Tuesday, September 28, 2010

“GREENBERG” – LIFE IS WASTED ON PEOPLE

My title comes from the most fetching line of this 2010 film starring Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig. Stiller plays a neurotically depressed social misfit (the titular Greenberg) who, not surprisingly, doesn’t do too well with people of both sexes. When his former band mate – probably the only person in the film who can truly tolerate him – wistfully muses that “youth is wasted on the young”, Greenberg replies, “I’d take it a step further – life is wasted on people”. Great line, one of this very flawed film’s better moments. I honestly thought I’d enjoy this a lot more than I did, seeing as it came from Noah Baumbach, the director of the excellent weirdo dramas “Margot at the Wedding” and “The Squid and the Whale”. Yet “GREENBERG” neither made me squirm the way those did, nor did it have enough mixed pathos & comedy to make one ride the highs and lows so dramatically as we did in those other films.

Stiller wasn’t the problem. I don’t know, maybe it was Greta Gerwig. I thought I was sort of in love with her when I saw her in “BAGHEAD”, but now I’m wondering if she’s so fixated on being “real” in her films that she comes off as totally phony-baloney. I turned off “HANNAH TAKE THE STAIRS”, a film of hers from last year, midway through because I just couldn’t take it – but I blamed the film’s shortcomings squarely on the director. This time, though the budget is much “bigger” than that handheld nearly-home movie, she still grates on me with her I’m-such-a-complicated-arty-twentysomething act, and the thought that she’d be attracted to Greenberg at all, especially after his first bungled attempt to make some magic happen with her, is preposterous. Is this what a “real” urban 23-year-old is supposed to be like these days? Man, I’ll steer way clear of the Mission District, Williamsburg and Silverlake if so.

I guess it just didn’t add up at the end of the day. The film’s characters don’t reach any dénouement, as the French say, and no one grows or changes or figures it out. Since they’re all so unlikeable to begin with – well, there it is. Hedonist Jive says go watch some Giants playoff baseball instead.

Monday, September 27, 2010

MASTERPIECE THEATER: SIERRA NEVADA “30TH ANNIVERSARY – FRITZ & KEN’S STOUT”

One of my biggest complaints about the “beer journalism” establishment, such that it is, is that it continually churns out the same “salute to craft brewing’s pioneers” articles over and over, ad nauseum. I wrote about the phenomenon here. Beer people can be such audacious namedroppers – “oh Fritz, you know” – “oh, I talked to SAM for hours at GABF” etc. So here we’ve got the ultimate “craft brewing pioneers” beer, an ale to set off another round of dewy-eyed reminiscing about the era when lonely homebrewers pulled themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, against all odds, to launch a “taste revolution” blah blah blah. Thank you, Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing, and thank you Ken what’s-your-name, who founded New Albion Brewing way back in the Dark Ages. Without you, our lives would be severely deficient.

Which brings me back to this gonzoid 2010 imperial stout that SIERRA NEVADA BREWING commissioned from the aforementioned fellas to mark their thirtieth anniversary. It’s one of several 30th anniversary beers from a brewer who’s been living large since 1980. And it might be the best imperial stout I’ve ever had. Wait, did he just type that? After years of incredible imperial stouts rolling out from all four corners of the USA? Why yes I did. BROOKLYN BLACK OPS, you’ve been topped. This dark black pillow of a beer is perfection in a glass – well, several glasses. Several luscious cocoa and dark, burnt malt glasses. It’s a beautiful beer from start to finish, with no hot boozy alcohol to get in the way of each swallow, despite the 9.2% alcohol lurking within. Seriously, I could put my head down in this thing and go to sleep. I love those craft brewing pioneers, I just love 'em. 10/10.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

BOOK REVIEW – MALCOLM GLADWELL’S “WHAT THE DOG SAW: AND OTHER ADVENTURES”

Malcolm Gladwell is one of those rock-star writers in the social sciences who commands huge speaking fees wherever he travels, gets invited to weekend-long corporate retreats to share his deep journalistic insights, and sells a bazillion books every release, just on his name alone. I read his “THE TIPPING POINT” not long after it came out in 2002 (totally dug it), and a few years ago got his book “OUTLIERS” slipped into a corporate “goodie bag” given to me at a trade show – so I feverishly read it on the plane home. It was then that I decided I’m fully on board the Gladwell train, no matter how formulaic or wide-eyed-with-wonder his writing can be at times. The guy’s on the vanguard of the deeply probing, highly skeptical wing of the social science/journalism fusion that’s been so popular of late (see “FREAKONOMICS”, “THE WISDOM OF CROWDS”, reducto ad absurdum). So I bought his collection of New Yorker essays from the past decade to further my study into the human condition, and to get a finer point on why it is that we human beings can be such a conundrum sometimes.

I’d actually read a good third of these essays before, during the five or so years I was subscribing to The New Yorker. That magazine just sat in unread piles every week, until I made the rule that I’d read one essay or story from each, and then throw the daunting stack into the recycle bin after I’d done so. If there was a Gladwell piece in there, well, that was usually the one that got read. The man knows his way around an essay, and when he takes on a topic that looks like dullsville – women’s hair coloring, say, or people who can magically calm ferocious dogs down – it’s usually time to buckle in. Gladwell usually positions himself as the rube from out of town who just has a few contrarian questions, and his simple, childlike logic leads him down a path of conclusions that upends all conventional notions of how life works.

There are times when, as I said, this gets formulaic. After a thrilling essay or two, you see Gladwell’s story/setup/surprise twist/punchline/denouement structure coming from a mile away. And yet the man will flat-out make you think differently. Think you know why Enron failed? A classic story of greed, right? Perhaps. But Gladwell has a convincing piece toward the end of this book that says that their corporate culture of hiring the smartest, most risk-taking MBAs above all other considerations may have been the true root of what did them in. There’s a similar piece about hiring people to work in your company, and how we all make snap decisions about people we meet, just on the basic of their handshake or the initial 30 seconds of charisma they showed or didn’t show – and why that’s “wrong”. Except Gladwell’s also good at making you see both sides of a quandary as well, and that piece in particular had me wondering whether I should be trusting my gut when I meet someone new, or giving everyone a months-long benefit of the doubt.

Because of its essay structure, “WHAT THE DOG SAW” is a book you can pick up and put down over a long period of time; in fact, I bought it the week it came out in late 2009 (I had just finished “Outliers” and was riding a Gladwell high) and just finished it last week. It doesn’t make it any less interesting, though, and this is one millionaire social scientist that deserves the coin and the accolades being thrown his way.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

“THE WHITE RIBBON”

Despite ending with a bit of a clunk, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s 2009 “THE WHITE RIBBON” is an intense, feverishly dark look at a German village on the eve of World War I., one that succeeds on nearly all levels. The film, austerely shot completely in black and white, serves as an indictment against personal and societal repression in all its forms. Though many of the reviews I read described this film as a “how the children of 1913 became the Nazis of 25 years later”, it’s definitely more of a subtext than something overt, and likely something you’d never have picked up on without the power of suggestion from a review. “The White Ribbon” succeeds incredibly well on its own terms, and has moments of filmmaking as powerful as anything I’ve seen in years.

Since the film deals so unceasingly with repression and guilt, I’ll highlight a moment that was so intense in direction, production and acting that I watched it on the DVD three times over. The bucolic village’s pastor, an absolute tyrant who brutally canes his children and ties the putative white ribbons in their hair for months at a time when they’ve misbehaved, is in his study with his preteen son. He gives his son a lecture about a local boy who went blind, developed pustules all over his body, descended into madness and finally died – because he began to masturbate as he entered adolescence, He then shames his son, horribly, into a confession of the same. The boy, pictured here in that scene, lets tears stream down his face while trying his best to maintain composure, and the whole thing is absolutely devastating. I’ve seen Ingmar Bergman pull off dramatic scenes this good that make every hair on your body stand up screaming, but it’s a real gift, and Haneke’s obviously got it (He made “The Piano Teacher” and “Cache” as well, both good-to-excellent).

This is the sort of rules-based, “God-directed” fear and shame that drives the village into acts of silent violence, reprisal and brutal humiliation of anyone not falling into line. The film’s narrator, a kindly schoolteacher who is the sunny foil to everything swirling into chaos around him, even gets caught up in the descent into madness, before being immediately shipped off to war the second Germany decides to invade Serbia. That’s where the film stops, and where one is left to draw his own conclusions. I might have appreciated a good 5 minutes of reflection and what parents call “transition time” in getting to that point, but the film as a whole gave me hours of things to ponder, most of them mentally discomforting yet stimulating all the same. It won the Palm D'Or at Cannes last year, and I can absolutely see why.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

MORE RECORD REVIEWS, FEATURING FEMALES IN A LEADING ROLE

For the first chapter in this two-part series of 2010 record reviews, click here.

GRASS WIDOW – “Past Time” CD

Took a good four or five times through my favorite local band’s new record for me to declare it not only on par with their two past efforts, but as a new high-water mark. It’s just – different, is all. Sure, the band skitters and skatters up and down chordlines and around rhythmically complex drum, bass & guitar patterns as they did on their previous LP and EP, but now they’ve added a more “baroque” element and an even more dense layer of church-like harmony. Grass Widow are truly the most 1979-ish UK DIY band I’ve ever heard (despite hailing from San Francisco and being very much of 2010), but where they were once treading mainly on URINALS territory they’ve progressed into something more 100 FLOWERS-like now. And lo, it is good. I’m convinced there will be a time in the future when this record is recalled and referred to as, yes that’s right, “a classic”. (Buy it here)

SUPER WILD HORSES – “Fifteen” CD

I totally fell for one song on this Australian duo’s debut EP called “What Started The Noise” and dismissed the remainder, and that hit-to-miss ratio holds up about the same on their debut. It treads a little too far into sugary commercial radio MOR for my tastes on about two-thirds of the numbers, and if this guitar/drums unit ends up playing Lollapalooza-type festivals in the US I won’t be surprised. That said, there are two chuggers on here that deserve special attention: the title track “Fifteen” and the song after that, “Mess Around”. Both tuff-girl pop, sparse and harmonic and lurching into garage punk simply by the minimalistic, bash-it-out instrumentation. If they were all like that we’d have something to talk about for sure. (Buy it here)

THE SPLINTERS – “Kick” CD

Here’s another one that falls in a similar camp. Oakland’s Splinters have a fantastic new Gun Club-meets-Ronettes 7” out called “Blood On My Hands”, and so on the strength of that I bought their early-2010 CD “Kick” sound-unheard. One time through was all I needed. It’s rare to find a band these days who are still finding their feet when they step into the recording studio and put out a CD, but “Kick” shows a band with all sorts of ambitions to make great garage pop, but with an inability to write a song that sticks. Like a young band, you know, one just finding their feet & trying to figure it all out. Lucky for the rocknroll-lovin’ public they put it together on their new single, so skip this one and keep an eye out for CD #2. (Buy it here)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

ON THE TEA PARTY

Those of us who trend in a libertarian direction, and who are appalled and psychologically sickened by the government-caused and government-extended economic crisis we’ve been struggling with for 2+ years now, are watching the rise of the Tea Party movement with some bemusement - and, in my case at least, with quite a bit of apple-cart upsetting glee. No, I don’t like to see a woman who’s gone on record as being anti-masturbation (Christine O’Donnell, who just won the Republican senatorial primary in Delaware) held up as any sort of “free minds and free markets” ideal, and no, I don’t cotton to many of the Republicans who are riding this train, nor the social conservatism they’re sneakily tamping down in hopes of being elected. But let me tell you what I do like – because I actually like a lot about this movement.

First, for all the nutballs who might be signing on to the cause, Tea Partiers are united behind a couple of exceptionally sound goals: curtailing the cost of government, and refusing to live high on the hog today at the expense of future generations. These are goals (my goals) that have had few true champions since the Reagan/Thatcher days, and I’m delighted to see this as a seemingly people-led movement, rather than just another Republican ideological plank that will be abandoned the moment the newly elected arrive in Washington. I also like watching this movement internally police itself, so that that the core issue – cutting government and living within our means – is the main one on the table, and not abortion, gays or guns. I’ve noticed some anti-immigration blather sneaking into some of the recent articles I’ve read about Tea Party rallies, but that’s something I can put up with for the time being, since their spine on the main economic challenges that face the country appears to be so strong. This is really flummoxing the mainstream media - the New York Times articles on the Tea Party in today's paper were utterly laughable. It may be a shopworn cliche, but most reporters "just don't get it", and have almost zero interest in trying to understand why they don't.

The Tea Party, by standing on principle, is working to root out the establishment Republican politicians exemplified by George W. Bush and the many Senators and congressmen who should have been drummed out years ago – to say nothing of the Democrats they’re going after. It's a true "enough is enough" sort of populist movement. I love their baseball-bat approach to sweeping these free-spending Washington toadies out of power. Nothing matters more in our country right now than getting the size & scope of government under control, and ensuring that the US system of free enterprise is once again able to help wide swaths of the country prosper – including the very demoralized working and middle classes, who are quite understandably turning to the Tea Party in droves. I knew that Obama and his absurd class-warfare politics would eventually turn the country against him – I just didn’t think it would happen this quickly.

Does this mean I’m personally joining the Tea Party? No thanks. (See my “Marching With The Idiots” piece from this past March here). There are the people that fight in the streets, and then there are the people who dutifully vote in every election (and oh, uh, occasionally rant about politics on blogs). I’m living in a California, long the economic engine of this country, that might very well go bankrupt in 2011 with its back-breaking union pension obligations and market-stifling regulations. I send a child to public school here, pay my taxes, cross my fingers that I’ll continue to keep my job and that the home I just bought can keep its value. I’m very concerned about this state, and it’s why I’ll do everything in my power to make sure politics turns a 180 here. No more Jerry Browns, no more Arnold Schwarzeneggers – and I’ll take any Tea Party support that cause gets, even if there are a few birthers in the crowd.

Yes, it would be fantastic if people who share my personal brand of "socially tolerant, economically mighty" libertarianism were running the show, and sending old-school Sacramento and Washington down the toilet in dramatic fashion. Until then, I’ll raise a glass for the semi-lunatics in the Tea Party, and heartily cheer on America’s potential return to first principles.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

HEDONIST JIVE TAKES A GREAT LEAP FORWARD

Though no one's called me out on it too hard as of yet, I'm certain there are folks who've read my past music blogs, my former beer blog, maybe even my politics blog - who've come over here in hopes of more of the same, only to be gravely disappointed. The dude reviews cheese??? He scans postcards his Grandma gave him??? etc.

Here's what I've done for you. Look to your right. See those labels? Now The Hedonist Jive has been customized for your tastes. You only want to read beer reviews? Click on "beer". Want music blather only? Why, there's a category called "Music" just for you. Are my watery-eyed life memories something you feel you need to read? Click on "Memories".

Hopefully this rights an early wrong and helps put the Jive at the top of your blogroll!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

SCENES FROM 1982 CHINA

You think 1982 seems like a long distance in the rearview mirror of history here in the United States, or in Europe? Imagine what 1982 looks like to a fortysomething man or woman who has lived in China their entire life - someone who has seen the country leap through a century’s worth of modernization, societal upheaval and technological change in a mere 28 years. I was fortunate enough to have traveled to China that year (1982) when I was 14 years old. My Grandmother (of GRANDMA’S POSTCARDS fame) was a mover and a shaker in the United Methodist Church, and her national committee had a big interest in studying China. Whether it was ultimately to proselytize, I’m not sure – but I don’t think so. That’s not how these Methodists rolled. She asked me if I’d go with them on this trip, provided I could stand being the only under person under the age of 50 in a twenty-person tour group. Naturally, this struck me as an amiable bargain, as it did my parents, who didn’t have to pony up a dime for an experience that was simply not accessible to most kids.

The trip was pretty eye-opening for me, as you might imagine. We spent 3 weeks in Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin, Xian, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong (then under British control). It was very tourist-oriented on the whole, with trip to communes, museums, temples and whatnot – and even a long hike on the Great Wall. Even this cynical teenager counted that as a lifetime highlight. There are a number of stories that came out of this trip that I conjure up from time to time – I thought you might want to hear a few of ‘em, and see some photos as well.

• The first full day we were in Beijing, the trip’s first stop, we visited the tomb/mausoleum of Mao Tse-Tung, right in the heart of Tiananmen Square. Mao mania was still is full effect here, 8 years after his passing, and me, though I knew he was a bad guy, didn’t quite yet grasp the death, disease and destruction brought on by Mao and his wickedly stupid ideas. Tell that to the Chinese who were nearly weeping as they viewed his embalmed body, and filed out solemnly in shuffle steps as they let out back onto the Square. It was totally surreal: mass anguish, hero worship and collective guilt, all played out in the sullen faces of hundreds of Chinese paying their respects. That was my introduction to the country.

• Shanghai, which was then as now the most populated city in the world, certainly didn’t look it. Now I’m told – and have seen in photos – that it’s a mass of skyscrapers and neon signs, but in 1982 there were hundreds of medium-sized buildings, virtually no cars (no one could afford to own one, or weren’t allowed) and people on identical black bicycles as far as the eye could see. Here's a photo I took of the most impressive part of the skyline. When we arrived at our hotel near the waterfront, I excused myself to take a walk around the town. Immediately this blond-haired teen was beset upon by a genial man not much older than I was, who asked, “Hello, may I please speak English with you?”. I told him he could, at which point he was quickly joined by another man who had been walking by. Then a woman stepped over, then a group of men, then a dozen more people, then a dozen more, until all of sudden I was claustrophobically surrounded by at least 40 people listening intently to our conversation. I was completely hemmed in, trying to answer questions like, “What is your name?”, “Are you having a good day?”, “Do you have any pets?” etc. Fortunately I kept my cool for about 5 minutes before extracting myself – I seriously had to wriggle out and throw a few body blocks to disengage from the pack. I immediately had a laugh about it, and it said a lot to me about the friendliness and intense curiosity of these people.

• We had a tour guide and interpreter named Mr. Liu. One day on a bus trip he asked me question after question about America, and specifically New York City. Knowing full well that he would never be allowed to leave China, I told him he should come out and see it for himself, and I’d show him around. This made him quite visibly sad, and I had to quickly change the subject. I told him about New York’s crime problems, which were then near their peak. “Bracks?”, he asked me. “Excuse me?”. “Bracks”, he said more forcefully. “Bracks are the ones who make the problems there”. “Oh, blacks, oh no no no no no”, I said, backing away, needing to change the subject yet again.

• There was a man from Georgia (the state) on the trip, totally large-hearted guy named Jack who, about every 24 hours made sure to tell me that my hair was too long, and that he couldn’t wait to get to Hong Kong so I’d go to a proper "English barber". Except once we actually were in Hong Kong that was the furthest thing from my mind. After nearly 3 weeks of fatty roast duck, greasy chow mein, gristly chicken and whatnot, all eaten with chopsticks, there was only one thing this American teen could think about (besides the obvious things male teens keep front-and-center) – McDonald’s. I hit up Hong Kong McDonald’s restaurants maybe four times in three days, even took the Star Ferry out of Kowloon and over to Hong Kong Island so I could hit one over there and cram burger after burger into my pimply face. You’ll be pleased to know the food translated very well, even on the other side of the planet.

• I strangely got it in my head one morning in Guangzhou (formerly Canton) that I’d go running, something that I never did a single time after this trip until my recent bout with running obsession in my 40s. As I flounced through a public park, I ran right through a group of Chinese doing tai chi, which, to state the obvious, was completely and utterly foreign to me. I stopped in my tracks and watched them go through this ancient collective cleansing/breathing/exercise ritual, and marveled. They were so focused, with eyes straight ahead and perfect posture and composure. Young and cocksure, and still narcissistically riding from the high of all the attention I would get in public from the natives, I decided to join in to this deeply personal and nearly religious ritual that I’d never heard of nor seen in practice even 5 minutes before. As my gawky and awkward body tried to contort and hold a position that the “leader” was displaying for the group, I noticed all eyes subtly start shifting over to me, and frowns beggining to form. I was totally ruining these people’s morning, as my lack of balance forced my feet to loudly stomp back on the ground, and my breath become wheezy trying to hold a position. I got the hint and quickly trotted out of there, never to do tai chi again.

Above all, and especially looking through my photos, some of which I’m posting for you here, I can see now that China was still a peasant-based, hard-Communist society, years away from the upheavals that have made it into one of the most dynamic societies in the world. I feel lucky for having gone when I did.

The author in 1982


Monday, September 13, 2010

"THE ART OF THE STEAL"

The 2010 documentary "THE ART OF THE STEAL" breathlessly follows a scandal of sorts: the wholesale dismantling of an eccentric millionaire's will, wishes and contracts in order to snatch his incredible private art collection and place it into "public" hands. I'd once heard about this wonderfully weird art museum in a residential neighborhood 10 miles outside of Philadelphia - the Barnes Collection - from my in-laws. They told me how the hours are slipshod, how it's closed some days and open others, and how you almost always have to make an appointment to get in.

And what a collection it is. The Barnes Collection is loaded with hundreds, obviously one-of-a-kind paintings from Degas, Renoir, Picasso, Van Gogh and Monet, all bought in the 1920s and 1930s before the European impressionists and post-impressionists hadn't quite reached the exalted levels they occupy on the art chain today. Dr. Alfred C. Barnes bought them "on the cheap", comparitively, and arranged them in displays in his own home that went against the ways & mores of the traditional American museum. Once he died, all sorts of local arts types wanted to get their meathooks into these paintings, yet Barnes had a will that made it quite clear that they were to stay in his residential museum-home, and were to only to be shown to "study groups" at hours of his estate's choosing. For decades, there've been lawyers, politicians and art groups chipping away at his will, until the final insult of just the past couple of years: the collection is due to be moved to the Philadephia Museum of Art downtown - a place Barnes absolutely detested.

The documentary is a full-on attack piece on the sanctity of this violation of Barnes' wishes. Because it's so one-sided, it actually does a pretty good job, on the surface, of making one's blood boil. The scoundrels! I'm a property-rights kind of guy, but even I have to agree with the NY Times' take on this film:

"....surely there are more nuanced arguments for the move than those found here, which could only strengthen the documentary, saving it from caricature. At times the fight comes across as a smackdown between art snobs who want to preserve Barnes’s right to exhibit his masterworks however he wanted because, well, he paid for them (a curiously underexamined refrain), and vulgarians who want to turn his patrimony into tourist bait along with the Liberty Bell and an actor in a Ben Franklin getup. What remains unanswered, finally, is the larger question of whether deep pockets ensure custodial rights forever."

I had a similar question going through my head, one that definitely leads down a slippery slope. Is there something called "the public interest" as it relates to arts and culture? Would Modigliani, Renoir and Picasso masterworks be more beneficial to "society" if put in the public sphere, or because of Barnes' purchase of them, does he have full rights to hide them, deface them or even destroy them? I suppose he does indeed have those rights, and it's why I side with the documentarians - but they could have at least asked the question, you know? Hedonist Jive says 3 stars, on a 5 scale.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

DORKS START YOUR ENGINES – FIFTY/FIFTY BREWING’s “CONCENTRATED EVIL”

Slap a scary skull graphic on a bottle of your high-alcohol beer, give your beer a really menacing name, and boom - you’ve just about guaranteed yourself a high level of sales to the slobbering beer dork community, before they’re even let your hallowed beverage touch their lips. People like them – I mean like ME – were trained early on to associate skulls & gargoyles & warlocks (and high alcohol content) with good, ass-whupping beer. STONE BREWING led the way on this front, with Arrogant Bastard, Imperial Russian Stout and other such gravity-defying corkers. Now there’s Truckee, CA’s FIFTY/FIFTY BREWING and their CONCENTRATED EVIL, which I picked up the other day at Plumpjack in San Francisco. Did the label sell me on this one? Why yes, yes it did – that, and FIFTY/FIFTY’s burgeoning reputation as a purveyor of the dark and mysterious brewing arts.

FIFTY/FIFTY CONCENTRATED EVIL is exceptionally limited, and I probably should have hoarded six bottles and used them as “trade bait” forthwith. Then again, maybe I’m the only one who likes this beer – and I loved it. It’s actually not an imperial stout nor overamped porter – it’s a Belgian-style ale brewed with raisins and brown sugar. Raisins! Like, how evil could that be? It’s made up of 11% alcohol – ohhh, I see…..and it reminds me very much of excellent “abbey-style” ales like ABBAYE DES ROCS TRIPLE IMPERIALE or SOUTHAMPTON ABBOT 12. Very small head, which dissipated quickly and made this as still and as silent as copper-colored dishwater. Full of robust Belgian yeasts, and very malty and sugary. The raisins, and some candy-store caramel goodness, are deep in every swallow. A little thinner than some of the actual chewy Belgian ales I’ve had like this, but CONCENTRATED EVIL is really delicious. 8/10.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS’ “HITCH-22”

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS is for many of us, myself included, the premier “public intellectual” of our time. Which isn’t to say he can’t be maddening nor pompous at times, nor that I agree with him on all political subjects, nor that he’s above reproach. Yet I’ve been magnetically drawn to his writing for going on two decades now, and he’s altered my opinion or schooled me on a number of subjects. I encountered him first when I was dabbling in token Leftism in college and had a subscription to THE NATION (cancelled after the 6-month trial period), but I remember being most dazzled by him when I first read his “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” essays in Harper’s Magazine around 2000, which was subsequently turned into a fantastic book-length screed documenting the Vietnam-eta war crimes of Kissinger. He really sold me, let’s say that – and it takes a lot for me to get worked up to boiling by any frothing, angry Lefty, most of whom I learned to slowly back away from very early on. One has to write pretty damn well, and have an uncanny ability to marshal all the salient facts to your side of the ledger before I’ll pay attention – but Hitchens, I have to say, is the singular best political writer I know of, and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt every time, before coming to my own conclusions.

In 2000 I went to see Hitchens speak at a small socialist bookstore in San Francisco called MODERN TIMES about the Kissinger book, and marveled how he witheringly shouted down a couple of garrulous hardcore lefties who were trying to change the subject to their pet causes (indigenous peoples or Palestine or something-or-other). It’s when it was confirmed for me that this guy suffers zero fools, let alone gladly, and why it was so interesting to watch him make his own much-celebrated break with the Left over this past decade. While his memoir “HITCH-22” is about a lot of things - it’s a life-spanning memoir, after all – the later-in-life self-realizations about his socialist years and how he rationalizes them, or not, are quite fascinating and believable in his hands, rather than in those of his many critics.

This is a man who easily sells the reader a nearly unbroken line of conscience that stretches from his early days in the Trotsky-loving International Socialists to his recent notoriety as one of the prime intellectual voices agitating for and defending the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. I find it hard to find much fault with Hitchens’ central organizing principle of full and total opposition to totalitarianism, both political and intellectual in nature, and in all its guises. He’s an atheist; he’s a passionate celebrator of literature and great canonical writing; he’s a lover of good food and drink; and he’s one of those people who flummoxes small minds on both the Right and the Left. So of course I wanted to read his memoir, if only because, having devoured nearly all of his writings over the past decade and backward into the 1980s, it’s one of the only things of his I hadn’t yet read.

Let me make an admission, too. I didn’t “read” “HITCH-22”. I listened to thirteen hours of it as an audiobook, with Hitchens himself doing the narration in his droll and sometimes cutting English voice. I’m extremely happy I did. While I couldn’t go back and scan sentences I wanted to re-read, I certainly gained for having heard the intonations and the exclamations of the author himself, in his own voice. It’s an excellent way to “read” Hitchens, and I highly recommend the audiobook if you’re at all interested in this memoir.

The book follows a somewhat linear path that starts at birth and ends in the present, with many detours along the way. Particular points of long departure are the most dearly-felt ones. HItchens’ evocative account of his schoolboy days in stereotypical headmaster-driven 1950s/1960s England are revelatory, mostly in that some of the jokes that people make about what must happen among teenage boys in all-boy schools - even in repressed England – are confirmed here, with Hitchens taking no pains to deny his own part in “buggery”. This entire section, and his angry renunciation of the command-and-control aspect of the English school, is excellent. Hitchens was also very much present as the 1960s were giving way to “The Sixties”, and described it all very well. His political conscience was formed during this era, and his piece on he and his fellow Socialists’ visit to Cuba is definitely revealing as well.

There’s a ton of detail and rumination about some central characters in his life – his traditional English military father, whom he calls “The Commander”; his Jewish mother Yvonne, whom Hitchens did not find out was Jewish until long after her suicide; his friends Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Edward Said; and yet almost nothing about his wife and his children – which, by the way, I completely and fully respect. The only review I read of this book, in the NY Times, called Hitchens out for this – as if someone could be made to shape a personal memoir to some book reviewer’s need for particular juicy details. No, Hitchens has his own code of silence on certain matters – and really, how much more exciting do you think his domestic life would be compared to, say, his near-death at the hands of Bosnian Serbs in Sarajevo, or his trip to North Korea, or his meditations on religion (which this atheist loves every minute of)?

“HITCH-22” is about as strong a memoir as I can imagine, given the trifecta of great writing, an interesting “life well lived” and a strong, well-articulated set of beliefs. About the only thing slowing Hitchens down – who ironically decided to write this book after seeing a museum exhibition in which his own death was mistakenly reported – is his current battle with cancer of the esophagus, which he announced a couple of months ago as this book was being published. There aren’t many writers, to say nothing of political writers, that I’d be sorry to see shuffle off the stage, so do your best to not say a prayer for Hitchens, and instead raise a glass for free thinking, authority-questioning, love of literature and unceasing opposition to small-mindedness .

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

NICOLE PENEGOR'S EYE-POPPING SUPERDOPE PHOTOS

The secret weapon propping up my 1990s music fanzine SUPERDOPE was the photographs taken by "staff photographer" - also my friend and co-worker - Nicole Penegor. We had a deal that I think worked for both of us, way back in our early 20s. I'd pay for her to get into shows I wanted photos from, and in return she'd take and personally develop said photos, getting to practice her craft and see some cool bands in their heydey. And me, I got to build an insanely lucrative publishing empire entirely on her back.

Here are some of her best:
THE MUMMIES, live at the DNA l.ounge, San Francisco 1991

THE GIBSON BROS, live at the Paradise Lounge, San Francisco 1993

THE EX, live at Epicenter Zone, San Francisco 1991

COME, live at The Kennel Club, San Francisco 1993

SF SEALS, live at The Chameleon, San Francisco 1992

THINKING FELLERS UNION LOCAL 282, live at The Chameleon, San Francisco 1991

THINKING FELLERS UNION LOCAL 282, live at The Chameleon, San Francisco 1991

COME, live at The Kennel Club, San Francisco 1993

SOME VELVET SIDEWALK, live at Morty's, San Francisco 1992

Monday, September 6, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: STEIG LARSSON - "THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO"

For years I've been wanting to take a big plunge into crime fiction - not just the 50s/60s stuff I've dabbled in (Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson et al) - but to go the whole proverbial nine yards, and set myself up as a true well-read, 12-books-a-year dilettante. That's how I like to get into a particular passion - go all the way, and not just skim the popular surface. My love of fiction and of reading, however, collides heavily with my greater love for non-fiction and other realities like - well, like working a job, spending time with my family and all the solo cultural and political obsessions I document here. So loads of lowbrow-ish reading for pleasure takes a back seat. My pal Danny Plotnick, proprietor of the PLOTBOX blog among many other pursuits similar and yet different to mine, is the sort of crime fiction know-it-all I someday aspire to be. As soon as I finish those Top 10 Great Works of Russian Literature I promised myself I'd tackle starting last year (only 10 more to go!).

This year's most renown work of crime fiction, Steig Larsson's "THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO" is one that can be seen in more airport, poolside and public park hands than any book since "The Da Vinci Code" - which alone gave me pause initially, and guaranteed that I wasn't going to chase it down until a friend or two told me I had to. No one I trust ever said anything about "Da Vinci Code". Of course, this book is not a "this year" book; it was written in 2003-2004, right before its then-unknown author died of a heart attack, long before knowing how famous he'd become or how lucrative his estate would ultimately be. It was ultimately and posthumously published in his native Sweden in 2005. It's the first of a trilogy of books, all of which are bazillion-sellers now and are being made into Hollywood films. As soon as my wife finishes this particular book, which she's reading on my urging now, we'll watch the Swedish-language film adaptation of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" on Netflix posthaste.

This is one book I'm pretty sure a good percentage of the folks reading this post have already tackled themselves. So - what did ya think? Though I have a few misgivings, you can put me solidly in Larsson's corner, and chalk me up as one who'll eventually join the herd in reading "THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE" next. I won't give any spoilers here. I will tell you that the subtext of the breezy, quick-read (yet still intelligent and mostly well-paced) book is violence against women. Ghastly violence at times - and yet, in the redemptive female character Lisbeth Salander, a female heroine who pretty much saves the day, and exposes (or defeats) the forces of Swedish darkness. These forces of darkness are sex criminals on one hand, and predatory evil capitalists on the other. The book is set up for you, in time, to adore Salander, this tatooed punk hacker who rides a motorcycle, has Asperger's syndrome and hates just about everyone. I thought it was corny when I first heard about her, before I'd read the book - now I'm markedly impressed with how Larsson pulled off such a strong balancing act with his particular character.

"The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" starts slowly and relatively quietly, and takes about 200 pages to build up to a shocking act of depravity - stangely, one barely related to the rest of the narrative - that kicks the entire book into gear. Investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist is the centerpiece of this section, as he is the book's final 70 pages - a tacked-on section that I can definitely see as being perceived as superfluous to the book by many. He teams up with Salander - and eventually becomes her lover of sorts as well - in the process of solving a murder for which he's been paid to research. He only gains true ground in what looks to be a hopeless task when Salander fully enters the picture - and then it's off to the races, and the pulse and the pace quickens in that I-don't-want-to-put-this-down manner that's the mark of a great escapist read.

I think Americans find extra enjoyment in this book because it's so foreign in its Swedishness, full of in-jokes about Olaf Palme, Gamla Stan and Sodermalm, and real towns like Kalmar, Ronneby and Karlskrona (all three of which I'm proud to say I've visited in 2001, when I was employed by Vodafone and was lucky enough to travel to Sweden for work). But "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" is a worldwide hit because it's good - just a flat-out good crime novel, with a few extra bits of oddity (like Salander) to make it a strong cut above the norm. If only I knew what the norm was.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

CIGAR CITY BREWING's "IMPROVISACION" - ANOTHER BEAST FROM THE EAST

Florida was quite rightly considered a vast tropical wasteland of unslaked thirst by beer aficiandos for many a year until recent entries into the field from SAINT SOMEWHERE BREWING and the "community's" newest heroes, CIGAR CITY BREWING out of Tampa. Cigar City in particular are not messing around - no pale ales, ambers and blueberry wheats for these folks - it's all about aging, experimenting, adjuncts and throwing your hands in the air afterward & hoping for the best. It's good to know that folks like this are all over the US of A and have the savvy to get their beer in the hands of people who need to drink it - like me.

So thanks to Mark for getting me a bottle of IMPROVISACION, a rare 22-ounce conconction that they call an "Oatmeal Rye India-style brown ale". It was certainly not to be an average night of beer tasting. IMPROVISACION is a jazz-like melange of flavors, ranging from rye to to cocoa to deep malt to, uh, leather. It's the heavy rye taste that lingers long after the swallow, and that this beer is most notable for. 9% alcohol, definitely something that can be "handled" while flying solo but really one of those beers that begs for company and deep, argumentative discussion over its true characteristics. I scored it a 7.5/10 and hope to dig into more CIGAR CITY inventive weirdness soon.