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05-15-09: David A. Kessler Announces 'The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite' : Good Luck With That

The cover image really says it all; from carrot to carrot cake. You can eat carrots all the livelong day and not gain an ounce of weight; or you could glance sideways at a piece of carrot cake and add five pounds in a heartbeat. It all breaks down to one simple problem for the American consumer: food is a product, and they want to sell us as much as possible. They might be happy if we just bought it and threw it away, but that would make it harder to sell. So, we're conditioned to overeat.

David Kessler ought to know. He was the Commissioner of the FDA under Bush 1 and Clinton, years that saw America begin to accept the notion that some airplane passengers might need two seats. We were getting wider all the time and seemed to be fine with that. Now that we're officially all overweight, and obesity has been termed epidemic, well, it's interesting what we're not doing about it. It's not like we're sending fatty foods back over the borders, or wearing surgical masks in grocery stores in order to prevent carrot cake and $6 hamburgers from jumping into our mouths and endangering our lives far more than mere flu viruses.

'The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite' (Rodale ; April 27, 2009 ; $25.95) is a fascinating and sort of horrifying look at how we east, why we eat and why we overeat. Kessler's approach is practical and down-to-earth. He explains that overexposure to the main ingredients in most fast foods; salt, sugar and fat actually changes what goes on in our tiny brains. To my mind, it recalls the SF classic, 'The Space Merchants,' which posits a future in which various corporations lace their foods with drugs to hook and addict their customers. Well, you can't put opium or cocaine in food anymore, so salt, fat and sugars will have to do, and Kessler's examination of how that works makes for fascinating reading.

Kessler is thorough (almost to a fault) but his persistence pays off for readers as he explains the biology and the psychology of our increasingly altered eating habits. He's smart enough as a writer to keep his message in bite-sized chapters, having taken a page from the food industry he de-constructs. He calls the new food addiction "hypereating" and talks about food in terms usually reserved for dangerously addicting drugs. This is a book that will make you see yourself and those around you with a new set of ideas. It's scary. And really, it's not rocket science. There are enough calories in most fast food "value meals" to power the average human for a day and a half. We'll order one for lunch, eat it in the car and then go home and have a huge dinner on top of that, and of course, we're so busy eating that we have little time for exercise. But Kessler offers more than the sickness in 'The End of Overeating'; hence the name. He offers a particularly clear path out of our current societal stances and the cultural mores that lead to overeating. He's even trademarked "Food Rehab." Now, 'The End of Overeating' is just not a diet book in the normal sense of the word. But in the final analysis, it may prove to be the most effective diet book since Michael Pollan's 'In Defense of Food' and Eric Schlosser's 'Fast Food Nation.' Here's a book that will make you think about the way you eat. That, in a sense is the definition of dieting.

Cover for Jan 09 trade edition; Sub Press will include about 200 more ms pages.
05-14-09: Subterranean Press Extends 'The Skylark' : Peter Straub, Extended Version

Blame it on the music of the 1980's. I've always prferred the long version of just about anything. When The English Beat came out with a 7" single of "Twist and Crawl," I'd go to Zed of London in Long Beach and find the 12" extended version, which I still have and still play. The same holds true for books. Yes, I appreciate what a great editor can do for a book. But there's something really appealing about getting an author's original version.

So sign me up for the extended, author's version of 'The Skylark' (Subterranean Press ; October 2009 ; $50) by Peter Straub. Here's Straub taking on a classic literary horror fiction trope, the kind he does so well. It's 1966 and a group of students has decided to dabble in magic. Not surprisingly, things don’t work out exactly as expected, and the reverberations cascade throughout their lives. The world itself is changed; or their perceptions of it have been permanently altered. Does it matter? It matters to those who participated and it may matter to everybody else. Straub is one of the few writers who has the literary chops to take on this sort of visionary journey. And for this reader at least, here’s a work where you really want the author's raw vision as well as the characters.

After all, Straub, an acknowledged master of the form is stepping into some legendarily tall shoes, in the form of M. John Harrison. Harrison's classic 'The Course of the Heart,' recently and gorgeously reprinted by Night Shade Books, is a powerful work not just of supernatural fiction, but of visionary prose, with pretty much the same setup; students commit magic and bear the consequences for the rest of their lives. Like Straub, Harrison has the prose skills to weave a tale that entices the reader into another reality. 'The Course of the Heart' is a powerful and memorable work that evokes raw emotions.

Which is why I'm so on board for the Subterranean Press version of 'The Skylark,' that includes approximately 200 more manuscript pages than the trade edition, which I believe is going to be titled 'A Dark Matter.' At $50 bucks a pop, it's going to be real deal, one of those collector's editions that nobody will want to sell. Just cast your mind back to all those lovely Donald Grant Stephen King novels. I remember seeing 'The Dark Tower' and at first thinking it was insane to buy that book. Turns out it would have been insane not to. It is no matter; I want raw Peter Straub, I want messy, unedited visionary glory, I want to be plunged into a literary otherworld, I want — the long version.

05-13-09: Iron Chef Chen's 'Knockout Chinese' : Vertical Cooks

OK, I'll admit it, I'm still waiting for the second donburi cookbook, and my wife is asking me why everything we eat has to be donburi. Now, look, this whole donburi thing is overblown. It's stuff on rice, geddit? Block out the word donburi and focus on the stuff. Which generally is really good. But there's more than one place to find donburi.

Kentaro Kobayashi isn't the only Vertical author cooking up donburi. Chen Kenichi, who is, we're told, an original "Iron Chef" now has 'Iron Chef Chen's Knockout Chinese' (Vertical ; May 26, 2009 ; $19.95) with more than few recipes that call themselves "donburi," all of which are:

Stuff on Rice.

Get over it! Stuff matters, rice not so much. And to be fair, donburi recipes are in the minority in 'Knockout Chinese.' What you will find here is the same striking and easily read visual style with a Chinese Iron Chef twist. That translates to slightly more complex recipes, with a greater emphasis on octopus than I'd like, but I'm not an octopus fan. Or perhaps I might be if I were to try some of these, but it's not easily available at my most local market, so I have to make do without. So, take those out and you still have an eminently useful book with quite a few good recipes that are both easy and inexpensive to make. First, let's get the lay of the land.

There are ten sections in this small (113-page, including informative inside covers) book. These include side dishes, quick meals and lunches, creative leftovers, "Chinese the Chen Way," "Intercultural Treats from My Mother's Kitchen," fried rice and soups, fruit dishes, seasonal stir-fries, deserts and a couple of "21st century recipes." You also get a nice soup stock page, and informational pages about ingredients. I'll clear one thing up right away which confused the heck out of me. An ingredient that is called for in many of these recipes is doubanjiang, or Chinese Chili paste. I'm pretty sure — not one hundred percent, but close enough — that this is called miso paste in the Japanese cookbook. Now from this book it looks like you can get little jars of it, and the next step of course is to go see what my little local market has. But for the sake of argument, let's just say you can use this for that.

In general, the recipes in this book are a bit more complex and call for ingredients than those found in 'Donburi Mania.' But you can't beat the ease of Noodles with Zha Cai; mince zha cai, toss in bowl, make a "Mixture A" out of sweet soy sauce, soy sauce and chili oil, add to zha cai, boil noodles, add to bowl, heat sesame oil and vegetable oil in a wok, add, done. Miso Pork with Cabbage is also a snap, one where you'll be using your doubanjiang to give the meal a rich flavor.

I would unreservedly recommend 'Donburi Mania,' and this successor gets credit just by virtue of the great design and form factor; these are easy book to keep and use in the kitchen. 'Knockout Chinese' calls for a few more unusual ingredients than 'Donburi Mania' and the recipes are a bit harder. That said, they often follow the same template; make a mixture, chop some meat, tofu, vegetables, stir fry and serve hot. The true virtue of this or any cookbook is how far you can go outside the recipes, how the recipe template can be tweaked to accommodate using what you have at hand.

05-12-09: Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman Document 'Origins of the Specious : Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language'

Language works because there are rules, but it might work even better if we all knew the same rules. Sure, it's fun to work the ambiguities, to fudge the corners and put square pegs in round holes. But it's also fun to explore the actualities, eliminate the ambiguities and find origins of the phrase "charley horse."

Patricia O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman know how to have fun with the English language. 'Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language' (Random House ; May 12, 2009 ; $22) offers readers two-hundred-plus pages of permission to speak freely. That's because, well, everything you know is wrong and the rules are generally being enforced by those who don’t know them.

What rules, you ask? Well, in an anarchic world, there ain't no rules, including the rule that you can't use ain't. No rebellion, there, the authors entertainingly explain. And that most infamous of mistakes, the violent and horrific splitting of an infinitive? Well, should you choose to presumptuously split an infinitive (by, for example, putting "presumptuously" between "to and "split" in this very sentence) you'll be in good company. And the authors will tell you not only your revered criminal conspirators (Raymond Chandler, for one), they'll tell you all about the criminal who criminalized the practice and put everything in perspective. And they'll offer up the sort of common sense that will inform all your speech and writing: "Any rule that leads to clumsy English probably isn't legit."

If you have any inclination to think a book on grammar and the English language needs must be dry, abandon all preconceived notions, ye who enter here. You’re likely to find 'Origins of the Specious' shelved with the grammar books, but it might just as easily be stowed with the humor. I ask you; how can the origins of the phrase "charley horse" be anything but funny? And I'm sorry to join the authors in offending a large portion of the general audience, but I was delighted to learn the origin of the phrase, "no room to swing a cat."

O'Conner and Kellerman are wonderful, straightforward prose writers who excel at turns of the phrase which keep the reading light but memorable. This is the sort of book that you'll keep consulting long after you finish it. And yes, just in case you want to know, it does sort out the long and sordid history of one Thomas Crapper, who really did exist, and who did indeed have something to do with our favorite appliance, saviour of civilization, gift to readers everywhere. And you know, you might just consider installing this book in that very special room.

05-11-09: A Review of "The Little Stranger" by Sarah Waters : The Mansion of Dorian Gray

Entropy is a very nice word. It trips gently off the tongue and suggests a sort of running, skipping or hopping motion — when it really means decay. Things go to hell, sooner rather than later, and faster, rather than slower.

It's not just Hundreds Hall going to hell in
Sarah Waters' "The Little Stranger." A way of life that seems to have lasted for thousands of years (even if it hasn't) is being hoovered out of existence. A burgeoning age of class equality brought on by the leveling effects of a World War and modern technology is making the old social order irrelevant. Waters' novel of class warfare is a haunting evocation of beauty in the midst of social decay.

I've written an in-depth review of 'The Little Stranger', which I found to be entertaining, engrossing and well-architected. Waters' novel is an outstanding contribution to the haunted English country manor genre, and there are lots of intriguing literary references within. You'll find a nod to the Bronté sisters and Dickens. Edgar Allen Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" and even Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The House of Seven Gables" are fine precursors. To my mind, my wife pointed out the best parallel, suggesting that it bore no small resemblance to Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw.' This is a particularly good call, because Waters manages to speak clearly about the supernatural without ever really wading into genre fiction. Waters talks about her favorite haunted house novels and stories on her website.

Still, there are deeply chilling and terrifying supernatural moments in "The Little Stranger." And Waters doesn't give the characters a particularly easy time. Neither did history, however. Waters is an expert at using the supernatural tropes to examine the underlying tensions in class, social and romantic relationships.

It's very important for readers to note that Waters has a habit of moving the action along by using descriptions of places and people. Her word choice and the perceptions of her characters are far more than mere description. Waters is the sort of architect who might build then bury a house, just to excavate it later see how rot works. And not surprisingly that proves to be delightfully immersive reading.

New to the Agony Column

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Erik Larson : " "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

03-01-15: Commentary : William Ury on Getting to Yes with Yourself: And Other Worthy Opponents : To the BATNA, Robin!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William Ury : ...he proceeded to shout at me for approximately 30 minutes..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 198: William Ury : Getting to Yes with Yourself: And Other Worthy Opponents

02-22-15: Commentary : Jennifer Senior Experiences 'All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood' : Reading Fun for the Whole Fambly!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jennifer Senior : " becomes a source of enormous tension once a baby comes along..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 197: Jennifer Senior : All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

02-09-15: Commentary : Stewart O'Nan Looks 'West of Sunset' : Twilight of the Great

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Stewart O'Nan : "...we see him as a tragedian because is life is a tragedy..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 196: Stewart O'Nan : West of Sunset

02-04-15: Commentary : Armistead Maupin Maps 'The Days of Anna Madrigal' : Swiftly Flow the Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Armistead Maupin : "I could see what silliness was going on while it was happening..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 195: Armistead Maupin : The Days of Anna Madrigal

01-31-15: Commentary : Christine Carter's Path to 'The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work' : Neurohabits

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Christine Carter, Ph.D. : "...a real tipping point..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 194: Christine Carter, Ph.D. : The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work

01-23-15: Commentary : Jake Halpern Pushes 'Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld' : Non-Fiction 21st Century Noir

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jake Halpern : "...he goes to Las Vegas to this debt-buyers' convention..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 193: Jake Halpern : Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld

01-19-15: Commentary : David Shields and Caleb Powell Assert 'I Think You're Totally Wrong' : The Power to Bicker

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with David Shields and Caleb Powell : "I read no book reviews any more; the level of discussion is really pedestrian." David Shields "I'm just saying it's a conflict of interest!" Caleb Powell

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 192: David Shields and Caleb Powell : I Think You're Totally Wrong

01-17-15: Commentary : Charles Todd Expects 'A Fine Summer's Day' : We Interrupt This Program...

Commentary : Charles Todd Engages In 'A Test of Wills' : The Politics of Passion and Policing

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Charles and Caroline Todd : "...let them be themselves and sort it out..." Caroline Todd "'s more on a personal level..." Charles Todd

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 191: Charles Todd : A Fine Summer's Day

01-13-15: Commentary : Rosalie Parker Unearths 'The Old Knowledge' : The New Old World

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker : "I thought I'd write something for fun.." Ray Russell "..there was a side of me of that was interested in the strangeness..." Ros Parker

01-12-15: Commentary : Richard Ford 'Let Me Be Frank with You' : The Default Years

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Richard Ford : "...most of our politicians are morons..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 190: Richard Ford : Let Me Be Frank with You

01-06-15: Commentary : Bessel van der Kolk 'The Body Keeps the Score' : Human Trauma

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Bessel van der Kolk : "...being able to see what happens in the brain really helps us to understand certain things..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 189: Bessel van der Kolk : The Body Keeps the Score

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