Re-signed for 2011
I have once again made the foolish decision to play in a basketball league. On the roster I'm listed as G/F which I'm pretty sure is some kind of joke. As you can see in the picture above, I play in jeans and a polo. At half-time I take tea and ask after the wickets. When I do get in the game, I wear a prescription motorcycle helmet.
But I'm going to try to improve this year so I drew up some plays.
This one is called "Isosceles." It's where I sort of walk in a triangle around the three point line so that my own teammates are confused enough by my movements to not pass me the ball.
This one is called "Why is the whistle lady counting at me?" No, seriously, why?
This one is called, "Free Throw." It's where I stand while someone else makes free throws (not able to be expressed by diagramming: me clapping furiously).
This one is a defensive play called, "I Try to Have a Conversation with a Teammate While My Guy Scores."
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go practice the most important play of all, "Signaling for a Sub When Too Winded to Speak or Move My Arms."
Re-signed for 2011
Best Movie Quotes to Pretend Are in The Great Gatsby
* "Here's looking at you, kid." -- Tom Buchanan to Myrtle
* "Forget it, James, it's North Dakota." -- Dad Gatsby
* "Love means never having to say you're sorry." -- Daisy
* "It was beauty killed the beast." -- Owl Eyes
* "We're going to need a bigger boat." -- Dan Cody
* "I'm walking here! I'm walking here!" -- Myrtle
* "You had me at hello." -- Nick
* "Nobody puts Baby in a corner." -- Jordan
* "I'll have what she's having." -- Wolfsheim
* A nice review of Andrew Borgstrom's Explanations here.
* And another one here.
* I guess what I'm saying is, you should probably order it here.
* In all seriousness, this volume has gotten a great response and we at The Cupboard are really excited about it. Many thanks to all the kind reviewers spreading the word.
* In non-Cupboard news, Royals' pitcher Gil Meche walked away from $12.4 million dollars because he couldn't help the team this year. No, really, he retired instead of taking money he was owed on his contract. To be honest, I don't know if it's honorable, exactly, but it's certainly unique. Not that it's not honorable, just that I think Gil earned that money whether or not he was injured, and I'd rather see it in the pocket of a player who carried the Royals for two seasons than in the owner's.
* O well. Good for Gil. Sad to see him go, but it's the rare athlete who honestly assesses himself and does what he thinks he's obligated to do. In a fair world, the Royals' owners would reward his behavior by paying him some/most of the money anyway. As much as this ever happens--and it never happens--usually an injury settlement is involved. The Royals claim that's not happening so I guess all Meche earns in the final year of his career is a lot of respect.
* Yesterday I heard an elderly professor use the words 'hullabaloo' 'poppycock' and 'Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.' I just thought you should know that.
* It was a weird class.
House (Boat) Party
I'm a bit in trouble on this book because I read it a couple of weeks back, couldn't think of a take on it at the time, and now feel like I should say something. Um, it won the Booker? That's worth something isn't it?
[Goes and checks to see if David Mitchell has won one, sees that he hasn't, decides it's worth nothing]
So, yep, people living in boats along the Thames, somewhat focused around a young Canadian mother and her two daughters, one a moody pre-teen, one adopted from St. Julian's School for Precocious Tots. In fact, I'm not entirely sure this entire book wasn't written in anticipation of movie version to launch the career of a not-yet-conceived Dakota Fanning. She's smart like an adult but whimsical like a child! Her idiosyncrasies are adorable! Just imagine a six-year old jumping rope in a dress and rain boots making intelligent observations about humanity and you've got a pretty good idea.
Anyway, there's something great about the carefree wandering of the omniscient narration and the characters aren't completely without interest. And I suppose living on a boat in the 60s must have been more scandalous than I'm giving it credit for, but I can't help but compare this book to Drabble's which had a lot more to say about the age, class, and country.
Maybe this is the way to put it: a lot of the novels I've read recently have been short but this is the only one that felt slight.
A fun book that didn't take me much longer to read than the new movie took to watch, and it's easy to see why so many people love it. I certainly did.
(Quick movie comparison: almost identical with a great deal of the dialogue coming directly from the book, one short and unimportant addition, and, oddly, a few minor plot points changed, which both solves some tiny oddities and creates a few new ones).
Like a lot of the books I've read recently, it's heavily voice driven. That's probably not an accident given that they're all for classes taught by the same person, but True Grit stands out for the oddity of its retrospective narration through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl on a manhunt for her father's killer. That conceit alone could and does take this book a long way, but its the absolute appropriateness of her position that makes it compelling. Mattie is by far the smartest and most honorable character and in the running for the toughest. Her competition is all larger-than-life western characters, and so she is both straightman to the genre conventions around her and the wide-eyed gaze that creates them.
It seems a shame to even talk about the book this way. It's just good. Exciting and funny and unsentimental right up until the stoicism of the genre breaks to show the character Mattie has never learned to hide.
A Perfectly Lovely Book
I don't have much more to say about it though I guess some comment should be made about just how odd Margaret Drabble's book's plotting is. There's a lot here that could be conflict but isn't, just as the primary conceit of the book (a not particularly young but pretty and highly educated woman gets pregnant her first time having sex) could be treated as some kind of "ironical" misfortune but isn't. In fact, early on two characters discuss their pregnancies in terms of Thomas Hardy's Life's Little Ironies and their differing conclusions inform the book only slightly less than the fact that, in both cases, everything worked out perfectly. ...and everything worked out perfectly is a strange concept to build a plot around, but there it is.
Well, okay, "perfectly," is maybe overstating it, but as well as could be expected if not slightly better. In some ways the book reminded me of a sitcom. Joey is not going to unexpectedly die in a mugging on the way home from Central Perk. We know things will work out fine and we watch to see our reassurances played out.
Who knows if Ms. Drabble had the will to do something awful to her characters, but she certainly didn't have the desire. Yet somehow the book works on the strength of its sensitive, smart, and funny narrator. There's real charm in how everything that should be a negative she somehow twists into a positive. Having an illegitimate child in the 1960s? No problem, because now the narrator can love. Being a single mother? She can enter into a mutually beneficial arrangement with a friend. Telling the parents? Someone else can do it.
The book is quite aware of its positivity and a great percentage of the words are spent inside the narrator's mind pondering her situation and how, though it might clash with both the staid conventions of an older generation and the freer beliefs of her own, it is nevertheless a good one. The point seems to be that she can have a child on her own terms and still be happy and successful and free. As a political point, it's now an old one (if not a little silly given we're talking about a profoundly privileged character), but a great deal of the book seems intended to present a different side of the more familiar depictions of Swinging London. The narrator is clearly of an age and social standing where she should, like her friends, use the era's hedonism to liberate herself yet instead chooses to do it by redefining domesticity and motherhood and love. I feel, I think, reassured.
I'm firmly on the side that believes violent political rhetoric is a problem because it lowers the discourse, is unworthy of the officeholders, and conflates valid philosophical disagreements with war, not because such rhetoric--no matter how reprehensible--is likely to be responsible for any particular action. Still, I think today's Kansas City Star headline is maybe a little problematic:
I know we're dealing with a headline written by some editor and not political speech but still--nobody saw a problem with this? And I don't just mean because of what happened this weekend, I mean because of perhaps the biggest news story to come out of Kansas in the last decade:
"Abortion Doctor Gunned Down at Kansas Church" -- Fox News
Yep, that was less than two years ago, and the bill referenced in that headline is in direct response to this doctor's practice (despite his, you know, terrible and cowardly murder by a zealot).
Shockingly, the headline has been changed to "Conservatives Push Plan to Restrict Abortion" for the online version of the article.
And so, yeah, I think some of the reaction to the Arizona shooting has been a little tasteless by some of the left (and doubly so by certain defensive voices on the right), but I don't think we can fault anyone who says that maybe all of us--politicians, media, people who like to argue while drinking like myself--might want to step away from certain language and metaphors for a time with the hope we leave them behind altogether.
Dude's Lyrical like Bernie Taupin
I think we're all sick of language-driven novels published by obscure presses winning Pulitzers. Okay, so that never happens. Bully for the Pulitzer people and for Mr. Harding whose book is as remarkable as Marilynne Robinson says on the cover which is both a good thing and a bad thing.
And what's remarkable about it is the writing. You really can't talk about the book without talking about its lyricism which is, on some level, a detriment. I mean, I love lyrical, and there's certainly something wondrous--though always in a strictly realistic way--to justify it here. Of course, there's also just a lot of characters sitting and thinking and talking which all gets the same sparkly brush. Here, I'll flip to a random page and grab the first sentence:
My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull--no my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea and wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels.
Ha! I swear that was random. Honestly, I was delighted when I saw the page. Anyway, I couldn't have picked a better example of what makes this book awesome and, I hate to say it, admirably overwrought. It's pretty much that all the way through and at times it's beautiful and awesome--describing the electricity of a seizure, the imagination of a child--and at others it's forced with the unworthy task of the book's plot.
This maybe is part of my problem: the past is not, in itself, magical. I'm going to stop before I go off on some rant about nostalgia except to say that no one would write about their office job the way Harding writes about being a traveling salesman. It's maddening to see such language applied not to the truly magical but to simply the past, as if beautiful things only existed between 1840 and 1962. And during those years, everything was equally beautiful--a sugar-glazed ham is identically as sublime as pulling a tooth with a pair of pliers.
It's a minor complaint that one that kept me from really loving the book. I'm not even sure I'd say I liked it though I admired it a great deal (I'm obviously hedging. Am I the only one comfortable for having a category for art that I can like without, you know, liking?). So, in the end, an absolutely beautiful, marvelously written book and certainly one deserving of its accolades. But, at least to me, the book reaches for something more than just beauty and falls short. There's a story about fathers and sons here, one about running away from a legacy, one about the painful gains and losses over a lifetime, but it's all too slippery with rosewater.
When McEwan's book reaches its sudden conclusion--as spoiler-free as possible: a creepy family achieves maximum creepiness, somewhere V.C. Andrews blushes--it's difficult to see past the shock of it all to any greater point. And that, I suppose, is the point, even if it's not a very good one. Don't get me wrong, it's a plenty interesting and insightful book--language, imagery, etc. all top-notch--but the final act it builds toward is achingly inevitable from the first pages and so it's a matter of simply waiting it out. Of course, there's a shocking act at the beginning too and even the first sentence--something from the narrator about not having killed his own father--seems needlessly incendiary as when that moment comes, there's nothing to suggest the character did kill his father nor that anyone thought he did. It's the literary equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater then, after everyone's maimed on the floor, putting on a pornographic movie just to be a dick.
(Or is it like that? Is anything like that?)
So much shock, so little of interest behind it all. Maybe this book once said something about the depravity of British society (or at least the children) or maybe--likely--I'm missing something, but I set this book down feeling sad that someone so talented had wasted so much time aiming so low. Shock ages poorly, is the problem, and so absolutely it's ghastly that this book involves incest but, you know what, so do about half the episodes of Law and Order: SVU. And yep, the events proceeding it are wonderfully described by a sensitive and complex character in the 1st person, but that blackhole of a moment is so strong that nobody else gets to be anything other than a scandalization-bot. Seemingly no other character has a choice, and those who have very good reasons to be disinterested or disturbed by it find themselves involved because this book is about a creepy family and if they're ever going to be the creepiest family then everyone's got to be on-board. Why they'd want to be isn't important. What is important is that every reader closes the book feeling ashamed because we're all implicated in it by how lovely the writing is. Well, I don't care. This isn't Lolita and dirty is not an emotion.
McEwan is better than this book, thank god. Apparently someone reminded him that--despite what a lot of immature writers seem to think--being shocking doesn't mean being more honest and usually it means the opposite.
So, yes, more book posts. I'm sorry. I'm reading a lot, what can I say. It's either that or contemplate why the tornado siren is going off. My theories: either it's a test or God intends to finish what he started in Arkansas.
If it helps, I thought this book was fantastic. It's smart and original and funny and, basically, everything the last book wasn't (well, fine, the last book was smart. Maybe I should have gone with clever). This is the first Mary Robison I've read which I find slightly strange as it's a name that feels really familiar to me, just one of those names you hear a lot if you deal in literary fiction. I might have read a story or two some where but none are coming to mind and so I suppose she's nothing but a name and the vague impression that she's Amy Hempel-y which is a good thing to be.
Why Did I Ever is told in 536 chapters (Well, "sections" anyway. If I have a gripe with the book it's that these mostly numbered but occasionally titled sections are further broken up into chapters, as if without this the reader might be fooled into thinking these were short stories, as if any book needs two levels of numbering). Anyway, some representative ones:
There are longer chapters though none more than a page or so and some as short as a single word. Despite the fragmentation, the book does work around a cohesive plot and an established set of characters. The narrator is a middle-aged woman working as a screenwriter for a film studio with two children only slightly more troubled than she is herself. It's never sentimental and, despite the darkness, shockingly funny in little, real ways that always seem impossible to me. These kind of life-on-the-brink stories are done to death but rarely do they feel this fraught which is a credit to the form. These short chapters aren't a gimmick, they're a telling representation of the scattered thoughts of a woman in just enough control to get them in the right order but to see her own narrative.
As a teacher--not a reader--it's strange to read a book like this that seems so clearly suited to imparting one lesson. I mean, there's great dialogue and description and characterization and whatever else we're all supposed to be doing. And it's formally interesting and well-written in its own stark way. Plenty to say about that. Really though, it's a book about voice and though the narrator reaches no great conclusion, it's terribly sad to leave her.
I've got this theory with exactly no evidence to support it but it goes something like this: everything we thought of as an MFA story was really a William Maxwell story because a William Maxwell story was a New Yorker story. These things--an MFA story, a New Yorker story--have all shifted, of course, but the influence lingers in older journal editors and writing professors who have theories on what's good and bad, what's possible and what isn't.
For 40 years--notably coinciding with the rise of the MFA and therefore the rise of the short story--William Maxwell served as the fiction editor of the New Yorker publishing Cheever and Updike and O'Connor and all the rest. If we can assume his considerable influence in the literary world trickled down--and continues to still--Maxwell's personal tastes were the bar which young writers had to clear. It's not very useful to even attempt to define these things, but since people still bemoan the MFA story, Maxwell seems as likely a culprit as anyone. Unless you like these stories, in which case he's a sort of hero standing up for the well-crafted sentence and the understated emotion.
Whatever. I don't really care either way except that when reading So Long, See You Tomorrow it was hard not to see the type of overly polished and nostalgic navelgazing I used to hate when reading through the middle years of short story anthologies from the last century. And it's not that I still hate this work--nor that I like it any better either--just that I'm past the point where I know what to say when confronted by it. I've never developed a vocabulary for intelligently describing how something can be well-wrought yet lifeless, interesting yet treated blandly. Nor do I know why sometimes I like it and sometimes I don't (though a sense of humor usually helps).
And so I don't really know what to say about Maxwell's book. It's not that it's bad, it isn't, just that its careful portrait of three shifting families during the 1920s somehow fails to feel like anything more than the author's working out some old and remarkably tiny guilt (in fact, Maxwell admits as much in a Paris Review interview here). To the book's credit, it is not without an awareness of how inessential the narrator--the unnecessarily guilty feeling boy on the periphery of a love triangle and murder--is to the actual plot of the book, but it's still like listening in to a particularly well-spoken person's therapy session. What does it mean that this event meant something to the narrator? Why does he still think of it all these years later? What can he now realize with the benefit of experience?
Naturally, because this is that kind of story, these questions don't really get answered and nor do they need to be. They're not interesting questions. The event matters because we're reading a book about it. He thinks about it because it was a love-triangle that ended in murder. Experience teaches him nothing that any one of the other characters couldn't have told us at the time. It's frustrating because a book that should be about the impossibility of love at a time when marriage meant something else and divorce was nigh impossible is instead about elderly malaise which drips through every sentence, every character, every workshop story, until the only thing any one can write about is how sort of maybe sometimes perhaps without knowing why we might kind of feel things.
Okay, not really. We can also write about people with crazy jobs. What if there was a blood factory!