Saturday, June 28, 2014

50 States - Iowa

In an earlier entry of the 50 States series, I pointed out that the tourism office for Nebraska had its work cut out for it. However, its neighbor Iowa is perhaps underachieving. For a state with a reputation as a boring cornfield, the region had a lot more to offer than I would have guessed.

We used Des Moines as our home base. Des Moines was a surprisingly cosmopolitan place with a delightful riverfront park and an incredible amount of public art.


One must-see for me was the Pomodoro sphere at a regional insurance company's headquarters building which also had a lobby full of avant garde works.


Des Moines is also the state capitol and the grounds of its state house are crowded with the usual kitsch like replica Liberty Bells and Statues of Liberty but they also have lots of oddly suggestive metaphorical statuary.


We took a day trip across the state and our first stop was at the Maytag Cheese dairy which makes restaurant grade bleu cheese. The dairy is owned by descendants of the founder of the appliance company with the same name but is not affiliated with the washer makers.


We ended up in another area not coincidentally named after an appliance manufacturer, the Amana colonies. These towns were the homes of a communitarian religious sect where there was no private property. Many of the former communal houses still exist and the common dining halls have been converted to homestyle German influenced restaurants.


But perhaps Iowa's biggest attraction even many years after the book and movie peaked are the Bridges of Madison County. There are seven of them and it is nearly a full day to hunt them all down. But they are worth the effort.

In addition to the bridges themselves, the town of Winterset is undeniably quaint. You can even sit at the same lunch counter stool Clint Eastwood sat on.


Iowa was a decidedly delightful destination, well worth a stop in one's travels.

Monday, June 16, 2014

50 States - Tennessee

Of the 50 states, our very first trip to Tennessee was a getaway vacation to the Pigeon Forge region of the Great Smokies. It was our last fling before the birth of our son. It would be over a decade before we made it back through again.

Long before I became a bourbon snob, I went to the Jack Daniels distillery, infamously in the dry county of Moore County, Tennessee. This was my first tour of a major distillery and it had a lot of folksy charm. You could see the wood palates being made into charcoal for the famous charcoal filtering. Said filtering being about the only substantial difference between a Tennessee whiskey and a bourbon, the former being technically a sub-class of the latter. 


This was in 2003 and I was accompanying my wife to a teacher conference in Nashville. Nashville itself is the country music capitol and noplace more so than along Broadway where over a dozen bars have up to four bands a night working mostly for tips. It's a music smorgasbord. Just a block off of Broadway is the historic Ryman Auditorium which looks like a church from the outside but was designed from the start as a music venue. Part of the fun of watching the TV show Nashville is spotting places in town I've seen.

Nashville also has some unique tourist attractions for specific definitions of 'unique'. The oddest is the full scale replica of the Parthenon in Greece. This building is a recreation of the ruins most people are familiar with down to the statues on the inside.


A few years later we passed through Tennessee again, this time stopping in Memphis which has a musical history of its own. And the most famous spot in Memphis is Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. As perhaps the ultimate tacky tourist attraction, Graceland is so frozen in time as to be a historical document. It's tough to pick which room is the most over the top but my money goes on the media room with three TVs, one for each network.


And that only touches on the tip of all Tennessee has to offer. There is blues on Beale Street and the mountain getaways of Pigeon Forge. If you want good food, strong booze, or plentiful music, the state has something for everybody.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

BooksFirst: April-May 2014

Books Bought

Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith

Audiobooks Bought
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
Lunatics by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel
Screw Everyone by Ophira Eisenberg
One More Thing by B.J. Novak
Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Books Read

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk  by Ben Fountain
The Hammer of Witches by Shana Miwalski
Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis
Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith

Books Heard

Swamplandia by Karen Russell
The Fault In Our Stars by John Greene
Lunatics by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel


One of the most recommended books of 2013 from the podcasts I listen to was Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk  by Ben Fountain. As the title suggests, the story takes place at a football game, a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game shortly after the beginning of the Iraq War to be exact. Billy Lynn is one member of a squad being honored during a halftime performance by a pre-break-up Destiny's Child. 

The technical tour de force is that with a very minimum of flashbacks, the entire novel takes place between the arrival and the departure of Billy and his fellow squad members at the stadium. And a lot happens in between. It's almost unfair to go into all the incidents and running stories but they involve cheerleaders, Hollywood agents, greedy sports team owners, and jingoistic fans. 

The only complaint, and one that I was aware of because of reviews beforehand, is that Billy as a nineteen-year-old enlistee is perhaps a bit too sophisticated in his worldview. As a first person narrative, he thinks A LOT. Also, some of the irony from hindsight is just a little too pat. But the book is a great look at a rather specific time and place.

Shana Miwalski is the second member of the website whose book I've read. John Perich has written two thrillers, reviewed here and here. Miwalski is working in a different genre, young adult historical fantasy. In her Hammer of Witches world, the era of Christopher Columbus has real magic which is being suppressed by an organization parallel to the never-expected Spanish Inquisition. 

Like Harry Potter, Baltasar Infante is a presumed orphan who is unaware of his powers and destiny until he joins an expedition to the yet unfounded New World. There he must battle multiple other magical factions. 

The book is strongest in Spain as young Baltasar figures out his true heritage. The story bogs down when they all reach Hispaniola and the magic starts flying fast and furious. The magic itself is clever and internally consistent but there is no real explanation of how it remains so hidden if it is so powerful and widespread.

Columbus as a character is cut down the middle between the noble explorer of grade school history and the evil genocide of, say, Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch (a book I have tried multiple times to finish). By being ambiguous on Columbus, it pulls its punches a little. There are a couple of strong female characters in the book and it is a quick read but I'm not sure it really breaks new ground.

Anything by Michael Lewis is worth reading and Flash Boys is no exception. It is an exceptionally technical story about how a stock trader discovered that this orders were being front-runned by high frequency trading (HFT) programs that were using advantages measured in nanoseconds. It's a maxim that the real scandal is not always what is illegal but what is perfectly legal. And front-running is not only perfectly legal, it seems like the means to do it were deliberately baked into the system.

In some ways this book is a good counterpoint to his very first book Liars' Poker in that it shows just how much the world of finance has changed in just a few decades. Rather than loud mouthed Big Swinging Dicks, the real money is made by secretive quants running obscure algorithms to make low margin high volume trades. 

That front-running is intrinsically unfair seems obvious but regulators and brokers seem oddly indifferent to it. The one hero is Brad Katsuyama who not only discovers how he is being sniped but sets up an exchange designed to deliberately negate the advantages the HFT programs have. 

The book is fairly short and often reads like a padded out magazine article which may be what it started out as. There are certain break points where the topic and point of view change. And the book should be generating more outrage than it has.

Another light fantasy is Alison Wonderland which I bought on my Kindle based on some good blurbs and a deep discount from Amazon. I am a sucker for Lewis Carroll related whimsy but this novel only had the thinnest of connections, mostly the character's name.  

Alternating between first person and third person segments, it tells of a woman working for an odd detective agency that gets tangled up with an incompetent secret conspiracy. Also involved are genetic experiments gone wrong, baby-snatching new age hippies, and un-whacky neighbors. 

The novel keeps crossing the line between absurd and merely silly. The improbable events stack up without ever really paying off. Characters drift in and out and random. And none of the story threads really tie together. I really tired to like this book but could never just get into the spirit of it.

 Swamplandia is another award-winning novel that came highly praised by sources I respect. But it too had some serious flaws. I love tales from southern Florida but I lean towards the Dave Barry/Carl Hiaasen absurdist branch. Karen Russell's variety of Florida Gothic is much more ochre-colored than the dark humor I prefer.

The story takes place around a tourist attraction which is seedy and run down by even Florida standards. Swamplandia is an alligator wrestling theme park of dubious authenticity which has fallen on hard times. Our heroine, Ava Bigtree goes on a Dante-esque quest to rescue her mentally ill sister from ghosts who may or may not be hallucinations. Meanwhile her brother goes to work at a rival theme park with an equally Dante-esque motif. 

Like Alison Wonderland, it alternates between first person and third person segments which gives it the feel of being two separate stories mashed together. It seems that the Ava parts were expanded from an award-winning short story while the Kiwi sections are original to this novel. 

Part of the difficulty with the novel is the odd jargon and syntax. The Bigtrees call alligators "Seths" and what is amusing at first just becomes eventually tiresome. And the symbolism of Ava's red seth is troublesomely obvious as it is associated with a disturbingly brutal portion of the book. The humor and wry observations don't really make-up for the gut-punching darkness. 

Teen fiction has been dominated by dystopian fantasies like the Hunger Games series (reviewed here and here) but the hottest book of the past couple of years has been the cancer weepie The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. My entry into John Green was through his YouTube Vlog Brothers series which are quickly edited stream of conscience videos. I wasn't too sure how that frantic voice would translate into a novel length story. Very well as it turns out.

The story of the novel and the forthcoming major motion picture is about a teenage girl with near-terminal (if that can be such a thing) cancer who meets a hunky cancer survivor at a support group meeting. But as one might expect, the course of true love doesn't run smooth. You just know someone's going to be crying by the end of the book, most likely the reader. Since I was listening to the audiobook it made for some tough driving in places.

What makes the book different is the humor, which is mostly John Green's voice. Hazel and Augustus have chemistry that just leaps out. Their banter is both witty and heartwarming. One tirade about eggs being unfairly pigeonholed as a breakfast food is hilarious. The book deliberately subverts a lot of the tropes when telling stories about dying teenagers. It's reputation is well-deserved and definitely merits an audience beyond the teenaged girl vlogger audience Green has cultivated.

I've been on a bit of a Dave Barry tear lately and a friend recommended a book he cowrote with Alan Zweibel called Lunatics. The titular crazy men are two soccer dads from suburban Jersey who let a refereeing dispute get way out of hand. And I mean WAAAAY out of hand. When I accused Insane City of not living up to the promise of its title, no such charge will stick with this book. Each situation the two gets more and more outrageous. The point of suspension of disbelief is reached real early in the book and every thing after that gets more and more ludicrous.

The highlight of the book occurs very early and involves a Prius on the George Washington Bridge and a runaway lemur. By the time the various international incidents start occurring, the shark has been jumped.

The majority of the book is told as alternating first person narratives and the two characters do have very distinct personalities. On the audiobook they are read by the two authors which adds quite a good bit of texture. Towards the end when the point of view shifts to news report parodies, it starts to lose its immediacy.

A little Barry goes a long away and Lunatics goes on way too long. 


Friday, May 02, 2014

50 States - Kentucky

Of the 50 states, Kentucky has been featured twice already on this blog in my series of comparisons of bourbon distilleries. Here is Day One and here is Day Two.

The third day never quite got written up because it was just one distillery, Jim Beam. They were tasting Bookers and Red Stag, two brands I have bought on my own since then. The tour was very folksy, a trait I hope they haven't lost in the new visitor center they have built since we went there.


The second day of our stop in Louisville included a tour of Churchill Downs in full preparation for the Kentucky Derby. The place is very impressive and the tour included tons of areas such as the jockey lounge and the luxury boxes that you would never get to see on Derby Day.


In addition to the full Bourbon Trail which consists of the six distilleries we went to (but not Bufflao Trace which we also toured), there is the Urban Borubon Trail in Louisville. This is a long list of bars which serve bourbon and if you visit enough they will send you a tee shirt and a flask. Never one to ignore a challenge we managed to hit enough in two nights to qualify.



Just down the street from our rather large and gorgeous bed and breakfast was even a little dive bar nowhere near the Urban Bourbon Trail but still a good place for a late night drink.


Kentucky might be a great place to visit even if you aren't a bourbon fan, but if you are, it truly is the mother lode.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

50 States - Utah

Even though we have been to all 50 states, that doesn't mean we've stopped traveling. One case in point is Utah. We first went through there in 2006 on our cross country trip where we spent one night in Salt Lake City and did the whole Church Of Latter Day Saints tour. Salt Lake City is one of the cleanest places I've ever been. Even the bums have a certain fresh-faced glow to them. And the LDS tour guides are preternaturally perky.


And the salt flat are the flatest place I've ever been and I used to drive across Florida once a month.


On a later tour of the Southwest, we went from Monument Valley up to Mexican Hat just touch base on the each of the four corners (Four Corners itself was closed but that is another story).


But we still felt we hadn't gotten the full Utah experience so this year's Spring trip was to hit all five of the national parks in Utah. Of the five, Zion was the most gorgeous and lush. Full of steep canyons and thick woods, it was a hiking paradise. The compact limited access park had a well run shuttle service and a simple but gorgeous lodge.


From there it was a fantastically scenic drive to Bryce Canyon. Unlike Zion which is at the bottom of the canyon, Bryce is usually viewed from the top. To see the inside of the canyon, we took one of the tourist mule rides down to the pine tree floor and then back up. Far easier than hiking it but I ended up sore anyways.


Going through Capitol Reef was a last minute audible and allowed us to check of perhaps the least known of the five Utah parks. Put it still had stunning views and marked the transition from semi-arid to deep desert.


Arches National Park in Moab is a big draw for the eponymous arches and they are impressive, both day and night. I particularly fell in love with Skyline Arch, perhaps one of the more under-rated ones.


Less than an hour from Arches is Canyonlands, a far more rugged park which literally does not have running water. We went to the Islands In The Sky section just because it was closest to Moab and were amazed by the views. Canyonlands also has its own arch, Mesa Arch which was the match of any of its cousins down the road.


Utah just has amazing scenery nearly everywhere you look.

Monday, April 14, 2014

50 States - Idaho

It was about this time last year that we visited the penultimate of our 50 states, Idaho. Idaho had lingered long on the list because it's hard to get to and there is not much to see if you are not a hardcore skier. But it turns out there is more to Idaho than meets the eye. Boise in particular is a delightful college town, home to the Boise State Broncos and their signature blue field.


As the capitol of the state, it has the requisite huge capitol building complete with a replica Liberty Bell.


Downtown Boise is rather quaint with old buildings, one of which houses a very prominent drag bar.


Just outside of Boise the Snake River, which seems to snake through most of the state, is home to grand overlooks and raptors.


But most of Idaho is rural at best. One area, the Craters of the Moon National Monument, is so foreboding as to be frightening.



Our last stop in Idaho was at Idaho Falls where a childhood friend of mine has been living for over thirty years.


The town of Idaho Falls had the requisite Mormon Temple as well as a bar that Harrison Ford hangs out in when he is in the area.


Idaho has charm and wonderful scenery but nothing can change how incredibly remote it is.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

50 States - California - Los Angeles

When people think of California, they usually think of Los Angeles. This seems natural since the movie industry is based there and its images such as the Mann Chinese Theater and the Hollywood sign.


LA also has beautiful beaches and the funky side show that is Venice Beach about any time of day.


Even the streets are famous. On Rodeo Drive there is the Beverley Wilshire where Pretty Woman took place and the Whiskey on Sunset Strip where about everything has happened.


I can see why people love LA.

Update: I haven't been back to LA since that trip in 2003 but I've been to lots of other places in California since then. See my comment below for links ot other photos.

50 States - California - Bay Area

California has been described to me by a Californian as a really great country club with pretty steep initiation dues. Of the 50 states, California has the most variety to offer. Nowhere does this seem truer than in central California where there are beaches, mountains, and culture all withing easy purview. Nothing is more emblematic of the wealth of the west coast than San Simeon, the home of Randolph Hearst and the inspiration for Citizen Kane:


Between there and San Francisco, there is amazing natural beauty including elephant seals lolling on the beach and the zen-like beauty of the Lone Cyprus along the Seventeen Mile Drive in Monterey to the pristine vistas of Pebble Beach.


This all eventually leads to San Francisco with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and the chilling isolation of Alcatraz.


From Alacatraz you can see the great skyline of San Francisco itself. And San Francisco itself has the elegance of the Palace of Arts.


All the photos in this post and the accompanying Flickr set where scanned in from our trip in 2002 but I have been back to the San Francisco Bay area many times since and there is always something new to see or explore.