is no absolution or forgiveness, but there is closure, and Ensler, in her own way, transmutes her memory of him into something less incomprehensible and monstrous. In this anti-ur-text, at least, she allows him to attempt to be a [slightly] better person than he was in his life. 

Grade: A

A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow was the 2nd selection of the Voracious Violets book club. Eventually we will need to rank all of the selections after a time, and this will have to go beneath Educated. But that is probably just because Educated is easier to read and more of a page-turner. A Gentleman in Moscow, which I didn't particularly enjoy for long stretches, however, is a consummate work of art which beautifully ties together disparate narrative threads and paints an arresting allegory of Soviet Russia in the 20th century.

This is not long form because I don't have the text in front of me, and also because I don't know what I want to say about it. The writing is impeccable. Sometimes I was bored and sometimes I was enthralled. There is a cute cast of characters. I've heard that an adaptation is being developed as a limited series. I'm sure it will be fascinating. The time is ripe for depictions of fascist regimes. 

One thing I wanted to mention: a menacing atmosphere pervades this story, and yet the cataclysms are almost innocent and cute. Such as Osip (?), who calls the Count into a special dinner for the two of them, and then conscripts him into teaching him English, and later enjoying American cinema--particularly The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca--together. The ending is great and there are a lot of aphorisms or epigrams or bits of old-fashioned and timeless wisdom to charm the reader into believing they are reading a novel by an early 20th century European master (i.e. Mann or Nabokov - for this reader at least). If I am ever lucky enough to get to visit Moscow, a visit to the Metropol Hotel will now be necessity due to this book. It should have been a corporate sponsor.

Grade: A-

The Long Accomplishment - Rick Moody

Along the continuum of books by Rick Moody reviewed on Flying Houses, this is better than both. At first I was going to say it's better than Purple America but not as good as Garden State. Then I remembered that I recently re-read Garden State and did not find it nearly as affecting as before. Perhaps Purple America would move me more now as a mid 30s person rather than a mid 20s person.

This book is a memoir basically about Moody's 2014. (Note: at a certain point Moody has to ask his father for money, and he refers to him as a banker----did he found Moody's ratings??? No but it's one of those names you could be born with where your profession would be an afterthought.) It might as well be called "Moody's Law," but hopefully he used up enough bad luck in that one year to last a lifetime. And actually the bad luck may have come from his possession of a Charles Manson autograph.

This is basically a straight narrative and there's nothing much to say about it that wouldn't function as a spoiler, except to say that he has a kid, he gets divorced, he gets remarried, a lot of people die or precipitously decline, he writes a weird book, and he and his wife try very hard to have another kid (amongst other calamities). It's beautifully written and nearly every sentence is suffused with pain of one sort or another. There is also mordant wit and sometimes obsessive detail. There is a lot to love about it and the only criticism I can make is that sometimes it feels a little too precious with itemized details. Better that than vagaries, of course, but those are the only times I felt bogged down as a reader. It is pretty hard to write compelling creative nonfiction, let alone give any meaning to the realities of existence. Yet Moody has accomplished this, and while a fair amount of it may seem mundane or "basic," the chapter on Odyssey Works (one-person-audience plays) is worth the price of admission alone.

Grade: A-

Monday, September 30, 2019

Chicago Cubs 2019 Season

They have not been mathematically eliminated (as of September 23) [Ed. It happened on 9/25], but it is time to write the obituary for the 2019 Cubs. The one game I attended was on Thursday, September 19 against the Cardinals. Frankly, this was probably the best game to be at, in terms of being there to see important things happen, and hopefully good ones.

They were not good things. They were terrible things. 

In a 4-game series where we hoped to creep up, keep pace, or even eclipse the first place Cardinals (2 games up on the morning of 9/19), where we needed to win at least 3 out of 4, we got swept, and the season is over. We were excited to have the chance to prove we deserved to be in the postseason, moreso than either the Brewers, Nationals and Cardinals. All season long up until the end of August, nobody would have said any of those teams were better than the Cubs. This was a straight up collapse. I have never, in my life, seen a 4 game series that has reversed their fortunes so dramatically (the NLDS sweeps by the Diamondbacks and Dodgers were only 3 games each).


I think now (9/24) mathematical elimination has occurred. So now it is time to take inventory of many things. Instead of grading all of the players, we will comment on the most notable, and situate them within their own context. 

Craig Kimbrel: Overrated

I was consistently amazed by the voices that came to his defense every time he blew another game. He may be a future Hall of Famer but it will not be due to his work with this team (this year, at least). He signed a "bargain" $43 million 3-year contract, but really it's a 2.5 year contract, and he should pay back the fans the $14.3 million he earned for the 20.2 largely ineffective innings pitched (or is that prorated, and is that why Ben Zobrist's inactivity allowed this to happen?). Blowing the game in a non-save situation on 9/19 was bad. We should have won that game. He shouldn't have been used in a non-save situation. I have not seen him do well in that role, so that could at least make sense. But then there were the back-to-back pitches on 9/21 that were launched into the bleachers. If I was at that game, I might have risked a lifetime ban from Wrigley for running out onto the field, a la my 7th grade basketball coach's brother with Randy Myers back in the mid-90s. He didn't blow the whole season. He really didn't. He just blew 2 of the most crucial must-win games of the season. What happened on 9/21 really was the death blow for the 2019 season.

Suggestion: Use a different GnR song to run out to in non-save situations. "Sweet Child O 'Mine" does not properly capture the atmosphere of the scenario.

Tyler Chatwood: Underrated

People were complaining about how much he was going to be paid for 5 years last year, myself included. Compared to HoF-er Kimbrel, he could hardly ever be blamed. It's not like I'm able to watch every inning of every game. I rate players (this year) on a highly unscientific system based on my sense memory impressions of how often I remember them f---ing things up. I can hardly remember any times Tyler did that this year. He shouldn't have been removed on 9/21 and he should have been used on 9/19. I'm so happy for him for how he turned it around. Baseball is a strange game so I hope there is no reversal next year.

Highlight: 3 inning save on 8/4/19; heroic performance on 4/29/19; another game I can't remember when he pitched like 3-4 scoreless extra innings sometime in April or May (5/17/19?)

Nicholas Castellanos: Accurately Rated

Castellanos is this year's Cole Hamels. You have to sign him this off-season, for at least 1 or 2 years. His performance in the month of August was remarkable. Somehow he did not win Player of the Month or any Player of the Week awards but anyone who watched this team knows that he was by far the most explosive player of that month. Before the implosion that began on 9/17 (one week ago!) he was the sparkplug of the team. Baez went down but Castellanos was there to soften the blow, and Nico Hoerner came up and performed about as well as anyone could have expected. True, Castellanos got shut down just as often as the rest of the offense got shut down, but in at least a few of those games, he provided the only runs or hits. He is basically one of the greatest hitters of doubles in history. Do not let him slip away. I heard someone (I think on 670 The Score) say that he was "one-dimensional." Ostensibly this is because he's not a "plus" defensive player and doesn't possess particularly blazing speed and is only "really good" at hitting right-handed pitching. I don't buy any of that. Sometimes people are just meant to be in certain places, and will flourish when they find themselves there. Castellanos has been at his best (since high school, if we are to believe his brother) on the Cubs and if they want to seriously compete over the next couple years, they will do well to keep him here. (Unfortunately, his agent is Scott Boras. I don't think Castellanos is a greedy dude--he said as much, and that he hates thinking of baseball as a business--but Boras does.)

Highlight: Crying during radio interview after hearing Joe Maddon praise him.

Steve Cishek: Overrated (and overused)

One of the few pitchers firmly entrenched within Joe Maddon's circle of trust, Cishek is hailed by many as the most consistent reliever. He has a "rubber arm." He made a ton of appearances. I do not think he was nearly as effective as he was in 2018. I wouldn't say he was terrible, and I wouldn't say he was the best reliever. He may have blown more games than Craig Kimbrel. I do not think Joe was right to trust him as often as he did. Relievers are notoriously unpredictable on a year-to-year basis (see the trainwreck that was Brandon Kintzler down the stretch in 2018 vs. the 2019 Rolaids Relief man version of the same person) so I would bet on Cishek next year. If he was a little down from his 2018 self in 2019, perhaps he will be a little up in 2020.

Lowlight: Walking in winning run on 4 pitches on 9/10/19.

Javier Baez: Accurately Rated

Javy had a weaker 2019 than 2018. He won't be finishing 2nd in the NL MVP race (that would be last year's winner, whose recent absence seems to have emboldened his teammates). That said, his thumb fracture appeared to be the first death knell of the season. Yet it wasn't. When he improbably appeared as a pinch runner on 9/19, the crowd chanted his name, and he eventually scored. But then Kimbrel blew it. And then on 9/21, because Kimbrel blew it, he was brought into pinch hit as the true last ditch effort of the season. It was quite thrilling to hear Len Kasper say, "David Bote is next, but he's leaving the on deck circle, and wait, it's Javier Baez!" He proceeded to strike out on 3 pitches, but it was unmistakably an iconic moment, regardless of the unfortunate result. 

Highlight: Every tag, every extra base taken, every stolen base, every clutch hit buoyed by the chanting of his name.

Cole Hamels: Accurately Rated

Hamels was the blockbuster move of 2018, the move that should have vaulted them safely into the postseason. (Their overall 2018 performance looks pretty good right now; the Brewers have been something else entirely these past two Septembers.) Hamels started off the year in outstanding fashion, and slowly appeared to fade around the All Star break. He was a borderline selection. I believe he was injured at the time. He was good enough to make that team, basically. He went through a number of minor injuries. He has basically reverted back to the Texas Rangers version of himself at present. I do not think he will be re-signed. However, I would certainly consider him a viable option, in a role similar to that of the one John Lackey played in 2016/2017. I personally hope very much that "Hollywood" returns.

Bryzzo: Accurately Rated

Do. Not. Break. Them. Up.

Highlight: Rizzo coming out to the Undertaker's walk-up music batting leadoff against the Cards on a sprained ankle on 9/19/19; Kris Bryant, after game-winning grand slam against the Cards on 5/6/19: "This is the type of baseball that's super fun to be a part of."

Kyle Schwarber: Underrated 

A lot of people do not think Schwarber will be on the Cubs in 2020. Of course I can't be blind to reality, but I can fight against it. So I'll make the case for keeping him. Yeah, I'll be the first to admit, he's going to be a much more valuable component to an American League team. And where do you keep him here--Left Field forever? He did volunteer to catch again when the Cubs needed to get both Martin Maldonado and Jonathan Lucroy for separate injuries to Willson Contreras. But you have to assume he is your everyday starting left fielder. Then (if I am the architect of this team) you have Nick Castellanos in right, and Jason Heyward in center. That is not his natural position but it is just going to have to become that. (This may be a minor reason that most people don't believe KS or NC will be retained.) Maybe you can platoon him and J-Hey and NC in left and right, and have a more natural center fielder, an honest to God leadoff hitter in the mold of Dexter Fowler. The infield, well, you have Bryant, Baez, Hoerner, and Rizzo and Contreras. Tough to top that unless you had Whit Merrifield. But you don't. As for Schwarber, I think there was a truly observable marked improvement in his performance, and it was definitely his best year, apart from his abbreviated and heroic performances in 2015 and 2016. He led the team in homers. His OBP was actually 20 points higher last year but his OPS is 40 points higher (slugging 60 points higher). He played in slightly fewer games last year, but also has 30 more RBI this year. Look, they can take or leave Schwarber. He'll be an attractive piece in a deal with an AL team. But I'm nostalgic and while the window is still open for another year or two, I keep him until his free agent year, retain the core that made the 2016 story so good, so that the sequel could be even better. You've got to keep the guys together. But does that include....

[Highlight: 13 pitch at bat ending with home run on 5/17/19.]

Addison Russell: Accurately Overrated

I don't think so. Not unless he pledges 50% of his 2020 salary towards domestic violence prevention (after his children and their mothers are provided adequate support). Because look, he is a good shortstop. He's a good #8 hitter. He's good with Baez as a double play combo. But Baez has evolved into a shortstop and Nico Hoerner has emerged. I believe the Cubs have made good on their pledge to help be part of the solution, rather than the problem. I do think the team's support was enormously helpful for his personal and professional growth. Had he been summarily dismissed, the Cubs would get cred for being "woke" but that's about it. I think they played that element reasonably well. Unfortunately Addison's production didn't win him many more fans back. Or rather, he didn't win many of his critics over. Russell's story will likely play out elsewhere....let us hope it doesn't turn into a Jorge Soler/Eloy Jimenez/Gleyber Torres/Dylan Cease-type situation. Those guys were prospects but Russell is still only 25.

Willson Contreras: Underrated 

A lot of people seem to think Willson is also firmly on the block, and a very desirable addition to any team. Nobody thinks Willson is bad. Willson is the only one that thinks Willson is bad. He is notoriously hard on himself and plays with more passion than anyone else on the team. He is a good defensive catcher and an excellent offensive catcher. People have said he is not good at pitch framing or blocking balls or something (I don't think anyone says he's not good at throwing out baserunners; he is probably the best at pickoffs). I've heard people say they're going to go after Yasmani Grandal. I'm sure he's a very good player too, but how is he an upgrade over Willson? If they want to restock their minor league talent pipeline, they can unload him, but if they want to win in 2020, I don't see why you let a good thing go. In a season marred by injuries, he still put up excellent numbers. 

Jason Heyward: Accurately Rated

I don't think he'll ever be the player they "thought they were getting," but he looked more like that guy in this year than any other. Most people seem to think the team will dump his salary if they are able, and I wouldn't bet on that. Most importantly, he just turned 30, and while he's not quite as exciting  as and doesn't have as high a ceiling as he did in the early 20-teens, he has steadily improved each year with the Cubs. (Technically his batting average was higher last year but I think many would take this one over last--and many would also rate him as a league-average-player.) 

Highlight: Admitting to Rizzo in a post-game locker room interview that he felt blessed to have his body; posting Instagram pic of said body from his boat (tie; both after game-winning performances).

Pedro Strop: Overrated 

As much as I love Pedro Strop, and as much as I hope they will sign him to a 1 year contract, if I am saying Cishek and Kimbrel are overrated, I have to say he is also overrated, for the two or three games he blew. On the longview, without looking at any stats (as I'm trying to do with most of this) I seem to remember him having an excellent first half and a very disappointing 2nd half. For his infectious clubhouse persona, he should be kept. I would hate for this to be the last chapter in his story.

Brad Wieck/Rowan Wick: Accurately Underrated

The two non-John Wicks were the two biggest secret weapons in the Cubs bullpen. Rowan was the more accomplished of the two. Let's be clear about something: the Cubs bullpen was pretty good, all things considered. It's true, they were terrible at the beginning of the year. A few of their players went away (Montgomery, Edwards Jr., Brach) and a few came in, and they were better. The Wick/Weick combo, like Bryzzo, cannot be broken up!

Highlight: When that guy thought Brad Wieck's 12-6 curve was going to hit him in the head and ducked down and then it fell perfectly into the strike zone.

Brandon Morrow: Unrated

Can we hate someone for being injured? Or can we just call their contract a waste. Make no mistake - I love Brandon Morrow. He will probably go down as my favorite Cubs player that almost never played (the Nomar era is ultimately somewhat forgettable). For the 25% of the length of his contract that he actually played, he was outstanding. Who knows what will happen to him. We could play the "what if" game on multiple levels. I don't think he'll be back on the Cubs. I do hope, however, that he hasn't yet given up on his career. I would love to see him come back next year and start a glorious third act to his career (kinda sucking for a long time, suddenly becoming a superstar reliever/closer [and injured as Cub], and ending as a serviceable master of the Hold).

Highlight: Injury from putting on pants (because I suffered the same injury on 7/4/18).

Ian Happ: Accurately Rated

Happ memorably led off the 2018 season with a home run out of the gate, then 3 strikeouts. He spent the first 3/4 of the season in AAA. Then he came up and was pretty solid. Why wasn't he more of a leadoff hitter? Too many strikeouts, perhaps, but he has been noticeably better about making the most of his at-bats this year. He's an above average player. He could totally become a 2019 Tommy La Stella (we still don't know if he's for real now, though). He screams "trade piece" along with Schwarber and Contreras and Bryant (please no). There's places he can play (CF, 2B) but I don't think he's inspired enough confidence to have the everyday starting job. He's still very young and 2020 will be a crucial year.

Highlight: "Ghosting is bad. Don't ghost. Just tell them what's wrong," on the Cubs YouTube channel.

Brandon "Salt" Kintzler: Underrated 

Terrible in 2018. Fantastic in 2019. Keep or drop? I say keep. Give him another year at $5MM. Pitchers in their 36th year can still be good. Give him Brandon Morrow's former role.

Highlight: None. Relievers don't get highlights. That's what sucks for them. Their highlight is not being hated.

Albert Almora Jr.: Underperformer

Even though his 358 plate appearances (including 80 in the leadoff spot) were far too many, according to certain podcasters, Almora brought everyone together this year. His walk up music, while hardly original, turned Wrigley Field into a 20,000 person karaoke event, and perhaps its closing refrain will be a bittersweet ode, as he may not be back again this time tomorrow. And while he inadvertantly caused a tragedy, his reaction revealed a depth of humanity rarely glimpsed in the world of sports. I have ALWAYS been afraid of getting hit by a foul ball. The prospect is truly terrifying. And something horrible had to happen in order for change to occur, but netting will be extended across both leagues, and games will be safer in the future. Almora should not be praised (nor held responsible) for this traumatic event, but the way he handled it was so honorable that the crowd at Wrigley Field gave him a standing ovation in his first plate appearance back home after the incident. He also has great hair and great style and he is still a good fielder (though some naysayers will call him out for a couple crucial errors). True, he doesn't play many positions other than center field---but was anyone complaining about him in the first half of 2018, when he briefly led the National League in hitting, or when he crucially tagged up on a fly out in Game 7 of the World Series? Almora probably should have spent about as much time in AAA as Ian Happ did this year (or as much as Kyle Schwarber did last year). I'm not sure what to do with him. I would still give him another chance at spring training next year. If he continues to struggle at the plate, then it may be time to move on. But he's a fan favorite, and I personally lean in the direction of keeping as many people from the 2016 team together as we can. 

Highlight: 15:1 ratio of spectacular catches to botched reads.

Ben Zobrist: Accurately Rated

People love Ben Zobrist in Chicago. He may retire. It would be really great if he signed a low cost 1 year contract a la David Ross and do a true farewell tour, uncomplicated by a devastating marital breakdown. His 2018 statistics were arguably the best in his career. This was obviously a weaker year for him. He deserves to go out on a higher note. Even if he doesn't, he can rest easy knowing that he was the World Series MVP for the Chicago Cubs.

Highlight: Suggesting to Joe Maddon that he be replaced by David Bote, leading to a triumphant game-winning hit on 4/29/19.

Daniel Descalso: Overrated (upon acquisition)

Just for that one semi-joke article showing through statistics that Daniel Descalso was a better situational hitter than Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton only played 18 games in 2019, and it would be interesting to see if he still did more than Descalso, who showed a brief flash of prowess at the beginning of the season, and promptly took a dive for the rest of the year. He was the big acquisition in the off-season and I'm just sorry it didn't work out better for all parties involved. 

Victor Caratini: Underrated

This one is easy. Totally underrated. He's gotten better every year. He's the ideal backup catcher. Nothing he is straight up bad at. No one expects backup catchers to be offensive forces and Caratini wasn't at first, for his first couple years, but this might be his breakout season. No longer an automatic out. 

Highlight: Two home runs off DeGrom on 8/30/19 while subbing for injured Rizzo at first base, sealing the sweep of the Mets.

Entire Team: Overrated and Underperforming and Rarely Boring

Overall: We should have been contenders. Before the monumental collapse, we looked very good. We destroyed Pittsburgh. Did anyone else notice those 3 games? That was insane. I was at riot fest all 3 days and I got the notifications from the Gameday App and I was like WTF! It's amazing to think of how the chips were down, and they needed to bring up Nico Hoerner and how he had performed! And it looked as if they might make it. But we know how it ended.

Oh and Joe Maddon is a Hall of Famer and I loved him since the minute they signed him. I was impressed by what he was able to do with the Rays and he did not disappoint here. I'm sorry to see him go but the relationship ended after 5 very successful years. Not everyone can be Bruce Bochy or Bobby Cox or Joe Torre. But he's every bit as great as them, and maybe better. I hope one day I get to meet him but our lives can be so busy, and he must have so many people trying to talk to him anyways. The third "big name" manager we've had in recent years (Dusty and Lou before him), he was the manager we always needed and the manager we deserved. Still think I would have made 2 bullpen decisions differently than him to avoid two losses this year, but 2 games wouldn't have made a difference this time. His witticisms will be missed: "Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure."

Oh and I know I forgot Jon Lester and Jose Quintana and David Bote and Kyle Ryan but they were all good. Sometimes up, sometimes down, and desirable overall (Kyle Ryan is an underrated pleasant surprise). We know two will be back, and I hope the other two are as well.


Top 5 Podcasts

(1) Cubs Related Podcast

Even though this podcast can't come close to the type of access that the Cubs Talk podcast has, both Corey and Brendan have established themselves as broadcasters and made a case for themselves as serious baseball minds that deserve to be paid to do what they do. Their personas play off each other fantastically. I mean, how amazing would it be to hear Corey interview Jon Lester? There could be no better time, as he prepares for his final contract year...

Highlight: "If Dante had written you and I into his inferno, I'm pretty sure this would be our ring of hell, where we're longing for tyler chatwood to come in and save us, as the bastion of command that he is." (4/5/19); "I fucking love Jon Lester." The Explicit Episode (9/27/19)

(2) Away Games Podcast

Kevin and Adam do not appear to have designs on a career in journalism, but they tend to read the room. They highlight how ridiculous it is to care about and follow this team, particularly as New York City transplants. Why not just root for the Yankees now? Of course that's blasphemy, but I know you have to throw SOME small measure of support behind the team of your adopted home (obviously, fuck the New York-See-You-Tomorrow-Mets*. Also, fuck Clint Hurdle). Corey and Brendan often delve into this from the opposite coast perspective but purely to diss the Dodgers. [Query whether we actually want the Dodgers to win the World Series to get it out of their system, or to get there again and fail again.] They harped on the same points (i.e. their hate for Addison Russell) but they also struck the perfect balance between analytics and dialectic verve. They cite some stats, but they don't overdo it. (Cubs Related uses more stats, but they also put an episode out after each series, which is probably the perfect frequency.) Once a week is not often enough that I'll skip an episode, which is why Locked on Cubs has slipped for me. I even skip a Cubs Related episode if I'm a day or two behind. I don't skip episodes of this. As long as they still care, I still care. It also helps that the episodes generally run between 30 and 45 minutes. One week of games can be a lot of material to cover but they always manage to hit the highlights. Consistently entertaining, they should be given a bundle of tickets each season, or have the Cubs sponsor a stand up showcase they curate (including a contractually-obligated Ryan Dempster cameo).

Highlight: Adam's WTF visit to Randy Rosario's house in the Dominican Republic shortly before Spring Training. 

(3) Cubs Talk Podcast

Call me crazy but it seemed like Luke Stuckmeyer took over the lion's share of hosting duties from Tony Andracki this season. He is probably slightly better because he is less wonky. I feel like you need to be a little wonky to be a sports journalist. Luke is a sports broadcaster. Writing about sports podcasts forces one to question the essence of what we consider "broadcast journalism." Of course, journalism is grounded in objectivity, even as we witness the gradual erosion of such foundational tenets. One must always consider the source. Obviously, sports journalism is strongly tinted by fandom. This is less problematic than in the realm of political reporting. Regardless, though this is NBC Sports, and though it must be scrubbed for explicit language, magic is often wrung out of these episodes. Who could forget Kelly Crull's preseason interview with Willson Contreras? It was often referenced to highlight his feelings on his second half performance in 2018, but I will remember him crying while talking about the political situation in Venezuela. (There may be no crying in baseball, but Castellanos, Contreras, and Almora prove the fallacy of that outdated truism.) 

Highlight: David Kaplan describing his near death experience; the Twitter feud between David Kaplan and Yu Darvish. 

(4) Wrigleyville Nation Podcast

I felt really embarrassed and s***ty for saying Jeremy sounded drunk on his show last year. He doesn't sound drunk. He sounds like drunk Kai Ryssdal. It took me a minute to understand this show. To know that his cousin is (almost) always high atop Wrigley. What does that mean? I wonder if he lives in a high rise along L.S.D. or if it means something else, because he certainly didn't say "down in the gutter" or something when the team was faltering. It is sort of the yin to Away Games yang: once a week, more informative and analytical than entertaining. Also keeps things fresh, as there is usually a 2nd guest as well.

(5) Locked on Cubs

Putting this in slot #5 (lower than last year) shouldn't be construed as a slight because this podcast fulfills a very distinct need: recaps after every game. I do lament the departure of Ryan Davis. Sean Sears is fine, but he does not have the same dry, sarcastic, straight up depressing and hilarious presence that Ryan had. So I will listen whenever he appears as a guest. 

Highlight: Blue Chew ad reads.

*Apologies to my dear friend Aaron James for this unfair dig at his team of choice. The Mets should not be hated for what the Cubs did to them in the second half. Better to say Fuck the Cards, or as Corey said, in an inspired moment, "We are going to let Mike Schlitt (sic) and his band of idiots from St. Louis win this division over my dead body. The Cardinals are so mediocre, it's disgusting that we are in this position, that some sub-90 win Cardinal team has a chance of winning the NL Central in this Cubs window. It cannot stand....don't let this evil disgusting Cardinals team managed by another one of those morons that they give a contract to and hire to run the team, do not let them win this division." 9/4/19

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Educated - Tara Westover (2018)

Recently, my alma mater instituted an online-only book club, code name Voracious Violets. I have never been part of a book club, though I ran Flying Houses in the hopes that some of the reviews would inspire a selection in one or two of them. It is unfortunate that we will not have the in-person meetings with the obligatory wine, but such is life nowadays as we recede further and further into the realm of Never Showing Up. It is all too tedious and time-consuming. It is a poor substitute at best, yet it is one I must entertain as a tribute to my alma mater. It is also a way to highlight more popular books, and participate in a greater cultural dialogue than I alone create with my idiosyncratic selections and demographic preferences. FH will remain dead, where it belongs--except for these reviews and short form posts..............

It is not a stretch to say that Educated was the most celebrated book of 2018. There is nothing pretentious about it. It's your basic run-of-the-mill memoir: a story of growing up and becoming an adult and making one's way in the world. The author, Tara Westover, grew up on a mountain in Idaho, one of seven children in a family that could be described as eccentric--to say the least. (As Dennis Hopper once said in Speed, "Poor people are crazy, Jack. I'm eccentric.") Tara's "education" from hard-scrabble sheltered youth to uber-Ivy academic mirrors that of her family, from crazy to eccentric. 

The book opens with a description of the mountain on which her family lives, the "Princess." The anthropomorphizing of the landscape suggests a more primal connection to the land and correspondingly a more primitive way of life. Her two grandmothers live nearby, one "grandma down the mountain" and one "grandma in town." There is a local grocery store that Tara later works at. I'm not sure if her family ever buys anything from it. Their family is Mormon. They're survivalists (her Dad is, so their family is). They don't live entirely off the grid but one imagines they wish they could. She comes of age in the 1980's-1990's but with the way the book opens, it might as well have been the 1930's. It is shocking that she is in "Annie" or uses the internet or hears about 9/11. She is unfamiliar with the term Holocaust.    

Her mother is a midwife, and an amateur herbalist and tincturist. Her father owns a junkyard and makes all of their kids work on it. Tara is the youngest in the family. She has no birth certificate, and age is something of an afterthought, particularly as she announces her intentions to go to college, and her parents ask her to move out:

"Something broke in me, a dam or a levee.  I felt tossed about, unable to hold myself in place. I screamed but the screams were strangled; I was drowning. I had nowhere to go.  I couldn't afford to rent an apartment, and even if I could the only apartments for rent were in town.  Then I'd need a car.  I had only eight hundred dollars. I sputtered all this at Mother, then ran to my room and slammed the door.
She knocked moments later. 'I know you think we're being unfair,' she said, 'but when I was your age I was living on my own, getting ready to marry your father.'
'You were married at sixteen?' I said.
'Don't be silly,' she said, 'You are not sixteen.'
I stared at her. She stared at me.  'Yes, I am.  I'm sixteen.' 
She looked me over.  'You're at least twenty.' She cocked her head.  'Aren't you?'
We were silent.  My heart pounded in my my chest.  'I turned sixteen in September,' I said.
'Oh.' Mother bit her lip, then she stood and smiled.  'Well, don't worry about it then.  You can stay.  Don't know what your dad was thinking, really. I guess we forgot.  Hard to keep track of how old you kids are.'" (137)

At this point I'm compelled to mention a couple weird things about this book. The first is the note near the beginning on pseudonyms. A few times when a character was introduced, I flipped back to see if it was one of the pseudonymous characters or not.  Notably her mom is one of them.  I don't understand why one would call some people by their name and some by a name to protect their identity. Unless Westover is itself a pen name, it would probably not be that difficult to figure out who they were. I'd imagine this is because they didn't agree to becoming a character in her book. This is one of the things about memoirs that always intrigues me. Do you have to give the manuscript to everyone that gets mentioned in order to secure their permission? What is the purpose behind using some real names and some fake ones? My hope would be that the pseudonyms given are chosen by the subjects themselves. More likely, they declined to read the manuscript in the first place, and Westover decided to change their name of respect for their preference to remain anonymous.

The other weird thing is when she paraphrases specific sentences in e-mails or letters in italics. Every time, there is an asterisk. And the asterisk always reads that, while the words are not exactly the ones used, the meaning has been preserved. Now really, who saves everything and expects people to be able to quote the exact words used every time? Perhaps this is an odd outgrowth of Westover's Ph.D. research and writing, a lamentation for her inability to describe every event in excruciatingly accurate detail. Asterisks are similarly employed to supplant Westover's memory with those of her siblings and others that experienced the same event. These are generally more comprehensible and serve to explore a major theme of all memoirs--the reliability of memory. 

Unfortunately I need to jump into murky waters to qualify that last sentence, because while I am sufficiently convinced that Westover is leaving as little to the imagination as possible, I am not convinced that she is printing the truth, rather than the legend. The "unfortunately" part is the comparison at least one person in the book club made to a similarly famous memoir from about ten years earlier that I never read that dealt with crack addiction, I believe, and something about painful dental procedures. Many of the things in that book were completely made up. Now we all know that truth is stranger than fiction, but from the way Westover describes some of the more gruesome accidents on the mountain, one could hardly believe they were as bad as she makes them out to be. They should all be dead. At the very least, her brother Shawn and her father are physically mangled beyond belief. Shawn suffers life-threatening injuries on at least three occasions, possibly four or five, one of which is a motorcycle accident:

"Dwain hefted Shawn onto his back.  For a second that contained an hour, I stared at my brother, watching the blood trickle out of his temple and dawn his right cheek, pouring over his ear and onto his white T-shirt.  His eyes were closed, his mouth open. The blood was oozing from a hole the size of a golf ball in his forehead.  It looked as though his temple had been dragged on the asphalt, scraping away skin, then bone.  I leaned close and peered inside the wound.  Something soft and spongy glistened back at me.  I slipped out of my jacket and pressed it to Shawn's head." (145)

Her mom, her brother Luke and Tara herself are also mangled very badly, but not quite to the point that death is a foregone conclusion. Maybe her mom fits between these two extremes on the death-defection-spectrum. In any case, while I don't doubt any of the events occurred, I doubt that Westover isn't following in the grand literary tradition of the oral historians 3,000 years hence. These people have turned into characters that have god-like abilities. Perhaps this is just what one develops through such an upbringing, an extreme hardiness, a sort of superhuman grit. It is no wonder, then, that she could achieve all she already has by her age. 

The real strength of this book comes in the form of its two most controversial figures: her father and Shawn. The way Westover writes about them is extremely touching. While her father puts her in ridiculously dangerous situations and casually subjugates her, her brother acts as a mentor, protector, and bully. Bully is really too weak of a word: monster might be more accurate. There really is no good word for what he is to her. She writes about him with love and fear, and unquestionably, their relationship is the heart of this story. 

Tara's 5 other siblings figure far less prominently in the narrative. After Shawn, they are probably featured most often in this order: Tyler, Audrey, Luke, Richard, and ??? Obviously Tyler is memorable. He lays out the path for Tara's escape, taking the ACT and moving out for college and eventually getting a Ph.D. He introduces her to non-hymnal music. The family can be broken down into those who stay with the family and those who break with the family. Audrey and Luke stay. Audrey backs up Shawn and their Dad, as does their Mom (though their Mom does have oddly conflicting views of western medicine, as she seems to acknowledge that her husband is bipolar). Luke does not seem to treat Tara as an enemy quite like Shawn and Audrey, however. Richard seems like Tyler Jr. I need to check on that last sibling....(It's Tony, the oldest, and I don't remember anything about him.)

In summation, Educated is about as good as you heard. It's worth reading. It won't make the Best Books list just because it's too popular. It doesn't need my seal of approval. It's probably a really great book for anyone that's stuck in a one-horse town, so to speak, that dreams of breaking out. Also a solid choice for high schoolers in general. As someone just a few years older than Westover, I appreciate the cultural reference points. I doubt that the book is 100% accurate, but I also doubt that any memoir can be 100% accurate. 

Up next: A Gentleman in Moscow... 

Sunday, August 4, 2019

If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the Chicago Cubs Dugout, Locker Room, and Press Box - Jon Greenberg (2019)

I reserved this book after hearing its author speak on the Cubs Talk Podcast. It sounded lurid. To be honest, most of the juiciest stories were told in the podcast (which can find here Regardless, this is a book worth reading - but only if you are a serious fan.

Who are serious fans? People that try to watch every game. And if not the whole game, at least parts of it. 

What I particularly loved about it, as a fan going back into the early 90's, is the way it situates 2016--and really the past 15 years--into the greater historical context of the franchise. 

The further back it goes, the more memories it invokes. I haven't read a book like this before. There are so many iconic moments in a baseball season, and we forget so many because each year brings more. Of course there are some things that we will never forget, such as the end of the 2003 NLCS (just as there are things we'll always have, like Paris, which is where I watched those games).

But I think some people forget the '04 Cubs. They very nearly made the playoffs and finished with a respectable 90+ win season. They added Greg Maddux for his 300th victory celebration. They had Wood and Prior and Zambrano and Matt Clement was probably their Jose Quintana (though I haven't compared their stats - maybe Clement was better). Query which rotation was better.

Maddux was at the end of his career and no longer as effective--like Jon Lester in another year or two. Definitely take Lester over him.

Though Hendricks is the more apt comparison to Maddux, he could be matched to Prior, and I take Hendricks any day (Prior tried to make a comeback as late as this year; Zambrano currently is doing so, how serious he's taking it is another matter. How I wish they'd get another shot! But that does not seem to be the Theo way.) 

Darvish is actually probably more like Prior (even though no one is a free agent pick up like him), or Wood for having an excellent start to his career and an uncertain future after Tommy John/other injuries. I'm still willing to bet on Yu. I don't think any of us are fully convinced he's turned the corner but he has been much better in 2019 on the whole.

Cole Hamels I guess maybe is the Maddux, but so far he's been much better than Maddux ever was on stint #2. And yes Jose Quintana = Matt Clement. 

I won't go through all the hitters. I think 90% of fans will agree that the 2019 cubs are as likely to make it to the world series as the 2004 cubs. The 2005 Cubs, also, were not a joke. They were still in it at the end. 2006, however, was a joke.

That was the summer I lived down the street from the park, at 1516 w. Addison. I went to a lot of games that year and they lost every one, I think. Maybe I was bad luck. Who knows. Because somehow they came back to make the playoffs in '07 and '08. And they weren't that bad in '09 and not even that terrible in '10 I think. '11, '12, '13, and '14 were brutal, of course. And I find it crazy to see that Zambrano was on the team as late as he was, and how Wood came back for his victory lap to retire a Cub -- I vaguely remembered that, but I had forgotten. 

Interspersed in there are anecdotes and analyses of players like Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster, Rich Hill, Milton Bradley, Derek Lee, Cliff Floyd, Daryle Ward, LaTroy Hawkins, Geovany Soto, Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, Alfonso Soriano, Henry Blanco, Michael Barrett, Jim Edmonds, Rich Harden, Mark DeRosa, Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Samarzdija, Randy Wells, Starlin Castro and others. Unfortunately, it misses the opportunity to reference Randall Simon and the sausage-race battery. And Zambrano's no-hitter apparently also didn't matter.

A real pleasure of this book is the way all the current Cubs crop are referenced much earlier in their lives. Such as Albert Almora, Jr. as a kid in Florida during the Marlins 2003 run. Or the improbable coincidence of Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez going from a high school-to-World Series rivalries. Or David Bote getting drafted even before Theo came onboard, and playing at the minor league level with almost every single player on the current MLB roster. 

The anecdotes in this book will enrich any fan's appreciation of the game. It's not exactly a biography of everyone--but it is pretty comprehensive at a little over 300 pages and a major emphasis on the 2015-Present Cubs. 

Because let's remember that Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora, Jr., Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Pedro Strop (and maybe a couple others I'm forgetting), are all still on the team. Some have improved, some have declined, and others have been replaced. Dexter is gone, Jake is gone, Rossy is gone, Montgomery is gone (quite recently). [Ed. Carl Edwards, Jr., gone as of 7/31/19] A bunch of relief pitchers have been replaced. It's probably comparable to what we had before. Chapman got replaced by Davis who got replaced by Morrow who got replaced by Kimbrel. Right now it looks like Davis was arguably the best overall closer. Chapman was lights out, but pushed to the brink. Kimbrel concerns me. I've already seen him blow 2 or 3 games and he's only been playing a month or so. Still you can't criticize the deal they signed him to.

As to Chapman, another distinct pleasure of this book is reliving classic moments from games and Joe Maddon's WTF managerial decisions. Like leaving Chapman in forever. Or letting Strop bat in a crazy situation with the wild card berth on the line in 2018: 

"The Cubs won the game 4-3 in 10 innings, a much-needed victory. But while Pedro Strop got the win, giving up no runs in 1 2/3 innings, it was a play involving him that stirred up a lot of talk about Maddon's managing and the future of this team.
Strop replaced Brian Duensing with one out in the 8th inning and the game tied 3-3.  He made it through that inning and the 9th with just one hit allowed in 21 pitches.  
Then, in the 10th inning, with one out and the bases loaded and the Cubs up a run after a Javy Baez's [sic] RBI bunt single, Maddon let Strop hit.
He wasn't out of position players.  It was only the 10th inning.  Strop hit a grounder to third and busted it down the line to beat a double play.  He ran so hard he injured his hamstring.  This was bad managing - death by overthinking.
'That's so unfortunate,' Maddon said. 'If we scored, he was going back out.  If we don't score, he wasn't.  That was it.  And we scored.  But listen, he hit the ball hard.  This guy can swing the bat a little; that wasn't a fluke.  He tried to beat it out, almost did, and you can never fault an athlete for competing.'" (294-295) 

Other stories are provided deeper detail, such as the legend of Daniel Murphy on the Mets in '15 and the Nats in '17 and his '18 stint on the Cubs and the tacit acceptance of homophobia. Actually I never thought Murphy was homophobic, I just assumed he was deeply embedded in Christian theology and unable to veer from the path of the righteous. Greenberg's gloss on his comments is big-hearted and humane, yet sharp. We should not lump Zobrist in with Murphy solely on the basis of spirituality but there is a cutting reference to his walk-up music (a song by his wife--ostensibly about him--ripping off Elton John) and now one could make a dark joke about it. Zobrist has been out most of the season with a divorce, but is making his comeback as we write. One hopes that his return will spark the team in the same way Schwarber did in the World Series, another story beautifully told here.

And Brandon Morrow. Morrow is glossed over. His injury from putting on pants is hardly mined for laughs. His extended rehab is basically a long-running gag. However, he could be available late this year.

One notable omission is the suspension of Addison Russell. While the domestic violence charges are referenced briefly, the more lurid details are kept confidential. Perhaps some of the stories hadn't come up at press time, though his "robotic" press conference in spring training made it in under the wire. Russell is a complicated story to tell. He is given short shrift here, as he has generally this year. For all of his shortcomings as a player in recent years, and despite odious past behavior, I feel for the guy when nobody gives him the benefit of the doubt, when nobody believes that people can change. I doubted whether the Cubs were making the right decision not to release him, but ultimately I think the front office handled it about as humanely and professionally as practicable. It would be a nice story if Addison Russell turned it on 2015 Starlin Castro-style and became the player everyone thought he was.

So there are some storylines currently being written that are not quite as compelling as the overall scope of 2016, but still arguably more compelling than any other team's, except perhaps the Angels--the consensus emotional favorite to win the World Series due to player personnel and strength through adversity (like the 2002 Cardinals after the death of Darryl Kile, or the 2001 Yankees after 9/11). That is, however, an extremely unlikely scenario. It will probably be the Dodgers and the Astros again. I believe, however, that there will be another Cubs-Dodgers NLCS this year, and that anything is possible.

I doubted the hype around Theo for a long time, probably until the 2014-2015 off season. At this point I'll concede that, while every decision he's made hasn't been perfect, he is still the greatest executive in sports today, and one of the greatest in history. He will be remembered forever for the towering accomplishment of bringing titles to the two most legendary franchise droughts in sports history. It was twice with the Red Sox, so let's hope it's twice with the Cubs.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Short Form: Let's Play Two, Perfect Sound Forever, The Great Believers

Let's Play Two - Doug Wilson

I will reserve the majority of my thoughts on this book for my review of Let's Play Two by Ron Rapaport. It is too perfect of a review to avoid writing in long form. I will not be able to provide excerpts from this as it has been returned to the library (the other one was bought for my mom). In short, workmanlike prose, and research that does not quite get beneath the surface of who Ernie Banks was--this is why it's necessary to read the other. An enjoyable read on the whole--Banks is a difficult subject for a biography and the book was above average, apart from one or two unfortunate turns of phrase.

Grade: B

Perfect Sound Forever - Rob Jovanovic

While we are on the topic of surface level biographies, this is another good example of one that leaves you wanting more in a similar way. Unfortunately even though I really, really love Pavement, and even though this reignited my interest in them, it's a lazier book than the above so I have to give it a lower grade with the caveat that there are no other books on Pavement and reading it should give any serious Pavement-head at least one bit of arcania they didn't previously know (like that SM Jenkins shaved his head and became super anti-social on the Brighten the Corners tour). The rest is largely covered (and mostly better) by Slow Century. Great material from Gary Young and various show ephemera make it an essential read for fans of the band. Still it would not likely be read or found by any potential converts. 

Grade: B-

The Great Believers - Rebecca Makkai

Fantastic read. Almost perfect. Except for the scenes in Paris. I see I'm getting ahead of myself. The book is about the AIDS crisis in Chicago in 1985/1986. I don't want to spoil too much. It is also about events in Paris in 2015. One character ties the two eras together. There is a lot about trying to get lost paintings from past masters in a gallery. This stuff is kind of a trope in the same way it was in The Goldfinch, though not to the same degree. I still think Goldfinch is slightly better. However this is as close as you can get to the Best Books list without actually being on it. I usually cry at movies and not at books. Not so for this one. Very, very deeply affected by this. I would accuse of it being melodramatic for effect--but what kind of big statement book isn't? At first blush the closest reference point is Angels in America. That play is rightly considered a modern classic. However I would argue this is better. There may be other books or films of which I'm unaware but I don't think this has been done before--there have been things about AIDS but not the effect it had on a closely-knit group of friends that may or may not sleep with each other and/or in what types of venues and/or go crazy with paranoia. I needed to keep reminding myself it was fiction. Beautiful character development. I'm reading Educated right now and it's really good and I would put it alongside this and Asymmetry as the best books of 2018.  

Grade: A

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

White - Bret Easton Ellis (2019)

As the blog is back from the dead for a long form review, we go back to the beginning and revive the oeuvre rule. I've read Less than Zero, the Rules of Attraction, the Informers, Glamorama, Lunar Park, and Imperial Bedrooms. I read about 1/2 of American Psycho. It's problematic to read the book after seeing the movie, much of the time. I'm most interested to re-read Glamorama, because I think it might make the Best Books list. Lunar Park was read shortly before Flying Houses began and I liked it fine, I guess it was kind of original, I'd have to read it again. As far as his oeuvre goes, White is a better read overall than the Informers, but is probably weaker than everything else. BEE is something else though, the rare writer that can make me drop everything and read asap after publication. Enough ink has been spilled over this book but I need to say my part, in lieu of a Facebook post on the political landscape of 2019.

Imperial Bedrooms came out almost a decade ago, and was the sequel to Less than Zero, 25 years later. It's his longest break between books. While I don't care to comment on the creative process, I would not be surprised if the increasing centrality of the social media landscape and smartphone culture gave him a little writer's block. Or he was off writing the Canyons or hanging out with Kanye West or making ill-advised tweets. Regardless, here is White, arguably his version of Joan Didion's The White Album (which I haven't read yet, regrettably) and his commentary on being a privileged white male in 2018.

This book has gotten mostly bad press (please read the New Yorker interview, now). It's a flawed product. It is practically designed to tick you off and push your buttons. Approximately 30% of the time reading this book, I wanted to slap my forehead. Ellis could have written a better book if he didn't enjoy courting controversy. And because he pulls back the curtain and explains, for example, that even he doesn't know if Patrick Bateman really committed or just imagined committing those murders, it takes some of the mystery out of his work and unfortunately limits its scope. Thankfully, he says very little about Glamorama, so we can go on pretending that it really is his true masterpiece, even as Zero and Psycho loom essential. 

And are any of his books really essential? Probably not, but they're extremely important for the young writer who wants to go hot and fast out of the gate, and as artifacts of their milieu. Sadly, really young first time novelists are probably all wussy nowadays anyways, and their art is likely pedestrian.

This is one of the overarching themes of White. While it is comprised of 8 essays, only a couple of them stay limited within its discrete subject. Most of them end up ranting about social media leftist scaremongering. And I do think it's a valid viewpoint. I've said the same thing myself multiple times. Stop trashing Trump---you're playing into his hand! BEE doesn't even go that far, because it's clear he doesn't want come off as sheepish in the least. We should attempt to define Ellis's ideal political party, so that you can decide whether you want to read a book that is going to tell you what you want to hear.

He defines himself as a moderate, but he comes off as more of a closet-republican. He thinks Bernie Sanders ideas are ridiculous and unrealistic. He didn't like Hillary Clinton (he didn't vote in 2016). He personifies Trump as Patrick Bateman's hero in American Psycho and admires him for his provocative political gamesmanship. He is an ardent supporter of gay rights and while I don't remember reading it, one presumes he also believes in a woman's right to bodily autonomy. It seems as if he is skeptical of social welfare. I don't think there are many comments (if any) on foreign relations. 

What we do know is that his boyfriend is in his early-mid-30's, and a disappointed Bernie bro. He had trouble finding work after college except for unpaid internships. He may or may not be unemployed still. I am not sure what I would do if I were BEE's boyfriend but I would personally be scared of living perpetually in his shadow. And I would probably be annoyed by the way he wrote about me. Because he writes about him as if he's about 10 years younger. He's only a couple years younger than me, and I am an old millennial/young gen x-er (the way BEE is an old gen x-er/young baby boomer).

[Aside I may have made before: whatever happened to Generation Y? That's us (children of the 80s). Millennials should be Generation Z, i.e. the end of civilization as we've known it through the latter half of the 20th century, when we created these labels.]

Now I am not like him. I feel more like BEE. But this isn't about me, this is about White. Regardless, BEE writes as if all millennials have the same values, adhere to groupthink, and follow all trends like sheep. 

Side note: I keep using the word "sheep" here. BEE uses the phrase "clutching their pearls" 1-2 too many times here.

Generation Wuss is something you could say 1-2 times as a joke, but to refer to Millennials as wusses is terribly reductive. Not all of us get butthurt about stupid bullshit.  Not all of us automatically assume that anything we write or create deserves to be praised. (BEE curiously suggests, in one paragraph, that they deserve respect, because they have less money and have to work harder for it, etc. His comments on that demographic are otherwise largely perjorative.)

I see I am getting sidetracked, but ultimately this book goes off on about a hundred different digressions and they end up in the same place. 

He writes about some celebrities and his relationships with them: Richard Gere, Tom Cruise, Charlie Sheen, Katheryn Bigelow, Judd Nelson, David Foster Wallace, Sky Ferreira and Kanye West. The book basically ends with Kanye and it's kind of perfect.

That's basically what I wanted to say about this book: it's a flawed product, it's probably BEE's 2nd or 3rd worst book, but it's still got moments of greatness. Ultimately, what I think it aspires to be (though BEE would likely dispute this and suggest no, he's not important, he doesn't necessarily think he's right, he's just a provocateur) is a time-capsule of our era. So much of our culture is disposable. Music, film and literature are no longer driven by or contained in objects or things. Everything is digital. We do everything on our phones. Even laptops are too unwieldy. A printed book (one of the few mediums, like vinyl, to retain a foothold) is thus an artifact in the future, more easily accessible than any google-able news story. BEE must know that he is one of the last major literary icons and that his work possesses a certain gravitas that few others match (though he is no Milan Kundera or J.M. Coetzee). His subject matter is shallow, and prefigures the culture our society would assume as its own. Less Than Zero is all about the 80's and partying and music and drugs and nothing is really all that different now except the popular genres and drugs have changed. Our culture today is not an ideal breeding ground for artists. The art that will come out of these times will not take real risks because people are too worried about getting "cancelled" or not seeming "woke" enough.  Ultimately, I think these fears are unfounded. When he says, for example, that American Psycho would not be published today, I have to disagree. Granted, I know far less about the publishing world than he does, but dark, misogynistic subject matter can still be depicted, so long as the perpetrators get theirs. Maybe that's a problem, I don't know. Maybe art can be great because it inspires real conversations and disagreements. 

Several rhetorical flourishes here could make for compelling performances at readings. Young people will hopefully read this book and be forced to reckon with their experiences and their attitudes towards trigger warnings and safe spaces and censorship and witch hunts. However, many of them will dismiss it because of BEE's left-baiting. Let me be clear: I AGREE that unapologetically liberal friends on social media are annoying, and do not truly consider the implications of the type of world and culture they hope to achieve through their "shaming," but I do not agree that things like the New Green Deal aren't worth discussing or trying to work towards. Maybe he would agree to that point, too. It's just that extreme viewpoints, on the left and the right, are predominating the discussions, and probably affecting the elections as much as the Russians. It's all a big bubbling soup of brainwash. We can consider the ridiculousness of Trump and denigrate his methods, but at the same time (as Dave Chappelle said) he is our president, and we're stuck with him for better or worse, so we have to try to work together. It's almost over. Talk about infrastructure. Pretend like you're not going to talk about the investigation anymore. Resist the urge to bully the bully. The U.S. won't become Nazi Germany, but a gigantic wellspring of Apple products and interconnectivity. That's not Trump's doing. What has he done, really, that wasn't orchestrated by his political party? The point BEE seems to be making here is that the whole 'they go low, we go high' thing is B-S when democrats are being just as obstructionist as Republicans were to Obama. It's like an annoying roommate that cant take a joke and says things like, if you're going to dish it out, you better be able to take it, while exhibiting a cognitive dissonance about the purpose of the apartment, or the government: bring people together, organize them effectively, so they are best-equipped to lead happy and fulfilling lives. Clearly that doesn't come from concentrating wealth amongst the top 0.1%, but it can come from charitable efforts, which (as tedious and commercialized as it became) Celebrity Apprentice at least encouraged. We all need to look past our differences and be open to the idea of friendship with people on different sides of the political spectrum, and I do not think that is a dangerous idea at all.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Short Form: The Four Agreements, The Impossible Fortress, Sabrina, Garden State (redux), Beastie Boys Book, Rock Steady, Let's Go (So We Can Get Back), Asymmetry, Go Tell It on the Mountain

The Four Agreements (Don Miguel Ruiz) 
I read this book because a girl I matched with on a popular dating app asked me if I had and I said no. I proceeded to be "really bad at this" and reserved it from the library and messaged two months later, thanking her for the rec, at which point I was unmatched.
(1) be impeccable with your word
(2) don't make assumptions
(3) don't take anything personally
(4) always do your best
Good rules to live by, but the book could have been much better. He really could have fleshed it out better. Instead it's kind of a philosophical text with very basic vocab.
C+ (6/10)

The Impossible Fortress (Jason Rekulak)
I read this book because my younger sister brought it home with her for Christmas last year and she gave it to me and said it was good, but she wasn't going to read it again. I pretty much feel the same way. It really has a cookie-cutter plot and paper thin characters. It was the lightest read I have done in a while, and it was a pure guilty pleasure. It was sort of unintentionally hilarious, but I grew to love it for how silly it was. Also the game on the authors website (based off the computer game programmed by its main characters) is really addicting and fun (I had to play until I won).
C+ (6/10)

Sabrina (Nick Drnaso) 
I read this book on about 2 hours on Saturday. It's a beautiful book in every sense. First graphic novel nominated for Man Booker prize. I do not think it should win but it deserves the nomination and I think everyone should read it and then give their loved ones a hug.
A (10/10)

Garden State (Rick Moody) (re-read) []
Not as good for a 35 year old as it was for a 26 year old.  Still a good book, but its flaws are more apparent to me (it also has a charming, almost antique quality now).  This is also the subject of the Flying Houses Podcast (Episode 3 - projected release date September 2019)
(6/10--should be 5/10, boosted for nostalgia)

Beastie Boys Book (Adam Horovitz/Michael Diamond, etc.)
I only got through about 20 pages of this.  It's the nicest book I've ever taken out of any library ($50 list price) and also one of the hardest to finish in 3 weeks.  I got it for my brother(-in-law) for Christmas in the hopes that I can finish it one day.

Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice from my Bipolar Life (Ellen Forney)
It's taken me about 3 months to read this book, and it should only take a couple days.  It's a really easy read.  It's sort of like a comic book.  It wasn't as helpful as I thought it would be.  If you live with a mental illness, you learn how to take care of it yourself (or you just die sooner or less happy).  The book may be useful for teenagers and young adults.  It may be useful for adults but the only reason I didn't like it that much is that it seems to infantilize its audience, just a little.  
(7/10--should be 6/10, boosted for public service quality)

Let's Go (So We Can Get Back) (Jeff Tweedy)
One of the best memoirs by a rock musician I have ever read.  The only thing that keeps it from a perfect grade is that it could have gone even deeper.  It is not the authoritative book on Wilco.  It could have been, but there are several others.  Tweedy does not attempt to write the only book on Wilco that matters.  I know Greg Kot wrote a book about them, and it's probably very good and worth reading, so I can understand the impulse not to want to do everything.  In any case, this book is an absolute pleasure, even when Tweedy kind of/sort of floats into the territory of pseudo-humblebrags--and no one could begrudge him that.

Asymmetry (Lisa Halliday)
Uneven, yet highly recommended.  I heard about this a lot last year.  I think it came out before Philip Roth died.  In any case, his DNA is all over this.  It wasn't exactly top 10 of 2018 material, but one NY Times reviewer put it on his honorable mention list, and said just to read Part 1 ("Folly") and skip Part 2 ("Madness"). Now as a reader, I could never do that to a writer, but I have to concur.  Part 1 is 10/10, and Part 2 is 5/10 (Part 3 is N/A, probably 5/10 too, only worth reading because it "unlocks" the mystery of the apparent dissimilarity between the two). "Folly" is a flawless piece of fiction.  

Go Tell It on the Mountain (James Baldwin)
It's not really fair for me to review this, because I still have about 20 pages left, but I have many thoughts.  First of all, it's great, there's a reason it deserves to be in the category of 20th Century American classics (and it was shelved in the African-American literature section of the library, which I can understand, but feel is unnecessary).  Second, it's rather slow.  There is a LOT of religious (mostly Christian) rhetoric.  It's kind of hard to figure out what's going on, but now, by the final (or penultimate) section, I think I get it, and it's a beautiful way to tell a story about a family.  I wouldn't recommend it as highly as Asymmetry but I know it is the better book.