Monday, August 30, 2010

Pure Imagination (The Marsist)

Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews
Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews
Simply put Ray Bradbury is the reason I read science fiction.  He isn't the only writer in the field I read, but  his writing best exemplifies what I love about the genre. There are technical masters like Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke - men who might be too smart for their own good. They can tell you kinds of marvelous things about technology and the way things work.  Ray has never been quite so concerned with such details, as he says in one interview he doesn't care how to build a rocket - he just wants to fly. You see even at age ninety and beyond Ray Bradbury is still in many ways a ten year old boy. He never gave up his love for toys or his sense of childlike wonder. Thus the imagination of Ray Bradbury has never been polluted with things that would otherwise limit his gift.

Throughout this book of interviews readers get a glimpse into the mind of a true legend. Sam Weller, the author of Listen to the Echoes also wrote The Bradbury Chronicles, an award-winning biography.  For fans who want to know everything that is likely a better choice - however for those readers who just want 'the good stuff' this will suffice nicely. Each interview covers a set topic ; Childhood, Hollywood, Art & Literature, Sexuality to name a few.  It isn't set up entirely chronologically, as some cover multiple decades .  As a fan I am sometimes torn when it comes to reading about a writers 'intent' or 'reason' for writing this or that.  On the one hand I am curious, but on the other some things are better left unexplained.  This is especially true in the case of sci-fi in my opinion.  These interviews balance those concerns well I think, although much of that is owed to Bradbury's own respect his readers in my view.

As one familiar with his work would expect, Ray Bradbury's influences are vast and numerous.  His love of films is as complete as his love of rockets. He recounts his life as a teenager in Hollywood like it was yesterday.  He was an obsessive fan, who was often posted outside or as near to studios as possible.  He collected autographs of actors and directors in a little book he still cherishes to this day.  Of course once his own star had risen in the world meeting celebrities became a much easier thing.  A couple of my favorite remembered recollections were his meeting David Bowie and John Steinbeck. When explaining the diversity of his influences some might be surprised to hear that he hasn't read anything in his own field of science fiction in over fifty years ; However as a rapper who admittedly hardly listens to rap music anymore this fact resonated with me.

There are some details of Ray's past which seem perhaps too fantastic to be believed.  For instance he claims to actually remember his birth. His defense to the assertion that this is untrue is that he was a ten month baby - that the extra month in the womb allowed his eyes to develop beyond the level of ordinary infants.  While I fully acknowledge that Bradbury is anything but normal, this was still too much for me.  Being the fan I am though I think it only right to allow a visionary, and one of fiction's true idea men to get away with a lie here and there. After all so many of Bradbury's lies are the best kind of lies, the ones you wish were true.

Bradbury is perhaps the best short story writer that has ever lived. This is how I first encountered his work, and likely what I will always remember about him.  However he is also an accomplished novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and sometimes poet.  He even once won an academy award for an animated short.  In addition to all this Ray is the very definition of prolific.  Throughout his iconic career he has written over 600 stories. Despite caring so little for being scientifically accurate he did write what may well be the most prophetic piece of sci-fi literature, Fahrenheit 451.  This is evidence of not only his imagination but also his practical knowledge.  When skeptics of the genre belittle the value of science fiction, I point them toward Ray Bradbury.  After reading this collection of interviews I will do the same with any pessimistic complainers ; One need only look at Ray's many loves to be reminded of the good things. Ray loves books, movies, plays, music, people, toys, and rockets ; but most of all Ray loves life.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

When The Grounds Soft For Diggin' (Murder In The Red Barn)

Kings of the Earth: A Novel
                                                              Kings of the Earth: A Novel
Having read Jon Clinch's previous novel Finn I was not entirely surprised to find that everything in Kings of the Earth starts with a corpse. He's only  written two books and they both open with descriptions of a dead body in the first paragraph. You might think this trend emerging shows either a lack of creativity, or morbid obsession on the part of the author. You may even be right in a way - still ends are beginnings in the right frame. So maybe you're thinking  Mr. Clinch  may not have the cleanest bill of mental health. It could be he hears voices in his head. Voice is, after all what breathes life into Clinch's writing.  His characters feel like authentic representatives of an older world. This is as true in Kings of the Earth as it was in Finn. What should be made clear here is that  Finn was set in the late 1800's. (a re-imagining of the life of Pap Finn - from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)  Kings of the Earth however, is at least partially set in 1990. Despite this fact  it all works, and works very well.

The Proctor boys were raised in simpler times, and as their younger sister Donna explains, they never left them.  The three brothers Vernon, Audie, and Creed live together on the family dairy farm in upstate New York. The 'farm' is actually little more than a shack. I've seen houses like this while driving through the more rural parts of Nebraska and have been shocked to find a pickup parked near, as if, against all logic, someone still lives there. A writer of less imagination would surely set a horror story in a place like this.  Not John Clinch though, no suh.  He chose to tell a story with real emotional resonance.  A story that asks us how civilized are we, really? Modernization seen through the gray lens of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Vernon, the oldest is the fresh corpse detailed on page one. Though trust me when I say that knowing that will not ruin anything for you if you decide to give it a chance. The chapters are short and the perspective changes every couple of pages. The time shifts as well. From the the different stages of the Proctor's lives. We see defining moments from their lives. (early childhood in the 30's, after the death of their mother in the 60's up to the recent past of the 80's and a few select spots in between) The book's most endearing character, at least from my view was the middle son Audie.  Audie is described as feeble-minded in the books synopsis on the front flap.  He is quite clearly mentally handicapped. As a result the sections from his perspective are very short and direct and show a childlike innocence.  At one point early in the novel, after seeing a children's play of Peter Pan Audie rides standing on the back of a tractor with his arms spread out in imitation of the flying children.

The central plot centers around Vernon's death, which is thought to be a murder.  What eventually plays out raises questions of the legal system and law enforcement that may remind some of the classic To Kill A Mockingbird. The remaining Proctor boys are railroaded by authorities who want things to be wrapped up quickly.  Being seen simple and somewhat unsavory by most they are convenient targets. Of course what actually happened is much more complicated.

I'll likely never look at rundown home the same way again. This book really made me think about the world in which we live. It made me consider just how isolated is too isolated - and also how very close that boundary between the old world and the new one really are. With his second novel Jon Clinch has cemented his gift for capturing the past in his voice.   He writes no more than he needs to.  I would compare him to Cormac McCarthy in that respect. He is blunt and graphic and vividly real.  I will gladly read whatever he writes next, and I won't so much as bat an eye if it starts it with a description  of someone newly deceased.

*mini disclaimer - the song chosen for this review was not entirely my idea - Clinch actually quotes the song himself following the opening dedication. I could've searched high and low, and wouldn't have found a better fit.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Terror of Knowing (Under Pressure)

Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine
Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine
I am a die-hard sports fan. Evidence of this fact is not hard to find ; For instance I spent the majority of yesterday afternoon watching preseason NFL games - All in anticipation of the Broncos opener. (and the debut of Touchdown Jesus Tim Tebow) Basketball, and the NBA's Denver Nuggets rank second in the hierarchy of my rooting heart. At least where the so-called 'major' sports are concerned. Despite all that I rarely read sports related books. My reasoning for this is simple. I can usually place said sports books into three basic categories. First is the success story. I don't want to give the impression that I am some bitter armchair asshole who doesn't like to see people achieve their dreams.  However, I would much rather watch those sort of triumphs live. The Saints' recent Superbowl win is a good example of this. Particularly because head coach Sean Payton and starting quarterback Drew Brees have both released books on the heels of the big win. (neither of which I have any intention of reading) Sorry champs, I know how the story ends. The second category is the hard luck heartbreaker.  The story of the star who didn't make it.  Sure there are lessons to be learned from such books but as I've already said I do not derive pleasure from an athlete's failure. Third, and most likely to draw my disdain is the tell-all media whoring money grab. The kind of book released by guys like Jose Conseco, full of finger-pointing, and rife with tones of self-righteousness. Of course I don't condone cheating, yet there is something especially off-putting about books like that. Even more so when you consider the fact that most authors of these books wouldn't be saying anything if they weren't broke and desperate for cash.

Now that you know why sports related literature is a rarity for me you may wonder what makes George Dohrmann's Play Their Hearts Out an exception to the rule. Well I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that I was somewhat obligated. I won an advance copy of this book through a goodreads giveaway.  Still there is a reason that this book enticed me to enter where others of it's ilk get no attention whatsoever. The hook was that I wanted a better understanding of the so-called grassroots game.  This is the term most closely associated with the AAU system.  The AAU organizes leagues and tournaments  for grade school kids as young as seven, and as old as eighteen. (second grade, through highschool).  The AAU dabbles in almost all sports, but basketball is by far king in it's the youth sports machine.  Baseball has Little League. Football has Pop Warner. Youth basketball has no such establishment, outside the AAU, or at least not one so strong.  Basketball also differs in another big way. The NBA's entrance procedure is different. Players are not barred from joining the Association straight out of high school, and more often than not, straight off an AAU roster.  Superstars can be, and are routinely drafted early.   The NFL still requires it's players to, if not attend college, at least wait three years after high-school graduation before becoming eligible.  The MLB, though not shy about drafting youngsters, has an extensive minor-league system where prospects develop before being sent up to the majors. One need look no further than the NBA's two biggest  stars to see the contrast.  Kobe Bryant and Lebron James never went to college.  They are both products, and prodigies of the AAU. Other notables include Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, and Tracy McGrady.

Basketball is unlike other team sports, in part because of it's limited team size.  Having only ten players in total on the floor at any given time means individuals have greater chance to shine, as individuals. Yet the brighter spotlight is not all a natural occurrence. Sponsorship greases the wheels of the AAU system in an unmatched capacity.  Specifically sponsorship of shoe companies, such as Nike, Adidas,  and Reebok.  In the AAU it is common practice for coaches of elite teams to sign on as "consultants" with shoe companies, which nets them salaries and product (in insane amounts) in exchange for agreements to wear gear, and in many cases run sponsored tournaments and camps. The money allows teams to travel nationwide and increase their top players profiles which helps explain some of how mega-hype spreads.  The coaches themselves are some of the loudest drum beaters for potential phenoms, and as you will see subsequently, one of the most unsavory elements of grassroots basketball.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot here, seeing as this advance review. (release date says 10.5.10) What I will say is that the story deals primarily with one star, Demitrius Walker, and the coach who ' discovered' him Joe Keller. At the age of nine or ten Walker was told by Keller that he was destined for the NBA, and of course riches beyond imagining.  Demititrius had size and quickness that other boys his age couldn't hope to match  These types of promises are doubtless common, no matter how ludicrous they might seem.  Yet what Keller didn't mention to his golden boy recruit was both money and revenge were coach Joe's primary motives.  Years earlier Keller had been duped by local coach and power broker Pat Barrett when he handed over eventual #2 overall draft choice Tyson Chandler. Barrett had promised a partnership which never materialized.  Barrett's SCA Stars were already sponsored by Nike, and so Keller thought he would extend either a joint-team proposal or a similar contract to the one he enjoyed.  Dohrmann, who was  writing a story for Sports Illustrated  in 2000 hoped to get some dirt from Keller.  When their initial meeting revealed little, Dorhrmann assumed he'd have to look elsewhere.  Still a relationship was forged, and Keller would eventually talk at more length about his relationship with Pat.  Nothing goundbreaking was published at that point but after a follow-up interview  in 2001 Keller advised Dohrmann to keep in touch.  He explained his intention of starting a new squad to beat Barrett at his own game.  What is even more telling is Keller's decision to allow extended access to his teams story once Walker was found.  Keller explained that as long as any comprehensive piece done about his team, (or a book like this one) waited until the conclusion to be published, he, meaning Keller, would be rich, and would no longer care what Dohrmann said.

The story is a long one that spans over eight years. From the inception of Keller's team the Inland Stars to the high school graduation of it's players. The team is eventually re-branded as Team Cal, following a sponsorship with Adidas.  The roster changed frequently but Demitrius was always the focal point as far as coach Joe was concerned. Many  Inland Stars / Team Cal alums went on to sign with Division I programs.  This is the most positive part of the story to be sure.  It also proves Keller's eye for future talent. What is also apparent however is Keller's reputation as a dishonest, and generally bad guy. For example he is no longer on good or even speaking terms with his former players. Walker's rise to a #1 ranked prospect (in the 8th grade) led to his being dubbed by one of Dohrmann's SI colleagues  ' The Next LeBron ' in 2005.  His life anointment shines a light on the darker side of expectations and the hunt for NBA dollars.

Again I reiterate that I do not typically read sports books.  Play Their Hearts Out is more than that. This is the type of story that movie makers might salivate over. If anything holds this back from being a blockbuster it will either be it's grittiness (which may scare away family oriented film makers) and it's length ( which could keep it from being a future Spike Lee Joint) It's no real surprise that this was well written.  After all Dohrmann is one  only four sportswriters to ever be awarded a Pulitzer - Albeit an earlier series of stories he wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer Press detailing academic fraud. The book may not change the way you view basketball, but it will show you up close, what has changed basketball.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Observations of the Visceral and Real (The Trouble With Poets)

The late Roberto Bolano has been celebrated as one of Latin America's finest writers. He has been compared to the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. ( Love in the Time of Cholera, One-Hundred Years of Solitude) After reading The Savage Detectives I'd have to agree with that assessment for two reasons ; First  is the feel for authentic setting. Both writers are easy-going educators. After reading their work I felt as though I'd actually gained some knowledge of Latin American culture. Let me also say that learning direct from the source is far more useful than three to four years of Spanish class. At least here in the States, where it seems as though the question of cultural education can be answered by three very basic components.  What they wear,  what they eat, and what holidays do they celebrate? What we see here is something very human and very real. This brings me to the second point of comparison between G.G.M. and Bolano ; The characters, of which there are many. What is so impressive when dealing with extensive casts, and in the process spanning many years - is that each author is able to do so, and at the same time present characters that are strong, and fully-realized individuals. (in Marquez's case this is even more awe-inspiring when so many of those characters have similar names, and can be mistaken for one another if you attempt to read too fast.)

Last week I expressed apprehension about reading supposedly literary novels.  Yet here I am again, reading and writing about reading and writing.  Thankfully once again I thoroughly enjoyed the book in question and thus I feel only slightly snobbish blogging about it. The way I figure it is that you can't get any more self-important once you start a blog in the first place, right?  The Savage Detectives may seem like a misleading title for this book, being that it ins't about detectives at all. Instead The Savage Detectives is about poets. More specifically it's about a group of poets who call themselves visceral realists. What visceral realism means is never quite clear, even for it's adherents.  What is clear is that they are a sort of new guard for Mexican poetry, brash, severe, and excited about the world. The novel's narrator for the first and last sections of the story is Juan Garcia Madero.  Juan arrives in Mexico City to study at the university, although once he falls in with the visceral realists he stops attending classes.  Juan is endlessly knowledgeable about poetic terms and the intricacies of form.  This fact is what draws the groups founders to him when they are on campus looking to recruit.  His fearlessness at showing up a local poetry professor also earns their respect. The two founders are Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (who is a younger representation of the author even in his Chilean background)  The two sections with Juan as narrator move exceptionally fast.  This is helped by the dairy format which lists the day and is followed by a brief account of the relevant happenings. This might seem like something that would hurt the overall storyline by only skimming events but for me it provided plenty of information. Juan's connection to the reader here is very important because his introduction to the group is our introduction as well. This bit ends with Juan, Ulises, Arturo, and a whore named Lupe riding in a pimp's camaro into the Sonoran desert in search of Cesarea Tinajero, who they consider the mother of visceral realism

The middle portion of the novel ( which is the real meat of the book) is also where the name comes from.  The formatting here is set up as a long series of interviews with various characters and spans three decades. (76-96) Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano are mentioned frequently although no one can seem to get a fix on either for long.  For a time Lima vanishes in Nicaragua. Belano is spotted abroad in Paris by old friends. One interviewee recalls the time Belano discovered a 500 franc note on  the ground, and says now, he always walks with his head down.  Rumors are started and spread about both men although you don't find out why they are being sought out until the novel is just about over. Even the interview styled format isn't explained to the reader, yet that makes it more rewarding when it eventually clicks and you can savor the 'aha' moment. 

The third and final section of the book resumes the story from the beginning and ties things together in a mostly tidy fashion.  In all honesty there are more than a few interviews from the middle which probably could have been left out, although I won't complain.  As I said there are some enlightening things in this book which make it both educational and entertaining.  In addition I feel it is only right to praise the translator of this novel, which like all of Bolano's works was originally printed in Spanish. So, big ups to Natasha Wimmer.  She did an amazing job translating this into a smooth and effortless reading experience. At least as effortless as a 577 page novel can be. Of course from my recent review of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones it is only more apparent what damage a poor translation can do. This has also restored some of my faith in the 1001 book you must read before you die list.  Having never read Bolano previously I was skeptical of how great of an impact a writer with just two novels to his credit could have - Still having not read much Latin American fiction I feel somewhat ill-prepared to make grand statements ; What I am sure of is Bolano's talent. The Savage Detectives proves something I've said of poetry for some time - Observation is the key, after which everything else falls into place.