Sunday, December 27, 2015

Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life - Carol Sklenicka

Go back to the year 2000 with me, if you please.  I'm in Wilmette, IL at my parent's house, home on break from school out east, getting ready to apply to college, sitting in an armchair in the living room (designated "the library") leafing through an anthology of American literature.  I'm vaguely familiar with Raymond Carver from Roger Ebert's review of Short Cuts, which I read a few years earlier, and I see the story "Cathedral."  I decide to read it, and it's beautiful, a sketch of a blind man being helped to draw a cathedral from an image in his mind of which he can have no reference.  It's a pretty quick read, but enormously moving, and I decide this might be a writer worth checking out.

Fast forward a year and I'm at NYU in a Prose Composition class and our professor gives us a xeroxed copy of Carver's poem "Fear," a list poem about things he fears.  I've seen Short Cuts at least a time or two by now (even going so far as to call my favorite movie at the time (Magnolia) a rip-off), and I go to one of those used book tables in Greenwich Village and pick up a copy of Where I'm Calling From and I read the stories sporadically throughout the course of my freshman year, all the while hearing praise of Carver from anyone the least bit connected to any creative writing class.  I pick my oldest sister for Secret Santa for Christmas that year, and though she has never really expressed an interest in so-called literary fiction, give her a copy of Where I'm Calling From, asterisking all the stories in particular that I think she should read.

So yes, I love Raymond Carver, and this biography easily makes the list of the Best Books reviewed on Flying Houses.  It's not a perfect biography, but it's very close.  It's so painstakingly researched that a reader can almost observe Carver's movements on a day-to-day basis.

Also, Carver went to the same high school as Justice Douglas.  So two of the graduates of Yakima High School would go onto lives worthy of biographies listed as Best Books on FH.  Therefore I believe my friends Byron Johnson and Erin Ecklund will be moving on to live great lives (though I think they went to a different high school).  Boarding school was a waste of money.  Families should move to Yakima to go to this school.  Then again, it would be inadvisable to base one's child's future on a career in the arts, or the law...


The book is subtitled "A Writer's Life" and indeed the first half of the book lays out in excruciating detail all of the obstacles that Carver had to overcome to become an author worthy of publication in The Best American Short Stories series and The New Yorker.  He marries quite young to Maryann Burk and they have their first child before he turns twenty.  Even before then, he had developed enough of an interest in creating writing that he paid $25 to the Palmer Institute of Authorship in Hollywood at the age of 16.  Sklenicka cannily observes that some of the correspondence has a ring of destiny about it--the first lesson is aimed squarely at the short story and reads:

"In becoming a Palmer student you are taking an important step in establishing yourself in a profession that enjoys the respect and esteem of all classes of people, a profession you may be proud to claim as your own...This may be the vital turning point in the course of your life...." (39)

Later, Ray goes to the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, several times, in varying guises--never quite earning an MFA, but sometimes taking credit for it.  In the meanwhile, he works at sawmills and barely earns enough to support their family.  Their continual poverty is a constant theme of the biography.  However, what struck me most about their family was Maryann.  She just seems awesome.  This is a biography of Raymond Carver--but there is so much Maryann in here that it might as well be a biography of her, too.  And this was the surprisingly compelling aspect of the book to me: they have this beautiful relationship, but also an extremely difficult one, and they stick it out for so long.  He owed his early career to her.  He would not have accomplished what he accomplished without her.

His first stories were published in the late 1950's and early 1960's, but he seemed to hit his first stride in 1964 with "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" Eventually that would be the title story for his first collection, which would be released thirteen years later.  More than any other book I've read, this truly depicts the "writer's life" of living your life for your work and spending a considerable amount of time submitting to journals and magazines for publication.  The "second stride" probably came with the publication of "Neighbors" in Esquire, where Gordon Lish served as fiction editor.

There are several literary friendships depicted here.  First there is John Gardner as Carver's writing professor at Iowa (though he is only a few years older).  Second, there is Lish, who certainly comes across as one of the more entertaining (and ruthless) characters in the book.  Third, there is Tess Gallagher, and later Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford.  There is also an entertaining and sad section where a 61-year-old John Cheever drinks and teaches alongside Carver at Iowa in 1973 (Chapter 18 "Drowning," which is not quite rock bottom for Carver, but very close).

Alcoholism is another major theme of the book, and it is written about with such precision and empathy that I thought Sklenicka must have battled demons of her own on that score.  He would drink for three more years after the episodes with Cheever up until the publication of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?  Roughly a year after that was published he would become sober and remain sober.  It is quite harrowing to read about his plight during these times, all in the "Celebrated and Homeless" chapter.

One quick side note:  one of his earlier stories is called "Are These Actual Miles?"  This is just an awesome title for a story:

"One of those new stories configured the rock-bottom days of the Carvers' lives in Sacramento when they were forced to sell their convertible.  'Are These Actual Miles?' is about bankruptcy, suspections of infidelity, and suicidal depression.  Ray pushed into new territory with this story, and it proved to be exactly what Lish was waiting for.  Late in November, Lish telephoned to say that Gingrich and Hayes were 'wild' about the story.  Not only that, but Lish planned to include both 'Neighbors' and 'Miles' in an anthology of fiction from Esquire that he was editing for Doubleday."  (214)

But they change to the title to "What is It?"  Worst title change ever!  Ray is upset about it and Maryann calls him a "whore" for selling out, but Esquire gives them another boost in credibility and they accept it.

I really shouldn't give away the whole story--I'll speak in generalities.  It is an impressive story.  You know, people think that writer's lives are boring.  This is anything but a boring life, but I do not think anybody in their right mind would ever want to live it.  It is filled with so much uncertainty and chaos and desperation that no one should set their sights on a literary career unless they are willing to sacrifice almost everything in favor of that pursuit.


This is a really hard review to write because there's so much to say.  This is a big book--not quite as big as the Ernest Hemingway biography that holds the record for longest gestation time on FH--but at 496 pages a hefty read.  I tore through it.  It took me less than 2 months.  Maybe a month and a half.  It was a little slow going in the beginning, but within the first 100 pages Carver is publishing his first stories.  It seems that the period up until say, Cathedral, is very tightly documented, and that the last five years of Carver's life, when he finally began to taste the fruits of literary success, pass a bit more quickly.

It is worth telling how I found this book, because it is quite fortuitous.  I live in a very bad apartment building, but we do have a free washer and dryer in the basement.  The machines themselves leave something to be desired.  The room is disgusting.  No one ever cleans it, except for me the one time my landlord took $40 off my rent one month when I agreed to do it.  Despite this atmosphere, it also becomes a kind of dumping ground for unwanted items that could be used for other tenants passing through.  You see, my landlord does not rent out three, 3 BR apartments--he rents out 9 rooms.  Each of them is around $600, so he is making over $5000 per month off us.  But we live in relative squalor.  Some of this is the doing of my roommates, but it is mostly the doing of the 1st and 2nd floor tenants, over the years.

Sometimes though, a treasure appears.  I had noticed a very good book collection laying on the ground.  Sometimes I would flip through the Williams S. Burroughs compilation Word Virus while waiting a few extra minutes for a garment to be dried.  But this one particular day in late October or early November, I saw the Raymond Carver biography and I thought it was such a quirky book to have that I had to seize the opportunity and read it quickly and return it in case the person that owned it moved out.  Finally I talked to two of the basement neighbors and asked whose it was and they said somebody who had moved out had left it and I could keep it.  That took the pressure off, but I read it quickly regardless.  At a certain point I read "Fires" out of Fires (which is the only Carver collection I own) and a description of a scene in a laundromat stands out as imminently moving:

"The dark heart of 'Fires' is a two-page anecdote about doing his family's wash at a laundromat in Iowa City.  The laundromat was on the corner of Burlington and Gilbert, around the corner from the writers' favorite beer joints.  Canadian writer Clark Blaise sometimes chatted with Ray while their clothes spun at this laundromat, as Blaise and his wife, the novelist Bharati Mukherjee, struggled to keep up with their baby's diapers.  But Carver is alone in the laundromat epiphany he reports.  Maryann is at work, the kids are at a birthday party, and Ray is waiting for a dryer.  It's Saturday afternoon and crowded, so he is becoming frantic. Another dryer has stopped, and Carver is moving toward it, ready to replace the other clothes with his own, when the owner of the clothing decides to let it go for another cycle:

     ....I remember thinking at that moment....that nothing could come anywhere close, could possibly be as important to me, could make as much difference, as the fact that I had two children.  And that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction.
     Like that it came to me.  Like a sharp breeze when the window is thrown open.  Up to that point in my life I'd gone along thinking...that things would work out somehow--that everything in my life I'd hoped for or wanted to do was possible.

Is Carver writing fiction here?  Could this one moment encompass so much?  The essay dramatizes a situation that had smoldered for years.  Carver admits in the essay that many writers have overcome 'far more serious impediments to their work, including imprisonment, blindness, the threat of torture or death...'" (96-97)

Later, Carver's children come to resent him for "Fires" and a few other stories and poems throughout the years.  Perhaps he should have kept his mouth shut, but you know, we all need little anecdotes about the petty frustrations involved with laundry.  Most strikingly though, Scklenicka adds that, in this scene, Carver is 25 and halfway through his life.


This review is getting long as it is.  There are just too many little details that I'd like to reference.  One of the cutest, for me, is Ray's favored non-alcoholic beverage:

Okay unfortunately that's not in the index so I can't find it, but at one point his children notice that he always drinks RC Cola.  He likes it because his initials are R.C.  The image of him sitting around drinking R.C. and presiding, like, "Yep, that's my cola," is hilarious.

There are several details about other writers, but the big gaping hole in this biography that we've left so far is Gordon Lish.  Lish's anecdote about J.D. Salinger is worth excerpting (as is almost any anecdote about that controversial legend).  I also wish Obama/whoever wins in 2016 cared more about people like us:

"No project Lish undertook was too humble to become a vehicle for his prodigious personality.  For the Job Corps, a Kennedy-era program for unemployed young men, he created a box set of reading folders called Why Work.  Instead of gathering already published materials, Lish sent telegrams to thirty writers he admired.  One of these telegrams went to J.D. Salinger, who had been in seclusion for more than a decade.  Lish followed his telegram with letters--numerous letters--to Salinger that show Lish inventing himself as a literary impresario.  A few months later, he received a telephone call at work from Salinger himself.  When he understood who was calling him, Lish reports, 'I was grinning so hard that my brain could not have had any room left over in it for one speck of business.'  As Lish tells it, Salinger said, 'I'm calling because I was worried about you.'  Salinger again refused to write for Why Work.  But Lish was not unhappy: 'I mean, forget that it was animating him all four months later, it worked! had worked!--because there he was, J.D. Salinger, the impeccably reclusive J.D. Salinger, calling me--.'" (151)

It is necessary to take a detour into Lish, and relate one final personal anecdote in two pieces.  First, on the day I finished this biography, the Winter 2016 edition of the The Paris Review (#215) arrived at our apartment (I don't subscribe to it; my roommate does--one of several reasons why I will be sad to see him go).  One of the interviews was of the now 82-year-old Gordon Lish, who is cantankerous as ever.  Lish donated his papers to Indiana University, and he encourages all Carver fanatics to visit this collection to see just how responsible he is for Carver's acclaim.  Now it is very true that Carver is widely imitated and extremely influential, and Lish's labors cannot be diminished.  However, Lish makes it seem like Carver is a stumbling drunk who can barely form a sentence, who spits out a couple dozen pages of gibberish, which Lish then cuts by more than 50% to emerge with a prize-winning story.  Lish is just a very heavy editor, and other writers, such as Barry Hannah, acknowledge how deeply he changed their work for the better.  Carver, on the other hand, was sheepish about this, and fought the accusations that he was really just Lish's puppet.

For Christmas, I got my mother a copy of Beginners, which is the manuscript Carver sent Lish of the stories that would comprise his second book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which is certainly one of the most famous short stories he wrote.  I haven't read it yet, but it's one of those gifts where you are really getting something for yourself--though I know my mother loves literature and I was just trying to turn her on to Carver.  Maybe it will be weak, though.  I am afraid.  I looked at the opening of "What Is It?" from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?  in the Barnes & Noble and it starts off like a rocket--"First thing, we have to sell the car," or some other such opening.  Lish would remove characters, remove names from characters, cut out whole scenes, remove neat conclusions and leave stories to end on an ambiguous or dark note.  Carver is often defined as a minimalist, but I think it is quite clear that Lish is responsible for that reputation.  Reading this biography reignited my interest in his work, and I hope to read the Lish-edited books and then perhaps Beginners once my mother is finished with it.  Really one would need to read them side-by-side--or at least focus on the story "Beginners" itself--to determine if that 2009 volume, positioned by Tess Gallagher as truer versions of the stories, is responsible in the least for Birdman, which I feel like put Carver back into the national consciousness.   To be sure, Birdman is an achievement all on its own--but would it really have been the kind of Best Picture type film it was without the Carver motif?  I'm sure plenty of people watching didn't know a thing about "WWTAWWTAL," but those that did understand why the film is such a powerful statement on artistry and fame.

Carver never became "famous" until he stopped drinking, though it was his many drunken misadventures that became the stories of "Bad Ray" which "Good Ray" would then write in his sober years.  There are so many little things in this book that are just hilarious; there are just as many that will break your heart.

A brief word on domestic violence: Ray beat Maryann, and Sklenicka does not shy away from describing it, though she does perhaps whitewash it a bit--but understandably so!  Because Maryann would beat him back, too, and often drank as much as he did.  There is one shocking incident though, where Maryann is nearly killed by a bottle of wine broken on her neck, which opens an artery.  They have a volatile, tempestuous relationship, and it nearly kills them.  One does not get the sense that Ray is the typical abuser and Maryann is the typical victim.  It never seems like she is "scared" of him, though she is remarkably loyal to him.  I will not spoil what happens when they finally divorce, and the alimony arrangement they reach, but let's just say, as I've intimated above already, that Carver owes his career to Maryann.  He owes a debt to Lish as well, but Maryann most of all--because she nourished and cared for him and supported him through the worst times most human beings are ever made to suffer.

Amidst all the messiness of life, Carver eventually succeeds.  Really, here we have someone--in the generation of the "post-Beats" or the New Journalism (or "the New Fiction" Lish curated)--who grew up wanting to be a writer, who did all the things that people still do nowadays (like go to Iowa, submit to journals, etc.) and who made it, but not without extreme difficulty.  It's just such a true story that it has to be one of the Best Books.  Even with a few weird moments--I admit that a few of Sklenicka's rare exclamation points are quirky--this is an incredibly valuable tome for anyone that wants to be a writer.  You cannot help but smile at certain passages.

Okay I had a good one to end with, but we have to keep Thomas alive, too:

"In Zurich, a friend secured them entry to Thomas Mann's archives and Mann's large study with its fine mahogany desk, parquet floor, couch, and easy chairs.  They opened Mann's books and handled his fountain pens and Asian figurines.  'Who couldn't work well with a study like this?' Ray wrote on a postcard, before grumbling that Zurich had 'more Japs than Swiss' and more gays than straight people.  Tess's journal indicates that Ray felt anxious about getting meals at specific times and taking a nap in the afternoon.  Those difficulties were somewhat offset for him by the availability of Swiss chocolate.  After making their third visit to the cemetery where James Joyce is buried and studying several funerary sculptures there, they dined at Kronenhalle, which Joyce had frequented.  Lectures and meetings with publishers in Rome and Milan closed the trip at the end of April.  Weary of media attention and foreign food and foreign languages, Ray gratefully returned to Port Angeles."  (456)

But it's a scene from Syracuse with his son, Vance, that may have touched me more than anything else:

"When Vance took Tobias Wolff's survey course in the short story, he said to Wolff, 'My dad's really good, isn't he?'  Wolff said, 'Vance, your dad is one of the greatest short story writers who ever lived!'  And that had some meaning for him because he was learning about this art form that his father pursued so single-mindedly.  He could see him in this landscape of art." (365-366)

Biographies can be tedious and disappointing.  They can also make you love their subject even more.  Raymond Carver was far from a perfect human being.  In fact, he is downright dastardly at times, but it's the humanity peaking through such moments that give this book its heart.  Not everyone will love it--it seems targeted at Carver's fans, of which there are many--and though there are many writers one might care to emulate if they hope to "make it" in short fiction (Joy Williams comes to mind as she pops up throughout the book as a sort of contemporary female counterpart to Carver), one ultimately must find greatness within themselves.  This book portrays that process beautifully.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Pale King - David Foster Wallace (2011) (MM)

Seven months after I published my review, the person who requested that we start a book club sends his.  It is not a traditional review by any stretch, and he asked that I edit some of the more epistolary elements, but I prefer the off-the-cuff charm of informality.  I'm sure his review will be much more useful to you than mine.  I think I was a bit easier on the book than him.  Enjoy.  -JK

I have to tell you: like The Pale King, a couple of the cookbooks in our kitchen come from Little, Brown and Company. We like them and use them a lot. Simple, no-fuss recipes for long day office workers the likes of us. Loads of practical application. I read not long ago about a lifestyle book about cabins they put out and maybe it's okay, too, not really my thing, but I suspect there is an audience for it. It must have been hopeful news for the literature division there when David Foster Wallace (DFW) died and left this book unfinished because 1. Hello Sales Appeal of Posthumous Work!, and 2. The Last Tycoon all over again, Dead on the West Coast at a young age--quick, to the presses! A literary happening!

Finishing the book took a lot longer than I thought it would on account of it being so tedious. I wanted that experience to sink in before forming an opinion. Once I did, I had guilt over it, worrying I was being too harsh: Don't speak ill of the dead...just their art?

The Pale King should not be as difficult to read as it is. Did DFW intend it that way? Was that the point? Working as a federal tax analyst is terrible so reading about it should be, too?
Why am I so preoccupied with his motive, anyway? Usually I don't let biography cloud my impressions of a story, but DFW's celebrity ghost haunts any reading of The Pale King. I expect more from a dead contemporary author, especially one whose genius is so well advertised. 

The Pale King
 is a terrifically boring read, 547 pages of seldom-funny, excruciatingly detailed tax-memoir-fiction. I kept thinking, "Ah, put it down! Read ANYTHING ELSE!" But I pushed on, reminding myself this is one of the great writers of our time. Really, though, DFW is one of the great essayists of our time. As a novelist, to put it charitably, he is under-edited. For example, chapter 9 of this book would have made a great essay on free speech and government, how the law can stifle expression and creativity, even a massive intellect like DFW's. It reveals an interesting paradox in that DFW once worked for the IRS but legally may not publish the experience as non-fiction:
"For as everyone knows, whether consciously or not, there's always a kind of unspoken contract between a book's author and its reader; and the terms of this contract always depend on certain codes and gestures that the author deploys in order to signal the reader what of book it is i.e. whether it's made up vs. true. And these codes are important because the subliminal contract for nonfiction is very different from the one for fiction." (Page 73)

The Pale King is a not-so-vivid melding of the legal, capital, and creative process of publication, a portrait of end-of-the millennium American artistic frustration. It could not exist as fiction or non-fiction, and so it succumbed to market force concerns and censorship mania that are linchpins of our present national reality. As a reader I hope for better, and am compelled to blame someone for this outcome, which is an attitude itself symptomatic of our age: art consumerism. Give me more and give me better! I'm in my chair with nothing to do! Entertain me or else. Still, I know selling books is no easy task these days, especially high-brow stuff like this. I root for publishers even when a book disappoints me.
A 100-page essay on censorship, something in the tone you find in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, some wit and cultural criticism blended with casual humor and sharp observational reporting, his true bread and butter, would have been more valuable in print than this entire book. Here we have 50 chapters of alternating points of view, unrealized characterization, minimal plot, lots of tax code narrative, and at times amusing though ultimately pointless speculation on the personality types drawn to tax work. Here again I question whether or not this book would've been published had DFW not died and left the decision to others. Couldn't have Little, Brown just held off until 2016 and issued a 20th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest
Once someone told me we've grown up when we realize we don't have time to do everything we thought we could do in our lifetime. I was thinking about that when I started reading The Pale King on a flight from Burbank to Las Vegas to celebrate my birthday. Nothing like a dead author and an aluminum tube 20,000 feet in the air to inspire mortality angst, right? An hour later as I was checking into the Golden Nugget, the concierge saw the king of clubs cover of The Pale King sticking out of my luggage and asked if it was about gambling. An apt question in Vegas, but I politely smiled and told her "No". A reader has to bet on gaining something from a book. In choosing to read this one I lost that bet.
When I got back to LA a gift had come in the mail, a book by Thich Nhat Hanh called How to Love. At 125 3x4-inch pages, including illustrations, I immediately bet it had more to offer than The Pale King. A reflection from that book titled "Opening the Door":

"Once you know how to come to yourself, then you can open your home to other people because you have something to offer. The other person has to do exactly the same thing if they are to have something to offer you. Otherwise, they will have nothing to share but their loneliness, sickness, and suffering. This can't help you heal at all. The other person has to heal themselves and get warm inside, so that they will feel better, at ease, and can share their home with you." (70) 
There is indescribable beauty in the experience of reading great literature, something approaching ecstasy and miracle. It is a simple truth. You only have so much time to gather it up in your heart; spend in on something other than The Pale King

Friday, November 27, 2015

Spectre - Dir. Sam Mendes (The Bond Project #24)

Spectre (2015)

Blofeld Is Back 
by Jay Maronde

                Despite all the hype about Star Wars Episode VII, the biggest movie of this holiday season is easily Spectre, the 24th James Bond film. Once again the excellent team at EON productions has returned with a seasoned cast and crew to deliver a movie that fails to disappoint. Spectre marks director Sam Mendes second foray into the world of James Bond and the fourth time that Daniel Craig has donned the world’s most famous tuxedo. But more important than the return of these two figures central to the movie, Spectre is a return to a very classic and historically significant villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
                Blofeld is not a new villain; he’s one of the original James Bond villains and appears in several movies before this one. However, in one of the most obscene examples of copyright wrangling ever, he was legally barred from appearing in the EON productions James Bond movies for several decades, but recent Hollywood mergers finally have him returning home. For those of us who are younger, you might be more experienced with the Austin Powers Dr. Evil, who is a parody of Blofeld. Waltz is terrific as the world’s most evil super villain: iconic, evil, and capable of making your skin crawl and toes curl; a Blofeld not soon forgotten. The decision to cast Waltz was absolute genius and in interviews Waltz describes how, having known Barbara Broccoli for a long time, she personally asked him to take the role. While on the topic of villains one can’t help but comment on the outstanding performance of Dave Bautista as Mr. Hinx, the evil brutish iron finger nailed henchmen that just won’t seem to die. Given the history behind Blofeld, I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Hinx or Blofeld return to the big screen to tangle with Bond again.
                Waltz's sly, shrew, sneering genius is perfectly offset once again by Daniel Craig’s cold, cool James Bond. Grittier and more determined than ever, Bond triumphs in ways only he can--from escaping a building disintegrating around him with grace, to bringing down a chopper in the middle of London with a single bullet, Craig coldly shows how easy James Bond would make this look. Craig is excellent, and despite all the talk about this being his last Bond film, I suspect we will see him in at least one more, mostly because he got almost $40 million dollars to make this movie and that type of money makes people change their minds pretty quickly (ask Sean Connery).  Pairing with Craig in this movie are two beautiful new Bond girls with Monica Bellucci starring as Lucia Sciarra and Lea Seydoux starring  as Dr. Madeleine Swann. There was a great deal of hype before the release of this film that Bellucci would be the oldest Bond girl ever, even older than the actor playing Bond.  This hype was all over blown. Bellucci is a gorgeous radiant woman, and was almost cast in Tomorrow Never Dies in the role that eventually went to Teri Hatcher, her beauty is undeniable but her part in Spectre  is so short she couldn’t have detracted from the film even if she was 120 years old. The real gem of this movie is newcomer Lea Seydoux who plays Dr. Madeleine Swann.  A seemingly endless bag of surprises is contained within her character and her beauty only serves to magnify Craig’s rugged masculinity. Her on-screen chemistry with Craig could be the best Bond has with any woman in any movie.
                 Returning to reprise their Skyfall roles were Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Eve Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw as Q.  Moneypenny and M are very likable allies for Bond. Once again Q has a very substantial role and Whishaw plays the role masterfully.  As usual the Q branch has cooked up some gadgets for Bond including a very rare Aston Martin DB10 Prototype. The car and the chase that it's used in are stunning examples of the caliber of clout James Bond movies acquire: that car is so rare it will never be made again and the chase required huge sections of Rome to be shut down for filming.
                My one complaint about this movie is simple and almost completely irrelevant: the Sam Smith title song is terrible. Slow, boring, long-winded, almost the entire song I thought to myself, “Well, let’s get on with the show.” There’s a good chance you’ve heard this song on pop radio, so I really don’t need to talk about it more, but there’s a rumor that Rihanna was considered and maybe recording the next title song for the as yet unnamed BOND 25. Worth further note: this movie is long, very long--by four minutes the longest James Bond movie ever, so use the rest rooms before you sit down. I found myself hoping it wouldn’t end, because it was just so good, but I definitely made straight for the bathroom as the credits rolled.
                James Bond #24, Spectre, is a holiday blockbuster and a good time for everyone. The return of Blofeld is an excellent plot twist, and Sam Mendes seems to have done an even better job the second time. Spectre is globe-trotting action packed good time.  I would highly advise seeing this movie in IMAX, as I did, because a movie this huge and outrageous certainly deserves a viewing on an outrageous screen.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Soft Machine - William S. Burroughs (1966)

I'm having a really hard time reviewing this book, so I'm just going to be completely honest: I got this book in 2006 or 2007, I think, and when I read it, I thought it was better than Naked Lunch.  It made more sense to me.  However, now after reading it eight years later, it makes less sense to me.

Am I losing my ability to experiment, or appreciate experimental fiction?  Not a chance, but sometimes I need an author that's at least going to give me a little hint about what it all means.  Burroughs does this in the chapter titled "The Great Mayan Caper," but the rest of the book is a puzzle that I'm not sure many readers will be willing to re-assemble.  Rather, the book becomes a sort of poetry (and I would assume this happens in most of his "cut-up" novels) where the story is secondary to the sensory nature of the language, which, oftentimes is uncomfortable and surreal.

It appears that the book is about a technology that allows a person to switch bodies and/or travel through time.  Moments of lucidity in this novel are rare, but here is one:

"At the end of the three weeks he indicated the time has come to operate--He arranged us side by side naked on the operating table under floodlights--With a phosphorescent pencil he traced the middle line of our bodies from the cleft under the nose down to the rectum--Then he injected a blue fluid of heavy cold silence as word dust fell from demagnetized patterns--From a remote Polar distance I could see the doctor separate the two halves of our bodies and fitting together a composite being--I came back in other flesh the lookout different, thought and memories of the young Mayan drifting through my brain--" (86)

So in a sense you could say that Being John Malkovich rips off The Soft Machine, but that's really not fair because the film does something entirely different with the concept.  Burroughs doesn't seem interested in plot or action--though there certainly are moments sprinkled throughout.  On another note his use of the em dash is without parallel.  It produces a feeling in the reader that they are not reading a traditional book, but some weird kind of transmission conveying non-quantifiable information.

Of course there will always be critics that consider his work absurdist shock pornography, and one is hard-pressed to defend it as anything more, but at times it does seem to be an allegory rather than an actual sci-fi story:

"Biological parents in most cases are not owners of the property.  They act under orders of absentee proprietors to install the indicated stops that punctuate the written life script--With each Property goes a life script--Shuttling between property farmers and script writers, a legion of runners, fixers, guides, agents, brokers, faces insane with purpose, mistakes and confusion pandemic--Like a buyer has a first-class Property and a lousy grade B life script." (154)

So there are moments that can inspire a moment of reflection in the reader, but they are generally few and far between.  This is a pretty cold emotionless book that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, so don't pick it up expecting any easy answers.

However, this is a very good book if you want to read it on the CTA and freak everybody out around you.  It has a nice, sharp pink cover, and Burroughs's name, for me at least, inspires thoughts of college and mind-exploration and experiments with form and philosophical conversations fueled by chemical indulgences, as does much of the writing of his coterie.  But where Kerouac relentlessly grounds his observations in actual events from his past life, Burroughs is content to fuck with you endlessly, almost daring you to give up and start a new book that will remind you that you know what words mean.

In this sense, The Soft Machine is based in the English language, but told in such a way that one must consult other sources to arrive at a reasonable conclusion to draw from it.  Most people can say Naked Lunch is about heroin addiction and withdrawal, and the easy response is to say The Soft Machine is about that too, but it feels more focused and less scattershot, if still ultimately confounding.

Increasingly I have needed to consult Wikipedia to supplement my own inadequacies of intelligence with regard to certain books, and no more was this true than here.  I suppose after reading this review, one wonders whether I will ever revisit Burroughs, or could even be said to truly "like" him.  To the latter ponderance let me respond that I will always hold a special place in my heart for him, and appreciate him greatly, particularly in his more "terrestrial" moments; as to the former, I share the same uncertainty.  But in a certain sense that does not matter: the exposure to Burroughs in the first place is what matters (I'm not sure, but I think if I review Nova Express or The Ticket That Exploded, I'll say some very similar things).  I think I'd be more likely to check out Junky or The Wild Boys.

For the "cut-up trilogy," at least, the draw of the material is the rare moment of lucidity or profundity.  In this sense, the prose is dreamlike, and aims to tap into a different set of of  a reader's perceptions.  Unfortunately, while the style may be original and bold, if the "cut-up method" is still in vogue, I have not seen an effective use of it, other than to disorient.  I think you could say that sometimes David Foster Wallace seemed to be using a different sort of cut-up method (where the language is much more lucid but the sequencing seems almost random), and while I'm sure Burroughs was far from the first writer to experiment with chronological uncertainty/confusion, he has left his mark on the canon of American literature, and will continue to be required reading for future generations of writers.  

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Special Comment: Chicago Cubs 2015 Report Card


These were some rough years.

If you can believe it, in 2009 the Cubs still had most of the parts from their 2007 and 2008 playoff runs.  Now we know that they fared terribly in both of those playoff performances, but they had a good team.

Does anyone remember Jake Fox?  Is Ryan Theriot still playing?
I think I speak for everyone when I say we need to locate Jake Fox and bring him back.  We need "the two Jakes."
I think it was the next year when Zambrano uttered "we stinks" and management changed directions.

I was in Brooklyn for the end of the 2010 season, all of the 2011 season, most of the 2012 season, and more than half of the 2013 season, so I didn't follow as closely as I would have liked.

It's surprising to see just how many players from the 2009 club were still on the 2013 club.  You could call the Cubs from 2006 - 2013 "the Soriano years."  Alfonso Soriano defined the Cubs.  He was paid a ton of money to stay on the team for a long time, and he put together a couple decent seasons, but for the most part they just tried to load up the team with stars--at least the few they'd be able to afford--and struck gold by chance.  Really that was 2008.  I'm surprised they made it in 2007, but 2008 they had a legitimately good year, and it was depressing as hell to get swept by the Dodgers.

They ripped it up and started again in 2011, and by 2013 had a few of the names that are oh-so-familiar today: Rizzo, Castro, Arrieta, Travis Wood.

Let's take a brief moment to remember that team with a sad picture.

This is Soriano saying goodbye and passing the torch to Rizzo as the unofficial team leader.

Last year they still blew chunks, but improved on their record from 2013.  They added Baez, Soler, Coghlan, Hendricks, Rondon, Strop, Grimm, and Addison Russell.  Those all look like pretty savvy moves right now.

I was skeptical, okay.  I thought 2015 would be a good year, but I didn't expect a playoff run.  Then they hired Joe Maddon.

Joe Maddon: A+

When Maddon was hired, this team instantly announced itself as a serious contender.  Maddon was perhaps most famous for taking the lowly expansion team of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (actually enduring back-to-back 90 loss seasons in 2006 and 2007) into the stratosphere and annual contention with the always-stacked Yankees and Red Sox.  They never won the World Series, but they went there in 2008, also making the playoffs in 2010, 2011, and 2013 before imploding in 2014.  The Rays still really wanted Maddon for 2015, but he opted out of his contract.
Maddon is a tad eccentric.  At one point this season he hired a magician to perform a show for the players before the game.  I think once he got a bunch of penguins and let them loose in the clubhouse. Near the end of the season he made all the players have a pajama party for the flight leaving L.A. Could you imagine such shenanigans from Lou Piniella or Dusty Baker?  Of course, it was just such an attitude that this team needed.  He did some weird things, like bat the pitcher 8th, but I think that strategy worked out pretty well for everyone.  The team just found ways to win under him.  They could never be counted out, and came back from behind to win many times.  He came to the team and wanted to buy everyone in the Cubby Bear a shot and a beer.  He wanted to cultivate a fun and inclusive atmosphere for the players as well as the fans.  He accomplished that and has become a beloved figure in the city. My hope is that he will manage the team for a very long time--until he officially retires from baseball.  Everyone knows I love Ryno, and I wanted him to be the manager during the Sveum and Renteria stints.  Even though he had problems with the Phillies, I still would like for him to come back to the organization.  In any case, regardless, I am over the moon for Joe Maddon and there is nobody else in major league baseball that I would rather have as my team's manager.

Welington Castillo was traded early in the season, so my favorite player was gone, but it was time for a new favorite, now being graded for the third time.  He went from B+ in 2013 to A in 2014.

Jake Arrieta: A+

Really he deserved an A- last year.  He was 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA.  Compare that to this year's 22-6 record with  a 1.77 ERA, with a no-hitter on top, and you have this year's Cy Young award winner.  Jake is the best pitcher they have had in years.  Obviously, Carlos Zambrano threw the last no-hitter, about 7 years earlier.  That was a great moment, and I apologized for Zambrano for years after, saying he would make a comeback.  But Zambrano was really more of a power pitcher and hitter than a finesse pitcher.  Jake can throw hard, but he possesses undeniable finesse, and most importantly for a pitcher, confidence and emotional stability.  Zambrano could fly off the handle at any given moment.  Arrieta is almost unflappable.  I got scared when he got hit by that pitch late in the Wild Card game against the Pirates, but he knew not to get involved in the fracas.  It took Jake a while to get to this point, but that's what makes this rise to his elite position in the MLB all the more great.  You may not get drafted first, or arrive with a huge signing bonus, but if you put in hard work for about five or six years, you can be as good as anyone has ever been.  It's a bit early to say Jake is the best pitcher the Cubs have had since Greg Maddux.  It remains to be seen how the next 10 years will go, but given what I have seen, he's extremely special and for me at least, the MVP.

Anthony Rizzo: A

Was Rizzo better than last year?  It's hard to say.  He hit .278 this year, so slightly lower than .283.  He had 31 home runs, or one less than last year (tied for 18th in the majors with Mark Teixeira).  But then....yes.  He was definitely better than last year.  I'm not giving him an A+ though.  A+ is reserved for true superstars, like, oh say Mike Trout (Trout is just sick).  He was better than last year because he added 23 RBIs (tied for 11th in the majors with crosstown star Jose Abreu), and played in 20 more games.  He was just a rock at first base, the same way he was in 2013, playing in all but 2 games.  He made the All-Star team again.  He has just over 100 home runs in his career and he just turned 26.  He's not Trout, okay, we can't already say he's destined for the Hall of Fame (Trout is 23 and already has 139 homers).  But he sure looks good.  If Chase Utley is going to be a Hall of Famer, than Anthony Rizzo is also going to be a Hall of Famer.  It's just a matter if he can achieve the longevity.  He's got a great group of players around him for support, and he's emerged as one of the leaders.  There is no need to upgrade at that position.  I hope Anthony Rizzo effectively establishes himself as the perfect hybrid of Mark Grace and Ryne Sandberg, the power hitting first baseman I always wish we had.

Starlin Castro: B+

Was Starlin better than last year?  Immediately he gets dinged down to an A- for the batting average slipping from .291 to .265.  I know he had a bad stretch this season.  I went to a game with my brother in August and it was right around the moment the Cubs were contemplating the Chase Utley pickup.  My brother said Starlin was terrible and that he was no longer part of the "plan" for the team.  This depressed me because Starlin, at this point, is their consummate veteran.  It was nice that he made a comeback near the end of the season.  I don't know, I ding him down to a B+ because I thought "A" was too generous last year.  The only year he deserves an "A" for is 2011, when he had 674 at bats and 207 hits to lead the league.  I still like Starlin and hope he remains on the team.  Unfortunately when I googled him for these stats, the first results that came up were all about trade rumors.  I don't know who they could get in return, and I think the minor league system is still in pretty good shape, but you know about this team and prospects: the more the better!  I'm on the fence about Starlin, but I err on the side of keeping as much of the core together as possible, and if there's been any core in this whole rebuilding process, it's been Starlin.

Travis Wood: B+

Travis took on a new role this year, somewhat similar to what happened to Edwin Jackson.  The difference is Edwin Jackson is gone and Travis Wood performed admirably in his role out of the bullpen.  The most unfortunate thing about this is that he did not get to bat as much.  He still got 30 at bats, but hit 0 home runs, whereas he hit 3 home runs in both 2013 and 2014.  He's not Carlos Zambrano, exactly, but he is one of the best hitting pitchers in the game.  I think it's fair to say that Jake replaced him as the most threatening hitter among pitchers.  Regardless he was a pretty solid reliever most of the time and I think he's earned his place on the team for at least another few years--he'll only be 29 next year--because he's the perfect guy for long relief.  I don't miss Sean Marshall quite as much as I used to--though I liked him, Wood is probably a more valuable player at this point.  I don't think Marshall even played in 2015, but I did find it interesting that Ernie Banks performed the ceremony for his second marriage.

Kris Bryant: A

Kris Bryant made his MLB Debut on my 32nd birthday, and I was at the game.  He sucked.  He got a golden sombrero.  But a day or two later, he turned it on and never stopped.  Simply put, he was awesome.  Is he Mike Trout?  I don't think so.  (Look at Mike Trout's rookie season and tell me there will ever be a better rookie of the year by doomsday).  Instead of hitting .326 like Trout, he hit .275.  Instead of stealing 49 bases, he stole 13 (and he weighs 20 lbs less than Trout).  Instead of scoring 129 runs like Trout, he scored 87.  HOWEVER, where Trout only had 83 RBIs, Bryant knocked in 99.  And he wasn't very far behind with 26 home runs to Trout's 30.  While these numbers are certainly solid, Bryant also struck out 199 times--60 more than Trout, though he did also draw 10 more walks.  Bryant also played in 151 games.  He was pretty much a rock.  He's not totally insane like Trout, but he's the same type of player.  He should win Rookie of the Year and be a major part of this ballclub for the next decade plus.  He also has the most popular MLB jersey somehow, which may have something to do with his beautiful, beautiful eyes.  Even Jake said that after engaging in a sensual hug with Bryant, his "oppo pop increased significantly."  Therefore if the Cubs want to win the world series next year, more teammates must hug Bryant sensually.

Kyle Schwarber: A-

Schwarber gets an A/A+ for his performance in the playoffs, but it'd be unfair to Bryant to give him an A when he only played in 69 games.  He still hit 15 home runs, which would put him on pace to be among the best power hitters in all of baseball.  He hit 5 home runs in 27 at bats in the playoffs.  It wasn't enough, but some of those moments were huge--particularly the one that got stuck on top of the "schwarboard."  Schwarber's batting average was a bit weak at .246 but in the playoffs it went to .333.  He's a rookie. He performed in the clutch.  I was just really impressed by him on the whole, and felt a little excited whenever he came to the plate, like he was a real threat.  Maybe he was the biggest threat on the team in the playoffs.  Regardless, it should be fun to see how he might perform when he gets to play for an entire season.  You can't call a team a dynasty before they've won anything, but if they do, it will be because of players like him--and they deserve to be kept around for the long run.

Chris Coghlan: B-

Former rookie of the year Chris Coghlan is not exactly a disappointment, but a serviceable utility player.  He showed some real pop in his bat at times, but probably had a weaker season than last year.  His batting average dropped from a solid .283 to a perfectly average .250.  He got one more hit than last year with 55 extra at bats.  In the post-season, he posted an .083 average, going 1 for 12.  I've got no problem with them keeping Coghlan but of all of the so-called "everyday players," he is one of the weaker links.  Of course, he did come up with some really big hits at times, and it seemed like he went on a tear towards the end of the season, but I never got that excited when he came to the plate (except when he was streaky).  He had the same number of RBIs as last year (41).  For a left-fielder, the Cubs should really have someone putting up 70+ RBIs.  Schwarber may be that guy next year.

Jorge Soler: B+

I gave him an A- last year, and that's a bit inflated.  Soler had a monster postseason, so he gets boosted.  I can't quite boost him to an A- for the postseason alone, but look those numbers: .474, 3 home runs, 5 RBIs, 6 runs in 19 at bats.  However during the season he was a bit more pedestrian.  He only played in 24 games last year, but he hit 5 home runs.  This year he played in 101 games and hit 10.  I don't think he's in danger of getting traded, but I would not trade him unless it was a part of a deal for David Price or something.

Dexter Fowler: A-

Fowler deserves no better than a B+, but he gets boosted for having a decent postseason.  I mean, they only beat the Pirates in the Wild Card because of him, Schwarber and Jake.  Fowler had a good year, though, and I like him a lot as the team's lead off hitter.  Don't get me wrong--for me, Soriano will always be the greatest lead-off hitter, just because it was such an audacious concept--but Fowler was a more traditional lead-off guy and had a whiff of Soriano about him.  His 17 home runs were good for the best in his career.  His 20 stolen bases were the most he's had since 2009, when he was 23.  149 hits and 102 runs and 84 walks are all career bests.  And, okay, he struck out 154 times, which is also a career high, but you can make a pretty good case that this was his best season (2012 with the Rockies is the only other comparable one).  He played in 156 games this year, another career high, and most importantly, he's a free agent.  Don't leave us, Dexter!  We love you!  That said I think Mike Trout plays the same position so if the Cubs can steal him away from the Angels for like, 10 prospects, I'd be okay with that.  If the Cubs had over.

Miguel Montero: He is good

Miguel is only a few months younger than me, so I like him.  This wasn't necessarily his best season, but it was a pretty good one for him too.  He didn't make the All-Star team (and I heard plenty of times that he was a "former All-Star catcher"), but basically for playing in 113 games, hitting 15 home runs is pretty sweet.  He coined the hashtag "we are good," so that is my explanation for his grade.

Davis Ross: He is okay

I also like David Ross because he is one of the oldest players in the league (though technically only one day older than my older sister, Lindsay, who became a massive Cubs fan this season, making a savvy season ticket deal, which benefited me three times).  [ED. Lindsay requested that I use her proper name (she is not interested in vague anonymity) and acknowledge that she has been a devoted fan of the Cubs since 7th grade, which is approximately 1990.] Here are some of the other old players, so you can see why I like this statistic:
(13) Carlos Beltran - 38
(12) David Ross - 38
(11) A.J. Pierzynski - 38
(10) Matt Thornton - 39
(9) Jason Grilli - 39
(8) Joel Peralta - 39
(7) David Ortiz - 39 (turning 40 in 2 weeks)
(6) A Rod - 40
(5) Torii Hunter - 40
(4) Rafael Betancourt - 40
(3) Ichiro - 42
(2) Bartolo Colon - 42
(1) LaTroy Hawkins - 42 (turning 43 in December)

Bartolo Colon wins the award for being the most ridiculous player of the year.  Interesting that he pitched for the Expos in 2002 and almost took them to the playoffs.  He is listed at 285 but that has to be a joke.  He's gotta be close to 300.  Whatever.  I just can't take my eyes off the screen when Bartolo's pitching.  He won't be Moyer-esque, but I'm interested to see how much longer he can stick around.  Show me any other 42 year old that can start 33 games for a team that goes to the World Series.

Back to Davis Ross: he was okay.  Sometimes, when he caught for Jon Lester, my brother[-in-law] would say, "Well there's two automatic outs each time through the lineup."  And yeah, Ross was a weak hitter (.176 with 1 home run in 159 at bats), but he was solid defensively and he was brought in as a clubhouse guy.  I think it's fair to say the Cubs had one of the best clubhouses in baseball in 2015, and I don't want to attribute that all to David Ross, but I think he fared well as an elder statesman.

Javier Baez: B-

I was pleased by Baez's progress, though he played in less games in 2015 than 2014.  That shows how the Cubs were trying to "showcase new talent" in 2014 as a draw for fans, but how they got serious in 2015.  Baez hit .289 this year, compared to .169 last year.  That stat alone is all I need to say.  He only struck out about 1/3 of the time instead of almost 1/2 the time.  He may be playing infield with Addison for many years to come, but the situation with Starlin must be addressed first.

Addison Russell: B+

Look, .242 isn't a great batting average, but he did hit 13 home runs.  He started in the postseason until he got injured.  People really like him.  He's only going to get better.  Is he better than Starlin?  I don't know!  I can't tell!  But he's younger.  And come on, I know, Starlin is still young too!  But this Cubs team might as well be shouting "Youth is truth!  I wish old rhymed with lies!"

Tommy La Stella: B-

He came up near the end of the year.  I don't know what to say about him.  I'm surprised he made the playoff roster.  I think he was a speedster, and a backup utility player.  It's a good combo to have.  He probably switch hits, or hits from a different side than Addison Russell or Starlin Castro or something.  I think he's a good fielder.  I dinged him down to a B- because he went 0 for 10 in the playoffs.

I don't feel like writing about Arismendy Alcantara and his 26 at-bats (though it's nice we still have him, and Almora, and a couple other guys that we might get to see in Spring Training), or Matt Szczur's 72--but what about Chris Denorfia?  He was okay, I think.

Jon Lester: B+

Jon Lester is famous for having a sub-.500 record (11-12) that doesn't present the full picture.  His ERA was a solid 3.34 and he pitched over 200 innings and struck out over 200.  You can't blame a guy if his offense doesn't turn it on that day, for whatever reason.  Maybe it's just me, but it seemed like there were a whole bunch of times that Lester pitched really well, only to have the Cubs lose 1-0 or something.  Look at Game 1 of the NLDS where the Cardinals touched him early, and he pitched solidly into the eighth inning, only to let another run or two slip through at the end.  The numbers do not represent the full picture.  However, his batting average is terrible, and he knows it.  When he got his first hit of the season after 80 some at bats, he tweeted that .031 never felt so good.  Everyone got super congratulatory in a mock way and it was hilarious.

Kyle Hendricks: A-

Hendricks may not have had a more impressive season than Lester (even if his record looks better), but for what he delivers, for the price, and the expectations, he gets a boost.  He was 8-7 with a 3.95 ERA.  Solid.  And he threw 180 innings.  (And I may have been a bit generous giving him an A last year--but he proved himself over the length of the season this year.)

Anyways, Kyle Hendricks earned $510,000 in 2015.  You want to know how much Lester earned?
Not quite 40 times as much, but you get my point.
Maybe Hendricks deserves an A and Lester deserves a B.
I don't hate people for having money (that much), and I think Lester is a good dude and I'm glad he's on our team, but man, when you get paid that much, doesn't it lead to some kind of complex when you compare yourself to Hendricks?
Like, Hendricks is DAMN WELL earning every fucking penny that he's getting paid.
It's hard to justify yourself getting paid $20,000,000 a season unless you compare yourself to Jay Cutler or Derrick Rose or, now, Jimmy Butler.  But Lester is on that level, and he's locked up for a long time, and he's basically the big veteran dude that is going to anchor the rotation.  I don't think anybody (except me) guessed that Jake would overtake him as the ace apparent and obvious choice for the Wild Card game.
You know how much Jake made last year?
This year he made about $3,600,000.  I'd say he's fairly paid.
And you know what--a lot of players and agents and shit need to look at Jake and be like, yes, he is fairly paid.  He doesn't deserve to get paid $20,000,000 a year even if he's the greatest pitcher of the 21st century (for which the 2nd half of 2015 makes a strong case).  Nobody deserves $20M.
There needs to be a dramatic restructuring of inflated salaries across the sports and entertainment industries.  Sadly, that's a laughable proposal.
I know Jake's going to get a lot more, and I'd say he deserves $10M.  All I know is, if I was making $20M, I'd feel like the luckiest guy on earth.  I'd be generous with everyone and would spend money to try to make myself happy and would not be wary of it running out.  What I mean is, I would not allow myself to get depressed because of lack of money.  I believe that a lot of depression comes out of lack of financial options or feelings of hopelessness and inability to advance.  There might be another sort of depression that comes from feeling you are not performing at the level you should for the amount you are being paid, but all I'm saying is, it's a thing man.  It's a thing.  You get the big contract, and your motivation to perform just gets sapped, because you're locked in.  You can be like Jay Cutler ($22.5M, though honestly I think all the hatred inflicted on him is half absurdist--people use him as a scapegoat on a surreal level--and he's not that bad--though for 16 games that really is gross overpayment).  Or you could be like Marian Hossa ($7.9M) and just be awesome.
End rant.

Jason Hammel: B+

Technically, if Hendricks is getting an A-, then so should Hammel, because his numbers look better: 10-7 with a 3.74 ERA.  I don't know why I ding him except that I presume he's getting paid more and because I just didn't feel quite as confident when he was going to the mound.  Maybe it's this: Hendricks still pretty much felt like a rookie this year and there is no telling how much higher he might go.  Hammel wasn't graded last year because he ended up on the A's, but he had better numbers last year, surprisingly.  I think he turned in a very solid respectable performance this year but I just don't know where he belongs.  I guess I ding him because his postseason performance left a bit to be desired.  Overall though, I believe he should stay a part of the rotation.  There are four solid starters on this team--it just remains to be seen who will be #5....

Hector Rondon: A-

Rondon is the closer.  We know our closer and that's what matters.  He only got 30 saves (and it appears there were 34 save opportunities--4 blown saves is not a good stat) but the Cubs probably won too many games by more than 3 (or 4 or whatever that rule is).  He had an awesome ERA of 1.67 and somehow got a record of 6-4 (though I know we shouldn't put too much stock in the records of relief pitchers).  69 strikeouts in 70 innings, and kept his opponents' average at .212.  He also brought the emotion--as closers must do--whenever he got the winning out.  You need a closer that gets excited for the team.

Pedro Strop: B+

By contrast, look at Pedro Strop.  My mom often complained about him and worried when he came in, but apart from his record, he looks pretty close to Rondon.  His ERA is a bit higher at 2.91, but that's still pretty good (for a reliever).  He struck out 81 in 68 innings and kept opposing hitters at .167.  So yeah, he was good.  He gets dinged because I trust my mom.  He probably deserves an A- as well, because I gave him a B+ last year too, and I think he did improve slightly.

Justin Grimm: A-

Grimm was pretty much their go-to middle relief guy (Grimm in the 7th, Strop in the 8th, Rondon in the 9th, if memory serves) and he had a better year that last year, which was very good anyways.  His ERA was a sparkling 1.99 and he kept opposing hitters to .178.  He didn't lead the team in appearances again--and he only had 49.2 innings pitched total.  He pitched 20 more innings last year, but his ERA was also nearly 2 runs higher.

I guess Neil Ramirez is still on the team (he pitched in 19 games and had respectable numbers) and Clayton Richard actually performed well down the stretch and pitched perfectly in the playoffs, but I don't really know what to say.  I always get kind of exhausted writing these report cards by the time I get to the relievers.  Basically Clayton Richard is as good as the other three main guys listed above (Rondon, Strop and Grimm), and if Ramirez returns and pitches well, I think you've got a very solid bullpen here indeed.  Zac Rosscup.....he might be a step down, maybe a "B," but there are no total disasters on this team.  There is nobody for which I want to say, "He must go."

Many will stay, but a few inevitably will have to go.  We didn't get quite as close as we did in 2003, but this felt like a more exciting year.  The difference is, most of the same pieces will be in play next year, and we can still do better...

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Modern Romance - Aziz Ansari (with Eric Klinenberg) (2015)

Do I really need to write a review of this book?
Haven't you already seen the reviews, like five months ago?
This is actually one of the few books that most lay people (i.e. non-readers) of a certain age know.
They know it because they know Aziz Ansari, and it's about dating, and he's right: it's both a wonderful and horrible time to be single.
This book is candy to Penguin Press.

Do I need to parrot the ideas of this book or can I just write this as a special comment on Tinder?

I always try to "personalize" these reviews so they're more valuable than the "objective" stuff you'll find in any number of major newspaper markets across the country.  But this is a real opportunity for extreme personalization, and I don't want to go there.  I will start off with a pertinent quote, so you know what to expect:

"One thing that I definitely want you to know up front is that this book is primarily about heterosexual relationships.  Early in the process Eric and I realized that if we tried to write about how all the different aspects of romance we address applied to LGBT relationships, we simply wouldn't be able to do the topic justice without writing an entirely separate book.  We do cover some issues relating to love and romance among gays and lesbians, but not at all exhaustively." (8-9)

Because of this, while I initially flirted with the idea of putting this on the "best books" list, it fails.  I'm not that strident of an activist so I really don't care to start a fuss over the idea that LGBT relationships are different from straight ones, but I will comment briefly that a law school classmate of mine wrote a law review article about domestic violence in LGBT relationships and found that there wasn't much of a difference (I mean, obviously, in straight ones it's usually the dude doing the hitting, I'm guessing).  I do think gay dudes are way less picky when it comes to sex partners, in general.  That's about all I can say, though.  I'm not too angry, because I do think there should be a book about dating for bi people.  I just think it's a little troubling, economically, particularly when that big SCOTUS decision came down just as this book was released (June 16, 2015).  Straight people wouldn't be interested in reading about non-straight people, I guess.

What would a book about dating for bi people be like?  It would be the most fucked up thing in the world.  Do you disclose, or do you pretend?  Do you delete all your old Facebook references to anything that might give a potential date the idea that you had never strayed from the straight and narrow?  I really don't think there is any problem whatsoever for a bi dude to tell a same-sex partner that he likes girls--I think they're more excited by the idea of a straight dude than a gay one (at least for a casual thing)--but does that work on the opposite level for girls?  I mean, of course, girls don't want to go out with bi dudes, but are lesbians open to going out with bi girls?  Frankly, if Mr. Ansari would like to entrust such a project to a fellow '05 NYU Alum, I will rip up my law license and skip down the street.

I've been a little bit harsh in starting off this review, so let's move onto the positives: this is probably the funniest book I have reviewed on Flying Houses.  I laughed out loud while reading it more than a few times, and on the CTA that was sometimes embarrassing.  I think this was the line, yesterday:

"I'd run the Hardee's and probably be pretty good at it.  Maybe I'd catch wind of a guy who was running a huge 'biscuit extortion' scam to smuggle biscuits across the border to Georgia [from South Carolina].  The scam would work like this: The guy and his partner would steal biscuits from our store and then sell the stolen biscuits at a lower cost on the biscuit black market.  After getting suspicious of his frequent trips to Georgia, I would hide in the bed of a Ford F-150, under a bunch of biscuits, and when they reached their destination, I'd dramatically pop up and go, 'GIMME BACK MY BISCUITS!'
The family would be proud." (237)

It's not even that funny, really, but the image cracked me up.

Upon further review, it was actually this passage that made me laugh to embarrassment:

"My Dearest Charles,
I hope this letter finds you in the halest and heartiest of conditions.  I'm sure it will, as your constitution, as I recall, was always most impressive for its resilience and fortitude.
What do you make of this so-called 'Revolution'?  I fear that, win or lose, we shall be feeling its reverberations for decades to come.
In other news, in addition to your sister, I am fucking Tina, this woman I met at the bar last week.  I also caught syphilis from a prostitute I met in Boston.
Fondly, your brother-in-law,
Henry" (225)

Is Mr. Ansari a good writer?  I think so.  It's unclear to me how much of this book is written by him and how much is written by Klinenberg, but it feels like it's mostly Ansari, even when there's not a joke being thrown in every few sentences.

The constant jokes aren't a distraction.  Instead, they change the book into something different entirely.  Now I know that comedians get book deals, and sometimes their books are funny, but this is more impressive because it's about something else, something that most younger people might want to know.

The problem is that we all already know.  There is some interesting research that the book brings out, but all of the perceptions, all of the subjective stuff, we know.  We know about not texting back immediately for fear of seeming too desperate.  We know about selecting profile pictures.  There is a lot of stuff "we" know, but we don't really know that other people feel it too, and I guess that's why this book is nice.  Ansari is never mean-spirited with the jokes here, and that's impressive in this arena.  It also has the potential to get extremely raunchy, but the dirty stuff is kept relatively safe.

The central thesis, if you will, is that "good enough" partners are not good enough for people anymore.  We now require a soul mate.  Along the way in that search, we might discard some really amazing people, and Ansari advocates on behalf of "quality" rather than "quantity."  It's better to get to know a person really well and find out everything that's great about them, rather than to meet a lot of people and only get to know them superficially before deciding there's someone better for you.

This is kind of the romantic issue of our time, and Ansari is clever to seize upon the moment and call it out for what it is.  Thousands of people have written about these issues over the past half-decade, but Ansari is the first to turn it into a book with mass appeal.  And he is the right person to do it because the humor complements the material in a strange way.  In a sense, it almost detracts from the material, but this turns it into a strength.

Perhaps this sounds strange.  Really what I mean is, you can't take a book with this subject matter all that seriously.  You're not supposed to.  Ansari isn't saying WE ARE ALL LIKE THIS; he's just sharing stories that he heard in focus groups and surveys and sociological studies.  He also writes about his own romantic travails to powerful effect, though I contend that he leaves an important element of dating/mating out: money.

Maybe I'm cynical, okay, but we can't all go out every weekend night and spend 5 hours in a bar or club and spend $200 on drinks.  And when we think about who would be a good partner, tell me nobody cares about their job.  Of course, many more women pursue a professional career than in the past, and marriage has become a kind of status symbol--more of a "power couple" thing than the traditional "sole breadwinner" thing.  I would have liked to hear more about stay-at-home dads.

Ansari effectively describes the shift in marriage habits, from our grandparents' and parents' generations to ours.  Perhaps this is why I often said I wished I was 10 years older, back in '01 and '02.  But maybe it's more like 20 or 30 years older.  The difference is, the older generations did not have the experience that we do of "emerging adulthood," the period between, say, 23-30, when we pretty much live on our own and seek a mate that is most complementary to our vision of a worthwhile existence.  Ansari thinks this period is a great thing, more or less, but personally I'm not sure.  Now, I have no problem with their being tons of single people getting older and not having kids--so long as we're not lonely.  But I do have a problem when I am 32 and I look around and see that most people my age are married, or engaged, or have kids, or have a good job with a retirement plan, and I have nothing.  I guess it would hurt a lot more 20 years ago to be in the same situation at my age, but my belief is, it wouldn't be this way 20 years ago.  But I should shut up before I say something dumb and insensitive.

There are some really intriguing parts, particularly about Japan and the way their government is responding to the low-birth-rate crisis by subsidizing singles' parties.  And of course there are some priceless stories:

"Back in June of 2012 when I was 43, my boyfriend broke up w/ me via a text message after being together for 8 years!  I practically raised his daughter, and had been totally committed to him [and] everything that came w/ him.  I was really offended and hurt as I felt that I at least deserved to be broken up with in person or at least on the phone! 
Apparently the wound didn't run too deep, though, because look what happened next:
After 10 months of no contact, his uncle passed away [and] I called him [and] left a message w/ my condolences.  We finally talked after that [and] eventually got back together.  I still love him completely [and] have forgive him for how things went down.  And you best believe I gave him hell for that text! :-)
No offense, but at this point let's take a moment to be thankful we are neither of the people in that relationship." (194)

I could go on, and on and on about this book and excerpt every single great joke, but I'm gonna wrap things up here.  I just can't resist putting in my favorite part, which is where Ansari advocates for monster truck rallies as ideal venues for first dates:

"One of the social scientists I consulted for this book is the Stanford sociologist Robb Willer.  Willer said that he had several friends who had taken dates to a monster truck rally.  If you aren't familiar with monster truck rallies, basically these giant-ass trucks, with names like Skull Crusher and The ReJEWvinator,* ride up huge dirt hills and do crazy jumps.  Sometimes they fly over a bunch of smaller cars or even school buses.  Even more nuts, sometimes those trucks assemble into a giant robot truck that literally eats cars.  Not joking.  It's called Truckzilla and it's worth looking into.  Frankly, it sounds cool as shit, and I'm looking at tickets for the next one I can attend. (140)
"*Okay, I made up ReJEWvinator, but it would be cool if there were a Jewish monster truck scene." (141)

The book also ends on a really sweet story about a couple meeting and how they left notes to each other on the doors of their apartment complex.

This isn't necessarily "required reading," but I wouldn't be surprised to hear about this book being passed around between groups of friends in "emerging adulthood."  That is the way the most culturally relevant books attain their cache.  This is increasingly rare, and I applaud Ansari for rejuvenating the medium.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Chicago Marathon - October 11, 2015

Well I am starting to write this twelve days after the fact, but will probably publish on the thirteenth day.  It feels longer than that.  I'm back at the point where I'm running at the rate I was before I knew I was going to train--a few times a week.  But I feel like I want to do it more, like four or five times a week.  It became addicting.

Unfortunately it also cut into my ability to do other things with my time, such as writing, cooking, or properly caring for my broken finger.  It is my left ring finger, so beware anybody that might want to marry me.  You will need to get an elastic ring.

I wanted to write about the marathon experience itself though, not the training.  I will offer a brief comment on my training by reciting some stats from  I logged 106 workouts on it.  This is enough for anyone to train, though I believe that I was already in fairly decent running shape, as I'd been doing it pretty consistently for about a year, though mostly short distances like 4 miles.

In 106 workouts, I went 793 miles.  I logged 85 miles in May, 139 in June, 219 in July (though that includes an ill-advised 18 mile bike ride), 151 in August, 167 in September, and 32 in October.

I was hoping to get 4:20 as a dumb stoner joke.  I thought hey, if I can get that time, it's pretty respectable.  That's roughly ten minute miles, maybe like 9:50 or 9:55.  Using helped me pay closer attention to my pace.  I was heartened to see it consistently lower towards the end of my training.  Even so, I was absolutely terrified of the marathon.  The furthest I had gone was just over 20 miles, the Saturday on the weekend of Riot Fest.  I ran my usual long route, but added a leg to Douglas Park around the perimeter of the festival before heading home.  It was a great run and I did it in 3:25.  That was right on target for me, six more miles in 55 minutes--you'd need to be a little faster than 10 minute miles, but do-able.

My sister came in for the race from Boston, and my younger brother was running it, too.  I met them both at the Expo at McCormick Place on the day before the race.  It was great fun (particularly the part where we walked through an old bus and got some goose island beer samples) and then we got a cab to the Loop to meet the rest of our family at Harry Caray's 7th Inning Stretch at Water Tower Place to watch game 2 of the Cubs vs. Cardinals NLDS.  We had drinks and appetizers there, then moved on to Mia Francesca, across the street, where I had a wonderful linguine prosciutto (to which I added meatballs).

I woke up at 5 AM the next day and was scared as hell.  I ate an everything bagel with cream cheese, some milk and cereal, juice, and a banana.  I think I ate a protein bar on the train ride over.

I checked all my gear in the large plastic bag they give you, took an adderall and a five-hour energy, and moved into my starting corral a little after 7:30.  The adderall is controversial and I promised my sister's wife (who incidentally had her pharmaceutical company's first drug approved by the FDA yesterday) that I would not do it again.

In any case, the nerves were strong as we waited to start.  I tried to find my sister, as she was supposed to be in the same starting corral.  She said she was wearing a neon green Adidas hat.  I looked around and saw several, but none were her.  I had to go it on my own.

We kept inching up forward every few minutes.  Until eventually we were near the starting line.  We passed it around 8:10 AM, and the clock already said forty minutes had elapsed.  We were all moving slowly out of the starting gate, pretty much, and I pressed play on my iPod.

The main reason I wanted to write this was to share my iPod playlist.  I have been making running playlists on various iPods for nearly 10 years now, and I have made some very good ones in my time (even though I have been limited by my somewhat eccentric collection--for example, I could not include "Moonlight Mile" by the Rolling Stones, which my oldest sister recommended the night before), but this is the ultimate playlist.  I would not have made it through without this.

Before I mention the first track, I just have to remark that around lower Wacker Dr. or Randolph St., (one of those underground tunnel streets) just after the start, a bunch of dudes went off to the side and peed against the wall.  It was hilarious to see.  I guess going to the bathroom is a big deal in the race.  A lot of people try to go beforehand and the port-a-potty lines get long, and some people need to wait, and I guess dudes can do this.  I just love that public urination is kind of permitted in this situation.  I felt like I had to go a bit, and I knew from experience that I would usually need to, but as I kept seeing "rest areas" along the course, I kept thinking, I can hold out until the next one.  As I went on, I just wanted to finish as quickly as possible, and I held off until the very end--this after all of the gatorade, water, and even a beer after the finish line.

This was a warm marathon--it got to be close to 75 degrees around 11 AM or so.  I personally love this temperature for running, though everyone else thinks it is too hot.  I guess I sweated a fair amount and that affected my fluid intake/need to pee.

Anyways, here was my playlist:

Before the list, here are some signifiers of songs for those unfamiliar:

BSCS = Bat Shit Crazy Song
R = Recovery Song
PFM = Perfect For Moment (well-sequenced)
PT = Perfect Transition (from previous song)
U = Unremarkable (would change)
PM = Pace Maintenance
If there is no signifier, it's essentially unremarkable, but I wouldn't change it.

(1) St. Vincent - Birth in Reverse PFM
(2) Shellac - Surveyor
(3) Fugazi - Place Position BSCS
(4) The Fiery Furnaces - Tropical-Iceland PFM
(5) Shellac - Dude Incredible
(6) Rites of Spring - Persistent Vision
(7) !!! - Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story) PFM
(8) Rites of Spring - Remainder PM
(9) Deerhunter - Circulation R
(10) Superchunk - On the Mouth BSCS
(11) Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Y Control PM
(12) Superchunk - Here's Where the Strings Come In
(13) Nirvana - Mrs. Butterworth [Rehearsal Demo]
(14) Built to Spill - Stop the Show R
(15) Fucked Up - Truth I Know
(16) Beastie Boys - Sabotage PT
(17) The Stooges - Loose
(18) Hole - Jennifer's Body
(19) Nena - 99 Luftballoons PFM
(20) Battles - Atlas PM
(21) Texas is the Reason - Antique (live) PFM
(22) Pissed Jeans - Boring Girls PFM/BSCS
(23) Superchunk - Lying in State
(24) Radiohead - Paranoid Android
(25) Sleater-Kinney - Hollywood Ending
(26) Dead Kennedys - Pull My Strings
(27) Scarlett Johansson - I Don't Want to Grow Up R
(28) Fugazi - Hello Morning BSCS
(29) Superchunk - Invitation
(30) The Fall - Jawbone and the Air-Rifle U
(31) Superchunk - Without Blinking
(32) Rage Against the Machine - Guerilla Radio
(33) The Stone Roses - Made of Stone R
(34) Nirvana - Negative Creep (live) BSCS
(35) Sonic Youth - Bone PM
(36) Bikini Kill - Strawberry Julius BSCS
(37) Superchunk - FOH
(38) Pavement - Speak, See, Remember R
(39) The Dismemberment Plan - Pay for the Piano
(40) The Get Up Kids - Woodson
(41) Wire - 12XU BSCS
(42) Superchunk - Staying Home BSCS
(43) Mission of Burma - Max Ernst
(44) C.S.S. - CSS Suxxx PM
(45) The Misfits - Horror Business
(46) Black Flag - Nervous Breakdown BSCS
(47) Wipers - When It's Over U
(48) Shellac - Spoke
(49) Fugazi - Public Witness Program BSCS
(50) Dum Dum Girls - He Gets Me High PM
(51) Superchunk - Animated Airplanes Over Germany PM/PT
(52) Big Black - Bad Penny
(53) LCD Soundsystem - Losing My Edge R
(54) The Jesus Lizard - Gladiator
(55) The Get Up Kids - Off the Wagon
(56) Japandroids - Sovereighnty
(57) Shellac - Watch Song
(58) Radiohead - Bodysnatchers PM
(59) The Promise Ring - Is This Thing On?
(60) Be Your Own Pet - Super Soaked BSCS
(61) Dead Kennedys - Lie Detector
(62) Sonic Youth - Kissability (skipped)
(63) Fucked Up - Queen of Hearts (skipped)
(64) Fucked Up - Remember My Name (skipped)
(65) Deerhunter - Nothing Ever Happened (skipped)
(66) Dinosaur Jr. - Lose (skipped)
(67) Shellac - Killers (skipped?)
(68) Shellac - Wingwalker
(69) Shellac - Billiard Player Song (unplayed)
(70) Shellac - This is a Picture (unplayed)
(71) Superchunk - Seed Toss (unplayed)
(72) Fucked Up - Triumph of Life (unplayed)

I loved opening up with St. Vincent.  It was such a rush.  I couldn't tell if that was the 5 hour energy and adderall combined with the enormity of the event before me, but I think that was it.  This was just an awesome song to open with.

Around song 20, I passed my family near the Broadway and Cornelia corner, around mile 8 or so.  My dad remarked later that my energy looked good, that I was bouncing along.  I was able to see them and waved as enthusiastically as I could, and it wasn't faked.  I was legitimately having a great time with this.  I admit, it is stressful for the runner when they have to try to remember where certain friends or family might be waiting, to look out for them on the left or right, and make sure not to snub them.  Luckily this worked out.

So yes, this area around song 20 was pretty intense.  "Antique" and "Boring Girls" back-to-back was pretty awesome.

One of the weirdest choices is the Scarlett Johansson cover of Tom Waits's "I Don't Want to Grow Up."  This is a super mellow song.  However sometimes you need to have a mellow song--a "recovery" moment.  You can't just go all out the entire time (okay maybe the people that start at 7:30 instead of 8 can, but I'm not that good), you need to walk through the water/gatorade stations and sometimes chill out a bit.  The song may be mellow, but it also has a beat, and it was like a moment of calm.

In general I was super happy with this mix, but then we came to the tough part: song 47 - "When It's Over" by the Wipers.  I distinctly remember this song as the moment that time seemed to change.  This is a long song--over 6 minutes--and I figured it would take me most of the way to the next milemarker.  It did that, but it just seemed like those six minutes were more like 12 or 15.  The rest of the race was significantly harder for me.  I don't think this was quite mile 22--mile 22 is where things got much more painful for me--but it signaled a shift.

I think when I hit "Losing My Edge" I recovered a bit, because it's another really long song, and while it's not mellow, the lyrics are especially relevant during a marathon.  It was a nice recovery moment.  Here is a picture from the last leg of the race in Chinatown.  I was feeling some pain, but I look pretty good here I think:

That's right--it's $89.99 to buy these photos, so instead I just took them on my phone off a computer screen.

Ultimately, it was shocking to see the time--I seemed to be a bit ahead of schedule, even trying to subtract 40 minutes from each timer I saw.  I got to "Kissability" and saw there were only like 800 meters left or something, so I skipped ahead to "Wingwalker" which is probably my favorite song, so I could put my arms out like an airplane as I crossed the finish line.  It was awesome.

Basically, this is an experience that not everyone needs to have, but if you want to get into pretty good shape, I recommend it as a good goal to give yourself.  You need to be determined to make this happen, and it is a great confidence boosting exercise.

I also liked all the signs I saw.  "No Walken." (Obviously with picture of Christopher Walken)  "Jay Cutler would be cramping up by now."  "If Donald Trump can make it this far, so can you."  "If Britney Spears can survive 2007, so can you."  "Smile if you peed a little."  "You Ain't Cool Unless You Pee Your Pants."

I also liked high-fiving people watching, though it was mostly little kids.  I would always get a little boost after I did that, and people had signs that said, "Punch here for power," and I did that a few times and it felt like it worked.  In general, the further you go, the more your mind messes with you, and the truly absurd humor on display on the signs is just all the more entertaining.  It was just great fun and one the best experiences in my life.