MARK TWAIN BOOGIE BOARDS

Recently I started to reread Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I took it on a plane as Plan B. Plan A was dealing with our 1 year old’s daughter on her first cross country flight. As you might guess I didn’t get very far into the book. I’ve read it multiple times though and felt like I’d gotten enough of a refresher to not finish. On my next trip to a used bookstore I saw this copy of Mark Twain’s Roughing It and figured I couldn’t go wrong.DSC_0041 The book is a memoir of sorts about Mark Twain’s travels with his brother by stagecoach from Missouri to Nevada silver mine country, then to California, San Francisco, and finally to the then-called Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). I was aware that Twain was well-traveled, but honestly it was hard to imagine Twain’s voice anywhere but in and around the Mississippi. Twain out west didn’t really seem to compute for me—until I started reading.

Roughing It was published in 1870 and as the introduction states, “has played a major role in shaping the myth of the “wild West.” So much of it is familiar in fact. Written only 20 years after the discovery of gold in California, Roughing It is almost an encyclopedia of all things western that you’re apt to see in movies and TV. Autobiographical, intertwined with history, masterfully embellished, and chock full of superbly tall “tall tales”, the book is Twain doing what he does best. And that ear for dialect he transposed in his Mississippi books is just as in tune with the dialect of the West. It is also a picture of some of America’s most scenic western landscapes—of Lake Tahoe, of the desert, and of Hawaii. Within it he weaves stories of his own brushes with wild riches and complete and utter bust.

Regretfully I didn’t take notes to highlight favorite passages. The chapter index is very detailed about what the chapters contain, and I foolishly thought I could just peruse those descriptions to jog my memory and pull out a few of the choicer gems. The problem is, there are too many such gems worth pointing out.

There is one anecdote that struck me as the oddest of all. But before that, I will say that after getting such a complete portrait of the West, it’s a jarring leap to go from dusty dirty silver mines to the tropical paradise of Hawaii. Then again, who cares? It’s great writing and as I read on I came upon Twain’s telling of the time he went “surf-bathing.” DSC_0044This sport as he tells it is an 1870 description of “boogie boarding.” Now, raise your hand if you could ever have imagined a young mustachioed Mark Twain, in Hawaii, trying his hand at boogie boarding. Well, apparently it happened, although as he tells it, resulted in “a couple barrels of water in me.”DSC_0047 (2)

At any rate, if you’ve ever enjoyed reading Twain for his humor and wit, and you’ve never read Roughing It, it’s worth seeking a copy. The copy I have also includes all 304 original illustrations by True Williams, Edward F. Mullen, and others (although perhaps I wasn’t paying close enough attention to them because they all looked to be the work of one person.)

Lastly, just a postscript to my previous three-part post on Dostoyevsky. Astute readers as you are, you may recall that I took on reading The Brothers Karamazov as a cure for depression, with my primary life pain point being the job I was in. Now, call it coincidence, but the primary reason my blogging has tapered off is because after 15 years working for the same company, I finally extricated myself from that hell and I’ve been working at a new job the last 6 weeks. I literally started the interview process with this company while I was finishing up that blog post. The takeaway here is next time you’re blue about something and need a diversion to get you through the next few months, you might want to pick up a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. Worked for me!

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To Prague With Love

IPAs may be the current rage, but the King of Beers worldwide is still Pilsner. In my opinion, the Kingdom of Pilsner is still centered in the Czech Republic, which I believe still tops all European counties for beer consumption per capita. I have been lucky enough to travel to the Czech Republic enough that I’ve nearly lost count… six times I think. The first visit was early in 2001 when I went  to write my second novel in Prague.

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2001. Probably not even a megapixel camera.

I immediately fell in love with Prague—the city, the food, the streets, the beer, the bars, and being 29 at the time, the beautiful women everywhere. I stayed a month in an 2 room apartment with a kitchen that was ridiculously cheap–something like $600 for the month. I went again three or four years later for a few weeks, then again with my wife still later, and then multiple times to Prague and Brno on our journey to conceive.DSC_0207

There’s just something about Prague (minus the crowds of course) that hits me dead between the eyes, and if I could live there 6 months out of the year, I think I’d be all for it. I could go on and on about what I love about the Czech Republic, but this being a blog about beer and literature, let me focus there.

In Prague, I primarily drink/drank Staropramen, Kozel dark, and Pilsner Urquell. I’ve been to U Flecku and do love their dark lager, but the experience of going to that brewery is something you have to be up for. The beauty of drinking in Prague is the little tally sheets on the table that are marked for each round. Here, beer is a staple like bread (oh God their rye bread… at least that I feel like I’ve come close to replicating (see below)), so anything less than three marks and you’re starving yourself. In Brno I do like Starobrno–both the pilsner and the dark lager a lot. The dark is like a smooth, slightly sweet, malty beverage with just the slightest hint of dark malt roastiness. prague with Jeni 102I’ve also had beers by Gambrinus and Zatecky, as well as perhaps several others I was in no state of mind to remember.

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Now, The Czech Republic being a 14 hour flight, that leaves my access to these beers limited. And how the bottled imports truly compare to being enjoyed fresh on draft, well that’s like comparing Guinness on draft in Ireland to the cans here on the grocery store. But, still, there are a few choices here in the U.S. you may be able to find.

Pilsner Urquell is the easiest to find, and still really delicious. On occasion BevMo (or your decent local beverage “superstore”) will carry Staropramen in the 16oz bottles and six packs. My favorite beer bar Hamilton’s once even had a keg of Staropramen, but living in IPA country, who knows if they’ll ever have it again. Perhaps my favorite Czech pilsner available in the U.S. is Krusovice, typically sold in the 16oz bottles at BevMo. To me, this one is fittingly capped with gold foil—an Imperial pilsner that is deep gold, creamy, and with a distinct Nobel hop bitterness and flavor. At about $2.50 a 16oz bottle, it’s also relatively affordable. As for Czechvar and Budvar, I’ve had them in the past but I prefer the big three: Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen and Krusovice.

To complete the fantasy of a visit to Prague in the comfort of your own home, this is what the benchmark is: roast pork, stinky cheese, rye bread, and of course, the beer.

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The real deal.

But, I’m usually settling for less. I like a slice of beer cheese shipped from Bavaria Sausage Shop which is about as stinky as you’ll find, and I bake a loaf of Czech rye bread. Going the extra mile would need to include some roast pork, and perhaps some Slivovice, Becherovka, and Fernet Stock.

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Clearly a distant second, but passable for a quick fix.

The Reader of Dostoyevsky – Part III

20 years ago when I first read this, partly in the parking lot of a Macy’s on my lunch breaks from selling women’s shoes, I read it halfheartedly and just “got through it.” For that reason I barely remembered the plot. Perhaps my reading acumen is much better, I’ve aged well, or simply in a place to pay better attention, but I did enjoy The Brothers Karamazov much more the second time around.

While still fresh in my memory, the plot goes something like this: Three Karamazov brothers have a rotten father who they all wouldn’t mind seeing dead. The three brothers distinctly represent the body, mind and soul. Dimitri/Mitya is driven by his animalistic passion and temper, Ivan by his intellect, and Alyosha (a monk in training) by his heart and soul. The crux of the story is a love triangle between Mitya, his father Fyodor, and a tart named Grushenka. Mitya is also already somewhat promised to Katarina, and in his constant quest for money to feed his passions, effectually takes money from Katerina intended for one purpose and spends it in a free-for-all on Grushenka. In this first part of the book, Dostoyevsky sets up all the evidence that will be brought against Mitya, for he shows no caution in exclaiming all over town how he’d like to kill his father. When his father is actually murdered, Mitya is naturally the prime suspect.

After the murder of Fyodor we are then treated to the police interrogation and subsequent courtroom drama to learn of Mitya’s fate. There are two good sections of the court scenes—the prosecutor’s statement, and the statement by the defense.

There are actually a few similarities with Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot which I think is a tad more accessible. Common threads are lust, epilepsy, characters driven to their destruction by lustful passions, and the abused, beautiful female siren who draws everyone to their own wreckage. The brothers in Karamazov distinctly symbolize not only the mind, body and spirit of the human condition, but it seems intended to represent the mind, body and spirit of Russia herself. That I’ll leave for critics and Russian historians, and skip to what I do want to talk about: Pleasure Reading.

Does your idea of reading Dostoyevsky look like this?

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Emil Filla “The Reader of Dostoyevsky” (1907)

Even if you haven’t read Dostoyevsky, you probably imaging dark, depressing, tedious, difficult, exhausting—everything this painting by Emil Filla conveys. I first saw “The Reader of Dostoyevsky” 1907 in the Prague Modern Museum of Art. I was there 4 weeks in 2000 writing my second novel. I immediately fell in love with the painting, and Czech art in general. The pallid man is slumped, exhausted, the colors of the room like glowing embers, and through the window the looming towers of the St. Vitus Cathedral. A copy of Dostoyevsky on the table.

I see something else, however, and perhaps the cross on the wall is a clue. I see a man also at rest, at peace, in an almost opiate state. I see that I suppose because that’s more akin to what I personally feel after completing a Dostoyevsky novel—the kind of complete fulfillment that the very best of literature can give.

People read for different reasons, and what you read for pleasure/entertainment depends on what you find pleasurable. I will probably never read a romance paperback or a John Grisham novel, and I’m just not into fantasy or science fiction. I’m sure if I picked up a murder mystery I’d read it straight through to the end and be entertained. But generally speaking, my primary issue with those genres is that those writers don’t write about the worlds I want to experience. Given the chance between the sisterhood of some traveling pants, or living in 1850 Russia for 1,000 pages, I’ll take the time travel to Russia every time.

To each his own, but for me, spending 1,000 pages with Dostoyevsky is like a month long Ted talk, and I could not be more entertained, moved, or engaged. In reading Dostoyevsky I get to authentically inhabit the skin of virtually every class of citizen of Russia at the time, from school-age boys, to crippled teen girls, peasants, and the wealthy highest society. That unique opportunity is a far greater pleasure to me than anything I could find in commercial fiction. Besides, as someone who wants to write literature, I think of this analogy: Mozart didn’t get to be Mozart by listening to One Direction.

I started this three part blog post framing it around the concept of reading as a cure for depression. My wishful thinking was that if I dove into a book that would take me two to three months to read, by the end I will have emerged at the other end with some tangible progress in changing my life. So, did it work?

I have finished my TV pilot, and now I’ve got the “show bible” to complete. I have started exercising again. I have toyed around with the idea of opening a retail business, and spent some time on the government small business website completing a business plan. And while I’ve gotten nowhere with fixing my biggest headache, my paying job, I did apply to a few companies, revamped my resume (again), and think I might have done well enough in my first phone interview to get to the next stage.

Sure, all that could have happened without reading The Brothers Karamazov, but because I took to the book as a remedy, who knows what placebo effect it may have had? In fact, I’m glancing at my bookshelves for the next fatty that might “finish the job.”

Postscript… I wrote the above prior to actually finishing The Brothers Karamazov and would like to say something else of it. In the very last chapter of the Epilogue, Alyosha attends the funeral of a young 11 year old schoolboy. After the burial, Alyosha is with the boy’s schoolmates and he suddenly becomes impassioned with a lust for life, for “the now.” He says, “And even if we are occupied with most important things, if we attain to honour or fall into great misfortune—still let us remember how good it was once here, when we were all together…” How fitting for someone who underwent the reading of this novel as “a cure” for depression, because in the end, what is important are the experiences we have with one another. My daughter is coming up on 10 months old. When I started The Brothers Karamzov she could not crawl. Now she’s crawling everywhere and beginning to stand on her own. She has two visible bottom teeth and wants to put every single dangerous and poisonous thing in her mouth. When all is said and done, years from now I will hardly remember these daily battles, but will always remember my wife and I in awe at watching our girl grow.

So it’s only fitting that I repeat here the last line of the novel: “Hurrah for Karamazov!” Absolutely!

Guinness Rye Pale Ale — feh.

The Beer & a Book blog has been noticeably devoid of beer lately. This is due to Laziness times lack of Inspiration minus Time. Speaking of lack of inspiration, I was recently fished-in by Guinness to disregard past experiences with new Guinness offerings and buy a six pack of their Rye Pale Ale. This is a new Guinness introduction you may see on some shelves (my prediction is, not for long). This is part of their Brewer’s Project series which I surmise is a defensive move to protect business in light of the American craft brewery movement which has been gradually making a mark on the more traditional European brewing culture. You may have also seen Guinness’s American Lager (you’re Guinness, why bother?) or their Nitro IPA (avoid.) But sucker for marketing and pretty colors that I am, I fell for the Guinness name and the blue label with orange lettering: striking, simple, enticing. Irish Rye Pale ale. It sounds like an old recipe dusted off from the Guinness archives.DSC_0074

I will be the first to admit that I don’t give a hoot about Guinness Stout as I find it far too mild—tastes like black water to me, or at least the imported version does. That’s not to say I won’t drink it, or even on rare, rare occasions, order it. It absolutely is the archetype of dry Irish stouts, and for that, as well as the Guinness lore, I tip my hat to them.

The flavor profile per the tag on the six-pack carton says, “First brewed as a gift for friends, Rye Pale Ale offers a rustic peppery bite, balanced with citrusy grapefruit notes from Mosaic and Cascade hops.” What you get however is a very mild pale ale, a little aromatic with malt and hop profile, with distant hints of fruit and “peppery” rye. Peppery really isn’t quite the right word, but is often used to describe beer with rye. Rye generally imparts a unique flavor to beers that is almost a little hard to describe (don’t confuse it with caraway which flavors most rye breads.) In the end, this really is a very mild pale ale with very subtle hints of flavors not typically encountered in all barley ales. It is amber in color, slightly hazy, and as you can see has a carbonation that results in large gassy bubbles (ok, duh, all carbonation is “gassy.”)

In the end, I just can’t see anybody finding true joy in this beer. Neither am I sensing inspiration from the brewer, despite well intentions. I’ll credit them for the effort and exploring their brewing roots. But with the mind-boggling selection of truly great beers on the shelves these days, why you would buy this one once, that I totally get. The question is why you’d buy it again. I’m having a hard time seeing that happen.

A Few Notes from the Still Above Ground- Dostoyevsky Notes

A recurring delusion I have is that the act of reading books like The Brothers Karamazov, or any other serious classic literature, should be worth some monetary reward. That somehow someway, it’d be nice to get paid to read this kind of thing. And if not a monetary award, then it at least should have some sort of marketable value, a universally respected achievement. What I mean is, it’d be nice to live in a world where by putting my reading list on a resume, people would be banging on my door to hire me for fantastic positions. Alas, challenging yourself by reading this kind of stuff is of no more value on a resume than not ever reading a single book. I’ll read these books alone and be taking the experience to the grave, hardly any better or worse. The real-world value of reading classic literature is unfortunately not as I think it should be–a delusion perhaps brought on by a lifetime of escapist reading of classic literature.

A week ago my wife got laid off, her job being restructured redefined relocated. In my last post I mentioned reading The Brothers Karamazov as a cure for depression. I’m halfway through my “cure,” and her being laid off helps none of that. She’ll be fine and land on her feet. At least she got a nice severance and has more definable, marketable skills. But it is added pressure and worry to me. I realize now too that by  using the term “depression” in my last post, I should have specified “depression brought on by grief.” The reason is that my kind of depression, the I-really-need-to-get-off-my-butt-and-make-career-changes kind, is not helped by choosing to spend my time reading Dostoyevsky over looking for a job.

I hardly ever follow anything on Facebook but the other day I happened to click on a photo that was posted by George Thorton, the owner of The Homebrewer which is a beer home brewing supply shop that I get my brewing supplies from. The photo was taken four years ago. There’s George, beaming a smile as he pours a bag of grain into the bin. The photo’s caption mentions that was the first bag of grain poured into a bin—Day 1 of getting his business off the ground. Sickeningly envious, I haven’t stopped thinking about ditching my demoralizing job and starting my own retail business (of which I would hardly know step 1). Sure opening a business is hard work, but to physically have your hand in it, to grow it as you see fit, rather than be the cog in a monstrous machine right out of “Metropolis”… we’ll I’d like to take my chances. Ever drive around and pass by strip malls with tiny businesses you have no clue how they could possibly get any customers? I do that all the time and wonder, why not me? Hell, I couldn’t fail any worse in a career than I already am.

So there’s that, and thinking of starting a business throws a wrench into my job search energy. Why put energy into getting a different crappy job when I should put my energy into being my own boss? Probably because while I do have an idea for a business, the perceived amount of work and time to start said business vs. looking for a job is overwhelming… (sigh) I am truly the master of my own demise.

Now about Dostoyevsky. The main trick is to have a pen and paper handy. You’ll need it to keep track of the character names since each character seems to have no less than two names, and sometimes three or more. You have to know Dimitri is the same as Mitya. Grushenka is the same as Agrafena. And Pavel=Smerdyakov=Balaam’s Ass. On the paper, leave plenty of room between the names as you will also be drawing all kinds of arrows connecting this character with that one. Just a tip.

The primary issue most modern readers will have with Dostoyevsky is the injection of long philosophical passages, usually religious in nature, which stop the story in its tracks. So far in The Brothers Karamazov there’s a long section called “The Grand Inquisitor” to which I would add the subheading: “Optional Reading.” Because this is an intellectual novel pertaining to the question of morality (and other such heavy hitters) technically it belongs. As Marc Slonim states in the introduction of this edition, “A Dostoyevsky psychological novel… is actually a novel of ideas.” By ideas he means the deep ideas of crime, punishment, God, society… not “here’s an idea, we should go throw a party!”

I will say that I am enjoying the novel more than the first time reading it twenty some years ago. But my fantasy was that by taking such a long time to read the book, by the end I will have “woken up” into some new change in my life/career. I will have begun reading the book at one junction in my life, and upon finishing found myself at a different station. Dostoyevsky may assist that if you are in a state of grief, as they say, time heals all wounds. But time in and of itself does not magically send out resumes, write business plans, or complete TV pilots. That unfortunately is still up to you.

Depression and The Brothers Karamazov as Remedy

One thing I am very aware that this blog lacks is any personal narrative, a story you can latch on to and go along for the ride. My “blog” is not about my personal struggle with X disease, or my experience being of being thrust into raising quintuplets. Nor is it any other type of personal journey I am on that might be shared by some other person across the world who is searching for comfort and inspiration from others that share his/her same condition.

But of course we all have our afflictions. My ailment is probably the most common of all. The more common the condition, the less people care—understandably so. Nobody blogs about living life being 10 pounds overweight. But I’ll state my deal anyway: 5 days out of the week, I wake up and spend most of my day doing something that is the antithesis of my being. And the other 2 days of the week, I’m consumed with dread thinking about how I spend 5 days out of the week doing something that….

At any rate, I’m looking for something else, and maybe you’re an undocumented worker with three children and you pick strawberries and would kill to do what I do. Maybe you have balloons of heroin in your intestines, and whether you will survive long enough to finish reading this is up in the air. It’s true, it can always get worse.

But I digress.

A long time ago I sold women’s shoes at Macy’s and thought that job was the worst I could possibly do. Looking back, I was wrong because I at least had social interaction and became friends with many of my co-workers, but that’s not the point. The actual point of this post concerns literature as therapy. Whether it’s successful therapy or not, that depends. But before I get into The Brothers Karamazov, in Larry McMurtry’s Duane’s Depressed, which is the third book of the Last Picture Show, Texasville trilogy, Duane is prescribed to read the 3,000 page In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust to get over his depression.

I very much like to imagine the Duane in the film “The Last Picture Show” as played by the then very young Jeff Bridges, living his full life in West Texas and eventually finding himself in his 60’s reading a 3,000 page book about French aristocrats. Sorry Texas, but it’s difficult to picture any 60 year old native Texan reading Proust, although I’m sure it happens now and then. In the book Duane’s psychiatrist makes him read the incredibly lengthy book that he can barely follow, and to not give up until the end. Throughout Duane’s Depressed he cannot figure out the point in reading a novel that he doesn’t particularly enjoy, about people a half world away he has nothing in common with. It isn’t that In Search of Lost Time holds any secret, or magically administers Prozac through the eyes, but rather it is a something to separate Duane from his reality on a measured, continued basis—even if his eyes glaze over while turning the pages. And that ultimately is the revelation of the “prescription.”

Back to The Brothers Karamazov. dsc_0189I was 24, 25 when I read it. I was in one of those dead sea dating zones between having lost my college girlfriend of 4 years to someone else, and not finding a soul to move on with. I was selling shoes, as I said, living in a 1 bedroom apartment, driving a 1984 Toyota Corolla, and writing the kind of poetry I pray to God I have completely destroyed lest someone find it after I die. On my lunch break, I would walk out to my car in the parking lot, sit in the driver seat, and read The Brothers Karamazov. Usually I’d do so while eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that had reached 120+ degrees in the morning heat, washing them down with equally warmed water. Ahead of me, through the windshield, from time to time I would look up from the book and watch small birds fly in and out of a hedge. I barely remember anything about the story. I think there’s a patricide, I’m pretty sure there are three brothers, I know there’s some priest or monk that goes on and on for days on end about morality, and I vaguely recall something about someone climbing in through a garden window. That’s it. I’m not even sure if that qualifies as a claim to have read the novel.

And yet as I looking at my copy today, despite all that I have going on in my life right now, I’m thinking that re-reading this book would be just what the doctor ordered if I could simply find the time. Currently I’m the father of an awesome 7 month old girl, I work full time, I’m a husband, I’m in the midst of writing a TV pilot, I’m looking for a job, I have a yard full of weeds celebrating a healthy rainy season, I have this blog I want to maintain, I want to be active again and find time to exercise, and the list goes on. So how do I even think about committing to 1,000 pages of Dostoyevsky that I already read and didn’t all that enjoy the first time around? And why on Earth would I do that? There are so many other titles I might enjoy better and be less commanding of my time and attention.

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The Modern Library edition contains about 9 little illustrations at each part.

Well, the “why” is in part because I’m a better reader now than I was when I was 25, and maybe it will be a different experience. But even if it wouldn’t be different this time around, The Brothers Karamazov is exactly the kind of book to read without really reading, to escape daily life and scramble up the wiring of your brain trying to focus on a tedious exercise it’s only half interested in. Sure, you could get the same effect by reading the Dictionary, but this is still Dostoyevsky we’re talking about—a thousand pages you get to spend with a genius. And with great writers, even if your mind drifts while reading, there will be passages absorbed by osmosis, and sentences so expertly crafted and piercing that you are removed from your women’s shoe-selling life and transported into a Russian drawing room, circa 1878 (or whenever it is the novel taken place). So opposite are books like In Search of Lost Time and The Brothers Karamazov to anybody’s modern experience, they are the perfect remedy to sustain a continued separation from your daily experience over a long period of time. And isn’t that what any anti-depressant does—rough out those edges long enough for conditions in life to naturally improve?

As with any medicine, sometimes the hard part is simply taking it as much and as often and as regular as you have to in order to be well. In my case, I think the weeding will have to wait.

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The Reivers – William Faulkner

The list of William Faulkner books I own and have read, often multiple times, is long. I know I missed a few titles along the way, but certainly I would have claimed to have read all of the Faulkner essentials and then some. No one ever mentions The Reivers when listing Faulkner’s major worksdsc_0111, and it turns out I find that to be a shame. No, it’s not The Sound and the Fury, but this is not a work to be dismissed and unread. After all, isn’t it likely that even the worst work by a Nobel Prize winner has a good chance of being far better than the best book by an average writer? For my birthday my brother bought me a copy of The Reivers, published in 1962, a month before Faulkner’s death. A couple lines in the front jacket mirror my own conclusions, “The Reivers is, with no reservations whatsoever, one of the funniest books in our literature,” and, “But to those readers who have only sampled his work, The Reivers will be an especial delight.” Having believed I had read all of Faulkner’s good books, The Reivers truly was a wonderful surprise.

Turns out The Reivers is well loved and highly regarded by fans of Faulkner. For readers new to Faulkner, it may be a great place to start and for good reason. It’s one of the more accessible Faulkner books, it truly is comic, and it’s an adventure story not that dissimilar to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is a kind of coming of age story about an 11 year old who on a short trip to Memphis, learns an immense deal about men, women, race, and the society he exists in.

This is definitely not a book you want to give too much of the plot away. In short, Lucius Priest (now 60) is reminiscing to his son about the time in 1905 when his grandfather bought the first automobile in Jefferson, Mississippi. 11 years old then, Lucius and older friend of the family, Boon Hogganbeck  borrow/steal the automobile to drive up to Memphis. Soon after starting, they discover a stowaway hiding under a tarp in the back–Ned William McCaslin who is Black and a distant relative to Lucius. As with many Faulkner books, The Reivers includes many of the characters and relatives from the McCaslin/Edmondses family tree found in other works.

Soon after arriving in Memphis, Ned trades the automobile for a stolen race horse that won’t run, with the grand scheme to set up a horse race in which they can win the automobile back and keep the horse too. Ned has a secret that he believes will get the horse to “run”, a secret that was previously successful in getting a mule to win any race it entered. Arriving in Memphis, Boon visits a brothel where we meet Miss Reba, Boon’s “gal” Miss Corrine, and Minnie, a Black maid with a gold tooth that has Lucius smitten.

1905. Road trip. Brothels. Horse racing… and all under the treatment of Faulkner. Say. no. more. Similar to some of the stories in Go Down Moses, in Faulkner’s hand this “road trip” story unfolds on a scale of fabled proportion.  Characters appearing in the novel are drawn out so vibrantly: Ned William McCaslin the brilliant con man and reader of men, Miss Reba who runs the bordello, Otis a 15 year old monster visiting his aunt Corrine at the brothel, and Butch, the horrific bastard of a White sheriff who embodies all that was so wrong for Blacks in the South. The language and dialogue is so rich and intelligent, even when coming out of the mouths of the ignorant.

I am going to mention as well that I began reading the book on a day that officially heralded in the era of “make America great again,” or so it is said anyway. As I began to read The Reivers I couldn’t help but think that, no, what makes America great is not an ugly rhetoric based on misinformation and lies, what makes America great (at least in part) are its artists, musicians and storytellers who distill the American experience into something we universally recognize and share. It’s literature like The Reivers that both makes America great, as well as depicts its greatness. Certainly I’m not suggesting that the South of 1905 is a benchmark in America we should be striving to return to. The racism and Jim Crow era is on full display in The Reivers, especially embodied in the sheriff, Butch. But counter to that darkness are some of the most dignified human portraits of Blacks, as well as relationships between Black and White, found in American literature. It shows its people’s shared humanity, intelligence, pluck, and ability of its people to have a solidarity with one another that is based not on color, but on character. The novel is a depiction of American people and of a society beginning to find mutual respect for each other, while also living with the realities of its persistent racism.

Given the age of Faulkner when he wrote it, coupled with the subtitle, “A Reminiscence,” this should be enough to inform readers that The Reivers will be something of a golden, wistful remembrance of childhood in the South, of a time when the very first automobiles ever seen were appearing on the roads. If you can imagine the novelty and wonder of even sitting in the first automobile to appear in town, let alone taking a road trip in it, then this may be the book for you. The novel is all of that, and yet a profound book as well. There is a fable-like quality to it, with larger than life characters and a depiction of a post Civil War America growing into itself.

Lastly, there is a hook in the story that once set, will keep you reading to the end: the secret of how Ned can make a horse who doesn’t want to run, run. I would absolutely love to tell you Ned’s secret ingredient–it’s really too good not to share. When I finally found out what that secret was, I laughed, and I mean really laughed. But I could never live with myself if I ever stole that opportunity to experience joy from someone. So I’ll leave you with this. Feeling uncertain about the world? Bogged down with social media posts and “Breaking News” about Beyonce’s pregnancy status? Cable news got you pulling out your hair? Stop, turn it off, buy a copy of The Reivers, and regain some hope in humanity.

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As a fan of both Faulkner and Modern Library editions, I had to post this photo from the back of the dust jacket.

Barrelhouse Brewing Co – Stout

The very first micro-brewed beer I ever tasted was Kinnikinnick Old Scout Stout at the now long gone 20 Tank Brewery in San Francisco. As I took those first swallows, it was like the beer I had been waiting for all my life finally arrived to my palate. I had had Guinness before that, which maybe seemed real stout-y at the time, but Old Scout Stout instantly made Guinness taste to me like black water. That’s not really a knock on Guinness, which is an Irish dry stout, thus really an apples and oranges comparison. But as to Old Scout Stout, I remember it roasty, rich, slightly sweet with a tan head, but very drinkable. In fact when I’d go to 20 Tank that was generally all I’d order, so to have 3-4 full pints of any stout speaks to how easily drinkable it was. After I moved back down to San Diego, anytime I planned a trip to visit friends in S.F., I would plan the trip to coincide with Old Scout’s availability as it wasn’t always on tap.

Sadly, 20 years later, that beer is now a distant memory. I’ve tried to brew stouts over and over, trying to unlock that mysterious combination of dark roasted malts to replicate the flavor of Old Scout–a flavor that I’ll only know again once I taste it. I’ve made good stouts, but in chasing 20 Tank’s and getting in the ballpark of Old Scout, no, I fail every time and it’s been the devil of me. Once I had a stout from Alpine Brewing Company in Alpine, CA that was very close to Old Scout, but that was years ago and I think they either no longer brew it, or their recipe for their Captain Stout changed, because it’s not the same.

For the above reason, stout is a style near and dear to me, and as a style there are quite a few distinct sub-styles, from lighter oatmeal stouts to the more dessert-y sweet stouts and Russian Imperial Stouts. Drink a Guinness and then a barrel aged Russian Imperial and you’ll wonder how they can both be called stout. Point is, I’m always looking for a new stout that can stand apart from the rest.

Last night I bought Barrelhouse Brewing Company’s “Stout”. The label indicates it is an Oatmeal Stout, but it’s in small letters so it’s barely advertised as one. I’d also never had anything from this brewery before, but my first clue it was probably going to be good was that the brewery is located in Paso Robles, CA. Located in California’s Central Coastal area, Paso Robles is home to some fantastic wineries. If you’ve ever been there, you know it’s not the kind of place that would support bad beer. Firestone Walker, another great brewery, is also located there.dsc_0070-3

And I wasn’t disappointed. The thing I loved about Barrelhouse’s Oatmeal Stout was that it was sort of the archetype of the style. It was dark, rich, minimally sweet, and had all that smooth creamy mouthfeel of an oatmeal stout. Alcohol and minimal hop character are very well balanced with the roasty character that gives stout those coffee and chocolate notes. There was no harshness or bitterness often encountered with stouts, nor was there any cloying sweetness. As the bottle professes, this was a very drinkable stout and part of its beauty is how laid bare it really is. Trust me, I love stouts that have coffee, chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla, that are barrel aged, or have chili peppers in them–Hell, I do that sometimes to my own beers. But sometimes you want something brewed to style “on the nose.” And when you get a beer that by all accounts should be familiar yet still manages to rise above the masses, then you have something special. That happened to be my experience with this beer.

Next time I’m up in those parts, you bet I’m going to sidle up to the Barrelhouse Brewing Co. bar and enjoy it fresh on tap.

The Old Man’s Place – John B. Sanford

This is some kind of awful in a good way. Talk about “deplorables,” this book has three of the worst. I have 40 pages left to read before the end and I’m hesitant to read them because that would mean the end of the book.dsc_0067-2 I had never hear of John B. Sanford or The Old Man’s Place, but my brother collects books and in his book hunting came across this edition in a thrift store. The $1.80 he reportedly spent is certainly worth the book cover alone, but according to my brother’s research, when the novel came out in 1935, both Hemingway and Faulkner enjoyed it. So it had the potential to be one of those lost gems of American Lit.

Three men are in a bar. It is post World War I and the three men are each introduced with their own backstory. All are what you would call “good for nothings.” Tramps, hobos, violent, dangerous crooks on the American skids. As a reader, you pretty quickly just want to see them to get annihilated, or rather, let Life finish the job it started. There is no good to come from any of these three. One is a pimple faced, rotten-toothed ex-jockey named James Pilgrim. The second, Martin Flood is a giant ex-farmboy from Nebraska who had learned a thing or two while serving in France. Then Trubee Pell, the son of a farmer and best of the bunch who has also had trouble after the war.

There’s something of the Beat Generation in this book—outsider Americans on the bum in post-war America, only in this case the year is 1920. These three have teamed up to get what they can get, live what they can live, and they’re not going to be the kind of rubes to take orders from anybody. They are in pursuit of the basics only: something to eat, something to drink, and something to lay on top of. The method they get those things is by any means necessary.

Queue Anna Wayne… well, no, not quite yet. Before Anna’s appearance, Trubee takes his other two no-goods to his father’s farm (Walter Pell’s) where they promptly abuse him and take over. Walter is glad to see his son after such a long absence and seems to be Christian enough to turn the other cheek to some pretty bad abuses. They eat his food, order him around, and kick him out of his bedroom. At this point you pretty much want the rest of the novel to be Mr. Pell going Rambo on them all, and there doesn’t seem to be any other logical way to satisfy the reader’s desire before the story ends. After stealing a truck loaded with numerous cases of Johnnie Walker, James Pilgrim answers an advertisement for a matchmaking service found in the back of the nudie magazine “Spicy Paree”.dsc_0069-2

Now queue Anna. On the other end of the matchmaking service is Anna Wayne, a poor farm girl who has nothing and nobody but herself and her fantasy of someday having a real “sweetheart.” James Pilgrim’s letters, which are nothing but lies to hook her interest: that he’s over six feet tall, owns 200 acres good paying land, goes to church and never sick a day in his life. It’s the original “catfish.”

When James picks her up at the train station, since he doesn’t fit the description of himself in his letters to Anna, he has to lie to her and say he’s picking her up for the real James Pilgrim who is waiting with the Pastor to marry them out at the farm. Once he convinces Anna to get in the wagon, the reader knows the short term future will not be good for the poor, gullible girl. She’s walking right into repeated rapings, abuse, and probably murder. When they arrive at the farm, Anna sees the most violent of the bunch, Martin Flood, and because he is over 6 feet, assumes he is the sweetheart who wrote those letters. And Flood, licking his chops at the sight of Anna, sees right off what there is to gain by saying he’s the real James Pilgrim. It’s horrific, comical, and teeth-gritting all in one. There seems to be little to save Anna from being a captive sex slave for these hideous three.

Here the story sort of softens and takes a turn. Furious that Flood has stolen his mail order bride right out from under him, Pilgrim takes a gun and gives Flood his comeuppance in the form of a shot in the shoulder and another in the groin. The latter is to Pilgrim’s great disappointment, as he repeatedly laments “about not getting him in the works.” Trubee, the more kind of the three, tries to convince Anna to get away from them, but with nothing else to turn to, she inexplicably decides to actually stick around. Flood heals up with the aid of a doctor and that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I don’t know the end and anyway, in reading a blog neither should you.

Straightaway the remarkable thing about this book is the language. It is violent, highly sexual (“rape-y” is more accurate), and chock full of choice 1920’s euphemisms. When you compare The Old Man’s Place to Hemingway’s stories involving the same class of people (“The Killers” “The Battler” and “Light of the World”) you have to give Sanford some credit for revealing the language and psyche of the modern American outlaw in a way that seems a step further than Hemingway goes. The language is more crude, their lusts more raw.

Like I said, I’d never heard of this guy in my life. I have no idea (yet) what else John B. Sanford has written. Nor can I guess what success you’ll have in locating a copy of The Old Man’s Place. But if you do (and it’s easy reading) you’re in for a 1935 treat.

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