Monday, April 27, 2009

Riding the Rails

#33 -- "Blood on the Tracks" by Miles Bredin

When I was a little kid, Angola was my second-favorite African nation. (Everyone, if you would, leave lists of your top five in the comments.) I'm not sure why. Mom says that when I was young I heard a news story about a fellow falling off a ship off Angola, and was obsessed -- drawing pictures of the scene, etc. (The guy apparently survived.) Could be. It could be that I thought the flag was cool. It could be that Angola was becoming independent at about the time I was becoming aware of the wider world.

Or it could be...





The Adventures of Angola and Chad would be one of the better webcomics around, I think.

Anyway. As these things do, even as things have gone poorly for Angola over the years, I've still kept an eye on the place, and when I find a book I've never heard of that deals with it -- well, I've got to get it.

So, "Blood on the Tracks." It's an early-'90s account of a rail journey from Angola (emerging briefly from a civil war at the time) to Mozambique (emerging more-or-less permanently from a civil war at the time), heading through Zaire/Congo (was about to descend into a civil war that makes other civil wars look weak), Zambia, and Zimbabwe (no civil war lately, but they might as well). As you might imagine, the rails are in kind of rough shape in most places, so the train conceit is rarely kept up (and perhaps should have just been dropped; it's a distraction at times).

The book is pretty good, an account of a place that (weird youthful fascinations aside) I don't know a ton about and probably won't be visiting any time soon. I found the Angola and Mozambique parts the most interesting; it may depend on personal taste. It lags a bit in parts, when it just becomes a string of people encountered saying "well, we're kinda fucked here." Bredin's a good writer, with a dry wit and level gaze, but parts could probably have been chopped.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Your Airstream Future

Several Airstreams have suddenly popped up in my neighborhood; I've seen a couple as I wandered around in the last few days. I think Airstreams are pretty cool, on an aesthetic level at least, but this is a bit strange... before this month I don't think I'd seen one in a decade plus. Maybe not since the 1980s. Now I can't escape the bloody things.

Maybe they're hauling Satanists into town -- we've suddenly got this rash of inverted crosses scrawled on mailboxes and garage doors. In the early Atlanta years, I went on a date with a woman who at one point started telling me that Colorado has a big problem with Satanists. I got glassy-eyed and just silently and sadly drank my beer, and didn't heed her warnings, and now they're here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Rediscoveries

I've been listening to Aimee Mann a ton lately. This is a bit odd -- she doesn't have mosh parts or steel guitar, at least one of which is usually a prerequisite, and she doesn't hail from Bulgaria or Ethiopia or the hills of Kyrgyzstan, which is where most of my other listening hails from. But at one point last week I was creeping above 66% Aimee Mann CD-saturation, which is pretty impressive. It's also kinda interesting because it's taken a few years to sink in. I've had friends who were into Aimee Mann for years, dating back to when my response was probably "the 'Til Tuesday singer? Snicker snicker." A couple years ago two friends were going to see her on Valentine's Day; one bailed and I got a free ticket. I thought the performance was ok. Then I met the Ski Bum, an A.M. devotee. We went to see her last summer (and right there, she's tied for the lead in "performers I've seen most since moving to Atlanta," with Steve Earle and the Neil Diamond cover band) and she was pretty impressive, but none of it really stuck. Then a few weeks back I needed something to balance out the Jesuseater and Unsane in the car CD player, picked out "The Forgotten Arm," and kazaam. I'm listening to little else. It takes a certain talent to make me want to listen to such sad songs so obsessively. It also takes a certain talent to make me listen to her for a while, then listen to Elliott Smith and find his songwriting lacking in comparison.

But hey. That's not all that I've had on the CD player. Three other things that I dug out of mothballs lately, things that I've loved and apparently been taken for granted:

* Waylon Jennings "Honky Tonk Heroes". I was actually gonna write a long post on this alone, then found that Perfect Sound Forever had done it much better, and with actual research. Friends and I back in Colorado were big Billy Joe Shaver devotees, and this is (almost) all Waylon playing Shaver's songs. And god does it sound good. My father listened to Jennings a lot when I was a kid; this was the album that finally brought me full circle on that. And it's kind of good to realize after reading the PSF article that the one song I never dug on the album was actually pushed by the label. The universe seems so much clearer now. I'll probably be digging out Shaver's "Old Five and Dimers Like Me" album soon as well -- the writer's takes on the same songs.

* Kiss It Goodbye "She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not". It's kind of stupid to classify this a rediscovery because I still wear a ratty old KitG longsleeve more than a 36-year-old guy really should. But I hadn't listened to this in a long time. When I was younger I think I was secretly a little disappointed in this because I expected it to sound like a mix of Rorschach and Fixation-era Deadguy, only better... and it did, and did sound better, but not in the ways I expected. Now? Yeah, it's overwrought, but so is most of the stuff that I listened to between 1989 and, oh, last year. Great album. "Sick Day" is up there on the Greg list of favorite hardcore songs ever.

* The Jesus Lizard "Liar". At some point along the line, I convinced myself that "Goat" was a superior album. I was so, so wrong. Monumental album. I started disregarding them at some point because, I dunno, "Down" didn't grab me and then they signed to a major label, which I really cared about at one point. As is often the case, I was wronger than the president of Wrongistan.

All great stuff. All make up for my recent attempt to get back into the Blues Explosion, which went sadly awry.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Albania Hockey Watch

Maybe this can be a recurring feature! Let's ask the Society for International Hockey Research (of which I'm a proud member) about Albanian hockey...

No ice rinks and no ice hockey played in the country.


Oh.

Well, anyway. Desperately looking for something good after the Blues went down 2-0 to the Canucks (the Canucks!), I did some reading on Blues prospect Aaron Palushaj (now playing for Peoria) and discovered: dude is Albanian! This is, natch, awesome news for me and other Albaniaphiles, although reading further in a story it talks about how he passed up an Albania vacation, which shows some poor judgment, in my opinion.

He looks like a pretty certain bet to make the NHL, where he'd be (as far as I know - if anyone knows of others, please tell me) the second Albanian-heritage player in the league, after ... Tie Domi. Domi's a lot to make up for, so please join me in cheering for Palushaj to succeed, and we're going to add him to the PPA Ring of Fame. (Ring of Fame does not actually exist)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

I Could Follow You and Search the Rubble


The Peachtree Medical Arts Building, seen last week -- previously seen here. Still standing, not exactly standing strong. The building to its left in the earlier photo is now a big crater. Not really sure what's going on with the building. On the one hand, the fact that it's still standing could be construed as a positive sign. On the other, development going on around it could go the other way.

* * *

Spring has finally officially hit here, after fits and starts and the occasional snow. As my friend Nixy and I were sitting at the Park Tavern last night, enjoying a swell white wine and watching the sun go down over Piedmont Park, my parents called from Boulder -- where they had about eight inches of snow. It's rare that I'm glad to be here instead of there, but last night it felt good to be young and in Atlanta.

And an added benefit for you, the reader: when I finally got home the wine sent me into a deep slumber, so you were spared the dimly-remembered and probably incomprehensible post I'd dreamed up about former Houston Astros catcher Eddie Taubensee and how he represented some great universal something-or-other.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Little Late

It would have been nice to get this out before the playoffs actually started, but: when I announced to the world my boo-hissery over the NHL playoffs, I had sort of written off the St. Louis Blues' comeback. They threw me, though, and now the team of my pre-Avalanche love is in and going up against (and losing to) the Canucks. So hey, go Blues. I'll bring the Pronger jersey out of mothballs. Somewhere there's a picture of a much younger me wearing a circa-1992 Blues jersey and standing in a California parking lot; I'd post that for good luck, but I'm too lazy to dig it out. Just pretend it's here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Here Comes A Regular

Went to a friend's birthday party Friday night, and got fairly drunk. Usually this wouldn't be noteworthy, but post-Year Zero in the new Healthy Era, I haven't been out that much. I planned to stay for a beer or two, but then it started raining heavily, and I didn't want to leave in the rain. Then it started hailing heavily and I didn't want to leave in the hail. Then more rain, and by that point beers seemed to be regenerating magically, and how this all ends is that I blathered a whole lot and felt like shit all day Saturday. It was great. Just like old times!

The party was held at Solstice, a little place that I've heard of but never been to -- it's a little out of my normal roaming range. It's cool, though (apparently too cool to have a website, near as I can tell) -- seemed like a neighborhood joint with lots of friendly regulars, kind of hippieish/funky in a way that makes me Boulder-nostalgic (though with better music playing -- nary a Phish tune to be heard), good beer list, good wine list, lots of coffee drinks. If it were within walking distance, I'd go several times weekly.

Another point in its favor: no smoking inside. I hate to admit it, given how much bar culture has shaped the last 15 years of my life, but non-smoking is a big plus these days. I'm more sensitive to smoke now and if I can find a place where it's verboten, great.

So the problem: the two places where I've spent the most time in the last few years, at least since the Eclipse di Sol era ended, are Manuel's and Atkins Park -- both smoking. (Both have non-smoking rooms, but those are kind of... the kids' table, I guess.) Now, I'm still going to both, of course. But probably not as much. So I need to find a new standby local.

As far as I can tell, there are three real contenders:

* The Bookhouse Pub. Pluses: great beer selection. Only a few blocks from my place. Kind of hip and adult at the same time (i.e. no hordes of Georgia State kids, no golf tees behind ears). Good food, some of it healthy. Book theme, which obviously is a big hit in these parts. Minuses: doesn't open 'til 5, which is a bummer if I want lunch.

* Original El Taco. Pluses: good food, though I might get tired of Mexican kind of quickly. Really friendly staff. Open-air patio. Almost exactly one mile from my house, so if I walk up and back, hey, that's two miles. Wine selection is limited but everything I've had has been really good. Minuses: again, not open for lunch. Beer selection is not so great.

* Porter Beer Bar. Pluses: astonishing beer selection. Great food. Nifty bar area. Open days. Minuses: a bit longer of a walk, so it's not a momentary decision. Had a pretty awful Bloody Mary there. Kind of pricey.

Atlantans: any places in the Va-Hi/Poncey area I'm missing? This is, of course, largely an exercise in boredom -- I can easily go to all these places (and still devote considerable love to Manuel's and Atkins). And I will. But if I had to guess, eventually I'll end up at the Bookhouse most often.

* * *

#32 -- "Ghostwritten" by David Mitchell

God help us if Thomas L. Friedman ever comes across Mitchell's novels; having now read both this one and "Cloud Atlas," it's obvious Mitchell is a sucker for interconnectedness.

This (his first novel) reads like a warm-up for "Cloud Atlas" -- it's roughly the same idea, a bunch of loosely-connected stories (fringe characters from one become major players in another) spanning the world. Eventually it's all brought together, in an ending that's pretty unsatisfactory. But up until then, the stories are really good. Plenty of variation in tone and voice, all very good. One -- the last, in fact, before we get into the endgame -- tells the story of a woman fleeing nasty government agents, and despite that thriller plot, it's such a freaking beautiful celebration of all that is good and wonderful about life that I almost teared up. But I have a manly reputation to uphold.

After all that greatness, like I said, the ending felt like one big eh. I almost would have preferred the tales stay separate with their minor links, but then I'd probably complain that there was no center. No-win situation.

Anyway, really liked it. Not as much as "Cloud Atlas," but I was surprised to find that I didn't mind Mitchell using the same setup -- in fact, if he does this with all his novels, I really wouldn't be put off at all. He does the interconnectedness bit very well. It's obvious enough that you won't be distracted trying to find the references, but not so obvious that you feel like he's winking at you. He's got a couple more out there and I'll be tracking those down.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Red Wings Suck

Inappropriate title? Perhaps. But between rooting for the Spartans last night and reading the next book, this has been probably my most pro-Michigan week since the last time I visited. The only way it could be moreso is if I'd been playing the Laughing Hyenas all week (I haven't: it's been Mastodon, Aimee Mann, Dirty Three time here). So for balance, I need to remind the world: the Detroit Red Wings do, indeed, suck, regardless of what it may say in the standings.

That out of the way:

#31 -- "Thunder City" by Loren D. Estleman

This is the most recent in the Detroit series that started with "Whiskey River"; in the afterword, Estleman indicates it's probably the last, while leaving that open to backtracking. It actually (I'm pretty sure) takes place chronologically earlier than the rest. It was the only one I hadn't read, that I know for sure.

If I were reasonably confident of living to 160, I'd set aside a month sometime and read all of Estleman's Detroit books -- I have a feeling that such a reading would be a pretty great experience. Reading them one at a time over a space of 16 or 17 years, you don't get the same shared world feeling. But I doubt I'll live to 160, and I've got too many other unread books to knock off the stack.

I say this because I felt like I was reading a part of a larger work, here. It's good but it doesn't feel like it has a center; it seems like a side trip. Part of the problem is that there isn't a tremendous amount of suspense involved. The main thrust of the book is Henry Ford's operations in the early part of the century. Ford did, indeed, succeed. I don't think I'm ruining anything for anyone, telling you that part.

That kind of makes it sound like I didn't like it, and that's not the case. There's plenty more going on here (though a surprising lack of crime, given that this is the Detroit Crime Series). It's quite good, and I hope that the series isn't indeed over (though it's been ten years since this one now). It just left me wanting a bit more.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Sunday in the South

One of the benefits living down here is that it's usually really nice in April, but the weather forecasts say there may be snow tomorrow. At the very least, it'll be cold (won't make it into the 50s). It's been raining intermittently today, keeping me inside on one of my off days. Bah humbug.

#30 -- "The Road to Kosovo" by Greg Campbell

If I'd been a little speedier I could have hit #30 in March, giving me an average of 10 books per month for the first three months, and establishing me as a grade-A nerd. But I missed out.

I didn't really expect to like this, and it lingered on my shelves for a really long time. It's not usually referred to among the top books on the 1990s conflicts, and it was published by Westview Press (of Boulder!), which usually runs a bit more scholarly than suits my taste.

Surprise, surprise: this is really good. It's a blend of personal narrative, history, and analysis, and all three are done well. Campbell is both sympathetic and cynical without going too far into either. He's got a sly and dry wit that suits the material well and is never inappropriate. His experiences in a nasty time in a scary part of the world are played down; he never comes across as bragging. I was engrossed, and I learned some new stuff about the region -- no mean feat after going through my Balkan bookshelf.

Add to all of this, Campbell is or was in the Boulder area (he was in Longmont when I lived there last), and we actually have some mutual acquaintances, so I really do suck for never trying to meet the guy. Bah, again.