2009 Best Books

January 12, 2010

I go through a lot of books in a year: new and old, fiction and non, borrowed and bought. At year’s end I like to look back through the stacks and call out a few titles that really stood out. So here you go.

FICTION

Zeroville by Steve Erickson

Erickson was one of my happiest discoveries of the year, a wildly imaginative writer with an enviable prose style. I’m about halfway through his back-catalog and this is my favorite so far, a dark fable of Hollywood that’s right up there with “Day of the Locust” and “Barton Fink.” This guy really knows his movies – the book is riddled with enough film references to keep even a cinemaniac running back and forth to IMDB. And he creates a truly mythic character in Vikar, a “cinema savant” who’s so in love with the movies that he has a scene from his favorite film (A Place in the Sun) tattooed on his head. Erickson is also on my super-short list of writers who really understand L.A. – in good company with novelists like Didion and Chandler. I just couldn’t put this one down.

The Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses/The Crossing/Cities of the Plain) by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy, IMO one of our greatest living writers, is finally getting his due with the back-to-back successes of “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road.”  This trilogy is mid-period Cormac, halfway between the Faulknerian whimsy of “Suttree” and the gaunt minimalism of “The Road.” In this mode he reads a lot like Hemingway: lots of ands and ands and very few commas. The dialog is unattributed and unpunctuated but fairly easy to follow, except when it gets into Spanish, which is pretty often. Unless you’re bilingual you’ll want to keep a Spanish dictionary close to hand. But it’s entirely worth the hassle. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better Western saga, postmodern or otherwise. These stories are set in the 1940s but the cowboy action is timeless. Young men in love with horses, Mexican women, and an obsolete sense of personal honor, not necessarily in that order. There’s enough gunplay and knife-fighting for a whole season of “Deadwood,” and some truly unforgettable characters.

Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes

Epic and kaleidoscopic, full of profound weirdness and stunning, hallucinatory prose. Magical-realist, yes, but forget comparisons to Garcia-Marquez; this is more Pynchonian in its lucid irrationality, a waking dream of Spain’s conquest of Mexico that straddles multiple centuries, from Aztec creation myth to Millenial apocalypse. Alternately frustrating and mind-blowing – I came close to quitting it more than once, particularly in the first book, “The Old World” – but Fuentes kept dragging me back with his wild imagination and beautiful writing. The second book, “The New World,” stands on its own as an epic re-imagining of Mexico’s origins and conquest. And the third book, “The Next World,” is just a complete mind-bender, with side trips to ancient Rome and a savage version of modern Mexico, where human sacrifice has been reinstated and dissent is suppressed by the US military. A dark & twisted masterpiece from the lion of Mexican lit.

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Mission San Miguel Arcangel

January 5, 2010

Like every other graduate of California’s public schools, I learned about the Spanish missions in fourth grade by building a model out of cardboard and sugar cubes. But unlike most of my classmates I kept an interest in the subject after my voice changed, and went on to discover a lot of things that my teachers never mentioned. Did you know, for instance, that the soon-to-be-saintly Father Serra was in fact a notorious flagellant who liked to preach the gospel stripped to the waist, scourging himself with chains and burning his flesh with hot candle wax? Or that each of those quaint little mission cemeteries is actually a mass grave, packed with the bones of thousands of natives? No wonder the 4th grade lesson plan focused on arts and crafts.

Over the years I’ve managed to visit most of the 21 mission sites, and last weekend I cut another notch in my traveling stick, touring the long-shuttered Mission San Miguel Arcangel, just north of Paso Robles. Nearly destroyed by earthquakes, it has been closed to the public since the San Simeon quake of 2003, and only recently reopened. While most of the complex is still a private retreat for Franciscan monks, visitors can once again enter the main church and tour the adjoining wing of the quadrangle, which dates back to 1816.

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Santa Cruz Travel Notes

August 18, 2009

IMG_2414As a transplanted Sureño, one of the things I miss most about SoCal is being able to spend a nice day at the beach. San Francisco’s Ocean Beach is a great place to catch pneumonia in a foggy riptide. Alameda is nice as far as Oakland beaches go, but it’s hardly Laguna. But just an hour away there is Santa Cruz, a little spot of sun and sand that’s as good as anything in the O.C. I’ve been touristing in Santa Cruz since the late 70s, and no summer is complete for me without a few visits. While I’m hardly a local, I’ve traveled there enough to know what I like, and here are a few of my favorites.

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Meat Parade Memories

August 4, 2009

“Great idea,” I said to my friend John when he proposed that we enter a meat-themed float in the “How Berkeley Can You be?” parade and cover it with meat-grilling, meat-gnawing, cigarette-smoking freaks dressed in leather and fur, spewing clouds of charcoal smoke, under a banner reading PETA: People Eatin’ Them Animals. “Great idea, except we might get killed. Those peace-loving Berzerkeley moms will rip us to pieces.

“We need our own protest marchers,” I suggested. “We’ll field our own counter-demonstration.” And thus was born the VegetAryan movement, a brave cadre of brown-shirted, jack-Birkenstocked, sign-waving, slogan-chanting thugs, violently opposed to all things carnivorous and willing to disrupt the “meat people” by any means necessary.

Thanks to the efforts of DocumentAryan Puzzling Evidence, we can now enjoy the thrills and (grease) spills of this epic confrontation and its sequel (“Meat People II: Straight to Video”), in which we returned to the streets of Berkeley the following year with more meat, more fur, more cigarettes thrown to children, more pig heads on stakes, more Read the rest of this entry »


White House Beer Summit

August 1, 2009

abc_obama_gates_rowley_090723_mnIn one of the biggest non-stories of the year, President Obama met yesterday with the principals in the soon-to-be-forgotten but currently-notorious, racially-charged, violently overblown incident up in Cambridge, in which a black Harvard professor was arrested for disorderly conduct after allegedly breaking into his own home after a trip abroad, and not reacting well when the police were called in. Our usually well-spoken Chief Executive, remarking that the police had acted “stupidly” in the affair, found himself promptly tasting shoe leather, and hastily invited Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley to the White House to discuss the matter “over a beer,” and perhaps turn bad PR into good PR by creating a “teaching moment” for the Nation. In other words: desperate spin control.

The resulting “Beer Summit,” covered in exhaustively shallow detail by the national media, was frought with symbolism, intentional and otherwise. As a so-called Beer Expert, I feel the need to step in as an analyst, and help you decipher the Story behind the story.  Because while the event may have been nothing more than a feel-good photo-op, the beer selections of the participants say a lot about race and class in this country, and the perceptions of our perceptions about race and class.  So let’s take a look at exactly which beers were called in to grace the nation’s highest picnic table on that fateful afternoon…

President Obama’s beer choice: Bud Light. The message: “I don’t really like beer, but I don’t want to come off as an elitist, wine-drinking douche, so I’ll order the best-known brand in America and hope I poll as a regular Joe, albeit watching his weight.”  The sub-subtext: “I’m still paying for that ‘guns-and-religion’ comment in the PA primary, and  I’m going to need Joe Sixpack on my side to get Health Care passed.” Beeradvocate.com’s review of Bud Light: C (mediocre).

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Ghosts of Old New Almaden

July 15, 2009
Petra and Pascal Michel, my grea-great-grandparents from Sonora

The Michels, my great-great-grandparents

While I’m hardly a genealogy nut, I do consider myself the keeper of the keys when it comes to family history, and I try to keep opening old doors whenever I get the chance. One research trip that’s been on my list for way too long is a trip down to the New Almaden Mining Museum south of San Jose. According to my mom, her great-grandfather Pascal Michel worked there in the 1850s as a mining engineer, and I’ve always wanted to check the payroll records and get the full story. A few years back I phoned the museum and they confirmed that they had tons of records dating back to the early days, but they told me I’d have to come down and do the research myself – and only on a Saturday or Sunday.

Weekends are tough for me, since I usually work – but finally the planets lined up and I had the time, so I hit the road for the 90-minute drive down to the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. On the way down, munching a chorizo burrito and blasting Los Cenzontles to get me in the mood, I reflected on what I knew about Pascal Michel. A French Mexican, he was either born in or emigrated to Sonora, where he married Petra Murillo, an eductated girl from a good family in Hermosillo.  Mining was the family business, and he plied the trade in Sonora for some time before heading north. According to the stories, he and Petra started a family together down in Mexico, but all the kids from that first batch were wiped out in an epidemic, which had a lot to do with their decision to start over in Alta California.

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Take Me Out to the Bullfights

May 18, 2009

It’s not easy being a bullfight fan in California.  Sure, bloodless corridas are legal, but the Portuguese societies that sponsor them wisely choose to fly under the PETA radar, making them both hard to reach and hard to hear about unless you’re part of the community. Most of the venues are out in the dustiest corners of the Valley, in little farming towns that are hours from the cities. Most of the fights are on weeknights, conducted in Portuguese, and only written up in Portuguese newspapers. There’s a fan website in English, but it’s no longer being maintained, and the URL is up for sale. In other words, you’ve really got to love this sport if you want to see it.

And make no mistake, this is definitely sport. When a team of forcados leaps into the ring, eight brave men versus one angry bull, it’s like being catapulted back into the Stone Age, when bull-jumping and bull-baiting were some of the world’s earliest athletic spectacles.

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