Have not checked this out thoroughly yet, but it seems a neat & handy site/blog: the New Canon: the Best in Fiction Since 1985. One could object that the choices veer a bit predictable, but then, that’s kind of what a canon is all about definitionally, and it strikes me as a fairly solid list. A little surprised to see David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion on there, I don’t think of that as a book that has produced an enormous amount of readerly pleasure, but then DFW’s works do seem generally difficult to figure out how to place in a canon once you get past Infinite Jest (I’d include the essays before the stories, personally).
We’ve fallen into the habit of spending the night in Batavia on our drives East. It mostly just happens to fall at a good spot for us to break for the night, but we also kind of like it.
We have a big soft spot for a popular Greek diner-type 24-hour restaurant called Sport of Kings (named for the nearby seedy-looking racetrack) where you can get a really good chicken Souvlaki plenty big enough for two to share for $10.99. Tip: get it with the sweet potatoes. Sport of Kings is a great place to settle into for some comfort food (fantastic rice pudding, too) after driving for 9 1/2 hours (no beer, though, unfortunately).
This visit, though, we discovered what is now my favorite establishment in Batavia, the Pok-a-Dot diner, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary.
Amazing place, no? [What is a Beef on Weck, you ask? Well, I still have never eaten one, but it is a central element of the distinctive Western New York state regional cuisine, a kind of sliced roast beef sandwich on a kosher-salt-topped roll, dipped in "au jus." Here's a fuller explanation.]
Here’s the inside.
As someone commented in a posting, it feels a bit like a slightly amplified food truck. One pregnant woman complained/ commented that she had trouble fitting into the bathroom, and it’s true that it’s quite a squeeze– feels like you’re on a boat, with a wooden sliding door!
The Pok-a-Dot was apparently a favorite of Batavia’s most famous native son author, John Gardner– best known for his Beowulf retelling Grendel, and nowhere near as prominent now, I don’t think, as he was in his heyday in the 60s and 70s… but perhaps ripe for a revival, I don’t know. The John Gardner society holds their annual readings at the Pok-a-Dot because it’s mentioned in his 1972 novel set in a fantastical Batavia, the Sunlight Dialogues, which (wiki) ”follows Batavia police chief Fred Clumly in his pursuit of a magician known as the Sunlight Man, a champion of existential freedom and pre-biblical Babylonian philosophy. As Clumly believes in absolute law, order, justice and a Judeo-Christian world view, the two butt their ideological heads in a number of dialogues, all recorded on audiocassette by Clumly.”
Here’s a little plaque the John Gardner society had erected outside the Pok-a-Dot:
Breakfast was pretty great. We ordered as much as we thought we could possibly eat, for four, with coffees, etc, and the total was something like $19.60. Sarah and I each had the eggs-with-peppers– you can choose Hot or Sweet or Mixed, and I got the latter. Delicious, filled with tomatoes too, and accompanied by a buttery hard roll toasted on the grill. I was kind of hoping I’d get a “weck” (see above) but it did not have the salt so was I guess simply a hard roll.
Before concluding my guide to Batavia, I will mention the place we’ve stayed for our last couple visits, the Sunset Motel. I kind of like this place though can’t really give it an all-out recommendation. It is a bit shabby and really could use some fixing up. It is clean, however, and the place has some charms. It has a large field in back which is great for taking the dog and kids on a little run, and features some spooky cow and deer figurines:
And, remarkably, the interior back wall of the motel features a worn/fading mural featuring an accurate rendering of the motel’s proprietor holding a glass of wine (very debonair!) and accompanied by a Shih-Tzu (he currently has two of these) and two Dobermans.
As I said, this place could definitely use a renovation– for example, it was rather difficult to get our motel room door shut — you had to put a shoulder to it. But I give it a lot of credit for the wacky mural and the uncanny deer.
Every episode of the original 1959-1964 The Twilight Zone is streaming on Netflix; realizing this gave me one of those moments of thinking, “wow, we have so much culture available to us at the click of a button”… even though often we end up watching American Idol anyway.
A couple months ago I got the whole family to watch “Walking Distance,” apparently J.J. Abrams’ favorite all-time episode, an exceedingly melancholy one that the girls found a bit too slow and sad, I think.
Last night, inspired by the obituaries of writer Richard Matheson (who also wrote numerous sci-fi classics including I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man (on which The Incredible Shrinking Man [and Woman] were based), I decided to call up a couple of his classic episodes.
First we watched his famous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring a handsome, young, non-jowly William Shatner. Shatner plays a man, Bob Wilson, whose wife has fetched him from a post-breakdown stay in a mental hospital. His previous breakdown occurred on a plane, so this plane-ride back home is tense; the episode begins with their boarding the plane and trying to settle in for the ride. There are of course some amusing circa-1960 air travel details, e.g. she scolds him for lighting up during takeoff; you have to wait until airborne to smoke in the cabin.
The story is simple: Bob looks out the window and sees a strange creature, a Sasquatch/ Yeti, furry ape humanoid-type, prowling around on the wing.
Is he seeing things? Or could there be something to this seeming hallucination? There’s not much more to it. As is often true on the show, the special effects and costumes are somewhat risible; the “gremlin” (as Bob refers to him, seeming to be thinking of WW2 aviator lore) looks to be covered in a fuzzy plush rug, and it’s hilarious when he gets very obviously lifted up by a wire and zips off backwards into the air (with a hint of a wave, or am I imagining that?). According to Wikipedia, Matheson himself complained that the creature was basically “a surly teddy bear.” And yet… the effect is quite uncanny and disconcerting. The scariest moment is when, having pulled back the curtain, Bob wincingly forces himself to draw it open again to check, to find the creature’s face pressed right up to the window/ our t.v. screen.
I kind of leaped and grabbed both Celie and Iris, who didn’t react as strongly as I did (they did find it scary, though). As you can see, the gremlin is pretty definitely racialized, with exaggerated lips and nose and a bit of a cliché “witch doctor” appearance, especially in this closeup.
I won’t give away the ending; the show concludes with a typically overwrought voice-over spelling out the final irony & twist: “For, happily, tangible manifestation is, very often, left as evidence of trespass– even from so intangible a quarter – as – the Twilight Zone.”
Next we watched another celebrated Matheson episode, “The Invaders,” featuring a superb, mostly silent (aside from some moans and other wordless vocalizations) Agnes Moorehead as an old lady who lives alone in a cabin, without electricity or power, in the middle of nowhere. She’s preparing an inexplicably enormous pot of soup (I was sure this would have to play some role in the plot, following the Chekhov dictum– the pot seemed too over-sized not to serve a purpose, but it did not) when she hears a strange crash and a series of electronic beeps from her roof. She climbs up with her lantern and finds a little spaceship — resembling a kid’s paper mache art project– from which a couple tiny silver wind-up toy spacemen come toddling out. The rest of the episode features her battle with the “invaders,” armed only with an enormous wooden spoon (!– guess you need that to handle that amount of soup), a hatchet, and a blanket that she uses effectively at one point to catch up one of the guys and smash it to pieces on a table.
The big final irony/twist/reveal on this one is kind of silly, yet sort of thought-provoking in that Twilight Zone way. (It has a Planet of the Apes element to it.) But what makes the episode is Moorehead’s over-the-top, hyper-expressive, silent-film-style performance. (And the great black and white cinematography.)
Iris declared as we began that she has never in her life had any nightmare or bad dream inspired by a movie or t.v. show- haven’t had a chance yet to ask if this broke her streak.
We’ve had the chickens for maybe 8 months now. They are funny creatures– much more sociable than I expected. They come running if you enter the back yard when they’re out — always think you may have a treat for them (vegetable scraps, bread, or best of all, yogurt (!?)).
Sarah rigged up this stylish and ingenious door for them the other day. Unfortunately, they so far seem incapable of figuring out how to go through it. Or rather, they will come back into their enclosed run — going “into the toilet,” so to speak — but don’t understand how to do the other way.
Sometimes I do think that they are kind of dumb. But really, that’s an anthropomorphic way of thinking. They just have a very different intelligence than ours. On the other hand, if we think of intelligence as a form of cognitive resourcefulness outside of or beyond specific “scripts,” it does seem fair to say that they don’t have this in abundance. They do, and like to do, certain specific things: explore the yard hunting for seeds or other food, dust baths (these are hilarious to watch), being together in a group, being able to go to sleep when and how they feel like it (they all huddle on their roost in the hutch together).
Certain activities clearly satisfy their urges, and some things scare them. What scares and does not scare them can be funny. For example, a visiting dog barking ferociously and slavering at them through the fence bothers them very little. But Sarah once came into the yard and shook out a tablecloth, and they freaked out and ran squawking for the corners of the yard. Our theory is that what most scares them are raptors– hawks, eagles, falcons, etc. I also think it may be the case that they are “programmed” to count on a rooster to guard them from certain earth-bound classes of threats (like dogs), so they don’t need to worry about those. But for whatever reason — I guess maybe it makes sense — every hen needs to look out for threats from the sky for herself.
Thus the terror of the shaken tablecloth.
The recent Nick Paumgarten profile of James Salter in The New Yorker made me want to read his 1975 novel Light Years, which I’ve now done. It’s a really beautiful novel that sometimes reads a bit like To the Lighthouse if it had been written by the Hemingway of A Moveable Feast… with a lot of explicit post-1960s sex. And a touch of, I don’t know, Joan Didion or maybe better Renata Adler. It’s a portrait of a happy marriage and then its dissolution. For the first half of the novel, I once in a while felt just a touch irritated by, or at least slightly resistant to, the novel’s luxuriating in all the sensuous, tactile, lavish detail of the Berlands’ envy-producing life in a farmhouse outside NYC. All the fabulous, drawn-out meals sometimes make you wonder, do these people ever just throw together a sandwich? And a few of the sex scenes made me giggle -e.g. when Nedra is described as moving “like some marvelous beast.” But when the marriage disintegrates and the house is eventually sold, that luxuriating feels, in retrospect, poignant and sad, and idealized in hindsight:
The feast was ended. Like the story he had read to them so many times, of the poor couple who were given three wishes and wasted them, he had not wanted enough. He saw that clearly. When all was said, he had wanted one thing, it was far too small: he had wanted to give them the happiest of homes.
He has a very distinctive, crystalline prose… Gorgeous sentences, like a prose poem. I can see why (as the profile explains) so many contemporary novelists admire him.
Oh, this is too cool!
As part of James Salter month at the Paris Review, the journal’s blog has posted some of Salter’s notes and scribblings, documenting a little bit of his process coming up with the title for his 1975 novel Light Years: “At every magazine or publishing house, there’s always an editor or two with a knack for titles. But even so, rarely does one come in a flash of divine inspiration. There are iterations and themes and the same words written over and over. Here is a glimpse of what James Salter’s process was like with his 1975 novel Light Years…. Salter seems so close at points, circling back to light and years, sometimes on the same page but not always the same line, ranking his favorites and weighing the opinions of others.”
Tortoise Years would have been kind of hilarious– but fitting (the novel contains a very poignant and symbolically resonant tortoise).
Soma cafe, Bloomington; photo from Seriouseats.com
I find it interesting/ amusing that if you were placed blindfolded in one of the main downtown cafes of Bloomington, you could likely tell which one it was by hearing 20 seconds of the soundtrack.
The Scholars Inn Bakehouse (on the square): something very mainstream. I’m here right now, and it’s been total classic hits of the corniest/ most old-school variety. Sam Cooke’s “She was Only 16,” something by Linda Ronstadt, a Steely Dan song, “Shake Your Booty,” Creedence, etc. Absolutely zero gestures towards contemporary hipness of any kind. It’s as if they’re aiming for visiting parents or even grandparents of IU students. I have to admit I’m finding the bland medley somewhat soothing and non-distracting as I read, however. (Right now, I kid you not, Seals and Crofts’ “Diamond Girl”!)
Soma. In the back room, attempted deathly, library-like silence that can become very uncomfortable if someone actually has the temerity to have a conversation. (I have to admit that I once participated in a conversation about Derrida (!) here as 15 people tried to work; it was kind of excruciating.) In the front room, something very- to ridiculously hip/hipster. Old Sonic Youth, say. Usually great stuff, although once in a while it feels to me as if they’re trying too hard, and/or the music just gets too grating and distracting, and I wish for just a touch of Bakehouse-style corniness/ background tuneage. A friend once characterized Soma’s vibe as: “are you punk rock enough for our soy latte?”
Starbucks. You know what they play there. Interestingly, this is likely to be much “hipper” than what you’ll be hearing in the (local, non-corporate) Bakehouse. Something NPR-approved, the Shins or Neko Case or some such, perhaps. (I generally like it.) In case you needed to be reminded of the degree to which corporate America has adopted the signifiers of hip.
The Pourhouse. This is perhaps the most interesting case. The Pourhouse soundtrack seems to me to tend to cluster in a Venn Diagram overlap where “hipster/ indie/ alternative” overlaps with Christian rock. Or, let’s say, indie-alt music that would be potentially palatable to someone who likes Christian rock. Sufjean Stevens would be an obvious example. I find the Pourhouse overall a very pleasant place to work, and it used to be my go-to cafe, but lately I’ve cut back so thoroughly on post-breakfast caffeine that I get through the afternoons on peppermint tea, which they do not stock.
I realize I’m forgetting Rachael’s Cafe. I haven’t been there for a while and I can’t recall offhand what they’re usually playing.
I tease out of love, cafes of Bloomington. Rock on!
Sarah brought home this book from our (great) local public library, the Monroe County Public Library:
Allan Konya has written the most complete text on the Finnish sauna, covering the broad spectrum from the origins and rituals (something often overlooked), design and construction, materials, siting and layout. Every facet of the subject is thoroughly covered in detail and one comes away feeling he has finally understood what it takes to make a “good” sauna. This book follows quite closely the earlier text; “The International Handbook of Finnish Sauna” written by Allan Konya and Alewyn Burger. Anyone interested in designing, building or using a sauna should try to locate this book. It is the “bible” of the Finnish Sauna and is far superior to any other text on the subject. I have designed and built several saunas and still find useful information and inspiration in this book.
Not entirely sure why it caught Sarah’s eye, but anyway, when she got it home she discovered something we both found hilarious: some reader has taken it upon themselves to render the book more American-family-friendly by censoring (or Bowdlerizing), with a black Sharpie, the book’s images of nude Finns lounging in saunas.
Here are some examples:
Only a small amount of water should be thrown at a time!
Wow, nothing made it but the legs on that second girl!
I hate to tell you, concerned library user circa 1988, but you have taken what was a wholesome guide to Finnish saunas and those who enjoy them, and turned it into a very kinky volume– these images have become so much more erotic, as it is now impossible not to imagine precisely what lies under the tantalizingly thorough black ink.
Now to learn more about the often-overlooked rituals of the Finnish sauna…