Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ishmael - Daniel Quinn (1992)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Special Comment: Chicago Cubs 2014 Report Card

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony Rizzo: A

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

Starlin Castro: A

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

Jake Arietta: A

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

And then of course there was everyone else.

Javier Baez: C-

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

Jorge Soler: A-

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

Chris Coghlan: B

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

Luis Valbuena: C+

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

Mike Olt: D

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

Arismendy Alcantara: C

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

Welington Castillo: B

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

Junior Lake: C

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

Travis Wood: B-

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

Edwin Jackson: D-

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

Kyle Hendricks: A

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

Hector Rondon: B+

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

Pedro Strop: B+

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

Neil Ramirez: A-

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

Justin Grimm: B+

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

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

Rick Renteria: B-

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

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