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07-15-11: David Darlington Searches for 'An Ideal Wine'

One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection — and Profit — in California

Outcasts come from all points of the spectrum — and they often end up in the middle of the fray. What we see as monolithic from the outside, may be comprised of many factions battling for dominance. We're used to this kind of cutthroat competition in the world of technology manufacturing, but the wine business seems to be an unlikely setting. David Darlington's 'An Ideal Wine: One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection — and Profit — in California' (Harper / HarperCollins ; June 28, 2011 ; $26.99) looks at the wine business over 30 years and finds that the clash between art and technology is well underway in the vineyards of California — not exactly a place you'd expect to find it.

Darlington's book involving, engaging look at the clash between art and science in the world of winemaking is exemplified by two very different figures. The artist is Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards, a warm, flat spot nestled away in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The scientist and technological entrepreneur is Leo McCloskey. Between the two, Darlington explores a complex world of people, art, ideas and commerce that has all the traction and appeal of the products at the center of the story. Books too, have a terroir and a technology.

Terroir is the French term for soil, land, place — the unique qualities that seep from the ground in which the vines are planted and into the flavor of the final product. It is the province of Randall Grahm, a restless soul who met Darlington some 30 years ago as Grahm was starting his journey into the world of winemaking. Grahm is a maverick and an artist, and his work is as much performance as it is planting. But for Grahm, wine is all about the ineffable. The mystic qualities of place make the difference between a good wine and work of art.

McCloskey took a different approach, and eventually ended up founding Enologix, which purports to have the taste of wine perfected to a scientific degree. For McCloskey, it is not necessary to even taste a wine to know the flavor. Quality can be quantified. Science specifies what art cannot.

Between the two is Robert M. Parker, the ruling lord of wine reviews, who only recently announced that he would no longer review California wines. As a critic, he developed a numeric scoring system for judging wine and ruled the market with his 0-100 point scoring system. His rating could make or break a vineyard. He wielded an almost terrifying economic power, simply by virtue of how wine tasted to him.

Interwoven with these three figures are the tales of many of today's most famous winemakers. Darlington is a superb non-fiction storyteller, who writes with the perfect level of detail to convey the complex compulsions that drive these men and women into business that is an art and an art that can be a business. Fortunes are at stake. The interplay between those who create the wines and those who judge them involves more money than most readers could imagine. Few critics wield such raw financial power.

'An Ideal Wine' reveals and revels in a world that most of us know only through a few sips of the end product. If you think of wineries as places where grapes are crushed by bare feet and aged in oak barrels rather then chemically treated for correct alcohol content, you're going to be in for a shock. Darlington has lived with and known these people; he's a part of the world he writes about, but apart from that world as well. He knows the terroir and the technology; and that both have a compelling part in the story of wine. In 'An Ideal Wine,' Darlington proves to be an ideal storyteller, a man who understands the terroir as well as the science, of the business of making wines.

07-13-11: Joe R. Lansdale's 'Crucified Dreams'

Urbane Extreme

Before there was "dark fantasy," before the streets of our fair cities were overrun with all manner of faeries, vampires, werewolves, those streets were haunted. The frail humans who dared to walk in them were being stalked. And monsters took their prey before it was a fashion statement.

Joe R. Lansdale knows this because he was among those to bring the grittiest grunge to the printed page back in the days when those streets still had reason to fear a nuclear attack from Russia. He was not alone in his literary prognostication and Tachyon Publications brought him aboard to edit 'Crucified Dreams' (Tachyon Publications ; February 17, 2011 ; $15.95), a journey into the past that proved to be our future.

We like to think that stories that are easily described as "over-the-top" and extreme, stories that revel in fairly horrific levels of blood and gore, stories that traffic in the worst aspects of the human condition are somehow as sub-literary as their characters are sub-human. That can be the case, but it need not be, and Lansdale, a man who regularly walks beyond the limits of what passes for good taste, proves to be an excellent guide to the literary history of the good old ultra-violence.

The nineteen stories here vary in setting, in style and content, but not quality. From Harlan Ellison's urban classic based on the infamous Kitty Genovese murder, "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" to Charlie Huston's "Interrogation B" to Karen Joy Fowler's "Game Night at the Fox and Goose," the emphasis goes beyond urban horror and to be sure, beyond the extremes that currently attempt to gouge out our eyes if we're unfortunate enough to try to see what passes for a horror movie here in the 21st century. Suffice it to say that you won't be overrun with zombies in this collection.

The stories collected here showcase writers for whom there are no limits other than high literary quality. 'Crucified Dreams' is a collection of reprinted stories, many of which will be familiar to horror genre veterans. These stories have been reprinted for a reason — they work as stories, and the narratives, no matter how extreme (Lansdale's own contribution, "The Pit") or inventive (Jonathan Lethem's "Access Fantasy"), are examples of fine writing, regardless of genre. That many of them point the way towards the huge explosion of "urban fantasy" overrunning the bookshelves today is not surprising. Good quality tends to be a predictor of what's to come.

The value of anthologies like this is two-fold; for those new to the genre, this is sort of like reading the classics, only really, really entertaining and fun. These readers can identify the writers they like here and find a huge back catalogue of great work to explore. Veteran readers, and I can count myself among them, are likely to find stories they are not familiar with by writers they are familiar with (Jeffrey Ford's "Coffins on the River") and stories in genre by writers who do not work this side of the street often ("The Monster" by Joe Haldeman). And you'll find those stories the company of familiar names and tales that are well worth re-reading.

As usual, Tachyon puts out a quality package at a bargain price. 'Crucified Dreams' is almost 400 pages, and with 19 stories, I figure it works out to less than a buck a story, many of which will give you nightmares for years to come. Who knew that bad dreams were so economical? Perhaps the bad dream that is our economy will be the subject of future horror fiction — some of which is very likely already in our past.

07-11-11: Erik Larson Roams 'In the Garden of Beasts'

Innocents in Evil

Great writing can undermine hindsight. Events we feel to be fixed in our minds can be made to vanish by the powers of prose. The first histories may indeed be written by the victors, but the most informative offer the viewpoint of the vanquished. It is not enough to know what happened, to understand the changes that come about.

It is far more important to understand why events unfolded as recorded, to be immersed in the minds of those making the best decisions they knew to make, especially if their voices went unheeded. Offer readers a true perception from the past and the future will be forgotten.

Erik Larson manages this difficult feat with 'In the Garden of Beasts,' (Crown Books / Random House ; May 10, 2011 ; 978-0-307-40884-6 ; 450 pages ; $26) his gripping story of William E. Dodd, the American Ambassador sent to Germany just before Hitler seized power. Accompanied by his family, including his vibrant daughter Martha, the mild-mannered Dodd, who called himself a "Jeffersonian Democrat," found himself in a seething cauldron of nascent evil. He could not know what was to come.

Larson's triumph is to put readers in Dodd's world. It is about to explode in violence and horror. 'In the Garden of Beasts' is a creepy, disturbing page-turner that brilliantly re-creates a world that does not know what we all know. In doing so, Larson enables readers to understand the psychology of those who found themselves face-to-face with Hitler and the Nazis before the power of their evil was unleashed upon the world.

'In the Garden of Beasts' is assiduously researched. Everything you read is scrupulously backed by existing documents. But by restricting his focus to a single year; 1933 to 1934, and by assembling documents that had not been put together in this manner, Larson creates a unique portrait of innocent, almost bumbling Americans unknowingly set adrift in what was to become the most evil and destructive regime of the 20th century. The compression of time lends an element of incredible tension. 'In the Garden of Beasts' reads like a dystopian political horror novel.

Larson focuses on two characters; William E. Dodd himself, the Ambassador, and his daughter, Martha. Dodd was a self-made academic from a poor background. President Roosevelt, who was trying to steer the country out of the Depression, sent Dodd to Germany mostly as an afterthought. At the time, Germany wasn't all that important, except as a debtor country. It owed America lots of money that certainly could help ease our economic nightmare, and could make things worse if it defaulted.

Dodd found himself dealing with American isolationists, an elitist diplomatic corps that its rich and entitled members considered a "pretty good club," in a country that was in the grip of deadly and often murderous social upheaval. Hitler was Chancellor but Hindenburg was President. The Nazis had a lot of power, but were by no means running the show. Even the Nazis were divided. Dodd could sense trouble, but had little sway back in Washington.

Martha, a pretty, smart and fashionable young woman of 25, at first found the Nazis engagingly exciting. The young men were handsome and enthusiastic. Berlin was lively and cosmopolitan. She received love letters from Carl Sandburg and dated Rudolf Diels, who was in charge of the Gestapo. Martha found it all very exhilarating, and played the social scene with verve. She had a date with Hitler. It was not a grand success, however.

All this time, the Nazis were consolidating their power, reaching into society in ways both subtle and overt. Larson puts readers so firmly in the perceptions of his characters, that the experience of the book renders our knowledge of the outcome irrelevant. Larson's powerful character arcs, bolstered by astonishing details, create a powerful, page-turning plot.

No matter how much you think you know about what happened, immersing yourself in Larson's tight, taut narrative and engaging characters will result in a breathless, page-turning experience. Of course, there are many modern parallels to the events chronicled in this work of non-fiction, and they're open to a variety of interpretations. But there's no escaping the grip of this superb book. Close the covers. You're living in the epilogue.

New to the Agony Column

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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