Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...
27 January, 2011
2011: The Year to Come At the Sinny
This looks like a hoot - The Troll Hunter. It's a Norwegian horror film and would no doubt go over well in Mt. Horeb and Stoughton. It opens in April.
Shot in a vérité style, THE TROLL HUNTER is the story of a group of Norwegian film students that set out to capture real-life trolls on camera after learning their existence has been covered up for years by a government conspiracy. A thrilling and wildly entertaining film, THE TROLL HUNTER delivers truly fantastic images of giant trolls wreaking havoc on the countryside, with darkly funny adherence to the original Norwegian folklore.
Sundance has finally posted the Screening Room Calendar for the winter. It leaked earlier this month and Dane101 had the skinny. I'm glad to see Kings of Pastry as it's by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, pioneers of direct cinema. I'm also looking forward to Four Lions, a spoof which looks at some bumbling British jihadists. White Material also looks good.
Not only is it interesting to me because of the subject matter but also because Madison's commercial theatres basically ignore restorations and re-releases. Or, at least, that's been my experience of the past few years. The Metropolis restoration screened in Milwaukee last fall but failed to appear here. Obviously I don't know why it didn't. It's possible we were victims of the vagaries of film distribution but I'm more inclined to think that no theatre wanted to bring it here. Let's hope I'm just too cynical. There's also a restoration of Battleship Potemkin coming out but it's unlikely to come to Madison. (Hey Meg Hamel! Are you listening?)
Another film I'm looking forward to this year is Black Death but this is mainly because it takes place in The Middle Ages. Sean Bean stars as does Eddie Redmayne who was in Pillars of the Earth. Looks like some folks are being typecast as medieval characters.
Now that Dogtooth has secured an Oscar nomination, it will surely be screened beyond New York and hopefully even here in Madison. It sounds perverted and strange and was described thusly by Matt Zoller Seitz:
In "Dogtooth," a black comedy from Greek filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos, a well-to-do businessman creates his own garden of Eden. He and his wife live in a secluded compound and raise their son and two daughters -- now in their 20s -- free of influence from the fallen world outside. The air starts to leak out of the bubble when the father starts bringing in women to satisfy his son's sexual urges
Throw in a couple Philip K. Dick-related films and Terrence Malick's new one and 2011 looks pretty good.
Either 77 Square's AI Needs a New Algorithm or Rob Thomas Is Losing It
While it isn't online yet, Rob Thomas' review of Vision: From the Life of Hildegard Von Bingen in the current issue of 77 Square is interesting. As with all of his reviews, there's a sidebar that includes "For fans of:", a list of movies that are similar to the one at hand. Visons, we are told, will appeal to fans of Amazing Grace (what movie is this?), The Name of the Rose, and Nuns On the Run. Nuns On the Run?! Are you serious? This Nuns On the Run?
So does Rob Thomas really think fans of an Eric Idle/Robbie Coltrane comedy about two guys running away from their mobster boss and hiding out in a nunnery will just love a serious, multi-layered profile of a 12th century abbess? Or does 77 Square have some goofy algorithm that makes these choices for him?
I'm such a terrible stepdad. I made the kid cry at dinner the other night.
On Monday we had kalberwurst for dinner. The stuff is made with veal and milk and has a very fine, smooth texture. Somehow the conversation started going like this.
Kid: "What kind of sausage is this?"
Kid: "What's kalberwurst?"
Me: "It's made of veal."
Kid: "What's veal?"
And so on until we get to the point where he asks how cows are killed. Well, I just happen to have a friend who was a health inspector and worked in abattoirs and meat processing plants and who has told me many a story. Being the honest type, I told the kid about those pneumatic bolt guns hoolies that they use at slaughterhouses. Ooh, boy. Not good.
The boy started crying and eventually ran into his room. After a short time went in there after he had calmed down and apologized for making him cry. He said it was OK as he had asked the question.
He learned all about sex in health class and now he knows where that meat on his plate comes from. You've got to learn eventually. I think he's at that age when adults can start dismissing at least some of the lies that he's been told as a child. The world is full of unpleasant things that must be confronted. Now that he's gotten into playing Call of Duty, perhaps next I can introduce him to the unpleasantries that are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because I don't think he keeps up on current events nor really understands those conflicts.
Later he said that he was going to become a vegetarian and that's fine by me. I'll help all I can and it'll save on my grocery bill to boot. However, I suspect that the next time I fry bacon that aroma will lay to rest any vegetarian notions he may have. I mean, bacon doesn't come from cows, right?
For anyone interested or interested in becoming a vegetarian, here's the pneumatic bolt guns that I was referring to in action:
Otherwise check out this interminably cute picture.
At a party for The Bricks Theatre at The Old Fashioned more than a month ago, she poured four meads.
Two were sparkling: a semi-sweet pyment made from wildflower honey and pinot grigio grape juice, and a pomegranate pyment with a dry finish, made from pomegranate juice, riesling grape juice and honey, fermented with Champagne yeast.
Bos’ buckwheat mead, a thicker, darker brew, was made from only buckwheat honey, water and yeast. It had flavors of wet hay and wood. A fourth mead she poured at The Old Fashioned had strong flavors from the chardonnay oak chips Bos used to infuse it.
Sounds mighty tasty.
The article also notes that mead is gaining in popularity. Improbably, I am ahead of the curve on this one having gotten a taste for mead several years ago and even making a trek to White Winter up in Iron River to buy some of their mead. (Has it been 5 years already?) If anyone wants to start cooking with mead, might I suggest stewing a pheasant in the stuff? Mmm, mmm good.
I think I have a bottle of White Winter's Raspberry mead that's a few years old in my cellar. I might have to bust that out now.
And it would be great if brackett/braggot (mead with malt) gained in popularity because of this. I have a bottle of Viking's Honey Moon brackett in my frig that I should drink. Hopefully with Viking transmogrifying into Five Star Brewery they won't leave their bracketts behind.
Lindsay Christians recently wrote about Strollers Theatre's production of the epic The Norman Conquests which consists of three full-length plays. She quotes Steve Scott of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago about lengthier entertainment.
Most of our daily information comes in “easily digestible small chunks,” said Steve Scott, an associate producer at the Goodman. “We long for an immersion experience that we don’t get on a day-to-day basis. Forty, 50, 60 years ago, films like ‘Gone with the Wind’ were fairly common.
Gone With the Wind runs nearly four hours. Were 4-hour films really "fairly common" 40-60 years ago?
I found this article up at Slashfilm which looks at average running times through the years and it includes this graph.
In the 1930s Gone With the Wind was positively epic with the average running time being around 95 minutes. It wasn't until the 1960s that the 2-hour mark was breached. The thing is, the average in the last decade was as high as it ever has been. Now look at the other graph at that page. It lists the running times of the top 14 grossing live action films of all time which are all from the past 20 years.
The average running time is 2 hours and 39 minutes. Titanic and LotR: The Return of the King exceed 3 hours.
One premise of Christians' article is that we have short attention spans and take in most of our information in bite-sized chunks. Yet the average running time of films these days is as high as ever. Gone With the Wind was shown with an intermission. And back in 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was considerably shorter with a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, was also shown with an intermission. And there's never been a time when Wagner's Ring cycle was considered anything but massively epic.
Going back and over to radio and TV, those forms of entertainment have usually come in manageable pieces. The shows themselves generally didn't have a very long running time and commercials broke the story up into bite-sized chunks. Any old-time radio and TV experts out there? Were episodes of The Shadow 3 hours long or 1? Was there ever an epic episode of The Andy Griffith Show?
I guess I'm not sure how different people's attention spans are today as opposed to 40-60 years ago. It may very well be shorter but I don't think that movie running times offer any proof to that effect. Films are longer these days than at pretty much anytime in the past. If people's attention spans have shrunk considerably I'd expect films to be shorter today than they were in a past when people were more willing to grapple with lengthier movies but they aren't.
Sly hurts, Sly scars Sly wounds and marks Any Blaska not tough Or strong enough
Ooooh, Sly hurts
Ooh Sly, you big meanie! You hurt David Blaska's feelings!
For a guy supposedly in favor of free speech, I have to say that trying to silence Sly sure looks hypocritical.
Blaska's Blog has filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission against WTDY radio. My intent is to knock the Vile Radio Talker off the air.
Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! Speech Blaska doesn't like Has got to go!
I mean, first he argues that individuals don't lose their right to free speech simply by virtue of being a part of an association (i.e. – corporation) and then he turns around and petitions his supposed arch enemy – Big Government – to step in and curtail the free speech of someone speaking on behalf of a corporation.
Where was he when Glenn Beck started telling his viewers that they'd have to start shooting liberals in the head? But when Sly makes fun of our Lt. Governor, Rebecca Kleefisch – look out! – we need to run to big daddy government. Here's the offending bit:
How amateurish is it to have Rebecca Kleefisch, who, I don't know, she has some like little panty business in her basement or something, I don't know. She's hardly a, she's hardly an entrepreneur. You know what? You know how amateurish that is? Cold-calling?
(Using high-pitched voice, speaking as Kleefisch)
Would you like to move to Wisconsin? Would you like to move CouponCabin to Wisconsin? I'm Rebecca Kleefisch. I performed fellatio on all the talk show hosts in Milwaukee. And they endorsed me and that's how I became lieutenant governor. And then I got colon cancer and I ran around the state to help people. Even though I have government health care, screw everyone else.
Firstly, how is this hate speech? To me hate speech is about targeting a group of people. Here Sly didn't go after all cancer victims nor all people who perform fellatio nor all Republicans. His remarks are pretty well confined to one Republican alone: Rebecca Kleefisch.
Is what Sly said tasteless, insensitive, cruel, and offensive? Sure it was. But even the vilest speech is protected by the First Amendment. From the crudest political BS to the slime of racist, Holocaust denying neo-Nazis, it's free speech. Sly, unlike Glenn Beck above, didn't, from the transcript I quote (I haven't listened to the whole thing), try to incite violence. He never said that people must be prepared to shoot Rebecca Kleefisch in the head.
Blaska writes, "I do not like Big Government." Right. Unless he can run to it in order to silence people he doesn't like. Instead of crying like a baby to the FCC, why not write the radio station and/or to advertisers saying you've lost my business until the "Sly problem" is corrected? Why run to the Feds when a solution lies locally and a solution that doesn't involve the government at all? What happened to all of Blaska's talk about citizens doing it for themselves instead of looking to Big Government to deal with their problems for them? That only seems to apply to other people's problems, apparently.
Last fall a woman was out in Library Mall asking for people to sign a petition to amend the Constitution so as to include provisions explicitly stating that corporations are not people. "Money is not speech," she told me. I refused to sign.
After reading David Blaska's op-ed on the movement to amend the Constitution to codify the notion that corporations aren't people, I realize that the woman was likely Kaja Rebane.
"Sure it is," I said. OK. Sure, in a syllogistic kind of way, greenbacks aren't the equivalent of text or of getting on a soap box and saying things but, the more money you have, the more speech you can make and the bigger your audiences will be. As Ira Glasser of the ACLU wrote in a piece lauding the Citizens United case, "Money isn't speech, but how much money one has always determines how much speech one has. It's like travel: money isn't travel, but $100 won't get you very far, and those who have $25,000 can travel more, and more freely." Contrast with me to Rupert Murdoch. The guy is loaded and he gets to own media outlets who say things of which he approves. Hell, contrast me with someone like Doug Moe. He has a corporation behind him that published his column in the paper and the electronic version of the newspaper. Moe has money on his side so he, in a certain way, gets to have more speech. Good or bad? Regardless, it is. When has there ever been a time when this hasn't been the case?
Ms. Rebane said that the Citizen United case which struck down laws banning "electioneering communication" within 60 days of a general election (and other laws as well) made corporations into people. I told her that my understanding was that, no, SCOTUS didn't make corporations people but rather that people in corporations don't lose First Amendment rights by being a member of said corporation. Here are some relevant bits from the Wikipedia page on the ruling:
Kennedy wrote: "If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech."
Scalia stated that Stevens' dissent was “in splendid isolation from the text of the First Amendment. It never shows why “the freedom of speech” that was the right of Englishmen did not include the freedom to speak in association with other individuals, including association in the corporate form.”
Scalia principally argued that the first amendment was written in ”terms of speech, not speakers" and that "Its text offers no foothold for excluding any category of speaker“.
Not being a constitutional lawyer, I have to admit my knowledge woefully incomplete but it is these things which give me my understanding on the ruling. General Electric can't vote but its CEO can. The Cap Times can editorialize all it wants and when it wants about elections but other corporations can't? When I read "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press", I read something which specifically addresses the behavior of government, not something which draws distinctions between speakers.
I got the distinct impression that Ms. Rebane wasn't interested in fairness or the First Amendment. She probably wasn't interested in free speech or robust dialogues about candidates for political office. No, I'm convinced that ensuring Republicans have less money spent on their behalf was her goal. It's all about silencing those with whom she disagrees.
And what about the law of unintended consequences? What happens when corporations are legally removed from a conception of personhood? Will government officials just be able to waltz into Planned Parenthood and look at confidential files? Or perhaps they'd head over to a newsroom and poke around a reporter's desk and computer to find out the identity of an anonymous source. Hell, couldn't the FBI then walk into Matt Rothschild's office over at The Progressive? I mean, he's part of a corporation so he has no right to be secure in his Progressive papers and effects. If an ad for Bennett's Meadowood Country Club were taken out in the paper, as they often do, telling people to vote for a Republican because that person would repeal the smoking ban, could the owner or owners be prosecuted? Of course, if Jerry Fratuschi were to take out an ad, that wouldn’t be a problem because he's not a corporation but his wealth dwarfs that of many local companies. Rainbow Bookstore? Sorry, you're not a person so your political speech is illegal. David Anderson, CEO of AmFam, please feel free speak out all you want.
Remember in 2006 when there was a movement to amend our state constitution to prohibit gay marriage? I heard a lot of talk from the Left about it being unique in that it would take away rights whereas we traditionally change our founding documents to expand them. Where is that kind of talk now? While I can honestly say I don't look forward to even more insipid political advertising chock full of lies and/or distortions, perhaps the remedy for speech liberals don't like isn't to start down a slippery slope of discrimination and bans but rather to create associations and start making more speech.
Back in 1979 when Rush were preparing music for what would become their Permanent Waves album lyricist and drummer Neil Peart had worked on a set of lyrics based on the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This isn't wholly surprising considering that he gave Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan the treatment a couple years previously. That song was never recorded but reading about this episode in the band's history was probably the first time I had ever heard of the poem.
This was probably sometime in the late 1980s and I am proud to say that I have finally read it. Better late then never.
The identity of the poem's author is lost in history but it was likely written in the late 14th century. But a single copy has survived in a manuscript with three other poems. None of works has a name so "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" was the appellation given to it by someone much later.
It begins in a rather odd way with the narrator approving telling us how Romulus had founded Rome, Ticius the same with Tuscany, and likewise with Langobard and Lombardy. Felix Brutus founded Britain and since then wonder, dread, and war have lingered there amongst a "bold race" of "battle-happy" men who cause "trouble and torment in turbulent times". He then proceeds to invite the reader to hear his tale of Arthurian legend.
It is New Year's Eve at Camelot. There was food aplenty, the wine flowed, and there was much rejoicing. Suddenly the merriment is halted when at the door appears a green knight upon a green steed. The poet spares no words in describing this guy. He is a giant of a man and everything about him is green. All of his clothes and every hair on his body. The same goes for the horse. However weird looking he is yet a man.
This most verdant of knights taunts Arthur and his men by issuing a challenge to anyone "big or bold or red blooded enough": he will give anyone willing his bare neck to strike a blow and, in return, the green knight will get to strike one blow in return. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge and lops the knight's head clean off. Amazingly, the knight's body picks up the head and mounts the horse. The head speaks and tells Gawain to find him in one year and a day's time at his green chapel so that he may fulfill their bargain.
The seasons rush by and soon enough it is Christmas time yet again. Gawain, no coward he, gets all gussied up in his finest armor and sets out to find the Green Knight. He battles both the cold and snow and the natural inhabitants of the land - wolves, boars, serpents, etc. Weary of his wandering, Gawain prays to find a house for shelter. And so he does. Well, more than a house, actually. He stumbles upon the castle of Bertilak de Hautdesert who proves a most gracious host.
Gawain tells him of his quest to find a green chapel wherein dwells a green knight with whom he has business. de Hautdesert tells him that the chapel is but two miles away and since Gawain still has a few days before he must meet the knight, he should kick back and relax.
de Hautdesert later makes a strange bargain with Gawain. The lord is to go hunting and, in exchange for his prey, Gawain shall give him whatever he gets during the day in return. An odd bargain indeed. The three hunts are described in progressively more detail. First a deer, a rather easy prey. Then a fearsome boar which strikes fear into the hearts of many of the hunters. Lastly, a sly fox which proves to be the most difficult of all.
Parallel to the hunts are attempts by Lady de Hautdesert to seduce Gawain. But chivalrous to a fault, he rebuffs her lettings loose only kisses, for the most part. One on the first attempt, two on the second, and three on the last. But on the final attempt Lady de Hautdesert attempts to give our good Sir Knight a gold ring by which he can remember her. Gawain refuses knowing that his future holds a meeting with a hulking green knight who wields a very large and very sharp axe. Instead she offers a girdle and Gawain accepts. Curiously enough the girdle is green.
Gawain keeps his bargain with the lord of the house by offering many kisses in increasing quantities upon his return from the hunt.
Finally the day has come for our hero to fulfill his destiny. He is led to the green chapel where he meets the Green Knight who is sharpening his axe. As promised, Gawain exposes his neck but flinches as the axe is being brought down. The Green Knight chides him and provokes Gawain who settles down to receive the blow. The second swing is an intentional miss while the third hits its mark, but only just. It is a mere flesh wound.
The Green Knight reveals himself to be Lord de Hautdesert and that the whole scheme was cooked up by none other than Morgan le Fay, King Arthur's sister, to "put pride on trial" and test the mettle of those of Arthur's Round Table. Gawain has done well but not well enough for he had accepted the girdle. And so he wore it as a symbol of his failure. Upon his return to Camelot, Gawain saw to it that a green belt worn as a sash was to be worn by all the Knights of the Round Table.
So what is a 21st century guy to make of a 600+ year old poem? That's a tough question. The first problem was that I am not well-versed in poetry. Reading the stuff is surely a skill unto itself. You get used to dealing with meter and the tools of a poet's linguistic trade such as alliteration. Speaking of which, there is a lot of it here. The poem is written so that lengthy stanzas are full of alliteration. For example, "and quickly they collected and counted the kill." However, the stanzas close with a quatrain which summarizes events or internal states of characters and employs rhyme. Take this one: "No man felt more at home/tucked in between those two/the cute one and the crone/Their gladness grew and grew."
Such a style takes some getting used to for a poetic neophyte such as myself. I had the same problem when reading The Odyssey. I kept waiting for the Muse to sing in rhyme but she never did. But that didn't prevent me from reading large stretches of these poems in a cadence meant for rhyming. I would read it with this up and down pattern, accenting words which, in my head, would rhyme if this were a more modern effort. As I said above, it takes some getting used to and some effort to focus on the alliteration instead of waiting for words to rhyme with one another.
In addition to structure of the poetry itself this modern reader had to contend with a lot of symbolism which was unfamiliar. Why was the knight green instead of black or blue or orange? Hell, why color the guy at all and not just make him a hulking man of normal coloring? Since I happen to have a tattoo of the Green Man I quite naturally associate him with the Green Knight. But the action of the story takes place in the dead of winter and the Green Man is all about spring and summer when the flowers are in bloom, the birds and bees are doing it, and people aren't constantly fending off Jack Frost and praying that their larders hold up through the long cold season.
While I tend to think of the Green Man as having to do with the seasons, I suppose I also think of him as being an overseer of male virtues, for lack of a better way of putting it at the moment. He is a steward, of sorts. Being symbolic of life flourishing in the spring and summer, he oversees the welfare of the people who depend on the land for their food. A father figure of sorts. In the story, the Green Knight is testing Gawain to see if he can withstand the advances of a comely lady and maintain his virtue by continuing to adhere to the code of chivalry.
It's a stretch, to be sure, but there's no doubt that chivalry is a major theme here. I don't know the poem's intended audience but I'm pretty certain that Gawain is supposed to be held as an ideal for others to emulate and not a reflection of how things were. My guess is that we view chivalry in a very romantic light whereas knights back in the day did not struggle very much when pretty women came on to them. The Green Knight judges Gawain to be imperfect yet he is "by far the most faultless fellow on Earth". Perhaps there was an inordinate amount of bastards being born in the part of England where the author hailed from and this was a morality play, of sorts, imploring knights to keep their willies in their armor.
I enjoyed how the author alternated the scenes of the lord's hunt with those of his lady. Very different prey but both were hunting nonetheless. I suppose that by showing that Gawain was not caught contrasts him with the animals and that there's some symbolism at work here. Perhaps he is a stand-in for Christianity while the animals represent the heathens.
Obviously more research is to be done. I want to find out what medieval experts make of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The version I read was translated by Simon Armitage and included both his translation and the original text. I'm not sure how his take on the poem compares to others - something else to research. I found that some of the Middle English was easily discernible while the rest was positively impenetrable. One day while reading on the bus I noticed another passenger engrossed in an e-book reader. It occurred to me that having two versions of the same text side by side wasn't feasible with a Kindle or an iPhone. Or perhaps it is and I just don't know it. Still, from the e-readers I've seen on the bus, they just cannot replicate what a paper book can offer in a situation like this. The codex wins out here.
It would have been neat if Rush had finished their song as I'd have liked to have heard how Peart adapted the poem as lyrics. What would he have emphasized? We'll probably never know. Some of the music of "Natural Science" was supposedly taken from their aborted attempt at adapting Gawain to song so you can put that tune on and improvise some lines from the poem to get an idea of how it might have turned out. Try it. Replace these original lyrics:
"Wheels within wheels in a spiral array A pattern so grand and complex"
"I could tell you the truth once you've taken the blow if you smite me smartly I could spell out the facts"
Neil would be proud.
Anyway, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a very fun read that presented a challenge on multiple levels. I like all things medieval and found myself engrossed in the story. Would Gawain give in to temptation and I end up reading 14th century euphemisms for rumpy pumpy? Would our hero end up having his head lopped off?
Now I just have to watch Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight starring Sean Connery as the Green Knight. This could be his Zardoz of the fantasy genre.
Being a big fan of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, it was only natural for me to seek out the film's source material which is two short stories by Japanese author Ryunosuke Askutagawa: "Rashomon" and "In a Grove". The latter provides the inspiration for the bulk of the film with testimony in a murder trial being given by multiple people while the former provides the basis for the scenes at the Rashomon gate where the woodcutter, priest, and commoner shelter from the storm.
However, the story from which Kurosawa took his film's name bears slight resemblance to his film. The setting is the same but taking shelter at the famed gate is a samurai's servant who was recently downsized. There he encounters an old woman who is pulling the hair from corpses to make wigs. It is her only way of making of living. The pair debate the merits of doing what is right vs. doing what it takes to survive.
"In a Grove" is a rather simple story but at the end you're left wondering who is telling the truth, if anyone. Since we aren't given any background on the characters and all we know is what they tell the police, there's no way to know if any or all of them are being intentionally deceitful or if they are in some way or another deluded. Perhaps they are lying to themselves.
This latter idea is portrayed very clearly in "The Dragon". It begins in a meta kind of way with a state official decides to gather with the proles and have them tell stories. An elderly potter goes first. He tells the tale of a priest with a very large red nose who is constantly being made fun of by his fellow clergymen. And so he decides to play a prank on them by posting a sign next to a pond which says that a dragon will arise from it on a certain date. The prank, at first, fools the locals but news of the event spreads and, on the day prescribed by his sign, a huge crowd has gathered to witness the spectacle. In the end, nearly everyone, including the priest, are convinced they saw a dragon emerge from the pond. Sometimes we see what we want to see.
Askutagawa loves to write about the outcasts of society. It could be the poor or it could be those who are mean and unrefined. They don’t fit into the aristocracy neatly or at all. The priest had his big nose while the servant in "Rashomon" had a big pimple on his face. Goi, the protagonist of "Yam Gruel", is described as being "extremely homely and sloppy in appearance". He's a very low ranking samurai in the service of a regent. Like the priest in "The Dragon", people make fun of Goi a lot but it doesn't help that he is also a coward, retreating from foul-mouthed children in the street.
And he loves yam gruel which is served but once a year at a special feast. Goi always ends up with a very small portion and he makes it his life's task to have a meal of it so he can eat it until he is content.
I found myself really liking Goi. His cowardice made him a rather pathetic character but there was something about his single-mindedness in pursuit of a simple pleasure that I couldn't resist. He's harmless so why is everyone making fun of and laughing at him? I guess I just felt a lot of sympathy for him. The ending of the story is a bit of a mystery to me. Eventually Goi is indulged and given enough yam gruel to fill his belling many times over. I was expecting him to almost be force fed the stuff but he wasn't. Instead having his dream fulfilled is an anti-climax. He eats rather modestly and sits back thinking that it's not the kill but rather the thrill of the chase. He realizes he was more content as a pitiful creature wanting yam gruel than as someone shown kindness by his superiors and given all the gruel he could eat.
Akutagawa wrote in the early 20th century and I'm sure I'd get something more out of his stories if I knew more about that time in Japanese history. It's not that one can't get anything out his stories without understanding the context in which they were written, but I do wonder what he was commenting upon. Akutagawa explicitly says at one point that he rejects the school of naturalism in literature. Not having been a lit major in college, exactly how this attitude plays out is a bit beyond me but I suspect that his unwillingness to judge is part of it. He writes with detachment, plainly describing the events of the story. There's no attempt to look back on the character's lives and find out what made them as they are. It is enough that they are themselves. I'd also like to know more background to determine if choosing to place his stories in classical Japan is somehow a commentary about his own time. More reading is obviously required.
Fans of Kurosawa's film will delight in the source material here. But, more generally, Akutagawa is interesting because he gives no easy answers, if any at all. His stories are like photographic portraits in that you get this glimpse of someone at a certain point but that's about it. You're left to fend for yourself in determining the past. The stories leave the reader asking many questions. "In a Grove" is perhaps the most explicit in leaving the reader in the dark but all the stories here do that to one degree or another. The only commentary provided is an antagonism towards the status quo. Maybe Akutagawa is inviting the reader to judge themselves. Are you part of the status quo or outside of it? Why?
Normally when someone recommends a book for me to read the typical turnaround time is somewhere in the vicinity of 3-4 years. On one end of the spectrum I have a friend who has been trying to get me to read something from Peter Straub since the 1980s and I finally went out and bought Koko a couple months ago. Over on the other end my brother told me about Charles Stross' The Atrocity Archives this past autumn and I finished it about a week ago.
I'm not sure why it took me so little time to check it out but it probably has to do with the fact that I'm an IT person who enjoys H.P. Lovecraft's world of Chtulhu and the hero of The Atrocity Archives is one Bob Howard, a network admin who works for an agency whose mission is to keep the Elder Gods and their minions out of our green and pleasant lands. It is a natural fit.
Howard works for The Laundry, a super-mega-ultra-secret British agency. The book introduces us to him as he is breaking into the offices of a company that employs a mathematician who has stumbled upon some formulae that are just too dangerous for him or pretty much anyone else to know. You see mathematics has a distinct thaumaturgical side to it in Stross' world. It can be used to wield magic, summon demons, and create portals to other universes.
The break-in is Howard's first field operation. Normally he is found at a desk ensuring that The Laundry's computers and networks are secure and in working order as well as navigating the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the agency. He proves himself a decent field operative and is given another assignment in the States where he is to meet up with another mathematician whose theories can be used for more than simple postulating. This is Mo or, more properly, Dr. Dominique O'Brien. Unsurprisingly the American authorities are quite keen on harnessing her work for their own ends.
Mo is a very fine-looking woman and Bob is attracted to her. Unfortunately an attempt on his life combined with a desperate call from Mo for help throw Bob's operation off. Against protocol he goes after the girl who has been kidnapped by a gang of Middle Eastern terrorists one of whom speaks like a German. Things can get very weird very quickly.
And the book is at its best when things get weird. The first 50-60 pages get bogged down at times with Howard's beleagured IT genius routine. Stross has a lot to introduce to the reader – the characters, The Laundry, and how mathematics and lasers can take the place of sacrifices and pentagrams scrawled on the floor when summoning magic and unearthly creatures. But there are times when Bob's whining and holier-than-thou routine just get stale. I get it that non-IT folks, especially accountants, are idiots who don't know their ass from a hole in the ground when it comes to computers and make life miserable for others with all their paperwork. Stross just harps on this too much in the opening chapters of the book.
However, once things get going, the book becomes a real page turner and Stross does a great job of capturing some Lovecraftian dread. The scene when Bob and Mo are in The Atrocity Archives is not jump out of your seat scary but is genuinely terrifying in this existential/bearded Spock humanistic kind of way. It's bad enough that malicious creatures with unknown powers lurk in the universe next door but to have sick, twisted, power hungry loons right in your own backyard trying to summon them just makes one lose faith in one's fellow man.
The final scenes in a dying alternate universe are likewise chilling. It was perhaps not particularly smart on my part to read the book in the dead of winter. They were genuinely horrifying in an edge of your seat kind of way with Stross dialing down the sarcasm and the technical jargon to a more manageable level.
In addition to the titular novel the book also includes a novella called “The Concrete Jungle”. While Howard's off-handed jabs at bureaucracy are present, they are integrated well here. They come across more like Douglas Adams' comments about the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation and less as whining.
Here Bob is sent to investigate the appearance of several concrete cows in Milton Keynes. We get the history of gorgonism – someone turning to stone after being gazed upon – and learn that there are malevolent forces at work within The Laundry seeking to use England's notorious CCTV cameras for their own nefarious ends. As a shorter work “The Concrete Jungle” is fun although perhaps a bit less satisfying that the novel. There are no real revelations to be had and Bob carries on as we expect him to. Still, it was an engaging little tale and further proves that Stross can write some great spy thriller story when he doesn't overdo the sarcasm.
The bit in last year's health care reform about mandating that people buy health insurance will surely end up before the Supreme Court. But it is being used by Knight Kiplinger to editorialize in favor of a mandatory 401k system.
I'd like to see these practices and my other suggestions made universal. Some libertarians will argue that mandatory retirement saving, like mandatory health insurance, would be an imposition on their personal freedom. It sure would.
But absent a mandatory 401k system, those who don't plan for their own retirement will surely be a burden on compassionate others, whether family, friends or the government. And that's an irresponsible imposition on all of us.
The Commerce Clause. Is there anything it can't do?
With Four Loko being given a nasty lashing by the FDA, an Iowa state legislator wants to make sure bartenders there can't mix up a White Russian for you.
Iowa state Sen. Brian Schoenjahn (D-Arlington) has proposed a bill that would close this dangerous gap by making it a misdemeanor for any business with a liquor license to "manufacture for sale, sell, offer or keep for sale, import, distribute, transport, or possess any caffeinated alcoholic beverage."
Wouldn't this mean that Cuba Libres would be banned too, unless made with caffeine-free cola, of course? So, if a customer ordered a Coke and then some rum in a separate glass and combined them him or herself, would that count as possession?
Since I ranted about German beers and said that American beer drinkers ought to look at styles other than the pils, I thought I'd do so myself.
This is Leipziger Gose. It is a sour wheat beer that originated 1000+ years ago in Goslar which is in north-central Germany. In the 18th century the beer made a name for itself in Leipzig a hundred some odd miles to the east and it's most closely associated with that city today. The style died out in the 1950s but was revived after German reunification. Gose is brewed with coriander and salt(?!) and would seem to make it a cousin of the Belgian wit. Lactic bacteria make the beer sour taking it very far away from the stereotypical German lagers.
I've never been to Leipzig but pictures always show the brew served in a tall cylindrical glass – a larger version of the Kölsch glass. I don't have any Kölsch glasses yet so I used a wine glass. The beer came in a bottle with a very long neck and a swing top. Uncorking yielded a nice pop because this stuff was highly carbonated. It poured a big head and had a dark straw color which was very cloudy. With the caveat that my nose was a bit stuffy I will say that it had a biscuity smell with hints of hops, coriander, and orange.
I served it cold and the first thing my tongue registered was the effervescence. This gave way to a citrusy sour with the coriander in the background along with the barest hint of salinity. The finish was dry and sour and it left a more prominent salt taste after I'd swallowed. As the beer warmed everything moved to the fore. It became a lot more sour and the coriander and salt were more obvious. The Dulcinea said the salt was always up front for her tastebuds than it was for mine. This could very well be due to my sniffles.
This is not exactly a beer for the depths of winter but I could certainly see myself quaffing this stuff in the spring and summer. I've read that, like the Berliner Weiss, it often has raspberry or woodruff syrup added to it. For a heartier take a cherry liqueur or caraway flavored akavit is added. I have some of the latter but haven't tried it in the beer.
Gose is good stuff. It's light and refreshing and I enjoy sour beers. I do wish the coriander was more prominent but that could merely have been because of the sinuses. Still,I really enjoyed it. I hope to find some this summer and would love to try a dark version of this beer. Let me also note that I enjoyed this stuff more than Gordon Biersch's take on it last summer at The Great Taste. Leipziger was more flavorful and had a bit more balance making it much more drinkable. I see that some other American breweries make or have made gose but, to the best of my knowledge, no Wisconsin brewery has. Dan Carey of New Glarus has a way with sours so perhaps he'll brew one in the future.
Back in 2009 Jeff Glazer of Madison Beer Review went on the radio and said that Germans brew only "boring lagers". When I asked him about this attitude he admitted that he'd never actually been to Germany and, if memory serves, that his perception of German beer was mostly, if not completely, shaped by the imports available here in Madison. Why he felt compelled to slag off some wonderful brews is unknown to me. It's hardly better than the impression of likely most Germans that American beer is all piss water because they know only Miller and Bud.
But in a way this is an apples and oranges kind of thing. I have some friends who have spent time in Germany and there's this thing called the Internet which is really handy and my impression is that American beer culture and German beer culture are different. Despite Germany being a much smaller country, beer there doesn't seem to travel far. With some very qualified exceptions, it seems that people generally drink beer brewed in their town or region. (Any Germans out there to comment on this?) On the other hand, American craft beer drinkers can go to a good beer emporium and find beers from around the country. The craft brews that I think of as being the Big Boys of the industry, so to speak, are from various parts of the nation. Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Anchor, Bell's – they're scattered.
Just as American brewers had to contend with Prohibition, German brewers have to deal with the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian Purity Law. Ron Pattinson has a great critique of it here. A Bavarian law originally “to stop people using grain better suited to making bread for making beer” spread throughout the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with German unification. Pattinson gives an English translation of the law but it doesn't appear to be the whole nine yards so I really don't know what it says today. He blames the Reinheitsgebot for killing off a lot of old beer styles, particularly from Northern Germany which had a very different tradition than did Bavaria in the South as well as for leaving the country in the grip of the pils.
The popular conception of Reinheitsgebot is that German brewers can call a bier a “bier” only if it contains nothing more than barley malt, water, yeast, and hops. But it also says “Malt shall be taken to mean: any grain that has been caused to germinate.” So it would seem German brewers have some wiggle room. Plus there are exceptions. Top-fermenting beers can use sugar but bottom-fermenting beers cannot. In addition there's apparently also an exemption for regional styles. And I have no idea how EU regulations come into play.
So there is a kernel of truth in Glazer's statement. Germany's beer market seems dominated by the pils with weizens also taking a large share. But I don't understand why rauchbiers are boring. Same for something like Schneider Aventinus, a wheat doppelbock.
And using the availability of German beer in Madison in drawing a picture of what Germany has to offer beer-wise is misleading. Perhaps it's me and I need to hit liquor stores on a daily basis, but I've never seen an alt for sale here. Nor a gose. Have you ever seen a roggenbier (a rye ale) on the shelves at Woodman's or Steve's? I sure haven't. Of Schlenkerla's six rauchbiers I think I've seen only two – maybe three – of them here in Madison. How about a German porter? Or a kirschenbier? I saw a Berliner Weiss on sale for the first time only about three weeks ago. I have seen a couple brands of kolsch but, unfortunately, never in six-packs.
I think people's perceptions of German beer here in Madison would be different if the exceptions to the pils rule were more readily available. My understanding is that sales of German imports here in the States are declining and this is probably due in large part to American craft brewers making quality beers and helping swing tastes towards the hoppy and away from the malty. As exemplified by Glazer's comment, German beers surely have a stale reputation here and it, in addition to having the Reinheitsgebot hanging over them like the Sword of Damocles, German brewers seem unwilling to innovate on a large scale and German drinkers seem content with Pils.
My hope is that people like Glazer won't throw the baby out with the bath water and realize there's more to German beer than the Paulaner and Spaten on store shelves here. I also hope that the demands of the market will force German brewers to experiment more and stop letting an old bread law get in the way. If there are more brewers over there like Cornelius Faust then I can see things getting very interesting.
In the wake of the shootings in Arizona has come a tsunami of rhetoric about the caustic discourse in our country, usually from the right-wing folks. Everyone and their mother is complaining about our political discourse being nothing but angry and violent.
I've searched the article and can't find a single quote from Scott Walker in which he uses bellicose terms. The only "war" seems to be that from the keyboard of the piece's author Clay Barbour. I have nothing against Barbour nor his use of the word "war" here but I think this illustrates that people who want political discourse in this country to "return" to some imaginary time when senators weren't attacked and no one ever tried to assassinate presidents in Milwaukee have a long row to hoe.
Even here in Madison, home to peaceniks in a state of gentle Scandinavian-Americans, politics is war as is any attempt to change anything.
How do you deal with bullies in schools? Why, you start a battle against them, of course.
Fuck, you'd think every member of the Packers was Audie Murphy with all the battling they do. The Packers battle the Bears, the Packers battle turnovers, blah blah blah.
We have wars on drugs, obesity, autism – everything we want to change has war declared against it.
When was the last time you saw a headline like "Dems and Repubs Set to Amicably Hash Out Differences Over Health Care"?
So for all you Pollyannaish folks who want to make everyone all civilized, forget about it. Even the mild-mannered and eloquent William F. Buckley threatened to smash Noam Chomsky "in the goddamned face". Taking into account our discourse and Clausewitz's famous dictum, American politics is violent and has been since there was an America and probably will be until our collapse.
New Glarus' 2011 release schedule is up. I'm not sure why the webpage lists so many surprises considering the printed schedule I saw at Riley's has pretty much everything on it.
The year-round surprise is going to be Two Women, a Bavarian lager that was available this past summer as an R&D brew. The seasonal surprises are to be Black Top, a black IPA, and Laughing Fox, a crystal weizen. They'll be showing up in September.
The Unplugged series is being renamed Thumb Print and bifurcating. The first will have four releases of "fan favorites": Smoked Rye, Imperial Weizen, Cran-bic, and Apple Ale. The second line will consist of two as of yet unnamed brews which I presume Dan Carey hasn't released previously.
If I were to start a quotidian blog post about the biggest asshat of the day you'd think it would just be a matter of copying and pasting Scott Walker's latest press release. Today, however, the asshattery comes from Gregory Humphrey who is the proprietor of Caffeinated Politics.
He has several posts about the tragedy in Tuscon but, from reading them, you'd never think that Jared Loughner had pulled the trigger. No, it's the NRA's fault. Wait, no. It's because of the tactics of conservatives. The shootings have little to do with the shooter, in Humphrey's land of delegated fault. Instead the blame lies at the doorsteps of the NRA, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck.
In blaming conservatives tactics, he points to this essay by George Packer. Humphrey selectively quotes the paragraphs which describe right-wing rhetoric and fails to note Packer's opening salvo which doesn't make the connections that Humphrey does. To wit:
Judging from his Internet postings, Jared Lee Loughner is a delusional young man whose inner political landscape is a swamp of dystopian novels, left- and right-wing tracts, conspiracy theories, and contempt for his fellow human beings. He refers to the gold and silver standard; that doesn't make Ron Paul responsible for the shootings. He is fond of “Animal Farm”; George Orwell didn't guide the hand that pulled the automatic pistol's trigger. Marx and Hitler produced a lot of corpses, but not the ones in Tucson.
Let's reiterate. Humphrey blames others for Laughner's deed an, in support of this argument, links to an article which does the exact opposite.
"The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar," says one bit. In another he describes some weird Phildickian notion about B.C.E. years being "unable to start" and so we're trapped in one of PKD's Black Iron Prisons where "the years in A.D.E. don't cease". I mean, just watch these videos with all their warped syllogisms – the guy was off his rocker. Yet the only thing Humphrey gets out of this situation is that it's all the fault of the right-wing. That being mentally disturbed might have something to do with it apparently never crossed Humphrey's mind.
Had the Internet been around in the 1970s and someone had written a blog post simply mentioning that Dan White (assassin of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk) was a Democrat and noted "troubling but not surprising" or pointed out in the 1990s that Jeffrey Dahmer was a homosexual Mr. Humphrey would have no doubt and quite rightly denounced them. But when a young man who is surely not all together mentally and who blathers about the gold standard murders several people, then it's open season. Whomever Humphrey doesn't personally like gets tarred and blamed. Pointing out that Laughner had some right-wing views is equivalent to simply noting that Dahmer was gay or that someone in the 1950s frequented the same laundromat as a known member of the Communist Party.
For someone who advocates that all politicians be college-educated and that good, rational political discourse should prevail, Humphrey sure can't get enough innuendo or too gleefully place cause and effect where it suits him most, evidence be damned.
The First Beer Blatherings of the New Year (In Which I Heartily Praise Dunkels)
Sprecher got a brief spot on CNN recently.
Lakefront's Eastside Dark placed 2nd in an informal tasting of dunkels by the New York Times. Good on them. But it was also an interesting article because it, well, defended the dunkel.
Florence pointed out that many Americans imagine that dark beers will be rich, thick and heavy, even though good stouts, porters and dunkels belie that assumption. In a sense, the dunkel style is in an uncomfortable position. The ignorant avoid it because they believe it’s too heavy, while the cognoscenti ignore it because they find it too simple.
Too true. I've met many people who equate dark beer with high viscosity. Even people who have something of a taste for quality brews. For them beers of lighter color are "thin" on the palate - you just have more or less hop bitterness - while darker beers taste thick. Yeah, those Russian Imperial Stouts are pretty much motor oil but dunkels are much more nimble on the tongue. I can also understand why the cognoscenti avoid them - it's not a style known for high IBUs or high alcohol content.
Check out this article from the Brewers Association. It describes a joint brewing expedition of Cornelius Faust of the Faust Brewery in Miltenberg, Bavaria and Tod Mott of the Portsmouth Brewery in Portsmouth, N.H. Faust says: "The North American craft drinker has different expectations. Here, beers are more hop-accented; while in Germany they are more malt accented." I think this goes a long way to explain why the dunkel rates fairly low amongst craft brew drinkers.
Personally I love dunkels (and schwarzbiers which is why I suggested local homebrewer Joe Walts brew one) and Capital's Munich Dark is on pretty regular rotation in my refrigerator. I love the coffee and chocolate overtones. One of the tasters in the article mentions the style's sessionability, i.e. - it's not high in alcohol and so you can drink several in one session. Notice that the winner of the competition - Gösser Dark - weighs in at only 4.2%. Eastside Dark is 5.5% and I think Munich Dark is about the same while Sprecher's Black Bavarian is a bit higher. When I think of a session beer I think of something that is less than 5% ABV. To me Eastside Dark and Munich Dark aren't session beers. They're not big beers to be sure, but not session beers either.
Going back to the article mentioned above, Faust also said: "In Germany most beers are below 5 percent alcohol." Exactly. That's a session beer to me. This could very well be explained by the fact that my introduction to good beer was given to me by someone who had lived in Germany and would go on to be a brewer.
If you're a beer dork, read the whole article. The differences in attitudes between Americans and Germans regarding beer are pretty stark.
And my last comment on dunkels (for now) is to say that the best one I've had lately is Lammsbräu Organic Dunkel. I find their pilsner to be a bit on the watery side but the dunkel is fantastic. The bottle I tried had a lot more of the coffee/chocolate flavors than most dunkels I've tasted. Great stuff.
Robin Shepard has a look ahead at what 2011 will bring for Wisconsin breweries in the southern half of the state. Some thoughts:
---I am thrilled to see that New Glarus will bottle Two Women Lager. Edel Pils and Yokel have been missed greatly.
---My friend Dogger will shit his pants if he sees NG Cran-bic on store shelves. He has vowed to buy all of it.
---Sand Creek, O'so, and Lake Louie are looking to expand. (Ale Asylum is as well though the article doesn't mention it.) Good to see.
---I've tasted a test batch of Robin Klinge's hibiscus saison. Very tasty stuff and makes for a very pretty glass. I look forward to drinking it when the weather is hot.
While the company plans to continue offering a wide variety of microbrews, the bulk of its production will focus on four lines: a wheat beer with a lime twist, a retro pilsner, a black and white porter and also a red lager.
I presume these beers are, in the old Viking parlance, Lime Twist, LES Beer, Whole Stein, and CopperHead. Interesting selection to focus upon. The Dulcinea will be pissed if Hot Chocolate doesn't return as a winter seasonal and I will miss Blonde, a rye pilsner.
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon
While I had only watched a few episodes each of Homicide and The Wire, I did find myself watching Treme on a weekly basis. Because of this I decided to go back to where David Simon's TV career all started, namely his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets which caught the attention of the right people in the entertainment industry to be adapted into its namesake show.
Simon was a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun when he got the idea to take some time off from his beat and shadow homicide detectives. Fate was on his side as permission was given and in January 1988 he began a year of serving as a "police intern" following around the detectives of Lieutenant Gary D'Addario's squads. The book is a portrait of the men who investigated the city's murders along with the police department and, arguably, Baltimore itself. The 1980s were not a good time for American cities, Baltimore included. Poverty, drugs, white flight, manufacturing moving elsewhere – American cities struggled – and Simon chronicles the work of the people who, in a sense, are cleaning up things at the bottom of it all.
The book moves forward chronologically through the year beginning with Dets. Jay Landsman and Tom Pellegrini at the scene of a murder joking that the victim, who has a wound oozing blood, has a slow leak which can be fixed with a tire patch kit. Unsurprisingly, the detectives are masters of gallows humor and it pervades the story. There were 234 murders in Baltimore that year. Victims come and go here but a handful form the backbone of the book because the investigations continue for a long time or there was something special about the victim.
Latonya Kim Wallace was 11 years old when she was killed after being raped and the hunt for her killer plagues Det. Pellegrini throughout. It's one thing for the men when an adult finds a premature end to life but it's a whole other situation when the victim is a child and a child who was raped to boot. The shooting of a police officer is taken especially poorly by fellow officers and when officer Gene Cassidy is shot in the head, the hunt for the shooter takes on a personal note. The same goes for the slaying of a car thief who was shot by an officer. It was a potential homicide so Det. Donald Worden had to investigate. However he was investigating the potential misconduct of one of their own.
Simon portrays D'Addario's men as having something of a thankless job but a job in which they take pride nonetheless. Race enters into the equation, e.g. – having a black detective present when dealing with black witnesses. And politics is always looming in the background but sometimes comes to fore. The Latonya Wallace case brought it together with race. Not wanting the image of the police to be one that neglects the black community, extraordinary efforts were made to find the killer such as bringing in a busload of new recruits to scour the area where the girl's body was found for evidence.
While such unusual cases may provide a foundation for the narrative, it is the quotidian slayings that make up the bulk of the book. The detectives not only have to deal with gruesome crime scenes but they also make regular treks to the coroner's office to learn what the medical examiner has discovered from autopsies. Then there are attempts to find witnesses with the default scenario being that no one saw or heard anything. It's bad enough that someone was killed but the members of the community are often unhelpful. The detectives work in Baltimore's Western District which is a mostly black area and there is a deeply-rooted distrust of the police.
Simon keeps his focus narrow. We rarely witness the detectives off-duty and then it is only at a local watering hole or a vacant lot with six-packs at the ready. There are no scenes of the guys at home dealing with family life. Homicide gives us a portrait of men at work. They deal with corpses on a daily basis as well as intra-departmental politics and the never-ending pursuit of making the higher ups in city government happy with the requisite number of closed cases. To do their jobs requires not only a taste for beer but also the creation of mechanisms to cope with bodies and murderers. The men treat their circumstances with a mixture of humor and indifference.
For his part Simon writes a gritty account of his year spent with the detectives. He doesn't pull any punches and he basically portrays his subjects as guys just doing their job. They have all the same issues with their line of work that people who don't deal with murders for a living do. There is camaraderie and conflict; there are bosses to please and upset "customers". His writing style is easy going and he keeps the story moving along well with the cases mentioned above the provide a narrative thread that runs throughout as well the slow revealing of the 10 rules of the homicide squad.
Sometimes the book goes a bit too far in romanticizing the detectives as these underdogs for whom we should be rooting. It's not they aren't underdogs in a certain way but there were times when the detectives were essentially portrayed as being able to do no wrong. "Miranda rights? Fuck that! These guys have some bad guys to catch." Perhaps Simon got too close to his subjects because there were times when it felt like he really went overboard in portraying the men as Robin Hoods who felt beleaguered and were fed up with a corrupt system so they took the bull by the horns and are now these heroic crime fighters who skirt the law when necessary to bring justice.
Homicide is a great book despite this. It alternately made me laugh and feel sad. The guys in the squad are really likeable and funny. On the other hand reading about some of the stuff that people do to one another or the stupid shit people pull to avoid trouble is just sad. Madison is a small, white city and so stories of causalities from inner city drug wars just don't resonate very loudly here. Those tend to be thought of as problems belonging to someone else somewhere else. (That sentiment was heard loudly and clearly last year when news reports of intercity rail service coming to Madison were greeted by some commenters as opening the doors to [insert euphemism for poor blacks]from Milwaukee and Chicago.) But even if Madison doesn't have ghettos like Baltimore or other big American cities, Homicide does give some good food for thought. We as a country need to have a serious conversation about ending the Drug War. John McWhorter has begun making this argument at various outlets as of late. I don't know that it would be quite the magical cure that he makes it out to be but it hardly seems like things can get worse.
I don't know David Simon's stance on the Drug War but he is one of the best chroniclers of its failures we have.