there are so many fantastic reasons to purchase things! the manhattan cocktail classic gala is two weeks from today, i'll be a bridesmaid in washington dc in a month, there are emerging authors and craftspeople to support, there are little forgotten corners of our apartment which might yet have but one or two layers of tchotchkes, the cats need matching outfits for cinco de mayo - the list goes on and on. i pooh-pooh (really well-written) accounts of radical downsizing. i maintain that fight club wasn't about consumerism at all.*

all of that said, even i can acknowledge that shit has gotten out of hand with my bargain-hunting and hoarding. while i'm not shopping us out of house and home, i think of how joe's face fell yesterday when i told him i'd sort of gotten a (really nice and aggressively discounted!) dress for the aforementioned gala; worse, even though i keep thinking of it, i bid on a pair of used shoes for that upcoming wedding just this morning. which brings me to rachel, one of my touchstones for all things crafty, delicious, and well-considered; her wonderful '09 and '10 posts about the benefits of a shopping hiatus are especially resonant today. alors, because i enjoy pronouncements, invented terms, and asking the internet to keep me honest, i declare this next month mayNOT, and i shan't purchase a thing. rachel made allowances for secondhand shopping in her versions of the hiatus, but i think i need to be more draconian: i can buy groceries and essential toiletries (read: soap and paper, not foundation or hair goo) and will still go out with the missus (it would be cruel to drag him along on my self-improvement jag), but that's it. here's hoping it purges my system a bit.

*NB: i won't say i dropped acid before seeing fight club, but i won't say i didn't.

04.27.11: the dirty dozen {twelve pictures of my feet}

01 and the pacific [CA]; 02 at a jersey wedding [NJ]

my feet and the pacific my feet and complicated wedding carpet

03 and questionable loafers [NY]; 04 at a sea captain's house [CT]

day 260: my feet and questionable loafers my feet and leaves

05 and a swimming hole [AZ]; 06 at the russian tea room [NY]

my feet and a swimming hole my feet and the russian tea room

07 firefly-hunting [NJ]; 08 and madison square garden [NY]

my feet and firefly hunting in NJ my feet and madison square garden

09 and h.p. lovecraft's grave [RI]; 10 bowling [NY]

my feet and h.p. lovecraft's grave my feet and bowling shoes

11 on a glacier [IS]; 12 at the blue lagoon [IS]

my feet and mýrdalsjökull my feet and the blue lagoon



SURVIVOR: anna karenina (leo tolstoy)*
CHALLENGER: great house (nicole krauss)

i looked forward to curling up with nicole krauss's great house for quite some time. i twinned it with patti smith's just kids in my head when they both kicked up national book award buzz last year (hey, living ladies i might like to read! how often does that happen?), and i began to hope it would be an antidote to that memoir - carefully paced where smith was spastic and awkward, and gracefully detailed where she was sloppy. i had a brief professional encounter with krauss and her writing earlier this year (long after i'd gotten a copy of great house); she seemed lovely, and her writing was confident. this is what most people say about nicole krauss; also encouraging. then i mentioned her to amanda, which was the conversational equivalent of asking her to eat rotten shark; i dedicate this ultimately underwhelmed review, accordingly, to her and the people of iceland. (yeah, iceland's just going to keep coming up.)

great house concerns itself with a monstrous, many-drawered desk which appears in and disappears from the lives of a handful of private, contemplative people. there is a corresponding megadesk in krauss's own life; she inherited it from the previous owner of her house.** ("You'd have to chop it up to get it down the stairs. It was built into the room and all that."). as it moves between owners, great house's desk represents something like emotional inheritance, as krauss told pbs's jeffrey brown:
So I began to think about this idea of the burden of inheritance. Now as I said at the same time I was a new mother, and of course I wasn't writing about furniture, I wasn't writing about physical objects really. I think what I thinking about was the idea of what is it that our parents pass down to us emotionally in terms of moods, griefs, sadnesses, angles at which we view and face the world and what then do we pass down often unknowingly to our children. This became a subject of great intense importance to me as I was facing the idea of bringing up my own child.
some of that comes through in the way characters speak of each other; some of it doesn't. (krauss has also said the desk represents literature, which: likewise.) these men and women all have beautiful things to say about memory, loss, and feelings, but the lack of immediacy in what they say (for it's all recollections; nothing actually happens in great house) is rather frustrating. moreover, these people aren't especially distinguishable from one another or plausible as individual characters; they feel like nicole krauss as a contemplative middle-aged author, or nicole krauss as a contemplative widower, or nicole krauss as a different contemplative widower with an adult son he doesn't especially like, or nicole krauss as a contemplative woman who loves the son of a third widower who...you get my drift. i don't need realism in my fiction - in fact, a good, weird story is often far preferable to me - but i do have to buy the feelings i'm reading about. this explained-rather-than-lived emotional action is the literary equivalent of a ship in a bottle; it's good-looking and i can appreciate the craftsmanship, but...krauss's environments are awfully hermetic.

i do wonder if great house leaves me a bit cold because neither i nor my people have suffered the kind of catastrophic loss these characters describe - while the book isn't exactly about the holocaust, its fingerprints are all over their psyches - but i'm fairly sure that that isn't it. in her new york times review, rebecca newberger goldstein argues that krauss dials us past time and differences like mine with her eye for killer details:
What gives the quickening of life to this elegiac novel and takes the place of the unlikely laughter of [Krauss's previous novel] “The History of Love”? The feat is achieved through exquisitely chosen sensory details that reverberate with emotional intensity. So, for example, here is George Weisz describing how, when his clients speak of their lives before the war, “between their words I see the way the light fell across the wooden floor. . . . I see his mother’s legs move about the kitchen, and the crumbs the housekeeper’s broom missed.” Those crumbs are an artist’s true touch. They demonstrate how Krauss is able, despite the formidable remove of the central characters and the mournfulness of their telling, to ground “Great House” in the shock of immediacy.
at the end of the day, on a line-by-line level, i just don't feel that shock; what krauss calls fiction's "ability to remind us of ourselves, of who we are in our essence, and at the same instant to deliver a revelation" doesn't quite snap into being. great house is impressive, but it never feels real.***

VICTOR: anna karenina, no sweat. never mind the haymakers; one imagines tolstoy could take krauss out by pilfering a few key writing utensils.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 should krauss have won the national book award?

02 so you've got $6.7 million to spend on a house. where is it (the house, not your money)?

03 have you abandoned furniture? why?

04 where do you do your writing?

05 do you find that lydia davis piece moving?

*previous battle here.

**a comely $6.7 million brownstone in park slope with a rather good-looking sofa. in related news, i wonder if the questionable, massive maroon sofa we left in san francisco in 2003 inspired anyone; i suspect it did not.

***compare this with lydia davis's "happiest moment," a story so removed it should feel coy as a striptease:

If you ask her what is a favourite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then say it may be this story that she read in a book once: an English-language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.
04.23.11: the dirty dozen {some questions i have for the neighbor with whom we share our southern wall}

01 what does one do while one pumps the techno at ten in the morning?
02 are you, like, wearing a bathrobe and eating cereal?
03 what kind of cereal goes with techno?
04 can i imagine it's count chocula?
05 can i imagine you are count chocula?
06 is there a real live lady in there with you, or are you just watching porn?
07 is this the same techno you pump at four in the morning, or do you have a dark-morning mix and a light-morning mix?
08 would you like us to hook you up with someone who could get you some higher-quality pot?
09 are you just burning cereal in there?
10 are you the result of some ancient offense to a minor long island deity?
11 is it possible to make things right with said deity?
12 i have to burn my what?


101 in 1001 {II}: 024 get another tattoo [completed 03.29.11]

tattoo two (or three)

welcome to my life, tattoo! we've a long time together, me and you.

(should you find yourself in reykjavik in need of ink, sindri at íslenzka húðflúrstofan is a capital fellow.)

04.15.11: now it can be told {the official iceland recap}

101 in 1001 {II}: 001 visit iceland [completed 03.24.11]

a break in skyr-eating to survey airport sculpture

to the blue lagoon, cont'd.

the approach, cont'd.

blue lagoon, first full view

blue lagoon, i will be back for you

joe, a geothermal power plant

the sole JFK-to-keflavik flight lifts off each night at half past eight, touching down in iceland's snow-covered lava fields at just before half past six in the morning. if you're able to sleep for the five hours it takes to get across the atlantic, my hat's off to you; i had a vampire epic to read, northern lights to very nearly see, an indie band to try to identify,* and brennivin to drink,** so joe and i staggered out of the baggage area with a day and a half of wakefulness under our belts. i addressed this by wandering between a little cafe in the terminal (for strong coffee and skyr, stupendous icelandic yogurt which is to the thin, tasteless american stuff as crème fraîche is to tofu sour cream) and magnús tómasson's jet nest sculpture (in iceland jets hatch from eggs, of course). after three hours, the morning's first bus to the blue lagoon collected our remains from the cafe and shot us across the moonscape.

i realized, as cairns and rain swept past the windows, that i hadn't gone to iceland for any of the reasons i've been giving you for the past eight years; i went because i wanted to be awed. i wanted fine, baffling, alien things. seasoning our trip to the blue lagoon with sleep deprivation was probably overkill, but it worked like a charm. when i rejoined the morning on the lagoon deck, shivering and freshly traumatized by the nordic nudity i'd just left behind in the ladies' shower, i felt like a lucid dreamer. those pools deserve every bit of hype they get and then some; stepping into the blue lagoon, where your arm in front of your face is barely visible on a cold day, is a bit like walking out of your body.

you reenter it, of course; you stub your toes on the uneven silt beneath you, and you clench with giggles as grown men glide by you with faces full of geothermal mud (available in pots at the edges of the lagoon) like solemn slumber party crashers. you realize that just about everyone else is making out, for the blue lagoon is essentially a massive hot tub. you visit a craggy old steam cave unironically; you haunt the magnificent geothermal waterfall, where hot water pummels your back like a troll. (you refer to it that way: "i'm going to go back and get pummeled by a troll again.") you drink red wine, though your eyes keep crossing with fatigue and you're wearing a bathrobe and it's not yet eleven in the morning. you reach your swanky hotel looking a bit like a troll, as the minerals in your hair make it stand on end. you sleep the sleep of the dead.

boss house en route to the bus station

overpass stencil en route to the pearl

pond, cute homes, goose


joe, reykjavik, the bay

we returned to life at dusk, which could be the perfect time to meet reykjavik; it's a city of thoughtfully-executed rooftops, and the sky sixty-six degrees above the equator takes its sweet time darkening into night. the streets are full of bears. the restaurants are small, twee, and almost universally excellent; we had our first real meal at an unassuming fish and chips restaurant near the harbor that ornamented its walls with a few smooth stones on the mantel, tucked a collection of handmade toys in the corner for diners with children, and offered us gluten-free biscotti with moss (nearly all food is slow food in reykjavik; it's easier to produce most things than it is to ship them over from mainland europe or the americas). we had our last meal there a week later.

reykjavik is a city for walking, and we were on our feet and aimless for most of the week; we'd anchor each day with a goal or two (on friday it was to bring sketches to my tattoo artist and crawl all over the local street art; on saturday it was to recover from the night in with duty-free rum via icelandic nachos and to try to trick joe into eating fermented shark at kolaportið, the celebrated weekend flea market). the latter was my goal, not his, sadly. i found a surplus russian navy jumper for like 3500 krónur, though, and that's better than watching your husband throw up hákarl anyway. well, probably. i know you won't believe me when i say that the nachos were fine, but verily, they were; the local understanding of corn chips left something to be desired, but the peppers were appropriately bitchy (they grow 'em feisty in england, too; well done, countries with largely bland food!) and the cheese probably involved skyr. as we ate said nachos joe started to remark on how very cute reykjavik was; he was interrupted by the passage of two small hairy ponies below the restaurant window, led by mini-halters along the city center sidewalk.

on monday we decided to take a proper spin around the coast.

en route to mýrdalsjökull





mýrdalsjökull is the southernmost glacier in iceland, and its fourth largest (our guide was very interested in glacier rankings). the caldera beneath it, katla, last erupted in a magnificent way in 1918, which is why the land on the way to the solid ice is so lovecraftian (several ravens heckled us as our little band moved across the black rock; like bears, ravens were everywhere). the solid ice is receding quite rapidly, but that which remains is still formidable stuff; we clambered up its side, despite our guide's thin cries about crampons, and felt like ticks on the side of a massive sleeping thing. until we started to slip back down, that is, when we felt like americans who were going to disappear into mýrdalsjökull, "bing bang boom," as we'd been warned in a heavy lithuanian accent a few days earlier.*** mýrdalsjökull's glassy undersides wept effluent in little geode-caves all over the field.



black sand beach


from mýrdalsjökull we drove to vik and reynisfjara, a black sand beach beside reynisfjall. reynisfjall is iceland's version of northern ireland's giant's causeway, and reynisfjara is where i had my equivalent of joe's moment with the ponies at the icelandic mexican restaurant; as we pulled up to the beach, the sheepdogs at a farmstead a mile away spotted us and began leaping down the mountain. it was like a direct challenge to the antrim coast: "oh ireland, how charming it is that you have a finn mccool legend to pair with your good-looking hexagonal basalt rocks! snorri, RELEASE THE PUPPIES."


icelandic moss

iceland phones it in again




the missus behind a waterfall

there are treasures and gold buried behind skógarfoss, our first waterfall of the day, as we learned from þórður tómasson, the ninety-year-old proprietor of the nearby folk museum. as his young german co-curator explained, þórður opened the museum because local farmers kept giving him old heirlooms and tools, and he wanted to preserve the memory of how icelanders lived for most of their history. he also clearly enjoyed performing before a crowd: he plucked away at a mysterious two-stringed instrument and sang for us when we arrived, he pulled out what looked like a couple of massive tops and showed us how to spin both wool and horse hair, and he played us out of the museum with a thumping rendition of "auld lang syne" on a creaking organ. the turf houses were also þórður's turf, if you will, as were the mysterious tiny houses and jawbones on the hillside beyond skógar. no treasure behind seljalandsfoss (the second waterfall), alas, but we were able to hike behind it; as you can see, it's heartbreakingly unattractive.

the brave little farm pictured between the two waterfalls stands at the foot of eyjafjallajökull - that is, the volcano that stranded poor cara and nye when they were to come out to new york this time last year. i was prepared to take a long hike and rough it up on their behalf, but our guide disarmed me by wandering off to speak with a man on a tractor and coming back to explain that he'd just spoken with the farmer: "it so happens that he is hauling ass from the volcano right now!" (icelanders pronounce sh as a hard ss.) "this is four hundred pounds of ass he has here, and he has done this since the volcano started spewing ass in the eruption. if you come here and feel some of this in the bucket, it is some of the finest ass in iceland."

i'd like to say that we rounded out our survey of natural wonders by seeing the northern lights - they were, after all, what i'd been most excited about seeing - but the balmy march weather had no interest in our yens. on sunday the sky was full of clouds and the tour was called off; on monday night we rolled out with a coach full of pimply american coeds and spent three hours crisscrossing southwestern iceland, stopping every five minutes or so when the spotter "suspected auroral activity." we drank weird crowberry liqueur on the sly as christian rock limped out of the stereo and the coeds turned restless and rude, and when we were finally invited to climb out of the coach and squint at what had seemed like a faint smear of light before a wall of rain swooshed across the highway, we were already too late (and half of the tour got lost at the side of the road). weather forced a cancellation again on our last night; no northern lights, unless you count the smear. i was disappointed, but i've decided to regard the failure as a last gift from iceland; i'd known almost immediately that i'd want to come back, and now i have no choice. our favorite concierge at the hotel maintained that we should come back for new year's eve: "we go crazy for fireworks," she said. "we're broke, but what we have we spend on fireworks." it does me good to know that you're out there, iceland.

{full photo set here.}

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 have you heard fm belfast? would you recognize them on a plane?

02 what's your dream destination? why do you want to go there?

03 could i convince you to eat fermented shark?

04 do you trust ravens?

05 do you think prometheus's liver grew back every day because it was eaten by an eagle every day, or was he just some sort of daily liver generator?

06 giants v. puppies: who will win?

07 so you're the proprietor of a museum. what do you exhibit?

08 so what about the tattoo, huh? wait, no, that's a question you'd ask me. the tattoo gets its own post.

*the lanky icelandic guy and sweet-faced girl sharing the awkward bank of seats in front of the exit door with me were on their way home from sxsw, according to the performer passes on their bags; he spent most of the flight composing on his laptop and fielding assorted CDs ("brian eno and david byrne!") from an older manager type who kept visiting them from the swankier saga class section at the front of the plane. turns out they were fm belfast.

**brennivin, incidentally, is tasty stuff, if you're the sort of person who likes herbal spirits and doesn't mind giving flight attendants the impression you're an alcoholic.

***Our Lithuanian Friend was amazing; we met her in an artists' collective in a basement on laugavegur and were pinned for an hour as she explained how to prevent alzheimer's (memorizing poetry, picking up additional languages, and taking shark oil), how to approach glaciers (never without GPS), why celebrities love iceland (because everyone's too polite to try to talk to them, though they do call their friends on their mobiles: "guess who is at next table? HA-reeson ford! he is eating SAL-mon!"), and why joe should start taking shark oil. (he did.)


at vik

if you head due south from here, the next land you'll hit is antarctica.


itinerant mitten

The Office of Non-Iceland-Related Affairs, she browns my time and eats it on toast points with her pinky in the air. here's an itinerant reykjavik mitten, and a second installment of off-topic passages i've recently enjoyed (first installment here).
Having the [harp seal] pup at their house changed the Sieswerdas permanently. Mrs. Sieswerda fed it a mixture of cottage cheese and cream supplied gratis by a local dairy. The seal ate five baby bottles full, five feedings a day. Paul Sieswerda did the disagreeable work of cleanup. (Seals are known for their carelessness about hygiene.) The pup spent much of his time in a kiddie pool in the Sieswerdas' back yard, where their two young children played with it. It had a starring role at one of their birthday parties. The children named it Cecil, and the family made up a rhyme that went, "Cecil, the seal, who came from the sea,/Lives at the Sieswerdas', just like me."


For people to react emotionally to an animal, it can't have little, piggy eyes, and seals don't. They are what environmentalists call "charismatic megafauna"; staring with big brown eyes into a camera lens proved to be a survival advantage for them.

(ian frazier in "back to the harbor," on how seals have returned to new york)

"He's writing his name in water," I said.
"What's that?"
It was the half-regretful term--borrowed from the headstone of John Keats--that Crabtree used to describe his own and others' failure to express a literary gift through any actual writing on paper. Some of them, he said, just told lies; others wove plots out of the gnarls and elf knots of their lives and then followed them through to resolution. That had always been Crabtree's chosen genre--thinking his way into an attractive disaster and then attempting to talk his way out, leaving no record and nothing to show for his efforts but a reckless reputation and a small dossier in the files of the Berkeley and New York City police departments.


Crabtree's snoring was loud enough to rattle the glass of water on the nightstand, to ruin his love affairs, to cause violent confrontations with neighbors in cheap motels. It was loud enough to kill bacteria and loosen centuries of dirt from the face of a cathedral.

(michael chabon in wonder boys*)

It's not so much a problem of Art—David Foster Wallace took himself out of the conversation about what David Foster Wallace wanted, after all—as a problem of craft. [DFW's posthumous unfinished novel] The Pale King is not a finished object. Reviewing it as a novel is like eating whatever was in a dead person's fridge and calling it a dinner party and comparing it to the dinner parties the deceased gave in the past.

(from tom scocca's slate post, "david foster wallace wrote two novels, and the pale king is not one of them," on michiko kakutani's new york times review)

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 would you foster a baby seal? where would you keep it? what would you name it?

02 are you charismatic megafauna?

03 are you writing your name in water? do you know anyone who is?**

04 if you snore, what could your snoring accomplish?

05 was it fair play for ol' michiko to review the pale king as a novel? is it fair play for ol' michiko to review the pale king at all?

06 where's the other mitten?

*the most chandleresque book i've picked up in months; bet carefully on its eventual THUNDERTOME appearance.

**i'd happily accuse myself, but i'm quite safe from having literary gifts; my undergraduate fiction class was a bloodbath.


laugavegur and hverfisgata are the reykjavik equivalent of mission and market in san francisco, after a fashion; laugavegur's traditionally regarded as the main drag, and hverfisgata (parallel and a block closer to the sea) and brooklyn (read: williamsburg) are often mentioned in the same breath. peering down blocks perpendicular to either street gives you a jaw-dropping view of faxaflói bay ("reykjavik" means "smoky bay"), and walking down those blocks and wandering around a bit is like being swallowed by a magnificent street-art whale. can we enact some sort of exchange program in which new york gets these guys and we give iceland jim joe and dickchicken? i'd fancy a lower east side or bedford avenue tributary covered with this.

graffiti bonanza (1 of 8)

graffiti bonanza (2 of 8)

graffiti bonanza (3 of 8)

graffiti bonanza (6 of 8)

graffiti bonanza (4 of 8)

graffiti bonanza (7 of 8)

graffiti bonanza (8 of 8)