amsterdam (book). my plan to bathe in the healing light of ian mcewan's booker-prize-winning novel after a comparatively underwhelming experience with atonement, she was not so successful. amsterdam isn't a bad book—it's funny, it anticipates in a slumping english newspaper the sort of editorial panic those of us in magazines enjoy these days, and it makes the lake district sound mildly interesting—but it is also quite short, and its morality-tale ending feels abrupt. part of the pleasure of a book like atonement is the painterly buildup to a character's shocking decision; amsterdam in its entirety feels as long as the tallis family's fateful dinner party, and its payoff doesn't justify the broad strokes mcewan has to use to get his characters in place in the time he allows himself. i'll give you one more chance, mcewan, and if you don't behave, i'll turn you into a goon.

an equal music (book). vikram seth's the golden gate (pushkin sonnets about san francisco) is my second favorite novel-in-poetry,* and it's had me promising myself for years that i'd read his prose as well. an equal music feels quite a bit like poetry; it's about chamber musicians, love, and sexy old europe [london, vienna, and venice], and its central romance is studded with substantial chunks of unabashedly florid prose. normally that would bug me, but seth's sincerity feels sweet rather than creepy most of the time.** music at its best feels like a really, really long alex ross column, and who can object to that?

frankenstein's army (film). the missus and i make a point of seeing the most ridiculous-sounding horror movie at the tribeca film festival every year, and this one—a found-footage stinker in which a platoon of russian soldiers attempt to win world war two by enlisting dr. frankenstein and are instead torn apart by a gaggle of what look like the anthropomorphic bomb-goblins from labyrinth—was that. it feels a bit unsporting to call it nonsensical, but i do expect my horror to be internally consistent, and frankenstein's sloppy video-game angles and haphazard plotting make the leprechaun franchise look like tolstoy.

fresh meat (film). "there are so many amazing movies at the festival this year," said director danny mulheron,*** "and then there's this movie." mulheron's horror-slapstick (about a family of cannibals "who happen to be maori" held hostage by violent fugitives in suburban new zealand) felt like low-budget kiwi robert rodriguez circa four rooms, and i kind of loved it: fresh meat was the last thing i saw at tribeca this year, and after two weeks of dancing for Extremely Serious Filmmakers, i was delighted to meet one who ripped all of the reserved seating markers out of his theater so that everyone could sit where they liked. a cannibalism-comedy double feature with fresh meat and eddie the sleepwalking cannibal would not be a bad way to spend an evening, is what i'm saying.

julius caesar (play). joe and i nearly took a weird train out of london to see the RSC's julius caesar on our trip to england last fall, and i'm a bit sorry we didn't, both because impromptu shakespeare binges are awesome and because when it crossed the atlantic it landed at the BAM harvey theater, a problematic little venue full of loutish cell-phone answerers which makes me think without fondness of when i was limber enough to fold myself up like a hipster's bike. theater aside, the theatre was quite good: the production is set in present-day africa,**** and caesar & co. bring to mind any number of nasty modern dictators. "nasty" is the key word here; i don't find any of shakespeare's tragic heroes especially cuddly, but julie has always been down at the bottom of the list, and he's still there now. the minimal concrete set felt postapocalyptic rather than military—lots of postapocalyptic shakespeare around these days—and the witchy-tribal soothsayer made the players' very modern punishments feel ages old. i like this new timelessness.

pym (book). did i find pym, mat johnson's tale of an unemployed professor who leads a team to antarctica in search of the cold-ass honky described at the end of edgar allan poe's narrative of arthur gordon pym of nantucket, or did pym find me? i first set out for it after storming out of a washington hotel room in a fit of hanger (i found neither it nor food, but i did acquire a lovely edition of 1Q84). when i finally did get my own copy, i found, among other things, a surprisingly awesome story-within-the-story of a thomas-kinkade-like conservative (orange county is composed almost entirely of pastel stucco and republicans; we have strong feelings about thomas kinkade, and conservatives). i've also found mat johnson to be one of the few writers i can follow on twitter without wanting to pull out my own teeth. bring pym to the beach this summer! lily concurs.

the reluctant fundamentalist (film). first a 2007 novel by pakistani author mohsin hamid, the reluctant fundamentalist was, by the time we met, a Very Serious Post-9/11 Thriller featuring, among other things, british/pakistani dreamboat riz ahmed, kate hudson as a recent college graduate with terrible brown hair, and kiefer sutherland as a wall street master-of-the-universe type (kicking down terrorists' doors has been very, very good to him; i didn't recognize him when i saw him at the premiere). it's thoughtful and intense—both ahmed's character's response to the ongoing way he's stereotyped and his movie-spanning chat with liev schrieber are put together quite pleasingly—but i imagine one's enjoyment of it and, more to the point, one's appreciation of its twisty conclusion would be rather compromised if, say, one had to tiptoe out of the theater ten minutes before it ended in order to collect audience award ballots. ah, the heartbreak of film festivals.

stranger things happen (book). kelly link's first collection didn't kick me in the teeth nearly as hard as her second one did, but it's still some of the cleverest, scariest, most original fiction i've read in years. come for the prospective father-in-law with interchangeable handmade noses ("water off a black dog's back"), stay for the stuff in "the specialist's hat" that i'll reference without actually talking about because it makes me nervous. salon's laura miller called stranger things happen "an alchemical mix of borges, raymond chandler and 'buffy the vampire slayer;'" that's about right.

V/H/S/2 (film). like frankenstein's army, V/H/S/2 is found-footage horror (here, an anthology of four short films united by the premise of a couple of investigators breaking into a house to find a missing man and finding videocassettes full of mayhem*****); unlike frankenstein's army, it was occasionally so scary it was actually exhausting (in shorts which don't have time to develop fancy plot points, you're mostly dealing with jump-shock after jump-shock; also, i saw it by myself at midnight on a friday). "a ride in the park," by the blair witch project's co-director, is the most only enjoyable helmet-cam video i've ever seen; "slumber party alien abduction" features the fictional suffering and demise of the director's own dog, but said dog was rewarded with innumerable hot dogs at the shoot, we learned in the Q&A after the movie, so i'm alright. this love we have is real, late-night tribeca.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 the leprechaun franchise, she is rebooting this year. shall you watch?

02 do any of shakespeare's tragic heroes tug at your heartstrings?

03 do you get hangry?

04 how hard would it be to talk you into going to antarctica?

05 the shit: when was it last scared out of you?

06 what is the premise of your found-footage horror film?

*toby barlow's crazy, lurid sharp teeth - free verse about werewolves in los angeles - is my first.

**the love story does occasionally stray into bridge across forever territory, but the two decades i've put between myself and richard bach have made echoes of him in other books slightly more manageable.

***(once a nominee for best female performance for his work as heidi the hippo in meet the feebles)

****the RSC's artistic director was inspired by nelson mandela's notes on julius caesar in the robben island bible, a copy of the complete works of shakespeare smuggled between south african political prisoners. each man underlined passage which was meaningful to him, and mandela chose "cowards die many deaths..." from julius caesar, act II, scene II.

*****generic mayhem, not blackstone's mayhem or dean winters as mayhem****** in those allstate commercials.

******a fellow volunteer claimed to see dean winters at the same premiere at which i encountered kiefer "babyman" sutherland. she was beside herself.


   "Mr. Andrews, there is a folk tale that before being born, every human soul knows all the secrets of life and death and the universe. Then, just before birth, an angel leans down, puts his finger to the new baby's lips, and whispers, Shhh." Harris touches his philtrum. "According to the story, this is the mark left by the angel's finger. Every human being has one."
   "Have you ever seen an angel, Mr. Harris?"
   "No, but I once saw a camel. It was in the Bronx Zoo. Choose a door."

(stephen king, from "afterlife," tin house #56)


the dirty dozen {mystery train,* round V}

it's been nearly a year and a half since i last asked you to guess what folks on the new york city subway are reading based on what i tell you of their fripperies, and that makes me sad; there are few things i like as well as sweeping generalizations based on clothing and books. the world has changed since some gal on the B train abandoned her paul auster for an oriental trading company catalog and the marriage plot probably disappointed a male backup dancer on a different B train: hilary mantel won the booker prize again, michelle williams announced she was growing out her pixie cut, natasha trethewey became our poet laureate, and visible bras became socially acceptable. it's time to reconsider the mystery train.

who's giving foxy knoxy her day in court? should i, in turn, give one to hemingway?** how would one benefit from a zipper which opened across but not around one's knee? is the male reader going extinct? how does the way we talk change the way we work? book titles are linked to descriptions and cover images, if additional research is your bag. if you correctly pair a book with its reader, i'll update the lists; if you understand the bra thing, that makes one of us. guess early, guess often, and good luck!

{the peeps}

01 F, early 20s, bobbed hair, round tortoiseshell glasses, beauty mark, grey cowl-neck sweater, black wool coat with pearly purple buttons, little brown satchel worn over left shoulder and right hip, black-and-white knee-length tweed skirt, short black lace-up boots with black socks, M train [the catcher in the rye, j.d. salinger - MDF spots a twitchy lady]

02 F, late 30s, red polarfleece hat, nordic blonde hair, moss-colored floral scarf, black quilted barn coat, long grey sweater, dark jeans, brown pebbled leather slip-ons with orthopedic soles, black hobo bag with gold zippers, pregnant, B train

03 F, 20s, forest green flapper hat with brown leather band pulled low over brow, ivory knitted scarf pulled up over mouth, black and white chevron tweed coat, red right sleeve, crossed legs with royal blue tights, black loafers with white tongues, M train [a moveable feast, ernest hemingway - anon pegs a farewell to awesome]

04 M, late 20s, shaved head, heavy stubble (proto-beard?), blue-gray striped oxford rolled up to the elbows and worn open over a white tee, loose blue boot-cut jeans, extremely clean black hiking boots, B train

05 M, late 60s, gray bottlebrush moustache, gold-rimmed readers worn low on nose, khaki baseball cap with "new york" in white embroidered script, metal cane and black messenger bag between knees, dunkin donuts cup at feet, blue plaid shirt, black slacks, brown leather slip-ons, F train [lords of the north, bernard cornwell - MDF's second victim]

06 F, early 20s, long brown hair tucked behind ears, beauty mark under right eye, nails bitten to the quick, grey heather tank, shrunken khaki band jacket, mint and navy blue keds, black skinny jeans, multicolored tote bag at feet, F train

07 F, early 20s, white-blonde hair in high, tight ponytail, grey cocoon cardigan over black tank, marigold-yellow nails, blue skinny jeans, black loafers, cover bent behind book, flipping back and forth between pages, B train

08 F, late 20s, wild streaky ringlets, black button-down with white polka dots, eight multicolored friendship bracelets, happy face with dimple in black marker on back of right hand, pegged patchwork jeans, black platform supergas, mustard-colored jansport on both shoulders, F train

09 F, early 20s, high black folded-over bun, sheer white lace top under small black cardigan, black skinny jeans, louis vuitton damier print tote, black watch plaid wellingtons, D train

10 F, early 20s, glossy brown hair in kerchief headband, thin gold chain with small medallion, oversized camo-print jacket over loose white button-down, black skinny jeans, cracked tan leather crossbody bag, black tasseled loafers, coffee in right hand, F train [victoria, knut hamsun - MDF makes the ID]

11 F, late 40s, heavy, square-framed black glasses, wavy hair swept back with wide band, big black cardigan over rumpled blue and white shirt, black slacks with heavy silver zipper across left knee, huge spring-green bag in lap, black airwalk sneakers with tan laces, white plastic shopping bag hooked over left wrist, five silver rings, F train

12 F, 30s, shoulder-length, wavy brown hair, cornflower blue long-sleeved spandex top, dark grey yoga pants, black windbreaker, black-and-white pumas, tall fuchsia umbrella between knees, victoria's secret shopping bag at feet, large black leather purse with silver hardware in lap, coffee in right hand, B train

{the books}

la vérité sur l'affaire harry quebert, joël dicker
waiting to be heard, amanda knox
lords of the north, bernard cornwell
the catcher in the rye, j.d. salinger
victoria, knut hamsun
how the way we talk can change the way we work, kegan lahey
a storm of swords, george r.r. martin
the river why, david james duncan
robopocalypse, daniel h. wilson
en el tiempo de las mariposas, julia alvarez
a light to the gentiles: reflections on the gospel of luke, william c. mills
a moveable feast, ernest hemingway

*tip of the hat, as always, to coverspy.

**i know i ask every year or two. reader, that's how hard it is.