Classic Fridays: The Forever War is for the Ages.

I am going to make a bold statement.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Not just one of the best science fiction novels–one of the best novels, period. More than Dune, more than Foundation or Hyperion, and yes, more than Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I enjoyed it with the same fervor as other better-known works like To Kill a Mockingbird and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yet to my surprise, not only have not many people read it, they haven’t even heard of it.

So let’s fix that.

The Forever War
follows soldier William Mandella through an interstellar war against a seldom seen and barely understood enemy. In actual non-Star Trek space travel, to reach the enemy takes decades, even centuries. But thanks to relativity, Mandella ages only a handful of months due to time dilation at near light speed. (If you would like a detailed explanation of how this works, pick up a copy of Stephen Hawking’s seminal book A Brief History of Time.) Mandella experiences a millennium of war in objective time, which he subjectively experiences as a few years. He loses everyone he knows and loves to death, either through war or time, and suffers changes in government, the military, sexuality, and even language every time he returns home. And each and every time he returns, he is promoted, told he must serve for one more mission, and sent out again to a pointless war that claims the life of almost every soldier that fights in it.

Mandella is a fabulous character and a great filter to show this war to the reader. He starts out as a private in the 1990s, and by the end of the book a thousand years later, he’s a major after a few years of military experience and a total of four actual battles. He’s a war hero, the only surviving soldier from the war’s beginning, and is often treated as a quaint, eccentric relic of centuries past. At his heart he is a pacifist, and the last thing he wants to be is a hero or a leader. But the one time he returns to Earth leaves the service, society has changed so much that he re-enlists because he can’t adjust. His sexual orientation also adds complications along the way. At times homosexuality is condoned (a shocking idea in the 70s), encouraged or even mandated for population control, and he has to adjust to those attitudes each time he returns from a mission.

Haldeman’s prose is smooth and well-paced, and he does a fabulous job of handling the science in the book. Since time dilation is the major underpinning of the plot, he has to. One of my favorite scenes in the book involves a ship traveling at near-light speed toward a base the crew is supposed to attack. Not only do years pass outside between each turn the ship makes to avoid enemy missiles, but the missiles themselves improve with each shot. The enemy makes years of technological breakthroughs every few minutes the ship is en route. When the ship is finally hit, no one even knows what hit them because it’s so advanced. Haldeman injects poignant moments through science as well. Mandella forms relationships and love interests at first, but soon learns that if his friends and lovers are ever reassigned or stay behind on a planet, time dilation ensures that he will never see them again. This is hard science fiction at its best.

The best part of this book, though, is its commentary on war and society. It was written in the 70s when the Vietnam War was coming to an end. The war in The Forever War is even more pointless than Vietnam. Fighting a thousand-year war against an enemy you have never talked to, never even met except on the battlefield and with battles happening decades apart, is as close to stupidity as anything I can think of. This is the true power of good science fiction: it examines what is happening in our society today. Science fiction can accentuate any situation or philosophy in an otherwordly context, and expose the true ludicrousness or value of it. I see parallels in The Forever War to our current conflicts around the globe, and this book was written thirty years ago. It’s just as poignant now as it was then.

The only thing that detracts from the book is its cheesy ending. I may think it’s cheesy because it’s relatively happy, in contrast to the nearly hopeless tone of the bulk of the book. After several courses of rocks for dinner, a dessert of Vegemite is downright delectable. I’m sure if it was the ending of a more lighthearted book, it wouldn’t have bothered me as much. Even in this book, its effect on my opinion is hardly noticeable. And after taking a huge dose of reality delivered in a hard sci-fi package, giving the reader a ray of sunshine at the end does have its value.

The Forever War is not as well-known as other science fiction classics like Dune, 1984 or A Brave New World, but is just as poignant and meaningful. If you have even a passing interest in speculative fiction, The Forever War deserves a prominent place in your library.

William Reid is a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home father of three. When not writing, editing or reading sci fi and fantasy (or changing diapers and cleaning up after a toddler), he loves cooking and playing board games.

Sell your books to Powell's


Leave a comment

Filed under Sci-Fi/Horror/Fantasy

Why you only ever see the backs of Kenyans when you run a marathon.

On 28 September 2014 Dennis Kimetto won the Berlin Marathon in a jaw-dropping world record time of 2:02:57. For many sports fans, the least surprising aspect of Kimetto’s incredible performance was his nationality: Kimetto is a Kenyan, and Kenyans have come to dominate middle and long distance running in a way that few nationalities have ever ruled over a sport. Of the ten fastest male marathoners since 2004, eight are from Kenya (the other two are from neighbouring Ethiopia). Of the ten fastest female marathoners since 2004, three are from Kenya (including two of the top four). In the year 2011, the twenty fastest marathon times around the globe were run by Kenyan men and there were seventy Kenyans who ran faster marathons than the fastest European runner. Nineteen of the last twenty-four male winners of the Boston Marathon have been Kenyan, as were eleven of the last fifteen female winners of that race. At Olympic Games and World Championships during the last 25 years, Kenyans have been heavily represented on the podium in races from 800m all the way up to the marathon. How a relatively poor country that has fewer than 46 million of the world’s 7 billion people could be so remarkably over-represented among the world’s greatest runners provides something of a mystery.

It is a mystery that English writer Adharanand Finn seeks to shed light on in his Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth. Out of a desire to realize his full potential as a runner as well as to unlock the secrets to Kenyan distance running greatness, Finn convinces his rather tolerant wife and three small children to uproot themselves and move to Iten, Kenya, for six months. During this time he wrote a blog and contributed articles about the experience to the Guardian. Iten is a small town of around 4,000 people, about 1,000 of whom are dedicated full-time athletes. Many of these athletes live in camps where they dedicate themselves completely to running. Here Finn forms a team of runners who train together for the challenging Lewa Marathon, a race that takes place in the high elevation and heat of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. During his training Finn interviews athletes, coaches, and locals to find out more about the lives of Kenyan runners. The reasons that Kenya is able to produce such a large number of great athletes are numerous and complex. Social, economic and environmental factors predispose many Kenyans to have running talent, while a pervasive running culture, the presence of many role models, and a well-developed training and coaching infrastructure helps and encourages focused and dedicated runners to make the most of their abilities.

In his discussion with athletes and coaches, Finn finds that a high proportion of the top Kenyan runners come from poor, rural backgrounds. From a very early age they are engaged in hard work for their families, running and walking everywhere, usually at high altitudes. Describing 5000m great Mercy Cherono, Finn argues that “simply from the inherent physical toughness of her daily life had come a talent to outrun the world.” Another runner told Finn of his childhood “We were training already without knowing it.” Kenyan children grow up eating diets of ugali (a doughy substance made with maize flour and dipped into sauces or stew), beans, rice and vegetables, and very little of the fatty foods that make up so much of the western diet. Finn also makes much of the fact that many Kenyan children run barefoot, teaching them to strike the ground lightly and develop beautiful forefoot-first running form. Kenyan runners get far fewer of the stress injuries that plague western runners. Although as they get older many Kenyan runners opt to train in bulky running shoes, by this point they have already developed the good habits of barefoot running.

The presence of so many great runners and the existence of a culture of admiration for running provides ample incentives for children to build upon these talents. During his stay in Iten or while running on its running trails, Finn continually runs into world champions and famous marathoners. The presence of so many running role models, individuals whose prize money provided a better life for themselves and their communities, gives young runners something to strive for and the confidence that they can win. Finn interviews Brother Colm, who through his St. Patrick’s Boarding School has coached and mentored a great many future champions. Runners who can run fast enough might get signed by a manager, which will enable them to live at one of the many training camps. At these training camps, room and board are provided and the athletes dedicate themselves completely and absolutely to training, pushing each other to work harder. In Kenya, for the most part running is not a simple hobby, but something that athletes devote their lives to with an intense focus.

Finn describes the joys and struggles of training and racing in a way that will be very familiar to many runners. I especially enjoyed his account of the physical and emotional roller coaster that is running a marathon. Finn is a very good runner, but he describes experiences to which runners at every level can relate. In one passage Finn captures perfectly how runners talk ourselves into running, and how at the end we are always glad we did:

Right before you head out running, it can be hard to remember exactly why
you’re doing it. You often have to overcome a nagging sense of futility,
lacing up your shoes, telling yourself that no matter how unlikely it seems,
after you finish you will be glad you went. It’s only afterwards that
it makes sense, although even then its hard to rationalise why. You just
feel right. After a run, you feel at one with the world, as though some
unspecified, innate need has been fulfilled.

My main critique of the book is that at times it was a bit uncomfortable to read about a privileged and wealthy white man who takes a vacation to run alongside people who are in the most literal way desperately running away from poverty. Throughout the book there are moments when Finn acknowledges feeling awkward about his privileged position and the extraordinary amount of deference and respect that he and his family receive because of the whiteness of their skin. A freelance journalist, Finn is continually treated like a visiting dignitary in Kenya. This could have been addressed more directly, and perhaps greater acknowledgement made of the terrible legacies of colonialism that created many of the underlying conditions in Kenya. He points out that many Kenyan runners train with such focus and determination in part because they see racing as a potential way out of poor economic circumstances. This might be a recipe for creating elite athletes, but it is hardly a model other nations would wish to emulate. That said, this is a book that nearly all runners will enjoy reading.

Christopher Frank will be participating in his first Boston Marathon this April, but he certainly won’t be running with the Kenyans.

Sell your books to Powell's


Leave a comment

Filed under Sports

Cool Whip and Despair, Oreos and Joy: the emotional funfetti of a baking addiction

First off, let me just say that if you are currently trying to cut down on the amount of white sugar that you are eating, or you are thinking of switching your family to a gluten-free diet, this is probably not the cookbook for you. If, on the other hand, you have no moral objections to using Oreos as an ingredient to make other desserts, or think that putting a half cup of sprinkles right into the batter, rather than waiting to put them on top of cookies after baking (where they will only fall off and get wasted) is genius, you might want to take a look at Sally’s Baking Addiction. This cookbook, based on a popular baking blog, is filled with ways to increase the amount of joy in your lunchbox or dessert offerings, while probably expanding your waistline as well. Sally has a certain “more is more” philosophy, where squares have not only icing but extra glaze on top and banana bread is not complete without a crumble topping largely composed of butterscotch chips. Many of the cupcakes have an extra surprise inside like a dab of jam or Nutella that elevates them from the everyday.

I have to admit, I first approached some of these recipes with a certain snobbishness. When confronted with the fact that I would have to purchase boxed yellow cake mix in order to make the Cake Batter Chocolate Chip Cookies, the inner foodie in me recoiled (“Cake mix? Really? Isn’t the whole point of a baking cookbook to avoid buying packaged cake mix? Am I embarking on some sort of terrible Sandra Lee downward shame spiral into the land of Cool Whip and despair?”).   I tucked the box of Duncan Hines into my cart, grumbling, but the cookies were worth any sacrifice of baking street cred. Sweet, soft, chewy and fantastic, they do taste exactly like a vanilla funfetti birthday cake somehow transformed into convenient cookie form. I made the oatmeal butterscotch “scotchies” over and over until my husband told me to stop, as he had no willpower to fight against their caloric onslaught. The cookies are all very popular with children and not too challenging to the palate (read: generally very sweet with lots of chocolate chips, melted chocolate and/or icing) but the recipes all turned out and were quickly devoured in our household.

And despite the inclusion of Nilla wafers, Nutella, Oreos or other packaged ingredients, this is a pretty traditional home baking cookbook. For those intimidated by baking, Sally outlines a very short and sensible list of kitchen equipment, and includes photos of every finished baked item, as well as some photos of stages of preparation. She gives clear instructions on how to cream butter, why dough should be chilled before baking, how to properly shape cookies and time their baking exactly. For those who like to measure ingredients by weight – and really, I will give a plug here for the digital scale as the one piece of kitchen equipment that will change your life – she includes gram measurements for dry ingredients, and imperial as well as metric measurements.

There are a few nods to current trends in desserts, particularly the combination of salty and sweet that has been showing up in bakeries and café menus. There is a recipe for chocolate chip cookies that includes crushed potato chips for salt and crunch, and one for peanut butter cups topped with salted pretzels.   Sally uses salted caramel as a component in a number of recipes, including rice krispie treats and a cheesecake dip made of cream cheese and swirled caramel that would surely make one the most welcome guest at any party. She suggests serving the dip with apples or pretzels, but one can imagine people simply eating this by the spoon or handful until it is gone. Some of the recipes I found too sweet even for an indulgent treat. One fudge mixture of marshmallows, melted chocolate, sweetened condensed milk, and graham crackers is a dentist’s dream of sugary stickiness, and Sally helpfully suggests variations where those who do not find the fudge decadent enough could add candy cane pieces or crushed Oreos to the mix if desired.

As you might sense by now, this is a cookbook of unapologetically indulgent treats. Even the so-called Healthier Choices section includes skinny banana muffins that contain one cup of butter and two cups of sugar, and a Peanut Butter Swirl Chocolate Snack Cake that I’m sure a nutritionist would categorize as healthier than few things beyond gnawing on a pure stick of butter. As befits such rich treats, many of the batches are relatively small in size, producing a small loaf, 12 cupcakes or 16 cookies. So in sum, this is a nice cookbook for those new to baking, or for those looking for a new twist on brownies or cookies. It is not hugely sophisticated or challenging in its goals, but that is its charm. These are solid, home-baking recipes that turn out and would be welcome at a bake sale or pot luck dinner.

Sarah Elvins is a historian living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She cooks, bakes, knits, reads, runs and nags her three children in her spare , time.

Sell your books to Powell's


Leave a comment

Filed under Food

Classic Fridays: HWJC (How Would Jacques Cook It?)

Have you heard of Jacques Pépin’s La Technique? Or La Methode? If you are as serious about French cooking as Julia Child, you have been sleeping with them beneath your pillow since they were first published in the late 1970s. If you are like me, you have learned of Jacques Pépin considerably later with the resurging interest in French cuisine thanks to the works of Anthony Bourdain and books like Julie and Julia. I confess with shame that I have owned Complete Techniques for more than five years but haven’t bothered to look at it until recently; my cooking aspirations are exceeded only by my inertia when it comes to improving skills that I think I already possess in passable measure. But let me assure you: it is worth taking the time to look at Complete Techniques closely. Yes, it is informative and astoundingly well-illustrated with step-by-step black-and-white photographs, yes, the instructions are clear and easy to follow, and yes, you will learn many (309!) very valuable cooking techniques and basic recipes from a culinary authority. But the real pleasure in this book is its ability to take you away, like its contemporary Calgon, from the harried nature of the North American kitchen. Farewell meals made from three cans and a package of instant noodles whose only virtue resides dubiously in its ability to be ‘thrown together’ and eaten out of an old yogurt container over the sink! Retreat into the pages of Complete Techniques, a place where food is meant to be delicious and beautiful, cooking enjoyable and creative.

It is true that at first glance Complete Techniques does not strike as a book about creative cooking. It instead strikes as the instruction manual that it is. Take Technique One, for example, ‘Holding a Knife’. It turns out that, according to Jacques Pépin, I have been holding a knife incorrectly all of these years. Would Jacques Pépin praise me for my freestyle chopping? Unlikely. This is because Complete Techniques approaches food the way that great musicians approach music: in order to be creative, one must first understand – really know – the elemental components and the traditional arrangements; only then can one emulate, respond, and innovate. Complete Techniques is therefore devoted to inculcating the basic skills necessary to prepare ingredients well so that they may be arranged into pleasing constellations of flavour and texture.

The book is divided into seven chapters ‘The Basics’, ‘Shellfish and Fish’, ‘Vegetables’, ‘Poultry and Meat’, ‘Carving’, ‘Breads’, and ‘Pastry and Dessert’. Each section contains numerous instructions on preparation of ingredients – seeding a tomato, skinning and filleting fish, filling a pastry bag, that sort of thing – and a variety of foundational recipes ranging from timeless onion soup and chicken pie to the probably less timeless salmon molded in aspic. Yet what Jacques Pépin considers ‘basics’ are themselves telling of a more gracious cuisine than the food that slouches upon many a modern table. Some inclusions, say, Technique Thirty-Two, ‘Scrambled Eggs’, are expected and almost superfluous (until you read them: I have been scrambling eggs improperly too, it turns out), but others will chasten those of us who want to post to Facebook when we manage to pull off a garnish of minced chives. Take Technique Forty, ‘Mushroom Fish’, that is, mushrooms that are made to look like fish, or Technique Forty-Four, ‘Flower Vases with Squash’ which are exactly what you think they are. When was the last time I put flowers on the table, even in a vase that has not been hand-carved from a butternut? I can’t even think. Why have I not been making use of Technique Forty-Two, ‘Cucumber Turtles’? I realize that my cooking has been positively grumpy in its utilitarianism. Perhaps my picky-eater children would regard dinner less as a punitive event and more as a pleasure – and so would I – if I were to appeal to at least four of the five senses with food instead of doggedly pursuing just the one, flavour, whose presence yields too often to concern over fibre or fat anyway. But limited time demands no-nonsense austerity, my inertia counters. Where will the time to put together ‘Olive Rabbits’, Technique Forty-Five, come from? From practice, Jacques Pépin would respond. Instilling proficiency is one of the stated aims of Complete Techniques (pp. vii-viii): you learn and rehearse the techniques and they become second nature, quick. Culinary sophistication and visual appeal are not sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.

It will perhaps be clear that reading through Complete Techniques can be a personal journey. This is in spite of the fact that the book is entirely about the food and not about the cook’s ego. Far be it from me to blame you for feeling proud of yourself if you manage to create sugar ‘Angel Hair’, Technique Two Hundred Forty-Eight, which involves waving hot sugar over a wooden spoon handle suspended over a newspaper-covered floor while standing on a stool for extra height. But Complete Techniques is not about fostering the cook’s self-esteem or smugness, it is about training a food lover to make food worth eating. Take chicken, for example. Jacques Pépin will not wheedle you into using a whole chicken instead of a package of boneless skinless breasts because recent studies demonstrate such-and-such health benefit of eating meat with bones. Instead, he provides directions on how prepare a whole chicken for different methods of cooking. The point is the chicken and how you are going to treat it, not the other way around.

Yet Jacques Pépin is careful to encourage his reader-student and is in fact endearingly supportive and understanding. He sympathizes with the difficulty of finding good cooking vessels that are both affordable and won’t discolour food (pp. 1-2). ‘Cooks often get confused when they hear names such as “brown sauce,” glace de viande (meat glaze)…jus, “broth,” “bouillon”, and so forth. In fact, it is confusing,’ he empathizes, and then launches into twenty pages of instruction on meat stocks to disentangle their mysteries. He worries about his readers damaging their skillet handles in the oven (p. 331: ‘be sure to cover it with several layers of aluminum foil,’) while making potatoes in the shapes of small soaps. He allows you a shortcut when things really might get frustrating or emotional, assuring the reader-student that ‘[t]hough we show you how to skin a rabbit, your butcher will do it for you if you prefer.’ And lest you feel like a failure if your first attempts at French bread are disappointing, he points out that ‘[v]ery simple recipes are often the most deceptive because they are the hardest to make well…Yet these ultra-simple recipes demand years of practice to achieve perfection.’ By the time you get to Technique Two Hundred Thirty-One, ‘Multilayered Mocha Cake’, and you read ‘[while h]olding the cake flat on one hand, ice all around. Turn the cake on your hand against the direction of the spatula,’ you know he will forgive you for the many cakes that will plummet to the floor as you work to conquer this technique. And if it is possible with patient practice to master icing a cake by using your own hand as a turntable, what recipe could ever again seem too demanding to try?

Most cookbooks expand your repertoire of individual recipes. Jacques Pépin will inspire you to be a better cook. Do yourself a favour and let him.

Pauline Ripat teaches Classics (when not practising cucumber turtles) in Winnipeg, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

Sell your books to Powell's

Shop Indie Bookstores

Leave a comment

Filed under Classic Fridays, Food

Pleasurable Meditations on Art, Pain, Alienation, and Grief

Upon occasion, I have taught selections from Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior. My reasons were less than pure; the state university system in which I taught demanded certain percentages of literature from various cultures. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to teach haiku at first; it’s often taught in the public secondary system, but seldom taught in such a way that it could do justice to the intricacies of Japanese poetry and Zen Buddhism. My own extremely limited knowledge of the Japanese literary tradition made me cautious. The more often I taught it, however, the more I began to value the haiku tradition for its efficiency in teaching certain things to beginning literature students. Much of my struggle with undergraduate literature students was in trying to get them to understand, see, and appreciate that literature was actually art. Yes, Suzy Undergrad, the poet actually chose those particular words in order to create an experience for you in which your usual assumptions about, say, death (or sex, or love, or the gods. . . ) were temporarily suspended so that you could deepen your understanding of it. Haiku boiled down literature to its most essential forms. Choose a season, reflect on a natural object, distill the essence of that reflection into the spare three line, 5-7-5 syllable format. All of the endless permutations of any art form can come out of that simple, basic desire to represent and then reflect. In this way, simple line drawings on a cave wall have all of the subtly as a Kubrick film, as Werner Herzog has suggested. Haiku was simple enough for my students to be able to actually interpret a piece of art as art. At the same time the form was complex and flexible enough to bear the weight of endless permutations.

In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage Haruki Murakami has practiced a similar minimalism using his own oeuvre. All of the usual hallmarks of a Murakami novel are here. There is the love story, and the usual erotic surrealism. There is a central piece of music that frames the action, in this case Franz Liszt’s “La Mal du Pays.” Murakami uses four colours to frame the actions of four friends, as well as a fifth character, our ‘colorless’ protagonist. In 1Q84, Murakami made his love story as complex as possible. In Kakfa on the Shore he made a love story that was infinitely strange. In Colorless we find that Murakami has stripped love, friendship, and eroticism stripped down to those elements he finds interesting about those subjects. Despite this minimalism, or perhaps because of it, the novel feels like an unusually rich and strong meditation on those very subjects. He has been compared to many different literary artists, but I found myself thinking very much of the deceptive simplicity of the Greek playwright Aeschylus while reading Murakami’s latest effort; both artists reduce stories to their most basic, almost instinctual elements.

Reading Murakami is not like the experience of reading most other novels, and Colorless is no different. You don’t understand a Murakami novel so much as you taste it. A sip of ten-year old single-malt disperses across your palate in stages, yielding very different experiences as the flavor hits your nose, your tongue, and then your throat. I find that Murakami novels have an almost similar sensual element to them; if you try too hard to distinguish the ‘vanilla’ notes from the ‘peat’ promised by that awful copy on the bottle, the sensual pleasure of the actual whisky might disappear. Murakami’s plot elements, and the descriptions, have a way of lingering with you, long after the work of lesser novelists has dispersed. I think that it is this feature of his work that has led to Murakami being attacked or criticized when critics have a difficult time putting a name to the experience they have just had. I am not offering this as a defense of all of Murakami’s work; he may well have his lesser moments the way that any writer might; even Shakespeare had his Timon of Athens.

All that to say: I’m not sure that Colorless proved to be my favorite Murakami novel. I may prefer him in his more expansive moods, such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84; some claimed that 1Q84 was an expansive mess; I found it a generous and fascinating world to inhabit for 900 pages. Colorless left me wanting a bit more: a bit more character development, a bit more dialogue, a slightly less ambiguous ending. Still, the effect of the novel on my palate was unmistakably Murakami. I finished the novel several days ago, and its narrative and images linger with me in a way that only the best stories can. Perhaps Murakami is best understood as a maker of modern-day fairy tales. Like fairy tales, the logic of the narrative is distinctly its own, and thus escapes any easy taxonomy or straightforward explanation offered by the world of literary critics and book reviewers. Like Alice, we have been plunged into the world of the strange—the town of cats, to borrow Murakami’s own metaphor—and we feel strangely more whole when we return to our everyday reality. Murakami, as always, is meditating on the very nature of art itself, and that earnest emphasis on representation and reflection always feels spiritually satisfying.

Nathan Elliott–a globalized, de-centered mess–lives in Newfoundland, teaches students in Georgia, and is homesick for the mountains of Idaho. His favourite foods include sushi and haggis. He expects any day now to wake up in an alternate reality, and he dreads the coming of a second moon. 


Sell your books to Powell's

Leave a comment

Filed under General Literature

Judge not lest ye be judged . . . .unless. . . .

For years I had been proud of my nonjudgmental mindset towards personal religious beliefs. The way I figured it if God is this omnipresent all powerful being that gave man his own free will then I sure as hell held no right to judge how another may or may not come to believe in his existence. I had humbly come to understand that my opinion did not really amount to a hill of beans in comparison to a bigger picture. My conscience was clear, my hands washed, my countenance proud.

Then lo and behold, I read John Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven. To the very core this author shook me, knocking my pride down in cascading rivulets. I caught myself being critical of others through more than a few passages; at times I was even astonished at the fanatical ideas which appeared to possess individuals into accepting ass-backwards practices and notions, based on divine golden plated texts that were never found, very arguably authored by a fallible man of the nineteenth-century.

Surely, I thought, followers of Joseph Smith did not actually believe his load of baloney; especially since it was coming from a so-called prophet that crossed alters with wives when the poor girls were barely out of puberty. Ah, there it was, I realized I was being a cynical ass, close-minded even. Exerting considerable energy in reopening myself, and questioning whether or not I even had the right of claiming a free and clear conscience, I managed to get through Krakauer’s compelling nonfiction piece, but not without a plunge into introspection. Despite the self-tussle, my opinion on at least two absolutes in Krakauer’s handiwork remained constants from the get-go: herein exist epitomes of virtue and of evil.

Right off the bat, Krakauer does not shy away from the fact that his book centers on the heinous 1984 murders of a young woman and her innocent baby. Brenda Lafferty had her entire life ahead of her. If approached with oppressive idiocy she was an outspoken force to be reckoned with, she was smart and kind. She was once a pillar of her community, a backbone for subjugated women in her extended family, a dedicated wife to Allen Lafferty and loving mother to their baby girl Erica. Yet, for Allen’s brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, Brenda and baby Erica posed a threat. For Ron in particularly, it seems the threat was personal. To this silver-tongue devil, Brenda was the root cause of his impending divorce from his wife Diana. Ron was convinced his educated sister-in-law was ‘instrumental in persuading his wife to abandon him.’ He laid the rest of the blame on others in the community who helped his wife and kids escape a tightening choke-hold.

It did not occur to Ron that his increasing abuse could have had anything to do with his lack of marital bliss. Nor did he seem to have the slightest inclination that Dan’s influence may have had something to do with his metamorphosis from mainstream Mormonism into a Mormon fundamentalist that tried to force-feed his wife newly adopted polygamist beliefs. Perhaps it never occurred to Ron that Diana might have her own mind, or that she might get a little pissed at the loss of monogamy in her marriage and at the absurd demand that he would soon ‘marry off their teenage daughters as plural wives.’

If Ron did let Diana’s opinions cross his mind, they did not faze him. Any one who opposed him faced hellfire and damnation. After Ron’s tyrannical transformation, loss of material wealth, divorce, and excommunication from the mainstream Mormon church, he found purpose in a fundamentalist sect. It is then that he had revelations from God; revelations that supposedly instructed him ‘remove’ Brenda and her baby so ‘God’s work could go forward.’ This wicked hit list would not be limited to Brenda and Erica; it also entailed command to take out three others who aided Diana.

Armed with resolve to set an example for those ‘who fight against the true Saints of God’ this charismatic narcissist returned his eager brother the favor of his earlier influence. Ron convincingly spills the beans to his obedient brother Dan, who would never defy heavenly orders. Ron appears to understand his brother quite well, knowing Dan is a steadfast fellow tenaciously committed to the faith. Hence, it comes as no shocker when Ron bares that his divine revelations deemed Dan as the ‘hand of God’ and Ron as the ‘mouthpiece of God’. Either way, both Ron and Dan would carry bloodstains come Brenda and her baby’s last day of life.

Krakauer’s presentation of this multifaceted true narrative does not cease to keep readers at the meridian of a celestial-like climax. Indeed, Brenda’s and Erica’s appalling demise is only one of the soul-scorching zeniths in the book. Krakauer puts their repugnant murders in the context of present day truths and interweaves it with a troubling history of an American religion in the making. Political woes, religious schisms, deception, conspiracies, blood-revenge, racism, sexism, pedophilia and God-complexes are in abundance. No less apparent in their wake are kindness, mercy, compassion, law, order and unbending obedience. Under the Banner of Heaven presents the spirit of humanity, and its shared hopes, but it also reveals the presence of evil in the tangible form of men gone apeshit crazy.

To this day Ron remains incarcerated fighting the death penalty system. He has lost his religion, but not his zealous loathing of the American federal government. Ron appears to continue to believe that American politics pretty much come straight from the pits of hell. In a 2014 interview with Eric S. Peterson, Ron states:

‘I pledge nothing to the Democracy, so stick it back up Stalin’s ass or FDR’s-that Fucking Dumb Retard…That’s the era they made the term popular’

Ron’s Mormon fundamentalism came from no one particular source; it’s massive snowball that combined his hatred of the federal government, his strong abhorrence for the mainstream Mormon church that acquiesced to the federal demands for an end to plural marriage, and a growing animosity for the abusive Mormon father that beat the ‘shit’ out of his mother.

Ron’s co-conspirator brother Dan is serving a life sentence in prison, and looks forward to that fearful and dreadful day he bursts forth to carry out his ‘mighty and strong’ messianic message to the world. After incarceration Dan’s stalwart conviction in the Mormon fundamentalist’s religion waivered as well. Almost three decades after nearly decapitating baby Erica, and slitting Brenda’s throat, Dan firmly believes in his own soul-searched theological transmutations. He recently stated in an interview:

Free agency, Dan says, is an illusion pimped by religion to dupe its believers. “They use faith and other lies and secretes and deceptions to brain-fuck followers into thinking that they have the power to save or condemn people to hell…I understand very well that my philosophy makes me sound crazy, but I try to make it as logical as I can…But I don’t mind if people think I’m crazy, and I don’t know that I’m not…but I don’t think that I am. I think there is some good shit coming. God’s a good motherfucker, and when he comes back, he’s gonna be smoking a doobie, saying ‘Tired of this world? Well, it’s time to party. I really believe it…As Elijah, Dan says he alone is blessed with the ability to see the eternal reoccurrence of a life where 6,000 years of hell on earth is offset by a party where the chosen will get lit with Jesus and experience guilt-free mind blowing sex among other such unfathomable joys. – Eric S. Peterson (July, 2014; Salt Lake City Weekly)

Though Dan’s altered hippie-like dogma is disconcerting, his mind-bending regard for the slaying of Brenda and Erica is just damn disgusting. He still believes it was God’s will that he carry out the removal of Brenda and her baby, because God had reckoned them as ‘assholes.’ Thus, after much cathartic reflection from the mind rape of Krakauer’s gripping piece, my verdict is this: I would much rather be a tainted cynical ass than try not to judge Ron and Dan Lafferty’s crazed load of baloney.

Amber Cooper is a college student from Social Circle,GA. When not wracking her brain with her studies, she enjoys reading, discovering life, and storming baseball fields with her two boys.

Sell your books to Powell's


Leave a comment

Filed under Nonfiction

Baseball and Murder. . . .and farts.

Strike Three, You’re Dead is the book for you if you are a mystery or baseball fan. It helps if you are a baseball fan, but it doesn’t really depend on that. It’s a great story, with serious mystery, a bunch of red herrings, and… some farts.

Lenny is a really great character, and he has some pretty awesome friends. Lenny has a babysitter whom he thinks is annoying, but she does do something really great right at the end (but I can’t give it away). Mike is a pitcher who quit playing when he hurt his arm. Is there yet hope for his baseball career? Other Mike, a computer geek, is a real help in a video contest that Lenny desperately wants to win (– —- — –). Do not try to decode this message. Do not pass go. Read the book first.

It is not a story in which it’s easy to predict what will happen, which is part of what makes it so great. It is kind of realistic fiction, although something like this would be highly unlikely in the real world.

This book is very humorous, though sometimes a bit inappropriate. I would probably say ages nine to twelve or so on this one. There is a sequel, Say It Ain’t So, which I read first. It did NOT work out. Please read Strike Three first. If you don’t, please do not send me your complaint letters. I will not tolerate them.

Enough with the monkey business.

I don’t really think that Josh Berk could do anything to make this book better. It isn’t written badly, but it isn’t written especially well, either. But with a story like this, you can’t really write it very beautifully, huh? Five (million) stars.

Emmet Ebels Duggan just started the 4th grade in Evanston, Illinois. When not playing baseball, he likes to spend his time solving algebra equations and reading.

Sell your books to Powell's


Leave a comment

Filed under Children's Literature

Classic Fridays: American Gods on American Television, brought to you by a Brit

Editor’s Note: For the next several weeks we’re going to use Fridays to highlight a book that really, honestly, you should have read by now. The idea will be to find those books that may have just slipped under your radar, but which you really should read (yeah, I’m looking at you slacker, in the back of the class). Occasionally we’ll also highlight a book that someone has been crass enough to put back into the popular spotlight by making a film or a television series based on it. American Gods fits both of these criteria.

Sometimes you find one of those books that plows through your life as you know it. You read it deep into the night, think about it all day, and when you finish, you find that you look at the world a little differently. American Gods is just such a book. The novel is over a decade old, but is finally being made into a TV series by Starz. TV series based on books have gotten better in quality, but often stray to one degree or another from the original inspiration, enough to often make them a unique experience from their source. I would encourage you to pick up a copy of the novel and read it beforehand. The novel has a premise that only a master storyteller like Neil Gaiman (The Sandman graphic novels, Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book) could dream up.

The plot opens solidly in the real world: the main character, Shadow, has just finished a three-year prison term – for what, we don’t know – and has done his time in earnest, waiting to return to his loving wife and determined never to get into trouble again. But mere days before his release, he learns his wife has died in a car accident with her lover, and everything he’s lived for collapses. On the plane flight home, Shadow meets Wednesday, an enigmatic scoundrel who offers him a job. Shadow knows that Wednesday is a con artist, but he has nothing to lose and accepts the offer. Thus he, and we alongside him, begin our voyage into the world of American Gods. Wednesday, and most of the supporting cast in this book, are gods in the twilight of their existence. Wednesday, blind in one eye and taking his name after “his day,” is an incarnation of Odin. All Gods walk the earth, given power by the worship of humans. However, pantheons come and go as time moves on. This leaves the world populated with the remnants of Norse, Roman, Native American, Aboriginal and Egyptian pantheons trying to scrape by on what scraps of worship they can find. For instance, the Queen of Sheba works as a prostitute, making her clients worship her with quite – ahem – memorable results. Meanwhile, the new “American” gods – the gods of Computers, Highways and other modern amenities Americans worship these days – are young upstarts with more power than they can handle. The book chronicles the imminent clash between these old and new Gods on Earth.

 Reid's RoadWho, me? Yeah. You’re driving on a GOD here, pal.

Flat-out, this book is terrifying, fascinating, gothic and imaginative. Once you start reading, you won’t quit until you’re done. Gaiman’s world is complete and real and will keep you in it until he lets you go. And when he finally relinquishes his hold on you, you wish there was more. The only downside is that there are countless gods running around. You want to know who they are and what they represent, but it’s impossible to do. You just have to accept that there’s no way for you to understand everything, and enjoy what you do. At first, Shadow seems like a slow, muscle-bound ex-con with a brain not up to the task of dealing with the situation he’s in. For the first few chapters I worried about his value as the reader’s eyes and ears in the story. But it turns out that doesn’t give him nearly enough credit. Shadow is intelligent in a common-sense way, and is a fascinating character to follow. His personal dilemmas with his life, past crimes and love for his dead wife are poignant, and give him a great deal of dimension. (Hopefully this won’t give away too much, but his issues with his dead wife continue for the entire novel, literally from the grave, and is one of the more fascinating elements of the story.)

Most of all, this book wouldn’t be what it is without Gaiman’s skill at the craft. His writing is seamless, vivid and engaging, with plenty of action and great characters. In many ways his writing is invisible; his prose won’t amaze you like McCarthy or Chabon. Yet every word conjures the exact tone and pacing that Gaiman wants for the story. He keeps the final plot twists so close to his vest that you don’t see them coming, even though all the clues are out there for you to see. (This comes from someone who is notorious for guessing the ending of books halfway through.) Aspiring writers: If there is one author you want to emulate, Gaiman should be it.

William Reid Schmadeka is a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home father of three. When not writing, editing or reading sci-fi and fantasy (or changing diapers and cleaning up after a toddler), he loves cooking and playing board games.Sell your books to Powell's

Leave a comment

Filed under Classic Fridays, Sci-Fi/Horror/Fantasy

The Taming of a Norwegian Novelist

So, there I was: fresh off of a two-hundred page dash through the end of Book 1—published with the additional title of A Death in the Family in some English editions–I wanted more, and I wanted it right then, even if I was operating on three hours of sleep and I had a toddler to take care of. The wife had a paperback copy of Book 2, A Man in Love, and I proceeded to plunge right in, assuming I’d get the same thing I got in Book 1: a haunting, tightly crafted, poetic meditation on the fragility of life, and the imminence of death. I wanted a sequel, in other words, like every other American consumer who goes to Massachusetts Rusty Spoon Murders in Space 17 and then pulls into MacDonald’s to wash down their warm, predictable, commodified characters with food that is its bland, uniform, and focus-group produced complement.

Knausgaard refused to serve me. Instead he gave me an excruciating anatomy of his second marriage. The other Knausgaard reader in my household noted that she felt like she was married to him, trapped in a six-hundred page marriage that she could neither annul or destroy through sheer bad behavior. Much as the first novel could be easily summed up in a couple of sentences, so too can A Man in Love: Knausgaard falls in love with Linda in the aftermath of the breakdown of his first marriage; in one memorable episode he rips his face open with a shard of glass after she turns back his early advances. After that minor hiccup, they get married, she gets pregnant, there are fights with in-laws, there are fights with friends, there are manic episodes. At some point someone rubs some fruit juice into the carpet to make some point about something that no one can quite remember, let alone why it was important to make a point, or what fruit juice even had to do with it. Then Linda gets pregnant again. If it sounds crazy, well, it is, but if you’ve been married, it may be hard not to recognize yourself in at least a few key scenes.

Knausgaard jumped genres on us, or at the very least, sub-genres. A Death in the Family forced its readers to come to terms with the fullness of death; it finds its precedent in the great Russians, looking back to The Brothers Karamazov and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. A Death in the Family follows the author through the death of his father, and examines the troubled relationship he had with the man that gave him his existence. It gives us the way that the death of others–perhaps especially our parents and grandparents–almost always forces us to confront existential questions. We must confront–not just mortality itself–but who and what we actually are, and how much control we have over who and what we are.

A Man in Love forces—and I do mean forces—its readers to confront the realities of love and marriage; in doing so, Knausgaard travels from the existential depths of the Russian novel to the complex depth-psychology of the nineteenth-century British novel. To be absurdly reductive, the nineteenth-century British novel falls into two camps. Jane Austen’s Regency-era piece of glitter and sexual tension, Pride and Prejudice, is a slow-narrative-strip-tease as we wait to see if Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet will get laid in a manner highly satisfactory to all parties; when Elizabeth secures Mr. Darcy’s handsome countenance as well as his vast estates, all is well in Britain and in our sexual fantasies. There is, of course, the polar opposite of the nineteenth-century marriage plot novel, the narrative that begins–rather than ends–shortly after the marriage has been sealed. Dorthea Brooke has just married the noble scholar of her dreams, Mr. Causabon; dear reader, welcome to the inferno of marriage and psychological realism that is Middlemarch (a personal favorite of mine, to be clear). In these narratives, we find out what really happens instead of living “happily ever after.”

Knausgaard–who flirts with nineteenth-century novel conventions, but never quite gives them his cell number–flaunts and incorporates the conventions of both the marriage plot novel of Austen and Trollope and the psychological realism of Dickens and Eliot. There is no happy ending here, there is no sad ending here, because there is no ending here. In this novel, love grows and stretches into marriage and gives birth to children and fights and broken vases and some serious questions about whether or not the mother-in-law isn’t breaking into the liquor cabinet when she’s supposedly minding the baby. What marriage does not produce is easy resolution, or a sense that you have it all figured out. The very nature of love and marriage propels you endlessly into the future, as you try to figure out the next day, the next fight, and how to have make-up sex without waking the baby or the alcoholic neighbour.

In that sense, this is the perfect sequel to A Death in the Family. That novel undermined our narrative expectations about grief and death. A Man in Love undermines all of our usual narrative expectations about what it is to fall in love, get married, and have children. Love is a force that so profoundly reshapes you that it gives you raw joy and the petty desire to carve your initials into the dining room table just to get that asshole to listen for a change. The novel has a description of the birth of his first child, which will likely have many a parent in tears as it recaptures the sense of blinding anxiety, pain, and joy that accompanies any birth. My favorite passage, however, comes at the end when our hero breaks his collarbone in a soccer match, and is over-joyed to find that his painful injury gives him an iron-clad excuse to have a real day off for the first time in years. As his young daughter scrubs his back in the bath, you get a sense of all of the absurdity and pleasure that family life affords.

At the end of the book—if you make it—you may feel like you need a divorce from Karl Ove Knausgaard. But that’s only because you’ll understand marriage and love a little better than you did when you started.

Nathan Elliott is a hopeless romantic who moved to Newfoundland to marry a poet. He spends the rest of his time looking after a toddler, reading, trying to find time to swim, and wondering if Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court had a good trip to England. 

Shop Indie Bookstores

Sell your books to Powell's

Leave a comment

Filed under General Literature

“Perfection is overrated, especially at 6 p.m. when everyone is tired and hungry.”

The family meal has been presented as a panacea for many of modern society’s ills, from childhood obesity, to behavioral problems, to breakdowns in family communication. Keepers: Two Home Cooks Share their Tried and True Weeknight Recipes and the Secrets to Happiness in the Kitchen is an effort to encourage people to make cooking part of their daily routine, gain confidence in their kitchen skills and break out of the rut of take-away. A “keeper” in this view is a recipe that you would want to put into the regular rotation, to feed the hungry hordes after work and school. Although the “home cook” subtitle evokes self-taught and unprofessional cuisine, authors Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion have extensive backgrounds in food and publishing. Brennan graduated from culinary school, and has worked as an editor at Gourmet and Saveur. Campion has worked as an editor at food magazines, and also has a following online. Like Jenny Rosenstrach, a former food editor at Cookie magazine who created the blog (and two bestselling cookbooks) “Dinner a Love Story” to campaign for the importance of the family dinner, Caroline Campion blogs at “Devil and Egg,” describing the day-to-day triumphs and challenges of cooking for a family. Brennan and Campion have put together an attractive, easy-to-follow guide to help harried families put good food on the table even – gasp! – on a weeknight.

The book is aimed at beginners or those who are less confident in the kitchen, but there is much here that will interest more experienced cooks as well. Brennan and Campion provide tips for stocking a kitchen, going shopping with children, presenting dishes, and tweaking recipes for consistent results. “The Keepers Manifesto” contains solid advice to cook by, including “Season like you mean it,” and “Perfection is overrated, especially at 6 p.m. when everyone is tired and hungry.” There are plenty of photographs of finished dishes, some of steps in preparation, and occasional shots of the authors cooking in their large and expensive-looking kitchens and feeding their families. Charming line drawings enliven pages where there are no photos. The recipes are organized according to Mains and Sides, and most can be completed in under 45 minutes using ingredients available at the local supermarket. Although there is a very small section of meatless main dishes, most of the meals revolve around a meat or fish protein, with vegetables as the side dish. These are intended to be “everyday” recipes, but there are quite a few that would be suitable to serve at a casual gathering of friends. There are no desserts, but a section of “lifesavers” (condiments like an avocado spread or carrot-ginger dressing) encourages experimentation and repurposing of leftovers.

Some of the offerings are new twists on old favourites, like meatloaf with chopped pancetta. Family-friendly sliders are made of pork tenderloin marinated in pineapple juice and brushed with hoisin sauce, and topped with a delicious combination of miso paste, mayo and lemon juice. Quesadillas are a staple in many households, but Brennan and Campion suggest a new technique, toasting the tortillas first so that they are crispy rather than floppy. London broil steak is enlivened by a simple mustard butter and pasta rags with rock shrimp uses no-boil lasagna noodles to produce a stracci-style, torn pasta. The offerings are tasty and varied, but not intimidating to cooks or eaters. The only recipe that would give me pause to attempt on a Tuesday night was the shrimp wonton soup, but the clear list of steps and photos of how to fill the wonton wrappers might encourage me to attempt it one day.

On the whole, the recipes are not “dumbed down” to suit children’s supposedly finicky palates. I think this is a good thing – North American kids menus at restaurants are a sad and endless parade of French fries, hamburgers, grilled cheese and the like. Instead of producing ten variations on chicken fingers (although there is one killer recipe for deviled panko-crusted chicken thighs), the authors suggest putting vibrant dishes like Greek-Style Fish with Yogurt, Sausage and White Bean Gratin, or Belgian-style Mussels on the table and having faith that your children might try and like these delicious things. Anyone with children knows that you cannot predict just what will be a hit, but Keepers has a range of dishes that should appeal to parents first, and with luck, to many kids as well. Our bunch happily ate the “Japanese-Style Meat and Potatoes,” although one child probably ate mostly potatoes, one ate mostly broth on a bed of rice, and the other ate the carrots and meat. Small victories. Keepers is a nice addition to the cookbook shelf, and will be reached for midweek when you need inspiration to put a meal on the table. And that pork slider recipe really is a keeper.

Sarah Elvins is a historian living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She cooks, bakes, knits, reads, runs and nags her three children in her spare time.

Click here to visit Powell's Books!


Leave a comment

Filed under Food