Best of the Bookshelf 2010

December 26, 2010

In case you’ve just joined us: I like to read books.  Lots of books. Mostly fiction, some non-fiction.  At year’s end I go back through my notes and call out the titles that really got my blood up.  Most of these were checked out from the local library or passed to me by friends (shout-outs to the Contra Costa Main Branch and the Legendary Obliterati).  Anyway, maybe there’s something in here you might enjoy. Keep turning those pages!

FICTION

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

You can argue that Mitchell’s reach exceeds his grasp, and that he tries a little too hard to lace these disparate stories together, but who cares when a book is this well-written?  The construction may be a trifle odd but the parts are all spectacular, and the whole is definitely worth more than their sum. From the South Seas of the 1850s to 20th century Europe to a post-apocalyptic future Hawaii, each tale has its own distinctive language and voice. Brilliant writing.

Preternatural (barely-not-magical) realism abounds in this entertaining novel from Peru’s best-known novelist. Alternating chapters weave two threads: an against-the-odds love story and a series of increasingly deranged radio serials. The setting, 1950s Lima, is richly drawn, and the English translation by Helen Lane is faultless. An eccentric, big-hearted love story that’s  really hard not to like.

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Hunting Wild Mushrooms

February 15, 2010

Black Trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides)

Shave off the veneer of civilization and we are all hunter-gatherers.  To deny it would be a vain argument against millions of years of hominid evolution. For the modern foodie-type ape, there remains an undeniable appeal in tracking down and collecting one’s own food, whether out on the Serengeti or down at the local farmer’s market.  But the acme of these quest-for-food experiences, the most innately thrilling,  rewarding, and potentially lethal, is the hunt for wild mushrooms. Here in northern California, hardly a winter passes without some horrific news story about a family poisoned en masse by the Destroying Angel or some other lethal look-alike packed with toxic alkaloids. And it’s not a pretty death either – catastrophic liver failure makes your typical e coli infection seem like a day in the sun. Even a hunting  trip seems like Safety Day by comparison. Unless you’re hunting with Dick Cheney, in which case you deserve whatever you get.

Waterproof gear recommended

But with great risk comes the possibility of great reward. Armed with the requisite knowledge, savvy, and experience, the wily mushroom hunter can bring home rare delicacies that would either be prohibitively expensive or downright impossible to find any other way. So when our friends Chris and Blake invited us out to the Mendocino coast to do a little shrooming, we did not hesitate. While neither would claim to be an expert mycologist, they are deeply familiar with their neck of the woods and its edible varieties, having successfully foraged for local fungi for many years. And both of them have healthy, high-functioning livers – let’s just say I know this for a fact, and leave it at that.

 

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Y2K vs. the Martini 8

January 14, 2010

Has it really been ten years since this happened?!  On December 31, 1999, I was arrested while scaling the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge with a backpack full of Martinis. And I don’t even like Martinis! Back by popular demand, here’s the story, as originally published in Twisted Times.

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THE MARTINI 8 AFFAIR

A True Crime Story

By Jack L. Lopes

There’s an old superstition that says whatever you’re doing at the stroke of Midnight on New Year’s Eve is what you’re going to be doing all year long. I sure hope it’s not true. At the cusp of the new Millennium, as the clocks chimed Y2K and another dead calendar page fluttered off into the void, seven friends and I were getting arrested for climbing the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Our plan to welcome the new century with an enviable view and a perfect martini did not come to pass. Instead, we became the last arrests of 1999 and the first police report of 2000. At the stroke of Midnight we were on a pier-side police barge, being searched and handcuffed while the fireworks went off around us.

It’s an odd and unlikely story that begins back in February of 1995, when my friend and fellow traveler Sebastian Melmoth suffered an unfortunate arrest on the Bay Bridge for drunk driving, and subsequently swore an oath that no liquor would touch his lips until the year 2000. His fierce will did not fail him, and he kept his promise to the end, but as the years went by he developed a powerful thirst.

A veteran urban adventurer and a connoisseur of the industrial arts, Melmoth has a particular fondness for bridges. He has climbed dozens of them, in this country and in Europe, and has introduced many enthusiasts to the pursuit. His first choice, and arguably the ideal spot to toast any new era, was the Golden Gate Bridge, but after actor-activist-moron Woody Harrelson and a few angry friends got arrested stringing propaganda banners from that span, the Bridge Authority went berserk on new security measures, welding access doors shut and installing surveillance cameras from top to bottom and end to end. By late 1999, Melmoth had settled on the idea of a Bay Bridge celebration, but he kept the final plans to himself, knowing he would have to pick just a handful of climbers from the army of friends and friends’ friends who had by now heard rumors of this unique New Year’s Eve celebration.  I got the call a few days beforehand — one of the lucky few. There were to be eight of us, and two boats. We would meet in the city at 9:30.

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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 »