New music: Brian, the Angel of History EP

Ahoy! Below, you’ll find an item for your calendar, a brief report from the road, and this year’s gift guide.

Winter Scenery, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ca. 1599-1614

Winter Scenery, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ca. 1599-1614

I’ve scheduled my annual reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for New Year’s Day. As longtime readers/viewers know, this has bounced around the calendar a bit, but last year, we made a discovery: January 1st is perfect. The reading will start at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. GMT.

I’ll mention it again in late December, but I invite you to make a note on your calendar now, perhaps including a link to the page.

(Am I going to beat the super-stylish new Green Knight film, now much-delayed, to market? I think I might…)

Here are the things I saw this season, hauling olives for Fat Gold across a respectable fraction of California’s length:

I saw cotton bundled into enormous cylindrical modules, nine feet in diameter and just as long, each wrapped in a thin layer of plastic, bright pink or bright yellow, lined up in the field, waiting to be carried away to the gin. They looked like giant marshmallows.

I saw raisins drying on their vines.

Pomegranates on the tree, bright and bulbous like Christmas ornaments.

Rice paddies, flooded, smooth as glass, dotted with birds: herons, cranes, snow geese, anonymous little dark-feathered dudes.

Walnut orchards and almond orchards, easy to distinguish: the walnut trees are prettier; the almond trees always look a bit surprised.

I saw nut processing facilities overtopped by tawny mountains, easily three or four stories tall—mountains made of almond shells! From a distance, you’d be sure they were sand dunes.

I saw oil fields: a wide zone of extraction straddling a state highway, everything dingy and dead on both sides, Mordor-like. The pumpjacks with their rocking action looked cartoony to me, but I suppose that’s just because I’ve mostly seen them in cartoons.

I drove a narrow road across an ancient lake bed, laser-straight, pancake-flat, hemmed in by mountains on both sides. Moonscape.

I saw aqueducts, many of them, all beautiful. Wide ribbons of water cased in concrete; I’d love to paddle along in a kayak. (I suspect this is extremely not allowed.) California is a cornucopia, absolutely overflowing with production, and this plumbing makes that possible.

East of Oakland, just across the Altamont Pass, I saw a place where one of the aqueducts runs past an enormous Safeway distribution center. The stuff of life on its way down; the stuff of life headed back up. The whole system in microcosm.

The pass itself is dense with wind farms. As you climb, slow-spinning turbine blades beat into view over the hilltops; wonderful.

On these drives, I found my sense of “urban” and “rural” challenged, destabilized. Are the vast fields and orchards of the San Joaquin Valley “rural”? They’re as busy as a factory floor. Very often they run 24/7.

The hilltop olive mill north of Nevada City with no cell reception for miles, okay, that was rural. I’m not sure about anywhere else.

California is huge, multifarious, and seeing it as a tall blue wedge on an electoral map smothers that reality. Within its borders there is a red state bigger (in population and geography) than most others in the country. All the states have this kind of complexity. (Well… almost all.) It’s difficult—maybe impossible—to really grasp that; you can’t hold the world in your head. Better to acknowledge the difficulty, though, than succumb to the abstractions.

I saw so many beautiful scenes on the road. I wanted to take pictures, but I was driving, always in a hurry, ten or twelve tons of olives in the belly of the truck behind me. So, I just looked, and resolved to remember.


Hunters in the Snow (Winter), Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ca. 1565

Hunters in the Snow (Winter), Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ca. 1565

I enjoyed compiling a gift guide last year, and you all seemed to appreciate it, so I’m offering one again this year. Some of the items below are repeats, because… they’re still great!

Also, I acknowledge that it’s mostly books and food.

That’s because gifts should be mostly books and food.

Does this guide feel like it’s arriving a bit early? Well, shopping for gifts carries an extra sense of urgency in 2020. Maybe you know this already: small retail and retail-adjacent businesses depend on the final months of the year, the holiday surge, to balance their accounts and nudge them into profitability, or even just sustainability. No indie bookstore in the country could survive without November and December; this year, that’s especially true. Exponentially true.

So let’s get to it!

The glint of hope

The Ministry for the Future

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson is the science fiction novel that makes peace, at least, with the infodump. There are sections of this book that read almost like nonfiction, the author simply explaining something—about ecology or economics, maybe, or the physics of polar ice, always with verve, but still, just explaining. In tone and format, it’s really very strange; for me, it totally worked.

If you know someone analytical and thoughtful, young or old, who is preoccupied with climate change, give them this book. Its story, which starts in 2025 and spans decades, offers something precious: a vision of humanity actually getting its act together.

The old made new

Beowulf

I discussed Maria Dahvana Headley’s new translation of Beowulf in my last newsletter and I will recommend it now as a gift. The juxtaposition of Maria’s modern cadence with the ancient material works as a kind of chemical reaction, and the book overflows with energy; it’s so much fun to read, and to speak aloud. Here’s a passage, chosen nearly at random:

Nothing like Modthryth, oh shit, remember her?
The people's princess, an utter criminal.
Bro, if anyone even looked at her in daylight,
save her own overlord, she'd deal that man death—
order him bound, each shackle tightened to torture,
his sentence resounding from on high: sword-selection,
then the entertainment, a public flaying, arteries spurting,
gore, good riddance. She may have been beautiful,
she may have been royal, but can we agree here?
Why the brutality?!

Bro!

The gimlet eye

Arcade Game Typography

Toshi Omagari’s Arcade Game Typography is a compendium of vintage video game alphabets, every page packed with incredible solutions to totally unreasonable technical and typographical problems. If you know someone who is interested in both video games and graphic design—a not-uncommon overlap—then, this right here: this is the gift. Trust me.

A book with the title Arcade Game Typography did not have to be—was perhaps not likely to be—trenchant, hilarious, and inspiring, but Omagari’s book is all those things and more.

The artifact

Kissa by Kissa

Craig Mod’s Kissa by Kissa is a dream of a book: carefully composed, lavishly produced, accordingly priced. This is the kind of book so incredibly, unapologetically specific (a “kissa” is a Japanese pizza-toast cafe) that it punches through into something universal and thrilling.

It’s an independent production, with Craig himself not only capturing the images and writing the text but laying out the pages, choosing the paper, coordinating the delivery of a print run of (so far) only about 2,000 copies. If you know a Japanophile, or someone who simply loves extremely well-made books, they will appreciate this artifact. They’ll feel, like I do, lucky that it reached them in the universe.

The aside; the imperative

Remember: when you buy books this season, you must buy them from indie bookstores. (Craig’s book is the exception; you can only buy it from Craig.) Ideally, you already have a favorite, proximate to you; maybe it’s open for cautious in-person shopping, or maybe it’s offering curbside pickup, even local deliveries.

If you don’t have a local favorite, allow me to recommend the Raven Book Store of Lawrence, Kansas. Besides being a terrific shop in its own right, the Raven has become a real banner-bearer for indie bookselling writ large. They’ll happily ship you a book or six, and don’t miss the merch. I’ve got one of these stickers on my laptop:

Raven Book Store sticker

Now, back to the gift guide. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t show you

The labor of love

Fat Gold

Fat Gold is the olive oil company I run with my partner Kathryn Tomajan. We offer a subscription that consists of four tins of California extra virgin olive oil, each different, delivered over the course of a year. Each tin comes with a label that’s actually a magnet that you can keep and save. It’s fun.

Subscriptions purchased now (whether for yourself or someone else) will begin with our next shipment in the second week of December: the first of the super fresh oil made from those tons of olives I ferried across California.

We also offer individual tins, shipped anywhere in the U.S. These 500 ml containers are compact but dense—they weigh about a pound—so they feel satisfyingly substantial inside festive wrapping paper 😎

The friends

INNA Jam

My friends and neighbors at INNA Jam make the best jam in the country, and it is available in gift packs, so, there you go: your season is sorted. In addition to my most-favored jam flavors, Santa Rosa plum and Blenheim apricot, I also love INNA’s shrubs, perfect for mixing with soda or… things that are stronger… than soda…

This year, INNA is also offering super cute hand-knit toys, and, I mean, just look at this octopus. May we all be so serene. May we all sit atop our body weight in jam.

The foragers

Daybreak Seaweed

The Daybreak Seaweed Company’s nori and wakame flakes improve just about anything, especially eggs. (A fried egg with nori flakes…? Yes, you want that.) Daybreak sources some of its seaweed from a cool aquaculture operation in Alaska; the balance is hand-harvested from the California surf. Seaweed is really really (really really) good for you, and if it’s not part of your diet already, it ought to be.

The decolonizers

Diaspora

I think there’s something lovely and timeless about giving spices as gifts. That sense comes, in part, from their past preciousness: upon which empires were founded. Those empires were extractive; violent. So, there’s like… something to unpack here, and the Oakland spice company Diaspora can help us do it. They are engineering a “decolonized” supply chain,

putting power and resources into indigenous spice farming and creating a radically new and equitable vision of the spice trade, [transforming] a commodity back into a seasonal crop, and a broken system into an equal exchange.

Diaspora’s got turmeric. They’ve got cumin. Everybody needs cumin, so how about getting it from a company that, bit by bit, is trying to repair the world, rather than the other way around?

The smoothness

Smooth chickpeas

One of my favorite quasi-icebreakers goes like this: “If you had a magic faucet in your kitchen and it could dispense anything—so long as that thing is plausibly dispensable by faucet—what would it be?”

It works surprisingly well as a personality test. Some people say “gasoline,” so they could bottle it up and sell it off; some people say “wine,” so they could enjoy it endlessly; and some people are me, so they say: “hummus.”

Maureen Abood Market (based in Michigan!) has an entire section labeled “smooth hummus,” the keystone of which is their skinless chickpeas, a product I’ve never seen anywhere else. These chickpeas really do make a difference; I say that as someone who produces a lot of hummus (but does not have it dispensed from a faucet) (yet).

FYI: the world’s best hummus recipe.

The cornucopia

Enzo's Table

Earlier in this email, I talked about California’s cornucopia, and nowhere is that presented better than Enzo’s Table, a one-stop shop for all the fruits of the San Joaquin Valley.

Their almond butter is my favorite, and this year they have a special autumn spice edition, doped with turmeric and more; it is uncommonly good and apparently in very short supply. There’s also Fresno chili olive oil, shocking red, made by tossing bins of whole chilis right into the mill with the olives; this substance improves a slice of pizza in ways you cannot imagine. (Kathryn works at the Enzo mill, and she says last year’s batch of chili olive oil, which is what you’ll be receiving when you order, is the best they’ve ever made.)

I also tried Enzo’s new biscotti a couple of weeks ago and—I know this sounds hyperbolic, but—it is easily the best biscotti I’ve ever had. There’s really no reason not to just load up your cart here. What a great company. What a great state.

The underappreciated

Redfield Cider

Redfield Cider is one of the many, many small businesses for whom the pandemic has been existential. I’ve found it impressive and inspiring to watch co-founders Mike and Olivia find a path forward; “cross the river by feeling the stones,” etc.

Cider is underappreciated in the U.S.—there’s a whole story here, about how Prohibition broke the back of American cider production and it never really recovered, not until the last decade or so—and Redfield has helped me rediscover and re-appreciate it. You can purchase bottles (not only of cider, but wine and beer, too) and have them delivered locally in the East Bay or shipped across California.

Some recommendations:

  • Eve’s Albee Hill is my favorite American cider.

  • You cannot go wrong with any of the Bordelet ciders from Normandy; all-around, they are probably my favorites in the world.

  • I got the South Hill Pommeau once: sweet and tart and strong (but not too strong), perfect for sipping from a tiny glass in a warm room.

The throwback

Kaweco Sport fountain pens

If you’ve never tried a fountain pen, it’s really worthwhile. Maybe when you think “fountain pen,” you think “fussy” and “precious” and “messy”—but you can get a fountain pen that’s sporty and plasticky and practical, too. “Small in the pocket, great in the hand!” I definitely do not write with one of these pens every day, but I love having them around.

Even if I can’t talk you into trying a Kaweco, you should still hop over to JetPens and just, like, click wildly. It’s truly one of the great online shops: vast but/and specific. For a certain kind of person (you know who you are) JetPens is a version of heaven.

The favorite

If you’re like me, you have a lot of T-shirts, and wearing them over time—choosing one each morning, maybe one more than the rest, maybe much more than the rest—becomes a slow but sure ranking; the way pebbles tumble and sort themselves on a riverbed. That process has made it clear: Claire L. Evans’ ENIAC Six tee is my current favorite.

ENIAC SIX

Claire writes:

Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Meltzer, Fran Bilas, and Ruth Lichterman were the six female programmers of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, the first electronic general-purpose computer. They’re known to history as the ENIAC Six. I always thought that’d make a killer all-girl punk band name.

As of this writing, the T-shirt is available at a discount with the coupon code CYBORG. Get one for a computer history fan, or for yourself.

The most 2020 gift of all

AirPop mask

AirPop masks are the nicest I’ve encountered this year; they have a clean, neutral look, and they filter smoke as well as aerosols, an important West Coast consideration. Confession: I actually can’t wear them—they are slightly too small for my face, so if you are likewise a large person, look elsewhere—but/and Kathryn loves them, and several other friends endorse them, too.

Is is too dystopian to give someone you love a pack of high-end masks as a gift? I don’t know… I think it might be nice.


The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ca. 1563

The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ca. 1563

(Did you know Pieter Bruegel the Younger produced his own version of the painting above? Did you know it’s totally not as good?)

I’ve been grateful for all the Fat Gold production work this past (turbulent) month; it has made the world feel big, rather than small. For as much as we here in the United States have been cooped up; for as much as our attention is focused now on a greasy trickle of malfeasance: the world is out there, waiting. With a vaccine, with a new president, with caution and care—crossing the river by feeling the stones—we’ll fill it up again.

From Oakland,

Robin


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