Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Book of Disquiet

The Book of DisquietThe Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As I clicked the "I'm finished" button on Goodreads, I must admit that I felt a sense of relief. No, I didn't read all 544 pages of The Book of Disquiet, but I am, indeed, finished. This is not something I do lightly. Lemming a book is not my standard mode at all. In fact, I went through a sort of grieving process the last time I lemmed a book, which was also the first time I had lemmed a book since I came to Goodreads. I'm glad to see that it has been over a year now, with a lot of reads (some good, some great, some "meh,") in between. I consider myself a fairly resilient reader, with wide-ranging and exploratory tastes. I kind of pride myself on my reading stamina. But, in this case, I'm just sick of being beat up.

Granted, my expectations were high going into this read, but not unrealistic. I had read some positive reviews and had the book recommended to me by other readers who know my tastes and whose opinions I hold in high esteem. So, what happened? How did Pessoa break me?

It's not like the book is horrible. Not at all. Pessoa definitely has his own rhythm, his own voice. And though it took me a while to start to fall into step with it, I can still appreciate his ability to craft words and sentences. You don't get the kind of praise many of my Goodreads friends heaped upon his work by being a bad writer. Chapter 31, I felt, was brilliant. And if that was the whole of the book, I would have been totally satisfied. Unfortunately, that little slice of the ethereal was by far the exception here.

For me The Book of Disquiet's author was too presumptuous by an order of magnitude. And this presumptuousness takes a strange form: The self-deprecating mirror of the narcissist.

Believe me, I am all about self-deprecation. It's a viable defense mechanism for a lot of people, and I find that, usually, those who can be self-deprecating in a humorous way are some of the most "centered," emotionally healthy people I know.

But Pessoa takes self-deprecation to a new level. I knew this was coming, simply from the reviews of the book I had read. I was looking forward to some self-deprecating humor on the part of the author. But what I found was not very funny at all. Or if it was, I totally missed the humor. Rather than finding myself chuckling at the author's skewed view of self, I found myself more or less bored to the point of anger by the tedium of it all. Too often, the book slipped from healthy self-deprecation to self-loathing. I can take that in doses, but Pessoa rubs your face in it. I just got sick of reading about the author's view of himself as being, essentially, the coolest person in the world because he took an interest in nothing (excepting art - though I found his definition of art so poorly-constructed as to subvert his own arguments, if they can be called that, about aesthetics).

Aloofness is not necessarily the hallmark of a formidable intellect. Especially when one's own supposed intellect is the focus of one's entire attention.

Pessoa's love of himself, his love of his own sadness and banality, wore thin. Glorying in how pathetic one is really does nothing for this reader. I might have seen some of myself in him, perhaps wallowed with him in gothic misery (I've been known to do that from time to time), but my reaction to these boring, self-centered ramblings was to simply walk away and move on to better things.

Because there are a lot of better things, namely, a lot of better books, waiting on my To Be Read shelf. So, if you'll excuse me, I'll be going to pick out something better to read.

Oh, and ignore the whining man curled up under the desk there. Give him a mirror and please, please, show him out the door!

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Monday, September 12, 2016

Station 16

Station 16Station 16 by Yves Huppen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As you might have guessed, I am not a big DC comics fan. I've always been partial to Marvel and, even much more so, independent comics. But my favorite DC title is, really, one of my favorite titles ever: Weird War Tales. Death is the host, and he presents bizarre tales of warfare redolent of the Twilight Zone which, I am fairly certain, inspired it. In fact, the iconic television show ended in 1964, while Weird War Tales started in 1971. 1983 saw the last issue of Weird War Tales - the same year that Twilight Zone: The Movie came out. Twilight Zone Magazine had also been available since 1981, and one wonders if the audience for Weird War Tales had not moved on from the comic form to the (excellent) fiction contained in the magazine.

All this is to say that Station 16 would have been right at home among the Weird War Tales series, except that it's a touch longer than those tales and much better!

The mostly gray tones in the book, as well as the bleak setting, create an ethereal tone that extends well beyond the abandon soviet military base in which most of the action takes place. A sort of temporal fugue state has settled on the area with results that are startling, if a bit predictable, and 100% in the zone - you know which one!

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Invitation to a Beheading

Invitation to a BeheadingInvitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don't fall into the lazy-readers' trap of thinking that Invitation to a Beheading is just some pastiche of Kafka. This was my misconception for the first 70 pages or so. Nabokov claims not to have read The Trial before writing this work, and I am inclined to believe him, given the limited availability of Kafka's text outside of the German language at that time (Nabokov did not read German). But the close kinship these texts have is very apparent . . .

. . . at first.

It is not too long, however, before Nabokov's softer "touch" becomes apparent. The protagonist, Cincinnatus, is held captive under what may or may not be a trumped-up charge that really is not a charge at all, or at least not one that has a slippery definition, if any definition at all. Some readers excoriate his lack of emotion, his stupidity, but I felt some deep pity for the man. Again, things are not quite as they appear on the surface. A more careful reading reveals a man who is paralyzed by his fear of execution, but who buffers himself from that fear by probing for the answer to the question "when?". This dissociation of emotion is Cincinnatus' central conceit. But what appears on the surface as a lack of emotion is really a manifestation of his subconscious attempts to stifle the fear of death within him. By asking the question "when?" and receiving no answer, his attempts to know when "his time" will come serve to heighten his fears, rather than ameliorate them . . .

. . . at first.

The style throughout is varied. If pinned down to use one word to describe the oeuvre of the work, I would use "dreamlike". In fact, Cincinnatus, who sometimes acts as the directly stream-of-conscious narrator (but only sometimes), himself admits his penchant for dream:

But then I have long since grown accustomed to the thought that what we call dreams is semi-reality, the promise of reality, a foreglimpse and a whiff of it; that is, they contain, in a very vague, diluted state, more genuine reality than our vaunted waking life which, in its turn, is semi-sleep, an evil drowsiness into which penetrate in grotesque disguise the sounds and sights of the real world, flowing beyond the periphery of the mind.

This preference for the dream-state is another defense mechanism used by Cincinnatus to push away the angst brought on by his very real situation. Through this intentional dulling of the waking world's reality, Cincinattus shields himself from the lingering background horror of his sentence . . .

. . . at first.

But one of the more poignant scenes, for me, a heartbreaking scene, wherein Cecilia C., a woman who may or may not be his actual mother, enters the cell to speak with him, heralds the implosion of his shields, not by crushing his hopes. Not initially. But by giving him hope. Hope here, is the enemy, and ultimately, it opens the abyss of disappointment beneath him. As part of their awkward conversation, he asks "What's the point of all this? Don't you know that one of these days, perhaps tomorrow . . ."

He suddenly noticed the expression in Cecilia C.'s eyes - just for an instant, an instant - but it was as if something real, unquestionable (in this world, where everything was subject to question), had passed through, as if a corner of this horrible life had curled up, and there was a glimpse of the lining. In his mother's gaze, Cincinnatus suddenly saw that ultimate, secure, all-explaining and from-all-protecting spark that he knew how to discern in himself also. What was this spark so piercingly expressing now? It does not mater what - call it horror, or pity . . . but rather let us say this: the spark proclaimed such a tumult of truth that Cincinnatus's soul could not help leaping for joy. The instant flashed and was gone. Cecilia C. got up, making an incredible little gesture, namely, holding her hands apart with index fingers extended, as if indicating size - the length, say, of a babe . . . Then she immediately began fussing, picking up from the floor her plump black bag, adjusting the lining of her pocket.

"There now," she said, in her former prattling tone, "I've stayed a while and now I'll be going. Eat my candy. I've overstayed. I'll be going, it's time."

The solemnity of this scene contrasts sharply with the tone of bureaucratic silliness that pervades the actions of the government officials throughout. There are too many such instances to mention here. Suffice it to say that the utter ridiculousness of these antagonists are somewhat reminiscent of Toole's Confederacy of Dunces . This is yet more evidence of Nabokov's ability to write in several "voices," startlingly different, yet of a piece. At one point, my reading notes comment on Chapter 8: "Beautiful angst, like Beckett and Calvino conspiring on a stream of consciousness riff of awe with baroque frills" - a contrast to the whiffs of Ubu Roi that I occasionally smelled while reading. Which just goes to show Nabokov's skill in switching from tone to tone in the same novel while maintaining a feeling of wholeness. The man can WRITE! Often, though, I found myself wishing that David Lynch might do the world a favor and offer up a cinematic version of Invitation to a Beheading. He would be one of the few directors who could actually pull it off. Lynch's ability to portray what I will call "timeslips" on the big screen would be needed and tested. For example, imagine who you would film the following, a scene wherein Cincinnatus is escorted to a "farewell visit" with the city officials:

This nocturnal promenade which had promised to be so rich with sad, carefree, singing, murmuring impressions - for what is a recollection, if not the soul of an impression? - proved in reality to be vague and insignificant and flashed by so quickly as happens only amid very familiar surroundings, in the dark, when the varicolored fractions of day are replaced by the integers of night.

Many have called this novel a work of existentialism. And this is not incorrect. However, it is not a nihilistic work. What starts out floundering in captivity and darkness, with an increasing fear of inevitable doom billowing up into storm clouds in the background, resolves (a word you will rarely hear being used to describe a work of existentialist literature) into a manifesto of self-sufficiency ("By myself," becomes Cincinnatus's refrain) and a profound statement on grasping one's own destiny, embracing it, and stepping off into the unknown, with confidence and surety of purpose, with full freedom of being one's self . . .

. . . at last.

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Monday, July 25, 2016

The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane

The 6 Voyages of Lone SloaneThe 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane by Philippe Druillet
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like Hawkwind, circa the same time these were originally published, but without Lemmy.

The absolutely stunning artwork in this volume more than makes up for flat characterization and the presence of more gods in the machines (I mean this literally!) than ancient Greece could have conceived. Druillet was no storyteller, but, wow, what an artist! The line between organic and mechanical is effectively erased, while the immense scale of the structures, space, and spaceships through which and with which Sloane travels overwhelms the viewer, further adding to the sense of awe that sweeps out from the pages.

Not my favorite graphic novel in recent memory, but well worth a gander. I'll be very curious to read the further volumes to see if the storytelling improves or if it retains it's too-short and under-impressive plott(dd)ing. In any case, I shall absolutely be back for more brain-cracking artwork.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Beyond the Silver Scream

Welcome to Beyond the Silver Scream, a Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG-compatible 0-level "funnel"! Players begin as high school kids in the mid-'70s - early-'80s who go to the local seedy theater to catch the premiere of the new horror flick "Screaming Sorority Girls from Planet Playtex". But the horror isn't confined to the screen! And the special-effects are all-too-real. So take a seat and brace yourself for an adventure where the director isn't the only one doing the cutting!

Includes the full adventure and "The Dimensional Dogs" patron, a fully-fleshed patron for use with DCC RPG. 

Awesome art provided by Thomas Gile, Matt Hildebrand, David Lewis Johnson, Nicolo Maioli, and James V. West!
Praise for Beyond the Silver Scream!

"WARNING: Contents may daze and/or confuse. Unexpected, thrilling, blockbuster fun. Two thumbs up!" - Brendan LaSalle, author of "Hole in the Sky"

"This is the work of the Devil and his minions and should be burned immediately. Jack Chick would be appalled." - The Ghost of Patricia Pulling

“This made me feel the ‘VHS shlockfest’ love so much, I felt the need to adjust the tracking.” - Adam Muszkiewicz, "Drink, Spin, Run" Podcast

“Beyond the Silver Scream” takes teens of classic roleplaying games’ golden age — the 1970s/1980s — into the epic danger of gritty Dungeon Crawl Classics, while providing a unique springboard to your next fantasy campaign. If you want a blast of nostalgia coupled with weird intrigue and action, then buy this module and be prepared for a blast from the past… and beyond!” - Julian Bernick, co-founder, Minneapolis DCC RPG Society

$5 retail
SKU: FA1001

Monday, July 4, 2016

Hey, Michelin Star Man! Alinea Still Deserves All 3!

My wife and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary this month. Some people celebrate anniversaries with more diamonds, some go on exotic cruises. We went out to dinner.

Well, not any old dinner.

We went to Alinea, one of only fourteen 3-star Michelin-rated restaurants in the US, one of 117 in the world. Just last month, it was ranked as #15 on Eater.Com's list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants. We knew this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us.

And how.

From the outside, Alinea is unassuming. I would have driven right past it without even knowing it was there, had I not been looking for it, specifically. The only thing giving it way was the occasional limousine that pulled up front.

We were greeted with a "Happy Anniversary!" by two young ladies at the front, then led upstairs to our table. The first floor was being decorated for the next-day's Gallery meal, which is another experience entirely (and one we thought was just a touch out of our price range), and we got to see the staff suspending paintings from the ceiling (read the linked article above to understand why) as we wound our way up the stairs to the Salon.

We had great seats, right where we could get sneaky peeks at the servers as they prepped to come in and serve the next course to whomever was in "their" room. Natalie's back was next to the waiting station, so we, well I, got to watch waitstaff as they came and went and got to hear some of their conversations.I'm a logistics guy, at heart (and in my day job), so I really enjoyed trying to figure out how they handled the timing of orders while remaining unobtrusive. They are efficient and their timing is impeccable. I chatted with one of the waitstaff about this, and he noted that it takes months, even years, to be trained to "go live" on the floor. These aren't your slapdash college students doing a stint between classes. The service was excellent, they knew their stuff (I had to ask what the heck an "Ebi" was, and the waiter was right there with the answer), and they were . . . just darned friendly and personable. I really felt like they took a personal interest in us, but not in an awkward way. They were genuine, but professional. Even the guy who set the utensils for each course was friendly, and, surprisingly-to-me, very down to earth, but with an air of dignity. Cool people.

Of course, you want to hear about the food, don't you? What did we get for our expensive dinner?

This is where I falter. I consider myself a bit of a foodie, but I am by no means a professional reviewer. My wife is a high school foods teacher, so she knows a bit about food. But she's not a fine-dining chef, either. So if my observations are a little rough and tumble, and if my knowledge of the exact nomenclature is a bit off: Sorry, not sorry.

The Menu:

Unlike most of your run-of-the-mill restaurants, Alinea is one of those that crafts the menu for you. You don't choose your burger and fries with a medium soda, you take what the chef has created. The staff was careful to check for food allergies (we have none, except I'm a little lactose intolerant), and they knew we don't drink (we added that note when we made reservations), so were careful not to serve anything with uncooked alcohol in it. The menu in the picture above (sans the "Happy Anniversary!" note, which they added later) was all we had to go off of. Part of the fun was the mystery. Just what the heck was "Elysian Fields" and "Carnival Rainbow"? This little bit of (welcome) trickery brought a sense of adventure to the meal and enhanced the experience. We had a good time speculating what was coming next on any given course. To read the order of the courses, start at the upper left corner with "ICE," then go down to "CRUNCH/PAPER", then "YELLOW," go back up to "CONTRAST/SPARROW GRASS," then "SWIRL," and so on. Follow the curve and you'll know your path.


Yes, that's a bowl made of ice. I probably should have snapped a photo of Natalie's, as well, as they are roughly similar, but unique. Now, I knew that we would be getting small portions with each course, but this looked tiny. And it's a good thing it was so small. This was incredibly rich, not what I was expecting for the first course. It was like starting with desert, sort of. The flavors were ebi, banana, and coconut, mainly. This was brisk and sweet, but salty. My only problem with this portion was that the ice was so cold that the food, especially the clear gelatin globules you see there, really liked to stick to the bowl. We were warned that this might happen, so I just put some elbow grease into it and got every last sweet, savory drop and ate part of the bowl in the process. Who says I don't get into my food?


Next, we were brought bowls of what appeared to be paper. These were actually a scallop-reduction dried to form large noodles. The server poured in a corn soup (insert fancy name that I can't remember here) that instantly hydrated the noodles. These were served with a pair of small shio kombu/nori seaweed rolls filled with a substance that I can't remember. The rolls were delicious alone and when dipped into the soup mixture. But the best part was the noodles and soup combination. The noodles were more firm than I expected, chewy, but in a good way. Enough resistance to give some satisfaction, but not rubbery. And the combination of the scallop flavor with the corn soup was warm and comforting. I could eat this just about every day of a Wisconsin winter. If I could find the recipe, I might just do that. Besides, the servers encouraged us to drink straight out of the bowl (you only got chopsticks to eat this course, no spoon), and I'm always looking for that excuse. At first, it felt naughty to drink straight from the bowl while wearing a suit. Then it felt . . . liberating.


Notice that I had to photograph this one while holding it in my hand. This was by design, another clever trap by the chefs, who want you to have a kinesthetic experience as part of the beautiful assault on your tastebuds. And we ate this with bright yellow chopsticks, which was tricky, a little messy, and a lot of fun. You'll note throughout that there is nary a "plain" plate here. Everything, even the utensils, were chosen to enhance the experience. Included on this were egg yolks, thinly-sliced onion, mustard, sweet potato, curry, and yellow and white blossoms. This entirely blew me away - each little bite was substantially different from another, even if you mixed the constituent elements thoroughly (which I did about halfway through, just to try it). Every taste was distinctive and unique, which I did not expect. We were told that there were sixteen ingredients in this little dish, That's 2.092279e+13 possible flavor combinations. I think I hit them all. It was diversity in action, in my mouth.

Interlude, water:

Important safety note: If you go to Alinea, or any fine-dining restaurant, for that matter, it's a good idea to drink something between courses to cleanse your palate for the next course. We had sparkling water, since we don't drink, and that worked quite well to wash away the old and prepare for the new. We now return you to your regular blogpost.

Contrast/Sparrow Grass/Swirl:

I began to question things when I was presented with what appeared to be a bowl of foam like you would find atop a clutch of frog eggs. I've eaten frog legs, and they are quite delicious, but I have to admit that I was a little hesitant when I saw this. The stuff underneath looked palatable, so I though that if I didn't like the foam, I could just scrape it off. Well, it turned out just fine. For the life of me, I can't remember what the flavor was, but underneath was lychee (which I've eaten before, thanks to my many Hmong friends), white asparagus (yes, white), and lily bulb bathed in a citrus mouse. This was the "Sparrow Grass" portion of this course. The "Swirl" was a coil of apple drenched in yuzu juice with a sprig of lemon verbena on top. Best . . . apple . . . ever. The piece-de-resistance of this course, however, came in the "Contrast" dish - a sort of gazpacho, so cold it was nearly frozen, served with watermelon and hot parmesan cheese. This was one of the highlights of the meal for both me and Natalie. We're big gazpacho fans, and this was by far the best I've ever tasted. It was exquisite. After all this, the server poured a vial of water into the plate on which the "Swirl" had been served, releasing a dry-ice-induced fog from the vessel - a plate with a hole that opened up into a bowl beneath. A nice effect, which my camera fails to do justice.


Fried food, fine dining? Yes, if it's done right. And this was done right. Breaded, fried icefish in delicate strips were light and airy, not heavy as you've come to expect with most fried food. Thinly sliced radish and blossoms complement the dish, which was set in a vibrant, both in flavor and color, kumquat syrup that I won't soon forget. Oh, and again, a third time, with chopsticks. Good thing I learned how to eat with chopsticks when living in the Philippines at a very young age.


The cracker-looking thing you see embedded in the flowers is a glass made of dehydrated soubisse. I don't recall the exact sauce in the middle, but it was also oniony. Very oniony.  Imagine the essence, the very soul of oniondom, and you get the idea. On the plate was another high-point of the evening: Morel mushrooms smothered in a foie-gras sauce, served with a crystallized blueberry/lapsang souchong tea reduction. Now, I love mushrooms of all kinds, and particularly morel. The contrast of the strong, sweet blueberry flavor with the earthy goodness of morel was something that nearly lulled me into a slobbering coma of culinary satisfaction. But I'm glad I didn't need life support at this point - more greatness was on the way!

Smoke/Bon Bon:

When we entered the restaurant, I caught a whiff of what I thought was stale cigarette smoke. I seriously thought that someone had walked through there smoking or something. Knowing how much many chefs strive for lung cancer, I thought that maybe they had traipsed through on their way in from break. Only when I saw a flaming bowl at another table did I realize that this was part of the "smoke" course. I can't tell what all was in that burning bowl, but there was star anise (you can see it clearly in the photo), palo santo, and cinnamon, among other things. There could have been anything else in there, and I wouldn't have known the difference. All I know is that it smelled wonderful and I didn't go on a vision quest, as a result . . . that I can remember.

After the flame was snuffed and we were enveloped in pleasant smokiness, we were warned that the plates that were coming might be hotter than the flames themselves. On the plate was a piece of chicken striped with three sauces to try to imitate the Mexican flag: Salsa verde, a spicy red salsa, and a white cream sauce. Though there was only a tiny stripe of each sauce, they were each packed with flavor. This seemed to be a common theme: tiny packages with HUGE flavor! This was no exception. The rough ball you see had a chicken-liver center, which was delicious (and I am not a liver person at all) surrounded by some hard, crunchy substance, the provenience of which I forget. It was great, even if my memory isn't. On the candy skull skewer (so poorly photographed in the bottom frame), was a pineapple gelatin wrapped in what I swear the server said was something related to root beer, though Natalie disagrees with me on this. And she's usually right. Oh, and the bon-bons can be seen in the second photo above, up on the left there. I'm a dark chocolate snob, as some of you know, and this passed the snobbery test with flying colors. Snob satisfied!


Hidden beneath that piece of lettuce is a piece of chicken curry. Not too spicy, but very well done. It was probably one of the most "ordinary" things we ate that night. The melon on the right was meant to counteract the spiciness, but it was honestly not that hot. That chunk of lettuce, however: pure genius. Last year, when we went to Indianapolis, Natalie and I ate at bluebeard restaurant where I ate what I considered to be the best salad I had ever eaten, to date. Well, sorry, cap'n, but you've just been outdone. That leaf of lettuce, laced with myoga and anise blossoms, was far and away the best leafy green I've ever eaten. It was extremely sweet - like it had been frosted - and I suspect the sauce that was brushed on had a good deal of sugar in it. I was surprised at how satisfying it was. Who would have expected that a leaf of lettuce would have been one of the tastiest offerings that night? Not me. But now I'm a believer. Lettuce can be the best thing on the menu (to be fair, it wasn't, but it can be). The other part of this course was, as you can see, served on a bone. Those are pieces of wagyu bone marrow served on, of all things, rice crispy squares. I kid you not. I have never had marrow before, but I'm game for just about anything and I like rice crispy treats, so I gave it a shot and popped them in. Not bad. They were, well, exactly what you'd expect bone marrow to taste like. I wouldn't eat more than I did, but these were fine. To each his own. Not terrible, but I probably won't have it again. I've eaten my share of raw meat before, so that's not the issue. I just wasn't in the mood for it, is all, and after that awesome lettuce it was a little bit of a let down.

Elysian Fields:

I'm a big fan of lamb. It is one of my favorite things to eat (pork is tops, in case you wonder). So I was delighted to learn that the next dish would have lamb in it. Three kinds of lamb, in fact. One was a standard cut, cooked to perfection. Then there was shredded lamb neck, cooked in the skin, then pulled from the bone, then a cube of congealed drippings. This was served with blackberries, thyme blossoms, and black garlic scapes. This was the best lamb I had ever eaten. In fact, this was the best dish I had ever eaten. This is the dish that I will look back on, wistfully, when I am on my deathbed and declare in gastro-existential angst, "I will never eat that again in this life. But I had it once, and can die a happy man. *burp*" - I'm so glad that this was the culmination of the meal, before the sweet denouement (more on that in a moment). It was the celestial pinnacle of culinary greatness. And the bread was pretty good, too.


After this, desert. A spot of anise, half a strawberry, raspberry creme, crystallized (yet soft) ginger, glazed fennel, and a gelatin whose flavor I can't recall. Oh, and rhubarb. Yes, rhubarb, which I usually loathe, but this was candied to perfection. It was just enough sweet to swing ones tastebuds around from the incredible savory of the last course. And then . . . then, things got crazy.

Those are, you guessed it, edible balloons, strawberry flavored, with a strawberry-flavored edible string. We were instructed to remove our glasses, "gently kiss" the top of the balloon, inhale, sing, or say whatever came to mind. Natalie did her best Minnie Mouse imitation and I couldn't stop laughing long enough to breathe in. I don't know what they used for the actual balloon, but it was really sticky at first, then it sort of . . . unstickified? At first we thought they should supply us with hot rags to get the sticky off of our fingers, then it just sort of got better on its own. Weird. I don't know if I want to know what material does this. But I do know that I would eat it again if it was offered.


Those who look closely will observe that some of this was already eaten when I took the picture. I forgot and just dug in, realizing about halfway through that I should have gotten a shot of this. Forgive me for enjoying my food. The painting, under the glass, was done by the same artist who curates the art at Alinea. I liked his sensibilities, but can't remember his name. I'm sure he'll be famous when he dies. Isn't that the way of all artists? From the post-apocalyptic photo, you can probably see pistachio nougat, a panoply of cherry, marshmallow, orange (a very "rindy" orange, I might add), and coffee-flavored sauces, along with a hearty slab of chocolate ganache, all served on glass so that you can paint your own picture. Except you can't. Because you're too busy eating the medium. Which is fine. This was the most delicious art I've ever tasted.

And I mean that about the whole meal, not just this last course. My words and photos don't do it justice, and for that I apologize. If you want to really know what it tastes like, you're going to have to go there yourself. I heartily recommend it. From start to finish, top to bottom, first to last course, the service, food, ambiance, and just plain fun was something I shall never forget. Well done, Chef Achatz! You've made my culinary dreams come true. And, incidentally, you should seriously think about opening a restaurant in Madison. Guaranteed, more foodies per square mile in Madtown than in Chitown. Don't wait too long, though: we're getting hungry again.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Burnt Black Suns

Burnt Black SunsBurnt Black Suns by Simon Strantzas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm all about the creepy, not so much about the gory. Give me The Twilight Zone and X-Files over "Saw" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" any day of the week. It's not about the blood or guts, necessarily, but about the feeling. I'm not a fan of being grossed out, but am a fan of that lingering feeling in the back of my head that things just aren't right. Perhaps this has to do with my love of existentialism, the thrilling notion that terror and death loom just around the corner, but aren't quite in your face . . . yet.

So when I tell people I like to read horror . . . well, I've been given some recommendations that I really, really hated. Part of it is that, all told, the quality of horror writing in general is . . . well, not that great. There are a number of reason for this, not the least of which was a sort of nepotism which Paula Guran referred to as "tribalism" at one point - the incestuous practice of editors who were also authors and authors who were also editors patting each other on the back and frankly looking the other way when bad writing came through from someone they liked.

Those days may be behind us. At least I hope so. But because I had seen this happen first hand back in the early 2000's, I approached Strantzas' collection Burnt Black Suns with a touch of caution. Not because I though Strantzas had been caught up in all of that, but because I hadn't, frankly, read a Strantzas story before, at least not to my recollection. Plus there was the possibility that this was not the kind of dark fiction I most enjoy. But I read some very positive reviews and I positively loved the cover, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

I'm so glad I did!

Let's start with the first story, "On Ice," because no one reads intros, even when they are written by the talented Laird Barron. Okay, I admit it, I read the introduction. But like most other introductions it was forgettable. "On Ice," though, was not as forgettable. I had expected something along the lines of Lovecraft, but was pleasantly surprised (though I like Lovecraft's work a great deal) that Strantzas didn't just fall into the tropes that one might expect in an arctic horror story. Yes, there is a sense of desperation and fear like you might expect, but it's a slow burn, like holding your hand on the frozen juice freezer at the grocery store too long; mesmerizing and painful, but not so scary as to make you simply close the cover. "This," I thought, "is a solid four star story".

I was not quite as impressed with "Dwelling on the Past," which I felt didn't really get off the ground and, once it did, meandered around a bit too much. Not a terrible story, but not terribly impressive, either. I felt that this might have been one of the "filler" stories in the volume.

I was, however, very impressed with the third story, "Strong as a Rock". I liked everything about "Strong As a Rock". It seethes with the dread of that-which-is-not-seen. The evocative character reactions to "off camera" events carry the horror in this, yes, I'll say it, "Ligotti-esque" tale. This story of two brothers, one full of confidence, one utterly lacking in it, starts blue and clear as the sky, and ends saturated in darkness. You may never look at rock climbing or hospitals in the same way again. Five stars!

"By Invisible Hands" was the weakest story so far, which surprised me, since it appeared in a Ligotti tribute anthology. Maybe it was just trying too hard. The right words were there, but the cadence was not, like a singer off beat. It also missed the emotional "oomph" I get from Ligotti, et al. Still not a bad story. Three stars. No more. No less.

"One Last Bloom" is an interesting title for that story. It took a little while to "grow," to be honest, but once it flowered . . . well, it was really gross and horrific. I was surprised by how well I accepted that fact. Maybe I've become desensitized? Extreme social awkwardness, combined with narcissism, make for some very uncomfortable moments. Strantzas has captured this perfectly, and, boy, is it painful to read! Painful in a way that drew me, begrudgingly, into the story. For a while, the main character's lack of touch with reality had me wondering who was real and who was not. It's an insane fugue of a story, as a result, and in the end, I liked the effect it had on me.

Furthermore, there was a phrase in "One Last Bloom" that caught my attention: "[I] knew the way one knows things in the middle of the night . . ." I love that turn of phrase. In the context of the story it totally makes sense and is one of the most clever articulations I've ever heard of that strange phenomenon of certainty at three in the morning. I've felt that. I know that feeling.

I wish I had thought of that seemingly simple phrase myself. You've earned yourself another star, mister Strantzas! Four total, in this case.

"Thistle's Find" is a good story, well told, of science gone wrong. Not spectacular or groundbreaking, but it still makes it into four-star territory.

Take Carcosa, The King in Yellow, a mysterious bookstore containing an even more mysterious manuscript, a restrained rivalry between two brilliant musicians, and the revelation of the "lesser" musician's grand opus, all wrapped in an emotionally-satisfying tale, and you've got yourself a five-star story in "Beyond the Banks of the River Seine". This one resonated in my mind for a long time afterward. I could see this being made into an indie movie by the same people who did the silent movie version of "Call of Cthulhu". It would definitely not work as a silent movie, per-se . . . well, maybe it would . . . hmm . . . interesting . . .

"Emotional Dues" is more hit than miss, but I thought that it slipped from its emotional footing at the end, favoring monster-horror, when it could have delivered a more compelling punch in the form of leveraged angst. Still the central conceit of the monster was interesting and "new," sort of a twist on Dorian Gray. Four stars, but just barely. Oh, and this is another one that would make a good silent movie. I think I'm sensing a pattern here. I wonder what Strantzas thinks of Nosferatu? He seems to stage some things in a theatrical way. Or maybe that's just my brain setting things up that way in my theater of the mind.

The titular story was as bizarre and horrifying as I like. Surreal and creepy. Though I found the protagonist annoying and narcissistic, I see why Strantzas made him so. This story was all the more horrific because I have a friend who was in a very nasty custody case who idealized his son in the same way Noah did in the story. Kinda hits home. This one also stuck with me, all five stars of it.

Overall, then, four stars, when each story is looked at individually. I felt, however, that the sum was greater than the parts. This really was an exceptional collection of short dark fiction with a weird bent to it. So I'm bumping it up to five. It looks like Dark Regions press has seen the genius, too and is doing a signed, limited, leather-bound edition. Hey, my birthday is next month. Anyone feeling generous?

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