Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Armageddon in Retrospect - Kurt Vonnegut (2008)

Before we proceed with our fifth Kurt Vonnegut review, allow me to make a confession: I am a twerp.  I am a twerp, and I am ashamed of myself.

"I consider anybody who borrows a book instead of buying it, or lends one, a twerp.  When I was a student at Shortridge High School a million years ago, a twerp was defined as a guy who put a set of false teeth up his rear end and bit the buttons off the back seats of taxicabs.
But I hasten to say, should some impressionable younger person here tonight, at loose ends from a dysfunctional family, resolve to take a shot at being a real twerp tomorrow, that there are no longer buttons on the back seats of taxicabs.  Times change!" (30)

This is a somewhat poorly-written first sentence, a rarity for Vonnegut.  I do lend books, so maybe I am not a twerp.  My roommate lent me this book and I lent him Galapagos and reflected that I need to review all the books by KV that I read in the past and loved.

Armageddon in Retrospect is Vonnegut's final published work.  Actually, that's wrong!  It's his first posthumous work.  And there have been 11 or 12 more since then.

It's important because it's connected quite intimately with his death.  His son, Mark Vonnegut, offers an introduction that is about as finely written as anything by his father.  The introduction itself is a true highlight.

This book took me about a week to read, and I was quite casual about it.  It has that trademark Vonnegut appeal, but it's pretty weird.  First, it opens with a speech he gave to accept an award in Indianapolis, IN in 2007, shortly before he passed away (actually I think he passed before he was able to deliver it in person--Mark Vonnegut delivered it instead).  The excerpt near the top of this review is from that speech.

Then, there are a bunch of short stories about war.  Several of these are more tragicomic extrapolations of his experience as a POW in Dresden at the end of World War II, which was also an inspiration for Slaughterhouse-Five (also near the top of my list to revisit).  Prior to the speech is a letter written from a young Vonnegut to his parents while he was a POW, and following the speech is "Wailing Shall Be in All Streets."  There is a New York Times review which posits that these two pieces are the strongest in the collection, and I am inclined to agree.  The former is a surprisingly entertaining and mordant narrative of his experience being captured, and the latter is a deeper, more detailed reflection upon it.

"Great Day" follows and this is where Vonnegut shifts into fiction mode.  It's a mix of a war story and science fiction, and to me it was still kind of confusing what was going on in the beginning, and seems most notable for its ending, which seems inevitable.

"Guns Before Butter" is about a group of soldiers fantasizing about what they are going to eat once they return home and can get off of their soup and bread rations.  They trade recipes with one another, and the German soldier in charge of their supervision chides them for it, then later gets in trouble for something over them, and ends the story indulging their talk.  It's a pleasant and mildly heartwarming lark.

"Happy Birthday, 1951" is another vaguely confusing story that has a post-apocalyptic bent to it.  It is about an old man and a boy in his charge, in a threatening environment which might be depicted vaguely like The Road.  The old man takes the boy out of their hiding place and into the forest so that he can appreciate natural beauty, and away from the perpetual state of war they live under.

"Brighten Up" is another story about war.  By this point in the collection, the reader is thinking, okay, this is Vonnegut's The Things They Carried.  But the stories aren't connected or linked in a similar way, and they're not quite as intricately crafted or emotional.  "Brighten Up" features a soldier (Louis) that extorts valuables from other soldiers and receives preferred treatment from the Germans.  It reads more like a sketch of a real person Vonnegut knew there.

"The Unicorn Trap" is one of the weirdest stories in the collection, and not necessarily the best.  But I did think it was hilarious the way the characters talked, with it taking place in the year 1067.  That aspect reminded me of "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned."

I had almost forgotten that "Unknown Soldier" was in the book, but it's very short and is about the contest that a couple wins when they have the first baby born in the year 2000.

"Spoils" is also pretty short and is again about soldiers trying to take valuables from a pillaged village.

"Just You and Me, Sammy," features a character that seems like Louis from "Brighten Up," except made even meaner and more sinister.  It is probably the most infuriating thing in this collection.  The reader will want to kill George and will most likely the find the ending satisfying.  It's also very long.  After "Wailing Will Be in All Streets," it's the most affecting.

As is "The Commandant's Desk," which seems to take off on a tangent from "Spoils." It concerns an old man and his widowed daughter dealing with American soldiers that have taken over their town.  The ending is clever, and oddly reminds me of some of Nabokov's short stories.

It ends with the title story, "Armageddon in Retrospect," which has more potential than anything else and made me laugh more than anything else but seemed to kind of peter out.  It opens with a brilliant conceit:

"Chronologically, the list should probably begin with the late Dr. Selig Schildknecht, of Dresden, Germany, who spent, by and large fruitlessly, the last half of his life and inheritance in trying to get someone to pay attention to his theories on mental illness.  What Schildknecht said, in effect, was that the only unified theory of mental illness that seems to fit all the facts was the most ancient one, which had never been disproved.  He believed that the mentally ill were possessed by the Devil.
He said so in book after book, all printed at his own expense, since no publisher would touch them, and he urged that research be undertaken to find out as much as possible about the Devil, his forms, his habits, his strong points, his weaknesses." (210)

The story goes some pretty interesting places, but I got lost in the last few pages and didn't really understand how the "Armageddon"  took place.  Still it's the kind of big gesture story that caps off a collection like he did in "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" in Welcome to the Monkey House.  Now, this book cannot compare to that one.  They are not in the same league.  But it's a pleasure for the Vonnegut maniac and casual readers alike.  I would advise one to start elsewhere if they had not read much of him, but this shows Vonnegut in his most pacifist element, speaking the most potent truth derived from his past experiences, regarding the senseless tragedy of war.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Granite Moth - Erica Wright (2015)

Full disclosure: Erica Wright is my friend.  I decided to read this book because, of course I want to read books my friends have written--particularly those that get national attention.  I had always known Erica to be a poet, not a crime fiction writer.  I was unaware of The Red Chameleon when it came out, and perhaps I only became aware of The Granite Moth due to a visit from our mutual friend Kristen Linton, and what seemed to be greater publicity on Facebook.  I checked it out from the Chicago Public Library, so it seems to have been made readily available.  I am not sure what criteria goes into stocking the nation's public libraries, but Erica has made it, at least here.

Normally I don't read these types of books, but Triple Homicide and Identical come to mind.  So they seem like ideal comparison points.  Of these three, The Granite Moth has the most intriguing subject matter and is my overall favorite.  However, it does suffer from various convolutions and editorial weaknesses, though it is generally well-written.

Kathleen Stone is a private investigator, formerly employed by the NYPD.  As the novel opens, she is at the Halloween parade along 6th Ave., observing the festivities and waiting to meet her contact, Ellis Decker, who is still on the force and may have some information about an illegal operation run out of an exclusive members-only restaurant, the Skyview Lounge, by Salvatore Magrelli, or someone else in his family.  Magrelli is a crime boss that no one can seem to find any evidence against, and it seems to me like he is the antagonist from The Red Chameleon, but I can't be sure.  Basically, it feels like this book would have been enhanced by more knowledge of the previous one.

Kathleen (Kat) also has a friend named Dolly, who is a female impersonator at The Pink Parrot, a club in the West Village.  The club has a float in the parade, and at a certain moment, a juggler with flaming batons gets shoved, and the float erupts into a fire.  There are a couple deaths and Dolly is badly burnt and believes that it was not an accident.

Soon after, Kat dons a disguise and goes to the Skyview Lounge, where she gets into the poker game.  This was actually one of my favorite scenes in the novel.  One of the themes is how broke Kat is, and it's pretty ridiculous to see her throw away pretty much all of her life savings on a buy-in.  However, before she can leave, the dealer, Ernesto, is poisoned and dies on the scene.

Thus there are two competing mysteries--was the fire on the Pink Parrot float intentional, and who poisoned Ernesto?  Ultimately the resolution is not as surprising as it might be, but along the way there are many coincidences.  Actually, I don't think I understand the resolution.  When Ernesto's murderer is revealed at the end, I have a somewhat difficult time accepting it.

There are many characters in this novel, and like the other two "true crime" books previously reviewed, it becomes difficult to follow.  Perhaps the most compelling lead that Kat uncovers is the Zeus Society, which is a kind of gay conversion hate group.  They protest outside the funeral of the two young men killed on the parade float.

I don't want to try to name all of the characters and how they are involved in love "squares" (rather than triangles), but suffice to say, it is not easy to keep track of who they are and what they have done.  Nor would I want to get into Meeza (Kat's assistant) and her boyfriend V.P. and how he becomes another suspect towards the end (again I still don't understand what he actually did, apart from appearing menacing).

This story is really about Kathleen Stone, and how her disguises allow her to become different "characters."  It is almost as if Erica is writing her to have multiple personalities, and it is a nice motif how all of her alter-egos start with the letter K (Kennedy, Katya, Kate).  Here, she is discussing which disguise to use at the "other" club in the West Village, Tongue:

"'I was thinking I might go as Keith,' I said after a pause, and Dolly laughed.  The sound was spontaneous rather than mean, and I found myself laughing, too, even though I hadn't been joking.  Maybe I hadn't thought this one completely through, but I sometimes passed myself off as a teenager named Keith by slipping into some skater clothes and slicking down my boy-short hair.  It was one of my favorite disguises, a sure-fire way to be left alone.
'Not if you want to get into the place.  It's gayboy bunny or nothing.'" (109)

Which leads to my question: what is gayboy bunny? (Sorry, but that is my favorite phrase used in the novel.)

I am not normally in the habit of pointing out typos, but I found at least five (on pp. 147, 155, 203, along with a couple others earlier in the book).  Perhaps this focus on the trivial and mundane (but incorrect) comes from my brief stint as a proofreader.  Most of the chapters are relatively short--there are 29--and the book itself is pretty short at 233 pages.  It's a good read overall, but my primary complaint is the editing.  I think the novel would have been strengthened if there were fewer characters and if their stories could have been developed a bit more deeply.  As it stands the book is a bit of a mess, but it's held together by Kat, and her fast-paced narration.  In a way, the novel works because Kat is so confused by what she sees and hears and how it all fits together, such that the reader does not necessarily feel as lost as they might normally be.

In sum, I was surprised to read this book.  I did not expect it out of Erica, and while this type of genre is not what I normally gravitate towards, it was a nice diversion, and I enjoyed some of the scenes and situations presented.  It would appear that Erica has created a character, and an anthology series, that could become quite popular.  Her story does not seem to be over at the end of this book, and perhaps she will go on towards a more straightforward adventure next.  However, true crime mystery thrillers rarely are.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy - David M. Burns, M.D. (2009) (incomplete)

Note that this book is due back to the library on January 19, 2017 and I am unable to renew it due to a lack of copies and one person waiting for it to be available again on reserve.

On November 30, 2016, I went to see my PCP.  I had never seen her before.  I just chose her arbitrarily because she was at the Logan Square Health Center.  I was just going in for an annual check-up, but she asked me a couple questions about mental health.  I told her that I was seeing a psychiatrist, but felt that he had never adequately addressed one of my primary concerns: volatile mood swings, as if on a 24 hour cycle.  Actually I wrote about it more than 5 years ago, and it appears to be a chronic condition at this point that I may not be able to end, unless I find the right medication. She recommended I read Feeling Good.

First of all, this is a self-help book.  This is not something like The Noonday Demon.  There are references to certain studies, but much of the material in the book comes in the form of anecdotes from past patients.  The method of treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, which essentially involves stopping self-defeating thoughts before they cause one to become stricken with all of the usual effects of depression.  Will this work for everyone?  Not really, as Burns admits that some more extreme forms of depression require some form of medication.  But it may work for a lot of people and the book is mostly useful, in my opinion, for setting some kind of baseline on normal human emotions, and how easy it is to identify with many of the case studies from the book.

It bears noting that you probably need to work with this book, rather than just read it.  There are many, many exercises, and many "figures" in each chapter, charts and tables with columns of articulated thoughts and appropriate rational responses.  Sometimes the book is unintentionally hilarious, but for the most part Dr. Burns is able to pinpoint the most common states of depression and their likely triggers.

But as I started writing this review on Monday (January 16th), I realized I probably wouldn't finish it on time (it's listed as being 700 pages, but it pretty much ends at 681) and I really wanted to skip ahead to the end of the book, which is an analysis of many different kinds of antidepressants.  This was actually less interesting than I thought it would be, so I waded back around the 400 page mark where I had stopped and shifted to the chapter on suicide, just because.

I did find one of those unintentionally hilarious moments, and I don't want to act like a millennial teen using intentionally bad grammar and coming up with all sorts of new slang words so they can feel cooler than people over 30.  But the phrase "turned on" is kind of limited in how far it can go.  Of course, there is the famous hippie slogan, "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out," which seems to mean "engage with your surroundings," but generally, "getting turned on" is, well, kind of obviously sexual.  So it was borderline inappropriate to read about a physician's "antiperfectionism sheet," which asks the subject to list an activity in column 1, how effectively the activity was completed from 0% to 100% in column 2, and how satisfying the activity was between 0% and 100%.

"Column 1: Talk to student about his career options.
Column 2: 50% (I didn't do anything special.  I just listened to him and offered a few obvious suggestions.)
Column 3: 90% (He really seemed to appreciate our talk, so I felt turned on.)" (357)

Dr. Burns also describes getting turned on by writing and revising that very chapter and I was drawn to recall a comment a friend once made about The Origins of Totalitarianism, after reading a ridiculously long sentence by Hannah Arendt.  He said it seemed like she was masturbating while she was typing.  Now I don't agree with that statement, but whatever, it reminded me of that moment.

While we are on the subject of totalitarianism, here is another hilarious passage, maybe not unintentionally hilarious, but darkly hilarious:

"First, would you say that everybody who achieves is particularly worthwhile just because of their achievement?  Adolf Hitler was clearly a great achiever at the height of his career.  Would you say that made him particularly worthwhile?  Obviously not.  Of course, Hitler would have insisted he was a great human being because he was a successful leader and because he equated his worth and achievements.  In fact, he was probably convinced that he and his fellow Nazis were supermen because they were achieving so much.  Would you agree with them?" (331)

This is from a section called "Does Work = Worth?" in a chapter called "Your Work is Not Your Worth."  This was a somewhat reassuring chapter to read, as I feel incredibly unsuccessful in my career (I recently wrote in an interview questionnaire that I considered my literary output my greatest achievement to date, but then also added one case with a particularly good result for the client for good measure--monetarily, however, this has not added up, and because I relatively suffer, and live constantly on the brink of barely ever adding funds to my savings, with no retirement, I feel I am treading water, and that things have been this way for so long that it will be difficult to turn them around....I see I am becoming a case study), but I believe everything written in the parenthetical above is relevant.  In short, my writing increases my feelings of self-worth; my job does not.  It was a reassuring chapter, but hard to accept when one's lifestyle is largely dependent upon one's financial success.

Moreover, this book was first published in 1980 and revised in 1999.  It was reprinted in 2009 (hence the title of this post), but I don't think any meaningful updates were made after 1999.  So while the internet was around, the prevalence of "internet thought" had not yet become a thing.  I would argue that "internet thought" (along with "Facebook envy") are new triggers for depression that should be analyzed.

For good measure, we will list the 10 cognitive distortions identified by Dr. Burns:

1) All-or-Nothing Thinking
2) Overgeneralization
3) Mental Filter
4) Disqualifying the Positive
5) Jumping to Conclusions (Mind Reading/The Fortune Teller Error)
6) Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization
7) Emotional Reasoning
8) Should Statements
9) Labeling and Mislabeling
10) Personalization

When you are able to recognize that your mind is engaging in these types of thought patterns, you can begin to defend yourself against them.  You do, however, need to come up with the rational response on your own, and sometimes that can be difficult.  This is why many people resort to "do-nothingism" and procrastinate to the point of general inactivity.

To illustrate, I am somewhat disappointed by this review.  It's not one of my best, and I ran out of time to properly assess this book.  I should have started working on the review earlier.  But I can't change the fact that the book is due back at the library today, and I cannot renew it.  I could buy it and finish the review more appropriately later, but I'd rather not.  It's upsetting that I didn't do the best job, but at least I wrote something.

Actually yesterday I was thinking about how brilliantly metaphorical it was to post this review today, the last day of Obama's presidency, because many of us are depressed and feel hopeless about the future.  Then today I just feel like it's an embarrassing review, and there's so much more I could have said about it.  This was not a waste of time, however, and I will think of it as a kind of resolution for the rest of 2017: try not to accept the feeling that you are doomed no matter what--it may just be another cognitive distortion.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Third Coast - Thomas Dyja (2013)

The One Book, One Chicago program by the Chicago Public Library has been going since 2001, but this is the first time I've ever read the book at the same time as everyone else.  These are the books that have been part of the program (asterisks if I have read it) (exclamation point if I've been meaning to read it):

To Kill a Mockingbird *
Night *
My Antonia
A Raisin in the Sun *
The Things They Carried *
The Coast of Chicago
In the Time of Butterflies
The Ox-Bow Incident
Pride and Prejudice
Ivan Denisovich
Interpreter of Maladies *
Go Tell it on the Mountain !
The Crucible 
The Long Goodbye
The Right Stuff !
The House on Mango Street
The Plan of Chicago
Brooklyn *
A Mercy
The Adventures of Augie March !
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
The Book Thief
The Warmth of Other Suns
Kavalier & Clay !
The Third Coast *

Technically I think there are 2 books per year, and next year's will be Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  Maybe I'll check that out because I have serious concerns about my diet, but let's move on to discuss the book at hand.

First, you should know that The Third Coast is a history book.  One of the blurbs on the back compares it to E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, and I think it's an apt comparison, though it's not fiction: what that book was to New York in the 20's, this book is to Chicago in the 40's-50's.

It's a big book at over 400 pages, but an even bigger research project, with 80 pages of notes, sources and indexing.  I probably wouldn't have read this book if it hadn't been added to the One Book, One Chicago list, or if my co-worker didn't own it, or if I hadn't seen my boss reading it.  He lent it to me when he was finished and it took me a while.  The first few pages were a bit of a slog for me, as I got used to the style of the writing, and the subject matter of the book.  But after about 100 pages the rest went relatively quickly.

To give a brief overview, this book is primarily about architecture, music, theater, literature, painting, photography, politics, television, industry, and education.  It features a truly dizzying cast of characters, and I will attempt to name the major ones: Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, the Chess Brothers, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Mahalia Jackson, Chuck Berry, Reverend C.L. Franklin (and his daughter Aretha), Sun Ra, David Shepherd, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Ed Asner, Nelson Algren, Simone de Beauvoir, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Katherine Kuh, Henry Darger, Harry Callahan, Elizabeth Wood, Adlai Stevenson, Richard J. Daley, Studs Terkel, Burr Tillstrom, Dave Garroway, Ray Kroc, Hugh Hefner and Robert Maynard Hutchins.  I'm probably forgetting a few, and also elevating the presence of a few.  The major characters are Mies, Algren and Daley.                    

Before we go any further, it is worth comparing this novel to Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, because there is a certain degree of overlap.  Certainly, this is a much better book, but that is not to Royko's discredit.  Royko worked full-time as a journalist.  The Third Coast is a long term passion project that fortunately appears to have paid off.  What's striking is that the tone is not altogether different between the two.  Royko comes off more volatile, but that is probably just a component of his subject matter.  Whenever Dyja writes about Daley, the tone is practically identical.  For this reason, most of the material about Daley did not affect me as deeply, most likely because Boss was a more thorough treatment.  Of course, anybody who has not read about Daley before will likely be at least a little bit shocked and awed.  It's worth noting that both books contain a paragraph about the air raid sirens used to signal the Chicago White Sox pennant victory.  However, Boss does not mention the disastrous Pan American Games that Chicago hosted in the late 50's, which is easily one of the most hilarious paragraphs in the The Third Coast and the one I most regret not excerpting.  Perhaps that was one of the minor reasons Chicago did not get the Olympics in 2016.  I shouldn't say it's hilarious because there is death in it, but there is also a Lake Forest reference (and I enjoyed all the references to the towns of my childhood, as much as they were always associated with the term "white flight").

For all the subjects that The Third Coast covers, architecture is its focal point.  Near the end Dyja states that, "the city now has the greatest collection of modern architecture in the world." (343) But he also mourns the many buildings that have been lost, including, most poignantly at the very end, the Garrick Theater.  I have never been on the architectural boat tour of Chicago, but have always meant to go on it.  One of the more pleasurable experiences of reading this book was looking up the buildings mentioned on Google or Wikipedia and seeing whether I recognized them.  Most of the time, I did.  I had to look up the Robie House (one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous buildings, along with Fallingwater and, of course, the Guggenheim) before I could remember how it looked.  Mies van der Rohe basically made the Illinois Institute of Technology what it is today, and if I had to define the style of his buildings it would be "rectangular glass."

Frank Lloyd Wright mostly appears as a kindly father figure, except in a few angry moments.  By the end of the book he is into his 90's, and I did not know he lived so long.  At that advanced age, he apparently presented this, which I had never heard about before:

"The building mania continued.  Nineteen fifty-six was on its way to being the busiest year of building ever in Chicago history, bigger than the years after the Fire.  New construction would top a billion dollars.  'It would be an error to say everybody was putting up a building in the Chicago area,' said one builder.  'A few were not.  They were still working on the plans.' That included Frank Lloyd Wright.  With Sullivan's hundredth birthday noted--barely--that September with a small exhibition at the Art Institute, Wright weighed in with plans for a mile-high skyscraper, The Illinois.  Mayor Daley, a lover of big plans, proclaimed October 17 'Frank Lloyd Wright Day' and at a benefit dinner in his honor at the Hotel Sherman, Wright unveiled a twenty-foot-high rendering of the 5,680 foot, 528-story topping out amid passing clouds, angular, inspiring, and gradually more ominous the higher up you went.  The Illinois Wright said, would be 'a finger in the right direction of humanity,' though which finger he was showing humanity no one could tell, since he'd done nothing but slam Mies and every modern skyscraper.  'I detest seeing the boys fooling around and making their buildings look like boxes,' he told reporter.  Calling Daley 'the only Chicago mayor since 1893 who had boldly enlisted himself on the side of culture,' Wright went on to lambast the sorry state of education, architecture, and car making until it sank in that The Illinois was little more than a publicity stunt." (338)

I think that would be a pretty cool thing to have in a museum, the twenty foot rendering.  And generally, this is what makes The Third Coast great--all of these little events that most people probably do not know about, little significant moments in history that happened here.  You could pick out any number of subjects from the book and make a movie out of it.  Or you could make a musical out of it, like Ragtime, again.  Probably the most compelling story is the history of segregation in Chicago.  The book ironically boasts that it is not as badly segregated as Milwaukee or New York City, but I'm frankly surprised it's not #1.  But the history of public housing in Chicago, which could maybe have the background of these more famous architects, would likely make for a compelling film.  Dyja has given a very detailed portrait of the times in the city that is the functional equivalent of having a grandparent or other elder to pass down oral history.

While the book is great, it is not perfect.  A bunch of little gripes about it keep me from recommending it unquestionably to everyone.  Dyja kind of annoys me with his writing.  Most of the time, it's fine.  But he seems to have the habit of making personal remarks about the beauty, or lack thereof, of certain women in the book.  I'm not gonna go through it and count how many times he does this, but referring to a woman as "almost attractive" or some variant, seems to occur with ironic frequency.  And he has this habit of becoming extremely casual with his language out of nowhere, as if to personify the person that he is writing about--usually when writing about black musicians, dropping "motherfucker" kind of out of nowhere.  And then he's just kind of clueless about how needlessly-linguistically-convoluted some of his stories become.  This description, of the 1956 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, confused me so badly that I had to re-read it several times, and still don't totally get what he means:

"Stevenson gave over the selection of his running mate to the floor, leading Mayor Daley to nominate the junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, much to the horror of his father, Joseph Kennedy, who through business, politics, and crime was drawing his clan closer to Daley's Machine.  In the end, JFK and Peter Lawford would console themselves at Chez Paree while Kefauver, the man in the coonskin hat, won the chance to stand beside Adlai for a second, if possible even more eggheaded, campaign than the first.  More interested in being right than winning, it seemed, Stevenson delivered deeply considered speeches that paralyzed listeners.  Centrist to a fault last time around, he now split himself in two: on one hand advocating the establishment of the draft, limiting nuclear testing, and attaching Nixon's character (history would vindicate him there), but then going limp on civil rights.  Not only would he refuse to use federal troops to enforce Brown v. Board of Education, at one point he even suggested to a black audience that January 1, 1963, the one-hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, should be the goal for school desegregation in America.  The Soviet Invasion of Hungary and the Suez Crisis, just weeks before the election, destroyed what little chance he might have had.  Daley led the traditional torchlight parade to the Stadium, but this time there'd be no Truman-esque magic; Ike finished with forty-three states.  Adlai once again lost Illinois." (337)

Now eventually, that paragraph begins to redeem itself, but the first few sentences are extremely confusing.  Maybe I'm just dumb, but why would Joseph Kennedy be horrified by Daley nominating his son for VP?  And it seems to be left to the floor, but what say does Daley get?  I'm probably just naive about the nomination process, but it stills seems like a ridiculously confusing to way to explain what happened in the name of literary style, if you can call it that.  Sometimes Dyja assumes the reader is with him, referring to names that he assumes a reader will remember have from a page or two before, but I often lost track of who he was talking about.  So yes, I would say the writing is clunky at times, but Dyja redeems himself with the sheer force of his research.

That is pretty much everything I wanted to say about the book, but a word should be said about Nelson Algren.  Now, I have never read him, but after reading this, I will seek him out.  It seems like The Man with the Golden Arm is his masterpiece, so perhaps I will start there.  Dyja seems to write about Algren with increased gusto, as if he himself is trying to occupy the space that Algren once held as the "literary heavyweight champion" of Chicago.  This is generally a good thing, and Algren's love affair with Simone de Beauvoir is one of the highlights of the book.  The close research of their relationship is apparent:

"In May of 1949 he flew to New York to check in with Doubleday, continued on by boat to Le Havre, and then took a train to Paris, where he arrived weighed down with gifts of food, clothes, and liquor.  Simone installed him in her fifth-floor apartment on the Left Bank at 11 rue de la Bucherie, down the street and through Viviani Square from Shakespeare and Company, a view of Notre-Dame out the window.  No other man would ever sleep here, she promised.  Algren loved Paris.  Much to his surprise, he actually got along with Sartre, thought he thought the philosopher looked like a shoe salesman, and even Simone poked fun now--Sartre, she said, would fall in love with any woman who'd stick her tongue up his ass.  Evenings in Cafe de Flore, Algren drank with Albert Camus, Raymond Queneau, and Boris Vian, author of the potboiler I Spit on Your Graves, inspiration for the 1959 crime film (though Vian allegedly had a fatal heart attack at its screening; his last words--'My ass!').  Juliette Greco in a black leotard wriggled in his lap while he regaled the Family with hyped-up tales of back-alley Chicago.  A reunion with Richard Wright did not go well, though.  Algren saw his old friend now as less of an expatriate than a deserter, while Wright expected Algren to stay." (191)

The Third Coast should prove interesting to most readers, and useful for students and scholars as a gateway to deeper research on topics that have played a significant role in the city's history.  While it ends on a rather poetic note (incidentally, on Simone and Algren's enduring bond), it is also somewhat somber and ominous.  The city had its moment, Dyja seems to say, and then began its steady decline.  Today it certainly has its fair share of problems, particularly as the murder capital of the country (or the world), likely an effect of the continued segregation of the north and south sides, but many of us love it and embrace it as our home, even as we complain constantly of how miserable it can be much of the time.  It always seems to be corrupt, one way or another, but it remains one of the most intriguing areas in the country, and will continue to produce great artists and thinkers, even as many of them abandon it to settle down in one of the other two coasts...

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2016

Special Comment: Chicago Cubs 2016 Report Card

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

Joe Maddon: A

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

Jake Arrieta: A

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

Anthony Rizzo: A+

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

Travis Wood: A-

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

Kris Bryant: A+

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

Kyle Schwarber: A+

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

Chris Coghlan: B-

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

Jorge Soler: B-

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

Dexter Fowler: A

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

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

David Ross: A-

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

Javy Baez: B+

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

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

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

Kyle Hendricks: A+

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

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

Hector Rondon: B+

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

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

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

Jason Heyward: C+

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

John Lackey: A-

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

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

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

Mike Montgomery: A-

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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