Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I saw these at my local fancypants emporium last year on the checkout impulse shelf and bought one--mostly because of its lovely appealing chunky shape. They were an amazing find ('find')--unbelievably good! I tried a few flavors, but rapidly realized it has to be hazelnut for me.

It turns out (whoknewnotI) these bars are discussed in Steve Almond's Candy Freak in some detail (and are on his top 5 list), down to their brilliant inclusion of feuilletine in the body of the bar. They do have the most amazing texture; the inside is creamy and praline-like, but studded with nuts and bits of crisp that give under the teeth. The outside is really smooth with some snap. They are just the most amazing little bars. I notice that they disappear the fastest of all five flavors!

literary flutterings & a persistent li'l question

I find hot weather the time to reread the Mapp and Lucia books by E.F. Benson. They don't all take place in the summer, but there is something about this time of the year that pushes them to the front of the mind: iced red-currant fool and strawberry teas and bitter gardening feuds; Lucia's giardino segreto and Georgie calling "naughty boy" through the speaking tube to his chauffeur on his trips to the beach.

So this is when I reach for the six novels, which were published in omnibus form as Make Way for Lucia. Edward Gorey, called "America's chief Luciaphile" by editor Patrick O'Connor (Gorey brought to his attention the short story "The Male Impersonator," which has been included in subsequent editions of the omnibus), said among many mentions of Benson in interviews, "I know the Lucia books by E.F. Benson by heart." They are that kind of reading.

People blah-blah a lot about the atmospheric self-contained worlds novels create we want to be part of, but part of the appeal of these books is that the characters don't want to be anywhere else themselves. They are obsessed with life and gossip in their small towns, all out of proportion to the world around them. "'And how was London?'" asks Lucia's husband in the first book, "in the sort of tone in which he might have inquired after the health of a poor relation, who was not likely to recover." Lucia goes on in the second book to conquer a bemused London with her foaming, naked, social-climbing, but even then Riseholme, the Elizabethean village where she lives, wins in the end, in its bid for our (and her) attention.

"Rationally, it ought to grow dull, but it doesn't," says Philip Hensher in an essay about the social war (there's no other word) between Lucia and Miss Mapp that takes place on the battlefield of these small English towns. Nancy Mitford writes in her introduction to the omnibus: "The jokes seem quite obvious and are often repeated: we can never have enough of them....It never, never palls." I'm not sure the jokes are obvious, but either way the writing is so masterful that I feel breathless waiting for each bit to arrive, all these rereadings later. Mapp and Lucia don't even meet until the fourth book; Benson spends as much time creating the characters on their own as putting them in conflict, and it is a tribute to his writing ability that every book is as exciting as the other, and that the conflict is as delicious as you hope.

(Some random-randoms: the comic novelist Tom Holt wrote two well-regarded 'sequels' to the Mapp & Lucia books, and is the son of Hazel Holt, the mystery novelist and Barbara Pym biographer.)

Here's what I want to know: Who is the Anne Parrish who wrote the foreword to Make Way for Lucia? I've been trying to find an answer to this for a long time.

It seems likely that the Anne Parrish in question is the American novelist of that name, but nothing has ever linked the two definitively that I can find. Parrish the novelist died in 1957; as far as I can tell the first time an omnibus edition was published was in 1977. It doesn't seem like the foreword was from earlier editions of single books since it mentions them all being collected together. She writes in it about visiting Benson at his home in Rye, which obviously would have had to be prior to his death in 1940.

More random-randoms: Anne Parrish was the older brother of Dillwyn Parrish, M.F.K. Fisher's second husband, which is how my ears pricked up in the first place about all this (rabid MFKery). Parrish traveled a lot, and was quite wealthy, so it doesn't seem improbable that she would have visited Benson (she also was an owner of Le Paquis, the property in Switzerland where Fisher and Parrish lived before the war). A very tenuous connection could lie in Benson's familiarity with Maxfield Parrish (Anne Parrish was a distant cousin and posed as a child for some of his work).

Anyhow...anybody know? Someone apparently forwarded my query to Patrick O'Connor a while ago, but I haven't heard anything. Perhaps his introduction to the Moyer Bell reissue of Queen Lucia or his memoir Don't Look Back clears it up? Maybe I'm missing something really obvious. Me curious!

Note: 2010, the 70th year since Benson's death, is also the jubilee year for the E.F. Benson Society, and there are a few events coming up for members, if you can get yourself to England.

UPDATE: Per a helpful member of a Benson group, I found out that there was a 1936 American omnibus edition of the (then) four Lucia novels published called All About Lucia, and Parrish's foreword first appears there. So indeed it very likely might have been Anne Parrish the novelist who wrote the foreword! Thanks Friends-of-Fred!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

RON: An astute observation has led to laughter! We are laughing! And it is continuing. And then slowing just down a little. But there's still a good spirit.
BRIAN: Yeah, we got it, Ron.
RON: It's getting less. And there's a little chuckle. And...it's done.
BRIAN: You really wreck moments when you do that, Ron.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

rod the bod

Do you remember when Rod betrayed us all and flipped? Came out with "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" I don't. Well, kinda--I remember it vividly, but I had no clue what was going on. It's one of my first memories of some kind of big cultural reaction--a sense that something had gone Wrong. I think the way he now is systematically working his way through every song ever written might be more of a problem, but in any case it is pure pleasure to discover more of the Faces years.

I'm totally in love with "Bad 'n' Ruin," and not just because I am a sucker for good drum breaks. Click here for a Top of the Pops version (with Ron Wood on ugly toilet guitar, complete with dangling paper) that is nonetheless damn cool. I love what Rod does with the mic stand during the drum break. I could watch the two-second bit where he does that over and over all day. I love that the song sounds raunchy but is so sad. And funky. I've always liked "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" too, actually. It has a cool sad feel--musically, at least. I like the wobbly but persistent bass line. But it's hard to watch Rod shaking his shiny butt, his hair blonder, wooing his lady bar-friend and all officially Sexy. Sheds a little light on the aghast reaction at the time.

Date Night

I saw this movie. Voluntarily! I needed to see a movie, so I saw it, a month or so after it came out. I got through it fine. It went down okay.

I find something persistently, finally, synecdochic in this film. The characters in Date Night stand in for our experience--the viewers' experience--with the movie itself, and for all of us in our experiences with shitty popular culture.

The crazy adventure plot that married suburbanites Tina Fey and Steve Carell are thrust into isn't just dumb, it's amateurish. The mistaken identity story is holey and thin--set pieces strung together--and gets especially preposterous toward the end. There is a mobster named "Joe Miletto" whose name gets repeated oft and loud they way they do in a 22-minute sitcom to get you to quickly understand it's somebody important ("You don't know ____? He's only the ____-est thing since [real person _______ is modeled after]!"). There is an expensive pointless car-chase scene that justifies Date Night's existence as a feature film and not a TV pilot. The corrupt cops (oh Common) glower menacingly. There are blackmail photos and helicopters on rooftops and a strip club...whatever. It's a joke.

So, the movie's mostly bad, but that's not the problem or a surprise: it's the good parts that worry. Fey and Carrell, never movie star types in the traditional sense--that's their schtick, in this film and out of it--can be funny and even subtle at times. Their characters are limned against the obviousness and stereotypes around them, but not with a smug superiority all ready to be smashed: they can be goofy and vulnerable. They sneak a cell phone pic with Will.i.am; Fey reveals a silly crush on Mark Wahlberg's character. The scene in the strip club is a classic Fey gag: they make it clear they know what this is all about ("Work that pole like a runaway," she tells her husband) before fake pole-dancing badly, unsexily. They sort of take the edge off how stupid the plot is by nudging collective cultural thinking at the same time.

But why are they there at all? The funny and redeemable parts of this film occur because they're trapped in it, but they're not Ted Knight, sputtering with impotent snobbery in a captain's hat; they're us. Kind of. (Not really. But you know what I mean.) And they are complicit in the crap around them. They're in this 88-minute cage of their salary. They're smart and the movie's dumb.

Good actors have always been thrust in bad movie vehicles, winking at the audience about it with varying success, so that isn't so remarkable. The reason Date Night stands out is because of the unusually strong contrast between a film that feels like it is not even trying and characters who are in many ways a construct of our media sophistication. This movie is redeemed by occasional observational (and improvised) humor that with just a slight change in focus would take it apart.

That feels familiar, somehow, in ways that aren't just about movie plots. It feels like the flow of information around us, where the intelligent dialogue sometimes seems like it only happens on some removed level. The stakes are higher, and the discussion gets smarter (sometimes) and more short-handed (always), and in the meantime...junk is everywhere. We pick and choose what we want from the huge flow of information--too much, maybe--but that doesn't mean we really avoid the idiotic crap in the end. It all comes up in the net.

Date Night is only a bad movie, made by a director who specializes in these kinds of bad movies (Night at the Museum hurt) and I just used the word "limn," which makes me feel a little dirty. Also: this much vague but crippling cynicism is not flattering, and I apologize for that. But this movie seems to be a symbol of how bad movies can be at the same time they know they are, and that feels familiar and wrong.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

cat No. 1

Ursula the cat is a combination in her personality and physical particulars of:
  • black bear cub (hence the name)
  • andiron
  • West Highland terrier (fat tail)
  • otter
  • oversized muff for spoiled cold-weather child royalty
  • bulldog (broad chest)
  • baby harbor seal
  • medicine ball
  • Schmoo
  • little kid with licked finger ready to Wet Willy
  • duck (quacking meows)
  • scaredy cat
  • elephant knocking down fences by scratching back against them
  • Baby Huey
  • bowling ball
  • thug
  • inconveniently placed bearskin rug
She is also a large percentage mink. She has lush, soft, thick, minky, ripply, chocolate-brown fur whose true color emerges only in strong direct sunlight--the rest of the time it looks black. Late spring/summer evenings are good for spotting it. A big fat mink.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

life during NRFU

With national census clean-up efforts winding down, I don't think I'm telling any tales out of school to mention what I found to be the most difficult aspect of employment as an enumerator: the serifs on the letter I.

The correct way to fill out forms, according to the Enumerator Manual (from which these images are scanned) is with horizontal lines at the top and bottom of the I. It is, however, the only letter you print with serifs.

It made me nuts every time I had to do it. Which was often. It slowed me down, it hurt, it made my brain bleed. It looked terrible. It threw an immediate monkey wrench into the x-height you were maintaining in your head and awkwardly cramped down the "I," the letter buckling between the serifs like a vise. No serif - no serif - no serif - no seriffffffffff...oh no, SERIF. I need a cocktail. Bad, wrong, bad. WRONG. Regroup, start writing again--fuck. Another I. Misery. I believe at some point during training I actually raised my hand to complain about the serifs, in a fit of anguished design nerdery.

According to the Census the serifs are there for purposes of optical scanning, to distinguish it from the number 1, but I suspect lazy reasoning there. Why are there no O/0 problems then? There has to be some contextual reading to distinguish those. So why burden your poor employees with the agonies of the extra lines? Sigh.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


It is my experience that the natural death of many pieces of clothing, while expected, tends to be nonetheless quite violent and quick.

My favorite--no, only--bathrobe died today. But it didn't just wear into gentle holes: I put it on and it looked like squirrels had had a fight in it. There were several large jagged thready rents in it--big ones--I had never seen before; big holes with the weft fibers hanging in drooped swags like the windows at the Four Seasons. The cuffs were suddenly strangely unraveled. The hem had blown.

It's as if the wardrobe person for Les Mis snuck in overnight and customized it so I could play a street urchin or something. It almost looks fake. Funny how that happens. Time for a new bathrobe.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

romans à clef

I have this nagging feeling that there is something to be explored in how movies address the process of writing with regard to women authors. Most every time I watch a movie with a woman writing in it I get a *ping* of cinematic recognition at the sight of her making sausage of her life for fiction. Apparently it's as simple as writing it all down!

It seems like there is this trope of the female author just transferring (painful events from) her life to paper. Bing bang boom. Writing! As in Something's Gotta Give, the most flat-out example of it I can think of, when Diane Keaton turns her life into a play. Or in Little Women, where Jo recycles the plot of the movie for a book called Little Women.

I need to see Becoming Jane. And re-watch Angel at my Table and Henry & June and others--see how this idea lives. Because it's certainly something that happens to writers in movies in general, in some ways. Movies want a strong through line from cause (life) to effect (art). It makes more 'sense' that way.

But...I dunno. There's this Thing, this sentimental Thing, where women writers in film are conduit pipes only for the art that plops out the other end. It has an odd feeling, as if they weren't capable of anything else? Or needed, artistically, for anything else?
These turned out great. Still not totally sure why milk chocolate, though.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

How to Get From Point A to Point B During a Chicago Parade, Part II

For Part I, see here.
I used to find the elasticity of time scary. The things you learn in physics class: the theory of relativity and all the ways in which time and space gets bendy. That stuff is easier to digest now, though, and I find it instead funnier and scarier how it is that time plods. Part of time's tyranny is that it's one second--whatever--at a time. It's liquid because it plods. Can't stop it, cant start it, can't change it.

It is weird--exhilarating--disgusting--cool--scary--funny--to discover more and more as I get older that truly nothing is ever done but one thing at a time.

We multi-task, we put our heads in the sand, we fly along when things are good, time grinds by when things are awful, the trip back from somewhere is faster than the way there, but basically it's one thing at a time. Always one thing at a time.

So that means:
- thinking about the idea of running a marathon
- putting one step in front of the other during training for a marathon
- watching a movie about marathon runners
- putting one step in front of the other during your first marathon
- worrying about your ability to run a marathon
- watching marathon runners go by from your car
- putting one step in front of the other during your 12th marathon
- sadly fingering a trophy for winning a marathon and wondering if you'll do it again
- painting a fugly LeRoy Nieman ripoff of marathon runners

...all happens one thing at a time, every one of those. That fact's really scarier to me than donut holes in the time-space continuum. But there is also a lot of possibility in it.