Apples of Uncommon Character [Reading Challenge 2019]

Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics, & Little-Known Wonders

by Rowan Jacobsen
Photographs by Clare Barboza

Bloomsbury, USA, 2014

[Challenge # 18: A book where food, cooking, restaurants, chefs, etc. play a major role. ]

I was all set to read American Pie as my foodie selection for the 2019 challenge, but then I heard of this book, and I just had to read it instead.

Apples of Uncommon Character is a different kind of food book, part history, part field guide, part cookbook, and part coffee table folio, with beautiful, lucid photographs by Clare Barboza. Mainly, it’s a field guide, but not a comprehensive one. The apples within it, a mix of heirlooms, oddities, rarities, and new creations, are not meant to be all there ever were, just ones the author considers outstanding examples of taste, use, and creation. There’s a fair bit of history as well. I never knew that apples originated in Central Asia, in Kazakhstan, in the Tian Shan Mountains and were distributed to the west along the Silk Road. I also learned that apple trees do not breed true to seed. Apples have a very complicated and robust genome and, depending on their parents, vary wildly in fruit size, taste, shape, color, texture, time of fruiting, and keeping qualities. Thus, cultivated apple trees are all clones of the master type, branches cut from the parent tree grafted onto donor rootstock.

The book was also a walk through the past for me, as it listed some of the favorites I grew up eating on the East Coast:  Winesap, Jonathan, Spy. My mother would take me to the local farmers market on Sunday afternoons and I was given the liberty to pick whatever apple basket caught my fancy. Many times it was the Jonathan, which I liked because of its round shape and red color… so bright the pigment sometimes bled into the snowy white flesh. I also liked McIntosh, and another type, Gravenstein I think it was, so huge it completely filled up my child’s hand like an oversized baseball. I never picked the Golden Delicious, I didn’t like it, or the Red Delicious, which receives a well-deserved drubbing in the book for its lack of taste.

Other apples I remember from upstate New York: Cortland and Empire with their ciderlike taste. As it turns out, unknown to me both Geneva and Ithaca have long been hotbeds of apple research and development.

The apples are divided by the author into summer-fruiting, dessert (eating out of hand types), baking, keeper (apples which will keep well over the winter in a farmstead’s root cellar) and cider brewing types. This was a revelation for me also, as I always thought an apple was just an apple. But the mix of starches and sugars in an apple’s flesh, as well as the thickness of its skin, is what delineates its commercial use. Some span several categories. The author gives marketing information about each apple, like where it was grown and for what market, and how popular it became.

And apple types do move in and out of popularity. In the late 2010s sweet, crunchy apples are all the rage: Honeycrisp, Gala, and Fuji. Some varieties like Red Delicious and Cameo are on their way down, and others, like Ambrosia and Jazz, on their way up. And, sadly, there are some varieties that appear only for a single season, can’t prove their marketability, and disappear. Green Dragon, where are you?

As I read on the author was revealed as something of a food snob, or just a very devoted apple foodie, to put it more kindly. Living on a farm, with friends in the apple business, he is privy to the taste of hundreds of apple varieties us mere mortals can only dream of, which makes, for those whose apples come from the supermarket, the book a vicarious read and perhaps a useless one, as I don’t think taste can be conveyed in words the way touch and sight can. “When you bite into it, there is a fleeting salvo of something rich and fruit, then the blast of sharpness arrives with a classic apple nose. At the end, your lips feel etched in acid.”  I mean, like, huh? That’s a lot of fluffy nonsense.

Still, it was a lively and enjoyable read. I will never look at apples the same way again.


The Silver Metal Lover [Review]

The Silver Metal Lover

by Tanith Lee
DAW, 1981

The Silver Metal Lover is perhaps Tanith Lee’s best known novel after her three Flat Earth books. It may be the most beloved. Though an abiding Lee fan I was immune to its charms for many years until finally deciding to read it last summer. The cover art had connived this resistance. It’s…unfortunate. Don Maitz may be a wonderful artist but his version of Silver, the android lover of the book, is awful, resembling a liquid metal Terminator in a blood-colored hag wig and  a weird, bemused, tremulous expression on his melting face. Eek!

Two later editions and their covers. Both are more in keeping with the character, though in the left version he seems to have a freakishly small head  on a too-burly neck, and his clockwork eye, described in the book as a symbol of his artificial nature, gets lost.  The version on the right, though less Renaissance-like and without sfumato, rightly captures his bland, optimistic nature, though in the story the mechanics of his left arm were not exposed like that.

(The DAW paperback, though, has Lee’s own artwork on the inside, which is a plus.)

Anyway, back to the book.

It wasn’t a romance per se, but an examination of the idea of romance on an everywoman, 16-year-old Jane. Like the heroine of Twilight she isn’t meant to be an actual teen but a stand-in for the reader, intelligent and aware, who is embarking on her first adult romantic and sexual experience. Jane lives in a world of unlimited luxury and wealth but restricted opportunity, created through artificial insemination to give mom the experience of raising a child. Jane is kept on a loose rein in that she has anything she desires materially, as well as questionable friends and social activities, but remains jobless and underage, economically dependent on her mother as well as being her mother’s analytical object. Jane has frenemies who are similar rich, bored, warped youth, but no real human connection aside from mom, and that one is questionable. Her mother’s control extends even to her appearance – Jane takes special drugs to foster a “Rubenesque” look with curly dark hair.

The story begins when Jane, who is lending some emotional support to a young actress friend on audition, comes across a lifelike robot strolling through the city with a guitar serenading passersby. He’s one of a new generation of robots who as well as being extremely lifelike are able to imitate human artists: musicians, actors, and dancers, crossing a barrier hitherto thought to be restricted. Jane becomes obsessed with him. She HAS to have him. But being under legal age she can’t buy a robot, and doesn’t have enough allowance to anyway. So she connives, through her slightly older friends, to buy him by proxy, and gets the money by selling off all the belongings given to her by her mother. She absconds to the big mean city to live with Silver (so she names him) in a mean little apartment and find out what love and desire are all about.

The novel is long and lush, and the romance is only a part of it. As with all Lee novels there’s a lot more going on the background, all of it picturesque: this future earth has acquired an orbiting asteroid that creates periodic earthquakes, robot labor has created a population of poor and unemployed, and the line between human and robot itself is growing thin with the introduction of Silver’s brethren the Golder (? I guess they all had to match) and Copper series of robots, indistinguishable from humans save for the metallic coloration of their skin. Silver himself has humanlike but silver-toned skin and auburn hair, described poetically by the author but still somehow not an appealing palette of coloration. When Jane’s mother cuts off her allowance he suggests they both make a living as street buskers, where Jane discovers she has a fine voice and musical talent of her own. Silver’s talent also extends to fixing up their hole-in-the-wall apartment; as a robot, he is devoted to and “in love” with whoever owns him. Jane’s conflict, along with her becoming her own woman, is to figure out if his love for her is real, or just part of his sophisticated programming. As the story progresses, it leans to the former.

Their idyll is intruded upon by real life when Jane’s frenemies, who she has depended upon to buy and keep Silver, become jealous and set out to make mischief, leading to Silver being repossessed by the company who made him, and who will destroy him for being too lifelike and flawed.

I don’t cry when I read books, but boy did my heart receive a wringing at the book’s end. The book was uncompromising as it hurtles toward tragedy and revelation, saying much, much more about new love, first love, than any number of contemporary romance novels do.

All of this was sort of muddled together in a continuous stream, like a player-piano roll, told by Jane in first person after the adventure has passed. While not hard to keep track of, it was perhaps too complex and wandering for what the story wanted to be. It’s like the author couldn’t help herself from creating embellishments and trills on the fly as typewritten pages cascaded out of the typewriter one after the other in marathon all-night sessions. (I’ve read that this was really how she wrote.) I could have done, for example, without the many interludes showing Jane’s poisonous friends: a pair of malicious twins, an “oh, snap” bitter gay boy, and an addlepated actress wannabe. They got in the way and weren’t that interesting to me. Though I did enjoy reading the prose about them, as I always enjoy reading Lee’s writing, they weren’t necessary for the direct cut to the heart the story wanted to be.

Put it this way. As a reader, I enjoyed it, as a writer, I wanted more streamlining. But also as a writer, I can’t help but admire that straightforward, stream-of-consciousness technique that accommodates new ideas on the fly.

I also wish young female readers were as in love with this as that crapfest Twilight. They should have been.


Ms. Mesmer

You WILL Look at me! You WILL be totally under my control!


Worldbuilding Wednesday 10/2/19: Roller Coasters

The first roller coasters were not called roller coasters at all. They were known as Russian Mountains and were created in Portugal, not Russia, from mounds of ice piled up by Russian refugees from wars of Ivan the Terrible in the 1600s.  To this day, in Spanish-speaking countries, roller coasters are still known as montaña rusas. Later in history, when wheel-and-track roller coasters finally showed up Russia, they were called Amerikanskie gorki, or American mountains. Confused yet?

Take a look at the wooden coaster above. In the early days of coaster building, contractors had no idea about the effects of G-forces on the human body or the stress it put on cars and tracks. Cars tended to fly off and humans receive whiplash and other injuries. Ghoulishly, these only added to a coaster’s popularity back then. The two long curving tracks at the left were no-nos, as was the s-shaped curve at the far right. If they didn’t burn down (a common fate for wooden coasters) they were demolished after safety concerns led to regulation.

Modern roller coasters are hyper-engineered for safety, yet they are also reaching the limits as to what is possible with current engineering. Tempting fate, their names are full of danger: Steel Dragon, Millennium Force, Nemesis, Storm Runner. There’s also a trend towards movie tie-ins, such as Superman: the Escape and Batman: the Ride. IMO these aren’t as evocative and instead render confusion. Who would Superman want to escape from, and why? And though Batman certainly had some heart-pounding pursuits in his batmobile, batcopter, batsled, whatever, what else occurs on his amusement attraction to make it unequivocally his? Does the Joker jump out at random moments? Do batsignals flash in the sky? Without knowing the full itinerary, I’ll stick with Steel Dragon, thank you.

Looking for a coaster? Here’s some randomgenned ones. One or more of them are tongue-in-cheek.


Roller Coasters

Maximum Maelstrom


Midnight Zero



Into the Abyss

Shogun Dragon

Pele’s Revenge


Mongol Horde

Demon Hunter

Fell Beast


Valkyrie Strike


Killer Expedition

Event Horizon

Pelvic Gouge



Calligraphy follows shapes and spirals. A shell (caracola) and a pear.
A lively looking butterfly with personality.

What does it mean?


Worldbuilding Wednesday 9/25/19: Melniboné

artwork by rodney mattthews

Artwork by Rodney Matthews

British author Michael Moorcock created a series of stories, novels, and metanovels about albino warrior Elric of Melniboné, referenced by me here. In that series, the made-up language was surprisingly consistent. Sometimes ridiculous, sometimes grandiose, the words Yyrkoon, Imryyr, and Xiombarg conjure up a sort of Solomon’s Demons / Chinese never-never land beyond time and space.  Richard K. Morgan drew on the feel of this imaginary language when he designed the languages for his A Land Fit for Heroes series, as well as adopting some of Moorcock’s writing conventions.

Out to write Elric fanfic? Here’s a list of randomly generated words.


Melnibonéan words















































Marching Devils

Artwork by Wayne Barlowe

…out of Hell and into your nightmares.
They are not human. They are made of living stone.


They Called Us Enemy [Review]

They Called Us Enemy

by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott
Artwork by Harmony Becker
Top Shelf Productions, 2019

George Takei is a man of many talents: activist, actor, meme creator, and now, at age 82, graphic novel writer. Who would have known in 1968 that Mr. Sulu would have had such legs?

Mr. Takei’s life, of course, began before Star Trek, and continued after it. They Called Us Enemy is about his experience in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. In case you are not familiar with this episode in American history, you can read about it here.   Internment was not acknowledged as a violation of human rights or even discussed much in the decades from the end of WWII to the 1980s, when, as detailed in the book, President Reagan issued a formal apology from the United States Government to the survivors. I only learned about it in a PBS documentary from the late 1970s. As a teen, it blew me away. It was the second time I realized the unjust and grave mistakes the United States Government made in the past. (The first was slavery.)

Takei and his two co-authors are given a strong boost by the subtle, gentle artwork of Harmony Becker. Which was a good choice, as it is the Takei family’s story, not just George’s, who was 5 at the time. It affected all of them. In all the illustrations they are always doing something together, and George shares the stage with his brother Henry, dad Takekuma, and mom Fumiko. Even little sister Nancy Reiko, though a baby when the story starts, plays a part: we see her growing up and learning to walk. She too is present and reminds us she will also be affected by this experience.

Though the illustrations were at times sparse I want to commend the artist for doing her research into the vehicles and uniforms of the time. The soldiers in the camps, for example, wear old WWI style uniforms that had been mothballed, rather than the newer get ups used by soldiers in the Pacific and European arenas. And there was subtle, delicate individuality between the characters to show they were not faceless masses, as in this scene of arrival.

As befitting the topic, the artwork also had a gentle, old-fashioned manga feel.

The story also went into details I did not know about internment: that was FDR who signed the bill (implied in the novel to have been pressured by several hot-blooded and anti-Asian senators) and that there was an amendment later to allow the entry of Nisei soldiers to fight as American soldiers in WWII which was problematic for its disrespectful language and attitude. (You’ll have to read the book.) Also, that many of those imprisoned Japanese Americans lost everything: houses, farms, their businesses and means of making a living. When they came out of the camps they had to start completely over. In my state of Washington local history tells us these tales.

In all, five stars, and much recommended.


Worldbuilding Wednesday 9/18/19: Fish

Some kind of pompano, another fine and evocative name.

Fish, and sealife in general, tend to get names that relate to their appearance — such as the seahorse  — or behavior, like the fancifully named by-the-wind sailor jellyfish. Sprinkled in are names from foreign sources, like humuhumunukunukuapua’a.

Looking for a name for a fish that never was and never will be? Here’s a list.


Fish that never were


Shortbrow Lobster

Pigeonlip Halibut

Rough-Ribboned Barracuda

Canary Angler

Arctic Carp

Whiphead Mackeral

Envoy Marlin

Deep Sea Spitsally


Paradise Bass


Narrowtooth Marlin

Crabhead Eel


Silverlipped Darter


Cigar Smelt

Five-Spotted Northern Perch

Skate-Eating Ray

Mason Hake


Princess Bonnet Bonito

Sausage Angler

Death Bass

Copper Sturgeon



Flat Sided Darter

Eel-Eating Barracuda


Goosesface Cod

Spiny-sashed Crawfish

Great Killikeg

Ambertail Codfish


Glass Marlin

Bluechinned Cichlid

Broadbelly Dorado


Fringe-eyed Sculpin

Humpcheek Halibut

Sea Patron

Specklefin Sturgeon


Stone and Sea

 Vicissitudes, by Jason de Caires Taylor

Vicissitudes, by Jason deCaires Taylor

What happens to the people who Medusa turned to stone?
Do they remain conscious over millennia, as continents sink and
ocean levels rise?