Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Harry Dresden Series

Let me start off by saying, my first exposure to Harry Dresden was from the short lived television series on the Sci-Fi channel.  I know people are polarized on the quality of that series, but it’s what drew me in.  I love the juxtaposition of magic with a modern day world.  Other than the TV series, the only time I heard about Harry Dresden was from the IMDB trivia for the movie “The Prestige”.  No matter what your opinion, Sci-Fi provided the gateway drug that led me to the harder stuff… novels.

For those unfamiliar with the series, here’s the basic premise: 

“The Dresden Files are set in a "alternate" Chicago where magic is real, but only a few actually believe in it; it's a first-person tale told by an irascible wizard named Harry Dresden, who regularly gives the magical establishment indigestion — and the police, the same. Take Sam Spade, your Average Joe Underdog Action Star, and toss in some spellcraft, and you get Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Heck of a guy.” - from Jim Butcher’s website

In roughly two months I’ve chewed through all ten of the currently available Dresden File novels.  I haven’t had this kind of passion for a series since I was a kid reading Piers Anthony’s “Xanth” books.  Even then the books had an ever changing roster of characters to keep things fresh and interesting.  The Dresden Files focuses on just one man.  He may have friends and adversaries that are accumulated along the way, but it’s always about him.  To maintain that level of character development, further deepening the emotional ties between reader and protagonist, all while staying true to the core values of the character, is an amazing literary feat. 

One thing I like is the first person narrative.  The books I tend to read aren’t usually written in that manner.  For me it really added to the “gumshoe" feel the first couple of books had.  The wit and humor of the character comes through well in that voice. 

Another thing I've enjoyed is the way that decisions have consequences in these tales.  Not trite, meaningless consequences, but serious life altering events that sometimes don't show up until several books later.  His decisions are always true to his values and even though their repercussions might be severe, to do anything else would make him less of who he is.  It steeps the world in a moral reality that is tangible.  

The metaplot continues to ensnare, working it’s way incrementally through the books hinting at what it will blossom into.  It keeps the series from being a string of one-shots and molds it into an overall narrative.  Looking back at it, some of the occurrences in the books feel like chess moves slowly positioning themselves around a plan 10 steps ahead of what you’re reading.

Even with all these spinning plates, the pacing is fantastic.  Never once did I find parts dragging or dull.  If anything, there’s never a chance for Harry (or yourself) to catch a breath.   Dialogue’s great, action’s intense and the flow is superb.  Butcher improves with each books he produces, only further refining the quality of his tales.

I can’t recommend these books enough.  They’re solid, well done and not one of those “strong willed female protagonist against supernatural forces” hacks that seem to be clogging the horror/fantasy shelves these days (I’m looking at you Laurell K. Hamilton).  I can’t wait for more additions to the series.  Jim Butcher has confessed to having enough material to take it to the mid twenties.  I hope that’s true because I will be sad once this ride comes to an end.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Food Induced Coma

Of all the places I've traveled to, the DC area is one where I've kept the most friends.  The first time I was ever there, beginning of '07, I became buddies with a phenomenal chef named Andrew Markert.  When I returned in August of that same year, I met Scott and Jenn.  Through the magic of the Internet (and Facebook) I’ve luckily been able to keep in touch with them all.

Since I knew I was going to be spending two weeks back in their neck of the woods, I made sure to call them up.  Andrew recently became the new executive chef at a restaurant named Tallula.  Looking to kill several birds with a stone, I invited Scott and Jenn to Tallula in order to sample Andrew’s new menu.  The last time I tried his tasting’s menu was when he was chef de cuisine at Vermillion. My girl and I went into a food coma after finishing.  It was the first time I felt drunk off of food.  Needless to say, I was looking forward to his new menu.

Tallula - Tastings Menu

Scott and Jenn picked me up from my hotel and we shot down to DC.  As some of you may know, DC is a bitch to get around.  One wrong turn and the spider web of one-way streets would divert you from your destination for miles.  Let’s just say we made a couple of wrong turns.  I blame the GPS and its posh British accent. 

When we finally arrived the place was in full swing, enjoying the hustle and bustle of a Friday night.  Our reservation was for the “Chef’s Counter” which gave us an up close view of the kitchen’s inner workings.  It also allowed us to chat with Andrew as he went around being “executive”.  Waiting by our place settings was a printed copy of the evening’s menu (shown right).  Each course was one or two dishes along with a wine pairing.  We didn’t know who was going to get what, but since we’re all relatively germ free we decided to share.

I’ve always wanted to get deeper into wines, but without all the bullshit pretentiousness.  I wanted to experience aromas and flavors because I could, not because they were written on the side of a label.  Surprisingly, the wine pairings were a meal unto themselves.  The complexity and uniqueness of the wines not only complimented the flavors of the dishes but opened up my concept of what wine could taste like.

All in all, the meal was fantastic.  Great company, delicious food and lots of wine made for a memorable evening.  After our bellies were full with all these delights, Andrew gave us a tour of the kitchen.  Massive wheels of foreign cheese filled a walk in freezer alongside assorted meats, mushrooms and an entire pig.  Then we were shown the meat room where they cure their own salami’s and meats.

Andrew had a child like grin while showing off this last place.  I’ve never seen anyone so happy about a room of hanging meat.  We returned to our seats and continued chatting for a bit.  We finished our wine while he started in on pints (and I do mean pints) of vodka/tonic.  When you’re 6’7” a rocks glass just isn’t going to cut it.

We took some pictures, but because I forgot my camera and they had the wrong lens we only snapped a couple of slightly fuzzy ones.  The one crappy part of the evening was the fact that my girl wasn’t there to join us.  In her defense she was stuck in the Philippines over 8000 miles away.  We did tip our glasses in her honor and I promised the next time I would be in town, I’d drag her with me.

It was really good seeing everyone again.  With as much traveling as I do and the myriad number of places I’ve lived, it’s hard to keep friends.  When you do bump into good people you tend to collect them like rare pieces of art.  Sometimes they get lost in the shuffle, but the few that remain in your grasp become that much more precious.

Beginning of September I’m supposed to return, but that hasn’t been confirmed yet.  If I do, I’ll have to repeat this gastronomic experience with my lady, now that she has returned to civilization.


Humans in general are tribal animals.  We look to find others similar to ourselves, searching for that comfort and sense of belonging.  Gangs, high school cliques, professional associations and secret societies are all examples of our desire for safety in numbers of like minded individuals. 

Now imagine the other  end of the spectrum.  Encountering someone who is the antithesis of what you are.  Someone who resonates at an exactly opposite frequency.  I recently had the pleasure (or is it unpleasure?) of meeting that person.

Let me preface my comments with the following: he is a nice guy and I don't harbor him any ill will.  My critique of him is not so much a put down or chastising but an observation of human characteristics. 

My ideas and values of manhood stem from my father (as they usually tend to in our culture).  I absorbed them not only through his words but his actions.  For me, a man is someone who is ambitious, works hard, has strength of will and lives life with a fiery passion.  Passion is especially important.  To live a life devoid of it, is to curse yourself to a bland milk toast existence fueled by the crumbs of true experience.  When it comes to my male friends they typically fall into the "alpha male" crowd.  This stems not from a desire for macho bullshit, but because passion and aggression are normal traits of this group.  Even if opinions differ they are held with a steely determination that I can respect.

With that in mind, let me bring you to the events of several weeks ago.  While up in the Maryland area, I hung out with a friend of mine from DC.  She had been a bartender when I met her and we kept in touch after my project finished.  When she heard I was in town, we made plans to hit a reggae show and swing by a jazz club she was working at.  Before we could kick off the night's festivities, we needed to swing by her place so she could top up on food and cash.  Her apartment is a cool little spot that she shares with her boyfriend. 

I had met him once or twice before, when I first hung out with her.  He never really made an impression because there was never anything impressionable about him.  It wasn't so much that he was laid back as that he was beige.  All those times had been in public settings so there was at least a modicum of effort being made.  This time, I was delving into the lair of the beast.  No pretenses, no airs, just raw unfiltered him.  His girl played the good host while he sucked oxygen out of the room.  I tried engaging him in light conversation, but it never went anywhere.  I tried all the tricks, from picking subjects related to things he had in the home to current political events (a popular go to method in DC) to recent movies.  Eventually silence was less painful than trying to pull anything out of him.

Finally, we were ready to hit the show and on our way out.  As we're leaving he gives his girl a kiss goodbye.  I turned my head, not out of politeness (I grew up in a Hispanic household. Kissing hello and goodbye is a way of life) but out of discomfort.  What should have been a warm display of affection was instead an awkward motion done out of habit.  It lacked even an ounce of passion in its inflection.  At that very moment is when I dubbed him the "anti male".  

He existed in a polar opposite to my wavelength.  No ambition, no drive, did enough to get by, and completely without passion.  Even in the subjects that were his "favorite" there was no spark, no light in his eyes.  Living like that would be my own personal hell, a breathing functioning zombie shambling through life never truly ever tasting it.

She's been with him for a while so I hope that he reserves his passion for her in private, but if this is the way he is throughout his being then I have no idea how she endures it. 

Sunday, August 3, 2008