Holidays on Ice – by David Sedaris

dsc_0031In true holiday fashion, this post will be a last minute rush job to get done in two days what should take weeks to do. Today I baked two kinds of cookies and homemade fruitcake (yes fruitcake but actually good fruitcake), wrote and addressed Christmas cards and shopped for presents. It’s a fraction of what still has to be done, which makes the cover photo of this paperback edition of Holidays on Ice ring so true, and as I stare at it, enticing. I also want to cover two Christmas beers. No, four.

Like probably tens of thousands of people, I have enjoyed the experience of working at a department store during the holidays. Macy’s, in fact, the store David Sedaris worked at as an elf and which is the basis of “SantaLand Diaries.” I actually probably worked at Macy’s (in San Diego) around the same time that Sedaris did, or at least close enough so that his description of trying to learn the NCR 2152 cash register system Macy’s had especially hit home. I first read “SantaLand Diaries” in Barrel Fever, and that set off an immediate love of Sedaris’ work. It’s so dark and funny and precisely written, it’s no wonder why he became so popular. A friend and co-worker of mine in San Francisco shared this love of Sedaris with me, bought this copy and had it signed for me.dsc_0032

Holiday’s on Ice contains three must read holiday stories, the other two being “Season’s Greetings to our Friends and Family!!!” and “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol.” In a previous role in my insurance job, I did a type of work that allowed me to listen to audio books, even learn Czech, while working. I would listen to David Sedaris reading these stories over and over. There’s a great recording of Julia Sweeney from Saturday Night Live reading “Season’s Greetings…” worth finding on the net and listening.

Like “The Night Before Christmas” or watching some old version of “A Christmas Carol,” Holiday’s on Ice is an easy Christmas tradition to keep.

Another easy tradition is enjoying Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale this time of year.dsc_0029-2 I first had it in San Francisco, probably in 1991 because that year my roommate threw a Christmas party with a keg of Celebration Ale. The thing I love about this beer is that it’s really NOT a “Christmas beer”. There are no spices that typically end up in holiday beers (not that there’s anything wrong with that), yet for what is basically a strong pale ale, it somehow manages to taste like something meant for this season. It is a deep amber wet hop ale, meaning the hops are not dried or pelletized before added to the kettle. They come right from the bine (hop vines are called bines, Spellcheck) and into the beer imparting a fresh pine and citrus-peel profile.

Another more recent tradition is getting a magnum size bottle of Anchor Brewing Company’s “Our Special Ale.” dsc_0026-22016 is their 42nd year brewing this beer for the holiday season. They say that each year their recipe changes, but if that’s the case it must be by the slightest degrees. It is a mild dark beer with hints, no suggestions, of what I guess to be nutmeg, maybe some cinnamon, and juniper. This magnum tradition started about 4 years ago. My favorite bar Hamilton’s had acquired a run of each year of this beer back to the year 2000! They put up a challenge that if you bought a bottle of each year, the first to try each year so would win a prize. Well, I came in second and missed a couple years, but my prize was the best one anyway—a magnum of that year’s edition. So I really can say from experience that at least since 2000, their recipe doesn’t stray year to year all that much. By the way, curious to know what a 12 year old bottle of beer taste like? In an oddly pleasant way it tastes like a beer that has absorbed the essence of an attic in an old house.dsc_0011-4

I’m a label nut so I kept all those bottles and get the labels off. Someday they’ll make a nice wall thingy. Speaking of labels, each year they select a different tree as the image on the label. This year is a tree found 1,000 miles away from Omaha during the westward construction of the transcontinental railroad. How cool is that?!

A final holiday season beer. If you like the taste of licorice or anise, my favorite Christmas beer of all time is Het Anker’s Gouden Carolus Noel. dsc_0001-2Dark, Belgian, and star anise. I somehow liked it better on draft than in the bottle, but it’s still very good. Whole Foods once carried it, but selection is going to vary store to store. I have to say that my own attempts to brew a beer similar to Gouden Carolus Noel have gotten me in the ballpark. The hard part is that I find that the star anise flavor I try to impart is best within the first three months. As it ages it dissipates. Still, I like it and it gets high marks from my father-in-law, so I’ll continue tweaking the recipe here and there.

As it may be a few weeks before I get around to a new post, possibly longer since my limited time will be focused on getting a new job. Priority uno. Until then, in whichever way you celebrate this season or not…enjoy, Happy New Year, and here’s to you and your loved ones good health!dsc_0039

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In Our Time – Hemingway

When you get right down to it, if I had to name one favorite book, I’d have to strongly consider In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway. It’s intimidating to even try and write about Hemingway and this particular title. What to say that hasn’t already been said about a book that launched the reputation and career of a titan like Hemingway? Not much, but I can mention what the book means to me, and since I have at least five Hemingway posts in me, I should start at with the first.

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Before getting about the book, there’s one thing to put down on the table. The name Hemingway is likely to conjure up a very specific idea of the man and his work, one that I feel is overly simplistic and off the mark. Mention Hemingway and you’re likely to think: beard, bullfighting, violent, and hard-boiled machismo. While possibly done with good intent, contests like Bad Hemingway Writing and Hemingway Look-a-Like contests create a caricature of a great writer. How come no one shows up at a Look-a-like contest of when Hemingway was 25, or 30?  Undeniably throughout his work there is a lot of violence, not-too-kind things done to animals (and men), and that’s all in In Our Time as it should be. I mean, World War I ended six years earlier and completely transformed the art world. But when I think of Hemingway I think of someone who might have the toughened exterior informed by the experience of World War I, but who is internally painfully sensitive and with a deep and universal desire for love. In fact, I don’t know any writer who has written about being in love the way Hemingway consistently did throughout his work. His short stories and in novels The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Garden of Eden, all depict passionate love stories, more or less. Other stories involve loves of other kinds, between fathers and sons, friendships old and young, or brothers in war.

Regarding In our Time, where this book takes you in 157 pages, and the economy in which it does, is astounding. Stories are set before and after World War I in Smyrna, the Champagne region of France, upper Michigan, outside Adrianople, Greece, France, Italy, Oklahoma, Kansas City, Spain, and Paris. You are a boy in Michigan, a soldier witness to evacuations, spectators of bull fights, soldiers in trenches, newlyweds fishing in Italy, a boy in Paris, a young man breaking up with a girl you love and getting horribly drunk over it during a storm. In Our Time feels like four or five novels condensed into one, and considering the geography and cross section of life it covers (of America and Europe anyway) the title is boldly apt.

This particular Scribner Classics edition was given to me on my 18th birthday by my brother. dsc_0016-3Or I’m pretty sure anyway. Other than the cultural absorption and of course watching Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea, In Our Time was my first introduction to reading Hemingway. There are at least five perfectly good reasons why this book was right up my alley in a way I had not encountered before:

1) My family used to go drive up through Michigan and into Canada to go fishing so here were stories about experiences I myself had had as a boy in those woods and on those lakes. 2) I always had a fascination with World War I and All Quiet on the Western Front was a favorite book of mine that I had read only a year before. 3) The stories “The End of Something” and “The Three-Day Blow” are about breaking up with a girl you love, and at least partially regretting it—familiar territory for boys in high school. 4) I wanted to be a writer, and like thousands before me and after, wanted to write stories with the same emotional impact that Hemingway did in this book. 5) I loved to fish, and I found it thrilling that such an activity could be material for works of art.

Besides the inter-chapters which are paragraph-long brilliant stories themselves, the story I could read over and over is “My Old Man.” “Big Two-Hearted River” (parts I & II) may be more famous, but for my money, “My Old Man” is truly a great story. It is about a boy and his racehorse-riding father living in France, getting in shape for racing and ultimately screwing over men who fix races. French racing tracks, Paris, and the love of a father through the eyes of a boy during one of Paris’ Golden Ages, what more could you want?

Generations of young writers will forever be jealous of what Hemingway accomplished at 25 years old with his first published book, changing writing style for decades. The pendulum may have swung back towards a longer, more descriptive style, but whenever I re-read Hemingway I am always in awe of the painstaking attention to the craft of writing his stories exhibit. Hemingway to me is the perfect storm of brilliant talent, an incredible dedication to crafting perfect prose, and born with a genius-level emotional I.Q. To pass him off as a certain type of macho personality would be to miss out on a truly great writer.

Want a beer to go with In Our Time? Have to go with the aptly named Two-Hearted India Pale Ale by Bells Brewery in Kalamazoo, MI. Bell’s is a great story, and has a history of brewing in Michigan back to the 1980’s. I’ve had a few of their beers I liked and you’re likely to find them in better stores. Two-Hearted IPA is a very good IPA, apparently using only Centennial hops. Yesterday at my favorite beer bar, Hamilton’s in San Diego, I had their Two-Hearted IPA and also their Lager of the Lakes, a Bohemian Pilsner I didn’t think much of. I found it lacking the pronounced noble hop character of Czech Pils, and if you’re going to call it a Bohemian Pilsner… but still a great brewery with a great lineup of beers. Bonus, it was keep the glass night!