Pushcart XXXV (2011): Final Thoughts

I was awed by this anthology. And chagrined that I’ve never read a Pushcart volume before. I’ve got 2012 ready and waiting for me at my fiercely independent local bookseller.

I skipped over the non-fiction and poetry, since I wanted to finish the anthology before the end of the year (making this a fitting post for New Year’s Eve). I’ll go back and pick it up, based on the strength of the fiction.

Stories I found to be amazingly wonderful:
Deb Olin Unferth, “Pet
Jess Row, “Sheep May Safely Graze
Anthony Marra, “Chechnya
Elliot Holt, “Fem Care
Seth Fried, “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre

To be honest, I could fit many more stories into this category (“The Cousins” by Charles Baxter, “Two Midnights in a Jug” by Marc Watkins, “Final Dispositions” by Linda McCullough Moore, “Three Buddhist Tales” by Marilyn Chin), but I had to draw a line somewhere.

Stories that made me shake my head and wonder why they were included
Tony Earley, “Mr. Tall“. There’s always one. There has to be, to keep me honest.

Authors I’ve read more of since reading their stories here:
Seth Fried (“Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre”); I read his collection, The Great Frustration and loved it. He also had a flash on the Tin House Flash Fridays blog.
Caitlin Horrocks (“Stealing Small”); I read “The Sleep” in BASS 2011, and “Sun City” in The New Yorker, very much liked them. For some reason I have no desire to read her collection, though.
Elliot Holt (“Fem Care”); I read an online short story, “The Norwegians” which didn’t do much for me. I’d like to read more by her.
Anthony Marra (“Chechnya”); I read one of the online short stories (“Typhoon”) he has on Narrative; it didn’t work for me at all, a combination of my distaste for stories and sentences beginning with “The girl” or “the man” and possibly reading online with his picture (very very young; very very nerdy) gazing at me; I’m going to print it off and see if it works better for me.
Deb Olin Unferth (“Pet”); her flashes “Minor Robberies” and “Passport” are on AGNI Online are pretty strange and wonderful; I need time to absorb them.

Authors I plan to read more of:
Linda McCullough Moore (“Final Dispositions”); I’d like to read the collection This Road Will Take Us Closer To the Moon
Jess Row (“Sheep May Safely Graze”) has a story in BASS 2011 I’m looking forward to, and I’m very interested in his collections.
Anthony Marra (“Chechnya”) has some online stories at Narrative I have bookmarked. I’ll print them off before I read, and try not to picture him as a 12-year-old.
Joe Meno (“Children Are The Only Ones Who Blush”) has a couple of collections I have on my read list, from having read “An Apple Could Make You Laugh” during Zin’s Second Person Study.
Deb Olin Unferth (“Pet”) though I’m nervous, since she’s kind of over my head, like Charles Baxter and Steven Millhauser. And Minor Robberies, her story collection, was published by McSweeneys, with whom I have an uneven history. But I will gird up my loins, and attempt to rise to the occasion.

I’m not using as many categories as I did for the BASS 2010 and PEN/O.Henry 2011 summaries, but in general, I found these stories to be less traditional. There were more risks, more unusual structures, characters, settings, and approaches. I like that. But if someone’s firmly wed to traditional realism, it might not be the right volume to read; the others would be preferable.

The Introduction by Bill Henderson created quite a stir on the Zoe workshop main discussion board. Apparently he doesn’t care for online venues. I believe he called them “fake literature.” That’s odd, since at least two of my favorites is available online only, and several more in the collection is available online. I think we’re still in a period of transition, and print is still seen as superior by many of the veterans of literature. And the Pushcart volume, remember, was aimed at championing the small print magazine, the “small presses.” Not everyone considers the Internet itself to be a “small press.” And to be honest, there’s a lot of junk out there. Come on, I could start an online litmag tomorrow, and nominate three of my own stories (or those of my friends) for a Pushcart. There is reason for caution. Calling online fiction “fake literature” is, I think, going too far.

I’m looking forward to the 2012 volume.

BASS 2011: Richard Powers, “To The Measures Fall” from The New Yorker, 10/18/10

You take it down and begin to browse. You stop to fix dinner for your husband, who, an invalid of high modernism, cannot fix it for himself. But you’re back at Wentworth until four a.m., when you end up at the bottom of the South Downs gravel pit, 1920, your throat feeling as if you’d been taking swabs at it with a pipe cleaner. You don’t know what hurts more: the swirling moral turbulence of the book, or the belated discovery that everything you thought about it was wrong. You missed it all: register, mood, irony, ambiguity, subtleties, of characterization, narrative arc, even basic plot points. You can’t read. It’s like finding out, at thirty, that you’re adopted.
You’re not yet sure that it’s great literature. But the thing took you underwater and held you there for the better part of thirteen hours, and two days later you’re still winded.

It’s the story of a relationship between a reader and a book, and how that relationship changes over time. And it’s every bit as gripping as any story of any relationship. I loved this story. Yes, I know: it’s second person, for god’s sake! It’s gimmicky, with all those questions at the ends of each section! Yes, and yes. And I love it. Deal with it.

The relationship starts when the unnamed narrator (or, “you” – it is second person) is in England for a college semester – “Year One of a life newly devoted to words” – and comes across a book, To The Measures Fall, in a junk shop. Doesn’t that just sound like a book title? Opaque, elegant. It’s a nice-looking book, tooled leather cover, “a sweeping portrait of rural England before and after the First World War.” The author is unknown, but the first sentences generate interest. It’s overpriced, however, and this student is, as students often are, on a tight budget.

The shop’s owner is a beaked old man with a gray hairline like a a cowl slipping off his head. It’s humiliating to bargain with him, but you’re desperate.
How much do you offer the junk store owner for his used book?
You are, by the way, female. Lots of folks think you shouldn’t be out biking alone, even in the Cotswolds,. See pages 214 to 223 of Mr Wentworth’s epic.
How much would you have offered for the book had you been male?

I’ll admit, he got me. I’d been thinking of the second-person narrator as male, partly because the writer is male, and partly because, well, I’m embarrassed, because she seemed independent and adventurous and therefore male. You think you’ve developed some sense of equity and find out, nope, not really. I could blame it on the time period (spring of ’63, when college girls were not independent or adventurous, and rarely went bicycling, certainly not alone through the English countryside). I was a little peeved. But he got me fair and square.

That is, by the way, the gimmickry of this story: at the end of each section, there’s a question in bold. I’m fascinated by this: is the writer asking the reader? The narrator? Is the narrator asking the reader? Is the narrator asking herself, is it a rhetorical question? I love it.

The story continues with the student, having purchased the book in spite of the price, returning to the States, and being faced with a decision: only forty-four pounds of luggage is allowed, so which books to leave behind? She debates: Who knows how long Updike will be read? (hah!) Some might be hard to find. And the final question of this section: “Choose which two books get dumped forever.” I find it an engaging technique. And haven’t we all gone through similar choices, when our bookshelves sag and we must clean out a little space.

We follow the student in this way through grad school, marriage, abandonment of her thesis, switch to law school, divorce, career, remarriage (“to a big police-procedural fan in corporate litigation”), children, aging, retirement, discovery of a terminal illness. Historical landmarks are provided to keep us oriented (the Gulf of Tonkin, Somalia) and to some degree trends in literature are noted as well. Mostly, though, the woman keeps encountering the book, re-reading it, imagining a signature on the cover is Churchill’s (the signature turns out to be that of a sheep farmer named Cleanleach), reading it to her daughter, reissue and a movie starring Emma Thompson. She keeps seeing different things, new things, every time she reads it. Don’t we all have books like that? Because that’s what reading is: books interact with us, and since we are different throughout our lives, since we know different things and see the world through different lenses as our experiences pile up, since the world itself is different and what once seemed absurd suddenly is taken for granted and vice versa, we read the same book differently over time. All of our relationships, after all, change over time.

It ends with our student, more than forty years after we first met her, on her deathbed, struggling to read a few pages:

This time, the book is about the shifting delusion of shared need, our imprisonment in a medium as traceless as air. It’s about a girl who knew nothing at all, taking a bike ride through the Cotswolds one ridiculous spring, mistaking books for life and those roiling hills of metaphor for truth. It’s about a little flash, glimpsed for half a paragraph at the bottom of a left-hand page, that fills you with something almost like knowing.
A freak snow hits late that year. You lie in bed, an hour from your next morphine dose, your swollen index finger marking a secret place in the spine-cracked volume, the passage that predicted your life. For a moment you are lucid, and equal to any story.
Score the world on a scale from one to ten. Say what you’d like to see happen, in the sequel.

Powers wrote this story as part of an assignment he gave a class he was teaching: write a story that blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction. I’m not sure that’s how I’d describe this. But I’m glad he wrote it anyway.

Project Runway All-Stars: Preview

It’s almost time. Next Thursday, January 5th, Project Runway All-Stars begins. Somehow, in spite of my disgust at what PR has become and the rage the last two seasons have caused me, I’m still excited. It’s like a lover you know will leave you crying, but you can’t help give it one more chance.

The staff will be different this season: Angela Lindvall will play Heidi, Isaac Mizrahi will stand in for Michael Kors and Georgina Chapman for Nina, and Marie Claire editor Joanna Coles will reinterpret Tim Gunn. If that last phrase doesn’t discourage me, nothing will. I doubt Tim Gunn ever told anyone that if someone came into work dressed in a certain way, everyone would spend the day whispering about her and she’d be summarily fired. Tim Gunn would never conceive of such behavior in the workplace.

Take a look at the official Lifetime Previews to form your own sense of who’s going how far. You’ll find, for each designer, an Interview and a Recent Work Portfolio to make it easier to catch up.

Austin Scarlett (New York, NY) – Season One, Fourth Place
Website: austinscarlett.com
He got screwed out of the finals by that twit Nancy O’Dell (still haven’t forgiven her) and because the first season didn’t have any decoys, he never got a PR runway show. But he’s done pretty well for himself. He’s creative director at Kenneth Poole for bridal and evening, does a lot of costuming with various theatre and dance groups, and shared the TV show On The Road with Santino (as well as many other appearances, including Say Yes To The Dress except the bride decided she loved Austin but not his wedding gowns… oops). If he’s learned to tame his over-the-top costume urges, he could do very well – and on the PR website, he claims his aesthetic “has grown more sophisticated yet dynamic and imaginative” (and his Recent Portfolio is pretty great – glam, though, not edgy). He’s certainly someone they’ll want to keep around for the fans. He’ll last until the final 5.

Kara Janx (New York, NY) – Season Two, Fourth Place
Website: karajanx.com
She’s very down-to-earth, sportswear-oriented; she lacks a wow factor but has an eye. She’s tried to keep her media profile up as well, including a recent guest appearance on the inane Rocco’s Dinner Party. According to her bio, she was recently named International Sportswear Designer of the Year (though I can’t find anyone who claims to have given that title to her), and is known for her kimono dresses and color combinations (they’re shown in her Recent Portfolio, and they are pretty striking). I think she’ll come in 7th place.

Elisa Jimenez (New York, NY) – Season Four, Tenth Place
(no website I can find)
Yes, the spitmark girl. Of this, she says: “The most remembered aspect of me from season is the Hunger World blessing mark, a.k.a. saliva transfer from fingertip to fabric. Only television could reduce an admirable and talented independent career of some 14-plus years into the girl that spits on clothes.” For the record, I do not consider her reduced to that, merely shorthand-characterized by it. And considering what some contestants are remembered for, it’s quite sweet. She was, for me, one of the most likeable and interesting contestants ever. Apparently Vogue named her one of today’s emerging designers, though I’m unable to find out exactly when; this may have been back in 2001, before PR. I’m surprised she’s doing this show. When asked who she’d consider her dream client (most other contestants picked famous celebs and fashionistas) she picked “journalist Tara Sutton, who assisted, with others, in the dangerous act of helping women and children flee Iraq on the eves before the war. She received an Amnesty International Award recognizing her work.” I don’t expect her to stick around long – this isn’t her venue, nor should it be – but maybe she’ll be kept on for novelty value, which is fine by me. 10th place.

Rami Kashou (Los Angeles, CA) – Season Four, Runner-up
Website: ramikashou.com
Rami annoyed the judges by designing three draped gowns over the course of the season (this was pre-Lifetime – Ahh, remember the good old days, when designers had to be able to design and sew different things?). But he’s serious talent, and they knew it. It’s a shame he was in the same season as Christian (I’d put Jillian in that club, too), because it’s galling that Gretchen, Anya, and a couple of others whose names I’ve forgotten are PR winners and Rami is not. He’s self-taught, but it never shows. His Recent Work portfolio is brilliant – he does with fabric what Mozart did with notes. He has a serious career in several venues (greeting cards, reality tv). He’s a serious contender to win. If he’s less than second, something’s very wrong. Which is like saying something’s wrong with spoiled milk.

Sweet P/Kathleen Vaughn (Pasadena, CA) – Season Four, Fifth Place
Website: sweetpvaughn.com
The peacock dress, the WWF hospital jonny. I’m not sure how she got as far as she did. Sadly, I don’t think SweetP’s fashion design career has blossomed since. She’s not even designing clothing any more; she’s a makeup artist. Her website has a distinctly amateur feel to it. She’s absolutely good people (I’m puzzled that she names Kenley as one of her favorite co-contestants), but I don’t think she’s going to last very long. Not long at all, like maybe first out. But it’ll be nice to see her.

Kenley Collins (Brooklyn, NY) – Season Five, Second Runner-up
Website: kenleycollins.com
Kenley could be a strong contender for Most Annoying PR Contestant Ever. Possibly for Most Annoying Reality Contestant. Definitely for Chalk-on-a-Blackboard-Voice. Sure, there’s Wendy Pepper and Omorosa, but they were playing characters. I think Kenley is honestly clueless at how abrasive she is, and she isn’t interested in listening to anyone. Had she paid the slightest attention to the judges, she probably would’ve won her season. It isn’t like the competition was that high (I still think it was the weakest season in terms of talent, even weaker than the Lost Season Six). The single uncredited Press entry on her website, and the gap since her last collection, makes me think her career isn’t exactly soaring. The PR Q&A confirms this: she’s mostly been singing with a band and managing a restaurant. It’s a shame, because girl can put together some clothes. She could go far if she is willing and able to show some versatility beyond her love of 50s dresses. I’m puzzled as to why she’s signed up if she isnt’ designing; for the appearance fee? If Joanna Coles is mentor, Kenley won’t get away with dissing her the way she did Tim. Maybe she’s going to pull a Tiffani Faisson and reinvent her image. I had her pegged for the Final 5 until I read her lackadaisical Q&A; now after reading her lackadaisical PR interview, I’m wondering if she walks out or is cut very, very early.

Jerell Scott (New York, NY) – Season Five, Fourth Place
(no website I can find)
Jerell is similar to Austin and Michael Costello in taste: over the top glam. He doesn’t pull it off as well; he tends towards heavy and overdone. Not much to google after Spring 2009 – the website jerellscottdesign is for a website designer. His Q&A claims he’s been designing for big names, so I’m puzzled. But I fear he’s a strong contender for first elimination.

Gordana Gehlhausen (San Diego, CA) – Season Six, Fourth Place
Website: shopgoga.com
Another of the Good Gals. I couldn’t help but root for her. Unfortunately, her designs were wildly inconsistent – her remade wedding dress was terrific, her final dress beautiful, but that suit Michael Kors called an office worker in Poland… he was right. 1940 Poland. She might be someone who needs more time than is allowed in this format; but she’s got the stuff. She seems to be doing much the same thing as last time, running a boutique of her own clothing, though she’s moved to San Diego. 8th place.

Mila Hermanovski (Los Angeles, CA) – Season Seven, Second Runner-up
Website: milahermanovski.com
She could hang on quite some time, with her strong graphics and black-and-white aesthetic. I never got what they saw in her, myself, but I’m fashion-challenged. And I dislike her personna (inasmuch as you can dislike anyone known through such a tenuous medium in such an edited way) for reasons I don’t really understand; I get this smarmy first-grade teacher vibe from her. 6th place.

Anthony Williams (Atlanta, GA) – Season Seven, Fifth Place
Website: anthonylwilliams.com
An absolute sweetheart, and hilarious. It brought him far in Season Seven, where he made the same cocktail dress over and over. Whether it’ll do the same here remains to be seen. I’m dubious about his ability to compete with some of the talent here. Still, when asked his strengths and weaknesses, instead of considering his aesthetic or lack of skill in one area, he says: “My weakness would have to be letting the wrong people stay too long and the right people leave too fast.” How can you not love this guy? He also says he packed more stylishly this time, rather than practically as he did first time around. I can’t wait to see the matching bags and shoes. Though I’d love to see him stay a while, I think he’s up for first out.

April Johnston (Savannah, GA) – Season Eight, Fifth Place
Website: mangledcourtesan.com
I adore that she calls her line “Mangled Courtesan.” She seems to be doing very well locally. Thing is, everything she did on Season 8 that wasn’t asymmetric black cutout failed. If she’s developed just a couple of new ideas since then (and, at 22, she’s got plenty of time to develop new ideas), she could do very well. She thinks in stories, and that will serve her well. Top 5.

Michael Costello (Palm Springs, CA) – Season Eight, Fourth Place
Website: michaelcostellocouture.com
Michael was the co-star of Season 8, but it had nothing to do with his clothes. He was cast as the victim left, right, up, and down. I think he got a free pass on the bridesmaid’s dress remake (I hate to agree with Gretchen, but it was a mess, and it was way too short) and the Statue of Liberty dress (it was NOT flattering to the model’s back, no matter what Heidi said). His taste is opulent evening wear, too much for me. There’s something about him you’ve got to love. Mostly I’m afraid he’s going to make an ass of himself. But I don’t think he’s going far. 9th place.

Mondo Guerra (Denver, CO) – Season Eight, Runner-up
Website: lovemondotrasho.com
When did you fall in love with Mondo? For me, it was when he said “I was being a dick.” Though that was set up by his admission that he was really lonely. And Mary Tyler Moore as inspiration. And of course the pants put him in the Hall of Fame of everyone’s heart forever, and it had nothing to do with design. Mondo is The Reason For the Season. Unless he’s completely imploded and developed a fondness for crochet doilies or polyester (or Joanne Coles wants to tank Marie Claire and Lifetime is giving up on PR), he’s a lock for the final 2; I do think Rami is legitimate competition, with a completely different aesthetic.

I expect to be completely wrong about everything; I usually am, and I don’t exactly have my finger on the pulse of the fashion world. But it’s such a fun game, I can’t help but play.

BASS 2011: Ricardo Nuila, “Dog Bites” from McSweeney’s

McSweeney's Issue 36

McSweeney's Issue 36

Dad was explicit about everything growing up. I was treated like an adult from as far back as I remember. For instance, I knew exactly what happened to Mom.
“Your mother works as a nurse in Rwanda. There was a genocide there and she felt herself morally obligated to help out,” he told me. “To this day she continues her work there.”
This was when I was in second grade.
“Do you understand?”

This struck me as a strange story, though it really isn’t, it just reads that way. It’s told in memoir voice, and somehow the exposition and backstory gets all twisted up with the “now” of the main events, at least for me. But it’s a fascinating character study of a father and his son, Ricky. I liked it more on second read. It’s quite possible it just took me a while to enter into the “world” of the story. Maybe if I keep reading it (which isn’t an unattractive prospect), I’ll eventually love it.

The father is a doctor, an unrepentant pedant who carries an array of markers in his shirt pocket so he can teach at the drop of a hat. His son may or may not have some kind of mental or neurological condition. At some points it seems a bit like temporal lobe epilepsy, except he claims his silence could go on for a couple of months. His physician father keeps finding a new “Syndrome X” to describe it, where “X” is whatever is popular at the time – Asperger’s, Munchausen’s, Rett’s.

Dad claims to be quite honest with Ricky in all matters, explaining his condition, and the absence of his mother, as described above early in the story. Ricky is about 11 in the “now” of the story, and he doesn’t remember his mother, so I’m a bit dubious about this explanation. I wonder if Ricky is dubious as well. It’s not something given a lot of emphasis after the above quoted paragraph, and I wonder if this is one of those inconsistencies about his father that he overlooks. Dad’s honesty is quite suspect; while he does deal in factual matters, it seems to me he’s stacking the deck a bit. How is a seven-year-old supposed to understand that his mother is off doing humanitarian work, and never calls or writes? It’s this unreliability that makes the story tick, but also contributes to that air of peculiarity, I think.

The main event of the story is a birthday party of a fellow Little Leaguer, Billy. The events don’t quite make sense to me. They’re not bizarre, really – Ricky opens all of Billy’s birthday presents while everyone’s out playing baseball; the Doctor gets elbowed in the head and is sent to the Emergency Room where a woman dressed only in a towel cuts in line claiming she has dog bites. The falsity of the “dog bites” claim has a significance that I sense but don’t quite grasp; it’s reflected in a flash-forward to Ricky’s own son. Something about things looking like one thing, but being another, misinterpretation, lying about what has hurt you, which may tie in with Dad’s explanation of Mom’s absence. It all left me feeling a bit off-balance.

It’s the kind of story that hangs with me, puzzling me rather than moving me. It’s a smooth and engrossing, if initially confusing, read, kind of like a train ride through a series of tunnels: glimpses of interesting things along the way but at the end of the ride I don’t have a real framework to hang them on as a whole. The Doctor is fascinating; I think he’s playing at honesty, and cheating when it gets hard. There’s a section where he talks about marrying a good-looking woman, and as narrated, Ricky thinks Dad is talking about Billy’s father, but I think it’s more ambiguous than that. And I wonder who has the subtle neurological or mental condition. Especially since Ricky enters the Air Force, then becomes a doctor himself, and has a little son who bites him. It’s a little cycle there.

This story was in the “head-crate” issue of McSweeney’s, as described here by Paul Debrasky of I Just Read About That:

With McSweeney’s #36, it’s like they made my conceptual ideal. Its weird packaging is fantastic and the contents are simply wonderful. But let’s start with the obvious: this issue comes in a box. And the box is drawn to look like a head. You open up the man’s head to get to the contents. Brilliant. The head is drawn by Matt Furie (with interior from Jules de Balincourt’s Power Flower.

There’s a line in the story, after the Doctor is injured: “The brain is in a box, son.” At the time, Ricky takes that to mean he has bleeding in his brain (and that Ricky is able to diagnose such a thing at age 11 is testament to the Doctor’s teaching ability). And the story came packed in a box… I think this may intrigue me most.

The author is a physician, and in the Contributor Notes describes having an experience similar to the one in the story: he was conked in the head playing wiffleball, and at the emergency room encountered a woman similar to the character. Presumably the characters are fictional. They do have a rather distinct air of quirky fictional people about them, almost sitcom characters – maybe that’s my biggest problem with this piece. They aren’t realistic enough to be one thing, nor outrageous enough to be another. But they do stay with me, still.

Pushcart 2011: Marilyn Chin, “Three Buddhist Tales” from Black Renaissance Noire Fall 2009/Winter 2010

Black Renaissance Noire, Fall 2009/Winter 2010

Black Renaissance Noire cover, Fall 2009/Winter 2010

The dead and the living shall bury themselves and be reborn over and over, with the same lust for life, the same fury. The egg-born, the womb-born, the moisture-born, those with form, those without form, those with consciousness, those without consciousness, those how are neither conscious nor unconscious: All singing together, in one loud hissing harmony.

Hello, I am Zin, and this is the second story my writing pal Dwayne (hello, Dwayne!) will be studying at The Writers Studio in January! I hope he will add to my understanding and appreciation!

Each tale includes a Buddhist parable, and a modern real-life application, and in the first two cases, a meditation that ties them together and emphasizes the point of the section. This is a lovely piece! It is one of those stories where underlining does not work, because every word is important, which is maybe one definition of an excellent story!

It is helpful to have some understanding of Buddhism, at least the aspects covered here; I am not sure it is essential. I did look up some details, like the symbolism of the animals, and the moon haiku, but I have some vague familiarity with Buddhist concepts. There are many sites that explain such things if you wish. One basic concept is the Eightfold Path; desire (and attachment, the consequence of desire) is important in these stories.

CICADA has a nice little A-B-A-coda structure. It starts with (A) a Buddhist parable about the cicada (a symbol of rebirth) who is so enjoying his brief life that he does not see the mantis, who so enjoys his meal he does not see the cat, who does not see the hawk. There is a transition (B) to Jack, who finds his dead cat and becomes a contractor in Iraq where so enjoys an Almond Joy bar he does not notice the sniper who is so overcome with joy at his successful kill he does not see the helicopter, and the pilot finds her husband has run off with a higher-ranking officer and she sits alone in despair listening to the cidadas…see, a nice little circular thing there! And then the above quoted section acts as a coda, and we are all together in this, all life, one We.

PIGLETS also starts with a parable about the piglets whose mother dies, but they do not realize it, and one has a harder time than the others realizing she is gone. There is a brief meditation, an aside to a higher power:

Why, Great Matriarch, shall there always be those who cannot recognize their mother when she is still whole and those who cannot detach even when she has been shattered? Why this eternal contradiction?

And then we hear the story of the piglet who could not detach, except she is a hallucinating vagrant; this is the link between the parable and the example. She thinks someone is Mei Ling but she is wrong. A closing meditation addresses the reader, and the writer tells us: “She survives to remember.” I am not sure what this means, but it is a beautiful coda. So the structure is similar but not identical to the CICADA: A-Meditation-B/A-Coda.

RYOKAN’S MOON is a more traditional narrative, but it is based very deeply in a story about the Buddhist monk Ryokan: a thief broke into his humble hut and could find nothing to steal! When Ryokan returned, he felt bad for the thief, so took off his clothes and gave them to the thief so he would not leave empty-handed. Then he sat naked and saw the moon (a symbol of enlightenment) and regretted he did not give him the moon. He then wrote a famous haiku:

The thief left it behind:
the moon
at my window

That is so beautiful! Haiku are much more complex than just counting syllables!

So back to the story! It is about Mei Ling (aha, the connection to PIGLETS) who has gone camping with her boyfriend, and he is off doing something. A junkie comes to her camp and tells her to take her clothes off, and she tells him to go rob someone else. He leaves, then comes back, and she gives him her clothes, because she wants to have the right intention and the right action, which are important concepts in Buddhism! Right intention involves resisting desire, resisting aversion, and resisting aggression! Right action is to not hurt others (including animals!), not steal or lie, and not using sex for evil. The thing is, true wisdom is like breaking the letter of the law to preserve the spirit. The “creep” (as he is referred to in the story) leaves. He comes back again to rape her, and she tells him she has crabs, and shows him the blue marks the medicine has left, and he leaves. She then thinks about Ryokan and realizes she is not as enlightened because she wants the moon all to herself.

This is a very complex idea. Is she lying about the crabs? Is it ok to lie so he will not rape her? If she allows him to rape her, is it rape? Does being enlightened mean anyone can have sex with you? Of course not! So this might be an example of breaking the letter of the law to preserve the spirit! I am not sure, though, I need a Buddhist monk to explain this to me! But this is supposed to be a story, not a religion lesson!

I think the structure, and the transitions and connections, are the interesting part of this story! I am not sure, however, why this is an exceptional example of this kind of thing, and I am pretty sure there are other stories like this out there. I enjoyed it very much, it touched my heart and my mind, but I am at a loss to analyze it, so I hope Dwayne will help!

BASS 2011: Steven Millhauser – “Phantoms” from McSweeney’s #35

McSweeney's, Issue #35

McSweeney's, Issue #35

The Phantoms, which some call Presences, are not easy to distinguish from ordinary citizens: they are not trnanslucent, or smokelike, or hazy; they do not ripple like heat waves, nor are they in any way unusual in figure or dress. Indeed they are so much like us that it sometimes happens we mistake them for someone we know…. They themselves appear to be uneasy during an encounter and switftly withdraw. They always look at us before turning away. They never speak. They are wary, elusive, secretive, haughty, unfriendly, remote.

I want so badly to like Steven Millhauser. This is the second of his stories I’ve read recently, and I’m not really seeing the appeal. I enjoyed “Miracle Polish” considerably more than this piece. I think I’ll read his new collection, “We Others: New and Selected Stories” and see if I can develop whatever sense it is that makes him so highly revered by people I highly revere.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the BASS people want to make sure each annual volume contains a variety of stories, so they encourage – perhaps require – that perhaps a couple of non-traditional narratives are included. Maybe they want one speculative fiction story. With this story, they get two quotas for the price of one. Of course, I could be overcomplicating the process.

It’s written in the form of a report, describing the phenomonon of Phantoms in a small town. It’s broken into sections, including multiple Explanations (with evidence against each one) and Case Studies. I tried looking at is as a portrait of a small town, but that didn’t really work. Is there some significance to the study of things we don’t understand? Of course, but that seems like too small a payoff. The phantoms depicted in the case studies behave in different ways (probably why they were chosen as case studies; you wouldn’t pick all the same types of encounters, after all) and the people who experience them vary widely as well. I don’t even find it to be a particularly interesting examination of astral phenomena. I feel like a failure.

There are people who love cilantro, and those who insist it tastes like soap. This has led to speculation about a “cilantro gene.” Maybe I’m missing the Millhauser gene. That thought makes me sad. So I’ll keep trying. Eventually, I’ll get it.

Addendum: This story is also in the Pushcart 2012 volume, making me feel even more stupid.

And again: it’s in the 2012 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories anthology too; three for three. I still don’t get it.

Zin Murders Your Darlings!

It is not easy to write about joie de vivre!

Hello, I am Zin! No, I have not gone on a homicidal rant – I am a gentle Zin! But I have a guest post on the blog Cortney Bledsoe writes, and the title of the blog is “Murder Your Darlings.” Cortney is not homicidal either – he is a very kind, imaginative poet-writer and high school teacher and he and his wife are about to celebrate their first Christmas with their new baby daughter! The phrase “Murder your darlings” was coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch a long time ago and refers to the final edit of a manuscript, when you must cut out everything that is not absolutely essential – and it feels horrible, especially to someone like me who tends to blather on! That is why my posts are so rambling, I do not edit them the way I edit my stories (though I do some editing, believe it or not!).

I “met” Cortney when I received my contributor copy of Pear Noir 4 (with my story “Harold”) and it included a Postcard of his prose-poem “18.” I wish I could provide a link to the piece, it is magnificent, but as far as I know it is only on that postcard! Another of his powerful and disturbing stories, “The Baby,” is featured on my “Online Fiction Etc. to Read and Love” page. He has published several collections of poetry and stories, and a young adult novel, and he edited and ran the well-respected online literary magazine Ghoti for several years (and we have the rejection notices to prove it!). I was surprised he had a blog just like an ordinary person might, and turns out he is an ordinary person! Except he writes really, really well!

Over the past several months, Cortney has been publishing both his own posts (on Mondays) and guest posts and interviews (on Thursdays). I have been following along, and was very happy when he asked me for a post about something that gave me joie de vivre! Except I froze! Like stage fright! So I wrote about the experience itself, because when I am overwhelmed by emotion while writing, I try to incorporate the feeling into what I am writing (I believe it will be incorporated anyway, so I might as well do it on purpose), and that seemed like a good way to handle this assignment!

I am honored to be included in this blog! Thank you, Cortney!

Top Chef Texas: Episode 8 – Tribute Dinner

Bigfoot

Coming up... Bigfoot Goulash

We start with last week: before the chefs have rehydrated from all that sweating in the Kitchen from Hell, Padma strolls in. I just noticed (actually, I noticed it on the 8pm repeat tonight) Padma’s wearing a tracheostomy tube. Or maybe it’s a rabbit’s foot on a dog collar, or six inches of penis. Or a Bigfoot penis. I don’t know what it is masquerading as jewelry around her neck. But its awful. I’m surprised I didn’t notice it last week. I think I was so traumatized by the yellow jeans in the Quickfire, I blocked out everything else she wore that night. Lindsay interviews she hopes they’re not going to have to cook more; she wants out of the 140 degree kitchen. Padma tells them to pack their bags, they’re going to Austin. Sarah loves Austin, it’s a city of music, food, and fun. Paul‘s happy since it’s his home town, he’s happy to represent.

ChrisC gets the product placement line (“We all hop in our blahdedy blah cars…”) and en route, we learn he’s been christened Malibu Chris because of the extraordinary care he takes to make his hair look good. There’s also a light-hearted mock interview asking Heather what kind of guy she’s looking for, and would she pick a night with John Tesh or $5000 and immunity. She takes the night with John Tesh (big mistake, Heather), which confuses me completely until I realize it’s John Besh they’re talking about. I’m still confused – I don’t get the attraction – but at least I understand where they picked him from. It’s still the wrong decision.

She interviews, “You know, I’m 40, and I sometimes wonder where would I be if I’d started a family ten years ago?” I wonder if that has something to do with her attitude towards Beverly. The plot thickens. Is Beverly is the first female TC contestant to have a child? A few of the guys – Blais, the Volts – had kids, but none of the women. (eta: thanks to Laura for correcting this – there have been several female contestants with children, most notably, Antonia who mentioned her daughter so many times, I’m embarrassed I forgot.)

We learn Paul was a weed dealer when he was younger – age 15 to 22, which is too wide a span to be the proverbial rough period in his life – and one day he came home to find his apartment trashed, and his dog crapped all over the place, so he moved to Austin and decided to be a cook. I’m not sure what the connection is between dog crap and Austin and cooking, but it’s very interesting backstory. So many impressive cooks started out as shady characters you wouldn’t want your daughter to date. Looking at you, Bourdain.

They meet up with Padma and Tom in the Le Cordon Bleu kitchen in Austin. I see, they’re going from Le Cordon Bleu to Le Cordon Bleu, wandering around Texas. But this is the last stop until they go to wherever the finale is being held.

Quickfire:

Padma gives them a quick history of Twitter, how it was unveiled in 2007 at the SXSW conference. They’re going to take Twitter suggestions for Quickfire challenges. This sounds pretty half-assed to me, since this happened months ago so it isn’t like it’s interactive with viewers now. ChrisJ says the cooks at Moto twitter back and forth with their customers while they’re cooking their dinners, send them live pictures of their meals being prepared to get them interested in the very expensive food they’ve already ordered. I’d rather have them cooking my food than tweeting me about it. Maybe the food at Moto isn’t the point, and that’s why ChrisJ can’t seem to cook his way out of a paper bag. The QF winner will get $10,000 but no immunity. What happened to immunity this season? I understood it last week with the pairs, but it seems to be an infrequent thing.

The first tweet is all about bacon, so the assignment is to create a bacon dish in 45 minutes. Beverly starts braising pork belly in a pressure cooker; she’s never used a pressure cooker before, but she thinks she’ll try it. I’m not sure about all this “I never did this before” stuff, it reminds me of Anya never sewing silk, never making pants, whatever. I don’t think it’s anything to brag about for a professional chef. They should all sew silk by now. And know about pressure cookers. ChrisJ plans a scallop with bacon and corn, but leaves some leeway since he figures some changes are going to come in.

And he’s right. Second tweet: #hashtag challenge – make hash as one component of the bacon dish. Edward isn’t happy, he was doing a bacon paté, and now he has to stop and make hash. Grayson is going German; she was making potato pancakes so hash is fine with her, and as long as she doesn’t have to incorporate a cupcake, she’ll be fine. Heh. But I think cupcakes are past their prime. If it’s on Food Network, it’s probably passé.

Third tweet: each chef has to pick an ingredient for another chef. Malibu Chris gives Lindsay sriracha; she gives him maple syrup. She says the least he could’ve done was open the sriracha bottle for her; he asks if that’s what a Southern gentleman would do, and she says no, any gentleman would. Everyone’s really friendly with Malibu Chris, aren’t they. I wonder if any hanky panky goes on at these things. The cameras can’t be rolling allthe time. Edward gets sriracha and isn’t happy. Grayson has to add a tomatillo so she purees it and uses it as a sauce; she’s worried her plate is a jumbled mess. I’d have to say tomatillo sauce on German food could give that impression. Then again, it could work.

Tom and Padma taste:

Paul: crispy bacon, bacon fat, blackberries, asparagus, chorizo and mushroom hash, and clams. Padma says it’s very interesting in a way that sounds positive. Tom says it’s unusual, it shouldn’t work but it does, and you know when they say that sort of thing, that’s the ball game. Paul wins. He’s happy to get the first win in Austin. He’s won a total of $30,000.

Beverly: she pulls the pork belly out just before service, and puts a ginormous chunk of it in her mouth to taste. I would think it would be super hot, but she just chomps down on it. She serves crispy pork belly with corn, bell pepper and habanero hash. Tom says it’s a nice dish with subtle flavors; she’s in the top.

Sarah: burrata-stuffed squash blossom with zucchini hash. The hash is crispy, it’s a nicely fried fritter and the flavor is not over the top. She’s in the top. She wants to win, since she hasn’t won any money yet, but not this QF.

Ty-lör: maple glazed bacon with bacon and kale hash. It looks awful as Tom’s eating it, strings hanging down, but that’s what kale is.

Heather: bacon jam (I have to find out how to make that), smoked paprika quail (not the General Tso’s Quail Hugh’s blog jabs with, but I wish I’d thought of that line) and leek hash.

Malibu Chris, bacon-wrapped monkfish with maple syrup.

Grayson: shrimp puff with crispy bacon hash cake. Tom asks why is she calling it a puff? To put light and fluffy in the mind. Doesn’t work; he says the puff was like wet mousse, which is an incredibly gross description, and she just plopped a piece of bacon on top. She’s in the bottom.

Edward: potato and cocoa nib hash with braised bacon and mustard deglazed with sriracha. He figures Ty-lör gave him the sriracha because he assumed he was doing something Asian, and he had trouble fitting it in. It looks awful, like a lump of congealed Stove-Top Stuffing. Tom says the hash is burned and very bitter. He’s in the bottom. It’s the first time he’s been in the bottom on a QF, and he’s not pleased.

ChrisJ: corn puree with bacon, potato hash and seared scallop. Tom says the scallop is realy well cooked but the dish is much too salty. I thought Richie was the Moto boy with the salty palate, maybe it’s contagious. He’s in the bottom.

Tom tells them the drinks are on him in the hotel bar, but don’t go getting crazy. Uh oh, something’s up; we know it, but the chefs don’t seem to get it yet. They look like they’re really having fun together. Edward asks why the girls and guys are separated, so Heather and Grayson invite Malibu Chris to sit between them on this little loveseat and the three of them do a little playful flirting. A piano player starts in, then announces Patti LaBelle. The chefs all have this look on their faces, like, “Is this the real Patti LaBelle or is it an impersonator who’s going to make us cook with marmalade or something?” But it’s the genuine article, and she does a riff on Lady Marmalade, and Padma joins her on stage to announce the elimination challenge.

Elimination Challenge:

Tomorrow night they’ll cook a dinner that’s inspired by the person who first taught them to cook. Patti learned from her mother, father, and aunts; they all cooked with feeling, and all cooks have soul. Maybe all good cooks do. They’ll have two hours to cook. The challenge is to tell their story in a tribute dish. ChrisJ says his grandmother’s steak dinners were influential. Sarah talks about her grandparents, how they made everything from scratch, and cries because they aren’t dead yet. Wait, that doesn’t sound right: she knows they’re getting older so they won’t be around much longer. Her grandmother made stuffed cabbage and her grandfather still makes sausage, so that’s where she’s headed.

Heather learned to cook from her mom, who did a lot of one-pot meals, so she’ll do beef stroganoff. She’s using rib eye; is that what you use for stroganoff? I would think it would be more like chuck (and Tom’s blog confirms that, though he suggests shoulder, shanks and bellies). Grayson used to stand next to her dad when he was grilling, so she wants to grill a rib eye, but all the meat looks really lean and she’s worried. Wait, it’s Texas, you can’t get good rib eye in Texas? Again, Tom’s blog comes to the rescue – prime vs choice. That’s why steak in a restaurant tastes so good, it’s all prime, whereas the supermarkets sell choice. And then there’s debate in some circles about whether it was grass-fed, which could be the case. I don’t know anything about what that does to beef. I just remember Tom telling Elia he can’t use grass-fed beef because he runs a steak house, and I figured that was an important distinction, like grass-fed beef isn’t good for steaks.

The next morning Beverly puts her “You have won” sign up on the mirror again. It’s a little tattered at this point. She’s been showing pictures of her 4-month old. She says there’s a lot of bullying going around, and she misses her family, she’s never been away from them this long, but she has to keep strong. Malibu Chris notices ChrisJ‘s pants are sagging, exposing an inch of plumber’s crack (now there’s an image I can’t get out of my head, thanks, Bravo), and warns him, “Crack kills.” Ty-lör’s inspiration is the chicken tenders his Japanese nanny used to make for him. Edward‘s grandmother was poor and made a lot of vegetarian foods; she kept him from being a delinquent by making him get haircuts. He’s eating dry cereal off a plate, piece by piece. I do that a lot. But I use a bowl. He and Ty-lör are talking about his making a vegetarian plate; Ty-lör tells him that takes balls, and Edward assures him he has balls and he’s going to show ‘em. Please don’t. I’m sure they’re delightful, but I’d rather ponder the mystery. Or not. After all, I’ve still got the crack in my head. Where’d I put the brain bleach?

Paul remembers his grandmother making adobo, a Filipino dish. It was the first thing she ever taught him to cook; he’s going to add some Texas flavor and make it with quail. Grayson’s asking Malibu Chris about his dish; she thinks he says he’s Amish but no, he said “homage.” He’s from Ohio and his uncle used to take him fishing, he had all these techniques for cooking fish which is a good thing since his mom wasn’t much of a cook.Beverly‘s mom is the reason she loves cooking. Seeing her in the kitchen inspired her to be a housewife. There she goes again, being interesting. I don’t know if Beverly really is as interesting as she sounds or if she’s just lined up all these things to pull out as needed to get air time. She’s going to make galbi jjim, braised short ribs. Korean, of course. Take that, Heather. But it’s kind of required to make a family-inspired dish for this challenge. She wants to use a pressure cooker since it worked well in the Quickfire.

Service:

Emeril is the judge, and two friends of Patti LaBelle join the table. Emeril says his dish would be his mom’s Portuguese kale soup with chorizo. You know, I thought this was going to be about professional mentors, like Sarah and Tony, Beverly and Edward, but it’s about family. This is why I’m not a cook: I don’t have any warm and fuzzy family meal memories. The first meal I ever remember was my aunt making buttered egg noodles after my mother died. My aunt Ebba made a Swedish coffee bread called Vetebrod which I still make sometimes this time of year (not this year). That’s about it. The rest was Alpha-Bits and ordinary xenophobic suburban food. I wouldn’t eat Chinese food or pizza until I was in my 20s.

ChrisJ is up first, with a miniature steak dinner. He credits his grandmother (Mommy Too, or II, or 2, I’m not sure) with Friday night steak and potatoes, so he made lemon pepper New York strip steak with baked potato and veggies and an A1 demiglace. Wait… A1? A chef is using A1? That didn’t sound like a product placement either (or I wouldn’t have named the brand). Emeril likes the steak, but he might not have used the A1, (definitely not product placement) which makes Tom smile. Patti says he veggies are excellent, and it was a nice presentation.

Heather talks about her mom, queen of the one-pot, and her beef stroganoff, herbed spaetzel, roasted mushrooms and citrus crema. Emeril doesn’t know what cut of meat it is. Patti says, “Big Foot” for the best line of the night. The look on her face is priceless; like “WTF are you people making me eat?” It does look like some kind of jungle slime with hay on top. Emeril says it’s like a banquet at one of those hotels Tom drags him to; Tom looks innocent, “Who, me?” and Padma doesn’t want to know.

Sarah is worried in the kitchen because her plate doesn’t look that pretty whereas Paul, who she’s serving with, has a gorgeous plate. She tells the table about her granny and gramps and presents cabbage stuffed with sausage and brown butter and balsamic. Hey, didn’t she make sausage last time? Maybe she wanted to get it just right. Tom says it’s great, with clean flavors, and not heavy like stuffed cabbage can be sometimes. Patti likes the brown butter, a little sweet but good.

Paul explains about his grandmother and her chicken and pork adobo, then serves his quail adobo with ginger rice, coconut vinegar and tomatoes and green mango salsa. Tom says it’s great; Patti says she’s not really a quail girl but she never got to the rice because the quail knocked her out.

The judges come up for air, and Patti invites all the judges to her house for dinner. She’s serving pretty much every food there is: fried chicken, cabbage, macaroni with eight cheese, lobster, and shrimp. I’ve never understood the attraction of three cheeses, four cheeses, seven cheeses, now eight. Can you really taste the difference between six cheeses and eight?

Malibu Chris is worried in the kitchen because he sees the albumin leaking out of the salmon (sounds gross, but I know what he means, it isn’t that bad really). He scrapes it off and hopes they won’t notice. Yeah, sure, Chris, you wish. He says it happens from cooking it at high temps. So that’s what it is. But how do you sear salmon if you don’t use high temps? And Minx thinks it’s from prior freezing, which makes more sense to me. He talks about his uncle and serves the sockeye with confit fingerling potatoes, asparagus and brown sugar carrot puree with curry. Patti likes the veg, but the fish was fish. Tom wasn’t a fan, he and Padma both noticed the albumin, as those of us playing along at home knew they would. Tom doesn’t like carrots that don’t taste like carrots.

Beverly is happy with her ribs, they’re delicious if she does say so herself. They have Korean flavor but they’re not straight-up Korean. I wonder if she’s worried about doing too much Asian, and if that stems from Heather. She talks about her mom and serves her galbi jjim (Korean braised short rib) with edamame-scallion puree and hon shimeji mushrooms. One of the guests loves it; Patti says it’s very good, and Tom likes it a lot.

Edward credits his grandmother with bibimbap and serves his vegetarian rice patty with an egg and veggies with lemon chili sauce and nori. One of the guests says she’s allergic to eggs but loved Edward’s dish (wait… how can you risk that, if you’re allergic to eggs, eating who knows what being put in front of you?).

Lindsay credits two grandmothers, one Greek, one Southern. So she serves trout spanikopita with crispy leeks and trout roe. Patti loves the roe, and tells how Emeril served her first caviar. Emeril loves the crispiness of the trout and roe, but there’s too much butter, it shuts down the dish. You know, Emeril is kind of impressive, it’s too bad he spent so much time acting like an idiot on The Food Network.

Grayson is another one worried about her serving partner; Ty-lör has tiny little things nicely arranged, and she has this Flintstonian steak. I’m wondering how it is she had the money to buy so much rib eye. She talks about her Wisconsin parents being meat-and-potatoes, and yes, it’s gigantic but that’s what it is, rib eye with German potato salad and veg. Patti wonders if this steak is for a family of 20. A guest thinks it’s stringy and the other one found gristle. Not a very good sign, just what kind of cut-rate beef are they selling in Austin?

Ty-lör explains he had a Japanese nanny (who he names) who made panko crusted chicken tenders so that’s what he serves, duck-fat fried chicken tender on a bed of pickled peaches. He’s the only one who isn’t inspired by a family member. Frankly, I think some of these stories are poppycock; they made them up to coincide with what they wanted to cook. Patti thinks it’s delicious. Tom thinks the nanny story is sweet, and she’d be proud.

Padma loves hearing these personal stories. I think they’re pretty much all the same, except for the fishing uncle and the Japanese nanny. Maybe this is why I never considered becoming a chef. I don’t have any warm and fuzzy cooking memories. Tom says some of them got stuck in Grandma’s kitchen; Emeril finishes the thought, that the ones who stuck out modernized their memories and brought the dishes to life.

Judges’ Table:

Ty-lör is passionately trying to convince someone that Patti LaBelle’s toenails were painted the exact same powder blue shade as Padma’s blouse. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed anyone’s toenails. Maybe I would if they were powder blue. Padma calls back Grayson, Heather, and Malibu Chris. Since we’ve heard the feedback, we know these must be the bottom three, but Ty-lör says they always send out the top three first. No, they don’t, actually, though I think they have so far this season. These folks should watch the show. Or at least talk to a few dedicated bloggers before showing up for filming. We can help you, really, we can.

And yes, they are the least favorite. Tom asks if they’re surprised. Grayson says her flavors were there, and she purposely gave them a huge serving. Emeril says it wasn’t trimmed, and they expected more from her. She says she did trim the outside, and she felt confident. Padma talks about the meat being sinewy and spongy, and asks why didn’t she update the dish. Grayson took it literally, which she realizes now was the wrong approach.

Malibu Chris hears about the albumin from Padma, and Emeril complains about massive pieces of dill overpowering the dish; Chris agrees there were too many herbs. Patti loved the potatoes, but didn’t care for the salmon.

Heather is flayed for her beef stroganoff gone awry and can’t blame it on an Asian with no work ethic. Padma tells her the dumplings were dry and chewy, overcooked. Patti tells her it was Big Foot on a plate, and so gristly she couldn’t cut it. Heather says she braised the meat, and thought about using a pressure cooker but since her duck legs were stringy when she used a pressure cooker in the last challenge (hey, I thought Beverly seared duck breast, what duck legs, what pressure cooker?) she braised instead. Tom says something about a competitor using a pressure cooker “and she isn’t here” in the bottom three. Did he really say that? Wow, Top Chef takes a stand against bullying by snarking the bullies to death.You won’t go home for it, but when what goes around comes around, they’ll be sure to point it out.

Beverly, Sarah, and Edward are sent out as top three.

Tom praises them all for using their ideas as a starting point. Patti says there was heart and soul on the plates. Edward had a beautiful presentation. Padma tells him it’s his second time on top, he’s on a roll. Tom says his presentation was beautiful. Beverly‘s dish was great, everything on the plate had a purpose, her mama would be proud. Emeril tells Sarah she showed a lot of technique. Patti announces the winner: Sarah. She’s happy her grandparents have bragging rights.

The PYKAG:

The judges debate. Heather’s terrible meat, bad spaetzel, and two sauces that didn’t work; she knew she messed up. Malibu Chris, who just threw stuff on a plate and had too many ingredients. And Grayson, who suffered from a lack of imagination. I had hopes for Grayson, who got into the competition by the skin of her teeth, but she’s not doing so well. Tom feels bad sending someone home on this personal challenge, but that’s the way it is, so Heather‘s out. I’m almost disappointed; the arc was awfully short. I have to reluctantly give Heather credit. She didn’t make excuses, she didn’t try to talk her way out of it, she didn’t sulk or get huffy. It was a surprisingly graceful exit. Her TV Guide interview follows in the same vein, though she tries to finesse the Beverly situation and seems to rewrite history a little, saying the judges asked about the shrimp the week before (maybe she honestly thinks they did, by now). I hate to tell you, Heather, but if you have to tell people you’re not a bully, you probably are.

Back in the kitchen, Beverly doesn’t move a muscle when Heather announces her knifing. She interviews about karma, and how she feels some personal satisfaction. Oh, damn, Beverly, I realize the temptation, but did you have to say that? If you’d just kept your mouth shut, you would’ve been golden. Now you’ve got some karma coming back to you.

You know what? At the beginning of this season, it looked like there were so many strong women cooks, and the men went home lickety split, but it’s turning out that the strong women aren’t so strong. Grayson, while she’s appealing, hasn’t made anything good in a while. Lindsay hovers in the middle most of the time. Beverly can cook up a storm, but I do worry she’s too constricted, as the sauce challenge showed. Sarah has her moments, but she falls apart, too. Nyesha, who was my brightest hope, is gone already; I hope she can hang on in the LCK. And Heather turned out to be all talk. In spite of the girl power at the beginning, this season is turning into Ty-lör vs Paul.

Padma gets her licks in with a voiceover about Last Chance Kitchen: “Heather, Queen of Mean, looks to redeem herself.” I think they’re enjoying this a little bit too much. Honestly, it’s making me a little uncomfortable. It’s like killing people to show killing people is wrong.

Nyesha is pretty snarky about Heather, and exacts her own revenge. The challenge is to use three techniques: frying, injecting, and foaming. Foaming? They laughed at Marcel for his foams, and now they want to require it as a technique right along with frying and injecting? Heather makes head-on fried shrimp with porcini powder foam and injects the heads with paprika. Heather makes beignets (she calls them churros at first but changes her mind) injected with caramel and brown butter foam. During the cooking period, Heather mumbles something about “you better check it” and Nyesha can’t tell what she’s talking about; apparently some of the shrimp injection stuff squirted in the vicinity of Nyesha’s dessert. Interesting. Pretty quiet when you’re warning someone about potentially damaging their dish and not bossing them around, aren’t you, Heather? But it’s ok and Nyesha prevails, mostly because Heather overcooked her shrimp. Though Tom did enjoy sucking on that head.

Next week: Barbecue. Fire. Ambulance. And again with the salt.

Margaret Atwood: “Stone Mattress” from The New Yorker, 12/19-26/11

"Just one more thing, Ma'am..."

"Just one more thing, Ma'am..."

“Verna,” he says. “That’s a lovely name.”
“Old-fashioned,” she says. “From the Latin word for ‘spring.’ When everything springs to life again.” That line, so filled with promises of phallic renewal, had been effective in helping to secure her second husband. To her third husband she’d said that her mother had been influenced by the eighteenth-century Scottish poet James Thomson and his vernal breezes, which was a preposterous but enjoyable lie: she had, in fact, been named after a lumpy, bun-faced dead aunt. As for her mother, she’d been a strict Presbyterian with a mouth like a vise grip, who despised poetry and was unlikely to have been influenced by anything softer than a granite wall.
During the preliminary stages of netting her fourth husband, whom she’d flagged as a kink addict, Verna had gone even further. She’d told him she’d been named for “The Rite of Spring,” a highly sexual ballet that ended with torture and human sacrifice. He’d laughed, but he’d also wriggled: a sure sign of the hook going in.

As I finished this story, all I could think of was Columbo. Lieutenant Columbo. For those readers too young to remember, skip ahead, but allow me to indulge myself, because this would’ve made a terrific episode. Columbo specialized in elaborately planned murders and well-off murderers. He did a cruise episode once, outwitting Robert Vaughn. Here, the shopworn detective would’ve been on this cruise to the Arctic at the insistence of his wife, newly interested in ancient fossils. He would be flapping around the ship in his rumpled raincoat, desperately looking for a place to smoke his cigar. He would have a passing acquaintance with Verna, and when the ship captain became aware of the missing Bob Goreham, he’d of course request his assistance, and within two hours, the crime would be solved (with Mounties, or whoever patrols the geologic site, confirming the presence of the deceased, and town constables relaying old gossip to fill in motive from the backstory, with Verna making a tearful confession in the last minutes). You know, there was one episode, a later one, in which Columbo let the killer get away; a mother (played by Faye Dunaway, I believe) who killed the man who raped her daughter. And another, now that I think of it, with Janet Leigh as an aging actress with a terminal condition (hence his decision to delay arresting her) that might have affected her memory of having killed her husband. I think he might let Verna get away, too, were it not for all those dead husbands left in her wake.

This story is available online; go ahead, read it. Because I’m probably way off base on this one. I might even get kicked out of the Literary Blogger Union for it – oh, wait, there is no such thing, but if there were, and if they were foolish enough to let me in to begin with, my status would be in danger. See, I found the story playful. Which is disconcerting to me, because it includes a grim flashback of a nasty date rape and the soul-crushing aftermath at a downright Gothic home for unwed mothers before the emergence of the soulless version of Verna, who goes on to marry one doddering old man on the verge of death after another, not shy about helping them along with plenty of butter and the occasional accidental overdose and receive her inheritance. Still, the delayed revenge felt comedic to me, and gave the story a tongue-in-cheek air in spite of the vicious origins. Then again, Columbo always felt playful, despite the omnipresent murder victim.

In her Book Bench interview, Atwood explains she wrote the story while on a cruise such as the one depicted:

I did write the story on board, after some idle conversation about whether one could murder someone on such a cruise and get away with it. Graeme, who has a devious mind, said it would depend on the tag-turning. I read part of the story aloud to my fellow passengers, who appeared amused and wanted to read the rest; so now they will!

Deborah Treisman found something Dickensian in the story. I suppose that’s the more literary version of Columbo. Others have compared it to something Alice Munro might write, because of the long timeline and the Canadian setting. I had trouble taking it seriously. I kept expecting something unexpected, which never came. But Verna’s an interesting (if caricatured, to me) character, and it’s a good enough read, if you’re in the mood for a crime story.

Pushcart 2011: Linda McCullough Moore, “Final Dispositions” from The Sun, 2/09

People think that crazy is achieved when one day the gale-force wind makes a final, violent tear, and your little craft slips its mooring. Oh,no. It is achieved by you, who, one knot at a time, untie the tethers, whimsically at first, then with some – or sometimes no known – purpose. You write a shameless letter to a friend who has blown you off once and for all and say, with no shame, “Why don’t you like me? Did you ever?” You offer up tidbits that will be the stuff of ridicule for certain, and you pass them out to members of your family on a tray like peculiar, worrisome hors d’oeuvres.

Hello, I am Zin! I have never reviewed a Pushcart story before – I have not reviewed any stories lately at all – but I wanted to do this one because a writing friend of mine, Dwayne (hello, Dwayne!) is taking a class at The Writer’s Studio in New York and this is on the syllabus! So I am nervous – I do not know much about technical analysis – but I want to compare notes! I am very interested to find out what I missed! He may not be along for a while though, since his class will not get to this story until some time in January.

The story is available online so you can follow along too! It is part of a collection of stories, “This Road Will Take Us Closer To The Moon” (pictured above) that trace oldest sister Margaret, our first person narrator, through her life. In this story, she and sister Eileen are heading in the direction of older (Eileen has a grandson who is no longer a little child) and Margaret has some problems, physical and mental. Her siblings have “disposition meetings” to figure out what to do with her. I am not sure if Margaret is actually mentally ill. Alzheimer’s is mentioned, but so is hip replacement, so I am not sure if that is her problem. She seems to have hallucinations (though perhaps they are just imaginings) which would mean she is definitely mentally ill, but mostly she just seems odd and sometimes mean.

For instance, she takes Eileen to a book signing by the first wife of her current husband, and that seems like a mean thing to do! She does not tell her until they are driving home (she talks about God in the back seat, but is that a hallucination, or a metaphorical imagining?) at which point we learn their parents were abusive. Margaret credits Eileen with having saved their brother, he has the best life of anyone she knows. They talk about forgiveness, and Eileen says she forgave their parents but will never forgive Margaret.

That night Margaret has a visit from her imaginary priest, who has been there in her kitchen before:

“Sin’s the best hope we’ve got. If it’s mental, all we’ve got is pills, and they stop working the day you stop taking them. Ah, but sin…” his voice softens. “Sin can be named and napalmed. You got to love a God who’s up to that. Your problem is, you always want to save yourself.”
,,,. I don’t know what the priest in your kitchen is like. Mine is a slave to carbohydrates.

Of course, the hallucinated priest is from her own mind, so it is her own thoughts he voices! We can romanticize dreams and hallucinations all we want as messages, but they come from our own brains! The thing is, I still do not know if these are real hallucinations or if they are imaginings! But the point is, she did something mean to her sister but they spent time together, her sister seems exasperated but not hostile, and then Margaret thinks about their shared experiences and forgiveness. That is an interesting path!

Then Margaret has some kind of stroke alone in her home, and has fallen and can not get up! Yes, just like that! And because Margaret has displayed such a sense of humor that does not feel inappropriate! She is on the floor for a long time: “Cold, I’m mostly cold. And I am sad and clutch the sadness like a ragged baby blanket…If I am sad, if sad is something I can still be, then it will be all right.” I love that line! Because sad means connected to the world, I think. It means the brain still works. What a sad thought! The same could of course be said for love or happiness, but those are not the emotions Margaret experiences.

She finds herself in a hospital after a day and night on the floor, and Eileen is with her; her heart stopped and she died and people ask what she saw and she tells them what they want to hear. But she still has her truth:

I have seen what does await us. The whole thing. There is good reason that we are not told. There is good reason why we cannot tell what we have seen and why the white light is so popular in stories resurrected people tell. White, the color of no story. Blinding light, the opposite of truth.
Everybody asks what it is like, everybody but Eileen. Her, I would tell.

Is that meanness, or is it intimacy? I am not sure! Maybe the two are the same?

She spends some time in a hospital where she will not give Eileen power of attorney. She seems to have more physical disability – clawed hands, drooping mouth, signs of a stroke. She wishes Eileen had some of her spit and fire back:

We had a King James childhood, with verbs that could rear up on their hind legs and scare tall men. I want Eileen to be as powerful as she seemed then. As mean.
….[We] both know that we will not be friends until we find ourselves on the Last Day, discovered and forgiven.

Again the forgiveness! I love how religion is interwoven throughout the story. It is such a powerful thing, religion, even for those of us who gave up on it long ago, it sticks with us when it is part of our childhood, and usually not in a good way!

Then comes the surprising part. The hospital wants to move Margaret to the “Sunshine Unit.” Margaret sees this for what it is: “Good grief, we’re back to second grade, when everyobody knew that “Bluebirds” was a euphemism for the kids who’d probably never learn to read. Sunshine Unit. Even the name is scary.” Yes, it is! And that is the illness, or gift, Margaret has, I think, to strip away the silly names and tell the truth, about the friend who has blown her off, about the first wife, about forgiveness, about abusive parents. Maybe that is why she is seen as crazy. She is honest. Maybe that is the path I as the reader am to take while reading this story!

But that is not the surprising part! The surprising part is that Eileen says no to the Sunshine Unit, and takes Margaret home! Somewhere in there, Eileen has become an ally, has gone from wanting to put Margaret in a home, to taking her home! When did that happen? When Margaret seemed dead? Is that the point at which Eileen says, wow, this is my sister and I almost lost her and begins to cherish her, after the reminiscence about their parents, how they were kids together, how Margaret wishes she would go back to being a spitfire? Somehow Eileen does this turnaround, and it is very surprising!

The nurse tries to talk her out of it, calling her “dear” and reminding her that Margaret is incontinent. Margaret did not want her to know: this is repeated three times, she really REALLY did not want her to know. But Eileen again surprises us all, and says someone she works with is incontinent.

Eileen’s voice is matter-of-fact. I had forgotten she looks at life with a less impassioned eye than her incontinent sister.
No matter. I hate to have her know, to have her thinking of that every time she looks at me. She pees herself, our mother would have said, whispering derision.
“Dear, we have to accept tthat there will be more changes.”
“My name is Mrs. Ferguson,” Eileen says.
You go, girl!

Aha, so here at last is the spitfire Margaret wanted! Maybe she has saved Eileen, just as Eileen saved their little brother! It is a magnificent turning point! As I said, hovering around sentiment, but there is so much humor, it works!

Eileen takes Margaret home, and Margaret squeezes her hand! A sign of affection! Then there is teasing about calling her “Mrs. Ferguson.” Cars seem to be important places for Margaret:

When Eileen’s grandson was very young, I took him to the movies, and the only movie not sold out that afternoon was The Madness of King George. Driving home that day, I asked the little boy if he had understood the movie. “Sure,” he said. “The people said, ‘God save the king,’ and at the end of the movie, God did.”
“Mrs. Ferguson,” I say as Eileen climbs into the driver’s seat and buckles in, “I like the way this ends. I like what this ending does to the whole story.”

Yes, it is a bit sentimental, it practically screams “warm fuzzies! Old people! Epiphany! Family love!” and it is one of those “here I explain the story” moments editors claim to hate so much (though sometimes not, obviously, since they gave this one a prestigious prize) but it works for me because of Margaret and the honesty, the bitterness that is not omitted. Oh, and the title, their final dispositions are friendly! And it is final because, well, this is where the story ends, where it is happy! Yes, sentimental. But I like her character so much, I think I may get the collection just to see more of her, to learn more about her life!

The Next Iron Chef Super Chefs: Episode 8 – Finale

Guess Who Is The Next Iron Chef!?!?!

Hello, I am Zin! Finally the Finale! Geoffrey Zakarian vs. Elizabeth Falkner. Here is a hint: Zakarian!

The first thing I notice is the dress Judy is wearing, it is beautiful, bright red, a chain over one shoulder. When I start noticing clothes outside of Project Runway, you can tell I am not engaged. The usual judges are there, plus Bobby Flay (who gets to judge everything prestigious on The Food Network) and Morimoto (who is there to lend a pretense of culinary talent to the mix). And the losers sit in the Observation Deck to watch – would you like to bet they will be pressed into service in some capacity? You know they will! But the chefs have brought their own sous chefs.

It is the usual format of Iron Chef America. The secret ingredient is: all kinds of stuff for Holiday Dinner – standing rib roast of beef, winter squashes, parsnips, apple cider, Brussels sprouts, salt cod, clementines, candy canes, and probably some other things I have forgotten. They have to make three dishes for holiday dinner. Zakarian will focus on making it memorable and modern, and Falkner will focus on combining techniques. They each brought two sous chefs.

The theme – what do they need a theme for? – is pressure, so the Chairman – oh, he gets to play – will spring surprises on them over the course of the evening. You know, I felt very silly when I found out, just recently, like a year ago when he went on Dancing with the Stars, that the Chairman is an actor, and the original Chairman Kaga was an actor too! A lot of people thought I was pretty stupid for that! But I did not know! I figured he was like Donald Trump, and they put together a TV show for him in Japan! But no, both Chairmen are fictional characters played by actors. How disillusioning!

Zakarian is working on the crown roast and combining it with potato, turnips, squash, and parsnips, and a parsnip bisque with cardamom and sausage stuffing. Falkner is making a beef wellington so she is starting with “blitz puff pastry” – now that is the kind of thing she would know about. She is also doing chocolate cake to take advantage of her pastry skills.

The Chairman unveils his first surprise – cranberries! They must create a cranberry dish. I love cranberries! I have been buying a bag of cranberries just about every week since just before Thanksgiving, putting them in cornbread, brownies, biscuits, pretty much any bready thing, and I made a couple of apple cranberry crisps with oatmeal streusel topping, and some chutneys. I do not know how I have gone through so many cranberries! I just keep buying them and throwing them in the freezer but every week I buy more and then they are gone!

The chefs get some extra help. They can pick one of their former competitors to help them for 15 minutes each. They collaborate, and pick Alex, which is a pretty big slap in the face of Anne Burrell since she has been sous chef for Mario Batalli on Iron Chef for years! Wow, that was mean! Alex says it is rewarding to be chosen.

Zakarian gets Alex started right away on cranberry risotto. He is grilling steaks cut from the rib roast (since of course there is nowhere near enough time to prep and cook a rib roast). He tells her to use sake, the acid will balance the sweetness of the cranberries. Forgive me, but cranberries are pretty acid all on their own, they are the perfect balance on the tart side of sweet and tart! And I do not think sake is all that acid, but I have not had it in many years.

Falkner is using agar agar and gelatin in what Alton calls an herbacious gelee. She is going to puree Brussels sprouts with goat cheese, so the acid in the cheese will provide some acid. Zakarian fries Brussels sprouts and leeks.

It is time for another surprise from the Chairman! Or a gift! They cannot decide between Surprise and Gift, so they alternate. The chefs have to use the ice cream machine! Some gift!

Zakarian was going to do a buttermilk pot de crème, so he changes it to ice cream. Falkner goes with eggnog ice cream and cranberry sorbet, two ice creams!

It is time for Alex to switch sides, so she leaves the Zakarian risotto and heads over to Falkner, who puts her to work chopping chives “because I know you do that really well.” That is pretty insulting. That is the sort of thing someone might say to me and I would be offended! And I do not chop that well!

Zakarian does something cute, he cuts the beef in cubes and puts a layer of something green on top, and wraps it with chives (or maybe a sliced scallion?) to make a little gift. He will do that with potatoes and squash too, multicolored gifts on the plate!

Bobby Flay says Zakarian = pretentious – oh, no, that is precision, sorry! And Falkner = surprise. Morimoto says something unintelligible, the best Alton can do is “A Good Hello” but he is not sure what that means. I wonder why they stopped providing voice over for Morimoto? My understanding was that he had requested they overdub, did he change his mind?

Falkner cleans out the ice cream machine, she has some kind of trouble with it freezing. Then she starts the cranberry sorbet mixture, to serve with a frisee and fennel salad. That sounds really good!

The Chairman has another surprise! Martini glasses! They have to create a holiday treat in the glasses. He does not say it has to be a drink! But they both make drinks, probably because it is quickest. Falkner makes a California thing with sunshine in a glass, clementines, Cointreau, lemon juice, and gin. Zakarian makes a rum-infused gin cocktail with clementine.

Alex makes a chocolate and honey ganache for Falkner, then she is out and goes back to the Observation Deck. And the time is up!

Service:

Falkner serves first. She brings out her Christmas in California cocktail, always sunny and always citrus. It is paired with salt cod fritters with black garlic aioli. Morimoto likes the cod. Simon thinks the aioli is too powerful and the subtle salt cod is lost. Judy likes the black garlic, it is velvety and silky. Flay likes everything, he would have liked to have seen more cohesiveness. Between what, there were only two elements? But Bobby is the one who would do clementines in everything for that course. Subtle and conceptual is not his game.

Second, winter squash agnolotti with Brussels sprout and goat cheese puree, and amaretto cookies. Simon loves the puree. Michael Symon liked all the flavors, thinks something (the puree?) could have been thinner.

Third is the beef wellington as main course, the beef seared and wrapped in prosciutto and then the puff pastry. Flay says it was very risky and is terrific, a modern version; he is impressed with the dough. Simon says she has chutzpah, the beef is cooked very well, it is his favorite dish so far (but there have only been three dishes!).

Next is cranberry sorbet with frisee and shaved fennel salad, and clementines, with kafir lime and mint and herb gelee. Michael Symon had a flashback to the sixties (which would be difficult since he was born in 1969), but liked it a lot when he tried it, the greens worked really well with the sorbet and it was surprising in a good way. Judy did not think it was a weird dish, she loved it, her favorite part was the gelee.

For dessert, she made candy cane chocolate cake which is chocolate sponge plus peppermint snow. Simon loves the powder, terrific. Morimoto says she had lots of new ideas (like what? Beef wellington? Salt cod fritters? Chocolate cake and crushed candy canes?). Michael Symon says it was a progression that got better with each course.

Zakarian serves. His strategy was a view of modern luxury Christmas, because having declared personal bankruptcy, he is all about luxury.

First is his cranberry risotto with sake, finished with sweet and sour strawberries and brown butter. Flay says he was skeptical but it was well balanced and terrific. Michael Symon thought the cranberries were unexpected, it was great; he likes a sweet and sour starter, it gets the palate going.

Second, he serves a Mad Man Cosmopolitan of clementine, ginger, rum, and some liquer I am not familiar with, it might be St. Germain. I admit, I am not up on the booze. This goes with his vegetarian dish, crispy creamy Brussels sprouts with ginger. I suspect I missed some element of the dish that makes it creamy and a dish more than some Brussels Sprouts, because other than being a vegetable, it does not sound like something you would describe as “a vegetarian dish.” Judy thinks it is delicious. Simon says it is spectacular. I sense a theme here. Morimoto says something that makes me wish they were still doing voice-overs for him.

Third comes parsnip cardamom bisque (which sounds wonderful, I may try to make this some time) with sausage stuffing. Flay says it is perfectly seasoned and has great consistency, which is the mark of a great cook. Michael Symon says he knows his audience, they will appreciate flavors (as opposed to most people who want flavorless food) and it is fantastic, it appeared humble but was special. Humble? Parsnips are pretty pricey in these parts! And cardamom, yikes!

The main course is the gift plate, roast beef cubes, turnip marinated with anise, squash poached in maple syrup, potato braised in lemon, all wrapped up like presents. It really is adorable. Simon thinks it is a little overwhelming. Judy loves it.

For dessert he serves buttermilk frozen custard with peppermint snow. Morimoto loves it. Simon loves buttermilk, it is a great way to end the meal, amazing job.

The judges conclave privately about both meals. Simon says Falkner started slowly but created a meal he will remember; Zakarian came banging out of the gate but the beef was a flop and the dessert was good but not great. Bobby says he cooks simple, modern, luxury food. Because if he goes broke he can always file for bankruptcy protection. Bobby says Zakarian served the better meal, but Falkner may have more range with her pastry experience. Morimoto says his favorite dish was the cranberry sorbet, but the best meal was Zakarian, he felt his heart. Judy says Falkner blossomed, has passion, curiosity, and creativity, and the meal was exciting. Michael Simon says Zakarian is at the peak of his career but Falkner is just scratching the surface of where she will end up. Alton says he does not remember it having been this tough a decision. Oh, I think you said that last year, and the year before and the year before.

From the comments, Zakarian clearly has it. Now we will see how much hocus pocus they pull!

The decision: Alton says one lived up to high expectations, and one exceeded hers. Only one will wear the coveted crown. What crown? There is no crown, there is a jacket! Get your props straight, Alton!

And Zakarian wins.

My measure of how successful a competitive series was is judged by how long after the announcement of the winner I am still interested. I think they got to the “ian” part of his name before I was done. Hey, at least I got through the final episode instead of wishing it was over three weeks ago! It is not a matter of not knowing who was going to win. It is a matter of not caring who Suzie and Tusch decided fit the demographic better!

His first battle will be next week! I am surprised they did not make it tonight!

So I have seen something about asking viewers which eliminated chef is worthy of redemption, I guess that was not part of the plan? Was that just to jerk people around, or is that for next year? I hope they do not bring Spike back, and I doubt Marcus would want to be involved in this crap any more.

BASS 2011: Elizabeth McCracken, “Property” from Granta

Art by Matthew Richardson, created for this story (a different image was used in Granta.

Art by Matthew Richardson, created for this story (a different image was used in Granta.

“We’ll unpack my storage space,” he said. “I have things.”
“Yes, my love,” she said. “I have things too.”
“You have a duffel bag. You have clothing. You have a saltshaker shaped like a duck with a chipped beak.”
She cackled a very European cackle, pride and delight in her ownership of the lusterware duck, whose name was Trudy. “The sole exhibit in the museum. When I am dead, people will know nothing about me.” This was a professional opinion: she was a museum consultant. In Normandy she was helping set up an exhibition in a stone cottage that had been owned by a Jewish family deported during the war. In Paris, it had been the atelier of a minor artist who’d been the longtime lover of a major poetess; in Denmark, a workhouse museum. Her specialty was the air of recent evacuation: you knew something terrible had happened to the occupants, but you hoped it might still be undone. She set contemporary spectacles on desktops and snuggled appropriate shoes under beds and did not overdust. Too much cleanliness made a place dead. In Rome she arranged an exhibit of the commonplace belongings of Ezra Pound; chewed pencils, drinking glasses, celluloid dice, dog-eared books. Only the brochure suggested a connection to greatness. At the Hans Christian Andersen House in Odense, where they were mere tourists, she lingered in admiration over Andersen’s upper plate and the length of rope that he traveled with in his suitcase in case of hotel fire. “You can tell more from dentures than from years of diaries,” she’d said then. “Dentures do not lie.” But she herself threw everything out. She did not want any one to exhibit even the smallest bit of her.

Many stories trivialize things, material possessions, as being unimportant compared to people and relationships and memories. Of course, that’s true. But this story pays tribute to things – everyday things, not a special memento or souvenir or lock of baby hair, just routine stuff used every day – as a reflection, an abbreviation, of a soul, a time, a life. It’s as beautiful as it is surprising that it’s beautiful. And it touched me in a dozen sad, sweet, and tender places.

It’s a simple story. Stony and Pamela (pronounced pa-MELL-a) have been together three years, married, moving over Europe every few months for Pamela’s jobs as a museum consultant. They have plans to move back to the States, to Maine, “where Stony had accepted a two-year job, cataloguing a collection of 1960s underground publications; things printed on rice paper and Popsicle sticks and cocktail napkins.” But fate intervenes and delays this trip, permanently for Pamela:

She was still, as he would think of it later, casually alive. In two months she would be, according to her doctors, miraculously alive, and, later still, alive in a nearly unmodifiable twilight state. Or too modifiable: technically alive.

After her death, Stony delays the move to Maine and spends the summer in England mourning and drinking. He packs, but he’s unable to find the duck:

When he failed to find the duck, he remembered the words of the lovely Buddhist landlady in Edinburgh, when he’d apologized for breaking a bowl: “We have a saying – it was already broken.” Even now he wasn’t sure if we meant Buddhists or Scots. He would leave a note for the landlady concerning the duck, but of course the loss of the duck could not break his heart.

He makes the move to Maine at the end of summer, having negotiated with his prospective landlord to move into the rented house three months later than expected. When he arrives, he finds the house is not what he expected. It’s not a charming little Victorian, it’s a Sears, Roebuck kit, it’s filthy, and it’s full of junk: an old salad spinner, dozens of clay pots all the same color, paper posters and pages from magazines serving as art, a dirty rug, a ramshackle homemade platform bed, and, in the kitchen, dozens of supermarket jars of half-used spices aged beyond any possible use. When the landlady (whom Stony knows only through email and her daughter) is perplexed by his concerns and insists the house was cleaned in May, he throws out the spices and other kitchen garbage and moves the furniture, pots, and “art” to the art studio out back, since he won’t be using it; it was to be for Pamela.

He then goes about his work for the next nine months:

At work he catalogued the underground collection, those beautiful daft objects of passion, pamphlets and buttons, broadsides,. What would the founders of these publications make of him? What pleasure, to describe things that had been invented to defy description – but maybe he shouldn’t have. The inventors never imagined these things lasting forever, filling phase boxes, the phase boxes filling shelves. He was a cartographer, mapping the unmappable, putting catalog numbers and provenance where once had been only waves and the profiles of sea serpents. Surely some people grieved for those sea serpents.
He didn’t care. He kept at it, constructing his little monument to impermanence.

So many other wonderful passages appear, and it would be silly for me to invent plot-necessary ways to introduce them, so I’ll just list them as essential to getting the true flavor of this piece.

It was possible, thought Stony, that all American teenagers might appear damaged to him these days, the way that all signs in front of fast-food restaurants – MAPLE CHEDDAR COMING SOON! MCRIB IS BACK – struck him as mysterious and threatening.

It wasn’t grief, which he could be subsumed in at any moment, which like water bent all straight lines and spun whatever navigational tools he owned into nonsense – but a rational, detached thought: wasn’t that awful, what happened to me, one, two, three moths ago? That was a terrible thing for a person to go through.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, because after Pamela died, he’d promised himself that if anyone told him the smallest, saddest story, he would answer, I’m so sorry. Meaning, Yes, that happened.. You couldn’t believe the people who believed that not mentioning sadness was a kind of magic that could stave off the very sadness you didn’t mention – as though grief were the opposite of Rumpelstiltskin, and materialized only at the sound of its own name.

The summer comes, and Stony moves into another place, a modern place. He dithers for a while about whether he actually wants to move – he’s fixed the place up nicely, after all – but in the end, he does, so he moves back some of the essential furniture and leaves a note explaining where the pots, the art, the still-filthy rug, can be found. The landlady, Sally, calls almost immediately, since she’s decided to move back into the house. She leaves a series of messages: where’s her dishcloth? The bottom of the salad spinner? Her birth certificate, in the white desk that’s gone? And what on earth happened to the spices?

He goes to the house to show her how everything was packed into the art studio, and discovers the paper art is moldy and the studio smells of mildew; he explains he threw out the past-their-expiration-date spices and as he sees tears falling down Sally’s perplexed face, understands the awful truth:

But he realized he’d gotten everything wrong. She had not left her worst things behind four years ago, but her best things, her beloved things. She’d left the art, hoping it would bring beauty in to the lives of the students and summer renters and other wayward subletters….She loved the terra-cotta sun that he’d taken down from the kitchen the first day. She loved the bed made for her in the 1070s by that clever, wretched man her husband. She bought herself a cheap salad spinner so her tenants could use this one which worked so well. If Pamela had been with him that day nine months ago, she would have known. She would have seen the pieces of key chain and clucked over the dirty rung and told him the whole story. This was a house abandoned by sadness, not a war or epidemic but he end of a marriage, and kept in place to commemorate both the marriage and its ruin.

The New Yorker editors would strike this paragraph as “explaining the story,” but it’s just lovely, and it fits in this story that doesn’t try to be sophisticated and artsy-fartsy.

And as I said, it hit me from all directions. When people come into my home, they see the tumbleweeds of cat fur in the corners, the dingy walls, and of course a cacophony of books stuffed every which way into shelves of varying sizes and styles. If they dare to move a teacup on the hutch, they discover inside and behind it is an archeological layer of dust. Occasionally they’ll feel a crunch under their feet as their shoe crushes a stray speck of cat litter. Washable throws and blankets cover every surface a cat might want to sleep on, which gives things a motley effect. Yet if someone, say a maintenance worker fixing the stove, tracks in mud on his shoes or leaves effluvia from his labors, I’ll know it, and spring to clean it up while he’s still there, hoping to shame him into tidying up after himself. It rarely works, since to him, it’s just a drop in the bucket. To me, it’s alien dirt, and unwelcome.

And then there are attachment objects: A glass pitcher I suspect my then-husband broke on purpose (which is an absurd paranoia, even to me). I remember my unexpected sorrow when a hideous winter scarf, not at all my colors and bought from dire necessity under duress of the coldest First Night celebration in the history of the now-defunct New Year’s festivity, was ruined by water damage from a fire in a neighboring apartment; the scarf somehow grew on me, becoming more and more beloved for its ugliness and some other factors too complex to explain here. My mother’s wedding china, I’ve lugged all over the East Coast, wrapping and rewrapping, not because I love it or use it, but because, well, it’s my mother’s china, and in the spirit of grief as a reverse Rumpelstiltskin, all evidence of her existence was removed from our lives by my father upon her death when I was nine, so as to not upset me and my brother. My surreptitious “theft” of my father’s polo shirt, lifted from his hospital room after he died (I was in my 30s), I can’t really explain; I threw it out years later, when it lost its power.

And, silliest of all – during one move in 1990 or so, we’d left a pile of oddball stuff in the middle of the floor next to the piano for the last trip, and when we returned, it was all gone. Apparently the landlord’s handyman had “assumed” it was junk and had removed it for us, thinking we’d abandoned the apartment (along with a mahogany console piano which thankfully he couldn’t get down the stairs so was still there). Included in that junk was a twenty-five-year-old 12″ black and white TV my father had won as a door prize and gave to my brother and then, after he left for college, me, missing the on-off button, with a coat hanger for an (essential; this was a very old tv set) antenna. I could live with the loss of the winter coats (most were too small, and I’d been planning on bringing them to a Salvation Army bin), various trinkets, a woebegone but functioning vacuum bought for $20 at a (then) newfangled “videotape movie rental” store (we joked the link between videos and vacuums in one store was the letter “v”), and while I wished they’d spared my winter boots, I understood why they were considered trash. But the tv, which had been my friend for some very (very) bad adolescent years, that broke my heart. But notice this: even the trivial items were connected to stories, memories, emotions, relationships.

I’m fascinated too by how this story came about. In her Contributor Notes, McCracken explains the plot, though not the characters, was autobiographical: “[W]hat prompted the actual writing of it was a landlord-tenant dispute….I suppose I’m grateful that the story helped me understand them, but still, I would like to make it clear; my motivation was not connection, but revenge.”

There’s something there about the Buddhist law of opposites. Or maybe it’s the Scots.

Nathan Englander: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” from The New Yorker, 12/12/11

New Yorker illustration by Zohar Lazar

New Yorker illustration by Zohar Lazar

They’re in our house maybe ten minutes and already Mark’s lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem, and people from there think it gives them the right.

So first I re-read the original Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It’s been a while. My answer to the almost-question of the title has traditionally been: “Anything but ourselves.” What I remember: booze, light and dark, a more civilized Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the shallowness of whatever it is these people call love. Then I read the original vs edited by Gordon Lish version, how “Beginners” became the famous story that was actually published. It always surprises me to see the major changes an editor makes. Then I read some analysis of the original about how Carver was a recovering alcoholic and his stories always use food as nurturing and caring, but booze as destructive, and how important the offer of cheese and crackers, followed by no action of actually providing those things, was. I don’t remember that from my days in Lit 101. Which is why this kind of reading is so much better than that kind was.

And then I read this story, the title story from Englander’s forthcoming collection (which will also include “Free Fruit For Young Widows“). I’ve put off commenting on it for a few days, because I’m intimidated by it. I liked it more than the original (I’m waiting for lightning to strike me dead… no? Ok, good), because the people, the progression, made more sense to me. I think it’s just that I don’t understand 50s people, as portrayed in fiction and movies. They all seem to behave in some socially-approved way that I never learned. Maybe that’s where I went wrong in life.

There’s a definite nod to the original, evident in the opening paragraph quoted above, but I soon stopped trying to force a one-to-one correlation. Two couples get high and talk about deeply emotional topics without really getting deeply emotional. I enjoyed the observation that the Holocaust is forced on Jews in a way they don’t always appreciate, and the anecdote about the golfers with tattooed numbers that differed by five. I love the idea, beloved by many of my generation, that intermarriage is the new Holocaust. Freedom has its price, after all. I don’t know that I agree with the concept, but that’s supposed to be how the Lost Tribes got lost two thousand years ago.

And I love the Anne Frank game. It’s so dangerous, so loaded, it’s just made for a story like this. If there were a new Holocaust, who could you trust to hide you? Could you trust your spouse? The moments of truth these people encounter was quite real to me.

Light and dark are used much the same way as in the original, as are food and intoxicants. I think it gets to the heart of the matter much more cleanly, spiraling in on that last scene in the pantry which could serve as a safe room until it hits squarely on the truth. I enjoyed it very much.

And my answer to the implied question in the title: We talk about love when we talk about Anne Frank. Fear, somewhat. But love. Who would love us, that much. And who we could fool into thinking we love them, that much.

[Note: I re-read and reposted about this story when it appeared on BASS 2012]

The Loose Fish Chronicles by Beverly Jackson: A Different Kind of Online Lit

Cover photo from "The Loose Fish Chronicles"

Cover photo from "The Loose Fish Chronicles"

1) A fast fish belongs to the party fast to it. [nearest to it]
2) A loose fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.
“…these two laws touching Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish will, on reflection, be found in the fundamentals of all human jurisprudence . . . what are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What are all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish too?” — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Marko Fong has been working on something a little different. His fiction (“My Father’s Paradox,” “The Amnesia Academy“) has appeared in these pages frequently as well as his essays on “flashlight voice” and “memoir voice.” But he’s recently been working with author Beverly Jackson to create The Loose Fish Chronicles, an online literary chapbook that’s a bit different:

One of my goals was to make reading a long text online a more attractive immersive experience. I was thinking about the fact that video games are extremely addictive and often have very long “storylines”, yet people can’t stay with a 5,000 word text. My theory is that it has to do with “click” twitchiness. The screen literally vibrates (has its own frequency) and I think it might result in a physical reflex.

Instead of reading a static page for 20 minutes, we set it up to encourage the reader to click fairly frequently, but stay with the text. It helps that I love Bev’s memoir regardless, but I think linking to her poetry at certain points in the narrative or to photos really does make it a stronger experience that enhances the text rather than pushes it aside.

Jackson’s memoir, in six sections, offers her honest and poignant account of coming of age in the dynamic atmosphere of Greenwich Village in the early sixties (what a time and place!), punctuated by links to her poetry, photographs, and occasional background music. My favorite, “Dreams and Dreads,” describes her attempt, via therapy, to deal with mother issues she’s projecting onto a friend.

Jackson’s writing and painting have appeared in over 70 literary publications, including Zoetrope:All Story and The Wilderness House Literary Review.

What do you think? Take a look, and leave a comment on their Facebook page.

Top Chef Texas: Episode 7 – “Game On”

How did Swatch get ChrisJ's sweet potato chain?

How did Swatch get ChrisJ's sweet potato chain?

And we have a definitive villain! But first…

In the prelude to the action, they chat in the chef house. Nyesha can’t believe how harsh Heather was on Beverly. Just you wait, Nyesha. Ty-lör is not happy he’s been in the bottom so much. And Edward christens them the Dirty Dozen. Fortunately, it’s the last time we hear that phrase.

Quickfire:

Padma (wearing awful-fitting pale yellow stretch jeans and an overly-busy top that clashes with her necklaces and hair – how can a top clash with deep brown hair? But it does, if you can stop staring at the terrible pants long enough to notice) and Tim Love meet the chefs in the Cordon Bleu/Top Chef kitchen. Edward plays the role of Impressed Young Jedi – ooh, he has a restaurant and he’s a Top Chef Master.

The challenge is tequilla. Take a shot every time Padma says something cutesy, and last chef standing wins. No, I guess not. They must make a dish to pair with a particular variety of tequila. Now, apparently this isn’t your average college party tequilla. This is serious stuff, coming in varieties. Tim tells them it’s a drink to be sipped, and each type has different characteristics, like wine or craft beer. I don’t know from tequilla. But I’ll take his word for it.

No immunity for this challenge; they get $5,000 instead. I thought that sounded strange, but the reason becomes apparent later.

Ty-lör has been to Jalesco, Mexico, the state where tequila is from; apparently he feels this gives him some advantage. He makes a dish he created in his time “on the beach” in Thailand, to use warm Southeast Asian flavors to take advantage of the caramelly, woodsy flavor of the 1942 tequila (I keep wanting to call it 1492 tequila, forgive me if I slip). He makes steamed clams and thai style fish caramel sauce. He’s even got Paul cheering for him, it’s such a good idea to pair a briny sweet clam with the tequila. Tim likes the spiciness, it was a good contrast to the dish, and the greenery worked. Ty-lör wins. He’s very happy to have redeemed himself after the dismal showing with the steaks last time.

ChrisC uses the Blanco variety, crisp and clear, with a raw oyster, It reminds him of vacations, relaxing, it’s beachy. Simple, refreshing. I think I could use some of that tequila. Aha – that’s why they sponsor this challenge. Is tequila the popular drink this holiday season? I’ve been seeing a lot of ads for it (a different brand than is product-placed on this show). And he knows how to get air time, even now that he’s run out of hot people to slaver over. He makes a raw oyster with tequila tapioca pearls and sea salt air. No, I don’t know what sea salt air is, and I can’t find anything on Google, but I’m assuming it’s some kind of salty foam. He’s in the top; Tim says it’s like a day at the beach. That thrills ChrisC, since it’s exactly what he was going for. He feels it’s the first time he’s been able to really show himself in a dish.

Lindsay is happy to use tequila since she lived in Mexico for three years. She uses the anejo variety to pair with pan-seared salmon and fennel puree with brown butter sauce. She’s in the top; her salmon is cooked nicely, and the flavors worked with the booze. So now we know: while living in Mexico, she may not have learned much about cochinita pibil, but she got an MFA in tequila.

Edward, being from Kentucky, is more familiar with bourbon. But he makes a bok choy lettuce wrap with marinated lamb (which sounds like three different things to me), a cactus and mango salad (which makes Heather frown for some reason; maybe he didn’t ask her for approval first?), and fermented chili paste.

Beverly loves oysters, so she cold smokes one with green tea to go with the light, clean reposado.

Grayson is from Wisconsin, so beer is her drink, but she pairs the anjeo with sesame cod and a tequila brown sugar glaze.

Dakota uses 1942 because it’s sweet, smoky, and earthy, and pairs it with a simple pan roasted lamb chop with medjool date and pignoli pistou; Tim says the date is really sweet, which apparently means too sweet.

Sarah has a tradition with boss Tony Mantuano: they share a shot of blanco when flying. That sounds cozy. Watch out, Sarah, this is how rumors get started. The Aloe vera freshness goes with fennel, so she makes fennel risotto with glazes scallops, finished with fennel pollen. Tim says drinking the tequila after eating the dish was like putting lemon juice into cream, and the risotto is overcooked, so she’s in the bottom. She interviews she spent time in Italy learning to cook risotto so what does this rube know, she’s not going to change her technique because of some Texan’s untrained palate. She’s slightly nicer about it. Slightly.

Heather uses the reposado to go with a mango avocado salad and rock shrimp. Tim says there wasn’t any pairing, she just made the dish, it was like a special at a new chain restaurant. Ouch. She’s in the bottom.

ChrisJ loves tequila, but it isn’t the easiest thing to work with given the high alcohol level and heat, so his dish is intended to subtle it out. Speaking of heat, he’s got flames shooting up to the ceiling, and Ty-lör notices he’s overcooking his chicken breast. You gotta love that focus. ChrisJ knows his chicken is dry. It was rushed. That’s what happens when you cook it in a wall of flames, dude. Tim agrees the chicken was dry. Not just dry, it stuck in his teeth, and the best part of the dish “unfortunately” was the quinoa. He’s in the bottom.

Elimination Challenge:

Padma pairs them up, as they stand: “I hope you like the person you’re standing next to.” Heather turns, looks into the distance over Beverly’s head, then directs her gaze down. Clearest body language ever. Heather wastes no time complaining. No, that isn’t fair, it’s a talking head edited in right away: Bev is selfish, she doesn’t think like a chef. Edward comments he and Ty-lor were the two bottom-finishers last week, so they have something to prove.

Tim is hosting a game dinner at his restaurant. Silly me, I thought that meant football or something. No, a game dinner features game meats. Nyesha loves game: “shoot it, kill it, take out the buckshot, cook it.” Sounds like she knows what she’s talking about. I would’ve pegged Nyesha as way too sophisticated to be on speaking terms with buckshot. Me, I wouldn’t know about the buckshot, for instance, and I’d break a tooth. I broke a tooth a few weeks ago on an overcooked chicken leg (when I overcook chicken, I really overcook it).

Six high-profile chefs (like Anita Lo, Brian Caswell, John Currence, and a couple of guys from LA’s Animal) come in, and they all assign a protein to the teams. The teams will serve the judges, the chef-guests, and… each other. The chefs themselves will decide the three bottom teams, and the judges will pick the loser from those three. And, oh, by the way – both losing team members will go home.

Sharpen your knives, everyone.

Teams are:

Dakota and Nyesha: Venison
Sarah and Paul: squab
Grayson and ChrisJ: elk
ChrisC and Lindsay: boar
Heather and Beverly: duck
Edward and Ty-lör, quail

The winning team (picked by the judges only) will split $10,000.

Beverly interviews that Heather is definitely bossy and that makes communication difficult; but she’ll make it work because she’s a team player. Later, she interviews that she was in an abusive relationship, and ran away while he was at work. Beverly gets still more interesting, especially since, for some reason, I’m not 100% sure I believe her. She could be pulling a major mind-fuck on national television. Or she could be a formerly abused woman, in which case I’m going to hell. Heather keeps complaining about Beverly’s desire to use Asian flavors, because that isn’t her style, and insists on doing her regular farm-to-table cooking for her portion of the meal. It seems to me (and I only have the editor’s view) that Heather is badgering Beverly, and Beverly likes to discuss what they’re doing rather than taking orders from Heather (or Beverly is being passive-aggressive; I’m somehow getting the notion Beverly isn’t quite as helpless and victimized as she seems), whereas Heather is taking the part of boss. Edward interviews Heather is being a complete bitch, but then again, he’s Beverly’s idol, so he might be biased; Dakota has already said Heather’s obnoxious; yet Ty-lor is very good friends with her. I’m not sure what any of that means. Except that this pair is reality show gold.

ChrisJ is talking to Grayson about some elaborate sweet potato dish that requires soaking overnight in salt to make them flexible and forming a sweet potato chain, another Moto trick. Grayson’s a little worried; ChrisJ does a lot of crazy stuff and she… doesn’t. By “crazy stuff” I think she means what would be classified as modernist cuisine, not crazy stuff like running through the kitchen naked and screaming, though we may get to that point. I got a little worried here, too, because ChrisJ has already tried to recreate his modernist cuisine once, and it didn’t go well at all. Maybe he needs the equipment and provisions he’s used to in order to accomplish his tricks; maybe he’s not as proficient as he thinks. In the meantime, he’s never cooked elk, but he’s heard the temperature is really important. I’m more worried all the time about ChrisJ. And by the way, it just so happens there’s a homemade knit dog toy called a sweet potato chain, which is probably easier to make than ChrisJ’s version.

Edward was hoping for road kill or elephant. He got quail instead. Paul and Sarah are doing squab two ways, including Sarah’s squab sausage. Paul is nervous about it, but he can see she’s passionate about it, and she’s a good chef, so he’s ok with it.

For the back-home-at-the-ranch segment, we have more of Beverly exuding ideas and asking questions to make sure she’s not planning anything that will upset Heather and Heather playing the role of strict mother teaching a slow child. I’m trying to see both sides here, but Heather’s making it hard. And Hugh’s blog doesn’t make it any easier. Thing is, I’ve run off the cliff in support of the victim before, and had to do a Wylie Coyote when new information emerged. Not this time.

On day of service, ChrisJ and Grayson have more trouble with their sweet potatoes, which are to brittle to chain, so he scraps the original idea and does sweet potato fries which is fine until aren’t crispy. Grayson’s nervous. I don’t blame her. Lindsay sees the center cuts of their boar chops aren’t cooked enough, but they have enough so they don’t have to serve them. Dakota‘s venison is not cooking; Nyesha is distressed: all Dakota had to do was cook the meat, she said she knew how, and here it is raw; this shouldn’t happen at this level. Sarah has some issues with her sausage. Edward makes a really strange comment: he wouldn’t be ashamed to lose to any of the chefs he’s competing with, they’re all great chefs. Sounds like a concession speech: did the quail go that bad? It was probably taken out of context.

Tom doesn’t do a walk-through? Everyone’s saying the kitchen is really small for 12 chefs, maybe he didn’t want to crowd it further.

Service:

Lindsay and ChrisC serve boar with peach barbecue sauce, kohlrabi slaw, and farro fried rice. Tom likes the slaw, says it’s a nice plate of food though not that exciting. When Sarah tries it (the chefs do their tasting in the kitchen) she says it’s a fun, elegant way to do barbecue. Paul thinks the slaw is a little watery; this devastates Lindsay.

Heather and Beverly present five spice duck breast with creamy polenta and pickled cherries. Hugh says the duck breast could’ve been rendered a little more, and the meat is rubbery. Another comments it’s a little safe. Someone in the kitchen says the duck breast is perfectly cooked and tender. What puzzles me is that for all the bitching Heather did about not wanting Asian flavors, they served five-spice duck. Duck is perfectly suited to Asian flavors, but Heather was so against it, how did Beverly manage to hold firm? Why didn’t Heather take on the duck and leave Beverly to do the sides? We saw her standing over Beverly, telling her exactly how to cook the duck, when to turn it, how to spoon the drippings over it; is Heather more responsible than Beverly for the doneness? And Asian duck with polenta? I don’t know if that’s ok or not, but it sounds weird. There was no compromise at all; there was just each one doing exactly what she wanted and putting it on the same plate, which isn’t the same thing

ChrisJ and Grayson make juniper roasted elk with sweet potato fries. It looks like two fries criss-crossed on top of the meat. Tim says the meat is seasoned and tender, but other than that, it looks like a 1982 banquet menu. Tom asks what happened to the sweet potatoes. ChrisJ says it didn’t work out so they went to this, and Grayson jumps in and tells them the dish is exactly what they wanted, they were going for height and they achieved that; on the perp walk back to the kitchen, she scolds him: “Don’t tell them anything about not feeling good about the dish.” She’s managed to handle dealing with his dish failing and him saying stupid stuff without shitting on him. I’m a Grayson fan. If she’d insisted he have a Plan B for the chain, she’d get an A. He feels bad about the chain not working out but the meat was good.

One of the Animal guest chefs tells a story about hunting gators in Florida. Sometimes they use canoes. Sometimes kids jump on top of the gators. Small ones, though. And sometimes, people on TV tell tall tales. I lived in Florida for ten years when I was a kid, never got to have any fun like that. But I missed a lot of the good stuff.

Ty-lör and Edward serve sorghum quail with pickled cherries and eggplant. A guest chef says they brought out the earthy qualities.

Dakota and Nyesha present their roasted rack of venison with kabocha squash and beet gratin. Tom says the meat is blue (seriously raw), but the gratin texture is nice. Clever of them to pick up on a failure from last week and improve it; I’m sure Whitney is overcome with joy to see that. I’m not sure beets and gratin make sense to me, but the diners liked it.

Sarah and Paul make squab breast and sausage, with nectarine pickles, shallots, and jalapeno. The guest chefs like the sausage. Tom says the presentation was rushed but it was a nice plate of food. In the kitchen, Sarah’s in tears; the sausage wasn’t what she wanted it to be, this is the hardest thing she’s ever done, then apologizes for breaking down. Beverly’s very sweet, tells her it’s ok, everyone handles stress differently. Normally, I’d think that was nice of Beverly, but I’m truly suspicious of her; I think she’s looking for allies. I also think Sarah is the wrong place for her to look. Sarah already drove the bus over Keith, she won’t hesitate to do the same thing to Beverly if necessary. But maybe Beverly is being truly supportive, and I’m just too cynical to see it.

With little warning, Edward and Ty-lör are called out to Judges’ Table. The cheftestants burst into spontaneous applause and congratulations, and yes, they are the winners. They split $10,000. Ty-lör is happy to have won both the Quickfire and the Elimination, and feels he’s redeemed himself. Edward is happy he didn’t make an ass out of himself. I like Edward. This dish was the least commented on, and these two were hardly shown working at all. So of course they’re the winners. When things go well, it’s not drama tv. It’s a great redemption story, but the arc is too short.

They’re sent back to the kitchen with the bad news: the cheftestants have 15 minutes to send out the three bottom teams. Grayson says they should just vote. Heather says, “Well, you’re not going to vote for yourself.” Grayson says, “Neither are you.” You can see Heather holding back the words: “But I don’t deserve to lose, whereas you do.” Heather and Grayson get into it. That Heather, she makes friends wherever she goes. There’s a lot of talk about undercooked meat, tough meat, dry meat. Edward says the claws haven’t really come out yet. I wonder if he’s in the other room while this is happening.

In the end, they send out Heather/Beverly (duck), Grayson/ChrisJ (elk), and Dakota/Nyesha (venison). Tom and the judges agree with those choices.

Judges’ Table:

Tom asks why they’re there. Heather says she shouldn’t be, it’s because she won the last challenge, which is a pretty skillful way of reminding them of that. Tom says it felt like a collection of ingredients. Heather invokes last week’s shrimp and complains about Beverly’s work ethic. And, bizarrely, insists she had no input into the dish. For those of us who spent a good part of the last hour watching her hover over Beverly, telling her when and how to turn the duck and baste it practically spoonful by spoonful, it’s incongruous with reality. She’s pretty brutal, to the point where Dakota doesn’t want to watch and I don’t really want to go into it any more. It seems pretty stupid to me, since the losing team is going home and denigrating Beverly isn’t going to help Heather. In any event, the meat was slightly undercooked and the flavors didn’t go together.

Tom tells Nyesha and Dakota their venison was undercooked, but the plate was good. Padma asks Nyesha if she asked Dakota if she needed help? Nyesha says by the time she checked, it was too late. Dakota says it’s something she’s made many times. Hugh says the flavor sequence was good, it was just the doneness of the meat.

The judges turn to Grayson and ChrisJ. Hugh says the meat was cooked well, but the potato was, WTF? Tom points out the chain link fence didn’t work, and they had nothing else; the flavors were competing, and the dish was all over the place.

While they wait for the verdict, there’s more of the Heather show, with Beverly and Grayson taking the brunt of it. I’m sick of it all; it’s about what you’d expect. It’s gone from drama to boring very quickly.

At Judges’ Table, Padma points out the competition is clearly putting pressure on some. Tom says that’s irrelevant (oh, but so prized for the drama-value, the ratings people are peeing themselves over this, and you know Heather and Beverly have a get-out-of-jail-free pass for the forseeable future) and the right teams were sent out.

Dakota and Nyesha are out, which surprised me first because I expected Nyesha to stick around for a while, and second because it seemed to me their dish was good except for the meat, and third because ChrisJ has done the same mistake twice now.

Dakota is truly upset that she took Nyesha down with her, and she acknowledges it was her fault. That does Nyesha no good at all, but it’s nice to see someone whose head is on straight.

And in the Last Chance Kitchen – can either of them beat Whitney… oh, I think so. Nyesha and Dakota find The Letter. This is getting tedious, can we zip through this from now on? We get the picture, they’re surprised and puzzled and eager. Tom and Whitney greet them, and he calls in the eliminated guys. I really like that they keep the eliminated chefs in the viewers’ consciousness this way. So many times, by the Reunion it’s a matter of, hey, who’s that, was he on the show? Granted, it’s hard to remember Andrew, who never actually got on the show, but it’s a good move.

The challenge is to cook using only a wok, and to incorporate cactus as a main ingredient. They have 30 minutes. Dakota says cactus is slimy and that’s the main thing to worry about. Nyesha is determined. Richie asks Keith if cactus can be eaten raw; he says yes. Keith asks Dakota how she’s doing. Shut up, Keith, no one bothered you when you were doing this. Whitney has never eaten or cooked cactus. Keith asks Nyesha what direction she’s taking, and she says Asian. Duh. Andrew (remember him?) asks Whitney what she’s up to, and what a surprise, she too is going Asian. Nyesha sees the veggies aren’t browning the way she needs them to, so she takes the grate off the burner and puts the wok directly in the flame, which works. Now, see, that’s a restaurant chef who knows what she’s doing. Dakota focuses on cooking the protein right. Nyesha is getting scattered then hears someone tell her to put the food on the plate, and snaps back into focus.

Whitney serves cactus and chicken fried rice with sriracha, soy and rice wine vinegar. She’s happy with it; Tom has no comment. He leaves his chopsticks poking out of the bowl, which I thought was a huge no-no, but I could be wrong, especially since I don’t use them ever.

Nyesha makes Asian style scallops with prickly pear, cilantro, and thai basil. He says it’s nice.

Dakota has shrimp tostada with watermelon and prickly pear shooter.

Tom invites the eliminated chefs to taste. I hope they get new chopsticks. He says they were all good dishes. Whitney had great flavor and nice texture, but he couldn’t taste the cactus that much; it was a nice traditional dish. Nyesha’s dish looked beautiful, he liked that she used the juice to make a sauce, and the scallop was well-cooked. Dakota showed she knew how to get the slime out of the cactus, and her shellfish was perfectly cooked. He asks the guys what they think. Andrew – remember him? – thinks they did a great job, were very organized, and took advantage of the wok. Tom guesses Chuy knows his way around a cactus; Chuy admits, he’s had a hankering for nopales and something else I didn’t recognize; they did good, it was all gravy. Richie says Dakota used the cactus twice and Nyesha might have taken it for good use of wok.

Nyesha wins. Dakota is relieved. I’m guessing Nyesha’s going to hang on for a while. And it’s interesting how the Last Chance challenges have gotten a little harder now, with ingredients some chefs might not have encountered before. I wonder what they’ll do to ratchet it up more in the future. I was skeptical about this when it started, but now I’m a fan. It’s nice to see the eliminated chefs a little, too. Though they do tend to fade from memory pretty quickly.

Next time: Austin. Patti Labelle. Emeril.

Pushcart 2011: Deb Olin Unferth, “Pet” from NOON, 2009

NOON 9 cover

NOON 9 cover

How has she come to this? How? She can put a heroic spin on it or a negative one. She could make herself look enlightened or close to tramphood. She has never seen a woman make worse choices than she. She has never known any person so transparently wrongheaded, so obviously in need of job counseling, parenting classes, therapy, help of any kind, any lifeboat, any raft, so obviously in need of a hard careful look at herself, and so obviously not going to do it. She is that unaware. That full of the opposite of insight, that doomed to middling livelihood at best, certain solitude, early illness, weakness, not-quite poverty, strained relations with her son, relatives who don’t really like her taking care of her when she is old. The indignity of all this, the shame. How exhausting, this life, this topic, how stupid, how difficult. She has her face in her hands. And what is that now – turtle shit in her hair? Well, this is a lovely way to spend the afternoon. Does she feel better now, Miss Pity Party? The phone rings. That would be her date.

Another miraculous story. The POV is so all over the place, I can’t even begin to figure it out. In the above quoted paragraph, for instance, is the woman herself the narrator, or is it a third person narration? Is she thinking these things, or is the narrator explaining this is what she’s thinking? Is she so keenly aware that she’s unaware? Is she recognizing she can put a positive or negative spin on it, and then turning it into such a tirade of self-hatred it’s almost comic, especially when the turtle shit comes in? At times it’s more like the instruction-manual second person voice. This is way beyond my understanding of POV and narration. Thankfully, Matt Bell has done a line-by-line analysis of the opening four paragraphs [which, sadly, seems to have disappeared now, in Oct 2012], from which we gratefully reap the benefits:

The paragraph is narration, but it’s so, so close to the characters, blending words that were probably said aloud into summary. Even that [fourth] paragraph reads like a blend of dialogue and thought, making the barriers between the woman’s inner and outer voices permeable and transparent. This is done throughout the story to some degree, and makes for a story where the narratorial voice is as much a part of the characters as the dialogue and action it describes, as it’s almost always buried in one character’s sensibility or another.

There’s also a narrative analysis by Justin Taylor on his HTMLGiant review of this issue of NOON. I clearly need to learn more about narrative technique.

As a reader lacking their sophistication, I can only say the story reads like chaos. The woman is a divorced mother of an absurdly smart-ass teenage son, and she admits she hasn’t been the best mother. She may or may not be aware of all the ways she hasn’t been the best mother; she explains she only left him with someone twice, once when he had chicken pox and once when she was in rehab, and he reminds her she didn’t actually leave him with those friends, he called them and asked them to pick him up. So his attitude isn’t totally uncalled for.

But she’s trying. She’s sympathetic, if flawed. She’s in AA. Her sister asked her to watch the house during vacation, and she found these two turtles in a tank in the basement. She was afraid they’d die in the dank basement; one of them appeared to be drowning himself. In a “philanthropic moment,” she takes the tank home with her. Her son pulls out the snidery only teens can pull off: “…the turtles’ lives are no better than they had been before, and her own life is significantly worse, since now she has to take care of them.”

One turtle is sick. She takes it to a vet, who charges her $40 to say he’s a mammal vet and has no idea what’s wrong or what to do about it. She calls pet shops, and they don’t know what to do. Someone finally suggests vitamin sticks and a special light, which she gets and the turtle improves. Except then it starts fighting with the other turtle. Someone tells her about the Reptile Swap where you give up your reptile and take another, but no one wants her turtles. So she gets another tank; now has to clean two tanks, which clogs up the bathtub drain, which explodes when she pours in drain cleaner…

And then there’s that moment of change. It’s so beautiful, just perfectly executed. A couple of sentences in clear, straightforward style. The chaos of language and situation returns – the son is still a teenager, after all – but the mood changes completely. The Deus ex Machina in a beam of light from the sky. I cried, much to my surprise; I didn’t think I was that emotionally involved in the story. Maybe I wasn’t, until that moment.

I was reminded of 1) “Tenderoni” by Kathy Fish, which executes the same dismal scene suddenly turning on a single sentence, and 2) “Rollingwood” by Ben Marcus, a story I hated because it had the dismal part down pat, and the closed doors and the attempts to fix things leading only to dead ends, but left out the turning point. It felt incomplete to me, and now I know why.

So many layers here – I haven’t even touched on the similarity of children and pets, which seems like an awful thing to say, but I feel that’s being made very clear here. She doesn’t like these turtles. They’re ugly. They smell bad. It isn’t like a cute kitten or puppy that may poop on the rug but is cute and cuddly after all. Still, she doesn’t throw them out. Her son isn’t cute and cuddly, either. He’s far more obnoxious than the turtles. And she still works at it. We all know, or have read about, parents who have given up. She doesn’t. And I think the son, for all his nastiness, knows that somewhere.

I think there’s some psychology at work here as well. There’s a point where even the littlest thing, like a turtle, seems truly overwhelming. It’s a point recovering addicts and depressives tend to reach easily. The comment Matt Bell made about the narration seeming permeable made me think of a variety of personality disorders, including the “porous ego” of borderline personality disorder or the projection of narcissism. But I’m not an expert in these matters.

It’s a lot to fit into a turtle story.

The Next Iron Chef Super Chefs: Episode 7 – Hamptons Beach Cookout

Is this what he meant by Venus on a scallop shell?

Hello, I am Zin! I am surprised that I am not quite sick of this already, especially since the first four episodes were not good at all. This is the next-to-last episode, and I think it is just enough!

The chefs arrive at Montauk by boat! Falkner can just see the clambakes on the beach! Zakarian says the Hamptons are famous for the beaches, great food, and rich people. He says he goes there a lot. Bankruptcy is not what is used to be, is it?

They go to the Montauk Yacht Club, and Chiarello starts babbling about the Vanderbilts. Boy, considering these guys are not exactly paupers, they sure get excited by rich people!

Alton Brown tells them they have $500 each and two hours to forage around the Hamptons, then two hours to cook. Forage? He makes it sound like they have to find edible plants and catch rabbits! They must make a three course seafood tasting menu for a party of twenty of the elite of the Hamptons culinary community plus the judges. The theme is passion, so they must put their passion on a plate. Alex lectures how passion is about making pickled eel even though no one really wants to eat it if they can avoid it. I think Alex has been out in the hot sun too long.

Since Falkner won last week, she gets an extra minute (I am not sure, something like that – my mind wandered) and she gets a boat to take her around. I would think a car would be more helpful, but I suppose that is how they do things in the Hamptons. The boat takes her to a fish market set up outside on a pier for their foraging convenience, right in the sun, which is such a great idea as Anita Lo will tell you – raw seafood and sun are a great combination, it got her kicked off Top Chef Masters! But it makes for a nice visual, and everything on The Food Network is more about appearance than reality.

Alex says they have limited funds in an expensive part of the world. Yes, Alex needs to get indoors fast. She wants to buy what others are not buying, so she gets fish bones for stock. Falkner is thinking cioppino. Zakarian worries about time. Chiarello buys fluke. They go to a farmers market to forage among the $12-a-pound tubs of butter. Everyone comes up with stupid ways to use “passion” in a sentence relating to cooking, like the pickled eel.

Two people will go home today, so only two go on to play the last round in Iron Chef Stadium. Alton explained how that would work, with the Showdown thing, but my mind wandered again. It does that sometimes. Then I call it and say, “Here, mind! Come on, come here!” and it comes back. Usually. I will figure out how the eliminations work later. The judges will consider the opinions of the Elite of the Hamptons Culinary Community (remember them?) in their deliberations.

Presentation to the Judges:

The judges get to sit inside for their dinner, unlike the diners who have to be outside.

Alex made 1) raw fluke with tomato jam with lime and fried fluke skin, served with a cocktail of muddled strawberries with rum and prosecco; she wanted a lot of red because red is passion. She wanted to communicate her, ahem, passion for nose to tail cooking, so she used the flesh, bones, and skin. But not the eyeballs! Shame on her! Morimoto would have used the eyeballs. And what about the innards? Fish innards are always part of the original Iron Chef! But that is inside-out cooking, not nose-to-tail. Michael Simon really likes the crunchy fish skin. 2) Smoked crab chowder, leeks, clams, bacon. Simon thinks it is too salty, but Judy loves the seasoning. Early in her career before she had any idea what she was doing, she made clam chowder, and the chef she was working for said it was great, so she wanted to make it here. 3) Lobster with poached egg and hollandaise. To Alex, lobster and eggs are like corn flakes and milk. She must have some interesting breakfasts! She was happy to tear that lobster limb from limb to get it on the plate. Well, that is pretty much what you have to do with lobster, you know, boil it alive and dismember it! It is a very violent dish! Michael Simon thinks it needs more salt. Judy thinks it is too rich, there is too much hollandaise. A couple of diners say they do not like the tomato jam, it is too strong.

Falkner serves 1) vichyssoise chowder with potato, leek and fennel. Simon licks his bowl. It is quite disgusting. Judy likes the baby greens on top. Michael Simon says it is spectacular. 2) Smoked scallop on corn puree with English peas and asparagus. Simon wants more smoke flavor. Michael Simon thinks it is a bit one-note with the sweetness. 3) East Coast Cioppino, with lobster poached in saffron butter, and a filet of sea bass plus some grilled squid. Michael Simon loves the lobster. Simon wanted crunchier skin on his fish, it is a bit flaccid (and he pronounces it correctly, as a Brit would – I will have to take him off my shit list!) One diner says the scallop is bland; another likes the soup.

Zakarian is passionate about his family. He likes to take them to St. Barts, like any good bankrupt 1%-er would. He makes 1) seabass salad with endive and celery roll up and a ginger agrodolce. Judy says it is spicy and vibrant. 2) Because he also loves the Mediterranean, he makes blackfish minute steak and lemon taponade. 3) To honor Brittany (the region of France, not the singer) he serves roast scqllop sausage “sandwich” with couscous risotto. Michael Simon says the sausage texture is perfect; Simon says it is not the prettiest plate. A diner says he can taste the passion. Eww. Another thinks the blackfish is too fishy.

Chiarello shows them passion through the ages. 1) Tuna crudo arrabbiata with seed pod of tomato, because tomato is often considered the foribidden fruit. Simon likes the garlic. Judy likes that it looks like seaweed. 2) It was a fluke that he met his wife (Alex gets a little grumpy – “this is not the story telling competition”) so he makes smoked fluke with gribiche, bacon and eggs, crostini, and a scape puree. Michael Simon says the fish is cooked perfectly. 3) Venus came to Rome on a scallop shell, so he makes scallop with carrot caponata puree. Simon likes the control of coriander and fennel, they can be overly strong but it is good here. Michael Simon thinks the scallop is a little overcooked. Chiarello interviews that is impossible! A diner says it is indeed overcooked! Someone else thinks his tuna is the best dish of the day.

For some reason the judges compare the men and then they compare the women, like there was some pairing they did not tell us about! That is ridiculous! Oh, wait, maybe it was that Zakarian and Chiarello did the best, and Alex and Falkner were the worst. And – ah, here it is, see, I said I would pick it up later – there will be a winner who will be safe to go on to Kitchen Stadium next week, and a loser who will go home, and then the middle two will do the Last Chance Kitchen. Or whatever the hell it is called on this show. Second chance? No, Showdown! Whatever.

Zakarian is the winner!

Alex is the loser! Good bye Alex! She is disappointed but she is the almost-almost-almost Iron Chef. She did not get inside soon enough, obviously. The judges tell her the lobster dish had flaws in the seasoning, the hollandaise overwhelmed it.

So Falkner and Chiarello do the showdown thing.

They must cook: product placement crackers and wine. They have 30 minutes to make three bites, one with each variety of cracker (regular, pretzel, and flatbread).

Falkner makes shrimp and grits on the regular cracker, to take advantage of the buttery flavor. She makes chicken liver mousse with red wine syrup and crispy shallots for the pretzel cracker, and a curry lamb meatball with merlot reduction and raita on the flatbread cracker, to impress Simon with her Indian flavors.

Chiarello fills three shot glasses with cracker crumbs and puts the food on top: a chicken liver mousse with cabernet mustard and caramelized pretzel, a sardine escabeche with panzanella, and whipped Sonoma goat cheese with cabernet “caviar.” He does not use the calcium chloride to make the caviar, but gelatin and drops it in cold canola oil so it will set. Judy wants to taste the caviar more; Michael Simon is impressed he made caviar in 30 minutes. Simon says there are not many levels of flavor. Chiarello argues he was going for texture.

They discuss. Falkner did not do as well in plating. Chiarello had the strongest single bite (the chicken liver) and the weakest (the caviar).

Chiarello is out, Falkner is in. Yay! I am glad, she is my favorite, though I am surprised, I did not think she would be.

Let’s see, the finale:

Zakarian was on Iron Chef America, and lost battle Sardines to Morimoto. Badly. He has been on Chopped where he got to the finals in the All Stars challenge. And he was on that stupid Scott Conant 24 hour restaurant show. He has serious culinary chops; he started at Le Cirque. And he filed for bankruptcy protection early this year when a bunch of former employees sued so he could continue to run his four fireplaces and take his family to St. Barts and the Mediterranean. I still do not understand how this bankruptcy works. And I think it is in bad taste for him to be bragging about his life on television. But he can cook.

Falkner was on Top Chef, the original flavor, in the Sex Shop Dessert challenge. She was even more memorably (how do you get more memorable than that?) on Top Chef Desserts for the Candy challenge, the episode famous for the line, “The Red Hots Are For My Mommy” and she was very kind to the kid, trying to get him to pull himself to get together, so she has grace under pressure. She too was on Iron Chef America and lost to Cat Cora in Battle Honey by one point (but both scores were in the 30s which is very, very low!). She was on Top Chef Masters in the first season but did not get out of her preliminary group! And she was on at least one of those silly Food Network Challenge shows. She started as a pastry chef, but now has branched into Savory (except both her restaurants are closing – maybe she is going to become a full-time TV chef!). She is a very out lesbian. And she is a She! They need a She on Iron Chef America! The lesbian part is just a bonus!

Normally I would say the Food Network would pick style over substance any time. But I can not imagine that they will let Falkner beat a Food Network workhorse! Is this not admitting the Food Network has mediocre chefs? I mean, we all know that, but they seem to want to deny it.

The only thing I am sure of is that this was decided before the show started filming, and it was based on demographics or contract negotiations and has nothing to do with cooking!

We will see.

BASS 2011: Sam Lipsyte, “The Dungeon Master” from The New Yorker 10/4/10

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

New Yorker illustration by Steve Powers

I know that he is strange and not as smart as he pretends, but at least he keeps the borders of his mind realm well patrolled. That must count for something.

Those who have never played computer games aren’t going to enjoy this post much. They probably won’t enjoy the story, either. It’s available online.

Full disclosure: I was a middle-aged gamer. Yes, I am blushing down to the roots of my hair. Oh, I dabbled in D&D back in the early 80s when I hung out with people who wrote their own game programs. And I still play word games, but they don’t count. My dirty secret: I played Pyroto Mountain, where I fretted about manna and esteem and cast spells for a few years, even went to a RL get-together in Toronto where I met, among others, beeg, Sethari & Isabel, and the infamous Soup. When Pyroto went dark, I followed Feldermer and em to Kingdom of Loathing, which is hilarious rather than loathsome. I had a Mr. Accessory (worth a million meat). Never got a Mrs. Accessory, though. I came in 49th in a race, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. I won a prize, after all.

During my Pyroto years, I became fascinated with the Bartle Classification of gamers. Socializers play to chat with other players. Achievers play to win, get the most points, whatever. Explorers play to understand every nook and cranny of the game (and are the admin’s best friend and worst enemy, since they will point out obscure bugs no one else will ever encounter). And the Killers, their objective is to annoy other players – not beat other characters, but annoy the person behind the characters. The famous Soup, mentioned above, was a Killer. A psycho hell-bent character. And a perfectly nice guy IRL.

The Dragon Master, in this Dungeon & Dragons based story, is a Killer. Except he isn’t, really. As Sam Lipsyte says in a great interview with Wizards.com, “Generally the Dungeon Master does see it as his duty to teach them that life is disappointment.” He does a very good job. The mystery is why they stick with him.

There’s another D&D game group in an afterschool program, and it’s full of creative kids making up fun adventures. Eventually the narrator tries the other group. He finds something is missing. To me, this addresses the question: do violent games make kids violent, or do violent kids gravitate towards violent games?

But I don’t think that’s what Sam Lipsyte was after. I think he was exploring these kids’ lives – bleak lives – using a game. He does a terrific job of it, staying in the game for much of the story. It’s through the game that we learn how they react to frustration, to success, to failure. There’s a quick flash-forward at the end that cues us in on how their lives proceed. I’m not a fan of the “where they are now” flash forward, but this one is masterful.

In his Contributor Note, Lipsyte says he wrote this story right after college, then put it in the proverbial drawer for twenty years until it finally and suddenly clicked. It’s the third story of his I’ve read, and it’s probably my least favorite. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it; I admire the technique. And I do have a soft spot for D&D.

Cesar Aira: “The Musical Brain” from The New Yorker, 12/5/11

New Yorker Art: ISU Milner Library Special Collection, "A Passion For The Circus"

New Yorker Art: ISU Milner Library Special Collection, "A Passion For The Circus"

I don’t know who explained this rule to me; maybe it was the product of my own speculations and fantasies. That would have been typical: I was always inventing stories and machinations to make sense of things I didn’t understand, and I understood almost nothing.

It’s Fellini on the pampas, the sort of thing you might expect from an avant-garde Argentine – or a five year old boy used to inventing stories and machinations. In his Book Bench interview, translator Chris Andrews says: “It’s a bit like watching a brilliant, mischievous mathematician at the blackboard, working through a proof: he’s skipping the ‘obvious’ steps and at some point he may start pulling your leg.” Fasten your seat belt and enjoy the ride.

The story starts off quite traditionally: A little boy is out to dinner with his family. An unusual event for this family, not due to any poverty but simply because “my father’s austere habits and my mother’s invincible suspicion of any food she hadn’t prepared herself.” There is the slight oddity of diners carrying boxes of books to a table ruled by Sarita Subercasseaux, who later became the founder of the town library and high school headmistress. But the boy realizes there must’ve been a book drive for what would become the library. Yes, that would make sense.

Except – and here we get our first hint that this is not your typical story – in an aside he relates how in adulthood he asked his mother about Sarita, and was assured she’d died before he was born. Unmarried, childless, “the very image of sterility. I was quite sure of that.” We’re often sure of things before we realize they aren’t so.

Back in the present of the story, the Musical Brain comes onto she scene. Other diners are saying it’s on display in the lobby of the theatre next to the restaurant. The Brain had been circulating around town for a while as various families borrowed it:

….the reason for borrowing this new magical device was sheer curiosity (although perhaps there was also a touch of superstition)…..on the one hand, there were those who tried to get rid of the Brain after the first night, with the excuse that the music stopped them sleeping; on the other hand were those who built elaborate niches and pedestals, then tried to use their expenses as a pretext for prolonging the loan indefinitely. The association soon lost track of where the Brain was, and those who, like us, hadn’t seen it yet came to suspect that the whole thing was a hoax.

The father pays the restaurant bill (from a green wallet that had belonged to Pushkin, via a relative who’d been an Ambassador to Russia) and they rush to see the Musical Brain. They don’t hear any music, perhaps because the theatre is full and a “comedy of manners” (as opposed to “real theatre”) is generating laughter and commotion.

There’s some exposition about Mom’s obsession with “real theatre,” then a truck ride, boy in the back with his dog Geniol. A detour to the circus, which is jammed full. Probably because people feel safe there. Safe from what? Oh, the dwarfs. See, three dwarfs play with the circus, a married couple, and the husband’s brother, but it turns out the wife and brother-in-law were carrying on and the husband found out so the illicit couple ran off and the husband got a gun and ran off after them, and with him being of intemperate character, there is concern that a stray bullet could harm any innocent bystander. But a thorough search of the town had revealed no dwarfs. They started looking in smaller and smaller places, cocoons, the undersides of leaves. To no avail, so there is this threat hanging over the town…

And we go back to the theatre, as the narrator now realizes he’s mixed up the order of the tale, and the drive past the circus must’ve taken place before the viewing of the Brain. I read somewhere that this is one of Aira’s trademarks: he doesn’t edit, he merely writes wrong turns into the story. This annoys me: why read anything when it might be negated in the next paragraph?

Does the plot really matter? We return our attention to the Brain, and the theatre, and the dwarfs make an appearance, and Sarita as well christening an egg with a book.

It’s the sort of story you have to read, I guess. I love craziness, but this made little sense to me. I waited to read it until I was in the mood for some fun, after a small adventure of my own last weekend, but it wasn’t fun to me. The elements didn’t seem to belong together, or to lead one to another. They seemed too random. But maybe I’m missing the point – they were random, held together by the fantastical imagination of one small boy.

The images were hilarious, and I kept wondering if I’d enjoy it as a video. But I don’t think so. I’m skeptical of literature in translation anyway. I think language, in good literature, is too deeply rooted to be translated, especially something like this, deeply rooted in Cesar Aira’s boyhood and the religious and supernatural culture of the region. I’m glad I experienced it, but I’m not that interested in seeing more.

Pushcart 2011: Marc Watkins, “Two Midnights in a Jug” from Boulevard, Spring 2009

Boulevard, Spring 2009

Boulevard, Spring 2009

In Eminence, MO, folks call trailer courts neighborhoods and hundred-year-old farm houses with acreage equal to a football field are mansions. There’s one high school, and you’ll get sidelong looks if you finish. People will talk, call you learnt, expect you to work at the mega hog farm as manager with an education. You’ll need a wife, finding her ‘s easy cause every household’s got at least one daughter ready for marriage, and you won’t meet her at a bar, there’s only a few in town. More likely it’ll be at a church, there’s twenty inside city limits.

I have trouble separating the author from the story in this particular case: Marc Watkins, from Sedalia, MO, is as much a record of joy as the story is a study in misery. He dropped out of high school at age 14 because of anxiety and depression, and went to work washing cars. His parents knew something, though: they kept at him to continue his education, so he earned his GED at 18 and later graduated from the University of Central Missouri. Along the way he took a writing class. He published some stories. He won a fellowship to the Texas State University MFA program. He’s gotten some great press. And now he’s a Pushcart winner.

The story, on the other hand, is grim; as dark as, well, two midnights in a jug. It’s available online. I suggest you read it, rather than reading here. I found my breathing getting more and more shallow as I read; there’s some powerful olfactory imagery there.

This past summer, in the continuing war against the poor, The Heritage Foundation released a report that the average poor family in America has air conditioning and cable TV, as well as a computer and an Xbox. They must’ve met Margret Jean, Cordell, and their fourteen-year-old son, Abner.

They live in a trailer, bought at auction when they lost their house after the farm failed. And yes, they have a plasma TV. But no plumbing, so they have a bucket positioned under the toilet; they empty it once a day and throw lime into after every use so it doesn’t smell too bad. But there’s been a manure fire at the mega hog farm for the past month, and the ash keeps raining down on the home, killing the few acres of soybeans they have left, blowing in under the door if the rag they keep there gets dislodged, so they’re in shit anyway.

Breathing a little shallow yourself now, eh?

This story is packed with telling details, just in Margret Jean walking across the floor:

Her bare feet touch cold linoleum beneath her bed, some of the tile edges curl upwards till their ends make a knife of plastic. She walks to the kitchen, avoiding the painful tiles, without looking…”

That says so much. She knows how to avoid the worst pain; and yet, she hasn’t done anything about the painful edges curling up, not put some kind of rug over them, not put on shoes, not pulled up the tiles completely. She just knows how to avoid the painful edges, she’s been doing it so long. I don’t think we’re talking about linoleum here.

Margret Jean may be poor, she may have lost her house, and her faith in her husband to take care of her, but she still has faith in some things, so she buys some Cialis from her friend Louvinia – not for Cordell, but for herself. She picks deer ticks off Cordell when he returns from his coon hunt to seduce him; all I could think of was grooming behavior.

Cordell no longer has his house or his farm, but he has his plasma TV for football and the two recliners, still wrapped in plastic, to go with it. And Trixie, his formerly favorite dog, who lost her leg when he blasted her with a shotgun. He only meant to scare her, but one of the bullets hit her and now she’s dying. She’s in heat, and maybe he can get one more litter out of her before she goes, so he lets the other dogs at her. This goes beyond the difference between people who have animals as pets and those who have working animals. It’s just plain hideous.

Then there’s the son, Abner, fourteen, who’s sitting in the thirty-year-old Chevy Nova next to the trailer, tires flat, watching the hog manure ash fall on the windshield, maybe imagining he’s zooming down the highway. He’s dropped out of school, but his dad won’t let him get a job at the hog farm while the fire’s still burning. Abner empties the shit bucket in a copse of trees his father still owns, land full of timber he promised the church (another glimpse of the man Cordell used to be). The ash doesn’t fall out here. His father doesn’t want him working at the hog farm as long as the ash is falling, but he goes anyway, and here, for me, is the killer:

There are stakes wrapped with chicken wire set along the edge of the burning section to keep the fire from spreading. Three bulldozers sit idle next to the fire. The machine operators lean against the treads, waiting for the order to snuff the fire.

I have to admit, I’m not sure if the boy’s defiance of his father, getting a job at the hog farm, fire or not, is hopeful or depressing. Maybe he’s given up believing in his parents, and is taking matters into his own hands. Or maybe he’s just realized he’s stuck, and he might as well fall in line. It could be something entirely different. But with that image of the bulldozers and drivers sitting around doing nothing while shit rains down on Margret, Cordell, and Abner’s trailer, where they moved when they lost their house and most of their farm, takes this to a whole different level.

Finally, the bulldozers move:

But the treads of the dozers carry embers to sections of the manure pile that haven’t caught fire and these embers start little fires of their own. The manager sees this, and tries to stop the dozers, but it’s too late. Little fires catch hold, and the whole pile now smolders, sending up a cloud of ash that blurs the evening horizon. Let night come on early. The land’s used to it.

This story was first published in 2009. It’s almost 2012 now, and the fires are still smoldering, raining manure ash down on Cordell and Margret Jean and Abner. And the Heritage Foundation doesn’t know shit about these people. Neither do I, not really, I’ll admit; but I’m glad Marc Watkins has introduced me to them.