22 January 2010

I'm in the War of My Life / At the Core of My Life / Got No Choice But to Fight 'Til It's Done

#8 - Open by Andre Agassi

I've often said (semi-jokingly) that my future children would be tennis and/or soccer prodigies. Put that tennis racket in their hands around the time they start walking. Learn how to kick a soccer ball once they learn how to stand up straight.

But upon reading Andre Agassi's very candid autobiography, Open, I have had a change of heart.

Dear children that don't even have a chance of existing at the moment,

I am sorry. I take it back. I take it all back! You don't have to play a sport unless you want to. You don't need to be a prodigy and turn pro before you hit puberty. Play with your Barbies and Ninja Turtles, please.


I vaguely remember watching tennis in my house while I was growing up. My parents would watch the US Open while I played with my toys. I didn't care for it. Yet I remember Agassi's lion mane of hair, can you believe that? Tell me to think of one tennis moment from the early 90s and Agassi's bleached mullet and acid wash jean shorts imeddiately pop into my mind. He's even an icon to my 5 year old Barbie playing self.

I must say that Andre Agassi's book Open attracted publicity for all the wrong reasons. The focus should not be on how he wore a wig to hide his baldness in his early 20s, or how he had a problem with crystal meth and lied to the ATP about his failed drug test. Those are the sensationalized aspects that got the attention of the non-tennis fan. But the book is so much more than these these outrageous aspects of his life that require only a few pages (out of the 385 pages) to explain.

It's about how a man who detested the life he was forced into eventually came to terms with it. He learned to respect tennis and appreciate all the doors it opened for him. That is what is most striking about the book.

The book begins when he is 7 years old, battling the "dragon," or the tennis ball machine that his father crafted. Mike Agassi undertakes the infamous role of father living vicariously through his child's experiences. Except he takes it to a whole new level. Andre hits thousands of balls a day and is told that he'll hit one million balls a year. "?!?!?" is all I can really say to that. If my parents ever dared to drag me away from the Disney channel or my Skip-It to hit a thousand balls in one day, I can only say that it would not end well. Tears would be shed. Parents would get bitten.

Agassi provides the reader with a thorough and candid look into his life as a tennis player and a human being, tracing back to his childhood and going all the way to his retirement at the 2006 US Open at the age of 36. It's painful and embarrassing to read at times. He's not shy about giving details about his less than perfect family life or the difficult times he faced as a tennis player. He's not afraid to discuss the gritty details about his relationship with father or to say less than flattering things about his peers in the tennis world. Considered to be a private person, he lets loose about his marriage (and divorce) to Brooke Shields as well the fairytale-esque way he courted Steffi Graf, his wife (soulmate).

While going through the motions, he eventually comes to terms with the path his father chose for him. He spends most of his young life rebelling against tennis and yet it provides him with his name in history books (one of the few male tennis players to win all 4 Grand Slams) and a wife that he cherishes, truly cherishes. The way he talks about Steffi Graf makes you think she can't actually be real. And it's beautiful to read about. He also finds a father figure in Gil Reyes, his trainer, and it's really special to see how their relationship progresses. Agassi has faith in Gil because Gil has faith in Agassi.

His private life provides the most poignant moments in the books, but his tennis life is worth mentioning, too. I enjoyed reading about his rivalries. Everyone thinks that Agassi's biggest rival is Pete Sampras. While that has some truth because you know, they're the top Americans, meeting in slam finals, yada yada, but Boris Becker is his most hated rival. Becker brings the rage out of Agassi. He's out for blood when he plays Becker and you feel it when you're reading the book. I, too, wanted to beat the crap out of Becker with an inside-out forehand and make him weep. Quite ironic how his most hated rival and the love of his life both hail from Germany.

Definitely thought this was a great read. Fine, I'm a tennis fanatic, but I definitely appreciate Agassi much more. I think people who care as much about tennis as they do about the color of their socks can appreciate Agassi's humanity.

I've seen short documentaries on ESPN and the Tennis Channel. I read a lot about his early years as he neared retirement. Now I finally heard it all from him and that makes the difference. He could have let us all believe in the facade he created. He didn't have to tell us about his anguish and heartache, both on and off the court. But he did and I'm grateful for it.

Being separated from your parents from the age of 12 doesn't make a kid's life the funnest life ever. Traveling the world 11 months out of the year isn't as luxurious as we think. Playing tennis isn't the easiest job in the world, even if you're only spending 3 or 4 hours a day in the "office." I didn't truly realize this until I read Agassi's book.

I hope my kids lack hand-eye coordination just like I do so that I don't get any ideas a la Mike Agassi. Barbies and Ninja Turtles, Barbies and Ninja Turtles.

21 January 2010

We're Gonna Dive into the Emptiness, We'll Be Swimming... When the World Ends

#7 - Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

Okay, first an admission of guilt. Despite my adoration for movies based on Jane Austen novels (Sense and Sensibility and both versions of Pride and Prejudice rank high on my top movies list), I have never completed a Jane Austen novel. My one attempt to read P and P was a failure, even though I was on a vacation without internet, television, AND it was too hot to go outside. I can appreciate Miss Austen's wit and humor within a movie, but it hasn't worked for me in book form.

But then Quirk Classics threw zombies and sea monsters into the mix and they were praised for it. So I said, "Okay, the books are on my list, I'll give it another go at some point," and forgot about them. And then I received both novels as a Christmas present and figured that I might as well read them since they were in my possession.

That said, I'm comparing Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters with what I know from Sense and Sensibility, the movie. Bad Jen, I know. My apologies to all the Austen diehards.

SSSM is what I'm calling it because I'm far too lazy to type the whole damn title out every time. SSSM takes the original Austen novel and basically throws sea monsters into the mix. At some point, something called the Alteration occurred, where sea monsters suddenly appeared and began terrorizing the people. The Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, are simply looking for love amidst the existence of sea monsters and how they have changed the world. I wish more time was spent on the Alteration, when it happened, what happened to the people when sea creatures became monsters, but since it's merely Sense and Sensibility PLUS sea monsters, there's no room for that to happen. The sea monsters are supposed to serve as background music to the Dashwood sisters' story.

For most the novel, the sea monster aspect has minimal impact. It affects the characters' lives, of course, but it was more to say, "Oh look, there's sea monsters!" without really changing the course of the story.

Despite this, I still found the sea monsters to be distracting to the overall story. I appreciate Austen for her ability to tell a love story, and I felt as though that got pushed aside a lot in SSSM. I'm familiar with Sense and Sensibility so I know how the story ends, but I found myself trying to guess how sea monsters would be integrated into the plot. Without spoiling SSSM I can say that Mr. Dashwood dies at the mouth of a shark, and not whatever illness he would have had in 19th century England. Instead of everyone enjoying a picnic outside and that's it, they enjoy the picnic and then some gets eaten by a hugeass jellyfish. Entertaining, but kind of unnecessary.

People die often due to the sea monsters and it's considered normal, a part of the food chain kind of deal, and that irked me. I wouldn't care how normal it was, if I were to see a women devoured by a hugeass jellyfish so that only her bones remained, I would be fucking scarred for life. Not only would I stay away from the ocean, but I probably would never bathe in water again in fear that a jellyfish would come out of the faucet.

Until the sisters go down to Sub-Station Beta (SSSM's bougie underwater kingdom that replaces London), I found that the only significant impact of the sea monster theme could be found in Colonel Brandon, Marianne's fervent admirer. Instead of just being far older than Marianne and far less appealing than Willoughby, he's got tentacles on his face. Squishy gooey tentacles. Poor man. But it helped in amplifying how undesirable he was to Marianne. Despite his polite and sensitive demeanor, a woman would still have to deal with his squishy tentacles. Call me shallow, but no thanks.

Despite my critique of adding in the sea monster theme, I still enjoyed the read. Winters added an extra amount of wit with the sea monsters. Something about Colonel Brandon's tentacle curse not only affecting his face made me giggle. I think that the alterations to the characters worked well. Mrs. Jennings and her daughters as island natives was successful, as was Mr. Palmer's surly demeanor due to his experiences out at sea. I didn't really care for Margaret's story line, because I didn't care for her in the original either. Her plot line just freaked me the hell out. The sea monsters worked best when their existence wasn't glaringly superfluous to the novel. Was Margaret and the Leviathan pertinent to the story? I'm not sure. I could have done without it.

The Blackest Stain on History or Last Laugh Blues

#6 - City of Thieves by David Benioff

The novel takes place during the Nazis' siege of Leningrad during WWII. The two main characters, Lev and Kolya, are arrested (for different reasons) one night and in order to avoid execution for their wrongdoings, they must find a dozen eggs for a Russian general's daughter's wedding cake. A dozen eggs, easy peasy, right? Not quite. This is Russia during WWII. People live off scraps of whatever they can find. They eat candy made out of melted wax. Finding a dozen eggs will be no easy feat.

Despite the story being relatively simple - two guys need to find a dozen eggs in exchange for their lives, the novel is multi-layered. The story told is from the perspective of a writer's grandfather, after the writer has been asked to write an autobiographical account of his life. Instead of his own life, he chooses to focus on his grandfather because of the tales he heard of his grandfather's younger days. These are "tales" because he never heard them firsthand from his grandfather. The grandfather is, of course, Lev. His story is a hard one to tell, but he does it for his grandson. My dad was born in Germany, just a few years after WWII ended, and I don't think he (or I) will never know the whole story to his parents' experiences during the war. It's just not one of those things that becomes easy to talk about, no matter how many years have passed. So in that respect, I definitely appreciate that short portion of the novel.

Lev is 17 years old, still in that awkward stage bordering on being a boy and a man. Even though I'll end up discussing Kolya a lot, I liked Lev's character. He's just a regular kid who gets caught up in this situation. He cares for Mother Russia, but realizes how much she's screwing him over and remembers how much she screwed him in the past. He enjoys Kolya's company, but resents him at times, too.

Kolya, on the other hand, is a self-assured Russian soldier. He tends to put Lev down in certain situations, but Lev doesn't take him too seriously. I loved their interactions, mainly because Kolya is such an outrageous figure. He doesn't think before he speaks. He's confident to a fault, as he is the one who ends up getting them in dangerous situations. One of the funniest/oddest ongoing themes of the novel is Kolya keeping tabs on how it's been since he last took a shit. Perhaps I found it so hilarious because he reminds me of my friends. Conversation is no holds barred. Even though you don't want to hear it, you will. Too bad.

The book is quirky, even though it describes one of the more horrible moments in recent history. Anything you may have heard about the atrocities against Russia during the war is covered. Benioff throw Lev and Kolya right into the thick of things. Their search for eggs serves as a method to show what was happening in Russia. Lev's apartment complex is one of the many building destroyed by the German bombers. During their search for the eggs, Lev and Kolya come face to face with cannibals who try to trick them into becoming their dinner. Realizing that they won't find a dozen eggs in the city, they go to the outskirts. There they encounter teenage girls who have been providing pleasure to German soldiers in exchange for their livelihood, despite the fact that the German soldiers murdered their families and all the other inhabitants of their villages.

While Benioff's description of their various situations is gruesome and realistic, the novel still maintains a comedic aspect, mainly from Lev and Kolya's interactions. No matter how dangerous the scene, there existed some type of side note that made me smirk at them. The language is crass, which is just my kind of thing considering my foul mouthed vocabulary. Like I said, Kolya doesn't hold back. He talks about sex like Lev is his good friend, not someone he got paired up with a couple days ago. The search for the eggs is always in the back of his mind, but he won't let that stop him from talking about his interests.

With that said, you have to be up for these types of conversation to fully enjoy and appreciate the book because it's what brings the lightheartedness into such a horrible situation. Without Lev and Kolya, the book, while compelling, would just be another humdrum novel with a historical backdrop.

15 January 2010

And The World Spins Madly On

Review for City of Thieves coming soon. About halfway through Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters so I'll probably write up both reviews when I'm done with it.

I need to revise my book list. More modern books needed.