Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Some Things I Wrote, Read, and Experienced in 2016

2016 was, at the very least, a great year to get lost in the things you love and indulge in healthy distractions from all the darkness and bullshit.

In that respect, it was a great year for me. Pursued my passions as much as ever, achieved some success, met some incredible people, went to cool places. Here's a summary of the things I wrote, read, and experienced in 2016.



Some Things I Wrote in 2016 On Literature/Art:


Detailing a fascinating theory put forth by Roy Benjamin positing that the structure of Finnegans Wake involves the precession of the equinoxes, the earth's wobble on its axis that leads to the pole star changing over millennia, a glacially slow sequence whose accounting is at the heart of most of the world's mythologies, symbolizing renewing cosmic aeons. This is the piece from 2016 I am most proud of and while I finished it in January, the ideas from here have been on my mind all year.


Rise and Shine: The Dawn Prayers of Book IV 
[of Finnegans Wake]

&



A close exegetical reading of the opening pages of Book IV in Finnegans Wake, focusing on the archaic prayers to the rising sun which have elements of Hinduism, Celtic paganism, and a snoozing sleeper's overheard radio advertisements, among many other things. In the Finnegans Wake Reading Group of Austin, we spent much of the year unpacking the rich pages of Book IV and I was inspired to fully interpret its especially astonishing opening pages, 593-594. The latter was especially fun to examine.





A book review of the latest work by John Higgs, one of my favorite reads from 2015, highlighting five of the most bizarre facts/stories from his astute overview of our previous century. Here's a snippet:

On the cusp of Einstein's relativity, and before Hubble's discovery that the universe is expanding, astronomer Simon Newcomb said in 1888 that we were "probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy." Ha!

Max Planck, before he became one of the most important physicists in history with his development of quantum theory, was told by his teacher Philipp von Jolly not to pursue physics because "almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes."

Similarly, scientists thought it was virtually impossible that rockets would lead to space flight a mere few decades before it was achieved. Higgs notes that a 1931 textbook declared there was "no hope" for such developments, and that "only those who are unfamiliar with the physical factors involved believe that such adventures will ever pass beyond the realm of fancy." Within 30 years humans had launched the first satellite and sent a human in orbit around the Earth.

The recurrence of such foolhardy assuredness from scientists should serve as an important lesson for the present. Soon as you think you have it all figured out, the world flips upside down.


"Hide-and-Seek" by Pavel Tchelitchew

A short piece describing a connecting thread of thoughts I had about two phenomenal 20th century painters, Ivan Albright and Pavel Tchelitchew, as well as two literary critics whose work I fell in love with in 2016, Guy Davenport and William Gass. Go for the images of stunning, surreal art, stay for the quotes connecting the symbols from same.







In 2016, I experienced a renewed interest in the game of chess, leading to this consideration of artists who've been enamored with the game, from Duchamp and The RZA to Nabokov and Kubrick. 

Bloomsday 2016 Recap
First I share the text from the talk on Ulysses I delivered at Malvern Books for Bloomsday 2015, then there's a video of me delivering another talk at Malvern on the subject of Ulysses for Bloomsday 2016. The full video has a few great Ulysses readings from Austinites. Plenty here to satisfy the Joyce enthusiast.

Finnegans Wake on Donald Trump
In the midst of the political apocalypse of 2016, I was compelled to consult the oracular text of Finnegans Wake for answers. As always, it had the right words for the current moment, promising that the despicable billionaire hotel baron will eventually fall: "So smug he was in his hotel premises sumptuous/ But soon we'll bonfire all his trash, tricks, and trumpery." (FW p. 44) This piece has my analysis of the passage and other Trump resonances within the Wake.


FinWakeATX Visits the Irish Consulate in Austin
2016 was an incredible year for our Finnegans Wake Reading Group here in Austin. In the summer, I was invited to participate in a literature-inspired classical guitar orchestra concert. Found myself on stage at the Blanton Auditorium (alongside another reader from the Wake group) reciting passages from Finnegans Wake alongside the Austin Classical Guitar Orchestra in front of two or three hundred people. Even took the mic to answer Wake questions at the end. Promotion for that event on the local NPR affiliate was heard by the Irish Consulate here in town so they invited me for a meeting and graciously offered a partnership with our reading group. In late November, we had our first ever reading group meeting at the consulate and it was a fantastic time. Recapped it all in this piece.

Work in Progress: I spent much of the year continuing to write and research my first book, a study of Joyce and Salvador Dali expanding on a thesis I delivered in 2011. It's been a struggle, especially with so many distractions and a full-time job, but plenty of progress was made in 2016. My goal is to complete that in 2017 and hopefully get the finished product out to the world.

Also these:

- Wrote something called "Street Portals" featuring street art, architecture, Finnegans Wake, and hip hop for a zine that is supposed to be published this year. Excited for that to see the light of day.

- Did a two-hour audio interview with my friend Gerry Fialka from the Venice Wake group discussing a range of topics like growing up on Shaolin Isle, quantum mechanics, eastern cosmologies, Joyce, Wu-Tang, Baseball, Marshall McLuhan, Frank Zappa, etc, etc. Best if listened to alongside some instrumentals.

- 2016 was the first time I've ever been paid for creative work. Worked with artistic director Thomas Echols on selecting passages to perform from Finnegans Wake for the Austin Classical Guitar orchestra's "Nocturne" concert, the concluding show in their triptych of literary-inspired performances. God bless that.

- Made another recording for the "Waywords & Meansigns" project with some friends, this one a reading of just three pages, including my favorite passage in Finnegans Wake. To be released in 2017.



Some Things I Wrote in 2016 On Sports:

Reviewing a Baseball Reading Odyssey: Some Thoughts on Ten Baseball Books Consumed This Year
My annual spring splurge of baseball reading really went overboard in 2016. Somehow I devoured ten baseball books in a row, then thumbed through a few more throughout the summer as my passion for the game of baseball remained strong as ever in 2016. This piece contains capsule reviews of all ten baseball books I read, plus brief thoughts on a few more.

Here's a snip:

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team 
by Ben Lindbergh & Sam Miller


As a devoted listener to their daily "Effectively Wild" podcast, I'd been highly anticipating this book for months. The two authors, Ben and Sam, respectively the former and current Editor-in-Chief of Baseball Prospectus, have also been two of my favorite baseball writers for many years now, indeed two of the best in the biz. No matter what the topic of their book would be, I had sky high expectations.

The Only Rule ended up being my favorite of all the baseball books I read in 2016's literary seamhead odyssey. It's a fascinating story in which the two creative baseball thinkers are given the opportunity to run a low-level independent league team, the Sonoma Stompers, for a season, building the team from scratch at the start and given free reign to institute as many statistical bells and whistles as they could while implementing unorthodox strategies into a very archaic league. The book is filled with satiating baseball minutiae and statistics, made extra interesting by the fact that they had to set up statistical models and technology entirely on their own from scratch. Indy league ballparks don't have PitchFX tracking, for instance, but Ben & Sam got to set it up (literally) for the Stompers. As a stats nerd and fantasy baseball addict, I also loved discovering what measures they found important and meaningful in this tiny four-team league with its short schedule and small sample sizes. ...

Athletics Nation piece #1 (on A's offensive malfunction)
Athletics Nation piece #2 (on A's overall ineptitude)
During the first six weeks of the baseball season, when there still existed the tiniest glimmer of hope for the Oakland A's, I took two brief looks at their ineptitude at the Athletics Nation blog detailing their sputtering start to the season.

On the Tragic Loss of Baseball's Beloved and Joyful Young Star Jose Fernandez
Many famous people died in 2016, but I don't think the shock of any hit me as deeply as the sudden departure of baseball's ebullient young superstar, Jose Fernandez. One of the best pitchers the game of baseball has ever seen, one who was an emblem of joy and liveliness, gone from us at barely 24 years old. A jarring reminder that, as friend-of-the-blog Seana commented, "none of us know the day of our death but only that it is certain to come."

The Long, Occasionally Unendurable, Ultimately Redeeming Epic Novel That Was the 2016 Mets Season
In which I liken the experience of following the Mets 2016 season to gutting through a giant, epic novel like Moby-Dick, Gravity's Rainbow, or Ulysses, an experience of devotion and endurance, with its ups and downs, deserts of boredom and despair, and miraculous oases of lasting enjoyment. And, in the 2016 Mets' case, nobody saw the twist of that final chapter coming.

Why I Hopped Onto the Chicago Cubbies' Bandwagon
In an unforgettable conclusion to what was a special year in my relationship with baseball, I randomly met Rosie Goodman, daughter of the late Steve Goodman, getting to hear many incredible stories about the man who wrote the Cubs theme song "Go Cubs Go!" as well as the witty lament "A Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request"---this encounter happening right as the Cubs began their 2016 postseason push. In fact, the night I hung with Rosie was when Javy Baez knocked a game-winning homer off Johnny Cueto in Game 2 of the NLDS. Getting to, in a way, "meet" Steve Goodman through his daughter's stories and watching him on YouTube, witnessing his brilliance and unrelenting humor, his light-hearted approach to life in the face of disease and imminent death, his love for baseball and the Cubbies, suddenly turned me into a Cubs fan. With Rosie and Steve Goodman on my mind, I rooted on the Cubs as they went on an improbable run to their first World Series championship in 108 years, the outcome decided in a World Series Game 7 widely considered one of the best baseball games ever.

Also worth mentioning here: Saw my first Citi Field Mets game during a visit to New York in May of 2016. My first Mets game in New York since 2008 turned out to be an instant classic: 1986 replica jersey night, during Chase Utley weekend with the hated Dodgers visiting Queens, and the Mets won on a thrilling Curtis Granderson walk-off homer.

After my NBA fanhood had been flagging the last couple years (partly due to the disappearance of the Pro Basketball Prospectus annuals I adored), in 2016 I became a big hoops fan again. It happened after I attended a Knicks-Spurs game in San Antonio where the Knicks nearly stole a win at the buzzer. Despite limited potential and a mediocre overall outlook, my New York Knicks suddenly became interesting again. I kept a close eye on them and also followed the Warriors' record-breaking season, inspired by my Warriors fanatic friend. The 2016 finals were basketball nirvana, no matter the result. The Knicks this season are once again interesting, with the Unicorn Kristaps Porzingis flanked by a fascinating cadre of has-beens and scrappy Europeans, but they're an abysmal defensive team which limits their potential. Aaaaaaand in other news, I won at least one fantasy football championship this year for the fourth season in a row!


Some Things I Wrote in 2016 On Music:

Album Review(s): THE YEAR OF BRONZE
Reviewing the four albums Bronze Nazareth produced in 2015 following the sudden passing of his brother and collaborator Kevlaar 7. In 2016, I had the privilege to hang with Bronze for a day during his visit to Austin for SXSW. Got to discuss his art form, his brother K7 and their Wisemen squad, and heard some crazy Wu-Tang stories. Also continuing to work on our book of lyrical breakdowns.

Brother


[from Kevlaar 7 A Beautiful Soul produced by Bronze]

Some words on the posthumous final Kevlaar 7 album A Beautiful Soul whose message, as always with K7, is a timely medicine for the societal madness of 2016. I'll never forget the experience of first absorbing this album while walking around Staten Island on a cool May morning watching the sun ascend in the sky.

Also worth mentioning here: In 2016 I got to meet two of my favorite living artists, Bronze Nazareth and Killah Priest, on separate occasions. And sat in the front row for an exclusive RZA show here in Austin that amounted to the greatest multimedia experience of my life when he enacted a live soundtrack for the film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin using the entire catalogue of Wu-Tang instrumentals. The experience was so overwhelming, I've yet to write a complete review. I'm still in shock at how great that was.


Books Read in 2016:

[The Great Baseball Reading Odyssey of 2016]
1. Baseball Prospectus 2016
2. Baseball Maverick by Steve Kettmann
3. Baseball as a Road to God by John Sexton
4. Stars and Strikes by Dan Epstein
5. A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti
6. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. by Robert Coover
7. The Best Team Money Can Buy by Molly Knight
8. The Only Rule Is It Has to Work by Ben Lindbergh & Sam Miller 
9. Big Data Baseball by Travis Sawchik
10. The Hidden Language of Baseball by Paul Dickson

Wrote reviews for all of those HERE.


11. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
So good that I quickly realized underlining noteworthy passages was futile; I wanted to underline nearly all of every page.

12. Closing Time by Norman O. Brown
One of my favorite reads from the year, a relatively obscure little text published in 1973 from the ol' Santa Cruz professor-philosopher, wherein he weaves selections from Finnegans Wake and Vico's New Science to outline the contours of history, language, and life. A book tiny enough to fit in a back pocket and rich enough to look at for a lifetime.

13. The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert
My first direct experience of Flaubert. The imaginative explosiveness of Saint Anthony's desert delusions ranks among the trippiest, most jawdropping prose I've ever read. This work will play a significant role in the aforementioned book I'm writing.

14. A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis
In 2016, I developed an infatuation with Gaddis, learning about his career and the themes of his enigmatic novels. Reluctant to take on the journey of his gigantic debut The Recognitions or get lost the intriguing maze of J R, I picked up a tattered paperback of one of his more approachable novels, A Frolic of His Own at a bookstore in Boulder. Composed entirely of unattributed dialogue, with no chapter breaks, written in a style of cacophonous, long-winded New York-style cantankerous banter, Gaddis' technique is fascinating. Truly unique. While it was an often tedious read, I remained in awe of his execution in presenting his story in such a daring way.

15. The Geography of the Imagination by Guy Davenport
Along with William Gass, Guy Davenport became one of my favorite essayists in 2016. His Geography of the Imagination is a batch of essays I'll be returning to for the rest of my life. Davenport's astounding range of eclectic knowledge is matched only by his economy of dense prose explicating the connecting patterns present in all of it. Wrote a bit more about this book here.


16. A Temple of Texts by William Gass
17. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass
18. On Being Blue by William Gass
19. Life Sentences by William Gass
20. Finding a Form by William Gass
I've been intrigued by Gass for a while, but 2016 was the year I finally dove in and I just couldn't get enough of it. While I didn't get that much enjoyment out of his short story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (besides the wonderful preface and "Order of Insects") and was shockingly disappointed by the acclaimed On Being Blue (so heavily stylized it was hard to follow), I've been positively enthralled with his collections of essays. A Temple of Texts contains what must be the greatest essay I've ever read, entitled "A Defense of the Book," plus other fascinating material like Gass' list of 50 literary pillars. Gass' prose, despite often employing every stylistic flourish known to man, feels to me about as pleasurable as reading can be. And in these books of essays, the topic is always literature, language, culture, allowing his otherworldly knowledge of books to be on display.

Reading A Temple of Texts supercharged my already robust interest in books and sent me off in search of some of the writers whose work he celebrates here, like Stanley Elkin, William Gaddis, and Flann O'Brien. It also led me to snatch up a couple other Gass essay collections, Life Sentences and Finding a Form. The former has a great piece on the sicknesses Nietzsche had to write through, the latter has a few whoppers that I keep returning to like "The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde," "Nature, Culture, and Cosmos" and "The Book as Container of Consciousness." Gass is the kind of writer who makes me wish it was my job to read books all day so I can read everything he's ever written. 

21. Football Outsiders Almanac 2016
Helped propel me to a fourth straight fantasy football championship crown. 

22. Call Me Ishmael by Charles Olson
An enriching little study of Moby-Dick by the poet Olson who, in a brisk, economical style, details the historical context for the story of the Pequod (the enormity of the whaling industry despite how dangerous the missions were) and unpacks some of the novel's subtextual themes (Shakespeare, Moses, Noah, etc etc). The style and format of this book, the first thing Olson ever published preceding a career as a poet, interested me more than anything else. Lots of quotes from a variety of sources, including the whole range of Melville's work, notebooks, and letters. The prologue's vivid description of historical accounts of shipwrecked sailors stranded, surviving on cannibalism was viscerally disgusting to read. That'll stick with me. But the best part of this book for me was probably this:

Melville prepared the way for Moby-Dick by ridiculing, in 1850, the idea that the literary genius in America would be, like Shakespeare, 'a writer of dramas.' This was his proposition:

"great geniuses are parts of the times, they themselves are the times, and possess a corresponding colouring."

23. Annihilation (Book I of the Area X Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer
A page-turner thriller that makes you think. The textual material is fairly straight forward but the themes resonated for weeks.

24. Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
Nuggets of wisdom on seemingly every page. An essential writer's manual that's fun to read.

25. Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers by Stanley Elkin
Developed an interest in Elkin thanks to William Gass frequently praising his work. These stories blend hilarity with profundity. I love Elkin's style and look forward to checking out his novels.

26. The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov
Another revelation from 2016. I'd never read anything from Nabokov until acquiring this huge collection of short stories and now I have to consider him among my favorites. This omnibus of 60+ stories was one of my greatest joys over the last quarter of the year. The pleasure of savoring Nabokov's prose and the dumbfounding quality of his realism made these stories irresistible, seriously addictive reading. I often stayed up late trying to squeeze in just one more story. Just like Gass, Nabokov is now one of those writers whose entire catalogue entices me because his prose is so delicious. Among my favorites in this collection are these: Revenge, The Thunderstorm, The Dragon, The Reunion, Signs & Symbols, Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster, A Matter of Chance, Recruiting, and my absolute favorite, A Busy Man. Most of these could very easily be turned into a film or tv show because the stories are so good, but nothing beats the pleasure of great stories presented through sumptuous prose. Looking forward to losing myself in the vast Nabokov canon soon.


Journeys Taken/Travels Experienced in 2016:

(Featuring one photo from each trip.)

In what's becoming an annual thing, I got to visit the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg for the third year in a row, thanks to my girlfriend's parents who have a home nearby in Florida. Also watched a spring training baseball game from right up close, my girlfriend's pops getting nailed in the hip by a liner Emilio Bonifacio fouled off. Here is one of my favorite Dali paintings, one that's surprisingly small when seen in person, and which takes on a new meaning at the current moment in history, it's called Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man:



Made a rare non-Christmas return to Staten Island and NYC to be with family. Had a meaningful and eventful trip. Among the highlights was attending an epic Friday night Mets-Dodgers game where two friends and I sat in the last row of sold out Citi Field and still had a great view of the proceedings:



For the second summer in a row, we went up to Denver and Breckenridge for a friend's wedding. Went to my first ever Rockies game on a glorious Wednesday afternoon, went into every bookstore I could find in Denver and Boulder, and got to experience the following: from way up in the mountains, watched a beautiful sunset, then had the clearest view of the Milky Way I've ever witnessed, until we then got to watch the moon rising over the mountains in such a way that we could literally watch the moon moving in the sky. Here's the view we had:



Drove three hours down to Houston a few times this year. One of those trips was for a day of visiting museums with a friend. Saw all kinds of fascinating art and relics from the whole gamut of history. There was an exhibit of art from the Islamic world that had a number of pieces I was really struck by. This panel, with the inscription "In the name of Allah the beneficent the merciful..." that opens each sura in the Quran, really struck me:




And lastly, spent the holidays back in New York where one night I got to catch up with an old friend while hanging out along the northern edge of Staten Island with an incredible view of the Manhattan skyline. Tanker ships and tug boats floated by and I had this stunning view of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge:


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