Celebrity Profiles That Throw Major Shade

I grew up reading magazines like Seventeen and YM, and the occasional issue of People in a dentist’s waiting room.   Even at the tender age of twelve I knew there was something kind of goofy about the celebrity profiles in these magazines.  Each month’s famous cover girl, whether it be Claire Danes or Alicia Silverstone or Aaliyah (as should be quite obvious, I grew up in the ’90s), was always portrayed as “super talented, but SO down to Earth”; the interviewer would inevitably claim that hanging out with her was “just like hanging out with your BFF.”  I naturally assumed that all celebrity profiles were this fawning, until age exposed me to the wonderful, very adult cattiness of magazines like Vanity Fair and the New Yorker.  (The first time I read a profile that wasn’t 100% positive about its subject, I was absolutely floored.  I didn’t even know you could do that!)  Just to be clear, I’m not a big fan of those articles and blog posts that eviscerate famous people just for having opinions or buying expensive sheets. But I am completely in awe of celebrity profiles that convey the interviewer’s disdain for his or her subject while toeing the line of civility.

Some examples of master craftsmanship:

MIA’s Agitprop Pop: a profile of British-Tamil rapper MIA, from the New York Times.

The Happy Hickster: a profile of singer Clay Aiken (before he came out of the closet and decided to run for office), from New York Magazine.

The Virologist: a profile of Internet-media entrepreneur Emerson Spatz, from the New Yorker.

Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan In Your Movie: you know who this profile is about (although 1) it’s equally a profile of writer/director Paul Schrader, and 2) it’s not as disdainful of Lohan as you might imagine), from the New York Times.

Seduced and Abandoned: a profile of Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng (a bit of a cheat since neither of them consented to be interviewed for the article, but still a fascinating read), from Vanity Fair.

Advertisements

Some Poems for Monday Morning

I would never pretend to be a poetry aficionado.  But, I know what I like, and evidently I like Polish guys who write about the Peloponnesian War.  And pebbles.

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) is one of Poland’s most honored poets.  His work was shaped by his experiences under the Nazi and Soviet regimes.  You can find more of his poetry here.

Pebble

The pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

–Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

Why The Classics

1
in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides tells among other things
the story of his unsuccessful expedition
among long speeches of chiefs
battles sieges plague
dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours
the episode is like a pin
in a forest
the Greek colony Amphipolis
fell into the hands of Brasidos
because Thucydides was late with relief
for this he paid his native city
with lifelong exile
exiles of all times
know what price that is
2
generals of the most recent wars
if a similar affair happens to them
whine on their knees before posterity
praise their heroism and innocence
they accuse their subordinates
envious colleagues
unfavourable winds
Thucydides says only
that he had seven ships
it was winter
and he sailed quickly
3
if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity
what will remain after us
will it be lovers’ weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wall-paper dawns

The Envoy of Mr. Cogito

Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever your hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let you sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards – they will win
they will go to your funeral with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror
repeat: I was called – weren’t there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak
light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant – when the light on the mountains gives the sign- arise and go
as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

go because only in this way you will be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go

Heartbroken White Lady Travels to Find Herself

When I was in college, I worked at a little independent bookstore. I thought this would be my dream job, and in some ways it was, but it also exposed me to some distressing truths about the publishing industry. Every month I would ship boxes of remainders, books that hadn’t sold in years, back to their publishing houses. And those boxes would be filled with Nobel and Pulitzer and Booker prizewinners. Meanwhile, we were constantly reordering Nicholas Sparks books, and books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which always struck me as the sort of book everyone gave to their friends as a gag gift but no one ever read). Also: lots of copies of Eat, Pray, Love.

I had a special hatred in my heart for Eat, Pray, Love. I knew that it was a memoir about some privileged white lady divorcee’s trip to Italy, India, and Indonesia, to eat pasta and meditate and find herself or some shit like that.   (As an Indian person, I felt particularly offended that the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, had gotten rich off writing about her experiences at an Indian ashram, although I couldn’t have explained why exactly that bothered me so much). I also knew that it had inspired dozens of knock-offs. Half of our bookstore’s travel section was comprised of white lady divorcee memoirs, and every time I had to shelve a new one I burned with righteous fury against Elizabeth Gilbert.

Naturally, a few years later I found myself in an airport in Rome, fresh out of reading material, with a nine hour flight ahead of me—and the only English language book in the airport bookstore was Eat, Pray, Love. I bought it with my last Euros and hunkered down for a good, long hate read. (Incidentally, hate reads aren’t a bad way to go when you’re on an airplane. Blind fury that some hack is raking in the millions is at the very least pretty distracting).

But to my total surprise… I liked it. And, while this really shouldn’t be the barometer for how much you enjoy a memoir…I liked Elizabeth Gilbert. She wrote honestly about her struggles with depression and her tanking romantic life, but that wasn’t really the draw (plenty of people do that, and it doesn’t necessarily make for good reading). She wrote about India, and Indonesia with great affection but without the dewey-eyed, dehumanizing sentimentality that Westerners sometimes have for third world countries.  But mainly, I liked her because she was self-deprecating, and open to new experiences. And funny.

About her divorce:

For the longest time, against the counsel of all who cared about me, I resisted even consulting a lawyer, because I considered even that to be an act of war. I wanted to be all Gandhi about this. I wanted to be all Nelson Mandela about this. Not realizing at the time that both Gandhi and Mandela were lawyers.

 

About her rebound relationship:

I was despondent and dependent, needing more care than an armful of premature infant triplets. His withdrawal only made me more needy and my neediness only advanced his withdrawals, until soon he was retreating under fire of my weeping pleas of, “Where are you going? What happened to us?” (Datiing tip: Men LOVE this.)

Gilbert’s style in Eat, Pray Love is exuberant and conversational (not exactly the kind of writing that wins literary awards).  Still, I appreciated her descriptions of her mental state, and found some of them to be quite moving.

..the lending of a hand from me to myself when nobody else is around to offer solace—reminds me of something that happened to me once in New York City. I walked into an office building one afternoon in a hurry, dashed into the waiting elevator. As I rushed in, I caught on unexpected glimpse of myself in a security mirror’s reflection. In that moment my brain did an odd thing—it fired off this split-second message: “Hey! You know her! That’s a friend of yours!” And I actually ran forward toward my own reflection with a smile, ready to selcome that girl whose name I had lost but whose face was so familiar. In a flash instant, of course, I realized my mistake…But for some reason that incident comes to mind again tonight during my sadness in Rome, and I find myself writing this comforting reminder at the bottom of the page: Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a friend.

 

Gilbert’s a good writer. Even when her prose comes out as overly dramatic or new-agey, she’s good at setting up her anecdotes and describing the world around her. Her personality also lends itself to this sort of memoir—a classic extrovert, she’s quick to make friends in every setting and is clearly interested in what other people have to say. This is a book that could have been unbearable in its navel-gazing; but because of Gilbert’s sheer delight in meeting random strangers (and eating new things with them), instead it all comes across as a cheerfully goofy travelogue. While this usually isn’t my genre of choice, I’m reminded that when you’re in the hands of someone who can write well, they can write about just about anything and it will hold your attention.

Case in point: inspired by my unlikely affection for Eat, Pray, Love, I dipped my toe back into the “heartbroken white lady travels to find herself” genre and read How to Be Single by Liz Tuccillo. This turned out to be a true hate read. Tuccillo was a writer on Sex in the City, and this is her first work of fiction, featuring a 38-year-old single New Yorker who travels to Italy, India, and Indonesia, as well as France, Iceland, China, and Australia, to see what life is like for single girls around the world (Tuccillo traveled to these countries herself as research for the book).  The beginning of the book is actually rather promising. The main character starts off by explaining why she is single and why her various girl friends are single, and there’s an unflinching honesty in that section that reminds you that Sex in the City was once a good show about the difficulty of human connection as opposed to an advertisement for Manolo Blahniks. That section doesn’t last long. As soon as the main characters boards a plane the book descends into a slew of chick lit clichés. More than that, there’s something deeply off-putting about the main character’s journey; I got the impression that Tuccillo learned very little in her travels). Her main character exhibits very little curiosity about how other people live their lives (despite that being her alleged reason for going abroad). The only connection she makes with another human being is when she embarks on an affair with a married man she meets in Italy. (She seems utterly stunned when this doesn’t turn out for the best). Other than rendez-vousing with her married lover in several different cities around the globe, she makes small talk with a few of the natives and comes up with some shallow, sweeping observations about what relationships are like in other countries. The book ends with her in a hot spring in Iceland with all of her friends, concluding that she has learned that she must love herself. It’s fundamentally dishonest about relationships, about friendships, about learning things. It left me wondering how you can love yourself when your self is repugnant.

Still, I’m glad I read How to Be Single, if only because it made me appreciate the fact that Gilbert was actually able to pull off Eat, Pray, Love. While I don’t think you should judge a book’s worth based on how much you like a main character (as Claire Messud has pointed out, does enjoying Lolita depend on how much you like Humbert and Humbert?), I think that the qualities that set  Gilbert apart as a “character” are the same qualities that make her a compelling writer—she has a certain self-awareness, and a genuine interest in other people, that serve her and her story well.

(My previous post was a link to one of Gilbert’s early short stories.  The tone is utterly different than what she employes in Eat, Pray, Love, which is neat–it’s nice to be reminded that a writer can have that kind of versatility.)

The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick

For your reading pleasure, here’s an early short story by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat , Pray, Love fame–but whatever you might think of that book, read The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick with fresh eyes).  What is it about?  Stage magicians, damaged people, the bond between a father and daughter, and the bond between a man and his rabbit.

An excerpt:

What Hoffman had never permitted was for Esther to visit him in prison, and so it had been fourteen years since they’d seen each other. In prison he had grown even sturdier. He seemed shorter than Ace and Esther remembered, and some weight gained had made him broader. He had also grown a thick beard with elegant red tones. He was easily moved to tears, or at least seemed to be always on the verge of being moved to tears. The first few weeks of living together again were not altogether comfortable for Esther and Hoffman. They had only the briefest conversations, such as this one:
Hoffman asked Esther, “How old are you now?”
“Twenty-two.”
“I’ve got undershirts older than you.”
Or, in another conversation, Hoffman said, “The fellows I met in prison are the nicest fellows in the world.”
And Esther said, “Actually, Dad, they probably aren’t.”
And so on.
In December of that year, Hoffman attended a magic show of Esther’s, performed at a local elementary school.
“She’s really not very good,” he reported later to Ace.
“I really think she’s fine,” Ace said. “She’s fine for the kids, and she enjoys herself.”
“She’s pretty terrible. Too dramatic.”
“Perhaps.”
“She says, ‘Behold!’ It’s terrible, Behold this! Behold that!”
“But they’re children,” Ace said. “With children, you need to explain when you’re about to do a trick and when you just did one, because they’re so excited they don’t realize what’s going on. They don’t even know what a magician is, Richard. They can’t tell the difference between when you’re doing magic and when you’re just standing there.”

Top 5 Books About the Brain

Because who doesn’t love learning more about how our crazy human minds work?

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

The book that launched a million New Year’s resolutions.

Fun fact: While unconscious habits are everywhere in our lives, some of these habits are keystone habits.  The adoption of keystone habits can set off a chain of internal events, giving us the willpower and momentum to do other things.  The decision to quit smoking, or exercise seven minutes a day, can have a domino effect on the rest of your life.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

Tough makes a very persuasive argument that traits like self-control, optimism, curiosity, and perseverance can be more crucial to success than raw intelligence.

Fun fact: “Grit” can be taught.  The incredible success of low-income Brooklyn middle school I.S. 318’s chess team can be attributed to a coaching program that focuses on teaching students how to deal with and learn from failure.

“..I.S. 318 students were being challenged to look deeply at their own mistakes, examine why they had made them, and think hard about what they might have done differently.  And whether you call that approach cognitive therapy or just plain good teaching, it seemed remarkably effective in producing change in middle-school students.  This technique, though, is actually quite rare in contemporary American schools.  If you believe that your school’s mission or your job as a teacher is simply to convey information, then it probably doesn’t seem necessary to subject your students to that kind of rigorous self-analysis.  But if you’re trying to help them change their character, then conveying information isn’t enough.”

(On a side note, if you want to learn more about I.S. 318’s legendary inner-city chess team and are in the mood for a great documentary, watch Brooklyn Castle.)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

The publication of this book led to a whole bunch of Internet think pieces about introvert superiority that a friend of mine dubbed “introvert propaganda.”  Even as a card-carrying introvert myself, it was all a bit much for me.  But the book itself is a fascinating look into how introvert brain chemistry differs from extrovert brain chemistry.

Fun fact: Some infants are highly sensitive to their environments and tend to cry when exposed to light and noise stimuli, while others aren’t particularly bothered by stimuli at all.  The former grow up to be introverts, while the latter grow up to be extroverts.  Ultimately, being an introvert isn’t about hating people or social situations so much as it is a high sensitivity to external stimuli.

Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life by John B. Arden

A self-help book that doesn’t feel like a self-help book, combining neuroscience with real, actionable tips for changing the way you think.

Fun fact: Chronic thought patterns (like anxiety or depression) can alter the way your brain functions.

“The more that you are in a particular mood, the more prone you’ll be to be in that mood.  Think of it as a gravitational pull or an attractor state.  The attractor pulls in your thoughts, feelings, and memories, and motivates your behavior…The longer you stay in a low emotional state, the greater is the probability that those neurons will fire together when you are sad and will therefore wire together.  As a result, this will become the chronic foundation of your emotional experience. Sadness and thoughts and feelings that revolve around that sadness become perpetuated.”

Mistakes were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Decisions, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Fascinating (and frightening) explanations for and anecdotes about cognitive dissonance.

Fun fact:   We are all hypocrites.

“Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously.  Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification.”

Top 5 Works of Workplace Fiction

Usually when you pick up a book, it’s with the expectation that it’s going to be good. But I think everyone has at least one genre they love so much that quality is sort of beside the point. If you’re a fan of zombie-werewolf romances, you might prefer a well-written one, but if push came to shove you’d probably settle for a shitty one.

For me, that genre is something I like to call workplace fiction (there’s probably a better name for it). Essentially, these are books where people write about their jobs. If I’m reading one, I’m probably more interested in learning about the job in question than anything else, which makes me a lot more willing to forgive shrill characters or a thin plot. Sometimes I read these in order to voyeuristically gaze into worlds I don’t know. Sometimes I like to read about workplaces that I myself have worked in. I’m not exactly sure why—maybe for the sense of familiarity. Either way, I read these books voraciously, fully aware that this is the adult equivalent of reading What Do People Do All Day. Since the primary qualification for writing a piece of workplace fiction is that you have to have worked at a job that other people find interesting, a lot of these books aren’t terribly well written. I read them anyway, but I’d hesitate to recommend them to anyone else. The following five books are notable exceptions,

Note: The line between workplace fiction and other genres can be a bit hard to define, but let me give it a shot. A novel about a woman who owns a pastry shop that mainly focuses on her love life is not really workplace fiction. The pastry stuff would have to come first. John Grisham and Jason Bourne novels are not pieces of workplace fiction, because the focus is on the thriller plot machinations, not the everyday reality of being a lawyer or CIA agent. This is obviously a pretty vague definition, but all I can say is that you know it when you see it.

Early Admission: Based on a True Frenzy by Lacy Crawford

The protagonist in this novel (and not surprisingly, the author herself) is a much sought-after college admissions counselor. The story tracks a year in her life, as she helps five different students (four of them absurdly privileged) put together their college applications and runs interference with their overbearing parents. You sort of expect a book like this to traffic in stereotypes of spoiled brats and their helicopter parents. Crawford sidesteps that, investing each prospective college student with real life and personality (and for some of them, cringe-worthy personal essay first drafts). Her main character Anne is similarly complex—excellent at her job, but stunted in terms of her personal life.   It’s not a perfect novel (Anne’s interactions with her horrible, aspiring-actor boyfriend aren’t nearly as interesting as her conversations with her students, and certain plot machinations are a bit far-fetched). But it’s beautifully written, and Crawford tries to portray everyone, even those aforementioned helicopter parents, with nuance.

The Partner Track by Helen Wan

The Booklist summary:

Ingrid Yung is on the cusp of making partner at the elite Manhattan law firm Valentine & Hunt. She knows that some of the reasons she’s an attractive candidate stem from her being a two-fer, a woman and a minority, but she hopes that her impeccable work is what will earn her the promotion. When she’s simultaneously assigned to a huge case and asked to spearhead the firm’s new diversity initiative, however, Ingrid’s ­priorities begin to shift from playing the corporate game to exposing the injustices of the old-boy network, even though it may cost her both her partnership and her relationship with a fellow associate.

This is an example of a book I read for its familiarity. I’ve been a minority woman at a big law firm, I wanted to get Wan’s take on that world, and I honestly would have read this book even if it had been god awful. And I have to admit, I sort of expected it to be. Naturally, Helen Wan also used to be a minority associate at a law firm, and the danger inherent in people writing about their own lives is that they often have a tendency to cast themselves as the misunderstood hero and everyone around them as a worthless troglodyte. That’s not the case here.  All the characters in this novel felt very real to me, and the depiction of the law firm setting (and the subtle undercurrents of racism and sexism) was spot-on. It was also very well-plotted; I was pleasantly surprised to read a legal novel that focused on corporate law instead of litigation (not every lawyerly climax has to take place in the courtroom). I only wish that Wan could have spent a little more time on the novel’s villain. I got the sense that he had insecurities based on his class status comparable to what Ingrid had on account of her race, but Wan doesn’t delve into that as deeply as she might have. Too bad—that would have been interesting and uncharted territory. But it’s a minor quibble about an usually thoughtful and well-crafted novel.

Service Included: Four Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter by Phoebe Damrosch

Technically not a work of fiction, this memoir by Phoebe Damrosch delves into her life as a waiter at Per Se, one of New York City’s most expensive and acclaimed restaurants. It’s a behind-the-scenes look into the world of fine dining and the nocturnal, food-obsessed of the people who work in it. There’s just something kind of neat about the respect Damrosch gives her profession. This isn’t the story of Damrosch trying to make it as a writer while waiting tables on the side. This is about service as an art in and of itself, and Damrosch makes a good case for how that can play as a big a part in your dining experience as what’s actually on your plate.

The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

This was turned into a popcorn movie with Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, but it started out as a pretty decent roman a clef, written by Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s former assistant. The indignities of life as a put-upon personal assistant, set against the background of the glamorous world of a fashion magazine, make for an addictive combination.  You can find fault with the quality of the writing and the predictability of the plot, but if you’ve ever had a boss who scared you spitless or a job that consumed your sense of self, there’s catharsis to be found in these pages.

Bringing Out the Dead by Joe Connelly

A beautifully written novel about two days and nights in the life of a depressive paramedic.  In 1999, Martin Scorcese turned this into a movie. It’s pretty good, but the book’s better because it has passages like this:

There was a time when I believed music could make a dead heart beat again, and I once believed my hands were electric and bringing someone back to life was the greatest thing one could do.

I have done CPR in grand ballrooms on Park Avenue and in third-floor dance halls uptown. On Park they stand tall black panels around you to shield the dancers from an unpleasant view, while the band keeps up their spirits with songs like “Put on a Happy Face.” Uptown the music never breaks and the dancers’ legs whirl around you like a carnival ride. I’ve worked on the floors of some of the finest East Side restaurants, serenaded by violins while the man at the table next to me cut into his prime rib, and I have worked under the gory fluorescence of basement diners where taxi drivers can order, eat, and be back on the road in ten minutes. I’ve watched Broadway shows from the front row, kung fu pornography from Times Square balconies. I once brought a bartender back to life on the top of his bar while Irish dance music played. The patrons moved over for us, but no one stopped drinking.

It’s a bit light on plot, but the mood is vivid and the words are memorable.

The Answer Is Always Yes

A couple of years ago, I picked up Monica Ferrell’s The Answer is Always Yes from the discount shelves at The Strand Bookstore.  I don’t know what I was expecting–I certainly wasn’t expecting to find a book I remember this vividly, reread this often, and love this much.  Randomly finding a book like The Answer is Always Yes is one of the purest joys a reader can experience.  It’s wonderful to be so amply rewarded for taking a chance on the book.  But it makes me worry about all the other fantastic books that might be out there, languishing away unread.  If a book isn’t a classic, if it isn’t immediately anointed by the literary community or NYT bestseller list, if it’s not recommended by a friend or about to be turned into a movie adaptation–I’m often completely unaware of it.  And while I once thought that this was just fine, and had faith that cream would always rise to the top and the best books would inevitably come to my attention, The Answer is Always Yes changed that for me.  Now I worry.  What a crummy system it is, that I could have gone my whole life without reading this book if I hadn’t happened to randomly come across it in on a bargain shelf.
The Booklist summary:
Like many another sad outsider, teenager Matthew Acciaccatura, from Teaneck, New Jersey, is desperate to become one of the cool kids. He finally gets his chance when—now an academically promising freshman at NYU—he’s hired as a promoter for Cinema, one of the hottest clubs in 1990s New York. A true naïf, Matt is as astonished as the reader by his subsequent transformation from social outcast to “Magic Matt, King of Club Kids.” Ferrell’s cautionary account of Matt’s descent into the dark world of disco, drugs, desire, and self-delusion is gorgeously written, beautifully imagined, and wonderfully spot-on in its analysis of Matt’s insecurities, resentments, and puppy-like longings. A slyly Nabokovian touch is the author’s inclusion of footnotes on Matt’s transformation, ostensibly offered by another outsider, a humorless German sociologist named Dr. Hans Mannheim, who will become, in surprising ways, more than a clinical observer of Matt’s sadly predictable fate. Irresistibly readable, Ferrell’s first novel is a triumph not only of setting but also of voice, tone, and attitude.

What did I like so much about this book?  Its vivid depiction of the raving, Ecstasy-ridden New York of the 1990s.  The delight of a well-written novel set in college (for whatever reason, the college novel is somewhat rare, certainly more rare than the high school novel).  But most of all, what I loved was its perfect depiction of an outcast.  And that might be the rarest thing of all.  I feel like the terms “misfit” and “outcast” get thrown around way too much.  Even by good authors!  Calling your character an outcast is an easy way to get audience sympathy–because all of us, even the most popular of us, feel like outcasts sometimes.  The problem is that a lot of authors want to garner that sympathy without taking any risk that readers might dislike their character.  So you get characters who are attractive and compassionate and funny, everything that anyone would want in a friend–and yet they’re somehow despised by everyone they know for fairly arbitrary reasons.  Because they’re too smart, or their parents are poor,  or they’re too virtuous (sometimes these faux outcasts are outcasts just because they spend a lot of time selflessly standing up for the real dregs of society).  Sometimes they’re outcasts because they’re special, in which case they’re hated because they’re actually better than other people (I’m sensing wish fulfillment here).  I’m not saying that this stuff never happens in real life.  But this feels cheap. This is the equivalent of a movie putting glasses on a beautiful girl and pretending that this makes her an undesirable wallflower. 

Also absent from the faux outcast narrative is the reality that being an outcast isn’t just a thing that happens to you, or a minor setback to overcome.  It’s a part of who you are.  It can define you.  For better or worse, it can be a driving factor of your personality.

In the Answer is Always Yes, Matt grows up unpopular.  It’s not that he’s unspeakably ugly or irredeemably creepy.  It’s more subtle and realistic than that.  He’s unsure of himself, and a little off, in a way that other children immediately pick up on.  And while he tries to remedy that when he starts college, from the get-go you realize that it’s going to be an uphill battle. (Interesting fact: Matt’s last name, Acciaccatura, means a note that is out of harmony with other notes.)

Matt feels immediately familiar.  Sometimes you’ve been him.  Sometimes you’ve laughed at or avoided him.  He’s a striver
–he wants to be cool, popular, adored.  (The faux outcast protagonists never really want that–they’re always above that, that desire that haunts the rest of us all our lives).  Initially, its the intensity of his desire to be cool that keeps him from achieving it.  You wince over and over again, as you see him commit that cardinal sin of trying too hard.  But you’re right there with him every step of the way, because if you’re honest with yourself, you’ve been there.  And therefore his successes, once he starts achieving them, feel thrilling.  He makes a best friend, finds a girlfriend, and becomes a top promoter at a New York City nightclub.

That last one might feel improbable, but it makes a certain amount of sense. It’s Matt’s misfit background that gives him his driving ambition to succeed, and makes him hyper aware of social cues and triggers that a naturally cool person would take for granted.  And it’s Matt’s misfit background that keeps him going long past the point where he should be saying stop.  It’s not enough for him to have one loyal friend and a delightful and loving girlfriend and a super cool job.  Not when he has a lifetime of humiliation to make up for.  He’s vengeful against anyone who’s wronged him.  He’s fueled by understandable but overwhelming rage and pettiness.  He’s an all around magnificent character.

Matt’s supporting cast is equally compelling.  Most of his time is spent with his artist-girlfriend Sophie and his gay, motor-mouthed best friend Jason, both well-drawn characters with their own motivations and inner lives.  But the standouts are Dwight, Matt’s dorm room nemesis (polite, affable, infuriating), and Matt’s mother.  Matt has one long, extended scene with his mother.  A little goes a long way.  It’s a master class of emotional violence, the way Matt’s superficially sweet and loving single mother belittles and undermines him in every way possible.
Have I mentioned the writing yet?  The writing is beautiful, distinctive, dripping with style.  As for the aforementioned  footnotes sprinkled throughout the novel, the conceit is that they were written by a German sociologist specializing in childhood and adolescent misfits, who is analyzing Matt’s story in retrospect.  In actuality, the sociologist has a deeper connection to Matt.  While at first I found the footnotes a little distracting, eventually they came together in a parallel story that came to its own, unexpectedly touching climax.
In short: I can’t recommend this book enough.

The Perfect Word

One of my favorite websites for whiling away an afternoon is the brilliant Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. In its own words:

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a compendium of invented words written by John Koenig. Each original definition aims to fill a hole in the language—to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for.

The author’s mission is to capture the aches, demons, vibes, joys and urges that roam the wilderness of the psychological interior. Each sorrow is bagged, tagged and tranquilized, then released gently back into the subconscious.

These are made-up words (but aren’t all words made-up words?) for real, painfully familiar and specific emotions.  I get a shock of recognition every time I read a new entry.

A few of my favorites:

sonder

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

monachopsis

n. the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place, as maladapted to your surroundings as a seal on a beach—lumbering, clumsy, easily distracted, huddled in the company of other misfits, unable to recognize the ambient roar of your intended habitat, in which you’d be fluidly, brilliantly, effortlessly at home.

mal de coucou

n. a phenomenon in which you have an active social life but very few close friends—people who you can trust, who you can be yourself with, who can help flush out the weird psychological toxins that tend to accumulate over time—which is a form of acute social malnutrition in which even if you devour an entire buffet of chitchat, you’ll still feel pangs of hunger.

catoptric tristesse

n. the sadness that you’ll never really know what other people think of you, whether good, bad or if at all—that although we reflect on each other with the sharpness of a mirror, the true picture of how we’re coming off somehow reaches us softened and distorted, as if each mirror was preoccupied with twisting around, desperately trying to look itself in the eye.

anecdoche

n. a conversation in which everyone is talking but nobody is listening, simply overlaying disconnected words like a game of Scrabble, with each player borrowing bits of other anecdotes as a way to increase their own score, until we all run out of things to say.

New York, and food, and Sam Sifton

I’m back in New York City for a few days. I moved away not that long ago, and every time I come back I’m hit with these pangs of nostalgia and regret. New York’s got its flaws, and my life there certainly wasn’t perfect, but sometimes I’m consumed with the feeling that I once was a member of the coolest club in the world, and now I’ve been unceremoniously booted out. It’s okay. It’s hard for a person to be a New Yorker forever. I’ll have to try to make the most of it whenever I visit.

When I first moved to the city I found it more overwhelming than anything else, and the way I came to gradually make sense of it was by reading about it (this is essentially how I tackle all of my problems). Reading New York Magazine, the New York Times, and the Village Voice gave me a sense of where the good stuff was and what I should be looking out for. My favorite column, by far, was Sam Sifton’s “Dear Mr. Critic” series in the Times. I’ve been trying to find an archive of those columns, but alas, I can’t. If he published them in a book, I would buy it (god what a great coffee table book those would make). The basic concept was that readers would write to Sam Sifton, New York Times food critic extraordinaire, asking him tough questions about where to eat in New York I.e., I need to find a restaurant that’ll satisfy my vegetarian sister, veggie-phobic father, and lactose intolerant mother, that’s also somehow within walking distance of the theater where Phantom of the Opera is playing. Where should I go?

Sifton could not only answer these questions, but he could also give you this beautiful sense of New York in his answers.

Take this response to a question about where to take your granddaughter on her first solo trip to New York City:

Don’t infantilize her with a trip to Serendipity 3. Take her to the Frick Collection for a while, and then to tea at the St. Regis, with a visit to Madison Avenue to window shop in between. Then get down to the East Village and buy a pizza at Motorino, and let her eyes go wide at the excellence and the differences in scene from where she just was, and whom she saw when she was there.

Head to Broadway the next day, after an early dinner at the Rocking Horse Cafe for Chelsea-style Mexican that she can compare to the food back home, and take her for a mint tea at the Algonquin afterward, where you can sit in wing chairs and gossip about the show. Walk as much as you can bear, and see if one of the gambols can take you past the Ace Hotel, on Broadway and 29th Street. Stop in at the Stumptown coffee shop there, buy her a hot chocolate and let her drink it in the cool darkness of the lobby.

Perhaps bring earplugs for yourself — it is loud in there. But do not complain. Remember that the purpose of this exercise is to cement in your granddaughter’s mind a sense of wonder and belonging alike: the foundation of a lifetime love of New York City. You are starting for her a story line that may lead her to move here in time, and always to thank you for this initial, life-changing gift.

Or this one:

Q.

For our 10th wedding anniversary in May, I wanted a renewal of vows on a beach in Hawaii, but with things the way they are, my husband and I have decided on a night out in New York City instead. We were thinking either of dinner at Annisa or a New York Harbor dinner cruise, where the views and the atmosphere should be amazing, though I’m not sure about the food. We are not terribly sophisticated but do love good food, and I am looking for something suitable for the occasion. Can you help?

A.

Those are two very different evenings you are describing. One would involve sipping Nicolas Feuillatte Premier Cru Champagne in a spare and elegant West Village dining room as servers place dishes of eggplant with two Turkish chilies and yogurt water before you. The other would put you in a floating catering hall with an astonishing view of the magical New York City skyline, where, at least in my experience, you would get sticky sweet wine, steam-table chicken and the faint blowback scent of diesel engines to lull you into queasiness.

Do the math and, honestly, it’s a tossup: Anita Lo’s cooking versus the Statue of Liberty against an inky black sky, so close you can touch her.

Here is what I would do. Make a reservation at Annisa, making sure to let the reservationist know that you are celebrating your 10th wedding anniversary. The service industry works best when expectations are clear: You aren’t going there with a pal from the neighborhood, or that guy from the audit department you’ve been saying you’d eat with for months now. This is a special night.

Then go to the restaurant and eat your food and drink your wine and have some pecan and salted butterscotch beignets for dessert and kiss and walk out onto Barrow Street and stroll. Walk the streets of Manhattan with your spouse of 10 years for as long as it takes for your meal to settle and your expectations to begin to rise. Then hop a cab down to the Whitehall terminal, stride onto the Staten Island Ferry and take a round-trip cruise down the harbor to St. George and back, free as the air, right past the Statue of Liberty rising high in the night to enlighten the world. Have a hot dog from the snack bar if you’re still hungry. Take some pictures. Let the wind ruffle your hair. Marriage is a great institution.

The column I reread this morning was in response to a question about where to find the best egg-and-cheese-on-a-bagel sandwich:

This is not a very simple request. Breakfast sandwiches are like dry cleaners. Ask around and you’ll discover that the best ones are invariably those closest to the home of the person you’ve asked.

Moreover, the correlation between good bagels and egg sandwiches in New York City is and will always remain low. Good bagels are for schmears. They are for whitefish and belly lox. They are not for making into some kind of goyische morning Dagwood to be eaten in a pickup truck on the way to the hardware store. That is what bad bagels are for.

Still, I love this very sandwich, cooked with ham and Swiss in addition to the egg, at Knapp Street Bagel Cafe in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. You could take a taxi down there from Midtown Manhattan. This would cost you $50, and you’d be furious at me for the rest of your life. I could go for a similar package, the ham and cheese swapped out for sturgeon, at Barney Greengrass on upper Amsterdam Avenue, for $13. You’d eat that and tell me you wanted the ham. No go.

Here’s truth: The nice men from Puebla who work the grill at the Teleon Café across the street from The New York Times on West 40th Street cook a superlative everything bagel with egg and cheese, properly toasted and buttery, with the egg soft and the cheese oozing, the whole thing perfectly hot and served with the efficiency only the best short-order cooks can manage.

But saying so only proves my original point. In matters of breakfast excellence, you are most often on your own. Keep looking!

What a perfect, completely accurate response. I actually used to work near Teleon myself, and for a few in-retrospect-alarmingly-unhealthy years, their bagel and egg sandwiches were my regular breakfast. I went back again today and realized that I had never appreciated the place properly. New York is chockful of places like Teleon. Not delis, exactly—more like all-in-one wonder emporiums that can make you eggs, toss you a salad, whip up a plate of pasta, and grill you a panini without breaking a sweat. Some have buffets. Some serve pizza or Korean food. There are fancy ones and trashy ones. They usually have some bare bones chairs and tables in the back, and an upstairs seating area that nobody really sits in. (If you were so inclined, you could sit upstairs for hours in one of these places with a laptop—they have outlets and everything, but I’ve never seen anyone do this. It’s like an unspoken rule—coffee shops are for laptops, these places are not).

I’ve seen these places—seriously, what are they called?—in other big cities. You don’t see them in the suburbs. They serve coffee light and sweet, and the egg and cheese bagels are always perfectly proportioned, easy to eat with your hands. I didn’t realize that I missed them so much, not until this exact moment.

2015-01-09 14.00.50-1 2015-01-09 10.55.35 2015-01-09 10.47.03

Top 5 Books to Read on a Plane

I write this post in the middle of a four-hour Amtrak ride–tedious, but at least when you’re on a train you can zone out for dozens of minutes as you watch the scenery whiz by.  When you’re on an airplane, you don’t even have that option.  In my opinion, the discomfort of air travel can only be overcome by a book of especially addictive quality.  This isn’t the time to read Heart of Darkness.  Good luck trying to focus on dense prose and existential dread when your feet are swelling up and you’re breathing in your neighbor’s sweat.

Obviously this is a good time to read page-turner stuff, your Harry Potters and your Hunger Games, the latest Dan Brown or Harlan Coben thriller.  You are not too good for any of this stuff, not when you’re trapped on an airplane (and maybe not ever–even the most formulaic page-turner couldn’t have been easy to write, and to craft a really good one takes a special kind of genius).  But there are some books that have been deemed perfect airplane reads that I’ve never quite been able to see the appeal of.  For a while I was constantly seeing people toting around the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books, which I personally found pretty tedious.

Here are five books that have saved my life on airplanes–ones that you might not immediately come to mind as airplane novels:

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Everyone already knows about this one, what with the critically acclaimed David Fincher film adaptation and the ongoing debate about whether or not it’s a misogynistic work.  But put all of that aside–the important thing is that it’s gripping and twisty.  (Need more of a summary than that?  A man’s wife mysteriously goes missing.  Naturally he’s the very first suspect).  I read it without any idea how it was going to end and didn’t look up from its pages once in five hours. If you want a similar experience but want to read something with less hype surrounding it, try Flynn’s Dark Places.  The protagonist is a spiteful, maladjusted young lady whose family was murdered by her older brother when she was just five years old.  (Bonus: the Kindle edition is only $2.99!).

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

No one dies in this one.  I read this book on an extremely depressing and horribly delayed fourteen-hour flight.  I couldn’t stop smiling.  The plot revolves around a curmudgeonly, obsessive compulsive, recently-divorced writer of travel guides for people who hate to travel.  A perfect read, featuring some of the most loveably unloveable characters I’ve ever come across.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

For those who want to read something heartwarming that also involves terrorism,  this is (maybe the only) book for you.  The plot involves a group of terrorists bursting into a fancy dinner party to hold a group of politicians and executives hostage.  More lighthearted and life-affirming than it has any right to be.

Trading Up by Candace Bushnell

Way back in the 1990s, Candace Bushnell published a book of essays about sex and New York City.  She called it Sex in the City, and it of course became the inspiration for the TV show of the same name.  As a result, people who have never read a Candace Bushnell book are pretty sure they know what her writing’s all about.  I don’t think they do.  While her novels are about wealthy women living in Manhattan, there’s a streak of cynicism running through most of them that you never see in the television series, or really in any other popcorn/chick lit.  Bushnell knows how ludicrous these lives are.  Bushnell judges.  Trading Up follows the exploits of social climbing model Janie Wilcox, who manages to be both repugnant and weirdly sympathetic.  You get the rare experience of reading something that feels like an episode of Gossip Girl (polo matches, luxury brand name dropping) but with a whole lot more bite.

When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (Matthew Scudder Mysteries) by Lawrence Block

This is pretty short, so what I’d actually recommend is downloading two or three Matthew Scudder mysteries for your flight (although make sure When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is among them).  You don’t have to read them in any particular order.  It’s not that kind of series.  These are old school detective novels, and they’re light on action and plot twists–Matthew Scudder’s just an alcoholic ex-cop-turned-private detective putting in the leg work for his investigations, poking around, asking questions, and wandering in and out a million different bars and churches along the way.  Why do I like these so much?  There’s something soothing about their familiar rhythms, they provide a glimpse into a version of New York City that went away a long time ago, and Matthew Scudder is one of the few detectives I can think of with a real and appealing personality.  He’s neither a hero nor an anti-hero, he’s troubled without being tortured, he’s good at his job but not a Sherlockian super-genius.  He’s perceptive and thoughtful, and you could do worse for company on a long flight.