Friday, September 26, 2014

Some Thoughts on Moby-Dick

I spent the last couple months reading Moby-Dick, finishing it last week. A massive and often tedious epic, it's not a very easy read but the short chapters make it manageable and the language is deliciously rich and grandiose. The meditations of Melville (through the book's narrator Ishmael) often reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson; so immensely poetic and majestic, and yet the prose is also extremely precise in its realism.

With plenty of other writings on my plate at the moment, I'm hesitant to really dig into an in-depth analysis or reflection of this undisputed champion of the American literary canon so I'll instead just share a few thoughts and favorite passages from it.

Monday, September 8, 2014

On Reluctantly Returning to NFL Fanhood

The NFL season officially began yesterday and I didn't watch a minute of it.

I've had a love/hate relationship with football for a while now. This year my interest has been rekindled to such an extreme that I've been devouring all the season preview material I can find---especially the fantastic Football Outsiders Almanac 2014---and yet I still don't have any desire to watch games yet.

If I had to rank the available methods for consuming NFL football from most to least favorite, it'd probably look something like this:

1. NFL highlight shows
2. Madden videogames
3. Fantasy football
4. Reading football articles
5. Watching football games

The Madden franchise helped lead me to become an NFL fanatic for a good decade or so. I didn't care about football growing up until I was in junior high, then it was football videogames and an exciting New York Jets team (in 1998) that combined to reel me in. Not long afterwards I was ritually recording the Jets game on VCR each Sunday so I could spend the rest of the week watching it closely, then trying to reenact their gameplan in Madden using the same players. I lived and died with Curtis Martin, Vinny Testaverde, and Wayne Chrebet. I was furious when Laveranues Coles departed to the Redskins in 2002 (the Jets would eventually trade to get him back a few years later).

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Rooting for the Cleveland Indians and Team Entropy

Here's hoping Carlos Santana and the Tribe can make things interesting.

It's been a rather weird baseball season thus far. The game's twin giants, the Red Sox and Yankees, are among the lowest scoring teams in the league. The Texas Rangers, a popular pick to win the American League pennant, have the worst record in all of baseball.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Baltimore Orioles have surprised everyone all year, building a commanding 7-game lead in the AL East with nobody mounting much of a threat to knock them off their perch. They've bewildered analysts by succeeding despite a subpar pitching rotation and limited contributions from key players like Matt Wieters (elbow injury, out for the year), Manny Machado (knee injury, done for the year), and Chris Davis (healthy but batting .194 following his breakout year in 2013). Their formula has been defense, homeruns, and a strong bullpen. With all the other AL East contenders faltering, that's been enough for them build up a big lead.

The Oakland A's were the most dominant team in the game for much of the year but they've experienced a sudden rapid descent in the past month after executing a daring trade that sent one of their most imposing hitters, Yoenis Cespedes, to the Red Sox for pitching ace Jon Lester. The A's were leading the AL West division for most of the season, but they're now looking up at the Angels and a possibly insurmountable 4.5-game deficit. Alas, the Wild Card safety net virtually assures they'll be playing October.

In the Midwest, Detroit and Milwaukee have also both relinquished division leads they'd been holding onto for much of the year. The Tigers have played below expectations as they often tend to. A blockbuster trade for David Price merely patched some holes in their rotation where Anibal Sanchez is hurt and Justin Verlander ineffective. Detroit hasn't fallen into any prolonged funk though, they were simply overtaken by a surging Royals team who are, like the Orioles, succeeding despite major flaws. Kansas City's offense is among the worst in the American League. Their success has been predicated on the league's best defense and a shutdown bullpen.

The Brew Crew got off to a great start, hung around atop the NL Central while their rivals struggled to figure things out, and now have gone 22-30 since the beginning of July. The wheels appear to be falling off for them as they've now lost 8 games in a row and their best player Carlos Gomez is out with a wrist injury.

Neither league looks to have much of a thrilling playoff chase in the works as the contenders are pretty clear. In the NL, the Nats, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Giants are virtual locks for the postseason with the Braves, Brewers, and Pirates fighting for the final wild card spot. In the AL it's the Orioles, Angels, and A's with the Royals, Tigers, and Mariners fighting for the other 2 spots. The Yankees are also technically in the mix but I have zero faith in them to stay there.

There's one other AL team on the outside looking in that I find highly intriguing though, and that's the Cleveland Indians.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Now Appearing at Amazin' Avenue

Last week I wrote my first piece for the popular Mets blog Amazin' Avenue, covering the team's success with forming a bullpen after years of frustration in that department. It's the first of what I hope will be many articles for me at Amazin' Avenue and I'm honored to be given the opportunity to contribute there as I've been a regular reader of theirs for years.

As fun and exciting as it is to write about baseball, the material tends to be transient as teams are playing every day with new and unforeseen events constantly occurring and changing the outlook on things, and relief pitching especially is notoriously volatile. Since I wrote that piece, Mets closer Jenrry Mejia (who I praised quite highly) has been completely bombed and revealed that he's been playing through multiple injuries, among them sports hernia. The team is letting him pitch through it but he's getting smacked around. So far this month batters have crushed him to the tune of a .981 OPS. It's already been a very frustrating season for Mets fans thus far, there's no use keeping an injured and ineffective pitcher in the closer role. Watching potential wins slip away in the 9th throughout the final two months would be a terribly demoralizing end to the season.

With that said, I still stand by the main point of the piece. The Mets bullpen outlook as a whole looks better than it has in many years.

On another Mets-related note, Jerry Seinfeld did an interview with talking all about baseball and his favorite team, it's a great read. An intensely devoted and passionate fan who says he spends all day thinking about the game, Seinfeld relates:
When I think of retirement, all I would think of is going to a baseball game every day.
I kind of got into the World Cup a little bit and watched some Stanley Cup this year. They're both great, but it's not as good as baseball. Even in replay, the sequence of how the events took place is not as clear to understand. In baseball, you understand as it's happening, you see something that's transpiring in the moment because of the geometry of the game. These other sports don't have that clean geometry. Even in replay, you can't fully diagram in your mind, how did that even transpire?
In baseball, when someone tags up, knowing the excitement of what each guy has to do, and then you watch it. It's unbeatable.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Internet Abuzz over New Book on Tumultous Birth of Joyce's Ulysses

A new book detailing the creation and tumultuous publishing history of Ulysses has James Joyce in the media spotlight moreso than I can ever remember. Harvard professor Kevin Birmingham has been earning heaps of positive praise for his new work The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses published by Penguin Press. I received my copy yesterday and find myself zooming through it already. It's very smoothly written and presents an engrossing narrative.

Despite eventually being considered the greatest novel of the 20th Century and one of the most important books in the English language, Ulysses had a hell of a time being born. Before Joyce had even completed it, literary magazines which had been publishing excerpts were burned by post offices and their editors prosecuted on obscenity charges. Publishing houses wouldn't come near it, so the first edition of Ulysses was actually published by a small bookstore in Paris. It was a crime to own Ulysses in the English-speaking world for over a decade, leading some fervent devotees to chop the book into pieces and tape it to their bodies to be smuggled across borders. And the book only became legal after lengthy courtroom battles.

Adding to all that drama, Joyce suffered terribly from eye diseases during the book's seven-year creation, underwent many eye surgeries without anesthetics, and bounced around multiple cities with his family as World War I began. 

It certainly makes a fascinating story and, from what the reviews are saying, Kevin Birmingham has nailed it in his new book.

I'll have more to say about it once I've completed The Most Dangerous Book but for now you may want to check out some of the attention it's been receiving.

Publishers Weekly writes:
"Drawing upon extensive research, Birmingham skillfully converts the dust of the archive into vivid narrative, steeping readers in the culture, law, and art of a world forced to contend with a masterpiece."
The Washington Post actually calls it "a page-turner"! (Same with the Telegraph: "Kevin Birmingham has a deep love of the novel, and knows everything about Joyce. His learned book is a gripping page-turner.)

Reviews in the Wall Street Journal, The Nation, CounterPunch, The Boston Globe, and The Chronicle of Higher Education praise the new book's fluid writing, thoroughly researched details, riveting courtroom drama, engaging narrative and enlightening perspective on the intensity of the era (first decades of the 20th century) in which suffragettes were blowing up buildings in London as they fought for voting rights and people were being put in prison for reading books that talked about sex.

Slate has a large feature on it, referring to Ulysses as "literary anarchy," as does The Economist which describes Birmingham's new book as "thrilling."

Library Journal has an interview with the author, here's his excellent summation of the book:

"I’d like to remind people that books are dangerous and powerful, and Ulysses is the perfect example of that. Female sexuality simply wasn’t something an author could write about—it seemed to be a force that could break marriages and families apart. Joyce confronted those fears directly. Beyond that, Ulysses seemed to overturn all traditions, standards, and codes—it violated all of the rules of literature. In a world that was already skittish about falling empires, the lionization of Ulysses among certain men and women of letters seemed to confirm that something was seriously wrong with Western civilization, that we had reached the end of something. And they were right.

This story revisits a time of upheaval and war as well as an explosion of popular culture, literacy rates, urbanization, and immigration—and these factors made books that could “deprave and corrupt” the public even more frightening. We forget about the power of books because we have newer technologies to worry about (the Internet and video games), but the written word is still the primary vehicle for unsettling ideas."

Some more info about the author:
Kevin Birmingham received his PhD in English from Harvard, where he is a lecturer in History & Literature and an instructor in the university’s writing program. His research focuses on twentieth-century fiction and culture, literary obscenity and the avant-garde. He was a bartender in a Dublin pub featured in Ulysses for one day before he was unceremoniously fired. This is his first book.
Part of the attention Birmingham's book has received concerns his assertions that Joyce had syphilis, leading to his blindness and other persistent illnesses. This had been speculated over the years (specifically in Kathleen Ferris' James Joyce and the Burden of Disease) but Birmingham's research has ostensibly proved this rumor to be true.

The Guardian published the piece on Joyce and syphilis followed shortly thereafter by another piece on Joyce in which award-winning Irish author Eimear McBride declares him "My hero" and argues:
Difficulty is subjective: the demands a writer makes on a reader can be perceived as a compliment, and Joyce certainly compliments his readers in what he asks of them.

Another recent piece on Joyce written by an Irishman is entitled "James Joyce: You Can't Ignore the Bastard" and is worth a read.

And, lastly, the archives of Vanity Fair have seen some of their old articles on Joyce resurface of late. Here is Djuna Barnes interviewing the author in Paris in 1922, the year Ulysses was published.
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