Mother’s Milk.

I have an Insider post up today on ten All-Star candidates, five who I think belong and five who probably shouldn’t make the cut. I’ll also hold a Klawchat today at 1 pm ET.

Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels first came to my attention somewhere around five years ago in an email exchange with a blogger whose name I don’t remember, but whom I’d contacted because we seemed to have a significant overlap in our literary tastes. She was a particular fan of Graham Greene’s work, as am I, and I asked if she had similar authors whose work she’d recommend. She mentioned St. Aubyn and specifically the novel Mother’s Milk, which is actually the fourth in the five-novel sequence, although it’s quite readable without the background of the previous three novels, and, by what I could tell from reading interviews with St. Aubyn, not quite as dismal as the first.

These highly autobiographical novels revolve around Patrick Melrose, whose childhood and early adulthood greatly resemble those of St. Aubyn, including the physically and sexually abusive father and the complicit, emotionally detached mother. By Mother’s Milk, Patrick is married with two young sons: Robert, Patrick’s mini-me, with an impossibly advanced vocabulary and talent for sarcasm; and Thomas, an infant at the start of the novel and Patrick’s rival for the attention of Mary, Patrick’s wife. This roman á clef is full of mordant humor, with Patrick and Robert providing the kind of sardonic and often obnoxious observations that call Greene’s work to mind but with Waugh’s merciless wit. But amongst the ripostes is a serious examination of Patrick’s attempts to escape the life carved out for him by his parents, and then to try to give something better to Robert and Thomas than he was able to receive for himself.

St. Aubyn begins the book more from Robert’s perspective than Patrick’s, as Robert’s world is upended by the arrival of a baby brother, while we get glimpses of Patrick molding Robert into a younger version of himself: a spectator to his own life, brimming with clever arguments and incisive quips that often fluster the adults with whom he comes in contact. From there, the focus shifts (or, I suppose, returns, based on the three previous novels) to Patrick and his deteriorating marriage. Feeling abandoned by his wife in favor of their new child, Patrick first engages in a fairly stupid affair with an ex-girlfriend, then falls into the bottle, sabotaging most of the relationships in his life along the way … yet the story remains both humorous and surprisingly hopeful. This isn’t The Lost Weekend, where he has to hit some sort of bottom before he can turn himself around, nor is it a cautionary tale where he destroys everything before he has a chance to turn himself around. That lack of artifice gives the novel a base of relaism that makes the humor that much more effective: St. Aubyn, through his stand-in Patrick, cracks wise as a coping mechanism, but refuses to give up on his main character.

June 2015 music update.

Huge month for new tracks and albums; I ended up cutting this list down (or, as I like to think of it, raising my standards) by dropping a few songs that didn’t hold my attention on multiple listens. By the way, I have a new Insider post from scouting Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell last night in Harrisburg.

Cloves – Frail Love. A nineteen-year-old singer/songwriter from Australia, Cloves put out this debut single just two weeks ago, and it’s my song of the month without a doubt. It’s Bat for Lashes’ “Laura,” but more sparse, more emotional, and somehow more raw thanks I think to Cloves’ peculiar intonation (did she really say “twooth?”).

HAERTS – Animal. There isn’t enough Nini Fabi on this song for my tastes, but I love the huge drum fill that announces her arrival. This track was released along with a cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Everybody Here Wants You.”

Wolf Alice – You’re a Germ. The London quartet just released their full-length debut album after several EPs, and it’s a banger, with more influences than I could possibly count across a dozen tracks that explore multiple corners of modern rock. They’re a band, but it’s three guys backing up singer Ellie Roswell, whose charisma defines the album’s best tracks, whether she’s whispering or shouting – both of which occur within this, the best song on the album.

Beck – Dreams. The Beck I like is back; Morning Phase didn’t do it for me, sorry.

Beirut – No No No. Zach Condon’s world music/rock blend is back, with their first album in four years dropping in August. I’m mixed on this song, which is perhaps a little too deliberately weird (especially in the vocals) for my tastes.

Jamie xx w/Romy – SeeSaw. I loved “Loud Places,” I hated “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” and I like “SeeSaw.” I think Jamie xx has tremendous ideas, but the execution varies too widely from song to song. Perhaps that’s by design too. He’s already produced more songs I liked than the xx have over two albums.

Highly Suspect – Claudeland. I feel like I should be drunk in a dive bar when I hear this hard blues-rocker, which is funny because I’ve never been drunk in a dive bar.

Frank Turner – Get Better. Folk-punk icon Turner hit my radar in 2013 with Tape Deck Heart, one of my top 13 albums of that year, featuring the track “Recovery,” which hasn’t left my main playlist since I first heard it. “Get Better” is harder with more electric guitars, but the message is very similar and the lyrics are just as wry.

Kid Astray – Diver. The Norwegian indie-pop wackos have put out their proper full-length debut, Home Before the Dark, featuring their 2013 hit “The Mess” and this mid-80s alt-pop gem, a little time out of joint number with a swaying synth line at its heart.

Heartless Bastards – Gates of Dawn. I’d never heard of Heartless Bastards until hearing this song, but they’ve been around since 2003 and even appeared on Austin City Limits in 2009, so I’m just behind the curve. There’s a tinge of country and a shimmer of melancholy in their approach on this indie-rock track, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a college radio station in 1993.

Girlpool – Chinatown. I can’t decide if they’re annoying; “Before the World Was Big” is definitely annoying, but the harmonies the two members hit on the chorus here are strong. They remind me of Hinds (ex-Deers), critical darlings who don’t seem to play particularly good music, neither from a technical nor a melodic perspective.

Totally Mild – Move On. I mean, if you wanted to get my attention, you didn’t have to go as far as this album cover (real subtle with the symbolism in front there). This is soft, shimmering pop music, and you know it’s Australian because they have that same jangling Go-Betweens influence that every Aussie alternative act seems to have. There’s also a bit of early Lush, another band that had harder lyrical edges disguised by high-pitched female vocals.

Gardens & Villa – Fixations. The latest single from the Santa Barbara indie-pop outfit, who just missed my top 100 last year with “Colony Glen,” has a late ’70s soft-rock vibe, which is not normally my jam. In this case it works for me because of the hook in the chorus and the layered chorus (including the reverbed falsetto lead vocal) that make it better than the sort of pablum that made 10cc moderately famous.

Atlas Genius – Molecules. The first single from the band’s second album sounds a lot like the hits from their first album, but I’m okay with that.

Veruca Salt – Laughing In The Sugar Bowl. The Volcano Girls are back, and Louise and Nina have buried the hatchet. This song sounds like very little time has passed since Eight Arms to Hold You, and that’s a very good thing in my book. I don’t think the song’s title is coincidental, as their brand of hard rock always had a slightly saccharine edge to it.

The Maccabees – Marks To Prove It. Another runner-up to alt-J’s An Awesome Wave in the 2012 Mercury Prize voting, the Maccabees are about to release their follow-up album to their nominee from that year, Given to the Wild. This lead single has a harder edge to it, but if that’s not your thing, check out the electronic, ’80s-inflected remix by Public Broadcasting Service.

White Reaper – Pills. This is the second single from the Louisville punk-pop quartet’s upcoming album White Reaper Does It Again, due out on July 17th, that I’ve included on a playlist this year; it’s a little formulaic, but their music boasts strong hooks and an infectious energy that sets them apart from most of the neo-punk acts in the market right now.

The Kenneths – Cool As You. If I told you this was a secret punk band fronted by Elvis Costello, you’d believe me after listening to it. They are a punk band and they are British and this is catchy but Elvis is not in this particular building.

Desaparecidos – Golden Parachutes. Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and a thousand other side projects has resurrected Desaparecidos, an overtly left-wing punk/hard-rock act who recorded an album in 2002 and then broke up, reuniting in 2010 for some concerts. They put out a few singles in 2012, both of which are on their new album Payola, which has a Hüsker Dü vibe to the music but with louder, angrier vocals.

Ghost – Cirice. So, here’s where the trio of metal tracks starts, and this one requires some explanation. As Ghost BC, this Norwegian band recorded two albums of dark metal that were overshadowed by their ridiculous image (the members are anonymous and appear in costumes) and their openly Satanic lyrics (which the band says are tongue-in-cheek). I have no use for any of this; it’s like they wanted to be the next Mercyful Fate or the heirs to Satyr and Mayhem, and instead turned out to be the Norwegian Slipknot. They’ve dropped the “BC” from their names, while this new song, the first from their upcoming album Meliora, sounds like a lost Diamond Head track, heavy in the way that underground British Heavy Metal acts of the late 1970s and early 1980s were before thrash and speed metal took over. I’m at least interested to see if the band ditches the ridiculous trappings of their old look and focuses more on the music as they appear to have done here.

Sons of Huns – An Evil Unseen. This Portland stoner-metal trio has deep roots in ’70s heavy metal with hints of Seattle grunge (more Tad and Mudhoney than Pearl Jam or Nirvana). Their second album, While Sleeping Stay Awake, comes out in mid-July and can be pre-ordered for $7 on their site.

Slayer – Repentless. Jeff Hanneman’s death left a large hole in Slayer, as he wrote or co-wrote most of their signature songs; it wasn’t immediately clear if the band would record again after alcoholism claimed him (due to cirrhosis) in 2013. “Repentless,” the title track from their twelfth studio album (due out in September), is a full-on thrasher with a vintage Slayer riff but subpar lyrics.

Beneath the Skin.

Of Monsters & Men’s debut album, My Head is an Animal (amazoniTunes), remains one of my favorite albums of the decade, a gorgeous blend of upbeat folk-rock tracks that crossed over to pop radio and somber songs that eschwed the poppier melodies of “Little Talks” and “Mountain Sound” for a greater emotional payoff and more nuanced instrumentation. I happened to love it all, although the hits were what allowed me to share my love of this album with my daughter, who was just short of six when it came out.

Their follow-up album, Beneath the Skin (amazoniTunes) , came out earlier this month, a substantially more mature record that almost completely foregoes the pop inclinations in favor of slower, soaring pieces that better showcase lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s sweet, slightly raspy delivery while increasing the complexity of their arrangements. It seems like an album less likely to go platinum, as their debut did, but more likely to garner critical acclaim and, I’d assume, a more satisfying experience for the band to write and create.

My Head is an Animal earned favorable comparisons to the contemporaneous debut album from Mumford & Sons, as both artists folded traditional folk-music sounds into rock or pop/rock song structures, and both artists were somewhat criticized for repeating those structures throughout their albums. Mumford & Sons has gone backwards since that debut, whereas Of Monsters & Men, an Icelandic sextet led by a bearded elf and a smoky-voiced gamine, took over three years between studio recordings, and have chosen to pursue a more sophisticated, less overtly commercial direction with their follow-up.

While OM&M’s sound is unmistakable, in no small part due to Nanna’s voice, the musical predictability of their debut is absent on Beneath the Skin, along with all of the sing-along choruses from their first album. In place of those big harmonies are more ornate percussion lines and even the occasional empty spaces between notes. “Slow Life” has smaller harmonies in its chorus, but the verses have Nanna and the unusual drum line at the front of the sound, creating melody through layered instruments rather than blatant pop hooks. The lead single and opening track, “Crystals,” is the closest song on the album to a pop song, but it’s still more ornate than most of the songs on their debut album, driven by a heavy world-music percussion line, supplemented by brass when both singers join together on the bridge to the big chorus – the most prominent pop hook on the entire album.

OM&M’s lyrics have also taken a modest step forward on Beneath the Skin, with more concrete imagery and less of the vague faux-folktale motifs that characterized their debut album – think “Mountain Sound,” for example, which sounds like it’s telling you a really interesting story until you realize they’ve given you no details whatsoever on what’s happening. Beneath the Skin relies more on recurring themes and images (spines, blood, teeth, bodies of water), still light on storytelling, with frequent allusions to people acting on animal instincts or blurring the lines between the human and the lupine. Tracks like “Organs” even veer into more disturbing territory, transmuting regret or sorrow into images of self-harm. There are still some lyrical lightweights on the album – “I Of the Storm” puts Nanna’s voice front and center, but gives her vapid lyrics unworthy of her singing – but it’s an incremental step forward from their first output.

Ultimately Beneath the Skin feels like an album Of Monsters & Men made for themselves, as if this were the kind of record they’d wanted to make until the A&R man complained that he didn’t hear a single. It seems more personal, although it’s more that the musical style and increased prominence of Nanna’s vocals result in a sound that’s more introspective. Exchanging the exuberance of the band’s debut for a more subtle, lush sound creates a more unified, mature album, despite the lack of a hit to deliver to pop stations, a welcome if incremental step forward from the best artist to come out of Iceland since the Sugarcubes.

Since we’re around the year’s midpoint, here are my top five albums for the year to date (links go to reviews):
1. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
2. The Wombats – Glitterbug
3. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
4. Of Monsters & Men – Beneath the Skin
5. Drenge – Undertow.

I’ve still got a few recent albums I have yet to hear in their entirety (Wolf Alice, Bully) so this list will probably shift well before the year is out.

Saturday five, 6/27/15.

My Insider pieces this week included a post on some Red Sox prospects, including Yoan Moncada; one on the Arizona/Atlanta trade involving Touki Toussaint; and a reaction to the release of the Futures Game rosters. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday.

My latest boardgame review for Paste covers the reissue of the modern classic Tigris & Euphrates, designer Reiner Knizia’s best game, now back in print with better graphics and clearer rules.

My good friend Molly Knight has a book coming out on the Dodgers, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse, next month, and it’s so good I even gave the publisher a quote to use on the back.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

  • We’re getting so much closer to vaccine sanity, as California is set to end religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccinating school-age children. The science is clear and unequivocal, and making the wrong, anti-science decision can affect hundreds of others’ lives.
  • A young widow’s heartrending letter to her late husband, who committed suicide a month ago after a long battle with depression.
  • The Moringa oleifera tree may lead to an inexpensive process for purifying drinking water in developing countries.
  • On a Tokyo coffee roasting master still roasting at age 100.
  • A former president of the American Humanist Association writes in Psychology Today that anti-intellectualism is killing America. I’m not sure I agree with the premise, nor do I think such unreason as racial hatred is “anti-intellectualism” per se, but I still found it an interesting read.
  • Roxane Gay wrote in the New York Times that she can’t forgive Dylan Roof, and why should she? Forgiveness means releasing your anger. If we forget to be angry, why would anything ever change?
  • The first segment of Thursday’s episode of BBC Outlook, on Canada’s abused aboriginal children is harrowing listening, but also makes a superb case for “truth and reconciliation” commissions to address past historical wrongs.
  • Common sense from VOX.com: People with mental illness are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crimes. Yet we don’t hear calls for greater mental health treatment options when the former is true, only the latter.
  • A recent meta-study has found that the phenolic compounds found in olive oil may help prevent neurodegenerative diseases, although it would be nice to see empirical evidence (via clinical trials) to back this up. Still, olive oil is delicious and may be really good for you.
  • The guys behind Animal and Son of a Gun have opened a pizzeria in LA, and it sounds amazing, of course.

Bruges.

My latest game review for Paste covers the must-own reissue of Tigris and Euphrates, Reiner Knizia’s best game, now back in print in a beautiful new edition. You can get it buy it from amazon for about $45 (or about £39).

The 2013 boardgame Bruges is one of the more successful titles in the new subgenre that I think was at least launched by the success of Agricola – games where you can deploy cards from a very large deck in certain combinations to maximize your abilities to do more things and/or score more points. Each individual card gives you some special ability – one-time, once per round, or throughout the game – and most cards then give you an incentive to acquire certain other cards or types of cards. In Bruges, you don’t have to know the deck that well to play it effectively, and you don’t have the gating factor of Agricola or Le Havre where you must feed your family every round or lose points, so it’s lightweight relative to many games in the genre. It’s also long enough for you to build something and have a real strategy that plays out before the final round, unlike Elysium, which combines card-stacking with set collection in a game that is over before you can get anything going. So it’s good, but not groundbreaking – a solid implementation of a popular mechanic, yet nothing particularly novel.

In Bruges, players are local merchants or nobles who are trying to do a couple of not entirely connected things to score points. Each player has two five-segment canals to try to build over the course of the game, scoring three points for a canal that has three completed segments and earning a statue worth two to seven points for a canal that is fully completed. Players also can buy their way up the reputation track, which is worth one to twelve points at game-end depending on the player’s progress. And, most central to the game, players build houses in front of them, each of which can then hold a “recruited” artisan – a card whose powers are then available to the player. Each house is worth a point at game-end; each artisan is worth 1-4 points at game-end. There are also bonuses of four points available to any player who ends a round leading the other players in canal segments completed, number of artisans recruited, or reputation points. Once you earn one of those bonuses, it’s yours for the rest of the game even if some other player passes you. It’s a little weird.

Bruges has three types of payment for all of this stuff. Cards come in five colors, and to build a canal segment, you must discard a card in that space’s color and pay from one to five guilders (coins). To build a house, you lay a card face-down and discard one of the little worker meeples in that card’s color. (You start the game with five meeples, one per color, and can acquire more as the game goes on.) To recruit an artisan, you pay the cost in guilders on that card – multiples of three from zero to twelve. You can also discard a card on your turn to acquire two workers of that color, to gain one to six guilders (depending on the result of the rolls of the five colored dice for that round), or to discard a Threat token – more on that in a moment. Your hand will have five cards in it to start each round, during which you’ll play four of them. When the supply of cards, which is tailored to the number of players, runs out, that’s the final round.

The Threat tokens take the place of the “feeding your family” aspect of Agricola. Those five colored dice are rolled each round. Any die showing five or six delivers a Threat token in that color to every player; get three Threat tokens and you suffer some sort of penalty, such as losing a house or canal token, losing points, or losing a recruited artisan. These penalties are nuisances but in the grand scheme of things not a huge detriment, but discarding a card to remove a Threat token in that color also gets you one victory point, which is the only justification I’ve found for using a card to do this.

Bruges plays two to four and works well with any number, although I think you can get a little further with your strategies if you have more players. You can also vary the number of cards in the start decks to let the game play out longer, which I recommend because the deeper you go into the game the more fun it is to see your plans play out. But the game doesn’t offer that many chances for interaction, other than a few cards in the Underworld category that let you steal from an opponent or stick everyone else with a Threat token. You’re primarily building on your own, making Bruges closer to a solitaire game you play with friends. It’s a good-looking game and fairly simple to learn; I just see more complexity in the scoring than it needs, with no real connection between the different scoring paths.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.

My latest Insider post breaks down the MLB Futures Game rosters. I also held a Klawchat today.

Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair has been a global bestseller, garnering enormous critical praise even from sources typically more hostile to mass-market potboilers. Dicker’s novel is better than your average pageturner, a book with loftier, more literary aspirations that manages to get much of the way toward its goals without losing any of the narrative greed that made it very hard for me to put the book down. (I read its 640 pages in six days, and that’s without a flight where I could spend a few hours of uninterrupted reading time.)

QbertDicker has wrapped a standard detective novel in layers of other story templates, so that the resulting book is complex and textured even though no individual plot line is all that involved. Harry Quebert is a famous novelist whose magnum opus, the 1975 book The Origin of Evil, made his name in literary circles, landed him a teaching gig at Burrows College in Massachusetts, and, as we learn early in the book, was actually written about his love affair with a 15-year-old girl named Nola (while Quebert was 34), who disappeared without a trace just before the book was published. Quebert’s protég&ecaute; Marcus Goldman, himself mired in writer’s block following the runaway success of his first novel, has reached out to Harry for help in working on his second book when Nola’s body is discovered, buried in Harry’s garden, spurring Marcus to try to solve the mystery of her murder, clear Harry’s name (assuming he deserves to be cleared), and write that second book so his publisher doesn’t nail his head to a coffee table.

That gives us a detective novel wrapped in a mentor/pupil story wrapped in a book about writing, around which Dicker sprinkles the forbidden love story between Harry and Nola, with most of the book set in the seaside town of Somerset, New Hampshire. That town is populated with the various suspects in Nola’s disappearance and a contemporaneous murder, as well as various other crimes that come to light as Marcus’ investigation progresses. The side characters are well-formed with serious back stories, very reminiscent in form and location to the best of Richard Russo’s novels, most of which are set in New England towns albeit ones in economic decline. It’s remarkable since Dicker isn’t American by birth; he spent summers in a town similar to Somerset, but by and large he captures the American idiom well and has the rhythm of New England town life down better than many authors who were born here.

The copious praise was met with some inevitable backlash, and the latter does have some merit as The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is smart popular fiction but hardly up to the loftier standards of some of Dicker’s obvious inspirations. The natural comparison is to Philip Roth, as Goldman strongly resembles Zuckerman (including Goldman’s mother, a horrible caricature of a meddling, overreacting Jewish mother who makes Sophie Portnoy look like Mother Theresa) in character and involvement in the narrative he’s unfolding for us. In case the parallel was strong enough, Dicker names Quebert’s lawyer Roth. Nola is Lolita (a diminutive for Lola) in age and precocity, but whether she is temptress or innocent isn’t clear till the final two chapters of the book. (Of course, Lolita herself may not be the vixen Nabokov depicts her to be, as the story is told by the thoroughly unreliable Humbert Humbert, whose name isn’t that dissimilar from Harry’s – and Harry’s reliability isn’t rock-solid either.) The whole murder in a small town motif is very Agatha Christie, although the prose is more sparing, in line with Hammett or Chandler, just not quite in league with either.

At its heart, however, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a detective novel, and a ripping one at that. Dicker has built an elaborate web of deceit through Somerset’s Twin Peaks/Broadchurch-esque populace, and starts peeling back layers slowly at first, picking up the pace dramatically at the end just as Quebert’s writing advice to Marcus advises him to do so. The resolution, while horrifying, is impressive in its tidiness and thoroughness. It fits the facts, yet I didn’t see it coming at all.

What this isn’t, however, is a great work of literature: It may be great fiction, but some of the praise for the book seems to place it in league with masters of the genre like Chandler or on par with the works of Roth and Saul Bellow. (The BBC had an interesting piece last summer, asking whether this could be the Great American Novel, which is how I first heard of the book.) The prose survives translation well and isn’t choppy or antiseptic like Stieg Larsson’s, but it’s pedestrian: Dicker tells the story, but there’s nothing special in his phrasing or rhythm. The advice from Harry to Marcus is often laughably hackneyed, and those brief interludes introducing each chapter are one of the book’s biggest weaknesses, along with Marcus’ mother and the cliched backstory on Luther Caleb. It’s the construction of the house of plots and the pacing of the main story that makes The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair more than your average bit of pulp fiction, a choice for leisure reading that will move at high speed without causing your brain to decay from disuse.

Next up: Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, a recommendation I got years ago from a fellow fan of British literature. It’s currently out of print, but you can get a new copy of the 2007 printing for over $2000 on amazon.

The Third Policeman.

I have two Insider posts up this week, one on the Touki Toussaint trade and one on scouting Yoan Moncada, Rafael Devers, and Javier Guerra.

I’ll admit right now that I only partly understood Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, almost as much as I enjoyed his most famous work, the metafictional masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds. He wrote The Third Policeman next, but couldn’t find a publisher at the time and eventually shelved the work and reused a portion of it in his final book, The Dalkey Archive, but the original work came out shortly after his death and has quietly obtained a cult following, one that rose when one of the co-creators of the show LOST mentioned that the book might give viewers a clue to the show’s underlying mythology.

I can’t discuss the book in full without spoiling the ending, but I’ll do my best to cover my thoughts on the book’s meaning without ruining it. The narrator is the ne’er-do-well son of an estate owner in Ireland who inherits the land and farm when his father dies, letting the tenant Divney take over stewardship so he can continue his reading of the incompetent philosopher de Selby, whose work shows up repeatedly in the text and in various footnotes discussing de Selby’s life and some of his most bizarre ideas. Divney somehow establishes some kind of primacy in the relationship and even possible ownership of the estate, which leads in typically nonlinear fashion to the two committing a murder to rob a wealthy neighbor. After several years of an uneasy alliance, Divney finally tells the narrator where the proceeds are, but just when the narrator is about to grab the missing box, things get really weird, with reality turning upside down on the narrator, introducing him to the supposedly-dead victim, the narrator’s own soul (which he helpfully dubs “Joe”), and two policemen who are totally obsessed with bicycles. The third policeman … well, he’s there, but never there, and you’ll have to read to find out how and why.

The novel itself is deeply philosophical, with the destruction of the line between reality and fiction a completion of the blurring that O’Brien began in At Swim-Two-Birds (#52 on my most recent top 100 novels ranking). It’s decidedly postmodern but not metafictional. O’Brien delves into the nature of matter, reverting in a way to ancient beliefs about the fundamental building blocks of the universe, and how we perceive the world around us. He also seems to argue that time is, indeed, a flat circle, although the exact meaning of that statement won’t be clear until you’ve read the book. The fictional writings of de Selby, with whom the narrator is obsessed, are utter nonsense – de Selby tries to dilute water because it’s too strong and argues that night is merely a collection of “black air” particles – lending to the unreality of the narrative while also exposing the narrator’s own tenuous grip on what is real. When the two policeman show him the road to eternity and introduce him to a machine that runs on “omnium” and can create anything you desire, he just tries to grab as much stuff as he can, without any thought to the potential consequences (which you’ll also have to read to learn).

Drawing as much from Sartre and Camus as from Descartes and Einstein, The Third Policeman is delightfully weird yet profoundly disturbing once you’ve finished the book and reconsider what you’ve read. Rather than make a specific metaphysical argument, O’Brien experiments with reality within fiction, moving targets and obliterating lines to create a foundation for humor while simultaneously knocking the reader off balance. It’s an uncomfortably funny read, and one I couldn’t stop pondering for days after I finished.
Next up: I just finished Joel Dicker’s global bestseller The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.

Inside Out.

Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out, lived up to all of the hype and praise it’s received so far, a visually stunning film that hits all of the bittersweet notes that have made Pixar’s best films – especially WALL-E and the Toy Story trilogy – masterpieces not just of animation but of cinema. It’s also, in many ways, one of Pixar’s riskiest ideas, thanks to one of its least conventional plots yet, making the ultimate success of the film even more remarkable. (Full, if obvious, disclosure: Disney owns Pixar and ESPN.)

Inside Out is a metaphysical coming-of-age story that manages to encapsulate a buddy comedy, a psychological thriller, and an Arthur Clarke-style sci-fi story all set inside of the head of eleven-year-old Riley Anderson, whose family has just removed her from her idyllic life in Minnesota so her father can work for a startup in San Francisco. Riley’s personality is determined by a pastel-colored world run primarily by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, each voiced and drawn in distinctive fashion (and helpfully color-coded). Riley’s memories each bear one of those five colors, although we learn early on that Sadness (Phyllis Smith) can turn any memory blue (her color) with a touch, a sort of King Midas meets The Old Guitarist-era Picasso. When Joy and Sadness are inadvertently tossed from Headquarters, where the five emotions live and work, along with Riley’s core memories, her whole personality starts to crumble into depression and negativity. Joy and Sadness have to try to find their way back from the archives of Long-Term Memory while the other three emotions try without success to steer the ship.

The five emotionsJoy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is in essence a yellow-skinned, blue-haired, fuzzy Leslie Knope, full of enthusiasm and as much of a leader as the quintet of emotions can have; she was there first, Sadness second, and there’s an uneasy (but not antagonistic) relationship between the two. Their pairing in exile isn’t an accidental bit of plotting, as the film needs the two to play off of each other, even when they run into Riley’s largely-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) and end up in a series of misadventures as they try to get back to headquarters. (My favorite: their trip through abstract thought, where the three are transformed into cubist images, then deconstructed.) Some of the resolutions are a little obvious – Pixar writers have always taken the maxim of Chekhov’s gun very seriously – but the three writers do an excellent job of managing three disparate plot strands: the Joy/Sadness journey, the three knuckleheads still in HQ, and Riley’s real-world interactions with her befuddled (but never distant or cliched) parents.

The Joy/Sadness adventure – and that’s what it is, a buddy comedy with serious consequences for the other storylines – is the primary plot thread of the movie, and the relationship between the two characters, matched in Poehler’s and Smith’s voicing, is more oil/water than acid/base: Sadness doesn’t want to bring anyone down, but she can’t help it, while Joy remains indefatigable in the face of unfathomable odds. Sadness wants to be more like Joy, while Joy looks on Sadness as a well-meaning nuisance, so you can see who’s going to learn what lesson in the end. It’s how we get there that makes most Pixar movies such memorable experiences for the viewer – if you have a kid, you’ll probably get a little weepy, as I did at a few points during Inside Out – and such great art. The ending is happy, happier than, say, Toy Story 3, but it’s yellow with a few spots of blue.

The great achievement of Inside Out‘s plot isn’t the ending, or the adventure in Long-Term Memory, but the fact that the film works so beautifully without an antagonist. There’s no villain, no Big Foozle, no evil queen, hell, there’s no princesses (not that I’m anti-princess but a change of pace is always welcome). Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are not set in opposition to Joy, but are depicted as essential elements of human personality. We don’t get the Dragon of Solitude or the Alienation Wraith; when Riley’s emotions have to fight their way back, they’re fighting something fundamental, not an artificial plot-contrivance bad guy whom they have to kill to get to their goal. Inside Out‘s tension is built around time, not threat, yet the film never drags for the lack of a foil for our twin heroines.

Inside Out is full of Easter eggs, as most Pixar flicks are; I only caught a few of them, including the music in the nightmare, the Chinatown reference, and the homage to Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field.” I didn’t realize the two jellybean-like things guarding the subconscious were actually voiced by Frank Oz and Dave Goelz, longtime Muppet performers. There are apparently several I missed in the classroom scene, although I’m not sure I would have caught any without a remote control in my hand to pause it.

I’m kind of bummed that my daughter is too old for the Inside Out Box of Mixed Emotions, five books, one per emotion, aimed at 3- to 5-year-olds. It looks like Driven by Emotions is more age-appropriate; I’ll report back if we read that one.

Lava, the short animated feature that preceded Inside Out, is a cute but insubstantial love story, remarkable mostly for the quality of its animation (especially the landscapes on the sides of the two volcanoes) and the film’s song, which reminded me of the late native Hawai’an singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Known as Israel K., his cover of “Over the Rainbow” is the only version of that song I can stand, and Lava‘s main voice-over actor, Kuana Torres Kahele, even sings in a similar fashion to Israel K.’s style.

Saturday five, 6/20/15.

I wrote three new Insider pieces this week: an updated top ten pro prospects ranking, a look at where thirteen 2015 first-rounders rank in their new orgs, and a scouting piece on Jesse Biddle, JP Crawford, and Aaron Judge.

I’ll be back at Lakewood tonight to see Yoan Moncada and Rafael Devers again, with a post going up tomorrow or Monday on those guys.

I haven’t had a chance to review it yet, but I’m enjoying the new Of Monsters & Men album Beneath The Skin; it’s a big change from their poppier debut, shifting to better showcase Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s voice.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

  • A great longread on Azerbaijan hosting the “European Games,”, focusing on the authoritarian regime’s corrupt history and misguided attempts to ingratiate itself to Europe. I do wish the piece had discussed the ongoing conflict with Armenia (also guilty of its share of crimes) over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is a massive failure for those who position themselves as international peacemakers. Something like 200,000 people have lived in a rogue state or under the “wrong” national authorities for over a decade.
  • How vaccine deniers are using social media to fight pro-vaccine legislation. The solution is simple: Make your pro-vaccine voice heard. Tell your state and federal legislators that you support mandatory vaccination for all schoolchildren who don’t have medical exemptions. End all philosophical and religious exemptions and you’ll see measles re-eradicated in the U.S. in no time.
  • There’s a raw fish eaten in rural Thailand that gives people liver cancer. The cause is a parasite called a liver fluke that lays eggs in the human liver, yet educating residents has been a big challenge for health officials.
  • Does killing jihadist leaders work? That’s the linchpin of our country’s current strategy against terrorism, and there’s a legitimate debate (with, I think, no clear answer) whether it’s effective enough.
  • I didn’t agree with the majority of you in the recent case of the Maryland “free range” parents scolded for letting their kids walk home a moderate distance from a playground, but I am guessing we can all agree that the Florida case of parents losing their kids for a month for letting their 11-year-old son play in his own yard is a terrifying governmental overreach. The busybody who called the authorities here should face charges, not the parents.
  • An op ed in the Guardian from a former prisoner discussing US prisons withholding menstrual supplies, often by pricing them above what indigent prisoners can afford. Sanitary supplies are a basic human right, not a luxury to be purchased by the well-to-do.
  • The Guardian was one of several publications to profile the victims of the Charleston massacre, an important step given how much ink is dedicated to the perpetrators in these attacks. Jamil Smith’s essay in the New Republic on the particular violation of these murders happening in a church was the best piece I read all week on the subject. Meanwhile, it’s high time that South Carolina remove the Confederate flag from all government buildings.

Thebes.

Thebes is a moderate-strategy game, first published in 2007, that uses an archaeology theme to bring a couple of clever mechanics to the genre without becoming too complex or slow. It also is the rare game that plays as well with two players as it does with more, even though the tenor of the play and your strategy will both vary greatly with the number of players.

(The game is currently unavailable in the US, but if you’re in Europe amazon UK has it as does amazon Germany.)

In Thebes, you’re a lead archaeologist who must gather resources called “knowledge points” before you head off to one of five dig sites (each with a unique color) to try to retrieve valuable artifacts. You gather these knowledge points in seven European cities, so the entire map has just twelve sites and getting around is straightforward, and by taking one of four cards shown on the board at any given time. To draw a specific card, you move to that city and pay the cost to acquire the card – more on that cost in a moment – after which you add it to your hand. Most cards contain one to three books in the specific color of one of the dig sites; those are “specialized” knowledge points, good only for that dig site. There are “general” knowledge points, blank books that count toward any dig site; assistant cards, which you collect in sets to add more specialized knowledge for any dig site; shovel cards, which you collect in sets to draw more artifacts when you dig; and rumor cards, which you count once as specialized knowledge during a single dig and then discard.

When you go to dig, you move to the city of the dig site and count all of your knowledge applicable to that dig – all your specialized knowledge points in that color, plus all of your general knowledge points up to the number of the specialized points, and then use a wheel to determine how many artifacts you can take from the dig site (a bag of tokens), which is also a function of how many weeks you wish to spend digging. There is no money in Thebes; the currency is time, as it takes one week to move between adjacent cities, one to six weeks for any card you take from the board, and up to ten weeks for any dig. The game takes place over three years for two players and two years for four players, so time is truly fleeting in Thebes and you need to budget carefully.

Those bags are the one truly new mechanic in Thebes, a game without much randomness until you start pulling tokens from a bag. There are 31 artifact tokens in each color, 13 worth one to six points each, two tokens worth knowledge points (one general, one specific to another color), and 16 blanks. At the start of the game, you take a one-point token in each color and place it on the map, so that the first player to dig there gets that artifact as a bonus. Then the digging begins: You use the wheel to determine how many artifacts you can pull (again, a function of your knowledge points and the number of weeks you wish to spend), and then take out that many tokens. You keep any that aren’t blank … and you put the blanks back in the bag. That’s right: The odds of pulling out a non-blank token just get worse as the game goes on. It pays to be the first one into the tomb.

Most of your points (about 75-80% in our experience) will come from artifacts you gain from digging. There are three other ways to gain points in Thebes. Two of them, Congress cards and Exhibitions, are available in the main card deck and will appear in the four card spaces on the board along with the cards described above. Congress cards are simple – there are nine, and you get points based on how many you have, with the point totals rising sort of logarithmically, up to a maximum bonus of 28 points for seven cards. Exhibitions come up in the second half of the game, roughly, and they reward you with four or five bonus points for artifacts you’ve already obtained; if you have the right combination of artifacts, you go to the city on that card, take it from the board, and gain those points at the end of the game. It’s a significant cost in weeks, however, so the payoff isn’t great. The final way to gain points is to have the most specialized knowledge points in any specific color, with the leader in each color getting five points, co-leaders in any color each getting three.

The one other unusual mechanic has appeared in other games, including an even more elegant implementation the wonderful 2010 title Glen More, where one player might get multiple consecutive turns because other players have moved too far ahead. Players count their weeks spent via a track around the outside of the board, and the player whose token is the furthest behind gets to take the next turn. Say you’re playing a two-player game and your opponent chooses a ten-week dig in Palestine; if you can play your cards right, literally, you might get four turns in a row to grab other cards while s/he is busy, because you’ll move around the track but still be behind your opponent.

Games take under an hour and setup is very simple, assuming you don’t do what I did once and confuse the colors of the bags. Thebes is also quite language-proof, with some of the clearest iconography of any game I know, at least among games at this level of complexity; I’d compare it to Ticket to Ride’s simplicity in that one aspect. There’s nothing in here an eight-year-old couldn’t handle, and most of the strategy involved is easy to understand; the hardest part of the game to grasp might be estimating the expected values of digs, especially once players have already been in a bag once or twice but might have yet to discover some of the most valuable tokens. (There are five cards showing the distribution of point-bearing tokens in each bag.) It’s a bright, attractive game with a well-integrated theme that fully ties into and even explains the game’s most notable mechanic, a very solid addition for anyone looking for a family game that kids will like but that has enough substance for the adults.