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05-16-12: Mark Sundeen Pays Out 'The Man Who Quit Money'

Over the Edges

Paradoxically, what proves to be most interesting about Daniel Suelo, the titular "Man Who Quit Money," is not his lifestyle without money. That's pretty straightforward, and while it is certainly pertinent in a world where half the wealth was effectively wiped out by forces nobody claims to fully comprehend, it's not exactly a story. Yes, Daniel Suelo manages to live on onions he pulls from the desert sand, dumpster diving and a sort of evangelical freeganism that is pretty unique, even when more and more families are living in their cars.

But what Mark Sundeen does wisely and well in 'The Man Who Quit Money,' is to tell the story of an itinerant fundamentalist preacher, sometimes car salesman and how his child came to the point that begins the book: standing in a phone booth, Daniel Shellabarger leaves his last thirty dollars behind and resolves successfully to never use money again. THe man who walked away from that booth was Daniel Suelo; his last name the Spanish word for soil.

Sundeen's non-fiction biography is well constructed and compellingly written. The prose is the standout driver of the story. There's a poetic power to his sentences, written in a quiet voice that often slides into sly comedy. The balance that Sundeen strikes is critical in making the book work. He takes his subject seriously enough to explore all the ideas that Suelo's lifestyle implies, but never gets overwrought.

As for the subject, Suelo himself is an American classic, a loner brought up in an extremely religious family who later found himself to be gay. He's smart but unfocused, undone by the confusions the workaday world throws at him. But the further he moves outside of society, the more focused he becomes, the more driven towards his goal of living without money, which he considers to be an illusion. His college years, his time in the Peace Corps, his return and slide into depression are vividly described (with more than a few laughs). Sundeen gives us a man with shades of gray, and the result is a better reading experience.

From that phone booth in 2000 to the present day, from his time as a small child who took his parents' religion seriously to the time he tried to drive his car off a cliff, Daniel Suelo's story is gripping and relevant. Thanks to Mark Sundeen, it's also a good reading experience. You may not want to quit money upon finishing this book, but you'll certainly see it in a very different light. Against all odds, 'The Man Who Quit Money' is well worth what you pay for it — even if you don't get it for free at the library.

05-15-12: Archive Review: Clive Barker 'Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War'

Impure Life

Editor's note: Here's the review of the second book in the Abarat series by Clive Barker. Barker is a very singular fabulist. There is simply nobody who compares to him. His work tunnels through the unconscious, through our dreams and brings back stories, the likes of which we never could imagine.

Purity is the enemy of entertainment. Yet it's often difficult to recognize what constitutes the impurities that make any form of fiction entertaining. A science fiction novel, for example, may be brought to life by a carefully crafted romance. A complex mystery might be sparked by a particularly clever science-fictional concept. The single element of fantasy within an otherwise ultra-realistic literary work might seem utterly unnecessary until one carefully contemplates its removal. More than a few high adventures have been rescued from boredom by the inclusion of spots of low humor. And few monolithic slabs of anything — science fiction, horror, fantasy, mystery or literary fiction — have gained the affections of the general reading public.

It's the impurities within a work that can truly bring it to life. And those impurities themselves can take on a greater life for the contrast they find. Clive Barker's latest novel, 'Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War' provides an excellent example of the power of impurity. As does the first novel in this fantastically inventive series, 'Days of Magic, Nights of War' showcases Barker's fertile imagination. The narrative is filled with feats of fantastic imagination, creatures, settings and imagery so colorful that the tints seem to bleed off the pages and into the hands holding the novel. But it's the darkness running through the narrative that gives it power, and the horror within that makes the spark of life burn so brightly in this fantasy. Almost incidentally, it's also some of the best horror that Barker has yet created, even — perhaps especially — when readers realize that it harkens back to imagery found in his earliest work.

Before readers have a chance to consider any of these nuances, they'll have to confront the heft of the novel itself. And by heft, I mean the sheer weight of it. Lift up this book and you'll think that perhaps they've published it with lead-lined covers. But the fact of the matter is that like 'Abarat', 'Days of Magic, Nights of War' has been produced with no expense spared, and that's an important part of the work itself. This time around, there are more than 125 paintings, and the book is nearly 500 pages long. But don't let the weightiness of this book deter you. In fact all that gravity makes the book lighter, faster and far more powerful.

Like its predecessor, 'Days of Magic, Nights of War' is remarkably easy to read, without seeming compromised in any way whatsoever. I have to admit that I was skeptical. I felt like someone expected to move a huge piece of concrete, only to find out that it's cleverly disguised cinematic Styrofoam. This novel reads like lightning and is much more fun than being struck by lightning, even though it's just about as unusual as being struck by lightning. No doubt the paintings help relieve some of the weight, but it's also without doubt that Barker has become a remarkably talented writer. He leavens the story with humor, with high imagination and characters the reader absolutely loves, from lovable and sweet Candy Quackenbush to the despicable Mater Motley. One of the most identifiable reasons that this book is so enjoyable is that readers look forward to spending time with any of the characters.

But at the heart of this novel is a wonderfully tortured soul, Christopher Carrion. Carrion is surely despicable, and capable of great evil. In an early set piece, we find Carrion hatching monsters the likes of which we haven't seen since the very first story in 'The Books of Blood', 'The Midnight Meat Train'. I'll never forget the "City Fathers", and they have a worthy successor in this novel. What's interesting is that in that scene, and other scenes of horror and wonder, Barker achieves the same level of disturbing but visionary power that he achieved in his much-more adult-oriented fiction without any of adult-only trappings. The darkness in Barker is not lost when you remove the explicit nature of his earlier works. Indeed, in some places this novel is actually rather darker than his full-bore horror, and that's surely down contrasts that the richly imagined world of Abarat provides.

Of course, Carrion has two sides and that's what makes him such an entrancing creation. For all of his darkness, there's a doubt and vulnerability that, while it never redeems his evil, does make it all the more powerful. Of course, every evil needs a foil. Candy Quackenbush provides that foil for Carrion, not because she's a sunny, positive type, but because she's a relentlessly realistic character from our relentless real world. Her doubts and her limitations keep Abarat real, even in its most outlandish extremes.

Barker also makes a very wise decision to return to Chickentown, Candy's home in our world. The mundane nature of suburban Middle American and its inhabitants comes a refreshing tonic to the ever-exotic Abarat. With nine-headed this and two-headed that, a few levelheaded suburbanites and hardheaded pragmatists manage to seem positively glamorous. In fact, they help to buttress the glamour that Barker himself is creating with this elaborate fantasy.

Barker deftly avoids one of the main traps of serial fantasy by providing a narrative that offers a sense of closure and completeness while managing to leave things clearly unfinished. The end of this novel then, leaves the reader with the same feeling of satisfying impurities that the mixed genres do. Some aspects of the narrative are nicely rounded out, so much so that although the series is clearly incomplete, the novel itself feels quite complete. Of course, Candy's journey is clearly not over, but readers won't feel as if they're peering out over an abyss when they turn the last page. Like Candy, readers will feel at home, welcomed. Ready to explore further into the dark heart of Barker's complex creation.

05-14-12: Marika Blossfeldt Serves Up 'Essential Nutrition'

Recipe for Life

What sort of formula can fall under the rubric of "recipe"? We typically think of a list of foodstuff ingredients, followed by directions for combining, then cooking them to prepare some sort of "food." But the commonly used phrase "recipe for success" suggests that we can cook up a lot more than a meal, and it is perfectly true. Marika Blossfeldt's 'Essential Nourishment: Recipes from My Estonian Farm' offers up a lot of the sort of recipes you can cook up in your kitchen, all of them quite easy and delicious. But the book itself is a sort of recipe for nothing less than a better life.

The first thing you'll notice when you pick up 'Essential Nutrition' is how heavy it is. This is a beautifully produced book printed on thick, glossy stock, and once you open it up, the reasons will become quite clear. It's filled with gorgeous, spacious art and photography. Even if you're not at all interested in the recipes or the food and lifestyle suggestions, the photos and paintings are well worth the price of the ticket. Moreover, the book's design seems essential to the message and the impact it has. It says that life and food can and should be beautiful. Browsing the pages is a relaxing experience.

Once you get to the text, you'll find the book is divided into two sections. The first part consists of what I would call recipes for life. This is further divided into "Nutrition and Nourishment" and "Lifestyle." "Nutrition and Nourishment" is a well-written and concise summary of what we know and need to know about the food we eat. There's a bit of Michael Pollan here, a bit of Mollie Katzen there, and a smooth, straightforward prose style that gives readers an executive summary on matters such as food labels, blood sugar, oils, food cravings and even water. It's easily read and helpful advice that informs your shopping decisions. The section on oils was particularly concise and informative.

Lifestyle advice comes from all over the ethnological map. Blossfeldt is a certified kundalini yoga teacher, so you'll find advice from that perspective here, as well as thoughts about relationships, eating out, working and exercising. Blossfeldt's brevity serves her purpose perfectly. The expansive layout and beautiful art direction do so as well.

The bulk of the book consists of recipes, organized by type. Blossfeldt doesn't overdo it. There are a number of sections, and each section contains a few recipes — not too many, just enough. The recipes themselves are generally quite simple, sometimes alarmingly so. But don't let that fool you. "Roasted Root Vegetables," for example, looks delicious in the photo, and is as easy to make as the five simple steps suggest. It's also a hearty meal, full of flavor, but not heavy. "Chilean Bean Stew with Corn" is equally easy, and just as good.

For my money, the "Russian Kale with Raisins and Roasted Pine Nuts" is a favorite. It looks great and works well as an entrée. The recipe as given is a perfect dinner for two. While the preponderance of recipes here are vegetarian, there are recipes for chicken, salmon and shrimp. The book finishes with desserts, drinks, teas, berries and yes, even cacao — chocolate —gets a page.

Given the beautiful paintings and design, 'Essential Nutrition' can serve as both coffee table book and cookbook. You can dip in for a brief primer on oils, then breeze through to an easy recipe (4 steps) for "Black Bean Soup." You could easily live out of the recipes in this book for a month; Blossfeldt includes breakfast in the mix. If you are looking for a cookbook that satisfies on a number of levels, a book that itself is a recipe, then 'Essential Nutrition' is an essential choice.

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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