Too Many Books; or, A Lifetime of Obsessive Reading.

My mom likes to joke that I was the easiest kid to keep occupied during any activity – shopping, doctor’s appointments, church – that might have bored me: She’d give me a book and I’d be fine for hours. I would truly read anything I could get my hands on; if I didn’t have a kids’ book handy, I’d read the encyclopedia, the dictionary, my dad’s chemistry textbook, a book of Pogo comics (I understood everything except for that one), whatever. The Moby Books “Great Illustrated Classics,” abridged versions of classic novels, were popular in the late 1970s – even sold at Toys R Us, which is kind of hard to fathom at this point – and I read maybe 30 of them. (None stuck with me more than their collection of four of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, Tales of Mystery and Terror. The Amontillado! That hideous heart! The cipher in “The Gold Bug!”) I can think of only one movie adaptation of a book – Joanne Harris’ Chocolat – that I enjoyed more than the book itself. (The book is virulently anti-Catholic, but the film recast the priest character the secular mayor.) I was – okay, I still am – Henry Bemis, just without the glasses.

There was never any plan to my reading when I was younger; I’d find something I liked, and I’d keep reading. I started reading at two, with Eric Carle’s The Mixed-Up Chameleon; apparently an aunt of mine was convinced I’d actually memorized the book and tried to test me with something else, only to have me read that too. I remember reading part of The Hobbit in church when I was about ten. I stumbled on Asimov’s first Foundation novel when I was 15, while in a Walden Books at the Smith Haven Mall with a friend of mine, and ended up reading the whole series, then the whole extended fourteen-novel sequence set in the Foundation universe. I picked up Dune one summer in college, loved it, then read every sequel, each of which was logarithmically worse than the previous one, in some vain hope that the series would recapture the glory of the first title. (No such luck.) I’d read pretty much anything on math or science that I could handle; when I was in sixth grade and my junior high school decided to place me in eighth grade math, I went to the library, got Asimov’s Realm of Algebra, and taught myself the subject over the weekend. I remember my father being annoyed with me because I took a lengthy novel, Moris Farhi’s The Last of Days, while going to an academics summer camp because he was concerned (rightly, if I’m to be totally fair about it) I’d get lost in the book and not pay enough attention to the classes. I’d sit in the back of the classroom in high school and read whatever novel I was into at that point, which was almost never the book we’d been assigned to read in English class. (I didn’t appreciate most of those novels until later in life, and I often think about how the curriculum seems calculated to ruin teenagers’ interest in reading, ignoring some far more accessible classics and offering some very peculiar choices among more modern literature.)

I always tell young or would-be writers who ask me for advice that you can’t be a great writer unless you are first a great reader, and part of why I say that is because I’ve lived it, at least the “great reader” part. I was assigned Catcher in the Rye twice in junior high school, the first time when I was just ten years old, and still to this day remember two vocabulary words I gained from it: qualm, which was simple enough, and prostitute, which confused the hell out of me even after I looked it up in the dictionary. (I also failed to grasp Salinger’s expression “giving her the time,” because, you know, I was ten when ten-year-olds didn’t know about that stuff.) I still write down new words I encounter when reading, most of which are uselessly obscure, with the occasional gem popping up – limicolous, sciamachy, obverse, arrogate, scapegrace, quondam, peroration. (The first two were from The Recognitions; the last two from A Dance to the Music of Time.) But it’s more than vocabulary; if you read a lot of writers in a lot of genres, you will learn through experience (or osmosis) how the language can be used for different ways of expressing similar concepts. English is malleable, adaptable, and you can twist it and bend it to do and say all kinds of things, sometimes to the point where you might lose some readers – ask James Joyce or Gertrude Stein – but to create beauty, or evoke laughter, or invite the reader into a select club of those who catch an allusion. I don’t know if reading so much has made me a great writer or even a good one, but it’s made me the writer I am.

When I read books, it’s nearly always for pleasure, which means I opt for books in which I can just get lost, either in a great plot or in a strong non-fiction narrative. I don’t read baseball books, because baseball is my job, and reading is a hobby, and I don’t like to let my job bleed into my hobby even though a former hobby ended up becoming (or at least informing) my job. I see a six-hour flight to California as a chance to read a 300-page book cover to cover, leaving a little time for a nap too. On a flight from LAX to Taipei in 2004, I slept for seven hours, ate two meals, and read the whole fifth Harry Potter book. (Then I had to carry it around for the rest of the trip.) Traveling the way I do means I eat a lot of meals by myself, yet I never quite feel like I’m by myself if I’m in the company of a great story. I’ve been known to disappear in Bristol during some dead time between the production meeting and the first BBTN of the night to meditate and read. Anyone looking for me can take solace in the fact that I’ve gone to a better place.

The Harry Potter series actually spurred me to begin reading again for pleasure after a lull in my early 20s where I fell out of the habit, particularly out of reading fiction. J.K. Rowling reminded me what it was like to be completely absorbed in a cracking good story – to this day, hers are the only novels I’ve enjoyed so deeply that I’ve dreamed I’ve been in the books – and sent me back to the used bookstores of Arlington and Cambridge and Boston, where I’d gladly pick up even some shorter classics at which I would have scoffed as a teenager. When I started traveling more in 2002, my first year with the Blue Jays, I started keeping a list of the books I was reading, getting to 70-something by the end of the season before I burned out on Hemingway’s The Son Also Rises (sorry, Papa, I just didn’t like it). I’ve always been a listmaker anyway, but something about recording what I’ve read, the ability to look back and see it like I accomplished something tangible (if meaningful to no one but me), has driven me to keep up the habit to this day.

The following year, my wife bought me a copy of Daniel Burt’s The Novel 100, the literature professor’s ranking of the hundred greatest novels ever written, as a Christmas gift. I assumed I would have read half or more of them, but not only was I off by a factor of about four (I think I’d read just fourteen), I’d never heard of thirty or forty titles on the list. This made me irrationally angry, and I started reading with purpose, hunting down anything on the list that was under 1000 pages, because it bothered me that I’d read so little of the western canon even though I don’t think there was a person on the planet who gave a damn that I’d read so little of the western canon. No one had ever accosted me to ask if I’d read Vanity Fair, but dammit, I was going to read it just in case. (Still waiting.)

That led me to more lists – someone on an old cooking-related message board that I frequented and that often veered off-topic posted the TIME 100 with a “how many have you read?” topic title that read to me like an accusation. Someone else bought me the Bloomsbury list of 100 Must-Read Classic Novels. I found the Modern Library’s list of the best novels from the 20th century, which is a hot mess, and then the Radcliffe Course’s response list, which is a different but equally hot mess, but still read three-fourths of the titles from each anyway because I’m stubborn. (I draw the line at Ayn Rand, who appears twice on the Radcliffe Course’s list, because if that’s what passes for “literature” we might as well just revert to oral traditions.) This striving led me to start some books I might never have started yet ended up enjoying, like Bleak House and Middlemarch, and to finish some books I might have abandoned, although whether that latter point is a good thing is a matter of much debate (which occurs entirely in my head).

The prompt for this was a personal milestone, one towards which I’d been working for about the last decade. A chiropractor I’d used in Massachusetts about that long ago noted that I always had a book in hand when I visited her office, and mentioned that her sister was also an avid reader who claimed to have read a thousand books in her lifetime. She asked me if I thought such a thing was possible, and I said it probably was, although you’d have to read somewhat obsessively. (I don’t think the irony in me calling another person’s reading “obsessive” was lost on either of us.) And that led me to try to list all the books I’d ever read – novels, non-fiction works, collections of short stories – to see how far short I was of that number. I figured if I kept up my regular pace of 60-70 books a year, I’d hit a grand sometime around my 42nd birthday; I’ll turn 42 in June, and I read my thousandth book earlier this week.

Three-quarters of the books I’ve read have been novels, with a bunch of narrative non-fiction filling in the rest. For all the classics I’ve read, I’m still very much a fan of genre fiction. I’ve read more works by P.G. Wodehouse than any other author – 34 novels and five short story collections – followed by Agatha Christie (29 novels plus Poirot Investigates), Isaac Asimov (19 plus 3, but none since 1995!), and Graham Greene (18). I’ve got another thirty by the holy trinity of detective writers: Chandler, Hammett, and Stout. I’ve read everything Jasper Fforde (11), J.K. Rowling (10), and Alan Bradley (6) have seen fit to publish, and eagerly await more by each. Then I look at my list and see how much more I could read by Bradbury and Le Carré and Richard Stark, and I know I’ve got some more Dickens and Hardy to tackle and could spend the next two years reading Balzac (no umlauts). I’ve still yet to read Parade’s End or Stranger in a Strange Land or The Jungle or The Stories of John Cheever. Should I even think about tackling Finnegan’s Wake given what an effort it was to get through Ulysses? Isn’t life short enough as it is?

I think now that I’ve reached so many of these arbitrary goals I’ve set for myself – hitting 1K, finishing the TIME and Bloomsbury lists – I’m back to reading for pleasure and only for pleasure. I’ve still got thirty-odd books on the to-be-read shelf, but I look at that queue just as books I’m dying to get to, some I’ve wanted to read for years but put aside in favor of classics that I needed to read to finish some list. My goal is usually to read for an hour a day; my daughter has to read for twenty minutes each day as her primary homework assignment, so I sit next to her and we read together, and then I work in more reading as I want a break during the rest of the day. (It’s a better choice for me than arguing on Twitter.) Sometimes I make that into more of an obligation – oh my God, I didn’t read my usual 60 pages today! – than it should be, which is just another manifestation of my anxiety plus, I assume, a bit of lingering Catholic guilt. Maybe that needs to be my next big reading goal. After all, a great story is one that tells you when you’ve read enough for the day.

Tampa/Clearwater eats.

Klawchat today at 1 pm ET. Also, check out my review of the boardgame Evolution over at Paste if you haven’t already.

Jose’s Real Cuban Food in Bradenton looks like a dump – I wasn’t even sure I’d pulled into the right parking lot – but the food makes it worth getting over your initial jitters about walking into the place, with huge portions of authentic Cuban dishes at very reasonable prices. I’m a huge fan of lechón asado, slow-roasted pork shoulder that’s been marinated in a garlicky sour orange mixture (like a wet rub) and is served shredded, usually with rice and beans. Jose’s offers the basic black beans and rice combo, but you can upgrade to yellow rice (with saffron and garlic) or moros (rice cooked with the black beans) for a buck or so, plus your choice of maduros (fried sweet plantains) or yucca frita. The pork was tender and the flavors were well-balanced between the citrus, the salt, and the garlic – not overpowered by the garlic as too often happens, since garlic is cheap and can hide the taste of subpar ingredients – and the plate had to have at least a half a pound of meat. I went with the basic beans and rice but next time would go for the yellow rice instead, while the maduros were superb, not too greasy and cooked just to the point of caramelization without burning. That plate was more than enough for me, but if you’re a bigger eater than I am, for $14 you can get a sampler “taste of Cuba” platter with the pork, ropa vieja (brisket slow-cooked in tomato sauce), and picadillo (seasoned ground beef) with the same sides, after which you won’t need to eat for a few days.

The Refinery in Tampa is a Kiley McDaniel favorite, one he’s been recommending to me for about two years now, and I finally made it late on Friday night after seeing Kyle Tucker and Jake Woodford play. The Refinery’s a farm-to-table restaurant with a menu that changes a few times a week, mostly small plates with four or five entrees, and an extensive beer/wine list. I went with three small plates, one of which was dessert – a roasted beet plate with a beet soubise, catfish fritters, and their sweet twist on biscuits and gravy, all of which were grade 55s but none plus. The fritters were a little disappointing because they were so big and bready that I didn’t taste the fish at all, so while they were perfectly fried (smoking hot when they reached the table) and came with a delicious remoulade-like sauce and some pickled tomatoes on the side, they could have been corn fritters or zucchini fritters or anything else and I wouldn’t have known it. The dessert was clever, a cocoa wafer serving as the biscuit, a dollop of chocolate mousse serving as the sausage, and a floral crème anglaise as the sauce, not too sweet but not quite as chocolatey as I’d hoped for. I think the Refinery’s best attribute is the quality of their ingredients, but I wish, for example, they’d showcased the catfish in that dish the way they showcased the beets on the other savory plate.

Buddy Brew is a local coffee roaster in Tampa with a decent selection of single-origin pour-overs as well as one espresso option, all third-wave stuff and fairly high-quality. I tried the Peru Cajamarca as a pour-over, definitely getting the toffee and cocoa flavors listed on the description (although the power of suggestion is quite potent when you’re talking about anything as subjective and borderline pretentious as “notes” in coffee, wine, chocolate, or tea) but looking for a little more acidity to balance it out. I preferred the espresso, which uses their Double Dog blend and had that dark cocoa + berry combination that, for whatever reason, I think makes the best espresso. I’m assuming there’s some Ethiopian beans in there, but they don’t identify the components on their site.

Lenny’s in Clearwater gets such high marks, with Alton Brown even paying them a visit recently when he did a show in the area, but it’s entirely about quantity over quality. Their “redneck Benedict” is just sausage gravy on biscuits with poached eggs added, but the eggs were badly overcooked (and shaped oddly, like they’d been cooked in thimbles) while the biscuits were clearly not fresh, and why bother when they’re going to be obliterated underneath a half-gallon of heavy sauce? Don’t waste your time. Clearwater’s a bit of a wasteland for food – one of you recommended Cafe Pont on Ulmerton, which I didn’t have time to try between games on Friday – but you can do better than this for breakfast.

Range Anxiety.

My review of the boardgame Evolution went up on Tuesday over at Paste. I’ll hold my first Klawchat of February on Thursday at 1 pm ET.

The Twerps hail from Australia, where weird indie music seems to be quite readily accepted as normal. I described them recently as pleasantly annoying, which is much better than annoyingly pleasant, and that phrase fits their second album Range Anxiety (in addition to their eight-song 2014 EP Underlay, which included “Heavy Hands,” #42 on my list of the top 100 songs of last year) as well as everything that came before. The quartet craft short, catchy jangle-pop songs around a single hook each, and their singing styles are the polar opposite of the sanitized auto-tuned music that fills American pop radio playlists – to a fault, sometimes, as the Twerps don’t care if they’re a bit off key.

The Twerps frequently cite Australian indie heroes the Go-Betweens and Dunedin Sound propagators The Clean as major influences, both quite obvious in their music, which also reminded me of American jangle-pop act Let’s Active and perhaps even early Aztec Camera – all of it from another era of alternative music entirely. Their own sound is a bit more stripped-down than even their earliest influences, minimal without becoming experimental, which fits their one-hook-per-song formula, a formula that works best when the Twerps keep things to about three minutes – true of all but two songs on the album, with one of those exceptions the lead single, “I Don’t Mind,” one of the worst tracks on Range Anxiety and not at all representative of what the band is capable of producing.

I’ll direct your attention instead to “Back to You,” a more upbeat, jangly tune in line with “Heavy Hands” that introduces its point straight off with the line “Somebody out there is doing better than me.” The song has one riff, and about enough humor in the lyrics to sustain it for two and a half minutes – another thirty seconds and the song would have felt overlong. Julia McFarlane takes over lead vocals for the Sambassadeur-like “Stranger,” another three-minute gem that leads into “New Moves,” which sounds a bit like another Aussie indie-pop band, the Darling Buds, with a sunny guitar riff that contrasts with the muted vocal medley. McFarlane returns to the lead later in the album on the waltz “Shoulders,” the most successful downtempo track on the album – primarily because of the strength of her strong yet understated vocals. “Cheap Education” thrives off a simple guitar riff that gave me the sense that the whole song was spinning in circles, which I’d like to think was the whole point given the wordplay in the lyrics.

The annoying part of their sound does take over from time to time, in large part because the male vocalists don’t like to stay on key very well, such as the positively irritating “Love at First Sight,” where I can only assume the band was trying to create some irony by layering fingernails-on-blackboard vocals over a pretty if slightly standard ballad. “Adrenaline” has the same problem – you should almost expect a Twerps song with that title to be more like a dirge – while closer “Empty Road” runs about two minutes longer than it should have; although their attempt to build a song with multiple hooks and layers is admirable, it just doesn’t work out over five full minutes.

Range Anxiety truly isn’t for everyone – it’s the kind of album I would probably have rejected on first listen a decade ago, when I was much more closed-minded about music in general (I knew what I liked and didn’t see much reason to listen to anything else). It’s an album that rewards a little patience and the willingness to overlook the moments when the Twerps outfox themselves by overdoing the irony or singing out of tune, with solid payoffs in a half-dozen tracks that are minor pop jewels.

Ancillary Justice.

My latest boardgame review for Paste magazine covers the 2014 engine-building game Evolution.

Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch) ran the table of major sci-fi awards, winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke Awards for Best Novel (among other prizes) in 2014 and spawning two upcoming sequels to complete the “space opera” trilogy. Leckie devised a clever twist to give Ancillary Justice a different flavor from any novel I’ve seen before, but that didn’t infuse the story with the narrative greed I’d expect from an award-winning science-fiction book.

The protagonist of Ancillary Justice is an “ancillary,” a human body with an AI cognitive function, one recently separated from the ship that previously ruled its actions. In the world Leckie has created, spaceships run on powerful, all-seeing systems with their own artificial intelligences, and they extend their reach and powers via ancillaries – various prisoners who’ve been placed in cryogenic suspension, reanimated, and fitted with various technical implants, from armor to the system that connects them to the ship’s central nervous system. That means that each ancillary functions as a small part of a larger whole – Breq, the protagonist, can recall seeing with dozens of pairs of eyes when she was still part of the ship Justice of Toren. These ships and ancillaries are all under the command of the Radch, a mysterious authority that rules a large swath of its galaxy, adding to its dominion via ruthless “annexations” that tend to involve a lot of killing of innocents.

Breq’s ship is gone, described in one of the book’s many flashbacks, essential to understanding why Breq is trying to obtain a rare weapon and go kill one of the many bodies of the Radch’s monarch, Anaander Mianaai, even though such a move won’t actually destroy the ruler herself. The novel itself begins with a long tangent where Breq, arriving on the snowbound planet of Hilt (why is there always a frigid, snow-covered planet in these books?), comes across a dying woman named Seivarden lying face-down in the snow. Recognizing the former lieutenant, Breq chooses to save the woman’s life, further complicating her own mission yet giving Leckie more room to explain the Radch’s history.

That lengthy introductory section lasts maybe a third of the book, and while there may be a payoff later in the trilogy, it contributed to the novel’s lack of plot interest. I understood why Breq wants to kill one of the many Anaander Mianaais running around the galaxy; I just couldn’t bring myself to care all that much, at least not to the point where I was reading because I wanted to know what happened next. The plot is antiseptic, fully functional yet without color or emotion – befitting a story that is ultimately about a battle between artificial intelligences, I suppose.

Leckie’s use of an atypical protagonist likely contributed to the slew of awards she won for Ancillary Justice, and it allowed her to touch on a pair of themes that resonate quite strongly today, perhaps also boosting her stock with judges. One such theme is the question of privacy in an increasingly wired, digital era. Every ship and space station is “alive” via AI, and sees and knows everything that’s going on within, to the point of monitoring individuals’ heart rates and facial expressions, analyzing them for potential threats. The Radch continues to annex more territories, giving the targets no choice in the matter, forcing them to cede their land and any individual freedom they may have had prior to the Radch’s arrival.

Leckie also explores the question, although I suppose it’s settled within the novel, of how much control we’re willing to surrender to our computers. AIs rule every ship, station, or planet we encounter in the book, and there’s very little thought given to whether this is optimal because it’s been that way for at least a thousand years. The Radch is ruled according to a quasi-mystical (rather Confucian) set of principles, including Justice, that considers the Greater Good without giving any visible weight to the individual. On the one hand, that means personal freedom gets trampled by the Radch whenever there’s a conflict. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure everyone in the Radchaai empire is vaccinated.

Leckie gets too cute by half with her forays into language and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, never committing to it enough for a real exploration of its relevance, choosing instead to toy with questions of gender or Arabic/Korean-style questions of declensions that vary based on the level of respect due to whoever you’re talking to. It reads like an idea she had early in the novel’s development, then gradually abandoned as she became more enmeshed in the broader AI-focused plot.

Ancillary Justice reads more like a novel you’d analyze and discuss than one you might read for pleasure. The lack of any emotional connection between the reader and Breq, or even to the specific incident that triggered her rebellion against Anaander Mianaai, makes it a desultory read, failing to generate enough interest in getting to the book’s conclusion – a strong one, easily the book’s best segment, but not enough to make up for what came before. If you’re more invested in the backstory of why Breq ended up severed from her ship, and why she’s engaging on a seemingly futile one-ancillary mutiny against a ruler who can’t be killed – and as I type that I think that sounds like a pretty good story – you’ll likely enjoy the book more than I did.

Saturday five, 2/14/15.

The draft blog is live again, with my first post on Jacob Nix’s outing on Thursday and UC-SB’s mishandling of Dillon Tate; I’ll have another post up this evening on Kyle Funkhouser. I had a quick post earlier in the week on the James Shields signing. My chat with Colin Cowherd today on what WAR is and why we need it is available in mp3 form.

My review of the very good Days of Wonder boardgame Five Tribes is up at Paste.

saturdayfiveThis week’s links:

  • It’s time to stop using the r-word. A stunning piece on a word that should have died long ago, written by former NFL offensive guard Kasey Studdard, himself the target of that word when he was a kid due to a learning disability.
  • What Would Jesus Do About Measles? He’d tell you to vaccinate your children already, that’s what he’d do.
  • Via Kelly Oxford – one of my favorite follows on Twitter because I think she’s a riot – a piece from last year from Mother Jones that argues that you can’t change an anti-vaxxer’s mind. That piece makes vaccine deniers’ situations seem like a mental illness – a delusion from which they can’t escape.
  • Quantum equations say the universe has no beginning. Or no end, which is theoretically good news, except that all the stars will eventually wink out of existence. Anyway, the whole hypothesis depends on the existence of gravitons, massless quantum particles that may just be fictional. I just want to know when I get my jetpack.
  • The BBC’s World Book Club this month discussed William Gibson’s seminal debut novel Neuromancer, featuring a 55-minute Q&A with the author himself.
  • I tweeted this link earlier in the week, but now that I’ve posted my review of The Handmaid’s Tale it’s worth reposting – Salon‘s excellent story of Margaret Atwood’s visit to West Point, where she had lunch with first-year students and took many of their questions about the book.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

My draft blog post on Jacob Nix’s pitching and Dillon Tate’s role is up for Insiders.

Margaret Atwood’s award-winning dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale had been on my radar for years, both as a book recommended by others and something I knew I should read given its genre and critical acclaim. It is a remarkable, harrowing, often infuriating novel of a very specific type of dystopian society, one that goes beyond mere questions of personal freedom to probe issues of gender roles and identities, as well as the difficulty of regaining any sort of agency under severe repression designed to strip subjects of that very power.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the United States has fallen somewhere in the late 1980s, replaced in a violent coup by a fundamentalist Christian state, one that imposes strict Biblical prohibitions on nearly all areas of life. Women are now second-class citizens by statute, deprived of the ability to work, to drive, to assemble, to read, even to think for themselves. Decisions about their reproductive lives are made largely by the state, which is entirely dominated by older white men. Think modern-day Saudi Arabia. Or Texas.

The narrator, known simply by her assigned name of Offred, is a handmaid, a role of a highly specific form of sexual slavery. Handmaids are assigned to older men in powerful positions whose wives, due to age or other conditions, can no longer bear children. Their role is to try to bear their masters – Atwood doesn’t use that term, but I don’t see a better one – a child, after weaning which they’ll be assigned to a new house and a new master, while the child will be reared by the master and his capital-W Wife. Women who refuse to subject to this new order are sent to the Colonies, an unspecified location where they engage in manual labor from farmwork to cleaning up environmental disasters, or are simply disappeared.

Offred’s story is made all the more uncomfortable because she’s one of the first generation of Handmaids, and was ripped out of her old life where she was married with a young daughter, both of whom are now gone – to where exactly I won’t say to avoid spoiling it, but there’s nothing comforting about any of it. The idea of a regime so repressive that it would break up families for religious/political reasons seems so far-fetched, and yet we still have elements in this country fighting federal orders that should force them to recognize same-sex marriages. (Atwood, herself an ardent humanist, places surprisingly little blame here at the feet of the unspecified sect in charge of the new nation, apparently called Gilead, instead showing the religion as the tool of the oppressors.) When Offred’s master, called the Commander, tries to initiate a relationship with her that’s more than their perfunctory monthly Ceremony of sex – one so bizarre the reader can only wonder how Atwood came up with it – it begins the unraveling of Offred’s little world, one that replaced happiness with a modicum of stability, bringing back actual emotions beyond her regular state of depression and thoughts of suicide.

While The Handmaid’s Tale has a superficial purpose as a warning to all of us about how easily a repressive element like this might take over a previously peaceful, democratic society, or simply to caution us that such groups always exist at the fringes and will try to pounce on any opening they might see to exert their will on others, Atwood’s primary purpose seems to be explore the plight of a woman in a hopeless condition of subjugation. Can such a subject find any reason for hope beyond impossible dreams of a reunion with her family (where there’s life, there’s hope)? How can she claim some sort of agency – here, a capacity to form a desire for action, then to act upon it of her own will – within the confines of a societal structure that deprives her of everything right down to her identity, reducing her to a mere vessel for the propagation of the species? When she even has limited ability to choose whether to live or die, can such a woman find any form of freedom, and are such forms – like illicit sex – worth pursuing simply because they represent a rebellion against oppression? Offred learns of other handmaids who’ve taken their own lives, an expression of their limited agency, and ultimately encounters other “fallen” women who’ve taken to using sex for the same purpose.

Where Atwood might have gone further is in exploring the reasons why victims of such repressive regimes are not more willing to resist. In her alternate history, many women are willing participants in the scheme that subjugates their compatriots, becoming instructor-disciplinarians in reeducation centers set up to turn formerly independent women into Handmaids, or snitching on subversive or illegal activities to try to curry small, temporary favor with their overlords. There is a resistance movement, but it appears to be small and weak, and the idea that women, who constitute just over half the population, would be demoted to the status of mere chattel without more of a fight seemed unlikely to me. Atwood does give us a secondary character, Janine, who seems to embody Shakespeare’s frailty-of-woman, with her excessive emotional displays and subservience to any authority, male or female, that seeks dominion over her. Janine’s character is alternately pitied and despised by Offred and the other Handmaids, but their tacit acceptance of their fate is no different than her explicit version.

Discussing the issue of non-resistance – which is a major philosophical question that arises when we examine real autocratic regimes, notably the Third Reich – further might have led Atwood into the trap that far too many science- or speculative-fiction novels fall, providing excessive detail about the world and its inception, which ruined both Rainbows End and The Diamond Age for me. I’m glad she provided less detail here rather than more if the cost was giving us a lengthy exposition on, say, the power structure of Gilead. It wasn’t until near the end of the book that it became clear that the former university converted for the use of the government’s secret police and for events like the “Salvaging” was actually Harvard, more evidence of Atwood’s willingness to forego irrelevant details to focus on the plot and her themes.

There is another dimension to this book that will always be beyond me, as a man, because I’ve experienced none of the discrimination or even condescension that women face in what is still a patriarchal society; as a white, straight male, I don’t even have a good analogue on which I can draw. The horror of having her daughter taken from her and given to another childless family is always present with Offred, and that was the point with which I had the hardest time because it was the one aspect of her de facto captivity that I could imagine. Nothing else would drive me to madness so quickly.

Next up: Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice, winner of the 2014 Hugo, Nebula, Clarke, and Locus Awards.

Top Chef, S12 finale.

I’m in Florida for a little over 36 hours to see a few amateur players, including Louisville right-hander Kyle Funkhouser, who’ll pitch at the Phillies’ stadium on Friday afternoon. That killed my chat this week, although I’ll be back for one on Thursday. I’ll also have draft blog posts up on Friday and Saturday discussing what I saw in Florida. My chat with Colin Cowherd today on what WAR is and why we need it is available in mp3 form.

And now, the finale of Top Chef Season 12:

* Gregory says his end goal is to be the chef of “many different restaurant concepts.” Is that a typical goal? I guess it probably is now, the way the industry has changed over the last two decades, but I wonder if the previous generation of chefs had different goals when they entered the business. Mei’s comment is consistent with her statements the last few episodes – “I just want to show everybody that I chose the right career path” – as if she still needs some validation.

* The two chefs leave before dawn and end up getting in a hot air balloon. I hope the producers made sure neither was afraid of heights. They land in a field with Tom and Padma waiting. I’m not really sure what the point of this was other than some cool aerial shots of San Miguel de Allende.

* I don’t know what Padma was wearing around her neck there but they might want to check the pyramids to see if any of them were recently robbed.

* Elimination challenge: Make the best four-course meal of your life. In other words, it’s about the food, and only about the food.

* There’s a quick draft of sous-chefs. Gregory takes Doug, Mei takes Melissa, (her explanation: “duh!”), Gregory takes George, Mei takes Rebecca to help make a dessert. Five hours to cook. Mei serves first at Cent’Anni, after which Gregory will serve at the Restaurant at Sollano 16.

* Apropos of nothing, I do not understand Melissa’s personal style at all.

* Mei worked the pastry station at Bryan Voltaggio’s place to try to get some dessert experience. So she must have had some experience before, right? She couldn’t have dropped into that gig as a complete newbie.

* Gregory is (wisely, I think) trying to show he’s more than just a one-trick pony (I assume that’s a reference to his propensity to make curries), including a rather complex mole dish. Mei thinks he’s pushing himself in a different direction, so she says she has to show more flavor and technique to compete with him. I thought it was interesting that they shared their menus without any apparent reservations.

* Mei’s making duck. I’m shocked. But to be fair, she’s including huitlacoche and kimchi butter in this dish, so it’s not her usual duck dish.

* Did I hear this right from Mei to her sous-chefs when talking about making stock? “Drop them in the fryer – easiest way to roast bones.” Granted, that’s not something I’m about to try at home for fear of burning the house down, but the flavors must be incredible.

* She’s toasting yogurt and then using liquid nitrogen to create lime curd. I’d say she’s pushing herself just fine here. This dish almost sounds like she’s making it specifically to impress Richard Blais.

* Gregory is using green chorizo, which I admit I’d never heard of before this. Apparently it’s fatty pork mixed with chiles, spinach powder, and cilantro. That seems like the ideal sausage to use when play a practical joke on someone on St. Patrick’s Day. Bangers and mash with a surprise hit of capsaicin?

* He says mole isn’t traditionally served with (beef) short ribs. That seems like a pretty obvious combo though – and what he’s describing sounds a bit like a chile colorado, which can definitely be served with braised cuts of beef. His mole has 30 ingredients, so it’s a bit surprising he didn’t take Katsuji.

* The diners include Sean Brock, Traci des Jardins, Michael Cimarusti, and Gavin Kaysen, as well as Blais, Hugh, Gail, Tom, and Padma. Blais’ hair looks like he fell in a vat of Dippity Do. Not that that’s a bad thing, though.

* Gotta love the cover of Brock’s first cookbook, Heritage. You’re really not looking at what’s in his hands, are you?

* Mei’s first course is braised-then-fried octopus with fish sauce vinaigrette, avocado-coconut puree, and “some herbs.” She does love the fish sauce … I get it, it’s packed with umami, but if its flavor is too pronounced it goes all ice nine on the rest of the plate. Anyway, everyone loves this dish’s presentation and depth of flavors, including the basil-mint-cilantro herb combination, but the consensus is that the octopus was overcooked.

* Her second course is an allusion to the first dish she made on Top Chef, a congee, this one with carnitas, scallion purée, her own hot sauce, Japanese peanuts with lime spice, and an egg yolk. Everyone loves it. It’s a classic Asian comfort food item infused with Mexican flavors.

* Mei’s third course is the duck breast, which appears to be sear-roasted, with braised lettuce, kimchi jicama, and huitlacoche. Hugh loves the duck, but says he’s “not sold on the rendering of the fat,” which is kind of key given how awful a mouthful of solid duck fat feels. Tom says the dish has a “lot of interesting moments,” like the crunch of the jicama, but I think that’s a faint-praise comment from him. Blais says there’s too much kimchi relative to the more delicate flavor of the huitlacoche.

* We see her scramble to adjust her dessert at the last second after Rebecca informs her rather bluntly that it’s too sweet. There probably wasn’t room for subtlety at that point in the kitchen.

* That dessert is a strawberry-lime curd, with toasted yogurt, milk crumble with bee pollen, and a yogurt-lime ice. Blais and Hugh love the presentation. (Can we get a Vine of Hugh saying “Smoking!” in falsetto?) Tom, who’d earlier criticized Mei’s decision to make a dessert when she’s only a savory chef, says it’s the best dessert he’s ever had on Top Chef and happily retracts his earlier comments.

* So at this point it looks like Mei absolutely nailed two dishes (the congee and the dessert), did reasonably well on a third (the duck), and struggled with the fourth (the octopus). If Gregory nails three of four, he probably wins.

* Gregory’s first dish is a home run – he serves a grilled octopus with xoconostle, passion fruit, prickly pear, and cashew milk. Padma says it’s sublime. Tom says it’s a powerhouse. It certainly plays to the crowd here with the emphasis on local or traditional Mexican ingredients.

* His second course is a soup of shrimp broth with green chorizo, pickled nopales, and crispy shrimp heads. Sean Brock compares it (favorably, I think) to a bowl of gumbo. But the use of the whole shrimp heads, including their shells, gets a huge thumbs-down as Gail and Padma both end up saying the shell bits were too hard to swallow. I’ve had shrimp heads once, also fried, and wouldn’t go back for more for that exact reason. If he wanted to incorporate shrimp into the dish – he said he wanted to allude to the classic chorizo/shrimp pairing – this wasn’t the right way to do it.

* Now we see his own scramble, as Gregory realizes he forgot to add vinegar and sugar to carrot sauce in the beginning stages of cooking it. We didn’t see any of that part of the process, but how is that possible? Did someone take his eye off the dish? Did he have a checklist and miss that step, or lack any checklist at all? He tries to add some sugar and vinegar á la minute, then finds it’s too sweet, so he adds salt, which would just cover it all up.

* Third course: Striped bass with roasted carrots, radish, pineapple, tomatillo, and other vegetables. The sauce was indeed too sweet, exacerbated by the pineapple’s sweetness and insufficient acidity from other ingredients. Tomatillos don’t have much acid themselves; without lime to boost their flavor I find them really bland. Tom just crushes it, saying the dish was sweeter than Mei’s dessert.

* Gregory’s final course was his pièce de resistance: Braised short rib with red mole and agave sweet potato, with toasted pepitas on top of the beef. Everyone we hear praises how well the ribs are cooked. It’s a bit like pork belly – doing it well is hard, but if you do it well it’s automatic praise. Hugh says “this is spectacular, full- flavored, (with) long-lasting flavors.” Tom, who’s kind of the beef guru around these parts, is also raving about every bit, including the fried sweet potato skins.

* So that gives Gregory two home runs and two weak groundouts, I think. Just at this point, my gut impression was that Mei had won – each had two rousing successes, but her two lesser dishes were ahead of Gregory’s by a decent margin..

* Side note: How do the judges/diners eat all that in one night? I’d have been in “better get me a bucket” territory by the time the short rib showed up.

* Gregory says Top Chef was harder than getting sober. Okay, everyone, run to sign up for season thirteen!

* The Judges’ Table discussion goes pretty much as you’d expect given what we’ve already heard. Gregory’s soup didn’t come together, and he gets more criticism there than he or Mei receive for anything else. Mei executed much better across the board. Gregory’s fish dish was too sweet. Mei’s third dish (the duck) was good but her weakest, which was a mild surprise just given how much everyone killed her octopus. Gregory’s fourth dish gets 10s across the board, but Mei’s dessert does too. Blais says her dessert was “everything that was right in modern food,” while Tom ups his own grades on it by saying it was one of the best desserts he’s ever had in his life.

* Head to head: Tom gives dish one to Gregory; Blais says Mei’s octopus was the biggest technical flop of the night. Padma calls Gregory’s use of shrimp heads fatal mistake, Gail says the dish just did not work, while Mei’s congee was perfect, so dish two goes to Mei. The third course is the closest to a toss-up; Mei’s plate was too watery (which we didn’t hear earlier), but Tom still takes her duck over Gregory’s fish, saying the latter plate was just not about fish. The fourth was the strongest plate for each, but there’s a strong implication here that Mei’s was better. Padma says each had two flawless dishes, kind of a summary for anyone who just turned the show on with ten minutes to go, I guess.

* Blais says Gregory’s menu was more inspirational; Gail says Mei’s dishes were more successful. Inspirational – or aspirational – generally wins on Top Chef, including in the finale, but if you don’t execute enough of that vision you can’t win. Gregory might have fared better in some other seasons, or against other competitors, but Mei is one of the strongest technical chefs I can remember seeing on the show, so even a mediocre execution day for her is a great one for anyone else.

* Tom gives a little speech before Padma announces the winner, saying he “loves watching this young talent just emerging … you guys are the future.”

* The winner is … Mei, as expected. She did earn it with better execution, with only one flop (the overcooked octopus) of any sort. And she finally shows some emotion, crying and saying “holy shit” on repeat. But are her parents finally proud of her?

* Some final thoughts: Top Chef is kind of like the baseball draft; every year, we hear that it’s a down year, that the talent isn’t as good as last year’s, definitely not as good as five or ten years ago, and some years that turns out to be true – but not always. The 2015 MLB draft class is not a good one overall, for example. Top Chef’s season 11 crop was weak. But Season 12 turned out to be very strong. The final three chefs were all outstanding both in creativity and in execution, with a different balance for each of them but all seemingly capable of winning the competition. How many other seasons could Gregory have won, especially if he’d executed just a little bit better (e.g., cooking his carrot sauce right)? I think that despite some of the criticism lobbed at the show, some legitimate but more of it spurious, Top Chef continues to attract top-flight talent and to enjoy the support of a broad cross-section of the industry. This season was pleasantly light on drama, especially once Aaron, later arrested on a domestic violence charge, was eliminated, and I think the group as a whole, or at least the top half or so of them, was the strongest since the legendary season of the Voltaggios and Yukon Cornelius. As for how to “fix” the show, one I don’t think is broken in any significant way, the answer is quite simple: As long as they keep the focus on the food, there will be an audience eager to watch.

So, if you could change one thing about Top Chef for next season, what would it be? And do you think Mei was the right choice, even though Gregory outperformed her head to head for much of the season?

The Diamond Age.

Neal Stephenson won the Hugo and Locus awards in 1996 for his novel The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, a postcyberpunk bildungsroman that can’t survive under the weight of its own self-importance. While Stephenson managed to create a credible Gibsonian universe in his earlier hit, Snow Crash, here his worldbuilding detracts from the story about the titular book that might be able to reprogram the future of humanity, and his hifalutin language doesn’t meld well with the story’s focus on a child protagonist.

The “primer” of the book’s title is a “ractive” book (short for “interactive” … I’m not a fan of this kind of conlang/argot shit, which ends up little more than an annoying distraction), designed by the engineer John Hackworth for Lord Gussie Fink-Nottle (close enough) using nanotechnology and I think what we’d now call a 3-D printer, designed to raise a young girl – the Lord’s granddaughter, and, via a pirated copy, Hackworth’s daughter – to be a hypereducated, worldly, creative young adult. The copy intended for Fiona Hackworth ends up in the hands of an impoverished, abused girl named Nell, brought to her by her scapegrace brother, Harv, setting in motion a great and possibly unintended sociological experiment pitting nature against nurture – not a mother’s nurture, but a surrogate in the form of the actress, Miranda, who performs nearly all of the “ractive” functions in the Primer for Nell.

The Primer itself is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure hepped up on nanotech; in fact, Stephenson’s whole universe here revolves around nanotechnology, where static objects can be built in Matter Compilers, and nanosites – microscopic entities designed to perform specific functions in the air or within someone’s body – abound, including security infrastructures that must have the NSA seething with envy. (The book’s very title was coined by cryptography pioneer and nanotechnology researcher Ralph Merkle, whose great-uncle made a certain boner with which you, being a visitor to this particular blog, are likely familiar.) Stephenson’s vision of an age of nanotechnology, combined with a dark post-nationalistic viewpoint where communities are organized in “phyles” that called to mind the guilds of early RPGs, is so overly and unnecessarily complex that it overwhelmed the core storyline of Nell’s education and maturation through her experiences with the Primer. The “Drummers” hive-mind phyle is one of the novel’s bigger messes, ambiguously-described yet central to the operation of the Primers and, ultimately, to the resolution of the plot.

My other, secondary problem with The Diamond Age was the absurd vocabulary Stephenson used in it – perhaps a nod to its underpinnings in Victorian literature, but coming off as stilted and sometimes inappropriate to the characters in question. Nell is only about eleven or twelve years old when she has this thought:

It was just that the story was anfractuous; it developed more ramifications the more closely she read it.

Now, maybe all of you knew the word “anfractuous” from childhood, but I only encountered it sometime in the last two years, somewhere in The Recognitions or Gravity’s Rainbow or some classic from the 1800s that routinely sent me to the dictionary. It’s a valid English word, actually a pretty useful one, but you’re never going to hear that or “ramifications” in the internal monologue of a preteen. Stephenson’s either showing off or incapable of capturing the vernacular of someone that age – and the whole book is full of maddening word choices like these.

The shame of this incoherence is that Stephenson buried what might have been a remarkable novel of ideas, one that merely uses the platform of his nanotech universe to explore the roles of community, government, family, education, and religion in a world where we’re that much closer to the singularity. Even one of those topics would make the foundation for a good novel, although I can’t blame Stephenson – who’s not afraid to be prolix in his prose – for aiming high. Unfortunately, the resolution of the story is so muddled, both in plot and in philosophy, that by the end of the book it wasn’t even clear how we’d gotten there, much less whether there was a point to any of this.

Next up: As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m tackling Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and it is indeed an excruciating read.

Saturday five, 2/7/15.

The last bit of my top 100 prospects package, ranking the top ten prospects by position, went up on Wednesday. I didn’t chat this week, as I was in Bristol for ESPN’s annual baseball summit; the guest speaker was Rob Manfred, better known as the new Commissioner of Major League Baseball, and I was extremely impressed by his candor, his enthusiasm, and the intelligence evident in how quickly and thoughtfully he answered a broad number of questions posed to him by our writers, some on the record and some off. I won’t agree with all of his policies – at the end of the day, he’s still paid by the owners and has an obligation to them – but I do think the sport is great hands under him.

My Top Chef recap was a bit late for this week for the same reason, but I posted it on Friday evening. I should be on time, or closer to it, with my recap of the finale on Thursday morning.

saturdayfiveAnd now, this week’s links…

  • Let’s hit the vaccination stuff first. I agree with this Gizmodo piece that we should ridicule and shame the anti-vaccination movement, although I’m fine with a little humiliation thrown in, because the ends (wiping out diseases that kill infants, the elderly, and the immune-compromised) justify a lot of means here. Also, a British blog dedicated to autism science points out, via a CNN piece, that a huge chunk of vaccine denialism is paid for by the Dwoskin Family Foundation. In anti-science, as in politics, just follow the money – and, if you see where it’s going, try to stop it. If you know of sources taking ad money from the Dwoskins or their puppet groups like the NVIC (the most prominent vaccine denier organization in the U.S.), contact them and ask them to stop. I’ve done so with one company that has been running an ad from the NVIC, and am hopeful based on our early conversations that they’ll pull the ad now that their corporate headquarters is aware of it. All that is needed for the triumph of selfish, ignorant science deniers is for the rest of us sane people to do nothing. (Side note: The Dwoskin foundation’s offices are around the corner from my house. I’m not sure what, if anything, I can do based on that knowledge, though.)
  • If you’re here, you probably like baseball, so this Baseball Prospectus article on their new mixed-model approach to estimating catcher framing values is a must-read. I think most of us hate that catcher framing exists, but as long as it exists, we need to understand it, and BP continues to lead the way in showing us how to do so.
  • This half-hour audio program from the BBC is worth the time investment: An extensive interview with Vietnamese writer Le Ly Hayslip, who fought for the Viet Cong as a teenager, was captured three times, married an American man, moved to California, and has since started a foundation to help rebuild the village where she grew up. Her story was the basis for Oliver Stone’s 1993 film Heaven and Earth; he’s interviewed as well.
  • Meanwhile, in Oregon, a judge ruled that a man who took upskirt photos of a 13-year-old girl in a Target didn’t commit a crime. Not that we’d want to consider evidence that he’s a potential sexual predator or anything.
  • I went to Narcissa in Manhattan with a friend on Wednesday night, and we had their famous slow-roasted, crisped beets, which was easily the best beet dish I’ve ever had, one of the best vegetable dishes I’ve ever had, period. That link describes how the dish is made, with twenty photos, although I don’t think the picture of the interior of the beets does their texture justice.
  • NPR’s The Salt blog, normally about food, delves into the science of nitrate runoffs in Iowa agriculture, and why it’s not so simple as blaming too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

Top Chef, S12E14.

Sorry this is a bit late; ESPN’s annual baseball summit took place on Thursday, so I didn’t see the episode until last night.

Top Chef logo* Mei’s beating herself up for nearly getting eliminated in the last challenge … but the judges loved the dish, and it isn’t clear that she was that close to elimination. She’s all, “Shit just got real,” but hasn’t the shit been real at least since Doug got bounced?

* Gregory says to Doug, “Dude you’re on fire.” That’s like the GM giving the manager the vote of confidence.

* The chefs travel to an organic farm in the town of Jalpa, in the southern part of the state of Zacatecas. The chefs start acting like kids in a candy store … that’s full of vegetables. The farm provides vegetables to the best restaurants in the city of San Miguel de Allende, and I can see why. Given how immaculate the produce looks, you might think this stuff was grown in a lab.

* Quickfire: Chocolate! Can’t go to Mexico without dropping some Theobroma cacao on this. The chefs have to make two dishes, one sweet and one savory, both featuring chocolate in one of its forms. The chefs have access to chocolate in multiple percentages, from quite dark (I assume unsweetened/100% was there, but didn’t see it), all the way to white chocolate (more on that later), cocoa powder, and cocoa butter. The chefs harvest their own produce. The winner gets first choice of sous chef for the elimination challenge. They only have 45 minutes for the whole challenge, including pickin’ time, which doesn’t seem like much – and they’re cooking outside, so a lot of chocolate applications (soufflé?) are out.

* Doug doesn’t do desserts, but knew he’d have to at some point. So maybe he should have worked on that before coming on the show? There are certainly a lot of basic dessert techniques that wouldn’t be hard for an experienced chef to learn in a few weeks of practice.

* Gregory goes for carrots and spice and dark chocolate for his dessert. I’m already fascinated.

* Mei is making something with duck. I’d criticize her for always cooking duck, but I’m simultaneously thinking how attractive a woman who knows infinite ways to cook duck is.

* Doug can’t just make a ganache, maybe on some kind of crumbled tart crust? Well, that’s basically what he does, melting chocolate into a bowl and serving it with a spoon. He really can’t make any desserts at all.

* Gregory can’t get his white chocolate to melt … because he grabbed cocoa butter, not white chocolate. Cocoa butter is pure fat, solid at room temperature, melting just below body temperature for that mouth-feel that we associate with good chocolate. White chocolate, however, is an emulsion of cocoa butter and butterfat (“milk fat”), with sugar and usually vanilla or vanillin added. It may contain milk solids, but can’t contain any liquids or the emulsion would seize. You can see why Gregory may have had some trouble with this.

* To the food … Mei made duck with bitter greens and chocolate mezcal, cooking it in a mixture of cocoa butter and duck fat; and for dessert she made chocolate yogurt with cocoa nibs and nasturtium (for pepperiness). She used 80% chocolate for the savory dish and 66% for the sweet. Both Padma and Enrique, the head of the farm at which they’re cooking, seem to like both dishes. I’m not sure about chocolate and yogurt, but I generally don’t like applications that pair chocolate with sour elements like citrus.

* Doug’s savory dish is seared hen leg stew with onions, tomatoes, bitter chocolate, and ancho chili; his sweet dish is melted chocoalte with chocolate mezcal and white chocolate cream. He didn’t cook the alcohol all the way out, and also, he served them melted chocolate in a bowl.

* Gregory made a seared lamb with a white chocolate/ancho chili sauce and a green chorizo vinaigrette; his dessert is baby carrots with turmeric, dark chocolate, ginger, and a hint of rosemary. That looks so un-dessert, but you can tell immediately that he nailed it from the judges’ reactions – plus it’s the creative/clever angle that usually wins on this show.

* Doug’s chicken was well-cooked, but the dessert was not “well balanced.” Also, he served melted chocolate in a bowl. Mei’s duck went very well with chocolate; Padma liked the crushed cocoa nibs in her dessert, an idea that might have elevated Doug’s melted-chocolate-in-a-bowl dessert. Gregory’s lamb was well cooked – you almost get the sense that Enrique expected someone to screw up their proteins – and Enrique enjoyed the sauce; he called the ginger and rosemary the “final best touch” to Gregory’s dessert.

* Gregory wins, of course. His dishes had the best balance and he made the best use of the chocolate. Enrique asks to use the dessert recipe at Jalpa. He seems genuinely blown away by it, which (if true) says something given who he likely works with in the local market.

* Elimination challenge: They’ll all collaborate on a six-course meal, two courses per chef. They’ll be given six traditional Mexican ingredients and each must take two to feature (one course per ingredient).

* Gregory takes George as his sous. Mei takes Melissa. Doug takes Katsuji. Melissa seems like the best choice of any eliminated chef because if we know one thing about her, it’s that she has great knife skills. (And I think she makes pretty good pasta; Sarah Grueneberg made it to the finals a few years ago in large part because her pasta was consistently plus, and Nina did something similar last season because of her ability to make perfect gnocchi.)

* The Mexican ingredients are guava, avocado, poblanos, huitlacoche, Mexican cheese, and escamoles. The last one, if you’re not familiar with it (and I wasn’t) are ant eggs – technically the larvae and pupae of giant black ants, a very expensive treat, one that Katsuji says packs a lot of umami. It can run $35-100/kg, according to the Slow Food Foundation’s page on them. Somehow, Doug ends up getting the shaft here – he doesn’t claim any ingredients, Gregory and Mei claim two each, and he ends up with cheese and escamoles, the two he wanted least. He’s pissed, justifiably so, but eventually rolls over and takes those two while Gregory gets the guava and poblanos while Mei gets the avocados and huitlacoche.

* Katsuji says he and Doug are “both sarcastic assholes.” Doug says he really just chose him because he speaks Spanish. I’m not sure why Doug keeps picking him.

* Gregory says he went all in on researching Mexican cuisine after Boston, which seems rather sharp. His mom made lots of stews when he was growing up. He’s at least part Haitian, and about all I know about Haitian cuisine is that it includes a lot of stewed and braised dishes.

* So, huitlacoche, less appealingly known as “corn smut,” is a black or grey fuzzy fungus that can be bitter but has a smoky profile, like a mushroom although technically not one (mushrooms grow in soil or on decaying organic matter like wood). It’s kind of gross-looking on the corn itself, but is usually cooked and used to fill tortas, tortillas, enchiladas, etc. One thing I can’t find out, and would love to know, is if you can brown huitlacoche as you would mushrooms, exposing it to high heat to caramelize some of that glucose.

* (Warning: tangent ahead) One of the major flavor compounds in huitlacoche (and lovage and fenugreek seed) is sotolon, a lactone (a type of cyclic ester, formula C6H8O3) that is formed spontaneously in the bodies of people with “maple syrup urine disease,” an organic acidemia more properly known as branched-chain ketoaciduria that occurs in approximately 1 in 180,000 births. The urine of people with this disease smells, as you might have guessed, like maple syrup, because of the presence of sotolon. I know about this because it is in the same family of diseases as 3-MCC, which my daughter inherited from me and which occurs in somewhere north of 1 in 50,000 births. While 3-MCC can often be largely benign, with modest symptoms like below-average muscle tone or development, MSUD can be very serious and must be managed with a special low-protein diet. Both diseases can be diagnosed via a simple mass spectrometry test that is administered free to newborns in most states. If you’re expecting, when the hospital asks if you want those tests, say yes. It could save your child’s life. (/tangent)

* Mei’s parents are kinda sorta supportive … but not really. She says they’ve never said they’re proud of her, and she wants to win so she’ll hear that. I think it matters more to her than she admits. Gregory’s the opposite – he says his parents are so happy to see him doing well after “seven years” of a “rough road” of drug abuse.

* Mei is just making guacamole for her avocado course? She calls it “guacamole with a twist” … which is still just guacamole, right? Adding xoconostle for acidity or tartness just swaps one tart element (lime) for another.

* Doug says the escamoles have a nutty taste, and he’s trying to serve them a bunch of different ways. He actually seems to like the flavors. I’m not sure I could get over the mental hurdle, though.

* Mei’s got Melissa making huitlacoche agnolotti, which makes a ton of sense – use them as you’d use mushrooms, and play to one of Melissa’s particular strengths. It’s not exactly experimental or creative, though.

* Gregory’s whole mien has changed. Mos Chef is back.

* The judges’ table has several major Mexican chefs, which is great on multiple levels – giving publicity to folks who would never get it here, exposing the audience here to new names and faces, and getting some real authorities to judge the food. Zarela Martinez’s memoir/cookbook Food from my Heart: Cuisines of Mexico Remembered and Reimagined is $2.99 for Kindle so I bought it while watching the episode. (The recipes are long – this is some serious start on Sunday morning for the big family dinner stuff.)

* Meanwhile, Chef Eduardo Palazuelos looks like he should be starring in a telenovela.

* First course – Gregory serves a chilled guava soup with bay scallops, habanero, roasted guava (whoa), shaved fresh guava, and fresh mint. Tom likes the way the heat builds. Blais says there’s a high level of difficulty to make a fruit soup as good as Gregory did. It also made sense as the opener, waking up the judges’ palates with something bright, cold, and tangy.

* Mei served a guacamole roll with xoconostle inside, radish, serrano, and fresh tortilla chips along the top. Padma thinks it’s a little too simple, just a refined guacamole. Bricio Dominguez, another local chef (who only comments in Spanish) wishes he’d tasted more xoconostle. Tom says there’s a lot more things you can do with avocado, which seems like the understatement of the episode.

* Doug first course is a tortilla español with escamoles and escamol aioli, with the eggs stewed slow with garlic and chilies, toasted with garlic, and made into the aioli. Blais loves the aioli concept, calling it brilliant. Eduardo doesn’t taste the escamoles enough; Tom says their texture ended up too similar to that of the potato. Bricio said with fine-tuning it could be a spectacular dish, which is a way of saying it wasn’t spectacular.

* Mei’s very happy with the agnolotti, but wouldn’t pureeing the fungus destroy its texture?

* The agnolotti are filled with huitlacoche and served in a roasted corn brodo with purslane. Zarela likes the roasted corn flavor; Tom does too. Eduardo thinks the huitlacoche came out bitter, but calls it an original dish, saying the broth was very interesting. Bricio would order it again. I’m a little confused – the description and visuals don’t match these comments very well, as it looks like tortellini in brodo, a standard Italian preparation, that just swapped huitlacoche in for the pasta filling. Maybe the broth was really just that special.

* We see a glimpse of Gregory adding more spices and “layers” to his stew shortly before service. That’s the kind of step he took more early in the season than late. His dish: a pork and poblano stew with tomatillos, grilled onion purée, and an escabeche-style pickle of carrots, poblanos, and shallots. Bricio adores itand gets a little verklempt. Blais loves the char, saying it “opens up more flavors.” Tom talks up the complexity of the dish. Gregory is clearly two for two here.

* Doug’s cheese course is built around a mesquite-smoked goat queso fresco with spiced honey, crispy squash chips, charred pickles, and a little chimichurri. Blais says a cheese course could be boring, but this isn’t. Enrique loves the combination with tomatillo.

* I’m glad they included Bricio’s comments with subtitles instead of editing him out. Guy had something to say.

* Padma thought the top two dishes were Gregory’s. Tom said the stew was the star of the show. Blais/Tom/Eduardo all say he belongs in the finale. This seems fairly clearcut – it’s Mei versus Doug for the last spot. Mei’s uncreative dishes and flop on the avocado seem like she should be sent home, but we have the advantage of … foreshadowing.

* Blais says the guacamole dish was “beautiful and uninspired.” Tom keeps calling it a missed opportunity, and don’t they send chefs home for that? Eduardo liked it, and he crushes Doug’s tortilla, saying the key ingredient (the little maggots) was missing both in the final dish’s flavor and texture.

* Padma and Tom loved Mei’s broth. Padma rates Doug’s cheese dish over Mei’s agnolotti. Eduardo backs her up on this one, while Tom would go agnolotti. I think we all know now that she loses any direct battle with Tom.

* Judges’ table: Blais/Tom rave about the guava soup. Eduardo says the pork and poblano stew took him back to his childhood years, that the amount of intensity and flavors were just outstanding. Gregory is the winner, easily, and goes to the finale, so all that early promise he showed this season has been fulfilled.

* Mei is crying already, and the judges have barely started talking about their dishes. Tom says other chefs loved the guacamole, but he wasn’t impressed. Eduardo thought the combo of the broth with the smoky flavor of the corn in her agnolotti dish worked well. He tells Doug that he lost the flavor of the escamoles in the tortilla. Tom says the tortilla was a “very good dish” – he says that a lot, now that I think about it – but there was just too much going on on that plate. Padma praises Doug for what he did accomplish with an ingredient he didn’t know well at all, which is sort of the “it’s not you it’s me” of Top Chef judging. Tom raves about Doug’s cheese course, calling it exciting, saying he did a great job with the flavors, and at this point, if you saw nothing but judges’ table, you’d think Mei was toast, right?

* Tom tries to give a pep talk. Padma says before they announce who’s packing his or her knives, that she “want(s) you both to take ownership of where you are right now.” On the one hand, it’s compassion in an era where most reality shows try to play up hostility and immaturity among the contestants. On the other hand, it’s a competition. The Royals had an amazing season in 2014. I doubt that knowledge makes up for game 7.

* Doug is eliminated. Hard to see this as anything but a penalty for having to cook with an ingredient he didn’t know (although his sous-chef did) and didn’t want or choose. Given the difficulty of the ingredients each chef had to work with, Mei should have gone home.

* I’ll take Gregory over Mei in next week’s finale. You?