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27
Mar 13

Twinkie, Deconstructed – Steve Ettlinger

Twinkie final cover

This is totally my kind of book. I’ve always been an ingredients reader and I’ve always wondered about those strange, chemically-sounding items that show up all the time. Over time, I’ve learned about a few of these mysterious ingredients, but Twinkie, Deconstructed conveniently addresses most of them in one book.

The book starts off with the author’s kids catching him reading the ingredients of an ice cream bar and they ask him what’s in it, followed by questions like “What’s polysorbate-60?” and “Where does polysorbate-60 come from, Daddy? “. So he decides to delve into the world of food processing, using the Twinkie’s ingredients list as the basis. He ends up looking into all the ingredients (listed here in the book’s table of contents), exploring the production and processing of everything from eggs, wheat and sugar to cellulose gum, phosphates and, yes, polysorbate-60.

twinkies

I guess I wasn’t too surprised at this glimpse into today’s world of modern food production and processing. Everything is done on a huge industrial scale and is part of a global food/industrial complex. Some of the more interesting points I took away from the book are:

  • A ton of things are made from corn
  • It’s all about chemistry
  • Even more things (including foodstuffs) are made from petroleum
  • For many ingredients or raw materials, there are only a handful of producers worldwide
  • Everything is very proprietary (trade secrets) and production facilities are often off-limits under Homeland Security regulations

I found the book to be very interesting, even if it did start to get a little repetitive as he described yet another industrial facility and the various sequences of chemical reactions that turned A into B into C into something you end up eating. However, I appreciated his engaging and often humorous style as well as the historical context he gave for many of the ingredients in addition to their modern production methods. So, if you’ve ever wondered about polysorbate 60 (or riboflavin, diglycerides, calcium sulfate, FD&C Red No. 40, etc.), where they come from and how they’re made, then you’ll enjoy this book.


22
Mar 13

Power Chord: One Man’s Ear-Splitting Quest to Find His Guitar Heroes – Thomas Scott McKenzie

powerchord

 { Note: I’ve been a bit lazy about getting my recent book reviews written. I read this book in early March. }

Since I’ve been taking guitar lessons recently, my reading interests have also turned in this direction. I came across this book while searching the Seattle Public Library online for interesting sheet music, so I thought I’d check it out and give it a read.

Power Chord is McKenzie’s account of his tracking down and interviewing the metal guitar heroes of his youth (and beyond). This turns out to be a motley set of characters, including:

  • Steve Vai
  • Oz Fox (Stryper)
  • Ace Frehley (KISS)
  • Bruce Kulick (KISS)
  • Warren DeMartini (Ratt)
  • Kip Winger (um, Winger)
  • Stacey Blades (L.A. Guns)
  • Phil Collen (Def Leppard)
  • Glenn Tipton (Judas Priest)
  • Rudy Sarzo (bass player for Quiet Riot, Whitesnake and Dio)

The actual stories of the guitarists and their bands are pretty interesting, especially since many of them are past their heyday but continue to perform on smaller tours at venues like casinos and county fairs. However, I found myself disliking the author and the ongoing backstory / context of his project. For one thing, he’s constantly coming across as a Republican, frat boy,  guitar nerd which put me off (apologies to any of my readers who fit this description).  Right from the beginning of the book, he talks about his lifelong obsession with KISS and similar groups and describes his lovingly-maintained collection of eleven expensive guitars. However – HE DOESN’T ACTUALLY PLAY THE GUITAR!?! He has this weird fascination with the idea of his ‘guitar heroes’ and constantly obsesses about it, but he seems somehow disconnected from the reality of what being a guitar player is really like. To his credit, he does go into some of this with his interviews and he even decides to start taking lessons during the course of his project.

If you’re at all interested in the stories of iconic guitar players from the late 70’s through early 90’s, there’s probably something in this book for you. Hopefully you can put up with the author better than I could.


21
Mar 13

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

wind-upBird

Note: I’ve been a bit lazy about getting my recent book reviews written. I started this book in late February and finished it in early March. }

This is the third Murakami book I’ve read. The first was What I Think About When I Think About Running, which I read a few years ago. I was getting back into a jogging routine at the time, and it seemed like it might be good inspiration. It was basically a non-fiction account of his experiences becoming a long-distance runner – he eventually ran a bunch of marathons as well as one ultramarathon. Crazy! Not a bad book, though. The second book I read of his was Norwegian Wood, a novel he had written in 1987 (English edition published in 2000). This was an excellent book, the tale of a college student in the late 1960’s and his complicated relationship with a complicated girl. Recommended!

I had heard that Murakami was well-known for his surreal works, even winning the Franz Kafka Prize in 2006. Donna had previously read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and assured me it qualified as surreal, so I was quite looking forward to it. However, I think I learned that I was confusing ‘surreal’ with ‘absurd’. I like absurdist literature, especially when it has humorous or satirical overtones (think Joseph Heller’s Catch-22). As it turns out, this Murakami book was definitely surreal, but not absurd. It heavily featured characters engaged in supernatural activities (ESP, fortune telling, etc.) and there were many scenes that were intentionally ambiguous as to whether they were happening in real life or in a dream. Plus, even when things were clearly happening in dreams, they often produced side-effect in real life. Surreal!

On the whole, it wasn’t a “bad” book. Murakami is a great writer of clean prose, and his style comes across wonderfully in this book. The pace is pretty even, without a lot of ups and downs, though a little more drama wouldn’t have hurt. There are a few side stories that drag on maybe a little too long – editing them out wouldn’t have been a great loss and would have cut down on the sizable length (607 pages). In that respect, it reminds me of another book that went on far too long.

So, while this wasn’t my favorite Murakami book, I am looking forward to working my way through some of his other works. Specifically, I’m looking forward to reading the non-fiction Underground, a collection of interviews he conducted with people affected by the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Also, I’ll try a couple of his other “surreal” books (e.g. Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84), just to make sure that they don’t actually appeal to me 🙂