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October 22, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds

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Amplified Dog

Poems

Charles Harper Webb

Red Hen Press: 82 pp., $15.95 paper

CHARLES WEBB, a lifer on the L.A. lit scene and one of its biggest supporters-organizers-mentors, writes with a boyish enthusiasm and a grown-up equanimity that turns the reading of poetry into a kind of letting go, a relaxing of judgment -- in other words, fun. "Amplified Dog" is full of things that may or may not have a message for us: the barking dog in the neighborhood night, who wakes the sleeper "as the moon tunnels through black night to silver sky"; the planet Fazbag, where God teaches kung fu; the imaginary friend who might be a brain afloat in a jar; the "Sad Bus," whose doors open as "weeping pours out." Webb's images are rich, fabulous, funny, and his titles have a news-flash quality that forces the reader to hit the ground running (and often laughing): "Cat Possessed by Poet Keats," say, or "Sperm Counts Are Falling." "Are feminists to blame?" the poet wonders in the latter. "Should we fault the Ozone Hole?"

In many of the poems, darker themes, like what it means to be American, are handled with a lightness and distance that also seem L.A.-ish. ("There is no war / Worth dying for, no glorious pain.") In "Post-Modern Life," Webb bemoans the ironies of life: "All words in black-tie must wear quotation marks, too: / I 'regret' to tell you, it's 'malignant.' / The 'wedding' will 'unfortunately' not 'occur.' " There's something brave about these poems, even as they skip through life, mind a-wandering. "Smile for the camera," the poet advises in "How to Live." "Don't say 'Cheese.' "

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Food Is Culture

Massimo Montanari

Columbia University Press: 168 pp., $22.50

FOOD is many things, writes historian-medievalist-anthropologist Massimo Montanari, but don't delude yourself that it's in any way natural. It's pure artifice, humanity's domination of nature, from the choosing and growing of crops to the act of eating. "Food Is Culture" is a bit like Brillat-Savarin's famous text "The Physiology of Taste," but more digestible. Montanari walks us through the ages, beginning 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent with the birth of agriculture, and shows how we have steadily refined our eating habits and our tastes until they have become synonymous with culture and identity. The pleasure we bring to eating is rooted not only in physiological needs but also in our values and our times. In the 16th century, Montanari writes, hedonists ate salad mid-meal to stimulate the appetite, a practice many considered gluttonous. The recent prestige of thinness is fascinating in light of centuries of the fear of hunger. He writes of the practice of eating together (the coffee break, the banquet, the hermit eating with the animals), the globalization of food, and the decline in regional variety (at least in supermarkets). You are indeed, it seems, what you eat.

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The Last Flight of Jose Luis Balboa

Stories

Gonzalo Barr

Mariner Books: 192 pp., $12 paper

BRAULIO wants his car back. He lent his wife's Plymouth to his friend Pepe Luis, and now he's having trouble getting it returned. His wife is not happy. "I am a patient man." Braulio tells us. "I run a paint and dry wall business." Something about Gonzalo Barr's pitch and timbre is absolutely perfect for his characters and their often out-of-control lives. Perhaps it's the restraint evident in these two simple sentences, or the sheer fondness the author feels for his creatures, with all their faults. In "Coup d'Etat," a man falls in love (against our better judgment) with his neighbor, whose husband is a revolutionary out to kill Hugo Chavez ("another Castro"). In "Melancholy Guide Through the Country of Want," Ugo, whose life is the very picture of control, finds himself in a dangerous vortex of past and present. Many of the stories sparkle with daily ritual, along with the bonus (beyond pleasure) of a spirit-cleansing kindness, patience and tolerance.

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