Thursday, December 30, 2010

On the first bus out of town

Curiously, the B train appears to be operational--I saw three go by this morning--but there's nary a Q in sight. That's okay, since I'm decamping to Philadelphia shortly. See y'all next year, and thanks for reading in 2010.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

No time to post, guys, largely because of stuff like this. The blogs I read on transportation and Brooklyn are all absolutely flooded with pictures and stats and complaints about snow cleanup. It still surprises me that I have made it in to work at all, considering. And apparently on my favorite dangerous streetcorner there are yet more problems.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Snowed out

Last night I stayed over at K.--'s house, sensing that I might not be able to get to work from my own. The wind blew so hard that I kept waking up to hear it rattling the windows; in fact, snow came inside at one point. Brrr. I sort of wished I'd stayed in my sometimes overly warm home, only it's probably buried under a foot of snow right now. I am not looking forward to digging my way through to the side entrance of the house, and rumor has it that service on all the nearby subway lines (which run aboveground, usually a positive thing) is suspended.

Living in the city, you often forget what a force nature is, until you watch the snow fall down at night and wake up in the morning surrounded. Snowplows were out in some places but I had to wade through knee-high drifts at times, and only the side entrance to the office has been shoveled. It's sort of nice to be here on such a skeleton-crew quiet day; it's unclear whether the courts are even open, for starters. It's fun to see who comes in, a sort of Twelve Day of Christmas style count-up. We are currently up to four, with one more on the way. I am grateful to E.-- for her gift of Starbucks Via; I was so frozen on the way in that even making coffee in a French press felt beyond me.

Well, I'm all awake now, and still a bit dazzled by all the snow. I hope I will be able to leave in time to enjoy the beauty of my neighborhood in it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Top ten, part three

And, finally:

3) The National; High Violet
Three is an appropriate number for this one, since I have seen my favorite band perform not just one but three times this year, at Radio City, the Electric Factory, and Prospect Park. This album does not flow as effortlessly as the band's Boxer, which is among my top ten favorite albums ever, but most of the songs are genius. "England" is definitely the best piece of popular music I have listened to in a long time. It's a great album for all moods--the bleak despair of "Afraid of Everyone," the power of "Bloodbuzz Ohio," the dreaminess of "Runaway." Plus, there is a song about zombies that is not cutesy at all. What's not to like?

2) Belle and Sebastian; If You're Feeling Sinister
Though I'd been meaning to before, I never properly listened to Belle and Sebastian until the veryvery end of last year. If You're Feeling Sinister is the album I played constantly at the beginning of 2010; unlike many, it's an album that's worth listening to in order from start to finish. Belle and Sebastian did release a new album this year, Write About Love, which I have purchased, but I haven't listened to it yet since I am trying to listen to all their work in more or less chronological order. I saw them play live at the Williamsburg Waterfront; though the weather forecast had a 100% chance of rain, B and S prevailed with a dry night. I even, thanks to the grace of the security guards, was able to stand to the side and *see* the band, an unusual occurrence owing to my, um, vast height. I look forward to absorbing even more of their music in the coming year.

1) Mumford & Sons; Sigh No More
Mumford takes the top spot here because their songs are so joyous. They are similar to one another, but in a way that makes me feel I'm revisiting an old friend rather than listening to the same tired chords over and over. I saw them in concert and got goosebumps as they played "Awake My Soul"--many of their other songs are just as good and make me feel like I'm able to take on anything. "Awake" most notably, as well as other songs, really helped in my late-year project to, well, awake in the mornings at a much earlier hour, and much more coherently, than in years past, and is perfect to listen to as the sun climbs higher in a winter morning sky. It is also worth mentioning that Sigh No More has some great angry songs; Mumford really does all emotions so that you feel them yourself.

*Honorable mention: Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra
Though this piece was obviously not recorded remotely recently, I had my attention brought to it by C.-- earlier this year (in response to a post I made here, in fact). He could tell you the story behind it much better than I could, but suffice it to say it was a triumph for Bartok, as well as for listeners...like me! Shostakovich 5 will always be my favorite, but this one's pretty damn close. I saw it live, too (what a lucky year I've had for concerts!) and hope I'll be able to again.

Thanks for reading and later, folks; I'm going to listen to some Sufjan Stevens Christmas carols while it's still the season.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Top ten, part two

Some more music!

6) Lucy Wainwright Roche; 8 Songs
I found Lucy Wainwright Roche, as I must admit I have found many artists, on NPR's Song of the Day. I wound up listening to her album Lucy on my Dahill walk, but it is 8 Songs that holds my attention even more. I really like Roche's own work--and recently saw her perform some of it--but there is something perfect about her uncomplicated cover songs: the unexpected appearance of Richard Shindell's Next Best Western; one haunting a capella B. Allen that I probably like more than S&G's more-conventionalyl titled version; a light-as-air rendition of Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere" as the snow starts to fall.

5) Spoon; Transference
I knew Spoon before but their newest album surely deserves a spot here, since it's among the first few albums I really enjoyed this year. Each song blends catchily, inexorably into the next, and back when I was in better shape I found it a perfect soundtrack for running around the neighborhood. There's something really joyous about my favorite "Got Nuffin." I got to see Spoon live at Radio City earlier this year and it was well worth the journey into the depths of Midtown.

4) Gabriel Kahane; Gabriel Kahane
I first heard of Gabriel Kahane 'cause he lives in my neighborhood. A contributor to Sufjan Stevens's albums and a friend of Elizabeth, #10 on this list, he makes songs with interesting lyrics that combine classical music attention to detail with indie rock melodies (like the hilarious, awkward Craigslistlieder, available for free online). On his self-titled album, Underberg is a perfect soundtrack for The Fortress of Solitude, or for any Brooklyn nostalgia trip, and the gorgeous, deceptively upbeat-sounding North Adams always reminds me of traveling in Massachussetts this summer. I had the pleasure of seeing Kahane in concert with the great-named Rob Moose in the tiny nuclear bunker that is the basement of Sycamore, my neighborhood's oft-mentioned whiskey bar flower shop, and look forward to his new album, due out next year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Everything falls apart

Yesterday in the space of a couple of minutes, my headphones broke and I realized that it was my phone, not its battery, that was defective. Out of sorts, I went to 826's party, unwound a bit...only to trip and fall running to catch the bus afterward, slow-motion banana-peel style. I nicely ripped holes in my gloves and my knees in the process.

I didn't used to think I was more accident-prone than other people, but by now I suspect it's the case. And something about winter brings on more than its share of problems—bike and feet skid, bag buckles warp, electronics go on the blink (just replaced an alarm clock on Sunday too) and tempers fray.

And yet there is something glorious about the snow and ice, the cold that makes things crackle and break, the Christmas lights that adorn the streets, the way you forget about everything else except staying warm.

And so I'll curl up with my cider now and try not to muse any longer on what's broken, or only so long as it takes me to appreciate that I can meet my father and have him look at my knees and set me up with a new cell phone, that I can buy myself new headphones and an alarm clock, and remind myself that I can be bigger than some of the stuff that's gone wrong lately.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Top ten, part one

Herein, the first portion of the top ten artists I have discovered this year. Not every band put out an album this year, but they are all pretty current. Since I am a liiiittle pressed for time these days, I will just offer a brief summary and maybe cite a memory of a particularly nice listening experience. Hit me up if you want to hear some of the songs.

10) Elizabeth and the Catapult; Taller Children
The first of several members of this list to hail from my own Brooklyn, I first heard of them when they played a concert with the guy who will be #4 here. I was immediately drawn to them by their excellent name. Elizabeth sings clever lyrics in a whole range of styles. I recommend the infectious "Race You" and the dreamy "Rainiest Day of Summer," which I have listened to on rainy days of my own. My favorite memory is listening to their first album on a perfect day in Philadelphia, on my way to Green Line Cafe, wandering the city.

9) Beach House; Teen Dream
Beach House puts out the perfect music for cold days where the sky is white and you find yourself retreating into your own cozy world. I listened to their album streaming on NPR before my giant walk down Bedford Avenue; I walked with them in the snow to Iris Cafe on an enchanted Saturday morning. I had the pleasure of seeing them live in Prospect Park, as an opener for this list's #3, and they are just as magical in the summer.

8) Clogs; Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton
A member of #3 (I recognize doing this in reverse top-ten format has developed some problems of mysteriousness) and his various compatriots comprise this instrumental-rock group who I first encountered on a neat program at BAM where the Brooklyn Phil brought in rock artists that it liked. They've now turned towards music with some vocalists, including awesome guests Sufjan Stevens and Matt Berninger. "Red Seas" is particularly haunting, but all the songs are really just gorgeous.

7) Sharon Van Etten; Epic
I had a hard time tracking down Sharon Van Etten's "Much More Than That" after hearing it on NPR's Song of the Day, but I am glad that I did, and that I found her 7-track Epic. As I have mentioned here, "Don't Do It" is the perfect soundtrack for striding bravely through fall. And I often have a hard time finding female vocalists I like, but her voice is compelling in a whole range from the quiet of "Much More Than That" to some of the rockers on Epic like the aforementioned "Don't Do It" and brassy "Peace Signs." I wish I had gotten a chance to see her live, but it's eluded me so far; she is opening for #3 next year but, alas, in Europe.

Stay tuned for bands 6 through 1, and if you would like me to expand anything from this sketchy set of descriptions, let me know!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Gloom and doom

I read many a blog lamenting the demise of the New York of yesteryear. It is fascinating to learn about what has gone before, particularly from Forgotten NY, but I generally find the overall tone a little too doomsday for me, elimination of subway lines excluded. Yes, many of the glories of yore have vanished, but so have plenty of problems. Call me bland, but I'd rather have a Times Square with its (certainly bemusing) pedestrian mall than one overrun with sex shops. Call me a gentrifier (and believe me, I do this in my guilty head a lot), but I'd rather have a coffee shop with friendly staff and delicious fare than an unfriendly neighborhood institution where the waiters hit on me creepily (but that's another story). So, all in all, I think change is a mixed bag, but not without its redeeming factors.

But yesterday night around Union Square I found my agreement with the bloggers growing. I got the first inkling at the Strand, which I guess is not gentrifying so much as diversifying from its publishing (is dead! long live publishing!) inventory. There's something creepy about the lovably grimy store of your childhood transformed into a plethora of trendy kitchen instruments and a candy bar assortment that Willy Wonka would envy. Of course, there are still books, but every day it seems like the selection has decreased and the prices gone up and they are rearranging the place so damn fast I can never find what I'm looking for anymore. I experienced a moment of fondness for my neighborhood library which, though with its own set of problems, doesn't place a candy counter between you and your book purchases.

All this was bad enough but it wasn't until 14th Street proper that I really felt that old New York was dead. Walking to Strand as a child, I remember the giant construction pit on 14th that gradually rose up to become a Virgin megastore, movie theater, and Circuit City. Chain storey, sure, but I found myself visiting all of them at one point or another. But, yeah, record stores are practically no more, Circuit City has been replaced by a glossier yet less-content-filled Best Buy, and Nordstrom Rack, a monstrous glass Citibank office, and a shiny new-style Duane Reade have taken over the rest of the 14th Street side of the building. From the street, it looks exactly like a generic anyoldplace strip mall.

And I found something utterly sinister about the inside of the Duane Reade. I generally like the store, since it's more or less a New York institution (though that's questionable now that it's been bought up by Walgreens) and of course since each one is equipped with an ATM from my bank. But the 14th Street branch doesn't resemble a drugstore anymore. Instead, it's a space age emporium and I had trouble describing it to my companion: grocery store? department store? The aisles are shiny and filled with displays of products I might otherwise like--Eli's sandwiches, Rice to Riches pudding, Rob's iced tea (I regret I did not make it far past the food, what a surprise)--but there is something disturbing about finding them inside a drugstore. This is the future, I told my friend. One surgically neon-lit sell-all cure-all emporium. Forget about buying rice pudding or sandwiches or what have you straight from the source. Forget about the joy of exploring a new neighborhood and finding out its specialties. Forget about each neighborhood looking substantially different from the one next door. Nope, it's one size fits all, and this size is going to cover the globe. I can't wait. Can you?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Sunset Park

I'm not Paul Auster's biggest fan, even though I feel like I should be. (Bizarre postmodern storytelling, New York settings, mysteries galore--what's not to like? Surprisingly, there's something, though I can't put my finger on exactly what.) So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed his latest, Sunset Park, after its name, and setting, drew me to pick it up despite my reservations.

Sunset Park's not an uplifting book, to put it mildly, but I still found it compelling. Maybe because I come from a similar enough background to New-York-born Miles, the most-main character (each of the characters has a lengthy section devoted to him or her, but it's Miles who pulls them all together) that I can sympathize with him. But his life situation is also so unusual--he's run off to Florida to hide from a tragic accident, works for a company that cleans out the homes of evicted people, and eventually returns to New York to squat in a house in Sunset Park--that it held my interest.

I think above all Auster is good at providing a compelling senses of character and place. The story isn't really driven by external events, except in its final, potentially devastating, moments; instead, it's about what happens when characters take the time to figure out themselves and their relationships to their families, friends, and lovers. And, of course, to their places--blighted Sunset Park (surely not quite as sinister in real life as Auster makes it out to be here), the strange no-man's-land of Florida for a New Yorker, the remembered opulent Manhattan past. I felt myself entering the strange wintry twilight of Sunset Park, worrying along with the characters about guilt, redemption, looking for a meaningful job, and repairing family relations. I won't say more here--it's a busy week--except to recommend this book if you want to immerse yourself in the richly imagined lives of others.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Midday

Scofflaw that I am, I took off from work today so I didn’t have to get to bed early last night after seeing my surprise-favorite Chanticleer perform in front of the Christmas tree at the Met. Early afternoon seemed like a perfect time for a bike ride, so off I went.

This time, I took a straight path down Clarendon Road, which I had always been curious about since a high school classmate lived there. There is now a nice bike lane in each direction (well, nice except for the gazillions of sewer grates and stuff that made the path bumpy) and so I toddled off to Ralph Avenue, site of the Wyckoff farmhouse, apparently the oldest house in the five boroughs, dating from, if I recall correctly, 1656 (!). There was not too much to see since the museum did not appear to be open, but my bike and I walked down the path and saw the house itself as well as the gardens around it--what looked like apples and tiny eggplants were growing to glory. The house was quite a sight, nestling in quite comfortably amidst the drive-throughs and factories and single family homes in the area. It also verges on a fun geographical nexus, where East 59th and 83rd streets intersect. What?!

While I am on my favorite topic of streets, I will spare some love for the New Yorky set of avenues starting at New York, heading to Brooklyn, Kingston, Albany, Schenectady, Utica... I believe that the farther east the roads are, the farther away the cities are from this one. Also worth a mention is the meandering Kings Highway, which is much more highwaylike out here than at the urban-law-unto-itself Kings Highway Q stop.

On my way back down Clarendon, tiny sharp rainbows emanated out from my bike's wheels as I paused at street lights. All in all, an hour well spent.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Two ways of looking at a city

The first: city as museum, architecture and trees and light the ever-changing exhibits in a familiar gallery space. The second: city as connect-the-dots, filling in the gaps between the places I have been before, learning the picture they make together. My Saturday walk was a bit of each; I had planned on more of a museum tour but found myself forging a new understanding of the space between the parts of Bed-Stuy/Clinton Hill I am familiar with and Bushwick to the northeast. I did not quite bridge the gap but was astonished to look at a map yesterday and realize how close I had been.

I started at Bedford Hill, a new coffeeshop on Franklin that I like. Cinnamon chocolate chip cookie taste lingering, I walked up Greene a while and discovered Stuyvesant Heights, gorgeous, historic, full of streets puzzlingly Georgian (Decatur, Macon, and of course Dekalb not far off). It also had one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen...though I was disheartened, to say the least, by the gravestonelike memorial commemorating "all the unborn babies murdered by abortion" which listed the decision date of Roe v. Wade.

I moved south toward Crown Heights, my original destination, and was enveloped by religiosity of a different form, as all the Orthodox Jewish members of the community left temple and poured into the streets. There are a couple of truly extraordinary blocks here, with absolutely enormous houses and green space. The structures aren't housey like the Victorians in my neighborhood. There's something epic about them--not skyscrapery, but solid. Other streets, while less sheerly impressive, were also beautiful, with curving Greek-looking facades and towering front yards and, yup, more temples and churches.

I'll mention here that over the course of Saturday I read Sarah Glidden's excellent How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, a comic book about the author's experience on a Birthright tour. It reminded me of a whole different set of beauty and problems beyond the church and gentrification I witnessed in Stuyvesant Heights. I am not planning to go on a Birthright tour and Glidden's book was the perfect substitute, since her politics and her initial expectations of the trip are pretty similar to what mine would be. The book seemed an appropriate companion for what turned out to be a walk fueled by religious sites.

Crown Heights seen, I walked back to more familiar neighborhoods down Eastern Parkway, which I would love to bike the way I did on Ocean early Thanksgiving morning. Its stately buildings put the idea of city-as-museum in my head. The passing blocks gave me a wintry feeling, and I imagined what it would be like to walk down them in the snow. Soon, I hope.

Postscript: Yesterday, I walked down Willoughby from Little Skips, waaaay down Willoughby, from up by the Myrtle Avenue Z stop to Franklin Avenue. I waited for the B48 for close to half an hour and boarded...only to find myself flying by Bedford Hill in a matter of moments. Ah, geography.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hi-yo, Silver!

Bringing my bicycle up to the second floor landing where my downstairs neighbors have generously allowed me to stow it, I'm reminded of Claremont. The stable by Central Park isn't operational anymore, but I was fascinated by it as a horsey child. Though my own rides occurred out on Long Island, Claremont always had a sort of mystique for me, with its winning combination of stealthy location in a townhouse block and glorious horses roaming the park. (Now that I'm older, if not bigger, the stable on Caton Avenue near my current apartment exerts a similar pull; maybe one day I will join the riders in Prospect Park.) Inside the stable, as I recall from pictures, the horses walked up and down ramps to get to their quarters (inhumane ones, according to some, though I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt). Slowturning my bike to angle up several sets of stairs, far too narrow for its comfort, I think of these ramps, and spare a moment to acknowledge the occasional difficulties of city life.

But all is not lost. Like the horses, my bike does get to go outside. We circle the loop of Prospect Park alongside the bridle path, gallop half-braked down 9th Street (they call it Park Slope for a reason), ride up and down stately slow Rugby and Argyle, as often as we can. I am going to use this bike to have adventures, I decided while talking to one of my friends; I'm not sure I'm up to riding across mountains and deserts and marathons but we'll see.

Now's a good time to have a bike, since the city is putting down so many lanes. (Home early from work today I walked down new-to-me Clarendon and was heartened to see a pair there, as well as on Bedford--perhaps a Bedford ride is in the works?) As you may know, I am ambivalent about bicycles and the concerns I have about them still stand. I won't defend my purchase here other than to say thank you to my friend R.--. I wouldn't meet her to go biking on Governor's Island a few months back, since I'd forgotten how to ride. I did say I would kayak but, alas, the boat basin had a huge line and R.-- appeared with a pretty blue bicycle in tow and asked if she could teach me. Clad in the helmet she passed to me, I listened to about two words of her instructions...and I was off into the sunset. Man, it feels good to bike again. Like a childhood dream of horses.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Monday Morning: A User's Manual

Wake up and think it's trite but true that it's nice to get up with the sun.
Look out the window and realize it's overcast. Grumble.
Dream of how great one of those Blue Sky muffins would taste.
Get out of the house and walk to the train, listening to Fences.
Read about urban planning on the train.
Wonder why every book seems to have a chapter called "On the Waterfront."
Breathe in the comforting scent of Blue Sky Bakery and pick up mango coconut zucchini muffin.
Muse about how Fences has a sound reminiscent of Beach House--that dreamy atmospheric tone. Remember listening to Beach House in the enchanted hibernation of wintry Carroll Gardens earlier in the year. Remember listening to "Walk in the Park," walking through snowy Brooklyn Heights streets on the way to curl up at Iris Cafe. Remember waking up before the alarm, feeling satisfied, picking up a chocolate croissant and walking over the Brooklyn Bridge to work.
Realize this remembering has lasted all the way from Park Slope to Chambers Street and it is only 8:30.
Wonder how this happened.
Get to work and start consuming mango coconut zucchini muffin.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes

There are delicious restaurants in my neighborhood (Purple Yam, anyone?) but it's coffee shops that are nearest and dearest to my heart. And so imagine my joy at having three classy new options within a few blocks of my house. (One other option, an outpost of the bizarrely-named Connecticut Muffin chain, predates my move to the neighborhood, but for various reasons it hasn't proved quite right.)

First to arrive on the ever-busying Cortelyou scene was the aptly-named Market, which sells, among other things, serrano ham sandwiches to die for, my very favorite goat cheese studded with cranberries, and, of course, cupcakes. It is always exciting to see what new flavors have come in--guava? pumpkin cheesecake? pear brandy?--and in fact we are ordering some for Thanksgiving this year in addition to the usual pie. There are also espresso-based drinks which I have been known to sip on the way to work (damn, did I feel comical drinking a tiny espresso on my walk to the Q).

Though Market is great, I refer to it as "the tiny market" for a reason. So I was very excited to hear that not one but two new coffee shops were opening in my neighborhood, after the close of Vox Pop. (They're totally different from Vox, that is a subject for another post.)

The first of these is Qathra, which most embodies what I look for in a coffee shop. Spacious and full of tables, it's a great place to proofread. (I jokingly told the owner I should give him a cut of my proceeds since I spent so much time there.) The coffee and espresso-based drinks are good; there's also a gingery chai, hot apple cider, some unusual cold drinks (lemonade with rosewater, anyone?) and an ever-expanding array of food options. This includes, yes, cupcakes, and also breakfast pastries and some more savory options I've yet to try.

Cafe Madeline, just a few blocks away, wins the contest for best latte. They also have a nice buy-ten-get-one-free system (when I brought in my thermos on one of their first days, they happily gave me extra stamps). And sandwiches like ficelle with prosciutto and fig jam. To say nothing of the adorable puppydog logo that graces their door and business cards. They're just down the block from the Q, which couldn't be more convenient. And delicious!

So, next time you feel like venturing to the south of Brooklyn, give me a call. We'll go get some coffee, yeah?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Which dreamed it?

Recently I read two strange detective stories, Flann O'Brien's classic The Third Policeman and Jedediah Berry's newer The Manual of Detection. These were books I expected to love--since starting my job I've been more into crime fiction, and I've always loved modernist and surreal novels. The pedigree of each is impressive--Policeman has garnered comparisons to Ulysses and Alice in Wonderland, as well as being a favorite of a good friend of mine; Jedediah Berry is an editor at the wonderful Small Beer Press, and I attended and enjoyed his reading of Manual, where I bought a copy of the book about...a year and a half ago? I was saving it for a the right time, I suppose.

In short (since I am pretty overworked at the moment), I enjoyed the books, though not as much as I'd expected to. Policeman contains a sort of twist that made it disappointing to me, and way more descriptions of ominous scenery than I really needed. I did love the portrayals of the mysterious policemen the murderer-narrator takes up with, though, in particular the description of the perfectly beautiful small chest one of them created...what could he possibly put inside but another, smaller chest, and another, and another, on down into invisibility and beyond. I also suspect I must credit the book as an inspiration for my purchase of a bicycle last week (more on that later). Bicycles are characters in the story, or characters are bicycles--the policemen have a hypothesis that if people ride their bicycles for too long, they eventually begin to trade characteristics with each other. So one of the policemen locks up his bike so it can't escape and reveal his baser nature; the narrator is seduced, after a fashion, by a getaway vehicle. Alas, my bike is not a femme fatale, but more of the pony persuasion (small and silver, it reminds me of a small Silver I used to know).

Manual takes place not in ominous countryside but in a large city (with its Central Station, museum along the park, and mysterious eight train, surely I can be forgiven for mapping it onto New York). Clerk Unwin is promoted, under mysterious circumstances, to the rank of detective, and tries to figure out just what's going on in the city, as well as uncovering what really happened in the cases he so dutifully recorded while he was a clerk. Who are the sleepwalkers converging on the abandoned estate? Was the Oldest Murdered Man a hoax? And what does the woman in the train station have to do with it all? I liked this one as it gained momentum, but was a bit disappointed since I'd come in expecting a whodunnit and found more atmosphere than plot.

In both books, there's an epic battle between two sides--most broadly, order and chaos, but also heaven and hell, fact and interpretation. And dreaming plays a large role, enmeshing both character and reader in a nebulous third option. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether a sequence is part of the reality of the novel's world, or a fantasy inhabited by a character. Reading only this kind of stuff for a week can be disorienting, and so I was relieved to emerge from these nightmare worlds back into normal life... Well, sort of. The next day I attended 826's pingpong tournament,* featuring, among others, The Strand's Nancy Bass playing Jonathan Safran Foer, and it put me square in the middle of Alice in Wonderland territory.

*It would appear that I'm in some of the photos here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cold shoulder

No real post today (or quite possibly this week) since my #$%! shoulder hurts and typing seems to exacerbate it. Tune in next time for, most likely, a consideration of surreal detective stories!

Monday, November 8, 2010

All in the timing

As those of you who know me know, mornings are not my favorite. From the time I yelled at my friends when they gave me wake-up happy birthday call in high school to my menacing grumbles at college roommates to a thousand other groanings and moanings, I have never been the sort of person who rises eagerly to welcome the day. Historically, I've risen at the last moment possible, stumbled blearily to the shower if I was in a morning-shower phase, checked my email with watery eyes, and ran to catch the train. My most favorite/most dreaded moments were when I'd wake up, see that the alarm wasn't set to go off for another hour/fifteen minutes/three minutes, and gratefully go back to sleep.

But what if life didn't have to be this way? What if I actually got up when I woke up? For the last, oh, month or so, I've been trying this. And I've discovered that consistency is in fact a hobgoblin, that random unpredictable wanderings are infinitely more satisfying. Though I still groan at waking up, I wonder: what can I do before work today? Walking across the bridge to work is a frequent favorite (though I want to make sure not to overdo it and take away the specialness). I have also walked my beautiful fall neighborhood, made friends with my new local coffee bars, gone to Penn Station to pick up train tickets (amazing how there's no line when all the commuters are streaming the other way), hit up Blue Sky Bakery for delicious muffins (pumpkin cranberry cream cheese springs to mind)...the list goes on. Today I went to Bean & Bean way down at the tip of Manhattan for a caramel apple latte, which is delicious. I got a seat on the Q train for most of my ride, switched smoothly to the R at Dekalb, and over the course of half an hour picked up my beverage and walked leisurely to work. Where it's still not even 9 yet.

And so I think mornings may function best as a sort of walking adventure, maybe a treasure hunt. There are more drinks I want to try; there are more streets I will wander when the same two blocks to the subway get me down.

How about you, dear readers? How do you deal with early times, if you do? I wish you good morning.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

We'll ride the subways to their final stops

Though I don't have much good to say about the election results, I do have good things to say about my Tuesday off (!) granted me by my job. So I will buck my own grumpy trend and tell you about that.

It's great to have a day off in the middle of the week. You can catch up on all sorts of business that is difficult to accomplish on weekends: eating a delicious breakfast with your mother (including a pastry called, um, a "fat baby"); tending to various household tasks; and, of course, voting. I like the new machines they have (scanners which eat a paper ballot; the ballots are saved in case of dispute), even though one of the poll workers grumblingly informed me and my mom that it involves 26 new steps for them. I also like voting with my mom; we run into neighbors sometimes, and it is nice to see my family all together in the list of voters. Man, my signature was much nicer before I started writing letters for a living...

Votes securely scanned, there was more business to take care of (and by "business" I mean "adventure"). I had read that Peter Pan in Greenpoint has red velvet doughnuts; unfortunately, I had also read (and witnessed firsthand) that these sell out early in the day. And since the bakery opens at 9, going on a workday would not be an option. So off I L-ed, and picked up both a standard doughnut and a cruller. Nothing to write home about, but I'm happy I got to try. Then I stopped by the always-inviting Word bookstore, and then took the G to Fort Hamilton for my magnum opus of the day, a walk down Dahill Road.

I have been curious about Dahill because it is basically the dividing line between two grid systems. One time a few years ago I found myself on the corner of Dahill, 59th Street, 23rd Avenue, and Avenue M--home of a nice little library, by the way--which totally blew my mind. (Your mileage, non-New Yorkers, may vary, but it was exciting to me.) And Dahill is like this the whole way down. Well, except when it's not there at all.

So, turns out I only gave googlemaps a cursory glance and though Dahill runs most of the way from Fort Hamilton Parkway to Kings Highway, it doesn't quite seal the deal. Instead, there are a variety of pitfalls--though this walk was shorter than my Bedford one, it featured more hazards. I should've known something was up when there wasn't even a crosswalk at the road's start--cue me, ducking across two lanes of traffic. And things got more puzzling as Dahill periodically disappeared. At the mysteriously street-gobbling 18th Avenue. (Why does it have no intersections? Is it because of the abandoned Bay Ridge freight line?) I had to walk several blocks west before finding Dahill again--all half-a-block of it before it vanished. Then I picked up the scent again for a while, only to dead end in an enormous cemetery. Eventually, it ran regular residential to Kings Highway, where I picked up pretty Van Sicklen Street and made my way to a pizza shop I'd read about. Again, nothing to write home about. But breakfast was so delicious, and the air so crisp and walkable, that I didn't care.

I should also mention that I took the opportunity to catch up on my recent music purchases: a CD by Lucy Wainwright Roche (source of this post's title) and a collaboration between Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, the latter of which I picked up at Manayunk's lovely Main Street Music. I wish I knew of anyplace good to buy CDs around here...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Boo in review

I don't really like Halloween. I usually admit this quietly, afraid to wake a sleeping baby or tell a child that there's no Santa Claus. So many people seem to get wrapped up in the revelry in a way I rarely do. Once, a few years ago, I got a set of my friends to dress up as the Gashlycrumb Tinies and by all accounts it was a success. I say, not really joking, that I should be exempt from coming up with a costume idea for the next twenty-plus years because I came up with all of those.

The excesses of Halloween veer from the absurdly cutesy (a little dog in fairy wings, gleefully trampling her skirt underfoot) to the creepy (children in Scream masks) to the extra-creepy (adults on the subway wearing hardly any clothes, or clothes best not spoken of). And I just can't deal with the crowds. Even passing through Union Square station underground was enough to ensure that I'd stay far far away from the Halloween parade.

There are, to be sure, a few fun moments. Maybe I was just meant to be an adult all these years, since I had more fun handing out candy (at 826) than I ever did dressing up. Children were big-eyed afraid to come into the store; we coaxed tiny pirates and elephants in so we could give them ring pops. My favorite was the girl who wasn't dressed up for Halloween but gleefully helped us old folks hand out candy, often rushing to the door so quickly that we didn't even get a glimpse of the trick-or-treaters ourselves. It's funny: at both places I went on Halloween night, 826 and Alice's Teacup, dressing up is commonplace, superheroes and winged rabbit-hole-goers every day of the year. In a way this mitigated the (to me, negative) effects of Halloween; Alice's in particular was strangely underpopulated, as its fairies and such left the enchanted realm on the one night of the year their costumes made sense in the wider world.

On the way home I did find one costume that won my heart--a man dressed so perfectly as this fellow that I wanted to applaud. And the spooky strains of Sweeney Todd in the tiny market as I picked up a sandwich made me go home and curl up with my own holiday-appropriate songs. Stars and Jeremy Messersmith and I did not have as raucous an evening as some, I suppose, but I really can't complain.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ostrich

Lately I've wanted to hide from the news since everything I read is depressing, maddening, or both. Even through my very selective lenses (most of my news comes from blogs about books, infrastructure, and local happenings) a lot comes in that makes me angry. I could detail some of the topics and make this more of a full-fledged post, but fear I would just stoke my own rage. Let's just say: trains, gay rights, Amazonisacorporatemonster, and leave it at that.

And I usually hate to admit this, but I will tell you, elect of the internet (read: everyone ever): I am woefully uninformed about politics. And an election is coming up. What do you read when you want to be an informed voter? Presumably, in most if not all cases, you know what party lines I will vote along, but I do want to know something about the candidates before I do that. Any advice much appreciated.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Left my washing in the launderette

My laundromat is full of wonders for the young and old. It's got video games, a thumping jukebox, vending machines for soda, candy, and ice cream. Yesterday there was even a slightly wary cat weaving in and out of bags of clean laundry, playing with an enthralled brother and sister. And of course it's full of washers and dryers aplenty, full of all sorts of people's laundry including, every week or so, my own.

Well, a little less full than I wish it was. How often do you lose socks? Me, it seems like every single time I go to the laundromat, one goes missing. Sometimes more. I look through the washers and the dryers and on the floor and in my backpack and back at my house to no avail. I wind up partnering the missing socks with each other--I have a nice purple-and-green set now, one striped, one argyle. Does this happen to you, or am I particularly laundry lucky?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A supposedly fun thing I'll watch again

I never thought I'd like baseball but as of last year I do. Being a New York partisan I do support my home team Yankees even though it involves bolstering Goliath and heckling David. But the players are good (ehh, most of the time) and some of them have been on the team for an impossible age (I remember a friend of mine was an avid Jeter fan in...middle school?). I did not tune in much during the regular season, except for a blessed spate of midday games when I was sick earlier this summer, but now that it's the playoffs I'm paying closer attention.

This is bad timing I suppose because the Yankees have been coming apart at the seams. I watched a game with my parents on agitating Monday night, where the team didn't score a single run and I couldn't even hate the opposing pitcher who, no doubt among other good reasons for admiration, is extremely talented and has a son who battled with leukemia. Still, you can't help wincing and glowering a bit as the stadium rises in a standing ovation when someone (my favorite Teixeira of t-shirt "fame", in fact) finally gets to walk to first. Baby steps, I suppose.

Sports can absorb you; my mother had a puzzling Monday night as she tried to figure out just why the Yankees' losing got to her so personally. It's not as bad for me (not as many years watching, perhaps) but I do find myself screaming at the television and trading disparaging and hopeful assessments with sundry coworkers, roommates, and elevator men. (My condolences to R.--, biggest Yankees fan, if you're reading.)

In any event, my three favorite cities have teams in these playoffs. (And by three favorite, I mean Philly last week was gorgeous and the aerial shot of SF's stadium made me want to pack my bags yesterday. And that's coming from me.) C'mon, dudes. It'd be a shame if Texas beat you all.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Two tales of a city

I recently read two very different takes on dear Brooklyn. The first, Sima's Undergarments for Women, is the story of Sima, a middle-aged woman who runs a bra shop. A young woman, Timna, comes to work for her and she grows to treat Timna like a daughter, while also coming to terms with her own childlessness and the complications of her marriage. Normally this is not the sort of book that I would read, but the fact that it's set in Orthodox Jewish Borough Park (not too far from my own neighborhood) sparked my interest. Sima is not Orthodox but many of her customers and much of her neighborhood are, and it was enlightening to read about an intimately involved outsider. Walking through Borough Park myself, I find it almost a foreign country, full of its own architecture, clothing stores, and candy shops. It fascinates me how it exists so close to my own much more New-York-integrated world, but is largely self-contained. Indeed, in the novel Sima hardly ever ventures outside the neighborhood; her few visits to (my other home) Union Square are disorienting to her; it was interesting to read that perspective as well.

In a completely different tone, style, and Brooklyn is Julia Wertz's Drinking at the Movies. I'd heard about Wertz's comics before; I initially wasn't sure whether they'd be too sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll for me but I found myself loving her descriptions of life in the city (again from the perspective of an outsider--Wertz moved here from San Francisco several years ago). I highly recommend you check out her website, Fart Party, so you too can laugh out loud as she describes her crappy bike messenger jobs, awkward encounters with bums (will they ever stop calling her "kid"?), and explorations of the city (watch out for that Upper East Side).

I suppose my own Brooklyn existence falls somewhere between these two poles. I'm not quite a boozy Californian turned edgy Greenpointer (I won't say hipster, since Wertz avoids a lot of hipstery things on purpose), but I'm not a middle-aged lady who doesn't leave her own neighborhood much, either. Wertz's panels about exploring the city to find its strangest parts really resonate with me; on the other hand, I understand what it's like to have lived in the same city my whole life, the comfort and claustrophobia that entails. Not too much claustrophobia, though--these two books remind me just how many different stories exist all around me, only a G train ride away.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

I take tea, my dear

Yesterday I met the lovely S.-- at 6 for tea and scones at Alice's Teacup. We met at the old-lady hour of 6, though I had originally asked to meet up even earlier because of additional evening plans (when laundry calls, you gotta answer). So I decided I had time to nip over to Desert Island in Williamsburg to look for a comic book first (more about that in the next post) and proceeded to take the Q to Union Square then the L to Metropolitan. After visiting the store, I went back into the Metropolitan Avenue station but I couldn't bear the thought of the crush and rush of the L, so hopped a G instead. G to Court Square (4 stops); E to 53rd Street (1 stop); and 6 to 68th (2 stops) and I arrived at Alice's at a trim 6:02.

If you know anything about me, you will suspect correctly that this commute made my day. Why take 2 trains when you could take 5? Why go back through your twenty-four-years-old Union Square when you can embark upon a new adventure? And new adventures I surely had, pretty much immediately. Waiting on the G platform and reading the last couple pages of Elizabeth Bishop, I turned to the voice of my friend M.--, asking why I was taking his train. (This is not the first time this has happened; in fact, I can think of at least 2 other times where I have encountered him when I took an unexpected train, and each in very different parts of the city.) So we talked about comic books and numbers and children and all that good stuff, until he bid me farewell in Greenpoint. Then, disembarking at Court Square, instead of facing an arduous trek over to the E and M, I discovered...TRAVELATORS. I'd never seen one in a train station before. Why can't we have them every time there's a long stretch of underground walk?(West 14th, I'm looking at you.) One stop later, back in Manhattan, a busker played what I eventually realized was "Englishman in New York" and then it was time for tea.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mini muffin?

Busyness afoot, but wanted to tell you to watch Muffin Films if you have somehow managed not to already.

This post inspired and powered by my delicious cranberry, cream cheese, and pumpkin muffin from Blue Sky (not to be confused with Bluebird Sky which is also good). If you can wake up and get yourself to Park Slope before they close at 2 or so, I recommend it.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wanna have a diner where the coffee tastes like diesel fuel

I love the taste of the air as the seasons change. (So much, in fact, that I believe it was a facebook interest of mine, back when facebook let you have interests without marketing to them.) In the past week, it's returned: when I left for Boston, all was still summer-hot, in the muggy rainthreat air of the Belle and Sebastian show; on my Saturday walk from Roxbury to Back Bay it was glorious leaf-changing fall; on Sunday, the taste and lowering sky had turned again, worryingly, to winter.

Lucky for me, it seems to be fall again down in comparatively southern New York. I do look forward to winter when it arrives, but fall is my favorite and I wish it lasted more than just this week or two. Fall, like every season, is not only a taste but also a whole web of associations--not least, the sounds. I have written about my difficulty finding music to listen to; lately I've had a bit more success. Listening to Sharon Van Etten's Epic particularly strikes a fall chord in me--there is something very open sky, walking into the darkening evening, fallen leaves about "Don't Do It." (I noted yesterday that she is playing here this weekend--tempting!)

And last night I stayed over at my parents' house--ostensibly to watch baseball but in reality to crash into a ten-hour sleep coma full of strange tobogganing dreams--so today I walked to work from that angle, which takes about as long as my bridge walk. I stopped in at a new cafe I'd been meaning to try--the I-think-cheesily-named-but-beautifully-decorated Bluebird Sky, where I found a delicious latte. The sound system was playing Dar Williams's "Southern California Wants to Be Western New York" and damned if it wasn't the most season-changing song. It conjures up memories of walking autumn campuses, long train rides, mentally preparing to curl up in flannel pajamas with a cup of hot chocolate (if only I actually had flannel pajamas). My wallet is leaky--someone (I will name no names, but this means you, M.--) gave me about three dollars in change the other day, which ripped out the already struggling lining of my change purse--in the cafe assorted coins fell to the ground, and I scooped up every one and deposited them in the early-morning-empty tip jar. Happy fall, everyone.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Please come flying

This morning I listened to Harmonielehre. (Thanks to C.-- for reminding me.) I sometimes think walking the bridge is the best thing I do all day.

Instead of giving you my words today, I will give you better ones and say only that I feel a bit like Marianne Moore.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Walk to the station, won't you follow me

Amtraked north for the first time this weekend and learned the path the train takes out of the city--neatly topping the elevated tracks at Ditmars, sailing past a battallion of NY Post trucks, coasting next to more Connecticut and more waterfront than I had ever imagined.

When I finally arrived at South Station, I found it more impressive than my own Penn (where I waited a grumpy hour for my late departure). Though (or probably because) it has fewer tracks, it's more spacious, more aboveground, and is equipped with more internet--MBTA commuter trains each get their own--than my home station.

Amtrak itself has no internet, other than in the station, and it costs more than a Bolt Bus. On the flip side, trains don't make me bus-sick and are somewhat less prone to delays. But wouldn't it be great if they took no time at all? When the conductor read out the list of stops in Connecticut, I laughed in despair. If only this plan seemed more realistic...

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Red traveling socks

Though I've only visited once, I sometimes find myself strangely homesick for San Francisco and Berkeley. This sparked one of those moments. I wish I could see John Adams, inspirer of this blog, on his home turf. (Though goodness knows I've seen him on visitors' turf far more times than the average bear.) I'm really looking forward to seeing my favorite Harmonielehre in November.

In other John Adams "news," the other day as I walked down the street in Brooklyn Heights I overheard a discussion about John Adams impersonators. It took me a minute to realize they meant the other one.

In other traveling news, tomorrow I go off to Boston for the weekend, where I hope to see many wonderful friends including some readers of this blog. If anyone has activity suggestions, please let me know, as my generous host has informed me she has 800 pages of reading this weekend, and so I imagine I will be spending at least a little time on my own. Ah, grad school, sometimes I think about you and sometimes I unthink about you again. I suppose we can always have a work party; I have plenty of freelancery to do. Then again, I am the proud possessor of my own Charlie card (thanks, M.--!), so I expect to do some wandering...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Coffeecats

You heard it from me first.

And the winner is...

So it turns out the contest was rigged. But how could I order another macchiato (and, face it, most of them have been pretty lackluster) when I could have one of these? Mine looked exactly like the one in the picture, complete with mason jar and syrupy bottom layer. And so I am throwing my Bushwick coffee support behind Little Skips, which, in addition to my delicious beverage, serves intriguing sandwiches (it is always important to remember to eat when you are on a caffeine tour), has an array of charmingly mismatched furniture, and sits practically under the elevated M tracks, putting me in mind of Alvy Singer's Coney Island childhood in Annie Hall. Some might say that the rumble of the trains is a deterrent to concentration, but I would certainly bring my laptop back to Little Skips for a cozy couple hours of proofreading.

The only downside is that they don't stay open very late (7 PM) though a sign announces longer hours are coming soon. (Another sign proclaims "No decaf" in no-smoking style. No problem!) At least the early hours impelled me to wander Bushwick for a while. I sometimes feel that learning new neighborhoods is like playing Super Mario Brothers. You have to navigate the terrain for a while before it gives up its bonus points and secret passageways and new worlds. For the first time I felt that Bushwick opened up a few of its secrets to me. I couldn't walk long owing to a confluence of rain and knee and impending darkness but I did take in some of the sights. For instance, I had read about the mansions on Bushwick Avenue but had never seen any of them for myself. There aren't a ton of them, but they are beautiful and eerie and I can especially imagine the one in its own lot right next to the subway tracks as the perfect setting for a mystery. I have also heard that Brooklyn was known as the borough of churches, and in Bushwick you can see why: it seems like there is a church on every block, from humble storefront to looming cathedral. And the public library I walked by was itself a temple. I also have to admit that I love some of the newer architecture going up around here. There is something awe-inspiring about the hulking Woodhull Hospital (though the Yelp reviews of it are anything but (who knew that hospitals had Yelp reviews?)), and another curved glass and brick nursing center on the end of a street otherwise filled with tiny or decomposing buildings.

By the time I got on the bus home (B43 < B48 but it'll do), it was completely dark. But I sort of liked it that way. There's something satisfying about eroding the borders between a new destination and home, some prolonging of the mystery. I will definitely be back soon.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Poet try

Over the past couple of years or so, I'm not sure I've done enough writing to properly call myself a poet. And goodness knows I have never read enough of other people's poetry. This is something I handwringingly halfheartedly keep trying to change. But let's see if I can stick with it this time.

A couple of things have made me resolve to renew my poetry-reading efforts. First of all, last week I read Maggie Nelson's Bluets, which is a sort of cross between a philosophical investigation and a poem. Nelson has published several books. I regretted for years not picking up Shiner from the Strand when I had a chance (one of the poems I'd read in the store stayed with me so much that I eventually ordered the book); a couple years after that I had the rare privilege of helping to design the cover of another of her works. So, Bluets complete, I thought I'd best go back to the other books of Nelson's I have.

My second resolve nudge came from reading Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist. Which is a novel about a semi-washed-up poet attempting to write the introduction to an anthology of verse...but in the course of procrastinating on his introduction, he comes up with a whole book instead. The book combines all types of musings. It's a gentle satire of academia; it has the same stream-of-consciousness quality of, say, some of Tao Lin's books, but does not frustrate me in the way those do; and, most importantly, it's a celebration of poetry (albeit one that made me half tired of the whole business--but that's a story for another time). Baker's narrator is so genuinely enthusiastic about the poets he describes that I became enthusiastic too. In particular he discusses Elizabeth Bishop, whose collected poems I picked up when I was in San Francisco (and somehow magically managed to fit in my overfull bag) and W.S. Merwin, whose latest, The Shadow of Sirius, I just happened to have stored in a cabinet at work.

I read some Merwin interspersed with The Anthologist and I think I will read Bishop's Collected Poems more thoroughly. It shouldn't be impossible to read a handful of poems a day, right? I mean, I manage to read NPR's poems of the day, blearily booting up the morning internet. Reading poetry is hard, if you let it be. I think I tend to get bogged down by the need to understand and parse every. single. nuance. of a poem. But this time I am going to try to go a bit more full steam ahead. I will let you know how it turns out.

Postscript:
Who are some poets you particularly like? Franz Wright and Anne Carson are also very much on my list; I have read and LOVED several works from each.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Home(crest) sweet home

When you've had too much caffeine (never! you cry) another way to explore your borough is through libraries. Yesterday I had some books to return and my home branch was not open. So I looked at the Brooklyn Public Library's website and found some branches that were open until 8, picked Homecrest, and off I rode.

It takes a little less than an hour to wade through a mishmash of transfers from City Hall in Manhattan to the F stop at Avenue U in Brooklyn. (I didn't use the simple Q option because there is construction right now and the southbound platform is closed. Plus I hate waiting for the train at @#%$ Canal Street.) From there, it's a fifteen-minute walk or so to the Homecrest branch of the library, past a variety of quiet houses including one stately Victorian, some enormous buildings that looked to be single-family houses, and some tiny cottages. Streets have names like Village Road and West Street and, I discovered when I later looked at a map, Llama Court.

Another discovery: the Neck Road of subway stops is more fully known as Gravesend Neck Road, Gravesend being the surrounding neighborhood. I always feel like the name is sort of mysterious, conjuring up both the idea of graves and their lack, even if the real etymology is somewhat different.

The library is located on much busier, more commercial Coney Island Avenue, where it crosses Avenue V. It was slow going returning my books (like at so many libraries, the book drop is no longer operational), but I enjoyed the librarian's exchanges with the kids waiting ahead of me.

I walked up Coney Island Avenue to Avenue P before I caught the bus home, and as always there was a lot going on there. Full of the requisite delis and garages, but some other intriguing buildings are mxied in--a tiny residential stretch of cul-de-sacs (Homecrest Court, 1 Court, no 2 or 3 to speak of), cafes, the questionably-named Vodka Gallery, and my personal favorite, a pretty large bookstore (alas, it was closed). I stopped at Gulluoglu, home of about twelve exciting varieties of baklava. I did not have one of their signature creations but instead a delicious potato boregi, a sort of layered pastry bun.

Quite full, I sat down on the bus and made my way past the sights (giant bazaars, a rundown movie theater, an astonishing array of kosher eateries--bagels, of course, but also sushi and Mexican food--and the giant gentrificational Whole-Foodsy Pomegranate). Coming back to Cortelyou, I felt like I'd returned from a foreign country, or several. And in fact Cortelyou itself is a part of that country. I so rarely come into the neighborhood that way, yet it links up to southmost Brooklyn just as well as it does to its northern neighbors.

I stopped off for a cookie and a cup of tea at newly-opened Qathra ("drip" in Arabic), to discover that they were in the process of installing wireless. I read my remaining library book and sipped my tea before taking the brief walk home. Delicious.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A book review wherein I decline to explain the plot

I can't tell you how many books have intrigued me with their opening pages. The undertone of menace in Coraline, the odd intellectualism of The Puttermesser Papers, the sprawling historical opening of Empire Falls, the comedy of England, England. But these books, and too many others, have something in common: they don't live up to their potential. I would say that in general I've found this problem to be one of halves. The first half of the book is full of whatever elusive promise makes me embark on it in the first place, whether it's menace or humor or any other quality. But too often the plot, in particular, derails, becomes something too violent or crass or just plain anticlimactic. Looking back over the first half of the book, I wonder where things went wrong.

The Thieves of Manhattan is not this kind of book. I can't say it is my favorite book, because it's not; in fact, it may be my least favorite of the ones I have wound up reviewing here. But it does have a distinction that is, to me, remarkable: its second half is better than the first.

I read this book in roughly two chunks (Boltbus down to Philadelphia; Boltbus back) so I was in an ideal position to notice such things. The first half (the plot of which I will explain) is unremarkable. The protagonist, Ian, is a dead-end short story writer working in a cafe, feeling jealous of his more-successful girlfriend, making fun of the fakery of celebrity memoirs, most notably the prison confessional Blade by Blade. It's this last trait that cracks Ian's world wide open: a mysterious well-dressed stranger, ostentatiously reading BbB in the cafe and dropping twenty-dollar bills in the tip jar, has a proposition for him. Will he take the stranger's unpublishable novel (too much old-school adventure plot, too little character development) and pretend it's a memoir of events that happened to him? Ian demurs, but the stranger, with his unerring talent for ferreting out the truth, knows he will take on the project.

And what happens when Ian accepts the project forms the second half of the book, which I won't say much about here, because to tell you about it would ruin the pleasure you'll get from reading it yourself. Let's just say that the truth and fiction get mixed up and spun around in a variety of truly unexpected ways, while our main character breaks out of his pathetic existence and becomes a new man, though not without regrets.

Thieves brought me back to my eighth-grade days--or, I should say, nights--of reading Great Expectations and Harry Potter under the covers well past any reasonable bedtime, caught up in the manic incredible plot-twisting pacing. Read Thieves if you have a free afternoon, or a night where you don't have to be anywhere the next morning. It won't take you long, and if you are any fan of heists or mysteries or sudden twists of fate, I suspect you won't regret it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Long ride in a slow machine

Lately I've been lazy. It's been a while, last Thursday excepted, since I undertook a giant walk; my running career basically stalled once the temperature hit 80. Even the prospect of taking the godforsaken stairs up to my office (one small piece of exercise I'm serious about) is difficult to stomach when I blearily stumble into the building in the morning.

This bothers me, so I have tried to come up with a cure for my lack of motivation. And I think I've finally it. The catch-22-ish trick is: When you want to feel energized, use more energy!

This morning I got myself out of bed when I woke up at 7, instead of fitfully half-sleeping away the next hour or so (and believe me, this wasn't easy). I then took the magic B103 bus which runs hyperexpress from Coney Island Ave. onto the Prospect Expressway and ultimately into downtown Brooklyn. Though the bus was a bit stop-and-start on this ride, it still didn't take toooo long to arrive at Tillary Street. Where I dropped my library books in the slot at the Brooklyn Heights branch (I wish my corner library had one of those) then made a pit stop at Tazza for some iced coffee. And then...over the Brooklyn Bridge to work!

Again with the exception of last Thursday, it has been far too long since I walked across the bridge. The middle of which is now full of construction barriers far too tall for piddling little me to peer over, but never mind that. Watching the morning come into being around me, the fog slowly lifting off New York Harbor, the biking and striding purposeful commuters, all set to the soundtrack of Hallelujah Junction, is really the way to welcome in the morning. Then, Short Ride in a Fast Machine in ipod tow, I descended into the frizz and fray of downtown Manhattan and damned if those stairs weren't trifling after all.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Booklyn

Since I have not posted as many of my own thoughts this week as usual, here are someone else's. I have not worked for Akashic, though I do work for some of the other companies Johnny Temple mentions in the interview. I like his focus on the relationship between music and books; as you know, both are dear to my heart.

The reason for Temple's interview is, of course, the Brooklyn Book Festival. If you're in town Sunday, check it out. Your humble poster will only be there in the morning, but even if you can't accommodate her jetsetting lifestyle, the book festival is worth it for all the books and events and books and fun workshops and books and did I mention books?


(1oo posts today, wow. Seems like just yesterday I was commemorating 50.)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

In conclusion

And a nice walk home was had. (Not without meetings fortuitous and planned, some lovely telephone conversation, and a sit-down dinner, mind.) Even a little bit of a run. Fall, here I come!

Sunset song

Greetings, gentle readers,

I keep coming up with half ideas for posts--a music update? a request for tips on motivating yourself to deal with tasks you don't really feel like doing? a book review?--but none of them's really sticking at the moment. Instead of coming up with words at all, in fact, I'm tempted to let my feet rule and take me for a long glorious walk outside. Must be enthralled by the verge of fall--the crisp in the air the last few evenings has finally made me believe it's on its way back. I want to make the most of my time outside before the clocks change too soon and I leave work every night after dark. Maybe I'll listen to some of that new music I've been trying out (Mumford and Sons, Stars, Arcade Fire), see where it takes me. Happy wandering to you.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Read wear

I have been thinking about the internet lately (fancy telling you that here, right?).

This weekend I read Ilana Gershon's The Breakup 2.0. Gershon looks at how users convey information about breakups through various media, especially Facebook. She then uses this research to raise larger questions about how people use different media, and what their choices mean. It won't be too much of a spoiler if I tell you that different people use different media for different things, and that these preferences vary from person to person. This variance can be problematic if you're trying to figure out what other people's motives are in a conversation. Maybe I think text messages are for logistics and you want to write me a novel 160 characters at a time. Maybe you think emails are very formal and are confused when I send you one that's all "heyyy what's up." Or maybe I instant message you and you reply via text. Wait, what? And so we confuse one another.

Another confusion, or maybe more like a problem, can arise if you aren't aware of your audience: in a sinister turn of events, emails can be forwarded to recipients other than your intended; in a more mundane one, you can forget that you are posting, say, a blog and that the whole damn world can read it. Gershon spoke to a student who had a public blog with his full name attached to it, then was dismayed his parents read it. I know a whole wide world can read this blog, even though they may not so choose, and that does somewhat influence what I say here... (PS: Hi, mom!)

To be sure, the book does not offer much in the way of concrete conclusions, but it provides a good reminder to think about what you communicate and where you do it.

I have also been considering the internet anew as I find myself lurking on Metafilter and reading the questions users pose for one another. Some of the queries result in elegant solutions ("I heard this song which mentions a girl—can you tell me what it is?"; "Please suggest some interesting things to do in San Francisco"); others provide telanovela drama for the rubbernecker. I have never yet weighed in on these problems. And so it's with interest that I caught wind of this hypothesis, which I will not summarize here right now except to say that, unsurprisingly, it's a small group that generates most of the content on any given web forum; 90% or more of the community is composed of lurkers like me. And it's hard to know what the lurkers are thinking.

In summary:
-The internet is full of unsurprising conclusions.
-If you post something in public, people could read it.
-If you have a question, ask the internet.
-I hope you are enjoying my posts, lurkers, whoever you may be.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Macchiatwo

Last week, in less fraught and busy times, I jetted out to the Jefferson Avenue L stop for a quick extension of my tour. I visited the tiny Wyckoff Starr cafĂ©—which is so small and located so close to the subway stop that I turned the wrong way and missed it first time around. Though father out on the line, the area around this stop is a lot more welcoming. The design of the buildings has its own charm; there were people on the quiet streets and generally an aura of purpose, rather than factory neglect. Wyckoff Star was a nice place—$1.50 macchiato and all. The woman behind the counter checked to make sure that a macchiato was what I really wanted—cue some brief commiserating about how Starbucks has confused everyone—and when it was, put it in my thermos for me. The drink was pretty good, ranking below Boulevard and above the other two.

Afterwards, I took a walk—apparently, to Queens—up some quiet streets to the Onderdonk farmhouse, a real, live historical site. I couldn’t go in—they are only open on Saturdays—but the sudden greenery of the farmyard, couched in industry and with the Empire State Building et al rising stark out of the drizzly horizon, was a sight to behold.

Walking back, I conceded the area was pretty desolate. I guess it’s a question of where you come in—the immediate vicinity of Morgan near the L is pretty inhabited, too, even though I didn't feel it on my walk in. Here, though, there was a much more residential, peaceful feel—small houses, sparrows perched in a chainlink dovecote, an assemblage of greenery and blue garage that conjured up an image of the Statue of Liberty for me. In fact, I found the area so satisfying that I decamped there with K.-- for arepas this week. Pretty good, but not on a par with my dear Bogota, which I have neglected far too long... Dinner, anyone?

Monday, August 30, 2010

No good deed goes unpunished

So I am knee-deep in work for the foreseeable future. Expect one update, if that, this week. Sorry, folks.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bye bye Miss American Pie

Though I've never met the man, my life to this late, great date has followed in the footsteps of Sander Hicks. Not ideologically, but geographically, he's indirectly shaped two of the biggest parts of my life. The publishing company he founded gave me my start on editorial work. And, on an evening trip to Adderley with K.-- so long ago, it was catching sight of his coffee-shop-self-publisher-rabble-rouser Vox Pop that made me want to explore Ditmas Park. Now, many clients and a year in the neighborhood wiser and more fulfilled, I walked down rainy Cortelyou to see that Vox Pop is no more.

The place had a tumultuous fiscal history and from time to time was seized by the marshals for failing to pay taxes. It acquired new management and a new financial program with community-based ownership, and for a while it seemed, at least to an outside eye, like the place was doing well. But apparently it's been seized and closed for the last time.

Back my newly-Brooklyn-aware days, I dreamed of moving to Park Slope so the Tea Lounge could be my neighborhood cafe. My favorite branch closed before I could move out of my parents' house, and I started searching for greener pastures, which I found in Ditmas Park (quite literally, in fact--have you seen those yards?). Though I didn't spend as much time in Vox Pop as the old Tea Lounge, it was the same sort of neighborhood beacon for me. I brought A.-- there for hot chocolate last year, proudly showing off my neighborhood to an out-of-towner. Waking up early on a rare Saturday, I took myself there for breakfast in pajama pants, fresh from picking up my new library book. I went there in the depths of being sick and miserable, when it was about as far as I could drag myself out of bed. I took C.-- there for coffee shortly after we met and also kicked off our Berkshires journey with a couple of eggs McVox. (How eggs and cheese on a bagel can be so sublimely delicious, I don't know.)

And so it's with a bit of chagrin that I report that upon A.--'s triumphant return this past weekend I opted to take her to the tiny Market, where we munched on fancy cupcakes and sipped cappuccinos, instead of Voxy's less-upscale fare. I felt a twinge of guilt but reasoned that A.--'d been to Vox Pop before, and that it was such a nice day to sit on tiny Market's tiny bench outside. But if I'd known it was my last chance to go there, I would have changed my mind.

The NYT just ran an article about a new breed of coffee shops which are more like fill-up stations than home offices. I like the idea of focusing on coffee quality rather than laptop amenities. But as a chronic wanderer, I like a coffee shop to be a place where I can sit down and relax, whether with a dreaded laptop or a journal or a copy of Invisible Cities on a snowy night. Vox Pop may not have been the perfect cozy-up spot, but it was much more friendly and inviting than a tiny hipster go-go-go counter.

I wish I had patronized the business more, both to contribute to their financial success and to eat some of those delicious sandwiches. But it's in the nature of my wandering to always seek newer, better, farther locales. And so because it was nearly on my corner Vox Pop suffered from my wanderlust, same as lamentedly-closed Amai on my parents' block. When I want coffee, I want a destination (see Monday).

I know my paltry few bucks of coffee a week couldn't have kept Vox Pop in business even if I had come by every day. But I wish I had appreciated it more while it lasted. I have been thinking lately about what the purpose of a blog should be, and have come to no brilliant conclusions. There are several nostalgia blogs I read, and I know this blog's purpose isn't to be one of those. But I hope that at least in this one case it can provide a fitting tribute for an institution I will miss.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Macchiatour

The neighborhood in Brooklyn that I am perhaps most unfamiliar with is Bushwick. I'm still a little shady on where Williamsburg ends and Bushwick begins (I suspect this murkiness plays into a scheme fueled by developers) but I thought I'd check it out. In order to provide my travels with a bit of coherence (and incentive!) I decided to use everyone's favorite gentrification barometer, the coffee shop, to plot my course.*

I'd read that some of these creatures existed out in the Bushwilds, and indeed this is true. However, I think they have a ways to go before they hit the stride of their more genteel counterparts. In the midst of a Monday rainstorm last week, I stopped in at W'burg's Bakeri, where my sodden tastebuds and I were treated to an extraordinary macchiato. With this memory lingering on my tongue and an awareness that I'd better drink small if I intended to hit up more than one place, I decided that the macchiato would be my taste test beverage. So bear this in mind; perhaps the iced coffee or something is truly stunning at these places. However, as far as I can report:

1. Cafe Orwell. Definitely the most isolated (one lone bikeshop punctuates the factory and construction ambiance) and the most undrinkable. My macchiato was so acidic I practically couldn't get it down. The whole place was dark and shadowy, filled with a correspondingly darkly shadowed laptop mob. The countergirl seemed confused when I asked how much my drink cost. The answer: too much! At $2.75, it was a regrettable choice. So I gulped and turned the corner to...

2. Archives Cafe. This counterfellow was a bit more with it, as was the price ($2.50). I found this one potable but not extraordinary. There was a nice row of carpeted benches on which to sit, though I do echo one Yelp reviewer's concerns about what sorts of fluid might be lurking in that ratty shag. Archives was also on a somewhat more inhabited stretch, with a fancyfoods store and an entrance to the local subway (Morgan L stop) just a couple beats away. But I walked back along Bushwick Ave. towards more civilization...holy cow! a bodega! a bar! a hardware store!...and my final destination...

3. Boulevard Cafe. The guy behind the counter here was positively delightful. The cookie I ordered (got to keep up your energy on these taxing treks) was delicious, especially melted in ($2!--and this place the closest to civilization of all!) macchiato. Unfortunately, it was still not as delicious as the nearer-to-hand and basically-as-charmingly-decored Bakeri, but if I lived in the neighborhood I would definitely be back often. The facade is a nice friendly not-too-hipstery blue, and the tables are comfortable for some people watching. This place is definitely the winner of the outing, if not of my whole heart (though arguably is in W'burg not Bushwick. Or are all of them? Geography skillz, as previously stated, shady in this department.). It is also right near the Montrose L stop, though being a complex and variegated soul, I of course ignored its earnest entreaties and walked a ways to pick up the B43 (not a fully-worthy successor to the 48, but it'll do, pig, it'll do.).

Now that the three-drink jitters have worn off (I was up mighty late Thursday, and may or may not've munchily inhaled most of the remains of a bag of chips at the time), I am contemplating hitting up the remaining three cafes that Bushwick seems to play host to. Stay tuned...

*My feelings about gentrification generally, and in this neighborhood in particular, could power about eleven more posts (and already have fueled some). Suffice it to say I felt more uncomfortable wandering through the projecty area than the industrial park one; buildings can't judge you, and you can't feel like you're impinging on their personal space. On the other hand, hipsters surrounded by factory wasteland make a disturbing image (rather like the brightly-colored weeds that sprout and spawn from cracks in the buildings' facades). Can you believe there's a youth hostel out there? Reviews seem favorable (and I do concede the price is right), but have these folks seen other parts of New York as a comparison point? Yes, it's close to a subway and a coffee shop, but it's a nuclear winter out there. I am pretty cavalier, but in contrast to the reviewers, I'm not sure how I'd feel about the neighborhood after dark. (Feel free to contract me, those more in the know.) Hostile, indeed.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

IRT BMT IND

Today I shall tell you about Clifton Hood’s 722 Miles, which takes a (not exactly uplifting) look at the building of the NYC subway. This book is well-suited to readers such as me, who can stare at a subway map for hours. It goes into a lot of detail (it's an expansion of Hood’s doctoral thesis) but is also accessible to those of us who are not huge history buffs or as up on economics as perhaps we should be. ’Cause as well as financial and logistical details, the history of the building of the subway is rife with intriguing people and events.

For instance, did you know that the Steinway Tunnel (stretching across the East River at 42nd Street, now home of the 7 train) as well as, presumably, Steinway Street in Astoria, was named after William Steinway, piano maker extraordinaire, a key player (har, har) in the development of both the subway and the borough of Queens?

Did you know that, before the IRT started building the first subway, inventor Alfred Beach made a mysterious hidden pneumatic tube subway right under the nose of City Hall? Its waiting room was decked out in paintings and couches; its car was such a sensation that thousands of people waited to ride it. Seriously, what’s better than pneumatic tubes? Maybe they're what the internet's made of.

Hood also zooms in on the development of Jackson Heights, a neighborhood that was created by developers in response to the projected expansion of the subways. Previously open farmland, Jackson Heights became a sort of garden-city suburb, proudly advertised as only 22 minutes from Midtown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idealized suburb offered fabulous accommodations “for those whose social and business references are acceptable”—i.e., no Jews allowed. I find it gratifying that this neighborhood has since evolved into one of the most diverse in probably the entire world.

On a less fun note, 722 Miles also provides an informative look at the circumstances that ultimately led to the MTA’s current dire straits (up to a point; the book was written in the nineties and really only discusses subway history until the fifties or so). Conflicts between big business and government in the subway’s early days meant that it didn’t achieve full government funding; later, petty fights among groups puttered on while the automobile gained primacy over the subway. And oh that subway fare. Politicians built entire campaigns on the importance of the nickel fare to the city’s everyman. (Successfully; the fare was not raised until 1948.) In the words of Maurice Forge, former Transit Workers Union leader, the public would view raising the fare as a crime on a par with “doing damage to motherhood, apple pie, and the Constitution.” But this fear of pie ruination spelled disaster for the companies, and later the city, running the subway; the system contracted enormous deficits as prices spiraled and the Great Depression hit and everything except the subway was subject to the economy...

Maybe it's sorta like what’s going on now, when service cuts are so often deemed preferential to fare hikes (not that that’s gonna stop the MTA from raising fares as well, most likely in 2011). I am sympathetic to the position that everyone should be able to afford mass transit, but in both the present instance and the historical one, I come down on the side of the fare hikers*—it’s no good maintaining an affordable fare for a system that just doesn’t run as it should. Particularly when increased fares could help fix some of the problems. (And fares are so low—even with my shoddy grasp on economics, I can still read and understand that both now and during the Depression, with inflation sidling into every aspect of life, fares cost proportionately less than they have at other times.) Grumblerumble.

Anyway, if you are ¾ and upward as much of a subway nut as I am, check this book out. At the very least you will wow your friends with your ability to finally keep the IRT, BMT, and IND lines straight.

*Though it will not surprise you to hear that I empathize with one Stanley Isaacs, councilman and former Manhattan borough president. His response to Robert Moses’s desire to construct tons of highways and bridges with the money that would be generated by a higher fare? “I believe that this is probably the most audacious proposal yet made to saddle those least able to afford it with the cost of civic improvements which in the main serve those in the higher income brackets; to make those who do not own cars but travel in the subway indirectly subsidize the motorist. The whole program is clear. The straphanger is to pay double the present fare so as to carry the full interest upon and amortization of the capital cost of the subways. Why? So that the city will be able to borrow more money to build parkways, expressways, and highways, which are to be furnished free of charge for the capital improvements to the man who can afford his own car, doesn’t travel on the subways and doesn’t pay even a nickel toward the construction of the speedways furnished him.” Grr.
(Quotation from 722 Miles, p. 246, where Hood also helpfully points out that at the time of Isaacs’s remark, two thirds of New Yorkers did not own cars.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Follow-up, briefly

Apparently I like "little bands." I am sad my taste is being thus belittled (aren't I small enough?) but pleased there is a new Ra Ra Riot to play with. And Mumford is adding a show; maybe tickets will appear...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sigh no more, no more

Seeing Arcade Fire (didn't they used to have a "The"?) at Madison Square Garden a couple weeks ago, I was struck by a disquieting thought. ArF (as I think of them fondly) are certainly not my favorite band. They have some brilliant songs that I like more than many offerings from my more-favorite bands, but I've found their first two albums a bit hit or miss on the whole. (Haven't listened to the third very carefully yet, but I will.)

But, despite this non-favoritism, I tried to think of bands I like more than ArF and I got stumped. I like more classical music than ever these days, and I love me some oldies and some nineties rock, and of course I'm fond of the silly music I mentioned some time ago. But what about good ole-fashioned rock bands? You know my favorite. And there's ArF's perplexing opener Spoon. In the pretty-good category are Beach House, who opened for The National a few weeks ago, but I only know one of their albums, and all the songs sound the same to me (though it is a good same!). And there's Gabriel Kahane, but is he a rock band exactly? Ra Ra Riot has a new CD coming out and that's good (their "Can You Tell" has topped my playlist for a while). But who else? Three or four bands does not a rock fan make, I fear. There must be something I'm missing, no?

So I wracked my brains. I launched a small exploration by deciding to purchase Mumford and Sons' CD. (Thanks to S.-- for the initial recommendation!) And I do like their album, which bears out the mood and musical flourishes of the couple of tracks S.-- gave me. But my success only serves to remind me that I am feeling pretty starved for new music. And I would love a band I could actually see live. (By the time I got to looking for tickets for Mumford, they were sold out. Thanks, guys.) Any suggestions, o knowledgeable public?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

So happy I was invited, give me a reason to get out of the city

I am pleased to report that western Massachusetts, as you probably know, is FULL OF ART. Over the course of our trip there, C.— and I hit up three concerts (including a seven-and-a-half-hour-long one—don't worry, we took a dinner break and an ice cream break), three museums (well, one was in New York), and a botanical garden full of strangely decorated chairs and dog sculptures. Though I had been up to the Berkshires before (college visits for me and my sister, a visit to a friend) I had never taken advantage of the cultural attractions there (other than acquiring a purple cow from Williams that one time).

So it was with satisfaction, and with gratitude at the cooler weather, and with a great deal of sunburn, that I set out, with C.—'s company and expertise, to partake in great traditions such as sitting on the lawn at Tanglewood with a wine and cheese picnic to the strains of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. And hiking the tiniest part of the Appalachian Trail at Mount Greylock. And hiding in trees at the Berkshire Botanical Garden. And, on another musical note (or, like, a million musical notes—or were they cows?), taking in Bang on a Can's marathon at Mass MoCA, full of great tunes such as "B&E (with aggravated assault)" whose composer described it as "just like the title says."

And of course there are Mass MoCA (in the coolest building you can imagine) and The Clark (which is very attached to its Definite Article) and DIA:Beacon ( full of the largest art I have ever seen), all of which are worthy of their own blog posts... Or maybe I should just tell you to check 'em out yourselves, at least DIA, which is totally right above a MetroNorth station. Both Mass MoCA and DIA had big Sol LeWitt installations, which were impressive and frequently laugh-out-loud entertaining. I don't think I look at lines, or colors, or walls, for that matter, in quite the same way anymore.

Another popular museum item these days seems to be white paintings, of which we have now seen a multitude, by several artists including LeWitt. This was appropriate because we were able to catch a production of Yasmina Reza's "Art" in Pittsfield our first night there. "Art", for those of you not familiar with it, is a black comedy about three friends whose relationship becomes increasingly strained after one of them proudly purchases an entirely white painting. I stage managed the show several years ago and it was great to see it again (and to see it without having to change the lighting or give actors lines).

I think I have probably sustained culture radiation as a result of all this artistic brilliance. And I have barely even mentioned the food, to say nothing of Pittsfield's scavenger-huntable street signs, or the book barn! If you would like to hear more, you know where to find me (not, alas, in the Berkshires).

PS: Extra-special thanks is due to C.— for handling all the driving (you know where I stand on such things). In semi-related news, it turns out I have not forgotten how to ride a bicycle after all, and gleefully took one for a spin around Governor's Island this past weekend.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Good call

I will have to tell you all about adventures in the wilds of Massachussetts. But first, a brief interlude:

Recently I proofed a book whose somewhat tongue-in-cheek but perfectly reasonable message was that we just don’t complain right these days. Instead of just getting catharsis from whingeing to our coworkers, acquaintances, and dearly beloveds (a practice that is, to be sure, not without its merits), why not address our complaints to those who can actually resolve them?

And so when my speedily-shipped and otherwise unimpeachable coffee arrived from Intelligentsia in whole bean form, instead of the French press customization (#10!) I had so admired on the website, I griped to the other caffiends in my office. But then I decided to call customer service.

Taking a lesson from the book, I remembered to be nice, since it’s not customer service reps’ fault that you didn’t get what you ordered. Tempering my uncaffeinated-groggy rasp with what I hoped was amiability, I explained my situation and asked if there was anything I could do. There is! replied the friendly guy on the other end of the line (and let’s remember it was not even 9 A.M. in Chicago, full points), and he promptly offered to re-fill my order, saying it would arrive within 2-3 days. All this even though I was unsure whether the espresso I’d also ordered had been shipped beansy or not (I did not realize about the coffee ’til I got to work). As for the beans, well, share them with a friend who’s got a coffee grinder, he suggested.

And so I exhort you to be kind to customer service people, and they will be kind to you. And stop by if you want some coffee; I’ve got plenty. To my amusement, I got the confirmation from UPS that it’s being shipped, of course, ground. Luckily, this proved true in more ways than one.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Oh Taconic Parkway

This blog (or its writer, at any rate) is decamping to Massachussetts for a long weekend. In the meantime, if you are looking for something to read, may I suggest Sag Harbor?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Growing up

The summer after 10th grade, I started keeping a list of the books I read for fun. This list wound up spanning several sheets of tiny-scrawl paper until I moved house last summer. At that point, I began to maintain it in a draft on my gmail (an aesthetic failure of the highest order, I am aware). The first item on my draftlist, dated 7/24/09, is a reread of M.E. Kerr's "Hello," I Lied, a book which fills me with vague nostalgia for its East Hampton locale, a place where I spent many a summer, including the one when I began the book list.

This year on the 24th (and slightly beyond), I found myself reading another piece of Hamptons literature (which I must confess I had been saving for the summer for some time), Colson Whitehead's Sag Harbor. And I can be less equivocal than usual and say that I loved this book. Ostensibly a novel, it's more like a set of short stories (and, one suspects, like an autobiography) charting the experiences of 15-year-old Benji ("Ben," he pleads, without much success), spending a bittersweet summer in the title town in 1985. Benji's situation is a bit different from the stereotypical Hamptons experience you might imagine, primarily because, in addition to being pretty well-off financially, his family is black. During the rest of the year, Benji goes to prep school with the rest of mostly-white moneyed New York; in the summer, he connects some more with the black part of his identity, as he goes back to the town where his family and their friends have summered for generations. Benji, who's narrating from an age-undisclosed but clearly older vantage point, frequently evokes DuBois's idea of "double consciousness," where African-Americans experience a conflict between the two parts of their identity. Add this tension to the teenager's general anxiety about where he fits in, and you get a wince-and-twinge-inducing, ruefully hilarious look at one summer. And, as the author puts it in an interview (which I merely summarize here), at the start of a summer, we all expect ourselves to change in fabulous ways; by the end, we've maybe changed .01 percent.

But charting even that .01 percent with Benji is a worthwhile experience, as we look at his family, his summer job, his friends, his (lack of) success with parties and with girls. (In one of the funny/sad scenes that I think are the novel's trademark, he suddenly fits in with a new group of cool friends...only to flee their party in ignominy after trying to stock up on a six-pack of (unbeknownst to him, only temporarily) discontinued Coke from the host's secret stash.) Benji's voice is sharp and clean, informal and poetic, rueful and comical all at the same time. I wish he could be the tourguide to my life.

In addition to its own merits (which I bet you can tell I think are legion), Sag Harbor is also intriguing when I consider it in conjunction with (my earlier-reviewed) Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude. The two share narrators who, in addition to their naturally introverted and unsure natures, come from the weird side of the tracks (hippie-gentrifier Dylan and preppy black Benji), which gives them unusual perspectives on the larger issues of race and history and grown-up relations that surround them. Both authors convey this surreal state of affairs with a by turns observant, casual, curt, flowery, bitter, knowing, beautifully descriptive, I could go on here forever... kind of voice that I've never read anywhere else. These books are novels, of course, in the stories they tell. But they are also poetry. Words are chosen for their sounds as well as their meanings; whole sections of the book adopt different tones to convey the events and emotions of the characters. Read these! I want to tell everyone, brandishing a copy for each hand. This is what a book should be. These real characters, these real places. I know people like them, and I have walked the school-threatening and summer-aimless streets they portray. Maybe you don't, and maybe you haven't, but it doesn't matter. Start reading, and you will.

I should note that there's at least one key difference between these two books, and you'll probably have realized what it is. Whereas Lethem looks at a biiiiig swath of history with his biiiiig novel, Whitehead presents a sharply-etched snapshot of a more particular moment in time. And so, if you're like I once was and you can't bear Fortress with its impenetrable density, pad down to the beach and sit a while with Sag Harbor. Its merits of cultural, place, and character description are as great, if not more so, as those of its epic counterpart.