Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Chicago Ex-Patriate:" Now On Twitter



If you glance to your right, you'll see a widget for my Twitter account. Twitter is a new website that enables...okay, okay, you already know what it is, and saying that I'm "late to the game" is an understatement; to expand that metaphor, I'm checking into the game with thirty-seven seconds left on the clock in a lopsided blowout. I've avoided Twitter for years now, but some of my fellow bloggers have been using it, and I figured that it couldn't hurt to give it a go.

I began this blog over three years ago, and wasn't sure what it would become. It took me awhile to get my voice down and to sculpt my posts into consistent book reviews and essays. While Twitter is a drastically smaller format, I'm still not sure what direction I will end up taking it in--but for now, I'm hoping to update it along with my blog, follow various writers and publishers, and maybe it'll end up being a nice compliment to my modest goals. With the occasional lapse, I'm hoping to keep it limited to posts that are book, music, or film based. If you want to know how my lunch tasted, or how terrible my commute was on a given morning, you'll just have to ask me outright.

So here goes: follow me. On a final note, I'm going to be "updating Twitter." I cannot bring myself to use the verb "tweet."

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Future Of Baseball: Less Is More




Like many people, I'm anxiously awaiting the start of the 2011 Major League Baseball season, but aside from the anticipation, I've also been thinking about Commissioner Bud Selig's desire to expand the baseball playoffs. Granted, this might seem odd. Perhaps it would be best to focus on the beginning of the season, and not October. However, Selig was hoping to have the expansion in place for this season, but that was thankfully pushed back. Of course, there's a strong possibility that it could happen for the 2012 playoffs. As I've mentioned in some of my previous baseball articles, I'm in no way a purist; as long as the game itself is the same, I'm all for the changes that inevitably happen due to logistics and the passage of time. And the point of this piece is not necessarily to criticize Selig, but to offer my own thoughts as to how a possible expansion of the baseball playoffs could work. Besides, I'm not a stranger to critiques of Selig:

"Another glaring problem is Bud Selig, baseball commissioner. [The 2002 All-Star game that ended in a tie] fiasco proved that he lacks the true baseball mind that is needed to run the league. That is why I propose two people who would be respected, organized, and intelligent baseball commissioners.
The first choice is former NBC announcer Bob Costas. In addition to being a lifelong fan of the game, his book Fair Ball showed that he has astute knowledge of both what happens on the field and off the field. He has some good ideas to help baseball's labor problems, if not to solve them completely. This labor problem is going to take years to fix, but Costas could lay a foundation.
The second choice is journalist George Will. Again, Will is a man who loves the game. He has a keen political mind that would serve the business end of the game. As much as we fans love to think that baseball is just a game, it's really a business, with politics and money being the real bats and balls.
Bud Selig no doubt loves the game, but he lacks the command that either Costas or Will would immediately bring to the job."

I wrote the above passages when I was nineteen, part of a longer article calling for a change in baseball's leadership, and it was published as the featured letter in the April 27th, 2003 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. Looking back, it's obvious that I was only nineteen at the time (what exactly is a "true baseball mind?" And did I not know how to write a compound sentence?), but I'm semi-pleased that it worked as a sort of bi-partisan appeal (Costas leans to the left, Will to the right). Also, a random reader could assume I was hinting that Selig doesn't love baseball. Obviously, that's not the case, whether viewed through the actual game or the business side: more playoff rounds equal more television revenues and more games. However, that's the problem.




It would behoove Selig to reverse the decision he made following the embarrassing tie in the 2002 All-Star Game (currently, the league that wins the All-Star game gets home field advantage in the World Series). The home field advantage of the World Series should go to the team with the better record. Also, even as a teenager, I hated the rule that every team needs an All-Star representative. Instead, Selig should take a cue from the NBA. Last year, Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose was named Chicago's first All-Star since Michael Jordan in 1998, and the attention he received was extremely well-deserved, in addition to (even if viewed in a nostalgic manner) highlighting the fact that being named an All-Star should be earned on the field, and not by default. For example, I doubt that the majority of Houston Astros fans tuned into the game to see Michael Bourn get his one at-bat.

As much as I love the game, by the time late October comes around, I cannot help but think "Is the season STILL going?" And when the World Series is continually pushed into November, it becomes even more ridiculous. If Selig has his way, a possible second or third wild-card would be added to each league, bring the total number of playoff teams to either ten or twelve. This would mean another round (or two) of playoffs before the League Championship Series and the World Series. The current format (three division champions and one wild-card for each league) has been ridiculed since its inception in 1995. But then again, when the season was expanded from 154 games to 162 in 1961, that was criticized heavily before it became accepted.

I don't think that expanding the playoffs would cheapen baseball, but something has to be done about the length of the season, both the regular season and the playoffs combined. In my opinion, this is how a baseball season would work:

1.) I applaud baseball executives for starting the 2011 season right at the beginning of April, and hopefully this will continue. However, I would prefer to see the season cut to 158 games. This way, the season would end in the middle of September, and there's no reason to not have the playoffs start the week after.

2.) I prefer the current playoff formats, and let's assume that it doesn't get expanded. It would make sense to keep the best-of-five divisional playoff format, and while this may be a stretch, baseball could go back to its original LCS roots and revert to the current American and National League Championship Series to a best-of-five, rather than a best-of-seven.

3.) After the NLCS and ALCS, the pennant winners would take a week off, and the emphasis would be on the World Series. This is taking a cue from football, which does an excellent job of building to the Super Bowl. Yes, this would drastically cut down on the number of playoff games, but would add potential excitement to a playoff system that, even for the most diehard baseball fans, tends to drag on too long. The World Series would still be played under the best-of-seven format, and would end in the middle of October, instead of flirting with November. Even with these rules in place, another round of playoffs could be added, but would still keep the postseason within the confines of September and October. Selig's current problem is that he thinks nothing about baseball going past October. By reverting the format of the LCS to a best-of-five, I cannot imagine that any television revenue would be lost, since the series in either league rarely goes to a seventh game.

I'm not trying to focus on the negatives. Overall, I'm as excited as always to see the start of the season. However, Selig is taking steps back when he thinks that he's taking steps forward. He's entirely right to be thinking about expansion, but the fact that baseball has a longer season than any other sport, it's odd that he's not taking these simple subtractions into account. Shaving a few games off the schedule would create immense room for a logical playoff increase, and would bring back the reverence for the World Series that seems to have been lost. I'm sure that I'm overlooking some logistical problems, but I think that my ideas would appeal to both purists and the natural progression of baseball.

Now that I have these concerns written and out of my head: Play ball!

Friday, March 18, 2011

L'âge De Non Innocence: Jean-Christophe Valtat's "03"



For some reason, when it comes to reading other blogs, I tend to focus on film-based, rather than book-based, writings. My outside literature information tends to come from magazines, websites, and word-of-mouth, and I'm also fortunate to have been introduced, so to speak, to an excellent circle of film bloggers. Since most writers who run blogs do so for nothing other than the passion he or she feels for the given subjects, maintaining a well-written site, juggled with a career and family, is really no small feat. For this post, I'm taking a page from Bob Turnbull, a Toronto film critic and the creator of one of my favorite film blogs, Eternal Sunshine Of the Logical Mind. Turnbull occasionally does a feature in which he selects a film at random to review, a film in which he knows next to nothing about any of the actors, the writer, or the director. It's fascinating to see how someone reads a film with virtually no outside comparisons to make, or at least think about. I've long wanted to do the same thing for a book, and recently did so, opting to read the English-language debut translations of 03, a novella by French novelist and screenwriter Jean-Christophe Valtat. The only outside factors that went into the choice were 1.) my need to catch up on international literature outside of the mainstream (I rarely compliment myself, but I feel that the last time I did this, it worked out quite well, resulting in one of my better pieces), and 2.) the fact that the novella was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, arguably my favorite publisher (see Jonathan Franzen and Roberto Bolano).

03 is a very brisk, 84-page story told from the point of view of a nameless French teenager (or, perhaps, a recalled memory from said teenager's adult self), and the sometimes philosophical, sometimes rambling feelings and explanations for his attraction to a mentally challenged girl whom he sees across the street while waiting for the bus. The style and tone makes the novella feel as if it's being mentally narrated in real time, but only towards the end does the hint of it being a past memory come into play. The teenager's voice is, at least superficially, wise beyond his years, but not in a precocious way; his occasional foray into sentimentality saves him from being utterly cold and even nihilistic. Virtually every novel with a teenage protagonist offers hints to a hatred of school (or at least a certain part of school), but Valtat's teenager manages to phrase in very stark metaphors:

"I couldn't possibly cross the street in the dawn light and speak to her directly: first because I felt held as though on a leash by my bus stop and wouldn't dream of missing the public transport meant to hand me over to school; more to the point, because her mother (whose face, strangely, held so little interest for me that I couldn't have recognized her from one sighting to the next) rarely let go of her hand...(Valtat 5-6)"

His attraction to the mentally challenged girl is based on a myriad of reasons. Some of these are admirable (an acute sense of mutual loneliness and isolation), and some of them are inappropriate (there's a hint of the teenager's sexual desire). However, in any case, his thoughts tend to grow from basic acknowledgments to scattered, free-form transitions that are basically easy to follow, but a possible hint to a troubled mind coupled with obvious intelligence. It's difficult to tell whether or not Valtat is obviously striving for this balance, or if he's trying to pack so many thoughts into the story that it ends up veering into verbal chaos.

"There were two ways to think of this obvious lack of recognition, and both suited me, for different reasons. The first, in keeping with my low opinions of romantic love, and perfectly appropriate for my age, was that my love, if ever I could make it halfway visible in the too often cold and clammy air that lay between us, would be doomed to a disappointment that matched the intensity of my feelings, in which case my sincerity, underwritten by the pain I'd have to feel, would no longer be in doubt, however unlikely the source of it might be (Valtat 17-18)."




However, Valtat's writing does have the occasional well-crafted exploration of an idea that goes into a run-on, but in a positive way. The reader doesn't necessarily have to agree with a lot of the narrator's opinions, but has to admire how well-written they can be at times:

"Maybe it was from reading too much, or seeing too many forbidden movies, or from the gloomy music in which I steeped my aching hormones--[The Cure's album] Pornography was the cruelest example--I'd prematurely hit on the ragged idea, stitched together as best I could, that sex was deeply connected to corruption, of both body and spirit, and that it violently held all the truth that should ever matter to any human being worthy of the name (Valtat 31)."

The tempting thing to do would be to call 03 a coming-of-age novel, but that's not the case. The narrator, even if explaining these moments as an act of remembrance, is obviously not losing his innocence, since there's really no hint that he ever looked at his life through rose-colored glasses before. In retrospect, despite the book's occasional flaws, this is refreshing. Instead of a teenage narrator gliding between innocent and worldliness, it's interesting to see a rigid slice of a time period, with a narrator who doesn't claim to know everything, yet seems to have a handful of hypotheses for every possible question that 03 brings up. As I've mentioned before, in regard to both literature and film, the "coming-of-age" tag is applied far too often when a young protagonist is present. Also, it would be wrong to view the narrator through an American filter. While the dissatisfaction of youth is universal, I couldn't help but wonder if some of the narrator's problems, as written by Valtat, were unique to the troubles of contemporary French youths. But then again, there's nothing "political" about the work.

I hesitate to criticize 03, but at the same time, I didn't love it, either. Valtat's use of the novella format is refreshing, since it's still an artistically viable medium, and for a story that goes onto so many different sociological paths, it would have been a problematic full-length novel. A commendable note is that Valtat rarely goes for the obvious metaphors or thoughts, and 03 has moments of being genuinely thought-provoking. He doesn't shy away from uncomfortable subject matters, yet manages to render them in realistic internal monologues. My outside research has shown that this was well-received upon publication, as evidenced in this brief interview with Valtat in The Paris Review. Perhaps it would benefit from another reading or two, but while I admire Valtat's style and ambition, 03 ends up as an odd paradox: it leads to the occasional dead-end even in the midst of an intentionally free-flowing story.

Work Cited:
Valtat, Jean-Christophe. 03. Copyright 2005 by Editions Gallimard. Translation copyright 2010 by Mitzi Angel.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Radiohead, Limbs, and Mind



One of my deluded daydreams revolves around me, in the near future, being commissioned to write articles, essays, or stories for actual payment. I suppose that, to make such a fantasy a reality, I need to be more assertive and resourceful in my queries and research, as well as continuing to better myself as a writer. However, this latest post is, in a roundabout way, being done as a request. My best friend Edward is arguably the biggest Radiohead fan that I know, and with the recent digital release of their eighth album The King Of Limbs, he found himself torn, at least initially, between varying opinions. He enjoyed the album on his first listens, grew to appreciate the song distinctions with even more time, and likened said feelings to his initial response to their previous album, In Rainbows. After the novelty of Radiohead releasing In Rainbows as a "pay what you want" deal wore off, fans and critics heaped immediate praise, but even then, it was an album that took a little getting used to, and while the payment option highlighted how most record companies simply charged too much for most albums, I couldn't help but think that most people praised the album merely because of the release method. The King Of Limbs was released via the band's website with virtually no announcement, and Edward asked me to review the album as a way to see a second opinion. He's long expressed admiration for my opinion-based writings and reviews, and while my self-deprecating side resists praise, I respect his views on everything else, and I looked at writing about The King Of Limbs as a challenge.

The album is less than forty minutes long, making it Radiohead's shortest album to date. Therefore, I was curious to see how much Thom Yorke and company could work an actual album into such a condensed space, especially given that their lyrics and musical textures almost demand longer running times. The opening track, "Bloom," is not bad by any stretch, but doesn't immediately hook the listener, either. The words "electronic" and "experimental" are too easy and too vague to work as labels, especially for such a talented group, but they can often be used as quick standbys. These designations immediately popped into my head upon hearing "Bloom," but with repeated plays, the song proves to be neither. The lyrics are bare, and the beats are repetitive, with the only decipherable instrumentation coming from Phil Selway's scattered drumbeats. The opening tracks of 2003's Hail To the Thief contained the same thematic foundation, but quickly meshed with some incredible lyrics, thereby making the repetition work as a balance to the words. Even "15 Step," the opening to In Rainbows, worked better as a Radiohead imagining of funk.

However, by the second track, there's a definite sense of something building. "Morning Mr. Magpie" ups the tempo, maintains the repetition, but is immediately catching. The lyrics aren't anymore advanced than the beginning, but are intangibly more effective.

You've got some nerve coming here....
You stole it all, give it back
You stole it all, give it back




By the time "Lotus Flower" rolls around, my aforementioned remarks can happily be tossed aside. It's arguably the best track of the lot, and feels more like a "Radiohead song." There's a much stronger melody and cohesive structure, yet doesn't feel restricted at all; it's a combination of great songwriting, with discernible contributions from Colin and Jonny Greenwood, and Yorke's voice seamlessly glides between low and high ranges. The band puts in a little bit of everything, and the mix of sounds that open the album are now used as nearly flawless background sounds. Returning to Edward's thoughts, he initially wondered if one of the lyrics in "Separator," the album's final song--"if you think this is over, you're wrong..."--was a possible hint to more to come, even a newer release with more cohesion. For the time being, this album stands on its own. But does it? A lot of comparisons are being made to their previous effort, Kid A, an album that was either loved or hated upon release. I've listened to Kid A the fewest times of any Radiohead release, yet another non-musical idea follows the comparison between that album and The King Of Limbs: Kid A was the follow-up to OK Computer, Radiohead's best album; The King Of Limbs is the follow-up to In Rainbows, which was well-received as well as revolutionary for its optional payment plan.

This may end up being a ridiculous stretch, but I couldn't help but wonder if essayist Curtis White's thoughts on Kid A would be applicable to The King Of Limbs, since both are musically similar and coming on the heels of drastic expectations. In his excellent 2003 book The Middle Mind (which I've cited in a much different fashion before), White took exception to novelist Nick Hornby's critiques of Kid A, specifically Hornby's claims that all art needs a message, and that, as a band, Radiohead is a commodity. In the eight years that have passed between the publication of White's book and Radiohead's penchant for releasing albums on their own, the questions that were originally posed now have possible answers.

"And Radiohead asks, What does it mean to be artists opposed to technical rationality when we are obliged not only to create our art through computers, in highly technical and utterly engineered recording studios, but also in cooperation with international mega-corporations (White 58)?"

Obviously, the technological effects are still present in The King Of Limbs, but the beauty is that the band has now moved beyond being reliant on a label to promote and release their music. They can do it on their own (even if the albums are eventually released in CD format). As far as a message goes, I couldn't immediate place one in the new album, but perhaps its best to let the songs stand alone, even if a few of them aren't as strong as the band is capable of producing. In various interviews, the band members have tried to distance themselves from explicit themes or messages in their work, and The King Of Limbs doesn't offer any answers, even if fans and critics will attempt to find the questions. It isn't their best album, but for such a short work, it still demands attention, even if it's not as immediate as their previous works. Radiohead is not a band that deals in novelties or gimmicks, but a small batch of songs that are this thought-provoking, even if done based on their musical history, is something to be applauded.

I was worried that citing Curtis White would be veering into Pitchfork territory (that is, wildly speculative and unnecessary comparisons that tend to get away from the actual album). I never read other music reviews before writing my own, but for some odd reason, I happened to glance at Pitchfork's take on The King Of Limbs, and found this curious passage:

"A trawl through message boards and social networks leaves the impression that many disappointed fans are still struggling to make sense of the gap between the greatness of the thing they got and the genius of the thing they thought they might get. It's in that gap, when assessing the album overall, that it's easy to get tangled up. This is well-worn terrain for Radiohead, and while it continues to yield rewarding results, the band's signature game-changing ambition is missed."

Could this be the point? Could this be what the band was actually aiming for?

Work Cited:
White, Curtis. The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think For Themselves. Copyright 2003 by Curtis White.