Sunday dinner: America’s Test Kitchen

January 31, 2010

I don’t think it’s any secret that I find almost all of the programming on the Food Network to be really, really terrible. Their new shows just get dumber and dumber and less and less useful. It feels like they’ve completely sacrificed culinary sensibility and education for personality, and whoever decides what kinds of personalities make the cut has tastes diametrically opposed to my own.

So I’m very glad that the local cable provider has picked up PBS’s Create network so I can watch interesting, talented people cook food and teach me about it along the way. Charisma levels may vary, and not every show is a gem, but I can usually find something smart and useful to watch. (Any network that gives Eric Ripert air time is aces in my book.)

My favorite program on Create’s admittedly irregular schedule is America’s Test Kitchen, which is an extension of the magazine, Cook’s Illustrated. (Gourmet is dead, but advertising-free Cook’s Illustrated is still going strong. I’m just saying.) The television version has all of strengths of the magazine – useful information developed with rigor and standards – with the added bonus of just enough personality. There’s none of the toothy mugging that makes Food Network programming largely unwatchable; there’s just smart, likable people who are sincerely enthusiastic about food.

The idea behind the magazine and the show is to develop the best possible versions of popular home recipes. And I have to say, their success rate is very, very high based on the recipes I’ve tried. (I grew up in Cincinnati and ate more chili than burgers, and their Cincinnati chili recipe is spot-on.) There are also segments comparing products like chocolate, cheeses, jarred sauces and the like, and equipment ratings where they test and compare the usefulness of various kitchen products like knives and ricers. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a show and not come away wanting to try one of the recipes or knowing more about kitchen tools and preparation techniques. There’s more good stuff in a half an hour than there is in an entire day of Food Network dribble.

The master of ceremonies is Christopher Kimball, founder of Cook’s Illustrated and the resident crank. He would never be hired by the current Food Network regime because he’s caustic, not particularly telegenic, and unapologetically smart. He’s a culinary curmudgeon, not in the self-congratulatory, bad-boy way of Anthony Bourdain, but in the sense of someone who doesn’t have any patience for bad food but has the determination and resources to try and make it better. His co-hosts are all appealing to varying degrees, and they treat Kimball with the kind of wistful indulgence you reserve for a grumpy, funny uncle, which is exactly what Kimball seems to be.


On the march

January 30, 2010

Oh, I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while:

Crogan’s March
Written and illustrated by Chris Schweizer
Due 2/3/2010

SIXTEEN INDIVIDUALS, THREE CENTURIES, ONE FAMILY. THE ADVETURE CONTINUES!

Legionnaire Peter Crogan has some hard questions to answer. Should he finish out his 5-year term of service with the French Foreign Legion, or become an officer for life? There’s not much time to consider his options as the armies of the Tuaregs arrive. And just when Crogan thinks there’s only the relentless heat still to overcome, the rag-tag group of hardened fighters are trapped in a cave by a terrible creature with a taste for human flesh!

*

Here’s my review of the first volume, Crogan’s Vengeance.


License request day: Doubutsu No Oishasan

January 29, 2010

There’s been a feline fixation among manga fans lately, and we all know what’s driven that bus. But cats aren’t the only adorable animal in the world. Just ask Viz. I’m pretty equal-opportunity as far as cats and dogs go, so my ears perked when Deb Aoki mentioned a 1990s shôjo title that seems designed to please animal lovers in general.

It’s Noriko Sasaki’s twelve-volume Doubutsu No Oishasan, which was serialized in Hakusensha’s Hana To Yume. A blogger known as Rei describes it thusly:

“Neither stereotypical action-adventure-sex nor sugar-sweet-romance-tragedy, Doubutsu cuts a bold swath through the under-appreciated field of plain old good daily-life fiction. You won’t find deep tragedy, deep philosophy, heavy romance, nor fast-paced beat-em-up-action: instead, just lots of funny situations, quiet compassion, memorable characters, and an overall great read. The hero is a young man with a dog (the aforementioned ‘Hamuteru’ and ‘Chobi’); the setting is a veterinary college in relatively spacious Hokkaido (the northernmost of the main Japanese islands). The situations and the stories are funny, enlightening, informative, and (mostly) believable, all at the same time.”

I don’t know about you, but in my household growing up, All Creatures Great and Small, the BBC adaptation of James Herriot’s novels, was destination television. We may have missed Sunday service from time to time, but we did not miss All Creatures Great and Small. And when Deb confirmed for me that, yes, Doubutsu No Oishasan captured some of that property’s feeling, plus it was shôjo of a certain vintage, plus Sasaki drew all kinds of animals faithfully and well, plus it was set in Hokkaido, it automatically entered the license request hopper.

I didn’t have any luck finding any page samples from the interior of the book, but I find the covers pretty persuasive or at least enticing. And Hakusensha properties are pretty much fair game to any interested publisher. And trust me when I say that a lot of kids want to be veterinarians when they grow up. I think there’s an audience out there.


Special guests

January 29, 2010

Deb Aoki has been running some great reviews by special guests over at About.Com:

  • Kevin (BeacoupKevin) Church on Jiro Taniguchi’s A Distant Neighborhood (Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
  • Christopher (Comics212) Butcher on Natsume Ono’s not simple (Viz)
  • Erica (Okazu) Friedman on Stan Lee and Hiroyuki Takei’s Ultimo (Viz)
  • Danica Davidson on Mia Ikumi’s Only One Wish (Del Rey)
  • Shaenon K. Garrity on Inio Asano’s What a Wonderful World! (Viz)
  • Ed (Manga Worth Reading) Sizemore on Jin Zhou Huang and Hiromu Arakawa’s Hero Tales (Yen Press)
  • Melinda (Manga Bookshelf) Beasi on Jason Thompson and Victor Hao’s King of RPGs (Del Rey)
  • Garrity on Svetlana Chmakova’s Nightschool (Yen Press)
  • Garrity on You Higuri’s Ludwig II (Digital Manga)
  • Garrity on Rumiko Takahashi’s Rin-Ne (Viz)
  • Brad (Japanator) Rice on Mobile Suit Gundam 00 and Mobile Suit Gundam 00F (Bandai Entertainment)
  • Garrity on Yana Toboso’s Black Butler (Yen Press)
  • Beasi on Jason S. Yadao’s The Rough Guide to Manga
  • Garrity on Jiro Taniguchi’s Summit of the Gods (Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
  • Eva Volin on Yuki Midorikawa Natsume’s Book of Friends (Viz)
  • Garrity on Atsushi Ohkubo’s Soul Eater (Yen Press)
  • Butcher on Hinako Takanaga’s Little Butterfly (DMP)
  • That should help you while away a Friday.


    From the stack: The Unwritten vol. 1

    January 28, 2010

    The Unwritten (Vertigo) is entirely about stories within stories, or at least about stories that break the boundaries of the page to influence the real world. It centers its attention on the adult son of a revered author of fantasy fiction, specifically a series of novels about a young wizard and his two friends who battle evil. Tom Taylor shares a first name with his father’s protagonist, Tommy, and Tommy shares just about every meaningful quality with that other boy wizard. It’s an appropriation that strikes me as more functional than resonant, and it could verge on seeming at least a little envious of the critical and commercial success of the Harry Potter franchise, but the creators manage to avoid that.

    Tom’s author father disappeared years ago, and Tom is making a living off of being the son of the creator of Tommy. Tom treats Tommy’s fans with warm cordiality that evaporates into sullen discontent as soon as they’re out of earshot. Writer Mike Carey does a nice job playing up the awkwardness of unearned celebrity. Tom would rather make his way on his own merits, presuming those merits ever assert themselves, but he’s got to eat (and drink), and his father’s estate is tied up in litigation. Tom’s situation deteriorates when a mysterious young woman casts his entire identity into question in front of an auditorium full of fervent Tommy admirers. Is he Tom Taylor, son of a famous author, or is he just a prop acquired by that author to inspire his fictional child? Or is he actually that fictional child, bled into the real world?

    So Tom is thrust into a strange, mystical conspiracy about stories and their power and begins what seems likely to be a world tour of fiction, starting at the birthplace of Milton’s Satan (possibly not really, as some sources claim the villa was built after Milton’s death, but the story works better if he had) and Shelley’s monster. As if that weren’t name-dropping literary import enough, Carey sprinkles in references to Agatha Christie, Kevin Williamson, Laurell K. Hamilton, and others, all while launching Tom on a metaphysical quest right out of a Dan Brown novel. It’s like a best-seller list with a plot.

    And honestly, it’s pretty good. Artist Peter Gross does a nice job with the material, aided by colorists Chris Chukry and Jeanne McGee and letterer Todd Klein. My problem with the series is that I don’t care much about Tom or Tommy. Tom is a hapless whiner at this point, hampered by people who may be his allies and menaced by mysterious forces that are more postures than characters at this point. Even Tom seems to know that he’s irritating and largely superfluous. As for Tommy, well, I’ve already got Harry Potter.

    I did like one of these collected chapters very much. In it, Carey uses the career trajectory of Rudyard Kipling to tease out the underlying conspiracy that plagues his contemporary protagonist. It succeeds in being sly and even moving in ways that the other chapters probably intend to be but don’t quite achieve. Kipling’s story and the way it reflected the colonial impulses of his time is re-framed, and though it doesn’t say anything meaningful about the plight of the colonized, it’s very useful to the ongoing narrative. And it gives the reader the chance to speculate over which other authors owe their success to diabolical agreements.


    The Shôjo-Sunjeong Alphabet: P

    January 27, 2010

    “P” is for…

    Since hope springs eternal, I’ll include these two, and maybe someday we can look back at this post and say, “Remember those dark days when these books weren’t available in English?”

    What are some of your favorite shôjo and sunjeong titles that start with the letter “P”?


    And the winners are…

    January 27, 2010

    Deb Aoki reveals the results of her 2009 Manga Readers Polls over at About.Com. Only one book that I voted for actually won its category, though one won in a different poll. I am clearly bad luck and extend my apologies to all of these fine books, and I also extend my congratulations to the winners.


    Quote of the day

    January 26, 2010

    “If you’d stepped aboard a Japanese subway train 15 years ago, you’d have witnessed passengers engrossed in hefty, telephone directory–thick manga comic books. Today, you are more likely to see commuters of all ages peering intently into their cellphone screens, reading the same tales of comic heroes, romance, and sleaze— only this time carried in mobile digital libraries that have made Japan a forerunner in the burgeoning e-book–for–phone industry.”

    — From “Comics Drive Growing Japanese E-Book Market” by Michael Fitzpatrick in Publishers Weekly Comics Week.

    “Sleaze”? Seriously?


    Upcoming 1/27/2010

    January 26, 2010

    Beyond offering some enjoyable and promising material, this week’s ComicList gives me the opportunity to review a couple of likeable titles that I received from the publishers.

    Remember how the producers of Saturday Night Live used to try and turn characters that worked in five-minute sketches into the stars of full-length movies and how rarely that worked? That could have been the fate of Afrodisiac (AdHouse Books), the powered-up pimp who guest-starred in Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca’s terrific Street Angel mini-series (SLG). Fortunately, Rugg and Maruca are smart enough to keep their creation in sketch contents, assembling an amusing “best of” volume of adventures that satirize both blaxploitation and, to a lesser extent, the ups and downs of a super-hero franchise. Afrodisiac pays homage to the marginally distasteful, fad-driven characters that publishers like Marvel created over the years, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, taking him just far enough beyond his predecessors to make the joke worth telling. The formula is basic – the unflappable, irresistible flesh peddler keeps his neighborhood and stable safe from the schemes of stupid, greedy white guys like Dracula and Richard Nixon. Those stories are fun, but I liked the random covers even better. They suggest a publisher trying to build a character franchise by any means available, wedging him into crossovers, true-romance comics, and even a Marvel Knights-style revamp. Afrodisiac isn’t ambitious in its satire, but it’s smartly presented and consistently amusing. It’s just right for its aims and given its raw materials.

    Miku Sakamoto’s Stolen Hearts is another worthy entry in CMX’s roster of amiable, endearing shôjo manga, and it has three elements in particular that work in its favor. First, it’s about maintaining an established relationship, which I always like. Sunny, short Shinobu and scowling, tall Koguma get their romantic act together fairly quickly, allowing Sakamoto to spend the rest of the volume cementing their bond. They work together in Koguma’s grandmother’s kimono shop, which covers the other two aspects. I like the detail Sakamoto expends on kimono culture. I’m partial to books that focus on a specific activity or enterprise, as it adds an extra layer of interest to the proceedings. Last but not least is Grandma, who falls into that category of funny, formidable senior citizens that I enjoy so much. Grandma’s product maybe old-fashioned, but her business practices are aggressively modern. Her marketing schemes set the stage for profits and push the romance forward.

    Now, on to the rest, though that hardly seems like a fitting phrase for the range and appeal of the items I haven’t yet read.

    I’m not quite ready for the fifth volume of the breathtakingly beautiful, not-always-entirely-coherent Bride of the Water God (Dark Horse), written and illustrated by Mi-Kyung Yun, but I’ll certainly catch up at some point. This is one of those titles that’s best read in the bathtub with a glass of wine close to hand, possibly sparkling. I’m glad to see that Dark Horse is sticking with this series, as it gives me hope that the rumored solicitations for new volumes of Kazuhiro Okamoto’s Translucent will someday result in me being able to purchase new volumes of Kazuhiro Okamoto’s Translucent.

    Last Gasp concludes its admirable effort to release Keiji Nakazawa’s deservedly legendary Barefoot Gen. The ninth and tenth volumes arrive Wednesday. What more do I need to say?

    You’ll probably need to lighten the mood a bit after that, so how about a little super-dense comedy about a suicidal schoolteacher? Yes, it’s time for another volume of Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei (Del Rey). This installment promises a visit to a hot spring, and I can only imagine what bizarre tangents such an excursion will yield. I also really like the color palette for this cover. It suggests both delicate gentility and decay. This series was among my favorite debuts of 2009.

    So was Karuho Shina’s Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You (Viz), a delightfully off-kilter shôjo title. Thinking about the subject of yesterday’s Flipped column, it occurs to me that this book is a delightful subversion of the peasant-prince model. The heroine of this book is so socially disadvantaged that she doesn’t even realize that the boy of her dreams is probably already in love with her. But I’m confident that she’ll catch on in time, and then I will cry and giggle in equal measure.

    And if you’re curious about this week’s debuts from Tokyopop, tangognat has you covered with reviews of Alice in the Country of Hearts and Portrait of M and N.


    He’s just not that into you

    January 25, 2010

    Dude… harsh. That’s Naoki Irie from Kaoru Tada’s Itazura Na Kiss (Digital Manga), which just happens to be the subject of this week’s Flipped. It’s a very enjoyable comic in its own right, and I think it’s interesting to consider it in context, particularly when that context is inspired by Shaenon K. Garrity.