Brain/Food: the geek flag flies high and proud here

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Jason Steadman is a man with a big voice, an irresistible laugh, a book collection that makes me jealous, a brain that makes me simultaneously nervous and inspired, and he’s King of the Nerds. I have sworn my allegiance to him for the duration of both our lifetimes, as should you. He is a powerful ruler but worry not; he is also benevolent.

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What is the one book you love so much that you can’t be objective about other people not loving it as well? Have disagreements ever come to blows?

I am a little reluctant to fly the geek flag so high right off the bat, but I cannot be objective about pretty much anything Alan Moore wrote in the 80s (I’ll cheat a bit and include From Hell in that, as it started publication in 1989). (Oh, and obviously I am going ahead and treating graphic novels as real books, which I realize could be somewhat controversial—and in fact I read most of Moore’s 80s work as actual monthly comic books, which makes it even worse. But there it is.)

The Watchmen made the biggest impression on me at the time, so that would be the one book, but it very much relies on a certain appreciation of comics as a medium and super heroes as a genre, and I acknowledge that these things were not part of everybody’s cultural landscape. I don’t think you need those things to appreciate his run on Swamp Thing and From Hell as literature, full stop. It’s never come to blows, because most of the people who don’t love Alan Moore are comic book writers I’ve never met, and they have had to write in his shadow for the past 30 years, and really, who could blame them if they’re a little resentful?

What is your favourite either unknown or underappreciated book?

Signs of Life by M. John Harrison. Harrison is generally underappreciated, though the fact that some currently prominent F&SF/weird fiction authors like China Miéville cite him as a major influence is helping to change that. I had been looking for one of his books (The Pastel City) since I was 11 or 12, and in 15+ years had never seen any Harrison books until I found Signs of Life in the late 90s.

I find Harrison’s style totally captivating but not easy—it takes a few pages to get into it, but once the rhythm of his prose takes over I always find myself completely engrossed. Harrison is definitely a science fiction writer, but Signs of Life was set in the contemporary UK, and it was about a relationship between two people—the narrator and his girlfriend—that would fit quite comfortably in any mainstream literary novel. The only science-fictional element was a trend for plastic surgery that makes people look a bit like an animal/human hybrid, for example getting fake whiskers and striped fur, and even then I’m sure most of the surgery he described is actually possible, and what we lack is the fashion sense rather than the technology. Anyway, after years of hearing about Harrison as an SF writer, this book was definitely not what I was expecting and it blew me away. I have since acquired most of his other books (he’s not a prolific writer) and have become a gushing fanboy.

Favourite childhood book?

The Crane by Reiner Zimnik. I haven’t read it in a long time, so I picked it up before I started writing this and discovered that someone (almost certainly my mother) picked it up at a used book store or garage sale for 77 cents. Although the book is mostly narrative, Zimnik was a cartoonist, and the fabulous pen & ink illustrations in the book are probably the reason my mother bought it for me, since I was a big comic book geek.

The story is about a town that builds a new crane to unload ships on its docks, and an unnamed man in a blue cap who climbs up and claims the job of operating the crane. He then never leaves because he’s afraid of losing his job, and from his vantage in the crane, he witnesses war, the destruction of his town, the flooding of the land by the sea and a long, lonely stretch of signaling passing ships with a flashlight until a new town is rebuilt. By then, of course, his old crane can no longer do all the work on the docks and so must be dismantled. Oh, and during his days on the crane he befriends an eagle.

When I read the last page of the book now, I see a fairly obvious religious allegory, but of course I missed that as a child. I do remember being deeply affected by the loneliness and sadness of the crane man as everything he knows is destroyed by war and drowned beneath the waves, and then his ambivalence as a new town emerges, with no place in it for the old man and his crane. I am a bit stunned to realize the affect all this had on my young imagination.

What’s the strangest/most interesting/creepiest/most amazing thing you’ve ever found inside a book?

I took a book called War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges out of the library. I highly recommend the book if you’re interested in the effect of war on society (in spite of the title, the book is a pretty thorough indictment of war as a political tool). Hedges is a former war correspondent for the New York Times and an American.

In the library copy of the book, someone had carefully gone through the first chapter and crossed out the words “America” and “American” and replaced them with “Canada” and “Canadian”—all in blue pen ink—as well as providing some marginal notes helpfully reminding other library patrons that Canada doesn’t have a president, that we didn’t drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and so forth. Thankfully whoever made these emendations didn’t make it past the first chapter.

Amazing (in either a good or bad way) literary collaboration that hasn’t happened yet?

Well, this one will never happen because one of my wished-for collaborators is dead, but I have this crazy idea that if you could somehow combine the invention and exuberance of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, with the spare, precise prose of J. M. Coetzee, the result would be really compelling. I would not be surprised if a) I am the only person in the world who thinks this and b) the idea would make Coetzee physically ill, assuming he even knows who Howard is.

In a similar vein, I would love to get Hilary Mantel to work with a number of science fiction and fantasy authors whose work I really enjoy, and who are even good writers in their own right, but who don’t quite have Mantel’s skill with character and imagery. I’ve had this idea more than once, but the only name that’s coming to me as I write is Steven Erikson, the author of a series of 10 very long books collectively called the Malazan Books of the Fallen. Erikson is a good writer, and some of his characters are very memorable, but I would love to see what Hilary Mantel could do with them.

Favourite literary description of food?

I read a novel called World Made by Hand by an author named James Howard Kunstler. I first came across Kunstler as a non-fiction author, having read The Geography of Nowhere (about the problems of suburban architecture—or maybe non-architecture would be a better way to put it) and The Long Emergency (about the end of the era of cheap oil).

World Made by Hand takes place a couple decades after a severe oil shock that essentially ends the whole contemporary way of life North American life, and people go back to living a lot more locally. As Kunstler is sort of in favour of this happening (or rather, thinks it’s inevitable and will not be all bad) he presents the eating of entirely local food, and the renewed attention to food preparation, as a pretty good side effect of the end of the cheap oil era. At one point the narrator makes himself a spinach pie in his outdoor, wood-fired stove, and the description is pretty amazing. Whether it would really make up for the end of easy transportation and high-tech healthcare I’m not sure, but I sure would have liked to have a bite of that pie.

Reading and eating simultaneously, yes or no? Dangers and benefits?

On the subject of eating, I’m neutral—I have done it often, but that’s typically at a food court lunch when I don’t have anyone to eat with—but I don’t think that reading goes better with food or certain foods.

On the subject of reading and drinking simultaneously, however, I am a firm yes. Coffee and a book in the morning is to me like coffee and cigarettes to smokers. (One of the biggest challenges of parenting for me is that, with young children who require supervision in the morning, I rarely get to enjoy this anymore. I eagerly await the day my son figures out how to turn on the TV by himself so that on weekends he can get himself up, go downstairs with his little sister in tow, and watch TV for an hour while I lie in bed reading. I know this makes me a bad parent, or at least a far less than ideal parent, so I assuage my guilt by not actually teaching him how to turn on the TV. Once he figures it for himself, however, fair game.)

I also enjoy reading while drinking a beer—something about the sharpness of the hops and the foaminess of the beer goes well with a book. (I prefer something without too high an alcohol content, mind you, since the point is to enjoy both the beer and the book, and reading while tipsy is not something I’ve ever heard of anybody enjoying, and I know a lot of people who are fond of both reading and drinking.)

Your favourite author writes a book about your favourite food/dish just for you: Title? Genre? Summary of contents?

Demons of the Smoking Pits by Michael Moorcock. The iconic sword & sorcery hero Elric of Melniboné must brave the pits of hell with his sword, Stormbringer, for demons have stolen the secret of smoking the artisanal bacon used in the Big Smoke Burger at Morgan’s on the Danforth, and Arioch and the other Lords of Chaos demand they pay the price for their treachery, and want the return of their bacon.

What was your first cookbook? Do you still have it? How does it reflect who you are?

How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. I still have it, though it is starting to fall apart and many of the pages are food stained. It covers literally everything, from how to select kitchen knives to the preferred way to cut various foods to an amazing breadth and variety of recipes. We’ve made many, many of the recipes over the years and he’s only steered us wrong once (with grilled cheese sandwiches of all things—my lovely wife’s technique is way better)*.

I think it reflects the fact that, on the possibly not so good side, I can be a little too cautious and lack a certain sense of adventure, but on the possibly better side, I am willing to admit my ignorance of a subject and start learning on the ground floor.

Is it okay to write in cookbooks? What about novels or books of poetry? What’s the difference?

It’s OK to write in all kinds of books (with the universal exception of borrowed books, whether from a friend of from the library, and in pencil, always in pencil). It’s easy to justify writing in cookbooks, since you may want to make notes about how you changed the recipe and whether it worked. For novels and books of poetry, I would say that making notes in the margins is one way to engage with the book, and shouldn’t a good book stimulate the mind and inspire that kind of engagement?

Describe what for you would be the bookish equivalent of an ice-cold lemonade on a hot summer day? How about a steaming hot chocolate on a freezing January night during a snowpocalypse?

Raymond Chandler is the ice cold lemonade (though since it’s Chandler, it’s probably spiked with gin)—something about the way he writes wakes me right up. The steaming hot chocolate is one of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books—they’re long, they’re complex, they’re still fun reading, and you can easily picture yourself reading them wrapped in a blanket in front of a roaring fire. And after all, they do keep reminding you that winter is coming.

*Editor’s note: The only proper way to make grilled cheese/cheeze sammiches is to butter both sides of each piece of bread. I suppose it’s possible that other aspects of the preparation are negotiable but this is not. If you don’t butter both sides, it may be delicious, but it’s not a grilled cheese sammich.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. J.G. says:

    Great questions and interesting, thoughtful answers! I always write in cookbooks, but in no others. How else would one know that weird ingredients like “1/3 cup chopped green pepper” translates to “1/2 green pepper, chopped”?

    1. Colleen says:

      Yes, exactly. I write in cookbooks too, for the same reasons. I wish I’d begun annotating my cookbooks in either ways a long time ago–like the date I made a recipe for the first time, or what was happening that day/in life, the weather, etc. Maybe I’ll start. The pages of all my cookbooks are already covered in food–why not memory books as as well?

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