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Of Recent Note

For March 2006

A new month of what the writers have been watching, reading, eating, drinking, hearing, and enjoying.

McCarthyism, the 1950s social plague furthered by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, is well treated in George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck. The movie focuses on journalist Edward R. Murrow and his reporting on of the alcoholic and opportunistic Wisconsin legislator. Tom Wicker’s concise new tome, Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy, while not the definitive work on “Tail-Gunner Joe,” is a competent primer on the seven years from McCarthy’s first declaration of the existence of 205 communists in the State Department to his alcohol-related death. What have we learned since? Can you say Patriot Act? —Robert Birnbaum

 

I’m not the sort of person who gets obsessive about a card game, but—OK, that’s a lie. I’m exactly the sort of person who gets obsessive about a card game. Even so, my passion for Tichu is unusually strong. Descendant of the ancient Chinese game Zheng Fen (and sibling to the college drinking game Asshole), Tichu has become a lunch-hour staple at my workplace, and most of my regular opponents have purchased decks of their own. Most of my obsessions last a few months and fade away; Tichu is the sort of game I could spend a lifetime trying to master. —Matthew Baldwin

 

New York has a problem with its Mexican food: It’s unforgivably awful stuff. Go on vacation anywhere and you’ll know this is true. The city, however, has one saving grace—or rather three—in Rosa Mexicano, whose trio of Manhattan locations serve some of the best Mexican food anywhere, though at premium prices. For those of us whose budgets require we do most of our dining over the kitchen sink, thankfully there’s now Rosa Mexicano packaged products. The salsa is superb, flavorful, and easily the finest I’ve ever had out of a jar. And since a Tostito just won’t do it justice, you’ll want to order the chips as well. And yes, you can get it all at Fresh Direct. —Andrew Womack

 

Though none too recent, the 1983 film The Dresser is more than notable. Starring Albert Finney as “Sir,” a teetering icon of the English theater, and Tom Courtenay as his devoted valet, The Dresser details the backstage melodramatics of a performance of “King Lear” during the Blitz. Finney and Courtenay are a tour de force together, with Sir mirroring Lear’s demented pathos while his fool Courtenay tries every gambit in the book to get the crackpot master in makeup and onstage. A stunning revision of the loneliest of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, The Dresser is flat-out heartbreaking. —Tobias Seamon

 

It’s easy to become absorbed by Vinicius Cantuária’s sensual crooning while listening to Silva, the Brazilian singer-songwriter’s latest release. But you can’t ignore the album’s innovative interpretations of the bossa-nova form, which shatter the lounge-music stereotype. Soothing string arrangements, electronic instrumentation, and the surrealistic interplay between horns and guitars merge to take Antonio Carlos Jobim’s beloved musical style into another realm. Not a note is wasted in any of these reflections on the emotional pain of lost love. —Patrick Ambrose

 

Upon first hearing about Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson’s book about the Special Forces Division that tried to hone psychic powers to the point of goat combustion, I brushed it off. Maybe it was based on a story taken out of context. Maybe it was a night of drunkeness in the Special Forces’ barracks that led to a goat-staring competition. Maybe they ran into a flock of Tennessee Myotonic Fainting goats whose nerves cause them to collapse when startled. No, the military actually hooked goats up to EKG machines and stood there staring at them in the hopes of developing a new combat skill. You can see the footage in his BBC 4 documentary version “Crazy Rulers of the World.” Makes you wonder that, if these stories are the ones that are documented, what else has been tried? LSD cloud-seeding? Trans-dimensional propaganda distribution? Make sure to also watch his other documentary, “Secret Rulers of the World,” to get an idea of which Reptoid conspiracy theorist might try to use trans-dimensional cloud seeding first. —Llew Hinkes

 

I’m a Moleskine-r. I’ve been one for years. A teacher in high school said to carry a notebook and pen around at all times; a professor in college said the same thing; I obeyed, and chose Moleskine because their notebooks can fit in my back pocket. But people, I’m vain! I can’t be like everyone else! No no no! Last fall, I commissioned TMN’s staff illustrator Anna Featherly, who runs a leather-goods company with her husband, Jack, to design me a thin slipcover. It works perfectly and they’re now for sale. —Rosecrans Baldwin

 

I am always fascinated by books in which the main characters somehow maintain a stiff upper lip amid extreme suffering. All the better if the events being recounted are true, and topping that are books in which the writer has access to the survivors to help tell the story. Which is why I adore Tom Nagorski’s terrifying and inspiring new book, Miracles on the Water. We all know that during World War II, London shipped many of its children to the British countryside to live out the blitz. But before that plan was hatched, a more ambitious scheme had the country shipping its children overseas, to Canada and Australia. This book is the story of one such shipment of children that was hit by a German torpedo in the North Atlantic, and the harrowing ordeal that followed. No one does a stiff upper lip quite like the Brits. —Kate Schlegel

 

In Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, author Matt Ridley reveals the secrets unlocked by the Human Genome Project chromosome-by-chromosome. In another’s hands, this could have been a very dry read, but Ridley is a pro at making hard science easy to read, and Genome reads more like a story than a biology textbook. Covering everything from selfishness to disease to sex appeal to aggression, Genome will teach you more about yourself (and your fellow Homo sapiens) than scientists just a generation ago could ever have hoped to know. —Matthew Baldwin

 

I get a final meal in New York before they send me to Sing Sing? I’ll be at Cowgirl, the campy West Village country food restaurant with moderate prices and a terrific tequila menu, plus ace chicken-fried steak. (The praiseworthy nachos are piled with care.) Rumor has it Santa Fe has a sister restaurant; are the enchiladas there any better? —Rosecrans Baldwin

 

We have 24 CDs in a Case Logic stuck to the floor mat of the car, most of them covered with the residue of chocolate milk. Probably 20 of them are Bob Dylan and the other two are what, Shawn Colvin? But lately I’ve been able to pretend I am cool by listening to Pandora. It’s a free music player that plays songs it thinks you will like based on songs you already like. How? You make up “stations” based on performers you know about and dig. Then it dives into a huge database of “similar” tunes and plays them one after another. If that sounds like Dick Cheney watching Fox News because he doesn’t want to hear anything he hasn’t already heard, thankfully it’s very un-Cheney-ish. Even if you’re much, much cooler than me, you’ll still hear songs you haven’t heard before. And there are links to buy the albums or the songs on iTunes. The Pandora people claim their project is the most comprehensive analysis of music ever undertaken, and it’s the surprise of their little player that keeps you coming back. It’s like the “little-bit-TOO-into-music” friend with the reel-to-reel tape deck in his dorm room who turned you onto bands you later pretended to have known about for years. Now even balding parents can step out of corporate radio and diversify their iPods. —Anthony Doerr

 

In spring a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love. But I must be getting on in years, because these days I view the vernal equinox not as a harbinger of ill-advised infatuations, but as my cue to stop ordering porters and stouts and turn my fancy to thoughts of ale. Here in the Northwest we have an embarrassment of riches, brew-wise, but I am particularly enamored with (and occasionally besotted by) Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Mac & Jacks African Ale, and Fat Tire Amber Ale. It may not be passion, but the sun in the sky and a pint in the hand at least adds up to contentment. —Matthew Baldwin

 

Tired of greedy basketball players, baseball’s dull-factor, the mess of the NHL and the weird militarization of professional football? Look no further than the National Lacrosse League: cheap seats, lots of scoring, violence just restrained enough that you come out still feeling human, and a playoff race currently the closest in all of professional sport. Best of all, most of the players have day jobs. And many are firemen. And firemen are brave. And so is lacrosse. Enjoy! —Pasha Malla

 

Having suffering the death of anchor Peter Jennings, the severe injury to new co-anchor Bob Woodruff, and the impending maternity leave of the other new co-anchor, Elizabeth Vargas, ABC News itself seems to be becoming newsworthy. Yet I was cheered by the network’s choice of Vargas for two reasons—she is not a blonde and she is not Diane Sawyer. Given all the pitfalls of a 22 minute news program, Vargas has exhibited an amiable straightforwardness without relying on the smarmy shtick of, uh, Sawyer. —Robert Birnbaum

 

If there is any band worth worshipping right now, it’s Voxtrot, and the just-released second EP, Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives, is proof that everything up to now has been no flash in the pan. Their performances, the songs, the lyrics: Everything here shows a leap in confidence. The arrangements—horns, strings, synths, codas, lots going on—though ambitious, are pulled off to perfection, all fitting, appropriate parts of the whole. Funny, they don’t even sound like they’re trying to impress anybody but themselves. —Andrew Womack

 

In NBC’s Heist, Doug Liman (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) directs a promising contemporary cops and robbers (meaning there is Tarantinoesque banter during crimes) story with some familiar faces: Seymour Cassel, Steve Harris (The Practice) Dougray Scott (Mission Impossible II), Michele Hicks (Mulholland Drive). Mickey O’Neil, an expert burglar, recruits a group of like-minded professionals to help him rob three world-class jewelry stores at the height of the Beverly Hills season—Academy Awards week. Detective Amy Sykes is on the case, and the premiere set up the interesting possibilities of a cop-and-robber tryst. —Robert Birnbaum

TMN’s Contributing Writers know where to find the purple couch. Long live the pan flute, mini mafia, and Michael Jackson. More by The Writers