Tagged: David Mitchell Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Michael Krakovskiy 3:50 am on January 6, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agent Z, , Barney Hall, Ben Simpson, Chip butty, David Mitchell, , favorite food, , , Galbi, , , , , , Malcolm in the Middle, , , Night, the Brits, ultimate comfort food, , XYZ   

    Bread and Circuses 2: Korean BBQ and Mark Haddon 

    I did not get much response to my previous installation of Bread and Circuses, the series of articles where I match my favorite books with my favorite food, but since I started already, well, I can’t chicken out now. You can read the first part here.

    Ok, so let’s say it’s 22 century, agents of the corpocracy captured me, and are about to send me to the Litehouse. Michael-47, they say, what kind of a last meal and book would you like?  I’d choose a David Mitchell novel and some pho, but they tell me that they are fresh out. What would my second choice be?

    Korean BBQ and a novel by Mark Haddon, of course.

    Korean food is spicy and strong smelling. It’s not subtle. It’s not refined. But it is the ultimate comfort food. It’s a bit like a little room in a Soviet communal apartment – dingy, smelly, but oh so homey. Also, I’m not sure I’m making myself clear, it’s very, very tasty. To me, the ultimate family meal is Korean BBQ (aka galbi).

    Whenever I feel extra bad and I need a cheer-me-up meal, I drag my wife to K-Town.  A typical meal involves frying bits of high and low grade meat over a special fire pit in the table, wrapping them in lettuce leafs and eating them. My favorite part is the little side dishes called banchan containing high quality kimchi (not the stuff you can find in a jar in a supermarket), various pickles, pancakes, salads, and many steamed, crunchy, slippery, tentacly things I don’t know the name of.  In better places they replenish the little dishes as you consume them. A galbi meal rarely fails to lift my spirits.

    Mark Haddon rose to prominence  for his book  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a novel written from the point of view of an autistic boy.  As most programmers I am slightly touched by the engineer’s affliction, so I can understand it very well. Haddon knows a lot about working class British engineers, dysfunctional families and  psychological trouble. His second novel, A Spot of Bother  is about a retired engineer who is losing his mind, yet keeps a stiff upper lip about it.  Haddon’s plots are very interesting, characters likable, and sense of humor outstanding.  These two novels really put of my mind from waiting for David Mitchell’s next novel.

    Once I finished Haddon’s bestsellers I learned that he actually started his career as a children’s writer.  He wrote and illustrated a number of children’s books,  culminating in the so-called Agent Z series. Oh, Agent Z. How I wish there were a few more of these left for me to read. Unfortunately the last one was written in 2001 and it does not look like Haddon is planning to write any more.

    The Agent Z series is somewhat similar to the popular American tv show Malcolm in the Middle. In fact, I suspect that “Malcom” was inspired by “Agent Z”.

    Agent Z is the pseudonym assumed by three British school kids who specialize in elaborate pranks. They are: Ben Simpson, the ‘handsome’ one of the crew, too smart and creative for his own good daydreamer from a lower middle class family; Barney Hall, a fat practical kid from an upper middle class family, who understands the adult psychology and is usually the brains of the outfit; and Jenks Jenkinson, a super skinny, wound up and ratty kid from a working class family who nevertheless has great fighting spirit.

      They take their revenge on bullies, boring teachers, nasty neighbors and relatives. Being kids, they don’t always stay anonymous under the cover of Agent Z organization, but usually get away with enough dignity to triumph over their tormentors.

    These books are infused with British culture, and I learned many interesting things.  For instance, it turns out that the Brits call ballpoint pens “biros” – honoring its Hungarian inventor (I guess that theory about Hungarian Martians is not that far from the truth).

    I also learned about chip butty (one of Ben’s favorite foods). Believe it or not, a chip butty is a sandwitch made out of two white (!) buttered (!!) pieces of bread, french fries (!!!) and ketchup (!!!!).

    Why am I so hung up on the Agent Z? Well, in my youth I had two friends, a good looking one and a crazy one, and together we formed the XYZ secret society. We did pull off a few pranks. MIT is home to a very powerful and very secret society that specializes in pranks, I followed their fine work for years. Hacks and pranks are ingrained  in the souls of all engineers.

    One of my favorite parts of the books is the illustrations that the author drew himself. Haddon is a very talented illustrator.

    Agent Z Goes Wild is hard to find for some reason. I got my copy at abebooks.com.

  • Michael Krakovskiy 2:51 am on November 27, 2007 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Cloud Atlas, , David Mitchell, Donald Westlake, fellow semi-autistic software developers, , , , , , Pho, , , Timothy Cavendish, travel journal, , Vietnamese cuisine, Vietnamese noodles, weapons dealer   

    Bread and Circuses 1: Pho and David Mitchell 

    Let’s talk about what me and every other plebeian cares most deeply about: bread and circuses.  Like many of my fellow semi-autistic software developers and primitive cave people I fear the unknown in both food and entertainment. I have to make conscious efforts to try out new stuff and turn it into a source of comfort. I’d like to share with you some patterns I discovered for myself.

    Anthony Bourdain, the author of the awesome Kitchen Confidential likes to ask people on his slightly less awesome TV show about their choice of a last meal. Most people chose comfort food. Also, there’s the cliche  question about a book one  would take to an uninhabited island, but I am guessing most people would pick the most comforting literature as well. I’d like to make three cuisine/dish/author/book pairings in descending order of comfort they bring me.

    At the top of the list is Vietnamese cuisine and novels by David Mitchell. Vietnamese food has explosive flavor, amazing variety of textures and is at the same time very light, fresh and very filling. Same is true about Mitchell’s novels. 

    My favorite Vietnamese dish is Pho, which is basically a clear beef broth with herbs and spices topped with  noodles, thin slices of meats, onions, fresh cilantro, mint, basil and bean sprouts.  You can add some hot chili sauce and lemon juice to taste. Good Pho broth is simmered for 6-8 hours, and the meat from the broth bones is reserved for other dishes, but never Pho itself.  The main part, the spiced broth is umamiest thing ever. It’s like the explosion of beef on your tongue, the substance of the dish. It’s the toppings that add interest to Pho. When you order it, you get a wide variety of choices of thinly sliced meats. You can stick with traditional steak, flank, and brisket.  I very much like  cheap cuts and organ meats because they have better flavor and texture – tendon, tripe, liver, navels etc.  There’s something called “omosa” – I am not sure what it is,  but  I’ve had it many times and it’s way tasty.  Then  you have another level of  texture and flavor – noodles, cilantro, crunchy bean sprouts, fresh onions, basil and mint. All the topings are added just before eating. It’s a meal in a bowl, meaty, but not greasy, and oh so fresh. It’s kind of like eating a very good steak and a very good salad, but better.

    Mitchell’s novels are literary Pho. His books are both light and serious reading. The primary example of his work is his masterpiece, Cloud Atlas. Mitchell has a rare talent of flawlessly mimicking a wide spectrum of genres and styles, and he does not hold back. Also, he likes to play around with the physical structure of his novels in subtle and not so subtle ways.  He shaped Cloud Atlas from six stories that range in style from Victorian travel journal to a post-apocalyptic science fiction story. Furthermore, he sliced the five stories in half and wrapped them around a central story in a matryoshka doll fashion.  At first it is rather jarring to find that the short story you are reading is cut in the middle and a new one is starting coitus interruptus-style just as you adjusted to the places and people. But then you notice, that everything is connected and interlocked in various subtle and elegant  ways. First of all, in every story there’s a character with a birthmark that looks like a comet. The first story is a found and read in a book form by a character from the second story. The fourth story is watched in a movie form by the character from the fifth story. A character mentioned in the second story is… well,  I don’t want to spoil it for you, but there are many, many hyperlinks in Cloud Atlas.  Everything is further tied together with common themes: loss of freedom, violence, pacifism, betrayal, civilization vs barbarism, reincarnation.  Mitchell even uses cheap subconscious  tricks: certain words and expressions are repeated in different contexts in his books almost in every chapter (I’ll let you find out which ones).

    For some weird reason I am very attached to some Mitchell’s characters. He does this strange thing, where the characters reappear in different books, sometimes making an important contribution, and sometimes playing the most insignificant role. My two favorite characters – Mongolian hitman, weapons dealer and all-around villain Suhbataar, and publisher Timothy Cavendish make two appearances each in three different books. Suhbataar reminds me of the hitman in the murder that happened on the sidewalk which I wasn’t on during lunch only because I wanted to finish a piece of code before eating. Timothy Cavendish – I met a few people very much like him. One’s a villain, another – well, morally gray, yet strangely endearing. Both very, very real to me.

    I finished all of Mitchell’s other novels – Ghostwritten, number9dream, Black Swan Green. Now I really only reading other books just to tide me over until his next book is going to come out. In 2009! Really, not a day goes by when I don’t think about what it’s going to be like. It’s almost an unhealthy obsession.

    In short, go read some David Mitchell and go eat some Pho. I might like that Japanese gangster showdown in number9dream and that tripe in Pho, but you might find other things that will become your favorites.

    Tomorrow I’ll try to write the second installment, about Korean BBQ and Mark Haddon’s Agent Z series. The last one is going to be Japanese smelts and Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder series plus uni roe and Gideon Defoe’s Pirates! series (a two-fer!).

    Also, let me know what dishes and cuisines you’d pair with what authors and books (but no Harry Potter and Discworld – in my mind they go together with califlower and boiled onions – other people might like them, but I just don’t have the taste for them).

  • Michael Krakovskiy 11:02 am on March 13, 2007 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: B-25, , , Brown Building of Science, , David Mitchell, Edward Luciano, , Golden Venture, Isaak Asimov, Luisa Rey, Malbone Street Wreck, , , PBS announcer, , , , Staples store, subway preacher, , unwelcome subway tour guide   

    Unlucky Luciano 

    ” ‘I feel you’re being a little harsh on your more eccentric callers.’

    ‘Of the Howardly persuasion?’

    ‘Precisely. You undervalue them. Viruses in cashew nuts, visual organs in trees, subversive bus drivers waving secret messages to one another as they pass, impending collisions with celestial bodies. Citizens like Howard are the dreams and shadows that a city forges when it awakes. They are purer than I.'”

    Luisa Rey on the Bat Segundo’s show in David Mitchell’s “Ghostwritten

    One of the skills that you learn as a New Yorker is tuning out the mentally ill or simply obnoxious people, with cell phone headsets or without, who constantly assault your hearing. As tuning out a subway preacher who constantly modulates her voice is next to impossible, I usually carry a pair of earplugs in my bag.

    Yesterday, as I was riding the Brighton line while reading an interesting book, a man sitting a couple of seats from me began ranting. Looking like Isaak Asimov in his later years, but more disheveled, the dude had a voice of a PBS announcer. A couple of minutes into the rant, I suddenly realized that he was talking about something rather familiar to me — the history of the BMT and BRT, and the Malbone Street Wreck in particular.

    The Malbone Street Wreck was the worst subway disaster in New York’s history. 93 people perished in a horrible crash caused by Edward Luciano, a crew dispatcher pressed into service as a motorman during a subway strike. He hit an S-curve designed for 6mph at 30mph. I happened in 1918, when the trains were still made out of wood and there were only 4 cars in a train. The first and fourth cars survived the crash mostly intact, but the middle two cars derailed and slammed into a tunnel wall under Malbone street.

    As the unwelcome subway tour guide was pointing out, we were passing by what used to be Malbone Street, but is now called Empire Boulevard. The street was renamed because of the accident, kind of to dim the memory of the crash. What is even more disturbing, there is no memorial at the station where this happened. Well, at least I don’t remember seeing one.

    All these years I mistakenly thought that the crash happened somewhere on the 2 line, nearer to Brooklyn College. I guess it took a disturbed man’s rant to set me straight on the matter.

    In New York City we pass through places where horrible tragedies happened. My wife had classes at what is now known as the Brown Building of Science. I spend a lot of time fishing at a place where 10 illegal immigrants drowned trying to reach the shore in the Golden Venture incident. There’s a place in the Empire State Building where a B-25 bomber crashed into it, killing 11 people. I still shop at the Staples store that was built in place of a Waldbaums supermarket where 6 firemen perished. And everybody knows what the horrible emptiness in New York’s skyline means.

    The fabric of the city closes around disasters, some sooner than others. But the ghosts will not let you forget them. They still lurk in the shadows, whisper their stories to you as you pass by. As the subway ranter finished his rant, a young man wearing a hoodie with a Donny Darko-like skeleton on it sat down next to him. I took a picture of the two of them with my Treo, but all of my Treo photos got destroyed during the software update that I did today.

Compose new post
Next post/Next comment
Previous post/Previous comment
Show/Hide comments
Go to top
Go to login
Show/Hide help
shift + esc