Thursday, June 26, 2008

Review Thursday: It pains me to say it, but...

It's unfortunate when you are the second book to write about layoffs and office life in the first-person plural. Man, would that suck, but such is the zeitgeist. I'm trying to write about fictionalized office life, so I'm interested in books that do it well. Because working is boring, writing about work is boring. When a writer captures the mundane and stifling in a fresh, even inspiring way, it's a truly remarkable accomplishment. When books about work take off, I think it's through capturing some kind of idiosyncratic singularity (like Ferris's book or the underrated Big If by Marc Costello) or the workplaces is a kind of accessory to the an overall commentary they are making to American culture (Palladio).

Another book I'm looking forward to reading is Among Other Things I've Taken Up Smoking, if for no other reason as it has an amazing title. Also, More Than It Hurts You, by a former teacher, Darin Strauss. It's gotten great notices, and I like the is-it-or-isn't-it premise about Munhausen by Proxy, and the attendant satirical tone.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Review Thursday: Taco Time

Taco Porn., originally uploaded by Kevin Church.

I have mixed feelings about this new taco-reviewing blog, Lost Taco. The writing and visuals are very good, but as a native Southern California who moved to New York quite a while ago, I'm kind of over this whole "why can't I find a decent taco in the city"? The pejorative perspective people have of the Mexican food situation in NYC is a holdover from the time, a decade or so ago, when we had very few bona-fide Mexicans living and cooking here, and most of your tacos would be slung by someone from China. It's true that East Coast natives have grown accustomed to inferior, Benny's Burrito-type concoctions. But immigration patterns have changed, and there are thriving Mexican scenes in Sunset Park and Jackson Heights that are emblematic of the way Mexicans are weaving into the culinary fabric of city life. Transplants who whine about the lack of good Mexican food haven't gotten out enough.

The second thing I've come to understand (despite being a reformed sanctimonious taco snob from the Left Coast) is that taste in tacos is really very subjective. Lost Taco gives the thumbs up to Pinche Tacqueria, a Nolita sliver which I think epitomizes flavorless, gringofied hoity-toity Mexican. Thought she does rightly single out Zaragoza in the East Village. One adjustment Californians must inevitably adjust to is eating
real Mexican-from-Mexico food, and not Cal-Mex food. That means tacos (just meat, sprinkling of cilantro, onions and cheese, no guacamole, no kiwi fruit), and not burritos, which are Cal-Mex.

I have to admit that my favorite taco place on the planet (please, 8 readers of the blog, keep this to yourself), is located in New York City. It's called Tehuitzingo, and it's a little bodega on 10 ave between 47th and 48th St. It's run by a couple from Puebla, MX. Squeeze past the gregarious man in the front and find two Spanish-speaking ladies in the bag slinging the most sublime tacos enchiladas (spicy carnitas) you've ever had in your life. They are two dollars a piece, and you can grab a beer from the convenient refrigerator case nearby to ease the heat. I returned from a foodie crawl in San Francisco's Mission District craving these delectable specimens, with the realization an incredible taco place can be found in the most unlikely places. And when you've found your bliss, you'll keep coming back again and again.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Review Thursday: My new favorite show

I remember seeing the warnings posted around "campus" when I was a student at NYU. Beware a well-dressed woman who claims she's found a wallet right near you. Beware when she asks you to hold onto the money until they can find the owner of the wallet. Be especially on guard when some other stranger become involved in the debate. These notices appeared frequently one year. They told a little story about gullibity, street theater and greed, for they outlined the specifics of a con called the "pigeon drop" which has been around since the Depression.

I found the notices as compelling as a soap opera in miniature. I follow them avidly, and began to do my own research on this kind of American folk hero, the con man. I read books like the Big Con and watched movies like The Sting and David Mamet's wonderful House of Games. In short, I was totally obsessed with con artistry.

And you could chalk my ardor for the FX series the Riches to that initial obsession, but in fact I think there is much more to it than that. It's a show about the American version of the gypsies, the Traveller clan, and concerns a family of grifters headed by Eddie Izzard as Wayne Molloy. Overall, the show's definitely got a little FX low-budge clunkiness in terms of the writing and production value. But Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard are both sensational in completely unique ways, and together they are a force to be reckoned with. Who knew that two Brits would play a couple of white trash Southern thieves so soulfully and convincingly?

The Riches starts out with Driver's character Dahlia getting out of prison after two years. Driver as Dahlia actually looks like someone coming out of prison, not a dressed-down movie star, and her performance in the series is continually rich and surprising. She bears both the wounds of being let down by Wayne, and also the drug habit she picked up in prison, and often the pain she's able to express in the role in wrenching.

That's not to say the show is depressing; to the contrary it's often hilarious. Part of it is the fish out of water premise--through a twist of fate, the Molloy family assumes the identity of a pair of wealthy suburbanites, the Riches of the title. Part of the humor comes through Izzard's hilarious, charismatic performance. He discovers the man he's playing is a securities lawyer, and goes so far as to con his way into a job. One further surprise about the show is that Wayne Molloy et al are not the best con artists. Much of the fun is watching them fail and weasel their way out of another mess. It's cheesy, but I guess that's what makes them so "relatable" and appealing.

Even when the script falters, Driver and Izzard pull it up through their talent and chemistry. And I think that a lot like another one of my favorite shows, Weeds, the casting here is really superb, from Margo Martindale as a pill-popping neighbor married to a gay man to Hartley Underwood as the high-strung, one armed neighborhood bitch. I've been watching the first season on DVDs-through-the-mail, and I highly recommend it for anyone who likes a good dark comedy with indelible characters.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Ode to Bryant Park

Central Park is for weekend warriors, rollerbladers, ramblers. Prospect Park is where mad Olmstead's vision found it's full flourish. You are the park of the corporate citizen. The great green heart in a sharply delineated empire of shiny boxes.
Bryant Park, Friday, 1:15 PM 6/6/08
See white-shirted men flip their ties over their shoulders and squint at their Blackberries from 1:14 to 1:54. Glossy-haired women in slim, neutral colored skirts and alligator slingbacks throw their heads back and laugh. Oh, gotta go, another project to manage, pencil to push.
You are a patch of land we can stake our claim on for an hour or less. You defy the ring of skyscrapers with your flat expanse of green. Your lions guarding reams of paper valuable only to the bookish and anachronistic.

You are completely wi-fi enabled, which means that completely invisible to the naked eye, the trees and posting updates to that say: "The lawn is closed. It is resting after a major event" and your human inhabitants are soundlessly running algorithms that will surely help them crack the quest for true love.
You are the place where, in my youthful adventurousness as a camera assisant, I floated high above the tree line on a crane. Basically, we were going to start tight on a mitten that was lying on your sidewalk. When a delicate woman’s hand entered the frame, the crane would begin its graceful arc, pulling back to follow the woman as she walked away from camera and towards the opposite side of the park. The cameraman and I, strapped to the end of the long crane arm, would then start our ascent, up to above the trees, where I was to quickly rack focus the on the glowing Chrysler Building in the distance. Today I looked up at the top of your trees and thought that they must have grown in the past few years.
Today I wandered through the flocks of watchers. Those of us who come here after work to watch movies like Hud and Superman, or during, to glaze over among the masses. To feel like our lives are intersecting, even when they aren't, and in the middle of the grid, to gaze on something alive.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Review Thursday: Dissolute Cities

“Nothing in this book can be considered reliable or accurate,” reads the jackassy disclaimer of James Frey’s third foray into fiction, Bright Shiny Morning. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on whether or not the writer who’s making self-aggrandizement cool again has mastered a sense of originality, I only remember being in the minority of people who thought A Million Little Pieces was corny and overblown. At the time I received of the phony memoir, I was reviewing books for the Quality Paperback Book Club, and I couldn’t fathom all buzz the book was getting. It’s main claim to fame seemed to be using Capitalization and punctuation incorrectly to Make. A. Point. Man. Also the bloody, no painkillers airplane scene. That was Intense. But it never seemed particularly Real. So Oprah revealed him as a Big Fake. Big Whoop.

This time around, people seem to be responding to Frey’s portrait of LA, or at least Janet Maslin is, pulling a Michiko Kakutani and writing the review of his book in his style. I just want to know why are people so impressed with writing like this, when there are so many similar, better books? It’s the same thing I thought when I picked up Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children. I had read it talked up in Elle (don’t mock me, they actually devote an admirable amount of ink to books), and so reserved a copy at the library. From all the advance notice, the book promised to be a riveting portrait of sketchy types in Las Vegas—you know, criminals! Broken dreams! Strippers! The porn industry! I like my salacious literary reads as much as the next girl, and I was all primed for a seedy vision of Las Vegas to wash over me.

Man, was I let down by this book. It felt as though the writer tried really hard but a book that should have been populated by the richness of intersecting lives had tumbleweeds rolling through it.

More than that, both books seem a pale shadow of an overlooked favorite of mine, a novel that takes a panoramic view of Los Angeles and delivers something funny, powerful, emotional, authentic and edgy. Not just James Frey posturing “edgy,” either. Really edgy. That book is I’m Losing You by Bruce Wagner.
In an overflowing plot too complex to explain, Wagner gets up close to the lives of everyone from a heartbroken studio exec to a crazy masseuse who believe she can steal people’s energy. What continually impresses me about his writing is how well he modulates tone—one minute biting and satiric, the next, emotional and lyrical. I’ve always thought that his deserving novels are not given the praise and attention they deserve because they are about Hollywood, and regular people, for some reason, don’t read Hollywood novels. But in I’m Losing You and the later Still Holding (and you have to get past the groaning phone lingo inspired titles) he draws a bead on the human experience in extremity and comes up with something as invigorating as it is wrenchingly emotional. Wagner’s books always make me want to write, and for a populated panorama of a dissolute city, these more recent contenders just can’t hold a candle.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The revolution will not have a Facebook page

It’s like it’s 1997 again, said one of the industry vets I was having lunch with at the IAB Social Media and User Generated Content Conference on Monday. If that’s the case, I want to know, where’s my ping-pong table? Why can’t I have a margarita machine in my office? Where is the launch party and, more importantly, my stock options?

Let’s face it, this is 2008. I’m not a millionaire on paper or anywhere else except the land called make-believe. Friendster, once the boon of noncommittal urban hipsters is now relegated to popularity only among Pilipino teenagers, and your grandmother has a Facebook page. Is social media the next big thing? In case you do not have the time or the cash to attend such an event, here is a summary of the day’s events:

Keynote: Seth Goldstein of Social Media

He talked about the social media challenge, how volume is up and effectiveness is down, but what struck me the most was how he mentioned his wife had come up with the term “social media” a couple years ago and they registered the URL. Which just goes to show you that when picking a mate, whimsical brilliance can go just as far as sheer dollars and cents in terms of net worth. Try to shack up with someone who thinks of good ideas and registers those domains, as your beloved may be in possession of the next type idea!

It's All About Performance.... Isn't It?, with a bunch of people from DoubleClick BuzzLogic and AvenueA Razorfish

I love it when marketers talk about harnessing the power of the social media frontier. They are herding cats, as it were. That’s not the right expression exactly. What’s the term for taking a giant grass-roots movement and when your brand happens to come up, acting like you’ve influenced it? David-and-Goliathism? When David is the marketers and Goliath is the user base? There’s an anarchic side of me that loves this—that if you were in a pessimistic mood, you could say that marketing is in everything, or if you’re a believer in the social media space, you could say that people are taking control of brands from marketers.

Consumer Panel with Ideas to Go

Couple of things that I noticed here: focus groups are always funny. This was a group of so-called “creative consumers” who are impaneled by a group called Ideas to Go. They are like these strange animals, these people who do not work in marketing. They are seventeen year olds worth being flown out to sit on a stage in front of two hundred puzzled marketers in suits. The company had them list “social medias” that they consume. The moderator seemed like a sort of actor who rolled big, jargony words around on his tongue.

Facebook workshop

Again, I sat there wondering—are these marketers really creating phenomena on social media sites, or at they witnessing phenomena and then claiming credit? There was a dude who markets Proctor and Gamble brands like Tide with public outreach efforts like one called “Loads of Hope.” You can buy a hipsterish ironic t-shirt with a retro Tide logo and all proceeds with go to New Orleans, where presumably laundry detergent money washes away all sorrows. I was thinking there’s so little brand differentiation among detergents—they are all bright boxes with splashy comic book-like lettering—that it seems a bit of a lost cause to try and stand out. Yeah, it may be cool to wear your retro Tide shirt, but does that really make anyone think about the brand? I wasn’t sold on it.

There are days I long to escape to a land with no marketing in it. What would such a world look like? Is it a magical place in Canada that you can only reach by dogsled? And can you give me some directions?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Picture Monday: W'burg

W'burg, originally uploaded by Brooklyn Bridge.