Monday, January 21, 2008

Nine Reasons to Root Against the Patriots in the Super Bowl

1) Tom Brady, the Patriots' quarterback, once appeared in a GQ photo spread holding a goat.

2) The Patriots hail from Boston, the spiritual home of every bandwagon-jumping sports fan in the country. The Boston teams get good, and suddenly everyone's wearing a recently purchased Red Sox jersey, cribbing an accent from Good Will Hunting and trying to convince you that the ball that rolled through Buckner's legs broke their heart.

3) If the Patriots win, we will have to endure more stories about how coach Bill Belichick is a genius. Shakespeare was a genius. Einstein was a genius. Bill Belichick is a man who can't grasp the fact that wearing a hoodie makes you look like you spend your evenings trying to bum smokes in the parking lot of a 7-11.

4) This one time, a girl I liked went on and on about how nice Tom Brady's ass was. That's a good enough reason for me to hate the guy.

5) Patriots owner Robert Kraft reportedly lent one of his Super Bowl rings to Vladamir Putin, only to discover that Putin thought it was a gift. Hey, Robert Kraft: I was under the impression we won the Cold War. Go get your ring back.

6) Early in the season, the Patriots were caught cheating against the perennially lousy Jets. What's next, rigging a game of Chutes and Ladders? Kneecapping your competition in the sack race at the Patriots' annual picnic?

7) Massachusetts claims to be part of The United States" yet it isn't even a state at all. What the hell?

8) Sportswriters are getting so desperate to find an original way to cover the Patriots, one recently wrote a story devoted to the person who came up with the team logo.

9) I never thought a cash-rich team from the New York area would be the gritty underdog, but ... a cash-rich team from the New York area is the gritty underdog.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Sideways vs. Sideways

I've always admired the movie Sideways, not necessarily because it's a great movie -- although it features an uncanny performance by Paul Giamatti -- but because it gave me with a unique viewing experience. I saw it with a male friend in a theater full of women, and as the women laughed and hooted at the immature adventures of the male characters, my friend and I cringed. The two characters' flaws were outsized compared to our own experiences, but far too recognizable.

Because I give the film so much credit, I've always found the novel upon which the film was based to be somewhat odd. In many respects it's well-written, and writer Rex Pickett has done a good job crawling inside the mind of Miles, the character played by Giamatti in the film. Still, something has seemed off about it -- and I finally figured out what.

Rex Pickett is heedlessly, hopefully, hilariously addicted to adjectives and adverbs.

Consider, if you will, the following paragraph:

With wine-numbed brains and rubbery legs we trekked as if wading through hip-deep water to Ellen's Pancake House, a popular breakfast spot in the center of Buellton. We were both weighed down with man-sized hangovers and anorexics' appetites as we commandeered a red-checked table near the window. Around us, a grotesque diorama peopled by obese tourists and locals jackknifed over their eight-egg omeletes, pork-chop-and-friend-egg combos, and tall stacks drenched in imitation maple syrup assaulted our bleary, bloodshoot eyes.

For those of you who are interested, there are 11 nouns in the final two sentences and 11 - count 'em, 11 - adjectives to go along with 'em. The only word without an adjective slipped in front of it is 'window.' Our heroes' poor eyes get two: bleary and bloodshot.


After reading that paragraph, I thought maybe it was an exception, rather than the rule. So I looked around. It wasn't. Check out this baby:

The sun felt warm as we climbed out of the car and stretched our limbs and drank in the unspoiled view. We were at the foot of the Santa Ynez Mountains, imposing hills carpeted in native grasses and dotted with gnarled oaks. After L.A., with its incessant automotive noise, putrid air, and constant congestion, the vista was positively invigorating.

The adjectives become so invasive that some of them draw double-takes, such as the occasional when our two protagonists are greeted with friendly smiles. (It's true that there's such a thing as an unfriendly smile, but only from ex-girlfriends and presidential candidates, so the writer probably could have eased off the throttle a bit.)

But wait. There's more. Pickett's also a fan of adverbs. Characters glance excitingly, say restlessly, push roughly, scramble quickly (ever see someone scramble slowly?), follow wolfishly, say warmly and more.

The result of all this cluttered language? A fast-moving story that seems slow and difficult to read.

To be fair to Pickett, the narrator of the novel is an unsuccessful writer, and there are hints throughout that he's unsuccessful for a reason: the occasionally odd turn of phrase, language that goes over his friends' heads. So the writing style may be courtesy of Miles, not Rex.

Still, the differences between reading the book and watching the movie gives a lesson to writers, such as myself, who occasionally can clutter their own writing: Pare it down to let the story breathe.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Literature and America

Let's say you're sitting in your backyard on a warm summer evening, drinking a beer and listening to the bug zapper. And let's say, as you sit there, a metallic flying saucer appears out of nowhere and lands on your lawn, and a space alien scurries out.

Now let's say the alien tells you it wants to learn about the country known as "America," but only through works of literature.

I know what you're on the verge of saying. Either, "Hey man, that's a ridiculously complicated setup for a short essay on literature," or perhaps, "I saw a movie just like that once, only instead of talking about literature, the aliens blew up the White House."

Well, screw you, this is my blog.

So anyway, what would you tell this alien? What works of literature would you point it to to best explain this bizarre, hilarious, tragic country we all live in?

Here's a short list by me:

1) Sometimes a Great Notion. This criminally underrated novel by Ken Kesey, about a logging family fighting the union, the elements and each other in Oregon, probes the American mind and spirit more sharply than hundreds of novels that came before its publication in 1964. While its themes are universal -- masculinity, family, sex -- its tenor is distinctly American, and the Stampers' fighting spirit, whether for good or for ill or for both, lives on in the country today.

2) Invisible Man. Seems a little obvious, doesn't it? But this exploration of race relations in the U.S. by Ralph Ellison, which seemingly is on every high-school and college reading list, is more complex, more surreal, more bizarre and more vibrant than you may remember. This one still blows your mind.

3) Joe DiMaggio: A Hero's Life. This masterful biography of the Yankee star by Richard Ben Cramer slices into the legend with the sharpest of tools to find the real man, and the real tragedy, behind that legend. The resulting story plunges you into World War II-era New York; the Hollywood of the Kennedys and Frank Sinatra; and the lacquered, moneyed corridors DiMaggio walked later in life. It also touches on this country's endless need to worship and destroy its heroes; explores the way sports holds us in its thrall; and, in the end, makes you question if a hero's life is indeed worth living. A fantastic book.

4) In the American Grain. This book of essays on history by poet William Carlos Williams still crackles, both because of its gorgeous, challenging language and because it looks into corners of history that schoolbooks, politicians and pundits somehow forget to examine. Subjects include the destruction of Tenochtitlan, Edgar Allan Poe and Eric the Red (who gets off the memorable line, "Who is this Christ, that he should come to bother me in my own country?"). The essay on Aaron Burr, especially, is a masterpiece.

5) The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. A tale of two Cuban immigrants in post World War II New York, this is an exciting, passionate look at the possibilities that drew so many people to this country. Writer Oscar Hijuelos' most powerful tool is his use of details to make you feel as if you're in that era yourself. The brothers, who are mambo musicians, write music, bicker, drink, eat and chase women with gusto. And you'll feel as if you're following them with every step.