Saturday five, 8/29/15.

My main Insider piece this week was on sustainable MLB breakthroughs in 2015. I meant to include Rougned Odor on this list, and somehow just plain forgot him when I sat down to write the piece. Anyway, this is my mea culpa and statement that I believe his improvement at the plate is real, sustainable, and only the beginning for him.

I also covered the Metropolitan Classic high school tournament that’s hosted and organized by the NY Mets, writing about the top 2016 and 2017 draft prospects there.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

  • The nationwide rise in the popularity of authentic barbecue has left black pitmasters behind, even though that style of cooking has roots in African-American culture.
  • An excellent longread from the BBC on the forced repatriation of Chinese sailors in the UK after World War II, with the story of one woman whose biological father was one of those deported.
  • Baseball is on the rise in Uganda, believe it or not. It’s a sport that requires a long gestation period when it manages to take hold in a new region or country, but it seems to be growing well in the small sub-Saharan African nation, where it’s still against the law to be gay.
  • A chemistry decoder to send to that idiot friend from high school who keeps posting FoodBabe links on Facebook.
  • A personal post from a woman whose son nearly died from the flu. It’s just about flu shot season, too.
  • Another sugar (sucrose) substitute, the natural but uncommon sugar allulose, may be moving toward the marketplace, but like sugar alcohols, it passes right through the upper GI tract and can cause some problems further on down the line.
  • Kevin Folta, a scientist at the University of Florida, is under attack by the tin-foil hat crowd because Monsanto provided $25,000 for an educational outreach program, covering his travel costs. The personal nature of the attacks and the ignorance of how corporate funding actually works in academic research result in a deeply disturbing application of the genetic fallacy.
  • Longtime reader Tom Hitchner has a good post up on why teams keep getting sweetheart government-funded stadium deals. It’s happening in Milwaukee, and it’s happening in disgusting fashion in St. Louis, where a law prohibiting such deals was overturned by a judge as “too vague.”
  • TV critic extraordinaire Alan Sepinwall asks if there’s too much good television right now. I say yes, there is, and I have little to no hope of watching most of it.
  • U.S. tennis pro Mardy Fish had to quit the sport due to anxiety, but he’s back, and he’s talking about his affliction.
  • Mental Floss assembled a group of clever airline safety videos from around the world. The two Delta ones are both funny and effective; the first time I saw each this year I had to put down my book to watch them.

Top 40 pizzerias, ranked.

This won’t start any arguments.

I adore all kinds of pizza – New York-style, Neapolitan-style (thin crust, wet center), Roman-style (also thin-crust but with a cracker-like crust), Sicilian, coal-fired, wood-fired, whatever. Except “deep dish,” which is just a bread casserole and should be avoided at all costs. I try to find good artisan pizzerias everywhere I travel, and I’ve hit just about all of the most highly-regarded places in Manhattan and Brooklyn too. I grew up on Long Island, eating by the slice and folding as I did so, but a couple of trips to Italy convinced me of the merits of those very thin crusts and superior toppings. We’re the beneficiaries of a huge boom in high-end pizza joints in this country, and while I haven’t tried all of the good ones, I’ve been to enough to put together a ranking of the 40 best that I’ve tried. There is, I admit, a bias to this list – I’ve tried more places in greater Phoenix than any other metro area other than New York – and I’m sure I’ll get some yelling over where I put di Fara or Co. or Paulie Gee’s, but with all of that out of the way, here’s how I rank ’em. Links go to my reviews here on the dish.

1. Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix
2. Kesté, New York
3. Motorino, New York
4. Roberta’s, Brooklyn
5. Pizzeria Vetri/Osteria, Philadelphia
6. Frank Pepe’s, New Haven
7. Pizzeria Mozza, Los Angeles
8. Pizzeria Lola, Minneapolis
9. cibo, Phoenix
10. Lucali, Brooklyn
11. Forcella, New York
12. Pizzeria Stella, Philadelphia
13. Paulie Gee’s, Brooklyn
14. Don Antonio by Starita, New York
15. ‘Pomo, Phoenix
16. Marta, New York
17. Ribalta, New York
18. Totonno’s, Brooklyn
19. Via Tribunali, New York/Seatte
20. Federal Pizza, Phoenix
21. Il Cane Rosso, Dallas
22. Antico, Atlanta
23. City House, Nashville
24. Tarry Lodge, Port Chester, Connecticut
25. Desano, Nashville
26. Franny’s, Brooklyn
27. Grimaldi’s, Phoenix
28. Il Bosco, Phoenix
29. Di Fara, Brooklyn
30. 800 Degrees, Los Angeles
31. Co., New York
32. Rubirosa, New York
33. Bar Toma, Chicago
34. Punch Pizza, St. Paul
35. Toro, Durham
36. Dolce Vita, Houston
37. Stella Rosa, Santa Monica
38. Grimaldi’s, Brooklyn
39. Basic, San Diego
40. Nicoletta, New York

There’s a long list of pizzerias I still need (okay, want, but where I’m concerned pizza is a need) to try, so they’re not on the list: Flour + Water & del Popolo in San Francisco, Apizza Scholls in Portland, A4 in Somerville (near Boston), 2 Amy’s in DC, Sottocasa in Brooklyn, al Forno in Providence, Pizzaiolo in Oakland, Mani Osteria in Ann Arbor, Vero in Cleveland, Iggie’s in Baltimore, Garage Bar in Louisville, Vinny & Jon’s in Los Angeles, and more. It’s a good time to be a pizza lover, and unless you have to be gluten-free, how could you not love pizza?

Einstein’s Cosmos plus seven other books.

I’ve fallen way behind in book reviews, so rather than procrastinate further and get upset with myself for letting this many pile up, here are my thoughts on eight books I’ve read recently.

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku does a remarkable job of taking a dense scientific topic and making it accessible in Einstein’s Cosmos, part of the same Great Discoveries series that includes Everything and More by David Foster Wallace and Incompleteness by Rebecca Goldstein. Part biography of Einstein, part survey course in theoretical physics, Einstein’s Cosmos takes the reader back to Einstein’s childhood, dispelling some myths about his youth and eventually leading to the best lay explanation of special relativity I’ve come across. Kaku doesn’t stint on some of Einstein’s less flattering moments, such as his early opposition to quantum field theory, but presents him as a man of great principle as well as an uncommon ability to visualize difficult problems in physics, a skill that first allowed him to formulate the theory of special relativity by asking what would happen if he could chase a beam of light while he himself was traveling at the speed of light. Kaku has to give the reader a substantial amount of information to get to the point of special relativity and the equivalence of mass and energy, including a basic discussion of Maxwell’s equations, four partial differential equations that describe the formation and behavior of electromagnetic fields (above the quantum level, which Maxwell’s equations can only approximate). None of this is easy, but Kaku’s explanations are accessible even if you’ve never taken calculus, because his focus is on the meaning of these formulas and theories rather than on their precise functions. He also gives color the portrait of Einstein, who was an eccentric and widely beloved figure, without reducing him to caricature by repeating old tropes about him being a terrible student (he was a superb student when he cared about the subject) or a mere patent clerk (university politics kept him out of academia at first, not a lack of skill or background). I recommend it very highly if you’re at all interested in the man or his discoveries and, like me, are a long way removed from any coursework that might otherwise be necessary to understand it.

Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief tells the story of rare map dealer turned thief E. Forbes Smiley III, and follows in the footsteps of an earlier book about another crook who cut rare maps from ancient atlases, Miles Harvey’s The Island of Lost Maps. While Blanding’s book is better written and organized, giving a breezy history of cartography and explaining why some of these maps are so rare, the subject of the book, Smiley, is a fairly milquetoast character, even when Blanding tries to give him more dimension by talking about his attempts to remake a small town in rural Maine. This sort of non-fiction book tends to work best when the central narrative involves a literal or figurative chase, but Blanding spends scant time on the portion of Smiley’s story between the discovery that he may have taken some maps (or even that maps were missing) to his arrest. Harvey’s book, on the other hand, tells the story of the appropriately-named Gilbert Bland, an antiques dealer with no apparent personality, by turning into more of an old-fashioned crime book, documenting his crimes and the process of tracking him down in a way that covers up Bland’s lack of character. Both books are solid reads in their own rights, with Blanding’s shorter and more tightly organized, while Harvey’s has more narrative greed.

I’m still gradually working my way through the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners, and read two winners from the 1990s that were good-not-great, although in one case I could at least easily understand why it won. Steven Millhauer’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer reads like a fable, detailing the titular character’s rise from his youth as the son of a cigar-store owner to successful hotelier and entrepreneur, only to find with each new venture that his ambition is unsated, eventually pushing himself to build a hotel so grandiose that it fails. Along the way, Dressler marries the wrong woman, an entirely unconvincing subplot that undermined much of the novel’s narrative force. I could see the Pulitzer committee loving the book for its exploration of the superficiality of the American Dream.

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, later adapted into a Best Picture-nominated film that starred three of the best actresses of its specific time (Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Nicole Kidman, who won an Oscar for her performance as Virginia Woolf), seemed to fit the Pulitzer Committee’s loose standards less, but was a more literary, well-rounded work. Cunningham crafts three vaguely interconnected novellas and weaves them together with frequent shifts between them, setting them in three different times, with the only overt connection via Mrs. Dalloway: one story follows Woolf as she’s writing it, the other two revolve around women who’ve read the book and felt a deep connection to it. I would probably have enjoyed or appreciated The Hours more if I’d actually liked Mrs. Dalloway or had at least read it more recently, although the way Cunningham eventually connects the two non-Woolf stories, while somewhat predictable, is touching without devolving into mere sentiment, and still left me wanting more of that unified storyline.

I love Evelyn Waugh’s novels, but Helena, a short work of historical fiction, did nothing for me. It’s missing most of his trademark humor, instead telling a fictionalized version of the life of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, who made a pilgrimage to Syriana and, according to legend, rediscovered the True Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Waugh converted to Catholicism after writing his first novel, Vile Bodies, and while there are strains of his religious belief through all of his later works, Helena feels maudlin and ends with a passage that you might characterize as magical realism depending on your point of view on Christianity. Waugh apparently considered this one of his best novels, but since his satirical prose and eye were what made him a great novelist, Helena feels inconsequential in comparison.

William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, winner of a National Book Award in 1982, came recommended by my friend Samantha, an avid bibliophile who favors shorter fiction where I go for novels. So Long is a 135-page novella that explores loss and memory through the eyes of an old man remembering his broken connection with a friend when the latter’s father committed a shocking murder. The narrator goes back to the time of the murder and recounts the circumstances that led up to it, although I imagine his account is supposed to be unreliable (as with the imagined recollections of the narrator of James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime). Maxwell depicts the life of the small town in Southern Illinois in often painful detail, walking through the minds of the three principals in the affair that led to the murder, and actually devotes little page time to his friend, the unfortunately-named Cletus, whom I couldn’t picture as anything but a slack-jawed yokel.

Dodie Smith’s name may not be familiar to you, but you know her work: She wrote the children’s book that Disney adapted for 101 Dalmatians. She also wrote a novel, I Capture the Castle, that’s highly regarded in England but seems to have never caught on here, perhaps because its subject is so very British. The 1949 novel starts out like a Jane Austen book: Two sisters move into a remote castle with their author father, who subsequently falls into severe writer’s block and finds himself unable to produce another novel – or any income, with the girls’ stepmother only barely more able to provide. A wealthy family moves into the neighborhood, with two very eligible bachelor sons, one of whom takes a fancy to the narrator’s sister … but Smith avoids the predictable and crafts a compelling narrative by having the younger sister, Cassandra, tell the story through her journal, with scrupulous honesty. I was hoping for a little more humor, but the seventeen-year-old narrator’s voice doesn’t have Austen’s wry comic style. The descriptions of the family’s privations early in the book wore on, but the denouement justified much of the time spent to get there.

The final book in this list gets the shortest writeup. Cesare Pavere’s The Moon and the Bonfires tells of an Italian expatriate’s return to his hometown after the devastation of the Mussolini regime and the second World War, and the tragedies he uncovers while obviously hoping to return to a town unchanged. Without any knowledge of the specific history of Italy under fascism, however, I failed to connect with the story or any of the characters. The isolation of the protagonist and the sparse prose reminded me of Camus, and not in a good way.

NYC eats, August 2015.

I’ve got two posts up for Insiders today, one on sustainable breakthroughs so far in 2015 and one on this weekend’s Metropolitan Classic high school tournament.

I had quite a run of food in the city (that’s New York for all you non-New Yorkers; the qualifier simply isn’t required for the rest of us, nor is capitalization) over the weekend, between a pizza pilgrimage, an artisan coffee roaster, and a restaurant crawl with the O.G. Top Chef Harold Dieterle.

Pizza first … I’ve heard for years about Paulie Gee’s, a small pizzeria in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that’s only open in the evenings and can easily run two-hour waits. They’re considered one of the best pizza joints in the country, including a spot on that 2013 Food and Wine list that I’ve been using as a sort of travel guide. (I’ve now eaten at 25 of the 47 that are still open, including all but one of the NYC entries.) By going solo I was able to get right in and sit at the bar, which had a rather convenient reading light right by my seat. The pizza is thin-crust, cooked in an Italian-built wood-fired oven, with various preset options ranging from the traditional to the bizarre. I went with a mostly traditional option of fresh mozzarella, arugula, and prosciutto, but – and I know I won’t get a good reaction from the crowd with this – the pizza was overcooked. The edges were too charred, and there were small parts of the center of the dough that were burned underneath. I have no complaints with the toppings and it probably would have been outstanding had it come out of the oven as little as 20 seconds sooner. Fortunately for me, they’re planning to open a second location in Hampden near Baltimore, so I’ll get to try them again.

The coffee spot was Blue Bottle, a roaster based in San Francisco with a couple of outlets in the city, and that is some damn good espresso. They offer a number of varietals in pour-overs, but as I was pressed for time both mornings (and particularly desperate for caffeine on the second morning), I went with espresso, which they make with blends rather than single-origins. Their roasts are light (“third-wave”) so you can still taste the flavors of the beans.

Harold Dieterle, the winner of the first season of Top Chef, is a huge Mets fan and reader of my stuff, so we’ve been in touch for a while and trying to get together for a food crawl in Manhattan, which finally happened on Friday night. The first stop was Cata, a tapas place on the Lower East Side where the alcohol consumption began – they specialize in gin and tonics, and I got one with Fever Tree tonic and lavender – and we had a handful of small plates. I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d had jamón iberico, the Spanish version of prosciutto made from black Iberian pigs, often fed just on acorns. It’s less salty than prosciutto and the meat has a luxurious, buttery character with a distinct nutty flavor. It’s carved to order from a leg that’s sitting on the bar counter and costs $29 for a plate. We tried a handful of other tapas, best of which were the smoked oysters, the patatas bravas (fried potatoes, but not really French fries) served with an aerated aioli, and the marinated anchovy toasts.

Danny Meyer’s restaurant empire continues to grow, as the entrepreneur best known for creating Shake Shack is behind the new place called Untitled at the Whitney Museum. Head chef Michael Anthony (not the guy from Chickenfoot, although that would be cool) has created a vegetable-focused but not vegetarian menu that changes very frequently to reflect whatever’s most in season. We had at least a half-dozen dishes, some of which were gifts from the kitchen (for Harold, not for me), and the standouts included a tomato/melon “sashimi” that highlighted the spectacular tomatoes with just a little salt and I presume olive oil; a plate of grilled pole beans with squid and toasted hazelnuts, presenting a vegetable I rarely see in a way I hadn’t tried before; nectarine “toasts,” again taking a central item from the produce section and making it the runaway star; pork fritters, opulent little balls of shredded pork shoulder just barely breaded and fried, served over a corn relish; and duck sausage with mustard sauce, which turned out to be the second-best duck dish I had on the evening. The only dish I didn’t love was one of their most famous, the smashed cucumbers with black sesame seeds and soba noodles, which ended up lost in the sea of liquid underneath it, a hazard of working with high-quality in-season cukes. The space itself is very cool, with high ceilings and long pendant lights, plus lots of glass looking out on Gansevoort. Chef Anthony came out to chat and is an incredibly nice guy who’s a fairly serious Reds fan.

The last spot, and the most decadent, was Cosme, a Mexican-inspired upscale restaurant that, according to Harold, has one of the best duck dishes in the city: Duck carnitas, a whole braised duck leg served in a cast-iron skillet with thinly sliced onions and radishes, served with blue-corn tortillas, salsa verde, chile de arbol salsa (I tried it; it’s hot), and lime wedges. The duck shreds like smoked pork shoulder, but has a softer, smoother texture, and it stays moist between the braising and the way it’s served under the browned skin. It’s more than enough to share, but it’s also a steep $59. Whether that’s worth it depends on your budget, but I will say it’s probably the best duck dish I’ve ever had in a restaurant.

We also had Chef Enrique Olvera’s now-famous dessert, a pavlova he calls “Husk Meringue with Corn Mousse,” with burned and powdered corn husks in the giant meringue, which is served cracked in half so that the corn mousse (made with mascarpone) appears to be spilling out of the center. You can see pictures of both dishes in the glowing NY Times review from February. If Olvera’s name rings a bell, he appeared as a judge in one of the Mexico City episodes of the last season of Top Chef.

Saturday five, 8/21/15.

My short series on the best tools in baseball continued with my ranking of the players with the best hitting tools and the best fielding tools in the majors. I also had two draft blog posts, one on the Perfect Game All-American Classic and one on the Under Armour game.

I was the guest host of the Baseball Tonight podcast on Wednesday, with guests Tim Kurkjian and Alex Speier.

Chat is still down, so I did another Periscope video chat instead.

And now, this week’s links… saturdayfive

Saturday five, 8/15/15.

My one Insider piece this week covered my opinions on the best pitcher tools in baseball. ESPN’s chat software was inaccessible this week, so my Klawchat has been postponed to next Thursday.

And now, the links…

  • Minneapolis Star-Tribune writer Amelia Rayno
    tells how disgraced former AD Norwood Teague harassed her. There’s no way his superiors were unaware of this activity, right?
  • One of the most famous longreads in history – written before “longreads” was a term or even a concept worth mentioning – is now online, John Hersey’s 1946 New Yorker piece on Hiroshima survivors. Hersey had just won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for A Bell for Adano, which is on my to-be-read shelf right now.
  • Why are we letting infectious diseases make a comeback? This story isn’t about vaccines, but about our lack of preparedness for new diseases creeping up from warmer regions.
  • This isn’t new, but it came in handy with a Facebook argument with a high school classmate who threw out a little climate-change denial: The polar ice caps aren’t “recovering.”
  • The FDA doctor who blocked thalidomide’s rubber-stamp approval died at 101 this week. Frances Oldham Kelsey – yep, a woman doctor, the kind that chauvinist José Mourinho has such a problem with – said “no” in the face of resistance from multiple sides. Only seventeen cases of thalidomide-related deformities were reported in the United States, compared to thousands in Europe.
  • If you’ve seen Going Clear and want to see the IRS revoke Scientology’s bogus tax exemption, former Scientologist Tony Ortega tells you what to do. I sent one; the more of us send it … well, we can only hope we get some response, as a $3 billion for-profit entity shouldn’t have any tax exemption.
  • Miles Teller’s publicist might want to find a new client after this self-immolation in Esquire. I don’t feel great about the writer’s role, either, as she takes a pretty slanted view of him even considering his boorish behavior.
  • Pedro Moura, one of the best beat writers in the country, has a series on Brazilian baseball, looking into why a country that has a baseball tradition and produces tons of athletes for other sports hasn’t become a huge MLB pipeline. Hint: It’s corrupt as hell.
  • The New England Journal of Medicine came out in support of Planned Parenthood, and against the “radical antichoice group whose goal is the destruction of Planned Parenthood” which “continues to twist the facts to achieve its ends.”
  • Tiling the plane – gleaming the cube, but for math majors – is at the heart of a series of unsolved problems in mathematics, but a recent advance found a new solution among convex pentagons, the first such discovery in decades.
  • Via my friend and frequent dining partner Kiley McDaniel, a piece on how restaurants can’t find enough cooks, a phenomenon that’s at least partly the result of a drop in immigration from Mexico to the U.S.

So I finally saw Birdman yesterday, and thought it was full of great performances but the story was hackneyed at many points, while the ending didn’t work for me at all. I’m sure many if not most of you have seen it already; what did you think? Did this deserve the Best Picture win, or was it a combination of a movie about movies that used a cinematography/editing gimmick that won the prize? And what, if anything, happened at the end?

In the Land of Invented Languages.

Arika Okrent explores the strange history of artificial languages – Esperanto, Klingon, and other doomed projects to create a “universal” or other constructed language for people to ignore – in her lively 2014 book In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius, taking a surprisingly neutral view of the topic that dances around one very obvious truth: These people are weirdos. Some are just eccentric, while others are batshit insane, but the one thing they all have in common is the delusion that any of this is a good idea.

That makes the subject even more interesting, and Okrent, a trained linguist who happens to be the niece of Nine Innings author and original rotisserie league player Dan Okrent, surveys the field by examining the stories of five of the most significant “conlangs” in history: the Philosophical Language of John Wilkins, Esperanto, Loglan (and its offshoot Lojban), Blissymbols, and Klingon. No one here comes off particularly well, although Esperanto creator L.L. Zamenhof doesn’t fare that poorly. Loglan ended up the subject of a lawsuit over who “owned” the language, while the inventor of Blissymbols exhibited symptoms of bipolar disorder, and the folks who learn Klingon … well, that’s its own kind of insanity, given that the language’s designer deliberately made it difficult to learn and pronounce.

One of the most interesting aspects of Okrent’s book is how it sheds light on the evolution of natural languages and why “intelligent design” makes no more sense in linguistics than it does in evolution. Multiple efforts to craft artificial languages have failed for consistent reasons: Either the creator tries so hard to make the language cover everything that it becomes unusable, or the creator fights the natural process of change that accompanies any language when even a small community begins to use it. (Esperanto, the closest thing the conlang world has to a success story, has seen evolutionary changes in the language over its century-plus of existence, such as the decline in use of the -n to mark a noun in the accusative case.) There’s a third obstacle, in my opinion, which is that almost every conlang seems to fall in love with accent marks, such as the are-you-shitting-me P@x’áãokxáã language … which is only an extreme case, as conlangers abuse the umlaut more than bad metal bands, and the orthographical nightmares are compounded by overuse of q, x, and z, often adjacent to each other.

Okrent’s own hypothesis on why artificial languages fail seems to consider the inextricable link between language and culture, something she explores in a few chapters that discuss the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, leading into the section on “Loglan,” a logical language that James Cooke Brown (inventor of the boardgame Careers) created to test that hypothesis in a laboratory setting … but that was or turned into a massive ego project for him, spurring a lengthy battle between him and the small number of people who bothered to learn this thing, causing the latter group to split off and create the language Lojban. If this sounds like a couple of kids fighting over corners of the same sandbox, you have the right idea. But in Okrent’s view, the fascination these strange little subcultures hold doesn’t supersede the fundamental problems that any fake language will have taking hold – the lack of any cultural connection or foundation to tie people to the language and the language to their everyday lives and needs. The work involved doesn’t help either, especially since many of these languages forsake accessibility for “completeness,” but we have seen natural languages take hold in non-native places for cultural or business reasons. We don’t need an artificial universal language because we have English, which has supplanted French (the previous “universal” language) in international business and diplomacy and has been spread globally by the United States’ entertainment industry.

Okrent has many interesting tangents in the book beyond the chapters on crazy Charles Bliss (who sued the school for disabled children that adopted his language of symbols, extorting $160,000 from them to make him go away) or the social outcasts who attend Klingon language conferences. She gives the most concise explanation I’ve ever seen for why irregular grammatical forms persist in modern languages (it’s another evolutionary explanation), describes another failed Sapir-Whorf experiment built around a feminist conlang called Láadan (again with the accent marks), and discusses how the Lord of the Rings trilogy came out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s own language-invention efforts, one that involved building not just a single language but a whole taxonomy of them that led to the elves of Middle Earth. Tolkien, at least, comes off better than most of the nuts who populate the book, idealists, dreamers, egotists, and just plain old oddballs who ignore the history of well over 500 attempts to build an artificial language that people will actually use with a grand total of zero true success stories in the list. Speaking as someone who’s found lots of ways to waste his own time on frivolous pursuits, the invention or study of a fake language strikes me as even more wasteful and frivolous than most.

Next up: Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1997.

Saturday five, 8/7/15.

This week’s Klawchat transcript is up, and I also reviewed Broom Service, a fun family-strategy boardgame that’s been nominated for the Spiel des Jahres award, for Paste.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

The Buried Giant.

I held a Klawchat on Thursday, and I reviewed the Spiel des Jahres-nomianted family boardgame Broom Service for Paste.

Kazuo Ishiguro wrote two of my all-time favorite novels, the very British stiff-upper-lip story The Remains of the Day and the brilliant dystopian tragedy Never Let Me Go, along with a handful of lesser books that featured his gorgeous prose but couldn’t match the two peaks for storycraft. His latest novel, The Buried Giant ($5.99 for Kindle right now), is a welcome return to form for the English author, offering a plot of simple scenes that lends itself to vast philosophical interpretation, in an unfamiliar milieu that blends beautifully (if anachronistically) with his classical prose.

The Buried Giant takes place in pre-medieval England, where the Saxons are gradually taking over from the native Britons and the land is shrouded in a mist that has caused all people enveloped within it to lose access to many of their long-term memories. An old couple within one settlement, built into a hillside network of caves, sets off on a journey to visit their son, who has moved to another village for reasons no longer clear to his parents, Axl and Beatrice. The pilgrimage goes awry quickly – unsurprising, as the pair don’t even know where their son might be – as they’re co-opted into a larger endeavor involving the warrior Wistan, a mysterious orphan Edwin, the Arthurian knight Gawain, and a dragon whose actual existence is unclear until the very end of the book.

Ishiguro’s Victorian phrasings are stilted in the mouths of his Germanic and Celtic characters, but the language seems to fit his fabulist aims – and, of course, an accurate rendering of their language would leave the book unreadable. Fable it is, however, without the pedantry of traditional fables, instead opening up ruminations on the weight of cultural trauma, coming to grips with the sins of the past, and our individual and collective abilities to move on with or without those memories. Is our ability to forget, at least at a superficial level, an asset or a liability? Is there true reconciliation without reckoning?

Axl and Beatrice end up in between two forces taking contrary approaches to these questions, one seeking to lift the fog, the other to preserve it, and are given the choice of sides to support, knowing that neither option is perfect. Choosing to lift the fog may advance the cause of the people of the region, but expose dormant conflicts between the two of them that have been lost to the mist. It’s the question every country’s leaders face after some horrible internal conflagration or genocide: will the long-term gains from a “truth and reconciliation” commission exceed the short-term pain and renewed enmity from reopening wounds so recently closed?

Ishiguro paints his characters in broad strokes here because the mist he’s created all but demands it; the characters feel round but vague, as if the mist itself is between the reader and the page. The precise, modern English in which the characters speak only adds to the perceived distance from us to the action – and there is action, by the way, not just a Tolkienesque walk through New Zealand landscapes with a lot of talking. Ishiguro plays with his narrative prerogative, shifting his view at times away from Axl and Beatrice, although they remain at the heart of the book, such as scenes that serve to emphasize the objection entrenched forces might have to any reexamination of the past. Oligarchy takes a beating here, but The Buried Giant is no polemic, so while Ishiguro concludes the book with a firm decision by the main characters, the ending is neither happy nor straightforward, much as post-war authorities must struggle with the question of lifting the fogs over their battered nations and dealing with the sins of the recent past.

Next up: Anita Okrent’s book on artificial langages (like Esperanto and, yes, Klingon), In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius.

July 2015 music update.

I think this is my longest playlist to date, at least by number of tracks, and that’s after a handful of deletions that didn’t make the ultimate cut. A lot of these are preview tracks from albums due out in the next two months, so it seems like we’re headed for a great fall of new music.

CHVRCHES – Leave A Trace. They’re back with one of their best songs yet; the new album, Every Open Eye, is due on September 25.

Boxed In – Mystery. Boxed In is the stage name of solo artist Oli Bayston, who used to be in a band called Keith (great name, lads), who were joint winners in a 2006 competition with Bombay Bicycle Club, which is the band I first thought recorded this song because it sure sounds like their work. Turns out Bayston’s self-titled debut has been out for months, but this single, a minimalist, offbeat dance track, is just starting to get some airplay over here.

Prince – Stare. I’ve come to grips with the reality that 1980s/1990s Prince is gone, but “Stare” might be my favorite song from him since The Hits/The B-Sides came out in 1993. Prince at least seems to be trying to recapture the golden era of funk influences that informed his earliest recordings, something that comes through even with the sparse production that’s characterized most of his self-recorded albums from the last ten to fifteen years.

Foals – Mountain At My Gates. When these guys rock, they’re among the most interesting bands out there, but when they drift too far over toward their dance/electronic leanings, I start to fade out. This song rocks.

Superhumanoids – Anxious In Venice. Their song “Come Say Hello” was #62 on my top 100 songs of 2014, but it looks like this new track might be their breakout song – or at least the first to garner some mainstream attention, at least. They’re all about lead singer Sarah Chernoff’s voice for me, as she has tremendous range and can go from seductive to soprano in the space of a measure, but what sets “Anxious in Venice” apart is the throbbing electronic beat behind her, one of their best pop hooks ever.

Wavves/Cloud Nothings – No Life for Me. The title track from the “collaborate album” by Wavves and Dylan Baldi (who records as Cloud Nothings) is … well, actually what you’d expect if you mashed these two artists up, in a really good way. Wavves tend toward a cynical/dissonant sound, while Cloud Nothings can be monotonous, but here the two artists seem to mitigate each other’s worst tendencies for a track that’s a little bit poppy and closes out before the hook starts to wear.

Swimm – All the Time. An indie-pop duo from Florida, Swimm calls their sound “genre-blurred” on their bandcamp page, but I think it’s quite clearly electronic pop music like Grouplove or Tanlines, here boosted by a high-flying chorus.

Atlas Genius – Stockholm. There’s more great music coming out of Australia right now than any other place on earth. The brothers Jeffery (not to be confused with Jeff the Brotherhood) will put out their second album of quirky alt-rock gems later this month.

The Libertines – Gunga Din. Try not to act too surprised, but the Libertines’ big comeback song is all about getting wasted. Enjoy them while you can.

Wilco – You Satellite. Wilco’s unexpected album Star Wars (still free on amazon) also seemed, to me as a non-Wilco fan, one of their most accessible to date, but it’s the sprawling five-minute rocker “You Satellite” that grabbed me rather than the more radio-friendly “Random Name Generator.” This song’s syncopated drum line and mournful guitar lines seem more like something out of Wooden Shjips or Slowdive than classic Wilco, but instead of devolving into stoner-rock nonsense the song completes its orbit (pun intended) with a more majestic finish.

The Sword – High Country. Speaking of stoner-rock, we have The Sword, which sounds like the spiritual descendants of Deep Purple and Rainbow, losing some of their Black Sabbath inclinations here on the title track from their upcoming fifth album, due in late August.

Orchid – Helicopters. Sign of the Witch, the new four-song EP from San Francisco-based Orchid, continues down its own Sabbath-inspired path – they chose their name from an instrumental track off Sabbath’s Master of Reality – starting with this track, sort of like “War Pigs” as reinterpreted by Jim Morrison.

Years & Years – Worship. Years & Years’ debut album, Communion, came out last month and debuted at #1 on the UK charts, even reaching #47 here without a lot of radio support. It’s a safe record, like Hot Chip distilled for broader appeal, with very few moments that stood out as worth replaying. This track was the album’s highlight.

Tove Styrke – … Baby One More Time. Styrke, a Swedish pop artist, takes a pop song (and, if you remove the hypersexualized underage girl from the original’s equation, a good one) and makes it into something new, with a darker twist to the song and a synth line that sounds like a Lo-Fi All-Stars riff. It’s far better than the other cover running around this month, Nekokat’s perfunctory, cash-grabbing cover of the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry.”

Passion Pit – Until We Can’t (Let’s Go). These guys seem to be good for one great track per album; this is the one from their April release Kindred.

Metric – Cascades. The third single from their upcoming album isn’t as immediate – ugh, I can’t believe I used that word – as “The Shade,” but it’s a similarly mature track from the Canadian outfit whose early stuff drove me up a wall.

The Helio Sequence – Battle Lines. This Portland duo’s eponymous sixth album came out in late May on Sub Pop but I missed it in all the draft prep I was doing at the time. “Battle Lines” is a dreamlike, textured track that has a hint of melancholy in the reverbed vocals and a tropical underpinning in the drum line, probably a shade too long at 4:20 (heh).

Mimicking Birds – Dead Weight. These guys seem too smart for even the smarter (if more self-important) corners of popular and “alternative” music, especially in the lyrics to this track, which read more like poetry than rock lyrics. It’s mournful and immersive until the odd smooth-jazz outro.

Telegraph Canyon – Why Let It Go. Arcade Fire with a tinge of country? They’re called “Americana” in reviews, but that’s not only a subtle insult, it diminishes the breadth of their sound and the members’ prodigious technical skills.

Houndmouth – Say It. Now this is more Americana, right? Or maybe alt-country or roots-rock. I’ve noticed “Sedona,” which appeared on my April playlist, is getting a little mainstream airplay, so, you know, way to catch up.

Cloves – Don’t You Wait. I can’t quite get my head around Cloves’ bizarre pronunciations (what she does to the word “better” might qualify as vandalism), but her voice is haunting and strong, reminding me of how I felt when I first heard Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxer” and couldn’t get over that voice coming from an eighteen-year-old.

Chelsea Wolfe – After the Fall. I don’t know what to make of this song, but it creeps me out. She cites lots of dark influences, including black metal acts, but the morbid feel of “After the Fall” comes from atmosphere rather than blast beats or death growls.

Telekinesis – In a Future World. This song from Portland indie rocker Michael Benjamin Lerner is so new his own website doesn’t mention it, but it’s the lead single from his upcoming album Ad Infinitum, due out on September 18th. It’s a departure from his power-pop output to date, instead drawing heavily on early 1980s synth-pop and new wave, and I think the best song I’ve heard from him.

Shura – White Light. Aleksandra Denton has yet to produce a full-length album, with this track coming from her first EP release, itself just three songs long. It’s electro-pop more than “alternative,” with a definite R&B influence underneath her vocals, which are reminiscent of Leanne Macomber’s.