let the great world spin (colum mccann)*
CHALLENGER: the book of illusions (paul auster)

one would think i'd be more familiar with paul auster, given the hours i've logged in jane austen's corner of the fiction section (i think i might even have poked around for her in a dutch shop when i took myself to amsterdam in college) and that auster and i could be extremely distant relations (i can be terribly competitive with similarly-named people: one must rule). i was more or less unbiased, though, when his book of illusions wandered across the giveaway shelf at my office. auster's bio page made him sound fairly eminent, the new york times seemed to like him, and no one explicitly told me to set the book on fire when i mentioned it last week - so what the hell, right?

i've gotten into the habit of dog-earing the lower corners of THUNDERTOME books' pages. in auster's case, i dog-eared every page that made me embarrassed for him, and i stopped after the first dozen. according to james wood, who notes in his notorious takedown in the new yorker that book of illusions is probably auster's best,
Among modern and postmodern writers, Beckett, Nabokov, Richard Yates, Thomas Bernhard, Muriel Spark, Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, and David Foster Wallace have all employed and impaled cliché in their work. Paul Auster is probably America’s best-known postmodern novelist; his “New York Trilogy” must have been read by thousands who do not usually read avant-garde fiction. Auster clearly shares this engagement with mediation and borrowedness—hence, his cinematic plots and rather bogus dialogue—and yet he does nothing with cliché except use it.
i made a point of avoiding wood until i'd finished book of illusions myself, as i wanted to give auster a fair shake - but he's absolutely right. in this fairly representative passage, for instance, professor david zimmer is narrating the morning after sleeping with a strange birthmarked woman who shows up on his stoop, pulls a gun on him and tries to force him to go to new mexico (insert new mexico joke here), then makes sweet, sweet love to him after he disarms her and nearly blows his own brains out by accident:
Neither one of us said anything about what had happened in my bedroom the night before. It sat in the car with us like a secret, like something that belonged to the domain of small rooms and nocturnal thoughts and must not be exposed to the light of day. To name it would have been to risk destroying it, and therefore we didn't go much beyond an occasional sidelong glance, a fleeting smile, a hand placed cautiously on the other's knee. How could I presume to know what Alma was thinking? I was glad that she crawled into my bed, and I was glad that we had spent those hours together in the darkness. But that was only one night, and I had no idea what what going to happen to us next.
auster makes it abundantly clear that realism isn't his bag: zimmer notes on page five that "we all want to believe in impossible things," and we're reminded constantly that he and his fellow characters are types. "although there are things to admire in auster's fiction," wood notes, "the prose is never one of them" - but auster's stock phrases are a postmodern thing as well, see, and knocking them would be unsporting.

or is it? on the CHARACTERS!-rather-than-characters front, i'm reminded of murakami, whose novels often feature an underemployed, footloose writer with a fondness for whiskey and jazz, a cat named after a fish, and a beautiful disappearing woman. i've come to love the way they feel like variations on a theme; much is forgiven, perhaps, because he's charming and foreign. he's also really good at quietly making things strange, and domesticated characters and situations have a way of going feral when your attention's elsewhere. auster's are in no danger of that: professor zimmer is the very character you think he is, he behaves exactly as you think he will, and you know just what's behind every door he opens - and where's the fun in that? auster's po-mo thing worked exactly once for me, when zimmer is flying back to the east coast and reading from a six-hundred-page wildflower compendium (weeds of the west) to distract himself from his airplane issues and the strange woman he's left behind. reader, i submit that the unadorned recitation of forty-odd scientific names ("the words had a chewy saxon thickness to them" - hey, a quasi-original descriptor!) is more emotionally significant than the aforementioned woman's twenty-page suicide fax(!) a few chapters later. a writer like updike gets my goat because he swaddles devastating prose with soft-core porn. paul auster...writes like he's mocking paul auster.

VICTOR: let the great world spin. the book of illusions is bad like a cobra.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 how d'you think the dutch feel about jane austen?

02 does etymological proximity breed contempt for you?

03 do you dog-ear your books?

04 what's the worst thing you've read this year?

*previous battle here.



let the great world spin (colum mccann)*
CHALLENGER: rabbit redux (john updike)

i read john updike's rabbit, run for my 101 in 1001 list around this time last year (see 04.29.09). my strongest reaction was to an unfortunate image early in the book, and my conclusion was that rabbit updike would be a fascinating guy if he wasn't so busy being a creep. spring is here again, and with it another opportunity to appreciate the rabbit tetralogy: i found a copy of the midcentury-sexy redux first edition (third printing, mind**) at the city opera thrift shop for five bucks (on a stand that said something like "if you don't buy this book, you're an asshole"), so here we are. as luck would have it, i got to enjoy the hated image all over again on page 27:
He had been afraid marrying her she would get fat like her mother but as she ages more and more her skinny little stringy go-getter of a father comes out in her. His hand leaves the dip to stray around in front to her belly, faintly lovingly loose from having had two babies. Puppy's neck.
really, updike? this second traipse through harry ("rabbit") angstrom's life takes place a decade later, in 1969; harry and janice are still married and now in their mid-thirties, and we're brought up to speed on what happened to their bodies in those intervening years via updike's interminable accounts of their sex acts. we're then presented with a number of set pieces: harry with an eighteen-year-old runaway, the runaway with a fugitive black vietnam vet, harry with his former schoolmate, janice with her hairy greek lover, the greek lover with harry's sister...it's kind of intense. the book's fans (who are themselves awfully intense) love the fact that updike is reacting to the social upheaval of the sixties in the moment (rabbit redux was published in 1971), but this is hardly a three-dimensional look at how two people remake themselves; we're told, for example, that janice's lover appreciates her in a way that harry doesn't, but honoring her femininity appears to boil down to making her feel like "a piece of ass." revolutionary, that. the fugitive, skeeter, is the revolution's babbling tongue, and the trouble he causes by hiding out and smoking up in harry's home is at the center of the story. the center, mind you, but not the core: his rants are plunked down in the middle of the book like tropical fish in a tank. as an admiring recent reviewer puts it,
Rabbit Redux shows a writer willing as few other American novelists are (Norman Rush comes to mind) to suspend judgment on his characters’ political, philosophical, moral, and theological failings – to love them anyway. Indeed, it is characteristic of Updike that the “rhetoric of social protest and revolt… antithetical to [his] Fifties education” (as he puts it in the omnibus introduction) aroused not his defenses, but his curiosity.
am i expected to applaud him for being superficially interested in fish, or for following through on every last one of his characters' inclinations? that reviewer goes on to argue that skeeter really does change harry, but i'm skeptical: rabbit's a looter, not a protester, and both he and his author leave me cold.

VICTOR: let the great world spin. updike's writing is just as lovely as mccann's, puppy imagery notwithstanding - but he's still a creep.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 no peeking; how do you pronounce "redux"?

02 since it's that time of the year again, how are you feeling about john updike today? am i being unfair to him?

03 how much sex, in a literary sense, is too much?

04 what was your last nifty used book find? i had some luck the other day, and am excited about getting into my first dashiell hammett (once i finish this paul auster, which...burns).

*previous battle here.

**which made it a bit easier to forgive steve for eating(?!) the dust jacket. on some level it's appropriate for rabbit redux to suffer at the hands of a white troublemaker, but still.


caramel recipe

101 in 1001 {II}: 038 cook with 12 ingredients I’ve never used before [ongoing]

08: cream of tartar. though i've been baking bread once every week or two for the past six months, i still graze the sides of the oven all the time (which is super-awkward when the burn forms a line on my arm and i then share a pole with someone on the subway. i need a lapel button: NOT A CUTTER.). though i've chopped veggies almost every night since time began, the dark and primitive chili gods still want bits of my fingers. kitchen safety is complicated, is my point, so candymaking terrifies me: why invite all of that volatile molten sugar into your life when good-looking people in brooklyn will sell you the finished product for $20?* ah, yes: the $20 part.

on friday night we saw half of a good eats episode ("the ballad of salty and sweet") in which alton brown scorches a ruby red grapefruit with a miniature torch (need to try that), makes praline bacon (missed that part, and can't say that i mind), and makes dark salty caramels. the ingredient list for the caramels was both manageable and intriguing (soy sauce, you say?), the process looked simple, and preparing the pan involved some exciting work with parchment paper. i bought a cheap candy thermometer and some cream of tartar on saturday afternoon.

dark salted caramel

truth be told, i'm not entirely sure what happened. i followed the recipe to the letter, or so i thought, and ended up with a pan of tastiness that has less structural integrity than heidi montag. at the length caramel will out, and it poured past my little parchment paper sleeves before i had a chance to talk it into solidifying. after two days in the refrigerator, this is as calm as it gets; i tried to take a picture of it near the living room window to get that lovely color, but just a few moments of sunlight were lethal.** i'll certainly give the recipe another try, as that flavor profile really is amazing; with a bit of practice, i think i'll be able to make something one could eat in mixed company. (we're eating the first batch gracelessly and furtively, you see. it's really tasty.)

*which is not to say nunu's hand dipped salt caramels aren't worth every penny. they are, is the problem.

**vampire caramel? non-stephenie-meyer-vampire caramel, i mean. it doesn't sparkle.


i love me some spray paint. the opportunity to use it doesn't come up very often; i made silver ornaments for our christmas tree a few years ago and have long-standing plans to make a magnetic chalk board (if someone will step up and sell me a reasonably-priced-but-interesting-looking vintage frame, brooklyn flea), but joe tends to ignore me when i point out poorly finished wooden things at thrift stores and note that we could paint them. finally i managed both to read the faux porcelain pottery tutorial over at ps - i made this... and to finish the fancy bottle of rum* joe's coworker gave us for christmas (he gifts us with liquor without provocation every now and again; i don't understand it, but i like it). Project Adler-Inspired Vase was born.

rum bottle (before)

ye olde rum bottle. it's lovely, thick, bubbly glass, and probably would've made a fine vase on its own - but when one must paint, one must paint. i coaxed the labels off with some goo gone and ran it through the dishwasher.

day 224: vase in progress

per the tutorial, i used a sharpie to draw lines on the bottle before puffy painting it. i thought the red lines would be light enough to cover with paint, but i ended up using something like five coats. if there's such a thing as an extremely light-colored sharpie, i'd recommend that.

after letting the bottle dry overnight in a kitchen cabinet (the kitten can be trusted with nothing at this point - last week he pulled joe's only credit card out of his money clip and hid it under the rug), i newspapered the balcony within an inch of its life and spray painted like it was my job. i started out with a cute little craft can of krylon from the local art store and ran out long before the red lines disappeared; i came back the next day with a giant can and felt much more powerful. and deeply toxic.

finished vase (and hell's kitchen tulips)

et voila! i could pretend that i've stopped anthropomorphizing things and didn't immediately refer to the finished project as count vasie, but i think we all know the truth.

*pyrat, that is. i'm not usually a rum fan, dark and stormies notwithstanding, but this stuff (from the folks who make patron) is good enough to drink on the rocks.


there are two sorts of shoe in my life: the loud, complicated ones i buy on sale or impulse and wear a handful of times season after season, and the little black flats i wear almost every day until they fall apart (magical things, those little flats: they make almost any outfit juuust businesslike enough for the office). it takes me four to six months to destroy said flats; as i walk two miles a day just scooting to and from work, i feel like i'm getting a pretty square deal. i was getting a square deal, that is, until - somewhere early in month two -


this happened. what the hell? do i pirouette on my left foot unconsciously? is there some sort of twelve dancing princesses thing going down after i fall asleep? does steve madden booby trap his flats?* then i realized i'd seen that shape before. oh, yes.

le kraken

my shoe has sprouted a kraken's eye. when i said a few days ago that the end was nigh, i thought i was talking about kitten pictures - but as tennyson wrote,
There hath he lain for ages, and will stew
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and fuck up Lauren's shoe.
prepare for the last battle, internets.

on sightings, i can also report that mentioning pretty in pink last week actually summoned james spader.

celebrities v. giant inflatable rats:** steff edition

he swept past me on fifty-seventh street wearing an indiana jones fedora and walking a fluffy white dog, so it wasn't exactly a brat pack moment, but in a six-degrees-of-kevin-bacon way it brought me closer to both molly ringwald and william shatner than i have any right to be.

rats: 4.5
star: 13

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 what the hell happened to my shoe?

02 were you aware of canada's postal excellence? (check out the whole cryptozoological quartet. where's our ogopogo stamp?)

03 on a totally unrelated note, paul auster readers, is the book of illusions acceptable as an entry point? a copy materialized, kraken-like, at my office, and i'm thinking of auditioning it as a subway book.

*a designer willing to knock off the balenciaga lego heels is capable of anything.

**an ongoing tally of the famous people and union-displeasure-indicating balloons i see in the city.


i fear we might be nearing the conclusion of steve's imaginary calendar phase. he's still goddamn adorable, mind you, but he's growing so enthusiastically that he no longer fits in many of the things (boots, bookshelves, purses, shopping bags) he'd hop into for the insta-cute. we considered staging a bonsai kitten intervention with joe's monolithic chicken soup jar from the 2nd avenue deli - o steve, i remember when you were but a matzoh ball! - but i think that ship is out of the barn. we knew we were approaching terminal kitten-image velocity when he went after joe's sneaker laces the other night and assumed the official hang in there! pose, which is sort of the baby-animal enactment of godwin's law. the end is nigh!

then steve was like, "i have a bowl for you."







in non-kitten news (i'm still literate, technically), meredith blake's new yorker online look at the harry ransom center's incredible and heartbreaking david foster wallace archive (including ten PDFs) is pretty great, though hard to read.
The archive also contains an extensive amount of writing from Wallace’s childhood and youth: a whimsical childhood poem about vikings ["For all these reasons stay away / from a viking every day."], signed “David Foster Wallace”; school essays about “Pride and Prejudice” and “Moby Dick”; four issues of “Sabrina,” the Amherst humor magazine he co-founded with his roommate, Mark Costello. For an author who leapt with astonishing rapidity from youthful promise into adult virtuosity, the juvenilia may prove especially illuminating.
oh, DFW.


in third grade i developed an obsession with the psychedelic furs' "heartbreak beat" video. midnight to midnight was the first album i ever bought (with change, as i recall); the disdain i caught at school for carrying around that tape with richard butler's english-white belly on the front was second only to what my best friend and i caught for choreographing a dance routine to "heartbreak beat" for the talent show.* that was right around when pretty in pink** was edited for television (so i could bootleg and sneak downstairs to watch it when my parents were asleep), and when my aunt and uncle brought over a copy of labyrinth (wait, i thought, you mean knife-thin english crooners are, like, a species?). shit was afoot in '86-'87.

that ecstatic saxophone riff came rolling out of the speakers this morning when i played ipod i ching to figure out what to wear, which is why i'm at the office in skinny black jeans, motorcycle boots, and a questionable black lace shirt. heady stuff, that grainy old MTV.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 have you ever been in a talent show? what was your act?

02 if you were/are a music video watcher, do you have a "heartbreak beat" analog?

03 have you ever let dressing room muzak talk you into or out of a clothing purchase?

*we didn't even make it past tryouts; robin benway shellacked us when she lip synced to the jets' "crush on you." that was fair, as i danced about as well then as i do now.

**which, if this month's vanity fair feature is to be trusted, had something to do with our local radio:

[Molly] Ringwald, for her part, found common ground with [John] Hughes in their shared taste for British-import pop. A California girl, she gushed to Hughes about the postpunk and New Wave music that she heard on KROQ, the Anglophilic L.A. station to which she was devoted. Pretty in Pink, she says, was written for her after she played Hughes the Psychedelic Furs song of that title.
say what you will about simple minds and "don't you (forget about me)," but for my money, pretty in pink and its soundtrack are the best of the brat pack.


so: fountain art fair new york.

windows on the jerz


in the belly of the lightship



the exhibition was on and around pier 66; an especially disturbing family of installations (allison berkoy's devious "in the belly of the lightship") was tucked into lightship "frying pan,"* a floating lighthouse that once guarded the shoals off of cape fear and supposedly spent three years at the bottom of the chesapeake bay. that third photo is of a porthole in the lightship; i actually erased my photos of berkoy's work, as i didn't want it to haunt my camera. it reminded me a bit of the '08 whitney biennial's satellite exhibition at the park avenue armory (scroll down to my entry for 03.24.08). there's no armory component to the biennial this year, which is a damn shame; paired properly, fine old venues and contemporary material make beautiful music (jeff koons at versailles, the cooper-hewitt in carnegie's upper east side mansion, the renegade craft fair in mccarren park pool...wait, no, that was miserable). i did shiver a bit with the yupster you-are-not-a-beautiful-and-unique-snowflake angst of finding myself at an event that succeeded in pinning my interests, wriggling, to the wall - we actually ran into a pair of hot saarinen chairs i'd been ogling at apartment therapy last week, on loan to one of the gallerists - but i'm at now at peace. also we're way too poor to have to worry about art purchases, ovine or otherwise.

*kidchamp's new banner is a shot from the lightship deck.


day 213: ears

i really do want to tell you all about fountain art fair, the exhibition we hit on saturday - the venue was terribly sexy, the works were grand, and it was poignant to revisit the show that first led us to the gaf - but today it's mostly an excuse to find out how you feel about how kidchamp looks now that it's migrated back to blogger (bah) and mutated a bit. asking for feedback when i lack the tech skills to respond with gusto isn't especially wise, sure, but "sudden and often questionable aesthetic decisions" is my middle name. (bet you didn't know 'maria' could be translated that way.) so, er, what do you think?



SURVIVOR: let the great world spin (colum mccann)*
CHALLENGER: dark places (gillian flynn)

our friends mari and josh came down from harlem to watch the oscars with us (and birch beer and fritos) last night. the horror clip sequence, heavy on bits from the shining, the exorcist, the blob, and nightmare on elm street,** was miserable for mari, who's as allergic to horror as i was for the first half of my life. i feel for her, though scary books ended up being more difficult for me to handle than scary movies were, actually; my formative horror moment was having a stephen king story read aloud to me at camp. oogy writing (and his in particular) was too much for me long after zombie movies and i were BFF.

which brings me to gillian flynn, an author king has called "the real deal, a sharp, acerbic, and compelling storyteller with a knack for the macabre." most blurbs can be taken with a grain of salt, but flynn really is king's type: dark places is set in especially unlovely parts of missouri and kansas, and its characters are not-entirely-unlikable at best. "draw a picture of my soul," says libby day (once a seven-year-old whose mother and sisters died in a mass murder a la in cold blood's clutter family, now a superfluous thirty-year-old whose pity money is about to run out), "and it'd be a scribble with fangs." it's an introduction that could easily sound ridiculous, but flynn commits to her angle: even in the flashback sequences, libby and her family are weak, selfish, vindictive. our perspectives are theirs, and they all have shitty eyesight.

sounds like a party in a can, right? i freely admit that i tend to avoid this genre like the plague, and that dark places scooted just past the edge of my hicks-who-hack forcefield thanks to its editor (my friend sarah, the hardest-working woman in the book business***) and a pair of unlikely supporters (an entertainment editor at my office and my friend jacob). the chorus was right, as it happens: it's a mean, scrappy book, and i was up with it until three on saturday night. flynn is almost frighteningly good at recasting her characters (i'm not used to rooting against, say, an eleven-year-old girl), and i would pay her to coach a few male post-modernists on plausibly unreliable narrators. i'd never name names, of course.

VICTOR: let the great world spin. in an actual fight, i'm fairly sure flynn would wipe the floor with mccann. on paper, big, blowsy phrases tend to trump gripping ones for me - and animal sacrifice still freaks me out.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 what did you serve at your oscars-viewing, if you had one?

02 what's your take on stephen king?

03 how do you feel about horror in general?

04 what was the last book you read 'til three?

*previous battle here.

**and unforgivably light on george romero and blink-or-you'll-miss-him sam raimi (name checked later at the podium), and - twilight stars, really? kristen stewart and taylor lautner are easy on the eyes, sure, but behaving as though they have anything to do with horror is like calling deliverance a movie about canoeing.

***i was going to say "publishing's david lee roth," but that could mean so many things.


i'm just over halfway through my take-a-picture-every-day-for-a-year 101 in 1001 list item, and i'm feeling pretty good. the set has its clunkers, to be sure, but i've managed to keep portraits of my feet to a minimum, and that's a victory in these parts.

yesterday's assay was a tip of the hat to rachel's lovely friday flowers posts - or it would be, if i could photograph flowers with anything like skill (people i can do, sort of; objects, we are still first-date awkward). that's where you come in; does one of these whisper "day 209" to you? help me learn, o internet.

tulips #1

tulips #2

tulips #3

tulips #4

tulips #5