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Jonathan Lethem
10-23-09: Jonathan Lethem Experiences 'Chronic City' : Synchronicity Without Sin

How many love letters can Jonathan Lethem write to Manhattan? And how different will each of them be? His newest novel, 'Chronic City' (Doubleday / Random House ; October 13, 2009 ; $26.95) is more likely to elicit questions than answers. But they're the kind of questions that readers love, the kind of questions that keep us reading. And Lethem is uniquely talented in this department. He'll get a regiment of angels to dance on a pinhead and only when we as readers have recovered from the sheer joy of his skill do we realize that all the whys and wherefores we ask the writer are more fruitfully directed at the readers — our own bad selves.

Back a while, when the world was young and wooly mammoths roamed the American tundra, an upstart young Lethem wrote his heart out with 'The Fortress of Solitude,' a powerful nostalgic and evocative look at his youth in Brooklyn and beyond. The novel existed in a moonshine shimmer of unreality, in which light it brought to life the soul of the writer — or at least one side of what is proving to be a very complicated man. 'Chronic City' finds Lethem back in New York, in a sort-of near future and in a much more antic mood. While 'The Fortress of Solitude' gave us a boy growing into a young man, 'Chronic City' gives us a young man who is still a boy at heart.

From the get-go things take on an odd combination of mundanely realistic and surreally inventive — from the opening pages. First we get these names; our protagonist is one-time child star Chase Insteadman, and he rapidly meets Perkus Tooth. What the heck? But waitk, it gets better and better. Chase's fiancée is trapped in the International Space Station; and that's the realistic portion of the narrative. No, what will get you going is Lethem's ruthless inventiveness, because the question this book asks, and the questions you’re going to be asking yourself very, very soon is an essential tool for living. What is real?

Lethem has a ball in this novel with a non-stop assault of dry humor as he tells lies that sound like the truth and truths that sound like outrageous fabrications. He employs a very light touch here, and as well a sort of heavy-handed sense of the imagination that is really fun. Everything is happening at once in Lethem's literary Manhattan; it is truly a city of synchronicity and chronicity. Chase finds himself aswirl in events that seem to be meaningfully connected. And there is meaning to be found in all that chronicity, which I'll define as simply as events passing at the same time, related or not. The trick is to start asking the right questions. Once you get that down, the right answers will follow. The problem is that synchronicity can lead you ask the wrong questions, with results that do not swell your bank account, your sense of personal worth and satisfaction or alarmingly, your life expectancy.

This is Jonathan Lethem where, to my mind, his most ardent readers most enjoy him. He's at play in the fields of The Man, off on a lark where reality, the present and future fall together and apart at the same time. It's wave-particle literature, science fiction one second, literary humor the next. Here’s where the Heisenberg principle gets a literary application, since the work itself, the 'Chronic City,' changes every time we ask it another question — and realize those questions are best directed at ourselves.



10-22-09: Kamala D. Harris Hopes We're 'Smart on Crime' : Rocking the Crime Pyramid

Well, we're certainly dumb on punishment, asserts San Francisco's District Attorney, Kamala D Harris. I suppose it should come as no surprise that she makes her case in 'Smart on Crime' (Chronicle Books ; October 19, 2009 ; $24.95) but nonetheless, I was surprised. I expected a puffy, fluffy string of clichés, and some self-serving, "lock 'em up and throw away the key" rhetoric.

Whatever my expectations might have been, they were shattered by the actual book. Harris begins with a thumbnail sketch of her life, an executive summary of her premise, and divides the rest of the book into two parts; "The Myths About Crime" and "How to Rock the Crime Pyramid." OK, I'm no so hot on "rocking the crime pyramid," as it brings to mind an old Clash song. But catch-phraseology aside, Harris seems to be truly on to something with 'Smart on Crime,' mostly because what she says lives up to the title.

The first half of the book is dedicated to exploding myths about crime. It's lively, straightforward and sensible. Though I'm not fond of the term "rocking," Harris' crime pyramid is a great analogy. At the top of the pyramid, she places violent crimes, which, while they form the smallest percentage of crimes, are those she feels must be dealt with in an uncompromising manner. The problem is, as she sees it, that we use the same punishments for the greater percentage of non-violent offenders and end up making "madder, meaner" criminals out of them rather than rehabilitating them. She notes that even the word "rehabilitation" has taken on a negative connotation. And here's a key to where she's headed in the rest of the book.

'Smart on Crime' explodes a number of myths with clean prose and uncommon sense. She goes after our preoccupation with violence ("As Seen on TV") and the "Fear Factor" myth that the increasingly harsh punishments for lesser crimes serve as a deterrent. She summarizes her thoughts for each myth in a conclusion paragraph for each section — a smart idea. This is a relentlessly organized book, which brings me to the second half, where, having outlined the problems, she presents some solutions, and I think that again, by and large, they live up the title of the book. Harris wants us to focus on truancy, and she herself talks quite a bit about the economic impacts of the currently in-vogue "tough on crime" mentality. You might not agree with everything Harris says in 'Smart on Crime' and you might like her conclusions. But there's no doubt that she offers a lot of good ideas, some new, some old, and a refreshingly clear voice. 'Smart on Crime' is shockingly easy to read; what Harris proposes is not so easy, but getting the ideas out there is a huge first step. By the end of the book, even skeptical readers are going to be thinking about ways to "rock the crime pyramid." Though in so doing, you may still hear a few bars of that old Clash song.



10-21-09: For Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. 'Blood Will Have Its Season' : Short Bursts of Fury

Style ... style is an individual thing. Readers of this website should have noticed by this juncture, that I eschew comparisons, as I feel that they’re the lazy way to telegraph something that's usually not true. So when you hear Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. compared to any number of other writers in the horror genre, I want to say that readers should just toss that equation right into the trash.

I had never encountered
Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. until 'Blood Will Have Its Season' (Hippocampus Press ; October 2009 ; $15) arrived. Whatever your expectations may be, check them at the door. Pulver has a truly unique style for the horror genre, and this collection of short stories is a perfect vehicle for this sort of style. I'm going to try to live up to my own standards and describe this book without resorting to comparisons that would cheapen two writers. Pulver is an original.

I think there's a bit of confusion surrounding the writer, really. He's written a Cthulhu Mythos novel, 'Nightmare's Disciple,' and a number of the stories in this book explicitly reference characters created by Robert W. Chambers for the stories surrounding 'The King in Yellow.' The natural thought is that he'd be like one or both of those writers in terms of style; ornate prose, restrained visions of the beyond and elaborately conceived monsters, barely glimpsed. Lovecraft and Chambers, though, came from an earlier era, a gentler era, and their work reflects the sensibilities of gentlemen. Their characters tend to be academics, the sort of fellows who would wash hands that never saw dirt compulsively. Lovecraft at least, wrote a number of novellas, and his work (at its best) is subtle, sliding in under the reader's radar. Even when Lovecraft visits the slums, or the decaying places where some of his stories unfold, there's a sense of control, especially emotional control. The terror is extreme — but the response is, or at least tries to be, dignified.

Pulver, on the other hand, reads more like a hard-boiled, old-style crime writer who stumbled into Lovecraft's world and is really, really pissed off about it. The characters and narrators have a gritty fury, an unrestrained anger that the universe would dare to treat them this way. And these are modern, late-20th century stories as well, where Carcosa syndrome is televised. There's drinking, bad motel rooms and language the likes of which Lovecraft would never let pass through his lips. These stories are intense, they take anger, the fury of the wretched streets, the horrific truth of downtrodden lives — to a Lovecraftian level of revenge. Instead of an elegant essay, expect a staccato assault. Pulver attacks the story with a full-fisted ire that comes from the bottomless pit of poverty and having-not till you just can't stand it anymore. He streams a consciousness at the reader with the ruthless intent of making you feel, really, really bad. There's a surface of ugliness here that is nonetheless undeniably powerful.

Clearly, to my mind, Pulver is not for everyone. The stories in here are uncomfortably real, and involve violence against women and men that is too close to the sordid reality we can read about in the newspapers to offer any solace, or even much of a rest. 'Blood Will Have Its Season' because words can batter your face till your cracked lips can no longer form words, words can bruise your soul until feelings become burdens. Then, unfeeling you slips into the night. Step off the curb, grind a cigarette under your heel. Perhaps it is a finger. So what? Human trash, we're not worth much worry, in the grand scheme of these damn things.



10-20-09: Kumiko Ibaraki 'The Worry Free Bakery' : Low Fat Cooking That Is Not a Waste of Time and Ingredients

I almost sent this book straight to the Ignore pile. The idea of "Treats without Oil and Butter" seemed ludicrous, the baked equivalent of a "Why Bother?" drink at the coffee shop. Plus, I'm not so hot on baking. I was quite happy to give it the Agony Column "bad review by virtue of there being no review" treatment. Who has time to bother reading about, let alone making "Treats without Oil and Butter"?

But. But. But ... Credit the food photography by Noriko Aoyama, or the delightful book design. Eventually I cracked open
'The Worry Free Bakery' (Vertical Inc. ; October 6, 2009 ; $14.95) and grudgingly, grudgingly decided to make the first recipe, Apple Muffins, "a light fluffiness without any butter." Right. I'd make some bricks, I thought, and then send the book to the Ignore pile.

But they weren't bricks. And the Apple muffins were super-easy to make. Ibaraki tells you how many calories are in each serving, and it's generally significantly lower than the fat-based equivalent. The recipe batches are smallish, so if you're cooking for one or two people, you get just the right amount of food, or a desert or breakfast that lasts precisely one meal, no leftovers, very neat. I don't like leftovers (generally speaking, with some exceptions), so the batch sizes are extremely convenient.

But the Apple Muffins (yes, with a real apple) were pretty straightforward and not indicative of the recipes in the rest of the book. And (credit photographer Aoyama) there were a lot of other recipes that looked pretty damn delicious, low-cal or not. Perhaps I was on an apple binge or something, but the Apple Pie — which is really more of streusel, I'd say — looked pretty good. Only in order to make that, I'd have to tackle one of the core concepts of this cookbook, the overnight extravaganza of "Drained Yogurt."

But before I get to the thrills of drained yogurt, let's get the basics of the book down. It's 80 pages, and the recipes are nicely laid out so at least you can easily figure out what to do. You get an introduction touting the health benefits of the foods herein, and sections at the back with general prep instructions for things that appear in multiple recipes, like — Drained yogurt.

It's pretty simple. Put a strainer over a bowl. Put some paper towels in the strainer. Dump a thingy of yogurt onto the paper towels, cover and put in the fridge overnight. I have an old Tupperware setup that is actually sort of designed for this, which made it especially convenient. If you need more liquid out, you put a weighted plate on top of the yogurt for a couple of hours after the overnighter. I used Fage 2% Greek yogurt, which comes in 7-ounce thingies. What you get out of this is a cream-cheese / butter substitute that goes into both the Apple Pie crust and the Yule Log cream recipes, and it is really, really good. I was fearful I might have to toss the stuff out after the overnight wait, but I figured it was worth one experiment. If it didn't work, zoom, back to the Ignore pile.

Fortunately, it did work. Now the
"Apple pie" recipe looks really complicated, I mean overnight the yogurt, then make the crust, then lay it out like a tart / strudel ... But it was really easy when I got down to it. I used two apples instead of one, because, Ibaraki comes from the Land of Underpowered Microwaves. She tells you to slice up an apple, sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar and the nuke it for five minutes. The photos show firmish apple slices coming out of this, but I got post-Apocalyptic mushy slices. They looked good, but they clearly weren't going to fill that dough. So I nuked another one for a minute and a half, which got me the right texture and amount of food, especially when I combined it with the first one. I'd probably do the same thing again. You can see by the photo of my result that this thing cooked up quite gorgeously. And, the bottom was nice and crispy and brown as the top.

Next, I saddled up for
Bouche de Noel, the Yule Log. Another overnighter for the yogurt. I used two Fage thingies for this and was glad I did. Again, this looks incredibly complicated, but once you've got the yogurt done, the rest is a snap. But be warned. First off, before you make anything from this book, buy some cooking parchment because Ibaraki uses it in almost every dish. And with this recipe, you're going to make a sponge cake that is going to look practically non-existent, but in the end will come out quite nicely. I put it all together and rolled it up, and it was to die for good. Two of us practically ate the whole thing in one dessert. It’s light, sweet, and delicious with raspberries. Make sure you let the sponge cake cool thoroughly and when you put the end result together, put it immediately in the refrigerator. I left mine out to admire how bitchin' it looked (and it tasted better), but it sort of started to melt. Even slightly melted it looked outstanding, but you’d want to be careful, just to make it right.

And finally, I made the
Apricot square cake. I had to buy a couple of oddball ingredients for this — Almond powder and Kirschwasser (German Cherry Brandy). But it came together precisely as described; very easily and looks as good as it tastes. I'd serve it with whipped cream, which sort of destroys the low-cal aspect, but I really wasn't worried about low-cal stuff. I just wanted great recipes I could bake, and this book has them. There are a few more left I'm going to try, and I'll report back on my results. In the interim, definitely do not put this in the Ignore pile. Who cares about worry-free — I just like the delicious treats aspect, and this book delivers.


10-19-09: Mark Lamster Unveils 'Master of Shadows' : The Secret Diplomatic Career of Peter Paul Rubens

Rubensesque. It's a sort back-handed compliment now, a way of saying a non-stick-thin woman is beautiful. Like it or not, Peter Paul Rubens literally colored the way we see the world. Visit a decent museum and get a close look at his work; then at Rembrandt. These colors, these rich vistas are just the surface of a life that was far more complex than you might ever have guessed.

You might easily glide through a gallery, immersing yourself in the work of Peter Paul Rubens. Those rich dark hues, the fleshy yet ethereal women, the sheer drama and power of his visions seem enough to have filled a life. And while we think primarily of his women, Rubens also traveled extensively to paint military and political leaders. Any of this you might learn from the your visit to a gallery.

'Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of Peter Paul Rubens' (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday ; October 20, 2009 ; $29.95) by Mark Lamster is a gripping and intense look at both Rubens' work as an artist and his other career — as a diplomat and spy. Rubens started young, and as you read Lamster's book, you'll marvel at how Rubens fit into the complicated and intricate politics that drove the world. His mastery of shadow in paint was matched by his mastery of intrigue.

Rubens' career began in 1602, which was a time during which Spain was a fearsome power, and Europe was fractured along lines that still play in power now, though the map has been altered. 'Master of Shadows' traces both Rubens' art and his work behind the scenes, which not surprisingly, makes his art seem even more resonant and powerful. From the Duke of Mantua to the Defenestration of Prague, Lamster takes the reader on a journey through secret treaties, gorgeous art and secret negotiations conducted by the artist. It's an incredibly involving portrait of a man as complicated as the world around him, a man who helped crate that complicated world. Inner and outer beauties collide.

Lamster's a fine writer who knows how to take the reader through history that we think we understand, only to offer a very fresh perspective. The prose is transparent, the better to see the people, the places and the events portrayed. Nan A. Talese has included a generous number of color plates in the book to compliment the excellent story. Here's a proto-steampunk thriller about a real artist who happened to be a spy and a diplomat, in a lovely package. Reality seems to overtake fantasy with an ease that is often nearly as breathtaking as the work of Rubens.



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