Pushcart 2012: Lydia Conklin, “Rockaway” from New Letters Fall 2010

"Human Balance" Sand Sculpture by Helena Banger and Jooheng Tan

"Human Balance" Sand Sculpture by Helena Banger and Jooheng Tan

Dani and Laurel hold hands. Laurel leans on Dani’s shoulder, even though Laurel’s taller. She likes Dani’s shoulder blade bumping her temple at each stride. Dani is tough but junior-sized, with long, gelled curls that stand between her and real-boyhood. Laurel is mixed race – Puerto Rican and black and a little Chinese – with an ironed spray of ponytail. There’s a scar on her jaw from opening a bottle with her teeth. Sometimes tears and sweat or milky drips of moisturizer form tiny ponds in the scar. Dani monitors the ponds as they change with the light of day. She kisses them out of their beds. They’re salty.

Part of the appeal of this story, for me, was the placement. It followed an essay by B. H. Fairchild on the love of language, and a poem about the seductive nature of language (I’ll be dealing with the poetry and essays in this volume in separate posts later on). Then comes “Rockaway,” which uses language perfectly.

That isn’t to say it’s elegant or poetic. It’s just evocative as hell.

Dani and Laurel are a couple of fifteen-year-old lovers from the projects who visit Rockaway Beach to search for whale barf. They’ve heard a rumor someone just found a small piece that netted him eight thousand dollars, so off they go. They don’t know what whale barf is, what it looks like, or why it’s so valuable. They just go.

It’s sort of how they fell in love. Their moms got pregnant together as teens, and they grew up across the hall from each other, though they ran in different crowds until one day, Laurel noticed Dani “was more boy than girl.” They’ve been keeping it quiet, with Laurel sneaking into Dani’s bed late at night and leaving before her mom wakes up. Now Laurel wants to tell their moms about their love. Dani’s more cautious:

Dani wonders what would happen if she ever wanted to dump Laurel. They’re in love, really, and she can’t imagine it ending. But there’s the option. If they tell the moms, and then Dani wanted out, she’d be stuck. The moms would give her shit for the rest of her life for hurting Laurel. Before Laurel, anytime Dani got sick of a girl clinging on her she blocked her number and IM, looked away on the street. Some of the girls got mad, hit her in public. The boys on the block gave her high-fives and winks, had her back if things got dangerous. It was only time they respected her. Now that they sense she’s settled down, they’re dicks again.

Dani keeps putting off the issue; they’re at the beach looking for whale barf, after all.

A few things happen at the beach, including a party in a hole in the sand, that clarify the relationship, and it’s all very beautifully handled. The kids are in that adolescent state of zigzagging from hypermature ‘hood toughness to needy infancy to motherly tenderness at a moment’s notice, and the language lets them do that. Little touches – like “clinging on her” instead of “clinging to her” – matter.

The story works on face value, and it works in symbolics as well – the elusive ambergris, the hole in the sand at the beach, the adolescent view of committment. Very nice, but not intrusive. It’s just there if you want it.

Conklin, a Harvard grad, was an MFA student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when the story was originally published. She’s an artist, cartoonist, and now writer. Given her ability to use language, that seems right.

Stephen Ornes: “Hilarious, In The Wrong Way” from One Story #160, 2/8/12

Claudio Alfaro Malebrán: "Un lago de mármol blanco" (A Lake of White Marble)

Claudio Alfaro Malebrán: "Un lago de mármol blanco" (A Lake of White Marble)

At the end of school, the intercom crackled and hissed before going quiet. Then the principal Mr. Weathers got on and said that Theodore was dead, and asked if we could have a moment of silence? The intercom was mounted over the door, concealed in a weathered wooden box that tilted so far from the cinder block wall it looked ready to fall down on someone’s head. I wondered if it had always been that way. I looked down and saw that my pencil still hovered over my paper because I hadn’t finished writing everything down from the board before Mr. Weathers said Theodore is dead.

That’s an interesting paragraph. Not just the content, but the details of form. For instance, the second sentence ends in a question mark, though it shouldn’t. If it was, “Mr. Weathers asked, Can we have a moment of silence?” that would be different, but it isn’t. That must mean something. Turning declarations into questions? Uncertainty? A barb at someone asking when really they’re telling? Not sure.

It becomes even more interesting when Ornes’ discusses, in his One Story Q&A, that the editors advised against his use of questions in the narrative:

…the generous editors at One Story pointed out to me that “questions from a narrator, however true they are to the character’s thoughts, leave the reader in doubt. Concrete details create confidence.” That’s also useful. After they pointed that out, I realized that I follow the same guideline in my science writing and avoid questions within copy as much as possible. Perhaps there’s no faster way to undermine your own authority than to pose a question to your reader.

Considering this advice, it’s incredibly interesting he chose to include a question, one that isn’t really a question, in the second sentence of the story.

I’m also intrigued by the switch of tense in the last sentence, though I think I understand that better. In the second sentence, he uses past tense: “…Theodore was dead…” and in the last, present: “…Theodore is dead.” It doesn’t take Ben long to take this journey, which somehow makes it more personal to him, going from what Mr. Weathers said to what is.

And of course there’s the content of Ben focusing on the angle of the intercom when he’s just heard of the death of a classmate, who, we’ll discover almost immediately, was a friend. We’ll further discover Theodore committed suicide by shooting himself with a shotgun.

Given how much I’ve found in this first paragraph, and the subject matter, I’m surprised to say that the rest of the story didn’t do much for me. It’s a fine story, but not at the level I’ve come to expect from One Story. Then again, that’s the problem with being my favorite literary magazine: you get held to very high standards.

We follow pubescent Ben through his process of adjusting to the idea that his friend is dead. Some great details come into play. Theodore had embarrassed Ben in front of Bethy a few days before, so he’d planned to put salt in his iced tea at the pot-luck dinner the night before. But Ben didn’t show. Ben remembers a look he saw on Theodore’s face at some point: “I’d seen this look before, when he seemed to have gone so far away that he wasn’t just lost, he also wasn’t coming back.” He remembers how Theodore had shown him a dead rat and offered to gut it in front of him: “…when Theodore went to the extreme, like he did with the rat, I valued him the most. It was thrilling and calming at the same time; I didn’t know anyone else who could do things like that.” Ben introduced him to ZZ Top; he doesn’t even like the music but listens to it anyway. He dabbles with hanging himself, just to see what it’s like, to have that kind of control.

Ben comes to a moment when he realizes something: “With every person I’ve ever met, and every person I’ll ever meet, either I’m going to die first or they are….” Saying goodbye is the price of living. And he realizes how precarious everything is:

…I stumbled, standing only on the ball of one foot at the edge of the dock for a moment, hovering over the water, like the split-second when a juggled ball hangs in the air, not rising or falling. Nothing had happened yet, everything remained.
Then gravity took me. The water smacked the back of my head like a shotgun. It blasted away Mr. Weather’s voice, Miss Ruckles’ hand, Justin’s bloody nose, ZZ Top, Theodore in an empty room, alone, with his finger flailing away from the trigger. The images appeared and vanished, water filled my open mouth, my eyes, my ears, my pockets. I flailed beneath the surface. I took water in every opening.

The doors between this world and its shadows were everywhere, always open and waiting.

Ornes is primarily a science writer, and used unstable equilibrium (“like a marble balanced on top of an overturned bowl: it can stay in place, as long as you don’t nudge bowl or the marble”) as the inspiration for this story: “I arrived at thinking about a character who, like an ignorant marble, suddenly realizes he—or anyone else—can slide down the bowl at any time.” He was successful in this, to a point.

But I find I liked the ideas, the tiny details like the first paragraph, and the inspirations and explanations, more than I liked the story. I had trouble getting through it. In fact, I put it down for a few days, then when Issue #161 arrived – Jim Shephard! – I knew I had to get going so I picked it up again and started over. Still, there are high points, and it’s worth reading, if only for those details and explanations and inspirations.

Kelly Link: Stone Animals, Madras Press 2012

Henry asked a question. He was joking.
‘As a matter of fact,’ the real estate agent snapped, ‘it is.’
It was not a question she had expected to be asked. She gave Henry a goofy, appeasing smile, and yanked at the hem of the skirt of her pink linen suit, which seemed as if it might, at any moment, go rolling up her knees like a window shade. She was younger than Henry, and sold houses that she couldn’t afford to buy.
‘It’s reflected in the asking price, of course,’ she said. ‘Like you said.’
Henry stared at her. She blushed.
‘I’ve never seen anything,’ she said. ‘But there are stories. not stories that I know, I just know there are stories. If you believe that sort of thing.’
‘I don’t,’ Henry said.

I’ll have to admit right off the top: I don’t “get” this story. It’s a fun read, and I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure why it was considered one of the Best American Short Stories in 2005 after appearing in Conjunctions #43. It’s available online in a variety of formats as part of Link’s collection Magic for Beginners. So it’s a pretty widely disseminated reprint, and easy to check out.

What’s unique about this edition, besides the great Madras Press 5×5 binding complete with bookplate page, are twelve black-and-white illustrations by a wide variety of artistic and literary figures, including Anthony Doerr, Ursula K. Le Guin, Audrey Niffenegger, and Tao Nyeu. It’s too bad Madras didn’t release this a few months earlier; it would’ve been a lovely stocking-stuffer. Of course, I think that of all their editions.

Henry and pregnant wife Catherine, along with their kids Tilly, 9, and Carleton, 6, are looking at a house a couple of hours outside NYC. The plan is for Henry to work from home, returning to the city occasionally as needed. The story’s opening, above, discusses the implied question: “Is it haunted?”

Carleton doesn’t like the stone animals that flank the entry of the house. He thinks they’re dogs. Catherine reminds him of the lions at the library, which he likes; he isn’t buying it. The real estate lady (whose name we never learn) has always thought of them as rabbits, because of the large ears. Henry thinks of Stonehenge. Catherine is reminded of topiary, of The Velveteen Rabbit. But Carleton still doesn’t like them.

Henry’s job is never clearly explained, but it involves keeping clients happy, and it involves his boss (whose real name, again, we never learn) needing him. She’s The Crocodile, because of her watery reptilian eyes: “She had problematical tear ducts.” She keeps a huge ball of rubber bands in her office, adding to it over time: “Making an enormous ball out of rubber bands struck the right note. It was something a man might do.” The exact dimensions are not clearly stated, but she’s had to special order larger rubber bands.

Of course things never really go as planned. Henry’s boss insists he come into the office, and one primary trope of the story is this tension between his obligations to work and home.

The other trope is the hauntedness of the house, and this is played out in wonderful fashion. Different objects become “wrong”. At first, it’s Carleton’s toothbrush. He can’t say what’s wrong with it, but there’s something wrong. Tilly agrees: there’s something wrong with Carleton’s toothbrush, so he borrows hers.

Other objects also go off in this same undefined way:

They’d had to stop using the microwave as well, and a colander, some of the flatware, and she was keeping an eye on the toaster. She had a premonition, or an intuition. It didn’t feel wrong, not yet, but she had a feeling about it.

The story gets more and more surreal and then fantastic. Catherine starts painting rooms over and over again in different creatively-named colors, obsessively. She wears a gas mask since she’s pregnant, but refuses to stop until Henry comes home as he said he would. Rabbits, hundreds of them, appear on the lawn in the evenings. Tilly dreams of an underground city of rabbits. Extermination involving ultrasound and gassing is investigated.

Since this is an older story, and since Kelly Link is quite popular, there are already several wonderful analyses out there. Matthew Cheney, former editor of the Best American Fantasy series, invokes John Cheever, Henry V at Agincourt, and binary states: “a world falling apart for lack of grey areas;” I’ll defer to his obvious expertise.

I’m far more comfortable with Matt Hilliard’s analysis of the process by which the house “turns” objects:

The story speaks of the parents “colonizing the bedroom” by filling it with “things that belong to them”. In a normal house, this would indeed offset the unfamiliarity. The main fantastic element of “Stone Animals” is the idea that this house is unrelentingly other, to the point that the family’s familiar possessions become unfamiliar through contact with the house instead of the reverse.

For me, it was enjoyable, an engaging, increasingly surreal ghost story, in a whimsical, if promiscuously omniscient, third-person voice. I couldn’t quite get a handle on it, or find a structure by which to fully understand it. That is my limitation, obviously. It works on my level, though I think perhaps it does require some willingness to not understand.

Pushcart 2012: Sandra Leong, “We Don’t Deserve This” from Ploughshares, Fall 2010

"Fractured Family" by Marie Findlay

"Fractured Family" by Marie Findlay

The notification came on a weekend, and Jake’s, in Iceland, had gotten through first. Sarah was in a desert, her cell phone wasn’t working well, and she had to go back to the base to find out what was wrong.
She calls him from the landline,and he tells her as much as he knows.
“Whatever’s coming, I feel I don’t deserve it,” he adds.
“You’re breaking up,” she says.
Through static, they agree to drop everything and take a week to straighten things out.
These days there aren’t that many things that happen to both of them. Their children is one of them.

If you’re thrown by that story opening, well, I think you should be. I probably read it six times before continuing on, since I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening. Iceland? Base? Desert? And it feels like a tense switch, though it isn’t; it just starts out in flashback mode. It’s a very strange opening. But not really, because everything is pretty ordinary, when you get right down to it: Jake is working in Iceland, Sarah in some desert somewhere else, and have received some kind of notification about their children who are yet another place. That’s what really confused me; I got the impression, from the word “notification,” that the children had died, but the parents seemed much to calm for that, and reacting to death by “straightening it out” seemed like an odd reaction.

Turns out, it was much, much stranger than I thought.

You know how Catch-22 is surreal in a realistic way? Nothing is truly bizarre, it’s just that no one reacts to anything the way you’d think they would, and nothing seems to mean, to the characters, what the reader thinks it should mean. That’s what we’ve got here. Weird realizm (I keep typing the “z” in that by mistake, but I’ve decided, since I’m inventing the term, I’m keeping it).

Jake and Sarah, we find out in the next page or so, are public health physicians whose mission in life is much bigger than their two children, Ned and Samantha, now 15 and 12. When they were younger, Sarah worked only full-time (which hardly counts at all):

…envying the freedom of those who were about to travel to Viet Nam to look at the life cycles of schistosomes in the rice paddies or to study the incidence of cryptosporidium in hikers due to gannet guano encounters in the Orkneys. But mainly she wished she was able to just plain intervene in refugee migrations or plagues or the other holocausts that swirled around the planet.

What she didn’t particularly want to do was intervene in the lives of her kids, who, at ages 9 and 12, went to boarding school at their own request. “No one cried.” Jake and Sarah travelled the globe fixing other people. Doctoring gradually morphed into something else: consulting, microfinance consortiums, charity management, non-charitable management. Wealth building in developing countries became their specialties. And it’s all thanks to the boarding school.

And, as the title indicates, they become the people whose picture you see in the dictionary under “narcissist:”

They became the sort of people of whom they used to be wary, people with a deep sense of entitlement stemming rom knowledge of how unnecessary most barriers and restrictions are. They knew others were oppressed. They refused to be oppressed themselves. They became the kind of people who don’t suffer.
It didn’t begin about class. It ended up that way.
Perhaps they were poorly understood. Confusing to themselves, and their children.

The notification was not a death at all; the children were suspended from school and about to face an expulsion hearing for running a nascent and vaguely described “trafficking ring” using as cover a kind of reverse of the Fresh Air program: instead of sending inner city kids to the country, they were arranging rural hosts for “overprivileged and understimulated” boarding school kids – presumably, with nefarious purposes in mind. The school is worried about its sterling reputation, and its endowments. Jake and Sarah are worried about losing a permanent 24/7/365 baby sitter. No one’s really worried about the kids, who seem to be a bit odd: Sarah starts sucking her thumb, she carries a doll, and Ned has these strange facial expressions.

Jake and Sarah take the kids home, and get their comeuppance in dramatic and appropriate fashion, before Sarah finds salvation (which to me is perhaps the weak point of the story; her salvation seems to just happen rather than to evolve in a way that makes it inevitable, and as a result, it doesn’t seem all that sincere). Step by step, it’s all so logical. It just gets weird when it’s looked at from a distance, as a whole.

There are some amazing touches here. I like how the weird realizm builds, from eccentricity to pathology to downright absurdity. And there are some wonderfully subtle moments. Sarah waits in the headmistress’ office: “Accustomed to visiting schools of airy thatch and newly poured concrete, she finds all this carved-wood panelling coffinlike.” The kids, who have been in touch occasionally with their parents via Skype and DVDs, are surprised to see them in three dimensions. And Sarah is not without the occasional sliver of ironic insight: “She’s not proud of a certain ruthlessness behind all the do-gooding but there is nothing so wrong with ambition if you’re for the causes that matter.”

And there we have the crux of the matter. Sandra Leong discussed her process, and the importance of deadlines, for this piece on the Ploughshares blog:

I’d just completed a second revision of a novel that had taken five years to write, and was feeling acutely – and depressingly – how much ambition and narcissism it would take to persevere beyond the first few rejections. I was also feeling rather defensive about the writers’ right and duty to bring unsympathetic characters into the world and cherish them as adored children. Luckily, for the purposes of my feeling able to continue to write, Jim Shepard gave me a deadline, and this self-important married couple came to mind. I was intrigued by the way their notions of their own good will and selflessness might be called into question by their blithe neglect of their offspring. And as I began, all sorts of other roiling and fragmented preoccupations – from the plight of women and the perversity of artists to the mysterious state of the Democratic party and the fate of modern liberalism – began to cohere.

That coherence is impressive. And why am I not surprised to find Sandra Leong is a psychotherapist? I hope to read more by her soon.

Project Runway All Stars: Episode 8 – Oh Say Can You Sew

Now THAT is a flag dress

Now THAT is a flag dress

Get ready for a trip down memory lane; I was having flashbacks all night.

Prelude:
Mila’s going to wow the judges this week, since they so appreciated her risk taking. Risk taking? I heard streetwalker. I heard druggie. I heard Pretty Woman before she got pretty. I didn’t hear anything about risk taking. Kenley misses Kara. So does Austin. He wishes Mila had gone home instead.

The Challenge:

They meet Angela outside the UN. Michael thinks it’s cool. Jerell: “It’s a place of extreme importance.” Austin: “a place where world leaders solve the tremendous problems weighing on the earth.” Michael: “Cool. Never been there before.” I’m willing to bet not one of them could name one thing the UN does, or any issue that’s been before the UN in the past five years. But they aren’t here for news commentary, after all. I just get tired of the fake looks of wonder.

They have to choose one of seven flags, and make something based on that flag. Now here’s another challenge that could be really artistic, like the ice cream challenge. Especially since they get a little dossier about the flag and the country. But most of them just go with the colors on the flag. And the ones who do use cultural references – looking at you, Jerell – use them as stereotypes. How disappointing.

Mondo chooses first since he won last week, and he picks Jamaica just because of the colors. See, now that makes me sad. He doesn’t want to be too literal, like raising his dress on a pole, or miss the mark. Back in the workroom he doesn’t know why he bought certain stuff, which is what he usually says.

Michael picks Greece since he’s Greek, which is a little better. Wait – he’s Greek? I thought he was Black Irish. Oh, his mother is Greek. It’s his father who’s a Costello, I guess. Jerell sneers about Michael the draper choosing Greece. Michael goes for blue satin or ribbon trim first, it’s key to his look. Someone tells him it’s very Marchesa (which is Georgina’s line) and he agrees, that’s his exact aesthetic.

Michael sings out Mila‘s name as next, and she picks Papua New Guinea which is the most bizarre combination ever. But she likes the graphic look of the flag, which, ok, I can see that. She reads the dossier about indigenous people and tribal looks, but she isn’t going to put much of that in her look, just a nod, because she wants it to look runway. She’s going super modern because nothing says Papua New Guinea like a super modern runway look. It’s important to stay true to her POV (because she can’t do anything else). Ok, let me take that back. I can be sympathetic, actually. I know this from writing. Creating is too hard, to create something you don’t really like. So there, Mila, I get it. But I still hate your clothes. She’s going to do something asymmetrical, black with some read and a tiny bit of yellow because of the bird of paradise on the flag symbolizing freedom, part restrained and part fluid.

Jerell gets India because it’s ethnic and makes him think of embellishment. Jerell thinks embellishment when he thinks about brushing his teeth or making coffee. His selection makes the most sense. At least his reasoning.

Austin takes the Seychelles because he doesn’t know much about them and he enjoys learning something new. Mila does not envy him, since the flag has so many colors and colors paralyze her. He’s a little perplexed. There’s no real national dress, but it could have a flowy beach feel, tropical paradise type of thing. He’s about elegance and harmony and he has all these primary colors to worry about. He finds a fabric that’s iridescent, two colors for the price of one. He’s talking it over with Kenley and Mila makes her usual snide remarks: “I find it confusing how people are interacting.” I find it confusing that she finds it confusing. It’s called friendship, Mila. It’s how people are with colleagues they respect. In the workroom, Austin plants his flag on his table and claims it in the name of the Seychelles. But he struggles. He works through lunch by himself. Poor Austin.

Kenley is left with Chile, which is exactly how she wants it since if she’d chosen she would’ve been upset if she decided later she didn’t like the colors or something like that. Spin that straw into gold, girl. She finds a blue and white print with little hearts; from a distance it looks like polka dots. Again, with the polka dots. Michael says he never saw a polka dot flag, but the State of Kenley has them.

Joanna walks through:

First she proclaims this to be the most talented room in the history of Project Runway. Hmmm. Not so sure about that. You get Jillian, Rami, Chris March, and Christian in a room, that’s most talented.

Mondo first: he describes his look (floor length, mitred color blocks in back); she asks how a woman would wear a bra. “You don’t,” he says. Wrong answer. Joanna is determined to get someone to let her wear a bra tonight. It’s her version of arugula.

Jerell: She says it looks like a doll in national costume. He tries to talk her out of it, but she’s not having it; she thinks the sari element is too literal. He loves the ethnic opulence, and more or less blows her off.

Michael: She notes he chose something he knows. She loves his draping, but complains again about the bra thing. Hey, Joanna, back in the 60s women burned their bras, and now you’re demanding the right to wear one? It’s confusing to me. Like, people used to go to jail or move to Canada to avoid going into the army, and now people are fighting for the right to be let in. Anyway, back to Joanna, who asks Michael if he’s being ambitious enough. Uh oh. That’s how Kara got sent home. Mila dismisses his dress as pageanty. She’s usually wrong, but this time, it’s unanimous.

Austin: She’s been to the Seychelles (of course she has) but didn’t know the flag (of course not). He’s got a layered skirt with panels in front in a sunburst effect. It’s his Grammy dress. The one that got him eliminated. Not smart, Austin. Mondo doesn’t know what draping has to do with the Seychelles but it’s sad. Austin’s explaining this beautiful slit of skin to Joanna, and she again harps on bras. He says it is bra-friendly, the slit won’t be that big, sort of “is she or isn’t she.” Do people really wonder if someone is wearing a bra? I always thought it was strange there was an entire haircolor campaign “Does she or doesn’t she” because who cares, and it made me kind of paranoid. What are people wondering about me? Joanna warns him not to have the bra peeping out; he needs to chic-ify the Seychelles.

Mila: she explains the bird of paradise meaning freedom, and her dress being half short and half long, with the red being the freedom. Austin thinks it’s a cool concept. Joanna is happy because at last here’s a dress she can wear underwear with. This becomes ironic later on.

Kenley: She’s going to add in ruffles for Spanish flair. Joanna wants to know how she’s going to convince the judges she’s going out of her comfort zone. She isn’t. Fair enough. She’s mixing polka dots and stripes. That’s her comfort zone. She’s making an asymmetrical party dress, while the others are gowns. That’s still your comfort zone, Kenley. Joanna asks if she’s convinced she can stand out in this room of talent. Mondo says Kenley doesn’t listen. No, she never has, but this season she’s at least been less nasty about it. She’s treating Joanna with a lot more respect than she ever treated Tim Gunn. Which is too bad, because Joanna would let her have it, I think. Mondo wonders why she’s still here. Because she puts together great clothes. They’re all the same, sure. And they don’t always make sense in the challenge. But they’re really striking, and perfectly made.

End Joanna. Bring in the models. Mila needs a perfect fit and finish. Mondo tells Michael his model looks like Miss Greece: “It’s not greased lightning, it’s Greece Frightening” which is pretty good. Both Kenley and Mondo worry about all the work they have to do.

Day of runway show:

Jerell wishes for a yard of elastic. Come on, no one has a yard of elastic to give him? Mondo‘s worried that he should’ve used the color palette more. Michael doesn’t like Austin’s dress (neither do I; I hate the color). Austin isn’t crazy about it either: it’s too short, and the line is thrown off, but he doesn’t have enough material to fix it. Mondo doesn’t like Michael’s dress either: “Give her a sash and she’s Miss World.” Mondo gives his model dreadlocks. I’m the only person on the planet who loves dreadlocks on white people, so that’s probably a bad move. Austin loves Jerell but the outfit is “the most vulgar, tasteless and hideous thing” he’s ever seen. Hmmm… I’m not so sure about that, I’d have a hard time choosing which of Jerell’s looks was the most vulgar, tasteless and hideous thing I’d ever seen. This one’s in the running, for sure. Mila is very impressed with herself as always.

The Runway:

Angela asks how they enjoyed their visit to the UN. Not only does she sound like a kindergarten teacher, but she was there, so it makes no sense. The guest judge is Catherine Malandrino. I wonder if Vincent ever got that restraining order she slapped on him lifted. Turns out she did the famous flag dress pictured above, and she liked it so much she made it again a few years later. Remember the good old days of the 60s when there was a big uproar about using the flag for clothing? I guess it’s ok now. Of course, she’s French, so she doesn’t care what Americans say about her. I can only understand about one word in five from her. I didn’t have any trouble last time, so I’m blaming the Lifetime sound crew. Because, let’s face it, it’s always fun to blame Lifetime for new things.

Roughly in descending order (since it seems it’s more of a top two and bottom four this week):

Mondo: Slinky black gown; the back has a stained glass effect strip in green and yellow. From the front it’s just a nice black gown. From the back, well, there’s something a little off about the colors, or maybe it’s just all those angles with such a curvy dress, but I like the idea, it’s just slightly… not. But I’m proud of him for making a gown. He talks about free spirited and relaxed, so he made a slinky sexy easy to wear simple gown. Easy to wear? It’s the kind of dress where you can see what you had for breakfast three days ago, and we already know you can’t wear underwear with it. Except for Spanx, which you’ll need in triplicate. Georgina loves it, she gets Jamaica from just the front, which makes no sense. Catherine rglrglrglrgl. Isaac likes the black matte jersey, it’s like it’s a new textile. His least favorite part is the green and yellow. When the judges have some privacy to say what they really think, Isaac still doesn’t like the back at all. Georgina can see thought and restraint. Angela thinks he played it safe. Catherine rglrgl hair was a mistake rglrgl bother me rlgrgl.

Kenley: Polka dot white dress with a pink ruffle on one side. This is the exact same dress – I mean exactly the same – she made in Season 5 for the Bright Lights Big City challenge, in green and purple. It won, so she probably figured she should do it again. Do you think we’re stupid, Kenley? I know the judges are stupid, they don’t have time to look at old episodes, but those of us who loved this show back when it was really about design remember more than you give us credit for. I don’t see Chile, or the flag, in any way, shape or form. She says the women wear color and prints and ruffles. I’m missing it completely. It’s black and white (actually navy blue, but it looks black) with a ruffle of thin red stripe that looks pink. Georgina likes the young attitude. Catherine rglrglrgl young rglrglrgl contrast with urban rglrglrlg like very much. Isaac loves the spirit. Angela imagines ponchos when she thinks of Chile (tell me she did not just say that. TELL ME SHE DID NOT JUST SAY THAT) but this is a modern, cool girl. Isaac says the problem is she’s done the same thing again and again and again and she needs to do something else next time. Well, finally, somebody noticed. In the judges’ talk, Angela finds it modern and fun and thinks it reflected the culture and colors of the flag. Technically, I suppose so, but I still say it’s black and white and pink, not blue and white and red. Catherine rglrglrglrgl paris rglrglr. Georgina doesn’t think she thought it through quite enough.

Michael: White gown with blue bow. It’s his Statue of Liberty dress. What, you think we won’t recognize it in white? He worries the back is too low. Yes, it is, and it looks just as unflattering on the model as it did the first time he made it. Georgina is on the fence; she thinks it’s acceptable, but it screams beauty pageant. Catherine, rglrglrgl a lot of volume rglrlgrlg. Angela is disturbed by the blue bow, which would look better on a Christmas present. Isaac says it looks forced, and would be better without the trim. During judges’ chat, Georgina says the proportions were off. Isaac agrees, it was off in terms of volume. Angela still hates the blue. Catherine rglrglrgl pageant dress.

Austin: Flowy blue dress. Yep, it’s his Grammy dress, right down to the poor sewing. The blue is better on the runway than it was in the workroom, and I actually like the upper back. He hopes they aren’t too picky about the draping because it really isn’t up to his standards. He’s right about that, it has that home ec look. He likens it to a beautiful breath of fresh sea air, and Jay is probably laughing his head off somewhere. Georgina says it’s pretty, but she’s worried about the colors, they aren’t the colors in the flag. Isaac finds the ruching tortured. Angela says it isn’t the worst dress she’s seen on PRAS. Now there’s a ringing endorsement. But seriously, Austin, if you’re going to plagiarise yourself, don’t use a losing look that got you kicked off last time. Privately, Georgina thinks he fell flat this week, she could feel the dress suffering and there was no clarity of thought. Isaac thought it was a miss in execution and color story. Catherine rglrglrgl prototype rglrgl.

Jerell: Black and gold party dress with a green sari over half. He loves it. It’s definitely India. Angela likes the white stripe down one arm. How can you even notice the stripe amidst all that gaud? Isaac calls it “Nike in India.” Catherine, rglrglrglrglrrglrglrlgrl disappears behind the draping rlgrlg. Georgina doesn’t like the excess of ethnic jewelry. When they say what they really think while the designers wait backstage, Angela calls it an Indian Barbie doll. Georgina agrees it’s costumey and heavy-handed, though he had a lot of good ideas. Catherine rglrglrgl thought process. Isaac calls it a little bit of a mess.

Mila: It’s half funeral dress, half caftan. She says it looks like something that would be in her collection. I think it’s awful. I’m with Austin, the concept was cool, but it really lost something in the translation. I can’t even say what’s wrong, it just looks awkward. Georgina knew it was her look right away. Isaac gives my favorite line of the night: “I got communism from this dress.” He thinks it looks Russian. I don’t know what he’s talking about. Angela likes the neckline, which I think is horrible. But something bother her, maybe that it’s long and short in two different colors. Isaac says it’s disturbing to look at, and he thinks that was her intention so in that she succeeded. Wait – why would she intend to make this disturbing to look at? In private talk, Angela wonders who can wear it, and where? Georgina wonders about the stripe. Catherine rglrlg her style and conviction rglrgl. Isaac thinks no matter what she was going to do this, and it didn’t come across as Papua New Guinea.

The decision: They warn Kenley to stretch herself next week. Mondo wins, Mila is out. I’m shocked, truly. I’m no fan of Mila, not in the slightest, and her dress is weird, but I can’t believe they kept Jerell and sent her home.

I think I’ve finally figured it out – finally, because I think everyone else figured this out weeks ago. Most of them aren’t looking at this as a competition, but as advertising. They’re showing their lines. If they can figure out a way to shoehorn in the challenge, great, but that’s not the point. It’s Mondo vs Austin, and everyone else is filler. Jerell, Kara, Mila and Kenley have just been making the clothes they make (and coming up with bullshit about the challenge) and hoping someone likes them enough to check them out and buy something. Which is why it’s a really lackluster season and nobody seems to care. They’re all cannon fodder and they know it.

The After the Runway show is back. The final five are there, plus Kara; Mila is working as a costume designer on a movie set but she sends a video that conveys she isn’t working on a movie set but she’s so fed up with Project Runway she wouldn’t have anything to do with them if they paid her, which they probably would. Pretty sour grapes. Everyone more or less agrees Jerell should’ve gone home, which Jerell takes pretty well, to his credit. He just says everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, and her dress looked like an angry box of french fries, which is not a bad description, but his was still worse. Kenley doesn’t appreciate trash talk. Which is hilarious, coming from her. They talk about friendships. Isaac asks if anyone slept together during the show but no one’s talking. They talk about bras, and someone finally points out there’s runway and there’s ready-to-wear, and this is supposed to be about runway. And when they do a real woman challenge (which it seems they won’t bother with this time, too bad), bras are more common. They talk about women designers vs men, and Isaac gets in trouble for saying most women designers design for themselves whereas men design for whatever woman they want. They review all the talking head snarks and give the prize to Michael for his State of Kenley with the polka dot flag remark. They harass Kenley about her 50s silhouette. And then everyone goes away. Not really worth watching.

Next week: glowsticks?

Top Chef Texas: Episode 16 – Fire and Ice

I’ve lost my appetite for this season. Which is too bad, because now the real cooking starts. Recap: Sarah and Lindsay continue to hate on Beverly, because having her eliminated just isn’t satisfying enough. Paul continues to be the class of the operation. Tom reveals longstanding issues with arugula. And Padma’s wardrobe continues to improve.

What, you need more than that?

Ok, guess which finalist is on the list of semifinalists for the 2012 James Beard awards? Hint: the Asian. Also, the one with a penis. And guess which eliminated chef is also on the list? Hint: the other Asian with a penis. Good year for Asians with penises. Just ask the basketball player whose name I can never remember since I’m pretty determinedly uninterested in basketball. Hugh Acheson is also on the list. (I’m guessing there’s a rule about winning more than once, so Tom and Emeril aren’t on the list). To put this in perspective: Also on the list are Anita Lo, Naomi Pomeroy, Michael Chiarello, some other TCM contestants, plus former TC contestants Kevin Gillespie, Bryan Voltaggio, Stephanie Izard, and… Jeff McInnis (?!? Miami Hairdo? Wow, he sure slipped in under the radar). FMI, Minx has it all laid out nice and neat for ya on All Top Chef – thanks, Minx. And congratulations Paul, Edward, and all the other TC/TCM alums.

Prelude: Oh, the usual. Everyone’s so happy to be there. Sarah is so happy Beverly is finally gone and is not coming back: “This is how it was supposed to be the whole time.” Yeah, I suppose that’s why your boss, not you, is on the list. I have to say I really like her hair, it’s a little longer. But throughout the episode I was distracted by Lindsay’s hair, which has that caught-in-a-lawnmower look in the back.

The chefs drive back to Vancouver. They’re playing some kind of name game in the car, but it’s not the Banana-fanna-fo-fanna song game. They don’t explain it, but they keep calling out names. Sarah is sure there’s a rapper named Q-Tip. Paul, good Texan he is, says, “Barbara Bush”. Well, if you’re going to invoke a Texas Republican, she’s probably my favorite one.

Quickfire:

They meet Padma and Emeril in Chinatown. Sarah interviews how glad she is that Beverly went home, since she would have nailed it. Notice I’m refraining from editorial. Fill in your own. Paul is nervous, because there’s this expectation he’ll win. Canada has restored Padma’s fashion sense: she’s wearing a very nice black leather zip-up vest thing. I’m not sure why she’s gone sleeveless in winter, but that’s her business.

Padma brings in three Top Chef Masters: Anita Lo, Floyd Cardoz, and Takashai Yagihashi (who I don’t remember from TCM, but I left the house without my bag yesterday and had to beg the vet to clip Lucy’s claws anyway though I couldn’t pay right away, so I’m a little dubious about my memory these days). Sarah flips over Takashi, she knows him from Chicago. They pair via knife draw with the chefs to form three teams: Lindsay and Anita, Sarah and Floyd, and Paul and Takashi. Sarah envies Paul for being teamed with Takashi; she doesn’t seem to know much about Floyd, especially not the fact that he won Top Chef Masters Season 3, because she seems rather unenthusiastic about being paired with him. I’m sure he’ll lose sleep over that. Paul is intimidated by Takashi. Have I mentioned Paul is the class of the operation?

It’s the tag team challenge. Each half of the team will cook for ten minutes, with the other teammate waiting outside, then they’ll switch, twice. The winner gets $20,000. The Masters will start, and the contestants will bat cleanup.

Takashi starts a geoduck sashimi (aka mirugai). Anita sets up for a trio of scallops from three different Asian cultures (Sarah should pay attention). Floyd knows his record on QFs is not good; Sarah hopes he doesn’t make something on a rock. No, wait, that’s “on a wok.” She may not realize Floyd is Indian. Or maybe she doesn’t realize woks aren’t used in India. To her, Asia is just one big place.

Switch. Lindsay is disoriented; she sees the scallops and figures it’s for multiple presentations; she doesn’t want to screw it up. Paul is surprised to see the clam; it’s an acquired taste and texture. But he seems to know what to do. Sarah recognizes curry, and her comfort level is zero. Of course it is, for her the eastern hemisphere doesn’t exist; she starts working on a cold crab salad to accompany the fish.

Switch. Takashi sees Paul has started dashi broth and uses it for a sauce. Anita likes the saute of Chinese sausage Lindsay has made, it’ll go great with the scallop. Floyd sees Sarah’s crab and goes with that. In the waiting room, Sarah’s glad she didn’t have to deal with the clam. I’ll just bet she is.

Final switch. Lindsay finishes the scallop shell presentation Anita has started. Paul sees the cucumbers and adds thai chili since Padma likes spice. Then he worries maybe he added too much, with all the seeds on the plate.

Padma and Emeril taste:

Sarah/Floyd: Pan seared cod with coconut curry, cold crab salad with clementine and amaranth. Emeril likes that Sarah used rice flour to dredge the fish; Floyd says she did exactly what he hoped. Padma loves the amaranth. Emeril loves the crab with the fish and sauce, but it could’ve used more acid. They win. Sarah likes Canada; she didn’t win anything in Texas and now she’s got $30,000 total.

Lindsay/Anita: Seared scallop, bok choy with chili, fried salmon roe, and sausage with water chestnuts tossed with vinaigrette. Anita envisioned a raw prep as well but it didn’t happen. Meaning, Lindsay didn’t realize it was supposed to be there. Padma likes the flavor. Emeril says the sausage is a bit overpowering.

Paul/Takashi: Mirugai sashimi with yuzu dashi. Takashi says Paul got it right. Emeril wonders about the heat; Paul says it was to bring it together, though it isn’t traditionally Japanese. Padma says she likes chili, but it’s a lot of chili. She sounds like she’s choking as she says it. Paul acknowledges it’s completely his fault. The man is made of class.

Elimination Challenge

They’re to bring the heat of Texas and the cold of Whistler together at a Fire and Ice party. Each chef has to serve one dish, with a hot and a cold element, and one cocktail, for a hundred and fifty people. The winner gets a trip to Costa Rica. They get twelve hundred dollars and five hours to cook.

Paul is hoping to make something you think is cold but when you eat it, it’s hot. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds clever. Paul finds “essential oils” to make snow. Hugh notes in his blog: “Paul is pulling the claws off live lobsters. This will make the animal rights people really happy.” I love Hugh. You know, when Tiffani Faisson chopped a lobster in half and tossed it into a screaming hot skillet in the Season 1 semi-final, the blogosphere roared with outrage. I’m guessing Paul’s crustacean dispatch will go without comment, the difference being we could actually see Tiffani’s lobster twitching in the hot pan. And we like Paul. We like Tiffani now, post All-Stars, but not then.

Lindsay thinks snow is gimmicky. She gets herself all tangled up in the different interpretations of hot and cold – temperature or spice, implication or literal. She can’t find interesting fish so goes with halibut, and kicks Beverly one more time while she has the chance by saying now that she doesn’t have to worry about Beverly ruining her fish, she feels confident. She grates her knuckles into the tomato sauce for that little pow of extra flavor. She’s dedicating the dish to the tomatoes of the world. Cooked, raw, and baked. And because she’s worried about not being literal enough, she adds a tomato ice gimmick.

Sarah thinks Lindsay is playing it safe, and she should be doing something “more unique” sending word geeks – shout out to writer and word geek Elizabeth Creith who reads my Top Chef and Project Runway posts even though she’s never seen the shows – into a tizzy (“unique” means “one of a kind” and something either is or is not one of a kind, it can’t be more or less unique. Everyone says it. They mean, unusual or distinctive. But I digress. What else is new). Like baked manicotti? She’s topping it with frozen ginger mousse that will melt and form a sauce, and that sounds pretty cool. She’s never made this before, she says over and over again, which gives me the impression she’s lying. Sarah dropped out of high school when she was a junior to go to culinary school. That’s interesting. I’ll bet Beverly finished high school.

Tom comes in for a walkthrough. Paul talks to him about Pernod. When he hears about Lindsay’s halibut, he asks if she’s trying to set the record straight. Sarah tries to argue with him about Calabria and chilis. She loses.

They get a bunch of bartenders and servers. Paul isn’t too sure about cocktails, it’s not his strong suit. He makes a thai chili foam that will look like snow. Sarah uses an anti-griddle for her mousse, which she starts calling sfumato, but it overfreezes, probably because she doesn’t know how to use an anti-griddle. That’s a guess. Maybe it’s just a super-duper anti-griddle and she’s used to regular ones. In any case, her mousse is rock hard. She plops it on top of the cannoli anyway, and tells the servers to be sure the guests are eating it right, bringing their fork down through both the sfumato and the pasta, because that’s the concept of the dish. And if the guests don’t eat correctly, they are to be punished. Good thing this isn’t Virginia, or they’d be required to get a vaginal probe.

The party starts. Enter Tom, Padma, Gail, and Emeril. Gail and Padma look adorable in their fur collars; later, we see Padma’s truly gorgeous winter white sweater dress when she takes off the coat. The difference between now and then is amazing. They make jokes about no last-last-chance kitchen for Beverly. What, is it National Kick Beverly day? Emeril thinks she’s hiding under the table, which is pretty good, I have to say.

Service and Judges’ Table:

Paul: King crab with lobster broth and snow; Pan Am cocktail with kaffir lime and thai chilis. Gail complains that she didn’t get as much snow as someone else. Tom admires the tons of lobster flavor, but is put off by the arugula; it should have a purpose, not just be a garnish. He’s not a fan of pairing alcohol and food (well, then, why did you design the challenge that way?) but it works well, and he likes the egg white. Emeril tastes the chili. Padma wants more heat. Picky broad, isn’t she? One day it’s too much, the next it isn’t enough. At JT, Tom gives him more trouble about the arugula. What, Tom, were you beaten with arugula when you were a child? Did you choke on it one day? Or did you have a cruel nanny named Arugula? Paul defends his dish, and wants to go to the final because he can’t go home to Austin without winning Top Chef Texas.

Sarah: Five greens filled pasta and ginger sfumato, agrumi cocktail with gin and mango. Gail wonders if the mousse is supposed to be so… um… rock hard frozen; she can’t get her fork through it no matter how hard she pushes. And she’s dislodged it from the pasta – oh no! Gail is eating wrong! Vaginal probe for you, Gail. Tom loves the flavors. Emeril says pasta is a classic and she’s very good at it. Gail thinks the drink would be great in Texas on a summer day, but doesn’t work with the dish. JT: Gail inquires about the fire, and complains about the mousse, though the pasta was great. Tom thought she was brave to push out of her comfort zone into a frozen brick wall. No, no, he didn’t say that. Emeril disses her cocktail. She wants to go to the finals because… something about making a memory, I think.

Lindsay: Halibut with diced celery root, encendido cocktail. Gail says, “Fiery” and Tom says, “Really?” I guess Gail got the chili. He likes the halibut, but doesn’t know why the kale is raw or why it’s there at all. Gail loves the tomato nage; she never ate a piece of ice that was so well-seasoned. That’s the line of the night. Emeril likes the cocktail in combination with the dish, but on its own, it’s flat. JT: Gail loved the soup; Tom thought the remoulade overpowered the perfectly cooked fish, but would’ve been great on its own. Emeril complains his cocktail separated. She wants to be in the finals because she has more to show.

The judges debate privately, and guess what Tom is still complaining about. They admire how Paul took the challenge to heart, though Padma thinks it lost all contrast of hot and cold. Gail loved the depth of flavor. Tom thought Sarah was creative, and argues with Gail about the frozen mousse: creative or failure? Emeril didn’t get heat from Lindsay’s dish, Tom found her cocktail uninteresting though it went with the food really well.

Sarah is declared safe. And… Lindsay is out. Padma sounds really nasty saying it. Honestly, it’s almost a sneer. Or was I imagining things? Did her acting coach lead her astray, and what she thought was empathy came out as haughty? In any event, Paul is the winner, though it’s the most understated announcement of the winner ever in Top Chef history. It’s like they’re embarrassed how many times they’re giving it to him.

And backstage, Sarah further endears herself to the world by announcing: “It makes me sad that Lindsay is going home but at the same time I knew all along it would be me and Paul. He’s a great chef.” Yes, he is, Sarah. His name is on that famous list of great chefs, and yours isn’t.

Next week: The return of the exiles. Families show up. Death by fishbone.

Watch what happens.

Michael Chabon: “Citizen Conn” from The New Yorker, 2/13&20/12

New Yorker Illustration by Jashar Awan

New Yorker illustration by Jashar Awan

Many intense and fertile partnerships, whether creative or romantic, suffer from an imbalance in the relative importance that the respective partners attach to the partnership, to its history and its very existence. There is so often a subject and an object. The object, almost by definition, tends to be the more clueless of the two. – Michael Chabon, Book Bench interview

The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who leave easily, and those who are easily left. Well, no, of course it isn’t that simple, since everyone plays both sides at some point in his life. But for those of us who have been, predominantly, the one casually left behind, this story is a heartbreaker, but perhaps less of a mystery than for those who never let the door hit them in the ass on the way out.

It’s a story of the creative team behind a popular comic book series from the 50s and 60s. And again, the world is divided into to kinds of people (though not really): those who appreciate comic books and the history behind them, and those who were raised to consider them the devil’s toilet paper. In spite of my nearly-genetic membership in the latter class, I loved this story.

It’s told from the point of view of the rabbi at an assisted living facility. She’s more of an observer, though she tries, unsuccessfully to play catalyst throughout. It’s an interesting POV, with many connotation.

“Can I make you some tea, Rabbi?” Mr. Feather said.
Naturally, I wanted to reply that he ought not to bother, that he should just sit down and rest and let me put the kettle on for him. But over the years I had seen enough of the assiduous cruelty of children and grandchildren, in suppressing old people’s vivid hunger for bother, to know better.

In his Book Bench interview, Chabon admits he has no idea where she came from, but she was suddenly there: “I think she was a good choice, because her ignorance of comics and comics history makes her a good stand-in for the reader, while her obligation to pay attention makes her a good stand-in for the writer.” I’m struck by the assignment of those values. This feels important; it feels like a smart way of analyzing the choice of narrator. It feels like the sort of thing MFAs spend $25 grand to learn.

I’m also interested in the title: the story is told from the rabbi’s point of view, to me it’s “about” one character, but it’s titled for the other. I’m still mulling that over.

The story concerns one Morton Feather, a resident of the ALF served by the rabbi, and his estranged partner-in-crime-fighting-superheroes, Artie Conn. Feather is dying, and Conn is seeking forgiveness for a deal with the devil he made forty years before, when he signed away their rights to the material they’d created in exchange for a lump sum payment. Their partnership, and their work, had suffered after that; the comics they created went down in quality, until finally, Feather was fired, while Conn stayed on and enjoyed considerable success in the business.

Sounds simple. But Conn has made every effort to right the wrong. He’s arranged for significant payments, and gives ample credit – more than is due, in fact – to Feather for his success after the breakup. Still, Feather will not speak to him. Still, Feather holds the grudge. The rabbi is bewildered. What does he want? What is the hurt that is unhealed? Feather won’t say.

“If the circumstances were different, I’m sure I’d be able to look back on my career in comic books with a good deal of pride and affection. But, unfortunately, for various reasons, which, I hope you’ll forgive me, I prefer not to discuss, I can’t think about that time or my work then with anything but a bitter taste in my mouth. A taste of ashes. It’s all ruined for me. That’s the sorry truth.”

The reason is hidden in plain sight. When the offer to buy the rights is made, Feather retains an attorney and prepares to fight. Conn, however, agrees to sign. When Feather learns this, he doesn’t try to convince Conn; there’s no scene, no fireworks; he just dismisses his lawyer and signs on the dotted line. And his work loses its inspiration; the comics they continue to produce together are never the same again.

We’re told this – by the rabbi’s husband, a comic book fan and historian who has idolized the pair since childhood – less than halfway through the piece, yet the story still plays on the mystery of Feather’s refusal of all remuneration and contact with Conn. I assumed I was being hypersensitive again. I thought, there must be something else. Like the rabbi, I wracked my brain. A rebuffed sexual advance? A love triangle? Something said privately, something so cruel it still stings decades later? But there it was, plainly spelled out – and the story itself glossed over it, and returned to it only on discovery of an old yearbook Feather bequests to Conn (a pretty aggressive act, actually, kind of a final “screw you” that doesn’t quite hit the mark with its target), an afternoon the two men, as boys, spent discussing science fiction in the library at school where they hid out from the crowds (another scene that broke my heart, since I spent so much time in my junior high school library I was recruited as a library aide), before Conn’s family moved and they didn’t see each other again until they were teamed up at work years later.

It’s with that yearbook, and the beautiful scene of these two lonely boys discovering each other for one single lunch hour, that the rabbi understands the importance of the relationship to Feather, even if Conn doesn’t:

Perhaps what had snuffed out the flame of Mort Feather’s wild and minor genius was not the fact that Conn had sold out their partnership, and their possible legal claim to a considerable fortune, but that, with a stroke of his pen, he had wiped out the history of a blessing, refuted – to make a balloon payment – the lone, certifiable miracle of Morty Feather’s life: his friendship with Artie Conn.

At which point, I said: “Duh!”

The rabbi goes on, in a second insight which, though beautiful and poignant, feels like one too many:

I prayed that one day, here or in another place, Mr. Conn would find the forgiveness that he sought from the shade of the boy he had once chatted with, for an hour, about life on other worlds, on what had been, though he was blind to it, the happiest day of his life.

I don’t mean to be flip. I’m having trouble typing because of all the tears. And I suppose, if Chabon had made his rabbi a little less clueless, we wouldn’t have had the story. But it just rings false, somehow. I didn’t need the extra poignancy of the earlier meeting to recognize how slighted Feather must have felt when Conn accepted the buy-out. Why did the rabbi?

In spite of my quibbles (I don’t get the Swiss army knife, either, though I enjoyed it), I was engrossed in this story from the beginning. It reads beautifully. It moves at a perfect pace. And as I’ve already said, it touched me greatly. In fact, it’s maybe one of the few stories that made me feel smarter than the characters. Maybe even smarter than the writer, in some respects.

Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams: The Man Who Danced With Dolls, Madras Press 2012

Photo by Paula A. White

Photo by Paula A. White

Argentine Tango is a silent conversation in a partnership that takes on a style and energy changing with every setting, mood, song and partner. It is a dance of improvisation of which there is no basic set pattern – only a set of guidelines or rules that set it apart from other dances. – from TangoModerna.com

This wonderful novella in eight sections is in itself a tango, as points of view, characters, and settings of time and place trade off, swap the lead, and communicate back and forth. Even the subtheme of language feeds into the tango motif: “Words have big, big stories” said Opa long ago, and later Berg, working as a translator, echoes this: “There is something comic and brave about the way language evolves, each people submitting their truth.” This little book dances its own big story.

Berg was a teen in 1984 when he and his parents visited his father’s parents in a small town outside Paris. He overhears a private conversation, and it changes the color of the air around him somehow. Still, he never discusses it. No one in his family discusses anything tricky, it seems; it’s a family trait. Years later, at his father’s funeral, he’s forced to remember the second conversation he overheard. And to confront, and regret, his own avoidance.

Interwoven is the story of a subway busker from Argentina who dances the tango with dolls he’s carefully hand-made. Berg first sees him performing in the Paris Metro on that 1984 trip, and again, years later. The dancer, too, has his regrets. Their stories tango throughout the book and finally come together in sad resolution.

It’s a wonderful read, though at times I got a bit lost in the shifting time line. In fact, I had to go through the story a second time carefully noting the time frame each section to get the events firmly fixed in my mind. But that’s a minor point (and quite possibly a lapse of attention on my part); I was still captivated throughout.

As I was reading, I kept thinking how similar in tone the prose was to Bobcat by Rebecca Lee, an earlier Madras Press release I also enjoyed tremendously. So I wasn’t that surprised to find, in Hanna Dela Cruz Abrams’ online interview, that she’s studied with Lee. I was surprised to find she grew up on a boat, sailing the world. That makes sense, given the international nature of the story.

Another element I greatly appreciated (I have a copy of the 1988 book The Have A Word For It): Berg is an international translator, and throughout the story, words from other languages are dropped in to illustrate points and intensify certain scenes. For example, at one point his mother is upset, and he feels impatient with her:

I wanted to think of something funny to say. My father was good at that. Slight of emotion; watch this solemnity turn into levity. His prestige was elegance and tact, and maybe we’re all magicians in some way, but I still haven’t found my trick yet. Indians in Boro say gagrom. To search for a thing below water by trampling. I’ve never really learned to step softly.

Later, when he attends for the first time a traditional family Christmas party, he wanders through somewhat unnoticed for a while: “Sometimes feeling you’re on the outside is powerful. To be the observer, the witness. Verfremdungseffekt. The distance the audience keeps from the play. The action belongs to others.” This blends well with his habit of eavesdropping, and with the powerful word introduced at the end, when we find out the bombshell he overhears the second time he listens unnoticed:

In Arabic there is a word for the sound a stone makes when it’s thrown at a boy. Who’s doing the throwing I’ve always wanted to know, and what’s the word for them?

All of these words are, by the way, accurate, at least the ones I googled. There really is a phrase in Malay for how long it takes to eat a banana (pisan zapra) and Russians do say “That’s where the dog is buried” rather than “That is the heart of the matter.” And I would assume that, among all the Inuit words for snow, “Nowhere in their lexicon is there a word for the snow that reveals a woman.”

But I’m particularly taken with gwarlingo: Welsh for the sound a grandfather clock makes prior to striking the hour. New England writer/photographer/blogger-of-the-arts Michelle Aldredge has reinterpreted this as “the movement before the moment.” It occurs to me this word, though presented in the story as just another example of the words Berg has come across in his career, was not selected at random.

I’m enchanted by the way the form of this story, as well as the content, matches with the essence of the tango:

In Tango, the partners take turns expressing the dance. The uniqueness of Tango lies in the intimate exchange between a man and a woman.
The variation lies in the nuance similar to the difference between language and conversation. Language is the transmission of ideas, events and emotions through the use of symbols. Conversation is more than the exchange of ideas; it is the give and take of social interaction. It creates a tangible connection between two people….Tango is a language that dissolves boundaries. In the realm of music and movement social barriers melt away and disparate individuals find an intimacy almost unexpected. A satisfactory partnering requires a trust that, if one listens, one will also be heard.

As well-learned as Berg is in language, he never learned conversation. He was dancing with dolls, all along.

Pushcart 2012: Susan Steinberg, “Cowboys” from American Short Fiction, Spring 2010

From The Getty Collection

There are some who say I did not kill my father.
Not technically, they mean.
But the one who say I did not kill my father are the ones who want to have sex with me.
They say I did not kill my father because they cannot have sex with a woman who killed.

It’s one of those stories where every line contains something important to the whole, so it’s not easy to discuss without copying the whole thing. It’s stark. It’s touching. It’s true.

She’s not much for artifice, this woman. She recognizes the desire and need for it, like when the doctor called to tell her that her father, an abusive addict long estranged, was on a respirator and a decision needed to be made.

The doctor said my father would be a vegetable, and upon hearing this word, I imagined a plate; I imagined vegetables on this plate.
One does not want to imagine this. One wants to imagine one’s father spinning through a field, arms spread, something dynamic like that.
Even something totally made up like that.
My father would never have spun through a field.
He was mad, yes, but not that kind of mad. He was not that kind of happy mad. He was the other kind He was ferocious.
And besides, what field. And where.

She’s living in Missouri, where there are cowboys and tornadoes and brown recluse spiders. A guy at work was bitten by one, in his own bed.

Because he was trying to tell me the bite dissolved the skin on his ass. Because he was trying to tell me that this just wasn’t right.
The technical term is necrotized.
The point is, I was not always serious.
No, the point is we’re limited.

She captures the family outcast perfectly as she comes up against this wall of artifice and pretense, all their sighs because she won’t go along with it, similar to the guys she sleeps with who sigh because she doesn’t do what they want: “The woman is supposed to know the subtle difference between being a woman and performing one.” There’s a scene about dipping french fries in a milkshake, and a scene about organ donation (everything but the eyes), and some direct address to the reader, first as to why she’s writing this story now, since it happened years ago, and second, to assure the reader:

There is no intentional meaning in this story.
I would not subject you to intentional meaning.
I would not subject you to some grand scheme.

The closing half-page, from a better place than Missouri, is astounding. And I wonder, is this a suicide note? A letter to someone? Or, as she assures us, just a story she wrote down, and I’m just one of those who insist on finding intentional meaning where there is none?

I was debating about the choppy style. It’s distracting, I thought. Yes, it is, isn’t it. Distracting, from the father’s death, from Missouri.

There I was, just some poor soul. Same as you.

But there’s no intentional meaning there, I’m sure.

Project Runway All Stars: Episode 7 – Puttin’ on the Glitz

In the summer of 1972, my brother took me to see Godspell at the Shubert Theater in Boston. I’d been living in Florida for the past ten of my seventeen years, so I had no idea what professional theater was like. I still remember the actor who played Jesus. His name was, I think, Jeffrey Weller, and I had a crush on him for years. I adored the show, and still have the album (yes, vinyl). A few years later, after I moved to the Boston area myself, I was lucky enough to perform “By My Side” in a church basement semi-production. I do horse-around versions of “All For the Best” and the vampy “Turn Back, O Man” every once in a while, in my living room, just for fun. And “On the Willows There” makes me cry. I used it as the basis for a flash once. I gave up on “religion” a long time ago, but I like to think if Jesus was around today, he’d be very much like the character in the musical.

Uh oh, what is Project Runway going to do to Godspell?

Prelude:
Austin is setting Kenley’s hair. Those two are perfect for each other. Kenley and Jerell are shocked by last week’s results. I keep hearing them say “I can’t believe Romney is gone.” I really listen to MSNBC way too much. Jerell’s philosophical about it, though; “Eventually they all have to go so I can get my check.”

The Challenge:

The designers head to Broadway and meet Angela and composer Stephen Schwartz in the theater. The designers pretend they know who he is. Kenley says she goes to Broadway shows all the time. Is her boyfriend that rich? She’s still wearing the curlers Austin put in, covered by a scarf. I hope she takes them out when she goes to Broadway shows all the time. Austin gets excited by fantasy and illusion. Why does that not surprise me? He works with theater troupes, so I’m thinking this is his challenge.

Their challenge is to design a costume to be worn by a character in Godspell. They pretend to know what that is. The character they are designing for is ostentatiously rich, hoarding and showing off her wealth. Everyone in the show puts together their costumes on the stage, so it must be separates, and it should look like something put together from whatever they had in their closet, or from a thrift store. I’m not sure what a thrift store has to do with rich, but that’s ok. In my day, they all wore Haight-Ashbury or psychaedelia (except for the one who keeps trying to seduce Jesus), but that was a long time ago. They get two hundred dollars. Angela tells them to break a leg. Oh please.

Kara and Mila do fur; Kenley and Mondo do brocade. Austin loves Kara and her emotional roller coaster. Mila still disapproves of the “overcomplimentary” attitude they have for each other. I think it’s a perfect symbiosis.

Joanna does her walkthrough:

Austin is thinking Marie Antoinette, baroque, Rococo. She loves that his fabric is hideous right now and he’s going to make it fabulous. Hmmmm…

Kara‘s doing a v-neck top with a tie because she thinks the knotted tie thing is rich. Oh? She’s got a maxi skirt planned. Joanna advises her to push herself; she isn’t being as ambitious as an All Star needs to be. Kara is not happy with this critique, and gets all weepy and frustrated. I can sympathize; but she’s over her head in this group.

Mila has a beautiful sheer striped fabric in gold she plans to seam in a chevron pattern, and hideous green and yellow fabric for a skirt. They discuss the skirt; Mila was thinking dirndle, though it isn’t really her, but Joanna thinks a pencil skirt would denote power in a way that’s interesting.

Mondo is using a smoking jacket as inspiration, which is pretty cool. Then again, I think just about everything Mondo does is cool. Joanna loves the fabric and thinks the deceitful nature of the character is played out brilliantly. She worries it won’t be dramatic at a distance. He shows her fabric for a mandarin collar and a ¾ sleeve; she tells him to work it. I think that ‘s the Joanna version of Make it Work. Damn, I miss Tim. Joanna’s fine, much better than I expected, but I miss Tim. And Swatch. Seems like Swatch is part of the standard cast that didn’t carry over. I hope he hasn’t gone to that big Mood-in-the-sky.

Jerell is working with texture, a waist-length coat with an extravagant cuff. Joanna worries he has too much going on. Which would be a big surprise, right?

Kenley shows Joanna her fur and prints; Joanna notes it’s the first time she hasn’t done polka dots, though the print is pure Kenley anyway. She just says good luck and moves on with no comments we see.

Joanna tells them to break a leg (I’m warning you…) and leaves, and Kara has a meltdown, which Kenley attributes to her missing her kids. I didn’t know Kara had kids. Michael and Mondo give her a group hug, which is very sweet. Kara’s toast, isn’t she?

The models come in for fittings, and Mondo doesn’t like his work; it’s heavy and overthought. He’s not feeling it. He has a meltdown, still traumatized from last week. Michael’s worried about him. Michael shows his model what he calls a Pebbles and Bam Bam hat. Kenley can’t help but compliment herself on her wonderful work: “Every piece is so beautiful, it must be so annoying for those other designers.” Yeah, like the ones who are actually winning challenges, which you haven’t yet? There’s the usual exchange of snipes: Mila doesn’t like Kara’s work, Kara doesn’t like Mila’s fur; “It’s not even real.” Wait, is Kara’s fur real? I thought they were fur-free. Maybe that was a Tim thing. I can’t imagine she could afford fur with $200 to spend. Mondo thinks Kara’s model looks like a tube of lipstick; she pushed to the edge but didn’t push it over. Austin thinks Michael’s look is more Mother of the Bride than bitchy drama queen. I want to know what kind of weddings Austin’s been going to. Jerell doesn’t understand Mila’s look: she looks like the girl who can’t get into the club.

On runway day, Mondo has a resurgence. He has to go to a dark place, tell himself he’s stuck so he can grab it by the balls (like Casanova!) and move forward with more energy and passion. Ok, if that’s what works for you. There’s a kerfluffel about who’s using Austin’s sewing machine. I still don’t get the whole thing about “my” sewing machine – do they have elaborate settings they need to re-do? The only sewing machine I ever used had a tension knob and an on-off switch and that was about it.

Michael’s model is falling out of her purple shoes, so he makes straps out of the chartreuse skirt fabric to keep them on. Kara wants her model to have “evil eyes, but not costumey.” Mondo wants intimidating hair, “Almost horns.” Horns? Michael and Mondo have somehow styled themselves the same way. Hair down on the forehead. Scruffy almost-stubble. I love these guys, but it’s weird. And it’s not the most flattering look, especially for Michael.

Runway:

Angela is wearing a shockingly ill-fitting silver lame dress. Maybe it’s just the long sleeves that makes it look so awful. A Broadway leading lady is the guest judge. Used to be “leading lady” meant someone like Angela Lansbury or Ethel Merman, but that was long ago, I guess. Now everyone looks 22 years old. The designers pretend to know who she is. I figure Austin does. But the rest of them? They’re faking it.

The raves:

Michael: chartreuse tutu-skirt with bow, print halter top, feathered headpiece. And of course, purple shoes with green ties to keep them on the model’s feet. I have such a visceral reaction to the chartreuse, I can’t really breathe, but it looks kind of like a normal outfit a girl would wear to a premier or a club or a party, not a stage costume or anything funky or thrown together. He says she wants to look like money, but she has a sense of humor. Angela loves the strings on the shoes, and sees something a little bitchy, an “I have everything” attitude. The actress says it draw her eye; she’s a rich party girl, a little wild. That’s a good description. Isaac says congratulations, the color is difficult but it’s a good idea. In their private chat, where the judges say what they really think, Angela says she’s almost the Chiquita Banana woman, which is a whole different comment. Georgina thinks it was clever how he used the reflective quality in the chartreuse. The actress thinks the character is not specific enough.

Austin: gold and silver metallic pinafore over a black v-neck capri catsuit with a furry stole of sorts; it looks like a loop over both arms coming behind her back, but that would mean she can’t bring her arms forward and I can’t imagine that would do for a Broadway musical that includes dancing. Frankly, it’s ugly, but I can see youthful exuberance and I can certainly see Broadway and the kind of thrown-together quality they asked for. The hat thing makes it whimsical. What I see more than anything is a futuristic Rocky Horror Picture Show. What I don’t see is rich. I see imitation of rich, but not rich. Austin talks about decadent luxury and does his best Marie Antoinette: “Let them wear Austin Scarlet.” Georgina loves it; the actress loves that it draws attention; Angelina likes the silhouette; Isaac calls it incredibly wonderful but thinks it borders on too young. It’s strange, what he says, something like “Women who want to buy Austin Starlet will need to have money.” First, it’s a stage costume, not something anyone is going to buy. And second, getting the name wrong is a little bitchy, isn’t it? Austin corrects him firmly – politely, but with a perfect touch of arrogance. Later, Georgina praises the Antoinette, and Angela sees it dancing and expressing a character.

Mondo: satin jacket with feather detail, chiffon-over-lame flowy dress. Ok, I’m biased, of course, but this week, there’s Mondo, and there’s everybody else. This evokes Norma Desmond, streetwear, money, class, and deconstructed thrown-together funk all at the same time. The actress is smiling as it goes down the runway. Mondo says her secret is this is her dad’s old smoking jacket. Isaac calls her sexy in a crazy passive aggressive way. Georgina notices the dress is simple layered fabrics, and the sparkle underneath makes it rich; the hem showing the foot is a problem. Why do fashion people want everyone tripping over their hems all the time? In their later private chat, Isaac says sometimes they have to give leeway for the time restraints, but this looks like it might’ve taken a couple of weeks; Georgina says he really knows his woman, though the length is not “resolved.”

The understudy:

Jerell: b/w textured print jacket with feathered cuffs, lacey neck and closure, and narrow belt over a grey almost-knee-length skirt. I see Marion the Librarian. I see 1939 dustbowl schoolmarm. But I think this is one of those things that comes across very differently in person. The jacket looks tweedy on TV and in the picture, but it’s not, and there is a lot of detail. Still, that would get lost on the stage, and she’d just look like an old, rich spinster great aunt you have to be nice to so she’ll leave you her money. The hair doesn’t help in that regard. I suspect he ran out of time and didn’t do what he wanted with the skirt. It makes the model look, um, substantial rather than slender, but it’s definitely a step up from the crazy stuff he did the first few weeks, and I still wonder about the change. Because he’s safe, we don’t hear any judges’ comments, which is too bad.

The pans:

Kara: bright red pencil skirt, black furry stole over the striped v-neck, and a hideous silver bow that looks like she swiped it from a wreath. It looks like a wannabe got drunk at the office Christmas party. Stiff, stuffy, wrong. And again, the hair doesn’t help. Angela loves the red pop of the skirt but the bow takes away from the richness. Isaac thinks it’s the best she’s done (no, it’s not) but needs to be developed. Georgina wants little tweaks, like fixing the issue with the back slit that pulls at a strange angle; it’s a good idea but needs “resolving” which seems to be the word of the night. In private deliberations, Angela appreciates that she tried to push, and points out it’s Isaac’s favorite look of hers but it’s in the bottom; Isaac admits even if it is the best she’s done, he doesn’t like it (so they are treating these guys with kid gloves on the runway). Georgina worries about the proportions and color; it’s almost good, but not.

Kenley: Red and white brocade jacket with super-long peplum and feathered lapel, print skirt, white shell. This is another thing that probably looks better close up: on tv and in the picture, the fabric looks like a simple cotton print, not a brocade. I don’t like the combination of prints at all, even though the skirt has the red dot motif (interesting how she didn’t use polka dots but managed to evoke them anyway); it’s too minty green. The peplum is the main feature, and it falls perfectly, but there’s something about it I don’t like. It’s almost a military uniform. I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve liked her stuff so far; this might be my least favorite, and yet I can appreciate the jacket. Kenley calls it East Village. Isaac says she’s flying in their faces, and I have no idea what that means. He sees a need for tweaking. The shoe goes too East Village; she doesn’t live in the East Village, she lives in a doorway of the East Village. I’m sure Neiman Marcus will appreciate that. Georgina thinks she caught the coat really well, but it has one too many elements, and it’s too easy to miss the cut of the coat. The actress wants to wear it but the patterns muddle it; on stage it would blend instead of pop. Angela sees eccentricity but not rich. “I see what you mean,” says Kenley. Wow, someone has been working on her runway demeanor. I wonder if they had to force her to say that, because it sounds a little forced. Still, nice job, and smart, pulling a Tiffani Faisson image rehab. Later, Georgina was a little disappointed, and Angela thinks she only heard vintage and mix & match, not rich; Isaac says it doesn’t really work. I wonder if Kenley threw a cat at her TV set when she heard that.

Mila: white fur jacket, gold shell, green-and-yellow striped asymmetric skirt. The more I look at this, the more I… like it. Yeah. That scares me. She was going for a woman who shops on Rodeo Drive. I don’t get that at all – I get a teeny-bopper (do they still call them that?) who just got a fur jacket and can’t wait to show it off. But I still like it. Isaac loves the top, the rabbit fur jacket look (they were so popular when I was in high school), the sort of asymmetric skirt (is it a kilt?), but it doesn’t work together. Yeah, that was what I thought last night, but now, looking at the picture, it works better. The actress thinks she’s a borderline rich party girl, someone who might, um, pause, walk the streets. Mila glares. The actress continues: it doesn’t feel wealthy, it’s a little gaudy. Mila glares harder. She should be glaring at Joanna who told her to do a pencil skirt instead of the dirndle she had planned; the dirndles are ruling the runway tonight. Privately, Isaac says the character looks like she does drugs. The actress calls her Pretty Woman before she gets pretty. That’s the fur jacket. Georgina thinks with the right skirt it would’ve been safe. I’m really worried, because it’s looking better and better to me. Not rich, certainly, but 20′s flapper funky. Maybe because I always wanted one of those rabbit jackets (though in multi browns), but I lived in Florida then, and that would’ve been ridiculous. And that was back before fur was evil.

Mondo wins, Kara is out.

Much better than last week. And they didn’t trash Godspell.

Next: The UN. Just the thought of these people near international officials scares me. Kenley seems to use the same blurred polka dot Mondo used last week. Isaac gets communism from a dress (see, it is catching!).

Top Chef Texas: Episode 15 – Culinary Games

There comes a moment when you realize the magic is gone, like the first night you tell your beloved, “I’m really tired tonight, honey, can we just go to sleep?” Well, I’m tired tonight, honey, so can I just tell you there was cooking in a gondola, there were ice picks, and there were rifles and cross-country skis? Can I just tell you there was snidery, snippery, condescension, whining about who had more bullets, and a takedown on the ski trail? That the food was cobbled together under duress and inconsequential? That the Forces of Evil triumphed once again over the Forces of Ditziness?

Back at the beginning of the season, I used a “No Crap” button as a graphic. It seemed like, given Tom’s quick dismissal of the Pork Loin Butcher Who Sells Knives And Cooks At The Same Food Fairs As Famous Chefs (remember him?) they were taking this more seriously. No Robins hanging around until nearly the end to provide drama; no Stephens lecturing about wine and trying to turn every two-bit challenge into a dining challenge the likes of which no one in this country has ever seen before, no Jersey girl winning elimination challenges with watermelon-tomato salad because Today show staff fear sumac and have palates dead from not tasting the dirty water dogs and craft tables they’ve lived on all their professional lives. No, this season, everyone would prove they could cook right off the bat, the drama would be incidental and minor, and we’d see some serious, inventive, and professional cooking.

Didn’t work out that way, did it?

Instead we got two 24-hour challenges in heat over 100 degrees. We got bicycles in traffic. We got heat stroke.

We got Kill Chef.

And so it continues, but now they’re going to freeze them. And if that doesn’t work, well, let’s put them on cross-country skis and give them rifles, and watch what happens.

No more.

My recap: Sarah’s an ass. Lindsay’s a copycat ass. Beverly’s turned into an ass as outsiders sometimes do. Paul’s The Man, and I’m sorry he’s tainted with the stench of this season.

Just thinking about this episode pisses me off. In fact, a few minutes ago, I got a phone call; I had to go through thirty seconds of “Hi how are you today” before discovering it was the Maine Association of Professional Firefighters (is there a Maine Association of Amateur Firefighters?) asking for money. I screamed at the guy. I mean, he’s a telemarketer, doing his job, and I’m sure he didn’t say, on Career Day in third grade, “When I grow up I want to call people at 9 in the morning and read a script and have them swear at me.” I’m sure he needs the job he’d be doing something soul-satisfying and socially redeeming. But I was in such a mood, being immersed in Sarah and Lindsay and the people at Top Chef who think this is what I want to see, I screamed at him. And slammed down the phone. That’s a bad habit I have, slamming down phones. It doesn’t do anything to the other person, and sometimes it breaks my phone. Gotta stop that. But that’s what Top chef has done to me this season.

So this episode… oh, I have notes. I have notes about Paul asking Beverly something in the car and Sarah cutting her off. I have notes about how Paul’s grandfather fled from China to the Philippines. I have notes about the absence of snow on the ground until they got to Whistler. I have notes about how cute Padma looks in a snowsuit, and how it’s strange you can still pick out the rich supermodel in a group even when they’re bundled up for a blizzard.

I have notes about the three challenges, how the winner gets to sit around the fireplace while the runners-up have to keep cooking; about how absurd cooking in a freezing moving ski gondola with induction burners is (I had a very bad moment when Padma announced Paul, victim of high-altitude cooking that prevents searing of lamb chops as well as motion sickness, came in last in the gondola challenge and I thought that meant he’d been eliminated; a very bad moment. That’s what I get for not paying attention to the details). I have notes about the food, including Sarah’s dish that blessed Hugh calls “Spanish food for old people with an out-of-season fruit.” Hugh is the best thing about this season. I have notes about how disappointed I was that Lindsay won the first round and got to go sit inside with a nice mug of spiced rum while everyone else trudges back out into the wild again the next day.

I have notes about everyone playing Sharon Stone and chopping through ice blocks FOR A HALF HOUR FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE to get at ingredients frozen therein; about Padma teasing Beverly about who she’s envisioning when she rips into that ice; about Paul beating Beverly to the ice block containing the crab legs, but helping the two women by smashing the ice blocks on the ground for them (which did little good, but it was still a nice gesture); about Sarah using frozen cream that separated but was rescued by blending her soup; about Paul winning, thank God, leaving the final match-up the producers were going to get no matter what anyone cooked: Beverly and Sarah.

I have notes about the history of the biathlon combining cross-country skiing and shooting, how it makes sense when you look at it in the context of the Olympics originally, back in BCE Greece, being about preparing for war; about Beverly maybe skiing into Sarah to take her down on the ski trail; about how Sarah’s grandfather taught her to shoot at tin cans in the back yard, so she should be able to shoot herself some ingredients; about how Beverly, who’s never held a gun, pretty much outshot Sarah or at least was even with her; about how Sarah accused them of giving Beverly more bullets (they didn’t); about how they finally get to cook in an actual kitchen; how Beverly, in a second show this episode of sheer assholery (because Sugar has forever exposed the self-diagnosed Asperger’s scam, and I’m really, really feeling mean, probably about as mean as she was feeling at the time) plugged her blender in on Sarah’s station; how I knew Beverly was toast when they said her arctic char was underseasoned and maybe overcooked, while Sarah only had tough rabbit; how I lost interest in the season at that moment, because I’m tired of nasty, evil people getting away with it.

And I’m tired of chefs with bruises, frostbite, heatstroke, acrophobia, motion sickness. Challenges more about physical fitness and endurance than cooking ability. Forced improvisation that makes Chopped seem rational. Obnoxious people. Least-common-denominator ideas.

I don’t care what happens next.

(until next week, of course…)

T. C. Boyle – “Los Gigantes” from The New Yorker, 2/6/12

New Yorker illustration by Brian Cronin

New Yorker illustration by Brian Cronin

My legend grew. Of course, to be a legend, to attain that status, is to court attention. That was how they found me. And truly? I wish they never had.

Yeah, this one went by me. It’s a fine little story, there’s plenty of momentum, but there isn’t much to it. A fictional South American dictator is breeding an army of giants, and maybe another of tiny people. The men are treated well, the women are not. One of the giants escapes in Samsonian fashion and returns to his as-yet-unrecruited tiny wife…. So? If there’s a point, I don’t see it.

I’m seriously disappointed. I like TC Boyle. At least I thought I did. Maybe there’s something that I’m not grasping, but it seems almost cartoonish. The Book Bench interview is singularly uninformative (the interviewer seems to be desperately casting about for something interesting to talk about in connection with the story), except for mention of the paperback release of his novel When the Killing’s Done. Which gives me some conspiracy theories of my own. Fail.

Julie Otsuka: The Buddha in the Attic, Knopf, 2011

On the boat, we often wondered: Would we like them? Would we love them? Would we recognize them from their pictures when we first saw them on the deck?

I found this book to be brilliant and stunning, a wonder to read both on the story and discourse level. Let’s talk story first.

In the early part of the 20th century, about twenty thousand Japanese women arrived in the US as picture brides, to marry Japanese men they had never met. Their marriages had been arranged via correspondence. You can listen to an interview Otsuka gave with NPR to learn more about this history, or hear Jane Kaczmarek read a passage from the book, at NPR.

This book is the collective story of one boatload of picture brides. It’s a short book in eight sections and covers their lives from the boat to their internment after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It’s the discourse (and I’m using that word, as I understand it, in a very basic sense), and how it works with the story, that’s brilliant.

The book is written in first person plural – another “we” story, like Then We Came To The End – but more firmly so. It starts out quite rigid on a sentence level; in the first section nearly every paragraph starts with “On the boat we…” though it evolves (as the women do) throughout into a more individualized group, even finally using names, though “we” still remains a collective protagonist. The effect, for me, is to emphasize that what happens to one of these women, happens to them all. And, likewise, the use of “us” requires a “them” and reminds us what we as a “them” are capable of. Who is “us,” who is “them” now –and what we are capable of now. And how careful we should be of what we do out of fear, of what is done in our name, especially now.

I chose to read this book because of a reviewlet by Anne Barnhill at Fiction Writers Review; she asks the question:

Do we still need the Aristotelian notion of protagonist and antagonist? Must one create rising tension? Is a Greek chorus still drama? How far can the bounds of narrative be stretched and still provide satisfaction?

I’m not sure protagonist-antagonist, rising tension, have been abandoned here at all. The protagonist is not a person, but a group: the Japanese picture brides, how they deal with their boat passage, the strangers who are their new husbands, their relationship with whites, their function as childbearers and child rearers, all with background tension of their status as outsiders. That tension is then brought to the front, and reaches a climax in the next-to-last section. So I think it’s actually a pretty classic structure.

That being said, the collective voice will not appeal to everyone. In fact, it’s going to drive some people bonkers by the second page. There was a kind of acclimation experience for me. I kept waiting for the introduction to be over, for the story to begin. I gradually realized the story had begun with the first page, and allowed myself to go with it. It’s a brilliant approach, and I’m surprised the book hasn’t received more notice (though it was a finalist for the National Book Award). I have to wonder: if a man had written this about a group of literature professors (or, say, a group of suburban teenage virgins, or advertising executives), wouldn’t it be hailed as a breakthrough and on everyone’s read list?

But back to the book. By sections:

Come, Japanese!

On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves.

In this very short, very poetically stylized section, we are introduced to the women, how they vary in age and background and reason for being there, but how they are still one group. In discourse terms (and again, I’m kind of making this up as I go along from a very basic grasp of the term) it is exposition in which the protagonist and setting is introduced.

First night

That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word….They took us flat on our backs of the Minute Hotel. They took us downtown, in second-rate rooms, in the Kumamoto Inn. They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time.

We see the wedding night. This section is very short, and quite poetic, and further introduces us to the lives these women will lead, and especially how they will be viewed by their husbands.

Whites

We loved them. We hated them. We wanted to be them. How tall they were, how lovely, how fair. Their long, graceful limbs. Their bright white teeth. Their pale, luminous skin, which disguised all seven blemishes of the face. Their odd but endearing ways – their love of A.1. sauce and high pointy-toed shoes, their funny, turned-out walk, their tendency to gather in each other’s parlors in large,noisy groups and stand around talking, all at once for hours. Why, we wondered, did it never occur to them to sit down?

We see the women surviving their work environments, from the farms where they worked the fields endlessly to the city houses where they served as maids and nannies to Japantowns in various places where they worked in noodle houses and laundries and boarding houses, at the hands of white people who had power over them; white people they had to work for, sleep with, keep secrets for, learn from, and sometimes, admire.

Babies

We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113-degree heat. We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair.

All the circumstances of childbirth. The places – fields, laundries, houses, midwife’s clinics, hospitals. The number of babies – ten in fifteen years. The ones who were left to die or smothered or who never made it into the world at all. The ones who never bore children.

The Children

Still, they dreamed. One swore she would marry a preacher so she wouldn’t have to pick berries on Sundays. One wanted to save up enough money to buy his own farm. One wanted to become a tomato grower like his father. One wanted anything but. …One wanted to become an artist and live in a garret in Paris. One wanted to go to refrigeration school… One wanted to become a state senator. One wanted to cut hair and open her own salon. One had polio and just wanted to breathe without her iron lung. One wanted to become a master seamstress. One wanted to become his sister. One wanted to become a gangster. One wanted to become a star. And even though we saw the darkness coming we said nothing and let them dream on.

As the women raise their children from infancy to maturity, care for them, teach them, and watch them grow – they are American citizens, after all, able to buy land – they still fear. The rising action begins.

Traitors

What did we know, exactly, about the list? The list had been drawn up hastily, on the morning of the attack. The list had been drawn up more than one year ago. The list had been in existence for almost ten years….It was nearly impossible to get your name on the list. It was extremely easy to get your name on the list. Only people who belonged to our race were on the list. There were Germans and Italians on the list, but their names appeared towards the bottom. The list was written in indelible red ink. The list was typewritten on index cards. The list did not exist. The list existed, but only in the mind of the director of military intelligence, who was known for his perfect recall. The list was a figment of our imaginations. The list contained over five hundred names. The list contained over five thousand names. The list was endless.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the dread becomes real. The list – who doesn’t flash to Schindler’s List here? But it is the opposite. This is a list of uncertainty, banishment, perhaps death, no one knows. They hear of other towns where all the Japanese are gone. They hear of individuals who have simply vanished. Individuals become more prominent in the narrative.

Last Day

Some of us left weeping. And some of us left singing. One of us left with her hand held over her mouth and hysterically laughing. A few of us left drunk. Others of us left quietly, with our heads bowed, embarrassed and ashamed.

The women, their families, all the Japanese, leave for an uncertain future. It’s hard not to compare the scene with Holocaust, though it isn’t as determinedly, heinously evil. There’s a lot of switching back and forth between the transitive and intransitive meanings of the verb “left” – they left, and they left things behind. It’s definitely more personal, these are individuals. The title of the book comes from this section: “Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.” This breaks my heart.

A Disappearance

With each passing day the notices on the telephone poles grow increasingly faint. And then, one morning, there is not a single notice to be found, and for a moment the town feels oddly naked, and it is almost as if the Japanese were never here at all.

And now, in this last section, there’s a sudden shift. We’ve heard the last from the Japanese, and the narrative voice moves to a different collective: the white people in the town. noticing how the Japanese have disappeared suddenly. They don’t know where they’ve gone. Some feel a little guilty; they should’ve done something, said something to somebody, but what, who? New “others” move in – “country people” who find work at the war factory, people who make some of the white people long for the quiet Japanese. Surreptitious looting of Japanese belongings left behind begins, and Japanese items – stone lanterns, scrolls, hair chopsticks – begin to appear in white homes. And I have to say, just typing about white people and white homes throughout this post is freaking me out.

A year on and almost all traces of the Japanese have disappeared from our town….All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.

The book ends here, on an uncertain note. Rumors fly, but no one knows where the Japanese have gone, if they’ve been shipped back to Japan or put to work on farms or just abandoned somewhere in the middle of the country, if they’re alive, if they’re ever coming back.

But like the laughing Buddha in the attic, they were and are here. And I’m grateful to Otsuka for reminding us who they were.

[Addendum: I'm delighted to see this book is a finalist for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award.]

Jess Row: Nobody Ever Gets Lost – Stories

"This is my cathedral"

"This is my cathedral"

I first thought I might want to read this collection when I read the gripping “Sheep May Safely Graze” in the 2011 Pushcart volume. I ordered it after I read “Call of Blood” in BASS 2011. It’s a smallish collection – only five additional stories – but I had to read them, based on those two.

Christopher Feliciano of The Rumpus puts it well in his introduction to his author interview: “Row grapples with questions of identity, religion, and extremism, exploring how we manage (or fail) to co-exist in a post 9/11 world.” I’d add grief and loss to that list. Row’s interview with Charlotte Boulay of Fiction Writers Review is likewise informative, asking about not only craft but his exploration of fundamentalism and race in these stories.

I found the stories beautifully written, extremely intelligent and thoughtful. My favorites were emotionally engaging, often devastating, with images and metaphors that put complex things in a new light, such as the changing harmony Guruhka speaks of in “Amritsar” or the heartbreaking cathedral image in the title story. I have to admit I was surprised by the use of, well, harangue in “The World in Flames,” “Call of Blood,” and “The Answer.” Each contains extensive monologues in which a character explains his philosophy. I’m fine with this, but it strikes me as old-fashioned (the latter part of The Jungle, Magic Mountain) and no longer condoned, though I can hardly figure out why given the power of those “old-fashioned” books. I guess I need to learn the difference between talking heads and effective use of monologue. While I found “Call of Blood” mesmerizing, I had less connection to “The Answer” and “The World in Flames,” perhaps because in the former, the people doing the lecturing seemed to be wondering aloud rather than dictating, looking for answers instead of insisting they already had them all. In the latter two, they seemed to have their positions firmly entrenched, but I never saw much of the path towards those beliefs.

It’s a collection for someone who wants to think about issues, to see several points of view, not to just nod and agree with what they’ve already decided. Stories to think about. I wonder how some of these stories will look five, ten, twenty years from now.

The World in Flames” (Full text available online at Five Chapters)

She’d always seen herself as a fairly good interpreter of men, their attitudes and postures and elaborately disguised emotional agendas, but here, she thought, these waters just get deeper and stranger.

Samantha – Sam – is a young British woman backpacking through Asia. It’s her “last best chance to see the world” before settling down to all the things in a regular life. In Bangkok, she sees an American man, Foster, who somehow intrigues her, and she pulls a fast one: she tells him she’s lost her money and is waiting for the credit card company to send her a new card. It works, and he invites her to stay at his house overnight. His wife is upcountry. It’s a small dishonesty. She isn’t particularly looking for sex, or for anything; the shower and real bed and private room are extremely welcomed after months of bathing from pots and sleeping in communal rooms. She finds a cross hanging in his bathroom, and the conversation develops around religion; she discovers more than she bargained for about his brand of Christianity. He’s out to speed up the pace of things, to get the Rapture going once and for all. And for him, that means a grenade launcher. Poor Sam’s radar was seriously off with this guy. The evolution of their encounter is the thread that pulls the reader through this story.

I sometimes joke about my misspent youth as a fundamentalist. I know the territory. Though it reads like horror story, everything in the story is pretty much based on truth. The “Left Behind” books are still flying off the shelves. There are organizations that return diasporic Jews to Israel in an attempt to speed up the Rapture. Christianity: it isn’t just for Sundays any more. Foster turns out to be a cross between Pat Robertson and Charles Manson, and I don’t need convincing. Row’s intent was to look at how fundamentalism can lead to violence. None of us need convincing about that, not any more, though some may be surprised to see this setting. This is what I wonder: how can people who truly believe their religion is the difference between eternal paradise and eternal damnation, not be fanatics?

Amritsar” (Full text available online at The Atlantic Monthly)

Having found it only late in my lifetime, you could say I believe strongly in harmony. An outdated concept, you might say. It carries with it a strong whiff of the Beatles and that terrible Coca-Cola commercial I watched with the children when they were young. But, of course, a marriage relies on harmony, a family is composed of nothing but….
I am learning to fish because the components of a harmony change over time. Because the song changes, if you’ll excuse the terrible analogy.

I love stories that teach me about something I didn’t know before. Then again, I get annoyed by stories that are so unfamiliar they require research before I can follow along. It’s a delicate balance, and this one falls right in the sweet spot. It’s not the easiest read – after a magnificent opening scene of the narrator (I didn’t now for most of the story if the narrator was male or female) climbing nervously into a boat with his son, there’s a flashback to his childhood in the Punjab and the first reference to Amritsar, which jumbles the timeline for me; I was no longer sure where the present of the story was, in 1919, fifty years later, or fifty years after that. But, as I’ve learned, I just kept reading, with an open mind, and it came together. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading over my head, it’s that an open mind is crucial.
The short version: This story is about assimilation, but that’s like saying Othello is about jealousy; true, but not sufficient. Gurukha, our first person narrator, doesn’t like boats, but he is learning to fish because his son Ajay is marrying Christine, the girl next door (literally) whose father Tom is an avid fisherman. It wouldn’t do for one father-in-law to teach the other, so Gurukha has asked Ajay – “this son, who has never known a barrier he couldn’t leap, who will never have to do anything in his life he doesn’t want to” – to teach him. And on this day, a lot comes up. Memories of his childhood in India; his childhood friend Gopal, who was always intrigued by the massacre at Amritsar fifty years before, and later became an extremist himself. His emigration to Virginia to become a radiologist. The day his daughter found sand nigger painted on her school locker, and Ajay ended up arrested when things got convoluted and misunderstandings multiplied. His feelings about 9/11, with neighbor Tom parked in his driveway with a shotgun when reports of Sikhs, mistaken for Arabs, being attacked were all over the news (“Don’t be ridiculous, our neighbors know who we are, we’ve lived here for 20 years” says Gurukha when his best friend calls to warn him about the backlash; this reminds me of the line in Diary of Anne Frank, when one of the people hiding in the attic says, “I always thought I was Dutch”), and the terrible fight he had with his wife that night. His feelings about Christine making efforts to be a little bit Indian – watching his wife cook Indian food, asking about wearing a sari for her wedding – “in the way that so many Americans want to be something they aren’t.” So many points of view – the “other,” the ally, the vengeful militant, the concerned father, the kid who thinks it’s all worked out now, the parent who knows it isn’t. I’m still a little hazy on a few points, but along the way, the story wrings a lot out of me; it’s very special, and a beautiful read.

Nobody Ever Gets Lost” (from American Short Fiction)

You have to stop looking, she thinks. You have to stop lying your way into the right metaphor. Nothing works by analogy anymore. The act of comparing is another kind of violence.

This story, maybe the shortest in the collection, is worth the price of the book in itself. Let me take a different approach, and tell you my reactions as I read, because I think Susan, the protagonist, would understand. Despite the numerous references to 9/11 (September again, stores with T-shirts saying “I [heart] NY – More Than Ever”) including the obvious one about her fascination with an elevator accident that killed two children, I believed her when she said her boyfriend died of an aneurism. I was relieved, if a bit surprised and possibly disappointed somewhere I didn’t want to look. Oh, it’s that kind of story, not the kind that means I need to go get more paper towels (I’m a Olympic-level crier; tissues are for wimps). And of course, she lied to me, because that’s part of what the story is all about, glossing over things, getting on with our lives, erasing the scars. “It wouldn’t be fair, she finally decided, to expect them to realize that despite its seeming surface continuity, the world’s underlying chemistry had been permanently altered….Somebody has to remain innocent…” The last page is transcendent.

The Answer” (Full text available online at Granta)

When you come to Yale, you relinquish the right to be a mad prophet…. You take on the humiliation of belonging.

Isaac meets Rafael during Orientation Week at Yale in 1993. Most of the story is monologue: Rafael’s defense of jihadist Islam, and his attempt to lure Isaac to Karachi to study the Quran and convert. Isaac is not Jewish, by the way; he was raised Unitarian, which (to me) is religion in the vaguest sense. There’s a beautiful rhythm to this story; the sections flow perfectly and end on just the right note for the next one to start. The main story covers one night, more or less; four appendices provide additional context. There are no surprises here, really, outside of the unconventional structure of the appendices.

The Lives of the Saints” (from Ploughshares; full text available online at Numéro Cinq)

It’s because you’re a woman that you don’t want me to die, Tayari says.

That’s the first sentence of this story, and I gave up trying to figure out why dying was an issue quite soon; so at the very end, I realized Tayari was referring to the impending crucifixion. In the name of art. I’ve been known to get impatient with people who have pretentious and pseudo-intellectual views about art, but if someone’s going to have nails driven into his palms, I’m thinking he’s suffered enough. It’s the story of a very mixed-up couple. He’s the artist, bordering on famous; they live in a deserted storage shed where he completes his projects such as False Postitive, pinning a year’s worth of pregnancy tests to a board, and videos of martyrdom. The title refers to a book detailing the treasured gory details of persecution throughout history. He’s got some idea about bursting through artifice, to really affect people. Hence the crucifixion. His girlfriend is pretty much led down the garden path by this huckster, abandoning dance and education, and becoming pregnant. I was sorry the collection ended on this note, because it all smacked of pretentious nonsense and left a bad taste in my mouth. And yet – is there something here about the artist’s martyrdom, in comparison with religious and political martyrdom? I’m not sure. For one thing, he crucifies himself, not unwilling bystanders.

Overall, it was quite a collection. Out of the seven stories, I loved four. I generally bat about .500 on collections, but I loved these stories more than usual. It’s interesting how both the first and last stories were titled for books that appeared within them, that gave a character an avenue for “rationally” considered (rather than overtly anger- or hatred-driven) violence. It’s also interesting that I considered those the two stories I responded to the least. I’m assuming they were over my head, which means I have more work to do.

Project Runway All Stars: Episode 6, Fashion Face-Off

Michael Godard, "I Smell a Rat"

Michael Godard, "I Smell a Rat"

I smell a rat. More later.

We open with Mondo teasing Kenley. “I had a crush on you, then you started talking and I was like, mnn mnnn.” At first he thought she was loud and obnoxious and annoying, but now he thinks she’s loud and obnoxious and annoying and he loves to push her buttons. That was serious button pushing. But she seems amused.

Angela meets them on the runway with a bunch of bags, and everyone picks one. Though Mondo, as winner and first to pick, puts a lot of thought into which bag he picks (it’s bright and sophisticated), it turns out the bags are irrelevant; inside is a card with a season printed on it, so they now are divided into pairs:

Spring: Kara and Austin
Summer: Kenley and Mondo
Fall: Rami and Mila
Winter: Michael and Jerell

The challenge is to design weekend getaway sportswear for their assigned season. Who is your girl and where is she going? They don’t have to use the bag.

They’re competing head to head, so each pair will have one “top four” and one “bottom four”. Damn, I hate when they do things this way. Didn’t they just do this on Top Chef? Oh, wait, the right person went home then. But still, it’s a potential disaster. Especially when the drama has been pretty low key this season – usually they would’ve had at least two team challenges by now. So it’s time to ramp it up, obviously.

Kenley is intimidated by Mondo, and Mila is nervous about going against Rami. Both surprise me. They usually think they’re the most brilliant people in the room.

Mila is sketching a fall weekend outfit for a New Yorker to go to Texas for an art festival. Austin‘s girl lives in New York and has a weekend house where she’ll be checking on her garden this spring. He chats with Kara, and says he doesn’t see her sketch as sportswear, then realizes what he’s saying – “Oh, yes, do that, by all means.” She tells him to make four-pleat pants (which is exactly what he makes, actually) and a baggy top. It’s all very friendly.

Mila calls out, “Hey, guys, we have to get to Mood now” and someone calls her Lady Mila Killjoy. She does have a way of sounding like a kindergarten teacher, even though she’s just doing what some producer is telling her to do, I’m sure, to provide a segue. Still no Swatch sightings at Mood this season. :(

Michael isn’t sure what he wants, he’s always looking for plan a, b, c, and d, and probably e and f, too. Rami‘s girl is spending the weekend at a wine tasting with her best friend, so he wants a cardigan look.

Jerell starts with his coat, since it requires the most attention. He thinks Michael’s a good designer, so he’s happy to see what he’s got. Michael‘s working with a geometric short jacket with a high arched back. Something about going to the Hamptons and cutting flowers in the garden. Michael, my dear, if it’s winter in the Hamptons, there aren’t any flowers in the garden; it isn’t like Palm Springs. Mila‘s doing skinny jeans (of course she is, they’re probably color blocked too) and will do the pants first. Rami isn’t threatened by her since they have totally different aesthetics.

Kenley‘s girl likes to have fun and she’s going to Miami for an art festival, she wants to be sexy and cute. Mondo isn’t feeling confident; he sees Kenley as stiff competition on this challenge, but he also thinks she’s doing the same thing over and over, designing for herself; “This is a competition, at least try something new.” He says it’s like wrestlemania, or rather, fashionmania. Hmm. Weak wordplay, Mondo. But I love you anyway. He’s really struggling, though he loves his black and white splotchy polka dots.

Jerell and Michael get into it about whether Michael is plagiarizing Jerell’s design. I love Michael, but he has always had a tendency to turn out colors, at least, that other people are working with. I don’t think he does it on purpose. But it happens nonetheless. Still, he’s never copied a look, just colors. He does make several looks for every challenge, so depending on where he stops, one of them might be similar to something someone else is doing. Mila points out he doesn’t regularly do sportswear and he doesn’t ever do winter; that’s a good reason for him to have a paucity of ideas off the top of his head and be more susceptible to grasping on to something that crosses his field of vision. I think Jerell has made ridiculous clothes so far this season and I’m baffled that he’s still there after sending out disaster after disaster, but he’s got a point on this.

Joanna’s Walkthrough:

Kara sees Palm Beach casual chic, a mom of two kids on holiday, high-waisted coulotte pants. Joanna thinks high-waisted pants are fashion forward and encourages her.

Austin is also doing high-waisted pants in khaki. She says he’s using sportswear colors. He has a print shell and origami ruffles; she’s very excited to see it.

Mondo‘s look is personal. It’s his mom’s 60th birthday, so his girl is going to represent him at her birthday party. He’ll use the polka dots on top. They acknowledge Kenley’s polka dots: “She’s the polka dot queen but I’m the polka dot princess.” There you go, Mondo. That more than makes up for fashionmania. The polka dots are very different, though; his are splotchy rather than geometric; it’s almost cheetah. Albino cheetah. Can you tell I’m making this up as I go along? I mean, come on, albino cheetah? But they are very different prints.

Kenley shows Joanna her simple look, and Joanna thinks a lot of girls would love it.

Mila‘s working on her pants; Joanna says they’re definitely her signature pants, and Mila says thank you. I’m not so sure it was a compliment.

Rami shows her the sweater; the fabric he has for the knit top underneath is the same chartreuse as the sweater Joanna is wearing. She says it’s on trend. I mean, what can she say? She isn’t wearing it with almost-electric blue, though. Chartreuse makes my teeth itch. Mila says it’s hard to look at, there’s too much fullness. That gives me hope, since Mila’s almost always wrong.

Michael explains his silhouette to Joanna; she wants to know where the idea came from. He explains about playing with muslin and cutting two circles in back. He notices Jerell is listening.

Jerell shows her his coat. She says they both have a cowl neck and silhouette. Jerell admits he isn’t happy about it.

This is cool: Joanna holds a “team meeting” like she has at the magazine when tension arises, to air the issue instead of letting it get fester in whispers. She makes it clear Michael may indeed have pilfered Jerell’s concept, and she makes it clear that isn’t really any kind of rule violation. I may have to revise my opinion of Joanna. She acted like a grown up, like a good manager, not like the manager she put forward on the runway back in the Dress Nina challenge. I’m surprised. I’m pleased. Joanna’s stock has been rising steadily with me this season. I’m sure she finds that reassuring.

Best scene of the night: Michael is complaining to Mondo about Jerell at dinner break while Mondo is shovelling huge amounts of spaghetti into his mouth. For a little guy, he sure eats heartily. Jerell walks in; uncomfortable silence followed by feeble small talk.
Mondo: This reminds me of dinner at home.
Michael: Spaghetti?
Mondo: No. Awkward.

Definitely made up for the Fashionmania remark.

On the day of the show, Mila is still working on her cape, adding leather to the seams. She’s worried about beating Rami; Rami sees bubbling on the cape, and it looks off-balance to him. Jerell is complaining to Rami about Mondo helping Michael picking patent leather boots. Michael’s annoyed that Jerell’s having private conversations about him: “Really, bitch, you want to play like that?” he interviews, which is particularly ironic since he was the tattletale last week when Kenley finished Kara’s pants. Michael is not doing well tonight. Not doing well at all.

The Runway:

Cynthia Rowley is guest judge.

The Spring pair:

Austin: khaki cropped pants, pink sweater, print shell. I’m not sure if “cropped” is the proper term for the pants; they’re not full length, maybe capri – but aren’t those fitted? Or pedal pushers, but don’t those have a slit on the side? Now that I’m looking at the picture, the blouse has some kind of detail, strips down the front. I almost see where he was going – spring, she’s checking on her garden, the flowers in the top are springing out of the beige earth. But it’s… not good. For some reason I flash on the Post Office Uniform challenge: Doris Day. Prissy. Cynthia calls it “so dorky it’s cool;” the high-waisted trousers make it modern. Isaac likes that he attempted a new khaki trouser, and they’re tailored beautifully, but on that girl it’s a little moderate (I don’t know what “moderate” means in this context – average?). She looks like a bore; he wouldn’t want to have lunch with her. Well, Isaac, let’s face it, you might not be the best judge of that. Frankly, I don’t like the look at all, and I’d want to know someone who would wear such a thing. Georgina can’t see a modern woman in it, either; Angela gets small town, going to church. Ouch. Church is never, ever, what fashion wants to evoke.

Kara: Wide white pants, purple v-neck shell, grey sweater; she hopes they appreciate her strong color sensibility and simple chic. It’s nice. I like it a lot more than Austin’s, that’s for sure. It’s not exciting; in fact, it’s the sort of thing I might’ve worn back in my younger, thinner days. Oh, ok, there were no thinner days; make that less fat days. There – satisfied? Angela calls it wearable and comfortable and likes how the pants move and fit. Cynthia sees nothing original at all. Kara defends herself: she’s packing for a getaway, not avant-garde Palm Beach, it’s conservative chic. Isaac doesn’t feel it. The colors don’t work unless she’s running to the store. Georgina likes the fabric, however (so do I, the purple and white is great, the grey, it’s fine, the weight is right) and wouldn’t mind looking like that. But fashion? Maybe as a look in a runway show featuring other more surprising looks, but on its own, with only the color going for it, it looks very ordinary.

In a close decision, Kara is in the high group, Austin in the low.

Summer Vacation:

Kenley: light blue polka dot romper with a Peter Pan collar. She should seriously think about becoming a children’s designer, I think she’d make a fortune. As usual it’s perfectly made. It’s just stupid. IMHO. Which is truly humble in this context, since I seem to have a tin ear for fashion – or would that be a tin eye? A glass eye? That’s it, a glass eye for fashion. That’s me. Cynthia likes it, it’s simple and chic, and she likes that she used no accessories; she’d like to wear it. Yeah, I’d like to see that. Isaac likes it a lot, especially that it’s one piece. Let me say again that anyone who says they’d love to wear a jumpsuit (a romper is a short-legged jumpsuit, after all) is crazy. Or they never pee. Georgina likes it but the polka dots need to be lined up better. I didn’t even notice that, I was too busy laughing my ass off.

Mondo: b/w loose boatneck polka dot blouse, houndstooth shorts, yellow belt. Nice. Not quite enough color to be Full Mondo, but nice. Cynthia complains that different parts are different decades; she really hates the back. Isaac thinks it’s a little junior (forgive me for ripping off Grayson from Top Chef Texas here: like a powder-blue polka-dot romper?); it’s Desperately Seeking Susan (I think he needs to see the movie again), 80s. Georgina finds the shorts unflattering. Mondo admits he struggled. I don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad as they’re making it seem. In fact, I think they’re reaching for reasons to put him in the bottom.

Kenley is the high scorer, Mondo low. Now I’ve heard everything.

Fall Fashions:

Rami: bright blue blousy jacket with suede sleeves, chartreuse turtleneck with a tiny piece peeking out on one side of the jacket, grey skinny pants. Hmmm, not so much, no. I hate the colors. The pants have front piping that looks like those old sewn-pleat ski pants my sister used to hand down to me (which was close to child abuse). Even without that piping, they look kind of dowdy and the grey doesn’t work at all with the blue and chartreuse. I don’t even like the jacket, though I can appreciate the work that went into it. They ask Rami to open the jacket. The blouse, oh wow, it’s a horror. Not just the color – maybe I have an allergy to chartreuse – but it looks like I sewed it. I can’t believe Rami made that. I assume the stitching is some kind of decorative touch, but it’s horrible. The cowards at Lifetime haven’t put up a shot with the jacket open. Georgina says the back of the jacket is gorgeous; she loves the back without the belt. Isaac hates the chartreuse, the neckline is sloppy and there’s too much drapery. Cynthia thinks the diagonal line makes her breasts look lopsided. I agree with all that. It’s really terrible.

Mila: beige/black cape over a red top, grey skinny pants. She’s doing a silhouette no one else has done, the cape. I don’t like the black on the cape, neither do I like the beige fabric; if it had some nap or texture the look might work better. As is, it looks like a duct-taped poly-cotton poncho. Mostly it looks like Mila, and she and I just are not on the same visual wavelength at all. I’ll grant her that she did something different in the cape. And she used color. Georgina likes the red and sees her vision. Angela likes the cape. Cynthia likes the geometry and slivers of red, it’s chic and wearable.

Mila has the high score, Rami the low. I’ll reluctantly accept that. Things are not going well for the A team tonight.

Winter wonderland:

Jerell: big coat in herringbone with cardigan vest and pants. This is by far the best thing he’s made. In fact, it’s pretty terrific. If he can do this, why does he do that other crap? I’m flashing on ANTM, the homeless shelter shoot. One of the models had that exact hair, in fact. Fatima, I think. Georgina notes his and Michael’s are similar, and Jerell actually dials it back: he made his coat and Michael was experimenting and they both got struck by the same creative bug. Smart move, Jerell, you earn some points for that. Of course, who knows what you really said, before they asked you if you’d like to say something more moderate for broadcast. I suspect a lot of this season has been re-shot after coaching. Then again, I’m a card-carrying member of the Tin Foil Hat Club. Georgina likes the tribal bohemian vibe; Isaac loves the coat, it’s gorgeous, but wishes the buttons weren’t on the cardigan (which would make it not a cardigan any more, right?). Jerell shows them how the coat closes, and they love it. It is really cool. It pisses me off, how cool it is.

Michael: Big striped coat, cowlneck, pants. This is pretty terrific, too. I don’t see them as the same thing, though they’re related. They’re both big coats; they’re both dark and patterned; they both use cowlnecks. They both use black and dark grey. But Michael’s looks to me more Park Avenue than Boho. The fabric has some serious fuzzies. The coat looks sleeveless with a half-belt (very much like the half-belt he used on his gelato look – I’m sure there’s a better word for it but I’m not sure what it is – but it goes around in back to capture the top of the coat again, it’s really great how he did that) and a kind of pullover underneath. It’s more structured than Jerell’s. It’s got a square shape, whereas Jerell’s is diagonal and floppier and has a border at the bottom. Isaac loves the belt, but thinks the leggings with the shoes are nasty (uh oh, weren’t those the shoes Mondo picked?); boots would be better. Poor Michael, he doesn’t know from winter. Isaac actually says Congratulations. He thinks it’s a great look. Cynthia says it’s more of an ensemble, like it’s Jerell’s mom, or an older woman. Georgina says it’s very polished and sophisticated. Angela likes it too, but someone has to have a low score. Which is my complaint about this kind of challenge.

Jerell is high, Michael low. I can understand that; they’re both really great.

It’s a sweep for the Bad News Bears.

Back in the lounge, Mondo’s very upset; it was meant to be a gift for his mother. Not the clothes, presumably – I mean, come on, she’s 60, she’s not going to be wearing that – but that he made something in honor of her birthday. “It sucks when it’s a personal story and they dog you.” I didn’t think they dogged him that much, actually. Kenley’s trying to be sweet, I think, by reminding him they didn’t want to even have lunch with Austin’s girl. I’m sure Austin appreciated that. But she had good intentions, which pave the road to you-know-where.

The judges deliberate:

For the high scorers:

Cynthia liked the confidence of Kenley‘s outfit, it had lots of impact. Angela thinks it would turn heads. Yes, it would; I’d stare if someone walked down Congress Street like that. Georgina points out they’ve seen this look a lot, and it’s about time she changed it up. Oh, now you say something.

Angela found Mila‘s look boring. Cynthia thought it was chic and wearable. Isaac didn’t like the fabric, it didn’t look expensive, and of course she had a budget but that’s part of the challenge, to get a good look out of a limited amount of money. Georgina wanted the Helmut Lang jeans to be more Helmut Lang; they were apologetic. And this is a winner, people.

Georgina loves Jerell‘s fabulous coat, though Isaac is still doesn’t like the buttons. Cynthia thought the earthy hippy thing worked for the mood. What does that mean?

Georgina gives Kara an “ok” for her look. Isaac is annoyed there was no style at all. Angela shrugs, she snuck her way into the high group. Another winner.

As to the low scorers:

Isaac thinks Austin‘s pants were the best thing on the runway. Angela doesn’t think he knows how to put a look together. Cynthia is surprised that his intent was completely different from what they would think is cool.

Mondo was not at his best. Cynthia found it ill-fitting and not well made. Wait, is she thinking of the right garment? The blouse was meant to be loose. Georgina says it was a good look, not as good as last week, but good.

The colors of Rami‘s look makes Angela ill. Isaac thinks it looks like a draping project; Georgina wishes she’d never seen the top at all. Yeah, I have to agree.

Michael had lots of drama, says Angela. Not really, it was Jerell who had the drama. Michael was the cause, or victim, of it, depending on your opinion. Isaac says, and this is very curious: design is not his strongest thing, it’s execution of something he’s seen. Wait. He’s used duplicate colors before, though he deliberately changed his design when he saw April doing red, but he’s never made similar outfits. They’ve never had this complaint before. Where is this coming from? Cynthia still holds the heels-with-leggings against him. But he has a good sense of proportion. Still, he seemed insecure, whereas Jerell seemed secure. Georgina has no idea what they’d get if he did a collection. Sounds like Michael’s on a banana peel. I’m baffled, why haven’t these issues come up before?

Decision:

Jerell wins. Yeah, I can’t argue with that. And no one’s more surprised than me to say that.
It comes down to Rami and Austin…. Rami’s out. Wait, Rami’s out? Rami? Rami Kashou?

Like I said earlier… I smell a rat.

I said in my Preview: If Rami comes in less than second, something’s wrong. Well, something’s wrong.

I’ll grant that he’s turned in a couple of disasters, and this was one of them. In fact, I’ll grant his was the worst look up there tonight. But for any design competition to oust him before the likes of Kara and Jerell – I’d throw Mila in there, too, but I can acknowledge her work might have aesthetic value that I just don’t appreciate, like Roberto Bolero – is a travesty. There’s something wrong with the design of the competition.

But it’s more than that.

If you look at the wins so far (I used Wikipedia), and come up with a scoring system – say, give 3 points for a win, 2 for second and 1 for third, and subtract 1 or 2 points for a bottom finish – here’s what you get:

Mondo: 7 points (one win, two second)
Michael: 6 points (two wins, one second, one next-to-last)
Rami: 6 points (one win, one second, one third)
Austin: 4 points (one win, one second, one second-to-last)
Kenley: 1 point (one third)
Jerell: 0 points (one third, one second-to-last)
Mila: -1 point (one next-to-last, one third)
Kara: -3 points (one next-to-last, one second-to-last)

So if you divide the designers into two groups based on their performance so far, Austin, Michael, Mondo, and Rami have the highest scores: 4, 6, 6, 7. Even if you give 3 points for a win and 1 point for a top finish, and subtract one point for a bottom finish, you get the same ranking. And those four are the only designers who have won a challenge so far. In other words – they’re the leading contenders, pretty much any way you figure. Rami and Kenley are the only ones who haven’t been in the bottom so far.

Is it just coincidence everyone from the “Doing Better” group was paired with someone from the “Doing Worse” group?

And that everyone from the “Doing Worse” group won?

And don’t give me “every challenge is judged on it’s own.” Unlike Top Chef, PR has never explicitly made that claim. Sometimes it seems that way, but often they’ve explicitly asked, “Who do you want to see more from?”

I meant it when I said I was a card-carrying member of the Tin Foil Hat Club. They wanted to shake things up, and Rami paid the price. Kenley made a kiddie playsuit (and one piece when everyone else made at least two, usually three, including coats and jackets), and Kara made what’s on every rack of every department store in the country. Mila, I’ll abstain, because I’m incredibly biased against her (for reasons I still don’t fully understand) and against her style (because I think it’s ugly).

Something’s wrong.

Next week: something about Broadway. And I’m so pissed off right now, if I say more (specifically about “the Chiquita Banana lady”) I might get truly nasty.

Top Chef Texas: Episode 14, “Mentors”

Nooooooooooo!

Prelude: Welcome to the Final Four! Er, Final Five? They wager on who’s coming back. Ed puts a pack of cigarettes on Beverly. Sarah thinks Grayson will kick Bev’s ass (wishful thinking there, Sarah?) and raises him a banana. Edward doesn’t want anyone back.

Quickfire:
Padma and Tom (and five cloches) meet the Final Four in the kitchen and introduce the LCK winner: Beverly! Hey, they fooled me, I was expecting Grayson, and while I like her very much, I’m very glad to see Beverly. She gives the usual cliches (seize the moment etc) and assures us she still has her congratulatory sign. Edward reminds Sarah she owes him a pack of cigarettes. Sarah interviews, “She’s off in her own Bev-land and I’m not buying a ticket to go there anytime soon.”

And on to the cooking part of our show: under each cloche is a blindfold. Edward wonders if they have to cook blindfolded. I wouldn’t be surprised. This has been the season of Kill Chefs, so why not blindfold them and set them loose with sharp knives and open flames.

But no, their insurance doesn’t cover them for that, so Padma calls it a blindfolded pantry raid. In thirty minutes, they have to select their ingredients blindfolded, then can take them off to cook; they have to use everything they take from the pantry. The winner gets a choice: a car, or a guaranteed spot in the final round.

It’s kind of funny watching them stumble all over each other in the pantry. Sarah keeps demanding to know who is touching her; she must know it’s Beverly. Edward tells her it doesn’t matter, it’s another person, that’s all she needs to know, but we all know it does matter. People get lost. People walk into things. Something brown and gross is dripping from Beverly’s basket. Paul is trying to find a lemon. Edward is trying to figure out what a package of cryovac’d meat is. Sarah says she’s making a stew so she can only spend five minutes getting ingredients: “No way I’m losing to Beverly.” Girl, your bitterness is showing. What, were you beaten by a tiny Asian woman when you were a child or something? Sarah finishes shopping first, then Lindsay; Edward is last.

Sarah: She has peaches, mushrooms, and corn, so she makes corn soup and throws in onion, red chili, thyme, and everything else. Padma asks, with a eww-y face, if she’s ever combined peaches and mushrooms before; Sarah says no, she’s trying to push the limit. Tom agrees she is. He says the peach was a little stronger than the corn, but overall it worked and was delicious, so she is the winner. She takes immunity, and she doesn’t give a damn what people say: “I don’t care if they look at me differently. They can look at me as one of their competitors in the final four.” I happen to agree with her. The object is to win. And isn’t the car a curse? Or was that broken last season? I don’t remember.

Edward discovers what he thought was pancetta is actually sausage casings. Now there’s a challenge. He boils them, and notices the water is kind of nice and salty, so he uses that as the base for his zucchini udon with mushrooms. Tom says he had the most difficult ingredient, but he made it really flavorful and nice. He’s in the top two.

Beverly picked up an avocado she didn’t know about. She makes striped bass, and leaves the fish until the last five minutes. Why is she always filleting and cooking fish in the last five minutes? It may be confident, but it’s also risky, and it fails this time; her fish is undercooked. Tom tells her the avocado side was the best part of the dish. Aww, Beverly, I so wanted you to get immunity; I’m betting Sarah wouldn’t have been so sanguine about choosing immunity in that case.

Paul makes sauteed prawns with Thai tomato soup; Tom says it’s nice, with a good balance of sweet, salt, and bitter, but the prawn is slightly undercooked.

Lindsay picked mascarpone instead of crème fraiche, so she hopes lime and salt will neutralize it. She makes fish with bulgur wheat, and Tom says it has a nice touch of tomato and the fish is perfectly cooked; he loves the char she got on her rabe.

Elimination Challenge:

There’s a speech about mentors, and guess who shows up: Michelle Bernstein for Lindsay, Tony Mantuano for Sarah, Sara Stegner for Beverly, Frank Crispo for Edward, and Tyson Cole for Paul. Paul gets very emotional and starts crying, which starts Tyson crying. Hugs all around. Sarah gets an extra bonus: she doesn’t have to cook, so she can hang out with Tony. I suspect there was some sniping going on, but we don’t hear any. If it’d been Beverly, they would’ve played every snark.

The winner gets a car. I wonder if they had two cars ready, or if Sarah had taken the car, there wouldn’t have been a prize.

The mentors offer some general advice: don’t second guess yourself, do what you do your way. Michelle tells Lindsay everything in her boullabaise better be perfectly cooked.

Shopping

Edward can’t find oysters at the store. So he gets… canned smoked oysters. Oh no! NO NO NO! Does anyone remember Orchid from Next Food Network Star? Her canned oysters were called hairballs. I’ve never had them, I’ve never had an oyster at all and don’t want to, but I can remember Tony Bourdain talking about some place in Spain where they make canned oysters and he specified “These are not the crap you ate in your dorm room in college, this is the finest seafood in the world.” So somewhere around Do Not Murder is the warning Do Not Use Canned Oysters. I don’t really need either prohibition, but I’m always surprised when other people don’t know about them. Canned oysters? That makes pre-cooked shrimp seem almost rational.

And Lindsay can’t find calamari or octopus. Looks like the seafood department is pretty spare today. She has the sense not to get canned seafood, though.

And Beverly runs into a store employee pushing a carton on a dolly. Because they have to include a clumsiness shot every time Beverly goes shopping.

They cook. Edward is making cilantro gel, which sounds pretty cool; he’ll be pissed if he loses his spot in the final four to Beverly (uh oh… are those the foreshadowing fairies I hear?). Lindsay is starting to second guess; she has so many components. Paul is worried, because his soup is unassuming. Beverly is talking to herself. Now that, I understand; when I get confused and overwhelmed, I give myself instructions, to focus myself.

Overnight, they talk with Beverly about being back again. Everyone denies they were surprised, they knew all about it. Lindsay asks what she and Grayson made, which seems like a friendly enough question, but she looks so pissy faced I’m not sure (that could be the editing monkeys at work, though; she may have made that face hours before or after about something completely different). Edward tells her they were all excited because they thought they were the final four. More foreshadowing?

On day of service, Beverly hopes her mentor Sarah (now is that a tragic coincidence or what) will like the soulful Asian food she’s doing; she’s using a wok, so timing is crucial. Paul has assembly today; his chilled soup has fourteen different plating steps. Lindsay hopes they like her unique interpretation of seafood stew. Edward is crisping pork belly skin for garnish.

Service:

Hugh and Gail are the judges, plus Tom and Padma and the four mentors. I guess Sarah got to sleep late; I kind of expected her to be at the table. For each chef, the mentor gives a kind of intro about them before they come out.

Beverly: Mentor Sarah says they met when she was chef at the Ritz, and her message was find your passion and go for it. Beverly is a little worried about presentation; she knows they won’t be impressed by how it looks, but hopes they will be by the sheer ballsiness and flavor. Hearing Beverly say “ballsiness” seems… wrong, somehow. Like when a little kid says “penis” instead of “wee wee.” She serves a Stir-Fry of Gulf shrimp and bbq pork over curried Singapore noodles. She tells them it’s something straight from her heart. Mentor Sarah loves the flavor and heat, the shrimp is cooked perfectly, and she did cook from the heart. Tom acknowledges how difficult cooking from a wok is for eight people, she did push herself.

Lindsay: Michelle says she’s always been eager, and “she’s an extension of me” which is a little creepy. She wants her to be happy. Lindsay in the meantime is worrying about the emulsified cream she made; maybe it wasn’t a good idea. She serves her Seafood Stew of mussels and clams over toasted couscous with emulsified cream and stock. Michelle says everything is cooked beautifully, but she doesn’t know why the cream is there. Someone else agrees. Hugh says it’s pretty good, all things considered, which sounds like he’s being nice in front of Michelle.

Paul: Tyson says he’d show him how to do something and two days later Paul would do it better than he did in the first place. At first he was threatened, then came to see him as a real asset. Paul is second guessing; he wants to put more stuff in his soup, but recognizing it’s where it should be takes experience and discipline. He serves his chilled sunchoke dashi soup with summer veggies and chervil. Michelle says her first spoon was salty, but as she went on it was balanced. Hugh says it’s really balanced by the veggies. Tom says they haven’t seen anything like this, he’s mostly cooked Thai food.

Edward: I missed Frank’s intro. He serves Pork Belly and Oyster Crema and pickled celery, plums and radish. Gail says it’s packed with tons of flavor. Tom is not a fan of the oyster sauce. Michelle thinks he should jar and sell the pickled veggies. Hugh agrees, they’re great.

The interstitial is about crying. Or, in Edward’s case, not crying. Yeah, Edward is toast.

Sarah rejoins them in the stew room. Edward says she looks rested. He still can’t quite get a grip on LCK thing.

Judges’ Table

Padma calls them all out for Judges’ Table. Except Sarah.

Paul – he didn’t want to make his mentor look bad. Tom tells him he had a lot of nerve to come in with a bowl of soup. The flavor spoke to someone who had a lot more experience and knew when enough was enough, it was a really nice bowl of soup. Gail says she got more flavor with every bite, it was well-prepared. In her Bravo blog, Gail says it’s the best dish she had all season, and possibly the best dish ever served on Top Chef.

Beverly: She says she fell back into her element. Tom admires her use of stir fry. He says it’s risky for many reasons, you can’t reseason or add something. Gail says wok noodles can be greasy but there was none of that, her flavors were clear.

They are the top two, so they both move on to the finals. Paul wins. He gets a car. With all the money he’s won, he could buy a couple of cars. I hope the car isn’t a curse any more, because Paul is the obvious favorite to win. Beverly gives an awkward speech about how happy she is. In the stew room, Paul acknowledges the wok was ballsy.

So it’s down to Lindsay and Edward.

Lindsay: Hugh slathers her with general praise for some reason. What, is he trying to sack Michelle? Gail says the aroma was great, but questions the cream. Lindsay thought it needed fat to pull it together, but then realized she used brown butter on the fish so it would’ve worked without it. Hugh and Tom complain about the use dried herbs. I didn’t realize that was a no-no. Hugh says they blanketed everything. Oh. Well, excuse me a minute, I need to go clean out my spice cabinet…damn, but you can go broke buying $3 bunches of herbs all the time.

Edward: Gail loved the pickles, but the oyster sauce was off. Hugh asks the million-dollar question: were they canned? Uh oh. Tom makes faces: “so that’s what that was.” Hugh says there were too many things on the plate; there was a great thing going on in there somewhere, but it was too busy. Gail assures him Frank was proud of him. For what, for using canned oysters?

The judges talk behind their backs. And in the end, Edward is out. And Beverly recognizes the irony that he is her idol, and she came and took his place in the final four. But hey, she didn’t use canned oysters. Edward is very gracious in his goodbyes. I will miss you, Edward. I know your jaw is the talk of TWoP, but I don’t notice it unless I’m really concentrate on it. And you seem like a really nice guy.

The WWHL show is interesting for two things: Edward says he was oblivious to the whole Beverly-and-the-Mean-Girls thing. And when asked which contestant Padma would be interested in, she names – not CJ, which was my guess, but Kevin. “Kevin, with the pig on his arm” as she put it. Andy Cohen was more helpful: “Ginger beard.” He sounded surprised. Me, too. By the way, until I saw her in her white tank top with the black bra strap poking out, I didn’t even realize I hadn’t noticed anything she wore in the episode. That’s progress.

Next week: They cook outside in the snow in Vancouver, and ride ski lifts. Makes perfect sense: broil them in Texas all summer, freeze them in the finale. Kill Chefs.

Paul Griner: “Open Season” from One Story #159, 1/14/12

The morning headline said that the season had just opened, which of course we knew; I’d paid for my permit and stored my clothes overnight in a dry-cleaning bag filled with sweaty t-shirts, a box of doughnuts and some bus exhaust, not easy to come by but absolutely crucial if I didn’t want to spook my prey.

Hello, I am Zin! And I get to talk about this story because it is the Zinnest story ever! Here is my advice: buy this issue of One Story. It costs $2.50. Because this story is so wonderful to experience! You should not have to be spoiled by my clumsy comments, which can not do it justice unless I copied the whole story here (and I thought about it… but that would be wrong).

I took my copy of One Story with me on the bus to the supermarket; the first paragraphs set the scene as a hunting story, and I thought, ok, that is fine, some hunting stories are good. Truth is, I do not understand the whole thing about hunting, but I have read stories where it is turned into a religious experience, and there is a great respect for wildlife and the “rules” and traditions and it becomes a struggle against nature which turns into a metaphor for life itself and often becomes a pretty good story, so I trusted One Story and read the first page, and the beginning of the second. The narrator and his friend Juan are having breakfast at Hopping John’s Diner on the first day of hunting season, before they get started.

And then something strange happens!

Yankees, [Juan] said, though he said it with the wrong accent – Yahn-keys rather than Yank-ease – so he didn’t get the word.
Pretty cheap way to bag your first one of the season, but he’d started it, drawing out the word and failing to capture it, so I said Yankees the correct way and when the word floated free, expanding to full size in midair, I grabbed it. What a word, I thought, balancing its heavy weight in my palm, sniffing it, finding it as fragrant as a ripe melon. Automatically I began field-dressing the little bugger, slitting it from anus to breastbone while taking care not to pierce the stomach – not wanting to lose my own breakfast from the smell – and finally reaching two fingers up into the chest cavity to grab hold of the windpipe and yank it loose. My game bag was in the car so I asked the waitress for some wax paper and foil….
I made a neat packet of the foil around both, careful not to bend the Y or get pricked by the pointed ends of the K. Captured, and without its entrails, the word made a nice small package.

Do you see what I mean, that this is the Zinnest story ever? I am so jealous that I did not write it! Or at least try; I do not think I could do it as well as this. But I remember the flash I wrote about Max and the Amazing Notes and I think I need to pull that out and start working on it, now that I see where I need to go with it!

But back to this story (I am not a narcissist, I just sound like one sometimes, and after all I started writing about stories to improve my own writing way back when I was still writing).

Look at how this is done, just the short paragraph quoted above. It is the perfect hunting story. It reads exactly like a scene in a story about he-men hunting! A hunter might treat a game bird this way; I am drawing on my limited experience with hunting stories, but it is very much like when Danny got a snowshoe rabbit or a partridge in Big Red. Except… the game is a word! And it reads with a straight face, the smell, the feel, the procedure of dressing it, we could be reading about rabbits and birds again, until it swings back to bring in the Y and the K again! It is amazing!

The story is like that. I thought, oh, that is nice, but he can not keep this up. I mean, how many words can gut? But this is a story by someone who knows what he is doing! It is not just a list of words he eviscerates! We learn about a field of lavender (when his wife divorced him because he was only interested in hunting words – “If I was a word, maybe you’d pay half as much attention to me. I didn’t think it would be good form to tell her she was right.” – she got the house and he got the field), and the bet he has with Juan is that whoever bags the most words on this opening day will win the field! A field of lavender! “After all, what color word could be better than lavender? Three syllables, even.” Aha, a new element – the number of syllables is something like the weight of a fish or the points on a buck or whatever hunters use to measure how valuable their catch is. And the field of lavender is like a wheat field, it is a crop. A crop of words.

See? This is not just a silly metaphor. This is carefully thought out!

The story continues with new elements, like the rumored shortage of words, which might lead to a shorter season or fewer licenses. There is a wonderful scene where Juan pulls ahead in their competition: he takes them to the Rotary Lodge where a Kentucky Wildcat flag flies proudly in the flag, and he coaxes blue, Wildcat, and Kentucky from the flag in a matter of moments:

Three words all at once, and a rare one, two, three-syllable trifecta at that; it was so good I couldn’t even feel jealous…. He let me have the first dibs smelling Kentucky. Is fawn a scent? It seemed so. Next came tobacco, rich and ruddy, followed by mint and fresh-cut grass and something swampy…

The detail is so precise and specific! But there is more to this story than accounts of each word bagged. After all, that would get tired fast. No, this is a better story than that! Someone who thinks of a way to bring hunters and word nerds together has more than a few smarts, so we discover more elements to morph the reverence most hunters feel for their sport into that which most writers feel for words:

Years ago, [Juan] replaced four molars with type keys from the city’s afternoon papers after they shut down. We’d gone to check out the press’s former site, son to be a sponge factory, the buildings long since demolished….
His hands shook as he handed me three letters, H, T, R. Think of it, he said, and closed my fingers around them. Each of these help stamp out thousands of words. He was so intense that his reverence was catching, and I keep the type keys now in my bedside table, fingering them blindly nights I can’t sleep.

I want some typewriter keys for my bedside table! I want to make shirt buttons out of them! Or jewelry!

In a further plot twist (or else it would be just toying with a metaphor instead of a story), our narrator (it is a first person story and his name is never given) has a problem this season. He has trouble speaking words. And this problem comes to the fore when, on the bus, he sees a prime word:

Yet the truth was I was stalling, because I’d frozen. It doesn’t happen often, maybe once every three or four years, but I’m staring at a word and can’t say it. Some kind of mechanical breakdown, I think….
The word was right there in front of me, tucked into a woman’s cleavage, trying to blend in with a crescent of tiny freckles and the sheen of sweat. Natural habitat, and all that; very smart, as multis usually are. When I glanced away to read some advertising placards about elocution lessons it came to me. Silicone, I said, and it was mine.

Again, I am awed at how good this is, how he talks about natural habitat and slips in the slang “multis” and attributes will and mind to the words, just like hunters do with their prey! And of course at the same time it is funny as hell! The word silicone hiding between the breasts of a woman? How could anyone not love this?

The story reaches its climax when they find a couple of agents clearing out a mailbox. This is why words are in short supply, of course; Special Ops agents take the words from mailboxes and telephone booths under cover of darkness. They catch a pair in the act, and the narrator knows what to do: he says, “Special Operations!” and just like that, words come spilling out of the mailbox, tumbling all over, like a slot machine paying off big time. And what does he see there? A special word – if you have been following closely you probably know what it is! And it leads to a change in him, because this is not just a goofy metaphor, it is a complete story.

Now you have to read it, yes, to find out what happens? You do!

I was so impressed by this story, I went looking for his website and found several other stories scattered all over the Web on cool online litmags like Dogzplot and Right Hand Pointing! Stay tuned, one of those will turn up on my Online Fiction etc. to Read and Love page the next time I update! He also talks about his story on the One-Story Q&A, and he has published two novels and a story collection. I think I will be reading more of this writer!

Pushcart 2012: L. Annette Binder, “Nephilim” from One Story #141, 10/15/10

"Water Rights" by Marcia Petty

"Water Rights" by Marcia Petty

God was a blacksmith and her bones were the iron. He was drawing them out with a hammer. God was a spinner working the wheel and she was his silken thread. Seven feet even by the time she was sixteen and she knew all the names they called her. Tripod and eel and swizzle stick. Stork and bones and Merkel, like the triple-jointed Ragdoll who fought against the Flash. Red for the redwoods out in California. Socket like a wrench and Malibu like the car, and she took those names. She held her book bag against her chest and she took them as her own.

I read this in One Story before I started blogging the stories I’d read. I was glad to see it in the Pushcart volume, though surprised: while I enjoyed it and thought it was different and moving and nicely written, I didn’t realize it was Pushcart good. I’m glad to see it is.

Freda is a giant (due to a pituitary tumor; the medical aspects are explained briefly, as if only to assure the reader this is not anything supernatural), and the story recounts her life as it intersects with that of Teddy Fitz, a little boy who moves in down the block. Legends of nephilim are interwoven throughout the story. They were the giants of the Old Testament, the offspring of fallen angels and women. Their bones became the mountains. We can almost imagine they were called whatever the 1000 BCE equivalent of Ragdoll or tripod, maybe Cedars instead of Red. They ate all the food, and the Lord ordered archangels Michael and Rafael to exterminate them so people wouldn’t be hungry. “Hunger is a terrible thing, Freda’s mother had told her more than once….But hunger was their burden, and they should have carried it.” Freda knows burdens, after all.

Teddy is her main contact with humanity now that her mother is gone, it seems. He does chores for her: shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, planting flower bulbs. She sees him through his parents’ arguments and his mother’s departure as he grows up. We see her mobility decrease (cane, walker) and his increase (skateboard, bike, car). When he leaves for college, there is a moment of connection, and then she’s alone.

He returns years later, his wife (three inches taller than him) and child in tow, and Freda is in a wheelchair. In a heartbreaking decision, she won’t open the door when he comes to visit. Her health has deteriorated, and she’s wheelchair-bound.

He wouldn’t have said anything about her jawbone or her bent fingers or how her back was shaped like an S. He would have taken her hand and knelt down to greet her, but she stayed in her spot by the windows. His face was like a mirror, and it was better not to look.

Binder discusses her process in the One Story Q&A. She has a story collection, Rise, coming out in August.

The Second Person Study, Part 18: Jim Miller, “Book of Puzzles” from Fiction Fix

Photo by Alix

Photo by Alix

Readers: Don’t be afraid. Let go and take a ride. You will be amazed at the worlds you can discover if you are willing to set aside your notions of the world. Sometimes the most thrilling ride at a carnival is the one ride where you have no expectations and no control.

Writers: Don’t be afraid. Let go and take a ride. You will be amazed at the freedom you have when you can step into the shoes of your character and let him/her guide you. Yes, its hard work. Yes, it is dangerous work…but if we walk away because its hard and dangerous then how will we ever build anything?
Jim Miller

Hello, I am Zin! And I have another story for The Second Person Study!

I “met” Jim Miller (hello, Jim!) electronically when he left a comment about The Second Person Study last summer. He is a writer who teaches Creative Writing at the University of South Florida, and does not cluck and wag a finger at second person! He recommended “Scordatura” by Mark Ray Lewis – which I loved and included!

Now I can look at his own second person story, “Book of Puzzles” which was recently published in Fiction Fix; you can read it online!

Since I was lucky enough to have access to the author, and he was willing, I asked some questions and he graciously answered them:

1. We start in third person and do not realize it is second person until we get to the second paragraph. Is this deliberate? Is it a show of first impressions? Or some other purpose?
This was sort of done on purpose—by this I mean early drafts started a bit different mostly in the “you.” Except that wasn’t working. Second person can be tricky and there is no “right” way to execute it. In early drafts of this story, because the narrative was so internal, I had a hard time getting the narrator to work for me. As I edited the story, I shifted the focus of the intro because I wanted (needed) to hook the reader right away, and for me Michelle was such an interesting image that I had to start with her. It seemed to me that if we (the reader) start looking at someone else, then we are more willing to walk in the narrator’s shoes…

2. The second person seems to intensify the alienation the narrator feels from his life, his marriage – as does his not having a name, is that deliberate?
Yes and No.

Yes, I find second person allows me to create distance between reader and narrator. If I wrote this in first person, for example, then we the reader would be inside his head and would risk coming off a lot more emotional and quite possibly melodramatic. Second person allows me (the writer) to somewhat control the reader’s experience. (Which is possibly why a lot of people are uncomfortable with second person POV) With this control, I can steer the reader to the exact place I need him/her with out having to narrate a reason (nor allowing the reader the time to question the motives) For example, when we make a decision we wrestle with the pros and cons. In first person, the reader would see this thought process. In second person our narrator doesn’t wrestle…he acts—and we follow.

No- Not having a name was deliberate because I never found a reason to give him one but I didn’t do it to create alienation…that was just an added benefit.

3. The alienation Sarah feels is manifest in her crosswords – it is inconceivable a shrink would not know those answers, so she is using it as he is using the class, to avoid talking to him. Odd for a shrink! the puzzle book seems a metaphor for Sarah and their marriage, and he seems ready now to put in the time and effort to work on it! What I do not quite understand is that before she was the only one working on it, and it seems she was not working that hard, or that well.
I’m not sure how to respond to this…except to say that when I create my characters, I tend to try and humanize them by giving them the quirks the break past what we (as readers) would expect. For example, I know this person in real life. She is pretty smart and works for a software company…yet, at the same time she can easily be described as a “dim-bulb”. So if you meet her for the first time, your initial response might be “how does this person manage to get dressed every morning” or “how does she have a job at that company, doing that work.” She is smart in her field, but it takes her a while to figure out life outside of that field…she’s complicated, yet simple, and a lot of time this frustrates her friends and family. I see this complication in people all around me…truth be told I am complicated like that too…in my own way. Its what makes people unique and not cliché. My characters often tend to share these qualities. I ask the reader to forgive their shortcomings…but are they shortcomings? Not really sure.

4. In addition to second person, I have always heard there is a prohibition against writing about writers! Did you deliberately make him a writer? That seems to further the alienation between him and his life, how he looks at everything as a potential script, seeing Michelle as all character and no plot, seeing himself as the bourgeois cheating husband, even seeing the little boy as an actor in a commercial!
I think there is this unwritten rule…but not really a rule. I think what it is (and I have done this to my discredit) as a writer, when I read a book or story about a writer, my initial response is to prejudge the author with thoughts like…”I get it…write what you know” (sarcasm)….or more jerkish….”what, you couldn’t come up with something more original than a writer?” So call me a hypocrite, right. Please note, that often it is an initial response…if the writer is successful, I will set that aside pretty quick and fall into the narrative. When I teach, I explain to my students we will learn all the rules to good story telling and we look at stories that are deemed “excellent.” I tell them this is necessary so that we can break those rules when we need to…and then we read stories that break the rules and see how they are executed. As I said, I’m not always a big fan of writers writing about writers, except this time it sort of made sense. I guess I could have given him a different job, but then it would have been a different story. His being a writer created an environment for his predicament. Being a screenwriter works for our narrator on many levels…first, exactly as you mentioned…his life is a script as he is looking for the perfect script. Which is why he is a screenwriter—not a novelist. Let’s compare scripts and novels…Scripts are scaled down…all plot…all dialogue…where as in a novel you get all that and more. You get complications and context and depth. This is why he struggles with Michelle being all character. Michelle is a novel…and he needs a script. Also, I think his profession works well in this case because of his character flaws. By this I mean, as a screenwriter…driven toward success we see that he is willing to sell out his art for the sake of his art. “I’ll write this crap…to get my idea done. Let me preface that I am not a screenwriter nor do I know any (that I know of), so my interpretation of what they do is hearsay based on preconceived notions derived from pop culture…that said, I think compromise and capitulation seem to go hand in hand in screenwriting. I just watched the other night an episode of Family Guy…it was the one where a network picks up Brian’s touching and heartfelt screenplay and turns it into tv crap. Brian caves in to the pressure just to get it made…so much so that it is no longer recognizable. As a reader, I see this far too often…when a book is translated into a movie…so many times the heart is ripped out of the book and left on the cutting room floor. So my gross generalization here…and I know it is a gross generalization…was injected into the narrator.

5. His looking at the puzzle book, filling in the answers, is the beginning of change? Of meeting his wife half way?
As with most reading, the end is subjective to the reader, right? But my goal, my understanding of the narrator was that he missed what he had with his wife. He wanted it back. This was his way to let her know he was still in.

6. We have a shrink who can not deal with her life but buries herself in crossword puzzles; and a self-actualization teacher who is married to a cheat and a thug. The narrator does not seem so bad in comparison to them! All he has done is sell out to write a stupid tv show!
Yes…on the surface. The thing is, because of the story we do not really know his wife. We don’t get to know why. So in a way, it is really unfair to her, right? We never get to hear from her. We only get to see what the (second person) narrator lets us see. We get to see more interaction with Michelle…and through this second person viewpoint, how can we not feel sorry for her? Which means what…I don’t really know. I think what will happen is the reader will decide. By design, my goal was to make the situation a complicated gray scale. No black and white, but shades of gray.

7. I really like how he capitulates so easily, with Sarah and the first conversation about the script that is like the movie, and with her in using crosswords to avoid dealing with their marriage. And in class, when Michelle tells him he lets himself get talked out of ideas, he does not think so but then he does, so he lets her talk him out of his idea! It is wonderful irony! And that is the change really, he stops capitulating to Michelle when he tells her she is not the type he would leave his wife for, and picks up the puzzle book?

I get nervous when I say that a protagonist has changed…because on a very basic level I don’t really believe a person changes…I think people are hardwired. Now they might alter their behavior and they may be successful. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they have changed the wiring…only the behavior. What I think happens here (and again this is reader subjective) is that the protagonist is aware of his behavior and realizes that he needs to alter it. He alters his behavior…but he will need to maintain it. And that is where the question lies…can he?

8. Why did you use second person for this story – what does it do that first or third would not accomplish as well?
Narrative distance is the short answer but it could be argued that I don’t know what I’m talking about with that answer. Narrative distance is how close you want the reader to be to the narrator. 1st person plants the reader inside the head while 3rd plants the reader as a fly on the wall (generally speaking). I wanted neither. I use second person when I want my readers to cast aside their life for a while and walk a mile in the narrator’s shoes. Which in a way (to me anyway) is narrative distance. In this story, readers are roleplaying…they get to live the narrator’s life and while they personally may not do the same thing, they will most likely judge him and they may hate him, they may love him…but if I did my job right, they will understand (empathize with) him.

9. You have said (in our earlier conversations) you like second person – why? Have you always liked it?
I think I have liked second person POV since I was a kid. I used to love those “you choose the story” type books. The ones that at the end of a page ask you to choose the next step…I liked that I was living the story. I got to pretend to solve crimes or find treasure. I also liked that I had control. I think that’s why I like it in my fiction…I get to drag the reader into an active role in the story…and I get to control where they go. Yep, I get to keep control…sort of funny huh? But I would love to write a new version of second person….a hybrid if you will. One where I give the reader a choice (just like those old books) and relinquish that control. In the end, however, I would write it so that all paths lead to the same conclusion. (so I don’t really relinquish any control). I have an idea for this, but I haven’t done it yet.

10) You find many of your students have been told to keep away from second person, and when submitting your own work have been advised to switch POV by editors. I do not have a specific question but I would like to discuss this more. I found some editors (of online journals) who were open to second person, but Randall Brown also said Rob Spillman of Tin House hates it and has someone else read and edit second person stories because he hates it so much! And I think a lot of beginning writers use second person because it is different and kind of poison the well! We can talk about these taboos maybe – “all character and no plot” is my downfall, but I recently encountered a couple of stories that were all character (I called it exposition because there was backstory and description) and no plot on purpose, because they ended on a moment of expectation, an intake of breath! I found them very exciting! And shifting POVs, especially having third person shift around a lot, is becoming kind of a big thing (see the Justin Taylor analysis of “Pet” by Deb Olin Unferth, is a Pushcart story that does this to great effect). Your turn! Discuss!
Where to start?

Let’s start with teachers…Why? Who knows. One thought could be simple. Maybe they believe beginning writers don’t have control of their craft yet? Maybe. Maybe teachers want their students to grasp the basics—plot, characterization, setting, etc.—and they believe second person techniques are a distraction to this. It seems reasonable. Maybe most teachers know they have a short amount of time with these students and second person often requires a lot more drafting than 1st or 3rd. Maybe the idea of reading 10 or 12 different early drafts of second person prose in one grading cycle scares them to the bone. It could very well be that these teachers come from an academic writing background that frowns on second person writing. Or maybe they simply don’t like second person narratives. I believe it’s a deeply personal reasoning and it’s hard for me to say because I like it and promote the use of second person in my classroom.

So why do I do it when I know it is going to require so much more work on my part as well as the student. It’s a challenge to the student. If they try it and they really work it, their work advances much faster than those who don’t try it. Maybe its because I know they will revise the narrative much more and through the revision process the work will be better, hence making my job of critiquing easier. or maybe it draws out the student writer’s work ethic…or the answer is D, all of the above. I’ve said it before, second person is about control…but then so is all of prose writing—control of reader expectations as well as control of language. I believe if my students put in the effort on second person, they learn this control in a different context…one that will serve them in all of their writing. Think about one of those stories you might have read where the first person narrative slips off topic and goes into some diatribe about this or that. When the reader is done, the scene is most likely viewed as “character development” and some might argue the scene could have been cut. In second person, the writer doesn’t have that luxury. Dragging the reader into a “you” type diatribe that doesn’t move the story forward is a trap. Students learn quickly that the reader is essential to the story and if they lose interest they will leave before the narrative ends. Because second person does tend to make the reader uneasy and it makes the reader work a little harder, it takes less to lose them…so the writer must keep them engaged. Teaching students to work through the difficulties of second person…working on the craft to keep readers engaged, improves their overall story telling skills work as well.

Because I enjoy second person, I have no reservations asking for it. I think ultimately, that’s the reasoning. Preference. If you enjoy it…no problem. If you hate second person…problem. So then, is the question why would someone hate it? We all have our own personal like and dislikes…so that’s kinda not a fair question. But I never claimed to be fair…so I will speculate. I’ve mentioned control a few times. I think that is what is happening here. When I was a kid, I liked that I could star in a story and have control…I think many of us do. It’s when the writer takes control away from the reader that we get some readers to go with it while others get viscerally perturbed. As well, some readers cannot ever imagine themselves as another person (or more realistically “that person”) and simply cannot connect at any level with the narrative. For example, in the case of “Scordatura” I have had two or three female students say they couldn’t “get into the story” because they weren’t male and they were not gay. But then they were perfectly fine with Lorrie Moore. So there’s that too.

Thank you, Jim, for the story and the discussion! And now, a few words about Jim, by Jim:

Jim Miller, some might say, was born with a pencil in one hand and a book in the other. His writing career started in 6th grade when he wrote a Science essay for whom he foolishly thought was the girl of his dreams. She got an A. He later earned an A for an 8th grade bully, sparing him a beat down of epic proportions. Through most of his adolescence however, his writing career fell to secret angst filled journals, silly revenge stories and trite song lyrics—all of which he promptly (and regretfully) destroyed upon finding them years later in a box under his bed. After a short career designing and copywriting for a super big ad agency proved that corporate cube farms are The Matrix, Jim, joined by his wife and children, moved to Florida where he received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida. His work has been published by Midwestern Gothic, Palooka, Prime Number, Prick of the Spindle, Stymie, Alligator Juniper, and is forthcoming in Tigertail: A South Florida Annual. He is the Graphic Nonfiction editor for Sweet: a Literary Confection and founding co-editor of the new e-journal (ĕm): A Review of Text and Image. He teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida (go Bulls) and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.

I have to add that I am a big fan of bios that introduce us to the person in an interesting way! So many start off with the intimidation factor, or dry lists of publications, and I am always happy to find a writer who is willing to let us know him as a person first!

Alice McDermott: “Someone” from The New Yorker, 1/30/12

New Yorker Illustration by Joshua Ray Stephens

New Yorker Illustration by Joshua Ray Stephens

On the sidewalk in front of St. Mary Star of the Sea, a Sunday morning in early June, 1937, when Marie was seventeen, Walter Hartnett said, “What’s wrong with your eye?”

This is the perfect opening line for this story: just from the time and place we know something about these people, and the theme of vision is introduced right off the bat. It’s a story all about vision. While Marie has an eye that tears up in bright light, Walter has unusual, attractive, translucent gray eyes. Gray. And he was friends with a blind stickball umpire.

But it’s Marie’s vision that’s the problem, really. She can’t see how poorly Walter treats her. His question should alert her, but she’s seventeen, and it’s still a man’s world. She only wants to please him, to be good enough for him. I have to admit, this made my skin crawl.

Marie and Walter have their first date this very evening, and he impresses her with talk of the great job he has, no small thing in the Depression, of course. He takes her to his apartment, shared with his mother, and kisses her, then kisses her breast. Walter’s sexual sucking of her breast makes for another interesting image that’s maintained throughout. It’s as if, having put his lips around her nipple, he now owns her. She’s inexperienced (as a seventeen-year-old would be in that time) and isn’t sure how to respond, and it’s never repeated – he never shows the slightest sexual interest in her after that – but she’s always, throughout their relationship, aware of her breast.

They sit at the soda counter of the drug store, and he looks over her head at people when they come in, greeting those he knows even if Marie is in the middle of a sentence. He asks if she wants to be married, if she wants children, and when she says she does, he proceeds as if they will be married. He’s in charge, every step of the way. And Marie doesn’t object. She doesn’t know she’s allowed to, I don’t think.

But after some time, he invites her to a nice lunch and tells her he’s marrying someone else, a rich girl, because she doesn’t have Marie’s defects. She has no flaws at all, in fact. She’s prettier.

In her recollection of that hour, she saw the tears accumulate behind her glasses like water in two fishbowls. Because she knew she had cried, and yet she had no memory of a single tear falling….
At home, she climbed the steps,and everything that was terrible about this house and this street, about her life thus far, washed before her eyes.

Her brother, an ex-priest who is now home having lost his vocation, tries to comfort her. He takes her for a long walk; her foot begins to blister. And he offers what comfort there is, that in his failure – “his own blasted vision of a lost future” – there is still the knowledge that it’ll be all right. Someone will love her, someday.

The problem is, that’s about it. According to McDermott’s Book Bench interview, it’s an excerpt from a “novel-in-progress.” It feels a lot more complete than most excerpts, and it’s a nice little story, especially with the vision and the breast elements, but I’m not intrigued to know more. We get a hint that this will stay with her, perhaps inform part of her life in the immediate future (maybe the conversation with her brother will last longer) but certainly not destroy her. One paragraph refers to the dating advice she gives her daughters, and their impatience with Walter Hartnett stories, so we have a glimpse of her future. As for Walter, to me he’s the more interesting character. McDermott say he’s “a striver and a self-promoter and he lies effortlessly—pretty good attributes for a politician” but says that although in another book he might run for President, that isn’t part of this novel. Whether Walter is part of the novel after this point, she doesn’t say.

A perfectly fine, if somewhat routine, story, but this excerpt doesn’t make me want to read the novel. YMMV.