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Of Recent Note

For Spring 2005

The stuff we’re into right now—including what we’re reading, hearing, watching, finding, eating, using, installing, applying, and, yes, even scratching this season.

Reading

One of the books I often recommend to friends is Julia Slavin’s The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club, a collection of bizarre and highly empathetic short stories. Unfortunately, it’s now out of print, so if you see it at a bookstore, don’t hesitate. Also writing in a non-realist way is Judy Budnitz, whose new book of short stories, Nice Big American Baby, is amazing.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad


A combined history and travelogue, Stephen Minta’s Aguirre: The Re-Creation of a Sixteenth-Century Journey Across South America, is a true heart-of-darkness story about a conquistador named Lope de Aguirre and his horrific 16th-century expedition along the Amazon River. The original search for El Dorado was a nightmare, degrading into mutiny, slaughter, and insanity, with the main malefactor being Aguirre, self-proclaimed “Traitor” and “Wrath of God.” Aguirre was a beast and a psychotic killer, but his reasons for rebelling were a bit more than just madness. At least he had style, and I enjoy anyone who talks shit like, “Does God think that because it rains in torrents I shall not return to Peru and destroy the world? If so, He is mistaken in me…”

Tobias Seamon


I quite enjoyed Cloud Atlas, and I’m pleased it won the prestigious Rooster. But I’ll confess to being a little annoyed that the supernatural strands of the narrative went unresolved. When I voiced this complaint to some friends, they accused me of being intolerant of ambiguity. Not so! In fact, the very next novel I read, Paul Auster’s Oracle Night, is rife with coincidences-that-may-not-be-coincidences, and although Auster provides as little explanation for these elements as the author of Cloud Atlas did for his, I thought his book was terrific. It’s almost a shame I read the books back-to-back: I was calling Cloud Atlas “the best book I’ve read in years” for precisely seven days before Oracle Night came along and usurped the title.

Matthew Baldwin


Michael Gruber’s first two novels published under his own name (he’s ghostwritten 14 others, but that’s another story), Tropic of Night and Valley of Bones, feature Jimmy “Iago” Paz, a Cuban-American homicide detective in Miami with the kind of idiosyncrasies and quirks that suggest longevity for this character if Gruber chooses to go that route. Paz finds himself in situations that, in addition to the usual demands of police work and the kind of compelling zanies that people the novels of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen, require some intellectual forensics that require some smart problem solving. It doesn’t hurt that Paz’s mamma, Aida, owns a restaurant in Little Havana, and the tonalities of that relationship make for a bittersweet bolero. The epigram to Tropic of Night by anthropologist Clifford Geertz should tip you off to Gruber’s sense of humor and orthodox qualities that go along way to carrying a good story:
It has, of course, often been remarked that the maintenance of religious faith is a problematic matter in any society…But it is at least true, and very much less remarked, that maintaining faith in the reliability of the axioms and arguments of common sense is no less problematical…Men plug the dikes of their most needed beliefs with whatever mud they can find.
Robert Birnbaum


An unlikely cross between science fiction and romance, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger follows the story of a man who has an unnerving tendency to flash between different points in his life, dropping in on his previous or future self unannounced, unbidden, stark naked, and starving. It’s through these circumstances that he meets the woman who will become his wife, when she’s still a girl and he’s a middle-aged man. Their romance grows in fits and starts until his wife is about 20 and he is about 28, when they end up in their proper ages and at the same place in the same time. Hard to wrap your mind around? Yes. But imagine how hard it was for the author to keep track of her characters while also describing their romance with touching sincerity. That makes this book one of the best I read this winter.

Kate Schlegel


Rachel Pine’s The Twins of Tribeca is a dishy and only slightly disguised roman à clef about a season in the life of the Miramax publicity department. Perhaps the first one of these books to go beyond simple gossip into working-class rage, it’ll make you feel a little sick at heart. (Publication date: June 8)

Choire Sicha


Listening

The Decemberists feel like a band custom made for me, combining my English-lit pretensions with my childhood love of the show tune and my drama-fag weakness for pageantry. Their third album, Picaresque, was a slow grow—maybe because I was so knocked out by their first two—but it’s become the soundtrack for happy, toe-tapping days in my office. The 10-minute epic “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is as ambitious as you’re likely to hear from pop music, like prog-rock for melody-loving bookworms.

Sarah Hepola


Vic Chesnutt is an earnest, wheelchair-bound singer from Georgia. I’ve been listening to one of his songs, “In My Way, Yes,” a beautiful anthem to just about everything.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad


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Last Friday morning, from the time I climbed in my car to the time I arrived at work, I heard the following songs: “Give It Up” by LCD Soundsystem, “Teenage Lust” by MC5, “Bad Cartridge” by Beck, “Basstation” by Girls Against Boys, the DJ Spooky remix of Public Enemy’s “B Side Wins Again,” “It’s For You” by Out Hud, and then, just when I thought I couldn’t get any more hyped, “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode. I entered my office feeling like I’d consumed 30 cups of coffee and ready to kick some ass. Had someone made me an awesomely awesome mix CD? No—that’s a typical morning’s programming at Seattle’s KEXP studio, the coolest thing to emit radio waves since the pulsar. And while I wish I could gloat about having exclusive access to this national treasure, the streaming audio at kexp.org allows people around the world to enjoy the best goddamned radio station in the history of mankind. You can even listen to archived shows for up to two weeks after they broadcast, so tune in to 7:55 on the morning of March 11 to re-create the glory of my Friday commute.

Matthew Baldwin


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The Houston Symphony Orchestra and Renée Fleming performing Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs: reverential, dark, full of joy, and my go-to album on the subway when I want some time to myself. After listening to it probably 20 times, I think I’ve only gotten about 10 percent of what it offers. A gold mine. Oddly great for running in the woods.

Rosecrans Baldwin


Though they probably don’t want it, the time has finally come to defend R.E.M.—because it’s too easy to forget that, before the natty suits, before the too-serious videos, and, yes, before the mandolins, they were a visionary rock band with stripped-down, beer-filled, heartfelt songs. What I’ve been listening to lately, 1984’s Reckoning, is as uplifting and raucous as it is stark and moody—an early masterpiece, from before they were icons.

Andrew Womack


Ready for spring? Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, some 66 brief works, are some of the best classical items I know for shaking off winter and welcoming the daffodils. They’re hard to find collected, but I’ve been listening to a 1953 recording by pianist Artur Rubinstein, digitally remastered by BMG/RCA. It combines 11 of the Lyric Pieces with a few other Grieg compositions. Scrumptious.

Kate Schlegel


Watching

Boxers have always come from the lower classes. Who else would knock themselves senseless for the mere chance at a better life? NBC’s new reality show The Contender pits 16 of these working-class scrappers against each other for a million-dollar award that, finally, doesn’t feel like a gratuitous game-show payout. Elitists who dog on reality television obviously didn’t see the second episode, which climaxed in a nail-biting underdog victory, made all the more intense for the fact that, unlike in the movies, there was no bad guy. Someone just had to lose.

Sarah Hepola


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In cinema today there’s so much CGI that you can’t tell where the pixels end and the flesh begins, but ‘70s disaster flicks instead had to use smoke and mirrors—literally. With as many things as explode into flames in movies like The Poseidon Adventure, The Hindenburg, and Towering Inferno, it’s hard to believe their pyrotechnic directors didn’t just go ahead and ignite their sets and full cast and crew while filming. But because all these films have been hastily transferred to DVD with no special features to inform us otherwise, we’ll just have to assume they were working with a lot of fire extinguishers.

Andrew Womack


Russia’s War—Blood Upon the Snow: Five seemingly endless tapes all about Russia’s brutal experience during World War II! Josef Stalin’s big hair! Hitler’s big mouth! Tanks! More tanks! Mass graves! Gulags and concentration camps! Everyone is evil! Everything sucks! Soundtrack like a funeral march! Even better, creepy Henry Kissinger introduces each episode! Doom! Doom! Drums in the deep! Play it during parties! Play it before bed! You’ll love it! No matter what, your life can’t be as bad as this!

Tobias Seamon


The Wire, HBO’s cop show series, which takes over where Homicide left off (meaning it takes place in Baltimore), is finishing its third season and appears to be getting stronger and more compelling—which is a tall order given the potency of the first two seasons. Adding writers George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane didn’t hurt. Great writing, acting, editing, photography—and the two versions of the theme song “Way Down in the Hole” by the Five Blind Boys and Tom Waits are the best music to a TV series since Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn.” I was hooked from the very first, when a cop is talking to a gangbanger on a stoop overlooking the body of another banger—the oddly named Snotty—and the kid explains why Snotty was shot and why they didn’t kick him out of the weekly craps game: “This is America.” Brilliant.

Robert Birnbaum


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Eating

Why I don’t see the pandan leaf—a staple in many Asian cuisines—used more often here in the U.S. is beyond me. I am led to believe that the notorious vanilla mafia is behind its suppression; the aroma is as soft, sweet, and distinctive. Use in breads, cakes and pastries, as well as in meat and fish dishes. Figure this one out, Iron Chef.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad


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Bean is a staple for delicious Mexican food in Williamsburg. Get their mole nachos, their mole enchiladas, their mole burrito—pretty much anything with their mole sauce on it…it’s superior to Rosa Mexicano’s much-lauded rendition and a quarter of the price.

Andrew Womack


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My family has a Shake Shack problem. My sister is an addict (it doesn’t help that she works nearby). My mother, who lives in Connecticut, has taken the train into the city just for a burger. As a family we have a pretty big cheeseburger problem, but that Shake Shack’s burgers are so good and cheap and that it’s so nice to enjoy them outside in the park means our arteries are quickly hardening. Last year I probably ate at Shake Shack twice every week, and more than once I had the triple-burger, two-beer, one-nap value meal.

Are we planning a sort of family reunion around its reopening in April? Will I dare to order the unlisted quadruple burger? Oh yes.

Rosecrans Baldwin


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Working & Playing

Verilux “sunshine in a box” full-spectrum bulbs keep you from going crazy in a dark Manhattan apartment!

Choire Sicha


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The music is great. The films are fun. But let’s face it: The real star of South by Southwest is Austin’s cloudless blue sky in mid-March, co-starring a free keg of Shiner beer and a dozen delicious breakfast tacos with my name on them. Sayonara, suckers. See you when my hangover clears.

Sarah Hepola


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Olay Age Defying Daily Renewal Cream with beta hydroxy complex! Prepare your rapidly deteriorating face now for a harsh season in the sun and salt.

Choire Sicha


The German board game St. Petersburg won the International Gamers “game of the year” award for 2004. But I don’t like it. It’s overly long, and the cards must be constantly dealt and shuffled about. But the freeware PC implementation of St. Petersburg is near-perfect. With all the busywork automated the game takes a fifth as long to play—the perfect diversion while I’m waiting for my dialup modem to make a connection or whenever I have five minutes to kill—and I’ve played it hundreds of times since I downloaded it a few months ago (439 times, to be exact; the program also tracks statistics). It’s got a much steeper learning curve than, say, Minesweeper, both in terms of how to play and how to not get creamed by the CPU. But once you grok the rules and basic strategies you may find yourself utterly addicted.

Matthew Baldwin


[ link: St. Petersburg Freeware PC Game ]
[ link: Download English Rules for St. Petersburg ]


Herman Miller’s Customer Service will just mail you glides for their old chairs if they’re missing! For free! And they’ll say thank you! Isn’t that amazing? Is there any other company in the world that’ll send you free furniture replacement parts, particularly when you, like, bought the chairs on eBay and have never actually given Herman Miller a dime?

Choire Sicha


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TMN’s Contributing Writers know where to find the purple couch. Long live the pan flute, mini mafia, and Michael Jackson. More by The Writers