Thursday, June 27, 2013

2013 NHL Season Wrap-Up

It's OK everyone. Chara ate before he hugged Hosa
I think even most Blackhawks fans would argue the 2013 NHL season ended one game too soon. They would say the right guys won, but it would have been the most just for them to have won at home after they and all other hockey fans were treated to another brilliant Hawks/Bruins game. But end it did. Here are my thoughts on the 2013 season including the Stanley Cup finals. Warning: Most of this is going to be complaining (and that's after I cut how much I fucking hate the Subban won the Norris) but, I love hockey and I see some problems.

The NHL Has a Discipline Problem
The NHL's discipline problem is they don't know how to apply it. According to the actual rule, Eric Gryba's hit on Lars Eller was perfectly legal. Gryba arrived when the puck did, from the side rather than from behind, without launching himself off the ice, making primary contact shoulder to shoulder. It was a huge hit, but not any different from hits Lucic makes every game, except that when Lars Eller fell his nose and face happened to hit the ice hard and he bled all over the place. It looked bad, really bad, but according to the replay, the hit was legal. But because it looked bad, the NHL suspended Gryba one game. In contrast, Matt Cooke's (more on him later) hit on Macquaid, despite being actually very illegal by a very, very repeat offender was not deemed worthy of additional discipline. But what if Macquaid hadn't gotten up? What if as he fell, his nosed clipped the dasher, and started gushing blood? What Macquaid had gotten a concussion and sat out the rest of the playoffs?

Another example from the playoffs. Why was Duncan Keith's slash to Jeff Carter, which was obviously unintentional and for which he apologized as much as he could, worthy of a suspension but not P.K Subban assaulting Kyle Turris? Play had ended, Subban was frustrated because his team was getting hosed, Subban coasted right into Turris' path and when Turris pushed him away, Subban started wailing on him, even breaking the code by throwing punches after they'd fallen while the linesman was between them. Because Duncan Keith's slash (though accidental, in principle I support the suspension) looked bad and Subban's assault didn't. Until the NHL learns how to dole out discipline based on the actual plays rather than on how they plays look on TV (and quite often who the plays involve) its discipline will be effectively useless in keeping players safe. The discipline needs to be based on dangerous plays, not just injurious plays. Of course, the art of discipline is judgment and there will always be some debate, but the main question they should ask is not, “Was a player hurt?” but “Did this illegal action create a significant risk of injury?”

I Still Don't Know What Hooking Is...
primarily because the NHL doesn't enforce its diving penalty. Right now, there really isn't any punishment for diving. As in game 6 of the finals, even if your dive is blatant enough to get caught (and it really has to be the kind of obviously-grab-the-guys-stick-and-pull-it-into-your-body-while-throwing-your-feet-out-from-under-you kind of move to get caught) the other minor will almost always be called anyway, so you don't go down a man. Right now, the only real reward for skating through a stick check is personal pride.

The ONLY OK dive in the NHL
In general, I like the strict enforcement of the various interference penalties, but hockey loses something when players choose to fall rather than fight through. The real problem is that no referee wants to be the guy that calls a dive only to have the repay reveal it wasn't. And so the solution to the diving (and I'd say the instigator as well) is replay. Just like how every goal is reviewed and on-ice officials can ask for replay reviews from Toronto, why not allow referees to ask for reviews of penalties where they suspect a dive has happened. They call the penalty, signal for a review and get a response. The response can either be, No Dive or Dive. If it's No Dive, the original minor penalty is given, if Dive, even if the other penalty was clearly committed the Diver gets a minor penalty and his team goes on the kill. Odds are, if this is adopted, just the threat of it will pretty much eliminate diving. One or two players get caught early in the season and you'll almost never see it needed again.

I think something similar could be applied to the instigator rule. I think the instigator rule has good intentions but without dealing with the fact that referees still miss dangerous plays, actually can do more harm than good. I like that there's an extra penalty for guys trying to force fights, but I don't like that cheap shot artists can get away without any kind of punishment. Essentially, every time a referee calls an instigator penalty, that play is flagged for review. After the game, the league would watch the surrounding play to see if anything dangerous happened. If they find a penalty or dangerous action they can impose discipline. For example, when Chara totally beat down Lars Eller, he was, rightly according the rules, assessed an instigator penalty. After the game upon review, the league would see Eller cross-check Sequin right in the ribs and either 1. Somehow determine that was totally cool, 2. Assess a minor penalty to be served by Eller at the next game at the start of the period in which the play took place, or 3. Assess a stronger penalty again to be served by Eller, including a game misconduct and/or other suspension as a result of an intent to injure penalty. Does this make for a weird situation when a penalty is served for a play that happened in a previous game? Yes. With trades, last games of the season, playoffs, etc, will there a raft of contingencies need to be figured out. Also, yes. But the result is players will be able to defend themselves and each other against the few assholes who go around trying to hurt people and there would be a league sanctioned mechanism to punish the stuff referees will never be able to catch 100% of the time. And since we're talking about those assholes...

The Matt Cooke Problem
How bad would the problem of hits to the head be in the NHL without Matt Cooke? It wouldn't be gone, but it certainly wouldn't have been as bad as it was. And Matt Cooke doesn't just hit people in the head. Let's not forget him cutting Adam Macquaid earlier this season. If you've got the stomach for it, there are a few YouTube compilations that show Matt Cooke engaging in just about every dirty, dangerous, cheap action a hockey player can take. (And though I know we can't prove Cooke intentionally stepped on Karlsson's Achilles tendon, but those kinds of collisions happen dozens of times again, thousands of times a year, and I've heard of exactly ONE Achilles tendon being sliced in the process.) And to make matters worse, every time an opponent tries to take him to task for hurting, attempting to hurt, or at least endangering another player, he turtles and looks up at the referees as if some injustice has been done to him after they pull whoever off of him. In short, Matt Cooke endangers everyone on the ice with him and will not take responsibility for his actions.

And, as with everything else in the world, there is a very easy solution to the Matt Cooke problem, except that a rich white man is standing in the way. Mario Lemieux should release Matt Cooke and nobody else should sign him. No rule changes. No disciplinary hearings. Just a formal statement by a person who has spoken quite often about player safety, that someone as dangerous as Matt Cooke should not play in the NHL. An agreement that there is a way the game should NOT be played and if a player plays that way, there will be no place for him in the NHL. Frankly, given how much Lemieux has whined about player safety, it's pretty shocking he continues to sign Matt Cooke's checks. It's not like there aren't dozens of other players in the NHL with, once you take out the total disrespect for the game, the exact same ability as Cooke. Which tells me one of two things, both pretty gross. Either Lemieux actually thinks Matt Cooke hurting opponents is good for the Penguins, or he believes he is protecting his players by making sure the most dangerous player in the league is on their team. Both possibilities, though logical, are disgraceful.

The Finals
It was clear early on, that, as unjust as it would have to be, the series would most likely be decided by a bounce. Too evenly matched. Too well coached. Too disciplined. Too talented. Even when one aspect of one team might have struggled, like Corey Crawford's woeful glove hand, they seemed to find balance in the struggles with the other, as with the Bruins' turnovers in that very same game. No cheap shots. No liberties. No whining about the other guys or injuries or referees. I would have gladly watched a best of 97 series with these two teams. I don't think any of the games in particular were as good as Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, which was essentially a perfect hockey game, but they were all pretty close.

Also, in Game 6, Duncan Keith played about the single greatest game I've ever seen from a defenseman. The Bruins were absolutely all over the Hawks pretty much the entire game, and the biggest reason they only scored two goals was Keith. The clearest example of how he played was when he faked a clear up the boards while killing a penalty, spun on a dime, and cleared the puck through the middle ice. It was a stunning mix of intelligence and agility and he made plays like that all game. He broke up plays in front of the net, he relieved pressure, he shut down the top lines. The Bruins only had a one goal lead going into the last minutes of the game because Duncan Keith stopped them from scoring more goals.

And then, as we all kind of knew would happen, one team just happened to get an extra bounce. Every hockey fan wanted more, and I can only hope we get it in 2013-14.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods and the Woods exists in an old age; old because it happened long ago and old because it has been alive a long time, been many places and seen many things. It seeks the paradox of simple symbolism and meaninglessness of folk tales and legends, but with an awareness of all that has happened in storytelling in the last century or so. Like Jess Ball's The Way Through Doors, the works of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, and a number of short stories by the famous and the less so, Matt Bell's novel taps into a growing trend of neo-folklore, stories and books using the rhythm, imagery, and events of folklore, myth, and legend to grapple with the chaotic, contradictory and confusing problems of modern living, subduing the mad complexity of an instant internet world into the simple images of campfire legends. This trend hasn't developed into a genre of its own yet, but it is one major commercial breakthrough from being a pop culture phenomenon. I don't know if In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods will be that breakthrough, (Frankly, I have no fucking clue why some books break and others don't except when Oprah does it.) but it is an excellent novel, with an archetypal story and a powerful voice.

Two characteristics jumped out at me as I read. The first is the book's quiet brutality. With movies and video games we expect violence and brutality to be loud; gunshots, explosions, screams, the sound of breaking glass, mysterious engines revving out of sight of the victim strapped to a chair, folley-enhanced martial arts; but not all violence is loud. The narrator is a man, a fisherman and then later a trapper. The effect of his traps on the bodies of the animals he catches is related in clear and precise detail. Muscles are torn. Bones broken. Tendons snapped. Skin rent. The man fights a bear and every wound dealt and received is chronicled. There is decay and rot. Bodies break down. The man fights a squid and every wound dealt and received is chronicled. The man is torn apart by foundlings. He has a heart attack. His wife is burned beyond recognition. The bear smashes a foundling's skull. All in perfect detail but at a volume just above a whisper. It's an effect that could pass under your reading radar, but once I noticed, it was clear Bell's book belongs to the long tradition nature of red in tooth and claw narratives.

Second, is the distinctiveness of the voice itself. From the opening line, you can hear the voice in your head, like someone reading to you. The voice reminds me of good bourbon, how it can be smooth and biting at the same time, how it can be warm and give you shivers, how it has both comfort and desperation. But just like bourbon, if you like it you love it and if you don't you hate it. By definition, the distinctiveness of Bell's narrative voice will turn some readers away. If you don't like the voice, nothing in the plot or the character will redeem the book in your eyes. That is the risk of distinctive writing; on one edge, you break ground, excite imaginations, stretch capacities, and earn the respect of devoted readers and on the other edge, you cut your work off from swaths of the reading public. It is not hard to see why so many different books by so many different people all sound the same.

At its heart, this is a story about a man way, way over his head. The semi-nameless narrator (though it's never said, you can figure it out, or, at least I think I did.) just wants children with the wife he loves (figured out her name first) in the isolated house he made and to fish and trap for food until the day he dies. That's it. But everything around him is vastly more powerful; his wife who can sing things into being, the woods with its bear, the lake with its squid, the dirt, the ghosts, the moon, and when his wife creates a child from a bear cub because she was never able to carry a pregnancy to term, even that foundling is more powerful than the man. In an impulsive move, the man goes to kiss the small corpse of the first miscarriage (remember that quiet brutality thing) and swallows it instead and that being, called “the fingerling” is also more powerful in many ways than he is. And while we're at it, the man is selfish, short-sighted, and myopic. But he survives, and if survival itself does not equal power, it equals something like power, in that the man is always around to contribute, productively or destructively to all the surrounds him.

The story is told with the archetypes and elements of folklore and so it risks being read as an allegory. At times, I did, but then couldn't quite decide what it was an allegory for. I had options, some I liked, others I questioned, but the fact that I had options, that the equivalencies of allegory wouldn't stand still, proves In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is more novel than allegory, more story than tale, more prose than scripture. Bell gets pretty close to a prose equivalent of a Rorschach test and readers who look hard enough will see something. Ultimately, whether you like the book or not will come down to whether you like the voice. If you dig gritty, western-y, McCarthy-y prose, you'll probably dig the voice, but if you're more of a delicate sentences in sophisticated constructions kind of reader this book might not be for you. Personally, I dig both (you know, me and Uncle Walt containing multitudes and such) and in the voice I saw a talented and imaginative storyteller showing us something we might not have seen before in a way we might not have considered. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is an excellent book, a solid debut, and, hopefully, the beginning of a long career for a very talented storyteller.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Watching Game 7 Against Toronto

Most nights I work in the evening, usually getting home between 9-9:30, which means, most of the time, I don't watch live sports. Before we got DVR with our cable package, for Sox and Bruins games, I would watch the two-hour replay at midnight, getting reading and writing done during the commercials. Despite my best efforts, over the years I learned how to triangulate time left in the games, time left before 2 a.m. and the score to know who was going to win and whether or not the game would go into overtime. And, of course, every now and then NESN wouldn't edit the relevant score out of the scroll and I would see who wins a few minutes into watching the game.

I still watch Sox in 2 rather than recording the game because the nature of a baseball game can be expressed in a two-hour version of itself, but generally, I record Bruins games, especially during the playoffs when they are not necessarily playing on NESN. The challenge though is that the games don't always show up in cable queue, making scheduling a recording a pain. Game seven against Toronto was not listed in the queue even the early afternoon of the day of the game (Damn you, RCN!), so I asked my partner to record the game for me. Having a life of her own that pretty explicitly involves as little sport as possible, I wasn't too upset when I got home from work to find she had started the recording late, roughly at the beginning of the second period.

As Game 7 was broadcast on NESN, I had a brilliant idea. I would watch the first period on Bruins in 2, set the replay to record in case my live recording didn't get the whole thing, and then watch to the end of my live recording, thus, enjoying the entire game. I thought it was a pretty clever way to watch the entire game. Then the NESN scroll during the replay advertised ticket sales for home games 1, 2, and 3 of Round 2, telling me the Bruins won game 7. Which marked the beginning of perhaps the strangest spectating experience of my life.

In some ways, it was nice to be able to watch the game knowing it wouldn't be the last of the season. Sure, the major emotional content of the game was removed, but I could enjoy it without stress. And when the Bruins scored first, I just sat back prepared for the Bruins to coast to victory over the over-achieving Toronto Maple Leafs. So when the third period with the Bruins down 3-1, I nodded my head at what would be an impressive third period. But, of course, the Bruins have been a strong third period team for the last four years, and the Leafs are young and Phaneuf had struggled all series. Coming back from two down in the third period seemed totally reasonable. And then...time ran, as it does. And then...Toronto scored again, making it 4-1. And then...time ran, as it does. And what started out as totally reasonable, making up a two-goal deficit, over the course of a third period, became unbelievable. At one point I even wondered if somehow, through some inexplicably absent minded mistake, NESN ran the wrong scroll.

It felt like perpendicular trains of thought running both towards and away from each other. The fundamental fact was being stretched by the particular facts I was watching as if it were on the rack. To be honest, and here is one of the stranger sentences I'm going to write, the only other experience I've had that has produced as strange a mental state, was reading poems by Cesar Vallejo.

Midway through the third period, Nathan Horton scored and I thought this was the beginning of the comeback. Remarkable enough to comeback from three goals down with less than ten minutes. And then the time just kept ticking on. Rather than being frustrated, discouraged, and a little sports-depressed, I watched an event go from remarkable, to amazing, to miraculous, to unfucking believable. Lucic with 1:22 left and Rask on the bench. Bergeron with :55 left to tie with Rask on the bench. And then it was just waiting for the overtime winner, which, because he is the best, had to be Bergeron again.

For all the intensity of emotion in sports, there isn't much of a variety of emotions. So not only was the experience weird in and of itself, its very existence was weird. A random arrangement of events made possible by modern technology, through the diligence and/or negligence of other people with an unprecedented event at its core. It is the kind of event you don't want to waste and for me, that means writing this post.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Brooklyn Book Haul

I visited Brooklyn a few weekends ago and, because that's how I roll, I asked my friend @corpuslibris (Emily Pullen) to put together a book store tour for me. (And no, this post is not just a chance for me to brag that I totally know Emily and totally knew her before Corpus Libris and Emerging Leaders and Skylight and Word, and speaking about the realities of ebooks for indie bookstores, but I do and I did.) It was a mostly walking tour, so not only did I get to visit a bunch of cool bookstores, I also got to see a bunch of Brooklyn.

The most striking feature of my tour was how different each bookstore was, from my store and from each other. Even the new, general, independent stores I visited, the ones whose booksellers I see at trade shows, who are members of the ABA, who use IndieBound marketing material, who share demographics are strikingly different from not only Porter Square Books, which is in a different state, but from each other, even when they were only a ten minute or so walk apart. These differences weren't just in the staff picks, which are obviously going to distinguish one store from another, or in what books are displayed and where, or even how the categories are organized on the shelves, but in the actual books on the shelves. Sure, there were the books everyone was talking about, but the backlist (older, still in-print books) and the mid-list (books by not-so-famous) authors were all totally different. In every section, of every store I visited, even the ones that should have been selling books to pretty much the same customer base, I saw books I had never seen before. Not at my store, not at my house, and not at the other stores.

In some ways, the way bookstores stock their shelves is the same way every other store stocks their shelves; they carry what they think will sell. Obviously, lots of other factors go into a book getting on the shelf of a bookstore, but they all still really boil down to whether or not the buyer thinks the book will sell enough to justify its space. This means people buy different books at Greenlight than they do at Community and Word and they buy different books at Porter Square Books than they do at Harvard Bookstore. And given that what we read reflects who we are, this means every bricks and mortar indie bookstore is a portrait of the character of its community. Through the books bought, and thus, the books stocked, every community with a bricks and mortar indie bookstore creates an image of its own character. If you want to know what a neighborhood is like, walk into its bookstore, go to its fiction section, and see which books by which canonized authors are there.

I had a couple considerations when I was shopping at the stores I visited; first, I'm a bookseller and I have yet to meet a bookseller made of money, second, I live in an apartment that is not bigger on the inside and is already filled with books, and third, you've heard I work in a bookstore, right, so I was looking for stuff I wouldn't find at my own store. (I even intentionally brought one of my smaller tote bags to act as a physical purchase limiter.) With those considerations in mind, here's my Brooklyn Book Haul.

From Greenlight

Coda by Rene Belleto
I picked up Coda because it fit all the other requirements and looked really cool. Ironically, in the Alainis Morrisette way, since I started working at the book store, I almost never browse the shelves and buy something that just happens to look interesting. I go to conferences and trade shows, galleys are mailed to me, and I read a lot of book media, so I don't randomly happen on to books very often. And come on, “Playing with the expectations of the reader, Belleto constructs a logic puzzle that defies logic, much like the 'almost-perpetual motion machine' invented by the narrator of this novel and his father.” If it weren't already covered in words, my name would be written all over this book.

One Sleeps the Other Doesn't by Jacqueline Waters
Since I know how much effort I put into my staff picks, I always make sure to check out the ones at other stores. At Greenlight, a certain “Michael,” had staff picked The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which means that “Michael,” totally rules. Of course, I already have a copy (or three, including the absolutely amazing Visual Editions, um, edition) of Tristram Shandy and so I got “Michael's” other pick.

The Crisis of Infinite Worlds by Dana Ward
I ended up chatting with a couple of the booksellers at Greenlight, a couple I'd met at various events and one I met that day (who coincidentally is friends with one of the cafe's former managers). He saw the copy of One Sleeps the Other Doesn't in my hands, instantly knew I was a cool kid and we started talking about poetry. (Yes, mostly small press poetry.) We traded recommendations and, of the ones he gave me, The Crisis of Infinite Worlds was the most interesting to me. I also want to point out that right before he talked small press poetry with me, he was singing nonsense songs to toddlers for Greenlight's story hour. To reiterate; at Greenlight, the person who reads picture books and sings nursery rhymes is also totally down with cutting edge American poetry. This is why booksellers, in general, fucking rule. When you love books, when you read a lot, you end up knowing a lot about whatever it is those books are about. One of the ways to “contain multitudes,” is to read and so booksellers, in general, kickass at the whole multitude containing game. Where you can have the most in-depth, intelligent conversation about cinema in Cambridge? At Porter Square Books during the evening when Gary and Nathan are working. To be an expert in books, you kinda have to be an expert in everything, so you can go to a book store and talk sports, movies, politics, history, pedagogy, TV, cooking, brewing, knitting, biking, hiking, running...and that's just what I know from the booksellers at my store I happen to know pretty well. Who knows what you could talk and learn about at your local book store?

From Unnameable Books

Two American Scenes by Lydia Davis and Eliot Weinberger
Lydia Davis is a genius. Sometimes her work pops up in pamphlets like this one. I had specifically told myself I was not going to buy anytThe Man without Qualities hing when we went into this store, but, well, when I see a Lydia Davis pamphlet, I buy it.

From Community

Five Women by Robert Musil
The Man Without Qualities is a towering work of modernism, a kind of Don Quioxte at the end of the Belle Epoque in Austria involving politics, national identity, and healthy dose of the impossibility of solidifying meaning in the modern world. It's the fourth corner of European modernism with Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, and Mrs. Dalloway. I had never planned to delve into Musil the way I did Joyce, not because I didn't love The Man without Qualities, but because, despite the best efforts of super-science, I am still not made of time. So when I saw Five Women on the shelf at Community (by the way, this was the store featured in Louis AND they totally nailed handselling when he was looking for a book for his daughter.) (I also just noticed the bottom of their receipt has a quote, which is awesome.) it was obviously a book I needed on my shelves.

From Word

Get Jiro by Anthony Bourdain (and also some greeting cards, one of which, not gonna lie, was pretty lewd.)
Of course, I couldn't come to Brooklyn, demand Emily Pullen lead me all over the borough, and then not buy something at Word. I may be poor, but I'm not an asshole. I decided to get my partner a present because she couldn't make the trip, because she has a “real” job and works “during the week.” Since we're both fans of Anthony Bourdain, and who doesn't love a little sushi themed ultra-violence, I got her Bourdain's graphic novel Get Jiro. And since there was a lewd greeting card, I was obligated by law to get it.