Saturday, October 31, 2015
Do I really need to write a review of this book?
Haven't you already seen the reviews, like five months ago?
This is actually one of the few books that most lay people (i.e. non-readers) of a certain age know.
They know it because they know Aziz Ansari, and it's about dating, and he's right: it's both a wonderful and horrible time to be single.
This book is candy to Penguin Press.
Do I need to parrot the ideas of this book or can I just write this as a special comment on Tinder?
I always try to "personalize" these reviews so they're more valuable than the "objective" stuff you'll find in any number of major newspaper markets across the country. But this is a real opportunity for extreme personalization, and I don't want to go there. I will start off with a pertinent quote, so you know what to expect:
"One thing that I definitely want you to know up front is that this book is primarily about heterosexual relationships. Early in the process Eric and I realized that if we tried to write about how all the different aspects of romance we address applied to LGBT relationships, we simply wouldn't be able to do the topic justice without writing an entirely separate book. We do cover some issues relating to love and romance among gays and lesbians, but not at all exhaustively." (8-9)
Because of this, while I initially flirted with the idea of putting this on the "best books" list, it fails. I'm not that strident of an activist so I really don't care to start a fuss over the idea that LGBT relationships are different from straight ones, but I will comment briefly that a law school classmate of mine wrote a law review article about domestic violence in LGBT relationships and found that there wasn't much of a difference (I mean, obviously, in straight ones it's usually the dude doing the hitting, I'm guessing). I do think gay dudes are way less picky when it comes to sex partners, in general. That's about all I can say, though. I'm not too angry, because I do think there should be a book about dating for bi people. I just think it's a little troubling, economically, particularly when that big SCOTUS decision came down just as this book was released (June 16, 2015). Straight people wouldn't be interested in reading about non-straight people, I guess.
What would a book about dating for bi people be like? It would be the most fucked up thing in the world. Do you disclose, or do you pretend? Do you delete all your old Facebook references to anything that might give a potential date the idea that you had never strayed from the straight and narrow? I really don't think there is any problem whatsoever for a bi dude to tell a same-sex partner that he likes girls--I think they're more excited by the idea of a straight dude than a gay one (at least for a casual thing)--but does that work on the opposite level for girls? I mean, of course, girls don't want to go out with bi dudes, but are lesbians open to going out with bi girls? Frankly, if Mr. Ansari would like to entrust such a project to a fellow '05 NYU Alum, I will rip up my law license and skip down the street.
I've been a little bit harsh in starting off this review, so let's move onto the positives: this is probably the funniest book I have reviewed on Flying Houses. I laughed out loud while reading it more than a few times, and on the CTA that was sometimes embarrassing. I think this was the line, yesterday:
"I'd run the Hardee's and probably be pretty good at it. Maybe I'd catch wind of a guy who was running a huge 'biscuit extortion' scam to smuggle biscuits across the border to Georgia [from South Carolina]. The scam would work like this: The guy and his partner would steal biscuits from our store and then sell the stolen biscuits at a lower cost on the biscuit black market. After getting suspicious of his frequent trips to Georgia, I would hide in the bed of a Ford F-150, under a bunch of biscuits, and when they reached their destination, I'd dramatically pop up and go, 'GIMME BACK MY BISCUITS!'
The family would be proud." (237)
It's not even that funny, really, but the image cracked me up.
Upon further review, it was actually this passage that made me laugh to embarrassment:
"My Dearest Charles,
I hope this letter finds you in the halest and heartiest of conditions. I'm sure it will, as your constitution, as I recall, was always most impressive for its resilience and fortitude.
What do you make of this so-called 'Revolution'? I fear that, win or lose, we shall be feeling its reverberations for decades to come.
In other news, in addition to your sister, I am fucking Tina, this woman I met at the bar last week. I also caught syphilis from a prostitute I met in Boston.
Fondly, your brother-in-law,
Is Mr. Ansari a good writer? I think so. It's unclear to me how much of this book is written by him and how much is written by Klinenberg, but it feels like it's mostly Ansari, even when there's not a joke being thrown in every few sentences.
The constant jokes aren't a distraction. Instead, they change the book into something different entirely. Now I know that comedians get book deals, and sometimes their books are funny, but this is more impressive because it's about something else, something that most younger people might want to know.
The problem is that we all already know. There is some interesting research that the book brings out, but all of the perceptions, all of the subjective stuff, we know. We know about not texting back immediately for fear of seeming too desperate. We know about selecting profile pictures. There is a lot of stuff "we" know, but we don't really know that other people feel it too, and I guess that's why this book is nice. Ansari is never mean-spirited with the jokes here, and that's impressive in this arena. It also has the potential to get extremely raunchy, but the dirty stuff is kept relatively safe.
The central thesis, if you will, is that "good enough" partners are not good enough for people anymore. We now require a soul mate. Along the way in that search, we might discard some really amazing people, and Ansari advocates on behalf of "quality" rather than "quantity." It's better to get to know a person really well and find out everything that's great about them, rather than to meet a lot of people and only get to know them superficially before deciding there's someone better for you.
This is kind of the romantic issue of our time, and Ansari is clever to seize upon the moment and call it out for what it is. Thousands of people have written about these issues over the past half-decade, but Ansari is the first to turn it into a book with mass appeal. And he is the right person to do it because the humor complements the material in a strange way. In a sense, it almost detracts from the material, but this turns it into a strength.
Perhaps this sounds strange. Really what I mean is, you can't take a book with this subject matter all that seriously. You're not supposed to. Ansari isn't saying WE ARE ALL LIKE THIS; he's just sharing stories that he heard in focus groups and surveys and sociological studies. He also writes about his own romantic travails to powerful effect, though I contend that he leaves an important element of dating/mating out: money.
Maybe I'm cynical, okay, but we can't all go out every weekend night and spend 5 hours in a bar or club and spend $200 on drinks. And when we think about who would be a good partner, tell me nobody cares about their job. Of course, many more women pursue a professional career than in the past, and marriage has become a kind of status symbol--more of a "power couple" thing than the traditional "sole breadwinner" thing. I would have liked to hear more about stay-at-home dads.
Ansari effectively describes the shift in marriage habits, from our grandparents' and parents' generations to ours. Perhaps this is why I often said I wished I was 10 years older, back in '01 and '02. But maybe it's more like 20 or 30 years older. The difference is, the older generations did not have the experience that we do of "emerging adulthood," the period between, say, 23-30, when we pretty much live on our own and seek a mate that is most complementary to our vision of a worthwhile existence. Ansari thinks this period is a great thing, more or less, but personally I'm not sure. Now, I have no problem with their being tons of single people getting older and not having kids--so long as we're not lonely. But I do have a problem when I am 32 and I look around and see that most people my age are married, or engaged, or have kids, or have a good job with a retirement plan, and I have nothing. I guess it would hurt a lot more 20 years ago to be in the same situation at my age, but my belief is, it wouldn't be this way 20 years ago. But I should shut up before I say something dumb and insensitive.
There are some really intriguing parts, particularly about Japan and the way their government is responding to the low-birth-rate crisis by subsidizing singles' parties. And of course there are some priceless stories:
"Back in June of 2012 when I was 43, my boyfriend broke up w/ me via a text message after being together for 8 years! I practically raised his daughter, and had been totally committed to him [and] everything that came w/ him. I was really offended and hurt as I felt that I at least deserved to be broken up with in person or at least on the phone!
Apparently the wound didn't run too deep, though, because look what happened next:
After 10 months of no contact, his uncle passed away [and] I called him [and] left a message w/ my condolences. We finally talked after that [and] eventually got back together. I still love him completely [and] have forgive him for how things went down. And you best believe I gave him hell for that text! :-)
No offense, but at this point let's take a moment to be thankful we are neither of the people in that relationship." (194)
I could go on, and on and on about this book and excerpt every single great joke, but I'm gonna wrap things up here. I just can't resist putting in my favorite part, which is where Ansari advocates for monster truck rallies as ideal venues for first dates:
"One of the social scientists I consulted for this book is the Stanford sociologist Robb Willer. Willer said that he had several friends who had taken dates to a monster truck rally. If you aren't familiar with monster truck rallies, basically these giant-ass trucks, with names like Skull Crusher and The ReJEWvinator,* ride up huge dirt hills and do crazy jumps. Sometimes they fly over a bunch of smaller cars or even school buses. Even more nuts, sometimes those trucks assemble into a giant robot truck that literally eats cars. Not joking. It's called Truckzilla and it's worth looking into. Frankly, it sounds cool as shit, and I'm looking at tickets for the next one I can attend. (140)
"*Okay, I made up ReJEWvinator, but it would be cool if there were a Jewish monster truck scene." (141)
The book also ends on a really sweet story about a couple meeting and how they left notes to each other on the doors of their apartment complex.
This isn't necessarily "required reading," but I wouldn't be surprised to hear about this book being passed around between groups of friends in "emerging adulthood." That is the way the most culturally relevant books attain their cache. This is increasingly rare, and I applaud Ansari for rejuvenating the medium.
Saturday, October 24, 2015
Well I am starting to write this twelve days after the fact, but will probably publish on the thirteenth day. It feels longer than that. I'm back at the point where I'm running at the rate I was before I knew I was going to train--a few times a week. But I feel like I want to do it more, like four or five times a week. It became addicting.
Unfortunately it also cut into my ability to do other things with my time, such as writing, cooking, or properly caring for my broken finger. It is my left ring finger, so beware anybody that might want to marry me. You will need to get an elastic ring.
I wanted to write about the marathon experience itself though, not the training. I will offer a brief comment on my training by reciting some stats from mapmyrun.com. I logged 106 workouts on it. This is enough for anyone to train, though I believe that I was already in fairly decent running shape, as I'd been doing it pretty consistently for about a year, though mostly short distances like 4 miles.
In 106 workouts, I went 793 miles. I logged 85 miles in May, 139 in June, 219 in July (though that includes an ill-advised 18 mile bike ride), 151 in August, 167 in September, and 32 in October.
I was hoping to get 4:20 as a dumb stoner joke. I thought hey, if I can get that time, it's pretty respectable. That's roughly ten minute miles, maybe like 9:50 or 9:55. Using mapmyrun.com helped me pay closer attention to my pace. I was heartened to see it consistently lower towards the end of my training. Even so, I was absolutely terrified of the marathon. The furthest I had gone was just over 20 miles, the Saturday on the weekend of Riot Fest. I ran my usual long route, but added a leg to Douglas Park around the perimeter of the festival before heading home. It was a great run and I did it in 3:25. That was right on target for me, six more miles in 55 minutes--you'd need to be a little faster than 10 minute miles, but do-able.
My sister came in for the race from Boston, and my younger brother was running it, too. I met them both at the Expo at McCormick Place on the day before the race. It was great fun (particularly the part where we walked through an old bus and got some goose island beer samples) and then we got a cab to the Loop to meet the rest of our family at Harry Caray's 7th Inning Stretch at Water Tower Place to watch game 2 of the Cubs vs. Cardinals NLDS. We had drinks and appetizers there, then moved on to Mia Francesca, across the street, where I had a wonderful linguine prosciutto (to which I added meatballs).
I woke up at 5 AM the next day and was scared as hell. I ate an everything bagel with cream cheese, some milk and cereal, juice, and a banana. I think I ate a protein bar on the train ride over.
I checked all my gear in the large plastic bag they give you, took an adderall and a five-hour energy, and moved into my starting corral a little after 7:30. The adderall is controversial and I promised my sister's wife (who incidentally had her pharmaceutical company's first drug approved by the FDA yesterday) that I would not do it again.
In any case, the nerves were strong as we waited to start. I tried to find my sister, as she was supposed to be in the same starting corral. She said she was wearing a neon green Adidas hat. I looked around and saw several, but none were her. I had to go it on my own.
We kept inching up forward every few minutes. Until eventually we were near the starting line. We passed it around 8:10 AM, and the clock already said forty minutes had elapsed. We were all moving slowly out of the starting gate, pretty much, and I pressed play on my iPod.
The main reason I wanted to write this was to share my iPod playlist. I have been making running playlists on various iPods for nearly 10 years now, and I have made some very good ones in my time (even though I have been limited by my somewhat eccentric collection--for example, I could not include "Moonlight Mile" by the Rolling Stones, which my oldest sister recommended the night before), but this is the ultimate playlist. I would not have made it through without this.
Before I mention the first track, I just have to remark that around lower Wacker Dr. or Randolph St., (one of those underground tunnel streets) just after the start, a bunch of dudes went off to the side and peed against the wall. It was hilarious to see. I guess going to the bathroom is a big deal in the race. A lot of people try to go beforehand and the port-a-potty lines get long, and some people need to wait, and I guess dudes can do this. I just love that public urination is kind of permitted in this situation. I felt like I had to go a bit, and I knew from experience that I would usually need to, but as I kept seeing "rest areas" along the course, I kept thinking, I can hold out until the next one. As I went on, I just wanted to finish as quickly as possible, and I held off until the very end--this after all of the gatorade, water, and even a beer after the finish line.
This was a warm marathon--it got to be close to 75 degrees around 11 AM or so. I personally love this temperature for running, though everyone else thinks it is too hot. I guess I sweated a fair amount and that affected my fluid intake/need to pee.
Anyways, here was my playlist:
Before the list, here are some signifiers of songs for those unfamiliar:
BSCS = Bat Shit Crazy Song
R = Recovery Song
PFM = Perfect For Moment (well-sequenced)
PT = Perfect Transition (from previous song)
U = Unremarkable (would change)
PM = Pace Maintenance
If there is no signifier, it's essentially unremarkable, but I wouldn't change it.
(1) St. Vincent - Birth in Reverse PFM
(2) Shellac - Surveyor
(3) Fugazi - Place Position BSCS
(4) The Fiery Furnaces - Tropical-Iceland PFM
(5) Shellac - Dude Incredible
(6) Rites of Spring - Persistent Vision
(7) !!! - Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story) PFM
(8) Rites of Spring - Remainder PM
(9) Deerhunter - Circulation R
(10) Superchunk - On the Mouth BSCS
(11) Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Y Control PM
(12) Superchunk - Here's Where the Strings Come In
(13) Nirvana - Mrs. Butterworth [Rehearsal Demo]
(14) Built to Spill - Stop the Show R
(15) Fucked Up - Truth I Know
(16) Beastie Boys - Sabotage PT
(17) The Stooges - Loose
(18) Hole - Jennifer's Body
(19) Nena - 99 Luftballoons PFM
(20) Battles - Atlas PM
(21) Texas is the Reason - Antique (live) PFM
(22) Pissed Jeans - Boring Girls PFM/BSCS
(23) Superchunk - Lying in State
(24) Radiohead - Paranoid Android
(25) Sleater-Kinney - Hollywood Ending
(26) Dead Kennedys - Pull My Strings
(27) Scarlett Johansson - I Don't Want to Grow Up R
(28) Fugazi - Hello Morning BSCS
(29) Superchunk - Invitation
(30) The Fall - Jawbone and the Air-Rifle U
(31) Superchunk - Without Blinking
(32) Rage Against the Machine - Guerilla Radio
(33) The Stone Roses - Made of Stone R
(34) Nirvana - Negative Creep (live) BSCS
(35) Sonic Youth - Bone PM
(36) Bikini Kill - Strawberry Julius BSCS
(37) Superchunk - FOH
(38) Pavement - Speak, See, Remember R
(39) The Dismemberment Plan - Pay for the Piano
(40) The Get Up Kids - Woodson
(41) Wire - 12XU BSCS
(42) Superchunk - Staying Home BSCS
(43) Mission of Burma - Max Ernst
(44) C.S.S. - CSS Suxxx PM
(45) The Misfits - Horror Business
(46) Black Flag - Nervous Breakdown BSCS
(47) Wipers - When It's Over U
(48) Shellac - Spoke
(49) Fugazi - Public Witness Program BSCS
(50) Dum Dum Girls - He Gets Me High PM
(51) Superchunk - Animated Airplanes Over Germany PM/PT
(52) Big Black - Bad Penny
(53) LCD Soundsystem - Losing My Edge R
(54) The Jesus Lizard - Gladiator
(55) The Get Up Kids - Off the Wagon
(56) Japandroids - Sovereighnty
(57) Shellac - Watch Song
(58) Radiohead - Bodysnatchers PM
(59) The Promise Ring - Is This Thing On?
(60) Be Your Own Pet - Super Soaked BSCS
(61) Dead Kennedys - Lie Detector
(62) Sonic Youth - Kissability (skipped)
(63) Fucked Up - Queen of Hearts (skipped)
(64) Fucked Up - Remember My Name (skipped)
(65) Deerhunter - Nothing Ever Happened (skipped)
(66) Dinosaur Jr. - Lose (skipped)
(67) Shellac - Killers (skipped?)
(68) Shellac - Wingwalker
(69) Shellac - Billiard Player Song (unplayed)
(70) Shellac - This is a Picture (unplayed)
(71) Superchunk - Seed Toss (unplayed)
(72) Fucked Up - Triumph of Life (unplayed)
I loved opening up with St. Vincent. It was such a rush. I couldn't tell if that was the 5 hour energy and adderall combined with the enormity of the event before me, but I think that was it. This was just an awesome song to open with.
Around song 20, I passed my family near the Broadway and Cornelia corner, around mile 8 or so. My dad remarked later that my energy looked good, that I was bouncing along. I was able to see them and waved as enthusiastically as I could, and it wasn't faked. I was legitimately having a great time with this. I admit, it is stressful for the runner when they have to try to remember where certain friends or family might be waiting, to look out for them on the left or right, and make sure not to snub them. Luckily this worked out.
So yes, this area around song 20 was pretty intense. "Antique" and "Boring Girls" back-to-back was pretty awesome.
One of the weirdest choices is the Scarlett Johansson cover of Tom Waits's "I Don't Want to Grow Up." This is a super mellow song. However sometimes you need to have a mellow song--a "recovery" moment. You can't just go all out the entire time (okay maybe the people that start at 7:30 instead of 8 can, but I'm not that good), you need to walk through the water/gatorade stations and sometimes chill out a bit. The song may be mellow, but it also has a beat, and it was like a moment of calm.
In general I was super happy with this mix, but then we came to the tough part: song 47 - "When It's Over" by the Wipers. I distinctly remember this song as the moment that time seemed to change. This is a long song--over 6 minutes--and I figured it would take me most of the way to the next milemarker. It did that, but it just seemed like those six minutes were more like 12 or 15. The rest of the race was significantly harder for me. I don't think this was quite mile 22--mile 22 is where things got much more painful for me--but it signaled a shift.
I think when I hit "Losing My Edge" I recovered a bit, because it's another really long song, and while it's not mellow, the lyrics are especially relevant during a marathon. It was a nice recovery moment. Here is a picture from the last leg of the race in Chinatown. I was feeling some pain, but I look pretty good here I think:
That's right--it's $89.99 to buy these photos, so instead I just took them on my phone off a computer screen.
Ultimately, it was shocking to see the time--I seemed to be a bit ahead of schedule, even trying to subtract 40 minutes from each timer I saw. I got to "Kissability" and saw there were only like 800 meters left or something, so I skipped ahead to "Wingwalker" which is probably my favorite song, so I could put my arms out like an airplane as I crossed the finish line. It was awesome.
Basically, this is an experience that not everyone needs to have, but if you want to get into pretty good shape, I recommend it as a good goal to give yourself. You need to be determined to make this happen, and it is a great confidence boosting exercise.
I also liked all the signs I saw. "No Walken." (Obviously with picture of Christopher Walken) "Jay Cutler would be cramping up by now." "If Donald Trump can make it this far, so can you." "If Britney Spears can survive 2007, so can you." "Smile if you peed a little." "You Ain't Cool Unless You Pee Your Pants."
I also liked high-fiving people watching, though it was mostly little kids. I would always get a little boost after I did that, and people had signs that said, "Punch here for power," and I did that a few times and it felt like it worked. In general, the further you go, the more your mind messes with you, and the truly absurd humor on display on the signs is just all the more entertaining. It was just great fun and one the best experiences in my life.
Thursday, October 22, 2015
It's not every day a publisher or publicist reaches out to me and asks if I want to review their book. In the past, I asked Tao Lin myself if I could get free copies of his first novel, novella, and second novel. Once, someone from a bigger publishing house sent me a random book and I reviewed it. A couple times, publicists sent me e-mails teasing a new book, asking if I wanted a review copy. This is the first one where I expressed interest, and they actually followed through. So, I'd like to say, thank you, Shannon Twomey, for reminding me that I am not yet totally irrelevant.
Tales of Two Cities is an anthology, and these pose particular challenges for the critic. Of course, Userlands is partly responsible for the existence of Flying Houses in the first place, and no other reviews of anthologies have appeared since then. Certain books of short stories, or essays, by Thomas Mann, James Franco, Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk, Chuck Klosterman, Wells Tower, Jonathan Franzen, and others have spurred lengthy reviews that potentially lacked focus. Like Userlands, there are many writers in Tales of Two Cities, and most of them will not be familiar to the casual reader.
Certainly, Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers and David Byrne are pretty famous, but their work is probably not the strongest in this volume. I suppose we can start there, keeping in mind that people's attention spans on the internet are less than ideal.
We'll start with Smith because her story appears closest to the beginning. I've never read White Teeth or On Beauty or NW but she's certainly one of the literary stars of our time. For better or worse, "Miss Adele Amongst the Corsets," will forever remain my introduction to her. It definitely took me a minute to figure out what was happening in this story. I feel weird not wanting to give away spoilers for short stories, but it feels necessary here. Basically, this is the story of a drag queen going to buy a corset from a store run by Eastern European immigrants that may or may not be fundamental Christians. It is about Miss Adele's mentality as she veers toward her late forties and reflects upon her situation. It is about paranoia, insecurity, and the expectations we all have of common decency.
Parts of this story are engaging, and other parts drag a bit. It's only 17 pages long, but it's one of the more memorable moments in the anthology. I like in particular how Smith weaves in memories from Miss Adele's childhood, when her name was Darren and he was the twin of Devin (who is now successful/married) and their parents fought, all while she changes in a dressing room. It also reminded me of my own work from 2003, "Autointoxication," with the insecurity, paranoia and egotistical impression that everyone is really talking about you. While this is far from a great short story, it should serve Smith well. It makes me want to check out White Teeth.
Before we move on, the theme of this anthology merits attention. Of course, this book harps on the same themes over and over again! Bill de Blasio and his infamous description of New York as two cities, for the haves and have-nots. The rent is too damn high! Those darn 1%-ers!
Income inequality is a hot topic (see the Democratic Debate on 10/13/15, see also the rapid rise of the minimum wage) and as a person that enjoys reviewing books by modern day heroes and doctoral journalists that attack the issue head on, as well as spearheading one's own faulty program to assess how much "fun" poor people are allowed to have, to say nothing of the 6+ years I lived in New York on my parent's/the government's dime, reviewing this book is a no-brainer.
Why the fuck do you need to live in New York? Is it really that nice? Oh, you've got Central Park---great! An urban oasis. You feel like you're not really in the city! Oh, and the pizza--the pizza is just the best. The museums, the culture! Greenwich Village! Brooklyn! All the greatest artists come out of the village scene, don't you know? The best public transportation system in the country, hands down. Those wonderful 24 hour delis on every corner, or at least many corners. The people, who are all in this struggle with you! The energy--the city never sleeps! It is the #1 biggest city in the country, and so much better than L.A. God, who can stand to sit in all that traffic! Oh, the food, such wonderful restaurants. It is the epicenter of the legal industry! All your friends live there, too.
Perhaps you can tell that I have conflicted feelings about New York. Certainly, the years I spent there from 2001 through 2004 were some of the very best of my life and I will forever cherish such memories. But, the years I spent there from 2010 through 2013 were different. I was older. I wasn't in college. The Great Depression Part 2 happened in between. I had to take out student loans this time. I was in Brooklyn Heights rather than Greenwich Village.
When I was 22, I moved back to Chicago because my dad offered me a job there, and I had no job offers in New York (I hadn't really started looking for one, and had always lived in the NYU dorms, never my own apartment). When I was 30, I moved back to Chicago because I had no legal job offers in New York, and again, lived in the same "apartment-style" dorm at Brooklyn Law School for 3 years, the rent approximately $1,000 per month for a 2 bedroom. My room was small, but my roommate's (there were 3 different ones of varying quality, one of whom was the best roommate I have ever had, and there have been many) was only about $60 per month more than mine, and I think this place was a steal for the neighborhood. Sometimes I see friends on Facebook moving out and posting their craigslist ad when they want someone to take over their lease, and it's usually almost $1000 per month to live in one room in a 3BR in a vaguely desirable neighborhood in a wave of gentrification.
Compare that to the $580 (up from $540 as of 9/1/15) for my room in Logan Square (say nothing of sharing that room and cutting the cost to $290), a neighborhood in Chicago that has been in a steady state of gentrification over the past 10 years.
Now granted if I could have lived in New York with a rental at $500 or $600 per month, I would have stayed. But I would have probably needed to split a room to get that. And it would most likely be in Crown Heights.
There are two stories in this collection that are focused laser-like on housing: "Partially Vacated" by D.W. Gibson, and "A Block Divided Against Itself" by Sarah Jaffe. The latter features Crown Heights as the epicenter of the current gentrification fight in NYC and the former features South Brooklyn Legal Services and Housing Court on Livingston St. Guess which one I liked better.
It's not that Jaffe's story is more boring. Actually, I kept flashing back to Show Me a Hero while reading it. It's quite compelling, but also one-sided, like many accounts of housing issues. I am not a Pollyanna for landlords. I used to prosecute them for bad behavior, and I currently live under one that I'd like to report. The Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance in Chicago is quite tenant-friendly, and I'd presume a similar situation exists in New York. Yet all we hear are stories about the bad landlords. What about the bad tenants? One day I will write a story about bad tenants.
Apart from the Show Me a Hero comparison, I don't really know what to say about the Crown Heights story. It was basically average for the collection, and maybe it gets a bonus point for being so perfectly on topic.
However, "Partially Vacated" is one of the finest moments in the anthology. Of course, I may be biased, because one does not often get to read books about things one knows semi-intimately:
"The civil courthouse in Downtown Brooklyn sits amid a cluster of bureaucratic towers, adjacent to a mix of 99-cent stores and restaurants where bartenders prefer to be called mixologists. The Quaker-affiliated Brooklyn Friends School, $28,000 a year for pre-school, is just up the block.
Inside the rectangular building of steel and glass leased by the civil courthouse, the elevators break down year-round, the air-conditioner only in summer. Before he was mayor, Bill de Blasio, acting as Public Advocate, put the building's landlord on his 'Worst Landlord' watch list. The city's lease for the property expired last week, but, unable to find new housing, housing court--ironically, or perhaps not--will stay in the ailing building.
The line to get in the door--to shuffle through security and wait in a second line for the persnickety elevators--usually runs out the door and all the way down the block well before eight in the morning.
On the tenth floor, the elevator doors open onto a crowded hall, filled with the strident din of heated conversations in every direction. Clumps of three or four people stand together: always a landlord, always a tenant, usually a landlord's lawyer, occasionally a tenant's lawyer, too. They're all haggling, trying to reach a settlement; when and if they do, the details are immediately written on a piece of paper and taken into one of the court rooms to receive a judge's approval. There are dozens of courtrooms--some for hearings, some for trial--and all guarantee long waits." (63-64)
I didn't do housing in Brooklyn, but I did have a few friends work for South Brooklyn Legal Services, and I'm sure this story would be quite interesting for them. I did work at that civil courthouse, and I had forgotten about those ridiculous lines! In short, this story is great because it is true. And for what it's worth, the landlord in this story has to be one of the all-time worst.
More generally, these stories are just about people living in poverty in New York. The introduction by John Freeman is wonderfully written. It teases the entry by his brother, Tim Freeman, and provides a little snippet of each story to come in the collection. I have to say that while reading John's intro, I thought he came off as a total douchebag; after reading Tim's story "Home," much less so:
"I tell this story now because we need to change the way we talk about inequality. The reasons it exists are as complex as the reasons why my brother wound up in a shelter. Inequality is not an issue of us and them, the rich and the poor. You often see these same so-called divisions within one family, like mine. I have an instinct here to apologize for making this point, to add a caveat that my experience of witnessing my brother's homelessness was not nearly as hard as it was for him to live it, while I'm sure there are people who have suffered far more than both of us. All this is true, I suppose, but it leads us into a cul-de-sac. To rank suffering creates a false hierarchy of pain, as if there were a way to compare and weight grief with, say, physical discomfort, or career frustrations, or hopelessness. It allows us, to some degree, to say that some forms of suffering are OK while others are not." (x)
"I did not want anybody's help when I was homeless. If a family member had offered to take me in, I most likely would have declined the offer. When I was trying to stay at Bellevue, my brother John lived less than a mile away on the other side of town. I only saw him twice during the whole time that I was homeless. Again, I think this is because of the awkwardness. I also didn't want to be a burden on anybody. I know this probably sounds like an old homeless cliche, but it is how I felt." (213)
As for the other "famous" writers in the anthology, Junot Diaz has one of the better entries. It's a very short and sweet essay about an act of larceny. However, I found it was published in 2001 in The New Yorker, so even though this had to be one of Diaz's breakout pieces, it has little to do with "today's New York." It's a remembrance from his childhood. It's only a few pages long, but it's as good as any single part of Oscar Wao.
Jonathan Safran Foer's is also an older piece--from 2004, I believe--and let's just get this out of the way: I don't like him. People may think it's cruel for me to say that when I've never read him, but I just don't like him. Once I got my mom Eating Animals from the library, and she seemed to think it was pretty good. But I have never read anything by him before and I never wanted to, but it would have been irresponsible to skip "The Sixth Borough," which details the secret history of another borough that was once part of New York City. It is probably the silliest piece in this book and has almost nothing to do with its theme. I think it was included for "star power." In any case, this was the one chance for JSF to prove to me that I should give him a chance. I think putting in previously published work is a bit of a cop-out, but whatever. I still liked Diaz's piece. This one, not as much. Sorry, I guess I am just jealous.
Dave Eggers is his typically good-natured self, and introduces an essay by a fifteen-year-old girl whose family moved into Park Slope. She wrote the story as part of his 826 program. While her story is certainly impressive for a 15-year-old and sits comfortably alongside all of these other writers, I still thought Eggers little anecdote about living around a certain area in Brooklyn in the late 90's was more interesting. Both of these submissions add up to about 7 pages total, so it's not a huge part of the book.
I should briefly mention Colum McCann here, because he's "semi-famous." At a wedding over three years ago, a younger guest who was just starting college and wanted to be a writer, asked if I had read him, I said no, and he suggested Let the Great World Spin. Maybe one day I'll read that. In any case, McCann writes an essay that could be a viewed as a companion piece to the film Dark Days, which is a documentary that came out around 2000 and was about the "mole people" living in tunnels beneath the city. This is also really short--only about 4 pages--but it's another highlight from the book.
Last but not least, David Byrne's essay is wonderful. It's quite in your face and filled with quotable moments. Byrne does not try to pretend that the Talking Heads haven't made him rich, and openly admits that his relationship with New York may be souring:
"Many of the wealthy don't even live here. In the neighborhood where I live (near the art galleries in Chelsea), I can see three large condos from my window that are pretty much empty all the time. What the fuck!? Apparently, rich folks buy the apartments, but might only stay in them a few weeks out of the year. So why should they have an incentive to maintain or improve the general health of the city? They're never here.
This real estate situation--a topic New Yorkers love to complain about over dinner--doesn't help the future health of the city. If young, emerging talent of all types can't find a foothold in this city, then it will be a city closer to Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi than to the rich fertile place it has historically been. Those places might have museums, but they don't have culture. Ugh. If New York goes there--more than it already has--I'm leaving.
But where will I go? Join the expat hipsters upstate in Hudson?
Can New York change its trajectory a little bit, become more inclusive and financially egalitarian? Is that possible? I think it is. It's still the most stimulating and exciting place in the world to live and work, but it's in danger of walking away from its greatest strengths. The physical improvements are happening--though much of the crumbing infrastructure still needs fixing. If the social and economic situation can be addressed, we're halfway there. It really could be a model of how to make a large, economically sustainable, and creatively energetic city. I want to live in that city." (246)
Like any anthology, there are bound to be a few disappointments. Edmund White (whom I would designate as "quasi-famous") submits a very nicely written biographical essay that seems to have almost nothing to do with the "theme" except for the fact that his subject (Lorenzo Da Ponte--a.k.a. the writer of Mozart's librettos) eventually settled in 18th century NYC. I found it occasionally entertaining and out of place.
"Small Fates 1912" by Teju Cole (the only other writer listed by name on the cover besides Smith and Diaz, though one I would not designate as any kind of famous) starts off great, and quickly grows tiresome. Some of these "fates" are uproariously funny, but after about two pages of them, I realized they were really all just "tweets" and I fucking hate twitterature. I know it can be experimental in the same vein as an Oulippo-stunt, but I don't think it can be revelatory when it's trademarked by a publicly-traded company.
"Due North" by Garnette Cadogan is about walking around Manhattan, and it's pretty good. I like walking around, too. But it's also about feeling that people are friendlier in certain areas like the South Bronx, and more standoffish or invisible in areas like the Upper East Side. Unfortunately it made me wonder what Cadogan did in order to have all this leisure time to loaf.
"Options" is probably one of the stronger stories in this book, and perhaps deserves to be placed in the next section (I am saving the best for the last here). It's about moving to New York to try to get the best possible care for one's autistic child. It's about seeing a sign for a lost child that is autistic, and reflecting on your own. It's pretty powerful stuff, but it seems a little over the top, too. It strikes me as being 100% factual, but ultimately foolhardy.
"The Children Suicides" by Maria Venegas is interesting, but it's not about the NYU suicides in 2003-2004, so I have trouble relating. Then again as a former 10-year-old that confided suicidal thoughts to a teacher, it's affecting to see it from the other perspective. Not that they didn't take it way more seriously than they needed to or anything.
I almost want to put "Four More Years" by Jonathan Dee in the next section, too, because it seems like it's the only story that's really about "the 1%" and it's about driving around the neighborhood during a horrible snowfall and navigating the horrible conditions. This is actually a really memorable story and I don't know, I guess the characters came off as being sort of one-dimensional, and that's why it doesn't go in the next section.
"So Where Are We?" is a poem by Lawrence Joseph. I rarely review poetry on Flying Houses. I think I did once before. Is it a good poem? I don't know. Is it a bad poem? I don't know. It seems like it's about 9/11. 9/11 is obviously a big topic for New Yorkers but it almost never gets mentioned in this book. I skimmed this poem and moved on.
"Round Trip" by Akhil Sharma is certainly no failure at all, but it is slight at four pages and feels almost like Diaz's story. It's about a guy who has money, but is super frugal anyways because he hates spending. I can relate. However, he quits his job that pays pretty well to be a writer. I wish I had the luxury.
I'm gonna go out on a limb and call "Aliens of Extraordinary Ability" by Taiye Selasi a weak spot. It's stylish and while not exactly pretentious, seems to take itself a bit too seriously as "art." It's not bad, but it just seems calculated. I don't remember very much about it.
"One, Maybe Two Minutes from Fire" by Tea Obreht--I am very tempted to move this into the next section, but ultimately I cannot. It's got a great ending, on top of everything else. It's about being a victim of a scam. There needs to be more literature about victimhood. Not just woe-is-me victimhood, but God, I'm-so-fucking-dumb victimhood. Great story, and its placement in this review is faulty.
"Service/Non-Service: How Bartenders See New Yorkers" by Rosie Schaap is more like a special newspaper article or essay than an anthology essay, but most of the truisms about the service industry remain relevant. I still don't know how anybody makes it in the service industry, unless you spend your whole life (i.e. 60 hours a week, not 60 years) at the business in question, or unless it's a ridiculously expensive place.
"Mixed Media, Dimensions Variable" by Michael Salu, I put in the same category as the Selasi story. It's a little more ambitious than it has any business being. I think it's actually a bit better than the Selasi story, but I would not put it in the next section.
"Zapata Blvd" by Valeria Luiselli, "Seeking" by Victor Lavalle, and "Walt Whitman on Further Lane" by Mark Doty, can round out the "yawns" for me. As you can see, these anthology reviews get difficult because I do not want to give anyone short shrift. Doty's essay on Whitman and Long Island does have some pretty amazing insights, and some great surprises, but overall I found its tone to be off. Like, when literature/poetry PhDs try to make criticism interesting for the lay reader. "Zapata" is about being vaguely revolutionary, and there was a nice image or two in it--certainly I would not call it bad, but I found it disjointed. "Seeking" is actually quite good--though not as good as "One, Maybe Two Minutes from Fire." It's actually an incredibly deep essay about whether or not God exists. Worthwhile for anyone that still contemplates philosophical problems.
I'm conflicted about whether to put both "First Avenue & Second Street" by Hannah Tinti and "Traveling to Brooklyn" by Lydia Davis in this section or next. I guess they belong in the next.
Because they barely make this list, the last two stories should be mentioned first. Both of them fall squarely in the realm of creative non-fiction. I'm not sure which one is better, but I'm inclined to pick Davis.
Tinti's is very good, but it is pretty much just about one of her co-tenants. Kind of a character study. But it's a building near the Library, a good dive bar at 1st & 1st, and a handful of my friends moved out of the dorms after freshman year and got places in the East Village, and the memories of the Towers being there, and then not being there, made me nostalgic for that brief time that I shared in that wonderful area (even though it was only about 10 blocks north of that corner that I almost got mugged in 2002)
Davis's is great, because it reflects upon the nature of her fantasy, and how it has changed as she has aged, and then hits on a specific incident that happened recently on the subway around South Brooklyn. Basically, it is a personal essay par excellence, a near-perfect prototype of what one should write for a college essay, perhaps. Okay, the subject matter would not necessarily be great, but the way it's so beautifully written would get an admit from any admissions officer (this is why I think we studied personal essays as a form in high school).
Bill Cheng's entry, "Engine," is one of the best in the collection, though two others are better because they don't end on a kind-of-awkward last sentence. Basically, this story is a complete well of misery, with some quite graphic descriptions of medical maladies, silly jobs, and lack of self-worth. It's not very long, but it will punch you in the gut. For a person such as myself, that can identify quite strongly with the subject matter (even if I haven't worked in a movie theater), it is the sort of thing I need to read to remind myself that life can be just as frustrating for others:
"I don't know how to talk about money. It's one of those things we can't seem to get shook of. As much as we pretend it doesn't matter, it sets the stage for all our relationships. What I have, what you don't--all of it bound up in our identity, our careers, our ambition, our self-worth.
That was the gall of this first job, the improbability of being seen, how a stranger could just look at you and shrink you down into nothing. I was in college. I wanted to be a writer. I considered myself intelligent, ambitious, sensitive, with a full inner life. But every day wore me down to the nub until I carried in me a reservoir of abiding hate.
One summer at the theater, I spotted someone I knew from high school lining up at my register. He had gone to college upstate, and now he was back for the break. He looked good: lean, tan, handsome.
He recognized me.
Hey, Billy, how are you?
And it wasn't embarrassment but rage prickling at my face.
I pressed the bottoms of my hands to the counter.
I glared at him.
Would you like to try our super combo? (163)
The final two stories I loved for similar reasons. The first is "Every Night a Little Death," by Patrick Ryan. It concerns the travails of a team of graveyard shift proofreaders at a large law firm. The story is just hilarious and it made me laugh more than anything else in the collection. It seems completely over the top. I know that many of these entries are essays, or pieces of creative non-fiction, and some of them are works of complete fiction. I really could not decide where to categorize this piece. Certainly, it reads like creative non-fiction, but it's so extreme that it has to be fiction.
Cue person chiming in that life is often stranger than fiction.
I just don't believe someone who would come into work every night wearing a clown wig would get so upset about office propriety. It is slightly more believable that a person would bring a stuffed chimpanzee into work with her--slightly--but not that she would use such a toy as a weapon of assault. Frankly, I wish I worked in an office where such shenanigans were commonplace.
"I'd never had a job in the corporate world before. I'd been a house-painter, a waiter, a stockroom clerk, an English teacher, a bartender. The graveyard shift seemed a fitting place for me to land, given that I'd just moved from the 'sleepy' South to the city that never sleeps--an exciting change for me, though most of my friends back home had told me I was being foolish. 'New York?' one of them had asked. 'Really? I hope you have a lot of money, and a lot of tears.'
Another, pulling up beside me at a traffic light, had rolled down his window to shake his head and holler, 'That place is going to chew you up, spit you out, and piss on you.'
'I'll tell you exactly what's going to happen,' an older, chain-smoking neighbor had said as I was helping him sort his recycling. 'You're going to fuck up your life beyond belief, and you're going to be back here in six months--probably addicted to heroin.'
All of which made me more determined than ever to succeed (success meaning only my not having to move back south in six months). I took the job. I even decided graveyard shift had an impressive ring to it. Responsible people worked the graveyard shift. Guys who wore matching-cap-and-jacket uniforms and carried lunchboxes worked the graveyard shift. Copyeditors in newsrooms, security guards who shone flashlights into warehouses, EMTs who stanched gunshot wounds--these were the secret heroes who kept the gears of the world turning while everyone else snoozed.
I was thirty-three and living in New York. I had an illegal sublet on the upper west side that was mine for another two months, and I had employment. To celebrate, I went to dinner with friends." (19-20)
This story isn't especially deep or dramatic, but it's just very entertaining from start to finish, and pretty original. I am reminded of a book I've never read called And Then We Came to the End. I guess that is the closest reference point. It feels like non-fiction, but again, it's just a tad unbelievable. It's right near the beginning of the anthology, which is brilliant sequencing. Maybe it's not actually the second-best story in the collection, but the sequencing made me feel that was so.
The best story in the collection, then, is "Quid Pro Quo, Just as Easy as That" by Jeanne Thornton.
I'm not just saying that because it has a transgender narrator. I am definitely not playing that game.
This is straight-up creative non-fiction. Unlike Ryan's story, none of it strikes me as too absurd to be true.
Can I profess some ignorance? I still get really confused when transgender people identify themselves. The narrator in this story is a trans woman. I need to think for a second to make sure I get it right. They were born male, but transitioned to female. Whether they have undergone hormone treatment or not is unclear in this story. To be honest, it doesn't matter. The transgender issue is almost secondary to the poverty issue. Just looking at the first two pages of this story, every sentence begs to be excerpted. Because of my obsession with monthly expenses, I must excerpt the very end of that second page, and the top 1/3 of the third page:
"It was a flush time for me in New York City. According to invoices I still have, I was making the sweet sum of $12 per hour and working enough to clear about $1600 every month. The rent at the time was $1100, which I split evenly with a roommate. My share of the bills was usually about $125 total, and the Metrocard rate $100 per month. I knew of a cheap grocery store and cooked when I could. I smoked back then too, a hideously expensive habit at $13 a pack in NYC. So I'd switched to smoking three of four 'lucies' a day at $0.75 per cigarette, or $2 for three, from the grocery store just down the street from me that kept lookouts. Sometimes you could run across illicit cig pushers on the streets--especially, for some reason, on Roosevelt Island--who'd let you have a whole fat pack of Delaware-smuggled Newports for seven bucks. A devotee of The Richest Man in Babylon, I kept back about $100 or $200 from each paycheck to put into a savings fund, though I inevitably ran out of money every three or four months--food, doctor bills, miscellany--and had to raid it back to zero. But it all worked." (113-114)
So it seems, finally, here is another person that makes the same sorts of observations I do, and has similar concerns. Perhaps this is why I feel this is the best story in the collection.
This story is about the narrator herself, her boss at the publishing company where she works, and her friend that sleeps on her couch (her roommate, who paid the other $550, moved to Chicago to work for Groupon, and paid the next couple of months to be nice). There is a footnote about "All My Friends" by LCD Soundsystem. The story is about everything and nothing. It's a story whose style, tone, structure and plot I'd like to emulate. The only thing that slightly annoyed me about it was that the narrator would not reveal what her friend wrote on Facebook:
"Friends--without exception, female friends--began to tell me explicitly that they would not come over to see me when my friend was at the apartment. After the Facebook message incident, my friend was not a big fan of women, and he liked to discuss this with other women whom I was friends with. He would discuss it with me, too. In part this was because I hesitated to defend myself as a woman to him, and because I don't think he particularly thought of me as one anyway. (As evidence of this, the time he laughed at me and said you're a dude.)" (117)
Ultimately I think this is one of the most entertaining stories in the anthology, and while the ending may be one of failure, it feels happier than that, like the narrator will be going on to better things.
So we come to the end of this lengthy review. I think this book makes an excellent gift for any person moving to New York for the first time. The only question is whether it will be eternally relevant, or if NYC will completely transform itself in 20 years. This may be sold for a buck on tables arrayed on various streets in Greenwich Village in five years, but it is a worthwhile project for capturing the city at a crucial time in history.