Wednesday, May 31, 2006

more on the may 15 issue

Mitchell Zuckoff, Annals of Crime, The Perfect Mark. I read this all the way through, easily. I loved the emphasis on how vulnerable being an asshole can make you. Good story, well written.

Larry Doyle, Shouts and Murmurs, How Fred Flintstone Got Home, Got Wild, and Got a Stone Age Life. You'd think I'd hate Shouts and Murmurs, but I seem to have a weakness for them. You'd think I'd support coming of age "pastiche," but really, I think it's worth making fun of, if the making fun of is done well and I thought it was.

Anthony Lane on Mission:Impossible III. A waste of space, time and language. If it had been funny, or about another movie, or . . .


Friday, May 26, 2006

the case of the communist cheesecake

"What are you, a communist?"

When I was in the third grade, my best friend's mom asked me this in mock horror in her flat, nasal, upstate NY accent. She asked me this when I told her that I did not like cheesecake.

Now, lots of third graders do not like cheesecake.

And it was a sort of coincidence that I knew what communists were; when I organized my toys into a complicated "from each according to his skills, to each according to his needs" utopian society, my parents explained that what I had planned was a simple sort of communism.

This event predated my mother's explanation of The Long Winter food and socialism moment, familiar to many of my readers.

Now, Jennifer's mom was a hard-working old school democrat, she was just being funny, not participating in some strange red scare. My parents for whatever reason, didn't think it was funny at all. And so this little encounter has stuck in my head for many, many years.


Some of you also know that I am addicted to ancipation. So, in very eager anticipation of my first ever organic farm box which arrives next week, I give you a round up of our collective food anxieties! Or maybe this post was inspired by news of Pittsburgh's new, eagerly anticipated, but not by me, Trader Joes.

Or maybe it was this article on "Big Organic" in the May 15 New Yorker, which was not awful.

I think it was not awful because it was actually a book review of: Organic, Inc by Samuel Fromartz, Agrarian Dreams by Julie Guthman and The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. The review also mentions Virgil, Rodale, Wendell Berry, Durkheim and "the English agronimist Sir Albert Howard." That is to say, it's thorough, informed, historical and interesting. And he uses the phrase "late-capitalist business as usual" !!

Even better is this article, by Kathy Newman, published in the local City Paper on the opening of the first Whole Foods in Pittsburgh - read through the opening hoo-ha and the end of the article emphasizes the labor loophole of Whole Foods retail. Because, after all, I actually care a lot more about the people I live, work and shop with than I do about a gigantic shed full of twenty thousand genetically identical chickens.


I know you care too.

EL is feeling the the dilemma, with links . . .

mzn has offered a link to the NYT Pollan review, . Though the problem of the chicken that tastes like nothing is probably quite relevant. Note, I think my comment about the delightful chicken kabob refers to a kosher chicken . . .

In a more contrarian mood, it seems mzn has named fresh-local-organic fans, "floster" but I couldn't find the original post,

Square Circuit Cares

And cares enough to read and teach Fast Food Nation, which I think is a great idea.

Lindy sings the praises of her farm box, enough to make me sign up.

And, ever resourceful, The Chocolate Lady reached a peak with her Vegetarian Passover Guide, but then she always seems to be shopping the markets and eating wisely.


Frankly, if there is anyone reading this blog who doesn't care at all where their food comes from, or who is paid what to get it where, let me know. Like that one "professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, [who] puts it, 'I hate Giant Eagle. I came here from California and I never thought about grocery shopping until I had to shop at Giant Eagle' " in the CityPaper article. Boldly defying, in so many, many ways, the stereotype of the academic socially-conscious foodie! Cringe. I kind of think the author must have had it in for that source . . .

*** tuesday updates:

mzn has provided the link to his original flosters critique. and I really like the argument; that's sort of the joke I was trying to make with the cheesecake intro. Sometimes, for better or for worse, a cheesecake is just a cheesecake and not a political act. I'd add that I know plenty of folks who believe (hope? wish?) that food shopping is a meaningful political act, not just a satisfying personal one. And that drives me crazy.

mzn on Flosters

Oddly enough, this all started with an op-ed in the NYT from Julie Powell, of the book and blog Julie and Julia. Which Madame Librarian has been recommending that I read.

Julie Powell in the NYT

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

the best writing in the NYT

was, for my $5, the letters to the editor in the magazine, collectively. strong and varied responses to that utterly demoralizing anti-contraception news from the week of may 7. which i'm sure you read or heard about.

my favorite, from that heart of darkness, that DC suburb, bethesda, md: "I see the value of combating a hypersexualized culture, but I question the methods of the abstinence-only camp. With its 'purity balls' and 'purity rings,' it sends the message that abstinence is more important for girls. Telling girls that their value is tied to their virginity sets them up for a lifetime of using sex as currency in the search for acceptance. There are better ways to promote sexual responsibility."

if the concerned citizens against coyness is looking for members, sign me up.


in which I get newsprint on my fingers

the May 21, 2006 New York Times, which I bought and read while travelling:

Iraqi government, Iraqi police, vulnerable GOP seats;
but not Chinese immigrants' bible study, injured Barbaro or summer travel

Italian soccer, Iranian intellectual, Nepalese Maoists, Palestine, Taliban;
but not Peruvian politics, Myanmar, typhoon

West Virginians, Arizona-Mexico border;
but not summer travel, campus deer or chestnuts

I missed the Columbia fundraising, the Newark article and Kentucky miner disaster the first time through, but I regret this and will try to read all these . . . But I did find the West Point Graduates Against the War.

I found it all rather engaging, the West Virginia and Italian Soccer things less so than the rest. Despite daily efforts, I find it hard to read the NYT online. I feel like the news turns into bullet points that way, and there isn't the dialectical play of argument that the actual paper gives me access to. Or creates in my head. Or something . . . The Week in Review was weaker than I remember it being. Maybe the Saturday Week in Review is usually better? Actually, I really liked the immigration article and the companion "In the Back Door, Out the Front." I looked only briefly at the Hussein trial thing.

I liked the profile of New York real estate investor Joseph Moinian on the back of the business section. I'll probably read the thing on Greenspan.

I read none of the Book Review.

Ben Brantley had some interesting thoughts on nostalgia and the Broadway musical . . . John Rockwell and Roslyn Sulcas know how to write about ballet, that's for damn sure. Very textured, physical, material and historical articles. Ms. Acocella take note, please.

Films about Juarez, oh yes, I read that.

McClatchy's libretto, Wessel's photos, Bucky and Noguchi;
but not the Dixie Chicks, the XMen, Leonard Cohen or TV for babies.

And yes, Chloe Sevigny in Big Love.

Heeding the words of EL, from weeks past, I skipped the style magazine, and left the travel section in the airport with the sports and the style sections of the paper.

I was happy to find that the magazine was an architecture issue. And I liked the way it was organized as architecure and the conflicts it creates and embodies . . .

Richard Rogers seemed to hate his interviewer. That's cool. As in,

RR: I had lots of trouble in school as a child, and I lost confidence. Teachers thought I was stupid. I learned to read very late, when I was 11. Dyslexia wasn't recognized then, and the assumption was you were incapable of thinking.

DS (interviewer): Dyslexia may help explain why you reverse the inside and outside of your buildings, or at leas try to make them easy to "read," as you said.

RR: Perhaps. Another advantage of being dyslexic is that you are never tempted to look back and idealize your childhood.

Fuck, I wish I was so suave.

Manhattanville Project, on Columbia's big plans, was very good.

I really liked the profile of Bernard Khoury and development in Beirut. With lots of mentions of Dubai. Could be read with the Ian Parker thing from The New Yorker. By comparison, Nicolai Ouroussoff does a very nice, specific, no pun intended, concrete, job.

And I read about Turbulence. Folly, pure folly.

Not about architecture, in the notoriously unfunny Funny Pages, I liked the Talking Cure by Starlee Kine. Totally generic topic, very well written. And my little sis and I like Maggie Gyllenhaal an awful lot too.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Wyeth, Mylar and My Mother

It's nice that we celebrate Mother's Day in the spring. Because I've been enjoying an unseasonably warm spring here in Pittsburgh and when I wend my way, ever, ever so slowly on a jog through the neighborhood, I think of my mother, who runs much faster than I do. She has always been athletic, even back in the day, when her high school didn't even really have sports for girls, and I admire her for that. And the way she runs, it's about pleasure and fitness and being out of doors. She's brave in lots of ways, but this is one of my favorites. And here she is, taking it easy, pretending she's in a Wyeth painting. A Wyeth painting with a big shiny mylar balloon.

Monday, May 15, 2006

or, how i was tricked into seeing a romantic comedy

My ever-wily partner in crime wanted to see a movie.

Sometimes, in my private life, I resist being the official movie recommender* - too much responsibility - so I told him to check the listings and find something we could walk to. He came back with "Friends With Money" . . .

Ug, said I.

But the only other thing that, according to him, was playing at the nearest theaters and had gotten good reviews was "Thank You for Smoking." And he didn't want to see that because, in his words,

"Oh, fun, righteous indignation! I love to feel good about myself - the new Schindler's List! Now, a health problem that we've almost completely solved!

If I wanted to feel righteous indigation I could stay home and read the news."

Bent over in paroxysms of laughter, I allowed myself to be taken to "Friends With Money." And we did not feel good about ourselves after that, I can tell you.

Actually, it had it's moments, but no one else at the theater laughed at them.

I have a good friend who actually makes films, and she LOVED Lovely and Amazing, and my partner in crime, wily as ever, put it on our Netflix list. We watched that too, and that was better, more obviously critical and a maternal melodrama not a romantic comedy that ends with a pairing. Actually, it was cool because this friend had written a paper about Lovely and Amazing that I had read and heard many times and I'd never seen the movie* (yes, same note, again) so I had a very vivid sense of some of the scenes . . .

How Dawson's Creek is this bed?

Is this some kind of aesthetic joke? Like the clothing that woman designs in "Friends With Money" ?? Or am I still the only one laughing?

*Sometimes, in my private life, I get really freaked out about watching movies at all because the experience will be so intense and frightening and potentially life-changing . . . and such an emotional and sensory commitment. Am I going insane? It's NOT that studying film "ruins" the filmgoing experience, it's that it makes it that much (too much) more exciting. "Friends With Money" wasn't a painful waste of time, but it wasn't that intense either . . .

And Denby (who? oh, yeah, him) was intrigued by the premis (its not quite a plot) but he doesn't note the really interesting mix of bitchy critical and kind that Hofocener's quiet, textured, ironic and cliched filmmaking achieves. Ug, that sentence sounds so generic film review. Like, it's funny that Jennifer Aniston is in the film, right? And that emptiness is intentional, right? Very subtle or just lame? It's your call, really.

Denby reviewed "Friends" (With Money) alongside The Notorious Bettie Page, which he liked but I haven't seen. I pretty much love American Psycho . . . very Henry James.


Thursday, May 11, 2006

may 8: you know who you are

And I read bits of (gasp, fiction!) Lahiri's "Once in a Lifetime" . . . The second person voice IS cool - I love the second person voice of cookbooks, magazines, poetry, other confrontations - and I would read more fiction if it had more second person. What I find so odd about Lahiri, though, is how consistent her third person narration has been. The narrator always sounds the same; about 30 and talking in the past tense, yet unnaturally familiar with the past as if it was an intimate recollection, more a character and less a narrator . . . And everything always seems to be so completely over and done for the narrator, but just barely completely over and done for the character, or maybe the other way round . . . I'm fascinated by how consistent her tone is, but sometimes it drives me nuts. And now she's transposed that consitently there narrator into the eerie eerie second person. I feel like the combination of the two is really nice and creepy, like it makes that control freak of a narrator character that much more present.

may 8: Ms. Graham, meet Ms. Acocella. Joan, this is Martha.

God forbid anyone should try to contextualize Martha Graham's aesthetic. You might just send Joan Acocella into a tizzy.

Well, if modern dance hadn't been so exclusive and impenatrable in the first place, it wouldn't seem so totally irrelevant now and the audiance would not need to be introduced to it so thoroughly . I find Acocella's description of the program as "hand holding" a particularly condescending and counterproductive way of talking about this.

OK, so this post makes no sense either. Read Acocella's Happy Face, read me complaining about her "let's pretend it's just movement and bodies" approach to dance elsewhere and

I mean, that's not to say the company did a good job, but god knows, its worth a shot.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

further puzzles offered by pigs in children's literature

Because of this image of the baby that is a pig (both visual and literary), in the classic Alice in Wonderland, paired with my intensive reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder, where poke bonnets abound and have a peculiar and restrictive relationship to vision, I thought that the old warning, "Don't buy a pig in a poke" referred to pigs wearing poke bonnets. And I knew somehow that it meant buyer beware and I figured that maybe if you meant to buy a baby, you'd accidently wind up with pig when you peered in, past the bonnet, at the face of the thing. Eventually, I began to puzzle why one would be buying a baby.

But apparantly a poke is kind of sack. Damn the internet.

Still, does anyone know of a poem, maybe written for children, maybe not, which ends like this,

"a blank in a blank, [pause] a pig in a poke."

In which the word "blank" does not rhyme with poke, but maybe the preceeding line does. Or maybe the rhyme scheme is even loser than that?

domestic butchery and narrative time

I will weigh in on Bill Buford's latest, Carnal Knowledge, as quickly as I can.

In addition to an excellent pun, mzn has a good critique of the ridiculously elaborate creative nonfiction that Buford attempts. I read Haverchuk first, so I took heed and tried to just read the "I'm butchering a pig at home" sections together, in order, followed by the "I'm learning butchery in Tuscany" sections.

The "I'm learning butchery in Tuscany" sections were cloying picturesque; if there is such thing this is definately it.

And if you want a good description of domestic pig butchery, I vote (as usual) for Laura Ingalls Wilder. The very first chapter of the very first book, Little House in the Big Woods.

After Wilder locates you in the middle of nowhere, "As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods" she tells you so beautifully, and simply, "The little girl was named Laura and she called her father, Pa, and her mother, Ma. In those days and in that place, children did not say Father and Mother, nor Mamma and Papa, as they do now." And then they all butcher a hog.

It's such a firm but gentle introduction to real historical difference, and I appreciated this even when I was little. Clearly she wasn't talking about any family I had ever known or any family even remotely like mine had ever been and she wasn't even talking directly to me, as I didn't call my parents Ma or Pa or Father and Mother or Mamma and Papa . . . Heads up, kid, you're going to have use your imagination, and this text, to understand what happened "in those days and in that place" to a pig and I love how vague and diectical/indexical that phrase is, she's not even going to tell you where and when she's just going to describe them for you, slowly, over time.

Contrast this with the agressive "I've got a pig in an elevator and Italians sing opera and isn't that wild" attitude of Buford. Ug.

And, hopefully, I can stop talking about Laura Ingalls Wilder after this last, brief mention. Little House in the Big Woods closes like this:

She thought to herself, "This is now."

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

Taken out of context, "It can never be a long time ago" might mean the past is behind us and never returns. But in this context, it's like it means the exact opposite. As if time can never be experienced as passing in a linear way, because only the present is knowable. Now is now. Brilliant. Or . . . ?


Monday, May 01, 2006

History and House Museums, Science and the Sense of Eating/Reading

American Chronicles, What Happened at Alder Creek, Excavating the Donner Party. By Dana Goodyear. Speaking of things Ma and Pa Ingalls would not do.

There are two things I'd like to say about this article; it raises some interesting points and then it buries those points in the ground. Suggestive working hypothesis:

"In a phenomenally unreliable historical record, cloudy with misinterpretations, contradictions, self-deceit, and macabre exaggeration, Dixon and Schablitsky saw an opportunity. As historical archeologists, Schablitsky says, their job is to "confirm, contribute to, or contradict the written record," and always keep in mind by whom and form what purpose history is written. (She also says that historical archeologists are the 'red-haired stepchildren of archeology,' looked down upon by archeologists of the prehistoric period, [to say nothing of by the book historians] who don't realize how much their discipline can add to already documented sites.) [...] Using a modern hybrid of anthropology and forensic science, and drawing on the expertise of a large research team, the archeologists hope to reframe one of the most enduring and confusing myths of the American West, turning it from a horror story about goulish appetites or a melodrama of pioneer travail and triumph, into a case study of starvation, adaptation, and survival. The goal, Dixon says, is to "affect the way history is told - to affect the way collective memory exists as we know it." (142)

This paragraph seems to pit a literary historical record - one left in newspapers and biographies and previous histories - against a presumably more physical historical record. Sure newspapers and bodies and shards of glass and midden are all, nowadays, texts subject to interpretation, but in the bold plan to "affect the way collective memory exists" there seems to be a suggestion of some specific difference in the kinds of texts history has available and the possibly different ways in which these various texts contribute to historical narrative. That's promising, exciting. Non-literary history.

Here's the cast of characters Goodyear cites:

Donald Grayson, another archeologist who has studied the site and claims it was " 'a case study of mediated natural selection in action.'" (143) Hmmmm . . .

Kristin Johnson, "a librarian in Salt Lake City, who is a self-taught historian and the research team's expert on the Donner Party." (146) OK, a self-taught historian and librarian probably has a lot of great information, but shouldn't she be consulted alongside a more disciplined historian?

Kelly Dixon, "a thirty-five-year-old professor at the University of Montana in Missoula" and Julie Schablitsky, an archeologist (what, freelance?) whose qualifications are that she is "excitable, dark-eyed, quick." (140)

And Guy Tasa, "an expert in skeletal remains" at the University of Oregon, Eugene, who "had in his office a recent copy of the tabloid Star, in which he had been quoted analyzing the facial structure of a Brad Pitt look-alike." (147) No explanation of why . . .

Either these are people who are, you know, thinking outside the box, or Goodyear is at some pains to present them that way.

Add to this an emphasis on the Donner family (specifically, as opposed to the whole party), their descendents and their "big, jolly reunions" in Alder Creek meadow. (143)

And this, from Schablitsky, "'We have pieces of slate and teacups - did Tamsen Donner sit here, huddled around the fire hearth with her children, practicing spelling and math?' she said. 'Is this where they had their tea?'" (143)

And from Dixon, "'We wish we could read what someone was writing at the Donner Family Camp,' she said. We always said, 'If only we could find Tamsen's journal.' [Then what? We would know the truth?] Then we realized-there's a slate there! Oh, my gosh, people wrote on it! Tamsen was a teacher. Was she actually attempting to normalize and have her children do lessons? We don't know.'" (144)

And Schlabitsky chimes in, "'That's the thing, is there a message from the past scrawled on the slate?'" (144)

And the whole project begins to sound like some less legitmate family history-reenactment-house museum type of project. Which seems to me the kind of dark side to thinking about history outside of its more traditional discplinary boundaries and the methodologies . . . And Dixon and Schablitsky just want literary textual evidence after all, anyway. From a slate.

Actually, this reminds me of the time I brougth the condolence cards to the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society and the woman had been all, like, well, if you had brought us a diary or something, now that would be interesting. Is it just me, or is that not really how history is known and studied? Even when I worked at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (which was, after all, a historical society, with all the provenance and family and genealogy baggage that goes with that) no one, academic or amateur, was waiting around for diaries or tell-all slates to fall into their laps.

What's so great though, is that despite the findings of the archeologists, revealed, tada! at the end of the article and all the attention to bones and pots and clothes and tents and so on, what really affects this reader, anyway, is the collection of literary accounts of the Donner Party, mostly on pages 145-146. Nauseating for real. The reading experience is so physically difficult, I had to stop like someone watching a horror film and look away. Awesome. Just ask anyone, including newyorkette, who had this reaction.

On an unrelated note, she also writes very cute Tables for One, check in her sidebar. Except that it's not unrelated; it is all part of a developing collection of eating/reading thoughts. Yet another sensory experience to catalog . . .

And on the question of material culture and historical narrative, I just saw a production of "I am My Own Wife" and would, if I had to, consider that - a contemporary play, with period furniture, a house museum and a few transvestite bodies - alongside Benjamin's Arcades Project. Same furniture, same historical events and periods, very different uses of and meanings assigned to the germanic decorative arts of the dreamy 19th century.

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