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08-28-09: 'Sum' News : Recovering Your Afterlives

We are, after all, dedicated to book geeks. So here's a book-geek alert. It's time to get out there and pick up a couple of copies of 'Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives' by David Eagleman. Those cute, slim little volumes going for (in Callifornia) $21.90 a pop are about to become extinct.

Now, I'm not one to encourage speculation in books. That's because those of us who even attempt to do so, find themselves in possession of a very valuable things that you don’t want to get rid of, ever. And that when you do get rid of them, well, you find yourself buying them back at a price a) higher than you paid the first time round b) much higher than you managed to sell them for. Let me hold up my hand as a bad example of this. This sort of behavior does not go down well with most significant others who are not equally obsessed, and in my experience, significant other's are rarely if ever equally obsessed with the obsessions of their mates. That way lies madness.

That said, sometimes it does behoove me to mention that something interesting is happening in the bookselling world. In this case, it is, happily, success, not scarcity driving the wagon. When you describe the wonderful book by
David Eagleman, 'Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives' (Pantheon / Random House ; February 10, 2009; $20) to the average human, their reaction might range between, "Huh?" and "That's weird." Neuroscientist Eagleman has created exactly what the title promises; forty one- to two-page visions of what happens to us after death. It's really quite astonishing and very crafty. He's got forty versions of God as a character. And his visions, created over a number of years are indeed visionary.

There's a short movie that's been made based on the book, and Brian Eno has created a soundtrack. To capitalize on all this aftermarket interest, Pantheon tells me they are "re-jacketing" the book. I'm not exactly sure what that means, but I'm guessing it means a new dust jacket at least and perhaps a new printing as well. Whatever the case, the current version becomes even more unique, which is hard to imagine given the subject. And while success is driving this "rejacketing" the result will be a scarcity of the current version. It's well worth reading. Perhaps even more so now.



08-27-09: Mark Bittner Knows 'How to Cook Everything' : Joy, Cooking and Books

Here's my current cooking bible, the book I refer to when I want to know something basic. That beat-up copy of 'The Joy Of Cooking' by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker has been in my family for who-the-hell knows how long ... and I'm not even sure if it came from my wife's family, or mine before it came to ours. It's older than our kids. I'm pretty sure I have an even older one tucked away somewhere. The point being, this is a great way to look up the basics of what you need to do to cook a prime rib or a turkey breast, or, well anything. I've never seen anything quite like it. Until now.

Recently, I was up in Topanga Canyon at my sister-in-law's house, singing the praises Mark Bittner's 'Kitchen Express,' which I used just last night for the fish tacos. So easy, so good.

There I am sitting in the patio and when I walk inside, over to their computer table I see this honkin' big yellow book — 'How to Cook Everything' by
Mark Bittner. Immediately, I had to pick it up, paw through it, and drag it around with me the whole time I was there. What a book. What a cookbook! They offered to let me borrow it, but I knew I wanted my own. Now, I know why.

I just got
'How to Cook Everything: Completely Revised Tenth Anniversary Edition' (Wiley Books ; October 27, 2008 ; $35) and I have to say that I've finally found something that can keep up with 'The Joy of Cooking.' Here's a book with the basics of cooking, well, as advertised, everything. It's beautifully laid out and bound sturdily enough to stand up so that my kids will still be able to use it when I'm stuffed and greeting people with cassette tapes of my voice in hallway. This book is expensive but well, well worth the money. Here are but a few of its virtues.

Roasted Scallops with Cream Spinach, page 600
It's easy to read. The production, layout and printing are all excellent. They type is not too small. The recipes are easy to read, and yes, Bittner does offer the traditional-style recipe here with lists of ingredients followed by directions for preparation. It's sensibly divided up and organized into sections, from "Kitchen Basics" to "Desserts." It's so sensible, I don’t need to list what comes in between or what order it comes in. I'm betting you can guess and probably correctly. Under "easy to read," I guess I can add that it's well written. The prose is lucid and without affect, though not without personality. (See Bittman's graph on why he's not enchanted with tilapia. I beg to differ, but I take his point.) And I have to add that it has some amazingly useful information that just by chance jumped out at me. This was stuff about sharpening knives, making calamari, just random questions that have always nagged at me, and there they were, easy as pie.

The easy bit is important, because the emphasis here is on stuff that's both easy to cook and really delicious. Whether you're making a tomato sauce for pasta or cooking a chicken, you'll find a variety of ways to do so that will not strain your budget or even the most modest cooking talent. And Bittman doesn't offer just chemical experiment-style recipes. He offers variations and suggestions for substitutions that let hapless hacks explore the art of cooking, easily. This book will inspire as well as inform.

In fact, it inspired me as I leafed through it, to take a stab at making a scallop dish. I've never had much luck with scallops. They basically turned to little leather nubs, since I'd bought the farmed bay scallops from China. But Bittner warns against this. I chose to make Roasted Scallops dinner, spun through the first variation that followed the basic recipe. It sounded pretty easy and really good, and it proved to be just that. I made Roasted Scallops with Creamed Spinach. Frankly, I put in too much cream (he says to use a cup, I thought it looked a little dry and used more — more fool me, next time around, I'd use less). But that aside, it was every bit as delicious as it looks, and it looked so good we took a photo of it.

And yes, it took about 20 minutes to make once I'd got all the stuff out. Looks gourmet-ish, tastes delicious and easily made in 20 minutes — this is what cooking is all about. Fun! Feeding!

And then there is the meta-organization of the book, which I utilized in the above recipe. Yes, the index is stupendous and helpful. I looked for the Turkey Breast, Bone-in instructions where I expected them to be based on 'The Joy of Cooking,' but they weren't there. So I popped back to the index and found them directly. Now, I have to tell you, they don’t reflect my experience. He says you can cook a bone-in turkey breast for an hour, but so does 'The Joy of Cooking.' I find you need 45 minutes per pound if stuffed. (You should stuff it, since that adds to the flavor of the meat.) I cook very slow and baste every fifteen minutes, but it turns out incredibly juicy, which is the real trick with a turkey breast-only meal. But I digress.

Beyond the index are the meta-organizing lists, which include Essential Recipes, Fast Recipes, Make-Ahead Recipes and Vegetarian Recipes that precede the index. And in the cookbook itself, there are literally hundreds of variations lists and sort-of suggestions. And before I leave, let me mention the website, which is as wonderful as the book. But it's not the book! You need the book, that hardcover with pages to turn and be stained. Look, I'm keeping 'The Joy of Cooking.' But I'm going to continue to find new joy in cooking — everything.



08-26-09: Stephen Elliott Opens 'The Adderall Diaries' : Hosing Down the Driveway

There's a new drug. There's always a new drug. What's wrong with the old ones, I ask? Pot, coke, alcohol, speed, heroin ... they were good enough for a generation of punk rockers. That's got to be the gold standard. Why do today's cocky kids and addled adults need something different? Like adderall, which shows up in the title of the new novel by Stephen Elliott, 'The Adderall Diaries' (Greywolf Press ; September 1, 2009 ; $23). All the kids are doing it while they cram for their exams. It must be driving the execs at Starbucks crazy. If only they could make an adderall latte, they could rule the world.

Arguably, Starbucks already rules the world and perhaps they don’t need an adderall latte. But if they put one on the menu, I'm guessing Stephen Elliott would line up. Assuming he has the ready cash, which may or may not be the case. I'm really used to reading books where for the most part, nobody ever worries about money. But Elliott's new memoir and true-crime tale offers readers a heady dose of fiscal woes, relationships that end up in the toilet and a creepy-weird murder trial set in San Francisco as the world seems bent on eating itself alive back in the darkest days of 2007.

I've seen all of Elliott's books, and I'll admit I've been intrigued but not entranced. But '
The Adderall Diaries' looks to be something rather different. It's compelling from the first sentence, "My father may have killed a man." In 'The Adderall Diaries,' Elliott, suffering from writer's block, is getting close to the edge of being utterly screwed. Yes, he made a lot of money from his out-of-the-gate success, but it's going away fast. He lives in San Francisco, where the rents are going up as fast as his self-confidence is declining. He's taking adderall daily, in the total addict mode, crushing the little granules to make sure he gets the most instant high he can get.

Then Hans Reiser starts hitting the headlines. He's accused of murdering his wife, and it does not look good. They can't find the body. He hosed down the driveway. He looks like a stone cold killah, but that may not be enough put him away. The Bay Area economy is going to shit. Elliott just needs a sale, a job. He assigns himself to the Reiser case and writes about it in between his musings on life in SF. What seemed to be going to shit finally gets there.

'The Adderall Diaries' is a wonderfully droll, dark stroll through the last few years of our blighted lives. Elliott is funny and smart as he drifts through a series of bad relationships and attends a trial that showcases the worst of humanity in full-on creepster mode. The mix of true crime writing and memoir is inspired — each of the threads acts as relief for the other but they connect on an intimate, intuitive level. We're all in the same shit here. Fortunately, most of us are not hosing down the driveway for the reason Hans Reiser was.



08-25-09: Dan Chaon Will 'Await Your Reply' : Who Are You?

I once worked with a brilliant computer programmer, who, because he had no formal educational background in computer programming, was never really certain that he was even a programmer at all. No matter how successful he was, no matter how brilliant his work proved to be, he was plagued by a sliver of uncertainty.

He felt as if he were not himself, the brilliant programmer, but an imposter, backed into a corner, forced to perform a bizarre high-wire act every day of his life, each moment offering an opportunity for catastrophic failure.

This feeling is not unfamiliar. My education was in English Literature, but upon graduating from college I found I could make minimum wage writing manuals for showerheads or twice as much working in the exciting world of human blood plasma fractionation. Through a series of drifting non-decisions, this lead to a career in IT. Some years later, as the Director of IT for a high-tech concern, I found myself wondering just who I was. Thinking that I might have lied my way into the world I now found myself in, wondering if indeed, I too, was an imposter.

You can look it up — it's called imposter syndrome. I think it is a lot more common than acknowledged, that all of us, in this age of heightened expectations, feel that no matter how well we are doing, we are somehow falling short, in some essential way, faking it and always on the precipice of getting caught. Dan Chaon seems to understand this on an intuitive level and he's imagined all of our lives, pulled them apart and threaded them back together again, Frankenstein-style in
'Await Your Reply' (Ballantine / Random House ; (August 25, 2009 ; $25). One might worry about one's threatened identity, were it not already under siege from the most relentless of foes — one's self.

Three lives, none of them entirely real — at least to those living them — are traced across a post-millennial American landscape. Ryan on his way to the hospital, has recently learned he is indeed not who he thought he was; Miles is looking for his twin brother; and Lucy has run off with her high school teacher. None of the stories on the face of it, are that strange. We all know people like this, unless we are people like this. But Chaon's literary vision of uncertainty and doubt permeates the atmosphere and his gorgeous, often powerful prose pricks away at the myths and conspiracies we all see allied against us — unless we are unwittingly part of them. He expertly draws us in, makes us believe in those who do not believe in themselves and immerses us in lives that those living them feel to be false. He ratchets up the suspense and the terror we feel each tine we look in the mirror, wondering what exactly we will see.

There's a point where what we believe is real is more important than what may indeed be real, there is a point where our doubt becomes more powerful that the certainty of others. Superstition takes many forms here in the 21st century. Those we now perceive as ignorant peasants, huddled around the hearth seeking protection from vampires and ghouls, believed themselves to be the capstone of civilization. Now, as then, we know ourselves to be the capstone of civilization. But our hearth is a cool glowing screen. Our ghouls and vampires are bankers and bureaucrats. They would steal our souls. But we're pretty sure that we long ago sold them. There's nothing left to steal. We're empty, waiting to be filled up. Like the characters in Chaon's novel, we 'Await Your Reply.'



08-24-09: A Review of 'The Magicians' by Lev Grossman : Word Magic

I was quite skeptical of the magic in 'Lev Grossman's The Magicians.' (Penguin Putnam / Viking ; August 11, 2009 ; $26.95). We live in a world that is saturated, three-feet deep, in Harry Potter novels, movies and his huge media empire. So a novel about a school for magicians seemed dodgy out of the gate. But it doesn't take long for Grossman to establish his own voice and his own world. It's a world of spells, students, and yes, magic — in this case, the reading experience itself. Grossman's novel is involving, imaginative and literarily compelling.

Grossman is in many ways quite a fearless writer. 'The Magicians' takes on that huge media empire with complete awareness of its existence and even name checks it a couple of times in the narrative. He sets up a meta-fictional subtext by creating a fictional fantasy series clearly based on the C. S. Lewis Narnia novels. But by sheet dint of writing skills — his plotting, prose, characterizations and story arc are all quite superb — he manages to overcome the hurdles he sets for himself. That might mean a lot less if 'The Magicians' weren't so enjoyable to read. But it is an enjoyable book, on the animal pleasure level, as well as on an intellectual and literary level. There are moments of literary satisfaction that rival the imaginative fantasia. Here's my in-depth review.



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