Friday, May 30, 2014

Chop Chop by Simon Wroe - Book Review

Chop, Chop by Simon Wroe (Penguin Press, 2014, 288 pages, $26.95/$12.99) is a coming of age and reconciliation novel set in a marginal restaurant called The Swan in Camden Town, a trendy portion of the borough of Camden in London. Monocle, the narrator, fresh out of a mid-grade university with a degree in literature, finds himself estranged from his estranged parents, at loose ends, and looking for a job. He lands precariously at The Swan as commis (the lowest rung on the fine kitchen ladder), a bar with a full kitchen and a staff of misfits, in almost every sense of the word. The book is, at times, very funny, in an often dark sort of way, and sad, as we follow the lonely outcast Monocle seeking to find a real self. Overlaying the life and times of a restaurant chef lies the mysterious, soul-destroying death of Sam, Monocle's golden-boy older brother and the decline of his parents' marriage, as his father, once a professional golfer descends into lassitude and gambling, eventually deserting his once wealthy wife. This first novel contains much promise within a carefully structured and compelling story of love, loss, and redemption.

The Swan is inhabited by a group of damaged men and women brought together in a kitchen that may be the last resort. The chef, Bob, is a sadistic bully who punishes with fire and ice while kowtowing to the Fat Man, the evil bully whose danger and mystery bring raw danger to the entire operation. Ramilov, Racist Dave, Dibdin, and the beautiful and mysterious Heather round out the cooking staff while two, perhaps, south Asians populate the plonge, the washing area. The Fat Man appears periodically to consume huge amounts of the menu without either joy or appreciation. The rumor that he may be a restaurant critic keeps the staff serving him their best. Meanwhile, Monocle watches, observes, and learns the ways of the kitchen, many of which sent me to the thesaurus or Wikipedia to sort out their functions. At home, Monocle's parents continue to decline, sunk in Sam's loss and their own inability to deal with the world, until Monocle's father leaves home and moves into his tiny room with him.

Structurally, the novel is very interesting. Individual stories of the characters are slowly and carefully revealed into an organic whole, while seeming to remain manic, almost inadvertent. Things happen rather than being caused. Menace, even disaster, looms over the enterprise, while both Ramilov and Racist Dave comment from some external place in Monocle's writing of his novel, for, above all, Monocle is the literature major working desperately to emerge as a major novelist through experiencing the world. As with so many novels, ChopChop is the story of a literary journey towards fulfillment. Wroe's control of his character is complete enough that the reader allows the story to happen without too much questioning of its manic craziness.

Simon Wroe

Simon Wroe is a freelance journalist and former chef. He writes about food for Prospect magazine and art and culture for The Economist, and has contributed articles and features to a wide range of publications, including Private Eye, The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, and The Evening Standard. He is thirty years old and lives in London, and this is his first novel.

Chop, Chop by Simon Wroe (Penguin Press, 2014, 288 pages, $26.95/$12.99) is an engaging, funny, and thought provoking through the nooks and crannies of the kitchen, the mind, and the spirit. Watching Monocle learn to come to terms with the life issues confronting him is compelling and warming. With the role played by celebrity chefs who specialize at intimidating growing chefs, it also an eminently believable tale. I received the book as an electronic galley from the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at 100 Years by George Will - Book Review

A Nice Little Place on the North Side:Wrigley Field at 100 Years by George Will (Random House, 2014, 226 pages, $26.00) celebrates the 100th anniversary of the opening of Wrigley Field, one of the last remaining old baseball parks, and the ongoing futility of the woebegone Chicago Cubs, a baseball team that hasn't won a World Series since 1908 and not appeared in it since 1945. Despite a storied early history and plenty of fine players who have graced Wrigley Field, this is an unparalleled record of futility, which is belied by the ability of Wrigley Park and the Cubs to bring customers through the gates to enjoy an afternoon, during years of day baseball long after lights were installed elsewhere. Will is most often noted as one of the deans of newspaper column writing, his conservative take graced by elegant writing and, often, close analysis. Beyond that, his passion for baseball in general and the Chicago Cubs in particular is unmatched. He is an elegant writer, filled with both facts and insights in both areas. A Nice Little Place on the North Side is an intriguing, yet maddening, work which presents a good read, although it does not reach the excellence of his previous baseball book, Men at Work. I haven't read his other baseball book, Bunts.

Wrigley Field

Will has a marvelous eye for detail, a penchant for history, and an ear for the unusual circumstance. He uses all three qualities to good effect in this book. Nevertheless, there's a maddeningly strange feel for the unusual coincidence that I found reminiscent of Bill Stern (1907 - 1971), one of my childhood's most treasured catalogers of the strange and unusual in sport. As Stern might have, and perhaps even did, Will tells who the Cubs player was that played in the last game in which Babe Ruth hit a home run and the first game in which Henry Aaron hit his first home run (Answer: Phil Cavaretta). Other pieces of interesting trivia are the intriguing relationships between Jack Ruby, Ray Kroc, and Ronald Reagan, with Wrigley Field. He also tells about the famed double play combination of Tinker to Evers to Chance, who weren't as good as the poem that tells their story and who wouldn't even talk to each other. If I remember correctly, Stern told this story, too. Will's writing is always elegant, cultivated and sometimes convoluted, as he explores the nooks and crannies of being a Cubs fan with insight and depth from the perspective of a fan as well as a Princeton Ph.D. who also attended Oxford University.

Hack Wilson

In many ways Will, like his alter ego the distinguished political columnist and social commentator, never veers very far away from his roots. He's at his best when he writes about history. He talks about the rise of Chicago as the engine of commerce and growth in the Midwest while pretty thoroughly trashing one of my once favorite poets, Carl Sandburg. He suggests that Wrigley Field itself might be the cause of the Cubs' incompetence through the years as he details the career of Phil Wrigley, son of the team's founder and long-time owner of the Cubs. Wrigley, who didn't much like baseball, saw Wrigley Field as a park in the midst of the city where people could come for a day in the sun in a park-like environment while a baseball game took place before them. He cared more for the fan experience than he did about building a winning ball club.

Ernie Banks

Will makes considerable hash out of two important elements central to the nature of baseball in America: race and beer. In his chapter on race in baseball, Will talks about the not charming history of race relations in Chicago, including the placement of Wrigley Field on the North Side, a largely white enclave. He points out that the largest crowd ever to fill Wrigley Field, at the time, came to see Jackie Robinson's first game there in 1947. He lavished praise on the black people who came to this event in their Sunday best and cheered with lusty restraint, the way he might want the good black people of Chicago to present themselves to a largely white audience. Finally, however, he ends up trashing Ernie Banks as a mediocre fielder who became Chicago's most beloved player, despite a career with a mostly loosing team. Somehow, Banks emerges more as a symbol of futility, almost an embarrassment, than the Hall of Fame member he is and deserves to be. Will's chapter on beer suggests that attendance at Wrigley Field is more responsive to the price of beer there than to the record of the team, supporting the allegation with extensive research, as he details some of the history of beer.

George F. Will - Baseball Fan

George F. Will is one of the most widely read writers in the world, with his twice-weekly syndicated column appearing in more than five hundred newspapers and online news sources. He is a Fox News contributor and the author of thirteen books, including Men at WorkWith a Happy Eye But . . .BuntsThe Woven Figure, and One Man’s America. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary and the Bradley Prize for outstanding intellectual achievement, he lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Will is at his best when he deals with pocket profiles of people like Hack Wilson, P.K. Wrigley, Ernie Banks, and minor players, Wrigley Field itself, the City of Chicago, and the Cubs. He is less convincing when his concerns within baseball overlap his political and social ideology, for instance in race. Nice Little Place on theNorth Side: Wrigley Field after 100 Years by George Will (Random House, 2014, 226, $25.00) turns out to be mostly a catalog of failure – bad players, quirky happenstance, bad management, lack of ambition, and just bad play. How all this became lovable remains a mystery. I recommend this book for sports lovers with at least a small taste for the literary in their sports reading. The book is extremely well-documented and filled with interesting narrative. Will, however, has a penchant for trenchant cuteness. For instance, he mentions that April is, indeed, the cruelest month, without mention of T.S. Eliot (the great American poet and Anglophile), expecting his readers immediately to recognize the reference. Despite lapses like this, the book is mostly a delight for literate baseball fans. The book was provided to me by the publisher as an electronic galley. I read it on my Kindle.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival 2014 - Saturday & Sunday: Review

The Campground

As Saturday dawned clear and chilly, the ground continued to solidify after Thursday's torrential rains and the air became increasingly warmer, although never as warm as the music itself. Attendees at Gettysburg can count on at least some rain, but they can also count on one of the finest and varied lineups offered anywhere, a broad range of vendors selling tasty, and even healthy food, and a genuine respect for each other among people attending the festival leading to a tolerant and enjoyable environment. This was somewhat marred by the stubborn insistence from one surly man, who continued smoking a really strong smelling stogie while people all over the area were covering their noses or seeking to move away from the truly objectionable odor. Fortunately, such incidents are rare at Gettysburg, a festival that demonstrates beyond doubt that Family Friendly and the presence of adult beverages need not lead to misbehavior or chaos when people show respect for each other. As usual, bands appearing on more than one day will only be covered once.

Pete Wernick, Don Rigsby & Friends

Pete Wernick and Don Rigsby have known each other for a long time, and both have a deep love for classic, early bluegrass. In their shows they carefully mine this deep catalog of Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin as well as their own songs. They were ably supported by Ira Gitlin and Troy Engle.

Pete Wernick

Don Rigsby

Troy Engle

Ira Gitlin

The Boxcars
Adam Steffey

From one end of the line to the other, the Boxcars put some of the best instrumentalists in the business on the bluegrass stage. Their record for awards at IBMA is a testimony to their excellence. They perform a good deal of material written by singer/guitarist Keith Garrett, and it's good stuff. All five members of the band lead active and productive lives, either in music or in other endeavors outside the Boxcars.

Keith Garrett

Ron Stewart

Harold Nixon

John Bowman

The Grascals

One element that has distinguished The Grascals since their inception is the spirit of play that inhabits their performances. The addition of Adam Haynes on fiddle has returned that spirit to the band as he both plays the music and inhabits the role of joyful participant..The Grascals hit the stage with huge energy and enthusiasm, continually selling themselves and their work. They sing and play a combination of classic bluegrass heavy on the Osborne Brothers and Jimmy Martin along with carefully chosen songs by people like the late Harley Allen, who seemed to manufacture hits to order. Singer/Songwriter Jamie Johnson, whose musical roots include time spent with The Boys from Indiana contributes good, heartfelt songs. "Me and John and Paul" is an effective song about loyalty and loss which they dedicate to our armed forces with heartfelt commitment. They have also been active in support of Musicians Against Childhood Cancer's work to support St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

Terry Eldredge

Kristin Scott Benson

 Jamie Johnson & Terry Smith

Adam Haynes & Danny Roberts

Danny Roberts

Adam Haynes

Tim Finch, Eastman Rep & Me with My New Eastman

Vendor - Appalachian Guitars

Russ Carson & Andy Leftwich Warm Up
for Skaggs' Show

Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder

Ricky Skaggs has had an enormous career in both bluegrass and country music garnering fourteen Grammy Awards as well as other recognition. On his return to bluegrass, he committed himself to re-introducing the great music of "Mr. Monroe" to a new audience unfamiliar with the man and his story. He presented Monroe's music with verve, wonderful skill, and differences in scale and interpretation for a less rural audience. He constantly seeks to add depth and breadth of musical outreach to his shows while preserving and honoring the best of traditional roots music. His fast paced show features much of that great early bluegrass laced with the virtuoso play of ace flatpicker Cody Kilby, a kind of guitar playing that hardly existed in Monroe's heyday, as well as Andy Leftwich on fiddle. The addition of young Russ Carson on banjo adds another canon to the band. Skaggs brings a very pleasant onstage personality, a still fine voice and real excellence to the mix, along with a mystique that brings day trippers in the gate. That's all a combination hard to dismiss.

Ricky Skaggs

Paul Brewster

Andy Leftwich

Cody Kilby

Scott Mulvahill

Russ Carson

Ricky Skaggs

Two additional bands followed Skaggs, and repeated on Sunday, where I'll pick them up. The chill air and the long day were simply too much for me, and we toddled off to bed.

A Moment of Quiet Contemplaton

Sundays at Gettysburg belong to Dry Branch Fire Squad, The Seldom Scene, and those members of the audience seeking to complete this four day extravaganza, I almost wrote marathon, with a day combining elements of worship, joy, nostalgia, along with introductions to new and interesting younger bands.  Last year we heard The Steel Wheels for the first time.This year, four young and interesting bands were included in the Sunday lineup, bands worth watching for their present accomplishments or their promise of future excellence.

Dry Branch Fire Squad

Dry Branch Fire Squad has been at every Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival since the beginning back in the first festival in 1978. They performed three sets this weekend, two on Saturday and their traditional Sunday morning gospel set. Their delivery of primitive old gospel tunes in a seemingly simple, unadorned manner satisfies spiritual needs of some of the audience, while it also appeals aesthetically  to the lovers of the musically complex counterpoint many of the old hymns use. Ron Thomason usually offers a challenging understanding of Jesus words applied to a modern setting. This morning he asked, incredulously, whether any voter could possibly have asked anyone in Congress to reduce the benefits American soldiers receive, while relating this to the first amendment to the Constitution (freedom of speech, assembly, and religion) and the ninth (rights not enumerated are reserved to the people). He always finishes his morning gospel show by asking the audience to stand and join him in singing, "If I Could Just Touch the Hem of His Garment." As this lovely hymn drew to a close, I looked around, through the gloss in my own eyes, to see many others wiping their eyes, too.

Ron Thomason

Brian Aldridge

Danny Russell

Tom Boyd

Ron Thomason

Rebecca Frazier and Hit & Run

Rebecca Frazier and Hit & Run are one of two bands this week at Gettysburg that stood out for me as a surprise of the festival, a band to keep an eye on. Rebecca Frazier is not only a fine singer, but a very good flat picker, a nice touch in a genre where many lead singers are better at holding an instrument than they are at playing it. She writes much of her own material and selects good songs for herself to sing from the bluegrass catalog. Her voice is clear and  pleasing to the ear. Her band is young and hot. While her husband, John Frazier, is currently on tour with Yonder Mountain String Band, Jarod Walker, fresh degree in hand not obscuring his very fine and creative mandolin play, filled in. The remainder of the band is strong and more than competent. Listen to Rebecca Frazier's work, and ask your favorite promoter to book her.

Rebecca Frazier

 Jarod Walker

Royal Masat

Kyle Tuttle

Christian Ward

The Howlin' Brothers

I wrote about the Howlin' Brothers on my Friday coverage, too. Suffice it to say they're my other surprise band of the festival - varied in genre selection, moving with skill and comfort from bluegrass to blues to cajun, and more. They're a pure delight - a breath a fresh air! 

Ian Craft

Glen Plasse

Jared Green

Seldom Scene

The Seldom Scene never mail in a performance; they're always entertaining, melodious...a joy to hear and experience. On Sunday, however, there seemed to be a very special spirit embedded in their fine show. Perhaps it was their insistence on playing less familiar works from the vast Scene catalog as well as extensive material from their very fine new CD out on Smithsonian Records, what Dudley Connell likes to refer to as "deep catalog." But even more touching was the sight of young Chris Eldridge playing guitar beside his father Ben, the only remaining member of the original Seldom Scene, on banjo. The essence of their mutual love and respect affected the entire band, creating moments of pure joy and good fun, the qualities which make this such a special and unusual band. Longtime Gettysburg attendees know that the festival isn't even near over until they've heard The Scene's long set early on Sunday afternoon.

Ben & Chris Eledridge

Ben Eldridge

Chris Eldridge

Dudley Connell

Lou Reid

Fred Travers

Ronnie Simpkins

Flatt Lonesome

Flatt Lonesome has shown steady growth since they emerged from Callahan, FL a few years ago. Their vocal blend is strong, but their stage presence and presentation remains lacking. The band continues with awkward pauses between songs and just doesn't seem to be having much fun on stage. The have adopted or fallen into the habit of attacking each note by sliding into it. Not knowing, for sure, whether this was a bluegrass feature, I wrote Pete Wernick for his opinion of the practice. Pete, not responding to the specifics of this band, wrote, "This is actually a complex subject that can be best answered by research -- that is, checking recordings of the most respected/popular bluegrass singers. It would actually make a great term paper at one of the "bluegrass colleges" to see which singers "do it" and which don't. My first guess would be that it's not commonly done by the people considered the best bluegrass singers. The practice is called "scooping" a note, and is generally frowned on. For instance, in a recording situation, a producer would typically have a singer re-sing a note that was scooped. On the other hand, Lester Flatt had it as part of his style. I've definitely heard good singers do it, so I'm reluctant to infer "there's a rule". I personally prefer it when a singer hits the note dead-on, then maybe ornaments it on the tail end. Ralph Stanley, Jimmy Martin, Flatt, and others do that regularly. Ralph and Jimmy were great admirers of George Jones (who, a deejay once complained to me, "he can't sing just ONE NOTE!"), who was famous for tailing off a word with a quick string of notes.I think the reason listeners like it when a singer hits (starts) a note dead-on is that it shows command (that is, it's hard, and takes skill to do it). Scooping often seems to me like "hedging your bet", like getting it on the green and putting in from a nearer position. I've heard a not-yet-great singer describe his tendency to scoop as "a fear thing"... and when Rhonda or someone just nails a note right off the bat, it can be dramatic and thrilling even, like a line drive." Flatt Lonesome is young and developing. They have worked hard and their highlights are still before them.

Kelsi Robertson Harrigill

Buddy Robertson

Charli Robertson

Paul Harrigill

Michael Stockton

Dominic Illingworth

The Clay Hess Band

Someone has to close a festival. Doing so late on a Sunday afternoon must be a dispiriting and difficult task for a band. Clay Hess, dead tired after a long drive in from a Saturday gig in Chicago, proved himself to be more than up to the task. Clay is one of the finest flatpickers around, has a good voice, and writes some good songs, too. He has become an engaging and thoughtful emcee for his band, spreading the work around while offering amusing insights into their process. Irl Hees, with his ever-present toothpick, is a masterful, animated bass player, adding life, deep experience, and a powerful beat to the mix. Clay's son Brennan is beginning carry his weight, and can only be expected to improve. After the set, which received two encores from the small, but enthusiastic crowd remaining, Clay stayed at the merch table after selling some CD's and instructional DVD's to allow two fans to record how he plays particular licks. His level of professionalism is as high as his love for performing. 

Clay Hess

 Irl Hees

Zach Gilmer

Nick Keen

Brennan Hess

Clay Hess

The Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival continues to be a must attend event not only in the Middle Atlantic States, but in competition with all other festivals worthy of national notice. The vendors are among the best anywhere, supplying a wide variety of tasty, and even healthy foods, while there are plenty of craft and equipment vendors available for those who like to shop. I even broke down and bought a new Eastman guitar from vendor Tim Finch, who's a Gettysburg regular. Granite Hill Resort Campground is an ideal site for a festival, large and expansive with a wide variety of kinds of campsites from full hookup to primitive. Some regulars have, over the years, developed virtual tent villages which they recreate and inhabit twice a year. The workshops are always good, especially the all-star jams. While the lineup for the August 14 - 17 festival has yet to be published, you can be sure it will also be terrific, including, we understand, the Del McCoury Band as well as Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top Express. There may even still be a few developed campsites available, and there is always lots of rough camping. Kids Academy is a feature in August. We'll see you again next May.