Saturday, December 31, 2011

It's been a while

I started a new job relatively recently, and my workdays are longer than they were. Also have been running around with visitors, getting ready for the holidays, traveling and so forth.

I recently read Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead, which is a perfectly fine book, but not what I wanted it to be. Too much teenage boy stuff. Way too much. Not nearly enough about everyone else in the book, whose characters seemed way more interesting. Probably if I'm going to read coming-of-age novels I should either stick to ones about women or expect this sort of thing.

Now I just started Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. It's a short story collection, which is normally not my thing at all, but I love her work and it should be good for the train. The first story was excellent.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Other work other places

I recently wrote this piece for my friends' website, Bully Pulp:

It's a little ... strident. People who understood what I was trying to say saw what I was getting at, but I'm thinking I could have said it better.

I also just wrote this, which was published today, on my two-year anniversary of moving to New York City:

I hope a lot of people read the second piece. The editor called it "relatable." I like that. I think it's the most personal piece I've published anywhere besides my own website since I was writing opinion columns for The Bona Venture back in, gasp, the 90s.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

To me, this is a classic highly readable modern novel, a la Freedom. It's about people who seem real, and takes place in a real place and time -- New England and New York in the early 1980s. There's no complicated chronology, no scenes set in the future, no characters who reappear under different names, none of that. There's not much in the way of literary device (that I noticed anyway) except the plot itself, a re-imagining of the classic choice between the difficult maverick genius and the "nice guy." My roommate was just telling me about the latest Twilight movie and it sounds exactly like this book, if this book were terrible instead of being awesome, and also included vampire babies (?).

Adding to my enjoyment of it was that it begins in Providence, RI, one of my all-time favorite places. Eugenides' depiction of the mixture of college-town bohemia and uber-WASPiness (I have such a soft spot for WASPiness, croquet and summer homes and martinis at five and not talking about feelings ...) that characterizes Providence's east side was spot on. Just writing that makes me wish I was there right now, taking in the perfect Revolutionary War-era colonials, cobblestone streets and sidewalk cafes.

Bottom line is: definitely read The Marriage Plot if, like me, you real novels instead of watching television. And no matter what you read, visit Providence if you ever have the chance.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Look At Me, by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit From the Goon Squad, my number-one recommended book of the past year or so, is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. While I think anyone who enjoys literary fiction would enjoy Goon Squad, Look At Me is a different kind of novel. I've read so many books about which I thought, "that was good enough, but it was by, about and for men." Look At Me is the rare novel a man might not "get" at all.

The themes are gender, beauty, identity and power, what it means to have control, and what it means to be an object. It's dark and searing, not dark in say an Oryx and Crake kind of way -- that one I had to put down -- but dark in a "this is forcing me to face up to a lot of things I thought I was good at ignoring" kind of way. One of the themes Egan explores that I don't think I've read about before, ever, is the contempt beautiful women have for women who are not attractive, and vice versa. I spent a lot of my life pretending that didn't exist, but it does, and she nails it. She also takes a deep dark look into the advantages beautiful women have in life, and the ones they really do not. There's a great scene where one of the main characters, a 35-year-old former model, sees a young model walking down the street in Manhattan, watches the power the young woman thinks she has in her ability to attract so many male gazes everywhere she goes. And she remembers how she, too, once thought that's what power was, having other people own and control you because of this fleeting quality, and how now she knows real power comes from what you say and do, from autonomy, not from who owns you and how much money they have.

There are a lot of flat and unrealistic elements to this novel, but I really don't care. It's incredibly engrossing, and it has really made me think.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

This is the latest in a series of books that were the perfect thing for me to be reading during what was going on in my life in New York right then. Since my second week here, almost two years ago, I had worked at a social services agency in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a working-class, largely Hispanic community where a lot of young people from outside New York are moving for affordable rents and access to the L train. Ten or fifteen years ago, those same kids would have moved to Williamsburg, which is also along the L train, closer to Manhattan. Parts of Williamsburg are becoming expensive, but some of the housing projects and ratty old large apartment buildings look pretty much the same as I expect they did 50 years ago, and in the case of the apartment buildings, maybe more.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is set in Williamsburg, just north of Broadway off the J train (it's referred to as the El in the book, a reference to it being an above-ground train I think). Then as now, the parts of Williamsburg off the J train are poorer than the L train regions, teeming with immigrants, overcrowded apartments and small shops.

Several of my coworkers grew up on Williamsburg's south side, as some call it, the children of poor immigrants just like Francie, the main character, and her family. The immigrants are largely Puerto Rican (they're not technically immigrants but still need to learn English) and Dominican now, but the Jewish and Italian neighborhoods in the book are still semi-intact to this day, although few recent immigrants live there anymore.

Point being, the book helped me reflect on everything I had learned in the last two years, how New York changes constantly, but at the same time, some things never change. It's a classic of young adult literature about a bookish girl finding her way in the world and about the struggles of a poor urban family in the years before World War I when the world, as was New York, was becoming a different place.

I finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn yesterday. Tomorrow I start a new job in the Bronx.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

This Land is Their Land, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Published three years ago, this book's title and theme feel very current, with references to the 1% cropping up everywhere these days. I love Barbara Ehrenreich, but this isn't her best work. It's a collection of short essays and I guess newspaper columns; the shorter format doesn't seem to be a good showcase for her writing, which is characterized by a curmudgeonly tone, old-fashioned liberalism, and, usually, reliance on facts and empirical reason. In the shorter format, though, she kind of glosses over the "fact" stuff, replacing it with a punchy humor that sort of falls flat a lot of the time.

But there are still some great moments, like when she says she was caught trying to spread a rumor that Disney's "princess" line of toys are contaminated by lead, or when she honestly discusses why women, including herself, choose abortion. Still, if you haven't read Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed is definitely a better choice, and Bright Sided, better still.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

I haven't left for D.C. yet, but I started reading yesterday. Today I read this exchange, on page 58, in a story about the author, Michael Lewis, visiting a Greek monastery:

... he pauses and asks, "But what is your religion?"
"I don't have one."
"You believe in God?"

Thanks for including that, Michael Lewis. I like his work either way, but now I'm adding him to my list of favorite "out" atheist writers and media personalities, along with Sarah Vowell and Ira Glass.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

I purchased this today with some of my 32nd birthday money, but I like to think of it as a gift to myself.

Early Saturday morning, I'm taking the subway to Penn Station, and then Amtrak to visit my sister in Washington, D.C. I'll settle into my seat with a nice big cup of coffee on what will no doubt be a perfectly crisp fall morning, and maybe when the train stops and the cool air drifts in, a little steam will roll off the top of my cup. I'll be reading Michael Lewis's latest with my knees up against the seat in front of me, enjoying the fact that this is my life, educating myself about the global financial meltdown while on my way from one global city to another, a girl from Bradford, Pennsylvania, taking trains up and down the east coast like some sort of European or something, like it's nothing.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Influencing Machine, by Brooke Gladstone

I reviewed this book quickly on Goodreads. I think it's viewable to non-users.

Similarly, I reviewed Little Bee recently. My opinion can be summed up as: pretty okay book for the first seven chapters, although Little Bee's voice sounds more like a movie voiceover than an actual person. After that, it makes no sense. The end.

I anticipate doing less reading in the next few weeks. I have been traveling a lot on weekends, celebrating my 32nd birthday (next week!), and just got a new job, which I start November 1. Though when that begins, I will be spending a lot more time on the subway. Maybe it's time to give audiobooks a try ...

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hark! A Vagrant

After finishing Midnight's Children, I read One Day (it's okay, don't run to the bookstore and buy it or anything) then decided on something a little lighter. My friend lent me Kate Beaton's book of comics about history, literature, and occasionally just whatever:

I really, really wish I could illustrate this post with "Stupid Rooster Comics," but the format doesn't work that way, so please follow the link and go see it. It never stops being funny. Also look around for Jane Eyre, Gatsby and the Brontes.

I was familiar with Beaton's work only because my friend who lent me the book is a big fan, but now she's everywhere. We saw her at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and now she's about to be on WNYC in 20 minutes or so.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Life And How To Live It

In the spring, I wrote a two-post series about my commitment to loyalty, duty, hard work and being a square. I wrote it largely about The Wire, which I see as in many ways a tribute to what's worthwhile about institutions and eras we'll never get back.

One thing I didn't mention, because I don't spend a lot of time thinking about high school thank god, is how long I stick with things. Friends, haircuts, being a vegetarian (14 years and counting). For years and years, my favorite band was R.E.M. I started listening to them sometime between Automatic for the People (1992) and Monster (1994) because I loved their songs, but it turned out that what R.E.M. was about was not only alternative rock, but about knowing who you are, knowing what works, and sticking to it. They were from an era where selling your song to Microsoft made you a sellout, and they wouldn't do it. No drama, no feuding, no nonsense and no backing down, for 31 years.

Today R.E.M. announced that they're going the way of well-staffed newspapers and Rust Belt economies and breaking up.

Excuse me while I sit on the floor all night listening to my cassette tapes (which I still have! see what I'm saying!) of Fables of the Reconstruction and Life's Rich Pageant, remembering when it was still sort of okay to give things those kinds of earnest names.

When Automatic for the People, which I *think* is their best album (it's debatable for sure) was recorded, Michael Stipe was 32 years old. Unlike R.E.M., I am likely to live another month, and I will see 32 in just a few weeks' time. Not only do I not feel old, but I think this is further proof that I'm at the height of my powers. Bands break up, the world changes, but I'll still be here same as always, eating tofu, reading novels and caring about things.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Brooklyn Book Festival -- where to begin

Today is the day that I think I will start calling Nerd Thanksgiving (Election Day being Nerd Christmas). As with regular Thanksgiving, it's something of an all-day binge. You have to pace yourself to be able to sample everything you want to try. But at this Thanksgiving, no one watches football, or, that I noticed, even gets drunk. Today was the Brooklyn Book Festival, possibly the coolest annual event ever created. It's a full day of panel discussions and book signings, a place where people line up around the block to get tickets to see Paul Krugman or Jonathan Safran Foer, a day on which you will see more tweed and spectacles than at your average academic conference.

One of the most impressive things about this year's lineup is that it somewhat reflected the diversity of Brooklyn and of New York City. I have been to panel discussions that were comprised solely of not just white men, but middle-aged, middle-class, straight white men. I learned some things from those panels, but I probably could have learned more if more than one perspective was represented. Today not only did I see a single panel comprised only of straight white men, I didn't see one comprised only of white people at all. At the Brooklyn Book Festival, the value of diversity becomes immediately obvious, because we don't just hear the perspective of privileged white men (which I am interested in -- I love Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace and all sorts of classics written by dead white guys -- I'm just not interested in it *exclusively*). We hear about the perspectives of all different kinds of people from all over the world. There is no way an event that was centered around the Mailers and Updikes of the world (if they were still alive I mean) could have the same mind-opening potential as one at which I heard a women who lives in Cairo, two celebrated female novelists of color, and three black media critics (one is a cartoonist, but he's a media critic too I think).

The list of writers I saw:
Jodi Kantor
Ben Smith
Kevin Holohan
Tayari Jones
Justin Torres
Michael Kupperman
Keith Knight (my pick for hottest writer of the day; sorry ladies, he's married)
Kate Beaton
Jennifer Hayden
Hisham Mattar
Yasmine El Rahsidi
Lucette Lagnado
Sinan Atoon
Adam Shatz
Jhumpa Lahiri (she stood next to me for five seconds! fangirl alert!)
Liesl Schillinger
Brooke Gladstone (I met her and she signed my book! double fangirl alert!)
Patrice Evans
Jennifer Pozner
Juan Gonzalez

I think their names alone speak to the range of ideas I am still somewhat overwhelmed by. So often, white people only talk to white people about race, or Jews only talk to Jews about Israel, or academic or literary gatherings will relegate The Black Perspective to a panel or two that is specifically about race. Today I saw women disagreeing about whether reality TV is reflecting or influencing reality and the progress of feminism, Arabs and Jews arguing (in a civil way) about the Arab Spring and how optimistic we should be about the future of Egypt, and white, black and Hispanic novelists talking to each other about writing, about the creative process and where their ideas come from.

My brain is so full.

Oh! And today I also learned one piece of what I would call news: Jhumpa Lahiri's next novel will be set in Calcutta in the late 60s and early 70s, which is in part where Midnight's Children, which I'm finally almost done with, takes place. I can't wait to read a book by an author I enjoy that's about the same era, now that I know more about it, but where there will be female characters who do something besides cook and have babies. For what it's worth, what she read today was great. I could have sat in the Episcopal church for the full hour listening to that and not regretted missing her actual talk at all.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Midnight's Children

My friend and I are reading this (well, she's done) as a sort of two-person long-distance book club. I can't say I'm crazy about it, but I had a moment in the breakroom at my office today where I said to myself, "wait ... I think I ... get it!"

Is that the point of reading Great Books that one only sort of enjoys? To gain some sort of enlightenment and then, if you do it enough, maybe even insight or depth of character? One can hope.

At any rate, it's like this: the main character of this book was born at the exact moment India achieved independance from Great Britan. He and the other midnight's children all have special powers, and a special ability to communicate with each other; they have a special connection to India itself. There's a whole unreliable narrator dynamic, like is the main character making up this whole crazy life he's led where he was present for various important moments in the history of India and Pakistan and could communicate telepathically and so forth. There is also another midnight's child whose life is specifically parallel to his, and this is all set against a backdrop of repeated revolutions and civil wars, so that the reader is always able to observe what could have been if fate had twisted just a little bit differently.

To me, the larger point is this: all of our lives have epic qualities. Look at who you are, where you came from, how things have changed, and how differently it all could have turned out. In a way, we're all midnight's children. Metaphorically speaking of course.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Saturday, August 20, 2011

You Must Go and Win

One of my good friends has a thing about quitting. He thinks it's important to quit something that isn't working out, or just isn't working for you, and to do it as soon as reasonably possible. And he feels this way to the point where I think he respects people a little bit less (maybe even a lot less?) if they just keep plugging away. I forget what the exact logic is, but I think it has something to do with not wasting your life.

I have historically seen things the opposite way. To me, there's honor in sticking with a crappy job or a degree program you're not too sure about. Quitting seems flighty and immature. It's also something I would have a hard time owning up to, ending a relationship or dropping out of law school (which I didn't do). It would feel like failure.

Ultimately, sometimes it's best to admit something isn't working and cut your losses, and other times the smart thing to do is tough it out. But how do you figure out which is which?

If there's a theme tying together the stories of You Must Go and Win, a sort of memoir/essay collection by a struggling musician who was born in the USSR, it's that. Alina Simone, the author, moved from Ukraine to the Boston suburbs as a child when her father fell out of favor with the KGB. As one might imagine, such a history paves the way for a lot of seeking, and a lot of colorful tales. Many of them are set in Siberia. This is mostly what the book is about -- here are some crazy stories about a quirky singer/songwriter in search of her past, and, also, herself. Some of them are pretty funny. Some are like a slightly boring knockoff of Sarah Vowell. But one can see how a book about a struggling musician can also be a book about whether it makes sense to keep trying. The answer may not be what you think it is.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Quality of Life Report

In the past couple of years, I have read several novels about moving to New York or living in New York. Now, one about leaving New York. The Quality of Life Report looks at first like a trifle. I bought it in Michigan with the thought of reading on my grandma's pool deck, or on the bus ride home. My first observation was that it was a well-written trifle.

"When my friends and I were not discussing the lack of available men, we were usually discussing moving out of New York," Meghan Daum, the author, writes. "When somebody came home from an unusual location -- a wedding in Nova Scotia or a snorkeling trip in Australia -- and spent two weeks obsessing about moving into a yurt on the Bay of Fundy, we called it an Alternative Lifestyle Alert. The guiding principle of the Alternative Lifestyle Alert was that it was never acted on. Until now." Alternative Lifestyle Alert! That sounds like something my friends back in Buffalo would have said!, I thought, and kept on with what I still thought was a beach read.

For us professional-type people who did not grow up in or near New York City, the choice is roughly something like this: on the one hand, The Outside offers affordable housing, the proximity of friends and family, comfort and convenience. On the other hand, New York offers the opportunity to do and accomplish things you otherwise could not, the idea that even in this day and age, you can just sell your things, pack up what's left, and go really make something of yourself. The question is not only where do you want to live, but who do you want to be.

Lucinda, the main character in The Quality of Life Report, describes it as a conflict between substance and style. Leaving New York, she decides, will make her become a person of substance. Slowly she realizes that when you leave your stupid, fake problems (childish men, bad fashion, too-small apartments) behind, what you find out in the real world are real problems.

If I say more, I'll give too much away. Friends who have been torn between the big city, the small city and home sweet home, please read this. And then discuss it with me.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Big Short

If the first Wall Street movie is to Liar's Poker as the second Wall Street movie is to The Big Short, then Michael Lewis has outdone Oliver Stone by far. In both cases, the original was better, but in this case, the second volume still tells a new great story, updated for and relevant to a couple decades later.

The Big Short is a character-driven story of highly complex financial transactions and a corrupt system that works for no one but the handful of people who are making tens, sometimes hundreds, of millions of dollars off of it. So was Liar's Poker. The difference is that Liar's Poker was an autobiographical story. Lewis himself had recently left a lucrative Wall Street job where he made, he felt, way more money than he was worth doing something that had no social purpose. He wanted to chronicle a time of irrational excess that he thought wouldn't last, and he wrote about it in a way that was funny and a little self deprecating here and there. Twenty years later he reports, not only was I wrong that it wouldn't last, things got worse than ever, and the whole economy nearly went down with them.

The choice in The Big Short to focus largely on people who saw subprime lending and mortgage-backed securities for what they were, and to tell their story, was a great one. We get to see how these people had unique perspectives and personalities that led them to believe that although everyone said they were wrong, they weren't wrong. Like so many of the books I've written about here, it made me think of Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. In that book, Gladwell shows how the people who are the best at what they do got that way by not just intelligence and hard work (lots of people are smart. lots of people work hard. But there's only one Steve Jobs.) but also by unique combinations of circumstances. Steve Eisman, one of the main characters in The Big Short, was the child of investment bankers who became a corporate lawyer, hated it, then had his parents get him a job at the one investment banking firm that still tolerated renegades. If he hadn't learned about the field from his parents, and they hadn't gotten him a job at what was probably the only firm where he could thrive, he would not have become the man who foresaw the meltdown, no matter how brilliant he was. That's not the point of the story -- the point of the story is that everything sucks and we're all screwed, I'm pretty sure -- but it's an interesting point nonetheless.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Chronic City

One review of this book describes the main character, Chase Insteadman, and his astronaut fiancee, Janice Trumbull, as both being "adrift." That's the best way to put it, I think. Jonathan Lethem, the author, grew up in pre-gentrification Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, and has written at least two novels I know of about those hard-luck streets. Here he's taking on a very different type of subject matter: Manhattanites who have sold out, come unglued, or, as someone else described it, gone adrift.

Chronic City isn't a self-involved meditation on privilege and the lack of meaning in modern life, though it can seem so at first. It's about how modern life in Manhattan, and maybe the rest of the U.S., is driven by nothing more than a desire to be entertained. In Insteadman's Manhattan, The New York Times publishes a "war free" edition filled with updates on a tiger that's said to have escaped from the Central Park Zoo, and dispatches from space, where a tragic group of astronauts are floating forever with no way to get home.

Neither I nor Lethem is the first person to reflect on how New York City, center of so much that happens in the world, can often seem like nothing more than an amusement park for the insanely wealthy, shockingly idle, and impossibly privileged. To say anything more would be to give away events that happen more than 200 pages in.

Monday, July 11, 2011


A few days ago, a New York Times blog published this post, about Times' writers favorite novels. A former journalist myself, I shouldn't be surprised there's so much overlap between their lists and mine. Mine, if it existed. How does one pick five favorite novels? If I could make a top-ten or top-twenty list, though, it would include The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, A Visit From The Goon Squad, Infinite Jest, and maybe Franny and Zooey and Anna Karenina. I prefer On Beauty to White Teeth and A Widow For One Year to Owen Meany, which I haven't read and doubt I ever will due to the eye strain-inducing way the dialogue was written.

Reading this list was like flipping through an old photo album. I remembered a college professor harrumphing about the baseball team's loud get-pysched music in the class where For Whom The Bell Tolls (which I didn't care for) was discussed. White Noise is also a college memory; I first read it in an honors seminar for a philosophy class. I can see how someone would think it was overrated, but I find myself thinking about it and referring to it 11 or 12 years later all the same. I can't separate Remains of the Day (god I love that book so much) from the memory of the last summer I spent in Ithaca, in a cramped and devestatingly charming studio apartment without proper window screens, and with no money whatsoever, working an unpaid internship at City Hall and a night job at the local paper. Graham Greene -- nerd camp, summer, 1995, Alanis Morisette and Green Day and not being old enough to drive and hating it. Invisible Man -- the shoebox of books my uncle salvaged from the end of a library sale and mailed to me from Michigan. That's how I got The Awakening too, now that I think of it. Anything by Henry James reminds me of the time my best friend and I both tried to check Washington Square out of the library at the same time, just a few months into knowing each other, 14 years ago.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is the book of moving to New York.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is the book of being here, no longer a recent arrival.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Sports Night

There are weeks when I have too much to think about to do a lot of recreational reading. When I have time during those weeks, I like to lie around watching The West Wing or 30 Rock and petting the cat.

This week the show of choice is Sports Night, a largely forgotten early Aaron Sorkin gem that takes place where I spent my formative years: the newsroom. The year was 1998. Bill Clinton was still the president. The World Trade Center (featured in location shots in every episode) was still standing. "Journalism" was both a reasonably practical thing to major in and something one could do for a career. Irony existed, but it was okay to be without it too. Caring about things was permitted and sometimes even encouraged. People were just starting to use email and cell phones for practical day-to-day communication. The world was full of possibility and un-dashed hopes. Or so I remember it ...

Though on the other hand, Netflix instawatch wasn't invented yet back then. You had to go to the "store" to rent "videos." Hard to picture, isn't it?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Goon Squad, final thoughts

At my grandfather's wake, my sister said to me, "I keep looking at Grandma and thinking, in 25 years, Mom will be that old."

"And I'll be as old as Mom," I said.

That, in a nutshell, is what A Visit From the Goon Squad is about -- those moments when you feel the years that have gone by.

Goon Squad is, among many things, a triumph for feminism. I know there are many reasons women authors are rarely behind the next East of Eden, the next Infinite Jest, the next The Corrections. The first is outright discrimination. But I think a more significant reason is the way women are socialized from birth. I have been to so many panel discussions in New York where women panelists came off poorly because they were not only obviously nervous, but, worse, constantly apologizing for their work and making self-deprecating jokes. I do it. I don't mean to be accusatory. Women learn to provide emotional support and pick up after others. Men learn not to sweat the small stuff and to focus on big ideas.

I know all of this. And yet, there must have been a part of me that wondered whether women really were capable of doing everything men could. Otherwise, when I read Goon Squad, I would not have known for the first time that women can write novels that are 100% as equally impressive as those written by men. I haven't read Jennifer Egan's other books, but if they are of similar quality, I wouldn't say she's as good as David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen. I would say she's better.

You know how even if you don't agree with everything Barack Obama has done since he was elected (or ever I guess), there's a quality about him that seems too perfect to be real? You'll never catch him getting mixed up in a sex scandal, or choking on a pretzel, or puking on the prime minister of Japan. And do you know why that is? Because if he did things like that, he wouldn't have made it anywhere close to this far. Black people don't have as much leeway to fuck up, period, and so if a black man was going to be elected president, it's not because he's "as good" as white people, it's because he's twice as good at what he does. I think Jennifer Egan is the Barack Obama of Great American Novelists. Her work has all the sweep and ambition of the other novelists I was talking about, but with so much less ego and so much more discipline. Someone please, read the book and tell me if you agree.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Lush Life, by Richard Price

Richard Price has written episodes of The Wire. I am one of those people who feel okay about saying The Wire is the greatest television show ever made, even though I haven't, you know, seen every television show ever made.

So I start reading Lush Life, which I salvaged from a friend's stoop sale box, and it's just not my speed at all. I can see the similarities to The Wire -- the characters from every aspect of life in a high-crime urban area are portrayed, lots of "gritty," lots of "real," plot looks like it's going to be pretty complicated and a little on the confusing side. Watching The Wire, I wasn't too concerned about figuring out who was who and who did what to who seven episodes ago and what that was about and etc. I just sort of let it unfold and figured I would figure it out sooner or later. I guess reading a book is different; I feel like if I don't keep track of the characters and the plot, I'm going to have absolutely no idea what's going on. And I guess I don't like the book enough to not mind the possibility of going back and reading it all over again.

Also in Lush Life, I feel like I'm supposed to be trying to figure out who the killer was. In The Wire, you usually know who the killer is; you're just watching all the stuff that happens around that happen, and maybe if you're the sort of person who likes to try to guess what will happen next, trying to figure out which bodies are going to drop next.

The other possibility is that in Lush Life I'm supposed to know who the killer is and I just didn't get what the hell was going on.

Further, there's an indescribable quality about Lush Life where the author seems to think he's being really clever knowing all these little things about life on the Lower East Side and all the different disenfranchised groups of people who live there. Like some 24-year-old suburban kid who feels all in the know when he or she is like oh, don't go down that block, crackheads hang out down there. Except I'm not saying he's not knowledgable. So far as I can tell, he is. The tone just really annoys me. The Wire seems to be saying: there's a tragedy unfolding here that no one knows how to stop. Where Lush Life is saying: look how street I am.

I haven't decided whether I'm really reading this book or not. I'm 80 pages in.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I Totally Meant To Do That

I spent my lunch break reading this and while I still love it, sometimes it seems like Jane Borden doesn't know the exact type of Williamsburg, Brooklyn cliche that she is. Struggling young person from a small town loving the anonymity and unpredictability of city life, sure. But she also comes across sometimes as one of New York's most loathable types: rich hipster tourist kid slumming it with "the real people" for a few years so as to pretend to be interesting even though he or she will be returning to his or her world of shelter and privilege soon enough.

But still. I find her New York references less annoying than those of say Peter Hedges or Gary Shteyngart, maybe because rather than being throwaway in jokes or just plain pointless, they actually add something to her story if you're familiar with, say, the J train or The Abbey.

Example: "After leaving Black Betty, John and I popped by a new bar in the building next to mine on Bedford Avenue. But we stopped short in the doorway; something was slightly off. It was too loud to be so empty. And it was a bit too, if this is possible, red. Plus, the bartender eyed us desperately. It was like the bar was trying to be a bar, instead of being a bar. And it was trying too hard."

I know that place. I spent part of my 30th birthday there, before I moved to New York. Later, a friend arranged to meet an Internet date there, not knowing they'd be showing porn on the big projection screens in the back.

I'm completely not kidding, and, yes, that is her entire description of the bar, and, yes, I'm sure I have the right place. Who's the Brooklyn jerk now, we ask ourselves.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Cartoon Assassin

"The Cartoon Assassin" is as spot-on a description of what it's like to move to New York as anything I've read on the topic. It's an essay in Jane Borden's book I Totally Meant To Do That. I saw her speak at Brooklyn's Greenlight Bookstore a while back and when I returned to the store with more money in my bank account and a long weekend in front of me, I picked it up. It's the tale of a well-bred southern debutante moving to Manhattan and struggling to fit in.

New New Yorkers find ourselves constantly swapping tales about all of the stupid things we did and discovered -- standing around on the A train platform at Penn Station forever until realizing oh, if the A is running local, it will be stopping on the C/E platform (duh), nearly stepping in chicken guts when innocently walking home from the local bar, learning what "train juice" is when it drips down off the M train tracks first thing in the morning. Borden describes this parade of disaster perfectly.

"The city isn't evil; it's simply in it's nature to destroy. It can't help itself. Kind of like the god of the Old Testament. Except New York is craftier, enjoying the chase. It will sneak up behind you, giggling, and stuff dynamite in your backpack. And if you happen to spin around too soon, it will hid its weapon, look the other way and whistle ... And sure enough, you later find a skull-and-crossbones bucket propped above your door. The city relishes it's perdition. It's a gremlin, a cartoon assassin."

And when I read this, I had to pause, put down the book, and wipe away tears from laughing so hard: "A gust of wind covered my fresh vanilla ice cream cone with dirt and trash. A falling Diet Coke can -- origin unknown -- bounced off my head. It was empty, but still: That is absurd."

I will never forget my first truly miserable hot summer day in New York. I was crossing Dekalb Avenue below Fort Greene Park directly behind a stopped bus. The bus roared away in a cloud of hot, nasty pollution and grime, including a piece of trash that, yes, bounced off my head. It was a harbinger of so many things to come.

Monday, May 16, 2011

All Families Are Psychotic, by Douglas Coupland

I think this book is about how Canadians see America, if the way Canadians see America is: incredibly fucked up and terrifying, in a "whee, that was a wild ride" sort of way.

It reminds me of an episode of a British TV show that I loved. The show is called Top Gear and it's about cars. In this particular episode, the hosts go to the U.S. to drive from Miami to New Orleans in cars they purchase in Miami for $1,000.00 or less. They go around in these like rusty pick-up trucks spray painting "Richard Petty is gay" or what have you on each other's vehicles and trying not to get punched and it's all fun and games until they get to New Orleans a year after Katrina. Then they're like "well ... how messed up America is is actually not that amusing at all. And boy do we feel like jerks." And they give the cars to poor people and return to Europe looking haunted.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Learning to Drive, by Katha Pollitt

I have an unfinished post about A Visit From The Goon Squad. That's because I think three posts is plenty, but I haven't finished the book, either. I haven't finished the book because I had 20 pages to go when I gave it to my mother. Drat. I plan on just going out and buying it, as I'm going to be pushing it on friends for years to come.

Meanwhile, I had a stack of library books rapidly approaching their due date, so I reread The Great Gatsby (had been meaning to do that for ages), then started on Learning to Drive. Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation; I've seen her work but don't read it with any regularity. She's the sort of middle-aged left-wing Manhattan intellectual who does not seem to have any counterpart in my generation, maybe because the counterparts can't afford to live there. Regardless, while I thought that Julie Klausner, who is my own age, didn't really have my number, Pollitt surely does.

" ... I had always thought that left-wing men were the worst. In college I would look around the cafeteria tables where the anti-war activists sat for hours over tuna melts and Cokes and think how sad it was that my politics had led me to this very small pool of potential boyfriends, all seriously problematic. The Maoists of the Progressive Labor Party were rigid and bizarre and always trying to get you to hand out leaflets at six in the morning. The rock-and-rollers and Weatherman sympathizers were callow and conceited and usually stoned. And yet it was not possible to be with a man who was conservative or apolitical, or even just a Democrat, someone who might have, say, voted for Hubert Humphrey. Even a McCarthy supporter was pushing it. Those people were so naive."

Har har. Marxists. Don't think they're not still around.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Visit From The Goon Squad

It just gets better. Franzen without the hokeyness. Foster Wallace without the self indulgence.

Though I fear certain aspects of getting older, as most people do, in other ways I feel like I was made for it, because I always want to know what happens in the end. In my early 30s, I am already starting to learn who lives, who dies, who stays married, who gets a divorce, who succeeds, who fails. I'm getting to know people I knew when they were babies as adults, and I remember thinking about them when they were very young, I can't wait until you're old enough to have a real conversation with me.

A Visit From The Goon Squad is the perfect book for someone who always wants to know what happened. We see characters at 40-something, then back at 17, and others at 17 and then at 40-something. Some characters we meet and learn the fate of all in one chapter, almost as an aside: this is what happened to that person.

I also love this book because it is filled with women who make what one character terms "disastrous choices," but doesn't portray them as without agency. That seems obvious: choices, agency. But it isn't. In so many cases, the younger ex wives of a record producer would be portrayed as pitiable victims, and also as secondary characters, relevant only as per their role in his path toward redemption and maybe treating women better someday. Here, they are people who, as anyone does, make mistakes that they learn from. One woman comes back from an international expedition with her wealthy older boyfriend thinking, well, that was fun, but time to get on with my graduate work. She looks around at her ratty apartment, sees year after year of squinting over textbooks and living on lentil stew stretched out before her and thinks, hmm, pitching grad school to marry a guy who is fun and rich, maybe not so bad. Then, later, she's like, well, that was stupid, but what can you do. Pretty much everyone I know thinks just like that.


When I'm in a certain mood, this is also how I feel:

Jules put his arm around her. "If you'd ask me this morning, I would have said we were finished," he said. "All of us, the whole country — the fucking world. But now I feel the opposite."

Stephanie knew. She could practically hear the hope sluicing through her brother. "So what's the answer?" she asked.

"Sure, everything is ending," Jules said. "But not yet."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Tonight I went to my local bookstore for a reading and interview. The featured novel/novelist were So Much Pretty and Cara Hoffman, respectively. Hoffman came across as a very significant and solid intellect. She was self aware without being self-deprecating in that way women often are, where we/they constantly apologize for their work or their presence. I was interested in her book because it takes place in rural New York, but I learned it's more about violence against women.

At any rate, while I was there, I purchased A Visit from the Good Squad, Jennifer Egan's very recently Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. My mom was interested in reading it and I'm going to see her next week. There are no bookstores where my parents live and while she could order it from Amazon, could she get an autographed copy that costs nothing extra, is just there for the buying because the author lives nearby? No she could not.

The book is not mine. It belongs to my mother. But a little peek wouldn't hurt, why not, it will just be sitting there for a week ... within minutes I felt the urge to shun all human contact, to read at the bus stop, to read in line at the grocery store, to read while I'm on hold with New York City government. I was about 9 pages in when I started to think, who needs people when you have books. The feeling is similar to the one I had when I finally broke down and purchased Freedom, and I was happy it was rainy and miserable that day, because who wanted to do anything anyway.

This is going to be good.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I Don't Care About Your Band, by Julie Klausner

A friend of mine lent me this book, unsolicited. I think he was trying to tell me something. Maybe I should explain by using the book's full title: I Don't Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters, and Other Guys I've Dated.

Some of Klausner's stories are pretty funny, and some of her points are pretty feminist. On that second point, it's weird that she's ... so down on women. She says female friends are of limited use because inevitably having them leads to drama, competition and hating each other. I have found this to be the case a couple of times in my life, max. Maybe her perspective comes from life in the entertainment industry, but if it does, she shouldn't generalize. I guess I should be happy that I've had many, many great female friends in my life and leave it at that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bored to Death

My new favorite New York story.

Bored to Death is an HBO series staring Jason Schwartzman as New York author Jonathan Ames. Jonathan Ames is an actual author living in actual New York, and he wrote the show. It's shot here, largely in Fort Greene, which is thoroughly recognizable. The other scenes are too; I was immediately able to place a bridge over the Gowanus Canal, the boardwalk at Coney Island, and Grand Army Plaza.

And I also noticed that the main characters were running through Grand Army Plaza, turned a corner and ended up in front of Moe's, a bar on Lafayette Street in Fort Greene, which must be a good mile away. And that the main character is always riding the F train, which doesn't go to Fort Greene. Is Fort Greene playing Cobble Hill or Carroll Gardens?

But no matter. So many shows in which New York plays a central row show stuff everyone knows about -- exclusive clubs, high-end boutiques, hailing cabs, the view from skyscraper windows, endless location shots of the Brooklyn Bridge. Those shows don't look any different to me now than they did before I lived here. Bored to Death is different. It's about shady Russians, Hasidic Jews, giant strollers, the Park Slope Co-Op, and, of course, working artists and writers sitting around Brooklyn cafes going "I hate my life." That is the New York that I know.

I should also note: as I told my friend Matt, and nearly forgot to repeat here, this show is basically Entourage for nerds, or at least the brownstone Brooklyn set. In this male fantasy, you get to meet Jim Jarmusch, draw comics for a living and smoke pot in a Suburu.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Heights, by Peter Hedges

I picked this one up while I was wandering around Brooklyn's central public library waiting for Internet time. It looked like a nice light New York City-centric story to enjoy on my lunch breaks. Which, I guess it was, because that's what I did with it. Or, I read it during lunch, anyway. "Enjoy" might be a stretch. I found the characters to be neither believable, nor, worse, likable. But I guess I cared enough about what happened to see it the whole way through, so it must have had some appeal.

The Heights is about a middle-class couple with two boys struggling to make ends meet in Brooklyn Heights, a tony neighborhood one train stop from Manhattan that's home to a lot of Wall Street types and old money. Brooklyn Heights is my favorite rich neighborhood in Brooklyn. It's not trendy at all; I consider it to be more "classic." The streets are lined with gorgeous old co-op buildings, 19th-century rowhouses, and normal places like a plain old not-organic grocery store, a nice liquor store, coffee shops, a health food restaurant, dark old bars, a ratty old movie theater, even a diner.

In addition to neither half of the couple seeming like a real person, the other characters were even worse. They all appeared to be excuses to make up the most old money-sounding names the author could think of, like Anna Brody-Ashworth and Claudia Von Somethingorother. Hedges also does something that I found really annoying in Super Sad True Love Story, which is filling the book with unnecessary specific New York detail. Does it really matter whether someone walks down Hicks or Henry street on their way to the 2/3, and that they pick it up at Clark Street as opposed to say Borough Hall? Does it matter whether they live on Orange, Cranberry or Pineapple? Gary Shteyngart's characters were forever taking the F here or there. Why does it have to be the F? How does that detail help anyone who isn't familiar with the city? Or anyone who is, for that matter, because if you recognize his Lower East Side location and you know the characters are going to Midtown, you don't need to be told it's the F. Are such a huge percentage of their readers occasional visitors to NYC who will feel oh-so-in-the-know because they've been to the Connecticut Muffin on Montague Street? I really don't get this at all.

Plus, it shows that the details had no relationship to anything like a creative process, being 100 percent copied from real life.

One star.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I don't know why the returns in the post below won't take. I redid them three times.

Update: fixed! Somehow.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

New York happenings

On Monday night, I ventured to Midtown to see "Who Took The Bomp?," the new Le Tigre tour documentary, make its New York debut at the MOMA. As I walked up to the museum, I tried to determine which door to go into to buy movie tickets. I started to pass the first one, but then turned around when I realized, oh yeah, those are the Le Tigre fans. Silkscreened t-shirts, canvas bags, vintage glasses, tightly clutched notebooks -- near everyone there looked like he or she had graduated from a Seven Sisters school. The movie was fun, and I learned a thing or two during the informal panel discussion that followed. (By informal panel discussion, I mean that they called two band members and a couple of other people who had been involved in making the film up to the front and they stood around and took a few questions. Kathleen Hannah herself, just standing around talking to people. Oh New York.)

As I told a friend in an email, the best thing I took away from it was Kathleen Hannah's take on 90s nostalgia (in the panel discussion and the film). She said that she loves that people in their 20s wish they were around for the 90s, and that the attention she gets now is gratifying, but that it was not all that great to live through. Music critics said horrible things about her, she was constantly called fat, a slut, a feminazi, other feminist bands thought they weren't feminist enough, etc. and she felt up against it all the time. In a weird way she reminded me of Hillary Clinton. I can't imagine standing up to the barrage of misogyny and insults every single day for 20+ years has been worth it for her, either, but at some point she must have decided that history was more important.


Yes, that's right. Young people now were too young to know about bands or see shows or what have you during the NINETIES.

*picks up cane*

*hobbles off*

On Friday, Tina Fey is going to be at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble promoting her new book. I may brave it. I also may leave my glasses at home, so as not to look like an absolute fool/superfan/nerd girl.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Generation X, by Douglas Coupland

I'm not sure I like how much this book spoke to me. It was published 20 years ago to all sorts of "voice of a generation" type accolades. Twenty years ago, the characters were in their late 20s -- which is to say, if they were real, they'd be 15-20 years older than I am. But their lives looked just like those of everyone I knew a few years ago, when I was in my late 20s. They way they lived, their jobs, their instantly close friendships, the way they *talked.* My god, as you can see below, they talked exactly like the people I knew. Maybe it means there is something to the seemingly random business of where generation lines are drawn. Xers were born up through 1980, which means that I'm one and so are all my friends I wrote about in the last two posts. All in all, I rate this book the thinking woman's Reality Bites. Gold star.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Everything is better this way

New theory: all conversations are better when written in the style of the famous author and friends quoted below.

"So then Tara was like, Remember that guy Tom? And it didn't ring a bell and she was like, you know, blonde, tall, military guy, made that creepy comment about the skirt you said looked okay?
"And I was like oh, Parakeet Tom! And she pratically fell off her bar stool laughing, all 'parakeets! How could I forget about the parakeets! hee hee hee *wheeze*'
"Tara, I said, how could I remember anything else about this guy but that he came to that happy hour you won at OPM Lounge when it first opened and it was double weird because the place was new so there was no one in there and also law school just started so you invited a bunch of people you didn't really know to your thing and this *dude* came and hung out and talked to us about his parakeets and how he would breed them and like put a little cover over their cage ... augh oh god ew.
"and at that point of course Tara, in true Tara fashion, is like clutching herself laughing, wiping tears, unable to move or speak. Everything she cracks up about becomes twice as funny due to this sort of behavior. It's like, don't even bring up Teddy Ruxpin or nothing will be said for half an hour probably."

Monday, March 14, 2011

Let's play a game

Which of these passages were written by an author hailed as the voice of his generation, and which are just stuff my friends wrote on the Internet?

A.) Him: he's so...he's so manly. Like, throwing his Dickies messenger bag in the back of his truck and starting up the truck with a cig hanging from his mouth, and then idling while saying good bye, his leg tucked into the door frame, with his 1940's matinee idol socks and, for lack of a better word, saddle shoes, his foot held just so- a kind of sprung nonchalance.


B.) "Anyhow, this rich broad, this real Sylvia type" (Elvissa calls rich women with good haircuts and good clothes Sylvias) "comes out from the spa building going mince mince mince with her little shoey-wooeys and her Lagerfeld dress, right up to this guy in front of me. She purrrrs something I miss and then puts a little gold bracelet around this guy's wrist which he offers up to her (body language) with about as much enthusiasm as though he were waiting for her to vaccinate it. She gives the hand a kiss, says 'Be ready for nine o'clock' and then toddles off."


A.) I will attempt to do justice to this photo: taken in 1983, when Tomtom was about 2 or so, it's him, his dad and a huge white rabbit on a deck or table of somekind- Tommie is propped up on his forearms and hands kissing the bunny, his AWESOME 1980's "racing" parka falling over half his face, but the other half that we can see is 100 percent focused on kissing that bunny! His father, puffy late 1970's do, slight mustache and all is holding the bunny still. It's typical upstate NY Easter weather, which means it's about 12 degrees out and overcast, and the muted, yellow-orange palette of photos from the era warm the scene up. Something about Tommy's innocent, pudgy face kills me. I can see his character- giving, open, loving, and yet forceful and a bit eager, all in this photo. His father's face-- at first I thought he was concentrating on Tommy with the same amount of concentration Tommy was giving the bun, but then I saw it: he's just focused on holding the bunny still. He left Tommy and his mother shortly after that.


B.) "One night Mom came out onto the patio in a pink sundress and carrying a glass pitcher of lemonade. Dad swept her into his arms and they danced to the samba music with Mom still holding the pitcher. She was squealing but loving it. I think she was enjoying that little bit of danger the threat of broken glass added to the dancing. And there were crickets cricking and the transformer humming on the power lines behind the garages, and I had my suddenly young parents all to myself — them and this faint music that sounded like heaven — faraway, clear, and impossible to contact — coming from this faceless place where it was always summer and where beautiful people were always dancing and where it was impossible to call by telephone, even if you wanted to."


A.) "I mean, it's just so DIRE! It all sounds so damn serious in print. Men never do that shit. I mean, nothing, nothing induces more stomach- churning dread than the sight of an email with the headline "please read" from your soon -to- be- ex in your inbox. The Declaration of Independance? Thomas Jefferson's wife wrote that shit, you know it! Breaking up with the King of England...a man would never do that by letter! You just know she wrote that for him...'George, we have to talk'. I mean, that's a break up letter if I ever saw one."


B.) "Suddenly I was into this tres deeply. Well, if I'm going to quit anyway, might as well get a thing or two off my chest.
" 'I beg your pardon,' says Martin, the wind taken out of his sails.
" 'Or for that matter, do you really think we enjoy hearing about your brand new million-dollar home when we can barely afford to eat Kraft Dinner sandwiches in our own grimy little shoe boxes and we're pushing thirty? A home you won in a genetic lottery, I might add, sheerly by dint of your having been born at the right time in history? You'd last about ten minutes if you were my age these days, Martin. And I have to endure pinheads like you rusting above me for the rest of my life always grabbing the best piece of cake first and then putting a barbed-wire fence around the rest. You really make me sick."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Part two

So what does my re-dedication to loyalty, duty, hard work and being a square have to do with The Wire, aka the greatest television show ever made? To me, The Wire, especially its second and fifth seasons, is a 60-hour eulogy for communities and ways of life that are dying all around us.

The second season focuses on Baltimore's struggling shipping industry and dockworkers union. It's about what it means to come from the Rust Belt. Sons can't make a living in the industry that their fathers and grandfathers did. The next generation has to either leave home, or stay at great economic sacrifice. Nick Sobotka, a young dockworker, is a central character of the second season. Over its course, he loses so much in terms of his family, his livelihood and the future he thought he would have. The life of an honest day's work paying enough to own a home, family close by in the neighborhood, camaraderie in the union hall, drinks after work with your best friends -- it's all been lost to smuggling and fancy condos, big paydays for a handful of people and nothing for everyone else. The second season closes with a montage of all of those changes. When I watched it, I noticed one thing was missing: someone like me packing up the u-haul and hugging friends and family goodbye.

In addition to the small-town America I grew up in and the no-nonsense values of the Rust Belt city that became my adopted home, the life that I knew as a young adult is disappearing too. I applied to journalism school at 16 and showed up at the student paper at 17, earnest, idealistic, and full of ideas for opinion columns I wanted to write. Dedication was the number-one quality for succeeding at The Bona Venture and when I demonstrated it, they put me on staff right away. Journalism was my life until I was almost 24, when I pitched it and went to law school. My reasons for doing so were not well-formed but it turned out to be a good decision. After I left, my old colleagues, incredibly bright and incisive people and good writers too, started getting laid off in droves. Newsrooms shrunk, contracted again, and shrunk some more. In my kitchen cupboard here in Brooklyn I have a mug that says "Circ's up!" -- the whole staff got them when the circulation of our small-city daily newspaper rose. It looks like a rotary phone or an eight-track tape, just eight years later. Newspaper circulation rising and profits going up, when did that happen?

The small-town main street where my dad had a sporting goods store when I was young now looks battered and broken, infinitely more commerce taking place at the Wal-Mart outside of town.
The factories where generations of Buffalonians made their livings are shuttered and the old neighborhoods are largely abandoned too, filled with boarded houses, weedy vacant lots, drug dealing and sad corner stores with almost nothing for sale.
The newsrooms where I began my career, learned who I was and what mattered to me and formed lifelong friendships are now ghosts of their former selves, scores of literate and smart people left adrift in a world that doesn't always value those qualities.

In The Wire's fifth season, we see seasoned veterans taking buyouts as the staff of the Baltimore Sun contracts, the paper loses institutional memory, and its quality declines. David Simon, who created The Wire, was one of those veterans who took a buyout. It's no wonder journalists and former journalists love The Wire so much; Simon sees the world through our eyes. We see sweeping narratives everywhere, in the lives of everyday people. It's all part of the larger story. The final episode of The Wire is called simply -30-, which is the way reporters once signaled the end of an article. It's the end of a brilliant piece of work that chronicled the end of so many other things. Just -30-. It's over, done and gone.

On life, and also The Wire: A two-part series

I am not a religious woman.

One of my grandfathers died last month. When my uncle Andy and aunt Priscilla flew in from Taiwan for what they hoped was a chance to say their final goodbyes but turned out to be for the funeral, they came into my grandma's living room bleary eyed, having spent 24 hours traveling. It was about 7 a.m. their time. My mom was running through who was doing what during the funeral -- "And Andy, I have you down for the eulogy!" "What the ... eulogy?" he said, sounding annoyed but more likely just exhausted. My uncle is a preacher and theologian; who else to give a eulogy. At the funeral home, I saw him scratching notes, trying to keep his eyes open.

The funeral, held in a Catholic church, had little to do with my grandfather or his life. To someone with no religious background, it was a series of rituals, songs and Bible readings that may as well have been chosen at random, with a casket sitting at the front of the room. Towards the end, my uncle approached the podium. In his eulogy, he never strayed from simple truths. In doing so, he not only imparted great meaning on what was in many ways an unremarkable middle-class life; he also gave me a whole new sense of clarity about my values and how I got this way.

My grandparents met in high school (where they were first and second in their graduating class), became a couple in college and married in 1950, when then were 23 years old. By 1960, they had six kids. My grandfather took the bus from their suburban neighborhood to the city every day. He earned a good living but they never had more than one car -- it must have seemed wasteful to them. Imagine that. He's working hard, he's earning all the money, but he's the one getting on the bus. The bus was fine for him -- more important to chip away at the mortgage and save to put six kids through school. He never thought he needed a sports car, or fancy electronics, or a membership at an expensive golf club, but he bought jewelry for my grandma and made sure my mom and her brothers and sisters had everything they needed. When I was young -- I had forgotten about this -- he visited his mother every Saturday and took care of all of her finances. He never complained about here I am doing everything for mom and what's my sister contributing and blah blah blah. He never complained at all, that I can remember. Life was good to him, but that didn't give him a sense of entitlement. He used the opportunities he had to go out and do the right thing, and do what needed to be done, every single day.

On its face, my life bears no resemblance to that of my grandparents. They had the house in the suburbs, wife at home (for 15 years anyway), dad goes to work in the city, church, carpools, first communions, family dog, red meat for dinner every night, station wagon in the driveway. I share a rented condo in an up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood. I'm single and childless at 31, have a lot of unconventional friends, a law degree, enough spare time to read and write. I eat tofu and date musicians and wear black and campaign for lefty causes and candidates and hang out in cool bars.

But sitting in that horrible suburban church listening to my uncle, I realized that I'm just like them, and my parents, and my dad's parents too. My peers don't understand why I've never been to Europe, why places like the Lower West Side of Buffalo and Bushwick and Bed Stuy mean so much to me, why I insisted on living in a barely furnished studio apartment with no TV and no car when I was in law school, why I keep the credit card debt in check and hang onto my savings and have never had my nails done or owned a remote control. They make fun, and they try to convince me to loosen up a little, but who do they turn to when they need someone to move their car, water their plants, feed their cat, do their taxes, give them legal advice ...

At times I get tired of being the boring, responsible one but when I need something, I get it and then some. When my grandfather died, I was in Buffalo visiting friends. The wake and funeral were in Pittsburgh two days later. I had no way to get there, nothing to wear, no idea what to do. My friends, and my sister, came through with everything -- rides to the store, use of their computers, a black dress, even a car to borrow to drive to Pittsburgh and back. Their generosity, and my uncle's words, convinced me that I'm not a loser for going to work when I don't want to and showing up to things when I don't feel like it, just because I said I would. In a world of selfishness and broken plans and competitive consumption and so much crap that nobody needs, I stand for the possibility that old-fashioned values still matter. It is my hope to work towards shedding the conformity and rigid gender roles of my middle-class suburban roots while hanging onto everything that is admirable about that legacy, and to build a life that matters.

I haven't gotten to The Wire yet. But I will.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


If you're feeling a little depressed, or experiencing negative emotions of any kind, or even are in a state where you could end up feeling that way if given just a little push in the wrong direction, do not read anything by Wally Lamb. A few chapters of I Know This Much Is True and some rich asshole tying his dog out in the rain was all it took for me to go from good day to near meltdown. What is wrong with people.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

brief hiatus

It is my plan to start writing on this site again shortly. I have done hardly any reading in the past couple of weeks due to travel, a death in the family and minor upheaval in my work and personal lives. There's a lot going on. Plus I need to accept that I'm not going to finish some of the books I started, put them away, and start something else. Dreams From My Father is okay but ... sort of boring, honestly. Hooray for living in a free country where I can say that about a book by the president. Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, an account of traveling with David Foster Wallace, is also sort of boring, though I covered that already.

Last night I finished The Wire. I'm not ready to talk about it yet, but I agree with those who say it's the best show ever made. The best show I have ever seen, anyway. There's a montage at the end of the second season, which is about the decline of blue-collar work in Rust Belt cities, that encapsulates all the forces that brought me away from where I came from and to New York in search of stability and success.

Sometimes I think about starting another blog and calling it Rust Belt Exile. But what would I write? Maybe I could interview the people I've met in New York who come from Detroit, Grand Rapids, St. Louis, Syracuse ... there are no shortage of them.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Empire of Illusion

I was sitting in my living room/let's call it a home office just now when I heard someone on NPR talking about what's wrong with global corporate capitalism and being pushed on "But did you say Marx was right about some things???" all Fox News style. "Who on earth is this radical?" I wondered.

Answer: Chris Hedges, author of one of my favorite books, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. I'm reading his Empire of Illusion now. So far, it is not one of my favorite books, despite detailing a lot of things I'm concerned about -- the downfall of reason, failures in American education, etc. He makes a lot of undeniable points, but Barbara Ehrenreich made them better.

Monday, January 24, 2011

New York I love you, but you're bringing me down

No matter how big of a liberal you are, being constantly surrounded by people who are different from you in terms of language, accent, culture, background, life experience, clothing preferences, food preferences, weather preferences, volume of indoor speaking voice, you name it, can wear on you in ways you never expected.

No matter how much you hate cars, and I really hate them, carrying everything you might need in a day -- gym clothes, sneakers, lunch, files, book to read -- on your back or shoulder can make you feel like a pack mule after a while. A grumpy pack mule with a persistent ache.

No matter how much you are creeped out by an America that aspires to nothing higher than positive consumer experiences, gleaming floors, wide aisles and bright lights, you will get sick of buying your food in places where the floor is dirty, it smells weird, they have no squash you can recognize but are well stocked in these thingys that look like anteater snouts, and the brands and flavors of yogurt they carry vary by the day.

No matter how much of a "foodie" you thought you were, making tea with what looks like an old-fashioned shaving brush, coffee with a set of glass tubes and cocktails in barrels for aging is bullshit. And putting bacon in everything is really not that cute or clever after a while.

No matter how good of a sense of humor you have about things that are both gross and inevitable, you don't want the first thing you see when you emerge from underground to be someone's vomit frozen to the metal stairs.

Not everyone has these experiences, of course, particularly not the first. But if you come to New York neither wealthy nor idle, be prepared for a pretty serious grind. It conjures visions of the capital city of an on-the-rise third world country, a glittering playpen for the fortunate ringed by layers of crowded and dirty shantytowns for everyone else, complete with benevolent billionaire overlord. At least we have really excellent drinking water, I suppose.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Just Kids

Just Kids, Patti Smith's memoir of her relationship and creative partnership with the late Robert Mapplethorpe, may be the ultimate New York story. When Smith and Mapplethorpe met they were barely 20 years old, trying to make it as artists, so poor they couldn't afford food. They inspired and drove each other for decades and both achieved great success. Along the way, they performed for Bob Dylan (well, Smith did), found their way into Andy Warhol's social circle, witnessed the golden ages of CBGBs and the Chelsea Hotel, acquired wealthy patrons and saw the world. The world Smith describes is colored by celebrities and drugs but ultimately driven by a passion for art and a passion to succeed much more than a passion to know the right people. Art and rock music may sound glamorous, she seems to say, and maybe they were, but what you really need to do is to put in the time. Smith worked in New York for the better part of a decade, running cash registers and living hand to mouth, before her first album was released.

Smith wrote Just Kids to fulfill a promise she made to Mapplethorpe before he died, 20 years ago, of AIDS. It's a fitting book for me to be reading right now; I've been thinking a lot about my obligations to do something with my life, and to do the things people who couldn't be on Earth for long never had the chance to. Yesterday I found out that a kid I used to tutor died of cancer. He was in his early 20s. Salim was a refugee from Somalia, by way of Kenya and Tanzania. He was a sharp kid and a good person with an excellent attitude. While other teenagers on the West Side of Buffalo were out getting into trouble, being irresponsible and destroying things, he stayed home taking care of his younger brother and his nieces and nephews. And he never bitched about not getting to be a normal teenager. Salim did get to go to college for a couple of years, which is something he had wanted, but other than that, never had much of a chance to enjoy life. And now he's gone.

His story, and Smith's, and Mapplethorpe's, are all reminders that our time on Earth is limited and that we only get one chance to make it count. Smith approaches her subject with honor and reverence. She is also a wonderful writer. It's a compelling read.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Big Girls Don't Cry

Several years ago, when I reviewed restaurants for a local magazine in Buffalo, I went into a vegetarian-centric new place called Merge for the first time. The menu included black bean cakes, various derivations of the chickpea, crunchy grilled sandwiches, spicy soups, even fried pickles dunked in marinara sauce. "Wow," I thought. "Everything I ever want to order is on this menu."

Big Girls Don't Cry, Rebecca Traister's book about the 2008 election and the status of women in politics and society at large is that menu, in book form. Everything I want to read about, all the time, is there. Finishing it before she speaks at my favorite bookstore in a week and a half should not be a problem. I may finish it today.

Update: I finished the book, but did not make it to the reading. Flu had me down. But, I saw Traister read at the Brooklyn Book Festival this past summer and, as she lives in Brooklyn, I'm sure there will be other chances to see her again.