24 December 2008

Killing Castro

Lawrence Block is one of the true masters of modern fiction. Hard Case Crime has featured FIVE of his novels in their line-up. With good reason--he's one of the best. The HC January 2009 offering (number 51) made it to my hands last week and I just finished it. It was a riveting story of a rag-tag band of assassins hired to hit the big fella himself. The book was written in 1961, just after Castro came to power but before the Bay of Pigs. Mr. Block intersperses the story with historical narrative, long italicized chapters giving background on Batista, Cuba, the Revolution, etc. These portions of the book are as exciting and well-written as the fictional parts. This novel was first released as Fidel Castro Assassinated by "Lee Duncan." Apparently it has been out of print for decades. What strikes me about the whole thing is how well Block understood Castro and his revolution even then. The idealism and noble sentiments of the Castritas were as quickly and easily corrupted by power as were the notions of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. I think Monsieur Robespierre and SeƱor Castro would have a lot to talk about. The most amazing thing, of course, is that Castro is STILL alive and STILL the dictator of Cuba! I doubt that anyone in 1961 believed that to be possible. Killing Castro is a not only a great piece of history, but a terrific crime novel as well. If you want to understand the appeal of what we call noir, suspense, crime fiction, and/or thriller, read Block. And sign up for the Hard Case Book Club while you're at it. (Now that I've "caught up " and read the entire Hard Case line, expect to see a monthly piece here at TPP on each new release.)

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23 December 2008

The Blonde

Duane Swierczynski's 2006 novel The Blonde has an identity crisis. Is it crime fiction? Noir? Suspense? Thriller? Sci-fi? It doesn't matter. This book is one hell of a ride and the credit goes to Mr. S for humor, non-stop action, and great characters. Not to mention a trip to Philadelphia. The premise is a little ridiculous: high-tech nano-machines that mess with your head created by a shadowy international terrorist called "The Operator." Our heroine, the aforementioned blonde, is not very heroic, ensnaring our hapless Everyman ("Jack Eisley") in a wild hunter-and-prey scheme involving a professional killer. This killer, "Kowalski," has his own agenda, wreaking personal vengenance on Philly's Cosa Nostra. Kowalski supposedly works for The Department of Homeland Security, and he carries a flashy badge with holographic eagles that dazzle everyone he deals with. Kowalski's bosses aren't sure whose side he's on, and he soon decides the same about them. Jack, our unfortunate protagonist, spends the story trying to survive the night so he can meet his wife's high-powered divorce attorney in the morning (hence the trip to Philly), where he's certain he will be legally and financially castrated and forever barred from seeing his young daughter. The blonde, meanwhile, has a heap o'problems, not the least of which is a hopelessly far-fetched (but true) story that no one believes. She has to delude, deceive and manipulate everyone she encounters not only to save her own life but also to outwit the bad guys. If it sounds like a juggler running out of hands, that just points out Swierczynski's skill managaing all the plot threads and loose ends. Grab a copy and hold on for dear life!

I got this book--a new hardcover--for a few measly bucks at Edward R. Hamilton. If you don't get the print catalog, you are missing out.

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21 December 2008

Winter in Kourou

The European Space Agency launched an Ariane 5 rocket yesterday from Kourou in French Guiana. I got to thinking about winter in Kourou--the Winter Solstice was this morning (04:04 PST). The spaceport is only five degrees north of the equator, so I doubt they give much of a damn about the solstice. At home we are in the throes of winter with snow on the ground and freezing temperatures. I'm not sure I could live in an equatorial climate. I like the changing days and the travelling sun. Tonight is the longest night of the year. We can look forward to lengthening days from here on. I'm looking forward to putting on my skis. Another thing they don't give a damn about in Kourou.
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19 December 2008

Tempest in a teapot

Quite the stir created by our President-elect recently, eh? Seems a lot of his supporters don't like this Rick Warren fellow, and especially don't like that Mr. Obama asked him to deliver the inaugural prayer. I don't like bigotry. I don't like fundamentalism. I think LGBT folks get the shaft regularly in this country (and most of the rest of the world). I can't blame some of those folks for being pissed off. But this is a tempest in a teapot.

Obama is a "big tent" sort of guy. He means it when he says he wants to work with all Americans and wants to represent all Americans. Evangelical Christians are a large part of our country. Ergo, Obama will work--or at least attempt to work--on their behalf.

This is a prayer. Not a cabinet post. You want a prayer, you get a reverend/rabbi/priest/pastor/etc. Mr. Warren is some sort of reverend/pastor type. Mr. Obama is also a very religious man. (This is my least favorite part of his personality.) I don't have much use for religion, but apparently he does. So I expect we'll get some Executive Religiosity during his tenure as POTUS. I'm prepared to accept that--lots of folks are religious. Most Americans, in fact.

Mr. Obama is also his own man. He doesn't "owe" anyone. He has no political constituency, he is not beholden to any interest group. THIS IS WHY 65 MILLION PEOPLE VOTED FOR HIM. That means he's going to make decisions that he thinks are right, and the flip side of that independence means he's going to disappoint some people. Too bad. Get over it.

The President-elect is a smart, determined public servant. He wants to solve problems and get things done. He's not swayed by ideology. He's sick of the culture wars. I recently watched an episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart where Mike Huckabee was the guest. They engaged in a passionate and intelligent discussion of the "gay marriage" issue. Mr. Stewart profoundly disagreed with Mr. Huckabee, and told him so. Mr. Huckabee was the interloper, the odd-ball facing the strongly pro-Stewart (bordeline sycophantic) audience. You know something? They were polite. They were respectful. They shook hands like real men and showed a genuine affection for each other. That's a good thing. It's a model for how we should ALL conduct ourselves.

17 December 2008

Negative fourteen

-14 this a.m. Celsius, that is.

+6 on Mr. Fahrenheit's thermometer. Still, that's damn cold.

Mt. Shasta says they have 14 inches. (That's a positive fourteen!)

Mt. Ashland says they have 12-20 inches, not quite enough to open.

The NWS says it will snow tonight and tomorrow.

Looks like there'll be skiing over Christmas Break!

16 December 2008

From Mendeleev to MindHacks

This is cool.

I remember the Space Age. I was just a kid. Sure, we still launch rockets and whatnot. But these days it is all about the Information Age. I liked the Space Age. I think I'm diggin' the Information Age, too.

(link: http://www.wellingtongrey.net/miscellanea/archive/2007-06-23--periodic-table-of-the-internet.html)

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14 December 2008

Cruisin' for a Brewsin'

Cruising With Ruben and The Jets is the latest Mothers of Invention album featured on a bottle of Lagunitas Brewing Company beer. This one is a big, rich, black beer, somewhat like a sweet stout or porter. They call it "BoppaDooAyDoo Style Ale" and rate it at 8.6% abv. Yow-za! That's some kick-ass brew. (There's a note from 26 August 2006 on the Zappa website about the first beer in the series, Freak Out! I blogged about the Lagunitas--Zappa convergence on 23 Feb and 10 Aug of this year after we discovered Lumpy Gravy in the Ashland co-op.) "Cruising" is a potent drink, but not over-the-top undrinkable. I'm not a fan of high-alcohol beers, but I do like flavorful ones, and "Cruising" has plenty of flavor. We had to play the album and listen to the Mothers sing doo-wop. Songs like "Deseri" and "Jelly Roll Gum Drop" and "Anyway The Wind Blows" are as timeless as anything else in the Zappa canon. The label celebrates the 4oth anniversary of the record's release--looking forward to the whole collection!

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12 December 2008

Quis custodiet ipsos cutodes.

Who watches the watchmen?

Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins gave us The Watchmen more than twenty years ago.

The movie comes out 03-06-09.

A quick look at the film's credits and you see no mention of Mr. Moore, the writer of the series. Apparently he had a falling-out with DC over the rights to his work. (The same is true of Moore's V for Vendetta.) I don't know what it's about, or who the good guys and the bad guys are. My gut says "writers always get screwed," but that's the problem with the gut, eh? The facts may be something else entirely.

Yesterday and today I re-read the "graphic novel." The art, colors and letters are beautiful, of course, comics can't fly on story alone. But Moore is an exceptionally accomplished and brilliant writer, and that is what hooks you. Like his countryman Neil Gaiman, Moore is something of a literary genius. The Watchmen fuses fantasy and noir to tell a political tale with an anarchist slant. It is multi-layered, and holds up well to repeated readings. Much of it won't translate well to the big screen. But after spending today re-visiting this remarkable work, I'm starting to get excited about 03.06.09!

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11 December 2008

Our energy future

In February of last year the University of California at Berkeley announced a partnership with BP to create the Energy Biosciences Institute. This 10-year, $500 million dollar venture was viewed with skepticism by some, to say the least. One of the key players in the new project was Dr. Steven Chu, Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The article in California magazine (Sep/Oct 2007) by Lisa Margonelli quoted Dr. Chu thusly: "We are seeking industry partnerships . . . We seek solutions. We don't seek, dare I say, science papers anymore." (italics mine)

Today's news is that Dr. Chu has been asked by President-elect Obama to head the Department of Energy. The Quantum Pontiff, my source for all things physics, likes the move. I do, too. One, we get a really smart, accomplished guy. Two, we get a really smart, accomplished guy. And three, well, he's a really smart guy. And has a C.V. to die for. (OK, so he's a Stanfurd guy. Go Bears!)

I want to wish Dr. Chu "good luck" with his new job in Obama's cabinet. I think he's a brilliant choice. We need all the brains, energy, vision, desire, commitment, inspiration and perspiration we can get when we tackle the issues facing us in the 21st century. After eight years of an administration that seemed hopelessly anti-science, we have a Nobel-laureate physicist with the ear of the President to look forward to. Check out something else he said in the aforementioned article: ". . . industry's strength is that they can make technology scalable . . . moving fast is better than maintaining purity. Monasteries are good places, but they're not good for science."

When it comes to energy, climate change, and the future, we have to get off our collective asses. Larry the Cable Guy says it best: "git-r-done!" I think Dr. Chu might be a git-r-done kind of guy.

08 December 2008

Fifty down

In September of 2004, an outfit called Winterfall LLC--who'd hooked up with Dorchester Publishing--put out a reprint of Lawrence Block's debut novel Mona (retitled as Grifter's Game). They called their venture Hard Case Crime. In February of 2006 I joined Dorchester's Hard Case Crime book club, and they started sending me two titles each month. You got that month's featured selection and one from the back catalog--such a deal! A year later they dropped the two-book deal, and I had to back order five books to complete the collection. All the books feature spectacular cover art reminisicent of the early days of the paperback crime novel. Lurid, splashy, provocative, juvenile, tawdry and brilliant, these covers are the line's signature. (Check out Glenn Orbik's work!) My bookshelf proudly features the first fifty. Number fifty-one comes out in January of 2009. Fittingly, it is a Lawrence Block reprint, and will be the fifth one of his books to be published in the series.

I have now read ALL fifty books in the series. This is the best stuff coming out of any publishing house anywhere in any genre. If you aren't hooked in to Hard Case Crime then YOU ARE MISSING OUT!

07 December 2008

More good stuff

Irish whiskey isn't quite the Rodney Dangerfield of whiskeys, that honor probably belongs to Canadian whisky--they certainly don't get enough respect. The once-moribund Hibernian spirit industry is putting out more and more good stuff all the time. Our latest? Tyrconnell. Several years ago we attended a whiskey-fest in San Francisco, an indulgence we greatly enjoyed. A distiller from Cooley, Tyrconnell's mothership, gave us presentation on pot stills and spirit-making. And he led us in a tasting of Cooley's brands: Tyrconnell, Connemara, and Kilbeggan. We had a blast, and we noted that the workshop was barely half-full. The scotch and bourbon sessions were packed, but attendees were lukewarm on Irish. They missed out. (We had a similar experience the following year, enjoying a nearly-empty session hosted by Canadian Club, where we first discovered their superb 12-year old "Classic".) The Tyrconnell, supposedly named for a famous racehorse, is a remarkably smooth drink that manages to have both depth and delicacy. Nothing at all like bourbon, rye, Canadian, or scotch, this Irish whiskey is its own thing. And that's what it's all about, eh?

05 December 2008

Raise a glass . . .

. . . to Repeal Day!

Don't worry, this won't be one of those ponderous diatribes about government and morality and freedom and individual behavior and history and etc.

I'm keeping it simple: raise a glass for Repeal Day. The 21st Amendment was ratified on this date 75 years ago.


03 December 2008

Rye on the rise

Rye whiskey, not long ago, was a rare thing on a liquor store shelf. Other than Old Overholt--a fine drink--there wasn't much. Both Jim Beam (yellow label) and Wild Turkey (green label) made ryes, but you couldn't always find them. If you went to a bar and ordered a rye cocktail, like a Manhattan, you got Canadian more often than not. Now, I like Canadian whisky, and they use rye in the grain bill up there, but that doesn't cut it! Fortunately we are in the midst of a rye renaissance, and lots of new ryes are showing up. This classic American drink is making a comeback. I'm a big fan of Wild Turkey's standard rye bottling, and it was a no-brainer to pick up the latest "Russell's Reserve" version of rye whiskey. Mr. Russell is the famed master distiller at Wild Turkey, so his name on the label means "the good stuff." This whiskey was smoother than I expected, with a tempered, well-blended feel, and way too quaffable. It had the unique spicy-peppery notes we rye-lovers love, and I think it will hold up well on the rocks and in cocktails. Mostly, I drink my whiskey neat, maybe with a few drops of water. I like the full fire-water experience when I'm having my nightcap. I think this one will be good for many more evening drams!

02 December 2008

The Pot Still

The Pot Still in Glasgow is a famous whisky watering hole. If you like single malts, and you are in Scotland, you find your way to Hope Street and The Pot Still. The pub also served the so-called "real ales" so favored by UK craft beer fans (and their American counterparts!). What could be a better place? One evening during our summer sojourn in Scotland, we drank pints and drams with a few local fellows until "last call." The featured sale whisky that night was Jura, a malt from the island of the same name. We never made it to the Inner Hebrides--Mull, Skye, Jura, Islay--all famed whisky regions. But we sure drank plenty of Jura, and our new local liquor shop recently had some on the shelf. Naturally we had to buy some and dive into it. The whisky has a rich malt flavor with a nice, dry bite on the finish. Lovely stuff, and great for memories.