Literary Aperitif
Pauline Kael and a Coco Chill Martini at the Eclectic in NoHo

James Wolcott’s memoir about being a writer in 1970s New York and his lengthy chapter on film critic Pauline Kael made me excited to read Brian Kellow’s recently released biography of her.

So I went to Book Soup, a cozy bookstore on the Sunset Strip, to meet him and get an autographed copy of his book.

I began reading A Life in the Dark at a lounge-y restaurant in the NoHo arts district section of North Hollywood. I’d never been to The Eclectic before but I loved it - seriously one of the best Los Angeles restaurants I’ve been to yet. Delicious cream cheese-stuffed french toast and this magnificent alcoholic minty chocolate milkshake-tasting thing. Plus, being in NoHo it’s surrounded by a lot of art galleries, so the walls are covered with entrancing photos and paintings. NoHo is no joke when it comes to creative food, cocktails, and decor.


Becoming Ginger Rogers: How Ballroom Dancing Made Me a Happier Woman, Better Partner, and Smarter CEO, is a sweet memoir by Patrice Tanaka. At age 50, in the midst of depression over 9/11, the demise of her business, and her husband’s illness and eventual death, Tanaka decided to take up ballroom dancing. And it really helped lift her out of her misery and make her a whole person again. Ballroom can do that. Believe me. And it can be addictive.

I also danced ballroom competitively for several years, like Tanaka, as an amateur, and though I didn’t know her personally, I remember seeing her around the studios and the ballroom competition floors. So I was really delighted, and proud, to see her book exhibited at Book Expo America last year, which I attended. Of course I snatched up a copy immediately! Ballroom for me too was an escape from my problems - I had a really stressful job that at times was horribly depressing. So, her lovely book brought back a lot of happy memories.

This past weekend, I joined my father in Palm Springs, CA to see a few films showing in the Palm Springs International Film Festival. I relaxed at The Islands restaurant down the highway in Palm Desert with a Shipwreck: Parrot Bay coconut rum, Midori, Grenadine, and orange and pineapple juice. Delic! And, since Tanaka specialized in Latin Ballroom (as did I - Samba was both of our favorites), her book kind of went with the tropical, rum-heavy drink :)

"Lucking Out" With a Nice Dry Riesling at ArcLight Hollywood Cafe

Having recently moved from New York to Los Angeles, I’ve been devouring James Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York. It really makes you feel what it was like to be a young writer in New York during that period, which I find fascinating. Wolcott, who’s long been a contributing writer for Vanity Fair (as well as a novelist and a political essayist) started out at the Village Voice, having landed a job (without even completing college mind you!) on the recommendation of Norman Mailer, who was taken so with an essay Wolcott wrote for his college newspaper. I wonder if that could ever seriously happen in today’s New York. It seems like you need a degree from Yale or Harvard to get anywhere in that city, especially in publishing. One reason I moved to L.A. is that I feel that this city is much more open that way…

Anyway, the book is filled with all kinds of anecdotes and tidbits about the glittery writers and personalities Wolcott saw on a regular basis, being at the Village Voice - like Wallace Shawn and Anais Nin. He was a regular at CBGB and wrote a great deal about Patti Smith; he was rather fascinated by her. And he became close friends with Pauline Kael, probably the most well-known and highly regarded film critic ever. Much of the first part of the book is about her, what she was like, where she hung out, how she took criticism, what she liked and didn’t. If you’re a film lover, that part is gold!

I haven’t been in L.A. long, but the ArcLight Hollywood soon became my favorite movie house. It’s located right in the heart of Hollywood, it’s pretty big with stadium seating, and you can purchase tickets in advance and choose your seat. So no standing in long lines for general admission. Instead, you can get there early and people watch (and there are quite interesting-looking people there) in the cafe / bar where they have a decent wine / cocktail list. Or you can browse in the book shop across from the cafe, where they have a very nice selection of glossy coffee table books, like this one, by Patrick Ecclesine, about the different neighborhoods of Sunset Boulevard and the characters who inhabit them:

Or you can look at the art work located throughout. The last time I was there they had an exhibit on Michael Jackson impersonators.

They also have original costumes worn by actors in various films. Below are costumes worn by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes 2. Jude Law seems rather tall!

More Zany Adventures of Waverly Bryson, With a Pomegranate Martini

The oldest remaining Bob’s Big Boy, in Burbank, may not serve alcohol, but Mo’s across the street most definitely does. They have a lovely little cocktail list, and delic burgers to boot. Their pomegranate martini (vodka, Pama Pomegranate Liqueur, and Grand Marnier - very yummy albeit a bit sickly sweet after more than one :S) is perfect with Maria Murnane’s It’s a Waverly Life, her hilarious chick-lit sequel to Perfect on Paper: The Misadventures of Waverly Bryson. Why is it so entertaining and comforting watching another woman struggle to figure out the right career for her, and to find romance in the big city? I guess because if you’ve been there - and most of us have - it lets you know you’re not alone. 

L.A. NOIR and a Big Boy

My first week in L.A. I went to Barnes and Noble on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade for a reading by three writers of L.A. Noir. I’m working on some noir stories and a longer work so… Anyway, I ended up buying the first in the Los Angeles Noir series, and, I have to say, these stories are a perfect introduction to L.A. They’re organized by neighborhood, and I feel like I have a real sense of places like Mulholland Drive thanks to Michael Connolly’s darkly ironic “Mulholland Dive,” the combo of wealth and the working classes in Loz Feliz from Janet Fitch’s “The Method,” the massage parlors of Koreatown from Naomi Hirahara’s “Number 19,” and my favorite, Susan Straight’s “The Golden Gopher” set in downtown, which is just beautifully written (and also, not surprisingly, won an Edgar award).

The oldest remaining Bob’s Big Boy (built in the 40s) is not far from where I’m living right now, and it kind of makes me feel like home here since I actually worked as a hostess at a Bob’s in Phoenix before college.

Love the sign, love the statue of the larger-than-life-sized boy, love the car hop service and the classic car show they have in the parking lot every Friday night. So West Coast!

And, I don’t know but I can somehow see a noir piece set in or around that restaurant. I mean, as cute as he is, that statue can be a little creepy… right?

Only prob (for me anyway) is that Bob’s doesn’t serve alcohol. So, my aperitif here had to be a simple Coke… But free refills!

Robert McKee’s STORY and Patys’ House Cab

Finally settling into L.A. Reading Robert McKee’s classic book on how to write a compelling screenplay, Story. Actually, my literary agent recommended the book to me years ago to help me give my novel a more dramatic arc. So, that book is not just for screenwriters. I’m re-reading it now, at Patys, a retro diner recommended by L.A. Magazine, in Toluca Lake, which is near Burbank’s Media Center, the home of studios like Warner Bros. and Disney (and Jay Leno :) ). They had a house lovely Cabernet (and the waitress graciously asked to see my ID when I ordered!) and delicious, homey chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes.

PERFECT ON PAPER and a Glass of Champagne on Brighton Beach Boardwalk

Every year I celebrate the beginning of summer by going out to Brighton Beach, and nibbling on red caviar and sipping light champagne at one of the Russian restaurants - either Tatiana’s or the Winter Garden - on the boardwalk. I always drink lots of water too to avoid a nasty dehydration headache :)

I took this photo in April of last year, when I trekked out to the beach, and brought with me Maria Murnane’s Perfect on Paper: The (Mis)Adventures of Waverly Bryson, a perfect beach read. As I’d said of the book then (on my other blog):

"It’s a really lovely book, sweet and funny with a cast of characters who are definitely very relatable — the annoying guy who just seems to be everywhere you are, the bitchy competitive co-worker who seems intent on stealing your job, the hot guy in whose presence you just can’t seem not to make an ass of yourself, etc. After being jilted at the altar by her fiance, Waverly sets out on a series of hilariously bad dates in an attempt to overcome her heartbreak and find that ever-elusive Mr. Right. But in the process, she finds herself instead.

Of course there are lots of bad date / overcoming evil ex novels, but what’s original here is Waverly’s knack for coming up with clever little sayings, sometimes darkly comical, that speak well to the single urban career girl, such as, “Ever had to work with a total nightmare? Honey, just wait until the company holiday party. We’ll see who’s all alone in the corner.” And, “Not everyone can have a cookie-cutter family, right? Honey, I’d cut your losses and settle for the cookies.” Waverly eventually creates a line of greeting cards bearing said clever sayings, and voila, her real calling emerges. Also, Waverly works in sports PR (as did Murnane — I like it when authors put their job details into their books; you can learn a lot about other walks of life that way) so there are some interesting, amusing scenes about the sports world — making this a book not only for women, but for men as well.”

Another thing that makes this book notable is that it was one of the first self-published successes. In 2009, after the book generated a great deal of buzz, Amazon picked it up and published it through its publishing arm, AmazonEncore. It’s gone on to be published in Hungarian and German (through Random House), a literary agent is currently looking for a film deal, and Amazon is also publishing the sequel, It’s a Waverly Life, due out this November. Murnane, who appears at a lot of book conferences to talk about her success, and kindly share her marketing and publicity strategies, is so sweet, so charming, you just can’t help but be happy for her. Here’s a profile I recently wrote about her. 

Hope I have the chance to go to Brighton Beach at least once more before I move from NY…

(Bitter)Sweet Melissa and Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That”

Not that Joan Didion’s writing could ever really be characterized as “sweet” but Pier 1 Cafe on the Upper West Side, at the Hudson River, is one of my favorite places in NYC (or at least it used to be), and thus seemed to be the perfect place for me to go when I wanted to re-read her 1968 essay “Goodbye to All That,” about her decision to leave New York. I needed to contemplate my own reasons for wanting to leave this city, that I once found so electrifying. The Sweet Melissa (prosecco, peach schnapps, and a splash of orange stoli) is simply what I always have there (though the bartenders seem always to forget how to make it). 

When I first read “Goodbye” (which is in her essay collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem), I was new here, and very in love with New York. I really couldn’t understand a word of that essay - emotionally, I mean. It’s funny, but re-reading it, I still don’t understand her exact reasons for becoming so disenchanted. Nor do I understand my own. She opens with the words:

It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.

She goes on to talk about that exact moment when NY began for her. I remember my moment with clarity too. It was May 1993. I’d just received my masters from a school in New England and I’d decided not to continue on with the PhD. But I didn’t really want to go back to Phoenix, where I’m from. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, just knew that academia was not for me. A friend of mine from grad school had a summer job on Wall Street and invited me to stay with him. We sublet his friend’s East Village railroad-style apartment.

We drove down from Providence, Rhode Island. My belongings consisted of two suitcases of clothes and a backpack of books. After we unpacked the car, we walked around the corner of Avenue A to St. Marks Place, the busiest street in the hood, in search of food. We ended up at a cozy-looking fifties-style diner called Stingy Lulus, with shiny red glitter-covered seats and the most beautiful entertainer I’d ever seen - a statuesque black drag queen with sky-high cheekbones and a gorgeously rich, deep voice. And he wore bright red pumps that reminded me of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. And, cliche as it is, I did have a little laugh to myself: you’re not in Kansas anymore! My New York began with that drag queen.

Nowadays, you might, might find such a thing in a tourist spot. Probably not. But this was not a tourist spot. The park at the end of the block - Tompkins Square - was gated shut at night and surrounded by police in riot gear. There’d recently been a squatter’s riot in the area. People sold crack on our doorstep. My friend suggested we abide by Abbie Hoffman’s dictum and be polite and say “no thank you” to them. He also gave me strict warnings not to walk any direction but west - we were surrounded by very bad neighborhoods: Alphabet City, the Lower East Side, and Kips Bay. Only the west village was safe to venture into. I was simultaneously terrified and thrilled.

Eighteen years and eight apartments later, both of those feelings are gone. My only real fear is that I’ll get hit by a car. Seriously. It seems there are more drivers in Manhattan than ever before and they have no respect for the law - not to mention human life - whatsoever. I subscribe to the Gothamist daily and it seems that every other day there is a report of a pedestrian death due to a vehicular assault. In doing research on NYPD for an upcoming book, I read Paul Bacon’s memoir, Bad Cop, and he said something like 75 percent of all drivers he stopped as a traffic cop turned out to be driving with suspended licenses. I dunno, to my mind that’s pretty astounding.

But the bigger problem is there is no thrill for me anymore. Haven’t seen any theater, any dance, been to any restaurants - haven’t really experienced anything for the better part of a decade that really made me feel the way that drag queen did. Which leaves me complaining ad nauseam about things that bother me - noisy neighbors, lack of space, lack of peace and quiet, year-round unpleasant weather (freezing all winter, rainy and humid all summer), exorbitant rents that skyrocket even during a serious recession, once New York phenomena - like the Halloween parade - overtaken by tourists and thus beyond borified. (I don’t know if it’s a word but if it isn’t, I just made it up.)

A friend recently asked me whether I think it’s more me or the city that’s changed. I’m not sure. Probably both. I don’t remember drivers being so horrible for one thing. This is, of course, the most pedestrian-friendly city in the U.S. I also don’t remember neighbors being so noisy. Everyone in my building used to abide by the 85 percent carpet rule (or, if they didn’t, they at least didn’t stomp around in hard-soled shoes all night) and no one blasted music after 11:00 on week nights. Of course this building used to be filled with young professionals who worked 14 hours a day and then partied outside at bars in their free time. Our shoe box apartments were just for sleeping. Now it seems all the studios in my building are inhabited by couples - and even one by a family with two children (which makes no sense to me at all) - instead of single people. Because there are so many more people here, it’s all the noisier. But a lot of the things - like noise and lack of space - probably didn’t bother me as much at the beginning because I was just so excited to be a New Yorker. They came with the package. The fascination far outweighed the annoyances.

All I know is that I need a break. At least for a while. I have two months before I leave and I’m already having bouts of sadness. New York will always be the place where I first felt inspired and then compelled to write. I’ll continue to write about this city, just from L.A. As one friend said, “perspective.”

DOVE SEASON By Johnny Shaw, with a Cadillac Margarita

"There is something about the desert that pisses everything off."

Thus begins Johnny Shaw’s by turns hilarious, suspenseful, whacked out, and surprisingly moving novel, Dove Season. Dove Season was a finalist in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and it got a rave review by Tana French (In the Woods) whose books I like. I found an advance reading copy at the Amazon Encore booth at this year’s Book Expo America. The book is due out this September.

Being from Arizona (although I’ve lived in NY for many, many - too many - years now) I was intrigued by the title and description. It’s set in Southern California and some smallish Mexican border towns, and is mainly about a man and his relationship with his dying father, whose last wish is for his son to go to Mexicali and bring him back a prostitute named Yolanda. I haven’t actually finished the book and don’t want this blog to become ridiculously over-wordy (like my other one), so I’m not writing a review. But suffice it to say Shaw is excellent at creating a setting that brings you so fully into his world you feel like you are right there with his characters, who manage to be both endearing and flawed. The crazy, and at points frightening, situations they get themselves into along with the suspense of their finding this woman and finding out why the dying man so badly needs her drive the book. As a writer I’m pretty mad with jealousy! Everyone should create settings this vivid and intriguing, and characters this engaging.

And the drink! Dove Season is here paired with a Cadillac Margarita (Grand Marnier - has to be Grand Marnier, no other orange liquer will do! - tequila, and a splash of fresh lime juice) and mini chimichangas carnitas at El Cantinero, a totally laid back Mexican place in the west Village, which I frequent because it happens to be near the Writers Room, of which I am a member.

Happy Bastille Day

A Bombay Sapphire Martini at Brasserie Cassis and Roland Barthes’ What Is Sport?, in celebration of Bastille Day

… while watching a Yankees game via the bar’s TV (although Barthes does not cover baseball, which doesn’t really exist in France ;) ).