Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon)

I’d heard a lot of good things about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, so when I saw it at a used-book sale for our local library (along with Stephen King’s Everything’s Eventual; review), I snapped it up. Told from the point of view of Christopher Boone, an autistic boy in Swindon, England,* it opens with Christopher discovering that a neighborhood dog has been killed, and then—as he is a great admirer of Sherlock Holmes—his attempts to uncover the killer.

Interestingly, Haddon said in a Powell’s interview that he actually didn’t set off with the character in mind:

Dave: Where did you find the original impulse to write this novel? I know that it wasn't a matter of you thinking you'd write a book about an autistic boy, as some might presume.

Mark Haddon: No, very deliberately not. And I think if I had done that I'd have run the risk of producing a very stolid, earnest, and over-worthy book.

It came from the image of the dead dog with the fork through it. I just wanted a good image on that first page. To me, that was gripping and vivid, and it stuck in your head. Only when I was writing it did I realize, at least to my mind, that it was also quite funny. But it was only funny if you described it in the voice that I used in the book.

So the dog came along first, then the voice. Only after a few pages did I really start to ask, Who does the voice belong to? So Christopher came along, in fact, after the book had already got underway.

That voice is everything in a book like this, and Haddon nails it—the affectless, deadpan voice allows a uniquely paradoxical blend of sadness and humor, one that can slip down all sorts of side roads without losing the continuity of the story. At just over 200 pages (with more than a few diagrams), it’s a quick, wonderful little read, and highly recommended.

* Which, if you’ve seen the British version of The Office, you will always think of as the location of the Wernham Hogg branch absorbed into David Brent’s Slough branch.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Super Natural Cooking (Heidi Swanson) and A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen (Jack Bishop)

I've been meaning to write a post about these two cookbooks for a long time now, and today seemed like the most appropriate day. I love Thanksgiving, and besides the friends and family (to which we are forever grateful), this day is all about the food. Yes, even for vegetarians. Jim and I both like Thanksgiving so much that we're spending today with some good friends and then tomorrow is Thanksgiving 2, The Sequel (thank you, Doug, for the official name), where we're going to fix more of our favorites to last through the weekend.

Lately I've been cooking mainly from three cookbooks: Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, which I've written about before, Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson, and A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen by Jack Bishop.

Heidi Swanson is the creator of, where she posts recipes from her many cookbooks, with her adaptations, helpful tips, and her beautiful photography. When I first picked up Super Natural Cooking at a Berkeley bookstore, I debated buying it. I had heard great things about it, but after a quick look, placed it down. At first glance, it seemed too complicated, with the ingredients too exotic. Luckily, I picked it up again at a different book store not too long after. And this time I gave it more than a glance. Once I actually looked at the recipes, I realized that they weren't that complicated, that many of the ingredients could be purchased at a natural foods store, and some were quite simple.

Super Natural Cooking is a vegetarian cookbook, but many of the recipes could easily be paired with your choice of meat or fish. It focuses on whole grains, such as quinoa, farro, brown rice, and many others. It also has an excellent section on what grains are best suited for different meals, different kinds of sweeteners (agave, brown rice syrup), and oils. The book includes my favorite preparation of quinoa (with some dry white wine, sauteed onions and mushrooms), an absolutely amazing "sushi bowl" that has a citrus-soy dressing that makes you want to eat every last grain of rice, peanut butter krispy treats, a panna cotta made with coconut milk, and many other hits. Her recipes are adaptable to each season and the vegetables you have on hand. There's a lot of room for making the recipes your own, or varying them each time you make them. For example, the raspberry curd cake can be make with any kind of fruit butter (I made it with pumpkin butter0, but you have to read the introductory text in that recipe to figure that out, so it pays to spend some quality time with the book before deciding on a recipe. My only complaint is that its organization is lacking. It's arranged by "Superfoods", "Cook by color", etc., which is not that helpful when you're trying to find an exact recipe. I find myself using the index a lot, but this has never stopped me from using the book.

A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen is arranged by season, focusing on seasonal produce. I first got this book right after Christmas last year, and I chose it because the author, Jack Bishop, is an Editor for Cook's Illustrated, which is one of my favorite magazines. I was immediately ecstatic about it. The first two recipes I made from it, carmelized onion enchiladas and a creamy tomato soup, were phenomenal. And over time, I've realized that the strongest recipes are from the winter section, with some other very good ones in the fall and spring sections. So far, I've found the summer section lacking, but I think that may have more to do with
the overall bounty of fresh produce available in the summer. There's not much you need to do to vegetables in the summer, and most of the time you don't want to spend too much time at the stove then anyway. I love the seasonal focus of this book, especially that he doesn't list fresh tomatoes as an ingredient in the winter (only cherry tomatoes, which really are your best choice this time of year). I've made some amazing meals from this book, and others have just been okay, but again, there's a lot of flexibility here, and sometimes just looking at one of his recipes will give me an idea for my own take on it.

So enjoy cooking and eating today, and eating tomorrow and throughout the weekend. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Everything’s Eventual (Stephen King)

Between the ages of 12 and 18, I read, by my best count, 196,000 pages of Stephen King. He gets a bad rap in literary circles—mainly, I suspect, by people who either haven’t read much if anything by him, or by people who dislike horror and science fiction and the like on general principle—but his best work has always been about more than just monsters and the supernatural. The Stand is about an epic post-apocalyptic confrontation of good and evil, yes, but it’s also about the dangers inherent in human civilization, and whether we’re doomed to destroy ourselves. It is about a supernatural alien clown, but it’s also about the fears of childhood, and what it means to grow up. And, as his writing memoir On Writing showed, he cares a lot more about the craft of telling stories than he generally gets credit for.

His short fiction can be even more uneven than his novels—for every lovely, elegiac ghost story like “The Reach,” you also tend to get one like “Graveyard Shift,” about a group of mill workers being devoured by mutant rats. But I had high hopes for Everything’s Eventual, which I picked up at a used-book sale for our local library and which includes four stories published in the New Yorker, one of which won an O. Henry Award.

I have to admit I was more than a little alarmed by the first story, a semi-horror, semi-comic take on premature burial in which a man wakes up, unable to move or speak, as he’s about to be autopsied. (The way in which they eventually discover he’s alive provides the comic element.) Apparently he chose the order of the stories at random by drawing from a deck of Tarot cards (yes, yes, very good, Mr. King), but as can be the case with his short fiction, there simply wasn’t much to it other than the premise itself. (I’m looking at you, mutant rats.)

Fortunately, it just turns out that the Tarot cards were a bad idea, because that was hands-down the weakest story of the bunch, and the next one, the O. Henry winner “The Man in the Black Suit,” was a major relief. He includes a short paragraph or two on each story explaining how they originated and giving other thoughts on them, and interestingly, he says of this one, “I thought the finished product a rather humdrum folktale told in pedestrian language. . . . When The New Yorker asked to publish it, I was shocked. When it won first prize in the O. Henry Best Short Story competition for 1996, I was convinced someone had made a mistake. . . . This story is proof that writers are often the worst judges of what they have written.” Indeed. The frustrating thing about King is that sometimes he does seem to write stories that have depth and power to them by accident, while he’s occupied elsewhere with getting his monsters out onto the page. “The Man in the Black Suit,” about a boy who meets the devil during an afternoon of fishing, might be humdrum by the standard that no one is devoured by mutant rats,* but that’s because the story isn’t really about meeting the devil—it’s about a boy confronting mortality for the first time, both his own and that of those he loves. In that sense, it’s as good a story as he’s ever written.

Like his other collections, Everything’s Eventual can be uneven: alongside the opener of “Autopsy Room Four,” I’d be hard-pressed to make a case for “In the Deathroom” or “The Road Virus Heads North” as worth rereading, and I suspect “The Little Sisters of Eluria” would be of little interest to anyone who hasn’t already been sucked into the world of his thoroughly excellent Dark Tower books. But alongside “The Man in the Black Suit,” you also have stories that reach for deeper issues—like the title story, about a supernaturally gifted young man, working in a go-nowhere job and bullied by a coworker, who winds up recruited into work that lets him truly use his talent for the first time, but at the cost of deluding himself about both his employers and what he’s actually being paid to do. And those stories, like his best work, are well worth rereading.

* I promise this is the last time I’ll harp on the mutant rats.

Monday, November 19, 2007

See You in a Hundred Years (Logan Ward)

It's no secret I'm a fan of the Reality TV, and I especially like the PBS brand of reality TV, one of the first being The 1900 House. Not only did they have a modern-day family live in a Victorian-era house, they were British. Even better! The show was fantastic and led to such spin-offs as The Frontier House,which, Jim was solemnly tell anyone who will listen, is what we were watching the evening of Randy Johnson's perfect game. For the record, this was before I knew what a strike zone was, so you can hardly blame me.

Well, apparently others also liked The 1900 House, including Logan Ward, author of See You in a Hundred Years: Four Seasons in Forgotten America. He liked it so much that he thought the idea was the perfect remedy for his modern life in New York City. Ward moved his family (his wife and young son) to rural Virginia, where they subsistence farmed using only the technologies that were available in 1900 for an entire year.

Ward was a recent presenter at Wisconsin Book Festival---I was able to attend his session as Rabbi Kushner was unable to attend his own earlier that day. Seeing Ward in person prepared me well for his book. He was thoughtful, polite, and a little subdued, well, he may not have seemed subdued if he had been paired with someone else besides A.J. Jacobs (whose latest book I have on hold at the library and will review as soon as I get it). I think any of us would have appeared subdued next to A.J. Jacobs.

Ward's book is very thoughtful and a good read. Sometimes the prose is little too lush for my likings, but overall I enjoyed it. What was most interesting to me was my own reaction to Ward's 1900 rules. I didn't get as angry at him as I did at the PBS family when he "broke" his own rules of 1900 living. Maybe it was because his rules were self-enforced, or that his version of breaking the rules did not seem to be as frivolous as the TV family. I also considered the character of people who would enter a project such as Ward's, for a book, not for TV. Think about it, with no producers to check in on you, would you follow self-made rules? Would you be able to make it through the whole project? I'm not sure I would.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Braindead Megaphone (George Saunders)

George Saunders is one of the few writers I’ll read anything by, whose new books I’ll go buy without knowing anything about them except that they’re by George Saunders. His short stories has always been terrific (if lately gone from a little weird to a lot weird), and The Braindead Megaphone, his first collection of nonfiction, has the same eye for the absurd and gigantic heart that made those previous books so good.

The book includes several long travel pieces—exploring Dubai (first section head, “Put That Stately Pleasure Palace There Between Those Other Two”), staking out the Mexican border with a group of Minutemen (“I announce myself as an Eastern Liberal, and am thereafter treated like a minicelebrity or lab specimen, a living example of a rare species they’ve heretofore only heard about on Fox”), and visiting a Nepalese boy who has supposedly been meditating without food or water for seven months (“At 7:20, oddly, a car alarm goes off. How many cars in deep rural Nepal have alarms? It goes on and on. Finally it dawns on me, when the car alarm moves to a different tree, that the car alarm is a bird”)—as well as essays on politics (the title story, comparing the state of modern American media to a pretty good party that unfortunately includes a guy shouting things into a megaphone at everyone else; and two essays revolving around the “fluid-nation” People Reluctant To Kill For An Abstraction), writing (“Thank You, Esther Forbes,” about Saunders’s young love for Johnny Tremain; “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra,” about his slightly older love for Kurt Vonnegut; “The Perfect Gerbil,” a nice piece on story structure examining Donald Barthelme’s “The School”; and “The United States of Huck,” his introduction to the Modern Library paperback of Huckleberry Finn), plain weirdo-ness (“Ask the Optimist!,” in which a ludicrously upbeat advice columnist gets into a fight with one of his readers), and the British, in front of whom he conducts a reading with Margaret Atwood:*

Margaret Atwood is a famous Canadian genius. Our crowd consists of approximately three hundred Margaret Atwood fans, with the remainder of the crowd being my fan. After the reading, Margaret and I were overrun by our fans, crowding around her to get her to sign our books. It was at this point that my fan (Larry) changed his mind and became Margaret’s fan, and, in a fury of conversion, scribbled out my autograph and thrust my book at Margaret, while unfavorably comparing my work to Margaret’s, leaving me with zero (0) fans! (Thanks, Larry! To hell with you, Larry! I may not be as talented as Margaret Atwood, but I am less funny, and it has taken me a lot longer to write a lot fewer books! So there! Do I come to your work and disavow you, Larry?)


The cover may be among the most garish of all time (see left, but don’t look too long unless you have a ready supply of ibuprofen), but what’s inside is, as usual, inventive, insightful, generous, and hilarious, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

And George, even if we see you read with Margaret Atwood, we promise to be your fans too.

*Not sure how I ended up with a 260-word sentence there. Yeesh.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Apartment Therapy (Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan)

Apartment Therapy (the website) is a place for small-space living, with helpful tips for home decor, paint colors, storage, ecofriendly living, and all around cool camaraderie. Originally started in NYC, there are now separate online areas (San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles), so there's a little bit of local flavor. Apartment Therapy (the book), as its subtitle states, is "the eight-step home cure," designed to help turn your apartment into a home. The author (and website founder) Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, an interior designer, lives in a 250-square-foot West Village apartment so knows a little bit about living small.

I love the website. I get four of their blog feeds---Chicago, the Kitchen (which has a lot of great mostly vegetarian recipes), Home Tech (how we found the best way to hide all our home office cords under the desk), and Green (lots of ecofriendly tips, many helpful). Sometimes, however, I have a problem with the tone (there's a lot of anonymous "we" in their prose when I think it's really just the current blogger's opinion) and the focus is usually on modern styling, which can be somewhat limiting.

The book suffers from a few problems. First, it's a design book without any photographs. I'm not an interior designer, and hand-drawn floor plans showing me layouts of furniture do me little good. (I can't really tell the difference between the "befores" and "afters" with that kind of drawing.) Apartment Therapy the website has interested online participants join in on The Cure (as they call it) at least once a year, and I can get more out of their posted before/after pictures than I can from the book.

Second, this book is really focused at small apartment people, especially in New York. One week has a major task of cooking at least one meal at home. At least one? I see the good intentions behind it, but it's not applicable to me. Another thing he asks his readers to consider is getting rid of their televisions. Again, I understand we're talking very limited square footage here, but I find this request of his a little odd, given that he's been featured on at least two cable television home decorating shows (Small Space, Big Style and Mission: Organization).

Overall I find his use of metaphors a little too overreaching and some of the writing overdone (the couple who was having problems conceiving, and then once they revamped their bedroom the woman was pregnant. I'm sure it really happened, but it's a little cloying in the book), there are some very helpful tips in here, such as focusing on one room (easier to see what you need to get done, more likely to finish), what height to hang art (much lower than you think, though Jim thinks Gillingham-Ryan might be really short), some tips on furniture dealers, and what colors to paint certain rooms.

The Honourable Schoolboy (John le Carré)

I had The Honourable Schoolboy reserved at our local library branch when we happened to go to a street fair nearby, which happened to feature a book sale by another local branch, which happened to have an old paperback copy on sale for 50 cents. Who could say no?

This book picks up where the excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (review) left off, with George Smiley now head of a British Intelligence in complete disarray after the discovery of the Soviet mole in Tinker. In casting about for a way to get off the defensive, Smiley begins searching for operations that the mole had shown an unusual interest in suppressing, and comes upon one in Hong Kong—large payments made to a mysterious bank account by Smiley’s counterpart in Moscow, Karla, tied somehow to drug shipments at a tiny airline business.

Schoolboy has the same attention to detail and character, and the same wrestling with the nature of spy work—the constant drive, as he puts it at one point, “to be inhuman in the defense of our humanity . . . harsh in defense of compassion”—that made Tinker and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold so good. It did, however, suffer from unfortunate bouts of Research Syndrome—apparently le Carré made a number of trips to Southeast Asia, and at times the book starts to read more like journalism than a novel, with long stretches of Jerry Westerby (the eponymous Honourable Schoolboy) hoofing it around Cambodia and Laos and Thailand and meeting people and seeing various horrible things in various war-torn regions. The passages do theoretically tie into the story—Westerby is searching for assorted unsavory characters on Smiley’s orders—but he probably could’ve gotten the job done in a hundred or so fewer pages, and they definitely slowed things down to a crawl for a while. (I get the feeling that they worked better at the time the book was first published, when the Vietnam War had barely ended and the Khmer Rouge were still in power in Cambodia, and the events described in Schoolboy would have had more immediacy.)

Schoolboy also felt a little more distant than Tinker—the stakes not quite as high, the subject perhaps not quite as close to le Carré’s heart. (Kim Philby, the model for the mole in Tinker, had ended le Carré’s own career with British Intelligence.) But it’s still a compelling read, and I’m still looking forward to the last of the trilogy, Smiley’s People.

(Also, note to the cover designers: When you have to hyphenate two words in your title? Maybe time to bring the font size down a few points.)