11.28.11: culture blotter {mgmt and maurizio cattelan @ the guggenheim}

we had every reason - okay, many reasons - to imagine that the tail end of our annual flurry of autumn concerts would be a spectacular, dragon-kite tail end. a stegosaurus tail end! our friend lesley spent a good deal of our pre-show mexican food and margaritas (also auspicious!) telling us about how amon tobin at the brooklyn masonic temple had flipped up the top of her head, scooped out her brains, and speckled the tri-state area with them; maybe this show (precious alt-electronic wesleyan hipsters playing music surrounded and inspired by "all," a massive, 128-piece, museum-wide mobile which serves as a retrospective of italian artist maurizio cattelan's career) would be like that show (we saw matthew barney's cremaster installations at the guggenheim a decade ago, and they had that sort of promise)!

pope, concertgoers @ guggenheim

guggenheim roof

ye photogs

joe at the guggenheim

upstairs restroom, guggenheim, during the mgmt show

death from above, mgmt @ guggenheim

the cattelan pieces were interesting if not always excellent, but seeing them in a single (and singular) place was unexpectedly moving. the peoplewatching, as one would imagine, was fantastic; i'd like to meet the person who kissed the wall in the bathroom upstairs, and perhaps introduce them to the twelve-year-old mgmt superfan who tried to chat me up at the end of the show. mgmt...i'll need to see again: i have to believe they're capable of more than that show, and on that note, i might want to kick them in the shins. i remain enthusiastic about nights of music at museums, particularly when i know i have a brand-new skeleton suit waiting for me at home. maximalism, internets! it keeps us on our toes.


food safety

happy nearly-thanksgiving, internets; as per usual, i'll be taking pictures of holiday food prep and adding them to orphan thanksgiving, the flickr group far-flung friends and i started up a few years ago as a way of pushing our holiday tables end to end. these days it's a celebration of situational family, a repository of food porn (as in other sorts, amateurs are the most interesting), and a place of shared experience. also photos of steve; if you are among the folks coming to our place for dinner on thursday, know that i will be washing this tub before filling it with ice and booze, probably. anyway, stop by! how often does someone ask to see the photo you took of your dinner with your smartphone?


101 in 1001 {II}: ride the subway on staten island [completed 11.13.11]

what do prince philip, queen elizabeth the second, winston churchill, madonna, and joe and i have in common? we're all famous british people, of course, but that's too easy; no, i'm thinking of how we've all made use of the staten island railway.

sunset from the ferry

sunset, statue of liberty

at st. george

my feet and a staten island railway car

the verrazano from stapleton

on the platform at stapleton

ask not at whom the finger points

joe on the platform at stapleton

the nonnas, enoteca maria

on the staten island ferry

joe, the staten island ferry

the verrazano

folks aren't usually receptive to my requests for shaolin-train-riding companionship, but the missus is a special case; also, he remembered that we'd talked years ago about tracking down good italian food at the other end of the boat ride. he found enoteca maria, and it was for us: a rotating cast of italian grandmothers prepare rustic italian food for diners just up the hill from the ferry landing. our evening's nonna was adelina from napoli, and her food kicked ass; we were full of mozzarella di bufala and artichokes long before we made it to our pasta (me) and bass (joe), but one doesn't stop eating at nonna's table. when we explained that we had to run to catch the eight o'clock ferry, we were promptly buried beneath a pile of cookies; it was outstanding.

and the rail - the rail was fascinating, and weird. one only pays to ride the train at its endpoints (all of the other stations will let you on for free); somehow this means that you have to swipe your card as you exit the station as well, a step we only learned about when we tried to push through the turnstiles and got whacked in the yarbles. so that was a low point; we learned later that our randomly-chosen stop (stapleton) played a supporting role in madonna's papa don't preach video, though, and that made everything better. staten island, i will be back.

11.17.11: joe's dream, II

"I'm in a hotel room in Arizona waiting for my estranged dad, Elvis Presley, whom I have never met. He shows up, and it's old Elvis - just ancient, really wrinkled. He and I have about ten minutes of conversation, which is strained. Now we're outside, in Cave Creek, where I grew up, and Elvis gets into his battered old car, which crashes and starts rolling down the street, rolling and rolling - and I try to call someone, the police, but no one has a phone, so I run into my elementary school and find my BlackBerry, and I use the phone on that.

Now I'm on a high desert plain, with the human equivalent of Chief Wiggum from The Simpsons, and Elvis is there, completely naked and encased in a giant plastic bag. It's sealed and he's struggling to breathe, so Wiggum makes a slit [gestures horizontally across his face] for him. 'Alright,' he says, 'now you get out of here and never come back.' Elvis turns and begins to shuffle away, the bag crinkling around him, and Wiggum stops him. 'One more thing,' he says. 'Hand over the bananas.' Elvis hands him three giant bags of frozen bananas, and that's the end of my dream."

2: were they whole, or cut up?

1: whole, and in these three clear plastic sacks that he's carrying over his shoulder like a hobo.

2: or santa.

1: or santa.


101 in 1001 {II}: 041 get a bikini wax [completed 11.15.11]
That Crawford Tillinghast should ever have studied science and philosophy was a mistake. These things should be left to the frigid and impersonal investigator, for they offer two equally tragic alternatives to the man of feeling and action; despair if he fail in his quest, and terrors unutterable and unimaginable if he succeed.

(h.p. lovecraft, "from beyond")

101 in 1001 {II}: 080 see a show at joe's pub [completed 10.28.11]

claudia gonson, rick moody, tanya donelly @ joe's pub

how did it take me eight years to get to a show at joe's pub? i'm tempted to call it our local equivalent of bimbo's 365 club in san francisco (an easy walk from home, a genteel space, and a reasonably-priced night out), but it's actually much better than that; it's utterly un-grotty (i'm looking at you, village vanguard), every seat is a good one (you could work on that, bimbo's), and my front-row ticket to tanya donelly and friends - purchased four days before the show - was dirt cheap. it's been almost a decade since i last saw tanya, who's honey-throated and gorgeous as ever; her motley band (rick moody, the magnetic fields' claudia gonson and sam davol, one ring zero's michael hearst, the breeders' carrie bradley, and hannah marcus) was capable and amiable, the beer was reasonably-priced and just exotic enough, and the air on the walk home was crisp and smoky. rocktober took a deep, sweeping bow and left the stage.


dawn on the east river

okay, there's one good thing about getting up early to run before work.



PERFORMER: the magicians (lev grossman)

lamps i appreciate, 1

here be spoilers; if you haven't read the book and plan to do so at some point, please enjoy this wizard lamp and avert your eyes from the rest of the post. temporarily-actual reading group discussion questions - also containing spoilers - are at its conclusion.

lev grossman went to harvard and yale; he's a prolific tech journalist, and he's time's book reviewer. each of those points is in his bio, but they don't really need to be; the magicians is precisely the book you'd expect from a guy who's done time at elite schools, chewed on a bunch of cables, and read a lot of books. that's both a good thing and a bad thing, i think; some of its biggest strengths (the pitch-perfect tone of the school scenes, the elegant logic of the magical phrasing the students learn in antarctica and the eerie interdimensional neitherlands, the feel of all the literature that gave rise to this literature) share genes with its faults (quentin is the sort of overeducated douchebag i couldn't wait to get away from after college, so several hundred pages of him can be rough, and grossman's fluency in all things sci-fi and fantasy can have a too-many-chefs effect that's fatal to emotional connection with his story).

grossman's hero, quentin "brooding in brooklyn" coldwater, is bizarro harry potter, at least at first: much to his horror, his parents have provided him with a stable and loving home, he has a pair of reliable friends (who have done him the terrible injustice of dating each other), and he's on track to trundle off to princeton after he winds up his reign as the (academic) king of high school. all of this is terrifically unsatisfying, and he pines for the narnia-esque idylls of christopher plover's mythical kingdom of fillory, where there are two aslans (the rams ember and umber), one gets about with the help of the cozy horse, a living, infantilizing monorail (for my money, the cozy horse is one of grossman's best jokes), and
things mattered in a way they didn't in this world. In Fillory you felt the appropriate emotions when things happened. Happiness was a real, actual, achievable possibility. It came when you called. Or no, it never left you in the first place.
this third-person limited narration (quentin isn't the speaker, but we experience just about everything from his perspective) is pretty challenging for the reader: we have to endure quentin's bottomless self-pity, and we have to work around his world-swallowing self-interest to pick up information about characters and plot points which don't hold his attention. we're also stuck with his emotional vocabulary, which is - high-school boyfriends, i salute you - not the most mature.
Sometimes he burst out laughing out of nowhere, for no reason. He was experimenting cautiously with the idea of being happy, dipping an uncertain toe into those intoxicatingly carbonated waters. It wasn't something he'd had much practice at. It was just too fucking funny. He was going to learn magic! He was either the greatest genius of all time or the biggest idiot. But at least he was actually curious about what was going to happen to him next. For the first time in he didn't know how long he was actually following the action with interest. In Brooklyn reality had been empty and meaningless--whatever inferior stuff it was made of, meaning had refused to adhere to it. Brakebills was different.
on most days i would make much of that take on brooklyn, but in the spirit of the nominally-bloodless book chat, i'll refrain; that's emotional maturity, you see. to be fair, not all of the focus on quentin is problematic; though the life of his mind is the only life he's got, the magicians fetishizes wizard school far less than the harry potter books do. i didn't realize how refreshing it was to gloss over huge areas of quentin's education (sometimes literally, as in when he tests out of his first year) without having to page through baroque descriptions of each teacher, class, spell, and magical-slapstick episode he encounters until grossman pointed it out to me; at some point near the end of the brakebills section of the book, someone mentions how silly it is that each of the twenty-odd parts of the students' desks has a special name (a simple, effective reminder that the school isn't the end or even the bulk of the story here).

the educational vignettes we do get are well-chosen; i loved the sequence in which the students turned into geese and flew to antarctica, and i thought the instruction sequences there were terribly clever. it's no accident that mayakovsky (a fine name) speaks russian; russian grammar is as subjective as the magic the kids are learning (with variations for everything from time to location to the emotional state of the spellcaster), with prefixes and suffixes of each tense so specific to what surrounds it that you can scramble the words of your sentence any which-way and they'll mean the same thing. well done there, grossman; those drills and the marvelous end-of-term trip to the south pole were worth the price of admission on their own.

lest we get too caught up in grossman's creations, he sprinkles a glib bit of meta over the top of quentin's return to brakebills: "wizard needs food badly," his friend josh* notes. i can't decide whether the gauntlet reference pleases or appalls me; as when joss whedon & co dropped a homestar runner reference into the buffy the vampire slayer finale and burninated giles, i enjoyed feeling that the writer(s) and i were working with the same cultural tool box...and felt a bit dirty at the same time. in this case, do present-day college students really joke about twenty-six-year-old atari games? am i underestimating the next generation's nerdery? am i old enough to call present-day college students 'the next generation'? let's move on.

speaking of grossman's tool box, harry potter references aside, there's a lot of the early 20th century in his particular strain of fantasy, and i think it suits him. the beast's appearance in the classroom was equal parts h.p. lovecraft (the explanatory speech the headmaster gives about how beings from other worlds visit ours is boss) and magritte; its extra fingers** and the tree branch in front of its face were terrifying, and just right. the girl in the brakebills fountain who showed the unfortunate emily greenstreet how to remake her face was also quite frightening; her malevolence set us up nicely for the vacant, escherrific spookiness of the neitherlands. somehow those interstices felt more real to me than either the cringe-inducing, post-graduation scenes in new york city (though, to be fair, some twentysomethings do end up in cringe-inducing scenes when in new york city) or the scenes in fillory itself.

on those scenes in fillory itself: the conclusion of michael agger's new york times review kept coming back to me as i was thinking about what i wanted to say about the magicians.
Perhaps a fantasy novel meant for adults can’t help being a strange mess of effects. It’s similar to inviting everyone to a rave for your 40th-birthday party. Sounds like fun, but aren’t we a little old for this?
it's an easy observation to make about genre fiction, and - when one considers spectacular works like buffy the vampire slayer and philip pullman's his dark materials trilogy - easy to swat down. the magicians provides both the sugar rush of shallow fantasy and the deep, soulful twang of shrewd allegory, and they're both all over the ember's tomb sequence (a mishmash of grossman's worst and best ideas). poorly-blocked battles lifted from early-nineties role-playing games (a bee, a house cat, and a giant, burning naked guy! better have my mage cast an elemental shield around the party and swap in the warrior's poisoned gauntlets) and an ill-advised scarface reference at the book's emotional climax? check and check. a heartbreaking sacrifice which highlights the fact that there's no answer here to the "what's magic for?" question,*** and a chilling demonstration of what happens when you can't say goodbye to the cozy horse?**** check and check. the magicians is, unquestionably, a strange mess of effects - but i can't imagine being too old for it.

hey, you made it to the end of my introduction to the book chat! butterbeer for everyone, or regular beer, or whiskey, if you're gluten-intolerant. feel free to tell me i'm dead wrong, or to ignore me and skip to the points below, or to ignore the points below and skip to your own take on the magicians in the comments. i'm just glad you're here.

temporarily-actual reading group discussion questions: extra-long edition

01 do you think quentin's unlikable on purpose? or, backing up, do you like him?

02 will you watch fox's drama series adaptation of the magicians (by the guys who co-wrote x-men: first class and thor)? how would you cast it?

03 in an interview with the village voice, grossman mentioned that he lifted evelyn waugh's structure "more or less wholesale." if you've read brideshead revisited, did you feel bits of it in the magicians? (are eliot and janet sebastian and julia flyte? is quentin charles ryder?)

04 had any of you encountered gonfalons (the term, not gonfalons themselves) prior to the magicians?

05 if you have a tattoo, what sort of being d'you think would erupt from it?

06 did the scarface thing bother you? what about the gauntlet reference? is the magicians too meta?

07 when did you realize the beast was martin?

08 from where you're sitting, what does magic represent in lev grossman's world? is it imagination, intelligence, privilege - or something else entirely?

09 will you read the magician king?

*later on, josh is responsible for the horribly awkward meta that is "the hypothetical contents of an imaginary porn magazine for intelligent trees that would be entitled Enthouse." i read that and felt pain for him, for his creator, and on my own behalf.

**slightly-off beast-features, as in soundgarden's "black hole sun" video and jell-o's current "pudding face" campaign, scare the crap out of me; we're not even going to talk about neil gaiman's corinthian.

***poor alice. i don't think she was giving her life for quentin, exactly; i think she became a niffin because it was better than becoming her parents.

****i was initially disappointed that the beast was martin chatwin, but i've come around.