The Last Dragonslayer.

In case you missed anything, here’s the full set of links to the top 100 prospects package. The piece on 10 prospects who just missed the 100 will now run on Wednesday, rather than today.

I’m a longtime fan of Jasper Fforde’s novels – the Thursday Next series, the two Nursery Crimes books, and the dying-for-a-sequel Shades of Grey – and just tackled his first young adult novel, The Last Dragonslayer, last week. The first in the “Chronicles of Kazam” series, the book is quite Ffordian, just without the sex and swearing we’re used to from the Thursday Next books, yet still very ffunny and still willing to address big themes like death, moral choices, and greed.

Set in an alternate version of our world where magic exists (albeit in decline) and the U.K. has splintered into the Ununited Kingdoms, The Last Dragonslayer revolves around 15-year-old Jennifer Strange, the temporary manager of the Kazam employment agency for sorcerors and, as it turns out, the next in the line of dragonslayers. Here be dragons, or at least nearby, thanks to the Dragonpact that set up boundaries between dragons and humans – but the dragon nearest Kazam is dying and every human wants to rush in and claim some of the soon-to-be-unoccupied land. Fforde loves to riff on capitalism run amok and spares no one here in his assaults on human and corporate avarice, not even the local idiot King of Hereford, who believes Jennifer should be acting in his interests as one of his subjects.

Strange herself has no magical abilities, although she’s running the shop at Kazam, which rents out the services of its various mages for things like home rewirings and pizza deliveries (all those magic carpets have to find some use). She’s the ideal Ffordian hero: uncertain, underconfident, stronger than she realizes, female yet not overtly feminine, and fiercely loyal to her friends and to her principles. One of those friends, filling the role of Pickwick the dodo, is the Quarkbeast, whose only dialogue comprises the occasional interjection, “Quark.”

The successful completion of Jennifer’s mission involves more cunning than fighting, and she outwits several opponents to her half-formed plans to try to do the Right Thing, even though she’s far from clear on what that is. The story moves quickly, unfettered by much in the way of subplots – the missing owner of Kazam will likely wait for another day to resurface, and I imagine we’ll hear more of the origins of both Jennifer and her fellow foundling “Tiger” Prawns in a future book – with plenty of the dry wit that makes Fforde’s books such a pleasure to read. I think it’s appropriate for ages 8 or 9 and up, but wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any adult.

State of Wonder.

Thursday’s Klawchat had a lot of Hall of Fame talk plus some prospect content. The Top 100 prospects package will run the week of January 27th.

Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder marks a return to form for the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, Bel Canto, where she pays homage to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain while drawing on the real-life hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru. In between those two books, Patchett wrote just one novel, the embarrassing Run, a not-even-thinly-veiled love letter to then Senator Barack Obama, whom Patchett clearly hoped would run for President and win. That novel lost all of what made Patchett special, even in the quality of her prose, but State of Wonder brings everything back together.

Marina Singh is a pharmacologist working for a major drug researcher that has been funding a long-running development project deep in the Amazon basin, where the women in a tribe of natives, the Lakashi, maintain fertility well into their 70s. The eccentric researcher running the project, Dr. Annick Swenson, has cut off nearly all contact with her benefactors, and another researcher sent to locate her and report back on her progress, Marina’s colleague Anders Eckmann, died of fever while still in Brazil. Marina, who studied under Dr. Swenson over a decade earlier before an incident pushed her out of obstetrics into pharmacology, draws the short straw and has to go track down her former mentor, but finds that her mission is more complicated in both a practical and philosophical sense than anyone realized.

The lead characters in State of Wonder, Marina and Dr. Swenson, stand alongside Patchett’s best characters from Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant as smart, three-dimensional personas. Their thinking is complex and real without becoming unrealistic; Dr. Swenson is a genius, and a different sort of person, but her character is logical and thinks and behaves in logical ways. Marina’s back story is more involved, and her character, while very intelligent, is less mature, and she’s still grappling with the fallout from that incident that caused her to switch her specialty during her residency. (The novel would also pass the Bechdel test if it were made into a film.)

Marina spends a few weeks in the (real) Brazilian city of Manaus before finding Dr. Swenson and heading into the remote jungle location of the research labs, encountering some oddball, entertaining side characters that make up for some of their two-dimensionality with their injection of humor. But Patchett’s renderings of the settings, both Manaus and the Lakashi region, are beautifully detailed, and she represents the natives, by any Western definition a “primitive” people, without resorting to condescension over their way of life, even though it would likely be warranted.

Patchett has commented in interviews that her book was inspired by several films, notably Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (TL;DW), but there’s also a clear evocation of Evelyn Waugh’s demented A Handful of Dust, where one of the protagonists, Tony Last, meets perhaps the worst non-death fate of any major character in literature, all in the remote jungles of the Amazon basin. (Patchett slips in some Dickens references which make the allusion to Waugh obvious.) State of Wonder also steps back from the overwrought political leanings of Run, instead presenting soft arguments, pro and con, on environmental subjects and treatment of isolated peoples like the Lakashi, without detracting from the central story, one of delayed emotional development for Marina. Her professional success hasn’t been mirrored by happiness, and Patchett matures her without giving her a forced Hollywood ending. Marina ends up having to make a choice with huge moral implications before leaving the Amazon, the kind of decision that ages you emotionally when you face it but that was necessary to conclude the story without turning it into a saccharine mess.

Next up: Still slogging through Robert Tressell’s socialism-pamphlet-cum-novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Top 100 songs of 2013.

Last year I discovered (for myself, that is) enough good new music to do my first serious annual music ranking, listing my top 40 songs of 2012, a list that I originally intended to just go to 20 titles but that kept expanding as I kept writing and exploring. This year, I started the exploring a little sooner, and also ended up on a few promotional lists that exposed me to even more new stuff, so by midyear it was very clear to me that I’d have more than enough songs to get to 100. I had over 150 candidates if you count all of the album tracks I liked enough to consider, but forced it down to 100 (which didn’t work out that well, as you’ll see shortly).

As with my list of the top albums of 2013, this list is my personal preference. If I don’t like a song, it’s not here. That wipes out some critically-acclaimed artists entirely, including Daft Punk, Haim, Vampire Weekend, Deafheaven (and please, people, death metal and black metal are not the same thing), Rhye, the Lumineers (more like Ho Hum), American Authors, James Blake, Foxygen, Majikal Cloudz, Phosphorescent, Jason Isbell (I just do not like country music), and My Bloody Valentine. Other folks liked that stuff. I didn’t.

Some songs that were among the last ones I cut from my list, in no particular order, looking just at artists that didn’t make it: Birds of Tokyo – “Lanterns;” Midlake – “Antiphon;” Harrison Hudson – “Curious;” Cumulus – “Do You Remember;” Young Galaxy – “Pretty Boy;” The 1975 – “Chocolate;” Blondfire – “Waves.” The last two got the axe for lyrics too stupid for me to abide. I’ve mentioned several other songs I liked, but not enough to get them into the top 100, within the comments below.

I’m going to start with two extra tracks that were the final two cuts from the list, ones I actually wrote up at first before realizing I’d forgotten two other tracks that belonged on here.

Wild Nothing – Dancing Shell. One of my biggest misses from my 2012 list was Wild Nothing’s Nocturne, which I picked up in January on the recommendations of several readers and loved for its dream-pop leanings with experimental twists – but with more guitar than most bands in this subgenre employ. “Dancing Shell” is more dance/electronic than straight-ahead rock but showcases the creativity of Jack Tatum, who records all of Wild Nothing’s music himself, with other members joining him just for live shows. His 2013 EP wasn’t as good as Nocturne but including this song lets me mention again how badly I whiffed by not including the album on my list from last year.

Ejecta – Jeremiah (The Denier). A side project for Neon Indian’s keyboardist Leanne Macomber, Ejecta offers spacey electro-pop, although I think they’ve received more press for their debut album’s cover, which features a nude Macomber posing as if one of the great Renaissance masters was about to paint her. That might just be overshadowing the music, which has the early-80s New Wave leanings of most electro-pop but pairs it with Macomber’s languorous, breathy vocals to temper its brightness. “It’s Only Love” is also worth checking out.

And now, to the top 100. This entire list, including both of those bonus tracks, is available as a Spotify playlist, in order. Amazon and iTunes links go to full albums, where you can just buy the specific song I mentioned (this reduced the number of links I had to create).
[Read more...]

Top 13 albums of 2013.

This year was so fertile for new music that, for the first time, I felt like I heard enough records I liked to put together a ranking of my favorite albums of the year. The expansion of Spotify’s catalog didn’t hurt, as now I didn’t have to own every album (or pirate them, which I won’t do) to review them, and I’ve received a few of these via publicists or record labels, including the albums at 4, 5, and 6.

This list represents my personal preferences. The omission of some critically-acclaimed albums, like those from the National, Vampire Tweekend, Daft Punk, and Haim, is deliberate. I don’t like ‘em, ergo, they’re not here. The same goes for Mercury Prize winner James Blake, who wasn’t even the best solo male artist nominated for the award this year. If you’re looking for alt-J’s An Awesome Wave, that was my favorite album of 2012, as it was released in the U.S. last September.

I’ll post my top 100 songs of the year on Thursday, and mention in each review how many tracks from that album will appear on that list.

13. Teeth of the Sea – Master. (amazoniTunes)Part of me isn’t even sure why I’m putting a record I don’t even fully understand on this list; like Field of Reeds from These New Puritans, Master is aiming for something well beyond the scope of what I enjoy and appreciate in modern music. While plenty of electronic acts earned airplay and mainstream plaudits in 2013, I don’t think anyone produced anything as ambitious within that subgenre as Teeth of the Sea did here, creating a dark, immersive record that at times seemed to draw more inspiration from symphonic death metal (like a vocal-free Hollenthon) than it did from the heart of current electronica. The record placed one song on my top 100, but that’s in part of a function of the album working better as a whole than in singles.

12. Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart. (amazoniTunes)Turner’s brand of punk-folk, or whatever it is, is incredibly endearing mostly because he seems to cram more lyrics into each minute than Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell spat out in His Girl Friday. It’s the kind of album that should be enjoyed along with two fingers of your favorite distilled spirit, or a pint of a good, not-too-cold Irish or English beer, even though the album’s best song is about the difficulty of drying oneself out. Turner hides nothing, and his writing skills lie in his ability to translate sadness and hurt into darkly humorous lyrics. The album placed one song on my top 100.

11. Wooden Shjips – Back to Land. (amazoniTunes)Can I just pronounce this “Wooden Shyips?” Because that’s what I want to do every time I see their name. Like Teeth of the Sea, Wooden Shjips are better consumed as a whole disc than as individual singles, here because everything is good and nothing stands out in a huge way from the album’s mean. They get the “psychedelic” tag a lot, although I think some of that is just because they use a Hammond organ, but it’s guitar-driven rock with extended song structures and maybe a little too much reverb in the vocals. It might be more fair to think of them as a jam band that keeps things tight on record. It didn’t place any songs on my top 100, with “Ruins” my favorite track because it sounds like a party’s about to break out in the studio.

10. Carcass – Surgical Steel. (amazoniTunes) I actually don’t listen to much metal, let alone extreme metal variations, with the exception of melodic death metal – very fast, heavy music with lyrics that are often screamed rather than sung, but with tremendous technical musicianship and actual melodies that require a little work to find but that provide balance for music that can be brutal and intense. Carcass was probably the progenitor of the subgenre but hadn’t released any new material since 1996′s disappointing Swansong, but their comeback album this year, Surgical Steel, is a true return to form but with a newer maturity, including tighter song structures and lots of allusions to their heyday as grindcore pioneers. Other metal albums I liked from 2013: Children of Bodom’s Halo of Blood, Trivium’s Vengeance Falls, Born of Osiris’ Tomorrow We Die Δlive, and Týr’s Valkyrja.

9. Naked and Famous – In Rolling Waves. (amazoniTunes) The sophomore album from this New Zealand act is more lush than their debut, giving lead signer Alisa Xayalith more room to sing rather than shouting vocals over louder, heavier music as she had to do on their first two hits, “Young Blood” and “Punching in a Dream.” It’s a more serious album, with slower builds and more modest payoffs, weaving textures rather than building off giant hooks – if anything, the catchier tracks are among the album’s weaker ones, except for lead single “Hearts Like Ours” and the duet “The Mess.” I don’t award points for a band making progress per se, but the result here of the band maturing from a shorter singles-oriented sound to a more ambitious overall sound made it among the year’s best discs. The album placed one song on my top 100.

8. Arcade Fire – Reflektor. (iTunesiTunes) I’ve had multiple readers ask me if I’ve changed my mind on this album since giving it a middling review about a week after its release, which I find strange mostly because … well, is it that important that I like the album? I don’t pretend my opinion means anything beyond giving you guys something to read and talk about, so I don’t think the fact that I found this album disappointing is such a big deal. I loved The Suburbs, but Reflektor went so far in the opposite direction – bloated song times, pretentious lyrics, too few musical ideas – that I couldn’t help but feel let down. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, himself known for songs about twice as long as they needed to be, produced the album, and he was probably the wrong choice for a band that can’t rein itself in. This was a good album relative to other releases this year, but it could have been so much better. The album placed three tracks on my top 100.

7. Jake Bugg – Shangri La. (amazoniTunes) I whiffed on Bugg’s self-titled debut album for last year’s list; the album came out last October and I didn’t hear anything of it until well into 2013. I’ve caught up now, as Bugg’s second album came out in November and features more of the same Dylanesque sound, but better, including the punkish “What Doesn’t Kill You?,” the rockabilly opener “There’s a Beast and We All Feed It,” and the shuffling ballad “Me and You,” itself a late cut from my top 100. Bugg is just 19 and has only begun to scratch the surface of what could be an enormous career as Dylan’s spiritual heir. The album placed one track on my top 100.

6. Polvo – Siberia. (amazoniTunes)The second post-breakup (and post-reunion) album from these 1990s noise-rock cult heroes might be their best effort yet, packing plenty of weirdness into its eight tracks but never losing the plot. It’s heavy on twin guitars, even though they often sound like they might not be playing the same song, and the lyrics are trippy if you like them and nonsense if you don’t. I particularly like how the album feels heavy without being loud or extreme, an example of where modern metal often goes wrong; you don’t need to sing like Cookie Monster to create the impression of weight. The album placed two tracks on my top 100.

5. St. Lucia – When the Night. (amazoniTunes) One of the best debut albums of the year and one of its best pure-pop records, When the Night is the first effort from the South African-born New York native Jean-Philip Grobler, who has remixed many better-known artists and produced the debut album from HAERTS. St. Lucia’s sound is sweet synth-pop with global influences in the rhythm and percussion sections, along with a detour into darker electronic sounds on one of the album’s best tracks, “September.” Grobler occasionally veers too far into twee territory but the album has more than enough moments of balance, placing three tracks on my top 100.

4. Drenge – Drenge. The self-titled debut from these two English brothers actually isn’t out yet in the U.S., which is one of the stupidest policies left in the digital age. Why would any movie, record, or book publisher stagger release dates internationally? Ones and zeroes know nothing of your national borders. If you don’t want to encourage piracy, release everything on the same day across the world. Drenge’s album is on Spotify and I received a promo copy in November, so you can listen to it before its early 2014 release here, and it’s well worth it, with a slew of high-energy guitar/drum songs that show influences from each of the last four decades, going back to early Black Sabbath and running up through the White Stripes. The record placed three tracks on my top 100.

3. Savages – Silence Yourself. (amazoniTunes) This was my album of the year until September, when the two albums higher on this list both came out, and still wins the prize of the year’s angriest album. The all-female quartet known as Savages have produced a short eleven-track masterpiece of seething and indignation, led by French singer Jehnny Beth’s punctuated style that has her practically spitting the words at the undeserving audience. The music is post-punk in its original sense – Suicide, Television, Gang of Four – not pop, even though songs like “She Will,” “Shut Up,” and “Strife” boast strong hooks. The album placed two tracks on my top 100.

2. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe. (amazoniTunes) The debut of the year was a little uneven in spots but so exultant during most of its length that it feels captious to point out its flaws. Singer Lauren Mayberry is an emerging star, one whose future probably goes beyond the electro-pop confines of this record and perhaps the band in general, but for now the Scottish trio has crafted the year’s best pop record, with five tracks on my top 100 and one that was in the set that just missed.

1. Arctic Monkeys – AM. (amazoniTunes)Their best album since their debut, but with all that several years of maturity and musical meandering incorporated into a disc that brings an enormous range of influences to produce the year’s most compelling and most complete experience. Turner has long been one of rock’s most clever wordsmiths, but took his form of snarky-witty modern beat poetry to new heights on AM. The album placed five songs on my top 100 and could have placed two more, plus one track, “R U Mine?” that appeared on the 2012 list because it was released as a one-off single.

Drenge & These New Puritans.

My analysis of the Josh Johnson and David Murphy signings is up for Insiders.

Drenge is a duo act comprising brothers from Derbyshire, England, whose self-titled debut album dropped in the United Kingdom in mid-August and will come out here in January. First recommended to me by one of you, a promo copy Drenge came across my desk this week (figuratively, since it was via email), and it’s promising if uneven, an intriguing blend of rock styles from post-punk to grunge to garage with at least three standout tracks. (If you’re in the U.K. you can buy the album via amazon. Otherwise, you can stream it on Spotify below.)

Although the White Stripes have set the standard for guitar-and-drum rock duos, Drenge have a little more in common with Jeff the Brotherhood, another sibling act that opts for heavier riffs and a chunkier sound for the guitar, without Jack White’s peripatetic musical style. Guitarist Eion Loveless’ rhythm lines are loud and aggressive, with abrupt tempo changes and shifts from the cleaner post-punk of Gang of Four to the fuzzier sounds of early Soundgarden or vintage Mudhoney. You can even hear bits of darkwave in some of the slower tracks, like the latter half of “Nothing” or nearly all of the eight-minute non sequitur closer “Let’s Pretend,” which might also be the result of distant influences from Black Sabbath or Angel Witch.

Where Drenge separates itself from similarly lo-fi/garage acts is in the five-song stretch from the album’s second track, the grim “Dogmeat” (which reminds me of a slowed-down take on Shed Seven’s “Dolphin”), through the pleasantly annoying “Face Like a Skull.” That quintet includes the album’s first single and best track, “Bloodsports,” where the brothers Loveless start to borrow more heavily from UK superstars the Arctic Monkeys in sound and melodic strength. The energy on “Bloodsports” starts with the fast-paced guitar line behind the verses, a la the intro to Nirvana’s “Breed,” but kicks up another gear with the drum-less riff right after the chorus, a trick Jack White has long used to great effect. “Backwaters” is the disc’s closest thing to a pop track, like Radiohead’s “I Might Be Wrong” tidied up for mass consumption yet still sinister enough to deliver lines like “I never seen blood or milk mix so divine/I never seen such beauty so malign,” a line followed by a riff so heavy you think the boys are shifting into mid-80s thrash mode. “Gun Crazy” turns the tempo back up to punk speed, a song to make Mark Arm proud for its first half that adds some complexity with off-beat staccato strumming in its final thirty-second coda.

The remainder of the album is far less consistent, including “Let’s Pretend,” which feels out of place and thoroughly bombastic for clocking in at twice the length of the next-longest song, “Fuckabout,” which is about as intellectually or aurally pleasing as the title indicates. “I Wanna Break You in Half” works as a suitably obnoxious fast-paced sub-two-minute track, but the same conceit flops on the unfunny “I Don’t Wanna Make Love to You” or the opener “People In Love Make Me Feel Yuck.” Eoin seems capable of lyrical subtletly, but too often settles for a sledgehammer to the forehead with a joke that feels like we’ve heard it a dozen times before. That can improve with experience and maturity, but Drenge’s ability to craft memorable hooks and evoke so many different eras in songs typically just two to three minutes long is already plus.

I also received a copy of the new album Field of Reeds by another English act, These New Puritans, which comprises twin brothers plus a third member, although the disc includes prominent contributions from over thirty-eight session musicians (per Wikipedia). I’ve previously mentioned the lead single, “Fragment Two,” which is also by far the album’s most conventional track in song structure, although even its music rarely follows the rules of modern rock music. I feel underqualified to talk about the album, given its experimental and highly artistic nature, with only Talk Talk’s Laughing Stalk coming to mind as a reference point (and I wouldn’t even say I know that album that well). The overwhelming sense I got from Field of Reeds was one of vastness, of the attempts to fill enormous ranges of space with haunting sounds that expanded upon release but never managed to reach the area’s borders. There are moments on the album of beauty, and just as many moments where it appears the band is trying to create a form of anti-music. As someone who tends to choose singles over albums, and gravitates towards melody over sonic textures, however, I found myself coming back to “Fragment Two” and the hynpotic “Organ Eternal,” the album’s two most accessible tracks. Field of Reeds is for mature listeners only.

Middlemarch.

This week’s Behind the Dish podcast reunited me with my old Baseball Today co-host Eric Karabell. And you all thought I died when I went over that waterfall with Bias Cat, didn’t you?

George Eliot’s Middlemarch appears on the Bloomsbury 100 and ranks 9th on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100, but after my intense dislike of her novel Mill on the Floss*, I expected a similarly arduous read, with slow prose and distant, even odious characters. Middlemarch feels like the work of a different author, however, less bleak and moralistic, with stronger, better-rounded characters (and a few jerks), and every bit as pointed a perspective on the restrictive nature of Victorian society, especially regarding the rights of women.

* Not to be confused with Millon de Floss, one of the great biographer-stalkers of his time.

Middlemarch weaves several related stories together, all centered in the fictional English town of the title, revolving around idealistic young characters whose desires go beyond the traditional spouse-seeking of English literature prior to the 1860s. It begins with Dorothea Brooke, destined to be the semi-tragic heroine of the novel’s first major plot, as she rejects a suitor nearer her age and emotional temperament to marry the dour, chauvinistic theologian Edward Casaubon, a blowhard who is the first of the novel’s many comic side characters. Dorothea’s other suitor, Sir James Chettam, marries Dorothea’s sister in what becomes a far happier marriage. Edward refuses to induct Dorothea into his intellectual life, perhaps because it is nearly bankrupt, leaving her bored and unhappy until his early death, at which point an absurd codicil to his will forbids her to take up with Edward’s distant cousin, Will Ladislaw, who is a far better emotional match for Dorothea.

Middlemarch is also home to the Vincy siblings, Rosamund and Fred, a financially irresponsible pair who have very different aims in romance: Fred wants to marry Mary Garth, with whom he’s been in love for years, while Rosamund sinks her claws into the young doctor Tertius Lydgate, because she sees him as a path to upward mobility. Fred’s ability to marry is hampered by his dissolution, which leads him to bankrupt himself and nearly do the same to Mary’s father, while Rosamund manipulates the idealistic Lydgate, who doesn’t plan on marrying because it would interfere with his professional endeavors, into a betrothal he didn’t desire.

Eliot takes the usual themes of marriage and inheritance as the starting point for deeper explorations of character and societal mores than contemporary novels typically explored, helping usher in an era of fiction where independent women were increasingly found as central characters and where their lower standing in a male-dominated culture was fodder for entire novels. Dorothea begins as a high-minded, emotionally immature woman who reaches for some ill-defined goal in marrying the old pedant Casaubon, only to realize she’s grasped at a cloud and lost her independence without any intellectual gain. Fred has to be shamed into a life of industry and diligence, in a career that seemed beneath him, to have any chance to marry the woman he loves. Lydgate’s match with Rosamund turns out to be disastrous, as her extravagance nearly bankrupts him, his researches grind to a halt, and he’s caught up in a scandal involving the local squire Bulstrode, who makes ill use of the doctor to try to hide his own mistakes. While some characters face consequences for their own sins, others find their lives constrained by the need to keep up appearances, or by the effects of gossip about untoward appearances. Even in the epilogue, Eliot grants most of her characters middling outcomes, where financial success and happiness are mutually exclusive; Dorothea may at least fare the best, as she can find happiness even in an imperfect situation, telling Ladislaw that “if we had lost our own chief good, other people’s good would remain, and that is worth trying for,” marking why she stands above the rest as the novel’s real protagonist and most empathetic character.

As much as Dorothea stands at Middlemarch‘s moral center, Lydgate struck me as the most fascinating character because of the small window he provides into Eliot’s own views on the rise of science and research in English society and culture. Lydgate arrives in Middlemarch intending to work as a doctor to fund his researches, bringing ideas for reform and for greater service to those unable to afford proper medical care to a small town with decidedly staid ideas on what a doctor should do and say. The obstacles he encounters from the town’s aged, established medics slow his practice significantly, even when he has some success in treating difficult cases, but it is the marriage to the dim-witted, materialistic Rosamund that destroys his intellectual curiosity, because he can no longer devote time to research or volunteer work because he has to pay the debts she has accumulated. Coming from a male author, this might read as misogynistic, but Eliot imbues all of her characters, male and female, with strengths and defects, so even the venal Rosamund is multi-dimensional, while the reader cannot exonerate Lydgate of blame in his own downfall. (It’s also hard to accuse Eliot of anti-feminism when she has Mary say, “Husbands are an inferior class of men, who require keeping in order.”

Middlemarch might be the most-praised novel ever written in the English language. Virginia Woolf referred to it as “the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” A.S. Byatt used that quote in her 2007 review, saying it was possible to argue – seriously, can you get more wishy-washy? – that Middlemarch is “the greatest English novel.” Daniel Burt’s top 100 only lists two English-language novels ahead of it – the abysmal Moby Dick and the abstruse Ulysses, the latter by an author who’d abandon English entirely in his next novel, Finnegan’s Wake. Eliot’s prose is far more pleasant to read than Melville’s and easier to digest than Joyce’s, with incisive wit (as in the “husbands” comment above) or profound renditions of human emotions:

When the commonplace “We must all die” transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness “I must die – and soon,” then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first.

Writers who craft realistic characters typically exhibit this understanding of emotion and thought, whether the feelings depicted are negative (fear of mortality) or positive. Eliot can drift from compassion to disdain – Mary, the novel’s most insightful speaker, points out that “selfish people always think their own discomfort of more importance than anything in the world,” which is undeniable – over the course of a few pages, but there is always the sense that she reveres character, even if she doesn’t always revere her specific characters. I don’t share Woolf’s and Byatt’s veneration of Middlemarch, as the Lydgate/Rosamund thread tended to meander and Rosamund was the least compelling character in the book, but it is a marvelous novel, a broad study of many brilliantly rendered characters, and a lesson in integrating multiple storylines into a single narrative.

Pizzeria Vetri and Barbuzzo (Philly eats, part one).

Today’s Behind the Dish podcast featured physics professor Alan Nathan plus my thoughts on the World Series and the two Cuban free agents who just signed.

I’ve now had two meals at Pizzeria Vetri, the latest outpost of the Vetri family empire of Philly restaurants (including Vetri and Osteria), and am thoroughly impressed by their authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas and commitment to simple recipes with a handful of fresh ingredients. The pizzas come with the appropriate char on the exterior, moderate air bubbles in the exterior crust, and enough interior crust to hold together but not enough to support the weight of the toppings (which is correct, oddly enough). That exterior crust was softer than some other authentic Neapolitan pizzerias I’ve tried, but it was a net positive as it didn’t become tough once it cooled.

The margherita is dominated by the bright, sweet flavor of San Marzano tomoates, with huge basil leaves and a few dollops of fresh mozzarella, light enough that my daughter, age 7, could eat five of the six slices and still have room for dessert. I preferred the crudo, with prosciutto crudo, mozzarella di bufala, and shaved Parmiggiano-Reggiano, which had better balance across all the flavors with a slightly salty profile from the meat and the hard cheese, but the crusts on both were very good and cooked perfectly from char to center.

Vetri also offers a rotating special of Silician-style pizza (thicker crust, cooked in a sheet pan), which often reflects the chef’s caprices on that particular day. For our last visit, the “pizza al taglio” (pizza by the slice) special was roasted quince that had been cooked with red wine, along with fresh herbs including rosemary, and mozzarella and shaved pecorino romano. It was peculiar, a little like a wine-and-cheese course on top of a thick pizza crust, but the sharp crunch of the crust was the main selling point of the slice, with a little dose of olive oil like the underside of a good focaccia (which is pretty much Sicilian pizza dough cooked without toppings).

Vetri’s non-pizza offerings are limited, but they do include a Caesar salad and a “wood-fired” salad, the latter coming with roasted corn, green beans, and chanterelles, along with a generous portion of sliced prosciutto cotto and some Microplaned ricotta salata. With a drizzle of olive oil and a hint of vinegar, it’s an earthy mixture bound by the powerful umami notes of the roasted chanterelles and sweetness of the corn, and far more satisfying than I’d expect an item in the salad section of the menu to be. Vetri also offers a few dessert items and my daughter would like you to know that the fior di latte (sweet cream) soft-serve ice cream is the best soft-serve she’s ever had, although I warn you her affections can be fickle.

My daughter also accompanied me to Barbuzzo earlier this month, a restaurant I’d wanted to visit since coming across their salted caramel budino recipe in Bon Appetit several years ago; I’ve made them four or five times and wanted to compare my results to the real thing. Aside from a small lapse in service, the entire experience was superb, with some huge highlights from the savory part of the menu.

The kale salad was the surprise hit of the meal for me, featuring thinly sliced ribbons of dino kale (a.k.a. Cavolo nero or Tuscan kale or lacinato, it’s all the same damn leaf) tossed in a pistachio pesto dressing, served over a few slices of roasted red and yellow beets with soft goat cheese. I find kale an incredibly versatile ingredient, pairing up well with other flavors from across the spectrum, from bacon to nuts to cranberries or pomegranate arils, so I wasn’t shocked that it played well with pistachio, but was shocked by how much body the pistachios gave to the entire salad; kale can be a little tough, and a little bitter, but the broad coating of the dressing reduced the feeling that this was just a pile of leaves. The only problem with the dish is that the menu refers to it as a roasted beet salad when that is maybe the third or fourth ingredient on the list; this is a kale salad, plus some beets and goat cheese.

Although the various pizzas on the menu were hard to ignore with the wood-fired oven right in my line of sight, I went with the server’s suggestion of the pan-seared gnocchi with bacon, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes, with no sauce but the slight glaze of the bacon fat. The gnocchi were the lightest I’ve ever eaten, strong enough to hold a brown crust from the searing but light enough that an entire plateful was more like an appetizer than a full entree (so it’s a good thing I was full of kale salad by that point). They were powerful bacon-infused pockets that crushed all other comers, the rare example of a plate delivering a bacon punch without delivering a similar blow to your gut. My daughter was satisfied with the burrata plate with several kinds of fresh tomatoes, nut-free pesto, and sliced onions along with a serving of grilled country bread (an add-on for $2), all of which was fresh across the board, even the tomatoes, which surprised me with their sweetness given the time of year.

The dessert … well, the salted caramel budino didn’t quite live up to expectations; the recipe may have changed, but there’s nothing tangy in the version I make at home, whereas something in the mason jar I received at Barbuzzo was, possibly due to the incorporation of crème fraiche somewhere along the line. I can’t say mine is better, since it’s their recipe, but I prefer it without that sour note. My daughter ordered the apple raisin bread pudding with bourbon sauce and malted buttermilk gelato, which tasted strongly of bourbon and, not surprisingly, which she loved. The only real complaint I had about the meal was the 15-minute lag between when we ordered dessert and when it arrived; to a seven-year-old, or her anxious father, that’s a long time. The bread pudding had clearly just come out of the oven, though – it was practically in flames when it reached the table – and their expediter was otherwise on the ball as everything reached the table quickly and at the right temperature. I’d love to go back and sample other parts of the menu, including the pizzas, the other house-made pastas, and the wild mushroom bruschetta and sheep’s milk ricotta starters.

Arizona eats, October 2013 edition.

My first Arizona Fall League update went up on Thursday afternoon. The next one will go up on Monday morning … that is, a few hours from now.

I had a bittersweet experience in Arizona last week, my first extended trip there since we moved out of the state in June. The pleasure in seeing Fall League games, catching up with some friends, and visiting old haunts couldn’t surpass the feeling that all of that – plus the spectacular weather – was no longer mine, that the drive south on the 101 was no longer to my house, that winter was waiting for me on the other side of the trip. (I define winter as “not summer.”) I did manage to distract myself by hitting four new restaurants while I was on the ground there, at least.

Crêpe Bar in Tempe is the new brick-and-mortar place from the chef behind Truckin’ Good Food, and you know they’re serious about food when you see they use coffee from heart roasters in Portland, Oregon. Turns out they have a real barista who pulls a damn good shot of espresso, and the drip coffee earned raves from my friend Sam. Crêpe Bar also offers cold-brewed coffee, which they prep daily and allow to steep for about 24 hours, as well as V60 and Aeropress pour-overs, so it’s worth going if only for the coffee. As for the crepes, I’ll just point out that I had a crêpe with vanilla custard, strawberries, toasted slivered almonds, and some 55% Valrhona chocolate, and you’ll just be jealous.

Located in the Bespoke Inn in Old Town Scottsdale, a mere 12-minute walk from Scottsdale Stadium, Virtu Honest Craft just made Esquire‘s list of the 18 best new restaurants in the country, and it might be the best restaurant in the state of Arizona now – something I wouldn’t say lightly, having tried and loved crudo, Citizen Public House, Pizzeria Bianco, cibo, and others. Virtu’s food was just a slight cut above its competitors, offering inventive plates that played with flavors and textures in clever ways with visually appealing presentations. Kiley McDaniel met me for dinner, but was a little late, so I ordered one of the happy hour crostini options, with piquillo pepper jam and manchego cheese, a great twist on the ordinary fig jam or quince paste crostini concept that brought a hint of spice and less straight sugar to the bite. Then the gluttony began in earnest: the chef sent out a large antipasto plate with three cheeses, truffled salami, Sicilian olives, and marcona almonds, as well as honey to pair with the blue cheese. That was free (I think all the early tables got one), but came out after we’d ordered two starters and two entrees, so things got out of hand quickly. The chef’s snack starter is almost a meal in itself: A pile of hand-cut French fries tossed with sausage, mozzarella curd, and what I think was a sweetened balsamic reduction, topped with an over easy egg. We also went with the item that the Phoenix New Times’ Chow Bella blog highlighted, the grilled asparagus with duck egg, bacon candy, peppered feta, and foie gras hollandaise. The chef’s snack was comfort food, hearty, salty, fatty, and of course a little heavy, while the asparagus plate was like brunch for dinner, bright colors leading to brighter flavors if you could manipulate everything into one bite, which wasn’t always easy.

For the mains, I went with the smoked duck, which came on a smashed plantain with small grilled chunks of foie gras and pomegranate arils. Kiley ordered the seared scallops, served on a pumpkin/onion mash with a white chocolate beurre blanc. I think we both preferred the scallop dish, which was better executed across the board, with perfectly-cooked sea scallops paired beautifully with the fall flavors of the squash and onion; my only comment here is that the dish needed a finish of acid, even something as simple as lemon juice (although I imagine a place like Virtu would instead go with a yuzu foam or a champagne vinegar gelée). The duck itself was cooked nicely but smoking duck does rob you of the glory of crispy duck skin, and the plantain mash had been cooked a second time on a griddle to provide that crispness, a process that made it too crunchy and even charred the edges a little bit. The proteins seem to be standard here but the sides change at least every few weeks depending on what’s in season; I’d recommend whatever they’re doing with scallops and would trust in the chef beyond that.

Otro Cafe is the newest spot from Doug Robson, the Mexican-born (really) chef behind the menus at Gallo Blanco and the Hillside Spot. Otro’s menu is simple – a few taco items, a few tortas with the same meats you’ll find on the taco menu, a few Mexican street-food starters, and a full bar. Kiley joined me for this meal as well, so we split the elote callejero – roasted corn on the cob with paprika, cotija cheese, and a little mayonnaise, which the server will shave off the cob for you tableside. I also ordered the small guacamole because Kiley is a misanthropic devil-worshipper who hates avocadoes. Both were superb, just simple and fresh items with big flavors thanks to the tomatillos in the guacamole or the salty-tangy burst from the cotija in the corn. For tacos, we each ordered the same trio (tacos range from $2.50 to $3.50 apiece) – the pork “al pastor,” the carne asada, and the grilled marinated shrimp, all of which were excellent. The carne asada was my favorite, even though I’m generally not a big steak eater; Otro uses seasoned grilled ribeye, chopped and topped with lettuce, an aji (chili pepper) aioli, cilantro, and guacamole. The shrimp was second, marinated in achiote and topped with red and white cabbage, chili pepper, and more guacamole, all outstanding although the shrimp ended up in the background beneath the spice and acid of the cabbage/chili slaw. The pork al pastor was still good, served with salsa verde, a little pineapple, and more cilantro, although I missed the better bite of the steak and, well, that was the only taco without guacamole and it was going to suffer by comparison. Otro also offers a number of small side dishes, including two rotating options from local farms/CSAs, for just $4-5. Some items are $1 off at happy hour so the two of us got out of there for under $30 combined and had probably consumed too much food.

The Gladly is the new venture from the group behind Citizen Public House, focused a little more on cocktails and small plates and less on the mains that made CPH our favorite spot for an elegant dinner out. The Gladly’s chicken liver pate starter, where the liver is blended with pistachio nuts, was by far the best item I had, and while I’m not sure eating a half-cup of the stuff at one sitting was the wisest nutritional move for me, that is what I did because it was too good to pass up (especially with whole-grain mustard and pickled onions to add to the crostini). The Brussels sprouts starter might be a meal for a vegetarian, as it’s served on a plate of creamy white-corn polenta; I prefer Brussels sprouts a little more cooked than this, as they were still too bitter at the center and hard to cut, but the combination of the sprouts and the grits was excellent. The one dish I didn’t love was the duck ramen – five-spice duck “ham” served in a giant bowl of miso broth with ramen and pea greens. The broth itself was a little bland, light on salt but also lacking any clearly defined flavor, and while I love duck prosciutto, its flavor was muted after sitting in the hot miso broth for a while. I’d love to give the Gladly a second shot, preferably when I can indulge in the drink menu, but also to try some of the other small plates like the paprika-cured pork belly, or the pigstrami sandwich, which turns my favorite starter at CPH into a smoked pork butt sandwich with a Brussels sprout sauerkraut as the slaw.

As for repeat visits, I had breakfast at the Hillside Spot three times and everything was just as I left it, from the chilaquiles to the pancakes to the chocolate chip cookies, so good job there. I also went back to Matt’s Big Breakfast which remained top-notch and swung by Giant Coffee (owned by Matt) and had a great espresso there. Saigon Kitchen in Surprise was a little disappointing, but only in that the bun with chicken I ordered came with these giant pieces of lettuce that got in the way of the noodles and other vegetables that were sort of buried at the bottom. I did have the hilarious experience of watching the seventy-odd woman next to me send back a bowl of pho (soup) that was hot enough for me to see the steam from a meter away because she claimed it wasn’t hot enough.

Some places I wanted to try but didn’t have time to visit: the Welcome Diner, La Piazza Locale, and Bink’s Cafe, all in Phoenix proper, and Altitude Coffee Lab in Scottsdale. There’s always spring training, I guess…

Pandemic iOS app.

The biggest iOS boardgame app release since June’s appearance of Agricola came this past Thursday, as the leading cooperate boardgame Pandemic was released for the iPad, bringing the same tension as the boardgame to a pass-and-play app with a slick, intuitive interface. If you don’t mind failing to save humanity over and over around your occasional successes, this is the app for you.

If you haven’t the physical version of Pandemic (which I reviewed in December 2010), it’s a different kind of game than most boardgames you’ve ever played. Two to four players work together to try to win, rather than competing. The board is a map of the world with various cities on it, connected by lines that indicate travel routes. The ‘enemy’ here is disease – four of them, each affecting a different region of the world and threatening to spread out of control and wipe out the human race. Cubes represent diseased populations in various cities, with one to three per location; when a city with three cubes in it acquires another one through the draw of a card or a spreading infection, an “outbreak” occurs and new cubes go into each city that connects to the original one. Eight outbreaks means you’ve lost. You can also lose if you have to place all 24 cubes of any specific color (one color per disease), or if you exhaust the deck of city cards before curing all four diseases. It’s difficult and cerebral, requiring you to make numerous decisions, often balancing short-term needs against long-term goals.

There is a way to win Pandemic, however. Each player collects city cards, two per turn, that can be used to cure a disease – five city cards of the same color, sent en masse to the discard pile while the player in question is in a city with a research station, cures that disease. In the meantime, however, players can go from city to city, removing cubes to try to hold off outbreaks. Each player has a specific role that gives him/her a special ability, such as curing a disease with just four cards, building a research station in whatever city he’s on, or moving other players around the board. There are also four special cards that allow the player to skip new infections for a turn, build a research station, remove one city card from the infection deck, or move one player to any place on the board. And the players’ deck also includes Epidemic cards, each of which triggers a new three-cube infection in one city while also raising the infection rate on a sliding scale that starts out at two cities per turn and eventually reaches four. You can adjust the game’s level of difficulty, which affects the number of Epidemic cards in the deck – from four (easy) to six (heroic).

The iOS app is an outstanding, faithful adaptation of the game that plays quickly and easily with only one very minor technical glitch through over a dozen plays (with no crashes). The interface is very clear and crisp, although the city names might be a little tough for some players to read without zooming in. (It helps to know your world geography here.) The screen has to deliver a lot of information at once, but the division of information across four side menus is easy to follow once you know the rules – all players’ cards in the right-hand menu, card history on the left, the current player’s cards and potential actions on the bottom, and the overall stats up top. Moving around is easy, as the game highlights cities to which the current player can move and confirms any move that would require the disposal of a city card. You can also undo your last few moves with a click of the undo arrow symbol in the upper left.

The one technical glitch I mentioned was minor – I have had a few instances where the app wouldn’t allow me to open the right-hand menu showing which city cards the players held, but could exit to the main screen and resume the game to open the menu again. I have noticed an unusually high probability of an epidemic card appearing in the first first turn, which makes the game harder to win; I actually had a game end after only two of the four player-roles had a chance to go, because a series of outbreaks in the red (Asia) region used up all 24 cards, thanks to an epidemic on the first turn. Such unwinnable games are a part of Pandemic, although in my experience with the physical game, they’re pretty rare.

Pandemic is a game meant to be played in person, with lots of communication between players, so I didn’t mind the absence of online multiplayer; slowing this game down would also reduce the tension that’s a key part of why it’s fun. (Although my daughter might question that; after playing alongside me twice, she asked, “What’s the point of this game? Losing?”) The game also has no AI component; if you want to play solo, just choose the number of roles you wish to play and handle them yourself. That also means there’s no downtime: You are always in the process of doing something or deciding what to do, and never waiting on an AI player or an online opponent (or partner). For a competitive game, the lack of online multiplayer would be a drawback, but I don’t see it as one here.

The game doesn’t include either of the available expansions for the physical game, although I imagine those will eventually be available as in-app purchases. Its current price of $6.99 is about par for a high-end adaptation of a popular game, in line with the popular Ticket to Ride or Small World and with the more complex Agricola. If you’re into the physical version of Pandemic, or want a game for your iPad that is very challenging with high replay value, this is a must-have.

The Bones of What You Believe.

The Bones Of What You Believe (iTunes link), the debut album from the Scottish electro-pop act CHVRCHES, dropped today, over a year after their first single came out and a good eight months after I first encountered them on a promotional sampler from a publicity firm the band no longer uses. Three of the album’s tracks have received heavy airplay this year on alternative radio, including Sirius XMU and Alt Nation, so much of what’s on the new album is familiar, but the deeper tracks show greater breadth than you’d get from just listening to the singles, with many harbingers of more promising material down the road.

CHVRCHES is, by and large, the Lauren Mayberry Project, as the 26-year-old singer and erstwhile music journalist dominates the record (and their live shows) with her piercing vocals and impassioned delivery. Singing largely in the first person – more on that in a moment – Mayberry projects a variety of personae across the ten tracks where she handles the lead vocals, occasionally coquettish but more often strong and fearsome, sometimes even stalkerish (“We Sink” has a chorus that starts with “I’ll be a thorn in your side/Till you die” … all righty then), in contrast to her diminutive stature and high register. She elevates some of the filler songs to a different level, and the half-dozen radio-worthy tracks all stand out in large part because of what her vocal style brings to the table.

The band’s music draws heavily from early 80s new-wave influences, particularly Yaz, the short-lived project involving Vince Clarke between his tenures in Depeche Mode and Erasure, but drawing from other sources as diverse as Kate Bush and Prince (whose “I Would Die for U” they used to cover during live shows). CHVRCHES love their synths and they’re not ashamed to put the keyboards front and center of nearly every song, without filling the space between the melodic synth lines and the drum/bass with layers of added noise, meaning that Mayberry’s vocals and the lead keyboard lines are the stars of every track where she sings. That’s most pronounced in “Gun,” the most recently released single from the album, where the counterpoint between Mayberry’s top-register vocals and the descending keyboard lines underpins the conflict she’s describing in the song’s lyrics (where the gun is, fortunately, of the metaphorical variety). When they try a little more layering, like adding reverb to Mayberry’s vocal lines on “Lungs,” the melody remains strong but her voice and charisma are blunted, to the detriment of the overall track.

The album’s lyrics lean heavily toward first-person narratives, which Mayberry makes more powerful with a style that makes it sound like she’s singing directly to the listener, whether she’s threatening you as she does on “We Sink” or is proclaiming herself to be the “Night Sky.” The strongest track lyrically, as well as musically, is the single “The Mother We Share,” which careens to and fro with tempo and volume changes to match the chaotic anti-romance of the lyrics, where Mayberry describes being “in misery/where you can seem/as old as your omens.” Several songs here are built around a single compelling image or metaphor, like “Gun” or “We Sink.” Others run too short and lack that tangible center, such as the catchy “Recover” or the lesser track “Tether,” where the lyrics don’t stand up as well – although Mayberry’s Scottish pronunciation of “don’t” in the chorus of “Recover” is incredibly endearing.

Mayberry cedes vocal duties on two tracks, which robs them of the urgency she brings to the other ten, and was made worse in concert when Martin Doherty took over lead vocals for a song and was off key (as he was when providing backing vocals behind Mayberry). The show I saw, at Union Transfer in Philadelphia, was otherwise outstanding, although it was odd to hear Mayberry’s chatter between songs, almost sounding nervous and dropping f-bombs as if she was trying to show the crowd that, despite her pixie-like appearance, she was fierce. When you sing with a passion that could damascene steel, you don’t need to act fierce. Fierce will list you as a reference.

The Bones of What You Believe is a deep, intense pop experience that doesn’t demean its audience, but at the end of its twelve tracks, I was also left with the feeling that this was more of a coming out party for Mayberry than for the band as a whole. Her presence overwhelms sections where the music feels unfinished or even amateurish, a contrast that was even more stark when I saw them live. Whether the music catches up to the force of her character or she leaves the group for greener pastures, she’s destined for bigger things than this otherwise very solid debut album.