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03-13-09: Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan Unleash 'The Strain' : A Bloodsucking Plague

Stop me if you've heard this one before. There's a new vampire series in the works and the publishers are just tickled pink, well more red, no, I suppose make that black — about it — black because they plan on being in the black!

So yes, you have heard this one before. But before you roll your eyes or cross yourselves in order to ward off a parade of Runway Models with Fangs (You know some enterprising fashion designer will send them out with fangs sooner or later, don’t you?), here's the good news: no sexy vampires here. Just a sick feeling of dread that something in this world has gone, very, very wrong.

Dread. Clive Barker wrote a damn good story with that title in his ground-breaking 'Books of Blood.' It's a slow emotion. It creeps up on you and creeps in to you. It's the highest order of anxiety you can experience, because it means your life, your existence are in danger.

A lot of us are feeling dread right now with every ring of the bell that closes the stock markets. How bad can it get? Our lives and our very existence are threatened by the most mundane of circumstances. One might think that there wouldn't be a lot of money in evoking the anxiety that we feel because of money. But horror fiction is a great funhouse mirror that lets us face our worst fears and then turn back to the so-called "real world." These days, vampires tend to get called out to evoke danger but not real fear, as an analogue for sexually transmitted diseases and the risks we take in search of sex. Stephanie Meyer's teenage vampires should have been forced to sit through a second round of "health classes." It might have cured them and saved us. Instead, the fact that didn't happen saved their publisher.

So, sure vampires and STDs, it's not a big reach. But vampires as say, ebola with legs and teeth, that's another matter. That's a different level of fear, that's dread. And nothing evokes dread like a well-wrought disease thriller, which in this case is the forthcoming first novel in a proposed trilogy written by no less than Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan titled 'The Strain' (Wm Morrow / Harper Collins ; June 10, 2009 ; $26.99). Del Toro and Hogan have big plans for this series. They're planning to explore vampires in depth, to look back to the past and forward into the future.

That may be the case, but the first novel is a toe-tapping rocket ride disease thriller, in which the carriers become vampires. They're pretty monsterific vampires as well, with a look and feel not unlike what we saw in Del Toro's Blade 2. But vampirism aside, the setup and execution is much more reminiscent of 'The Hot Zone' than 'Interview With the Vampire.'

After a prologue that sets up the character who is provides the wayback-backstory int his book, the novel fires off with a nice riff on the arrival of Dracula's death-ship; in this case, it's an airliner. And we're off and running down an entertainingly tense death-trip highway from which the exits are all final. Or the characters will wish they were!

Hogan and Del Toro write pretty seamlessly together. They stuff the novel with fun references for readers; a character named Eldritch Palmer (cf Philip K. Dick's 'The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch') or Captain Sean Navarro (perhaps — back in the 1980's Yvonne Navarro wrote some pretty good vampire novels). They take the premise seriously, and craft the characters they intend to live with some care. But what they do really well if glom on to that feeling of über-dread that is hanging over everyone now for a rather different reason. Moreover they play the vampire numbers game, you know, you've probably seen the articles. The idea is that if vampires exist, then even if they spread their contagion at a rate of 1 vampire added per month, they'd pretty much be feedin' off of one another — having killed off all humans — after only a couple of years. Del Toro and Hogan spin that disease paradigm with some skill. This is the kind of book that will keep lots of people up all night and leave them feeling really creeped out in the morning. This disease does not just kill you; it makes you evil, without turning you into a banker.

Now here's the real vampire number question that might leave readers feeling queasy. Let's assume that John Polidori's 'The Vampire' (1819) is patient zero in the literary vampire realm. How long will it be before every book that is written will include a vampire?

03-12-09: Molly Wizenberg Serves Up 'A Homemade Life' : Hardcover Orangette

I come from the old school of cooking. My backstop resource is a weathered copy of 'The Joy of Cooking.' If I need to know something basic, I can always look it up in there. It's a straightforward cookbook with no frills and no real slant. But I like to experiment; in fact I need to experiment, since those I cook for tend to get tired of any recipe that becomes a "signature" for too long.

Yes, the Internet is a decent backstop on those rare occasions when Rombauer and Becker don’t have what I'm looking for. All that darn searching, though, tends to bring up the same old ad-laden, mind blasting websites. There are only so many glitzy pop-ups this mind can handle. So when a search brings up the refreshingly clean Orangette blog, there's a slight chance I might actually read it.

As it happens, the woman behind Orangette, Molly Wizenberg, has just released her first book, 'A Home Made Life; Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table' (Simon & Schuster ; March 3, 2009 ; $25). It's a new-fangled cookbook, and Wizenberg has a great little scheme. She takes you to her table and shows you her life and her recipes, intertwining the story of her courtship and her family with the recipes she discovered along the way. It's a pretty charming way to find new recipes, and a much more relaxed version of the classic cookbook.

Wizenberg writes well whether she's talking about her late father, her new beau or Cream Braised Green Cabbage. Do note, she's a girly girl and thusly (he wrote, revealing how his perceptions of food consumption had been shaped by an episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, wherein Brak opines that when dining out, "The girl orders a salad and the man orders a big piece of meat!") you'll find the book long on baking and salads and less long, shall we say on big pieces of meat. But the recipes within are generally easily prepared and don’t ask you to find some really weird obscure ingredient that requires a special order from an Internet website or the presence of Nigerian-specialty foods market in your neighborhood.

But 'A Homemade Life' isn’t exactly about the recipes, or even the food. It's about a way of approaching cooking and life as one, and this is something that I really enjoyed about the book. Cooking is not a chemistry experiment. Give me a recipe that suggests I cook chopped onions for five minutes until limp, and I'm going to spend about two hours getting to that point. First, clean up the kitchen, then get out the utensils and set them out in nice little rows. Then I get the ingredients out. Then I read for half an hour. Then I remove the outer skin from the onions, then read again. Then come and chop the onions, put them in skillet with some Trader Joe's two-buck-chuck Sauvignon Blanc. I heat them slowly and sauté them for say, forty minutes to an hour, covered, adding more wine when it starts to run low.

Then I start in on the rest of the recipe.

Cooking, in Wizenberg's book, and mine, for that matter, is about approaching life with an appetite for pleasure.

03-11-09: Daniel Pinchbeck Heads 'Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age' : A Full Order To-Go From Reality Sandwich

So the real question for me has been thus far whether or not there will be as great a furor over the arrival of 12/21/2012 as there was for 1/1/2000. Since the world didn't end when we passed the "Y2K" landmark, our next best shot is that fateful date in 2012, which is when the Mayan calendar marks nothing less significant than The End of Time. I guess I'm also super-happy that at least the 2012 date will not require patching ancient computer operating systems to ensure they get the date right. But to be sure, there is a great deal of writing about what's to come on the fateful date in 2012, and Daniel Pinchbeck has been at the forefront of that wave. After all, he wrote '2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl,' then decided that a book wasn't enough. He needed a website as well.

Thus was born the Reality Sandwich website, which readers can think of as CNN for the evolution of world consciousness, shamanic perceptions, and the arrival of a new age the next age of the world's development. Maybe it is a good time to dump your stocks and invest in real estate. Note that Pinchbeck is not a "New Age" thinker. There are no soft or necessarily happy edges to Pinchbeck's work, or that of Reality Sandwich. 'Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age' (Tarcher /Penguin Putnam ; December 26, 2008 ; $16.95) is a collection of the best essays, poetry and lots of odd things from Reality Sandwich, edited by Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan and set up to give readers a fascinating glimpse at a variety of writing.

Pinchbeck and Jordan organize the book into six sections; Initiation, The Shamanic, Art, Sex, Engagement and Community. Within each you'll find science, opinion, essays, poetry, interviews, a whole variety of writing. Stanislav Grof offers a transcription of his acceptance speech for the 2007 Vision 97 award, "A New Understanding of the Psyche"; and Stella Osorojos looks at "Homo Luminus : You With Wings," an entertaining essay on levity and the angelic. You'll find John Major Jenkins' thoughts on "Mayan Shamanism and 2012: A Psychedelic Cosmology," which speculates on the Mayan cosmos and wormholes. From Kubrick to the Gnostics, from Sumerian economics (Can they be any worse than ours? Read and find out!) to an interview with Abbie Hoffman, from Burning Men to Twitter (I suppose not that far a distance), 'Toward 2012' unfurls one surprise after another.

This is all effective because even those who don’t buy the premise will still find that the quality of the writing is high. If you're looking to expose your brain to a variety of thoughts that you've a) not encountered before and b) are unlikely to encounter anywhere else between two covers, then 'Toward 2012' will certainly met your needs. Moreover, it's refreshingly straightforward, even rigorous at times. That said, it's also just a whole lot of fun to see what is out there — and how far out there it is. Pinchbeck and Jordan are fearless in terms of what they’re willing to acknowledge so prepare to have your preconceptions challenged. Being fearless when challenged is a skill you may need acquire in the coming years, probably even before 2012. Better to read the book before living the movie.

03-10-09: Money, Money, Money and Politics : Three Books to Convert Anger into Information

Free-floating anxiety and anger is easy to come by. Just turn on your television, and in minutes you'll be confronted with venomous commentary and angry imagery. Sure the tube is great for stoking the emotions, but it's well known for emptying the brain as well. Turn off the TV and you're left with a headful of anger and not much else. Reading does something really different. Pick up any of these three thoughtful hardcovers and you'll find yourself immersed in facts, not feelings. When you close the cover, you'll find you're left with a wealth of information that'll stay with you. In the choice between informed and inflamed, the former is more likely to lead you to a better life than the latter.

We'll start with history, because some old saws are true; in this case, the idea that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. And so, we nip on down to the local independent bookstore to pick up
'The Man who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America' (Nation Books / Perseus Book Group ; February 2, 2009 ; $26.95) by William Kleinknecht. Here's the first sentence: "This is a book born of annoyance." Kleinknecht then spends the next 300 or so pages exploring the actions of the Reagan presidency that were in fact the beginning of the end. He takes you from Dixon, Illinois on the eve of Reagan' ascendancy to the throne through the looting of America in the name of deregulation, and the baby steps of dismantling the most efficacious arms of the government in the name of "smaller government." Reading 'The Man Who Sold the World' is the mental equivalent of going down into the basement, opening up the doors and windows and at least understanding where the rot began. Maybe it's not too late to save the house after all.

Of course it is too late to save the
'Little Pink House' (Grand Central Publishing / Hachette Book Group ; January 26, 2009 ; $26.99). But it's certainly not too late to dive into the gripping story of Kelo v. City of New London as told in an almost novelistic style by Jeff Benedict. Here's a perfect example of how reading is so, so different from other forms of getting your information. Listen to just about any news reports on the case wherein eminent domain was used to steal from the poor in order to give to the rich, and you'll start feeling like you're watching a latter-day Robin Hood movie. 'Little Pink House' explores and evokes the emotions and anger not with emotional, angry sound bytes but instead a profoundly frightening set of facts. As you read, you're going to feel like you've hooked into a riveting political thriller — which is precisely what this book is. Unfortunately, it's all true. Knowing the details, immersing yourself in the events in the way that is only possible by reading will leave you exhausted and inspired.

And finally, if you want to know how it all came to this, this tragic state, then you need only pick up
'So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Money and the Corrosion of the American Government' (Alfred A. Knopf / Random House ; January 20, 2009 ; $27.95). Take three decades of the life of one Gerald S. J. Cassidy, a lobbyist of some renown but still under the radar of daily news cycle, and explore it from start to finish, from stem to stern, from the Navy in WWII to the world of Indian Gaming in the 21st century. It almost sounds like a science fiction novel — in this case, by C. M. Kornbluth Frederick Pohl, in which, essentially, the advertisers inherit the earth. In this case, the businessman, the deal-makers who have nothing to offer but the deal itself. And when that's gone, what's left? The bill, which we are apparently in the process of paying. Kaiser's book is long on detail and lacks some of the built-in tension that benefits Benedict's book, but it's an incredibly instructive immersion. It's one thing to see flapping jaws and yakking mouth froth denials and assigning blame. It's quite another to get a ground-level view of how you go from economic poverty to ethical poverty — leaving most of us in the former, alas.

Look, it's not that watching the daily news is bad, or that it's not enjoyable to get yourself jacked up by your favorite pretentiator. It's simply the case that it is much more enjoyable in the long run and in the short, fun to feed your mind a series of words that offers the actuality, not the slogan of change.

03-09-09: David Eagleman Calculates the 'Sum' : 'Forty Tales From the Afterlives'

OK, let's start with this delightful premise:

You're dead.

Now what? Assuming you — your soul, that perceptive being that creates a narrative for itself — continue to exist, what, precisely, might you be perceiving? What are the parameters of the afterlife? The answers to these questions are generally left to religion; but that doesn't have to exclusively be the case. Unfortunately, technology has not yet advanced to the point where we can track perceptual data after death. This isn’t to say that it's impossible, just that it's impossible now. So the only kind of experiments we can really conduct are thought-experiments; and they may tell us as much about ourselves as they will about the afterlife.

It seems almost impossibly audacious. One man decides to define the afterlife — forty times. But in 'Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives' (Pantheon / Random House ; February 10, 2009 ; $20), David Eagleman gets on that high-wire and struts effortlessly from one vision to the next, thirty-nine times*. (*It's a math problem, think about it.) Eagleman, a neuroscientist, and thus well-placed to be there should we create a means for retrieving perceptual data after death, manages to find the perfect prose style with which to engage in a consistently entertaining thought experiment. Perhaps this is because if there is an afterlife, our experience of it might closely resemble that of reading. Reading, heaven or hell, you decide.

Eagleman's book is quite simple in execution. You get forty short vignettes, just over one hundred pages total, each of which is a thought experiment in which the afterlife is defined, then described. Though Eagleman is a neuroscientist, this is not a work of science; and though the afterlife is the province of religion, and God, in a variety of incarnations, is a frequent (though not constant) presence, 'Sum' is not a work of theology. If anything, it most resembles the science fiction of Stanislaw Lem. The prose is as crystalline as the thoughts. The scenarios for the afterlife are quickly set up and the then rigorously and succinctly extrapolated.

The book begins with "Sum," in which it is envisioned that the afterlife consists of the moments of our lives, re-arranged so that we first, say, clip our nails for six days straight; then perhaps you spend, "Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting." You get the idea. For this reader, this beginning was quite reminiscent of Lem's, "One Human Minute," in which the author calculates how many people are engaged in a given activity on the globe during any particular minute. But not just in concept, because, obviously, statistics tell us that statistics themselves will eventually be parsed every which way they can. No, where Eagleman shines, again and again is the joyous clarity of his prose. 'Sum' is the science fiction / scientific equivalent of a book of powerful prayers, set in the format of, "There, but the grace of being alive, go I."

Eagleman has a knack for approaching religious visions with a style that makes them not just palatable but enjoyable to those who don’t hold religious beliefs. He writes without fear, with incredible grace and a very nicely understated sense of humor. This little hardcover is fantastic gift for just about any reader, because everyone will find something to enjoy within. Moreover, it's short enough and punchy enough to actually get read. It's never morbid, though some may now and again find the visions it presents upsetting. Turn the page and another vision awaits you.

Eagelman himself is an interesting fellow and his website is well worth your time to visit. He's co-authored a work with Richard Cytowic, who wrote what has in the long run proved to be my introduction to neuroscience, 'The Man Who Tasted Shapes,' a study of synaesthesia. Eagleman himself is engaged in studies of this (sort of) disorder wherein sensory data are blended. I suppose that should come as no surprise. 'Sum' is indeed the sum of a number of interesting ideas and words, and the book as a whole is indeed far greater than sum of its parts.

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