Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Let's Book Club!: The Art of a Beautiful Game by Chris Ballard

Chris Ballard's The Art of a Beautiful Game is subtitled The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA, which in my estimation, is a slightly misleading title. At once the book seeks to detail the nuance of a variety of different parts of the game: Kobe's killer instinct, Steve Nash's passing, shooting with Steve Kerr. However, the book only touches on these subjects in broad, general terms. In essence, it's a "thinking fans" guide to the NBA... if the fan only has a grammar school education.

The chapters, each of which tackles a different aspect of the game, tend to follow this formula: introduction to the subject, a reader's digest background on the subject, a bunch of quotes from other people about the person and subject, summary of chapter/thoughts on the future of the aspect of the game.

My biggest gripe with the book is that it appears the book was written based solely off interviews and personal anecdotes. Now, there's certainly nothing wrong with that, and that's the way that the majority of sports journalism is done, and that works well the two column articles that show up in the local sports pages. But, to qualify as something for a "thinking fan" there has to be some degree of, a) background knowledge of the literature in that area; and b) original research. Even for a mass market book I'd settle for a summary of new original research (see Gladwell, Malcolm), but, unfortunately, Ballard manages to cite exactly one book through the entire 200 pages.

So, my recommendation would be that if you are familiar with things like PER, true shooting percentage, a pinch post, then this might be a book to pass on... you're not going to get anything new. On the other hand, it is a well written book with some fun anecdotes, so if you're not planning on attending the Sloan Conference at MIT (or have no idea what I'm talking about), then it may be a fun little read.

Grade: C

Up next: After how easy I found this one, I think I'm going to head back to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

2011 Book Club Results
1. Into the Wild | John Krakauer (207 pages) | B-
2. Dance Dance Dance| Haruki Murakami (393 pages)| A-
3. The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History| Free Darko (not applicable)|A
4. The Art of a Beautiful Game| Chris Ballard (228 pages)| C

Monday, February 7, 2011

When the Devil's Loose by A.A. Bondy

Not breaking news, really. But a really great album that ought to be heard.

I can't exactly remember when I first heard of A.A. Bondy. It might've been on Friday Night Lights or possibly through a friend via Facebook, but in either case I do remember be utterly mesmerized by his sound. The strange thing about this hold he has on the listener (in this case, me) and the way he's able to captivate, is that he doesn't possess any of the tools that would immediately wow you. He has a nice voice, but it certainly doesn't over power. His songs are simple and straight forward -- he's not producing anything approaching a Sufjan Stevenseque opus, and yet, I'm hard pressed to think of an artist I've come across in the past year that I've been affected more by.

On his 2009 release When the Devil's Loose Bondy sings like a man who is tired. While there's nothing that particularly stands out about Bondy's music, he emotes, and his fatigue is so tangible that it's hard not to slow down with him. Given Bondy's background, the world weary and fatigued sound seems entirely appropriate. According to wikipedia, from 1994 - 2003 "Scott" Bondy was the lead singer of a grunge rock band called Verbena housed on Capitol Records. After viewing a couple of their music videos on youtube, namely, "My Baby Got Shot", I was exhausted.

For many song-writers this might drive them to begin to write some horribly self-absorbed and self-pitying type work, but this is something that When the Devil's Loose is very clear to avoid. The songs are slow and wistful, but the stories seem to serve as more of a cautionary tale rather than a source of out and out regret, though it certainly possible that what sounds like regret to me is actually just a southern, Mississippi Delta sort of thing.

Let's Book Club!: Free Darko Presents The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History

In his book What is History E.H. Carr distinguishes between "facts of the past" and "historical fact" arguing that, if I remember correctly, "facts of the past" are forgotten and "historical facts" are what historians have collectively deemed important. Therefore, the thesis from Carr is that history is constructed by those that write it, meaning the stories of the marginalized are often under represented or not represented at all. In Carr's view, history isn't an accumulation of facts, history is about how stories are framed into a coherent narrative.

In the The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, the Free Darko collective have taken the grand narratives of basketball history and have deconstructed NBA history beyond just dates and facts. For those not familiar with the Free Darko, their writing is highly literate often drawing on references from the classics to current, and often obscure, pop-culture references. If basketball is an art form, as its oft described, then the latest collection of short essays from Free Darko is art-history. The magic of all this is that they do this without sounding arrogant or pretentious, and they do it in a way that captures the characters in basketball.

While having the appearance of a coffee table book akin to Jon Stewart's America: The Book, the writing is much more than reader's digest clips of the past. Stylistically, the book is stunning, with some graphics that will knock your socks off, but the prose in the The Undisputed Guide is what makes the guys at Free Darko some of the most interesting writing in basketball today.

At the beginning, the pre-history of basketball from Naismith to the beginning of the ABA does read a little like a history text, but without any real source material there really wasn't any room to do what Free Darko does. And what they do, is pick the untold swag out of the history of professional basketball -- they tell the stories that are untold in the popular myths about professional basketball, and they cast a new light on the stories that we do know -- the similarities between Wilt/Russell and the fun of the Duncan/Popovich San Antonio Spurs, for example. While wins and losses are significant, to Free Darko, they are only as significant as the way they make us feel about the dynamics, style, and players on the team.

Most interestingly, the authors examine how the giants of the game Russell and Jordan, impact how we look at mere mortals like Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson; and Barkley and Malone. They look at the eclectic early 70s New York Knicks (future Senator Bill Bradley, Phil Jackson, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, etc.), the similarities between Kareem and Bill Walton, how the 1984 draft (Olajuwon, Jordan, Barkley) transformed the draft from business transaction into spectacle, and the beauty of AI's individual approach to playing a team game. In each section of the book the writers of Free Darko are able to find the art/style/meaning in their subjects (yes, even the Duncan/Popovich San Antonio Spurs).

The real morale from The Undisputed Guide is that, there's meaning to the game beyond championships and popular myths of heroism, that often, the narratives that go untold are equally meaningful.

Grade: A

Upnext: I'm reading Dave Eggers A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which I'm Foster Wallacianly dense, so I'll probably mix that in with Chris Ballard's Art of a Beautiful Game. I'm expecting the Eggers book to take a little so expect thoughts on the Ballard book next...

2011 Book Club Results
1. Into the Wild | John Krakauer (207 pages) | B-
2. Dance Dance Dance| Haruki Murakami (393 pages)| A-
3. The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History| Free Darko (not applicable)|A

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Destroyer - Kaputt

I put on Destroyer's newest release in the car the other day, left the volume on low, and promptly forgot about the album. The next day I went out to go pick my sister up at the airport, I wondered how Liz had got a muzak installed in our car over night without me knowing (joke!). But seriously, from the outset of this album it sounds like Dan Bejar has channeled his inner-Will-Ferrel-Yazz-Flute, or was contracted to write the score for a teen drama circa 1985 and then decided to write lyrics over the music.

The bizarre part of all this, gentle ribbing aside, is that it absolutely works and this album is certainly a front runner for album of the year. Yes, it's early, but Kaputt is absolutely stellar.

Bejar's songs have always been my favourites off all of the New Pornographers albums, but I've felt like that's mostly because he's been restrained by Carl Newman's pop-sensibility. Most often (with the exception of Destroyer's Rubies and "An Actor's Revenge") his music has gone over my head. I've thought, he's an interesting lyricist, he's got an interesting cadence to his voice, but... meh. Maybe it's just that I'm too low brow and need at least some semblance of a hook or chorus in my songs.

I'm convinced that at least half my adoration for this album comes from the fact that it's a light, breezy, sort of album which is perfect for the weather here in Durham, NC today: shorts, flip flops, and windows down in the car. The other part, I think, is that the album draws you in with a really easy, steady rhythm at the beginning. The light snare (?), the synth noises, seem like the perfect fit for Bejar to wander with his often bizarre and cryptic lyrics.

That steady rhythm seems to permeate through the entire album, and that rhythm gives Bejar the leeway to freelance. And the album has that feel to it, fresh, almost like it's unscripted. Like the way that I imagine great jazz comes together -- where the drummer starts off with a beat, and then the other musicians come in and layer on top of each other. The last layer being Bejar, who's vocals sound like half lounge singer and half poet.

The moral of the story is, give it a chance. I always find that these types of albums, the ones that sound like they're going to be terrible -- either by their description, or by your first impression of the first few notes -- are often the ones you become the most attached to. I'm attached to this one.

... at least the first minute and a half of the video is worth watching even if you want nothing to do with the album... eat your heart out Napoleon Dynamite...

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Let's Book Club!: Dance, Dance, Dance by Haruki Murakami

I'm not sure whether I have anything really earth shattering to say about Haruki Murakami's Dance Dance Dance. The book is another solid addition in Murakami's rather impressive collection. It doesn't move the reader (me) on the same scale that Kafka on the Shore or Norwegian Wood did, and it's not an epic story like The Wind-Up Bird Cronicle (which may well be one of my favourite works of fiction of all time), but it's good.

After looking at Murakami's bookography, Dance Dance Dance falls right after Norwegian Wood a novel which garnered him much unwanted fame in his native Japan. NW was a more prototypical novel, without the strange surreal elements that often makes Murakami's work so different, and DDD seems to be a return to the strange.

The more I think about it, the more I think I actually really enjoyed Dance Dance Dance. I did, after all, read the entire book in 4 days. But, it's probably not the book I'd recommend first to people who haven't read anything by the Japanese super-star author... I'd check out the other ones I mentioned above first.

Grade: A-

Up next: Probably Chris Ballard's The Art of a Beautiful Game... I ordered approximately 100 basketball books from Amazon, so, it's going to be a lot of that in the next while. That said, I'm pretty keen on reading Murakami's memoirs What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

2011 Book Club Results
1. Into the Wild | John Krakauer (207 pages) | B-
2. Dance Dance Dance| Haruki Murakami (393 pages)| A-