Like anyone else, I remember the magnitude of the Dream Team and the reign of Jordan, Magic and Bird as a goI’ll admit it. The promotion worked on me.
Like anyone else, I remember the magnitude of the Dream Team and the reign of Jordan, Magic and Bird as a golden era of the NBA. I was coming of age in 1992 and devoured Sports Illustrated’s coverage of the NBA, much of it from Jack McCallum himself. So I was extremely eager for the book. I totally bought the hype. I even bought the storyline of grizzled, decorated NBA reporter McCallum, in the twilight of his career, using The Dream Team as backdrop for a commemorative victory lap after years covering the greatest game’s greatest stars.
I forgot one thing. He infuriates me.
McCallum is talented. His vitae speaks for itself. Jack McCallum is intelligent, smart, and a hound as a reporter. But that’s the funny thing about intelligence and aptitude. It can trip you up. It starts convincing you that opinions deserve reverence over chronicle. When, in fact, Jack McCallum isn’t the story, victory lap or not.
It’s not that he considers Michael Jordan the best NBA player ever; that’s the presumptive notion and even us contrarians have come to grips with it. It’s that McCallum won’t stop beating that drum. He hounds the reader, assuring them of Jordan’s greatness. He recasts every one of Jordan’s questionable decisions as evidence of the gold-standard competitor. Thing is, Michael Jordan doesn’t need Jack McCallum’s help. Yet there it is, at every opportunity.
It’s reverence without reproach, a diatribe, delivered at us, instead of towing us along. As a reporter, it’s far more effective to show than tell; to trust that your narrative helps us form our independent admiration of Jordan. Instead, we’re told what to think, then given a lackluster pictureto follow it up, like the oversold “untaped and unaired” hyper-competitive scrimmage between Dream Teamers in Monte Carlo. Nothing earth-shattering happened, though you would expect a world-class reporter to somehow convey how illuminating, inspiring, and monumental this clash of titans actually was. Instead, it’s little more than yet another paean to Jordan.
Some of Dream Team worked. McCallum does sum up the larger-than-life careers of Jordan, Magic, Bird nicely (considering his Hosannas, he better), and his interviews and check-ins with the current roster, where they are now, are engaging. But this evenhanded storytelling ability is dispatched within bias-drenched recollections of the past.
The postscript, describing the rise of international basketball owing to the Dream Team would have been a great feature story. McCallum subtly compares the 1992 landscape to the opponents of today’s Dream Team, other countries now loaded with professionals. Twenty years ago, that seemed unthinkable.
In the end, Dream Team resembles solid, insider’s-access sports-books like The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty or The Jordan Rules, far more than a rush job like The Bad Guys Won. Dream Team is solid, but would ultimately have been better served as long-form article series rather than overstuffed edition. You can chew it up, but the opinions make it hard to swallow.
**spoiler alert** Why doesn’t anyone believe in loneliness?” -Soundgarden, Zero Chance.
The minotaur believes in loneliness. But then, that’s all the m**spoiler alert** Why doesn’t anyone believe in loneliness?” -Soundgarden, Zero Chance.
The minotaur believes in loneliness. But then, that’s all the minotaur has. Thousands of years after the immortal half-man, half-beast, the minotaur is only sort of content to wile away the hours tinkering with his ramshackle Vega and working in a greasy kitchen.
Steven Sherrill’s quirky novel The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break was a long-standing recommendation from a Twitter friend that I almost gave up on. Meticulously written and deliberate, the book follows The Minotaur, grunting and nodding assent, throughout a fruitless existence. He’s a short-order cook and trailer-park resident somewhere in the Deep South, an exhibit of humdrum immortality.
Sherrill infuses the book with incredibly apt language. Each sentence stark yet full, he expertly paints the Minotaur’s world without resorting to effusive adjectives and laborious explanations. The minotaur just sort of exists; he goes to work, gets home, polishes his horns, and barely participates in his own life. Yet you feel as though his environment is clear as day, while the narrative steps ahead of itself, one sentence at a time. I know no real way to describe it; I cannot write like Sherrill does, and it’s really, remarkably, effective.
For example, the Minotaur does go out into public. He shops and drives, and he’s handy with tools. And only occasionally is his grotesque construction – half-bull, half-man – paid any heed different than any of us. For example, he meets a small child in the grocery store, who shoots him with a toy laser gun.
"...And pull the trigger he does, aiming the weapon directly between the black eyes of the Minotaur, who stands over him. But with each blast of the laser it becomes more apparent to the boy that the Minotaur will not die, will not, as expected, dissolve into a smoldering mass or disintegrate into oblivion...
… Pity the child for his loss. He truly wanted his laser gun to kill the Minotaur, believed that it would, even. Each time an act of hope fails, the capacity for experiencing hope next diminishes. The child will be lucky if he reaches adulthood with even a shred of faith intact."
That’s the life of the Minotaur, really no different than anyone else's. We're all alone, especially when we retire into the night, hardly comforted only by our own quirks and preferences. At once bleak and solemn, occasionally tragic, but forever moving on. For the horned beast, just like the rest of us, promise and hope ebb and flow, tugging at the edges of a mostly mundane life. You never know when good fortune will strike. Like the Minotaur, we need only be ready....more
**spoiler alert** As you begin reading The Financial Lives of the Poets, you might just think the theme has run its course.
Or, perhaps myopic, scuffl**spoiler alert** As you begin reading The Financial Lives of the Poets, you might just think the theme has run its course.
Or, perhaps myopic, scuffling narrators unable to extricate themselves from self-loathing internal monologues is a been-there, done-that. Again, that might cause you to put the novel down. If the crappy title hadn’t turned you off enough. But you know what?
That would be a mistake. It’s a fantastic novel.
I’ll admit, I rolled my eyes at first. I didn’t immediately know Poets dealt with a down-on-his-luck, out-of-work writer who fancied becoming a suburban drug lord. I did immediately think the first-person narrator was going to drive me nuts. Oh, here we go, I thought. Yet another author convinced of his own misunderstood brilliance, injecting his clever thoughts into all circumstances. I’ve covered the first-person problem before.
However, it only took a few pages for Matt to win me over. Sure, he’s a loser. But he’s funny. His inner monologue isn’t laborious, nor is it too self-congratulatory. he's much more economical than, say, Miles from Sideways and Vertical.
He's mostly just bewildered, and it really worked for me. You don’t have to identify completely with Matt, but chances are, you’ll find some of his wide-eyed jadedness familiar. When he winds up at a four a.m. apartment party smoking pot, milk in the car for his family, you’ll buy it. You might not totally be able to relate, but you probably got a friend who could. Not every protagonist can encapsulate everyman, but author Jess Walter pulls it off.
After the wreckage of the 2008 financial collapse, stilted writer Matt is like a lot of people, stuck in a house he can’t afford, lamenting mistakes he made with his life, and uncertain how to get himself – and his family – above water. He lost his job, so he’s even more desperate. He’s a schlub. A funny schlub, but a schlub among schlubs.
Throughout, of course, Matt's self-deprecation yields when he delivers a prescient observation of his suburban cohorts, and Walter doesn't overuse Matt's opinions.
It moves and snowballs into madcap quickly, which leaves Matt little time to wallow in cheeky self-pity. Sure, it's similar to Walter White in Breaking Bad and Nancy Botwin in Weeds, but the story works well. White is a character in study, Botwin a satire; and Matt is trapped in a frace, illuminating the sheer stupidity of hubris, of laziness, of dishonesty and taking your own life for granted.
Matt plots revenge against former bosses and high-school sweethearts, deals with a father’s Alzheimer’s, and must manage to appear cool to both his unknowing family; and his instantly suspicious cohorts. Can the poor schlub pull it off? I suspect you already know. Either way, it’s a fun ride, and a quick, exhilarating read. It’s nothing new. But the truth is, even if we run out of ideas, there’s always room to improve on threads or notions we've got. Walter’s Poets just does that....more
Louis CK briefly confronts his failed dreams for film success in an episode of his oft-praised show, Louie.
Louis talks about the movie he’d make, overLouis CK briefly confronts his failed dreams for film success in an episode of his oft-praised show, Louie.
Louis talks about the movie he’d make, over lunch with a saucy studio executive. It would surround a mopey protagonist. Someone coming to terms with his place in life; his failures prompting numbness, acceptance. And that’s the movie. No redemption, no lessons, just a meditation on the predetermined, boring sadness of life.
That’s Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask.
Well-written. A knack for snappy dialogue. Bemusing and artful turns of phrases that showcase the writer’s skill. And a lead character who fails at everything, including serving as protagonist of his own story.
It’s hard to see the point.
Is the point to create a real, tangible character that reminds the reader of ourselves? Our failures?
Or is the point to inspire us to soldier on; to succeed, to be grateful for a wife or kid or pet or friends, even when we feel trod over?
Either way, the point is lost. Buried under a character searching not for redemption, but for a world as accommodating of his failures as he. It’s a fairly good book, featuring wry commentary on the minutiae of life. But it’s not exactly a joy to read. And it doesn’t deliver crushing, sweet agony - pain authentic and familiar that warms a reader up. Instead, it dares, taunts, and begs you not to like the lead character. Well, fine. At the end, you’re just glad to be finished. You’re so sick of the lead character whining, you just want him to go away. If that's the point, then boom the dynamite goes, I guess.
The studio executive walked out on Louis' rumination of sadness, too.
I had high hopes for this after The Postmortal by Drew Magary. I thought this might be a fun ride through similar events; i.e., the cure for aging isI had high hopes for this after The Postmortal by Drew Magary. I thought this might be a fun ride through similar events; i.e., the cure for aging is discovered, and the plot is viewed through a realistic prism.
Instead, The Immortalists is a paint-by-numbers chase movie. No matter how strongly Mills tried to raise the stakes for his protagonist, I never really bought the fight for his daughter, nor even cared. The characters are basically cutouts, and the action and plot is described so intricately the reader is unable to piece together the events. It's a textbook case of telling instead of showing, and besides the first scene and the last couple, that's the rubric for the book. Everyone is thin, and the weighty plot tears through them. Not a bad read, but very forgettable and disappointing....more
After two successive, miserable first-person experiences, Garth Stein’s bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain somewhat restored my faith. Turns out it is actually possible to deliver a swift-moving, gripping, insightful story told from one point of view.
Especially if that point of view is a dog’s.
Meet Enzo, a faithful companion to aspiring race-car driver Denny, and witness to the struggles of Denny's family, a counterpart to Eve and Zoe.
Enzo nears the end of his full life, so the reader instantly knows how the novel will end, at least in part. The Art of Racing in the Rain, of course, is Enzo’s reflection on a his friendship with owner Denny; his steadfast devotion and belief in Denny during a tumultuous decade, with Denny receiving one setback after another.
Art works because Enzo’s narration and Denny’s life story balances equally. Like a dog (or a storyteller) with finite time left and a few major lessons learned, Enzo repeats Denny’s saga succinctly and completely. He doesn’t belabor any point; though Denny’s melodramatic circumstances border on unbelievable.
However, Enzo is a reliable narrator because he only imparts what he knows. Namely, Denny’s actions and surrounding actions. Enzo never wades too far into character motives or subtext behind actions; he tells the story and lets the reader figure it out. It’s an expert construct by author Garth Stein to swiftly spur the plot along, as well as delve into the only characters who matter, Enzo and Denny.
The construct works magnificently. Enzo’s own commentary is dribbled throughout the narrative. In particular, his reliance on gestures and blind faith in owner are sublime; qualities of a faithful dog you’d expect. His confidence bursts, but he's always heartfelt, and only scared or wary a few times throughout. He behaves just like you'd expect a trusted dog.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is a gripping, short read. Quick chapters pass in a controlled flurry not unlike the turns on a racetrack. You’ll read it quickly, and you’ll empathize with Enzo and Denny immediately. Art stalls only when Stein lays on the racing metaphors a bit thick, or the few times Enzo drops in a quip about people that’s a little too perfect. But these are minor quibbles. Otherwise, the story sings.
Moreover, the subtext serves as a reminder to why we own pets, why we trust pets with our victories, defeats, dreams and failures. We assume they, like Enzo, possess a spiritual wisdom of which we’re incapable, and a general decency to which we aspire. Pets instantly become our best friends and confidants.
Enzo is all of these, too, plus a great storyteller.
**spoiler alert** You probably haven’t read Sideways. But you probably have seen the movie.
The movie Sideways is amusing and genuine, a triumph of cha**spoiler alert** You probably haven’t read Sideways. But you probably have seen the movie.
The movie Sideways is amusing and genuine, a triumph of character study, male friendship, and shifting expectations. It stays faithful to the source material's main success - the two lead characters.
Sideways the novel is a victory of idea if not execution. But this is sort of a tenet to Rex Pickett’s character conundrum in Vertical, which purports to reinvent or deconstruct or sneer at the film's success while paying tribute to the novel.
Fast forward five years or ten or whatever, and Miles and Jack are in very different places in Vertical. Jack is a loser, and Miles is the successful writer of Shameless, a celebrity author, solely responsible for powering the U.S. wine industry with a book that everyone loves turned into a movie that instantly became a classic.
However, now Miles is the hero. The man of the hour. Wealthy and promiscuous, he flaunts around haughty wine stops up and down the Pacific coast. Vertical attempts to be about Miles enduring an empty life and searching for meaning among countless female conquests and countless bottles of wine. He's still wordy and prone to ridiculous tangents of dialogue, none genuine, authentic, or believable.
This time, he bankrolls a road-trip with Jack, his invalid mother, a nurse, and a dog up the coast to the International Pinot Noir festival. They set out to have fun, but in the end, maybe Miles will learn more about himself or something or whatever.
This is all fine. I understand emptiness. I can relate to drinking too much. I understand the fragility of a life in terminus. The meta construct of the story is somewhat charming. But the execution doesn't quite work.
In one passage, Miles offhandedly refers to a criticism of his novel Shameless, that publishers called it “a screenplay masquerading as a novel.” And that's exactly what happens here. We get everything. Anything in Miles’ head, we hear about it. The dialogue is complete enough to spell out all character motives, and Miles' inner monologue detailed enough to remove any doubt. Even the most minimal of gestures spell out in text, as though stage directions.
Miles does have a journey of self-discovery. But it's hidden behind thousands of words of high-fiving, and by the time you get there, the curse of the first-person has already killed Miles and killed Vertical. It’s one thing to be frustrated along with a protagonist, it’s another to hate him. And it makes Vertical a chore....more
"I Just Want My Pants Back" furiously winks and nods and rams tongue in cheek, demanding you laugh along with snide, snarky protagonist Dave, no matte"I Just Want My Pants Back" furiously winks and nods and rams tongue in cheek, demanding you laugh along with snide, snarky protagonist Dave, no matter how big a jerk he acts. And you might, a little. But you might also wonder: Why the hell, again, am I supposed to care about this guy?
Instead of hiding any of Jason’s emotions or frustrations, the author spills them all, the curse of first person striking again. Nothing is left to interpretation, and he doesn't even do anything reprehensible, unless you count hating couples and friends so detestable that you hate them, too. Just why, exactly, is this guy so upset?
He falls backwards into crazy sex with women, he tumbles forward into fun nights of excess and he’s got supportive, mindless friends who clearly are his inferior, yet they cheer his success in spite of his vices. Oh, by the way, they encourage him to be a writer. You heard that one?
And that’s why I didn’t quite buy any of it. David’s conquests are painted as triumphs. His failings are explained and excused away either by him or his friends. You don't feel bad for him. How could you? He's the clear-cut hero. How can we buy his search for meaning?
But I suppose I owe the story more of a break than that. It entertains, it’s a quick read, and even though you may want to punch the lead character, that might actually be intended. Maybe the tongue punctures the cheek.
But scratch that – they’re making an MTV series out of the book. So I can’t have been the only one who envisioned the lead as a refugee from spoiled Real-World houses. It’s pretty much right on the nose.
Gripping, heartfelt and both pessimistic and optimistic about the struggle to grow up, I really liked The Art of Fielding.Read my full review.
As a grGripping, heartfelt and both pessimistic and optimistic about the struggle to grow up, I really liked The Art of Fielding.Read my full review.
As a graduate of a small college in the Midwest, I smiled often at Harbach’s quirks of college life. President Guert Affenlight embodied all the self-loathing and promise that comprise a man in his sixties, wondering where he went wrong yet dismissive of what he got right.
Mike Schwartz, the grizzled, veteran catcher willing his team to unlikely victory while serving as de facto coach is almost rule more than exception. It’s trite to say seniors in D-III baseball play for the love of the game. It’s fact to say they play because they don’t know what else to do. Broken and beaten yet bending the world's will, Schwartz is easy to root for and to despise.
Each character’s journey is fraught with small frustrations that yield peril in ripples; gradually shaping futures rather than slamming doors of perspective. Guert, Mike, Pella, and Skrim consciously suffer the burdens and consequences from small actions and inaction.
They know they must live with their decisions as they occur. Few novels hold airy youngsters accountable, but here they not only face failure, but sort out the wreckage, ripples, and pain that lies after stilted youth.
Fielding also accurately characterize the dual nature of mentor and protégé, brothers, or teammates like Mike and Skrimmer. Instead of a mutual partnership, each is locked in a tug-of-war, needing envious success, but surreptitiously certain of failure. In the process, they grow up. All too often, snide friends prop us up while sealing our destruction. And we do it, too. The Art of Fielding nicely portrays the paradox of friendship, life, and growing up, which is the book's triumph. ...more
**spoiler alert** It’s no surprise that Drew Magary’s popularity begat an ambitious debut novel. His talent for whimsy and satire manifests as an invi**spoiler alert** It’s no surprise that Drew Magary’s popularity begat an ambitious debut novel. His talent for whimsy and satire manifests as an invigorating read. A social comment masquerading as sci-fi, The Postmortal is quick to pick up, and even quicker to flip pages. Possible spoiler alerts in my review:
I LIKED. The sheer ambition of Magary’s narrative spans more than 50 years in the never-ending life of malcontent turned old soul John Farrell. But Farrell's story didn’t keep me turning the pages; Magary’s descriptions of life fraught with deluded immortality did. Whether sheep-induced pestilence, sports record-breaking, or the switch of marriage and divorce as institution, Magary clearly obsessed at length about anti-aging and the ramifications in all factions of society.
I DIDN’T LIKE. The beginning worried me. I never bought any of the early dialogue, with characters - in particular Farrell's best friend and father eager to burp up inner monologues to reveal each and every trait of their characters. Thankfully, the book's blog-chapter structure overtook the need for clumsy conversations.
I LIKED. The blog structure of the novel helps the book move quickly, and permits a conversational style with the reader. As separate entries into Farrell's decades-long journal, Magary is free to experiment with social commentary as news commentary (I know, as though he has experience commenting on stuff!) In addition, it keeps Farrell from being too indulgent or whiny.
I DIDN’T LIKE. From the outset, we know where this is going. At some point the the lead character's conflict (and insecurities) must be resolved with his acceptance of his own death. The social comment and twisted narrative is but an underline to all mortals’ insecure battle. Maybe, at the end, we’re all just scared, trying to figure out how to cope with death, whether it's today, tomorrow, or thousands of years later. Maybe that’s life....more