Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Chicago Cubs 2018 Year in Review

No report cards this year for individual players, just a long hot take on this year's team and performance. I know I retired FH but I only write 1 Cubs post per year and it was really close so I'll do it.

The other reason is that, this year, I've had to listen to a lot of podcasts. I only listened to the Cubs Talk Podcast last year. This year I added Locked on Cubs and it was just those two until Locked On did not update for a week and I thought it had been abandoned. So I added in Cubs Related, Away Games and Wrigleyville Nation's Podcast. For the record, here is my ranking:

(1) Cubs Talk Podcast 

Even though it is the only one sponsored by a major corporation, they still sometimes maintain a very DIY feel, such as commenting on the ambient sounds of a lawnmower on the field during recording after a game. They also quoted Jon Lester last night even though it was NSFW: "You need to get your dick knocked in the dirt to appreciate where you're at. Maybe we needed that, maybe we needed to get knocked down a peg or two and realize nothing's going to be given to us." Highlight from year: Doug Glanville commenting on A-Rod commenting on Yu Darvish.

(2) Locked On Cubs

Only because they were pretty consistent M-F and stuck to a set format and were relentlessly depressing. Total debbie-downers but I loved them for it. This should be the default setting for true Cubs fans. Optimistic Cubs fans are not real Cubs fans. Highlight from year: playing old clips of 5 biggest home runs (Glenallen Hill rooftop shot was #1)

(3) Away Games

By far the most humorous on this list, I didn't start listening til the end. They did it about once a week. They both come off as likable and they usually make good points but you couldn't listen to it every day as a substitute for watching or listening to the game itself, which is the main reason I listen. Highlight from year: telling Theo & Jed to sign Jesse Chavez and Cole Hamels today to maintain positivity.

(4) Cubs Related

This was the most long-winded on the list. Episodes had longest running time and driest tone. It may have been updated just as frequently, if not more so, than Locked On. Hosts had good chemistry. Occasionally hilarious, and also relentlessly depressing. Highlight from the year: host nonstop crushing on Jon Lester.

(5) Wrigleyville Nation's Podcast

I only listened to 2 or 3 episodes of this pod and no shade on it (because in the 2 episodes I've recorded so far of the Flying Houses podcast, I sound like a junky) but the host always sounded kind of a drunk, like he had just gotten back from the game more than a few in the bag and recorded. Maybe he's always been totally sober and I'm way off base here and I'm only mentioning it because I don't know what else to say about it. They did have good guests. The host seemed more like a moderator for the guests, at least in the last episode. Also recorded once a week. Highlight of the year: breaking the news about Russell being placed on leave (breaking for me, 3 days later).


These podcasts have changed the way I watch and talk about the Cubs. For example, the only things anyone seemed to care about near the beginning of the year were rumors about acquiring Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. Then it was always about Yu Darvish. 

One of the big storylines of the year was that the Cubs spent about $200 million on 3 pitchers that turned out to be busts. OK not true about Brandon Morrow. He is one of my favorite players on the team and performed admirably when he was not injured. 

Tyler Chatwood and Yu Darvish should not be lumped in with one another. Yu was injured and Tyler had a control problem (which seemed almost Mark Wohlers-esque). Yu will get another chance next year and Chatwood may not.  Regardless, fans liked Chatwood for his attitude. Their attitude towards Darvish was likely compromised by inexact translation. When A-Rod went off about how Yu was managing his own rehab and how other guys lost respect for players that did that (told the team they weren't ready to come back), the national spotlight briefly landed on the troubling situation with their blockbuster free agent signing. They needed a new guy when they announced he wouldn't be back at all.

Enter Cole Hamels. The Cubs briefly flirted with Hamels a couple years back, perhaps around the time they signed Lester. They didn't get him for whatever reason and maybe if they had, they might have had a better shot in 2015 and 2017, but it doesn't matter--they got him when they needed him and he came to play. He would get an A or A+. Lester would also get an A. Hendricks would get an A-. I don't know why he got brought in during the 12th or 13th inning of the wild card game (to be honest I was having a smoke break due to stress when that change was made) and I don't question it so much as wonder what happens if Hamels stays in. I don't blame him for the loss at all. Quintana I would give a B+, almost an A-. Chatwood would get a D+ or C- (because he was still relatively effective in spite of his outrageous number of walks). Montgomery would get an A for his first 5 starts in the rotation and a B+ thereafter. He was just stunning when he first got the nod to start. He showed up like he wanted to compete for a Cy Young. Then he went back down to earth. Morrow I would give an A, Jesse Chavez was a great late-season move, also an A. De La Rosa in similar territory but B+. Strop I would give an A. Cishek overused, B+. Kintzler was not good, C+. Mixed feelings on Justin Wilson, feels like I rarely got to see him pitch (maybe that means he just got the job done), B+. Probably missing a few.

Baez gets an A+ and became my favorite player (after Arrieta, then Hendricks). Rizzo gets an A. Bryant gets an A- (should be B+ but don't fault him for team's mistake of potentially exacerbating his injury). Contreras gets an A-. Almora gets a B+. Zobrist gets an A. Schwarber (slimmed) gets an A-. Heyward gets an A-. Happ gets a B and Bote gets a B+. Caratini gets a B-. Daniel Murphy gets an A-. Russell gets a B-/D (B- player (A on defense)/D as person depending on DV investigation). La Stella gets a B- for being a great pinch hitter. Probably leaving a few out.

This year I watched the team more and paid closer attention to them than I had ever before (though I only went to one game in person). My take is that Maddon deserves an A for managing them to a 95 win season and a tiebreaker game for best record in the national league with the upstart Brewers. Rumors are already swirling about Maddon being on the hot seat and I just want to say, stop that. I disagree with a few of his decisions in the wild card game but on the whole, on balance, he knew what he was doing with this team and steered them toward phenomenal success in spite of a multitude of very challenging situations. I don't see Theo & Jed losing faith in Joe just yet and as sad as everyone must be right now, I think we all remain optimistic about the shape of the team going into 2019 and will watch the off-season decision making closely. 

The team limped into the postseason, incredibly burnt out from playing about 35 games in 37 days. They looked like they did last year in the NLCS. They could barely get a hit. Still, they stayed in it til the end. Fantastic wild card game and kudos to both the Brewers and Rockies for their victories, which they deserved. Cubs fans can afford to be charitable. Everyone could tell it was going to be a longshot this year, just as it was last year, and though they had their earliest exit yet, it was arguably more impressive than last year. We will now have to wait out a cold, lonely winter, but they will remain an exciting team to watch next year, and hopefully for several more (6?) to come.

Saturday, September 29, 2018


I just put Sabrina on hold at CPL and I realized that I would not be obliged to review it and that while I had announced on Facebook that Flying Houses would be "retired" after post #400, I had not made any comment here for the limited readers that have found it outside of the social media publicity bubble I have (poorly) cultivated. 

It is prudent at this juncture to define the parameters of this so-called planned obsolescence.  It's not easy to walk away from the outlet into which I have spewed all of my misguided opinions, and so I will need to maintain a certain outlet: the current plan is to confine critical assessments to podcasts but since I haven't actually released one yet officially, don't hold me to that. Don't hold me to anything. 

This isn't about practicing law but it's related to that. I've learned a little too late that the legal profession is one of the worst there is. Actually there is no profession that seems "good" except for skilled trades. One thing I do not understand about life is how people get paid fairly. I don't feel good about any job when I get paid more than I think I should. Yet this is not a problem most people seem to have. And I don't want to work any job when I get paid less than seems worthwhile. It is very hard to gauge the reasonableness of legal fees. Courts will approve attorneys fees that are well-documented, and I am developing a fee scale for the cases I feel competent to handle. $100 per hour is basically what I would charge most people for most things. Yet it is rarely easy to determine the value of extraordinary stress and humiliation. Personal injury done on contingency (when I am able to believe there is a worthwhile case to be litigated--which is approximately never), simple bankruptcy for $1,000, complex bankruptcy for $2,000, retainer of $3,000 for various other matters. I could get organized one day but as noted above, I almost never feel it's worthwhile to get involved, and the work I've done for most other firms (apart from doc review, where you know you are worth nothing and low expectations are the rule) leads me to believe that every reason I gave for why I wanted to be a lawyer was based upon a miserable lie. I'm not quitting law because I still have debt. If I can make $100/hour consistently, 2200 hours per year, I'll pay my loans off in a year. Until then, I'll stay on PAYE.

I did not go into debt to start Flying Houses. It did not require an advanced degree, nor investment of any capital other than time. Time, unfortunately, is running low.

I am not sick, so far as I know, yet I am. I often feel as if I will not be around much longer. This is not meant to be a depressing thought so much as an empowering one. It is time to put my affairs in order. I have nothing to give but a small amount of money which will barely cover funeral expenses in today's increasingly expensive world. This post does not bear the requisite will formalities for enforcement. Holographic wills are not recognized under IL law. Yet sometimes one must peak behind the curtain and determine the will of the testator.  Here, now, there is no person that I would single out for special treatment, no one I would trust beyond my immediate family, and so dying intestate is not the tragedy I once considered it to be. Suffice to say, I will never be able to repay my parents the debt they undertook to raise me properly (though we will disagree about what expenditure of resources was actually necessary), and they should be entitled to everything I've made. Yet what I've made monetarily hardly amounts to anything. 

I often feel as if FH is my life's work, the work of which I'm most proud (even though perhaps 40-50 of the 375 posts are regrettable, and would not be published today). I have done some good legal work of which I am proud, but those instances have been relatively rare and not at all proportional to the enormous strain that the debt to afford the privilege has placed upon my being. FH is a good balance. It's not a great novel and a blog is not as significant as a published novel, and it has paid nothing, but it has helped a (very) small number of people and for that I believe it should be considered a public service. It's not Cliffs notes or Wikipedia but it's real. We turn people onto books here. We try to get people to think for themselves. We try to take the BS out of criticism and work outside the margins of publicity (except for a few notable exceptions, which have always been telegraphed). We try to be honest and we risk ostracism. We try to make people laugh and forget about all the parts to life that turn it into an unpleasant slog. We try to educate people about the great writers of the past and the present, and we have never claimed to be authoritative. We try to recognize the Best Books when we come upon them. We try to define and pin down what makes great literature, and we often make contradictory statements and hold contradictory positions. We try to be even-handed in our assessments, and we often come off as ambivalent or wishy-washy, as if we're not entirely sure of what we actually like or want. We put ourselves on the line emotionally with every review, all too cognizant that every single one of our Facebook friends will be put on notice of every single book we have read and may form attendant judgments as to our tastes and sensibilities (which, to be sure, are not always attractive). We try to show that we have capabilities that have heretofore gone unrecognized. We try to show love to the things we love, and indifference to the things we don't (while recognizing that hate makes for better writing but also leaves one more vulnerable to trolls). We try to be fair and we try not to be mean and we try to stand up for ourselves when others try to knock us down. 


I'm stopping because I think my work here is done. I tried, and nobody really seemed to care. Yet I'm also stopping because I want to do better. I've edited others here, but no one has really edited me. Accordingly, 90% of the total word count of this blog is garbage. I've allowed myself to be more disposable and present more problematic viewpoints here than I would be permitted in a major market publication. This is both a blessing and a curse (or a double-edged sword, or another cliche I have lazily allowed myself to dispatch here). I have tried not to sanitize my work for fear of reprisal, yet I have often lost confidence in my critical faculties and avoided overly controversial statements. I've felt lately that just saying you like or don't like something is not enough as a critic. You have to situate it within the larger conversation. To take a recent example, I am reasonably certain that my appreciation for one of our last subjects, Less, would have been enhanced if I had consumed the pertinent literary precedents. The character writes books spun out from classics like The Odyssey and Ulysses (really, modern updates) -- so was Less itself modeled after something of which I'm unaware? We can't all read everything but we can at least be honest about our backlog of literary knowledge (not claiming to know about a book because you read 20 pages of it and heard other people talk about it) and that is what I tried to do here. 

To diminishing returns. We started with the oeuvre rule and we ended with the referral rule.  It became more about publicity and my willingness to play guinea pig than literary contextualization and my desire to design a new system.


There's also very little original thought in the posts. Clearly, the best parts of FH are the excerpts, the parts I have not actually written. This is potentially a copyright violation ~x315.  Nobody has come after me for that, and I thank them. 

However, people have come after me for certain other things. And not for the things they should. Life is bad enough as it is, we don't need anyone making it worse. Nobody wants to see you succeed on the internet. There is too much insecurity and desperation and envy. They want you to fail. They want you to be as pathetic as they are. There's not enough economic space for the two of you. There is no easy way to get paid and build a respectable life and so when someone seizes upon an idea and makes it for themselves, there are naturally copycats. No one wants to copy FH because they know there is no money in books (unless it's about the White House). 

I told a friend today that I made my own Hell. I literally founded another plane of existence post-death. FH is that. Another place for me to live forever, fixed though it may be, and one day unable to respond to comments. And it is not a heavenly place at all. We leave the bad stuff there for anyone to see. I probably can't get a good job because of FH. I should probably remove the link from my LinkedIn. 

That's always been our aim in literature, hasn't it? To achieve immortality, to play beyond the grave, to leave a breadcrumb trail or mystery to solve, some other form of interaction. 

Before, I wrote to try to show people something I thought was beautiful. Now I've learned that is no longer necessary. No one cares what I think. My perspective is best nurtured through pathos and destruction. Or nothing at all.

I digress! Let's not stoop to feeling sorry about our demographic plight and using that as an excuse for our failure to obtain an opportunity to achieve success. We make success our own way. On the whole, it is patently ridiculous to claim that failure comes as a result of discrimination. For certain individuals that is no doubt true, and has been true for decades (women who didn't get a job because they had self-respect). For others such as myself, maybe we're really just not any good. Or "difficult."

No, the prose itself is weak. If I wanted to be a true literary critic, I would have completed an English B.A. and gone on to graduate school for that. I don't have those degrees, but I have other pretty useless ones. Still, my problem with English was that it was boring. I didn't get why it mattered what Canterbury Tales said about queerness or feminism or subconscious desire. Maybe that these issues had always been part of the cultural conversation, and never spoken aloud for fear of reprisal.

Now we fear reprisal but it is of a different sort. We're not worried about someone seeing us at an I.W.W. meeting. We're worried about saying something on Facebook that could be interpreted as having a conservative stench. We write people off without digging deeper into the context of understanding their viewpoints. We applaud the victims and we denounce the powerful as unworthy (or incompetent--sometimes rightly so). And sometimes we just don't want to like anything someone does, because we've made up our mind that they're a garbage person and they can live out their days in shame.

I can no longer wield this responsibility on my own. That is why I have decided to stop seeking your attention through my reading history. What I say doesn't matter. Obviously I think it should, but I'm not sure it should in this realm. I don't know if there is any topic that I can adequately speak to as an authority. I've always had a bit of a problem with that anyways.

There have, however, been some wonderful moments here over the years. The authors themselves have sometimes popped in to offer a "gotcha" moment (side note: I really hate how people have started to use that word to me, though I'm sure I've misread the tone). Most everyone has been charitable, and there have only been a few trolls who have tried to take me down on my own blog. The comments, by and large, have yielded several beautiful exchanges. 

Most of us will never amount to anything beyond our small social circles. Everybody will have their 15 minutes of Fame, but for me it has only been shame. I remember when there were only 265 million people in the U.S. Now it's 330 million--maybe 340 million. We have to make peace with the fact that we are Insignificant to the wider world. Really, the only people that care about what I do are the people I know (and many, I imagine, wish I had never been there to infect their lives and waste their precious breath and attention). There's probably about 50 people that regularly read the posts and most all of them are from Facebook. I really don't like using that platform for publicity. It is a necessary evil in this day and age, but it is not one that I wish to continue to entertain. 

I have enjoyed self-mythologizing and referencing prior posts with links and interacting with literary culture, though my name (and brand, as it were, which again must be credited to Scratch Acid) will never be uttered in hushed tones and reverential gestures. This may not be the appropriate vehicle for me, and I thank everyone for forcing me to figure that out on my own, rather than telling me that I couldn't. I'll always love books and I'll always read but I won't force myself to write about them any longer. My work is not done, but I feel that I have harvested everything out of this exercise that I can. It is time to say goodbye. I do not know what the future holds but my hope is that one day I will, in fact, do what I love, and not only in my spare moments.


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Kitchen Confidential - Anthony Bourdain (2000)

For 18 months of my professional career, to this point, I've been a server. It's not an industry I'm looking to get back into, and indeed I spent the last free year of my life prior to starting law school at a restaurant. That experience is not readily relevant to my present professional hopes and dreams, but anyone that has done it knows that it changes you and makes you into a more ruthless individual (in a good way!). Like the rest of my life, I don't regret it, but I wish I had done it better at the time.

Enter Kitchen Confidential, which should be required reading for every student at every culinary school in the country, and any employee of any restaurant (that expects excellence from its staff). That may sound hyperbolic. And this book may be dated. But Anthony Bourdain did something very special here. It is the seminal, definitive book about the restaurant industry, and obviously belongs in the category of Best Books, even if it may suffer at times from literary pretentiousness. It was a pleasurable read from start to finish, and though I am no expert on the Canon, justifiably stands alongside The Art of French Cooking as a giant of its genre.  Had I read Kitchen Confidential prior to either of my serving jobs, it undoubtedly would have made me better at what I did, or at least I would have gone about it with less self-consciousness and anxiety (though one could argue these are inescapable in the situations one is generally faced with on a nearly constant basis).

The book starts off with Bourdain traveling to the south of France with his family in the 1966 and falling in love with food after having his first oyster. Ironically, this author shared a similar experience:

"August of that summer was spent in La Teste de Buch, a tiny oyster village on the Bassin d'Arachon in the Gironde (southwest France).  We stayed with my aunt, Tante Jeanne, and my uncle, Oncle Gustav, in the same red tile-roofed, white stucco house where my father had summered as a boy.  Tante Jeanne was a frumpy, bespectacled, slightly smelly old woman; Oncle Gustav, a geezer in coveralls and beret who smoked hand-rolled cigarettes until they disappeared onto the tip of his tongue.  Little had changed about La Teste in the years since my father had vacationed there.  The neighbors were still all oyster fisherman.  Their families still raised rabbits and grew tomatoes in their backyards.  Houses had two kitchens, an inside one and an outdoor 'fish kitchen.'  There was a hand pump for drinking water from a well, and an outhouse by the rear of the garden.  Lizards and snails were everywhere.  The main tourist attractions were the nearby Dune of Pyla (Europe's Largest Sand Dune!) and the nearby resort town of Arcachon, where the French flocked in unison for Les Grandes Vacances.  Television was a Big Event.  At seven o'clock, when the two national stations would come on the air, Oncle Gustav would solemnly emerge from his room with a key chained to his hip and ceremoniously unlock the cabinet doors that covered the screen." (14)  

At least the Dune de Pyla part (I've never really been able to enjoy an oyster like that).  I'm sure he wouldn't have known the town of Sainte Foye la Grande and I'm sorry I'll never be able to ask. Not that I ever would have had the opportunity. But Bourdain was cool. Actually he was a guest on the Turned Out a Punk podcast, which is one other example of his greatness. Hearing him talk about how he thought "Bodies" was a great song, or how Raw Power was an amazing album, filled me with warmth and happiness. 


Okay to be honest, my food service career spanned just two restaurants, and the first one could hardly be called that (Sticky Fingers, while an above-average barbecue joint, hardly qualified as good food). It was at the second that I heard about Bourdain for the first time. My colleague Mike mentioned something about him and how he was hardcore and used to do heroin. It was probably right around the time he started Parts Unknown. Much of the bad behavior detailed in this book (as emblematic of all restaurants) took place at Sticky Fingers. The second place was a bit classier and I have consequently fonder memories for it (except for the few druggies, thieves, homophobes, and power-trippers* I came across over the course of serving for a year straight).

Can we talk about homophobia? Bourdain realized that he wanted to be a chef, and began his career at a restaurant in Provincetown, MA. Later he was the chef at a Manhattan theater district pickup joint owned by a same-sex couple. There are plenty of jokes about taking it in the butt, but they are all meant to be brushed off. Even in 2000, barely a year removed from the atmosphere that gave rise to mass sexual assault at a music festival meant to symbolize peace and love, he demonstrates a compassionate attitude:

"But let's say you do suck dick, you do 'take it in the twins'; it's no impediment to survival.  No one really cares about that.  We're too busy, and too close, and we spend too much time together as an extended, dysfunctional family to care about sex, gender preference, race or national origin.  After level of skills, it's how sensitive you are to criticism and perceived insult--and how well you can give it right back--that determines your place in the food chain.  You can cover your ears all you want, pretend they're not calling you chino or morena or indio or gordo or cachundo...but they are.  Like it or not, that's your name, your street tag, whether you chose it or not.  I've been called flaco and cadavro, probably borracho.  That's just the way it is.  I call down to my prep kitchen on the intercom--calling for butter or more sauce--and that little gangster who keeps my stock rotated and makes that lovely chiffonaded parsley for me is going to reply (after I'm out of hearing), 'Fuuck YOUU!!' before giving me exactly what I asked for.  Better I say it first: 'Gimme my fucking mantequilla and sauce, motherfucker.  Ahorita...and...fuuuck YOU!'  And I love that little thug, too--the headband-sporting, baggy-pansted, top button buttoned, bottom button open, moon boot-shod, half Puerto Rican, half cholo vato loco, with his crude prison-style tats and his butterfly knife tucked in his wristband.  I have, on many occasions, pondered adopting him.  He's everything I'd want in a son." (221-222)

But you do not come to this book for the views on humanity. You come for the food. And while you may not find recipes, you will likely learn a lot of basic things about cooking and preparing food. The chapter on tools of the trade, and the items that any amateur chef should stock in their kitchen ("How to Cook Like the Pros"), will be worthwhile for anyone that has a desire to cook. It may also make you want to try to make certain dishes (such as when he asks Scott Bryan about his go-to late night drunk meal - beef bourguinon).

The writing itself is uneven. He would wake up at 5 am and smoke cigarettes and write for an hour or two before starting his legendarily long days in the kitchen. Sometimes the chapters feel sort of randomized, like an album with a bunch of songs that don't necessarily complement one another. There are callbacks, for sure, but there are also outliers like the long-winded story that is the chapter "What I Know about Meat." In any case, it's a no-brainer to add this to the Best Books list. Just thinking about him overusing the term "rube" or talking about "eating crow" makes me want to smile. 

Unfortunately, we have to be a big downer and talk about suicide because wow, does the dark humor in this book take a turn. Addicts, artists, writers, chefs, punks--each is predisposed towards depression/suicidal tendencies and Bourdain was one and all of them. And there are chilling moments that can cut one dead:

"I was utterly depressed.  I lay in bed all day, immobilized by guilt, fear, shame and regret, my ashtrays overflowing with butts, unpaid bills stacked everywhere, dirty clothes heaped in the corners.  At night, I lay awake with heart palpitations, terrors, bouts of self-loathing so powerful that only the thought of diving through my sixth-floor window onto Riverside Drive gave me any comfort and allowed me to lull myself into a resigned sleep." (154-155)

Am I the only one that has often felt the same way? There is peace in contemplating one's own tragic demise, to shame all that made a good thing bad. One cannot know for sure the impetus behind such gestures and we will not engage in hypotheses in this review. Suffice to say, he had that personality type. And there is nothing wrong with it. 

I could write a lot more about this book.  There's something noteworthy to excerpt or discuss every few pages.  Most of the comments to be made could center around banalities such as "I knew a guy just like that!" or "Isn't that story insane?" So we should resist the urge to give our own little personal take on Bourdain any longer, here at least, and end with a few his words about regret:

"I often use the hypothetical out-of control ice-cream truck.  What would happen if you were walking across the street and were suddenly hit by a careening Mister Softee truck?  As you lie there, in your last few moments of consciousness, what kind of final regrets flush through your mind?  'I should have had a last cigarette!' might be one.  Or, 'I should have dropped acid with everybody else back in '74!'  Maybe: 'I should have done the hostess after all!'  Something along the lines of: 'I should have had more fun in my life!  I should have relaxed a little more, enjoyed myself a little more...'
That was never my problem.  When they're yanking a fender out of my chest cavity, I will decidedly not be regretting missed opportunities for a good time.  My regrets will be more along the lines of a sad list of people hurt, people let down, assets wasted and advantages squandered.
I'm still here.  And I'm surprised by that.  Every day." (267-268)

Sadly that last part is no longer true, and the world is a little less comforting because of it.  Yet none of us will last forever, and while we may lament not getting to see the work Bourdain might have done over the next ten or fifteen years, or ever getting to meet him, he bestowed gifts onto the world that can be binged, consumed and dissected for years to come.  One should be rightly astounded (perhaps intimidated) by his body of published work.  Few could hope to reach the artistic heights he did while essentially retaining a popular appeal.  The great gift of this book is that part of him can always be with us, and we can look to it for guidance when faced with a difficult choice: what would Anthony do?  He would likely tell you specifically not to listen to his advice.  He would also likely do something great.     

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Homesick for Another World - Ottessa Moshfegh (2017)

Ottessa Moshfegh came to my attention through The Paris Review Podcast (Episode #7), in which she read her story, "A Dark and Winding Road." I hadn't heard of her before. Because Dead Boys and Try made the Best Books list (both many years ago), so too must this.  She is a contemporary, just a couple years older than me. I am jealous of her. She is a great writer. She is not boring. Her concerns are not trivial. Yet they sometimes are? It's o.k. She's hilarious.  She is hardcore.

Story collections often make for difficult reviews because there can be so much ground to cover, but like Dead Boys, the stories here seem to have enough elements in common for an overarching theme to emerge. At first blush (or second), one could write off this work as going for "shock value." And indeed, few of these characters are completely uncontroversial. The teacher in the first story pounds 40's and sleeps in a sleeping bag in her classroom after hours. More than one male character uses make-up to try to hide their acne. Crystal meth is consumed by several characters. Two older male characters half-stalk women they vaguely know and pine for. Few of them seem to have "enough" money, and none of them have lives that anyone would aspire towards. Almost every single one is flawed, and deeply so. Great literature often portrays characters that are internally flawed--they appear normal outwardly but something happens that causes them to become unhinged. Here, everyone is basically already unhinged. And we can debate back and forth all night about the merits of writing about flawed characters, but the sad fact is, from what I have seen, people just keep getting stranger and stranger. So this is a great book for our times, one of the best books I have read in the last couple years. 

To run through the stories: "Bettering Myself" is a story about a teacher in New York City, perhaps in a bygone-era, pre-2004 (smoking allowed in bars), who resigns for personal reasons.  "Mr. Wu" is about a man who has a crush on a woman who runs an internet "arcade" and who engineers a scheme to secretly text her and meet up with her.  Once I gave my sister a book of Raymond Carver short stories and put an asterisk next to all the ones I thought were most worth reading, if she didn't have the time or interest to read them all.  This story would get an asterisk.

Before we run through each of the stories, it is prudent that we include an excerpt, because the book is due back at the library today.  So even though it is probably the most widely publicized story in the book, one passage from "A Dark and Winding Road" particularly hit home for me:

"I rolled a joint in my car with the lights on and smoked it sitting in the armchair, in the dark.  There was no cell phone service up there, which made me nervous.  I don't know why I continued to smoke marijuana as long as I did.  It almost always sent me in an existential panic.  When I smoked with my wife, I had to feign complete exhaustion just to excuse myself from going out for a walk, which she liked to do.  I was so paranoid, so deeply anxious.  When I got high, I felt as though a dark curtain had been pulled across the world and I was left there alone to waver in its cold, dark shadows.  I never dared to smoke by myself at home, lest I throw myself from our twelfth-story window.  But when I smoked that night at the cabin, I felt fine.  I whistled some songs, tapped my feet.  I whistled one difficult tune in particular, a Stevie Wonder song, which is melodically complicated, and after a few rounds I could really whistle it beautifully.  I remembered what it was like to practice and get good at something.  I thought of how great a dad I would be.  'Practice makes perfect,' I'd tell my child, a truism maybe, but it now seemed suddenly endowed with great depth and wisdom.  And so I felt wonderful about myself, forgetting the strange world outside.  I even thought that after my child was born, I'd still come up to the cabin once or twice a month, just to keep the secret of how great I was.  I whistled some more." (76-77)

And later:

"The cabin hardly looked any cleaner after all that sweeping.  In fact, I probably stirred up more dust than I swept out the door.  I sneezed and drank a few beers and relieved myself again and used more hand-sanitizing gel and sat in the armchair.  I smoked another joint.  That last one was a mistake, because after just a few minutes I was picturing my unborn son crying over my grave fifty years into the future, and I felt the gravity of his woe and resentment toward me, and I despised him.  Then I imagined everything bad he'd say about me to his own children after my death.  I imagined my grandchildren's bitchy faces.  I hated them for not worshipping me.  Had they no idea of my sacrifice?  There I was, perfectly wonderful, and nobody would see that.  I looked up and saw a bat hanging from the rafters.  I went to a very dark place.  The oceanic emptiness in my gut churned.  I pictured my old body rotting in my coffin.  I pictured my skin wrinkling and turning black and falling off my bones.  I pictured my rotting genitals.  I pictured my pubic hair filling with larvae.  And after all that, there was infinite darkness.  There was nothing.
Just as I considered hanging myself with my belt, there was a knock on the door of the cabin, and a girl's voice called out, 'MJ?'" (79-80)

It's these types of interior confessions, as inimical as they often are, which set this book apart from others.  I'm not sure if Moshfegh always writes likes this.  She does actually show some pretty incredible range here, writing tonally different stories that are told from diverse perspectives.  She does have her bete-noires, and that is why I compare this to Dead Boys.  Her bete-noir is L.A. and the illusions and dreams that go with it.  She could also be lumped in, easily, with Bret Easton Ellis.

It is perhaps worth noting that half (7 out of 14) of these stories were originally published in The Paris Review.  Several others were published in The New Yorker, Vice, and Granta.  Only the last story ("A Better Place") is printed here for the first time.  This speaks to the quality of the work.  They're all fairly polished pieces in spite of (perhaps because of) their raw subject matter.  That is, they feel untouched by any editorial hands other than the author's.  Truthfully, the book is gone and I can't recall the specific subject matter of each of the stories but I will give it a try, and asterisk those stories I remember being best.

"The Weirdos"* is a first-person (nearly all that I recall are first-person) narrative about a young woman in L.A. living with her wannabe actor/pseudo-landlord/psychopathic boyfriend and the travails of their failing relationship.

Is it possible the male character from "Malibu" and "The Weirdos" is the same?  I doubt it, but it's totally possible.  I always say this (and it's probably not always true) but an adaptation of this collection could make for a great film in the vein of Short Cuts.  Of course the danger is that it would come off more like The Informers.  It would probably end up somewhere in between the two.

"A Dark and Winding Road"* is about a successful Manhattan real estate attorney that goes up to his family's cabin and ends up smoking meth with his brother's girlfriend.  The narrator may rank as the most personally despicable in the collection, though the story is also hilarious.

"No Place for Good People" may have the most endearing and likable narrator in the collection, who is an early 50's man working part-time at a home for the mentally disabled, yet he is also far from perfect.  It is mostly about how he takes three of his residents out to a birthday dinner at Hooter's.

"An Honest Woman" is reminiscent of the oeuvre of Flannery O'Connor (I have gotten halfway through the complete collection of her short stories, and found it an impossible task to adequately review) about a man in his early 60's with vitiligo and how he befriends his new neighbor and tries to set her up with his nephew, drinking with her and failing to hide his obsession with her.

"Slumming"* is about just that--a youngish teacher slumming it up at her summer home in a lower class town.  Again, could this be the same narrator from "Bettering Myself?" It's possible.  "The Beach Boy"* is about a middle-aged couple that goes on vacation in the Caribbean and comes back home to New York to tell their friends about it--then the story takes a ridiculous turn that probably shouldn't work, but ends up doing so beautifully. 

"The Locked Room" is probably the shortest story in the book and is about a girl getting locked in a practice room above a music hall with her boyfriend.  It is probably the most lighthearted and casually amusing entry in the collection.

"Nothing Ever Happens Here" features another aspiring actor in L.A., though this character seems more innocent and sane than those of "Malibu" or "Weirdos."  As usual the story takes a depressing turn.  "The Surrogate" is about a young woman that acts as "surrogate vice president" of a company in order to be seen as a sex object and gain a business advantage.

"Dancing in the Moonlight"* could be the best story in the collection.  It feels more epic and like an actual "story" than the others, as it details a 33-year-old man's Christmas day spent alone, conspiring to travel from New York City to Providence to buy an ottoman so that he can ask the woman he pines for to restore it for him.  Along the way he gets drunk with an older polish lady at a nearby bar.

Finally there is the tonally-different "A Better Place" which is almost fairy-tale like in its simplicity and feels very deep, bringing forth ruminations on a different plane of existence.  It is about a young girl and her twin brother, and how the girl speaks of her wish to return to the better place she was before, and how her brother tells her that the only way to get there is to die or to kill a certain man that their mother has warned her against.  It is hard to tell what this story is about, and it is not one of the best in the collection, yet it would undoubtedly yield profound interpretations if taught as part of a course on fiction writing.

In summation, and upon greater reflection, not everyone will agree that this deserves to be in the Best Books category. Sometimes, the stories come off as primarily comic, and secondarily serious, with little overlap or subtlety of meaning. Perhaps it is just because I give special kudos to authors of transgressive fiction for taking risks with their work, but this book did it for me in a way that few others have lately. I don't have much else to say because I haven't had the book in front of me, and I recognize that this is not up to the standard quality of a NY Times Book Review. I know I could do better, and use the first person a bit less. Moshfegh could do better than this story collection, too. That sounds like a weird thing to say but it's meant to be a compliment. Perhaps she'll fade into the ether, but regardless, she's left behind something beautiful, specifically because it's not.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Less - Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

Less won the 2018 Pulitzer prize over The House of Broken Angels and others. There are many Pulitzers to be won. The journalism awards have been well publicized, but there are so many different kinds (posthumous recognition for Flying Houses in 2019 for Criticism?). Actually House of Broken Angels is not listed as a finalist but The Idiot is (I had heard a bit about that) as is In the Distance (I had not heard about that). Maybe they call nominations finalists until there is a winner, and the two runners up become the actual finalists. I didn't read the other "finalists" anyways so no point in comparison, but yes, I found Less more compelling than HOBA. This is probably not the most award-worthy opening to a review but as one should know, we need to talk about the ways we find out about books and the reasons we pick them up. And we like fun facts (such as seeing previous subjects The Goldfinch and The Pale King and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and The Corrections and American Pastoral and Underworld  in prize history).

Less is a character study of Arthur Less, a novelist about to turn 50, who has accepted a series of invitations for various international literary events in order to distract himself from the marriage of his ex-boyfriend of 9 years, to which he was also invited. He travels from his home in San Francisco to New York, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, India and Japan. He has to interview a more popular sci-fi writer, attend a prize ceremony, teach a 5 week class, touch up his work-in-progress at a retreat, and write an article on Japanese cuisine. Like HOBA, it's an easy plot to relay. Unlike HOBA, the identity of the narrator is an ongoing mystery, and eventually revealed. I will make no comment on the narrator except that I sort of guessed their identity and felt slightly disappointed. It is a conventional novel after all. It is not a Bad Ending, and I need not append spoilers beneath asterisks to discuss it. Ambivalence is sometimes difficult to justify, and here the ending is ultimately, quite bittersweet and comforting. So this goes into the "highly recommended but not Best Books" category.

You know what I never did with FH was come up with a set formula for a review. Like, pararaph 1 is how i came to read the subject, paragraph 2 is a plot overview, and here is paragraph 3, usually a set up for an excerpt. This is a highly-excerptable book. It's good most of the way through (the only reason it doesn't make Best Books is that it started to lose some of it's energy in the Morocco/India chapters--though the character that turns 50 right before Less is perhaps the greatest portrait) and it seems like the movie rights should have been scooped up swiftly. Movies about writers aren't always great, but I have to believe this could make for a very fun, highly-stylized film. Interesting topic: what are the best movies about writers? Wonder Boys, The Lost Weekend...I digress.

A word should be said about diversity. Maybe it doesn't. But it has been my experience that most people want to read books about people like them. Not anymore. One would believe that now, more than ever, people want to read about people different from themselves, to develop empathy and gain perspective on women, minorities, and other oppressed people (i.e. not cis straight white males). Because this is just a cis gay white male. Here, this is the perfect time for an excerpt:

"Less can think of nothing to say; this attack comes on an undefended flank.
'It is our duty to show something beautiful from our world.  The gay world.  But in your books, you make the characters suffers without reward.  If I didn't know better, I'd think you were Republican.  Kalipso was beautiful.  So full of sorrow.  But incredibly self-hating.  A man washes ashore on an island and has a gay affair for years.  But then he leaves to go find his wife!  You have to do better.  For us.  Inspire us, Arthur.  Aim higher.  I'm so sorry to talk this way, but it had to be said.'
At last Less manages to speak: 'A bad gay?'
Finley fingers a book on the bookcase.  'I'm not the only one who feels this way.  It's been a topic of discussion.'
'But...but...but it's Odysseus,' Less says.  'Returning to Penelope.  That's just how the story goes.'
'Don't forget where you come from, Arthur.'
'Camden, Delaware.'" (144)

This exchange occurs during a brief layover in Paris at a party. It comes from a concerned friend that wants to tell him what everyone says about him behind his back. It's ridiculous and it's meant to be humorous but it functions as a kind of r'aison d'etre for the novel. There is self-hate in Less, but it is not a first-person narrative. There is psychological realism, but it is transmitted through an outside lens. There are suggestions of the identity of the narrator, and if the reader has not figured it out for themselves, it is made obvious in the book's final pages. One could re-read the book to see if it holds up in the same way one could re-watch The Sixth Sense. Still it feels less like a twist that enhances one's appreciation for the story than a device that allows the protagonist to be deprecated without implications of self-loathing.  He's not just obsessed by his exes and his past--he's taking inventory of his life and trying to find a path forward. It still feels like his perspective.

It is not perfect, but it is rightfully lauded for the authenticity of its observations. It's entirely possible that Greer got on Google Earth/Maps and Wikipedia and made up a bunch of stuff, but the extent of the detail makes it seem unlikely. It is the "travelogue novel" par excellence. It is also "literary fiction" to an ironic extreme.  And there are many classic passages:

"A truth must be told.  Arthur Less is no champion in bed.
Anyone would guess, seeing Bastian staring up at Less's window each night, waiting to be buzzed in, that it is the sex that brings him.  But it is not precisely the sex.  The narrator must be trusted to report that Arthur Less is--technically--not a skilled lover.  He possesses, first of all, none of the physical attributes; he is average in every way.  A straightforwardly American man, smiling and blinking with pale lashes.  A handsome face, but otherwise ordinary.  He has also, since his early youth, suffered an anxiety that leaves him sometimes too eager in the sexual act, sometimes not eager enough.  Technically: bad in bed.  And yet--just as a flightless bird will evolve other tactics for survival, Arthur Less has developed other traits.  Like the bird, he is unaware of these.  
He kisses--how do I explain it?  Like someone in love.  Like he has nothing to lose.  Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person.  Only now, only you.  There are some men who have never been kissed like that.  There are some men who discover, after Arthur Less, that they never will be again.  
Even more mystical: his touch casts a curious spell.  There is no other word for it.  Perhaps it is the effect of his being 'someone without skin' that Less can sometimes touch another and send the spark of his own nervous system into theirs.  This was something Robert noticed right away; he said, 'You're a witch, Arthur Less.'  Others, less susceptible, have paid no attention, too intent on their own elaborate needs ('Higher; no, higher; no, HIGHER!').  But Freddy felt it as well.  A minor shock, a lack of air, a brief blackout, perhaps, and back again to see Less's innocent face above him, wreathed in sweat.  It is perhaps a radiation, an emanation of this innocence, this guilelessness, grown white-hot?  Bastian is not immune.  One night, after fumbling adolescently in the hall, they try to undress each other but, outwitted b foreign systems of buttons and closures, end up undressing themselves.  Arthur returns to the bed, where Bastian is waiting, naken and tan, and climbs aboard.  As less does this, he rests one hand on Bastian's chest.  Bastian gasps.  He writhes; his breathing quickens; and after a moment he whispers: 'Was tust du mir an?' (What are you doing to me?) Less has no idea what he is doing." (113-114)

The novel is well-paced and the prose flows elegantly, though at times it feel as if the word "Less" comprises an unusually high-percentage of its total number of words.  The scene near the end that takes place on a video call is a strikingly beautiful, as is the final scene.  There is more to admire in it than many others.  You could do far worse than this for a summer beach book.  I would recommend it especially for that occasion, or any international travel.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Annihilation - Jeff Vandermeer (2011)

Now Annihilation is a movie that recently came out with Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tessa Thompson and Oscar Isaac and was directed by Alex Garland, who had previously done Ex Machina.  My dear friend and previous contributor Juan J. Perez suggested that I see it (he saw it twice) and then took this out of the library and we decided to write dueling reviews of it and record a podcast.  I think it's going to be great.

Suffice to say, for the written element of this review, I have mixed opinions on the book, which is often the case.  I am, however, more lukewarm on it than most of the books I come upon by myself.  It is often strange and unsettling and obviously scaled to be written as part of a larger trilogy rather than its own thing.  That said, I do think the Area X trilogy (which Juan has purchased and I would likely ask him to address on the podcast) is likely a stronger work, taken as a whole, rather than the individual part that is Annihilation.  However, what makes this book is interesting is how far it differs from the film.  They are textbook examples of how a novel can be completely transformed (sometimes improved upon) by a film adaptation.  There are elements of the film that are an improvement upon the novel.  Tessa Thompson, for example, does not exist in the novel, so far as I know (she is perhaps closer to the Anthropologist than the Surveyor), and her performance is one of the highlights of the film.  Jennifer Jason Leigh is also fantastic, as she is always is (the same could be said for Natalie Portman).  Yet I would like to see a version of Annihilation where Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the Psychologist as portrayed in the novel.

A note on plot: Annihilation concerns itself with an expedition to a highly-contaminated zone known only as Area X (in the film it is referred to as "the shimmer"). The landscape is framed by a lighthouse and a structure that the main character (the Biologist) believes is a tower, but that snakes underground and is believed to be a tunnel by other members of the expedition.

These are the Anthropologist, the Psychologist and the Surveyor. There is also the Biologist's husband. There are only 5 characters in this book, and one of them is quickly dispatched.

In a nutshell, the team crosses the border and they explore the area and they all end up getting killed (in a manner of speaking). The book is mostly intriguing as an exercise in the sci-fi/mystery hybrid genre. Do not go into it expecting The Sun Also Rises. The Biologist is very robotic. Actually most of the characters are robotic. 

The most affecting parts of the book take place in the past, as she recalls her life with her husband, before and immediately after he returns from Area X. The book is also at its strongest when it unravels the mystery of just how many expeditions have been sent into Area X and over how many years.

It feels unsatisfying because the reader does not really get to the bottom of the Southern Reach, the shadowy government agency responsible for organizing the expeditions to Area X. It feels a lot like the mk ultra experiments from American history and the conspiracy from Stranger Things. 

But do I really want to know? As I've said these types of books are generally not my preferred genre, though 25 years ago, I would have been much more excited by it. (Sphere was a favorite of mine growing up).  Still the alien life form in this book is not as clever as Sphere, though it has an element of intelligence with the Crawler, which scrawls a continuous message in vines, snaking through the tower/tunnel (as opposed to the lighthouse).  Most of the novel takes place in those two places, and the wilderness between, which I believe was said to be influenced by the Everglades.  The writing is generally good, and there are definitely a number of words that I had never heard of before, but sometimes it feels like he's just showing off by using those.  When reading this, you always feel like you're trying to figure something out, or solve the mystery.  The best parts of the book, however, are about the relationship between the Biologist and her husband, such as here, where she is describing being out at a bar with him and his friends:

"Reality encroaches in other ways, too.  At some point during our relationship, my husband began to call me the ghost bird, which was his way of teasing me for not being present enough in his life.  It would be said with a kind of creasing at the corner of his lips that almost formed a thin smile, but in his eyes I could see the reproach.  If we went to bars with his friends, one of his favorite things to do, I would volunteer only what a prisoner might during an interrogation.  They weren't my friends, not really, but also I wasn't in the habit of engaging in small talk, nor in broad talk, as I liked to call it.  I didn't care about politics except in how politics impinged on the environment.  I wasn't religious.  All of my hobbies were bound up in my work.  I lived for the work, and I thrilled with the power of that focus but it was also deeply personal.  I didn't like to talk about my research.  I didn't wear makeup or care about new shoes or the latest music.  I'm sure my husband's friends found me taciturn, or worse.  Perhaps they even found me unsophisticated, or 'strangely uneducated' as I heard one of them say, although I don't know if he was referring to me.
'Ghost bird, do you love me?' he whispered once in the dark, before he left for his expedition training, even though he was the ghost.  'Ghost bird, do you need me?' I loved him, but I didn't need him, and I thought that was the way it was supposed to be.  A ghost bird might be a hawk in one place, a crow in another, depending on the context.  The sparrow that shot up into the blue sky one morning might transform mid-flight into an osprey the next.  This was the way of things here.  There were no reasons so mighty that they could override the desire to be in accord with the tides and the passage of seasons and the rhythms underlying everything around me." (72-73)

In short, for me the book is at its best (though the dialogue is oddly flat in a way) when it stays more grounded in the real world.  Descriptions of the fantastic are sometimes beautifully rendered, yet I remain strangely personally unaffected.  I don't need to extemporize about my lack of passion for mystery or sci-fi or fantasy novels because this isn't the place to do it.  It's a book I would definitely recommend to anyone that saw the movie if only to shed light on the meaning of what happened--even though the novel and the movie are completely different.  Plus Jennifer Jason Leigh would have been so much more awesome playing this Psychologist.  She hypnotizes the group by saying "consolidation of authority," though the Biologist is immune because she has already been "contaminated" by Area X:

"Her demeanor more assertive than just a moment before, the psychologist said, 'You will retain a memory of having discussed several options with regard to the tunnel.  You will find that you ultimately agreed with me about the best course of action, and that you felt quite confident about this course of action.  You will experience a sensation of calm whenever you think about this decision, and you will remain calm once back inside the tunnel, although you will react to any stimuli as per your training.  You will not take undue risks.
'You will continue to see a structure that is made of coquina and stone.  You will trust your colleagues completely and feel a continued sense of fellowship with them.  When you emerge from the structure, any time you see a bird in flight it will trigger a strong feeling that you are doing the right thing, that that you are in the right place.  When I snap my fingers, you will have no memory of this conversation, but will follow my directives.  You will feel very tired and you will want to retire to your tents to get a good night's sleep before tomorrow's activities.  You will not dream.  You will not have nightmares.'" (22)

Much of the pleasure of the text comes from peeling back the layers of mystery that envelop Area X.  The ending to Annihilation is somewhat anti-climactic, necessarily as it sometimes must be for the opening segment in a planned trilogy.  The ending of the novel is perhaps more satisfying than the movie, because the reader does not feel that someone has pulled over something on them quite the way the viewer may at the ending of the film.  The film is much more ambitious than the novel in many ways, but in a way I found the novel more appealing in its presentation.  That said, as compared to other films, Annihilation is in a class above its peers; the novel is not really something that distinguishes itself within the medium (apart perhaps from its genre-fiction-subsets).  It comes across as a kind of fever dream that is very intriguing and beautifully portrayed, yet ultimately somewhat hollow and manufactured for its positioning as part of a larger work.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Unwifeable - Mandy Stadtmiller (2018)

Unwifeable is a memoir by Mandy Stadtmiller.  Stadtmiller was a recent guest on the WTF podcast.  I probably would not have read the book if I had not heard the episode. The episode effectively functions as a preview of all the most shocking moments in the book, and is a tour de force.  I highly recommend either listening to that episode or reading this book.

I would describe Unwifeable as post-chick lit.  It's still chick-lit, but with an edge of insanity.  It's about basically trying to find Mr. Right at age 30 and beyond, post-divorce.  Stadtmiller cuts a striking figure, and achieves a sort of grandeur in her commitment to fearlessly revealing all of the sketchy details of her romantic life.  She made her living as the weekly writer of a column about dating in the New York Post.  She writes of how she learned to develop boundaries in who she wrote about--her family didn't like when she wrote about them.  The only part of this book that feels a little underdeveloped is the story of what happened in her marriage, which is perhaps out of respect for her ex-husband.

There is a ton of gossip in this book that will satiate basically anyone, though it takes a certain person to want to read it.  There has always been a literary tradition of writing about one's romantic life, but few will do it without the disguise of fiction.  There is something pure and beautiful about writing truthfully on the subject of how fucked up of a person you are, and how you have tried to be better, and Stadtmiller deserves praise for many sections of the book.  She is, however, shameless about name-dropping, and sometimes her funny secret stories about celebrities tend to cheapen the proceedings.  Still it's very amusing to read about her dates with Aaron Sorkin and Keith Olbermann and her pseudo-romances with Moby and Hannibal Buress.  Perhaps the book will be adapted and Andy Dick, Gerard Butler, Courtney Love, Marc Maron, Joy Behar, and John Mayer can all play themselves in Player-like cameos.

There was, however, one glaring typo:

"'Mandy, you are a Kashmir Sapphire,' he writes, 'The famous sapphires of Kashmir are mined from a remote region high in the Great Himalayan mountains of northwestern India.  Lying at an elevation of approximately 150,000 feet.  These sapphires are so beautiful and rare.  Today with the exception of estate sales, fine Kashmir sapphires are virtually unobtainable, mute testimony of the degree to which they are coveted.  They are often categorized as a conundrum gem.  They form an exclusive class of its own.  And once they are cut, they make a beautiful jewel.'" (187)

Perhaps because this is such a beautiful passage, the typo feels more unforgivable.  I did look it up because I started to doubt my knowledge that the highest point on earth is Mt. Everest and that is somewhere just over 27,000 feet.  There is no place at 150,000 feet but the ionosphere.  It should be 15,000.  This, however, is an e-mail from a friend of hers, so perhaps the mistake was preserved.

Around halfway through the book, she references a movement preaching brutal honesty as its core, after being assigned a story on it:

"The piece is ostensibly about a new TV show centered around the concept, and will include an interview with the founder of the movement, Brad Blanton, and then a first-person documentation of my attempts to be 'radically honest.'
But it is Brad Blanton who blows my mind.
I talk to him on the phone, and he is unlike anyone I've ever interviewed.  He will literally tell you anything you want to know--including if he wants to have sex with your sister, the fact that he's let a dog lick peanut butter off his balls, even how much money he makes.  This is the theory of radical honesty.  He calls 'withholding' the most pernicious form of lying.  That is when you try to abide by the mores of polite society by not saying things like that you want to fuck someone's sister.
'Whenever something occurs in the world, there's always what occurred and then there is the story about what occurred, and then there is the meaning made out of the story about what occurred,' he tells me in explaining why most communication--filled with all of its half-truths, twisted perceptions, and withholdings--is so problematic. 'Most people stay lost in the meaning made out of the story.'
It's true.
I don't think about reality: 'I got divorced.' I think about the story I tell about it: 'My ex-husband betrayed me.'  And the meaning I attach to that: 'I am unlovable.  I am unwifeable.  I am a failure.  I am not worth it.'
Brad also forced me to look at some painful truths about my own anger and discomfort.  He tells me that you should just say what you are thinking about someone.  I tell him that I hate when strangers start talking to me about my height.
'So if someone says, "God, you look tall," do you get offended by it still?' he asks me.
'I don't get annoyed,' I say, 'It's just boring.'
'Well, boredom is anger and you haven't expressed your anger sufficiently to all those people who ask you about being tall,' he says.  'You still have a lot of resentment about people--and probably some resentment about being tall.  So when someone says, 'What's it like being so tall?' just say, 'Fuck you!  Eat shit and die!  And I resent you for saying I'm so tall."'
I crack up.  'Then I would appear like this easily hurt social leper,' I say.
Then he reveals the real key, the real magic of what he is preaching.
'You're worried about how you would appear, see?' he says.  'That's what you think your identity is.  It doesn't matter how you appear.  You'll appear differently in another half a minute anyway because people's registry of how you appear changes very dynamically.  For a while, you appear to be a leper of some sort, and a little while later you'll appear to be someone who's very brave and willing to talk about things honestly.  Later on, you'll appear as a kind of person to be trusted because you're not going to be withholding.'" (150-151)

This story most likely informs Stadtmiller's r'aison d'etre, which is, reveal everything in the hopes of helping others with what you've learned along the way.  In this case, she goes on to freak out at a department store clerk for her "shitty attitude."  Apart from this immediate implementation of radical honesty, the entirety of the book is an exercise in the practice, and is all the more worthwhile because of it.

Now only because we've also recently reviewed a memoir that included a Courtney Love anecdote, some excerpt must be included from the section detailing Stadtmiller's friendship with Love, and the ultimate redemption she appears to be experiencing in the culture.  As a student of bankruptcy law, however, I must include what I consider another typo:

"'I'm broke, Courtney,' I say. 'That's why I'm basically stuck at the Post, even if I wanted to leave.  Because I need the paycheck.  I'm barely surviving in New York.  I'm even thinking about doing bankruptcy.'
'Do Chapter 7 if you do it,' she says, without missing a beat.  'Chapter 11 is so pedestrian.'
I have no idea what this means, but she's got a bunch of gold records on the wall, so I'll take her word for it.
'You know, I used to be really broke when I was young,' she says.  'But then I started chanting 'Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,' and within two months I had two million dollars.  I'm serious.  Don't fuck around.  It's the only thing that really works.  Here, let's chant.'" (244-245)

Now it's possible that Courtney Love is referring to actual Chapter 11 business reorganization bankruptcy as pedestrian, but I believe she meant to say Chapter 13.  Granted she does have substantial business holdings but I would not characterize Chapter 11 as pedestrian.

There is not much else I think I can say about this book.  I wrote a note to myself to find an excerpt about "crazy impulses" but that is basically what this entire book is about, also: going through crazy impulses in your 30's and trying to find a piece of stability in this life.  In this case the story has a happy ending, and Stadtmiller appears to have moved her life in a more positive direction.  Yet how can we end reviews of memoirs?  The story is not over and life continues after the memoir.  The book is written in a very conversational tone and its 300 pages flow swiftly.  It will not necessarily go down in history as a classic of the genre but I have to believe that most people will find the majority of it entertaining, and perhaps even eye-opening.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The House of Broken Angels - Luis Alberto Urrea (2018)

The House of Broken Angels is another one of the last several books to be recommended via the New York Times Book Review podcast.  One week, they discussed the novel in the segment about what they were currently reading.  The next week, they had Urrea on as a guest.  The novel sounded intriguing enough so I decided to check it out.  Was it good?  Yes.  Will it make the Best Books list?  No.  Would I recommend it?  Yes.  I have to say yes.  I was about to say "sort of" or "maybe" but I remembered how I was going to compare it to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao favorably.  It is somewhere between that and One Hundred Years of SolitudeIt is not as stylish as either, but it is more reader-friendly than both.

After the book, Urrea adds an author's note which says that while this story is not 100% true, perhaps 95% is true.  There are no Angels, but it does appear to be based off the occasion of his mother's funeral and the last birthday of his dying brother.  It would seem like Little Angel is his stand-in, and Big Angel is his older brother.  

Big Angel and Little Angel are actually named Miguel and Gabriel, I think, but they also say that their father forgot that he had already used the name.  In any case, Big Angel is about 70 or so and dying of cancer.  He is certainly the main character along with Little Angel.  

There is also Perla (his wife), Minnie (his daughter), Cesar (his brother), Lalo (his son), and to an extent other family members La Gloriosa (sister-in-law, mother to Guillermo, who was killed alongside Braulio), Braulio (oldest son, who has a ghostly presence in the novel), Don Antonio (father, who appears as an actual ghost near the beginning of the novel), Marco (Cesar's son), Giovanni (Lalo's son), Ookie (neighbor, who appears to be developmentally disabled), Mama America (mother), Mary-Lu (sister-in-law) and other husbands and wives.  At times it feels like every character has to have "their section" and the novel lapses into a sort of mock-ironic limited third-person perspective.  While the reader is reminded of certain details at several different points, it is still difficult to summarize the overall thrust of the characters' arcs.  Suffice to say, it is about Big Angel gathering everybody together at his house for his birthday party.  Even though it feels a little contrived, there is a great climax at the end of the novel, and there are other shorter, wittier parts, such as the jokes Big Angel tells to his grand-kids.  

The strongest element of the novel are the phrases in italics, sprinkled seemingly randomly throughout, meant to itemize his gratitudes:

"rain" (85)
cilantro" (64)
"Blade Runner
more time
more time
more" (231)

This is also probably the first book to reference Guardians of the Galaxy and the deaths of Bowie and Prince.  It is very "of the moment" and its legacy value is, therefore, diminished.  This is not always the case, at least in the example of the output of "the brat pack." Yet they wrote about what was young and hip in a way that Urrea only seems to caricature.  While this is a very good book, it is by no means perfect.  The writing is good and solid, even while the dialogue tends to feel padded, or like it doesn't tend to advance character or plot.  In this case the sin is forgivable.

There is a lot of sexual material in the book, yet most of it seems rather plain and hackneyed, and alternative lifestyles tend to be dispatched for shock value and knee-jerk disgust.  Then again this is a novel about a patriarch and a family that tends to start birthing children at a young age.  One vague plot hole that seems inadequately explored is daughter Minnie's status as a grandmother.  I could be totally wrong about this but I swear it was mentioned just once and never exactly spelled out.  I did find this:

"Minnie's oldest son was a sailor and told her that in Portland there was some kind of voodoo donut shop.  Like, you could bu a coffin full of donuts.  Crazy hippies.  The boys on his ship were all tweaked about bacon-wrapped maple bars.  She wished she could get some of those.  Her man would love them."  (106-107)

Other criticisms may be leveled at this novel, and while it is far from perfect, it is beautifully orchestrated, and crystallizes a narrative structure that feels unique.  Surely something similar to the "party novel" has been done, yet I cannot recall any at the moment.  In this case, a big family reunion, with the narrator flitting between characters like a butterfly.  Aside from that, it is often profound, concerned as it is with the Important subject matter that is death and dying:

 "Big Angel was turning seventy.  It seemed very old to him.  At the same time, it felt far too young.  He had not intended to leave the party so soon.  'I have tried to be good,' he told his invisible interviewer.
His mother had made it to the edge of one hundred.  He had thought he'd at least make it that far.  In his mind, he was still a kid, yearning for laughter and a good book, adventures and one more albondigas soup cooked by Perla.  He wished he had gone to college.  He wished he had seen Paris.  He wished he had taken the time for a Caribbean cruise, because he secretly wanted to snorkel, and once he got well, he would go do that.  He was still planning to go see Seattle.  See what kind of life his baby brother had.  He suddenly realized he hadn't even gone to the north side of San Diego, to La Jolla, where all the rich gringos went to get suntans and diamonds.  He wished he had walked on the beach.  Why did he not have sand dollars and shells?  A sand dollar suddenly seemed like a very fine thing to have.  And he had forgotten to go to Disneyland.  He sat back in shock: he had been too busy to even go to the zoo.  He could have smacked his own forehead.  He didn't care about lions, tigers.  He wanted to see a rhinoceros.  He resolved to ask Minnie to buy him a good rhino figure.  Then wondered where he should put it.  By the bed.  Damned right.  He was a rhino.  He'd charge at death and knock the hell out of it.  Lalo had tattoos--maybe he'd get one too.  When he got better." (61-62)

Meditations on death tend to remind one not to take life for granted.  Certainly, it is often a miserable ride.  Yet there are also good parts and things to be thankful to have experienced.  It seems like most of the bad stuff happened to Big Angel in the early part of his life, and once he became a father, and lived with Perla as husband and wife, it was overwhelmingly a very happy one.  It could have been a better novel, I think, but he seemed to have lived his life well, if his goal was to heavily populate his birthday death party with family.  Not all of us would like to have the same life as Big Angel, yet few of us could hope to have so much to look back and smile upon.