Crazy Scandinavian Ideas

The Scandinavians have some crazy ideas.

1. Putting throne rooms on the top floor of castles. Rosenborg Slot, the marvelous little castle in Copenhagen (jewel of an enormous, wonderful garden park), devotes almost the entire third floor to a massive throne room. Somehow I was thrown off. Wouldn’t you want it on the ground floor? “Excuse me while I run upstairs to be king for a few minutes!”

Rosenborg Slot

Nice attic, guys. (All pictures expand when clicked.)

But on the other hand, it does make a certain kind of sense. You want to intimidate and impress visitors, right? What better way than to make them huff and puff up two flights of stairs before they get to see you? You can just sit there on the throne, watching them catch their breath and sweat, and feel superior! Wait okay this is a great idea. Next.

2. A gelato shop called Dental Clinic. Who are we kidding. This is an amazing idea.

I figured you guys would need proof. By the way, elderflower gelato is really good.

I figured you guys would need proof. By the way, elderflower gelato is really good.

3. Asian Station Hot Dog Corner. This is in Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen.

Asian Station

The menu: pulled pork and beer. Because what do you expect from an Asian hot dog place? Get used to the pulled pork. It’s kind of a big deal.

Truth is, the Danes have odd ideas about a lot of ethnic foods. Many restaurants advertise an “American Special”: either a pulled pork sandwich, which is fair enough, or a pulled chicken sandwich. A pulled chicken sandwich sounds not-good, but I was kind of tempted to try it, because where in America can you get an American Special? I have photographic proof that a chain over there is charging US $19.95 for a “pulled chicken burger”. Those poor, poor people.

4. An autonomous hippie commune where everybody’s stoned all day and they have a fake UNESCO World Heritage Site plaque. Say hello to Christiania:

Christiania

Photography is banned in most of Christiania. It’s certainly banned on the main streets. This is one of just two photos I took, and yet this photo PERFECTLY captures the entire spirit of the place. If you want to imagine Christiania in your mind, just look at this guy, and what you imagine is correct.

Christiania is Copenhagen’s semi-autonomous hippie commune. There is an unease and ill-defined relationship with local authorities, where the cops mostly look the other way, ignoring a marijuana culture that would make Colorado turn colors with jealousy. I ran into a fellow American guy there and said I was from Texas. “Austin? You from Austin?” “No, I’m from Dallas.” “Oh, wow. Usually everyone from Austin dreams of coming here but nobody else in Texas has even heard of it.”

The drug dealers pitch camouflage tents, like you’d see on M*A*S*H, to conduct their business inside. There’s also a conveniently situated bakery. But Christiania also has non-drug areas: art galleries and installations, a cinema in an abandoned warehouse (predictably, it shows only avant garde film), a few quality bars, and a great vegetarian restaurant where they cook one meal a day and if you don’t like it, you go somewhere else. Christiania is also sited on canals which feel downright rural; you’re in the heart of Copenhagen but it feels like you’re way out in the countryside. It’s really a remarkable place. Maybe it should be protected by UNESCO. Maybe.

5. Simpsons bread.

Simpsons bread

This is why, when you travel, you should always visit a grocery store.

6. Building a gigantic warship so stable and safe that it can travel up to 0.8 miles before sinking! Meet the Vasa. In the 1600s, Sweden was at war with Poland and needed a few nice big warships, so they ordered some. The shipbuilders got to work on Vasa, a top-heavy colossus with two decks of cannons. Unfortunately, the cannons moved the center of gravity upwards, and the ship was about four feet too narrow. So on the triumphant maiden voyage, a test voyage of sorts on which the crew members brought their wives and children, the Vasa got 0.8 miles into the harbor of Stockholm when a “light breeze” knocked it nearly onto its side.

Heroic efforts by the crew managed to get the ship upright again, but water had flooded in the openings for all the cannons, and once it was upright, it sank to the bottom instantly.

The story gets crazier. 330+ years later, some determined Swedes found the ship, intact, at the bottom of the harbor. So they managed to pick it up, pull it out of the water, put it on land, cover it in preservative chemicals, and build a spectacular museum around it.

After nearly 400 years, the original Vasa is 98% intact.

Vasa ship

Just so you get some perspective on size, do you see that little black thing in the bottom right corner? That’s a person.

There’s no way to prepare you for seeing the Vasa. It is one of the most spectacular sights in Europe, housed in one of the most spectacular museums in the world. A rather thrilling documentary explains the mind-boggling process of raising and restoring the ship; exhibits include original cannons, one of the original sails (somehow partly preserved in the water), and some of the bodies of the drowned. And then there’s the Vasa, around which the (extraordinary) building has been designed.

Stern of the Vasa

There’s just no way to explain it. What you’re seeing here are the carvings on the back of the ship. This photo covers about 1.5 stories of your typical house. HUGE.

The Swedes are convinced that there is nothing else like this, anywhere in the world. They are probably correct. And why was the ship so perfectly preserved? Because it sank instantly in the cold northern waters. Had the Vasa gone into battle, nobody would have seen it again.

7. And you thought IKEA was the start of the practical furniture trend. Nope. Have a look at this thing in Drottningholm Palace, which remains to this day the residence of the Swedish royal family, and where photography is illegal, but that’s not important right now:

Surprise cabinet

Quick! Name That Furniture!

So, what is that brown thing with the marble top and the nice wood carvings? Hah! You’re wrong. It’s a bed. Duh. Back in the 1700s, the king wanted to have a servant boy around at all times, so they made a little fold-out bed for the servant kid, and had it fold out of a fake cabinet.

8. Having a bar called Garlic and Shots that serves nothing but garlic, shots, garlic in shots, and just for variety, garlic beer. In the interest of selfless journalistic enterprise, I went. Full report coming soon.

1 Comment

Filed under Storytime

Biker’s Island

Last week I got back from Denmark, Sweden, and Germany, and had a great trip. Enjoying Copenhagen and Stockholm was no surprise; they’re awesome cities, especially Stockholm, clean and lively and friendly, teeming with history. The big surprise came between all those big cities. Before we left, my travel partner Carolyn suggested we make a detour to the island of Gotland, located off Sweden in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Gotland is not exactly a legendary tourist destination, so I agreed without having any idea what to expect. Answer: happiness.

Gotland Map

Just so we’re all clear on where Gotland is (click to expand)

To get there, you must take a car ferry full of Swedish people – I only saw one family of English-speaking tourists. The ferry boat is not exactly small.

Ferry boat

Here’s, uh, part of the boat, as viewed from the ferry terminal windows.

The boats all go to Visby, the island’s capital. Visby traces its roots back to the medieval trading networks, and in the 1200s the local government built walls around town. The walls weren’t to keep Vikings out. They were to keep out foreign traders, who were consigned to a ghetto while the locals got to live inside. The walls are still standing, incredibly enough, and a few parts are walkable, although not many. Inside of them, the old town is relatively intact: our hotel was built in the 1600s, although I’m happy to report it has been remodeled since. There are also numerous ruins, including quite a few gigantic ruined old churches.

View of Visby

View of Visby. Notice the roof-less medieval church.

In the summertime, Visby becomes Sweden’s unlikely party capital, but in May, it’s merely adorable, a town of cobblestone streets, al fresco cafes, and narrow passageways. The competent local brewery, Gotlands Bryggeri, is in an old house. And the food is excellent: fresh fish and lamb, since Gotland is full of sheep. (Got does not translate to “goat”; it has more to do with “Goth”.) I had an incredible plate of fried fish – not battered and deep fried until stiff, but lightly battered and almost red, the way (coincidence?) my mom would do it. I also had a delicious ox steak. Ox tastes a lot like beef; it’s comparable to a good New York strip. And then there’s the dessert I’ll be raving about for years: a creamy, toasty “blueberry sandwich”.

Another delight of Gotland is simply renting a bicycle and biking around. You don’t need to be much of a fit, practiced biker to do this. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in 8 years.

Most of the island is, if not flat as a pancake, still pretty darn flat. Most of it is covered in gorgeous fields, forests, lakes, and medieval churches. And even if you don’t go far, you will find rewards. My plan was to bike out to Roma, a good 11 miles, and see some ruins there, catching a few sites on the way. I didn’t even make it half the distance. For one thing, not biking for 8 years turns out to be a bad decision. For another, I kept turning off every side road and dirt path, and they kept leading to cool stuff. A series of houses with mailboxes painted in detailed farm scenes; enormous fields of yellow flowers; some kind of top-secret installation with a sign that clearly said “No Traffic” but whatever, nobody stopped me.

The church at Follingbo has been there for nearly 800 years, and nowadays it’s still an active church, but a quiet one. When I reached it, nobody else was on or even near the premises.

Follingbo

Follingbo. Actually this is just about the entire town. There are still fresh flowers in the little cemetery by the church. By the way, please notice that I was on an island in the Baltic Sea and managed to have sunny skies.

Down the road a ways, a dirt track wound back into a nature preserve, so I decided to follow it. Eventually the trail ran out the back and dead-ended at an active rock quarry, but not before passing an abandoned quarry which had been turned into a very dramatic pond.

Lake in Gotland

Pictured: the only pond I have seen that has its own cliffs. (There were cliffs on three sides.)

Another path took me, or so it promised, to a “scenic overlook,” which I never found. Not that it mattered, because everything was gorgeous. I can’t say anything beat that nature preserve, though. To get to the pond, you have to pass through some spectacular forest scenery, such as this:

Forest in Gotland

As always, click to gigantify.

In other words, Gotland is one of those unappreciated places where everything is wonderful, even the wrong turns. It’s not famous because it doesn’t have any marquee attractions: no spectacular lakes, or spectacular ruins, or sprawling cathedrals, although it is well-known in Scandinavia for its beaches. Gotland isn’t always stunning; it’s just always really cool, always charming. I only saw about 1% of it, probably, and while at some point there’d be diminishing returns as you witnessed more identical scenery, there is certainly tons left for me to explore. It’s not often you stumble on something so cool and so far off the tourist industry path. Tell all your friends! Or maybe don’t tell them, and just go see it for yourself.

Visby waterfront

The gorgeous waterfront in Visby.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Storytime

I’m Dhoomed

This week my friend Kait and I went to the local Bollywood theatre to see one of the most popular new movies in the world: Dhoom: 3.

Dhoom: 3

The stars, left to right: Uday Chopra, Abhishek Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Katrina Kaif. Please notice that they are on fire.

It would be hard to mistake Dhoom: 3 for a good movie. But if you don’t have fun watching Dhoom: 3, I’m not sure I can trust you. Film Critic Hulk says that it is “the most movie movie” that he’s ever seen, and what he means is, everything that people have traditionally shoehorned into movies is in Dhoom: 3. There is a tap-dance number. There is a transformer that can change from a motorcycle to a jet-ski. There are bank heists. There’s a guy looking out a penthouse apartment window over an entire city, plotting revenge. There’s a beautiful woman auditioning for a dancing role by stripping. There’s an action lead character who’s mentally impaired, with the actor disobeying the advice of Tropic Thunder and going full retard. Luckily a perfect, beautiful woman falls in love with the cartoonishly slow guy and promises to turn his life around.

Also, there is a circus with fire and juggling and acrobats and high-wire acts. Also, a girl writes a love poem to herself. Also, there’s a standoff on the Hoover Dam. Also, a cop dangles from a rope ladder hanging twenty feet out the back of a helicopter and, with one bullet, successfully shoots a thief on a motorcycle.

Oh, you thought I was joking.

You get the idea.

You might be thinking that Dhoom: 3 is shameless. No. It is so sincere and self-confident that it isn’t even shameless. If you are shameless, that means you know you could have been ashamed, potentially. Dhoom: 3 does not even know shame exists. It is a weird sort of innocent: it wants to be entertaining and fun and thrilling, and as long as it is, who cares about everything else?

That sincerity is one thing that makes the movie so fun. Another great thing is the desire to have every possible entertainment on the screen, from a bank robber running down the facade of the bank building in slow-motion to our hero getting tied to railroad tracks at an amusement park. Yet another is that the movie is set entirely in Chicago.

We Americans have a grand tradition of setting movies in foreign countries and then using the exotic locales to get away with touristy racism. Dhoom: 3 turns the tables, using Chicago to the hilt: the midway, the L train, Wacker Drive, a boat chase on the river, and the Shedd Aquarium. But what’s most hilarious is when Bollywood gets it wrong. A chase scene abruptly shifts from downtown to a rural interstate highway and then back to downtown again. One character rents a high-rise apartment in northern Chicago with a picturesque view of an enormous mountain range. And, as I mentioned, eventually everybody winds up on the Hoover Dam, 1800 miles away.

But hey, we asked for it. All those western movies that appropriate Indian and Chinese monuments for our entertainment? Skyfall, in which a train chase scene that begins in Istanbul ends in the mountains of Kurdistan? Yeah, we totally deserve to have foreigners make movies that don’t understand America.

As much as I loved turning off my brain and enjoying the absurd spectacle of Dhoom: 3‘s Great Indian Circus, bank heists, and underwater motorcycle escapes, I also loved it when my brain perked up to say “Hey! That makes no sense!” It happened a lot:

  • The proprietor of the Great Indian Circus keeps his company in a massive theatre with a front facade of Greek columns. It looks humongous and has GREAT INDIAN CIRCUS carved into the marble. But right backstage is his cool apartment, with a nice back yard and high ceilings and amazing interior decorating. That’s weird enough, but the first time we see him is in his other apartment, a high-rise penthouse completely empty except for a bed and a laptop computer. The penthouse never appears again.
  • When the bank robber robs the Western Bank of Chicago, each time he does the same thing: throw all the money off the roof so it floats into the street below. This is how the bank realizes it has been robbed. Literally, breaking the bank means physically breaking it so that money will fall out.
  • The Chicago Police Department’s initial plan is to simply chase the bank robber with 20 police cars. Then they bring in Indian cops to help track down the Indian suspect. The cops’ new plan is: to simply chase the bank robber with 20 police cars, and also 2 motorcycles.
  • At some point, every female character, including a ranking police officer, wears a button-down shirt and ties it in a knot over her belly button so you can see her stomach.
  • When Aamir Khan is ready to ride out of the back of a van on the motorcycle he hid inside, he opens the van’s back doors by making the van explode.
  • Besides being a circusmaster, the villain is a master inventor who, among other things, invents motorcycles that can merge into other motorcycles to form supercycles. We never see the process, only the results.

Of course, if I pointed out every error, this review would take three hours to read. (My favorite, though: any time you see Chicago police cars crashing, you will have a very clear sight-line on the empty driver’s seat.) Dhoom: 3 takes three hours to watch, and they form an entertainment like no other.

A still from Katrina Kaif’s striptease.

Does this make Dhoom: 3 “so bad it’s good”? I’m not sure. It’s not good, but it’s not bad. It just has one goal, and one goal only: to give you a good time. It doesn’t care about making sense, continuity from one shot to the next, quality CGI, or accuracy about anything. It also kind of hates bankers, American cops, and the mentally disabled. All it loves is wild, mad spectacle.

Okay, forget what I said a minute ago. Dhoom: 3 is definitely a bad movie. And I haven’t had this much fun at the cinema in years.

1 Comment

Filed under Art

Books of the Year

I read 85 books in 2013. Here’s a quick list of all but the top ten, sorted somewhat. Afterward we’ll cover my ten best.

Special Harry Stephen Keeler Category for So-Bad-It’s-Good-ness

Finger! Finger! (Harry Stephen Keeler); Behind That Mask (Harry Stephen Keeler); The Sharkskin Book (Harry Stephen Keeler)

Irredeemably Bad

The Explorer (W. Somerset Maugham); The Natural (Bernard Malamud)

The worst book I read this year was The Natural, Bernard Malamud’s insulting train-wreck of a baseball novel. Paper-thin characters, tenuous mixture of real and surreal, a totally bogus moral dilemma, plot hinging on stupid and easily avoidable decisions, and misogyny in the disgusting treatment of the female characters. Plus, the book’s just not a good depiction of baseball. In my Goodreads review, I call The Natural “a steaming pile of horseshit.” I really hate that stupid book.

Disappointing but with Some Merit

Capital (John Lanchester); The Stillborn God (Mark Lilla); Without Feathers (Woody Allen); Dangerous Admissions (Jane O’Connor); The Merry Wives of Windsor (William Shakespeare)

Just Kind of Okay

Winning the War on War (Joshua Goldstein); Casino Royale (Ian Fleming); The Age of Persuasion (Terry O’Reilly and Mike Tennant); The Net Delusion (Evgeny Morozov); The End of Overeating (David Kessler); Moonraker (Ian Fleming); Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen); They Say/I Say (Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein); Taken at the Flood (Agatha Christie); From Russia With Love (Ian Fleming); Death Comes to Pemberley (P.D. James); Pulphead (John Jeremiah Sullivan); The House of Wisdom (Jonathan Lyons); Smarter Than You Think (Clive Thompson); The Dictator’s Learning Curve (William J. Dobson)

Three Ian Fleming novels make this category because Fleming is just too creepy towards women to rate higher, and because the movies are more fun.

Pretty Good Non-Fiction, if You’re Interested in the Subject

The Great Inversion (Alan Ehrenhalt); Experiencing Music (Vagn Holmboe); Guide to Outsmarting Wine (Mark Oldman); Three Felonies a Day (Harvey Silverglate); Veeck as in Wreck (Bill Veeck and Ed Linn); On Moral Fiction (John Gardner); The World Without Us (Alan Weisman); Love in the Time of Algorithms (Dan Slater); Death and Life of the Great American School (Diane Ravitch); Sayings of Epictetus; Enough (John C. Bogle); The Art Instinct (Denis Dutton); Consider the Fork (Bee Wilson); Reality Bites Back (Jennifer Pozner); Without Guilt and Justice (Walter Kaufmann); Quack this Way (Bryan A. Garner and David Foster Wallace); My Mother Was Nuts (Penny Marshall)

Pretty Good Novels

What in God’s Name (Simon Rich); The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning (Hallgrimur Helgason); The Sign of Four (Arthur Conan Doyle); The Pale King (David Foster Wallace); The Rock Hole (Reavis Z. Wortham); Longbourn (Jo Baker); The Jabberwock Gambit (Patricia Ladd)

Really, Really Good Non-Fiction

Going Clear (Lawrence Wright); Bonk (Mary Roach); Kitchen Confidential (Anthony Bourdain); The Storytelling Animal (Jonathan Gottschall); Salt Sugar Fat (Michael Moss); Adulting (Kelly Williams Brown); My Beloved World (Sonia Sotomayor); I Feel Bad about My Neck (Nora Ephron); How to Create the Perfect Wife (Wendy Moore); Bossypants (Tina Fey); Out of My League (Dirk Hayhurst); Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking (Anya von Bremzen)

Really, Really Good Fiction

A Study in Scarlet (Arthur Conan Doyle); The Mystery of the Yellow Room (Gaston Leroux); Why Begins with W (anonymousish); The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle); Collected Stories (Nikolai Gogol); Swamplandia! (Karen Russell); Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll); The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas); My Antonia (Willa Cather); No Country for Old Men (Cormac McCarthy); Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan); Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen); The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers); Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ben Fountain)

The Top Ten

Here we go, folks! The countdown of an arbitrary round number of my favorite books of 2013!

10. The Rest is Noise (Alex Ross). How do you take a kind of dry-sounding historical subject that most people dislike, and turn it into a fascinating narrative? This is how. Alex Ross transforms a history of 20th-century classical music into a vivid story with wacky, fascinating characters, hilarious anecdotes, high emotional stakes, and some of the best, most imaginative descriptions of music that I’ve ever read. It’s incredible just for the feat of describing music in words so well.

9. Delusions of Gender (Cordelia Fine). Remember that stuff about men being from Mars and women from Venus? You probably knew that was crap. But what about that stuff proving men and women have brains that are “wired differently”? You may not have realized that’s crap, too. Scientist and writer Cordelia Fine is an entertainingly snarky guide to the world of gender difference, and the people hell-bent on exaggerating gender differences to keep women down. A fascinating work of persuasion and scientific argument that also happens to be a feminist weapon. Cool!

8. Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick). Hundreds of thickly-researched pages describing everyday life in North Korea, using intensive interviews with former North Korean residents, is nobody’s idea of a fun read. There are horrors like family members abandoning each other during famines to survive. But Barbara Demick’s achievement–basically turning the stories of her interviewees into a too-true novel–is astonishing. One of the great feats of journalism from the past ten years.

7. Runaway (Alice Munro). This year’s Nobel Prize went to a Canadian short-story writer whose tales create characters so richly and deeply alive that, after 20 pages, you feel like you’ve actually met them and been friends with them for years. Munro can accomplish in a short story what most writers struggle to accomplish in a 400-page novel, and although there’s a certain sameness to it, the most magical stories are so good you have to stop and take a few deep breaths afterwards, to give yourself time to think.

6. The Untraceable Percy Wren (Patricia Ladd). This joyous fantasy novel gives you a whirlwind tour of a world where immortals gossip and feud like high-schoolers, evil forces are bent on taking over, invisible portals enable those who see them to teleport (roughly) across the globe, and Chaos is personified as a cute rambunctious woman named Grace who just really likes causing trouble. Percy Wren falls straight into this crazy alternate world, and if you aren’t already aware of the peculiar workings of the mind of Patricia Ladd, you’ll want to fall in too, because I don’t know anybody with a bigger, wilder imagination. If you like novels where it turns out cuttlefish are a mispronunciation of cuddlefish, cars are named Trixie, immortals join a terrible boy band, and smashing a clock causes an irritated dandy gent to time-travel to you, you will go crazy over this.

5. Londoners (Craig Taylor). This is a series of nonfictional interviews that is simply brilliant. Craig Taylor sits down with hundreds of Londoners from all walks of life and transcribes their stories as if they are delivering great dramatic monologues. In his hands ordinary people become orators. We follow a night owl around the produce markets; we learn how to live by squatting in abandoned properties; we hear from Tube drivers and airline pilots and rebellious artists and bankers and witnesses to murders. We hear from the malcontents who grow to hate London, the immigrants, people who regret leaving, people who wish they could, people who couldn’t live without it. In these pages, London itself becomes one of the great characters in all literature.

Make no mistake: Londoners is a masterpiece. You need never have been there to be in awe of Taylor’s journalism, though it certainly helps. This book so inspired me that my current fiction project is indirectly based on it. You’ll see what I mean by that, eventually.

4. Life Itself (Roger Ebert). Ebert is one of the great prose stylists of our time, and memory brings out his best and most powerful writing. It would be both corny and accurate to describe this book as full of joy, laughter, sadness, wisdom, hard times, good times, regrets, loves. Roger Ebert lived a pretty interesting life, whether you care about movies or not, but it’s even more interesting in the telling, for few writers talk about themselves this candidly or vividly. Gradually you realize that the title is meant literally. The best autobiographies aren’t about their authors, but about, yes, life itself: about everything that it means to be alive. This is one of the best autobiographies.

3. Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin). For the first time, we have a repeat winner. Eugene Onegin was #3 on my list in 2010, and here it is again. This is one classic that (at least in James Falen’s translation) has barely aged a day. It’s lively, hilarious, heartbreaking; its narrator is a lively character, and, like with today’s best TV, you keep wanting to jump in and yell at the characters. Hardly a chapter goes by without blindingly great lines of verse, wise words that make you stop in your tracks, or jokes that can still throw a punch. I think I could read this book every year and never tire of it.

If you’re still not convinced: there’s a five-stanza digression where the narrator talks about his foot fetish!

2. Bleak House (Charles Dickens). Dickens’ masterpiece? It starts off with a page and a half of descriptive sentence fragments. But Dickens isn’t just showing off; he’s attacking the English legal system with some of his most savage social critique, and entangling us in a web of great characters, and doing all sorts of brilliant things. Like Eugene Onegin, this suffers from “classic” status because people think classics are musty and old and creaky and worshipful. Not so! These two works are livelier and more exuberant and, well, fun, than almost everything being written today. And they’re epics, too. Hurrah!

1. The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat (Edward Kelsey Moore). The only book published in 2013 on this list is also the winner. Huh.

Profundity doesn’t always mean morbidity, melancholia, moroseness, meditation, and murder. Joy, strength, friendship, and love are profound forces too. But they’re much harder to write about, because you have to avoid sentimentality, silliness, and superficiality, and you have to be realistic about the challenges. There are shelves of books where characters face their mortalities and despair; there are fewer where characters face their mortalities and rejoice. Happy endings are common, but deeply meaningful ones are not. Few novels manage to be uplifting without cheating, to be inspiring without manipulation. The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat is one of them.

This is a story about three black women who grow up together in a small town in Indiana. They are lifelong friends; together they face infidelity, fear, love, loss, and death. First-time novelist (and professional cellist) Edward Kelsey Moore makes the characters so vivid you can close your eyes and see their faces. There is romance: the book contains my favorite marriage proposal in any work of fiction, printed or filmed. There is humor: somebody starts seeing the ghost of Drunk Eleanor Roosevelt. There is tragedy. I wish I could tell you more.

It’s hard to avoid cliche so carefully. It’s hard to create a cast of characters who, even today, feel completely new. It’s hard to say something original and beautiful about friendship. Heck, it’s hard to say something original about the good people can do with their lives. It’s hard, too, to write a book which really does make you “laugh and cry.” The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat does all these things. It’s hard to describe the book except with one word: miraculous.

2 Comments

Filed under Art

Heroes of 2013

My first 2013 summary post had my list of the year’s villains, so it got kind of negative. Let’s balance that out with my top seven heroes of the year!

They’re in reverse order this time, because #1 would be kind of a sad note to end a blog post on.

1. Edward Snowden. Already covered this issue in like three previous blog posts. But my thought here is: if I knew about all the things Snowden knew about, and knew that somebody needed to speak about it, could I? Leaving friends and family and home for a probably permanent exile, making an enemy of the world’s best spies, being falsely accused of treason, living out of a suitcase, for a political cause? And then if I did make all those sacrifices, could I live quietly and modestly rather than becoming an attention-hogging prima donna like Julian Assange?

Nope. That takes real heroism.

In a televised statement, Snowden said, “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded unanalyzed thought.”

Today’s New York Times suggested that Snowden be given a pardon. That’s a good start. Next he should be given a medal.

2. Patricia Ladd. I was telling a friend about my plan for this list and she said, “It’s going to be weird jumbling up things from your personal life and things from the news.” Yup! None weirder than my friend Patricia beating out [SPOILER ALERT] the pope. But hey, she finished the first two novels in a four-part series this year, after a decade (a decade!) of work and multiple complete rough drafts. She’s been living with her characters for so long that her parents threw one of them a birthday party. And the results (I’m relieved to say) are awesome. I can’t wait for the rest of the series, and can’t wait to see people buying copies.

I’ve finished writing projects, too, but none as ambitious (arguably), or with as much time and effort put in (definitely), or with such a clear purpose and dedication (probably). I’ve also learned from her example in style; like the real Patricia, her writing is imaginative, adventurous, and uninhibited. If you want to see it at its least inhibited, actually, you could try playing one of her choose-your-own-adventure novels online.

3. Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. How many barriers has this pope busted? He rejects the fancy fineries of the title; he lives in a guesthouse rather than the official residence; he calls people directly; he sneaks out at night to help the poor in an ordinary priest’s clothes; he has no problem with gays; he tells people to follow their own moral compasses; annoys rich people by complaining about income inequality; he thinks priestly celibacy requirements “can change.” He’s not perfect, of course; in September he excommunicated a priest who spoke in favor of ordaining women. But how much more exciting, invigorating, and just plain good can a pope get? Francis sets a model of charity, humility, approachability, and kindness which all his successors ought to emulate (or exceed).

4. An anonymous Brazilian man. According to the funniest news story of 2013, a Brazilian woman decided to murder her husband and have fun doing it. So she covered her privates with poison and asked him to give her oral sex.

You may have already noticed a few flaws in this plan. So did the husband, who gamely set about pleasuring her before realizing that something smelled awry (literally). Recognizing that she was seeping poison, he took her to the hospital and saved her life. Now that, people, is chivalry. He’s pressing charges, but let’s face it: this guy is pure class.

5. Wendy Davis. Her pink shoes represent an Alamo for Texas women, both in the tragic defeat sense and in the symbolic motivation to spur an eventual victory sense. For one night, at least, Davis, Kirk Watson, Leticia van de Putte, and a gallery of protestors helped democracy speak in Texas. They remade Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in Austin, and the remake was better.

6. Paul F. Tompkins. It feels like I spent most of the year in the company of one of America’s most gifted improv comedians. Paul F. Tompkins won’t stop appearing on comedy podcasts and inventing bizarre, wonderful characters with a gentle human touch. When you listen to a lot of comedy, you notice how many “funny” people are just swearing or talking about sex to kill time. Tompkins (“Comedy’s One True Gentleman!” and a lover of very fine hats) offers English-major wordplay (a vampire conducts “Dracularic activities”), has a gigantic vocabulary, and holds himself to a consistent but (obviously) very silly logic.

Example: Tompkins often appears on Comedy Bang! Bang! impersonating TLC’s Buddy “Cake Boss” Velastro. Never seen it? Me either, but that’s okay, because in Tompkins’ hands, Cake Boss is a mystic with the ability to see the future, speak to dead fictional characters, and confer with an intergalactic Cake Council. I wish all entertainment was as consistently joy-giving.

Also, he wears stuff like this.

7. Roger Ebert. The film critic passed away on April 4. Here’s what I posted as a comment on the AV Club:

The words I string together in real life, for my two jobs and writing purely for pleasure, reflect a lot of Ebert’s philosophy of style:

1. say what you think and feel
2. say it clearly
3. don’t pass yourself off as an all-knowing arbiter of truth; let the reader decide how they feel

Ebert’s technique of reviewing movies based on whether they succeed in their goals, rather than whether they succeed in his eyes, might have resulted in “grade inflation,” but it also resulted in far greater wisdom, helpfulness, and clarity. He was at his best not when he said “this movie is great and here’s why,” but when he said “I love this movie and here’s why.” In Roger Ebert’s reviews we learned not just about whether the movie was good: we learned about Ebert, we learned about humanity, we learned about the nature of art, we learned about ourselves.

So yeah. My hero’s gone. Physically he was a wreck. As an author and as an artist, he was at the zenith of his powers.

One wonders if he knew. These are the final lines of his final blog post:

“So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”

Ebert may or may not appear again on my next post–the best books I read in 2013. That’s not a hint; I genuinely haven’t decided.

Coming up next: books of the year! I read 85 books this year so I know what I’m talking about!

1 Comment

Filed under Ill-Informed Opinion

Best and Worst of 2013!

It’s the beginning of a new year, a golden opportunity to revive a blog (maybe with a resolution to post once a month?) and talk about the year that’s over. So here are my most and least favorite things about 2013.

Part I: Odds and Ends, Netflix, Best Day, Villains, Bestworst Frenemies
Coming in future blog posts: Heroes of the Year, Books of the Year

Most Incriminating Out-of-Context Remark Written Down in My Notebook

Coworker: “We used to be responsible for shooting all new employees.”

Weirdest Out-of-Context Remark Written Down in My Notebook

Friend: “If there’s anything I don’t want in my uterus, it’s hyenas!”

Worst Menu Description

At Club Soda in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which for the record is not a club but a very enjoyable restaurant, New Holland Dragon’s Milk beer is described as a “black lager.” Oh, I thought, a nice lager will do nicely with the appetizers and whatever I order. “Are you sure?” the waitress asked. “That’s the darkest thing we have.” “Well yeah,” I said, “it says it’s a black lager, so I guess it’s black.”

It wasn’t a black lager. It was a 10% ABV bourbon barrel aged imperial stout. So that was a surprise.

Best Illegal Photograph

Speaking of Fort Wayne, I took this picture at its art museum, after the guard said photography was forbidden, but also after he turned around to talk to somebody. It’s a blown-glass piece by Stephen Rolfe Powell.

Also, one of the last ten photos taken with my old camera (which was also my first camera).

Also, one of the last ten photos taken with my old camera (which was also my first camera).

Worst Imaginary Food

In August, I had a dream that a peanut butter chocolate brownie was going around sexually harassing women. It moved around by pivoting on its corners, and the divide between the chocolate and peanut butter layers of the brownie served to help it wink, make kissy-faces, and otherwise express itself in a creepy fashion. (Since people have asked: I was not drunk or otherwise in an altered state.)

Best Use of Netflix

TIE: Enjoying the awesome new show Orange is the New Black, and savoring an awesome old show which I somehow had never seen before (I blame you, Mom and Dad!): Cheers.

Worst Use of Netflix

In case you’re wondering, Strippers Versus Werewolves is a movie where strippers fight werewolves, but only after an hour of dithering and preparing to fight and talking about the pointless explanation for why the strippers have to fight werewolves.

Worst Thing About a Great Thing About Netflix

Netflix has Columbo! But it’s missing the first two episodes!

Best Overall Day

September 14, 2013, started out looking like it would be good and only got better. My friend Rory and I were visiting our friend Anna in Houston, and Anna got invited to a friend’s house in the suburbs for a barbecue cookout pool party. We went to Target–Rory and I needed to buy swimsuits–and then to the party, which turned out to be a couple people fixing strong drinks and a few middle-aged guys who apparently spend all their free time perfecting barbecue recipes. You’d be hard-pressed to find better meat and side dishes in any restaurant. I was so busy chowing down and enjoying conversation I didn’t even get in the pool. But we didn’t have much time, because once we’d stuffed our faces there, we had a wedding to go to.

Yeah, there was that too. Our friend Catherine Bratic married her love, Mike Benza, at a bash which can be described as extremely wonderful to attend. I’d never been to a wedding before. I’ll probably never go to such a lavish one again. String quartet, seared ahi steak canapes, bubbly, and the groom’s family dancing enthusiastically to “Call Me Maybe”.

Oh, hey, Catherine and Mike have a blog about their life in France, so go read that.

Top Five Villains of the Year

5. Whole Foods. The hippies at Whole Foods are great capitalists. That $15 bottle of wine you got at Whole Foods is $11 at Spec’s. I recently encountered chicken breasts for $15.99 per pound. They have some stuff most grocery stores don’t (like good feta cheese), but the fact that my nearest and most convenient grocery is a Whole Foods kind of stinks. Maybe they would have avoided this list if they didn’t always run out of fresh-baked wheat bread before I show up. Argh!

4. Jonathan Franzen. What if a writer who aspires to greatness builds his reputation on trenchant critique and dissent, but actually he’s just a grumpy sourpuss who hates everything? Then you have Jonathan Franzen. I need to give him a fair chance; my something like five attempts to read either The Corrections or Freedom have all failed by page 5 because of the suffocatingly smug prose, but hey, maybe he’s a self-important malcontent with something to valuable to say! There has to be at least one, right?

3. Macy’s. I walked in, picked a tie off the table, and put it on the counter. The saleslady forced me to spend another half hour looking at more and more ties in every conceivable color, until she had decided to charge me for something like five, before I finally said, “I just want one” and bought the one I had started with. She gave me one good bit of advice (“You’re skinny, so wear a skinny tie”) but wasted my time endlessly, and even worse, she asked for my customer account info, which I forgot, and in the ensuing badly-explained process she signed me up for a credit card, which she did not tell me about and arrived in the mail as a surprise, and charged my purchase to it, which was easy to forget about because I destroyed the card three minutes after receiving it.

Basically, Macy’s wants shopping there to be as unpleasant as possible. It’s the Blockbuster of stores.

2. Ted Cruz. This list would be nonsensical without Ted Cruz. In lieu of discussion, here is a picture of his “smell my fart” face:

“Ladies and gentlemen, what you’re smelling comes from my office’s fajita buffet.”

1. Barack Obama. This was a bad year for Obama, and for all of us. The “red line” remark about Syria almost brought us into yet another hopelessly doomed war, before one of the world’s wisest and most distinguished elder statesmen stepped in with a plan to avoid international conflict. No, wait. It was Vladimir Putin.

Take a moment to think back to 2008. Would you have ever guessed that Vladimir Putin would stop Barack Obama from getting involved in a disastrous war?

And then there was Obamacare doing a belly flop Corgi flop, as illustrated in this video so that you can laugh through your pain at the total disaster that is our healthcare system:

And hey, we’re not even to the worst part yet! The worst part is that Barack Obama presides over, and completely approves of, a surveillance system which would make any third-world tyrant jealous.

Here’s a quick recapitulation adapted and expanded from my previous blog post on the subject, including more recent news stories:

(a) Spoken words from domestic telephone calls are “routed into a system” and stored; (b) government officials can listen to domestic calls “simply based on an agent deciding that,” possibly with approval of a court that approves 99.91% of requests; (c) phone call and email metadata for American citizens is kept and stored permanently to track your contacts, location, and other valuable information; (d) the U.S. government collects emails, chats, video chats, search records, and other desired internet information data from all the major web companies; (e) evidence accidentally (and illegally) collected from American citizens is totally legit to use in court; (f) the NSA may spy on American citizens unchecked in extreme emergencies (as chosen by the NSA itself); (g) spies can violate attorney-client privilege in U.S. court cases; (g) all encrypted material must be kept, since the system “requires” it; (h) data by or about U.S. citizens can be forwarded to domestic authorities if it contains evidence of any crime, terrorism or not; (i) electronics shipped to U.S. addresses can be stolen, clogged with spyware and malware by secret agents, repackaged, and shipped to the customer who thinks (s)he is getting a clean new computer; (j) spies spying on their significant others is so common that it’s code-named LOVEINT; (k) the NSA shares Americans’ data with Israeli intelligence; (l) the NSA uses Americans’ phone call and email data to make diagrams showing people’s social networks and friend-groups; (m) the government makes sure that basically everything made is easy to hack, like Internet encryption and iPhones; (n) specific targets have included the leaders of Germany, Mexico, Indonesia, and Brazil, plus al-Jazeera, the World Bank, and everybody with a phone in Norway.

There’s so much illegal or unconstitutional activity here that I can’t imagine the courts getting through it all anytime soon. Here’s a full list of revelations with news sources. And the government can get away with it, because it’s too enormous a misdeed to stop, because there are billions of dollars in funding, because nobody can prove in court they were specifically targeted unless the government says so, and because “national security! Top secret info!” is the easiest, sleaziest defense.

Someone recently told me, “You sound like a conservative.” Nope. Kind of the opposite. But Barack Obama should be impeached.

Top and Also Bottom Three Frenemies of the Year

Ah, yes, frenemies! Those people you love to hate and/or hate to love.

3. 512 Brewing Company, Austin, Texas. This one’s simple, 512: Cascabel Cream Stout is my favorite Texas beer. But it’s not available in bottles and it’s only available in winter. How can you be so cruel?

2. Larry Klayman. The guy who sued the government over mass NSA phone data collection, and just won Round 1 after a ruling by Judge Richard Leon, is actually a fruitcake who sues everybody all the time because he sucks. Previous lawsuit victims for this sleazebag civil rights hero: Rachel Maddow, Facebook, and his own mother. He’s been banned from two courtrooms and he says Obama is “evil, plain and simple.” Obama’s not evil, Larry; he just sucks at being good. He also told Obama to “put the Qu’ran down and come out with your hands up.” So yeah, there’s that. Every so often, even a blind rabid insane hate-fueled asshole squirrel finds a nut.

1. Dark chocolate peanut butter. Why oh why does eating have to have consequences?

Coming in Part II: Heroes of the Year!

2 Comments

Filed under Friends and Foes, Ill-Informed Opinion

Farm-Fresh Food Fest

This week my friend Michelle and I started a trial membership in a CSA. No, we didn’t become rebel soldiers or Hollywood casting directors; CSA is short for community-supported agriculture. Basically, you cut a check to an independent local farm and every other week (or, if you’ve got a lot of mouths to feed, every week) they deliver you a box of that week’s freshest produce. We signed up with Johnson’s Backyard Garden, which I think is misleadingly named, because their backyard garden is big enough to deliver fresh goods to Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio.

And also, you get a lot of stuff. Specifically:

CSA delivery

Michelle took this picture; I took all the rest. Click any photo to expand.

Four cucumbers; one giant scary cucumber that was fuzzy and hairy; amaranth; kale; mint; five Hungarian wax peppers; five jalapeño peppers; four sweet purple peppers; two zucchini; four squash; a whole bag of okra; a giant spaghetti squash; a dozen small potatoes; four shallot-like onions; four eggplant; and orange and purple carrots.

This was the part where we thought: crap. What are we supposed to do with all this food?!?!

So Saturday we got together at 1 p.m., hit two groceries, and began prep work at 3 p.m. We finished cooking around 10:30 p.m.

Yeah.

The Cooking Adventure

Here’s what we did!

IMG_0062

Well first of all, a LOT of prep work.

Have you ever wondered, like since seeing it in the first picture, what the inside of a purple carrot looks like? Here’s the answer:

IMG_0063

Weird; the answer is weird.

Our first trick: we recognized that the mint leaves were going to be hard to get rid of, so we used some of it, along with a whole lot of lemon zest, to broil up some lemon-cumin-mint chicken. Surprisingly tasty, I’ll have you know, partly because the ingredients were used in just the right amounts, so the flavor is actually rather subtle and a little tangy, not overpowering.

Next, Michelle took care of the sweet peppers along with a bunch of basil from Central Market in a batch of basil pesto.

IMG_0064

The basil pesto was going to serve as dressing for some ravioli we made using the squash and a shallot, along with a bit of crabmeat. The ravioli turned out to be a pain–not necessarily to form, which Michelle found relatively simple, but to keep from (a) falling apart in the pot, and (b) sticking together into one giant blob of noodle on the plate afterward.

IMG_0070

Michelle does hand modeling on the side.

Meanwhile, I was forming pork meatballs, along with the jalapeño peppers and onions, plus other goodies: an egg, parsley, breadcrumbs. They turned out to be really freaking tasty, especially when dipped in a tzatziki dip we made with yogurt and one of the cucumbers.

IMG_0074

Mmm, meat.

Also going on: along with some store-bought stew beef and tomatoes, we killed off the entire consignment of okra and Hungarian wax peppers in a gigantic pot of stew. Most of the carrots and half of the potatoes went into the stew, too. The pot of stew ended up making probably about 10 meals’ worth of food, although the Hungarian peppers turned out to be far less spicy than advertised, so we had to kick in a whole ton of salt, pepper, paprika, and cayenne. This defines thick and hearty.

IMG_0072

Put in some beef, potatoes, tomatoes, orange carrots, purple carrots, hot peppers, onions, beef broth, a couple pounds of okra, spices… baby, you got a stew goin’.

Meanwhile, I grated the zucchini, squash, and a couple of red potatoes into a great big Neapolitan tricolor pile of veggie goodness.

IMG_0075

There’s actually much more zucchini under the mound; the pile’s only about 15% potato.

I was making an oddball variation on a Turkish classic: mücver, or zucchini fritters. Oddball because I forgot to include one of the central ingredients, feta cheese. (It was 9:30 p.m. Can you blame me?) On the other hand, because we had them on hand, the fritters included both red and green onions. And they came out golden-crispy and utterly delicious.

At some point I looked up and Michelle had carved out the spaghetti squash and mixed it up with some mushrooms and dressing for a veggie side dish. (Johnson’s Backyard Garden strenuously denies growing spaghetti squash and claims this is some other variety, but…nope.)

IMG_0077

Remains of the Squash

Oh, remember that feta cheese I tragically forgot to use in the zucchini fritters? That will serve as part of the garnish for the eggplant, which got sliced and broiled and paired with a shallot vinaigrette.

Head spinning yet? Trust me, mine was. Seven hours of nonstop home cooking was enough to convince me that I could never work in a restaurant. Michelle felt similarly. Our only break between 3 and 10 was when a dead spot in the cooking allowed us time to go and build two IKEA nightstands. At the end of the night, Michelle quickly cooked up the kale and amaranth so it would keep in the fridge longer, but before we collapsed in exhaustion, there was one more thing left to deal with.

The rest of that huge bunch of rapidly-dying mint.

Now, at some point, the plan for the pork-pepper meatballs had been to make them lamb meatballs with mint, but I strongly oppose the prevailing societal view that lamb needs mint flavoring. Also, lamb is expensive. So there was only one option left to us.

We reconvened Sunday and made our own Oreo cookies.

IMG_0092

Form the chocolatey dough; use a cookie cutter to make it into small circles; bake for 12 minutes until roughly Oreo-textured; turn upside-down; drizzle half with a combination of mint, heavy cream, and white chocolate. Set the other half on top.

We’ll be honest: these tasted kinda weird. The dough has a bit of saltiness and the filling is runny. But hey, they’re not bad as a chocolate delivery device.

Conclusion

Left over from the CSA produce haul: a couple shallots, a few small potatoes, a couple cucumbers Michelle will slice and drop into her water pitchers; and the gigantic, hairy, terrifying cucumber we’re very literally afraid to touch.

Now in my possession: by my count, 12 main course portions and 6 veggie sides. I plan on freezing the stew for use in the future and chowing down on meatballs, ravioli, lemon chicken, eggplant, and zucchini fritters for basically this entire week. Michelle got just as much food out of this (slightly more; she kept the kale and amaranth, since I already have some spinach in my fridge). I don’t expect to go to a grocery store for 10 days.

In our day of cooking, we used up two-and-a-half heads of garlic.

Here’s some advice for anyone looking to join a CSA:
1. Plan out multiple full menus to use all the ingredients you’re going to get.
2. Try to get your delivery close to the weekend so the produce will mostly still be fresh when you have time to cook the insane amount of produce you’ll be getting.
3. Be willing to say things like “I really want to try making X, but I guess that will have to wait until we get through this CSA box.”
4. Take risks. If you’re not comfortable saying “hey, lemon-cumin-mint chicken could be good,” you might have a hard time.
5. Be really, really hungry.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized