News and Notes
The Great Brain
The first installment of a seven book series, The Great Brain details the good-natured profiteering of Tom D. Fitzgerald, the middle of three brothers growing up in 1890s Utah. I remember loving these books as a kid, and rereading them brought no disappointments. Guided by the narrator, Tom's younger brother J.D., the reader spends the entire book gleefully at Tom's side, rooting for him, the prototypical sympathetic scoundrel, as he threads his way in and out of dozens of unlikely schemes. Perhaps this is where I picked up my love of literature and films that portray the confidence game. The entire Great Brain series is illustrated nicely by Mercer Mayer, who later went on to create the popular Little Critter character.
Picasa is a great photo-album application. And it's free. (Windows only. Mac users are stuck with the equally excellent iPhoto.) The price is a nice bonus, especially since photo management is one of those tasks that everyone does, yet everyone does a little differently. Picasa's quality stems from its simplicity, the quick loading of images, and the clear understanding that photo software is meant to get your pictures from the camera to somewhere else -- a printer, the Web, or stored on disc. If you couple Picasa with a cheap storage reader, right there you've got a great digital photo setup, without having to pony up big bucks for Photoshop. Google recently bought the company behind Picasa, which seems like a big vote of confidence for this smart little piece of software.
Pride and Prejudice
I was actually a big fan of the 1940 film version of Jane Austen's beloved novel. Despite that movie's obvious shortcomings, it offered wonderful performances by Laurence Olivier as Darcy and Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Bennett. Of course, the 1995 BBC/A&E miniseries pretty much puts the older version to rest, since it's far superior in just about every aspect -- faithfulness to Austen's story and dialogue, accuracy of period costumes and scenery, and general excellence of the cast. Again, Darcy is a stand-out, with Colin Firth as the mostly opaque leading man. Jennifer Ehle is appealing as Elizabeth Bennett, and Allison Steadman is delightfully dreadful as the fretting Mrs. Bennett.
Dogtown and Z-Boys
My skateboarding career consisted of a single two-second ride, a pratfall, and my neighbor's plastic yellow skateboard going down a sewer grate. Yet, even though I couldn't participate, I always respected skateboarding as a potent cultural force that seemed to grow up in tandem with my generation. Whether or not you're part of that generation, you'll probably find Dogtown and Z-Boys an engaging portrait of the early pioneers of the high-flying vertical skateboarding that we all know and stare at in amazement. The filmmaking is top-notch, and since the director is one of the original Z-Boys, he offers a lot of great archival footage from the 70s.
The New York Times Magazine
I used to get the Sunday New York Times, until they switched delivery services and the new management decided I only wanted to read the paper one weekend out of three. Actually, on a percentage basis, they weren't far off. Most of the Old Gray Lady used to sit unopened on my Old Green Couch while I skimmed a few sections and eventually made my way to the best part -- "Consumed," a column in the magazine by Rob Walker that looks at the products people buy, sell, covet, market, and generally place at the center of our materialistic little lives. The columns are always packed with unique information about the products, which run the gamut from dish soap to dolls, from plasma screens to pimped rides. Add Walker's subtle wit and keen insights on the appeal of certain products and you've got a journalistic product well worth its modest price tag. Check it out on Walker's site, at the Times online, or, if you're feeling lucky, get the Sunday paper delivered right to your door.
The Crying of Lot 49
Regarded as Pynchon's most accessible work, The Crying of Lot 49 still manages to achieve a critical density. This short, comic novel offers the usual Pynchonian tapestry of paranoia, entropy, and quantum mechanics. Oedipa Maas, assigned the task of executing her former lover's will, careens around the West Coast, chasing down clues in hopes of unlocking the mystery of "Tristero." Is it a massive conspiracy involving everyone from the Pope to the postman, or just a massive put-on? In the end, the journey is more enlivening than the destination, yet Pynchon's humorous take on American culture is well worth the occasional bouts of befuddlement that accompany his manic prose.
Ghost Dog Soundtrack
The film Ghost Dog is vintage Jim Jarmusch, and by that I mean it's very strange. Which is not to say it isn't enjoyable. Forrest Whitaker is oddly appealing as an ascetic hit-man who quotes Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. However, the most lasting question many viewers will have is: "Who did the killer soundtrack?" Answer: RZA, founding producer of the Wu-Tang Clan. Since Ghost Dog, he's scored Kill Bill and Blade Trinity, played a small role in Jarmusch's latest, Coffee and Cigarettes, and helmed his own Kung Fu movie. Unfortunately for iPod enthusiasts, the best way to hear the music from Ghost Dog may be to watch the film itself, since neither the domestic nor the Japanese import soundtrack has gotten the nod from hard-core afficianados.
It's like craigslist for food. Or, more specifically, restaurant recommendations. Planning a trip and want to find the best local eats? You'd be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't check out Chowhound's message boards. They've got most of the US covered, as long as you live in SF, LA, or New York. The rest of the country is a little more hit-or-miss. Still, if you're heading for Hawaii or stopping over in St. Louis, the site is still worth a look. You can find the best Thai food in Boston or good gumbo in Chicago. Other topics include kosher foods, international options, and the always entertaining not-about-food category.
The nugget was on hiatus when Queer Eye fever swept the land, and it's a good thing, since we were swooning with the disease just like everyone else. Of course, now that the hype has subsided, we can give a level-headed appraisal of this makeover show's true value: "It is, simply put, the greatest television show of all time." Okay, we're embellishing (or "jhuzjing the truth"), but even when things on the show go bad, it's all good. The concept is pitiably simple. Gay men makeover straight men. (And boy do the straight men need it.) However, it's that ineffable quality known as "chemistry" that makes Queer Eye so appealing. Ted, Kyan, Carson, Tom, and Jai hit just the right notes, with the straight guys and with each other, and it doesn't matter how many times they keep hitting them, they sound great.
There are plenty of magazines that deal with video games, and probably even a few that get down with gaming culture, but none do it with the panache of 1-Up MegaZine. Beautifully designed in a 100-page perfectbound format, the latest issue offers a great mix of memories, minutiae, interviews, comix, and arcade-inspired art. There's a feature-filled section on Street Fighter II, "the mother of all fighting games," plus an interview with the reigning king of Pac-Man, Billy Mitchell. If you grew up with video games and made an emotional connection with the titles you played, then 1-Up will probably resonate with you.
When I Pretend to Fall
The Long Winters may be the most inappropriately named band ever. If ever there was a record that sounded like a Spring day, this is it. I'm sure the irony is not lost on John Roderick. The singer's clever, often cryptic lyrics may be delivered over a tongue snuggled comfortably in one cheek; but when combined with razor-sharp hooks and laser beam production, the resulting songs are gloriously pure. And they will make your body move. So next time you're training for a marathon, or just baking chocolate chip cookies, throw this on your iPod and let the sunshine in.
The Soul of a Chef
Over the course of three long essays, Michael Ruhlman tries to illustrate a world that has become increasingly fascinating to readers and eaters alike -- that of the professional chef. The public has never been keener to peek into the kitchen -- from the sublime memoirs of Anthony Bourdain to the ridiculous antics of Rocco DiSpirito on reality television. Still, you might consider this volume as a well-balanced tasting menu of food writing. Ruhlman begins by detailing the trials of several already acclaimed cooks who are attempting to be recognized as culinary creme de la creme by taking the grueling Certified Master Chef exam. Then he turns his attention to individual chefs -- Cleveland's Michael Symon of Lola Bistro and Thomas Keller of the world-famous French Laundry in Napa. The great thing about this book is that it not only offers insights into the daily lives of great chefs, but also considers the subjective nature of culinary "perfection."
While it unfolded, I was enjoying the 2000 election as entertainment, while not particularly enjoying it as an indicator of my country's electoral health. Of course, I had no idea how bad things actually were. Even if you think you know what happened in Florida in 2000, see this short film. The scene where the filmmakers provide the identities for the "protesters" at the local election board meeting (they were all Capitol Hill staffers) is just the sort of news that mainstream media seems to miss. How come Tom Brokaw never comes across with a good, old-fashioned "gotcha" moment? Too upsetting for prime-time advertisers? Well, thankfully, there are still investigative filmmakers like Perez and Sekler to augment the news we get from the Daily Show. No matter which side of the political spectrum you're on, you've got to appreciate someone who actually chases down the details.
Copyright is broken. What began as a system balancing the promotion of individual incentive and "the progress of science and useful arts" has become a weapon of commerce that tries to eke out every last penny from artistic creations, whether or not the original artist wants it that way. Creative Commons aims to steer the boat back on course, by offering a spectrum of licenses for artists to control the use of their creations. Choose from options such as "attribution," "noncommerical," "no-derivatives," "share alike" and even a "Founder's copyright," which allows authors to publish their work with the 14-year period of exclusive ownership that the framers of the Constitution orginally enacted and not the "70 years from the author's death" that Congress adopted at the urging of that other noted stateman, Sonny Bono. Use the Founder's copyright when you want the beat to go on...just not for a 100 years.
You Are Here
There are a lot of intriguing instances of imaginary maps online these days, from globes painted from memory to the world envisioned by fools. Of course, even "real" maps come with a point of view. That's where You Are Here comes in, offering three essays and scores of color illustrations on "personal geographies." One of my favorite imaginary maps is by noted Jazz Age illustrator John Held, Jr., entitled "Americana," which shows the rough outline of the U.S. and doesn't bother with much interior detail, except to dot the landscape with gas stations, billboards, and the Twenties equivalent of fast food (Hot Dogs, Orange Drink).
Adaptation is a set of possibilities: a blueprint of what may or may not have happened when screenwriter Charlie Kaufman attempts to adapt a book about flowers into a Hollywood movie. Unwilling to sensationalize the story with sex and car chases, Kaufman decides to write instead about his struggle to write the script, which is a story that he is more than willing to sensationalize with sex and car chases. The end result is (arguably) a flawed masterpiece. Or at least a blueprint for a flawed masterpiece.
Da Ali G Show
Booyakasha. For those of you who aren't hip to the viciously funny Ali G Show, here's the deal: He's comic Sascha Baron Cohen, whose three alter egos -- london ghetto superstar Ali, fey Austrian fashion reporter Bruno, and hapless Kazahkstani naif Barat -- offer ample fodder for hilarity as they attempt to interact with various member of the uninformed populace: from Pat Buchanan to Boutros Boutros-Ghali. If you don't have HBO, you can pick up the DVD of the first season of Ali's American run. (He's be a sensation in Britain for years.) A last resort: Download some clips from his site. Respect.
With I Love the 90s on the tube and the Google IPO in the chute, it's time to get nostalgic for the recent fin de siecle. And while I don't usually enjoy the literature of failure, due to the fact that most mea culpists are actually quite proud of themselves, I found American Sucker to be a guilty pleasure. David Denby, a long-time film critic for the New Yorker, tries to emerge from the wreckage of a crumbling marriage by raising a million dollars in the runaway bull market. As a celebrated journalist, Denby has access to an amazing cast of characters: stock analyst Henry "Amazon $400" Blodget, Sam Waksal of ImClone, SEC chief Arthur Levitt, and the New Yorker's own economics writer, John Cassidy. Denby fails, of course, and quite spectacularly, although he does manage to keep his day job (and get a book deal). The payoff for me, I suppose, was getting to relive the CNBC-on-every-TV era from the relative safety of Denby's prose.
Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments For Lost Buckaroos
She's from Leeds, England. She lives in Chicago, Illinois. She's in the legendary punk band The Mekons. On her most recent solo album, she sings gorgeous country music. Go figure. Or not. Just listen to her sad, silky voice as it glides over songs like Johnny Cash's "Cry Cry Cry" or her own "Sweetheart Waltz." In an interview in The High Hat, Timms says " I like singing well-written songs that tend toward the depressive, so country can be a mine of those." Keep mining, Sally, and bring us more beautiful albums like this.
Food writer John Thorne's website may seem like it's circa 1998, but don't let that deter you. You'll still find plenty of delicious information on cookbooks and, um, cookbooks, and, okay, still more cookbooks. Dig a little deeper and you'll uncover photo-illustrated galleries of breakfasts and midnight snacks. Still, that's not why we're here. Focus. We're in search of the subscription page for Thorne's legendary newsletter, "Simple Cooking," which is published five times per year. That's not enough, but it'll have to do. At least for five days, you'll come back from your mailbox with eight single-spaced pages packed with reviews of obscure cookbooks, tall tales from the fictional No-Name Diner, and plenty of top-shelf food writing. Recent subjects include: pistachios, casseroles, Greek salads, and the award-winning article "Pepper Pot Hot."
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes, the most famous fictional detective of all time, has been portrayed by dozens of actors, but none more beloved than Jeremy Brett, who owned the role from 1984 until his death in 1995. Adventures was the first of four Holmes-Watson series produced by Granada TV for British television (the others: The Return of..., The Casebooks of..., and The Memoirs of...). The show immediately resonated with viewers, who seemed to appreciate not only Brett's dramatic flair, but his uncanny likeness to Sydney Paget's original illustrations of Holmes.
I'm a sucker for word games, so GameHouse's Text Twist is right up my a-l-l-e-y. The online version, where you attempt to rearrange six letters into as many different words as possible within the allotted two minutes, is not only addictive, but also a great workout for your Scrabble skills. You advance to the next level by finding at least one six-letter word for each combination of letters, which is definitely not as easy as it sounds. For more of a challenge, both to your wits and and your wallet, download the $20 offline version, which ups the ante to a vocabulary-straining seven letters.
Very different from the popular television show that followed, M*A*S*H, the movie, is darker, funnier, more chaotic, and openly anti-war. While the piece has many of the distinguishing features of Robert Altman's later work -- a talented ensemble cast, loose structure, naturalistic dialogue -- M*A*S*H was the first time the director really connected with critics and audiences alike. How's this for positive affirmation: The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, landed six Academy Award nominations, and you really can't beat the cast of Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman, and Tom Skerritt.
Defying the image of the "single-minded" artist, Gerhard Richter has moved, over the course of his 40-year career, from realistic to conceptual to abstract and beyond. That said, his most immediately accessible pieces are almost certainly the paintings he's based on photographs, some ominously blurred, others blissfully accurate. According to SFMOMA's online companion to a recent Richter show, the artist views photographs very differently from paintings: "The photograph is the only picture that can truly convey information, even if it is technically faulty and the object can barely be identified. A painting of a murder is of no interest whatsoever: but a photograph of a murder fascinates everyone. This is something that just has to be incorporated into painting." In the late 80s, Richter attempted to bridge that gap with "October 18, 1977" -- a suite of paintings based on historic images associated with the deaths of Germany's notorious Baader-Meinhof Gang.
Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing
In light of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the brutality of American prisons may seem almost quaint. That said, there's plenty to lament as you read journalist Ted Conover's account of his year as a fledgling guard at New York's notorious Sing Sing prison. Alternating between his education in the "care, custody, and control" of modern inmates and the past two centuries of American penal practice as seen through the history of Sing Sing, Conover manages to thoroughly illuminate a world that most of us fervently pray never to see. At the end of line, you feel sympathy for the inmates and the guards, as both groups are forced to suffer unbearable emotional stress.
Transfiguration of Vincent
Singer-songwriter M. Ward plays the acoustic guitar, sometimes accompanying himself with an impromptu recorded loop of that same instrument. It's a simple combination, but deceptively powerful -- a phrase that could easily apply to M. Ward himself, who appears onstage as nothing more than a soft-spoken kid from Portland wearing a t-shirt and a baseball cap. Then he starts strumming and the guitar thunders and twangs, shattering the illusion of simplicity. Ward can also slide behind the piano, and that's a treat not to be missed, as he scratchily croons songs like the haunting "Carolina." Transfiguration of Vincent, as with Ward's first two albums, is packed with individual gems ("Vincent O'Brien," "Undertaker"), but also works together as a beautiful whole.
Among the DVD extras on Richard Rodriguez's trilogy-ending Once Upon a Time in Mexico, you'll find a short film offering a delicious recipe for slow-cooked pork shoulder, drowned in a spicy Annato-seed sauce. It's not an easy recipe -- the spices aren't commonplace and the grinding will require some gear -- but the finished dish is well worth the effort. In the film, Johnny Depp even kills for it. If the idea of learning a recipe from a film director lights your burner, you might also want to try the Aloo Gobi from Bend it Like Beckham.
Heat Vision and Jack
This unaired half-hour comedy was shot in 1999, starring Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Ron Silver, Stiller, and Christine Taylor. Heat Vision (Wilson) is a talking motorcyle (long story) ridden by super-intelligent fugitve astronaut Jack Austin (Black) who is being chased by Hollywood actor / NASA heavy Ron Silver (Silver). Suffice to say, it's a shame this yuk-fest never got a chance on network television. We need more shows about talking motor vehicles. It's hard to say if the most intriguing aspect of Heat Vision is the over-the-top Sid and Marty Krofft visual style, the cult-like following it spawned, or the fact that the show managed to jump the shark about 12 minutes into its first episode. My advice: grab a BitTorrent client, download Heat Vision and Jack, and decide for yourself.
The Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia that can be added to or modified by anyone with an Internet connection. It's been around since 2001, but the site has lately achieved an impressive momentum, going from 200,000 to 300,000 articles in the span of six months. I liken the experience of periodically checking in on the Wikipedia as seeing a petri dish of bacteria one day and coming back a few weeks later to find a symphony orchestra playing Beethoven's 3rd. One can't help but wonder when the knowledge contained in the multi-language Wikipedia will outstrip the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Another conundrum: How does an open resource fight off vandals who want to spread disinformation? How do they ensure accuracy? I don't know! It's magic. (Of course, the Wikipedia itself has both answers.) In the end, you don't have to ponder the big questions to enjoy the Wikipedia. You can just check out minutiae like "all your base are belong to us" or learn more about ring-tailed lemurs.
Before he was a Delta Force commando, the Hulk, or James Bond, Eric Bana gave a star turn as a slightly more complicated protagonist -- Mark "Chopper" Read, a real-life criminal turned media darling with a flair for the kind of violence that would make Quentin Tarantino blush. It's a stunning role and a stunning performance, especially when you learn the extent of the actor's physical and emotional transformation. Who would've guessed that Bana, before turning to film, was one of Australia's most popular stand-up comedians. Of course, before turning to memoirs and talk shows, Chopper was one of Australia's "most dangerous criminals." So maybe, after all, they were made for each other.