Jim Shepard – You Think That’s Bad: Stories

Book Cover Image

I don’t remember requesting this book from my library, though obviously I did since it arrived a couple of weeks ago. It was out when I looked for it at my library after reading and enjoying “The Netherlands Lives With Water” in BASS 2010, so I checked out Like You’d Understand Anyway which didn’t go over so well (I was overwhelmed by male aggression and bullying). I must’ve thought tales of disaster would work better.

I so want to love Jim Shepard. I like his fondness for researching arcane historical events, he throws phrases in that gut-punch me at just the right second, and I just admire someone who can do what he does, combine an emotionally wrenching relationship with an impending flood. He has this ability to really get into someone’s head and become them on the page, while he’s writing about history or science. It’s something I admire tremendously. I’m not quite at the love stage yet, though I’m closer now, having read this book, than I was when I put down the last one.

“Minotaur” (originally published in Playboy): I would be a very bad spy. I can’t keep a secret. It isn’t that I particularly want to blabber sensitive information, though you know how it is – how is anyone going to know you’ve been trusted with a secret unless you tell them? But I just have this impulse to blurt out whatever crosses my mind in the interests of including all possible information anyone might want on the topic at hand. It’s why so many of my posts are so long. TMI, without the ewww factor. So I’m sympathetic with the narrator here. He works in the black world – a super-top-secret defense program even he doesn’t know that much about. His best friend, Kenny, works in a similar program. But Kenny got rerouted a few years ago, left without even leaving a Post-it, because that’s how the black world works. They run into each other at a restaurant while the narrator (unidentified first person, doesn’t bother me until I try to talk about the story) is out with his wife Carla. Kenny and his girlfriend Celina walk in. There’s a lot of light-hearted banter. Kenny used to be in a program with a patch that read, NOYFB (None of Your Fucking Business) but now his patch reads Gustatus Similis Pullus (Tastes Like Chicken). I love this. I want to use it in a story sometime. Alas, Kenny lets it slip that the narrator has shared a marital secret with him. Not a bad secret, just one of those intimacies couples share when they’re nose to nose: she named her miscarried baby, and the baby she gave away when she was seventeen, “Little Jimmy.” Kenny mentions he views the people he is working to destroy as Little Jimmies. For people who are conditioned to keep secrets, it was a major slip, and the light-heartedness goes out of the evening as betrayal sets in. I enjoyed this; I suspect I might enjoy it more if I were more up on the Minotaur mythology, but I’m a little hazy there. Bull, labyrinth, that’s about it. I should remedy that.

“The Track of the Assassins” was originally published in Zoetrope:All Story and covers the real-life journey of Freya Stark into Iran in 1930. Here is my question: how can you write a fictional story about a real person – particularly a person who wrote a book about exactly the trip you’re fictionalizing? Freya Stark isn’t some distant historical personage like one of the Pharoahs or John the Baptist, someone about whom we have only sketchy information with plenty of blanks to be filled in. She wrote a book about her trip to the Valley of the Assassins (as well as many other travels). Of course, she (presumably; I haven’t read it) didn’t weave in the story of her recently deceased sister, but still, it just doesn’t seem right. There’s a terrifying scene that covers both story lines: “…I began to understand why two years earlier the Lurs, when fleeing a forced resettlement, had massacred their own families to unburden themselves for the march.”

“Happy with Crocodiles”, available online from The American Scholar, is set in WWII in the jungle of New Guinea. The voice – young, male, not terribly bright – feels very authentic. The girl back home liked his brother more, he’s worried about a letter from her denying she saw his brother when his brother already told him about it. She’s lying, why? Then he’s slogging through jungle and watching people die, but still goes back to thinking about Linda. I found it an unpleasant read, kept brushing at imaginary creepie crawlies (the description of the hot, humid jungle is very strong) but I didn’t care in the least about Linda. There’s an amazing scene with Dad: “Finally we couldn’t stand how he was looking at us. My brother left first, but I hung around for a minute, to see if it was just my brother or the both of us he hated.” Which spells out the relationship – brother is always getting things first. So our narrator ends up being killed, along with buddy Leo and most of his platoon, in New Guinea: “Like the Japs who’d crouch over Leo and me. When they rolled us over they’d be shocked to see what we’d come to. Shocked to see what they’d done. Shocked to feel the ugliness we felt every single day, even with those – especially with those – we cherished the most.” It’s every kid’s self-funeral fantasy: You’ll be sorry, Dad and Brother and Linda, when I’m gone. And we’re sad because, just like the Japanese soldiers won’t be shocked, neither will Dad or Brother or Linda.

“Your Fate Hurtles Down At You” concerns a group of avalanche researchers in the Alps. The narrator describes how he perhaps started an avalanche that killed his brother Willi. Willi’s girl, Ruth, was unbeknownst to anyone, pregnant at the time, and is now living near where the team is researching. It’s one of my favorite stories in this collection, because the historical and scientific story feels so integrated with the personal backstory. There’s the familiar sibling rivalry over a girl that was present in the last story. Avalanches are mysterious things; the team is trying to discover why an avalanche might occur in conditions that did not cause one before, just as our narrator tries to discover what made Ruth love Willi and not him. And why his mother would take afternoon walks with Willi and not him. I probably like it more because I’m less freaked out by cold and snow than I am by heat and humidity. And, oh, by the way, the story’s present is 1939 Switzerland. Nothing avalanch-like about that period of time, huh? There’s a vimeo animated trailer for this story which I can’t play, but it seems to be very popular. I was happy to see this story is in the 2011 PEN/O.Henry Prize collection I’ll be reading shortly.

“Low-Hanging Fruit” is very short and less a story than a scene: a particle physicist goes into great detail about the intricacies of his work (some of which I actually have heard of; I just saw a documentary on the CERN large hadron particle collider and I actually remember the Higgs bosun as the elusive particle that explains the Standard Model of physics) but glances by the state of his family, which is that his wife miscarried, he was not very supportive, and he will not try again. To me, the low-hanging fruit, the “easy question” is dealing with particle physics, which maybe two hundred people in the world understand, rather than in dealing with his wife. I loved this.

“Gojira, King of the Monsters” is, again, about a man who would rather deal with work than his family, and another fictionalization of a real person. I’m not sure I understand how this can be done; it seems to me it’s more creative non-fiction, and if his attitude towards his family is being fictionalized, well, that’s just not nice. Eiji Tsuburaya was the premiere art director during the Japanese Monster years, and created Gorija who became Godzilla when he crossed the Pacific. Tsuburaya was born to a sixteen-year-old girl who died at nineteen. His father ran a large general store, so he was raised by his grandmother Natsu and his uncle Inchiro, though Ichiro was so close in age he was more like an older brother, hence the name Eiji, “second son.” He leaves home to work in movies. His father comes to see him in Tokyo in 1923, on the day of the earthquake, and is killed. There’s a lot of great stuff here, including the impact of Hiroshima on Japanese film, and how the film was absurdly Americanized to eliminate the anti-nuclear theme – and the addition of Raymond Burr, an American reporter trapped in Tokyo, “to give Western audiences someone for whom to care.” This is a long story, but it’s fascinating.

“Boys Town” annoyed me terribly, mostly because the narrator is a passive-aggressive ass who’s never to blame for anything. Reminds me of my ex, actually. Everything goes wrong for this guy, who at 39 lives with his mother. He has an ex-wife and child somewhere. He’s moving in on another woman, but things go wrong and he ends up toting his gun. Throughout he remembers watching the movie Boys Town, which I don’t remember. I really hated the narrator. I don’t even want to write about him. One of Shepard’s abilities is to inhabit a voice, and he inhabits this one to the point where I want to punch someone. It’s ironic that a measure of how well Shepard did his job is that I hated it. Go figure that out. Addendum: this story is included in 2012 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories.

“Classical Scenes of Farewell” is one of those horrific things you half-read, trying not to dwell on the depictions of rape and torture. It’s the basically historical confession of Etienne Corillaut, aka Poitou, teenage assistant to Gilles de Rais, knight of Joan of Arc turned child torturer. The subject, as you might expect, is guilt; falling short. A lot of it is beautiful; the voice is not at all that of a medieval kid, but it’s spellbinding as he tells his tale. But I read it always afraid of what might be in the next paragraph.

Poland is Watching” is another wacky-expedition tale. Blogger Justin Levine reported from an April 2011 reading at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn: “’Why do you enjoy writing about doomed expeditions?’ someone, ostensibly a former student, asked. Shepard’s answer boiled down to one word: perversity. He was fascinated by outcasts embarking on quixotic journeys, by those who continually fucked up and by those whose actions were beyond their control. The narrator here is clearly out of control. He loves his wife, his daughter. But he loves the mountains more. And it isn’t enough to climb Everest and K2 and all those places; he has to climb them in the winter. Supposedly this is a Polish thing. Some of the climbers have lost fingers, toes, whatever. They spend months after each climb recuperating, and are never really healthy. But they’re always champing at the bit to go back. And their wives, the narrator’s wife in particular, waits at home. The story was originally published in The Atlantic; because Shepard edited the Fall 2010 edition of Ploughshares, they’ve uploaded videos on YouTube of his reading this story in three parts. Total time, about 35 minutes. I haven’t viewed them, so if there’s something amiss, please let me know.


BASS 2010 – Final Thoughts, and what’s next: 2011 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories

Now that I’ve read BASS 2010 in its entirety, I’ve put together some overall notes.

Stories I found to be amazingly wonderful:
Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events

Stories that made me shake my head and wonder why they were included:
Ron Rash, “The Ascent
Wells Tower, “Raw Water

Authors I’ve read more of since reading their stories here:
Jim Shepard, “The Netherlands Lives With Water” (I’ve read two – well, one and a half – collections)
Joshua Ferris, “The Valetudinarian” (I didn’t see the greatness in the story, but kept reading how it was a disappointment from his debut novel so I read it – and I agree)
Steve Almond, “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” (I’ve read his non-fiction, already read a tiny flash/essay collection and a short story collection)
James Lasdun, “The Hollow” (read “It’s Beginning to Hurt“, a story that appeared online)
Ron Rash, “The Ascent” (“The Trusty” appeared in The New Yorker; I liked it better)
Rebecca Makkai, “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship” (“Peter Torrelli Falling Apart” was in my first issue of Tin House and I’m glad; it will be included in BASS 2011)

Authors I plan to read more of:
Charles Baxter, “The Cousins” (though I’m still intimidated)
Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events
Wells Tower, “Raw Water” (because he must be better than that story)
Danielle Evans, “Someone Ought To Tell Her…” because she’s got chops at a young age.
Brendan Mathews, “…Lion Tamer” because Zin loved it.

Journals represented by multiple stories:
Tin House (4)
McSweeney’s (3)
The Atlantic (3)
The New Yorker (2)

Men wrote 11, women wrote 9 of these stories.
Stories by writers of color: 1 (I think; I’m not 100% positive, if anyone knows differently, please let me know).
Stories by writers born outside the US: 2 (one London, one Yugoslavia; Wells Tower was born in Vancouver but says he grew up in NC so I haven’t counted him)
Oldest author: 64 (Charles Baxter)
Youngest Author: 26 (Tea Obreht)

Stories with non-traditional narrative structure: 1(Jill McCorkle, “PS” uses a letter)
Stories primarily based on humor: 2 (Joshua Ferris, “The Valetudinarian” and Jill McCorkle, “PS”. YMMV.)
Stories set outside the US: 5 – Africa (2), France, Australia, The Netherlands
Stories set entirely outside of the present time: 4 (The Depression, WWII, Near Past, Near Future)

Per the editor: “New” authors: 5 (Harrison, Mathews, Obreht, Ostlund, Shipstead).

So now we move on to the 2011 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories. Zin’s workshop is reading it, so I’ll follow along.

BASS 2010 – Wells Tower, “Raw Water”

Remember when I was nervous about getting myself in trouble because I hated Ron Rash’s “The Ascent“? No? Well, it doesn’t matter, just know that I was. I’m even more nervous now. Because I’m going to be snide. And scathing. In fact, I couldn’t decide which scathing/snide approach to take, so I’ll give you a choice:

1) I’m appalled.
2) This is Stephen King without a character to care about.
3) This is Jim Shepard without all the careful research and emotional impact on a central character.
4) When literary fiction people sneer at science fiction, this is why.
5) Wasn’t this a Star Trek:TNG episode?

Ok, enough (I love Star Trek:TNG btw, but that was a really dumb episode).

This story was from the same McSweeney’s assignment as “The Netherlands Lives With Water” – write a story that happens 25 years in the future, and we’ll send you to the location to prepare. So of course Wells Tower chose to go to… Arizona?

Following Libya’s lead, the US has, 25 years from now, created an artificial inland ocean to reduce the increase in sea level due to global warming. It works for Libya (in the story) but things go wrong in Arizona, and the lake turns red and viscous due to microbes that love the concentrated salt levels. Having owned an aquarium, I can testify to the existence of “pink slime” (which is actually algae, I was told). But that’s fresh water. I have no trouble believing in the existence of such salt-water critters, however.

Rodney and Cora Booth move to this garden spot, which started out in a land boom but went bust a decade ago. She’s an artist, and wants to photograph the area. That seems to me like a one-year visit, maybe, not a permanent move, but what do I know, it wasn’t me that McSweeney’s commissioned to write this story. They’re an older couple. She’s 43 and just finished menopause which is a little early but reasonable. He has some kind of part time job with an insurance company that he can do over the internet.

They find the people there are all fat half-wits. And ugly. Most of the people left long ago, but those that are left, including their neighbors and real estate agents, the Nevins, are just plain strange. The Nevins invite them over for dinner right away: mussels harvested from the lake. And swimming. In the red lake. Now, forgive me, but don’t these people have any sense at all? The Booths, I mean. The Nevins have been there a while, so they’re already affected by whatever it is that’s making people fat and stupid and ugly, but the Booths, wouldn’t they take one look at this – Mrs. Nevin is nursing an infant though she’s probably 60 years old, and Mr. Nevin can barely speak at times – and run in the other direction? Or at least worry? Or say, gee, thanks, but I think I’ll just eat some canned soup and you enjoy those mussels all you want, and have a nice swim while I sit here and try not to breathe in the water vapor? Nope.

So everyone in the town is turning into apes (there’s a riotous scene, intentionally or not, of two teenage boys grooming each other), and Rodney starts to turn into an ape. He can’t eat enough no matter how much he eats. He fantasizes about the Nevin’s teenage daughter, who’s, as I’ve already said, fat and ugly, but he doesn’t care. He fucks dirt. Literally. Then he breaks into the Nevins house and gnaws on a ham, pees on the floor, and snuggles up to the Nevin girl. Mr. Nevin shows up to interrupt, and the next day is hospitalized for an aneurysm. Nevin dies, and Rodney hits on his wife. That’s about it, really. Cora never shows any effects of whatever it is, and never comments on her husband turning into an ape, though she is annoyed he wants more sex than he’s wanted in years. She kind of disappears from the story.

One thing I should say on the bright side: it doesn’t go all cliché, with the newcomers discovering what’s going on and trying to get the authorities to help but finding the townspeople opposing them, Dean Koontz style. In fact, nobody in the story seems to care about anything except eating and sex, which I guess is what happens when you become more animal than human. But there’s no real resolution at all. There’s no real conflict, in fact. People just turn into apes, and that’s that. I guess we’re supposed to be horrified, but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

One of the headscratching points for me is that this lake is an economic failure, so why is the project still going? Nobody’s paying any attention to the red water? Or they’re just saying it’s fine, and the people who still live there, well, that’s their problem? Nobody’s noticing what’s happening to them? They don’t have brothers or cousins or children elsewhere who are saying, “What’s happened to Mikey?” It just seems absurd. I guess the people stupid enough to stay and live there are beyond caring about. So why write a story about them?

I’m also not crazy about the narration jumping around so much. There are a couple of places where this bothered me in particular, enough to mark the margins with a question mark. It wasn’t even the narrative shifts per se, it was more that the information seemed presented in somewhat repetitive fashion: Rodney sees the remaining locals, then the omniscient narrator explains the locals a few pages later, and shifts right into Nevis’ POV. When I start to notice narrative shifts, they must be pretty dramatic. It just doesn’t feel like a story – it feels like it ended because there was nowhere else to go with it. And it feels pretty absurd. Maybe it’s supposed to be absurdist? But it doesn’t feel that absurd (gee, you can’t please some people, can you?).

In his Contributor Notes, Tower says this story was based on a news item that some scientists were kicking this idea about inland seas around. I’m not sure how hard they were kicking it, but it didn’t fall in line here. In fact, he goes on to explain that his first version, straight manmade-sea-gone-bad without the monkeyshines, was deemed not urgent enough in a science fiction way. So he said, “How about if the bacteria in the lake are, like supercharging everybody’s Darwinistic faculties.You know, making them act like monkeys?” And some damn fool thought this was a great idea.

I want to read more of his work – he’s one of the NY Top 20 Under 40 people, and he’s won two Pushcarts. Like I said – I’m appalled.

Kate Walbert: “M&M World” from The New Yorker 5/30/2011

New Yorker art by Jaime Hernandez

Breaking her resolution to stop qualifying—five more minutes, this last page, one more bite—and wishing, mid-speech, she would stop. She has tried. Just as she has tried to be more easygoing, but when push comes to shove, as it always will, she is not easygoing. And she qualifies. It’s a verbal tic: first this and then that. A constant negotiation—action then reward, or promise of reward.

I started out biased against this story: I’m tired of the Single Moms are the Martyrs of the Universe mantra. I know that sounds heartless. I’m not heartless. I care greatly about a couple of individual single moms I know. I’m just tired of them as a category, tired of their self-pity and demands for compassion and lots of leeway. And definitely tired of them as literary trope. But this story grew on me, because of one paragraph which I’ll get to shortly.

Ginny is a Single Mom taking her girls, Olivia and Maggie, to M&M World. She’s a very nervous person. The kids might run into any number of hazards. She’s incapable of saying “No” and sticking to it. And while I may be heartless towards single moms, it isn’t lost on me that while Mom is negotiating ice cream with the kids, Dad’s off boffing an intern from work. She calls him “the girls’ father” throughout, because, I suppose, that’s the relationship that survives after what seems to have been a civilized divorce.

They stop by a row of carriages and horses. The horses’ yellow teeth remind Ginny she needs to bleach her teeth: “Suddenly everyone’s teeth are whiter than her own; they wear them like necklaces.” This is where I started to love this story (though I think there are too many tooth references here; Maggie’s teeth are also mentioned. She has teeth like pearls. And her tooth fairy obsession: she’s hoarding her teeth for one big hit when she’s lost them all). And on wrinkle removal: “a whole generation of women paying for erasure.” Now there’s a statement.

Unfortunately, there’s a sentence shortly after that annoyed me. In describing the horses: “it wears a hat with a feathered plume, as if it had trotted here from the stables of a fallen tsar.” This narration says to me, “I (the writer) am intruding here to show you how clever I am.” I’m not sure what the difference is between paying for erasure and the stables of a fallen tsar, but there is one, to me.

The horse’s gaze – an eye that says, “Where am I” – reminds her of a trip to Chile, taken with the girls’ father before they were married, and a whale-watching exposition:

On this particular voyage, the one Ginny found herself on with the girls’ father, Ginny chose to stay on the side of the boat with more shade. She was hot, she told the girls’ father. He could call her if anything exciting happened. She had opened her book: “War and Peace,” a paperback edition she had picked up in the paperback exchange in Santiago, where they had stayed for a few days before heading south. She had been at a good part, a really good part, and so perhaps it took some time for the whale to get her attention. She had had, when she later thought about it, the feeling of being watched. And so she had looked up from her place in “War and Peace” and seen the whale, a female, she would learn, uncharacteristically alone, lolling before her on the surface of the water. She folded the corner of her page and stood, shading her eyes; then she walked to the boat rail to get a better look. She didn’t call the girls’ father; she didn’t call anyone. She looked down at the whale. It lay on its side, staring with one eye straight at Ginny, drifting alone in its disappearing sea, the sun burning both of them, beaming through the torn shreds of the shredded atmosphere. They stayed like that for a while, Ginny convinced that the whale had a message to deliver, something she might translate and convey to the world. But she never figured out what, since too soon someone from the other side saw it and the whale was gone.

There’s so much in this paragraph – some I didn’t realize until I’d read the story a few times – I don’t know where to start. Who goes on a whale-watching trip and reads War and Peace? She has the feeling of being watched by the whale – the watcher does the watching. A female, uncharacteristically alone. She doesn’t call anyone but enjoys this herself, she and the whale, two females alone. She feels a communication but doesn’t know what it is. Then someone else sees it, and the moment is over. Later the girls’ father accuses her of being a whale hoarder (like a tooth hoarder?) – yes, this experience, she and the whale both saved for themselves. But it’s all a little hokey, at the same time, the M&M world of whale watching. I just loved this paragraph, and it turned the story around for me.

There’s another:

There are other things to fix, not just her yellow teeth. She needs some spots removed from her skin; she needs to dye her gray roots, the stubborn tuft that refuses to blend. She could use something for her posture—Pilates—and she’s overdue a mammogram, a bone scan, a colonoscopy. She needs a new coat, an elegant one like those she’s seen on other mothers, something stylish to go with the other stylish clothes she means to buy, and the boots, the right boots, not just the galoshes she’s slipped on every morning all winter; it’s spring now, isn’t it? She should pay to have her toes soaked, her feet scrubbed of dead skin. She could choose a bright color of nail polish, a hip color, a dark purple or maybe even that shade of brown. She should take a class—philosophy, religion, vegan cooking—and wear sandals there, the new kind, with the straps that wrap the ankle or twist all the way to mid-calf, her brown toenails shiny smooth, as if dipped in oil. There are posters on the subway and numbers to call. She writes down the Web sites in the notebook she carries for such things: lists, reminders. But she is constantly out of time, losing track, forgetting. Sunday’s Monday evening, then Wednesday vanishes altogether.

And we know Wednesday vanishes because she’s taking the girls to M&M World, or some other thing. Or getting lost in watching bags caught on the sycamore outside her apartment. It’s just like I want to read StorySouth’s 100 Best of the Web stories but, well, I’m off thinking about something else, or getting things done that must be done. And reading other things. Which goes to show you it isn’t only Single Moms who are unfocused and always whining about something. But of course Single Moms as Martyrs of the Universe have the right, because they are always caring for their children, or worrying about their children. I’m annoyed again.

There’s some kind of communication problem alluded to here. On their way to M&M World, Olivia gets momentarily lost, says “It’s the new kind” and “Did you see it?” and “It’s the new kind” again, and I’m never sure what she’s talking about. This comes about the same time as Maggie seeing a Mr. Softee truck and badgering for ice cream, so I’m not sure if that’s what she’s talking about or if there’s something else, something that gets crowded out by the ice cream (as Wednesday vanishes). This happens again: Ginny loses Maggie in M&M World and hears Olivia say she’s with “they guy” but then Olivia says she didn’t say that. I don’t quite get what this is. But it’s done twice so it must be important.

They find Maggie in a dressing room crying, she thought “they’d gone, too”. Too, Ginny says? Here is she being dense or just absorbing how Maggie has perceived the loss of her father? Then, after Maggie is safe and all is well, Ginny still dwells on danger and loss: “Ginny lets go first, leading them, pushing hard on the glass door against the wind, against what has become more than a blustery day, because in truth it is not yet spring, exactly; there is still the possibility of a freeze… How soon the whale dissolved into its darkening sea. How soon she was left at the side of the boat, alone.”

And now I want to slap her self-pitying narcissistic ass again, poor Martyr of the Universe.

Addendum: This story appears in BASS 2012; after re-reading, I have nothing to add, except to say I’m a little embarrassed by my rant on the Martyr of the Universe thing. I don’t disagree with it or wish to take it back – I’m just embarrassed by it. It’s the least I can do.

May Additions to Cool Sites for Writers and Readers page, part 2

I have added the following to the Cool Sites for Writers and Readers page:

The Mookse and the Gripes – by Trevor Berrett. Reviews of books and some short stories, with forums for The New Yorker fiction and major fiction awards. Recent books reviewed include The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht, Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, My New American Life by Francine Prose. There’s an active community commenting on posts.

Ann Graham: Short Stories All the Time – Bookmarks, blogs, labels, posts, news feed, and bookshelf all about short stories.

Kul: That Sounds Cool – by Aaron Riccio. NY Theatre and book reviews with some short stories. A strong NYC point of view. I’ve enjoyed his comments on recent The New Yorker fiction very much.

The Gender Guesser– another goofy Parlor Game. Enter a block of text (over 500 words recommended) and the Guesser will tell you if the author is male or female. Pure silliness, but fun. Zin entered some work and was pronounced male half the time, and female half the time, which amuses us both. (This used to be Gender Genie, which is now gone; I’m not sure if the same people have upgraded, or if it’s a whole new crew, but it’s a revamped version)

That’s it for May. It’s getting crowded on that page – I may have to find a way to categorize them and split them up so they’re easier to find. But we’ll see how many more sites I run across in upcoming months.

Additions to Online Fiction Etc. to Read And Love page

I’ve added one short story and three flashes to the Online Fiction Etc. To Read and Love page:

Short Story:
Amber Sparks – – “You Will Be the Living Equation” in zine-scene.com Issue 2, with bonus interview [sorry, no longer online. Too bad, it’s a great story]. Story originally published in Annalemma.

Cezarija Abartis – – “Lovers” in Wigleaf, May 2011.

L.E. Butler – – “Pitch” – – Neon #26, May 2011

Darby Larson – – “Phone” – – The Collagist, Issue #9, April 2010


Grant Munroe: “Corporate Park” – One Story #135, May 2010

There was always a vague understanding that mountain lions, in theory, roamed nearby. I think everyone just assumed there would have been a much sharper distinction between our workplace and the surrounding wilderness.

I love this story. Last year, when I received it, I skimmed it (big mistake: literary fiction is not skimmable) and got: mountain lion, corporation, blood, camping. I lost interest immediately. It slid down behind my tv set, where I clean but once a year, and I left it there until this year’s Spring Cleaning unearthed it. I dusted it off and put it in the pile to read on my bus journeys. I was not enthusiastic. I was wrong.

My skimming never uncovered the hilarity in the story, nor the arch parable of corporate life it is. As I said, literary fiction is not skimmable, you miss too much subtlety and nuance. I giggled my way through a round trip and couldn’t wait to finish it when I got home. It’s hilarious (how was I to know? One Story doesn’t usually do humor), and it skewers the economically-driven corporate world very effectively.

In his One Story Q&A, Munroe gives the source of this story as: “The collision of two events: the near-collapse of the market in 2008 and my discovery of Julio Cortázar.” “Bestiary” is the story, which I have not read, but will add to my list. This is his first fiction piece (he was whisked out of the slush pile by virtue of his cover letter), though he’s been publishing Corporate Folk Tales in McSweeney’s for a while. He’s now enrolled in an MFA program, and I hope that means more pieces like this. Others have commented this reads too much like George Saunders, but is that really a bad thing? There are dozens of writers of war stories, family tragedies, vampire stories, police procedurals; isn’t there room for two George Saunders in the world? I think the world could use five or six, actually.

The story concerns Halloway, a lawyer at a nebulous Corporation. Kinsella, a fellow employee. And a mountain lion. And executives, Eastman and Westman, an administrative assistant named Patty and a paralegal named Yvonne and other people who start disappearing from the office, leaving smears of blood and body parts behind, after Kinsella leaves the door open during his smoke break and presumably lets th mountain lion in. Don’t worry about my description – read the story. It’s worth buying the issue, if you’ve ever worked in a corporation and have a sense of humor about it. If you don’t have a sense of humor about it, you should read it anyway; it will help.

I only regret I let this little gem lie tangled in the dust bunnies behind my TV for so long. I hope it will forgive me.

New Addition To Cool Sites for Writers and Readers Page

For now, one new addition to Cool Sites for Writers and Readers:

Fiction Writer’s Review: “an online literary journal by, for, and about emerging writers.” Reviews, essays, interviews, blog. A wonderful site. The Founding Editor is Anne Stameshkin; the Editor is Jeremiah Chamberlin, and the Managing Editor is Lee Thomas. There’s a long list of other editors and contributors.

Recent reviews:
You Know When The Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon by Beth Garland
Dzanc Duo: Aaron Burch and Matt Bell by V. Jo Hsu
Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman by Andrea Nolan
A Young Man’s Guide To Late Capitalism by Peter Mountford by Tyler McMahon

Recent essays:
Looking Backward: Third-Generation Fiction Writers and the Holocaust by Erika Dreifus.
In Other Words (the bilingual writer) by Giota Tachtara.
Four Days In Galle (the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka) by Preeta Samarasan
An Education in Book Reviews by Stacey D’erasmo.
Owl Criticism by Charles Baxter.
Where Are We Going Next? A Conversation About Creative Writing Pedagogy by Cathy Day, Anna Leahy & Stephanie Vanderslice

Recent interviews:
On Mystery and Drafting: An Interview with Robert Boswell by Michael Hinken
Woman to Woman: An Interview with Mary Gaitskill by Emily McLaughlin
A Finely Focused Lens: An Interview with Josh Weil by Mary Westbrook
A Parisian Reliquary: An Interview with Elena Mauli Shapiro by Steven Wingate

Because this is such an extraordinary site and I’ve included so much information, it needs its own post. I’ll be adding a few more sites in the next few days.

Claire Vaye Watkins: “Man-O-War” One Story #140, September 2010

“We used to stay up all night, just listing the places you could take a girl in a city. One of us guys would say, ‘To the park.’ And another would say, ‘A museum.’ And another would say, ‘The movies.’ That was our favorite, the movies. Whenever somebody said the movies, we’d all together say, ‘The movies,’ all slow. Like a goddamn prayer.”

A lovely story full of description. You’ll know Nevada, rocks, and desert heat by the time you’re done. Harris, a retired miner, is out on a dry Nevada lakebed scavenging fireworks left behind from the Fourth of July. His dog, Milo, finds a pregnant teenager named Magda. He takes her home with him (the nearest clinic is hours away) and takes care of her. He intends to take her back to her home, but she convinces him to let her spend the night, and the next day, to go swimming. They talk about their lives: his ex-wife lost a baby and they never conceived another; she moved away and now has a nineteen-year-old. Magda won’t say who the father of her child is, other than it isn’t her Mormon boyfriend; something dark is hinted at. Harris sets of the fireworks he found, including a large Man-O-War, and tells her the minerals used to make the different colors. He starts to think in terms of Magda staying with him to have her baby: “Though he knew better, deep down in the bedrock of himself, he couldn’t help it. He thought, She will need a stroller. She will need a car seat. How the barren cling to the fertile. We, he thought, we will need a crib.

Magda’s father shows up and takes her home. The scene is written exquisitely: he comes to the porch, doesn’t ask about his daughter but says he is hunting and shows Harris the gun he’s brought. Then he goes into the house and comes out with Magda. By the way he is touching her, Harris realizes the father is indeed the father of the baby, but Magda does not ask for sanctuary, in fact looks at him “pityingly” when he says she wants to stay. The last few paragraphs are devastating: Harris “loses his shit” as the author says in her One Story Q&A.

I did have a problem with the last paragraph. It refers to “levanta” and I had to go back and look for this. I only found one reference, where Harris dreamed Magda was saying this. Apparently it means “get up”. But I had to do some research to learn that (and I had a couple of years of Spanish in college). Also, “the Hastings brothers” are mentioned, and again I had to go back and find that. I have a habit of writing characters’ names on the front pages, since I do forget them, especially when the names are only mentioned once, but I didn’t write these because they were mentioned in a conversation as people from Harris’ past, the kids he hung out with when he was Magda’s age. Their names just didn’t seem that important, though the memory, partly quoted above, was, of course. To encounter these things at the end was distressing, since the last paragraph is quite beautiful but the meaning and impact was obscured by not-total-recall of these two things quickly mentioned.

Still, it was quite a beautiful story of someone having a second chance and losing it, seeing his possibilities as he tries to help Magda see her own, from different ends of their lives.

Ron Rash: “The Trusty” from The New Yorker 5/23/2011

New Yorker Art by Christian Northeast

A decent suit, clean fingernails, and buffed shoes, and he could walk into a business and be greeted as a solid citizen. Tell a story about being in town because of an ailing mother, and you were the cat’s pajamas. They’d take the Help Wanted sign out of the window and pretty much replace it with Help Yourself.

There’s a legal term called “the doctrine of clean hands” that requires someone pursuing a lawsuit to have gone into the transaction in question with “clean hands” – as an extreme example, you can’t sue your partner if he takes off with the loot after a robbery. I had the feeling one character at the end of this story understood that doctrine thoroughly.

It’s a fairly simple Depression-era story about a chain gang prisoner, Sinkler, a trusty not shackled so he can fetch water for the gang, who plans an escape with a very young housewife, Lucy, married to Chet, a farmer twice her age. In his interview with Deborah Treisman, Rash mentions Edith Wharton’s “hard considerations of the poor.” Lucy’s poverty is palpable here: a pail is an object of desire, bargained over. The story is told 3rd person from Sinkler’s POV, a crucial decision, as we are left to assume Lucy’s motivations from her comments and behaviors, just as Sinkler is. They plot a mutual escape, him from his prison, her from her husband and life of poverty. Sinkler isn’t sure what he’ll do with Lucy – he needs her to get to Asheville, where he can get rail tickets westward, and he’ll probably take her along for a while, maybe abandoning her at the next stop, or possibly taking her along as a partner in crime, at the very least getting some sexual gratification from her in the meantime. He’s mulling all that over when things change on the way, through forest and brush and hillside, to Asheville.

It’s difficult to discuss much without giving away the ending. The word “trusty” is a pivot here. Remember the fable of the scorpion and the frog? “It is my nature.” But – considering the Wharton quote above – who is really the frog, and who is the scorpion? Are not both trusters, both trustees? The last sentence of the story carries a great deal of weight and changes what could be a routine story into something a little more interesting. For me it brings in the awareness of what options one has when one does not have “clean hands”, a sort of honor among thieves. And the quote above brings in some irony: this is a man who knows how to fool people using appearance.

There’s a wonderful comment by Betsy on the The Mookse and the Gripes website (there usually are, it’s a great blog. I’m not sure why it’s not on my Cool Sites list but it will be when I next update in a week or so) tying the “trusty” to our current recession and other political-economic instances of untrustworthy trustees.

When I saw Ron Rash was this week’s author, I was a bit nervous. I recently read his story “The Ascent” in BASS 2010, and was very negative about it (I admit freely I must’ve missed something). Though I wouldn’t call it a favorite, I enjoyed this story much more. I’m sure Ron Rash will sleep better knowing that.

Josh Weil: The New Valley (Three Novellas)

I checked this book out of the library after reading Weil’s story “No Flies, No Folly” from One Story. It was billed as three linked novellas about a variety of people in the New River Valley of Virginia. It received a glowing review from Anthony Doerr in the NYT as an example of how character comes from place, one of Doerr’s specialties, and as mastery of the novella form.

While I loved Weil’s One Story piece about a turn-of-the-century Jewish peddler and an Amish housewife enchanted by the newfangled electric light bulb, I found these novellas to be much to slow and plodding for me to enjoy. I only completed the first one, “Ridge Weather” which concerns Osby, a thirty-something farmer whose father just shot himself in the head. The story starts with the funeral, then proceeds to follow Osby as he discovers how lonely he is. He rides a schoolbus just to talk to the driver. But he doesn’t really want to get too close to anyone. This approach-avoidance thing is quite intriguing to me, but as I said, it moves very slowly. While at a convenience store, he decides, at the cashier’s urging, to rent a room, and puts up an ad. When the roomer moves in, Osby doesn’t want to go home any more. He returns to the convenience store and the cashier realizes he’s looking for, ahem, company. She has some problems with her propane tanks, and he offers to fix it. He’s thrilled with the idea of being needed – he’s hoping she has lots of broken things around the house so he’ll have to come back. She’s in the convenience store bathroom trimming her pubic hair with a Swiss army knife (as her ex told her men like it neat) and he’s thinking how nice it’ll be to have someone ask him for help. It’s a touching, funny-sad little scene. He has more of an emotional relationship with a steer sick with something called grass tetany which apparently causes paralysis and almost always results in death, though it’s sometimes reversed by a medication known as Cowdex. He does his best to help the cow, injecting him with Cowdex in the jugular (I’m always astonished at what farmers and ranchers can do), lies in the meadow with it, but is aware his father would’ve said, “Just put a bullet in its head.” Which of course his father did. But Osby won’t. He finally visits the site of his father’s suicide and maybe makes some decisions about moving forward. But it takes so long to get to that point, I just wanted to finish the damn thing, not really understand it. There was definitely a story there, one that deserves respect and proper attention. I regret that I failed to provide the latter.

I started to read the second story, about a man stealing a tractor (apparently some kind of antique classic tractor no longer in use) but I just got tired of slogging through it. I’m all for “thought” stories, where most of the story takes place in someone’s mind (and I usually get slammed for it, by the way) but this just got tedious.

So, with some regret, I abandoned the book. This is the second book I’ve abandoned recently, but I’m more adventurous in trying things on the strength of one story, so maybe that’s just the way it works.

Smith Henderson: “Number Stations” from One Story #136, May 2010

Goldsmith’s mother took her own pictures of the ostrich. A man had led the bird to her door and kept it on a small chain. A sorry-looking sack of shit, she thought. The man and the bird both.

I’d never heard of number stations before reading this story. Am I the only one? It seems (according to Wikipedia and The Straight Dope, my go-to sources for things I’m not really going to research that carefully because they don’t matter that much but are fun) there are shortwave radio stations that broadcast artificially generated voices reading numbers and letters. They’ve existed since at least WWII (maybe earlier). Speculation is that these are for the use of spies, or possibly in recent years, drug dealers. No one – no government, no station operator, nobody – admits they exist. But they do. I’m perplexed.

I’ll admit, I’m pretty stupid sometimes. When I started this story, I saw “Number Stations” and I saw “ostrich” and I thought, Australia. Because sheep farms are known as stations, at least they were in The Thorn Birds (oh, shut up, you read it, too, it was the chicklit DaVinci Code of its time). So it took a while for me to get oriented. And as you may have noticed, it took me a while to read the damn thing in the first place (hey, they’re small, One Story booklets, they get misplaced).

Goldsmith is a restaurant owner in Montana with a secret. Bill, his employee, is an ex-con with an ostrich. Emily, another employee of the young, attractive, married female variety, has a thing for Goldsmith, whose wife is out of town. Goldsmith’s mother is watching his daughter (a girl who, at seven, “already did not forgive herself her own crooked features and was certain that her destiny was to ride an ostrich or a griffin or a rainbow to her true self, who was beautiful and free”), and she hears the number station on the baby monitor. There’s no way to say much more about the story without retelling it, and that would be complicated. A lot happens. Bill loses his ostrich; it’s Goldsmith’s mother’s fault but he forgives her. The ostrich taps on the window of Emily and Van’s (her husband) home, and they go chasing after it. At an end-of-season party for his employees, Goldsmith gets a little drunk and tells Emily his secret. Bill… well, it’s not pretty, what happens to Bill. In fact, it’s right out of “Incarnations of Burned Children” and that kinda pisses me off. But it’s also very fitting. The whole story works, even with (or because of) the ostrich running around and Goldsmith’s mother obsessing about the number station. We’re all getting messages, all the time, and sometimes we listen. Other times, we don’t. The soundtrack is Neil Young’s Helpless. That’s how I felt in the presence of this story – helpless to stop reading, helplessly lost in this craziness that comes from all sides but makes absolute sense, helpless helpless helpless.

The One Story blog claims this was snagged from the slush pile (uh huh) by an assistant who sent it to the editor with a note: “This is the best story about an ostrich I read today.” How could anyone resist?

ETA: I just read that this story is in the 2012 Pushcart volume (I read it in One Story); congratulations to Smith Henderson – and to all the ostriches.

Top Chef Masters Season 3 Episode 7: Date Night

Three Wise Monkeys by gavin mayhew

The Quickfire:

It’s time for a variation on Name That Ingredient, one of my favorite Quickfires.

The chefs enter the Top Chef Masters kitchen and see at each place there is a blindfold, headphones, and a nose clip. “A nose thing?” says Celina. Yep. A nose thing. They have to identify ingredients using one sense only. The winner will get $5,000 for his or her charity, but no immunity. Floyd is worried, since he’s claustrophobic and has balance issues.

The first sense is Taste. Strictly speaking, this also uses touch, since they eat the ingredient and can tell the texture, but I think the idea is they’re not allowed to touch it with their hands, so I’ll accept that. After all, the only other option would be to puree stuff and drip it on their tongues which would be weird. They all put on their blindfolds, nose clips, and after receiving instructions, their headphones. We’ve all heard that 90% of taste is actually smell, so I’m curious about how this will work out. “The chef that identifies the least amount of ingredients in each round will be out” says Curtis. “Fewest, not ‘least amount'” I scream. Yeah, I’m the one in the supermarket who cringes at “Twelve items or Less.” And I’ve learned the hard way that cashiers do not want to hear about it.

A tray with five custard cups containing the ingredients are put in front of each chef. They seem to have trouble actually getting the stuff into their mouths;much spillage results. I’m not sure if this is deliberate, but I suspect so. They could’ve used porcelain spoons, even soft skewers, with glasses for liquids, maybe had the servers hand them things. So, ha ha, isn’t is funny to watch everyone have stuff flop on their faces and spill down their shirts. What’s next, dribble glasses?

Mary Sue doesn’t feel like she’s tasting anything without smell. Hugh says his ears are jamming as he chews. They taste all five ingredients; the trays are removed, and they have to write down what the ingredients were. Traci points out that remembering five things adds to the difficulty. I agree. This seems pretty poorly designed; I think they should’ve done them one at a time like they have done in simple blind tasting challenges. I don’t understand why they didn’t, in fact. The hearing thing is kind of bogus, anyway. What, hearing yourself swallow worcestershire sauce is going to give it away? Rig the headphones so they can hear Curtis give instructions (which, it’s hilarious, at the end he says, “Ok, take off your headphones” and they all do so on cue). Maybe I’m just grumpy, but this could’ve been very cool if I hadn’t been so distracted by nonsense.

Curtis reveals the ingredients. Water chestnuts (Floyd thought it was jicama), worcestershire sauce (which Traci spilled all over herself, Curtis gleefully points out), cashews, papaya (which Mary Sue wrote down but changed to tomato), and mustard greens (which no one got right, guessing basil or parsley instead). Most of them got only one right, confirming the importance of smell to taste. Floyd didn’t get any right (maybe he was focusing on not panicking and staying upright) so he is banished to the W(h)ine Room.

Next, smell. Same idea, they smell things in custard cups, then the trays are taken away and they write them down. The ingredients were: Epoisses cheese (which no one guessed), hot sauce (Naomi guessed capsaicin but they don’t tell us if that counted), root beer, rice vinegar (Hugh laughs at himself for guessing coffee), and mayonnaise. Mayonnaise? How does mayonnaise smell? Of course, I’ve never had authentic mayo, just the stuff in jars, so maybe the real thing smells more. Naomi is distressed that she missed mayo because apparently she’s famous for loving the stuff. Traci got nothing right, so she joins Floyd in the W(h)ine Room.

Touch: Chayote (Hugh wrote mirliton which is the same thing – aha, I learned something!), Gummi bears (Hugh interviews that as the proud father of a six- and an eight-year-old, he knows the properties of gummi bears; Mary Sue asks Curtis if they have them Down Under and he sneers), blackberries (all four of them get that), okra, and Arborio rice (how can you tell which kind of rice it is? Hugh and Sue got it – I’m impressed). Hugh and Mary Sue got them all. Naomi and Celine got three, but they’re out anyway.

And Sound: just Hugh and Mary Sue listening. Mary Sue interviews that her mother was very hard of hearing so she never developed her sense of hearing because in her house people were always talking very loudly. I think that’s hilarious. I hope that doesn’t sound mean. Curtis pours milk over Rice Krispies. I’m surprised they can say Rice Krispies instead of Crispy Rice Cereal, but I suppose they had to since snap, crackle, pop is the point. And maybe Kellogg ponied up. neither chef knows what it is. Naomi interviews she thinks she would’ve known. I think I would’ve known, too. Rice Krispies is wonderful “I feel so bad I want to eat something that won’t hurt me” food. I remember feeling achy one day and stopping at a CVS after work, paying an obscene price for a box of crap (I think it was $4.00 or something) and eating half the box. It’s my go-to sick food. I guess Hugh and Mary Sue have other kinds of sick food.

Cutis breaks a stalk of celery and they both guess it, but Hugh beats out Mary Sue in a photo finish. Literally. She interviews she wants to see the photo finish so they show it, and he does beat her by just a hair of a second. Curtis eats a potato chip. Curtis guesses a carrot, Mary Sue guesses celery which is dumb because they already had that, but it’s probably like Jeopardy where it’s a lot easier from your living room than it is IRL. Hugh says it was an awfully big crunch for a potato chip so large Australian males must eat potato chips differently. Curtis shucks an oyster. Hugh gets it. Then he butters a piece of toast. Hugh gets it again. Hugh beats Mary Sue, 3 to 0. Maybe Mary Sue was right about not developing her sense of hearing. Hugh gets $5,000 for Wholesome Wave.

The Elimination Challenge: the relationship between food and love. Or at least the love of the culinarily timid and romantically insipid.

Enter Chris Aagaard. Who? Chris Aagaard. He’s been dating Victoria Thompson (who? Victoria Thompson, pay attention!) for four years, and now he’s ready to propose. So the challenge is to provide a six course dinner inspired by the seminal moments (yes, Curtis actually says that, I’m sure a writer thought of it) in their romance, for a dining room of 21 couples including the critics. After dinner, Chris will pop the question, surprising Victoria with a ring. Naomi interviews, “I don’t know what I’d do if someone was paying that kind of attention to me.” She makes a gesture with her hand and it’s really sweet and kind of sad. At least I think it is. For all I know, she means “if anyone was ever that maudlin on me I’d either punch him or run the other way.” But something about the scene makes me feel like she’d like that kind of attention from someone. Especially in light of stuff I’ve discovered about a nasty divorce that forced her to close some of her restaurants. I’m more interested in Naomi than I am in these squibs posing as real people.

Chris comes in and meets with the chefs. He brings pictures of him with his soon-to-be-fiance Victoria. Hugh interviews, “There’s lots of PDA. I’m not really big on PDA. But that’s ok, I’m happy to cook.” I’m fine with PDA, but looking at pictures of total strangers to cook for them doesn’t really make sense.

Chris explains he and Victoria were just friends until their first kiss. Cut to Floyd interview describing his first kiss with his wife; they were friends for 8 or 10 years. Was this supposed to run the same week as the royal wedding or something? Because it’s just… not.

Chris’ favorite moment: they saw a marquee that said “Je T’aime”, and the first gift he gave her was a bracelet with Je T’aime on it. Hugh interviews it’s poignant and he’s going to throw up in his mouth. I may join him. Come on, there are love stories that will leave me sobbing on the floor, but this isn’t one of them.

We also learn: They go to sporting events and have beer and pretzels. She introduced him to sushi. She made salmon, and got him to eat it by telling him it was chicken (Naomi interviews “I don’t know how she could have fooled him into thinking salmon was chicken.” That’s just what I was thinking. Are we still talking sushi? Chicken sushi? Or is she really that bad a cook?). For his birthday she got him a red velvet cake. For her birthday he got her apple pie. They’ve never had shellfish (Mary Sue interviews, “Are you ready to get married if you’ve never had clams or mussels?”).

This is where I start banging my head against the wall. It’s basically a great challenge, but these two lovebirds are, culinarily and romantically, the least interesting people in the room. So, sure, let’s build a show around them! Huh? Cook for a guy who can’t tell the difference between salmon and chicken? Who’s never had shellfish? And here I thought I was culinarily naïve.Why are these people the star of the show? Why not let the chefs pick from their own romantic moments, or from some Victorian novel? And the setting is so cafeteria, it’s an awful visual. Right idea, lousy execution. Lee Ann, where are you?

The chefs start planning. They have $200 each and have plenty of time, some for prep and two and a half hours the next day to cook. Naomi is going to do something French with chicken. Floyd wants to do something with a lot of flavor, closer to his roots, and a lot of texture. Hugh isn’t sure what to do to tie his beef dish into the backstory, so Mary Sue suggests onion rings that look like bracelets. He noticed that the kids aren’t the most sophisticated palates on the block, so he’s sticking to beef and broccoli. At the market, Naomi gets chicken thighs, then thinks, what if they freak out because the chicken is on the bone? And, you know, Chris seems like the kind of guy who might. She’s worried about meeting the guests’ expectations for a romantic dinner. Mary Sue gets black mussels. Traci plans an apple galette and a red velvet cupcake. Dessert isn’t her comfort zone but she feels like it’s her turn. That’s pretty cooperative of her.

Floyd interviews, “We get into our [product placement car make and model] and drive to the Top Chef Masters kitchen to start cooking.” He reads the script well.

Mary Sue works on debearding mussels since it could ruin Chris’s idea of mussels for life if he got a mouthful of beard. She’s probably right. Naomi works on her stock for braising. She wants a powerful chicken flavor. Floyd is making something he calls kama sutra shrimp, two shrimp on a skewer hugging each other (the point of date night), with watermelon that will look like tuna, just like the salmon was like chicken. He’s a big romantic and loves candlelight dinners. For their first anniversary, he and his wife went to a NY steak house, “paid through our noses” for dinner at a time when they really couldn’t afford much. I’d really rather have more details about the shrimp. Hugh interviews he met his wife when he was 11. I don’t think it’s anywhere near as creepy as that sounded. He proposed on Valentine’s day in a French restaurant, which sounds pretty banal for him. Celina got married on her sixth anniversary of living together. They’re in the kitchen asking each other how long they all lived together before getting married. I’m so old, I can remember a time when you didn’t say things like that on television. And I’d still rather know more about the food.

Mary Sue has by far the best story. Her business partner, Susan Feniger (who I loved on the last Masters) kept telling her, “You should meet my ex-husband” and she did meet him when they were designing the restaurant. It was love at first sight. Now there’s a cool story of romance for you. Chris and Victoria, you can go home now. But then, Mary Sue cuts off the tip of her thumb. They try to make it very dramatic, but basically a medic sprays it and we never hear anything about it again – no emergency room, no stitches, no complaining about pain – so either it isn’t much of a deal or she’s incredibly stoic. Jamie, listen up!

Celina is making soft pretzels. Hugh interviews it’s something you eat on the street of NY but it’s hard to put into a fine dining experience. Traci announces the scale she’s using for pastry is off by three ounces. That’s kind of a big deal when you’re doing pastry. She decides not to do the red velvet cupcake, but focus on the apple galette.

Curtis comes in and everyone tenses for the Twist. Like, “Oh, by the way, we’ve decided to have the dinner at the North Pole and you’ll Amazing Race your way there and serve on skis after you incorporate polar bears and seal into your dish.” Turns out, the mothers of the happy couple will be watching the dinner, and the proposal, from the W(h)ine Room. What? Who cares? I’d really like to know more about the apple galette, or even about Mary Sue’s amputated thumb. Mothers? Spying on their children? What the hell is this? These guys were smoking crack when they came up with this.

[off topic: there’s an ad for Rocco’s Dinner Party – Rocco states firmly, “Nothing’s worse than a dry short rib.” Oh, I don’t know about that. I can think of a lot of things that are worse. Murder. War. Tsunami. Raw chicken. Rocco’s Restaurant show. He’s still trying to redeem himself, I see. Not since Hung declared he and Rocco liked the same flavors have I been so skeptical.]


The judges are James and Gael Greene (damn, I thought Ruth was back tonight) at one table, and Gail Simmons with Curtis at another.

Floyd serves kama sutra black pepper shrimp with watermelon, lime and mint. Gail likes how the shrimp are spooning. James says he’s already feeling more romantic towards Gael. Now that’s over the line. Curtis thinks the shrimp is aggressively spicy, but that means people are drinking more wine (cut to shot of bottle with label showing) so that’s a good thing.

Celina serves a frisee salad with mustard vinaigrette and a big soft pretzel with pale ale cheese sauce. Victoria declares salad and soft pretzels are her two favorite things in the world; the only thing missing is beer and a hockey game. Seriously, these people need to get out more. James says this dish is more of a junior high romance whereas Floyd’s was a college romance.

Mary Sue makes mussels and clams Portuguese style with sausage and wine broth and a crouton. There’s something about a spoon – I though she’d served it with a bent spoon to get up all the juicy goodness, but the Team Top Chef blog says Curtis made the spoon from mussel shells which is pretty cool, too – I only wish I’d been able to tell what was happening from the TV show, people! Then again, the next sentence of the blog declares Curtis the best date ever, and I have pretty strong feelings (including laughter and gagging) about that, too. Gael says the crouton has too much crunch for a romantic dinner. I want to know what romance manual she’s reading, because I think I missed that parameter. I’ve always been a little meh on Gael Greene, but now I’m tipping towards the dislike end.

Naomi serves a porcini braised chicken thigh with sweet potatoes two ways. Gael says romantic feelings will survive Naomi’s dish. I don’t even know what that means. Gael, go home. The kids love the chicken. I think Gael loved it, too, but she’s so busy being cutesy she’s incomprehensible. No one mentions what the two ways of sweet potatoes are.

Hugh sends out strip steak with bordelaise sauce, celery root puree, and broccoli all topped with the famous Onion Ring. Gael tells James he’s been chewing the same piece of meat for a minute and a half, it’s not attractive, not seductive. I think watching someone chew for a minute and a half, and for that matter timing it, is extremely not attractive and not seductive, and telling them about it is downright rude. Chris tells Victoria he’s so full, and she leads them in a backwards arch of the back to stretch their stomachs. Which trumps chewing on the not-attractive-not-seductive scale. Then Gael gives her “I slept with Elvis” thing. The woman loves to brag with how many celebrities she’s slept with. Now we’re talking really unattractive.

Traci writes “Je T’aime” on the plates in chocolate and serves her pink lady apple galette with whipped crème fraiche and caramel sauce. Victoria is amazed by the “Je T’aime” since it’s such a unique phrase special only to her and Chris. Curtis thinks the tart is dry. Gail says it doesn’t sweep her away the way dessert should. I think Traci gets kudos for biting the bullet and doing dessert, but on the other hand, she had $200, lots of time and a full kitchen and that’s all she did?

Then for the main event, because the food wasn’t really the focus: Victoria says, “They do say the key to a man’s heart is through his stomach” and Chris says, “and what’s the key to a woman’s heart?” to which she answers, “Diamonds!” No fool, she. Curtis makes sure everyone is paying attention, and Chris proposes, one knee and all. Hugh says, “If she says ho this is going to be the most awkward moment in television history” but of course she says yes and jumps down to the floor to kiss him. The mothers are very happy. Chris’s mother hasn’t met Victoria yet. Wait – they’ve been dating four years and she hasn’t met her? I think these are Bravo staffers playing parts.

Traditional Interstitial at the 40 minute mark: They all give their “bad self” names – Mary Sue is Margaret, and they show her “snapping” which seems awfully mild by Top Chef snapping standards. Traci is Tiffany, Hugh is Hank. Floyd doesn’t have a grumpy alter ego because he can’t cook when he’s not happy. Is this such a common thing? Because I have to think up a name for the person who snapped at the supermarket cashier today. I never knew I could blame someone else.

Critic’s Table:

Naomi, Mary Sue, Floyd get called back. Hugh thinks Celine and Traci hit the nail on the head for interpretation so he things they will be in the top. But he’s wrong.

Floyd’s shrimp was aggressively spicy but it worked. Mary Sue’s shellfish was great and the sausage added a lot to it. Gail liked the crispness of Naomi’s chicken skin and asks her if she crisped it after braising; she did. Now, there’s something I’d like to know more about. I suppose I’ll find out when the recipe is posted. How do you crisp soaked chicken skin? Fry? Roast? Torch? It sounds like a great idea so it’d be nice to know what she did, not what the recipe on the website tells the home cook to do.

Naomi wins. She gets $10,000 for Seed Savers Exchange.

Floyd interviews he’s tired of coming in second. In the W(h)ine room he tells Mary Sue he’s been in the top three times but still hasn’t won.

And the bottom three are Hugh, Traci, and Celina.

Celina: Gail liked the pretzel and the salad, but felt they weren’t integrated. Celina says she creates playful food, that’s what her restaurant is all about. I’m wondering how she spent $200 and at least two and a half hours on a salad and pretzels. Ok, there was pale ale cheese sauce and mustard vinaigrette. All together, it sounds kind of like a nice salad course. But Top Chef doesn’t like salad courses.

Traci defends her pastry; she was happy with it. Gail says it was missing something to add moisture, sauce. James says the Pink Lady apple is dry, she should’ve used a moister apple. Curtis notes it’s her first time in the bottom three, and she points out that everyone had strong dishes and now they’re splitting hairs.

Hugh was also happy with his dish. James says his meat as very chewy. Gael says it’s not good to serve something that takes chewing for a romantic dinner. I think the list of things you can’t have at a romantic dinner is awfully long: onions, garlic, broccoli and other cruciferous veggies, beans, fish, too much fat, etc etc… and now we have to add anything chewy or crusty to the list? What does that leave? Fried egg sandwiches? Hugh defends what they did, they cooked for the events that were listed, and had to appeal to a pedestrian crowd. Curtis nails him: “So you cook down to people?” Hugh says, “Are you going to pay the bill? Yeah, I’ll cook down to you any time.” I think he was answering a different question than what Curtis asked. I think Curtis was saying, “Did you cook down to these people because you thought they wouldn’t know the difference and they didn’t deserve your best effort?” and I think Hugh answered, “If someone pays me to cook steak and broccoli I will cook steak and broccoli for them, I won’t insist they try carpaccio or tartar or caviar.” But he came across as a bit of an ass.

The judges deliberate. Gael lets Celina have it. Why didn’t she do a lobster pot pie with pretzel puffs? You know, I have a dim view of Gael Greene, but that sounds pretty good. Gail says they expect more elevated food at this point. I have to agree with that. They recap Traci’s dry tart and Hugh’s banal dish.

Celina loses. Her charity, Harvesters, will get something. Which is good since I don’t think she won anything. There’s something appealing about her, though. I liked her better here than on The Next Iron Chef.

Rant alert: There’s something very wrong with this season of Top Chef Masters. It goes beyond the lackluster cast and the stupid challenges, because tonight’s challenge was (culinarily) fine – great, in fact – but it was a bad episode, focusing on some random couple’s boring banality rather than the chefs and the food. The food, for the most part, wasn’t anything to write home about either, from what little we saw and heard of it. I wonder if the Elves are overextended and no longer have time to carefully edit the film, or if Lee Ann was the only one with any ideas and the skill to present them well for viewers. The food is an afterthought to stupid stunts. Like mothers. I’m hard core – I’ll watch until the well runs dry – but I no longer telling people, “Oh, this show is great, you have to see it!”

Next week: an edible science fair. Padma! And it looks like Ruth Reichl really is back. But I could be wrong again.

BASS 2010 – Maggie Shipstead, “Cowboy Tango”

I was dreading this story since I got the book last September, because I hate cowboy stories. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself really enjoying this. I did lose interest a little once it became evident it was simply a love triangle in a different setting, but the setting was realistically portrayed (as far as I know, never having been anywhere near a ranch or the west). I was surprised to find out via the Virginia Quarterly Review interview accompanying this story’s original publication that Maggie Shipstead has never been in Montana, either, though she was spending time in Colorado which is pretty Western, I suppose. And she’s ridden pretty extensively, albeit Eastern style, so she understands and appreciates horses. She also had a friend fill her in on some details, such as the way in which horses were disposed of once they outlived their usefulness. But she admits “Plenty of other details are pure invention or composites.” I find it interesting how some authors invest a lot of time and energy researching minute details, and others just wing it. This felt real enough to be the former.

There’s an interesting, if sometimes intrusive, use of Sammy’s braid that reminds me of a horse’s bridle. And the whole tango idea. The story moves over years and decades; what might’ve happened over the course of six months in Philadelphia or a small New England town takes much longer in Big Sky country. I think that’s appropriate. I also enjoyed how the story resolved itself at the auction. It was, all in all, just a tale of unrequited love, and I suppose if I enjoyed the Lion Tamer story (though not as much as Zin did) I have to give allowances for this as well. I can’t be enthusiastic about it, but I’m happy to consider it’s more my own prejudices than the story.

Donald Antrim: “He Knew” from The New Yorker, May 9-15, 2011

New Yorker art by Jean Claude Floc'h

What he hated about nice clothes was both wanting and not wanting to wear them. He disliked his own conspicuousness to himself, whenever he was out in the world expensively costumed. It was only the pleasure he felt in his tactile awareness of sewing and fabric, of the hands of the maker in the garment, that led him, again and again, to risk the danger of seeing himself – literally; reflected in the mirror of a bar, perhaps – as something faintly ridiculous.

This is one of those stories that frustrates me, because it seems to violate some inviolable rules about plot. Like, something should happen, some change, some turning point, what-is becomes what-was because of some catalyst. This plot is: Stephen and Alice, damaged people, go on a shopping trip on Halloween. He’s a no-longer-in-demand comedic actor who spends weeks in their apartment wearing a bathrobe, she’s his second, much younger, wife, and they both have multitudes of psych histories and medications. They buy some stuff, have a few squabbles, stop for a snack and to pill up, shop some more, have a few more squabbles, talk to parents of a trick-or-treating child in lion costume, have another squabble at which point Alice runs off, Stephen goes to “their” bar and waits for her, they go home. Apparently this has happened many times before. We learn a lot about these people, but it seems to me it’s exposition.

Here are some of the things Stephen (the POV character) has wanted to do but not done: buy an apartment or house, resume competitive running at the veteran level, move to Europe after his divorce from his first wife, take a vacation to the South where they both grew up, have children. In fact, so much of the story seems to be going from thing to thing that he hasn’t done. So at the end of the story, when he says in the morning he’s going to have a talk with Alice, get his career back on track, and begin a pregnancy, we know he’s made these resolutions before; it’s all talk.

There are a lot of powerful elements in the story. The costume motif is nicely done, perhaps the best thing about the story. They are shopping for clothes, it’s Halloween, and he’s an actor who wears costumes. This is not coincidence, I do not think. I wonder if his fear of being found ridiculous (see opening quote) is the reason he doesn’t really want to have children: what are children, especially to narcissists, as a reflection of onesself and another means by which one may be judged? The whole reflection-of-self thing – narcissism 101 – is perfectly framed as they meet a couple, total strangers, with a trick-or-treating child in a lion suit: “[He] wondered what Margaret and Robert were thinking of him and Alice. What picture did they make, this older man worrisomely buoying up this sedated young wife?” Towards the beginning: “women wearing heels and men in European clothes were showing themselves in the uptown air.” Showing themselves? That assumes some narcissism on everyone else’s part. It’s an interesting view of people who are simply going about their daily business. I suspect there are many people in sweatshirts and jeans, by the way, but they aren’t the people he sees. While looking through some other New Yorker articles Antrim has written, I noticed an abstract of an article (it’s from Antrim’s published memoir, Afterlife) about his mother, described as an alcoholic, who did some clothing design and owned a clothing shop in Miami. This kind of detail intrigues me.

The notion of “keep moving” comes up a few times, too, first in connection with some regrets he might be having about his life (it’s fine to not dwell on regrets, but if you don’t examine your mistakes, you don’t learn from them) and again as they go from shop to shop. It’s dropped, though (they stop twice in the story) so it feels more like a coincidence than a theme.

To return to the issue of children, at two points they are confronted with baby carriages. Early in their shopping trip: “‘Are you holding up?’ She was leaning against him. Here and there around them, babies, pushed in strollers, came and went.’ Then a few minutes later: “A baby carriage was bearing down on them” just before they take a break from shopping to have some cake and a few pills. And of course they run into the little girl (who they at first think is a little boy) in a lion suit.

The return to their apartment from the high-powered shopping district is pretty cool. I know little about New York other than what I’ve seen on TV, but I get a strong impression: leaving behind Fifth Avenue and ending up in a Village walk-up.

And the title. Who knows what? Maybe this is an answer to an early question: “He had a young wife. She didn’t yet know what life had in store for her. Or did she?”

What I’m thinking of here is Steve Almond’s Plot Fail about the character in a hole. These are both characters in a hole. Together, and maybe that’s enough of a twist. He sort of wants things, as I’ve already described. But there’s no real passion there, and certainly no effort. It’s more like idle thoughts – “Sure, I’d like to write a fantastic story, but I don’t think I’ll take a class this semester, or write a story for workshop, I’ll just sit here and think about how nice it would be to write a fantastic story.” His dreams – she doesn’t really have dreams – aren’t backed up by any passion. In the end, that makes the story pretty dull for me. And that’s a learning experience. Either that, or it’s what I’ve become trained to expect from a story.

Karl Taro Greenfeld: “Partisans” from One Story #149, May 2011

I enjoyed this battlefield story (which I typically do not like) more and more as I read. It’s set in an unspecified desert during an unspecified time and war. Our first-person narrator is a newbie soldier, a conscript who feels all this messy guarding outposts in the desert stuff is a little beneath him (he packs lots of books so he won’t be bored in the desert equivalent of the boondocks). Minor-Leftenant Hillel is the only Regular Army in the platoon, and he’s fresh out of the Academy. As they head for their destination, first by rail then on foot, the narrator abandons some of his books, regretfully, as he can’t lug them any more. Finally he loses all of them except one, a centuries-old novel set back when his country was being formed, which is a lovely little tale in itself and figures into the resolution. Of course, adding books and an old novel into a story like this gives it great appeal to someone like me, since I’m not likely to enjoy a straight war story. The platoon finally reaches the outpost they are to guard from partisans. We never are sure who the partisans are. Some, perhaps, ride with the train, but we never see any partisans attacking or doing any violence at all: “They rode alongside us and then, only as they passed, did I wonder at the Minor-Leftenant’s description of them as “children”. They were indeed young, but as I looked around at my platoon, I realized that we were younger.”

It’s a tale loaded with ironies like that, partisans who might be there and might not, soldiers killed by friendly fire in chaos, mysterious beasts and ghosts that (like the partisans) may or may not exist. As I read, I thought it was pretty clear that the partisans did not exist, and were used as an “evil empire” to keep the country in line, or perhaps they had existed at one time and now had to be kept going to allow the power structure to retain its control. The author’s Q&A at One Story makes me doubt this (it started as a sort of bedside tale told the comfort a sick friend), but I actually prefer it to his own vision for “what happens next”, so I’ll stick with it.

Kenneth Calhoun: “Then” from Tin House, Spring 2011, The Mysterious

Art by Ronfromyork on dreamstime.com

Who could have ever thought of it all and how did human living get so cluttered with detail? For a lucid moment, she believed she understood that the epidemic was somehow connected to this accumulation of practical – not ornamental – details. A threshold had been reached.

This is one of those weird stories. I don’t quite have a handle on it yet (that will require diagrams with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back), but I’m obsessed with it. It’s basically (forgive my bluntness) a dead-baby story. At least, I think it is. But it’s a lot more than that.

At one point new mom Jorie is confused because she is suddenly pregnant with the baby, who’s already been born: “She felt confused and grounded at the same time. That was why, she recognized. Because everything is happening now at the same time.” Adam, the husband, has already noted, “The flow of reality now had jump cuts.” He is in the chair, then in bed, without anything in between. And the baby talks several times, tells them not to answer the phone: “It’s undoubtedly those telemarketers again.” And tells Adam a bedtime story as creepy as all that stuff about evil witches and wolves eating Grandma in fairy tales.

Whether all this strangeness is part of an absurdist/surrealist view of the excuses people make for themselves, or is an excellent exposition of ordinary parents who’ve crossed over from tired to insane, I’m not sure. See, there’s an insomnia epidemic going on. In the story, I mean. Now, I’m familiar with new parents claiming sleep deprivation, and I’m not sure if this insomnia epidemic is real (in the context of this story), or if it’s just that these parents have gone around the bend because they haven’t been sleeping since their baby was born. And of course Jorie, the wife, may have additional problems with post-partum depression or psychosis.

Structurally, every section – most are short, one paragraph – starts with THEN. Time. Insomnia. Confusion. And where did we put the baby? A touch of creepy foreshadowing here and there, and we’re dreading the ending…

Like I said, it’s a weird story. It fits perfectly in this issue devoted to weird.

Top Chef Masters Season 3, Episode 6: I’m With The Band

Frida Kahlo unibrow minibook by Paperfection

Homage to Tom Colicchio, Hubert Keller, and unibrows.

The Quickfire: Heavenly foods in hellish time.

Curtis tantalizes the chefs with a display of all the things they love to cook: fois gras, truffles, caviar, scallops, prawns, tenderloin, crab claws, tuna… and they know there’s going to be a catch. Of course there is. They have seven minutes to produce a dish, in an homage to Tom Colicchio’s 8 minute 37 second Quickfire time. They must produce two plates, and the winner gets $5,000 for his or her charity, plus immunity.

When they’ve finished cooking, Mary Sue notes they’re usually sent to the W[h]ine Room (thank you for giving it a name, I’ve been struggling with that; oh, and the [h] is my own addition) but not this time. As an added twist, they have to taste and rate each other’s dishes, 1-7. There are seven chefs, eating off two plates, which seems pretty slapdash in terms of what each chef will actually taste. Like reading a paragraph of a short story and rating it. Hmmm. But no one mentions this, so maybe it isn’t really an issue. Traci isn’t crazy about rating each others’ food, though, feels it might start animosities.

Traci makes beef tenderloin carpaccio with maitake (or matsutake, I’m not sure) mushrooms and truffle vinaigrette. She’s suffering from adrenaline overload and is having trouble cutting the beef. I seem to recall you’re supposed to chill the beef to almost-frozen to make it easier to cut very thin, and of course she doesn’t have time to do that. Naomi finds it simple and delicious. On judging, Traci scores herself third. Naomi ranks her first, praising her simplicity. Mary Sue also ranks her first, saying it was the dish she wanted more of. Traci wins and gets $5,000 for La Cocina. This is the third QF she’s won.

Naomi sears fois gras with chanterelles and fried lady apples. She thinks she can get it done in time, though it’ll be close since it takes 5 minutes to sear. Interesting, because I always thought fois gras was one of those things you barely cook. I’ve never eaten it, or cooked it, have no desire to be in the same room with it in fact, but every time I hear anyone knowledgeable talk about it, they say it’s made of fat so it’s like cooking butter, it hits the pan and you take it out. Apparently that’s an exaggeration. In fact both Celina and Hugh comment that they aren’t as ambitious as she is in tackling this. She says it’s about getting the ingredients on the plate and highlighting them quickly and effectively. Well, duh. At judging, Hugh rates her plate as the best, saying it’s natural and beautiful. She rates herself second. Floyd rates her sixth, says his bite was salty. Naomi says Floyd’s been called out for salty food a few times so it’s odd he’s picking on her saltiness. I don’t think she likes criticism. Traci interviews that she’s surprised how Naomi is flourishing in this contest since she has the least experience of all of them. She finishes second, so her own evaluation was right on.

Alex makes a prawn ceviche with celery and kumquats and a blood orange vinaigrette.. He rates himself sixth, he should have chopped the ingredients. But he does get a first place vote. He finishes third.

Mary Sue makes a scallop with pink salt, lime and cilantro. Naomi thinks it’s perfect. Mary Sue rates herself fourth; Alex rates her first because he loved the simplicity. Hugh interviews her style is straightforward and not as refined as the other chefs and he’s surprised that she’s been able to use that skill set to do well in the competition. That’s pretty condescending, especially since Hugh with his refinement was sent home first. He places her 5th, better than his by 2, and he and Curtis do a little comedy routine: Curtis says, “You didn’t think it was worst,” and Hugh says, “No, I thought my dish was worst, we’ve been through this already.” So maybe he was in a bad mood when he snarked on her in the interview. She finishes fourth, exactly where she put herself.

Floyd makes a prawn with serrano chili, wasabi, and fried head. Mary Sue loves that he used the head.
He rates himself third. Naomi rates him sixth (leading Curtis to speculate they each downrated each other so maybe they don’t like each other’s cooking) because the blood orange too powerful. Floyd interviews he likes bold flavors and really likes that he used the head. He finishes fifth.

Hugh makes tuna two ways, a tartar with caviar and a poached ventresca with celery. He’s nervous about the poached portion, says he may be making the most elaborate cat food of all time. At tasting, Floyd finds a bitterness due to the caviar. I don’t understand why Hugh didn’t taste the caviar and notice it was bitter, or for that matter, why the caviar was bitter in the first place. Hugh says something about “I’m Hugh and I like quiet walks on the beach.” At judging, he gives himself a 7. Others do, too. Traci says lacked seasoning and the caviar was bitter. Floyd didn’t like the poached tuna at all, and interviews he was surprised because it looked like cat food. I think cat food is overused as a description of bad food, especially bad fish. I deal with cat food daily. The stuff’s disgusting. It’s a whole other level of awful. I use a separate fork for it because I don’t want to eat off a fork that’s touched cat food. Hugh finishes in sixth place.

Celina makes a scallop crudo. She interviews she hasn’t won anything for charity so she hopes she wins. Hmmm, sorry, Celina. Traci says it needs salt. Celina rates herself sixth, and pretty much everyone else agrees. Mary Sue rates her 7th for lack of salt. Celina finishes dead last. Wow, there must’ve been something besides the lack of salt for it to be that bad.

Elimination Challenge:

Curtis tells Traci to pick a team of either three or four chefs. She picks Hugh (who says she’s one of the chefs he’d be very happy to work as a dishwasher for, so he’s glad she picked him), Mary Sue, and Naomi. They’re the Black team. Floyd, Alex, and Celina are the Red team. And they find out they’re going to be cooking for Maroon 5, which of course we found out last week. Mary Sue cooked for Rolling Stones (and yes, she assures us, they really were like that). Floyd is excited because he and his kids like Maroon 5. I can’t tell if he’s just saying that or if he actually knows who they are. I like “Harder to Breathe” but what I really like are two songs they never released (they were used on a TV show), “Good at Being Gone” and “The Fog” and I sure wish I could find recordings somewhere.

The band gives their food preferences. Adam Levine likes Japanese food, and steak. There’s a vegetarian, of course. And a guy from Nebraska who wants corn. Then there’s the guy who’s still upset they missed Thanksgiving dinner when they were in Australia. And one of them likes LA so wants Mexican food. Presumably that means LA-style Mexican, Because if you tell someone like Rick Bayless you want Mexican food, you’d better mean it. But Rick Bayless isn’t here, sigh.

They’ll be serving family style at a hotel. They can plan their menus on the way to the grocery store, and will prep on the way to the hotel, which must strike them as odd – whaddya mean, prep on the way to the hotel? Yes, on the tour bus, complete with a three burner stove and an EZ Bake Oven. No, it isn’t really, but everyone keeps calling it that. Thus we have elements from the Foo Fighters TC episode, which was pretty dismal. Oh, and they finish cooking on the bus, too – they don’t get to go into the hotel kitchen and cook. Nope. It’s a roadie trip. Hugh interviews he called a bunch of groupies, cut off the sleeves of his t-shirt, and he’s ready to go. He’s really the only one with a sense of humor here.

Celina recognizes space is an issue, so she thinks maybe having a team of three chefs is better. She’s going to make spanikopita and corn soup. Floyd is thinking steak. Alex wants to do enchilladas.

For the Black team, Mary Sue will make a vegan mexican salad with fried avocado. Hugh will make corn soup and spanikopita (does this sound familiar?). Naomi will make a vegan crisp, turkey, and potatoes. She interviews there was some tension as they plan what they’re going to make.

In the grocery store (you know which one), Alex’s cart gets stuck on the escalator. I’ve never seen an escalator in a grocery store before. It’s an escalator just for carts. That’s really cool. Except that it gets stuck, of course. He runs up the people escalator next to it trying to grab stuff out of it, or maybe unjam the cart, but that doesn’t work. It doesn’t look like there’s much in the cart, so I’m not sure why he doesn’t just start over but eventually a store guy comes along to unstick the cart.

Mary Sue is worried about time management: the faster they shop, the more time they have for cooking. Traci gets tequila to make margueritas, which is probably the smartest thing anyone on either team does. The Red team finishes shopping first in spite of Alex’s stuck cart. Hugh interviews they look like they have their stuff together. We all know what that means: doom is just around the corner.

Alex has cooked on planes and boats, but never an RV. Celina cooked on a ship. Traci got carsick as a child, doesn’t like riding in bus. Things fall all over the place. Floyd tells them this is his dream after retirement, to travel all over the country in an RV, with his wife driving and him cooking. The Black Team’s refrigerator falls open when the bus swerves or stops or something. Hugh calls out, “Can we get a warning when we take a turn like that?” but gets no answer. He interviews that the driver is 140 year old and likes to take corners way too fast. I hope the driver isn’t watching this show. “Did we just run over someone?” someone asks after an ominous thump. “Sounded like it,” someone else replies. I think the drivers were paid extra to make the ride as uncomfortable as possible. Because, you know, this is what we watch this show for, the drama.

Floyd says he’ll boil pasta and drain it in bathroom, and Celina chimes in, “In honor of Hubert?” Well, at least some of them have seen this show before. Floyd has an induction burner on the toilet to make stock. It’s pretty gross actually. Hugh is making his corn soup with vanilla and coconut milk: “The standard way of making soup is not to combine everything in a pot and cook it to hell.” No, that’s the Top Chef Masters way. Alex comments he’s taking on more than he should, but enabling his leadership skills came naturally: simple, straightforward, get it done. The little doom chime goes off again. Mary Sue says, “It doesn’t feel right to set your bowl on the floor and toss your salad, but I’m tempted.” I know how you feel, Mary Sue. Floyd worries that his steak tastes bland, though he understands spices. I’m not sure why he doesn’t use any, then. Alex overcooks his pasta salad. Wait, pasta salad? Oh no! Alex, haven’t you seen Top Chef before? Pasta salad is death!

As Maroon 5 and the judges settle in the dining room, we see that Gail is a judge today. They introduce her as Gail from Top Chef: Just Desserts which seems odd. It’s fine to do that little bit of cross-promotion (seeing as TC:JD was even worse than TCM is turning out to be) but why not give her the Food & Wine credit, too? Danyelle and James are there as well. Ruth Reichl won’t be back until next week.

Red Team (Floyd, Celina, Alex) service:

Floyd serves winter salad and steak with soy and wine vinegar marinade. Gail says the steak is ok but needs more flavor; Adam says he was happy with it and Jesse loves the Asian slaw served with it. James is very disappointed with the salad; Adam says it’s the one thing he thinks he could actually make.

Celina has silky corn soup and spanikopita. Nebraska loves the corn soup, says it tastes straight off the farm, and Jesse says he isn’t religious but this might make him so. James says the spanikopita doesn’t stack up; Jesse says it’s like frozen spanikopita cooked in a microwave.

Alex brings pasta salad with broccolini, tomatoes, and garlic, his vegan enchilladas with onions and seitan, coconut almond tapioca with grapes, and turkey cutlet. The enchilladas don’t do so well, they look very strange and Nebraska doesn’t think much of them, but Curtis is surprised they’re as good as they are considering they’re made without cheese. Nebraska says because of the vegetarian requirement in their rider, they’re always getting pasta salad and it’s pretty much as bad as Alex’s, he’d hoped it’d have more imagination. Gail notes the pasta and the broccolini are both overcooked. The turkey cutlets aren’t appreciated, but the gravy is praised; Danyelle says she could eat a bowl of the gravy by itself. Nebraska says that’s what gravy is for, to cover up average meat. James thinks the tapioca is undercooked but one of the band guys thinks it’s the best thing on the table, even though it has “grape contacts” in it. Curtis notes Alex did four dishes, and wonders why. James pimps Alex’s great talent but admits he served cafeteria food.

Black Team (Traci, Hugh, Naomi, Mary Sue) service:

They’re finishing up plating in the bus. Hugh interviews that Mary Sue has covered the bed with tostadas, a fetish with which he is unfamiliar. Traci brings the margaritas. Hugh says something about walking with ice in his pocket.

Mary Sue serves salsa diablo and guacamole with taco chips, and tostadas with black beans and fried avocado. Adam says the tostada looks like a little piece of poop rolled around, and James agrees it looks bizarre but tastes great.

Hugh presents his corn soup with vanilla and coconut milk, spanikopita with fennel and parmesan. Gail finds the vanilla flavor of the soup to be very superficial; Adam says it’s like a bad candle; Nebraska preferred the other team’s corn soup. James, in his blog, says he liked it. Curtis approves of the spanikopita. So does Jesse, says it reminds him of his mom’s.

Traci has japanese steak with daikon braised in miso, a pea shoot and cucumber salad with umeboshi vinaigrette.

Naomi brings breaded turkey cutlets and vegan apple crisp. James doesn’t like the turkey; the corn meal is too coarse and hurts the roof of his mouth. Jesse loves the potatoes with mushrooms. Adam does not. Danyelle predicts the potatoes will be their Yoko Ono. I think Yoko Ono should be left alone now, don’t you?

Adam says given the restrictions everyone faced, it was great. And Thanksgiving Boy says it would be hard to have someone pick apart the details of their shows. Hey, don’t music critics do exactly that?

Back in the bus, Traci realizes both teams made almost exactly the same menu – spanikopita, corn soup, steak. She thinks her dishes were right on but maybe the other team’s were better, she has no idea. Hugh: “I’m not worried about anything. I’ve got youth and panache and one eyebrow on my side.” Best line of the night. I’ve read so much about his unibrow (which I never noticed until I read so much about it), it’s fun to see him use it.

Traditional Interstitial at the 40-minute Mark: Hugh makes a ridiculously condescending remark about “the women are stepping up.” Gee, how about that. He’s cleaning the sink, and Mary Sue suggests he pull his pants down a little to show his butt crack. Not the finest moment, that.

Critic’s Table

Curtis asks for the Black Team to come out to Critic’s Table: Mary Sue, Hugh, Naomi, and Traci. They are the winning team. Gail admires their beautiful touches, and James didn’t feel like the meal was cooked in EZ Bake oven (which of course it wasn’t). Danyelle loved Mary Sue’s fried avocado. James appreciated the chanterelles in Naomi’s mashed potatoes, which made it elegant. Traci gets props for her cucumber salad and the umeboshi dressing, perfect and tarts. Gail loved the jus from the steak dripped over the pea shoots to give them more flavor. Danyelle loved Hugh’s spanikopita.

Traci wins. She interviews she’s always been an improvisational chef, and it would be cool to be the first female Top Chef Master. La Cocina gets $10,000.

The Red Team goes in: Floyd, Alex, Celina. Again they point out Alex did four dishes. James says the enchilladas had a bizarre texture.Gail complained Floyd’s salad was out of a bag. James didn’t sense anything of spices or flavors in Floyd’s steak. Floyd says he didn’t want it to clash with other dishes; Gail says who cares, he should’ve blown them away with his dish. James asks Celina why she paired spanikopita with couscous; Danyelle says the spanikopita was forgettable. Curtis says the duress they were under came through in the food.

The team goes back to the bus and the critics talk it over. Curtis says they needed more allocation of jobs. James rags on the pasta. Gail says they shouldn’t have served it, it would’ve made a stronger table. Curtis says others should have stepped up instead of having Alex do four dishes. Curtis keeps saying that, but nobody’s listening. Danyelle says Floyd didn’t come through as a chef. Celina made forgettable dishes. James is still amazed at the pairing of spanikopita and couscous. Curtis asks if the critics have made their decision: for the first time I realize he doesn’t have a vote in the outcome. It’s kind of nice he’s standing up for Alex.

To no avail. Alex goes home. He interviews it was a fair assessment, and he’s glad he already won $10,000 for Faster Cures.

Next week, the blind taste test! My favorite Quickfire! And something makes Hugh declare: “This is the most awkward moment in television history.” I’m guessing he’s exaggerating, but it’s probably interesting anyway. I wonder if it has to do with the couple kissing on the floor.

Zin Makes The Longlist!

Happy Happy Zin!

Hello, I am Zin! This is amazing! My flash, “The Man With The Nose In His Living Room” in FRiGG Fall 2010 made the Wigleaf Longlist for best online flash for 2010! It did not make the Top 50 list, but it is one of the 200 best flashes for the year, which maybe sounds a little like one of 40 best states, but when I look at the names of other people from the Zoetrope Flash Factory on the Longlist – Randall Brown (my hero), David Woodruff as Kyle Hemmings, Tania Hershman, Meg Pokrass, Ethel Rohan, Jeanne Holtzman (heroes all) – and so many other wonderful writers and literary magazines I love, I am honored to be on this list, on any list where they are.

This particular story did not start off very well, but Ellen Parker (she is the editor of FRiGG and a wonderful person, patient, full of generosity of self as Suvir Saran from Top Chef Masters put it) told me exactly where I went wrong and stood by waiting as I fumbled and finally fixed it!

This is good news! And it is good now because I had two rejections this morning so it is always nice to get something good to balance that out! And I have been struggling with the prompts in the Flash Factory lately, I do not seem to be really getting my teeth into anything though I keep writing anyway.

Josh Weil: “No Flies, No Folly” in One Story #143 11/30/10

I was not always a peddler. I was once, too, a lighter of lamps. Street lamps. In the city of Providence. I was once a seller of lemons in Baltimore. I was a greenhorn seeing from the deck of a ship for the first time the lights of New York. I was a beggar. I was a deserter. Once upon a time I absconded from the Army of the Tsar. Once upon a time I was a soldier. A draftee. I was a Russian, a Jew. A brother. A son. The small sound you cannot hear in the dark on this road beneath the clanking of my pack is my spit landing. The other one you cannot hear is my sigh.

One of the most powerful story openings ever is: “And God said: Let there be light!” We of the Judeo-Christian traditions are fascinated by light. We see the light. We light the way. We look for the light at the end of the tunnel. A lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path. Light is life.

So cross-pollinate a Jewish peddler with an Amish housewife in the late 19th century, just at the time when incandescent light was developing. Add a little strange eroticism. And you end up with a helluva story. This booklet was a little thicker than most One Story’s, so I was dubious, but I ended up mesmerized.

Yankel visits the Hartzler farm about every three months. This provides the structure for the story. With each visit, he becomes a little more involved with Mrs. Hartzler, who is very interested in light bulbs. Then in generators. Yankel, who has his own interesting history as sketched in the early paragraph above, goes from carrying a rucksack to pushing a wheeled pushcart to driving a mule and wagon. Mrs. Hartzler – Esther – goes from an interest in light bulbs to generators to batteries. And their relationship becomes more intimate, albeit in unusual (and usual) ways. Let’s say you’ll never look at a light bulb the same way.

According to the Q&A with the author, the story was edited down by about a quarter to fit the One Story space requirements, though he plans to include it in a collection focusing on humanity’s lust for light. Yankel’s background is based on Weil’s great-grandfather whose life followed a similar path.

The prose is a little unusual (I thought it was charming, appropriate, and totally readable) since the story is set over a hundred years ago and the characters are from cultures that use other languages – Yiddish, German – freely. In fact, language is yet another erotic touchstone for them, and sort of reminds me of, forgive me, Wanda’s obsession with foreign languages in A Fish Called Wanda. It’s not really played for humor, though if you’re familiar with the movie, you may smile, as I did.

It’s well worth a read, as almost all One Story selections are. Oh, and the title? It has to do with Ecclesiastes, which is as much of a hint as I’ll give.