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

Friday, November 26, 2004

Writers on Comics

Older (and presumably wiser), I no longer start a book of essays at the beginning. I now do the sensible thing -- take a little time to page through the book to find the best essay because quite likely that's the only one I'll read before I plow on to the next book.

Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers edited by Sean Howe (Pantheon Books, 2004) is a series of essays about comics by seventeen writers. The books itself has a few nice touches -- each essay is preceded by a panel from a comic that is being discussed in the essay. Another cool effect is that page numbers and page titles are in color.

A quick scan of the book revealed a fatal problem with it -- the mostly (relatively) younger writers spend way too much time on the silver age -- in fact it almost seems as if nobody knows about earlier comics. I looked in vain for anything about those beloved Disney comics and Carl Barks, but alas nothing. I turned to jazz critic Gary Giddins' contribution about the Classics Illustrated series and found it to be interesting but not engrossing.

The highlight of this book is Glen David Gold's Oui, Je Regrette Presuue Tout, an agonized confessional about the insanity and hopelessness of collecting. In the About Contributors section, I learned that Gold is the author of Carter Beats the Devil (a book I have but have not yet read). In his little bio section, Gold recommends that anyone who collects anything should read Werner Muensterberger's Collecting: An Unruly Passion (another book I have but have not yet read!).

Gold tells of how he was in therapy (shouldn't we all be?) and when his doctor had to cancel an appointment one day, he found himself with time on his hands and was drawn off the highway into a strip mall by a BOOKSTORE sign in the parking lot. The bookstore in question was closed but through the windows, Gold spotted a veritable treasure trove of original art -- comic book pages, book covers, paintings, etc. The entire store was filled with original art! The essay recounts the adventure Gold had in trying to track down the owner of the long closed store and his attempts to convince the owner to sell him some of the original art. His pain is palpable as this (mis)adventure progresses. This should be required reading for any would-be collector and is the ultimate cautionary tale about collecting. Don't miss this one!!!

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Rescuing Books

We all dream of being involved in great adventures and while this tale is not exactly on a par with Howard Carter's discovery of King Tut's tomb, it is no less exhilirating in its own understated way. When a twenty three year old student noticed that Yiddish books were being thrown away at an alarming rate by a younger generation that didn't have any interest in them, he set out on an improbable rescue mission that had no shortage of drama, resulting in a heartwarming book entitled Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books (Algonquin Books, 2004). It was actually a million and a half books, and when the dust and mold had settled, Aaron Lansky had not only rescued an entire species of literature -- he then proceeded to find a way to get the books into the hands of people like himself, people who had been searching for the books at the very time that they were being thrown away.

In this highly recommended wild ride, you'll find him rescuing books from dumpsters, matching wits with a bookstore owner who steadfastly refused to sell the mountain of Yiddish books that had been sitting in the middle of his floor for years, and trying unsuccessfully to convince a Catskills resort owner that he was really only looking for books not performing a bizarre stand up comedy routine. You'll meet the unforgettable Ostroff from Sea Gate, a plumber from Brooklyn by way of Russia who preceded George Plimpton by forty years in hosting an entirely different constellation of literary greats. You'll learn that the most dangerous job in rescuing books is not the backbreaking lifting or inhaling years of accumulated dust and mold but the position of "designated eater," a job fraught with its own unique brand of danger.

The book can be summed up best in one quote that echoed through many of Lansky's encounters with the owners of the books: "he was handing me not merely his books but his world." There is an entire world contained within the pages of this book and it will stay with you long after you've turned the final page.

A great book about books. File it next to Nicholson Baker's Double Fold.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The $3,000 Book

For a minute I thought I had stumbled into a Neiman-Marcus catalog, but no it was really the Barnes & Noble Holiday Catalog. So what the hell is a $3,000 book doing in there?

On page 22, across from a B&N published book, Intimacy, is a page devoted to a book entitled GOAT: A Tribute To Muhammed Ali. First mistake: although GOAT stands for "greatest of all time," GOAT is truly a stupid name for a book. Why not simply call it The Greatest. Second mistake: they should have devoted a two page spread to GOAT. Putting it across from a book selling for $19.95 is like putting up a luxury high rise next to a tenement. Continuing with our list of mistakes, the cover of this book, with GOAT in bright red on a white background is way too garish, even if it might be the colors of his gloves and trunks.

Okay, now for the unit cost. At 75 pounds (!), the book costs $40 a pound. With 3,000 images, the cost comes down to a buck a photo, and the 600,000 words comes out to a mere half cent a word. Shades of the pulps! Sure it's bound in leather and it's cradled in a silk covered box, but $3,000? I thought their Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot book would be a tough sell at $150, but what were the folks at Taschen thinking when they hatched this one?

Most amazing of all, is that the book is "limited" to 10,000 copies (!), and signed by Muhammed Ali and artist Jeff Koons. I can't even conceive of how a perfectly healthy person could sign 10,000 copies. Having Ali sign 10,000 copies must surely be cruel and unusual punishment no matter how much he got for it. A fight that went the distance couldn't be as taxing.

I should have quit while I was ahead, but I just paid a visit to the Taschen website. The lettering isn't red on white but is actually pink on white (the color of Ali's first Cadillac), and you only get that cover if you buy one of the first 1,000 copies which actually retail for $10,000! They come with a sculpture by Jeff Koons which I can only describe as a dolphin hovering over a stool which looks like it's encircled by a tire! Maybe I'd better get my eyes checked. As it turns out, if you can only afford one of the $3,000 editions (limited to 9,000 copies), the cover is the word GOAT superimposed over Ali's chest! If my feeble memory serves me correct, I think this was also printed by the Vatican's printer. Wow, my head is reeling. I feel like I'm being jabbed to death and can't get my gloves up. Check out the Taschen website but don't say I didn't warn you.

If I didn't know better, I'd think this was a gag.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Freaks and Geeks

Somehow we all managed to survive high school, and today even the bad experiences
seem a little less painful in the light of nostalgia. Strange as it might seem, it's probably not unnatural to want to relive those days, but at a distance, through the eyes of other educational combatants.

You could certainly be forgiven if you don't have a clue as to what Freaks and Geeks is. The truth is if you blinked in the fall of 1999, you probably missed this highly regarded but short lived tv series that ran for only a mere twelve episodes that fall and winter. Beset by preemptions, schedule changes, and competition from ABC's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (who cares about that show anymore?), Freaks and Geeks didn't even get to air the other six episodes of the series that had been shot. Improbably, the show lives on due to dedicated fans and an impossibly devoted pair of creators.

Freaks and Geeks is a dramedy (part drama, part comedy) about life at a Michigan high school, circa 1980. This past April, a DVD box set of the series was released. The six disc set retails for a bit more ($69.98) than some box sets, but few DVD releases have been this generous with extras. There are twenty nine audio commentaries from virtually everybody involved in the series (surely that must be a record). And, if you're still not satisfied, there is a deluxe limited edition box set (available online only, $120) with an additional two discs (eight in all) plus more text material packaged inside a high school yearbook! The additional two discs include virtually everything that the creators could put in, and, knowing the show probably had a limited chance at surviving, they had been saving material right from the start. I'm not sure I've ever heard of a DVD release including "table reads" (the script is read by the cast around a table not a set) but there are actually three of them in the limited edition supplementary material. A true labor of love!

As if that weren't enough, now comes the publication of all eighteen scripts in two volumes by Newmarket Press, Freaks and Geeks The Complete Scripts Volumes 1 and 2 ($19.95 per volume). Each script is preceded by a short commentary from the writer. What is most amazing is that apart from the show's creators (Paul Feig and Judd Apatow), there are nine other writers who are credited, also quite possibly a record for such a short-lived series. Rather than dilute the power of the vision, the wealth of writers has just the opposite effect -- rich original visions touch on just about every conceivable topic -- liquor, bullies, starting a band, sex ed, fake IDs, pranks, drugs, and even disco (!). Check it out -- you won't be disappointed.

Friday, November 05, 2004

A Must Buy!

Okay, don't laugh now but this book virtually jumped into my basket! If it's true that we are what we eat, one thing is clear -- you'd better either stop eating or avoid this book at all costs. Since this is the sixth edition of this work (first published in 1978), I don't know how it's possible that I don't already have an earlier edition of this book but I can tell you that I will definitely get my money's worth (a mere $16.95) out of this one.

A Consumer Dictionary of Food Additives (Three Rivers Press, 2004) by Ruth Winter is the kind of book I just love -- it's good for you and if you're at all interested in the subject matter, you'll definitely find yourself constantly referring to it. So, all right, let's take it out for a little test drive. Every morning I start the day with one of life's great foods -- Cheerios! Hey, they've gotta be better than Jimmy Dean's Pork Sausages, right? Either these General Mills people have got to be really bold or they've got the real thing here. The box of Cheerios has a bowl on it shaped like a heart which of course is a healthy red with a ribbon wrapped around it that proclaims: As Part of a Heart-Healthy Diet, the Soluble Fiber in Cheerios Can Reduce Your Cholesterol! Yes, they do have an exclamation point there and believe me that's not lost on me.

Okay, what's in Cheerios and what does Ruth has to say about it? Well, first of all, it's whole grain oats (nothing bad there), then modified corn starch, followed by corn starch (shouldn't that order be reversed?), then sugar, salt, calcium carbonate, oat fiber, tripotassium phosphate, wheat starch, and vitamin E bringing up the rear (to promote freshness).

Well, right away I like those General Mills folks because I just know that Vitamin E (to promote freshness) is definitely better than BHT, right? Oops, I see they're using that in Total to preserve freshness. And hey, what about all the cereals that aren't using anything to preserve freshness?

Okay, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the bad additive here must be tripotassium phosphate (sounds kinda ominous, doesn't it?). Well, I can't find it in the book, but I can find potassium phosphate and tripotassium phosphate's probably three times as good (or bad!). Anyway, here's what it says: "used as a yeast food in the brewing industry and in the production of champagne and other sparkling wines. Used in frozen eggs as a color preservative. Has been used medicinally as a urine acidifier." I gotta tell you, that last one freaks me out a little.

I also check out corn starch (shown as cornstarch in the book). It says: "may cause allergic reactions, including skin rashes and asthma." I also learn that chemicals used to modify starch are propylene oxide, succinic anhydride, 1-octenyl succinic anhydride, aluminum sulfate, and sodium hydroxide (see all). I think for now I'll pass on checking those modifiers. Breakfast may never be the same again.

On the bright side though, I don't have to worry about having to buy Ruth's other book, A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients (Fifth Edition). Sorry ladies.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Graham Greene

I've been kind of proud of myself for having resisted Norman Sherry's biography of Graham Greene. Over the years I've picked up the three volumes that comprise this work (the first volume came out in 1989, the second in 1994, and the third was just published), and though I was somewhat tempted, I ultimately returned it to the shelf each time. Maybe it was the thought of how much time I'd have to invest in it, or maybe I was just waiting until it was finished. I'm afraid now that my resolve to avoid this work has weakened somewhat.

On November 4th, Dinitia Smith published an article in The New York Times -- Graham Greene Biography, Heavy on Sex, Draws Some Outrage. Now, in truth, it wasn't really the sex part that caught my attention, though admittedly it was kind of hard to avoid it. It seems that Graham's relatives are none too pleased about some of Sherry's disclosures regarding Greene's sex life, the most notorious of which is evidently a list of forty seven prostitutes that Greene had sex with. No, it wasn't the sex that captured my attention, but rather the thought that Sherry spent a virtual career (thirty years) on this 2,251 page biography, an obsessive quest that certainly took a heavy toll on Sherry's life. In researching the writing of Graham's books, Sherry followed in his footsteps, contracting exotic illnesses almost every step of the way. In the article , Sherry is quoted as saying, " I almost destroyed myself. By the time I had finished, my life had been taken from me."

Sufficiently intrigued, I went back and read Paul Theroux's favorable review in the October 17, 2004 The New York Times Book Review. In Damned Old Graham Greene, Theroux had this to say: "For anyone interested in Greene's life and work, this three-volume biography is incomparable; as an intellectual and political history of the 20th century it is invaluable; as a literary journey, as well as a journey across the world, it is masterly; as a source book and rogue's gallery it is fascinating." Theroux's review too is a masterpiece and now there is little doubt that this three volume work will soon end up on my bookshelf. I only hope I can avoid Leon Edel's five volume biography of Henry James which Theroux compares the Greene work to. Only time will tell.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Best Of The Best Of

One of my friends had a life threatening illness and couldn't eat any solid food for six months. I asked him how he maintained his sanity and he told me rather matter-of-factly that he just sat at home and watched the Food Network all day just dreaming of when he'd be able to eat again. I guess I could understand it. It doesn't take much to get hooked on those shows.

My favorite is Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour. Now there's a guy who truly loves food! I also became a fan of a show called The Best Of. On this show, hosts Jill Cordes and Marc Silverstein travel around the country reporting on the best food and eating establishments they can find. I'm happy to report that there is now a book to go along with the TV series. Food Network The Best of the Best Of (HP Books, 2004) is a state by state offering of great food and the places that serve it. They describe it best: "part travelogue, part recipe collection, part scavenger hunt, part confessional .... this book showcases the breadth and variety of eating in America that is the hallmark of The Best Of. Every place has a story. And like any good story, we look for something unique that distinguishes each place, whether it's the setting, the characters, the history, or the lore."

Since I'm not much of a traveller and even worse -- I'm a very fussy eater -- it's unlikely I'll ever eat in many of these places. I've only actually eaten in two of them. A couple of times a year, I walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to eat in Grimaldi's Pizzeria. Not only is it a spectacular pizza, but it's one of the few I've found that tastes almost as good as a leftover (important since I usually only eat three of the eight slices when I'm by myself). The second place I can vouch for is Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh. I'll never forget the Saturday when I had a tuna sandwich there. The novelty here is that french fries and cole slaw are piled on top of the tuna fish between the slices of bread. Words simply cannot describe how good these sandwiches are and though I've sworn off french fries, all that would be forgotten if you dropped me down into their dining room.

Along this line, I have two personal "best ofs" that I am always touting. For years, believing it was bad for you, I swore off peanut butter. It was only after a friend told me that he had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich each day for lunch that I did the research and found that peanut butter was actually good for you. The best choice is peanut butter that doesn't contain any hydrogenated oils. I've tried them all and nothing even comes close to Wild Oats Crunchy Chunk Peanut Butter which only contains two ingredients: peanuts and salt. Even natural grind-em-in-the-store peanut butters can't compare and at $2.49 it's a real steal. Unfortunately, the Wild Oats stores are only in 24 states.

The second of my "bests" is a bagel from the bakery cafe chain, Au Bon Pain. For years I ate nearly every variety of bagel they made with one exception -- I studiously avoided the jalapeno double cheddar model. Then one day I tasted it and now I won't touch any of the other bagels! I pop the jalapeno double cheddar into a toaster over to crisp it a little more and it goes great with any type of meal. I don't think it would be possible to find a better bagel and the proof is that I always have them on hand. After a while I got to wondering what was in the bagels and was kind of fearful about finding out because I didn't think I'd be able to kick the habit if I had to. I finally broke down and checked their very informative website and learned that the bagel doesn't contain any partially hydrogenated fat (you'd be surprised how many do) and in fact only clocked in at six grams of fat (3.5 saturated). This comes in under my fat radar but sadly their scones (and everyone else's) do not. Au Bon Pains are not everywhere but there are 230 of them, including quite a few in South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand.