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04-03-09: Kentaro Kobayashi Unleashes 'Donburi Mania' : Easy Japanese Cooking, Vertical-Style

Well, they sure got the mania part right. I don’t who the heck Kentaro Kobayashi is beyond the name on the cover of this outstanding new cookbook from Vertical, Inc — 'Donburi Mania' (Vertical, Inc ; April 14, 2009 ; $14.95) — but he clearly has a passion that crosses that line right into mania for what he calls "donburi," which to this reader look pretty much like, "anything on rice, in a bowl." They also look damn good, live up to the easy-to-cook label, and offer a lot of surprises. This is a rockin' good cookbook at a cheap price with lots of pretty pictures, lots of recipes, and yes, lots to recommend it.

The thing with cookbooks is that they have to inspire you to cook in order to inspire you to buy them. That's a pretty tall order for any book. With the easy availability of lots of ethnic fast food these days, with all of us working harder and more for less, the appeal of cooking can quickly pale.

But all that fast food is no longer cheap fast food. And it ain't so good either, especially if you're getting something from the chains. And most importantly, there ain't a lot of variety out there. Kobayashi's cookbook is packed with recipes you simply can't find cooked for you in a restaurant or shack or whatever even if you live next to your local Japantown. Often the ingredients are pretty much dirt-cheap and stuff you can easily have on hand. And best of all, the recipes are all sized for two, yes two people. It's easy to scale them up, and it's nice not to have to worry about scaling them down when, as is usually the case, I am cooking for two.

'Donburi Mania' has a rather manic feel and layout. It's chock full of photos and you might at first have a hard time finding the recipes. That's because they're generally, pretty short and simple; sometimes as short as "fry a couple of eggs on a couple of pieces of ham, throw 'em on a bowl of rice and add soy sauce and pepper to taste." That's Sunny-Side Donburi, and the recipe highlights the use of eggs in this book. Lots of recipes call for eggs and Kobayashi even suggests a special sort of vertical handle egg-sauce pan. Now here's the charm of this book; in the next paragraph, he says he just uses an average saucepan or whatever is to hand. Now that is cooking in the real world where I live. "Loco Moco Donburi" uses a ground chicken burger, tops it with an egg and an easily-made Worcestershire sauce topping. Or you can try the "Pork Stroganoff Donburi," with three kinds of mushrooms. Donburi, in case you need to know refers to the big bowls you use to chow down from.

Kobayashi may be manic for the donburi, but be includes a section on salads, soups and side dishes, as well as snack donburi. A one-age reference guide on the inside back cover offers websites where you can get some of the more difficult-to-find ingredients (though most should be findable at your local gourmet-ish grocer), and a series of substitutions should that fall through. 'Donburi Mania' is less than a hundred pages, offers more than seventy recipes at about 20¢ each. Moreover, the general cast of the ingredients is pretty healthy. The book is skinny and chances are you will be as well. Here's a cookbook that will send you from the book store to the grocery store and make you want to cook.

04-02-09: Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Pick the 'Blueberry Girl' : P. U. C.

We need to clear our minds. Surrounded by strife, by despair and complicated terror, we just get overwhelmed. Life itself sometimes requires what Boing Boing calls a "unicorn chaser," something pretty and simple to cleanse the over-stimulated sensibility. Make no mistake about it, I love my complicated life and all the disturbing horror and science fiction and non-fiction I read. It gets me out of my head and helps me put together more complete understanding of what we all must contend with. But there are moments when I need an antidote, or at least an opposing voice to the tide of misery. I wonder, is there a Printed Unicorn Chaser, a simple book of beauty and joy that I can read in a moment to find peace?

Oh, I have my own personal P. U. C.'s. Chapter 57 of 'Titus Groan' by Mervyn Peake, "The Reveries." "...and there will be a darkness always and no other color..." Doctor Seuss, 'Horton Hears A Who' (please erase any image of the execrable movie from your mind) because I was given that book as a child when I had my tonsils out and I just loved the little critters and the fact that I got to have ice cream all the time.

All this leads directly to 'Blueberry Girl' (HarperCollins ; March 10, 2009 ; $17.99) by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess. The world is clearly in need of a unicorn chaser and this new book might be the perfect solution. Vess and Gaiman have collaborated before on a book that I have often thought to be pretty damn close to perfect — 'Stardust.' There's a sort of magic that can happen in collaborations and 'Stardust' is a perfect example. 'Blueberry Girl' meets that heady challenge.

The text is quite simple; it’s a poem that Gaiman wrote as a gift to friend that he swore he'd never publish. But the power of his poetry was such that eventually it drew to it the pen of Charles Vess, and the result is an illustrated prayer, a paean to little girls, women, life and love. It's quite simple, as befits a prayer. The illustrations are delicate, complex and lovely.

The alchemy of collaboration makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts, wildly different from either part, and scorchingly beautiful. To read this book takes but a few minutes, but if you can't meditate, this book offers peace. It offers a bit of joy and redemption and is likely to make you forget for a few minutes the details that might draw you down. When you return, you'll feel refreshed. You'll feel rewarded. There's not a lot I need to say about this book. It will make a fine gift for any young girl you know, for any woman or family you know or indeed, for yourself. Turn away from the world, just for a moment of solace. When you look back, the world will look better for you'll this book is part of that world.

04-01-09: Jerry Mander and Koohan Paik Reveal 'The Superferry Chronicles:
Hawaii's Uprising Against Militarism, Commercialism, and the Desecration of the Earth' : Hawaiian Tea Party

It's impossible to know, at the time, when the breaking point has been reached. Immersed in history, we are immune to it. We go about our busy days in our busy ways and perhaps hold up a sign here, or attend a meeting there. Twenty years hence, that sign, that meeting may prove to be nothing, or it may prove to have been the turning point when the creaking course of history was tweaked by the actions of a few motivated individuals. But we'll never know until long after the moment; and even then, unless the moment is preserved by those on the scene, it may go unnoticed, unheralded.

Jerry Mander has a pretty good bead on one such moment; August 26, 2007, the Nawiliwili Harbor, the island of Kaua'i, Hawaii. In the book he co-wrote with Koohan Paik, 'The Superferry Chronicles: Hawaii's Uprising Against Militarism, Commercialism, and the Desecration of the Earth,' he calls it the "Hawaiian tea party," an analogue of the famous Boston Tea Party that helped launch the American Revolution. Imagine this:

The Superferry. It's a floating football-field-and-a-half, over five stories high. Cheap, light and able to travel at 40 MPH. The image of a football field moving at 40 MPH is truly chilling, almost like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. The actuality of this vessel is more than chilling. As it pulls into the Nawiliwili Harbor on the island of Kaua'i, it is greeted not with cheers for all the commerce and communication it was supposed to bring, but instead a truly grass-roots protest in which individual surfers hurled themselves into the water in front of the beast to prevent it from docking in their island paradise. The danger they faced was incredible and the sheer power and imposing size of the Superferry is truly frightening. Joined by small boats, fathers and sons, residents who had no axe to grind, the surfers held their water.

Jerry Mander and Koohan Paik's book is a careful document of a historic event, a gathering of facts and observations that can serve as a precise timeline for what happened and who made it happen. But it's not just the Boston Tea party moment that is captured here; it’s the entire history, from the conception to the selling to the incredible number of underhanded shenanigans used to cram this monstrosity down the throats of unsuspecting Hawaiians. Mander and Paik unearth a wealth of facts demonstrating what was originally sold as a family-friendly inter-island shuttle was in fact a demo gig for a cheap but useful new spin on marine military technology that could be used to corral in China, a weapon that could be deployed in a variety of situations.

Mander and Paik tell their story in a series of chapters that observe the situation from a variety of perspectives, and get contributions from a number of other writers. 'The Superferry Chronicles' really is written with the intent to document and preserve a moment in history. Not only was the Superferry a military stalking horse disguised as a passenger craft, it was also an ecological nightmare, slicing through protected migration paths of humpback whales without any regard for what would happen, delivering invasive species from one island to the other. Including, alas, men.

03-31-09: "Max Frei" Introduces 'The Stranger' : Altered Egos and Alternate Realities

Literary tricksters get up to all sorts of shenanigans. Take for example, "Max Frei," the "author" of 'The Stranger' (Overlook Press ; April 15, 2009 ; $27.95). It might take readers a few heartbeats to figure out what exactly is going on, even though the title of the first chapter "Debut in Echo" is a pretty good clue, because "Max Frei" is both the author and the narrator of this novel. A memoir, you ask? Well, sure — a memoir in which the author journeys to an alternate reality when he sleeps. And that's probably the least strange aspect of this novel.

Max Frei, the narrator / author of 'The Stranger' tells us from the get-go that he just doesn't sleep very well, except during the day. And there's an exception there, as well, because when he falls to sleep he awakens in a dream world that's vivid enough to support what is now a ten-novel series, written originally in Russian. In Max's alternate world, he resides in a surreal version of the UK where he meets a spymaster sort who calls himself Sir Juffin Hully. Hully gives Max a gig as the Nocturnal Representative of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the City of Echo. Magic works in Echo, and as a result somebody has to pick up the pieces — the once-loser-in-this-world who is now dubbed "Sir Max."

Thos familiar with the series that conquered the world and immortalized a worthy schoolteacher will find strong "echoes" of that series in 'The Stranger,' mostly because they present a version of the modern world with magic sitting alongside the rest of our mundane reality. But that's pretty much where the comparison ends. In the first place, 'The Stranger,' as well as the nine subsequent novels, is intended for adults, though like the ubiquitous magician, probably suitable (if not necessarily as enjoyable) by precocious 'tweens and literate teens. The tone of 'The Stranger' is also pretty different, snarky and a bit snide. And finally, unlike The Series That Has Ended, Max Frei's journey is more episodic than serial. There's no clear path towards a Final Confrontation with a Crowning Triumph. There are just a lot of mean dream streets to walk and some nefarious and not-so-nefarious denizens to deal with.

Translated by Polly Gannon, the crisp prose is quite readable, though one senses that some of the subtleties are lost. Moreover, those looking for the page-turning über-plot are going to have to exercise a patience that may require residency in the dream world. The novel achieves momentum by piling on the oddball, which is not a technique that every reader will take to. 'The Stranger' offers up a series of adventures but not necessarily a single plot arc beyond the continual and quite entertaining evolution of "Max Frei." That said, the spiky, smart prose and the often exceedingly cool surrealism that shoot through this book will certainly satisfy those looking for something rather different. The Russian flavor of the proceedings gives even the most ordinary stuff a weird sort of exoticism.

Now all this sidesteps a rather major issue to my mind, that is, that the book is actually the work not of "Max Frei," the main character, but instead Svetlana Martynchik, who has been publishing book reviews as well as books under the pen name of Max Frei. So, big surprise, there is no city of Echo, and the only magicians are the ones who made half the wealth of this world disappear like, overnight.

While the world dances on the graves of Publishing Establishment, the establishment itself seems to be doing rather better than one might presume. Overlook Press is a great example. Peter Mayer and his crew of iconoclastic editors have a charmingly eclectic sense of taste, they work totally independently, and they're a general interest press, publishing non-fiction, literary fiction and outside stuff like this in hardcover original editions. Perhaps it's Overlook that resides in a dream world; and it's not a bit surprising that they've found Max Frei.

03-30-09: Albert Sanchez Piñol Discovers 'Pandora in the Congo' : Are We Not Men?

Finding an original voice in the world of genre or literary fiction is much more difficult than one might assume. But it does happen. Take for example Albert Sanchez Piñol. His first novel, 'Cold Skin,' is a peculiar and gripping story of a man sent to gather data from a remote Antarctic island. It begins in the fashion of a survival story, but quickly introduces a race of semi-aquatic humanoid monsters; then, before it can settle down as a men-versus-monsters story, Piñol takes it in yet another direction. 'Cold Skin' is very weird no matter how you try to describe it, either as literary fiction or genre fiction. It rests nowhere with comfort, and leaves the reader feeling uncomfortable — though satisfied — as well.

Piñol's new novel is 'Pandora in the Congo' (Canongate Books ; April 3 2008 ; £14.99), and like 'Cold Skin,' it starts out seeming as if you're reading one sort of novel, but quickly mutates into something else. But rest assured, it will provide a gripping reading experience even as it makes your skin crawl, simply because you are — or think you are — human.

There's no easy précis for 'Pandora in the Congo,' and frankly it's best if you go in as cold as possible. Suffice it to say that it involves a writer asked to document a jungle expedition, and unfolds as a story within a story. What happens within and without the stories that are told will thrill you, will make you laugh and, yes, will give you cold skin, a clammy, creepy disgust as you realize your utter humanity.

'Pandora in the Congo' is a Jungle Book, a deliberate part of the tradition of jungle exploration literature and Piñol plays with the genre in a variety of metafictional ways. We get faux penny novels and writers paid to revise reality even as they experience a reality that is far more unpleasant than they expected to experience or care to admit. Piñol plants his tongue in his cheek then proceeds to bite down, drawing blood as the reality behind the jaunty narratives unravels. One minute, you’re in the known world, the next, you're plunging towards The Center of the Earth and in the company of creatures far fiercer than one finds in the jungle — the explorers, who might regard anyone not an Anglo-Saxon explorer to be, well ... less than human — and subject to be treated thusly.

While Piñol's fist novel, 'Cold Skin' managed hardcover first edition publication in the US, this time around, we should be thankful that you can get it in a trade paperback edition from the US arm of Canongate publishing. I will note that the UK hardcover comes sans DJ in an unusual-size that is truly appealing. There's a high cool-to-hold factor. It's not that expensive for a sturdy book that will reward re-reading. 'Pandora in the Congo' utilizes the tropes of genre fiction to a much more literary end, and yet, it uses them with a gusto that will delight readers of all weird fiction. [Here's where I thank the reader out there who a) pointed out this book to me and b) helped me obtain a copy. Us readers have to stick together!]

The publisher claims, on a "Praise for..." page, that 'Pandora in the Jungle' will form part of a trilogy, with 'Cold Skin.' On the surface, it may seem that the two novels have no connection whatsoever. They are different not only from any other form of fiction out there, they're different from one another. But by the time you pull yourself from disturbing visions and the incredibly-crafted prose and plot, you'll realize that they do share an obvious similarity. Deep down, underground, beneath the cold skin, the ocean, beneath the dirt, they are both, and we are all, oh so unfortunately, unpleasantly ... human.

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