BASS 2010: Rebecca Makkai – “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship”

Jane Morris as Rossetti's Proserpine

This story originally appeared in Ploughshares 2009/2010.

In her afternotes, Rebecca Makkai says the origin of this tale was an idea to write a series of stories about English professors hoisted on their own petards, so to speak. I love that concept!

And I loved the story while I was reading it, and, like strip-mall Chinese take-out, for about an hour after. Then I started seeing some issues. Mainly, that the Ancient Mariner shot his Albatross on purpose, in a fit of spite, after the bird had been so helpful; thus he deserved his penance. Alex, the character here, shot her albatross purely by mistake. And bad luck? Where is that part of the Rime? An English professor should know better. Though I suppose it is clever enough, to have an accidental albatross shooting (a unique event, to be sure) become the beginning of a turn of bad luck, to loosely follow the story rather than stay true thematically. Am I picking nits?

Well, here’s another one. Her encounter with Eden Su is complex and interesting. I have to admire the multiple layers here. I’m a little bewildered by how the situation began, however. Why does she assume an Asian student is an exchange student from Korea? It seems bizarre to me. Maybe this university is a really popular place for Korean exchange students, but that wouldn’t be the first assumption on my list. The offense taken at her remarks seemed out of proportion as well, and turns out, it was. But… I’m still a little confused, because Eden was on track for a B and could’ve ended up with an A if she’d spoken out in class. Are we to presume her papers were not hers, and she hadn’t read anything the whole semester, so she couldn’t earn the A? Would she go to such great lengths to avoid a B? It doesn’t quite play for me.

The story is, by the way, chick lit. No man would feel any remorse about the albatross. A man would bribe someone to smuggle it out of Australia and have it stuffed and mounted on his living room wall, wings spanning the full six feet. Men do not worry about how their women see them. They don’t have to. Their women reassure them constantly, because men do not, um, function without such props. And no man would sit still for the Grievance Committee lashing.

Still, Alex does remedy all these things. She pays the fine for the albatross. She probably could’ve wept her way out of it, but more power to her, she didn’t. And eventually, with the help of Tossman (a wonderful character, sadly overlooked by me until the very end, which is impressive because that’s exactly what should have happened), she realizes it is not a curse, and deals with the other troubles in her life. She faces fiancé Malcolm and gets one of the sweetest reassurances I’ve read. Guys, next time your woman asks how she looks to you, draw a stick figure with wavy lines emanating from it, and tell her, “That’s your awesomeness.” Benefits will ensue, I promise. I was ready to do Malcolm after reading that and he isn’t even a real person. See? Chick lit.

Ah, Tossman, the man with the crush on the unattainable Alex, the man with the lucky cards. In another BASS story – “Safari” by Jennifer Egan – I was critical of a super-fast flash-forward that occurred at the end; it felt disjointed and tacked-on. I have no problem with this one; it flows smoothly from the story. And Bill Tossman had for me the opposite of the Chinese Food Effect: I wasn’t sure what he was doing in the story until I thought about it for a while. I’m still not sure I can articulate it – sure, he provides an axis on which Alex turns her luck around. And he provides the third option for her closing comments on her penitential telling of the story to friends later: “The point, the moral, was how easy it was to make assumptions, how deadly your mistakes could be. How in failing to recognize something, you could harm it, kill it, or at least fail to save it.” But you know what? Sometimes people have to make some effort to make themselves recognizable.

So Alex corrects her perceptions: the albatross was just an expensive accident, Malcolm thinks she’s beautiful, sometimes a quiet Asian student is a shark in disguise. While I was reading, I was charmed, so I’d call it successful. I’m not sure some of the details hold up to scrutiny, however. But hell, do you scrutinize your Kung Pao, or do you just enjoy it?

Ha Jin – A Good Fall: Stories (Final installment)

Ha Jin – A Good Fall: Stories (final installment)

I have finally finished this collection. If it sounds like an arduous task I undertook, well, yes, I suppose it was. These last stories – “A Pension Plan,” “Temporary Love,” “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry,” and “A Good Fall”- were far more interesting than the first stories, in that I felt like I was reading about real people in various degrees of extremis due to culture clash. But I can’t say I enjoyed them, exactly. Ha Jin’s writing is just not my style.

All four stories describe Chinese immigrants having serious problems with their American lives. In “A Pension Plan,” Jufen, a 58-year-old woman, in New York for ten years, works as a health care aide to Mr. Sheng. She’s happy with the job, in spite of the difficulties of caring for someone with multi-infarct dementia (she makes the distinction between MID and Alzheimer’s which is pretty sophisticated). But he starts making sexual advances towards her, and the situation escalates to the point where Mr. Sheng’s daughter asks Jufen if she has designs on her father. Despite Jufen’s protestations, the daughter takes it a step further and asks her to marry her father, which Jufen considers (a step I found fascinating) until a prenup is offered barring her from any inheritance. She is greatly offended, and quits the assignment. She asks her agency for a pension plan, which of course is not available, and is told she will have to learn English before she can work for an agency that does offer a pension plan. Bless her, Jufen decides that’s exactly what she’ll do. I found a lot of very interesting attitudes in this. But the writing, well, as I’ve said, it’s not my style.

“Temporary Love” introduces us to a “wartime couple” – two immigrants who are here alone, their spouses stil in China, in a sort of roommate-with-benefits situation. The woman’s husband is expected to arrive, so she ends the relationship, which the man has begun to take very seriously. Various complications ensue Again, it was a fascinating look into a particular culture with certain expectations.

“The House Behind a Weeping Cherry” is about a brothel where a group of women, smuggled in from China illegally, work to pay off their enormous debt. I’ve never seen anything about the sex xlave trade outside of a cop drama on TV. Why these particular women found it preferable to take this route than to stay in China is not examined, though, which disappointed me.

“A Good Fall” is another immigration mess, this time of a monk who finds himself without a work visa when he is fired from his job teaching Tai Chi at his temple because he is getting ill. It’s almost tragic throughout, but I’m glad this story, and thus the book, has a happy ending.

There’s so much anger in parts of this country about illegal immigrants. The people I’ve met in this book are not the stuff of anger; they are the stuff of the American dream, and somehow in most cases they got lost, tangled in red tape, or just have a hard time reconciling beliefs of their homeland and native culture with “the system” here. While I can’t say I liked the book, I’m glad I met these people, to see another point of view.

The Social Network

[Zin Kenter] Hello, I am Zin! I watched The Social Network last weekend – three times! I loved it, I would have watched it four times if I had time in the 24 hours I had it for. I think four would be enough to “own” it. I like to “own” things, books, movies, especially music, see or hear or read them enough so they are accessible somehow, I do not quite understand how it works but there is a point at which I do not want to read or see or hear it any more. I once listened to “I Gave Up My Eyes To A Man Who Was Blind” by Ballboy 62 times on continuous repeat all day long before I “owned” it. I was very sad at the time. I have not listened to it since, I do not think.

But I was talking about The Social Network. It reminded me how much I miss The West Wing! Everyone talked like Josh or CJ! “Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster!” The snidery, the twins (he wants to hire the Sopranos to beat Mark up, and says “I’m 6’6″, 220, and there are two of me!”), and that very sad scene at the end where he keeps refreshing the screen to see if Erica has Friended him… awww… And poor Eduardo, left behind. It is all about being left out, the whole movie. Except of course they are millionaires and billionaires. Money will not buy you happiness but it gives you choices about the kind of unhappiness you have. I wonder if Mark has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome or ADHD or something like that. I suppose they are all fine. Even the twins. I just discovered the twins were played by one actor which amazes me. I could not tell they were twins. I am terrible at recognizing faces! I went to school with twins and they looked like different people to me. But the scenes they were in were very complicated, so I am surprised they did the filmmaking shenanigans necessary to do this. Though I suppose it was easier than finding twins who can both act and would be attractive and inbred-looking enough, which was the point of the twins.

It is hard to have people who are such jerks be sympathetic, but they were. Because everyone gets left out of something, I think that is the common ground. I even felt sorry for Sean Parker, though not much. Still, he did lose. He can say he changed the record industry, but he went broke and Napster is gone. If he had invented Itunes it would be something else. And he was a slimeball in the movie. It was clear at the end that the idea was that Mark realized he had left a good friend and ended up with a slimeball. I do not understand how business works but I suppose he is stuck with Sean now.

I do not like Facebook, btw. I had an account a long time ago and cancelled it but they will not let me start a new one with that email address, so I used another email address but rarely used it and finally wanted to send a message to someone but they said I was not a real person and cancelled me! And in order to get the account back I have to give them my name address phone and all kinds of things and I am just not going to do that. If I decide I really want a facebook account some day I will use another email. But it is sad, because it shows how things start out cool and then they get big and they turn into behemoths and they are not fun any more. Facebook is not cool any more. It is cool to write code for a system and be an underdog. It is not cool to be a billionaire who makes money off people who are losing their privacy by surprise. And how cool can anything be when it is necessary for businesses – real estate agents, accountants, lawyers – to have facebook pages.

But the movie is wonderful! And the music! The music – the written music, not the pop songs playing, though I did enjoy “Baby You’re a Rich Man” at the end – is so perfect. Just single notes, on a piano with a bass line, so lonely, the music was perfect even though it was extremely simple. It was the music in fact, when I heard it at whatever the awards show was earlier this year, that made me want to see the movie, that and Aaron Sorkin. I have heard that Aaron Sorkin is working on an HBO series about a cable news network, and Keith Olbermann might be joining him as a consultant. I would get HBO to see that.

Just talking about it makes me think I might order it again and watch it a few more times. After all, I did listen to “I Gave Up My Eyes To A Man Who Was Blind” 62 times…

Andrew Kaufman: The Tiny Wife (Madras Press)

This is another of the Madras Press teeny-tiny books from their second series.

Just a few pages in, I was dismayed at the thought of going broke sending copies of this to a few dozen friends because they just HAD to read this book. In the end, I was severely disappointed, but only because with every word as I read, my expectations increased. … so I don’t think any ending written by human hand could have satisfied me.

What was my disappointment? Here is this strange and wonderful story, full of amazing events, all ripe with symbolism, just waiting to be tied together in a neat little package – and, well, no. I feel very much like one of the characters, Jennifer Layonne, who found God under the couch while she was looking for the remote control, and since he was pretty dirty, having been under the dusty couch, she put him in with the laundry but, alas, a tissue snuck in there as well and when she removed him, he was covered with lint and he left, and now Jennifer keeps looking for him every day, everywhere, whatever she’s doing, and has come to understand it’s the looking, not the finding, that is important. See why my expectations were so high? Damn it, I wanted to find God!

Hey – do you think maybe that was exactly what the writer intended?

One of the nit-picky technical things that bothers me about this novella is the switching of perspectives – it’s mostly first person from the POV of the husband of one of the robbery victims, but it keeps switching out to third person to tell more completely the tales of the other folks. Yet it always sounds as if the first-person narrator is speaking, reportorial style; yet he does not have access to the events. It’s funny, though, I didn’t even notice this until I finished the book, I was so enthralled by everything.

The story begins with an unusual bank robbery. The thief lines up the customers and demands of them the article on their person with the most sentimental value. He then makes a speech about taking with him 51% of their souls, and explains they will need to grow new souls if they are to live.

In short order, things start to happen. Odd things involving husbands turning into snowmen and lion tattoos becoming lions and hearts being pulled out of chests and accidentally replaced and chunks of history falling from the ceiling. The main character of the story is Stacey, who begins to shrink. Her husband, the first-person narrator, does not know what to do. A support group is formed of those in the bank. More strange things happen.

And here is where I started making charts: who was in line where, what the item was, why it had sentimental value, what the odd turn of events was, and, I expected to discover a link, and probably the answer. God. Perhaps someone more clever than I would read the last few pages and say, Here, this is the answer, here is God, what are you talking about, it’s all right here! For me, it felt something like Twin Peaks and I was one of the ones who felt cheated when it became evident the writers and producers hadn’t really thought out who killed Laura Palmer. But I think Andrew Kaufman has a notebook full of diagrams and details that didn’t make it into the novella, and I’m sure he presented a perfect blueprint for finding God.

Aha! I’ve just discovered that Kaufman gave a reading of a piece called “98 Tiny Mothers” (who show up in the story) at a Toronto Literary Death Match! Maybe that accounts for my sense that there’s a thread missing – The Tiny Wife is perhaps a collection of tiny stories! I’m always claiming I want the reader to participate in my writing, and now that the shoe is on the other foot, maybe I see why this isn’t always a great idea. But… I loved it, so maybe it’s a great idea.

Frankly, I think he only wrote nine-tenths of the story. But damn, it was a great nine-tenths. I only hope I can write nine-tenths of a story this good someday.

Top Chef All-Stars Season 8 Episode 11: For The Gulf

The Creole Trinity - Onion, Celery, Green Peppers

We’re moving right along in the season, and the finales aren’t far off so let’s take a moment to contemplate where we are and where we thought we’d be. Or where we thought they’d be.

We have: Antonia. Blais. Carla. TiffanyD. DaleT. And (alas) Isabella.

My original prediction for Top Three was: Blais, Tiffany F, and Angelo. Hey, one out of three ain’t bad.
My original wish list was Carla, Blais, and Marcel. I seem be a slightly better wisher than I am a predictor.
My original prediction for bottom three was Jamie, Stephen, and Elia. All gone.
My original get-off-my-tv list was Isabella, Spike, Fabio, and Elia. That damn Isabella just won’t go.

According to the handy-dandy Wikipedia cheat sheet, as of Episode 10 (so not including tonight):
Carla has three Wins, two Highs, two Lows.
Dale has three Wins, two Highs, two Lows.
Blais has two Wins, three Highs, one Low.
Antonia has one Win, four Highs, four Lows. Strange, I thought she won more than that.
Tiffany has no Wins, three Highs, five Lows.
Isabella has no Wins, one High, two Lows.

If you take a look at the “big boy” blogs – The Stew, Grub Street – you’ll see Blais is the hands-down favorite. Thing is, this isn’t really about the best chef winning. It’s the best chef who can work under time pressure, with ridiculous limitations and requirements, on little sleep, and not produce the worst dish (or, in a couple of cases, one of the two worst dishes) for thirteen episodes. So even though Jen can run Eric Ripert’s restaurant just fine, she ain’t here no more. And even though Tiffany D. came up through IHOP to cook at a country club and teach at culinary school, she is. Who has the most tricks up his/her sleeve? Blais, sure, but Carla has some interesting stuff, like African Groundnut Soup and pea salt. And who’s cooked under less-than-optimum circumstances the most (goodbye, Stephen, ol’ Tiffany has cranked out meals under conditions that’d make you cry)? Who can figure out how to best meet the challenge without stepping in it along the way (you go, Antonia, I really underestimated you)?

I’d love to see Carla take it all. She’s so underestimated time and time again. She produces delicious, tasty food. Comfort food is her strong suit and her comfort zone; can she compete with the wow factors of haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy? And she sometimes blows a circuit and rides off the rails, if you don’t mind me mixing metaphors. Blais has been muted this season, but I still admire him for the lasers and helmets and smoke guns and liquid nitrogen. I think he’s very clever, conceptual, and adventurous. Antonia, yeah, I could dig that, she’s produced time and time again, she’s very nice, and she has no use for Isabella. Tiffany, I see her as most people see Carla, she has a lot of experience working in less-than-stellar conditions but does she have the breadth of skills (like fish filleting, which she failed at) to win? She hasn’t won anything yet, and maybe she’s a little out of her range. But she’s been hanging on, bless her, and I’m happy to see that. Dale, I could get behind him, he’s toned down some of the more explosive aspects of his personality, and the guy can cook, though he can also screw up. I still think he got robbed in his season. Isabella, well, to be honest, he can probably cook better than I give him credit for, but look at the evidence: his record is similar to Tiffany’s, depending on how you count highs and lows. A lot of people think he’s redeemed himself this season. I am not one of them. If he wins I will throw up.

And now on to episode 11 where we save the Gulf and something about Paula Deen whipping Antonia’s cute little ass.

In the opening post-mortem, everyone is surprised that Angelo bit the dust, especially Tiffany who expected to get knifed. Dale’s a bit of an ass: everyone has to go except one, better him than me. I’m sure they all feel that way in at least a few neurons but most have the grace to not say it so baldly. Does he get points for honestly? No, he does not. Not with me, anyway.

Richard shows Isabella and some others how he’s filled two notebooks with plans for various dishes. With pictures. Because he’s here to win.

Tiffany takes some teasing for wearing eye shadow as they get ready to go to the TC Kitchen but she defends herself: she’ll feel better and perform better if she looks better. Which presupposes that she looks better with eye shadow.

And we move to the Quickfire Challenge: It’s Paula Deen! Break out the butter!

Tiffany and Carla love Paula Den, of course, being Southern women. Antonio knows how it goes – fry, butter, mayo.

Padma says it’s all about southern cooking. Paula says that’s how we show our love. By cooking, I guess she means. See, in the North, we have other ways, but there aren’t any competitive reality TV shows about that, unless you count The Bachelor.

For the QF they have to use a deep fryer. Paula tells them she’s deep-fried everything from mac and cheese to lasagna and balls of butter, which sounds ridiculous. “If you can eat it you can fry it.” She doesn’t want to see any calamari sprinkled on top of a salad. The prize is $5000. Carla is first at the fridge; she seems to have abandoned the whole Zen thing, I guess she learned her lesson with the un-done-te quinoa.

Dale says he’s a greedy American, he wants more even though he’s already won a lot of money. Antonia admits she fries food more than she should, and she’s thinking about fried shrimp salad. And then we get to the high intrigue part.

Isabella wants to fry a chicken oyster (the part of the chicken just above the thigh) and serve it on an oyster shell, because he saw it in Blais’ book. Uh oh. It sounds like Blais – the pun on oysters. It’s clever, like Blais. It’s not Isabella at all. No lamb, no Moroccan spices.

Blais wants to fry some mayo. This sounds disgusting to me, and I’m sure Jimmy Fallon would agree, having been greased with hot mayo as a child. But Blais is going to flavor it with coffee and lime, and dip into liquid nitrogen to get a ball of hard mayo, then will deep-fry. “This is not a heart dish.”

Carla gets nervous even though this is clearly her challenge to lose. She’s making fish and hush puppies. She does the usual three-stage breading process but doesn’t fry right away, which is a bad thing. I’ve heard it makes them soggy. Apparently it does other things too. She has bland fish with thick crust, it’s not the dish she wanted to make.

Tiffany says she doesn’t make southern food in her restaurant but she grew up eating it, so she’s making fried chicken wings, which is what you would find any place that serves fried food. This doesn’t really sound like a breakout dish, Tiffany.

Dale has beef, oysters, and eggs. He says it’s night and day from his flavor spectrum, since he works in a Chinese restaurant, where of course they never deep-fry anything. Actually, in the kind of Chinese restaurant he works in, they probably don’t deep-fry anything. But it’s a strange statement to hear; I wonder if he’s heard of egg rolls and chicken wings and Sweet and Sour and General Tso’s Chicken (which I’ve been craving lately).

Isabella of course thinks his dish is better, because simple is better, and Richard has designed a nice simple dish for him to steal.

And we come to the second major crisis of this QF: As they finish, Antonia sees everyone has put out two plates but she only made one. She completely missed the memo that they had to make two plates.

But it’s hands up, utensils down, and Paula starts down the row.

Antonia‘s dish has her fried shrimp salad with avocado, jalapeno, grilled corn, tomato and fried herbs. Paula absolutely loves it. It’s the best dish… but, she only made one plate. “I could come over there, put you over my knee, and whip your cute little ass,” says Paula. Go ahead, fantasize, I’ll wait. Because of this error, which is a rule violation and, Paula makes it very clear, a technicality, Antonia watches $5,000 fly right by her into someone else’s pocket. We have tears. I don’t think Paula whipping her cute little ass is going to help much.
Isabella produces his fried chicken oysters with mustard gravy and oyster liqueur. Blais frowns and realizes it sounds familiar. “That’s my dish,” he says to camera. Isabella won’t look at him. Until Paula declares him the second-place but by default winner since Antonia really won on merit but lost on rules, and then he sees Blais looking at him and they exchange winks. Blais’ wink is more of a snarl, I think. Isabella interviews: “But, Richard, it’s not your dish, it’s my dish ’cause I won the 5G’s.” Remember when someone – Jen? – in Season 6 won a lot of money on a partner challenge with Kevin and said she’d buy Kevin a suit? Isabella must’ve missed that object lesson.
Blais presents his fried mayo and bacon, plus a tomato cucumber salad. Paula stops everything to say her hair looks just like his in the morning, and he credits one part duck fat one part liquid nitrogen. She calls him “Mr. Hairdo” but loves his fried mayo, and he (and his hair) is in the top. And of course his dish won, though unfortunately Isabella made it.
Tiffany offers her fried chicken wings with honey mustard and fried pickles and a cilantro and cumin salad.
Dale serves his fried steak-wrapped oyster with egg yolk omelet, with parsley and chives. An egg yolk omelet? Is that even a thing? I suppose it could be, since there are egg white omelets. I guess he was thinking, if Southern food is about unhealthy, let’s REALLY be unhealthy. Paula isn’t impressed, the flavors didn’t wow her.
Carla presents fried catfish with Dijon mustard, hush puppies, and slaw. Paula says her hush puppies were like spitballs when they should float. Oh, Carla. She’s sorry. She knows.

While they’re recovering from all this, John Besh comes in for the Elimination Challenge. Carla gasps – she’s actually cooked for him before, if I recall correctly. Blais says he’s the face of the modern New Orleans chef which must make Emeril (who actually comes from Fall River, MA) sad.

John Besh talks about the Greater New Orleans Foundation which helps fishermen and others who were economically disrupted by the oil spill pay their bills while they get themselves back together. GNOF has actually been around for 25 years; it’s a local philanthropic grant fund, not something specific to the oil spill. In any event, the Elimination Challenge for the chefs is to make a dinner for a fundraiser to be attended by 300 people, cooking Gulf seafood, Southern style. Isabella is inspired because it’s about giving back. You want to give back, Isabella? Give something back to Blais for providing the idea for your winning QF dish.

And because it’s a public event and they need decoys, six eliminated chefs come in: Tre, Spike, Fabio, Marcel, TiffanyF, and Angelo. Carrying trays with seafood. The chefs will pick a seafood and sous chef, package deal. So even though Marcel has beautiful white shrimp, Isabella (who picks first as winner of the QF) takes TiffanyF and her brown shrimp instead. Then he gets to pick who gets second choice, and he goes with Blais, finally giving him credit for the dish. Blais doesn’t want Angelo because he thinks his head will be in a bad place since he just got eliminated, so he takes Fabio and his red snapper. Carla takes Tre and the grouper. TiffanyD picks white shrimp even though Marcel comes with them. Antonia says she’ll take Spike and his crabs; Padma tells her to be careful. Dale takes Angelo who comes with amberjack.

Here’s the schedule: After planning with their new sous chef for 15 minutes, they will go to Restaurant Depot for 30 minutes and/or $200 whichever comes first to buy bulk supplies for cooking for 300, then to Whole Foods, then back to the Top Chef kitchen where they have two and a half hours to cook, at which point they go over to the Puck Building where the event will be held, set up in 30 minutes, and go for it. I’m tired just writing that.

The Planning Phase:

Isabella thinks of shrimp and grits, and he’s happy TiffanyF lived in NO for two years. I think TiffanyF has lived in every major US city at some point. Let’s see, Vegas, San Francisco, the Cape (that’s New England), now she’s in LA, and NO. That’s a lot of real estate for someone who’s pretty young. That’s probably a good thing, gives her a variety of experience. Either that, or she just alienated everyone and got run out of town until she saw how she looked on TV and changed her ways.

Angelo tells Dale, if you keep your head you’re gonna win this, you’re in Blais’ head. But you know how it goes when Angelo tries to help someone…

Blais wants to make snapper and grits, and work in some pulled pork, with Fabio. He only makes new dishes on Top Chef. Normally that would mean he doesn’t make things from his restaurant, but I don’t think he has a restaurant right now, and he’s really getting another dig in at Isabella and says he doesn’t use other people’s recipes.

TiffanyD says if this is not good, I can’t go home to Dallas, since she’s from the South. Except, Dallas isn’t really the South. Her grandmother does Southern soul food. She didn’t cook a lot going up but she ate a lot. Marcel isn’t interested in Southern food, but says he should get equipment, it’s going to go first.

Carla is trying to explain tomato and cucumbers with vinaigrette to Tre, but he’s a city boy, and she doesn’t understand what he eats. She thought he understood Southern food (because he’s black I guess, since he doesn’t make Southern food and he’s from Dallas which isn’t really Southern and there’s really no reason he should know about Southern food other than he’s black), but no he doesn’t. She asks if he knows chow-chow. Nope. But then, he says, “Chow-chow pico” and she goes SQUEEE so I guess that’s close enough. Actually when she first said it, I wrote down “pekoe” like the tea, and only when it was spelled on the screen did I realize it was pico. They’re both relishes, or salsas, or chutneys, depending on which aspect you want to emphasize. I’m sure there’s a difference but I don’t know what it is. It’s all chopped up stuff served on the side.

In the Restaurant Depot, Blais is looking for Louisiana hot sauce – Crystal’s. It took me a while to realize Crystal’s was a brand of hot sauce. I don’t know much about hot sauce, given that I’ve had a jar of cayenne pepper for about three years now and I still haven’t had the nerve to unseal it. Given how upset the judges got about the premixed spices Tiffany used last week, I was surprised, but I guess hot sauce is different. It’s more like wine, you just don’t make your own. Blais is a little puzzled because Fabio told him they get along because he reminds him of his ex wife.

Carla spies some Crystal’s hot sauce and gets excited about it, too. Carla says it’s about redemption because she botched the fried fish.

Back at the apartment (I guess it’s that evening, after all the shopping), Carla wants to talk about the worst food she’s ever made, the spit balls. Antonia asks if they’d rather talk about making the best dish but losing because she didn’t plate enough dishes. She points out she made the best dish but Isabella won by default with another chef’s dish. Antonia explains this to the women, how Blais had the idea for chicken oysters in his book. Carla: “There is man law, and there is chef law.” Thing is, I can see another side (I’m known for my ability to see six sides to every issue and my inability to make any decision no matter how small because of that). If Blais had stolen from Isabella, would I feel the same way? Does a chef own his ideas? Blais been open and helpful all along, telling Antonia how to pressure-cook beef tongue, wishing Fabio had asked him about burgers, why not with this? If Isabella had asked, would he have said he could use it? However, his notebook was not about basic techniques, it was about creative ideas he had for new dishes, especially dishes based on puns. It’s not like a Caesar Salad or Buffalo Wings which were invented and now everyone makes them; this was a dish that hadn’t been debuted yet. Yeah, I still think Isabella is an ass, and if Carla thinks it’s against chef law, I’m gonna go with that, too.

In the Top Chef kitchen on the day of the event, Dale says there’s too many people, there are only enough burners for a certain number. Except, Dale, honey, twelve people cooked in here before. Mean Dale is still hiding in there. Antonia says the idea is to honor Gulf seafood, so she’s going to make crab cake, crab bisque, and corn maque choux. I’m not sure there is non-corn maque choux, but I’m fuzzy on this stuff.

Carla is making collard greens. Tre buys greens in a can, so she doesn’t trust him with greens. I’ve never had collard greens, but Alton Brown says the canned kind are disgusting so I’m with Carla.

Antonia says Isabella is heckling people, since TiffanyF is making his sauce and he has nothing to do. Antonia’s doing a pretty good job of heckling herself, I think.

Tiffany and Marcel are not doing too well. She says Marcel is giving her one particular suggestion over and over, use the shrimp heads, and she’s sick of it. Dale says, “If anyone can keep Marcel in check, it’s Tiffany, because she’s a 5’10″ black woman with some serious like…” he runs out of words and makes a finger-snapping thing similar to “Oh no you didn’t.” I’m stunned at this comment. Tiffany can hold her own, sure, but it has nothing to do with her size, her race, her gender, or her serious like… She just is a strong person who knows what she wants. And she doesn’t want shrimp heads. At least not right now.

They transport to Puck House. I’m not sure what Puck House is other than a building in NYC, but apparently they gave promotional consideration so they get a mention. Dale says it’s the hardest challenge, because there are a lot of people, and a short time; he thinks they should’ve done some more stuff at the kitchen. Fabio tells Blais the polenta will look good in 10 minutes. Blais is nervous about pulled pork and fried seafood on one plate. But… that’s the dish he designed, he’s getting cold feet now? Carla decides not to do cornbread with her dish. “Redemption is looking far far away, bye redemption.”

The guests arrive, and we have a fundraiser dinner:

Blais, with sous chef Fabio, offers crispy gulf snapper, pulled pork, and citrus polenta because his sous chef is Italian. Otherwise I guess he would’ve called it grits. I still remember Alton Brown’s Good Eats episode where he explained how they’re the same thing. He and Fabio get a little mixed up, they have their “first fight of the evening” as Blais puts it. But they serve anyway. Besh says he questioned how all three elements would fit together, but it works; Tom says it’s seasoned well but not aggressive; Jonathan Waxman, Carmen Gonzales and David Burke, who are at the benefit but aren’t judges, like it.

Isabella makes grit crusted shrimp with sour cream and chive potato. Besh says he hit the nail on the head; Paula likes it; Tom says flavors are there and they are clean.

Dale‘s food isn’t tasting as he wants it to taste. He reseasons; Angelo, ever helpful, says it’s fine. Dale says he’s can’t do anything about it. When the judges come by his table he’s incoherent while explaining his dish to them. I think he said it’s a blackened amberjack in stew with andouille sausage, potatoes, and onions. Then he realizes the potatoes aren’t really cooked. Which Padma notices with distaste. Tom thinks there’s too much mustard on the crouton. Besh says once you taste the crouton, the dish is finished, and I think that’s a wrap for Dale.

TiffanyD makes head-on shrimp with honey glaze and grits; they run out of glaze and she explains to Marcel how to make more, but she either doesn’t tell him to dilute it, or he doesn’t dilute it, and she doesn’t have time to taste it before it’s served to the judges. She’s worried. For good reason, since Besh and Tom both say it’s too sweet, you can’t taste the shrimp for all the honey, and Paula is disappointed since she loves to suck the brains out of shrimp but these weren’t good. Besh also points out the shrimp were overcooked so they became mealy. Marcel actually cooked the shrimp, but Tiffany takes full responsibility for it as her dish.

Carla is astounded by so many people, a line that never ends – wait, she’s a caterer, doesn’t she do big events? She serves fried grouper with mustard and hot sauce, collard greens, and chow-chow pico. Paula isn’t happy with the collard greens. Tom thinks there’s too much hot sauce, Besh says there’s something too salty.

Antonia has her blue crab cake, bisque and maque choux, and she feels like these are delicious dishes. Besh likes it, he can taste the delicate crab. Tom likes the sauce.

And it’s all over but the shouting. Isabella says it’s his time to shine, he left his season way too early. He’s an ass. But that’s just my opinion.

Carla feels like “it’s pride, not my heart that went into this dish.” I didn’t get this the first time around, but now I realize, out of pride, she made fried fish to redeem herself for the poor job in the QF, so she wasn’t making this dish out of love but out of pride. This is what I love about Carla. She doesn’t blame anyone, she doesn’t blame overcooking or bad cornbread or whatever, she looks at pride. I think the pride thing wouldn’t have mattered if she’d put less hot sauce on her fried grouper, though.

And for the now-traditional Amusing Interstitial at Forty-Five Minutes: Antonia sends Spike out to be a spy and see what the judges are saying. He knocks over some wine and hits on girls. She says, “Spike is an amazing sous chef, but a really bad spy.”

And Padma in her lovely cleavage-baring dress (which is actually quite pretty. The dress. The cleavage is fine, if you like that sort of thing) comes in and calls for Antonia, Blais, and Isabella. They are the Top Three.

Blais says his inspiration was “the other side of the gulf,” that is, Georgia and Florida, marrying snapper and pulled pork. Besh praises his restraint.

Isabella brags about putting in shrimp heads (I wonder if he heard Marcel telling Tiffany this and used it); Paula thought it was genius cooking shrimp with grits. And he had her with the potatoes, her weak spot.

Besh liked Antonia’s use of andouille sausage, the smoke and spice was really special.

The winning dish, chosen for its balance, is… Blais! YAY! He gets six nights in Barbados plus $5000 for airfare. He’s going to invite Fabio to come with him (I wonder if Fabio has to pay his own way; presumably he gets to bring his wife). I’m guessing this is just another dig at Isabella, but it’s a good one.

Back in Stew, Antonia asks Isabella not to burp on her if he’s going to sit next to her. He burps anyway. Because he’s a classy guy.

Carla, Dale, and Tiffany face the music. Tiffany’s shrimp were overcooked and sweet. Dale had raw potatoes and a crazy mustardy crouton, what Besh called flavor warfare, and he never tasted the amberjack, he just tasted andouille, it tasted like a hot dog. Carla doused her fish in hot sauce and mustard, made the lovely fish into chicken wings, and Paula thought the veggies didn’t make sense, nothing complemented anything.

And it’s Dale. He goes peacefully, shakes hands. He says he’s proud, he didn’t like himself very much the first time, and he hopes people will see he’s grown up. Yes, I think he did, though I think he has a ways to go. This was the hardest thing he’s ever done; he can take on anything, he feels like superman. Good luck with your baby, you’re going to be severely tested in the coming years, in ways that make Top Chef look like a tea party.

Next week, it looks like family visits, and Richard frowns. I mean, he really frowns.

Mary Gaitskill: “The Other Place” The New Yorker February 14, 2011

ILLUSTRATION: BARNABY FURNAS, “BROWNS RAIDER (DANGERFIELD NEWBY)” (2008), COURTESY MARIANNE BOESKY GALLERY

This story can be read online.

“The Other Place” is creepy. That’s what I came away with – wow, even that nice mild-mannered real estate agent with the tremor, the one who helped me shovel my driveway last month, he has a secret place in his mind where sex and violence intersect, where he enjoys the idea of attacking women. And a couple of times, he acted on it, though it never got too far. And now his son is out fly-fishing and god knows what he’s thinking when he brings in a catch. Is he picturing my teenage daughter on the hook? Yeah, it’s a creepy story.

It’s also fascinating in how humdrum-normal the real estate agent (who doesn’t get a name; I always think it’s important when a writer chooses to do that, or at least doesn’t think of the character by name when creating him or her) thinks his early life was, when it was punctuated by fighting divorced parents and his mother’s admission that she was a whore. A classy whore, an upscale escort, actually, but still, men paid her for sex, and the guy accepts this as normal. So I’m not sure it’s that big a deal when he accepts his “other place” – where violence against women is sexy and arousing – is normal. And that his teenage escapades of peeping on a classmate as she slept, and attempting to abduct a woman at gunpoint, are normal. This is not a normal guy, no matter what he thinks. The idea of “normal” has indeed broadened since the 50′s, but it hasn’t broadened this far.

The climactic event, involving him acting out his impulses against a woman who, unbeknownst to him, has little to lose, does not ring all that true. It could happen that way, sure. It could also happen that he shoots her in the head. It could happen that she shoots him in the head. I found this story unconvincing, arbitrary, and a little sensationalist. Not to mention how tired I am of those who worship fly-fishing. I don’t really know the difference between regular fishing and fly-fishing. If someone wants to consider it an art, or a Zen thing, that’s fine. Fact is, you’re still killing an animal with your bare hands, and while I love to eat fish (I had a piece of salmon last night that was truly fantastic) and while I’m fine with fishing for sport or for food, I just wish fly fishers would stop telling me what a soul-changing experience it is. (I’m a little cranky, I think).

What really got me, however – in fact it drove the story from my mind completely – was the interview at The Book Bench. It’s an odd interview, with Ms. Gaitskill alternating between “I don’t know” and disagreeing with the interviewer. In the same way that reading the story made me feel wary and creepy, reading the interview made me feel like I was witnessing a fight. It was actually more disturbing to see this model of aggression in action than to read the story.

For example:

In “The Other Place,” you take on a very difficult subject: the root of men’s violence toward women. It’s a subject that most people would rather not have to confront. What compelled you to write about it?
I don’t agree that it’s a subject most people would rather not confront—on the contrary, it seems to me a subject that people are extremely eager to confront in the form of fantasy and drama.

I’m a little tired of the primetime television schedule, what’s playing at the Multiplex and what books are on the Best Seller list being read as a description of our national psyche. That’s like saying the Tea Party reflects the values of the voters. Or Clarence Thomas is the voice of black America. More people buy James Patterson (and I have a shelf full of Jonathan Kellerman, Faye Kellerman, and Stephen White) than literary fiction. Doesn’t mean that’s the key to understanding the National Psyche. Because – news flash – there is no National Psyche. So please don’t psychoanalyze me from the Neilson ratings.

Later, Gaitskill says, “I can’t take the reader into the mind of a serial killer, because I don’t know that mind. But I can take the reader into the mind of somebody who harbors some of those feelings, and people are interested in it because they recognize those feelings.” Except the mind she takes us into is a character, a fictional character, and unless she’s saying the character is a representation of a person who told her these thoughts, this isn’t taking me into anyone’s mind but her own. And even if she did interview someone to get this character, she’s relying on what someone told her, not on what that person actually is thinking and feeling. If the mind is her own, that’s fine, more power to her, but own up to it. They’re her thoughts, not mine.

I’m surprised I’m so resentful of this interview; I feel aggression pouring out of it, and I respond with my own aggression. That’s how it works, isn’t it. I didn’t object to the story – it was creepy, to show “normal” people harboring these feelings about wanting to do violence, about the crossover between sex and violence, especially in the young. But while it wasn’t a story that I particularly enjoyed, I didn’t feel insulted by it. The interview, however, made me disappreciate Mary Gaitskill (note: it did not make me want to do any physical violence to her at all – god help me, I never want to be in the same room as her – just to tell her to shut the fuck up). I find that fascinating – because it is another form of violence, and her form is to make mincemeat out of interviewers, perhaps. And mine is to react to being toyed with, to react to superiority with vengeful impulses as real as the character’s. But guns – or knives or sharks – don’t enter into it.

[Addendum: I've re-read the story during my BASS 2012 reading. It's still a creepy story. The creepiness is well-done, but I still feel it's somewhat manipulative. In a bizarre comparison: Project Runway S10 just ended this past week. Some of the runway models were made up with yellow/green lipstick, dotted eyebrows, blackened eyebrows, and silver-leaf in their slicked-back hair. It made no sense at all; it was purely an attempt to be "edgy" and "modern" and "artsy." It was actually quite ugly. I'm all for artistic effects on the runway – it is more like an art exhibit than a clothing store – but this was shock value, not artistic value. I feel the same way about this story.

Of course, maybe I'm just too prissy to appreciate this kind of story. I can live with that.

While the first time I read this I was distracted by the author interview, this time I was perhaps distracted by the news of yet another mass shooting, this one in a Wisconsin day spa. Bad timing all around. But if I'm going to try to approach Mary Gaitskill again, I think it'd better be with another story, as this one isn't working out too well for me. ]

100 Visits Today

Today for the first time I had 100+ visits to this blog. Prior to this, I had one 99-visit day and a couple in the 60′s. This week has been particularly active, though I don’t really know why. Some weeks are dead, others are red-hot.

I’m not sure what this means. But it’s fun.

I sometimes get a lot of visits from sites I’ve never heard of – StumbleUpon, blogsurfer, alphainventions, and the ever popular “other sources”. Then there are things that strike me as bizarre – like getdentalimplantsinfo.com and tramadolpills.info. I’m not sure how they ended up here from there, but most of the Internet is a mystery to me. There are a few referrers I recognize, but they’re rare. It’s like when I started this blog. WordPress told me, “invite your friends” which I did. My friends weren’t interested. Strangers seem to like me much better. I’m trying not to take that personally.

My most popular single page (aside from “Home page”) is my review of Steve Almond’s “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” from BASS 2010. This cheers me. I suppose it’s mostly English students looking for essay material, or trying to avoid reading the actual story by reading about the story (hey, I did the same thing, except it wasn’t online, and I still have a great fondness for Cliff’s Notes). In fact, sometimes I’ll see a search string like “what is the theme of The King of Norway”. But it’s nice that a short story occupies that spot. Of course, among readers of short stories, Steve Almond is a rock star. It’s nothing I can claim credit for.

My second highest page in hits is a surprise: the Sing Off finale. That day, in fact, was my highest activity level until now. Top Chef has quite a few hits, and I’d guess most of my Thursday “home page” visits are actually Top Chef related. But I do get quite a few looks at the BASS pages. The New Yorker, not so much (I guess they’re too new to be taught in English classes). Vetebrod was more popular than I’d ever thought. And not surprisingly, very few visitors have been interested in the writing exercises from “What If?”.

Very few people check out Cool Sites for Writers and Readers, or Online Fiction etc. to Read and Love, which is too bad since there’s some great stuff in there. But not enough. I haven’t taken very good care of those pages, and I need to devote more time and effort to them. My stories have had a fair number of clicks, as have Zin’s. I’m always nervous when I see someone has clicked on one of my stories, or two or three, then stopped – did they decide I wasn’t a good enough writer to read? Sigh.

And of course comments are few and far between. I understand that. I visit maybe twenty blogs a day, more if I’m researching something that is current. And I almost never leave comments. But I wish I knew more about these people who are reading my words, whether they’re pleased with what they’ve read, bored, if they got here by mistake, if they never want to come back, or if they just wanted to know the theme of “The King of Norway” and wish they’d found it here and are a little pissed that they didn’t. And I’m still feeling my way through this whole blogging thing. So, whoever you are, welcome!

Tessa Hadley: “Honor” from The New Yorker, 2/7/2011

This story is from the POV of a woman looking back at her childhood in early-1960′s England. It’s a great portrait of an ethos, of a time when women bore shame and men did not, when children were seen and not heard, when secrets were treasured and truth wasn’t very important – but concealing the truth was.

Stella, the narrator, was at the time of the story an 8-year-old girl who lives with her mom (She is in present time now, in her 50′s). She’s just learned recently that her father is not dead, that he abandoned the family when she was a baby. This was lied about by Mum (Edna) because of course it is shameful to have a man leave you but not shameful to be a widow. I love some of the observations in this piece: “…. so many things that seem quaint now were current and powerful then: shame and secrecy, and the fear that other people would worm themselves into your weaknesses, and that their knowledge of how you had lapsed or failed would eat you away from the inside.”

Grandmother Nana is “continually in the process of clearing out, giving things away, as if she were trying to weigh less and less, as if life itself were a mess that she was gradually getting to the bottom of.” Stella “can remember being flooded with happiness once, alone in Nana’s bedroom” just by feeling alive in the breeze looking at colors and textures. The fact that it was only once tells me she is not a happy child, and the fact that this does not consume her tells me that she did not expect to be a happy child. Today, she’d be bundled off to a child therapist for treatment. I probably would have been to – I was so shy in kindergarten, I walked on tiptoe and whispered when I said anything at all. It never occurred to me I could be happy. Stella and I are about the same age, and we see some things the same (my family was well-off, though the family itself was pretty much a wreck, something I didn’t realize until I was much older as secrets were our strength, too).

Mum does not want to move back with Nana: “I thought of Nana as harmless, lightweight, easy to brush aside…But I knew from my mother’s face that for her the idea of moving back into her old home was a living danger… The only way for her to defend herself against Nana’s bleaching, purging worldview was to defy it: to wear scent and lipstick every day….”. And here Nana pretty much fades from view. It’s too bad, she was an interesting character. I suppose she was just to lend background to Mum, but it felt like she was abandoned by the storyteller.

Auntie Andy (aunt on disappeared father’s side) comes to stay with Mum and Stella. This is stretched out a while, Stella in the dark about the reason, but after a day or two (and a page or so) we all find out: Uncle Derek, whose name Stella never knew because she never met him, killed their son Charlie. Stella never liked Charlie, he had “sly and hostile energy, full of contempt for girls and women.” Which he probably learned from Uncle Derek who beat Auntie Andy regularly, and at the trial Stella notes that Derek’s mother says something to give her the impression that his father beat his mother as well. So we have three generations of abusers, though Charlie never got his chance at bat, so to speak. It’s a little advanced for an n 8-year-old to come up with this, but she is speaking from the vantage point of decades later.

The comparison between Mum and Andy as Stella sees it is probably the most interesting part of the story (and considering the murder and trial, that’s saying something). It’s certainly the focus. “What was odd about Auntie Andy, I realized, was that her shyness had been blasted out of her by whatever had happened, the way an explosion can leave people deaf… Her shyness never did come back… was transformed into something different: reserve, or dignity.”

I also found Stella’s reaction to Charlie’s death interesting. “I resented Charlie with a pure rage…. He seemed a usurper in a realm that gave him a huge advantage of pity and terror: he surely didn’t belong there, with his ugly stamping feet.” I had a similar reaction when I learned my ex-husband had died. How unfair! Now I was not allowed ever again to say anything mean about him!

Someone, I don’t remember who or where, said recently of another story that it seemed a story of ideas rather than about the characters. That’s what I think I get here. There are some great ideas here, about how women are treated, how they accept that treatment, and how (maybe) some things have changed a bit. The characters are well-drawn with great anecdotes and Stella’s observations are wonderful. But… it doesn’t feel like a great read to me. It feels like a sociology essay. I don’t have a picture of Stella. Or of Mum or Andy or Nana. And it’s very much a women-against-men world; I can’t imagine a man reading this and not feeling ashamed. Oh, wait! No, feeling shame over someone else’s behavior is what women do.

Tessa Hadley gives an interview in The New Yorker in which she says this is the first chapter of a novel-in-stories about Stella, which may account for the flatness of my experience. Excerpts tend to be background for the more interesting twists of future events in a novel. And I think that’s it, this is great background, and I’m still waiting for the story to start.

[Zin Kenter] Hello, I am Zin! I have something to say about this story! It is less satisfying because it is a victim story – you wrote about this, in the story “The Whore’s Child” by Richard Russo, a student reviewer of the story the nun wrote commented:

“It’s a victim story,” one student recognized. “The character is being acted on by outside forces, but she has no choices, which means there can be no consequences to anything she does. If she doesn’t participate in her own destiny, where’s the story?”

Stella does not participate in her destiny. She can not, she is a child. It is not her destiny at stake! So she is not the central character! But she is the narrator and it feels like her story and it is confusing! Whose destiny is at stake? Auntie Andy of course, what do you do when your husband kills your child, you can lay down and die or you can have Honor and Dignity and find a new husband and get some kind of life back, since life was interrupted but it was not your fault! And that is what Auntie Andy does, except we see her through the eyes of a child remeniscing decades later so it is at a distance. But the story belongs to Andy, I think, and a little bit to Mum who participates in her destiny by letting Andy stay with them, giving Stella the view of two people, three if you count Nana. And she has these three role models of how to live. The problem is – and here is the problem – Stella does not show how these three role models affect her! We do not know! Because it is a novel in stories and we have not read that story yet! This is why novel excerpts do not work as short stories, I am afraid!

But of course that is just what I think. I hope other people will tell me what they think – hello? Is anyone out there?

Top Chef All Stars Season 8 Episode 10: Lock Down

Welcome to the Product Placement Bigbox Store that Isn’t Blue (heretofore abbreviated PPBS. ‘Cause they can buy an episode of Top Chef, but they can’t buy my blog) version of Top Chef.

Pre-credit musing on last week:
Blais feels awful, says Fabio is an impressive guy, great friend, but it was the weakest dish of the day. He wishes Fabio had consulted with him for just 10 minutes, he runs a burger joint and he could’ve given him the pointers he needed. I wonder why he didn’t.
Carla says it’d be pretty amazing to be a woman winning Top Chef All Stars. Uh oh, stop that, Carla, yer makin’ me nervous.
Richard and Dale make an alliance of some sort. Dale says he’s not like the New School mothers of We’re All Winners, fuck that, in what country is that cool? Aha! Did he have a Tiger Mother? Is he going to be a Tiger Father? I’m beginning to feel sorry for his kid.

And it’s Quickfire time:
Padma is wearing another very colorful red-and-blue-flowers-on-white dress. It’s actually quite nice. It doesn’t look quite as five-year-old as last week’s.

Padma says some weird things. “We’re on our way, and everything’s A-okay, can you tell me how to get to:” and the Muppets jump up from behind the table and yell “Sesame Street!”. Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Telly.

Blais says his daughter thinks Elmo is Elvis. I think he means that figuratively, though it’d be cute if she couldn’t tell the difference between the names. Antonia says her daughter used to love Elmo, and it doesn’t get bigger than Sesame Street. I wonder if Rao’s, Jimmy Fallon, and the Jonas Brother would appreciate that.

Cookie Monster keeps saying COOOOO-KIEEE. They’re all pretty rambunctious. And what’s Padma going to do, tell ‘em to shut up? They’re there to be cute, they aren’t really children, so there’s a lot of laughing and interrupting. Everyone looks like they’re having fun and it’s all a little confused.

The chefs (remember, chefs? Cooking competition?) have 45 minutes to make the best possible version of a cookie. Elmo wants a cookie with zucchini or carrots. Cookie monster says yuck, just make it yummy. Isabella hopes he can make a cookie so he’s not embarrassed. The Product Placement boxed meat stock shelf is highlighted for some reason. Tiffany loves shortbread cookies. Richard says he doesn’t fear pastry, he’s not going to make chocolate chip since that would be too ordinary. He brings out the zucchini and Elmo says what is that? Blais tells him it’s the zucchini he asked for, and Elmo is impressed. Angelo hasn’t made a cookie for 25 years. Dale thinks it’s odd that Isabella, who apparently eats a lot of cookies, would be so uncomfortable making them. Carla made cookies first in girl scouts, she makes them all the time as a caterer. Dale knows he can’t make a traditional cookie but it’ll taste delicious. He’s doing something with potato chips and pretzels. Telly calls out, “You don’t want potato chips in the cookies” but Dale assures them they’ll like it. Antonia says Dale is a cookie cheater. Cookie Monster eats the tablecloth. Antonia’s cookies are huge. No, that isn’t a euphemism. While Dale’s making his potato chip mix, Telly says, “Dale, no potato chips in the cookies!” and Dale says, what are you gonna do, you can’t swear at them. No, you can’t, Dale. What ever happened to that Anger Management course you took? You don’t swear at Muppets! Isabella sneers at Blais for using liquid nitrogen again.

And now it’s time for Commercial One. I was stunned. I haven’t seen this before, but I haven’t been watching Bravo much (housewives, matchmakers, and real estate jerks just don’t interest me). Kevin, beloved Kevin of beloved Season Six, and Padma star. Padma says, “Kevin, you made a… lettuce and tomato sandwich?” with a WTF expression. Kevin says, “Yeah,” like, what’s wrong with that? Cut to shot of Packaged Bacon for Reasonable Price then to PPBS logo. Kevin? What are you doing? You know you wouldn’t use that bacon! Hey, I remember the show when they had “good” and “bad” versions of various products, and bacon was one of them, that package of bacon was probably used on that show. But it’s ok, someone’s going to make money doing their advertising, and I’d just as soon it be Kevin.

And Commercial Two – this time Eli is finishing up plating, and Padma yells, “Hands up, utensils down” and he does so properly, pan over to Kevin scraping like mad to get something out of a miserable frypan, cut to shot of Teflon coated cookware and then PPBS logo. I’m shocked. Truly shocked. They made fun of the cookware they kept getting as prizes! Because they use real cookware, professional stuff, not crap from PPBS. You know, this is all about Corporate America assuming TV viewers are stupid, that we won’t remember that these guys don’t use this stuff, they consider it crap. And of course, they’re right. I’m so sad.

Dale makes a Pretzel and potato chip shortbread. Elmo says it’s sweet and salty, Cookie Monster says it’s kind of fun. Dale is in the top. Dale wins! He gets $5000. He can show his daughter this episode.
Antonia makes a chocolate cookie with white chocolate chips and caramel glaze. One of the Muppets says the melted gooey center stuck to the roof of his mouth. I’m having fun imagining that. I didn’t really pay attention to how they handled the actual tasting and judging, because if the puppeteers were in there, they’re on their knees. Cookie Monster says it’s not a pretty cookie, and Elmo says it looked like a cow chip. Anyway, Antonia is the only one who makes a truly ooey gooey cookie so she is in the top.
Carla made chocolate chip cookies with cinnamon. Cookie Monster liked the texture. Someone thought it was cardamom, which Padma points out is grown in same part of the world, but then again, most spices are grown in the same part of the world. Elmo says TMI. Hey, come on, spices are why Columbus discovered America, didn’t these guys go to second grade?
Isabella makes an almond and dried cherry cookie dusted with rose petal sugar. Telly says you did that in 45 minutes?
Tiffany makes shortbread with lemon zest and thyme and serves it with coconut milk. Cookie monster says the coconut milk is a nice touch. Padma says it’s good for the skin, Cookie Monster asks if it’s good for his fur. Padma assures him it is. Given the state of Padma’s skin (and in some of her photos, there’s a lot of it and it is gorgeous) I would imagine coconut milk sales are going to go up.
Angelo makes chocolate chip and Belgian hazelnut cookies with banana milkshakes, the Muppets are throwing them at him. The cookies are very dry. He is in the bottom.
Blais does a shout-out to his little girl Riley who adores Elmo. Elmo says, “Hello Riley, Elmo loves you” which is really sweet. He made a zucchini and mint ice cream cookie with chocolate chips. It’s really ice cream disc, not a cookie. Cookie Monster says it didn’t quite work, and Richard in the bottom. Richard is sad. He probably won’t ever let his daughter watch this episode. He disappointed Elmo!

For the Elimination challenge, the prize is $25,000, the biggest prize ever for a single challenge. The challenge is: go to PPBS in the middle of the night when the store is empty, and buy everything they need to make a dish for 100 PPBS employees right there in the store. They have three hours. It took me a while to get this. I thought they had three hours to shop and then they’d go somewhere and cook, and I couldn’t figure out three hours to shop. I’m a little slow sometimes. It’s three hours to shop and cook, all in Target. They can’t even bring their knives, which I would think would cause some complaining but nobody says anything (probably because it wouldn’t be nice to say PPBS knives are crap). Padma says, “You can find anything you need to cook a delicious meal for an entire family” like gee, that just occurred to her and she thought they should know. They have to buy everything – pots, pans, cooking utensils, appliances, tables, tablecloths, and food. Because PPBS carries a good selection of fresh produce and blah blah blah. They just don’t carry coconuts (don’t worry, this will make sense in a minute).

Carla is happy. She loves PPBS. That makes me sad. Blais says there’s physicality to this challenge that’s difficult. Isabella agrees, he’s panting and sweating and his back hurts. Dale starts making fun of Tiffany saying “I’m from Beaumont” every five minutes. I’ve noticed most people from Texas insist on declaring where they come from as often as possible, so this doesn’t surprise me. Dale used to work in a PPBS and knows what weird stuff goes on after hours – tuna fish hockey with brooms and cans, for example. Come on, Dale, give us something juicy. Like modeling lingerie for each other (I saw that on a Law & Order episode a long time ago, but it was a ritzy NY department store, not PPBS. Antonia grabs everything she possibly might ever in her dreams want to use, like a waffle machine and deep fryer. Blais wants to go get a TV.

Isabella and Angelo decide to form an alliance, at least Isabella does. He’s a specialist at riding on someone else’s coattail, what ever happened to being miffed at Blais for helping Antonia with the beef tongue? Isabella points out the equipment is smaller and they can’t have any flames so cooking can be a challenge. Carla is thinking about presenting the table, but then realizes she has to shop for food too. Blais says Carla is behind. Carla says Carla is behind. Carla is behind. Blais starts cooking first, and he’s happy about that. Blais wants to make a takeoff on arepas, a blue collar dish you might want to eat at 3 am. Antonia is going to make soft eggs, and is worried about being “in the groove”. Eggs? That sounds risky, hard to cook just right. Tiffany figures jambalaya will be easy to execute. Someone – I don’t know who – had a can of Chunky Soup, I swear they did. At least I’m pretty sure someone did.

Dale is inspired by his college days in the dorm, when he ironed grilled cheese sandwiches and cooked tomato soup in the rice cooker. That gave me a smile, no hotplate, but he has a rice cooker. Maybe hotplates weren’t allowed. Carla wanted to make salmon cake and soup, but she can’t find salmon so she’s just making curried apple soup and she worries that she should have a protein, but she doesn’t think she can spare the time to go get it. Blais worries about Carla getting started so late since she’s making soup which takes time to develop flavors. Isabella asks Angelo for the can opener, Angelo says he didn’t get one and Isabella says he was supposed to. Angelo says, do you want me to cook for you too? Yea, Isabella, try doing your own work for a change. Isabella was going to make shrimp in coconut sauce or something but he ends up just making coconut broth because he can’t open the can of shrimp.

Antonia is doing a soft egg with Parmesan cream, but she worries about the right groove. She thinks it’s ridiculous everyone’s doing soup, she’s not going to play it safe with this kind of money on the line. It’s the middle of the night, she says, and a fog comes over you. I can understand that. I’m feeling a little foggy myself and it’s just past midnight. Tiffany wants to make a kind of jambalaya with sausage, chicken and shrimp. She figures it’ll be easy to execute. Angelo’s making potato soup with bacon and cheddar cheese, he asks Isabella to taste it (too thick, missing something) and he adds salt AND bacon, and I said “Uh oh” out loud. PPBS store designer Thomas O’Brien does something with flowers on the tables. Carla isn’t happy with her soup. But she thinks her presentation is a $25,000 presentation even if it isn’t a $25,000 dish. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to depend on presentation here.

And the employees show up. The judges are Tony Bourdain (who is going from Judges Table to a Parent Teacher Conference, at least he’ll be well-fed and maybe a little guilty so he’ll take it easy on the teacher, but wait, his kid is not even four years old, how much conferencing is necessary?), Ming Tsai (YAY!), and Thomas O’Brien, PPBS designer. I think that means he puts flowers around the store. I’m not sure what he knows about food, but I guess he’s the civilian.

Carla ends up making curried apple soup with tomato ginger jam and cucumber apple slaw. Ming says the soup is screaming for protein. Everyone agrees, it’s more of a sauce that would be nice over fish but it’s missing something as a soup. And the judges are served at tables so they don’t see the presentation of her table. Uh oh. I’ve got a bad feeling about this. There’ve been whispers around the blogosphere that Carla’s up against it this week.
Blais makes corn pancakes with seared pork tenderloin and green chilies and some braised pork. Tony says it’s butt ugly but delicious. Blais admits it isn’t pretty. An employee taster says it has a nice kick and he likes the meat.
Dale serves his rib eye grilled cheese and spicy tomato soup and explains his technique with the irons, since the judges are served rather than going to the stations and they don’t see it. Ming says he got a good crunch and it was brilliant to use an iron. Tony says it’s great late night stoner food and maybe he should take a urine test. Ming says, “Maybe he’s trying to become an Iron Chef” and I wish I wish I wish Dale had thought of that. Of course, Ming lost out on The Next Iron Chef over last summer, which made me very sad.
Antonia brings over her garlic crostini, with almond tomato and apple salad and an egg. Tony says it’s ballsy to make a hundred eggs. Everyone likes it.
Isabella serves spicy coconut soup since he didn’t have a can opener (canned shrimp? Eww…). He says it includes “fresh coconut milk” and Padma says, “You found fresh coconuts here?” and he says, no, he found coconut milk, and bless her heart, Padma says, quite rightly, “Then it’s not fresh coconut milk.” No, it isn’t, I’m sure it was a slip of the tongue since Isabella would never try to slip anything by them. Ming says it’s satisfying. An employee says it’s too spicy.
Tiffany makes her twist on jambalaya. Tony isn’t crazy about it, he says the chicken is soggy and rubbery, and Tom agrees it’s not a great dish.
Angelo hopes they understand the flavors of his baked potato soup with bacon, sour cream, scallions and cheddar cheese. Tony says it’s too heavy and way too salty. Ming says you can’t eat a whole bowl. Employee says it was just potatoes, other soups had more taste. That’s a surprise, maybe they got the last of it or something.

Tom says some did really well, and some messed up. Everyone’s surprised at the soups. Tiffany is particularly nervous since she’s from Beaum… oh, no, since she’s the only person who hasn’t won anything. I’m worried about Carla. I will cry if Carla goes home. But Carla will be fine no matter what, Carla is awesome.

The PPBS/TC commercials play again, and they include the Top Chef music. I never realized there was Top Chef music until now. They’re really getting their money’s worth for all the appliances and stuff they put up tonight.

Carla, Antonia and Tiffany are playing with product placement stuffed puppies with vests. They are the bull terriers, I think, with the ring around the eye? The Spuds McKenzie dog from back when Spuds McKenzie was the Budweiser mascot.

There’s a hilarious commercial about GE using biowaste for energy, from landfills and even cows, and the poor cow is giving a rock concert and going MMOOOO MOOO and I’m laughing because I remember reading about cow farts being a huge source of methane. I wonder what they do, put tubes up the cow’s asses and collect the gasses? No wonder the cow is moaning.

Padma (who looks very svelte in her black top and jeans, btw) asks for Dale, Antonia, and Blais.

Ming compliments Blais for being the only chef to cook a protein 2 different ways, loin and braise, with apple, which was a nice touch. Antonia gets props from Tony who’s always happy to see runny eggs; he calls it audacious, since it could’ve gone horribly wrong but it went very right.

Dale, tom says, made a nice crispy grilled cheese, he really enjoyed it, and Tony compliments him on the mixture of goofy and devious in using the iron.

And Ming says the winner is… Dale. He’s an Iron Chef! Not to mention he won both challenges today and a mere $30,000 total. Not bad for potato chip non-cookies and a grilled cheese sandwich made with an iron.

When he returns to Stew everyone applauds and gives him high fives.

Carla, Tiffany and Angelo go out to face the judges. Looks like Isabella is in the middle.

Carla says she knew the soup wasn’t the way she wanted it. Tony revisits the missing protein. Ming says would’ve been a great sauce, but was a two dimensional soup.

Angelo seems surprised when they tell him the soup wasn’t balanced and was way too salty. They also say there was a bad aftertaste, I think they said due to the scallions, but I’m not sure why.

Tiffany gets slapped for using a prepared spice mix, though she uses it at home and loves it. They all seem to think that was what was wrong with her dish.

Padma asks, Any final words before they make a decision? Tiffany has a few words. “I’m from Beaumont, Texas” which is why Dale’s been complaining about her saying she’s from Beaumont. She says it’s a small town, and there’s a lot of times you can’t dream big enough. And she’s really happy with whatever decision is made, it’s been an honor to work with everyone. Padma agrees it’s been a pleasure to work with all of them and it isn’t an easy decision.

Carla tells everyone in Stew, “Beaumont’s crying again.”

Isabella tells Angelo he isn’t going home, Angelo says, how can you get past salt. Well, Dale got past it last week. But based on the edit presented here, I’d say Angelo is toast. They’ve been advertising a shocking elimination. I don’t think this is shocking. Even though he’s often very very good, it isn’t the first time Angelo’s screwed up.

Angelo goes home. Tiffany is shocked. He says it was a humbling and amazing experience. He admits he made a critical error. He made 40 dishes almost back to back, over two seasons, and he’s fried. Yeah, he did, didn’t he, that’s a lot of Top Chef. He knows he’s better than this. Padma looks downright teary. Isabella is shocked. Isabella lost the coattails he was hanging onto. Isabella did the tasting. Isabella distracted him. Isabella better feel bad. Angelo mentions his son, how nice it’ll be to go home to him, for the first time this season I think. And I’m delighted they’re finally editing the show truthfully.

And next week: Paula Deen! Oh no. Please no. The eliminated chefs come back. Carla says “Bye, redemption.” They’re playing Carla as the fan favorite, aren’t they. Good, I’m glad, she deserves it. When I looked at last week’s blogs and recaps and discussions, I saw so many people saying, “Even though she isn’t formally trained like the others she makes good simple food.” Carla went to culinary school. Carla can cook. And, just by point of information, she has an accounting degree, which might be the strangest thing about her. Everyone takes one look at her and thinks she’s a dilettante. She’s not. She hears her own drummer. But she’s been trained, and she can cook.

BASS 2010 – James Lasdun: “The Hollow” from Paris Review Spring 2009

This story is available online at The Paris Review. It can be found under the title “Oh, Death” in the author’s short story collection It’s Beginning To Hurt and in the PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories of 2010.

I feel like there’s something about this story I didn’t quite get, so maybe if I think about it a little, I’ll get closer to it. It’s written in first person but the narrator is largely an observer, not a participant, so it’s more like an opinionated third person. Ah, the good old days, when you could have a third person narrator that actually had a point of view. That’s gone out of fashion, so these days you use a neighbor. The narrator is a shadow character. We don’t even know his name. All we know is that he moved into the Hollow five years ago (assuming the end of the story is the present, the story covers five years), he has a wife, he makes his living “gaming the system” (a phrase that is never explained), drives an hour to work (presumably he’s some kind of financial wizard?) and he owns a new Subaru; the fact that this impresses Rick, the actual main character, says more about Rick than it does about the narrator.

Rick Parker is the main character. We meet him with his dad, though Dad drops out of the story when Rick’s girlfriend, and later, wife, moves in. Rick’s an interesting character. It’d be easy to dismiss him as a rough-and-tough mountain man, but there’s more to him. He freelances, doing whatever manual labor he can get, from construction to woodcutting, but tree work is his favorite. He leaves beer cans out in the woods (the narrator calls them “gleaming spoor”) and drives an ATV that tears up the ground and leaks oil but he knows the names and properties of every plant like a biologist: “…he knew the woods up here with an intimacy that seemed its own kind of love.” He’s what I think of as a true libertarian: someone who can fix his house, hunt his dinner, and chop his own wood, and he isn’t happy about new houses snapping up land and turning his hunting ground into private property: “he hated it all, though his hatred stopped short of the actual human beings responsible for these incursions.” So while he isn’t pleased that Cora Chastine is selling off parcels that cramp his style, he describes her as a nice lady and is happy to do chores for her in the middle of the night when she calls him for help. The Tea Party should take notice of this. It makes him immensely likeable, and makes what happens to him more tragic for the reader.

In a key scene, Rick tells the narrator he’s building a cabin on the other side of the ridge. It’s state land, but so what (this is an attitude that should enrage me but I find it endearing in this case). It’s just somewhere to go. Because when you live out in a rural Hollow it’s not deserted enough for you. There’s a naturalness to this character that says something. He also claims to have seen a mountain lion, to have an impression of its paw print, though the narrator doesn’t quite believe this as he’s read there are no mountain lions around here in spite of occasional claims to the contrary.

As I read it, the downturn in his life is the fault of a bad woman. Or, a woman gone bad. Or just a woman who is damaged to the point of being unable to be good, and who he was unable to recognize as such. We discover later she has her reasons for not being able to be good, perhaps. Faye has two children when they meet, and Rick is credited with fine fathering skills.

Next comes a scene I find telling. A hurricane, “unusual in these parts,” (I believe this takes place in upstate NY, although for most of it I assumed it was the rural South, but the author, a transplanted Londoner, lives in NY and a snowy winter is described so I’m taking some liberties) strikes after Rick and Faye have another daughter. The destruction is dramatic, and Rick offers his clean-up services to the narrator, who declines on advice of counsel as Rick does not have insurance and thus could sue for injuries. A commercial crew – “professional” is how the narrator describes them – comes in and pretty much tears up the woods taking away the trees. The difference between natural damage of the hurricane and man-made damage of the clean up crew strikes me, as does the narrator’s description of Rick’s proposal which seems, to my completely naïve eye, to be far more ecologically pure, regardless of his gleaming spoor and ATV. I think this is important.

Rick and Faye marry, he slaughters a pig at the wedding (hey, it was a gift, and it was also the main course), and things start to go downhill. Things go pretty much as you’d expect from there. Rick ends up literally hoisted on his own petard; his downfall is quite sad, really, and I’d come to think of him as a good guy so it felt really tragic when he turned into a not-so-nice guy. And the narrator ends up in Rick’s cabin, possibly facing a ghost or an impossibility or a reincarnation, I’m not really sure. The last paragraph has been described elsewhere as a reversal of roles, and as a coming to terms with mortality. I’m afraid it went by me.

It’s a good story. I just don’t quite get the metaphysical level that’s been attributed to it elsewhere. It reminds me a little of “Boar Taint” a story I read in the Kenyon Review a few years ago: people, nature, and what happens between them. I think there’s been a dearth of man vs. nature stories in recent decades as writers have delved more deeply into psychological, sociopolitical and economic themes. So maybe that’s it, it’s man vs. nature, nature won, and maybe won more than I realize.

I’m intrigued by the title change. I immediately flashed on several Bach cantatas and bible verses (Oh, Death, Where is thy Sting) and possibly John Donne, though he does not include “Oh” in “Death, Be Not Proud”. But I now see there is a song by the Stanley Brothers from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou titled “O Death” (the lyrics include the “h” although the title does not) which may fit the bill more closely, as the author said he wrote the piece after a the accidental death of a neighbor. “The Hollow” is a little more obvious, since the locality is named Vanderbeck Hollow, but it’s conceivable a mountain lion’s paw print preserved in mud could have a hollow…

One Story: “Summer, Boys” by Ethan Rutherford Issue 145 Feb. 1, 2011

If you had a best friend when you were in fifth grade, a friend who was you even if one of you was rich and one was poor, a friend you couldn’t imagine being without for even a minute, a friend you got matching weird haircuts with, a friend who, when he fell over your foot and got a black eye you’d find atonement by icing your own healthy eye, a friendship that suddenly changed one day and you didn’t really understand it at the time but something happened and one of you was not the same any more – you’ll want to read this.

Or, if you want to read a story that treats two characters so equally they don’t even have names yet you know in every sentence which “he” is being referred to, and if you want a story so powerful and visual and real you can here the musical score playing as you read (the first part would’ve been all peppy woodwinds and occasional brass in major riffs, a sudden interrupt at the ice pack with a building sentiment of violins to warm fuzzy chords; and when Elias entered, the dark tones would come in, tense, foreboding, minor keys, discords, warning. Jaws music without the pulse. Silence of the Lambs music), if you want a story that’s going to have you gulping down the words on the last page and leaves you breathless and awed and shocked and amazed after you taste the last word – find this one. Order it from One Story. Get someone to loan it to you. Beg, borrow, steal it. Yeah. It’s that good. At least I think it is. And I’m not even totally sure what happens. Not exactly.

I was sure at various points I knew what would happen: one boy would grow up faster than the other and leave him behind; one would realize he had feelings beyond friendship for the other and that would poison their friendship as the other got scared; they would see each other through Elias’ eyes, fear being scorned for being just a kid, or worse, tainted with the fag label, and lose each other just to avoid that. Something would happen to end that time of bestfriendness, it would be sexual, and Elias would be the instigator in some way. As I said, I’m still not exactly sure what happened, why they were separated for those few weeks, what was on the movie Elias brought in, exactly what went on in the basement on the L shaped couch and who wanted what and who didn’t, but it broke my heart anyway. Because of the love, and the lie: I’m here, if that’s where you need me to be.

Every page has a favorite line. Of the Boz haircut they give each other: “Before this, they were just friends, certain of their affection, uncertain of its expression. Before this, one of them was worried that his hours in the Laurelhurst house were numbered, that he would overstay his welcome, that he would be exposed as an interloper, but now that worry is gone. The haircut is proof. The haircut is a leveler…they look like each other, and that, for one of them, is close enough.” On their relationship: “What do you like? What do you like? Is it something we should like? Every day is a disputation of taste, and nothing ascends without the explicit approval of both…for one of the boys, this equilibrium seems a natural, effortless state; for the other, it’s become everything.” Then after the black eye incident, Elias shows up, a cousin, five years older: “What’s wrong with your eye? Elias says. What’s wrong with your hair? What, he says, is it with the matching sweatshirts? They are caught off guard by the certainty of this questioning and wonder why it, suddenly, matters to them. They are surprised that anyone’s opinion but their own should count for beans, but it does, and they stand silent astride their bikes, not daring, not even wanting, to defend themselves. Have they been wrong this whole time? Is their closeness being called into question?” I love the wording of this, the punctuation, the phrasing – look at it, “What, he says, is it with the matching sweatshirts” could be written so many ways but putting “he says” in there feels so perfect, just a tiny bit off balance, with the rhythm of the paragraph. And the “suddenly” in the next sentence, is placed so perfectly, even though “suddenly” is a word that sends workshoppers into frenzies of rulebook-waving. I love the writing in this. And the emotion: “One of them feels the end of something, and waits desperately for the feeling to dissipate. The other seems uninterested in rescuing himself.”

It’s odd that, with all this wonderful material, I still am not sure what happens with Elias, why the two boys spend a few weeks apart, and what is happening at the very end of the story. It isn’t that I don’t know, it’s that there are so many possibilities. All of them heartbreaking, some more so than others, some just growing-up-heartbreaking and some tragic-heartbreaking. I think my favorite stories are like that, because I can read them again and again and they’re never the same story twice.

This author, Ethan Rutherford, had a story in BASS 2009, “The Peripatetic Coffin” which I barely skimmed because it took place on a Confederate submarine during the Civil War. I can’t imagine anything I’m less interested in. But I’m going to take another look, because someone who writes like this deserves it.
See the One Story website for an interview with the author and for blog discussion.

Alice Munro: “Axis” from The New Yorker, 1/31/2011

I’m giving this short shrift. There are reasons. Never mind what they are.

Two couples. One Escarpment, one Axis. Coitus interruptus. A strange dream. And a strange shift of POV in the last paragraph.

Royce is so traumatized by Grace’s mother walking in on their inaugural shtupp that he changes his field of study from philosophy to rocks, and never marries? And 50 years later he is still bitter about women looking for regret in him.

I see a lot of symmetry in this – Royce hitchhikes and explains to the truck driver his lack of a car and first sees the Niagara Escarpment which changes his life’s work, then later takes the train and again explains himself as wanting to see the Frontenac Axis. He sees Avie unexpectedly on both trips. Both halves end with bitterness towards Grace’s mother, which baffles me; it’s one of those things, but it enrages him. He treats Grace and her family rather poorly, ignoring her after her mother walks in on them, and treats Avie the same way when he sees her later. Symmetry is part of some definitions of an axis.

Much is unexplained. Grace disappears from the story – why? What happens to her? She drops out of college due to health issues, writes Avie a letter and gets no reply, is she the daughter who is locked in the basement unheard, and Avie the daughter who says “Nothing to be done”? Would Royce have been just as big a boor with Avie as he was with Grace if he’d taken that route? Royce is pretty self-centered; is he his own axis?

An intriguing story, engrossing reading. I’ve always felt Alice Munro was a little tedious but this moved right along.

Addendum: This story appears in BASS 2012. In reading my notes, I find it hilarious that I was still impatient with Alice Munro at the time I read this. I’ve learned a lot since then: “Corrie” and “Amundson” are among my favorite stories (and “Dolly” wasn’t half bad), and I hope to see them represented in 2013 prize anthologies. I’m going to have to stop ragging on Alice Munro. Retroactive apologies.

My Thursday

Today was Thursday. My Library day. I’m lucky to live a block away from the main branch; I go there on Thursday afternoons to get a photocopy of the NYT Magazine Sunday Crossword Puzzle and read anything that appeals to me in the rest of the magazine, and to read whatever story is in The New Yorker for the week. It’s been dicey, last week they didn’t have either of the new issues up, so this week I got two crosswords (and an Acrostic) and two stories (“Axis” by Alice Munro from January 31, and “Honor” by Tessa Hadley), which I’ll be reading and posting about shortly.

But that isn’t what made it an interesting afternoon.

Most of the “square” area of Monument Square (Portland’s center of town) was roped off with Caution ribbon. No construction was going on, although there was a structure towards the statue side of the plaza. I thought at first it was a band stage, though that would be odd in the winter. There are concerts every week in the summer, but given it was in the teens today, that wasn’t likely. Besides, the structure was very tall, taller than the statue. And a mechanized snow blower of giant proportion was playing with snow banks.

The library window looked out on this scene, and it was a lot warmer to watch from in there. A woman was talking on her cell phone about the snow blower but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. When she hung up I asked her what was going on. Turns out there’s some big snowboarding competition coming up with weekend. The structure is the “track” and the snow blower is providing, you guessed it, snow. The area is roped off because, well, the snow blower isn’t quite that precise, and snow was flying all over.

You can tell what a sheltered, boring life I lead by realizing that this passed for excitement.

But what awaited me in the pages of the magazines was even more interesting. The cover story of the NYT Magazine is about Shaken Baby Syndrome: how innocent people may be in jail because of the theory, which is in the on-second-thought stage. And the New Yorker included an article about childhood allergies, and how it maybe isn’t such a good idea to avoid exposing infants to peanuts and other allergens, because it just might be this actually increases the chances of future allergic reactions, contrary to what we’ve been told for the past couple of decades.

How interesting. Two medical theories fall in one week. Then again, I’m still miffed about margarine. I read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food a few weeks ago, and I’m with him on his basic principles:
Eat food (your grandmother, or great-grandmother if under 40, must recognize it, it must contain no more than 5 ingredients, and cannot contain the words “hydrogenated” or “high-fructose” or anything unpronounceable; Not too much; and Mostly plants. Seems like a nice reasonable approach to me. The guys with the degrees keep changing their minds every generation or so. Maybe it’s time to take their advice with a grain of salt – oops, except, The Man just announced a cutback in the amount of salt we’re allowed to eat, so maybe not.

Other interesting things I found: the ingredient in Jamaican Oxtail Soup that makes it so delicious is “browning”, aka burnt sugar essence, which is pretty much what it sounds like: sugar that is burned and mixed with water. Commercial versions (it’s scary to make and apparently many pots have been lost in the process) are available wherever Caribbean stores are found. It imparts that umami essence so indefinable and treasured, and while MSG or soy plus Worcestershire sauce might imitate it, there is apparently no real substitute. Now I want me some burnt sugar essence.

Then there’s the small-people-texture story. People slipped into architectural models to make them more real to life, more human. People taken out of context and plopped in front of a brand new house some builder wants to sell. Or an office building a firm is about to construct. A company called Falling Pixel (don’t you just love that?) makes CDs of these pluggable people. “120 Casual People” ($70) as the article notes, is a passable title for a comedy film. Maybe an idea for a story? And Realworld Imagery offers 104 Business People. For a little more. Because business people are worth more than casual people. Thing is, I vaguely remember a PBS documentary on advertising, how they shot photos of people doing all manner of things (skateboarding, dancing) in public, then turned them into black silhouettes, added a white cord, and shazaam! iPod ads were born.

I just read another blogger said Thursdays are odd days that don’t really fit anywhere on the spectrum. Sometimes Thursdays are cool. Mine was.

Top Chef All Stars, Season 8: Episode 9, “Feeding Fallon”

The password for tonight’s episode is: Party! Or maybe Happy! I should get Zin to write this, it was a Zin kind of episode.

In the pre credit segment, Dale is sad he messed up his pasta dish for last week’s Italian episode, and he knows how close he came to going home. Fabio wants Antonia to walk him through her mussels, but she won’t; she’s had it with him giving her a hard time. Good girl, Antonia. Then Isabella jumps in. Isabella says Antonia is trying to take some of his light. I have news for you, she doesn’t need yours, she’s doing fine on her own.

And the Quickfire:
The chefs walk into the Top Chef kitchen and see fondue pots all lined up on the tables. Richard says he’s thinking bell-bottoms, heels, and being naked. I’m thinking, what kind of fondue party does he go to? I came of age during the fondue years, and naked wasn’t part of it (though bell bottoms were, and heels, well, yeah, just like they are now). Fabio gives a definition of fondue: a pot of boiling something, put something on a stick and eat it. Close enough.
The QF challenge is to make a unique fondue. Padma says, “This isn’t the 70′s” so bananas and chocolate isn’t good enough. I don’t know, I think bananas and chocolate are pretty untoppable, and what’s wrong with a classic? The chefs are judging, giving their vote for favorite and least favorite fondue. They can’t vote for themselves. No immunity – no more immunity this season – but the winner gets a three day trip to Napa Valley and a tour of the product placement vineyard.
Fabio thinks he’s doing fine without immunity. Hold that thought, Fabio. Antonia want to win a prize. She hasn’t won any prizes or any money even though she’s won challenges. Isabella interviews that he was born in the 70s so he doesn’t know anyone who went to gay fondue parties. Leave it to Isabella to use gay as a pejorative. So that’s his excuse for this challenge. It’s always something, isn’t it, Mikey?

Dale goes to Southeast Asia for pho, rare beef in broth. He calls it Phuuuuundue. That’s cute. Sounds like something Blais would come up with, or maybe Carla. It must’ve tasted cute too, because he wins.
Angelo makes a deconstructed beet and goat cheese salad with endive. I don’t quite understand how that becomes fondue, but it does. He includes pickled beet juice shooters. Dale thinks it’s overly complicated. Angelo doesn’t really get everything done he wanted to do, and says he wants to throw it out. It’s a good thing he doesn’t since he’s in the top three.
Antonia says her mother loves Jewish deli, so she just gets the idea that goes from that to making breakfast, using smoked salmon. I’m not sure of that journey, and I don’t understand Jewish deli breakfast fondue, but she does. She ends up in the top three.
Blais makes chocolate fondue with bananas even though Padma said not to do it, because he wants to do it differently. He makes bananas with amaretto, ras el hanout, chili ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen. Padma’s tongue sticks to it like a popsicle. I suspect the tongue of every male just lolled out of their mouths. Me, I flashed on A Christmas Story, then on the poor Australian dude who didn’t know the movie but had to cook duck… oh, never mind. Blais says, “Eating should be somewhat dangerous sometimes.” What? Excuse me, food shouldn’t hurt. He thinks his dish would’ve won if there had been a judge, but because he knows how to do things other people don’t, they’re intimidated by him so he won’t win. Well, he’s right about the last part.
Carla makes beef tenderloin and shrimp with coconut curry.
Tiffany says she doesn’t remember anyone talking about fondue in the south. That made me giggle. Yeah, I’m thinking she’s right. Then she wonders, are people picking a winner for friendship? She makes an apple fritter with some ricotta cheese and hazelnut chocolate sauce for dipping. Blais calls it pedestrian, a clunky donut dipped in chocolate, which is exactly what it is, what’s wrong with that? Isabella watches Padma dip her donut into the chocolate, and gets all smarmy: “Get dirty – that’s a commercial right there.” Classy. But Padma laughs so I guess she’s amused. But Tiffany is in the bottom.
Fabio talks about some trip in Italy that included clams and fondue. I think that’s what he said, I couldn’t really tell. He makes blini with caviar, crème fraiche, and bourdin cheese sauce. That doesn’t sound very Italian, Fabio. Whatever it is, he’s in the bottom.
Isabella loves lamb, so he makes feta cheese fondue with lamb kabobs. See, I told you he does Greek food, not Italian. He may be Italian but he makes Greek food. Antonia doesn’t like it: “If Mikey doesn’t have lamb and Moroccan spices he doesn’t know what to do with himself.” Wait, he has lamb. He could’ve had Moroccan spices. So, I don’t get it. I think she made that comment about something else he made and they just threw it in here because she’s fed up with him over the whole mussels thing. By the way, I love Moroccan spices. But I thought he did Greek spices. Dale said “It was bad, man” – the spices were off, and the feta sauce didn’t work. He’s in the bottom.

Then Padma sets up the Elimination challenge by sending them all to Rockefeller Center. Which I confused with Rockville Centre for the first couple of decades of my life. I was born in Rockville Centre on Long Island, but whenever people asked where I was born, I’d tell them Rockefeller Center, until someone asked if I was born on the skating rink. I know better now.

The chefs end up on The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon for his cell phone shootout segment. They seem confused, and they aren’t really dressed for TV – Antonia is wearing jeans that buckle around her crotch, Fabio’s wearing a Got Milky Wear T-shirt which probably means something but nothing comes up on Google so it can’t be important, and in general they look scruffy and unkempt. Kind of mean. You’d think they’d warn them a little bit, like tell them they’re doing special shots today so look nice. eta:It’s the morning after and I’m doing my edits (sure, I edit before I post, but then I sleep on it and edit again, hey, it’s my blog, I can do what I want.) And it’s a good thing I edit because I just realized I called Jimmy Fallon Jimmy Kimmel about half the time, and even though I couldn’t pick out either of them in a lineup or explain who they are, I’m sure there are lots of people who could. Anyway. I just realized – they knew they were going to be on TV when they got dressed because they’re ON A TV SHOW! Except they usually wear chef coats over those scruffy clothes. And they weren’t really on TV, because this would’ve been shot some time in the summer, or early fall, and it obviously wasn’t aired then because it would’ve spoiled who was still there… but did they swear the audience to secrecy? Threaten to take away their Jimmy Fallon fan club cards? Did they sneak in the sequestered losing chefs and make sure they didn’t get in any of the shots? Or was there no audience? I’m very confused.

While Carla is jumping around delighted to be on Jimmy Fallon’s show, Antonia is confused: what is the challenge? Where are the pots and pans? Is her chef coat there? This is why she’s been winning, she focuses on what she needs to do. Except for the chef coat, which she probably wishes she was wearing instead of the double t-shirts. Carla has been winning a lot too, so maybe enthusiasm counts for something.

They use their cell phones to take a photo of some food they will prepare for Jimmy Fallon’s birthday party lunch the next day. The photos flash so quickly, they really can’t pick, so it’s a random draw. I guess this is a regular segment of some kind (I’ve never seen Jimmy Fallon’s show, at least not on purpose). They are warned that Jimmy does not like mushrooms, eggplant, or mayonnaise. He tells a story later on at the birthday lunch about how he got his head stuck between two bars of a railing and his grandmother used mayonnaise to get him out so he’s never liked it since. They will get two hours to cook at Colicchio & Sons, and Jimmy and his family will be there.

Antonia shoots first and gets beef tongue. That’s rough, man. She’s never eaten or made tongue. Blais tells her how to pressure cook it, because normally it would take five hours. Isabella is bitchy about that: “I don’t want someone beating me because I gave them directions.” Stuff it, Isabella. She makes tongue on pumpernickel with onions and cole slaw; she thinks the tongue tastes great. The diners love it, too. Jimmy says she licked the challenge, and everyone groans.
Fabio gets hamburger and French fries. He feels a lot of pressure! He says he’s never made a hamburger. I thought he was full of it, but after seeing what he did, I actually believe him. He can’t pronounce “burger” he keeps saying “booger” which I suspect is deliberate on his part because it’s part of his “just from the boat” image. I just have trouble believing a chef who’s lived in America for, what, ten years? and owns two restaurants is unable to pronounce or cook burgers. He treats it like a meatball and makes it out of brisket and short rib and something else, pork or veal I think. Maybe he really is unschooled in the way of burgers. The diners think it tastes like meat loaf, not a juicy burger at all. He also melts cheddar cheese into a sauce but it separates and goes all grainy.
Blais gets ramen noodles. He decides to go for straightforward authentic Asian noodles with seared pork belly, duck legs, and a duck egg, to show he can cook without the helmet and cannons and dry ice. Jimmy is disappointed – the dish is fine, but he was expecting lasers and smoke guns.
Tiffany gets chicken and dumplings, which is what they have in the South instead of fondue, right? Except her family does it a little differently. She makes “not your mother’s Chicken and Dumplings” which is a Southwest version with chilies. The dumplings are a little thin, not pillowy and doughy. Jimmy really misses the doughy dumplings. She rolled them out too thin.
Carla hopes she gets chicken pot pie, and she does, and boy does she lose it, doubles over laughing for a minute. When she can speak, she tells Jimmy, “I’ve been talking about chicken pot pie all week!” She interviews she’s very happy about this, if she can win this challenge she will have won three challenges and she will be perceived as a force to be reckoned with. No, you won’t, Carla, but that’s because the boys’ penises will not allow them to believe you can cook. She’s rushing, and Dale says watching her is like watching a chicken with her head cut off, he doesn’t think she’ll make it. But she does, and she has a bottom crust on her chicken pot pie which Jimmy Fallon really appreciates. She includes carrots but couldn’t get peas so she included pea salt. What the hell is pea salt? I can find Sweet Pea Salt and Pepper Shakers and Pea Salt Pork Soup but no pea salt. One place says “pea salt is part of asian cuisine” but doesn’t say anything else about it. Pea salt? Carla, are you inventing things? Or are you just funnin’ me? eta: Gail’s blog informs me that “pea salt” is dehydrated peas crushed up and mixed with salt and that it imparts a bit of bright pea flavor as well as saltiness, and it was served along the side of the pie. So I’m thinking Carla did invent this. Go Carla! And Blais gets all the credit for inventing weird things. I’m gonna make pea salt some day. And carrot salt, and corn salt…
Dale gets Philly Cheesesteak. He’s never made one from scratch (don’t tell me he buys them frozen) and isn’t sure of the seasoning, he was dinged for bland food last time. He sees pretzel bread so he thinks he’ll go with that. He says “I’m taking every measure to make sure Carla doesn’t come near my food” which sounds really paranoid, especially when said about Carla, but I realize he means because they are serving together he wants to be sure her food isn’t as good as his. At least I think that’s what he meant. I hope so, because nobody should be accusing Carla of any shenanigans. Jimmy starts talking about the salt monster, how the sandwich looked so great on the plate but is way oversalted. Everyone agrees.
Angelo gets pulled pork. He makes it with a sauce of coffee, chipotle (which he can’t pronounce correctly, one of my pet peeves), coriander, and allspice, and no one can believe it actually works but it works really well. Angelo is all about the presentation, and Isabella knocks the top off one of his sandwiches and gets scolded then denies he did it. When Angelo gives the plates to the servers, he says, “Be gentle.” That cracks me up. The diners love it.
Isabella gets sausage and peppers. He does it “Fenway style” – shaves the onions and peppers – and makes his own sausage with pork shoulder and fennel. It’s appreciated. He and Angelo serve together, and there’s a lot of joking at the table about pulled pork and sausages. Because this is a very sophisticated crowd.

Two strange interludes happened during all this: They make a product placement lobster and shrimp ravioli for their own dinner. It’s really tacky.

Then Dale watches Angelo getting dressed and calls Angelo a pretty man with his “well manicured five o’clock shadow” and his sheer purple shirt and tight pants. But he thinks he’s a better chef even though Angelo is a stunning man. Dale is engaged, isn’t he, to a woman? The mother of his child?

Oh, and the partygoers play with a telescoping fork.

And it’s all over but the shouting. Padma comes into the stew room wearing a five-year-old’s dress, a white sleeveless thing with a dirndl skirt, big red and black flowers on it. She usually wears very sophisticated, elegant clothing. I guess this is her “I’m a mommy now and I’m going to a birthday party” look.

Carla, Angelo, Antonia are the best. The winner will appear on Jimmy Fallon’s show for a cooking segment. The three of them do The Beef Tongue Song, which they wrote while, I don’t know, waiting in the stew room? The Beef Tongue Song? The Team Top Chef blog has this note: Text beeftongue to 27286 to get a special ringtone FREE! I don’t know what happens when you text that, since I don’t have a texty thing. But I’m betting it’s the Beef Tongue Song.

And, oh yeah, Carla wins! Now, I’m a huge Carla fan, and I don’t doubt her dish was great, but I suspect Jimmy Fallon had some input into that decision: he knew who would be the most fun on his show. Though the three of them together could do the Beef Tongue Song. Carla also gets a six-night trip to Tokyo and five grand for airfare. This is the third trip she’s won on Top Chef. She goes back in the stew room and says very quietly, “I won,” since last time she was all happy and exuberant she got shot down, but he isn’t here any more is he. Still, she remembers. And everyone claps for her, because she didn’t do mussels, I guess. Blais thinks it’s really interesting to see his colleagues get worked up about her third win, but he doesn’t care, he just has to win final. I think he’s feeling a little nervous about now.

Fabio, Tiffany, Dale are the bottom three. Fabio didn’t make a hamburger and his cheese sauce was grainy, Tiffany didn’t make chicken and dumplings with any kind of comfort food feeling, and Dale’s cheesesteak was oversalted since the pretzel bread had salt and the steak had salt and then cheese had salt. Jimmy is really sorry anyone has to go because he had such a good time. He did seem to have a good time. Everyone seemed to have a good time on this episode.

And Fabio goes home. “Happy as I could possibly be” he says. He wishes he could stick around a little longer,. He’s very gracious, shakes hands, says little quips, thanks Tom for letting him use his kitchen, very nice. It’s just in his interviews that he’s an ass, and when he puts on the “no speaka da English” routine. His final words: “You really are the only shadow standing in your own sunshine.” Ok, I think I know what he means.

Next week, Muppets? Toys? And Anthony Bourdain wants to have someone’s urine tested.

Steve Almond: The Evil B. B. Chow and Other Stories

I chose to read this because, well, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but other than “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” I haven’t read Steve Almond’s short stories, just his flash. This is his second story collection, published in 2005.

The title story (originally published in Zoetrope) is first, and traces a rocky affair between a women’s magazine editor, who spends her working hours giving life advice to other women, and a less-than-suave medical resident from blind date to… well, I’m not going to give that away. Keep in mind that just because someone doesn’t come across as smooth doesn’t mean he’s not a dog. The first-person female protagonist is wonderfully drawn. But overall I’m a little disappointed – and believe me, I feel pretty stupid saying that. It’s a fun story, smooth as glass to read, but… is there really any there there? Favorite line: “But somehow, the fact that B.B. Chow can’t really kiss or fuck or even fondle, the fact that he makes me feel like Xena, Warrior Princess, these things turn me on. It’s like the bar is set so low with this guy, we can’t help but get over.” I remember some TV show or movie, maybe a book, I’m not sure, where a fat woman went on a blind date with a man who turned out to be fat and rather unattractive, cut the date short then refused all offers of another date. He persistently asked why: did he do something wrong, did he remind her of her evil ex, spinach in his teeth, she’d just met someone amazing the night before, what? And she confessed, she didn’t want to date a fat man. Or an ugly man. A woman in her position (she had some kind of high-end job) did not need to date fat, ugly men. To settle. He was stunned, hurt. “I thought you’d understand,” he said. “You of all people.” “What,” she said, “just because I’m fat, I’m supposed to accept any loser who shows up? No way. I’ve worked hard, I’m a good person, I have a lot to offer, and I’m too good for a fat man.” I had very mixed feelings about that scene. I wonder if it actually exists, or if I made it up. In any case, it was a more effective and moving exploration of how we judge people than this story. Of course, this was a lot more subtle and took a different angle. But I’m just sayin’.

“The Soul Module,” originally published in Tin House, is quite short. It is also available online (actually, most of these are available online if you google hard enough, but this one is archived on Steve Almond’s website). Just the title made me think of “The God Module,” a part of the brain that may play a role in a person’s religiousity. And by golly, just like the title of Lauren Groff’s “Delicate Edible Birds” made me think of the feast described in Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw, I was right! Not exactly, but close. Our first-person protagonist, Jim, meets college squash team buddy Wilkes for brunch, very early in the course of which Wilkes explains he has a cartridge in his head, implanted there by alien caretakers. Before Jim can digest this, or get more information (or even order brunch), Wilkes’ parents happen by and join the two buddies. Turns out they, too, have cartridges in their heads, and they take over where Wilkes left off, explaining the details. Jim thinks of a course in The Biology of Religion (sounds like a fascinating course) during which he’d learned of a hormone secreted by the pineal gland which the professor referred to as the Soul Molecule, as it encouraged mystical thoughts. Jim failed the class, but he seems to be making up for lost time as he reacts to this information. One of the winning things about this story is the way it’s presented, in straightforward but slightly stark manner. In fact, the first paragraph struck me immediately as being choppy – strangely choppy – though the rest did not. The dialogue between Wilkes and Jim, before the parents arrive, is amazing. It’s really quite a wonderful read, strange and funny. In the second paragraph, Jim recalls how Wilkes told him, back in their squash playing days, that the secret of his successful game was: “Vision. You have to see what’s going to happen.” Of course, Jim had no vision at the beginning of the brunch, but by the end he seems to have caught on: “Everything that was about to happen I could see, just before it did.” Me, I’d be worrying about a communicable neurological virus at work. But folie a deux – trois, quatre – is probably more likely. I’m reminded of visiting a friend for the weekend many years ago, only to discover her husband was an actively raving alcoholic who was pretty much ignored like the proverbial elephant in the room. It’s a fun story, completely crazy, told perfectly.

“Appropriate Sex” on first read is pretty annoying and feels like flag waving: “Look, ma, no hands, I didn’t touch her even though she came into my office and threw herself at me!” But there’s more to it than that. I once had a therapist who told me she couldn’t be bothered with websites and email or television or movies because she didn’t do screens (this was said with serious deprecation, as if screens were things only cretins bothered with) because her strength was in understanding relationships between people. Considering what a crappy therapist she was, I think maybe she should’ve gone to the movies more and learned to use a computer. This story is all about relationships. Mr. Lowe, college writing teacher, is separated from his wife at least partly due to his newly acquired impotence. The students in his class are discussing a story about a woman who “pulls the plug” on her terminally ill daughter and then rides a horse. One student sees a great deal of sexuality in the horse riding scene. And, to a third-person reader, he’s right. The students take sides. Mr. Lowe gets nervous and tries to move the discussion along. The writer stays silent. But she shows up for office hours with Mr. Lowe and hits on him. All this is pretty routine, but then he says something amazing: “I felt suddenly, irretrievably sorry for both of us, for Mandy who viewed her sexuality as a bright new user option only obscurely related to her heart, and for me, who was losing hair in clumps and couldn’t even give my wife a decent poking anymore. I wanted to have a good cry right then, preferably with my head nuzzled somewhere warm.” The student who noticed the sexuality in the story shows up, and starts confiding in Mr. Lowe about his recently broken relationship, and the two share a joint and gallop off like stallions into the sunset, bringing back to mind the sexual aspects of the horse in the story and the divorce of sex and relationships. I can’t say it was a story I loved – it did seem a bit self-serving, or at least pandering – but I appreciated it at least for the insertion of a Bill and Monica riff, how the definition of sexual relations, and the eventual discovery of the blue dress and the revelation of just what went on in the Oval Office: “this was our national discourse.” Yes, it was, wasn’t it. And that is what, about the whole miserable mess, was truly, truly sad.

“I Am As I Am” immediately had me on alert for something Biblical, a la “I AM THAT I AM”, one of the many translations of YHWH, Yahweh, or Jehovah. But I don’t think that’s what it is. There is church in the story, but it’s clearly stated the church service is not a usual thing, and I AM THAT I AM is kind of hard-core religion. Red herring? Maybe. (I would start a new paragraph here but I’m trying to keep all these comments to one paragraph per story) But I’d rather start with the beginning, a very good place to start, especially in this case, because the little preamble about the park in Dorset Centre, how it was this and someone thought, “Oh, no, that might cause trouble” so they made it that and someone else said, “No, that could cause a different kind of problem” and they ended up with something that didn’t work when it would’ve been great if they’d just let it develop naturally, without all the planning. Thinking about it too much ruined it. And then we go into Eric learning to swing and how his father taught him that it has to be intuitive, that thinking about it won’t work, and I’m going “Yes!” Eric struggles with this concept but he gets it, and becomes, in addition to an attractive and appealing boy, a very good 10-year-old ballplayer. (another paragraph, forgive me) Bill Bellamy is not, however, a good ballplayer. And catastrophe ensues. Eric is fine until everyone keeps assuring him it wasn’t his fault. And he starts thinking about it. And thinking about it. What I love here is that there’s this tendency to assume, especially with kids, that they’re feeling this or that, and to “fix” it. I’m a cryer. I cry in supermarkets, on busses, at dinner, whatever. Definitely at movies. Even comedies. And it freaks people out. I keep assuring them, “I’m all right, I’m just crying, I won’t die from it” but everyone universally seems to feel like they have to fix it. Which makes it a problem, since I have to now conceal that I’m crying. And feel bad about it. “I am as I am” comes in when Mom bakes him a cake to cheer him up (except, um, she got the flavor wrong, so the maid must’ve actually made it) and the phrase is on the cake, which is baffling. I’m wondering if the maid is religious. Or if Mom is just weird. There are some class issues as well – the Bellamys live in an “annex” to the town, the boy isn’t attractive or appealing, and his mom gets a little weird after the tragedy – and all in all there’s a lot to think about here. And I’m wondering, wow, where did this come from, more, please.

“A Happy Dream” is archived on Steve Almond’s website. For a short, not-really-meaningful story, this gave me more associations than I know what to do with. Henry, risk-averse sous-chef, has a blind date with a pretty (not gorgeous, he’s all done with gorgeous) woman by accident when she mistakes him for someone else, and he plays the role of Firefighter Mike. Except, it isn’t really that simple, of course. It’s pleasant, but there are opportunities missed, and the title completely goes by me. It’s not a dream, is it? No, that would be really awful. Anyway, what I’m thinking, while the sous chef is playing firefighter and the bike messenger is playing chimney sweep (I thought something was strange when she said she was a chimney sweep) and it all works out in the end and she continues to see him as a firefighter, is that this is Kurt Vonnegut’s “Who Am I This Time?” which just happens to be maybe my favorite KV story of all time. But that’s just because I know Steve Almond has a literary crush on KV. Something else flitted through my brain but it flitted out again. Maybe because this is NOT “Who Am I This Time” and I’m getting disappointed again. Maybe I should go back and read the amazing flashes in This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey to remember why I’m so into Steve Almond in the first place.

“Lincoln, Arisen” is a little different – I think there’s a story there, but frankly (and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this) I’m just not interested in finding it. I think my read could be characterized as a skim. One paragraph struck me – “There once was a man who found no happiness in his life. He was sad every moment of the day. His duties were many and without mercy. Senators ran to him in anger. Common men blackened their hearts on his behalf. A nation of mothers cursed his name… He behaved nobly, but for reasons he could not fathom. His faults were but the shadows his virtues cast. He saw himself grimly advancing on history, but came to understand it was the other way around…” And another: “‘If anyone can do better than me, let him try his hand,’ he writes, in a note to congressional leaders. ‘You boys at the other end of the avenue seem to feel my job is sorely desired. Listen: I am but one man in this ruinous union, which has become nothing but a white elephant, impossible to steer or manage.’” I am thinking that is from history. I wonder if President Obama, who early on said his Presidency was inspired by Lincoln, but at the time this was written was just a junior Senator with a good keynote speech under his belt (depending on exactly when this was written), read that in his study of the former President. I wonder if he’s read this story. One blogger described it as “President on abolitionist action” as Lincoln and Frederick Douglass take a raft down the Mississippi, a la Huck Finn Ain’t history grand, the way things work out. Part of my trouble with this story, I think, was that I spent the first half of it puzzled, thinking Douglass referred to Stephen Douglas. I should read it again. As I said, I think there’s a story here. A real story, not just cute bawdiness. But, I’m just not interested. Maybe another time.

“The Idea of Michael Jackson’s Dick” on the other hand, is something that just doesn’t interest me any time, any how. Michael Jackson was alive when this story was written. I think it’s sad that it’s more interesting because of that, but still not interesting enough to bother really reading. Sorry. Possible story concept: Where were you when Michael Jackson (or Heath Ledger or Tony Curtis) died? I was having an MRI. I went into the machine when the ambulances were called. I came out and he was dead. No, that has nothing to do with this story. Calling my read a skim would be a kindness.

“The Problem of Human Consumption” originally from The Virginia Quarterly Review – this is the story that tells me I must buy this book (I am reading a library copy). Layers upon layers – hunger, sex, love, cancer, death, loss, secrets. Paul is a widower, as the first sentence declares. Jess is his daughter. He finds his wife’s wedding ring in Jess’ room. He wonders when his wife gave it to her, how Jess could leave it on her dresser so casually, and discovers there is a hair strung through it so he can pull the hair and the ring slides from hand to hand. Jess comes in from her date, sees him in her room; she took the ring from a box in his closet, a box containing various memorabilia of Mom, including the ring. They both remember a moment at the beach years ago, when Paul and his wife made love while Jess, a baby, napped, except she woke up. The common thread running through this, believe it or not, is meat. Ham, and hot dogs. But the image of the ring – Jess does not realize it is suspended by a hair – is so gripping, and the hunger so intense, oh, my, what a story. Neither knows what the other is thinking. They each deal with their own guilt, real (for going into her room, for stealing the ring from him) and imagined (he thinks he killed his wife on that day, she at the time thought he was killing her then and there). That is the key here, these two people, father and daughter, alone when they do not need to be. There is some fourth-wall-breaking stuff I’m usually not crazy about, but it works here. This story cooks. Vegetarian, please. How did he do this? The image of the floating ring? The brilliant concatenation of beach, hunger, meat, loneliness, sex? The narration, present tense, super omniscient switching from Paul to Jess to narrator: “It is important to remember that their crimes are not really crimes. They are simple human failings, distortions of memory, the cruel math of fractured hopes. The only true crime here is one of omission. The woman they both loved has been omitted from their lives. She is a beautiful ghost, a floating ring.” See? This is what I want to learn to do. This is the story I want to learn to write.

“Wired For Life” originally appeared in The Missouri Review. I read this at a bad time. I’d just read a draft of a story by someone who perhaps is developmentally delayed, or has some kind of language deficit. And I had the same feeling when starting this story: it was written in choppy, elementary sentences that barely made sense let alone flowed, with plenty of non sequiturs thrown in. Something like Zin’s hurried and unedited writing. On reading it again, just now, I don’t see the similarity, so I guess it was just carry-over. Very strange. But the story, well, it’s about connections, sexual and electronic. Janie’s laptop power cord is frayed and undependable, and she stops in to Charlie Song’s electronics repair shop to have it fixed. He pulls out a sadder gun – you know, the thing they use for soldering – and she is aroused by the precise motions of his hands, regardless of his aged, baggy face and rotted teeth. This may have something to do with her boyfriend, Drew, who doesn’t want to have sex with her, and regards any contact over “cuddling” to be pressure. Janie is in a bad way. She discovers a few weeks later the cord needs more solder, so she returns to Charlie Song and his sadder gun. Yes, I’m amused by that pun. I remember a book by Echo Heron, one of my many terminal-illness books, this one from a nurse’s point of view, in which she gets in an elevator with a young man pushing a machine. She asks what the machine is, and he says it is a fokk machine. She follows him, curious what the fokk machine is going to do, exactly, and he plugs it in and it starts fokking which helps the asthmatic in the room breathe easier as the moisture in the fog – or more accurately, vapor – relaxes his bronchioles. I giggle uncontrollably when I read that, and I get the same kick out of sadder gun. I also appreciated the description of the cuddling episode that goes bad when Janie thinks Drew is turned on but he isn’t, and he ends up sleeping on the couch. Her last visit to Charlie Song is pretty good. I almost gave up on this one early on, but I’m glad I hung in there. It’s actually quite a portrait of a woman driven crazy by a withholding man, when it’s usually shown the other way around. Oh, and there are a lot of great lines, like “His eyes were so lambent Jamie wanted to poke one with a chopstick.” I had to look up “lambent” – bright, shining. Any story that sends me to the dictionary is a winner. But mostly I just love Janie going back to Charlie Song, time and time again, trying to get her connection fixed.

“Larsen’s Novel” originally appeared in Other Voices. I had a few WTF moments in the opening, but then I realized that was part of the design. Dentist Flem comes home with a novel his pal Larsen has written, and Flem’s wife immediately says, “What is that, a rabbit?” Turns out there is a reason she says this, but it had me thinking I was illiterate. And for some reason, I had a terrible time keeping the characters straight. It isn’t that there are so many of them – two couples, each with children who play minor roles – but I just was bewildered and had to keep looking back at who Beth was married to and who Belle was. Then we have Poor Jude, and that just tickled me, because there are people like that – you call them Poor Whatever not because they are necessarily any more pathetic than anyone else but because they exude this need for sympathy, this put-uponness. The bulk of this story is made up of Flem avoiding Larsen because the novel is, well, not so good. AS someone who regularly trades reviews in an online workshop, I can sympathize. I often have a strong desire to run and hide because A has reviewed my story and now I have to review A’s story, and I do not want to! In fact, I am dealing with that on several levels right this minute. And it isn’t because I’m such a great writer, it’s that the story is in a genre that just doesn’t appeal to me, or for whatever reason is a chore to read. Find a dozen ways to say “this story was meh” without hurting someone’s feelings. Yeah, go ahead, do it. Anyway, back to Larsen’s novel, which is deemed by a professional critic to be awful, and then by another to be genius (not an uncommon thing, a group of us are reading BASS 2010 together and every story gets its share of “what is this doing in this collection” reactions). But Flem doesn’t know how to face Larsen. Lots of humor surfaces throughout. And Dr. Oss appears! Is this the same Dr. Oss from “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched“? If so, he deserved the punch he got, because he’s rather an ass. There is a point to all this: Flem is actually jealous that Larsen wrote a novel, even a bad novel. And his avoidance has consequences. I felt sorry for everyone involved here, but no one was a real villain, they all just had their own tragic flaws.

“Skull” is posted online at Nerve.com. In the comments section is a link to a generic joke collection that pretty much is the story (a woman with a glass eye likes to take it out and have her boyfriend screw the socket. The specifics are given in great detail). I’m perplexed as to why Steve Almond would bother rewriting a really gross joke, and why he’d end a collection with it. Then I think, maybe I’m just an old fart who doesn’t know how to have fun, maybe this is funny, maybe it’s even touching (um, no, no touching, please!), this version of intimacy, how desperate must someone be for real intimacy and why would she be that desperate, does it, as the comment say, relate to a French story about a woman who pulls out a priest’s eyes and inserts them into her, and to the equivalency of eye loss with castration, …) but no, it’s just creepy and unpleasant and I really am disappointed this is how the collection, which contains some excellent stories, ends.

I’m going to return to Steve Almond’s online story archive and check out the rest of the stories there. I’m not planning on reading Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life because I have heard it is pretty much heavy on the raucous sex romp, and while I’m down with that in small doses, I’m a little old for a whole book of it. Final question: if he can write stories like “The Problem of Human Consumption” and “I Am As I Am,” and to a lesser extent “Larson’s Novel” and “Lincoln, Arisen” and “Wired for Life” why is he fooling around with “Skull” and “A Happy Dream”? Then again, who the hell am I to judge Steve Almond.

Baby Artichokes

I was just looking through my Feeds – I don’t really understand Feeds, and I only check in on them every month or so, and they never seem to be updated, so I think I’m missing something about Feeds. But the point is – I took a look at my friend Melissa’s blog. Now, Melissa is a wonderful writer, we used to play on Zoetrope a lot, but she’s also an amazing chef, and she has a food blog which tempts me to try things way WAY out of my comfort zone. I’m glad to see she’s posting again, she took a little break there, but now she’s back with Catfish and Olives.

I’m not likely to make Catfish with Olives, but it reminded me that I’ve been doing a lot of vegetative exploration this fall and winter. Last season, 2009-2010, I played with chard of various kinds and colors, stuffed acorn squash with a rice mixture, and made beets time and time again in various ways. This season, it’s been about multicolored carrots, parsnips, brussels sprouts, and celery root. And the other day I found… baby artichokes! Right there in my supermarket! Regular artichokes are way too much work for me, not really worth it. But Baby Artichokes are a lot less work – just peel off the big leaves, trim the top and bottom, and you’re good to go, no searching for the choke which’ll kill you if you don’t get it out. It’s the “it’ll kill you” part that makes artichoke cookery not so much fun.

But with baby artichokes, no choke! And I love baby veggies (not the “baby cut carrots” which are regular carrots chopped up to look like baby size, don’t let them fool you, they’re convenient but they are NOT baby carrots), no matter what they are, so it’s a natural. I got four, and ended up with a little more than a half cup when cleaned and split. I didn’t do anything to them, just steamed them and threw on a little butter and salt. I could do this often.

Oh, and I discovered how to Follow Melissa’s blog instead of getting Feeds, so from now on it’ll be a lot easier.

Ken Kalfus – Thirst (Collected Stories)

Ken Kalfus – Thirst (Story Collection)

I chose to read this book after having very much enjoyed the author’s Three Stories from Madras Press, the second series. This collection was first published in 1998, then re-released in 2010 by Milkweed.

I found the collection to be extremely varied in technique and style; most are third-person but some aren’t even narratives, exactly. That’s a good thing. And they’re all weird. Some really weird, some just a little around the edges, maybe. That’s good, too. No navel-gazing man confronting his life misspent, no browbeaten woman finding the courage to change. Or, rather, there is, all over the place, but none of these stories would be characterized as such. There are a few I’d call misses, but overall I found the collection very enjoyable.

“Notice” is, maybe a story, maybe an essay, maybe a preface. This is a wonderful way to start a book of stories, with something that might be one thing but might be another, keeping the reader off balance and puzzled. It’s also very funny, whatever it is. And it reminds me how much the current generation of kids is missing, not having mimeograph papers to sniff. We had duck-and-cover, mimeograph fluid, the JFK assassination. The generation before us had the Depression and WWII. What does this generation find that links them together? Oh, wait. 9/11. Yeah, that kind of trumps everything, doesn’t it. Except there are fifth graders who are learning it, as we learned about Pearl Harbor, as history. I wonder what they’ll find. See how far a three-page not-sure-what-it-is can take you? Favorite line: “NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.”

“Le Jardin de la Sexualite” is a suite of two stories about a young Irish au pair in Paris, eager to experience life. Except she finds Paris a little too much to experience, encountering brassiere advertisements, naked art, and a very nice Algerian (who turns out to be Moroccan) who is suspect, then not. The way these stories are written, I wasn’t totally sure if her perception of sex all around her was her perception (come on, even in Paris, is there that much sex? Isn’t there any clothed art? All she sees are breasts and penises everywhere) or reality. Again, that “what do we have here” feeling, which is odd but quite enjoyable. Her reactions to the Algerian/Moroccan/Tunisian – dangerous, attractive, hostile, attracted – flutter by and morph by the minute. It’s a lovely set of stories. I can’t see them separated, though they are two separate stories.

“The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz” is likewise a “what is this” story. It consists of a set of questions, the answers showing a lot more about human nature than baseball. I don’t particularly like baseball (I was scarred by 20 years in Boston) and I don’t particularly like baseball stories, but this was great. And again I was, as a non-baseball person, unsure as to whether the trivia questions were being truthfully answered or if everything was invention. Turns out, it’s all fictitious, and I suppose a baseball fan would know that. But it doesn’t really matter that much. Favorite line: “He expected to foul off balls to the end of time, forever drawing from the stadium’s supply (the management would have to call for more), forever dispensing souvenirs of this historic event among the game’s spectators. Time had stopped; each foul ball further dilated the moment.”

“Cats in Space” went by me a bit. A child’s-eye retrospective. Made me want to get some helium balloons, just to see if you could launch a cat into space that way. I’ve had cats since 1976, by the way, and my fourth (and last) is now 16. I just didn’t quite hook onto this story. Best line: The title.

“The Republic of Saint Mark, 1849″ was another one of those bouncing-in-my-seat-waving-my-hand-over-my-head-”I-know-I-know-pick-me!” story. I vaguely remember reading the first aerial bombardment in wartime used balloons to drop packets of explosives, back a long time ago. I don’t remember the specifics but I won’t argue with Austria vs. Italy in 1849. Again, you’re never quite sure what you’re reading. Not one of my favorites. Favorite line: In Venice, of course, not all the suffering is done by men and women. For example, the still-red roses in the Contessa’s window box are being driven mad by the screams of her rotting gardenias.”

“Night and Day You Are The One” is the story of poor Harrah, who due to a strange sleep disorder leads two parallel lives complete with two apartments, two jobs, and two ladies in his life. Then worlds begin to collide. I enjoyed this tremendously. I remember a movie from some time in the 1980′s, I think, where Kathleen Turner (maybe) couldn’t tell which was real and which was dream, and in one she ended up in prison for murder. I kept thinking of that movie while reading this. Interesting that I can’t remember the name of it. But this story worked, the little details kept it going. I do wish there had been more to the end, but that’s probably just because I’m not sophisticated to appreciate ambiguity. Favorite line: “Harrah did not consider it to his advantage that this sleep disorder allowed him to maintain relationships with two women at once. It was often a nuisance: two birthdays to recall, two sets of personal endearments, and many complications.”

“Among the Bulgarians” changes direction completely; it’s entirely realism. A teenager returns to the US after living with his parents in Bulgaria (under communism – probably in the early 80′s, John Lennon’s murder is mentioned and seems to be recent) for the summer. What’s interesting is that the title is “Among the Bulgarians” yet the story is about him being among his old friends at home again. It’s a wonderful exposition of that old canard about travel being educational, although it isn’t educational in the way one would expect. His mother wants him to write a diary, discussing Bulgaria in various categories (Politics, Art, Sports, etc). This does not hold much interest for him. But he’s very aware of the difference between where he was and where he is. In Bulgaria he notes the Monument, erected by the Communists, that includes a giant black marble sword visible everywhere in the city. Back home he wonders just what store it was that the new Friendly’s replaced. And muses how wrong the poster he brought back for his friend is. It’s not interesting enough to hang, it’s too big. Re-entry adjustment. Being a teenager, he doesn’t articulate it, which I love, because having him articulate it would ruin it. I enjoyed this story tremendously. Favorite line: “…recording his experiences would attenuate them. It would destroy his spontaneity, making him self-conscious. And a journal would replace these images and ideas that were pouring into his brain like sunshine through a skylight with whatever language he clumsily chose to describe them, so that years later he would no longer possess the memory, but merely the inexact words.” Ok, he does articulate his lack of articulation. But that’s it.

“Suit” is another young-person realist story, though it’s written to be a little puzzling initially. Gerard Morton and his father are waiting for Benedict in a men’s clothier. Benedict is going to cost a lot of money. Gerard – a twenty-one year old – has never conceived of going to college, grad school, getting married. He doesn’t seem to have conceived of much beyond getting through the day. The first line is “How about white linen?” which reminds me of the Streets of Laredo and a cowboy so I’m wondering if I have very strange associations (Gerard thinks of it as what Jack Nicholson wore in Chinatown) or Gerard is feeling pretty dead. Benedict’s purpose is revealed later, though it becomes obvious by the second or third page as he runs around the shop picking a suit for Gerard. It’s a wonderful character story that doesn’t look like a character story. And I finally caught on – everything in this book looks like one thing but is probably not. Favorite line: “Benedict was about thirty-five, but his clothes and accessories gave him the appearance of someone much younger whose confidence, grace, and abilities gave him the appearance of someone much older, about thirty-five.” I’m smitten.

“The Weather in New York” is one of the shortest pieces, and one of my least favorites. Son from Florida comes to visit Dad in New York. That’s enough for me right there. Favorite line, slightly paraphrased: Father says, “Florida? Hah! It’s a hot New Jersey.” And so it is. Usually it’s the New Yorker son who visits Dad in Florida. That’s why I like this volume, everything is turned on its head.

“Rope Bridge” could be your typical cheating-husband story but there are several really interesting elements that make it more. Tom and Claire, and young son Adam, go to visit Claire’s friend Lucy. Tom considers that he and Lucy have been flirting a little for years, and he becomes obsessed with having an affair with her, something he likens to crossing a rope bridge. The way this is written – and this is his art – I’m just as unsure as Tom as to whether he and Lucy are actually flirting, or if their brief contacts are accidental. In any event, they end up in bed and in a coitus interruptus scene that works perfectly, little Adam wakes up. Or maybe he’s sleepwalking. In any event, Tom disengages and turns to talk of Star Wars and Star Trek so quickly, it’s miraculous. I’m awed by that scene. Especially since Lucy is “gasping” and tries to keep him from going. It’s really quite good. There’s another interesting scene in which Tom wonders aloud to his wife what color Lucy’s pubic hair might be, if it’s blonde. Claire assures him it isn’t, it’s dark with a bit of reddishness, and this makes me wonder, hmmm, I can’t say that I know the precise color of anyone’s pubic hair (that includes my spouse to whom I was married for 15 years, though that was a long time ago) and how did Claire learn this information and why does she remember it so vividly? Or is she making it up? Again, there’s this off-balance quality throughout that is a wonderful experience, not frustrating like “I don’t understand” but more like, “I wonder if I’m right about this.” Favorite line: it’s quite long, actually, and belongs to Lucy: “When you liked somebody when you were young, you went with them to the movies; it was just a matter of preference. Now you have to live with them the rest of your life. And when you’re younger you think you know this as a fact of life, but you don’t come close to knowing it. So now this is what they mean when they call going to work five days a week – week in, week, out, no spring break, no three-month summer vacation – a grind. So this is what they mean when they complain about getting old. So this is what they mean when they complain about death.” Yes, I get this. When I was a teenager I couldn’t wait to go to work. Real work, not little jobs for neighbors. I was so proud, at 18, to have a desk and a telephone and a typewriter (yes, a typewriter, that’s how long ago it was) and it wasn’t for quite a few years that I realized this wasn’t as much fun as it used to be. And when I was a kid, my aunt would ask me to help her dust and my job would be to dust the legs of the furniture because I could crawl around on the floor without any trouble, and I’d open all the jars, and I’d thread the needles. And now I understand, it wasn’t because she wanted to give me something to do. An excellent story out of what could have been treadworn material.

“Invisible Malls” is an anti-consumerism riff on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and a clever one too. Malls of time, sleep, desire, Memory, and the Dead (who shop without hurrying). My favorite is the Indoor Shopping Mall of Desire 1, where all the wisdom of the ages, not to mention eternal life, is available. But… well, you’ll have to read the story. By itself, probably not worth it.

“No Grace on the Road” has a very different feel, to me; I kept recalling how I felt when I read Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” from In Our Time though that was a long, long time ago. Still, the mix of cultures, the heartbreak, the grim reality, even at times a starkness of language, though nowhere near Hemingway’s, kept occurring to me. At any rate, it’s pure tragedy unmitigated by humor, magic, or wordplay. It’s the story of a French Indochine man who spent most of his life in Paris and the US, married a Columbia grad student, and is back in his native land for military service, required even though he has a high-level job as an economist. They are caught in a monsoon and seek shelter with a native family, whose baby is sick. It’s a clash of cultures, as the military man goes back and forth from science to myth and agonizes over some choices. There is one glaring moment when “the reader” appears, which for me felt like something horrible. I’m sure this isn’t something done by accident – “Oh, I’m going to avoid explaining these Asian ideographs by saying it would be too hard on the reader” – but whatever the reason, the effect on me was enraging. I suppose it sets the entire piece as a diary entry, gives it some metafiction appeal, and I need to get over myself, but I wish the few words weren’t in the story. I would’ve rather read three long, dense pages about the ideographs. Favorite line: the explanation of the title.

“A Line is a Series of Points” goes back to the world stage, and follows a line of refugees who have wandered so long they no longer remember where their home is. I love this story, parable, fable. When one is struggling for survival, it’s hard to see past the present, this minute, today. But no matter how short-term our outlook, we do create a history, even if it’s only available from the outside. And maybe that’s the true horror of exile, we lose entire civilizations. Favorite line: “We believed that we held claim to the sum of the world’s sympathy; that we were paragons of misery; that ages hence poets would employ our travails as a metaphor for all kinds of alienation and displacement. It is unbearable to consider now that there may be another people, in equal or even greater distress, with whom we must share our symbolism.”

All these stories deal with thirst – desire – in one way or another, but then again, virtually any story deals with desire. That’s what a story is, a character wants something and struggles to get it. For me, the unifying factor was was more about “Just what is this here?” I’m very glad I read this book. I also have his novel A Disorder Peculiar To The Country” and will get to that shortly.

Top Chef All Stars Season 8: Episode 8, “An Offer They Can’t Refuse”

It’s Family Night on Top Chef.

Pre-credit opening: Isabella gloats over Marcel going home. Honey, just remember, Robin outlasted you in your season. Then Antonia interviews that Mike is annoying and abrasive and at the top of her list of people who should go home, and I get on Team Antonia. Belatedly, I’ll admit.

Quickfire: Isaac Mizrahi comes in with Padma, who is wearing an incredibly bright yellow-orange dress with a stringy necklace that reminds me of the tiny Indian bead things we’d make at camp. Except, probably not. I’m betting hers is way more expensive, especially when she announces it’s Fashion Week and Isaac is showing his new line and she’s showing her jewelry. Isaac says his line was inspired by a Xerox machine. Oh, good. But it’s because it tricks the eye. Now I want to see it. You say trick the eye and I think tromp l’oeil, and I love that. Except, what does that have to do with Xeroxing? Oh, I see, he invented Xerox prints, and he did use tromp l’oeil for pockets. And by the way, Padma’s dress makes it clear she still has some baby belly. Poor Padma. That’s the problem with being a model famous for your incredibly svelte figure, people will be saying forever, “She hasn’t quite lost all the baby weight, has she?” until she’s 94. Usually I get really huffy about that kind of thing, but if she’s going to keep wearing tight satiny clothes, she’s gotta expect some of that.

Anyway, Isaac says food and clothes are closely related. Well, sort of, if you count having competitive reality TV shows based around them. Which is probably what they’re hoping for, pushing the Fashion Show, which I didn’t even watch this time around because Iman annoyed me so much. She makes snide and arrogant a full time occupation.

The Quickfire is announced. Their dishes won’t be eaten, they’ll be judged on presentation only. This is so completely contrary to everything any chef is about. Yes, food needs to be appetizing and it’s great when it’s beautiful and inviting, but taste is supposed to come first, so not tasting the food at all is kind of sick. And yes, it makes me wish someone would bring Hung back to make another Smurf village. The prize is immunity.

Blais notices lots of people having trouble with the idea that it’s about looks not taste. He wants to make black ice cream because Isaac wears black clothes. He calls it a black sundae, makes the ice cream with liquid nitrogen, adds some greens on top. Isaac thinks it’s incredibly beautiful, makes him want to go get a spoon. And Blais wins!

Carla explains that she was a model in Paris, and that’s how she got into food. I remember this from her season, she bought a lot of cookbooks and then went to cooking school there. She has a good time hollowing out cucumbers and standing them on end and filling them with pink beet soup, then making a little sandwich and putting it all on a cucumber lattice doily. It’s very pretty. I thought the beet soup was a little Pepto but it was nice. Then again, just about anything Carla does is ok with me. But Isaac liked it, too, said it wasn’t daring but it was like a simple but well crafted dress and Carla’s in the top. You go girl!

Fabio is the only one who complains about the challenge. That’s too bad, since I would’ve complained too. Ok, he was really good with the servers last week. But no, I’m not changing my mind about him. He says he can do good-looking food but follows flavor first. His inspiration is a beautiful woman walking in the rain trying to not get messed up by rain. The dish is three piles of raw tuna with some stuff on it, and lemon rain drizzled over it, and a lot of writing on the plate – a whole bunch of stuff I couldn’t read above the three lumps of salmon, then “My style is the way I’m living my life every day” below the three lumps of tuna. But, sorry, it’s lumps of tuna. Isaac doesn’t agree, he thinks it’s very appetizing and Fabio made it beautiful (his writing was really good, they never said what he wrote with, chocolate? Squid ink?) and he’s in the top.

Tiffany is inspired by nature and what comes from the earth. She toasts rye bread to make it look like soil, puts some edible flowers on top like they’re growing there, and serves that next to an almond gazpacho with grapes. Isaac thinks the color of the grapes looks nice in the gazpacho, and agrees with her that dark is beautiful. Just not beautiful enough to be in the top three.
Isabella is inspired by the orange of Padma’s dress so he makes carrot puree, roasted eggplant, and egg yolk. Isaac says there’s nothing more delicious than raw egg especially when it doesn’t have salmonella. I’m not sure if he’s kidding or not. In any event, Isabella is in the middle.

Antonia doesn’t cook, she builds a plate for her cookbook, and it’s inspired by The Giving Tree, a children’s book I’ve just learned of. Her dish is yucca, potato, lentils, nuts, seeds, a little tree in some kind of thing, the nuts and seeds making the ground. Isaac loves The Giving Tree but the scale of the nuts is off, her nuts are too big. Antonia thinks it’s the stupidest comment she’s ever heard. I don’t know, there’s been a lot of competition for that honor. To me it seems like a tree is not something you would serve as a meal, so even though taste doesn’t count, it isn’t really an edible dish. But she doesn’t end up in the bottom or the top.

Tre thinks representation is important. He wants to use orange salmon since plates are white usually, and it looks good. Green, red, purple, these colors do not look good with white, I guess. He puts dots of stuff – beets, something green (see? Green does look good on white!), curry noodles, lines of salmon, on the plate, all spread out. I like it very much. But Isaac thinks it’s too simplistic, which tells me everything I need to know about his aesthetic. It kind of reminds me of the clam appetizer Stephen Asperino made in his season when presentation was important. I liked that, too, but I think I was the only person on the planet who did. Tre ends up in the bottom, he didn’t do enough.

Angelo is excited about fashion It’s his second passion. And, oh, he wanted to be a food stylist back in the day. I wonder what day. I think he’s just saying whatever comes into his mind. Though I have to be impressed that he named Roberto Cavali as his favorite designer. I’ve never heard of Roberto Cavali, which is no surprise. Apparently he makes a lot of crocodile clothes. That’s clothes from croc skin. I wonder if it’s actually alligator skin. I’ll have to look that up. But Angelo runs with it, and makes something that looks like shrink-wrapped garbage. Very colorful shrink-wrapped garbage, but garbage nonetheless. He insists it’s made with pineapple skin. And he writes “crocadile” on the table, which somehow strikes me as really cute, since he misspells it and turns it into two words and now I really must find out if it’s croc or alligator, but if he knows the designer I’m thinking he knows which animal it is. Sounds expensive. He doesn’t dress like someone who’s into fashion. Then again, in the kitchen who would? Besides Stephen. And Marcel. Sadly, when Isaac comes by to see his dish, Angelo explains about his Roberto Cavali worship. Poor Angelo, he really doesn’t get that it isn’t a good idea to tell one designer that someone else is your favorite. Probably because he’s used to people telling him someone else is their favorite chef. Isaac predictably sneers. And hates the writing on the table, it makes him think Charles Manson. He doesn’t say much about the shrink-wrapped garbage, but when you’ve got Charles Manson going on, I think that’s all you need. Angelo is in the bottom.

Dale is thinking about street graffiti. He uses beet puree, avocado, cantaloupe, maple syrup meringue, mango and onion. Isaac thinks it’s unappetizing, looks like what’s left behind after the dish he made was put on the table. I agree, he uses a lot of smears, and it doesn’t look deliberate. He ends up in the bottom.

For the Elimination challenge (which we all know from two weeks of promos is Italian food), they start by drawing knives.

Carla, Tiffany, Antonia draw knives with “Dino the Chef” on them. Turns out this means Antipasti – the first course of a traditional Italian dinner.

Isabella, Dale and Tre have knives that say “Junior” which we eventually learn means they will do the Primi, or the second course, which is called First because it’s first after the antipasti.

Fabio, Blais, Angelo draw knives that say “Frankie No” which corresponds to Secundi, the meat course, served third, but second after the antipasto or appetizer. Pay attention, there will be a quiz!

Frankie No turns out to be Frank Pellegrino, Junior turns out to be his son, and Dino the Chef turns out to be Dino the Chef at the restaurant owned by the Frankies, Rao. It’s the most exclusive restaurant in New York, only ten tables, and you don’t make reservations, you get a table bequeathed to you in Papa’s will. I know this because Padma tells me. I think I’ve heard about this before, maybe in one of Tony Bourdain’s books? Or on another food show?

Tre thinks they’re all mafia, and the challenge is going to involve chopping off fingers or digging ditches. Watch out with those stereotypes there, Tre. For some reason everyone thinks it’s fine to make Mafia jokes about Italians. I know several Italians who get very huffy about it. Then again, the title of the episode is “An Offer They Can’t Refuse” so it’s a little silly to get huffy because someone takes it and runs with it.

The challenge is to serve a three course traditional Italian meal to the restaurant people (plus a few more, including Nicky the Bartender who I can recognize because he’s wearing a sequined vest, blue, green, pink, in a diamond patterns. Every old Italian guy who wants to stand out in a room full of old Italian guys should wear such a vest. I’m surprised he doesn’t get beat up on a regular basis. Tony Bourdain will again be a judge, and Lorraine Bracco will be guest judge. She looks very different from when she was on the first season finale. Like she’s been sand blasted. She looks good, actually, just different. She talks a lot about how Joe Pesci took them to Rao’s when they were shooting Goodfellas. And something about Martin Scorcese’s wife as the matriarch of an Italian family.

The Frankies and Dino meet with the chefs that drew their names to explain traditional Italian dinner and answer any questions. Junior specifically tells the pasta people that using dried pasta is fine. Isabella tries to steal the show because he’s Italian; except that I thought in his season he was all about Greek. Junior says he remembers stealing meatballs on Sunday mornings, Isabella says he did the same thing. Tre interviews that Isabella’s being a jerk but insists he’s the Black Italian. Frankie No meets with his people and Fabio of course goes on a little journey down the boot. Blais and Angelo ask if they can interrupt to ask a question. Blais asks something about inspiration, I didn’t quite catch it. The Antipasti ladies meet with Dino, make sure it’s ok to do this or that, and Carla interviews how happy she is since Italian food is comfort food and that’s what she does. Antonia says her father is Sicilian and he’ll be very disappointed if she doesn’t do well on this. Tiffany worked in an Italian restaurant for five years so she’s pretty confident..

The Antipasti course:
Carla makes minestrone with basil oil and homemade focaccia. She is careful about the pasta so it doesn’t take up too much of the soup. She also loves working with Antonia and Tiffany (it’s a small kitchen in Rao, they work three at a time) because they work so clean. The table loves her soup. Tony says she tried to walk the line between old and new. One of the restaurant guys says it’s the type of soup you can find in Wisconsin, which makes Lorraine mad – she loves that the parmesan cheese was in the soup.

Antonia is happy it’s a rustic old restaurant, the jukebox is really old, the walls smell like marinara, and she’s really excited to see Lorraine Bracco, a rustic old Italian American actress. She makes mussels in white wine with fennel and parsley, something she makes a lot, plus ciabatta as garlic bread. The diners love it, they can taste every ingredient. Tony thinks its confident, all about flavor. Lorraine loves the garlic bread. Tom says it reminds him of being with his grandfather when he was three years old, catching clams and mussels and cooking them just like Antonia did.

Tiffany makes polenta (the bready kind) with Italian sausage. Tom laughs, says only a non-Italian would say “Italian sausage” because it’s just sausage, either sweet or hot. She burns her first batch – it bursts into flames in the oven – but makes more so all is well. The diners like it a lot. Lorraine notices there isn’t a scrap left. Nicky the Bartender in the sequined vest says “Bless her hands” as a traditional compliment.

The Pasta course:

Isabella decides to make his own rigatoni, a Top Chef first, even though he was told he could use dried pasta, they do so in the restaurant. He cooks it with calamari and tomato sauce. He knows it’s risky cooking it at the last minute but he can’t cook it in advance. He doesn’t like being a favorite, he thinks it’s more pressure. He sure has a list of excuses. I suspect he said that after Judges’s Table, because his dish is not a hit. He knows his rigatoni is not cooked, and he hopes cooking it with sauce will help but it doesn’t. tom thinks it’s too yellow, too much egg so it’s too hard, which is a bigger issue than just not cooking it long enough. Tony says it’s the steam table at your worst enemy’s wedding.

Dale says 1) he doesn’t cook Italian, it’s not really his thing and 2) he makes this pappardelle dish for his girlfriend. Those seem like contradictory statements to me. But he makes pappardelle with Brussels sprouts, pancetta and peccorino but no sauce, so maybe he realizes this is not very Italian, it just happens to be all he can do. But Lorraine says it’s bland, and she wonders out loud how pancetta can be bland. She says if he made this for his girlfriend tonight he won’t be getting laid. Tom says he cooked everything separately then tossed it together so there’s no blending of flavors (this sounds like Scott Conant scolding the guy who rinsed the pasta and never mixed it with the sauce). The pasta also has no tooth; it’s falling apart, crumbling. I’m not sure how that happens but it seems to be Dale’s fault.

Tre makes risotto with veggies. Antonia sees him tossing the rice, and interviews that it’s all about each grain of rice getting toasted but she doesn’t think he’s taking the care to do that. Tom says traditional risotto is about rice, Tre overkilled it with the garnish of vegetables. Tony says it was like he was covering a body. And the veggies were cut too large. Tom says risotto should spread out over the plate, not sit in a heap. Tre says he’s always made it firmer; Tom tells him, “That’s not risotto.” Shades of Howie and his “I’ve been making risotto for 300 years and this is how I make it.”

The meat course:

Richard makes a pancetta cutlet with broccolini and cherry tomatoes. He admires Fabio’s ability to sound like he’s about to crash and burn but pull out a great dish at the last second like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The diners like his dish.

Fabio makes chicken cacciatore and polenta with peccorina. The table loves it, the old world approach. Tom says it’s what you’d expect to find in a traditional southern Italian restaurant. Tony says he was in a dark place after the uniformly bad pasta course, and this pulled him back to the light. I still think he’s trying to make up for the inside out animal crack he made the first week. Fabio sure got a lot of mileage out of that guilt. I mean, come on, he’s Italian fresh from the boat, he makes chicken cacciatore, are we supposed to be impressed?

Angelo makes pork chops with cherry peppers. Tom thinks there’s too much sauce, it broke the cardinal rule which is simplicity and let the flavors stand.

Frankie No makes a nice speech about how wonderful it is to have dinner with Tom and Tony and Lorraine.

Antonia notes that Isabella kinda blew it, after she’s been hearing how Italian he is for the past couple of days. In the meantime he’s telling Tiffany her dish didn’t sound like an antipasto, it should be a charcuterie (I thought that was French) and cheese. Tiffany doesn’t seem too worried.

In the interstitial they’re back in the house and Isabella is giving gnocchi lessons. Antonia admits he actually taught her something. Angelo comes in and says, quite seriously, something’s burning.

Padma comes into the stew room and gets Antonia, Carla, Fabio, and Tiffany. Isabella can’t see himself being in the bottom. He doesn’t think mussels aren’t good enough, they’re too simple. Of course, they haven’t seen the tape, but those of us watching know these are the top four. And they are!

Lorraine, it was about family, what you would serve your loved ones, and the winner is… Antonia! Sometimes simple mussels will do.

They go back into the Stew Room and when Antonia says she won, there’s silence. Tre shakes his head. Isabella stares like he can’t believe it. Finally, someone claps, but no one is really enthusiastic. Fabio interviews that mussels with fennel is a French dish. Poor Fabio. Antonia looks surprised that everyone’s hostile to her winning. And they are. She says they want to see Isabella, Tre, and Dale, and once they leave, someone finally – FINALLY – says congratulations.

Isabella makes his excuses, but Tom says his sauce was good and Tony said he understood the challenge and knew who he was cooking for, he just failed to execute the rigatoni, so I’m betting he’s not going home. Tre thought he made risotto but didn’t. Padma says it’s like he’s never eaten a good risotto. Dale made pancetta bland. I’m thinking Dale is toast.

But no, it’s Tre. So much for the Black Italian. He says at least he goes home with 25 G’s. And he wins knowledge and new friends and goes home a better chef. Which is pretty gracious. Over on Popwatch/EW he interviews that he made the risotto exactly the same as he did in Season 3, when it won. I could go either way on that – as in, maybe he thinks he made it the same way but he didn’t, or, yeah, the judges have not always followed a strict consistency. But he’s pretty easy going about it. Oh, and he thinks Blais is gonna win. I think it’s just karma for refusing to let Angelo have some of his fish and siccing him on Tiffany back in the Tennis challenge, but what do I know.

Next week looks like fun with Jimmy Fallon.

BASS 2010: Charles Baxter – The Cousins

I skipped over this story when I started reading BASS 2010, because I’m afraid of Charles Baxter. A few years ago when I was agonizing over one of my stories, I read his collection of essays and lectures on writing, Burning Down The House. It terrified me. I had no idea what he was talking about, or why he was talking about defamiliarization and responsibility when I was looking at sentences and words and paragraphs. To be fair, I really needed, and was looking for, something more like What If? or the Gotham Writer’s Workshop book, something nuts-and-bolts, and that I ended up with Baxter – and with From Where You Dream and a selection of other more advanced books about writing process shows how confused and ignorant I was. I still don’t understand the process books. But at least now I see a difference between them and the more basic texts. Some day I’ll move on to these Great Ideas, maybe soon, but first I need to get Beginnings, Middles, and Endings under control.

Having now read this story, since the Zoetrope BASS office started on it, I found it more scary in the abstract than in the reading. It’s an engaging story. I don’t fully understand it, and the more I read about it from Zoetropers who’ve been through MFAs and Bread Loaf and Tin House, the more I understand I don’t understand, but even at face value it’s good reading.

At face value, the story concerns two cousins: narrator Benjamin, twenty years older, a Minnesota lawyer who’d done his sowing wild oats in New York years before as an aspiring actor slash waiter; and Brantford, still in the New York phase, his college fund depleted. The opening scene has them meeting at a high-priced restaurant for lunch, at Brantford’s urging. Benjamin’s admiration for his cousin is clear: “…he was one of those people who always makes you happier the moment you see them.” It strikes me now, how oddly this sentence is worded, how wrong the tenses and numbers are. Now that I’ve heard some comments from some friends at Zoetrope, I don’t think that’s by accident. At lunch, Brantford says he feels like he’s murdered someone, though he’s not sure who or when or why or that he even did, it just feels like he might have. Benjamin then goes into a flashback about his youth in New York, a hot party with a famous poet who called him “the scum of the earth” and where he lost his girlfriend Giulietta and encounters a drunk in the subway, and we learn more in a flash-forward about his present life. This is one of the hallmarks of the story, the back-and-forth timeline, and it’s hard to say just what the “present” of the story is or when something is taking place. The story continues in this way, with other important encounters and revelations about both cousins, and back-and-forth time line motion, culminating with Benjamin’s very pointed conversation with a Minneapolis cab driver, the kind of conversation in a story that screams “Pay Attention! Highly Important Dialogue! Deep Symbolism!” and then his bit of slightly strange behavior at his house. It sounds very confusing to relate. It isn’t that confusing in the reading, until you try to put it all together and explain it without revealing key points that would diminish the effect of surprise should someone wish to read it.

Favorite lines:

But then, somehow, usually by accident, you experience joy. And the problem with joy is that it binds you to life; it makes you greedy for more happiness. You experience avarice. You hope your life will go on forever.

The Missouri Review had this to say of this story, which of all the BASS 2010 stories they admired most: ” What does Baxter’s story do? It engages. He is ‘occupying the attention and efforts’ of the reader. The story is challenging, surprising, non-linear, beautiful, and strange. This effort to engage the reader, to make the reading a pleasing effort, is what makes the story moving and memorable: one is challenged to keep up and understand what has happened both physically and emotionally in the narrative. It is not neat and it is not easy.” I find it annoying that non-linear here is used as a compliment, whereas I have been scolded on many occasions for not staying in the moment, in the present of the story, for lapsing into flashbacks and musings on what came before, and instead of telling me that I am not yet ready to advance to that, I’ve been told “No!” like a bad puppy. Either that, or you have to be Charles Baxter to get away with it.

I found a review in the NYT by Joyce Carol Oates (who I am still struggling to like after having read Steve Almond’s description of her in his Kurt Vonnegut essay) which called Benjamin “genial” and his actions at the very end “playful”. I am surprised by those descriptions. If I’d been presented with a list of words, I’m not sure I would have chosen them. But I’m not about to second-guess Joyce Carol Oates, no matter how she came across in the essay.

And then there’s the zombie idea. I don’t even want to think about that. I’m not up on zombie lore. Maybe that’s why I don’t “get” it. Something is definitely off with Benjamin, but does it have to be zombiehood?

I’m glad I stopped hiding and read the story. I should put him on the active list of people to read. I’m not sure I’m ready yet, but at least I should try. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll read Salman Rushie as well. But that’s probably a ways off yet.