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11-23-11: Michael Pollan's 'Food Rules: An Eater's Manual'

Illustrating Uncommon Sense

This is now available in a deluxe, hardcover edition with lovely illustrations by Maira Kalman.
In its first incarnation, 'Food Rules: An Eater's Manual' was the proverbial pocket (or purse) book. You need not treat it gently. Take it with you to the grocery store, bend it to hell and back, but Pay Attention — or just pay. The 'Food Rules' paperback is the literary handgun in this epic fight. The 'Food Rules' hardcover, gorgeously published, with illustrations by Maira Kalman is the heirloom version. It's also nice enough to get your kids to look at and think about food in an actually healthy manner.

Last week, I made six different artisan pizzas from 'Artisan Pizza and Flatbreads in Five Minutes a Day.' I knew exactly what is in each pizza. Knowing what you're eating is half the battle, though I must hasten to add that having hot, fresh bread or pizza daily is a temptation that has some dietary downsides. That said, the press for fresh, home-made food is as economical as it is enjoyable. 'Food Rules' is a book that you can bring with you to the store, or just sit down and read bits of daily. The reminders will help keep you focused in much the same manner as Pollan has sharpened his focus.

'Food Rules' is pretty simple. It is a series of 64 rules, divided into three parts; "What should I eat? (Eat food.)," "What kind of food should I eat? (Mostly plants.)," and "How should I eat? (Not too much.)." [When you have that fresh honey wheat bread around, the last one is a toughie.] Each rule is a single, smart sentence, printed in really big type; sometimes it's quite self explanatory, for example, "Don't ingest food made in places where everyone is required to wear a surgical cap." Pollan's mordant sense of humor helps this batch of medicine go down; 'Food Rules' is a pretty damn funny, in the vein of, "That's not funny, it's true!" Yes, it is funny; yes, it is true.

Some of these rules get a page or more of explication; "Eat your colors," for example, follows grandma's proverb up with current medical science. And some are being borne out by discoveries in other arenas. "Eat less," for example, we see reflected in our inclination to eat more. A recent study by Cornell University examined depictions of The Last Supper and found that the amount of food on those plates has increased over the years — and that's just looking at paintings between 1000 AD and 1700 AD. One can imagine the fast food version of The Last Supper, and it's not a pretty picture.

Yes, the paperback version of the book is pricey. Eleven bucks for a mass-market paperback is a new record, and this isn't even one of those weird long paperbacks that they're trying to foist off on us. On the other hand, take this book to the store with you just three times then consult it while you're shopping and you'll not only save at least eleven greenbacks, you're very likely to extend your life, at least by the amount of time you spend shopping.

The hardcover is, in comparison, something of a steal. It works as a guide, but it is also just a beautiful book to have around the house, filed with the cookbooks — where it will get lots of notice.

As far as the cost of 'Food Rules' goes, I will say that it is very nicely laid out and designed by Sabrina Bowers. The nicely-done clip art makes the whole thing seem like a quality production. There are not so many ingredients in 'Food Rules.' Smart writing. Great focus. The sort of advice you can actually take to the store, and then home, with luck to the smell of fresh-baked honey wheat bread.

11-22-11: William Gay 'I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down'


Editor's NoteHere's a review of one of my favorite collections of Southern Gothic short stories.
Some genres are better served by novels and others by short stories. In 'I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down', William Gay offers up thirteen strong arguments that the Southern Gothic is served best served by the short story format. Each story in this collection is a powerfully rendered reading experience. Gay's language is sparse and superb. He's able to evoke characters, families and their relationships with an unprecedented degree of depth in a confined space. His condensed plots are clever and imaginative. Unlike his novels, most of these stories are set in the current day south. His characters are often more elderly and usually only barely making ends meet. In the course of Gay's narratives, they are usually presented with a choice, and the results of their decisions are often violent. Some are deluded and some are demented. Gay's not afraid to follow the mind of a man going slowly, quietly mad. The reader will happily follow Gay anywhere he wants to go.

Gay himself did not start publishing until later in his life, and it shows in his characters. There are a fair number of elderly men presented here, and their portraits are amongst the powerful. In the title story, Abner Meecham escapes from his nursing home to return to his house, only to find that his son has rented it to a family Meecham has long considered white trash. Meecham's clash with the Choat family is alternately hilarious and heart-pounding. Gay's laconic prose perfectly fits the thought processes of the old man, who gets more confused as the story progresses. 'Those Deep Elm Brown's Ferry Blues' is the powerhouse of the collection, the black-as-coal conflict between a man and his son rendered with a precision and lyricism that bridges laughs and somber reflect effortlessly.

Covering contemporary culture, Gay is revealed to be a more skilled and varied writer than one might have thought from his novels. 'The Paperhanger', a superbly creepy story about a missing child, follows the destruction of the family in aftermath. The Pakistani doctor and his wife Gay creates force their unpleasant way into the reader's mind without effort. The titular character is a greasy stain that follows. 'Closure and Roadkill on Life's Highway' is not as sinister as the other stories, but it's no less enjoyable. Gay's black sense of humor enables him to paint this entertaining picture of the death of a marriage in scenes that leave the reader smiling with pleasure. Every character in each story, no matter how ugly, detached from the common stream of human experience, or how violent is likable in Gay's precise prose. It's the pleasure from seeing a well-wrought portrait. The artist's skill shows through even when the subject is ugly.

As the stories pass by, Gay accumulates a bit of a territory, bringing back characters and places so that the collection gets some continuity between the stories. For those who dislike the art of Thomas Kinkade, 'Painter of Light', 'The Lightpainter' is will give you an idea of this writer's skill. His titular character avoids the degradation that the reader sees coming, but Gay cooks up something nearly as bad. Most importantly, Gay's unsympathetic portrait of his character has the unintuitive effect of making the character likeable. Gay's clarity when dealing the imperfections of the characters lets the reader appreciate his precision and humor even though the character is repugnant. We see the character's flaws that they are unaware of. We descend with them into madness, into senility, into self-abasement. Gay lets us laugh in the process, his sharp spikes of humor helping to keep a lid on any apparent excess of solemnity. Even if you don't like short stories, and you don't think you like stories about confused, self-deceived Southerners, you should give this collection a read. Reading's the point. These stories are purely pleasurable, every bit as good as the best that have proceeded them form writers such as Flannery O'Connor or William Faulkner. Funny, violent and consummately well written, 'I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down' is probably one of the best books you can buy this (or any) year.

11-21-11: Charles Frazier Roams 'Nightwoods'

South of Noir

History is in the eye — and age — of the beholder. For some readers, a novel set in the 1960's is historical, a tale from a time before they set their feet upon this earth. For others, it's simply a novel of the past.

For Charles Frazier, 'Nightwoods', a taut, sparse tale of terror set in Appalachia in the early 1960's, is timeless. Part noir, part Southern Gothic, 'Nightwoods' operates in Flannery O'Connor country. Good women try to stay out of the way; good men try to find their way; and bad men have their way. All of them swirl around the edges of modernity, bringing mostly the worst parts with them, before they are sucked into a vortex of inevitable violence. From the moment we start such a story, narrative tension pulls us forward with a feeling of pleasurable dread.

Frazier sure gets the beginning right, with a knockout first page that is likely to have readers bringing the book home, no matter what your feelings are about history, the 60's or the rural parts of Appalachia. It's a classic southern Gothic setup; Luce is the caretaker for a disused lodge right out of a Stephen King novel, who has had her murdered sister's kids dropped off at her door. It's not a good situation to start with, and chances are things will get worse before they get better.

Frazier's prose doesn't waste any time establishing a unique voice and mood. There's a very laconic feel to the writing that makes reading the book quite appealing. It might at first seem simplistic, because it is very easy to read. But Frazier manages some very complicated effects, writing a breathlessly paced tale of toe-tapping terror that often reads like backwoods poetry. The combination of understatement and elegance in the service of violence and nature means that you'll slow down enough to really enjoy the writing, even as the plot commands your attention. 'Nightwoods' is a book that you will read quickly — but not too quickly. You'll want to enjoy the language as much as find out what is going to happen.

With 'Nightwoods,' Frazier is working on a small canvas with a small cast. The decision to limit number of characters and the geographical range is smart. We get to know everyone here quite well, and there's a good deal of pleasure just seeing how the relationships unfold. The upshot is that the characters seem very realistic and engaging, and interactions complex. Moreover, their relationships are clearly going in a variety of directions; some seem headed for connection, others for violence. Frazier effectively uses his sense of characterization to drive the plot.

Frazier's plot is pretty straightforward, but the twists of character keep it vivid, vital, intense and off-kilter. The finishing set-piece is appropriately harrowing and poetic. There's a good deal of menace on parade, but it's leavened with unsentimental goofiness and low-key honesty that makes readers look forward to seeing any combination of characters come together. Some, we know, will be more volatile than others, and therein lies the pleasure. It's the joy of a murder ballad, a wailing song of love and woe. 'Nightwoods' is set at the edge of civilization in every sense of the word, where each moment evokes an eon and each emotion, an excess. The precise point where the past becomes history is a moving target, annihilated anew with every breath we take.

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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