Redshirts.

I’ve been busy on the baseball side too, with Insider posts on All-Star snubs, the Samardzija-Hammel trade, and the Brandon McCarthy trade.

John Scalzi’s Hugo Award-winning novel Redshirts takes Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (#52 on the Klaw 100) and transplants it into a science-fiction setting, where the characters in question appear on a Star Trek knockoff TV series rather than in a book. Metafiction where the characters interact with or rebel against their author is nothing new, and Jasper Fforde (who gets name-checked in one of the book’s three codas) pioneered the destruction of the wall between fiction and metafiction in his Thursday Next series, leaving Scalzi with a narrow space in which to craft something new, without settling for some light satire of the “redshirts” phenomenon. By focusing on the redshirt characters and allowing them to muse on their metafictional status, he has created a witty yet intelligent philosophical novel that covers themes from the writer’s responsibilities to whether man has free will.

The term “redshirt” refers to the disposable characters found in the original Star Trek series who would join three regular/named characters on away missions and never make it back, typically dying before the show’s halfway mark. They’d appear to represent the danger of a situation without the need to sacrifice a series regular. In Scalzi’s universe, a few techs and ensigns on the starship Intrepid have started to pick up on the trend that such crew members typically die horrific deaths on away missions, often as a result of rash or irrational actions. When Andrew Dahl, a new crew member who realizes that the ship and its inhabitants are all behaving in weird ways, decides to investigate, he realizes what they are and what’s causing all of these calamities, cooking up with a crazy plan to try to save all of their lives by using the Narrative’s illogicality in their favor.

The setup here is truly brilliant as Scalzi sends up Star Trek and its many derivatives in so many ways, targeting the obvious and the subtle equally well, while even hitting problems that plague non-sci-fi series like the various crime-solving shows that make use of bullshit scientific explanations and impossible coincidences to get the perpetrators caught (or killed) and everyone home by the end of 44 minutes of screen time. Most of the jokes will make sense even to folks who’ve only seen a few episodes of any sci-fi series, and some, like the Box, are just funny in their own right – only funnier if you realize Scalzi is mocking every hack writer in Hollywood who decides to hand-wave away days or weeks of science because that won’t fit in the show’s timeline.

Around the midpoint, when Scalzi has his characters come to the realization one-by-one that their will may not be their own, he sends the core quintet back in time to our present to confront their Creators, relying on one significant coincidence to push the plot forward but otherwise driving it by the consequences of their appearance in the wrong timeline – and in the wrong universe. (There’s some many-worlds-theory quantum thinking behind this, but Scalzi wisely stays out of that sort of digression.) After that, the novel doesn’t lose much wit, but it’s more dialogue-driven than satirical humor, as Scalzi shifts course, mixing in more philosophical musing on free will and the nature of existence. If the show is cancelled, do the characters disappear? Does their whole universe end? How can they believe in free will if the Narrative turns out to be real?

The novel itself only runs about 225 pages, after which Scalzi gives us three codas, all worth reading. The first one delves further into a question first broached in the novel proper: Does the writer have a responsibility to treat his characters more seriously? Ignoring the novel’s conceit that characters put on paper or screen become real, there’s a legitimate argument here about using death or injury as a cheap plot trick. I’ve read and still do read many classic novels, and few use a character’s death as a mere convenience to move the story along; the main exceptions revolve around wills and inheritances. Characters’ deaths may be exploited for the responses of others, but they don’t usually come cheap. (Mr. Krook notwithstanding, and besides, that’s the best example of a character killed for humor’s sake in literary history.)

I enjoyed Redshirts as a brilliant satire that turns into a compelling adventure story with surprising dashes of heart, but there’s also an exhortation here for other purveyors of fiction to just write better. I can see why it earned the Hugo Award and why FX is trying to turn it into a limited-run series. It’s an outstanding mix of humor and action layered on a thought-provoking concept. Even if you’re not a Trekkie – I’m far from one myself – it’s a must-read.

Next up: I’m about halfway through Paolo Giordano’s Premio Strega-winning debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

The Dispossessed.

I answered questions from our fantasy baseball staff for a new Insider post today.

I’ve been an avid reader for most of my life, but often became burned out on reading when I was younger because I wanted to read something different from what was being forced on me in school. The drudgery of assigned reading in junior high school and my first two years of high school left me reading very little for pleasure, something exacerbated by a gift of a Commodore 64 around that same time that found me absorbed in games rather than pages. It was my chance discovery of a science fiction book that got me back on the reading track when I was 15, a spine that jumped off the shelf first because of the author’s name, Isaac Asimov*, and then because of the description of the book, which hooked me right away.

* I was familiar with Asimov’s name for a number of reasons, from the sci-fi rag that bore his name to the long out-of-print Realm of Algebra, which I used one weekend in sixth grade to learn the subject, because my school was switching me to a different math class. Any other famous sci-fi author’s name wouldn’t have had the same effect on me in the bookstore.

I wasn’t aware at the time that the book, Foundation, was an important work in the history of science fiction, or part of a long series. I saw what sounded like a cool story and bought the book, which prompted a stretch of reading for pleasure that ran right through college, through the entire Foundation series, then other Asimov titles, then the Dune series (pro tip: stop after book one), Lord of the Rings, the entire works of Kurt Vonnegut to that point, and even a dozen or so novels by Philip K. Dick, along with a handful of one-off works in the sci-fi and even fantasy genres.

There came a point in my early 20s, however, when that paroxysm of reading slowed to a near-halt. I gave up on fiction, for reasons I don’t even remember, and was only reading a book a month, if that. And when I gave up on fiction, I gave up on science fiction more or less for good. It wasn’t a conscious choice, nothing driven by disdain for the genre, but perhaps an association of science fiction with my own childhood that made me switch to more traditional, mainstream literature. There were exceptions, including the book that provoked my second wind as a reader, the first Harry Potter novel; I read that on a business trip to California in the fall of 2000 and have read over 600 novels since then because J.K. Rowling managed to reawaken in me the love of a great story, the desire to get lost in a dazzling plot with descriptions so vivid that I could be consumed by the words. (To this day, the only time I’ve ever had a dream that put me in a book was one where I was just a regular student at Hogwarts, witnessing the story as a classmate rather than a reader.) But even Rowling’s work didn’t push me to read more fantasy novels; I shifted to the classics, many of which appear to have been influences on the Harry Potter novels, and left science fiction almost completely behind me.

The closest I’ve come to sci-fi in the interim, aside from the two titles on the TIME 100 (Neuromancer and Snow Crash), are dystopian novels, those that depict an alternate society, sometimes set in the future, but nearly always incorporating some element of science into their visions of authoritarian regimes or personal struggles for identity and freedom. My interest in dystopian novels also dates back to that first fling with sci-fi in high school, when I read 1984 and Brave New World and Wells’ The Time Machine, but has never stopped even though the genre includes its fair share of solipsistic duds. (Its sister category, utopian novels, is even worse in that regard.) Reading Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We earlier this year made me seek out other highly-regarded titles in the catgory, which led me back into sci-fi and to The Dispossessed, the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel by acclaimed sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin. Not only was it an excellent representative of what a good dystopian novel can accomplish, it balanced the fiction and the science beautifully, reminded me of what I once enjoyed so much about the genre.

Le Guin’s setup in The Dispossessed differs from those of all of the dystopian novels I’ve read previously. She’s set up two sibling worlds with antithetical societal structures, neither of them clearly utopian or dystopain. Shevek, the physicist and lead character, was born on Anarres, the large moon orbiting the planet Urras. Anarres was colonized by dissenters nearly 200 years before the events of the book, dissenters who called themselves “Odonians” and practice a form of true communism they refer to as “anarchy,” using the literal sense of the term (without government) than the colloquial one (chaos). Over several generations of isolation from Urras, the people of Anarres have organized into syndicates to allow for fundamental economic activities, but within those syndicates, there exist cliques and fiefdoms that stymie Shevek’s attempts to develop his science further (and his friend’s endeavors to develop his art), resembling authoritarian regimes in their denial of anything deemed subversive or unnecessary. Shevek chooses to become the first person from Anarres to visit Urras since the Odonians’ departure, hoping to expand on his research into “temporal physics” and to find the freedom the people of Anarres had lost.

Most dystopian novels focus on tyranny by a single, usually totalitarian government, but Le Guin doesn’t take sides between Anarres and the pseudodemocratic regime Shevek visits on Urras. (Urras also has a Soviet-style regime, Thu, and puppet states where the two superpowers fight proxy wars.) Anarres has a social safety net, no inequality, and a high degree of mobility. Urras has an actual government, with poverty, conspicuous consumption, disease, and waste, but offers a kind of liberty that Anarres lacks – until it becomes clear that Shevek’s ideas may challenge the government there, at which point he encounters the limits of Urrastian liberty and has to make a choice that will affect the histories of both worlds.

Le Guin succeeds so well here in crafting a philosophical treatise within a novel because she focuses more than anything else on the “fiction” part of science fiction, notably the plot. There are science aspects to the work, primarily the settings – and her imagining of an inhospitable world of Anarres is superb, to the point where you can feel the dust on the pages – and the many references to Shevek’s physics work and its importance for interstellar travel, but those details are superficial, laid on top of a very serious work about freedom, especially that of choice. What does it mean for a human being to be free? Is it intellectual freedom? Freedom from want, unless others are also wanting? Freedom from envy? Freedom to choose one’s work, one’s partner, one’s abode?How petty can one despot be and still despoil one man’s freedom?

The Dispossessed won both of the major awards for the year’s best science fiction novel, although the correlation between the Hugos and the Nebulas is so high as to render the two redundant. I did pull the list of Hugo winners and found a number of interesting titles, including the most recent winner, the comic novel Redshirts, which I’ve already picked up based just on the description. With only ten read out of 62 total winners, I imagine this will help keep me busy even as I’m winding down my sojourn through the classics.

Next up: I’ve only got about a thousand pages to go in Victor Hugo’s The Wretched (Les Misérables).

Insomnium’s Shadows of a Dying Sun.

I have two new posts up for ESPN.com Insiders today – my 2004 redraft and my review of 2004 first-rounders who didn’t pan out.

Finnish melodic death metal band Insomnium have one of the broadest wingspans of any artist in that subgenre, incorporating theatrical and symphonic elements without eschewing the heaviness and rapid riffing that keep one foot firmly planted in the death-metal sphere. Their latest release, Shadows of the Dying Sun, continues that tradition and then some, veering from over-the-top extreme/speed metal to operatic tracks that you might even call death-metal ballads.

Melodic death metal generally includes two major elements: technically proficient, hook-laden guitar lines, and screamed or growled vocals. Insomnium adds many other twists to their particular flavor, with strings, pianos, acoustic guitar lines, and vocal harmonies (sung in normal voices) in choruses. It hasn’t been a straight line from the genre’s originators like Celtic Frost and Carcass, but the result is a more accessible brand of “melodeth” that should appeal to fans of everything from contemporary extreme metal to the earliest waves of speed and thrash.

Shadows of the Dying Sun starts innocuously enough with “The Primeval Dark,” a slow-building doom track that clocks in at barely over three minutes, a sign that Insomnium aren’t trying to pummel the listener with unnavigable ten-minute songs, and the song is just the teaser for the tremendous “While We Sleep,” into which it leads without a break. The lead guitar line is joined by a second axe for some parallel riffing before we get an actual sung verse, musical motifs that continue even as the song shifts tempo and direction multiple times. It’s among the most overtly listener-friendly death metal tracks I’ve ever heard: melodic, theatrical, even bombastic, and far more coherent than I’d expect from a six-minute snog of this complexity.

The abrupt tempo shifts of “While We Sleep” are a recurring musical theme for Insomnium, driving other tracks as well. “Revelation” opens with a straightforward European speed metal riff, then drops the pace by more than half for the funereal verses, picking back up in the bridge to the initial tempo, then finding the middle ground for what passes for a chorus here. “Ephemeral” is similarly catchy, an abject lesson to pop acts that try to appropriate punk or metal for commercial airplay, thanks to memorable guitar lines and a growl-along chorus that play well with the heavy rhythm lines and the rapid percussion that marks this clearly as death metal, while also playing around with timing and rhythm. Meanwhile, “Collapsing Words” dispenses with those velocity changes – the song drives in with a rapid-fire pedal-point sixteen-beat riff that evokes 1980s European speed metal and even its predecessors like Iron Maiden and Diamond Head, although it’s probably the one track that would have most benefited from a traditionally-sung vocal.

The album’s centerpiece track is the eight-minute opus “The River,” comprising several movements, including the juxtaposition of slow-changing guitar lines over blast beats, as well as an acoustic intro where lead singer Niilo Sevänen actually sings – although the lines sound more effete than he likely intended because of his accented English. The track builds from the slow intro into multiple swells of machine-gun drumming and fast-picked guitar leads, but the bridges between the choruses are major-chord interludes with clear and compelling melodies. That song and “Lose to Night,” which I’d call a ballad if I didn’t think that would be offensive to Insomnium fans, show both growth in Insommium’s songcraft and breadth in their musical interests – you don’t write this kind of song if you only listen to metal and hard rock.

There are misses here; “Black Heart Rebellion” is just a giant blast-beat, a sop to the portion of the crowd that just wants it faster and louder and more annoying, while “The Promethean Song” would have worked better at about half its 6:40 running time. Even the title track suffers from the same issue of bloat – and as the tenth song on the album, it ran into my own fatigue by the time I’d reach it on straight listens through the disc because of its length and languorous pace. That’s also a function of the overall ambition of Shadows of a Dying Sun, which, at 70 minutes, is almost double the length of some recent indie releases, and has appropriately high musical aspirations without forgoing Insomnium’s sense of melody and even commercial appeal. It’s the best new melodeth album since Carcass’ Surgical Steel, although with Arch Enemy and At the Gates coming out with new albums soon, it’ll be an epic summer for fans of the genre.

Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (yes, the ‘fake’ Nobel) for his groundbreaking work in behavioral economics, the branch of the dismal science that shows we are even bigger idiots than we previously believed. Kahnemann’s work, and his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, identify and detail the various cognitive biases and illusions that affect our judgment and decision-making, often leading to suboptimal or undesirable outcomes that might be avoided if we stop and think more critically and less intuitively. (It’s just $2.99 for the Kindle right now, through that link.)

Kahnemann breaks the part of our brain that responds to questions, challenges, or other problems into two separate systems, which he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the fast-reaction system: When you hear or read a question, or face a specific stimulus, your brain brings back an answer, an image, or a memory without you having to consciously search the hard drive and call up the file. System 2 does what we would normally think of as “thinking:” slow calculations, considering variables, weighing options, and so on. The problem, as Kahnemann defines it, is that System 2 is lazy and often takes cues from System 1 without sufficiently questioning them. System 1 can be helpful, but it isn’t always your friend, and System 2 is passed out drunk half the time you need it.

Thing 1 and Thing 2
Systems 1 and 2 in a rare moment of concordance.

The good news here is that Kahneman’s work, much of which with his late colleage Amos Tversky (who died before he could share the Nobel Prize with Kahneman), offers specific guidance on the breakdowns in our critical thinking engines, much of which can be circumvented through different processes or detoured by slowing down our thinking. One of the biggest pitfalls is what Kahneman calls WYSIATI – What You See Is All There Is, the process by which the brain jumps to a conclusion on the basis of insufficient evidence, because that evidence is all the brain has, and the human brain has evolved to seek causes for events or patterns. This leads to a number of biases or errors, including:

  • The halo effect: You like someone or something, and thus you judge that person or object or story more favorably. This is why good-looking politicians fare better than ugly ones in polls.
  • The framing effect: How you ask the question alters the answer you receive. Kahnemann cites differing reactions to the same number presented two ways, such as 90% lean vs 10% fat, or a 0.01% mortality rate versus 100 deaths for every 1 million people.
  • Base-rate neglect: A bit of mental substitution, where the brain latches on to a detail about a specific example without adequately considering the characteristics of that example’s larger group or type.
  • Overconfidence: This combines the WYSIATI problem with what I’ll call the “it can’t happen to me” syndrome, which Kahneman correctly identifies as a core explanation for why so many people open restaurants, even though the industry has one of the highest failure rates around.

Although Kahneman has crafted enough of a flow to keep the book coherent from chapter to chapter, Thinking, Fast and Slow is primarily a list of significant biases or flawed heuristics our brains employ and explanations of how they work and how to try to avoid them. This includes the availability heuristic, where we answer a question about probability or prevalence by substituting the easier question of how easy it is to remember examples or instances of the topic in question. If I give you a few seconds to tell me how many countries there are in Africa, you might name a few in your head, and the faster those names come to you, the larger your guess will be for the total.

Thinking, Fast and Slow also offers an unsettling section for anyone whose career is built on obtaining and delivering knowledge, such as subject-matter experts paid for their opinions, a category that includes me: We aren’t that good at our jobs, and we probably can’t be. One major reason is the representativeness fallacy, which leads to the base-rate neglect I mentioned earlier. The representativeness fallacy leads the subject – let’s say an area scout here, watching a college position player – to overvalue the variables he sees that are specific to this one player, without adequately weighting variables common to the entire class of college position players. It may be that college position players from that particular conference don’t fare as well in pro ball as those from the SEC or ACC; it may be that college position players who have or lack a specific skill have higher/lower rates of success. The area scout’s report, taken by itself, won’t consider those “base rates” enough, if at all, and to a large degree teams do not expect or ask the area scouts to do so. However, teams that don’t employ any kind of system to bring those base rates into their overall decision-making, from historical research on player archetypes to analysis of individual player statistics adjusted for context, will confuse a plethora of scouting opinions for a variety of viewpoints, and will end up making flawed or biased decisions as a result.

Kahneman’s explanation of regression to the mean, and how that should impact our forecasting, is the best and clearest I’ve come across yet – and it’s a topic of real interest to anyone who follows baseball, even if you’re not actually running your own projections software or building an internal decision-sciences system. Humans are especially bad at making predictions where randomness (“luck”) is a major variable, and we tend to overweight recent, usually small samples and ignore the base rates from larger histories. Kahneman lays out the failure to account for regression in a simple fashion, pointing out that if results = skill + luck, then the change in results (from one game to the next, for example) = skill + change in luck. At some point, skill does change, but it’s hard or impossible to pinpoint when that transpires. Many respected baseball analysts working online and for teams argue for the need to regress certain metrics back to the mean to try to account for the interference of randomness; one of my main concerns with this approach is that while it’s rational, it may make teams slower to recognize actual changes in skill level (or health, which affects skill) as a result. Then again, that’s where scouts can come in, noticing a decline in bat speed, a change in arm slot, or a new pitch that might explain why the noise has more signal than a regression algorithm would indicate.

One more chapter relevant to sports analytics covers the planning fallacy, or what Christina Kahrl always referred to as “wishcasting:” Forecasting results too close to best-case scenarios that don’t adequately consider the results of other, similar cases. The response, promulgated by Danish planning expert Bert Flyvbjerg (I just wanted to type that name), is called reference class forecasting, and is just what you’d expect the treatment for the planning fallacy to include. If you want to build a bridge, you find as many bridge construction projects as you can, and obtain all their statistics, such as cost, time to build, distance to be covered, and so on. You build your baseline predictions off of the inputs and results of the reference class, and you adjust it accordingly for your specific case – but only slightly. If all 30 MLB teams did this, no free-agent reliever would ever get a four-year deal again.

Thinking explains many other biases and heuristics that lead to inferior decision-making, including loss aversion, the endowment effect, and the one Ned Colletti just screwed up, the sunk cost fallacy, where money that is already spent (whether you continue to employ the player or not) affects decisions on whether or not to continue spending on that investment (or to keep Brandon League on the 40-man roster). He doesn’t specifically name recency bias, but discusses its effects at length in the final section, where he points out that if you ask someone how happy s/he is with his/her life, the answer will depend on what’s happened most recently (or is happening right now) to the respondent. This also invokes the substitution effect: It’s hard for me to tell you exactly how happy or satisfied I am with my life as a whole, so my brain will substitute an easier question, namely how happy I feel at this specific moment.

That last third of the book shifts its focus more to the psychological side of behavioral economics, with subjects like what determines our happiness or satisfaction with life or events within, and the difficulty we have in making rational – that is, internally consistent – choices. (Kahneman uses the word “rational” in its economic and I think traditional sense, describing thinking that is reasonable, coherent, and not self-contradictory, rather than the current sense of “rational” as skeptical or atheist.) He presents these arguments with the same rigor he employs throughout the book, and the fact that he can be so rigorous without slowing down his prose is Thinking‘s greatest strength. While Malcolm Gladwell can craft brilliant narratives, Kahneman builds his story up from scientific, controlled research, and lets the narrative be what it may. (Cf. “narrative fallacy,” pp. 199-200.) If there’s a weak spot in the book, in fact, it comes when Kahneman cites Moneyball as an example of a response (Oakland’s use of statistical analysis) to the representativeness fallacy of scouting – but never mentions the part about Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito helping lead to those “excellent results at low cost.” That aside – and hey, maybe he only saw the movie – Thinking, Fast and Slow is one of the most important books for my professional life that I have ever read, and if you don’t mind prose that can be a little dense when Kahneman details his experiments, it is an essential read.

Atlanta eats, 2014 edition.

I’m starting with the least famous of the three restaurants where I had dinner, The Lawrence, where the kitchen is run by former Richard Blais protege Chef Mark Nanna. The Lawrence’s menu focuses on local produce in southern-influenced dishes, many straightforward, a few with clever twists, but all easily recognizable to diners who aren’t familiar with (or, God forbid, fans of) Blais’ more experimental style.

I went with small plates at the Lawrence, rather than the very reasonably priced entrees (none over $26), so I could sample more items, which turned out to be a great call because I ended up with a pair of superb salads along with one meat course and one fish. The first salad was the kale “seasar,” using fried smelt as the croutons rather than mixing anchovies into the dressing (which isn’t authentic anyway), so the dish had that umami component but without the stale croutons you’re probably used to finding in most Caesars. The mixed radish salad was a small portion of thinly shaved radishes, including daikon and Cherry Belle, with a light lemon/celery seed dressing, slighty bitter but balanced by the acidity of the lemon juice, and generally a good representation of early spring produce on the plate.

For proteins, I couldn’t pass on the tuna tartare, the Lawrence’s twist on the familiar “spicy tuna” abomination found at most sushi places, where you get the scrapings left over after the tuna fillets are sliced for nigiri, all tossed in spicy mayonnaise so you no longer taste the fish. The Lawrence’s version has diced tuna mixed with a scallion mayonnaise and a spicy sambal sauce, but the fish’s flavor and texture remains at the front of the dish, with the heat from the chili coming afterwards, balanced out from the fat in the mayonnaise. It’s served under a hilariously large rice cracker that doubles as your serving spoon when broken into bits. My server said the baby back ribs starter was their most popular dish (of the small plates, I assume): served with a sriracha glaze, pickled chili peppers, and cilantro leaves, they are fiery, but I was most impressed by how the meat tore right off the bone without falling apart itself, retaining sufficient tooth to give that primal satisfaction that only meat can provide.

And that led me to dessert, my favorite dish of the meal, a chocolate tart with spiced nuts, cinnamon/sugar ice cream, and honey. The tart itself reminded me of one of my favorite packaged cookies from when I was a kid, even though I’m sure I’d despise them now: Stella d’Oro Swiss Fudge cookies, a shortbread thumbprint cookie with a creamy milk chocolate filling. (Fellow New York natives may remember their “no cookies?” commercials, as well as the “breakfast treats” commercial parodied by Patton Oswalt.) Anyway, the Lawrence’s version is a trillion times better – a perfect shortcrust tart with a dark chocolate filling, curried crushed peanuts, and a quenelle of vanilla ice cream with a faint cinnamon flavor. The crust was the revelation, crumbly but not brittle, easy to break into pieces without shattering all over the plate, and the chocolate was dark enough for my tastes but I don’t think it would turn off people who prefer milk chocolate to bittersweet. The entire meal, all five plates, was about $44 before tip.

The first meal I had in Atlanta was dinner at Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South, where Kiley McDaniel and I opted for the six-course tasting menu rather than trying to pick and choose from all the appealing menu items. It was too much food overall for me, but I didn’t care for the dessert option (personal tastes, nothing wrong with it) so I stopped there. The meal started with an oyster shooter as an amuse-bouche, then led into the one vegetarian course, a salad of beets and strawberries, with house-made ricotta, candied pecans, rhubarb, burnt honey, and bee pollen – a lot going on, but the dish was primarily about the beets and strawberries, with the rhubarb (pickled, if I remember correctly) providing some acidic to balance the sweetness of the two central ingredients. That was followed by the catfish sausage, which was … well, exactly what you’d expect, served over a smoked catfish crème fraiche. Fish sausage is peculiar, I think because lifelong carnivores have programmed their brains to expect a different set of flavors and textures when presented with something that looks like sausage, but this version had that mild, freshly-caught catfish flavor – not “fishy” in the pejorative sense, but I do find even very fresh catfish to have that sort of creek flavor that marks it as fish. It benefited from the searing that’s visible in the photo below.

Jumping forward a little bit, after a seared flounder dish and a “stuffed” quail with andouille sausage (not really astuffed so much as served-with, still very good), we got to the star of the meal: Medium-rare New York strip steak served over braised short ribs. I don’t often eat cow, but when I do, this is what I want, the best-quality beef cooked two ways, both superbly, and in ways that complemented each other, particularly the slightly tannic note from the short ribs (which may have been cooked in red wine, although I don’t think the menu or server said).

Oh, and I can’t forget the cocktail of choice, the Circuit Hymn: Bourbon, Rainwater Madeira (a lighter, drier variation of regular Madeira), vanilla liqueur, and orange & chocolate bitters, served in an old-fashioned glass with one enormous ice cube. I’m not a straight bourbon drinker, but the combination here amplified bourbon’s better qualities and tempered the smoke note that has always dominated aged whiskeys to my palate.

The third dinner was back to Blais’ place, the Spence, where I’ve spent enough time that my server recognized me from last April. The Spence is conveniently located within walking distance of Georgia Tech’s baseball field, so I was able to sneak in there for a dinner of a few small plates and still make it into the stadium in time for Luke Weaver’s first pitch. I think my favorite plate this time – the menu changes every few days, although there are a few standbys – was the one I didn’t order, a gift from the kitchen since Alex (my server) recognized me: salt-cured sunchokes, quickly fried, served with a romesco sauce, a traditional Catalunian sauce made from pureed nuts, red peppers, and often roasted or smoked tomatoes. The Spence’s version was creamier than others I’ve had, more like an aioli than a pesto, and was the ideal sauce for the sunchokes, like an upscale variation on the popular hand-cut French fries with spicy mayo combination you’ll find at upscale burger joints.

I always try to order one of the two fresh pastas on the menu at the Spence, taking Alex’s suggestion this time of the tarragon bucatini with pulled chicken and grapes – a chicken salad sandwich reimagined as a piping hot pasta dish. A bite with every element in it did indeed evoke the sandwich, but in a much more enjoyable way – I tend to think of chicken salad as a combination of dried-out meat and too much mayonnaise, but this, of course, had neither of those problems. I also loved the white anchovy tartine, with avocado, thinly sliced black radish, and candied kumquats, although I’ve never met a white anchovy dish I didn’t like. They’re natural brothers to avocados, and whatever bread the Spence uses for its tartines and terrines, it is absolutely inhalable when grilled.

Moving on from dinner, I had one lunch of note, meeting a friend for sushi at Tomo in Buckhead, what I’d call solid-average for its nigiri offerings, getting bonus points because the snapper came with lemon juice already on it and the server said not to dip it in the soy sauce – usually a good sign of authenticity. The fish was fresh but not California-fresh, more noticeable in the texture than the flavor. The rolls tended toward the American palate, with lots of inauthentic ingredients, and the spicy tuna roll my friend ordered was, as usual, oversauced with mayonnaise. I’ve definitely become more spartan in my sushi tastes over the years – a seaweed salad and some simple nigiri options are a perfect meal for me – so those of you who enjoy American-style rolls and combinations may enjoy Tomo more than I did.

My coffee quest brought me to Octane Coffee in the Midtown West area, almost by mistake – I’d read they served coffee from Counter Culture, one of the best roasters in the country, but it now appears Octane roasts its own, with single origins for pourovers as well as a blend for espresso that changes regularly. The espresso the day I visited was mostly Brazilian and Peruvian (I think), with a little Yirgacheffe (Ethiopian) to add some citrus notes. I like a little more character in an espresso but the shot was perfectly pulled and had good body to it. Octane also has a few food items, including a very fun “PB&J granola parfait,” with yogurt, peanut butter, fresh strawberry preserves, and granola in it, as well as locally made pastries like the oversized croissant I ordered but couldn’t finish after the parfait. This Octane location, one of five (three in Atlanta, two in Birmingham), serves beer and lunch as well, and the whole vibe is somewhere between hipster hangout and European cafe. They get bonus points for the cashier taking an extra minute to answer my question about the espresso blend with the actual ratio of beans – even though it held up the line for another minute or two, I appreciate the effort.

Sip the Experience was the one disappointment of the trip; they do serve Counter Culture Coffee, but my espresso was watery and bland, and the egg scramble was overcooked to the point of rubberiness. I also found the service unfriendly, not that I’d care that much if the coffee was solid.

One last Atlanta food note: My #sources tell me Top Chef alumnus Eli Kirshtein is opening his new restaurant, the Luminary, possibly in May, in the Krog Street Market development in Inman Park, just east of downtown. It’ll be one of my next stops whenever I get back to Georgia.

The Comedians.

What use to anyone was the body of an ex-Minister? A corpse couldn’t even suffer. But unreason can be more terrifying than reason.

I’ve made my adoration for the novels of Graham Greene, particularly his political novels, clear on this site many times; I’ve read more novels by Greene than those of any other author but Wodehouse and Christie. The Comedians (Penguin Classics) isn’t often listed among his greatest works, perhaps because it’s seen as less serious than his Catholic novels, but it remains a serious work in theme and tone. As an indictment of Third-World despotism in general and of Jean-Claude Duvalier in particular, it is searing and angry, yet Greene also manages to populate his novel with rich, flawed characters in whose struggles against the irreversible tide we find mirrors to ourselves.

The novel begins, with the wry humor that Greene always manages to slip into his works, with three men in a boat: Brown, Smith, and Jones, all “comedians” on the stage of life, each playing a part. Jones is the English confidence man, Brown the American hotelier in Haiti who has played his share of marks, and Smith the do-gooder American hoping to open a “vegetarian center” in Haiti with government funding. Brown returns from a lengthy stay overseas to find a government minister dead in his hotel pool; Jones is arrested as he tries to enter the country, triggering another long con for him; Smith and his wife find themselves unable to reconcile their good intentions with the corruption of the Duvalier regime. When Jones’ game turns around his fortunes, Brown becomes involved, putting himself at risk and that of his relationship with his unhappily-married mistress, Martha.

The tensions that result from Jones’ alternating hero/villain status with the State push the other central characters, including Martha, into situations that expose their rawest nerve endings. Every action they take bears multiple levels of meaning, for the regime is always presumed to be watching or listening, and punishment for its enemies is brutal, but not always swift. While the Smiths are innocents unable to adjust their worldview to fit a country ruled by a dictator with a secret police force, Brown and Jones are forced into the uncomfortable situation of having to confront their own histories of failure that they fled to Haiti to try to escape.

Brown narrates, but as with most Greene narrators, he’s adept at historical evaluations of his own emotions as well as those of others – but he’s also inept at anticipating the reactions of others. Brown knows he’s creating additional barriers between himself and Martha, beyond those of her husband, her needy son, and her social status, yet seems unable to stop himself from issuing the cutting remark or asking the wrong question. In the process, Brown manages to con himself, while also showing Martha a side of his personality she’d probably have preferred not to see. No one was better able to explore the nature of an affair of the heart in a novel that ostensibly dealt only with affairs of state than Greene, whether here, in The Quiet American, or even in a weaker novel like The Human Factor.

Failure looms as the other overarching theme of The Comedians, from the failure of Haiti itself to establish a functioning, democratic government to the failure of U.S. policy in Haiti, supporting a borderline fascist autocracy because it stands as a bulwark against communism; from the failures of Brown, a moderately successful confidence man now running a de facto bankrupt hotel in the world’s least desirable location, to those of Jones, whose invented history may contain some or no kernels of truth whatsoever. Brown can’t run a business, manage an affair with a woman who is more than willing to maintain the status quo, or even help a political refugee escape. He is the greatest comedian of them all, an actor on a stage speaking someone else’s lines.

Nothing new from me on ESPN since the last update, but Chris Crawford has weekend draft update and his first weekly top ten prospects ranking for fantasy players.

Also, for Top Chef fans among you, Hugh Acheson tweeted a link earlier today where you can vote for the West Athens, GA, community garden to get a large grant from Seeds of Change. You can vote once a day while the contest is open.

Raleigh eats.

Two new ESPN posts from Saturday – my report on Carlos Rodon and some more prep bats, and my 2014 MLB predictions.

I decided to make this trip to the Triangle into a tour of Ashley Christensen’s Raleigh restaurants, after receiving several recommendations from scout friends and (I think) hearing of her via Hugh Acheson. Christensen has four outposts in downtown Raleigh, three of them on the same block of Wilmington Street, which served for all three of my dinners plus a breakfast/coffee stop.

Poole’s Diner is her high-end shop, with a menu that changes weekly or daily and focuses on local products, meaning it’s very heavy on vegetables even in the mains – which was a positive since I took my cousin, a vegetarian, for dinner. The best item was actually a side dish, sauteed Brussels sprouts with oyster mushrooms and a sherry cream sauce. Mushrooms and fortified wines like sherry or madeira are great friends, and mounting the resulting sauce with cream (saute the mushrooms, deglaze with the wine, finish with just enough cream to thicken) adds flavor and mouthfeel that goes with almost everything … but I’ve never had it with Brussels sprouts or any other brassica before. The combination was unexpected but provided great balance to the slight bitterness of the sprouts, with the cream limiting that bitter note and allowing the umami of the mushrooms to move to the front.

My entree was a seared halibut over farro with a roasted tomato relish, everything perfectly cooked, with the farro actually the best part of the dish. Farro, an “ancient grain” in the wheat family that can refer to spelt, emmer, or einkorn; the hulled berries are cooked until al dente and can substitute in many recipes for rice or barley, but with more flavor than plain rice and less of that good-for-you taste of barley. We shared a dark chocolate/mocha pot de crème with coffee shortbread, served in a wide-mouth mason jar, my kind of dessert – bittersweet, not cloying, with the consistency of a thick mousse so that even a half portion was very satisfying.

Poole’s also has its own house cocktail menu; I couldn’t pass on a drink based on Mount Gay XO rum (especially after I heard rumors, unfounded as it turns out, that Mount Gay was shutting down). The cocktail included Mount Gay, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters, served with a strip of orange peel, and for a drink that had no non-alcoholic components it was surprisingly smooth, and the dark rum provides a hint of sweetness without any added sugar in the drink. The entree, the side, my cousin’s salad (an entree portion size), dessert, and the cocktail came to about $75 before tip.

Couple of important notes on Poole’s: They don’t take reservations, but there’s a large bar where you can get happy while you wait; there’s a large parking lot across the street that’s free after 5 pm; and their website discourages diners from bringing children.

Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Christensen’s fried chicken restaurant – I know most of you are already sold at this point – actually shares a space with Chuck, her burger place, separated by a wall but with staffers going back and forth between the two. Beasley’s was the better place by far; the chicken was excellent, among the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, served with a very slight drizzle of honey over the top – just enough for the taste, not enough to make it sticky. But the sides are absolutely incredible; one friend of mine who lives in the Triangle says he only gets the $9 plate of three sides and skips the chicken altogether. I went with the roasted beets with pickled onions and an orange & white balsamic vinaigrette, and the green cabbage slaw with malt vinegar, roasted tomatoes, and what I think was a celery seed mayo dressing that may have had dried mustard as well. The beets came cold, both red and golden, with the vinaigrette thicker than a typical dressing, somewhere between the consistency of a regular vinaigrette and that of pure maple syrup, with the onions on top, giving two elements of acidity to brighten and balance the sweetness of the beets. (Disclaimer: I love roasted beets in pretty much any form as long as they never saw the inside of a can.)

The cabbage slaw was also strong, maybe a little overdressed, but the celery seeds in the dressing were a surprising and effective touch; I might have though of crushed caraway seeds or mustard seeds, both of which work extremely well with cabbages, but the celery seeds were a note I kept coming back to after eating. Also, they have bourbon chocolate pecan pie for dessert and that was hands-down the best pecan pie I’ve ever tasted, maybe the first time I’ve had one where I never thought for a second, “this is a little too sweet.” The predominant flavors were the dark chocolate and the bourbon – the booze wasn’t there for nomenclature, but you actually get that smoky/sweet flavor in the finished product.

Chuck was a little disappointing after my meals at the other two spots, mostly because the burger itself was underseasoned. Although the good folks on the Beasley’s twitter feed advised me to get the Dirty South – a burger with smoked pork shoulder and chili on top of the patty itself – I couldn’t bring myself to order it, not with an avocado and bacon-onion jam option staring me in the face. (Besides, I wanted to taste the beef, and though the Dirty South would overwhelm it with the pork flavor.) Also, the bun was kind of nondescript. The hand-cut fries were good, and seemed to have all the salt that was missing from the burger; you get your choices of two dipping sauces from a list of seven or eight, and I recommend the espelette mayo, although if you like garlic mayo theirs is potent as well. They offer unusual milkshake flavors and will spike them with alcohol, but I didn’t partake. A five-ounce burger (they offer a half-pound, but really, no one needs that) and a quarter pound of fries was more than enough for me.

Joule’s Coffee is the Christensen coffee/breakfast joint, a few doors down from Beasley’s and Chuck, using beans from Durham’s Counter Culture, one of the best roasters on the east coast. They offer drip, cold brew, pour-overs, and various espresso drinks, with your choice of two different single-origin beans for the last option. The breakfast menu includes egg dishes, croissant French toast, sausage and biscuits, and, my choice, house-made yogurt (thick, like Greek yogurt or labneh) with granola and fresh blueberries. The coffee, a Rwandan varietal, was good enough that I contemplated getting up a half-hour earlier the next morning to drive over there before my flight home – I didn’t, because I like sleep too, but I was tempted – and the yogurt was a good reminder that homemade can beat even the best packaged, authentic Greek yogurts*.

* Authentic Greek yogurt means it’s strained yogurt, without any added thickeners. The FDA has no guidelines on Greek yogurt or the use of the word “authentic” here, so you get major yogurt brands creating fake Greek yogurt by adding vegetable gums, pectin, or corn starch. Read the labels and buy the real stuff – Chobani, Fage, and Whole Foods all do it right.

My one non-Christensen meal spot was La Farm Bakery in Cary, not too far from the USA Baseball complex where I was attending the NHSI tournament. La Farm was founded by a baker of traditional European breads, including sourdoughs, dark ryes, and pain de campagne – the French bread style that can be formed into decorative shapes. They also sell a variety of traditional French pastries and do salads and sandwiches for the lunch crowd. The bread is the star, a solid 70 on the 20-80 scale, especially the Italian bread with sesame seeds and the focaccia, with the ciabatta closer to average for me. The sandwiches were a mixed bag; I loved the Mediterraneo, with fresh mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, basil, and balsamic vinaigrette, but the “award-winning” albacore tuna salad sandwich was very ordinary. The BLT was very good, better with the added avocado option, but there was about twice as much chipotle mayo as the sandwich needed. On one of those days, one MLB team’s contingent walked in right as I was finishing, so I hung out for a bit and saw what they ate, with the kale salad with eggless Caesar dressing the most appealing. If I lived near Cary, I’d be buying bread from them twice a week, at least.

Juniper & Ivy.

I was fortunate enough to have time on Saturday to visit Juniper and Ivy, the new San Diego restaurant from Top Chef (and onetime podcast guest) Richard Blais. I can report that Chef Blais’ hair is even crazier in person. Also, the food was spectacular – different from what I had at the Spence in Atlanta, but with a similarly experimental bent, very much what you’d expect at a place with Blais’ name on it.

(Full disclosure – Richard was kind enough to send out a number of dishes for me to sample, so portions of my meal were complimentary. As always, this doesn’t affect what I’m telling you about the meal or its quality, but I’d prefer you know this information up front.)

The menu is extensive, longer (I think) than the Spence’s, divided into a number of distinct sections: Snacks, Raw items, Pastas, Toasts, Small plates (including salads and vegetable dishes), Entrees, and Desserts. I didn’t really need to capitalize all of those, now that I think about it. The restaurant opens at 4 pm for cocktails and snacks, with the full menu available at 5 pm.

The first item on the Snacks menu is a buttermilk biscuit served with smoked butter. I have never turned down a biscuit, but I think I’m something of a biscuit snob – I like them tender, not flaky; I think buttermilk is overrated; and I demand a browned crust. J&I’s biscuit hit all three points. The texture was more like that of a warm cake than a traditional biscuit, with no layers like you’d expect from biscuits that came out of a can. The buttermilk flavor was subtle – it reminded me of a tangy Southern buttermilk biscuit, without smacking me in the face with that soured milk flavor. And the top was crispy, with the salty smoked butter drizzled over the top. The presentation is slick as well, coming out under glass, served in a miniature cast-iron pot. Blais’ Chicken and Biscuits should be coming to a strip mall near you, damn it.

From the raw menu, I ordered the one item both Chef Blais and my server, Alexis, recommended – Dungeness crab with meyer lemon curd and dill pollen, served on a nasturtium leaf that you roll up to eat the crab mixture, almost like you’re stuffing a grape leaf. The peppery leaf was a good offset for the two sweet elements inside of it (crab meat tastes sweet to me, at least); Blais loves lemon curd, which is the star ingredient in the recipe I cook most often from his Try This At Home, lemon curd chicken, and here I would have been happy with a little more curd to crank up the acidity even further.

Chef Blais sent out the hamachi (yellowtail) crudo, served with a tiny panzanella on top that included sliced olives, giant raisins (I’m not sure what kind but they tasted more like dried cherries than grapes), and samphire – glasswort, a wonderfully crunchy, salty vegetable that isn’t used often enough in my opinion – with a jamón vinaigrette. I enjoyed the panzanella, but at the end of the day, a crudo dish lives and dies by the quality of the fish, and this was top-end, beyond fresh, sliced sashimi-style, and if they’d sent the fish out as one plate and the panzanella as another I’d still rave about both because the fish was that good. (The main food item or category I missed while living in Arizona was quality fish; in fact, the only restaurant where I’d order raw fish preparations in the Valley was, appropriately enough, crudo.)

The Toasts menu had three items, two of which included things I prefer not to eat – raw beef and beef heart – so I went with the vegetarian option, charred black grapes with ricotta, hyssop, and ice wine vinegar. (Hyssop is a strongly flavored herb used in a lot of cough medicines as well as in the liquor Chartreuse.) The grapes were skinned but served whole, all on a giant slab of grilled sourdough bread that was coated with a thin layer of ricotta, a flavor combination (grapes and ricotta, which isn’t even really cheese) I wouldn’t have thought of myself – grapes and cheese, yes, but I think of ricotta as a pretty generic food because I grew up only knowing the kind that came in the plastic tub from the supermarket. (So did Blais, who grew up a few towns over from me.) The creaminess of the ricotta helped balance the sweetness and slight acidity of the grapes plus the brighter acidity of the vinegar, and I’m a pretty big fan of grilled bread in all its permutations. I didn’t really notice the hyssop, or anything that reminded me of Chartreuse.

Chef Blais also suggested the green gazpacho, which is poured tableside – a bowl arrives with “early” green grape tomatoes, green almonds (a new item for me), lime caviar, and what I think was coarsely diced honeydew, after which the rich green soup, which is more like a dressing, is poured over the top, tableside. This was a vegetable-lover’s treat, with all of the huge flavors coming from the produce itself, especially the tomatoes. This is the kind of dish I would have hated twenty years ago because it was all vegetables, and ten years ago because it has tart and savory notes, but now I could easily see this as the centerpiece of a vegetarian meal. It is potent, almost aggressive in its vibrancy, like a spring harvest in a bowl.

It wouldn’t be a meal at a Richard Blais restaurant without at least one weird plate. “Abologna” is pretty much what it sounds like: mortadella, a forcemeat that originated in Bologna, that includes abalone in place of some of the pork fat. J&I’s abologna also includes pistachios and is served in slices with drops of passion fruit-Dijon mustard. Once I got over my initial reaction – the abologna looks like olive loaf, a form of bologna popular in New York that I have always found repulsive – I was shocked by the texture of the abologna, softer than the American bologna, more like an airier paté than a typical forcemeat. The fish added a sea-air flavor but there was nothing fishy about the taste; I think the conflict between the pork and sea flavors is the dish’s defining characteristic. It lacked a contrasting textural element, however; anything this soft needs something hard or crunchy to offset it, even just some grilled bread, and the pistachios weren’t able to fill that need.

That brings me to the best item of the night, the prawn-and-pork rigatoni, which is just what it sounds like. It’s a classic New York Italian red sauce with meat, but this time also uses bits of prawns, which add more texture than anything else. The result is a small plate (a primo portion) of pasta that feels more satisfying because the three main components, the pasta, the pork, and the shrimp, all have some tooth to them. You could split one of those biscuits in half and cover it with this sauce and probably get a line halfway to Escondido. You could also put a few New York Italian grandmothers to shame with this sauce. I’ll even forgive Blais calling it “gravy.” It’s sauce. Salsa pomodoro. Save your gravy for Thanksgiving.

Dessert was one of the treats sent from the kitchen, but it was actually the dessert option I would have chosen of the four on the menu: coconut panna cotta with passion fruit, crushed almond macaron, and jasmine rice sorbet. The sorbet was the most interesting and peculiar sorbets I’ve ever tasted; sorbet is usually kind of a letdown, all ice and no mouthfeel, but this one had the essence of the rice so that one taste brought to mind all the flavors and experiences of sitting in a Thai restaurant, then reinforced by the coconut flavor in the perfect panna cotta. It was also the most visually stunning dish of the night.

Juniper & Ivy also has an exclusive cocktail menu, including a gin drink similar to the Sailor’s Crutch that I liked so much at the Spence. I went for the rum drink this time, however, called Twice on the Vine – rum, grape-tarragon gastrique, lime, and fino (sherry) finish. Aside from the garish magenta color, it was solid, with about the right sweet/sour/strong balance for a rum drink, although the rum itself was a little lost under all of the finishing flavors. (The classic ratio for rum cocktails, especially the one best known as planter’s punch, is encoded in rhyme: One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak. Flip the sweet and sour and you lose the rhyme but get a less cloying result.)

The prices are very reasonable for this kind of cuisine, especially given the superlative quality of the inputs, comparable to the price point of the nearby Searsucker (another great place to eat in downtown San Diego) but providing better presentation and more creativity to the dishes. It’s a little further off the beaten path, however, so it won’t likely get the walk-in traffic that Searsucker could get if it weren’t already so well-regarded. If you’re in San Diego, Juniper & Ivy is well worth the ride over to Little Italy whether it’s for a meal or just drinks and a biscuit.

The Audacity of Hops.

Klawchat today at 1 pm ET.

Tom Acitelli’s The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution is as comprehensive a history of the topic as I could possibly imagine, sometimes to the detriment of the book’s flow (pun intended), but also a totally fascinating look at one of the country’s greatest entrepreneurial and cultural success stories. Acitelli goes back to the movement’s origins in the 1960s, when Anchor was the nation’s only craft brewer by any reasonable definition of the term, and follows it through legal challenges, the need to educate the consumer, and some truly disgraceful behavior by executives at Big Beer (mostly Anheuser-Busch) on to the present-day climate where the U.S. is by far the world’s leader in both variety and innovation in the craft beer market. If you enjoy craft beer, as I do, this is an absolute must-read.

Acitelli’s initial section, where he describes Fritz Maytag’s takeover of the floundering Anchor brewery in San Francisco as well as other early startup efforts like Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion, spoke to me more than any other part of the book because it reflected so well my own experiences with beer. I grew up thinking I hated beer; I’d had Big Beer at various times, but despised every sip – it was watery and bitter and acrid with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I thought it was what you drank to get drunk, or at least to seem older because you were drinking something forbidden, but never thought of beer as something you would drink because you liked it. When I was in college in the early ’90s, Sam Adams (the flagship beer of the Boston Beer Company, whose founder, Jim Koch, is one of the central characters in Audacity) was popular locally and was the first beer I’d tried and liked, or at least didn’t hate, although it wasn’t quite enough to convince me that I could like beer as a class of beverages. I was always a liquor drinker, rum and gin primarily, as well as the occasional hard cider (although many of those were too sweet, like wine coolers for people who didn’t want to be caught drinking wine coolers).

What I eventually learned, past the age of 30, was that I liked many styles of beer – just not the style promulgated by Big Beer, generally described as pale lagers or pilsners, but made in huge quantities from inferior ingredients. I love darker, richer-bodied beers – stouts and porters, of course, but also bocks, brown ales, amber ales, and even the lagers called Oktoberfest beers which are darker and have more complex flavors than pilsners. I started as a Guinness drinker, and still am to some degree – it’s a rare Big Beer brand I can get behind, along with Newcastle Brown Ale – but over the past six or seven years have found myself drinking more and more craft beers, as much for the adventure of trying new labels and styles as for the beers themselves.

The Audacity of Hops filled in countless gaps in my knowledge of the history of the styles and breweries I’ve enjoyed, starting with Anchor Porter, one of my favorite porters and, as it turns out, one of Maytag’s most important contributions to beer culture: Porter was dead as a style until Maytag brought it back. (Maytag’s great-grandfather founded the appliance maker, and his father founded the dairy farm that produces Maytag blue cheese makers as well. Pretty good bloodlines there.) He also served as the craft beer movement’s first apostle, although adherents traveled to him more than he did to them, and he was helped by English beer advocate and journalist Michael Jackson, who was among the first to sing Anchor’s praises. Maytag opened his doors to other would-be homebrewers, many of whom went on to start craft breweries of their own. Acitelli walks through what feels like every one of their stories, from those that folded, like New Albion, to ongoing success stories like Sierra Nevada (founded in 1980), Mendocino (1984), and Alaska Brewing (1986).

The book careens from story to story in Acitelli’s attempt to cover as much of the movement as possible, including as many startup stories, both of breweries and brewbups, as he can. Sometimes that is a necessary evil, such as his section on the founding of Delaware’s Dogfish Head brewery, the first serious “extreme beer” brewery, adding unusual ingredients to its beers or otherwise using unorthodox tricks with traditional styles – such as adding hops every minute during the hourlong brewing of its highly-regarded 60-minute IPA. But other times Acitelli mentions the openings of breweries or pubs that didn’t last and had no significant impact on the movement. A craft brewery that was the first in its particular state is not notable for that reason alone, and the book could have focused more on the leading figures in the movement – Maytag, Koch, Jackson, McAuliffe, Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery, and others – while losing some of the breadth of the coverage. Acitelli’s research work here is remarkable, given the number of people he must have had to track down for interviews, but the book takes a good 60-70 pages to get rolling because of the disjointed structure that bounces us back and forth between breweries and characters throughout the book’s length.

Next up: Back to the classics with Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which will probably occupy me for the next two weeks or more.

Downton Abbey, season 4.

My second post on the UVA-East Carolina series, about the four major position player prospects on Virginia, is up for Insiders now.

I haven’t written about Downton Abbey in two years, skipping any commentary on season three, probably just because of time but maybe because I found that season to be such a disappointment. Three of the original cast members chose not to return after the end of their three-season contracts, so series creator Julian Fellowes killed two of their characters off, one in the most incongruous and seemingly spiteful ways imaginable. Along with some other absurd subplots – not that this show has ever been a model of realism, but Fellowes at least kept it in the realm of the highbrow soap opera most of the time, rather than trying to be General Hospital with English accents – the third season was a huge letdown after two strong ones to start the series.

The fourth season, which finished airing in the U.S. just two days ago and wrapped up in the U.K. in December, was a significant and surpising comeback for the series, which is still soapy but found a better balance between the serious and the sentimental this time around. Few series bounce back from the kind of dropoff Downton Abbey had in season three, but the fourth season was wittier, saw real character development from several principles, and righted a few of the ships set adrift with those two deaths the previous go-round.

Rather than try to unravel the various interwoven plot strands, I thought I’d tackle a few of those central characters who had major roles this season – nearly all female, as it turns out, another unusual feature in a show with such broad appeal.

* Lady Mary begins the season in mourning, but the offscreen passage of time allows Fellowes to move her past that to the point where we can at least see Michelle Dockery smile on occasion and display her razor-sharp delivery of acerbic humor, which for my money has to be half of why she is constantly beset by suitors. (She’s attractive enough, but you’d think she was Heidi Klum by the way men abase themselves before her in the show.) The emergence of Lady Mary from the dour, unpleasant character she was before marrying Matthew into a more mature, strong-willed woman willing to take on a leadership role at Downton while also showing incredible mindfulness of her own emotional state as a recently widowed young woman – without shedding the occasional viciousness that was an essential part of her character – was the season’s greatest development. She is the show’s clear center at this part, a flawed heroine, still capable of owning a scene, whether it’s her involvement as confidant in Anna’s subplot or her presence as commentator on family scenes. Her quip in the Christmas special about “grandmama” and the poker game is the funniest line in the series’ history uttered by anyone other than Lady Violet. Of course, if Mary eventually chooses to marry Mr. Blake, Fellowes must cast Michael Kitchen as the father of the groom, or all of England might lynch him.

* Anna Bates’ subplot was the most serious in the show’s history, and for my money an unwelcome one – not that such things don’t or didn’t happen (they most certainly do), but that it was a darker story than anything else across its four seasons to date, and didn’t do anything we haven’t seen many times before in fictional rape narratives. The victim blames herself and is caught in a spiral of shame and guilt, incredibly frustrating to any viewer who just wants someone to make her understand that none of what happened was her fault; or the victim fights back, presses charges, testifies, and everyone pretends to live happily ever after. Fellowes chose the first route, as if he needed some kind of subplot to cause strife in the Bates’ happy marriage, and perhaps something more meaty for Joanne Froggatt to tackle, rather than standing around and looking cute most of the time. The only real value the storyline provided to the viewer was the connection to the purloined letter in the Christmas special – an episode where we got to see a good bit more of Bates’ nefarious side, another example of the character development in the season that made it, on the whole, so positive, but not something that seemed to extend to Anna after her story’s resolution.

* Lady Rose would like to go to London, please.

* Isobel was left adrift for too much of the season, a waste of the very talented Penelope Wilton, although her occasional moments with Tom Branson as two outsiders trying to figure out whether they still fit in at Downton after their respective losses were strengths – something we should see more of, as they have that natural kinship, and Isobel’s maternal affection for Branson is evident.

* The Alfred-Jimmy-Ivy-Daisy storyline played itself out too quickly for the season, and eventually became tiresome other than the sweet – maybe a little too sweet – conclusion where Daisy gets advice from her father-in-law, another character we could use a little more of. Daisy likes Alfred, who likes Ivy, who likes Jimmy, who likes himself. Something in that chain had to break or reverse or Mrs. Patmore was going to have to club someone with a cast-iron skillet. (Mrs. Patmore also got a little more breadth to her character, appearing more confident than in seasons one and two and more like the captain of her kitchen than a harassed and perhaps not-that-competent servant.)

* And then we have Lady Edith, whose subplot was clearly too good to be true for a character who gets punched in the stomach at least one per season despite deserving pretty much none of it. Her witchiness toward Mary has evaporated post-Sybil, and if she has a character flaw remaining it was absent this past season. The story had more than a touch of the absurd, while also dropping her whole bid for independence through writing, and I can only hope the two revelations in the Christmas special, extending this storyline into season five, provide more value than we got from it this season. Even the brief foray into the dangers facing a woman who sought to end a pregnancy in a time when abortion was illegal, and thus practiced in circumstances that posed great risks to the woman, was over before having any impact. With these seasons set in the inter-war period, a time of great social change, Fellowes has some room for social commentary, especially on the roles of women, and other than boosting Lady Mary to a more central role, I don’t think he did enough of that.

* Oddly enough, of all the male characters on the show, it was Moseley who had the most to do in season four, getting knocked down but getting up again, and by the end of the season playing a pivotal role in the culture downstairs. I think the idea that Moseley’s descent from a valet to a footman was almost too big a fall for him to bear can’t resonate with modern audiences – isn’t a lesser job at the Abbey better than pouring tar, or being unemployed? – but putting him in the lower quarters while he worked to find his own self-respect had interesting consequences, and may finally give Thomas a proper foil for his intrigues.

* Finally, Lady Violet was in rare form all season; I thought her dialogue was wittier and Fellowes was careful not to excessively liberalize her given what was going on with her granddaughters. She needs to be the guardian of the old ways, in a sense, while balancing that with her love and care for Mary and Edith. Dame Maggie Smith has shown she can handle anything – just watch her virtuoso, Oscar-winning turn as the title character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – and Fellowes should continue to challenge her with the character. Besides, who else could deliver a rejoinder to Isobel’s “How you hate to be wrong” like Smith did with Lady Violet’s retort, “I wouldn’t know; I’m not familiar with the sensation?”