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Eat Salt

It’s here…!

 

Eat Salt:¬†archaic rural expression meaning to be someone’s guest, to share their table

cover-front

“The first cookbook from Dan Perlman, chef and co-owner of the famed Casa SaltShaker, Buenos Aires’ longest running “closed door restaurant”, offering Andean-Mediterranean fare in an intimate, shared table setting. Featuring 150 recipes from the chef’s archives, along with full color photos, this is not just a great read, but a work of art. Destined for regular use in the kitchen, and beautiful to show off to friends. The book is an experience only rivaled by dinner at Casa SaltShaker itself.”

Available by direct order right now – it always takes retail services a couple of weeks to pick things up – but why wait? Order yours now!

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

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The Book Stack #6

jumbled books
Continuing with some more fantasy, and a bit of other….

My Tender Matador / Tengo Miedo Torero, Pedro Lemebel, September 2002, Translator: Katherine Silver

Let’s start outside the realm of fantasy. I actually don’t remember how this one came to my attention – it’s the story, basically, of the end of the days of Augustin Pinochet’s rule over Chile, focused on the events leading up to an attempted assassination. The book goes back and forth between Pinochet’s viewpoint, and that of an aging drag queen, the latter of whom has befriended a young, handsome man who turns out to be involved in the assassination attempt. It’s extremely well written, and the characters are well defined. It was a little slow reading for me as I initially started reading this in the original Spanish version, but the constant use of colloquial terms and street slang made it near impossible, and what I ended up doing was reading the two versions more or less side by side (learned a lot of Chilean street slang!). ☆☆☆

Code of Conduct, Brad Thor, July 2015

Over time I’ve read through the entire previous series (15 previous books) of the “Scot Horvath” novels. These are sort of Jack Bauer/24 on steroids if you can imagine that. They’re thrillers. They’re fast paced, they require some level of suspension of disbelief – they’re not totally out of left field, they’re basically, “what if?” scenarios that any of us could imagine given the state of the world right now, even if highly unlikely. And Thor makes them completely believable as potential scenarios. For me, given that I like thrillers of this sort, they’re entertaining as well as thought provoking. Fast reads. And, this one fits right in with all of that. There’s now a 17th novel out, Foreign Agent, and it’s on my reading stack! ☆☆☆☆

The Ronin Trilogy, Travis Heermann

Another trilogy, this one consisting of Heart of the Ronin (2010), Sword of the Ronin (2013), Spirit of the Ronin (2015). I stumbled across this one when I was looking for some martial arts books for study, and it looked interesting. Since the first volume was available for free on my Kindle Unlimited account, I gave it a spin, and rapidly went on to the sequels. Although set in feudal Japan, and following the story of a ronin, a masterless samurai, the writing style is very “western” in its approach, which gave them an interesting flavor – sort of like watching a completely foreign culture and concept develop from an outside observer’s eye. The author has a nice little quip on his site, “Writing fiction set in a far different time and place is challenging. The key is cram as much background information into your brain, let it percolate for a while, and see what bubbles out.”. And, no question, that’s what he’s done – creating a real image of a very different world than I’m familiar with, and at the same time, letting it develop in a way that I could actually visualize it, without feeling lost. I loved it. ☆☆☆☆

The Inheritance Trilogy, N.K. Jemisin

And, yet another trilogy! The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010), The Broken Kingdoms (2010), The Kingdom of Gods (2011). This one took me a little bit to get into. I can’t even tell you exactly what it was about it – it’s certainly well written, and an interesting concept. I think that it was that the protagonist in the first volume just didn’t resonate with me, and I initially found her viewpoint to be sort of a bore, or maybe it was just that the development of the story started out too slowly for me. But, the book picked up, and I ended up enjoying it enough to go on to the other two volumes, which take place from the viewpoints of other characters, and I liked both of those volumes much more. I mean, what’s not to like about a world where humans, gods, godlings, and demons, all live together and interact on a daily basis? In the end, highly recommendable. And, a nice perk that you can buy the entire trilogy in one volume. ☆☆☆☆

The Price of Retribution, Christopher Cartwright, March 2015

For such a small book (okay, 370 pages), it’s a pretty sweeping epic story, that starts with a jewel heist in long ago London and then jumps across the oceans to Australia, and back again. Another sort of “gentleman thief” – I guess those sort just attract me – it’s a great story, with romance, revenge, and a bit of rampaging. I found the writing to be quite good – at times it wandered a little, and I felt like for a moment that I, or the author, was losing the plot, but then it came back on track. The characters are interesting, though I felt that while the central ones are really well developed, that those who were not directly a part of the main storyline were a little greyed out by comparison, as if they didn’t really matter that much. ☆☆☆

The Book of Strange New things, Michel Faber, June 2015

The writing itself was fine, the author is excellent at drawing out characterization and visuals that many would find difficult to imagine. And the overall arc of the story is interesting and was enough to keep me going through to the end. However, the protagonist, and his wife, who we basically don’t meet other than briefly at the beginning and then through a series of letters, are some of the most unpleasant, unsympathetic “good guys” that one could care to encounter. Misogynistic, racist, religiously intolerant, judgmental, and constantly spouting stereotypes about everyone and everything around them – it was just plain unpleasant to read. (Honestly, given the time period I was reading this in, it was like trying to listen to Donald Trump talk about anyone who isn’t American, White, Male, and Christian.) And it was made worse because it was cloaked in a sort of pious righteousness. ☆☆

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The Book Stack #5

jumbled books
Okay, I’ve gotten way behind on this. I’m going to start with the last few rounds of fantasy series. I’m still working my way through this buzzfeed list.

Peter V. Brett, The Demon Cycle

Currently a four volume series including The Painted Man (2008), The Desert Spear (2010), The Daylight War (2013), and The Skull Throne (2015), with a fifth and final volume due out some time in 2017. I’ve read the first three, with the fourth on deck, and I’ll review that down the line.

This one took me a little bit to get into to. When I first started it, the concept of some sort of demons rising from the ground at night with the intent to destroy humanity, and being able to ward them off with simple signs drawn or painted, seemed, well, stupid. But at some point I got into the whole magic and sweep of it, as I pushed further through (I’m trying to be relatively faithful to the list I have of recommended fantasy series). I still find myself a little mystified by the existence of the demons – apparently their existence being “our” fault, after some sort of nuclear holocaust, there’s just no real connection as to why they came to be, or why there are so many different types. But I like the battle of good and evil, and that it’s not all one-sided, the battle also rages between factions of remaining humans. The not so loosely veiled Christianity vs Islam approach to both demon fighting and each other is clearly drawn from the political and religious battles of our own modern world, and at first I thought I was going to find that a bit off-putting, because it seemed a bit “Christian good, Muslim bad”, and overall, there is that bent, but at least the author takes the time to explore the motivations and drive of the other side, and why its approach is so different. Still, the series mostly stays with three primary characters, starting from their adolescence and working forward, and although sections are shown from the viewpoint of others, particularly on the “Islam side”, these three are all on the “Christian side”. ☆☆☆☆

Patricia A. McKillip, The Riddle Master

Trilogy includes The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976), Heir of Sea and Fire (1977), and Harpist in the Wind (1979).

I have to admit, this wasn’t one of my favorites as I’ve been reading through these various series. It’s well written and engaging, no question. And there’s the whole magic, and a grand quest, and romance, and even a bit of battling. But when it came down to it, I didn’t like any of the principal characters. Their reasons for jumping into their individual quests and the grand one were superficial, and mostly seemed spur of the moment, impulsive, emotional decisions, with little thought. To a tee, each of the protagonists was basically selfish, barely giving a moment’s thought to their families and friends, because “I wanna do this”, and not seeming to care if others were hurt in the process. They hold stupid grudges, they’re not interested in each other’s points of view, and there just seems to be a missing logic to a lot of what they do. At the end of the trilogy, with the big wind-up, I just really didn’t care who came out “on top”, and I was just ready move on to another series and hopefully some more likable people. ☆☆

Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn

Trilogy of The Final Empire (2006), The Well of Ascension (2007), and The Hero of Ages (2008).

I loved this one, from minute one, to the end. I’d already encountered Sanderson’s fantasy writing in the first two volumes of the (eventually) ten volume The Stormlight Archive, and really liked his writing there (it was before I started doing these reviews, so I haven’t written it up, maybe when another volume or two is published). The whole concept of using something ordinary, in this case, metals, as essentially magical essences, fascinated me, especially the interplay between the different types of magic, or power, engendered by each. The sweep of the different factions, the exploration, the delving into the history of how it all came to pass, some of which might, in other hands, seem like pedantic tangents, was treated in a way that was just as intriguing as the action sequences. I like that both protagonists and antagonists have their flaws and aren’t “black and white” as to where they fall, and, I really appreciated that the character development as the storyline continued, allowed for some real twists and turns. The world setting (at least up until the way the series wraps up) would make a fascinating MMORPG… just sayin’. ☆☆☆☆☆

Brandon Sanderson, The Alloy of Law (2011)

Okay, after that glowing praise, I’m going to have to damn this one with the faint stuff. After a several year stint off on other fantasy writing, Sanderson returned to the Mistborn world with another trilogy, referred to cutely as the “Wax and Wayne” trilogy. It’s set in the same world, but 300 years in the future. And I have to admit, I didn’t really like it. The combination of the whole Wild West scenario with the deep magic, stone castle feel of the original trilogy, just didn’t jive for me (there’s no seeming logical reason for the shift in such a short span of time). I realize that it’s supposed to be the start of a completely different series, and that Sanderson originally wrote it just as a creative writing exercise in a new genre “to clear his head”, and then later decided to publish it, but given the ties to the original, it’s hard to separate the two, one being a rich, explorative series, and the other being a sort of perfunctory shoot-em-up series that just makes use of pieces of the original. It also felt a bit as if it had just been scribbled off, and while when I read it I didn’t know about the reason it had been written, in retrospect it makes sense, it didn’t feel like it was written with any commitment to tell a story, it was more just a lot of character sketch development. I ended this one with no real interest in reading the other two in the W&W series. ☆☆

Scott Lynch, Gentleman Bastards

Trilogy of The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies and The Republic of Thieves, with four more planned novels in the series yet to come.

I find, often, that I really enjoy books that take on the world from “the other side”. In this series, the protagonists are a band of thieves, con men, and even at times, worse. And yet, for the most part, they’re the most sympathetic characters in the series – of course it was written that way, but it all feels very logical. Of course we should root for these guys to come out on top. And no, it shouldn’t be easy for them, they should have to take their hard knocks, but they should get back up and keep going, and bit by bit, time and again, come out on top. It’s the same reason I love movies like Cary Grant’s John Robie in To Catch a Thief or it’s later incarnations as Robert Wagner’s Alexander Mundy in It Takes a Thief or even the modern version of Matt Bomer’s Neal Caffrey in White Collar (though admittedly that might be partly just the eye-candy). This series follows, particularly, one Locke Lamora, from his introduction to the band of the Gentleman Bastards as he develops from an impulsive, willful, and a bit dangerous young child, to a more considered, but still impulsive, willful, and a bit dangerous young adult. The writing is tight, the character development is brilliant, and the storyline makes complete sense, even when it seems to jump around. It doesn’t hurt, from my personal perspective, that there’s lots of good food and drink, with intricate descriptions, thrown in – someone likes their food. I’m looking forward to the continuation of the series. ☆☆☆☆

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R.I.P. Andrew, For Realz, This Time

andrew martinSo, I’m getting kind of a re-do here. I find myself writing a little tribute to my friend Andrew Martin, a eulogy of sorts. But I’m writing it for the second time. A decade after the first time. Andrew would appreciate this, with a certain level of dark humor that we shared.

It was the late 80s, early 90s. Andrew and I shared some of the same haunts – mostly cabaret spots, often ending up more or less closing out the bar together at Don’t Tell Mama in the West Village or Marie’s Crisis in the theater district. We were young. Younger anyway. I suppose I was in my early to mid 30s, he in his early to mid 20s. I was the food and wine writer for QSF Magazine. One day Andrew came to me with a proposal – he was launching a new publication centered around the cabaret scene, CaB magazine. He wanted to include some restaurant reviews each issue, along with other content that wasn’t necessarily cabaret related, but might be of interest to those reading it. He asked me if I’d write for him, and I did, issue after issue from June of ’92 until June of ’94.

Along the way, we became friends. We even dated a couple of times, but found that our attempts at romance tended to devolve into fits of hysterical laughter rather than steamy encounters. We left that part of our friendship to the wayside. And then one day, he announced that he needed a break, was going to stop publishing CaB, and get away for a little while. He had his demons, we all did. And he disappeared from my life.

And then he died. We had plenty of mutual friends at the time, and at least half a dozen of them told me that he’d passed away. It was always a little suspicious. An illness, an accident, no one seemed to know what had actually happened. But apparently he’d spent time somewhere, far from New York City, and was no longer with us, having gone to that big cabaret in the sky. I wrote a small note in memory of him on my website on the page with the index of the various articles I’d written for CaB. Now and again, mostly when I was revising something on the site, I’d think of him and wonder what the real story was.

A decade later, in late 2005, October 22nd to be exact, I woke up to find an email in my inbox from an Andrew Martin. My momentary thought was simply that it was a coincidence, it’s not exactly an uncommon sort of name. I clicked on it, and lo and behold, it was him. Not dead. He’d come across my little paean to his demise on my website and wanted to assure me that he was alive and well, living in New York, and participating with a comedy troupe, appropriately given the moment, named Meet the Mistake. I was thrilled. I had also just moved to Buenos Aires a few months before, and was not there to run over and give him a welcome back from the beyond hug.

But I did that just a few months later on a return visit. I went to one of his performances. I waited at the door, gave him a big hug, and a flower, which he assured me he’d place on his own gravesite. We went out for drinks, we caught up. And, though not by any stretch regularly, we kept in touch, an email exchange back and forth every couple of months. Then, a few years later, Facebook hit the scene. He was one of my first connections, and we took to commenting on each other’s trivial posts, and both being night owls, having the occasional late night chat when we found ourselves online at the same time. Not every day, not every week, maybe every 2-3 months. We flirted a bit – harmless flirtation, I’m happily married to Henry, and he was dating someone.

His mother passed away last year and we had a few more regular talks at night. Somewhere in there he went back to school, planning on a new career outside of the theater world. I had my upcoming 40th high school reunion (which was last weekend, I didn’t make it), he had his upcoming 30th, this coming weekend.

It wasn’t uncommon for a bit of time to pass without us talking. We were both busy. We lived in very different worlds, both geographically and the direction our passions had taken us. He often started chats with reminding me that he was still alive and kicking, usually involving some peculiar and humorous gag related to voices or visits from another realm.

And somehow, I missed it. He passed away the first week in June, a heart attack followed by a fall and head injury, found a day or two later. There were plenty of posts on his Facebook page about it, from his twin sister, and from friends, though none mutual, which might be why it didn’t burble to the top of my Facebook feed. Much has been written about him there, and tributes to him far more eloquent than my contribution may be in other spots. Sweet and charming when he wanted to be, a razor-tongued hellion when that was the direction called for, and funny, pretty much all the time.

Today would have been his birthday. 47, 48, I’m not sure which. It’s how I found out, when I went to his page to send him a message. All I can offer is a raised glass, a toast, a “Here’s looking at you kid”, for the second time, for real. Or as he would have said, “Love ya, babydoll.”

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The Book Stack #4

jumbled books
The brunt of my reading over the last many weeks since my last post (and it actually started before that last post) was binge reading through Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (April 1, 2000 – May 27, 2014) novels.
dresden files
It’s going to seem short shrift to place them all into one small review, but I’m not going to go through and review each individual one of the fifteen. I found them to be fun, irreverent, easy reads, the basic premise, the exploits of an openly proclaimed wizard in Chicago, as he fights demons, ghouls, and more, alongside the local police department’s division for handling stuff that no one can explain, no one wants to handle, and no one wants to talk about. Harry Dresden is a wisecracking magically endowed private investigator who loves nothing more than bringing in cult movie and television references, more or less just to see if anyone around him is paying attention. I found the series to get a bit off the rails in books 13 and 14, where it seemed like Butcher was taking it in a totally new direction, and the writing seemed a bit lost, but it all came back on track in the current last novel. Overall, a great series to get started on if you like the world of magic, the paranormal, crime, and punishment! The series was turned into a not short-lived enough, and truly, appallingly, bad television show that shouldn’t have lasted through the first season that it did. ☆☆☆☆

Several years ago someone recommended Robert Harris’ historical novel Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome (September 19, 2006) to me. Given my love of things Italian, history, and fiction, it was a match made in heaven. It’s basically a fictional account of the life of Marcus Cicero, the famed orator of the Roman senate, as he first came to power. The book is written as an eyewitness account from his personal slave and secretary, Tiro. Historical fiction is a favorite genre of mine, and this was completely engaging, and more or less a “couldn’t put it down” kind of read. My recollection is I read through it in a matter of a couple of days. And, obviously, I loved it. As to why I didn’t jump right into the next book in the series, I truly can’t tell you. But, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t, and I rectified that with a plunge into Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome (March 30, 2010) right after finishing the Dresden Files. Equally as good, the story continues with Cicero’s political career as he encounters some of the best known figures of that time, including Julius Caesar. Political machinations are the core of the second novel, and it’s surprising in many ways how little the world of political intrigue has changed in the millenia since (then again, the novels are written by someone living in today’s world, so it may be that Harris simply borrows from that which is familiar to a modern audience). In the world of “court politics” or “palace intrigue” this easily rivals the intricacy of well known pop culture references like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, or Scandal. Looking forward to the next novel! ☆☆☆☆

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves, (May 19, 2015)

One of the things that’s count-on-able with Stephenson’s longer novels is that they follow a predictable pattern. If you assume roughly 900 pages or thereabouts for most of them, there will be an initiating event, something that starts the entire story in motion, something to grab your attention, and it will take up the first 150-200 pages. Then there will be roughly 400-500 pages of character development, lots of explication, lots of looking at how motivations develop, lots of “here, let me explain why the story, when we get to it, is going to go the way it goes”. And then it’s finished off with what amounts to the “real” novel, about 250-300 pages where all the action that was set in motion, and influenced by all the motivations developed during the entire middle section, happens. I hear time and again how people launched into one of his books with fascination at the premise, and then gave up 100 or so pages further on when it just got too tedious to continue. And they miss out on all the good part when the story takes off again.

This book is no different. I read through section 1 in under two hours, a complete page turner. Then it took me a month to get through to “section 3” (pages 567-861), because I found I couldn’t read more than a few pages of section 2 (pages 227-567) at a time without drifting off. And then I read through section 3 without pausing in roughly two hours.

Loved sections one and three. I appreciate the info in section two, but my god there’s got to be a way to do that midsection of all of his books in half or fewer of the pages. ☆☆☆☆

Lucy Burdette, Killer Takeout, (April 5, 2016)

Last year I whizzed my way through the six novels of the “Key West Food Critic Mysteries”. Basically, I’d refer you to that review, particularly the last couple of paragraphs where I summed up the series. Much the same holds true for this seventh novel, a fun read, but showing a decided lack of knowledge in the food world.

Although I’ve liked this series a fair amount, something about this latest volume just felt a little thrown together, as if it wasn’t thought through as well as the others, and that’s saying something given my thoughts about the series. I still enjoyed it, just not as much as the rest.

I hadn’t done any research into the author, and “Lucy Burdette” turns out to be a pen-name for Roberta Isleib, a clinical psychologist, also known for writing a series of golf-mystery novels, and who writes an advice column under the title “Ask Dr. Aster”. A psychologist with three different identities… just something to muse upon.

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The Book Stack #3

jumbled books

A selection of what I’ve been reading (minus, in general, food and cooking related books, which I tend to review separately, and over on my SaltShaker blog).

Bacigalupi, Paolo (May 26, 2015) The Water Knife

This book was recommended on io9’s list of the 2015’s best new sci-fi, and so the whole list went into my reading pile along with all the other various lists I’m working through.

This is a gritty, bloody novel set in a dystopian future North America where basically, our water is all disappearing, or at least from the area that is covered in the story, mostly the classic American “West”. The characters are well drawn, the book is well written and fast paced. At times, despite that I enjoyed the story completely, it feels a little like an advertisement for the book Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner, a more journalistic look at the problem of disappearing water in that part of the country. The book is mentioned multiple times, and held up as a beacon of “this is where we’re headed” (post-fact, since this is set in the future), and in the end, serves as a key to the climactic scene in The Water Knife. ☆☆☆☆

Corey, James S.A. (June 15, 2011) Leviathan Wakes

I got curious about this book, as it’s a) the basis for the SyFy channel series The Expanse, and b) the author doesn’t actually exist. Well, it’s a pen name for two collaborating writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the former of which wrote a book series that I very much enjoyed called The Long Price Quartet, and he has also been a co-writer with George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame.

Roughly a chapter into the book it was clear that overall, the book and the show were diverging rapidly. In general, the theme remains similar, with some events lining up, but others not, and it quickly seems that the very premise of the book was dropped as, probably, a bit too icky for a television audience, so they looked elsewhere for motivations. The book itself is pretty graphic and I like that it doesn’t portray space, space travel, etc., in the sort of antiseptic conditions that so many sci-fi books seem to take as a given, that for some reason, if we live in space or on other planets, we’ll take better care of those locations than we do of earth. It’s well written and fast paced – despite being nearly 600 pages, I finished it off with casual reading over the course of just a couple of days. At the same time, while I enjoyed it, I didn’t find myself jumping to move on to the next book in the series. ☆☆☆☆

Abercrombie, Joe (2008) Before They Are Hanged

In my last round-up of books I’d started in on The First Law trilogy, and enjoyed the opening volume enough to continue on with the series, and not just because I’ve made a commitment to myself to work my way through the reading list referenced there. Not surprisingly, this book picks up pretty much where the first book left off – maybe a few months later, and continues the various story lines, and at the same time introduces new ones. There does seem to be a bit more of an interweaving of the stories starting to happen, which is what I’d mentioned that some reviewers had said, so I’m glad to see that, and I enjoyed this one even a bit more than the first. On to the third! ☆☆☆☆

Abercrombie, Joe (2008) The Last Argument of Kings

Which, what the heck, let’s just go straight to, even though it wasn’t the next thing up on my in my reading – in fact it got interrupted by reading through a bunch of travel guides for Mexico City and Guadalajara, where I was getting ready to head, and then did, in early March, and which I’m not going to bother to review. Back to this book, and a really great wind-up to the story. Indeed, as foretold by some, the varied and sundry threads all come together. It’s not pretty, it’s not a well woven tapestry of a story at this point. It’s more of an explosive, violent, mashup as the characters from each storyline come running hell-bent for the finish line and all kind of collide there, jostling and stumbling about to get their last moment in the series. What I think I liked most about it, and the series overall, is that it wasn’t predictable, and where things end is not at all where I’d have guessed had you asked me earlier on in the reading. ☆☆☆☆

Lovejoy, Ben (January 27, 2015) 11/9

Described as an un-put-down-able techno-thriller, and obviously with a non-veiled reference to 9/11 thrown in there (though an unrelated story), I was psyched for something gripping and engaging, and, well, techie. It is, no question, a quite good read, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I’m also interested in science and engineering and similar topics, and there’s a lot of time in the book spent delving into those arenas where the pace of the book lags. It wasn’t surprising to find out that the author is a technical writer by trade, as the book careens between white knuckled flipping of pages while the characters are engaged in a life and death moment, and then almost like breaking the infamous theater fourth wall, a different character would be doing something that felt like wading through a technical manual to explicate what was going on in the previous, or an upcoming, scene. Great story and indeed gripping and engaging, but by turns, quite put-down-able, at what more or less are, for a techno-thriller, the commercial breaks. ☆☆☆☆

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Salta, La Linda

Henry and I just spent a trio of days up in Salta and the area north of there, in the far northwest of the country. It’s the first time we’ve been there (other than passing nearby and along part of the same route when we went to Bolivia a decade ago). Our original intent was a trip to Cafayate, where we had a complimentary stay at one of the wineries lined up, but, when we started looking at the travel time involved between the two, and what lay in store, we decided to stay in Salta and explore from there. Video of the trip, with music.

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A January in My Life

A friend challenged me to take a short video every day and create a little “collage” for a month. It was an interesting project, not one I plan to continue, but it created a cute little video of three-second clips that’s probably of no interest to anyone but me of moments in my life, January 2016.

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The Book Stack #2

jumbled books
What have we this time around?

You look at the title, Bread Wine Chocolate, and you’re already engaged. I mean, what’s not to like? Clearly three items selected from the book to grab our attention, since in reality, the book is, in order, Wine Chocolate Coffee Beer Bread Octopus. The book came highly anticipated, with suggestions being bandied about that this would be the next big, amazing food book. I clicked a link, put in my Kindle cue to be purchased when it was released, and more or less forgot about it until it showed up one day. I might have left my cursor hovering over the button rather than clicking, had I taken a moment to check out the author, Simran Sethi, a former MTV producer turned news anchor for, oh, MTV, who has gone on to continue work in the media world for various… how can I put this politely… touchie feelie outlets like Mother Earth News and TreeHugger. I’m not, at all, against the environment, sustainability, or anything else of the sort, don’t get me wrong, but it might have had me wondering about her bias in advance, rather than after the fact.

Though in truth, it’s not her bias that ruins this book for me. It’s her writing. I really wanted to like the book. There’s some great, well researched information in it. The problem is, it’s presented in a manner that ping-pongs back and forth between journalistic factual reporting and breathless golly gee whiz wow teen girl gossip style at a pace that would make the cut editors of Reality Bites envious. She also comes across as really, really, self absorbed, self indulgent, and self anything else you might care to insert, as she wings her way across the world with hand-grinder for coffee beans in one hand and an Aeropress brewer in the other, ruing that she isn’t back home with her Keurig machine (oh yeah, all those K-cups are just great for the environment) and her $13 designer chocolate bars. She spends the first couple of chapters of the book outlining what she’s going to cover and why she’s the one to do so, and how much we’re going to appreciate her having done so. Yes, yes, she got down and dirty with the folk who produce these various products, and sampled and tasted and learned to appreciate things at their source. And then promptly trundled back to her hotel to soak in the tub and anxiously write her next words on the balcony at sunset and then jet off to another exotic locale. If you like to hug trees, you’ll probably like this book.

I mentioned in the last book round-up that I had started working my way through a proposed list of the 51 Best Fantasy series. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me, that if they’re rated from best, #1, to least best, #51, that progressively, I might like these series less, and less. I’m not sure that will hold true completely – after all, as I mentioned then as well, the Discworld canon wouldn’t even make it onto my list of good, let alone 7th Best. But there does seem to be a slight decline each round. I’ve started in on Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, beginning with The Blade Itself. It’s a relatively easy read.

There are things about it I really like – it’s written in a light-hearted tone, with a bit of humor. The series is often compared to Song of Fire and Ice, the Game of Thrones inspiring stack of books, and in some ways, I can see that – the action sequences, the bloody, grisly, details. But in other ways, not so much – the political manipulations and intrigue are there, but more or less ho-hum, there doesn’t seem to be any big, sweeping vista – within the first few chapters it’s obvious that all the lead characters’ lives are going to quite quickly intersect, in a pretty predictable way. Some reviewers have said that that gets turned on its head as the trilogy progresses, and by the end of the third book, nothing will be as anticipated. I can only hope so. It’s interesting enough to continue forward.

One of the finest books from one of the early crafters of modern science fiction, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination is a long time favorite that I hadn’t read in quite some time. Another list of “bests”, this time from io9, The Essential Cyberpunk Reading List starts off with this one.

Filled with Evil Corporations, interplanetary intrigue, bio-engineering, power, greed, revenge, and the obligatory Sub-Culture, this has all the elements that make for a great cyberpunk read. Given when this was written, in the early 1950s, it’s a brilliant precursor to that movement at a time when “cyber” didn’t yet mean anything and “punk” meant something completely different. Gripping story, fast paced action, and even it’s own “street” language that fits the genre perfectly. It’s a relatively short book (or at least in comparison to some of those I’ve been reading recently), and with its pace, it’s the sort you can sit down and read through on a rainy afternoon.

A couple of years ago I read the book Of Dice and Men, a look back at the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, and, those of us nerds who played it. I was an avid player of the game back in the mid to late 70s, and have continued a fascination with the world(s) created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the original duo behind the game. I’ve gone on to play computer based games, both early ones that were limited to being installed on your computer and played by one or a couple of people, and on, to MMORPGs, the massive universes created online like Everquest and Worlds of Warcraft.

The earlier book I mentioned was mostly focused on the game itself, and the gamers who took it and ran with it. There was plenty of biographical information about the creators, but you couldn’t call it biography. Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination takes another run at it. As he says in the introduction, he couldn’t believe when he started researching the book that no one had ever written a biography of Gary Gygax, who, while not a household name except to those of us in the gaming world, created something that went on to be the foundation for things we take for granted in modern day life, everything from the use of computers for games, to the advent of social media. As he also points out, it’s telling, that in an episode of the pop-culture show Futurama, Gygax’s character is paired up with Lieutenant Uhura, Al Gore, and Steven Hawking – taking on the universe. The book is well written, completely engaging, and for anyone with an interest in the topic, a must read.

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The Book Stack #1

jumbled books
A selection out of what I’ve been reading recently. They don’t really need an introduction.

I like Charles Pierce’s writing, and he often hits the nail on the head. This book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, is no exception. For the most part, he just lays it out there and shows just how idiotic many things in our country have become. Do I always agree with him? No. But it’s always thought provoking. Does he always make his case? No. He does against the “easy” targets, where he can just point out flaws that probably any thinking person would immediately see. But when it comes to making fun of, which is really what the book is, targets where there are philosophical, moral, ethical, even intellectual debate (particularly with arenas that broach into the world of religious faith), he points, but doesn’t provide the backup evidence, making the assumption that anyone reading his book is of like mind with him, and will simply agree that whatever he’s pointed to is worthy of mockery. For those of us who struggle at times with reconciling science, logic, and faith into a composite whole, those chapters come across a bit smarmy. Still, a recommended read, just to get the mental cogs turning.

Secretly, I grew up kind of wanting to be Alexander Mundy. He was the cat burglar turned spy-thief for the Secret Intelligence Agency of the US government in the late 60s television series It Takes a Thief. The show was inspired by the Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief (1955) starring Cary Grant, and on the flipside, while not acknowledged, is probably in the background of things like the late 2000s show White Collar, and certainly has some influences from the life of Frank Abagnale, whose life then went on to inspire the Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can. All that aside, I had visions of being a cat burglar, when I wasn’t entertaining visions of being a forest ranger or FBI agent. How things change as we grow up. I’ve always maintained a fascination with the news of jewel and art thieves, and while now there’s simply no likelihood of taking either up as a profession, I enjoy reading about the heists. Still one of, if not the largest, diamond theft in history, the story in Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History is a reasonably in-depth analysis of the most likely scenario for how the theft went down. Some of it is clearly speculative, especially attributions of motivations and thought processes lent to the main actor, Leonardo Notarbartolo (after whom I’ve named a Pandaren rogue in World of Warcraft, for those into that sort of thing). And some of it is pieced together from what evidence and testimony was available to the authors, Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell. It’s clearly well researched and very well written. If I have any quibble with the book is that the ending is an awfully quick wrap-up – akin to the sort of thing one sees at the end of a competition show, where the eliminated contestant’s picture is shown for a moment along with a caption of “John Smith is happy back with his family and thinking about what to do next.” One wants to know, “Where are they now? What are they up to?” Well worth a read.

A few months back, Buzzfeed published a list of what they considered the 51 Best Fantasy Series ever written. Now, there’s nothing that says that anyone at Buzzfeed is an expert on the topic, nor that the choice of 51 (why 51?) series was a good one, but I was casting about for somethings interesting to read and thought I’d start in on the list. I quickly read through the first couple of series, I’m not going to go back and review them now as my memory is already getting hazy on them, but I highly recommend all of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles, Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, and Brent Weeks’ The Lightbringer series, particularly the first, which was one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, though the next two series are almost as good. All captured my attention and engaged me, and I was glad to have discovered them via the list. I skipped over A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (the books behind Game of Thrones) and Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, simply because I’ve read them in the past. And I’m going to skip the 41 novels of the Discworld saga from Pratchett, because I’ve given them a try, and after 1½ of them, read a year or two ago, I just gave up on them as simply not my cup of weak tea.

Now, to this series, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, including three novels, The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. It feels a bit more like a teen read than an adult fantasy read. Some of that is simply the characters, the primary ones being children in their early teens. But more of it is that it’s written in a borderline puerile style. I found that although I enjoyed them, I wasn’t particularly engaged by them. There’s a lot of railing against what is an awfully thinly veiled Catholic church, and of a government influenced by religious leaders, clearly the author isn’t a fan of either. There’s a lot of moralizing, but it’s very superficial. And in the end, the ostensible resolution is pretty insipid. The first volume has been turned into a movie of the same name, and albeit also pretty kid-oriented and “Hollywood”, is actually better than the book, a rarity in my experience. While not bad reads, there are certainly other books in the genre more worth putting your time into, as noted above.

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