Friday, August 31, 2007

New World Guide to Beer

All fans of good beer should raise a pint tonight to the memory of beer and whisky maven Michael Jackson (aka "the Beer Hunter"), who died this week. The publication of Jackson's second book, The World Guide to Beer in 1977 was an important contribution to the beer revolution that soon followed. His books, TV series ("The Beer Hunter"), magazine and web articles, lectures and travels over the past 30 years have helped spread the message that beer can be a noble and civilized beverage, worthy of respect. All of us craft beer/microbrew/good beer enthusiasts owe Michael a debt for his life's work.

The Library has a 1988 edition of his classic New World Guide to Beer, as well as 1998's photo-filled Ultimate Beer. Michael was also an influential whisky expert, with his Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, going through many editions.

The online beer community is quite robust, with beer bloggers all over the world. Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont singles Jackson out as his mentor. Alan McLeod of the Good Beer Blog from Kingston, Ontario points to some online memorials to Michael, including Lew Bryson and Pete Brown. There is a good inclusive list of memorials at the Hop Talk blog.**

*Thank you to Alan at the Good Beer Blog for the great photo above!
** Corrected September 5, 2007.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Book of Stanley

To paraphrase Budd Schulberg's 1941 novel*, 'What makes Todd Babiak run?' A writer for the Edmonton Journal, cranking out regular witty and incisive columns, a newish dad, a committed shopper for new slacks - and in the last two years, author of two full-length, fabulous novels. A character in one of his books might joke that it is due to the lengthy winters of Deadmonton. It is hard to waste time lolling about sun-dappled outdoor cafés discussing Truth and Beauty when it is -20 degrees and an idling Ford F-9000 pickup is pumping diesel fumes over the sidewalk. Never mind the scarcity of sun-dappled cafés.

Ian McGillis, who wrote a really funny and moving novel set in Edmonton (A Tourist's Guide to Glengarry) asked Babiak about his productivity in the Journal yesterday:

Q: You seem to maintain a remarkable workrate. As a writer myself, frankly I'm jealous. How do you do it?

Babiak: "I don't sleep. Actually, it's a mirage. Six years passed between my first novel, Choke Hold, and my second novel, The Garneau Block. In that time, I wrote a lot. Most of it was terrible but some of it was good, and I'm reworking it..."
Mirage or not, Babiak's new novel, The Book of Stanley, is out today. Like The Garneau Block, the new novel appeared as a serial in the Edmonton Journal. It has been revised for publication as a novel, and it has already received excellent reviews from major newspapers across the country.

Babiak launches The Book of Stanley tonight, with a party hosted by McClelland & Stewart and Greenwoods' Bookshoppe: 7:30 p.m. at The Billiard Club, 10505 Whyte Ave.

* What Makes Sammy Run?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Deep Blues

With its unfailing bad weather, the Edmonton Bluesfest seems to signal the end of summer. It isn't the last of the summer festivals - that honour belongs to the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra's Symphony Under the Sky on Labour Day weekend. But the last notes echoing from Los Lobos' guitars into the dark and cold of Hawrelak Park last night meant: it's over. Put the sunscreen away. Park the RV. Order the ski pass. Think snow.

The Bluesfest is known continent-wide as a pretty pure "blues" festival, and an excellent one. Edmonton audiences are knowledgeable blues fans, and even more important - they show up! If you want to dig a little deeper into the blues, you can't go wrong with Robert Palmer's classic book, Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago's South Side to the World. The book is from 1981, so you won't find anything about the Blues today, but Palmer's digging into the roots of the Blues is a must-read. Deep Blues has no pictures however, so you might want to pair it with a book like Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey, a coffee-table look at Blues history, full of great photos and illustrations.

Or if you don't want to read at all (!!), there is Martin Scorsese's 2003 PBS documentary series, Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey. The famed director, a Blues fan, commissioned himself and 6 noted directors to make films about the Blues. Some films are better than others, some are a bit slow in spots, but taken as a whole this is an excellent place to learn about the Blues. Here's the list of the films:
  • Feel Like Going Home directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Peter Guralnick
  • The Soul of a Man directed and written by Wim Wenders
  • The Road to Memphis directed by Richard Pearce and written by Robert Gordon
  • Warming by the Devil's Fire directed and written by Charles Burnett
  • Godfathers and Sons directed by Marc Levin
  • Red, White & Blues directed by Mike Figgis
  • Piano Blues directed by Clint Eastwood
Many people complained that there wasn't enough performance footage when the series aired on PBS. The beauty of the DVD set is 3 hours of "special feature material" including full-length live performances not televised (B.B. King, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Willie Dixon etc).

Friday, August 24, 2007

The United States of Arugula

The Big Mac has turned 40. While cultural icons like On the Road (50 this year) or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (40 this year) gain respectability as they age, the iconic Big Mac seems ever more despised as the years pass. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation book and Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me film were a killer one-two punch a few years back. But antipathy towards the "two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame-seed bun"sandwich is nothing new. Urban myths about what was "actually" in the burgers were common when I was in university. I have a relative who ran the burger factory in Spruce Grove back then which supplied all the western Canada McDonald's, so I knew first-hand that the burgers were not rain forest beef, not full of whatever. You can critique McDonald's for many sins, but the quality of its hamburgers isn't one of the reasons!

In my youth the nearest McDonald's was a half hour drive away, in the closest city to our town. So a Big Mac was a treat, despite the fact that the most common reason for visiting this city was to go to the dentist! Thus Big Macs and the dentist's drill are deeply associated in my psyche!

Nowadays, for my teenage son's generation, the Big Mac is uncool. One kid claims he is "allergic" to McDonald's, getting nauseous whenever he gets within 50 metres of the Mighty McD. Certainly McD's ubiquity on the urban landscape has erased most childhood memories of it as a special treat for me, but ....
  • The Canadian McDonald's corp, lead by CEO George Cohon, negotiated to get McD's into the USSR at the height of the Cold War, with success in 1990. Perhaps the Big Mac played a part in the downfall of Communism?! Read about it in Cohon's autobiography To Russia With Fries [ghostwritten by the fabulous David Macfarlane, author of the lovely novel, Summer Gone, and the memoir The Danger Tree]
  • The introduction of indoor playplaces (slides!) was a godsend to tired parents everywhere!
  • The one place with clean public bathrooms when I was backpacking through Europe!
  • With great size comes great responsibility, and opportunities. When McDonald's introduced premium salads in the US, they become one of the top buyers of "spring mix" lettuce (arugula, radicchio and frisee). With other mega-corps moving to fair trade suppliers it isn't beyond imagination that McD's could move this way.
To really understand how we North Americans moved from the era of a fatty 540 calorie Big Mac being a special treat to today's obsession with slow food, sustainable food, gourmet food, read David Kamp's excellent book, The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. He walks the reader through the post-WWII changes in food habits, the food revolution of the past few decades. The intro notes a 1939 column in a New York newspaper showing how to pronounce "peet-za" and explaining that pizza is a "nice stunt to surprise the visiting relatives." Chapters cover all the larger-than-life figures, from Julia Child and Craig Clairborne to Alice Waters and James Beard to Mario Batali and the current crop of celebrity chefs.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Mister Pip

The Booker Prizelonglist” of 13 titles ("Booker’s dozen”) was announced recently. There was some harrumphing about the absence of some big names (for Canadians, notably Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero). But I think the list has a number of good reads, and there are great picks from the colonies, including Torontonian Michael Redhill’s Consolation (blogged here in November ’06) and Kiwi Lloyd JonesMister Pip.
Mister Pip is on a roll, already having won the Commonwealth Prize for Best Book and New Zealand's top fiction prize, the Montana Medal. The consensus at online forums at the Booker website seems to be Pip has a good chance of making the short list.

I had a perfect summer reading experience with Mister Pip, so I have fond feelings for it. I read this delightful tale set on a South Pacific island on the peaceful, sun-dappled dock at a lake on Salt Spring Island, BC. In the novel, Miranda, a teenage girl, describes how the eccentric Mr. Watts takes over the teaching of students in the local school after all the other white people leave due to the outbreak of a civil war. Mr. Watts isn’t much of a teacher but he hits his stride when he reads Charles Dickens's Great Expectations to the students. The story of orphan Pip in 19th century London is fascinating and meaningful for Miranda and her classmates. But dark clouds approach and the novel takes several sharp turns from there.
I was reminded a bit of the Life of Pi – the tropical setting, the first person narration, the place of storytelling in our lives. A wonderful and moving story of the power – and dangers – of literature.
Here’s the full Booker longlist:

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On the Road

On the Road lives on (the road never ends?), 50 years old this year. The book's author, Jack Kerouac, only made it to age 47 when he died in 1969 from a lifetime of hard living, mainly hard drinking. Like many people I read it when I was young and impressionable. I spent a few months pretending I liked jazz. Used "I dig it" in conversation. Never wore a beret.
Today the book is a glimpse at a simpler time, pre-Internet, 9/11, drinking and driving laws....

I think the NY Times feels a bit proprietary about On the Road, as perhaps they should as their review of the book on September 5, 1957 brought it to public attention (read it here). There are a couple of articles today (article here and discussion here). The Times' book blog Paper Cuts notes, "We’ve officially entered what might as well be called Jack Kerouac Awareness Month", and points to several anniversary pieces:
The big retrospective Kerouac essays have already begun appearing – here is Sean O’Hagan’s take in The Guardian, and here’s David Gates in the new issue of Newsweek. (If you haven’t yet read Gates’s classic essay “Breaking Up With the Beats,” which ran in Salon in 1999*, now is the time.)

[*Gates' essay, "Breaking Up with the Beats" is in The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors here at the Library]
***Update August 23: I just noticed that On the Road is available in e-audio at the Library, via our digital audiobook service, NetLibrary. And even better, it is read by Frank Muller, one of the very best audiobook performers (readers?).

That other Beat Generation artifact, the poem Howl, by Allen Ginsberg had its golden moment last year. I ran across an interesting version here at the Library today: The Poem That Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later, edited by Jason Shinder. The essays are fine but the cool part is the CD included, with the first known recording of Allen Ginsberg reciting "Howl" - March 18, 1956 in Berkeley, as well as a facsimile of a 1956 mimeograph of the poem.

You know how it starts....
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked...

Thursday, August 09, 2007

This Is Your Brain on Music

You can tell it is Folk Fest time in Edmonton as the weather has turned grey, rainy and cold. While many of my favourite Folk Fest moments have come during cold rain (eg. the sheets of lightning against the angry dark sky and setting sun behind the stage as Norah Jones sang so sweetly a couple years back), sun and warmth are preferable, even if it tends to make one escape to the beer tent for far too long! It is all about the music, man! Here’s a few favourite books that are suffused with the mysterious power of music:

This Is Your Brain on Music By David Levitin
Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University, explores how and why music matters to us, using science to look at the relationship between music, melody and the mind.

You Don’t Love Me Yet
By Jonathan Lethem
Music often plays a part in Jonathan Lethem’s intriguing novels, but in this entertaining story music is centre stage, focusing on the chaotic life and loves of
Lucinda Hoekke, bass guitarist for an unknown LA indie rock band.

Songbook By Nick Hornby
Hornby’s novels are filled with references to music and musicians. In Songbook Hornby steps out of fiction mode and writes personal essays with feeling and humour about 31 of his absolute favourite songs.

Sweeter Life By Tim Wynveen
Cyrus Owen is a farm boy in the tomato fields of south-western Ontario. But he has a crazy dream of becoming a rock star. This satisfying, wistful novel records his zigzag journey to music industry success but also the emotional and personal costs that can accompany becoming an artist.

Whale Music By Paul Quarrington
A funny and sad look at the life of a musician, Des Howell, loosely based on reclusive Beach Boys mastermind/crazyman Brian Wilson. It inspired the creation of an album by legendary Toronto indie rock band The Rheostatics.
Reservation Blues By Sherman Alexie
A lyrical, powerful novel about Thomas Builds-the-Fire, of the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene band, who forms an all-Indian Catholic rock band and embarks on a cross-country tour when long-dead Blues legend Robert Johnson comes to the reservation.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Love Me, Hate Me

What an odd situation Barry Bonds created by breaking one of sports’ treasured records, baseball’s lifetime home run record. Even Major League Baseball’s Commissioner, Bud Selig, couldn’t bring himself to attend the game last night in which Bonds hit homer number 756. “Cheaters never prosper”, but Bonds enters the records books ahead of Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714). And not only is Bonds a known cheater (steroids/human growth hormone) but apparently he's an unpleasant human being.
Jeff Pearlman took on the unenviable task of writing a biography of the notoriously anti-media Bonds, resulting in his excellent book Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero. Pearlman makes it clear that Bonds was the real deal, a special athlete headed for the Hall of Fame before he began taking drugs in 1999. An epilogue entitled "The Debate of Immortality" ably discusses the issues surrounding drugs, records and the Hall of Fame.
For the story of a real home run hero, pick up Hank Aaron's autobiography, I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story. Each chapter is introduced by writer Lonnie Wheeler, followed by Aaron's memories of particular times in his life, from his Alabama childhood to the start of his career with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League to his [drug-free] triumph with the Atlanta Braves on April 8, 1974, when he beat Babe Ruth's home run record.
You can't exactly call Babe Ruth "drug free" but the booze and junk food he consumed certainly weren't performance-enhancing! The original home run hero was larger than life, changing baseball and American life. A recent biography, The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth by Leigh Montville shows Ruth's impact on American society of the time.