the dirty dozen {the last twelve books i read: part I}

01 the mirror thief (martin seay). i haven't had the best luck with mirror-related novels this year—city of mirrors, the final book in justin cronin's vampire trilogy, was a treacly mess—but this one was compared to david mitchell's cloud atlas, and i was ever so fond of cloud atlas. the mirror thief is set in three venices: old-timey [sixteenth-century] venice, italy, where murano is an island of mystery and murder (glassblowers were commanded to gather on murano so that their accidents wouldn't burn the whole city down) and alchemists prepare unspeakable solutions; midcentury venice, california, where a young hood stalks the dodgy poet who wrote a fictional (OR IS IT?) tract, the mirror thief, about one of the old-timey italian venetians; and present-day las vegas and the venetian casino, where everyone is looking for the old-timer version of the young hood, who may have helped a bunch of card-counters defraud a casino in atlantic city. the present-day las vegas portions of the story are engaging enough, the midcentury portions are touch and go, and the part set in the venice i love so hard that i want to skip all other travel and just go back and watch it drown is almost unspeakably boring. i looked so excited when i checked this book out of the library that the gal behind the counter asked me about it and then made me promise to tell her how it was when i came back. i'm still looking for her, to warn her. was she real? i watched about a third of the innocents (a 1961 adaptation of the turn of the screw) at the gym last night and was reminded that none of us can trust ourselves.*

02 the art of memoir (mary karr). i'm on a nonfiction-and-nonfiction-about-nonfiction binge because i'm finally going to start working on a book; there! i said it! (let us ignore the fact that i've said it before.) the subject and structure of said book came to me as i was trying to figure out where mcnally jackson hides its travel section (answer: downstairs in the back corner) so i could buy a bunch of berlin guides, and it felt so right i nearly cried. to be fair, i've been tinkering with race training and diet lately and just about anything can make me cry, but still. karr has some really interesting things to say about the way we remember; she tells an effective story about how, in her advanced nonfiction classes, she stages a fight with a colleague in front of her students (who don't know the clash is scripted) and then asks them to write about what they witnessed. their accounts are all over the place, as you would imagine; we are not to be trusted. i bristled a bit when karr talked about settling on the ultra-texan voice she uses in her bestselling memoirs, but she makes a strong case for how finding that voice unlocked her memories, and she made me revisit how i think about my own past. there's some great nuts-and-bolts advice about immediacy in there, as well. i think i prefer to read mary karr on writing than to read mary karr on mary karr (though i did enjoy the first half of lit, her memoir on alcoholism and becoming catholic); it's clear that she's a great teacher.

03 the girl on the train (paula hawkins). a hardcover, beautifully brodarted ex-library copy of the girl on the train offered itself to me for $3 at the charity bookstore at which i volunteer. one should occasionally read the mass-market stuff everyone talks about and carries on the subway, right?** my friend divine saw me add it to my pile and widened her eyes: "it's...not good." i trust her taste, but pulpy thrillers are pulpy thrillers, right? then i found myself reading it as quickly as possible—not because i cared about what happened to any of its characters or needed to know how it ended, but because i simply needed it to end (i am almost completely incapable of leaving books unfinished, especially when they're terrible; if i'm going to tell friends a book is shitty, i need to know that i've given it every opportunity to redeem itself). the girl on the train is so, so shitty: the first-person, present-tense, stream-of-consciousness style gives it the found-art feel of a trio of tweens' personal journals. the story is both predictable and utterly unbelievable. the characters are uninteresting. but, but—it'd be a great movie, right? the titillating setup (rear window's jimmy stewart is now a drunk girl getting her joe biden on while stalking her ex!) was ripe for the hollywood treatment, no? apparently not. that "apparently" is key; even i don't have the heart to confirm.

04 smoke gets in your eyes: and other lessons from the crematory (caitlin doughty). like girl, doughty's memoir crossed my path at ye olde charity bookstore cafe; unlike girl, it's utterly marvelous. doughty became terrified of and fixated on death after watching a little girl fall from a balcony at the mall when she herself was young, and after graduating with a history degree (deployed to great effect, as she weaves in stories of how the dead have been treated in other eras and places) she went to work at a crematory in oakland. these days she's the head of a death-positive group of pros, academics, and artists that embraces natural burial and decay—i'm inclined to agree with them, particularly now that i know exactly how cremation works—and founder of undertaking LA, an alternative funeral service. while i have never been especially squeamish about death (probably because it's touched my life quite lightly so far, and i understand how lucky i am to be able to say that), doughty's arguments and anecdotes made it even clearer to me that our modern, western approach to our dead is deceptive at best ("Modern denial strategies help focus mourners on positive 'celebrations of life'," she writes, "life being far more marketable than death. One of the largest funeral-home corporations keeps small toaster ovens near their arrangement rooms so fresh-baked cookie smells will comfort and distract families throughout the day—fingers crossed that the chocolate chips mask the olfactory undertones of chemicals and decomposition.") and monstrous at worst. this stuff isn't for the weak of stomach, as a friend gently reminded me when i tried to describe the smell of corpses*** to her over greek food on the upper west side this summer (my apologies, A), but it is fascinating, and doughty's a gentle, principled guide:
Every culture has death values. These values are transmitted in the form of stories and myths, told to children starting before they are old enough to form memories. The beliefs children grow up with give them a framework to make sense of and take control of their lives. This need for meaning is why some believe in an intricate system of potential afterlives, others believe sacrificing a certain animal on a certain day leads to better crops, and still others believe the world will end when a ship constructed with the untrimmed nails of the dead arrives carrying a corpse army to do battle with the gods at the end of days. (Norse mythology will always be the most metal, sorry.)
go read her, and come back and talk to me about the brazilian cannibals who eat their dead as a final act of respect.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 how long did it take you to figure out what's going on in the turn of the screw?
02 what should we be sure to do in berlin? (i have many historical and bowie-related outings planned, maybe even a tattoo in the works, but i haven't been to germany in a very long time.)
03 have you read and/or seen the girl on the train? what the hell?
04 was i alone in not knowing cremation machines are called retorts?
05 what was the last smell you masked?

*fun fact: i nearly wrote a long essay about the turn of the screw without realizing the children were not, in fact, possessed. my god but i was a hot mess in that undergraduate henry james class.

**one of the 3,411 things i miss about my morning commute to midtown (yes, i miss my commute): no more peeping at strangers' books. i still take the subway a few times a week, but the readers are few and far between at non-peak hours.

***"For those of you who have not had the privilege of smelling Eau de Decomposition, the first note of a putrefying human body is of licorice with a strong citrus undertone. Not a fresh, summer citrus, mind you—more like a can of orange-scented industrial bathroom spray shot directly up your nose. Add to that a day-old glass of white wine that has begun to attract flies. Top it off with a bucket of fish left in the sun." this is precisely what the corpse flower smelled like, as it happens.


i printed out a september calendar, wrote in each of my deadlines, each of my races (four this month, why?), and felt like a functional human adult; then i managed to convince myself that we were supposed to drive to pittsburgh this weekend instead of next weekend and it all went to hell. actually it's been alright; i got a lot of work done on monday and tuesday because i was panicking about leaving town. the panicking wasn't the best, but i'm getting around to accepting that being a freelancer, for me, at least, means feeling queasy most of the time.

i've decided that the only way to approach the last race of the month, a relay in northern new jersey, is to buy really obscure camping gear; i'm vacillating between a marlboro sleeping bag and a david bowie throw blanket (really, how cold is it going to be in new jersey at the end of the month?). said obscure camping gear will come with me to washington in january when we head down for the inauguration, which seemed like an adventure when we bought train tickets a few months ago and is now contributing to my queasiness. such queasiness! time for my saturday run.

08.12.16 {in flight}

midwestern lightning storms are flashing through the cloud cover below the plane like the quadrants of a pinball machine's face. we're the dragon this time, which pleases me; it's nice every now and again.

joe put in a half day's work at the office before heading for the airport, so it fell to me to throw away itinerant old fruits and vegetables, address garbage cans and the litter box, arrange cat-tending supplies for the sitter. we'll be back in just over a week, but we've reached jungle-summer's peak, when you can feel the air digesting you a bit more each time you dart out of conditioned cover. i imagine our poor companion animals slow-cooking in our absence.


this will be the third alternating tuesday on which i've taken the train out to meet a friend at the beach, the freelance writer's amorphous schedule at its best. on the friday before last i took another train north to meet amorphophallus titanum, the new york botanic garden's stinking corpse flower (the first bloomer they've had since the late '30s, just after they had the first-ever blooming corpse flower in the western hemisphere; a. titanum's a native of borneo). staffers noticed the bud on the 15th, moved the flower to the enid a. haupt conservatory for exotic specimens on the 18th, and braced themselves for hordes of visitors (an estimated 25,000 turned up for a whiff). the gal at the ticket counter already had a haunted look in her eye when i arrived around noon; the garden had been open since half past eight, she said, and crowds had already tripled a typical friday's count. a television news anchor performed showy jaw-limbering exercises behind her as his cameraman fired up his equipment. a kid wandered around with a whole box of pizza, as if the flower had had it delivered to its waiting fans like a generous star at shakespeare in the park.

to my delight, i ended up queuing for the conservatory itself near the four twentysomething goths* who wandered into the garden just before i did (they were a few scores of visitors behind me, as they paused at the entrance to exchange corpse-flower-related exclamations with a few daywalking friends who were on the way out). this quartet had made the most of recent athleisure advances and were wearing lovely striped running tights under their lace-up boots and whisper-thin joy division shirts. and the tattoos, you guys, the tattoos! one woman's ink actually looked like tatting, a delicate layer of lace that gathered like epaulets at her shoulders, shadow at her clavicle, cobwebs at her temples. the fact that i need my tattoos to be on lines of symmetry has kept me pretty honest, but it can be hard to ignore the freelancer's amorphous dress code, sometimes. pagoda umbrella or no, the sun was too much for most of the goths, who took turns tag-teaming a place in line from beneath a shade tree. this was a popular strategy: "i'll go have a look at the peonies and you can call me when you start moving," one guy behind me suggested to another. "it'll be like the line for easter kielbasa at martin rosol's." "it'll smell like a weekend's worth of sewage. sewage on a monday," another guy said. the woman in front of me quietly caught a low-level rattata.

*one with a pagoda-shaped umbrella i must acquire immediately.


i had a theory that no one would pay me to write things this summer—editors love their vacations—and that i should focus on pretending i'm bold enough to write and promote a book; to that end, i've been setting aside various instructive memoirs and conducting interviews with ben bird, who has nearly recovered from being stepped on at the hospital (and suffering a nasty broken shoulder) a couple of months ago. i can approximate his songs well enough to elicit responses—his full-fledged car-alarm routine, actually, which he hasn't been singing for anyone else—which is both exciting and a little terrifying (what if he's cursing? i might speak a bit of cardinal, but i can't hold substantive conversations yet). the staff assures me that it's his i haven't seen you in such a long time, friend song. i hope they're right.

i was wrong about no one paying me to write things! i mean, not dramatically wrong, but i file a piece or two each week. i'm getting better at interviewing doctors and researchers, though i'm still terrible at transcribing my conversations. a piece on ben (and a photo of us!) will be on newsstands this fall; a piece on thomas pynchon will be online in a week or two. the latter feels like a reported version of the writing i do here, which is very exciting; i'm hoping to ride that weird into more creative nonfiction.

i miss you.
Luke loves BHV for the music. All day long it plays excited, taped Christmas shopping announcements, backed with appropriate tunes. Some of the tunes we recognize—it plays the Looney Tunes theme, for instance—and some seem vaguely familiar but are hard to name, so we give our own names to them: "The Love Theme from BHV," "BHV's Victory at Sea," and the "BHV Christmas Anthem." His ears undimmed by fifteen years of the IRT, Luke can hear them all even over the din of appliance shopping, and when he notices a favorite, he rises from his stroller, a cobra in mittens, and sways solemnly back and forth.

(adam gopnik, from "the winter circus, christmas journal 1," in paris to the moon)


another film festival, another evening walk home in an official tee i probably should have washed at some point. i bartended at this one, sort of! i mean, i bar-backed for the guy in charge of the beer and wine. i took a social-darwinism liking to him, as i was otherwise the oldest person associated with the festival, at least as far as i could tell. when i asked him what he did when he wasn't bartending, he told me he'd retired in december, and that he'd lived in malaysia for 15 years before that. what did he do there? "i like to tell people i helped men have more sex," he said. "that...could mean almost anything, really," i said, busying myself with the pilsners. "i manufactured fine jewelry," said he. "think of the last time your husband bought you a really nice pair of earrings, or a necklace, or a ring. you had sex that night, right?" "i would never let my husband buy me jewelry," i replied.

it was a scrappy festival, a loose festival, a festival that felt a bit like zork; direction was minimal, but the work was there if i could find it.

You are at the top of an apparently four-story spiral staircase. To the west someone with a heavy Brooklyn accent mutters about shiraz. Your old friends, three dozen bottles of tepid pink lemonade, are at your feet.


You are carrying:
A comically large iPhone
A dusty white Tic Tac

>get ice cubes

There is no concession stand here.

and so on. when the lounge emptied out for screenings, the staffers danced for each other. i met a delightful 22-year-old who introduced me to his boyfriend and asked if he could friend me on facebook and ask me for writing advice. i thought about wearing my chandelier-print skirt for closing night and chickened out at the last minute. to be fair, it's too hot for tights.


conversations with doctor omnibus {love is like a bottle of gin}

in googling around for my psychiatrist's number—i see him twice a year and seem unable to keep his contact information handy—i found notes from other patients on his germophobia, stances on smoking and falling in love (both childish), curtness, and possible sociopathy. they endeared him to me, to be honest; we've been scowling at each other for something like eight years now. there's history.

LMO: remember the time you told me to volunteer at a hospital? i actually did—i mean, i volunteer at a hospital. a bird hospital.
doc: birds? birds are fantastic!
LMO: i know!

doc: people worry too much about their moods. it's like alcohol, you figure out the correct dose.

doc: moods are like skin. most people's are not perfect. it's an organ.

doc: moods are like shoes. they don't matter.

LMO: [halfway out the door] are your dogs...related to each other?
doc: i don't know. [pause] i give them all...mafia names. tony and dominic and vinnie. well, vinnie died.
LMO: i'm so sorry. [pause] i had a cat called charles bronson.
doc: there you go!


at ye olde charity bookstore cafe, V and i discussed the woman who came in last week and wanted to haggle down the prices of the two mildly shopworn donated paperbacks she wanted to purchase (which she did, by $1.50, after i conferred with an actual employee). she turned to her friend, who had just joined her at the counter, and smiled: "every little bit helps." she circulated in the store for a few more minutes and came back to ask what the building had been before we turned it into a bookstore. i didn't know; none of the other volunteers or the staffer with us did, either. "you should know that," she hissed. "that and books are what people want." V hadn't known about the haggling until this afternoon. "hausverbot! she is banned from entering this place."

when V left to rearrange a display i got to talking with P, an artist, as he replaced rare books in the glass cases near the front door. i made a somewhat disparaging comment about jeff koons and he mentioned that they shared an ex; "cicciolina, actually." he had been involved with her after koons was. "are you telling me you have koons cooties?" "yeah, i guess so." i asked about made in heaven; he said it was absolutely not weird that he'd seen it before they met. "it's just like anything someone did before you were dating them." i mean, visual artists, but i disagreed. "if jeff koons can make a living painting, why can't you?" she used to say to him. that sounded so cold to me that i misinterpreted P at first and thought he meant a living painting, like pageant of the masters (do you, southern california). no, a living painting, and P quoted her to koons when they met years later. they had a good laugh.


the dirty dozen {twelve of my favorite passages from martin millar's lonely werewolf girl}

01 "The flat remained exactly as the Guild provided it. He didn't rearrange the furniture, buy himself a new set of sheets, or hang a calendar on the wall. Such things were inconsequential to him. The only thing he cared about was hunting werewolves."

02 "It was the room she used for her private conferences and in homage to this there was a painting on the wall by Velasquez of two ambassadors. This was one of the finest pictures by Velasquez in private hands, and did not appear in any of the standard lists of the painter's works."*

03 "'Doesn't Apthalia the Grim spend her time waiting on quiet roads, trying to ambush lonely travellers?' asked Thrix.
'Not so much now,' replied Malveria. 'These days she's more interested in fashion. And since she had her warts removed and her nose done, and started buying her clothes from Dior, rather than simply robbing the corpses of her victims, she is not so bad looking, I admit.'"

04 "The Enchantress noticed Dominil's T-shirt under her open coat.
'What's the writing?'
'The band's set list.'
Thrix read it with interest.
'Stupid Werewolf Bitch? Evil White-Haired Slut?' She laughed. 'They wrote two songs about you.'
'Three,' said Dominil. 'They encore with Vile Werewolf Whore.'

05 "'You seem uncomfortable,' said Dominil. 'Is there some problem with the sorcery?'
'None at all,' replied Thrix. 'I'm uncomfortable because I'm in a bar in Camden with a lot of nineteen year old boys gawking at me.'"

06 "'This daughter will now attempt to see what label is on the clothes when the Princess disports her unpleasant figure at the Empress Asaratanti's party celebrating the one thousandth anniversary of her victory over the ice dwarves from the north.'"

07 "'I would so much like to kill that Princess. Do you know she had the effrontery to insinuate that I was generously proportioned? She accused me of hiding my excess weight! Which is absurd. Of course it can be done—I believe her mother the Empress Asaratanti has long concealed several hundred pounds of ugly fat in another dimension—but such tactics are not necessary for the extremely slim Queen Malveria. Last year my devotees added the title Slenderest of Queens to my many existing names, quite unbidden by myself.'"

08 "'Where's the Vermeer?'
'I lent it to the National Gallery.'
Markus was surprised.
'Just because I'm Mistress of the Werewolves doesn't mean I have no sense of duty to the wider public. It's the modern world dear, we all have to make a contribution.'"

09 "Moonglow was such a kind soul. It was one of the things Daniel liked about her. That and her pretty face, her long black hair and the really attractive nose stud."

10 "Kalix wrote a new entry in her journal. The Runaways are the Queens of Noise. Today I killed two hunters. Or yesterday."

11 "'Well, Malveria, these are clearly intended as dresswear only. You can't expect a fashion item to stand up to ritual sacrifice on the volcano. I've told you before about choosing the right footwear for the right occasion.'"

12 "Everyone of importance would be there, even the ladies from the court of the iron elementals, and they hardly ever went out to social events."

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 if you were supernatural, would you share your secret masterpieces with the mortal public?
02 donald trump, hillary clinton, and bernie sanders: who's the vampire, who's the cyborg, and who's the alien?
03 what would you conceal in another dimension?
04 there are apparently two sequels to this scottish werewolf novel. should i read them?
05 on non-werewolf novels, how unlike graham greene's other stuff is travels with my aunt?

*secret masterpieces are one of my favorite supernatural fiction subthemes. our friend lesley has a salvador dalĂ­ portrait of her grandmother hanging in her hallway, which is why it's so easy to play "vampire, cyborg, or alien?" with her.


a favorite story from obit, vanessa gould's glorious documentary on the new york times's obituary team (which premiered at tribeca on sunday the 17th): like many news organizations, the times maintains an archive of advance obituaries for noteworthy men and women. as margalit fox, a member of the team, put it a few years ago, "As a general rule, when lives are long enough, accomplished enough and complex enough that we would just as soon not get caught short writing them on deadline, advances are assigned."). it's an offshoot of 'the morgue,' the times's almost unfathomably large collection of biographical data related to prospective obit subjects (it's composed almost entirely of yellowing clippings from, as i recall, 28 daily sources; to digitize the morgue [which lives in a flood-prone basement in midtown; even moving it to the times's new building is prohibitively expensive] would cost an army of flesh-and-blood scanners years of their lives). "If an advance has gone according to plan," fox says, "it has been researched, written, fact-checked, filed, edited and copy-edited, laid out on a page and sometimes even supplied with accompanying videos for online viewing, all well ahead of the game."

elinor smith, the 'flying flapper of freeport'—in 1928, she became the youngest licensed pilot in the world (at age 16; orville wright signed her license)—died at a nursing home in palo alto in march of 2010. a times staffer in the morgue shuffled through the card catalog that would tell him where to find the folder of her life's news clippings and discovered a red stamp indicating that an advance obituary had been filed for her—in the early '30s, when she was still a teenager, as what she did was considered so dangerous that she was expected to meet an exceedingly untimely end. (when elinor was 17, someone dared her to fly under all four bridges on the east river; according to the cradle of aviation museum on long island, she's still the only person ever to have done it.) elinor smith outlived her obituary by seven decades! (as you would imagine, she outlived her obituarist as well; as one of the times staffers mentioned in obit, one of the most contemporary news sources in the world regularly publishes articles about dead people written by other dead people.) she quit flying in her late twenties to focus on her family but took back to the air after her husband's death in 1959; in 2000, when she was 88, she became the oldest pilot to complete a simulated space shuttle landing (with an all-female crew). elinor motherfucking smith, ladies and gentlemen. may we all outlive our obituarists.


one of my film festivals, the one where i wonder if i can get away with wearing a black tee four times before washing it and barrel around the city arguing with twenty-year-olds about terrence malick, is almost over. this year i bowed out of the front-of-the-house crew and joined a smaller, lonelier team of rats; i've been clambering up into theater bowels all over town. it's a hurry-up-and-wait job, and i spent half of my first shift suspecting i'd made a terrible mistake; then i got to crawl up to the projectionist's booth at the beacon, a week to the day after liz phair and billy corgan sang me back to high school there. the humbler venues are somehow even better: the velvety dust! the ankle-mangling stairs! in a dark tech corridor in chelsea i turned from photographing a strip of old celluloid to see a senior staffer wrinkling her mouth at me. "it just looked really cool," i said. "it is a crumpled piece of film," she replied.

the other film festival, the one where i'm a moviegoer who exchanges an occasional secret wink with ushers and security staff, picks up this afternoon. i'm considering a late thriller tonight, meeting an old front-of-house friend tomorrow afternoon, and dragging joe to a collection of horror shorts tomorrow night. horror shorts! i tried them for the first time last year; the ebb and flow of brain chemicals is a bit like when joe handed me a nominally roasted scotch bonnet pepper in the dominican republic in march. "hey, you want to do something really stupid?" we each ate one whole and felt our eardrums vibrate for the next half hour. i had to sit down. a documentary saturday afternoon, and one last documentary, maybe two, on sunday.


on my first afternoon at the film festival, i arrived at an office bristling with reporters and photographers and silently cursed robert de niro for making asinine comments about vaccines 24 hours before i had to spend two weeks wearing a tee with his insignia. i flashed my badge and shouldered past security to a tiny elevator bank, where jane fonda and lily tomlin beamed at me like a three-dimensional ad for their netflix series. ah. really good hair. i stepped between them and into the elevator.

"i've seen your trailers all over soho today," said the kid at the drugstore who sold me a can of tile cleaner six hours later. "i took some acting classes a few years ago, myself." i told him the story of jane and lily and the elevator. "i think i'm more familiar with...lily...but not the other guy," he said. i gazed across an aisle of old easter candy. "jane fonda was..." (against vietnam?) "...barbarella?" he blinked. i tucked my receipt into my messenger bag and slunk away.