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Lunch Date: Taking Exit West to one of the Northwest's famous sandwich joints

(Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.)

Who’s your date today? Exit West, a novel by Mohsin Hamid.

Where’d you go? I was in Tacoma for a day trip and stopped by the MSM Deli, a legendary lunch spot that doesn't offer much by way of ambiance — it's a convenience store with some card tables — but enjoys a large Northwest fanbase.

What’d you eat? I ordered the Italian coldcut sub. I didn't know how huge the portions were, so I ordered a large, which turned out to be, uh, large.

How was the food? It was good! the meat was great, and they didn't overwhelm with the oil and vinegar, which is nice. It's definitely an east coast sub, and all you transplants who miss the no-frills east coast sandwich should hit up the MSM. I was a little underwhelmed by the bread, though, which was airy and not the most flavorful. The thing with east coast subs is that you're not looking for fancy dense bread. You want something chewy and a little bit plainer than you'd find at, say, Macrina. But they use a very large French bread loaf at MSM, and it was frankly a little too much bread in the sandwich. I thought the ratios were a little overwhelmed by having too much of a not-great bread in the mix.

What does your date say about itself? From the publisher’s promotional copy:

In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice...

Is there a representative quote? Let's go with the opening paragraph: "In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something."

Will you two end up in bed together? Yeah! Hamid read at Elliott Bay a few weeks ago and I'm upset that I didn't go to the reading now. This is a totally charming beginning of a book. It reads kind of like a fairy tale — although there are some dark elements stirring in even these first few pages — and there's obviously a bit of a Kundera vibe going on, too. I've not been having the easiest time with novels lately, but Exit West seems like it might break the curse.

Lunch Date: Persecuting liberal elites at a fancy banh mi shop

(Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.)

Who’s your date today? Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank. (Frank will be reading at Town Hall tomorrow night.)

Where’d you go? The Tigerly Ox, a newish Vietnamese lunch counter on Madison.

What’d you eat? The Tigerly Ox's fancy version of a steak banh mi. ($8.20.)

How was the food? Great! You should be warned that the Tigerly Ox doesn't serve the so-simple-it's good version of the banh mi that you can pick up anywhere in the International District. This is on crusty, crunchy bread, it's made from fancier ingredients than your typical four-buck-banh-mi, and it's loaded with a nice fishy umami kick from the paté. It's a lot more filling than the typical banh mi, but you should be warned that it doesn't scratch the particular banh mi itch you get when you want a cheap sandwich on airy, cheap French bread.

What does your date say about itself? From the publisher’s promotional copy:

... Drawing on years of research and first-hand reporting, Frank points out that the Democrats have done little to advance traditional liberal goals: expanding opportunity, fighting for social justice, and ensuring that workers get a fair deal. Indeed, they have scarcely dented the free-market consensus at all. This is not for lack of opportunity: Democrats have occupied the White House for sixteen of the last twenty-four years, and yet the decline of the middle class has only accelerated. Wall Street gets its bailouts, wages keep falling, and the free-trade deals keep coming.

Is there a representative quote? "Democrats have been wondering who they are and squabbling over what they believe for virtually my entire life. It has taken them years to get to wherever it is they are today; years filled with quarrels and vituperation and occasional bouts of manic self-love. It has required long periods of slow evolution, usually in the wrong direction; runs of rapid but lousy choices; epochs followed by a savage Thermidor in which hard-headed party toughguys promoted different fad ideas that turned out to be even worse."

Will you two end up in bed together? God, I have no idea how I didn't read this book when it was realeased in hardcover last year. Frank accurately identifies the problem with the Democratic party — elitism and a wrong-headed meritocracy — and his diagnosis is so eerily right-on that it seems like he has access to a time machine. This book explains why Hillary Clinton lost the election, and it was published a year before Hillary Clinton lost the election. It's fascinating stuff, though I hope Frank has some prescriptions for how to fix the problem, because while he's great at being right — seriously, this book is filled with rage and disgust and it's wildly entertaining — it would be even better if he turned out to be helpful, too.

Lunch Date: Healthy eating with a collection of stories about Muslim women

Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.

Who’s your date today? Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, by Randa Jarrar.

Where’d you go? The Chaco Canyon Organic Café in West Seattle.

What’d you eat? I had the smoky yam and kale quinoa bowl($9.95) and a cup of coffee.

How was the food? Seattle is an emotional disaster zone right now, with the dozens of days of gray skies and the below-average temperatures and the occasional bursts of sun that make people act even weirder than usual. No matter how sunny it gets, we know that there's another gray wall around the next bend. So it felt really good to eat something that is wholly healthy and incredibly delicious. You know sometimes you'll eat a bowl of something good and it feels like pure nutrients, like you can envision the vitamins and minerals floating through your body like an elementary-school film strip on nutritious eating? This was that. It actively made me feel stronger, both emotionally and physically. If you're feelng terrible right now, you should try this meal. The garlic tahini added a rounded flavor that the kale and yam couldn't supply on their own, and I also doused the whole thing in hot sauce. It's the meal you need right now.

What does your date say about itself? It's a story collection by an author who is previously best known for her novels. Here's a blurb from author Peter Ho Davies:

These vibrant, funny, earthy, and above all, yearning stories are a revelation.... Like a female, Arab American Junot Díaz!

Is there a representative quote? Here's the first paragraph of the first story, "The Lunatics' Eclipse:"

The neighborhood got its first dose of Qamar the summer of her ninth birthday, when she sat on the rooftop of her Alexandria apartment building for ten days and waited for the moon to come down. She did it for her neighbor Metwalli; he promised he'd be hers forever if she only brought him the moon. Metwalli was twenty-four and had no idea that Qamar would take his pledge to heart.

Will you two end up in bed together? Yes, although I must admit that this first story didn't wow me as much as I wanted it to. Jarrar is an excellent stylist and her prose is first-rate. But this first story feels very typical of an early-2000s short story aesthetic: bring several strands of magical realism together, introduce some bizarre coincidences, and then end the story at exactly the moment before it's revealed whether the fantastic elements are real or just fanciful. I loved the places this story went, but I hated how familiar the structure and tone felt. I'm eager to read more and see if Jarrar has some other tricks in store for her readers.

Lunch Date: America's worsening political divide, with a side of corned beef

Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.

Who’s your date today? Arlie Russell Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right: A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide. This is the book we'll be discussing at our monthly Reading Through It Book Club at Seward Park Third Place Books this Wednesday. (It's free! Buy a drink in the bar and join us at 7 pm!)

Where’d you go? I visited Mean Sandwich, a new restaurant in Ballard. My friend Bethany Jean Clement's profile in the Seattle Times made it sound too delicious to pass up.

What’d you eat? I had the Mean Sandwich, which is corned beef, mustard, and cabbage on a roll.

How was the food? Oh my God. I take my sandwiches seriously, so I do not say this lightly: Mean Sandwich is one of Seattle's best sandwich places. Take a look at this:

I've never had a sandwich with giant cubes of corned beef like this, and in the wrong hands this kind of thing could be inedible. Instead, it was light and sunny. The beef wasn't too fatty or too watery, the cabbage was vinegary, and the maple syrup and sprigs of mint made everything taste fresher and more complex.

If I had to come up with one complaint, it would be that there as a little too much of the yellow mustard — and I say this as someone who loves mustard on a sandwich. But every ingredient on this sandwich was optimized to perfection. And you can tell someone knows their business when a sandwich doesn't fall apart while you're eating it. I've had plenty of corned beef sandwiches wind up a mess of wet bread and meat chunks on my placemat, but the Mean Sandwich held together perfectly. It's a masterpiece of culinary engineering.

What does your date say about itself? Here's a blurb from author Mark Danner:

If the great political question of our time can be summarized in the two words, ‘Donald Trump,’ the answer is to be found in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s brilliant new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Hochschild, an eminent sociologist with a novelist’s storytelling skill, has crafted an absorbing tale full of richly drawn, complicated characters who come bearing their own fascinating histories. Together, in Hochschild’s authoritative hands, they offer a compelling and lucid portrait of what had seemed a bewildering political moment. A powerful, imaginative, necessary book, arriving not a moment too soon

(And, yes, I'm aware of the irony of a "coastal elite" taking a book to a restaurant with a $12 sandwich in a city that chose to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. The irony, in this case, is quite literally delicious.)

Is there a representative quote?

In the life of one man, Lee Sherman, I saw reflected both sides of the Great Paradox — the need for help and a principled refusal of it. As a victim of toxic exposure himself, a participant in polluting public waters, hating pollution, now proudly declaring himself as an environmentalist, why was he throwing in his lot with the anti-environmental Tea Party? Not because the Koch brothers were paying him to, at least directly. Lee was putting up Tea Party lawn signs for free. Still, his source of news was limited to Fox News and videos and blogs exchanged by right-wing friends, which placed him in an echo chamber of doubt about the EPA, the federal government, the president, and taxes.

Will you two end up in bed together? Well, obviously. I have to finish reading it by the book club on Wednesday!

But even if it wasn't homework, I'd definitely want to read more of this book. Hochschild is a gifted literary portraitist, and I like how aware she is of her own thesis throughout the book. My one concern with the early part of the book that I've read is that I hope Hochschild doesn't just offer one anecdote after another. I hope she widens her angle, looks at the data, and actually builds to a thesis about what happened and what we should do to end the divide. By Wednesday, I'll find out if my hopes for the book were fulfilled.

Lunch Date: Taking Normal out to brunch

(Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.)

Who’s your date today? Normal by Warren Ellis.

Where’d you go? Roxy's Diner, in Fremont.

What’d you eat? I had the Roxy's Deli Scramble with corned beef, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese ($12.95)

How was the food? Holy cow. Ever since the I Love New York Deli went out of business a few years back, I've been looking for a good Jewish deli in the Seattle area. (My favorite is Goldberg's, in Factoria.) Turns out, Roxy's has been serving up really fine diner fare for a decade and a half. The food is plentiful, tasty, and relatively affordable. I'll be coming back here for a Reuben as soon as I think my arteries can handle it.

What does your date say about itself? From the publisher’s promotional copy:

There are two types of people who think professionally about the future: Foresight strategists are civil futurists who think about geoengineering and smart cities and ways to evade Our Coming Doom; strategic forecasters are spook futurists, who think about geopolitical upheaval and drone warfare and ways to prepare clients for Our Coming Doom. The former are paid by nonprofits and charities, the latter by global security groups and corporate think tanks.

For both types, if you're good at it, and you spend your days and nights doing it, then it's something you can't do for long. Depression sets in. Mental illness festers. And if the abyss gaze takes hold there's only one place to recover: Normal Head, in the wilds of Oregon, within the secure perimeter of an experimental forest.

Is there a representative quote?

Adam stood there and wondered what it would be like to live at Normal Head forever, like Colegrave. Would it feel like being trapped? Or would it feel like being free? There was a lot of space. There was a forest. There was so much silence. The quiet felt like a huge new country that he could wander around inside for years without ever meeting its coastlines. A silence the size of the wky. If he stayed here long enough, he'd eventually be sent to Staging, and he'd have one of those simple, clever micro-homes to live and work in. There would be internet, and books, and music. He could think, and be, and hold the world at a distance in order to see it properly. Nothing would ever hurt or frighten him again. The micro-home of his very own could be his hermit's cave. He could be a wise man of the woods, spoken of in whispers, his words and thoughts becoming spooky action at a distance in the world beyond. A secret wizard of the future.

Will you two end up in bed together? Yeah, In fact, as I'm writing this a day after the meal, I've already finished the book. Normal is a novella that was originally published in four serialized chapters, and it's a quick read. The premise of Normal is a lot of fun: imagine if all the douchiest TED Talk prognosticators wound up in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Ellis uses the premise to plug in a bunch of great little riffs about the internet and drones and modern life, and he's clearly enjoying himself. Like a lot of latter-day Ellis work, Normal doesn't so much end as fade away, but it's a lot livelier than other books he's written lately. If you're on the fence with Ellis's recent work, Normal might just remind you why you loved his big, beautifully deranged brain in the first place.

Lunch Date: go south, young(ish) man

(Once in a while, we take a new book out to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab our attention. Lunch Date is our judgment on that speed-dating experience.)

Who’s your date today? The Wonder Trail: True Stores from Los Angeles to the End of the World, by Steve Hely.

Where’d you go? Il Corvo, the ridiculously popular lunch-only pasta spot, right around the corner from Smith Tower. Show up at 11am, or be prepared to wait a long time (maybe waiting is part of the experience for you — it certainly can be fun to chat in line with friends, and strangers).

What’d you eat? Il Corvo only offers three pasta choices each day. This day, the tagliarini, with sweet corn and marjoram, was calling my name.

How was the food? I have an Italian friend who is a pasta expert. I asked her once what she thought of Il Corvo's pasta. "Well," she said, "they use the right semolina, and they cook it right so the tooth is right. But, they use too much sauce." It was a grudging approval, because she added "They have to, for the American palate."

I don't know if she'd think today's pasta was over-sauced, but I thought the tagliarini was amazing — a beautiful heap (check out their picture) of tasty tang, with beautiful round pasta, a bit of cheese, and the unmistakable sweet bite of fresh corn. It was lively and light, for pasta, a perfect summer dish, perfectly portioned. I loved every bite of it.

What does your date say about itself? From the publisher’s promotional copy:

The Wonder Trail is the story of a trip from Los Angeles to the bottom of South America, presented in 102 short chapters. From Mexico City to Oaxaca; into ancient Mayan ruins; the jungles, coffee plantations, and remote beaches of Central America; across the Panama Canal; by sea to Colombia; to the wild Easter celebration of Popayán; to the Amazon rainforest; the Inca sites of Cuzco and Machu Picchu; to the Galápagos Islands; the Atacama Desert of Chile; and down to wind-worn Patagonia at the bottom of the Western Hemisphere; Steve traveled collecting stories, adventures, oddities, marvels, bits of history and biography, tales of weirdos, fun facts, and anything else interesting or illuminating.

Steve's plan was to discover the unusual, wonderful, and absurd in Central and South America, to seek and find the incredible, delightful people and experiences that came his way. And the book that resulted is just as fun. A blend of travel writing, history, and comic memoir, The Wonder Trail will inspire, inform, and delight.

Is there a representative quote? "Everywhere, there are tacos and delicious cheeseburgers and cold-pressed juices and Salvadoran pupusas and Korean barbecues, and every week somebody tells you drive out to some mysterious suburb like San Gabriel or Alhambra to get a soup just like they make it in the souther beach villages of Thailand, or a special tea dumpling you can only get in Sichuan. And the fruits and vegetables! In Los Angeles, it's legal to pick any fruit that hangs over the sidewalk. No one minds because there's so much of it! I used to walk up the street from my house and pluck grapefruits. There are palm trees and cactuses, and in the hills there are deer and coyotes.

For some people this dream is too much, too intense. Scary, even. They try to warn everyone that dreams sometime turn into nightmares. There are police helicopters overhead and there's not enough water, the hills could slide into the ocean at any minute, and who knows what's coming from south over the border?

To these doom prophets most people shrug and say "Maybe!" Sure, maybe in your twenties you read about pessimistic LA urbanist Mike Davis or talk to people at parties about the Manson Family and Blade Runner, but you can't take it too seriously. Keep some of it on your shelf as a souvenier and then move on to Reyner Banhnam, who drove around in the 1970s filming himself marvelling to his English countrymen at how fantastic everything was. Or pick up Joan Didion, who stared hard into the face at everything terrible about Los Angeles but then went off to vacation in Hawaii with the shitloads of money she made writing movies that never happened"

Will you two end up in bed together? I think so, yes. I liked Hely's satire How I Became a Famous Novelist, and there's plenty of his smart, wry, and self-deprecating voice here. He's one of those writers who is hyper-aware of himself and his place in the world, which you kind of have to be if you're a white dude writing about travel these days. You can't just write a great big game hunting memoir anymore, can you? Not unless you're a son of Trump. And who says, even then, you should be able to? Maybe it's political correctness, but then again, maybe it's just having good taste, and from what I've read, Hely seems to have it.

So, instead, travel along with the modern aware man as he gets into trouble, and finds his way out, and notes what he finds along the way, all held in comparison to the history of travel writing. Seems like a fun time to me. Although, to be fair, maybe next time I should read this over pupusas.

Lunch Date: Taking "Labor of Love" out for a cheesesteak

(Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.)

Who’s your date today? Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, by Moira Weigel. Weigel will be reading at Elliott Bay Book Company tomorrow evening.

Where’d you go? Marination, the newest restaurant in the Marination Station empire, down on 6th and Virginia.

What’d you eat? I had the Korean Cheesesteak ("Kalbi beef with grilled onions and jalapenos, melted cheese, and mayo on a Macrina demi-baguette") and macaroni salad.

How was the food? It was very much in line with the other Marination restaurant's offerings, which is to say it's really good. The sandwich was excellent: cheesy and beefy without being sloppy or too heavy. Some of the cheese was fried to crispy shards on the outside of the sandwich, which was delightful. I love Marination Station's pork torta best of all, but this sandwich is right up there in terms of quality. The macaroni salad was suitably tangy, though I was a little disappointed to discover that there were no cubes of Spam in it, as it is in the macaroni salad at Marination Ma Kai.

What does your date say about itself? From the publisher’s promotional copy:

“Does anyone date anymore?” Today, the authorities tell us that courtship is in crisis. But when Moira Weigel dives into the history of sex and romance in modern America, she discovers that authorities have always said this. Ever since young men and women started to go out together, older generations have scolded them: That’s not the way to find true love. The first women who made dates with strangers were often arrested for prostitution; long before “hookup culture,” there were “petting parties”; before parents worried about cell phone apps, they fretted about joyrides and “parking.” Dating is always dying. But this does not mean that love is dead. It simply changes with the economy. Dating is, and always has been, tied to work.

Is there a representative quote? "The story of dating began when women left their homes and the homes of others where they had toiled as slaves and maids and moved to cities where they took jobs that let them mix with men."

Will you two end up in bed together? Oh, yes. The subject matter is engrossing, and Weigel blows up a few long-held misperceptions about dating in the first few pages. She also meanders delightfully, invoking the Real Housewives reality franchise, blue-footed boobies, and dating's seedy, unspoken "prostitution complex" in a dozen pages. She's a fine guide, and the book is lively and entertaining. It made for an excellent date.

Lunch Date: All the Birds in the Sky

(Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.)

Who’s your date today? All the Birds in the Sky, the bestselling novel written by i09 editor-in-chief Charlie Jane Anders.

Where’d you go? The Sunlight Café in Roosevelt.

What’d you eat? I had the large portion of the blueberry yogurt hotcakes ($9.50).

How was the food? I’m a big fan of the Sunlight Café. They’re a vegetarian joint — they claim to be the longest-running vegetarian restaurant in Seattle — and they always put together a great breakfast, even if you’re eating breakfast for lunch. The hotcakes were large and moist and sweet and filling; they were about everything you'd want in a pancake platter. The only bad thing about my meal? I noticed a note on my table that says the Sunlight Café is going to be moving due to development in the area. This is sad news: Roosevelt is getting a light rail station, so development is naturally going to happen, but I hope the Sunlight Café can be a part of that expansion. It’s such a neighborhood institution, and such a reliably good restaurant, that it would be a shame for Roosevelt to lose its neighbor of forty years.

What does your date say about itself? From the publisher’s promotional copy:

Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn't expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during middle school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one's peers and families.

But now they're both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who's working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world's magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world's every-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together--to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.

A deeply magical, darkly funny examination of life, love, and the apocalypse.

Is there a representative quote? “He looked at the cover of the paperback, which had a painting of a lumpy spaceship and a naked woman with eyes for breasts. He didn’t start to cry or anything, but he kind of wanted to. The paperback cover said: ‘THEY WENT TO ENDS OF THE UNIVERSE — TO STOP A GALACTIC DISASTER!’”

Will you two end up in bed together? Yes! I’ve always been fascinated by the imaginary wall between fantasy and science fiction, how books are either entirely one or entirely the other. What Anders is doing is stuffing the protagonist of a fantasy novel — an intriguing young woman who can talk to birds — and the protagonist of a sci-fi novel — a young man with a watch that allows him to travel a matter of seconds into the future — into the same book, to see what happens. It’s such a simple premise, but it really grabbed my attention. In addition to the three enormous pancakes that were bigger than my face, I plowed through sixty pages of this book, so I imagine I'll be racing to the finish in no time.

Lunch Date: South Indian food with Madeline DeFrees

(Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.)

Who’s your date today? Blue Dusk: New & Selected Poems 1951-2001, by Madeline DeFrees.

Where’d you go? Dashkin South Indian Bistro, in downtown Kirkland. (Yes, it's my second Indian restaurant in as many weeks, but let me tell you: if your weekend hobby is walking to the Seattle suburbs, Indian restaurants are almost always your best bet if you want good food from a non-franchise restaurant.)

What’d you eat? I had the Dakshin Breakfast Box ($10.95), a sampler plate with a mini masala dosa, medhu vada, and sambhar, among other delights.

How was the food? Delicious! My only other experience with South Indian food is the beloved Chili's in the University District, and Dashkin is even better than that: the food was spicy and sweet, the dosa was fried but not heavy, and the presentation was excellent.

What does your date say about itself?

Contradiction and ambiguity are essential to the poetry of Madeline DeFrees. Her work is concentrated, multi-layered, spliced with humor and characterized by a passionate interest in every aspect of words: their literal and figurative meanings and associations; their histories, usage, disappearances, and resurrections. In her recent poems she approaches complex subjects with a new clarity, the dividend of a long investment in the art of writing.

Is there a representative quote? Try this, from "Shackleton":

Two faces of the same coin: poet and explorer. This

is Shackleton's third

expedition to the Antarctic since he had a vision

of the ice — still more, of isolation.

Will you two end up in bed together? Yes. I've been reading through DeFrees's body of work since she passed away last year, and I've been continually impressed with her craft. I've also become more convinced of her important place in the Seattle poetic tradition. She's thoughtful and earnest and intelligent and a little bit prickly, just like the best of our poets. I think that Blue Dusk is perhaps the best and most accessible of her books for those looking to experience DeFrees for the first time. It's a book I'll be taking with me in my walks around the region for many years to come.

Lunch Date: Taking The Heart to Renton

(Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.)

Who’s your date today? The Heart, a novel by Maylis de Kerangal and translated by Sam Taylor.

Where’d you go? I walked to Renton this weekend. I was very hungry when I got there, and I know very little about Renton, so I asked Twitter where I should go. Josh Cohen recommended Naan-N-Curry a Pakistani/Indian place that's been in downtown Renton for over a decade.

What’d you eat? I had the butter chicken ($13.99) and the garlic naan ($2.99).

How was the food? Granted, I had just walked 16 miles and so I was pretty hungry, but I thought it was really good; maybe the best butter chicken I've ever had in a restaurant. The naan could have used a little more garlic, but the chicken was thick and creamy and packed with spice. It would have been a better family-style dining experience, but as it was, I sopped up the last of the sauce with the last piece of naan, and the four-star heat was just about perfect.

What does your date say about itself? It's a contemporary French novel by an award-winning young novelist. From the publisher’s promotional copy:

Just before dawn on a Sunday morning, three teenage boys go surfing. Returning home, exhausted, the driver lets the car drift off the road into a tree. Two of the boys are wearing seat belts; one is sent through the windshield. He is declared brain-dead shortly after arriving at the hospital. His heart is still beating.

The Heart takes place over the twenty-four hours surrounding a fatal accident and a resulting heart transplant as life is taken from a young man and given to a woman close to death. In gorgeous, ruminative prose it examines the deepest feelings of everyone involved — grieving parents, hardworking doctors and nurses — as they navigate decisions of life and death. As stylistically audacious as it is emotionally explosive, Maylis de Kerangal's The Heart has mesmerized readers in France, where it has been hailed as the breakthrough work of a new literary star.

Is there a representative quote?

Pierre Révol went on duty that morning at eight. As the night sky lightened to a pale dove gray above him, far from the grandiloquent choreographies of clouds that had made the estuary's picturesque reputation, he slid his magnetic card into the reader at the entrance of the parking lot and drove slowly across the hospital grounds, snaking between buildings that connected to each other according to a complex plan, and parked his car — a gunmetal-blue Laguna, quite old but still comfortable, leather interior and good sound system: the model preferred by taxi companies, he thinks, smiling — in his reserved spot, nose first. He entere the hospital, walking quickly across the vast glass-walled lobby toward the North Hall, where he reached the Intensive Care Unit.

Will you two end up in bed together? Yes. That above passage really tells you all you need to know about The Heart: it's a novel about a heart transplant that has all the detail of finely wrought reportage. De Kerangal has clearly done her research into what goes into organ donation, and the book feels more solid and particular than most novels because of it; it only takes up a very short amount of time, but somehow the reader feels as though they understand where everyone is at any second, and why they're doing what they're doing. If it were non-fiction, it would be incredibly compelling stuff. As fiction, I could see certain readers losing patience with The Heart, but those who like to see reality reflected perfectly in fiction — those who care if a character parks nose-in, or back-in — will fall in love with this book.

Lunch Date: Bringing the worst novel in the world out for a salad

(Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.)

Who’s your date today? Atlanta Nights, a novel that was crowdsourced by nearly three dozen science fiction writers.

Where’d you go? Sprout on the ground floor of the Smith Tower.

What’d you eat? I had the South by Northwest salad, which has all the ingredients you'd expect (steak, romaine, salsa, a cilantro-lime dressing) and some you wouldn't (chili-roasted sweet potatoes).

How was the food? It was great. Sprout is my favorite downtown stop for salads; they're not too heavy and not too light — even the Cobb — and the ingredients are always super-fresh. For about ten bucks, you can get a salad that feels like a meal, but which doesn't feel too weighted down with cheese or goopy dressings.

What does your date say about itself? Adam Rowe at Barnes & Noble's Sci-Fi and Fantasy blog explains that the book was written as a way "to expose 'traditional publisher' PublishAmerica as a vanity press." Rowe says:

The sting operation, organized by author and vanity press-buster James D. Macdonald, aimed to create a book designed to be disturbingly bad. He rounded up a host of co-conspirators, among them some of the most popular (and even award-winning) writers in the genre; Sherwood Smith, Adam Troy-Castro, Allen Steele, and Megan Lindholm (aka Robin Hobb) were among those who contributed chapters under intentionally vague guidelines. No one knew any details about the plot, character backgrounds, or even where their chapter would fall in the book.

In the final draft, chapter 21 was missing, replaced by a second chapter 12. Chapter 4 was identical to chapter 17. Chapter 34 was entirely generated by a software program. Reading Atlanta Nights is like experiencing an art project: the text might be justified to the center or to the right at a whim, and page 119 is entirely blank for no discernible reason.

You can read the whole book online for free.

Is there a representative quote? Try this on for size:

The Atlanta sun slanted low in the west, rain showers predicted for later that afternoon, then clearing. Bruce Lucent looked from the side window of his friend's shiny Maserati sports car as they wheeled their way westward against the afternoon traffic.

"I'm glad you could give me a ride," Bruce Lucent muttered, his pain-worn face reddened by the yellow sunlight. "What with my new car all smashed and all."

His old friend, Isadore, shook his massive head at him. "We know how it must be to have a lot of money but no working car," he said, the harsh Macon County drawl of his voice softened by his years in Atlanta high society. "It's my pleasure to bring you back to your fancy apartment, and we're all so happy that y'all is still alive. Y'all could have been killed in that dreadful wreck." Isadore paused to put on the turn signal before making a safe turn across rush-hour traffic into the parking lot of Bruce Lucent's luxury apartment building. "Y'all'll gets a new car on Monday."

"I don't know how I'll be able to drive it with my arm in a cast," Bruce Lucent shoots back. "It's lucky I wasn't killed outright like so many people are when they have horrid automobile wrecks."

"Fortunately, fast and efficient Emergency Medical Services, based on a program founded by Lyndon Baines Johnson the 36th President of the United States helped y'all survive an otherwise, deadly crash," Isadore chuckled.

Will you two end up in bed together? I think so, yes. I've never read something more equivalent to the kind of cheesy thrill you get from a so-bad-it's-good movie like The Room or Showgirls. Half the fun of reading Atlanta Nights is imagining the writers making themselves laugh as they type it out. Some of the lines are so incredibly dumb that they demonstrate real sharpness, like the one about "Andrea who never came on time unless she happened to be laying on someone’s watch during sex." It takes a lot of work to craft a line that terrible. I can't read Atlanta Nights all in one sitting, but as a work of comedy it's a unique thrill.

Lunch Date: Szechuan sandwiches and joining the community

(Once in a while, Paul takes a new book to lunch and gives it a half an hour or so to grab his attention. Lunch Date is his judgment on that speed-dating experience, but today, Martin decided it was time to jump in.)

Who's your date today? The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship & the Writing Life by Lori A. May.

Where’d you go? Country Dough, in the Pike Place Market.

What’d you eat? No. 1: Szechuan Flatbread with pork ($5.00) and a flavored tea: Green tea base with honey flavoring ($3.95).

How was the food? So good. This was my third time at Country Dough, and it won't be my last. The sandwich is served on a grilled flatbread that is somewhere between a cracker and a pita. It's split open and filled with a melange of meat (or tofu) and vegetables. The sandwich is spicy, but not too hot, sweet and sour and absolutely delicious. The kind of savory lingering seasoning you crave more of. The crack of the bread, and the feel as your teeth sink in, shows how much attention they pay to getting the experience just right every time. The tea is also nice. It's iced, cold and refreshing, with a nice honey musk, but not overly sweet.

What does your date say about itself? From the publisher’s promotional copy:

Writing may be a solitary profession, but it is also one that relies on a strong sense of community. The Write Crowd offers practical tips and examples of how writers of all genres and experience levels contribute to the sustainability of the literary community, the success of others, and to their own well-rounded writing life. Through interviews and examples of established writers and community members, readers are encouraged to immerse themselves fully in the literary world and the community-at-large by engaging with literary journals, reading series and public workshops, advocacy and education programs, and more.

In contemporary publishing, the writer is expected to contribute outside of her own writing projects. Editors and publishers hope to see their writers active in the community, and the public benefits from a more personal interaction with authors. Yet the writer must balance time and resources between deadlines, day jobs, and other commitments. The Write Crowd demonstrates how writers may engage with peers and readers, and have a positive effect on the greater community, without sacrificing writing time.

Is there a representative quote? From the chapter The Writer and the Writing Life: "Being an active member of the community offers rewards big and small. Most common ins the feeling of camaraderie and the sense that we are learning more about the fields of writing and publishing. We learn from example. We learn from others. And, sometimes in witnessing another's writing life, we are better able to determine what we ourselves want to accomplish with our craft as we more clearly understand the opportunities available to us."

Will you two end up in bed together? Probably not, but not because I didn't like the book. In fact, I love writing advice books. I have a sizable collection of them. Some have offered great guidance to me, and some are downright hilarious and wrong-headed. Most are serviceable, but completely dependent on the writer in a similar fashion the therapist is to the lightbulb in this joke:

Q: How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Only one, but the lightbulb really has to want to change.

When reading the first few chapters of The Write Crowd, I found myself nodding along, and more than just agreeing with May, recalling back to some of the conversations Paul and I had when we were deciding to start this site.

We both believe literary community is important, and that writers and readers (who are more often than not writers themselves) coming together to create and engage with writing is important.

But May is writing more to young writers who may not realize the importance of community. This is a book obviously geared towards the college writing course market. It's not, like Bird by Bird, or Writing Down the Bones, or (my personal fave) Walter Mosley's This Year You Write Your Novel, a book where inspiration is the goal. It's a practical guide, with asides and points from writers, and a methodical argument built over chapters. Methodical and practical are good words for it.

It's arguing for membership in a club I'm already a dues paying member of. To you, who may not be, I say: give it a try. Or, even better, make an effort to go to at least one reading a month for the next year, and talk to the folks you see at each stop. You'll build a community just like May is advocating. Then, gift the book to your reclusive nephew who read too much Bukowski and is sure the world will recognize his genius so long as he stays holed up in his room torturing himself.

Lunch Date: Turkish food with Boots Riley

(Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.)

Who’s your date today? Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security — We Are the Bomb, a collection of lyrics and interviews from the Coup frontman. (Riley will be at University Book Store in conversation with Jesse Hagopian on Thursday of this week.)

Where’d you go? Cafe Turko in Fremont.

What’d you eat? The beet hummus ($6) and the village salad with chicken ($10).

How was the food? I’m a big fan of Cafe Turko. It’s always way too busy, and the staff is always way too overworked, but it's a great place to get stuffed on healthy food. The beet hummus, especially, is something that I have to order every time. It’s bright like Play-Doh but it’s absolutely delicious. The salad, too, was lovely, with crisp greens and spiced grilled chicken, doused in a baslamic dressing.

What does your date say about itself? From the publisher’s promotional copy:

Provocative and prolific, Boots Riley has written lyrics as the frontman of underground favorites The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, as well as solo artist, for more than two decades. An activist, educator, and emcee, Riley's singular lyrical stylings combine hip-hop poetics, radical politics, and wry humor with Bay Area swag. Boots Riley: Collected Lyrics and Writings brings together his songs, commentary, and backstories with compelling photos and documents.

Is there a representative quote? On the song “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO,” Riley says: “It’s funny because — many times by my detractors — I get called a little too heavy, or my work gets called dogmatic. But actually, most of my lyrics are pretty tongue in cheek. I would probably not make a song about literally killing a CEO. Not because I don’t have a problem with it per se, but because that wouldn’t be a fun song. The things that I think motivate people into action are not doom and gloom, and not anger and rage, the things that I think actually motivate people into action are optimism and hope.”

Will you two end up in bed together? Yes, but this book annoys the hell out of me and I want to talk about that for a second. Boots Riley is one of those multi-media collections of lyrics and artist interviews — kinda like Jay-Z’s Decoded, only in softcover — that overdoes the graphic design. This book is seriously overproduced. Rather than publishing the lyrics like poetry, the book’s designers often lay the lyrics out diagonally across the stage, superimposed over what is supposed to look like a piece of notebook paper. I guess this is to demonstrate passion, or to highlight that the lyrics are a piece of writing?

But you know what highlights the writing in the lyrics more than cheesy graphic design tricks? The lyrics themselves. 
Riley’s politics might offend some readers — oh my God, a political rapper! — but nobody can deny the artfulness of his lyrics. Rather than splashing the pages with a bunch of color and photographs and giant pull quotes, Riley’s words would be better served if presented as poetry.

The thing is, i can’t even tell who all this graphic design is supposed to benefit. Is the book’s ADHD layout intended to draw in music fans? But Riley’s fans are already pretty literate — Slavoj Žižek blurbs this book, along with Dave Eggers — and they don’t likely need to be drawn in by pretty pictures. It’s a case of too much design interfering with the message of the lyrics, which are often about finding meaning in a superficial world. I’m reading this book in spite of the design, not because of it.

Lunch date: Butterflies in November

(Once in a while, I take a new book with me to lunch and give it a half an hour or so to grab my attention. Lunch Date is my judgment on that speed-dating experience.)

Who’s your date today? Butterflies in November, an Icelandic novel written by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir and translated into English by Brian FitzGibbon.

Where’d you go? Queen Bee Cafe on Madison Ave.

What’d you eat? The BLT crumpet sandwich with fruit cup ($7.95) and a pot of Earl Grey ($2.75).

How was the food? Delicious! For the past billion years or so, Seattle has had exactly one excellent crumpet shop (that’s The Crumpet Shop in the Pike Place Market, for the uninitiated). I thought one great crumpet shop was enough for one city. I stand corrected: Queen Bee’s crumpets are baked fresh daily and they’re delightful — airy yet substantial, chewy but not too chewy, just the right texture. The produce in my BLT was fresh and delicious, the bacon was righteous, and the sandwich was accompanied with a cup of fresh berries; for eight bucks, I’d call that a steal. Queen Bee’s ambiance is a little overproduced — it looks slick, like a chain restaurant — but it’s got a lot of comfy seating and the employees are super-friendly. I plan on spending a lot of time there from now on, eating crumpets and drinking tea and reading books and otherwise being downright civilized.

What does your date say about itself? From the publisher’s promotional copy:

After a day of being dumped—twice—and accidentally killing a goose, a young woman yearns for a tropical vacation far from the chaos of her life. Instead, her plans are wrecked by her best friend’s four-year-old deaf-mute son, thrust into her reluctant care. But when the boy chooses the winning numbers for a lottery ticket, the two of them set off on a road trip across Iceland with a glove compartment stuffed full of their jackpot earnings. Along the way, they encounter black sand beaches, cucumber farms, lava fields, flocks of sheep, an Estonian choir, a falconer, a hitchhiker, and both of her exes desperate for another chance. What begins as a spontaneous adventure will unexpectedly and profoundly change the way she views her past and charts her future.

Is there a representative quote? “He’s home. I linger on the frozen lawn before entering, looking in at the light of my own home, and shilly-shally by the redcurrant bush with the goose in my hands, wondering whether he can see it on me, whether he’s noticed. From here I can see him wandering from room to room for no apparent reason, shifting random objects and alternately flicking light switches on and off. I move from window to window around the illuminated home, as if it were a doll’s house with no façade, trying to piece together the fragments of my husband’s life.”

Will you two end up in bed together? Yes, although I’ll admit to a little bit of discomfort. The protagonist of Butterflies in November is at first an almost ridiculously passive character. She lets everyone walk over her, do whatever they want with her, say whatever they dare to her. Too-passive main characters are a pet peeve of mine, and one of the most common problems plaguing literary novels. But based on the publisher’s description, I expect the passivity to decline after the first fifty or so pages of Butterflies. At least, I hope that’s the case.

Anyway, the writing is fantastic. Since I don’t speak Icelandic I can’t say for certain, but FitzGibbon seems to do a good job of capturing the cadence of Ólafsdóttir’s prose; the language is at once searingly human and alien-like. The protagonist’s is a voice that sticks with you, even as her actions infuriate you. The opening few chapters of Butterflies are a bumpy ride, but they promise something more meaningful just around the next bend.