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11-02-11: Sam Mogannam and Dabney Gough Shop 'Bi-Rite Market's Eat Good Food'

Before the Meal

Cookbooks tend to concern themselves with the last stages of cooking. You get recipes, which typically involve a list of ingredients and instructions for combining them. It's a simple format if you've got good recipes, and easy enough to use if you've got the ingredients — or practically unlimited time and money to buy them.

That's the catch. In everyday life, we do not cook like a cooking show. We have to stock our shelves within our means, have stuff on hand, and cook with what's in the house. I don't know that it's become a topic of the "national conversation," but the cost of any trip to the grocery store is becoming alarmingly high. We have to shop less and shop smarter. We have to make less money go farther, and your average cookbook only gives us small slice of that pie.

'Bi-Rite Market's Eat Good Food' by Sam Mogannam and Dabney Gough is not your average cookbook, and in many ways, it is not a cookbook at all. It does include recipes, many of them makeable, all of them tasty. But the value of this book is how it helps you before you start cooking. Here is a great guide to buying smart so that you can cook well.

Reading the book is pretty much like visiting the best grocery store you've ever been to with a guide who helps you make smart choices. You start off with a chapter called "Creating Community Through Food," which is not as obvious as it sounds. It's a really entertaining look at why you should cook for yourself and others, and how, given that decision, the rest of your shopping spree, so to speak, will go.

After that, settle down for 8 chapters of great advice, lavishly illustrated and extremely well art-directed, as you go through each department of the store. This is a book that will tell you things that will save you money, make what you buy last longer, and be sure that what you buy gets you the best bang for the buck. Sprinkled throughout are recipes, some justly famous, that will give you something to shoot for. You get advice like how to store basil (it really damn works) and what kind of canned tomatoes to buy. You learn how to chose meat, vegetables, fruit. I guess we're all supposed to pretend we know all this stuff, but the fact of the matter is that I'm guessing readers will discover what I did. That would be that the veracity of what you don't know is confirmed by the truth of what you do know.

Take a couple of minutes as you enjoy this book, and use it to help you prepare your trips to the grocery store, to appreciate and enjoy the stunning photography of France Ruffenach, who makes everything look good. That's not easy! The design by Nancy Austin, and food and prop styling by George Dolese are also critical. The whole package matters because this is a book about the whole package. We don't live recipe lives; we live full, and hopefully rich lives no matter how much or little money we have. Everyone has to earn their keep, and 'Eat Good Food' will earn its keep by helping you achieve the simple-sounding, but very difficult goal encapsulated in the title. Visit the store; eat good food.

11-01-11: Martin Amis Lets Fly 'Time's Arrow'

Bringing Back the Archives

Editors Note: Realizing that there's an iceberg-tip of the total reviews on this site directly linked to the site in its current format, I'm going to be headed back into my own arives to grab and reformat some the older reviews that have not yet been updated into the new format. Not only is this a way to offer fresh material to new readers, its a great way to revisit books worth rereading. When I spend money on a book, I want it to be re-readable. And re-reading books offers an opportunity to travel once again to familiar landscapes with a new eye. It's like visiting Paris for the second time. And so today, I start with a book that is eminently worth re-reading, 'Time's Arrow' by Martin Amis.
Every once in a while, there's a prize-winning, well-written novel released to critical acclaim that's also readable. This year, that novel has got to be 'Time's Arrow' by British writer Martin Amis. It's the remarkable, intense, imaginative and eminently enjoyable story of Tod T. Friendly, an American doctor working in an unnamed hospital in an unnamed city. The story is told from the point of view of a sort of doppelganger spirit, imprisoned within the body and mind of Friendly, who detects Friendly's emotions, but cannot affect Friendly's actions.

Oh, and the doppelganger experiences Friendly's life backwards, starting with his death, and ending with his birth. The novel that emerges from this premise an an incredible feat of storytelling, beautifully easy to read, swimming with visual images and so startling that it can stare unflinchingly at what is certainly the ultimate horror of the twentieth century and still somehow be entertaining.

I must admit that I was a bit daunted by this novel. I was first told about it by a Vice President of Engineering who doesn't read much fiction, but had heard Friendly's description of the cab service in New York:

"This business with the cabs, it surely looks like an unimprovable deal. They're always there when you need one, even in the rain or when the theatres are closing. They pay you up front, no questions asked. They always know where you're going. They're great. No wonder we stand there, for hours on end, waving goodbye, or saluting- saluting this fine service. The streets are full of people with their arms raised, drenched and weary, thanking the yellow cabs. Just the one hitch: they're always taking me places where I don't want to go."

Despite this very amusing anecdote, I remained wary, and was made even more so when I heard that the novel had won a Booker Prize in England. Fortunately, I overcame my innate fear of quality, and, in an orgy of spare-cash spending, I bought the novel , then promptly filed it away while pursuing more "rewarding" reading, that is, stories about dead people coming to life and the like.

Time passes. I get kind of glutted on gore, see this slim volume on my shelf, and gritting my teeth, take it down to read something that's "good for me". One day later, it's history and I'm happily typing this review, because this isn't one of those books you read like lightning, then put down and pick up the next "novel lite". It'll take you a while to stop seeing everything backwards.

While the narrator is amused by the perfections of cab service, he's not amused by Tod's day job in the hospital. For him, it seems to be an atrocity mill, where relatively healthy people are dissected by doctors, then packed into ambulances and sent to random parts of the city. The narrator develops a hatred for doctors, but soon begins a name-changing journey towards what he comes to see as his soul's salvation — a job converting the ashes of Jews back into whole humans in a miraculous place called Auschwitz.

Amis' descriptions are crisp, readable and clear. Most importantly, he allows the reader to digest the unthinkable, to come to terms with horror on a scale not approached by King and Barker. He doesn't hammer you and he doesn't lecture, but slowly and surely you are filled with a knowledge that you wouldn't think your mind could contain. And it's so darn readable that you won't be able to stop until the shockingly sweet finale. Never has happiness felt so full and been so fully compromised by a novel. Yes, it's true. I've been shot by 'Time's Arrow.'

10-31-11: Colson Whitehead Sweeps 'Zone One'

Zombie Bureaucracy

From a certain perspective, our death begins with our birth. Everything in-between is drudgery, bookended by the unknown. On a bigger scale, we're concerned with not just our end, but the demise of everything because, so far as we can tell, it has already happened. We're just going through the motions, mostly sans emotions, waiting for the Apocalypse, personal or general.

The problem for the writer who wants to work with these long thoughts is that crafting an entertainment out of colors dark and darker is particularly challenging. Colson Whitehead's 'Zone One' starts just after the end. In this case, a plague has devastated the world, turning most humans into zombies who infect others or kill them. Once most of the damage has been done, those left behind are not immersed in a first-person shooter video game. Instead, they're janitors of the dead, which proves to be chilling, poignant, funny and ultimately quite entertaining.

Mark Spitz (you do find out how he got the iconic name in the course of the narrative) is not a hero by any means. In fact, he, like many of the survivors, exhibits what White calls "a strange facility for the mandatory." It seems that the Apocalypse has weeded out all but the average. Mark, Gary and Kaitlyn comprise Omega Unit, sent by the bureaucracy in Buffalo to clean up Zone One in New York. Not surprisingly, the bureaucracy gets some things wrong, and a simple job is complicated to a life-threatening level.

Whitehead creates a convincing day-after-tomorrow Apocalypse with an intricate storytelling style, weaving back and for the between memories of the past and the drudgeries of the present. Spitz, Gary and Kaitlyn are all affectingly normal characters. Their very lack of heroic, outstanding character traits gives the reader a very accessible entry point into Whitehead's world. They play their cards close to the chest, and try not to take unnecessary chances. Whitehead gives us emotionally-charged scenes set in his character's past (our present) as he takes us deeper into the ever-more absurd world he has created. We really care about the characters in the novel, because they're from our world and marooned in the aftermath.

Even as Whitehead keeps us close to the characters, his prose stands out. This is the sort of novel that comes with lots of sentences you want to write down, and scenes that stick in your head. The prose is part and parcel with Whitehead's world-building, and both offer him ample opportunities for humor. In Whitehead's future, everyone is diagnosed with Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (PASD), the symptoms of which boil down to being both human and alive. The survival of civilization is quickly followed by the rebirth of bureaucracy, which seems to have not learned anything from the fall. Whitehead has a grand time with all this, playing it straight but setting up lots of great jokes and riffs. Language and world-building work hand-in-hand to define a future not so different from the past. There are just fewer people and more zombies.

Of course, there is more adventure as well, combing through buildings for stragglers, zombies who are not rabid killers but essentially statues, fixated on some inconsequential task from their past lives. Whitehead manages to make these scenes hilarious and poignant in the same (lack of) breath. He plays with the genre as well, giving us slow zombies and the ever-present signal from afar that may indicate things are not as bad as they seem — or worse.

'Zone One' is not like any other zombie novel you're likely to read. Even though it has all the accoutrements of the genre, Whitehead's interests and skills are always on display. Indeed, Whitehead manages a very unique feat here. He ends civilization in buckets of blood, and finds afterwards a world very much like those he has created in his other works. 'Zone One' does not wallow in gore and revel in mayhem. The Apocalypse, we learn, simply clears the way for the triumph of the mundane, which proves to be funnier and more frightening than buckets of blood.

New to the Agony Column

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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