Sunday, August 4, 2019

If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the Chicago Cubs Dugout, Locker Room, and Press Box - Jon Greenberg (2019)

I reserved this book after hearing its author speak on the Cubs Talk Podcast. It sounded lurid. To be honest, most of the juiciest stories were told in the podcast (which can find here Regardless, this is a book worth reading - but only if you are a serious fan.

Who are serious fans? People that try to watch every game. And if not the whole game, at least parts of it. 

What I particularly loved about it, as a fan going back into the early 90's, is the way it situates 2016--and really the past 15 years--into the greater historical context of the franchise. 

The further back it goes, the more memories it invokes. I haven't read a book like this before. There are so many iconic moments in a baseball season, and we forget so many because each year brings more. Of course there are some things that we will never forget, such as the end of the 2003 NLCS (just as there are things we'll always have, like Paris, which is where I watched those games).

But I think some people forget the '04 Cubs. They very nearly made the playoffs and finished with a respectable 90+ win season. They added Greg Maddux for his 300th victory celebration. They had Wood and Prior and Zambrano and Matt Clement was probably their Jose Quintana (though I haven't compared their stats - maybe Clement was better). Query which rotation was better.

Maddux was at the end of his career and no longer as effective--like Jon Lester in another year or two. Definitely take Lester over him.

Though Hendricks is the more apt comparison to Maddux, he could be matched to Prior, and I take Hendricks any day (Prior tried to make a comeback as late as this year; Zambrano currently is doing so, how serious he's taking it is another matter. How I wish they'd get another shot! But that does not seem to be the Theo way.) 

Darvish is actually probably more like Prior (even though no one is a free agent pick up like him), or Wood for having an excellent start to his career and an uncertain future after Tommy John/other injuries. I'm still willing to bet on Yu. I don't think any of us are fully convinced he's turned the corner but he has been much better in 2019 on the whole.

Cole Hamels I guess maybe is the Maddux, but so far he's been much better than Maddux ever was on stint #2. And yes Jose Quintana = Matt Clement. 

I won't go through all the hitters. I think 90% of fans will agree that the 2019 cubs are as likely to make it to the world series as the 2004 cubs. The 2005 Cubs, also, were not a joke. They were still in it at the end. 2006, however, was a joke.

That was the summer I lived down the street from the park, at 1516 w. Addison. I went to a lot of games that year and they lost every one, I think. Maybe I was bad luck. Who knows. Because somehow they came back to make the playoffs in '07 and '08. And they weren't that bad in '09 and not even that terrible in '10 I think. '11, '12, '13, and '14 were brutal, of course. And I find it crazy to see that Zambrano was on the team as late as he was, and how Wood came back for his victory lap to retire a Cub -- I vaguely remembered that, but I had forgotten. 

Interspersed in there are anecdotes and analyses of players like Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster, Rich Hill, Milton Bradley, Derek Lee, Cliff Floyd, Daryle Ward, LaTroy Hawkins, Geovany Soto, Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, Alfonso Soriano, Henry Blanco, Michael Barrett, Jim Edmonds, Rich Harden, Mark DeRosa, Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Samarzdija, Randy Wells, Starlin Castro and others. Unfortunately, it misses the opportunity to reference Randall Simon and the sausage-race battery. And Zambrano's no-hitter apparently also didn't matter.

A real pleasure of this book is the way all the current Cubs crop are referenced much earlier in their lives. Such as Albert Almora, Jr. as a kid in Florida during the Marlins 2003 run. Or the improbable coincidence of Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez going from a high school-to-World Series rivalries. Or David Bote getting drafted even before Theo came onboard, and playing at the minor league level with almost every single player on the current MLB roster. 

The anecdotes in this book will enrich any fan's appreciation of the game. It's not exactly a biography of everyone--but it is pretty comprehensive at a little over 300 pages and a major emphasis on the 2015-Present Cubs. 

Because let's remember that Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora, Jr., Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Pedro Strop (and maybe a couple others I'm forgetting), are all still on the team. Some have improved, some have declined, and others have been replaced. Dexter is gone, Jake is gone, Rossy is gone, Montgomery is gone (quite recently). [Ed. Carl Edwards, Jr., gone as of 7/31/19] A bunch of relief pitchers have been replaced. It's probably comparable to what we had before. Chapman got replaced by Davis who got replaced by Morrow who got replaced by Kimbrel. Right now it looks like Davis was arguably the best overall closer. Chapman was lights out, but pushed to the brink. Kimbrel concerns me. I've already seen him blow 2 or 3 games and he's only been playing a month or so. Still you can't criticize the deal they signed him to.

As to Chapman, another distinct pleasure of this book is reliving classic moments from games and Joe Maddon's WTF managerial decisions. Like leaving Chapman in forever. Or letting Strop bat in a crazy situation with the wild card berth on the line in 2018: 

"The Cubs won the game 4-3 in 10 innings, a much-needed victory. But while Pedro Strop got the win, giving up no runs in 1 2/3 innings, it was a play involving him that stirred up a lot of talk about Maddon's managing and the future of this team.
Strop replaced Brian Duensing with one out in the 8th inning and the game tied 3-3.  He made it through that inning and the 9th with just one hit allowed in 21 pitches.  
Then, in the 10th inning, with one out and the bases loaded and the Cubs up a run after a Javy Baez's [sic] RBI bunt single, Maddon let Strop hit.
He wasn't out of position players.  It was only the 10th inning.  Strop hit a grounder to third and busted it down the line to beat a double play.  He ran so hard he injured his hamstring.  This was bad managing - death by overthinking.
'That's so unfortunate,' Maddon said. 'If we scored, he was going back out.  If we don't score, he wasn't.  That was it.  And we scored.  But listen, he hit the ball hard.  This guy can swing the bat a little; that wasn't a fluke.  He tried to beat it out, almost did, and you can never fault an athlete for competing.'" (294-295) 

Other stories are provided deeper detail, such as the legend of Daniel Murphy on the Mets in '15 and the Nats in '17 and his '18 stint on the Cubs and the tacit acceptance of homophobia. Actually I never thought Murphy was homophobic, I just assumed he was deeply embedded in Christian theology and unable to veer from the path of the righteous. Greenberg's gloss on his comments is big-hearted and humane, yet sharp. We should not lump Zobrist in with Murphy solely on the basis of spirituality but there is a cutting reference to his walk-up music (a song by his wife--ostensibly about him--ripping off Elton John) and now one could make a dark joke about it. Zobrist has been out most of the season with a divorce, but is making his comeback as we write. One hopes that his return will spark the team in the same way Schwarber did in the World Series, another story beautifully told here.

And Brandon Morrow. Morrow is glossed over. His injury from putting on pants is hardly mined for laughs. His extended rehab is basically a long-running gag. However, he could be available late this year.

One notable omission is the suspension of Addison Russell. While the domestic violence charges are referenced briefly, the more lurid details are kept confidential. Perhaps some of the stories hadn't come up at press time, though his "robotic" press conference in spring training made it in under the wire. Russell is a complicated story to tell. He is given short shrift here, as he has generally this year. For all of his shortcomings as a player in recent years, and despite odious past behavior, I feel for the guy when nobody gives him the benefit of the doubt, when nobody believes that people can change. I doubted whether the Cubs were making the right decision not to release him, but ultimately I think the front office handled it about as humanely and professionally as practicable. It would be a nice story if Addison Russell turned it on 2015 Starlin Castro-style and became the player everyone thought he was.

So there are some storylines currently being written that are not quite as compelling as the overall scope of 2016, but still arguably more compelling than any other team's, except perhaps the Angels--the consensus emotional favorite to win the World Series due to player personnel and strength through adversity (like the 2002 Cardinals after the death of Darryl Kile, or the 2001 Yankees after 9/11). That is, however, an extremely unlikely scenario. It will probably be the Dodgers and the Astros again. I believe, however, that there will be another Cubs-Dodgers NLCS this year, and that anything is possible.

I doubted the hype around Theo for a long time, probably until the 2014-2015 off season. At this point I'll concede that, while every decision he's made hasn't been perfect, he is still the greatest executive in sports today, and one of the greatest in history. He will be remembered forever for the towering accomplishment of bringing titles to the two most legendary franchise droughts in sports history. It was twice with the Red Sox, so let's hope it's twice with the Cubs.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Short Form: Let's Play Two, Perfect Sound Forever, The Great Believers

Let's Play Two - Doug Wilson

I will reserve the majority of my thoughts on this book for my review of Let's Play Two by Ron Rapaport. It is too perfect of a review to avoid writing in long form. I will not be able to provide excerpts from this as it has been returned to the library (the other one was bought for my mom). In short, workmanlike prose, and research that does not quite get beneath the surface of who Ernie Banks was--this is why it's necessary to read the other. An enjoyable read on the whole--Banks is a difficult subject for a biography and the book was above average, apart from one or two unfortunate turns of phrase.

Grade: B

Perfect Sound Forever - Rob Jovanovic

While we are on the topic of surface level biographies, this is another good example of one that leaves you wanting more in a similar way. Unfortunately even though I really, really love Pavement, and even though this reignited my interest in them, it's a lazier book than the above so I have to give it a lower grade with the caveat that there are no other books on Pavement and reading it should give any serious Pavement-head at least one bit of arcania they didn't previously know (like that SM Jenkins shaved his head and became super anti-social on the Brighten the Corners tour). The rest is largely covered (and mostly better) by Slow Century. Great material from Gary Young and various show ephemera make it an essential read for fans of the band. Still it would not likely be read or found by any potential converts. 

Grade: B-

The Great Believers - Rebecca Makkai

Fantastic read. Almost perfect. Except for the scenes in Paris. I see I'm getting ahead of myself. The book is about the AIDS crisis in Chicago in 1985/1986. I don't want to spoil too much. It is also about events in Paris in 2015. One character ties the two eras together. There is a lot about trying to get lost paintings from past masters in a gallery. This stuff is kind of a trope in the same way it was in The Goldfinch, though not to the same degree. I still think Goldfinch is slightly better. However this is as close as you can get to the Best Books list without actually being on it. I usually cry at movies and not at books. Not so for this one. Very, very deeply affected by this. I would accuse of it being melodramatic for effect--but what kind of big statement book isn't? At first blush the closest reference point is Angels in America. That play is rightly considered a modern classic. However I would argue this is better. There may be other books or films of which I'm unaware but I don't think this has been done before--there have been things about AIDS but not the effect it had on a closely-knit group of friends that may or may not sleep with each other and/or in what types of venues and/or go crazy with paranoia. I needed to keep reminding myself it was fiction. Beautiful character development. I'm reading Educated right now and it's really good and I would put it alongside this and Asymmetry as the best books of 2018.  

Grade: A

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

White - Bret Easton Ellis (2019)

As the blog is back from the dead for a long form review, we go back to the beginning and revive the oeuvre rule. I've read Less than Zero, the Rules of Attraction, the Informers, Glamorama, Lunar Park, and Imperial Bedrooms. I read about 1/2 of American Psycho. It's problematic to read the book after seeing the movie, much of the time. I'm most interested to re-read Glamorama, because I think it might make the Best Books list. Lunar Park was read shortly before Flying Houses began and I liked it fine, I guess it was kind of original, I'd have to read it again. As far as his oeuvre goes, White is a better read overall than the Informers, but is probably weaker than everything else. BEE is something else though, the rare writer that can make me drop everything and read asap after publication. Enough ink has been spilled over this book but I need to say my part, in lieu of a Facebook post on the political landscape of 2019.

Imperial Bedrooms came out almost a decade ago, and was the sequel to Less than Zero, 25 years later. It's his longest break between books. While I don't care to comment on the creative process, I would not be surprised if the increasing centrality of the social media landscape and smartphone culture gave him a little writer's block. Or he was off writing the Canyons or hanging out with Kanye West or making ill-advised tweets. Regardless, here is White, arguably his version of Joan Didion's The White Album (which I haven't read yet, regrettably) and his commentary on being a privileged white male in 2018.

This book has gotten mostly bad press (please read the New Yorker interview, now). It's a flawed product. It is practically designed to tick you off and push your buttons. Approximately 30% of the time reading this book, I wanted to slap my forehead. Ellis could have written a better book if he didn't enjoy courting controversy. And because he pulls back the curtain and explains, for example, that even he doesn't know if Patrick Bateman really committed or just imagined committing those murders, it takes some of the mystery out of his work and unfortunately limits its scope. Thankfully, he says very little about Glamorama, so we can go on pretending that it really is his true masterpiece, even as Zero and Psycho loom essential. 

And are any of his books really essential? Probably not, but they're extremely important for the young writer who wants to go hot and fast out of the gate, and as artifacts of their milieu. Sadly, really young first time novelists are probably all wussy nowadays anyways, and their art is likely pedestrian.

This is one of the overarching themes of White. While it is comprised of 8 essays, only a couple of them stay limited within its discrete subject. Most of them end up ranting about social media leftist scaremongering. And I do think it's a valid viewpoint. I've said the same thing myself multiple times. Stop trashing Trump---you're playing into his hand! BEE doesn't even go that far, because it's clear he doesn't want come off as sheepish in the least. We should attempt to define Ellis's ideal political party, so that you can decide whether you want to read a book that is going to tell you what you want to hear.

He defines himself as a moderate, but he comes off as more of a closet-republican. He thinks Bernie Sanders ideas are ridiculous and unrealistic. He didn't like Hillary Clinton (he didn't vote in 2016). He personifies Trump as Patrick Bateman's hero in American Psycho and admires him for his provocative political gamesmanship. He is an ardent supporter of gay rights and while I don't remember reading it, one presumes he also believes in a woman's right to bodily autonomy. It seems as if he is skeptical of social welfare. I don't think there are many comments (if any) on foreign relations. 

What we do know is that his boyfriend is in his early-mid-30's, and a disappointed Bernie bro. He had trouble finding work after college except for unpaid internships. He may or may not be unemployed still. I am not sure what I would do if I were BEE's boyfriend but I would personally be scared of living perpetually in his shadow. And I would probably be annoyed by the way he wrote about me. Because he writes about him as if he's about 10 years younger. He's only a couple years younger than me, and I am an old millennial/young gen x-er (the way BEE is an old gen x-er/young baby boomer).

[Aside I may have made before: whatever happened to Generation Y? That's us (children of the 80s). Millennials should be Generation Z, i.e. the end of civilization as we've known it through the latter half of the 20th century, when we created these labels.]

Now I am not like him. I feel more like BEE. But this isn't about me, this is about White. Regardless, BEE writes as if all millennials have the same values, adhere to groupthink, and follow all trends like sheep. 

Side note: I keep using the word "sheep" here. BEE uses the phrase "clutching their pearls" 1-2 too many times here.

Generation Wuss is something you could say 1-2 times as a joke, but to refer to Millennials as wusses is terribly reductive. Not all of us get butthurt about stupid bullshit.  Not all of us automatically assume that anything we write or create deserves to be praised. (BEE curiously suggests, in one paragraph, that they deserve respect, because they have less money and have to work harder for it, etc. His comments on that demographic are otherwise largely perjorative.)

I see I am getting sidetracked, but ultimately this book goes off on about a hundred different digressions and they end up in the same place. 

He writes about some celebrities and his relationships with them: Richard Gere, Tom Cruise, Charlie Sheen, Katheryn Bigelow, Judd Nelson, David Foster Wallace, Sky Ferreira and Kanye West. The book basically ends with Kanye and it's kind of perfect.

That's basically what I wanted to say about this book: it's a flawed product, it's probably BEE's 2nd or 3rd worst book, but it's still got moments of greatness. Ultimately, what I think it aspires to be (though BEE would likely dispute this and suggest no, he's not important, he doesn't necessarily think he's right, he's just a provocateur) is a time-capsule of our era. So much of our culture is disposable. Music, film and literature are no longer driven by or contained in objects or things. Everything is digital. We do everything on our phones. Even laptops are too unwieldy. A printed book (one of the few mediums, like vinyl, to retain a foothold) is thus an artifact in the future, more easily accessible than any google-able news story. BEE must know that he is one of the last major literary icons and that his work possesses a certain gravitas that few others match (though he is no Milan Kundera or J.M. Coetzee). His subject matter is shallow, and prefigures the culture our society would assume as its own. Less Than Zero is all about the 80's and partying and music and drugs and nothing is really all that different now except the popular genres and drugs have changed. Our culture today is not an ideal breeding ground for artists. The art that will come out of these times will not take real risks because people are too worried about getting "cancelled" or not seeming "woke" enough.  Ultimately, I think these fears are unfounded. When he says, for example, that American Psycho would not be published today, I have to disagree. Granted, I know far less about the publishing world than he does, but dark, misogynistic subject matter can still be depicted, so long as the perpetrators get theirs. Maybe that's a problem, I don't know. Maybe art can be great because it inspires real conversations and disagreements. 

Several rhetorical flourishes here could make for compelling performances at readings. Young people will hopefully read this book and be forced to reckon with their experiences and their attitudes towards trigger warnings and safe spaces and censorship and witch hunts. However, many of them will dismiss it because of BEE's left-baiting. Let me be clear: I AGREE that unapologetically liberal friends on social media are annoying, and do not truly consider the implications of the type of world and culture they hope to achieve through their "shaming," but I do not agree that things like the New Green Deal aren't worth discussing or trying to work towards. Maybe he would agree to that point, too. It's just that extreme viewpoints, on the left and the right, are predominating the discussions, and probably affecting the elections as much as the Russians. It's all a big bubbling soup of brainwash. We can consider the ridiculousness of Trump and denigrate his methods, but at the same time (as Dave Chappelle said) he is our president, and we're stuck with him for better or worse, so we have to try to work together. It's almost over. Talk about infrastructure. Pretend like you're not going to talk about the investigation anymore. Resist the urge to bully the bully. The U.S. won't become Nazi Germany, but a gigantic wellspring of Apple products and interconnectivity. That's not Trump's doing. What has he done, really, that wasn't orchestrated by his political party? The point BEE seems to be making here is that the whole 'they go low, we go high' thing is B-S when democrats are being just as obstructionist as Republicans were to Obama. It's like an annoying roommate that cant take a joke and says things like, if you're going to dish it out, you better be able to take it, while exhibiting a cognitive dissonance about the purpose of the apartment, or the government: bring people together, organize them effectively, so they are best-equipped to lead happy and fulfilling lives. Clearly that doesn't come from concentrating wealth amongst the top 0.1%, but it can come from charitable efforts, which (as tedious and commercialized as it became) Celebrity Apprentice at least encouraged. We all need to look past our differences and be open to the idea of friendship with people on different sides of the political spectrum, and I do not think that is a dangerous idea at all.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Short Form: The Four Agreements, The Impossible Fortress, Sabrina, Garden State (redux), Beastie Boys Book, Rock Steady, Let's Go (So We Can Get Back), Asymmetry, Go Tell It on the Mountain

The Four Agreements (Don Miguel Ruiz) 
I read this book because a girl I matched with on a popular dating app asked me if I had and I said no. I proceeded to be "really bad at this" and reserved it from the library and messaged two months later, thanking her for the rec, at which point I was unmatched.
(1) be impeccable with your word
(2) don't make assumptions
(3) don't take anything personally
(4) always do your best
Good rules to live by, but the book could have been much better. He really could have fleshed it out better. Instead it's kind of a philosophical text with very basic vocab.
C+ (6/10)

The Impossible Fortress (Jason Rekulak)
I read this book because my younger sister brought it home with her for Christmas last year and she gave it to me and said it was good, but she wasn't going to read it again. I pretty much feel the same way. It really has a cookie-cutter plot and paper thin characters. It was the lightest read I have done in a while, and it was a pure guilty pleasure. It was sort of unintentionally hilarious, but I grew to love it for how silly it was. Also the game on the authors website (based off the computer game programmed by its main characters) is really addicting and fun (I had to play until I won).
C+ (6/10)

Sabrina (Nick Drnaso) 
I read this book on about 2 hours on Saturday. It's a beautiful book in every sense. First graphic novel nominated for Man Booker prize. I do not think it should win but it deserves the nomination and I think everyone should read it and then give their loved ones a hug.
A (10/10)

Garden State (Rick Moody) (re-read) []
Not as good for a 35 year old as it was for a 26 year old.  Still a good book, but its flaws are more apparent to me (it also has a charming, almost antique quality now).  This is also the subject of the Flying Houses Podcast (Episode 3 - projected release date September 2019)
(6/10--should be 5/10, boosted for nostalgia)

Beastie Boys Book (Adam Horovitz/Michael Diamond, etc.)
I only got through about 20 pages of this.  It's the nicest book I've ever taken out of any library ($50 list price) and also one of the hardest to finish in 3 weeks.  I got it for my brother(-in-law) for Christmas in the hopes that I can finish it one day.

Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice from my Bipolar Life (Ellen Forney)
It's taken me about 3 months to read this book, and it should only take a couple days.  It's a really easy read.  It's sort of like a comic book.  It wasn't as helpful as I thought it would be.  If you live with a mental illness, you learn how to take care of it yourself (or you just die sooner or less happy).  The book may be useful for teenagers and young adults.  It may be useful for adults but the only reason I didn't like it that much is that it seems to infantilize its audience, just a little.  
(7/10--should be 6/10, boosted for public service quality)

Let's Go (So We Can Get Back) (Jeff Tweedy)
One of the best memoirs by a rock musician I have ever read.  The only thing that keeps it from a perfect grade is that it could have gone even deeper.  It is not the authoritative book on Wilco.  It could have been, but there are several others.  Tweedy does not attempt to write the only book on Wilco that matters.  I know Greg Kot wrote a book about them, and it's probably very good and worth reading, so I can understand the impulse not to want to do everything.  In any case, this book is an absolute pleasure, even when Tweedy kind of/sort of floats into the territory of pseudo-humblebrags--and no one could begrudge him that.

Asymmetry (Lisa Halliday)
Uneven, yet highly recommended.  I heard about this a lot last year.  I think it came out before Philip Roth died.  In any case, his DNA is all over this.  It wasn't exactly top 10 of 2018 material, but one NY Times reviewer put it on his honorable mention list, and said just to read Part 1 ("Folly") and skip Part 2 ("Madness"). Now as a reader, I could never do that to a writer, but I have to concur.  Part 1 is 10/10, and Part 2 is 5/10 (Part 3 is N/A, probably 5/10 too, only worth reading because it "unlocks" the mystery of the apparent dissimilarity between the two). "Folly" is a flawless piece of fiction.  

Go Tell It on the Mountain (James Baldwin)
It's not really fair for me to review this, because I still have about 20 pages left, but I have many thoughts.  First of all, it's great, there's a reason it deserves to be in the category of 20th Century American classics (and it was shelved in the African-American literature section of the library, which I can understand, but feel is unnecessary).  Second, it's rather slow.  There is a LOT of religious (mostly Christian) rhetoric.  It's kind of hard to figure out what's going on, but now, by the final (or penultimate) section, I think I get it, and it's a beautiful way to tell a story about a family.  I wouldn't recommend it as highly as Asymmetry but I know it is the better book.