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.