Friday, August 19, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TOO MUCH” by Allison Hoover Bartlett

I made my way to this particular work of true crime/narrative nonfiction because I did some curious Googlin’ about “bibliomania” – people who are over-enthusiastically in love with rare and/or antiquarian books. I’ve encountered some of these rapturous book accumulators in my travels, and their mania for first editions and rare texts can never be slaked. I’m also fascinated with the psychology of the “collector” in general. This is likely because I suffer from a mild version of the collectors’ malady – the obsessive need to catalog and accumulate ordered and logical versions, or families, of things. My beer blog, which seeks to rate and review every new beer that passes my lips, is a gentle manifestation of said malady. My once-huge and meticulously-organized record collection is another.

ALLISON HOOVER BARTLETT knows of and understands our foibles quite well, and even trends a little toward them herself, yet she decided to go after much bigger fish than she’d catch in a simple literary exploration of the eccentric book collector and his ilk. In “THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TOO MUCH”, she layers on a probing search for the dark heart of said collector, while zeroing in on a fascinating true tale of John Gilkey, a pathological first-edition book thief, and Ken Sanders, a Salt Lake City book dealer whose mission in life was to foil Gilkey and his thieving brethren. It’s a pulse-rushing read at times, a honest-to-god journalistic true crime tale that Bartlett herself gets caught up in. Gilkey, who comes to know and trust Bartlett and essentially spills his guts to her, is one of those bizarre self-deceiving thieves who rationalizes every bad thing he’s done by looking for outside forces or individuals to blame. His is a vast web of deceit, with he himself being the most fully deceived – about his own true nature and the harm it causes real people. Most of all, Gilkey loves the imagined status conferred to him by owning rare books, a status he can never truly attain because, well – he stole them all.

Sanders, the “bibliodick” who catches up to Gilkey and gets him arrested, is a little less interesting than Bartlett makes him out to be – by no means the journalistic equal of the fascinating Gilkey. Yet without him it would have been more difficult for her to tell this tale and to truly climb into the heads of those who make the rare book world go ‘round. It’s an insular, self-congratulatory world, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. Bartlett’s enthusiasm for it rubs off easily, and I made a note to visit some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s antiquarian bookstores sooner rather than later. (Ironically, many of these are the ones Gilkey stole from, as this true story primarily took place in San Francisco and Modesto, ninety minutes away). She also convincingly quotes numerous book dealers’ passionate defense of their industry and what gets lost when these books are pilfered. It’s not simply an expensive text – it’s our cultural heritage in its most lasting form, the book. Layer this sort of passion in with a great gumshoe tale of a cunning thief, then sprinkle in a big scoop of book-collector psychoanalysis, and hey, you’ve got a real excellent read.

Monday, August 15, 2011

“ANOTHER YEAR”

Mike Leigh has been among my favorite film directors ever since I saw “NAKED” in 1993 – a disturbing, jarring and darkly comic film about a sociopath in London who wounds everyone he meets with words, not weapons. It was then that I decided to see as much of his oeuvre as I possibly could, and coincidentally, with “Naked”’s popularity a traveling Leigh film-fest came to San Francisco’s Roxie Theater soon afterward. I got to see some of this British chronicler of the human condition’s earlier work like “Nuts in May”, “Life is Sweet” and “High Hopes”. Everything after “Naked” and 1993 has been first rate as well, with the exception of the Gilbert & Sullivan-themed “Topsy-Turvy” which for some reason I still can’t bring myself to watch. Leigh does an amazing job portraying the British everyman and –woman going through life’s various personal crises, and the inability of most people to get at the heart of what’s keeping them from connecting effectively with other people.

So now to “ANOTHER YEAR” , Leigh’s first film’s since 2008’s excellent and underrated “Happy-Go-Lucky”. That film was so stellar because it was such an inversion of Leigh’s usual method – a woman so obliviously happy and lost in herself that she clashes with the many unhappy people surrounding her. The long-married middle-aged couple, Tom and Gerri, at the center of “Another Year” are actually not all that far off from Sally Hawkins’ “Happy-Go-Lucky” character. They are the stable and happy pillars at the center of their circle of friends and relatives, though they’re all too aware of their friends’ and relations’ poor choices and social problems. The film follows them through the seasons, and is broken into four codas. Tom & Gerri’s happiness and stability is a locus point for all of those around them, and many of the scenes take place within their home, where their unhappy brethren often come to gather and seek some form of magic rub-off from these two. The film explores how some people can successfully navigate life’s ups & downs and come out solid and secure no matter what happens, whereas others are devastatingly unable to find even a small measure of happiness no matter how badly they want it.

Gerri’s friend from work, Mary (played by Leigh favorite Lesley Manville), is the other centerpiece of the film. She’s the one for whom nothing works out in life, and whose grating, ultra-chatty, non-self-aware persona and inner sadness is extremely recognizable from other Leigh films. Unmarried and desperately lonely, she’s the counterpoint to everything that’s gone right in Tom & Gerri’s lives. She hits on their twentysomething son, ruins dinner parties, and longingly seeks approval from everyone she meets – except for the one man (Tom’s very sad, very overweight friend Ken) whom she rejects out of hand on superficial grounds alone. If you loved the incredibly annoying Brenda Blethyn in Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies” (“Sweeeet-hahhht!!”), you’ll love Mary just as much.
Suffice to say I thought the film was another fantastic look at the unfantastic and everyday people who make up the large beating heart of humanity. Not many filmmakers have the insight that Leigh does nor the chops to display it, and “Another Year” is the latest in a long line of truly great films from him.

Friday, August 12, 2011

DENGUE FEVER’s MULTIMEDIA “SLEEPWALKING THROUGH THE MEKONG”

I’d been loosely following the coming and goings of Los Angeles band DENGUE FEVER since I heard their debut record and wrote about it in 2004, but somehow the multimedia film + soundtrack CD package “SLEEPWALKING THROUGH THE MEKONG” passed me by until I heard a killer track from it on a friend’s 8TRACKS station. Dengue Fever’s back story is as compelling as their music is bewitching. LA-based brothers travel to Cambodia and discover a lost (and almost completely unknown in the US outside of immigrant communities) 1960s world of psychedelic pop and fuzz-guitar music on old tapes. They gather up this amazing pre-Khmer Rouge music, so out of keeping with Americans’ view of Cambodia, onto a CD they call “CAMBODIA ROCKS”. It opens and then blows minds, including mine. The Holtzman brothers then form a band in tribute, and bring into their fold a gorgeous Cambodian immigrant singer (Chhom Nimol) with an incredible set of pipes to play these classic songs, and write a few of their own. A decade later, they’re still going strong.

In 2005, as the band really started to hit their stride, they traveled to Cambodia to play a festival and to make a film about this clash of eastern and western cultures. The storylines, all told without narration, are pretty simple – 4 goofy American dudes are “fish out of water” in Cambodia, but are transformed and humbled by the experience. Chhom Nimol has her homecoming to her native land, first time in five years, and gets to perform the native Cambodian rock and roll music back to generations who still remember it and to new hipster Cambodian kids who’ve learned about it. “Sleepwalking Through The Mekong”, which I admit I bought solely for the soundtrack (it’s a two-disc set), turned out to be a pretty great documentary film as well. I was really struck by what this country looks like - more vibrant and alive than I expected. The people seem wonderful; the land is one sweeping, hot, verdant vista after another; and the mix of ancient and modern is something to behold. Twenty minutes into the film and I’d already added a visit to this country to my quote-unquote bucket list.

Dengue Fever are no less compelling. Immensely respectful of the people of the country from whom they’re appropriated their entire shtick, the band spends time learning from the few old Cambodian musical “masters” who weren’t murdered during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, and with children learning the old songs from teachers who perform this music with all the joyful respect it deserves. The editing of the film is tight and crisp, and I came away from the whole thing actually happy that I saw it. Not glad – happy. It’s that kind of tears-in-the-eyes documentary.

The soundtrack’s got some crazy psych/groove numbers from Dengue Fever like “One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula”, which I’m posting here because it’s so goddamn good, as well as classic cuts from the old masters Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth. Trust me, you’ll want to listen to it after hearing the music in the film while seeing the context in which it was made. Dengue Fever themselves may have been at their peak around the time this was made – just heard their latest CD and, to put it gently, “it’s not for me” – but I’d recommend trying to get your hands on this DVD/CD package if you’ve got a spare twenty-spot lying around.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

THE CRAMPS, CHRIS D & BOOKS ON/FROM SAME

As mentioned on Sunday, I've been going through keepsakes in boxes and whatnot, and came across two books that I'd mostly forgotten about. I fired up the scanner so you could see what I'm talking about. THE CRAMPS were and remain one of my all-time favorite rock bands, and this large, xeroxed collection of old articles, flyers and photos from their early career is a real treat. It covers 1976 to the early 80s, and is a true pre-Internet labor of love put together by Lindsay Hutton of Next Big Thing fanzine and blog. I bought it around 1987, most likely at Rhino Records in Los Angeles. This is how we used to find archival information about bands worth obsessing over, as The Cramps certainly were up until about '85.

The other is a book of wacked-out poetry, "dream stories" and complete lyrics by CHRIS D, aka Chris Desjardins, an all-time Hedonist Jive hero and the front man and prime mover in The Flesh Eaters, Divine Horsemen and Stone By Stone. "DOUBLE SNAKE BOURBON" came out in 1989 on Illiterati Press, and is your classic chap book, albeit more professionally bound and much longer than most (139 pages). I thought you might want to see the front and back covers in any case, especially if you're into Chris D's music as much as I am.

If you've got any interest in either of these items, feel free to make an offer. Seriously. I forgot I even had them and have read them already - so let me know. (Update - Cramps book has sold; Chris D still up for grabs).


Monday, August 8, 2011

HOW WE FIGHT THE OBAMA DOWNGRADE

Well, there it is. The most powerful and richest country in the history of the world has just been told it lacks the means to pay for its bloated largesse, and for the first time in 70 years, has had its credit rating downgraded. The United States is now on par with first-world, but struggling, European nations who've also pushed their economies into record levels of debt and penury. Turns out you can have your cake and eat it too, but only up to a point, and this, I'm afraid, is that point.

How we got here is a tale much-told, but one told in many different ways. I'm always amused by those whose narrative sticks to Wall Street fat cats, George W. Bush or the US military. If only. History will deservedly know of this moment in time as "The Obama Downgrade", as this president has done everything possible to plug his ears to the reckoning he, and our country, are about to pay for his and our profligate ways. His solution has been to open the wound even wider, in the vain hope that his spending billions on innumerable items might beget him a permanent majority with which to ram through even more. It's not like many of us haven't been saying - pleading - "we are out of money" for years. Even me, amateur beer and music blogger, has been saying so - here and here and elsewhere besides.

The Obama spending blowout of his first two years has brought spending as a share of GDP - already way too high - to higher than any time since 1946. In 1965, as Lyndon Johnson was embarking on his "Great Society" programs, we were spending 17% gross domestic product on entitlements, the military and everything else - this during the Cold War, no less. After years of unchecked government growth, Reagan, Bush & Clinton actually had it knocked down to 18% in 2000. Then came the Bush years - and worse - the Obama years (Obamacare, three wars, Dodd-Frank, a useless and wholly ineffective "stimulus", cash for clunkers, expansion of Medicare and so much more). We're now at nearly 26%, and the world of money - the people who lend it to us and who rate our ability to pay it back - are calling it unsustainable. Imagine, being lectured by Communist China on our overspending. Embarrassing.

What we've gotten for all of that spending is highly dubious. I'm of the opinion that the federal government should be cut to the level necessary to ensure that the most vulnerable in our country have food, shelter and health care. Add in defense of our borders and a small handful of regulatory tasks arguably best suited for a central authority, and everything else is up for grabs. Does that make me a Tea Partier? Well - I'm not. Just an unaffiliated semi-libertarian who even votes for Democrats sometimes. Yet imagine how much worse this would be without those fire-and-brimstone economic banshees on the right, no matter how ridiculous some of them are. They've correctly campaigned on this issue front and center for two years now, and without them, you know your taxes would be heading upward to pay for the unsustainable status quo, rather than having a super-flawed, kick-the-can-down-the-road but nonetheless real debt deal than still didn't keep the S&P downgrade hounds at bay. I can assure you that any economic recovery would be dead in its crib, more dead than it even is right now, had Obama and his Democratic and squishy Republican comrades had their much-relished opportunity to raise taxes on American business and "the rich" to kick the can down the road a little farther.

So enough of my jawin'. Here's what we do now:

1. Means-test social security, starting right now. Anyone who doesn't need it, doesn't get it. Set the expectation that going forward and with the newest people entering the workforce, this is a "safety net" program only - as it was intended.

2. Cut the corporate tax rate dramatically. If we could do just one thing to provide a “stimulus” that would not only save thousands upon thousands of jobs, but also send the stock market soaring (which would, of course, put real money back in the pockets of millions of Americans), it would be this. Companies who once were earmarking dollars for Washington DC can now decide to retain current employees, or hire new ones to remain competitive – or instead spend the savings on new initiatives that will keep current employees engaged and future-focused. This applies to corporations, small companies, and mom-n-pop businesses – give them some of their hard-earned money back so they can use it productively.

3. Come home from Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq. Everyone feels the pain - even the military. I might prefer up to do this in a more considered manner, but we're out of money and even the generals and the contractors need to pitch in right now.

4. Raise the retirement age, right now. Show the world that we mean business and that we understand that life expectancy is going up by making eligibility for the government teat something you get in old age and not a moment before.

5. Kill at least 4 government cabinet agencies: education, labor, agriculture and homeland security. Watch as the world as we know it remains pretty much the same as it always has – albeit with less regulation, hassles and needless expense.

6. Cancel Obamacare, high speed rail, "green jobs" initiatives and government-funded mortgage modifcation programs. Sorry Mr. Obama, you have to feel the pain as well - we can't afford any more boondoggles of dubious or negligible value.

7. Take away my mortgage interest deduction in exchange for a 3-5% cut in personal tax rates. That's right - I think most homeowners, to say nothing of the markets and non-homeowners besides, would be overjoyed to trade this so-called sacred cow that comes from owning a home for more predictability in taxation. They may even out at the end of the day, with a net bonus of taking the government out of homeownership schemes forever.

Do all these things, and truly reform our entitlements and how we fund and approach the US military, and this will all be a bad dream. I'm all in on the Hedonist Jive plan to "fight the power". You?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

EARLY SIGNS OF GREATNESS

I recently finished an edifying book called "THE MEMOIR PROJECT" by Marion Roach, which in effect was a short course on how to properly write a memoir. I'm certainly not so long in the tooth as to be feeling the urgent need to write my memoirs just yet, but one of the many points of Roach's book was that you may as well get started right now - even if it's simply loose stories on a blog. Hey, I thought - I have a blog. Now I know that you readers don't come here for my misty water-colored memories, and that's fine - but the precedent has been set before on this blog, here, here, herehere and here - even if you didn't read them (you should read the China one, though - those are real photos that I took). I'm not ready to collect my life stories, such as they are, and foist them upon you - though let me say that Roach makes it clear that you don't need to have led an extraordinary life (whew!), if you can tell a good tale and make it compellingly universal. I might be able to swing that.

No, I won't get started now. I'll simply leave you with some things I found in boxes yesterday, first a mom/dad/Jay photo from 1969 (I was two), taken in Germany. They actually dressed me in a sailor suit. My parents were all of 25 and 24 years old respectively; I turned 38 the year my own son turned two, which is more the "new normal". Which is kind of striking when you think about the gulf of self-wisdom and experience, to say nothing of back pain, that separates the ages of 24 and 38, and yet my parents did just fine. The other thing I found was this letter written by me to my great-grandmother Dale Houx in 1975. (Click to enlarge). There are a ton of these mementos in this box I just found (my grandmother saved everything, including these letters that she inherited when her mom passed away). As you can see at the bottom I had a self-imposed letter-writing schedule to keep. My son, now the same age I was when I wrote this, has never written a true letter, and quite possibly never will.

This one caught my eye because of the veiled plea for a check that I never received (!); the preposterous cartoon; and my list of new hobbies, which somehow included The Bible (!!). I remember myself as having been a skeptic and then an atheist from an early age, but I also can remember this project I embarked on around this time to read the bible cover to cover. I got as far as Genesis, and don't think I ever picked the book up again. There's more where this came from, folks - but let me see if I can figure out how to present this in a more compelling manner before I foist too much more of it on you. I reckon you've probably got some detritus from your own past as well.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

THE BEDEVILING BOUZOUKI OF MARKOS VAMVAKARIS

MARKOS VAMVAKARIS may not be a big name in your world (yet), but in the world of Greek rebetiko/rembetika music, he’s a giant. Rebetiko is an urban Greek folk music that relied heavily on the bouzouki, a stringed instrument that is to this day the first word I think of when I think of Greek music (which, to be fair, is not particularly often). The CD collection “MARKOS VAMVAKARIS – BOUZOUKI PIONEER 1932-1940” is one of my favorite world music discs of all time, and I thank Tom Arnaert of Belgium for sending this one to me a decade ago. Like American folk music heroes Dock Boggs and Charlie Patton, Vamvakaris is a rough-edged, gravel-voiced instrumental wizard who should be more widely acknowledged as such.
 
It’s hearing bedeviling and trance-like music like his that makes one realize how Mediterranean Greece is just as much an “oriental”, or Eastern, country as it is a part of Europe. His music draws upon rhythmic patterns and sounds we commonly associate with the Middle East and the eastern half of the Balkans – certainly more Turkey than, say, even Italy. The CD is a retrospective of Vamvakaris’ work, all recorded before or during World War II and released on 78rpm records. His fingers slide around the “frets” – assuming there are frets – of his bouzouki like a wild man at times, while at others his music is rooted in festive, danceable folk music of the age. There are a number of backing and sometimes lead singers among the various songs whose voices compliment his, but you always know when it’s Vamvakaris on the mic. His singing is more of a “spitting”, a guttural and raw intonation that nonetheless sounds wonderful, and which lends a cool aura to this most ethnic of musics.

I’m posting a couple of tracks from the CD in hopes that you’ll find a way to buy it, either online, in a store or via download. If there are any other giants of the bouzouki I need to know about, please let me and the HJ community at large know about ‘em.

DOWNLOAD Markos Vamvakaris – “Karadouzeni"
DOWNLOAD Markos Vamvakaris – “Mavra Matia Mavra Fridhia"

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

INTRODUCING BEER SAMIZDAT

When it comes to blogging, which I’ve been doing with semi-regularity since 2003, I whipsaw all over the place on how I’d like to present my pontifications & cultural blather at any given time. I’ve started and abandoned at least five blogs, and I’ve changed the “mission” and focus of several others. I have no such plans for THE HEDONIST JIVE – I’m very attached to keeping this as a dumping ground for my writing on books, film, music, politics, sports, personal memories and gender/body issues (wait, I just made the last one up) – but there is a change in store.

Please note that I did not mention BEER in that laundry list. That’s the big announcement. I’ve started a new beer-only blog called BEER SAMIZDAT, which I’d love it if all you beer lovers came over and took a gander at. Sure, I once had a beer-only blog that predates the one you’re reading now, but as I explain in my manifesto, it had a dumb name and it needed to die so that other blogs might live and flourish. Like Jesus Christ, right?

So like I said, Hedonist Jive continues, and I sure do hope you’ll continue with me – unless you’re only into the beer talk, in which case I encourage you to check out our new thing and follow it on Twitter. Those are the only two active blogs going of ours, and I’m pretty sure it’ll stay that way until my next bout of restlessness. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

BALADIN NORA’S MEDIOCRE STEPBROTHER “SUPER”

Apologies for the lag time since we last posted over here; the anal retentive side of HJ operations would like to see this blog be a going concern a minimum of 3-5 times per week. I trust that you abide when we fail to hit that ambitious target. So a mere one night after we downed a glass of the magnificent “NORA” from Italy’s BIRRIFICIO LE BALADIN, reviewed here last week, we took a flyer on another Baladin beer to see if the magic could be matched.

This one’s called “SUPER”, and it’s unfortunately a shadow of its glorious sibling. A Belgian-style amber/brown ale clocking in at 8% ABV, BALADIN SUPER is heavy on the graininess and has a chestnut & fruit backbone. That said, it’s a little underdeveloped. I like the yeast “profile” and how it stings the back of my throat, but I’m not all that enamored with the taste as a whole. Would have loved a little less grain and a little more emphasis on tying together some pretty disparate elements into something more “alive with pleasure”. Like Nora! A mere 6/10.