Junot Diaz: “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” from The New Yorker, 7/23/12

New Yorker art by Jeffrey Decoster

New Yorker art by Jeffrey Decoster

Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) … She’ll stick around for a few months because you been together a long, long time. Because you’ve gone through so much together — her father’s death, your tenure madness, her bar exam (passed on the third attempt). And because love, real love, is not so easily shed.

Yes, it’s the third Diaz story TNY has published since April. Yes, it’s the same character, Yunior. Yes, it’s the same style. Yes, it’s second person (which is fine with me, but I know a lot of people have a problem with it).

And yet, while I went into it with the reluctance of another dental cleaning, by the end of the story I was moved.

It’s the tale of a man slowly coming to terms with himself, with his own behavior, and the consequences he and others have suffered as a result of it. He’s helped along the way by seeing how similar behavior on the part of his best bud Elvis affects others. Funny how that works; it’s always so easy to see failures in others, while our own remain mysteriously obscure to us.

It’s structured by years. Year 0 is the breakup with his fiancée, who remains unnamed, and proceeds in similarly-titled chapters until Year 5 when… the story gets written. Yes, another one like that. Maybe this is the Year of the Feedback Loop. I’m not saying it doesn’t work. I’m just saying I’m seeing it all over the place now. Was it there before, and I wasn’t paying attention?

I like the chapter titles, which give it a scientific cast, like an anthropologist tracing the development of civilization from Year 0. Or maybe Ground Zero. The chapters also provide a structure I appreciated, since it’s a cycle of Yunior falling apart, professionally, personally, physically, and pulling it together. It starts to feel very “I’ve been here before”. The chapters assured me that yes, I had, because he had been here before. I have to admit, I was getting a little peeved.

Year 4 includes a trip to the Dominican Republic with buddy Elvis, to visit the secret, second family, son and baby mama, Elvis has stashed there in the squalor of the Nadalands. That appears to be an invented term, but you get the idea, it’s a mud flat “falling off the rim of civilization.” Elvis has plans to move them out. He picks Elvis up for the drive to the airport:

He has three suitcases of swag for the boy, including his first glove, his first ball, his first Bosox jersey. About eighty kilos of clothes and shit for the baby mama. Hid them all in your apartment, too. You are at his house when he bids his wife and mother-in-law and daughter goodbye. His daughter doesn’t seem to understand what’s happening, but when the door shuts she lets out a wail that coils about you like a constantine wire. Elvis stays cool as fuck. This used to be me, you’re thinking.

To me, it felt like this is where the story starts, but actually it’s almost over. Without the previous material, nothing here would have much meaning, so I can understand the importance of developing enough of a rapport with the adult Yunior (I never read the original collection introducing us to him as an adolescent) and how he’s mishandling his life. Over the past five years, the tables have turned a little: he’s the one who’s been crapped on. One girlfriend wouldn’t sleep with him; or more accurately, she’d chastely sleep over on Sunday night, bringing her own pillow. It says something about Yunior that she could get away with that. She walks out when he complains.

Another, a law student, breaks up with him for another guy, then comes back and tells him she’s pregnant with his child, only to recant in the delivery room under the stresses of labor: “I don’t want him in here. He’s not the father.”

In Year 5, he gets a photo and an invitation to her wedding to the other guy. Elvis rips it up. “You manage to save a tiny piece of the photo. It’s of her hand.” This, too, says something about Yunior. Unfortunately, these things were easy to miss on first read, with the parade of depressions and recoveries and girlfriends coming and going.

Yet through the whole story, in every year, the fiancée is present. In his TNY interview, he says it’s about a central absence, like most of his stories; but to me, the fiancée is there all along. It’s a very powerful element, how she sticks with this guy who doesn’t seem to care about much.

I was very lucky to enjoy a brief visit from my former Zoetrope friend Melissa (she’s still a friend, we just aren’t very active on Zoetrope Virtual Studios – hi, Melissa) over the weekend, and when the conversation inevitably turned to what we’d been reading, she told me of her experience with Diaz’s Oscar Wu novel: that for all the misogyny and misbehavior, there’s a tenderness to his work. I agree. Yunior cheated on his fiancée with fifty women over the course of their six-year relationship (hence the six-year span of the story; it’s a mirror image, the relationship after she leaves). He’s a dog. But then there’s that photo of her hand… Change is always possible.

Finally, when you feel like you can do so without exploding into burning atoms, you open a folder that you’ve kept hidden under your bed. The Doomsday Book. Copies of all the e-mails and photos from the cheating days, the ones the ex found and compiled and mailed to you a month after she ended it. Dear Yunior, for your next book. Probably the last time she wrote your name.
You read the whole thing cover to cover (yes, she put covers on it). You are surprised at what a fucking chickenshit coward you are. It kills you to admit it, but it’s true. You are astounded by the depths of your mendacity. When you finish the book a second time, you say the truth: You did the right thing, negra. You did the right thing.

Elvis looks at the book. “You really should write the cheater’s guide to love.” Yunior hasn’t written anything in the six years since the breakup.

The ending is predictable, sentimental, and perfect.

It takes a while… And then, one June night, you scribble the ex’s name and: The half-life of love is forever.
You bust out a couple more things. Then you put hour head down.
The next day, you look at the new pages. For once, you don’t want to burn them or give up writing forever.
It’s a start, you say to the room.
That’s about it. In the months that follow, you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace – and because you know in your lying cheater’s heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get.

Sunday with Zin: Everything Was Beautiful At the Ballet

Ballet in the Window

Ballet in the Window

Hello I am Zin, and today we go to the Ballet at the Library! This is one supercalifragilisticexpialadocious library we have in Portland, with art and authors and furniture and now ballet!

In the evening on June 29 (yes, it was a long time ago, I got busy doing all sorts of other things and my files got mixed up so it just came to the top of the pile now) the Portland Ballet gave a performance in the window of the library! This window faces Congress Street at Monument Square, which is pretty much the center of Portland!

We stood outside on the sidewalk or across Congress Street in the actual Monument Square (yes, there is a Monument, to World War I veterans), and I would guess there were 100 – 200 people, most of them there the whole time, plus a lot of passers-by who were going somewhere but stopped to watch for a while!

The dancers were in the Atrium of the library. In the construction that was just completed a couple of years ago, this is a tiled area for food and beverages so you do not have to go somewhere else if you want a cup of coffee or something to snack on while you are visiting the Library! It has a glass front facing Congress Street! It was like peeping through a window! Except that is what we were supposed to do!

This was part of the Portland Fringe Festival, an Arts weekend that featured several events in more traditional venues and a few weird freebie things to catch the eye of people who might not go to the Ballet but might stop to watch. I knew about it in advance and planned to be there, but I thought it was a great idea, and if I had been just walking by and saw it, I would have stopped!

They did five numbers, with music piped out to the street! I was on the sidewalk 10 feet from the windows so it was quite loud but it had to be for the people across Congress Street!

I wish I had pictures – I know they exist because I saw a lot of people taking pictures (I do not have a camera) but I could not find any online, except this one on the Facebook page of the Portland Ballet! You can just barely see a couple of dancers! On the ground floor! They are wearing red! And you can see me! See? On the sidewalk? No, not there… yes, there! There is Zin! I emailed the ballet company to ask if there were any pictures online but they are on vacation so I do not have an answer yet; if I get one I will update!

The complete program of five numbers with full credits is below.

They started with “Cleansing Fountain” which used an old hymn, “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” That sounds terrible, yes? “Drawn from Immanuel’s Veins; And Sinners Washed Beneath The Flood Lose All Their Guilty Stains.” If you are familiar with Christian imagery, you know that blood plays a big role! Lots of blood! Are you washed in the blood! Nothing but the blood of Jesus! If you do not know what is going on you can think it is pretty gross, but it kind of makes sense within the theology! And it is a pretty hymn (I have not been “religious” for many years, but I very much like hymns – I am singing it right now in fact, can you hear me?), it was done in very gospel-spiritual style, with five girls dressed in red shorts and tanks. They kept holding out their arms and shaking them, and I thought that was because the blood was flooding over them, but I saw a review in the paper from an earlier performance that called it “flowing movements with mournful evocation and lovely lines and shapes, juxtaposed with jerking gestures of anger.” I am not sure why they would be angry (maybe because blood is pouring over them?), but since I do not know anything at all about ballet (this was actually more like modern dance but I am not sure where one ends and the other begins) I will defer to greater expertise!

Somebody” to the music of Queen (“Somebody to Love”) was a duet, two strangers finding each other in their busy lives! “Saudades” is a Portuguese word which connotes a certain kind of intense and deep longing (it does not easily translate to English) and used a piece of music about the Azores. And “In Closing” used “Pictures at an Exhibition” which is always cool!

The program lasted about forty minutes. At 8:30, the listed start time, the Director announced “We will wait for our Lighting Director to bring down the house lights a little bit” since it was not quite twilight yet, and it was a lot easier to see inside the windows fifteen minutes later! I thought that was clever!

I love these crazy things that crop up once in a while – a couple of years ago there was a program of music in various odd settings, and I found a Afro-Caribbean vocal group singing in the bakery section of the supermarket! These things are a lot of fun!

The Program:

Cleansing Fountain – Choreography by Nell Shipman; Music: Elliot Goldenthal; Dancers: Deborah Grammatic, Morgan Brown Sanborn, Katrina Smedal, Meghan McCoy, Hannah Wallace, and Jennifer Jones

Somebody – Choreography by Nell Shipman; Music: “Somebody to Love” by Queen; Dancers: Joseph Jefferies and Jennifer Jones

Asunder: (Maine premiere) – Choreography by Jennifer Jones; Music: “Smoke & Mirrors” by RJD2; Dancers: Deborah Grammatic, Morgan Brown Sanborn, Katrina Smedal, Meghan McCoy and Hannah Wallace

Saudades: (Portland premiere) – Choreography by Joseph Jefferies; Music: “Ilhas Dos Acores” by Madredeus; Dancers: Joseph Jefferies and Jennifer Jones

In Closing – Choreography by Nell Shipman; Music: “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Hans Zimmer; Dancers: Deborah Grammatic, Morgan Brown Sanborn, Katrina Smedal, Meghan McCoy, Hannah Wallace and Jennifer Jones

Project Runway Season 10: Episode 2, Candy Couture

GUMMY SHARK! No, really - it's a gummy shark.

GUMMY SHARK! No, really – it’s a gummy shark

It’s time for the “glue shit to muslin and call it transformation” challenge. Makes you long for Austin’s cornhusk dress, or at least Korto’s salad collar, doesn’t it? Even Tim tells Fabio, “It’s a glue-the-shit-out-of-it moment.” Yes, Tim said Shit. On camera. What? Who are you, and what have you done with Tim?

Our brave band of fashion warriors heads off to meet Tim “someplace sweet” – big hint: a candy store. But wait, you say, they already did that. No, they did Hershey Inc. It’s never about the candy. Get it now?

Today it’s all about Dylan’s Candy Bar. I seldom use product placement brand names, but this is too good to miss.

See, Dylan is Dylan Lauren, and she’s Ralph Lauren’s daughter. She was inspired at a very young age to work in candy. At five, she saw Willy Wonka, the movie most central to her life, and from then on dreamed of being the candy man, except, like, a chick. So while she was inspired by the magnificent works of art she saw on her tour of Paris and Rome as an Art History major at Duke, she preferred “discovering and tasting new candies, and admired how artistically they were wrapped.” I’m not making this up – she went to the Louvre and spent all her time in the snack bar (ok, I inferred that part). I even had a whole shtick about her asking Daddy to give her a label under his brand and him buying her a candy store instead, but it turned out the truth is even more delicious.

“Because my father is Ralph Lauren, fashion and candy have always had a strong connection.” Yeah, she said that, standing next to Tim Gunn. Not exactly in those words, but pretty close. I don’t quite get the connection, but hey, who am I to say. It sounds like something a Food Network Star contender would say. To be fair, the store does look gorgeous, if aggressively modernist. Who can resist color-coordinated plastic bins of candy? And it’s not as hideously expensive as you might think – $2.95 for a tiramisu bar, “made from the finest Belgian Chocolate and sealed in our Dylan’s Candy Bar wrapper.” Would someone please tell me just what’s so special about the wrapper? It’s a candy bar wrapper, for Pete’s sake!

The designers – remember them? – get $250, and because Dylan is a sweetheart they get a 50% discount, meaning the markup on her candy probably approaches 200%. She also gets to be a guest judge.

The Best:

Ven: We had hints last week that Ven was full of himself, but this week leaves no doubt. He does, however, have the skills to back it up. And he pretty accurately susses out the competition and sees Sonjia as his main competition. He’s thinking of stained glass windows, with black licorice as the lead framing. He interviews he won four awards when he graduated from FIT, which had never happened before. Like I said, full of himself, with the skills to back it up. He crushes hard candy, leaving it slightly uneven for texture, which is a good idea. He gives his model directions to not bend over, sit, move, or breathe. God help her if she blows it. But all goes well, and his stained glass dress is really stunning. The rose design troubles me a little bit, not because there’s anything wrong with it – it’s beautiful – but if he incorporates a rose into everything he does, it’s going to be a problem. Still, the layout of the window is artistically done. Yes, it’s shit-glued-on-muslin. But damn, it’s good shit-glued-on-muslin. The judges use words like “sublime,” “refreshing,” “beautiful.” Michael Kors loves the asymmetry, the discovery of the materials, the toned-down accessories, the fit. Dylan likes that he changed the form of the candy (hey, so did Raul), but is disappointed he only used two types of candy, and I want to throw something at her. Winner. And well-deserved, just ask him.

Sonjia: You learn something new every day, and today I learned about gummy sharks. The candy, and the not-candy variety. I can’t decide which is more astonishing. In any event, Sonja is gluing gummy sharks to the bib of her dress, and Tim is awed: it looks like sea glass. Even Ven, who thinks pretty highly of himself, sees her as competition. See, I told you last week she deserved a promotion out of “Who else?” Thing is… her outfit, which is as well-made as a candy outfit can be, still looks like a carhop uniform. I wrote down “50′s waitress” as soon as I saw it, but carhop is even better, especially with the little hat. Heidi likes the shape and texture; Dylan loves it. Michael Kors loves the surprise in back. Nina’s ok with the waitress/Judy Jetson Mermaid look; it made her smile, it’s perfectly made, and it’s adorable. See, even Nina will forgive the most glaring flaw if she thinks it’s cute enough. And it is cute. But it is a carhop uniform. And, of course, it’s shit-glued-on-muslin. Second Place.

Gunnar: He’s turning into great TV (see notes on Christopher for more) which I’m assuming is why his checkerboard dress with the peplum from hell is in the top. Except for the peplum it’s not bad, which is one of those “Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln” things. The damn thing looks like the leather apron meat cutters wear.
They like that he created a print, and Dylan is impressed with his candied accessories, and that he put logo’d ribbon around the bottoms of black shoes. She wants to put it in her window. Michael says he thought about the body; it looks like a woven raffia dress. No one mentions the elephant in the room, disguised as a giant black peplum that’s just as bad as the avocado dinner napkins Peach did (I watch way too much Project Runway, too). Third Place.

The Worst:

Lantie: She’s still shocked she was in the bottom three. Not as shocked as the rest of us that she’s still here at all. She does an earnest interview: “Back in 2005, I had my own shop and when the recession hit I had to file for bankruptcy, and look where I am today.” Yes, dear, just where is it you think you are today? You’re cannon fodder on a reality show. You’re the one they pick so they can have a few weeks to let the real contenders get their bearings (In Hannibal Lecter sotto voce: “Not any more”). She starts with computer cases and rain boots. Wait… where’s the candy? She doesn’t like the computer cases so she uses umbrellas. Again, where’s the candy? She thinks her dress is very girly with an edginess. What it is, is a reasonably cute halter dress made out of the striped umbrella fabric with a little candy glued to the skirt to make a flower pattern. It’s the sort of thing that might fly in a 2-hour challenge. Michael Kors points this out to her on the runway: it’s the same thing, she ornamented fabric. She’s a decorator. Harsh, but true. She disagrees, of course. Then she whines about time, which never flies. Nina admits it’s not atrocious (it is kind of cute, with a peplum that works, but the heavy lifting of cuteness is done by the fabric, and it’s not like it’s made or fitted really well), but she’s tired of the excuses, everyone else got it together. Bye, Lantie. Auf.

Buffi: She weaves candy for the bodice of a dress she wants to be fun, soulful, and wearable. It’s good weaving on the table. She also pounds the spokes of a Candy Bar umbrella, for reasons I do not know, giving everyone in the room a headache. Lantie doesn’t think Buffi is up to par, design-wise, tee-hee. She makes a bird’s nest out of cotton candy for a hairpiece, but it shrinks overnight so she has to bulk it up again. Her hot pink and coral top and skirt aren’t bad, at least I didn’t think so until the judges started in on her. The bodice doesn’t fit, but hey, it’s candy, and she braided it very attractively. Ok, the skirt is fabric, but it’s very party-girl which is what she does. I’m very surprised she’s in the bottom, in fact; I was preparing to be all indignant about her being in the top because of the bad fit on the bodice.
She defends it by saying it’s Carrie Bradshaw from Sex & the City, fun and playful. Heidi doesn’t like the use of paper on the bottom (that’s paper?), or the way it’s overaccessorized; it looks like something for a five-year-old. Michael Kors also sees Toddlers and Tiaras, not Carrie. He appreciates the weaving, but she looks like she’s melting, which, yeah, that’s true. And she might be. There’s a difference between fun and insane. Yes, there is, and I don’t think this is insane at all. Then the line he’s prepped in advance (I’m convinced he does that, someone writes for him and he figures out on the spot which look to skewer with it): “If you saw her wandering down the street, someone would put money in a cup.” No, Michael. I don’t particularly like that look, but for that look made out of candy, it’s not that bad. Nina calls it a pink explosion of messiness. Dylan, bless her, stands up for the weave work in the bodice. She still wants Buffi to buy her candy. But saved by Lantie.

Elena: She wants a linear look with a strong shoulder silhouette. And that’s exactly what she makes: a pina colada Terminator costume. She confides to Tim on Walkthrough that she’s worried about the single color; ever-practical Tim points out she only has one color licorice so it’s too late to think about that now (most parents would’ve said, “You should’ve thought of that when you were in the store”). I sense Tim is over Elena; he could’ve been more encouraging. Elena gets hot glue on her finger and her thigh and you’d think she cut off her leg with a pair of pinking shears for all the whining and moaning we get (and paramedics; hell, Missy Robbins sliced a layer off her pinky with a mandoline on this week’s Top Chef Masters, and asked for a band-aid and a glove, before succumbing to the paramedic’s insistence she go to the emergency room where she found out she really needed a skin graft and a few weeks complete immobilization before physical therapy would give her full use of her hand three months later – and she didn’t whine and moan once), continuing into morning, at which point someone asks her how her burn is, in a tone that suggests no one is truly sympathetic to her pain. Christopher sums it up: “Why are you wearing hootchie shorts to work?”
The big problem with her outfit, besides that it’s a Terminator costume and that, as Heidi says, it looks like noodle art because of the color, is that the glued-on licorice is falling off. Michael pops up with another one: “It’s a dress that becomes different things, now the boobs are old man’s eyes.” And they are, too! Maybe she turned down the heat of the glue gun after her painful burns. The patterning of the licorice is actually quite nice; it is way too bulky, but that’s what she does. Michael Kors understands her use of the “aggressive silhouette” (I’ll have to remember that), but she looks like she’s wearing a cardboard box. He advises her to find out a way to hold on to her aesthetic but still do the challenges. Hey, that’s not fair, she did the challenge. She just keeps saying, “This is my aesthetic.” They decide she’s arrogant. I’m not sure it’s arrogance, exactly, to say, “This is what I do, you knew that when you picked me for this show, so stop telling me to do something else.” Apparently no one told her one-note was a bad thing. Nina makes it clear now: if you can’t step out of this one thing, maybe you don’t belong here. Safe thanks to Lantie.

The In-Between:

Alicia: she calls it a half coverall but it looks more Jane of the Jungle Romper to me (you can practically hear Cheetah screeching in the background), with green grassy stuff hanging all over it and a bra top studded with candy balls on one boob. Because I like her, and I think she’s low-maintenance and no-nonsense, I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt and credit for going with the challenge; the red swath adds a lot, probably saves it. But it’s still muslin with shit glued to it.

Andrea: She was born on Halloween, so has a strong connection to candy. Hey, it’s better than Dylan’s excuse. She loves the aprons the clerks are wearing (she’s draping them in fabrics and dot candy as ersatz models), so she uses that as inspiration to create apron for a Victorian Candy Bar clerk gone wild. But Walkthrough Tim is concerned. “I’m going to tell you bluntly, I don’t have adequate words to tell you how completely underwhelmed I am by this. You’re throwing the challenge. It’s sloppy, it’s unaltered, it’s craft-projecty.” I think he found adequate words. So adequate, it throws her into a tailspin, enough that she asks the camera be turned off during her solo. But she gets nowhere trying other things, so she goes back to her original idea, and this time she does it a lot more carefully, so Tim’s comments probably saved her from the bottom three. At one point in the re-do she was using licorice between the dots, which I thought was a great look, but it isn’t on the finished garment. This is scary to say but… I don’t hate it, at least from the front. She has a fondness for this A-shape, and while women who subsist on green tea and celery won’t appreciate it for the lack of body contour, in itself it’s kind of attractive. The bustle in the back is kinda weird, and doesn’t work unless you understand the whole apron thing; it looks like two dresses, one from the front and one from the back. The bustle is made of fabric from the umbrellas and other stuff they sell in the store, not candy. As the judges would say, she didn’t transform the materials, she relied on fabric, and she only used one material. But… I still don’t hate it. But I like Andrea, so I’m probably giving her the benefit of the doubt, too.

Christopher: He’s very focused on Gunnar; Gunnar’s rolling his eyes at my dress, Gunnar is threatened by me, Gunnar is the evil twin and I’m the nice twin. They’re riding this thing so hard, I’m thinking it’s been “suggested” that they play it up. In any event, Christopher has immunity, so instead of making just a little black dress, he makes a little black dress with a black, brown, and white stripe pattern. It’s quite nice. It’s a very nice make-a-simple-muslin-sheath-and-glue-shit-to-it dress. I’m surprised he didn’t win. He isn’t even in the top three. Which is probably to exacerbate the feud with Gunnar, who is. By the way, I get the whole Michael Costello vibe now. Yeah. In fact, several times I wondered what Michael was doing there. Certain expressions really do evoke him.

Dmitri: He wants movement in his dress, unlike everyone else. Remember, he’s a former ballroom dancer, so he makes a ballroom dancing dress with fringe hanging off the bottom. Tim freaks out during his walkthrough because Dmitri isn’t going to glue stuff to the dress until he fits it; Tim frantically urges him to get to it, he won’t have enough time, but Dmitri figures he can’t fit the dress once the candy beads are glued on so he ignores this advice. His bodice is thus somewhat candy-deprived. Still, the candy that’s there is beaded really well, with a yellow belt and red trim nicely incorporated. It even looks like the beads got farther apart as they rose on the bodice, so he would’ve continued that pattern, with thinner and thinner beading, and probably would’ve been in the top had he had time.

Fabio: He’s in the “Who?” category this week. His blue dress is really ordinary. Especially for a candy challenge, surprisingly ordinary. It’s got that matronly bodice they usually love to hate; I have no idea what the skirt is made of, but it’s got fold marks in it – is it fruit leather? It’s just bright blue meh.

Kooan: I’m not sure why they show a closeup of a string in his hair. I guess it’s supposed to be funny. Ok. Ha. Ha. He’s very melodramatic with Tim on walkthrough, doing a massive inhale; I think Tim was afraid he was having a seizure. He wants to make a sweater dress, weave the sweater out of orange twizzlers. But Twizzlers aren’t long enough. What, he couldn’t tell that from seeing them in the bag? He tries to glue them together. Nope. There is such a thing as rope licorice which would work for this idea, but he either didn’t see it or doesn’t really care about it, so he makes a Minnetonka Moccasin with a tugboat line on the back. There is a bib piece made out of woven Twizzlers, but mostly it’s a glue-shit-to-muslin-and-call-it-transformation Pocahontas dress. As with Buffi, though it isn’t anything I can even appreciate, it’s not bad, and it is what the challenge called for. He uses many different kinds of candy, including cotton candy which shriveled up overnight, leaving the dress with no skirt. But he made it work, sort of. I think it’s uglier than Buffi’s dress, but it is covered in candy. It’s pure Kooan. Hey Dylan – you complained that Ven only used two kinds of candy – Kooan used everything in the store. You want to put this in your window?

Melissa: She was pretty much MIA this episode. She turned out a black leather cropped tank and skirt which, if it were made out of fabric would be pretty awful, but considering it’s made out of candy, is really kind of cool. The licorice-and-silver lacing caught Tim’s eye on walkthrough; the leather of the tank is, I don’t know, licorice or fruit leather? I think there’s an overvest of string licorice. Construction-wise, it’s quite intricate, so it’s too bad it looks meh.

Nathan: I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll ever hear anything from Nathan. In any event, he made a lampshade skirt and halter top that would be easy to poke fun at if it weren’t so damn pretty. Ok, it doesn’t move when she walks, the skirt rests on her hips kind of funny, but damn, it’s pretty in the picture. The model has a perfect “Can you believe he’s making me wear this?” look on her face, but damn, it’s pretty.

Raul: He started with the concept of a modern Jackie O Chanel suit using smashed rock candy as texture. Tim’s flabbergasted that his blue “fabric” is candy. So am I; I’m not sure what it is, but I’m betting it’s shit glued on muslin. It looks like a pretty good crop top and skirt. The back is much more interesting than the front, especially the closure. Jackie O would never wear it, but for the time he had, not a bad homage (pronounced “oh-MAHJ”).

Next Week: Work in pairs – let the drama begin. And… no , I don’t want to think about the special guest. Too soon. I still can’t watch Season 9 reruns.

Top Chef Masters Season 4: Episode 1 – The Buffet Must Go On

Yummmmmmmo!

Yummmmmmmo!

This snuck up on me; I didn’t know the series was airing until a few days ago. Maybe I’m getting old, but the pacing throughout seemed very fast. Fortunately, several chefs are familiar either from prior seasons or from other competitive cooking shows. From the list, I was most excited to see Chris Cosentino, but now that I’ve looked into things, there’s a matched set from Maine, so I’ve got to go with Clark Frasier and/or Mark Gaier. I can’t tell them apart (my poor facial recognition skills are documented elsewhere), so I may end up calling them Frick and Frack. I can’t tell some of the women apart, either. And one guy reminds me of that oozey guy from the first TC:JD. Don’t want to think about that.

They’re in Vegas, a nice change of pace from the usual LA location. Even if Vegas is my least favorite place in the US. I hope that doesn’t mean ever challenge has a Vegas tie-in.

Quickfire: They pair up, and each pair is dealt two cards (Vegas tie-in #1; boooo) with ingredients they must use in their single dish. The winner gets $10,000 for his/her charity, with three “world-class card dealers” making the call. It’s debatable whether the ingredients are distributed randomly or in pre-determined pairs. I suspect the latter; they all go together a little too well to be random.

Team Rib Eye and Catfish:
Chris Cosentino is all about guts. Offal Good is his “educational and inspirational” website (twitter @offalchris), featuring the picture, above, of him holding a bunch of guts. Ya gotta love it. But you don’t have to eat it. Oh, and he once worked for Patricia Yeo. Which might be why they teamed up for this QF. He’s playing for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
Patricia Yeo was a Princeton Biochem major when she took a cooking class, and that was it. She moved to Southeast Asia for a time to work and study the cuisine, and has worked in CA, NY, and Boston; but she’s been weathering some rough times, and just prior to the airing of the show, she announced she was going to Chicago for an unspecified corporate position. She worked for Bobby Flay and was his sous chef a few times in the early years on ICA; then she challenged Morimoto in Battle Tofu in 2007 (you have to ask? I mean, come on, Morimoto?). Her charity is Heifer International which happens to be one of my favorite places to put money, seeing as they were featured on a hilarious segment of The West Wing.
Though Chris is dismayed by being presented with a whole catfish, they pull it together and present Beefalo de Gato Pescado. The dealers like the kick of the jalapeno.
They win, and each of their charities gets $5,000.

Team Langostines and quinoa:
Clark Frasier is Frick (or maybe it’s Frack), one of the Maine team, James Beard winner, sustainable chef-owner along with partner and now competitor Mark Gaier of two Ogunquit restaurants (the flagship Arrows with a SE Asian flavor, and MC Perkins Cove for more traditional Maine seafood), plus Summer Winter in the Burlington, MA Marriott. Oh, and you can order stuff like Strange Eggplant Dip and Mom’s Steak Sauce as well as their cookbooks at MC, which seems to stand for both Maine Classics and Mark & Clark. The local paper also ran a nice article last week, and yes, I overlooked it. He’s playing for Outright Lewiston/Auburn, which helps create safe and affirming environments for LGBTQ youth.
Debbie Gold is a TCM Season 2 alumna who studied and worked in France, has been a pastry chef, won a James Beard award, and cooks Heartland food in Kansas City. Her charity is Children’s TLC, a therapeutic learning center for kids in Kansas City.
They make grilled langoustine and parsley pistou with candied popped quinoa. The pistou is too grassy for the dealers. Ewwey faces all around.

Team Brandy and honeycomb:
Missy Robbins is President Obama’s favorite chef. Oh, wait, she worked at Spiaggia in Chicago (remember Sarah from TCT?) for Tony Mantuano who’s Obama’s favorite chef. No, Spiaggia’s is his favorite restaurant and she was the chef at that point. Whatever. I’m just happy someone wants to be called Obama’s favorite chef. She’s a Georgetown grad who worked at Spiaggia (remember Sarah from TC9? Tony Mantuano from TCM3?) before opening her own Italian eatery in NY. Her charity is Grow to Learn NYC which promotes school garden programs.
Sue Torres, CIA alumna out of NYC, is not Mexican – she’s an Italian/Puerto Rican American – but she loves to cook Mexican food. She’s been around the Food Network a bit, ICA in 2009 (lost her bananas to Bobby Flay) and as a judge on Chopped. Her charity is the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation .
They prepare Brandied pineapple with Honeyed Yogurt, Almonds and Chilies; the dealers find it sweet and refreshing.

Team Black garlic and flank steak:
Mark Gaier is the other half of Frick & Frack from Maine; see Clark Frasier above. It’s hard enough to work and live with the same person, but now to compete with him is really strange. He’s playing for Equality Maine to bring equal rights to all Mainers. Hey, it almost happened a couple of years ago. Almost.
Thierry Rautureau of Seattle is The Chef in the Hat. That’s not just me saying that, it’s what he’s called. He’s a Season 2 alumnus, if you count one outing (that was back when only one or two people were advancing per quarterfinal). He’s a James Beard winner, with, guess what, French training and inspiration. Food Lifeline, a hunger relief organization in western Washington state, is his charity.
Their dish is Flank Steak with Corn and Blueberry Salad and Black Garlic Harissa; the salsa needs more kick.

Team Peaches and Duck Breast:
Art Smith – dang, again? That isn’t fair, I guess, it’s just that Oprah’s off the air now so can we just move along? His charity is still Common Threads.
Lorena Garcia studied law in her native Venezuela and the US, then switched to cooking, with an emphasis on Latin food. She’s a Johnson & Wales grad who worked all over Europe and Asia before returning to the great American industry of fame whoring. Wow, I know, that’s harsh. But come on, she’s spokesperson for Splenda, she’s teamed with Taco Bell to create their Cantina Bell menu, and she was one of the judges on that miserable “what kind of kitschy fast-food restaurant do you want to create, no that’s not good come up with something else” show (my buddy Marko and I had fun snarking by email with that one). Ok, I’ll admit, I happen to know Jacques Pepin once worked for Hojo’s. For you youngsters who don’t know what Hojo’s was… don’t worry about it. Her restaurant is in the Miami airport. She’s playing for Alliance for a Healthier Generation which works to combat childhood obesity.
They make soul food, says Lorena: he makes American South soul food with fried duck, she makes Latin American soul food via corn salsa. In the end, they send out Duck Lettuce Wraps with Corn Salsa and Peach Ricotta Crème. The dealers find it very fresh-tasting with good flavors.

Team Pork Tenderloin and Bologna:
Takashi Yagihashi from Chicago does French/Asian fusion. He actually earned a degree in Interior Design in Tokyo, but couldn’t find a job in the field so turned to cooking full-time; his boss asked him to relocate to a new restaurant here and he made the most of it. He recently lost to Michael Simon, Battle Egg, on ICA. But he has a James Beard award which is a lot better. His prizes will go to Japanese Tsunami Disaster Relief (in later episodes it appears this means American Red Cross Disaster Relief, though there doesn’t seem to be an option specific to the Japanese tsunami at this time; there’s no link on the Bravo bio so this is a guess but what the heck, it’s a good cause no matter what).
Kerry Heffernan is Tom Colicchio’s buddy and the Fishing Guy judge from TCAS Ep 6, remember how Dale caught a 37 pound fish and Tiffany Faison got sent home for serving bluefish bloodline? Damn, I watch WAY too much Top Chef. Though I did have to look up the 37 pounds; I thought it was 35. The food rescue group City Harvest is his charity.
Together they come up with Sauteed Pork Tenderloin with Bologna Frisee Salad and Soy Ginger Caramel Sauce. The dealers like the spice.

Elimination Challenge:

They must do a Vegas buffet (ok, that’s two Vegas tie-ins, can we knock it off now?) for 200 show performers. Curtis randomly (apparently) into two teams; they shop, cook, and – surprise twist! There’s a lot that goes on – they each get scratch cards with instructions to lose 30 minutes, switch teams, get immunity, and take a bonus of $1000 for charity, and a final surprise for each team: one must make Indian dishes, one Mexican. This is after they’ve done their shopping, though they’re allowed to go out for more.

So here’s how it panned out in the end:

Red Team: Mexican Buffet
Art gets immunity. Damn.
Chris gets $1000 for his charity.
Lorena loses 30 minutes.
Patricia gets $1000 for her charity.
Missy switched teams, ends up on Red.
Kerry – well, I missed him, I told you, it was fast-paced. I’m going to guess he lost 30 minutes since that would even it up – 2 immunities, 2 switched teams, 4 bonuses, and 4 time-outs.

Art goes shopping and takes forever but does bring back the cilantro.

Blue Team: Indian Buffet
Debbie gets immunity.
Thierry gets $1000 for his charity.
Frick (the one with bangs) gets $1000 for his charity.
Frack loses 30 minutes.
Sue loses 30 minutes.
Takeshi switched teams, ends up on Blue

In one of the stupidest decisions made on TCM since Anito Lo went ahead with her raw bar even after she found out they’d be serving outside on a hot rooftop, they decide not to waste time shopping, because after all, Indian food is just like American/French/Latin/Asian, who needs additional ingredients. Then there’s Thierry, who has all this beef to fit into an Indian dish.

There’s the usual kvetching about the forced change in cuisine. I’m surprised they picked those two; after all, there are a couple of Latin specialists on the panel (one on each team), but no one who does Indian. Seems a bit slanted to me in favor of the Red Team. However…

Within minutes (it seems; who knows how long it was), Missy’s done: while slicing the zucchini on a mandoline, she also sliced the skin off her pinkie. She faced it with bravado, asking for a bandaid and a glove, but the paramedic insisted she go to the hospital, where she found out she needed a skin graft. She’s fine now, by the way, after the surgery, a couple of weeks in an immobilization sling, and physical therapy. The show gave Grow to Learn NYC an undisclosed amount as a consolation prize, and gave her an automatic invitation to the next season.

Service:
I guess they liked The Next Food Network Star Vegas buffet episode, because they do pretty much the same thing. All the showgirls, pirates, mimes, and whatevers traipse in and eat. Chris likes the view; all he sees from behind the serving line is belly and bikini bottoms. Frick & Frack enjoy the pirates. And Art likes everything.

Blue Team: Indian
Takashi: Shrimp and Salmon Dumpling with Swiss Chard and Curried Coconut Broth. James is impressed, but Ruth wants the filling lighter and smoother. No one tastes India.
Clark: Heirloom Tomato Compote with Fried Green Beans, Shallots and Goat Cheese. The shallots are a little much. And no one tastes India.
Debbie: Rose Water Lemon Curd with Spiced Streusel and Meringue. James thinks it’s not sweet enough; Ruth, claiming title of Lemon Queen, thinks it’s too sweet. Nobody thinks it has anything to do with India. Do you see a pattern here?
Mark: Curried Corn Soup with Curried Flatbread. He didn’t bring the spice. Come on, home team, what’re ya doin’ to me?
Sue: Indian-Spiced Chicken with Lentil Rice Cakes and Tomato Ginger Jam. Ruth thinks the ginger is ill-conceived, and it’s aggressively dry. I love how she phrases that.
Thierry: Masala Salmon and Beef Shoulder with Spiced Couscous. Curtis loves the layers of flavor; they all love it. But they have yet to taste India.

Red Team: Mexican Buffet
Lorena: Leche de Tigre Ceviche Salad and Tequila Horchata. James likes it, but Ruth thinks the texture is strange. I’m not so sure ceviche is the best choice for a buffet, either.
Patricia: Chicken and Beef Adobo with Cornmeal Pancakes and Peach Salsa. The adobo is well-seasoned; tasty.
Missy: Zucchini Salad with Roasted Poblano Vinaigrette. She didn’t really make it, of course, but the team completed it, and it went over well; nicely spiced, good heat.
Kerry: Grilled Steak with Arugula, Posole and Chimichurri Coulis. James likes how the flavor of the beef offsets the garlicky posole, but Ruth wishes the chimichurri was brighter.
Chris: “Pork and Beans” with Cured Pork and Chickpeas. It’s the standout, smooth and well-flavored.
Art: Pan de Tres Leches with Candied Cocoa Nib and Tequila Caramel Sauce. Ruth says he had fun; they call it comfort food and Mexico on a plate; Art at his best.

Critic’s Table

The Red Team wins, which was pretty obvious from the judging. James says it was the best food he ever had at a buffet. Individually, Chris Cosentino wins for best dish, bringing the total he’s won for the Michael J. Fox Foundation today to $16,000. Pretty good for one day’s work. Hey, if my home boys aren’t going to bring it, I’m still all about Chris. Though Takashi and Sue are growing on me.

The Blue Team gets the bad news. Their spicing wasn’t Indian. They ask Debbie about her dessert; she admits she didn’t bring anyone to India, but she felt good about it. She’s got immunity, so I suppose she doesn’t care where she brought anyone. Sue had fun and used the ingredients of India; Ruth wishes she’d marinated the chicken in yogurt to keep it moist. Takashi’s chard was delicious, but the spring roll filling could’ve been lighter.

The panel debates in private while the chefs wait. It’s between Takashi and Sue, of course, since those two were among the ones I noticed. They know Sue had the boldest flavors, with actual coriander seed crust on the chicken, but Ruth points out the glory of Indian food is how they make the chicken succulent and tender. I didn’t know that, I thought it was the spices. Curtis admires her for taking on the challenge. Hey, what choice did she have? I guess she could’ve made a lemon meringue cup, but she didn’t have immunity. Ruth sympathizes with Takashi, who had no idea what to do for Indian food; but his filling wasn’t light and it wasn’t an Indian dish at all.

Sue Torres is out, which seems bass-ackwards to me, but I have a high tolerance for dry chicken.

Next week: Well, I don’t know, but I hope Team Maine resurgams.

(Non-Fiction) Baratunde Thurston: How To Be Black – HarperCollins, 2012

The Company Office Party…
Your food
Often these events are catered, and if you’re in the job long enough you will face a food choice dreaded by black people since breaking the Corporate America color line: whether or not to eat the watermelon. First of all, don’t panic….Is it the only fruit? Is it arranged on its own plate adjacent to other segregated fruits? Is it mixed in with a fruit salad? Again, take a brief moment. Smile at the person across from you in the buffet line. We’re going to get through this together.

Yes, it’s a funny book. But it also, in the finest tradition of humor, makes a point. Several, in fact.

Baratunde Thurston got his autobiography into his humor – or maybe he got humor into his autobiography. In any case, it’s a fun read. He’s a stand-up comic, writer, director of digital for The Onion, and political blogger at Jack & Jill Politics (the logo of which is a watermelon). He’s also a Harvard grad, and an alumnus of Sidwell Friends (pre-Chelsea; she started the year after he did). His mom was a computer programmer in DC, and an unrepentent hippie who started him early on organic foods and a world view. She did good.

There’s a lot of him on youtube, including There’s a #Hashtag for That (a few f-words show up, mostly around #swineflu) which, at the 7-minute mark, recounts the hashtag war with friend and fellow comedian Elon James White that began after he tweeted he just selected a bottle of wine purely because it was labeled “Negroamaro.” Among my favorites from both of them: “I not only know why the caged bird sings, I feed it, clean its cage, and named it Taniqua” and “Despite the possession of an Ivy League degree, I occasionally ‘axe’ people questions.” A HarperCollins editor picked up on it. A whole book on hashtags seemed improbable, so it broadened into How To Be Black.
I chose to read this book after Melissa Harris-Perry (who did a cover blurb for the book) put it on her Summer Reading List. Melissa Harris-Perry is my Black Friend. You’ll learn more about the Black Friend in the chapter titled, “How to Be The Black Friend” and “How To Speak For All Black People”. Fact is, Melissa, in addition to being a Tulane professor of Political Science, and an excellent policy analyst and discussion leader on her weekend show on MSNBC (well, of course, where did you think it would be?) is very funny and very patient – two important qualities of a Black Friend – and her Teachable Moment on Black Hair will live forever (but don’t forget it was part of a more broad-ranging segment – it’s just that she gets a lot of email about her hair so she answered all the questions, plus a few more. That she’ll be remembered for the hair thing is probably as sad as Bobby McFerrin being remembered for “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” but that’s how it goes sometimes; hair is more universal than the economy, taxes, or Congress).

In 1926, Negro History Week was established by the black historian and author Carter G. Woodson. It was expanded to a full month in 1976 after the government realized that black people’s demands for self-determination and an equal seat at the table of American opportunity could be satisfied either through a comprehensive program of economic and political empowerment or by extending the buying season for postage stamps featuring noteworthy Black americans by a factor of four.

In addition to the gently satirical sociopolitical and interpersonal commentary, Thurston also gives us a look at his life. Not just what it felt like to be black growing up, as a student at those prestigious schools, but what it feels like to be him in the world. After all, he got that chapter on “How To Be The Black Employee” from somewhere. And, he assures us, he can swim.

Featured in several chapters is The Black Panel, a group of seven of his friends – Cheryl Contee (cofounder of Jack & Jill Politics), damali ayo, Jacquetta Szathmari, Elon James White, W. Kamau Bell, Derrick Ashong, and Christian Lander (a white Anglo-Saxon Canadian included as a control group and to “defend against the inevitable lawsuits claiming reverse discrimination”) – who offer their opinions and experience. Among other things, they recount their recollections of the moment they first realized they were black; just the title of the chapter gave me a “whoa” moment, because of course those of us who are white never have a moment when we realize we are white. And no, realizing other people are black is not the same thing.

I was a little puzzled by the chapter title “How’s That Post-Racial Thing Working Out for Ya?” I thought post-racial was a someday-we’ll-get-there thing; I never realized someone actually thinks we are now in a post-racial period. The Black Panel gets quite a kick out of the notion, too.

It’s just a funny guy writing about his life, and how what is all around him in the media and society strikes him. For pure sweetness, he’s included a picture of his mom hugging him at his graduation from Harvard. The satire is gentle rather than biting, but I can see myself in a few places. I never felt called out or scolded, though. More like a tap on the shoulder, a whispered word to the wise. From a Black Friend.

Funny, warm, interesting – highly recommended reading.

Bennett Sims: “House-Sitting” from Tin House, Summer 2012

Within moments of arriving at the cabin, you begin to suspect that the owner is a madman.

Now this is some seriously fine, seriously literary, psychological horror.

There’s something about the label “horror” that makes the seriously literary (and those of us not so serious literarily) cringe. It’s a spectrum, after all; most of the stuff of good fiction – broken hearts, betrayals, war, violence, madness, depravity, death – is to a large degree degree horrific, or it wouldn’t be interesting enough for a story. It’s kind of arbitrary, at what point a story becomes “horror” when the supernatural isn’t involved. So if it bothers you, just ignore that word. Because this story has chops, and it shouldn’t be lumped in with the lesser stuff.

The opening sentence is enough to discourage a lot of people: oh, no, second person again?!?! as if “you” is some kind of pungent green vegetable one encounters at the dinner table or the company cafeteria from time to time. But don’t be afraid, it’s got a delicious hollandaise sauce – the whole thing just glides down – and seldom has “you” been more essential in a story. The talking-to-himself vibe, fading into the unreality-vibe of the subjunctive. Very nice. I’m putting this in the Second Person Study.

The progression is the star here. The narrator – “you” – has answered an ad for a summer house-sitter, sight and site unseen. He’s a bit surprised to find the house is a run-down cabin in the middle of a field of overgrown weeds. “If the property is disheveled, then it must mirror the dishevelment of his mind.” No personal items exist, no clothing, books, knickknacks, just the minimal furnishings. And dreamcatchers. Everywhere, dreamcatchers.

The sheer excess: no glass in the cabin is unprotected by these webs. By these prophylaxes against nightmare.
Now here, you think, is a man absolutely terrified of nightmares.

Right of the bat, from the second paragraph, that the narrator is projecting motives and personality onto his unseen employer (and, by the way – there’s really no reason the narrator has to be male, I don’t think. So here I am projecting onto the narrator. Put that into your gender study and smoke it).

There’s a gradual slide into madness, of course. And eventually into subjunctive mood (“Of course, if you were the owner, you might find ways of believing otherwise”), which is where the serious literary chops come from. It’s subtle, and feels entirely natural. And even when read on a sunny afternoon in a clean, modern house with other people ten feet away, there’s a sense of increasing darkness and isolation that makes for damn creepy reading.

Double meanings abound:

Yes, you think, he has done what it took to protect himself from these nightmares of his and neglected everything else. While in the meantime, what really encroaches on the cabin is wilderness.…That is what the cabin reminds you of, in the end: a nail. Five rooms and a roof hammered into the heart of the forest, where they wait, with the patience of a nail, to become ingrown.

Not only is the cabin a nail (later the cabin is the hammer, insanity the nail), but “nail” has two meanings, which of course it does. All this nail business brings to mind the adage, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And while the narrator is bemoaning the owner’s tendency to neglect everything but the nightmares, he himself is doing the same thing.

But he doesn’t have nightmares. He’s expecting them, but no. After a week, he has what he considers a “waking nightmare” while looking in the bathroom mirror through a web of streaks and grime; a spider comes crawling out from behind the mirror: “The fact that the spider lives behind the mirror strikes you as unnatural and unnerving. It lives behind the mirror the way monsters live beneath beds.” The feeling passes, and he’s fine again.

A month goes by without incident (a great example of pacing). Then he discovers a clearing in the overgrown grass, and within the clearing, six silhouettes painted in black on the grass:

The six shapes look like crows perched along a power line, or like the chalked outlines of murdered men….what they most resemble are scarecrows. Would the owner have thought they could ward off flocks of nightmares, established in the yard like this? You would not put it past him.

And again, while speculating about just how crazy the owner is, the narrator has no idea he’s sounding a little crazy himself. And of course he gets crazier, deciding he’s snared by parallel thought structures linked to the house itself (“It is almost as if you have been hired not to house-sit the physical cabin, but to house–sit its parallel thought structure). Where does the owner, the house, end, and the narrator begin?

A game of anagrams yields a momentous discovery: HOUSE-SITTING is an anagram of I UNGHOST SITE. The narrator gets more and more into the owner’s imagined state of mind, what he is supposed to do.

The mountain contains the forest; the forest contains the weed field; the weed field contains the enclosure, which contains the shadows, and it also contains the cabin, which is coextensive with the thought structure.; the cabin and the thought structure both contain the dining room, whose walls contain the table at which you are sitting. Each container smaller than the last, and embedded inside it, like a series of nested parentheses. And at the center of this series is you. Every layer presses inward to where you sit. The mechanism is trying to crush your mind from all sides. But you are not worried, because you will never be driven mad. You sit calmly in the smallest chamber of all, your skull, impervious to the currents rippling against you: wall, wall, shadow, field. You are the one sane sentence at the heart of the parenthetical. You cannot be erased.

It all comes down to a showdown with a lawnmower. And a lady-or-the-tiger ending. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of that technique (it usually feels like a cop-out) but I’ll keep an open mind on this one.

Since he doesn’t have a website and he’s new on the scene, I can’t find out much about Bennett Sims. Bios list him as originally from Baton Rouge, with a newly-minted Iowa MFA and stories in Zoetrope: All-Story (and I’m seriously considering ordering that issue, though I have a policy to resist these impulses; the excerpt is, however, delicious), A Public Space, and now, Tin House. I’d love to find out if there’s any relation between him, the now-deceased liberal activist Episcopal bishop of Atlanta, and the screenwriter of Homebodies (1974). But mostly I just want to read more of his work. [Addendum: In June 2013 I read his first novel, A Questionable Shape - comments here - and I'm now officially a huge fan]

I’m guessing we’ll be seeing a lot of it.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Keith Ridgway, “Rothko Eggs” from Zoetrope All-Story, Spring 2011

Mimi O Chun: "Mark Rothko Cookies" via Martin Refsal at CMYBacon

Mimi O Chun: “Mark Rothko Cookies” via Martin Refsal at CMYBacon

She didn’t like realism very much, really, because usually there was no room in it. She would look at it, and everything was already there. But she liked abstract art because it was empty. Sometimes it was only empty a tiny amount, and it was easy for her to see what the artist was trying to say or make her feel, and sometimes that was OK, but she usually liked the art that had lots of empty in it, where it was really hard to work out what the artist wanted, or whether the artist wanted anything at all, or was just, you know, trying to look like he had amazing ideas. But really good artists had lots of empty in their paintings or whatever they did. They left everything out, or most things, anyway, but suggested something, so that she could take her own things into the painting (or the installation or the video or whatever), and the best art of all was when she didn’t really know what she was taking in with her, but it felt right, and when she looked at that art and took herself into it she felt amazing.
She wanted to be able to do that. Make that.

Reading this story is like being inside the head of a teenager for a half hour. A fairly thoughtful, intelligent teenager, but a teenager nonetheless. Go ahead, if you can handle that – it’s available online.

When I was reading this the first time, I was a little impatient with the style of the prose, the rhythm. Lots of choppy sentences. But it grew on me. Particularly ending long rambling paragraphs with short pithy sentences. I like that.

Cath’s pretty typical for all her thoughtfulness and intelligence. She lives with her mom, now divorced from her police detective father. She goes to school. She has a boyfriend named Stuart and a best friend named Beth and she’s very interested in Art. And like most teenagers, she’s bewildered by a lot of what goes on around her every hour of every day. Unlike most teenagers – and here’s the thoughtful part – she tries to work it out. Not very successfully, but she tries, and she doesn’t shrug and say “Oh well.” She lives with the ambiguity.

Like her parents being divorced, for instance:

She knew that if something terrible happened to her, her parents would have to meet in casualty or the morgue or something and they would break down and cry and hug each other and all the dumb fighting would be forgotten and they would love each other again, because she was dead or a vegetable and that was all they had. And then she imagined herself thinking that if she really loved them she’d kill herself and she laughed. Then she thought that if something terrible happened they would blame each other and spend the rest of their lives tied together by hatred and her death.
Everything was a cliché.

I think every kid who wants his parents to get back together (and some don’t, often for good reason) has had that same fantasy. And come to that exact conclusion. And see what I mean about short pithy sentences at the end of a rambling paragraph? Nice. But not used so often to be sing-songy.

She has the usual tiffs with her parents from time to time. Most recently, her father had delivered the news to her mom that someone they knew had died, and through a misunderstanding of whose friend the woman was, Cath got angry at the messenger. When she found out her father was the woman’s friend, her mind moved in the usual directions, but he wouldn’t give her any further details, other than the woman had lived a cautionary tale life – bright future deteriorating due to drugs and the wrong men, lengthy and slow recovery, suicide. Cath still doesn’t get exactly what’s going on – why is her mom so upset if the woman was her dad’s friend? – and is angry with her dad for not explaining further.

She was still annoyed at her Dad.
He closed down when he needed to be open. That was what she thought. When there was something wrong he became efficient, busy. He dealt with it. Like a policeman. Like you’d want from a policeman. He would arrive and sort it out. Then he’d leave. And it was sorted. It was fixed. It was a closed case and he was closed and everything was shut off and quiet and finished and he forgot about it.
But when there was nothing wrong he was funny and kind and patient and open.
She thought it through again. She wasn’t sure what she was complaining about.

This girl is playing teenager and parent in her head. Because that’s exactly what a parent would do: just what is it that annoys you about this father who is able to take care of problems competently and calmly, but switches gears to be a great guy otherwise? Nevertheless, she’s still mad. But it’s a thoughtful mad. I wish I handled my mad half as well now, let alone when I was a teenager.

She’s also trying to figure out friendship. Beth, BFF, is her closest confidant:

…she wanted to tell [Beth] that kissing Stuart was like being inside a Jackson Pollock painting. She really wanted to say that. She was determined to say that. But when it came to it she just said that it was really good, and bare sexy. It made her think that maybe Beth and her weren’t as close as she had thought. Because why else would she not say what she wanted to say? It was just stupid.

What I like about this character is that she never answers her own questions. That would be Judy Blume territory, the teenager delivering wisdom after every disappointment or mistake. No, Cath wonders, and resolves little, but in this case the lack of resolution is a good thing, both in terms of story/character, and in terms of Cath: this is where a lot of people calcify into cynicism and rage, developing into self-defeating attitudes, rather than keeping the question open, waiting for further information.

She’s also figuring out her boyfriend, and sex. They’ve had almost-sex, and she really likes him. But she’s not completely swept off her feet, either, and she doesn’t ignore those little nagging anxieties. In fact, she dissects them.

And even though he never blatantly pushed her into doing anything, he had a way of making her do stuff anyway, by getting the two of them arranged in such and such a way and leaving the opportunity open for her to do it if she wanted to, but to not do it if she didn’t want to. Which was how she ended up giving her first ever blow job for example. In her life.

I laughed out loud when I read that. Boys haven’t changed since 1968. I wonder if it’s part of the Y-chromosome, the knowledge of how to get a girl to do exactly what you want by saying, “You don’t have to, only if you want to.”

The story follows a rather meandering path through Cath’s life, which makes it difficult to pin down just where the climax is. But I’ll settle for the passage from which the title is taken. She and Stuart visit the Rothko Room at the Tate. Cath doesn’t quite get Rothko, and she’s trying to. Stuart, however, is moved to tears, though he can’t explain why. Later, they talk in a café, and he seems a little embarrassed by his emotional reaction.

She told him about her Dad and the eggs.
—I made my Dad scrambled eggs one morning, yeah?… And he really liked it, and then he was trying to show off that he knew about art—he’s always doing this—and he said, Rothko eggs. Points at the scrambled eggs. Rothko eggs. I didn’t know what he was on about. They look like a Rothko painting, he said, all pleased with himself. And then I realized that he’d gotten Rothko mixed up with Pollock!
She laughed.
Stuart smiled.
—So now he still calls scrambled eggs Rothko eggs. I never corrected him. He hasn’t realized yet. So he’s always asking for Rothko eggs. I bet he does it at work and everything. Trying to show off how cultured he is. Down the police station, you know? Pretending he knows his art. Had some great Rothko eggs this morning. And no one has a clue what he’s on about. It’s so funny.
And she laughed, to show how funny it was.

It’s the last line of that – laughing to show how funny it was – that elevates it. In fact, I’d say it’s the most important sentence of the entire story. Because she’s doing it again, saying not what she’s feeling but something else, and she’s determined to find this egg business funny, to find a way to laugh at her father’s touching efforts to connect with her. Yet she’s moved by them as well – so moved, she can’t begin to approach the emotion directly. Maybe. I could be misreading this whole thing – but there’s a lot of empty space in this story, and that’s what fills it up for me. Your mileage may vary.

I was drowning in this story, unable to find anything to hang on to – the relentless teenager vibe, the lack of any sense of progression beyond a sequence of events, no complication or goal, the style, even the method of quoting conversation, had me pretty turned off. I’d enjoyed Ridgway’s “The Goo Book” last year, and I was looking forward to this story. Both appear in his just-published collection Hawthorn & Child, a collection of stories linked by the policemen that appear within. Such as Cath’s father. And, in a way, Cath, who is tentatively investigating life and her reactions to it with all the tenacity of a junior Bobby Goren.

So I went looking for help, and as usual, I found it, in the person of Alan Bowden of WordsOfMercury:

There is nothing solid in this collection of unreliable and dissonant voices, except perhaps a certain sentiment: the yearning for connection bound to the uncertainty of our understanding of the opaque minds of others. The stories ‘Goo Book’ and ‘Rothko Eggs’ explore this sense very effectively in their different ways.

So this story about a girl searching for answers, and being uncertain of the ones she’s proposing, has turned me into a reader doing the same thing. That’s pretty cool. Embrace the empty space, but keep trying to see what fits.

Cath’s last thought:

She went home. She thought about their day. Something had gone wrong but she didn’t know what.

Of course not.

Food Network Star 2012: Episode 11 – Finale

Hello I am Zin! And it is official: Justin Warner is The Next Food Network Star! His new show, produced by Alton Brown, will start in the fall! [Addendum: For those of you who are searching for the start date - as of September 10, I do not know when his show will be starting or what it will be called or anything else about it, and I can find no info about it, but do not despair: fall lasts until December 21, technically!][Update to addendum: from what he says in this 10/13/12 interview, it sounds like he is being a bit of a diva with FN, being fussy about time slots! I wonder if maybe he is happy with the publicity his restaurant has received and does not in much of a hurry to put together his show!]

Pause for update:

Hello I am Zin and this will be my last update about the new Justin Warner show because I no longer care!

It seems Justin is shooting his show now in January 2013 and it is some kind of travel show looking at his Twitter stream starting in the Southeast but Alton is not the producer! If you can believe Twitter! If Justin M. Warner @EatFellowHumans is the right Justin Warner and if that really is Alton Brown and these are not decoys to keep people interested! I would not put that past them at this point if things have gone seriously wrong! You can check his twitter account if you want more details because I am done with this!

Back to original post about the finale:

The rest of the show was the usual nonsense. But there were some interesting comments.

Like for instance, a segment on the Oddest Couple, Justin and Martie, including tape of him saying, “We are like peas and carrots – she is a legume, I am a tuber.” I do like that sense of humor! Botanically speaking, a carrot is a root and not a tuber, but that is about the same as saying eggplant is a berry; yes, it is, but it is silly to be that picky about it!

There is also great tape of Alton saying “I think there should be a Giada DiLaurentiis See & Say where you pull the string and it says, “RRRrrrrrrrrricottta!” Then he picks her up and Bobby says, “Now we know you can lift 70 pounds!”

There is also something strange: they show a talking head clip (one I do not think they showed before) of Justin all weepy saying “It is not fair that Martie did not get to do a pilot” – but… but… they announced Justin would do a pilot, and then while he was still giving Martie her condolence hug, they said Martie would do a pilot too! What is this they are trying to pull? There was a cutaway to another camera, but it sure looked like a continuous shot and Justin would not have had time to go off and say that! So did they tape reactions to all possible outcomes before or after the fact? That is very sleazy! And stupid, for that matter, to show it! Or am I misinterpreting something? Did he actually say “It is fair?” I do not know!

It seems the contestants as a group really did not like Emily! They really were mean! “She woke us up early in the morning with a sing-song high voice! She could not cook!” That is the first time anyone has said that, her problem was never cooking, have Susie and Bob been lying to us? Then the Nerds (Team Alton is proud of that label) accused Team Bobby of being “bully-ish”! And stuck-up, they would not talk to them!

The Network sent questionnaires to the contestants, and they named Nikki the most competitive, and Malcolm most cocky! By a landslide! That is surprising, and Malcolm thinks it is surprising too! And speaking of Malcolm, Susie again tried to convince him that he needs a POV, and he pretty much told her to shove it! Yay Malcolm!

During the usual silly stuff about the whole series, they were talking about the evils of the Pitch Room (no one mentioned the Vagina Table though they showed it a few times just to remember it) and Bob Tuschman said, “The pitch room saved more of you than cut you.” I think it is wonderful the network employs someone who is so logic-impaired!

I also came across something posted on TWoP that turned out to be very interesting: a link to a blog entry by a woman who was one of the bus passengers on Episode 2! She was very surprised that Team Giada was declared the winner (she did not know the results until the show aired) since she thought the food from Team Bobby was far better! Of course there is room for disagreement, but I think the team wins and losses were pre-planned and the comments from the judges were adjusted accordingly! She hated the meatloaf Emily made too, by the way!

Of course I think they knew who they wanted to win in the beginning and made sure that is what happened, but I also think his is the only show I might actually watch! I will try to remember in the Fall and post about it a little bit!

That is all!

Sunday with Zin: Inuit Culture on Cloth

“Polar Bear Hunt” by Mary Yuusipik

“Polar Bear Hunt” by Mary Yuusipik

Hello, I am Zin, and this week we will go to the Arctic to cool off in the middle of the hot summer, thanks to the “Culture on Cloth” Inuit wall hanging exhibit is now at the Portland Public Library!

Judith Varney Burch loves Inuit art! And she collects wall hangings, sculptures, and prints! She is not an artist or art historian (her degree is in Sociology) but she has been working at the Smithsonian as a Research Collaborator, and now she has opened the Arctic Inuit Art gallery in Charlottesville, VA to bring these items to more people! And she has been all over the world, from Mexico to India to Russia to Japan to just about everywhere, touring with various items from her collection and speaking about the people who make them!

And last week she came to the Portland Public Library! A selection of wall hangings, and a few sculptures and prints, is on display for the rest of the summer! You can see more art from Nunavut – prints, carvings, as well as the wall hangings – on her website!

She focused on the wall hangings done by the women of Baker Lake in Nunavut, the newest Canadian territory created in 1999 out of the Northwest Territories. They create these wall hangings from boiled wool that is shipped in, because nothing NOTHING grows in the Arctic Circle (except the Arctic Willow, symbol of Strength and Suppleness) so they have never had much beyond skins to work with! But they have been sewing clever items like the amauti, a coat with a place for a child on the back, for a long long time, so now they are creating art!

One of the art-related things she said was about the apparent lack of perspective and point of view in the wall hangings and prints! She learned from anthropologist Edmund Carpenter that this is because it was a pre-literate society! I am not sure why perspective in art is linked to reading, but that is was he says in the Seeing in the Round chapter of his book, Oh, What A Blow That Phantom Gave Me!:

To depict a whole object on a flat surface, literate man employs three-dimensional perspective: he shows only that surface visible from a single position at a single moment. In short, he fails.
In contrast, native artists of British Columbia represented a bear, say, in full face & profile, from back, above & below, from within & without, all simultaneously. By an extraordinary mixture of convention & realism, these butcher-draftsmen skinned & boned, even removed the entrails, to construct a new being, on a flat surface, that retained every significant element of the whole creature.

To be honest (and I try to be always as much as possible) I thought her talk was a little bit disjointed, jumping from Nunavut to her travels to a piece of art to building an igloo (it took the man 45 minutes!) to the Smithsonian to Nunavut again and around again, I wish it had been better organized because there was some wonderful information there! Like, there is a concentrated effort to keep the culture alive in the next generation! And she talks to the women who did these hangings by internet! Facebook in the Arctic Circle! I think that is hilarious! But it was wonderful anyway, and a lot of the nuggets were wonderful! And the art was beautiful! It was not meant to be an academic lecture after all! And she is very nice, she answered an emailed question I had within minutes! Thank you again, Ms. Burch!

The pictures you can find on the website links above do not really do the wall hangings justice; they are beautiful! The one above was my favorite of the ones I saw because it used a lot of shading in the stitches, from colors to white and back. Here is the artist bio of that piece from the UVA Arctic Culture Forum website:

“Polar Bear Hunt” by Mary Yuusipik
Born and raised on the land, Mary Yuusipik settled permanently in Baker Lake around 1960 when her son started school. She learned to sew from her mother, the famous Jessie Oonark, who also encouraged her to make wall hangings. For inspiration she recalls the stories that her grandmother used to tell her as a child. Although Mary Yuusipik is mostly known for her wall hangings, she is also a recognised carver and occasionally does graphic art.

Most of the Inuit were nomads (she told us the story of Irene Avaalaaqiaq, one of the most famous Baker Lake artists, raised by her grandparents, who was a young teenager before she realized there were other people in the world!) who were pretty much forced to move to Baker Lake to avoid starvation as they found it harder and harder to survive on hunting! That is so sad! But now they have houses and the Internet! I would like to know how they feel about that, if they would rather go back to nomading!

The art honors their heritage, and the legends they have told for centuries, and I am very happy to have seen it! I will visit it again every time I go to the library in the next six weeks!

Kristen Iskandrian: “The Inheritors” from Tin House, Summer 2012

Vladimir Kapustin: "Last Train"

Vladimir Kapustin: “Last Train”

The thing she reminded me of was a painting that used to hang in my parents’ living room of a girl waiting for a train that was approaching from the upper-right corner of the canvas. The girl stood with her back to the living room, relieved or frightened, who could know, by the train’s imminent arrival, with her wrists poking out from the too-short sleeves of her red jacket, one hand white-knuckling the handle of a weathered suitcase, the other stretching itself, fingers spread and pointing downward, as thought trying to pull clean of its arm…. Sad hair. The hair and the stance of protracted waiting are what brought her to mind when I thought of the painting, and what brought the painting to mind when I saw her.

We learn a great deal about these two women, coworkers at a second-hand shop called Second Chances, without ever learning their names. It didn’t bother me as I read; I didn’t even realize it until I started thinking about how to write about it. There’s a lot more we don’t know about them. They both seem to have some kind of trouble with relationships; whether this is a diagnosed condition, or just personality, is unclear. The narrator was looking for a volunteer position when she stumbled into this job (she thought the shop was some kind of shelter), and was so embarrassed to be wrong, “it seemed inevitable that I would either buy something or ask for a job.”

That may sound weird to you. It sounds weird to me, too. But it also sounds exactly like something I’d do.

The friendship between these two women seems unlikely.

She claimed as a pastime the reappropriation of words and was oblivious to how distracting it was in the midst of serious stories. She also greatly enjoyed using certain expressions and figures of speech, however wrongly, such as, for example, ad nauseam, trump card, au courant, and countless others. I like being sad, which mystified her; I like it until I reach the nadir where sadness changes, as if chemically, to repulsion and self-loathing, making me wish that I was “capable” of “handling” things instead of turning away from them in disgust until my disgust disgusts me, and my anger at my inadequacy as a human being angers me, and all of that pure, easy delectable sorrow gets squandered.

In fact, a relationship with anyone, for either of these women, seems pretty unlikely.

But they try. At least, the narrator does; whether the other woman is trying, or is just there, we never truly know. The narrator is struggling with her usual relationship problems: “I wish that people, eligible friends like her, came with conversion charts. Without mile markers, material guidelines, I feel lost.” And again, I feel a lot of empathy. Where is too distant, stand-offish, unfriendly? Where is cloying, dependent, needy? They seem to differ for different people, and without boundary markers – or conversion charts – it can be damn difficult for those who are all too happy to play by the rules but have no idea what the rules are, or what the object of the game is.

Mornings, I looked hard at myself in the mirror and practiced making kind, open expressions. But then I would walk around brushing my teeth and return to the mirror and see my face as it normally was – worried and weirdly cavernous…Throughout the day I reminded myself to smile but then would do so at the wrong time…. Having a disruptive mein, I felt certain, was not conducive to making friends. This had been my problem throughout out school, throughout my life.

It’s bizarre, how alike we are, this narrator and I. My slack expression isn’t cavernous; it’s sulky and dull. Occasionally someone will assume I’m “slow” and speak to me in that sappy voice I’ve come to hate. So I remind myself to tighten things up a little – not a smile, exactly, just an alert, interested look. My “neutral expression.” The first story I published was originally titled “Maintain Neutral Expression.” And now I’m reading the story I wish I’d written instead.

You know, I have to keep reminding myself this story isn’t about me.

The narrator offers the woman a ride home a few times, and she admits she initially thought the narrator was stealing things; they laugh:

We were laughing hard now, just letting the laughter be the reason for more laughter. I felt something shift, something skeletal and real, like discovering a new vertebra and then walking differently. We were nearly friends now, and for the moment, I wasn’t questioning it.

It’s an odd relationship, they’re both odd people, and they’re odd in ways that don’t really mesh, but somehow it works out anyway:

It was okay with her that we did not share a sense of humor, that she liked to laugh at real things as they happened and I liked to laugh at imaginary and macabre things that would never happen, that she took most things seriously whereas I did not, and that these characteristics made each of us occasionally lonely and agitated around the other. I felt grateful, humbled by her forgiveness, and I did my best to leave it at that, without further aggravation for unknowingly having needed it.

The need to be grateful that someone accepts her for what she is, hits a sad note; it’s so rare for her to be appreciated. And yet, for people who are tone-deaf when it comes to getting along with people, it rings true.

They go out for a beer, and the woman talks about having been adopted, and her search for her birth parents. She’s adamant about not buying anything new – when you think about it, there really is enough stuff in the world for everyone to have some – including underwear, which is a little gross but, ok. When you think about it, being creeped out by wearing used underwear, after it’s been thoroughly washed, is a little irrational. But it’s a universal instinct. She may be the only person in history who lacks it. I find that fascinating.

One day the woman calls the narrator (I’m sorry, without names it’s the clearest way to refer to them) and, having “just had sex with someone,” says she has a squash she’s going to cook, come on over and have some. This strikes me as hilarious, partly for the casual way she drops in the sex (and who knows what it means), and partly because, well, who invites someone over for squash? It feels perfectly right for these two.

The narrator discovers her friend is a bit of a hoarder: “inches of mail on the table, birdhouses, mason jars, and hats on the counters, three ancient radios in a row … a towering stack of phone books.”

I felt as though I had walked inside of her, through the unruly glen of her instincts, past the exhausting expanse of her quirkiness, and arrived at some clearing, some place of deep wisdom, where she knew far more than I but would refrain from making me too aware of it. Here, there was a certain restraint emanating, it seemed, from the clocks and jars and paper; it was as if the items themselves owned the apartment.

I love that concept of a person being a place you arrive at after you’ve gotten past the exterior exhibits.

They chat, eat squash, watch a lot of television. When she gets home, the narrator is aware that she misses the woman, apparently something unexpected and perhaps unfamiliar.

The woman doesn’t come to work the next day; she assures the narrator by phone that she’s fine and she’ll be in the next day. And of course she isn’t. Or the next, or next. The narrator goes to her apartment and finds she’s left, given her landlord notice, left all her things saying someone would be by to pick them up.

It was here the tears started. I’d missed it – I was looking so hard at the narrator, I missed the other woman’s problem with intimacy. The exterior exhibits fooled me. Of course she had to leave, after letting someone inside. I was so wrapped up in the narrator, I missed it – and I’m pretty sure the writer planned it exactly that way.

The narrator strains to deal with this development:

I felt sick but also relieved – as though I’d had a fever and it was breaking and I could sit up and drink ginger ale, as though nausea and recuperation were happening in the same moment, the contrast its own kind of balm….she’s gone, she isn’t here, shoe’s no longer here, and if felt almost like joy; but not really.

These people are both so unable to identify emotions, I think, maybe because the feelings are rare, or because they’re so exquisitely sensitive to them, they’re overwhelming and it’s hard to tell exactly what they are, like incredibly bright light or a terribly loud sound.

The piece started with an image – the painting of the girl waiting for a train, at the top – and it ends with another one from the woman’s tv set:

…one woman facing the camera and pouring amber-colored liquid from an ornate decanter into a glass, and swirling it, and turning around slowly, deliberately, and another woman with her back to the camera, looking out a window and touching the edge of a lace curtain, framed by the window and the camera and the gaze of the other woman and waiting, it seemed, for some cue.

At least there are two people in the picture now. Even if we can’t see one’s face.

I first became aware of Kristen Iskandrian when I read “Phonics,” a flash posted on the Tin House blog last October. I was so taken with it, I added it to my “Online Fiction etc. to Read and Love” page. It’s also about a couple of outsiders, though they don’t connect, at least in the story. She has some other stories floating around online. I want to keep an eye out for her, being an outsider myself and all.

Project Runway, Season 10: A Times Square Anniversary Party

"I'm celebrating Season 10 by cutting off my left nipple" – Heidi Klum

“I’m celebrating Season 10 by cutting off my left nipple” – Heidi Klum

Another Opening, Another Show…

The Play: 10th Anniversary Edition. And tonight, we see Firsts. No, not the Firsts PR has been touting (the Times Square fashion show, etc.) – but the perennial firsts we all look forward to: first Bitch. First inane guest judge. First Swatch sighting. That last was the high point.

Set decoration: Photographs of nine previous winners look down on the sixteen new players.

Overture: Reports (which, though they contain no names, could be considered semi-spoilers, click at your own risk) have already circulated about certain twists and turns that await our players in their quest to kiss butt and pretend that this show has any credibility left.

Act I, Scene i: The sixteen contestants present a look they brought with them, one which demonstrates their aesthetic, and make a second companion look in one day with $100, to be displayed in a Times Square fashion show.

Dramatis personae:

Inarticulate Useless Guest Judge (cameo): Lauren Graham.

Industry Guest Judge and Worst Hair of the Season finalist (yes, it’s only the first episode, but there can’t possibly be many worse than this): designer/stylist Patricia Field.

In the role of First Out of the Gate: Christopher Palu, 24, an FIT grad from Massapequa, NY. The Original look is lovely (the photo doesn’t do it justice), a gown made by sewing strips of fabric and sheer to create a new textile. His New look, a black cocktail dress, doesn’t fit well at all – it’s riding up, the stomach bags out a little, the zipper is doubled up in the back – but is likewise sewn in strips that make an interesting pattern. Michael Kors loves the dresses but not the styling; Nina saw the problems of the second dress first, but loved the first one so much, she forgot about them; Lauren makes her only coherent contribution of the evening by pointing out how hard it is to see the stitching detail on the second dress because it’s black; and Patricia is impressed with the 30s quality and the use of old lady fabric to create something very special. We have a Winner, doubled-over zipper be damned. After all, last year’s winner couldn’t do zippers at all.

As Rami Redux: Ven Budhu, FIT grad originally from Guyana (being under 30, he thinks no one’s ever heard of it; those of us who are a little older still remember Jonestown), now living in NY. I keep typing “Zen Buddha.” His Original look is a white pantsuit featuring a hot pink satin bustier with rose-folded top and wide pleated pants. I’m crazy about it; for some reason, the Lifetime website has a glitch which makes it hard to see a front shot including the spectacular rose detail (keep clicking on different versions, it’ll show up eventually). Having no faith in the integrity of anyone associated with this show, I’m wondering if it’s deliberate. His New look is a pink cocktail dress with interesting skirt seaming that echoes the pleating and folding of the rose; he has some fit issues in the bodice, front and back, and there are some finishing issues: the hem is obvious, and it looks like some of the back darts haven’t been pressed at all. If that’s a time issue, it could come back to bite him later. Heidi likes how the two looks work together; MK thinks they’re fabulous, but maybe he had too many ideas; Patricia thinks he could step out, whatever that means; Nina calls it perfection, though she says “technically good” which usually is followed by a “but” somewhere; I kept waiting, no but. Lauren – arghowuth —- fresh and happy – thwuthgal — pink. So of course, with a Fabulous and a Perfection, he doesn’t win. Nobody’s talking about the flaws, which I could see clearly during the TV show on my 20-year-old set.

Appearing as Black is Beautiful: Melissa Fleis, 31, Academy of Art/SF MFA, a fan of historical art movements, leather, and Black. Lots of Black. The Original look she brought with her is from her Bauhaus period (both the school and the band, she specifies), a square, stodgy leather jacket over a flowy brownish dress; I don’t quite get it. Her New look is pretty cool – strongly diagonal, curving at the top and dangling in back. MK knows her vibe right away, but hopes she will do more than black; these are things a girl would want to wear. Nina likes the second look more than the first. Heidi would wear both looks; Lauren —- story —- touendg – coolness – mqwenlign — . Third place.

For The Girl Most Likely To Let The Door Hit Her In The Ass On The Way Out: Beatrice Guapo, 28; FIDM grad from Marina Del Ray, CA. Knitwear fan, doesn’t use woven materials or zippers. Because that would mean, like, work. Her Original look is a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, topped by a horse blanket. It took her four days to make. Not a good sign. To be honest, I like the sweatdress; it works. Even Nina admits the shape is “quite beautiful.” But that took 4 days? And with that blanket on it, it just looks smelly. When something looks smelly, it’s not gonna fly. It’s like Marion’s Pocahontas knit top that grew as the model walked down the runway; it isn’t that it’s bad, it’s that it’s Dumpster Chic without the Chic, which makes it Dumpster (and if you’re a fan of Dumpster, stay tuned, there’s more Dumpster coming up, and it’s not about clothes, either). Her New look is a bronze top and grey knit skirt, simplistic but not bad; I don’t quite get what’s going on at the hem. MK doesn’t get who she is as a designer or who her girl is, because it can’t be that she’s just a casual knitwear designer, that would be too obvious; then he snarks about designing Snuggies, which has Heidi defending Snuggies. Yeah, I can just see Heidi in a plastic fleece snuggie. Lauren talks – not related – these words – maybe — . Nothing catches Patricia’s eye. Exeunt Beatrice.

In the orchestra pit, playing I Used the Python (But I Did Not Use The WaterSnake) on guitar with Bunny Wailer on percussion: Lantie Foster, 47, FIT grad from NY with a fondness for python. In her first talking head, she slips and says she’s 38 instead of 48 (she must’ve had a birthday between compiling the bios and filming). Oopsie! Isn’t that adorable! She says “it’s python” any time anyone gets within earshot, as though she went to the Amazon, hunted down, killed, skinned, and tanned the damn thing herself. Problem is, the rest of the stuff is so ugly, no one actually sees the python. She gave her two-piece collection a name. No, I don’t remember what it is – something about rain, I think. Hey, Running Through Thunder worked for Gretchen. [addendum: I have learned, through diligent research (no, if I'd been diligent I would've researched it before posting) it was "Snakes in the Garden" which has nothing to do with rain. My bad.] The Original look is puffy flowers on white with a snakeskin belt. Curtains? A little kid’s Easter dress? Her New look is gathered tulle with python skin slapped on the chest, but since it’s similar to how last season’s winner glued a racing stripe on her animal print jumpsuit, no one can really pound her for it. Nina thinks the first look was trying too hard but not awful (really, Nina? Really?); then the second look ended up being horrifying. [You know, it's easy for me to sit here taking potshots at everyone, but I know what it's like to present something you love and have people you respect, or at least people In Power, tell you it's crap. It's not fun, even when done gently. How these people handle it on television without more in the way of crying jags and breakdowns is beyond me. Maybe writers are just naturally gentler with their criticisms.] The guest judge thinks she’s one step below designing, in between design and styling a granny dress, and an ugly one at that. MK calls the second look muddy mosquito netting; she reworked vintage clothes. Lauren – happiness – gheouit – words. Just barely safe.

The part of Crazy Asian will be played by: Kooan Kosuke, 30, from Japan. It’ll be hard to live up to Ping and Olivier, but Kooan seems to be exceeding them on sheer exuberance alone. His biggest fear as a designer is “Think about the time that everyone stops wearing clothing.” I’d rather not, thanks. His Original look, representing his aesthetic at 16 (or maybe it was actually made when he was 16) is a denim romper with circle patches and giant pink plastic clips over a wild print tee. Once you get done laughing at it, it’s kind of hilarious, and, much to my dismay, it appeals to me in a never-in-my-wildest-dreams-would-I-wear-that way. His New look is a not-so-good silver dress in some kind of oddball fabric. I think he’s wearing hot curlers in his ‘fro. I wonder what you have to do to Asian hair to make it frizz like that. MK calls the romper “borderline Teletubby” (OMG, he’s right, it’s Burt’s avant-garde look), but can see he knows how to sew, he just has to get it to look expensive and polished; it’s ok to be cartoon if that’s your thing, but it can’t be a joke. Nina’s worried he’s being outrageous just to be outrageous, which is part of the “show us who we are, and if we don’t like you, be someone else” routine; as resident Bad Mommy and killjoy, she’s also worried about his behavior, which is nervous and giddy and shy and maybe a little confused but perfectly polite. The guest judge thinks he should’ve used different fabric for the second look, but he’s got a strong pov. Lauren – here — ghotygnal — words ––. Heidi defends him, and wants to give him a chance, to see what he does next week. Third worst.

For the role of Outspokenly Outrageously Cool and I Have the Leopard Tats On My Shaved Head To Prove It: Buffi Jashanman, Parsons AA, Indian/Australian/Brit, it’s not about the customer it’s about Her Art, which is the Club Scene. She registered her line in New York as Naked, Inc. then decided she hated it – you know how it is with these artist types – and is now Quiet Riot, Dubai. She’s funny and the life of the party, just ask her, she’ll tell you. She makes tees with hearts on the nipples. And a surprisingly demure wedding dress; she must’ve been medicated for that one. For all her posturing, some of the stuff on her website is quite nice. The stuff she shows here, not so much. Her Original look is a meh pink satin top. Her Original look… I forget, let me go look… oh, it’s still meh. Dmitri hates her already. She’s gonna grate on some nerves, which of course is the idea.

In a dual performance as Obnoxious Gay Guy / Never Give Up Second Chance Kid: Gunnar Deatherage, 22, Louisville KY, who was one of the four kicked out the first day of Season 9 for his Kentucky Derby dress and was brought back just for that name. My paternal grandfather’s name was Gunnar. Or so I’ve been told, he died in Sweden long before I was born. He and Christopher get the Season Enmity off to an early start, but I can’t tell them apart (yeah, I know, so sue me, I was just talking to someone [hi Jeanne] about my poor facial recognition skills, so lay off) so I don’t really know who started it, just that Gunnar took a comment about muu muus and Prada and a slight inflection on the “that” in “is that your aesthetic?” as an insult and we’ve got Josh 2.0. Can I pass? Since last year he’s discovered himself, and now he designs for older Southern women (he seems ashamed when he tells that to Tim Gunn), which means he just found a label for what he’s been doing all along. I don’t remember his looks, let me check…Oh, I see, we’re not talking Miss Daisy, we’re saying older than, say, him. His Original look isn’t bad, though I don’t get the jacket. The New look doesn’t appeal to me, but it’s a reasonable effort.

The dual role of Lesbian Tomboy Hillbilly / WhiteLocks will be covered by: Alicia Hardesty, 27, University of Colorado from Louisville KY. Her favorite model is Az Marie, which is what refusing to wear Tyra’s butt pads will get you; I wonder if Tyra regrets kicking her off ANTM yet (I watched two episodes of that disaster of a season, and if Pocahontas and John Lennon wasn’t bad enough, the “booty tooch teach” convinced me not to watch any more. Maybe ever. Unless Tyra fires herself). I’m a complete sucker for dreadlocks. And her appreciating a modelTyra couldn’t bully adds to that. I hope she finishes her website soon. Her Original look of hoodie Rompsuit in rust is her Modern Huckleberry style; a nice relaxed casual aesthetic. The New look, I’m not so sure; the drop-crotch pants are weird, but they work; the pieces don’t seem to work together. The dramatic question is: can she do professional, polished, and glam?

As Sensitive Romantic Artist, European Division: Dmitry Sholokhov, 33, BFA Parsons, originally from Ukraine, now NY. He got into fashion via ballroom dancing. Wait, he won 24 Hour Catwalk? He already won a fashion design show? And a recent one – What is this? He’s already annoyed by Buffi; could this be a foretelling of future fireworks? Does anyone care? The stuff on his website is graphic and sophisticated, though you’d never know it from the gaudy puffy-sleeved sequined gown he brings for his Original look. His New look is a much more interesting one-sleeved knit cocktail dress.

To recapture the magic of Mila: Elena Silvnyak, 28, Academy of Art SF; loves futurism and neoprene. Her Original look is stodgy even if it is based on fencing uniforms, which is why it’s sculpted to fit a woman with pregnant thighs. Her New look is a stuffed panda. What is it about former Soviet heritage that makes women cut their hair in straight bangs and design clothes based on black and white color-blocked animals?

Playing the part of the Energetic Oldster Who Plays Age For All It’s Worth: Andrea Katz, 58, Manhattan MFA and art school teacher. The recession sent her first business down the tubes, so she’s hoping to start round two. She’s never seen the show (bullshit). She hates jeans, oh shades of Laura Bennett (yes, I’m one of the three people on the planet who finds Laura Bennett insufferable). But, I’m conflicted, because she also reads – Alice Munro (and she spelled it correctly so she isn’t faking), Jonathan Franzen. And her stuff is unusual, and quite nice. But she needs to shut up about the age thing. For the record, I’m 58 too. I know it’s harder than when you’re 30, but you’ve also had more practice. And you know more. Especially if you’re reading Alice Munro and Jonathan Franzen. I should hate her Original look – it looks like her slip is falling down, and the shape is similar to Mila’s awning dress – but there’s something about it that works if you don’t look too closely at the hem; the back is another matter, it looks like an apron worn backwards. The New look is a short version, and again, I should hate it, but it kinda works; I think the fabric needs to be a little less paper-stiff so the bottom layer hangs better.

In the role of Who?: Nathan Paul, 33, FIT grad from NY. My only notes: “second, meh. Very meh. First, meh, too.” No idea who he is, what he said. His website shows lots of sleeveless, easy fitting clothes, which often means someone who can’t do sleeves or tailoring. Or maybe he just likes sleeveless and easy. So let’s check the Lifetime website: His Original look does have a sleeve, and is kind of interesting, a wrap with intricate knotting in front; the New look is almost identical in a different color (in fact, I may have mixed up what was Original and what was New) but looks a lot sloppier. In fact, it looks like a bathrobe. I don’t remember either look, even now that I’ve seen them.

Appearing as Who Else?: Sonjia Williams, 27, Lasell College grad from Boston. She’s selling stuff via iBoutique. I liked her Original look jacket and wrap pants, it’s different and interesting. The New look, a leather vest over a two-fabric dress, is interesting as well, and I don’t mean interesting-boring; it’s fun to look at, to wonder how it’s done and why. She deserves a promotion out of Who Else.

For Underdog Self-Taught Designer who Fell Asleep to the Lullaby of his Mother’s Sewing Machine: Raul Osorio, 27, Minneapolis. He likes suits. There is some early misdirection about his New look being too sheer for the runway – Tim is Concerned – but all is well. His Original look is indeed a suit: a nicely tailored, if ordinary, pantsuit with sheer blouse. Extremely sheer blouse. Guy likes sheer. Unfortunately, it’s grey, and reminds me of Ben’s shark-tooth suit from the Elements challenge in Season 7. The New look is a halter-dress version of the dotted-swiss-on-steroids thing, the sheerness not being an issue with all the fuzzy stuff growing on it.

And in the truly thankless role of Let’s Remind Everyone of Top Chef’s Fabio and Annoy the People Who Didn’t Like Him or Compare Unfavorably for the People Who Did: Fabio Costa, 29, “Fashion Design School” (that seems to mean a specific one to people in the know but I’m not sure which and I’m not interested enough to figure it out), from Brooklyn. His dream is to design a dress to be worn upside down for Bjork. Maybe she could just walk on her hands? I’m sure she’d be cool with that. He likes Japan, so he and Kooan should get along well. Or kill each other. I have no idea what he sent down the runway, I just cringed every time I heard his name (which tells you which camp I’m in). And he’s a Freegan – aka dumpster diner (see, I told you there would be more dumpster) – and very proud of it (I saw a documentary on this once, it’s not quite as gross as it sounds. Supermarkets do throw away terrifying amounts of perfectly good food daily). I forgot what his two garments looked like; now that I’ve checked Lifetime, I can see why. His Original look has possibilities, but unfortunately seems to have been worn freeganing. His New look is better, but incomprehensible.

Applause-applause-applause.

Post-show chatter overheard by various taxi drivers, waiters, and passers-by:

Wrong on both counts, though not by enough to fight about. It should’ve been Zen Buddha for the win, Lantie out.
They start in media res at the fashion show, then go into backstory. How literary.
I’m tired of people with personality.
How did I hear “I’ve got to get it done” as “I’ve got to get a gun”?
Tim has been reduced to a walk-on, and that just isn’t right.
For future reference: Gunnar is thinner than Christopher, and has a blond section of hair.
My favorites: Zen Buddha (though I fear he’s going to turn into a know-it-all asshole at some point), Kooan (can’t help it, I love Crazy Asians, and he’s got a Mondo vibe going on), Alicia (it’s the locks), Sonjia, possibly Dmitry and Christopher. All for completely different reasons. All subject to change as the edit changes, because that’s what the game is.

Tessa Hadley: “An Abduction” from The New Yorker, 7/9/12

New Yorker art by Emily Shur

New Yorker art by Emily Shur

Jane Allsop was abducted when she was fifteen, and nobody noticed.

It’s great opening, echoing the title, but it’s also misleading – there is no abduction. No actual abduction, anyway; there may perhaps be a more metaphoric one. The “nobody noticed” is the important part. It’s available online– third story in a row, thank you, TNY.

This story feels like “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” with Arnold Friend recast as a clean-cut college boy on break (which is a little like saying it’s like Moby-Dick with a guppy instead of a whale). If you watch a lot of Law & Order, you’ll know it’s the clean-cut college boys who are the slimiest – but still, it’s short on fiendishness. There is an air of threat hanging over most of it, but the threat never materializes. And that made me, as the reader, feel cheated. I don’t mind a little bit of trickery, but this was too blatant. There is a story here – but it’s not malice, threat, or abduction.

The author interview concerns me: Hadley determinedly interprets the story. I’m all for giving some insight into where something came from, or the primary theme one had in mind, but this feels like the author, having released the story to the reader, wresting control back, demanding it be read in the one “correct” way, as she intended it. There’s also the issue of, why does she feel such a need to explain the story in such detail? Shouldn’t all that be in the story itself? It makes me a little nervous.

“An Abduction” takes place in the 60s in Surrey, England, amidst the gentry. There’s a lot of terrific description of family dynamics:

It wasn’t acceptable in Jane’s kind of family to complain about good weather, yet the strain of it told on them, parents and children: they were remorselessly cheerful, while secretly they longed for rain. Jane imagined herself curled up with a bag of licorice beside a streaming windowpane, reading about the Chalet School. But her mother said it was a crime to stay indoors while the sun shone, and Jane couldn’t read outside with the same absorption; there was always some strikingly perfect speckled insect falling onto your page like a reminder (of what? of itself), or a root nudging into your back, or stinging ants inside your shorts.

I love that impatience with being shooed outside. It’s not quite like eating your broccoli because there are starving children in Europe (or Asia or Africa, depending on when you were of broccoli-hating age), but it’s similar; somehow it’s a waste of good weather if you aren’t out “enjoying” it. I appreciate nice weather when I have to go somewhere or have outdoor plans; I love not being rained on and not freezing/roasting my butt off. But other than that, going outside to “enjoy the weather” never made sense to me: how does one “enjoy weather,” exactly?

Jane’s a little behind her friends at school, a little socially younger than they are:

She should be like them, she reproached herself; or she should be more thoroughly embarked on her teen-age self, like some of the girls at school, painting on makeup, then scrubbing it off, nurturing crushes on friends’ brothers she’d only ever seen from a distance, cutting out pictures of pop stars from Jackie magazine. Jane knew that these girls were ahead of her in the fated trek toward adulthood, which she had half learned about in certain coy biology lessons. Yet theirs seemed also a backward step into triviality, away from the thing that this cerulean day—munificent, broiling, burning across her freckled shoulders, hanging so heavily on her hands—ought to become, if only she knew better how to use it.

In the yard, she’s playing with a paddle toy, rather than sunbathing or painting her toenails or whatever it is a teenager does. Again, I recognize a lot of myself in this girl, but I don’t really feel any empathy, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the British prose (which is lovely, by the way, if a little on the lush side- I’m including numerous quotes to do it justice). Or maybe it’s deliberate, and the author is keeping the reader at a distance here.

But I think I’m just on a different wavelength completely. In fact, at one point (when she disrupts her little sister’s tea party) I wondered if Jane was mentally ill, prone to hallucinations and delusions:

When Jane came near, the little girls melted into the undergrowth with hostile backward looks. She kicked their dolls over and hurled the pinecones as far as she could toward the flaunting patches of sky between the treetops (she had a strong throw, her father always said, better than Robin’s); but she lacked conviction even in her malevolence. “We hate her! She’s so ugly,” the witch-children hummed, drifting between the bald pine trunks, keeping out of sight. Jane remembered, as she often did, how once at a friend’s house she had overheard the dotty grandmother asking too loudly who the “plain” one was.

But no, I think it’s just that she’s an outsider in her own life, and she resents it.

While Jane is outside enjoying this particular beautiful day, a car of three college boys on leave from Oxford drive by, and she accepts a ride from them; she calls her mom to say she’ll be doing a sleepover with a school friend. The boys talk her into shoplifting some booze, and bring her to one of their homes where she goes swimming. There’s some great imagery here – Daniel, the most appealing of the three boys, uses a vulgarity that, to sheltered Jane, becomes “an entrance, glowering with darkness, into the cave of things unknown to her.” Fiona, sister to one of the boys and Daniel’s former liaison, shows up, taking the spotlight away from Jane, who swims alone in the filthy pool:

…all the accumulated rubbish (leathery wet leaves, sodden drowned butterflies and daddy longlegs, an empty cigarette pack) bobbing against her breasts and lips and knees as she swam. No one joined her in the pool. Jane had hardly expected them to; she had accepted immediately the justice of her defeat—right at the moment that she’d had all the boys’ eyes on her—by the older, prettier, more sophisticated girl. (Still, the word “woebegone” nudged at her, from a poem she’d read at school.)

That’s a pretty amazing paragraph: she’s so used to being passed over, she just accepts swimming in trash.

A short time later, she and Daniel head off to a bedroom, where nature takes its course. Today this would probably be statutory rape. It’s hard to remember a time before “sexual assault” was a common phrase. Jane was a willing participant at all times – in fact, she was looking forward to another round. Did he take advantage of her? Sure. Does that make him despicable? Absolutely. A criminal? I’m not sure – and I’m uncomfortable with not being sure; it’d be easier to just file it in a box marked “crime” and move on, but I can’t. There’s some indication, when the boys first pick her up, that she appears older than she is (“She wasn’t plain in that moment, though she didn’t know it…. She seemed not fake or stuck up—and, just then in the dappled light, not a child, either. None of this was wasted on the boys”). It may not be politically correct to let him off this easily, but remember, this took place in the 60s, before “stranger danger” “sexual assault” and “pedophile” were part of the vernacular.

She later discovers him sleeping in Fiona’s bed; without waking him, she asks the other boys to take her into town where she can call her mother for a ride. “So now you know,” one of them says; I’m not sure if he means “you know about sex” or “you know who Daniel is.” She never speaks of this day to anyone.

The significance of the story, for me, lies in the closing paragraphs, when a fast-forward shows both Jane and Daniel, in their early 50s. Jane has lived a rather distant life (which may be why such distance is created in the reading), marrying and divorcing, then seeing a therapist to find out why she feels that she’s separated from “real life on the other side.” She explains what “real life” would be:

Haltingly, Jane described a summer day beside a swimming pool. A long sunlit room with white walls and a white bed. A breeze is blowing; long white curtains are dragged sluggishly backward and forward on a pale wood floor. (These women’s fantasies, the counsellor thought, have more to do with interior décor than with repressed desires.) Then Jane got into her stride, and the narrative became more interesting. “A boy and a girl,” she said, “are naked, asleep in the bed. I am curled on a rug on the floor beside them. The boy turns over in his sleep, flings out his arm, and his hand dangles to the floor. I think he’s seeking out the cool, down there under the bed. I move carefully on my rug, so as not to wake him. I move so that his hand is touching me.”
That’s more like it, the counsellor thought. That’s something.

This is not a precise replay of that day; it’s interesting she’s rewritten the part where she found Daniel with Fiona, in a way that’s terribly sad – stealing a touch from him, rather than having him stay with her that night, or at least show some kindness to her in some way.

Daniel, on the other hand, in a little sleight of omniscient POV, doesn’t remember the incident, which too is terribly sad:

It isn’t only that the drink and the drugs made him forget. He’s had too much happiness in his life since, too much experience; he’s lost that fine-tuning that could hold on to the smell of the ham in the off-license, the wetness of the swimming costume, the girl’s cold skin and her naïveté, her extraordinary offer of herself without reserve, the curtains sweeping the floor in the morning light. It’s all just gone.

The universe works in interesting ways. Just before I read this story, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for a few months; she introduced me to Faith, whom she was with, and I said I remembered meeting her before, at a couple of parties. She was perplexed. I went on about how I’d met her at a birthday party for Hope (another mutual friend) , notable because of the names (needing only a Charity to complete the set), and described the afternoon pot-luck shortly before Christmas, after following a holiday barbershop quartet concert. Neither of them remembered either event, though both were there. These are busy people, very social, flitting around, “doing” things. I wonder about that. What’s the use of doing all these things, if you don’t remember them afterwards? It made an interesting backdrop to this story.

What does it mean that Daniel doesn’t remember Jane, since she has no way of knowing that? How is it that she has, in some way, been “abducted” from that one day of “real life” into a more stilted existence? These are the questions that interest me.

I should admit that I wasn’t looking forward to this story (for the record, I liked it better than I expected I would). It’s her fourth story to appear in TNY, and I remain perplexed as to why that is so. It’s the third about a little girl in the 60s, though a different little girl than in her first two stories.

Honor” and “Clever Girl” both featured Stella; about “Honor” I said:

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

Sound familiar? It’s the same character, with a different name. “Clever Girl” continues Stella’s story; they’re two of a series of six stories following Stella.

I liked “The Stain” better, and again, it concerned a character who is “a bit of a misfit in her village” – and, much to my surprise (I don’t really remember the story), I said: “The ‘abduction’ she undergoes at the end of the story feels similarly false.” These themes and characters – girls in the 60s, lost and awkward, dealing with secrets, who understand it is women who bear the shame for the behavior of men – are powerful, but more than anything else, they make me wonder what Tessa Hadley talks about in therapy.

About “Honor” I also said: “I’m going to have to accept that I don’t care for this particular author. I’m sure it’s my loss.” I still stand by that. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate some of the elements.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Lauren Groff, “Eyewall” from Subtropics, W/S 2011

Peter D'Aprix: "Young Woman in an Egg"

Peter D’Aprix: “Young Woman in an Egg”

It began with the chickens. They were Rhode Island Reds and I’d raised them from chicks. Though I called until my voice gave out, they’d huddled in the darkness under the house, a dim mass faintly pulsing. Fine, you ungrateful turds! I’d yelled before abandoning them to the storm. I stood in the kitchen at the one window I’d left unboarded and watched the hurricane’s bruise spreading in the west. I felt the chickens’ fear rising through the floorboards to pass through me like prayers.

This story about a hurricane taught me something; or, maybe it would be more accurate to say, it reminded me of something I’d almost forgotten. It’s available online from Subtropics; see if your experience is different.

On first read, I was perplexed. The prose seemed a bit purple for literary fiction, like a high school student assignment: “Write 6000 words using description, imagery, and metaphor.” I’m all in favor of beautiful phrases and startling images, but it seemed a little much:

…the unplucked zucchini swinging like church bells.
The palmettos nodded, accepting the dance.
The great hand of the storm would wipe them off the road like words from a chalkboard.
The house sucked in a shuddery breath…
…the metal cages minced away across the lawn, as if ghosts were wearing them as hoop skirts.
There were pulsing navy veins within the clouds…
…waggling its oars like swimmers’ arms.
[The wind] riffled through my books one by one as if searching for marginalia…
Slowly, the wind softened. Sobbed. Stopped. The house trembled and moaned itself back to pitch.
…towns flattened as if a fist had come from the sun and twisted.
The storm had stolen the rest of the wine and the butler’s pantry, too.
My brain was too small for my skull and banged from side to side as I walked.

The language was getting in the way of the story. It’s something like Beatrice Warde’s Crystal Goblet theory of typography, which I learned about when I read Simon Garfield’s Just My Type – the medium, be it words or letter forms, should serve the message, not overpower it. I felt like the language here was distancing me from the story, like an overeager performer who sticks out like a sore thumb in an ensemble performance.

I read Groff’s Contributor Note: the story came to her first in structure, as she watched a storm cloud approaching and felt “unbearable fragile and exposed.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, since I didn’t see anything particularly unique in the structure of the story: it covers the hours spent riding out a hurricane, including visits from three ghosts, and ends with an improbable image of hope and renewal.

But I set about my usual routine, checking out other commentary on the story, and found this by Charles May on his Reading the Short Story blog:

The apparitions of both her husband and her old college boyfriend come bearing literary allusions, as if to remind us that what we are involved in her is not a natural or a social phenomenon, but a poetic phenomenon, a thing of language, in which, not stuff, but leitmotifs, swirl about in a highly controlled way.

Now I was able to more fully absorb Groff’s Contributor Note: “I saw a despairing character who was at the center of some harsh circular winds that were, in turn, whipping enormously urgent leitmotifs around and around her at blinding speed.” The language was not for the sake of writing pretty words; it was integral to her concept of the story.

This made a huge difference to me as I reread the story. I was able to see a lot that I hadn’t before. The chickens, for instance. The story begins with chickens, in the opening paragraph quoted above, and they appear – or disappear – throughout

My best laying hen was scraped from under the house and slid in a horrifying diagonal across the window. For a moment, we were eye to lizardy eye. I took a breath. The glass fogged, and when it cleared, my hen had blown away.

As each man from her life – the ex-husband who died a week after he left her for his younger mistress, the boyfriend she “lost” in Barcelona, who later killed himself – “There it was, the wet rose blossoming above his ear” – her father, who died while she was away at camp, her mother deliberately not telling her he was sick – she confronts a different part of her past, a different kind of loss.

Her childlessness – perhaps infertility – is another different kind of loss that comes back to her. She remembers her first impression of the house the storm is now battering:

I fell for the long swing in the heritage oak over the lake, which had thrilled some child, which was waiting for another. My husband looked at the study, mahogany-paneled, and said under his breath, Yes. I stood in the kitchen and looked at the swing, at the way the sun hit the wood so gently, the promise it held, and thought, Yes. Every day for ten years, watching the swing move expectantly in the light wind of morning, thinking, Yes, the word quietly piercing the diaphragm, that same Yes until the day my husband left, and even after he left, and then even after he died; even then, still hoping.

And at the end of the storm, alone again, she surveys the destruction of her house and neighborhood, culminating in one final image:

Houses contain us; who can say what we contain? Out where the steps had been, balanced beside the drop-off: one egg, whole and mute, holding all the light of dawn in its skin.

I’m really impressed how this ties so much of the story together. It’s a bit over the top, still, but it’s got the chickens, the infertility, the destruction, the survival, all wrapped up there in one perfect, improbable egg.

Groff’s interview with Subtropics focuses more on general issues – altering facts in historical fiction, the perils of using ghosts in literary short stories – than on the story itself. But that’s ok. By the time I got there, I had it already. And again I remember why I do this – it’s so easy to put aside a story that doesn’t work on first read, but if I keep an open mind and go digging, consult those wiser than I, it’s possible I just might find what I’d overlooked. This is the third of Groff’s stories I’ve read, and it’s by far my favorite.

Food Network Star 2012: Episode 10 – “Pilot Greenlights”

Now SHE was a STAR!

Now SHE was a STAR!

First of all: For all those who are desperately searching to find out if Justin, Yvan, and/or Michele are gay – I do not know! By the way, why is no one interested in who Martie prefers to sleep with? Poor Martie! Three hundred and ninety six searches for the other three (in one day) and zero for Martie! I feel bad for her, so I will fill in the gap! Is Martie gay? But I still do not know! Would it not be more interesting to wonder what their favorite books are, or music, dogs or cats, city or country, mountains or seashore? Get a grip, people!

And now I will get a grip, and proceed with business! Hello, I am Zin!

They have to do a 30-second promo in a pink-and-green booth which looks like a prop for Food Truck Barbie! They get 3 takes! Three will go home! They will be judged by Susie and Bob, plus a panel of six Food Network luminaries: Anne Burrell, Aaron Sanchez, Robert Irvine, Sunny Anderson, Melissa D’Arabian, and Jeff Mauro. Luminariousness is not what it used to be! The promos are screened for the panel, and the contestants sit twenty feet behind so they can not hear what they are saying! Which is silly, since they are hearing it now, but this is Lowest Common Denominator TV!

Michele: She loves having her own little clam shack! For her takes, Bobby tells her “you are not having a good time, you look at the camera like it owes you money!” And she gets tangled up in words! But she does one take where she hits 30 seconds exactly which has been a problem for her. It is the same “My New England” thing. They show it to the panel, and she seems a bit aggressive, she is yelling, pointing, standing very firmly! Sunny is scared! I think if I did not know her from the show and from other shows I would be scared too! Melissa finds her inviting and welcoming, which makes you wonder what show she was watching – I like Michele, among these four she is the one I would most want in my kitchen, but that promo was not inviting and welcoming! Robert thinks her show is “bigger than New England” and I do not know what that means! He thinks she has what it takes and she could be the next Food Network Star!

Nikki: She flips her tongs around and does a not very good take, she stumbles in words; Bobby tells her she has a great smile and she should use it! I am guessing everything it very edited so we really have no idea what happened on the first, second, or third takes, but apparently she gets one done! The whole Grill Next Door shtick – “give me a slab of beef or some delicate fruits and I’m good to go.” Anne likes her but thinks she is trying too hard to get them to believe her! Jeff says if Bobby says she can grill, she can! He liked the promo! Susie thinks it intrigues viewers! I am not so sure about that! I wonder if they just made a bunch of random statements and edited them together in random order later! Nikki has a very competitive view: it is her or Michele! Now there is aggression! Though Michele probably feels the same way, she has the grace to not say it, or the editors have the sense to not show it! This is the reality of “reality” tv! When they get a winner, they can fix the edit to show them in any way they want!

Justin: He and Alton really seem to have a bond! It is kind of sweet! Alton says do something where you forget everything and just talk! He talks about the Rebel with a Culinary Cause and hitting “the tightrope between crazy good and crazy great… eats, that is!” That is sweet, Alton has bequeathed him his empire! Aaron says it is obvious he has been mentored by Alton, and he can tell he has interests outside the kitchen, he reads! Wow, someone who reads! Now that is something I would like to know! There is a POV for you – the Literary Gourmet, cooking from scenes in books, or dishes authors like! Too bad I am not a good cook, and I am too shy to be on camera! But someone should do it! Not on Lowest Common Denominator TV, though! Sunny wants to have a beer and hang out, his likeability is off the charts! I do not get that at all! I think the synergy with Alton is appealing, and I think he will make the most interesting show – he is my favorite to win at this point – but I do not find him all that likeable as a person. I still think there is a smug too-cool-for-you brat hiding under there! He has done an admirable job of containing it, however, though some of that probably goes to the editors!

Martie: Alton works with her, tells her to talk to him, she says he is making her nervous and he says, “But this is me!” like he is a big cuddly bear! She says Alton has a way of saying things that puts her at ease! Now wait, earlier he was the Tough Love guy, now he is Mr. Cuddly? Her promo talks about Martie with the Party and it will be like having a caterer, bartender, and decorator working for you! Anne thinks she is fun, and she told the premise of the show very well! Robert wonders, can she back it up? That is a good question! Bob thinks it was memorable, and Susie says she nailed it! I think they were impressed she did not run out of time!

Ippy: Giada tells him to connect with the camera. Duh! He is still trying to amp his energy, and she says he is too intense, he needs to be more relaxed and laid back! That is exactly the opposite of what they have been saying! I feel bad for Ippy! He got the short straw with Giada! His promo is the usual Hawaiian thing! Jeff says he got the message across and he is intrigued by the pov! Sunny says the delivery is a little sing-songy, which is true. Melissa says he needs some tweaks in his presentation (which is a bad sign, since that is what they have supposedly been doing for the past 10 weeks!) but she likes his pov and would love to learn his food! Bob says he has genuine conviction and passion!

Yvan: He keeps mixing up “Family Style” and “Family Table” – I actually think “Family Table” is a better show title! It still is a miscellaneous pov, with no real meaning at all! Giada is clearly the weakest of the mentors with no helpful comments at all! Yvan has pictures of his family on the counter, facing the camera, and he turns a couple around to look at him and calm him down, which seems to work, feeling surrounded by family! The promo is not perfect but it is ok! Anne finds him charming and passionate about family but has no idea what he is going to teach her! You tell them, Anne, that is exactly it! Robert Irvine likes him! Bob gets a sense of sweetness and a love of cooking for people! Susie feels incredible warmth straight from his heart! Or maybe it is just the Florida weather!

It is time to pick who will make pilots and who is done! Alton says he feels like Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice which, Alton, that is not an appropriate analogy, just ask the Governor of Maine who made a casual Nazi reference! I am kind of stunned that the editors included the clip, it is in very bad taste!

Michele is in, Nikki is out!
Yvan is in, Ippy is out!
Justin is in, Martie is… in! Aha! Fake-out! There will be FOUR finalists making pilots!

They claim viewer votes alone will determine the winners! I do not believe them! As with AI, I suspect there are many ways of slanting the vote to get the results you want!

It is time to go back to New York to make the pilots!

Yvan is doing a family show! Literally! They bring his family in to be on the show! His brother is a worse actor than he is! It is pretty awful, the kind of mess I associate with typical FN shlock, and I hate it! Yvan is a nice kid but he is going for heartstrings instead of the interesting things he knows – wasn’t there something about him working with Cyril Renaud, Jacques Torres, and Jahangir Mehta, with combining molecular gastronomy and mixology? Interesting stuff? And instead he is going to play family style and make corn (canned cream corn, to be exact) mac and cheese – with CORNSTARCH? Now, I am fine with people making stuff like this! I make stuff like this! I make blue-box mac & cheese! I use all kinds of canned and boxed goods! But that is not what I watch TV for, to watch people make the same boring food that I make! Especially when they have the capacity to do other things! This is sad! He pours the mac & cheese into a pan to bake it and says, “see how stretchy and good that is?” It is disgusting! I do not care how many loving family members you have around, this is garbage! I think Yvan has been sold out!

Martie is, guess what, having a Partie! She goes into a thing about the other contestants have 20 years to figure it out, but right now they can get in line behind her because it is now or never for her, she finally says this is the culmination of 50 years! Wow! She finally gave her age! Thing is – Michele is 42, so she is no spring chicken either! She does the whole fearless entertaining with the caterer etc on speed dial! She tells a warm personal story about a guy who picked her up on a shrimp boat! That means he came by to pick her up for a date and drove a shrimp boat instead of a car, not that they both were on the shrimp boat and he picked her up, which would be a little tawdry for the Food Network (but would be very interesting nonetheless, yes?), and makes a shrimp dish that I do not understand – she broils the shrimp in the oven with spices, then tosses it in a bowl with sliced onion and lemon! How do you eat that with your hands at a party? You pick out the shrimp? That’s a lot of onion, you have to go digging in there for the shrimp? Does it not make the whole room smell like onion? Where is Alton, telling her how ridiculous this is?

Michele goes to a New England style seafood house and has clam chowder, and talks to the chef about it! Bobby says he is glad she is dressed like a lobster, in a red shirt! Her strategy is to be herself! That is a good strategy! Then after she has the chowder she decides she needs to go home and make more clams! That is not really how people work, but I guess it is ok. She makes steamed littlenecks with chorizo and corn! She rips the bread up (like Italians do, she says) and uses it to sop up some of the broth, which is exactly what anyone who loves steamed clams would do (I hate clams, I hate bivalves in general).

Justin goes last: They shoot at his restaurant, Do or Dine in Brooklyn! Alton really works with him on a collaboration thing – breaking the rules set by, who better than another Food Network program! Like Good Eats! So use an old episode – say, Caesar Salad – and show how it Justin can do it his way! This is a great idea! I wonder if Alton really thought of it! Justin is honored! The clip (it is supposed to be a pilot but only about 3 or 4 minutes are shown) is pretty good: Justin watches the old show in a theatre with a big cup of soda, and it kind of reminds me of MST3000! Except there is no robot! Now that would be extra cool, if they could work a robot into it, maybe even Alton! Then Justin says, “That was from a different century” (was it really? Is Good Eats that old?) so he will bring it into his century by making… aspic! Aspic! Aspic? That is the most 50s, most old-school thing there is, no one makes aspic any more! And it is pretty disgusting – beef-flavored jello! There is even a tumblr called “aspic and other delights” – “dedicated to gastronomic atrocities of the past” (heavily featuring Kraft processed cheese)! You can find a pretty good explanation of it at wisegeek.com and I think it was in the movie Julie and Julia – it was the part where she boiled down the calve’s foot and smelled up the kitchen and it still did not set! Because back when aspic was invented, back in the middle ages, the gelatin is supposed to come from bones and hooves, except now it is much easier to use the processed kind! And this I guess is how Justin wants to bring us into his century! Some cognitive dissonance there!
But he makes chicken aspic with all the flavors of Caesar salad (he pronounces “Worcestershire” as it is spelled, I am not sure if that is a mistake or a joke), and grills some romaine, then puts the aspic on the hot lettuce so it melts and creates a dressing! Now that is very different! It is not something I would want to eat, or make, but it is cool to watch! Justin feels like he has a bond with Alton, like he wants him to succeed; that is clearly the case! And putting his promo last pretty much assures that the Network wants Justin to win! I am not sure how aspic is going to play with the Least Common Denominator, though! But it is the only show I actually want to watch!

You can vote at the Food Network website (a Facebook account is required for some mysterious reason that probably makes someone money) or by phone (Martie 1 855 54 STAR 1; Yvan 1 855 54 STAR 2; Michele 1 855 54 STAR 3; Justin 1 855 54 STAR 4) until 5pm Eastern time on Tuesday, July 17!

And then next Sunday they will kill time for 59 minutes with warm family stories before announcing the winner!

Sunday with Zin: An Inconvenient Book

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from 1905 Edition of A Child's Garden of Verses by RLS

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from 1905 Edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses by RLS

Hello, I am Zin! And this week, Richard Russo brought his Interventions book tour to the library!

He and his daughter Kate spoke about the stories, the art (which Kate did, she is an accomplished artist) and the design of the book by Tom Butler (he was not able to be at this particular presentation), an artist who is married to Kate – a family project! It was also very important to Richard that he use a Maine publisher (Down East Books), that it be made in the US, and that it be printed on sustainable paper. All of this adds to the cost of the book, of course – and the book is not cheap, it costs $40, which is a lot for 4 works (one essay, one novella, and two stories), three of which have been published before. But the idea was not to release new material, it is to create a synthesis of art forms into a beautiful reading experience!

The first thing Richard wanted to discuss was to get out of the way the claim, which first appeared in a BBC web report, that he is anti-e-book! He is not boycotting ebooks! All of his work, except this one, is available as ebooks, and he has a novella coming out that will initially be available only as an e-book! It is just that he envisioned this as a tribute to the printed book, and because of the way it was conceived, he did not think it would translate to e-book form! So lighten up on the e-book thing!

When he was a little boy, Richard used to be almost happy to get sick – just a little sick – so he could stay home from school and read in bed! One of his most prominent memories of reading was being in bed with A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, a beautifully illustrated edition! I am not sure the link points to the same edition with the same illustrations, but it gives the idea! He was particularly drawn to “The Land of Counterpane” (a counterpane is a blanket or bedspread) about a boy reading and playing with toy soldiers on his bed – and including a picture, as the one above! Young Richard thought it was fun to be reading in bed looking at a picture of a boy reading in bed! And that was the basic genesis of the idea to create an illustrated book, an object in addition to text! I suppose some day an author will talk about how he used to love looking at a picture of a child reading a Kindle while he was reading a Kindle, and that will be an ebook!

When it came time to design the book, they ended up with nine pieces: four individual volumes (one for each story), four paperback-book-sized pieces of removable art (Richard wanted the reader to be able to take something of the book with him/her), and a slipcase! This is why he calls it “an inconvenient book”! Again, this all adds to the cost of the book, but it is unique! You can buy 12″ x 18″ prints of the art by Kate Russo on Etsy!

He wanted some connection between the narratives, which became the idea of intervention, and that became the story he wrote to tie the other three together!

High and Dry” is an essay that was published in the Summer 2010 issue of Granta, themed “Going Back.” It is about his home town of Gloversville, NY, which used to be the center of glovemaking in the country, and how the recession affected the people there. It also serves as a model for the setting of most of his novels.

My other grandfather, who lived in an Italian village near Rome, had heard about this place where so many leather artisans had gathered in upstate New York, and so he journeyed to America in hope of making a living there as a shoemaker…. Did he have any real idea of where he was headed, or what his new life would be like? You tell me. Among the few material possessions he brought with him from the old country was an opera cape.

For the art, Kate thought about the gloves, and how making the gloves ironically would harm the hands of the workers, so that resulted in a painting of beautiful gloves side-by-side with bloody hands! That is making a statement!

Horseman” was published in the August 2006 issue of The Atlantic (and is available online). It starts with a few lines from the poem “Windy Nights,” from A Child’s Garden of Verses:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.

…When she jogged in the woods behind the New England college where she taught, she’d realize she was running to that unwelcome, unforgiving iambic cadence — whenever the moon and the stars are set — as if she were a horse. And then the familiar heartsickness, as if she were suddenly clomping not through the woods but through an endless cemetery.

Kate read the story and set it aside for a few weeks to see what would stick most with her when she returned to it later: it was the last line of the poem, and the obsession with the wind which started at night but was still going the next morning! The character is a woman obsessed with a poem from childhood, aware of her own mortality, imagining the woods becoming a cemetery! So the painting is from the point of view of the character, physically – when you look at it, it is as if you are riding a horse and can see the back of the head of the horse, and the road stretching out, and gravestones cropping up later on, just like what the character envisions! I like the explanation a lot better than I like the painting! The cover for the book is a repetitive pattern (patterns are what Kate is known for) of the bent leg of a horse!

Kate had read “The Whore’s Child” before (as have we – it is wonderful; the first section is available online). It is about an elderly Belgian nun who shows up for a creative writing course and writes her autobiography in a search for witnesses, justice, or just to finally express her rage:

The first installment… detailed the suffering of a young girl taken to live in a Belgian convent school where the treatment of the children was determined by the social and financial status of the parents who had abandoned them there. As a charity case and the daughter of a prostitute, young Sister Ursula (for there could be no doubt that she was the first-person narrator) found herself at the very bottom of the ecclesiastical food chain…. The shoes she was given were two sizes too small, an accident, Sister Ursula imagined, until she asked if she might exchange them for the shoes of a younger girl that were two sizes too large, only to be scorned for her impertinence. So before long she developed the tortured gait of a cripple, which was much imitated by the other children, who immediately perceived in her a suitable object for their cruelest derision.

Kate wanted to capture the idea of memory, embodied in the black and white saddle shoes, stained with blood on black and white tile; black and white because those are the colors a nun would wear, and it shows the discrepancy between nuns who are supposed to be kind and caring but were in reality cruel and heartless! It is a very powerful painting in combination with the story! The cover is the black and white tile pattern!

Intervention” (in the singular; the title of the whole book is Interventions) is the new story written to tie these things together! In the essay, businesses, and later the economy, interfere in the lives of craftsmen to their detriment; the memory of the horseman poem intervene in the life of the college professor; and there are many interventions in “The Whore’s Child” from the nuns who take her in to her appearing in class to the students who critique her work and thus provide some measure of objectivity to her self-examination! So he wanted to write a story expressly about an intervention!

He started with a character: Ray is a realtor in Camden, ME. Now, it just so happens that Richard is married to a realtor and lives in Camden! She has told him numerous stories but he feels they are confidential, kind of like a priest or bartender (he never specifies if this comes from a story she told him or not)! Ray has a medical problem that will become life-threatening if he does not deal with it, and he shows no signs of dealing with it! He is reluctant to do the simple, right, good thing!

Enter a young woman who, due to the economic downturn, must sell her home before she loses it to foreclosure! But there are problems, such as, she has gone to Portland to find work, leaving Ray in charge of selling the house; and she is a bit of a hoarder (such a popular obsession these days!) so she has left many many cartons stacked in the house, unable to pay for storage! She seems to be sabotaging a sale she desperately needs to make! People who come to see the house can only see her stuff, her mess! It is easy for Ray to see her problem and the solution, because after all it is always easy to see the problem someone else has, as it does not have the emotional connotation that prevents you from fixing it in the first place! So the tension of the story becomes: should he intervene, and how? And of course there is the underlying question about his own need for intervention, will he recognize it before it is too late? This sounds like a great story!

Kate decided the painting would be a stack of boxes blocking the window, using the metaphor of the boxes being in the way, they are the mess, you can not see anything but your own mess so you can not see a way out! I love that! And again I like the explanation better than the art itself!

We then had a brief Q&A which of course went to writing! I only took notes on two questions:
How do you learn to write better if you can not go to a university program? The advice from the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist was to read voraciously, write daily, and get someone else to read your work and give you feedback, someone who 1) knows more than you do and 2) does not love you, like a spouse or parent!

He was also asked why the teenage girl in Empire Falls was in present tense! I have not read the book (one of these years that will be my project, all the Pulitzer-prize winning books, except for A Visit From the Goon Squad which I have tried to read four times and I refuse to try again!) but he said something interesting about present tense: it brings you closer, slows you down, and has an immediacy, and for a teenager that was perfect because everything is happening right now since they do not have the perspective of time an older person might have!

I did not buy Interventions – I had decided I would not before I went – but I have to admit I was very tempted, and am again tempted just writing about his visit! I do have a hold on the library copy so I can read the stories I have not already read, and I will post more when it comes in! Until then, you can listen to a radio interview with Richard and Kate on a radio interview from June 26 on WMAC!

[Addendum: Comments on "Intervention," "Horseman," and "High and Dry" now posted. - KC]

Alice Munro – “Dolly” from Tin House #52, Summer 2012

Octavio Ocampo: "Forever Always"

Octavio Ocampo: “Forever Always”

There had been some discussion of death. Our deaths. Jackson being eighty-three years old and myself seventy-one at the time, we had naturally made plans for our funerals (none) and for the burials (immediate) in a plot already purchased. We had decided against cremation, which was popular with our friends. It was just the actual dying that had been left out or up to chance.

What a great opening. I’m particularly fond of the use of passive voice in the first sentence – a big no-no – which means it’s very important. And it is, in what it says about this woman, whose name we never learn – an interesting choice, since the other two characters get two names apiece.

She’s 71, a retired math teacher who now writes biographies of Canadian authors who aren’t all that famous. Jackson, to whom she’s technically not married, is a poet and sometimes-lecturer who describes himself as a horse trainer. She isn’t crazy about what she calls his “‘aw-shucks’ persona”, but she understands it: “When you’re busy with horses, people can see that you are busy, but when you’re busy making a poem, you look as if you’re in a state of idleness and you feel a little strange or embarrassed having to explain what’s going on.” I love that; I suspect Alice Munro came up against that all the time, back before she was famous. Maybe even now. Just sitting and thinking isn’t all that respected any more.

She and Jackson have put their plans on hold, however, since he thinks she’s too young to die just yet. They’ll talk about it again in four years.

I said that the only thing that bothered me, a little, was the way there was an assumption that nothing more was going to happen. Nothing of importance to us, nothing to be managed anymore, in our lives.

He said that we had just had an argument, what more did I want?

It was too polite, I said.

We leave this little scene, which at the time disappointed me. I should’ve trusted Alice Munro.

Months later, Gwen comes to the door selling cosmetics. She’s not exactly the poster girl for the business: “If she hadn’t told me she was wearing makeup, I would have thought her face was a bare as mine. Bare, sallow, an amazing mass of wrinkles.” She’s invited in, and the two women have coffee and a pleasant conversation. There’s an interesting observation around Gwen’s smoking: “Now that she had her cigarette, she appreciated everything.” I quit smoking three years ago, but I understand that entirely; like the idle poet, it’s a tiny, perfect observation.

The woman orders skin lotion, more from sympathy (Gwen’s family is in disarray) than a real desire to look younger. She’s surprised when Gwen actually delivers it some time later, and they have another nice chat about one of the earlier biographies.

When they’ve finished and it’s time to go home, Gwen’s car won’t start, and the garage doesn’t answer the phone; the woman invites her to stay for dinner, of course, and figures she’ll need to stay the night. Jackson arrives home, and is also unable to get the car started.

And then the twist:

She and Jackson were struck at the same time.
“Oh my Lord,” Gwen said.
“No, it isn’t,” said Jackson. “It’s just me.”
They stood halted in their tracks. How could they have missed it? It would not do to spread their arms and fall upon each other, so instead they made some strange disconnected movements, as if they had to look all around them in order to be sure this was reality. They said each other’s names with tones of mockery and dismay. Not the names I would have expected them to say, either.
“Jack.”
“Dolly.”
After a moment I realized that Gwen, Gwendolyn, could indeed by teased into Dolly.
And any young man would rather be called Jack than Jackson.

Notice the “young man.” There’s no question, in the woman’s mind, this is someone from Jack’s youth. Everyone has an ex, several exes; running into one in your own living room sixty years on is a pretty strange event. But that isn’t the half of it.

But I did know, in a highly celebratory way, about her two weeks with Jackson, and so, as I have said, did many others. At least if they read poetry. They knew how lavish she was with her love, but they did not know how she’d believed that she couldn’t get pregnant because she’d been a twin and wore her dead sister’s hair in a locket around her neck. She had all kinds of notions like that….This wasn’t all in the poem, of course. I had badgered him into telling me things, and was privately unenthralled. I knew how men are charmed by stubborn quirks, by idiocy, if the girl is good-looking enough. Of course that’s long gone out of fashion. Or I hope it has. All that delight in the infantile female brain.
But the girl I had teased out of Jackson might, of course, be his creation, as much as the girl in the poem. Somebody Gwen or Dolly wouldn’t recognize.

It isn’t exactly Dante and Beatrice, but it’s a pretty cool setup. A bit of craziness ensues as the woman comes unhinged, and the next day, runs away from home. A different kind of Runaway. She mails a letter to Jackson – one of those letters one should write but never send, alas – but comes to her senses soon after and returns home.

Strange. In the middle of my rage, it had seemed as if we had gotten time back, as if there was all this time in the world to suffer and complain. Or make rows, if that was what you wanted to call it. Whether or not we could spare the time for that had never come into it, no more than it would have done if we were thirty….
I would have to be on the lookout for the letter I had written him. What a joke it would be – well, hardly a joke – if I should die in the meantime.
That made me think about the conversation we’d had earlier in the fall, and our notion of being beyond all savagery and elation.

Some of the story lines didn’t quite make sense, but then again, that’s how people are sometimes. As I read, it all felt completely authentic; even as I marvelled that the woman overreacted the way she did, I never for a moment doubted that she did exactly that. And of course her overreaction was, perhaps, more of an affirmation of the promise that life might not yet be completely over, that surprises can still await us even at 71 years of age.

Even though it’s slightly forced, I greatly appreciated how the circle was closed at the end by bringing it back to the beginning; I’m very fond of circular structure. I’m also fond of the writerly details, such as the notion that it might do to consider carefully who gets immortalized in one’s work.

Paul La Farge: “Another Life” from The New Yorker, 7/2/12

Rousseau - Page de garde de l'édition (Amsterdam, Marc Michel Rey, 1755)

Rousseau – Page de garde de l’édition (Amsterdam, Marc Michel Rey, 1755)

A husband and wife drive to Boston. The husband is sick. He takes extra-strong cold medication just before getting into the car, and all the way to Boston he worries that he is going to fall asleep at the wheel and crash into the median. Or maybe the husband secretly wants to crash rather than go to his father-in-law’s birthday party, which is what he and his wife are driving to Boston for. Anyway, he manages to stay awake, and they arrive at their hotel.

Doesn’t that opening just make you want to keep reading? Yeah, me neither. The story is, however, better than that. But not much – for me, the story itself wasn’t strong enough, though I found the meaning-defined structure and metafiction element interesting. It’s available online, so by all means, don’t take my word for it – go read it yourself.

The first thing you’ll notice, probably, is that the first paragraph is long. Very long. Half the story, in fact. And the second paragraph is the second half. There’s a reason for that; as La Farge explains in his New Yorker blog Q&A:

I had thought that the story was about freedom, but at that point I started to think that it was more about escaping from your life into another and better life out there somewhere, which is what the husband wants to do, and what the bartender also wants to do, in her own way. Having seen that, it seemed like a good idea to divide the story into two long, roughly equal paragraphs, to get at this idea of doubleness, this idea that there might be another life out there somewhere.

The division coincides with Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: “Nature commands every animal and the beast obeys. Man feels the same impulsion, but knows that he is free to acquiesce or resist.” In the first paragraph, he resists these impulses when faced with an attractive young female bartender; in the second paragraph, he acquiesces. His fate after that acquiescence is… interesting.

I’m always interested in how names are used; names tend to mean identity, rather than mere existence, and it’s always nice to see who “gives” a character a name – a la the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve naming the animals. La Farge acknowledges this is a connection to power. The Bartender, initially described in various appealing ways (initially, she’s ” an attractive young woman with crinkly black hair;” then she’s “the pretty bartender” for a while, but advances to “the young and shapely bartender” after the husband returns to the bar later with his wife; after the wife leaves with the sleazeball, she becomes “the slender and well-proportioned young bartender with naturally crinkly black hair.” In the opening of the second paragraph/second half, where the pov shifts in part to her, she gets a name, April P.; she never gives it to the husband, but he learns it from his receipt. The husband and the wife remain nameless.

Between Rousseau, the POV shifts, and the ending, which turns it into a self-referential meta piece, there’s just too much “stuff” going on and not enough interesting story or characters. The wife running out with the sleazeball feels surreal, but I think that’s just because it’s inexplicable. I find myself admiring most of the techniques used (the ending just feels like too much) but still feeling a little bored by the story, an odd reaction. But it’s all just so ordinary and tawdry. You’d think Rousseau would inspire a little more creativity.

I feel like I’m being a little cranky about this. But for once, I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything; I get it, I just… don’t really care. And tricks like this – good tricks – deserve to be used in stories that make me care. This story is a waste of good tricks.

Mia Alvar: “The Kontrabida” from One Story #165, 6/12/12

Joey Vendiola Cobcobo: “Seven Heads And Ten Horns”

Joey Vendiola Cobcobo: “Seven Heads And Ten Horns”

In the living room the family had switched from karaoke to a melodramatic Tagalog movie. Even in green it looked familiar, observing the rules of every melodrama I’d grown up watching: a bida (a star, a hero) fought a kontrabida (an anti-star, a dark force, a villain) for the love of a beautiful woman. The oldest films would cast a pale, fair-haired American as the bida and a dusky, slick-mustachioed Spaniard as the kontroabida. Between them the woman spent her time batting her eyelashes or being swept off her feet; peeking from behind lace fans; fainting or weeping; clutching a handkerchief to her heart or dangling it from the window as a signal; being abducted at night or rescued from a tower or carried away on a horse….When the bida won the woman at last, we whooped and whistled, again not out of joy so much as a malicious sort of triumph; the script had succumbed, at last, to our demands.

Another great tale from One Story. A good part of the resolution is predictable, but it’s nicely done anyway, and the emotional resonance works. If you have any chance of reading the story, stop here, as spoilers are ahead.

Steve, a clinical pharmacist in a New York hospital, left the Philippines for college and hasn’t really looked back. His father was abusive towards his family, and while Steve has fondness for his mother, he’s had no wish to visit them in the deteriorating suburb of Manilla where his mom, a nurse before her husband prohibited her from working outside the home, runs a sari-sari – a kind of convenience store located in a cinderblock building in their front yard: “The sari-sari compromised what I imagine was the dream of my parents, who grew up poor: a green buffer between the world and their world.” These front-yard stores aren’t uncommon in the area: “It was a way of shopping I had completely forgotten: egg by egg, cigarette by cigarette, people spending what they earned in a day to buy what they would use in the next.”

Steven has come back to visit at this time for a specific reason: his father is terminally ill with cancer. While he isn’t all that distressed at the notion of his father suffering or dying, he is distressed that Dad’s running Mom ragged. He’s also concerned that neighbors and extended family will talk them into coming to New York for treatment, so he’s been sending them money so they can buy what they need in the way of medical and comfort care. Then a freak opportunity presented itself to Steve:

It wasn’t his face I’d thought of a week earlier, at the hospital, when I took inventory of the narcotics cabinet. I wasn’t thinking of him as I unloaded the most recent shipment of Succorol, or when I found six more boxes than were counted on the packing slip, a surplus as unlikely as it was expensive. It was my mother I imagined, titrating morphine into his mouth by hand, as I recounted the boxes and rechecked my number against the number printed on the invoice. I thought of my mother, running back and forth between the sari-sari and the sickroom, as I typed the lower figure into the inventory log. I thought of her, crying or praying after morphine had ceased to comfort him, as I wheeled the Pyxis in front of the surveillance camera and slipped a month’s supply of Succorol into the pockets of my lab coat.

Of course, Dad wakes up dead a few days after Steve gives the patches to Mom. Though it’s not a surprise to me exactly how that happened, Steve seems flummoxed when he wanders into the sari-sari the evening after his father’s death and discovers his mother, high on Succorol, gleefully celebrating alone. In this instant, this woman he’s been trying to protect goes from innocent victim to murderer, and perhaps neighborhood drug dealer as well.

Through all the melodramas that my family and I had watched, in which the bida and the kontrabida crossed their swords over a woman, I never guessed that she might be the one to watch.

We all have an image of our parents, and sometimes we’re in for a rude shock when reality doesn’t measure up.

I like how the mother’s assurance that she’s stronger than he knows echoes from beginning to end, and how the bida and kontrabida of the movies is used. Still, the story once again sets up a woman as virgin whore and destroyer. After a thirty-year sentence, I’m surprised Steve is as shocked as he is that she could be capable of creating her own freedom; and I wonder if he’s being more than a little willfully blind, since he provided her with the tools himself. In fact, Steve’s motivation throughout – his sending money to keep his father from coming to New York, as well as stealing the drugs and risking serious legal consequences, combined with his supposed surprise at the end – makes an interesting psychological puzzle. Mom’s motivations, on the other hand, are crystal clear to me.

In her One Story interview, Mia Alvar explains she drew on some of her experiences visiting her family in the Philippines thirteen years ago:

It came from my last visit to the Philippines, when my eighty-eight-year-old grandmother was very sick. I had mixed emotions during this trip: joy at reuniting with family, and grief over my grandmother, who died while I was there. It must be common among expats to process these two occasions, coming home and losing a loved one, at the same bittersweet time.

Many particulars around my grandmother’s death in Manila, like the festive atmosphere at her wake and the bustling “funeral district” of Araneta Avenue, made a deep impression on me. But for a long time, I couldn’t write about them. The story didn’t emerge until I separated myself from the details and considered the reverse of my own experiences: what happens when a homecoming is not joyful? Is death, in the case of someone who isn’t so beloved, necessarily a sad thing? And what if a man were telling this story?

Her family also has a sari-sari in the yard, and they too are “hard-core karaokeers.” So here’s a story drawn from life, but modified – mirror-imaged, in fact – in a way to create a dark narrative from a bittersweet but honorable event. I wish I knew more about the decision to make Steve a man; is that because men are more likely to hold their mothers on pedestals, whereas daughters might be less patient with the woman-as-victim posture? A daughter, as well, might not have the same “returning hero” status as a son. It’s an interesting notion, how the story would play if Steve were Stephanie.

There’s a lot more in the story that I haven’t included: a primal scene from Steve’s childhood echoed in the deathbed scene; Steve’s ungainly efforts to help out in the sari-sari, allowing Mom to again assert she is stronger than he thinks; the welcome-home party including the movie scene of the opening quote that gives the piece its central image, theme, and title. It all comes together quite nicely, though I do wish Steve’s possible submerged motivations had been acknowledged a bit more. The bida himself had a streak of kontrabida in him; the lines between good and evil are always less than clear. Then again, maybe this is explored, just more subtly; after all, I got the notion from somewhere, and where else if not the text?

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Yiyun Li, “Kindness” from A Public Space #10, Summer 2010

Art from SF Gate

Art from SF Gate

But it is Professor Shan’s collection that I truly live with, Dickens and Hardy and Lawrence, who once saw me as a young girl and who will one day see me as an old woman. The people who live out their lives in those books, like their creators, are not my people, and I wonder if it is this irrelevance that makes it easy for me to wander among them, the same way that my not being related to my parents by blood makes it easy for me to claim their love story as mine.

Moyan tells us of her life: she learned not to love from a couple of chicklings, a flautist, and a teacher who, though she warned her about the pain love brings, ended up being the closest relationship of her life.

It’s a very long story – 70 pages in this edition – really a novella rather than a short story. It’s also in Li’s collection Gold Boy Emerald Girl, and has received high praise from everyone, including two of the three PEN/O.Henry jurors who chose it as the best story of the anthology.

It starts out with Moyan’s self-assessment; this seems grim, but is merely straightforward:

I am a forty-one-year-old woman living by myself, in the same one- bedroom flat where I have always lived, in a derelict building on the outskirts of Beijing that is threatened to be demolished by government-backed real estate developers. Apart from a trip to a cheap seaside resort, taken with my parents the summer I turned five, I have not traveled much; I spent a year in an army camp in central China, but other than that I have never lived away from home…. I have not married, and naturally have no children. I have few friends, though as I have never left the neighborhood, I have enough acquaintances, most of them a generation or two older. Being around them is comforting; never is there a day when I feel that I am alone in aging.
I teach mathematics in a third-tier middle school. I do not love my job or my students, but I have noticed that even the most meager attention I give to the students is returned by a few of them with respect and gratitude and sometimes inexplicable infatuation. I pity those children more than I appreciate them, as I can see where they are heading in their lives. It is a terrible thing, even for an indifferent person like me, to see the bleakness lurking in someone else’s life.
I have no hobby that takes me outside my flat during my spare time. I do not own a television set, but I have a roomful of books at least half a century older than I am. I have never in my life hurt a soul, or, if I have done any harm unintentionally the pain I inflicted was the most trivial kind, forgotten the moment it was felt-if indeed it could be felt in any way. But that cannot be a happy life, or much of a life at all, you might say. That may very well be true. “Why are you unhappy?” To this day, if I close my eyes I can feel Lieutenant Wei’s finger under my chin, lifting my face to a spring night. “Tell me, how can we make you happy?”
The questions, put to me twenty-three years ago, have remained unanswerable, though it no longer matters, as, you see, Lieutenant Wei died three weeks ago…

The notice of Lt. Wei’s death is the motivation for her telling of the story of her life, focusing on the time spent in the army camp but bringing in the few other important relationships that led to her decision to avoid love and attachment. These sidetrips into the past inform her life in the army camp, and her present.

Her mother was crazy, perhaps not clinically but by social standards, rendered that way by unrequited love for a married man. She was offered a choice: marry another man, much older, or go to an institution. She chose marriage. Moyan remembers her as spending most of her time languishing in bed, reading old romance novels.

Her father, a department store janitor, seems to mean well. An early incident she recalls involves two chicks, bought for her by some neighbors since her father could not afford them:

My father, on the way home, warned me gently that the chicks were too young to last more than a day or two. I built a nest for the chicks out of a shoe box and ripped newspaper, and fed them water-softened millet grains and a day later, when they looked ill, aspirin dissolved in water. Two days later they died, the one I named Dot and marked with ink on his forehead the first one to go, followed by Mushroom. I stole two eggs from the kitchen when my father went to help a neighbor fix a leaking sink – my mother was not often around in those days – and cracked them carefully and washed away the yolks and whites; but no matter how hard I tried I could not fit the chicks back into the shells, and I can see, to this day, the half shell on Dot’s head, covering the ink spot like a funny little hat.
I have learned, since then, that life is like that, each day ending up like a chick refusing to be returned to the eggshell.

This is not when Moyan decides not to love; it is merely the first step, and I respect that the story doesn’t try to reduce things down to a single moment. A neighborhood teacher, Professor Shan, calls Moyan aside when she is twelve, first to tell her that her that she is adopted, then to teach her to read English via David Copperfield (among others).

Just before high school, as they move on to D. H. Lawrence, another neighbor enters her awareness. They relate almost entirely through his baby daughter: he calls her Nini’s Sister; she calls him Nini’s Father. When he leaves suddenly, he calls her aside to say goodbye in a very sweet and touching way; she is distracted for her lesson with Professor Shan, who surmises the reason and offers some advice:
“The moment you admit someone into your heart you make yourself a fool…. When you desire nothing, nothing will defeat you. Do you understand, Moyan?”

Moyan understands perfectly. She stops visiting Professor Shan, but surreptitiously takes a volume of D. H. Lawrence stories with her.

These incidents are woven into the primary plot line of her time in the army camp, where she has good relationships with several soldiers (including Jie, who asks her to underline the “good” parts of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and then is later disappointed when reality doesn’t match literary license), but still keeps her distance, especially from Lt. Wei, who switches back and forth from drill sergeant to counselor. Whatever her role, Moyan maintains a steely presence, never accepting the friendship offered.

Her time in the army is not joyless: she finds comfort and enjoyment in a march, a day in the woods, in a field of fireflies. These are small joys, to be sure, brief, and solitary. She returns home because of a family emergency, and discovers something new about her mother, another defining trait, a startling piece of the puzzle. She returns to Professor Shan for daily readings that continue until her death twelve years later, at which point Moyan finds herself excluded from the funeral by the Professor’s family; they seemed to think she was trying to get her hands on an inheritance.

It’s a beautifully written, quiet story, very internal, all in Moyan’s revelations and discoveries of her family and herself. There’s a lot said in what isn’t said. In her Contributor Notes, Li says she wrote this as an homage to William Trevor:

I opened the novella with three sentences that echoed the opening sentences of Nights at the Alexandra, and while writing it, I imagined my narrator speaking to the narrator in Trevor’s novella – both characters lead a stoically solitary life, yet both are capable, and are proofs, of love, and affection and loyalty. Their conversation would not have happened in reality, but I hope that by speaking to one person in her mind, my narrator, in the end, speaks to many.

I love that technique. It’s always strange when a narrator just starts relating a story out of thin air. It’s what we’re used to, of course; it’s what a story is. But it does require a certain suspension of disbelief, that upon receiving the notice of Lt. Wei’s death, Moyan would stop and write down this story, as in a journal. Having this extra layer, though it’s not explicitly part of the text, seems like a great way to define Moyan and to keep the purpose of the story crystal-clear throughout.

I’m perhaps not as taken with the story as a whole as most, a reaction I find is similar to that I had to Claire Keegan’s “Foster,” an Irish novella from last year. Maybe it’s novellas, especially where short stories are expected (there’s a different way of reading involved, and a different type of discussion, and I found myself annoyed to be interrupted from the rhythm I’d set for this volume; that’s entirely my problem, and a pretty ridiculous one, but fact is I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read this novella had it been presented separately); maybe I’m just moving away from the internal narrative I’ve always been so fixated on. That, in fact, would be a good thing. I’m still envious that someone is allowed to write such an internal story – or maybe it’s that she’s able to do so in a way that still has momentum, something I never learned.

Still, it’s lovely, and I’m glad PEN/O.Henry snuck it in on me here.

Food Network Star 2012: Episode 9, Deliciously Unpredictable Demos

Are wanton rappers related to gangster eggs?

Are wanton rappers related to gangster eggs?

Hello, I am Zin! Tonight someone from Team Giada will go home, right? We know that, yes? They have not even pretended to shake things up! I think it will be Ippy, I think they gave him the $20,000 last week and now they will dump him for the low-energy thing because they love Martita for reasons I do not understand (maybe she brings in the Latino demographic?) . I suppose it could be Yvan but I do not think so.

The episode starts off with Nikki reading an invite to the SoBe Wine and Food Festival, and everyone acting like they just got there – except, is that not where they were last week? I am so confused! Giada is wearing a longer dress, so she does not look like a malformed child – it is very confusing!

The challenge is to do a three minute live demo of their signature dishes! The mentors talk to them to warn them about their weaknesses so they can fix them. What they are not told is that each presentation will be rigged so they will find themselves dealing with an extra problem that addresses their specific weakness! Except the Food Network sometimes has a different idea of what problem should be addressed than I do!

Justin:

The funniest part is during prep when Alton is doing a walk-through and talking to his team trying to get them to anticipate problems that might come up and Justin walks away at one point! Alton just raises his voice so he will hear him but it is pretty evident Justin thinks he does not need advice!

Alton thinks the problem with Justin is that he can come off as cool and standoffish, so they throw in unplanned audience interaction: hecklers! This is one of the more appropriate problems, I think; I suspect he gets snippy and dismissive more than we have been allowed to see! Though he did seem truly upset to see Emily go home, so who knows, I just get a “cooler than you” vibe from him. I wonder if they will make him fix his teeth when he gets a show. Everyone seems so focuses on his lips they do not mention his teeth, which are ok for everyday but they are pretty bad for a TV person! It is strange what we come to think of as “normal”!

He makes won ton nachos with minced pork and pico de gallo. His objective is to come across as good natured and warm, not like a smart-aleck. His presentation starts with something about moving to Brooklyn and his parents worrying about wanton rappers, so he is cooking wonton wrappers! I love a good pun, but this pushes it! A guy from the audience asks how much hair gel he uses, and he says, “Enough,” which is a pretty good answer. And it makes me think, for the first time, he is something like Marcel from Top Chef with the hair and the attitude. He also reminds me a little of Mark Zuckerberg! I do not think that is a good thing!

Then the heckler asks, “How long have you been cooking?” and he answers, “About one and a half minutes” which is pretty good! He says the wontons look like a purse minus the strap, and of course they are so small there is no way the audience can see them, I could not see them either! The guy asks “What if my kids do not like Mexican food?” (which would be a great opportunity to suggest substitutions, but he does not take it) and “How do you know so much?” He says “I went to college” and at this point he seems bored with the game and in “ignore the jerk” mode but I do not really blame him! I am sure they all have to deal with this in live appearances but I am also sure they give them some training in how to handle it!

He is a little worried because he got a little snippy. He did, but it could have been much worse! Susie thinks he got a little smart alecky, but he makes smart food that is thoughtful and delicious! I think that as long as he did not swear or throw something at the guy, he was going to be ok! And a couple of his responses, like the time, were kind of funny! His food does not seem all that rebellious, he seems to be making pretty standard stuff now. Using wonton wrappers as chips is not really that innovative!

Nikki:

She has never done a live demo before (what is wrong with these people, why do they not practice with the PTA or church groups or at a neighborhood party because they know it is going to happen!), but she thinks it is important that she not over-rehearse so she can seem natural! She makes grilled lamb chops with veggie escabeche (pickled veggies) and red pepper jelly.

Bobby says she is too practiced and rehearsed so they are rigging the blender to throw her. It does throw her! I remember a clip of Bobby from his first segments on the ancient TV Food Network, when his blender or food processor did not work! He kept fiddling with it trying to get it to work IIRC! She kind of stops dead and starts rambling and never gets to plate her food but runs out of time!

Bob is disappointed; he thought it was the least challenging problem, but the big issue was that she did not seem to be having fun at all! Bobby says she seemed intimidated! But they like her dish a lot! We know she can relax, though, because Team Bobby is not going to lose anyone today, it will be someone from Team Giada to even out the teams.

Yvan

He makes an oyster dish with pomegranate seeds and sea urchin which seems a little hoity toity for Food Network but I guess for the SoBe food festival you can get away with that! He knows he has trouble with his speech pattern and has to be engaging.

Giada says because of his speech issues his audio will go out (which has nothing to do with the “upspeak,” technically known as “high rising terminal”) and he will have to project! He makes “love bites” of fried oyster like he does for his girlfriend (which will disappoint all those people who have been searching for things like “Yvan Food Network Gay”) and tells people not to be intimidated by oysters, and the sound equipment shrieks and dies! A guy brings him a hand mike but he realizes he can not cook and hold a mike so he yells, “Can I talk to you guys like this?” He does very well! Giada starts screaming “Yes yes yes” like Meg Ryan in that lunch scene! I have a feeling she is taped later doing these cheerleader things because otherwise it would be ridiculous!

Bob is impressed, he was flawless and had big fun energy, the problem made him better, he was a rock star! Susie is very pleased, it is an elegant and sophisticated dish, the most they have seen from him so far!

Ippy:

He makes pink miso sauce – he says it is a combination of penne alla vodka from his mother and miso soup from his father – with seared scallop. He tells Giada the scallops are frozen so he is drying them on a towel, and everyone who watched Spike from Top Chef screw up frozen scallops and get blasted by Rick Tramonto for using them is screaming, “No, Ippy! Do not use frozen scallops!” Of course we do not taste them, they might have been as mushy as when Spike did them!

Giada says he has issues with low energy so they are going to see how he reacts to the audience talking and walking out! That is mean! He yells, “Hey, guys, we did not even get to the main course!” with his arms wide open, it is pretty funny actually, then he thanks the rest of the audience for staying. He tells the audience their scallops will usually be frozen (all Top Chef people are groaning) and goes “Bam!” which is awful! But I thought he did pretty well considering, that has to be a horrible experience to have half your audience walk out on you!

Bob thinks he got thrown and he was angry;I did not see angry! I will check when I see the episode again, but I thought he was puzzled! But someone from Team Giada has to go home tonight and since Yvan did really well they have to figure out how to position it for Ippy vs Martita! At this point I was sure Ippy was done, even though I did not think he did so badly at all!

Martita

Martita also says she has never done a live demo before! She makes sweet pork chili rellenos and rehearses stories about making them for her girlfriends!

Giada says her problem is storytelling and she relies on certain ingredients, so they are going to switch ingredients on her! I have not noticed this ingredient thing, it has always been the story telling! This story telling thing is nonsense, if they want storytellers they should hire storytellers, not cooks! They switch the poblanos (large green chilis) out and put in little red chilis, and she gets a little discombobulated, though she gets it all in about charring and steaming in a plastic bag (I was taught paper, but I guess it would work either way) to get the skin off.

Giada is giving her frantic cues but she is just dribbling on, not saying much. She never tells her story, she just sort of stumbles through it! Bob asks where was the spark? She did not seem fun or charismatic! Giada says she is a master of her ingredients, and I am not so sure that is the case either. Susie says it is not a form she thrives in, which sound pretty bad for Martita! Is this a fake-out, or is she really going to be in jeopardy of going home?

Martie:

She makes what she calls “Fish in a bag” which is pretty nice, later she says it is grouper. She is surprised that fish has bones! “This fish has bones in it!” she cries in dismay! But Justin helps her remove the bones! Alton says she has control issues so they will misplace some items. That is crazy, she has timing issues! Since when does she have control issues? That has never been mentioned before!

She starts her demo – she says “it is fish en papillote but I call it Fish in a Bag” which is smart, it shows she knows what she is talking about but is still friendly and not pretentious – and discovers “I seem to have misplaced some items.” Pretty much everything is missing from her station! She has one fish fillet and that is it! She comes around to the front to show the paper folding technique (which is not like Alton Brown does it, but he does not point out the half-circle method). She is happy! Bob is happy! She is unflappable! Bob and Alton agree, She Could Not Be Flapped which was the promo last week! They also like the fish but they still do not say what kind it is! Hey, fish is fish to the Food Network!

Michele.

She is making Clams Mimi, named after her dad (her dad?) which seems to be something like Clams Casino. Bobby says she has timing problems (she has a problem being natural when she is worried about time, which is not really the same as timing problems) so they give her false time cues – after the 2 min mark she gets 5:30 then 4:30 and she has no idea what time she has left, so she wraps up with one minute plus and just talks! And she is wonderful, just talking about digging for clams and quahogs and spurting water and when they say five seconds she just stops! But I think she did great even with the extra 5 seconds! And she was so great when she forgot about being right and just talked! But she is worried because she did not say half of what she was supposed to say – still she talked about Mimi and about clam digging and I thought she did great! Then again I like Michele! I am not sure I would be interested in watching a program by her, but I think she is the most easy-going and watchable person.

Bobby thought she did great, too! Oh, good! Susie thought once she started to have fun she was adorable! Bob loves the food!

The Lineup: Martie and Yvan were stand-outs! I do not get the Martie-love but I never have! Ippy and Martita are up for elimination which is the easy way to make sure the teams come out even! Martita was not happy they took the chilis away from a Mexican! I am glad she said that and not someone else! Bob felt the audience disappear from her, which is odd phrasing as usual. Bob needs to study language I think! Ippy got thrown by the audience talking and leaving – well, of course he did! I thought he was funny, but Bob says it did not come off that way. I think it did! Ippy is toast!

Producer Challenge:

With no rehearsal, they will uncover an ingredient and talk about it for sixty seconds. I am thinking it is going to be something awful like tripe or chicken intestines, something from Chopped! Maybe Violet Mustard! Ippy is sad there is no cooking!

Ippy uncovers a bowl of oranges and he is tossing oranges around and talking about the tangerine tree his neighbor had, how he would steal tangerines and hide and he would make “bug juice” from it – I forget, he said what was in it but I do not remember. I think he did well, even though he talked about tangerines instead of oranges and I am not exactly dying to make bug juice. But he did tell a personal story and it was kind of cute! I would rather he showed me how to make poi or build a fire pit but this is the Food Network after all! Bob says he did not get thrown and was thinking on his feet, he made an instant connection and told a personal story! Susie points out the juice has tangerines, not oranges, and finds out it is a dip which he never said! Susie is laying the groundwork for cutting him!

Martita: she gets oranges too! She talks about squeezing them and adding tequila. She does not tell any story. Susie says she had no personal connection to the ingredient, and she starts talking about her father picking oranges – shades of Suzie from last time with her father picking cherries to send her to culinary school so she could be pigeonholed into making tacos! Bob says her seams were showing and he could see the cracks! Eww!

They are gathered around a new table – the vagina table is back in New York, here it is a table with a square glass insert. What is it with the inserts in tables, do they sell them at Target or something?

I do not think it is even close, in both cases Ippy was much better, but I know how much they like Martita. Susie has not seen enough star in Martita to believe, though she has a lot of natural warmth and a bubbly personality, and Bob likes her food; they love his POV but he is inconsistent and Bob is still worried about his energy level!

Martita goes home! Wow! I am so surprised! I really thought I was going to be mad but they actually paid attention to what was in front of them!

Next week: The Penultimate! They will shoot a promo for their show, and three of them will be eliminated! Presumably one from each team! Then the viewers will have a week to vote for a Winner!

My guesses:

Right now it is between Justin and Martie and everyone else is just there. If they pick one from each team, that means only one of them will continue and it is very odd, since they are so different, but I think they will go with Justin! He is just more dependable and he is from New York! It does not matter who else is in the final three, but I guess it will be Yvan and Michele. If they do not force the team issue, it will be Justin, Martie, and Yvan!

But I am never right about these things!

Oh, and I do not believe for one minute that the viewers really have a say in picking the winner! I never believe it, not for AI or any other program (except maybe The Sing-off), any time a show – money – is at stake, they make sure the winner is the one they want, no matter how they have to do it.