Kazuo Ishiguro: “A Village After Dark” from The New Yorker, May 21, 2001

George Rouault, "Take refuge in your heart, poor vagabond" (Miserere et Guerre series, 1914-1927)

I found myself walking forever around twisting, badly lit streets hemmed in on both sides by the little stone cottages characteristic of the area. The streets often became so narrow I could make no progress without my bag or my elbow scraping one rough wall or another. I persevered nevertheless, stumbling around in the darkness in the hope of coming upon the village square—where I could at least orient myself—or else of encountering one of the villagers. When after a while I had done neither, a weariness came over me, and I decided my best course was just to choose a cottage at random, knock on the door, and hope it would be opened by someone who remembered me.

Hello, I am Zin! In one of the offices I visit on Zoetrope (the online writing workshop I use), we have been looking at stories from various online sources until the New Year when we start BASS 2011 (by the way, Zoetrope is free and open to all, if you are a writer or just want to read great stories with some other people who like stories!).

Last week, the story was “A Village After Dark” by Kazuo Ishiguro. It is part of The New Yorker podcast series, so you can find it there both as a recording (read by Ben Marcus!) and as text (though I understand the text is just for a limited time)! I hope you will read or listen, because it is a good story and description can not convey how effective it is!

My immediate reaction to this story was: wow, this is just like The Unconsoled! I read that novel – a long novel! – a few years ago and loved it, it is the only Ishiguro I have read. As I understand it, his other fiction does not use this sense of unreality. But he is very good at it!

In the course of our discussion on Zoetrope, someone else told me he had written the story as practice for the novel! Well, that was interesting! She was not sure of the source of that info but thought it might be his Paris Review interview (“The Art of Fiction” #196).

While that article did not contain the quote about the similarity (I did find it, that is later), it did contain something very special about how he incorporated “dreamlike” aspects into The Unconsoled (and I would imagine into “A Village after Dark”):

I started to ask myself, What is the grammar of dreams? Just now, the two of us are having this conversation in this room with nobody else in the house. A third person is introduced into this scene. In a conventional work, there would be a knock on the door and somebody would come in, and we would say hello. The dreaming mind is very impatient with this kind of thing. Typically what happens is we’ll be sitting here alone in this room, and suddenly we’ll become aware that a third person has been here all the time at my elbow. There might be a sense of mild surprise that we hadn’t been aware of this person up until this point, but we would just go straight into whatever point the person is raising. I thought this was quite interesting. And I started to see parallels between memory and dream, the way you manipulate both according to your emotional needs at the time. The language of dreams would also allow me to write a story that people would read as a metaphorical tale as opposed to a comment on a particular society. Over some months I built up a folder full of notes, and eventually I felt ready to write a novel.

I find this an important new (to me) research technique: To make a list of the ways something can be done! Then there is a whole repertoire to pick and choose from when writing! And in the One Story interview with Seth Fried about his “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” which I found in Pushcart 2011 he talks about carrying a notebook as an undergrad when he was first working on the story, and it had a list of “Massacre” ideas – hot-air balloons, snakes in porta-potties, gorillas. The fun part of his story is that he then lost the notebook: “I spent the rest of that semester terrified of the possibility that someone would find that notebook and that I would be arrested for plotting to kill people by means of strategically set-loose gorillas.” It is the same idea, make a list of ways you could accomplish a story element, not just researching the weather in your location or historical events, and that seems to me to be something important and something I never thought of before!

The Ishiguro interview also had some very interesting biographical info – he spent time in Montana “riding the rails” – and he likes Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but admits, “Part of the appeal of Dylan and Cohen was that you didn’t know what the songs were about.” That makes me feel good: if he does not know what “Quinn the Eskimo” or “Suzanne” are about, it is not so bad that I do not! And the first story he ever wrote, when he was a kid, was about two cross-eyed lovers! This is amazing stuff! It does not sound like the stuffy British Japanese writer you would expect, does it? But it is!

But I still had to hunt for the source of the original info, that “A Village After Dark” was practice for The Unconsoled. And thanks to some determined googling, I found it! It is in a book by Sean Matthews and Sebastian Groes, Kazuo Ishiguro: Contemporary Critical Perspectives and parts are available on GoogleBooks:

…. Ishiguro’s fourth story, “A Village After Dark,” was never intended by the author to be an autonomous story. Rather, as Ishiguro explained in personal communication with me, it was written as an experiment geared towards working out certain narrative techniques he was exploring while writing The Unconsoled. Indeed, it is impossible to not to think of Ryder, the protagonist of that novel, when encountering Fletcher, the protagonist of “A Village After Dark,” who arrives in a generic English village to accomplish an unspecific but urgent and important task, and whose controversial (and perhaps guilty) past life in the village he (and we) can only vaguely infer and never clearly recall.

This is also a new idea to me, too, to use a short story as a way of testing out a structural or linguistic idea for a novel – and maybe only Ishiguro could write something as an exercise and have it appear in The New Yorker!

So thank you to the wonderful office at Zoetrope! I learn so much about stories and about writing this way! And it was a wonderful story!

The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs – Episode 1, “Primal: Heat and Meat”

You are going to eat my brain?

Or, “Neener, neener, Top Chef!”

Hello, I am Zin! And I will be your guide for The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs! I am not so sure about the Super Chefs part. It looks like they cleaned out the Food Network cabinets and poured all the loose chefs into this box where they can advertise their shows, like Chopped and those Impossible things, then had to add a few because they did not have quite enough for a whole series!

And those of us who know Top Chef well will recognize many heavy-handed interventions here. I do not believe any of this was accidental! For example: they timed this to start the same week as Top Chef Texas. Which is fine with me, the more the merrier! But the outcome of this show is pre-determined, I am sure. You do not make a high-priced casting decision based on the whim of a competitive reality show! Not even if you are Food Network, which makes many questionable decisions!

Alex Guarnaschelli is mostly known for Chopped, though she had a cooking show for a little while. I guess it did not do well, or she did not like doing it, because it only lasted a few months! She is best known for her fisheye! That is not a dish! That is Morimoto who plays with trout eyeball! When Alex tastes the dishes on Chopped, she looks up at the contestant and they can not tell if it is a “This is Great!” look or a “What the hell are you trying to pawn off on us” look! It is a really scary look! I think they prefer her as a judge than as a cook.

Robert Irvine is best known for being fired from Dinner Impossible for padding his resume to claim he cooked for the Queen of England when what he meant to say was he was in the British Navy, so in the same way everyone in the US Army serves the President as Commander-in-Chief, he cooked “for” the Queen. I guess. Then they decided that was a silly reason to fire him so they hired him back and gave him two more shows! As one of the contestants says, he is able to put together dinner for seven thousand using only a piece of string and a turnip! And he is trying desperately to be Gordon Ramsey with his recent Restaurant Impossible but even though they are both from Great Britain it is not quite working out that way. Not that Gordon Ramsey is anyone any sane person should aspire to be!

Anne Burrell is best known for being perennial sous chef for Mario Batali on Iron Chef (before they so cruelly cut him off). Oh, and she has a cooking show, Secrets of a Restaurant Chef, which is pretty good actually, if only she would just stop trying to be cute and saying “Thank you for coming” to every piece of garbage before she throws it out. She has also done Chopped All-Stars (and did very well) and has done Worst Cooks in America twice, winning both times, I think! She is made of camera presence! I think she is the best bet to win this! She can probably cook, too, since she does in real life take care of one of the many restaurants Mario owns!

Beau MacMillan has a restaurant in Scottsdale Arizona and somehow got onto an Iron Chef challenge (he beat Bobby Flay). He did Worst Cooks once, but I suspect they do not like his camera presence much because he has not been on other things and they would have him on if they liked him. I have no idea if he can actually cook. But he does have a restaurant so he must be able to do something!

Marcus Samuelsson is actually a very well-regarded chef with the James Beard awards to prove it! He is probably the best actual chef here! He has been judging Chopped, at least a few times, but he is best known (on TV) for winning Top Chef Masters #2 which probably means he is here to lose so Iron Chef can jump up and down and say “See, we are better than they are!” I like him very much, he is an Ethiopian-Swedish-American, how can you not like that? A black Swede? That is pretty cool!

Geoffrey Zakarian is often a judge on Chopped, and he has competed on Iron Chef and was in the Chopped All-Stars competition (he did not win but it was brave of him to do it). He is also bankrupt. Except being bankrupt these days is not like being bankrupt when I was a kid; back then you lost all your money. Now you file for bankruptcy protection so you get to keep your money and do not have to pay your bills. I do not understand this, but that is how the world works now. That is how the 1% stays the 1%. Anyway, Zakarian can cook. And I give him credit for actually cooking in the competitions instead of just sitting back and judging That is not fair, though: competition cooking on TV is not for everyone, and I am fully supportive of that, but if you are going to judge people, you should at least try it. Alex.

Chuck Hughes has a show on the Cooking Channel which is the poor relation of Food Network. He is French Canadian which probably has little to do with cooking but they said it a couple of times. He is innocuous. He is here as cannon fodder.

Elizabeth Falkner I know from the very first Top Chef when she was on the sexy dessert challenge, ah, those were the days, Miguel disgustingly shirtless! She says she is like punk rock only not as loud. I am not so sure about that! She is famous for cake making and pastry but she has a restaurant in addition to her cake store and has been on Iron Chef so she is versatile.

Michael Chiarello has cooking shows on every channel of the dial! Wow, is that an anachronism, there are no dials any more, but you know what I mean! He too was on Top Chef Masters! In fact I think he met Spike there – Spike and other Top Chef people were chosen as sous chefs, Chiarello kept checking to see if everyone knew how to pronounce his name, which no one really did, and if they knew how to chop carrots, which was pretty insulting. He got into it with Dale Tilde! But Dale Tilde was looking to get into it, so that is not on Chiarello! He is a bit of a blowhard though. Chiarello, not Dale. Dale is just a frantic kid trying to make a name for himself!

And of course there is Spike. I am not sure how he weaseled his way into this group. He manages to weasel his way into a lot of places. He claims he first made a splash on Top Chef. Yes, he did a face plant right into the shallow end of the kiddie pool. Spike is a legend in his own mind. Spike has two DC restaurants, he has been on Top Chef, so he has the CV but he is such a twit I am pretty sure he is here only so they can say “Look at how much better than Top Chef we are!” Which, by the way, is a joke, Spike or no Spike.

Alton Brown explains the new format for this season: a Chairman’s Challenge, followed by a Sudden Death Cookoff Secret Ingredient Showdown (I think they could not decide which one to call it) for the bottom two finishers, followed by an elimination. Maybe they got tired of being accused of copying Top Chef! Only because they were! But everyone does, after all, Top Chef invented the modern competitive cooking show, right after Project Runway invented the competitive reality show. May it rest in peace. Do not get me started on Project Runway. I am still a Bitter Kitten™ (thank you TLo).

They all choose a match. One of those long grill-lighting matches. Spike gets the red match. That means he gets an advantage: to pick his teammate for the Chairman’s Challenge, and he gets to assign the other teams as well.

Spike picks Marcus Samuelsson. And he makes his assignments:
Robert Irvine and Anne Burrell since they have all that competitiveness left over from Worst Cook and from Chopped All-Stars where Robert has lost to Anne Burrell over and over. Ouch!
Alex Guarnaschelli and Elizabeth Falkner: he thinks there will be friction. I am not sure why.
Michael Chiarello and Chuck Hughes, because the French and Italian cooks always butt heads. Chuck is French Canadian, and Michael is American, but I do not think Spike, or Food Network viewers, grasp fine points like that.
Beau MacMillan and Geoffrey Zakarian are paired because Zakarian is prim and Beau is rough and tumble. I think Spike is going to find himself punched in the face if he keeps saying things like this. Spike is reading a Food Network script on this, I am sure of it. Though it is dumb enough for Spike to say, so maybe not.

Alton tells them they will be doing a simpler style of cooking, back to basics: heat and meat. The challenge is resourcefulness. I think they need an editor. They seem to have multiple names for everything. This is the Heat and Meat challenge. It is the Resourcefulness challenge. It is the Primal challenge. And do not forget, after this, there is the Sudden Death Cook-off Secret Ingredient Showdown. Please, people! Pick one! All of them are equally stupid so it does not matter which.

Wow, I have become Mean! And it is all because of Heidi!

Back to the task at hand: they will go into the wilderness. Maybe they will get lost and they will hire a new cast member through the usual audition process? No such luck! They will have access to wood. They will each have a pig. They will have 90 minutes. They will have pantries. Then will have grills and pots and things. And they must cook two dishes for the judges. The bottom team will do the Secret Ingredient Showdown, and the team mates will become competitors! Aha!

Things happen. Beau twists his ankle running. Zakarian builds a fire because he has four fireplaces in his house (maybe he would not be bankrupt if he had a smaller house). Robert Irvine steals the kindling. Spike gets “pure water” from a very brown lake (I am sure it is a very pretty lake in person, but it looked pretty rank on TV). Ears, tails, cheeks, tongue, brains, kidneys are used. Chuck Hughes talks about pig brains having a creamy voluptuousness, which is ironic timing since at the same time on another channel Hannibal Lecter is eating FBI brains (it is Halloween weekend, after all). Michael Chiarello says he saw some wild hyacinth, so he runs off to get that and comes up with wild mustard greens and flowers. I do not believe this was a coincidence, I think a producer said, “Hey, guys, over there, there’s some wild mustard greens.” I do not know what happened to the wild hyacinth, or why hyacinth would interest a chef anyway. But it is never mentioned again!

The judges are:
Michael Symon, Iron Chef, who appreciates creativity and presentation but wants taste to be first;
Simon Majumdar, who also thinks Taste is primary.
Judy Joo from Iron Chef UK (oh, for the old days, no one cheesed up Iron Chef like the original), who thinks taste is the third consideration but wants at least twelve foodgasms during this series. She is obviously the Paula Abdul of this panel. It is a tough job but someone has to do it. Is it too much to ask that they have someone other than the woman play the nitwit?

Because they have thrown in a Michael Chiarello and a Michael Simon and a Simon Majumdar, I am going to use initials for the judges, it makes it easier! Though that leaves me with MS and SM, but we will have to live with that, because I will not keep typing out full names! As for chefs, I see I am being inconsistent with using first or last names, but that is how it is, deal with it! (Heidi, how could you do this to me?). Maybe I will not mention them at all, how about that!?!

Anne and Robert: First dish, braised pork belly and pork cheek over sweet potato and shallot puree topped with asparagus and rhubarb spring onion salad. Second dish, pork leg porchetta rubbed with garlic and herbs, and a shaved artichoke salad. It goes over well except the pork skin on the porchetta is not crispy enough.

Spike and Marcus: first, pork stew; second, honey orange glazed pork ribs and citrus salad with apples, mint, and rhubarb. The stew does not have enough flavor, and needs something with crunch; the ribs are good but there is no meat on them – JJ calls them anorexic and SM says they are supermodel ribs. MS says eating them is aggravating. When eating ribs is aggravating, you know you have not done a great job. I wonder where they got these pigs. Were they on sale?

Zakarian and Beau: First, pork shoulder with barigoule (artichokes with vinegar and grilled pears). Second, spit roasted leg over scalloped salsify with rhubarb-raspberry sauce and pickled kidney. Good reception, SM thinks maybe too much is going on but execution is great, everyone loves the barigoule. I do not think I have ever encountered baragoule before, so I am happy to have learned something! Zakarian gets a point from me! But he will not be The Next Iron Chef, I do not think, I doubt they want a prim old man (Spike called him prim and he called himself old).

Chiarello and Chuck: First, crispy pig ear salad. Second: Grilled pork chop with duxelle of pig brain, potatoes and pork belly. Simon wanted more pig ear in the pig ear salad, it was more of a garnish, and felt the chop was undercooked, but appreciated resourcefulness, and others liked both dishes.

Alex and Falkner: first, pig four ways, and it is very complicated, so I will leave it at that. Mushrooms with pig ear, jowl with strawberry rhubarb, kidney with tarragon. Second: pork belly and roasted leg with spiced maple glaze over succotash of celery root and rutabaga with black truffle. The first dish was terrific, the second was not very good at all.

Alex worries. “Are you going to get a bowl of popcorn and watch TV with your friends and family if you’re on for one episode?” Not?

Zakarian/Beau, and Chiarello/Chuck, are the top teams. In the end, Zakarian/Beau win for the barigoule. They will have an advantage next week.

Spike and Marcus are the bottom team. Marcus says, “Spike is a wonderful kid, a wonderful cook, but now he goes from my teammate to my enemy.” Spike says, “Sometimes having the advantage comes back to bite you in the ass.” He knows all about that. On Top Chef Season 4, he had an advantage for a lunch challenge – he could pick things that no one else could use – and he picked chicken, bread, lettuce, and tomato so no one else could make a sandwich or salad. While others made great stuff like Italian Wedding Soup he made a mediocre chicken salad and would have lost if goofball Andrew had not decided to put pretend rice in his dish (it is a long story, there was a tattler and a fight, it was very Dramatic but pretty stupid). See, this is not by accident. This is a shout-out to Top Chef fans! Though we Top Chef fans are watching this as comic relief, not as a cooking show (with the exception of the barigoule which is actually a type of mushroom that lends its name to the dish – proving you can learn from anything if you try hard enough!)

Alton shows them two trays, one covered with red cloth, the other with black. He tells them, one is a trick, one is a treat, and as a team they have to decide which. These are stupid decisions, because it is all random. so they pick and they get diver scallops instead of canned tuna, which is good! And I do not for a minute think it was by accident either! Spike has a history with scallops! They would have to be frozen to make it perfect, but scallops, that is good enough. Someone is toying with us!

Marcus makes a duo of scallop: one is in corn miso soup, and one is seared with porcini, on a puree of celery, apple and corn. Everyone loves both dishes, though SM thinks the presentation on the second could be better.

Spike makes scallop Soffritto; he purees sauteed veggies, squid head, and scallop to make the sauce, and grates liquid nitrogen-frozen roe over the top. They all think it was very good.

SM sums up his opinion: he was impressed with the dish Marcus created but he enjoyed eating the one Spike made. In the end, Marcus wins, and Spike is out.

This is not a surprise; it is a poke in the eye of Top Chef! And no one can convince me it was not planned out exactly that way! In fact, I would not be surprised if Spike was in on it, and agreed to play the role! And he chose Marcus so Top Chef Master could be in the bottom two! I suspect Marcus and Chiarello will be out fairly soon, just because they are Top Chef Masters people (they are Food Network people now so they have to be treated with some respect by the show).

I think Anne Burrell will end up as the next Iron Chef. Because they need a woman to replace Cat Cora, and they need an Italian chef to replace Mario Batali. And she has the kind of goofiness they like on Food Network. She has been Camera Ready for years.

One thing is sure: they know already who will win. Just like Food Network Star, this is not a real competition; these people are known quantities, they know who they want in Kitchen Stadium, and everyone else is there to provide window dressing while they build a following and sell some advertising and promote everyone who has a Food Network show!

Pushcart 2011: Hari Kunzru, “Memories of the Decadence” from PEN America and Mute Magazine

At the beginning of the Decadence it was easy. Although we were bored, and though everything had been done before, we were seized with a peculiar sense of potential. Our anomie had something optimistic to it. This was the golden age of our decline.

This is the story of a fictional (sort of) series of fads and obsessions which occurred during the fictional (sort of) Decadence. One fad he left out is the one in which everyone writes stories about quasi-fictional alternative presents in second person plural.

Maybe I’d be more swept away if I hadn’t just read Seth Fried’s “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” which I loved, by the way. And I truly enjoyed “Memories of the Decadence” too. If I’d read them in a different order, perhaps I’d feel differently. But as is, it just felt a little “been there, done that.” Or like it’s trying just a little too hard to be, you know man, like, relevant.

Not that it isn’t really, really good. See for yourself – you can read it on Hari Kunzru’s website (which is worth looking at for a whole bunch of other things), or at PEN/American Center (it was published in the “Fear Itself” issue), or at Mute (in slightly different form). I love that it’s so accessible, maybe because the author believes in it. And it’s quite short, and readable. And I couldn’t be more on his side in his exposition of the lemming nature of people or the shallowness of our obsessions. Not to mention his journalistic observations of recent events.

I suspect, however, that I’m missing some of the brilliance of the work because I can’t really attach the philosopies to the fads in the story. I can recognize Myspace/Facebook (I’ve always found it strange that at the same time people are screaming about privacy while putting naked pictures on the Internet), and Aristotle. But I just don’t have the juice in my synapses to see an overall pattern. My impression is, things were moving backwards, actually, and the end point of the story is pretty much the 50s. But I admit, it’s over my head.

I trust the source, though. And it is a great read, even for those of us on the lower levels. Even though it’s been done before, it has a peculiar sense of potential… Oh! Did I just get it?

Top Chef Texas – Preview

It’s time to shake off the stench of what Project Runway has become, and dive back into Top Chef. Tom: don’t make me regret it.

I’ve seen the ads that proclaim 29 chefs – TWENTY FRIGGIN’ NINE – will start the competition. I’m relieved to discover that Episode One will feature a massive cut down to a more manageable number (about half, per the interview with LA Weekly’s blog). Whew. Of course, that’s kind of like how PR started the season, too… no, no, gotta thing positive. Stop comparisons! It’s hard to resist, it’s only been a couple of days and I’m still traumatized. I’ll get better, I promise. Anyway, the idea is to see more behind-the-scenes of the casting process. From the tv promo I’ve seen – they guy who tries to skate past by declaring to Tom, “I’m a chef, not a butcher,” it looks like a lot of fun. For the viewers, at least. For the chefs, tripping over their own nerves and/or incompetence, not so much.

Per the same interview, there’s a new component to the show: “Last Chance Kitchen” where eliminated contestants can cook for their competitive lives to get back on the show. Footage will only be shown online. I can just hear Jen screaming, “Why didn’t you have that during All Stars?” In fact, I wonder if that, and some other very difficult cuts they’ve had to make (the James Beard nominee who was cut in the first episode of the DC season, for instance… yeah, I’m still pining after Dreadlocks) inspired the idea, or if they just wanted to add a new element to prevent the show from becoming stale. We’ll see.

Texas makes me think lots of Tex-Mex, and lots of meat (steaks, bbq). I’m guessing some Gulf seafood will make its way onto the show, as well as some good old-fashioned Southern and Creole fare. I hope they don’t do another Cowboy Cookoff. I remember seeing a very foodie-intense show about Austin somewhere – Bourdain, maybe? – that featured a tiny restaurant with a cutting-edge menu. And I’m sure there’ll be stuff that has nothing to do with Texas. I just hope it has nothing to do with Rick Perry, either.

The Bravotv website lists Emeril Lagasse and Hugh Acheson (from Top Chef Masters) as judges. Hugh has a very distinct sense of humor; this could be fun. And of course, I’ll have to brush up on my unibrow lore. Wasn’t he just a judge on Just Desserts? Was that training? Or has he decided he likes the spotlight better than the kitchen? As for Emeril – he can try all he wants, but I don’t think he can’t undo the persona he created for the Food Network. To me, he’ll always be an idiot who can’t manage to say “www.foodnetwork.com.” Even with cue cards. Even though he was reasonably informative during the New Orleans finale event. No matter what, even if he enumerates precisely and cleverly the failings or magic of a dish, I’ll always see him going, “BAM!”

Bravo has the casting videos here. Since half of them aren’t really on the show, I’m not going to bother until after it narrows down a little.

See you Wednesday!

BASS 2011: Tom Bissell, “A Bridge Under Water” from Agni

The Bone Chandelier at the Sedlec Ossuary

She had plunged her fork exactly ten times into her strawberry risotto and taken two birdfeeder sips from the glass of Gewurtztraminer that her waiter (a genius, clearly) had recommended pairing with it. She glanced up and smiled at him (more or less) genuinely. The man put away everything from foie gras to a Wendy’s single with the joyless efficiency of a twelve-year-old. He never appeared to taste anything. The plate now before him looked licked clean. When he return-serve smiled, she tried not to notice his red-pepper-and-wine-stained teeth or the breadcrumbs distributed throughout his short beard. They were sitting on the AstroTurfed outdoor patio of an otherwise pleasing restaurant found right behind the American Embassy in Rome. They had been married for three and a half days.

I very much admire this story. That isn’t the same as liking it, but it’s a good thing in its own right.

Whenever a famous author gives one of those “How to Write” talks, she’ll say something like, “Make each word count.” Kurt Vonnegut insisted every sentence had to advance plot or reveal character. I’ve never been so aware of that advice as I was reading this story. Every sentence, every word, means something. By the second page, I felt like I knew these people inside and out. Turns out, I didn’t know the half of it. Which is good, too, because if you know everything you need to know by the second page of a twenty-two page story, that’s twenty pages of thumb-twiddling.

It’s information-dense. I am an underliner (which is why I enjoy reading bought books so much more than library copies) and most stories get an underline or two per page. This story is more underlined than not. Every phrase says something about these people, their situation, how it’s come to this, where it might go from here. And beautifully, too.

Look at the paragraph quoted above, the second paragraph of the story. The woman (the characters aren’t named in the story) seems a bit OCD, maybe has an eating disorder – counting fork plunges, birdsips, fretting over a crumby beard. Who plunges a fork, anyway? Put a fork in it ’cause it’s done? Plunging the knife? A more sexual plunging? It’s not a neutral verb. The genius waiter – what a generous description for someone who probably has a memorized list of wines to push with certain dishes. And the man – voracious, but soulless. And sloppy. The smile they exchange – that “return-serve smiled” is great phrasing; smiles of obligation, concentration, will, rather than joy or intimacy. We learn they’re in Rome. Well, that puts a spin on things. Then the last sentence slams down like a hammer: they’ve been married three days.

Who return-serve smiles at their spouse on their honeymoon?

Such artfully created tension begs for an explanation. We find out a few other things in these opening two pages (one and a half, actually). The big issue at the moment is: should they sightsee at another church, or at a museum? She’s still examining him and finding flaws everywhere: his eyes are hard, he overslept while she hadn’t slept at all (when honeymooners are on different sleep cycles, it can’t be good), his shirt is open too much for her tastes. Shopper’s remorse? They discuss the bone church they’d seen the day before, a church made of the bones of the monks who’d lived there over the ages. This is such a startling, loaded image, I had to pause and think about it for a while.

It’s true, you know. There is such a crypt. Several, in fact, and the one in Rome may not even be the most elaborate (I’d put my money on the Sedlec Ossuary in Czech Republic, pictured above). And Tom Bissell (who writes more nonfiction than fiction) should know. He’s just completed a 1500 page nonfiction manuscript about the final resting places of Jesus’ apostles. And here I thought it was creepy that the church where I used to sing had the ashes of a reknowned former organist embedded in the wall of the choir loft (not to mention a Revolutionary War cannonball in the chandelier. I guess I should be glad it’s not bones).

Anyway, the story. Turns out she is three months pregnant, which adds a whole new layer to things. They’d also had a major issue the night before – I’m not sure “fight” is the right word – because she, being Jewish, wants her baby to know s/he is a Jew and what that means. She is pretty much a-religious at this point; Hebrew school made little impression on her; but she wants things to be different for the next generation. He, on the other hand, is a steadfast atheist who finds such a proposal offensive.

It’s an interesting issue to have come up on a honeymoon.

A sexual encounter loaded with symbolism, a synagogue tour that becomes complicated, and that’s pretty much the story. The bare bones of it, anyway. I’m beginning to appreciate the truism that a great story can’t be summarized. Because there’s so much more, and every detail counts. I really, really admire this story.

But did I like it? Hmmm. Let’s look at the signs:

- I took a lot of breaks while reading it. To change the cat’s water, make myself another cup of coffee, brush my teeth. But that isn’t a bad thing. A lot of that was just sensory overload rather than avoidance; like I said, it’s information-dense, and just about every paragraph has something I want to think about.

- Do I want to read it again? Maybe, but not right now. It’s not an easy, quick read, though it’s very accessible and the story itself is great. There’s humor in it (the above quote is pretty hilarious to me, actually, once I figured out what was going on). The author admits the two main plot points are taken from his own life. He wrote the story “to determine why I can sometimes be an insufferable dick.” It’s very brave of him, to make himself the villain. And I admire – again – that he was able to write the observer point of view so extraordinarily well, without including all those little justifications we make for ourselves when we’re being dickish and we know it.

- Do I want to read more by this writer? Yes, in fact, I do. He has a book of short stories (God Lives In St. Petersburg And Other Stories which I have put on my library list. That isn’t quite the same as ordering Seth Fried’s The Great Frustration right after having read “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” but it’s more than I do for a lot of stories.

So I liked it, yeah, I did. But I really, really admired it.

Project Runway Season 9 Episode 14: Finale (the Final Finale, that is)

It’s different this time.

Last season, I was shocked, horrified, outrage, fading to confused, disappointed, sad. Any way I looked at it, it was a travesty.

This season – well, what did you expect? She’s gonna make herself – and Heidi – a bunch of money in the next year or so. And that’s what it’s about.

You want art, go to an art gallery. This is Lifetime.

Did you think they could pass up the exotic multi-ethnic beauty queen from Trinidad with the slightly sordid past (which could easily be turned into a betrayal of a trusting soul, with the right lighting and background music) who’s got a firm handle on camera presence and spin, who knows how to play the plucky “I’m in trouble now and I’m going to have to work my way out of it in a period of time no mere mortal could possibly manage” character and when to trot out the tears and the dead brother on her wrist?

It isn’t like last season. There was no Mondo here. I actually felt sorry for Joshua at several points tonight, because he really thought he had a shot. He had a moment or two. But those neon-green laced-leg shorts? Come on. I really felt sorry for Viktor, who indeed can sew and tailor and has produced most of the few looks I’ve liked this season. But he doesn’t really capture the imagination either; he makes clothes I would’ve worn back when I cared about clothes (that’s why fashion is a youngster’s game, as you get older, you realize there’s so much more important than the perfect little black dress). And he is a little old lady in so many ways. Kimberly, I feel most for. I liked her designs the least, but I get her, I think. And I hope she does become the first breakout mainstream black designer. I think it’s never been clearer that America might be ready for a black man in the White House, but not for a black woman in their closets. But keep going, Kimberly, and maybe they will be some day.

None of them ever had a shot.

I had moments when I thought they might. When Anya brought out her awful satin gown and ridiculous wool bathing suit last week. I knew, in my heart of hearts, it was the same “oh no I’m in trouble” that they’ve pulled on us over and over again this season, that she would triumph. When Tim came in with $500 and no strings on how it could be used, that settled it. In that moment, Anya won. They didn’t even need to bother with the runway show.

It’s not Anya’s fault. She’s not Gretchen, not nearly. There was none of the supercilious, “I think his collection looks like student work” or “I know in my heart I was meant to be at Fashion Week with you.” The worst you can say about her is that she decided when it was time to stop helping each other, and that just happened to be at the moment she didn’t need help but others did. And I give her credit for helping Kimberly when Kim lost her “kit.” I mostly give her credit for realizing she had to do that. And of course Lifetime gets credit for knowing to catch it on tape and broadcast it.

I give Anya credit for a lot of things. Putting her hands in a vat of black dye. Climbing on a table to cut fabric. Stomping on The Roach That Terrorized The Workroom. Knowing how to spin a sex tape.

Just not for being good enough to be a contestant on the Project Runway I knew and loved.

She’s good enough for Lifetime Project Runway, though. In fact, she’s good enough to win it.

Need I say more?

Pushcart 2011: Caitlin Horrocks, “Steal Small” from Prairie Schooner

“You need one of those shots?”
“Tetanus? I’m fine,” he said, but there’s no way of knowing with Leo if he meant fine because he’d had one or fine because fine’s what you are when you don’t think too much about yourself, about how you’re really doing and what you really need. We’re both of us fine most of the time.

There are people in this world who go around picking up “free to good home” dogs, and, occasionally, “found” dogs, if they can spin a line smoothly enough, to sell to laboratories and pharmaceutical companies for research purposes if they have a Class B Dealer license from the USDA or know someone who does.

There are people in this world who remember once when they were kids stealing a stick of butter, a teaspoon of baking soda, and an egg, to make cookies, and how the shopper who caught them (a woman with a cart full of Hi-C and fruit snacks) did not turn them in but did not help them either.

There are people in this world who zap 3200 cows between the eyes every workday, one very nine seconds on the slaughterhouse assembly line, and are the only thing keeping those cows from being butchered alive.

There are people in this world who work at Goodwill putting donated toys in plastic bags for two weeks to suffocate the lice, checking the inside of women’s pants for bloodstains.

There are people in this world who claim to be locked out of their garages to get little girls to “rescue” them, then reward the children with popsicles so they’ll do it again the next day.

There are people in this world who as kids used to hide in old-fashioned refrigerators, the kinds with the door latches that couldn’t be pushed open, because it’s better than “rescuing” the neighbor from the garage again, and now they go to college and study biology.

There are people in this world who want to let the “found” dog loose before it gets delivered to the Class B dealer but know it wouldn’t do any good so they endure the howling for a week and sleep better when its gone.

There are people in this world who sign letters, “love and squalor” and who become experts in somber truths at a very young age.

There are people in this world – and Caitlin Horrocks is such a person – who write about such people in a way that makes you love them, because you realize we are all being tempted into the garage with popsicles all the time, and we all hide in different kinds of refrigerators.

So I refuse to wish Leo nice, or the dogs free, or my sister happy, or myself forgiven, or much of anything all that much different than it’s likely to get. I just won’t wish them, and then when they all don’t happen, it won’t mean a thing to me. If this is what I get in the world, I’ll take it. Love and squalor, but mostly love. I’ll take it and I’ll take it and I will not be sorry.

Benjamin Solomon: “Who Cycles Into Our Valley” from One Story #154, 9/10/11

Art by Coco de Paris, "Vintage Men on Vintage Bicycle"

So momentarily connected are the father and son that both instinctively know the other is just about to speak, and yet neither produces an utterance, patiently awaiting the words of the other, and then like strangers on a sidewalk attempting to pass one another but veering in the same direction, both father and son find themselves a little jarred by the unexpected silence, and each thereafter feels suddenly bereft of what he was planning to say, though just now it had been on the tip of his tongue. And like that the moment passes, the road inclines, and they begin to pedal hard against the steepness.

It’s funny how my reading seems to run into clusters. A couple of weeks ago, I ran into two pieces from very different sources that involved Huntington’s Disease within a matter of days. And now, in the space of a few days, I’ve encountered two explorations of the multi-generational parent-child relationship through a road trip. And, they are both from One Story, though I discovered “Housewifely Arts” through BASS 2011.

This story is about fathers and sons. It’s a meditative story. The “action” is merely the pair riding through a road in Spain on a tandem bicycle. A very prominent narrator tells the story, switching between father and son POVs. It’s made up of the memories and feelings the sparse action evokes. Father (the characters are not named) is divorced, his wife having declined to come to Spain: “She had arranged it so that, physically at least, he had been the one to leave her.” Son is involved in his own troubled relationship: the dog his girlfriend brought home died, and “his very first feeling, before sadness, had been relief because there was now one less thing that tied him to her.” But he has other worries: “…he is pretty sure she only pretended to swallow the morning-after pill they agreed she would take three weeks ago.…”

The climactic scene, if such a story can be said to have a climax, comes when father and son trade places on the bicycle; son moves to the front seat, and they move forward, with Son “realizing that all along the father’s job was harder than his own…..” This scene culminates in a beautiful final paragraph:

….for the second time today our cyclists arrive in a place of remarkable unity, an alignment so close that for the briefest moment neither man remains himself, but seeps free from his skull into a thoughtless will that hovers just above their bodies as they hurdle down the hill. Both feel it, the single-minded disembodied stillness in the relentless rushing, a sensation so delicate it vanishes at the moment of perception, and when it leaves both experience the same unsettling feeling of having somehow returned to the wrong body, our son within the father and our father in the son…. It is a feeling that will trouble them for years to come….

In his Q&A interview with One Story, the author describes writing 55 “distinct drafts” of the story over six years. He describes his biggest challenge: “Figuring out that nothing needed to happen. I wrote drafts and drafts of this story in which different things happened—everything from flat tires, to long and tense conversations, to a major crash that kills both bikers. All of that had to go when I finally realized that a central feature of long-distance cycling is silence and the opportunity for memory and rumination that it provides. Once I made the choice to sacrifice surface plot for memory and introspection, the current story began to take shape.”

It’s a lovely story, full of richness as we trace the relationship of father and son through their memories, and see how much alike they are, and how different. The elements of connect and disconnect are wonderful. Again, from the author’s interview: “I think that in the same way that the tandem bicycle gave me a physical vehicle to express the characters’ interdependence, the expatriate identities helped me express something about their shared loneliness and sense of disconnectedness from their loved ones.”

I’m a little worried, though. Much of my reading is in service of my writing. I’ve been trained over the past few years to avoid the whole “man sits on a rock and thinks about the end of the world” thing (I actually wrote that story. ICBMs are headed his way, and the military general sits on a rock smoking a cigarette thinking about his family and the world. I took a lot of grief for that one. Little did I know, I should’ve put him on a bicycle). Is this a new trend? Was I ahead of my time? Is my grasping for plot – a task I’ve abandoned recently as I’m not very good at it – a waste of time? Do I need to learn how to do the internal piece better, rather than to stop doing internal stories?

Not sure. But I know I’m fiercely jealous of Benjamin Solomon for writing a story I wish I’d written.

The Sing-Off 2011 Episode 6: Hip Hop

Really?

Really?

Hello, I am Zin! I do not know much about hip-hop, but every time I hear something I find out is hip-hop, I like it! I have a feeling most of these groups are going to struggle, except for Urban Method because their specialty is hip-hop!

Eight groups left! They will perform in brackets of four, and the lowest group in each bracket will get together at the end to compete on the same song (“Just a Dream” by Nelly), just the two of them. So only one group will be eliminated tonight. It is good they have a second chance on this particular genre since it is so unfamiliar to most of them!

The opening number is very good, “Nothing on You” by B.o.B./Bruno Mars. I like that some of the duets were people from different groups. I never heard the song before but I liked it very much!

Dartmouth Aires – “Club Can’t Handle Me” by Flo Rida. They have not done hip-hop at all before! Clark says the problem is that most hip-hop has only four chords. Henry will do the rapping, and he has only done rap once before.
Me: [note: I make my comments while watching, before I hear what the judges say; I clean them up before posting but do not change them, unless I can not remember what OKREwjh means!] Boy, they went for it! It was definitely Ivy League white boy New England hip-hop but they did something with it. And of course it helps that they have a lot of singers! But good job!
Sara: swagger. Great energy, they enjoy what they are doing. It felt a little chaotic and rushed at the start, but they got into it. Fun to watch.
Shawn: first prime-time network show to have a whole episode of hip-hop. Henry did a great job rapping, flowing, like a pro.
Ben: great unison at the top with Clark and Michael. Turned into a polka at one point, so that makes them the first prime time network show to have polka hip-hop. But they got it together at the end. Lots of fun and last note was really good.

Afro Blue – “Killing Me Softly” by the Fugees with some of the original Roberta Flack as well. They do not do hip-hop either so they are sticking mostly to the Roberta Flack version. [For the record: The song was inspired by Don McLean, one of my idols from my angst-ridden adolescence so I have always been very fond of this song. I have never, however, heard of the Fugees or their version, so I am scared!] Roberta Flack was an alumna of Howard University.
me: Wow, I did not expect to like that but it was very very good! I have not been enthusiastic about the jazzy sound they do but this was great! I am not sure it was very hip-hop though!
Ben: He tries to rap with Nick; I think he should keep his day job! Gorgeous performance, Reggie was great, Christy in lead was beautiful.
Sara: This showcases how intricate and important a capella is. Great rendition of both versions, melded beautifully.
Shawn: Roberta Flack would be proud. Reggie is not just the bass, he is the foundation. Christy makes singing look fun. Very impressive.

The Collective – “Give Me Everything” by Pitbull/Ne-yo. They are about soulful southern and the song is a club song, about having fun and popping bottles but they are in bed by 10pm.
Me: the rapper was a little off, kind of self-conscious. The opening was almost choral. Oh, Ruby, no no no! I can not understand why the judges like Ruby so much, she is the only person on this show in three years who has a voice I find really unpleasant! Plus she sounded like she was forcing. The arrangement was odd, like everything was in octaves or something, I am not sure.
Shawn: he likes that they let their hair down, some spots in the middle lost the groove though they got it back. The song did not give them much music to play with. They did harmonize well. Good job.
Sara: Ambitious, went for it, fluctuations in rhythm.
Ben: David was “wicked awesome” rapper. Started with their strength, that big choral blast, nailing the blend, he loves their personality but they needed more rhythmically.
They are in trouble, weakest so far.

Vocal Point: “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy [it is a take-off on "Every Breath You Take" by the Police but redone in memory of another recording artist who was murdered]. They do it for Ben, who lost his father. Oh no. This does not sound like a good idea to me. Ben will do the lead. That sounds like a terrible idea to me!
Me: It was nice, very moving because of the situation with Ben, I like they take their hats off, and Ben did an excellent job, but it was not hip-hop. It was their weakest performance. They have done really well until now and I hope this will not knock them out!
Shawn: Your father is looking down and smiling. They took the song and made it their own (stop doing that!). There were some key issues, maybe because of the emotion.
Sara: It was brave to choose something that emotional. It was an illustration of music transcending genre, they did it justice. First time they have had pitch problems..
Ben: beautiful, they may be the first group to make him cry. Even though Ben is a baritone, he has a beautiful tenor. Moved.
They may be in trouble.

Decision on first four:
Afro-Blue and Dartmouth Aires are safe. Aha, they judges love the Collective and Ruby, it must be Vocal Point, which is a shame because they have done so well.
But no, Vocal Point is safe, and The Collective will go to the final showdown. This is a surprise! But I am very glad, and I think it is right!

The second bracket performs.

Urban Method: They started with “California Love” but it was not working, so they switched to “Airplanes” by B.o.B./Hayley Williams which translates better to a capella. They feel a lot of pressure, since hip-hop is their thing and if they do not knock it out of the park they have failed.
Me: Cool cricket! Great metronome! I love these guys! I have never heard that song before but it sounds wonderful! It was not their best, not stand-up-and-scream great, but good.
Shawn: Myke, so focused; girls doing lead could have been stronger. Wanted to feel more, but always enjoy their performance.
Ben: brilliant. Build tension before passing it off to Myke. Liked harmony with girls. Sung part at beginning great, but backups too close to melodies; held groove, nobody missed the band, great.
Shawn jumps back in to give a shoutout to Richard for the crickets. Sara says, “Oh, I wanted to say that!” Shawn says, well, go ahead.
Sara: props to Richard for cricket! [it was awesome!] She also wanted more from girls. Myke is a superstar, compelling to watch. [I agree]

Pentatonix: “Love Lockdown” by Kanye West. They will not be rapping.
Me: Wow, they were great! Terrific effects, powerful vocal. Best of the night.
Sara: You feel it in the room when they get into the sweet spot, they delivered. They know how to push the genre to the edge. Scott, power is knowing when to use power, and it is very effective.
Ben: Primal. Kevin still looks pissed off [that is funny, I was thinking that while they were singing, I could not tell a friend of mine about this because she would complain they look angry, I guess that is part of the song]. Mitch, descending violin great. Nice work.
Shawn: Risk takers, worked in their favor. Good job. He blathers a while without really saying anything. Maybe filling time?

Delilah: “How to Love” by Lil Wayne. They tried it without percussion. The percussionist will sing lead! The song is low energy so they need the pitch to be perfect.
Me: Gentle beginning, I liked when percussion came in. Percussionist as solo worked. But very suburban white girl hip-hop. Not bad, middle wasn’t bad. It was the best they could do. But compared to the other two, they are in trouble!
Shawn: Amazing, he liked the emotionality. Shoutout to soloists. Emotional rendition of Lil Wayne song. Did well, great job.
Ben: It was great. Jo, great low note, he can not even hit it!
Sara: powerful feminine energy. The other songs, did not show their “lady nads.” I have to remember that term!
I still think they are in trouble.

Yellow Jackets – “The Show Goes On” by Lupe Fiasco. The lyrics discuss the struggle of overcoming hardships, they are reminded of their recent trip to Kenya, all the things the prize money could do for the kids there. Hey, no fair! This should be on performance, not on who has the best plan for the prize!
Me: They tried. The rapper was not very good. It was muddled and boring, actually. Or maybe I was just put off by the “give us the money because we are the nicest people” thing.
Ben: They always bring heart to their performance, message was all there, very powerful, loved the rap Jamal did.
Sara: All heart, it felt fast, Jamal kicked butt, but rushing. She loved when Jamal started singing.
Shawn: Nailed a difficult hip-hop song, Jamal was working hard. Dynamics were not there. He wishes they had locked in more of an element of surprise. Good, but wish it was better.
I think they are out. They will definitely be in the showdown.

Decision for second bracket:
Pentatonix and Delilah are safe. Oh, that is mean! No way Delilah was better than Urban Method!
Urban Method is in.
Yellow Jackets go to final sing-off.

That makes it The Collective vs Yellow Jackets, they both do “Just a Dream” by Nelly.

The Collective does a really nice job! They included rap. They are not bad at all when Ruby shuts up or at least does not sing lead! I liked the tailored lyrics: “If you like the Collective put your hands up”! I am surprised, they did quite well!

Yellow Jackets have a very choral rapper, he is the whitest black boy ever! Not very good. They will be out.

The judges pick one by one, and of course it is a tie and Sara casts the tiebreaker (I think this is phony and I wish they would not do it this way).

Yellow Jackets are in.
The Collective is out. What? I have not been a big fan of The Collective all along, but they did quite a good job on the second song! And Yellow Jackets, well, I have to admit I am mad at them for doing the whole “look how good we are going to Kenya” thing. Like I am mad at Vocal Point for milking the death. But still, I thought Yellow Jackets were clearly worse on both numbers. Is this a shock boot? This show does not do shock boots! This bothers me.

Their swan song is “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” They do well until Ruby starts in. I wonder if there is something wrong with me that I do not see how others do not hear how awful she sounds! But I still feel like they should not be the ones going home!

Next week: Superstar medleys. Committed will perform!

BASS 2011: Megan Mayhew Bergman, “Housewifely Arts” from One Story

Fernand Leger, "Study for Women and Parrot" (Etude pour Femmes au Perroquet)

Fernand Leger, "Study for Women and Parrot" (Etude pour Femmes au Perroquet)

What maniacs we are – sick with love, all of us.

In his review of the Ron Howard film Parenthood quite some time ago, Roger Ebert felt it succeeded because the main characters, who were simultaneously parents and children themselves, struggled to reconcile their criticism of their parents’ parenting skills with their own parenthood. This story does much the same: the main character is both a parent raising a son, and a child dealing with the loss of her mother.

I read this in One Story last year, and for some reason didn’t write about it then. Maybe it was before I’d started blogging notes about stories I was reading. Or maybe the tiny booklet got buried in the mess on my desk or bookshelves. In any event, I didn’t recognize the title or the author until I read the Contributor’s Note before starting the stories, and remembered the parrot.

The story is structured around an interesting premise:

I lost my mother last spring and am driving nine hours south on I-95 with a seven-year-old so that I might hear her voice again….We’re driving to a small roadside zoo outside of Myrtle Beach so that I can hear my mother’s voice ring though the beak of a thirty-six-year-old African gray parrot, a bird I hated, a bird that could beep like a microwave, ring like a phone, and sneeze just like me.

The rest needs to be read, not summarized. The language is beautiful, the feelings true. It’s told in zig-zag fashion, going from present to various places in the past over and over again, and while it isn’t confusing, it’s a little unsettling. It’s not terribly subtle, since everything that happens in the present brings up a memory or association to the past. But there’s such depth of feeling and wonderful imagery, I think it earns the right to be what it is. It’s very honest, and what else can you hope for in a story. In her One Story blog entry, Karen Friedman comments:

As the story unfolds we learn their relationship had been full of the little fault lines that develop between mother and daughter over a lifetime.
Precisely because of their size, those little fault lines are what grabbed my attention. There’s no physical abuse, no drunken betrayals – nothing that screams, “pay attention, for now we’re in the realm of dramatic truth”. It’s a deceptively simple story about people trying their best, and sometimes falling short.

I read somewhere that children are our punishment for what we did to our parents when we ourselves were young. The narrator is just beginning to realize this, as she remembers her mom and watches her son grow up: “Will you love me forever? I think to myself. Will you love me when I’m old? If I go crazy? Will you be embarrassed of me? Avoid my calls? Wash dishes when you talk to me on the phone, roll your eyes, lay the receiver down next to the cat?”

But it’s not all grim; there’s a great deal of humor here. The narrator is trying to sell her house to move to Connecticut for a promotion, but that’s not going so well thanks to a humpback cricket infestation in the basement (in her One Story Q&A, Bergman admits this was based on her own experience). Ike, the son, is “a forty-three pound drama queen, a mercurial shrimp of a boy who knows many of the words to Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ oeuvre.”

And the parrot, Carnie, is a riot. He bites, he fusses, he repeats all the wrong phrases, and Mom’s house becomes smellier and smellier. But he serves as a prism, bringing Mom into focus, and he provides a telling moment, in one of the last scenes between mother and daughter:

The man of the house is not here, Carnie said. He’s dead.
You really take it easy on those telemarketers, I said, looking at Mom.

The two houses – the narrator’s cricket-infested house, and Mom’s house – provide additional foci for the emotion of the story, as well as structure for the plot to wrap around. The title adds another element.

I’m not sure I understand why it’s a great story, technically; the alternating now-and-then, the straddling the edge of sentimentality, are elements that make me a little nervous, and I’m not 100% sure it’s a strong enough story for so many theme elements – the parrot and the houses and the housewifely arts and Ike and Mom and single motherhood. But I am sure it’s a beautiful read, and I’m glad it’s in this volume and I got another shot at it.

Pushcart 2011: Elliott Holt, “Fem Care” from Kenyon Review Online

Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø: Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty

I’d miss my consumers. I’d miss their stories. When I drink my coffee in the morning, I think about the forty-two-year-old executive assistant in Seattle who gets migraines every month and finds that acupuncture and a latte are the only things that ease her pain. When I’m driving to work, I think about the twenty-seven-year-old teacher in Quito who stays in bed for two days because her cramps are so debilitating. Or the thirty-four-year-old caterer in Atlanta whose pad leaked all over her jeans on a first date. I’d be lost without those women. These days, they’re all I’ve got.

I couldn’t decide on a lead line:

This story shows why the Executive Washroom was invented.
OR: So here then is the difference between men and women: women share their secrets in ladies’ rooms.
OR: One of the advantages for a woman working in a male-dominated field is that you’ll never run into your boss in the ladies’ room.

It’s available online. Go ahead, read it; it’s not long, it’s an easy read, and you need to experience the funny/sadness, the pace and intensity of the reveals, and the characters of Annie and Susan, first-hand.

Annie is a market researcher for the feminine hygiene division of a health & beauty aids company. While the glamour people work on marketing skin creams and cosmetics, she finds out how women feel about menstruation.

She’s attending a convention and runs into a woman weeping in the ladies’ room – “She is willowy, with shiny black hair and chic even with red teary streaks on her cheeks. She looks like the kind of woman who has never succumbed to the urge to eat a second donut.” Neither woman realizes they are attending the same convention and work for the same company.

Annie learns a new angle on her subject of specialty when the woman shares some highly personal information with her: she’s bleeding all over her dress because she had an abortion a few days ago. Annie takes it in stride. “I’m trying to decide how to tell her that the first two weeks are the hardest and that it really does get better after that. But then I hear the toilet flush.” They realize they both are at the same conference, with the same company. The woman introduces herself as Susan Graves, a high-level exec whose name Annie recognizes, and frets about the bloodstain on her clothes. Annie helpfully suggests they exchange dresses, so Susan can do her presentation, due to start in mere minutes, and Annie has time to go back to her room and change. Now there’s a great example of shit rolling downhill for ya.

Is there any translation of this to the other side of the restroom wall? Would men do this sort of thing if one had, say, a semen stain on his pants from an inopportune erection? No idea. And despite her masculine name, Elliott Holt is a woman. Who, by the way, worked as an ad copywriter before she returned to Brooklyn College for her MFA.

The story looks at the differences between these two women, and the similarities. Annie and Susan are clearly in different strata. And they clearly share some experiences. But there are limits to how much Fem Care can be exchanged between them as they focus on different elements in the situation. When Susan later shows up at Annie’s room to return her dress, those differences and limits come into clearer focus.

It’s a wonderful read, as Annie torments co-worker Luis: “Despite his posturing, proximity to an actual menstruating woman makes Luis squeamish.” And as she enumerates the differences between the Anti-Dandruff people, the Fine Fragrance group, various divisions of the company: “The antiperspirant and deodorant divisions still don’t get any respect. It’s as bad as fem care. Sweat and blood are not much fun.” And as she remembers things past.

I realized while reading this story how rare it is for literary fiction to deal with professional women at work. Genre fiction is full of female doctors, lawyers, and magazine editors, but literary fiction sticks with waitresses and hookers (or the ubiquitous academic) or nebulous jobs when it mentions work at all. To be fair, not that much more is written about professional men. But it’s nice to see this character, this setting, this thoughtful treatment complete with humor and humanity, differences and common bonds, and a recognition that sometimes it’s who you run into in the ladies’ room that matters.

Note: You may be wondering what the amazing art – is it carved lettuce? No, it’s a photo from the late Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2010-2011 exhibit “Savage Beauty” at the Met – has to do with the story. Not much. Except, the story involves a dress. And I ran across this picture (while googling “feminine hygiene” and “art”) on a blog by the Maxim titled “Green Feminine Hygiene Queen.” I felt like I’d found Annie. That’s enough of a connection for me.

David Long: “Oubliette” from The New Yorker, 10/10/11

Art by Sara Shloo

“You’re like me,” he told her once, when it was clear she’d follow in his professional footsteps. “You think you’re invisible – you watch people and forget that they see you back.”

In the best tradition of flash fiction, everything counts and everything echoes in this dark family tale with subtle and not-so-subtle horror overtones. The oubliette image is perfect: it’s a dungeon, but the word itself comes from the word for “forget.” The father is a documentary filmmaker who once made a film compared to “Titicut Follies” – a landmark film exposing the abusive treatment of the mentally ill at a Massachusetts state hospital. I have to admit, to me the reference feels slightly wedged-in, a little too coincidental, but I’ll give it some leeway. There’s old-style Boston lineage, bringing to mind not only blue blood but witch trials. And there’s Huntington’s Disease.

Now, that may seem like a leap in logic, to link HD with olde New England, but several researchers have concluded that Huntington’s first came to America on the earliest ships from England (perhaps by people trying to escape persecution for the odd behavior of their ancestors), and may have been the root of some of the behavior considered “witchcraft” or possession during colonial times. So while Dad has the relatives in King’s Chapel Burying Ground, Mom has the disease.

The story itself is about Nathalie dealing with her parents as she grows up, trying to remember Mom back in the good times:

It wasn’t always like this, was it? When she was little? Hadn’t her mother scooped her up, summer mornings, driven her to the beach at Nantasket, slathered on the Coppertone, and waded out into the glittery waves with her….Other times, both of them lying back in the semi-dark, her mother had told tales about the foster homes where she’d been raised.

But eventually Mom turns on Nathalie and finally locks her in an attic for some minor offense. Her father returns and finds her, and eighteen months later, after the divorce is final, the diagnosis is made. Both father and daughter remain faithful to Mom, arranging for her care and visiting her, aware that her illness may have been at the root of her behavior. Nathalie attends college and is doing an apprenticeship at Dad’s studio when Mom dies:

Relieved of an awful weight was how she felt, then wondered why she didn’t feel guiltier about reacting this way. If her father had been there, he might have said, “Nat, you can’t help what you feel. The rest of it just isn’t in focus yet.”…. the world would go on – not where it left off, but on the other side of this nothing time. And when it did, though she couldn’t quite see it yet, Nathalie would begin the never-ending task of not forgetting her mother.

And unlike most offspring who do not forget their mothers, Nathalie has the unspoken, never mentioned additional reminder that she has a 50% chance of having inherited her mother’s condition.

It’s quite impressive, how the story works up to that last sentence, and leaves an echo of silence so the reader can connect the dots.

In his Book Bench Q&A, David Long discusses the novel this flash is based on (it’s not an excerpt, more of a prequel) and how he sees the difference between novels and short stories. He specifically wanted to write a short-short, and he wanted to use the relationship between Nathalie and her dad.

I’m also fascinated by a review by Dennis Haritou at Three Guys One Book that takes an almost Marxist view of the story: “I went all class war.” I can see where that might come in. Mom was a waitress at the restaurant Dad frequented. She’s the one who was in foster care. And, as I said earlier: He’s got the lineage, she’s got the disease.

Project Runway Season 9 Episode 13: Finale, Part 1

Somewhere, a Magical Elf Weeps...

Heidi meets them one last time on the runway and gives them the specifics: Joshua, Viktor, Kimberly, and Anya will compete for three spots. They have $9,000 and five weeks to make a ten-piece collection. She and Tim Gunn do an adorable dance in silhouette. I love Tim Gunn.

Three weeks later, Tim does home visits. And Day of the Dead, PR style, begins. Seriously, I think it’s a requirement on competitive reality shows that you have a dead relative inspiring you from the grave. There’s been a running joke on TWoP that if someone from your family is going to be on Chopped, you’d better check your life insurance: one guy announced his dad died the day before, and another said her mother was in the ICU following a car accident the day before. Two contestants on Food Network Star (Susie and Herb, IIRC) regularly invoked their dead parent while planning, preparing or presenting their meals. I wonder if there’s some connection between Food Network and Lifetime, since they seem to subscribe to the same theory that viewers are more interested in the contestants’ families, especially deceased ones, than in their abilities. And to be clear: I’m not making fun of people for being sad about departed loved ones. I’m making fun of them, and reality tv, for exploiting it.

Kimberly in Maryland is first up. She talks about growing up in pre-gentrified Brooklyn, how she’s embraced what it was then and what it is now. Her theme is urban girl, transformed. Tim thinks the collection looks like her, and tells her to take some risks and wow them. Kimberly agrees she does not want to bore Nina. Then they have dinner with her sister and a couple of close friends. She got her fashion sense from her now-departed mom. She would love to be the first African American to win PR, and fashion needs more black voices.

Anya is in Trinidad. Maybe Tim has been hoping for Anya to make it to the semi-finals so he could visit her there. He shows up in a grey suit and tie and makes one of his sweetly self-deprecating remarks about how he thought about dressing more casually but then she wouldn’t have recognized him. Have I mentioned I love Tim Gunn? They have lunch with two of her brothers; she had a third brother who died at age 18, and her line is named Pilar after him. She only has fabrics to show Tim, she’s not clear on actual shapes or garments, she hasn’t been able to draw any new shapes yet; she’s been learning to scuba dive over in Tobago. Tim tells her to get moving. And he specifies she can’t have any help on regular construction (implying that specialty items, as always, can be outsourced if that fits in the budget). I’ve been wondering if that was going to be an issue at some point (it isn’t).

Viktor in New York is next. His vision is Urban Coast. He went to Mexico on the anniversary of his brother’s death and used some photographs for his fabrics. Tim calls it a wow collection. They visit Viktor’s boyfriend (“we met the old-fashioned way, in a bar” which is a joke out of Miss Manners). I’m kind of an idiot – I’ve been thinking all along Viktor was Eastern European, I didn’t realize until tonight he was Mexican. I’ve never known his last name, and still don’t for that matter. I just wonder if they’re stupid enough to screw a Mexican two seasons in a row (yes, I know Viktor and Mondo are Mexican-Americans, but that messes up the rhythm of the sentence).

Joshua is also in New York. He and his sister meet Tim in a restaurant to chat; she talks about Josh’s athletic career as a track star. There’s a picture of him hurdling which is pretty cool. He got a bunch of scholarships but he knew he wanted to come to New York so he left that behind as “part of the Midwest” which is kind of sad. He doesn’t have as much of his collection done as he’d like, but it will show the direction. Tim questions some of the colors and textiles. One of the textiles Tim doesn’t like is a vintage print that I’m crazy about, even though it’s in colors I wouldn’t ordinarily be attracted to. Tim wonders where the sex is, the collection looks like the Farmer in the Dell, like he’s trying too hard. Josh absorbs this. He’s worried about the print since it’s the basis of most of his collection so far.

And then it’s Fashion Week. They gather at the hotel. Tim visits. They will each present three looks, and only three will move forward.

In the workroom, they unveil their stuff. They all do some sniping in interviews. But Josh is in awe of a white jacket with pearls that Viktor made (it is pretty amazing). Joshua is feeling he missed the mark. They talk to Tim about which look to show, etc etc. He encourages Kimberly to center herself and pick pieces to get the judges to understand the edgy Brooklynite. He’s disappointed that Anya has retreated into her comfort zone. Yeah, yeah. We’ve all heard it before, she’s in trouble, everything’s a mess, and then they fall all over her on the runway. I’m tired of it. And this isn’t Anya’s fault; it’s how the show has been edited, how the judges have overlooked her flaws.

They start again in the morning. Josh looks damn sharp – he’s wearing a flower pin and his mom’s pin. Just in case anyone forgot his mom died two years ago and he was too busy working in a bar to go visit her and now he wants credit for feeling bad about that.

Runway time

Heidi is in rock ‘n roll mode, all black, skinny pants. Is she wearing a Mondo t-shirt, with the skull? You know, I think that’s made me gasp more than anything this entire season, seeing a t-shirt possibly from last season’s runner-up. Maybe it’s just in honor of the Day of the Dead theme.

Viktor:
– Leather zipper-pleated skirt, blue photographic print top, nice. But I admire more the idea than the actual look. Still, it’s clever, and shows a mind at work. The mirror-image print of the top brings to mind the Rorschach prints.
– Print pants, mirrored sheer top, blazer with squared tails. Nice. Except: I’ll tell you the truth, when I first saw those pants at Tim’s visit, I wrote in my notes, “bleeding pants.” I wrote it again when they walked down the runway. They look like the day after an accident where the model did first aid for the guy who needed stitches. Yeah, it also looks like she forgot to change her tampon, but I’m not going there. At some point I realized it was a photograph, but they look like… bleeding pants. Still, the mirrored top with mirrored prints is very clever, again, a mind at work. In the absence of greatness, I’ll go for the mind at work every time.
– White pearled jacket, ombre flowy dress. The jacket is striking. Viktor could make a lot of money doing jackets. The dress is a little like the one he did for the sneaker collection, only sheerer. The jacket doesn’t really go with the dress – one is sharp and sporty, the other is flowy and elegant. But they’re both nice.

Anya:
– Print dress with plunging neck and that sort of bird tail skirt; it’s pretty. But sloppy on close-up. She shouldn’t have spent two weeks scuba diving.
– Black zippered maillot bathing suit with beige cover up. Huh?
– Gold satin gown. Ok, the way the top has the folded-back effect, and the grommet at the shoulder (just like Bert did for her on her pantsuit in the prior challenge) has possibilities. But it looks like a mess, mostly because it’s satin. What happened to Anya? It’s like she decided, people will hate me if I win so I’m going to throw it. I know the judges are going to love her stuff, but two of these pieces are not good at all. And it isn’t a little thing here or there, they are terrible. It might be the worst showing at a pre-finale ever. I wonder if Anya’s ever seen the show, if she realizes people step it up for the finale, they bring better stuff than they’ve made on the show. Or… maybe she doesn’t have any better stuff. Aha!

Kimberly:
– Casual striped top, blue pants. The top is really cool; the pants look too sweatpant-y to me, but maybe they’re supposed to be sweat pants, I can’t see them very well.
– Blue shell, purple satin skirt with a huge butt. The skirt is all puckery at the seams; in a different fabric it might be interesting, but here it looks like it shrunk in the wash.
– Black sparkly turtleneck gown, very pretty. But it’s anybody’s sparkly gown; no gasp factor.

Joshua:
– Bright pink pants, black and grey jacket. I like the design of the jacket. I like the print shell under it (it looks like he switched out his vintage fabric for something similar but more muted), though I think something solid would be better. I think the pants are way too bright for that jacket, but I’m definitely more rust than pink. There’s something about the look altogether that doesn’t work at all for me; it’s very Josh, though.
– Black dress, he says it’s neoprene. Eww. Why? But it looks good, mostly because I can’t tell it’s neoprene.
– Black gown with shiny plastic print top piece, then in the back it’s what he calls a “fitting jumper.” Looks like a catsuit, which I guess is what a fitting jumper is. It’s an interesting idea, a dress from the front and pants from the back – wait, it’s a mullet, elegance in the front, trash in the back. but I’m not sure about the pants part, they’re too tight. I’m getting a yeast infection just looking at it.

To me, Viktor has it, hands down. Not that his stuff is great, mind you; but a lot of it is pretty, and some of it is very nice. Everyone else has something good and a lot bad. I’m stunned at Anya’s looks; the bathing suit is something you could get anywhere, and the gown is gaudy and looks like a mess. I’m sure the judges will love it.

Think back. Remember other seasons? Not the winners, not Mondo. Remember people like Wendy Pepper. Wendy Pepper’s collection blew away everything that was sent down the runway tonight. Did you hear that? Even Viktor’s jacket and Anya’s first dress (my favorite pieces) would’ve been knocked off the runway by Wendy Pepper. And when you think about other old-timers: Kara Saun. Santino. Ulli. Jillian. Rami. Chris (the three looks we saw). Kenley. Emilio. Even Mila, even The Season 6 Blondes. Think about the collections they put together. Then (painfully) think about what you just saw here. A new low for Project Runway.

Somewhere, a Magical Elf weeps.

The interrogation:

They start with Anya. Nina loves the first dress, a hybrid between her last black dress and her Caribbean looks. Heidi only liked that one look. Wow. Pick me up off the floor. Heidi says the bathing suit isn’t flattering and the cover up is drab. The gown looks like something done very quickly, it’s not made well, has no flow. MK calls it tortured. Holy cow. MK doesn’t like the styling either. Needs to be beachier, younger, Caribbean glamour. Nina agrees with styling criticism, what makes Anya different is her pov, she needs to embrace what she’s good at. I’m stunned. Maybe they realized they couldn’t get away with it this time. Or maybe it’s time for the Last Minute Redemption plot: she’s going to make a whole new collection in two days and win. Or maybe they just Mondo’d her. I really can’t decide. And I really don’t care.

Kimberly: MK loves that he knows they are her clothes. He likes how she handled sexiness; they are all covered up in front, but it’s full of color, full of sex appeal. He doesn’t like the styling, but likes that it has her vibe. Nina also thinks accessorizing is an issue. Heidi thinks the biggest problem is the purple skirt with the bubble butt, it looks like a cartoon. MK thinks maybe it shouldn’t be so arced in the hem and that would ease it out. She had an ivory jacket that she didn’t send out because it’s too big and she didn’t have time to fit it properly; Heidi thinks that was a mistake. Except, Heidi, be honest, if she’d sent it out and it didn’t fit, you’d be complaining about that. They only had two hours to fit and style three looks, remember.

Viktor: MK loves his jacket and pants, the tailoring is impeccable. Heidi loves the sheer top with mirrors. They shift some things around: the white jacket is terrific (Heidi tries it on) and the dress looks so much better without it. The zipper skirt is a piece over a dress, they take of the skirt and the dress is adorable. MK says all the pieces are great but not together. I think Viktor wanted to send everything out and that’s the only way he could.

Joshua: Heidi liked a lot of the designs, they’re modern and forward. She complains about some styling. Focus on the jacket. MK says it’s a rollercoaster. The jacket is great, loves back of neoprene dress. Heidi finds it simple but nice; MK doesn’t like “modesty tab.” MK loves the gown/jumper from the front, hates it from the back – “no woman wants to wear Olivia Newton John leggings.” Sure they do! But it does look a little vulgar. He finds the collection has a consistency with geometry, whatever that means. Nina’s impressed, the styling is better, they’re clean and polished. She pronounces him a very good designer, at which point half of America falls down. MK wants him to have consistency and focus.

From this, it sounds like Anya would be out, but that can’t be right. In the lounge, Anya thinks it’s between her and Kimberly for the auf. There’s this Josh-Anya lovefest going on. They’ve been hugging since they got back to NY. It’s really disgusting.

The judges chat. Heidi says the boys did well, the girls are in trouble. Viktor has special pieces, they have to find a way to go together better. They call Josh‘s catsuit a halloween costume. Nina’s surprised he did the best job of styling. MK says they all put forward something distinctively theirs. Heidi asks, “Even Anya?” they criticize her evening gown, MK says it’s that she isnt’ used to making evening dresses and doesn’t really know how. Two out of three looks were not great. Nina, ever the Marie Claire interest, points out there were others who had two out of three problem looks, too. Like Kimberly, and Nina harps on the styling again. If the only complaint is the styling, they should shut up. MK says the girls choked. Heidi agrees, they were equally bad.

Well, it took all season, but they finally see what I see.

The decision:
The boys are in.
Kimberly’s in.
I’m thinking, this can’t be happening. And of course, it isn’t. Anya’s in, too. Let me guess, she’s going to re-do her collection and win. Actually, I don’t think so. I think the Anyafest is over. They’ve used her up and now they’re going to throw her out. But not just yet. Not until they’ve squeezed the last rating out of her.
Joshua gets pissy in interview; neither Anya nor Kimberly should be going to Fashion Week. In person he tells Anya, “If you weren’t this beautiful I’d be pissed off.” and that may be the most profound thing said on PR this season. You never see a fat girl with a big nose given the benefit of the doubt.

After the Runway seems to be replacing the Reunion show; Anthony Ryan joins them. And here’s where the surprise comes in. They’re talking about fans, how surprised they are that people seem to think they’re famous and want pictures, and Anya brings up her sex tape. I’m positive she’s gotten some professional advice about this (damage control: acknowledge it, play the victim, control the conversation – I learned all this from The West Wing, thank you Aaron Sorkin). It’s kind of a relief to me. It’s a bit of snark I haven’t wanted to use, partly because it’s irrelevant to her design ability, and partly because it wasn’t on the show. It still isn’t relevant, but it’s now on the show and she put it into play.

She makes it sound like someone did this to her and her boyfriend. It’s all well and good to look sad about how embarrassing it was, but maybe you should’ve thought of that before you said, “Hey, I know, let’s make a video!” And if you’re going to go on a TV reality show after that, well, you’re not all that embarrassed, because you know it’s going to come up. I have to admire that she isn’t hiding in a corner for the rest of her life. I don’t hold the tape against her – it’s in the “oh, really? Who cares” category. When you’ve got Congressmen sending tweets of their erections to college girls, a beauty queen making a sex tape isn’t such a big deal. But I sure don’t feel sorry for her (for the record, I loved Anthony Weiner and his occasional rants, and he broke my heart with that nonsense, not to mention taking an important voice out of the public discussion).

Wow did I get off topic. See why they hated me on TWoP?

Laura Bennet comes on (full disclosure: I can’t stand her) and talks about how Josh‘s snit about Anya getting a slot isn’t as bitchy as it sounds, and oh by the way defends herself for a remark she made about Anthony Ryan: “I was so annoyed I wanted to slap him so hard he’d be rocking none.” I don’t know the context, except that it was after the pet store challenge. It doesn’t sound that outrageous to me, and I wonder why not. Anthony Ryan doesn’t seem all that upset about it. Apparently she got a lot of reader flak; either that, or she’s just trying to make herself seem more important than she is, which wouldn’t surprise me at all. It turns into a discussion of Anthony Ryan‘s work with Make A Wish and possible future projects involving PR alums, and that’s a good thing. Oh, and Anthony Ryan isn’t all that color blind (he recognized pink and red), in spite of having both kinds of color blindness. I don’t quite understand.

Next week, this horrible season gets put out of its misery.

BASS 2011: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Ceiling” originally from Granta

Granta Cover by Michael Salu with St Bride Library

He had begun, in the past months, to feel bloated from all he had acquired – the family, the house, the other properties in Ikoyi and Abuja, the cars, the bank accounts in Dubai and London – and he would be overcome by the urge to prick everything with a pin, to deflate it all, to be free. He was no longer sure, he had in fact never been sure, whether he liked his life because he really did or whether he liked it because he was supposed to.

Allow me a moment of snark: I find it interesting, given the emphasis on plot and the sneers at domestic realism in the preface and introduction of this BASS volume, that the plot of this story is basically: man in blah marriage gets email from old girlfriend; man thinks about this while he goes to a party with his wife. /end snark

It’s a lot more complex than that, of course. For one thing, the man, Obinze, is Nigerian, and has recently gone from rags to riches, a sort of Nigerian Horatio Alger character – though there are indications his line of work may be a bit less than legitimate: “He sometimes wondered if Chief would one day ask something of him, the hungry and honest boy he had groomed, and in his more melodramatic moments, he imagined Chief asking him to organize an assassination.” Perhaps Sonny Corleone would be a better analogy.

The author was born in Nigeria and still spends part of the year there. Her motivation for this story, according to her Contributor Notes, was to convey the “overall air of mutability” in Lagos: “Nigeria’s shift from military to democratic rule brought social changes in the last decade but perhaps none as dramatic as the speed with which some young men became wealthy, particularly in Lagos.”

Obinze’s relationship with his wife, Kosi, is complex as well. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, though it may have been lust:

Even then he had felt gentle contempt…. Still, he had wanted her, chased her with a lavish single-mindedness. He had never seen a woman with such a perfect incline to her cheekbones, that made her entire face seem so alive in an architectural way, lifting when she smiled, and he was newly disoriented from his quick wealth: one week he was squatting in his cousin’s flat and sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor and the next he owned a house and two cars. He felt as if his life were no longer his. It was Kosi who made it start to seem believable.

His relationship with Ifemelu, the woman whose email opens the story, is also, dare I say it, complex. And obscure. We know she was 17 when they first slept together; afterwards, she tells him, “My eyes were open but I did not see the ceiling. This never happened before.” After that, Ceiling is her nickname for him. He’s impressed with her forthrightness. We never find out why they are no longer together, only that she is in America and is married to “a black man” – I find that phrasing fascinating, since I think all of the characters are what I would call “black” but perhaps it is how an African refers to an American black, I’m not sure.

Obinze can’t discuss his life, his disorientation or his marriage, with Ifemelu, though he wants to: “She was the only person who would understand, and yet he was afraid that she would feel contempt for the person he had become.” So he thinks about her email as he and Kosi go to a party thrown by his boss. We also find out Obinze was deported from London back to Lagos, but we’re never told why; it seems like something he’d rather not discuss. Addendum: a later TNY story, “Checking Out,” provides the answer – and it turns out both these stories are excerpts from the forthcoming-in-2013 novel, Americanah.

The greatness in this story, for me, is in the truly wonderful insight into life in Lagos: the House of David church which holds “how to keep your husband” classes; various instructions given to Obinze initially on “how Nigeria works” (“Find one white man. Tell everybody he is your general manager. It gives you immediate legitimacy with many idiots in this country.”); the debate at the party about whether to send the children to the French, British, or Nigerian schools; some of the subtle touches as we see Kosi through Obinze’s eyes.

The effect this story had on me was the appreciation that things really are the same all over: people get rich and find that money doesn’t buy happiness; we always remember, and perhaps over-idealize, the one who got away; and we always wonder about the road not taken, whether we’re from New England or Nigeria.

An enjoyable story, and a very interesting one. Let’s face it: the only time many of us hear about Nigeria is in spam (and, by the way, it’s kind of cute that an email is the structural mechanism of this story). So I’m very happy to have read this, to have a bit more knowledge about a part of the world I really should know more about. A page turner? Maybe not. But worth reading? Definitely.

Pushcart 2011: Seth Fried, “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” originally published in One Story

Art created for the story by Brandi Strickland

Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up. Every year it gets worse. That is, more people die. The Frost Mountain Picnic has always been a matter of uncertainty in our town and the massacre is the worst part.

This is how the story starts. I was befuddled. I moved along anyway. I’m not befuddled any more – I’m awed. I between, I was amused, angry, and heartbroken. Oh, this is good stuff.

It’s so good, you should spend $2.50 plus postage and order it from One Story if you don’t have either the Pushcart volume or his just-out collection The Great Frustration (Soft Skull Press 2011) which includes it, or don’t want to check either of them out of the library. Seriously. It’s that good. It’s so good, I’m willing to become a marketing tool for an anti-consumerist work. The irony just sings, doesn’t it?

I’ve spent several days trying to come up with a way to comment on this story, and I still don’t know how to do it. I got all analytical about first person plural – the “we” voice. Rarely used, and something I consistently confuse with a sort of omniscient first person (which, I guess, is what the “we” voice really is; I’ll have to go see what Brian Richardson has to say about it in Unnatural Voices, and who knows, maybe I can get Zin to start a First Person Plural study). I copied large chunks of text, tried to break them down into sections. For example, the peculiar ways the massacres happened each year – not just bombings, but hot-air balloons that sail away never to return, port-a-potties containing venomous snakes, a radioactive Bouncy Castle. Methods so bizarre and yet real they maintain an air of fantasy and a grounding in reality at the same time.

There’s little Louise Morris, one of the victims the year of the silver-backed gorillas (not just gorillas; that would be buffoonery, but to specify silver-backed gorillas, that is a fine touch there) who is remembered and honored and so generates many changes – impeachment of the mayor, deportation of four Kenyan exchange students, and a three-day holiday in Louise’s honor – so many changes, that “the only thing that seemed at all the same was the Frost Mountain Picnic.”

But I can’t seem to get a summary that captures it. How do you capture this – parents who bring their children to this picnic every year, children who insist on going, because “all children are born with searing and trivial images hidden in their faces, the absence of which causes them a great deal of discomfort. It is a pain only the brush of a face painter can alleviate… ” – and when an alternative is considered:

It has been suggested that perhaps it would give our children more character if we were to let them suffer under the burden of the hidden images in their faces, forcing them to bring those images out gradually through the development of personal interests and pleasant dispositions, rather than having them crudely painted on….
None of us has the confidence in our children to endure that type of thing.

Oh, there’s so much more, the “difficulties we face in attempting to extricate ourselves from the Frost Mountain Picnic” because “most of us are involved with the picnic on many different levels, some of which might not even be completely known to us.” Are you getting the drift of this? Because while so much of this is giggle material, the story also makes a powerful point about the society we live in and allow to continue, how economics and war and politics and everyday life are tied together. And how we have, under the guise of making sure our children have it better than we had it, maybe done them a great disservice in perpetuating this intertwined network.

In his One Story Q&A with Pei-Ling Lue, Fried says he started out writing a story version of Dylan’s “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues,” though it evolved into its own thing. He gives a hilarious account of how he came up with so many strange methods of massacre:

I was still finishing my undergrad when I wrote this story. While generating ideas for the story, I had a page in one of my course notebooks that I titled, without realizing how creepy I was being, Ideas for Massacres. I filled it up with as many ideas for ridiculous massacres as I could think of while pretending to take notes in class. I then proceeded to lose said notebook. As a result, I spent the rest of that semester terrified of the possibility that someone would find that notebook and that I would be arrested for plotting to kill people by means of strategically set-loose gorillas.

When I was an angst-ridden adolescent, my father often told me to stop listening to “depressing” music and do something fun for a change. He never understood how alienated I felt by forced happiness, and how comforted I was to hear the lyrics of Don McLean’s “Vincent” or the words of Herman Hesse – somebody else out there got it, I wasn’t alone! And Fried makes a similar point: “If any of the anxieties expressed in this story are familiar to readers, I hope that readers will take comfort in seeing those anxieties on the page. I always feel relieved when I read a story and the author is expressing some concern about the world that I share. It’s cathartic.”

Maybe if enough people can see that what we have been thinking is normal is not-so-normal, the picnic will eventually change.

The Sing-Off 2011 Episode 5 – Guilty Pleasures

All ten groups perform tonight, but it turns out there are still two brackets. They are different brackets from the original split! This is sneaky! So two groups go home. They will do guilty pleasure songs of the 80s and 90s! They start off with the group number, All Night Long by Lionel Richie. I find Ruby from The Collective to be annoying again, though she was not last week.

I should say I seem to be off tonight. I had trouble paying attention, I kept coming in halfway through their introductions, and I thought they all sounded off. Nothing made me go wow. So either it was an off week for all ten groups, or it was an off night for me. I do think this worked a lot better as a Christmas surprise!

Yellow Jackets: “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls. They will have fun with it, an intense musical experience.
I think the lead is too pretty! And I think they could have done a much better arrangement, that sung-spoken “tell me what you want what you really really really want” could have really cooked! At the end one of the guys tried, but, well, no. Not bad, just not really working.
Sara – ton of fun, she does not even know what she experienced, loved the personality and energy. They had tuning issues, with such high energy it is easy to oversing, but the point was to have a blast, and she loved it. Would totally watch again.
Shawn – Strange but enjoyed it. He wants to get the men slamming their bodies down out of his retinas. Some harmonies flarp: his term for flat and sharp. The pressure is on, because there are three other all male college groups.
Ben – entertaining, every four or eight bars, there was another event, smart arrangement. End riff by Nick was a statement. Jamal as lead has a unique voice. Their challenge is putting a face on everything they do so you can tell who the singer is.

Delilah: “What a Feeling” from Flashdance. Candace is their secret weapon, she has a soulful voice.
Wow, some good bass there for a female group. The lead needs better breath control, I think she takes breaths at awkward places. Not terrible, but not good.
Ben – they made a cool choice in how they put group together, but that means they have a challenge with range. Their strength is they are all good singers and have big brains. Pulling it off in the verse. Beginning took four bars for harmony to come into focus. Loves Candace, breakdown chorus worked but you can not do that in both. Heart and energy is there, need to crack one more bit of code.
Sara – Emotion coming across. Pitch issues, and rhythm moved around a little, but focused on heart and soul. Technically, not quite up to par with first two performances (that does not make sense, their first two performances were not that great).
Shawn – Loves Candace since Voices of Lee. Came undone at end with overlap (oh, I agree!). Brought it back with last chord. Testament what never giving up represents. Heart is always there.
They are in trouble and they know it, they are crying as they get the notes.

North Shore: “Imagine being 64 and being in this!” They were going to do “Mm-bop” by Hansen to compete with the kids. But it was not working, so two days before the show they started over with “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News. I would have liked to have seen Mmm-bop just because there have been commercials here lately for a Hansen concert and it is funny to see them grown up, without the “awww” factor they are not what they used to be, which is why they are playing Portland!
The lead (not Guy) is terrific. Slow at start, lots of rhythm, bluesy, not so rock. Then speeds up. Bridge did not work at all. Overall kind of meh. Everyone seems off tonight!
Shawn – they are always fun to watch but he wants to see another side, wanted to see something different. They always nail the entertainment, he wants to see more emotion. Hey, wait, emotion on a guilty pleasure song? That is silly! Guilty Pleasures are about fun!
Ben – loved transitions, interpretations, always start strong. I missed something here.
Sara – They took risks. Entertained, but she agrees with need for diversity.

The Collective – “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. They want the judges to have no doubt they are supposed to be here. I missed some off this!
Oh no, Ruby as lead. No, no. Duet works thought. The Hey is good. Not bad at all. I just do not like Ruby, she is beautiful and I like how she moves but I do not like her voice!
Sara – damn if I didn’t love that. Loved that it was so emotional. Delivered stellar performance with interesting arrangement and amazing vocals. Rachel and Ruby great, voices match. Really really good.
Shawn – Each week they find themselves vocally, Ruby and Rachel had some great moments together. Wish the four on the floor (the thumping 1-2-3-4 bass) came sooner.
Ben – One of the improvements is that they grabbed it from the start with the rubato statement, he loves the vibrato Ruby has (oh no!). Respects the choice to not glom onto anthemic feel initially (I love it when he talks like this!). Background vocals blended this time, exaggerated swells, spooky and old-fashioned, interpretation was cool, everything a step up.

Dartmouth Aires: “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield. Oh no! I have bad associations with this because it was so bad on The Glee Project! But I will have to get over it! Every week they have solo auditions. That is interesting, I guess they vote.
I do not understand the percussionist sitting in front. Dance move did not work. The end, maybe not. I liked the beginning better.
Ben – not a dance moves person, but that was pretty bitchin'; Clark knocked it down. Great energy, smooth tenor and up. Lower in range, got less defined, bari and bases. Visual energy, top energy, not quite grooving really. Sort of virtually grooving. Applaud simplicity but simplicity always shows seams. Basses not quite jelling.
Shawn – missing bass, something from bottom. Energy was there. Clark, impressed with dance move. “I knew with a hairstyle like that we were going to have a Clark moment.” Yes! I like Clark too, I am glad he got to do something! Entertaining.
Sara – Great lead. Loved middle. Agree, they are missing consistency and focus in low end but super entertaining.

Oh no, now a group goes home! That is not good. I am guessing Delilah and Yellow Jackets will be in the bottom,with Delilah going home. North Shore missed, but they have done so well up till now, I think they will be ok, and it was an off night for everyone.

Collective and Yellow Jackets are in. I am surprised – I still am not sure this means these are the “best” groups but if so, I am very surprised Yellow Jackets are there.
Dartmouth Aires are in. Delilah is very emotional, they are in the bottom two again!
Well, North Shore is in much more trouble than I thought. How can you connect to guilty pleasure songs more deeply?
Delilah is in. North Shore is out. I am flabbergasted! In fact, I am so surprised, I wonder if they asked to be out. They would have been out eventually, but I thought they would last at least another round. They do “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight” by the Spaniels as their swan song, and they do a terrific job with it!

The second half:

Afro-Blue: “Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston. Risky, since she is known for amazing vocals. They are trying not to overthink or jazz too much.
They did fine, I am just meh on the song and the jazz style. But they were good.
Shawn – very entertaining and smart arrangement. Took to heart riding fine line between doing too much and too little. Perfect blend of keeping original, then did samba breakdown in middle, and incorporated signature harmony. Love that everyone got to shine in leads, all sounded magnifico.
Ben – First chorus seemed separated, missing stuff in baritones, hearing bass and girls. Second chorus perfect. Pronounce words a little more. “You guys are so amazing I can not believe I am lecturing you.”
Sara – I was wondering if you were going to take it too seriously, loved the Wedding March at end (Shawn breaks in to point out it was the Soul Train line!). A lot of fun, missing some meat in the middle. At end, almost feels a little sharp. But fun, loved it.

Pentatonix: Started with “Believe” by Cher, but did “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles instead, in honor of the eliminated Sonos. I missed that explanation. It sounds like Sonos was going to do it, so they did it for them?
I liked the second half better than first half.
Sara – awesome, did what you do so well, made it really distinct, meticulous choices, and deliver. Drum and bass solid. Scott, lots of restraint on lead. Made song choice based on Sonos, who is there in the audience! Loves the camaraderie. Lot of ear candy there, great.
Shawn, sent back from the future to save a capella and do it in a futuristic way.
Ben – they hit on something, a loseness that suited them. Scott, great voice, great work. Once in a while on top of the beat, don’t need to do that.

Deltones – “Listen to your Heart” by Roxette. It is a guilty pleasure because the lyrics are melodramatic. When someone tells you you need to get better, it motivates you. Worried about being stiff on stage.
Nice percussion, love the breath at the end. But the lead seems whiney. Meh on the song.
Ben – one of the few groups that earnestly sings lyrics every time. They still need a calling card. They got lost at the breakdown, should have been big moment, but the breath at end was cool. Looking for a sound that says we are Deltone.
Sara – all heart, see it up there. Good performance, song choice might have been too serious (do you think?), blend was great, Courtney on lead was sweet and right on, would like to see voices dropping in and out to give dynamics.
Shawn – Courtney, beautiful voice. With fifteen people on stage, would love to hear more dynamics.

Urban Method: “Poison” by Bel Biv DeVoe; they were mentors to Shawn and Boyz II Men so they have to have Shawn out of his chair or they have not succeeded. That sounds ambitious! The song is completely unfamiliar to me, but they did great from what I can tell. But I admit I am biased!
Shawn – They took on premise of record. Tony held bass down. Singing bass and doing cabbage patch at same time is not easy. Ladies, good harmony, sexy. Hip Hop, did your thing.
Ben – Loads of fun, not expert in genre, but grooved from beginning to end. Troy, lower singing not as articulate, but as soon as you went up, was clear. Go home and tell your kids, never trust a bigg butt and a smile. Sage advice from the lyrics!
Sara – so much fun. Troy, versatile in vocals, stylized, make specific choices, a little pitchy in beginning. So much happening on stage. Polished, well, delivered performance.
Ben chimes in again: Mike the rapper was good. Ben tries to rap. Not very well, not well at all.

Vocal Point: Ben is back from Australia. “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins. Nice lead, Somebody did some great high notes at end. It did not explode the way I would expect, though!
Ben – Nice rock belting. Keith, great falsettos, lots of energy. Ben on baritone guitar, adding a lot. Glad to have Ben back. Missed you. Bass perfectly in time. Nice work.
Sara – Kenny Loggins would love that, exuding essence of song, pop version of rock n roll. Percussion and bass, good job. Fun to watch.
Shawn – great, showing diversity, different sides, different voices with each song, shown many different personalities. People are dancing in hello kitty pajamas at home right now.

And the decision:
Pentatonix and Urban Method are in. I think they are going to be the two finalists.
Vocal Point is in.
It is between Afro-Blue (that is a surprise!) and Deltones. It must be Deltones.
Afro Blue is in, Deltones are out.
“Goodbye to You” by Michelle Branch is their swan song. They struggle with it a little.

Next week, hop hop. Wow, that will certainly favor Urban Method!

BASS 2011: Beginning

"Blue Girl Reading" by August Macke

I got my copy of the new BASS collection from my Fiercely Independent Local Bookstore yesterday, and stopped at a nearby grill & pub because I couldn’t wait to start reading.

That isn’t quite true; the charred wood smell of the grill, combined with my memory of the best fries I’ve ever had, and a server who remembers me and knows exactly what I’ll order (though I’ve only been there six times total in the past six months) and will run after me for a block when I forget my sweater has a lot to do with it, too. It’s my favorite place to read the latest New Yorker story I’ve photocopied at the library, or the MaineCat treasure I’ve just picked up, knowing I’ll get perfect service (friendly but not intrusive) and a tasty (if fat-and-calorie laden – soup for dinner) lunch. I just wish the outside didn’t look so much like a strip club, but most things in life are trade-offs, and anyone who’s spent any time in Portland knows there aren’t any strip clubs in Monument Square. You have to go a half mile up Congress Street to the Video Expo for that.

Anyway, I was talking about BASS…

I read the Contributor’s Notes first. They’re my favorite part of BASS, to be honest, though of course without the stories, they’d be meaningless. I wanted to read seven or eight stories right away, the notes sounded so clever or interesting or different. A story of overnight wealth in Lagos. A writer who wrote a story to explore why he can be such “an insufferable dick.” Someone who appropriated (with permission) an idea from Etgar Keret, whose name I wouldn’t know if it weren’t for One Story. A long and entertaining note about how one writer wishes he could describe himself. A story that took twenty years of hibernation to come to flower (I hope some of mine turn out that way). A duel between an editor’s hand injury and a writer’s impending c-section.

See why I love BASS?

I recognized several stories and names. “Housewifely Arts” is one of the first One Story tales I read, though for some reason I never commented on it here; I remembered neither the title nor the author’s name (I’m so sorry! That’s why I blog stories to begin with, to remember those things better) but as soon as I read the tease about a parrot who held the mother’s voice, I remembered the story fondly. I’ve already read about Peter Torrelli falling apart and Joyce Carol Oates’ “ID” and will enjoy doing so again, though I won’t make separate entries for these (the addendas on the original posts may accumulate, though). And some have already been waiting patiently on my to-read list, courtesy of rumors and whispers of greatness: Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova,” George Saunders’ “Escape from Spiderhead.” There is one other that fills me with trepidation, but I won’t say which. Or why, since that would require saying which. Let’s leave it with, I shamefully take full responsibility for my inability to “get” some things. Some books. Even those that win the Pulitzer Prize. (Oops, did I just say which?)

The Foreword, by Heidi Pitlor, left me depressed, as usual, but for a different reason. Often it’s a dirge for the death of American Short Fiction, or for Publishing, or for The Art of The Story, or whatever. This time it was pretty much a slap in the face for those who weren’t chosen. A backhanded “Some of my best friends are domestic realists but….” And tips for those who just aren’t measuring up to BASS standards. Don’t attempt a triple lutz, which seems to include second person with sudden switches to other POVs, florid or jerky language, generalizations about gender, descriptions of rain that reflect the narrator’s inner state, and something about a barista who ends up naked on top of “me.” I’m not sure why those are triple lutzes; they sound like pretty basic things to avoid, except for the barista which isn’t something I want to even think about (I’m very proud of never having been inside a Starbuck’s or knowingly drunk their coffee). Then she wants writers to choose unfamiliar settings and characters, which seems like my idea of at least a double lutz (I hope everyone knows what a lutz is; it’s a skating move, a relatively difficult jump though a double is pretty routine for any women hoping to go to Nationals, and a triple is pretty much required for Olympic-level skating). Oh, and no stereotypes or characters who serve only to advance your sociopolitical agenda.

What she likes is far more appropriate: ease of language, a sense of intimacy with the writer and/or the story. And then we get the usual thing about what a shame it is that plot has become passe.

Interestingly, this series was in part developed to showcase stories that shunned a ubiquitous sort of plot that had “poisoned” much of the writing at the time, nearly one hundred years ago. But I fear that a new normal has evolved in its place, one conspicuously void of momentum and uninterested in maintaining the reader’s attention. Happily, each story in this year’s edition creates and sustains its own momentum, whether through premise or language, character or even perfectly placed silence. Each writer demonstrates an astonishing understanding of their characters and the worlds in which they live, wherever these worlds may be.

Then Geraldine Brooks does her Introduction. I look forward to these every year. Sometimes I glean a wonderful piece of writing or attitude advice (like Barbara Kingsolver: “Tell me something I don’t already know”). It’s usually fun to read, whatever it is – like Richard Russo’s Isaac Bashevis Singer anecdote culminating in the refrain: “To entertain, and to instruct.” But this one felt like another slap in the face, this time to the one hundred story writers who didn’t make the final cut. They are, of course, listed in the back, as “Other Distinguished Stories of 2011.” According to Ms. Brooks (whom I foolishly confused with Gwendolyn Brooks, wondering why a poet was editing a short story volume and isn’t she 150 years old by now? Of course, Gwendolyn Brooks, who passed away in 2000 at the age of 83 [a perfectly respectable age though not typically the age at which one volunteers for a task like this], was a completely different person, and I felt very stupid about that, not to mention ageist) some of the failing of these 100 also-rans are:

- “those that seemed afraid to tell stories, that handled plot as if it were a hair in the soup;”
– “seemed bleak without having earned it;”
– “the emotional notes were false;”
– “the writing was tricked out or primped up with fashionable devices stressing form over content.”
Or perhaps they did not adhere to her principles, which apparently preclude adultery, bleak outcomes, setting stories in the US, not writing about war, not writing about religion except as humor, not doing enough humor (presumably other than about religion)…

And I wonder which of these failings applies to Molly Antopol’s “The Quietest Man” from One Story; Dan Chaon’s “To Psychic Underworld” or Zachary Mason’s “The Duel,” both from Tin House (the same glorious issue that begat Peter Torrelli); the trio of PEN/O.Henry 2011 winners “The Junction” by David Means, Brad Watson’s “Alamo Plaza,” and “Something You Can’t Live Without” by Matthew Neill Null; or Jim Shepard’s “Poland is Watching” or “The Track of the Assassins” from his collection You Think That’s Bad. Perhaps she’d care to list them. I guess that’s what a Pulitzer Prize gets you – you get to diss writers of this calibre publicly. Maybe she didn’t mean to diss them, this writer who admits she’s never written a short story herself. But she did. There’s a difference between complaining about those nebulous “so many stories today” and letting the reader assume the stories on the long list were different (because that’s what everyone does, every year), and specifically declaring how so many of those long list stories fell short.

All this – plus my usual defensiveness when anyone sets a book in front of me and declares it to be the “best” stories of the year – sets me in a foul state of mind that taints the eagerness I felt on reading those wonderful Contributor Notes. Maybe I’ll go back and read them again. Then I’ll be ready for Page 1.

Note: Thanks to GoogleBooks, you can find the Table of Contents, Foreword, Introduction, and a few tantalizing tidbits of stories online.

Thomas McGuane: “The House on Sand Creek” from The New Yorker, 10/3/2011

New Yorker Art: "Cover" 2002 by Thomas Allen

The feeling came back to me, from the days of our marriage, that I was doomed in life to take a lot of shit and make weak jokes in response.

This is the second Thomas McGuane story I’ve read from The New Yorker; Of the first, “The Good Samaritan,” I said: “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.” This narrator is pretty much the same thing without the bright spot of the alfalfa ranch, but with the addition of a sense of humor. It’s a pretty hilarious story, in a very schlemazel sort of way.

It’s also a character story. The narrator, unnamed (I love that, it fits perfectly), is surrounded by crazy people. His wife-ex-again, Monika – “Monika was not only not a Westerner; she was not even an American. She had been stranded in architecture school by the uproar in the former Yugoslavia, and by the time it was safe for her to go home we had met and planned to marry” – does indeed deal out a lot of shit. But he signed up for it. His Montana house, rented sight-unseen after being abandoned by a defaulting “buckaroo,” comes complete with coyote carcasses and a dead horse and shotgun holes in the bathroom. He’s a lawyer, but just barely:

I was running an underemployed law office that five years earlier had done thirty real-estate closings a month and now did at most two and often none. Booms in real estate came and went, like the weather, except that there always seemed to be plenty of weather.
I am aware that my ability to wittily point out things like this, and to describe the house the way I am describing it, has a lot to do with the fact that Monica left soon after we’d moved in. She abandoned what she contemptuously described as “the Western life style” to return to her parents in Bosnia-Herzogovinia.

His neighbor, Bob, self-described former cowboy, completes the trio:

…Bob, a retired electrician, had not been a cowboy for at least forty-five of his sixty-two years. Further investigation suggested that his cowboy years had occurred somewhere between the sixth and seventh grade and may have lasted just under a month….Bob never shut up, and his facial movements had more in common with those of Soupy Sales than those of John Wayne. A surprising number of his anecdotes culminated in his telling people off, especially members of his own family.”

Turns out Bob’s family is as long gone as his cowboyhood.

Monika returns with a child – a black child, to the narrator’s surprise – from the husband she acquired and dequired. She gives a sort of explanation, complete with her tendency, like Bob, to use facts as mere starting points:

She was perfectly candid about her enthusiasm for food, explaining that her ex was a glutton. “Often when people come from lands of scarce resources their response to abundance is gluttony.”
“A big fellow, is he?” I asked weakly.
“In every way,” she said with a laugh. “You know what a Mandingo is?”
“Is it something to eat?”
“No, idiot! A Mandingo is an African warrior. You’re thinking of a mango.”
“Oh. Is he an African warrior?”
“Hardly. He’s a Nigerian neurosurgeon. But Olatunde has the sort of Mandingo traits that I hope Karel inherits. He’s actually Yoruban.”

Bob’s reaction to Karel is darkly hilarious. At first he thinks the boy has a skin condition. Once he realizes he is actually biracial, he supplies gifts: “A children’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.; James Brown’s “Greatest Hits”; and a pretend leg of fried chicken made out of some rubberlike material. ‘He can actually teethe on it!’ Bob said.” Monika actually shows some insight when she worries about what Karel will face as he grows up: “That was America speaking through Bob.”

There’s more – a cute babysitter, a not-really-kidnapping – that serves as a sort of plot. But character is more or less what this pieces has to offer, I think. And they’re well-done characters. There are a few “memoir voice” lapses into present tense, including the one quoted above and another at the very end. The end point seems to be “and this keeps going on and on for a while” which feels incomplete to me. The narrator’s whole life is allowing himself to be stepped on; I see no movement at all, just the scenery changing around him. Which might be fitting for this passive a narrator.

The Book Bench interview, as usual, gave additional perspective on the story.

I’m fascinated by the way human beings go about their business despite all plausible discouraging information. Comedy provides a bit of distance from this sad business. It can appear, at dark moments, that the condition of every life is some form of Stockholm Syndrome. Still, it’s encouraging that some strong people absorb all this and soldier on: that’s pretty much what the Nigerian neurosurgeon stands for.

I think all the characters in the story absorb whatever’s around them, soldiering on without change despite the chaos – largely self-generated – of their lives; it’s just that the Nigerian neurosurgeon started in a rational spot, whereas Bob, Monika and the narrator are soldiering on in their dysfunction. But I felt very kindly towards him for declaring “the short story is the characteristic American literary form.” Even if every publisher out there will ask, “You got a novel with that?”

The Mystery of Dusk

Forgive me for swiping Zin's art, but...

WordPress is forcing me to switch blog themes.

Change is not my favorite thing; I’ll admit it. But I’ve spent so much time tinkering, figuring out what this widget does or what that button does, and, I’ll say it, I’m proud of this blog. I like the way it looks. I know it’s a little old-fashioned. I knew that when I chose it, and that’s why I liked it – it’s different from the bright colors, the square corners, the flashing “LOOK AT ME” sites I see everywhere. I know “clean” and “streamlined” and “modern” and “sharp” is the way of the world. But isn’t there room for a curved edge, ornamentation, a little antiquing, somewhere?

Apparently not.

So as Dusk gives way for Dusk to Dawn (the “new and improved” version), I have no choice but to comply. And I’m embarrassed to admit I actually cried over this. Not a lot, or for long. But crying over a blog?

In the past 2 ½ years, I’ve had a number of health issues. In fact, I may be the first person in history whose health has declined since quitting smoking. First it was the ruptured disc in my neck, followed by a cascade of one thing leads to another. I saw my first neurologist last Thursday.

And I’m crying over a blog?

This brings to mind my story, “The Mystery of Water.” Maybe the not-so-important is our buffer between now and an ominous future. After all, it’s easier to worry about where the water comes from and where it goes – or about the square corners of a new blog format – than to deal with real stuff. Loss of control over things far more important than a blog format.

So I’ll fret over moving the sidebar to the right side, changing the fonts (again! Oh good grief, it took a solid week to get them right the first time), and adjusting things to tame bright and modern for my tastes. Who knows, maybe I’ll love the result. And if I don’t, is it really that big a deal?

No, of course not. But… yes. It is.

Project Runway Season 9 Episode 12 – The Finale Challenge

"Rust Angel, 2005" Librado Romero photo for the NY Times

Which is not, by the way, the finale. Are we clear? Good, because there’s a bigger mystery coming up at the end.

Prelude:

Josh is sad to lose Bert; it took time to realize who he was. He disses Anya again; how can she get to this stage of the competition without doing a jacket or tailoring? Me, I just wonder how it works, this candid shot of the designers in their apartments: a camera guy comes in and says, “Just go ahead and talk while we film you and put everything you say on tv.” So of course now is the time to complain about Anya’s jacketlessness. Then again, for Josh, any time is the time to complain about Anya and her jacketlessness, as we’ll see. Anya interviews (over shots of the ladies getting ready to leave for Parson’s) knows she’s done particularly well, and has to go forward, so she’s feeling a lot of pressure. Perhaps the pressure of Josh’s hands shoving her under the metaphorical bus. No matter. Anya eats busses for breakfast.

The Challenge:

Heidi asks from the runway: How does it feel to be in the top five?, one of those stupid questions people ask at stupid times. How does it feel to turn seven (or twenty-eight or sixty-two)? How does it feel to win an Academy Award? And then the truly cruel variety favored by reporters: How does it feel to know your family died in a plane crash/fire/murder? To lose everything in a tornado/wildfire/earthquake? When you think about it, these aren’t questions at all, they are markers, either for the audience to realize, oh, Heidi’s telling us it’s the Final Five in a different way, or it’s a space filler because after “Happy Birthday” what do you say to your aunt or the guy in Accounting when all you really want is a piece of cake, or to earn some kind of reporter merit badge which the Guild of Reporters should probably rethink, as it’s pretty stupid. I’m still hoping someone someday will say on a local news broadcast, “Well, it’s too bad about the crash/fire/tornado, but my wife and I were about to separate anyway, my older kid had no use for me since he grew his first pubic hair, and I never connected with my younger kid since I’ve been spending a lot of time at the office, so it’s sad I guess but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”

For the final challenge, they will take the ferry to Governors Island to meet Tim, where they’ll get the details.

Tim introduces them to Governors Island, Playground for the Arts. There’s an abundance of inspiration in the landscape, architecture, and the current exhibit of sculpture by Mark Di Suvero. They should spend an hour to look around, with golf carts, maps, and cameras thoughtfully provided. They will create three diverse looks that demonstrate range, with $500 and two days to work.

Kimberly is drawn to a sculpture titled “New Beginning” because this is her new beginning. Her new beginning? Where does that come from? It sounds like someone’s been getting Reality Show lessons.
Josh, whose brother is in the military, is drawn to the artillerary (aka artillery, but what’s an extra syllable when you can make a jacket). There’s a chapel close to this huge gun, and he likes the stained glass and structure of the church, fragility meets strength and power. Laura notices circular shapes and can’t get a gown made of circles out of her head. Viktor likes the structure and silhouettes, with the city in the background. He’s thinking metropolitan: cigarette pants, leather jackets, draping, something a little flowy like the water in the background, high end. Anya is most inspired by the sculpture, how it creates lines, negative and positive space. She won’t do prints or her usual style, to show the last challenge was not a fluke.

Mood:

Kimberly wants cantaloupe wool, and is struggling to find it. Should there be any doubt, that’s wool in the color of cantaloupe, not a special kind of wool made from cantaloupes, although if they can make Cindy Crawford’s face cream from a rare melon, fabric from cantaloupes shouldn’t be a stretch. I don’t think you could call it wool, though. Maybe you could genetically alter sheep to produce the right color wool. Am I rambling? Yes, because while the Governors Island exhibition and Mark Di Suvero are interesting, this episode is not. Laura discovers a cache of cutout fabrics, and gets one with circles. It’s pretty cool, actually. She interviews she likes the finer things in life, and loves to buy. She ends up with $700 worth, and reluctantly pares it down to $499 and change. Anya gets “a whole range” of black, ivory, and rust. She doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do, but this is the palette.

Workroom:

Laura is thrilled that she won’t have to cut circles out of her fabric, since it’s already cut-out for her. Kimberly sees her orange is a little more orange than she wanted, but she’s going to have to make it work. I really wonder about the lighting at Mood; it’s such a constant issue on PR, I don’t get why they don’t have customers constantly complaining and bringing stuff back.

Tim comes in with the Evil Velvet Bag. Ominous music plays. No, it doesn’t, but it should. Like the Psycho music (get Michael Costello to imitate it), or the Jaws shark theme. He says they would benefit from some help: enter recently eliminated designers Bert, Olivier, Anthony Ryan, Bryce, and Becky. My thought was, ok, Anya’s got this one in the bag. Tim picks names from the EVB and they pick who they want in that order.

Kimberly gets to pick first, and she goes straight for Becky. Yay, Becky! They worked together on the stilts challenge, so Kimberly knows exactly what she’s doing. That must make Becky feel good.
Viktor then picks Olivier. Olivier interviews he has mixed opinions about Viktor (which is the prickiest thing I’ve heard Olivier say in the whole competition – why start now?) but he grew to like him after a rough start. Olivier seems a lot more relaxed and rested; his speech pattern has returned to normal. Well, normal for him. He still has an Asian-British accent but he isn’t mumbling and he speaks in complete sentences so I can again understand what he’s saying.
Laura would love Anthony Ryan. She’s surprised he was still available three picks in. So am I. But we don’t hear much from Anthony Ryan. He’s just not good TV. That’s ok, Anthony Ryan, I think you’re a sweetie.
That leaves Anya and Josh, and they get into it a little for no real reason. He smiles at her, kind of laughs nervously, and she says “What? Don’t fight with me.” He accuses of her being aggressive. That’s his fallback, isn’t it? Anya may be many things, but aggressive isn’t one of them. She doesn’t have to be aggressive. At least she hasn’t needed to be so far on this show. Except… “Are you mad at me” and “don’t fight with me” are pretty passive-aggressive. And they’re right up there with “Do you really love me?” for sheer annoyance value. But he does have a history of giving people trouble. I’d call it a draw.
Anyway, Anya gets fourth pick, and she takes Bert, who thinks they’ll be a good team. She interviews she couldn’t stand him in the beginning but he became someone she enjoyed being around.
Josh gets Bryce by default. Bryce thinks Josh is intense and likes to control. I think Bryce doesn’t really have the standing to be saying much.

They do some stuff. After a while, Bryce interviews, when he left, everybody was loving each other, and now it doesn’t look like the final five even talk to each other; you can feel the tension. I’m not so sure everyone was ever loving each other, but they sure don’t love each other now. Bert‘s having trouble following Anya‘s direction but he’s showing her how to properly make an armhole; Bryce is trying to get Josh to edit; Viktor doesn’t like Olivier doubting him. Olivier sums it up: “I’m working for someone else, not getting paid, you know I don’t really care, I just want to help.” ETA: Turns out, I can’t understand Olivier as well as I thought: he seems to have actually said, “You know they don’t really care, they just want the help.” Which is a completely different thing. I can’t figure out which version he actually said, so it’s up to you. Kimberly keeps changing her mind about stuff, and Becky wonders if that means she doesn’t have a vision.

Tim’s Walkthrough:

Tim notices how quiet the workroom is. He’s worried Laura is overusing the circle fabric. He’s worried Kimberly is making a Statue of Liberty dress. He loves Viktor‘s work so far, finds profound sophistication. He encourages Josh – “you’re a risk taker, otherwise, they’ll think they’ve lost you.” He wants Anya to keep her eye on all the moving parts.

And more of the usual stuff. Josh complains a few more times about Anya not making jackets. He seems pretty fixated on jackets. Has he made a jacket? oh, yeah, he did. Laura pulls the “I’ve wanted to do this since I was eight” out again. Kimberly doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing. And like that. They show a clip of Anya frantic that her look is “all wrong” but I’m not buying into that any more. Anya‘s looks will be perfect and the judges will love them. You can try to drive up the drama, Lifetime, but we all know how it’s going to play out. The comment about seeming nervous and choking will apply to someone else. Kimberly is most likely. Josh tells Bryce he’s almost finished, he just has to do the studwork, leaving Bryce he’s almost finished, he just has to do the studwork, leaving Bryce to quip, “Only when you’re working for Josh M. is studwork involved.” You’d be surprised, Bryce.

If I’ve given short shrift to the workroom segments, it’s because I no longer care. It isn’t like they give any insight into the design process.

The Runway and Interrogation:

Zoe Saldana is guest judge. Apparently in addition to being an actress she’s the cofounder of My FDB, some kind of fashion thing. I think I like Heidi’s dress – black, diagonal, interesting textures – but they don’t show much of it and they keep throwing graphics on top, so it’s hard to tell. I think I like what Nina’s wearing – and I never notice what Nina’s wearing, ever, maybe they’re trying to make her more fashionable – but they keep throwing graphics on her, too.

Josh: his first look is a white dress with black netting at the yoke, and a mostly open back; very nice. Second, not so much, a silver skirt that seems way too full a black vest, and a striped and studded tank top. It does seem like the Josh version of Anthony Ryan’s cheerleader dress from the Real Women challenge. Even Josh recognizes it’s too big and is not flattering; “Oh well, fake it ’til you make it,” he says; so Josh has done the steps too? That’s interesting. Or maybe he just heard it somewhere. Then he has a draped silver gown over a black leotardish thing, it’s fascinating to look at, the way the waist is structured on one side; but do I like it? I can’t decide. Still, fascinating is good. And his first look is my second favorite thing on the runway.
Q&A: he talks about the chapel, the battery, fragility and strength; the shirt with studs is the doors of the battery. The mesh on the dress is harder than the soft fabric. MK gives him credit for diversity, maybe too much, since the girl who wears the draped gown might not wear the rah-rah skirt. He knows Josh is sick of hearing about editing, but he’s going to talk about it anyway. He likes the dress with the mesh, but not the gown. Heidi likes the gown but not the fabric, it looks cheap. She asks if Josh likes the Lurex because it’s shiny. Josh ripostes: “Is that an assumption?” No, ass, it’s a question; when people make assumptions, they don’t phrase them as questions. He liked the feel of the fabric. MK thinks he’s a magpie, he likes glitter and shine and it can go cheap really quickly.
Chat: Nina says she could take the clothes, rearrange them, and shoot them. What? Oh, for the magazine. All that artillerary talk had me confused. Nina thinks he’s fun, though his taste is questionable and too much time does not work in his favor. But he has ideas. MK thinks he may have too many ideas. Heidi says he woke her up. Oh, wait, like, oh, what is this wake up. But I think Heidi just admitted these runways have been very boring this year.

Kimberly: she sends out a Halloween-orange coat. It’s a nice coat, but it’s Halloween orange. She likes the scarf she tied at the collar, which is fine, but come on, it’s a scarf. Second is a silver skirt and an orange halter top with lots of room for the boobs to breathe. Third is a silver cocktail dress that reminds me of the top she made for Nina, there’s something attractive about it even if it does jut out at odd places. And on closer look at the Lifetime Rate the Runway lineup (best seen on the Back view): Aha! This model is wearing those spiked pink shoes I’ve been amazed by all season. Apparently the technique isn’t as rare as I thought; I saw a similar spiking on shoes used by Chris March when he designed a dress for Ruthie Davis using her shoes. These are some scary shoes! I wonder if they can be considered a lethal weapon. Kimberly is satisfied with the runway, the same girl would wear all three looks. Oh, Kimberly, what happened to you? Couldn’t you just do pants? They love your pants.
Q&A: She talks about the “New Beginning” sculpture, how she is inspired by the structure. She hasn’t done a coat before, she wanted to use asymmetry. Zoe loves the top, likes the coat, all in all wow, she took risks. MK thinks her brocade dress is the strongest piece. The coat looks like a souffle that collapsed, it’s an odd color palette, disco Halloween. Heidi sees three different girls, one an exchange student from Holland and anther a crazy party girl in Las Vegas. But she loves the dress. Nina likes the fabric of the dress but not as used on the skirt. Kimberly points out if she’d left it normal, they’d have complained it was normal. Yeah, that’s about the size of it. She gives a little speech: I’m not upset by anything you’ve said, I knew about the imperfections, I’ve had a great time here. Heidi asks if she’s giving a goodbye speech. I think Kimberly is over it.
Chat: Zoe thinks she tried to do something different. Nina defends her, she’s had some really good designs, Heidi points out Nina liked one outfit enough to wear it to work and a book signing. MK says there’s a vibe to what she’s showing us.

Laura: First, a blazer with the circle cutout fabric over white, and a flared white skirt. The skirt is really annoying. Second, a baby-dollish cocktail dress, so flowy as to be limp, and the trim at the bodice doesn’t look good. Her third look is a long gown of the cutout over white, with short black sleeves; I hate the sleeves, the dress slightly reminds me of Mondo’s gown, the one Nina hated, the one that Heidi wore to some premiere only to get skewered by Joan Rivers (I’ve hated Joan Rivers since then). But it’s not wow, the overlay isn’t adhering to the white underfabric. It’s sloppy. And it looks tight at the hips and loose at the waist. The blazer is nice, but the rest, nah.
Q&A: She explains her circles. Heidi notices she seems nervous. Laura starts to cry, goes into The Dream etc. Heidi thinks the gown has a lot of potential. That’s never a good sign, when a finished garment has potential. The skirt looks like she did it in two minutes, which she did. The dress is sweet, but doesn’t go with the rest. Nina likes the lattice-work and the piece of black on the gown, but isn’t crazy about the silhouette of the jacket, and the third look just comes from who-knows-where, doesn’t fit the collection. Zoe loves the hair and bangs, the 80s Addicted to Love look. The third look is a pillowcase. MK thinks the gown is the strongest piece, the blazer is momish looking, and the dress is a laundry bag. He thinks it’s a shame she choked now. Oh come on, she’s been choking all along. You just kept her around for comic relief.
Chat: MK says Laura knows how to make clothes. Nina says something about Spiderman. She’s technically fine but has no range. Heidi is impressed that Laura was crying because she wants it so bad, she has more passion for her because of that. Oh give me a break.

Anya: she sends out a black dress with a high neck and low v in back; a rust pantsuit, and a white gown with a very high slit, it looks awkward, unfitted, like it’s cotton with no give. She’s proud of herself for not using prints for flowiness, except the pantsuit is pretty flowy to me. I know they’re going to love it so who cares what I think. I actually think the pantsuit is pretty nice. So is the black dress, but it’s Return of the Raven. The white dress reminds me of Vincent’s recycled dress. It’s nowhere near as tight or hard to move in, but it’s got the same stiff feel. I’ll give her this: it looks like a collection. And two-thirds of it is nice. In fact, given the state of the other looks, I wouldn’t begrudge her the win.
Q&A: she talks about how sculptures change from different angles and she wanted to do this with clothing. Nina gets this hushed awed tone she frequently uses with Anya. She sees the use of angles, very modern, likes the hair and makeup, it’s a concise collection. Heidi thinks the black dress is great, fashion forward and simple. The white dress, not so much, a bit of a sheet. MK thinks it’s sophisticated, she’s pushing herself, she knew to dress the redhead in rust and give the column gown to the tallest girl. She understands women’s bodies. Zoe thinks it’s futuristic, and she loves science fiction so she’s on board. The gown, however, reminds her of a condom.
Chat: Nina, her clothes are strong enough to not need anything, she has good taste and she’s a quick learner, very impressive. We all know by now that Nina’s the one who gets the final say, so this sounds like Anya has it wrapped up. MK, she went from strictly tropical to urban and modern. Heidi, one of her favorites from the beginning.

Viktor: First look is a blazer with a cascade lapel over skinny pants; second, a semi-plaid grey blouse over a grey draped skirt with a waist-to-hem exposed zipper that I actually like (maybe I’m getting used to the exposed zipper, or maybe it’s the full length that improves it) plus an orange belt (I love this look, I think I wore something similar in high school, which is not a good sign); and third, a very simple cocktail dress which has a funny bulge line around the hip, like the world’s worst panty line. ETA: I see now it’s boning, similar to what a hoop skirt would have around the hem, but it’s at the hip to make the hipline stick out. This could work, but the fabric would have to be a lot stiffer so the boning doesn’t look like boning. I think he’s probably second; I actually like his collection better, except for the boning, but that means it’s way too ordinary.
Q&A: He talks about the buildings behind the sculptures, and how he used the print for that. Viktor, print for building. Heidi is amazed by what he can do. But he doesn’t have enough ideas. Aha! There we go, it’s Viktor who gets Mondo’d. She doesn’t see any one piece to gasp over, that she has to have. Nina loves it, the hair and makeup are phenomenal, touches of orange are great, but he needs to turn up the volume a little, the blouse and skirt are a little secretarial, needs more oomph. Zoe likes the secretarial look, the draping of the skirt makes it more than that. She isn’t crazy about the boning at the hip of the black dress (oh, it’s boning… why would you put boning there? ) MK says it’s the most commercial collection, these are the clothes that are going to sell, they’re polished, tailored, and most could be worn to work. But he wouldn’t mind if the volume got turned up, it needs runway punch.
Chat: Heidi is superimpressed; he can make clothes for the masses. MK hears cash registers ringing, today he was at his most conservative. Nina thought his casting rack was scary. Zoe, he’s a designer. Well, duh, what was your first clue? Sorry, Viktor, you’re toast. Damn, I hope I’m wrong.

They ask the annual question: Why should you go to Fashion Week, and who would you want to go with you? However, it generates some truly interesting answers this time:

Josh says Viktor, because he’s always bringing something unique. And Anya, because she’s able to be free and he respects her. Wow, it was a fall-off-my-chair moment. Josh knows how to play the game after all! I can just see his thought process: “Anya is going to Fashion Week. If I love her, maybe they’ll love me.” It makes me sad. It’s like when Rick Moonen declared “I’m not a tree hugger” in the last round of Top Chef Masters, repudiating and disdaining his sustainable-food reputation for a reality TV show win. He didn’t get the win. Neither will Josh. He was going to Fashion Week, though, all along, at least since his Little Black Dress. He’s just too good as theatre to leave behind.

Kimberly wants to change the face of Fashion Week, change preconceptions of what a designer is and where she comes from. She’d bring Anya, who has grown, and Laura, who also brings something different. Good for you, Kimberly, for staying true to yourself and the Girl Pact.

Anya – pause here. She’s wearing a vest with chain closure over her boobs. She’s as close to naked as you can be on basic cable. They seem to be getting a lot of side shots of those boobs. Maybe this is like when then-candidate Obama did his half-hour commercial the night before the election, just to make sure he had it sewn up. That is all. She thinks she should go because she has a point of view that is solid and unique. She picks Josh because he’s the opposite of her and has a look that is solely his, (and maybe to show she can be nice to the guy who’s been at her all along) and Viktor. So much for the Girl Pact. Because it might be a test of “do you have enough taste to recognize the good designers”. And I suppose she wouldn’t mind being the only girl there. Frankly, she’s right. That’s been the Final Three for a few weeks now, though Josh could’ve blown it at any point.

Laura wants to bring Viktor because his clothes are wearable, and Anya because she has a knack for silhouettes. This has become a game of “Guess the Judge’s Favorites” so sorry, Kimberly.

Viktor talks about being an immigrant from an immigrant family, his mom was a sample maker and he initially wanted to avoid all things fashion but ended up loving it anyway. He wants Josh for his good ideas and tailoring, and Anya for her flowy designs because she’s an amazing designer. Another kiss ass. But Viktor doesn’t need to kiss ass, he must know he’s going to Fashion Week.

The Verdict:

Heidi states clearly only three will be at Fashion Week. Well, that’s already a lie, they’re all at Fashion Week, but three will be on TV. Notice I did not say three will have a chance to win. Though I suppose technically they do.

Anya is in. Big surprise. She interviews she can’t breathe, she has to say to herself, breathe in, breathe out. Not too deeply, or your boobs will fall out.
Viktor is in, though they advise him to pump up the volume.
Joshua is in, and they hope he’ll avoid overworking his collection. He says, “I’m starting to write my book, my story, and someone will look back and research this moment for me.” Honey, let’s not get carried away.l

Then they tell Laura and Kimberly one will create a look and one will not. I’m confused. They haven’t said anyone has to compete further, but now suddenly they have four where just a minute ago they could only have three. Anyway, Kimberly’s in, Laura’s out. Kimberly says, “I say all the time on paper I’m not supposed to be here but I’ve always had a dream bigger than myself.”

Heidi declares Laura to be a great designer and a great person as she gives her the Auf Kiss.

I still don’t understand. Do Josh and Kimberly compete in a mini-runoff before Fashion Week? Do all four compete? This show doesn’t seem to think anyone cares about such trivial details. It’s all about the drama, after all, and any hint that anyone but Anya could win this should be ignored.

Then we get After the Runway, a true waste of thirty minutes. Laura and Kimberly do a catfight about honesty. Olivier shows up and explains about his accent (if you didn’t see his Blogging Project Runway exit interview, he was born in Ohio but moved to Taiwan when he was two. The producers were negligent and cruel to leave that detail out, imho). Becky and Josh have a lot of fun revisiting their fight, and they hug. Josh is upset that he’s seen as a bully because he’s been bullied all his life. Well, that’s where bullies learn, you know. And Nick Verreos shows up and consoles Laura by telling her he was fifth, too. And look, he has a blog and does fifteen-second spots on all kinds of random shows.

Next week, Tim does home visits, always fun. I still don’t know how – or if – they plan to go from four to three.