War and Peace.

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace appears on most lists or rankings of the greatest novels ever written; Daniel Burt had it second in his all-time rankings in The Novel 100, and it appears on the Bloomsbury top 100 Classic Novels list as well. Ernest Hemingway considered its passages on war the archetype of writing about combat, and Tolstoy’s contemporaries – Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Goncharov, Levsky – all heaped praise on the novel. Its girth (well over 500,000 words) put me off for years, especially because I found Anna Karenina overlong due to Tolstoy’s lengthy philosophical diversions, but War and Peace sticks to the plot far more faithfully, reserving the Big Thinking stuff for the book’s tiresome Second Epilogue instead.

The war in question is the Napoleonic war, with most of the book’s action taking place in the early 1810s, with Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia taking up much of the second half of the novel. Tolstoy presents us with four families – the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Bezukhovs, and the Kuragins – and puts them through the wringers of war while running them through the usual who’s-marrying-whom plot lines that drove almost every major novel written before the late 1800s. What appears to begin as a trite story of an unexpected inheritance and women chasing the suddenly eligible bachelor becomes a densely woven story of families coping with losses both personal and financial while dealing with upheaval in their aristocratic world. One of the central male characters becomes a tragic hero in the great romantic tradition, while another undergoes multiple spiritual transformations that foreshadow the rise of the Bildungsroman in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Russian, German, and British literature. While Tolstoy’s female characters aren’t as well-developed as the male characters, they’re a little more than just props waiting around for their men to come back from the war or battling to win the affections of the latest heir apparent.

The apparently happy endings of the book’s First Epilogue seem illusory, as the old way of life for the upper classes of Russia is winding down, with Tsar Alexander I moving away from the liberal policies of his early rule to a postbellum period of decreasing political freedoms, presaging the disastrous reign of his younger brother, Tsar Nicholas I. This contrast may also have been Tolstoy’s way of emphasizing the importance of personal and spiritual satisfaction, especially that of the family, rather than the pursuit of power or of material gain, goals he depicts as empty throughout the novel. It’s an awkward conclusion to a grim novel, however, one that relies heavily on historical records – it’s among the earliest historical novels to attempt to accurately capture events of the time period covered, with Napoleon, Alexander I, and many of their leading military commanders appearing in the book as characters, even interacting with Tolstoy’s fictional ones.

Reading a book of this length, even one as plot-driven as War and Peace is (as opposed to the tangent-laden Les Miserables), is a significant commitment of time and attention; it took me 22 days to get through, reading pretty consistently every day, including most of the footnotes and occasional references to other resources so I could keep all the characters straight. (Really, Leo, you had to name two of the characters Nikolai?) I was blown away by Tolstoy’s ability to draft a novel with such a broad scope without letting the story spiral beyond a reader’s ability to follow it. A lot happens to the dozen or so key characters, but nothing so improbable that I felt cheated by the story; if anything, Tolstoy’s adherence to realistic depictions of the battles seemed slow given my experience as a modern reader, where I’m still recovering from an education in books where every chapter ends in a cliffhanger and stuff explodes every few pages. I never found myself forced to continue reading through a tedious section until the second epilogue (a waste of time, largely), but also never got lost in the story or found myself pulling for particular characters. I doubt I’ll ever tell anyone they just have to read War and Peace, but I’d never discourage anyone from trying it.

That completes my run through the Bloomsbury 100 Must-Read Classic Novels, a list of 99 novels all published before 1950, plus the short stories of Chekhov. I could quibble with many titles on the list – the omission of The Master and Margarita and the inclusion of News from Nowhere stands out – but as a primer of great works of western literature, particularly British (42 titles), it’s solid and informative, pushing me to read a number of books I might not have otherwise tackled, and introducing me to some less-known works and authors. War and Peace was also the 89th book I’ve read from the Novel 100, although I don’t plan to finish that list, with the Finnegan’s Wake, the Molloy trilogy, and The Man Without Qualities all among the remaining eleven titles.

Next up: Something a little more recent, Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods, named by author and critic Lev Grossman as one of the ten best novels of the first decade of the 2000s.

Saturday five, 10/18/14.

My second Arizona Fall League scouting post went up earlier this week, and I held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

My review of this year’s Spiel des Jahres winner, the boardgame Camel Up, is up at Paste magazine. I’ll have three more reviews up for them over the next month or so, and my annual boardgame rankings post will go up here on the dish in mid-November.

Now, for the links – and there are a lot this week:

Top Chef, S12E01.

Sorry this post is a day late, but playoffs plus podcast plus Klawchat made for a busy 24 hours.

This season of Top Chef moves to my old hometown of Boston, a great food town with many celebrity chefs and a broad spectrum of ethnic cuisines. But will the contestants have to cook their pasta in dirty water?

* Hey, it’s Richard Blais! I’m a fan of his work, and had the pleasure of meeting him in San Diego this spring at Juniper & Ivy. He’s looking very studious with glasses; if he were a pitcher, we’d say he was cerebral. And he’ll be judging quite a bit, apparently. That’s a good thing, but I just hope we don’t lose any Hugh Acheson as a result.

* We meet some of the chefs, at least some of the contestantswith interesting backgrounds. Katsuji, a Mexican-Japanese chef, runs a kosher taco place in Beverly Hills. Mei Lin is the sous-chef at ink, the LA restaurant run by Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio. Adam was previously at Jean-Georges’ (Vongerichten, but he doesn’t say that because, you know, first-name basis and all) upcoming vegan restaurant, ABC Home, which doesn’t seem to be open yet. Keriann introduces herself in front of anyone by saying she won some world’s greatest young chef award in 2008, which, while true, isn’t quite how you should greet your new housemates. George’s partner is Mike Isabella, former Top Chef All-Stars runner-up. Joy is head chef at a farm-to-table restaurant in Fredericksburg, Virginia, called Foode, not too far from where the Potomac Nats play.

* The big new twist this season: Some Quickfires will be sudden death quickfires. If you lose, you “face” immediate elimination – although that phrasing was deliberate. Anyway, shit just got real.

* Quickfire: A mise en place relay. Four tasks for each of four teams of four. Prep three lobsters, 20 oysters, eight mackerels, and 21 littleneck clams – one chef per task. Each ingredient should take the same amount of time to prep, according to Padma, although given the chefs’ reactions I don’t think they concur. The slowest chef on the slowest team will be “up for elimination.”

* Adam bullies Keriann straight off, trying to claim the right to break down the lobsters. There’s a clear male talking down to female thing here, and Keriann backs down, as I think most women would when confronted with an aggressive and much taller man. However … this is Top Chef, so this may be what we refer to around here as “foreshadowing.”

* I wish we saw more close-ups on the chefs breaking down the lobsters, just for my own education. Mei Lin is just ripping through the big pink cockroaches and finishes first. Meanwhile Adam is struggling to get through his lobsters – who saw that coming?

* Doug, who is short, starts talking about how he needs to be Napoleon in the kitchen. Starting to think Doug might have failed 19th century French history.

* Ron zipping through mackerels. Lot of blood in that fish. Blue still in lead. Yellow jumps to second.

* Katsuji is the closer for the blue team (Mei Lin’s), but it turns out that he has no idea how to open clams and starts banging the end of the knife’s handle on the table. Are they not allowed to tell him how to do this?

* Adam refers to Keriann as his team’s “beautiful blonde thoroughbred.” So, he’s defining her by her looks, and then referring to her as an animal. Maybe I was wrong to expect better from a guy raised by a single mom. That said, she jumps into the lead when tearing through the clams and they win the challenge, so maybe he’ll stop pushing her around.

* Gregory hacks up the mackerel, and then George, who wanted the mackerel, can’t shuck the clams. They barely finish behind the blue team, and George took the longest to complete his task, so he’s … facing elimination.

* So now we find out what that means: He gets to pick any chef in the room to face in a sudden death cookoff – if he wins, they both stay; if he loses, he goes home. He picks Gregory, because he wanted the mackerel, but Gregory took it and struggled with it. They get twenty minutes to cook, using any of the mise en place ingredients.

* I’m not sure how I feel about this. Getting whacked for a quickfire seems harsh, and I can’t think of any point where I felt like I wanted the show’s format to change. But also, what’s Gregory’s motivation? He’s playing for pride, but George is cooking for his life. Gregory says “if you come for me, you better come correct,” and suddenly I feel like I’m watching Mos Chef.

* This challenge happens so fast and is so heavily edited that we don’t see much of the cooking. I actually do watch to see people cook, you know. I might learn something.

* George does a pan-seared mackerel with fennel salad. Gregory makes a chilled trio of mackerel, oyster, and lobster. Adam refers to this move as a statement of, “Hi I’m Greg and this is how big my dick is.” Adam appears to use his dick to supply his mouth with all of its thoughts.

* Gregory’s actual dishes: Oysters with yuzu ginger minionette, mirin marinated mackerel with bonito, lobster with chilled coconut and spiced tomato sauce. That is a hell of a lot to do in 20 minutes, isn’t it? The oyster/yuzu combo is pretty cliche, but the other two dishes seemed really clever.

* Blais says George’s dish was more elegant, but needed more heat. Gregory’s was bright and refreshing, although Blais cautions that “when you do 3 dishes instead of 1 you give yourself two more opportunities to fail.” He would know, since he was always churning out duos and trios. Gregory wins, George goes home. We hardly knew ye.

* Elinination challenge: The first-ever Top Chef food festival, featuring all the remaining contestants plus some of Boston’s best chefs and restaurateurs: Todd English, Barbara Lynch, Ken Oringer, Jamie Bissonnette, Ming Tsai, Lydia Shire, Jasper White, Kristen Kish. They didn’t miss with that invite list. Except they didn’t invite me to come eat. I need to discuss this with my agent.

* The actual challenge: Prepare an updated version of the first dish you remember cooking, with three hours to prepare that day. It’s being held at the Museum of Science, which I think is the best museum in the city.

* We see too much talking by the chefs and not enough cooking.

* Michael is making sriracha pearls to put in his chili corn soup. He clearly likes using molecular gastronomy tricks, but it seems like they’re just tricks for him, or gimmicks, not ways to elevate the food.

* Mei Lin is making congee with stewed pork. Her grandfather made congee (a thick porridge of heavily cooked rice), and she says all the men in her family cooked – as it should be.

* Katsuji is making some bizarre sauce based around cheese and squid ink. What. Blais and Tom look totally perplexed. Tom says “I’ll let you get back to work” but means to say “because I have no idea what the hell you’re doing.”

* Keriann says “Bend over and grab your ankles, honey. It’s about to happen.” Really? Anal rape jokes? When did that shit become funny? I didn’t think it was funny when Dr. Dre used it to mock Eazy-E in the “Dre Day” video, and that was 22 years ago.

* To the dishes… Joy made creamy yellow grits with sauteed greens and crispy chicken skin. She says she went for a simple approach vs “fine fine cooking.” I’d order this.

* Rebecca made a citrus tart with ginger cherries and chantilly cream. Blais and Padma say they’re not getting ginger flavor in the cherries. It seems a little too simple, maybe?

* Adam does fish (cod) and chips with a tri-color salad and mustard mayo with nori aleppo pepper and cumin seed. Lose the nose ring dude. You’re in a fucking kitchen. I don’t want your rhinogerms in my food.

* Stacy made a pulled chicken salad with sweet pea green coddess dressing and cranberry mostarda on thick-cut potato chips. I thought this might end up near the top, given the complexity and presentation.

* Ron does an odd twist on a shrimp cocktail, adding strawberries, shaved fennel, curry, and pickled jalapeños. Padma thinks it’s “over the top” spicy – so clearly instant feedback is a new feature of this season, which the chefs are not expecting.

* Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is in the house. For once, I wish Menino was still mayor, just for the unintentional comedy value of it.

* Doug (“call me Dougie” – no, thanks, Doug) made fried chicken with pickled jalapeños and watermelon. Tom likes the sweet and sour combination, and it sounds like he did the best job of keeping the chicken hot and crispy.

* Katsuji made … I’ll give this a shot: “petroleum shrimp” with a cheese sauce that includes orange peel, chipotles, white wine, and squid ink, along with saffron couscous and serrano aioli, served on a tortilla. Padma says eating it was complex. Wasn’t this what sank Kenny a few years ago – he executed well but everything had twenty ingredients?

* Keriann made a sweet corn soup with bacon jam, truffle crumble, and olive oil snow. Blais hates the snow. It’s fascinating to see Blais come down on chefs who use techniques we might associate with his cooking – but it’s evident that he feels there’s a right time or place for those tricks, and that overusing them earns you demerits.

* James made a crispy harissa chicken thigh with creamed corn, bbq spice, and watermelon. Apparently I missed out, growing up in the northeast, becuase fried chicken, some kind of corn dish, and watermelon (plain or pickled) is a popular combo here. I won’t complain about my mom’s cooking, but damn, that seems like a good thing to grow up eating.

* Melissa does a spicy ma-po tofu with pork over spiced rice, szechuan peanuts, and pickled cukes. We don’t hear much feedback but the description caused my palate to spontaneously ignite.

* Mei made a congee with caramelized pork, fish sauce caramel, and black garlic puree. Gail likes mix of raw herbs and scallions with dark caramel. It’s pretty stunning to look at. I can’t quite wrap my head around fish sauce caramel, though.

* Katie made a broccoli salad, with tamarind aioli, cured black olives, bacon powder. Blais said it was more of a side dish than appropriate for the event and that the bacon powder doesn’t serve any purpose. Also, it looks like a mess.

* Michael, who grew up in Russia (where soup cooks you!), made a chilled corn soup, with pickled cherries, salmon roe, and sriracha caviar. Tom doesn’t like fishy finish and doesn’t get much heat from sriracha. Michael’s response: “What went wrong with their palates?” Yeah, it’s their fault. I believe comments like that qualify as … foreshadowing.

* Mos Chef does a Haitian stewed chicken with fried bananas, spicy pikliz, and scotch bonnet chili relish. Padma making a face. “So strange and funky,” but she really likes it. She confesses to Blais after walking away that she nearly hated it – I guess you had to get every component together to appreciate it. It sounds like a ton of heat; I imagine I’d get blown out by it, having grown up eating virtually no chili pepper in anything.

* Aaron made a twist on bacon and eggs, serving pork belly braised in tamari, miso poached egg yolk, and birds-eye chili caramel. He didn’t set aside any of the better pieces for the judges, and ends up serving a very fatty piece to Padma, who almost immediately spat it out – right in front of him. She tells him, “clean up your act and your station.” It’s even worse that he dissembles when she points out (before tasting it) that her piece is nearly all fat.

* Their favorites: Gail cites Doug’s as her favorite fried chicken. Padma and Tom seem to like Gregory’s. Blais cites Mei’s congee. No huge surprises, based on the instant feedback.

* Their least favorites: They all killed Katie’s broccoli side dish. “That’s your showcase?” when it’s not appealing to look at. Michael’s corn soup was fishy due to the fish eggs – ” an unpleasant surprise.” Gail and Padma have a little moment, though: When Padma says that Aaron served her a piece of pork belly that was all fat, Gail kind of rolls her eyes and says that pork belly is mostly fat anyway. There was a trace of contempt in that whole exchange. Padma acts like it never happened, though, and just presses her complaint further, saying she almost never has had to spit any dish out in the history of the show. Katsuji’s dish gets bashed as too weird and sloppy.

* They call everyone in from the stew room. All praise and shaming will now be public, apparently.

* Tom says overall the effort was fair: They got a lot of rustic and homestyle dishes, but only some chefs pushed it farther than that. Blais is a little more positive, maybe because he knows what it’s like to be on the other side.

* Top three: Doug, Mei, and Gregory. No surprises there. Mei’s congee was spot-on. Mos Chef’s dish had a million things that could have gone “crazy bad” (Padma) and it was all crazy good. Blais spins this motorcycle chase analogy for Gregory’s stew, and shortly after the episode his monologue was optioned by TLC. Doug’s was bright and fresh and chicken so crispy and well seasoned. His was probably the easiest dish for me to understand, given my own limited experience with congee and with Caribbean cuisine.

* Winner: Mei. Blais says it was appropriate for a food festival and a fine-dining restaurant too. She jokes she has her job for another day.

* The bottom three: Katie, Michael, Katsuji. Aaron, who served Padma the big piece of pork fat, isn’t among them.

* Katie’s felt more like a salad, but she says she lost her focus with the bacon powder. I think she lost her focus at the conception: if you want to make broccoli salad your starting point, serve it with a protein where you get to show off. Michael’s soup had a great concept and base but all anyone tasted was the salmon roe. He says he tasted it, found it was “a little fishy,” didn’t think it was too bad … and Tom jumps on him. You can’t talk your way out of anything at judges’ table. Tom has absolutely no tolerance for bullshit. Katsuji’s dish had some solid elements but way too much going on.

* Michael is eliminated. Tom says it just didn’t work with sweet corn and fishy salmon roe.

* In the confessional, he says he tried to be original and out of the box, but it backfired. He should have stopped there, but then says, “Maybe Tom should be more open-minded… you’ve gotta grow with age or get left behind.” Dude, nobody liked your dish, not just Tom. Do they not realize the most incendiary things they say are guaranteed to make it to air? Have they never seen the show before? Before you go on Top Chef, you should read my recaps, because then, if nothing else, you’ll know just how ridiculous you’ll look when you say stuff like this.

Arizona eats, October 2014.

I spent six nights in Arizona last week to scout this year’s crop of prospects in the Arizona Fall League, and wrote two long posts on what I saw, one focusing primarily on pitchers and a longer one mostly on position players.

The best new restaurant of the trip was Little Miss BBQ, a tiny spot on University Ave in Tempe, just south of the airport, that specializes in central Texas Q – meaning primarily brisket and sausage, although they do pulled pork as well. The brisket was among the best I’ve ever had, certainly the best I’ve had anywhere west of Texas, rivaling Florida’s 4 Rivers for the best I’ve had outside of Texas itself. I asked for fatty (or moist) brisket rather than lean, my strong preference because you get that fat that just melts in your mouth and provides its own sauce for the meat – and the brisket didn’t need any other sauce than that. Little Miss smokes over pecan and oak, so you get a clear presence of smoke in the meat without the dominance of a wood like hickory (better for pork, IMO), and you get to taste the beef itself and the rub, salty and peppery but not so assertive that it took over each bite. The sausage was above-average but not as spicy as I expected or would have liked. For sides, they offer jalapeno cheese grits and baked beans, but I went with the lighter sides, potato salad and cole slaw, rather than add two heavy items to the copious quantity of cow on the plate. Both were excellent because they were clearly homemade and weren’t doused in mayo, so you could particularly taste the cabbage in the slaw. On a rainy morning at 11:30 am, the line was about 30 people deep and took me 20-25 minutes to get to the counter, although the guy doing the slicing (I think it was the pitmaster) handed out a few free bites of the brisket and sausage to keep everyone happy. It’s just a stone’s throw from the Angels’ stadium and not even ten minutes from the Cubs’ new place.

Chef Kelly Fletcher was among the most highly-regarded local chefs in the Valley while at Tempe’s House of Cards, but the high price point kept me from going there while I lived in the area and Fletcher ended up leaving earlier this year to start his own place. The Revival, also located in Tempe, has a more casual feel and I think a better mix of menu options at the high- and low-ends. The roasted pork belly with Asian caramel, mirin poached potatoes, and scallions starter ($7) was ridiculously good from all angles – literally, as the dish was a gorgeous panoply of colors and textures, and the pork belly itself had tremendous balance of textures (but not too tough, which I’ve had in some pork belly dishes when the meaty layers are overcooked) and sweet/sour/salty levels. The duck confit on roasted corn polenta main ($21) with house-made date-maple syrup, bitter greens, and candied fresnos was plus but not quite a home run; the duck meat didn’t pull right off the bone as it usually does when prepared this way, and the candied fresnos were way so fiery I had to avoid them. The polenta used a coarse grind of yellow corn, so even with the long cooking times required for the dish it had some tooth to it, while the roasted corn kernels amped up the sweetness (thanks to caramelization) while adding a smoky component. The date-maple syrup was a natural pairing with the duck as well, although I may be biased (!) as I could drink real maple syrup right out of the bottle.

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Glazed pork belly starter from the Revival in Tempe AZ.

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Cuff is a rarity – a smart, high-end restaurant located in the west Valley, where chain restaurants abound. It’s in downtown Glendale, where it looks like there’s a quiet revitalization happening, great news if you head to Arizona to see any of the teams playing in the four stadiums on that side of town. (It’s about 15-20 minutes from Camelback Ranch because of all of the traffic lights you’ll have to pass.) Cuff just opened a few weeks ago and I was there on the fifth night since they began dinner service, so the strong execution across the board was very promising – you’d think they’d still be working some kinks out of their system. The menu is straightforward – a few salads and starters, a good cross-section of sandwich options to appeal to almost every eater, and a few mains that were quite generously priced.

The mixed greens salad ($7) was the ideal starter, especially since a few days of gorging on meat left me craving something plant-based. The mesclun mix (very fresh, nothing wilting or starting to spoil, a common problem in salads now) comes with crumbled fresh goat cheese, candied pecans, dried cranberries, and a delicate peach-shallot vinaigrette; that mix of leaves is slightly bitter, so three sweet elements, three tart ones, and two salty ones bring the balance the salad needs so that you don’t get that feeling that you’re chewing on lawn cuttings. The Amalfi-style lemon chicken, one of their main course options (at just $11!) was above-average but a little tricky to eat, served in a deep soup bowl with broth that made cutting the two pieces of chicken (an airline cut and a thigh) difficult. The lemon parmesan broth was fantastic, with a perfect balance of acidity, salt, and the umami of the cheese, providing flavor to the chicken itself (especially chicken breast, which has no flavor of its own no matter how it’s cooked) and to the baby broccoli in the bowl. The grilled ciabatta bread triangles are clearly there to spare you the indignity of tipping the bowl to your mouth to drink the broth, but I wouldn’t judge you if you did. Cuff also has a full bar including a variety of specialty cocktails.

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Amalfi-style lemon chicken at the brand-new Cuff in downtown Glendale.

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Sumo Maya is a new Scottsdale hot spot that has taken the trendy “Asian tacos” theme and applied it to the standard upscale drinking spot popular in that town. I liked the food, but hated the vibe. Their happy hour specials are a steal – four tacos for $7, practically enough for a whole meal and a good way to sample a bunch of the menu options. Of the four different ones I tried, including pork, chicken, fried fish, and vegetarian, the last one was the best, filled with small wild mushrooms and tossed with a sweet soy sauce and micro greens. The flavors on the chicken taco were outstanding, including avocado and a chile-guajillo salsa, but I think the chicken had been cooked earlier and was simply reheated for service. I also tried the kimchi fried rice, which was solid but not much different from fried rice you’d get at a very good Chinese restaurant. I just couldn’t see going back there to eat when so much of the crowd was there to drink and/or be seen.

One recommendation I didn’t get to was the new Arcadia restaurant Nook, only because it wasn’t that close to any of my destinations, but that’s on the to-do list for spring.

I never went to the Jamaican rum bar Breadfruit while living in Phoenix, but that was a pretty big mistake on my part given my affinity for the demon spirit. I adored their rum old fashioned, with Appleton Extra 12 year as its base, and liked their Hemingway’s Daiquiri, with Matusalem Platino (a triple-distilled, highly refined Dominican white rum) as its base, mixed with grapefruit and lime juices and demarara sugar, although the latter disguised the flavor of the rum too much. Nick Piecoro dragged me there – not that it required much convincing when I heard “rum bar” – after I’d dragged him to Citizen Public House for a postgame drink, only to discover they’re doing a late-night menu (after 11 pm) for “Porktoberfest,” including their bacon-fat popcorn and a twist on Chinese steamed pork buns (baozi) that paired well with their signature negroni and basically everything else we drank.

I went back to several favorites for breakfast – the Hillside Spot, Crepe Bar, Matt’s Big Breakfast, Giant Coffee, and Cartel Coffee Lab, all of which were just as I left them: good and busy. Crepe Bar has expanded its menu slightly, which might have been my only complaint about it before, and they’re still offering lots of little freebies along the way, like a tiny cup of their housemade granola, a dark chocolate and hazelnut amuse with your coffee (from heart roasters in Portland, Oregon), or a rose-water marshmallow and dark chocolate twist on s’mores after your meal. (Great idea, but the marshmallow left a perfume flavor in my mouth that I couldn’t get out for hours.) Saigon Kitchen in Surprise didn’t live up to my recollections, unfortunately, but Pig & Pickle in Scottsdale exceeded them, with a bigger menu that has more small plates and starters, including more vegetable-based options so your meal can have a better balance of pork and not-pork.

Saturday five, 10/11/14.

I’ve been in Arizona scouting the Fall League all week, so I’ve had very little time for any kind of writing. I did file one post on what I’ve seen, on Friday, and it’s now online, talking Glasnow, Appel, Zimmer, Taijuan, and more. I’ll have another wrap post up on Sunday or Monday.

I had a career highlight on Monday, as I appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered to discuss Dan Duquette’s “comeback” story. It was a particular thrill to hear Robert Siegel’s voice asking me questions on the phone; I know Carl Kasell has his devotees, but Siegel’s is the voice I most associate with NPR. By the way, if you don’t have the NPR One app, you should.

And now, this week’s links…

  • Arrested for stealing a backpack, a boy spent three years on Rikers Island without a trial. A gripping, horrifying look at a criminal justice system with no regards for the rights of a citizen. We shouldn’t be afraid of our government, but how can you read this and feel no fear?
  • From NPR, why pine nut lovers should care about pine forests. Well, I guess the “why” part is pretty obvious. My daughter is allergic to these seeds (also known as pinoli in Italy and pignolis among Italian-Americans), so we don’t keep them in the house. I use toasted pumpkin seeds (gram for gram) when making pesto at home.
  • From July, Vanity Fair asked why literary critics despaired over the success of The Goldfinch? I have yet to read Donna Tartt’s best-selling novel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but will do so within the next few months. I still found the debate herein fascinating, as it presents and balances one side’s claims of elitism and snobbery against the other’s attempts to uphold degenerating standards of art and excellence. The Kindle version is just $6.99.
  • Top Chef Masters winner Chris Cosentino delivers an outstanding talk on the perils of being a celebrity chef – and the perils of just being in the public eye, period.
  • From The Verge, an argument to block more people on Twitter. I use the block and mute features early and often: Abusive users get blocked, trolls and pests get muted. If, however, you want me to unblock you, I’ll gladly do so. Just put a note in a comment anywhere here on the site, or on any of my other social media pages. And maybe don’t be abusive again.

Saturday five, 10/4/14.

I’m off to Arizona on Monday for my annual Fall League scouting trip, and will be at two games every day from the 7th through the 12th. I’ll tweet where I am each afternoon; there’s just one night game each day. Feel free to come say hi if you spot me at any games – and of course I’m taking any suggestions for new restaurants to try while I’m there, as long as they’re somewhere convenient to the various AFL ballparks.

My ALDS and NLDS predictions posts went up this week, along with my regular Klawchat. The previous week’s column was my annual list of players I got wrong, along with another Klawchat last Friday.

And now, the links…

  • A great/horrible Buzzfeed story about battered women jailed for failing to protect their children. The point is that these women are victims too, and their failure to get help for their abused kids can be a symptom of their victimhood, not complicity in the abuse. It’s probably more complicated than the case the piece lays out, but I found the emphasis on specific victims and the overlong sentences they received compelling.
  • Novel antibiotic class created. A research team led by scientists at MIT has developed a new approach to killing bad bacteria while saving good ones by using RNA-guided nucleases to target specific DNA sequences in the undesirable pathogens. The original paper, in Nature Biotechnology, is here if you have journal access.
  • On the other hand, GMO wheat was found on a Montana farm where it wasn’t supposed to be. One reason among many that I support labeling of GM foods, along the lines of this very one-sided rejoinder to a one-sided New Yorker piece against labeling.
  • The Cult of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. This whole story has been extremely disappointing; when fighting monsters, Tyson himself has become a monster. It’s not the most comprehensive look at his intellectual improprieties, but it puts them in context, and I agree with the author’s contention that personalities sometimes seem to be driving even secular philosophies rather than the other way around.
  • The Almost Forgotten Story Of The 1970s East Village Windmill. Much more than the story of a windmill, it’s a story of urban renewal in the face of government abandonment, and of a disadvantaged community treating a property differently because it was one of their own.
  • How Sugar Daddies Are Financing College Education, from the Atlantic. The issue the article dances around until the very end is that the website it discusses, Seeking Arrangement, is a de facto marketplace for prostitution. Yet some of the very significant issues facing sex workers, such as lack of freedom, surrendering part (or most) of their incomes to their procurers, and risk of abuse, are lessened or eliminated by such sites, which run background checks on customers (the “daddies,” which is an incredibly creepy way to describe them, even if they are actually creeps) and enable the women to control their own terms of employment. So despite the clickbait title, there are some legitimate issues of freedom and women’s rights involved here.
  • Via my colleague Buster Olney, a ridiculous story of the University of Alabama totally screwing over one of its athletes. The NCAA is a cartel and should be broken up. Where’s this millennium’s Teddy Roosevelt when we need him?

I’m reading War and Peace now, so aside from one book review I still have to write, there won’t be a lot of literature posts here in October. I do have a stack of seven or eight games to review, however, so between this site and Paste I should still have plenty to write about.

September 2014 music update.

September was a heavy month for new releases, but a light month for good new tracks. I reviewed the new alt-J album, the best release of the month, earlier and haven’t included them here. Here’s the newest Spotify playlist, which includes all of the tracks I listed here but two:

Superhumanoids – “Come Say Hello”/”Hey Big Bang.” I was remiss in omitting these tracks from the August playlist. Sarah Chernoff’s vocals are just incredible, a true soprano soaring over two memorable dream-pop backing tracks.

Snakehips ft. Sinead Harnett - “Days With You.” A soulful trip-hoppy track with unforgettable vocals from Harnett that I first mentioned back in June but that wasn’t released until the very end of August.

The Kooks – “Forgive & Forget.” Maybe the best track from their newest album, reviewed here.

Strand of Oaks – “For Me.” I found their new album to be wildly uneven, often far too low-key given their overall sound, but when Tim Showalter cranks up the tempo just a little bit he finds a sweet spot where the contrast between the guitars’ distortion and his lyrical laments is perfectly balanced.

Broods – “Mother & Father” Not quite as good as their first single, the amazing “Bridges,” but boasting a similar combination of a strong melody and Georgia Nott’s ethereal vocals. This is listed on Spotify but the song isn’t playing for me right now, so it may no longer be available.

Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – “Cecilia And The Satellite.” Modern synth-pop, reminiscent of the Hooters (perhaps because that band had a minor hit called “Satellite” too) with earnest vocals at the front of the mix.

Tweedy – “Low Key.” Mostly included just so I can link to the video, directed by Nick Offerman and starring, among many others, John Hodgman and Michael Shannon.

Max Jury – “Black Metal.” A bit precious, perhaps, but I got a laugh out of the lyrics and video, and the chorus is rather catchy. The 21-year-old singer-songwriter from Iowa draws on folk and country influences in his better tracks, but at other times veers off towards faux-jazz territory, which I’d say is the wrong direction for him or anyone else who wants to maintain his self-respect.

Cold War Kids – “All This Could Be Yours.” I’ve always found their music to be a little histrionic, mostly the result of Nathan Willett’s vocal style but also found in their dramatic piano/drum riffs. Sometimes it works really well, sometimes less so, with this song, released in July as the first single off their forthcoming album, somewhere in between those two points.

Death from Above 1979 – “Trainwreck 1979.” It seems like a lot of music critics/writers are making of a big deal about this group’s reunion ten years after their apparently one-and-done debut album, of which I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever. For electro-rock, it’s not bad, but I’m a little confused by all the hype; it seems like there are a few dozen U.K. acts putting out similar music right now.

Ex Hex – “Beast.” A new trio led by Mary Timony, former lead singer of noise-rockers Helium and member of Wild Flag, Ex Hex just released their debut album yesterday and it’s full of tight, power-pop tracks that betray Timony’s post-punk roots but are among the most melodic things she’s ever put out.

Animals as Leaders – “Tooth and Claw.” I think I mentioned these guys a few months ago, and I recognize this is pretty out there even for me, but Animals as Leaders’ highly experimental, technically precise brand of instrumental metal is totally riveting for me as a longtime guitar player and occasional fan of melodic death metal – which this resembles, just without the growled or screamed vocals.

Opeth – “Eternal Rains Will Come.” I left this track and “Tooth and Claw” at the end since they’re so unlike everything else on the playlist, moving way into the progressive realm right down to the Hammond organs and psychedelic harmonies. If you only know Opeth from their death-metal past, give this track a listen with fresh ears.

Tracks not on Spotify:

Ty Segall – “Tall Man Skinny Lady.” Getting a ton of play on Sirius XM right now, this song is one of seventeen on Segall’s latest album, with a simple guitar riff over a two-step percussion line that repeats incessantly throughout the song. I don’t know why they ran Segall’s vocals through reverb, which makes it sound like he recorded them from out in the hallway, but otherwise it’s a strong slice of psychedelic rock with an anarchic guitar solo.

Telegram - “Regatta.” An obnoxiously British-sounding act, from the Libertines influences in the music to the lead singer’s almost indecipherable Welsh accent, so the result sounds like a bit like the Arctic Monkeys replaced Alex Turner with Gruff Rhys. The video features the band’s members wandering around Tokyo.

Motherless Brooklyn.

My annual “guys I got wrong” piece is up for Insiders.

I loved Jonathan Lethem’s bizarro paranoid detective novel Gun, with Occasional Music, which felt like a mashup of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick with a dose of Jasper Fforde added like the bitters that completes a cocktail. At least one of you recommended one of his other detective novels, the equally strange but more straightforward Motherless Brooklyn, in which the lead detective isn’t really a detective, but a flunky working for a half-assed detective agency. The boss is killed on a mission gone wrong, and the protagonist and narrator, Lionel Essrog, begins to investigate the murder – in part because he’s involved, but even more so because he has to, as he suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and OCD.

Essrog’s tics are minor, and his coworkers at the L&L Car Service, a front for the detective agency run by Frank Minna, all treat them as a fact of life, mostly ignoring them or bestowing unkind nicknames on him (like “Freakshow”). The four underlings, including Essrog, were all at the same orphanage together, from which Minna plucked them first to work as day laborers on suspect jobs like moving what appeared to be stolen goods, then later on to be his team of lookouts and stooges while he played detective. When Frank dies on what at first looks like a normal job gone wrong, with Lionel and dim-witted colleague Gilbert serving as his backup, Lionel starts an independent investigation of sorts, one without a lot of direction at first but that he can’t stop once he gets enmeshed in it – just like he has to complete his series of taps or work out vocal tics that come out of his mouth like random attempts at anagrams and wordplay. (Lethem credits the work of several neurologists in his acknowledgements, including Oliver Sacks.) But Lionel isn’t any more a freak than anyone else – his eccentricities are just more visible.

The case itself is more convoluted than that of your standard hard-boiled detective novel, and the resolution is less clean and partially happens off-screen, but Lethem nods to the conventions of the form, perhaps a little too much so, with Lionel getting knocked out and waking up somewhere else, and sleeping with one of the only female characters in one of the book’s most improbable but funnier scenes. Making Lionel the narrator allows Lethem to draw humor from his condition without ever seeming to mock him for it, and in some ways the obsessiveness that often accompanies Tourette’s is an asset for a would-be sleuth. Some of his conversations with suspects would come off as unrealistic if he didn’t have the condition; Lionel’s tics and utterances punctuate the interrogations in such a way that his blunt questions don’t come off as starkly, which makes the suspects’ candor easier to believe.

I could have done without the stereotyped Italian wiseguys, particularly the older mobsters who are straight out of central casting and would have to inhale just to be two-dimensional, even though they probably had to be Italian to fill those roles in a book set in Brooklyn. They’re secondary, at least, playing limited on-screen roles, as Lionel himself is truly the star – and will apparently be played by Ed Norton in the upcoming film version. If you read this as an amazing character study first and a detective story second, you’ll find the book much more enjoyable than you will if you’re just looking for a good crime novel.

I picked up another detective novel, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ’s Nairobi Heat, because the author’s father, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, wrote one of my top 100 novels, A Grain of Wheat, a seminal work of Kenyan colonialism and the struggle for independence. Nairobi Heat is a detective novel that takes its protagonist, Ishmael, from Madison, Wisconsin, to Kenya to investigate the murder of a white girl whose body was found on the doorstep of a hero of the Rwandan genocide. The book itself is a mess of detective-novel cliches – including the knock on the head, waking up bound to a chair, sleeping with the unbelievably good-looking woman who plays an important role in the investigation, and lots of needless violence – but the resolution evoked a powerful reminiscence of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, my favorite hard-boiled detective novel by any author. And perhaps that fits: the violence and lawlessness of Hammett’s book certainly seems to apply to modern Kenya, at least in wa Ngũgĩ’s rendering. He could use a lot of help with his characterizations and needs to craft a fresher plot, but at least his influences seem to be the right ones.

This is All Yours.

alt-J’s 2012 debut album An Awesome Wave, winner of that fall’s Mercury Prize, remains my favorite album released since the turn of the century, a hypnotic, hypercreative, genre-bending masterwork that plays with sounds, tempos, and tension to subvert typical rock song structures without every losing sight of the critical elements of melody and rhythm. The album featured stunning production that offered clear, precise sounds in a minimalist framework, while the then-quartet carried lyrical and musical themes across multiple tracks to present the listener with a diverse yet cohesive whole. The Mercury Prize doesn’t always go to the most deserving album – last year’s snoozer would be a perfect example – but alt-J deserved it as much as any other winner ever had. (Of course, Pitchfork trashed the album, shocking no one.)

That means that expectations, mine and the music world’s, have run very high with the long crescendo to today’s release of This Is All Yours, the sophomore album from alt-J, now a trio after the departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury. The new disc moves the band in a direct I didn’t anticipate, opting for slower tempos and brighter sounds, creating a more melancholy record overall, one with fewer standout melodies than An Awesome Wave and a muddled production quality that contrasts with the precision of its predecessor’s. It is every bit as bizarre a record as you’d expect from a band that named itself after a keyboard combination (their name is technically Δ) and that produced an album as weird as their debut. It is less consistent than their first record, but it is never, ever dull.

The three singles released from This is All Yours showcase the album’s brilliance alongside its inconsistency. “Hunger of the Pine” works from a trip-hop foundation, layers guitarist Joe Newman’s languorous, high-pitched vocals – occasionally delivering entire lines without changing the note – over keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton’s baritone, only to throw in a sample of Miley Cyrus incongruously singing “I’m a female rebel” in the chorus. “Left Hand Free,” a song the boys have acknowledged they wrote because their label’s A&R man said he didn’t hear a single from the album, listens like a deadpan parody of American indie or jangle-pop, with suitably ridiculous lyrics that still manage to slip in the kind of literary allusions that they used so well on An Awesome Wave. The third single, “Every Other Freckle,” is the album’s best song, bridging the gap between those first two songs in a way that recalls their first album’s highest points, shifting gears suddenly between tempos or even genres, with lyrical flourishes that offer competing interpretations (the transition from touching to creepy in “I wanna bed into you, like a cat beds into a beanbag/Turn you inside out, and lick you like a crisp packet” is a highlight of their career) and perfectly timed hard-stops before the next miniature movement begins. The three songs don’t really sound at all like they’d come from the same band, with an almost anti-commercial song in “Hunger of the Pine” alongside the disposable “Left Hand Free,” diversity without the explosive creativity of the band’s first record.

Instead, the trio appear to have channeled their creativity into crafting lush soundscapes like the gorgeous acoustic track “Warm Foothills,” which features vocals from no fewer than four guest singers, including Lianne La Havas, whom alt-J beat out for the Mercury Prize two years ago. The vocals are stitched together to give you odd transitions before we get our payoff in beautiful harmonies – although there’s no big finish or massive textural shift as you might have expected on An Awesome Wave. The lyrics of the Alien-inspired “The Gospel of John Hurt” blend that film’s mythology (it doesn’t go well for Hurt’s character) with the Book of Jeremiah, over a tripartite backing track, starting with a xylophone-heavy introductory passage, leading to a sluggish passage where we get the band spelling out a key word (as on “Fitzpleasure” and “Bloodflood”) before the guitar moves to the front in the final, cathartic movement. How that song can be followed with the throwaway acoustic track “Pusher” is one of the most puzzling aspects of the disc; I could have done without “Pusher” entirely, but after one of This is All Yours‘ strongest, most intense songs, it dissolves the momentum the band has just built up with the previous song.

alt-J have always been fond of referring back to their own songs, and do so explicitly with “Bloodflood pt. II,” which brings back both “Bloodflood” and “Fitzpleasure” from their first album, reusing certain lyrics and musical themes but reworking them into new settings while carrying over the violence implicit in “Fitzpleasure,” which itself drew from the book and film Last Exit to Brooklyn. They’re also big on unusual covers, and the album’s bonus track completely deconstructs Bill Withers’ classic soul song “Lovely Day” and builds it back up with multiple flows of shimmering keyboard lines that move over you like fluids of varying viscosities – to the point where you might only recognize the original track by the lyrics.

The brief review by the Guardian compared This is All Yours to Radiohead’s Kid A for their shared abandonment of the traditional rock format in favor of playing with sounds and textures, but Radiohead’s departure was far more shocking – here was one of the greatest straight-up rock bands in history, coming off an album that should have won every award for which it could possibly have been eligible, metaphorically lighting its guitars on fire to play with keyboards and other synthetic sounds. alt-J had no such sound to abandon, so their capacity to shock us more than their debut already did so is muted.

This is All Yours includes repetition of themes and imagery in its lyrics, just as their first album did, here with recurring ruminations on loss and dependence in relationships, and several songs refer to the African quelea, a nomadic passerine bird of African that travels in large flocks, or other flying creatures; as well as to lungs, to waves, or to the sea. Their lyrics are more cryptic and less narrative this time around; most songs on An Awesome Wave told a story somewhere, while the songs on This is All Yours have fewer lyrics overall and none tells a complete story from beginning to end. That may be the most shocking shift of the album, rather than the change in music – the way that alt-J thinks about crafting a single song, or an album as a collection of songs, seems to have changed, as if they couldn’t or wouldn’t reproduce the style of their first album, which was five years in the making. This is All Yours comes out only two years and a few months after their debut, but in many ways feels more ambitious and bold. It is uneven compared to their debut, and presents a less immersive listening experience, but also shows a group unwilling or unable to rest on their laurels, for whom an effort that doesn’t match their best work can still be among the most important and impressive albums of the year.

Saturday five, 9/19/14.

My Tuesday column this past week announced that Kris Bryant is my 2014 Prospect of the Year, a piece in which I mentioned a dozen other guys, including the player with the best pro debut by a 2014 draft pick. I also held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

I’ve been stepping up the boardgame reviews again, reviewing Valley of the Kings for Paste magazine, and Seasons and Spyrium here.

EDIT: Codito/Sage Board Games have a new iOS boardgame app bundle, which takes $1 off each of the games you haven’t bought. Tigris & Euphrates and Le Havre are both excellent, if you don’t already own them.

And now, to the links – seven this time, since I didn’t post last Saturday and had a few extras saved up: