Maggie Nelson on the Pleasure of Walking Out

I’m enjoying Maggie Nelson’s smart, probing The Art of Cruelty. Here’s one passage:

[I]n my own life, I know I generally feel very alive and emancipated when I choose to walk out on something. After all, you walk out when you realize that whatever it is you’re watching, for whatever reason, simply isn’t working. Walking out reminds you that while submission can at times be a pleasure, a risk worth taking, you don’t have to manufacture consent whenever or wherever it is nominally in demand…. The fact that the exit door isn’t barred, the feel of the fresh air on your face when you open it — all this serves to remind you of how good it feels to angle the full force of your body and attention toward that which seems to you a good use of your short time on the planet, and to practice aversion towards that which does not. These are freedoms that life does not always grant…

This brings to mind a trip with friends years ago to see a play, a student production almost an hour out of town. I thought I might be the only one hating it, and certainly wasn’t going to ask anyone else to leave at intermission, but thought I owed it to myself at least to hint vaguely at the possibility of cutting our losses and leaving. Seconds later we were all on our way out. Yes, “the feel of the fresh air on your face” when you walk out of that theater– she really captures it.

This also reminds me why I found so silly the premise of this recent piece– here it is, “Finish That Book! You suffer when you quit a story midway through—and so does literature.” Nope, completely wrong, the freedom to toss a book aside — even if capriciously, even if for no good reason — is basic to the pleasure of reading.

The Robot Unicorn

We recently came across this almost-forgotten testament to my wife’s awesomely resourceful & creative parenting.

When our kids were approaching their fourth birthday, over seven years ago, one of them (I forget which) announced that what she most wanted for her birthday was a “robot unicorn.”

We puzzled over this for a while and I planned to move on to other, more possible gifts.

But Sarah got hold of this small plush unicorn, and sewed on green and red “Go” and “Stop” buttons. (She may have asked what would make a unicorn a “robot unicorn,” and gotten “buttons” as an answer.)

The gift was a hit and became a beloved object.

Sometimes kids can be easier to please than you expect…


The Penises of Southdowns Drive

I decided I wanted to document the penises of Southdowns Drive.

These graffiti appeared sometime maybe last summer. I found them amusing and somewhat charming, at least as far as penis graffiti go, and imagined they’d be removed or covered up pretty quickly, considering how many parents walk this route with young kids on the way to and from the park.

But nope, still there. Not sure if this should be attributed more to apathy and a lack of city responsiveness, or to a high degree of liberal tolerance on the community’s part.

Check ’em out next time you’re on Southdowns, just East of Bryan Park.


The 10 Saddest Sentences in Donald Antrim’s *The Emerald Light in the Air*

(Although I could have chosen alternatives.) I liked this book, a collection of stories, quite a bit but did find it somewhat devastating in overall effect.  It is also sometimes quite funny, however.  “Another Manhattan,” which I also remember reading in The New Yorker at the Western Skateland roller rink a year or two ago as my kids skated, is probably my favorite.

“Christopher… confided in a whisper that he had never been anything but a goddamn disappointment to his family, and that no matter how hard he tried, he’d never escaped or really ever understood his role as a clown, as a fool, but that he’d finally made up his mind that it didn’t matter, that their opinion of him wasn’t going to bother him forever.”  (“Solace.”)

“They had lied to each other so many times, over so many years, that deceptions between them had become commonplace, practically repetitive” (“Another Manhattan”).

“Back when he was in the hospital — in the past six months, there had been three emergency-room visits and two locked-ward admissions — he had spent day after day lying on a mattress, crying.” (“Another Manhattan”).

“On the mattress, shattered and sobbing over Kate and their messed-up love, he’d lain crushed.” (“Another Manhattan”).

“Margaret, one of the night nurses, met him on the ward.  She said, ‘Hello, Mr. Davis. You’re back with us again, I see.’ Then she showed him to a room of his own.” (“Another Manhattan”).

“She’d be afraid of him pulling her back, afraid of going childless all her life and winding up a widow, like her mother, running from place to place and never stopping.” (“He Knew.”)

“He’d felt it in his temple.  It was, somehow, both imaginary and real, a beckoning, an itch, a need for a bullet.” (“The Emerald Light in the Air.”)

“He remembered how the misery had bowed him over: He’d gone everywhere, in those days, with his head down, barreling rigidly forward, compounding the pain by moving at all; but when he touched himself to find where the pain was coming from he couldn’t find the spot.” (“The Emerald Light in the Air.”)

p.s. Here’s a beautiful profile of Antrim in the NYT Magazine by the great John Jeremiah Sullivan.

Traumatizing the Kids w/ Late Hitchcock



I may have traumatized the kids with my Family Movie Night selection, Hitchcock’s 1964 Tippi Hedren/ Sean Connery film, Marnie.  This was made a year after The Birds (also with Hedren, of course) and contains some elements recognizable from that, as well as from Psycho (twisted secret related to mommy) and Vertigo (ice-cool blond in uncanny duplicate).

It seems that some make claims for Marnie as a late, under-recognized German-Expressionist-styled minor Hitch masterpiece but I would not go that far; for the first 45 minutes or so I loved it but by the end I found it too long and very creepy– partly but not only in the right ways. Hedren plays Marnie, a cool blond kleptomaniac (Grace Kelly turned down the role) who ends up more or less blackmailed into marriage by Connery’s character. There’s something wrong with Marnie; she can’t stop compulsively stealing, and she can’t bear to be touched by a man (not that Hitchcock allows her to stay celibate).

Finally we get a return to/ reenactment of her primal scene, involving her creepy mother (shades of Psycho here), and an exorcism of her demons that reveals the source of her phobic reaction to certain stimuli, including the color red (gee what could that be about?) and the sound of knocking on the door.

Slight spoilers from here on: in the big reveal, as I sat there with my 10-year-olds, it was seeming conceivable that it would turn out that the movie’s repressed secret was that the 6-year old Marnie had been forced to prostitute herself to her mother’s clients.  Now that would have been maybe a 2000s David Lynch movie, not a 1960s Hitchcock movie… But you could tell that Hitchcock would’ve loved to do it that way if he felt he could have gotten away with it.

Re: Marnie’s line in the poster, “I’m just some kind of wild animal you’ve trapped,” Connery’s character alludes early on to a jaguarundi he captured and raised as a pet, but disappointingly, this is last we hear about it; I was hoping for a noir Bringing Up Baby angle there.

Trigger warnings for jaguarundi, horseback accidents, fireplace pokers, wet phallic tree branches crashing through windows, marital rape, and childhood quasi-molestation scenes.

Early-1970s craziness of Manchette’s *The Mad and the Bad*


Jean-Patrick Manchette’s bloody 1972 French thriller The Mad and the Bad is a recent release from the great New York Review Books Classics series. It’s quite crazy. I had that experience with it where I read half of it and got distracted for a few days, and then when I picked it up I’d lost track of a few of the plot points, which didn’t really matter much but added to the sense of sheer unmotivated perverse carnage.  In brief, a corrupt architect wants to get rid of his young nephew, who has fallen into his care.  He hires Julie, a young woman who has spent five years in a mental hospital, to take care of the boy, and then hires a brutal hit man with a bad ulcer, Thomson, to kill them both.  (I may have missed something here.)  The attempted execution goes wrong, Julie and the boy escape, and the rest of the book describes their attempt to elude the hit man and his fellow thugs.  The edition’s introduction explains that “for Manchette the world is a giant marketplace in which gangs of thugs — be they leftist, reactionary, terrorist, police, or politicians — compete relentlessly.”  There’s maybe a touch of R.D. Laing-style 1970s anti-psychiatry sentiment in the way the unstable Julie is the book’s only sympathetic character… But she’s pretty crazy, and not that sympathetic.  Society itself is a madhouse, as best exemplified, maybe, by an extended scene that could only be filmed by Quentin Tarentino in which the thugs shoot up an entire busy supermarket trying to kill Julie and Peter:

With stunning speed the store was transformed into a madhouse. More and more people started to run. A wake of detritus marked Julie’s trajectory through the aisles… Above the hullabaloo, by way of background, floated the sweet yet cannonading tones of an old Joan Baez hit, piped through speakers. The place was a bear garden…. Thomson could no longer see either Julie or Peter. He bounded down an aisle, knocking over an old woman who began to wail in terror. He trotted by Boys Apparel, his mouth full of bile…. This is exciting, I am enjoying this, Thomson told himself as he spat gastric juice onto the ground… Mothers were shielding their children by covering them with their bodies. The whole mass was shrieking. Thomson was doubled over with laughter.

I was imagining Mick and Keith reading this during the recording of Exile on Main Street in Keith’s villa outside Nice, although I guess the timing’s not quite right (recording was in 1971).  Still, this has early-1970s-craziness written all over it in a very specific way.


The divorced women’s Maus: Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel

I really loved Anya Ulinich’s new graphic novel Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.

I read it basically as memoir… Only now reflecting do I realize that it’s a novel.  Still, my guess is that it’s largely autobiographical (most of it seems to match up with the author’s life) — but I don’t actually know that.

You might especially enjoy it if:

  • you like Gary Shteyngart’s work and/or have an interest in contemporary Russia (the protagonist flies there for a visit early on) or in the generation of Soviet Jews who immigrated to the U.S. in the 70s following the loosening of the USSR’s emigration policies. “Evoking Louis C.K.’s humor and Amy Winehouse’s longing and anguish” says the jacket copy — hmm, that latter seems a strain, and I almost get the feeling that the copywriter was desperately trying to avoid mentioning Lena Dunham.  (I prefer Etgar Keret’s blurb: “the divorced women’s Maus.”)  But yes, she is quite hilarious, and recalls Shteyngart a bit in Little Failure in the way they both self-deprecatingly narrate their floundering attempts to de-Sovietize and to enter mainstream American life.  (And come to think of it, Lena’s visit to St. Petersburg functions in the narrative somewhat comparably to Shteyngart’s return back to Russia in Little Failure.)
  • you’ve done a lot of online dating in your late 30s or 40s or following a divorce.  The main plot of the book involves our narrator, divorced from her second husband Josh (the first was a quickie marriage basically for a green card), tip-toeing into the dating pool, having by age 37 had a grand total of three lovers to date.  Ulinich is hilarious on the parade of grim, weird, unattractive, misguided men Lena encounters.  She has earlier characterized the students in her adult-education creative writing classes as falling primarily into the five (sometimes overlapping) categories of the Brilliant, the Insane, the Illiterate, the Angry and Ambitious, and the Jerk-0ff:Photo on 8-10-14 at 1.44 PM
    [all images taken from the book w/o permission, all rights belong to the author]

    Her taxonomy of the guys she dates is comparable.  Here’s her overview of the photos men post on the dating sites:Photo on 8-10-14 at 1.41 PM

    Among her rules, she won’t date any guy posing in a photo “with little, mercilessly objectified third world children;”  nor a guy offering the photographer a beer, a cocktail, or a dead fish, “not to mention a guy in a chainmail helmet… that he’d made himself.” She eventually finds an apparent keeper, a moody bohemian 45 year-old she dubs the Orphan.  I won’t give away how things play out with him, as this is the main business of the last part of the book…

  • …but I will add that those who have endured a devastatingly painful breakup will probably find a lot to empathize with in Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.
  • you are a fan of Chekhov’s “the Darling” or Bernard Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel.”  The latter especially (as the book’s title suggests) plays a central role; the Orphan is reading it on a bus when our protagonist meets him, and she is struck by the coincidences:Photo on 8-10-14 at 1.56 PMI actually have not read Malamud’s story, but I get the sense that parallels run fairly deeply.
  • You are or have been a struggling writer or artist (especially in Brooklyn): she’s excellent on this.  Also good on parenting and being a single mother to two girls while trying to date.

But most of all, it’s very smart & rich, funny and poignant both, and works really well visually/aesthetically as a graphic novel, with a somewhat rough-hewn, sketchy style of drawing that employs different modes and visual looks to evoke different parts of the memoir; for example, when Lena is recounting a story from the past, it’s often in what seem to be lined notebook pages, with an exaggerated, cartoon-y style, as contrasted with the more moody realism of the present moment.

Here’s a neat cartoon/ graphic review of the book in Slate (one that veers off into the author’s own hilarious-awful dating anecdotes).  Here are the two excellent reviews of the book in the NYT.

Finally I’d like to say that Lena Finkle comes across as very likable and relatable throughout. As a protagonist should.