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07-09-10: Harlan Ellison's 'Deathbird Stories'

Back from the Dead and Ready to Party

How many deaths can a book, itself never even notionally alive, come back from? If anyone is the avatar of books that return from the dead, it's Harlan Ellison. He's killed and been killed, resurrected and been resurrected so many times, in so many ways, that one begins to wonder how, exactly the notion of life applies and appears to this deathless author. This is a man who has a FastPass for the Bardo.

I'm not going to go through all the supposed-to-be's. Why bother? Here's a book that just about every damn science fiction reader worth the snot in their hankie had better have read, at least once. 'Deathbird Stories' is Harlan Ellison's iconic collection from thirty-gods-damned-five years ago. Sure, it's the sort of book we all remember fondly. It was a great one for "cutting your teeth on," in this case, a curiously appropriate metaphor. Harlan Ellison is one of those authors who might hope to create a reading experience that is like gargling barbed wire. The question is, is that wire still barbed after thirty-five years of ... what passed for history? Even though misery is probably a better term.

Well, here's the deal. In theory, and with Harlan Ellison books remain strictly theoretical until you hold them in your hot little hands – in December of this godforsaken year, when, we are told, the corporate elite will once again have taken the reigns of government and commerce with the intent to strangle every last cent from the great white underbelly – Subterranean Press will issue a 25th/30th/35th anniversary edition of 'Deathbird Stories' for, to my mind, the bargain price of $45 for a trade hardcover. They will do so with no regards as to the then-current political climate, publishing climate or global climate, which is, according to skeptics, not changing, not one damn bit. But I guaran-fucking-tee you that should said skeptics read 'Deathbird Stories,' which would be only likely to happen on their deathbed, it would indeed bring them to their deathbed.

Let's say the book is a done deal; the state of the ARC I have indicates that this is so. If you're going to drop $45 for a book, I have to say that this is at least physically a very handsome volume. It's oversized with a glorious painting by (we are told by the author) Ellison's buddy Tom Kidd. I've written about Kidd for this website in the past, so it should come as no surprise that I like this offering a lot. It has a sort of creaky, labyrinthine magnificence that just seems right for the stories.

Inside, things look equally nice, with some great separator pages, nice typesetting for the stories and a general feel of heft and quality. If you buy it and don't read it, at least you'll have the experience of a owning a nice looking book that you can ooh and aah the refugees from the GWU with as they pass tghrough on their way tot he homeless day camps.

Of course, there is the possibility that you could read the book. My experience may be unique. I am told that I have catholic tastes, that is to say, wide ranging and quite variable. Sometimes books just set my teeth on edge from the get-go and I cannot read them, while others, perhaps less worthy, sing to my tiny brain until I immerse in a sleazy bit of monsterama. This is like none of those. I'd suggest that reading 'Deathbird Stories' again, or for the first time, if you managed to remain a virgin all these years, is sort of like turning the volume to eleven, popping in your friggin' ear buds, because nobod uses real, manly headphones anymore and queuing up Never Mind the Bollocks, Here Come the Sex Pistols after your morning meditation.

It's likely to rain on your sunny mood.

It's going to spit in your food, right in front of your face.

As it happens, barbed wire is no more fun to gargle some thirty-five years on than it was fresh off the roller. Ellison is a true master of getting in your face and holding your attention for the length of a short story. I quite remember how forbidden these stories seemed when I read them the first time, and they remain just as outré. They're sort of like literary pornography; upsetting and graphic yet unstoppably powerful. Ellison himself suggests at the front of the volume not to read them all at once, and he's right about this. These stories remain as vital as they were before the Rewind.

The collection is also simply chock full o' classics; 'Along the Scenic Route,' 'Shattered Like a Glass Goblin,' 'Paingod,' 'The Whimper of Whipped Dogs' – these are stories that have ended up in so many other collections that they have a life of their own. Here's where they were born. Screaming, like good babies.

07-07-10: Kitchen Testing 'The New Vegetarian Epicure' and 'Get Cooking'

Lentil Power

The test of any cookbook is how much you use it. The deal with any cookbook is how much money it saves you by virtue of making it easy and attractive to cook for yourself instead of going out. By any measure, Mollie Katzen's 'Get Cooking' and Anna Thomas' 'The New Vegetarian Epicure' are worth your money because they will, in the short and long run, save you money. Moreover, they'll save you something you cannot make for yourself — time.

Today's column is gong to focus on the very underappreciated lentil. That tiny little seed is the basis of two fantastic recipes that you can easily make at home that are healthy, hearty and will cost you less to make than the "value meal" you can order at any restaurant in the land.

From 'The New Vegetarian Epicure,' my wife made Lentil Salad. We used Green Lentils for this, a $2.50 bag of fancy French green lentils. The ingredient list is short and interesting but easily found in a decently stocked kitchen. Basically, lentils, white (also called "Yukon gold") potatoes, green onions garlic salt and pepper. The ingredients here are — and this is important — unthreatening. Nothing too weird, nothing too exotic. Lentils is about as exotic as you get. Cooking is a snap, a bit of boiling here and there, and some spicing. Allow to cool, season to taste. Chill in the refrigerator, and it keeps great overnight. In fact, we found that the flavor was more piquant the next night. Also, this is a large recipe that keeps very well. Because it has both starch (the potatoes are very light) and the lentils, you can really serve this as your main dish. It's hearty, not heavy and very tasty. If you're me, serve it with a slice of Niman Ranch ham, and you're in heaven. If you're serving four, you get two meals, and if you're serving two you get four meals; you can half the recipe quite easily if you have leftover phobia. So here's one spin on lentils, cool, with potatoes, sort of a lentil-ified potato salad that can, as you might imagine, be easily slotted into a variety of meals.

But lentils are becoming increasingly common chez Kleffel. For the past few weeks, we've been having Mollie Katzen's North African Red Lentil Soup at least once a week. Here's a dish that costs about $3.00 for a meal for two with a leftover bowl for lunch, and is as hearty as any meatified soup; and in fact, in the "Get Creative" portion of the recipe, Katzen suggests that you can add a lamb sausage to the soup. The ingredient list here is just as unthreatening as that in Thomas' recipe. The only twist (and Katzen mentions this) is that red lentils are not red, they're orange, they look more like lentil chips than lentils, and they cook up gold, not red. They're RLINO, Red Lentils In Name Only.

Katzen's soup has you slowly sautéing an onion and a sliced carrot or two (we cook half a recipe here), adding some cumin, then adding that mixture to the lentils. It is startlingly easy and amazingly delicious. That direction to add sausage is the sort of thing that you might think this meatatarian would leap upon, but to be honest, I've not done it yet. This is that satisfying.

Both of these dishes are something else as well, which is important to know — they are convenient to make, quick and easy enough so that if you find yourself at home wondering whether you want to get take out food or make one of them, you're likely to find yourself deciding to Get Cooking because you Love Soup. It's all that easy.

07-06-10: Anna Thomas Cooks Up 'Love Soup'

Recipes, Menus and Meals

A good cookbook offers more than a series of chemistry experiments. They're the result not of science, but culture and art. That's because cooking is not really just or even about eating. Cooking is about nurturing both yourself and those for whom you cook. A single note meal generally won't work.

Anna Thomas is passionate about cooking. She's the author of 'The Vegetarian Epicure.' I just had her lentil-potato salad from the book for part of my breakfast. Of course to make a meal, I added the leftover half of my pulled pork sandwich from the local BBQ joint. Now that is a meal. But only one of many possible meals.

Going in, you need to know: the latest cookbook from Anna Thomas, 'Love Soup' (W. W. Norton & Company ; September 21, 2009 ; $22.95) is not just soup. Yes, there's a preponderance of soup, but this is a cookbook, not a chemistry book, and it is put together with family and friends and giving in mind. That's important, because you can find everything you want here. From soups to breads to casseroles, 'Love Soup' offers readers and cooks lots of well-written prose about how to nourish yourself and those around you.

Readers might have gathered that I am not a vegetarian. Far from it. But 'Love Soup' is about what you can cook, about how you can take the simplest and most healthy ingredients to make the heartiest and most flavorful meals. I'm going to begin at the beginning, because the introduction of this cookbook is a sort of call to arms. On one hand, Anna Thomas missed her calling, since she is fantastic at rallying the troops. She could lead an army across the Alps. But what she does in her introduction is marinate her readers. She soaks us in fine prose that inspires us to get in the kitchen and make great food to feed ourselves and those we love. Then she gives us recipes, meals and menus to do just that.

Thomas does focus on soups in 'Love Soup,' but there is quite a bit more in here than just soup. Sure she gives you Green Soup, a perfect template that can be frozen and fiddled with in a million ways. It's a great way into the Thomas vision of cooking. But this is not, as I said, just about soup. Bread, hummus, casseroles, even desserts are offered, along with menus and meals combining the items. Here's a whole guide to good eating, and you can't go wrong. If you think you're a meatatarian, then just serve up anything with a nice pan-fried, then broiled bit of filet mignon. You get the full flavor and texture of meat, a fantastic meal with subtle flavors and get closer to the kind of eating that really serves your health best.

The thing to remember with cookbooks is that they are indeed books, and that the writers are indeed artists, not technicians. Every cookbook writer has their style, and Thomas has a delightfully complete take on things. She's the kind of person who would give your directions that would mention scenic buildings and landmarks, not just turns and mileage. Her recipes follow suit, and are easily made; moreover, they are easily modified. They are sturdy enough to stand up to your experimentation and the fact that you forgot to buy or didn't have on hand, ingredient x. Thomas, after all, knows what cooking is about. It is not about going to the store to buy the ingredients for each meal. It is about using what you have to hand effectively, and buying the best of the season, making sure that you have the best vegetables at the best time. This is a book creating meals, nurturing those around you. Bring your own steak!

07-05-10: Abraham Verghese Will Not Be 'Cutting for Stone'

Stories of Spirit and Words of Comfort

Abraham Verghese doesn't waste any time. In the first sentence of 'Cutting for Stone,' he lets us know we're in for an epic story that starts with the birth of twins — by a nun. Obviously, we're not in for an ordinary epic.

Marion Stone, the twin who tells the story, speaks with authority, humility and a delicate sense of the absurd. Born in Addis Ababa in 1954, the twins will become doctors, aqnd for readers, something more. 'Cutting for Stone' is a grand, engaging novel that will enters readers' lives by offering them memories of a lives that are not their own. This is how we make this small world bigger than life.

Verghese (vur-geese) manages to bring these wildly extravagant lives into the reader's world with a powerful balance of great prose, intricate details, characters that are big enough to move from page to memory, plotting that seems organic and carefully orchestrated, and a unique vision that tempers internal surgery with spiritual nourishment. Obviously, he needed an epic just get everything in, and happily he succeeds at crafting a novel that unfolds, unpacks and satisfies our need for life — more life, lived well.

There's a definite danger when a writer ventures into this territory. The thin line between great drama and melodrama is easily crossed, and it takes a strong talent to steer the right course. Verghese starts off with the superb prose voice of Marion Stone, and never makes a wrong decision with regards to tone. He has a great way of slyly undercutting the seriousness of events by viewing them with a very understated sense of humor and absurdity. We're introduced to Marion and Shiva as infants born to a doctor and nun. The novel is written from a very practical medical perspective. Marion understands that we humans are made of not just the glistening viscera upon which the doctors operate, but of some ineffable spirit as well. He doubts his worth, but the reader does not. It's a great way to keep us engaged and immersed in Marion's life. Verghese gets a prose voice that catches us from the very beginning and holds us to the very end.

Verghese offers us, via Marion, all of life's rich pageant, with enough plot twists, grand successes and stunning failures to keep the reading lively, but never so much as to overwhelm. The plot is not confined to the events, the moves from one country to another, the deaths, the lives of these twins, each of whom becomes a different sort of doctor. Verghese moves the plot by developing his characters, keeping the reader riveted at two levels. The big themes and events of the past century; war, mass emigration, the unequal distribution of wealth between continents and countries, are mirrored in the richly described cast of characters.

Readers will quickly find that Verghese, himself a surgeon, offers an epic with a lot more medicine and surgery than the average grand saga. But this speaks directly to his particular vision of what exactly medicine can be versus what it is in practice. As Marion moves from war-torn Ethiopia to New York City, Verghese explores how culture affects the practice of medicine for good or for ill. There's no cut-and-dried conclusions to be reached, but the dialogue between technology and spirituality is deftly handled. Moreover, it is mirrored in the characters of Marion and Shiva Stone, and in the plot itself as their lives are recombined with expertly designed literary DNA.

'Cutting for Stone' offers readers an imaginative, immersive story, with just a touch of the fantastic around the edges. There's a glimmering sense of the ineffable at work here in the lives of Marion and Shiva Stone, even as they literally plunge their hands into the bowels of their fellow humans. Curing and healing are not the same, Verghese suggests, and if medicine may cure us, it is words, and the spirit found in creations like 'Cutting for Stone,' that will ultimately heal us.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

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]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

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

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 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 2015 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

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