Dec 13 27 2013


A fascinating neighborhood restaurant, Tornado, has opened to serve asian-inspired tapas in the local cursed-restaurant spot. On Sunday evenings, they serve a 4-course testing menu at $35. This one’s worth a detour or more, even in ghastly weather. (And it’s right next to the Malden Center Orange Line.)

We started we a generous piece of tuna collar, nicely seasoned and beautifully sautéed. Then we had a little salad with pepper bread croutons, a bit of steak, an oyster mushroom, a piece of candied bacon, and some sweet-potato straw. Course 3 involved fetuccine (clearly fresh), a lovely miso broth, and grilled eel. And then for dessert we had a little fortress of fried sweet-potato logs seasoned with truffled honey, a dollop of homemade vanilla ice cream, and a smear of fresh strawberry bits and orange preserves. Not rocket science, I suppose, but absolutely delicious and the best possible use of truffled honey.

Shanie Leung and Michael Chang have a great space here and a very promising menu. They’re local foodies, and so the natural analogy is Journeyman. and perhaps Craigie Street Bistro in its early years. Tornado is explicitly Asian fusion, a concept that has gone from trendy to stale with great speed. But perhaps it’s not so much “fusion” as “new American home cooking, reinterpreted with dedication and intelligence.”

Dec 13 25 2013

Winterfest 2013

Our end-of-year festival of artisanal software is back! Save 25% on great tools for writers and thinkers, purchased straight from the vineyard door. No bundles, no gimmicks, no 99% discounts: great software at great prices.

  • Tinderbox
  • Scrivener
  • Nisus Writer
  • DEVONthink

by Pamela Dean

Readercon book club selection and a neglected classic, this is a truly wonderful portrait of American college life in the late 20th century. If it were new, it could be my choice for the best book of 2013.

Tam Lin is a college novel whose protagonist belongs and thrives at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. The campus is Carleton, but I remember many, many of the finely observed details – from room lottery tensions and dining hall rituals to ritual throwing of birth control pills into the local river — and I was at Swarthmore. Some of the dialogue is brilliant, some hilarious, and some dexterously borrows its voice from Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night without making any show or fuss over the matter.

The hero of the campus novel, from Tom Brown’s School Days to Allegra Goodman’s Intuition and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, not to mention Harry Potter, has always been at least mildly unfit for their school. That gives the author better opportunities for observation (since round pegs need not record very much about round holes) but it leaves little room for the joys of learning. Here, however, Janet Carter is perfectly suited to the school. She already knows its peculiarities and rituals because she has grown up on campus, eldest daughter of an English professor. Dean set herself a difficult task and pulls it off brilliantly by leading us through detailed discussions of topics – the Roman de la Rose, production practices in Hamlet, or classroom management in Ancient Greek I when the class ranges from a Classics major who has no business taking the course at all down to a pair of dolts without any aptitude for language whatsoever – that really do consume students. I believe the volume’s editor was Terri Windling, and he deserves great praise for indulging these long, long academic passages that indispensably explain why Janet, our protagonist, is in love with college.

Janet and her two roommates discover their dormitory’s ghost, but this causes no particular trouble. They discover some very nice (though strange) young men, and this causes some trouble at first. Of course, one knows from the title that someone on campus must be a bit stranger than they seem, but that, too, is handled with grace and naturalism and works very well indeed.

by Chris B. Brown

Chris B.Brown collects long form essays from his intriguing web site, Smart Football. These are written for the serious student of football, or perhaps for coaches, but will not be completely impenetrable for fans, and they provide useful perspective on the development of football strategy on both sides of the ball.

The answer to one recurrent puzzle about professional football is, I think, implicit in these pages. Until 2001, most Super Bowls were won by dominant teams. You could easily believe that, most of the time, the year’s best team won the championship, and when the winner was a surprise, that surprise could often be explained by injury or under-appreciated excellence. Since 2001, on the other hand, lots of Super Bowls have been won by teams that seemed mediocre, teams that were given no chance before they won it all. Is this simply a statistical anomaly? If not, what changed?

One change that The Essential Smart Football clearly indicates is that lots of smart high school and college coaches, starting in the 1980s, spent a great deal of work developing strategies that might enable a team to succeed even though its opponents would often have better players. The Air Raid, the spread offense, the 46 defense, the 3-4 defense: they’re all concepts based on hiding weaknesses and utilizing the abilities of whatever good players you do have. Learning to exploit high variance strategies matters a lot if you’re, say, the 2001 Patriots and you’re double-digit underdogs to the Rams, but it matters even more if you’re the coach of a weak high school team. Win a few big games, you could get a college job; win a few big games there, and you could get a good college job. In much of Red State America, the highest-paid public official in the entire state is the coach of the university football team. That’s a lot of incentive. On any given Monday, a lot of coaches are dreaming of winning next week’s game, even though it’s basically hopeless, and only a few coaches of powerhouse teams have the luxury of thinking about using dominant players against inferior opposition. It’s not parity – or it’s not just parity: the entire industry is focused on finding ways for weak teams to thrive.

by Anita Shreve

In the wake of Tam Lin and my musings about a course on the campus novel, I reread this well-crafted and sensitive story of disaster at a New England prep school. The best chapters, in the end, are those told from the point of view of the most peripheral characters – a worker in the school cafeteria, the harried and irritated roommate of the freshman girl whose sex tape causes so much heartbreak, and the mother of one of the three boys on that tape. The coda might be too long, the plotting just a little too neat, but it’s a fine book.

Dec 13 21 2013


We all saw Misunderstood, Apple’s holiday ad, a lot yesterday. Apple made a huge football buy. As I’ve already noted, Misunderstood has evoked strong reactions. It drives some people up the wall. That’s what art does. I think it’s worth taking a close look, though, because this is also a very well-crafted ad that exemplifies a new media aesthetic that it promotes.

There's a lot going on in nearly every shot, a foreground narrative element and also something else happening in the background or at the edge of the frame. In part, that's preparation for the nature of the campaign: if you're going to make people watch this three or four times on the same day (and, if you're going to buy NFL that's going to happen), you want to give the people something to look at. Contrast that to other high-frequency ad buys: Ford’s “Nuts or Bolts” is funny once but that’s all there is. You can watch Misunderstood again and again and see new stuff.

There's another resonance here as well.  This is a family with problems.  The weather is awful. Grandpa’s “they’re here!” is not very joyful: they’re here already and there’s stuff to do and no time. There's not enough money: they have a lovely house, but there’s torn wallpaper under the stairs at 0:39. Think that’s an accident? They've got a kid they don’t really know what to do with. They're distracted (no one's watching the little girl, so the kid steps in).  When The Kid starts playing with the TV in the denouement, you can see that Father in the background looks like he’s had enough and he’s not going to take it anymore. There’s even a second reaction shot where he’s clearly had it up to here and starts to step in to stop this nonsense.

We see lots of things twice: one in life, once remediated through The Kid’s art. Importantly, The Kid’s technique is lousy: right at the start of the video, we have bad framing, pointless shots, gimmick shots. This is not the work of a pro using a cell phone; this is credibly The Kid’s work. But there’s beauty, too, and the kid has an eye. It’s all pulled together with music (of course), but look at what The Kid chose: not something like Sleeper Agent’s rock “Winter Wonderland,” which Verizon is using for hipness, but Cat Power (channeling Billy Holiday) singing the saddest of sad holiday songs. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas: it may be your last.”

But they are a family, and they're together, and the kid and the tools lets them step back for a moment and see that.

Apple’s holiday ad, Misunderstood, is widely misunderstood.

Make an effort and try to picture this scene happening in your family — would you really enjoy watching a video that your son made with his iPhone, at the expense of not participating in family activities? …. I can tell you my reaction: I would tell my teenage daughter that she made a serious judgment error, and that living your life is far more important than documenting it.

(I can’t figure out who wrote this. The byline in “Virgil.” I’m not sure if that’s an allusion to Inferno or to Mr. Tibbs, or perhaps the author happens to be named Virgil. Cute how they lift the image from Huffington Post and take care that the credit URL is neither clickable nor copyable, just to make sure the creator gets as little benefit from the credit as possible. That’s the spirit!)

(Athens, 612 BC) The fanboys are out in force, standing in lines — for hours — to get seats to Thespis’s trendy new “theater.” What is this theater, you ask? It’s just a song and dance, exactly like any other, except you have two or even more people speaking at once.

That’s right: you get to pay twice! Or even three times! Do you get more singing? No! Do the Gods respond more favorably? That remains to be seen, but if the Gods wanted us to waste money, surely they’d rather just have us make larger sacrifices. Or throw it into the sea! That’s all those fruity fans are doing.

(Athens, 408 BC) Sokrates runs around saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Right! And to examine life, in Sokrates’ book, you’ve got to spend all day in the academy, swilling swell wine and talking with his “geniuses” in their official blue peploi. If my teenage daughter wanted to examine her life, I’d tell her she’d made a serious error in judgment, yes sir!

Maybe Virgil has a cartoon family. Maybe Virgil has no problems he can’t talk through with his teenage daughter. Maybe he believes she has none she can’t talk through with him, right there in the moment, with the grandparents listening and the toddlers rollicking about. And if that’s all true, well, bully!

But it’s not always going to be true. Sometimes, there are things you can’t talk about. Sometimes, there are no words. And sometimes you want to take care, to set it up so you say what you mean, not whatever comes into your head.

Virgil asks,

Really, USA? This is how you see people’s lifes being enriched? Do you need technology to communicate, even when you’re right next to each other?

Virgil, there’s a technical term for using technology to communicate with people who are right next to you.

It’s called “art.”

The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet
Dec 13 12 2013

Food Notes

Café Pasquals. An unheralded restaurant marvel, Pasqual’s has occupied the same small, heavily-touristed quarters since the beginning of time, and yet has managed to remain very good. We had a plate of grilled chiles with Maldon salt and lime; they were varied and variously delicious and perfectly cooked despite considerable variety of size and shape. The cochinita pibl was tasty, with perfect tostones and nifty marinated onions. It’s hard for a small restaurant to be good but it’s murder to get one to stay good, especially when awash in tourists.

La Cueva (Taos). A hole in the wall, touted by Trip Advisor and justly so. Delicious chiles rellenos.

SantaCafé. Still a wonderful space, wonderfully handled with Santa Fe’s special informal formality. The shiitake and cactus spring rolls are still delicious. Linda’s lamb was superb. My chicken was not very well handled: the braised thigh was under-seasoned. the pan-roasted breast was well seasoned but well over. It was fine, even tasty, but I was hoping for something in Zuni Cafe territory, and this wasn’t it.

Tecolote. A breakfast and lunch place on Cerillos Road, recommended for an impromptu seminar on chile. I had a sheepherder’s breakfast so I could compare the red and the green chile, and both repay study. The bread basket should be legendary, with fresh hot muffins and superb biscuits.

Geronimo. You can’t go home again, but if you want you can reprise the 2003 seared foie gras followed by the pan roasted elk that scored #9 in my list of all-time favorite meals when I first drew it up for these pages in 2008. I let Linda have the elk this time and greatly enjoyed the lamb. It’s still a great meal – and while I think the preparations have been updated and improved, the dishes remain. Linda says Geronimo has the best American service she’s seen, and after all she’s a maître d’s daughter.

Zia Diner. Perfect respite for a trans-generational crowd after seeing Richard II. Impressive and attractive beef brisket tacos.

Portage. Northwest side of Chicago, refuge after a ticketing bollix on the way home and a terrific place. American bistro comfort food, superbly done, with interesting and reasonable wines. Quay Tao was in front on a blustery December night and he really puts his stamp on the room. The kitchen is absolutely on the ball.

A course on the Campus Romance, broadly construed. Suggestions for improving the syllabus very welcome; I’m still missing tons of stuff, and I only just discovered Tam Lin and it’s one of the best campus novels every written. Email me.

(Is this too much reading? It’s only twelve novels, but several of them are not short.)

Required Reading

  • A Place Apart
    • Pamela Dean, Tam Lin
    • Jo Walton, Among Others
    • Lev Grossman, The Magicians
  • Strong Foundations
    • Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s School Days
    • R. F. Delderfield, To Serve Them All My Days
    • Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night
  • Love Gone Wrong
    • A. S. Byatt, Possession
    • Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys
    • David Lodge, Changing Places
  • Disaster
    • Allegra Goodman, Intuition
    • Anita Shreve, Testimony
    • Muriel Sparks, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Strongly Suggested

J.K.Rowling, Harry Potter (vols. 1-7); Orson Scott Card, Enders Game; Curtis Sittenfeld, Prep;


The Paper Chase. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). Wonder Boys. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, seasons 2-3. An Education (2009), Au Revoir Les Enfants.

Updates: Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson. Richard Powers, Galatea 2.0. John Knowles, A Separate Peace.

Film Updates: Good Will Hunting.

Dec 13 8 2013

Santa Fe

I’ve simply got to get away from nonstop coding for a day or two; I’m getting singed around the edges. And I’ve got family obligations in the midwest early next week. So I’m going to hole up in a cave outside Santa Fe for a couple of days and explore the difference between red and green chile. (It turns out that nobody wants to travel this week, so that works out well.)

Suggestions for food and art most welcome.

by Charles Palliser

The 1863 diary of an unpleasant young man, Richard Shenstone, who has just been sent down from Cambridge under a cloud of very unpleasant circumstances to which, since this is 1863 and this is a drama of the family circle, we need hardly allude further. Charles Palliser’s new neoVictorian novel is very much in Sarah Walters territory without the madness or the lesbians. Here we have certain new postmodern delights amid the discomforts of the remote marsh-side house to which the Shenstones have been relegated on the death of Richard’s father. Richard is a most unreliable narrator, he basks in self-pity, he is selfish and uncaring. He has no empathy, at several points he cannot quite decide whether someone is laughing or crying, and throughout this novel of red herrings he invents and discards wild explanations for the behavior of nearly every person in the neighborhood. He may well be paranoid. He may be a psychopath. And yet: something is not right in Thurchester, and we realize it had been wrong for some time before Richard’s unexpected arrival.

How do we read and model fictional minds? A course at Nottingham by Peter Stockwell. Thanks, Rosemary Simpson!

Taking our best current knowledge of how our minds and language work, this course takes you through key questions of literature and reading: why do we feel anything for fictional characters? Why do we get angry, moved, irritated, annoyed or sentimental about imaginary people in imagined worlds? Why do the lives of imaginary minds living in fictional bodies seem to matter so much to readers? The answers to these questions are surprising and empowering.

The site tells us that the course lasts two weeks, and apparently meets for three hours per week. No sign of a reading list.

Nov 13 30 2013



This year we wanted a touch of Wisconsin for Thanksgiving. Knowing little of Wisconsin, we fell back on nostalgia for an imaginary past. Comfort food: mashed potatoes and root mus. Turkey and pot roast. Orange cranberry relish (recipe for the bag) and cranberry sauce from the store.

I made a cherry jelly, which is like a Jell-O™ dessert but fresh. It’s pretty much a pound and a half of cherries, cooked in water and sugar for an hour, and then strained into bloomed sheet gelatin from The Modernist Pantry. Strain again into a mold, chill, unmold, and there you are. With lots of real cherry and, really, very little else, it’s light and tasty. (Obviously, I need to improve my rim wiping. Sorry!)

Belinda Barnet’s superb study of the early history of early hypertext, Memory Machines: The Evolution of Hypertext, has just arrived. The lively book has chapters on Memex, NLS, Xanadu, HES/FRESS, and Storyspace, and many anecdotes not widely known. Full review at a more leisured time.

by Nina Stibbe

Nick Hornby extols these charming letters in his wonderful (but, it seems, suspended-again) book column in The Believer. Thirty years back, Nina Stibbe was a nanny for a literary London family. She was fresh from Leicestershire and wrote frequent letters to her sister Vic, letters collected here. Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn live down the way, Alan Bennett lives across the way and drops in to dinner just about every night. Nina’s charges, Sam and Will, seem intelligent and rather witty.