Saturday, March 31, 2012

Small Housekeeping Note: Old Book Reviews

I've gone through my old book reviews over at Pinstripe Alley, and copied them all to this blog under the tags for books, Yankees and baseball.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Blankets, by Craig Thompson: Book 12 of 52

After I finished Craig Thompson's Habibi at the end of February, I was left really wanting to re-read his memoir/ "illustrated novel" Blankets. This took a little doing, because I love Blankets. I have bought the book multiple times, and multiple times I have given my copy away to friends, imploring them to fall in love with it, too.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud argues that ones of the choices the artists must make is his level of photo-realism. Most artists could, if they chose, fill their novels with precisely unique faces and bodies, making each page a photograph. But the human mind sees faces everywhere (that is why our emoticons work :-p ).

In Blankets, Thompson chooses to skirt a fine line, drawing his characters a little on the ambiguous side; they are clearly human, but who are they precisely? His character, thin-limbed, long faced and large nosed, could be him, judging by his photo on the back cover. But it could be a drawing of me, too. And that's where the magic begins.

From here
After Craig (the character, to distinguish from Thompson the author) and his girlfriend Raina spend a virginal if sexually-charged night together, Craig utters a small prayer, accompanied by the sleep tossed images of a beautiful girl who we know is Raina, but could very well be any girl; in the simple black and white illustrations I defy anyone to conclusively name her hair color:
Pressed against her
I can hear ETERNITY--
hollow, lonely spaces and
creents that churn
And the fallen snow
welcomes the falling
snow with a
whispered "HUSH."
What I love about Blankets is how unassuming it is. There are lessons here: hard, painful, familiar lessons about growing up, about faith and parents, about the limits of authority and the limits of our ability to change the world- while Craig is endlessly unresolved about where his life should lead, Raina has already taken on the challenges of motherhood, stepping in with her sister's baby while the sister and husband indulge their materialistic side (they are, in fact, trying to distract themselves from the fact that their marriage will soon fall apart if they don't address their problems head on). But Thompson doesn't beat us over the head with any of those lessons.

Instead, he unfolds this love story, and in unfolding it he gives us glimpses into the traumas that have happened and are continuing to happen to both Craig and Raina. They are doomed but don't know it, and when the inevitable comes, it comes with an honest softness the opposite of the dramatic climax we expect from literature.

Happy Friday

This weekend, I will make to the local production of The Last Five Years
and I will have a dinner with friends
and I will visit the Farmer's Market
and I will finish mowing the lawn
and I will relax.

Happy Friday, world. It's gonna be a good one.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Setting Up the Yankees' Starting Rotation

Our pitchers:
Pitcher FB Slider Cutter Curve Change Split
Sabathia 62.1% (93.5) 16.2% (81.0)
6.1% (78.1) 15.6% (85.4)
Kuroda 60.8% (92.0) 21.1% (84.3)
4.6% (78.7)
13.6% (87.1)
Hughes 63.0% (92.3) 1.5% (82.0) 11.6% (88.3) 19.8% (74.8) 4.0% (82.9)
Pineda 62.2% (94.7) 31.5% (84.1)

6.3% (87.6)
Nova 62.0% (92.7) 9.6% (85.7)
22.6% (80.1) 5.8% (85.6)

All of our guys throw their fastballs a lot (and with Kuroda the soft-tosser at 92 mph, it's not hard to understand why).

Only Sabathia is a lefty, so handedness isn't really a factor.

Sabathia, Kuroda and Pineda all use their slider as their #2 pitch. Sabathia and Pineda follow that with the change as their #3, though of course Pineda was nearly a 2 pitch pitcher last season. Regardless, I wouldn't let Sabathia and Pineda pitch back to back.

Similarly, Hughes and Nova both rely on their curveballs as their follow up pitches. I'd keep them apart.
The question, for me, revolves around whether or not Kuroda should pitch in the #2 spot. All three of the young guys depend (or will depend) on their change up to keep hitters honest. How similar are these pitches? Pineda and Nova's speeds are similar with their change, but I can't speak to the drop or fade of either pitch. Pitch fx will give you some of the data, but I think the ultimate decision needs to be made by someone who can evaluate the pitches from inside the batter's box.

It may be that the Yankees would be better served by Sabathia, Nova, Kuroda, Pineda, Hughes, rather than Sabathia, Kuroda, Nova, Pineda, Hughes. Either way seems acceptable to baseball etiquette- with Nova in the #2 spot, you recognize his breakout work with the team last season and his team first mentality following his midseason demotion and return; with Kuroda in the #2 spot, you show deference to the veteran.

Ultimately, I think questions like this are more interesting in the playoffs or in a short series- the regular season will smooth over most of the advantages or disadvantages of one choice or the other.

Also published as a fanshot over at Pinstripe Alley

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Slow Book Manifesto: The Trouble with Canon

Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

Go read Maura Kelly's Atlantic article about the need for us to read books, read more, and read more discreetly.

The attention in the comments and from what I followed on Twitter revolve around this claim:
But Slow Books will have standards about what kinds of reading materials count towards your daily quota. Blog posts won't, of course, but neither will newspaper pieces or even magazine articles.
Also excluded: non-literary books.
How far shall we take this claim- and what is literary or non-literary? Shakespeare is in, Daniel Brown out, right? Or does she mean here are works of fiction, here are self-help books and non-fiction? Would Bill Bryson's travel writing make the cut?

The thing I really like about Kelly's approach is that she advocates for a small amount of daily reading. Reading in little bites is refreshing.

I'm coming down on the side of the author, even as it makes parts of me squirm. I hate the idea of a canon. I refuse to genuflect before the altar of Shakespeare and Dickens and the Brontes. Ten generations of English professors can be wrong. Just because Ulysses shattered a whole host of expectations of how a book should look and feel and taste, doesn't mean that everyone should have to read it. Similarly, the "mostly classics" in the epigraph is a little too ambiguous. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is not the same flavor of classic as To the Lighthouse.

One of the greatest things to happen in my life was the discovery of Pandora online radio. I type in an artist I like, and Pandora makes the connection to other artists I should like. Netflix is getting better and better about doing the same thing for movies. BookLamp is trying to do it for books, but it is often too literal; Captains Courageous is really not a good comp for The Old Man and the Sea.

I'd like to think of books as families. The Old Man and the Sea has parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, siblings and cousins. A dedicated reader, having found a book he or she likes, should have a natural path for exploration. It takes a little extra research to plan ahead, but if we're reading every day, we won't be able to help thinking about books every day. That alone is a step in the right direction.

So, yes: Read books. As often as you can. And start thinking about what to read next.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Writing Groups

The 2012 National Poetry Month poster, designed by Chin-Yee Lai
I use a lot of links on this blog. Here's one to a great article on Raymond Carver and the complexity of the idea of the author.

I am, at this point in my life, a very social writer. This was not always the case: there was a time when I created my work in a vacuum of my own mind and intellectual space; I did not look for or want criticism, praise or any other critical attention. At that point, I wanted to write what I wrote. I wrote a lot of junk then, and I wrote a lot of what I would now recognize as a first draft with potential.

I learned to be a social writer in two different ways: I spent 5 seasons following the Yankees for Pinstripe Alley, and I spent 4 years semi-regularly attending a weekly poetry reading and workshop in Syracuse, which directly lead to the publication of my chapbook by Turtle Ink Press. From blogging, I got addicted to the joy of the discussion and playing with questions to which there is no right answer but to which there is an answer. From the poetry workshop, I learned how to revise (a process that I would now argue is the most important part of writing).

I don't have a poetry workshop at the moment, and consequently, I'm not writing much poetry. One of the ideas for this blog was that it might be a space where I'd do that more, but so far my ideas have largely come out in prose. This has all been on my mind because Poetry Month and the poem-a-day April challenge is looming.

The fun of the April challenge is reading what my friends are writing. To read what people I've never met write. To read how everyone everywhere is struggling to catch that scent of salt and call it what it is. And if, in the process, someone writes a poem that inspires me- something that makes me say, I think I can say that truer- which of us is the author of the next poem I put on paper?

The question of authorship is a strange one. I would always give credit to the people who helped me refine my work, but I think of it as a process not all that different from smelting. I provided ore, and with some heat (some of it mine, some not), made iron. At the same time, no one lives in a bubble. If we accept that humans are social creatures, why would it be a surprise that artists rely (to different extents) on their community? To use a different metaphor, why would it be acceptable to rely on the community for help creating the memories and experiences that become the seeds of writing, and not use the community to prune the ensuing orchard and harvest the fruit?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

My Book-a-Week Resolution

Borrowed this photo from here
I knew what I was getting myself into when I made the New Year's Resolution to read a book each week for the year. I did it once before, way back in 2004.

Today is the 12th Saturday of 2012, and I've finished 12 books, so I figure it's a good time to take stock of my progress to date.

Breakfast of Champions (although I feel that I read it so long ago and missed so much besides the frantic energy of it, that I really should consider this a first read; it's also a book club book)
A Man Without a Country

New reads by old friends:
Death in the Afternoon
The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove
The Humbling

Book club:Winter in Madrid

New books:
Lost at Sea
The Ginger Man
The Vonnegut Statement

Friday, March 23, 2012

Happy Friday

This weekend's adventures involve a cupcake decorating party, board games, some time reading, and possibly a production of either Proof or I Hate Hamlet.

Happy Friday, indeed!

Book 11 of 52: The Vonnegut Statement

Old books make fantastic windows. The Vonnegut Statement, published in 1973, collects some of the first essays written about Kurt Vonnegut's works after the publication of Slaughterhouse Five. They seem to alternate between accessible and esoteric, but I found myself nodding along with the broad strokes of the criticism.

I often struggle to put a finger on what draws me to the authors whose body of work speaks to me. I have plenty of books I like by a range of authors, but the authors I like is a very exclusive list: Vonnegut is one, Hemingway and Steinbeck are two others, Philip Roth and Philip Larkin probably round out the top 5.

Over and over, the critics in The Vonnegut Statement return to the idea that as life has become more absurd, art is forced to take new forms. Part of the reason that Vonnegut's characters and scenes often feel like stick figure drawings when compared to the lush realism of Steinbeck or the terse depths of Hemingway is because the world makes so much less sense than it did twenty years before. Vonnegut survived the firebombing of Dresden, and while both Steinbeck and Hemingway came home with war stories and wrote stories about the war and people affected by war, only Vonnegut's characters were fully broken by war because war broke Vonnegut's ideals in a way it didn't affect the other authors.

Somewhere in the back of my head, I've known that.

Is this a book I'd recommend? Meh. You'd have to do a lot of reading, love Vonnegut and enjoy lit crit to make the journey worth it. But it was worth it for me.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Netflix, the Joy of the Marathon

I hate cable. I hate the commercials, the self-referential cross promotions, the constant changes in scheduling, the interminable stretches between seasons.

So Netflix is my saving grace. Not only do I get avoid the commercials and reality television, I also get to watch a season worth of episodes at once. Maybe I'm badly behind the game and everyone else has been watching tv this way for years, but I hadn't really thought about how much this transforms how much I enjoy a show.

This month's addiction is How I Met Your Mother, last month was White Collar.

I seem to remember growing up that television seasons ran more or less in swing with the school year. Programing seems more disjointed now- this may have begun with the Sopranos splitting one of their seasons in half to feed Sweeps Week. I can't think of a television show I would have enjoyed watching that way.

Part of the trouble is my short memory, and the other part is how easily I'm distracted. I couldn't have kept characters and story arcs straight in a show like Dexter or White Collar. But with the magic of the marathon, I can watch a season in a week. I'd like to think that television writers have this in mind as well, and are drawing up more elaborate, more involved plots to keep us marathoners hooked.

It also gives me the freedom to watch shows that have established their quality over a season or two. This way, I don't waste time with duds.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Happy Friday

Spring Break!
While the students got the week off, I only get today.
So here's my spring break:
A pot of coffee, a room full of friends, and board games.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sincerity on the Internet

I spend a fair portion of my time reading, writing, thinking about writing, and talking about writing with other people.

As often as I spend talking about writing, I must spend half that time talking about often I wish I'd had thoughts of half the quality of Joe Posnanski's stray ideas. Go read his post and, if you're interested, read the article he's linked to, then come back here. I'll wait.

Who wants to expose their hearts on the Internet? Who wants to admit -- except in some deeply ironic way -- that they really and truly like something? Who wants to lay bare their enthusiasm, open it up to the boots of cynics and skeptics and snarkers? Much better to start a "Fire Rex Ryan" Web site … or poke fun at Yuni Betancourt.
I think this is the really cool thing about little kids: They don't know enough yet to be cynical or overprotective.
I'm not really big on enthusiasm. I'm a jerk, I'm cruel, and I think everything is stupid. But I can wish for sincerity. I think a part of why we (I) spend so much time pouring over our culture is because we keep trying to understand ourselves better, with a wrongheaded idea that understanding can bring back some of that child dancing at Disneyland enthusiasm for life.

I'm not sure wonder works that way. I look at authors or actors or politicians, and I see the same person over and over: a person performing for me a charade of the person they think I want to see. (I think that freedom from that kind of character performance might be a part of why I love baseball so much, and why the steroid scandal hurts so much, but that's a thought for another time). We have become (as a society) so good at parsing layers of meaning that we can't believe sincerity.

Maybe none of this is a new thought. But it can't be healthy to live in a world were we feel it's impossible to be genuine because the risk of someone else laughing would hurt too much, or where we can't afford to allow someone the chance to get a leg up in whatever rat race we're running because they've seen our soft spot.

So a little sincerity: I admire so much of what Joe Posnanski writes. I'm going to try to be like him when I grow up (see? I made that last bit ironic because it feels safer).

Friday, March 9, 2012

On Books Everyone Should Read

From Information is Beautiful. Click here for the background spreadsheet.
I keep seeing lists of "100 Books Everyone Should Read." Maybe it's the same list, over and over:
There's a Telegraph list from 2009, a list from TIME in 2005, BBC's Big Read list from 2003, World Library 2002, Modern Library's list is from another century: 1998.

The newest thing is this cloud-sourced list through Information is Beautiful.
It is beautiful, isn't it?

One thing I like about the cloud approach is that it seems to best balance the disproportionate influence of Victorian England upon our understand of "novel." There are still too many Victorians (at a glance, I count no fewer than 3 Dickens, 2 George Elliots, 4 Austens [she only published 6 novels!] , the two Bronte sisters, and then titles like Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Tristram Shandy, Frankenstein and Vanity Fair); I mean, I will concede that it is possible that roughly twenty percent of the greatest books ever written were written within the second half of the 19th century, and all written by authors who lived within a 200 mile radius... I just don't think it's likely.

Of those 15+ books on this list, I might recommend an interested reader try three books, one by any three different authors from that era. Does anyone other than a Victorian specialist really need to read Middlemarch and Persuasion and Wuthering Heights?

I have a love hate relationship with the words "book," "novel," "work," "literature," and "story." They are not synonyms.

If I were to assemble a list of books everyone should read (this post started out as such a list, but I got distracted), I would try to take into account books in the most literal sense. My interaction with most literature is in book form. I've read more of Shakespeare's plays than I've seen performed. I adore graphic novels, books that use a text with picture format to tell their tale. I would argue in favor of viewing series as inseparable installments within the same book, much as the first novels were serialized by chapter. I would also like to include books of poetry.

The main thing missing from the cloud above is an explanation, so that's what I'll try to include, as often as my energy will allow. Why would I recommend this book to you?

Happy Friday

I kept forgetting we have a wedding to go to this weekend,
   kept trying to make other plans,
   but nothing can go wrong on a Friday
   so let's hit the road!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The "Before You Turn 30" Bucket List

A friend of mine (who is much more clever than I am) shared a long bucket list on her blog recently.

While I'm not really interested in the copy and paste part of the game, I will tell you that I currently have 86 checked off my bucket list. But below the fold, I want to focus on the items that make the best story and/or made me think the most.

Book 10 of 52: The Humbling

I have an irrational love of Philip Roth's work.

He writes simply and directly. His flourishes are carefully constructed, re-enforcing the themes of his novels: the internal life of the mind as an agent of story-telling; blurring the boundaries between the real and imagined world; the creation of identity (through story-telling and imagination) and our responsibility and dependance upon the people around us.

I would put Roth up for the title of greatest living writer.

While The Humbling has not been highly praised by most reviewers, I think they make the mistake of viewing The Humbling as a novel. The London Times called it "an overstuffed short story" and The Guardian's reviewer wrote "it can hardly be called a novel at all; it is more an old man's sexual fantasy dressed up in the garb of literature."

I think those criticisms are valid. But I think it's the reviewers, not Roth, who have made the mistake.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Staff Breakfast and the Nature of Wednesday

One of my favorite events of each month is our all staff meeting/ breakfast. I don't know why I enjoy it so much, beyond the fact that I enjoy a free breakfast as much as (or more than) the next guy.

I think all important work discussions should occur over pancakes, with a hard-boiled egg on the side if it can be arranged. As a bonus, this month I will remember to bring my travel mug so I can get my coffee fix for the day.

Wednesday is a tough day for me (Tuesday is rough, too, for the same reasons): Monday is a "get back to it" day, Thursday is downhill and usually includes the completion of one or more of my major projects for the week, and Friday is Friday. But Wednesday is a grind it out day, it's a put your head down and really march toward your goals day.

So staff breakfast is a great way to start Wednesday.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Book 9 of 52: Habibi

I finished Craig Thompson's Habibi last week, and I've spent that time trying to decide what to say about the graphic novel.

Epic is the first word that comes to mind. The two protagonists, Dodola and Zam, begin the tale as children living in an abandoned boat in the midst of a desert wasteland; later the scene shifts to a city that is a post-industrial wasteland.  Everything in the world is wrong, and people are the problem. Thompson does a fantastic job of pulling back on the drumbeat whenever his political/ social/ environmental message threatens to become to ham-handed. For any other writer, Habibi would represent an artistic pinnacle. But Thompson is not any other writer; I'll try not to hold it against him.

They survive on their ark because Zam has a talent for finding water, while Dodola trades sex for food from passing caravans. Dodola is Zam's foster mother, barely a teenager yet fully an adult, teaching the boy and caring for him above her own safety.

Sex is the only constant in Habibi's world- from the open chapter (recounting one version of Dodola's wedding night as a child-bride) through all Dodola and Zam's adventures and misadentures. I think Thompson wanted us to view Dodola as a strong character, someone who uses the only weapon she has in the world (her body) to her greatest advantage. And it is true that she uses her sexuality to get what she wants from merchants and sultans, but I found the repetition of the theme overwhelming and numbing. It's not that I dislike Dodola, but I find I pity her much more than I admire her. In that, she is an unusual heroine.

Sex is also a constant for Zam, whose youthful lust for Dodola confuses and shames him, who becomes a eunuch as a way to survive on the streets of the city and in an attempt to flee the confusion that Dodola inspires, who struggles to find a masculine identity when he winds up a slave in the same harem where Dodola is imprisoned and later when he finds himself unable to provide for Dodola financially, emotionally or physically.

In Habibi, Thompson plays with a number of themes: the art of storytelling; sexual and gender identity; the nexus of accountability, responsibility and morality. It is drawn in meticulously stunning black and white; it is packed with intense, intimate portraits of its characters, and the line between the characters and the calligraphic symbols that give depth to their mysticism is blurred often and elegantly.

Habibi is a great vehicle for a discussion of all these themes, but Thompson is laboring under the impossible task of following up on his masterful graphic novel memoir, Blankets. How do you top a book that was lauded as the book of the year, the book of the decade, that won the industry's highest awards for artistry, storytelling and originality? The truth may be that you can't. As beautifully rendered as Habibi is, it never hit me with the moments of gut wrenching honesty that Blankets did.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Happy Friday

First Friday + Pay day + Friends playing one of the local bars + Over 20 people on board for First Friday shenanigans= Happy Friday!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

An Off Week; Or, Starting Over Right Now

It's been an off week for me in several ways.

I've been too tired to drag myself to the gym for my usual 6am workouts. I've felt in a funk at my desk, struggling to keep up with my myriad responsibilities. By the time I've made it home, I've been cranky, tired, and generally no fun to be around. I've done very little reading, virtually no writing, and only moderate board game playing.

Sorry world, it's been a bad week.

As with everything else, I find myself asking why.

Am I sleeping late and fitfully because I'm not getting to the gym, or vice versa? Is my lousy mood spoiling my evenings, or has a stretch of unsatisfyingly spent free time caused this black cloud?

What are things I value, that make me happy? What has been missing?

I like my schedule packed. I like getting people together and making fun things happen. I like food and laughter and good times.

Last weekend was a lot of fun- Shane and I went on a road trip to Dover for a fedora, I spent Saturday making a hat band and pocket square for my suit, had dinner with Heather and James, and then we went with some of our friends to Birthday Ball (if Sam ever sends me the photos, I'll share). I played chess with Shane and Adam on Monday. I worked late on Tuesday. Carol and I had a quiet night in last night, and we have plans for board games and dinner with friends tonight. First Friday tomorrow, and dinner in DC on Saturday.

So why am I blue?

I don't know, but I'm done with it. I feel lousy, and I'm sick of it. Right now, 1:30 on Thursday marks the start of a new week.