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Archive for July, 2010

Moonshine

Moonshine, via Mark Oldman (http://www.markoldman.com/)

(Quick announcement first: I’ve added a new section on Mormon-interest books to my “Recommended” page, in case anyone’s interested.)

So, the weekend before last, Amandine and I drove down to Knoxville, TN, so she could spend some time with her dad. The drive was long (8 1/2 hours), but I dulled the pain somewhat with one of those portable DVD players you hook on to the back of the passenger seat, so Amandine could watch videos. (Her hands-down favorites: Barbie in The 12 Dancing Princesses and Angelina Ballerina.)

Once I dropped Amandine off at her dad’s Friday night, though, heaven awaited: a weekend all to myself, my first since Amandine was born nearly three years ago. (Amandine seemed pretty excited about it too. She was all: “Okay, Mommy, you can go now.”) I stayed at the St. Oliver Hotel in downtown Knoxville, right on Market Square. It was pretty close to my ideal as far as hotels go: historic, with charm and character, clean, cozy without being kitschy, and not too expensive. All the rooms were furnished with antiques, but there was no chintz and lace like in some stuffy Victorian B&B (the kind I never get to stay in, because they tend to be child-hostile)—instead it just looked cool and chic. And my room had real wood floors, even in the bathroom!

Saturday was a nearly perfect day. I slept well, woke up early, got dressed, and went downstairs to the library room, where the hotel had free wi-fi, to check my e-mail. After that I stepped outside, and market day on the square was already booming, with farmers and artisans setting up their stands. I wasn’t hungry for breakfast, and the coffee shop wasn’t open yet, so I sat on a park bench and people-watched in between working on novel revisions. Then I found I was hungry after all, so I went and had flapjacks at Trio Cafe, which were very good (if only they used real maple syrup, though; my Canadian connections have spoiled me for the fake stuff. I had to make up for it by smearing the pancakes with a whole ball of butter …).

Next stop was Coffee & Chocolate for a chai latte, more people-watching, and more work on novel revisions until the early afternoon, by which point I was hungry again. Then to Tomato Head for a nutritious and fortifying lunch of carrot soup and chorizo-avocado enchilada. After that I was in a bit of a food coma, so I went back to the hotel for a short nap.

Through the afternoon heat and into the early evening I stayed in my hotel room and had a particularly successful revising session. I finally managed to rewrite a scene that almost every one of my critiquers had said was a missed opportunity, and which I had felt intimidated about attacking.

It’s a peculiar sort of pleasure, but a genuine one, to spend almost an entire day in the company of  one’s own imaginary novel characters. A bit like being around a group of delightfully well-behaved children who go around saying one absurd, adorable thing after another—at least, when your characters are clever likeable people rather than, say, depraved evil villains.

At 7:30pm I had a reservation at one of my favorite restaurants in the whole country, RouXbarb,* headed up by chef Bruce Bogartz. (Other favorite restaurants: Buck’s Fishing & Camping in DC and Boulevard in San Francisco. All three of these I’ve liked better than wd-50 in New York.) Since I was eating solo, I was seated at the “chef’s table,” which is sort of like bar seating, but in a u-shape so it’s easier to talk to other people. Being a shy yet sociable sort of person, I appreciated this setup. At one point, back when I was single the first time around, I trained myself to enjoy eating in restaurants by myself. Since then, I’ve known I can always do fine with my own little table and a book, and as often as not I end up in conversations with people at other tables anyway. But the chef’s table was still a nice accommodation—sort of the restaurant equivalent of a youth hostel atmosphere.

I had the chicken liver appetizer, the watermelon salad, the scallops, and the white-chocolate banana pudding. Everything was amazing, especially the chicken livers, which were sumptuously crispy and perfectly complemented by the sweet-tart tomato jam and cheesy grits. It’s a BYOB place, and I hadn’t thought to bring anything to drink, so the bartendress poured me a glass of house red, looking sorry that I wasn’t getting anything better. Then some of the other people at the chef’s table invited me to share a glass of some really nice wine they had brought, and the bartendress was greatly relieved.

Meanwhile, Chef Bruce kept leaning over from his post in the kitchen, greeting new guests, teasing and hassling the regulars (of which there were many), and making colorful remarks. Upon learning why I’d come to Knoxville, he declared I ought to be drinking moonshine. I laughed it off, but later in the evening a mason jar was set down on the counter in front of me, containing a clear, cold liquid, alongside a couple of chilled shot glasses.

“We don’t have a liquor license, so you’ll have to pour it yourself,” I was told.

Intrigued, I screwed off the lid of the mason jar and poured myself a shot. I asked my newfound friends at the table for advice as to whether I was supposed to sip it or just knock it back. The consensus opinion was that I should take a sip first so I’d know what I was getting into, and then knock it  back. So I took a sip, and ended up sipping all of it, because it was actually not bad-tasting at all. It was the sort of drink that wakes you up, too, instead of making you feel sleepy, so fortunately it gave me renewed energy for tackling my banana pudding.

No longer a moonshine virgin, I came back to the hotel, read a few chapters of a book (Allison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs, which I picked up randomly in a used bookstore and ended up enjoying a lot), and went to sleep.

Sunday afternoon I went to pick up Amandine from her dad’s house and heard about her many adventures, which included making cookies, swimming, drawing, and playing with power tools, apparently.  Then we headed back to DC. So it was a short trip, but a successful one all around.

In moonshine’s honor, I leave you with this nostalgic video to contemplate:

*I wrote a fuller review of RouXbarb a couple of years ago on TripAdvisor, after the first time I went there (it’s the one entitled “So good it made me want to do backflips”).

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White Painting (Three Panel), by Robert Rauschenberg, 1951

"White Painting," by Robert Rauschenberg (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

I’ve been thinking about novel plots lately and what makes the difference between good ones, bad ones, and nonexistent ones. Of the critiques I’ve received on my last novel from various people who’ve read it, the most troubling one for me is that “almost nothing happens.” Of course, in writing it, it seemed to me that quite a bit happens in the story. People have conversations! They have thoughts, ideas even! They feel things, decide things, change their minds about things. To me, those all seem like things that happen.

I think what such criticisms are getting at is that, while “things” may technically “happen,” they are boring things.

Off the top of my head, though, I can think of a number of well-known novels in which nothing, or almost nothing happens. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, for example, which is about a bunch of people in a mountaintop sanatorium who spend most of the book having conversations about humanism, communism, freedom, art, religion, death, life, love, and morality. Granted, one of the characters does have sex (once, and just barely), people die off every now and then, and one kills himself. Oh, and there is a seance where one of the dead people comes back to say hello.

Hmmm … actually, when you think about it, things do happen in that book. But mostly, it’s people thinking and talking.

Then there’s James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A boy grows up in Ireland, in a very Catholic setting. He wins an essay contest and uses the prize money to sleep with a lot of prostitutes. Then he hears a sermon and worries he’s going to hell, and becomes ultra religious. Then he goes to university and studies philosophy, loses his faith, and decides to become an artist. Okay, so there is some sex, but apart from that, it’s mostly thinking and talking and deciding things.

Another book I thought of in the “almost nothing happens” category is The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by French author Muriel Barbery, which came out relatively recently and which I really enjoyed. The main things that “happen” in the book are: An old concierge lady is secretly intellectual. A tween girl is secretly suicidal. A rich Japanese man moves into their building. They all eventually meet and talk and like each other. A minor character is into drugs, there are a few conflicts between dogs that live in the building and [SPOILER ALERT!] somebody dies. But the death is weird, almost as if it’s tacked on as an afterthought, just to make sure no one can say of this book that “nothing happens in it.” All the same, I loved it, and liked the other two book quite a bit too. Maybe one element of this book’s success, though, is that it came out first in France, where people study philosophy in high school, and public intellectuals have celebrity status.

In any case, I wonder: Does someone have to die or have sex in order for a book to count as having something happen in it? Can it count if people almost die or almost have sex, or if they just want to die or want to have sex? I’ve long had a theory about the stories that get printed in The New Yorker. Back when I used to read them regularly, I noticed that almost every story that made it in there had either death or infidelity or both in it. Are death and sex what make a good story? Can anyone think of a good book or story in which there are neither? (One notable exception to my New Yorker stories theory that I remember was a story, “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” by J.M.G. de Clézio, who I think is French. Why is it always the French who can get away with low-plot stories?)

It makes me think of the movie Adaptation, with the script by Charlie Kaufman, who also did Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. It’s clear in that movie that Kaufman is also struggling with questions of what makes a good plot. He puts himself into the movie as a writer with a twin brother. The twin brother also wants to be a scriptwriter, but takes a formulaic approach, reading books about how to write good screenplays and then writing them by the numbers. The conventional twin brother becomes successful, while Charlie’s writer character struggles, trying to preserve what he thinks of as his artistic integrity. He’s assigned to adapt a nonfiction book, The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean, into a screenplay. The problem is that the book doesn’t have a plot. As the movie goes on with Charlie searching for a story, the plot twists begin to get more and more absurd. Orlean is revealed to be have an affair and doing drugs with the main character of her book, the brother gets killed, and another character gets eaten by an alligator.

The implicit question the movie asks is: Does it really make a better story if someone gets eaten by an alligator? Really? Or do we lose our honesty that way? Is fiction ideally supposed to be a flight from reality–reality with its boring, boring plots in which “nothing happens”—or a way to understand and explain it to ourselves, to make sense of it, to put structure and elegance and coherence into it?

Of course, in real life, people seldom get eaten by alligators, and often go for long stretches without having sex. Real life can be terribly boring and repetitive. And yet real life is also full of things I find fascinating. Small tragedies that fall short of death or infidelity, moments of despair, disappointments, wanting, beauty, sweetness, mysteries, deceptions, discoveries, and triumphs. Things people need to make sense of and process. I see value in writing and reading about such things, even if fiction tends to distort them as it makes sense of them, exaggerating, extending, reshaping, and rephrasing them.

I’m still wondering if someone should get eaten by an alligator in my book, though.

(This week’s music link: In Another World, by Donna the Buffalo)

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Hazelnut Tart at wd-50

Hazelnut Tart at wd-50

Happy Fourth of July!

Some good news to share: Starting next month I’ll be joining the ranks of the (fully and gainfully) employed. I’ve accepted an offer from a federal government agency and will be going back into my old line of work as a program analyst (subject, of course, to background checks and paperwork, etc. etc.) So, this Independence Day I am lucky enough to celebrate the prospect of going back into public service and also being a little more financially independent. I’m excited about the job, which is going to involve research, interviewing, writing, and analysis on all kinds of interesting topics, and even some travel.

And now, of course, all the usual disclaimers and caveats will apply: this blog isn’t and won’t be intended in any way to reflect the views of my new employer.

Thanks so much to everyone who encouraged me and kindly  passed on opportunities, tips, advice, and references during my job hunt. I can admit now that it was slightly scary to be looking for work in the middle of such a difficult economy, and all that kindness and encouragement helped me keep my chin up.

Since I wrote last, a whole adventuresome weekend trip to NYC came and went. Two weeks ago Amandine and I went on a road to trip up to Westchester County, north of New York City, to see my little sister graduate from her medical residency program.

Google maps said it would take five hours to get there, which I thought might just be doable with an almost-three-year-old in the back seat. Of course, I didn’t count on being stuck on the DC beltway for an hour in traffic on the way out, or missing the turnoff to the Jersey turnpike and getting totally lost driving around small towns in rural New Jersey … or getting stuck on the Washington Bridge on the way through NYC at 11:30 at night for 45 minutes during which Amandine woke up and cried nonstop … yeah, so in the end, seven hours give or take. And not a very fun seven hours.

But the Westchester Marriott, where we stayed with my parents, was nice, with a tasty steak and eggs breakfast the next morning. We spent the day visiting Sleepy Hollow (of headless horseman fame), the Rockefeller mansion called Kykuit, and Phillipsburg Manor. I don’t recommend trying to tour the inside of the mansion with an almost-three-year-old, but Amandine had a great time playing outside in the fountains and wandering around the gardens, which are full of cool modern scultures.

Then in the evening was the big graduation ceremony for my sister at another hotel, with dinner and dancing afterward. To everyone’s surprise, after Amandine had spent the whole day yawning and being cranky, as soon as the DJ started the dance music, she grabbed my hand, pulled me out into the middle of the ballroom, and started tearing up the dance floor. I’ll post the video on Facebook. Meanwhile, this will at least give you the flavor of it:

The next day my sister and parents went to a Broadway Show in the afternoon, while Amandine and I meandered down to Central Park. It was really hot and miserable, but they had sort of a splashpark section in the middle of it, with sprinklers and waterslides, so even though we weren’t prepared with swimsuits, I let Amandine splash around in it to cool off a little. I wish we’d gone to the Met or something more air-conditioned instead.

Then in the evening we went to a restaurant called wd-50, which looks like a hole-in-the-wall, but is actually on a list of the top 50 restaurants in the world. The chef’s name is Wylie Dufresne, and I think this constituted my first brush with the so-called molecular gastronomy style of cuisine. I had a beautiful red cocktail that involved lychee and rose flavors, and in the spirit of adventure ordered the smoked eel appetizer. For a main dish I had the skate (fish) with salsify (obscure vegetable), wild rice, and butternut squash.

It was certainly all very inventive and clever and wonderfully presented, and some of the flavors were intense and pleasing … but somehow, the dishes I had just didn’t, well, taste all that amazing. I mean, it was okay, and goodness knows, it certainly wasn’t bad. But with the smoked eel it mainly tasted like, well, chunks of smoked fish. Which is not a bad taste by any means, but you know, it’s smoked fish. And the skate was actually kind of rubbery. I’ve never had skate before, so maybe that was how it’s supposed to be. Maybe all the subtleties were just lost on me.

But the dessert. Now the dessert blew me away. It was a little disk of hazelnut torte, with thin layers of cool, silky, intensely rich coconut cream and chocolate ganache. The idea of combining coconut and hazelnut was very original, I thought, and worked beautifully. But the kicker, the truly mind- and palate-blowing bit, was a slightly bittersweet chicory foam on the side. I mean, if that didn’t beat all. You know, chicory. A bitter vegetable. With a superrich, tiny, cold hazelnut tart. And it was delicious. The delicate hint of frothy bitterness was the perfect thing to compliment the cold chocolatty nuttiness. It was genius. So that saved the dinner for me, and saved wd-50’s reputation in my mind.

On the drive back, I took a different route to avoid NYC and that terrible bridge, through Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This only took five hours, but when we were still two hours from home the air conditioning in the car stopped working, and it was 92 degrees outside. So again, that was not too fun.  But it was worth it to see my sister and have a little adventure.

Before I go, a few quick movie reviews:

Eclipse

Thankfully, this was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting. I actually thought the first movie in the series was surprisingly well done. And then New Moon was such a disappointment, full of every imaginable cliche and silliness, complete with a flash forward of Bella running in slo-mo through a field of flowers in a flowy dress with syrupy music playing. It was so bad it was laughable. So I was wary about Eclipse, but thought I’d give it a chance. And they did better this time. Bella was less annoyingly grim, it was funnier (the scene with Bella telling her dad she’s still a virgin was priceless), and the Edward-Jake tensions and rivalry were funny, too.

Letters to Juliet

This is another one I had low expectations for. It looked totally sappy and brainless in the trailers. But I ended up enjoying it. Of course, the film’s contention that people who love each should want to spend every waking moment together was silly, and personally I wouldn’t have complained about traveling through Italy eating cheese and truffles and going to wine tastings with Gael Garcia Bernal. But the whole film was easy on the eyes (both scenery and people), and kind of refreshing in the way it managed to sneak in bits of intelligent dialogue and characterization in between the typical by-the-numbers rom-com moments.

Good Dick(on DVD)

I know, what a name! I fear it’s going to attract the totally wrong sort of traffic to this blog. But I had to mention it because this was a great, great little film. It’s about a guy who works in a video shop, his fellow misfit coworkers, and a mysterious, reclusive young woman who comes in every afternoon and rents an armload of softcore porn videos. The story is moving, funny, and original, and the acting was well-done. (Although, Mormon friends, I don’t think this is one for you, unless you are on the far-liberal end of the spectrum.)

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