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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Read With Me: Review of Vertical, plus a little Sideways excursion

Back in the beginning of January I signed up for the Foodies Read Challenge. Read that post here.

Vertical, a Novel by Rex Pickett, was my first pick.

Vertical, The Follow-Up Novel to Sideways

This post took a long time to write. It's more than a review of the book, it's also about a trip we took while in California visiting our son and his girlfriend for the holidays to visit the locations in the film, Sideways. I wanted this post to be succinct. Thoughtful. Not too wordy. And above all, I didn't want to wine. :)

Not sure if I totally succeeded, but I hope Foodies Read 2016 will find a few morsels to digest here, especially if you like the film, Sideways? It's one of my all-time favorite films, and as I say, the hubster and I were recently knee deep in a post Christmas lull in sunny SoCal, we went, uh, decidedly Sideways.

What was it really like there in Sideways land? Fascinating. Delicious. And a little surreal.

I looked up where and when the filming took place - in the fall of 2003, and the release of the film in 2004, a whole 12 years ago. I printed out the Sideways itinerary from the Santa Barbara site and we set our sights on the road trip adventure. For me, I love Miles, Maya, and Stephanie. They're all very unique. Very human. Very believable, and Jack too, even if he wasn't my fave. I love to not like him. So you're welcome to take Jack and his plight. Yes, please, take him.

As a writer myself, I'm always curious to get the inside scoop. How did the film became the icon it did? I read about the author of the novel, Sideways, Rex Pickett. After a few paragraphs I learned about his journey of writing, and ultimately selling the novel; but only after it had been turned down 78 times, and garnered a modest $5,000 and even then only after it had been green-lit to being filmed.

How did Mr Pickett feel about that? The film made a boat load of money. Did he see any of it? I also got more curious about his follow-up novel, called Vertical, as I had followed the news of whether it would, or wouldn't, be made into a film as well. I quickly kindled Vertical but didn't begin reading it till we had completed our Sideways adventure in Buellton, Los Olivos, Solvang, Santa Maria, and the Santa Ynez Wine Valley. And I'm glad that I didn't. Really glad. If I had, it would have greatly impacted our little Sideways nostalgia trip. Vertical is nothing like Sideways. Nothing!

The view out the window is much better than the view of the 
breakfast bar at the Windmill Days Inn in Buellton. Trust me.

The Windmill, the Sideways Motel.

We motored north through Santa Barbara, and turned off at Buellton. It would have been impossible to follow google maps instructions and turn left into the oncoming traffic and onto the little side road just before the Shell station.

Would the Sideways hotel look as I imagined?

Just then the hotel appeared. I'll be honest, the windmill startled me - it was large. I expected to see Don Quixote and Pancho Villa round the corner. My initial reaction and sigh was by far the best part of the whole experience. Inside the motel rooms were really shoddy, and, the breakfast was horrendous, I can't even bear to go into it. It might have been just as well if the Windmill Days Inn had lifted up and spun away across the Santa Ynez Valley, ala The Wizard of Oz. I sure didn't think any of our cast would appear. Not Miles, Maya or Stephanie. Or even Jack.

But it was great great fun to visit many of Sideways spots and quaff wine where Miles and gum-chewing Jack had.

We made it just in time to swirl wine in Los Olivos at Artiste Winery and Tasting Studio and Carhardt Winery's Tasting Room, but missed having dinner at the Los Olivos Cafe. Again, too packed.

We tried to get in the Hitching Post, the restaurant where Maya waited tables, and in the film it seemed to be a nice little walk from the Windmill. Not so at all. We likely would have been pummeled like a bunch of merlot grapes if we had tried. Was the place so packed because it was only a few days before New Year's? Again, apparently not. The place, so they say, is almost always teeming with people; since Sideways. So we went to the Firestone Walker Brewing Taproom instead.

The next morning we ate an aebelskiver in the quirky and ever so Danish Solvang Restaurant where Miles and Jack had their tense breakfast over what was going to happen on the trip.

The Solvang Restaurant

So even 12 years later, the Santa Ynez Valley is still feeling the effects, some good and some not so good, from the movie, and as we followed the film itinerary we made some additional yummy discoveries, like a great breakfast at Jovi's Delights in Santa Maria, and the most amazing selections of fromage at the Santa Ynez Cheese Company, and an appetizer at the Succulent Cafe in Solvang.

I'd happily take Miles and Maya and Steph to any of these if they ever pop out of their parallel universe; which I'm betting begins somewhere near Blackjack Ranch. Or Foxen Winery. Ok, maybe Jack, too.

Here is a great page that talks about all the Wines in the film.

One of my posts on Instagram. Follow me @ Madamelevain.

Once back in Glendale I was so obsessed that I started fantasizing about writing a spin-off to Sideways, one that asked the "what if" question of whether Jack, Miles, Maya, and Steph could step out of their parallel universe and up to the plate to turn back the clock and solve the problem of California's drought.

But luckily for everyone, I started reading the follow-up novel, Vertical, instead. Yes finally we're going to talk about that.

The basic plot of Vertical is another road trip, and not only does Miles team up again with his cad-like compadre Jack, but he has also sprung his paralytic mother, Phyllis from her rest home, and stolen back her dog, Snapper, from a former girlfriend; with the ultimate plan to take them both back to Sheboygan, Wisconsin to live with Phyllis's sister, Alice, who loves making pot-roast. If you did actually took your mom out of the rest home, would you only get a phone call? I would have thought this was kid-napping, or mom-napping, but what do I know?

Riding side-saddle to Phyllis is Joy, her Filipina caretaker addicted to Med-Mary. This unlikely bunch lurches in a rented wheelchair accessible ramp-van towards the International Pinot Noir Celebration, yes it's a real celebration, shall we go? in the Willamette Valley in Oregon where Miles is the MC.

There were times I felt weary and disgusted and nauseous as the first 2/3's of the story is decidedly one note. Sex and alcohol and debauchery is a major theme, a muscle that was way overworked to the point that Jack ends up in the ER because he is unschooled about Viagra, and thinks in his inebriated state that more is mo better. But he learns that more is painfully, way too much! It's not that I'm a prude, I am a chef after all, but there was very little complexity involved, and the narrow arc of the characters almost broke my patience for a good story. The quartet hurl north in the rampvan while uncorking and drinking the most elegant of Pinot's - except for Phyllis who is addicted to Chardonnay - and Joy who takes her tokes very seriously. But the wine seems more like product placements, ho hum, and I quickly lost what appreciation I once had for Miles' affinity and identity as the elusive grape, Pinot Noir, which Sideways catapulted to stardom. Fame and stardom are no good, which is a recurring theme.

I thought about Christopher "story guru" Vogler's adage:

“I realized that the good stories were affecting the organs of my body in various ways, and the really good ones were stimulating more than one organ. An effective story grabs your gut, tightens your throat, makes your heart race and your lungs pump, brings tears to your eyes or an explosion of laughter to your lips.”

Now Miles and Jack had plenty of organs being stimulated, but please believe me when I say that it was my stomach that turned over again and again as they consumed bottle after bottle of fine wine. This couldn't be the same Miles who had proclaimed his insignificance in Sideways with the now famous line:

"I'm a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage."

(Interested in a bit of Sideways trivia? Bukowski didn't write that, Rex Pickett, the author, did.)

Miles, baby, in most of Vertical, yes, this is what you have become, a smudge of excrement. But the pull of Sideways is so strong for me, that Miles is not someone I can hate. But for the first part of Vertical, I was bitterly, I say bitterly! disappointed. Then came the last third of the novel when the Miles I love returns; and the story is about a son and his dying mother. There was meat on those bones. Something for me to digest and my nausea left me.

So is Vertical about the American dream; fame and fortune? If so, then fame and fortune are a pair of screaming monkeys on Miles' back. I suppose this has always been true. Why did I expect so much from Miles? In Vertical, people were expecting a lot from Miles, too. It seemed no matter what he did, that he couldn't disappoint them, because they weren't really seeing him. He could stand up and pour a spit bucket over his head, aka the scene in Sideways at Foxen Winery, and people would cheer. He could say the most asinine things. and the crowd would cheer. Maybe Miles never really believed that he had made it. Never really felt like he deserved his success.

And maybe Rex Pickett felt somehow that Vertical was his screw you to the millions of fans who loved Sideways, because he had not really been recognized for the novel, from which the film Sideways was made. There is a backstory to that "transaction." I wanted to tell Rex/Miles that he didn't have to perform like a circus bear. Look how far he had fallen. It made me wonder if three worlds have been blurred in Vertical; the novel, the film, and true life?

In Vertical, the novel that supposedly made Miles famous is called Shameless. But as we know, in Sideways Miles wasn't trying to sell a novel about his road trip with Jack, the novel that didn't sell, was an existential one about his father's death. In Vertical, the story seems to be that now Miles has become what he wrote, and made famous, Shameless.

In Sideways, I love Miles, he is my hero. I recognize him. I know him. His pain, his struggle. But now this Miles. has changed his game. He is the one, not Jack as in Sideways, leading the chase; sucking down great gulps of the fame and notoriety that has bought him the attentions of willing women, that was so fleeting before. Of course this led to my having to adjust MY attitude as the women were also a big part of this, they were the ones throwing themselves at him. I wanted Miles to show us, teach us, and these women, that he was a bigger man, and not in a Viagra sort of way, but that there was a deeper and better response to fame than to be a puppet in the scripted dog and pony show.

Now to be sure Sideways had its unsavory moments as I mentioned above - as part of the story is Jack's approach - his Sideways approach? - to getting married. But Jack's plight was something he believed in. And in Vertical we see how that panned out for him. He's still struggling with it, is getting a divorce, and must deal with guilt over seeing/not seeing his young son.

What about the women? The women of Sideways are visited in Vertical, but given short shrift. Steph is rumored to now be a hooker in Vegas. Really, the Steph who broke Jack's nose with a bicycle helmet has sunk so low as to become a hooker? Maya has one scene where she is bitter about her and Miles' relationship. I don't know about you, but this is not the Maya who we see at the end of Sideways when Miles knocks on her door, I felt so much hope about her opening the door to the future, and I often wondered where they might be now.

For me, that Miles and Maya, are still there.

And yes, there is a next book in the series, Chile 3, which I'll read. But first, maybe I'll go back and read the novel, Sideways. Or should I save that for last? I guess I feel a little like a Star Wars fan in that regard. I have to see if Miles ever makes it to Barcelona to see his "one true love" Laura. And has he maintained his redemption that he worked so hard for at the end of Vertical? But then I have to wonder, what kind of story would that make?

But since this is a Foodie Reads review, here are a few Foodie moments.

"Scampi. Pickled Olives. Smoked paprika. Saffron. Seafood. Paella. I make an amazing Paella," says Laura, from Barcelona, to Miles in the middle of their love-making.

"Bring her the Australian lobster tails," Miles orders for Joy at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Fresno. But Joy is not as interested in food as in smoking. Which kind of goes against everything I thought I knew. :)

Phyllis, does like to eat out and often, and before dinner arrives at Fleming's she explains why. "All I ever did was cook, cook, cook, we never went out. And when we did it was pizza. That's what killed your father, all that damn pizza."

At Tina's in Dundee, Oregon - "the eclectic offerings included seafood, lamb, duck, steak, rabbit, and a wild mushroom risotto."

Phyllis also waxes on about Sunday night suppers when she was growing up in Sheboygan. We revisit some of those memories in the last part of the book.

Also towards the end of the book Miles and his mom go to the Blue Lake Resort on the shores of Lake Michigan and order seafood salads and a Chardonnay "which for a moment the wine affording her a lift that in her words made her, 'fly like the angels.' " There is a Blue Lake Resort in Michigan, but it doesn't have a restaurant.

Back at Phyllis's sister, Alice's place, a pot roast dinner waits with all the trimmings.

A poignant moment is when Jack returns with Snapper, Phyllis's dog, and since Miles has quit drinking, he and Jack no longer have anything in common. Without alcohol, their relationship has dried up.

After visiting the Santa Ynez Cheese Factory we spied a BBQ place, but they were closing and we were directed back to the Hitching Post as the best BBQ in the area. You might know, or you might not, that in California BBQ means that the meat (or sometimes vegetables like artichokes) is grilled over a red oak fire. There is no sauce a'tall.

Artichokes, Before Roasting

Here is the Hitching Post 2's owner, Frank Ostini.'s recipe!

Artichokes with Smoked Ancho Chile Mayonnaise by Frank Ostini

I revised this because it was snowing and there was no grilling to be had. Roasting was the ticket.

4 large globe artichokes

4 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup Hitching Post Smoked Tomato Pesto*

1/2 cup mayonnaise

Trim artichokes with scissors to remove leaves' sharp edges. Bring 1 to 2 inches of water to boil in a large pot. Add artichokes, and steam 30 minutes or until inside leaves and heart are tender. Drain and cool slightly.

Oven-Roasted Artichokes

Cut each artichoke in half. Snip around fuzzy thistle (choke), and remove with a spoon. Grill artichoke halves 8 to 10 minutes or until hot, basting with butter and sprinkling with salt and pepper. Combine pesto and mayonnaise in a small bowl; serve on the side.

Smoked Ancho Chile Mayonnaise, almost

the roasted artichokes, dechoked, and filled with yumminess

*Note: You can purchase the Smoked Tomato Pesto at Hitching Post 2. To make a similar version, combine 1 teaspoon chopped chipotle pepper in adobo sauce and 1 tablespoon minced sun-dried tomatoes in oil.
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