September 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
It was 2004, the end of the first day of my second year of college, and I’d spent the evening rushing to finish my story, printing, making copies, smelling the toner on the paper, in love with the words I’d written, terrified to let anyone see them. Crossing bridges between redwoods to get to my Creative Writing class in the lamplit September dusk, I was too preoccupied with my own story to even consider what I was about to read from the other students.
In retrospect, a lot of it was predictable. The dozen or so white guys trying their damndest to write exactly like Chuck Palahniuk, the kid who workshopped a thinly disguised Star Trek fanfic in which he Mary Sue’d himself into a typo-ridden orgy with the entire Enterprise crew, and so on.
And then there was Traci Chee. She wrote a bizarre fable set on the lip of a giant pot of hot oil—a fucking behemoth of a pot. I was infatuated with her prose immediately.
Yesterday morning I finished Traci’s debut novel, The Reader, and I’m still holding that dreamy fuzz around my head in which I’m still half living inside the book and it’s still living in me, tossing me calmly in the rhythm of its storytelling, undulating like gentle waves at sea. It’s a feeling that’s particularly apt for The Reader, a Young Adult adventure novel about a girl with a book in a world where the ability to read is a terrible power, restricted at all costs.
Yes, The Reader is YA fiction, even though Traci’s previous published output, like her short story collection Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs, is very much not. Traci often deals with the highly experimental and incredibly surreal, drawing from Calvino and Borges, Danielewski and Eggers, and when I first heard that The Reader was going to be a “genre novel,” I was worried.
It turns out, I shouldn’t have been.
The Reader deftly wrangles genre tropes like “the special teenager” and “the jolly pirate” as compressed bullets of storytelling, setting them up quickly to expand within you or subvert later. The precise surreality and metatextual glee of Traci’s earlier work find themselves in The Reader as well, and are in fact excellent ingredients for a great Young Adult story, paired to the genre’s effusive sincerity and exuberant sense of adventure.
Because The Reader is a Young Adult story, its metatextual devices — hidden messages, blacked-out words, smudged pages and the like — lose the pretentious sheen of “serious” experimental fiction and are allowed to simply be fun. It’s a love letter to every book you’ve ever loved, and to the feeling of getting lost in the book you’re currently reading. It’s stunning.
And for me, who registered my membership card for the Traci Chee fanclub years ago, it’s finally an opportunity to swim delightfully through Traci’s prose for 400+ uninterrupted pages, allowing her to tell a big story, a full story, her way.
The Reader is the first book in a trilogy and Traci’s sitting on a three-book deal with Penguin, because every once in awhile the world works the way it’s supposed to. Traci always worked harder and wrote smarter than anyone else in our Creative Writing program, her sentences always the most considered, her revisions the most daring. Majoring in writing fiction required a level of commitment to the craft of writing that I struggled to keep up with in college, and have struggled to match since. For Traci, I always got the feeling that it was nothing new, and it was exactly where she belonged.
The Reader is a fantastic debut and I couldn’t be more happy with the book I just read or the success of my friend. I can’t wait for the next one.
Buy The Reader on Amazon or at your local bookstore.
December 8, 2015 § Leave a comment
Before this NBA season, I sat down and wrote some predictions: outlandish or unexpected things that I didn’t necessarily believe were going to happen, but were more likely to happen than I had heard anyone else write about. This is part 2. For part 1, click here.
4) The Bulls will be better under Fred Hoiberg.
Last year, a playoff-tested team made the risky move of dismissing their successful head coach, who was beloved by his players and had installed a bruising defense that had led the team to a lot of success, yet didn’t get along with the front office. That team replaced him with a rookie coach, whose ability was unknown at the NBA level but came from a good pedigree and promised to revitalize their offense. That team was the Golden State Warriors, and last year they won the NBA title.
I don’t mean to lump Tom Thibodeau in with Mark Jackson, who is by all accounts his inferior as a coach, but it’s easy to envision a similar buoy for the Bulls as the infamous hardass is replaced by Fred Hoiberg. There’s evidence to suggest that, unless a team experiences significant roster upheaval, teams with a successful culture and scheme on defense often retain it for a season or more after the coach who created that defense leaves. While the Bulls should receive a bigger boost from a healthy season from Joakim Noah and a more acclimated Nikola Mirotic, this could certainly be at play in Chicago.
One can look at the continued success of the late-aughts Boston Celtics on that end of the floor after Thibodeau himself architected their defense as an assistant coach before leaving to Chicago. The mid-aughts Pistons, after swapping Larry Brown for Flip Saunders, also come to mind, as do the current Grizzlies under Dave Joerger instead of Lionel Hollins. With Hoiberg injecting new ideas into the Bulls’ moribund offense and providing a new voice in the locker room—and a considerably less hoarse one at that—the Bulls could be the next team to benefit from such an arrangement.
5) Led by Kyrie, the Cavs will crush the Warriors on Christmas Day
Christmas Day is the NBA’s biggest regular-season showcase and the unofficial “real” beginning of the NBA season. Stuffed full of superstars and intriguing matchups, it’s a day for the league’s best teams to leave an early stamp on the season. Yet somehow, year after year, that luster usually doesn’t extend to the defending champions.
Over the last 10 years, the defending champions have played 9 times on Christmas day, losing 6 of those contests with an average scoring margin of -5.1—for reference, across a full season that would sit between last year’s Kings at -3.7 and last year’s Magic at -5.8. In finals rematches, the defending champs fare even worse, sporting a 1-3 record with a -7.3 scoring margin a half-point worse than last year’s Lakers (-6.8). Curiously, all three Christmas wins by defending champs in the last decade were claimed by the Heat, whose erstwhile star LeBron James owns a career 7-2 record on the holiday. I think you see where this is going.
This year, James and the Cavs face off against the team that beat them in last year’s finals, the Golden State Warriors. And while the early season might be rocky for Cleveland, who will be dealing with an injured Kyrie Irving and a rehabbing Kevin Love, there’s every reason to believe the Cavs will be looking forward to making that Christmas rematch their statement game. For example, a recent news story estimated that Irving would be sidelined until January. That sounds like a perfect timeline for him to “unexpectedly” come back “ahead of schedule” and wreak havok on Golden State’s gameplan for the marquee matchup.
6) Jahlil Okafor will follow in Michael Carter-Williams’s footsteps, for good and for ill.
If there’s one thing Jahlil Okafor can do, it’s put up numbers. The highly touted Duke product is considered a once-in-a-generation talent in the low post, capable of scoring in a variety of ways with his back to the basket. He’s the kind of offensive cornerstone that once dominated the NBA, a fundamentally sound behemoth whose advantages down low in both size and skill should translate to becoming the rare type of scorer whose efficiency won’t decline with increased usage. However, the rest of his game gives NBA teams pause. On draft day, despite his prodigious promise on offense, Okafor fell the Philadelphia 76ers with the 3rd pick overall, due to concerns about his defense, shooting, and rebounding.
On the Sixers, Okafor will have plenty of opportunities to put those numbers up—Philadelphia looks to be putrid for the third straight year, and Okafor might be the only player on their roster with even a decent amount of offensive skill. Fortunately for Okafor, numbers get a lot of attention. For all the inroads advanced statistics have made in helping fans and front offices alike gain a better understanding of basketball, raw scoring average still correlates the most highly with bigger contracts, all-star nods, and, crucially for Okafor, end-of-the-year awards. With his unique combination of talent and opportunity, it’s easy to peg Okafor as the front-runner for this year’s Rookie of the Year award.
If any of this sounds familiar, it should: the Sixers have been down this road before. Two years ago, Sixers rookie Michael Carter-Williams averaged 16.7 points, 6.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds, historic numbers for a rookie that earned him best-of honors. Digging a little deeper, however, the picture didn’t seem so bright. Carter-Williams only shot .405 from the field and an abysmal .264 from 3-point range his rookie year, and both numbers actually regressed in his sophomore campaign. Furthermore, advanced statistics indicated that his huge per-game totals were nothing special considering the number of possessions he used. Perhaps recognizing this, as well as the value his Rookie of the Year award gave him to other teams around the league, the Sixers traded Carter-Williams at last year’s trade deadline for a draft pick most considered to be far more valuable than the young point guard they traded away. With the Sixers facing a positional logjam at center, having drafted Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Jahlil Okafor in consecutive lotteries, Okafor just might be the kind of overvalued asset that mad scientist GM Sam Hinkie dangles for a chance at bigger future rewards.
Now, imagine the irony when that bigger future reward turns out to be the 3rd pick in next year’s draft. After Ben Simmons and Dragan Bender go first and second, the Sixers have no choice but to take the consensus best player available, the one with the greatest chance to develop into a star… yet another center, Skal Labissiere.
December 7, 2015 § 1 Comment
Before this NBA season, I sat down and wrote some predictions: outlandish or unexpected things that I didn’t necessarily believe were going to happen, but were more likely to happen than I had heard anyone else write about. I came up with 14 predictions for the ’15-16 season, then my Kickstarter for The Pros issue #2 took over and I didn’t finish writing the last two. Those last two have already turned out to be terrible predictions, so let’s pretend they never happened. So here’s 12 NBA predictions for the ’15-16 season, part 1.
1) Injuries will knock out one of the West’s top 6.
Last year, injuries all but completely wiped out the season for superstars Kevin Durant and Paul George–and with them, any hope their teams had at championship contention. While both the Thunder and the Pacers seemed like locks for high seeds in their respective conferences, losing Durant and George, alongside lesser injuries to players like Russell Westbrook, George Hill, and David West, knocked both teams out of the playoffs entirely.
Injuries are an unfortunate fact of life in the NBA: they define seasons and sway titles. Right now the Warriors, Spurs, Grizzlies, Clippers, Rockets, and Thunder form a consensus top 6 in the West, easily head and shoulders ahead of the pack. But realistically? A serious injury to any one of a dozen players would knock one of those teams off that perch, and it’s a long way to fall. While I hate making such a morbid prediction, it’s also a frustratingly safe one: injuries will knock at least one of these teams away from the pack, and potentially out of the playoffs altogether.
2) The 2014 draft class will remind you why it was so hyped.
The hype train for last year’s draft started early and hit hard. So early and so hard that a certain famous columnist started coming up with cute tanking nicknames like “Riggin’ for Wiggins” before the 2013-14 season even started. Last year’s draft class was supposed to be the rare combination of deep and top-heavy, with three potential superstars available in the lottery and prospects who were expected to develop into quality starters taken throughout the first round. Since then, it’s been a bit of a disaster.
It would have been hard for any reasonably successful rookie season to live up to those kinds of expectations, so it’s only fitting that the injury bug wiped out damn near the whole class. Second overall pick Jabari Parker tore his ACL after only a month and a half of action, and he actually had a long, fruitful rookie experience compared to #3 pick Joel Embiid, who missed the whole season, and #7 pick Julius Randle, whose season ended from a broken leg suffered in his very first game. Lottery picks Aaron Gordon and Doug McDermott also missed significant chunks of the season to injury, while lottery talents like Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, Nik Stauskas, and Noah Vonleh failed to make much of an impression on anyone. First overall pick Andrew Wiggins won Rookie of the Year almost by default with a merely competent statistical season.
This year, expect that to change. While the injury bug has already claimed Exum and Embiid (again!) for the whole season, if we’re lucky enough to get full seasons from Parker, Gordon, and Randle, a whole lot of talent and potential will thankfully be returned to the league. Equally important is another year of development for Wiggins, an unformed mountain of skills and athleticism whose still-developing feel for the game left many to consider him a longer-term project from the start. Wiggins’ improving play as last season wore on is a promising indicator for his season to come. Meanwhile, more minutes and bigger opportunities are likely for McDermott, Stauskas, and Vonleh, who are each playing for new teams or coaches this year, and bruising Denver center Jusuf Nurkic showed flashes last year as well. The talent that was so obviously dripping from this rookie class didn’t go anywhere, and this year, they’re likely to show it.
3) Mario Hezonija, Scott Skiles. Only one will survive.
With three head coaching stops already on his resume, new Orlando Magic coach Scott Skiles has a bit of a reputation. Skiles is known as a hard-nosed coach whose gritty and grating style creates good defensive discipline and results. Unfortunately, those same qualities also seem to have worn down his players patience with him in Phoenix, Chicago, and Milwaukee, and his departures haven’t always been pretty. Skiles has a clear emphasis on defense and prefers athletic, able defenders over gifted, intuitive scorers. It’s a style that seems like a perfect compliment for most of the key pieces on Orlando’s roster, especially guards Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton. For lottery pick Mario Hezonja, though, it’s hard to imagine a worse fit.
I will admit to being irrationally and irrevocably in love with Hezonja. After top pick Karl Anthony Towns, he might be the most athletic rookie in this year’s crop, and he flashes a silky shooting touch and on-ball skills that earned him minutes in the second-best professional league in the world with BC Barcelona. In the league championship series. At the age of 19. Best of all, he might be the cockiest rookie to show up to an NBA training camp since Kobe Bryant. In fact, I desperately wanted my Lakers to pick Hezonja in this year’s draft, as the idea of Kobe and Mario in the same locker room was simply irresistible. Either Kobe would mold him into the perfect basketball sociopath and the only possible heir to his legacy, or he’d kill the young Croat in his sleep.
With Skiles and the Magic, I’m seeing a lot of the same risk without much of the same upside. Regardless of talent, the path of any prospect to NBA success is difficult, and the most successful transitions seem to happen when a young player can find the right fit with a roster and coach that allows him a focused development path. Playing at the whim of Skiles and stuck on the bench behind Oladipo and Tobias Harris, two players in whom the Magic have already invested a tremendous amount of resources, I’m not sure those opportunities are apparent for Hezonja. Even worse, international players are on an even more abbreviated clock than American prospects, with high-level European leagues presenting a much more viable alternative, allowing them to receive a comparable salary closer to home. Several highly touted imports like Rudy Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro have made the trek to America only to fail to latch on in the NBA. I’ll be printing up Free Mario t-shirts in hopes that he’s not next.
October 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
My letter to the editor got published in today’s Santa Barbara Independent:
I’m fighting to raise the minimum wage for my girlfriend, 28 years old, who works 60-plus hours a week at two to three jobs and can still barely afford to rent a room in this town. She’s funny, smart, hard-working, and beautiful, and I’d really like to be able to see her more often.
In 2015, minimum wage is the new normal for working people, and it’s not enough to get by, let alone give people the time and money to work toward a better life — to try to get an education, start a business, or find love. A day’s work deserves a day’s pay, but wages in America, adjusted for inflation, have been stagnant since the ‘70s, while the cost of living has continued to rise. We’ve been hoping for decades that the labor market would correct itself, but it hasn’t, and it won’t. This is what legislative action is for.
Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, and other cities have voted to raise their minimum wages and seen the decision lead to economic growth and prosperity. If Santa Barbara can’t keep up, we’ll be in danger of losing our smartest, hardest working citizens, not to mention the office-job shlubs like me who want to date them, to one of those cities.
July 10, 2015 § 1 Comment
We were born in towns you’ve never heard of and work jobs of no import. Where we went to school–if we went to school–they print diplomas out on newsprint. Our parents siblings cousins and friends are not on wikipedia. We had no mentor; we were too busy working to harness our talent, refine our craft, find our voice. Our dreams, like our children, are the result of poor planning. We don’t matter, but oh, we want to.
June 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
Lovesick in the laundromat, where they jukebox nonstop torch songs in a language I don’t understand. Little kids running around underfoot having the time of their fucking lives, while the adults stare at Full House reruns on TV, and some prick is whistling cheerily. I want to stab him. My clothes sit idle in the washer for 20 minutes while I fumble at the fleeting sense of a thought I almost held. It never comes to me, and I fear I’m either too proud or too stupid to chase it.
January 19, 2015 § Leave a comment
Welcome back to “Steve Likes Almost Everything”, where I like almost everything, even when I don’t.
Today, Inherent Vice, which I couldn’t wait to see as soon as it came out, and Ender’s Game, for which which definitely I could wait. And did.
Have you ever heard the urban legend(?) that when you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’re supposed to drop acid when the movie starts, and then you’ll peak right at the flashy lights scene? I think that Inherent Vice is supposed to be this, but backwards. I’ll explain what I mean in a minute.
First of all, this review hinges on the premise that I think that, once it hits home video, Vice will be overwhelmingly couchable—the type of movie that you can turn on, on a Sunday afternoon, volume lowish, and keep on in the background while you do other stuff. It shouldn’t be that, because it looks like a drama, and you don’t couch dramas, you couch action and comedy flicks. But Paul Thomas Anderson has made couchable movies before. Not just Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love, either. There Will Be Blood? Oddly, as Dan showed me, very couchable.
Vice has gags that will be funny 20 rewatchings later—basically, any moment Josh Brolin is on the screen, and its Goldilocks-sized portion of Martin Short. And Reese Witherspoon, and so on. It’s got enough side-characters and side-tangents that you can watch and explore and flit away, without the plot ever mattering too much. And Joanna Newsom’s narration is too much, too dense, too prosey to really latch into in the theater. It will find a permanent place next to The Big Lebowski on any shelf that holds the former…for, uh, non-alphabetic reasons.
It’s fitting that the first Pynchon novel adapted into a film is couchable, because Pynchon wrote probably the finest essay on couches ever penned. In “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee”, part of a series for the New York Times in which writers discuss the seven deadly sins, Pynchon gives an impassioned defense of Sloth. And Doc Sportello, the protagonist of Vice, is perhaps the Slothiest of any Pynchon protagonist, even Gravity’s Rainbow‘s Tyrone Slothrop, whose name is allegedly an anagram for “sloth or entropy”.
Doc is a man who wants to live life as it comes to him in a world where that was briefly allowed (that world: shoddy apartments on the sand in Manhattan Beach, drainage pipes out their windows, 1970). But less slowly than Doc’s dope-addled mind can fail to notice, that world is getting stamped out by real estate developers, the LAPD, and Richard Nixon. If 2001 is peaking on acid, Vice, as a movie, is sobering up after smoking some weed. Pop it on at home, on the couch. Feel your attention sucked back in as soon as shit gets way, too, damn, sober.
Of course, being a Pynchon fan, I also have to talk about how the movie and book compare to each other. If you haven’t read the book and don’t care, skip ahead a couple paragraphs.
The act of shoving any person in front of a camera for 2 hours, even a character as phlegmatic as Doc Sportello, makes them the main character. But in Pynchon, the protagonists are so incidental to the story being told, and have such little impact on it, that it’s more accurate to consider his settings as the main character. Pynchon novels are told through multiple lenses and locations, a million stories buzzing around a central zeitgeist, illustrating it, expanding on it. Doc is probably the one that most naturally and understandably ducks out of the way of the zeitgeist among Pynchon’s “protagonists”, because his hippiness and druginess is played for laughs.
Now, I’m not exactly lamenting the more focused treatment Anderson took in adapting Vice. I don’t know if it was possible to make a movie about zeitgeist in the same way that Pynchon writes—even a movie with an ensemble cast feels more like it’s about its characters than Pynchon novels feel like they’re about theirs. And I’m glad Anderson didn’t try. Something had to get lost in translation, and I’d rather we lose out on some of the things the novel did well as a separate work of art, like thematic breadth, than the things that a movie had an opportunity to accomplish in a unique and visually interesting way, like its tonal complexity and outrageous humor.
I liked Ender’s Game. I mean, I’m supposed to, because of what this whole thing is called. But still.
Ender’s Game is the absolute ultimate test case in what this type of review is supposed to be about, because I know I was supposed to hate it, and I DID hate it for the reasons I was supposed to hate it. First, they got rid of Ender and Alai hugging, and making meaningful eye contact, and Alai kissing Ender on the cheek. In the middle of the controversy of Orson Scott Card’s batshit homophobia, that just fucking sucks.
Second, wow, I did not catch the awful gender politics of Ender’s Game when I read the book when I was like, 11. Every woman in Ender’s life only exists as a nurturer for him. Ender’s sister, Petra, and Harrison Ford’s Black Assistant seem to be plenty capable in their own rights, but they all disappear as soon as Ender needs something. Bleh.
Also, for the longest time I thought it was nice that Card snuck a person of color past the conservative sci-fi culture and into a crucial role in Enderverse—ok, I guess I just assumed that Bean was Mexican. Upset now that he seems to be white in the movie.
But I also rediscovered a lot of the things that made Ender’s Game my favorite book when I was 11. It starred the smart kid who was younger than everyone else succeeding and thriving, I’m sure that had its pull on me. But wow, Ender’s Game pulls no punches in its treatment of the military industrial complex. It presents a compelling, well supported case that the military would ruin the lives of its children, fuck up all of society, and cause complete alien genocide just to fight a war that didn’t need to be won. And I like the final message that any enemy, no matter how foreign and different from you, can be talked to, reached as an equal.
Finally, there’s Ender’s final argument, final statement to Graff: “it matters how we win”. This is, to me, the most compelling argument for non-violence. It’s above Gene Sharp’s strategic nonviolence, in which non-violence is presented as simply the most strategically easy method for achieving social change. And (fitting that I saw this movie on MLK day), Ender’s argument is below King’s principled nonviolence, in which non-violence is a great moral principle that rests on an external moral force that favors those who choose not to hurt or kill.
“It matters how we win”, coming from Ender, is a warning. Ender is smarter and sees strategy several steps farther than anyone else. He wants to not just end the war, but end all future wars. And he understands that ending conflicts in violence may solve a present conflict, but it creates future conflicts. Even if you wipe out your enemy as completely as he does the Buggers (oof, that word looks wrong post Card-homophobia controversy), it creates future conflicts, because you will be starting future conflicts. As we see in the rest of the Ender series, using violence turns you into a future aggressor, because that’s how you know to end conflicts.
I also couldn’t help but start to analyze the movie as a piece of Mormon fiction. Card, of course, is Mormon. Mormonism is the largest, most distinct current religion based on white American mythology. Ender commits mass genocide (Xenocide!) and feels guilty, and takes it on as his burden to rescue the buggers. I got kind of bored with that line of analysis.
Look, the movie as a movie wasn’t good. Like Vice, it was a very incomplete adaptation of a much longer novel, and it lacked more for its compression and choices than Vice did. It focused on the wrong things, it sacrificed the continuity its characters needed for their moments together to feel genuine in order to give Harrison Ford more screen time. But this movie felt like a pure nostalgia trip for the now-adult fans of a book which was, at the time, the shit for me and a lot of young kids. It evoked just enough of the book that I loved once upon a time to make the romp enjoyable.