Thursday, December 20, 2012

Living, Young, and Awesome

In some ways, it's hard for me to be mad at anybody who buys books. People who buy books, essentially pay my rent. But there are groups of readers who annoy me; people who only read from one section of the book store, whether it's a single genre, a single age group, a single style, a single anything. Last I checked, life is fairly varied, and if you only read one type of book, no matter what type that is, you kind of undo one of the points of reading in the first place. Within those groups there's one in particular that sticks in my craw; people who only read classics (You've escaped this round YA-only reading adults). Part of that particular ire comes from the fact that I want to publish a book and if I do I want people to buy it and those who only read classics obviously won't, part of it comes from the fact that writing books is really fucking hard, that there are people out there doing it really well, and it would be swell if they could actually make a little money for their efforts, but the real root of my annoyance is a basic logical fallacy. All classics were contemporary. Before decades or centuries of human imagination explored these works, they were all written by living, young, and awesome writers. And in order for us to have these classics today, people at the time had to support them enough that they were published and kept in the cultural consciousness long enough for culture to process them. If people don't support living, young, and awesome writers today, they won't become classics in the future.

(I have a similar problem with people who dismiss experimental literature. Everything mainstream was once experimental. All the mainstream really is, is slightly less imaginative/daring writers catching up with the innovations of geniuses and ground breakers.)

All of which is a long introduction (excuse?) for me to share, in alphabetical order, some of who I consider to be living, young, and awesome writers. One note about the middle adjective; I don't know how old these writers are and I might have left out other living and awesome writers because I've erroneously identified them as “not young,” but such is the nature of the blog genre; an inherently subjective, idiosyncratic narrative of an individual's relationship with the world. Reward talent and dedication and go buy their books.

Jesse Ball: Imagine a sculptor approaches a block of granite and from it carves a sculpture that looks exactly like the rock face of a mountain worn down by thousands of years of erosion. That's how Jesse Ball writes. He is somehow able to capture the tone, or style, or voice, or nature, or something, of folktales and legends. The way he plays with narration and form is as cutting edge as anything out there and yet his stories feel ancient. Any of his three novels, Samedi the Deafness, The Way Through Doors, or The Curfew are great places to start with him; The Way Through Doors feeling most like the folk tales and The Curfew presenting an essay worthy idea for social change. If you like what you read, then definitely add The Village on Horseback, his collected fiction and poetry as well. It's a beautifully designed book that includes his award winning short story "The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr." It's a great book to throw in your satchel for a long walk or camping trip.

Ron Currie, Jr.: His new book is going to blow your freaking mind. It's not out yet and you'll hear me talk about it ad nauseum when it is, but Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, is a stunning work. It's just, well, you'll see. His short story collection God is Dead explores the implications and events in which God existed and died. The main character from his first novel Everything Matters! is told in utero the exact date of the end of the world by a mysterious voice that ends up helping him through the rest of his life. What's remarkable about Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles and Everything Matters! is how remarkably emotionally sincere both works are, without resorting to cliches or cheap story telling techniques. In a society where every emotion is market tested and every human desire is being leveraged by someone out there trying to sell you something, and most of our entertainment just plugs different character names into proven forms of reaction-generation, it's really hard to make people actually fucking feel something. And then to have thoughts behind those feelings, things you do with the emotions after you've felt them, to affect the head and the heart so to speak, makes his work just that much more awesome. And he does all this while telling totally weird stories and experimenting with narrative form and style. In a way, this makes Currie a direct heir of David Foster Wallace, and his attempts to tell a story that makes the head beat like the heart.

Paul Guest: My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge is one of the best collections of poetry to come out in the last five years. I'm not a huge memoir fan but I staff-picked Guest's memoir One More Theory About Happiness. His images have a vibrancy, a bravery, and a panache too many contemporary poets avoid in favor of a simplicity I believe masks an utter lack of content. You actually have to think a little bit to get Guest's poems and you will be rewarded for your efforts. He's another author on this list I've written a critical essay about. (Anybody want to publish my critical essay on Paul Guest's image of the body as object? Anybody?)

Grace Krilanovich: Homeless, junky, vampires. What's not to love? The Orange Eats Creeps, which earned Krilanovich 5 Under 35 recognition, is a hallucinatory whirlwind that somehow manages to be equal parts Portlandian chic (trademarked!) and Dostoyevskian intensity. I love books that give the reader a sea of words to float in, that exist in almost a pure language form, and whose story comes not from what we normally recognize as plot, but from the reader's efforts and explorations in that sea. (See also Blake Butler's There Is No Year.) There's also a darkness to The Orange Eats Creeps that gives it a unique intensity, not unlike the work of Mark Z. Danielewski. It's like there's a chance that, just below the depth at the edge of light, a giant squid waits for you to dive too deep.

Victor LaValle: I probably recommend Big Machine more than any other single book at the bookstore. It just fits so many different reading wants and needs. It's protagonist, Ricky Rice, is one of the great images of contemporary American culture; a recovering addict, lone survivor of radical religious cult, and just trying to do his best in a world he doesn't quite understand. His story manages to capture the state of our lives now. (When I've got all the time in the world to write, I'm also going to do an essay that explores how the recovering addict is the quintessential 21st century American hero, starting with Big Machine and Infinite Jest.) Lavalle's developed this really interesting style; conversational in a way that it takes you a couple of moments to realize just how intelligent everything he's written is. It's a unique kind of accessibility that doesn't feel simplistic or condescending, but still manages to feel easy to read. The Devil in Silver is just as good, this time set in a decaying mental institution and touching on a whole ton of themes including mental health, class, race, power dynamics, etc. The “classic” writer Lavalle most reminds me of is Kurt Vonnegut, because both writers find ways to teach us about mundane life through very weird stories.

Tao Lin: Tao Lin confuses the hell out of me. He took the whole Hemingway/Carver short sentences of daily life thing to such an extreme that short sentences of daily life feel totally and utterly alien. If the other novelists I've mentioned have an anti-thesis, if you can even use a structure like that for what he does, it's Lin. Honestly, I can't even say that I “enjoy” reading his books, but I think everyone should at least try Shoplifting from American Apparel and Richard Yates. Occasionally, books should make us uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable means you're confronting something new and books are supposed to do that.

Karyna McGlynn
: Along with having one of the coolest titles, I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, is another one of the best poetry collections I've read in years. Like Guest (and really all the poets I like Kevin Young, Brian Turner, Merwin, going back to the dead, Vallejo, O'Hara, Cesaire) she isn't afraid to be difficult. Also, there is a lot of stupid, pointless, white space in contemporary poetry, large format books with few words that are supposed to say something, I don't know, about the distance between thought and expression, or the void of future considerations, or the stillness at the heart of all acts of creation, or whatever, but generally say very little at all, while being a pain to shelve at the store. McGlynn uses space on the page and visual layout to actually do those things. She's also not afraid to use a lot of words and long lines if the images call for it. She's also funny. And she has this strange dark sexiness that I haven't encountered, not quite like a Molly Crabapple, but in that vein. It all adds up to poems that are challenging and fun.

Other Young, Awesome, & Living: A Partial List
: Obviously, there are more young, living, and awesome writers out there than those I've chosen to highlight here, but life is really a process of exclusion, and so in order for the list to have some meaning, I had to not highlight other young, awesome, and living writers. Here's a partial list of them, go buy their books too. I mean, when you think of how much more money a mediocre financial planner makes than an awesome writer...wait, maybe don't do that, especially if you're having a really good day.

Chris Boucher author of How to Keep Your Volkswagon Alive

Black Butler author of There Is No Year (My review)

Christopher Higgs author of The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney (Interview with Christopher)

Emily St. John Mandel: The Lola Quartet (Interview with Emily)

Joshua Mohr: Damascus (Interview with Josh)

Karolina Waclawiak: How to Get Into the Twin Palms (My Review)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pats Vs. Texans

I’m trying something new for this blog post. Don’t know why this occurs to me now, but I’m going to blog the Patriots vs. Texans Monday Night Football Game. Obviously, I’m not liveblogging the game, since it’s Friday and the game was played on Monday, but rather recording my thoughts and then putting them in the context of the conclusion to maybe learn something, at the very least, about the two teams that played. I typed as I watched and then edited this post into something coherent.

I don’t watch a lot of NFL games. I work on Sundays and somehow the 3 ½ hours of DVR time doesn’t seem worth it. My partner is also, to use the rhetorical device of understatement, not a fan of watching football, so if I’m going to watch a recorded game, I’m going to do it alone. So very alone. But I keep enough track of the general story lines that I’m not totally lost when the Pats play a late game on Monday Night, which I means, I know how interesting Monday night against the Texans was supposed to be.

The Patriots are now the pinnacle of NFL excellence. It took them losing two of their first three to really hammer home just how good this franchise has been for over a decade. It had been about that long since they were last under .500. They’ve already clinched the AFC East (again) and have a pretty good shot at securing home field advantage (again) and a decent shot at winning the AFC (again). After starting 3-3, in six very strange games, they figured out a run game, sorted out their secondary reasonably well, and have developed a debilitating run defense, all while Tom Brady continues to eviscerate defenses no matter who is running routes for him. Though there have been moments when the Patriots haven’t looked like T1000s, they are still the team to beat in the NFL.

Football fans have wondered when the Texans would bring it all together and compete for a Super Bowl. They just had so much raw talent, especially on defense, that it was only a matter of time before they replaced the Ravens and Steelers as one of the teams nipping at the Patriot’s heels. The Patriots are 9-3 and the Texans are 11-1 (though they really should be 10-2) and it’s always interesting to see what happens when an excellent defense plays against the Patriots, but in anticipation of the game, there is one storyline in particular I can’t wait to see play out. Tom Brady vs. J.J Watt.

Brady succeeds because he is almost always able to find an open receiver underneath the coverage. He hits guys when they’re open deep, but the Patriots generally deal death by a thousand cuts. Six, seven, eleven yard completions. Every defense has soft spots and in the modern NFL the softest is almost always a linebacker in coverage underneath. But J.J. Watt completely changes the underneath game because he is so adept at blocking passes, not just because he’s 6’5” and can jump, but also because he knows when to break off a pass rush and settle into a passing lane. No matter what else happens, his unique skill set might be enough to throw a monkey wrench into the Patriot offensive juggernauts. (Editor's note: Don't tell the rest of the NFL but apparently you can game plan for J.J. Watt's pass blocking, as proven by the fact that I never bring it up again.)

You Can't Show Up 15 Minutes Late to a Patriots Game: Despite (or perhaps because of) their best efforts, the Texans were not mentally prepared for the game. Even though they all referred to it as the most important regular season game in franchise history (which it was) they still were mentally about 15 minutes late to the game. They weren't sharp on defense or offense and the result was a 21-0 score and a real risk of being completely embarrassed. On defense in particular it was little mental mistakes that undid otherwise successful plays. A good example is the pass interference call that extended Patriot's third drive. After a penalty extended the first drive, you'd think the Texans would've snapped to it, but instead, some careless contact with Welker extended another drive and lead to another touchdown. The call I think, is debatable as the pass was probably uncatchable, but the onus was still on the defender. Sure, the referee probably made a glamor call, but you still never run into a receiver mid-route. Those first few mental mistakes were enough to turn the Texans from the best team in the NFL to just another Patriots victim. The defense eventually stepped it up and actually put together a solid 20 minutes or so of game time, but the Texans offense never got it together. Partly that was because Schaub wasn't quite sharp enough and partly it was because...

Vince Wilfork is a Force of Nature: If “Tackles Made While a Blocker is Draped All Over You Like a White Sheet Before a Big Reveal” were a stat, I'm pretty sure Wilfork would be leading the league in it. In the past, Wilfork specialized in holding his ground, gumming up the opponent's plays by being an immovable object, but this season he's demonstrated a range of motion that is downright terrifying. He is shedding blockers and getting up and down the line of scrimmage. Last year he was a mountain on the line; this year his is some abominable meterogeological monstrosity crossing a mountain and a tornado. Perhaps what he has developed is what is often obscurely referred to as a “nose for the ball,” which is really just the defensive equivalent of “reading the coverage.” Wilfork has learned how to know where and when to break off his blockers. In some ways this doesn't take a lot, the difference between going right and going left. Go left, there's a gap, go right a tackle. And the ultimate result is that Arian Foster (of 1,148 yards this season fame) gained 46 yards rushing.

What We Learned from Two Fumbles: It could have all been very different, if the Patriots had lost that fumbled on the opening drive. The Texans came up with a big time play to strip the ball, but couldn't recover the fumble and the Pats scored on the next play. Part of that goes back to the whole Texans showing up late point, as one of them had a chance to jump on the ball, but part of this reveals the depth of mental perfection the Patriots really show. When I played football in high school, there was pretty much one fundamental technique for recovering a fumble; fall on it. If you try to scoop up the ball, it will only end in tears. Sure, sometimes you've got enough space to take your time and really get your hands under the ball, but if you have to rush at all, you fall on it. Texan linebacker tried to scoop it. Super star tight end Aaron Hernandez fell on it. Execution of a fundamental football technique. I don't think it's a coincidence that, after demonstrating some give you up your body commitment, Brady threw to him on the very next play for the touchdown. The second fumble recovery also revealed something about the Patriots (and maybe about the Texans). Even though the game was pretty much over. J.J. Watt made a huge play to force that fumble. Not only did he have to run down Woodhead, who had just made several tacklers look ridiculous, he also had the presence of mind to go for the ball, and the solid technique that if he'd missed the strip, he still would've brought Woodhead down. In a different situation, it would have been a game changing play. But what is revealing about this fumble is that only Patriots were around the ball. The ball flew out of Woodhead's hands and all you saw was blue. Part execution of the blocking scheme and part hustle, that little moment explains exactly why the Patriots are so dominant in take aways. Nine times out of ten, every Patriot on the field is in the right place and working as hard as he can.

It's Kinda Sad, that Some People Still Can't Live with Belichick as the NFL's Greatest Coach: About two weeks ago Donte Stallworth was not on the Patriots. On Monday night he caught a 63 yard touchdown pass, a huge play as the Texans were close to stopping the Pats for the 5th straight drive. When Talib, often in single coverage against Andre Johnson (of 1,209 yards receiving fame), was injured, Dennard stepped right in and continued shutting down Andre Johnson. Dennard? John Gruden had to keep correcting his pronunciation of the name because he didn't expect to have to say it. And how many of you were expecting Arrington to have the monster game he did? And now that we've opened this vein of investigation we might as well ask Danny Woodhead? Julian Edelman? Wes Welker? Ten straight years of 10 or more wins, one of which without Tom Brady? How successful was Charlie Weiss outside the organization? Or Josh McDaniels? How many Super Bowls did Parcells win without him? Whenever this era of dominance is finally over, as all things must some day end, the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick will arguably be the greatest professional sports organization in history, rivaled only by the golden age Yankees, and this is in part because it doesn't seem to matter who takes the field for Belichick. He has established organizational excellence top to bottom that allows them to move players in and out without any negative consequences. Gronkowski who? Perhaps some resistance to Belichick comes from the fact that in many ways the Patriots are boring. The Packers in Favre's heyday were almost as good, but many times they relied on Favre's creativity after broken plays, scrambling around in the pocket and ducking tackles before finally finding someone open. It makes for exciting football. The Patriots don't have broken plays. Boring perfection.

A Few More Random Observations: The Pats did not hand the ball off once on a stretch play and yet executed the play action pass off a fake stretch play so well, it was a big play every time they ran it. To reiterate, to make it clear just how weird that was, the Patriots repeatedly and convincingly faked a play they never actually ran. The game was already out of reach when a shot before commercial showed Wes Welker absolutely furious because he dropped a couple of passes. Perfection expected by everyone. Corollary to the the Belichick haters, why people still gotta hate on Tom Brady? How can you not love a guy who is at a point in his life where he has TWO Super Model Baby-Mammas, THREE Super Bowl rings, a raft of records, is in the act of CRUSHING the best team in the NFL, and can still be totally stoked to run for the first down on 3rd and 5? Sure, he models for UGG, but don't you think he looks at the stills for the day's shoot and says, “That's not good enough guys. I wasn't good enough and you weren't good enough. So set those lights back up and lets take some pictures like we actually want people to buy these fucking shoes!” The real loser of this game was Ryan Mallet. He finally gets to pass a ball, makes a perfect throw, the receiver muffs it, the ball pops up in the air for the interception. It was the only Patriots turnover and lead to Texans second touchdown. You just feel bad for the guy.

One Remaining Question: Watching the Patriots thoroughly undress the best team in the league (How'd they do against Denver? Oh that's right, crushed them too.) does raise one question, a question that will haunt Pats fans until New England wins another Super Bowl. How the hell did the Giants beat them?

(Wilfork and Brady pictures from SI photos tumblr)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The New Contempt for Workers

You don't have to read Marx to know that conflict between workers and business owners can happen. They have different goals, different visions for their goals, and different perspectives. Even in the best scenarios, finding compromise between competing self-interest isn't always easy. However, business ownership (at least those owners making headlines) seem to have a contempt for their workers not shared by the previous generation. This new contempt was most clearly and eloquently expressed in Mitt Romney's infamous 47% comment, where he managed to both, prove that didn't know what he was talking about and call nearly half the population lazy moochers. But this contempt has taken many other forms.

The CEO of Papa John's thinks providing healthcare to his employees is so onerous he might need to charge thirteen more cents (or around what inflation would naturally increase costs anyway, and who knows how much cheese is going to cost next year, and if there's another drought wheat prices might rise, but, yeah, it's the preventative healthcare) for the terrible, low quality pizza he sells. While Hostess's bakers union had their pension essentially stolen and made salary concessions, the company's CEOs made millions in salaries and bonuses. (Huh, I wonder why it was difficult for the company to make ends meet.) A major component of Walmart's business model is paying their workers as poorly as possible, stopping their hours before benefits would kick in, paying women workers less, helping their employees sign up for welfare, meaning that an essential part of Walmart's business model is getting us tax payers to pay for some of their employees food. (Which is of course, totally all about the free market.) And let's not forget Scott Walker's fiasco, where his republican controlled legislature passed a whole slew of tax cuts for corporations and then tried to essentially destroy public sector unions as a way to solve a deficit problem.

Huh, wonder where all the profits are.
Yet somehow, these owners, and many others in the punditosphere, blame unions for economic problems, even though U.S production has been up while worker wages have stagnated for a couple of decades. The spiked-irony of this idea being that many of these companies wouldn't be possible without the union driven labor movement of the 30s-50s. Much of what our economy looks like now was created through the rise of a strong middle class, driven, in part by the power of unions to extract fair contracts and livable wages from ownership. Disclaimer: Economies are complex, chaotic entities. No one force is responsible for any trend, pattern, or phenomenon. However, though there were many factors that lead to the post-war economic boom (like the war not happening on US soil, for example) I don't think the influence of unions can be denied.

No Unions Equals No Consumer Goods Market: One of the distinctive features of the new middle class was an entire new population with discretionary spending. Millions of Americans could buy stuff they wanted, not just stuff they needed. And, lo, the consumer market was born. This consumer market made much of our current economy possible, everything from the tech boom, to infomercials, to suburban super stores. Without unions helping to drive up average wages, there just wouldn't have been enough discretionary cash spread around the economy to support, say, a personal computer market or a yearly toy market, or, tis the season, the consumerist orgy of contemporary Xmas. No consumer market, no Walmart. No unions, no consumer market.

No Unions No Suburbs: For better or for worse (I'd say for worse, but we didn't know any better then) the higher wages unions earned for their workers allowed for the “White Flight.” Average American families (at least white ones) in average manufacturing jobs, could own their own homes. Three decades earlier, those exact same jobs would most likely have kept those families chained to rental apartments in the city. Not only did these families have more money, but they lived in an entirely different economic environment. Spread out over a much larger geographic area, middle class families found themselves near, well, nothing but other middle class families. A new need arose; on demand delivery. Without the suburbs there really isn't an economic environment for national chain delivery pizza. The convenience of Papa John's is generated by the inconvenience of living five miles from any pizza joint. It's a solution to a problem of the suburbs, rather than an outright benefit. No unions, no suburbs. No suburbs, no Papa Johns.

Unions aren't perfect. Corruption. Abuse of power. Intransigence. But good luck finding a human institution free of these flaws. Somehow, these flaws are evidence of a fundamental flaw in the institution of unions, but when they appear on Wall Street or the corner office, they are result of an individual making a bad decision; one bad apple whose actions, no matter how many times the actions are repeated by other individuals, shouldn't reflect on the institution or system as a whole.

I've actually got this whole thing backwards. What we're seeing now from the ruling business elite isn't new. In fact, it's very old. It is part of a long human tradition of people who happen to be born into positions of wealth and power, for various reasons, feeling contempt, in various degrees, for everyone else. It only feels new now, because, for a whole host of reasons, America took a break from that bullshit for about three decades. It took a few thousand years of general effort and 40ish years of concerted effort in which hundreds of people gave up their lives in the struggle, to get to that point, but we did. During that break, America also became the richest and most economically egalitarian society the world had ever seen and began, finally, to break down some ethnic, racial, and gender based barriers. But then in the 80s everything changed again. There are now corporations for which avoiding the social contract is a basic plank in their business platform and politicians who believe the most basic acts of governing are destructive. I don't know exactly what caused this change, (I mean Milton Friedman, was already arguing for this bullshit while Keynesian economics was working brilliantly.) but there is some evidence, including the influence of the Occupy movement and the liberal swing of the last election, that we are ditching this contempt again. Let's just hope our economy doesn't collapse before we come to our senses.