Adam Reger | Pittsburgh Writer, Editor, and Teacher

Pittsburgh writer, editor, ghostwriter, and teacher.

Month: August, 2010

Interviews in the Paris Review

They are, indisputably, excellent. They’re always good craft-centered pieces (which is no surprise given that the series is “The Art of Fiction,” “The Art of Poetry,” etc.), but I suspect that even if you never felt the urge to write anything yourself, if you were interested in that particular writer’s work you would get a lot out of each one.

No surprise, then, from reading this Lorin Stein guest post (at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic blog) on the topic, that these interviews are the product of an involved and methodical process.

Here’s a link to the interview archives. Not many are available in full, but lots of the excerpts are meaty enough in and of themselves (and, you know, it’s fair enough that the Paris Review should want to sell issues, back or otherwise). This (excerpt from an) interview with James Ellroy is a beast, and prompted me to go to a bookstore and read the entire thing, which was equally beastly.

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Addendum to the Beloit College Mindset List

. . . which I lamented here. Full list for the class of 2014 here.

“76. Calvin has always been peeing on things, rather than an intelligent and imaginative little boy.”

More Sports (Pan-Pennsylvanian Edition)

Two sports-related posts within a single (sports-related) post!

As a kind of follow-up to this post, on the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates, some recent stuff in the news about the team and, especially, the reasons for its awfulness:

A Slate article asking the question, “Should the Pirates Spend Money to Win Ballgames?” and looking at the ins and outs of how they’d even go about doing that. Fascinating tidbit:

“Sabermetricians . . . have figured out ways to determine how much an individual player’s performance contributes to his team’s victories. Correlating those performance metrics to actual market prices for free agents shows that it costs management something like $5 million to purchase each additional win. (For example, by signing a $10-million-quality free agent, a team might improve its record by two games.)”

It does present more of an obvious dilemma for the Pirates’ ownership, as well as casting attention back on the greater disparities among large- and small-market teams within MLB.

Then again, if you’re feeling overly sympathetic, you might look back to the revelations that provided the impetus for the Slate article: leaked financial documents showing that the Pirates, among several other teams (most egregiously the Florida Marlins), made bank despite being among the worst-performing teams.

Moving over to football, I should say by way of preface that there’s only one professional team whose doings I give a fig about: the Philadelphia Eagles. The much-maligned, long-suffering, beleaguered Eagles.

Yet also the perennially in-contention Eagles. It’s true that, at this time of year, hope springs eternal for all 32 teams. Hope seems to be springing a bit too forcefully for the Eagles, by my estimation of their chances this year. Having dealt Donovan McNabb in favor of back-up and heir apparent Kevin Kolb, they’ve been tabbed by many to go through a rebuilding phase this year. I mostly agree with that: I have them finishing in the 8-8 or 9-7 range, and think it’s more likely they’ll finish a game or two below that than above it. And to that I say: That’s life. It’s rare that any team can rebuild on the fly, and still maintain—in spite of what I’ve just said—the chance to surprise people and remain a playoff contender.

That said, I’ve been cheered by reports like this ESPN profile and this Peter King column item that say Kevin Kolb is the real deal. I love that he’s getting this kind of praise, and that by all accounts it’s coming from inside the locker room. But I’ve periodically felt the need to throw cold water on myself, because buying into this sort of sports reportage feels like a shortcut to some kind of jinx: there’ve been so, so many big-money rookies and (as with Kolb, third-year) heirs apparent who’ve been similarly pumped up and anointed, only to fail dramatically or quietly, but in the end to fail, and to slump away into obscurity. Philadelphia, certainly, has had no shortage: Shawn Bradley and Mike Mamula are the first names that come to mind.

I don’t expect failure from Kolb. It’s just that, on the hype versus realistic-attainable-results spectrum, I don’t want to raise my hopes quite so high, at least not yet.

With that said . . .

E-A-G-L-E-S Eagles!!

Book Beat

I’ve lapsed in writing about anything I’ve been reading recently. My bad!

I just picked up (from the fantastic and ever financially imperiled Carnegie Library system) a copy of David Winner’s Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer. I’m quite excited to start reading it, the more so because my interest in the topic—the Netherlands’ idiosyncratic “Total Football” soccer style—has survived the artificially inflated excitement of the World Cup. Yes, this still sounds like an awesome book. The jacket copy indicates that “[t]he cast stretches from anarchists and church painters to rabbis and skinheads to Holland’s beloved soccer players.” Wowza.

Meanwhile, I’m neck-deep in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential. Man, it is rad. Read it, if you haven’t. I was hesitant to pick it up, and then to get into it, because I thought, “I’ve seen the movie.” But, two things: 1) I do not even remember the movie, so whatever significant twists there may have been have no bearing on my reading; and 2) As has been mentioned by everyone, forever, the book is far superior to the movie as a general principle. It’s certainly true here. There’s a ton of stuff that never showed up in the movie, tawdry, disturbing stuff. Something I like about Ellroy’s work is that it supports this (not very sophisticated or surprising) theory of mine that the fifties are unfairly smeared for being dull. A Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, The Adventures of Augie March all came out in the fifties. It wasn’t all sock-hops and poodle skirts. Ellroy, a bad-ass even when one factors in his gifts for self-promotion, confirms this.

Onward and upward for the Pittsburgh Pirates

Last night baseball’s worst team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, lost to the Florida Marlins 4-2. They’ve lost many times this year, but this one was notable because it was their 81st loss of the year, ensuring that the 2010 campaign will not be a winning season; and that, almost certainly, this will be their 18th straight season with a losing record. (They could still end up at 81 and 81 on the year, but a 40-something-game winning streak seems beyond them right now.) To go all Mindset List, a Pittsburgh-based student entering college later this month could not remember a winning Pirates campaign in his or her lifetime.

Next up for the Pirates is trying to avoid a 100-loss season. You’d think that would be no big deal, but, though the franchise has done it a number of times, during the current dynasty of poor teams (in the monetary and athletic senses both) it’s only happened in 2001 (and that was with exactly 100 losses, no more). Last year, they finished at 99, with a make-up game against the Atlanta Braves being mercifully waved off. It looks like a lock, and like they could even demolish the franchise record of 113 losses. But who knows? With something to play for, maybe they’ll come through.

“Assorted Fire Events” by David Means

I finished this collection yesterday. It was one of the best short story collections I’ve read in a while. I went in with an ever-so-slightly adversarial attitude, on the basis of never having read Means but making assumptions based on his pedigree (publications in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, etc.) and the general perceived blandness of his name and the titles of his books (The Spot made me want to take a nap; The Secret Goldfish made me roll my eyes).

Man, I was wrong. Halfway through the collection, given the opportunity to browse a big used bookstore, I looked first for Means books, and picked up The Secret Goldfish. The stories have a compactness that reminded me a tiny bit of Andre Dubus. Means frequently uses long, complexly punctuated sentences—he loves the semi-colon—that made me think of some close readings I did in grad school of Dubus stories. His method seems to be to present something, and then to complicate it or go deeper into that fact, that impression. At other times I thought of David Foster Wallace, the way Means seemed to pick his way through a fictional event—in the story “The Interruption,” a bum crashes a wedding reception and is badly beaten, but we never quite see the beating that (you’d assume) is the climax and centerpiece of the story—giving meaning to the whole constellation of details, characters, events, and relationships in the story without succumbing to the craving to (in the case of the Means story) give us the meat and potatoes of the fight itself. It reminded me of the way I felt during the last 50 or so pages of Infinite Jest, realizing there was to be no explicit action sequence resolving everything, that the really entertaining stuff was to take place off-screen, as it were. The implication in both books was that that’s not what’s important. Or, maybe more accurately, that these climactic fictional events are intensely important but one way of giving them their due is to omit them, to have the rest of the story swirl around them, a conspicuous absence.

I never felt unsatisfied by the stories or their conclusions, though; I still felt, in a way, that I did get my meat and potatoes from these stories. Each had a completeness, a feeling of exhaustively going through the possibilities, that made each story feel compact and self-contained. One example that’s online: “The Woodcutter,” one of the last stories in the book.

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The doleful sigh of the Beloit College Mindset List

I am a graduate of Beloit College, a small liberal-arts college in southern Wisconsin. I transferred there from a freshman-year situation that was, from the beginning, pretty unhappy, and so I’ve always had a special fondness for the place, the people, and my experience at Beloit. For a shy person, a small school (about 1,200-1,400 students, at least when I was there) affords tons of opportunities larger schools cannot: I was editor of the literary magazine, hosted a radio show, and was heavily involved in the campus newspaper. None of this is stuff I likely would have fought for, or considered myself up to the challenge of, at a Penn State or a Pitt or whatever enormous state school I attended in an alternate reality.

This is all to say that I love and admire Beloit College . . . most of the time.

The time that I don’t, sad to say, is during the current pre-fall semester news lag, when national media outlets turn the spotlight on proud old Beloit while it does an embarrassing soft shoe of self-congratulatory nostalgia. I refer, of course, to the Mindset List.

If current students are anything like my contemporaries, I can say that Beloit College students are probably rolling their eyes at this dumb thing. It’s condescending, even insulting (“Students have never used a typewriter,” from a bygone list; “They’ve never recognized that pointing to their wrists was a request for the time of day,” from this one). Worse, it does the opposite of what the Beloit student spends his/her time learning and striving for: it makes a teeming mass of individuals, bright and focused young people with well-developed skills and articulated goals, into a monolith; one, moreover, mostly notable for what they don’t know.

But I’ve been gone a while, and with perspective I can better see the obvious: this list really has nothing to do with the students. It’s a wink from the faculty and administrators to the students’ parents. It’s an excuse to make a bunch of references, akin to old dudes drinking beers and marveling/lamenting at how old they’ve gotten. (“My kid thinks Nirvana is classic rock!” etc.) This thing comes from a few faculty members and PR people e-mailing lists around, adding on, and it has that kind of smug, riffing feel to it. The List has more to do with 1992, and being an adult connected to the culture at that time, than it does with 2010.

It’s really nothing to get bent out of shape about, except that it’s my alma mater’s one claim to fame, the one thing every year that gets its name into the newspaper. Truth be told, the Mindset List is probably the envy of other comparable small liberal-arts colleges, ones you truly never hear about; in that sense, I guess, I’m glad it’s around. (Eat it, Ripon! Go suck an egg, Coe College!)

But still, the sheer dumbness makes me want to shield my eyes. From the trying-too-hard (“Potato has always ended in an ‘e’ in New Jersey per vice presidential edict”) to the head-scratching-but-also-irrelevant (“While they were babbling in strollers, there was already a female Poet Laureate of the United States”), the Mindset List is dependably embarrassing.

Juggalo Mayhem Redux

Yesterday I linked to an entertaining AV Club write-up of the Juggaloes-vs.-Tila Tequila kerfuffle at the 11th Gathering of the Juggaloes. The writer of that piece, Sean O’Neal, teased a forthcoming first-person account from Nathan Rabin, the AV Club‘s head writer, who was at the Gathering.

And lo, here it is. And it is pretty damned entertaining in its own right. Don’t look to it to change any of your opinions on Juggaloes or the Insane Clown Posse, though, unless you’ve heard only one or two things about them, all glowingly positive.

Ron Carlson

. . . interviewed at Fiction Writers Review. Interesting stuff, very much about teaching as well as writing, and the writing questions are specific, process-oriented questions. I’ve lost track of his career over the last five to eight years but he used to be a favorite, beginning with his time as writer-in-residence at Beloit College. A few years ago I saw him read a selection from “Beanball” at the AWP conference and wondered why I’d stopped reading Ron Carlson. I wonder that now, too.

I’m heartened to hear that he’s not an everyday writer, that even for an established writer there are weeks when you muster only two days at the keyboard.  His goal of working more days per week than he doesn’t seems refreshingly sensible to me. I am floating into that zone myself, no longer having the available time to sit down for a dedicated, unbroken chunk of time each day. Partly it hurts, but partly it’s great, too: there are enough other things going on that I don’t have a daily string of hours from the time I get home to when I go to bed.

Also, this quote: “A lot of days I’d stop in the middle of a word. I’d know how to pick up, because I knew how to spell.”

Weekend wrap-up

This past weekend was an excellent one for comedy, as I (in chronological order) scored a VHS copy of the great “Weird” Al Yankovic movie UHF at a Philadelphia used bookshop; watched a great, great show put on by Paul F. Tompkins as part of his “Tompkins 300” tour; and, last but not least, met Tom Scharpling. He showed up to support his friend and frequent “Best Show” guest. He’d seen the show in New York, which I deduced by the fact that he started laughing into his hand just before most of the really good bits.

Lesser lights from the weekend: my Philly food experience. For whatever reason, that Wawa Italian hoagie didn’t go down quite as smoothly as it has, so dependably, in the past.