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Freedom to Fuck Up: An Interview with Merritt Tierce

September 16, 2014 | by

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Photo: Michael Lionstar

In Merritt Tierce’s debut novel, Love Me Back, life does not go as planned. A Texas high school student named Marie becomes pregnant on a missionary trip when she’s only sixteen. The event completely changes Marie’s life. Raising a child means not going to college, marrying a boy she’s only just met, and cutting short her own adolescence. Tierce writes poignantly of the pain and loneliness in Marie’s new life—as a waitress at a restaurant where the only thing that feels permanent is what her life has become. She tests her boundaries and her limits, numbing herself from reality with sex, drugs, and pain. And while it’s a hard life on the page, Love Me Back is also filled with the kindness and humor that people offer one another when they know there’s no one else. Tierce is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Meta Rosenberg Fellow; she is also a recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. 

You write of Marie’s pregnancy, “I don’t hear my whole life being written for me inside my body, cell by cell.” Marie had been accepted into Yale, but the baby completely upends her plans and distances her from her family. One of the earliest scenes in the novel is Marie’s interview at the Olive Garden—it signals the beginning of her life as a young mother in the service industry. What drew you to start at this point?

I wrote the book backward, chronologically—so I actually started at the latest point in Marie’s life. I knew what she felt and thought in the stories in the second half of the book more clearly than I knew younger Marie. I had to write back through her states of mind, back toward childhood. She was still a child when she became pregnant and I had to approach that fog carefully. Marie is unknown to herself at the beginning of the book, and I couldn’t start there. It felt like the gameplay in something like World of Warcraft, where you can only see as much of the map as you’ve explored. The rest is dark. While Marie was living it, she had to emerge from the dark and settle her territory—but while I was writing it I could only write out to the edge of black. I respected that. I let her be what she was—aware, but ignorant. New. And I can’t make any categorical statements about sixteen-year-old mothers, but my hope for my own daughter is that she lets herself find and grow and use her power for herself before she lets anyone else lay claim to it. Read More »

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The Changing Language of Menus, and Other News

August 15, 2014 | by

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Henri Brispot, Gourmand, 1928

  • Trend alert: “Dystopian fiction is passé now,” says Lois Lowry, the author of The Giver.
  • This blog post about life on a commercial whaling ship is kind of long, but boy, it’s a fucking masterpiece!
  • Is there a writer with a reputation more complicated than Martin Amis’s? “Amis occupies a really peculiar position in our national life. He is the object of envy, contempt, anger, disapproval, theatrical expressions of weariness—but also of fascination. Has there in living memory been a writer whom we (by which I mean the papers, mostly) so assiduously seek out for comment—we task him to review tennis, terrorism, pornography, the state of the nation—and whom we are then so keen to denounce as worthless? … It's as if, and in answer to some inchoate public need, we demand of Amis that he say things in public so we can all agree on what an ass he is.”
  • There’s a kind of brinksmanship at work in the language of menus, which use verbose descriptions to confer status to food. According to new research, “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of sixty-nine cents in the price of that dish.”
  • The subject of fashion friendships is intriguing … I’m struck by two divergent realities—one conveyed by social media and one I know at close range. They are not one and the same, despite how a photo of two pals (or two enemies) might appear. Because the most meaningful stuff in fashion occurs in private places, and some degree of trust is vital to getting inside.”

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History’s Greatest Typos, and Other News

August 5, 2014 | by

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Oops: in 2008, Chiie appeared in place of Chile on 1.5 million fifty-peso coins. Photo via io9

  • Virginia Woolf loathed the concept of the middlebrow—“If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me middlebrow … I will take my pen and stab him dead”—but she should’ve gone easier on it. “Middlebrow is a name you would never call yourself, but rather a semantic shoe that belongs on someone else’s foot. It is also, however, a workable synonym, in the sphere of art and culture, for democracy.”
  • Need a quick, cheap tutorial in plotting? Watch sitcoms without the jokes …
  • And while you’re working out your plot, you might want to avoid scenes set in restaurants. “That tense guy who ‘stabs his potato’ or ‘saws at his filet’ … I see what you’re doing there. Please don’t.”
  • Presenting Western history’s most seminal typos: There’s 1612’s “Thou shalt commit adultery,” and 1830’s Peeface instead of Preface, and the Chilean coin that misspelled Chile
  • “What’s so great about adults? Classic-age Hollywood is full of movies for and about adults that are dull, stodgy, and uninventive—writerly and actorly, honoring traditional values with a secret whiff of piety and an eye on the cash box, rather Mantovani than Beethoven, rather Don Sebesky than John Coltrane. That kind of movie isn’t gone; it now occupies screens in art houses. It’s the rule to the exception.”

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Give the Heimlich in Style, and Other News

July 30, 2014 | by

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The artist Lara Antal’s custom-designed choking poster for Sunshine Co. Image via Maryland Institute College of Art

  • At the New York Public Library, a copy of Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique (1926), once known as “the best-selling sex manual of all time,” was returned nearly fifty-four years late. Carnal knowledge takes time.
  • New York City requires its restaurants to “have posted in a conspicuous place, easily accessible to all employees and customers, a sign graphically depicting the Heimlich maneuver,” but the city’s official poster isn’t exactly pleasing to an aesthetic eye. “Restaurants citywide are increasingly turning to boutique posters to blend in with their overall look, so far without drawing the ire of health inspectors.” Graphic designers sell these for as much as eighty bucks.
  • The paranoid logic of the censoring mentality” makes sense only if one believes that readers are morons.
  • “The Internet has been the most dramatic change in the lives of blind people since the invention of Braille. I can still remember having to go into a bank to ask the teller to read my bank balances to me, cringing as she read them in a very loud, slow voice … tech-savvy blind people were early Internet adopters. In the 1980s, as a kid with a 2400-baud modem, I’d make expensive international calls from New Zealand to a bulletin-board system in Pittsburgh that had been established specifically to bring blind people together. My hankering for information, inspiration, and fellowship meant that even as a cash-strapped student, I felt the price of the calls was worth paying.”
  • In 2008, a seventeen-year-old changed the Wikipedia entry on the coati, a kind of raccoon that he claimed is also known as “a Brazilian aardvark.” References to this fabricated nickname “have since appeared in the Independent, the Daily Mail, and even in a book published by the University of Chicago … [The claim] still remains on its Wikipedia entry, only now it cites a 2010 article in the Telegraph as evidence … This kind of feedback loop—wherein an error that appears on Wikipedia then trickles to sources that Wikipedia considers authoritative, which are in turn used as evidence for the original falsehood—is a documented phenomenon. There’s even a Wikipedia article describing it.”

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Ribbons, Lambs, and Strawberry Jam

June 17, 2014 | by

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Samuel S. Carr, Holding the Lamb, nineteenth century

When I was twelve and visiting my grandparents in California, we made weekly stops at the Naval Postgraduate School Thrift Shop, where the proprietress suggested that I enter a competition—she wanted me to submit my own concept for the theme of the next summer’s Monterey County Fair.

The fair was a highlight of our annual summer visits: the rides, the crop shows, the 4-H cake booth—all of it seemed magical to those of us from fair-deprived regions of the country. Raised on a steady diet of 1950s kids books, I fiercely envied the challenging but rewarding existences of those 4-H kids. I knew I could never raise my own livestock (let alone have the character to auction it), or work the cake booth, or display my crafts in the dedicated exhibition buildings. My talents, such as they were, lay in other directions. But each year, the posters and exhibits were organized around a central theme, and someone had to come up with that.

I dashed off page after page of increasingly hackish ideas. In the end, I submitted about twelve, in the spirit of playing the odds. And, come February, back in New York, I received a fat envelope from the Monterey County Chamber of Commerce: my concept of “Ribbons, Lambs, and Raspberry Jam” would be the theme of the summer’s fair. (Except that in deference to the region’s booming strawberry industry, the flavor of the jam would be altered accordingly.) It was the most exciting moment of my life. It was considerably more exciting than receiving similar envelopes from colleges six years later. For one thing, there were way more perks involved: in exchange for this top-notch ad work, I received a check for twenty-five dollars, a free family-pass to the fair, and a gift certificate to an establishment called Grandma’s Kitchen. Read More »

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These Bugaboos

June 11, 2014 | by

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One measure of a book’s influence is the mark it leaves on the vernacular. In this sense, many plaudits must go to William Styron, born today in 1925, who helped start The Paris Review and served as an advisory editor. His 1979 novel, Sophie’s Choice, has ascended into idiom, as Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary have acknowledged. The latter defines a Sophie’s Choice as “essentially a no-win situation … a choice between two unbearable options,” and gives the following example:

The loan [sic] hiker’s arm was wedged in a crevice when he slipped and fell. He didn't have the strength to release himself. Each movement wedged his arm more deeply into the crevice. After several days without food and water, he was left with a Sophie's Choice: continue to wait for help and possibly die, or use the serrated blade of his pocket knife to cut off his own arm and climb to safety before bleeding to death.

But some don’t seem to grasp the finer points of the phrase’s usage.

To wit: there has been, since 1984, a restaurant in England named Sophie’s Choice. Yes, a center of fine dining, serving “modern European cuisine and a range of wines from around the world,” which takes its name from a novel whose titular choice involves which of one’s offspring will die in a concentration camp.

“Our emphasis on good service creates a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere,” the proprietors write. Mains include roast breast of Barbary duck and char-grilled medallions of lamb rump with Cumberland sauce. They do weddings. 

Styron said in his second Art of Fiction interview,

Not long ago I received in the mail a doctoral thesis entitled “Sophie’s Choice: A Jungian Perspective,” which I sat down to read. It was quite a long document. In the first paragraph it said, In this thesis my point of reference throughout will be the Alan J. Pakula movie of Sophie’s Choice. There was a footnote, which I swear to you said, Where the movie is obscure I will refer to William Styron’s novel for clarification. This idiocy laid a pall over my life for a dark brief time because it brought back all these bugaboos we have about the written word.

One can imagine that this establishment was no better received, if the author was aware of it. And I hope he was not—this is a scenario in which ignorance is bliss. If you choose to celebrate his birth tonight, best to make your reservations elsewhere.

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