Archive for October, 2009

Get high on charm

October 27, 2009

James Nestor, illustrating the highest of writing techniques

Using brain science, not drugs, to create highs of mystical proportions.

All the recent, fascinating research about the brain changes that meditation creates is alluring. Knowing that you can actually alter your brain state gives off rays of hope in all kinds of directions. This kind of change is at the heart of the Charm-o-Matic, after all.

Those of us who don’t spend hours sitting cross-legged in a cave every day can head to Get High Now for a mental break instead. The web site offers visual and audio illusions – including the much ballyhooed binaural beats – and explanations of the science behind them.

ReadyMade magazine recently interviewed Get High Now author James Nestor, who notes that “altered states of consciousness have been at the core of almost every culture (but modern Western culture) since pre-history.” Ever the skeptic, Nestor identifies these delights as “mystical crap” that we’ve replaced with working long hours and watching television.

“I know, this sounds flaky and super-cosmic,” he continues. “Trust me, I’m a skeptic. I don’t wear patchouli. I’ve done yoga three times in my life. But, brothers and sisters, all this tis true!”

You can read more of the ReadyMade interview or head right over and let the trippy brain science commence. Experiment with finding your brain’s charm center.

Get High Now online, Free
Get High Now book, $14.95

On zombies and vampires and French philosophy and burger commercials

October 26, 2009

In honor of Halloween and the zombies and vampires dotting our pop-culture landscape nowadays, I’m kicking off an occasional Quote-o-Matic series.

Simone Weil; Frolicking zombies from Quirk Book's 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'

Simone Weil seems pensive, while zombies frolic on the pages of Quirk Book's 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.'

I love a rollicking vampire soap opera as much as the next person, not to mention an enthralling, brain-eating rendition of Pride and Prejudice … but I also like to remember what Simone Weil wrote in Gravity and Grace:

“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”

So true, yes? Simone Weil, the famous French philosopher, writer and social activist, struggled to find the kind of faith that would sustain her considerable, complex intellectual life. Robert Coles admired her as “a thoroughly distinctive person, one to some extent scientifically sophisticated, and yet one with a decidedly mystical and reverently spiritual side.”

It’s probably a similar yearning for supernatural mystery that draws so many of us to zombie and vampire lore. But instead of presenting an insightful analysis of this phenomenon, I’m busy thinking about a vintage hamburger commercial.

Remember that old McDLT commercial from the ’80s with Jason Alexander? “Keep the hot, hot – keep the cool, cool!” sang the eager carnivores as they danced down the street. Right, so let’s “Keep the evil, imaginary – keep the good, real!” You may need watch the commercial again and then sing it aloud with the new words to feel where I’m going here. Imagine if I had staged a musical number with subtle allusions to “Thriller” and the McDLT and French philosophy as a commentary about the illusory, tempting nature of fictional evil. Noone would have seen that coming. Not even the most charming of savvy, Louisiana-based vampires.

Illustration from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Quirk Books

Become a sugar goddess

October 14, 2009
Sugar sold separately.

Sugar sold separately.

Anita Chu’s Field Guide to Candy paves the way to your confectionary immortality.

Most candy cookbook writers would be satisfied producing a book brimming over with gorgeous color photographs, clear instructions, handy tips and a thorough glossary of candy-making terms and techniques. Anita Chu does all of that in Field Guide to Candy: How to Identify and Make Virtually Every Candy Imaginable, but she gets a sugar-coated gold star for also featuring fascinating historical tidbits about each candy.

A Greek candy called pasteli, for example, may be the world’s first candy and has an impeccable literary pedigree to boot. Chu notes that the Iliad mentions a pie made of sesame and honey, which are the main ingredients in pasteli. Never has candy-making felt so steeped in tradition. Chu elevates her recipes by taking readers on a culinary tour from the caves of Spain to the medicinal origins of licorice in England to the complex sweetness of 17th-century France to the American contribution of chocolate-covered cherries in 1929.

The guide includes recipes for favorites such as peanut brittle and truffles, some old-fashioned ones such as molasses taffy and buttermilk candy, some Asian sensations such as Chinese milk candy and daifuku mochi and some unexpected delights such as candy corn.

One of the more surprising recipes is based on the same fizzy notion as Pop Rocks. Turns out that a medieval Arabic drink called sharbat evolved into frozen sherbet as it migrated across Europe. Once it reached England, some clever fellow invented a fizzy powder to go with it that results in that familiar, effervescent tingle. You can use Chu’s version of sherbet powder to make a drink fizzy, or you can eat it like Pixy Stix. Genius, I tell you.

Speaking of brand names, Chu also fills readers in on how to make homemade versions of Butterfinger candy bars, Tootsie Rolls and Reese’s peanut butter cups.

I love that Chu embraces all manner of candy-making – she generously compares such American inventions as the chocolate-covered potato chip with the haute fluer de sel caramels of famed French pasty chef Pierre Herme. And that may be the most charming thing of all.

Field Guide to Candy, $15.95

Read a banned book – or wear one

October 2, 2009
Banned books bracelet

Banned books bracelet

Books that set the world on fire should not be set on fire by the world.

There’s no time like Banned Books Week for picking up some incendiary reading. We don’t really need an excuse to revisit a classic or two, but librarians like to remind us at this time of year that some books are still endangered.

With this week’s revelations about the Bush administration’s view of Harry Potter — not to mention last year’s news about Sarah Palin’s book-banning ways — this issue is freakishly contemporary. This year, the American Library Association created an interactive map showing recent attempts to ban books. And the ALA store is selling a banned books bracelet so you can turn your right to read into an accessory. (Thanks to Pop Candy for the link.)

If you don’t feel like wearing books, you can still read them (thankfully). A few famously banned books:

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Ulysses, James Joyce (Good luck with that one.)
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
The Call of the Wild, Jack London

When the act of reading a book is subversive and charming in one fell swoop, we like that.

Banned books bracelet, $18