My annual list of the top 25 big leaguers under 25 is up for Insiders, as is a draft blog post on Dansby Swanson and Carson Fulmer, both of Vanderbilt.

Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie is one of my favorite living novelists, and I say that having read only two-thirds of her total output (she’s written three). Her ability to craft realistic characters, especially black female characters, and to have all of her characters engage in thoughtful, intelligent, unpandering dramas built around race and ethnic identities is second to none right now; she’s even passed Toni Morrison, whose recent output hasn’t matched her Beloved/Song of Solomon peak. Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which won the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) in 2007, made my last top 100 novels update at #92.

Her most recent novel, 2013’s Americanah, once again begins and ends in Nigeria, but this time follows two people as they emigrate to the west, one legally and one illegally, to escape a limited economic future in their native country, one that deprives them of hope. Ifemelu and Odinze are high school sweethearts, bonded by their intelligence and refusal to submit to a grey future, but the expectation that they’ll marry is lost when Ifemelu is allowed to enter the United States legally but Odinze, a single foreign male from Africa, is rejected due (we assume) to U.S. immigration crackdowns post-9/11. While Ifemelu encounters financial difficulties and humiliations as a student in the U.S. who lacks money or worldliness, even finding that her brand of English isn’t much use in understanding the American idiom, Odinze enters England without papers and aims for a sham marriage with a citizen to allow himself to stay and work. Ifemelu, ashamed by her situation and depressed by her isolation, ceases contact with Odinze and only resumes it when she returns to Nigeria over a decade later, finding the love of her life now married with a daughter.

“Americanah” is a derogatory term in Nigerian slang referring to someone who has moved to America and come back a changed person, especially one affecting an American accent or an excessive affection for American customs and culture. Ifemelu tries to assimilate early in her time in the U.S. because she’s told repeatedly that she won’t receive job offers if she’s too “ethnic,” but eventually sheds her American façade in favor of her own accent, her own hair, and her identity as an African woman. She adapts rather than assimilating, eventually advancing in her education and career thanks to a blog she writes under a pen name, called Raceteenth Or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes), that documents her thoughts on the racial divide in the United States from the perspective of someone who was not conscious of race before she arrived in this country. (Adichie has since brought Ifemelu’s second blog, written after the character’s return to Nigeria, to life online as The Small Redemptions of Lagos.) Odinze’s story is shorter, as was his stint abroad, working dicey jobs under someone else’s National Insurance number, before he’s discovered and shipped back to Lagos.

Ifemelu is the star of the book, as Odinze, while a well-defined character, is rarely in the spotlight, while his story in England seems like a plot contrivance to contrast with Ifemelu’s experiences as a legal emigrant from Nigeria. Her story has global aspirations which largely succeed, coming through her series of jobs (including nanny to a definite White Privilege family) and relationships, including one with Progressive White Guy and one with Earnest Black Intellectual. We get some pretentious dialogue along the way, especially when Ifemelu starts to travel in increasingly academic circles, but Adichie avoids turning the book into a sermon by keeping Ifemelu’s emotions at the center of the book rather than driving us toward some Big Conclusion via plot tricks. The book describes the emigrant/immigrant experience, the desire to return home for its own sake (rather than to change the world), the emotional pull of a romance that one can’t fully separate from its environment, instead of trying to tell us one country or culture or path is better. This is Ifemelu’s story, just one tale that has its metaphorical implications but doesn’t feel in any way like Adichie is trying to tell every immigrant’s story at once.

Adichie’s strengths in characterization and avoiding predictable plot lines cover some of her weaknesses in portions of the dialogue and nearly all of the sample blog posts included in the book. The posts she includes are far too short and superficial to garner the kind of audience Ifemelu is supposed to have collected through her writing, not enough in a real world that has Ta-Nehisi Coates and Tanzina Vega and Jamil Smith and too many others to name who produce statement pieces that bring examples and evidence to the table. Ifemelu’s blog posts from the book wouldn’t find an audience because they’re not saying much of anything we haven’t heard hundreds of times before. Adichie says more about race when she’s not talking directly about it, putting characters into situations that force them to confront questions of racism and identity, than she does when she tries to blog through Ifemelu’s lens.

Told through frequent moves back and forth in time and across an ocean, Americanah marks another hugely compelling and intelligent novel from Adichie and her biggest seller to date, even though it lacks the gravity of Half of a Yellow Sun, which was set in Nigeria during the Biafra conflict and resulting genocide. Her eye for detail is sharper in the sections of Americanah where her characters are still in Lagos, growing up among ambitious economic strivers, religious zealots, and co-opted concubines whose fortunes are only secure as long as the current regime stays in power. When she transitions to America and England, Adichie’s writing becomes less nuanced and the stakes are largely lower (especially since we know from the first chapter that Odinze gets back to Nigeria safely). The strongest scenes of Ifemelu’s time in America come in an African hair salon she visits, somewhat resentfully, in Trenton, because she can’t find a place that knows how to braid hair properly in Princeton. The reactions she receives there from women who might share some of her background but clearly want very different things from life – and are largely appalled that she would return to Africa of her own volition – drive not just Ifemelu’s own memories but the overall narrative of the book, as well as its strongest symbol (hair) of race and identity.

Next up: I knocked off The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage’s brief history of the telegraph, over the weekend, and have since started Anthony Marra’s novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Broadchurch, season two.

This week’s Klawchat had lots of overreactions to early-season stats. For Insiders, my latest draft blog post covers first-rounders Donny Everett and Mike Nikorak, with word on a pop-up arm in El Paso and some early top ten gossip.

The British series Broadchurch originally aired as a one-and-done season of eight episodes built around a murder mystery, with the real focus of the writing on the effects of the crime and the investigation on the residents of the small town of the show’s title, many of whom would end up suspects at one point in the season. The show was so well-received by British audiences and TV critics that ITV has now turned it into a recurring series, with season two just completing its first American run on BBC America this week and season three to begin filming this summer. (I reviewed season one while contrasting it to the inferior U.S. remake, Gracepoint.

The formula of the first season no longer applies, as the two detectives assigned to the case, outsider Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Broadchurch lifer Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), solved it in somewhat shocking fashion in the last episode. That presented several challenges to the writers: how to restart the narrative greed that an unsolved murder brought to the show, and how to continue to push the various characters into uncomfortable situations that could provoke the dialogue that is the show’s greatest strength?

An American series would just kill off another character and start over, of course – has anyone thought about the spike in the murder rate of Naval officers and midshipmen with every new NCIS spinoff? – but Broadchurch went a less traditional route: The murderer, who confessed in season one, pleads not guilty, leading to a trial that enmeshes the town in more scandal, while Alec gets a second chance to solve the old case that wrecked his marriage, career, and nearly his life. The resulting eight episodes of season two moved more quickly and were more involved, with a half-dozen new and significant secondary characters, but they never slacked on the incisive dialogue that powers the show. (Of course, at some point they will likely have to kill someone else off, just to give Alec and Ellie something else to do together.)

The trial itself is the framework for the season, but its outcome isn’t in much doubt, with many of the steps – notably the exclusion of the confession, without which season two would have been about an episode and a half long – easy to see coming. A reader mentioned on Twitter that the writers took many liberties with the British judicial process, none of which were evident to me as an American. But viewing Broadchurch as a crime drama misses its point: The writers develop complex, fascinating characters and put compelling words in their mouths to reveal truths about how we live in small communities where everyone knows everyone else and someone else probably knows that thing you think is secret. Finding out who was guilty was critical to season one, but we already know he’s guilty, and the trial’s outcome was both justified by what we saw of the court proceedings and because of the opportunities it presented for the plot.

Meanwhile, the Sandbrook case brings the man Alec believed committed both murders, Lee Ashworth, into Broadchurch, the result of what might be a long con of Alec’s designed to get Ashworth, acquitted when a critical piece of evidence was stolen from a detective’s car before trial, to confess. Ashworth, his wife Claire, their neighbor Ricky (father to one of the victims, uncle to the other), and his wife Kate had a convulted web of interrelationships, jealousies, and possibly infidelities that give the investigation itself layers of intrigue beyond ordinary investigation. Having just read the first Philo Vance novel, I was reminded of his axiom that physical evidence is useless and true detection should be the result of deduction, as the solution the Broadchurch writers have given us here barely relies on any evidence at all, and one of those bits – the floor – itself indicates nothing at all without Ellie’s reasoning.

The season also brings two new characters into the fold in the lead prosecuting attorney, Jocelyn Knight, and her former protegee, Sharon Bishop; the two have a testy, unfriendly relationship, and each is fighting her own private war. Those side stories were too isolated from either of the main plot threads and seemed to exist solely to give the characters some depth and/or to set up subplots for season three, but the character of Jocelyn, played superbly by Charlotte Rampling, OBE, is one of the most well-developed female characters past the age of 60 I can think of on TV. Her integration into the fabric of the show was smooth and sets her up to become more central next season, possibly working together with her quondam rival to free the latter’s son from what might be aun unjust conviction. (Bishop is played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, shorn of her locks and the convincing New York City accent she wore on her days on Without a Trace.)

The season narrowed its focus on the holdover residents of the town primarily to the Latimers, the parents and daughter of the murdered boy, whose lives are ripped open anew by the killer’s plea and the resulting trial. Mark’s evisceration on the stand in particular puts new strains on a marriage that was never strong to our eyes yet appears ready to tear apart with a gentle breeze once his latest secrets come out for everyone to see. While the daughter, Chloe, remains mostly a prop – hey, someone had to hold the baby in court! – Mark and Beth benefit from the added screen time, with Beth showing greater strength in tragedy while Mark’s grief manifests itself in unexpected ways. Of the other denizens of Broadchurch, only Paul, himself a cipher much of the season, gets a big moment, as he becomes the moral center of the town in the final sequence of the season.

The writers have dropped enough seeds into Broadchurch’s soil to harvest plenty of new storylines in season three, even without introducing another crime to investigate, but there are a couple I’d most like to see them pursue. Alec and Ellie have zero sexual tension between then, yet Alec’s ex-wife was visibly jealous of the bond he’s formed with his new partner – and Ellie, meanwhile, shows herself how much Alec’s friendship, bizarre as it can be, has meant to her in her own time of emotional turmoil. Her own evolving relationship with her son Tom and perhaps Alec’s with his daughter Daisy, overtly mentioned as a priority for him in the closing scenes of season two, should also come more to the fore. I imagine we’ll see Susan Wright and Nigel again, and Becca Fisher seems to just be a paperweight, but screen time spent on them takes it away from these other characters or Ellie’s gambling-addict sister or Jocelyn in her reemergence from self-imposed isolation. There are probably too many stories here to tell, which is a testament to how rich and full a town that Broadchurch‘s writers have created.

Atlanta eats, 2015 edition.

My Atlanta trip was much better for food than it was for scouting, with a washout on Friday and one of the players I went to see drawing three walks in four times up to the plate. As for food, though, I couldn’t have done much better: I met Hugh Acheson at Empire State South; saw my friend Eli Kirshtein at his new spot, the Luminary; met a reader and diehard baseball fan, Kaleb, behind the bar at Holeman & Finch; and went to one of Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurants of 2014, Lusca.

I went to Empire State South once for lunch and twice for breakfast and coffee; if there’s a better coffee spot in Atlanta, I’d love to hear about it, as ESS uses beans from some of the best roasters in the country, including Counter Culture and 49th Parallel. They usually have three options for coffee brewed via Chemex – barista (and coffee sommelier of sorts) Dale Donchey treated me to a pair of coffees from the same mountain in Colombia but different roasters – and they do excellent espressos. Their breakfast menu is strong, with healthful options (their house-made granola with yogurt and honey is excellent) and less healthful ones (fried chicken on a biscuit with bacon and egg and OH MY GOD), and various pastries that seem to change daily. For lunch, I had the pork belly sandwich you saw on my Instagram feed, with just the right amount of pork, balanced by a very lightly spicy salsa de arbol and what amounts to a slaw of cabbage, radish, and cilantro with “crema” (which had the texture of mayo but a thinner consistency), served on a roll that had a texture like English muffin bread. I’ve now had four meals at ESS, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and have never had anything but outstanding food and service.

My lunch was better than yours: pork belly sandwich at @essouth

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

The Luminary is Kirshtein’s new place, open less than a year, mimicking the food and feel of a French brasserie. (If Eli’s name isn’t familiar, he was a contestant on season 6 of Top Chef along with the Voltaggio brothers, and you can see him with his hand up a dead fish in Richard Blais’ Try This at Home.) It’s located in the very cool Krog Market space along with other restaurants, food stands, and shops; on Wednesday night around 9 pm the place was still buzzing. I let Eli order for me and went with four small plates rather than a main. Three were outstanding, especially the catfish brandade, which read to me like a twist on southern fish fritters that also put them to shame. A brandade usually contains a mixture of bacalhao (dried salt cod) and olive oil, whipped to an emulsion, then mixed with or served on bread or potatoes. The Luminary’s version whips the catfish into whipped potatoes, then breads it tempura-style and fries it. Where fritters tend to be dense, heavy, and greasy, these were much lighter and smoother, without any grease; if I had a complaint it’s that they held their heat too well, so the last one was still steaming when I broke into it. (Not an actual complaint.) The seared octopus with fava beans is so new it hasn’t made their online menu yet; octopus is one of the few proteins I avoid, just because bad octopus is like galvanized rubber and most octopus I’ve had has been bad octopus, but this was not at all like that. The sear from the plancha gave it a depth of flavor I haven’t had on octopus before. The gnocchi came with cheese curds and a mixture of wild local mushrooms, giving the sauce a rich, earthy flavor (disclaimer: I fucking love mushrooms) that contrasted well with the light, airy texture of the pasta. The only dish I wouldn’t call plus was the crispy pig ears, which were just a little thicker than I like them, so they had more chew and less crunch than the ears I’ve had at crudo in Phoenix or the Purple Pig in Chicago. (That’s a dish I will always, always order when I see it.) I had to forgo dessert because I was over-full by that point, and that’s without finishing the pig ears or the gnocchi plate, although the Queen Batch – a twist on a gin and tonic that adds Campari and dill – probably didn’t help matters either.

Holeman & Finch is famous for their burgers, in part because it was once a scarce item: they’d make just two dozen a night, and when they were gone, they were gone. That gimmick is over, but the burger remains a staple of the menu: two patties with a slice of cheese on each, bread and butter pickles, steamed onions, and a soft (I’m guessing milk-based) bun. In texture and flavor it is a lot like a Shake Shack burger, cooked a little more than I like, on the medium side of medium well; it held together much better than Shake Shack’s burgers do (with a better bun), and H&F’s fries are hand-cut and fried till deep golden brown, as fries should be. I don’t see what the cheese added, but I also don’t like cheese on a hamburger in general. Kaleb made an off-menu cocktail for me that he calls the Rebirth of Slick, with rum, Foro (an Italian amaro), lime juice, dry orange bitters, and a spray of rosemary essence. Full disclosure: I did not pay full price for this meal, dinner at the Luminary, or the lunch at ESS. As always, there was no quid quo pro or expectation of a positive writeup or any writeup at all.

Lusca is a weird place: There’s a raw bar and they serve sashimi, but otherwise the cuisine is modern Italian, not Japanese or Asian or even seafood-centric. The best thing I ate didn’t have any seafood at all: a braised lamb neck starter with olives, chilis, and a thick slice of grilled sourdough. The meat itself had the texture of perfectly cooked short ribs, maybe even a little more tender, and while I would call lamb my least favorite animal protein, this was superb and didn’t have that odd gamy taste that put me off lamb several years ago. For a main dish, I had their house-made cavatelli with clams, mushrooms, tiny square lardons of bacon, and shallots; the pasta was perfectly al dente, even toothsome, and the mushrooms and bacon balanced out the clams so the latter didn’t overwhelm the dish. I was also amazed at how tender the clams were as, like octopus, they are often overcooked. Dessert was a chocolate tart with a layer of salted caramel under the dark chocolate custard or pudding, with chopped pistachios on top; the flavors were there but the presentation was a little off, as the custard was so soft that it started to slide out of the thin tart crust when I broke into it.

I met up with my former colleague and frequent partner-in-food-crime Kiley McDaniel for lunch at Leon’s Full Service, a suggestion from Kaleb, in fact, and a good one at that. Located right near Cakes & Ale in Decatur, Leon’s is located in a former service station and at least some of the staff had attendant-like uniforms. The sandwich menu has two staples (a burger and a brisket sandwich) while the remainder are subject to change; I had a fantastic cornmeal-crusted trout sandwich with a cabbage slaw and a side of Brussels sprout hash (bacon, apples, and cider vinegar) on the side, while Kiley went the lamb burger and kale salad with cotija, although really it was obvious he was jealous that I out-ordered him. We split the chocolate-nutella candy bar with toasted hazelnuts and sea salt, and thank God we did because eating that whole thing might have killed me.

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.

My latest boardgame review for Paste covers NanoBot Battle Arena. I also have an updated top 50 prospects ranking up for Insiders.

Courtney Barnett’s two singles from 2014, “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser,” were both on my top 100 tracks of the year primarily for her clever, witty lyrics, which told complete stories with inventive wordplay and a willingness to break out of standard meters and rhyme schemes. Her first true full-length album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, more than delivers on the promise of those earlier songs, with better hooks and more upbeat rock sounds while maintaining the high standard of wordsmithing she’d already set for herself.

Led by two stomping tracks, “Elevator Operator” and lead single “Pedestrian at Best,” Sometimes I Sit… is a tour de force of finding humor in despair and setting it to a guitar-rich soundtrack; it harkens back to the halcyon days of the Smiths, where Johnny Marr could get you off the couch and Morrissey would send you to the therapist’s. The opener tells the story of a disaffected white-collar worker who has had enough of cubicle life and reveals that all he ever wanted was to be an elevator operator; the second track comes at you like a shouted-word (rather than spoken-) statement of purpose, with a chorus that candidly offers, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you/Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you.” Barnett has no use for the typical tropes of the female pop artist, and instead asserts herself in juxtaposition with statements of insecurity or even occasional self-loathing.

Barnett is too young to remember the ’80s but there are hints of that decade’s strain of British new wave artists who built their hooks around guitars rather than synths and employed wry irony that often went over listeners’ heads throughout the album. “Debbie Downer” sounds like the descendant of an Aztec Camera tune, shockingly upbeat for its title (where, indeed, she’s told by a somewhat older woman to quit frowning, only to inform her target, “Don’t stop listening, I’m not finished yet”). “Aqua Profunda!” revisits a common theme in Barnett’s lyrics, that of the embarrassing incident, this one where she’s swimming in a lap pool, notices the guy in the next lane, and tries to impress him, only to have the whole thing go awry. “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” is true.

Barnett’s slower songs have always fallen short of the mark for me because she’s not a singer; she talk-sings, and her lyrics would largely work as spoken-word offerings anyway, but without solid music behind her the unmusical nature of her voice is exposed. Sometimes I Sit has two long, meandering bluesy tracks, “Small Poppies” and “Kim’s Caravan,” that clock in at just about seven minutes apiece and couldn’t hold my attention that long. When she reduces the tempo, it works better with more storytelling; “Depreston” starts out as an ennui-scented trip to buy a house in the suburbs, only to turn dark when she sees signs of the previous owner’s life in some of the house’s features and décor. The story evolves so that the languid pace of the song never becomes an obstacle for the listener. Plus she points out in the lyrics that by making coffee at home she’s saving $23 a week; we should all admire such thrift. “Dead Fox” is one of the album’s catchier songs, but it’s a rare case of Barnett’s lyrics – a critique of consumerism (including the feel-good variety) – feeling forced.

Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit is the best debut album I’ve heard so far this year, and one of maybe a half-dozen albums I can think of so far this decade that I’d recommend on the basis of its lyrics alone. Barnett’s ideas threaten to spill out of the speakers, and the quality of her music is already improving. She’s probably destined to remain on alternative stations because of her quirky delivery and too-cerebral lyrics (you have to pay attention to them), but she deserves a wide enough audience to keep her producing this kind of art for many more albums.

Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster.

Pope Brock’s Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam tells the story of con man J.R. Brinkley, the forerunner to today’s “FoodBabe” and “HealthRanger,” a man whose scams were so successful (at extracting money) and popular that he nearly won an election to become governor of Kansas. He helped create the modern radio industry, launched the first real “border blaster” from just over the border with Mexico, and spent about twenty years evading the pursuit of the American Medical Association’s lead investigator Morris Fishbein before finally coming to justice. It is so bizarre and so extreme that it defies belief, both that anyone could get away with a scam so brazen and that his name isn’t that well known today.

Brinkley’s main con was to pass himself off as a surgeon (despite a lack of any medical degree other than honorary ones he received later) who invented an operation where he would implant the glands from goat testicles into the scrotum of a human to give the latter added virility. In other words, he was selling penis pills before Al Gore invented the Internet. And it worked – the con, that is, not the operation, which was complete bullshit and left many patients maimed or worse. Brinkley built a huge practice in the backwater town of Milford, Kansas, in part by also constructing one of the country’s first radio stations and using it to promote his own business. He also filled much of the station’s airtime with country music, spreading the popularity of that genre and thus further building the audience for his promotion of his own business.

When the authorities in Kansas eventually forced him to stop killing people with scrotal operations, Brinkley first staged a write-in campaign for governor that, in just five weeks, may have garnered him enough votes to win, only to have a back-room deal invalidate thousands of those votes and hand the election to one of his rivals. Brinkley later decamped for Del Rio, Texas, opening a new surgery and setting up a half-million watt radio station just over the border that was so powerful there were days the signal could reportedly reach Canada. That station, XERA, introduced mexican and “tex-mex” music to the broader public and later gave us the outsized personality known as Wolfman Jack. Brinkley was a ruthless, sociopathic confidence man, but he was also quite brilliant and kept ahead of his enemies and adversaries for so long because he was a visionary. He saw potential in radio before anyone else did, and rewrote the rules of political campaigns, and also found a fine new way to part gullible people from their money, whether they had it to give him or not.

Fishbein enters frequently into the story as a secondary character, giving the story some narrative greed as he and Brinkley collide several times before the final denouement at a trial where Brinkley was actually the plaintiff, suing Fishbein for libel for calling the fake doctor a charlatan. Whether Brinkley actually believed his “operation” – which barely qualified as such – helped the patients is never clear, as he may simply have been convinced of his own invincibility regardless of the truth. He succeeded for nearly twenty years, running variations of the same scam, frequently upping the ante after he had to pull up stakes in one location, amassing enormous wealth and political power before his ultimate downfall.

That power in particular reminded me of the recent efforts by the soi-disant “FoodBabe” Vani Hari, a woman with no scientific or medical training (and no evident knowledge of either) who has used social media to run protests against specific ingredients in processed foods while encouraging people to do stupid things like take useless “natural herbs” or buy her book. Her post on staying healthy while flying is legendary for its ignorance (such as her beliefs on the chemical composition of air), and she fosters the same kind of anti-science sentiment that encourages vaccine deniers, climate change deniers, and 9/11 “truthers.” Her effort is hardly the only one of its kind; look at NaturalNews, another anti-science site run by a mountebank who peddles misinformation like claiming a raw food diet can cure cancer and fibromyalgia in what amounts to one giant appeal to nature. (Prepare to be shocked: Mike Adams, the self-styled “Health Ranger” who runs Natural News, is a vaccine denier and an all-around quack.) So while it’s easy to read Charlatan and convince yourself that such a sham could never happen today, in reality the fraudsters have just moved online.

Next up: I read S.S. Van Dine’s first Philo Vance mystery, The Benson Murder Case (just $1.99 for Kindle), on the flight yesterday, and will start Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum later today.


My list of breakout player picks for 2015 is up for Insiders. There’s no chat this week due to travel (I’m leaving Arizona this morning), but I’ve got several other posts up and two more coming this week:

* Javier Baez and Brandon Finnegan
* Taijuan Walker and some Dbacks
* Carlos Rodon, Tyler Danish, and Robbie Ray
* University of Arizona infielders Kevin Newman and Scott Kingery

Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live takes no prisoners in its assault on that trendy diet fad, one that is based on both bad science and bad history in concluding that we should eat a diet of mostly meat and vegetables, without grains, dairy, or sugar. You can certainly eat whatever you want, but the charlatans pushing this diet and lifestyle are using a deft blend of myth and outright bullshit to convince people to give up huge swaths of their diet, perhaps with dangerous consequences.

Zuk’s emphasis in the book is more on human evolution than “paleo” idiocy; the latter is more of a hook to get readers into what could have been a dry history of the portions of our genes that determine what foods we can (and thus do) eat. Zuk organizes her narrative around the activity or food that paleo hucksters claim we should eschew, but within each section delves into the evolutionary history and evidence that tell us why, in essence, we eat what we eat and we do what we do. Along the way, she sneaks in some broader attacks on those who believe evolution isn’t true, or misunderstand it (deliberately or otherwise) to draw erroneous conclusions. Foremost among them is that evolution is not goal-directed, and does not have a conclusion or an apex. We are not the end, we are still evolving, and whatever you may believe about the meaning of our existence, we’re not the peak of some lengthy process.

Her greatest assaults, however, are on the codswallop tossed about by paleo authors and enthusiasts who claim, in short, that we have switched to a diet to which we are ill-suited from an evolutionary perspective. Zuk explains, with copious evidence, that humans have continued to evolve since the Paleolithic era, and thus have digestive and metabolic capabilities that we didn’t have during the so-called paleo era. Her leading example is a big one for me: lactase persistence, the genetic ability to continue to produce the lactase enzyme past childhood, most prominent in the Lapp populations of northern Scandinavia and in some sub-Saharan African groups. Such genes have only started to spread, but Zuk argues that if this is an evolutionary advantageous development (as it appears to be), it will likely spread through natural selection over a long enough period of time. She uses similar examples to discuss how we can get nutrition and energy from grains that may not have been as bio-available to us tens of thousands of years ago.

She also explains in a similarly comprehensive fashion that paleo peeps weren’t the good ol’ boys that they’re claimed to have been, and that the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture didn’t therefore rob us of some essential dietary attributes or destroy our metabolisms. She puts the claim that cancer is a modern ailment to the test, and shows that the lack of evidence for cancer in, say, ancient Egyptians, is a case where we can’t conclude that there’s evidence of absence because cancer cells decay quickly and would rarely leave any sign in bones and other hard matter in the corpse. The idea that obesity, cancer, diabetes and other “modern” diseases are entirely the result of a sedentary, agriculture-based diet and lifestyle – and can be prevented or cured via a paleo diet – is just so much bunk. It’s not supported by the historical evidence, and it relies on the evolutionary myth that we were or will ever be perfectly adapted to our environment. Our environment changes, we change in response to it, but there’s no steady state at the end of the line. (Well, maybe after the sun swallows the earth, but that’s beyond the scope of this book.)

Zuk relies heavily on evidence, as any debunking tome should, but her writing is also very clear without oversimplifying, and she does an excellent job of presenting arguments that appeal to our logic or reason without relying on that alone to convince us. She explains why certain genes or blocks of genes might have first spread within human populations, based on certain advantages they conferred – even genes that simultaneously confer some disadvantage. Cystic fibrosis is an autosomal recessive genetic condition, meaning that you have to receive copies of the defective gene from both of your parents to get the disease; if you get just one copy, you’re a “carrier” but won’t get CF. You will, however, have some degree of immunity to cholera, one of the thousands or perhaps millions of tradeoffs and compromises that constitute our genetic makeup, a point to which Zuk returns frequently to hammer home her argument that there is no “perfect” in evolution, or even a clear positive direction. (Zuk never broaches religion, but it’s evident that she rejects the notion of evolution as a guided process, or as Francis Collins’ concept of evolution as the divine way of “delivering upgrades.”)

Paleofantasy may not be the book to convince your creationist friends that they’re out to lunch, although Zuk does present her fair share of evidence to support the theory of evolution; it is, however, the book to give that paleo friend of yours who won’t shut up about gluten and lactose. Eat what you want, of course, but wouldn’t you rather choose your diet based on facts rather than frauds?

Next up: A reader suggestion – Pope Brock’s Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam.


My thoughts on Boston’s deal with Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada is up for Insiders.

Game designer Uwe Rosenberg is best known for Agricola, consistently one of the highest-rated board games in the world since its 2007 release, and for his similar titles Le Havre, Caverna (a bargain at $88!), and Ora et Labora (out of print), all of which are acclaimed and highly complex games that require lengthy rulebooks and a two-hour or so commitment to play. That makes his latest game, the two-player delight Patchwork, a huge surprise for its elegance and simplicity, easy enough to play with my eight-year-old and straightforward enough for its rules to cover just four small pages.

Patchwork is Tetris played with a wallet instead of a clock: Each player has a 9×9 board and must purchase scraps of fabric, paying in buttons, and place those pieces on his/her main board. The fabric tiles cover two to eight squares each and come in various shapes, each bearing two costs – one in buttons, one in spaces the player must move on the central board that functions like a timer – with some also returning buttons as income over the course of the game. The object is to cover as many of those 81 board spaces as possible before both players reach the end of the track on the central board, earning points for buttons left over and for becoming the first player to completely cover any 7×7 square on his/her own board, losing two points per uncovered square at game-end.

The pieces themselves are arranged in random order in a circle around the central board, with one neutral token sitting between two pieces in the circle at all times. On his/her turn, a player can buy any of the next three fabric pieces (going clockwise) in front of that token, paying the cost in buttons and then moving his/her piece on the central board – a spiral track that ends in the center, after reaching which the player is done taking turns – the number of spaces indicated on the piece of fabric; after that piece is removed, the token moves into the vacated spot. If the player chooses not to buy any of those pieces of fabric, s/he may move on the central track to the spot one space ahead of the other player, earning one button per space moved in that turn.

The player further back (from the finish) on the central track goes next, so a player may take consecutive turns if s/he buys fabric pieces that don’t advance his/her token ahead of the opponent’s; if one player lands on the space occupied by the other player, she puts her token on top of his and takes one more turn before her opponent goes. The central track has nine button symbols on it; when a player reaches or crosses one of those symbols, s/he earns income, one button per button symbol on the fabric pieces on that player’s own board. There are also five one-square fabric scraps located on the central track; to claim one of those, a player must land directly on one of those spaces.

Players must place any acquired fabric pieces immediately, and can’t move them for the rest of the game, so there’s a spatial-relations component to the game to go along with the resource-management decisions involved in purchasing fabric pieces. Despite the random element to the order of fabric pieces in the circle and the movement of the token, it’s easy to plan out some rough strategy based on what pieces you might be able to purchase over your next turn or two, and you always have to consider what pieces are still available as your board begins to fill up. Games took us 30-45 minutes, with winning scores usually in the teens but, in one instance, all the way up to 33 points:

A 33-point winning game in Patchwork, from @mayfairgames and Agricola designer Uwe Rosenberg

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

It’s been an instant hit in our house because it’s so quick to learn and set up and because the balance of strategy and randomness or luck is just enough to level out the field no matter who’s playing. My daughter took to it immediately, understands how to play it well, and seems to particularly enjoy the tile-placement aspect, figuring out how best to fit pieces on her board. Strong two-player games are such a rarity – the best games out there are nearly all designed for three or more players and play best with four – that it’s a huge treat to have another Jaipur-like hit in the house.

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.

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.