FOOD. Sylvia [Plath] was earthy and welded to the sensual world. Toasted cream cheese and olive sandwiches. Late-summer feasts of steak, swiss chard, corn on the cob, and peaches with cream poured over them. Fanta. Sugar Babies.
GAMES. Go Fish.
HOT DOG. On Friday the 13, 1945, Sylvia had a nightmare that she was being chased by a marshmallow and a hot dog—which she illustrated in the margin of her diary the following day.
(elizabeth winder, from pain, parties, work: sylvia plath in new york, summer 1953)
You’re like the sister they never had.
Your too-animated conversation with Count Vronsky in Princess Betsy’s drawing room was peculiar and improper.
They’d never have expected you to have kids, but now that it’s happening it makes a crazy kind of sense.
Your husband made more than 5,000 edits to a pre-publication draft of Frankenstein.
You quietly removed the charitable-donation option from your online registry a month before your wedding.
You don’t reciprocate Bobby Kennedy’s feelings, though you care deeply for and maintain a sexual relationship with him; you imagine yourself as a future First Lady.
That summer of fancy sleepaway camp was just cover for your nose job.
You were able to get a doctorate in quantum chemistry in Berlin because you accommodated the East German system through active participation in the Free German Youth.
You’d be pretty if you stopped wearing so much makeup.
You and Anthony Babington are conspiring to assassinate Queen Elizabeth on your behalf and reestablish Catholicism in England.
You remind them of themselves at your age.
You abduct local peasant girls and perform unspeakable acts on them in your castle’s secret torture chamber because you believe that bathing in the blood of human virgins will keep you beautiful and gloriously strong.
You put out for college guys.
doc: anything new?
LMO: well, i got laid off!
doc: that's a good thing.
LMO: i mean, i think so.
doc: why wouldn't i be comfortable with xanax?
LMO: i have friends whose doctors are uncomfortable with prescribing it.
doc: are you comfortable with vulgarity?
doc: fuck 'em.
*he might be eighty now.
i ate pizza at a chinese restaurant.
i finished the girls from corona del mar.
i poured fireball into a dunkin’ donuts coffee and drank it in front of the literature/needlecraft holiday window at bergdorf's.
i told my sister not to have a baby because the apocalypse is coming and it’s our fault.
my sister told me “the terrible ‘blank space’ song that’s always on at fine fare” is, in fact, taylor swift.
i ran 3.1 miles.
i bought 6 pouches of cat food.
i sneezed 8 times in under a minute.
i called my mom.
01 little failure (gary shteyngart). this memoir is boss: / it's funny, bitter, tender, / and features short pants.
02 mr. fox (helen oyeyemi). demure helen o. / has magnificent monsters / at her fingertips.
03 all creatures great and small (james herriot). i cried on the train / as i read this. why wasn't / i a vet, again?
04 the thin man (dashiell hammett). glorious old sots, / nick and nora. their new york's / got its own logic.
05 five came back: a story of hollywood and the second world war (mark harris). directors' wartime / experiences traced through / their careers. brilliant.
06 white is for witching (helen oyeyemi.) helen has nightmares / as she writes her books. that makes / a lot of sense here.
07 updike (adam begley). biographies this / good are dangerous: i went / on to read couples.
08 daughter of smoke & bone [daughter of smoke & bone trilogy #1] (laini taylor). art student collects / teeth for her foster demons. / YA at its best.
09 days of blood & starlight [daughter of smoke & bone trilogy #2] (laini taylor). taylor doubles down / on smoke & bone's heartbreak; i'll / save this for nieces.
10 dreams of gods & monsters [daughter of smoke & bone trilogy #3] (laini taylor). the romance...is, but / the rest of this finale / doesn't disappoint.
11 gone to new york (ian frazier). jamaica kincaid / loves frazier more than i do, / if that's possible.
12 the fault in our stars (john green). fine, i sniffle when / i see an "ok? ok." / shirt on the subway.
13 the secret history (donna tartt). this is why she's loved! / clean, confident, well-structured / fucked-up privilege.
14 the magician's land (lev grossman). atoned for book 2's / sins, sort of; quentin still bugs, / but this arc ends well.
15 on such a full sea (chang-rae lee). sly dystopian / fic narrated by a "we" / closer than most "i"s.
16 the art of fielding (chad harbach). an un-baseball book / lyricizes corpse-dumping. / i was deeply moved.
17 astonish me (maggie shipstead). black swan + freedom? / a strong, well-researched saga.
/ not canadian.
18 cooking with fernet branca (james hamilton-paterson). a goddamn brilliant / comedy of manners: take / note, ye food writers.
19 new jersey (betsy andrews). a book-length poem / of the turnpike, the city, / and their detritus.
20 NW (zadie smith). white teeth with veneers. / still waiting for zadie smith / to wow me again.
21 annihilation [southern reach trilogy #1] (jeff vandermeer). if lovecraft's your jam, / this trilogy's a great read / (NOT AT BEDTIME, CHRIST).
22 authority [southern reach trilogy #2] (jeff vandermeer). a mysterious / zone eats research teams, psyches, / and bureaucracies.
23 acceptance [southern reach trilogy #3] (jeff vandermeer). little is explained; / much is made permanently / creepy. no mean feat.
24 couples (john updike). updike terrifies / '60s america with / tales of his sex life.
25 california (edan lepucki). post-apocalypse, / siblings and spouses dirty / each other with fear.
26 the changeling (kenzaburo oe). i was with oe / 'til weird cannonball torture, / which lost me, sadly.
27 the goldfinch (donna tartt). this is highbrow doge: / much dickens...so overwrite... / drug reference; wow
28 all things bright and beautiful formulaic, but / a formula i'll read all / day. like a warm bath.
29 the dinner (herman koch). fancy dinners are / always rotten at the core, / right? i trust the cheap stuff.
30 adiós hemingway (leonardo padura fuentes). atmospheric noir / (hemingway in cuba!) with / an older man's pulse.
31 MFA vs. NYC (chad harbach ed.) not sure how it is / that i've no dog in that fight, / but here i, L, am.
32 happy all the time (laurie colwin). generous and twee / thirty years before twee was; / a calm, safe new york.
33 tender at the bone (ruth reichl). so much nicer than / RR's novel! personal / stuff i'll read all day.
34 comfort me with apples (ruth reichl). ruth r. the daughter / is as honest as ruth r. / the critic. lovely.
35 my misspent youth (meghan daum). she's great, but her more / recent essays pack more punch / for me. here's to...time?
36 friendship (emily gould). i prefer essays / from emily, but i liked / this, and wish it well.
37 the last days of california (mary miller). these teens are vivid, / this apocalypse well-drawn. / a good road trip book.
38 all things wise and wonderful (james herriot). i wish he'd written / more about his war service, / but i forgive him.
39 pretty in ink (lindsey palmer). former colleagues write / the most disturbing accounts / of our world! deep sigh. 40 what i talk about when i talk about running (haruki murakami). i started writing / an essay about running / that should surpass this.
41 the o'briens (peter behrens). CANADA SAGA / ALERT: trees will fall, hearts freeze. / reader lids will droop.
42 why have kids? (jessica valenti). when i pitch you my / tepid womb-related book, / sock me in the spleen.
43 delicious! (ruth reichl). the tale's pivotal / cake recipe is...not great, / which weirded me out.
44 a dangerous liaison: one woman's journey into a world of aristocracy, depravity, and obsessive love (sheri de borchgrave). most fascinating / memoirist i've crossed greenland / beside, for damn sure.
45 the bear went over the mountain (william kotzwinkle). this satire's targets / (publishing et al.) deserve / a better takedown.
46 joss whedon: the biography (amy pascale). a coronation / so bald i turned on whedon / for balance's sake.
47 subtle bodies (norman rush). middle-aged coitus / in smug, nightmarish detail. / what an awful book.
48 the book of life (deborah harkness). worst use of nazis / since frankenstein's army. oof, / deborah harkness. oof.
49 medium raw (anthony bourdain). bourdain's posturing / remains wheezy, unwinning, / and super-lazy.
50 half bad (sally green). YA's getting weird; / this race-y tale of witches / is somehow tone-deaf.
(previous list here.)
imaginary reading group discussion questions
01 what was the best book you read last year?
02 would you be willing to help exhume a corpse, if circumstances called for it?
03 could you recommend a sweeping canadian saga that won't bore the crap out of me?
04 do you enjoy nonfiction about whether one should or shouldn't have children?
05 if you were to write a post-apocalyptic novel, what would cause the apocalypse in your story?
06 who's the most interesting stranger you've ever sat beside on a plane?
it's been a year of letting things in, of new and exotic arrangements, of trying to do what twelve-year-old me would've done in similar circumstances. the single, humble press trip i took in 2013 begat trips to hawaii, iceland, and turkey; my job wandered off from beneath me, and i became a freelancer; i took on weekly shifts at a wildlife rehab center and a charity bookstore cafe; i started training for a half marathon. my sister had a baby. joe's job mutated into something unrecognizable, and he found a new one.
a shard of anger will turn up in my foot when i hear news of my old magazine, though i left them with the widest smile that would adhere to my face. a decade of my life i gave them! a former freelancer of mine announced to me and the rest of her facebook friends that she'd accepted the new version of my job. Like, i clicked. my sister is designing a monogram for the pro writing site my dearest friend built me; my old mentor is publishing my first piece in the new year, an essay on calling my mother every day for a month. PROP or DEAD? hand me a pillow case and a couch cushion. let's do this.
CONSUMED: A PARTIAL LIST.
the bear went over the mountain (book). william kotzwinkle, national magazine award winner and author of the novelization of E.T., was recommended to me by a lovely british writer and frank zappa enthusiast i met in turkey. i wish i could tell that writer (who followed up via twitter to see if i read the book as promised) i found kotzwinkle as witty as he does, but he...reminds me of thomas pynchon at his slapstickiest? the bear went over the mountain is intentionally ridiculous—it's about a bear who finds fame and fortune in the '90s publishing world posing as the author of a novel he finds in a suitcase under a tree in maine—but the sometimes-inspired absurdity is studded with weird little laddish details i found alienating. is it fair to wonder if a bear posing as a bestselling human author would fixate on women in thongs? in semi-related news, i will probably be alone in hating paul thomas anderson's film version of pynchon's inherent vice.
hammam al ándalus madrid (public baths). the beauty editors on my turkey trip came back raving about the scrubbings they'd received at a hammam near the hippodrome in istanbul; i'd opted to visit sultan ahmed's mosque instead, so i could but imagine what mysterious cleansing rituals went down in the baths beneath the city. madrid's restored arabic baths were in a cistern just a few blocks from our little apartment on the plaza mayor; alors, they seemed like the perfect prelude to our mid-week football match. i had the kessa, a scrub on heated stone with a textured cloth and foam from red grape soap, and joe had a massage; for the rest of our ninety minutes under the street, i swam from room to room glowering and pretending to be a man-eating carp. there were maybe...ten other people in the facility with us for the session? the mint tea flowed freely, the waters smelled fantastic, and i hardly had to get naked at all. this bath ritual stuff is A-OK.
pocatello (play). years after MDF pointed me at the whale, the missus and i are still samuel d. hunter superfans. we saw the few this spring, and i finally caved and got us kiddie-pool memberships to playwrights horizons so that we could book fancy early seats for pocatello this fall. i'm glad we did; t.r. knight is wonderful as eddie, the soft-spoken manager of a dying olive garden in the middle of nowhere. the story that surrounds him isn't especially exciting, but i'm not sure that it needs to be; like the whale, this is a play with a sinkhole of anguish at its center. i'm man enough to admit that i felt nearly as much for the crappy old olive garden as i did for eddie; that's where we went for Special Occasions when i was a kid, and my heart broke a little every time someone at college sneered at it (we had dinner there when i got accepted to college, assholes).
the secret history (book). a donna tartt book i can sort of get behind, internets! the secret history's formal whydunnit structure (the main characters commit murder in the prologue, and the majority of the book flashes back to what led them to it; tartt likens her plot to a classical tragedy in which the details, not the well-known denouement, provide the tension) suits the material and the narrator, though i'd have liked to hear from him at a more advanced age (he's a twenty-eight-year-old, roughly tartt's age when she published the book, remembering his college years). like the goldfinch, the secret history is a page-turner with weird flaws (would a narrator who lays down ancient greek without providing its equivalent in english for the reader also refer to "charles baudelaire" by his first and last name?), but there's more at stake here; i appreciate that, even though i went on to have gory, shouty dreams as a result.
slowdive @ terminal 5 (concert). i risked losing out on my stay at a cappadocian cave hotel to rush home for slowdive's only NYC show—probably my sexiest saturday night ever, there, rolling straight from istanbul to a slowdive concert—and am ever so glad i did; this was my equivalent of the soul-bending my bloody valentine reunion shows at roseland ballroom in 2008. like MBV, slowdive blossoms live; unlike any other band i've seen, they actually make terminal 5 (a cavernous concrete box) sound good. rachel goswell's venusian choirgirl voice is as pure now as it was when my friends and i wore flannel boxer shorts in mixed company; i'd always assumed her vocals were forced and looped like tulips on a turntable, but that's all rachel, internets. neil halstead still sounds like a thick pair of socks, but when one is in new york rather than san francisco (looking at you, slim's) and neil has a kick-ass band at his back, that's actually a fine thing. i didn't mean to cry when they played "blue skied an' clear," but it couldn't be helped; that performance was one of the loveliest things i've ever experienced. fuck yeah, slowdive.
suzanne vega @ joe's pub (concert). erin agreed to be my date for the suzanne vega show last month, which was good of her; she also agreed to eat at korilla beforehand, which was downright heroic of her (i'm willing to believe their korean burritos are great served from a truck, but they were weirdly joyless eats in a brick-and-mortar setting). like slowdive's rachel goswell, la vega seems to have been spending time in a hyperbaric chamber; i'd go so far as to say her voice made my ears feel minty. her pretty young backup singer turned out to be her daughter, ruby froom (the "beautiful child" who gave soul coughing's ruby vroom its name); if i may echo my boyfriend anthony lane in his babadook review, let a law be passed, requiring all comeback tours to be made by female singers who harmonize with their daughters. it happens that there are in fact bad-ish seats in joe's pub, as we were squished with another pair of ladies at a two-top, but the sazeracs were plausible and suzanne vega had a top hat, so i can hardly complain.
imaginary reading group discussion questions
01 would a bear be as interested in posing as a bestselling author today as william kotzwinkle posited he would have been in 1996?
02 does john irving find his novels in suitcases beneath trees?
03 have you ever been to public baths? did you feel like a carp?
04 if you've read both the secret history and the goldfinch, which did you prefer?
05 what ranks as your sexiest saturday night ever?
06 how do you feel about korean burritos?
we made a beeline for the prado when we arrived in madrid two weeks ago. bosch is one of my favorite painters, and i wanted to see the garden of earthly delights as soon as possible. goya's black paintings were high on my list as well; lots of morbid art majors in my family. we were on our way to the bosch, i think—i have a terrible sense of direction at the best of times, and we'd had an hour of sleep in the last thirty-six—when we stumbled into goya's third of may. i had been prepared for hellscapes, for the gut-punch of guernica when we got to the reina sofia, but—
i thought of gallipoli, and the long, solitary walks my colleagues from australia and new zealand took at anzac cove. i thought of our turkish guide, and how his face dented subtly, like a can just past its date, as he pointed out the ridges where his people had waited for theirs.
CONSUMED: A PARTIAL LIST.
birdman (film). i heard birdman described as a cross between louie and black swan, which is about right, though i wish the parallels there could have extended to some rodarte costumes for ed norton. fetishizing the exotic is kind of lazy, ed norton in rodarte aside, but a mexican director (alejandro gonzález iñárritu) skewering hollywood and broadway is much more interesting to me than, say, woody allen doing the same. birdman isn't A Great Movie, but it's a limber (the cinematography in particular is wonderfully cartilaginous) and sly one. we were talking today at the wild bird fund about whether or not shakes made with ferret food could be the next fad diet, speaking of limber and sly. i myself am convinced of it.
cooking with fernet branca (book). i have been trying to limit myself to a single purchase at my weekly shift at housing works bookstore and failing rather miserably; i feel like a man-eating carp working at a hammam. cooking with fernet branca, one of my first and splashiest acquisitions, is that rare modern british satire that doesn't make me want to start a bar fight (looking at you, david lodge). published a decade ago, it's (among other things) a fine takedown of yuppie porn like under the tuscan sun, featuring a british ghostwriter, an eastern european film composer who lives in the next villa over, and recipes for the repellent meals they share. choosing a favorite passage is like choosing a favorite cat, but -
Beyond this point we enter the realm of the sacramental, and words all but fail me. All I can say is that Alien Pie, hot from the oven and with a jaunty buzzard feather stuck in the top, should be eaten on a terrace overlooking a distant ocean above which the remnants of sunset brood like old wounds seeping through a field dressing. It is one of those experiences poised exquisitely between sorrow and oblivion.
"Perfectly correct, papà," says this vision, flashing me a smile I want to lay away in lavender in a dark drawer for the rocky years ahead.
When I turn back to the scene I've just left—which despite the fire brigade is still considerably ablaze—it's just in time to see an extraordinary thing. The two tall cypress trees are standing up to their knees in incandescent scrub and brushwood. One is just beginning to catch fire, the flames running up it like a bright liquid under pressure. The other, though, simply begins to—and I can scarcely believe what I'm seeing—to bend very slowly from the waist, as if it were an elderly butler greeting a monarch. As I watch, the bend accelerates into a grovel and the cypress wilts like a dildo in a smithy, its crest coming to rest on the ground. Curious, I think as I trudge woozily away with my ears singing. Most curious.
kantin (restaurant). in the afternoon, istanbul professionals flock to kantin in posh nişantaşi for the artisanal lunch spread: the shop floor is jammed with bread baked from thousand-year-old strains of wheat, refrigerator cases full of handmade mustard and catsup, and terrier-sized wheels of cheese. the fancy-rural implements on the wall would transfer quite handily to a millionaire-mom cafe in park slope. at night, the upstairs dining room becomes a dionysian temple of modern slow food. i suspect the four thousand courses we were served had something to do with the fact that we were travel journalists, but i can't deny that şemsa "alice waters of istanbul" denizsel and her team have more ideas about what to do with local ingredients than i have hairs on my head. roasted pumpkin with oyster mushrooms! sorrel with caramelized pear! green tangerine sorbet with mastic pudding and sour cherries! i'm even sort of OK with the fact that they snuck a bunch of spicy cheese in with the halvah for the last course of the night.
maleficent (film). i boarded an evening flight to istanbul by myself, chewed a complimentary piece of turkish delight as the runway unspooled beneath us and we rose into the sky (well done on those individual links to the cockpit cam, turkish airlines), and realized i needed to watch maleficent, a film that should be mummy-wrapped with trigger warnings for PANKs (professional aunts, no kids). i think i started crying when angelina jolie first laid eyes on elle fanning (aurora), and it's entirely possible that i sobbed audibly when i thought i knew how the story would end (my apologies, sweet retired rowmates en route to a fancy hike in cappadocia). i'll refrain from revealing how it ends, as i'm hoping one of you will see it and help me understand why it manhandled me so. as matt zoller seitz puts it, "it has a primordial edge that the clumsy filmmaking can't blunt."
nightcrawler (film). not since some demon stylist gave javier bardem a pageboy for no country for old men has villainous hair performed such heavy lifting. like drive, another hypersaturated movie with an implausible jacket, this one is much more about style than it is about nuanced statement; though both los angeles and jake gyllenhaal look quite spooky, gestures alone don't add up to much of a takeaway. nightcrawler goes down a bit like an off-brand black jellybean.
raki (spirit). like most supposedly beloved national drinks, raki tastes like anise and regret; you pour a finger or two of it into a tumbler, fill the tumbler the rest of the way with water so that it turns milky, and tell yourself you're having an authentic local experience. our turkish tour director told us that raki is a good drink if you want to laugh and cry and sing. i didn't laugh and cry after confronting it near gallipoli, but i did end up at something called a Fancy Boozy Roof Bar (which was not on a rooftop) singing "california dreaming" with my fellow journalists, including an australian former newspaper editor who'd borrowed a guitar from the departing band. i spotted a small bottle of raki in my mini fridge a few nights later and did not disturb it.
imaginary reading group discussion questions
01 if ferret-food shakes had magical dietary properties, would you try one?
02 have you ever used a recipe you found in a novel?
03 when were you last reminded of brooklyn when you were elsewhere? (a madrid restaurant menu advertised a Brooklyn Hipster Sandwich last week. it did not remind me of brooklyn.)
04 are you fond of any beloved national drinks?
05 if you were to serenade a bunch of journalists with a borrowed guitar, what would you sing?
01 i work at a clifftop coffeehouse. i go to restock the fancy baked goods counter and a shifty-looking wolf follows me up to the crag we use for storage. i give the wolf a sudden push and he falls to his messy death; his corpse turns into my friend’s ex-girlfriend. YOU’RE A USER, i shout at her. THE GOVERNMENT WILL ISSUE COINS TO COMMEMORATE WHAT A USER YOU ARE. SEVENTH-GRADERS WILL WRITE ESSAYS ABOUT IT.
02 my seventh-grade history teacher is lecturing us about crests painted on medieval shields. i ask if a certain kind of shield would be held by a lancer or a swordsman. “i think you should spend less time thinking about what’s on the knights’ outsides and consider what’s on their insides,” he says, not unkindly.
03 i have a bunch of slick blazers like donna tartt’s.
1: she has a butt, is the thing. you have no butt.
2: it's true, i have no butt. and you have no waist!
1: i have no waist, but you should see my daughter.
2: you talk to her, what, five times a day?
1: five times a day. i'm going to go call her—i'll see you on sunday, unless something happens.