Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy Birthday Junot Diaz (and Happy New Year to You)

TODAY is, by most accounts, the end of a decade -- and a mostly bad one at that. But it gives us here at the Misread City some pleasure to nod to a writer of the oughts who we're hoping will be an even bigger figure in the 2010s. Today is the 41st birthday of Junot Diaz, author of the story collection "Drown" and the Pulitzer winning novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

I spoke to Diaz here about his love of science-fiction -- like me, a passion he chased for several years as a kid but gave up when adolescence hit hard. Writing "Oscar Wao" -- about a "ghetto nerd" who aimed to become "the Dominican Tolkien" -- brought Diaz back to sf in his mid-30s. (Why I returned at about the same time I can't quiet explain, but I think fewer people are asking.)

In any case, the novel is kickass and manages to wrap humor, a coming-of-age story, and critique of immigrant culture into an international history lesson like nothing I've seen.

I also wrote about Diaz in a Sunday essay about cultural hierarchy -- the division between what's long been considered high and lowbrow art, literature, music, etc., and why those categories seem to be breaking down. (It's a long piece, but  one of the best read things I've written, for what that's worth.)

Wishing the novelist Junot Diaz -- who also had the good sense to teach in '09 at my alma mater -- a good 41st.

And to readers of The Misread City, thank YOU for your interest and attention, and a Happy New Year to All.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Happy Saturnalia to All

SORRY this is a few days late, I've been busy burning wax candles, praying to the god of the harvest, wearing goofy hats and drinking watered-down Roman wine, but let me wish everyone a happy Saturnalia.

To those who celebrate otherwise, a happy holiday to you as well.

May the New Year and its harvests smile on you.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Congratulating Spoon -- Alas

FIRST of all, I'm awfully pleased that one of my favorite working bands -- the Austin/ Portland combo Spoon -- has been voted the decade's best indie rock band, American division, by the readers of The Misread City. More proof that my Steve McQueen/ '59 Miles Davis/ Audrey Hepburn- digging followers have great taste. (And an incredibly retro sensibility, but maybe that is my fault.)

For this indie list, I tried to concentrate on groups that were of the 21st century rather than '90s bands that held on. I included Sleater-Kinney, because of a very strong Indian summer, but left off some of my favorites, like Built to Spill and Yo La Tengo. And while Spoon began in the '90s, and put out at least one good record before the turn of the century, the winning streak that began with 2001's "Girls Can Tell" has made them the most consistently exciting indie band of the period. They're also a sharp, focussed, driven live band, and they no longer remind me unduly of their influences -- Pixies, Wire, Revolver-era Beatles.

Some of their best songs: "Rhythm and Soul," "Don't Make Me a Target," "Sister Jack." Here is the atypical tune "I Turn My Camera On," which still has their characteristic mix of minimalism and rhythm. And here is the sly, funky "Don't You Evah," with a more typical nasal Britt Daniel vocal.

So I've already said I love this band., and I can't wait to hear their next LP, "Transference," which comes out in mid-January. (Here is Sunday's NYT piece, not by me.)

But there's also something a bit deflating about Spoon being the decade's winner. This is a modest group that does something very specific and often low-key. Compared to the greatest Amerindie bands of the 90s -- Pavement, Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo, etc. -- they are stylistically conservative. Compare them to 80s indie -- Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Replacements -- they seem unambitious.

I won't blame Spoon for this -- they are a kickass group and keep getting better. But it makes me wonder if indie has lost its ability to innovate, to surprise us. Another of decade's most celebrated bands, The Strokes, sounds to me like a pedestrian pastiche, and groups that I was once excited about -- Interpol, for instance, the Shins, the Decemberists -- haven't really gone anywhere.

We're a long way from indie rock being a dead language, but it has certainly become a constricting one. Here's hoping that the 2010s show a group or movement arriving to open it up a bit. Two of my runners up -- TV on the Radio, with their baffling blend of Eno, dub and hip hop -- and Wilco, with a commitment to a personal vision -- may show the way forward.

Until then, I"ll be blasting "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga."

Photo credit: Merge Records

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas With John Fahey

AN underrated West Coast guitarist, the great and mysterious John Fahey, is best known for gloomy, weird, angular records like "Blind Joe Death" and "The Voice of the Turtle" that begin in Charley Patton territory and in some ways anticipate the anti-folk movement.

But for me, Fahey and his "American primitivist" style is most important as part of my Christmas experience, and has been for decades now. Around this time of year, I develop this weirdly atavistic connection -- the kind I would surely find corny in others -- to my Anglo-Irish roots, and I play a lot of dark Celtic folk music, old and new. But there's nothing I play as often, or soak up as deeply, as Fahey's solo acoustic Christmas record, "The New Possibility," which I know from my parents.

In some ways -- I'm glad to say -- it's as gloomy, weird and angular as his other work. Fahey (who died in '01 -- here is his posthumous website) was an odd cat.

Here is the album's first song, "Joy To the World."

Here he is teaching "auld lang syne" behind dark glasses.

And here, a subdued reading by a young Fahey of the Anglican hymn, "In Christ There is no East or West."

Anyway, alongside Johnny Cash's gospels recordings and Bach's sublime and lonely cello suites, this is stuff is almost enough to make me love Protestantism.

Update for fall 2013: Fantasy has reissued The New Possibility on vinyl, and put out a new CD compilation of his four holiday albums called Christmas Guitar Soli with John Fahey. They're on their way to me, look forward to hearing. 

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Jazz, 1959 and Today

ONE of the exciting things in music this year was the excuse a 50th anniversary gave to us jazzheads to return to what I consider the best year ever in the history of the art form. Okay, I know that sounds like something between an advertising slogan and a gloomy denial of the ensuing 50 years. But in a year when Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, etc. were all punching at their respective peaks, it's hard not to miss it.

The winner of this blog's poll for best 1959 jazz album, of course, was Miles' "Kind of Blue." HERE is a link to my Sunday LATimes piece on that album and its musical / cultural context.

Sony has reissued that masterpiece as well as several others in expanded editions this year. The 2-CD versions of "Blue," Brubeck's "Take Five," "Mingus Ah Um," and Olatunji's "Drums of Passion" -- which the late great dj/critic Tom Terrell called one of the century's overlooked masterpieces -- make perfect Christmas gifts.

(I'm happy to say I own the deluxe-anniversary set of "Blue," bigger and alas pricier than the 2-CD version, with photographs of the session and vinyl LPs in addition to outtakes.)

For those of you interested in listening closer to the present, HERE is a best-of-2009 list from's Ted Gioia (author of the truly awesome "West Coast Jazz") which includes albums by Joe Lovano, The Bad Plus and Matthew Shipp. Those three alone make me happy -- as much as I love the old-school cool of 1959 -- for the form's last five decades of evolution.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Happy Birthday to Philip K. Dick

This blog has drifted into Africa and Italy recently, so let me return for a moment to our West Coast home ground: Today would be the birthday of one of America's most intriguing, frustrating and brilliant writers -- Philip K. Dick.

It's hard to know where to start on a figure like this, but let me defer to David Gill, a Bay Area lecturer who runs the clever and instructive Total Dick-head site. Check out his new posts.

Most of you need no introduction to PKD (who lived, sometimes erratically, primarily in the Bay Area and Orange County) or his body of work -- novels like "The Man in the High Castle," "Ubik," "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" and movies like "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "A Scanner Darkly." He was an important inspiration for everything from "Brazil" to "The Matrix" to "Being John Malkovich." And the careers of many important novelists of my generation -- Jonathan Lethem is the clearest case -- were shaped profoundly by him.

Even the mighty Thomas Pynchon bears his stamp.

These days I am reading and rereading a lot of the work of this author who LA's Steve Erickson helped save from obscurity, Art Spiegelman called the Kafka of the late 20th c., and who Ursula Le Guin called "our own homegrown Borges." So I'll leave the rest of my thoughts to a piece I think will drop next month -- which I hope will be the first of several.

I read some of Dick's work as an SF-loving teenager. Not all the stuff I read then stands up -- Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" seems to wrap a wonderful premise around endless libertarian rants, and the characters in Asimov's Foundation books seem even flatter than than were when I was 13 -- but Dick's work, for all its flaws, has only grown in my estimation. (I won't quite class him with Beethoven, but enjoy the coincidence that the composer and this dedicated fan of Austro-German classical music were both born on Dec. 16.)

On what would be PKD's 81st birthday, I'm struck, as is everybody else, by how clearly he seemed to get where our culture was going -- in books written as early as the early '60s. I'm not talking about literal prediction (of, say, technological gadgets) but a broader understanding of human nature and society and religion that makes his vision far more prescient than that of the more optimistic, often militaristic Golden Age writers who preceded him.

For now, I'll leave my readers with a wonderful piece by Laura Miller with the title "It's Philip Dick's World, We Only Live in It." For better and worse, that is.

Chinua Achebe, Past and Present

PERHAPS the most consistently engaging critics of new books these days, the New York Times' Dwight Garner, has a fine piece today on the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, author of colonialism classic "Things Fall Apart." Achebe's new collection of essays -- his first book of any kind in two decades -- is called "The Education of a British Protected Child."

In the new collection, which I've not seen yet, Achebe talks about Joseph Conrad -- Achebe's writing on the  "Heart of Darkness" and its racism have become well-known over the years -- the English novels he grew up reading, Nigerian politics, and his decision to write in English and not one of his nation's more deeply rooted languages.

When "Things Fall Apart" -- an enduring and incisive novel -- turned 50 last year, I spoke to several African novelists, including Achebe himself and fellow Igbo Chris Abani. Here's my story. And I look forward to seeing Achebe's new collection.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Berlusconi and Italy's Dark Heart

IN the "couldn't happen to a nicer guy" department comes the recent attack on Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in Milan. The attack broke two teeth and fractured the media mogul's nose.

Italy and its culture are very close to my heart, but this nation does not have a very good track record when it comes to governing itself. And for all the soaring wonders of Italian art, literature and opera, the pop music utterly sucks.

British journalist Tobias Jones captured these contradictions, as well as the insularity and xenophobia that lays behind the charm, in a book which became a success d' scandale. HERE is my review of the sharply written "The Dark Heart of Italy."

As with Barzini's "The Italians," which is very much about Mussolini -- those chapters are laugh-out-loud funny, by the way -- this book is about culture and society (especially of the north and Emilia-Romagna in specific) but with Berlusconi's power and corruption sitting at its center.

"Repo Man" and Punk LA

NOT long ago the LA Times put together a Sunday package on the best films about Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to draw "Repo Man," a movie I watched so many times, with two different posses of high school friends, that the film's dialogue became a kind of subcultural code.

The film is being screened tonight at New York's Lincoln Center, in an honor we would not have expected as we shouted lines back to the TV screen while drinking pilfered beer back in the '80s.

And of course I was pleased to see "Repo Man" screened at the Guadalajara International Book Fair a few weeks ago as a canonical LA film -- alongside more obvious choices like "Chinatown" and "LA Confidential." (The latter was the number one movie in the Times piece, by the way.)

Returning to the film as a nearly 40-year-old adult, I was struck by both how well the film had stood up and by the sense of lost promise of its director and stars. (Alex Cox, who now lives in Oregon, like a lot of people who burn out on LA, released a memoir in 2008.) Much of the soundtrack -- Circle Jerks, Plugz, Black Flag doing "TV Party" -- still sounds excellent to my ears. This movie captured something -- culturally, and in terms of the talent assembled -- that didn't last long. But it's now a rich and complex part of LA history.

Here is my little note on the film.

Los Angeles has symbolized the end of civilization in a long list of films but rarely as memorably as in this sci-fi-inflected portrait of punk-era dead-enders. Using dirty, dingy locations in East L.A. and downtown, and under freeway overpasses, the film tells the story of Otto (Emilio Estevez), a self-proclaimed "white suburban punk" who repossesses cars after his career shelving generic foodstuffs -- labeled FOOD, BEER and DRINK -- doesn't pan out. Not only does this premise offer us a deadpan-comic tour of the seamy underside of L.A.'s car culture, it allows director-writer Alex Cox to fold in a story about alien invaders, the CIA and the invention of the neutron bomb (all with a nifty nod to the '50s noir classic "Kiss Me Deadly.") This is the City of Angels in the wealthy '80s, but it's far from glitzy: L.A. is filled with guns and almost no vegetation, a huge swath of the population seems to be unemployed, racial tension is high, buildings and lots are abandoned, and every convenience store we visit is in the process of being knocked over. Instead of responsible adults we have homeless savants, televangelists and blissed-out ex-hippies. Years later, the film -- a kind of hinge between "Taxi Driver" and "Pulp Fiction" -- shows an L.A. that doesn't seem that far from where we're heading.
Bookend: Cox, who grew up near Liverpool and now lives in Oregon, worked briefly as an L.A.repo man. He's got a memoir coming in September called "X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker.

And here -- harder to read than I'd like -- is the entire LA Times feature on the city's defining movies. Now, if you'll excuse me, "Let's go do some crimes."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Los Angeles vs. the Gastropub

We seem to be in the grip of a full-scale beer renaissance here in LA. It's taken a while to get here -- as beer expert Hallie Beaune has pointed out, Southern California's proximity to wine country and the (often mistaken) impression that beer has more calories than cocktails or wine has held back beer's progress in this slimness-obsessed town. (Even as a wine-lover, I cannot help but think that the nouveau-riche association of wine with "classy" has helped wine and again, hurt beer.)

In any case, beer is here, and places like the Verdugo Bar in Glassell Park, the York in nearby Highland Park, and Father's Office in Santa Monica and Culver City remind me why I like the stuff so much. (And why Budweiser and most American lagers are so meager by comparison with, say, a Craftsman real ale or Scotland's Bellhaven.)

HERE is a piece I wrote for Portland's Oregonian (it comes out on Sunday) that looks at five gastropubs from the Eastside to the ocean. Where's Golden State, with its delectable sweet potato fries? Where's Ford's Filling Station, with its handsome celebrity chef? Sorry guys, I only had five. In my list I was looking for places with strong, unusual beer lists and good-to-excellent food, which I define -- for most of these spots -- as requiring a very fine burger as well as a range of less conventional offerings.

Those with strong opinions should vent them here or hold them for an upcoming poll on the city's best burger.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ross MacDonald and California

Sometimes it's the outsiders who tell us the most. And Ross Macdonald, the Canadian-reared detective novelist who spent most of his career in and around Santa Barbara, wrote some of the most enduring private eye novels set in the Golden State as well as, between the lines, some of the best social history of the postwar period.

HERE is my piece on the work and life of MacDonald (1915-'83), who would celebrate his birthday this Sunday. He's inspired other crime writers -- Robert Crais loves his work and carries his mantle in some ways, and James Ellroy has often talked to me how the emphasis on family roots in MacDonald's work has shaped his own. But more mainstream/literary writers have taken off from his as well: You can see private eye Lew Archer sneaking around the shadows of Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn" and Chabon's "The Yiddish Policeman's Union."

For my piece I speak to writer Crais, biographer Tom Nolan, LA noir queen Denise Hamilton and his old editor Otto Penzler.

Besides incredible plotting and psychologically rich characters, I love the way the author captures the gradual and seismic changes in California culture in the '50s and '60s -- the coming of long hair and rock music and drugs, changing sexual morals, the excitement of the young and the disorientation of the older generation. He writes about it all with sensitivity and grudging sympathy.

More on Ross Mac later. To answer your first question: Start with "The Galton Case."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Return of Morrissey

Thursday night, Morrissey returns to LA for a show at the Gibson Amphitheater, and he just dropped a new collection of B-sides called "Swords" (including a short disc of songs from a Warsaw concert.) When Mozz played Coachella in the spring I wrote about the man and his influence HERE.

I am such a hardcore Smiths fan I ventured to the band's hometown -- Manchester -- and wrote this travel piece about an old industrial city -- the first in the world, in a sense -- reimagining itself. Of course, Manchester -- the setting of "24 Hour Party People" -- was also home to the Buzzcocks, Joy Division and the Stone Roses, and here is my sidebar on the 10 best albums from the city. (By sorta coincidence I also had the good fortune to be married on the man's 45th birthday.)

As for the Morrissey show, The Misread City hopes to see you there.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

John Lennon vs. High Culture

Twenty nine years ago, on a cold December morning, I woke up to see my mom, a bit addled, standing in my bedroom doorway. "I've got some bad news," she said. "John Lennon was shot."

"Well, is he okay?" I asked.

I was in 6th grade, and I'd spent much of the previous few years sitting in the basement while my head spun along with the turntable to the Beatles music -- especially "Revolver" and an album my best friend had given me the year before, "Rubber Soul"; I especially liked the psychedelic "I'm Only Sleeping," the reflective "In My Life" and the darkly romantic "It's Only Love."  Of course I liked all the Beatles, but John was my first and fiercest cultural hero; I memorized the lyrics to his songs and read everything I could about him.

Not everyone was as zealous as me, and some friends preferred Paul or George, but it seemed inconceivable that someone might not like the Beatles.

I trudged to school, where the teacher was a supposedly "tough" customer who'd taken a special liking to me for some reason -- she was a kind of hero of mine as well. Partway through school, maybe at the lunch hour, she brought up Lennon's murder.

She was shocked, in fact -- because an opera singer had died the day before and no one had noticed. And here this "druggie" had been killed, and people were crying in the streets. Why all the fuss for a rock n roll singer?

Of course, this didn't exactly endear me to my beloved teacher. What was even weirder than the pitting of high vs. popular culture -- something I've always hated and still fight against, and especially wrong in the case of John -- was the fact that none of the other kids seemed as shaken up as I was. I knew my folks were upset, and an old friend from a different school called me later in the day and we talked forever about it. But had I landed in some baleful alternate universe where nobody liked the Beatles? The conversation moved on to another topic, but I didn't.

I'm the kind of person that likes to reconcile opposing points of view, to understand people's perspectives in the widest possible context. Maybe on the 30th of John's death I'll be able to see my teacher's reaction with more detachment. But today, I'm still so upset about John's death, and realize that day -- the end of his life -- was the beginning, for me, of the distrust of authority that I'm now old enough to read in his songs and life.

RIP John Lennon. Tonight I will blast "Rubber Soul" for my Beatles-loving three-year-old son all the way through.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Hometown Pasadena and Eat LA

Tonight is a party for the new edition of "Eat LA," a sharp and useful guide to food and drink in greater LA put out by Pasadena's Prospect Park Books. I especially like the way this book stretches from traditional restaurants into bars, bakeries, taquerias and neighborhood joints.

I first met the publisher and main author of that book, Colleen Dunn Bates, when she was putting out "Hometown Pasadena." This was an ingenious idea -- to provide an informed guide to living in your own city -- that has resulted in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara editions as well. New York publishers have not generally treated California topics very intelligently or fully, and Bates' press is kind of the publishing equivalent of the "eat local" movement.

HERE is my article on Bates and the larger issue of micro-publishing.

And HERE, speaking of restaurants, is perfect little piece by Jonathan Gold from the Weekly about Palate, which has become one of my favorite local places to eat and drink. I love what he says about restaurants having multiple personalities (I've worked in enough to see that quite clearly.) Anyone wondering how the Falstaffian scribe landed a Pulitzer should only glance at this little amuse bouche.

This Sat, Feb 20, is a tasting and signing by the Eat LA gang at Book Soup.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thomas Pynchon as LA Writer

ONE of the highlights of the Guadalajara International Book Festival -- devoted this year to the literature of Los Angeles -- was a panel considering Thomas Pynchon's California Trilogy. This means "The Crying of Lot 49," his shortest and perhaps finest novel; "Vineland," set largely in Mendocino County and perhaps his slightest work; and "Inherent Vice," a neo-noir set in the South Bay at the end of the '60s.

(Here is a piece I wrote not long ago on Pynchon, Denis Johnson, Salinger and other reclusive writers.)

The conversation -- moderated by obsessive Angeleno David Kipen, with postmodern LA novelist Mark Danielewski and Brit noir-head Richard Rayner -- was largely speculative, in part because of the lack of solid information about Pynchon's life story. (As Danielewski -- who has had just come from a panel on Bukowski that had trouble getting away from the barfly-poet's life story -- points out, this obscurity has the effect of focussing most discussion of Pynchon where it belongs, on the work itself.)

Both panelists recalled picking up copies of "Gravity's Rainbow" (in which LA makes a brief but important appearance) and being simultaneously baffled and attracted -- the American author thought it must be written by an Englishman, the Brit was struck by how distinctly American it was. The style, said Rayner, was "both relaxed and incredibly tight, slangy and elegant."

Rayner also worked to show how approachable TP can be, pulling out a passage, set on the Berkeley campus. "The guy just writes killer sentences," he concluded. "He's fun -- he's a comedian."

Danielewski discussed some of TP's influences -- Dickens, South American writers, Rilke, detective fiction going back to "Oedipus Rex" -- and asked, how effective a social critic is Pynchon? (Quite, others concluded.) He sees TP's enduring themes as "trust, loyalty and betrayal," and the search for the informant who will betray the other characters to "the system," however that's conceived.

Overall, Rayner said, Pynchon's work is "fascinated with the idea of what America could have been... what America has lost" -- with California as a metaphor for all that.

(Those who know me are aware of how powerfully swept away I was by the novelist as a young man and of my brief, er, unrelated experience with the Pynchon family.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Amanda Knox and Italian Noir

THE strange case of Amanda Knox -- a cute American exchange student accused of killing her British roomate -- just took a yet stranger turn as she was convicted of the murder as part of a bizarre sex game. (She is sentenced to 26 years in prison; the family will appeal.)

The fact that this took place in Perugia, the capital of the lovely and green Italian region of Umbria, known as the land of the saints -- is only element that makes me think of the consummate Italian noir writer, the late Englishman Michael Dibdin. In fact, Dibdin even taught at the University of Perugia, where Knox studied -- he set his first novel, "Ratking," there -- and settled in her hometown of Seattle before he died in 2007.

Dibdin captured a tone of weirdness and irony so well, and perhaps because he was a foreigner, could see through Italian charm -- and unravel Italian bureaucracy and political intrigue -- like a great cultural critic.

HERE is my LAT story on the author and his work. Part of what's fascinating about Dibdin's career is the way it demonstrates -- as Pico Iyer has so eloquently observed -- the strength and flexibility of the Chandleresque detective novel (born of course in LA) in wide-ranging international settings.

For those new to Didbin's work, I'd recommend that debut, or the more poltical "Medusa."

This Knox case is likely to get stranger still, I'll bet.

Culinary Adventure with Jonathan Gold

THE food writing of Jonathan Gold is so vivid, colorful and at times almost embarrassingly sensual that as a reader, it's not hard to feel you are actually along for the ride with him as he seeks out restaurants dedicated to, say, regional Mexican cuisine, a groovy wine bar or the street food of urban southeast Asia.

But it's even more delectable to be able to follow the celebrated scribe to a meal in a foreign city, as yours truly was able to do during the international book festival in Guadalajara. Somehow I'd spent a day and a half and not had much of what Mexicans call "tipica" cuisine -- some fine enchiladas at the hotel, and some white wines from Baha, both decent but not memorable.

The first excursion came after Gold appeared in a panel on LA writers and humor, which also included writers Jerry Stahl and Paul Beatty. (Gold recalled his days editing the LA Weekly's humor column: "I thought what would make it distinctive," he said, "is that nothing in it would be funny.")

After the panel, a caravan of us followed Gold and his journalist wife Laurie Ochoa to what seemed like a remote neighborhood, Tlaquepaque, for a restaurant called El Parian. The cab driver seemed a bit confused by our request to head there, telling us (we thought) that we'd have to walk a long way after he dropped us off and that we'd know where we were because we'd see, "too many restaurants, too many artistanos, too many mariachis." I could not tell -- as we used to say in high school -- if this was a threat or a promise.

The meal ended up being very good: Many of us, including The Misread City, got birria -- a dish of stewed meat that is usually goat but here was calf. The restaurant's speciality is what may be the largest drink in the world: Mostly fruit, ice, triple sec, with a large shot of tequila on the side, its container is so large it is marked "BAR" -- the quotes are theirs, not mine -- presumably so it is not confused with a large soup bowl. (Across from me was UK-to-LA novelist Geoff Nicholson, an excellent guy whose Psycho-Gourmet blog I am digging.)

Gold said of the day's eating that he had consumed so much beef that he was constructing a cow in his stomach, piece by piece. (Now I know why he turned down the offer of the very fine pickled pig skins I was nibbling on.)

Somehow, by the way, the mariachis never showed up, though Gold, Ochoa, and novelist Mark Danielewski ended up, after the meal, at a bar at which two musicians serenaded them and a couple of drug lords who had footed an enormous bill for the performance.

The second night was longer and harder to explain -- all I will say of it is that Gold led us to a very cool bar at which we seemed to be the only gringos. And I think the man's reputation must precede him, even abroad -- a plate of what looked like pig's feet, served with lime and a chile paste, showed up next to Gold before, I think, anyone had had a moment to even order a beer.

Photo credit: I will not compromise the man's privacy by posting his picture, so here is a cow.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Calder Quartet vs. Airborne Toxic Event

ONE of my favorite LA bands is the Calder Quartet, who accompany another of my favorites, the Airborne Toxic Event -- yes, the name comes from DeLillo -- Friday night at Disney Hall.

I met the Calders soon after they graduated USC's conservatory, and caught up with them a few weeks ago  to discuss their latest travels. They've stretched outward, into rock and experimental music, as well as inward, intensely studying Haydn in Berlin, and they've begun to play internationally.

HERE is my piece in today's LATimes: I talk to members of the band as well as Mikel from Airborne Toxic, who has become one of my favorite indie rockers.

Part of what I like about these guys is their commitment to the art of chamber music -- not an easy way to make a living, for reasons having to do not just with economics but with the strange personal bonds and tensions. I also admire their ability to keep their eyes -- and ears -- trained on the outside world and the larger swim of pop culture. They're both regular guys, in a sense, and something extraordinary.

Very much looking forward to this show.

Photo courtesy Calder Quartet

Mexican Saints, Playboy Bunnies and a Brown James Dean

ON Tuesday night at the Guadalajara Intl Book Fair I also took in a robust panel on LA's creative nonfiction writers, moderated by Veronique de Turrene. It included:

Crime novelist Richard Rayner, a native of Yorkshire who worked for Time Out in London and helped revive Granta in Cambridge, recalled how he dropped it all to move to LA to follow a Playboy bunny to whom he was only briefly married. (Imagine that.) He also talked about -- more seriously -- William Mulholland's breaking of a Central California dam, to slake LA's thirst for water, that drowned hundreds of immigrant farmers in its rush to the sea. The image is a template for his new book about the California crime, "A Bright and Guilty Place."

Artist J. Michael Walker talked about how years spent living in Mexico after his life in the States seemed to have bottomed out led him to connect deeply with Catholic iconography and Latin culture, which he brings into his work on saints and neglected, often Latino parts of LA.

East LA native Luis Rodriguez ("Always Running") discussed his connections to his mother's native Chihuaha, how his sense of political purpose led to his artistic purpose, and his work to establish a local press create and sustain a literary and cultural space in LA.

Polymath writer Ruben Martinez recalled his parents meeting as his mother walked out of a church in East LA: According to family myth, his father was turning the corner in a red MG, "looking like a brown James Dean," and the rest is history. Speaking of history, Martinez spoke eloquently about LA as an amnesiac "anti-historical city," projecting itself into the future rather than reflecting on the past.

All in all, fascinating stuff. And that's Mulholland on the right.

The Future of Publishing?

WITH dignitaries including saxophonist Wayne Shorter and Ray Bradbury, and displays ranging from publishers' new books to the history of the low-rider, the Guadalajara International Book Festival -- dedicated this year to the literature and culture of Los Angeles -- has been quite packed already. I'm going to try to offer a few snapshots of Tuesday's festival -- hoping to get time for a second post on last eve's wild night.

The afternoon included a typically elegiac, mandarin speech by former LATimes book editor Steve Wasserman on the future of publishing. We've entered what he calls "an ultimate stage in the democratization of knowledge."

It's also, he said, a time when digital technology, conglomeration, the collapse of bookstores, independent and otherwise, "renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant." He fears a "hollowing out" of the culture of sustained argument that makes for an informed citizen.

Literary people, Steve feared, will become "the party of the past." He compared the situation in the U.S. to Europe and especially Germany, where state controls (forbidding price-slashing) kept an indie bookstore culture thriving even in bad economic times.

He offered two contrasting phrases. First, Philip Roth's prediction that the novel will go the way of Latin, known only to a small elite. And second, Auden's line, "It is always a danger for the present to write history in the future tense."