Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


12-07-07: Ann Vileisis Looks for 'Kitchen Literacy' ; Agony Column Podcast News : A Conversation With Jeremy Lassen of Nightshade Books : E-Books & Free Books

'How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back'

Bringing home stories of food.
We all know that things ain't what they used to be. But the corollary is true as well; they ain't what they're gonna be, either. Change happens on both sides of the present. The way we eat has changed. It is in the process of doing so at this moment. Get used to it.

Ann Vileisis wasn't looking to write about food. She was simply trying to buy some. But as she wandered the aisles of the supermarket, she began to wonder about the stuff she saw; where did it come from? That was ten years ago; now she's achieved 'Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back' (Shearwater Books / Island Press ; October 24, 2007 ; $26.95). Her book is a fascinating history of where we've obtained our food from and how we've perceived it over the last 200-plus years. It's just the latest in a number of food-based books that have been coming my way. Each of them has a different approach, from Molly Katzen's cookbook, to Anthony Bourdain's cooking travelogue to Michael Pollan's examination of a four meals. Vileisis, after a brief introduction, gets straight to the good stuff – a look at Martha's kitchen.

Not the Martha that leaps to mind, however. This is Martha Ballard, who kept a very detailed diary of her doings as a midwife in the late eighteenth century. Vileisis combed through these famous diaries and found food stories; tales of turkeys from egg to table, stories of planting one year for food eaten the next. She found a landscape of food that surrounded Martha. In a sense, Martha Ballard could almost see where all her food came from. Vileisis starts here and takes readers forward through a fascinating history of food, with high-points of advertising, the proto-FDA and the rise of "scientific" food.

It's a revealing and entertaining trip. Vileisis unearths lots of interesting characters along the way; Gustavus Swift, who single-handedly created the meat distribution system we have today, and Harvey Wiley, who brought together "The Poison Squad," a team of brave young men who volunteered to eat ever-increasing amounts of additives to test the threshold. She doesn't go the route of Sinclair Upton (though he gets mentioned) in terms of going the gross-out factor as to how food today is produced. Instead, she looks at how we perceive that food, and the societal influences on that perception.

Take for example dirt. Dirt. Back in Martha Ballard's time, dirt was not a bad thing. You grew stuff in dirt. But as cities grew, as they became bigger and filthier, dirt took on a new meaning. It was not the font of life; it was the stinking remains of death. Food didn't grow in dirt; it grew in the markets, the only places that city dwellers could buy their food.

They’re still the main places we can buy our food, but not the only places. As Vilesis looks from the past to the present and thinks about the future, we're entering a brave new world where the keywords are local and organic. That's the dilemma, which to buy when presented with a choice? Molly Katzen and I talked about this, and coming at it from a different perspective, her conclusion was much the same as that reached by Vileisis. It depends. There's no blanket answer, no formula. Only the certainty of change. Ten years ago, you bought your food in one fashion, for one set of reasons. You had a certain set of knowledge about that food. Ten years hence, you'll know something different.

Agony Column Podcast News : A Conversation With Jeremy Lassen of Nightshade Books : E-Books & Free Books

Today's podcast is another in a series of continuing conversations with Jeremy Lassen, publisher of Night Shade Books. Today, we're going to speak about E-Books and Free Books, which many view as the beginning of the end for those paper bricks we so love. Frankly, I'm not so sure that books as we know them are as close to extinction as some would have us think. As a publisher of actual hardcover books, Mr. Lassen may have a rather different opinion. Is Kindle kindling on the fire for Fahrenheit 451? Or is it the next Sega Dreamcast? Can you give away books online and hope to sell your customers hard copy? A quick listen to the MP3 of my conversation with publisher Jeremy Lassen will shed some light, or help light the fire.


12-06-07: Frank Herbert's 'The White Plague' and 'Hellstrom's Hive' ; Agony Column Podcast News : Kathryn Petruccelli Interviews Bill Minor

Keeping the Classics in Print

Great trade pb format..but for some small print in The White Plague.

I was talking with Jack Rems of Dark Carnival Books back in September and he spoke about the importance of keeping the classics in print. I mentioned the recent spate of Frank Herbert reprints from Tor, and having received yet another a couple of days ago, thought I'd write about them, because, really, they're quite nice. Well, maybe it was more than a couple of days ago, looking at the release dates. And sort of nice is probably better than quite nice. But they are classics and they are being kept in print. The first to catch my attention was 'Hellestron's Hive' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; April 7, 2007 ; $14.95). I like the classic-seeming but actually new cover art by Stephen Youll, and the trade paperback format here is excellent. The print is large, the book is easy-to-read and the binding is kind of loose, so that it can lay flat on the lunch counter while you wolf down a couple of carnitas tacos. Or these days, a fruit salad, alas.

But what should draw readers to the book is the book itself. 'Hellstrom's Hive' is Frank Herbert writing a contemporary thriller, a dystopian vision of America written as the sixties imploded around him. The basic setup is quite simple. There's bad, the US police state, and worse, Hellstrom's Hive. Since we're currently living in a state that bears no small resemblance to Herbert's paranoid-at-the-time vision of a future police state, readers are going to experience some weird resonances. At least there's something to fear; the Hive, humans crammed into a bunch of caves in Oregon and living like insects because they like it. Agency and Hive are unpleasant alternatives, but perfect fodder for a science-fiction horror thriller. Herbert's in pretty good form here. He lays on the horror and smothers the reader with sensory overload. 'Hellstrom's Hive' has a significant "ick" factor that you don’t often find quite so punched up in Herbert's work. In the horror-visions, Herbert's evocative prose is actually quite powerful, even if it's in the service of cheese. As for the Agency, Herbert writes a decent conspiracy thriller that some may find on the talky side. And as with many Herbert standalones, you get the feeling that the book does not so much end as stop mid-stream. In a better world, Herbert would still be with us, writing follow-ups, bringing Hellstrom into the 21st century. But at least we got our police state. Woo hoo! Who knows, maybe there's a damn commie Hive out there.

Fortunately, terrorism has not yet inspired the reaction that drives the plot in 'The White Plague' (Tor / Tom Doherty Associates ; October 2, 2007 ; $14.95). Stephen Youll once again provides the eerie cover art. But if you thought that 'Hellstrom's Hive' was a pleasant surprise inside, you'll be unpleasantly surprised by the tiny type crammed into the pages of 'The White Plague', which is a shame because it's a pretty damn-near great apocalyptic thriller and unnervingly relevant. One man's family is killed by terrorist bomb in Ireland. As it happens, he's a scientist who creates a plague that kills women. All Women. Humanity is screwed, and well it should be. Herbert's wide-screen skills and close-up details create a convincing mental picture of the world spiraling into chaos from which there is likely no escape. His prose is superb, the pacing is brisk and his imagination unfettered. This last leads to another non-ending; I recall reading this when it was first published and hoping for a series. Nonetheless, it's a gripping work by one of science fiction's masters, and the sort of novel that could lead impressionable minds of any age down the road of reading science fiction. Oh the horror! Another dweeby reader is born. This is why science fiction needs to be reprinted. 'Hellstrom's Hive' and 'The White Plague' are good books that show us our past, our present and make us fear the future. It's important to keep these books in print, though it's also important to make sure that print is sufficiently easy to read.

Agony Column Podcast News : Kathryn Petruccelli Interviews Bill Minor : Trek: Lips, Sunny, Pecker & Me

Bill Minor and his new novel.

Today's podcast finds KUSP's Kathryn Petruccelli interviewing musician, poet and novelist Bill Minor. He started out as a visual artist influenced by the likes of William Blake, e.e. cummings, and Kenneth Patchen, published his first book of poems and prints in 1974 and hasn't looked back. He's writes about jazz music for Down Beat, Jazz Notes, Modern Drummer and more. An accomplished jazz musician who plays piano, drums, tenor guitar(?!) and sings, he's written three books about music, including 'Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union.' His latest book, 'Trek: Lips, Sunny, Pecker and Me' – is also perhaps his earliest. It and all his work are available from his website. You can hear him tell Kathryn Petruccelli the story and read from the book, which is suitably odd for the listeners of this podcast, in this MP3 Interview. Just hope your family vacation is as interesting as Trek; or perhaps not!


12-05-07: 'Thunderer' by Felix Gilman ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Dana Mackenzie 'The Big Splat'

Stranger Streets Than Those We Know

No feet on the ground.

Who would have guessed that twenty-first century fantasy would find a touchstone not in J. R. R. Tolkien, but Charles Dickens? Dickens was a hardcore realist, a man who wrote about the social ills of his time with a passion that has remained powerful to this day. His gritty evocation of Victorian street life was the product of observation, not imagination. Even his primal fairytale ghost-story 'A Christmas Carol' rails against the injustices the rich visit upon the poor. And the conditions he wrote about in the mid-nineteenth century linger on around the globe, glossed over with a layer of cell phones and laptops. Dickens hardly seems the proper inspiration for those seeking to create new world out of whole cloth.

Still, it’s easy to trace his enormous impact on the fantasy of the present, from Mervyn Peake's iconic 'Gormenghast' to China Miéville's 'Perdido Street Station' to 'Thunderer' (Spectra / Bantam / Random House ; January 1, 2008 ; $24.00) by first-time novelist Felix Gilman. But the moment you meet Jack Sheppard standing on top of Barbotin House in the city of Ararat scheming to make his escape, you can hear the word urchin even though it is never uttered. And even as he makes his escape using crude magic, you can't help but notice that the man he's escaping from is named Mr.Tar.

'Thunderer' begins when Arjun the monk arrives in Ararat to be part of the return of the Bird. This is not the sort of Bird that gets flipped on the freeways. In fact, nobody in Ararat can agree precisely what sort of bird the Bird is, only that it is impossibly huge and about to wreak changes in Ararat that may last for as long as the city stands. Which may not be for all that long once the titular weapon, the Thunderer comes into play. Magic, machinery and the machinations of all-too human forces, plus a few rather inhuman beings ensure that the skullduggery which brought about the creation of the Thunderer is not the last plot to play out amidst the rotting buildings and crumbling streets.

Gilman's a skilled writer for a first-time novelist. His prose is evocative but not overwrought. He manages a big cast of characters well, and one of the most present and important is the city of Ararat. Gilman lives in New York, so one is inclined to Ararat with this in mind. If you like your cities and their stories to combine magic and technology with a grimy façade, then 'Thunderer' is your book. Happily, Gilman lavishes the same care on all his cast. Unhappily, a sequel is to be released in the Spring. Still and all, 'Thunderer', in spite of the clunky title, is well worth your valuable time.

While I love Stephen Youll's sense of detail, I must admit that the combination of the cover image and title were rather off-putting. With that Peter Pan-style floating ship, the flying pirate look of the guy handing in midair, and the tagline "a novel of high fantasy", I presumed something more out of the cookie-cutter tradition of take one human, one elf, one magician and send 'em on a quest. And I would beg to differ as to the description of this novel as "high fantasy". For me, that description has always denoted something more, er Tolkienesque. 'Thunderer' takes more cues from Dickens than Tolkien. That's why you should be reading it; that's why it should be in your queue.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Dana Mackenzie 'The Big Splat' : The Moon Sees Me

A very, very, very large splat. One might even say "Gigantic".

Was it only a week ago that I spoke with Dana Mackenzie about his book, 'The Big Splat; Or, How the Moon Came to Be'? If it seems like eons, well, perhaps it's because that's the time scale across which the events that Mackenzie ultimately describes unfold. Or, if it seems like thousands of years, then again, one can only suspect that Mackenzie's entertaining history of our understanding of the moon plays some part. In all events, Mackenzie is a really engaging guest, a natural speaker and clearly enthused about his subject. I'll not spoil the surprise ending, though the cover image may give something away. Suffice it to say that in my MP3 interview with the author, you'll hear thousands, perhaps millions of years worth of reasons to pick up this book. Prepare as well for the next time you see the moon, and the moon sees you. You'll have a rather different perspective on the matter. And there is lots of matter at the heart of this mystery!

12-04-07: Thomas M. Disch Embarks on 'The Voyage of the Proteus'; Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR Weekend Edition Sunday Report: Artificial Intelligence Enters Brave New World

'An Eyewitness Account of the End of the World' Reviewed

More than a three-hour tour.

Thomas M. Disch likes to shake things up. Whether he's writing mind-braking science fiction in the vein of (my personal favorite) 'Fun With Your New Head' or 'Camp Concentration', non-fiction, like 'The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of' or horror, like 'The MD', Disch has a way of breaking, well, everything in the room. In the best possible manner. He's back at it again in 'The Voyage of the Proteus : An Eyewitness Account of the End of the World' (Subterranean Press ; January 2, 2008 ; $35), a slim little shiv in the eye of contemporary fantasy, politics and good taste. Whatever you are expecting, it's probably not this. Here's my review, which was rather fun to write. It's not often you get to review the Apocalypse.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR Weekend Edition Sunday Report: Artificial Intelligence Enters Brave New World

Today's podcast is a high-quality, DRM-free, MP3 version of my most recent report for Weekend Edition Sunday. It's an audio postcard from this year's Singularity Summit, featuring Rodney Brooks, Sam Adams, Barney Pell, James Hughes, Jamais Cascio and Paul Saffo. While it seemingly took forever, it was quite a bit of fun to troll through the audio – 5 GB of audio, I'll have you know – to find the best bits that worked together.

For the moment, the story is still in play at NPR, and if you do download this MP3, I'd appreciate it if you went to the web page for the story and used the "Email this story" button to let NPR know you enjoy this sort of report.

This is a little bullet to brain – presumably an all-organic, non-augmented brain. And if that's not the case, please email me.


12-03-07: Michael Krasny is 'Off Mike'

A 2007 Interview With Michael Krasny and Review of 'Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life'

Michael Krasny in the back office of Capitola Book Café. Buy their books!

Almost as soon as I signed up to interview Michael Krasny, I began to regret it. First, I'd have to read the book, and I'm not overly-enamored of memoirs. To make matters worse, Krasny is one of the country's top interviewers and a fixture at the Northern California NPR affiliate that serves (I believe) the third-largest audience in the nation. All my not-so-youthful enthusiasm had managed to do was to set myself up to read a book I didn't think I'd like, which would be followed up by an interview that had the potential to be extremely humiliating. Good plan, Rick.

Actually, that's not the sort of mic used at KQED.
But I suppose that after years of managing to find only books I enjoyed reading, I shouldn't have been surprised to find that I enjoyed the hell out of 'Off Mike'. I read it in practically one sitting. The book is particularly good; it's funny, poignant and packed with artistic themes and encounters. There's enough good gossip in here to keep the prurient lizard brain occupied while the literary lobe is engaged at a deeper level. So it manages to be both fun and poignant; I discuss this at (I hope not too great) length in my review.

As for the interview – it went well, for which one can credit the ever-professional Krasny. I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised that an accomplished interviewer would be an engaging interviewee. And I must admit it's bracing hearing a voice that familiar going on at length to explain his past instead of simply asking questions. I've uploaded an MP3 and a RealAudio file.

The upshot of all this angst and worry is that I have a great reading experience in my brain and another decent Capitola Book Café interview in my queue. I'll probably keep signing up for interviews and books out of my usual stomping grounds. Not that I intend to abandon the genre fiction I love so much. But getting out of my comfort zone proves to be a bracing experience, surreal, sort of – almost science fictional.


Agony Column Review Archive