Monday, May 30, 2011

Sex For America edited by Stephen Elliott

Sex For America: Politically Inspired Erotica
edited by Stephen Elliott

Let's get one thing out of the way up front — this is not erotica. Despite what the title implies, most of the sex in this book is no more plentiful or explicit than many "regular" novels I've read. In more than one instance, the sex relies too much on violence, and unless you get off on that, there is little satisfying material.

By deeming the stories "politically inspired," I suppose the argument could be made that each story explore the way in which the last Bush administration did seem to get off on violence, and how that encouraged some parts of the country to vocally agree. However, just because the US has been at war since 2001 does not mean I enjoyed reading about it as sexual allegory. Stories like "Escape and Evasion" by Anthony Swofford, in which a solider begins drugging and raping his fellow troops, have little to do with what I would consider erotica. Even within the S&M subset, there is implied consent. "Escape and Evasion" is little more than brutality and mental illness. While short stories deal with those theme all the time, my issue is with its inclusion in this particular book. Rape fantasies are not hot; I don't care who you are.

The problem is, Elliott's selections are not compatible with one another. A loose political theme does not a tidy collection make. A funny story about sleeping with Dick Cheney ("Li'l Dickens" by Jerry Stahl) is incongruous with a sexless letter regarding a lesbian breakup ( "Undone" by Daphne Gottlieb).

I did not mean to sodomize Dick Cheney.

I mean, I'm not even gay. Or not usually. But when, to my surprise, I bumped into him — literally — at the counter of Heimler's Guns and Ammo, in Caspar, something clicked. And I'm not talking about the safety on my Mauser.
— "Li'l Dickens"

The truth is, I was never married. But I have been divorced. Even though all I can correctly say is, "We split up." If I had said "divorced," maybe co-workers would have looked at me differently when I crept in late to work, red-eyed and suddenly stumbling, heaving-chested to the bathroom.

"Measure A, B, or Me?" by Alison Tyler and "The Canidate's Wife" by James Frey are some of the few stories that contain what I would expect from politically-inspired erotica. In "The Canidate's Wife" is your standard "mysterious woman in a bar" story, but it works quite well. "Measure A, B, or Me?" has a couple working the phones for a Democratic canidate, and they begin to imagine how a split-party household might try to convince the other side to vote their way.

However, my favorite story in the collection is Nick Flynn's "A Crystal Formed Entirely of Holes." Set in an alternate late-00s, people discover that they can have "crystals" implanted in their bodies, replacing that particular area of skin. These crystals act as new pleasure centers when touched, and soon people forming addictions to having new holes punched.

A crystal formed entirely of holes. You couldn't hold it in your hands, but its mass could be measured by how much air it displaced, by the way light passed through it.

While the frisky business is not even all that present, it's still a damn good story. See, it's not as though I picked up this book, thinking, "Yes! I'm going to read me some erotica!" No, I had heard of many of the authors and was intrigued by the supposed theme, and I expected to stay more interested. Whether there is lots of flesh or not, I want to be interested. Nick Flynn wrote something interesting.

Look, if a book has "Sex" in the title, I don't want to be bored. And while I was not always bored, and a couple of the stories were indeed a bit hot, this collection was mostly a miss for me.


Full disclosure: I received this book when I made a donation to The Rumpus, which was founded by Stephen Elliott. I'd like to say I donate purely out of the goodness of my heart, but it's also hard to resist the siren call of "Hey, here's [this] if you do!"

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

by Yotam Ottolenghi

Plenty is the sort of cookbook that will make you hungry, even if you are actually eating while reading it. Whatever you might be eating does not seem nearly as satisfying as the dishes Yotam Ottolenghi collects in this rather sizeable volume, which includes recipes that previously appeared in the Guardian. Also? All of these recipes are vegetarian. Ottolenghi is not a vegetarian himself, but his restaurant in London’s Islington is known for its outstanding vegetable dishes, and I can see why. They make me wish that this neverending rain would knock it off already so that our Farmer’s Market can open. The sooner this happens, the sooner dishes like leek fritters and multi-vegetable paella can get in my belly.

"The multitude of ingredients and ways of making miracles with them have given me the perfect tools for making up dishes and turning them into recipes. This is also why vegetarian cooking didn’t turn out to be a chore for me. I like meat and I like fish but I can easily cook without them."

The above sentiment could easily describe my own cooking. I may not eat pork, but in general, I don’t have a problem eating meat. However, sometimes I’m lazy/forgetful and don’t pull any meat from the freezer far enough ahead of dinner, and most of the time, I flat out can’t afford to cook with meat every meal. Besides, despite what my carnivorous 7 year old would say, vegetables, beans and grains make up perfectly satisfying meals on their own.

Pulling from his European and Middle Eastern heritage, Ottolenghi uses the sort of flavors that I love and cook with often – cumin, lemongrass, thyme, garlic, tomato — and there’s not a lot I don’t like here. Maybe I could do with less mint, and I flat out hate fennel, but nothing here is too difficult. Yes, he recommends a lot of specialty cheeses, but I imagine that a person could easily come up with substitutes.

Unfortunately, I’m lactose intolerant and for the most part would have to eliminate or substitute many of the dairy products listed in some of the recipes. For instance, the caramelized garlic tart is not adaptable for me in a way that I think would make it taste like it should. Ottolenghi’s right-hand person for the book, Claudine, gushes in the intro, “I think this is the most delicious recipe in the world!” Since practically everything I cook has garlic in it, I’ll admit I’m a little sad I can’t have it as intended.

Thankfully, this is not a cheese and cream-heavy book, and it makes me curious to try out different varieties of lentils and rice, as well as trying out methods such as stuffed onions. I love onions, but I am notoriously impatient when it comes to assembling food, and anything “stuffed” I have ever tried has never quite worked. This book makes me want to try again.

The photos in Plenty are stunning, absolutely stunning. Brightly colored and not overly styled, they are less about being a hip foodie and more about letting simple ingredients shine. Even foods I’m normally not too wild about — say, mushrooms — look delicious, so anyone into food porn may find this a bit of a one-handed read.

With any luck, I’ll be able to make some of these recipes soon, and I will post my results over on Godtopus Eats. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find myself a very unsatisfying snack.


Full disclosure: I won this book through a giveaway hosted on the Chronicle Books blog.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

ReadyMade: How To Make {Almost} Everything by Shoshana Berger, Kate Francis (Illustrator), Jeffery Cross (Photographer), and Grace Hawthorne

ReadyMade: How To Make {Almost} Everything: A Do-It-Yourself Primer
by Shoshana Berger, Kate Francis (Illustrator), Jeffery Cross (Photographer), and Grace Hawthorne

ReadyMade is one of those magazines I periodically buy, thinking that if I'm ever overcome with a fit of craftiness, it would help inspire my poor wallet and me to make something interesting out of stuff I already have, or can obtain on the cheap. Some of their projects veer a bit towards the "I'm bored and like making things, soo... behold! This strange and only semi-useful thing!", but others really are small strokes of "Aha! What an idea!" Unfortunately, this book version of ReadyMade is more like the former. Apart from a couple of projects featured in the book, most of the stuff is not only kind of stupid, but also rather ugly.

What I like about the magazine and its website are the ideas for reusing fabric, decorating ideas that look more spendy than they are, and interesting food/party ideas. The book has no food or party projects, but it does have just a couple of ideas in the fabric/decorating categories that I liked: a doormat made out of doll-head clothespins and a dog bed made out of old jeans. The dog looks so happy!

I'd link to either of these projects, but the website doesn't have them. In fact, I have the suspicion that ReadyMade is a bit embarrassed by their book because it is nowhere to be found on their site. Published in 2006, perhaps they've heard enough flack in the past 5 years to know they really squandered an opportunity. (A lamp cozy? Really?)

Flat-out irresponsible was how they detailed the way in which they first financed the magazine at its inception -- using credit cards, and then using other credit cards to pay those cards, and then assuming they would be able to pay off the balances in X amount of time. While this would work in theory for the responsible, planned business, and it did indeed work for them, 5 years later, we know that not everyone is that financially skilled. I don't know if those pages would have made it through the editorial process were the book published today.

Also wasting space in the book is accounts of semi-failed projects that were previously featured in the magazine, such as a chair made out of plastic bottles. "The noise when sitting on it," was one of the cons associated with the project, as if that even needed saying. "Remake This!" they ask of these projects -- but why in the world would you want to? Surely there are better discard materials with which to craft a chair.

Somewhat interesting, however, was the historical pages on cloth, metal, paper, and plastic. Talking about how these materials came into wide use is probably not interesting to everyone, and it certainly doesn't help with project inspiration, but it makes sense to start the different sections with these introductions.

There's really not much more to say about this book other than don't bother spending full price on it. I checked it out from the library, and I suppose it would be an okay used bookstore purchase if it were under $10, if for directions on the dog bed project and a couple of the wood building projects alone. Still, calling this book a guide on how to make almost everything is really misleading. Rather than {Almost}, it should read {Hardly}.


This was a library book. Support your local libraries!

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.