Sunday, November 20, 2016

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2016

Special Comment: Chicago Cubs 2016 Report Card

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

Joe Maddon: A

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

Jake Arrieta: A

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

Anthony Rizzo: A+

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

Travis Wood: A-

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

Kris Bryant: A+

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

Kyle Schwarber: A+

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

Chris Coghlan: B-

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

Jorge Soler: B-

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

Dexter Fowler: A

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

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

David Ross: A-

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

Javy Baez: B+

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

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

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

Kyle Hendricks: A+

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

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

Hector Rondon: B+

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

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

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

Jason Heyward: C+

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

John Lackey: A-

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

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

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

Mike Montgomery: A-

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

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

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

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