Sunday, December 20, 2015

Street Art Splurge

This space has been quiet for too long, so here's a small collection of street art photos I've accumulated over the last couple years. Some of these are images I encountered online, others are photos I took of pieces in Austin or during my summer trip to Denver with its heavily tattoo'd walls or Houston which has a surprisingly awesome array of murals, including this masterpiece that I drove past too quickly to appreciate (click to enlarge---and that applies to all of these):

Sunday, October 25, 2015

An Ode to Everything Great About the Pennant-Winning 2015 Mets

The Mets won the pennant. The Mets won the pennant!!!

The Mets are going to the World Series.

I keep telling myself that in utter disbelief. In the days since my beloved New York Mets clinched the National League championship last Wednesday, handily dispatching the Chicago Cubs in a relatively anti-climactic four-game sweep, I keep finding myself reviewing all the events of this unbelievable postseason, trying to remind myself that it's real. Ya gotta believe. It's almost Halloween and the Mets are still playing baseball.

I've long felt a deep connection to this team and now they're in the midst of one of the most exciting stretches of baseball in the franchise's history. They've won three pennants in my lifetime, the first when I was 1, second when I was 15, and now a third during the year I turned 30. This has been a year of Mets fanhood I will never forget.

With a few days before the World Series starts, right now we can simply savor the Mets' incredible run to the National League pennant, and so I'd like to compose an Ode to the 2015 Mets.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Unprecedented Excitement of the 2015 New York Mets

In a few moments, my beloved New York Metropolitans will begin a series with the Chicago Cubs to decide the National League's representative in the World Series. In the aftermath of the Mets' improbable, incredible, unforgettable defeat of the Dodgers in the NLDS, I've been reflecting on what this team means to me.

My move to Austin in 2011 coincided with the Mets organization bringing in a new general manager to steer the organization back toward success after years of embarrassment and futility. This was the first time in my history as a Mets fan that I had trust and confidence in their decision-makers. New Mets GM Sandy Alderson was the original mentor to Billy Beane in Oakland and after joining the Mets he immediately brought in former Beane confidant and Moneyball co-star Paul DePodesta to help reshape the organization.

Now that I was living in a city with no major league team, in a state whose only MLB teams I had zero rooting interest in, I found my Mets fanhood deepened and intensified. My first summer here in 2011 was one of the hottest in the city's history and I didn't have many friends in town at that point, so I spent my days and nights following the Mets. They became a close companion. Of course they lost and lost some more as they would for the next four years, but I fell in love with this team unlike I ever had before.

My rooting interest in the Mets dates back to the mid-90s when I was captivated by switch-hitting catcher Todd Hundley chasing home run records (he hit 41 in 1996, breaking the record for most by a catcher and set a new franchise record for the Mets, although he never hit more than 30 in any other season). My dad had been a devoted Mets fan since their inception in '62 and the team's announcers have always been far more tolerable than those obnoxious hacks calling Yankees games. So I became a Mets fan. Throughout the 2000s I went to many dozens of games at Shea Stadium, including attending Game 2 of the NLCS in 2006 (described in detail here for a guest piece at Jay Jaffe's blog).

In all these years of following the Mets, I've never loved a team as much as this one. The division winning 2006 version was fun, but I disliked many key players and frequently disagreed with the manager and general manager's decisions. The 1999-2000 version comes closest as they had plenty of fun players to root for like Mike Piazza, Robin Ventura, Edgardo Alfonzo, Turk Wendell, Al Leiter, etc.  Mostly what separates this Mets team from the pack is that so many of the players are either homegrown or were acquired as prospects and subsequently developed in the Mets farm system. I've been able to follow their whole careers, suffer through their growing pains and celebrate their achievements.

The finest hour for the 2015 Mets so far has to be Daniel Murphy's heroics in the deciding Game 5 on Thursday night, when he was responsible for all three runs (including the game-winner on a solo home run) in a 3-2 victory in Los Angeles. Murphy, or Murph as we call him, is for me the quintessential New York Met. Originally drafted by the Mets in the 13th round in 2006, he climbed the ranks and joined the team as a rookie in 2008 just in time for when they suffered a crushing late season collapse for the second consecutive year. He played solid-to-average baseball at a variety of positions through five seasons of almost entirely meaningless games, gaining a reputation for occasional hot streaks at the plate and a notoriety for awful plays in the field that seemed to embody the team's ineptitude as a whole.

Beyond Murphy's playoff heroics, the season's greatest moment had to be Wilmer Flores' walkoff home run against the Washington Nationals in his first game following a bizarre, typically embarrassing Mets debacle two nights before. Flores had heard he was traded, then could be seen crying on the field in the middle of a game. The trade never went through and the Mets came out of it looking stupid.* The 24-year-old Flores had been signed by the organization out of Venezuela at age 16 and clearly loved playing for them. His display of emotion deeply endeared him to fans and he became a folk hero whose legend was solidified in his next appearance. That night, unofficially dubbed "Wilmer Flores Night" by Mets announcer Gary Cohen right at the start, featured numerous highlight reel plays for Flores, four different standing ovations, and the team's most emotional home run of the season when Flores blasted a game winner against their division rivals and then proudly grabbed the Mets logo on his shirt before being mobbed by teammates at the plate.

*That entire week was a wild one, including the blockbuster 11th hour deadline trade to bring in star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Read about it all here.

Nobody, not even myself, envisioned the Mets winning their division this year yet they snatched it away from the heavily favored Nats pretty early on (they took 1st on August 2nd and never looked back). A second place finish would've been seen as a success. I'd have been happy if they'd won 85 games. They won 90. I would've still been content with their performance had they lost to the Dodgers in the NLDS. They won, twice knocking off two of the game's best pitchers in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke (mostly thanks to dragon slayer Daniel Murphy).

Now they will open a series for the National League crown with the Chicago Cubs. If they cannot manage to overcome the Cubs' imposing collection of young sluggers, I'll be momentarily disappointed but will still look upon this season as a rousing success. After four years of futility, the Mets in 2015 outdid themselves over and over again, surpassing our highest hopes over and over again, providing magical moments over and over again. And the way this team is constructed, with a rotation full of young pitchers and a lineup of maturing hitters, it's not unlikely that they'll be able to do this again.

I can't offer an NLCS prediction here because I'm completely biased. The Cubs have an incredible team, one of the deepest lineups in all of baseball and a historically great pitcher atop their rotation. The Mets are led by flamethrowing starters, a balanced lineup, and a solid bullpen. They can win this series. The Mets can win the pennant. Who the hell saw that coming six months ago?

No matter what happens, I'm just glad we get to continue watching this amazing Mets team for at least another week or so.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Drought-Ending Inundation of Art

This blog has been dormant for so long I don't quite know where to begin in trying to reawaken it. So I'll start with some pieces of art by Frantisek Muzika that I found on Tumblr a while back and was blown away by.

(click to enlarge)

Muzika was a Czech surrealist painter active throughout the 20th century. Unfortunately, I can find relatively little about him on the internet despite the radiant splendor of his work. He was a contemporary of Dali's and his work bears some resemblances with its barren landscape backdrops and bizarre structures, but there appears to not even be any books about his work out there. I don't even know what these pieces are titled. But the contours and textures of these odd stone slabs mesmerizes me.

I stumbled upon them via Tumblr, a platform I've found extremely satiating to my hunger for visual art. (I recently set up my own Tumblr page, nothing special, but if you're interested check it out.) How else would I have been able to discover this somewhat obscure Czech surrealist master?

Speaking of obscure, underappreciated 20th century artists, my Finnegans Wake reading group and I recently stumbled upon a treasure trove of artwork by the relatively unknown painter Elsa de Brun (aka NUALA) and have now taken it upon ourselves to bring her work back out into the world. NUALA created a set of 43 pieces called "Valentines for James Joyce" inspired by lines from Finnegans Wake. These pieces are all in charcoal with a depth and complexity that astounded us when we saw them in person. As a result, we are now in pursuit of gathering these pieces into book form and possibly a future exhibition to remind the world of this forgotten, brilliant and fascinating woman.

As for under-construction art books involving Joyce...

A big reason for my lengthy absence of late is that I've been fully devoted to writing my first book, an exploration of some fascinating links between Salvador Dali and James Joyce centering around one particular painting. If you've read this blog for any amount of time, you're probably aware of the source material and how important this project is to me. This work has been going on for a very long time but it's now finally picking up and progressing toward completion. It's been a classic creative struggle in that the bigger and more significant the project is, the harder it is to work on, but a helpful guide to creative battles called The War of Art has helped me properly direct my focus.

With my writing energies being poured into to that project, my output on this and my other blog will likely continue to wane for a while but there remain tons of ideas ready to bloom both here and there so please do stay tuned. I also need lots of breaks from the artsy fartsy stuff so fantasy football, the MLB pennant race, and the latest greatest hip hop music should get writeups in the near future in this space as well.

In closing, another surrealist contemporary of Dali has intrigued me of late. German painter Max Ernst is properly recognized but I had never dug into his work much. Thanks again to Tumblr I've found some pieces that have really struck me with their mix of intricately detailed, vibrant bizarreness and precise, enclosed form.

Europe After Rain
(click to enlarge)

The Eye of Silence

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

For Bloomsday 2015

"I heard his words and their meaning was revealed to me."
 - Ulysses

This year to celebrate Bloomsday (June 16th, the day on which James Joyce's novel Ulysses takes place, named for the book's everyman hero Leopold Bloom) I'll be participating in some festivities over at Malvern Books on West 29th St here in Austin, starting at 6:30 pm. There will be music, food, drinks, readings from the book and I'll be delivering an introductory talk.

Incredibly, the Day of Bloom will be celebrated in many locales across the globe, including and especially China as The Guardian details.

To commemorate the big day here I'd like to share something I've been intending to post for a long time.

Below you can listen to the only recording Joyce ever made of himself reciting from his most famous book. It's a selection from the "Aeolus" episode, recorded in 1924, featuring a character delivering a speech likening the plight of the Irish with that of the Biblical Hebrews, with lots of Egyptian imagery.

Here is the text (loosely) to follow along. Notice his tone switching between the narrator, the speech, and Stephen's inner monologue:
He began:
Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen: Great was my admiration in listening to the remarks addressed to the youth of Ireland a moment since by my learned friend. It seemed to me that I had been transported into a country far away from this country, into an age remote from this age, that I stood in ancient Egypt and that I was listening to the speech of some highpriest of that land addressed to the youthful Moses.
His listeners held their cigarettes poised to hear, their smoke ascending in frail stalks that flowered with his speech. And let our crooked smokes. Noble words coming. Look out. Could you try your hand at it yourself?
 — And it seemed to me that I heard the voice of that Egyptian highpriest raised in a tone of like haughtiness and like pride. I heard his words and their meaning was revealed to me. 
From the Fathers
It was revealed to me that those things are good which yet are corrupted which neither if they were supremely good nor unless they were good could be corrupted. Ah, curse you! That's saint Augustine. 
Why will you jews not accept our culture, our religion and our language? You are a tribe of nomad herdsmen; we are a mighty people. You have no cities nor no wealth: our cities are hives of humanity and our galleys, trireme and quadrireme, laden with all manner merchandise furrow the waters of the known globe. You have but emerged from primitive conditions: we have a literature, a priesthood, an agelong history and a polity. 
Child, man, effigy.
By the Nilebank the babemaries kneel, cradle of bulrushes: a man supple in combat: stonehorned, stonebearded, heart of stone.
You pray to a local and obscure idol: our temples, majestic and mysterious, are the abodes of Isis and Osiris, of Horus and Ammon Ra. Yours serfdom, awe and humbleness: ours thunder and the seas. Israel is weak and few are her children: Egypt is an host and terrible are her arms. Vagrants and daylabourers are you called: the world trembles at our name. A dumb belch of hunger cleft his speech. He lifted his voice above it boldly:
But, ladies and gentlemen, had the youthful Moses listened to and accepted that view of life, had he bowed his head and bowed his will and bowed his spirit before that arrogant admonition he would never have brought the chosen people out of their house of bondage nor followed the pillar of the cloud by day. He would never have spoken with the Eternal amid lightnings on Sinai's mountaintop nor ever have come down with the light of inspiration shining in his countenance and bearing in his arms the tables of the law, graven in the language of the outlaw.

The sound quality is poor but the powerful message still resonates.

There is great significance to this seemingly random passage from Joyce's giant book.

He insisted it was to be the only selection he would ever record. Even though Joyce told Sylvia Beach (the book's publisher and supporter) that he'd chosen this passage "because it was declamatory and therefore suitable for recital," Beach knew there was something else to it. "I believe that it expressed something he wanted said and preserved in his own voice," she wrote.

Listen to those final words again:

"graven in the language of the outlaw."

Joycean scholar Sebastian Knowles wrote of this final line:
On the recording, you hear Joyce's relish of "outlaw," reinforcing his own role as an exile, as the writer in an outlaw language, and as a participant in the outlaw creation of a new Irish literature. But the central word is "graven," as an engraving, as a text that is both positive and negative, and as a voice that is in several senses coming from beyond the grave.
And I'd like to add: Joyce the outlaw was also being publicly excoriated and condemned for his "obscene" and "filthy" book. At this point, in 1924, he had equal fame and notoriety. The greatest novel in the English language was banned, confiscated, and burned in the US and the UK for over a decade after its publication in 1922.

That final line is Joyce's eloquent middle finger to the authorities, the phony arbiters of moral justice.

Happy Bloomsday!

(This post owes a great deal to an old James Joyce Quarterly article by Adrian Curtin entitled "Hearing Joyce Speak: The Phonograph Recordings of 'Aeolus' and 'Anna Livia Plurabelle' as Audiotexts.)"

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Reviewing a Recent Baseball Book Reading Binge

The end of winter each year inevitably brings with it a rekindling of my intense passion for baseball and 2015 was no different. I've been on a steady binge of absorbing baseball books for a few months now so here are some reflections on what I've been reading.

Baseball Prospectus 2015

Now in its 20th year of existence, this annual guide (featuring essays covering all 30 teams plus analysis/commentary on over 2,000 players) has undoubtedly faded a bit from its glory days but the 2015 version is the best one they've produced in many years. With editors Sam Miller and Jason Wojciechowski taking over in 2014 there were significant changes made to the format in an attempt to recapture what made the BP annual so special in the first place. Last year's edition was the first one ever to have by-lines on each of the 30 team essays while they brought in a bunch of recognizable baseball scribes to write each one. This experiment continued with the 2015 edition and works mostly for the better, but the luster of this fresh approach is starting to wear off. Bringing in a bunch of outside writers to cover each team has begun to feel rather gimmicky. I'd prefer to see BP make greater use of their own impressive stable of writers.

That complaint aside, BP 2015 is a terrific read that I'll be going back to throughout the baseball season. They've really revved up the wit, snark, and silliness (witness the emoji in Clay Buccholz' comment, the poetry for Hiroki Kuroda, and the oddity of Didi Gregorious' channeling of Derek Jeter) with an abundance of impressive, extremely creative writing while not sacrificing anything in the way of hardcore statistical analysis. That is what's always made this book so special after all; the extreme amplitude of information and heavy analysis held up by the light-hearted, creative, humorous writing style. I love the BP annual not so much for its acute baseball insights as for its stats-based writing about the game. This edition certainly provides that.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

New Finnegans Wake Musical Audiobook Adaptation Featuring Yours Truly

Waywords and Meansigns art by Robert Berry

This past May 4th marked both the 76th anniversary of Finnegans Wake being published and the world premiere of the "Waywords and Meansigns" audio project bringing Finnegans Wake to life in an unabridged musical audiobook. The full audio project is over 30 hours long, encompassing all of the book's 17 chapters with a different musician/artist handling each one. Each artist was given full freedom to creatively interpret the text in their respective renditions so there's a pretty wide array of styles and interpretations.

I had the honor of contributing to the project, recording a 3-hour rendition of the 15th chapter (Book III, Chapter 3) known as "Yawn Under Inquest". Immense thanks are owed to Evan James, Jake Reading, and Melba Martinez for their contributions to the recording which took many hundreds of hours over a span of three months to complete. The experience was unlike anything I've ever partaken in and I'm very proud of the result. You can read more about my experience with creating this recording here.

The entire project is completely free and available to listen to or download in full on the Waywords and Meansigns website. Since the Wake is a circular book you can jump in at any point but, of course, I recommend you start with my chapter which is Track 15.

The new project has already received the attention of The Guardian and the excellent RAWillumination blog (focusing primarily on the work of noted Finnegans Wake devotee Robert Anton Wilson) has just published an interview with myself and Steve "Fly" Pratt on our experiences with contributing to the project.

Please be sure to go check it all out and send some feedback!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Album Review: A sneak peek at the new Canibus & Bronze Nazareth record Time Flys, Life Dies...Phoenix Rise

This year's local SXSW festival was a mostly low-key one for me but I did have one eventful and exciting evening. It began with an "experiential marketing" promo for one of my favorite films from last year, Interstellar, wherein participants donned headphones and an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to transport to a spaceship making its way toward a wormhole. It was my first encounter of Oculus Rift, something I've often heard about recently but never thought I'd actually get to try out.

It was about as amazing as I could have expected, especially when the Interstellar spaceship shifted into zero gravity mode. Somehow the immersion in Oculus Rift's virtual reality actually made it feel like I was floating, while I could see the ringed planet Saturn, in all its glory, just outside the ship's window.

Shortly thereafter, sitting in a truck parked near the Interstellar promo tent, I had the privilege of partaking in a full listening session for the upcoming album by Canibus & Bronze Nazareth Time Flys, Life Dies...Phoenix Rise. The conjunction of these two experiences seems oddly fitting. The gravelly voiced lyrical scientist known as Canibus has been providing high-tech rhymes for nearly two decades now. A virtual reality experience putting you on board a spaceship traveling toward a wormhole is exactly the type of thing Canibus tends to rap about. It's also not out of the realm of possibility that the dictionary-scouring wordsmith already coined the term "Oculus Rift" on some long-winded track from a dozen years ago.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

MLB 2015 Predictions, Part 2: American League

Mookie Betts. Familiarize yourself. Say it over and over again. Mookie Betts. [AP photo]

Continuing along, a bit late, with my predictions for the new baseball season, using the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections for the 2015 season. Normally I like to get these out of the way before the season starts, but it's been an extremely busy time for me lately. Mostly because of this. (Once again, the win numbers at BP have inevitably changed slightly since I captured them here, they remain in flux as the season goes on.)

The American League saw so many big moves made over the winter that it's harder than ever to determine with any confidence how things may take shape. If every team had full health all around, there would likely be extreme parity in the AL with lots of teams finishing with win totals in the mid-80s. Out of 15 teams, I count only 3 that are good bets to be really bad: Twins, Astros, Rangers. Every other AL team expects to fight for a playoff spot. Every one of them is also constructed with obvious flaws or severely lopsided rosters.

AL East
These division standings could end up being jumbled into any combination imaginable and we oughtn't be surprised. The Rays and Yankees are most likely going to have down years, but both have enough talent on hand to conceivably compete, while the other three all have playoff aspirations.

1. Blue Jays
PECOTA: 80 wins
My pick: Over

With their best pitcher, Marcus Stroman, now out for the year with a torn ACL, I can't say that I've got a ton of confidence in this pick. But the addition of catcher Russell Martin alone makes the Jays a much better team and they were in the playoff race pretty much all of last season, only a terrible month of August (9-17 and outscored 132 to 86) knocked them out. Adding third baseman Josh Donaldson, one of the game's best all-around players the past two seasons (14.1 total fWAR, behind only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen) to an already powerful lineup certainly helps too.

Just like the Red Sox, the Jays are expected to have one of the highest-scoring offenses in the game, but the pitching, which features two late-career vets and three youngsters, has lots of question marks. Can R.A. Dickey harness his knuckleball well enough to pitch more like an above average starter than an amusing sideshow? Will 24-year-old Drew Hutchinson build on his solid first full season in 2014? Can the kids (Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez, both 22) handle a full season of pitching for a contending big league team?

It's a top-heavy roster and the bottom has enough youth for some breakout potential so there's plenty of reason for optimism. With the Royals ending their playoff drought last year, the longest streak of missing the postseason now belongs to the Blue Jays. I don't think that streak will carry much further.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

MLB 2015 Predictions, Part 1: National League

Reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates will look to finally overake the Cardinals.
Spring has sprung and a new baseball season is upon us. As is the usual tradition around here, I'm going to share my predictions for the season's outcome using the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections* for how many wins each team will have and noting whether I pick them to finish with a better or worse record.

*The win numbers are from a few days ago. They may have changed a bit since then but I'm sticking with what I've got. Reminder: the PECOTA projections are generated for each team based on the sum of individual player projections.

Must admit, I did pretty damn good with National League picks last year, getting 13 out of 15 picks correct and coming very close to nailing the other two. Part of that is just that the NL is kinda predictable right now. They've had the same upper echelon of elite teams for a few years (Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants, Pirates) and, from the looks of things, that ought to basically remain the same this year. If you look at the staff picks from both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs there's a glaring monotony in their NL choices.

One thing pretty much everyone seems to agree on is that Washington and Los Angeles look like they could be the best teams in baseball. I so wish I could come up with some daring underdog pick to unseat either one of those guys, but unfortunately I'll have to concede to convention in that regard.

NL East

1. Nationals
PECOTA: 92 wins
My pick: Over

This is the final stand for a team that's been a beast the last three years despite never advancing past the first round of the playoffs. A handful of significant contributors are at the end of their contracts, including shortstop Ian Desmond, center fielder Denard Span, and starting pitchers Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann. Strikeout machine Max Scherzer was added onto an already deep pitching staff and Yunel Escobar will plug in the team's lone gaping hole at second base.

Their starting rotation from top to bottom (even including the 6th and 7th starters) should be the best in all of baseball and with potential MVP candidates Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon leading a stacked lineup, they could run away with the division. They're a safe bet to win 95 games, dominate all year and then get knocked out in the first round again.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Allure of Gravity's Rainbow and Its Mysterious Author

Japanese cover for Gravity's Rainbow

[Preface: Last year I developed a fascination with Timothy Leary's deep interest in author Thomas Pynchon & Gravity's Rainbow which led me to reach out to the highly knowledgable OG (Michael from Overweening Generalist) for his input on this topic. A lengthy e-mail discussion ensued and out of that grew a two-part crossover collaboration between "A Building Roam" and "Overweening Generalist". While my piece focuses on the intrigue of Gravity's Rainbow, the mystery of Pynchon, and Leary's role in all of this, the OG further explores Leary's relationship with Pynchon's postmodern epic. So read my piece, go read OG's piece (entitled "Fugitive Thoughts: Timothy Leary's Reading of Gravity's Rainbow") and let us know what you think.]

What could possibly compel someone to read such a beastly and tedious book as Gravity's Rainbow? For me, it was a series of reinforcing recommendations that sparked a compulsive interest.

My initial fascination with the work of heralded author and notorious recluse Thomas Pynchon can be traced back to three events. First, I heard Michael Schur (aka Ken Tremendous), the creator of Parks and Recreation, tout Pynchon's work passionately on a baseball podcast a few years ago. That led me to at least familiarize myself with the author. Then, while discussing books once with my remarkably well-read friend Charlie, he insisted I read Pynchon's work, particularly Gravity's Rainbow, in response to both my love for Joyce and my interest in paranoia. And, most significantly, I was struck when I heard Dr. Timothy Leary rave about Pynchon and express intense adoration for Gravity's Rainbow in multiple lectures and interviews from the Psychedelic Salon podcast archives.

Leary flat out declared Gravity's Rainbow "the best book ever written in the English language" and hailed the genius of Thomas Pynchon on many occasions. While his pal Robert Anton Wilson was known to frequently evangelize about the genius of Joyce, Leary championed Pynchon as a literary god any chance he got. An old 1980s interview clip on YouTube shows Leary calling Pynchon his "hero" and the finest living writer, pleading for the aloof Pynchon to get in touch with him. There are accounts of Leary, stuck in solitary confinement during the mid-1970s, receiving and repeatedly reading the recently published Gravity's Rainbow. He also praises Pynchon in his autobiography Flashbacks, likening him to Joyce and Dante.

How great could this Pynchon guy possibly be to elicit such fervent admiration? Somehow a modern, contemporary writer being so historically special didn't seem possible to me. All the very best writers are dead, aren't they? My inquiries in Google brought back frequent comparisons to Joyce, especially holding up Gravity's Rainbow next to Ulysses and Moby-Dick as the grandest epics of Western literature. My fascination swelled.

*   *   *

Gravity's Rainbow made quite a splash when it landed in 1973. It was the third book to appear from the completely hidden-from-the-public-eye author Pynchon, whose writing had established a lofty reputation from his first novels V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). A gigantic, densely elaborate and confounding epic, a huge messy tale revolving around German rocketry and the end of WWII, Gravity's Rainbow would go on to win the National Book Award (Pynchon sent comedian Irwin Corey to accept the award on his behalf) and generate controversy when it was unanimously selected for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction yet ultimately rejected because of a passage involving coprophilia. So turned off by the perversions of Pynchon, the Pulitzer board elected to give the prize for fiction to nobody. The Pulitzer board described the novel as "unreadable", "turgid", "overwritten" and "obscene" and, after reading the book, I can't help but agree wholeheartedly with each of those adjectives, though I certainly did enjoy the experience overall.

Despite some annoying, disturbing, and offputting qualities ("turgid" really sums it up well), it's undoubtedly a brilliant work of literature by one of the finest writers of the last hundred years. The New York Times lavished it with praise upon its release, likening it in scope to Ulysses and Moby-Dick, and Richard Lehmann-Haupt poured it on pretty thick in a humorous review published in the New York Times Book Review:
'The Adventures of Rocketman' 
Gravity's Rainbow is fantastic---fantastically large, complex, funny, perplexing, daring, and weird---weird as an experience you've never really been through before. Fantastic! ...  
So what can I tell you? That Pynchon writes like an angel and clowns like the very devil? ...  
Perhaps I can only say this: if I were banished to the moon tomorrow and could take only five books along, this would be one of them. And I suspect that's a feeling that's going to last.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Interview: Bronze Nazareth Talks About Feeding the Listener on Thought for Food Volume 3

Bronze Nazareth

As archaeologists dig up the buried objects and sculptures of ancient cultures made of bronze, Detroit producer/MC Bronze Nazareth, who raps about being "The monolith prepared to wait beyond the common length," shines underground, rewarding those listeners who venture beneath the surface. After debuting on Rza's Birth of a Prince 10 years ago, Bronze has become an underground king.

While his fellow next-generation Wu-Tang affiliate (and likewise metal-named colleague) Cilvaringz grasps for widespread attention and notoriety with publicity stunts like the single copy Once Upon a Time in Shaolin album, Bronze simply goes about his business, continuing to pile onto a resumé that's earned him the respect and interest of the elite practitioners of his artform. Besides putting in work with the entire Wu-Tang Clan, Sunz of Man, Killarmy, and producing albums for Timbo King and 60 Second Assassin, he's already crafted bangers for the likes of Immortal Technique, Kool G Rap, Tragedy Khadafi, Jedi Mind Tricks, Roc Marciano, Copywrite, Tragic Allies, La the Darkman, did a full album with Willie the Kid, and produced an upcoming album for hip hop legend Canibus (on that note, get ready to hear Pete Rock rap over a Bronze beat).

And that's just his outside work. Spearheading his own movement, Bronze has led his Detroit crew, The Wisemen, for a whole slew of group and solo projects. In the midst of this staggering workload, Bronze also blesses fans with his own solo efforts. The latest is Thought for Food Volume 3. The first solo Bronze release in three years, it's a bundle of twisted wordplay and abstract metaphors packaged up in a style of hip hop that's rugged as Michigan winters and dirty as a Detroit storm drain. A recurring metaphor on the record is the diamond trapped in a rough block of coal, likewise this Bronze batch as a whole is as beautiful as it is harsh. Go listen to and purchase it here.

The Bronze Bomber was generous enough to answer some questions about his newest release, mostly focusing on his unique lyrical approach as well as a consideration of the turbulence of our moment in history.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A Review of Wu-Tang Clan's A Better Tomorrow

After two years of contentious attempts at coming together as one, the Wu-Tang Clan finally completed and released their 20th anniversary album, A Better Tomorrow, last December.

As part of a series commemorating this album's release, I ranked the albums in their catalogue, examined the original (and better) "A Better Tomorrow" and even attempted to compare each member to an NBA player from the '90s. Now, finally, we take a look at A Better Tomorrow, a mostly disappointing album that still gave us plenty to talk about. I'm a little late in reviewing it (most reviews came in shortly after the album's early December release) but the extra time has at least allowed me to soak things in a little more while tempering my initial reactions.

Since it's a special occasion and there's so much to talk about with regards to this album, I decided to experiment with breaking the review down according to The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (with respects to Sergio Leone). Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Music I Did and Didn't Hear in 2014

Trying to finish up this little series of year-end posts before we get too far into 2015...

Looking over the music I listened to in 2014, it's clear that I didn't do a very good job keeping up with the latest releases of even just my preferred narrow subgenre of underground hip hop. Thus, reviewing the albums of 2014 for me is as much about what I did listen to as what I didn't and still need to seek out.

Firstly, I already wrote a more in-depth piece about the two albums that were my favorites from the first half of 2014, The Living Daylights and Life Outside the Frame, so be sure to go give that a read.

Musically it was a great year as most of my favorite artists released long-awaited new material, including Bronze Nazareth, Madlib, Cormega, and the Wu-Tang Clan. In fact, looking back on it I spent most of the year listening almost exclusively to these new projects (while dabbling in their past catalogues plus exploring the old blind sage composer Moondog).

Rock Konducta (Parts 1 & 2) by Madlib
Was pining for this for a while. The vinyl dropped last January but those of us without phonographs had to wait until July for the mp3/CD version. Madlib, the legendary producer/sonic-trip-extraordinaire, added onto his mammoth catalogue with this newest edition of the "Beat Konducta" instrumental series, featuring a potpourri of obscure samples from the farthest reaches of 60s-70s psychedelic rock, prog rock, Zamrock, Krautrock, and every other eclectic rock, twisted, tweaked and chopped up into hip hop beats. Totaling more than 80 minutes over 50 tracks, most of them less than 2 minutes long, Rock Konducta is an enclosed universe in and of itself. There's an endless array of miscellaneous snippets, cacophonous blurts of speech, screams, Bill Murray disc jockey riffs, jangling-metal hi-hats, crunching drum lines, badass loops, synth-heavy snoozers, odd offputting tirades, the most random yelps you've ever heard (this tape has a recurrent motif featuring what sounds like a mentally disabled woman bleating "Gimme a dollar!"), ringing alarm clocks or phones, stand-up routines, and every other sonic microcomponent Madlib could cobble together to line this collage of treasures from his rock vinyl collection. There's certainly plenty of skippable material here, but you can easily distill this vast assemblage into a playlist of 30 tracks that are excellent (which is exactly what I did). Or you can listen to the full thing and drift away into the far reaches of Madlib's weird mind.

Favorite tracks: First of all, where the hell does he come up with all these track names? There are 52 tracks in all, none of which have a generic name. Among my favorites are the thumping, mildly melancholy "Motorik Matching", the rugged pysch rock jam "Black Widow", the woodwind orchestral head-bopper "Giant Okra", and the drum-heavy up-tempo controlled chaos known as "Soap Guillotine" on Part 1; deep into the more lackluster Part 2 is my favorite loop on the whole project "Dies Irae" (it's become one of my favorite Madlib beats ever), the rest of Part 2 is unspectacular aside from the rugged fiddle symphony "Teapot", the penultimate percussion showcase "Soon Over" and, of course, the beat tape's closing 30 seconds into which Madlib enigmatically inserts one of the finest, most grave-sounding beats. You'll first need to sit through a 90-second satirical skit of a botched plane hijacking because it's only after that, and a transitional distorted sample singing "though I call from far awayyyyyou don't listen...," when the Beat Konducta decides to flip on the serious switch.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Colossus of Staten Island and Other Historical Detritus

Who knew there was so much fascinating history to be uncovered on miserable old Staten Island? Certainly not I, whose mother spent years working for the Staten Island Historical Society. Nope, never cared.

During the Christmas holiday I spent a week back in my hometown of Staten Island. It was an eventful trip, bookended by some of the worst travel experiences I've ever had (lost luggage on each leg of the journey, thanks United!) but I ended up having a really great time. Got to witness New York City from the perspective of a visitor, which I always find to be an exciting and enlightening experience.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Quick Rundown of Books Read in 2014

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
Zipped through this hilarious little gem on my flight to Portugal in the spring. This was my second foray into Vonnegut and, while my socks certainly weren't knocked off by this book, I'm starting to love the guy. His style of writing is just so damn clear and concise, the humor always incisive. With a rather mundane story focused in middle America, Vonnegut brings the absurdity of our modern existence to light as only he can. Few books have made me laugh out loud as much as this one. Upon finishing it, I planted my copy in the bookshelf of the Lisbon apartment we stayed at. Hopefully it will bring someone else joy and bewilderment.

Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut
A friend, whose brother had originally insisted I read Slaughterhouse Five last year, handed me a copy and urged me to read Cat's Cradle, which he feels is Vonnegut's best book. Much like Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut's economy of style and constant wit blew me away but the story didn't capture me until a sudden plot twist toward the end. The last 100 pages or so have many quotable lines, here's one of my favorites: "When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed." There's a strange affect I've noticed when reading Vonnegut that compels you to crave more. I now see why his easily digestible books are so adored. Can't wait to dig into the next one.

Joyce’s Book of the Dark by John Bishop
The premier critical text of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, occupied an inordinate amount of my brain energy for most of the year. While I completed it in January of 2013 (it shows up on my book list for last year), I felt so adamant that a thorough summary review needed to be written that I spent all of 2013 re-reading it, then spent most of 2014 re-re-reading it and writing a review which became one of the longest pieces I've ever written. You can read all about it here.

Baseball Prospectus 2014
The ol' reliable doorstop made some drastic changes with its 2014 edition. After major complaints from readers (myself included) about the 2013 edition with its shortened team essays and run-of-the-mill writing, the BP editors not only brought back the extended-length essays but brought in outside writers to cover each team. They also broke with a long tradition of leaving the essays without a byline, presumably for the appeal of having some well-known baseball writers featured. It made for a great edition of this often terrific annual, but I remain perplexed at the direction it's headed. Bringing in 30 outside writers is a nice gimmick, but I'd like to see the actual cadre of Baseball Prospectus analysts get back to banging out unique, awesome essays on their own like they used to.

Football Outsiders 2014
This book was partly responsible for me winning my second fantasy football championship in a row. I wrote about it a bit more extensively here. It's an encyclopedic annual overflowing with stats and elevated by always impressive analytical essays. The heyday of Baseball Prospectus has passed, the fantastic Pro Basketball Prospectus series got snatched up and turned into online content by ESPN, but the Football Outsiders/Prospectus group maintains its powers. This is a must-read every year for devoted football fans and fantasy football geeks.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Movies I Saw in 2014

It’s been a long year. I can’t recall a point this year when it felt like things were moving along quickly. Time slowed down in 2014. While I was more busy than ever, the months never seemed to zoom by.

This was actually my first full year span spent working full-time. Gradually my distaste for this obligation has faded as I’ve learned to accept its inevitability. It’s also a very good situation to be in, relatively speaking. In a notoriously traffic-clogged city, my commute is 15 minutes, with no highway travel. The office environment is mostly relaxed, my coworkers are cool people, it’s extremely rare that I work more than 40 hours, and it’s a gig that pays the bills. Plus, the nagging 9-to-5 didn’t hold me back from traveling to Europe for two weeks, finding and moving into a new apartment with my girlfriend, playing in a hockey league, playing in tennis leagues, writing dozens of blog posts, socializing, watching a ridiculous amount of baseball, leading a bi-monthly Finnegans Wake Reading Group, lounging aplenty, and indulging all the other luxuries a working class person tends to afford. 

More importantly for the purposes of this blog, I consumed many, many movies, read a bunch of books, and absorbed a handful of new hip hop albums. Here I would like to present a little rundown of each of those, starting with film.

In the year 2014 I attended more movies than any other year of my life. My girlfriend and I live in an apartment that's within easy walking distance of two high-quality, meal-serving cinemas so it was something we did almost every other week. Four years ago, as I mostly documented on this blog at the time, I lived within walking distance of Petco Park in San Diego and got to attend something like 20 baseball games that year (when the Padres were a surprise contender all year). This current situation feels sort of like that. World class entertainment is only a short trek away, so I may as well take advantage while I can.

Here are the films I watched in 2014...

Saw it twice in theaters and would love to see it again. While it’s received a pretty broad range of reviews, I tend to side with those who consider it one of the best movies of the 21st century. The deep themes resonate, the suspense consumes you, the intricately designed plot invites analysis (and I don’t mean the “here’s what Christopher Nolan got wrong” kind), the soundtrack mesmerizes, and the father-daughter relationship at the heart of the film rattles your emotions. I think it’s Christopher Nolan’s best work, an admirable homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film you must see in theaters, and a movie I know I'll still be talking about ten years from now.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
As I’ve written before, when it comes to art, style rules. With its narrative-threading jazz drums, unbelievably long takes, snappy dialogue, and extraordinary usage of special effects, Birdman has a style all its own. A fast-moving, impressively shot, unique masterpiece from Alejandro González Iñárritu that thumbs its nose at the outlandish explosion of comic book films, this was my second favorite film of the year behind Interstellar.

Gone Girl
A film I'd like to see again. One of the premier pop auteurs of our era, David Fincher renders this thriller novel in gripping, tense, confounding fashion. It had me on the edge of my seat throughout and, as with most of Fincher's films, I sensed a smorgasbord of subtextual themes. So much going on in this film, I'd love to see Rob Ager take a crack at analyzing it.

A special film from young director Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is so extremely intense that I was sweating by the end of it. An ambitious drummer in a prestigious music school clashes with an abusive, sadistic and unfortunately powerful teacher/composer. They both strive for musical greatness at the expense of everything else in life, and their showdown is viscerally entertaining.