Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Pure Pork Awesomeness

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Pure Pork Awesomeness: Totally Cookable Recipes from Around the World (Andrews McMeel, 2015).

Chef Kevin Gillespie's PR team asked me whether I'd like to have a look at his new cookbook, which is all about what you can do with pork. Twist my arm, why don't you?

Gillespie, whose restaurant Gunshow is one of the most celebrated and popular in Atlanta, grew up here in Georgia, and I was pleasantly surprised to read that he learned a thing or two about how different parts of the pig are used in cooking when, as a teenager, he started asking questions of the staff at Fresh Air BBQ near Jackson. They use hams there rather than shoulders, which most barbecue joints in this state will smoke. There's a place near Hoschton called John's that also uses hams, but not a whole lot of other restaurants do this.

This cookbook, a follow-up to his 2012 debut, Fire in My Belly, is full of side stories like that which make the experience of reading it so much more fun than most cookbooks. He starts with about twenty pages discussing sustainability, the history of hog breeding, and the important distinctions between pastured and commodity pork. He never talks down to the reader; he makes a strong case for spending the extra money to eat better because the results simply taste a lot better. His tone throughout is approachable and friendly and full of great anecdotes. There's a really funny story from a restaurant where Gillespie had worked previously, Woodfire Grill, in which an older customer chews him out for taking his popular pork belly dish off the menu, and that's one of several great ones. Decades from now, when Gillespie retires, he's going to write a great memoir.

But the main draw for this will be the recipes and how interesting and / or simple they appear to be. And also the photography by Angie Mosier. I read most of this book one evening last week in Memphis, and the only reason that I didn't have to stop looking at her drool-worthy pictures and go eat something was that I'd visited four barbecue restaurants that day and had a fairly full meal at each of them. This is some of the best food photography I've ever seen. Speaking with the authority of somebody who is responsible for some of the worst food photography available online, I was remarkably impressed by this.

But ANYWAY, the recipes. I love Gillespie's encouraging attitude and his inclusion of "worth knowing" tips to make food preparation even easier. Some of these sound terrific: his "really good" Cuban and ham sandwiches that could even be assembled by a bumbler like me, the pork minute steaks with potato pancakes and pumpkin butter that I hope we'll have for supper one evening just as soon as we buy a nice, heavy skillet for them, pork vindaloo, tacos al pastor... no, I wasn't hungry when I read the book, but, foolishly, I waited until now to write this story, and I'm not meeting a friend for lunch for another three hours and forty minutes.

On a final note, because my God, I have to stop thinking about food, I am particularly pleased by Gillespie's recipe for Brunswick stew, which does NOT include potatoes. I am so tired of restaurants sticking those cheap extenders in the stew, especially when they then turn around and charge you extra for it because it's a "premium" side. I think I need to start carrying a copy of this book around with me, and when some barbecue joint serves me a bowl of stew with potatoes, pull it out and firmly tell them, "Page 218." Probably tap on the cover with a heavy, authoritative finger, too. Recommended before a meal, but not too many hours before it.

A copy of this book was provided by the PR company for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Beale Street Dynasty

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Beale Street Dynasty (Norton, 2015).

I really envy Preston Lauterbach's talent. He seems to immerse himself so totally in his research and has a ball sharing stories. The problem with Beale Street Dynasty, inasmuch as there's a problem at all, is that so much of what he has to share this time around just wasn't fun to read. That's not his fault in any way, but man, an awful lot of innocent blood was spilled to make Memphis the city it is today. I wasn't able to read more than forty pages at a stretch without wanting to go back in time with a baseball bat and hit somebody.

This is not a light read. I was expecting something breezy about the blues and barbecue, but Memphis is much heavier and deeper than that. Lauterbach builds the narrative around Robert Church and his son, Robert Jr. After the Civil War, the senior Church moved into the gambling houses and whorehouses and drinkin' houses on Beale Street and outshone all his rivals in the world of vice. He became a millionaire - very probably the first black millionaire in the South - while surviving race riots, assassination attempts, and crooked cops.

The incredible contradictions in Church's life make for an amazing story. He made his money from prostitution and gambling and funneled it into real estate and civic life and the arts. Blues pioneer W.C. Handy benefited from Church's patronage. Handy came to Memphis in 1909 and was quickly commissioned to write an election jingle for the politician E.H. Crump on the eve of his first mayoral race. Handy turned that tune into one of the era's biggest hits, "Memphis Blues," and Church's son, who took over his father's businesses after his death in 1912, spent the rest of his life in a very awkward and uneasy relationship-of-mutual-benefit with Crump, who spent years in charge of the town as its political boss. Church Jr. got black voters around Tennessee's Jim Crow laws by paying poll taxes for hundreds of people and kept Crump, and all of his subordinates, in office for decades.

It's an incredibly interesting story, and often an infuriating one. If you're curious about Memphis, but are also the sort of guilt-ridden sort who gets incredibly aggravated by how aggressively awful, racist, and bloodthirsty our ancestors so frequently were, then you probably need to read some other book to find out about Sun Records, B.B. King, Jim Neely, and that funny pyramid building that used to be the basketball arena. But if you like seeing history come alive and really detailed anecdotes about the lovers and fighters of the day, then Lauterbach's worth digging into, even if you'll want to smack some of these awful people in the face with that shovel before you're finished with it. Recommended to read with some period music on YouTube for a soundtrack.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Savage: Grinders

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Book Nine of Savage: "Grinders" (Rebellion, 2015).

Thirty-eight years ago, writer Pat Mills came up with a fun idea for a gritty comic series set in the not-very-distant future. It was 1977, and Mills posited that in the year 1999, the "Volgan Republic" would invade Great Britain, and that the guerrilla resistance would find a home for a former truck driver named Bill Savage and his shotgun. Over the next six or seven years, Mills would set other stories in the aftermath - some in the centuries-later aftermath - of the Volgan invasion of the UK. Since these were stories in 2000 AD aimed at imaginative eight year-olds, there were many contradictions and plot contrivances between all the tales, but it never really mattered at the time.

Except... in 2004, Mills returned to the character of Bill Savage in a more nuanced and mature take on the invasion, and also began filling in the blanks in the very popular cousin series The ABC Warriors. Stepping back to the canvas after so long away, Mills began to see how he'd flung so very many things at the wall to see what stuck, and that it was now possible to actually draw a spiderweb of connections between all of the events that previous stories had only mentioned.

And so, in recent ABC Warriors stories, Mills and artist Clint Langley have been working backward, addressing old questions about what happened to certain characters. And in Savage, which is wrapping up its ninth and final story, we're seeing the 2010 conclusion of the second Volgan occupation, and, at long last, the explanation of how the unscrupulous defense contractor Howard Quartz, got himself transplanted into a robot body.

The first three Savage stories, set in 2004 and illustrated by Charlie Adlard, were an amazing, real-world take on how this invasion might have played out. Starting with the fourth, Patrick Goddard took over art duties and it's there that the wild sci-fi elements of ABC Warriors and the robot wars that it referenced begins. These tales begin in 2007 and see the rudimentary use of robot soldiers and some wilder-than-reality technology.

The six books of Mills-Goddard Savage, despite all the fun technology, weirdness, and great cast of characters, not to mention that great little sidetrack to recruit the former hippie rock star who'd been researching teleportation, never quite made their way out from the long shadow of the original three stories. (Honestly, not nearly enough has been written praising the climax of book two, which is one of the crowning achievements of Mills' long career and One Of The Damndest Things I've Ever Seen In A Comic, Ever.) But they've still got so much to recommend them, and this latest book caps off a great series.

I think one reason that Savage works so well is that, certainly after the first three, 2004-set stories, Mills let the character evolve into something close to Parker, from the Richard Stark/Donald Westlake novels. He's lethally dangerous and frightening, but he keeps his emotions in check and can think his way out of any problem before he needs to pull his gun. Plus, Mills never, ever makes it easy for him. Savage's enemies are not stupid, and keeping the hero one step ahead of them is a remarkable balancing act. When his enemies do make slips - and Quartz makes a big one in this story - Savage is able to quietly step in and change the narrative. There's a brief bit in this story involving a mute button, and one of the rules of comic book foreshadowing tells us that we're going to see this plot point again a few chapters later. When we do, even knowing there was more to come, I still punched the air. It's cold, brutal, and completely wonderful.

A case might be made - though I certainly won't make it - that the surprise return of Bill's brother Jack is one coincidence too far. It's terrific. Readers learn early on in the story something that Bill, for all his cool planning and insight, misses: that Jack cannot be trusted. It builds to an amazing confrontation involving insurgents called "grinders" who've taken on cyborg enhancements in order to override the American combat robots, and Bill losing his temper for the first time in a very long time, and possibly the last time.

"Grinders" is an excellent story, and runs for thirteen episodes. You can get it in serial form from 2000 AD's online shop by purchasing progs 2015 and 1912-23. The smart money's on it being included as a collected edition with books seven and eight, but that's not yet been announced; maybe next year? But yes, this is certainly recommended however you purchase it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Fifth Heart

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Fifth Heart (Little, Brown and Company, 2015).

I'm such a dingbat that I don't know the difference between Stephen Dobyns and Dan Simmons. Seriously. I enjoyed the former's Church of Dead Girls, which came with a glowing quote from Stephen King, many years ago, and when I saw the gigantic uncorrected proof of this month's Fifth Heart, also sporting a glowing quote from Stephen King, I thought it was the same guy. I got the initials right, anyway. Just... reversed.

ANYWAY, The Fifth Heart is actually written by Dan Simmons, the fellow who has carved out a niche with great big historical fiction, mixing densely-researched reality with just a little bit of twinkling implausibility. His best-known novels, Drood and The Terror, showcase his talent for creepy and disturbing mysteries, letting just the traces, the shadows, of dark modern fantasy loose on the nineteenth century.

I was interested in this novel because I do love a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche. This one's set in 1893, and features Holmes and at least the third iteration of his-son-by-Irene that I've come across. Sadly, it's not Auguste Lupa / Nero Wolfe, but Super Assassin Son o' Holmes. That's okay, I'm always up for something new. Part of me feels that I might be spoiling a revelation by introducing this, because the information is revealed in two separate chunks, but on the other hand, this novel joins a very full collection of Holmes pastiches to introduce a son to the story. By this time, the real surprise would be introducing a son of Irene Adler whom Holmes did not father. (You know, like Marko Vukčić. *grin* )

But I'm also up for something a little tighter than this. The Fifth Heart swells with bloat, badly needing an editor to crack to the core of things. It's set over the course of several weeks, starting in Paris and moving to DC and finally Chicago more than a month later, as Lucan Adler plots the assassination of President Cleveland, and Holmes, allied with the writer Henry James, investigates the years-old death of James' old friend Clover Adams, whose widower Henry Adams is at the center of the political turmoil.

It's not possible for me to read any writer's take on Holmes without hearing Jeremy Brett exclaim "Patience! All will be revealed!" And, to be sure, lots of writers have had lots of fun leaving Holmes three steps ahead of his associates in the story while they seethe, furiously, waiting for some explanations. If you enjoy this take on the character, then what Holmes puts poor Henry James through in this book is certain to entertain you. Simmons lets us see Holmes orchestrate a beatdown of a local drug gang, arrange an early meeting of what will evolve into the contemporary Secret Service, and take a lengthy side trip to one of Samuel Clemens's homes to have a look at a particular typewriter. It is amusing watching Simmons throw the investigation and drama into all these side streets - one of them involving chimney sweeps! - and wonder how in the world he's going to tie it all together. Then Henry James gets his own investigation going, wondering what's up with Holmes's enemy Moriarty, giving him yet another thing to juggle.

Honestly, there's a good story here, and possibly a very good one, but as with a few other writers' takes on Holmes at his most inscrutable - Laurie King's The Game comes to mind - I really did feel a bit too much for the unfortunate sidekick. No protagonist has ever deserved a bloody nose and a demand for answers quite as much as this Holmes does. In part, that's because the narrative really does get too bloated. The visit with Clemens goes on for pages and pages of cigars on the veranda and nostalgic reflection and thoughts on the subject of whether Holmes is actually a fictional character (and, if so, what that would mean for everybody else), and a good thirty more pages could have been chopped out by making Henry Adams not so damn stubborn and simply agreeing to the demands of the plot.

Going back to Nero Wolfe, you'll recall that in almost all of his tales, writer Rex Stout would have Wolfe remind everybody that things would go along much quicker if he could proceed without interruption, and, in the most wearying of them, probably Please Pass the Guilt, every blasted member of the supporting cast insists upon interrupting him, almost as though they're padding out the story until we hit an arbitrary page number? A lot of The Fifth Heart feels like that. The plot is already complex and nuanced; it would have been an easier and less frustrating read with fewer roadblocks and detours in the way. Simmons does not appear to be a snappy writer - much of his success appears to come from the feeling of complete immersion into the past - but I finished the book badly wishing for a snappier story. A mild recommendation with that in mind, wishing that I would have enjoyed it more, but I also finished this curious to read Drood sometime soon, so it was perhaps more successful than I first thought.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.