Thomas McGuane: “The Good Samaritan” from The New Yorker, 04/25/11

Art: "Good Samaritan" by He Qi

It wasn’t that he was proud of the John Deere tractor that he was still paying for and which he circled with a grease gun and washed down like a teenager’s car. He wasn’t proud of it: he loved it.

Telling people to relax is not as aggressive as shooting them, but it’s up there.

This second line is not the most central to the story, but it’s so good, I had to spotlight it. Even if it does shift POV.

Every time I read this story, I see something new. It didn’t impress me that much first time around, but I’m beginning to appreciate it. I think that’s one measure of a good story. Either that, or I’m a lousy first reader.

Szabo is the POV character. In his Book Bench interview, McGuane explains, “… leaving him without a first name gave me the sense of distance I felt I needed. It allowed me to suggest that while Szabo is omnipresent, the story doesn’t entirely belong to him.” I always am interested in how authors name their characters, but this is particularly interesting, since his mother also does not have a first name but he does not feel a need to explain that, and Deborah Treisman does not seem to notice at all since she asks why Szabo, “unlike other characters” did not get a first name. Apparently either his mother is not an “other character” or “his mother” and “Mrs. Szabo” are sufficient. I am a little puzzled by this, but it is not really part of the story. I know several men who genrally go by their last names. And a few women.

Szabo, whatever his first name, loves his tractor and his alfalfa ranch. We find out gradually about other things in his life that are not working so well. That’s another thing I find interesting (in this context, that’s code for “not right”) here. Halfway through the story, we find out something crucial about his son, David, after David has been mentioned already. This was jarring to me. Then there’s an evening in Dusseldorf which I’m sure has some complex symbolic meaning but I’m a bit at a loss as to its purpose, other than to emphasize how incompetent Szabo is.

And he is, I’m afraid, incompetent. His ranch (he prefers to call it “the property”) does not make any money on alfalfa, which is fine, actually: I understand doing something for love. But he’s had several serious injuries from work on the ranch, so he is not that good at it. Still, he loves it. I suppose it’s like basketball or hockey, the injuries are just something he accepts as part of the cost. He has a successful business but no longer makes things, he merely “distributes” things others make. His ex-wife, his mother, and his son all present their own difficulties. His life is not a disaster – the bright spot is the alfalfa ranch – but he’s pretty much downtrodden, particularly by women. He’s quite passive in all this, letting everyone ruin their lives, and his in the process, without much objection. He’s not totally unaware of his passivity: “When Szabo was growing up as an only child, his mother’s strong opinions, her decisive nature, had made him feel oppressed; now those qualities were what he most liked, even loved, about her.”

Then a stranger comes to town. Szabo hires Barney to take care of the ranch while he is recuperating from yet another injury. Barney takes care of quite a few things, in ways that are maybe not the way Szabo desires or expects. His horse, for example. Barney promises the horse will be “safe” to ride by the time Szabo recuperates, which is perplexing because Szabo has accepted that the horse has been safe to ride all along. Many things Szabo has accepted get fixed. Sometimes in odd ways. This is something I picked up on later, because on first read I didn’t quite register a line about insurance.

And Barney: the importance of name again. “He suddenly recalled, from David’s childhood, the purple dinosaur toy called Barney that was guaranteed to empower the child, a multimillion-dollar brainstorm for cashing in on stupid parents.” That’s the story in a nutshell right there.

I’m still left with some questions. Who is the titular Good Samaritan – Barney? But then, what does that make secretary Melinda, who Szabo credits with bringing him back from the brink of depression after his divorce, and who handles his business while he’s recuperating? Just a secretary? She found temporary ranchhand Barney: I wonder just how much she knew about him – just what is her role here? And I wonder how much Barney had to do with an important change of heart by Szabo’s ex-wife and new husband regarding son David: their comments sound like ripe psychobabble, after all… But there’s really nothing in the text but those hints. Maybe a few more readings?

Zin in Translation

Hello, I am Zin! I am very excited again: I am going to be translated!

A friend from the Flash Factory at Zoetrope, Jesus Silveyra Tapia, works with a literary magazine based in Mexico, Levrel (which is an artistically misspelled version of Lebrel, meaning Sighthound). He is putting together a dossier for the Winter issue and remembered one of my flashes from several months ago (the prompt was: one phone call from jail), and asked if he could translate it and include it! I am so excited! I have never been translated before! I am becoming International! It is a new magazine, this will be the third issue, and many things can happen between now and then, but I am honored that he remembered my Oatmeal story.

Lee, my Maine writer friend who loves all things Mexican (and is working on a book about the Mayans), I hope your eye is better so you can read this!

Top Chef Masters Season 3: Episode 4: Biggest Loser

Lethal Weapon?

Cheese all around. First the literal cheese, then the inspirational cross-promotion.

First, the Quickfire:

Your assignment is: Cheese. As in, make a dish with. Just as Traci interviews there’s no way it could be that easy, Curtis adds, in 12 minutes. Which isn’t that bad, really, it just takes some quick thinking. I suppose putting cheese with compatible fruits, veggies and breads on a plate wouldn’t be good enough. Suvir drools over the beautiful cheeses available (I’ll get back to this later), which include cheeses from various animals and countries and in varying degrees of smelliness. The judge is Norbert Wabnig, who the locals think is very famous as the owner of The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills. As always, the contestants watch via tv from another room as the judging proceeds. Their snarking is really one of my favorite parts of TCM. They might consider doing this on regular TC.

Traci chooses Colombier, a French goat cheese, and makes a cheese carpaccio: she smashes a slice with a bowl, puts it on arugula, adds some prosciutto, melts it and puts croutons on it. She thinks it might be a little pedestrian, but it looks good. Norbert says it isn’t a cheese you find in most places, and it comes through in the dish: “you let the cheese talk.” I guess that’s the Top Chef Masters way of putting cheese with appropriately selected vegetation on a plate. She wins. See?
Naomi works with Chaumes, a stinky (i.e., washed-rind) soft French cheese. She makes cheese toast and a skirt steak, apples, onions, and balsamic vinaigrette. “If he’s French,” she says of the judge, “he won’t mind the steak is rare.” I’m not sure what that means (a lot of people like rare steak) but it sounds like a slam on the French. Not that Norbert Wabnig really sounds like a French name or anything; I guess she meant if his cheese sensibilities are French. He likes her dish very much, rare or no, finding the meat a good choice with the cheese. She’s the runner up.
Celina uses manchego cheese with crispy carrot, fig and raisins, and sherry. Norbert finds the sherry and manchego, coming from the same region, work together well; Curtis thinks the carrots go well, too.
Suvir makes pakora (an Indian veg fritter coated with chickpea batter) two ways, one with mozzarella and one with another kind of cheese. He thinks it’s very Calvin Klein rather than someone else whose name I don’t catch. Norbert says “I’m not crazy about the presentation.” Suvir, safe in his little room, agrees.
Hugh makes crisp camellia goat cheese with a fried quail egg, pepper salad and hazelnut vinaigrette. Norbert thinks it’s a stunning dish but doesn’t like the egg. “Have you had an omelet?” Hugh asks the television.
Alex serves a rocchetta and prosciutto quesadilla with pickled asparagus and a fried quail egg. Norbert agrees the cheese should work in any recipe, and it has intense flavor but there isn’t enough cheese. He’s a picky guy.
Mary Sue makes an empanada with cotija cheese and a tomatillo salsa. She makes her own tortillas, too. In twelve minutes. Blows everyone away. Norbert likes her choice of cheese but doesn’t really say much else.
George has grana padano, another stinky cheese (what is it with chefs and stinky cheese? I once ordered Stilton on my cheeseburger by mistake and I thought a sewer line had burst in the building. That is NOT good eats, I don’t care what you say) and makes an onion gratin with grilled bread and asparagus. Norbert says the onions are too strong. “It’s an onion gratin” snarks George from the viewing room.
Floyd makes elota, a Mexican corn on the cob dusted with cotija cheese and cayenne. Norbert doesn’t take the cayenne well. “You’re from Mexico, you should know about Mexican food!” says Floyd in the viewing room. Later, during in-person evaluations, he does defend his dish as being traditional Mexican food (and Suvir does as well, in his blog). Doesn’t matter, he’s still in the bottom. He sulks a little in interview about Traci’s winning dish: “I’m not saying it wasn’t a good dish, but she basically put cheese on a plate.” Yeah, same idea I had!

Elimination Challenge:

The chefs must make slimmed-down versions of Biggest Loser contestants’ favorite dishes, such as deep dish pizza and french toast. In teams of three, they have to make a breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus a brownie (which isn’t really mentioned or shown again), that comes in at under 1500 calories. The contestants are there to discuss the dishes, and trainers from the show are on hand to monitor calories.

I want to go on a rant here, but I’ll keep it down to a dull roar. First, there is no substitute for deep dish pizza, a Chinese banquet, a meatball sub, if those are the things you want. You can have “healthy” versions but that is not the same thing, and you can’t convince me otherwise. As a fat person, I promise you we know when something isn’t the way we want it. So don’t wave pita with a tomato on it and call it a pizza. Fat people have to learn to see the glory in a really great salad, not pretend something is a bacon cheeseburger. Second, why do these people, who are not exactly trying to lose that last stubborn 10 pounds, on 1500 calorie diets? Third, I’m really sick of everyone talking about how proud they are to do this. No, they’re not. They’re horrified (and some admit it) because they can’t use butter and oil and sugar and all the other cool stuff they use.

Anyway, they end up in teams:
Blue team: Naomi (French toast, egg and sausage), Floyd (meatball parmesan sub), and George (deep dish pizza supreme).
Red Team: Celina (bacon and egg bagel), Traci (Chinese buffet), Hugh (roast beef with mashed potato)
Green Team: Mary Sue (corned beef hash and eggs), Suvir (bacon cheeseburger and fries), Alex (fried chicken with creamed corn, mashed potato, and cornbread).

They consult with the contestants and do some planning. Naomi asks her contestant what it is he likes about French toast, which seems to me to be a very good approach: is it the crunch, sweetness, what? Turns out, it’s nostalgia, which is very cool, though it’s hard to put someone else’s nostalgia on a plate. Floyd talks to his contestant about the spiciness of the meatball sub, and relates that his son put on a lot of weight in his teens and had to diet for a while. Alex talks about having survived cancer; he lost a lot of weight (though that probably isn’t the best way to do it). Suvir tries to convince his contestant she’ll love his veggie burger. She’s dubious. He promises her it won’t look like cat food. Spoiler: he’s right, it looks worse than cat food. But that’s coming up. She’s a student who likes to study in pubs, so she loves pub food. I don’t think she’s getting much studying done in a pub. Studying in a pub? Who does she think she’s kidding? She’s there for the bacon cheeseburgers and beer. Traci talks about kelp noodles, and Hugh wisely tells her not to call them that to her client; call them “special noodles.” See, this is why fat people go berserk. You tell them they’re getting special noodles, and give them kelp.

In the store, George peruses cheeses and gets low fat mozzarella and ricotta. Poor Norbert would cry. Mary Sue says counting calories is very foreign to her as a chef. Celina compares bagels and finds Ezekiel bagels. I haven’t seen the bagels, just the bread. I don’t even see them on their website, though there are English muffins. You gotta love a bread from a recipe in the bible: Ezekiel 4:9., “Take also unto thee Wheat, and Barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and Spelt, and put them in one vessel, and make bread of it.” Of course there’s also a site that claims it contains human dung, but I won’t go there. Suvir calls out, “If I were chickpeas where would I be?” Naomi gets stevia to make syrup, but she’s never worked with it before, uh oh. Hugh says “I’m still hitting all the things he wants, it’s just like someone took a shrink gun to it” which is known as portion control. After all, there are only two ways to reduce calories in a dish: substitution, and portion control.

And we’re off: the judges are James Oseland, Danyelle Freeman, and Alan Sytsma. I wonder where Ruth Reichl went? The Biggest Loser contestants are there to give their opinion of their dish remakes. They serve grouped by meal, so instead of going by teams, all the Breakfast people serve first, followed by Lunch, then Dinner. The Brownie is kind of ignored, though each team had to make one and include it in their calorie total.

Naomi serves her remake of French toast. She uses spelt bread, egg whites, and berries. She thinks the stevia gives the syrup she makes a bitter aftertaste but she can’t do anything about it now; no one mentions it at tasting. In fact, the syrup is praised as a great idea to cut calories. Alan says something odd, “I even like the berries on top of it.” Even? The berries sound like the best part.
Celica provides an Ezekiel bagel breakfast sandwich. Someone says it’s good; Curtis thinks it’s dry. James says it makes him want a lot of fat and salt.
Mary Sue makes corned beef substitute of turkey vegetable hash and root veg with a slow-poached egg. The contestant likes the hash, but the judges don’t.
Alex makes oven-fried chicken coated with panko, cornbread, sweet potato puree, and creamed corn. He realizes too late he forgot the applesauce in cornbread, which was to substitute for the shortening and keep the bread moist. Oopsie. The contestant loves the fried chicken, would make it for her family. Alan doesn’t like it at all. James doesn’t like the corn muffin, it’s a hockey puck.
Floyd serves a buffalo meatball (which is pretty smart) on farro with spinach, cheese, tomato sauce, and asparagus. Danyelle says the meatball is perfectly cooked.
Traci reinvented the Chinese buffet: beef and broccoli, cabbage salad, rice, wonton soup. Now, see, this is where I have a problem. The Chinese buffet they showed had bbq pork strips and egg rolls and some other stuff. That’s a whole different thing. That’s a pu-pu platter. If I was geared up for a pu-pu platter, the remade one isn’t going to work at all. I’m gonna be pissed. James says it’s a pleasing mouthful. The contestant eats all of it (I’m not surprised, he’s probably starving and would eat a plate of Soylent Green with milk if you put it in front of him). Alan says it isn’t something he’d order but it might satisfy some of the cravings. No, it won’t. I promise, it won’t.
George sends out whole wheat pizza with tomato coulis, smoked mozzarella, and balsamic vinegar. Alan thinks it’s satisfying the way pizza is supposed to be. Curtis likes the cheese, the smoked mozz adds a lot of flavor and just a little is needed.
Suvir made his veg burger with cauliflower, legumes, and beans on pita, and an asian slaw. He interviews at the TCM blog and it’s very interesting, and very long, but worth reading, because this is the central moment of the night. The blog interview describes the slaw: peanut slaw with no mayo, tomato chutney, and yogurt sauce. He bought 70/30 ground beef and bacon at the urging of the trainer (yikes!), who said the contestant wanted meat flavor, but decided not to use them. He makes a statement about red meat, pretty much blaming meat for obesity in America. I think Cheetos and Pepsi have a lot more to do with it, myself, not to mention pizza and Twinkies. And cheese, Suvir, all that cheese you were so enamored with, full of saturated fat. Alas, Hugh is standing next to him while he’s ranting and is about to serve roast beef. Hugh is not happy. Hugh says “I would never do that” and Suvir says “You do plenty” which is a little nasty to me. He apparently meant by serving meat and saying it’s low calorie he’s contributing to the obesity problems, like it caused his father’s liver failure. Wait, what? Ok, I’ve had it with Suvir. I was kind of with him, but now he’s morphed into a smug arrogant ass who knows all the answers. I think he has strong feelings about meat, particularly beef, that are cultural and/or religious, and that’s fine, there are ecological and economic issues as well as ethical ones, but don’t start attributing false medical claims to it. Curtis notes that when you substitute cabbage for fries, it better be damn good. No one thinks it tastes like a burger. The contestant tries to be positive but isn’t very convincing. She wanted meat and she got a potato-ey veggie burger.
Hugh talks about flank stake being very lean, not as sinister as Suvir has implied. He also made fingerlings and asparagus salad and a salsa verde. The contestant likes it. The contestant who had the burger has some, too, finally gets her meat, which tells you how satisfying the veg burger was. Alan likes both the steak and the tiny potatoes.

Critic’s Table:

The Blue team, Naomi, George, and Floyd, are called. They’re the best team. Floyd is the winner. The Young Scientist Cancer Research Fund gets the donation.

Suvir, Mary Sue, Alex are the bottom ranked chefs.

Suvir starts in again: “I have to take the difficult road, something she may not enjoy, but there is a statement to be made.” James asked what the decision was (which is strange, since Suvir just told him, but of course this was edited) and Suvir says “you have to make someone have a new dialog.” Yes, dear, she’s already working with a team of people, she doesn’t need your dictates. Alan says, “You came across as you were cooking for yourself, not the diner.” Curtis disagrees with the idea that meat is the cause of obesity in America, adds there are many causes. Suvir doesn’t hear anything, because he knows best. Yeah, go ahead and lecture, Suvir, you make money from lamb chops in your restaurant. And by the way – all that cheese you were so excited about in the Quickfire? That’s got a good slug of saturated fat in it, too. It isn’t that he doesn’t want to use meat: I support that, in fact. I think it’s fine. It’s his superior attitude that bugs me. And the fact that his veggie burger was bad and he doesn’t seem to get that.

Curtis asks Mary Sue how she cooked the egg; she did the slow-poach that’s so popular. Alan says it results in even cooking, but you don’t get that runny yolk that runs over everything like a sauce. She felt the contestant wasn’t ready for a loose egg (which is probably a good point). Danyelle says it did mimic corned beef, but she would’ve liked a finer dice to make it cohere.

Danyelle tells Alex she hated the cornbread, it was leaden. He agrees. Alan asks why he sent it out at all; he felt he had to. James didn’t like texture of chicken, it was not moist, and it was boring tasting, Alex though yogurt would’ve kept it moist. Nope.

They send the contestants out and talk about them. The creamed corn had a baby food consistency and was overly sweet. Alan points out the contestant loved it. Curtis says Suvir went another way. Alan is sympathetic with his goal, that he wants people to eat better. Danyelle says it was a lecture on the plate. James groans over “that pita, cold, tough, unamazing.” Curtis asks them to consider Mary Sue couldn’t make something as simple as corned beef and poached eggs, why should she stay? Alan says she’s trying to be good, not great. Danyelle agrees, she’s playing it safe. James says, of Alex, he was aware he was eating low cal food. Alan tells Mary Sue she didn’t rise to level of a Top Chef Masters dish

Suvir is out.

But still he can’t stop, “If I had done what Hugh did, I would have failed myself.”
Hugh interviews: “I think there are a lot of ways to change the way people eat; Suvir thinks his way is the only way.” His way seems to be making awful veggie burgers.

Suvir’s last words: “I leave with my convictions, having made a little difference.” Yes, you’ve convinced people that veggie burgers suck. Good job.

New Additions to Cool Sites for Writers and Readers and Online Fiction etc. to Read and Love pages


We have added these sites to the Cool Sites for Writers and Readers page:

Too Many Books, Too Little Time by Jeanie Fritzsche. Comments on a wide variety of stories and books – recent entries include Blood Meridian and Mildred Pierce.
Allison’s Book Bag – reviews of books for young people (from very very young to young adult), plus author interviews and other features.
The Review Review – founded by Becky Tuch. A review of literary magazines and interviews with editors and writers about the submission process – what an idea! The wonderful article “What Editors Want” by Lynne Barrett was recommended to my writing workshop; the whole site is terrific.

We have added this story to the Online Fiction etc. To Read and Love page:

The Year Our Children Left by Tetman Callis; from Neon Magazine.

Naomi J. Williams – “Snow Men” in One Story #131, 1/30/2010

Tlingit canoe full of warriors in Lituya Bay, as drawn by La Perouse expedition, July 1786. Source: Brown University

There is a big disagreement in my family about what happens if you drown and your body is never found. My aunts say that you are turned into one of the Land Otters. The Land Otters come up out of the water, in the dark, and steal away the living. You cannot see them, but sometimes you can hear them – they whistle. We lie in our huts at night and listen for whistling, because we lost a canoe when we arrived for the salmon season, and afterward we found only four of the bodies.

I did not particularly like this story – though I did not dislike it at all – and I feel bad about that (not to mention stupid, since Naomi Williams received a Pushcart Prize in 2009, so who am I to not like her work), because it is well-meaning and has some real research behind it and I’m all for voices of other cultures and I take seriously my White American Guilt. I have two other Inuit-voiced (or at least Northwest Native American-voiced) works in my Online Fiction Etc. To Read And Love page: Denise Duhamel’s The Woman With Two Vaginas, which she calls a feminist interpretation of Inuit myth and legend in poetry, and Vivian Faith Prescott’s recent digital chapbook on White Knuckle Press, Slick. Some of my best friends are Inuit! No, I have no Inuit friends, but that just seemed like the next step in the defensiveness I can’t seem to avoid here. Because I wish I’d loved this story.

Here’s the problem, to me: defamiliarization has become familiar, which is ironic and kind of sad. The “winged war canoes” (sailing ships), “white food that looked like maggots” (Wheat? Barley? Rice?), “juice that looked like blood and smelled like spoiled berries” (wine: after all, they were French). It’s just so familiar. In her Q&A on the One Story website, Williams explained the research she did for this story. It’s based on the arrival of the La Pérouse expedition in Lituya Bay (on what is now the Alaskan coast) and their encounter with the Tlingit people, stories of which the Tlingit have been handing down for 200 years. I respect the accuracy of the story, the faithfulness to Tlingit legends and customs, and the reactions to the French explorers. I’m just not that interested, as it reads like every other “oh, here come white man, destroy peace” story that every eighth grader has written.

No, that isn’t fair at all. The story doesn’t even go into the tragedy of native cultures as Europeans decided this land was uninhabited and therefore their own. It’s a story about a teenage girl who lost her cousin, the boy she was to marry, and is trying to get used to his younger brother, who she will now marry. Then these Snow Men sail in, and, as happened sometimes 18th century sailings, they lose many of their men in one morning. There’s a point of agreement there, and the girl has some empathy for them and some curiosity about how they will deal with the deaths of so many of their people. She recognizes the “excitement” that accompanies such a tragedy, and the cultural significance of the loss of her cousin and the men with him: “I was thinking, This is one of those terrible things that I will remember always, I will tell this story to my children and grandchildren.” And she recognizes the difference between someone else’s loss, and her own: “It happened again when the Snow Men drowned, but with out any sadness – just the excitement.”

She has a brief encounter with a couple of the sailors as she is out picking berries. There’s this aura of impending doom, as if she is about to be raped, but it never happens; they are just mourners of different souls. She meets up with her little cousin again and has an interaction with him concerning a canteen left behind by one of the sailors. This, at the very end of the story, is a wonderful little play, as they deal with each other in ways that remind me of teenagers anywhere: what is his motivation? What does she want me to do? It’s lovely, and it makes the story worth reading. I just wish we could’ve done without the berry juice and winged canoes.

Zin Discovers The Doctor

Happy Zin!

Hello, I am Zin! I just discovered Doctor Who! How have I missed this all my life – or at least since it has been widely available in the US. I just stumbled over it because BBCAmerica runs Star Trek and Kitchen Nightmares so I sometimes check to see if anything is on there but I have never really seen much of Doctor Who, just kind of monsters once in a while, but usually a commercial.

But today I saw the end of an episode about Vincent Van Gogh, and they brought him to, I do not know, the Louvre? A Paris art gallery, where his work was exhibited, and The Doctor asked someone to tell him about Van Gogh and he heard how important an artist he is and how wonderful his work is! It was very moving! But then again I am very emotional and I cry over everything. But it turned out this did not change anything and he went back to his time and still killed himself, and I kept thinking of David Foster Wallace, I doubt it would have mattered to him either, because he know how much value his work had and he still could not go on. This is something people do not understand about Depression.

Then there was an episode about a man who needed a flatmate and there was a guy upstairs doing something weird, except there was no upstairs, and Amy Pond was whirling around in the TARDIS out of control because the guy upstairs was distorting time or something, and it was really funny. Hilarious! I do not remember exactly what but the poor flatmate was so confused.

Then there was a long episode I only saw a little of, it had something to do with Roman centurions and a Pandorica or something, but then there was a Christmas Carol remake on another planet with fish that attacked through the sky and a miser who had people frozen as collateral on loans, and as The Doctor went back into time the miser as a little boy fell in love with one of the frozen people but she only could live eight days out of her freezer, and at the end she had to come out to sing to the fish and calm the skies so the ship Amy Pond and her new husband were on would not crash, and she would die, and the miser was in love with her but knew she only had one more day, and he said, “If you could spend only one day with someone you loved, which day would you choose?” and that started me crying again. And the music was very pretty too.

Then a new season started which I think is why they have been showing so many episodes lately, and it should be good because it is set in the US in 1969 and has a scene with Richard Nixon, which was funny, but overall it was not as good as the Van Gogh or the flatmate or the Christmas Carol. But it is to be continued so maybe it will be funny or sad next time!

Anyway I am surprised that I enjoyed the episodes I saw so much, I have heard of it for a long time but every time I tried to watch it, I just did not get it, and nothing really grabbed me, but today it is as if all the things I enjoyed were lined up waiting for me!

Andrea Barrett – “The Ether of Space” from Tin House #47 “The Mysterious” Spring 2011

Where you lived and what you knew determined what you expected to see. Once the moon was a smooth glowing orb, and then it had mountains and seas. Once Jupiter wandered alone, and then he had moons; once orbits were round and stars stayed still in space. In earlier books, she’d traced those changing perceptions. Now she was trying to write about the universe beyond the solar system. Who first thought those glowing specks were other suns, like ours? Or that some were island universes, far beyond the Milky Way?

She is Phoebe, a 41-year-old widowed mother with a young son, living with her parents, as writing books for the general readership about science does not pay enough for her to remain on her own, or to return to her original, pre-mom profession of Astronomer. It is just after World War I. Thanks to a solar eclipse that provided the means for experimentation, Einstein’s theory of gravitation is gaining ground, changing physics by eliminating the troublesome need for an ether. And an established scientist named Oliver Lodge defends the existing view of the ether as the substance that permeates space and, in fact, captures personalities after death – including that of his son, Raymond, who died in the war.

Phoebe becomes obsessed with the conflict between the two theories. She is outraged that a scientist of Lodge’s stature would talk mumbo-jumbo about an afterlife, rather than using mathematics and the scientific method to prove or disprove theories. But she can’t stop thinking about it: this ether that may contain her husband’s soul. “Lodge must be wrong, he has to be wrong. If he’s right, then Michael’s been within my reach this whole time and I could have been talking to him. I could be talking to him now.

Her son, who has been a bit distant of late, attends a lecture with her. He is enthralled, but they don’t discuss much of it. Later, she finds out he’s written a paper for English, which concludes:

I don’t understand the physics behind Einstein’s theory, and I don’t believe in the existence of a spirit world, but my introduction to Lodge’s work changed the way I think…. I don’t know whether my father exists in some ethereal form or only in my heart. What I do know is that the questions we ask about the world and the experiments we design to answer them are connected to our feelings.

It’s a beautifully written story, moving slowly and thoughtfully in a slightly lush but restrained voice that feels right for that time just before the Roaring Twenties, the time that created the Lost Generation. Sir Oliver Lodge, professor of physics and mathematics, was one of the creators of radio (it was a crowded field) and invented spark plugs among other things. And he was tethered to the dying ether by his son.

Miroslav Penkov – “A Picture With Yuki” from One Story #148, 4/21/2011

Some things, I told her, were bound to work. We deserved a break, I told her, because we were good people, and good things happened to good people, sooner or later.

The story opens: “Yuki and I arrived in Bulgaria three weeks before our hospital appointment….” We don’t find out for a couple of pages what the hospital appointment is for, so there’s this tension: why would they go to Bulgaria for medical treatment? I was thinking suicide tourism, though that’s supposed to happen in Switzerland, I think. That isn’t the case, but it did create a lot of tension for a little bit there. Part of the tension was, just when am I going to find out why they’re going to a Bulgarian hospital? Turns out they’re going for cut-rate in vitro fertilization (I felt a big letdown), which becomes ironic since, as Yuki has already pointed out, nothing in Bulgaria works right.

The One Story interview with Miroslav Penkov is one of the most helpful I’ve ever read. In it, he admits the first half of the story might be seen as slow by some readers, but he wanted to set a mood and establish a background. Such honesty is so wonderful: I want to hug him! I did find the first half of the story quite slow. I’d assumed I’d become too flash-oriented and couldn’t tolerate exposition. I’ve also been told several times that in my longer stories I include too much background and have become accustomed to stripping things down (which may be why I’m so unhappy with my work). The story starts a few days before the main event, but then goes into a good deal of background about this Bulgarian-Japanese couple from America going to Bulgaria before coming back to “almost-time” and adding some additional material about those few days. I suppose it’s more or less necessary material, explaining why the couple is in Bulgaria, what the family relationships are, the stresses they’re under, why they’re at Grandfather’s house, and how the central event, and its repercussions, happen.

What it doesn’t really do is explain their reaction at the crucial time. Their actions seem a little irresponsible, but not irredeemably so, though the consequences of course make us examine that irresponsibility in more detail. It’s like Morey Safer sitting them down on 60 Minutes to demand: why didn’t you do what you knew you should do? And hearing their lame reason: Because he didn’t wobble (I’m being circumspect to avoid spoiling the story). And later, when the shit hits the fan, should they have said something? Would I have said something? I don’t think so. I wish I could say, “Of course I would,” but that would be a lie. And what of their mission in Bulgaria, if it is accomplished: will that become a concrete, lifelong remembrance of their catastrophic mistake? Will they even want to pursue the objective, in light of what has happened? This is where I have a problem, since Yuki’s actions in the very last paragraph indicate they will, and that seems very foolish, a grimly ironic twist that is doomed to generate more catastrophe in the future, going back to how things in Bulgaria don’t work.

In his interview, the author also says Yuki is Japanese not because the Bulgarians and Japanese cultures are so different (which, he admits, they are) but because his wife is Japanese; and that his parents love his wife so he wanted to make his story in-laws hostile towards Yuki (they’re probably very happy to read that). He also says he made the boy a Gypsy because they are the Bulgarians most likely to not have a camera. Really, I love this guy! No making up heavy-duty symbolism, just telling the truth. I also love that he got the inspiration from reading about post-mortem photographs, which I heard of on, oh dear, believe it or not Bravo had an art competitive reality series and one of the artists did what he called a “death portrait” and I looked it up and discovered the same thing Penkov did, that when portraiture or photography was expensive, it wasn’t until someone died that a picture was rendered of them. Because, after all, why would you need a picture before then? It turns out my favorite part of the story, the anecdote about great-grandfather and the Communists and KULAK on the gate, was part of Penkov’s actual family history. Maybe that’s why it reached out to me more than anything else.

Because something about the central event and the consequences didn’t ring true to me. It was perfectly logical, I admit. Things could happen just that way. But it felt fictional to me. Some stories I read, I think, wow, this must be based on a true story. Or, oh, those poor people, I wonder if they’re ok. Not this one. It was just a story for me. I’m not sure why that was: maybe the narrator’s distance, coupled with Yuki’s distress which felt oddly posed, particularly given her actions in the final paragraph. I never lost the sense of reading fiction. Which is not a terrible thing. It was, after all, a fictional story. I wish I could point to a sentence or an action that left me feeling this way, but I can’t.

I wonder, too, if the crucial elements of this story would have been different had the couple been two blue-eyed WASPS who grew up in Ohio and Sacramento. There’s a lot of interesting stuff with the background: both of them left families behind when they came to the US; his parents don’t like her for a variety of reasons; he has a lot of traumatic family history from Bulgaria. But does that have anything to do with what happens? I don’t think so. What if it’d taken place in, say, Appalachia, or South Central LA, or some blue-collar suburb of Chicago? The language wouldn’t have been an issue (not as much, anyway, though it might have been), but I really think setting the story in Bulgaria, and the family history, didn’t really add much to the decisions they made.

If nothing else, this story will give me chills whenever I hear that good things happen to good people. Maybe that’s the point of the story right there.

This story, along with “Buying Lenin” from BASS 2008, appears in Penkov’s forthcoming collection, East of the West..

Top Chef Masters Season 3, Episode 3: Diners to Donors

No, I won't post pictures of people eating bugs!

I think I’m beginning to figure out why I’m not feeling the love with this series. Most of the chefs are maybe 5 years out from Top Chefdom. It isn’t like they’re Hubert Keller, or even Rick Bayless or Marcus Samuelsson or Susur Lee. Granted, I’m not exactly familiar with the Who’s Who of great chefs in the universe, but one or two superstars would really help up the excitement quotient. I think a lot of them are legends in their own minds, but really, I think the Voltaggios might give them a run for their money right now. There’s no Masters Mystique working here.

Also, they’re pretty boring. The closest thing to a bad guy is Naomi Pomeroy, but she’s pretty much just a take-charge type in a room of people standing around going, “Huh?” Now, they’re probably very fun people, fascinating, to talk to, but on TV, only Naomi, Suvir, and Hugh have any personality at all. I’d trade ‘em all in for one Carla. And since we don’t get to see much cooking, all that’s left is personality.

Now to current matters:

Do you know:
Horned worms are half protein…
Darkling beetles are high in protein…
Crickets have three times more iron than beef…
Canadian night crawlers are high in calcium…
Scorpions contain lots of vitamins?

Yes, these little creepy crawlies will be ingredients for the Quickfire, along with leather fern, salsify, aloe, sparklers, and other wild plants, for experienced bug eater judges. Mary Sue wonders if these experienced bug eater judges are enthusiastic bug eaters or have-to-eat-to-survive butg eaters. Yes, Mary Sue, I’m sure they’ve imported some people who live in circumstances so dire they have no choice but to eat bugs to survive. The judges turn out to be reality TV stars from Man, Woman, Wild which makes them enthusiastic bug eaters who eat bugs to survive: Ruth England and Mykel Hawke (that must be a fictitious name, he was in Special Forces after all) who do a show on Discovery about, I don’t know, a man and woman in the wild? Mary Sue declares them Qualified Bug tasters. Hey, if she’s happy, I’m happy. The prize is $5000 for the winning chef’s charity, plus immunity in the Elimination challenge. They have 20 minutes.

Hugh hasn’t eaten crickets yet and it’s been bugging him. Yes, that’s what he said. Hey, he’s a chef, not a comedian. Tempura crickets with sunchoke and carrot puree, salad and a blood orange vinagrette. Ruth says the puree is very delicate. Curtis wonders how he did the puree in only 20 minutes.He wins. His charity is Wholesome Wave which tries to link low-income consumers with fresh food from family farms. And Hugh says the experience will pay off handsomely when he opens his Bug Shack.
Mary Sue will eat eyeballs, brains, anything, but not bugs. She focuses on masking them in a spicy Thai sunchoke salad with beetle vinagrette. The judges think it’s a great way to use beetles since the shells are so hard. I’m feeling sick just listening to this. She’s got the second best disgusting bug dish.
Celina ate crickets in Bangkok, and they tasted like soy. So she makes an asian inspired dish of soy crickets with salsify salad. Mykel says it’s plenty salty, which is good, and thoroughly cooked, which is the preferred way to cook crickets. He would prefer to have the legs removed prior to preparation because they hang around in the mouth afterwards. Celina remembers pulling cricket legs out of her mouth for hours in Bangkok; so he should man up and get some floss, I guess.
John has never eaten bugs, but he used to stuff them in his brother’s mouth when they were kids. Karma’s a bitch, isn’t it, John? He figures everyone will be using the deep fryers, so he decides to grill his scorpions, then serves them with a poached egg and oyster roots (which apparently is the same thing as salsify). Mykel says it works all mixed up with the spiciness of the egg.
Naomi makes tempura fried nightcrawlers in elderflower and herb salad with pistachio vinagrette. Ruth explains she’s had all kinds of disgusting things in her mouth since she married Mykel, bugs are just one more. TMI, Ruth. Mykel says why bother with a salad when you have these terrific worms…
Alex declares bugs have been eaten in many cultures, and tells oyster story (the brave man who first ate an oyster. I still haven’t eaten an oyster, so don’t blame me). He doesn’t know if beetles stay crunchy when they’re cooked, or if they smell bad. He serves angel hair with beetles and flowers, which sounds very poetic. Mykel says it tastes good; Ruth likes the crispness of beetle against the soft pasta. I think they’re both insane.
Traci makes a salad with chipotle-dusted fried scorpions. Mykel notes the bellies of the scorpions swelled up with cooking, and he doesn’t like that. Yeah, me neither. I don’t like even writing it. Ruth doesn’t like the aloe, it’s too bitter. Hey, with all the other stuff going on, bitter aloe is the least of your worries.
Floyd makes an omelet of nightcrawlers and shiitaki mushrooms and amaranth.
George doesn’t eat bugs, and doesn’t cook bugs, but takes a Southeast asian approach and makes horned worm and coconut soup with lime, lemongrass, and basil. Mykel says it’s awful; he didn’t cut the horned worms small enough. It’s one of the worst bug dishes.
worm soup
Suvir grew up Hindu in New Delhi where he ate of many bountiful things without taking another life. His hand can cook but can not butcher animals. So he makes a Himalayan jungle salad (which means, I guess, throwing together all the stuff that’s available) with a jar of green worms and a blowtorch. That way, the diners can, if they choose, torch their own worms. I call bullshit. You cook veal, your hands are already dirty. He should’ve just left out the bugs, it’s a quickfire, he wouldn’t go home. Or he shouldn’t have agreed to come on the show anyway unless he could get them to promise he would only cook vegetarian. Anyway, Mykel takes a worm out of the jar, dispatches it – it looks like he just pulls it in half, I guess that’s how you kill a horned worm – then torches it, spears it with his fork, and gobbles it down. It’s really disgusting. But whatever, Suvir is in the bottom. And he’s probably going to come back in the next life as a horned worm.

Elimination Challenge

As a group, the chefs have to create a ten-course tasting menu for 50 guests; each guest will “vote” for his or her favorite dish by contributing $100 to the chef’s charity. And the winner will get an additional $10,000 for his or her charity. Traci wisely thinks, it can’t be that easy. And of course, it isn’t. Curtis tells them to expect some curve balls.

Naomi starts taking charge right away, but it isn’t like anyone else makes any efforts to organize ten people into a team. She asks people what they’re doing and makes a list so they don’t have five pasta dishes and two soups, which seems logical, and everyone knows what’s coming before and after. Hugh says he has immunity and he’ll do the first dessert course, which seems nice of him. They all start telling her their dishes – John wants to do a risotto, Celina does second dessert, etc etc. Naomi is doing a soup so if something happens – organizationally speaking, I suppose – she can deal with it.

They realize the first curve ball pretty quickly: the water has been shut off. There is lots of water in pots and in the freezer but no running water. Floyd’s cutting raw fish and realizes he can’t wash his hands so he has to be very careful about contamination (that’s pretty scary to me). George finds it funny that his charity is Water.org which brings drinking water to communities without.

The second twist comes when they realize the dining room isn’t set up. There’s your something happening, Naomi. Then the third curve ball: Curtis announces they will start a half hour earlier than planned. Naomi starts setting up tables; Hugh jumps in, they have some kind of conflict about where plating should happen but it isn’t really clear what’s going on. Hugh interviews that though there’s some arguing about which path to follow it isn’t mean, it’s just what powerful people do. I just saw the “alpha male” episode of Top Chef Season Seven earlier today, where Angelo and Kenny each try to prove what a great leader they are, and it reminds me of that, except these folks are supposed to be a little better than that alpha dog stuff. Maybe it’s something some people never get over.

Then the fourth shoe falls. It’s a quadruped. Curtis tells them there will be no waiters, so they will have to figure out service themselves. Naomi tells them no one should be working on their own dishes during service, and Traci interviews she doesn’t really listen to Naomi bossing people around. At least someone’s speaking up, it’s been crazy so far, I’ve never seen so many sheep in my life just following Naomi around. Maybe they’ve been ignoring Naomi all along.

Sitting in for Ruth Reichl this episode is Alan Sytsma of Grub Street, who, after going through the French Culinary Institute, was an intern for James Beard in his “first year of not cutting carrots.” Celina falls all over herself being impressed, which isn’t very complementary to Ruth Reichl. But I guess that’s the thing Ruth talks about in her book, Garlic and Sapphires, about the power of the critic being part of the job, and not going with you when you leave.

Mary Sue serves the first course. She’s been making ceviche for 25 years. She can do it. It’s a Caribbean ceviche with Peruvian amarillo on a plantain chip. They like the presentation, but James says there’s not a lot of flavor. Alan thinks the avocado is like bad guacamole. Maybe I don’t understand what Amarillo is, it’s a pepper or pepper sauce, how can that be bland?

Suvir on second course wants to showcase the brilliance of North Indian cooking. And educating the palate. Uh oh. Educating always makes me nervous on these shows. Celina tastes it while he’s cooking, says she wants more acid. He serves a chickpea, potato and yogurt chaat salad with baby spinach. James says it’s gorgeous, but he’s too far inside his comfort zone. Alan likes the yogurt.

George makes Portuguese shrimp alhinho with pickled carrots, red beets, and vanilla oil. Danyelle says the shrimp is cooked perfectly. Alan says the tooth of beet is perfect; James thinks it’s too salty.

Naomi makes her simple soup; Suvir says it’s simple and beautiful, but will it shine enough? I like how he phrases things. She admits she might get dinged for presenting boring soup, but she feels confident. It’s a celery veloute with salsa verde and lemon oil. Danyelle thinks it’s delicious. Alan loved the lemon oil on top. Curtis says it’s very rich, are they thinking only about their own course or about the meal as a whole? Remember this for later.

John makes risotto, and wow, all I could think of was it looks just like the risotto that sent Tre home, and I wonder if Tom Colicchio should give him the lecture about how risotto should spread on the plate. Because it looks pretty stiff to me. It includes shiitake mushrooms, prosciutto and pine nuts, and smoked paprika, which also brings back the same lecture about too much garnish. Alan doesn’t want the crunch of the pine nuts, but Danyelle thinks it’s interesting. James says he hasn’t challenged himself. Curtis wouldn’t pay a hundred bucks for this dish.

Floyd comes up with rice flaked sole with roasted cauliflower. James declares it fantastic. Danyelle thinks the broth underneath is too assertive.

Obligatory Interstitial at :40: The chefs share horror stories:
Naomi remembers when the power went out, and cooks cooked with flashlights in their mouths. I wonder if they did that voluntarily – somehow I have this vision of her walking the line, stuffing flashlights…
Celina tells of the time when the bathrooms in her restaurant were nonfunctional, so customers were sent to the bathroom across the street.
John almost murdered a pantry cook for putting salt on crème Brule, and sending it out rather than realizing something was wrong it wouldn’t caramelize.

Alex serves roasted salmon with gazpacho veggies and tomatillo sauce. James says his is just this side of raw, while Danyelle thinks hers is perfectly cooked.

Traci makes a roasted rib eye, slow cooked broccoli with red wine, and fried shallots. Curtis says just by looking he can tell she knows how to cook meat. Danyelle and Alan don’t like the broccoli, and they get into the generational fight seen on the previews. James says these are bold cooked vegetables, but the young have been brainwashed by non-cooked vegetables. His blog gives a better idea of his opinion on this – he’s fond of braised vegetables as well as those more crisply cooked. I’m sure that works for collard greens, but I’m not sure about broccoli. He seems to feel it’s a trend in “luxe dining.” Good thing I don’t mess with that too often.

Hugh has immunity, so all of us who’ve seen pannacotta send people home aren’t screaming at our TVs “Don’t do it!” He serves strawberry and buttermilk pannacotta with black pepper and champagne berry soup, garnished with chili thread and fresh mint. After he announces his dish, Curtis says he’s a showman; James says he’s like Liberace. I think they need to get out more. Or maybe the editors left the good stuff on the cutting room floor. It didn’t really seem over-the-top to me. James says something about “two and a half hours to conceive and execute,” Alan says “to get that perfect burned texture,” and I’m not sure if they’re being serious or sarcastic. Danyelle doesn’t understand the chili hairs, but James explains it’s a nice bridge between savory courses and the upcoming sweet dessert. The way he says it makes me think he liked the pannacotta. But I’m still not sure.

Celina makes chocolate pudding with a ginger donut and fleur de sel. She started out baking so she likes dessert. The cocoa isn’t what she’s used to, so she uses more. Suvir tastes it, and doesn’t like the texture, it’s not pudding like he’s used to, and he compares it to plastic wrapped pudding. Uh oh. James says it’s gritty, Danyelle finds it tasteless. Alan doesn’t like the texture, though he likes the donut.

The diners vote for their favorite dishes.

Naomi and Suvir are called to Critics Table. For good news, it turns out, they got the most votes, Naomi with 43% which earns $1800 for her charity, and Suvir with 40% which earns $1700 for his, Agricultural Stewardship, which protects Hudson Valley farms in upstate NY from encroaching development. That’s 83% for those two dishes alone. That means eight other people divided 17%, wow, I’d say that’s a landslide for these two.

James says the winning dish was sophisticated, warm, and delicious: Naomi. See, Curtis, this is why chefs aren’t too concerned about fitting into a lineup, there’s no advantage to it when you call out a dish for not fitting in and then declare it the winner. Anyway, she gets an additional $10,000 for Seed Savers Exchange, which cultivates and distributes heirloom seeds to protect biodiversity.

Now for the bad news.

Mary Sue, Celina, John are in bottom.
James says Mary Sue’s ceviche was bland; Danyelle only tasted pickled onions, not fish.
Alan asks John why he just made classic risotto rather than something extraordinary? John defends classic and fundamental risotto. Danyelle says fundamentals are fine, but when you’re competing, the idea is to stand out. No one mentions the thickness of it. I wonder if Tre is scratching his head. I know I am. I’ve never had risotto, but it’s pretty deadly on Top Chef.
They scold Celina for her pudding. James tells her to “get out of desserts.”
And the loser is: John. Somehow I knew when I saw them standing there. I’m not sure why. He’s the least telegenic. But they fall all over themselves reassuring America that John is a fantastic chef so everyone will still go to his restaurant.

BASS 2010: Jim Shepard, “The Netherlands Lives With Water”

Pakistani appeal poster for the 1953 Dutch flood victims (Radio Netherlands)

It’s the catastrophe for which the Dutch have been planning for fifty years. Or really for as long as we’ve existed: we had cooperative water management before we had a state. The one created the other: either we pulled together as a collective or got swept away as individuals.

As I read this story, set in an imagined Rotterdam 25 years from now, I thought, now, if the US were threatened by water, we’d have imposed global warning restrictions on the entire world by now. Except, you know what? New Orleans; the Outer Banks; Tampa; we are threatened by water, and every time a hurricane rolls by, we go into a tizzy, and then relax because, after all, it wasn’t the French Quarter of New Orleans that was submerged up to the rooftops. And we convince ourselves this isn’t going to happen anyway, it’s all a myth.

It was a great distraction to the story here.

The story, let me say, is marvelous. It goes along those lines, in fact: there’s a catastrophe coming, everyone’s known it’s coming, and here it is, hey, what’s going on? There are parallel catastrophes as there usually are in literary fiction: the literal one of Rotterdam and the more figurative catastrophe of marital collapse, and a secondary catastrophe of an aging mother whose need for more care has been ignored too long. Everyone who has any relationship with another person – that is, all of us – is facing a future catastrophe, as all relationships end one way or another. All stories are told with precision and care. The history of the Netherlands is detailed, as well as the lives of these fictional characters. Now, I suppose there’s someone somewhere who’d already written out the historical and technical chronology here, from a dike collapsing on Christmas of 1717, to the Saint Felix flood, the All Saints Flood, the 1953 flood, all the waterways and maneuvers to manage impending disaster. But I suspect a lot of research went into this, and a lot of winnowing out a small percentage of the information for inclusion into this story. I think of my friend Marko (hi Marko!) who is researching the Mongols and discovering all manner of interesting things about them, and I see him as another Jim Shepard, or another Anthony Doerr, all patiently researching information to include small bits into a fictional story that will sweep over the reader more forcefully than any academic text.

In the Contributor’s Notes, the author describes how McSweeney’s wanted a story about some world city 25 years in the future, and sweetened the pot by offering a trip to the city chosen. He describes how helpful the Dutch were, in providing information, escorting him to various locations: “I kept reminding everyone, somewhat meekly, that I was only writing a short story for a magazine called McSweeney’s, and not a cover article for The New York Times Magazine, but they all seemed unfazed. I was a writer who shared their interests, and was in need of help. So they helped. It was one of those moments when I’ve been acutely aware that I wasn’t in the United States.” Hmmm. I’m not so sure I agree with this assessment, but I can see what he means.

This story is available online through McSweeney’s at Googledocs and is included in his latest collection, You Think That’s Bad, eleven stories about catastrophe. Sounds like a fun read. I have it on order at the library – there are two holds ahead of me. Catastrophe is quite popular.

(addendum: You Think That’s Bad read and blogged here.

Delinquent Zin

Delinquent Zin

Hello, I am Zin!

Today I received my copy of The Delinquent. Wait. I did not receive it as much as I went and got it, since it did not fit in my mailbox on Saturday when the mailman arrived and people in the building have insisted nothing should be left on the shelf by the mailboxes because things get stolen. Book never get stolen. I think that is sad.

Anyway I went to the Post Office which is open even though it is a holiday, Patriot’s Day. It is the day the American Revolution started, and this is a holiday only in Massachusetts and Maine (which used to be part of Massachusetts). It is not a Federal holiday so the post office is still open.

Now, the point, I suppose. I have two pieces in Issue 14 of The Delinquent (April 2010), a three-times-a-year (triennial? They call it 3i pa, “three issues per annum” I would assume) British magazine of short poems and prose. One is a poem, “Maples” which became a prose poem, “Sap” in the Flash Factory during the Revenge prompt. The tense changed as well, and a few details. It was more grim as a prose poem but Jason at The Delinquent preferred the poem form, which is fine. They also published “The Man In The Crisp Suit” which is a prose poem. Both are very short, less than 100 words.

So I am happy that I actually have some work published again! And print! Not exactly top tier but it is a nice enough magazine! And it is nice to have something on my shelf to keep Pear Noir!4 company. It can be downloaded for about $1.50 which is good. The hard copy costs about $9 with postage which is probably too much. Or if you are a friend of mine from Zoetrope just ask and I will email you something. ;) shhhhh….

Rebecca Makkai – “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart” from Tin House Issue #46 Winter 2010

"Gum Trees" by Steve Ingham, 2005

When Carlos asked why I would risk my whole career for Peter Torrelli, I told him he had to understand that in those last three years of high school, Peter and I were the only two gay boys in Chicago.

So Drew starts his tale. He and Peter were best friends in high school, shared a phobia that they would be suddenly transported into the body of an actor or priest or musician or speaker and would have to figure a way out. They kissed once, and didn’t speak for two weeks after; sometimes intimacy is too hard to bear. Peter, extremely good-looking, became an actor because “the only way he could enjoy a play was from the inside.” Drew does publicity for NPR, and his partner Carlos has been leaving him in slow-motion at the time the story opens, with Peter Torrelli, falling apart.

Peter does this falling apart during a performance of Richard III when he forgets how to act in between two lines: “…I was some kid in eighth-grade English and I had to read my poem out loud. It was just me, and there was no character, no play, just these words I had to say. You know our whole thing about leapfrogging into someone else’s body? It was like that, but like I suddenly leapfrogged into myself.” I love this description, and I understand exactly what it means. What I don’t understand is why it happened at that moment, which would seem to me to add some meaning to the event.

Predictably, Peter’s career declines. Third-rate dinner theatre becomes a way of life. Then Drew, playing caretaker, offers Peter a job reading stories at an art exhibit. This seems to be a career risk for Drew, though I don’t quite see why. It isn’t a command performance, things always go wrong at events like this. And of course things do go wrong, and the story becomes unbearably beautiful. The art exhibit is wonderful, stories and poems inspired by paintings. Peter reads a story titled “The Gum Flies Away” to accompany a painting of a giant pack of gum hovering over the city. A dream about things leaving, notice of a landmark disappearing, things flying away all over the place. Things change. The gum flies away. And we get used to it, which is the saddest part of all.

Addendum: I’m very happy to see this story in BASS 2011. Rebecca Makkai’s Contributor Note is almost as good as the story:

When I started this story, I was at that point in my twenties when I realized that the adult world to which I had worked so hard to acclimate myself was in fact changing and disappearing…. two local icons, Marshall Field and the Berghoff, went up in smoke at around the same time (although the Berghoff has since reinvented and reopened), while the Art Institute hid its armor upstairs and put its crown jewel, Marc Chagall’s America Windows, in storage…I wanted to write about the metamorphosis of one person – someone around whom the narrator’s adult personality had grown like a vine – whose existential crisis would seem, to his friend, like a crumbling of the entire known world.
It should be noted that Rob Spillman of Tin House edited this story under the most heroic of circumstances. Shortly after his hand was badly injured when a water-filled light fixture fell on it, I emailed him to say (rather hormonally, I fear) that my c-section was scheduled in a week, and if he wanted anything changed, he’d better act fast. Between the two of us – he typing one-handed, I separated from my desk by an enormous belly – we managed to get it done.

There’s also a mourning for NPR (sigh), and a challenge to the Art Institute to put on an event something like the one Drew coordinates. And I am thinking of Painters, Players and Poets, the exhibition of Maine artists, poets, musicians and chairmakers. Not exactly the same thing (it wasn’t live, for one thing), but in that direction.

Top Chef Masters, Season 3, Episode 2: Everything Old is New Again

Two things I learned from this episode:
1) I want Suvir Saran in this competition, at least for now. I am still not sure if this is because he is funny or because he’s the guy I love to hate, but I really didn’t want to lose him.
2) A little learning is a dangerous thing. (Thank you, Alexander Pope.)

But first, some business to take care of. John Rivera Sedlar had to drop out due to a personal emergency. Given the tone of his comments in the LA Times Blog (posted just before showtime) about how hard it was, I suspect the personal emergency was a realization he wasn’t going to enjoy this at all. To fill the void left by his absence, Hugh Acheson returns. This pleases me. He’s one of the ones whose name I know, even though I don’t know where I know it from.

The Quickfire

Kelis is an R&B singer who is apparently famous for having trained at Le Cordon Bleu and for getting a huge settlement from her rapper husband when they divorced. Ok, I’m being nasty. You know, Sandra Lee claims to have trained at Le Cordon Bleu too; I’ve been given to understand that in her case she took a two-week class in Canada and dropped out after a couple of days. Wow, I really am being nasty. Let’s try this again.

Kelis, famous for her Milkshake song (“My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard”… it’s ok, Melanie had her roller skate and key in my day, and Nina Simone wanted a little sugar for her bowl way long ago, it’s just the way music is), is going to judge the Quickfire. Lord help the chefs. The assignment is to make a meatball in 30 minutes. They have a table full of meat. Whole meat. And they have grinders. Little grinders. The kind of hand grinders my mom used to have back in the 40s when people ground meat. Apparently none of the chefs know how to use these little grinders. There’s a lot of groaning and struggling but the all manage to get some meat ground. Then Kelis goes around declaring what they did wrong, and since she’s a Cordon Bleu chef, she should know, right? The tasting is blind, and the chefs watch on TV from another room.

John Currence, who I will not recognize when he takes off his bandana, makes a Vietnamese chicken meatball. Kelis tastes it; he says “That’s not a good face” but she says, “Wonderful” so I guess it is a good face. He wins and gets $5,000 for his charity.
Suvir Saran makes an Indian spiced meatball with a tamarind glaze. Kelis loves the sweet and spicy flavors. He is in the top three. He also admires his shoes. He says something about style, that he looks at his shoes and life is good (they look like deep red patent leather), this is his chance to indulge himself. I didn’t quite catch exactly what he said, but that seemed to be the gist. He really likes his shoes. He was standing next to someone, I’m not sure who, with similar shoes. I don’t understand, are these the next hot fad in chef shoes, like Mario’s orange clogs?
Sue Zemanick makes a pork belly meatball with spicy tomato sauce and spaghetti. Kelis likes the flavor and texture, and she is in the top three.
Floyd Cardoz uses beef loin and bacon to make a meatball sub. Kelis finds the meatball salty. He tells her it’s a sandwich, to be eaten with the bread, but she says no, every element must stand on its own. So there.
Traci Des Jardins makes a tarragon chicken meatball consommé. Kelis uses a fork instead of a spoon, which kind of defeats the purpose of the consommé. She declares it muddled, and says it was garnished with dill but she didn’t get the dill flavor. Traci, in the observation room, says it’s not dill, it’s fennel. I have some sympathy with that, since I made the same mistake not long ago. But I’m not a chef and I don’t pretend to be, and I’m sure as hell not judging Traci Des Jardins.
Alex Stratta makes a spicy lamb meatball with couscous. It’s very good, nice spice with a bite after.
Naomi Pomeroy loves to butcher. To prove it, there’s a picture of her hugging a pig. A dead pig, you understand. A little one. She likes working with whole animals, turning them into not-so-whole animals. But she perseveres. I was so thrown by the pig shot I didn’t get what she made.
Mary Sue Milliken makes turkey albondigas soup wth toasted pumpkin seeds, but she realizes she forgot to finish it with vinegar. Doesn’t matter, Kelis loves the flavor, and Curtis says it seems very healthy.
Hugh Acheson makes a lamb merguez meatball with shiitake slaw and yogurt. Kelis is not impressed, she doesn’t like the yogurt battling with the spicy sauce. He is annoyed because that is the basis of Mediterranean cuisine. I seem to recall Indian cuisine uses that hot-cool thing as well. Maybe they didn’t get to those cuisines in Kelis’ classes. He’s in the bottom three.
George Mendes makes a chicken and short rib meatball in broth. Kelis thinks it’s an odd combination (I actually wondered about that, it seems odd to me, too) and besides, broths are kind of show-offy. So he’s in the bottom three, for showing off. You know, like he was an actual chef or something. You set ‘em straight, Kelis.

Ok, I will admit, I’m being bitchy about this whole Kelis thing. For all I know, she is a very talented chef and spent years at her mama’s knee studying cooking and really did take the whole Cordon Bleu class. But she comes across like some people I know in writing workshops. They’ve taken a class at Adult Ed, or they took Creative Writing 101 in college, and they learned that you never use passive voice so they go through looking for all the “has, had, have” words and complain about them. And adverbs. They complain about them, too. “Do a search for –ly and take them all out,” they say. Now me, I need all the help I can get, I’m not one to turn away criticism, but when they start telling this to someone who’s had an award-winning chapbook published or has stories in places like Glimmer Train and Ploughshares, it’s kind of annoying. If she doesn’t like yogurt and spice, or broth, that’s fine, say so. It’d be nice if the chefs knew all her idiosyncrasies beforehand, but it’s ok anyway, no one’s going home over this. But for her to quote rules at them is just nonsense.

I’m going to breathe deeply for a few minutes, I’ll be right back…

I’m a bit surprised Bravo gave Kelis what could be considered an unkind edit – the dill/fennel mix-up, her refusal to eat the food as presented (a sub as a sandwich, consommé as soup). Maybe this is a warning to future star judges?

Elimination Challenge

Time warp back to the 60s. Christina Hendricks, from Mad Men, and her husband Geoffrey Arend from Body of Proof will guest judge, but the critics make the decisions. Each chef will get one classic 60s dish to make, and to update, so they must make two dishes, as appetizers, for a cocktail party for 40 people. The prize is $10,000 for the winning chef’s charity. Christina says because of her show she’s surrounded by this food all the time, and she pretty much hates it. Now there’s a challenge. Geoffrey warns them to stay away from Vienna sausages. No problem.

John gets oysters Rockefeller as his classic dish, and makes pickled oyster with horseradish crème fraiche, collard greens, and bacon for the update. He worries they are too similar. He also worries because he can’t open the oysters during prep the day before, so he doesn’t know what he’s going to get. He’s happy to go first, since the kitchen on day of service is becoming chaotic. Everyone loves his dish (except for one guy who can’t tell the difference, but he’s laughed down by Christina).
Mary Sue has to do deviled eggs (and manages to cut herself on an eggshell), and does Japanese poached egg with umeboshi and seaweed as an update. Christina isn’t sure it’s a deviled egg, but it’s very good. James Oslund agrees on both points, perfect balance of flavors and textures. Curtis wants the recipe.
Floyd tries to figure out ambrosia. In the end the classic version is whipped cream, marshmallows, coconut, pineapple, and cherries. He makes a mousse with a skewer of fruits, but the mousse doesn’t set so he calls it fondue, which is pretty quick thinking. Ruth gives him props for making a chef’s version of a horrible home classic and declares it irresistible. Christina calls it whimsical.
Celina makes coq au vin; to update it, she makes it into a frisee salad with vinegar. She’s fine with these things because she has American Classics night at her restaurant. The critics like it.
Traci does beef stroganoff, and deconstructs the updated version to make a tartar with fried noodles. Christina didn’t get the mushroom expected from stroganoff; her husband only tasted noodles.
Hugh makes beef Wellington. To update it, he deconstructs it, serving a filet with mushrooms and puff pastry. The critics think it’s the opposite of Wellington where all things are married, here they are divorced, in the updated version. Which is kind of clever, actually, I think, but they aren’t impressed. I’m amused by the inclusion of beef Wellington as horrible outdated 60s food, and I wonder if it’s a slap at Gordon Ramsey who depends on it as one of his regular dishes for his Hell’s Kitchen show (which I no longer watch, as I lost my stomach for watching him swear a long time ago, so possibly he no longer makes his hapless contestants make it).
Naomi gets grasshopper pie. She knows what the cocktail is, not sure about pie, but wings it. She cooks meat, what is dessert? Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it before, buck up and make the damn pie. She tops it with toasted kirsch marshmallows. James thinks it’s great, but Christina thinks the mint is off. Who are you going to believe?
George gets chicken a la king. He updates it by using lemon yogurt and vegetables. Ruth thinks the bread is soggy, but James says no, that’s what chicken a la king is, the bread absorbs the sauce.
Sue has duck a l’orange; she and her father made it when she was little. The updated version has blood orange gastrique, pineapple mango salad, and cracklings. She ran out of time and didn’t complete plating her dish; due to cramped space, she had to help other people so they would clear out and she would have room to work. Suvir goes to bat for her, says she helped everyone and praises her generosity of self. didn’t complete her dish. James says obviously it was not a great day, he was disappointed with duck l’orange, it was not what it needed to be. Ruth says you didn’t do is show the difference, though Sue says the elements that made a difference didn’t make the plates. Like the cracklings. Her dish was edible, but conceptually didn’t really have anywhere to go even if it had been complete.
Suvir deals with veal Oscar. He says it’s fatty and rich and flavorless, like the 60s in America. Not too different from now, either. In the kitchen space is so tight, he can’t get a burner on the stove. He calls himself and Sue refugees, no place to go. He says something interesting: “I would rather help others than be a diva, who may be a little better but have no generosity of self.” So there are two levels here, the divas and the rest of them? Or is that just in his head? Who confers divaship? The only cooking space is the deep fryer, so he tries it, but it’s a big mistake. The veal is tough and hard; it even looks tough on TV. Now that’s tough. He tried to make veal with mint, cilantro, tomato chutney, and asparagus. He is trepidatious as he serves – if that isn’t a word, it should be. The critics debate: his meat was too big and very tough, but he met the challenge and finished his dishes; his concept was potentially exciting though it didn’t work. So we’ve got the old concept vs. execution debate again.
Alex makes bread pudding which he’s never made before. To update it, he uses chai tea, pannetone, apple salad. Ruth is disappointed he didn’t do more with it. Alex says he s strength is onions and garlic and olive oil, not chai and pannatone. I thought of the tomato bread pudding Sarah made on TCMiami, on the boat. She won with savory bread pudding. James could not finish eating it. Danyelle says it wasn’t as bad a the veal.

Hilarious Interstitial: Suvir has a farm in upstate NY, complete with predators such as coyotes and foxes. I missed the details, but someone wants to see him in his outfit (I’m thinking the shiny shoes) with a shotgun. Then they ask what kind of gun he uses to run off the predators, and he says, “Oh, a big one.” I guess he has someone else warding off predators. Or maybe it’s a veggie farm and it doesn’t matter how many coyotes are out there, since they don’t eat the tomatoes anyway.

Top three: Mary Sue, Floyd, and John. Mary Sue wins with her deviled eggs. Share Our Strength gets $10,000.

Bottom Three: Sue, Alex, Suvir. Here’s where I realize I want Suvir on the show for a while. But I feel sorry for Sue. Still, I think one of them is out. I’m thinking Suvir’s veal was unforgivable, and Sue didn’t finish her plates, which is also unforgivable. They don’t let regular Top Chefs get away with that. I have some sympathy for their difficulties – I’d have trouble pushing my way in, too. Still. Sue is out. I feel a little guilty for wanting Suvir in. Because, of course, things always turn out the way I want them to.

Ramona Ausubel: “Atria” from The New Yorker, 4/4/2011

Detail Estate of Larry Gianettino

Perhaps, if she opened her arms to whatever came to her and stopped turning it all away, she might arrive at adulthood earlier. Adulthood was a place Hazel pictured as a small apartment kitchen far from anyone to whom she was related, furnished with upturned milk creates and exactly one full place setting.

A weird story. A lot of terrific elements. Many common threads – growth, people as animals, outsiders looking in, and of course atria – empty chambers, rooms open to the sky. But… well, I’m fine with absurdity and surrealism, but here I kept wondering if we were talking psychosis instead. Analytically, it worked. Emotionally, not so much, for me.

Hazel was an accident in an otherwise orderly, well-planned family. Her father became ill and died during her gestation, and there was great surprise that she was a girl, not a replacement for her father. Maybe that accounts for how unconnected to anything she is.

Looking at her classmates, Hazel wonders: will these people look more human when they are grown? She sees the boys as children, beasts, helpless baby rats. She does not want to be invested in adolescence, just to survive it. She wants – she wants – to feel her life is a thread in a tangled mess and nothing she does matters very much. As opposed to her mother, who is invested in everything from campaigns against potholes to grating almonds.

So she makes the above wish to accept growth. She walks around the neighborhood most of the time. One day she goes to the 7-11 for a lime fizzy. Just at that time, Johnny, 7-11 employee, comes out with a beef jerky and a Miller Lite. He sits with her. He asks if she wants to lie down behind the bushes, and since she’s just decided to open herself up to growing, she says yes. Things keep going in that direction and they have sex, and she thinks, “Is that all there is?” No, not so Peggy Lee, but almost. She’s disappointed with the whole thing.

On another day – we aren’t given a real time reference except that it all happens during the summer after school has let out – she is in the church parking lot when a man approaches her. He wants to talk to her; she says she has to go but he puts his hand on her arm – not hard – and says she has to stay. He won’t hurt her if she doesn’t scream, so she doesn’t. She feels underwater. She asks herself why she is here, growing up, instead of with her friends. Her heart – a heart has atria – takes over her body. The man wants to have sex with her, will not hurt her if she has sex with him. She says, Please. Wait. Help. She hears two words: And yet, and yet, and yet. I keep thinking, this rape is very similar to the supposedly consensual prior act. She didn’t seem to care much about either. I wonder if this rape was real or imagined, a sort of reliving of the original act.

She becomes pregnant and visualizes the baby as a spine, light, with fur, claws, teeth. Things get very weird from here on in.

She tells her mother about the rape but not about Johnny. The community reacts. Vigils. Police patrols. Self-defense classes. Her sisters come over and bring Poor Hazel cookies. The town has a terrific time dropping off casseroles and meat loaf and cakes marked “Condolences”. People bring presents. Hazel thanks them though her fur baby won’t be able to wear such things. The town’s reaction is perhaps my favorite element of the story.

The pregnancy continues. Hazel sees the baby change from furry to bird of prey to a giraffe. She makes a list of the skills she will need depending on what kind of animal her baby is. A lion: lie under trees cook rabbits, braid its mane. She doesn’t know what to do with a platypus. She makes a list for a human baby which includes moving to a deserted island at age 13, and sled. I have a hard time with this. It’s hilarious. But it’s a little too realistic to be surreal; it feels more like pre-partum psychosis, if there is such a thing. So it’s hard to enjoy the absurdity.

The baby is a girl which surprises her family; they still thought it would be the replacement for the father. Her body is a tight, empty globe, more emptiness. She looks at the baby and decides it is a seal. She upends a bucket of mop water onto it so it can swim. Just when we think she’s drowned the baby, she recognizes the arms and legs but still considers it a seal, and it begins to suckle.

This last scene is another place where it is too realistic to be read as surreal, and thus is horrifying rather than enjoyably bizarre. Oddly, I found the idea of dirty mop water to be more repulsive than the idea that she might be drowning her baby. I think it’s a good thing I’ve never had kids.

The story just felt off to me. I put it aside and reread it later, and it still didn’t quite work as a whole for me. I just couldn’t enjoy the craziness because it felt like actual craziness, horrific craziness, rather than fantasy. And while there are all these threads tying it together and every event led to the next, it still felt strangely disjointed somehow. I suppose ending is a good sign, unless the suckling was also in her imagination, but I still wanted to call a social worker.

This story is from a forthcoming collection of surreal stories about birth and parenthood, A Guide To Being Born. In spite of my misgivings, I’m curious.

Keith Ridgway – “Goo Book” from The New Yorker, 4/11/11

Art by Thierry Guitard

His mind was dividing. Parts of it were roped off. There were things he could not say. There were things he could not say but could write in the book. And now there were things he could neither say nor write but only think, and they pressed up against the others like they wanted a fight.

I didn’t think I’d like this story. It started out as a story about a pickpocket, became a mob story with this love story running throughout, and I fully expected it to follow the mob thread (whatever the London version of the Mob is called) at the end. But that didn’t happen. I loved the ending. So I was very happy. As I understand it from the interview, this is one story in a forthcoming collection of linked stories, linked by the policemen Hawthorn and Childs who appear here. Says Ridgway of the collection: “I was interested in writing about story itself really. About our addiction to narrative. We want to tell ourselves and our days and our lives as stories, and these things are not stories.” I’m going to chew on that for a while. But back to the story at hand.

Our unnamed third person narrator is a pickpocket who 1) does not like violence, 2) does not consider himself a “crook,” and 3) sometimes drives for a mob boss named Mishazzo. That’s an interesting setup right there. But there’s more to him. He lifts a personal notebook thinking it was a wallet; instead of tossing it in the nearest trash can, he gives it to a kid to return. When Mishazzo starts asking about his girlfriend, he gets protective and lies about her name and occupation. When asked what he thinks about, he replies myself and considers that includes his girlfriend, the two of them, together. And in a thread that runs through the piece, he starts writing love notes to his girlfriend in a notebook she leaves on the table. And she writes love notes back to him. They don’t discuss it. They only write when the other is out of the house. “But he thought that maybe they touched each other differently. It was like the book freed stuff up, allowed it to happen, that the tenderness was covered, they had it covered, they had all the love and kindness and gentleness covered, and the sex became something else.” Like ropes. But there’s clearly some feeling going on here. I love this idea – that this is separated out so it doesn’t become embarrassing, and later events are separated out even more as his (justifiable) paranoia and fear grow.

The police, Hawthorn and Childs, bulldoze this tender pickpocket/driver into giving information about Mishazzo. It doesn’t seem like serious information, he tells himself. Not only is he not a crook, he’s not a snitch, either. A friend of mine enraged me a few months ago by talking about “the things we tell ourselves” and I think this is the story he is telling himself. An odd relationship develops between him and Hawthorn, the policeman he deals with most. Our non-violent narrator then commits some minor violence on Hawthorn, and ends up getting the worst of it himself. That, plus his increasing paranoia about Mishazzo being on to his relationship with the police, sends him running. At this point, I had an idea (hey, I’ve read too many thrillers) that the girlfriend was one of Mishazzo’s daughters. I was all set to be very disappointed with the story. But it surprised me.

Our tender pickpocket collects his girlfriend and they head off to Paris, or Spain, or Morocco, somewhere. On the train, he realizes he’s forgotten the book. This breaks his heart, and his girlfriend reveals she packed it. While that’s a good thing, it’s the realization that he forgot it that really bothers him. Which is a pretty sophisticated guilt for a tender pickpocket/driver/informant/fugitive.

There’s a lot beyond the plot that impressed me here. The style is quite nice. Each section starts of with short sentences then by the end there are some breathless stretches of words that work very well. It’s a nice rhythm. I’ve never been a huge fan of the current avoid-the-quotation-mark fad, but it also works here. And while the girlfriend is not a fully fleshed-out character, she’s enough. The pickpocket-with-a-heart-of-gold is kind of overdone, but I’m enough of a sap to enjoy it anyway.

I love the title as well. I had a hard time getting the title right; I kept reading it as “God Book” or just turning it into “Good Book”. But “Goo Book” is perfect. It isn’t used in the story at all, which is right; it just isn’t something either the pickpocket, however tender, or his girlfriend, however incompletely sketched, would say. But that’s exactly what it is. Turning that into the title, with the play on the Bible, is perfect.

BASS 2010: Karen Russell, “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach”

Faust's Homunculus

Faust's Homunculus, 19th century engraving, unknown artist

I’m not sure where the seagulls came from. In retrospect, it seems a little bonkers to have ever thought, “Of course, what this story needs more of are time-traveling seagulls!” Maybe for me the horror of the gulls has something to do with the fizzy sensation that many unseen forces must be altering our lives in the future. And the unsettling fact that things are going to happen to us and to our loved ones without any regard for our beliefs about what’s “meant to be.”

That isn’t from the story itself; it’s from the Contributor’s Notes, but it adds a flavor to the story that I sort of missed on first read. I have trouble seeing humor sometimes, when grimness is presented as humorous. In this story, there’s plenty of grimness, and, yes, humor as well. And seagulls. But you must’ve guessed that.

Nal is a very smart young teen whose life is unraveling bit by bit. His mother was fired from her job. This means Nal can’t go to the summer school program he’d qualified for, one that came with a promise of a college scholarship if all four summers are completed. His cousin Steve, as part of taking a mail order course (the story is set in 1979, pre-internet) from a beauty school, does awful things to his hair for practice, resulting in something like blue tentacles over his forehead. His brother Samson starts dating Vanessa, the girl Nal has adored from afar for a while now. Nal’s having a rough time. And then the seagulls arrive, lots of them, and they turn out to be scavengers who gather things, including a coin dated a couple of years in the future, and… a screw. This serves as a platform to dive into “fate” and how it gets meddled with and leads Nal to take matters more firmly into his own hands and get the girl for himself.

I was disoriented most of the way through the story because the aforementioned barber course was from Nevada, America, which meant to me the story didn’t take place in the US, but I didn’t pick up exactly where it did take place. Names like Nal (unusual but no discernable ethnicity for me), Samson and Steve were no help. Finally Whitsunday Island was mentioned which made me think Australia or New Zealand (it turns out to be the former). But for half the story, I didn’t know if “Nevada, America” was an ironic comment on how far out of touch they were, or if this was set in some strange imaginary world where Nevada seceded (it does dance the magical realism waltz), or something else, and it mattered to me. I should’ve looked up Atherton, which is in the first sentence of the story. But it isn’t like Atherton naturally leads one to think, “Oh, sure, that’s in Australia!” I am disappointed in my inability to shrug off the uncertain setting and proceed; I think I would’ve enjoyed the first read much more had I been able to do so. But I’m also disappointed that the writer didn’t think it important enough to work into the beginning of the story.

There was a lot about this I liked very much. In the opening scene, a seagull swipes Nal’s burger from between its bun while he’s occupied obtaining mustard, and he doesn’t realize it until he bites into the meatless bread. Then he’s at the beach at night writing poetry: “White gobs of gull shit kept falling from the sky, a cascade that Nal found inimical to his writing process.” Yes, I would think so. There are days I wish I could blame my lack of progress on seagull shit. The whole seagull trope – there’s a nest in the hollow of a tree where he finds all manner of things, some from the future – is wonderful, as is the entwined theme of fate and future. The circumstances surrounding the mother losing her job, particularly the media coverage, are well-played and both realistic and outrageous. Vanessa is just strange enough – her parents freaked out when she started to develop breasts, so to get them off her back she binds her chest with an Ace bandage, having learned of such a technique from Shakespeare’s Rosalind.

And then there’s Nal’s internal homunculus:

He felt incapable of spontaneous action: before he could do anything, a tiny homunculus had to generate a flowchart in his brain. If p, then q; If z, then back to a. This homunculus could gnaw a pencil down to a nub, deliberating. All day, he could hear the homunculus clacking in his brain like a secretary from a 1940s movie; Nal shouldn’t! Nal can’t! Nal won’t! and then hitting the bell of the return key. He pictured the homunculus as a tiny, blankly handsome man in a green sweater, very agreeably going about his task of wringing the life from Nal’s life.

I think I have one of those myself.

Overall, though, the story didn’t quite hang together for me. The parts were greater than the sum. But the parts were damn good, anyway.

Top Chef Masters, Season 3: Episode 1, Restaurant Wars

I’m not going to do full recaps of TCM for now: I’m just wasting too much time that I need for reading and writing. So I’m just going to make some general observations.

I recognize the names of about half of the twelve chefs, which surprises me since I haven’t been to a restaurant that didn’t involve ordering at a counter for at least five years. I’m watching way too much TV, cooking competitions in particular. I don’t even know where I know some of these chefs from, but the names and/or faces are definitely familiar.

For the opening episode, they stuck to familiar rounds. The Quickfire was a Chopped imitation, in pairs. Three of these people didn’t complete their dishes, and they only had two ingredients to work with, not three. They were strange (and randomly selected) combinations, of course: chicken liver and popcorn, cockles and marmite, frog’s legs and cottage cheese, canned corn beef and marshmallow. Traci Des Jardins, who I’ve seen several times somewhere, wins with “Two Salads” made with peanut butter and licorice.

The Quickfire pair winners make up one team (Mosaic), the losers the other (Leela), for Restaurant Wars. The losers team somehow declares Naomi Pomeroy their leader, perhaps because she’s seen Restaurant Wars before. But it’s odd since she is one of the chefs who didn’t finish her QF dish, and she comes up with an odd idea about seating all customers at the same time. I’m not sure how that’s even possible on Restaurant Wars, but she’s adamant. Nobody else thinks it’s a good idea, but that’s how it goes anyway. It pays off, since they win, but gee.

One chef I’m not familiar with is Suvir Saran, and I think he’s going to be either the funniest or the most annoying, maybe both. He’s there because he may have been bitten by a rabid dog. That’s pretty good. But he also talks about being a Master a lot. As in, he is not afraid of dessert, a Master has to take on all challenges. And while the young ones might overuse garnishes, a Master makes magic out of nothing. And also needing women to take care of him. We’ll see. I’m on the fence right now. But I’m suppressing a giggle.

Ruth Reichl is one of the critics. I just read her book Garlic and Sapphires about her years as the New York Times restaurant critic. It gave me a much greater appreciation of what a restaurant critic does, and it was very interesting as she would assume different personas, not just disguises, to dine undetected. I expected her hair to be much wilder, since it seemed to be a focal point of her book (she had trouble fitting it under wigs, for instance, and refused to cut it).

Traci Des Jardins looks pretty angry standing at the front desk shuffling menus. I mean I’d be scared to go up to her, even if I had a reservation and lots of money to spend.

Hugh Acheson is another familiar chef from I have no idea where who is kind of funny. He is the white swan, not the black swan. Speaking of white and black, once you get past Marcus Samuelsson, there just don’t seem to be any black chefs in America. At least none Bravo can find and persuade to come on this show. Back to Hugh Acheson, he also comments “Your hair looks nice” to another chef during service, and gets a wonderful WTF look for it. But he lost so he’s gone already. He served very salty scallops, though he doesn’t quite believe it. He blames it on Maldon salt which is very large-grained, apparently. Which makes things saltier? I’m being facetious. If it’s flaked salt, I understand that, actually, because I’ve used flaked salt and it is really hard to get right. Then again, I’m not a chef. I’m barely a cook. And I only used it once because it was in a friend’s cabinet. I’d think a Top Chef Master White Swan would have a better handle on fancy salt.

TCM has never done RW before. It’s kind of odd, it’s usually seen as a test of leadership and these people have pretty much proved themselves. It’s one thing to take a bunch of execs and sous and caterers, but these people have opened multiple restaurants. I noticed that they don’t bring the whole losing team to Judges Table; it’s a lot more civilized, they only bring the bottom two (Sue Ann Milliken and Hugh Acheson) so there’s no real opportunity for the traditional throwing-under-the-bus. And what’s really interesting is that the diners get to vote for the winning team, not the critics. In fact, the critics would’ve chosen Mosaic (the team of QF winners) as the winning team, but the diners chose Leela (QF losers) in spite of some problems the judges noted, such as raw lamb, a long delay between first and second courses, and a sticker from a piece of fruit in a dish. I’m thinking Naomi knew where to focus her efforts, and it wasn’t on the judges tonight.

On the Mosaic side, Mary Sue Milliken makes a Hostess Cupcake for dessert. I’m sure it’s better than an actual Hostess Cupcake but it looks just like one, complete with the white squiggle on top. She almost goes home because it’s dry, and they scold her for not making her signature cupcake (I gather she was famous for them once) the way she used to. First she blames the lack of unsweetened chocolate, then she blames the wind tunnel in the kitchen. I’m thinking it’s a metaphorical wind tunnel. Because it’d be really weird to have an actual wind tunnel in a kitchen.

Alex Stratta wins for his Fricassee.

Zachary Mason – “The Duel” from Tin House Issue #46 Winter 2010

Picasso, Portrait de l’homme à l’épée et à la fleur, 1969

Every night I meant to walk until I reached the top of the mountains, and every night I went farther, but in the end I always got exhausted and ended up sitting down on some stone high up in the mountain, looking down at Pasadena’s cold, banal glitter. I felt that I had, for a moment, escaped, and regretted that I had to go back, thinking that if I were just strong enough, I could reach the top of the range and then the next and finally find the high-desert of silver-blue dawns and a long road that led somewhere else.

Author Zachary Mason sounds like an interesting guy. He graduated from high school at 14 and started his doctoral work at age 19. He’s a computer scientist specializing in AI. He sent his first novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, to the New York Times Book Review inside a wooden Trojan Horse, made expressly for that purpose. He didn’t get a review out of it, but when he entered it into the New York Public Library’s Young Lions competition, he found himself not only a finalist, but hooked up with FSG. Not bad for a guy who avoided writing workshops. He describes his next project as “the imagined literature of artificial intelligence, like a fictive translation of the stories the machines tell themselves.”

“The Duel” follows a hollow CalTech senior from his expulsion from his family (following his declaration of atheism) to an affair with his best (and only) friend’s girlfriend to a fencing duel. The real thing, this duel, not the usual practice with suits and blunted edges. He does something I see as suicide by proxy (the duel being between him and life itself, I think, since he is so determined to ruin everything in his life, his relationships with his family and friends, his career, his conscience), then discovers his future isn’t as bleak as he’d imagined: he has a job offer and acceptances from top grad schools after all. But the duel, this violence, is central, and even the dean is intrigued and wants to know what was in his mind, because after all, civilized people just don’t go around slashing each other with swords. Epees, actually. He lives from regret to regret. It’s a kind of paean to anomie, this young man who knows he should not do all kinds of things (break into dorm rooms to look around at other peoples’ stuff, have the affair, sharpen the epees, pierce the flesh of his best/only friend) but does them anyway because, why the hell not, doing things and regretting them afterwards is the best of both worlds. I wonder if this is some kind of comment about atheism. And that kind of pisses me off, because I’ve known atheists who were decent, caring, compassionate people. But not this one. There are some amazing moments, the final scene is terrific, but I hate this character. Which is, of course, better than not caring.

In some ways, he seems to me to be the flip side of Critter from “To Psychic Underworld:”, which involves a young man dealing with heartbreak and also retreating into a kind of self-silence, but doing so without harming others along the way, and thus leaving bread crumbs for his soul to follow on the way back to humanity. I have no such hope, no such concern, for this dueler.

The Joy of Writing

Hello, I am Zin!

Hello, I am Zin! I am learning that I am not by nature a fiction writer. I am not that interested in stories, in characters, in plots and twists and conflict and rising action and dramatic tension and pacing.

I just want to write.

I had to write this (the piece that follows) last night. Then this morning I patched up the holes, and realized now I have to find a story to fit it into. I do not want to do that. I am done with it. It is not a story, it is not an essay. It is just something I wrote because I wanted to, I had to, and it felt terrific to write. I am not even sure I breathed as I was writing! But because there is no setting, plot, character, no thread, no construct, no beginning-middle-end, it is not “really” writing, it is just, well, I am not sure what it is, it is one of my 3 a.m. rants! But it is what I love to do. It is what I used to do daily, more than daily, before I decided to take another stab at fiction and started to study the details of how to write a story. I have not written like this in a long long time. It was glorious. But is it just self-indulgent literary masturbation? And if so is that wrong?

I am scared. Because instead of writing stories, I think I would rather just write. And, what is the use of that?

Do I want to work hard and write properly, or do I want to write joyfully? Is joy enough of a payoff?

And does this count in those edicts to write 500 (1000, 200, whatever) words a day? Or do those have to be submittable words?

# # #

I’m trying to teach my cat not to shit in the middle of the night. This isn’t just a parlor trick or some passing fancy, something with which to while away the time and recount to fill in awkward pauses at parties with something so arresting it would jar event he most jaded into consciousness (“Say, did you know it’s possible to train a cat to move its bowels at certain times of the day?” “Really? And how does one do that?”). It is instead a practical matter, as I am tired of being wrenched from my bed, on the verge of falling asleep (always on the verge, never there – in fact, I am beginning to suspect that the very vergedom of slumber triggers some kind of autonomic reflex that causes said cat to defecate at that particular moment) when I hear her pawing in the litter. Though experience has taught me otherwise, I lie there and hope, maybe, perhaps, surely this time her shit will not smell, as she scampers back into my bedroom via the couch, the bookshelf, sometimes the coffee table, the foot of the bed (I draw up my feet as soon as I hear her coming so I don’t get a random claw in a tender piece of sole), and the windowsill. A minute passes, two, and I start to drift off, thinking this miracle of fecal purity has occurred. And then it strikes me, the stench of a hyperthyroid gut emptied into a closed litter box in a bathroom fifteen feet down the hall. And I trudge up, scoop (sometimes I drop it, never a good thing, because that requires not only tearing off enough toilet paper to pick up the offensive particle to place it in the toilet, but also another piece of paper, dampened (after waiting for hot water, which can take up to a minute, a very long minute in the middle of the night) to wipe the floor of any smelly stickiness that might remain.

If this were the only problem that robbed me of sleep, I might be all right, for I could then go back to bed and continue the night’s session. But then there is the acid reflux. Not the polite kind seen in television commercials, where heartburn provides enough comic annoyance to provoke the purchase of expensive medicaments (which I have in abundance and take regularly). No, this kind of reflux is more virulent, and strikes me particularly when I lie on my left side (and it is so irresistible, to change position, isn’t it, the right sight gets worn out after a while and lying on the left means I face the window with it’s light and air) and means I wake with a mouthful of bile that has already gone into the back of my nose and my windpipe and I will spend the next hour hacking the bitter stuff out of all the wrong places. They don’t tell you that in the ads, that while the stomach acid is reduced, the bile still pours from the liver, particularly in those of us who have been relieved of our gallbladders and continue, against all medical advice, to eat batter-fried fish or cornbread with butter. I will smell it for hours, vomit in my sinuses, unless I put my head in the sink under a towel and run hot water to get the mucous moving freely. This is the reason I can no longer tolerate Parmesan cheese; it contains butyric acid, the substance that gives vomit its traditional smell, and I can not understand how gourmets everywhere praise something that smells like vomit as the noblest of cheeses. For me, I’ll stick with Havarti or Provolone and, when I’m feeling adventurous, Swiss.

And if my cat has already relieved herself and my bile is under control, there is still the brain that becomes problematic. Strange things I don’t normally think about become important in the wee hours. I think of a sentence I must write, which means getting it down (on paper if it is short, or, if longer, like these paragraphs, which I am writing at 4am, on my computer) before it turns to dust, another thought that glimmers like an oasis in the distance but is never reached. And topics I want to know more about, but forgot I wanted to know about during the hours when I could conveniently research them. Like spontaneous human combustion. It’s a documented phenomenon, not an urban myth, people do occasionally – exceedingly rarely, I’ll admit – burst into flames for no apparent reason and are consumed, leaving the chair upon which they sat or the bed in which they lay slightly singed but otherwise undisturbed. I want to know more about this, how many cases have been studied, how many turn out to be like crop circles, completely explainable by other means or downright hoaxes, and if there is any scientific explanation for these events. If I were curious about this at, say, ten a.m., it would be a simple matter to put aside my coffee or whatever memo I happened to be working on, and to google around until I had the information or at least ordered a book which claimed to contain the pertinent information. But when that thought starts at 3 am, it is as inescapable as the smell of hyperthyroid poop or bile in my nasopharynx, and I must understand it.

“Do you think you are going to spontaneously humanely combust?” a particularly stupid therapist once asked me. It wasn’t her fault; she was very young and very earnest, and still had the dream that if she could find the magic question, that single sentence that would reach into my psyche through decades of angst and despair, she would effect a miracle cure and I would leave the clinic happy, joyous and free, and she would be absolved of whatever crime she had committed long ago, in thought or deed, that sent her to not only plumb through the hideous depths of wretchedness for a living but called her to do so in a subsidized treatment center frequented by those who sought not insight, but sport.

# # #

Dan Chaon – “To Psychic Underworld:” from Tin House Issue #46 Winter 2010

Fragile Future – Electronics and Dandelions by Lonneke Gordijn

“He would never, ever have written a note for people to find lying around the library or on a sidewalk. It would have seemed grotesque to him. Maybe that was what bothered him so much about these things that he kept coming across. He had the image of his own personal thoughts softly detaching and being carried off by the wind like dandelion seeds, floating through the city. That was one of the things that grief felt like, he thought. Astral traveling, he thought.”

Critter’s a big, hairy, shy man who just lost his wife. He and his year-old daughter, Hazel, are living with his sister Joni since things have been pretty rough for him, just until he can get back to work as an electrician. But he keeps finding these notes. Notes left by strangers. There’s a dollar bill on the library steps, with writing around the edges: “I love you I miss you I send this out to you please come back to me….” And a poem on an index card just lying on the sidewalk: TO PSYCHIC UNDERWORLD: STOP ASTRAL TRAVELLING TO MOLEST/DECIEVE OTHERS (ANIMALS TOO). ANIMALS ARE NOT MADE OF HATE. CEASE AND DESIST. Now, this may seem strange, but his wife and his sister have lots of these types of things. They’ve been collecting them for years. So Joni shows him her collection, and he remembers some of the ones his wife had. He feels like he’s suddenly paying attention to something that’s been around the whole time: “as if he were some kind of long-dormant radio station that had begun to receive signals – tuned in, abruptly, to all the crazy note-writers of the world.”

It’s fitting that his wife was hit by a car as she was reading her students’ papers, and the papers flew all over the place as she was knocked down. It’s fitting that he deals with electricity, electrons passing from one atom to the next. And it’s fitting that he starts wondering what message the world is sending him, that he starts seeing messages where there are none (YARD SALE becomes YOU SUCK. Bird footprints in the sand look like letters. Brick walls, telephone wires, tree branches, all these become things people might be able to read. Other people. Not him. But he writes something on a dollar bill and lets it fly out the window…

It’s a beautiful little story, soft and gentle, and while there are hints of supernatural communication, they’re just hints. This might be a bit too sentimental for some, but there’s enough of a goofiness to it to keep it from wallowing. The ending allows me to take a little trip of my own. But just a little one. I kept thinking of the Post Secret site, and the Message Tree in Boston one First Night several decades ago, where I wrote something and hung it on a tree in hopes of a happy New Year. And Internet blogs where we all leave notes someone might read as they pass by. Because we’re all hoping someone is listening.