Monday, April 25, 2011

Would You Read This Novel?

You're strolling through the aisles of a bookstore. (People still do that, right?) You come across a new novel and start reading the back cover.

In the deepest hills of [insert name of town, Appalachia] a survivalist gun nut, a band of retired hippies and some local police officers find themselves unlikely allies. A wealthy developer and his well-financed political cronies are coming to town with hopes of turning a pristine valley into residential lots and, of course, a Wal-Mart. But can a stubborn band of small town folk compete against such powerful forces? Like an old Appalachian family feud, no one is backing down. A hilarious and incisive look at a small community searching for its place in a rapidly changing environment.

Would you read this book? I ask, because I'm writing it.

Anyway, it's in the brainstorming stage. Any thoughts?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Stellar Mosel Riesling for a Great Price

2007 Weingut Karlsmühle Kaseler Nies'chen Riesling Kabinett
(Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer)

vibrant gold color. the nose is explosive, even more so as it rose to just below room temperature. apricots, honey, but also an aroma that reminds me of the top of a good margarita: that nice salty, lime aroma. great nose. the palate is quite rich and the residual sugar is higher than i was ready for. this drinks like a spatlese. that said, the balance is exquisite. the lemon-lime and saline flavors, matched with the acid keep this intense wine balanced. the fruit is so vibrant. rich pineapple, honey, and peach. the finish is very long and leaves me with this ruby red grapefruit flavor. dead on. and maybe it's just because those remind me of childhood, i don't know. but this ruby red grapefruit is singing. this is the best $22 i've spent in a while.

92 points

Warning: Milosz May Expand Consciousness

Review of "Visions from San Francisco Bay" by Czeslaw Milosz (1982 translation)

"I am here. Those three words contain all that can be said - you begin with those words and you return to them." What a great way to start off this work of art.

Published in English in 1982, and originally published in Polish in 1969, Milosz’s ideas and his language are incredibly fresh. He gives the words of Socrates a poet's touch: "If I am not wise, why must I pretend to be?... And when the air is filled with the clamor of analysis and conclusion, would it be entirely useless to admit you do not understand?"

Milosz admits his intent early on in this collection of essays and literary ramblings: "seize naked experience, which eludes all accepted ideas." He writes with strong conviction: "I am brave and undaunted in the certainty of having something important to say to the world, something no one else will be called to say." This is bold, but true. He admits he does not "try" to write, he merely acts according to his will, his history. "The only thing we can do is try to communicate with one another." Milosz is such a lover of experience, which is what really attracts me to his work. Language is nothing but a corollary of action. “I devoured books, but I saw them as information about actual events and adventures.” He admits to being “an admirer of words,” but only inasmuch as those words shed light on experience. And he has no patience for what he calls “self-sufficient words,” empty poetry that reeks of falsehood. He craves “a language I can feel and understand.” Milosz is also a populist poet. He looks at the ordinary and sees profound beauty. “For me the commonplace deserves to be praised…”

Milosz is profoundly seeped in a sense of place. It is his belief that all our ideas have their origin in our idea of place. A psychology, therefore, that is “not based on our conceptions of the physical universe, must be subjective and erroneous.” It may come as no surprise, then, the Milosz has a few qualms with religion. God, to Milosz, is a linguistic phantom, a name given to nothingness. God has no essence, therefore the language of religion is “hollow” and full of “mere figures of speech.” Since God has no essence, and humankind must be grounded in a sense of place, religious symbols become of the utmost important to religious people. Churches, flags, cross necklaces, communion cups, robes, etc., are tangible things people can hold onto, objects they can attribute to god, who does not exist in any physical sense. For Milosz, we cannot think or imagine anything without place as a reference. We are nothing if not interacting with our environment. We situate ourselves according to place: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal place is demonstrated by narrative, the forward motion of people and things along a straight line of time. The story of evolution, of Jesus' life, of creating a work of art, is just progressive action, a horizontal movement from Point A to Point B. We also place ourselves in "vertical space." Earth is one level, with Heaven above and Hell below. And everyone moves up or down. The culmination of a life is nothing more than a shift one step up or one step down. And only in compartmentalizing these levels that we can see ourselves in the course of history. Of course, the actual place of Heaven and Hell don't matter (and Milosz, like me, doesn't believe in them), they are simply mental constructs. But they root us in place.

While Milosz is precise in his philosophical qualms with god, he also has an emotional and moral aversion to religion, which he views as a divisive and antisocial institution. “The division of people into believers and non-believers has always made me somewhat uneasy, because it assumes a qualitative leap…” There is no way to divide up the world into the damned and the saved without a qualitative assessment. If one man is doomed and the other will take his stand next to god, which man is more valuable? This qualitative difference means true believers have, at the center of their religious worldview, a desire to convert the heathen, to bring them into the fold, to save them. Milosz doesn’t temper his stinging critique of Catholicism, the religion of his Polish homeland. “Catholicism is the most anthropocentric of religions…” And Catholic doctrine enforces a sin-guilt complex in which sin is “universalized, changing into a sense of undifferentiated guilt.”

He is so enthralled with nature and with man’s place in that process, that he cannot understand fundamentalists who ignore reality in favor of irrational doctrine. Why do people deny evolution? “We reacted with anger and offended dignity when it was learned that man, too, belongs to the chain of universal transformation… a justified reaction to painful knowledge.”

On America: "America was not slowly and gradually put into words over the centuries... the changes were so great, twenty years much the equal of two hundred elsewhere, that the slate was always being wiped clean." "this continent possesses something like a spirit which malevolently undoes any attempts to subdue it." He writes beautifully of his migration from the tumults of Eastern Europe to the relative calm of the Bay Area. “Anything which allays life’s inherent savagery seems fragile to me, constantly threatened by the chaos that I suspect is the normal state of things. Yet another day, well oiled, working well, what a marvel.” In "On Virtue," Milosz writes: "American virtue, primarily that of rural America, is nourished by naivete, ignorance and ordinary dullness." This is true today, evidenced by the rise of reactionary anti-immigrant groups and politicians, racist anger at America's first black president, and a sharp right wing economic turn. America, he argues in the closing chapter, is the Bible played out in history. The Bible is full of hatred, bigotry, slavery and opression. America has gone through these things. The Bible is filled with beauty, purity, hope and charity. America is filled with these too. Wars. Achievements. Just as the Bile has good and bad in it, so does America. But, for all his critiques, Milosz still loves America as a place. "I am certain only of my amazement. Amazement that something like America exists, and that humanity still exists, though it should have exterminated itself long ago or perished from starvation, from epidemics, or from the poisons it excretes."

While the essays in the first half of the book focus on the natural aesthetic, humanity’s relation to its environment, and how specific people and places interact, he broadens his scope in the latter part of the book. Censorship, the relation between the person and the automobile, Catholic dogma and economics, the latter being a noticeable strong point.

The economic individual does not relate to the economy based on his own philosophical generalizations, but seeks only the satisfaction of his needs. (pg. 109) Individuals, while differing in their “needs,” seek out food, water, sex, drugs and recreation through the economy. And the reason the Western economy is hierarchical rather than participatory, is the corporate creation of false needs and the adoption of these falsehoods by the vast majority of the working population. Since economics is based on meeting need, economic expansion necessitates the creation of more needs. Once that process begins, the entire idea of a "need" vaporizes. They are no longer real “needs,” but illusions of need. And it is possible for an entire global economy to be based on an illusion of need. I know he’s a “socialist,” by name, but Milosz’s analysis of economic systems is very reminiscent of Adam Smith, and I mean the true Adam Smith, not the Adam Smith as adopted by those Chicago economists. This is not to say Milosz’s a capitalist, but I would argue that there is a bit of a free marketeer in him. Smith’s classical ideas of the market are so far removed from what is commonly referred to as capitalism today. Reading Milosz is eye-opening because we've moved so far rightward since Milosz's day. 21st Century America is run by vampiric corporatocracy even more so than it was when Milosz wrote this forty years ago.

The market, he writes, is, "an extension of the struggle for existence and nature's cruelty in human society." But he's wary of accepting oversimplified Marxist rhetoric as good social policy. He detests the power-hungry left-wing zealots who proclaim they have the answer to all of society's ills and could cure us all if only we would all think exactly as they do. "American capitalism is the only answer." "Marxism is the only way." Milosz would reject both assertions. An economy is a complex thing, and cannot be nailed down by ideology. It's this practicalism in Milosz that makes him so attractive as a thinker. "I am fed up with dividing people into those few who know and the dull masses who don't realize what is useful for them." This is a multi-front attack on religion, right-wing capitalism and socialist powergrabbers. "I have no desire to be one of the elect dragging the masses by force to Utopia." This is exactly how I feel, and Milosz has, of course, said it so much better than I could have.

Milosz blasts the US economy as being based on the development of false need: "The myths of advertising are in themselves contradictory. They create needs in order to stimulate ceaseless competition, which requires self-repression." And Milosz believes in self-expression. This is how he arrives at his rejection of "capitalism," the word he uses to denote a vague sense of unease he has about the American economy. He doesn't define "capitalism" and certainly doesn't lay out an economic plan, let alone one that might work. So, while I agree with his aversion to a hyper-market economy, I also question if Milosz isn't holding onto economic dreams that could never possibly be realized. But Milosz is an idealist, not an idealogue. There's a huge difference. Milosz is a practical philosopher, he has no vested interest in any rigid school of thought. "All the frameworks that permit the daily practice of virtue are very fragile, it is easy to destroy them, as I saw for myself while obsering ideologically planned regimes at close range." Milosz desires a participatory economy where individuals can work together and share the fruits of their labor. It's beautiful, but even Milosz knows it was not possible then, and it is even less possible now. Revolutionary movements in America are quickly co-opted by the stronger system of big business. Milosz calls this the "profotability of protest." And it "does not preclude the sincerity of certain hostile feelings, but still, it does turn intellectual fashions into theatre..." Milosz, like many of his time and place, grew disillusioned with the protest movement.

So how does a socialist survive in a hyper-capitalized market economy? This is where Milosz gets really interesting. He thinks of himself as living two lives. One is "time sold," meaning work, labor, throw in your Marxist term. This life is "unreal, boring, burdensome." The other is "real time." This life is "real, interesting and rich."

And "if you want to be free, the first step must be the realization that any of your reflections on daily life, on man, are not independent, since the material at your disposal, the material of your perceptions and ideas, is not your own as you believe." For Milosz, there is a communal language, and art is always a social activity. Art does not exist in and of itself, only when thinking beings experience it. "The true reolutionaries," therefore, "were the poets and the artists even the most etheral and least bloodthirsty of them, because they cleared the way; that is, they acted as the organizers of the collective imagination in a new dimension..." He sounds a bit hippie-inspired here, and Milosz maintains an almost Leninist view of the vanguard. But there is some truth to the assertion that art is revolutionary. It stirs people to action, it opens their minds to different ways living. And Milosz is just talented and bright enough to ride that line between respect for the virtue of art and it's excess, the deification of man. His neo-Marxism is kept in check by a love for the freedom of the individual and a revulsion to oppression in all its forms.

The closest he gets to preaching is here: "If we can leave our humanity aside for a moment and put our human sense of values out of mind, we must admit that the world is neither good nor evil, that such categories do not apply to the life of a butterfly or crab."

Milosz even weighs in on the legalization of marijuana. While tobacco and alcohol kill millions, marijuana is "a rather innocent substance." The state wages war against marijuana, in some sense, because those who smoke it tend to "question the established order." The use of this medicinal drug is widespread among all ethnic groups, ages and class. And Milosz says that the war against marijuana has had a reverse effect: since "everyone smokes marijuana," and smoking marijuana is a crime, many people are learning what it means to be a criminal. And being a criminal brings awareness: "to be a criminal means to look at society from the bottom, from underground..." In this sense, criminalizing harmless activities stokes rebellion in otherwise law-abiding citizens. And criminals reject authority. So, Milosz argues, turning citizens into criminals is a sure-fired way to destroy a society. It is not in the state's interest to make its subjects all criminals. Because criminals break laws and governments.

Milosz doesn't end the book without talking about some literature. He takes on Henry Miller, no gloves. Miller "rejected literature as a collection of inherited patterns, in order to stand unique, to say a Mass to himself, to present the image of himself as a perfect male..." Wow. As a Henry Miller fan, I have to say I know where Milosz is coming from, and I respect that opinion. Miller's "violent gestures, vulgarities, and floods of invective were clearly directed against some enemy, though his yammerings made it impossible to decide who or what that enemy was. The twentieth century? America? New York?" Basically, Miller is a poseur extraordinaire. He's that guy at the bar with tribal tatto on his bicep knocking jager-bombs and telling lewd jokes. And Milosz is right, Miller is that guy. But that guy can be kind of hilarious. And that's why Miller's extremes will always at least be a fun trip, at least for me.

But, still, Milosz's categorization of Miller is just spot on: "Miller was one of the first prophets of withdrawal into the purely personal dimension, what we could call the sexual-mystical dimension, and as well one of the first in daily practice to withdraw from the round of 'getting and spending' to a primitively furnished cabin in Big Sur." That is a beautifully executed verbal attack done with wit and sharp skill. Milosz is indeed a writer among writers.

His detest for Miller stems from his idea of a "humanistic tradition" in art, and specifically fiction. Writing must aim to bring people together, to find understanding, to mend broken people, but Miller's writing is an attack on all tradition. Milosz argues that "there is something known as the humanistic tradition" and that art created outside of that tradition can never be fully-realized. It's a bold statement, and it shows Milosz as a linguistic and literary traditionalist. There are rules, and Milosz believes they are there for a good reason. When someone like Henry Miller defies all rules, and does so with a spiteful grin, the result can never be as good. I hear him.

I don't know if I totally believe him, but I hear him loud and clear. Milosz is perhaps one of the greatest literary theorists in history.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mike Davis' Urban Sociology in "Dead Cities"

Davis is a documentarian of corporate excess, a biographer of big capital’s attack on the public sphere. Dead cities, especially in the American West, where Davis takes his aim, can be found everywhere. From the nuclear testing grounds of Utah and Nevada to the streets of Compton, the poor and underprivileged are stuck digging out a meager existence among the graveyard of urban society. He writes extensively about how capital hijacks public projects to subsidize private gain. It’s a cycle of shamming the public that anyone with a brain already knows of, but Davis gets into the details. He really shows capital at its worst. Davis documents examples of predatory capitalism instilling fear and the only solution to fear: a product. Public land, public transportation, public health and the public environment are all up for sale if you've got enough money. Poisoned families, displaced natives, unsanitary waterways, crime, degraded public space all mark the trail of big business’ money-grabbing crusade across the American West. And Davis is right there, where the capital meets the road, taking notes.

He is at his best when analyzing what he calls “urban ecology.” In his essay “Dead Cities: A Natural History,” he writes: “The ability of a city’s physical structure to organize and encode a stable social order depends on its capacity to master and manipulate nature.” He chronicles the massive extent society must manipulate the natural world in order to keep a modern American city functioning.

Even though he rails against the sorrows of urban living for page after page, this is a 400-something page document, Davis retains a respect for the urban environment. Urban movements, he points out again and again, have shaped history in profound ways. “The real engine room of the sixties, both politically and culturally, was not the college campus but the urban ghetto.” He has a kind of love-hate, or maybe I should say hate-love, relationship with American cities. They’re cesspools of violence and revolutionary breeding grounds, shrines to corporate excess and centers of artistic expression, environmental terrors and opportunities for green growth, and they are all these things at the same time. It’s this dichotomy that fascinates Davis. The cities of the American West, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and others, are sprawling and destructive. But they don’t have to be that way. Human beings cannot live in harmony with nature, but they can live in relative disharmony as long as individuals and governments commit to change.

Where I agree with Davis most is in his analysis of how hierarchical religious institutions co-opt working class angst. It’s by no means a new idea, but it is increasingly evident that powerful religious institutions are defenders of the status quo. Some churches, synagogues, etc., might make tiny moves in a progressive direction, but for the most part, they have the same purpose as accumulated capital and unchecked government: control. In his essay “Pentecostal Earthquake” Davis dissects several evangelical and Pentecostal revivals in California, spanning the 1920s to the 1990s. He documents the way self-appointed apostles have hijacked working class movements, especially Latino immigrants, and roped them into bizarre religious diversions. Pentecostal revivalism has sprouted up “with a particular intensity wherever the emotional fuel is supplied by poverty and injustice,” including, “Appalachian valleys, big-city ghettos, migrant labor camps, black townships in South Africa…”

As far as I know, Davis is the only academic who, in the course of an argument, analyzes John Carpenter's 1988 film “They Live,” which is about a bunch of alien yuppies who have taken over L.A. and forced the working class into poverty and bondage. Amazing violence ensues as people rise up in guerrilla warfare and slaughter their captors. This pop-culture savvy insight is great. But, in that same piece, “Hollywood’s Dark Shadow,” Davis strays into pretension. He lists off works of art and artists and films and filmmakers like he’s trying to pick up a PhD candidate at an academic cocktail hour. “Usually considered a Thomas Hart Benton regionalist, Sheets for a brief moment was a hard-eyed unpuritanical Otto Dix.” Seriously? This is a sentence educated people read and pretend to know what it means so they don’t feel dumb. But the sentence makes no damned point unless you research for hours to find out what Davis is talking about. Sometimes I just want Davis to say what the hell he’s saying instead of weighing us down in endless names and references. I get it, Davis is well read. Fine, but he’s supposed to be writing. When he points to works of art, film and philosophy in one paragraph, referring to the work of ten people without a passing bit of context, I’m lost. And when he does slow down to describe a place, he writes a lot of lame clichés. Davis could use a writing workshop or five. There are many pages in this book filled with ineffective, drab, insider mumbo jumbo that represents a lot of what I hate about academic sociology. Davis is frequently just a blabbermouth. It’s hard to get through. But it is, however, somehow worth it in the end. Davis is like that crazy uncle you tolerate because you know he’s going to offer you another beer as soon as he’s done ranting.

LA is a screwed up city and Davis spends a good 150 pages of this book explaining why. For example, their pathetic light rail line cost $290 million per mile because it was concocted to fail, and it ended up collapsing in Hollywood, literally swallowing a city corner.

But Davis goes too far in some of his discussion of the 1992 riot in Los Angeles, and inner city violence in general. “The 1992 riot and its possible progenies must likewise be understood as insurrections against an intolerable political-economic order.” Okay, this is technically true. Davis takes pages and pages to list the legitimate political and economic grievances against the established order, filling this documentation with emotionally-charged language designed to highlight his point that people in LA are being harmed by the authorities. But he completely writes off the extreme, coordinated and in some cases bigoted attacks during the riots as legitimate means of social change. Yes, Mr. Davis, the established order is dedicated to squeezing the lower class. But corporatists are even more dedicated to dividing the working classes to into racial, ethnic or gang groups so they’ll just fight each other all the time. And Davis promotes this chaotic cycle. He comes absurdly close to flat-out saying that the 1992 riot was not only inevitable, but good social policy. I’m sorry, smashing windows and stealing microwaves isn’t a good way to fight inner city decay. Looting isn’t a good way to change a city’s economy. I agree with so much of his criticism of the rich elite, but Davis’ hatred for certain wealthy sectors of California society blinds him from the excesses of some violent, hateful rioters who turn on their own neighborhoods when they commit unjustified acts of violence. It also blinds him to his own immovable and rigid biases. Especially when he’s talking about inner cities, Davis becomes less of an educator and more of a raving evangelist for his own narrow views. And I’m not a fan of doctrinaire evangelists no matter where they fall on the political spectrum.
In all the chapters on LA, Davis writes irresponsibly about the solution to an unequal and unjust society. He condones random acts of violence, theft, property damage, arson, etc., on behalf of underprivileged people as plausible alternatives to a fractured economic system. In way too much of this book, Davis comes across as an angry fifteen-year-old (albeit one with good research skills) who just wants to smash windows for no other purpose than to see the glass break. And I understand this. Davis is such a good researcher and he makes so many great points. There is so much wrong with a city like Los Angeles, and cities all across America. And the corrupt nexus of unchecked corporate tyranny, pliant local governments and runaway law enforcement is a web I also want to untangle. But problems must be rectified constructively. And all Davis lauds in his essays is destruction. An armchair sociologist, he can’t be bothered with promoting solutions, especially ones that involve cooperating with businesses and government. And because of his excesses, irresponsibility and refusal to question his own assumptions, Davis isn’t the best messenger for some of the good arguments he makes.

His data, fact-finding are overall agitative stance are great. But people with actual ideas, here and now, need to take Davis’ information and run with it, because he refuses to.

More info on the book...

Monday, April 11, 2011

Fighting for Respect: F.X. Toole's Short Stories

Review of "Million Dollar Baby: Stories from the Corner" by F.X. Toole, originally published as "Rope Burns."

Though F.X. Toole writes novellas and short stories, this collection reads like a rough and gritty love poem to the science, art and war of boxing. To Toole boxing isn’t a sport, it’s a mindset, an epic struggle battle, a code of honor and a way of life. Boxing is such an integral part of America’s collective social and cultural history, there’s no denying that. But what Toole does in this collection is show the boxing fan and fiction reader alike that the real stories in boxing haven’t been told, or at least haven’t been heard. Contenders and champions are always major characters in mainstream boxing tales. The boxing narrative is one of a tough-minded and rock solid fighter who’s determined to win and does. Not in this collection. Toole’s short fiction focuses on the cut men, the trainers, the promoters, the gamblers, the managers, the losers and the criminals.

Toole is fascinated with a dichotomy within the boxing world. On one hand, it’s an individual sport. The individual has to have the skills, the physical ability, the endurance, the mental strength and the dedication, or he (or she) is in for a beating. On the other hand, a boxer is no one without support. A boxer is only as good as those in his corner. And that’s where Toole comes in. A corner man for his entire life, he offers a unique perspective on the boxing world that is rarely, if ever, seen.

The short story “The Monkey Look” has one of the best opening lines I’ve read in a long time. “I stop blood.” It’s a story told from the perspective of one of boxing’s unsung heroes, the cut man. The monkey look refers to the face of a fighter who’s been cut a lot. Scar tissue builds up around the eyes and the skin above the eyelid droops from severed nerves. The story is a close-up look at the physics and details of what goes on during those three-minute rounds and the sixty second rests between them.

Boxing, for this cut man narrator, is about respect, rules and honor. “I love boxing almost as much as I love the sacraments. You play by the rules. You never throw a fight, and you never throw intentional low blows… unless the other guy does it first.” And, sure enough, this story is about the one time when “the other guy does it first.” The cut man’s fighter plans to screw him over financially, take all his money and beat him up after the fight. But the cut man gets word of this and comes up with a plan of his own. He knows his fighter’s a bleeder, and he knows if he pretends to heal the cuts the fight could be stopped and his fighter TKO’d. So the cut man bets on the other guy. During the fight, he goes through the motions, but doesn’t really stop the cuts in his fighter’s eyes. Sure enough, his fighter bleeds and bleeds and the fight is called off. The cut man has broken the rules, but only because the rules had to be broken. In the end, it’s not the best fighter, but the smartest and most determined man who walks away the winner. The story is gritty, real and packed with humor. Hemingway would have been proud to read this story.

“Black Jew” is told from the perspective of a different first-person narrator, still a cut man, but a cut man with a grinding accent and streetwise prose that’s clipped of all the possessive pronouns and articles. It’s the story of a fighter who just can’t get no respect. He’s heading into a fight he’s expected to lose, and the promoters, hotel staff and boxing professionals treat him like a loser. But Reggie has come to win, and win he does. After his upset win, the promoters and marketers are all over him. In boxing, you’re up or you’re down. It’s a cruel and cutthroat business, and this story does a great job of depicting that.

“Million Dollar Baby” starts off with a great quote from trainer Frankie Dunn: “Everything in boxing is backwards to life.” It’s written in third-person, which isn’t Toole’s strongest. A woman fighter named Maggie comes in and wants Dunn to train her, but Dunn is reluctant to say the least. “Girls getting busted up went against everything he believed in.” The story breezes through days, months and years. Dunn and Maggie become “blood,” and Dunn becomes the father she never really had. Dunn finally gets Maggie a shot at a title fight, and that’s when tragedy strikes. She’s cut down by a blow after the bell and breaks her neck. She’s paralyzed for life. Dunn, a Catholic, has a hard time when Maggie asks him for one final favor. She wants him to put her out of her misery. The story reads like a clipped pitch for the screenplay. And maybe because I loved the movie so much, I found the story to be a bit lacking in drive and emotion. Still, with the fantastic Clint Eastwood film in mind, I was able to picture the characters in the film through the story, which made for a great reading experience.

“They say we because they fight when their fighter fights and when their fighter gets hit, they get hit. When the fighter wins or loses, they win or lose, and together they feel what that’s like.” This is the theme of “Fightin in Philly,” a story about a boxer and his team. Toole writes so poetically about wrapping a fighter's hands before the fight. It's something so mundane, but Toole brings it to life and makes the reader feel it, and understand its importance. The trainer in this third-person story is like a student of the human body and what happens when that body is put into extreme physical circumstances. On tour with his fighter, he takes time to run to an art museum and studies Michelangelo’s casts. He says a professional boxer, "uses what he needs when he needs it, this explains how one fighter will run out of gas in the second or the sixth round, while another can fight all night." It's those fights that the boxing fan remembers, those of two professionals going at each other. And this trainer wants to train only the best. He points out how carefully the hands must be wrapped before a fight. Fighters can miss punches if they lose circulation or shatter bones if the hands aren't wrapped enough. A fighter really has to trust his team with his own safety. In this story, Toole really breaks down the socio-political and racial events of the fifties and sixties. He shows this through the realm of boxing. The world of boxing was a hotbed of racial tensions in that time, and still is to some extent. And Toole provides great insight into that time period in American history. What do you do in a fight with someone who is dedicated to hitting you below the belt? This story is about boxing done dirty, and about how a good fighter can deal with a dirty one and still come out on top.

“Rope Burns,” the original titular story, is a powerful piece of prose. It's the story of Mac, a streetwise old white trainer, and his young black fighter Puddin. Mac shows Pudin that if you want respect, you've got to take it. Mac is full of lots of witty and hilarious statements. Great boxing is “like chess with pain.” You fight fair. The only reason to fight dirty is if the other guy does. The story of a young fighter who turns to boxing as an alternative to a life of crime is set against the backdrop of the impending decision in the Rodney King beating case. Mac is a hard drinking, tough Irishman, and Puddin is a poor black kid with promise. These two powerful forces come together to form the apex of this narrative. Puddin, the promising, dedicated fighter, ends up in tragedy and Mac is left feeling like he lost a son. The story, like the streets of L.A. after the King decision, ends in an orgy of violence that would put Quentin Tarantino to shame. Still, it's an amazing story, and F.X. Toole is a talented storyteller.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Wine Institute of New Orleans is worth a visit.

4/7/2011 (New Orleans, LA)

WINO was one of my favorite discoveries while in New Orleans for four nights. It was just around the corner from my hotel, Loews, in the revitalized Warehouse District. The tasting room is set in a railroad style warehouse room. All along the sides of the narrow walls are wines in sealed dispensers. You order an ounce, two ounce or four ounce pour, and the digital screen above the wine shows you how much you're spending before you spend it. The wine despensers work incredibly well, and the wines are fresh and lively. I ordered a roast beef sandwich with olive paste and cajun aoli that was probably the best $6 I spent in New Orleans. This is a destination for any oenophile visiting New Orleans.

2008 Château du Seuil Blanc - France, Bordeaux, Graves
the nose showed fresh lemons and a hint of apricot. minerals as well. the palate is fresh and zippy with a creamy body that makes it a pleasure to drink. the finish shows lemons, white peach, saline and minerals. a great wine to sip on a hot day in New Orleans.
(87 pts.)

2002 Château Haut-Batailley - France, Bordeaux, Médoc, Pauillac
vibrant purple color. currants, cedar, leaves and incese on the nose, with a hint of green pepper. flavors of black cherries, accented by pencil shavings and licorice. tannins are still tough, but balanced be acid. soft, warm finish.
(89 pts.)

2006 J.L. Chave Sélection Crozes-Hermitage Silene - France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Crozes-Hermitage
dark purple color. nose shows black olives, black cherries and squid ink. gorgeous balane and mouthfeel. medium acid and tannins. black cherry and black olives and bacon drippings. soft finish, a kick of green olive. exquisite finish. what i love about the northern rhone for a fraction of the price.
(91 pts.)

2003 Bert Simon Serriger Würtzberg Riesling Spätlese - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
the nose is an explosion of honeyed peah, cotton candy. plump apricot and honey on the palate. a nutty almost hazelnut flavor. low on acid and minerals. given the vintage, but still intense and fresh. rich, whipped honey on the finish. (88 pts.)

2004 Copain Syrah Hawks Butte Vineyard (USA, California, North Coast, Yorkville Highlands)

It's Sunday night. I just got back from a great trip to New Orleans and had to do some homework. So I figured I'd pop a bottle of wine to sip while I work. Unfortunately, this wine was so good it was hard to focus on my writing. This wine is fantastic, and an amazing expression of the syrah grape.

2004 Copain Syrah Hawks Butte Vineyard (USA, California, North Coast, Yorkville Highlands)
rich purple color but not quite opaque. soothing, inviting aromas of warm blackberry, clove, freshly cracked black pepper and bacon. the palate is bold and demands attention. the tannins still retain their grip. the acid is perfectly in balance with the tannins. the fruit is pure and lush in its mouthfeel and pure in its focus. blackberries, cassis and plum skins are backed up by vanilla, chocolate and a rush of minerality. there's almost a rocky flavor on the finish of this syrah, along with the vanilla. it's fruit forward, but by no means flabby or overdone. with time, the complexity of this wine increased tremendously. showing red currants, chocolate shavings, iron, slate and earth. it doesn't have any of that northern rhone inspired meat or olive. it's not that kind of wine. but it is a complex, fruit-forward syrah, one that is a gorgeous experience from start to finish. the yorkville highlands' expression of syrah can be incredible, especially when in the hands of a producer like copain. great stuff, will continue to evolve in complexity for three-five years?

93 pts IJB

Monday, April 4, 2011

Gruner Veltliner + Riesling + Korean Food = Bliss

Gruner Veltliner and Riesling at Mandu
4/3/2011 (Mandu - Washington, DC)

The theme: gruner veltliners, rieslings and a melange of Korean food at Mandu in Washington, DC. Sounded like a fun, simple night. But it turned into one of the best wine tastings I've been to in recent years. The range of aromas, flavors and textures in these wines was incredible. About 11 of us got together for mounds of great Korean food, served family style by a respectful and generous staff. While the food was phenomenal, these wines were just flat out incredible. The first riesling dinner I arranged at Mandu in March was a phenomenal success and this take #2 was even better. I tasted each wine in each flight individualy, then went back over them again, then with food. While the food aromas and flavors were intense, I still feel like I was able to taste each wine for what it was. That said, the interplay between the food and the wine was tremendous. Also, I would've been happy with any one of these wines over the course of an evening. Each one was so distinct, that it was almost a crime to taste so many great wines together. But it was a crime I had a lot of fun committing. This tasting further solidified my opinion that F.X. Pichler is one of the greatest wine producers in the world, period. And, if I needed further basis for my opinion that riesling is the greatest white grape in the world, this sure helped.

Below are my tasting notes and scores.

Opening Wines

N.V. Laurent-Perrier Champagne Cuvée Rosé Brut - France, Champagne
nose shows lemons, strawberries. the palate is very acidic, with not enough weight for me. still a good finish. (85 pts.)

2007 Bernhard Ott Grüner Veltliner Der Ott - Austria, Niederösterreich, Donauland, Wagram
this is a gruner? really? its filled with mango, apricot and honeydew on the nose. the palate is thick with honey and really viscous. not very gruner-esque, but still a great wine. more like a riesling, in my opinion. (89 pts.)

2007 Weingut Meinhard Forstreiter Grüner Veltliner Tabor - Austria, Niederösterreich, Kremstal
the nose is so oily! gops of oil, spicy herbs, lemon oil, melons with spice. gorgeous thickness on the palate, matched with spiced lemons, almond paste and white pepper. gorgeous wine. really mindboggling in its depth and complexity. (93 pts.)

Pichler Gruners

2008 F.X. Pichler Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Dürnsteiner Kellerberg - Austria, Niederösterreich, Wachau
the nose of this wine is gorgeous. lots of rosemary, nervy lemons, dill, white pepper. the palate is filled with apples, white pepper, rich tobacco and dandelion stems. the complexity is astounding. (94 pts.)

2008 F.X. Pichler Grüner Veltliner Smaragd 'M' - Austria, Niederösterreich, Wachau
peaches, white lillies on the nose with some white pepper. the palate is filled with green apples, golden pears, and a hint of cinnamon. there's a great onion, dill and white pepper flavor, like a ukrainian green borscht. great balance. what a gorgeous wine. (93 pts.)

2007 F.X. Pichler Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Dürnsteiner Kellerberg - Austria, Niederösterreich, Wachau
rich, honey, peaches and cream on the nose. the palate is rich and creamy, white grapes, green pepper, honey, rosemary. while i'm sipping this wine, i really wonder, does gruner get better than this? i don't think so. (95 pts.)

2007 F.X. Pichler Grüner Veltliner Smaragd 'M' - Austria, Niederösterreich, Wachau
the nose is intense and lovely. lemons, yellow apple, tobacco, lemon zest and heating oil. apricots, honey, oil, creamy, tobacco... the flavors are unbelievable. gorgeous wine. (95 pts.)

Riesling Kabinetts

2002 Dr. Fischer Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Kabinett - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
the nose shows apples, pineapples and apricot. the palate shows apple juice, pineapples and minerals. nice wine. the lack of acid keeps it from being better than it is, but it was nice to get a riesling with a bit of age on it into the tasting. (87 pts.)

2007 A.J. Adam Riesling Kabinett - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
the nose on this riesling is intense. sugar cane, white peach. the palate shows green apple, golden honey and gorgoues peaches. wonderful. (90 pts.)

2007 Joh. Jos. Prüm Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
dense petrol on the nose. almost like a bit of new leather. also some gorgeous apples on the nose. the palate is rich and oily. i get a lot of golden apples and layers of honeyed graham crackers. gorgeous length. drinks like a spatlese, but i can't help but love the richness of this wine. (91 pts.)

2008 Joh. Jos. Prüm Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
gorgeous nose of ginger, lemons and oil. pineapple, golden apple and lime zest on the palate. a bit more zip to it than the 07, but this is still quite rich for a kabinett. (90 pts.)

Two more rieslings

2009 F.X. Pichler Riesling Smaragd Loibner Steinertal - Austria, Niederösterreich, Wachau
i don't throw around 96 points very often. but this wine is just immaculate. it has the sexiest nose: flowers, lemons, white peaches, fresh laundry. i feel like i'm running through a field of blossoms and hanging sheets in one of those downy commercials. the palate is fresh, but really dense and complex. right off, i could tell this wine needs years to show its true potential. right now the flavors are so compacted that it needs time to develop. but there is no denying the complexity and mouthfeel of this wine. apricots and honey flavors stay from the attack to the finish, but they're mixed with granola, peanut brittle, golden apples and a hint of cinnamon. the acid is intense throughout, making this a massive but balanced wine. the finish is seamless and incredibly long. i've now had the 92, 07, 08 on several occassions, and this was my favorite FX riesling stienertal experience. (96 pts.)

2009 Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Großes Gewächs - Germany, Nahe
what a beautiful nose of golden apples, white peaches and slate. searing acid on the palate is balanced by a thick, oily mouthfeel. rich white peaches glide across the palate, followed by honeycomb, golden apples, and a rush of minerals. at this point in the tasting, i felt like my palate had been on such a high, that this might even be better if just tasted alone. also, incredibly young. still, this wine wowed me. (92 pts.)

Ausleses to end the evening

2001 Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Auslese - Germany, Nahe
what a beautiful golden color. an impressive, powerful nose of apricots and honey, like those honeys with spices in them you can get at farmer's markets. the richness of the orange marmalade, sugar cane, honey and lemon oil is astounding. gorgeous finish. (93 pts.)

2006 Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
the color is an intense honeyed orange. the fruit is pure and powerful on the nose. i get canided pears, golden apples and apricto, all highlighted with a stony minerality. the palate is viscous, rich and exciting. massive creaminess, golden grahams cereal, apricot puree, honeyed apples, hints of spice. its not at all cloying, which is why i loved this so much. it goes down easily with the acid, and the acid and sweetness linger in perfect balance on an incredibly long finish. that has an incredible 25+ years of development ahead of it. (95 pts.)