chronic city (jonathan lethem)*
CHALLENGER: let the great world spin (colum mccann)

joe received a copy of let the great world spin for christmas; i'd hadn't heard of it, but it happens to be the new york novel i'd been waiting to read. it could be the fitzgerald novel i've been waiting to read, now that i think about it. mccann could probably write a charming novel about a potato - when he's on a roll, his prose is burnt-sugar, placid-cat-belly, flannel-pajama-pants-right-out-of-the-dryer satisfying - but he's written a novel about new york that's just, well, correct. not inevitable, like joan didion's writing about california - but right. we live in the same city.
(on new york)

Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.

He had a theory about it. It happened, and re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past. The city lived in a sort of everyday present. It had no need to believe in itself as a London, or an Athens, or even a signifier of the New World, like a Sydney, or a Los Angeles. No, the city couldn't care less about where it stood. He had seen a T-shirt once that said: NEW YORK FUCKIN' CITY. As if it were the only place that ever existed and the only one that ever would.

(another character's memory of tightrope walking between the twin towers)

In midair again, the cable taut through his toe. Cross-weaved by the wind. A sense of sudden height. The city beneath him. He could be in any mood or any place and, unbidden, it returned. He might simply be taking a nail from his carpenter's belt in order to hammer it into a piece of wood, or leaning across to open a car's glove compartment, or turning a glass under a stream of water, or performing a card trick at a party of friends, and all of a sudden his body would be drained of everything else but the bloodrush of a single stride. It was like some photograph his body had taken, and the album had been slid out again under his eyes, then yanked away. Sometimes it was the width of the city he saw, the alleyways of light, the harpsichord of the Brooklyn Bridge, the flat gray bowl of smoke over New Jersey, the quick interruption of a pigeon making flight look easy, the taxis below.

the story begins with a fictionalization of philippe petit's 1974 walk between the south and north towers of the world trade center and spirals out into a dozen mini-histories; that dragonfly's-eye perspective reminds me a bit of infinite jest, particularly when mccann's temporary lead is a second-generation hooker (david foster wallace's poor tony sequences are a lot messier, though; mccann is more delicate when he describes dirty things). he's a researchin' demon, mccann, and his details ring true: i felt a little queasy as he described his tightrope artist's (six years of) preparations, and i felt the little sloshes of good red wine in another character (a jaded downtown judge)'s nooks and crannies when he takes the bench to arraign the artist several hours later. bearing in mind how woo-woo this will sound, his descriptors are as precise as jonathan lethem's in chronic city, but they feel more big-hearted. the thrill you get from an especially deft passage is a warm thing. mccann teaches creative writing at hunter college with peter carey and nathan englander (englander interviews him at the end of the edition i read, actually), and it makes a lot of sense to me that those authors are colleagues; there's a gentleness to his writing, like englander's, and he's got carey's knack for relationships. his characters' connections make sense.

it's not especially difficult to like a "9/11 novel" (as this one is called, though everything but the coda takes place in 1974) that ends on a gently optimistic note. mccann wrote let the great world spin "to shake 9/11 out of [his] body," as he puts it.
It’s my stab at a personal healing. I’m not here to preach. I just lay out a landscape so that people can walk into it, or walk out, hopefully with their souls shifted sideways an instant. I’m not interested in telling people what to think, but I do hope that I’m allowing them a new space in which to breathe. And so—in this respect—it doesn’t have to be a 9/11 novel at all. It could also be just a book about New York in 1974 and how we are all intimately connected.
i think i love it, though, because he emphasizes that intimacy so successfully. lethem's chronic city leaves you clutching at a little square of sky in chase insteadman's apartment on the upper east side, and just a few blocks south let the great world spin concludes, at peace, on a deathbed. i should see this city the irish way all the time, maybe.

VICTOR: let the great world spin. both men have talent to burn, but the way mccann is able to sustain sophisticated optimism is awfully affecting. death by sentiment!

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 do the novels you love tend to end tragically or hopefully? (hush, i know those aren't antonyms.)

02 if you've read let the great world spin, does it feel like a 9/11 novel to you?

03 how do you feel about philippe petit's tightrope walk? does it move, nauseate, bore you?

04 what is it about irish writers? is it something they're putting in (or leaving out of) the water up there?

*previous battle here.


penn station

joe found out this weekend that he'd be needed down in washington. his business travel is minimal, but these little blips come up every so often, and we have a routine: he usually takes off after work midweek, i watch a lot of gratuitous lady-movies,* and the train brings him back on friday or so. this time the trip coincided with a light week at my office, so i came along. i considered cultivating a sneaky hooker vibe, but i'd never be able to keep a straight face for something like that, and really, i just kept thinking of my only other trip to DC, which was for an MUN conference at georgetown when i was sixteen. back then i divided my time pretty evenly between security council sessions with my best friend, generic local tourism, and sneaking off to meet these guys who'd come down to the conference from some high school in brooklyn (BK1: "we're the delegation from yoo-krun." BK2: "it's ukraine, jackass!"): this time it was food pilgrimages (joe's half of dinner could be expensed, at least), a late-night death march down pennsylvania avenue so i could get my sorkin on in front of the white house, a quick craft museum trip during the work meeting, and generic "circle game" musings on the passage of time (i kept trying to take photos of myself in our hotel suite's megamirror, but i don't have the stomach to compare them to pictures i saved from the '95 georgetown trip**). it was exhausting, and lovely, and more than a little weird.

union station

the department of health was offering free swine flu shots at the train station on wednesday, but no, joe said, that was not his idea of a romantic souvenir. "am i making it new for you? you know, washington. with my eyes."

day 202: crossing

washington, jefferson

grand salon

as many of the museums weren't new to me, i followed "game fish" wabes's suggestion and checked out the renwick gallery, home of the smithsonian's craft and decorative arts program. it is wondrous, to put it mildly, and has things like a marlin made of action figures and game pieces (the aforementioned game fish), a ghost clock, my new favorite self portrait...go. particularly if you're a been-there, done-that museumgoer.

joe and i met up at cowgirl creamery downtown for a lunchtime cheese feast; about half of what we bought ended up coming home in my purse, so i hope amtrak was kind-but-not-too-kind to the fancy bacteria in our red hawk and super-aged gouda.

crick, NW DC

with cues from design*sponge's city guide, we wandered through adams morgan and dupont circle.

the cairo

windows i appreciate

thyme gimlet

we holed up in a dupont circle bar for happy hour, had tapas and vegetarian(!) paella at jaleo, and woke up on our train just before it left penn station and headed for boston. almost sixteen years on, the district and i are alright.

{full photo set here.}

*read: movies with giant ants and/or oscar nominees.

**blah blah, now my forehead is tragically wrinkly, but mostly because i rocked some lethal pantsuits back in the day. someone should've taken me aside.


day 201: baggage

steve nash was remarkably calm about the whole neutering process yesterday. he had little red-rimmed stoner eyes when i picked him up from the vet and he wobbled around a bit when he first got home, but within half an hour he was back to posing for his imaginary calendar.

the crash

i like to think that at some point i'll develop self discipline and stop posting gratuitous kitten pictures, but it's not looking good.

02.22.10: oscarizer {it begins}

pop culture is crawling with are-you-a-true-new-yorker? quizzes and commentary; it's an easy and popular subject to cover, what with new yorkers' fondness for identifying themselves. being californian isn't quite like that: it seems to have something to do with good mexican food, and with understatement (in dress, in the treatment of concluding consonants, in self-identification), but definitions are fugitive. it's hard, then to describe the ways in which i'm less californian these days, though i think my near-total failure to keep up with current film is part of it. while i still adore movies, i'm perfectly happy to fold most of them into my netflix queue.

...so there's still a hell of a lot to watch before the academy awards this year, is what i'm saying. one must start somewhere, though, no? as in previous years of slack, i'd love peanut gallery guidance on what's worth seeing in the days that remain. pluses indicate titles i've surfaced and watched before descending back into cultural darkness (read: the first season of homicide); i've italicized my picks to win in each category.

best actor

jeff bridges - crazy heart +
george clooney - up in the air
colin firth - a single man
morgan freeman - invictus
jeremy renner - the hurt locker

i reserve the right to change my mind if jeremy renner blows me away (which is totally possible; i hear the hurt locker is stunning, and i've been eyeing our netflix copy for the past few weeks), but for my money, jeff bridges is a shoo-in. crazy heart is character sketches and a kick-ass soundtrack rather than a full-fledged movie, but those sketches are weirdly indelible. jeff bridges is an utterly plausible old country singer - musically, emotionally, visually - and everything about his performance sticks with you. i've had "fallin and flying" in my head for the last week and will, er, probably buy the whole soundtrack.

best supporting actor

matt damon - invictus
woody harrelson - the messenger
christopher plummer - the last station +
stanley tucci - the lovely bones
christoph waltz - inglourious basterds +

speaking of shoo-ins, christoph waltz (and david bowie's "putting out fire" from cat people in the theater-torching sequence) gave inglourious basterds a weight it otherwise lacked; he deserved his golden globe, and he'll deserve his oscar. if i'm wrong, i predict a left-field win for woody harrelson. christopher plummer was a lot of fun as tolstoy in the last station, but the character as written and played said "idealized grandpa" much more than "russian icon" to me. also...

best actress

sandra bullock - the blind side
helen mirren - the last station +
carey mulligan - an education
gabourey sidibe - precious
meryl streep - julie and julia +

...i think helen mirren gets the last station's oscar, if it's to receive one. her character is too big for the first part of the film - plummer as tolstoy calls her "operatic," which is on the money - but the undertones of her performance in its last act, as her husband flees their home and she tries to join him at his deathbed - had me weeping like a baby. i prefer this performance to her work in the queen, a movie i adored; sofya tolstoy is elizabeth 2's alter ego, i think. meryl streep was fun and streepy, but ultimately forgettable; i think mo'nique overshadows gabourey sidibe, recognition-wise, and that an education will be recognized for its screenplay, not its acting.* sandra bullock...is a german opera singer's daughter. fun fact!**

best supporting actress

penélope cruz - nine
vera farmiga - up in the air
maggie gyllenhaal - crazy heart +
anna kendrick - up in the air
mo'nique - precious

i know i need to see precious, and that i'll need to see it without joe; part of my film-slacking this year has been his utter disinterest in just about all of them. he couldn't even get behind crazy heart, which would shock you if you knew how he feels about dwight yoakam.

best director

kathryn bigelow - the hurt locker
james cameron - avatar
lee daniels - precious
jason reitman - up in the air
quentin tarantino - inglourious basterds +

bearing in mind that it's deeply unfair to judge before seeing either of their films, i sure do hope kathryn bigelow beats the snot out of james cameron. i think the backlash to the avatar backlash's backlash is still in effect; let's hope it makes it through the next fortnight.

best picture

the blind side
district 9 +
an education
the hurt locker
inglourious basterds +
a serious man
up in the air

in a distant but parallel universe, district 9 wins; when did sci fi become so fluent in modern politics? inglourious basterds will not win, nor will the blind side, an education, or up.

best dressed (actor or actress)

maggie gyllenhaal - something one-shouldered
helen mirren - tailored (plunging?) brocade
amanda palmer - a more family-friendly version of her golden globes flapper dress
cate blanchett - alexander mcqueen
tilda swinton - the david byrne big suit and/or nothing at all

cate has a fondness for mcqueen on the red carpet as a general proposition, and i think she'll be paying tribute to him this year; i wouldn't be surprised if maggie gyllenhaal wore him as well, actually. as for SWINTON, note that i predict with love; she'll look fabulous either way. i still want her hair a little.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 am i a new yorker? (joe and i moved here in may of '03, if that helps.)

02 when did sci fi become so fluent in modern politics? in a contemporary sense, i mean. otherwise i'd say 1932.

03 is it unreasonable to want the hurt locker to best avatar just...because? if you've seen both films, how do you feel about them?

04 if you care about that sort of thing, who are your red carpet power animals?

05 which of this year's nominees stand out for you?

*an education's screenplay, incidentally, is a good read; i've yet to see the movie, but i quite liked nick hornby's comments on adapting it from lynn barber's essay. he's got some excellent things to say about adapting memoirs as a general proposition, actually.

**i love sars's take on sandra bullock's "bestower of virtue and mercy — [who's] still sassy enough to call a homeboy "bitch" right back! You go, girl! To get me some insulin!"



SURVIVOR: chronic city (jonathan lethem)*
CHALLENGER: the spellmans strike again (lisa lutz)

philosophers club

i spotted a couple of lisa lutz's spellman files "comic crime" novels on our friend amos's (minimalist, largely nonfiction) bookshelf this past new year's eve. what's a thirty-year-old attorney doing with books about a wacky lady detective? "they're fun," he said, "and i like reading about san francisco." he's right: lutz has a fine ear for banter,** and her characters (a dysfunctional family of private eyes and the northern californians they harass) are entertaining, if not always emotionally plausible.*** (as lutz put it in an interview, "If my book gets someone through a dreadful plane ride, then I've done my job.") lutz and her girl sleuth, isabel, enjoy numbering and transcribing things even more than i do: in this fourth and final spellman-installment alone, she catalogues (and often tapes) family camping trips, (men who will be) ex-boyfriends, stakeouts, phone calls from florida, "mandatory lawyer dates," "lost wednesdays," and so on. the repetition is pretty charming, except when isabel flogs the three previous novels in the footnotes (as either a literary or a marketing tool, clunk). it's also useful, for while i've yet to bring one of lutz's books on a plane (i've read three in all; i think i missed revenge of the spellmans, the previous installment), they're stop-and-start subway commute magic, and i'm consistently pleased when they turn up among our pre-publication reader's proofs at the office. lutz doesn't quite nail the private eye's final walk into the sunset (totally possible in a tragicomic setting, a la veronica mars), but she's got her walk and her talk well in hand.

VICTOR: chronic city. i'd rather have a beer with lutz, but lethem's is the title i'd rather have in hardcover.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 seriously, though. would you drink coffee and eat pineapple at the same time?

02 what was your last in-flight read?

03 isabel mentions doctor who often and passionately enough that i feel like i should see what she's going on about. are you a fan? what am i missing?

*previous battle here.

**her dialogue is quite solid as a general proposition, actually: lutz was a screenwriter (albeit a thwarted one) in a previous professional life, and it shows.

***or gustatorially plausible: at one point, they sat around consuming coffee and fresh pineapple together. it pains me to think about how unholy that would taste.

02.14.10: valentine's day (part ii)

joe and i met friends in williamsburg yesterday evening for pre-valentine's-day bowling. the gathering was casual, but there were stakes: the night's big winner (joe) took home a bit of cash, and the loser (our friend sarah) has one week to get herself photographed in front of south korea's permanent mission to the united nations with my glittery pink bowling ball* (absurd wagers are popular in our crowd). when we got home, my blog swap valentine was waiting at our door; i opened it this morning with steve's assistance.**

v-day blog swap: the kittening

amanda's platonic matchmaking skillz are as sharp as ever: she passed my address to lisa (of - privilege).

valentine (1 of 3)

valentine (2 of 3)

valentine (3 of 3)

lisa tissue-papered every last one of these tiles, and (like steve) probably has more dye in her system at this point than a red velvet cupcake does. in the language of craft, they're a six-page letter from home on that whisper-thin air mail stationery with the red-and-blue-bordered envelopes. they make you feel that someone is tending to you.

valentine's baking

as do the chocolate chip cookies she baked for me - after tricking me into telling her what sort i liked. we've been chatting about our valentines all week, actually, and i hadn't the faintest idea that she was baking and gluing her fingers together on my behalf.

blog swap gift

as does this 1942 edition of the yearling, illustrated by n.c. wyeth. the valentine tiles' background material, i should explain, is printed-out bits of my posts on losing our little cat last year and adopting steve. in lieu of walking you through the particulars of how this package hit me this morning, let me say that women like lisa and amanda are a big part of why i can't be wholly cynical about valentine's day, and why i keep on loving this dirty old internet.

*her name is brunhilda. she is extremely heavy.

**a noble tradition established in san diego.

02.11.10: valentine's day (part i)

amanda's second annual valentine's day swap* has been afoot for the past couple of weeks, so i've been wandering around muttering about owl-faces and paper. i love making things out of other things, but i'm not very good with deadlines - and knowing i wanted to make jamie a barn owl out of patio furniture fabric (long story) didn't mean i knew how i was going to do so. but! the owl came to be.


the card was a bit of a head-scratcher as well; i considered trying to make elementary school handwriting paper with lines from a photo of the F train subway tracks, but i didn't have a good, bright paint pen, and my glitter experiment looked like a sneeze. i knew i wanted to do something with a photo, ideally something with a boat on the river, if only one would happen b...and then a tugboat chugged past the window just as i was leaving for work, so i dashed out to the balcony with my camera.

tugboat valentine

not sure how the neighbors felt about the random river-looker yelling NO CAT NO, but hooray, valentine! i completed the trio with some brooklyn jam, the box o'love made it to california in time, and manray sat in it. a fine conclusion, no?

*in which one sends one's assigned blogger a small gift, a little something, and a handmade valentine. i met rachel the crafty kitchen sorceress when we were paired last february, and a year of marvelous recipe inspiration ensued.



chronic city (jonathan lethem)*
CHALLENGER: gun, with occasional music (jonathan lethem)

a THUNDERTOME first: man versus himself! in this case, it's genre-bending young california-lethem (gun, with occasional music), back from the early nineties to do battle with contemporary, supercelebrated brooklyn-lethem for...control of the future? mastery of the past? the sci-fi imagery folds in on itself a bit, but we can be fairly sure at least one of them is a robot.

i first met california-lethem at solar light books, a basement joint in san francisco at which i hustled new age workbooks from beneath leaks in the ceiling and listened to old elvis costello albums for the first few months after graduating from college.** he was the owner's favorite author, which gave me the impression that his was a niche within a niche within a niche; amanda had particular tastes, to put it mildly. gun is indeed a quirky novel, but it's a novel with a little something for everyone rather than a lot for a few (except for amanda, that is). "evolved" animals walk, talk, shoot, and deliver sandwiches! sloppily-evolved babies give everyone the creeps and hang out in cracked-out bars! the government issues cards with karma that can land you in cryogenic prison if you anger the police-inquisitors or have the nerve to ask questions, and it also encourages you to snort soma-like "make!" news radio is music rather than language! people live in oakland intentionally! it's a bit much to take in at once; most of lethem's sci-fi flourishes fit together by the end of the novel, but a few (the titular music, for instance) flap in the breeze at the others' expense. i imagine a first-time novelist would be tempted to use every trick at his disposal, but a seasoned editor might have encouraged him to stick to his favorites. i'm also less than wild about lethem's first attempt at noir; mimicking raymond chandler is dangerous, for anything other than perfect pitch is wildly unflattering to the mimic. 1999's motherless brooklyn, lethem's second detective novel, is considerably more satisfying; half a dozen books later, lethem's PI is his PI, not philip marlowe lite. that said, the second section of the book (which takes place six years after the first) is as focused as the first section was manic: it's spare, overexposed, and sorrowful, and the low notes lethem hits at the end of his story do sound a bit like chandler. i was rooting for him by then, and i'm glad to know what i do of the work that was to come. is to come? damn robots, messing with my concepts of time.

VICTOR: chronic city. gun, with occasional music is a much cooler title, but lethem circa 2009 has had much more practice.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

speaking of influences, lethem lo-o-oves philip k. dick (do androids dream of electric sheep?, &c). if you're familiar with both authors, how dick...ish(?) was gun for you?

02 speaking of philip k. dick, if you were on your way to the airport and saw rutger hauer sitting in a starbucks, would you point him out to your companion, even if you guys were running a little late?

03 if you were rutger hauer, what would you order at starbucks?

04 cool titles: which stand out for you? (as she climbed across the table, another lethem title, has a nice ring to it as well.)

*previous battle here.

**the owner wavered on hiring me when she found out i'd once worked for borders, but my pierced eyebrow convinced her that my intentions were good. yes, a facial piercing once got me a job.


lo + joe + chobo + bip

{disturbing bob ross cat mashup courtesy of baby jo and george}

finding a cat hasn't been easy for us; for months my visits to petfinder inevitably ended in tears. when i was in the mood to look, our parameters made things nearly impossible: we wanted a kitten (my call*) who needed a home (also my call - i would never go to a breeder instead of adopting a shelter cat) who...was a siamese.** this is how we ended up looking at photos of kittens in berwick, pennsylvania. three blue lynx point siamese kittens there had materialized online around christmas and, presumably, been spoken for; two weeks later, on a random thursday morning, one of them appeared again. joe gave me the okay to put in an application - shelters these days ask for an application before they'll talk to you about a particular cat - and three hours later, i got a call from diana, the little guy's foster mom. "your vet knows you by name," she said with wonder. (well, sure: i was there at least once a week for months last year, and at least once a month for years before that. i also have a tendency to burst into tears in his office, so the staff is rather protective of me.) she'd called our vet and our references - shelters these days also ask for references - and said that our application was impeccable. we even beat out a vet tech who'd also applied for the kitten, a detail that, i admit, really pleases me: if you'll forgive the gaucherie of speaking highly of myself, i'm a damn fine cat-guardian.

two weeks after that, after cat-offers and -deposits and -photo-exchanging and -trip-planning, we set off to meet diana in philly (which was more convenient to her place near baltimore and our place in new york than berwick would have been). i called our hotel and made sure that they were cool with kitten-trafficking in their lobby,*** we spent the afternoon and evening kicking around our favorite places in town, and by sunday morning steve nash was upon us.

i'd forgotten how emphatic the little ones are. steve hasn't stopped moving since we let him out of his carrier at our place on sunday afternoon: there are chuck-tails to attack, books to topple, bulbs of garlic to gnaw (?). he doesn't really meow, but he has the deafening kitten-purr that rattles his whole body. he blows out his energy reserves so completely that he passes out on his stomach, arms straight out in front of him and out in back like a bunny, face-down on the sofa. we're exhausted. it's marvelous.

*though there are lots of wonderful older cats, i really wanted to raise one right from the beginning - and we lost jude so young. i couldn't handle falling for a cat his age with potential health problems i couldn't anticipate.

**joe was exposed to photos of manray at a vulnerable point ("can we adopt him?" "no, that's jamie's cat!"); he insisted on a siamese.

***"we're paying a hundred dollars to spend the night there," said joe, "and they just paid that guy twenty dollars to be on the phone with you for that long."

02.01.10: the day you arrived

battery tunnel

jersey smokestacks

snow, independence hall

first bank of the u.s.

kitten-meeting room

stripe assault

steve nash

(we named him steve nash, of all things.)