31 December 2009

It's all Greek to me

The moon is at perigee on the 1st of January, and at perihelion on the 2nd. "Peri" is Greek and means "around." The "gee" is from Gaia, the earth goddess of the Greeks, and the "helion" is from Helios, their sun god. So, the moon is at its closest point to the earth in this lunar month, and the earth is at its closest point to the sun in this solar year.

It's supposed to be a very bright full moon tonight, but alas, the storm clouds here in the State of Jefferson on New Year's Eve obscure the moon's rise. This is the second full moon of December--a blue moon.

Happy New Year!

24 December 2009

Festival time

On sunset of the 11th of December, Channukah began. The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe was on December 12th. The Winter Solstice was on the 21st. Tomorrow is Christmas Day. Boxing Day and St. Stephen's Day are on the 26th. The New Year rolls in right after that. No matter how you slice it, this is the holiday season.

Merry Everything!

13 December 2009

Graphic noir



This collection from Dark Horse is only 5/8 of an inch thick--120 pages in 6 x 9 format. I was trying to think of something bad to say about Noir, and that was all I could come up with. Simply put, there's not enough of it! I had to read it twice to really savor all the stories and great art. David Lapham's "Open the Goddamn Box" starts things off brilliantly with a savage twist on junvenile delinquents, Chris Offut crisply re-works an old story with "The Last Hit" (illustrated by Kano and Stefano Gaudiano), and Gary Phillips smoothly fuses noir and SF with "The New Me" (illustrated by Eduardo Barreto). Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips contribute a sinister Criminal emission called "21st Century Noir," and Brian Azzarello teams up with Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá for the last piece, a sucker-punch called "The Bad Night." That's only 5 of the 13 offerings. It's great stuff, and it was one of my many fabulous 50th birthday presents (thanks, J&R!). I'm going to try to turn 50 again next year since it worked out so well this year.

10 December 2009

RIP Liam Clancy

In my father's world, there was only one music. All else was noise. That music was the Clancy Bros. and Tommy Makem. As a boy, I heard those records to the point of nausea. In fact, I couldn't listen to Irish folk music for decades. Fortunately, I got over that. One of the best things we did on our two recent trips to Ireland was haunt the pubs where they had "trad" sessions. I was amazed by how many of the songs I knew! Liam Clancy, the last of the surviving band members, passed away last week. Mr. Clancy appeared in Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home, a film about Bob Dylan. He's seated on a barstool, a pint of Guinness in front of him, and reminisces about meeting "that little pain-in-ass" back in the heyday of the Greenwich Village folk scene. Then he sings, a cappella, Dylan's "Girl From the North Country." It's my favorite moment in that engrossing film, even better than Joan Baez' impression of the infamously-nasal Mr. Dylan. Thanks, dad, for turning me on to the music. I'm sorry it took me so long to really appreciate it.
Recqueiscat in pacem.

04 December 2009

" . . . not an unmixed blessing . . . "

Fifty years ago, four scientists working for the University of California published an article in the October issue of Hilgardia, a journal published by the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. It was called "The Integrated Control Concept" and was credited to Vernon M. Stern, Ray F. Smith, Robert van den Bosch, and Kenneth S. Hagen. The paper is considered a landmark work in IPM--Intergrated Pest Management. The same University Division also produces a magazine called California Agriculture. The October-December issue has a short piece by Jeanette Warnert called "The 50th anniversary of a great idea." I quote:

The 20-page paper clearly and concisely described the consequences of pesiticde overuse and detailed their vision of a sustainable pest control system.

Ms. Warnert also points out that this work predates Rachel Carson's Silent Spring by almost three years. Ms. Carson was a careful and prescient thinker, it is likely she was aware of "leading edge" scientific ideas, whether she'd read the piece or not. Clearly there was an increasing awareness in the post-war world of the consequences of rampant technology. None of the men involved, like Carson herself, ever called for the elimination of pesticides. In fact, they all recognized the need for them as part of an integrated approach. That's the whole idea--integrated pest managment. Only a fanatic can comfortably spout extremes. The rest of us have to deal with juggling real-world conflicts. I try to support so-called "organic" agriculture because the practitioners tend to talk about sustainability, not because I believe that chemicals and other technologies are bad. Far from it--the world's billions won't be fed without them. Fifty years ago, some smart folks told us we need to re-think the way we farm. The benefits of large-scale crop-raising and industrial food production are too great to ignore, but so, of course, are the perils. Messrs. Stern, Smith, van den Bosch, and Hagen did their best to help us all sort it out.

(My title is a quote from the piece. I lifted it from Warnert's article.)

29 November 2009

Whiskey Trinity

Irish whiskey is its own thing--neither Scotch nor Bourbon nor Canadian. The third and final whiskey of my three whiskey presents was Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey. A product of County Offaly in the Irish Midlands, Tullamore Dew is a smooth and mellow whiskey with a rich malt flavor and a dry, lingering finish. The holiday package came with some hefty tumblers bearing the brand name. You can never have enough thick-bottomed whiskey glasses! This whiskey makes a superb nightcap, but I also think it would do very well in an Irish coffee. That drink is a particular favorite of mine, and a specialty of the house. One of these days I'll have to have a taste test with a stable of Hibernian spirits. Because I like Irish coffees so much, I forget that the Malts of Erin are outstanding sippin' whiskies, with their bright, clean flavors and easy drinkability. Tullamore Dew, with its subtle spiciness and muted woody notes, completes the two-bourbons-and-an-Irish whiskey trinity!

22 November 2009

Whiskey by the numbers

I received three whiskies from friends for my 50th birthday. Am I easy to buy presents for? Two were bourbons, both the latest versions of cherished favorites. In 2002 I bought a bottle of Evan Williams Single Barrel. It was from barrel no. 144, laid down on 8-27-92, bottled 4-1-02. Now that was a few years back, but I remember it being a tasty treat. Ten years is a long time for a bourbon! The 50th birthday bottle is from barrel no. 313 (dig the thirteen!), put in the wood on 8-24-99 and bottled 4-8-09. It is crisp and spicy, with a clean, bright finish, and dangerously drinkable. Another premium whiskey that never fails to please is the rich and sumptuous Woodford Reserve. I have an empty from some time ago (I can't remember precisely!) from batch no. 22. It is bottle no. 11013 (11-13 is my birthday). Interestingly, it is a one-liter size. You have to love the no. 22, an iconic pair of deuces for Giants fans as both the Clarks--the unrelated Will and Jack--wore 22. The new one is in the standard 750 mL format, but in the same distinctive shape that makes Woodford easy to spot. It is from batch no. 407 and bottle no. 05611. Tune in next week for whiskey number three. I love my friends.

18 November 2009

Water on the moon

The big ball of rock we learned about as kids turns out to be full of surprises. Like water, for example. Who knew the moon had water in its rocks? Actually, a little thought about what rocks are and what they are made of should make this recent discovery a lot less surprising. Rocks, and the minerals that make them up, contain a lot of oxygen. That oxygen is typically bound up in oxides, silicates, hydroxides, and whatnot, but it is present in great abundance. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and free protons in the solar wind could provide a ready source of hydrogen ions capable of reacting with the oxygen in lunar minerals. In fact, the presence of water, or at least hydroxyl groups, in the lunar regolith has been speculated on since the early 1960s. Water molecules could not exist on or near the moon's surface, but they could certainly exist in the bedrock or deep within shadowed craters. (The LCROSS mission probed such a crater.) These recent findings, exciting as they are, don't do much more than confirm some long-held hypotheses about our near neighbor. The mechanisms of lunar water creation, transport, and storage are barely beyond the speculative stage, and the presence of something like large-scale polar ice is still awaiting discovery. Nonetheless, water on the moon is pretty damn cool, don't you think?

13 November 2009

Friday the 13th

I was born on Friday, November 13th, 1959. Today is Friday, November 13th, 2009. It is my 50th birthday! I'm a lucky man, I think. If you measure wealth by the love of family and friends, then I'm rich. I'll have another Friday the 13th birthday in 2015, when I turn 56. I hope I can make the same report then.

12 November 2009

Ill Wind

William Ledbetter Heath sets his 1957 novel Ill Wind in the fictional town of Morgan, Alabama. Idyllic and relatively prosperous, things begin unraveling right from the start when a leading citizen is rushed to the hospital with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In a coma and unable to explain himself, the town's residents take up the mystery. Was it an accident? A suicide attempt? In the process, the power structure of the whole county is laid bare, with its intricate relationships among the friends and rivals of the unfortunate man, and their long-simmering conflicts burst into the open. There is no crime in this crime novel, but the repressed desires, sublimated ambitions, and buried secrets add up to make tightly-wound noir tale. In fact, Mr. Heath has crafted a brilliant work, gripping and suspenseful, with deft characterizations, masterful dialog, and an eye for subtle details. I have the 1985 Black Lizard reprint with the Kirwan cover. (I blogged about Southern Noir and W.L. Heath's Violent Saturday earlier this year.)

03 November 2009

Irish noir

Irish writer Ken Bruen's Priest features recurring character Jack Taylor and is set in the Irish coastal city of Galway. Taylor is a disgraced former cop ("Guard" in Ireland), just out of the madhouse, trying to get a fresh start in the town of his youth. Haunted by a death he was responsible for when he was drunk, he goes into pubs and orders drinks but doesn't touch them. His only contact with reality is his hard-assed ex-partner, a lesbian, who he has erotic dreams about. Jack's confusion and alienation is furthered by the appearance of his childhood tormentor, Father Malachy, who seeks his help on a murder case. The local Guard commander tries to muscle Jack out of the picture, but help from an unlikely source resurrects our protagonist's resolve and he goes after the killer. Demons from his past overwhelm events, and the coda comes with shocking finality. The novel is set in the midst of the New Ireland, flush with money and development, where the old village ways are losing out to EU immigration and American corporations. We experienced much of the city on our 2001 Ireland trip, and it was quite a bit of fun to walk the same streets again with Jack Taylor. The book has lots of quirky Hiberno-English and the dialogue is rich in Irish idiom, so be prepared for the full-immersion course. It's dark stuff, too, not for the faint of heart, just way I like it.

01 November 2009

RIP Norton Buffalo

Bay Area rocker Norton Buffalo died from lung cancer on Friday. He was 58. Norton and his band the Knockouts actually performed a free concert--just a few years ago--in Miner Street Park here in Yreka. I have an autographed CD from the event. He was a master of the harmonica, at home in blues, country, rockabilly, boogie-woogie, R&B, you-name-it. He had a long and varied career, despite it being cut short by illness. He was a fixture in the San Francisco and Northern California music scene for over 30 years, mostly with the Steve Miller Band, but also working with the likes of the Doobie Bros., Elvin Bishop, Merl Saunders, Mickey Hart, Roy Rogers, Commander Cody, and the New Riders. He was much too young.
Recquiescat in pacem.

27 October 2009

Sloth

Sloth is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The effort required to be virtuous, to serve God, is avoided by the slothful, thus we have the sin. I think sloth has gotten a bad rap from this sort of illogic. Why can't we cultivate virtue slowly and carefully, like we cultivate imagination or creativity? "Sloth" comes from "slow" and is as Anglo-Saxon as Geoffrey Chaucer. These days, we all want to slow down. The harried, frantic pace of life in the 21st century has us all wondering if we've missed something, forgotten something, failed to experience something, or don't know something. This social pressure to always have something or to do something works on us ad nauseum. I say the hell with that. Brenda Ueland, in her fine and inspirational book If You Want to Write, says "Our idea that we must always be energetic and active is all wrong." She goes on to say "the imagination needs moodling--long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling, and puttering." The soul, she believes, is killed by busyness, by attention only to chores and duties. To live, to love, to feel, and to grow requires a kind of anti-effort. We cannot strive to be better--we have to nurture that part of us, tease it out, guide it along. As my dear and lovely bride said to me last night, "you can't be lazy enough!"

16 October 2009

0630

Looking east this morning the skies were clear and the old moon was just visible above the hills. Only a fingernail sliver of of the disk was illuminated, but earthshine gave the whole face a bluish cast. Venus shone brightly a few degrees to the left (north) and Saturn glowed faintly above that. Sky Calendar says that Mercury was above the horizon in the same grouping, but my hometown is nestled in its own little bowl, surrounded on three sides by mounds, highlands, and ridges, with only an opening to the south for the interstate to snake its way in. It was a beautiful sight, especially on the last day of the work week. The autumn weather has turned gorgeous, and I'm looking forward to getting my walks in today. I wonder what other treats nature has in store for me.

10 October 2009

Throwin' rocks

I remember chucking rocks at all sorts of things when I was a kid. Dirt clods, too. And baseballs, of course, and tennis balls and super balls and basketballs and whatnot. You could bounce stuff off walls and fences and dirt infields and blacktop playgrounds. You could splatter stuff at the forts the neighboring squads had set up for the endless games of "war." Or skip stones in the bay, or toss driftwood into the muck at low tide. It just seemed like that's how a kid found out about the world. Well, maybe this kid. Some things you hit were OK to hit, and some you were glad you missed. But in the end, the brain had a catalog of collisions, a trial-and-error knowledge base, an empircally-derived picture of the man-nature interface. In short, science. I was thinking about science and throwin' rocks when I read about NASA's LCROSS mission. It was a high-tech, 21st-century version of throwin' rocks! A spacecraft booster and its payload crashed into Cabeus crater near the moon's south pole early Friday morning. The dust plume analysis will--NASA hopes--reveal the presence of lunar water. Imagine a quarter-million mile rock toss just to figure out what's there! I think it's fantastic.

(p.s. The Soviet Union's Luna 2 was the first man-made object to crash on the moon. That happened fifty years ago, on 13 September 1959, two months before I was born.)

03 October 2009

Treasure Hunt

This morning was the library book sale. Friends of the Library and volunteers fill the middle school gymnasium with long tables of books. There are bags and boxes of books under the tables and stacked along the walls. Where there are books, there are book people. And the books are cheap: fifty cents for a paperback, one dollar for a hardcover. Book people are treasure hunters. You never know what golden nuggets will turn up when you shove aside the James Patterson, Danielle Steele, and Tom Clancy duplicates. 'X' marked the spot for me today--I found one of those hopelessly nerdy items only a book nut like me can appreciate. In 1934, the Governor of California was The Honorable Frank F. Merriam, and one of his subordinates was George D. Nordenholt, the Director of the State Department of Natural Resources. Among Mr. Nordenholt's minions were the geologists of the State Division of Mines. One of them--Clarence A Logan--authored Bulletin No. 108 (1934), Mother Lode Gold Belt of California. I found this out-of-print gem jammed between a couple of oversize self-help manuals. The hardbound book--actually a report--is an overview of the mines and geology of California's famous Mother Lode. Richly illustrated, there are maps, inserts, and photographs detailing the economics, metallurgy, and history of the nation's most renowned gold-producing region. I spent much of the afternoon patching and taping the many tears in the pages and plates, but the bulk of the material is in good shape. I found a spot for it on my bookshelf right below Bulletin No. 193, Gold Districts of California (this 1963 report was revised and republished as a clothbound Sesquicentennial Edition in 1998), and right next to Bulletin No. 190, Geology of Northern California (1966). Like I said, stuff only a science geek could truly appreciate.

22 September 2009

Turn! Turn! Turn!

Pete Seeger was on to something when he tacked his famous line to the poem from Ecclesiastes. "To everything there is a season" is how chapter three of the King James Version starts, and it goes on to talk about birth and death, love and hate, and peace and war. If King Solomon was the author of those lines, then he managed to pen a number one pop hit (via the Byrds)! Not bad, eh? Today the autumnal equinox marks the start of fall in the northern hemisphere. Even the redoubtable Eric Partridge (WordMan™'s hero) admits that the Latin autumnus--the adjectival form being autumnalis--is "of obscure origin." He suggests it might have come from uertere (later vertere), the verb meaning, naturally, "to turn." Here in the State of Jefferson the 40 ºF mornings are evidence enough that we are turning from the warmth of summer to the cool of autumn.

13 September 2009

Shastafarian Porter

One of our local treasures here in the State of Jefferson is the Mt. Shasta Brewing Company in Weed. They make a range of tasty brews, but I particularly like two--Mountain High IPA and Shastafarian Porter. The black ale with the groovy name assaults your nose with chocolate malt right off the top, and the first taste is a massive dose of roast barley. But the the porter has a smooth, easy drinkability, too, and the hops, hanging in the background, finally assert themselves on the back of the tongue as it goes down, balancing it all very nicely. Shastafarian is both full-flavored and thirst-quenching, refreshing as well as satisfying. I can say the same about the IPA as well, another delicious ale for quaffing. But tonight the porter was the beverage of choice. The brewery has a lot of fun with its Weed locale--advertising the beers with "Try Legal Weed" and "Weed. A flavor yet to be discovered." They've even re-worked an old saw as "A friend in Weed is a friend indeed." It wouldn't mean much if they didn't make outstanding beer. Grab some Shastafarian and see for yourself.

07 September 2009

The Truth of the Matter

The first place I found John Lutz was in The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction--his byline was under the story "Tough." I like to collect the old Black Lizard paperbacks (with the Kirwan covers), and sure enough one of them was John Lutz' The Truth of the Matter. (I love the Fantastic Fiction website and use it all the time.) "Tough" is a hard-boiled tale about a grizzled old desert rat who matches his wits and guts against a trio of escaping robbers who commandeer his home as a hideout. The story is as tough and hard-boiled as anything in the genre, with a shocking conclusion that leaves you reeling. You get the sense that Mr. Lutz is a masterful writer. The Truth of the Matter, from 1971, is as far as I can tell his first novel. It is a simple story of a couple of down-and-outers. Ellie is a small-time hooker who takes a chance on a rugged, good-looking, smooth-talking john with a mysterious past. The john is Lou Roebuck, and he turns out to be a pathological liar with a persecution complex. Lou's hasty and inexplicable killing of an old accomplice sends him running, and when he runs into Ellie they run off together. A suspicious sheriff noses around their lakeside hideout, and that starts another round of running. Eventually the running and the paranoia get the best of our whacked-out protagonist, and things come to a head in an ending both explosive and anti-climactic. Late in the tale, we finally get to the "truth of the matter" in Lou's backstory, and it gives his character some depth and wins him some sympathy. Before that point, his obvious fabrications are so ridiculous you burst out laughing, and his increasing hostility toward his likeable companion wears mighty thin. Ellie is the deeper character, with an appealing self-possession, an undramatic fatalism, and a thorough lack of pretension. It was an enjoyable ride through a crime fiction landscape, featuring iconic figures like the Fugitive, the Prostitute, and the Lawman, with a dose of the Friendly Outsiders who help our heroes along the way. And that's the truth of the matter.

05 September 2009

National Bourbon Heritage Month II

How are you celebrating National Bourbon Heritage Month? I'm dipping in to bottle no. 01937 from batch no. 383 of Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Very smooth, very sumptuous drink, highly recommended.

03 September 2009

National Bourbon Heritage Month

Yes, that's right, boys and girls, September is National Bourbon Heritage Month. Apparently we can thank Senator Jim Bunning for that Act of Congress. Other than being a fine major league pitcher, the guy comes across as a doofus, but at least he knows a good drink. I think we should all celebrate America this month by drinking more bourbon. Cheers!

30 August 2009

Playstation 3

The Blu-ray player I mentioned in the last post is actually a PS3--Sony's latest game console. I skipped the video game revolution. I was around, and watched it happen, but for a few forays into some PC sports games I ignored the expanding popularity of this youth-oriented medium for the last thirty years. I'm not sure why I had no interest--admittedly I'm on the leading edge of the age group of game consumers--but I know that I often reject new technolgies at first glance before surrendering to them down the road. In the case of video games, I suppose I will never achieve any sort of skill or mastery in a world of rapid sensory input requiring even more rapid dexterity, but I felt the need to at least explore and find out what all the fuss was about. I started with Bioshock--a shooter/adventure game a young friend recommended--which fortunately has a "newbie-level" difficulty setting. I found the controller to be remarkably sensitive and fast-acting, and more often than not I would find myself hopelessly lost and turned around in the game's world. Thank goodness for the maps and hints feature, I would have given up without them. The graphics, design, and layout of Bioshock are superb, as rich and satisfying as a movie, and the story you become involved in has the sophistication of a novel. Some day, not soon, I'll "get to the end," but in the meantime it has been fun to spend a few spare moments playing around in an imaginary space, like reading a comic book that lets you re-arrange the panels. Another game, in fact the one that started me on this path, is also by the same company, 2K Games. It's a baseball game, of course, MLB 2K9, and it features Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants on the cover. When you're a fan like me, you don't need much of an excuse to indulge in something Giants-related. I got that one installed and running, and immediately was overwhelmed by the myriad of choices presented to me. I've got left and right buttons in the front of the controller, two each, and then four buttons on top for each side, as well as two sticks which also toggle another set of commands. I have to keep stopping and looking at the directions so I can remember how to throw, pitch, hit, catch, run and all the rest of the stuff you have to do in a ballgame. I feel like a kid in T-ball who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a high school hardball contest. I tried a game with the Giants and Matt Cain against the Milwaukee Brewers. After Prince Fielder's 3-run homer in the first inning I set it to "practice mode." I then managed three innings of a 1-1 duel with the same lineups, including a bases-loaded single by Matt Cain! I was so tired keeping track of every little thing by then that I quit and took a long break. Eventually I'll learn to play an entire game, and maybe even play against someone. That could be some time though. I just don't think I've got the thumbs for it.

23 August 2009

Blu-ray debut

I bought a Blu-ray player (a PS3!) and my first Blu-ray movie was Richard Linklater's A SCANNER DARKLY. Based on the 1977 novel of the same name by SF master Philip K. Dick, the film is notable for its use of rotoscoping, and particularly Flat Black Films' proprietary Rotoshop software. It would be a shame if that was the only memorable thing about this brilliant and engrossing movie. Set in a near-future world of total surveillance, undercover cop Keanu Reeves discovers that he has become the subject of his own investigation. The paranoia runs deep, and the layers of betrayal and double cross overlap and force him, ultimately, to question his own identity. The drug culture is dominated by a new scourge--Substance D--which gradually makes its users unable to distinguish reality from fantasy. The War on Drugs has enlisted a corporate partner--New Path--to provide incarceration and rehabilitation of the legion of D-junkies on LA's streets. The movie manages to be hilarious at times, like when the zonked-out druggies argue about whether a stolen mountain bike has 8, 9, or 18 gears, or when Robert Downey Jr. claims to have invented a pistol silencer, only to make the blast louder. Mostly, though, it's dark, like the title suggests. It has lots of noir elements, like the low-life characters and their aimless schemes, but it lacks noir's melodrama and brisk pacing. The colors and animation (like a filmed comic book) are gorgeous and perfectly suited to the futuristic setting. It is a highly unusual film, and not for everyone, but I found that it captured the sense of loss and devastation of the Dick novel, yet had a smart, contemporary take on the futility of drug politics and law enforcement. There's an ominous foreboding throughout the story, as if the truth about the state of things will be too great for any one person to bear. In the end, that spirit-crushing revelation comes as no surprise to our washed-up hero, yet he manages to find a shred of hope and still looks to the future for redemption. I think you should watch A SCANNER DARKLY.

16 August 2009

Hoka-Hoka-HEY!

I was not prepared to like, let alone read Larry Marder's Beanworld. I like color in my comics, and I like "realistic" drawings (even if they are of supernatural or metaphyiscal events). Beanworld puts you off with its 2-D simplicity and spartan layout. But don't be fooled! There is a lot going on in Beanworld, and you are better off for diving in and joining the adventures of Mr. Spook, Proffy, and the Chow Sol'jers as they bask in the divine grace of their protector, Gran'Ma'Pa, and fight the Hoi-Polloi Ring Herds for Chow. Part fable, part allegory, part yuk-yuk, it is indeed "a most peculiar comic book experience." It was hard to get started--but my buddy Marcus usually feeds me things that he knows I'll like, so I plowed ahead and tackled Book One, Two, and Three of Beanworld from the now defunct Eclipse Comics. These collections include quite a bit of commentary and history from Mr. Marder himself, and I held off reading them until done with each story set. The tales speak for themselves, and are open to quite a bit of interpretation. They can be viewed on many levels, and Marder himself says his goal was a comic for "thinking about" (and not just "looking at"). I found them to be funny and fun on the most basic level--just reading them.

09 August 2009

Gangland

Who says you can't judge a book by its cover? I bought this comic collection from DC/Vertigo precisely because I liked the Tim Bradstreet cover. He also illustrates the first story, "Clean House" by Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets), which is my favorite in the bunch. Jamie Delano of Outlaw Nation contributes a story as well, I'm in the middle of that sprawling saga right now. Dave Gibbons (the artist for Alan Moore's Watchmen) writes and draws one of the tales also--I love his style, it has the feel of the old EC adventure comics. A particularly interesting story by SF/fantasy writer Lucius Sheperd, "Platinum Nights," is drawn by James Romberger in a more modern, frenetic style but perfectly suited to the material. I also liked Ed Brubaker's "Small Time" (art by Eric Shanower). The whole thing is only 1/4-inch thick (108 pages), compiling the first four issues of Gangland. There's a nice mix of styles, and the stories have a broad range that includes gritty urban realism and even some SF/fantasy and horror elements. There's a lot in a small package! I'm only beginning to discover the world of noir and crime comics, so stay tuned for more.

08 August 2009

Rainbow delight

On our drive home from the coast on Thursday, we saw a magnificent rainbow in the Shasta River canyon. The rain had come and wetted the rocks and soil and washed the greenery of its summer dust. Everything was boldly colored and the gray sky was broken with patches of bright blue and shafts of pale yellow light. From just past Pioneer Bridge we could see both the primary and secondary bows seeming to grow out of the hillside and leap up above Anderson Grade before plunging into the jumbled rocks of the ravine below. All the colors from red to violet were visible on both bows--I don't recall them ever being so vivid--and the "ends" of the rainbow were clearly visible on both sides. Those refracted beams would make a circle if the ground wasn't in the way! We were driving south on the Old River Road, the ribbon of river well below us, the ribbon of freeway well above us, and with the sun setting, the west face of the canyon was the backdrop for the rainbow. Gold was pulled out of the rocks on both sides of that river, and out of the river itself. I've been in one of the old hardrock mines on the east slope, in fact, and you sure get a taste of gold fever when you see rusting ore carts and overgrown tailings piles in the rugged countryside. Maybe the original miners saw what we saw and took it as a sign that their pots of gold were close by.

02 August 2009

Kubrick, Killer's Kiss, and The Killing

Before he became the famous über-auteur, Stanley Kubrick cut his movie-making chops on noir. The 67-minute Killer's Kiss (1955) was Mr. Kubrick's second feature, and it tells the story of a washed-up boxer, a girl, and a gangster. The Kubrickian touches are everywhere--the overhead shots, the geometric composition, the sharp shadow lines, tunnels, entrances and exits, more staircase scenes than ought to be allowed, and breasts, lots of breasts. Since it's a 50s flick, the breasts aren't real, just on mannequins. There's a crazy fight scene at the end in a dress-maker's shop, and there are several dozen unclothed female mannequins that get knocked about. You knew he had to get those mammaries in somehow! His third film, The Killing (1956), is also in the noir bin, and he seems to satisfy his breast-fetish by having Marie Windsor in tight blouses. Ms. Windsor is one of the queens of the b & w cheapies, and delivers a memorable performance as the shrewish, two-timing wife of one of the criminals. Coleen Gray, another of the dames populating the dark side of the street, co-stars. Killer's Kiss is a simple, straight-ahead tale, while The Killing is famous for its narration and its use of non-linear sequences (used so notably by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs). The highlights for me include the brilliant chase sequence in Kiss, and the fine ensemble acting of Killing. Kubrick made some spectacularly great movies (Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey) and some spectacularly bad ones (Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut), with the whole range in between. I enjoyed seeing his evolution as a film-maker with these early pulp pieces. The great noir writer Jim Thompson got the screenplay credit for Killing.

01 August 2009

E. Howard Hunt's actual dick!

House Dick is E. Howard Hunt's 1961 novel of robbery and murder in Washington D.C. Yes, the same E. Howard Hunt of Nixon and Watergate infamy. He wrote dozens of books over more than fifty years (he lived to be 88), using several names, mostly spy novels or intelligence-related non-fiction. House Dick is Pete Novak, the hard-boiled detective of the Hotel Tilden. He gets himself involved with a beautiful woman, an ex-con, a drug pusher, an honest cop, a rich lady, a casino boss, and a bag of jewels, all while smoking, drinking, skulking, and wisecracking. It was a fun read despite the dated feel--the action was brisk and the story moved forward. The last chapter had a familiar denouement, with the gritty and determined detective wearing one of the characters down enough so that they'd finally cop to the truth. It was originally published as Washington Payoff by Gordon Davis.

29 July 2009

IPA heaven

Those folks at Deschutes Brewery know what they are doing. They made killer beer "back in the day" and they are making killer beer today. The lastest special brew we got to taste (thanks, Andrei) was Red Chair IPA. I love coppery red beers--color like that is hard to do right. IPAs are an interesting "style" as they exhibit a great deal of variation. Here in the State of Jefferson we have two excellent brews with the tag "IPA." One is from Etna, and is a full-bodied, very dry reddish ale called Mossback. Mt. Shasta Brewery in Weed makes a floral, aromatic, very pale and silky beer called Mountain High. I think they are both well-crafted, delicious, and satisfying. Red Chair seemed to have the best of both worlds. It had the Mossback's manly flavor and the Mountain High's seductive scents. It was both richly-flavored and velvety-smooth, the very essence of the brewer's art. Deschutes also makes their superb "regular" IPA--Inversion. Tomorrow we are going up to Ashland and I expect to make a stop at the Standing Stone Brewing Company for their outstanding beers. I can already taste that lovely India Pale Ale they make!

27 July 2009

Touch of Evil

Somewhere along the line, noir became something other than cheap, poorly-lit, B-grade crime flicks. It somehow took on a life of its own--a movie could actually, self-consciously, chose to be a noir film. Such is the case with Orson Welles' brilliant 1958 release Touch of Evil. Box-office superstar Charlton Heston got top-billing alongside the glamorous Janet Leigh. Welles' character, the corrupt police chief Hank Quinlan, was supposed to be a supporting role. Once Mr. Welles got his hands on the script and his eye behind the camera, however, Hank Quinlan took over. In an astonshing performance, Welles creates the ultimate bad cop. He's a bloated, hideous, sloppy man, thoroughly cynical, racist, and menacing. On-screen, Mr. Heston has no chance as the prim and proper Vargas, a painfully idealistic Mexican narcotics investigator. (It was an unfortunate bit of casting, as a moustache and rub-on tan fail to convince anyone that Heston is from México.) Even when Vargas finally goes after Quinlan, he does it "by the book," dutifully searching for evidence and enlisting witnesses. In the meantime, the gorgeous Ms. Leigh gets a scene on the bed in a slinky nightgown, but that's merely prelude to a night of harassment and torture in the hands of local thugs. She plays Vargas' wife, and his zealous pursuit of the truth takes him away from her at a critical time, rendering her vulnerable to Quinlan's machinations. It's as if Vargas' morally superior position--the pursit of justice--is mocked as self-serving by his failure to protect his bride on what is supposed to be their honeymoon. The movie is a dazzling visual treat, the opening sequence with the car and the border crossing is agonizingly tense, and the final showdown among the oil derricks and polluted riverbank is both creepy and suspenseful. Welles used every bit of noir style and trickery to create atmosphere and ambiguity, and the nearly two-hour running time never lags. There are some memorable folks in the cast, in particular Ray Hopper (from Perry Mason), Joseph Cotten, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. My favorite is the timeless Marlene Dietrich as a fortune-teller. When Quinlan asks her to tell his future, she says "you haven't got any." I'm watching Welles/Quinlan 50 years later, so maybe she wasn't quite right! The movie is based on the "Whit Masterson" novel Badge of Evil, authored by the famous pulp duo of Bob Wade and Bill Miller. (I blogged about their Hard Case reprint Branded Woman last December.)

26 July 2009

New old music

Dropped by The Music Coop in Ashland and picked up some new CDs. Right now I've got Dwight Yoakam's Dwight Sings Buck from New West on the stereo. Seems natural that Mr. Yoakam should make a tribute album to the late Buck Owens, as he obviously owes much of his musical style to the so-called "Bakersfield Sound." I've been a closet fan of Dwight Yoakam since his debut Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. in 1986. My brother Brian is responsible for piercing my prejudice against c & w by playing this album for me way back then. Yoakam's made consistently excellent music since that time (this disc is no exception), and become an international star. There are a lot of great tunes on Dwight Sings Buck, but it was particularly fun to hear "Act Naturally." The story is that Buck and The Beatles were mutual fans, and that's not surprising. Mr. Owens' music is simple, heartfelt, and singable--great for bars, nite clubs and honky-tonks. I imagine many early pop and rock acts cut their teeth on songs like these before they found their own groove. Next up is Ed Palermo's Big Band, an act we saw at the Iridium Jazz Club in Manhattan during our short stay there in June of 2005. (Les Paul, at 94, is a regular performer.) It's all Zappa music, as that is Mr. Palermo's ouevre. The album is "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance," and that's also the 2nd track--a lovely instrumental version. The live act was brilliant, and the recording captures their passion and virtuosity. Up third is another bit of old stuff. The first two were new releases (2007 and 2006), but playing older music. This one is a re-issue of The Pogues first record, Red Roses for Me, from 1984. This disc has bonus tracks and liner notes and whatnot, and fills in my collection alongside Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, and If I Should Fall From Grace with God, the "holy trinity" of Pogues music. If any group embodies the perfect blend of modernity and tradition, it's The Pogues, the original British punk/new-wave Irish folk band. There's nothing quite like those Shane MacGowan-led rockers, they do their own thing and it's bloody fookin' grand. That's what's in my disc changer this afternoon, and it's all great and I'm loving it. What are you listening to?

24 July 2009

Halfway around the world

In 1991 I traveled with family and friends to the beach at Mázatlan to see a total solar eclipse. Alas, actual totality was obscured by the very eclipse itself--the fall in temperature produced a short-lived marine fog that blocked our view of the corona. Nonetheless, it was a spectacular event. Lights came on in town, fish leapt out of the water, birds circled and squealed in apparent alarm. The sky took on a sunset color along the entire horizon, 360 degress of twilight! Stars and planets were visible as well. The partial eclipse was also quite beautiful. We were well-armed with aluminized mylar "glasses" and no. 14 welder's glass and could watch the event on both sides of totality. Our appetites for umbra-chasing were whetted, and all of us planned to go to the Ryukyus in Japan for the great July 2009 eclipse. Alas, we did not make it. They are calling this one "possibly the best-observed solar eclipse in human history" as the path of totality crossed China and parts of India as well. There are 20 million people in Shanghai alone, and other cities in the path like Wuhan, Hangzhou, Surat, and Bhopal add millions more of potential viewers. I hope all those folks halfway across the world got to enjoy their 6-1/2 minutes of darkness!

23 July 2009

Old Bardstown

Our local shop--Liquor Expo--recently started carrying a small batch bourbon line. We had a chance to sample a few earlier in the summer. Kentucky Bourbon Distillers Ltd., of Bardstown, Kentucky, has quite a number of boutique bourbons, one of which is Old Bardstown Estate Bottled 101 proof. Here at TPP we got a hold of a bottle and dug in for a first look. This is a rich and syrupy drink, the way bourbon should be. It has a full, chewy feel to it, with a nice assault on the palate. The finish seems too mild at first, but the flavor creeps back from the lips to the tongue to the throat, coating the mouth with that unique sweet-sour corn mash taste. It sure is good stuff! These complex beverages require lengthy study in order to fully appreciate them. After we do some more homework, we'll take another trip to Grenada for something else new and exciting. Y'all come back, y'hear?

21 July 2009

Cadillac Records

Cadillac Records is an interesting and entertaining film by writer-director Darnell Martin that chronicles the rise and fall of Chess Records. The story is told in broad strokes, naturally, compressing about twenty years and a dozen personalities into a few hours. It suffers from the sweeping, superficial nature of all biopics, but Ms. Martin deserves credit for a colorful, vibrant, and stylish take on this fascinating slice of musical history. Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess, the enterprising and ambitious immigrant who founded the company with his brother Phil in the 1940s. Mr. Brody never seems fully comfortable in Chess' skin, and he remains a bit of an enigma throughout the movie. Not so with Jeffrey Wright, who grows scene by scene into his role as the great Muddy Waters. It's not a performance that grabs you, rather, by the end of the movie, you come to believe that Mr. Wright is Mr. Waters. An impressive feat, but helped maybe by the fact that we have so much more of Muddy to work with. After all, Chess was a "behind-the-scenes" kind of guy, and what he was "really like" might be lost to history's dustbin. Cedric the Entertainer certainly looks the part of the massive Willie Dixon, but he's wasted in a silly narrator's role. The voice-over historical perspective is superfluous--that stuff should be saved for documentaries. Mos Def inhabits the role of Chuck Berry, who probably should get his own film, and Eamonn Walker gives us an intriguing Howlin' Wolf. Too many characters, not enough time! The film really picks up steam in the second half, though, with the arrival of contemporary R & B superstar Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James. I knew two things about Ms. Knowles before this film: 1) she's gorgeous, and 2) people like her singing. I figured she was just another pop diva, but I found out she can not only act but that she can really sing. Covering Etta James is like batting behind Barry Bonds, but Beyoncé takes on a James standard, "At Last," and does it beautifully. She's got a real voice, rich and velvety and powerful, and her "At Last" is not only the most moving but also the most impressive performance in the film. She also tries her hand at "I'd Rather Go Blind," a masterpiece that is probably impossible to improve on, and does damn well. It's a bit over-the-top, with a lot of breathy vibrato and over-long notes, but the movie seems to demand some melodrama at that point as we see Leonard Chess walking away from the business he built. If you know nothing of the history of American popular music, Cadillac Records is not a bad place to start. If you like what you see, check out the Chess Records 50th Anniversary Collection Series from MCA (CD), and The American Folk Blues Festival Series (DVD) from Reelin' in the Years.

20 July 2009

Happy 40th, Apollo XI!

There are a handful of historic events that I remember from childhood that, looking back on, shaped my world-view and stay with me decades later. I was too young for the 1963 JFK assassination (I remember watching the funeral on TV), and the significance of the 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy killings was still a bit beyond me. I admit to being more concerned back then with the outcomes of the 1967 and 1968 World Series! In July of 1969, however, I was 9-1/2 years old and a devoted Apollo and NASA buff. The moon flights had captured me completely, and I dreamed of becoming an astronaut. I remember watching the grainy black-and-white television feed in the living room with my family in my hometown of Benicia, California, and finding it incredibly inspiring. It filled me with awe and wonder. Spaceflight continues to do that to me today. Restored footage of Armstrong's famous step has been released by NASA to coincide with the anniversary. Happy 40th, indeed.

18 July 2009

Sin City

How do you describe something like Sin City? I mean the comic by Frank Miller, not the film--that will be the subject of another post. Speaking of post, that's where we live in 2009, the post-modern world. In the post-modern world, everything has been deconstructed. All the modes and tropes of popular art have been re-worked, re-imagined, re-invented, and re-applied. When you dive into a form like a detective story, or a crime novel, or a film noir, you've got a lot a cultural detritus around. There's a fine line between clichéd and clever, between parody and homage. Which brings me back to Mr. Miller. There are enough booze, broads, bullets in Sin City to make any hard-boiled fan happy. The art is almost all black and white, with the broad strokes, sharp contrasts, and long lines of those low-budget 50s films we now know as noir classics. In fact, it's mostly art--there is very little in the way of narrative or dialogue. Tough guys and their hooker allies take on all sorts of corrupt cops, scheming politicos, and evil geniuses in the dark and dangerous world of Basin City, but they don't say much. The stories, despite the convoluted timelines and overlapping characters, are pretty simple, and go by a little too fast. They go by fast because Sin City is mostly a picture book. Sure, it's a comic, I get it. You are supposed to look at the pictures. And Miller is in a soft-core mood throughout the series--there are lots of naked girls to look at. The rest of the time, these curvaceous femmes, whether victims, heroines, or villianesses, are bursting out of their fishnets, bustieres, and unmentionables while kicking ass or getting their asses kicked. It's a Joe Bob Briggs breast festival--nipples popping up everywhere--and a pouty lip parade that'd shame Angelina into another round of botox. Miller is famed for his Batman work: The Dark Knight Returns is both brilliant and brutal, simmering with apocalyptic rage and dystopian longing. He's also known for 300, his fabulistic re-telling of the Spartans and Persians at Thermopylae. It's another flesh-fest, this time sweaty, over-muscled, nearly-naked Greek men in a glorious crescendo of suicidal violence. Both these rivers run through Basin City. The underworld denizens move around in impossible, super-hero leaps and bounds, with either a fatalistic nonchalance or an insatiable sadistic lust. It's a heady brew. The best parts are the unique angles and interesting perspectives Miller uses to draw many of the scenes. I also love his sounds. KREK. FUPP. WHUUNG. SPAK. KRNCH. The whole Basin City layout with Old Town, the Projects, Sacred Oaks, The Docks, The Roark Farm, Kadie's Club, and the Santa Yolanda Tar Pits is nicely imagined, making the setting a sort of über-American pastiche. Perhaps it's the hodge-podge nature of the work that ultimately left me a little unsatisfied. It was a fun ride, but it had nowhere near the visceral and dramatic intensity of Dark Knight, and suffered, like 300, from some over-blown adolescent-fantasy imagery. I'm going to give the movie--which I remember liking quite a bit--another go here pretty soon, so I'll be back with more on Frank Miller and Sin City.

16 July 2009

After Dark, My Sweet

She'd led a hard life for a long time, and it told on her face. But she had the looks, all right, the features and the figure. And sometimes--well, quite a bit of the time--she could act just as nice as she looked.

Jim Thompson, After Dark, My Sweet, 1955


Jim Thompson is one of those guys who doesn't bullshit around. He likes to get his characters going, and especially to get them thinking, and once they get to thinking they move inexorably to their doom. Imagine a bunch of small-time, small-town drifters, losers, and wannabes cooking up some half-assed scheme to get rich quick, and then suddenly, violently, actually going through with it. It goes to hell of course, messier and uglier than anyone thought possible. That's a Jim Thompson novel. After Dark, My Sweet is one of a long line of sad, sordid tales of the lost, mad, and lonely and the worlds that fall apart in front of them. It was made into a film of the same title in 1990. This surprisingly good neo-noir starred Jason Patric, Rachel Ward, and Bruce Dern. Ms Ward certainly fit the bill as Fay, and Mr Dern was perfectly cast as Uncle Bud. I had to warm up to Mr Patric as Collie--his quirks were annoying--but I think, in the end, his performance makes the movie work. The script was strong, borrowing heavily from the novel for dialog, and it moved along at a moderate pace. It was shot entirely in Indio, California (I thought it was Palm Springs) and the desert setting fit the bleak mood of the story. If you want good, contemporary noir, then give this film a chance. And if you want to read genuine, all-American, hard-boiled pulp fiction, then read Jim Thompson.

11 July 2009

Preacher

I've enjoyed a lot of stuff from DC Vertigo over the years, and today I just finished the Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon creation Preacher. Is it noir? It is certainly dark, but the cosmic scale and fanatastic elements push it closer to SF. In the end, without giving too much away, it is a love story. The Reverend Jesse Custer and Tulip O'Hare are doomed to be together, forever, no matter what happens, and neither one wants it any other way. I can't blame the fella, she's quite a catch, one of my favorite fictional femmes, for sure. Proinsias "How're Yez?" Cassidy, an Irish vampire, completes the twisted triangle. They smoke and drink a hell of a lot, like any self-respecting hard-boiled tale, but they battle God, demons, the Holy Grail, the marines, alligators, psychotic hillbillies, you know, the usual stuff for comic books. It's an adventure story--a hero's quest--with a meditation on friendship and a rant against the gods along the way. I loved it, I found that it engaged me completely when I picked it up. It was incomparably illustrated with gorgeous colors, that made it easy. It was at turns funny, twisted, bizarre, scary, wild, and just plain brilliant. Whatta yez waitin' for, ya bleedin' gobshites, read the bloody fookin' thing!

(T'anks to me mate JCP for the loaners)

10 July 2009

The Music Store

On our visit to San Francisco we encountered this lovely spot a half block from the West Portal Muni station. They actually called themselves "The Music Store." They sold vinyl, mostly, and I remarked to one of the youngsters behind the counter that I had no idea vinyl records were still in such demand. He smiled and said "it's the best way to listen to music." He was half my age! They also had--wait for it--cassettes. Alas, I did not see 8-tracks. But they were stocked with used CDs and we had a lot fun rummaging through the bins. I didn't find anything by The Pogues, or Sam Cooke, or John Prine, or a bunch of other folks I was searching for. But I did find a terrific Townes Van Zandt double album, Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas. The late Mr. Van Zandt's songs have been covered by the likes of Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, and Lucinda Williams. Check him out if you don't know his stuff--he's kind of weird hybrid between Doc Watson and Hank Williams, with a little Bob Dylan thrown in. Over in the rock bin I scored two CDs: 12 x 5 by the Rolling Stones and Beneath This Gruff Exterior by John Hiatt and the Goners. Mr. Hiatt is still pounding out smart, soulful stuff after all these years. The early Stones is mostly covers, with "Around and Around" by Chuck Berry being a particularly good one. "Under the Boardwalk" is lackluster, but, doo-wop is not their style. Can you imagine what Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention could have done with that tune? Back in the C & W bin I found a Best of Dolly Parton collection from 1975 with all her original hits like "Jolene" and "I Will Always Love You." I think I did pretty well, don't you?

09 July 2009

The Danhattan

When Mr B. makes a cocktail, you take notice. His cocktails don't just taste like a bunch of stuff mixed together. They're blended. They're balanced. They're concotions. His take on an American classic, the robust whiskey drink known as The Manhattan, is proof of that. Start with the right ratio: 3-parts-whiskey-to-1-part vermouth. Split the whiskey portion: half Maker's Mark Bourbon, half Wild Turkey Rye. Split the vermouth portion as well. Use a drier, more herbal sweet vermouth for one half. For the other half, The Danhattan requires Cynar. That's right, Cynar, the artichoke liqueur. Never heard of it? Hah! Cretin! All this chilled over ice and strained into a large cocktail glass. Then a spot of Fee Bros. bitters, and to top it off, a brandied loquat as the fruit garnish. You heard me right. A loquat. Half of one, actually, sliced open, stone removed. Soaked in a spiced, sugar-brandy solution. What's that you say? You don't go to those lengths to make a good drink? You don't go around inventing them and naming them either, do you? Didn't think so. You wanna play with the big boys you gotta have some game.

I made my notes AFTER drinking a Danhattan, so I am not repsonsible for any errors or omissions in this recipe. Readers are encouraged to experiment.

02 July 2009

Road trip!!

We are heading south to Lake Tahoe for the Fourth of July weekend. After that, we go to San Francisco and get to see some Giants games! Matt Cain is scheduled to pitch on Monday--ain't it grand? I'm cutting the digital cords for the duration. Expect me back in a week.

01 July 2009

New month, new cyber-hell

I thought it was bad when I started blogging, then I made an experimental foray into the dreaded MySpace, and now I've taken the Facebook plunge. Yikes, like I don't spend enough time on-line already? I remember Bruce Sterling (one of my fave SF guys) once being credited with the 21st-century credo: if you're not jacked in, you're not part of the future. Except for the fookin' mobile glued to my ear, and the lack of texting skillz, I'm pretty fookin' jacked in these days. I mean, I can hardly watch a ball game anymore without Gameday and PITCHf/x at my fingertips. I still use topo maps and a compass, fer chrissakes, but I am really and truly planning to buy a GPS device. That way I'll know exactly where I am when I get lost in the woods. It is great living here in the State of Jefferson. We've got seriously old school folks everywhere. Oh sure, there are cowboys roaring around town in their F-250 diesels sippin' lattes and doing the hands-free phone thing, but then there are acres and acres of country where a tin can telephone would be high-tech. I'm going to be 50 this November. I remember learning to program in FORTRAN using punch cards when I was a freshman at Cal in 1977. When I did my student teaching in 1983 we taught "computer science" to 8th graders using Commodore PETs. Now every kid is a "digital native" and the rest of us are just immigrants. I wonder what new and wondrous things the future will bring. In the meantime, I'll try my best to keep up.

30 June 2009

Synchronicity

I'm not going to get all-Jungian on you, don't worry. Most of that "meaning" stuff is, in my view, ascribing more significance to events than they deserve. But I'm a skeptic, and a bit of a crank, so take it for what it's worth. Regardless, WordMan™ digs "synchronicity" because of its Greek root: khronos. The word means "time" or "age." According to Partridge, the verb form is khronizein, and that forms a compound with sun- (with, together) to make sunkhronizein. Thus we have "synchronize" in English, whence comes "synchronicity." Recently, for reasons I'm not quite sure, I became interested in a film I saw many years ago called Dark City. It is a unique piece of work: part noir, part fantasy/SF, part philosophical rumination. In all, it is enjoyable and engrossing. The central theme is illusion vs. reality. The main story line is the creeping awareness by one individual that something is wrong with his life--his memories have been suppressed, and his gradual awakening shatters his safe, comfortable world and forces him on a quest for the truth. I also recently picked up an old paperback novel, Time Out of Joint, by the SF master Philip K. Dick. It was written in 1959--my birth year--and the central theme is illusion vs. reality. The main story line is the creeeping awareness by one individual that something is wrong with his life--his memories have been suppressed, and his gradual awakening shatters his safe, comfortable world and forces him on a quest for truth.

Coincidence? Or synchronicity?

Actually, I could give a shit. But it was pretty cool. Both works, the movie and the novel, were not only well made, but fun and thought-provoking. By the way, the PKD site I linked to above is excellent. I'm going to add it to my list.

22 June 2009

I went to an actual concert!

A rare event for me, I might add. I actually spent money, too. Les Claypool of Primus fame was the headliner. I was familiar with him mostly by reputation, so it was exciting to hear and see him perform live. Supposedly he plays the bass guitar, but this show featured a variety of strange-looking versions of the instrument that one would not know, at first glance, were bass guitars. Mr. Claypool also liked to wear weird outfits (including doing one number in a monkey suit) and sing strange songs while playing his instruments. His distinguishing mark seemed to be the use of a bow, like a cellist, but he would also whack the strings with quick, short blows and create some remarkable percussive effects. He was one of those fellows that did everything effortlessly, not appearing to break a sweat or having to concentrate. The music was in the rock genre, but lacked much of the traditional song structures, involving a lot of meandering jams and jumbled melodies. I must admit I liked it. The rhythms were brisk and danceable, the crowd was on its feet most of the show, and the thumping, driving, thundering rock sensibility of the band was much in evidence. The band consisted of a cellist--weird, considering the lead instrument was the electric bass--a drummer, and another percussionist who's main piece was the vibraphone. The vibes have a long history in jazz, and this outfit had the jazz band's free-wheeling attitude and superb musicianship. Claypool is a wizard, conjuring up some fantastic stuff from the bass, really stretching the boundaries of the instrument. I was remimded a bit of Belá Fleck's genre-bending mastery of the banjo. Despite the differences in style, both men have a playful mien on stage and infect the audience with their sense of fun. Claypool showed a bit of his darker side, savaging a drunk in the front row--who was apprently hassling a woman--with some choice epithets. I can't imagine that from the soft-spoken Mr. Fleck. The opening act was Yard Dogs Road Show, a unique combination of music and performance that included dancing girls and sword-swallowing. Imagine the mistreated, bastard offspring of The Tubes and Frank Zappa and you'll get some idea. They were actually quite impressive musicians and singers, featuring the usual rock lineup of guitar, bass, and drums, but rounded out with an accordion, trombone and trumpet. The dancing girls were a true burlesque act, channeling the Old West and vaudeville quite nicely, and showing a lot of lovely flesh as well. All in all, it was a good pairing. The gorgeous setting in Jacksonville and beautiful weather (as well as a great dinner with my bestest pals) made it a first-rate evening's entertainment.

21 June 2009

East coast bias

Everyone is talking about the Solstice today, but for us left-coasters, the astronomical event actually ocurred last night (22 h 46 m PDT). Regardless, today is the first official day of summer. Here in the State of Jefferson, we have cool temperatures and partly cloudy skies. Summer here is usually quite hot, and one can go weeks without seeing a cloud. I'm not a big fan of desert summer climate, so I've been enjoying the spring-like conditions. The Celts started their summer about halfway between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice, the so-called Beltaine, the cross-quarter day often celebrated as May Day. The Solstice, to them, was Midsummer or High Summer. That way they had several weeks of lenghthening days before the longest day happened. So, Happy Midsummer!

20 June 2009

Harvest Ale

In June? You bet, you just have to look south. The Sierra Nevada folks have a new brew, the 2009 Southern Hemisphere Harvest Fresh Hop Ale. It is part of a series, naturally, of fresh "hop harvest" beers, but the first I've come across. It was a rich, smooth, velvety drink, with a bright hop nose and lots of flavor. The strong, dry finish was not in the least bitter or astringent. Apparently they've discovered, like me, the joys of New Zealand hops. The Chico guys have been making killer brews since I was a senior at Cal, they are the "third leg" of my beer triumvirate along with Anchor Steam and Guinness. These are the drinks that opened my palate, and showed me there was more--much more--to malt beverages than Bud and Coors. Raise a glass, mates!

19 June 2009

The Russo Clan

I just noticed that the protagonist of the last two Hard Case Crime novels I blogged about were Anthony Russo, in Peter Blauner's 1994 Casino Moon (HCC-055), and Tony Russo, in Jason Starr's Fake I.D. (HCC-056). Funny, I thought I'd made a mistake with one of the posts, but I just double-checked and, indeed, the characters have the same name.

Coincidence?

Or conspiracy?

18 June 2009

Protagonist

The Greek dramatists gave us protagonist, the lead actor or main character. There's not much more you can say than that about Tommy Russo in Jason Starr's Fake I.D (HCC-056). He's the principal figure in the book, as well as the narrator, and you spend a lot of time with him. He's a loathsome sort, one of those completely self-absorbed types who sees all other people as merely levers to open up doors for him. He's also delusional--he thinks people like him, or ought to like him because he's good-looking and charming. He also believes, hilariously so, that owning a racehorse will transform his life. Riches, fame, respect, Hollywood parties, and all the other trappings of celebrity status will magically appear once he joins the exclusive fraternity of horse owners. The guy's a loser. The only thing he has in abundance is chutzpah, and I hesitate to use that lovely Yiddish word because it has a humorous, even likeable connotation for me. And Tommy Russo is neither funny nor likeable. So why write a book about a loser? Lots of novels have heroes, not merely protagonists, but noir fiction is different. You don't have to have good guys. What you have to have is tension. And Mr. Starr does that very well. Fake I.D. both grips you and repels you. The action is simple, direct, linear, and not at all surprising. But it is handled deftly, the suspense building chapter-by-chapter until the shit hits the fan and the protagonist meets his fate. I was reminded of Jim Thompson, especially books like The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280, where we go along for the ride with rather unsavory protagonists who seem to think the world exists entirely for them. All three of these works are bleak--you feel like you need a shower when you're done or the psychoses will rub off on you. But they are also surprisingly funny. Sure, it is a dark sort of humor, but that's why they call it noir, no?

17 June 2009

The Frozen Chosin

My dad was with the 5th Marines (Easy Company) in Korea. I was weaned on Robert Leckie's March to Glory, a gripping, novelistic tale of the Chosin Reservoir campaign. Dad had been frozen at Yudman-ni, wounded at Hagaru-ri, and evacuated at Hugnam. The story of his regiment's two weeks of hell in the North Korean mountains was part of my childhood lore. One of the first comprehensive histories of the battle was put together in 1981 by Eric Hammel, titled Chosin: Heroic Ordeal of the Korean War. I just finished it, and unfortunately it lacked the concise elegance of Leckie's book, suffering from an excess of detail and a confusing chronology. Of course, I've read perhaps two dozen works on Korea and Chosin over the years, and to be fair to Mr. Hammel, I got to his last. Military history is a tough task for a writer. You have to have a grasp of the jargon and the technical aspects of war-fighting, a good sense of the times you are writing about, and an unconscious mastery of geography and terrain. (For me, none of these books have enough maps!) I think the problem comes down to scope. Broad histories often lack human detail, unit narratives often miss the cultural, political, and historical context. There's a balance out there, and I don't envy the author searching to find it.

14 June 2009

The long and winding cyber-road

Today's post is a shout-out to pal Stephani, who paid us a surprise visit yesterday. She told me she reads my blogs regularly. That makes her one of a tiny handful! Gentle Readers: thanks for sticking with me. I am eternally grateful for your companionship.

07 June 2009

Casino Moon

Peter Blauner's 1994 novel Casino Moon was Hard Case Crime's May 2009 selection. It is the story of a fading, failing family. Atlantic City once was the Mob's town, but with la Cosa Nostra increasingly on the outside, the Russo family is finding it hard to make ends meet. Young Anthony dreams of the big payoff, a legit payoff, to finally get out from under the shadow of his stepfather Vin, an enforcer in Teddy Marino's organization. To make matters worse, Anthony is married to Marino's niece, and indebted to him financially as well. Teddy and Vin assume that Anthony will see the light and join the family's enterprises, but Anthony stubbornly wants to make it on his own. He goes off on a convoluted scheme to promote a championship fight, which ultimately Teddy views as the act of a traitor. Throw in a once-crooked but now honorable cop, a tough-as-nails femme who falls for our boy, a sleazy media mogul, a washed-up but wise prizefighter, and a few assorted thugs and you have a complex and satisfying novel. I'm not much for Mafia stories--I saw The Godfather in the 8th grade, fer chrissakes, and those films were the apotheosis of the genre. I like my crime to be local, and not necessarily professional. But that's a quibble, the story alternated between first-person (Anthony) and third person, which made it long (333 pages) compared to most of the HCC line. Unfortunately, Anthony wasn't terribly likeable or interesting, even though his plight was. Trapped by his past, something he had no control over, made him hungry and desperate, and his fall is all too predictable. The story is really about that--how an environment can poison its inhabitants, and turn every choice they make into something else entirely. Everyone is looking for an edge and watching their back because that's the dog-eat-dog world they live in. Escape is your only chance at redemption. A noir landscape, to be sure.

04 June 2009

Queen of the Blues

I own a set of DVDs from Reelin' in the Years called The American Folk Blues Festival. They feature footage of a generation of blues greats touring in Europe in the mid-sixties. The recordings are an absolute treasure and a must-have for blues fans. One of the discs features Koko Taylor singing "Wang Dang Doodle." She must have been in her 40s at the time, but she had the joyous swagger of a teen pop idol. Her growling, rocking vocals were part Etta James and part Big Mama Thornton, and seemed to emerge from deep within her as she belted out that party song. She was a distinctive-looking woman, with a huge, toothy mouth and big eyes set wide apart in a broad face. I was transfixed. Thus was my introduction to this giant of blues music, who just passed away at the age of 80. Sadly, Koko and her contemporaries are almost all gone. Fortunately for us the music lives on.

Recquiescat in pacem.

31 May 2009

"I love this country!"

Our pal had a birthday party this weekend and we brought him a bottle of Rowan's Creek Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. His response was the above joyful exclamation. I couldn't disagree--folks out there are getting together and making small batch bourbons. That sort of behavior should be encouraged! Bourbon is America's unique contribution to whiskey, and it remains my personal favorite. Our local liquor shop had another small batch bourbon called Corner Creek Reserve which we picked up for ourselves. It had a remarkably smooth and mellow quality, not as full-flavored as the gift batch. But those were first impressions only, and a good whiskey requires re-visiting. Here's to spiritus kentuckii and the folks who create it!

28 May 2009

Double dose of P.I.

I am always interested in the "hard-boiled" P.I., and I finally got around to reading a couple of paperbacks that I'd accumulated within the last year. The first was Act of Fear (1967) by "Michael Collins" (Dennis Lynds), featuring Dan Fortune, the one-armed detective. The second was The Lime Pit (1980) by Jonathan Valin, featuring Cincinnati detective Harry Stoner. Both stories were the first in a series, Stoner appearing in ten more novels and Fortune in another sixteen. Of the two, I liked the Lynds book the best--it was shorter more tightly plotted. Both gumshoes, in the hard-boiled P.I. tradition, mused on life and love while solving the crime. Fortune was less wordy than Stoner, and kept his philosophical preachings brief. Another point in his favor. Mr. Valin's work suffered a bit from too many adjectives and adverbs, a pet peeve with me, especially in a noir novel. Mr. Lynds created a somber atmosphere with his re-creation of the Chelsea district of Manhattan that seemed to infuse the story with dread. I have been to Chelsea, and actually walked the streets there, and NYC is big and bad and infamous, so perhaps he had an easier task. The Stoner book was set in Cincy, and there are lots of references to streets and neighborhoods, but much of the action takes place in the neighboring town of Newport, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River. Newport is morally "on the other side" for the genteel Cincy residents, where gambling and whoring and whatnot take place under a lax legal system. Valin uses that motif nicely, and Stoner has to do the real ugly work in Newport. Both books are very much in the Chandler tradition, with the loner/outsider detective struggling to make sense of a crazy world, and fighting to right a wrong just because, well, that's just what they do.

19 May 2009

Eye in the Sky

The world is full of good news, it just gets drowned out sometimes. Fixing the Hubble Space Telescope is good news. This is the end of the Space Shuttle. NASA says its next step forward is Constellation, which involves a new launch vehicle, new orbiter, and a new mission. I'm not sure we'll ever get the scientific payoff from human space missions that will compare to Hubble or Voyager or Cassini or the Mars Rovers or any of the spectacular achievements of the last few decades involving robotic craft. Those vehicles may not have men or women inside them as they fly through space or orbit a planet, but they are surely not "unmanned." The enormous human capital required to design, build, fly and maintain these things surely makes that a misnomer. Human spaceflight is a funny thing. Forty years ago the nation was captivated by Apollo X, the penultimate moon mission. Today's Shuttle missions don't generate the excitement of exploration that intoxicated everyone during the moon landings. The new generation of manned space journeys will most likely not recapture those feelings, but there will be a heightened sense of urgency as our world struggles with environmental degradation and overpopulation. NASA knows that the probes and instruments will tell us what we need to know, but that the people won't buy it without a human face. I hope I get to see it all unfold. Meanwhile, bravo to the astronauts and the ground crews and the thinkers and planners and technicians for what they accomplished this week. The Eye in the Sky still sees.

16 May 2009

BTQ

I'm a bit of a stickler for usage, and often find myself riled by abusage. I'm not over-zealous, but I try to be correct. When I find that I've committed a diction sin or grammatical error, I like to work on it and rid myself of it. One of the many, many phrases in English that had a narrow, specific meaning or usage at one time but has morphed into a less precise, broader-applied phrase is "begging the question." There is a blog--well, a website, at least--that attacks this abusage and points us to the proper path. It is called Beg the question: get it right. Just this morning I improperly used BTQ in a comment on a blog post. I meant to say "raises the question," but lapsed into an idiomatic mistake and used the aforementioned BTQ. Blog posts are timely, ethereal things. Tomorrow there is a new post and the old ones are forgotten even if they are carefully archived and catalogued by Google. Comments are often conversational, and the grammar, spelling, and diction mistakes they exhibit are more than anything a result of the hurried, off-the-cuff nature of that form of expression. But I don't like that: I appreciate proper English. So I was chagrined by my casual mistake. "Begging the question" means to assume something is true simply because you've stated it. It is a logical fallacy, a weakness in an argument, a bit of rhetorical cluelessness. "I don't like hamburgers because they aren't any good" is begging the question. You are asserting the truth of the statement without any foundation. Alas, this usage is perhaps obsolete in our fast-moving times, but it got WordMan™ off his duff for today, at least!

10 May 2009

Manny, Mothers, and Major League Baseball

Major League Baseball sure wants you to know all about Manuel Aristides Onelcida Ramirez' urine. That trademarked and copyrighted fairytale-factory wants you to care a lot about what's in a grown man's bloodstream. But I don't. I'm one of those baseball fans that doesn't want to know or need to know. Sportswriters are a funny beast--they project much of their fantasies about athletic achievement on to the athletes they cover. They assign them roles in a myth, and rank them as heroes or villains. The billionaires who own the clubs don't care, they've got PR departments and advertising budgets. Slap on a heavy coat of patriotism and motherhood and you've got a product. These same billionaires convince cities to pump tax dollars into corporate playgrounds called ballparks. The business these same billionaires are in enjoys a Congressionally-approved monopoly status. Major League Baseball has Budweiser and Chevrolet to sell. If one of the heroes is tarnished by something he ate, fewer people might buy Budweiser and Chevrolet, and that would be bad for America. Manny is a hero--and when he falls, he falls hard. At least that's what Major League Baseball wants you to think. Manny's a damn fine ballplayer. I don't know if he's a damn fine man or not. That's his business. And as long as he's not hurting anyone, I'm damn sure I don't care. I have a hero. My mother is my hero. I'd be willing to bet mothers are heroes to a lot a people. Look for the heroes closest to you. And let plumbers be plumbers and ballplayers be ballplayers, and let them have whatever makes them happy. Happy Mothers Day.

05 May 2009

Celtic Summer

It always seemed strange to me that we marked the start of summer on the solstice--the longest day. After that point, the days get shorter. The Celts reckoned the solstice as mid-summer. Day length increases once you are past the equinox. At some point you get to say "summer is starting." The logical spot would be halfway from the equinox to the solstice--the so-called cross-quarter day. If the orbit of the earth around the sun is a circle, and it damn near is, it can be cut into quadrants. Summer Solstice to Autumnal Equinox to Vernal Equinox to Summer Solstice--four big pieces of pie. Cut those pieces in half and you get eight parts. Those four new dividing lines are the "cross-quarter" days because they cut the quarter-parts in two. Lammas, or Lughnasa, is the first, coming halfway between the June solstice and the September equinox. Then we have Hallowe'en, or Samhain, between the equinox and the December solstice. Imbolc, or Groundhog Day, splits the solstice from the Vernal Equinox. Now we have reached the next spot, halfway to Midsummer (the solstice). We call it Beltane or May Day. This year, according to those who know, the cross-quarter day, the first of the Celtic summer, is today. May 5th. Cinco de Mayo.

Happy summer!