Food + Beer
"...when I do kick back with a beer, I want to have a nice dish to go along with it," writes Kentaro Kobayashi in the introduction to the latest volume in his set of slim cookbooks, 'Appetizer Rex' (Vertical, Inc ; December 8, 2009 ; $14.95). That's certainly an admirable thought. The problem is, when you want to kick back, cooking may not at the top of your queue. If you're going to hang and swill beer, sweating bullets in the kitchen is probably the last thing you want to do. Note then, the uber-titles of these books — "Simple Japanese Cooking." Simple they got — but there's a lot more than what I, at least, would think of as Japanese cooking in this volume. And that's just fine with me.
Kentaro Kobayashi gets all the way to his second recipe, on page eight, when he leaves what I would think of as Japanese food behind, with a recipe for Tomato Salsa. He follows that up with a recipe for nachos, and Tomato And Olive Bruschetta before he gets to something at least faintly Japanese-seeming with Spicy Marinated Turnip. But the key ingredient in all the recipes here is the lack of ingredients. Kobayashi writes cookbooks you can use after you've started drinking the beers.
He does offer a lot of neat spins on some classics; he wraps his Fried Cheese Sticks in dumpling skins, and uses them for Cheese Crackers as well. He fries leftover noodles in a big crispy mass, and tells you how to make Crispy Bacon in a manner that works for an appetizer but is clearly of use beyond. With all this frying, it's nice that he gives you a précis on how to do it without drowning yourself in grease, and not surprising that he sings the praises of the toaster oven. The emphasis on simplicity and ease-of-preparation make this a cookbook that gets used – especially since he doesn't stint on the meat.
Here's where things get flexible, in that you could easily turn a lot of these easy appetizers into (surprise!) easy meals. "Meaty appetizers are a crowd pleaser," he writes and that's especially true if you are cooking for a crowd of one. Wasabi Butter Beef is easy and sorta deadly, in that it's the appetizer that will take over your meal. And then there are the nice mini meals. Chicken Meatball and Miso Stew is both light and hearty, a perfect winter meal.
For reasons I cannot fathom, I've been finding cabbage really tasty of late, and Kobayashi has two pages of easy and tasty recipes for this super-cheap veggie that keeps well. Cabbage and Clams Garlic Sauté is another great meal for your cold season, while the Fried Cabbage Patties can make a nice stand in for hashed browns. Honey Mustard Sweet Potatoes, using actual honey added to wholegrain mustard are tasty, spicy and succulent. Chicken and Rice Soup is another nice dish that doubles as dinner, or the appetizer that once (easily) made and consumed, makes dinner superfluous.
Throughout, Kobayashi generally keeps the ingredient lists short and the prep easy. There are some weird ingredients here in recipes like Whelk Sauté and Chikuwa in Peanut Sauce – what? Chikuwa, we are told is "tube shaped fish cake," which is probably available if you have a decent oriental grocery store nearby. But on balance, there are a lot of easy-to-make, tasty recipes here in a slim cookbook for fifteen bucks. Given that Kobayashi also offers up the sort of cooking tips that can be used in any recipe, it's a good bargain.
01-14-10:Terry Dowling Sings of 'Amberjack'
Song Cycle and Short Stories
"Nothing is more terrifying than the world as we know it going wrong," Terry Dowling tells us in the afterward to "Jarkman at the Othergates," one of the stories found in 'Amberjack' (Subterranean Press ; June 30, 2010 ; $40). You might think that it would be difficult to portray a world gone more wrong than the current model. Drawing with equal ease from science fiction, horror and fantasy, willing to mix them as required, Terry Dowling is up to the challenge.
How many ways can the world go wrong? Australian author Terry Dowling has the knack for creating a vision of the world, if not gone wrong, then at least, not right. Whether it is a truly alien invasion or an insidiously inventive entity that enjoys ... teeth .... ('Toother' is the sort of horror story that you can't forget), Dowling displays a verve for undermining our confidence in continuity. You pull out the baseline and everything else falls apart, while the pieces of the stories fall together with an easy grace that makes them rather disturbing. Dowling knows how to tell a good story. The terror you experience is just a byproduct of his skills.
'Amberjack' takes its title from a song cycle Dowling wrote back in the Jurassic progressive era of pop music. His prog-acoustic band Gestalt was playing the right music at the wrong time, but the songs never left his writing life. Here, they show up as evocative poems between the previously uncollected stories, small cuts from a larger fabric. They add a sense of the alien to the work, a sense that Dowling is tapping into some alternate reality that he visits regularly, returning to our world with a new tale each time.
Though Dowling works in a variety of genres and moods, there's an off-kilter sensibility that unites these stories and acts as a through line. There are other continuities here as well. The gripping and terrifying "Toother" find the return of Dan Truswell, and the huge gift at the end of the collection is a nearly 100-page novella, "The Library," that heralds the return of Tom Rynosseros, set in Dowling's Australia, about a thousand years from now. "The Library" earns its keep, following in the big SF-adventure mold where science fiction is transmuted by visionary writing into almost-fantasy. Yes, you get the sand-ships so evocative of the earliest and most-exciting pulps, but informed by an intelligent modern sensibility. And yes, even fun can be a just a bit, well — disturbing.
01-13-10:The Fortean Times
As Weird As Life
One cannot live on a reading diet of books alone. I read the San Francisco Chronicle daily, and the Santa Cruz Sentinel when it comes my way. And, once a month, I get a lovely surprise in the mail: The Fortean Times. It is, indeed, as weird as life.
I admit that I read The Fortean Times backwards. Bob Rickard, the inception point, if you will of the whole shebang, offers up "Tales from the Vault," which visits past reports, and this, to me, is one of the key differences between The Fortean Times and what passes for normal reporting. The Fortean Times follows up on its reports, no matter what the results are, good or bad. Imagine if your nightly weatherman came on and said, "Well, I totally blew it last night. Let's try again..."
Next, I head backwards to the reviews; I skip the video games, because I don't play them ... no time. But I do like the book and movie reviews as well, which have a peculiar-to-my-American-taste British feel, and generally cover books and movies I won't see here on the left coast of the US of A. There are Forum Articles, submitted, researched essays that cover, this time around (from back to front), tracing the source of the Eucharist, Darwin myths, and a mediation on whether or not Fort was autistic; there are letters of interest, at least to me, and the Simulacra corner.
This time around there are three main draws, beyond that various always-entertaining bits of reportage. The cover story, by Gail Nina Anderson, is a nice, crisp, cultural history of the Dracula history, literature, movies, myth and legend. It's not exhaustive, but it's not exhausting either, and anyone who wants to play catch-up can do so in one sitting and two beers. Benjamin Radford actually went to Nicaragua, and brought back a great bit about tracking chupacabra, the goatsucker. Of course, the question is whether or not he was tracking a legend or a cryptid. I won't give away the ending, but I trust you can guess. And finally, Jan Bondeson contributes an article about Gould and Pyle, the authors of 'Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine,' an early 20th century DSM behind, perhaps, the Todd Browning movie Freaks.
Reading The Fortean Times is a peculiar experience, because they have such a strangely sensible approach to news, and yet, report on news that is generally considered un-newsworthy, or worthy of, "Here's our joke news for the day," treatment. But it's a great way to break up the books, keep your mind open and feed your brain with reading that is every bit as weird as life.
01-12-10:Gary Paulsen Follows the 'Woods Runner'
Persistence of Vision
Stories are stories; and characters are characters. What gets between the covers of a good book, the words, they're what matters most. Words create the vision. Bring a great vision via words to any setting and set of characters, and you've got a great book. In this case, Gary Paulsen's 'Woods Runner' ( Knopf / Delacorte / Dell / Random House ; January 12, 2010 ; $15.99). It doesn't matter that it's accessible to kids, probably boys, ages twelve and up. Paulsen's words create a powerful vision that's gripping and feels true.
I never know what books will catch my attention and grip me. On the face of it, the story of a kid during the American Revolution is not the sort of book I might think I'd like. But it only took a page for 'Woods Runner' to get me hooked. There's just something about the low-level, hard-headed nature of Paulsen's protagonist, Samuel Smith, that really got me interested in reading the novel. Perhaps there's a sort of nostalgia for me there, the whole 'Stories for Boys' feel. My father got me started reading Jack London, 'The Call of the Wild.' But it's more than just old-feeling sentiment that makes 'Woods Runner' a compelling read. It's told in such an immediate manner that it begins to feel very contemporary. It's not long before you're reading about the Revolutionary War, but you're thinking about Vietnam.
The story is quite straightforward. Samuel and his family live on the Western edge of the eastern forest. Samuel is a natural woodsman, a "woods runner," who, having grown up in the forest, is much more at home there than his parents and the other families nearby. (It's not even a named settlement, just a few houses pushing west.) He's the hunter who provides for his family, but he returns one day to find them gone, kidnapped by British soldiers who are apparently fighting the settlers. The rumors of something called "war" have manifested themselves even out here on the edge, in the wilderness, and Samuel is well set to track his parents down and if possible rescue them.
Paulsen writes powerful prose, and his use of the perspective of a prematurely grown young man to explore the edges of a very messy and much more diffuse war than we ever imagined is extremely compelling. This isn't the big-name battles that we have heard so much about. This is a war fought on a very local level, with small bands of marauders mercilessly moving through a sparsely populated landscape. Paulsen handles his plot and characters with perfect expertise. He avoids sentiment but manages to create real emotions and real connections with the characters while providing a unique perspective on the Revolutionary war. In between the chapters are single-page pieces of non-fiction that illuminate corners of a war that we only think we know. They dovetail nicely with the plot, expanding the vision without getting in the way of the story. 'Woods Runner' is a great little read that will stay with you after you've finished reading it. It doesn't just get a place in the reader's heart. It earns it.
01-11-10:Michael Aronovitz Experiences 'Seven Deadly Pleasures' : Leaving Sin Behind
The first pleasure of reading horror fiction is the incredible variety of tonality, character and setting one can find it what is traditionally thought of as a rather limited genre. It was reading Clive Barker's 'Books of Blood' that first cued me to the joys of the short horror story. There was so much that could be done. Michael Aronovitz seems to have found a similar key. He unlocks the horror genre, and writes stories that are disturbing, scary and most importantly, gripping, but otherwise offer a variety you might never expect to encounter. It's fun turning people inside out, both figuratively and literally.
Hippocampus Press is a on a roll. Their latest, 'Seven Deadly Pleasures' by Michael Aronovitz (Hippocampus Press ; December 01, 2009 ; $15) is a nicely done-up trade paperback that offers up six horror stories and one novella which offer a variety of settings, characters and styles but all deliver the true pleasures of reading horror fiction. By focusing on the basics, Aronovitz manages to write stories that are striking and enjoyable to read. That they are all horror stories is almost irrelevant. There are, simply put, good stories.
S. T. Joshi, the foremost scholar of horror fiction, starts off the volume with an introduction that prepares the reader for what is to come without spoiling the surprises. Then it's on to the fiction; some of it seemingly traditional horror with teen protagonists experiencing the externalization of their terrified, confused states, such as 'How Bria Died' or 'The Legend of the Slither Shifter.' Other stories are more reflective but not less frightening – 'The Exterminator' and 'The Clever Mask.' The novella that concludes the collection, 'The Toll Booth,' is a complex and intriguing construct, with gripping characters who take the reader on a journey that is unpleasant for those involved, but not the reader.
That's really the trick that's hard to master, that set Aronovitz apart. It's not difficult to write about icky things happening to nice people, or even, not-so-nice people. Aronovitz, however, writes characters so real and engaging that you happily follow them into hells that are startlingly entertaining. They're also much more pointed in every fashion than what you'll find in the mainstream horror section. It's not just horrific; there's reason behind the horror, an animating force that somehow ties the disparate stories and themes in a coherent whole.
Adding to the reading pleasure are the fine production values of the book. It's nicely bound, the print and paper are fine quality and the illustrations by Thomas S. Brown are evocative and classy. It appears that the small-press horror collection, so focused on death, dissolution and slow conversion of the American dream into a nightmare, has not fallen victim to the curses it so perfectly portrays.
New to the Agony Column
09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity
08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]