Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Punishments for Passivity and the Fundamental of Style: On hausfrau

There are as many ways to come to an identity as there are people with identities, but the panoply of self-identification can be arranged on a spectrum between active and passive. You can carve out for yourself a wholly idiosyncratic identity, actively embrace identities specific to your heritage (or the aspect of the heritage you find most significance in) passively select from the range of identities present in your society, or not really decide on an identify at all and just drift along responding to the most pressing need and following the path of least resistance, and everything in between. I don't think it's too terribly interesting to point out that systems of power and upholders of the status quo prefer and reward those who accept the pre-fabbed identities, nor do I think there's too much surprising in how those same systems of power and upholders of the status quo have a complicated and often contradictory relationship with those who dynamite down barriers and create entirely new ways of being a human. But just because systems of power prefer passivity over activity, it does not mean they treat all passive identifiers identically.

When a man just passively drifts along, choosing the path of least resistance, ultimately falling, without intention, into one of society's standard identities, he still ends up in a position of power, he still has a sense of agency, his identity is still his own even if, when examined with any kind of critical rigor, it could hardly be called an identity at all. Furthermore, there is very little societal punishment (at least for white cis men) for whatever the drifting of identity is composed of, whether it's “sowing wild oats” in a frat house, driving across country with buddies, or backpacking across Europe, men (especially white, cis) can expect a relative level of safety while they wander and expect a relative level of power when they return. Essentially, a cis white man will have to commit a major societal transgression in order to forfeit his privilege and power and given that we're already talking about people drifting through life, the assertion of agency needed to challenge basic social rules is also most likely lacking. But when a woman just drifts along and passively falls into a prefabbed identity, she is someone's wife. She is property. She is an heir vending machine.

Ann Benz, the protagonist of hausfrau is an American living in Zurich, married to a Swiss man, with three children, having multiple affairs, and barely present in her own life. With perhaps one or two exceptions, there is almost no agency in Anna's decisions. She finds herself in a particular situation with a particular set of emotions and ends up doing something. Sometimes that something gives her a level of (pretty much always temporary) satisfaction, sometimes that something troubles her, and often that something is, well, just another something, another inert domino in the line up of her life. Anna even seems to drift through the situations where she does make a decision and does take some action.

Perhaps the starkest example of this inaction in actions occurs when Anna finally decides to end one of her affairs. It could have been a quick phone call. She could have slipped the break up in over lunch at the German class she shares with her lover. There were many ways she could have ended this relationship, but, instead, she has him meet her at the zoo (the zoo?) where they wander around for, like an hour, both knowing what's coming, before she finally, fucking finally, breaks it off. And then he asks for a kiss. And then she receives a long (oh so grossly long) kiss she doesn't want. And then her child, who is at the zoo on a school trip, catches her kissing another man. At any point in this whole stupid long process, Anna could have just fucking done something (anything!) and the turning point in her life from farce to tragedy would have been avoided. (Though, there probably would have been another one.)

It can be infuriating watching Anna not act. Dozens of times I was practically shouting at her to just fucking do something, anything. Even in therapy she would hold back. Even in the exact situation in which she was trying to solve the exact problems that left her so emotionally hollow, she couldn't just fucking say “I feel hollow. I have affairs to fill a need. I like to fuck.” I mean, her therapist was being paid, specifically, so Anna could say those things to her. And by the end of the book, after the tragedies run their full course, Anna recedes into believing in pre-destination, perhaps the ultimate passive resignation of one's life.

Essbaum, brilliantly, leaves an obvious political statement unsaid. If Anna's husband Bruno had engaged in the exact same behavior, indulged in the exact same passivity, drifted along with no sense of ownership of his own life, even if he also was caught having an affair, he would have been totally fine. He would have found support in his friends and family and in his job as a banker. He would have had the resources to make a change. Even if his family fell apart, he had a bank account, a job, and a native's fluency in the two (German and Swiss-German) languages spoken in Switzerland, and so could completely reorganize his life. In short, society was there for Bruno. One could argue that Anna's level of isolation (a family-less, near friend-less, ex-pat) is not an accurate representation of how most women experience society, but even if Essbaum presents something of a hyperbole (and I'm not sure she does), one of literature's roles is to turn up the volume on life, revealing existing problems that can sometimes be too quiet to hear. (Especially, when hearing them would challenge your own role/identity/place of power, sense of well-being, etc.)

hausfrau is not the kind of book I would normally pick up. (I mean, look at that cover.) “Bored housewife has affairs” really doesn't interest me as a plot. But Jill Alexander Essbaum is a poet and I'm always interested in how poets work in prose and hausfrau came highly recommended from other readers I trust, so when I had a chance to grab a galley I did.

In some ways, nothing happens in the plot to distinguish hausfrau from the other domestic dramas that failed to hold my attention. (There's a chance this is actually a retelling of a classic domestic drama.) If anything distinguishes hausfrau's plot, it is Essbaum's sense of emotional pace and timing, manipulating and structuring the events to induce (at least in me) the closest thing you'll get from Josh to “an anguished gasp.” (That fucking surprise party! The fucking zoo!) What makes hausfrau a special book, what motivated me beyond my usual prejudices, what inspired me to explore the book with a critical eye and thus be open for its ideas (see above), was the style. Essbaum's sharpness, originality, and vitality of imagery exploded the quiet (even quietly desperate) and mundane moments of Anna's perpetual wallow, scattering the shrapnel of all-too-familiar images to distant corners of intellectual and emotional exploration. Every time I started to get a little bored with Anna's relentless, maudlin passivity, I read a line or sentence or image of crackling originality. Poets, am I right?

Which, of course, brings me back to something of a hobby-horse for me. What distinguishes one book from another is style. Some authors are overt, idiosyncratic, and experimental with their style, turning up the volume on that distinguishing feature (and almost certainly being punished in the marketplace for their overtness, even when they are not saddled with cripplingly-bizarre-when-you-think-about-it label “writer's writer.”), while some strive for quality execution of an accepted style (too often forgetting (or letting it be forgotten) that the accepted style was once overt, idiosyncratic, and experimental), and others don't really control their style at all and just kind of write how they write with their creative efforts much more focused on plot and character (thinking of commercial fiction here.). But even with those writers who don't actively engage with their style, even those writers who's style include poorly executed prose, there is a reason why authors like Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and Patricia Cornwell sell gillions of books, and thousands of others who write, at least on the surface, the exact same kinds of books, do not.

Even after considering the vagaries of publishing itself, there is something that distinguishes Stephen King from Peter Straub, even if that something is unintentional, inadvertent, and/or (and we have deconstruction to thank for this) in opposition to whatever King and Straub intended to achieve. Part of that is, of course, the big units of storytelling , but all of those big units (heheheh) are still composed of and communicated through prose style. It certainly could all be a matter of chapter length and where in the book the big cliff hanger or the plot twist occurs or even just how the characters and places are named (I seriously suspect 90% of what distinguishes fun trashy fantasy novels from terrible trashy fantasy novels is the quality of character and place names) but those are all still expressions of an author's style. Ultimately, fundamentally, as I've argued before, it all comes down to style.

People tend to like the media/art/entertainment that stimulates them just enough that they can still ignore the shit they don't feel like dealing with and they tend to come up with a lot of excuses (sometimes reasons) for disliking works that refuse to let the primacy of language and style and/or some uncomfortable of fact of existence be ignored. hausfrau is an uncomfortable book. Essbaum's style can be challenging and her story thrusts our society's misogyny in your face without giving us the emotional salve of a plucky heroine struggling against injustice to root for as we read. Essbaum will not let you ignore things you probably want to ignore. And that's exactly why hausfrau should go on your TBR pile.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Wrong About Pulp

For a long time, I had an idea about pulp and when I saw American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street by Paula Rabinowitz, I saw my chance to subject this long held idea to the rigors of the essay and I was fucking psyched. The essay would wind its way through Hammett and Chandler, Vonnegut and Dick, Markson and Bukowski, Coover and Hunt, before looking at the resurgence of the form, specifically with Hard Case Crime, as a way to examine how art arises from the stresses of frantic production, and hoo boy, you should've seen how I planned to connect it back to my own pulp-tinged-though-not-frantically-produced (Hi, 2002. I finished it!) novel. Well, you can tell from the title of this post how it ended up.

Vaguely stated, my idea was that the frantic production pace of pulp created an atmosphere where a totally unique kind of artistic expression arose. Essentially, I imagined that pulp was Philip K. Dick writ large and that his maddening and beautiful ability to shift from word-garbage to brilliance, sometimes in the course of a single paragraph, was indicative as much of the method of production as it was of any unique aspect of Dick's imagination. I say “vaguely” because I hadn't filled in any of the gaps, explained any of the phenomena, connected the early pulp tradition to the artists (Vonegut & Bukowski especially) who appropriated its vitality into works of overt art.

But that is one of the great powers of books, they take a vague idea that is kicking around in your head, something you've kept to yourself because you've never really had the resources and/or the opportunity to develop it, (but that you've grown fond of anyway, because it's stuck with you for years and some of the pulp you've read seems to back it up) and beat the living crap out of it until I realize I've just rephrased the stupid million-monkeys-write-Hamlet nonsense in terms of the weird shit I like to read. But if you get through life without a few ideas being rolled up in a utility-knifed carpet by a book or two, you're doing it wrong. All of it.

But pulp does have a relationship with art, an interesting and important one that does, eventually get to all those guys I wanted to write my essay about, and as I read American Pulp, that relationship, not only became clearer to me, but began to seem obvious, revealing some kind of weird, vague, as yet undetermined blind spot in my understanding of art. So, gleaned from American Pulp, here is how I now understand the relationship between art and pulp.

First, art was always present. Much of the pulp industry was born through creating cheap, paperback editions of existing works like Faulkner, (Faulkner!) and Invisible Man and Burmese Days (Orwell!) and slapping sordid sensational covers on them. Essentially, economics, classic cynical advertising, and art, all conspired to trick people (including pretty much the entire American military serving in WWII) into reading great works of literature. Second, pulps had a freedom of content unavailable in other forms of expression at the time, not just in terms of sex and violence, but also in terms of non-mainstream lifestyles. Pulp writers were free to write about bohemian lifestyles, African-American culture, the struggles of America's cities, and homosexuals. For many straight, white, American men, a lurid pulp novel or magazine would have been his first encounter in media with any non-mainstream lifestyle. And that kind of freedom, the ability to write whatever you want without any fear, would naturally, eventually, attract artists, either those looking to directly push the boundaries of content, or those looking to appropriate that current of artistic energy (or an image of that current of energy, hello there Kilgore Trout) for their own project. Third, well, it is a little like those monkeys and their typewriters. There was just so many words being produced, statistically some of them just had to be beautiful and, statistically, again, though more oddly so, it makes sense that a higher percentage of the beautiful and significant would survive for me to read.

And finally, I don't think my idea is 100% lacking in truth. There is something in the image of someone sitting down to a typewriter in the morning knowing they've got to have a 5,000 word story ready by that night—it's frantic energy perhaps, the more general allure of the deadline, the understanding of writing and books as also having a place in the daily products of life that can be found in drugstore counters and racks—that is attractive to some writers (like me), especially when that image is experienced as a historical image.

The more I think about the source of my bad idea, the more I see it in a specific version of that image of the frantic deadline meeter. A Philip K. Dick paragraph can often be equal parts awful and beautiful and Dick, composed at a blistering pace, often using amphetamines to sustains his creation. Sometimes Dick was capable of groundbreaking social and philosophical exploration, in some ways, rephrasing the best of Kafka for the age of television and computers, and other times, well, his work was dreary, cliché, and formulaic. I wonder if that single specific image was enough to give language to the pulp that I had been reading at the time, and because there is something Romantic to me about the image of a pulp-writer cranking out words as a day job, it stuck, even though I had no other evidence whatsoever. The singular image made the idea feel legitimate and until I read a book in the hopes of bringing my brilliance to the world, it stayed feeling legitimate.

To me, this leads back to the value of the act of writing even for people who don't identify themselves as writers. In some ways, the most dangerous and potentially destructive ideas I can have are those I don't decide to write an essay or poem or whatever about because they just sit in my brain surrounded by others like them with only the casual process of impermanent logic (and in the hands of someone with linguistic talent, logic can be made to do a lot more than it really should) to cull or improve them. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't (as above) and sometimes I just don't know. In this particular case the potential consequences weren't particularly dire. At worst, I would've spent a long time on a bad essay, that, if published somewhere, could have been embarrassingly corrected. but there's more in my head than just books. But there are a lot of ideas in a lot of heads in the world and far too few are subjected to the kind of inspection and evaluation that occurs through writing and research.

Ultimately, pulp was not a creative process at all, but a publication process. It was not a method of creating ideas and stories, but a method of distributing ideas and stories. I'm sure some of the stories were created in the manner I imagined, complete with fedoras, machine-gun-paced typewriting, and rolled sleeves, but I bet many were not, and I know from American Pulp, that many were also created without the author even being aware of the idea of pulp. I doubt Ellison, Faulkner, and Orwell thought of themselves as drug-store rack material, but for a brief time in American history, they were. And maybe this might be the ultimate source of some artists' fascination with pulp fiction; (beyond, of course, that some of it is really good, and some of it that is less good is still a lot of fun) there was this brief slice of American history, after major progress towards universal literacy and before the advent of TV, when reading was a primary medium of entertainment for just about everybody and some of that great mass of reading material was art, either art artfully and cynically disguised or art produced because enough human beings banging on enough typewriters are just bound to say something meaningful and beautiful.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Diversifying the Ecosystem: A Publisher Lead Technique for Shifting Sales from Amazon

There are many reasons for the diminishing, but persistent precariousness of contemporary publishing and bookselling. Some are rooted in broader cultural and economic forces far outside of the control of the industry itself (hello wage stagnation), but one is the radical concentration of sales through one particular retail channel. Ignoring how this concentration happened (at least for the purposes of this post), as we learned with monopolies the first time around, the high concentration of any aspect of any industry in any one company creates a fragile ecosystem, and the concentration of retail bookselling in Amazon is no different. Imagine, for example, what would happen to publishing if Amazon, somehow, went bankrupt. (They do look a bit like a stock bubble.)  Publishers know this, of course, and over the last three years or so have tried to find ways (that won't be stopped by an Amazon-sponsored frivolous lawsuit, of course) to strengthen other sales channels, from developing direct-to-customer sales to greatly increasing and improving their support of independent bookstores.

Overall, the strategies, combined with broader social and economic trends and the fantastic work indie bookstores are doing, seem to be moving the needle a little, at least in print books. But there is more that can be done. Here's one program that I think will successfully shift a meaningful percentage of sales from Amazon to indie bookstores, which shouldn't draw the ire of the Department of Justice and shouldn't cost publishers much, if anything, more than they are already spending.

Many people say I look a bit like Neil Gaiman.

This idea isn't my idea. It was hatched in a different brain and then, thanks as much to spring rolls at Cafe Zing as anything else, enacted at Porter Square Books. A couple of years ago, Neil Gaiman wanted to support indie bookstores and to do so he and his publisher decided to offer signed copies of The Ocean at the End of the Lane nearly-exclusively through an independent bookstore. Thanks to Amanda Palmer's relationship with PSB, PSB was the store lucky enough to take on the project. The result: after a metric-ton of work at every stage in this project, PSB sold a little over 5,000 signed copies of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a significant percentage of which would have otherwise been sold through Amazon.

Oh! Oh! That makes me your Terry Pratchett

In the grand scheme of publishing and bookselling, whatever percentage shift that represented doesn't really register, but if a similar exclusive-signed-copies relationship is set up for Stephen King and Toni Morrison and Alexander McCall Smith and Jodi Picoult and well, every big-name bestselling author with a devoted following out there, that percentage in sales shift would register. Again, my point is not about putting Amazon out of business, but that the bookselling and publishing ecosystem is strengthened through the diversification of sales channels. Indie bookstores don't need to have a massive percentage of retail sales to be a viable, sustainable sales channel in the publishing ecosystem, but they still need to keep the lights on, still need to pay their bills, still need to pay good booksellers enough to stay in the industry. Exclusive signed copies of a major author's book is not going to save a failing bookstore, nor would it turn retail bookselling into a luxurious profession, nor, do I think would it shift sales more than a few percentage points, but if adopted industry wide, that shift in sales will greatly strengthen the indie retail base upon which so much of publishing rests.

Furthermore, the impact would go beyond just those specific sales; it would also introduce thousands of customers to the shocking fact that independent bookstores can provide great customer service for online orders. So many people just assume that Amazon is the only place to shop online for books, and in their defense, for quite a long time, online shopping at indie bookstores was not a good experience. But the independent online experience has caught up quite a bit and though there are still some aspects of online shopping that Amazon and other online-only retailers do better than indie bookstores, there are some things that indie bookstores do better than Amazon. Like drawing manatees. The result, would, again, not be some radical overnight, wonderland of rich indie booksellers, but that's not the goal. The goal is a strong, diverse bookselling industry, and this would help.

I wish I had the energy for such delusions.
Also, it certainly wouldn't hurt. I'm thinking of authors who already have publicity budgets, so it would be just a matter of shifting some of that budget to publicize the signed copies. And those 5,000 or whatever purchases, were going to happen anyway, as said fans were going to buy the book from somewhere. And yeah, there are some logistics that would have to be worked out, but they're not that different from when authors do bulk signings anyway and the bookstores handle most of the really gnarly stuff around shipping.

Furthermore, if the publishers and stores want to hedge their bets, all they have to do is open up the process for pre-order (which it should be anyway) and then print, sign, and order a number of books commensurate with the pre-order numbers. (Say, number of preorders plus 15%, as there will be sales after the book comes out.) There really is no risk or downside to this kind of program.

But Josh, you might argue, if every publisher does this with every one of their big name authors, won't that flood the market, diluting the impact? Well, if you're in the book industry and follow tons of publishers and authors on Twitter, yeah, the stream of “Signed copies of X from Y” is going to get old fast, but, though all book industry people are readers, not all readers are book industry people. A lot of Neil Gaiman fans, in terms of their relationship to the publishing industry, are just that, a Neil Gaiman fan and won't even notice if Stephen King is also doing the same kind of signed books thing. My twitter feed could end up filled with these programs, but I highly doubt that would be the case of the average current Amazon-only reader. Most likely, they'd be thrilled to get a signed copy of their favorite author's new book. Depending on the author, if done for every book she publishes, there might be author specific saturation, but that's what the pre-order system is for and if one signed book doesn't sell as well, just give it a rest for the next few.

But Josh, don't publishers already send bookstores signed copies of new books from big names? Yes, they do, and it's great, but with only shopping every extra click someone must make to buy something represents a lost sale. Sure, an author could tweet "I've sent signed copies all over the country so find your local bookstore," and that would be great, but it wouldn't generate a lot of sales and it certainly wouldn't shift a lot of sales. People just won't put in the effort. But a tweet with a link to a page with a "Buy" button will.

So what should publishers do? Well, they should look at their list for books coming out in, let's say, May or after, and get in touch with those big name authors. Then, identify and get in touch with potential bookstore partners, by say, February. Once the partnership has been established the various logistics (shipping, signing, order processing procedures, live date) can be worked out to give everyone involved enough lead time, to effectively fulfill the orders. (For PSB's Gaiman fest, we discussed in January and launched in February for a June release.) There really is no downside and the potential upside is contributing to the long-term sustainability of indie bookstores. I know I'm not a big name author, but I'll still do my part.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Auckland: A Tour Through An Alternative Life

One of the joys of travel comes from the freedom of being someone different. You go someplace where nobody knows you, in part, so you can do things you normally wouldn't do, even if that “wouldn't do” is something as simple as an extra dessert or a spa treatment or staying out late. But another joy of travel for me is the opportunity to imagine a different life. Whenever I visit a new place for any meaningful length of time, I try to imagine what kind of life I might lead if I lived there. Where would I work? What would my home be like? Would this be my go-to bar, my favorite restaurant, where I buy my groceries? Some places are more difficult to imagine myself living in (Cairns, Brooklyn) for sometimes mysterious reasons, while other places (London, Melbourne) I almost feel like I am inhabiting that alternative life by the time I leave.

But nowhere has this sense of living an alternative version of Josh been as strong as it was in Auckland. Part of this is that there is something Boston-y of Anglo cities above a certain size, with a certain relationship with its neighborhoods and a certain sense of urban planning (or lack thereof), so it was easy for me to find the “Cambridge of Auckland” and the “Somerville of Auckland,” and so forth. But the real strength of this sensation came from a very late night that ended in a hotel lobby in Seattle.

I met Jenna at a booksellers' conference (which is even more fun than you would assume) in the lobby of the hotel, along with a slew of other booksellers who had been out on publisher sponsored nights-on-the-town and had collected with the remnants of their energy around the small tables in the hotel lobby. I ended up with Jenna, a bookseller and the manager of Timeout Bookstore in Auckland and a bookseller from Melbourne (who brandished a bottle of whiskey at one point) and, as happens at such conferences, business cards were exchanged.

Fast forward a little over a year and Rissa and I are planning our honeymoon. Initially, we hadn't included Auckland, but once we saw how much time we would have to spend on the trip, we decided to add it. Somehow (I'm going to go with magic) I still had Jenna's card so I emailed her, re-introducing myself and asking her advice for places to stay and things to do in Auckland. And she obliged, sending me a list of priced-out possibilities. A list that she concluded by suggesting we forget all that other nonsense and just stay with her. Of course we said yes, because, when you get the chance to stay with a local in a foreign country you take it. It was strange, the nature of my excitement changed when I got that email. I was already excited of course, but, for some reason, knowing we'd be staying with a person added something, I don't know, palpable to my excitement.

To understand why our time in Auckland was such a visceral alternative life, I need to tell you a little about Jenna and her boyfriend Stu. As I'm sure you already surmised, Jenna is, like me, a bookseller at an independent bookstore. She is also, like me, an artist, though she is a photographer (and videographer, perhaps) rather than a writer. (Though I bet she writes too.) Stu is also an artist, a musician, and, if you can believe this, like Rissa, a homebrewer. (you could see Rissa's jealousy of Stu's brewing garage from space.). Oh, and if an internet connection had been a little more stable, one night we would have met Jenna at her KNITTING GROUP that met in a BAR THAT USED TO BE A BUTCHER SHOP. Oh, and they have a cat with a literary name. (Eleanor the Catton.) Of course, we still are different people and so, Rissa's and my alternative lives in Auckland wouldn't have exactly matched the lives of Jenna and Stu, (especially given that I am way more into rugby than they are) but odds are, if Rissa and I had lived our lives in Auckland, Jenn and Stu would have likely been our friends. I don't know if we'll ever see them again, and I don't think there's much of a chance Rissa and I will make a life, or even a second visit, in or to Auckland, but regardless of potential futures and alternative lives, Jenna and Stu are our friends, now.

We landed in Auckland and arranged to meet Jenna at her bookstore to drop off our stuff and (as is our wont) go directly to a museum (which I wish we had more time to spend in). I'm always amazed by bookstores like Timeout Bookstore who, much like WORD in Brooklyn, can be vital, engaging, successful retails stores, (with a bookstore margin!) with the floor space of an opulent walk-in closet. Our arrival at Time Out, included one of the most satisfying moments of my, to this point, brief career as the marketing director at PSB; one of the booksellers recognized me from PSB's Buzzfeed list about awkward bookseller moments

Perhaps the most touristy thing we did on our trip (perhaps with the exception of the Foodie Walking tour we took in Melbourne, which I totally left out of the Melbourne post. Executive Summary: We ate meat and cheese and bought German spices.) was go on a guided tubing tour of Glow Worm Caves in Waitomo, an area about two hours drive from Auckland. Two hours of driving I did. On the left side of the road. (Achievement Unlocked!) Overall, driving on the left wasn't that difficult, especially once we got through the section of Auckland in which the GPS had not been updated to account for construction, but it was still a strange experience. First of all, because of how the instruments are arrayed, I kept turning on the windshield wiper when trying to put on a turn signal, a phenomenon that cycled back and forth between infuckingfuriated and goddamn hilarious for the entire trip. Second, as Jenna's American roommate warned us, I pulled to the left pretty much the entire time. (I still have no idea what the neurological mechanism at work here is.) The tour itself was an absolute blast. We put on wet suits and road inner tubes through underground caves whose ceilings were covered in glow-worms. (i.e. bio-luminescent maggots) It was all a bit hokey, but the environment was so alien and fascinating it trumped all the tourist-trappiness. The air was different, of course, but, in an interesting, way, so was the silence. After the tubing tour, we booked it about a quarter mile (in the car) to the walking tour we also scheduled. The second cave we toured was actually run by an indigenous family and had been so since the mid-1800s when the first tours of the cave were given. We drove back and had a relatively the quite night. (The night of the aforementioned unstable internet connection.)

Without thinking about it, we were in Auckland for Halloween, so we spent the morning of the 31st kicking around downtown Auckland trying to find costumes for the party we'd be attending that night, eventually finding acceptable vesture in a thrift shop near Timeout. The party had a campfire, a DJ, irrationally angry neighbors and eventually a cab ride back. The next day featured Josh's Great Chili Ingredient Adventure, which was pretty much exactly like The Lord of the Rings, except, instead of bringing a ring to Mordor, I had to hit the area grocery stores for the ingredients to the American style chili Rissa and I would be making that night, and instead of a treacherous guide, my biggest challenge was that the Asian supermarket where I found most of my ingredients did not take credit cards, and so I had to rush to an ATM, assemble the ingredients that supermarket did not have and then come to pay in cash. Very kindly, the clerk allowed me to leave my cart of groceries and skip the line when I got back. The chili happened, as did some excellent BBQ prepared by Stu and then Jenna took us to a bar/club about an hour north of Auckland featuring a musician who was friends with Jenna and Stu and a band that had a range like and whose sound was not radically dissimilar to The Velvet Underground from Loaded.

Before heading out to the Auckland City museum on our last full day in Auckland, Rissa asked Jenna for a recommendation. Rissa wanted to try Pavlova, a national dish of New Zealand and was hoping Jenna had a good idea for where to find some. Jenna said, “There are a few places that serve it, but I'll just make you one, since the real way to eat it is at home.” And so, after a day at the museum, and a fantastic final dinner at a restaurant called Depot, we had Pavlova and celebrated, a little early, Rissa's birthday.

Our last day in Auckland was “Carissa Leal's 40-Hour Birthday” which involved hanging out in Timeout's neighborhood (the Cambridge of Auckland) grabbing a cocktail or two, and, because we are categorically insane, hiking a small nearby mountain, before spending a little quiet time in Timeout's office in advance of 27 hours of plane travel back.

This is the part of the blog series where I sum everything up. Anthony Bourdain usually gets around these moments in his shows by restating the challenge of such statements in a way that gives him some purchase on the places he's discussing. It's an effective technique, one that I didn't really notice until I found myself in this moment, where the big sum up of my trip would normally go. But, in my mind at least, I don't want to sum this trip up, I want it to linger in my consciousness, for memories to pop up at random times, for me to be working on a poem or a story or an essay or something years from now and be stuck until I remember something about this trip. To put this another way, I don't want this trip, or any other, to have a conclusion, I want it to have a presence.

Other Auckland Notes: I flew halfway around the world to end up at a Halloween party to be told by a Montreal Candiens fan from Ottawa that the Bruins are a bunch of goons. Did not get a satisfying response when I brought up Subban's occasionally extremely reckless play or the persistent (though diminishing) diving. Apparently the Montreal media has some pretty stout filters.

Asian Food is Better Australia and New Zealand: A lot better. One of the best dishes we had on our trip was a beef stew type thing from a backwater Vietnamese restaurant in Cairns. Spicy House in Auckland was cheap and hands down better than any Asian food I've ever had on our home coast (which is why it ended up in the Where Chefs Eat guidebook) and the noodles we had were also goddamn fantastic. It makes sense when you think about it. Australia and New Zealand are just a lot closer to Asia than Cambridge is and so it is easier to get the necessary ingredients and they have to travel far less to get here. So if you're traveling on the other side of the world, even if you're not in Asia, make sure to get at least one Asian meal.

What I Missed While I Traveled: There were things I expected to miss while we traveled: friends, family, the cat, the Bruins, the bookstore, my writing routine, and I did miss all of those things, but you are most able to learn what is enfolded in your existence when it is removed. Two things I was surprised to miss as much as I did: iced coffee (discussed earlier) and bread. I had no idea how much I missed bread until I picked up a small loaf at a French bakery with the intention of just picking at it while waiting for Riss to wake up. (Which comprised Part One of Josh's Great Chili Ingredient Adventure.) The petit pain did not make it home. Some weird primal joy took over and I stuffed that fucking thing right in my gaping maw. So apparently, bread is an important part of my existence.

Gloworm Caves

Noir Restaurant

Auckland Panorama from Mt. Eden

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Christchurch: Rebuilding, Aesthetics, and Landscape

His friends were playing golf. Then the ground started to move like water and it was like waves approaching. There is no escaping the earthquake the nearly destroyed Christchurch. The cathedral itself still sits half-demolished. There are vacant lots. There are buildings with warnings. There is construction. I had formed a perspective on Christchurch when a cab driver told us the story of his friends running for their lives. A hopeful perspective. An energized perspective. An idea, that maybe other cities can learn from Christchurch and apply its lessons without first going through a catastrophe. And though I'm still hopeful for Christchurch, though I still believe in the energy of construction I felt there, and the opportunity to rebuild a modern city to meet the needs of modern society, the story reminded me that I did not carry the trauma of the earthquake itself with me as I spent time in Christchurch, and that everything that felt like construction to me, was reconstruction to everyone else. The result of this experiential distance, is that I was experiencing something aesthetically, the people of Christchurch lived emotionally.

With the exception of Cathedral Square, the Re-Start Mall is the most overt continuing interaction between the Christchurch and the earthquake. The Re-Start Mall is just like any other mall, except that, in order to get things up and running again as quickly as possible after so many buildings were destroyed, the stores are all how housed in converted shipping containers. To me, it was a really cool place, (though, like everything else in Christchurch, it closed surprisingly early) demonstrating an innovative and relatively green solution to a problem. We got some coffee and books (see the Vacation Reading post) and I was really tempted by a food truck selling “American Style Hot Dogs.” (Which might have planted the seed for Rissa's “Let's make a food truck that sells American style chili” plan to facilitate moving to New Zealand.)

As usual, when it's Riss and I running the show, Christchurch was good food, good beer, a museum and a botantical garden, with some pictures of the public art used to reclaim, at least in part, the destroyed and emptied spaces of Christchurch. We found a cool little whiskey bar and had a grand plan for closing out one of our nights at a bar that specialized in local craft beers and was about 50 feet from our hotel, but those plans were dashed upon the jagged rocks of Everything-in-Christchurch-Closes-Early. And then there was Hamner Springs.

Hamner Springs is a hot/mineral spa and pool complex a couple hour outside of Christchurch. On the surface, it isn't the kind of activity Riss and I tend to do. Spas involve a fair of amount of lying around and Riss and I tend to avoid lying around on vacation. But, we figured, we were on our honeymoon and if there were ever a time when we could fit a spa day into our packed schedule it would be on our honeymoon. And the day fell just about halfway into our vacation so it seemed to be a perfect time to lie around a bit. And you know what, it was. If the weather hadn't been a bit overcast and if Riss and I had thought to bring magazines (or some other reading material we wouldn't fear dropping into a hot spring) with us, it might have been a highlight of the trip. And the hot springs were rather nice. My favorite pool was the mid-temperature-sulfur pool. (The “fart pool” as Riss with her sophisticated brand of humor called it.) We even each got some alone time as the other received a spa treatment. (I spent my alone time with an absolutely gigantic beer tasting flight (which I warned Riss about), a dish that was not chili fries but was called so (which I did not warn Riss about), and about an hour of writerly anxiety. We had a good time, but Hamner Springs was nothing compared to the drive between Christchurch and Hamner Springs.

Being a LOTR movie fan I have long been acquainted with the idea that New Zealand should have gotten a nod for best supporting actor. So I should have been ready for the landscape of New Zealand. I was not. The words and the pictures will not do justice to the beauty of the drive from Christchurch to Hamner Springs and back. The best I can do is present the pictures and tell you that trying to contain the visual beauty with my eyes made my brain hurt. The colors. The textures. The expanses. With all due respect to 89 in Vermont, I don't know if any drive will ever compare.

Other Christchurch notables before I move on: Dux Dine served perhaps the best vegetarian dish we had on our trip, which was really nice, because the dinner there was gifted to us by vegetarian friends. We saw indoor cricket for the first time, which is weird. At an Irish Bar called The Craic that featured a lot of video gambling, which is weirder, and which we have commemorative baseball caps from, which is weirdest. There was a building with beautiful murals on it surrounded by about two blocks of vacant lots and it was a strip club. I took the best picture of Rissa ever.

Botanical Garden

Street Art

Hamner Springs