Book Heaven

Where the world of books and life intersect

Location: South Amboy, New Jersey

I am deeply involved in trying to solve the discrepancy between being interested in zen and trying to acquire all the things I've been accumulating

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

No Fat Please, We're New Yorkers

As a certified health nut and medical info junkie, I had long ago banished trans-fats from my diet. This of course did not prevent me from gleefully watching the battle going on in New York as they sought to protect the willpower-less from the dreaded artery clogging goo. Believing as I do in absolute freedom, it was a bit hard for me to fall in with those who would seek to impose their dietary beliefs on others. On the other side of the coin though, don’t we have an obligation to try to minimize unnecessary procedures in this age of insanely skyrocketing medical costs? If you forsook trans-fats, wouldn’t there be a great health care savings as the need for angioplasties and coronary bypass operations was greatly reduced?

Well, maybe not. According to something I read in Medicine By Design by Fen Montaigne (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), the cost of health care is related to the length of your life – the longer you live, the more health care cost you’re going to ring up. Banning trans-fats may actually increase health care costs in the long run.

Just as I was pondering this new line of thinking, I ran across a couple of interesting books. In Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market by Susan Strasser (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), an entire chapter is devoted to the development of the "wonder product" Crisco. In a 1915 ad for the product, we learn that many physicians are "personally recommending it to their patients" and that it has "great nutritive value." No sooner had I read this than I came across a book entitled Twinkie Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger (Hudson Street Press, pub date March 2007). There is a chapter in the book entitled "Consider the Twinkie" but I really don’t have to read it. I have a friend that used to be involved in the manufacture of Twinkies and I learned all I ever needed to know about Twinkies from him.
Maybe I’ll feel a little bit better after I read Brian Frazer’s Hyper-Chondriac (Atria Books, pub date March 2007). This really sounds like my kind of book:

I’m a hyper-chondriac. My prescription? Whatever you’ve got. And quickly, please. I’m in a hurry." With those words, Brian Frazer strikes the keynote for his quixotic quest for total wellness – a seemingly paradoxical goal for a young man who doesn’t smoke, rarely drinks and never misses an opportunity to floss.

Kind of sounds like somebody I know quite well. Except for that young man part.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Burglar Who Stole Medical Journals

(with apologies to Lawrence Block)

In my wild and reckless youth (a Freyian fantasy, to be sure), I was asked by a girl (who I had a crush on) to steal a band-aid for her. She could have afforded to buy the band-aid and I certainly would have bought it but nooooo it had to be stolen. We were in New York at the time and even in my youthful innocence I knew it wasn’t an especially good idea. In an instant I had the aftermath storyboarded in my mind and it would have made Will Eisner proud. I was being carted off to the Tombs. As they dragged me away, there was a frame that was just filled with her lovely hand (with band-aid prominent of course) as she waved goodbye. As her hand fell out of frame, the screen was now filled with the leering faces of my future cellmates. Not too surprisingly, I passed on stealing the band-aid.

Later that day we were on the Staten Island ferry and this same girl dared me to take off my shirt. Not being a crime, I only had to endure the embarrassment of doing it in front of a rush hour crowd, and this being many years before chest-bareing became cinematically popular it was still something I mentally wrestled with. As a reader of Strength and Health magazine and a disciple of Bob Hoffman though, I possessed a bare chest that was pretty good in those days but evidently it was not enough to overcome my failure at the real test that day -- stealing the band-aid. I wasn’t too surprised when I didn’t get any further with this girl.

My larcenous nature was not tested again for many years until one day when I found myself in Macy’s looking at bookcases. I didn’t see any that I liked but I did notice a copy of Frank Gruber’s Brass Knuckles tucked in among all the other worthless books displayed on the floor model bookcases. I really wanted that book and even though I knew there would be no consequences in spiriting it away, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I did however come back the next day with another book which I “traded” for the Gruber. I still hadn’t really passed the larceny test.

Fast forward to the present. I am in a doctor’s waiting room pawing through the magazines when I come across a copy of The Journal of the American College of Cardiology. This magazine is just jam packed with articles I’d like to read -- articles about statins and stents, bypass surgery, and lipid levels. I immediately decide that not only am I probably the only patient that would want to read this stuff, I also decide that I would actually be doing a good deed if I “spirited” this issue out of there. What could the doctor have been thinking when he left a magazine out there that would undoubtedly scare the daylights out of any skittish patient who dared to crack it open?

After reading the journal I am still curious about this stuff and discover a website where I can learn everything there is to know about stents. I hope I’ll never need one but at least I’ll be prepared if that day ever comes. (P.S. I’m a minor expert on stents now if anyone needs a consultation). Again, I can’t believe this information is available for anyone to look at. I can access every issue of a journal that’s basically intended for cardiologists who place the stents. There are stories here about stents gone amuck as they were being placed and lots of other installation mishaps that would send any prospective patient fleeing. One article’s title was especially chilling -- “Don’t Cause a Stroke While Trying To Prevent One.”

I have quickly become a medical journal junkie. I have hundreds of journal articles on my desk and now whenever I go into a meeting I always take a stack of them with me. As soon as the meeting turns boring (usually almost immediately), I start reading journal articles. It’s better than sitting there with a bored expression on your face for a couple of hours and my coworkers have even gotten used to my behavior.

In my medical journal surfing I have finally found one that has obsessed me. There is an issue of The Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology that has eighty some pages devoted to the effects of chocolate and cocoa flavanols on cardiovascular health (one of my favorite research topics). The problem is that this is not available online and a twelve issue subscription to this august journal costs nearly nine hundred dollars. Ouch!

I tried to find a medical school library nearby that had this but no luck. I’m not positive but I’m pretty close to the point where I might try to “liberate” this issue even if they had a guard watching it. Of course I’d bring it back after I had a chance to read it. I guess I’m still light years away from truly larcenous behavior. Stealing valuable knowledge like this can’t really be a crime anyway, can it?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

By Jeeves!

One of the great advantages of working in Newark (as opposed to New York) is that I only have a rather painless twenty-six minute rail commute. Another advantage is having access to the Newark Public Library, a library that’s actually older than the New York Public Library (though it has far fewer books to be sure).

Still, there are a lot of dusty old treasures in the Newark library since they don’t seem to get rid of their older books. One interesting book that I came across recently is Author! Author! (Simon and Schuster, 1962) which is a book of letters that P.G. Wodehouse (who will always be remembered for giving us that unforgettable servant, Jeeves) sent to his friend W. (Bill) Townend, a fellow writer The book is a veritable writing manual and there are no shortage of great passages one could quote. Here’s one I especially liked about the genesis of ideas for stories:

Listen, Bill. Is this a crazy idea? I suddenly thought the other day that, as there are always a lot of rats on a tramp ship, why shouldn’t one rat, starting by being a good bit bigger than the other rats and so able to eat them daily, gradually grow and grow till he became the size of a bloodhound? This accomplished, he begins to throw his weight about. Mysterious things happen on the ship. The bosun is found dead with his face chewed off, two cabins boys disappear entirely. And so on. Is this any good to you? It certainly isn’t to me.

There really ought to be some sort of central bureau, an Ideas Exchange, where authors could send plots they couldn’t use themselves and other authors could buy anything that suited their style. The bureau would charge ten per cent for its services and clean up.

Wodehouse proposed this idea in 1920!

I didn't know that much about Wodehouse before reading this book. His early years make for great reading. On his second trip to New York (in 1909) Wodehouse had a great stroke of luck, selling two stories in one morning, to Cosmopolitan and Collier's for $200 and $300 respectively. He immediately decided not to return to England, instead renting an apartment in Greenwich Village. He thought he could "live there practically forever on $500, especially as there were always the Cosmopolitan and Collier's standing by with their cornucopias, all ready to start pouring." Of course, as usually happens, he was not able to sell either of them another story and he eventually gravitated to the pulps before being discovered by Vanity Fair (he wrote about half of each issue under a number of names) and then going on to success in the world of theatre, and then of course his great creation, Jeeves.

This from the front cover flap copy of Author! Author!: Our advice to all writers -- would-be writers, stalled writers, good-style-no-plot writers, good-plot-no-style writers, rejected writers, and writers who want to be better, happier writers -- can be summed up in three words: GRAB THIS BOOK.

It is our hunch -- only a hunch, but a powerful one -- that you will be seized with a burst of inspiration and resolve that will propel you to your own typewriter the minute you have finished the last page of AUTHOR! AUTHOR!

Propel yourself to a library to look for this -- you won't be disappointed!

Friday, July 28, 2006

A Motto To Live By

I was on yet another of my all too frequent search and recover missions. The object was not a missing comrade though but only a book. As always happens when I venture into the archives, the mission proved to be a failure. Instead of finding the book I’m looking for, I always seem to turn up the title I was looking for about three months ago. This time though something unusual surfaced.

I found a letter (circa mid-80s) from my favorite writer, Stirling Silliphant. Always a gracious man, he had written to thank me for something I had sent him. At the end of the letter he casually mentioned that he would be out of touch for a while because he was in the process of moving. He promised to send me his new address when he finally settled into his new location -- Thailand! I must admit that I stared at that letter for quite some time. How could one of the greatest screenwriters (In the Heat of the Night, The Towering Inferno, and many other classics) leave Hollywood for Bangkok? Well, the answer was right there. Silliphant was moving to Thailand to immerse himself in the Buddhist world.

That innocent comment had little effect at first but soon like all of Silliphant’s subtle messages it began to work on me. It eventually led to today’s several bookcases filled with books on Zen and Buddhism and while I consider myself far from enlightened I’m still silently thanking Silliphant (sadly no longer with us) for putting me on the right path. He seemed to have a great way of imparting an important message to you with little effort. Some of the seventy one episodes of ROUTE 66 that he wrote (quite possibly the greatest achievement in TV writing) are noteworthy purely on an entertainment level, but many of them had a message and it could range from drug addiction (Birdcage on My Foot) to the tragedy of unwanted children (Somehow It Gets To Be Tomorrow). Harlan Ellison was noted for his ability to write stories in bookstore windows, but you had the impression that you could lock Silliphant in a closet with a book of matches and when you opened the door he’d have a completed screenplay in hand.

I can no longer remember the context or the episode (time for a search and recover viewing) but in an episode of ROUTE 66, Buzz (George Maharis) says to Tod (Martin Milner), “Now there’s a motto a man can live by.” Well I really wish Silliphant were around to hear the motto I found in a book recently. I believe I already mentioned this in DAPA-EM, but this one is so good it bears reading every day. The quote is by Goethe and it appears in Robert D. Richardson's Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (University of California Press, 1986):

To live within limits, to want one thing, or a very few things, very much and love them dearly, cling to them, survey them from every angle, become one with them --that is what makes the poet, the artist, the human being.

While we're in this spiritual mood, I stumbled onto a really interesting website the other day. I was reading one of the most enlightened of all magazines, Utne, and discovered a website for those among us who are searching for themselves (and who among us isn't?). If you go to, you'll find about a zillion people who are stumbling towards enlightenment (a great title for a book, and of course I've got a copy of it). I'll admit that the first couple of profiles I previewed didn't exactly inspire me but then I hit this one for Kate (she appears on the first page of profiles for good reason). Here's a taste of her story:

In the fall of 2003, I either sold or gave away all of my possessions except for about thirty boxes that I stored with a friend and what I could fit in my car. I left behind my friends, my work, my apartment, and the life I'd lived there for six years and headed out for a cabin on top of a mountain in Pulaski, Virginia with just me, my three cats, some clothes, several boxes of books, thirty different kinds of tea, and a newly acquired laptop and cell phone. I stayed on the mountain for six months.

Okay, we'll cut her a little slack for that laptop and cell phone. This is the twenty-first century after all. Time permitting, I think I'll follow Kate's exploits. I'm also in the process of following the adventures of another searcher who left it all behind. Elizabeth Gilbert had the house with the white picket fence but with the requisite 2.4 children staring her in the face, she decided it was time to head into the great unknown. "To find out who she really was and what she really wanted she got rid of her belongings, quit her job, left her loved ones behind and undertook a yearlong journey around the world, all alone." Her tale is chronicled in the highly recommended eat pray love: One Woman's Search For Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia (Viking, 2006). Right after Gilbert's wonderful book I moved on to Steve Kotler's West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief (Bloomsbury, 2006). "After suffering from lyme disease for two years, Kotler loses the perfect job, the perfect girl and much of what had been the perfect life. With nothing of any meaning left to him, Kotler sets out to surf around the world." (another silly dream of mine lived vicariously).

And coming up next time, a search of another kind altogether:

THE BURGLAR WHO STOLE MEDICAL JOURNALS (with apologies to Lawrence Block)

Friday, June 23, 2006

Eat This Book

When I first spotted Eat This Book (yes, that really is the title) in my local library, I didn't even bother to pick it up. As someone who eats with a glacial slowness, I really didn't think I'd be interested in a book about competitive eating. The book, a trade paperback, is rather eye-catching though, owing principally to its plasticized cover, a marketing move that more publishers should probably consider. Design-wise, the cover is effective but hardly inspiring -- three hot dogs in buns stretch across the cover with the title written in mustard. Since the subtitle is "a year of gorging and glory on the competitive eating circuit," I think there should definitely be at least one exclamation point after the title.

On my next visit to the library the book was still there and I took it out figuring I'd probably only read a chapter or two. Author Ryan Nerz had me hooked after a few pages though and I found the book pretty easy to breeze through. After reading the first chapter which details Nerz' introduction to the "sport", you can pretty much turn to any chapter and find something interesting.

At the back of the book is a list of the 83 foods for which IFOCE (the International Federation of Competitive Eating) is keeping records. Amazingly, two people hold 35 of the individual records. Even more amazing is that the number one record holder, Sonya Thomas, is a diminuitive waif-like woman who can't weigh much more than 100 pounds. Here's a list of a few of the records she holds:

Baked Beans 8.4 pounds in 2 minutes and 48 seconds
Cheesecake 11 pounds in 9 minutes
Chicken Wings 167 in 32 minutes
Oysters 46 dozen in 10 minutes

For me the most amazing achievement is Oleg Zhornitskiy's downing of 8 pounds of mayonnaise in eight minutes! You'll be sad to find out though that Cool Hand Luke really isn't so cool anymore since Sonya only took 6 minutes and 40 seconds to down 65 hard-boiled eggs while ol' Luke took the better part of a couple reels of film to do a measly fifty.

In the best tradition of modern reportage, the author dives into the world of competitive eating himself with quite painful results. Yes, this book is a gut-wrenching literary feast and while you may be able to put it down, you won't soon forget some of the characters and their oddball achievements. The book even sports a great blurb on the back cover by Takeru Kobayashi, who at only 131 pounds seemed to singlehandedly ignite this sport when he shattered the hot dog eating record at Nathan's annual 4th of July contest (53.5 dogs and buns in 12 minutes):

Using my own patented dunking technique, I ate this book in two minutes and thirteen seconds. It should have been faster, but the cover did not masticate easily.

Lest you think the actual eating of the book impossible, at one point Nerz recounts the story of a man who started out eating glass and worked up to some other truly strange items -- bicycles, TV sets, supermarket carts, a coffin, and (get this) a Cessna airplane (a two year long labor of love which evidently got him in the Guiness Book of World Records).

Oh yeah, I forgot one great achievement (kind of forgettable after that Cessna though) was Kobayashi's performance after eating Japanese buffet food for 45 minutes -- the 131 pound man gained a whopping 26 and a half pounds. After reading this book you may never feel nauseous again.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Ellroy Reads!

As a devoted fan of James Ellroy I've attended a couple of his book signings. I believe that it was at a signing at Tower Books in 1992 (for White Jazz) that Ellroy was asked (no doubt by an aspiring writer) who were the authors that he read. I'm pretty sure that Ellroy answered that he didn't read but I think he meant that he didn't read crime fiction while he was in the process of working on a book.

Of course we've seen blurbs from Ellroy on other writers' books so we know that Ellroy is, as you would expect, a reader. What really surprised me though is a blurb of his that I found on a rather unlikely book. The book is Sleeping With Schubert ("a novel about genius, passion and hair") by Bonnie Marson: a lawyer's life gets thrown into an upheaval when her body and mind become inhabited by the restless spirit of the Romantic composer Franz Schubert. Here's what Ellroy had to say of this most unlikely object of his reading: "A startling first novel, daringly original and richly evocative in its theme of creative redemption. A must-read, pure and simple. Bonnie Marson brilliantly soars."

My favorite blurb at the moment is Alice Sebold's front cover plug for Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club:

If I could eat this novel, I would.

Second place goes to the Daily Mail's blurb for Andrew Eames' The 8:55 to Baghdad, a novel about Agatha Christie's little known journeys to Iraq, circa 1928:

This is one of those lucky books which is based on a cracking idea, an idea so cracking that it almost qualifies as a brainwave."

Nobody says it quite like the British.

Friday, May 19, 2006

They Shoot Book Collectors, Don't They?

At the conclusion of this past Friday's dollar book free-for-all at the Strand, I remarked to an employee that several of the usual suspects were conspicuously missing. It was my impression that, like the mob, once you were in this select group, there was no getting out, that we were in a marathon of sorts, not unlike the marathon dancers of yesteryear, and that graceful retreat was not possible. Nothing short of dropping in your book hunting tracks right on the Strand floor was acceptable. The lesser number of participants (four were missing) meant that we all scored a few more choice books (well, at least choice in our eyes).

My best find that day was Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage (Coffee House Press, 2006). "A tale of exile, unrequited love, and the redemptive power of literature", Fermin is the story of a most unusual hero: Firmin, a rat, resides in the basement of a bookstore in Boston's Scollay Square during that area's bygone bookstore/burlesque era. No ordinary rat he, Firmin can read and he soon becomes friends with the owner of the bookstore and a down-on-his-luck science fiction writer.

Another interesting find was Haiku Guy (possibly the first novel whose subject is the writing of haiku) by David G. Lanoue (Red Moon Press, 2000), but hands down the most bizarre title was By the Time You Finish This Book You Might Be Dead by Aaron Zimmerman (Spuyten Duyvil, 2003): "Eliot Greebee, a lonely, overweight, middle age Certified Public Accountant is the creator of CUTLAS, a mathematically based system designed to justify a purely hedonistic lifestyle. Practioners can do whatever they want whenever they want." Oh, and let me not forget Wheeler Dealer: The Rip Roaring Adventures of My Uncle Gordon, a Quadriplegic in Hollywood by Chip Jacobs (First Person Press, 2006)which (I think) is the true story of the author's grandfather, Lee Zahler. It probably sounds like I'm making these books up, but they're all REAL! I wish I could figure out how to post pictures here because if I wasn't such an idler, I'd have pictures of these books accompanying this entry just to convince the doubters among you.

Once upon a time I had the brilliant idea that I would read all of the Dan Turner pulp stories of Robert Leslie Bellem. A silly idea to be sure which didn't get very far before I abandoned it. A far better idea was my recent thought to start reading the Nebula award winning stories. The first story I read was not even the winner but was one of the nominated stories which you can find in Nebula Awards Showcase 2006: The Year's Best SF and Fantasy edited by Gardner Dozois (ROC, 2006). The story is Travels With My Cats by Mike Resnick, a story that Resnick feels is one of his best. Instead of a Tarzan or a Mickey Spillane novel, an eleven year old boy is resigned to buy the only book he can afford at a garage sale -- Travels With My Cats by Miss Priscilla Wallace. After initially fascinating him,the book sits unwanted and unloved until the young boy, now forty years old and leading a life of quiet desperation, returns to it and finds his life totally transformed by this obscure little book. Look for this one -- you'll love this story!