No Cities to Love.

Just a reminder that the top 100 prospects package will appear on next week for Insiders, running from January 28th to the 30th. I’ll chat on the 29th (but not this week), the day that the top 100 itself goes up.

Regardless of the actual quality of the album, Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities To Love (also on iTunes) was going to garner rave reviews from critics and fans who were just happy that the trio was back after a nine-year absence from recording. It didn’t matter whether their sound had changed, whether they could still write great hooks, whether Corin Tucker could still sing, as long as they were still Sleater-Kinney, because that band and that name stood for something, although for what it stood probably depended on where you were standing – independent music, anti-corporatism, feminism, LGBT issues, sometimes stuff the band themselves never openly espoused. They never experienced commercial success commensurate with their critical standing, perhaps in part because of Tucker’s deliberately abrasive vocal style, but also because they never did much to court it. Their breakup in 2006 and move into other projects, notably Carrie Brownstein’s career as an actress (co-creating Portlandia with Fred Armisen – go Thinkers!), only served to heighten their legend, with Brooklyn Vegan promising to play a Sleater-Kinney track on its Sirius XMU show each week until the band reunited. By 2014, Sleater-Kinney was an idea rather than a pretty good, defunct punk band.

That makes it all the more gratifying that their album No Cities to Love, released on Tuesday on Sub Pop, is such a tight, sophisticated, hook-filled record, sophisticated without becoming staid, more of a second take on the Sleater-Kinney sound than more of the same they gave us through their first half-dozen albums. There’s a cleaner sound throughout the record, better production quality combined with less distortion on the guitars (Sleater-Kinney has never used a bass guitar, ironic since that’s often what the token girl plays in male-fronted rock bands), which means the songs are carried by memorable riffs, layered vocals, and non-traditional (for them) drum patterns. Tucker’s vocals are just as intense and emotional as ever, but it’s a lot easier to pick up what she’s saying and to distinguish each vocal or guitar track within a song.

Lead single “Bury Our Friends,” my #12 song of 2014, gave a strong preview of this slight shift in Sleater-Kinney’s direction – angst-ridden yet hopeful, stomping through the chorus (“exhume our idols/bury our friends”), driven both by one of Brownstein’s strongest riffs ever and some intricate drumwork from Janet Weiss. Weiss’ role on the album may be the most pleasant surprise, as she’s expanded her style and is mixed more toward the front; “Fangless,” which opens almost like a prog-rock track that’s made a small withdrawal from the jazz machine, would go nowhere without Weiss’ syncopated percussion lines. You can hear throughout Cities why Weiss has been in such demand from other indie rock acts during Sleater-Kinney’s hiatus.

Album opener “Price Tag” serves both as one of the album’s best tracks and a transitional song to reintroduce old listeners to the band’s slight shift in direction while bringing new fans immediately into the fold, building up a store of potential energy in the verses before exploding into a chorus where Tucker sounds like she’s still holding a little piece of rage in reserve for future use. “Surface Envy” completes the opening troika by paradoxically turning a descending scale into a memorable riff, I think primarily because of how it ends in a crash between Brownstein’s power chords and Weiss’s pulsating drums, an aural waterfall hitting the rocks and splashing everywhere. “No Anthems” borrows a little from stoner rock to underlie Tucker’s introspective lyrics, evincing some nostalgia for the band’s former, reluctant role as standard-bearers for the riot grrl movement. The album’s only real stumble, “Hey Darling,” a stab at power-pop that sounds wrong coming from Tucker’s lungs, gives way quickly to the melancholy closer “Fade,” which alludes to pre-grunge sounds from Mudhoney and Soundgarden in the first movement, after which Weiss powershifts into a march for the bridge, leading into Brownstein’s pedal-point riff that drives the reprise of the first third to close out the song and the album. It’s the most ornate song on Cities, the right way to finish an album that would otherwise have been split in two by its complexity amidst a run of tighter, faster tracks.

I was never fully on board with the hype around Sleater-Kinney, because I thought they were more of A Really Important Thing than a producer of great tracks, which may color my impression of No Cities to Love … but it’s my favorite album by the band, by a huge margin. This is the kind of album we would hope middle-aged punks could produce after some time away from their main act, but that very few artists are capable of pulling off.

If you’re a fan of Sleater-Kinney, I highly recommend this Pitchfork feature story on the band, with many enlightening comments from the band members on the direction of this latest album. I also suggest you check out the 2013 album Silence Yourself by Savages, who walk the same paths first plowed by bands like Sleater-Kinney, Babes in Toyland, and 7 Year Bitch.

Among Others.

Jo Walton’s novel Among Others, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel in 2012, is nothing like any of the other major science fiction or fantasy titles I’ve read. The story is instead a tender coming-of-age narrative with just a dash of magic thrown in, and the book as a whole functions as a paean to the classics of both genres, succeeding because of the appeal of its narrator-protagonist even though there’s minimal action in the novel itself. (The Kindle version is still just $2.99 through that link, more than worth the price.)

Morwenna Phelps (who goes by Mor or Mori) is a 15-year-old Welsh girl who has been left disabled after what is described for much of the book as a battle with her mother, an evil and/or insane witch, a battle that killed Mor’s twin sister. Mor is now at an English boarding school where she’s been sent by her estranged father, with whom she has no relationship (he walked out when she and her sister were babies) but forges a tenuous bond over their shared love of science fiction and fantasy novels – Mor reads more than any human being I’ve ever met, on the order of about 300 books a year given how quickly Walton has her going through titles in the story. As Mor goes through typical teenage stuff – dealing with cliques and ostracism, gaining and losing friends over trifles, taking her first steps into dating – she’s also dealing with the aftermath of what happened with her mother, trying to make sense of everything through books and through her limited magical abilities, which she’s reluctant to use.

Mor reminded me greatly of Flavia de Luce, the chemistry-obsessed heroine of Alan Bradley’s six mystery novels (beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), but a few years older and therefore dealing with more real-world issues – the stuff we might see Flavia encounter now that Bradley has agreed to write four more stories with his star moving to boarding school in Canada. Mor’s experiences in boarding school are tame by today’s standards, but the point isn’t to watch her suffer or squirm – it’s to watch her cope using her relationship with fiction both in direct (finding shared interest in books with peers and adults alike) and indirect (taking lessons from the novels she’s read) fashion. Among Others is a wonderful book, but seeing it win all of these genre awards reminded me of Argo and The Artist doing the same in cinema: They won movie awards because both movies were about how great the movies are. Maybe Walton won because she wrote a book about the power of science fiction and fantasy novels, not to mention a guide to the best of the genres up to the late 1970s. The same novel without the elegaic aspect would have been just as successful as literature, but would it still have earned the same plaudits?

The magical/fantasy aspects of Among Others are part of the background fabric of the novel, rather than central to its story, which I believe is essential for genre fiction to be more than just, well, genre fiction. Mor’s magical skills are mostly limited to her ability to see ethereal creatures she calls “fairies” for lack of any more accurate term, and some power to cast spells that she barely uses; when the soft climax of a rematch with her mother occurs, Mor doesn’t use magic to fight, relying on her emerging self-confidence and ability to control her racing mind to defeat her mother’s ambush. But the bulk of the magic has happened already in the book’s past and comes to the reader slowly via Mor’s diary entries as she opens up to a few friends, particularly the fellow outcast Wim, about what actually happened and what she’s able to see. This book is all epilogue, creating a challenge for Walton to grab and hold the reader’s attention; she does it best because Morwenna herself is so compelling, insightful and intelligent beyond her years, yet still in many ways a child, trying to navigate adolescence on top of the challenges of having an crazy, power-hungry witch for a mother. If Walton wants to give us more of Morwenna’s story, before or after the events of Among Others, I’m all for it.

Next up: After I finish Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat today, I’ll start Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke, one of the Albert Campion mysteries and apparently an inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike novels.

Have a safe New Year’s Eve, everyone.

The Teleportation Accident.

I had never heard of Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident before a conversation with a restaurant hostess in August, where she noticed I had a book with me (The Magic Mountain, which, let me tell you, is just a great book to get the ladies interested) and we started chatting about novels, mostly classics. She raved about Beauman’s book so much that I bought it, and just crushed it over about 72 hours this past weekend because it is totally insane, clever, and hilarious, even though I’m not really sure it’s “about” anything at all.

Winner of the peculiar Encore Award (given to the best second novel of the year) and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize (so top twelve), The Teleportation Accident follows the transparently-named Egon Loeser, a set designer in Berlin in the early 1930s who is obsessed with the 17th-century set designer Adriano Lavicini, whose prop “teleportation device” failed in spectacular fashion, killing over two dozen spectators and the designer himself. Loeser is also obsessed with sex, of which he’s not getting any since his breakup with his most recent girlfriend, only to become infatuated with the unfortunately-named Adele Hitler (no relation), whom he eventually chases to Paris and then Los Angeles, where he gets entangled in a giant conspiracy involving an attempt to make an actual teleportation device at CalTech. Through all of these escapades, mostly occurring between 1931 and the end of World War II, Loeser remains blissfully ignorant of the charged political atmosphere around him, even when it puts him or his friends in immediate danger.

That last bit is part of how Beauman subverts almost everything about the modern historical novel – where any other author would insert his protagonist Zelig-like into the major historical events of the era, Beauman keeps Loeser in the dark, makes only oblique references to the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust, and even mocks the standard practice by using a secondary character, the bizarrely-named Scramsfield, who claims to know all the famous people in Paris (referring to James Joyce as “Jimmy”) but actually knows none of them. You expect Loeser to be pushed or dragged along by the force of history, yet every plot twist comes about due to accident or coincidence. This is Zadie Smith’s hysterical realism grafted on to Isherwood’s Berlin, Pynchon’s grandiose plotting with Vonnegut’s cynicism and Fforde’s wit. It’s madcap absurdity without devolving into the impossible (except for one last masterstroke in the final few pages).

Beauman’s decision to make Loeser’s obsession sexual is really a Macguffin, as his long dry spell is more of a plot convenience to keep him chasing after Adele and to push him into these bizarre conspiracies and a sort of meaningless competition with the fatuous English writer Rackenham. In fact, I’m not sure the book is about anything at all, which is probably why the blurb on the back does such a poor job of describing the story. It’s not about sex, and it’s only slightly about Lavicini or teleportation. It is, however, wildly funny, often in ridiculous ways, such as the wealthy car-polish magnate whose agnosia makes him unable to distinguish a picture from reality, so a glass of ginger ale spilled on a map leads him to shout “Ambulance! Thousands drowned!” – and that’s before it deteriorates further into “ontological agnosia,” which might be the most apt description of the book’s central theme (assuming there is one at all).

Also tucked into this bizarre picaresque are a grotesque murder mystery, a quack doctor who claims to promise eternal youth by sewing monkey glands onto your testicles, a conflict over public transportation in Los Angeles, a scientist whose mind (at least) jumps back and forth in twenty-year intervals, and eventually another attempt to tell Lavicini’s story and build another stage version of a teleportation machine. Beauman masterfully ties up all his loose ends in that concluding passage and the three epilogues, each more bonkers than the previous one, yet never veering so far from the central plot’s threads that he can’t narrow it all down to a singularity in the final few words. It’s one of the best books I’ve read all year, and I can’t wait for his next novel, Glow, to come out here in the U.S. in January.

Galaxy Trucker iPad app.

I’ve got two posts up for Insiders, one on Boston signing Hanley Ramirez and an omnibus post covering four moves, two each by Oakland and the White Sox.

The Galaxy Trucker iPad app takes a well-reviewed boardgame (which I’ve never played) and turns it into something more on a tablet, with a “campaign mode” that plays like an adventure or role-playing game layered on the mechanics of the boardgame itself. It’s the most addictive game I’ve played all year, probably too much so – although I had a little spare time this weekend to try it out.

In Galaxy Trucker, you’re a long-haul space trucker who has to build a new ship for each run, preparing it to dodge meteors and stardust, battle space pirates and slavers, and pick up cargo from planets and abandoned ships for sale at your destination. Those various goals and obstacles require you to build a ship that has the right balance of cabins for crew, guns, engines, shields, batteries, and storage for goods … and that’s before you unlock the ability to carry certain aliens as extra crew too. Each component has connectors on one to four sides, so you have to make everything fit together on your ship while trying not to leave connectors exposed to stardust or vulnerable to meteor fire. And building those ships means competing in real-time against AI players to grab tiles from a central pile available to everyone; once the first player completes his/her ship, a timer starts and other players must finish as quickly as they can.

Out in space, the ships all appear on a track, starting in the order in which the players finished building. The journey to the next satellite or moon involves a set of eight to twenty “adventure cards,” overturned in order, each revealing a specific event. The easiest one is open space, where you can go as many spots forward as your engine allows, although position is only relative to the other ships rather than letting you speed to the destination – that is, you have to play all the cards before you dock.

Being first in line gives you first crack at any abandoned ships (where you can send crew members for money or cargo, at a cost of a couple of spaces on the track) or planets (so you can grab the most valuable cargo), but also puts you first in line to face pirates or slavers, who can damage your ship or steal your crew/cargo if you don’t have enough firepower. Meteors hit everyone in line, with smaller ones damaging tiles with exposed connectors but larger ones destroying whatever they hit if you can’t shoot them down. Combat is the one time you’re pitted against your rivals, because all ships are compared using three criteria – firepower, engine strength, and crew size – with the trucker scoring the lowest in each subject to attack, loss of crew, loss of cargo, or other penalties.

When building your ship, you do get to peek at some of the cards (I think 3/4 of them) if you don’t mind taking a brief break from the tile rush, so you can plan accordingly – such as adding weapons facing a specific side of the ship if you know you’ll face large meteors from that direction. That said, the variety of cards in all of the journey’s you’ll undertake means you’re always trying to balance the various components to survive the trip and make as much money as you can through salvage, rewards for finishing first or having the best-designed ship, or completing certain missions in the campaign.

That campaign is easily the best part of the app – it’s a little bit of a choose-your-own-adventure feel, except that you can’t die on page 63, you just go back to port and try again. The challenges increase in difficulty slowly at first, but near the end of the campaign there are two extremely tough ones (so far) that I’ve struggled to get past. The game also gives you a few broader goals to achieve outside of individual missions, and you get to keep expanding areas on your map to see more destinations and potentially earn more money from larger jobs. That “one more challenge” setup kept drawing me back to the game beyond the point when I might have been bored from crushing the AI after getting the hang of the game.

The one flaw in the implementation is the ease with which you can make an unintended move, which is irrevocable under the rules of the game. Dragging tiles down over your ship to reveal them, then dragging them back to the pile, all while trying to move as quickly as possible will result in some tiles accidentally dropped into place on your ship – and if you don’t notice that that happened and reach for another tile, you’ll be stuck with a piece you didn’t want and/or somewhere you didn’t want it.

The graphics are goofy but easy to understand, drawn from the board game for a cartoonish feel; the app itself ran smoothly over a dozen times. (Okay, maybe way over a dozen times.) The puzzle-solving aspect of Galaxy Trucker was the initial appeal, but the campaign mode is what makes it a must-purchase for boardgame fans. I’ve already gotten way more than $7.99 worth out of the game in, well, about five days of playing it.

The Left Hand of Darkness.

I have three Insider posts up on recent moves, one on the Heyward/Miller swap, one on Toronto signing Russell Martin, and a third omnibus post covering Hellickson, Moncada, Burnett, and La Stella/Vizcaino. Also, if you missed my annual boardgames ranking, I posted that on Tuesday.

Ursula K. Le Guin won two Hugo Awards for novels, one for The Dispossessed, which I read earlier this year (and loved), and one for the book I just finished, The Left Hand of Darkness , a much stranger book in almost every respect. Set on a planet that suffers near-permanent winter, the novel manages to explore questions of political philosophy and economy while also delving into the still-current question of gender identity and whether gender is a biological or social construct, even though she wrote the book in the late 1960s.

On Gethen, the planet where the entire novel takes place, the still-human residents have evolved over tens of thousands of years to become hermaphroditic, mostly sexless until their mensual period of “kemmer,” a point in the hormonal cycle when that person’s male or female reproductive organs become capable of procreation for a few days. That means that a Gethenian can be a mother to one child and father to another, producing a different societal concept of families. The protagonist, Genly Ai, is an envoy sent from the Ekumen, the book’s united federation of planets (so to speak) that is hoping to invite Gethen into its alliance, which focuses primarily on the sharing of knowledge and limited trade. Ai is distrusted by two separate governments, one a loose, feudal monarchy, the latter a Soviet-style command structure, and finds he has just one Gethenian he can trust, the disgraced adviser Estraven. The second half of the book puts the two of them on a life-or-death journey across desolate, snowbound country, where Ai is forced to reconsider his own aloof, perhaps ignorant attitude toward the character of the Gethenians, including the influence of their mostly genderless existence on their development as humans.

While The Left Hand of Darkness is largely praised as an early feminist sci-fi novel, reading it today it came across as a broader exploration of gender identity questions and to what extent growing up in a two-gender society (that is still relatively intolerant of anyone with gender dysphoria, or even folks who aren’t strictly heterosexual) defines our characters as individual. In a society where roles are not defined by gender because gender doesn’t exist, many questions of equality go away, as do the narrow types of personalities considered acceptable for each gender. All Gethenians Ai encounters exhibit tendencies he considers “effeminate” – the use of the term itself even indicates the trouble he has defining people as “he” or “she” – and others he calls “masculine,” but those terms come from his own experience and have no meaning outside of the two-gender context. Increasing his understanding while suffering the privations of a trip across a glacier with Estraven – who, like most Gethenians, lacks the testerone-driven strength of a biologically male human – becomes essential to the success of his overall mission, if and when he survives.

The political aspects of Ai’s quest dominate the first half of the novel as he first fails to achieve his objectives in the monarchist nation of Karhide, then travels to the totalitarian Orgoreyn, only to get caught up in the infighting among that nation’s 33-member politburo. Much of his difficulty stems from widespread skepticism that he’s actually an alien – he looks similar to Gethenians, just taller, darker in complexsion, and of course of a single gender – and the rest comes from doubt over the peaceful nature of his mission. He spends two years in Karhide, but is hesitant to commit to bringing the ship with the rest of his trade mission (eleven others, all kept in stasis so they aren’t aging while waiting for the call) to Gethen, even though it would likely seal the agreement with the Karhidish monarch. Le Guin’s aim here is vague until Ai crosses the border, at which point she unloads on the Soviets, which I’m sure was a lot more powerful or shocking in 1969 when the book was first published than it is today. We’ve been too desensitized to the abuses of authoritarian regimes to be affected by Ai’s plight in a forced-labor camp.

My one complaint with Left Hand is Le Guin’s use of phony dialect and terminology, something a lot of fantasy and sci-fi writers do, presumably to make the whole setting seem more real to readers but instead just coming off as confusing and, to my eyes, a little juvenile. I don’t know why Le Guin needed to create a whole new calendar with names for months and days, all summarized in a appendix at the end of the book. I don’t know why she needed so many new terms for government officials; it seems like an imagination run wild, without the guiding hand of an editor to say, hey, you’re just going to make readers lose their focus on the plot. It’s too strong and thoughtful a novel to waste time on trivial word changes, and given how well the gender identity themes still hold up over 40 years later, a book that deserves a much wider audience than just the sci-fi crowd.

Next up: I’m reading two books at once now, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil as my main read while also trying to read Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz in the original Spanish.


HAERTS – yeah, I’m not big on the deliberately-misspelled band names trend either – put out a strong EP late last year as a teaser for their full-length debut; “All the Days” made my top 100 songs of 2013, “Wings” would have made my top songs of 2012 had I heard it when it was released, and I liked their overall sound and lead singer Nini Fabi’s powerful, slightly smoky voice. Their self-titled debut album came out last Tuesday, including three of the four songs from last year’s EP along with six new tracks that follow the same general aesthetic – indie-pop, a little new wavish but never retro, all buttressed by Fabi’s tremendous vocals.

Produced by Jean-Philip Grobler, who records his own music under the moniker St. Lucia, Haerts isn’t as bright as his own work but features the same kind of lush, layered sounds that made his album When the Night (which made my top albums of 2013 list) so compelling. Haerts’ songs work best when Fabi is at the front, as on lead single “Giving Up,” where she begins singing just over a repeating keyboard line, after which her vocals are doubled before we get the remainder of the band involved. Like “Wings” and “All the Days,” there’s a relentlessness in the backing key and guitar lines, like a haertbeat beneath the voice that gives the album’s best songs their energy.

That’s lacking when the pace slows, as on “Call My Name,” the intro to which is way too similar to Chris Deburgh’s “The Lady in Red” (good luck unhearing that now); Fabi gets to belt it out during the chorus, but by that point I’d lost some interest, and the formula doesn’t work any better on “Lights Out,” which sounds a bit like a mediocre ’80s ballad and doesn’t let Fabi show off at all. Haerts sound best when they hit the gas from the first measure and leave the cruise control on for the whole four minutes – even deep tracks like “Be the One” (with the perhaps unintentional double entendre “can you show it/when you go down?” in the bridge) and opener “Heart” cast a spell with solid hooks and Fabi’s performance. I understand the desire to vary their sound and tempo across the 40 minutes of a full album, but their style doesn’t work as well at ballad speed.

Those songs from last year’s Hemiplegia EP are the strongest, though – the two I mentioned above plus the title track – with mesmerizing vocals and richly textured synth-bass-drum combinations that grow as each track progresses. “Hemiplegia” might be the unlikeliest title for a pure pop song, but it’s a remarkably crafted track that recalls the best moments from When the Night as it adds layers (like the guitar riff at 2:20) to increase its complexity without losing its hookiness. “Wings” is the only track on the album that feels driven by percussion, but the strength of the beat contrasts beautifully with the flow of Fabi’s vocals, but when everything drops out behind her at the halfway point, she hits this series of notes that mark the highest point of the entire album. There’s enough consistency on this album to make it well worth the purchase, as long as you didn’t buy the EP last year; it’s among the year’s best albums, on the strength of those three songs and one of the best new voices in alternative music.

American Gods.

She smiled at him, looking suddenly, and for the first time, vulnerable. She patted him on the arm. “You’re fucked up, Mister. But you’re cool.”
“I believe that’s what they call the human condition,” said Shadow. “Thanks for the company.”

Author Lev Grossman (The Magicians) also serves as arts critic for TIME magazine, helping assemble their list of the top 100 novels from 1923 with Richard Lacayo. In early 2011, Grossman also put together a list of the ten best novels from the first ten years of the century, of which I hadn’t read two, Lush Life (which I read in 2012 and loved) and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. This was my first encounter with Gaiman, whose reputation as a fantasy writer seriously undersells both his erudition and his ability as a crafter of plots.

Shadow is just about to get out of jail after serving three years of a sentence for nearly beating two men, who cheated him out of his share of a robbery, to death. He finds out that his wife has been killed in a car crash, and on a much-delayed flight home for the funeral, encounters a strange man who calls himself Wednesday (a nod to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday) and knows more about Shadow than any stranger should.

Wednesday is no ordinary stranger, though; he’s a small-g god, a modern incarnation of Odin, the Norse god and “all-father” who ruled Asgard. It turns out that immigrants who came to the United States and brought their pagan beliefs and superstitions with them brought their gods with them as well – and those gods are about to go to war with the new gods of America, gods of television and computers and other things we worship today. And Wednesday wants Shadow’s help in preparing for the battle, a story that turns out to be as tangled and complex as any culture’s mythology and that involves gods from numerous pantheons, a dead woman who can’t quite stay dead, a lakeside town in Wisconsin, a tree in Virginia, and Rock City in Tennessee.

Gaiman’s assembly of all of these gods and myths into one coherent story by distilling them each into single human characters is brilliant and imaginative, to the point where the novel felt like nothing I’d read before. It’s not magical realism because it’s almost too realistic for it, aside from the whole gods walking around thing; Gaiman plays it all so straight that it’s easy to accept them as regular people, even when they shapeshift or defy the laws of physics. It’s an ensemble cast, with Shadow at its center but not the central character, as his personality matches his name; the plot revolves around him, but he’s never the most interesting man in the room.

As the plot develops, both sides are fighting for Shadow’s allegiance, which allows Gaiman to move Shadow into various orbits and introduce a widening array of his god-characters without creating multiple plot strands. American Gods is mostly linear, which helped make it a quick read, as did Gaiman’s fluid prose and frequent use of dark humor (especially from the mouth of Wednesday, who turns out to be a bit of a cad).

The denouement is just as imaginative as the rest of the book, defying convention and expectations while deftly tying up the various threads of the novel, without short-changing the novel’s themes of mortality, clashes of culture, and the importance of myth. Gaiman’s prose, imagination, and embrace of these big ideas reminded me in parts of Fforde, Vonnegut, Dick, and García Márquez. Grossman’s list turned out to be a tremendous collection of modern fiction; even the titles I didn’t love were worthwhile reads, and the best books on the list rank among my all-time favorites.

Ruhlman’s Egg.

Chris Crawford and I posted a (too-early) ranking of the top 30 prospects for the 2015 MLB draft, plus some honorable mentions. This isn’t a mock draft or projection, which I won’t do until May of next year. It’s just a ranking. And it’s too early to get all twitchy about it. But please read it anyway.

When Michael Ruhlman publishes a cookbook of any sort, I pay attention. My favorite food writer not only writes beautifully but approaches cooking methodically, thinking in ratios and master formulas, approaching food from standpoint of science. If, like me, you were reared in the kitchen on the shows of Alton Brown, you need to read the works of Michael Ruhlman as the next step in your culinary education.

Ruhlman’s Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient came out earlier this year, and it is devoted to that one indispensable ingredient, the one item in your fridge that really ties the whole room together. He approaches the egg from every angle, all the different ways you can prepare it on its own or use it as a building block in other recipes. That means you get instructions for all of the basic egg dishes – fried, poached, scrambled, hard- and soft-boiled, shirred, baked, and more. Ruhlman’s poaching technique is one I haven’t seen before, and it is easier to anything I’ve tried before, with better results.

The real value in the book, though, is the long list of techniques and recipes that use the egg as a building block. You’ve got the ones you’d expect – the hollaindaise (traditional and blender), the mayonnaise, the meringue, the custards – but also a huge series of dishes, especially cakes and desserts, that all rely on the egg for structure, emulsification, leavening, or cohesion. So while the book is about the egg, both how it works and how to use it, you’re getting a slew of useful recipes to put them to immediate use.

I’ve tried a handful of recipes already, with the typical high rate of success I’ve had from every Ruhlman cookbook I own. I posted a photo the other day of the corn-red pepper fritters I made from this book, a recipe that depends on the proteins in the egg to hold the batter together. Ruhlman’s a big fan of frying – responsibly, of course, working fast at a high temperature and getting the goods out before all the moisture is gone and they become sponges for oil. These fritters use a small amount of flour…

The dipping sauce is a chipotle-lime mayonnaise that you can make with store-bought mayo or with Ruhlman’s very simple homemade mayo recipe, which takes two minutes of whisking and will change everything you ever thought about mayonnaise. (I hate the stuff in the jar, but homemade is a sauce.) It’s also a great base for a long list of spreads or dips, many of which Ruhlman suggests.

The biggest hit in the house was the rum-soaked cherry and almond bread, even though I had a few small issues with the execution. You soak dried sour cherries in rum (!), then mix the dry ingredients except the baking powder with the wet and let it sit overnight. Then you add the baking powder and the cherries, drained and dusted with flour, and top the loaf with a streusel of sugar, butter, and a mix of flour and almond meal. The flavors are great, with cherry and almond a natural combination, but despite the flouring the cherries sank to the bottom of the loaf, and the streusel didn’t brown properly – in fact, some of the batter puffed up through it and pushed it out of the pan. We still loved the taste and the quick-bread texture with the crisp crust; next time I’ll try it without the overnight rest.

A close second: the potato-onion frittata, easily the best frittata I’ve ever made and probably the best I’ve ever eaten. The technique is simple, but Ruhlman’s instructions are precise, and the contrasting textures between the potato and egg made it something between a frittata and a Spanish tortilla. It’s a highly extensible recipe – swap out the vegetables, the cheese (his recipe called for cheddar, but I used gruyère), the herbs, whatever. If you have six eggs and a good skillet, you can figure the rest out.

Ruhlman also includes a duck hash recipe that calls for a poached duck egg, a delicacy I have not yet spotted at any farmer’s market here or at Whole Foods. The hash itself is glorious – chopped duck confit (or braised duck legs if you prefer) with potatoes and onions and some herbs to finish it. It’s also extensible; hashes are, by nature, a way to use what’s left over in the fridge.

What I have not yet gotten to try from Egg is the lengthy list of desserts, some rather decadent. You’ve got your profiteroles and your brownies, of course, but you’ve also got chocolate/mocha cake, coconut cream cake, mango-lime semifreddo, bourbon brioche bread pudding, île flottante, and chocolate espresso Kahlua souffle. There’s also yet another recipe for homemade marshmallows, this one using honey rather than liquid glucose, which I assume is to keep the sugar syrup from crystallizing while you cook it to the soft-crack stage. So, needless to say, I still have some work to do.

If you don’t have Ruhlman’s Twenty, I’d suggest you get that before you pick up Egg, but really you should own both and Ruhlman’s Ratio too.

As a side note, amazon (to whom I always link, as their affiliate program provides nearly all the income I earn from this site, because I don’t and won’t belong to any ad services) is in a lengthy dispute with Ruhlman’s publisher, Little Brown/Hachette, over ebook pricing. You can buy the Kindle edition for $15, but if you want an indie bookstore option, you can buy Egg through that link, which uses a pretty new independent bookstore affiliate program I’m trying out. I’m still pretty pro-amazon in general, but if you who want to go a different route for ethical reasons, here’s an option.

This is All Yours.

alt-J’s 2012 debut album An Awesome Wave, winner of that fall’s Mercury Prize, remains my favorite album released since the turn of the century, a hypnotic, hypercreative, genre-bending masterwork that plays with sounds, tempos, and tension to subvert typical rock song structures without every losing sight of the critical elements of melody and rhythm. The album featured stunning production that offered clear, precise sounds in a minimalist framework, while the then-quartet carried lyrical and musical themes across multiple tracks to present the listener with a diverse yet cohesive whole. The Mercury Prize doesn’t always go to the most deserving album – last year’s snoozer would be a perfect example – but alt-J deserved it as much as any other winner ever had. (Of course, Pitchfork trashed the album, shocking no one.)

That means that expectations, mine and the music world’s, have run very high with the long crescendo to today’s release of This Is All Yours, the sophomore album from alt-J, now a trio after the departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury. The new disc moves the band in a direct I didn’t anticipate, opting for slower tempos and brighter sounds, creating a more melancholy record overall, one with fewer standout melodies than An Awesome Wave and a muddled production quality that contrasts with the precision of its predecessor’s. It is every bit as bizarre a record as you’d expect from a band that named itself after a keyboard combination (their name is technically Δ) and that produced an album as weird as their debut. It is less consistent than their first record, but it is never, ever dull.

The three singles released from This is All Yours showcase the album’s brilliance alongside its inconsistency. “Hunger of the Pine” works from a trip-hop foundation, layers guitarist Joe Newman’s languorous, high-pitched vocals – occasionally delivering entire lines without changing the note – over keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton’s baritone, only to throw in a sample of Miley Cyrus incongruously singing “I’m a female rebel” in the chorus. “Left Hand Free,” a song the boys have acknowledged they wrote because their label’s A&R man said he didn’t hear a single from the album, listens like a deadpan parody of American indie or jangle-pop, with suitably ridiculous lyrics that still manage to slip in the kind of literary allusions that they used so well on An Awesome Wave. The third single, “Every Other Freckle,” is the album’s best song, bridging the gap between those first two songs in a way that recalls their first album’s highest points, shifting gears suddenly between tempos or even genres, with lyrical flourishes that offer competing interpretations (the transition from touching to creepy in “I wanna bed into you, like a cat beds into a beanbag/Turn you inside out, and lick you like a crisp packet” is a highlight of their career) and perfectly timed hard-stops before the next miniature movement begins. The three songs don’t really sound at all like they’d come from the same band, with an almost anti-commercial song in “Hunger of the Pine” alongside the disposable “Left Hand Free,” diversity without the explosive creativity of the band’s first record.

Instead, the trio appear to have channeled their creativity into crafting lush soundscapes like the gorgeous acoustic track “Warm Foothills,” which features vocals from no fewer than four guest singers, including Lianne La Havas, whom alt-J beat out for the Mercury Prize two years ago. The vocals are stitched together to give you odd transitions before we get our payoff in beautiful harmonies – although there’s no big finish or massive textural shift as you might have expected on An Awesome Wave. The lyrics of the Alien-inspired “The Gospel of John Hurt” blend that film’s mythology (it doesn’t go well for Hurt’s character) with the Book of Jeremiah, over a tripartite backing track, starting with a xylophone-heavy introductory passage, leading to a sluggish passage where we get the band spelling out a key word (as on “Fitzpleasure” and “Bloodflood”) before the guitar moves to the front in the final, cathartic movement. How that song can be followed with the throwaway acoustic track “Pusher” is one of the most puzzling aspects of the disc; I could have done without “Pusher” entirely, but after one of This is All Yours‘ strongest, most intense songs, it dissolves the momentum the band has just built up with the previous song.

alt-J have always been fond of referring back to their own songs, and do so explicitly with “Bloodflood pt. II,” which brings back both “Bloodflood” and “Fitzpleasure” from their first album, reusing certain lyrics and musical themes but reworking them into new settings while carrying over the violence implicit in “Fitzpleasure,” which itself drew from the book and film Last Exit to Brooklyn. They’re also big on unusual covers, and the album’s bonus track completely deconstructs Bill Withers’ classic soul song “Lovely Day” and builds it back up with multiple flows of shimmering keyboard lines that move over you like fluids of varying viscosities – to the point where you might only recognize the original track by the lyrics.

The brief review by the Guardian compared This is All Yours to Radiohead’s Kid A for their shared abandonment of the traditional rock format in favor of playing with sounds and textures, but Radiohead’s departure was far more shocking – here was one of the greatest straight-up rock bands in history, coming off an album that should have won every award for which it could possibly have been eligible, metaphorically lighting its guitars on fire to play with keyboards and other synthetic sounds. alt-J had no such sound to abandon, so their capacity to shock us more than their debut already did so is muted.

This is All Yours includes repetition of themes and imagery in its lyrics, just as their first album did, here with recurring ruminations on loss and dependence in relationships, and several songs refer to the African quelea, a nomadic passerine bird of African that travels in large flocks, or other flying creatures; as well as to lungs, to waves, or to the sea. Their lyrics are more cryptic and less narrative this time around; most songs on An Awesome Wave told a story somewhere, while the songs on This is All Yours have fewer lyrics overall and none tells a complete story from beginning to end. That may be the most shocking shift of the album, rather than the change in music – the way that alt-J thinks about crafting a single song, or an album as a collection of songs, seems to have changed, as if they couldn’t or wouldn’t reproduce the style of their first album, which was five years in the making. This is All Yours comes out only two years and a few months after their debut, but in many ways feels more ambitious and bold. It is uneven compared to their debut, and presents a less immersive listening experience, but also shows a group unwilling or unable to rest on their laurels, for whom an effort that doesn’t match their best work can still be among the most important and impressive albums of the year.

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.

This week’s Klawchat transcript is up, as is my newest boardgame review for Paste, on the deckbuilding game Valley of the Kings.

Alton Brown mentioned Steven Sherrill’s novel The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break twice on podcasts I listened to this spring/summer, once on his own and once on the Nerdist podcast, saying it was his all-time favorite novel, one he re-reads regularly. That was good enough for me to check it out – especially once I saw it wasn’t some thousand-page monolith – and it is indeed a fabulous book, clever, compelling, and incredibly warm-hearted, which is funny since the main character is quite literally a monster.

That would the capital-M Minotaur, spawn of Pasiphaë, devourer of virgins, bane of Minos, half-man and half-bull, now five thousand years old and working as a line cook in North Carolina. That’s Sherrill’s one nod to unreality, as everything that comes after that fact of the Minotaur’s existence, the peculiarity of which generates no remark from the non-monster characters in the book. (He does encounter a couple of other immortals – Daphne the Naiad appears briefly toward the end of the book, and we see Medusa in most unfortunate circumstances as well.) With that one given, Sherrill treats the Minotaur as a very human character, at least emotionally, since the guy does have the head of a bull, but other than that and some difficulty speaking, the Minotaur is a protagonist with whom most readers will easily empathize.

Working in the kitchen for a traditional American restaurant, the Minotaur is a diligent and precise worker, getting along with most of his co-workers, mostly because he has the patience of a creature who’s lived five thousand years and seen all manner of unkindness from the humans with whom he’s interacted. He lives in a trailer park, apparently the latest in an endless string of short-term residences, and is an expert at diagnosing and repairing problems with car engines, a skill he trades to his landlord in place of rent. He has a crush on one co-worker, Kelly, but flirts with Cecie, is one of the few who respects the gay expediter David, and tolerates (to a point) the juvenile behavior of Mike and Shane. But he has a pervasive sense of unease that a change for the worse is coming, and eventually his habit of going along to get along lands him in a situation where he has to choose between being proactive and letting history continue to drag him along for the ride.

Sherrill builds his story around largely mundane events. He has great feel for the rhythm of a restaurant kitchen and the repetitive tasks that go into preparing hundreds of identical meals over the course of a few hours, a tedium that the Minotaur actually enjoys. He goes into similar levels of detail on the workings of combustion engines, which I’ll assume is all accurate because I know little more than that you turn the key to start the motor. The twin emphases on specific aspects of these endeavors and on telling the story of the Minotaur’s quotidian life without requiring any Big Events to move the plot will make you forget that the main character is a mythical beast. And he infuses the Minotaur with profound understanding of human behavior and emotions – not supernaturally so, just enough that he becomes the ideal lens through which to watch the actions of the people around him, many of them screwed up in one way or another, the remainder busy screwing themselves up as fast as they can.

The Minotaur barely speaks, finding it difficult to articulate clearly given his bull’s tongue and a clear bout of self-consciousness because of this, so much of his dialogue comes out as grunts that his coworkers all understand – which also puts them in the position of doing most of the talking. That puts the Minotaur roughly into the everyman/observer archetype, sort of a bull-headed Nick Jenkins, someone who watches the action for us but isn’t completely neutral or uninvolved. (The bull-headed bit is a dash of irony on Sherrill’s part, as the Minotaur is neither stubborn nor decisive, but is quite thoughtful and even aware of his habit of sometimes making bad decisions.) He’s the title character, and ultimately it’s his decision and his choices that shape the conclusion of the novel, but the real interest here is the diverse side characters, who are eccentric and flawed and whose real natures are reflected in their interactions with the hero. He’s deeply empathetic toward them, the result of his complex origins and five thousand years of watching humans be human, and most of them are similarly empathetic towards him.

Grub, the amusingly-named owner of the restaurant where the Minotaur – called “M.” by all his friends and colleagues – works, hires a new waitress named Kelly, who is revealed to be an epileptic when she has a grand mal seizure during a shift. The Minotaur’s affection for her seems to go beyond a mere physical attraction; he sees in her some kind of kindred spirit, another lonely soul wandering through life without a clear destination and with too much awareness of her own differences. The story ends with an unexpected sequence of events that force M. to finally be proactive and make a real choice to shape his own destiny, but he needs a little help from an unexpected deus ex machina and a lot of understanding to get to the point, where Sherrill leaves the reader in ambiguity, but with the possibility of hope, which seems to be all the Minotaur is asking the world to give him.

Next up: John Williams’ western Butcher’s Crossing.