Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

17
Aug
13

Hey Abbott

About eight months ago, I promised readers of this blog a post on beer.  My strict publication schedule has finally brought us to that post in a timely manner.  Rather than write on beer at-large, I have decided to approach things a beer at a time – and then elaborate too much in the usual fashion.

Earlier this week I imbibed a brew from the Ommegang Brewery1 of Cooperstown, New York.  They call it “Abbey Ale”, and it is styled after the Dubbel ales produced by those wizards of beercraft, the Trappist monks of Belgium. Here is some information that greets the viewer of this 750mL, $9.99, corked bottle of beer:  8.2% ABV, a silhouette of two monk-like creatures clinking their goblets together, and the following script, “Ale Brewed with Licorice Root, Star Anise, Sweet Orange Peel, Coriander, and Cumin”, followed by, “Rich, Fruity and Aromatic Burgundian Brew”. All very nice, though it is this label information that has made this beer the second (maybe third) Ommegang brew that I’ve tried. Cumin, weird. Coriander, weird. And I dislike licorice. I also wasn’t sure what “Burgundian” really meant in relation to a beer, and I’m still not sure2.

Still, their Three Philosophers ale was ever-so-tasty, so I trusted the brewer if not this particular brew3.  So, I bought it, brought it home, carefully considered it, removed the cork, and poured half a glass in such a manner as to not disturb the settled yeast carcasses over much, yet produce a healthy ‘head’ of bubbles on the poured glass.  I read somewhere that this last bit (the pour) is crucial.  CRUCIAL.  Hard to say if I accomplished the first goal of the pour, though I can attest to achieving the second part.  Anyway, my impressions of this fancy brew once I had a sniff and a taste were – mixed.  All the visual cues were pleasing.  Nice carbonation and attractive color, a warm brown with a touch of red.  The problems started as soon as I lifted the glass toward my face.  The aroma of the beer had a fair amount of that anise/coriander in it, at least to my nose, and this is not what I’ve been conditioned to expect in smelling a beer.  Persevering, I took a drink, and was greeted by much the same.  All the herbs, so proudly displayed in the label text, were equally proudly displayed in the taste and odor of the brew.  This is not to say that the herbs completely dominated the beer.  I’ve had beer, fruity beer usually, in which that occurs, and it is akin to an assault.  No, here it is more akin to a slightly-too-firm handshake.  Not unpleasant, but perhaps a little uncomfortable.

Now this bottle cost me about eleven dollars, so I’m clearly not a particularly frugal person, but I’m also not such a spendthrift that I would let the rest of the bottle go to waste just because I didn’t like the first sip.  Luckily, because the herbs, though assertive, are not overpowering, the beer improves with continued imbibing.  You might ask, doesn’t every beer do this?  The short answer is yes of course4, but the point I’m trying to make here is that the unusual flavors of this beer grew on me.  By the time I was half a glass into the bottle, the taste and aroma of the beer became familiar, less obtrusive.  When I encounter a beer that is a little off-putting to start, it is not common that by the end of the bottle I end up rather liking it.  I think that if I had (1) a more open mind about how beer was meant to taste and smell, and (2) liked anise/licorice, I might have enjoyed this beer thoroughly from start to finish.  As it is, however, I don’t think I’ll be buying it again.  At least not at that price.

1 Also the brewers of a licensed promotional beer for Game of Thrones called the Iron Throne Golden Ale.  A quote from the brewer, “With a Lannister currently on the Throne, it made sense to do a delicate, but piercing Golden Blonde Ale with Noble hops.”  Well spoken, sir.
2 The only thing I could come up with after a bit of looking around is that good Burgundy wines are almost always hailed for having very complex and rich flavors.  I believe this is the quality that Ommegang meant to attribute to this beer.  Still, it is so unclear to the reader that I can only assume that the brewer was just attempting to piggyback on the good name of the Burgundy wine region, despite this brew having nothing to do with it.  Very odd.
3 Made this mistake with Dogfish Head Brewery once at the Oregon Brewers Festival.  The brewers of the very fine 90 Minute IPA also make the Black & Red.  Stay far, far away from that one my friends.  Syrupy, heavy, very fruity, high alcohol, and very, very minty in the middle of the hot Oregon summer.  Mint?  What?
4 Well, to a point anyway.

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29
Jan
13

Nuclear Fallout

My typical pattern in playing games is focus the vast majority of my ‘efforts’ on a single game at a time.  I am not one to flit from one game to the next unless I’ve picked a series of uninspiring ones, and that hasn’t happened for months, maybe years*.  Recently, my focus has rested on the game Fallout: New Vegas, which by my count is the fourth in the Fallout series (ignoring a few silly spin-offs).  For those who aren’t familiar with these, the setting is a world in which the Chinese and the Americans got into a war which ended with everyone pressing all the available Big Red Buttons. The games are set in post-apocalypse America, with the first two set in the western United States, the third taking you to the D.C. metro area, and the fourth taking you to its namesake and the surrounding hostile wasteland. I’ve played through the latter half of the series, and in both cases (Fallout 3 and New Vegas) found myself hooked.

This should come as no surprise to those that know the games and me. It’s science fiction, it’s action, it’s role-playing, and it’s a bit of dark humor from time to time.  This combination rates well with me.  Still, there are other games that have ticked most or all of those boxes but haven’t made it into my playlist.  I’ll spend the rest of this post trying to articulate what makes Fallout: New Vegas** special.

The thing that most distinguishes New Vegas/Fallout 3 in my mind is the sense of place that you get.  I’m not talking about realism here.  The plotline occurs some 200 years after the bombs fell and there’s still intact buildings with books, empty pop bottles, tin cans, and “pre-war” money stuffed in desk drawers or strewn across the floor***.  I’m talking about being transported to a place, no matter how fantastical the details are.  It’s a world where the mantle of the Scary Communistical Person was smoothly handed from the Soviets of the 20th century to the Red Chinese of the 21st century.  The build-a-bomb-shelter, school-children-duck-and-cover-under-your-desks, watch-out-for-labor-union-zealots kind of thinking from actual 1950’s America has run itself to the worst possible conclusion.  The backyard bomb shelter industry evolved into the Vault industry where a small town’s population of specially selected people were put into bomb-proof structures buried beneath the earth’s surface.  Propaganda posters.  Architecture.  Radio programs.  McCarthy-style “watch out for commie infiltrators” announcements on posters, employee computers, and old audio recordings.  All of it lifted from cold war America of reality and spun out to oblivion and beyond.  The bombs came raining down, and now, here your character and some other (sort of) lucky survivors are, wandering and living through the remnants of something that feels weirdly familiar.

This is helped along by the accuracy with which the game developers reproduce geographical details.  For a single example among many good ones, zoom in to the Las Vegas area on your favorite Internet map.  Follow Interstate 15 south and west until you see Jean Airport.  That, and the town of Goodsprings up Route 161 a few miles west, is in the game, albeit in bombed-out, post-apocalyptic form.  Now this type of detail is nice, though not terribly difficult to do…but they went one extra step: put the Jean Airport into your favorite search engine and you’ll get links to (1) A Wikipedia page, and (2) a page for Vegas Extreme Skydiving.  Both note that the Jean Airport is largely used for skydiving, glider rides, and hobbyist flying.  Wander down the road from Goodsprings in the game, and lo, there is a flat, bombed-out area that might have been an airport at some point and a shack that is the former headquarters of “Jean Skydiving”.  Awesome.  Again, not about realism****, but a sense of place and enough detail to give you a shiver if you’re aware of this little connection to pre-apocalypse reality.

There are a lot of other things I like about the game. The story is engaging. The characters, though a bit shallow in many cases, do the job adequately in all cases, and are exceptional in a few cases.  The world, in addition to being detailed, is vast.  …but the example of the Jean Airport encapsulates a big part***** of what I love about the game.  The developers had to know that there are precious few people that would ever notice that detail.  That they took the time to do it tells me (or at least implies to me) that the developers loved making the game as much as I love playing it.  That goes a long way.

So, hey, for those readers who are interested and haven’t played it, it’s not as if the game doesn’t have flaws.  There are balancing issues.  The game gets pretty easy in the late game stages.  If you play it longer than a half hour at a time, your chances of a crash-to-desktop are unusually high.  Still… If you like these RPG-type games, rush out and buy it this game right now******, or more realistically these days, open another browser window and buy a digital copy with a click or two.  Well worth it.

* I’m not really attributing this to any particular skill of mine.  There is just a deep backlog of good games out there for anyone who doesn’t play video games 24/7.  Or maybe I’m just easily entertained.
** Most of the following applies to Fallout 3 as well, but I’m trying to focus here.  We’ll see if I’m successful.
*** In fairness, at least these things are somewhat abandoned/dirty/rusty/cracked/rotted.
**** To illustrate, shortly after this your character will probably be attacked by bandits throwing dynamite and packing 9mm pistols.  Or giant mutated geckos.  Or both.
***** Another part I’m sure has something to do with the psychology of my month-long period of unsettled nervousness during 7th(?) grade after I saw Terminator 2 and did some subsequent reading and viewing about nuclear bombs. Now that I’ve grown up, post-apocalypse is fun!  Huh.  Maybe I was smarter when I was younger.
****** Right now.

23
Aug
12

And Then I Thought I’d Review My Friend’s Book

I should preface this by mentioning that the author of this book is a friend of mine.  I also know his parents and brother, all of whom make a number of appearances in this memoir.  For anyone reading who thinks these facts disqualify me from writing a worthwhile blurb about Pete’s book, well, I suppose this is where you might stop reading.*

For anyone else who stumbles upon this entry, I would first like to present a summary:  this book is a very dark and very entertaining memoir concerning Mr. Welch’s descent into and recovery from a psychotic episode.  If you own a Kindle, you can be reading it for a mere $2.99 in about thirty seconds.  And you should.  I managed to latch on to a hard copy**, because I know people who know people.

Now to elaborate a bit.  When I knew Pete best there really wasn’t any reason for me to think that he would, a year or so after we dropped out of regular contact, be admitted to a mental institution.  I can honestly say that the thought never occurred to me.  I also ran into him a few times post-psychotic episode, and to me, it was the same old Pete except perhaps with lower meat to bone ratio, a well-honed smoking habit, and a couple casually-told (at the time, also amusing and seemingly innocuous) stories about leaping into the frigid waters of Bar Harbor, Maine naked and ‘borrowing’ a car, all while on acid.  Those stories are also in this book, told with the same flair for descriptive language and entertaining style that I remember…but with extra detail and many other stories that show just how my friend descended, all within the space of several months***, from a disgruntled, LSD-addled, exhausted, seasonal Bar Harbor restaurant worker to a resident of a state-run mental institution.

This is where much of the darkness in the memoir creeps in.  To detail why and how all it fits together to make a great book would take this blurb toward more of a ‘review’, which I’m not really serious enough a writer to embark upon.  Suffice to say that by interweaving his own account with quotes from his friends, quotes from his family, and a moderate, but interesting swing through the brain chemistry that drove it all, the reader is swept along on Pete’s journey through a hell that he was rarely cognizant of while it was happening.  Though it is difficult for me, being a friend, to step all the way back and determine whether an anonymous reader would be as affected by the reading as I was, I want to say yes.  Even if I am incorrect, I can say with certainty that it’s a good read.  Highly recommended.

* There.  Marked it for you.

** Thanks Mom.

*** If I’m recalling the timeline properly here…