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Articles by

<Becky Ferreira>

06/18/14 4:00am

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
By Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris’s protagonists are all carved into emotional husks by the monotony of everyday life. They’re bound to resonate in some way with most readers, and Ferris’ evident knack for capturing them is what made his debut, Then We Came to the End, so successful.

In his third novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Ferris’ flirtation with Internet-age spiritual alienation has grown darker and more relentless. The book is narrated by a neurotic dentist named Paul O’Rourke, who is obsessed with the Red Sox and perplexed by belief in God. But despite his outspoken atheism, Paul is hypnotized by the strong sense of belonging enjoyed by the families of his religious girlfriends. His tumultuous childhood has left him lonely and bereft, peering at these “normal” families from the outside.

Having unfairly idealized them, Paul is disappointed when he rediscovers that all families have their crosses to bear, so to speak. “Without monstrous distortions, I was slowly learning, without lies and hypocrisy, one cannot have the idealized American life I so longed for,” he laments. “Perfection was marred only by those corruptions necessary to its enterprise.” To Rise is heavy with such revelations, though Ferris injects just enough fresh, unexpected humor to keep you from drowning.

The plot takes off when a website for Paul’s dentistry practice pops up out of nowhere and, to his horror, implies that he is some kind of religious fanatic. By attempting to reclaim his online identity, Ferris forces Paul to confront his real one. For the first time, Paul must reflect on his affinity for underdogs of all stripes and his misunderstood attempts to join their ranks.

Though Ferris brings much of his trademark charm and insight to the table, To Rise is not as tight as his previous efforts. The pacing is awkward, dragging at times, and the book’s thematic tendrils half-heartedly collapse into a limp ball at the end. It also suffers at the hand of lines like, “I appreciated Mercer’s laughter. It showed a sense of humor.” Still, there is much to chew on here, and Ferris remains one of the most commanding voices in fiction today.

02/16/11 4:00am

World Wide Mind:
The Coming Integration 
of Humanity, Machines, 
and the Internet


By Michael Chorost

Free Press


It can be both exciting and unsettling when science fiction tropes start to turn up in reality. And from the Borg to Skynet to Neuromancer to that hilarious sketch in Portlandia‘s pilot featuring “mind-fi,” the integration of minds and computers has become one of the most feared and maligned visions of our future.


That’s probably why, in World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet, Michael Chorost takes pains to lay out recent advances in relevant brain and software technology without sensationalizing them. Offering himself as an example of successful computer integration—Chorost is deaf, but uses cochlear implants—he summarizes fascinating neurological research. There is a reason why science publishing is currently dominated by neurological bestsellers: mysteries of the brain are swiftly unraveling while incredible discoveries are giving way to even more profound questions. The upshot of the research Chorost details is nothing less than a pathway to telepathy, telempathy and a linked world consciousness.


The real triumph of the book derives from Chorost’s storytelling ability. It’s not easy to break down scientific endeavors like optogenics, wearable computer rigs and EEG “mind-reading” caps while simultaneously examining sociological problems such as the slow dissolution of physical communities in the wake of the internet, chemical addiction to email-checking and the radical redefinition of the words “privacy” and “individual” would undergo in a networked consciousness, all for a general audience. But Chorost is careful to follow every new concept with precise analogs. Moreover, the book is shadowed by a personal arc in which Chorost confronts his long-time disconnect with person-to-person intimacy. The takeaway is that, if mindful of the inevitable problems that will arise in this new step of human evolution, we could become a species capable of aspiring to more than the sum of our parts.

03/03/10 10:59am

bullfight!

In preparing for our annual L Magazine Bar Awards issue, we received the following email from wonderful contributor Becky Ferreira. It was so compelling, so moving, that we were inspired to create the first-ever L Magazine Bar Awards Lifetime Achievement Award (award) and give it to Spain Bar. Congratulations you grumpy bastard.

Well, the back room of Spain is a restaurant, and actually a nice looking one. I have never tried their food, but there often seem to be clandestine meetings going on back there. However, the entire front is a bar, and it’s a really genuine dive.

For one thing, it’s so cheap (most drinks are $4 or less, and the sangria pitchers have got to be one of the more impressive alcohol/dollar ratios offered in NYC). It’s also incredibly dingy. It attracts characters that you would expect to see on most quality HBO shows, including The Sopranos, The Wire and Curb Your Enthusiasm. One time, there was a Viking woman there, with horns and everything. I don’t mean some girl who thought Viking horns would be cute. I’m pretty sure this was a for-real Viking woman from 1,000 years ago, complete with gapped teeth, insanely frizzy blonde hair and the body of a rhino. If I was a time-traveling Viking, I would’ve visited Spain too.

Also, there is no real lock on the women’s bathroom stall. You can lock the whole bathroom, but you can’t lock the stall. I mean, you don’t get much more genuinely dive than that.

They serve free tapas with drinks, but it’s all a clever plot to get you to drink more. There are two free tapas they always serve: potatoes and meat balls. The potatoes are drenched in hot sauce and salt so you have to drink a bunch in order to survive eating even a few. The meat balls are made of some unidentifiable animal—different friends I have taken there often guess different animals. Probably cow, but my friends report that there is something not quite cow about them. There are always six of them, all skewered with a toothpick. They look more like testicles than any other food I’ve seen, including actual testicles. They also serve quiche (again, quite salty) but only occasionally. You are very lucky if you get quiche. It can really make your whole night, if it happens.

They provide dinner mints in a wooden bowl at the door. They look like they’ve been there since 1975.

They have two TVs; one is usually playing something normal like a sports game or the news. The other plays something ridiculous like Telemundo, pedigree dog shows or just back-to-back infomercials. There is a 90% chance that you will see Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune at some point on any night, on either the normal TV or the whacked one.

Finally, the owner of the bar seems to HATE his customers, with the exception of native Spanish speakers from Spain. Not competent Spanish speakers or fluent Spanish speakers with an accent. Not even South American or Mexican native speakers. If you want to be treated nicely, you better have been raised in Spain. Don’t get me wrong: I really respect this guy, and he is hospitable despite his deep animosity toward everyone, if that makes sense. Perhaps because he is open about his dislike of his own customers, everyone just seems to dig it and give him a pass. Once, I put my bag under my stool, and he almost tripped on it, though it really was tucked under there well. He angrily said “Are you trying to kill me?” I told him no, but clearly, it was an unsatisfactory answer.

He often looks out over his bar with barely disguised disgust. He has got to be in his 60s (at least) and there is a picture of him when he was about 30 years younger behind the bar. He is wearing the exact same look of disgust in the picture.

It’s also a bar that seems to invite bleeding incidents. I got a torrential nosebleed (I know, that’s a disgusting way to put it) and my friend’s finger started bleeding one night too. Both times they discreetly took our disgusting bloody napkins before we could take them to the garbage and dispose of them ourselves. Disposing of someone else’s blood? THAT’S service!

I just made it sound terrible but truly, it is inimitable, and the bar I frequent more than any other.

UPDATED: Oh yeah, Spain Bar is at W. 13th Street and Sixth Ave.

03/03/10 3:30am

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Pantheon

Not only does Rebecca Goldstein’s newest novel demonstrate obvious brilliance in her own field (philosophy), it also reveals her to be a fearlessly inquisitive writer in several other disparate disciplines. 36 Arguments drifts from her investigation of mathematical theorems to a wide spectrum of advanced psychological research to Kabbalistic interpretations of the potato kugel, all while cleverly satirizing the twin banality and savagery of the academic world.

That’s not to say the book works, exactly. It’s a smart novel filled with smart ideas—most of which end up completely overshadowing the characters espousing them. The center of the book’s philosophical pinwheel, and the only person who remains bearable or even believable from beginning to end, is Cass Seltzer, an “atheist with a soul,” who becomes a sudden prophet of the New Atheist movement upon the publication of his book The Varieties of Religious Illusion. The book’s key feature is an appendix cataloging thirty-six of the most persuasive arguments for the existence of God, and Cass’s refutations of each one. Thankfully, Goldstein actually includes this appendix: it’s the best section of the novel, not only because it’s astute and engaging, but because the only character you have to deal with is Cass.

Most of the secondary characters are over-explained into caricature. Goldstein would really like you to understand that Cass’s ex-wife Pascale is French: she is permanently in high heels and red lipstick, and she speaks with that dainty “how you say…?” quality. I’m Canadian, but that doesn’t mean I always carry hockey sticks and maple syrup.

By default, then, the novel’s main players become Goldstein’s sharp and varied observations, which keep the novel fascinating and surprising. For every “brandy-glass-shaped breast” (dubious descriptions abound), there’s a beautiful phrase like “it isn’t always sensible to be rational”: these moments capture the greatest existential question of all time in a way only Goldstein, under the influence of such contrasting figures as William James, Gödel and Spinoza, can pull off.

01/13/10 4:00am

Footnotes in Gaza
By Joe Sacco
Metropolitan Books, available now

Joe Sacco is the most groundbreaking and inventive graphic journalist working today, and Footnotes in Gaza is by far his most ambitious work to date. A 400-page re-creation of the all-but-forgotten Israeli-led massacre on Khan Younis and Rafah in November 1956, Footnotes explodes previous ideas of how to write history, journalism and graphic books, and creates a new language—both visual and verbal—with which to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even if you think you’d rather jump into a barrel of wolverines and razors than read any more about this hopelessly intractable war, you should pick up this book. Sacco’s brilliant rendering of memory, prejudice and desperation bespeak not only his talent and the strength (and vulnerabilities) of the people he interviews, but it also emphasizes the shortcomings of so many other books about the region.

For one thing, the awful specter of “the solution” does not haunt this book, which is a huge relief. If the book market is any indication, we are deeply uneasy discussing this conflict without providing a clear explanation of how to fix it: Jimmy Carter’s We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan that Will Work (2009) and the many books like it represent noble goals, but the weight of such unparsed idealism sinks them immediately. There is a second, perhaps more honest breed of book, exemplified by Edward Said’s Peace and its Discontents (1996), which does not take the goal of peace as necessarily attainable or even self-evident, but these books’ defining arguments are still a reaction to—and thus dependent upon—a cripplingly optimistic insistence that lasting peace in the Middle East is possible.

Despite spanning decades of the region’s history, Footnotes is unfettered by this forced grander objective. Sacco is interested in revisiting the 1956 massacres (overshadowed at the time by the Suez Crisis), collecting witnesses’ stories, and creating the most accurate oral history he can. The narrative flits between past and present, which allows the reader to confront the similarity in attitudes despite the 50-year gap.

But most impressively, through his detailed renderings of facial expressions, and through his commitment to journalistic objectivity (along with his occasional breaks with it) Sacco easily acquaints us with the refugees he meets, and our empathy is quickly with them. Though he is annoyed with the pesky, brash Palestinian teenagers he encounters, when he draws one shyly asking him “Do you like us?” he makes a deeply personal and yet subtly political point in the same panel. Footnotes is filled with careful crossover moments like this, painting a realistically human picture that is often neglected.

11/09/09 4:00am

By Nevin Martell
Continuum
Available Now

In the opening pages of Looking for Calvin and Hobbes, Nevin Martell admits he initially told friends he was writing this book “with equal amounts of boastfulness and fear.” Fear because, as Martell notes, his friends’ enthusiasm was a cover for their inner trepidations. They were really saying, “If you screw this book up, you will be pissing on some of the fondest memories of my youth. Don’t *&@I# with my inner child.”

In reality, the stakes are much higher than that. Those of us who still regularly return to Calvin and Hobbes well into adulthood have more at risk here than our inner children. Watterson’s work has been a philosophical compass for us our whole lives. We are going to be on his side before the biographer’s.

This protective instinct does not work out in Martell’s favor. He recognizes the impossibility of the biography he envisioned much too late in the making of this book, and at too high a price. Each chapter is heavy with disappointment posing as adoration, and a distracting latent defensiveness that he is writing about Watterson without Watterson. The book’s worst sentence comes on the heels of the cartoonist’s brother’s refusal to be interviewed: “That Watterson is one wascally wabbit,” Martell jokes. Martell is an endearing writer, but he is not allowed to call Bill Watterson a wascally wabbit. Watterson is our hero—even if he resents us for it—and it feels deeply wrong to undercut him. We are also awkwardly implicated in the invasion of his privacy, and that’s uncomfortable. After all, we want for Watterson what he wants for himself, which is to be left alone.

Surprisingly, this is the first book ever written about the life of the cartoonist and the origins and influence of Calvin and Hobbes. It’s not a completely bungled attempt. Martell compensates for Watterson’s absence by compiling interviews with a diverse group of people, from Watterson’s peers, such as Outland creator Berkeley Breathed and For Better or For Worse creator Lynn Johnston, to his close friend Rick West and his mother Kathryn, to the novelist Jonathan Lethem and the comedian Patton Oswalt. The latter choice was particularly astute; Oswalt is almost as interesting a fan as he is a creator. A genuine enthusiast, he has both the observational and communicative skills to articulate the genius of others, and he provides the book with its most poignant insight: “[Watterson] reminded you that imagination was more powerful than despair […] that there’s always wonder out there.” Any future books about Bill Watterson should never lose sight of this sentiment.

10/07/09 4:00am

In her review of Low Moon, The L’s Becky Ferriera described the graphic novel this way: “Each line and frame could mean nothing or could mean everything in this quiet, gripping book.” Ferriera recently interviewed the book’s creator, Jason (pictured at left, in a portrait by Jason Lutes), to ask-among other things-why his frames often lack dialogue, why he incorporates historical figures, and whether he feels particularly Norwegian or not.

The L: Low Moon is a collection of five short stories featuring very diverse characters, settings and tones. However, all five share similar narrative and thematic elements, and when read all in one sitting, each story seems to shed light on the others. Was each story developed separately, or had you always intended for these five to be in the same collection?

J: Low Moon, the story, wasn’t long enough for a book of its own, so I had to include some other stories to fill it out. They were just ideas for shorter stories I had lying around. There wasn’t meant to be any thematic unity. Death, I guess, is a repeating theme. People die a lot. At least two of the stories are influenced by film noir. There are also some narrative elements that are repeated. The fact that they’re all genre stories, science fiction, western, crime, also gives them a sort of unity. So I might have had that idea in my head when I was working on the stories, that they should fit together in a collection.

The L: Low Moon‘s first story “Emily Says Hello” is the grimmest in the collection, whereas the final one, “You Are Here” is the most touching. Was it a conscious decision to bookend Low Moon with different tones? How important was the order of the stories to you, and how did you decide it?

J: It was a conscious decision to open with “Emily Says Hello” and end with “You Are Here”, for the reasons you mention. I hoped “Emily” would be like a punch in the stomach of the reader. I don’t know if I achieved quite what I was hoping for with “You Are Here”, but emotionally it’s the richest story, so it fit at the end. It has hopefully a lot of room for the readers own interpretation. “Low Moon”, since it had been in The New York Times, I wanted early in the book. “Proto Film Noir” is the weakest story so I put that towards the end, and “&” fit in the middle.

The L: Your stories are tightly constructed and intricate; they have several graphic, verbal and narrative punchlines along the way, which then build to larger punchlines at the climax. What is your usual method of developing a story? Do you begin with sketches or with plot outlines? When is dialog introduced? Do you go through multiple drafts?

J: There’s no one method in making the stories. It depends. It’s often improvised. Sometimes I know how it’s going to end, but not always. I never write a full script. I usually work on about eight to ten pages at the same time. Sometimes I do small sketches first; sometimes I draw directly on the original. Sometimes I have a dialog written down, sometimes the images come first and I have to come up with the text as I’m drawing.

09/23/09 4:00am

Rutgers University Press
Available Now

It seems totally appropriate that New York City’s oldest historical icon is imaginary. Diedrich Knickerbocker began as Washington Irving’s playful attempt to satirize the first wave of New York historians, but his nostalgia for bygone New Amsterdam and his idiosyncratic combination of pretension and modesty struck a chord with the fledgling metropolis. New Yorkers rapidly elected him—reality aside—as their representative, sparking a symbiotic relationship that has survived to this day. In Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York, Elizabeth L. Bradley traces the origins and evolution of this bond, and explains how 19th-century New York’s eagerness to accept mythology as history set the tone for the city’s legendary attitude.

It is often overlooked that “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”—stories that rocketed Irving to international fame and secured his place as America’s first literary celebrity—portray Dutch traditions and communities. Irving himself was not of Dutch descent, so why the prevalence of Netherlander characters in his work? Bradley answers this with a detailed account of New Yorkers’ early aspirations to write their own history, which mostly resulted in dry, pedantic tomes omitting any mention of New Amsterdam. Irving noticed this absence, and set about countering the dull fake histories of his city with (at least) an entertaining fake history, in which cows are urban architects and Spuyten Duyvil is so named because the devil actually resides there. To add insult to injury, he made his narrator arguably the most aggressively Dutch character of all time: the cocked-hat-wearing historian Diedrich Knickerbocker.

Exactly two hundred years after his debut in The History of New York, Knickerbocker’s name has graced New York residents, beer brands, streets, neighborhoods and an NBA team it really hurts to root for. His resilience to time is multi-faceted: it’s in the sense he had, even in 1809, of New York’s “peculiar combination of wonder and weariness”, in his balance of nativism and cosmopolitanism, in his nostalgia for bygone times, which Bradley shrewdly notes bespeaks New Yorkers’ habit of “lamenting the passing of the city’s ‘golden days’ regardless of when they believe them to have been.” But overall, it is his unreality that ensured his survival. Irving writes that “cities of themselves are nothing without a historian,” and what historian could be more fitting for New York—a city that sometimes seems to exist more in our imaginations than in reality—than a fictional native foreigner.

08/19/09 4:00am

Abrams ComicArt
Available now

The 1939 World’s Fair, with its auspicious “World of Tomorrow” theme, is the kind of cultural touchstone that evokes nostalgia beyond its own generation. Its iconic structures have embedded themselves as a collective phantom memory, yielding multiple creative responses in the decades since. And while the cubist, metallic aesthetic is integral to the Fair’s lasting appeal, most of our fascination stems from what it represented. The organizers and attendees were clearly yearning for “Tomorrow.” Voracious for new technologies and the promise of globalism, they were coveting the future we now so cavalierly inhabit.

In Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, Brian Fies focuses on the disjunct between this hopeful, retro-futuristic vision and the much more complex and understated world that emerged from it. Told from the perspective of a boundlessly optimistic boy named Buddy, the book straddles the period from 1939 to the last Apollo mission in 1972, with a coda set in a speculative future. Buddy is frozen in childhood during these decades, a narrative peculiarity that Fies acknowledges in the foreword. His fixed age is initially distracting, but gradually, it becomes clear that the most evocative way to watch the advent of atomic energy, television and rockets unfold is through the eyes of a perpetual child.

The book suffers slightly from Fies’ attempt to definitively answer the titular question. It is an ambitious attempt, but plenty falls through his fingers. He decries the current prevalence of cynicism, but cynics are hardly a recent phenomenon; skepticism is as old as faith, if not older. It’s also hard to believe that we — the inheritors of the World of Tomorrow — regard the promise of our future that much differently than other generations. Interestingly, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? on some level agrees, eventually undermining its own qualms with the modern lack of curiosity and wonder. Fies’ rendering of a close parent-child bond, the stirring images of the World’s Fair, and the book’s refrain of ad astra per aspera, would fail to impact us so effectively had we truly lost our ability to be inspired and awestruck by possibility.

07/08/09 4:00am

Low Moon is a collection of five graphic short stories, each
featuring a protagonist, and something that he or she wants. At the
end, the protagonist has found a way, more often than not involving
murder, to obtain that thing. And is decidedly not happier for
it.

It isn’t the threat of punitive action, or a badgering conscience
that precludes happiness; the desired thing simply turns out not to be
worth it. In fact, Low Moon tends to favor the losers, even when
they are the murdered ones.

Jason is meticulous, laying out each story and panel so nakedly that
at the beginning, every aberration seems to jump off the page. But
anachronisms and irregularities begin to accrue, forcing the reader to
constantly re-evaluate the rules of the world we have entered. This is
most playful in the title story, which begins as a classic Western. A
stranger steps off a steam train. He enters a dusty settler town. “He’s
back,” say the residents. A duel is scheduled. It will have a winner
and a loser. Everything will be hard-lined and definitive.

Except that it will be a chess match, not a shoot-out. Also, saloon
fights are sparked by downing espresso, not whiskey. Two curmudgeonly
deputies, reminiscent of the Muppets Statler and Waldorf, watch someone
ride through town on a penny-farthing bicycle. “I miss horses,” says
one. We do not get to know why there are no horses. It is our
responsibility to parse and infer, and Low Moon provides a lot
of room to do so.

Jason seems to delight in building firm plots, only to swiftly tug
them out of sync. The resulting offbeat dynamic is punctuated with
deadpan verbal, narrative and graphic punch lines, which pin the
stories down at the same time that they suggest grander meanings.
“Where am I?” asks a prisoner. “I think I’ll do some gardening,” says a
murdered man. “Which way?” a son asks his father in “You Are
Here”
— the heartrending emotional core of the collection
— as they search for his mother on a barren planet. Each line and
frame could mean nothing or could mean everything in this quiet,
gripping book. Becky Ferreira