Cooked

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Easily the most inspiring book I’ve read in a long time.

Michael Pollan’s Cooked gives voice to something I’ve felt for a very long time – that cooking is more than an act of self-sustenance, but one of creativity, mystique and self-empowerment.

There is a power to the act of cooking. It is ingrained into our history as a species. Cooking unlocked the nutritive potential of our food sources, enabling our ancestors to evolve more quickly and freeing up their time spent foraging and hunting to kickstart a civilisation. In modernity, it remains a last holdout of artisanship in the face of an all-consuming capitalist juggernaut, powered by the cold logic of comparative advantage.

There is therefore a nobility to cooking – it hearkens us back to our roots in the deep past, and is one of the few ways left for ordinary people to create something of value and worth with their own hands – a product that gives creative satisfaction to the creator, pleasure to the partaker, and binds us closer together.

With that frame in mind, Pollan explores four realms of cooking in this book, in four distinct parts related to the classical elements – fire, water, air and earth. Fire, naturally, applies to roasting and smoking. Water is the act of braising and making stews. Air is the act of baking, and earth is the act of fermentation, both in food and drink. There are, of course, overlaps – but in essence the division is a poetic and apt one.

For each part, Pollan interviews and works with masters of each of the four crafts – pig smokers,  sous chefs, bakers, homebrewers, and “fermentation fetishists”, talks about the historical, scientific, nutritional and creative aspects of each process, and eventually describes his attempts to recreate some of what he has learned in his own kitchen. Pollan’s enthusiasm is infectious, his research far-ranging, and his exhortations to try it yourself compelling. For each foodway, he portrays the food, when properly made, as something transcendent in tastes and smell but also nourishing and sustaining from a nutritive, cultural and psychological standpoint. And then, he walks the talk and tries to make it himself – drawing the book back to its fundamental thesis – the need to cook for yourself to reap the multitudinous benefits of the act.

Reading Cooked didn’t change my mind about anything – because I was already convinced of cooking’s value in achieving fulfillment. But it did open up a new dimension of things that I was previously unfamiliar with, and showed me just how interesting the art of food-making can be. The chapter on breadmaking, for example, taught me that it’s possible to make a loaf of healthy, delicious bread in the style of world-class bakeries like Tartine in your own home, using varieties of bacteria that you can cultivate in your own kitchen. The chapter on braising underscored the point that you don’t need expensive cuts of meat to create rich and sustaining stews. The chapter on fermentation taught me the cultural depth that can be found in each culture’s use of bacteria to alter their food to impart unique (and sometimes acquired) tastes and smells.

In essence, cooking, itself, is something that ties us back to our cultural and biological roots, while opening up whole new worlds of experience in the comfort of our own homes. Michael Pollan’s Cooked is, if anything, just about the best tome to evangelise that message. It’s certainly inspired me to want to try all that he does, and more.

I give this book: 5 out of 5 lactobacillus starters

Station Eleven

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This is a book that defies easy description. A post-apocalyptic story that adheres to few of the tropes of the genre; a narrative that wends its way through disparate lives and times, linked only by a single, strange conceit; a book concerned less with the now than with the genealogies of experience that led to it.

The apocalypse is only one part of the grand story, a frame that separates the epochs into before and after. The story starts at the during, opening with the dramatic on-stage death of a noted Shakespearean actor from a heart attack, just as the first victims of the savage, decimating Georgia Flu start to sicken and die. His death would have been lost in the drama of the apocalypse, but it is his story that Mandel focuses on for much of the book, spinning an evocative tale of his storied life.

Through that overarching frame, Mandel writes of other lives, touched, in ways good, ill and strange, by the tides of Leander’s time on the mortal plane. And those other lives – like Miranda Carroll, Leander’s first wife, whose eponymously-titled comic book series becomes another totem that draws the dissipated threads together in complex, unexpected ways.

This book is a veritable tapestry of interconnected lives; surviving, enduring, thriving, in a way that post-apocalyptia makes more true; somehow, the collapse of civilisation sets our best and worst traits in starker contrast. The putative protagonist, Kirsten Raymonde, was a child performing in Leander’s last production when the Georgia Flu hit; she survives the plague and lives life as a member of an itinerant troupe, keeping Shakespeare alive in a transformed world. Jeevan Chaudhary, former paparazzo turned paramedic, who stalked Leander in his old life and who gives Leander futile CPR as he expires on stage. Clark Thompson, Arthur’s best friend, who becomes the keeper of a museum of artifacts of civilisation to educate a generation who has never known electricity.

All these stories are barely related to one another except in surprising and tenuous threads of fate, yet they are all compelling in their own way, so much so that I found the main plot – in which Kirsten’s travelling troupe has to deal with an upstart cult – perhaps the least compelling part of the book. And really, in what post apocalyptic tome would that particular plot thread not take centre stage? But in Station Eleven, it is just one of many disparate stories.

As such, there is something refreshing about Station Eleven‘s way of casting its narrative net far and wide, telling many stories amidst many themes – of lives lived in celebrity, female empowerment, of the strange, unfamiliar theme of a younger, post-technological generation carrying the torch of civilisation from an older, technological one.

And, importantly, Station Eleven doesn’t fetishize the apocalypse; it doesn’t commoditize that sense of bleak despair and nihilism that comes with it. Instead, it ends with a tinge of hope – that, contrary to what many post-apocalyptic novels would paint, there is some home for humanity to claw its way out of the dark valley without staining its soul along the way.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 knife tattoos

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol #2

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Watching Marvel nowadays is an act that carries with it a certain sense of ennui.

The modern Marvel movie is the entertainment world’s equivalent of a bottle of Soylent – it has all the ingredients of a summer blockbuster, it goes down smooth, and it makes you satiated by its potent cocktail of humor and action. But it also lacks texture and grit.

The Marvel movie is at best, inoffensive, because it is so carefully blended into a mass-market appeal paste. It is candy for the lizard brain. And yet, I keep watching, and I keep wanting to watch, even though I know the next one is going to evoke that feeling of drinking an over-engineered high octane slurry.

Guardians Vol #2 is a carefully-made composite of everything that made the first one such a breakout hit. It’s got the 80s music, it’s got the wacky oddball characters, and it has Baby Groot, who was very early on identified as Marvel’s next great adorable mascot figure, which the film amps up to a barely tolerable eleven. Marvel, as I never tire of explaining, has this down to an exact science.

This time, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) meets his estranged dad, the mysterious and powerful Ego (Kurt Russell), who wants to reconnect with Peter for reasons of his own. Suffice to say, things don’t work out and Peter starts to discover the true meaning of fatherhood. Hint: it’s not expecting your son to follow your plans for galactic domination after 27 years of neglect (this lesson was also learned in Star Wars).

The movie is chock-full of the requisite nostalgia, hijinks, prissy alien races that look like regular people painted different colors, impossible planetary configurations, plot contrivances, and paeans about the importance of family. Of which the Guardians are one, albeit, a snarling, ever-at-loggerheads one. And the jokes, of course, of which Guardians has an ample amount, although most of the good ones are pretty much in the trailer and involve Drax. Other notables include a race of gold-skinned aliens called the Sovereign whose pomposity is the butt of many jokes. There are the baby Groot jokes that feature baby Groot being adorably silly. Then there’s one joke that involves a ravager with the unfortunate name of Taserface that goes on a little too long for its own good, and one featuring Nebula eating an alien horseradish – some of these jokes telegraph themselves a bit too much, in a laughtrack sitcom sort of way – the equivalent of the film trying to tell you I just made a funny joke! Laugh at me! Then there’s the Peter-Gamorra romance, perhaps one of the most unconvincing in MCU canon – but then again, romance isn’t Marvel’s strong suit, really.

The good-vs-bad plot is pure pulp sf cliche, and not really in a good way – featuring villains with simplistic, all-consuming ambitions that don’t betray any human motivations. It really serves as a vehicle for the Guardians to go on that extended find-thyself pilgrimage through a tightly choreographed dance of spaceships and explosions.

Oddly enough, the most compelling character is Yondu, the blue-skinned ravager of somewhat ambiguous morals who altercated with Peter in a kind of half-friendly way in the first movie. Yondu is a child-trafficking, mass murdering ravager, but he is in many ways the character who receives the most development and serves as the emotional crux of the movie as a kind of tragic figure when he’s not busily massacring people with his telepathic arrow. Although he is the unfortunate subject of one of those contrived moral conundrums – the kind where you have to make a Hobson’s choice between two extremes with no possibility for a win-win improvisation – played for emotional effect, a trope that always gets to me when poorly thought through.

Ultimately, though, jokes and Yondu aside, the chief feeling I could muster when I left the theatre was a sense of great emptiness. Maybe because I had to work the next day, but probably more because Guardians, like many Marvel movies, got it backwards – it built an edifice of entertainment so crowd-friendly that it kind of diffuses into a general kind of ennui-laden satiety. The kind you feel after eating a tubful of Ben & Jerry’s. The movie has its entertaining moments and even its emotional kicks, but at the end of the day, it can’t hide the fact that it’s a loud flashing money-making machine. It just compensates for it better than most other action fare.

I give this: 3.5 Anulax batteries

 

Lost Japan

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Lost Japan, written in the 1990s at the start of Japan’s lost decade, is at once a heartfelt elegy to old Japan and an impassioned diatribe against many aspects of the new.

Alex Kerr is one of the few non-Japanese figures to have really broken into the rarefied sphere of cultural and national discourse within Japan. An avid collector of Japanese art and connoisseur of traditional Japanese arts such as kabuki and calligraphy, Kerr has written and spoken about the slow loss of Japanese natural and cultural heritage to relentless development.

Kerr’s Lost Japan, originally written and published in Japanese, was well-received in Japan, winning the Shincho Gakugei literature prize for best work of nonfiction in 1994. It is easy to see why: Kerr’s passion for Japan shines through and sweeps the reader into its expansive wake. Kerr pierces through the often inscrutable veil of Japanese art to reveal the core of what makes them so compelling to him.

There is an added autobiographical layer to the book – which deals with Japanese culture through the subjective lens of Kerr’s lived experience. And his anecdotes are always entertaining, and almost fantastic in their vividity. Kerr paints himself as an inveterate socialiser, making friends up and down Japan with his vivacity and the novelty of being a Westerner who can’t get enough of esoteric Japanese culture. Perhaps the most well-remarked of his achievements is the restoration of an old house in Iya valley, at great financial, time and social expense – in his twenties! I read also with incredulous interest Kerr’s many forays into art collecting – which made him somewhat of an asset to an American real estate magnate with a passion for Asian art, who later recruited Kerr, among other things, as a sort of art buyer for his collection, after a ten minute conversation. Kerr’s eclectically-lived life lends the book much of its human interest.

That said, Kerr often comes across as opinionated in a way that precludes argument, especially when it comes to his views on the modern cultural course that Japan appears to be taking with respect to the traditional arts. To Kerr, Japanese culture is mired in a decadent stage – with traditional arts losing their essence in their bid to attract a new audience, and with the true inheritors of culture – translators of the essence of the culture into the future – finding fame only outside of Japan. While this may or may not be true of the specific traditional arts, it is perhaps a bit of a reach to claim that Japanese culture is entering a state of general malaise.

Kerr makes other interesting claims, such as that Kyotoites have wilfully destroyed much of their urban heritage and replaced it with ugly and hypermodern glass and metal edifices in their Sisyphean task to show themselves as good as Tokyo – a resentment they have carried since the Heian era, having become a sort of provincial backwater since their heyday. Kyoto tower and the JR Kyoto station being two such examples. Kerr is not a fan of how Kyoto appears to have commoditized much of its traditional cultural heritage, manicuring it and touristifying it in a way that ultimately detracts from their original purpose of instilling a meditative atmosphere. While this may have some anecdotal validity – anyone who has visited Kyoto in peak tourist season would agree that Kyoto inspires rather the opposite of zen-like calm – making such arguments smacks of a certain propensity to generalisation and over-narrativization that doesn’t sit well with me.

Kerr’s commentary on the state of natural Japan finds a bit more purchase with me, although it is a rather unexpected thesis in the light of Japan’s many points of natural heritage. But I can somewhat see where Kerr is coming from – in Japan, these landmarks seem to exist in bubbles. There is much care in curating an experience – but what lies outside the remit of that experience seems to be open season for unfettered construction.

Some might see Lost Japan as a sort of “whitesplaining” for Japanese on the ills that plague their country, dictated by a foreigner with a slight know-it-all attitude with respect to things. I certainly felt whiffs of that emanating from Kerr’s prose, even as it is suffused with genuine passion for things Japan. Kerr’s sometimes scathing tone stems from that passion, however, and while I do think that Kerr could have been more circumspect and sensitive in issuing his pronouncements, it is a bona fide attempt at raising Japanese consciousness of the ways in which they are losing their natural and cultural heritage. It has been almost 25 years since the book was written, though – so I’d be interested to see how, if at all, Kerr’s thesis would change today – whether or not there is now more conscious husbandry of Japan’s cultural and natural heritage.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 restored thatch roofed houses