Grantland Recommends: ‘The Mind of a Chef,’ ‘Fridays at Enrico’s,’ High-Tech LARPing, and More

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Welcome to Grantland Recommends, in which the Grantland staff shares some of their favorite discoveries and obsessions of the month, whether new, old, or new again. This month we’re loving a sports commentator for the online gaming set, the drugstore to end all drugstores, cool vampires, and everything in between.

Fridays at Enrico’s by Don Carpenter

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Andy Greenwald: Don Carpenter is a writer who is passed around like a secret. Though he endured a few whispers of acclaim in the ’60s and ’70s, his books have been largely out of print for decades; his name is most familiar now as a supporting character in his friend Anne Lamott’s perpetually-selling writing handbook Bird by Bird. While I admit there are some secrets worth keeping, Don Carpenter isn’t among them. His writing, about Portland pool hustlers, lady-killing comedians, and drug-sniffing screenwriters, is as radiant and surprising now as it was the moment it was written. Though they occasionally wallow in life’s darker vices, Carpenter’s novels stand out for their resolute, hardscrabble sunniness. Here was a man who knew frustration and failure better than most — he committed suicide in 1995 after years of declining health — yet his love for the West Coast, for old movies and cold beer, and, above all else, for writing, suffuses every page.

So it’s fitting, then, that two contemporary writers are the ones responsible for bringing Carpenter back from obscurity. A few years ago, George Pelecanos wrote the introduction for the NYRB Classics reissue of Hard Rain Falling, Carpenter’s toughest and most bruising book. And this spring Jonathan Lethem brilliantly “finished” Carpenter’s final work, Fridays at Enrico’s, thus allowing it to be published for the first time. (To hear Lethem tell it, his job mostly involved editing and organizing. There’s no mistaking Carpenter’s strong voice throughout.) There are a lot of books like Enrico’s in the popular imagination — “lost” classics from deceased authors, the legends of which most likely outstrip the meager realities. But not in this case.

Though I’ll always be partial to Carpenter’s Hollywood novels (The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan, Turnaround, and my personal favorite, the boozy, road-tripping A Couple of Comedians), Enrico’s is unquestionably his masterpiece. It’s a straightforward tale of young, would-be novelists in the waning days of the beatnik scene; the action shifts like the seasons from Portland (small, incestuous, with big picnics and bigger jealousies) to San Francisco (tumbledown glamour and elegant alcoholism) to Los Angeles (all motels, amphetamines, and ambition). As the years pass, the characters drift in and out of each other’s orbits; some fail upward, some happily tread water, one can’t quite stay out of prison. Their work sells and then it doesn’t. The movies beckon, but not quite as loudly as that next cocktail. Gradually it becomes clear to the us (though never, sadly, to them) that their actual, gin-soaked lives are richer and more full than any novel could ever hope to be. Except, perhaps, for this one.

Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator

Ben Lindbergh: Every now and then, a devoted sci-fi fan turns his or her home into a replica of the USS Enterprise. Impressive as these feats of interior engineering are, they come with a couple of downsides: cost, and the potential for the decor to derail the discussion when it’s the Trekker’s turn to host book club. Based on past precedent, it can take even a skilled do-it-yourselfer more than $20,000 for a full Starfleet-style remodel, a prohibitive price unless you already own a megamansion, the American people pay for it, or Kickstarter comes through. Fortunately, there’s a way to achieve the same effect for $40, and without having to hesitate the next time someone says, “Your place or mine?”

It’s called Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator, and it’s the work of a single game designer, Thomas Robertson, who dreamed of re-creating the experience of being on the Enterprise bridge. In practice, he came closer to creating Galaxy Quest: The Game. Best played with at least five physically present friends who are unabashedly into the idea, Artemis requires the host to set up six networked computers or mobile devices, with one of them connected to a big central (view)screen. A player at each “station” — Helm, Weapons, Science, and so on — serves some purpose on the collectively controlled ship, while one person plays captain and gets to give orders. While it’s not explicitly Star Trek–themed (licensing fees are expensive), the fan community has supplied the requisite Star Trek missions and mods. It’s fun to play, fun to watch, and the best way to cross both LARPing and LAN partying off your bucket list in one un-self-conscious swoop. Note: Costumes not required.

HuskyStarcraft on YouTube

Bill Barnwell: I am a very, very, very casual StarCraft player. Even in my relative pomp as a regular Brood War player back in the day, I was basically limited to cannon rushing or turtling until I could build battlecruisers. I’m not very good, I’m saying. You know who is good? HuskyStarcraft. I find faults in a lot of sports commentators, but Husky is in a class with Doc Emrick and Doris Burke in terms of people who are phenomenal at breaking down their chosen games. (StarCraft, of course, being an e-sport.) Husky takes games that otherwise would be an incomprehensible mash of attacks to a layperson like myself and unlocks them by detailing the strategy and processes for each side in a simple-to-understand fashion. In a way, he’s probably something closer to Jim Ross, in that he’s the rare commentator who can take something that feels childish or embarrassing in the wrong hands and view it as a higher art, lending the viewing experience a level of legitimacy it might not otherwise have.

David Axelrod, ’60s Space-Jazz Touchstone

Steve McPherson: It shouldn’t take more than 10 seconds of “The Edge” to let you know that David Axelrod — the musician and producer, not the mustachioed political pundit — is someone you should know more about. As the foundational sample for Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode,” “The Edge” is likely Axelrod’s most notable production. But “Holy Thursday” is the bed for Lil Wayne’s “Dr. Carter” (and also “Doin’ Time” by Sublime), “The Human Abstract” is at the heart of DJ Shadow’s “Midnight in a Perfect World,” and the list goes on.

The obscurity of Axelrod’s catalogue is part of why it’s such fertile ground for producers, but there’s also its distinctly cinematic feel, which is both retro and timeless. The foundation of an Axelrod production is usually a ghostly breakbeat and picked bass line, on top of which are scrawled razor-edged guitars awash in wah or fuzz. A melody might be sketched in piano or harpsichord. But then the whole thing is soaked in a thick bed of strings, brass and reeds. It’s almost fusion, but not busy or obnoxiously slick. It prefigures trip-hop, which makes it seem futuristic, but only in the way the Jetsons are futuristic. At its brightest, as on the title track from 1968’s Song of Innocence, it’s like the sun dappling through leaves as you race through the countryside in an old Aston Martin — perfect summer music.

Here’s an Axelrod playlist on Spotify, if you care to dig deeper.

Copra by Michel Fiffe

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netw3rk: One of my favorite comic-book titles at the moment is Copra, by creator Michel Fiffe. One part Ostrander Suicide Squad tribute, one part forward-facing bizarro beat-’em-up, and all parts startling DIY achievement, Copra is everything great about the superhero comics genre. Fiffe writes, draws, letters, colors, manages the printing, and ships the book himself, on a one-issue-per-month schedule, now up to Issue 14. I got turned on to Copra and Fiffe via Tucker Stone’s blog Factual Opinion, which is something of an indispensable resource for exploring the comics medium from street-level indies to the Marvel/DC corporate ouroboros.

Copra follows the exploits of a team whose special abilities and pariah social status make them an ideal, expendable, special ops force. Because Fiffe has no editorial and no decadeslong corporate continuity millstone to deal with, Copra is free to go where mainstream comics can’t: death. Lots of team members die, imbuing Fiffe’s incredibly rendered battle-royal fight scenes (the book’s specialty) with a tension not often found in superhero comics. And the splash pages are some of the best I have ever seen.

Marvel Comics took notice of Fiffe’s work and recently hired him to write their revamped Ultimates line. So check out Fiffe’s Etsy page for upcoming issues of Copra, before he gets too busy to keep doing it.

FCA magazine, Vol. 56, Issue 3

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Bryan Curtis: New in the mail slot this month: FCA, the magazine published by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (“The Heart and Soul in Sports”). The ads caught my eye first. Did you know Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist wrote a book called Double Play, a story of “faith and family first,” with his wife?

Joshua Cooley’s profile of Mike Matheny, the St. Louis Cardinals manager, is worth stepping out of the box for. It begins with a 17-year-old Matheny praying about whether he should go to college or sign with the pro team that drafted him. “As he walked out of his dormitory with his stomach knotted, a pigeon defecated on his head,” Cooley writes. Matheny headed to the shower and picked college. It’s the kind of lead anecdote that wouldn’t feel out of place in Sports Illustrated.

Cooley adds footnotes to the familiar arc of Matheny’s career. We learn, for example, that Matheny got the Cards job after he got home from a mission trip, that he regarded getting the call as (Matheny’s words) a “parting-of-the-Red-Sea, walking-on-water type of miracle.”

Interestingly, Cooley ties Matheny’s rawhide toughness — Matheny said he has suffered between 25 and 30 concussions — directly to his faith. “I always felt I had the responsibility to be an example of how Christians ought to compete,” Matheny said. “I still have those conversations with Christian players. We’re held to a higher standard. We’re serving a God who knows our intents and purposes. We should play the game in a way that honors Him, and that should be with a fierce competitor’s heart.”

If a more illuminating quote has been published since Opening Day, lemme see it.

Only Lovers Left Alive and The Hunger

Emily Yoshida: Disclaimer: I’m an easy sell on vampire-related media in general. I always go in skeptical to a point, but once I’m convinced of a given work’s proper sense of balance between the undeniable fun of the mythology and a certain amount of straight-faced dedication, I’m in. (Are we still at the point where we have to say “except for Twilight“? Sigh, duh, except for Twilight.) Thus I watched The Vampire Diaries for several seasons after I “had to for work.” I’ll go to the mat for Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula any day of the week. And when I first saw the trailer for Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, I was 98 percent sure it was going to be my favorite movie of the year. I felt the way Evangelical Christians probably did when they first saw the trailer for Heaven Is for Real, eagerly anticipating the validation of my belief (in Tilda Swinton in sunglasses).

The promise and the payoff of Only Lovers is more emotional science fiction than straight-up bloodfest. You’d think it’d be more obvious to make vampires the embodied speculations of a would-be-utopian future, but Jarmusch’s is the first film I’ve seen to sidestep the horror aspect of vampirism entirely in favor of moodily speculating about the condition of the hearts and minds of its ancient protagonists. What if we greatly increase our life expectancy, we rely on a single life-giving slurry to survive (and stay in impeccable shape), and by some great economic revolution we are free to spend all day luxuriating in apartments imbued with lifetimes of personality, refrigerators bare, free to learn a few more languages or concertos? The tides of civilization and culture would look like the rising and falling of time-lapse anthills, but Jarmusch’s film also imagines a kind of expanded consciousness, a greater lens on the human project, and an almost devastating attunement to those few blood-hungry peers with whom you’ve existed on the same timescale for centuries. Also, you’d be so cool it’d practically be a punchline.

Ultimately, with the bloodletting at a minimum, OLLA is a fantasy about a kind of luxurious ageless boredom and humanly impossible love (Swinton’s Eve and Tom Hiddleston’s Adam are equally old and equally cool, rather than the more delineated dominant/submissive relationships between your more garden-variety human-vampire star-crossed lovers.) For the nightmare inversion, you can watch its most obvious forebear, Tony Scott’s 1983 feature debut The Hunger, which stars Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie as a pair of equally glamorous vampire lovers … for the first 15 minutes. If you haven’t seen the film and you’re chomping at the bit another two hours of beautiful actors having beautiful vampire emotions together, maybe do yourself a favor and stop after the uncut badassery of the Bauhaus-scored opening credits. The Hunger promises immortal chic and then turns around and fires a hefty round of aging makeup at you, and the effect is kind of like when you bite into a Tic Tac that ends up being an aspirin. It’s a gutsily visceral film that makes very little sense and features a lot of doves and gauzy curtains, but it’ll shake any Peter Pan notions you picked up from OLLA (or L.A.) right out of your head.

Walgreens (no, wait … hear us out)

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Juliet Litman: One of my favorite places in Los Angeles is the Walgreens on the corner of Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. The store opened at the end of 2012 in a space previously inhabited by Borders, which should give you a sense of scale. It contains a number of sections, each of which could constitute a fine stand-alone institution. There’s the wine and liquor section in the back, an impressive cosmetics department up front, and the general drugstore selections in the middle (which includes basic groceries and housewares that have become standard at competitors like CVS and Rite Aid, too). All three of these areas are beyond serviceable independently, and the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

And yet, that doesn’t even account for the most remarkable part of the store. This particular Walgreens has an incredible prepared-food area that rivals the salad bar–plus at Whole Foods. It includes a juice bar, smoothies, self-serve frozen yogurt, sandwiches, baked goods, healthy snacks like diced fruit and carrot sticks, and, most astonishingly, delicious sushi. I know, who would ever buy sushi from Walgreens if you’re in the middle of a world-class food city like Los Angeles? But the Hollywood Walgreens has its own staff of sushi chefs who make fresh rolls throughout the day. It’s consistently fresh, and it’s even inventive. Some rolls work in seasonal fruits like strawberries and mango. Amid an intersection that also features Chipotle, The Melt (a grilled-cheese shop), and Tender Greens (a hip pseudo-healthy local chain frequented by Frank Ocean), Walgreens has emerged as a legitimate lunch option. The best part is that after you’ve eaten or while you sip on a fresh made-to-order juice, you have an entire clean, well-lit store to browse. If you’re not convinced, look at some more pictures.

Rev Ether, “1862 B.P.”

Charles P. Pierce: There is no more sturdy and consistent element in the history of rock and roll than the Louisiana piano wildman. The tradition got off to a flying start with Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, which was the equivalent of starting the air-travel industry with Apollo 11. At the same time these guys were terrifying suburban parents all over America, Professor Longhair and James Booker were working the same side of the street in comparative obscurity back in New Orleans. And young Mac Rebennack learned from them, and took it even further as Doctor John, The Night Tripper. This has continued right up to the present day with the great Bobby Lounge, whose “Take Me Back to Abita Springs” is what Jerry Lee would have come up with had he not been so obviously solid a citizen.

Anyway, I told you all that to tell you about this:

One day in 1971, I was idling away an afternoon during my senior year in high school, half-listening to the local “underground” FM station in central Massachusetts, when the DJ cued up something called “1862 B.P.” by something or someone named Reverend Ether, The Kingdom The Power The Glory, and it fairly blew me right through the wall. It was weird. It was wonderful. And it rocked like nobody’s business. The guitar slid all around the piano, and the signifyin’ vocals told some extraordinarily strange story about a lost and wandering Confederate soldier in (I think) Arkansas, but the whole song starts as a frenzied litany of the states in the Confederacy, so who can say, really? It presaged less the Band’s saga of Virgil Kane than it did the blasted, hoodoo moonscape California of Little Feat’s first album, especially “Strawberry Flats.” And it rocked like nobody’s business.

And it was almost 40 years before I ever heard it again.

I talked to everybody about it, all my music-silly friends. Most of them had never heard of it. It must have been released as a single that just died on the market. Finally, a few years back, a musicologist buddy of mine in Kansas City named Bill Osment sent me an MP3 of the song and also filled me in a little on the back story.

The Reverend Ether, it turns out, was a New Orleans session musician named Ronnie Barron. He was a longtime running buddy of Rebennack’s. They cut some cool records together as Drits and Dravy.  (Oz sent that one along, too.) As a matter of fact, Mac first dreamed up the character of Dr. John with Ronnie in mind, only to assume the identity when Barron passed on the notion.

All of we Jurassic bastards who remember “underground” radio, and even we Precambrian bastards who remember Top 40, have argued from time to time about one-hit wonders — bands that made a killing on one record and then vanished. The Reverend Ether was a whole ’nother thing in my experience: He was a one-listen band. But his record stayed with me right up until the present day, when I now can listen to it on my telephone anytime I want to. These are amazing times in which we live. By the way, it still rocks like eight kinds of motherfucker and, as the singer warns us right there in the first verse … YOU GOT TO HEAR THE STORY! Amen, Rev.

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

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Patricia Lee: I am a huge sucker for art museums. Contemporary art, modern art, impressionist art, American art — say the words “Mondrian,” “Modigliani,” and “Michelangelo,” and I’m there. But one of my favorite parts of visiting a place like the Met or the Guggenheim is the gift shop. You can find cool trinkets like this snarky towel, this fun bow tie, and these pencil-shaped salt and pepper grinders, as well as cool magnets, posters, and books.

I went to LACMA about a month ago to catch its Alexander Calder exhibit and, of course, visited the gift store after, knowing I would want to buy about 70 percent of the items in the store and be priced out of about 90 percent of them. Ten minutes later, though, I left with something in my hand: Andy Warhol’s sorta-autobiography, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again.

I started reading it as soon as I got back home and found myself becoming more and more intrigued by his interesting (and odd!) thoughts about love, time, fame, and society, and how easy it was to lose myself in the book but then pick it up later and hop right back into his quirky stream-of-consciousness-style of writing. There isn’t really too much to spoil in the book, nor is there much of a plot to explain, so instead here are some words from the mind of the man who did that soup-can thing and filmed his friend sleeping:

“Beauty doesn’t have anything to do with sex. Beauty has to do with beauty and sex has to do with sex.”

“When you just see somebody on the street, they can really have an aura. But then when they open their mouth, there goes the aura. ‘Aura’ must be until you open your mouth.”

“They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

“That’s the hard part of overdosing on cherries — you have all the pits to tell you exactly how many you ate. Not more or less. Exactly.”

“Everybody winds up kissing the wrong person good-night.”

Ingenious by Jason Fagone

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Jonah Keri: My dad has always been a huge car guy. When I was 8 years old, he bought a 1966 Alfa Romeo convertible. It was cherry red, monstrously fast, beautiful to look at. It was also one of the worst cars you could possibly own in a place like Montreal. A fixer-upper when he bought it, the Alfa never ran properly, and thanks to the six months of salt on the road every winter, the paint job and entire underside of the car got annihilated, too. On a rare occasion when the car started in the wintertime, my dad took me out on the highway, where we saw a Porsche speed up to catch us. He looked to his right, tapped me on the shoulder, and calmly issued his instructions. “Hold on,” he said. “And don’t tell your mother.”

I never inherited that car lover’s gene, and have driven nothing but boring, cheap little cars my whole life. So when I happened upon Jason Fagone’s book Ingenious (full disclosure, got an advance copy from the publisher), I ignored it for several months. Ingenious was a book about cars. Meh.

After actually reading the book, here’s what you can say: Ingenious is a book about cars in the same way Moneyball is a book about on-base percentage. It’s a relevant theme, but really just the start of the conversation.

Ingenious tells the story of the Automotive X Prize, a $10 million award for anyone who could build a safe, reliable, street-ready car … that gets 100 miles per gallon (or gallon equivalent, if not a fuel-combustion-engine car). The book does introduce us to a number of different prototype cars, with all kinds of engines and all kinds of exteriors.

But as the title implies, what you really get is a window into human ingenuity. The protagonists bring even more variety than the cars themselves. There’s the well-funded company with a team of skilled engineers, the apparent favorites to win the prize. The inner-city Philly high school kids who find salvation working on Frankencars. The couple in rural Illinois who spend day and night working on their own entry, using nothing more than a barn, a couple of handy pals, and whatever parts they can afford; toss a couple of paper clips and chewing gum into the mix and you’d have a husband-and-wife MacGyver.

Living up to his reputation as one of the best long-form writers around (more full disclosure: he is an occasional contributor to Grantland), Fagone skillfully weaves all of these narratives into a fun-as-hell story that’s bitingly funny, often poignant, and with the pacing of a continuous cliff-hanger.

As soon as I finished Ingenious, I gave the book to my dad. He’s a voracious reader, and the subject was right in his wheelhouse. If Ingenious prompts him to go hunting for another broken-down heartbreaker on four wheels, well, so much the better.

The Mind of a Chef

Danny Chau: These are the five points of gluttony in Catholicism: eating too early; yearning for food of better quality; using seasoning to enliven the food you’re eating; eating too much; and eating too eagerly, especially when what you’re eating is garbage. I became the patron saint of gluttony last weekend, eating a large delivery pizza alone in bed while binge-watching the first season of PBS’s incredible The Mind of a Chef series, wishing I were eating something better. Domino’s toxins coursed through my veins. I went numb. I became one with the metaphysical realm. The voice of chef David Chang, whom the first season highlights, became my own conscience. His embrace of “rotten” food (kimchi, fish sauce, other fermented things) in Episode 5, through my comatose state, became a meditation on life, death, and reawakening. You know how Albert Einstein rode a beam of light in his mind? That was me, except I was fermenting in a jar with other slices of cabbage.

Anthony Bourdain is the executive producer and narrator of the series, and his fingerprints are all over the concept of the show. But instead of tying a bow on expansive cultural issues, The Mind of a Chef, as its title suggests, is more insular, more personal. We get a glimpse of the influences that shaped Dave Chang’s culinary mind early on. We also get a look at why he’s so polarizing. (In a single episode, he manages to piss off Italians twice, most fragrantly by making cacio e pepe with instant ramen.) It’s a lot of fun. Kick back and start a marathon. Have a pizza and a bottle of wine nearby, and fall in.

Filed Under: Grantland Recommends, Friday at Enrico's, Don Carpenter, Hard Rain Falling, Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator, LARPing, Starcraft, David Axelrod, Copra, Michael Fiffe, Comics, FCA Magazine, Mike Matheny, The Hunger, only lovers left alive, Walgreens, Rev Ether, andy warhol, Ingenious, Jason Fagone, The Mind of a Chef, David Chang