Colorless Tzukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Haruki Murakami wrote one of the best novels I’ve ever read, his magnum opus The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a masterful blending of reality and dreamlike sequences (some literally in characters’ dreams) that combine to explore Japan’s trouble dealing with its brutal legacy from World War II. It’s #16 on my top 100 novels of all-time list. He followed that up with another tremendous novel, Kafka on the Shore, in 2002, another book that deals with the philosophical aftermath of the second world war, weaving a brilliant twin narrative that also delves into dialectics, the dream/reality divide, and “really good dumps.”

Since Kafka, however, Murakami has written just three novels, none up to the level of those two works. After Dark was short and felt unfinished, while I never bothered with his thousand-page tome 1Q84 due to its heft and comments from friends that it wasn’t worth the time required. Given the positive press around his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, I at least had some optimism that Murakami was getting back to peak form, but after ripping through it last week, I am sorry to report that this book sucked. It’s a cold, aimless, distant, unsatisfying novel that takes Murakami’s frequent theme of alienation to the extreme of alienating the reader from the book itself.

The title character is seriously bummed out, with good reason: once part of an extremely tight-knit quintet of friends, he found himself abandoned and shunned by the other four without reason or warning, entering a period of suicidal depression for six months before emerging a very different person on the other side, although his life afterwards remains monotonous and largely friendless. Now in his late 30s, Tsukuru, an engineer who designs railway stations, finds himself in the first serious relationship of his life, but his semi-girlfriend, Sara, insists that he confront his four friends to deal with the unresolved sadness and angst that is blocking him from fully committing to their (or any) relationship.

It’s a solid premise for a book, but what happens next is a whole lot of nothing. Tsukuru visits his friends one by one, eventually going to Finland for the last of the encounters, and gets factual answers to his questions of why he was excommunicated, but only in the most superficial way. He learns about two crimes committed against one of the friends, the first of which was loosely connected to his banishment, but Murakami never bothers to go into those in any detail, much less tell the reader who committed them. While the novel ends with Tsukuru obtaining a sort of closure, it’s a thoroughly unsatisfying variety at least for the reader; there’s no cathartic event, but there isn’t even enough of an explanation to justify Tsukuru feeling any resolution of what’s “blocking” him. He believes he’s “colorless,” but why did the novel about him have to be that way too?

Next up: Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant.

Saturday five, 8/1/15.

So I was kind of busy this week, writing these pieces for Insiders on the major trades leading up to Friday’s trade deadline.

Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets
Mike Leake to San Francisco
Latos/Olivera/Wood three-team trade
David Price to Toronto
Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh
Carlos Gomez/Mike Fiers to Houston
Brandon Moss to St. Louis
Cole Hamels to Texas
Jonathan Papelbon to Washington
Ben Zobrist to Kansas City
Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto
Tyler Clippard to the Mets
Johnny Cueto to Kansas City
Several smaller trades
The Mets/Carlos Gomez trade that didn’t happen

I also have a scouting post up on some Mets and Yankees AA prospects.

And now, the links… saturdayfive

  • Earlier this month, a fan at a Brewers game was hit in the face by a line drive, severely injuring her and missing killing her by centimeters. There’s a fundraising page for her medical bills if you’d like to donate.
  • Twitter is now hiding plagiarized jokes and other tweets if the original authors file complaints. It’s a minor issue compared to some of the abuse hurled at women and minorities on Twitter, but I’ll take any step toward greater editorial control on Twitter as a positive.
  • Molly Knight talked to Lasorda’s Lair about her book on the Dodgers and her history of anxiety disorder. If you haven’t yet, you should buy her book.
  • The Shreveport Times has a sharp opinion piece on how the Lafayette massacre won’t change anything. The piece specifically singles out Louisiana’s “weak and non-existent gun control.” It’s on us, though; you vote for candidates who take money from the NRA, this is what you get. If you don’t like it, get out there and campaign for the other side.
  • Is the song “Happy Birthday” still protected by copyright? It appears it may not be, although we’ll need the judge’s ruling to be sure. There’s a big fight coming in 2018 over expiring copyrights, one that puts me (in favor of putting many older works in the public domain) on the opposite side from my employer (Disney, which has a fair concern about Mickey Mouse falling into p.d.).
  • The Fibonacci shelf takes the mathematical sequence and turns it into stackable furniture. I want this.
  • Three “next-level” recipes for rum punch. That first one, a planter’s punch with homemade grenadine, sounds right up my alley; planter’s punch is the first strong (may I say “grown-up?”) cocktail I liked.
  • Go ahead, be sarcastic, at least with people you know well: it can boost creative thinking, according to a new study by three business school professors.
  • A fantastic profile of prodigy turned mathematician Terry Tao, considered (per the piece) “the finest mathematician of his generation,” and more broadly a piece on number theory. I share Tao’s love of the original computer game Civilization and the difficulty in putting it aside; it occupied a huge portion of the fall semester of my junior year of college, unfortunately. That said, it kills me that the article’s author felt that “prime number” required a definition. You shouldn’t be able to get to high school without knowing what that means.

The Goldfinch.

I have Insider posts up on Troy Tulowitzki trade, the Ben Zobrist trade, and the Jonathan Papelbon trade.

Donna Tartt’s nearly 800-page bildungsroman The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, sparking an ongoing controversy over its worthiness, with some highbrow critics arguing that its prose was too pedestrian while other critics and authors railed against the inherent elitism of those claims. I think I come down in the vast middle between the two camps: It’s a good novel, certainly not dumbed-down for anybody, elaborately plotted and written in an adult voice, yet it finishes weakly and doesn’t seem to fit the admittedly vague guidelines for the Pulitzer (“for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”). It is, however, one of the only books I’ve ever read that seems to take a serious view of post-traumatic stress disorder and tries to bring it to life in an empathetic yet unstinting fashion.

Theo Decker, the protagonist and narrator of The Goldfinch, is a typical, bookish thirteen-year-old boy, living in Manhattan with his adoring mother after his alcoholic father walked out on them a few months earlier, when the two of them are caught in a terrorist attack on an art museum that’s exhibiting Dutch painter Carel Patritius’ (real) painting of the book’s title. The blast kills Theo’s mother, while Theo, in another room at the time of the explosion, tries to comfort an older man who’s dying near him and who tells Theo to take The Goldfinch from the wall, perhaps to protect it. Theo ends up carrying the painting with him for years, a physical manifestation of the PTSD (reminiscent in a slight way of Emma Sulkowicz’ Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)) from the attack, which he chooses to self-medicate via substance abuse and reckless behavior. The story takes him from New York to Las Vegas back to New York and eventually to Amsterdam, where the novel makes a sharp left into this weird noir-ish crime-story territory, losing much of the emotional impact from the first five hundred pages or so, losing the thread of the PTSD exploration in favor of, I think, finding a way to wrap up the book.

Some critics called the portion of the ending that eventually gets the painting back to the authorities too obvious/predictable, something Theo should have done far earlier, but I think that ignores or dismisses the idea of the painting as a symbol of Theo’s PTSD – he can’t get rid of the painting just by wishing to do so, but has to find some way to start to heal himself before he can do so. I could argue that Tartt fails to establish his healing well enough by the ending, but then again, the book was already too long by a third and by that point the escapade around the painting’s theft was approaching the ridiculous.

Theo is a flawed character but a well-developed one, and with almost 800 pages to spend in his head we get a full picture of his personality and his struggle to come to any kind of grips with the death of his mother and everything bad that comes after. He’s the only character in the book to get that treatment, however, as everyone else has a two-dimensional quality, from his angelic mother to the similarly wispy Pippa (a crush who is, herself, tied to the museum bombing and thus remains in a tangible way just beyond his reach) to the furniture restorer Hobie who becomes a surrogate parent to Theo in the latter half of the book. Even Boris (why always Boris?), Theo’s best friend during his time in Las Vegas, is half character and half caricature, not to mention capable of consuming unfathomable quantities of drugs and alcohol … although fictional Russians have a preternatural capacity to metabolize vodka.

The Pulitzer committee gives only a terse explanation for each winner’s selection, so we’re left guessing what they saw in The Goldfinch that many critics didn’t see or didn’t value. The only explanation I can conceive that fits the guideline about “American life” is the PTSD angle: the National Center for PTSD says about 8 million U.S. adults suffer from PTSD in any given year, with causes ranging from military combat to rape to disasters like the book’s museum bombing. PTSD isn’t quintessentially American, but it is a fact of life all over the world today, and it’s increasing in our consciousness if not in prevalence, especially with soldiers returning from lengthy tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan with the disorder. If that’s the book’s greatest strength, however, the slapdash finish undermines the exploration of the disorder and its effects. Theo’s recovery, such as it is, is unsatisfying from a reader perspective and, I’d guess, from a clinical one too. The Goldfinch spends two-thirds of its bulk as a serious literary work, but by its final pages it has devolved into a smart page-turner, diluting the impact of its more ambitious passages.

Next up: Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.


I’ve had three Insider pieces go up in the last 36 hours, on the the Johnny Cueto trade, a few Binghamton Mets prospects, and the Tyler Clippard trade.

Bill Nye’s Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation should be required reading for every American high school student, and I’d hand the book to anyone who indicated s/he plans on voting in our next election. Nye demolishes the many ignorant anti-evolution arguments out there, while eloquently and ardently presenting a case for science in a world of denial and fear-mongering.

The title refers to the persistence of evolution deniers, those folks who refuse to accept the scientific proof of evolution because it interferes with other aspects of their worldview. Nye engaged in a well-known debate with a particularly ardent denier, Ken Ham, who also refuses to accept the actual age of the earth, substituting his own fiction (I believe he says it’s 6000 years old, although some other deniers go with 10,000 years, not that it matters in the least because they’re wrong) for geological fact much as he substitutes his own fiction (that the first book of the Christian Bible is the literal truth of our creation) for biological fact. That debate, in which Nye clowned Ham, who continually referred to the Bible as his “evidence,” was one of the spurs for Nye to write Undeniable, but it serves more broadly as a frontal assault on the anti-science/anti-intellectual movement that hinders or prevents us from facing major societal or global problems, from disease eradication to feeding the planet to slowing anthropomorphic climate change.

The book should convince anyone who still denies evolution yet is willing to listen to some basic facts. We know now that all mammals descended from a common ancestor that lived some 70 million years ago, something demonstrated by patterns in the fossil record and the similarities between our DNA and those of many species seemingly unrelated to us. We’re barely distinguishable at the DNA level from chimpanzees, sharing 99% of our DNA with the related primates called bonobos, while we share about half of our DNA sequences with bananas (themselves the product of cloning; every yellow banana you eat is a Cavendish and is genetically identical to all of the other Cavendishes in the world). NOTE: I edited the common ancestor bit, as I conflated two numbers when writing this review from memory. Thanks to the readers on FB who pointed this out.

He attacks some of the most common (and dumb) creationist arguments against evolution, swatting them down like so many genetically-similar-to-human fruit flies. The argument that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics fails because that law only applies to closed systems, whereas the Earth – getting energy from that big yellow ball in the sky – is very much an open system. The argument from irreducible complexity, that current organisms are too complex to be explained without an Official Designer™, fails on multiple counts, not the least of which is all of the suboptimal designs we see in nature; Nye even mentions ulnar collateral ligaments for pitchers in an amusing aside on this topic. He points out more significantly that the only reason you’d see the “designs” we see in nature are as the result of a process of incremental changes through genetic mutations, and that the “what good is half a wing?” variation of this argument misstates how features like wings evolved. He takes down the false dichotomy of macroevolution versus microevolution (which creationists claim is only “adaptation”), including how the latter is the inevitable result of the former – and how there’s plenty of tangible proof of the latter, despite what Ken Ham might claim.

Once Nye has explained the theory of evolution by way of the various insubstantial criticisms levied at it by creationists, he takes on multiple issues that are related to or follow naturally from our understanding of evolution, all of which are significant issues in the science policy sphere.

* GMOs. Nye has already walked back some of his criticisms from this chapter after taking fire from the scientific community at large, although the concerns he raises about the introduction of DNA from distant species into food crops – notably that their effects on the crops’ ecosystems are difficult to predict – are valid. Humans are particularly terrible at foreseeing unintended consequences, as explained in The Invisible Gorilla and demonstrated in nearly every public-policy decision or the entire Bud Selig reign in MLB, and such genetic modifications entail lots of unpredictable ramifications. Nye has continued to raise the alarm about the massive reduction in the monarch butterfly population thanks to the widespread use of glyphosphate, the enzyme-inhibiting herbicide marketed as Roundup, which has decimated the natural supply of milkweed plants. You should plant some in your yard if you’re in the right part of the country; we have for the last two summers and were rewarded in 2014 with several visiting monarch caterpillars.

* Abortion. Nye points out that the claim that life begins at conception is untenable, as a successfully fertilized human embryo may fail to implant in the uterine wall or fail to successfully undergo gastrulation; if such eggs are considered to be alive and human, then a woman who miscarries for these reasons has committed murder. Nye broaches the topic when discussing stem cells and the concerns, most of which are baseless, about harvesting such cells from fertilized embryos that would otherwise be headed for the sewer.

* Antibiotic drug resistance. If you’ve read my stuff for a while, you know this is a huge issue for me, particularly as it relates to food safety. The problem exists because evolution is true: bacteria that have beneficial mutations that allow them to survive an antibiotic purge reproduce and eventually spread, leading to resistant strains that defeat our drugs. We can’t ever win this battle, but we can certainly fight it more intelligently than we do now.

* Race. It’s not real – that is, not biologically real. Race is a social construct, and Nye explains why.

* Space exploration. Ah, here’s where Nye and I diverge in our views. Nye discusses the possibility of life on other bodies within our solar system, naming a few likely candidates (Mars, Europa, Enceladus), and argues in favor of fairly expensive missions to try to determine if there is life of the microbial variety on any of these planets or satellites. I won’t try to paraphrase his case for fear of doing it an injustice, but I did not find the case satisfactory. A multi-billion dollar mission like this has to have a significant potential payoff for us, and he doesn’t provide one. Knowing there’s life on other worlds would be interesting, but does it advance our knowledge in any practical or meaningful fashion? How would it? Perhaps we’d find microbes that can produce energy in a novel way, or that can consume chemicals that are pollutants on earth … but he doesn’t even broach those possibilities. And, of course, that $10 billion or $20 billion mission has a very high probability of finding no life at all, so the potential payout has to exceed the cost by a significant factor.

* Another chapter, on the evolutionary explanations for altruism, also fell a bit short of the mark for me, but for different reasons. I’m strictly a lay reader on this, and can’t put my opinions on the matter on par with those of Nye or his sources, but it seems even after reading Nye’s explanation that the evolutionary psychology explanation for human altruism is too post hoc – crafting a narrative to fit the facts, rather than working from the facts forward as evolutionary biologists have done. The comparison of human altruism to altruistic behavior in other species also struck me as facile, an argument by weak analogy that did not address the extent or nuance of human altruistic behaviors.

Nye does not explicitly offer any arguments against religion or theism, although he is arguing heavily against creationism, Intelligent Design, and any sort of Creator force behind life on this planet. He also makes several points that are inherently anti-religious, such as the fact that we are not “special” from a genetic perspective and the fact that we aren’t the end product of evolution because evolution has no end product. Nye points out that some readers may find these points depressing, but says he finds evolution and the march of science inspiring, especially because of the breadth of knowledge out there waiting for us to discover it.

I listened to Nye’s narration of the Audible audio edition of Undeniable, and there is no question in my mind that he made the book more enjoyable for me. He brings tremendous enthusiasm to the subject, and his comic timing and delivery are effortless and natural. It’s hard to hear him exude over these topics and not feel his excitement or his indignation. Nye says he wrote this book because teaching anti-scientific topics like creationism hurts our children and our country, a point with which I agree wholeheartedly. Hearing those words from his mouth made the message seem more potent.

Saturday five, 7/25/15.

I ranked the top five farm systems as of right now – well, right then, as I wrote it – for Insiders this week, and broke down the Scott Kazmir trade. I also held a Klawchat on Wednesday. I don’t plan to write up the smaller deals of the week, such as the Aramis Ramirez or Steve Cishek trades, because they’re just salary dumps without significant prospects going the other way.

I reviewed the new Splendor app for Paste this week. You can get the app for $6.99 for iOS or Android devices – and you should, as it’s a great game that’s very well done.

And now, the links…

Proof: The Science of Booze.

Adam Rogers’ book Proof: The Science of Booze delivers handsomely on its title: It’s a book about adult beverages, and it will make you want to go drink some, but it also gives quite a bit of information on the (light) science involved in the production of and flavors behind those libations, especially distilled spirits. While some of the stories around booze manufacturing get too bogged down in operational details, there are also magnificent anecdotes within the book, including the best mystery you’ll ever read where the culprit is a fungus.

Rogers divides the book into eight chapters, each revolving around some essential element of alcohol production – yeast, sugar, fermentation, distillation, aging – or its consumption – smell/taste, body and brain, and the hangover. That gives him the latitude to talk about just about anything he wants that’s related to the manufacture of sauce and suds, including but hardly limited to some deep dives on what we do and don’t know about the science of such beverages.

Alcoholic beverages, especially distilled spirits – often called “hard liquors,” produced by putting some alcohol-containing mixture through a still, leading to whiskey (from fermented grain mash, like that created in beer production), brandy (typically from wine), rum (from fermented molasses or sugar cane), vodka (usually potatoes), and so on – have dozens or even hundreds of aromatic and flavor compounds, some of which still aren’t identified, that give them their distinctive tastes and smells. When you sip an aged spirit, often whiskey but applicable to rum and brandy as well, you may pick up “notes” much like you’d identify in good wines or coffees; those notes are specific chemicals or combinations of chemicals formed during the aging process, sometimes on their own and sometimes due to the interactions between the spirit and the wooden (sometimes charred wooden) casks in which they’re housed.

Rogers explores this angle, and many others, with visits to artisanal producers of these various beverages, moving his writing lens from wide shot to close-up and back, extrapolating from individual producers’ experiences to discuss larger points that he can back up (sometimes) with science. He talks about the obsessions distillers have with the shapes of their stills, even trying to reproduce flaws in old stills when it comes time to replace them with new ones. He talks to a barrel maker – apparently this is about as dying as a dying art can be without being, you know, dead – about the specifics of manufacture and the demands of clients. He gets into the lactones formed during the aging of whiskey in wood barrels, a subject so critical it’s even been the topic of academic research. He also compares production of alcoholic beverages from eastern and western cultures; where Europeans relied heavily on Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Japanese beverages such as sake and shōchū come from a mold called koji (Aspergillus oryzae).

Speaking of molds and fungi, the best passage in Proof is, by far, the mystery of the whiskey fungus, practically a detective story about one man’s quest to identify a specific organism growing on buildings near a particular whiskey distillery. The distilling term “angel’s share” refers to the portion of a distilled spirit lost to evaporation during the aging process, usually water but sometimes a mixture of water and ethanol, the latter of which attracts certain fungi that will be found growing on surfaces where the evaporated alcohol may condense. The story Rogers tells is told in greater scientific detail in this free Mycologia journal article – you probably still have that back issue at home – which describes the mycologists’ development of a new genus to encompass these molds, including Baudoinia compniacensis, now identified as the “angel’s share fungus.” Rogers infuses the story with a bit more drama than the journal piece does, of course.

Rogers even gets involved in the debate over wine ratings, where the American Association of Wine Economists (led in part by the perfectly-named economist Richard Quandt) is among the leaders in arguing that the judgment of wine experts like Robert Parker is too subjective to have any value. Quandt and Orley Ashenfelter, who also appears in Ian Ayres’ book Super Crunchers, are in effect the leading sabermetricians of oenology, whereas Parker is … I don’t know, Old Scout or something. Quandt even wrote his own manifesto comparable to Percentage Baseball or early Bill James Abstracts, called “On Wine Bullshit“. Rogers takes a somewhat middle road here, pointing out that truly objective wine measures are impossible until we’ve identified all of the molecules responsible for their flavors and aromas, but I thought he sided with the quants – as will many of you, I’d wager.

As only a casual drinker but one who greatly enjoys a well-aged rum and a well-mixed cocktail, I found Proof (which I listened to as an audiobook) both entertaining and informative, aside from the occasional tangent into manufacturing minutiae. I wish he’d spent a little more time on spirits beyond whiskey, but brandy gets a fair shake and I may merely be expressing my pro-rum bias. If you tipple, you’ll enjoy this book.

Saturday five, 7/18/15.

I posted an updated ranking of the minors’ top 50 prospects this week, and held a Klawchat that afternoon to talk about it. On Sunday night, I posted a briefer-than-normal Futures Game recap, since the talent in the game was somewhat light relative to past years.

Over at Paste, I have a review of the family-friendly boardgame Flea Market up. I’ve been playing the new Splendor iOS app for the last two weeks, and my review of it will be up on Paste within the next few days. It’s excellent.

And now, the links…saturdayfive

  • A terrifying, critical longread about the inevitable earthquake and tsunami coming to the Pacific Northwest. It’s not just temporal parochialism at work here, but a general distrust of science and a mistaken, possibly hard-wired belief in our invincibility as a species.
  • Another longread worth your time: A child refugee from the Rwandan genocide talks about her time in exile, both on the run in Africa and here in the United States.
  • Germany is trying out a new prevention-oriented approach to child molestation by working with confessed pedophiles, even those who have offended already. It’s a complex subject, especially if this means past victims aren’t getting help, but early results have some promise and it beats simply declaring these people “evil” (when they may be trauma victims themselves) and locking them up forever.
  • North Carolina wants to stop black people from voting, using modern-day versions of the literacy test and the poll tax. This shouldn’t happen in our day and age, but it does in white-run states with large African-American minorities.
  • The Large Hadron Collider hasn’t collapsed the universe into a singularity – yet – but it has verified the existence of sub-subatomic particles called pentaquarks.
  • The Atlantic discusses the world’s smallest language, Toki Pona, a constructed language with just 123 words. This just reminded me that I need to read Babel-17, a short novel that incorporates the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’ linguistic determinism.
  • GMO foods are safe. I still think they should be labeled, because consumers do have the right to know and may wish to avoid supporting monoculture farming, but the science on their safety is quite solid.
  • A small Brooklyn yogurt maker has started bottling the whey that’s typically discarded after yogurt is strained to make Greek yogurt. Disposing of that whey has become a major business problem for the big Greek yogurt companies because it can’t just be dumped like water, but it turns out that it’s high in beneficial bacteria and is already consumed as a drink in other countries.
  • Scientists working in China, led by friend of the dish Dr. Steve Brusatte, believe they’ve discovered the remains of the largest winged dinosaur found to date, posing new questions for evolutionary biologists on how and why wings caught on as an adaptation.
  • This post on “Hospital Glam,” photos of people with invisible disabilities in health-care environments, seems like both a way to increase awareness and perhaps help the self-esteem of the subjects.
  • Gawker had a bad week – the piece outing a closeted CFO was salacious and incredibly distasteful – but this piece on growing up in fundamentalist households is well-written and surprisingly balanced.
  • Sticklers, unite: A grammar nut used her knowledge to beat a parking ticket.
  • Top Chef judge and friend of the dish Hugh Acheson demoed several recipes from his latest cookbook for Talks at Google. “If you buy pre-minced garlic, you are dead to me.” This is why we love Hugh. If you haven’t picked up the book, The Broad Fork, you should do so. It’s fantastic, and entirely built around produce; the charred-onion vinaigrette, which he makes in this video, is also a fantastic steak sauce.
  • Alton Brown set the world straight by saying that a hot dog is indeed a sandwich, but more importantly, he showed everyone how to store all of those pesky mustard containers in your fridge:

Cincinnati eats.

My latest ranking of the top 50 prospects in baseball is up for Insiders, and I held a Klawchat this afternoon. Also, my latest boardgame review, of Flea Market, is up over at Paste.

I was only in Cincinnati for about 32 hours, but managed to squeeze in a fantastic meal at Sotto right downtown and to find a gem of a coffee shop in Collective Espresso a few blocks north.

Sotto was a recommendation from the unofficial mayor of Cincinnati, C. Trent Rosencrans, who obviously knows what he’s talking about and couldn’t have made a better suggestion to me – this is my kind of food. Sotto’s menu is fundamentally Italian, but with top-quality ingredients that keep most of the dishes very simple and clean, as well as immaculate execution. The menu is straightforward, with four main sections: bruschettas, salads, primi (pasta dishes), and secondi (meats/entrees). I went with three dishes, probably a little too much food for me but in total about right for an average person’s appetite, and those plus a cocktail (rum, lime, mint, bitters) ran $48 before tip. I sat at the food bar, so I ended up with a bonus dish of their garlic and olive oil bruschetta, grilled right in front of me on their giant wood-fired grill, followed by the goat cheese/honey/hazelnut bruschetta, all excellent but at heart about the bread, like a Tuscan loaf (but with salt), brushed with EVOO and lined with grill marks.

The salad was Sotto’s take on a Caesar salad, using baby kale leaves and julienned lacinato kale leaves, with house-made croutons made from local bakery Blue Oven’s bread and a garlic/Parmiggiano dressing. (I didn’t ask if they used anchovies, but the menu didn’t say so and that’s neither authentic nor particularly Italian.) The pasta dish, cappellacci with braised short rib meat inside, were unbelievably light, with the pasta wrapping on the dumplings thinner than any Italian filled pasta I’ve had, with a texture more like that of (good) wontons than typical ravioli or similar dishes. Sotto served it in a sauce of Amish butter (only some of which ended up on my shirt) and thyme, which was rich enough that I barely needed any of it on the pasta. I’m dessert would have been wonderful but I ate everything I ordered and was fit to burst by that point. This would easily have been a $70-80 meal in a larger city and everything I ate was spectacular from ingredients to execution. I can also verify, since the chef showed me, that they have this amazing immersion circulator-type device that allows them to keep pasta water constantly boiling, with one side kept limited to gluten-free pastas to avoid cross-contamination.

Collective Espresso has a few locations, at least one of which serves brunch on the weekends, but I met a friend at the tiny original shop on Woodward the morning of the Futures Game. They use Blacksmith Espresso beans from Louisville roaster Quills for their espresso, a blend of three beans from Brazil, Peru, and Colombia that produces a balanced shot with a rich texture. I also sampled one of CE’s peach scones, which was more like a cake but served its purpose well (I don’t drink coffee on an empty stomach). I also left Collective Espresso with a bag of Rwanda Inzovu beans from Deeper Roots Coffee, a local roastery; the beans are out of this world, a huge peach bomb with nutmeg and cocoa notes, and DR roasted them to what seems like the perfect color.

Black August.

My latest boardgame review, of the family-friendly boardgame Flea Market, is now up at Paste.

Molly Knight’s fabulous book on the 2013-14 Dodgers, The Best Team Money Can Buy, is finally out today, and if you haven’t already bought it, click that link and do so, or buy the iBooks version here.

I cannot for the life of me remember how I heard about Dennis Wheatley’s novel Black August (currently $6.15 for Kindle), the first of about a dozen he wrote that featured the dashing journalist Gregory Sallust, who was apparently an inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. I’d had it on the amazon shopping list for ages, and had thought it was some other detective novel until I cracked it open and realized it was nothing of the sort. Black August is a violent dystopian adventure novel, highbrow pulp fiction with a significant body count, where Sallust ends up leading a core group of main characters through an utterly bombastic but entertaining trek through a collapsing United Kingdom.

Set before World War II, Black August begins with the accelerating fall of the British economy, coupled with a rise in Communist riots and sabotage that eventually bring down the state. Sallust is a minor character in the first quarter of the book, but ends up the leader of a band of refugees from London who first try to flee to the West Indies on a Royal Navy ship and eventually set up a sort of survivalist commune in southern England. None of their plans work out in the end, but it’s a cracking good time watching them try and fail, as long as you don’t mind watching a bunch of redshirts come to bloody deaths by gunfire.

Sallust quickly establishes himself on the page as a charismatic force, a man of bottomless optimism and an equally indefatigable supply of plans, typically illegal ones, although the question of law and order in a post-collapse England is a fair one. He’s brilliant, coldly rational, hellbent on self-preservation, and, unlike Mr. Bond, not the least bit romantic – he views the two women he takes into his motley crew as liabilities, at least at first. While there are some streaks of misogyny in the story, at least viewed from today’s vantage point, it’s a nice change from most novels of the sort to have the protagonist not just unable to get the girl, but flat-out uninterested. (Perhaps that’s part of why I like Nero Wolfe; the man loves his meals and his orchids, and that’s all.) There are romances within Black August; it would be unrealistic to run a group of people through this gauntlet without anyone coupling up. Wheatley just keeps much of that secondary to Sallust’s derring-do.

Like most popular fiction, there’s a bit of the ridiculous in how often the central characters in Black August survive their ordeals, especially with the sheer number of shell casings scattered across the book’s pages. Wheatley kills off a number of named characters, but the core half-dozen or so face lots of peril but always come out of it barely any worse for the wear. Characters who are shot but not mortally wounded seem to recover quickly as well. It’s the price you pay to read this kind of sophisticated adventure novel; the author has to give you danger, but he can’t kill off too many of the main characters.

I’d be curious if any of you have experience with Wheatley’s other works, some of which involved Sallust and many of which centered around the occult. While Black August was generally good fun to read, I didn’t finish it with any feeling that I needed to follow the character into the next book.


My Futures Game recap is up for Insiders.

I read six books on my vacation – fortunately, my wife and I both subscribe to John Waters’ philosophy on lovers and books – including four of my favorite authors/series (Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Flavia de Luce, and a standalone P.G. Wodehouse novel), as well as two new authors, including Larry Niven’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel Ringworld. Like Arthur Clarke’s similarly-acclaimed Rendezvous with Rama, Ringworld is a work of hard science fiction, in this case playing off a popular concept in physics and speculative science (the Dyson Sphere) and turning it into a lengthy adventure story involving the discovery of a distant world. It’s also surprisingly dull for a story that has as much action as Ringworld does, perhaps because most of the plot elements are so hackneyed.

Set in a distant future where man has explored a wider corner of the galaxy, encountering at least three alien races, the story has four explorers setting off on a mission to reach the structure of the story’s title, an artificial planet of sorts shaped like a ring around a distant sun. The crew is assembled by a two-headed creature called a puppeteer, who has deliberately selected three specific members – two humans, and one giant feline creature called a kzinti – for this mission, itself a response to the discovery that the Milky Way’s core is going to break down in a massive chain reaction in about 20,000 years. The puppeteers have already begun a massive migration, but it becomes clear that they want to see if copying Ringworld would accommodate them in another system.

Niven has explicitly said that he modeled the world after the Dyson Sphere, a hypothetical structure built around a star capable of capturing all of that star’s energy to supply the needs of the species that built it. Dyson recognized that per capita energy usage rises as a civilization becomes more technologically advanced – how many devices are you charging at the moment? – and conceived this structure as a totally crazy, speculative solution as well as a theoretical maximum on the energy available to that civilization, given that solar energy would dwarf any energy from nonrenewable sources. Niven has the unfortunate tendency to give the reader too much of the physics, generally in awkward dialogue between these impossibly-educated crew members, which doesn’t do much to help keep the story moving. Where Niven has to deviate from known or even hypothetical physics – the familiar “hyperdrive” of most science fiction gets stretched even further than normal – he spares us the details, which works much better because you’re only reading this book if you’re already willing to suspend your disbelief in things like travel at or faster than the speed of light. (Niven actually has an amusing bit of handwaving about this that I won’t spoil.)

Science fiction that relies this heavily on the science portion for seizing and maintaining reader interest worked for me when I was a teenager, but now it leaves me cold; I want fiction that tells me a story, preferably one that examines some fundamental aspects of human nature. (Granted, that’s tricky with a kzinti who might eat his shipmates or a puppeteer who rolls into a ball when scared as part of the crew.) Niven could have used his plot device as a way to consider the eventuality that we will fill the planet, or reach a point where we can’t increase our per capita energy consumption, but he blows right past that to get his quartet on Ringworld, where they find … well, not very much. And what they find is bizarre, often inexplicable, and impossible to picture with Niven’s rather stolid prose.

Ringworld isn’t a slow or arduous read, however – the writing isn’t complex, the sentences are pretty short, and most chapters function as self-contained stories. It may have been more praiseworthy in its day, but given some of the recent Hugo winners that have put storycraft over the sci-fi or fantasy elements, it feels very dated.

Next up: I just finished Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and started Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours on the flight back from Humid City this morning.