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Memphis Grizzlies Book Club 2016: The Players

This list has everything: genies, a "big war novel," and a poem for a center on the mend.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

It's that time of year again, y'all! Grizzlies Book Club BACK! For the uninitiated, this is the time of year where there is no basketball of any type and my editors finally allow me to write about books. If nothing else, I'm proud that if someone were to google the words "Grizzlies," "Book," and "Club" in any order, my name is attached to the first four links. That, if anything, is my corner.

Let's start with a book for the one hundred and fifty million dollar man.

Mike Conley - "The Dead," James Joyce

Best line: "The blood went bounding along his veins; and the thoughts went rioting through his brain, proud, joyful, tender, valorous...She seemed to him so frail that he longed to defend her against something, and then be alone with her."

This story, the capstone to Joyce's collection "The Dubliners," is Joyce's best. If Professor Bigelow happens to read this, shouts to 300 Level Irish Literature class, and somehow making the nutritional value of potatoes decidedly non-boring.

I need to re-read this story. Lines like the above read far differently to a man in his 30's than a college student in his early 20's. I read it now with the appropriate ironic detachment, and see that the quoted line above is a slightly subtler way of Ron Burgundy saying he has many leather bound books.

One wonders about anachronisms like this. Is this an attitude that Joyce shares or mocks? Has he detached himself from his character (and, frankly, his epoch) enough to see its flaws? The end of the story can be read in many ways, and is one of those malleable endings where most readers think nothing happens, but that English majors go nuts over.

Is this a story about the difference between men and women? Is this a story about the dead's relationship with the living (the story is, after all, called "The Dead")? And what was all that stuff about Irish politics doing in there? That stuff wasn't relevant at all, was it?

One of the hallmarks of literature is that they teach you to enter willingly into someone else's mind, the definition of empathy. But literature also teaches you to hold two thoughts in your head at the same time. And sometimes two separate things can be true at the same time.

A lot of people had takes on Mike Conley's contract this off-season. He should read this story because while the actual story is easy to read, there is no "easy reading" of it. A critic of this story can say "nothing happens." A critic of Mike Conley's contract can say it's absurd he's the highest paid player in NBA history.

Both are correct. Both are reductive. Both miss the point.

Conley benefited from a historic rise in the cap. He was the best guy at his position the one year everybody had money to throw at him. Running counter to that, his contract as a percentage of the cap will fall every year of his five year deal.

So much more goes into why a player gets paid what they get paid than simply how much "they are worth," a term so fungible it is laughable to apply in any meaningful way.

In the same way, so much more goes into a good story. "The Dead" has stood for a hundred and two years. Memphis needs Conley for the next five.

James Ennis - "White Noise," -€” Don Delillo

Handle this hot take with gloves: it is not worth writing a book with no characters and no plot. I am 15% sure this book sailed over my head, and 85% sure Delillo aimed at a target of experimental fiction and, instead of landing, the arrow sailed out into space.

(*Hrdlicka's note: Don't at me. This is the only Delillo book I've ever read. I will not read another one for a while. White Noise is on a list of maybe five to six other books that I actively hated while reading, and I try to work at least one of those into every Book Club because I don't know why.*)

James Ennis should read this book because last time he was in Memphis, the previous coach treated him like Delillo treated all the characters in White Noise. He treated them as absurdities, not people, ways to make a point. The old coach may have resented the trade that brought Ennis to town just like Delillo seemed to resent the world he created for his characters.

Ennis will never get back the 2015-2016 season just like I will never get back the time I spent reading White Noise.

Jordan Adams -€” Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee

Best line: "To the last we will have learned nothing. In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable. No one truly believes, despite the hysteria in the streets, that the world of tranquil certainties we were born into is about to be extinguished. I....concentrate on bringing into life the image of myself as a swimmer swimming with even, untiring strokes through the medium of time, a medium more inert than water, without ripples, pervasive, colourless, odourless, dry as paper."

Destruction, in this novel set in South Africa, comes from within, not from outside the gates. This is a story about othering enemies, of how to cope with guilt, of how we use narrative to ease the burden of our sins.

Adams is a victim of things outside his control, and perhaps some other things that were well within it. Either way, if Jordan Adams imagines himself as a swimmer swimming, to this point, his strokes have made few ripples.

Wade Baldwin IV, Andrew Harrison & Deyonta Davis - Black Swan Green, David Mitchell

Best line: "Listening's reading if you close your eyes. Music's a wood you walk through."

Longtime readers know I recommend a David Mitchell book every year. It's because he loves words. It's because his writing maintains an unceasing moral compass that somehow doesn't feel like cliché.

This is a story about a boy coming of age, overcoming fear, the nastiness of the elementary schoolyard, and internal family strife, and perhaps not coming out the other end stronger or better, but coming out better prepared to deal with the bad stuff that life throws at you.

The end of the world is not reading out loud in class for a child just like it's not a turnover for an NBA player. These things will happen and they will suck. Mitchell offers the idea that bad things become easier to manage the more bad things happen. Coping demands reps. Part of hope is familiarity with pain.

And here is the halcyon call. I'm blowing the conch shell. Into the breach once more my friends. You guys better grow up fast.

Troy Daniels -€” "The Genie," Unknown

Best line: In the future, be careful what you wish for," the genie said.

This story was from a collection of children's stories my wife is reading to our daughter, and it's absurd. A genie visits a servant girl and grants her the familiar quantity of three wishes. The girl spends her final wish wishing she wasn't a servant girl.

The genie grants the servant girl's wish by making her a beggar because genies are nefarious MF's, and unless they have Robin Williams' voice they can't be trusted.

(*Hrdlicka's note: The best defense is a good offense and nowhere is this more true than with genies. If a genie ever grants me three wishes, my first wish is for infinite wishes. If the genie says no, then I question his geniehood kinda low key at first, but then more aggressively. If he holds the line on no infinite wishes {no self-respecting genie would give infinite wishes because genies get off on shattering the illusion that the wisher has the power}, then I'm using all three of my wishes to torment the genie. I'd wish that the genie has chicken pox. I'd wish that the genie has to watch "Two and a Half Men" or "House of Cards" {Hrdlicka's note about the note: yes, that was shade}.

I was pretty pleased with this plan, but when I described it to my wife she came up with a better plan: she'd wish for a better genie.

This is why I married her.*)

Anyway, the moral of this story is that genies are not to be trusted. Troy should read this story because Troy sounds like it could be the name of a genie.

Vince Carter - No Telephone To Heaven, Michelle Cliff

Best line:

Could you tell me one instance of your struggle?

I have lost people.... Is that enough?

That is loss, not struggle.

The protagonist of No Telephone to Heaven, Clare Savage, is a woman caught between identities. Her father was an upper class white man, her mother lower class Jamaican. This story problematizes the idea that both native roots and civilization are pure, that neither the dinner party nor the savage is noble, that neither money nor pain is a virtue.

Identity is a fungible thing, but tends to be something you only "know" after the fact. How accurately can we gauge who we are right now?

Vince Carter fascinates me. Things came perhaps too easy to him. Perhaps he was a victim of fans seeing an athlete so graceful that he didn't appear to be really trying, the Eric Dickerson of the hardwood.

Fast forward many years and Vince now can't rise like he once could. Old Man Game is lauded for its craft, but ask Vince if he'd rather throw down again and a hundred times out of a hundred he says yes.

Did twenty-three year old Vince think he was entitled? Would thirty-nine year old Vince fly to his college graduation before a playoff game? Would twenty-nine year old Vince pass a little more? It's really hard to know who you are at this moment right now.

Clare Savage had to travel to London before she could return to Jamaica. This is more complex than the old refrain: if only I knew then what I know now. Knowing now is an impossibility. You are only a person in retrospect.

Chandler Parsons - "Interesting Facts," Short story from the collection Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

Best line: "If only she had never been a horse, if only she could remain one a little longer."

You don't understand this sentence. You can't. It only makes sense in the context of this story's final few paragraphs. "Interesting Facts" is about a woman with breast cancer reflecting on how her family will move on once she's gone.

The line I quoted is a perfect sentence. It kills me. Every. Single. Time.

Outside the context of the story, it's just words.

One wonders what Chandler Parsons will look like within a Grit and Grind context. One wonders if too many things have been grafted onto the Grit and Grind moniker, if it might hold so many disparate ideas as to be empty. Will we expand the definition of GnG again? One wonders if a single dive to the floor will be all it takes to bequeath GnG status upon him.

I'm not mocking Parsons or GnG. The Grizzlies need Parsons's skill set desperately. But let's be real. Caging Parsons inside the definition of GnG -€” whatever that is in the year 2016 -€” is an act of gymnastics.

Maybe it is more useful to move on. More on this in Part II.

Marc Gasol - "Tulips", Sylvia Plath -€”

Best line: "The vivid tulips eat my oxygen."

Plath is the most depressing poet ever. That's not a criticism; it's her power. She puts you in her place. She makes you endure what she wants. Somehow, even tulips sent from loved ones in her hospital room, something that should be a gift, remind her of the absurdity of her frail body, the only body she'll ever have, being eaten by a sickness she can't see or touch, only feel, working inside her.

I am terrified to watch Gasol on the basketball court now. Every time he jumps a pit will open in my stomach. Are his best years gone forever? Gasol is my favorite basketball player of all time. His game is visually unique. He somehow achieves flashes of style within an economy of movement. He doesn't do more than necessary, and still makes it look cool.

He enjoys the game, but his joy does not manifest itself in White Chocolatian free-lancing. Instead, he has sublimated it into his own Catalan brand of fundamental: a bounce pass to a cutter starts above his head; a rumbling hook shot starts by palming the ball from dribble to shot in one solid motion; grabbing boards with one arm while trying to draw a foul with the other.

Will Marc Gasol ever run a fast break again? Will he ever run again without looking like a mummy? Or have the tulips eaten his oxygen?

Brandan Wright - Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson

Best line: "Sooner or later the mind grasps at a thought and follows it into the labyrinth, one thought branching into another. Then the labyrinth caves in on itself and you find yourself outside. You were never inside -€” it was a dream."

Tree of Smoke is one part Catch-22, one part Hunter S. Thompson, and one part indecipherable... which I guess is another way of saying it is one part war novel and two parts indecipherable. It is alternately absurd and terrifying.

Denis Johnson is the voice of the world's dispossessed. As our TV experience has been obsessed with lauding and investigating the flawed hero -€” Walter White, Tony Soprano, Frank Underwood - Denis Johnson sings of just the flawed. The ones who've slipped through the cracks.

Tree of Smoke is a big war novel that focuses on the individual. It reads like Y Tu Mama Tambien watches. Cuaron's camera lingers on a burning car, vagabonds on the side of the road. Johnson's words linger on a Vietnamese child; a monkey weeping (this, spectacularly, on like page 2); a nurse praying to herself amidst people she cannot save.

Johnson does not let you forget what Heller seemed to look past. Critiquing the absurdity of war pushes war into the realm of theory, removes all the facts that Johnson does not let you forget: that though Vietnam was fought in a jungle, the mass of trees and vines and mosquitos was someone's country, someone's home.

Why should Wright read it? If you haven't figured this out yet, the Grizzlies portion of this piece is just an excuse for me to write about books. Wise up.

Jarell Martin and JaMychal Green -€” "The Answer," poem by Bei Dao

Best line: "Listen: I don't believe

If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet,

Count me as a thousand and one.

I don't believe the sky is blue!

I don't believe what the thunder says

I don't believe that dreams aren't real, that beyond death there is no reprisal."

"The Answer" is a poem of dislocation, of distrust, of struggle. At times, this poem seems to speak directly to his oppressive government. Chinese poet Bei Dao was exiled from his homeland for being suspected of inciting his own people.

And what does he incite but hope.

If a thousand challengers lie beneath your feet, count me as a thousand and one.

Poetry is comprised only of rose petals and sweet nothings when the audience for poetry is rich white people who marry for social advancement instead of love {Hrdlicka's note: Romantic poetry shade}. Words are written to fill in the gaps. Art is catharsis for its present time, giving people what they crave. If people crave romance because they marry for economic reasons, then it's no wonder Jane Austen novels were popular.

Both Jarell and JaMychal offer things the Grizzlies crave. Both players offer positional flexibility. JaMychal can guard in space, and brings a dash of shooting from the frontcourt. Jarell offers athleticism, finishing, and a dash of shot creation.

Zach Randolph and Tony Allen - Purity, Jonathan Franzen

I hate few novels. This is one of them. It's a slop of cardboard characters and a plot built on coincidence. I could have ended the previous sentence after the word "slop" and it would have sufficed.

But this is the man who wrote Freedom, and whatever you think of the author (Hrdlicka's note: for those who don't keep up with the insular world of literary figures, Franzen is, to put it midly, a pompous ass), Freedom is the rare work of literature accessible enough to pierce the social zeitgeist.

It's amazing and fascinating and weird to me that an author has both novels inside of them.  Purity is a hopeless imitation of Freedom. Did Franzen lose his fastball? Does he even know that Purity is a crap novel?

What do you do when you don't have your fastball anymore? Do you insist that everybody is wrong, that no, you're just as good as you always were? Or do you get back to work?


We've done all the players now, but stay tuned. I have one final book recommendation for all the Grizzlies fans out there. And it's a doozy.

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