Friday, January 29, 2010

The End is Near

The apocalypse novel is one of my favorite literary genres, and I've been thinking lately about a subgenre I'm calling the soft apocalypse. It's halfway between Noah's Arc and the Book of Revelation -- midway between "London Calling" and "Ecotopia" -- and for historical reasons has been picking up steam the last few years. It's typically rustic, sad and often ambiguous rather than ultra-violent and abrupt. Though some of these books are described as science-fiction, there is typically little science extant in the worlds these novels describe.

HERE is my week of work on the science/technology/futurism/sci-fi site io9, with the apocalypse piece as my top post. Did not have room or time for some of my almost-favorites -- LeGuin's tribal, post-apoc Napa Valley in Always Coming Home, or Denis Johnson's shattered seaside world of cargo-cult pop-cult superstition in Fiskadoro.

Apocalypse authority Justin Taylor, whose Apocalypse Reader I heartily recommend, has pointed out that Robinson Jeffers rugged West Coast poetry, in its relations of human beings to surrounding flora and fauna, in its individualistic way fits the category.

One of my most requested pieces from the LATimes -- reprinted as the lead piece in the journal The Los Angeles Review -- was a an '07 piece about apocalypse fiction and where it was going. Cormac McCarthy's The Road was one of the keystones. That piece also asked, Why this? And why now? Here it is.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cool Polish Pianist in Los Angeles

One of the finest young(ish) pianists in the world appears with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend -- Polish-born Piotr Anderszewski. His Bach, Beethoven and Chopin are magnificent -- a truly deep, probing player. (He's also interested in the oft-overlooked, harmonically interesting Karol Szymanowski.)

I spoke to the pianist the last time he was in town, and he talked about his choice of repertoire, his upbringing and his approach to the piano in general; he also told a funny story about the time he met Richter. Story here.

On Friday morning, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, he will perform in a concert that includes Beethoven's First Piano Concerto; Phil schedule here. (He has already done one stint of chamber music this week that I wish I could have caught.)

When I say young(ish) by the way, I mean he's my age. In any case, eager to see him at Disney Hall this weekend -- his show a few years ago was gripping

Photo credit K. Miura

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Philip K. Dick's Last Decade, Parts 1 and 2

TODAY the second of my six-part series on Philip K. Dick's life in Orange County, Calif., went up on the LATimes' Hero Complex blog.

This second section gets him to OC from his often troubled life in the Bay Area and a really disastrous trip to Vancouver.

Yesterday's installment started out with a 1976 scene in Fullerton in which his marriage unravels and the author tries suicide.

Please stay tuned for the rest of the series: Tomorrow tells of his daily life in Orange County and relationship with his family.

And if you'd like to follow my posts on the site io9, some of which concern science fiction (and some of them actual science), you can check em out here.

Photo credit: Philip K. Dick Trust

Tim Burton Goes Home to Burbank

I'D say director Tim Burton has done pretty well for himself -- successful cult filmmaker becomes bigtime filmmaker, is subject of a show at MOMA, lives near London's best cemetery, and he sleeps (presumably) with Helena Bonham Carter every night. And he was just announced to head the jury at Cannes this May.

“After spending my early life watching triple features and 48-hour horror movie marathons," he has said, "I’m finally ready for this.”

Pretty good for a guy who grew up a major dork in the most provincial part of Burbank and had his first important art project appear on the side of a garbage truck. (Man, I thought I had a tough high school experience.)

HERE is a large except of my trip around Burbank, The Valley and Hollywood with Burton a few years back -- and HERE the full piece. I found Burton very open and fun to talk to -- and got a strong sense of a wounded guy who'd made the best of things as an adult but was still full of self-doubt. I've also rarely seen a celebrity so naturally warm with his fans -- we were mobbed as soon as we got to Hollywood.

Burton's version of Alice in Wonderland, of course, comes out in March.

Anybody besides me think "Ed Wood" is still his best film?

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Misread City Goes Into the Future

THIS week yours truly will be serving as guest editor for the blog io9, which is devoted to science, futurism, and science-fiction in all its forms. I'll be posting on some topics familiar to readers of The Misread City -- some news regarding author Ursula K. Le Guin, a new film based on a Philip K. Dick novel -- as well as topics largely new to me such as eco-tourism and UFO abductions. (Or perhaps those are the same thing)

I find io9 both smart and funny and hope my readers do too. In any case, look forward to seeing you there.

HERE is a link to all my work on the site.

And don't forget that my best guitarists poll is still live!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Philip K. Dick and the Suburbs

THE science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick was a bearded Berkeley bohemian -- the last guy you'd expect to move to Orange County, Calif., at a time when its John Birch reputation was still well-deserved. But after a disastrous year or so, the author relocated from the Bay Area to SoCal, and wrote some of his most important work.

Dick has also become the first sf writer to land in the Library of America's prestigious series of out nation's foundation texts; the third volume, mostly of work written in OC, came out last summer. To me and many others, PKD was a flawed writer (and flawed man) who also, often in great haste, wrote the work that best anticipates the world we're inhabiting and heading toward.

If all this is old news to you, I recommend you wait until Monday when the director's cut -- six daily installments on Dick's final decade -- unspools on the LATimes' celebrated Hero Complex blog. (That blog,  which looks at sf, fantasy, comics, and other assorted fanboy fare, is run by my tireless and obsessive old colleague Geoff Boucher.)

If you're interested in the more modest Sunday paper version, by all means go here for my new LATimes piece on what might be the most serene and most tumultuous period of this author's life.

Whatever version you prefer, I spoke to a number of figures in Dick's life and afterlife: The sf/fantasy writer Tim Powers, Dick's daughter Isa and his fifth wife Tessa, the mastermind of the exhaustive Total Dick Head website, and the keeper of PKD's flame -- novelist Jonathan Lethem.

I'll be posting each of next week's installments here -- please keep your eyes peeled for more on this complex and contradictory figure!

Photo credits: Tessa Dick and Electric Shepherd

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Our Favorite Guitarists

SOME of you -- especially if you are a musician, music writer, or serious listener -- have already taken part in my informal poll of favorite guitarists. This was conceived not exactly as a historically rigorous greatest-of-all-time but the work you'd grab either if your house was burning down, or to take to the proverbial desert island. (I'm aware that these are two slightly different categories, one spurred by an instant craving the other by the opportunity for eternal contemplation. Can some musicians offer both?)

In any case, I have very roughly compiled the results. I'll admit that my method was unscientific and personally biased -- these people are friends or at least peers of mine. I allowed myself one vote, like anyone else, tho I think I will not post my own ever-changing list quite yet. And, most of those polled were born between the late '40s to the late '60s -- that is, we have fans who came of age with the British blues boom voting alongside those who grew up with college radio, alt-rock, indie, and so on. Some were primarily blueshounds or jazzheads; one is a critic of classical music.

Some generational patterns, of course, are apparent, and while most Boomers voted for Clapton, Page, Beck, Richards, etc. it wasn't enough to launch more than of them into the very top tier. Perhaps appropriately, the very highest vote getting musician is an eclectic and atypical Boomer with a significant Gen X/ alt-rock following. I was also surprised that Hendrix -- perhaps my favorite and certainly the greatest of all time -- did not simply shut down all opposition.

With no further ado, here is the list -- I don't think a difference of a single vote is significant, but this is in order of votes attained. (I have posted a poll on the right margins, using the top six names here as finalists. Sorry, folks, if your hero not on list -- I can only go to six.)

Richard Thompson
Nels Cline
Jimi Hendrix
Neil Young
Robert Quine
Keith Richards
Thurston Moore
Wes Montgomery
Roger McGuinn

Let me point out that the top four names on this list are all West Coast figures -- though of course Thompson grew up in England while Hendrix made his name there, Young is originally Canadian, etc. But Roger McGuinn is as solidly grounded in LA rock as you can get.

Some others came close -- Johnny Marr, Robert Fripp, Peter Buck, Pat Metheny, Pete Townshend. I'm struck by the huge amount of talent and huge range of styles in just a few names.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Eagle Rock and Small Business

TONIGHT I go to a wake of sorts for Paper, a shop on Eagle Rock's Colorado Boulevard. The shop sold cool books, smart gifts, letterpress printed cards, and leather journals -- exactly the kind of combination that signals the arrival of a neighborhood into bobo heaven.

The closing of the store -- done in by the recession, of course -- is especially poignant because owner Shannon Bedell lost another shop about two years ago. Blue Heeler specialized in very stylish imports from Australia, from men's bags to a whole range of chick stuff, and added some flava to Eagle Rock Boulevard and to this side of LA in general.

Bedell has also appeared in two New York Times stories on what's called Northeast Los Angeles, which is sort of our Brooklyn. The first was about the arrival of this crescent of neighborhoods to hipsterville. The second, written by yours truly, came out about a year ago and questioned whether a newly cool neighborhood could survive the recession.

That question seemed complicated to me then, and seems no less complicated now. Since my story, two of my main sources -- Bedell, and Kelly Witmer, who ran the boutique Regeneration -- have lost their shops.

At the same time, a very fine gourmet Mexican cafe has opened near the Trader Joe's, and last night I had a Belgian style wheat beer made by the new Eagle Rock Brewery. (Their first batch seemed to have been released last month at the Verdugo Bar, a place I highly recommend. Especially now that The Chalet is gone) And of course, while no one is immune to the economy's chill, Colorado Wine Company continues to thrive and it's as hard as ever to get a seat at Auntie Em's.

Back to Shannon for a minute. She's exactly the kind of small business person -- social, curious, good taste -- any neighborhood needs, and her shops made Eagle Rock distinctive. I'm sorry to see her stores go, and hope she, and the neighborhood itself, rise again when things improve.

Photo credit: Colorado Wine Co.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Robert Crais vs. LA Noir

TOMORROW is the release date for the new novel by Robert Crais, "The First Rule." Crime fiction aficionados know Crais as a deft, literate writer with a strong sense of place and of social history -- one of the great inheritors of Ross Macdonald in the world of West Coast noir.

HERE is my profile of Crais, who is one of the best adjusted novelists I've ever spoken to -- someone who seems comfortable in this world as well as the imaginary world of his fiction. The piece tells the story of his long slog up from TV writing, his embracing and then (partial) outgrowing of Raymond Chandler's influence, the development of his private eye character Elvis Cole, and the emergence of Cole's sidekick Joe Pike into the lead position in some of his novels, beginning with "The Watchman."

And here, by the way, is writer Paula Woods' review of the new Crais novel.

Part of what I like about Crais is that he not only executes these books at a very high level, with a clockwork consistency, he's thought about what he's doing and can speak perceptively about the tradition in the broadest possible sense.

Photo credit:

Friday, January 8, 2010

Elmore Leonard Goes to Kentucky

ONE of the programs that showed me that television could, at its rare best, offer the quality of acting, direction, set design and thematic development of the finest films was "Deadwood," that saga of the Wild West that HBO cancelled after three all-too-short seasons.

So it's exciting for me -- and the few dozen others who followed the show -- that "Deadwood" sheriff Timothy Olyphant will star as a lawman in a new series. The upcoming show, recently renamed "Justified," doesn't resemble "Deadwood" especially, and Olyphant's character, a former coal miner turned U.S. Marshal, does not have the brooding gravity of Seth Bullock. But still.

Here is my piece on the show, which goes up in March. I spoke to several behind the show, including Olyphant, who is a lot more like the series' Raylan Givens than Bullock, and was playing with an itunes playlist that included Dylan, Lucinda Williams and Supertramp (yecch!) in his trailer when I met him.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, the show is based on -- in the pilot, very closely, in later episodes quite loosely -- a character of crime titan Elmore Leonard. The octogenarian author of the novels that led to "Out of Sight," "Jackie Brown" and "Get Shorty" was the common denominator that brought the actors, writers and directors together for this one. His knack for crisp dialogue and rapid sketching of character is on full display in the story, "Fire in the Hole," the inspired the series.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Alan Alda vs. Science

AMONG the very few things yours truly has in common with Alan Alda is a love of science. (Though my wife tells me he was her first crush, so there may be a joke in here somewhere.)

In any case, it was as pleasure to have a beer with the star of the most successful tv show of all time and discuss the new three-part special he's hosting on PBS, "The Human Spark." The show tries to get at what makes us different from the other animals, and what made us that way. HERE is my piece from today's LATimes.  (The show, which I keep trying not to call "The Human Stain," starts tonight.)

Alda, who is tall, almost awkwardly lanky and far sharper than I expect to be at 73, was quite amiable and un-actorly, radiating a powerful curiosity even as we pursued little tangents. We discussed the show, of course, his scientist hero Richard Feynman ("a completely human person... he was a very deliberate communicator about his work, it wasn't an accident"), the workshops he runs for scientists to help describe their work more clearly, and the importance of bringing science to a general audience. "I think their lives will be enriched by it, and science will be enriched by it."

He also discussed -- or chose not to discuss -- his politics: After his work trying to help pass the ERA, he said, "I came to feel that I'd talked enough about my political views -- for about 25 years I haven't said anything in public about them. I have plenty of opinions, but I keep them to myself."

My interest in science has been somewhat subdued by my fascination for the arts and culture, but science (esp. physics and astronomy) was my first intellectual love. Needless to say, television shows like "Cosmos" -- and "The Human Spark" -- are an important way to keep curiosity and knowledge alive in the popular culture. Check it out.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Knocked Out by The xx

Is there an equivalent of air guitar for great production? If not, what is their weird urge to turn knobs, balance tones and make a record as brilliant as this one when I play the debut by London's The xx? It's my favorite record of '09 that didn't end up on Spin's Top 40 list.

While the album -- just called "xx" --  has been a huge critical hit in the UK (the NME review here), it's still undersung in the US, where the album did not crack the top 100. Part of this, I think, is because the band is deeply rooted in English styles that never quite hit on our shores: These four south London lads and lasses -- who met at the high school once attended by Hot Chip -- recorded the record primarily at night, drawing from elements like the shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine, the trip hop of Massive Attack and Portishead, and the dryly funk-derived rhythm section style pioneered by post-punk (and especially Joy Division.) It all adds up to something fresh, brooding and dangerous.

Here is one of the album's best cuts, "Islands." The UK hit is "Crystalised," here. Though, it's the kind of atmospheric record -- with hauntingly intimate male/female vocals -- that really needs to be heard from first note to last.

As several critics have observed, though the members were barely out of their teens while recording "xx," it sounds like the work of an older and more seasoned group hitting a mid-career stride. (I first heard of the group when Robt Christgau discussed them on NPR.) Excited to hear what this band -- who have apparently lost one member so far --- comes up with next.