03/25/15 7:37am
Photo by Jane Bruce

King Tai Bar
1095 Bergen Street, Crown Heights


In the weeks that stretch between winter’s last gasps and the first real days of spring, it’s sometimes hard to know where you want to drink. Those dark, wood-paneled fireplace bars seem a little too bunker-like now that the signs of thaw are upon us, and it will still be a month before sitting on a roof or in a backyard with a frosty beer will be anything but an act of defiance against the elements. In March, I want to drink somewhere that’s open and bright, but still indoors, a place that gestures at the seasonal change but isn’t wholly invested in it. (more…)

11/05/14 4:00am

Comedian Jenny Slate has been everywhere lately, from a role on The Kroll Show to a recurring character on Parks and Recreation to her turn as the leading lady in the reproductive rights-tinged rom-com Obvious Child, which won her a nomination for a Gotham award. But despite all those gigs, Slate and her filmmaker husband Dean Fleischer-Camp returned recently to one of their biggest recent successes, the adorable comic creation Marcel the Shell, writing a second children’s book based on the nervous critter called The Most Surprised I’ve Ever Been. Slate and Fleischer-Camp spoke to The L from their hotel room about the evolution of Marcel, reproductive rights, and leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles.

How has the way you think about the character of Marcel evolved since the first video?

Flesicher-Camp: I think his soul has deepened. The first video was a test drive of the character and it was mostly one-liners. Like, “Guess what I use for a hat? A lentil,” that sort of thing. The newest video only has one or two one-liners. And the dynamic between the narrator and Marcel has become a lot more defined. I think Marcel’s matured; he’s become more invested, it’s not just about how much he can entertain. He’s become more of a performer. He used to be a little camera shy.

Slate: We know the roles better now. A lot of our work together is based on us joking around and feeling like we’re playing a game together.

Marcel was born through a voice that Jenny did that Dean then created an object for. Were there other ideas before you settling on the shell?

Fleischer-Camp: There were, but they were just based on what I had around. One was a cotton ball. One was a spring or something. But when I stumbled on Marcel, he matched the voice. And he’s so handsome.

Does he come along with you on your book tour?

Slate: Oh, no. He’s so fragile we’re afraid he would break. He stays home, in a cleaned out hummus container in our linen cabinet.

The last time The L interviewed you, Jenny, it was all about your every day routine living in Brooklyn. Now that you live in LA, what do you and don’t you miss about living here?

Slate: We criticize ourselves for moving a little. The truth of it is that after a while it became impossible to find enough TV auditions in New York. It takes a long, long time to build a career with any momentum. I came to live in New York for college because it was a life goal to be on Saturday Night Live. When I was offered SNL, it was great, but afterwards, it wasn’t easy to find a job based on that. It’s sketch performance, not acting. So I started at zero, basically. The only other shows that I wanted to be on in New York were Bored to Death, which got cancelled, and Girls, which I did. There wasn’t really a reason workwise to stay. But we’ll come back one day for sure, live in some brownstone that needs a little love. What I miss is the community and the cross-pollination, because you feel like you’re all in this together. I miss that sense of being a New Yorker with someone else. I miss connecting with strangers in that way. I walked around a lot more, and when you’re actually on your feet moving, there are so many tiny ways to enjoy yourself.

Fleischer-Camp: I don’t miss the trash smells in summer. I don’t miss being stuck on the subway. I don’t miss the snow slush puddles that look like pavement. But I like that when we lived here, being in entertainment felt a little more special. At a party, when you said “I’m a director” people would be like “woah!” In LA, some model will just be like, “Oh, I’m also a director.”

Jenny, your last movie, Obvious Child had a lot to do with Brooklyn. I thought your character seemed like a really accurate representation of people I know here.

Slate: We tried really hard to make Donna look like people we would see. [Director and writer] Gillian Robespierre and I had a long frank conversation where I was like, “When Donna’s in her house, I don’t think she should be wearing bras.” I mean, I’m in a hotel room now and I’m not wearing a bra. We wanted that throwaway confidence to be there. It’s not a story about a perfect woman who’s having her first dilemma. It’s a person from our world dealing with our world.

You talked about that character being a platform for you to be an “accidental activist” for reproductive rights, too.

Slate: I try to step away from some of the feelings of shame I had, why didn’t I do this before. It’s easy to feel like your voice isn’t supposed to be a voice in the conversation. I’m not comfortable with confrontation or conflict. But it’s brought me so much joy to express my point of view, which isn’t fueled by aggression, but by optimism and hope and intelligence when it comes to our plan for how to co-exist and what it means to be a feminist. It seems like people who are non-experts are going out there and saying “Yeah, I’m the person who’s supposed to be asking for this, because I have a body,” that’s what we need. The more unique voices speaking, the more it will become normal to have a conversation.

So what’s next?

Slate: More Marcel for sure. What, we don’t exactly know yet. But hopefully we’ll be making Marcel things on our sixtieth anniversary.

Fleischer-Camp: Definitely, we’re going to keep expanding Marcel’s world. But I hope we have better plans for our sixtieth anniversary.

10/22/14 4:00am

Midwood flats
569 Flatbush Avenue

You have been to a bar like Midwood Flats before. It’s the kind of bar with spare wood furnishings and vintage electric bulbs, the narrow space filled with high tables in the front and a couple booths in the back, chalkboards on the wall announcing a rotating crop of twenty locals beers on draft. It’s the kind of bar that serves traditional bar chow like cheese fritters and chips and dip alongside upgraded comfort food like duck torta and two kinds of lobster rolls. It’s the kind of bar where, if you walk in from a sudden downpour on a recent evening, the waitress will cluck sympathetically and tell you “Aw, sweetheart, you need a drink!” to which you will heartily agree.

In short, Midwood Flats is a gastropub in the manner of many Brooklyn establishments that bear the same description. In a neighborhood like Park Slope or Williamsburg or even a mile further north, on Franklin Avenue, it would hardly be remarkable. But in this particular stretch of Prospect Lefferts Gardens right below the Prospect Park Q stop, it’s something to get excited about. Until now, the bar options in the neighborhood came down to a handful of lounges with unpredictable hours and Lincoln Park Tavern, a decent-but-not-great pub currently in danger of closing, which serves up large, bland helpings of Mexican-American food and which seems to frequently host Evanescence karaoke. Other choices necessitate a hike up to Crown Heights, an increasingly daunting distance for a quick pint as the winter weather settles in.

Which is why on a Wednesday night, Midwood Flats was packed with locals, braving the rainy weather to sample the new bar’s offerings. The draft list, which includes offerings from Kelso, Evil Twin, and Singlecut, was decent if expensive: there wasn’t a beer on the list for less than $6. The whiskey list, which covers the entire back half of the laminated menu, offers an impressive array of bourbons. The soundtrack seemed firmly stuck in the British mope-rock spectrum. Coldplay’s “Yellow” played, by my count, three times in the hour and a half span that I stopped by. Still, if not an objectively great bar, Midwood Flats is a perfectly good place to grab a drink. It would be a find in Midtown and a shrug in Prospect Heights, but it’s a pretty solid thumbs up for the location.

08/27/14 4:00am

As the driving force behind The Mountain Goats, singer-songwriter John Darnielle has enraptured audiences for the past two decades with lyrical portraits that border on sung short stories. In his second novel, Wolf In White Van—his first, Master of Reality, was a consideration of the Black Sabbath album from the perspective of a teenager in a mental institution—Darnielle expands the reach of his imaginative process to the tale of Sean Phillips, a man badly disfigured in a mysterious accident, who spends his time leading players through a labyrinthine play-by-mail game called Trace Italian.

Through shifts in chronological perspective, Darnielle slowly winds the reader back to the point of Phillips’ life-changing accident, exploring, along the way, the intricate fantasy life that Phillips developed and maintained in order to survive. We spoke with him about the creation of Wolf In White Van and the difference between novel writing and songwriting.

Did the process for Wolf start in songwriting?
No, Sean didn’t start out as a song character. I had finished writing Master of Reality and enjoyed learning to follow a narrative where it goes, seeing how writing a longer story is part performance and part… collage? Ship-in-a-bottle building? Anyway, it’s different. So I just started writing something one day, and it turned into a scene near the end of the book—where Sean and his friends are hanging out, being young and Californian and bored—and I just built around that.

Where did Sean come from?
The image I had of young Sean before the accident comes from people I knew in high school. Just sort of a vision of a kid in a puffy jacket and jeans who has some dark dreams inside him. These were guys I didn’t know well, so I used to wonder about their lives, what they were like, whether their days were like mine.

How was the writing process different from songwriting?
I write songs really fast and I feel like song is its own space. I write songs in single incantatory bursts; half the time I’m writing out loud with the guitar and then pausing to scribble down what I said when I was playing the chords. Books are just different. I’ve also been writing prose longer than I’ve been writing songs; it was my first passion. I wrote my first short story when I was seven.

How did you design Trace Italian?
I had to check whether there really were play-by-mail games—of course there were, though the email I sent to one company that’s supposedly still running bounced, which I’m bummed about. I framed the basic movement you see, and I thought a lot about the set-up. The point of the Trace is that it only exists in descriptions. We don’t see any maps, it’s just a way of thinking about an actually existing part of the world, and eventually of thinking about the whole world.

Do you have a soundtrack for the book?
I feel like Steve Roach albums would read pretty well for a lot of Sean’s more immersed musings. I have some pretty specific southern California radio sounds for the scene in the parking lot—classic rock stations blaring from the windows of Camaros. And, like, instrumental guitar stuff like the Robin Trower album Sean listens to in the last chapter, or this old Steve Hunter album Swept Away, or the last two Jeff Loomis albums, that endless-day southern California feel. But there ought also to be something like Klaus Schulze, something electronic with movement. I think splitting the distance between outer-space organic synth sounds and shuffling instrumental electric-guitar stuff would set the scene best.

You have a knack for accessing the imaginary worlds that teenagers shelter in. How do you do it?
I still get transported by imaginary worlds, though I do hear a lot of people saying that as they grow older they don’t connect as deeply with the stuff they’re into. I think staying curious is the only thing—never being satisfied with the stuff you already know you like, always finding new stuff to get into. Then you’re always young with respect to the stuff you’re reading, listening to, watching, doing.

07/30/14 4:00am

Hops Hill
135 North 5th Street, Williamsburg

On Fulton Street near Washington, where the Notorious B.I.G. used to make loot and knock boots, there is now less chance of running into a freestyle session on the corner than an organic grocery store. Or, say, a bar specializing in craft beer. And so we find Hops Hill, a bar so new that it almost feels unfair to pass judgment—like a just-born kitten, you want to give it some time to find its legs, grow into those oversized ears. How new is it? Well, two sheets of computer paper tacked up on the window serve as a makeshift sign and curious Clinton Hill residents stop to press their noses on the glass door on their way home from the A/C stop.

Hops Hill, as its name implies, will eventually serve as a makeshift temple to craft beers, but while the bar’s potential is clear, it’s still coming into its own. The whole operation is squeezed into a space formerly occupied by a bakery. A large refrigerator in the back will eventually hold a selection of 300 beers. On the evening I went, a young family—the father cheerily bouncing a baby on his knee as he sipped a beer—occupied the only table. In a far corner, a TV tuned to SportsCenter happily hummed away at a low volume. Most of the real estate is devoted to a long, wraparound marble counter with no-nonsense stools parked around it, the visible and evenly-spaced outlets suggesting hopes that the bar will eventually be one where the neighborhood workaholics and freelancers will come to plug in and drink.

A chalkboard at the entrance announces a solid selection for the twelve beers on tap, from the Andean Kuka Tripel to Unibroue’s La Fin du Monde. As of now, all the beers run you $6, affordable compared to similar beer joints in Manhattan and many other parts of Brooklyn. The bartender, an affable gent in a Cigar City Brewing T-shirt, recommended the Ninkasi Total Domination IPA, a bright, hoppy number from Oregon that recently made its debut on the East Coast.  After I confirmed that it was indeed delicious, he nodded. “I know, right? It was a surprise for us, too,” before turning to consult about the merits of a stout. A man at the bar ordered an $18 hamburger from a nearby restaurant, and complained about the price. “Juicy” started blaring from the speakers, as if
on cue.

07/16/14 4:00am

A Bad Feminist Takes Over

Roxane Gay on Sexism, Chris Brown, and Knausgaard
By Margaret Eby

This is the summer of Roxane Gay. The prolific writer published her first novel, An Untamed State, to warm reviews in May, and is preparing to release her new essay collection Bad Feminist, a collection of sharp, Sontag-ianly searing pieces on everything from Orange Is the New Black (“a lovingly crafted monument to White Girl Problems”) to likability in fiction (“a very elaborate lie”) to abortion legislation (“trickle-down misogyny”). She folds a wrenching account of being gang-raped as a teenager into a discussion of The Hunger Games. Her pieces manage to be at once conversational and full of pithy aphorisms. Gay chatted with The L about why “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

Did you plan to have two books come out so close to each other?
Oh no, it was totally a fluke. I would never choose to do two books in a year; it’s so much work. It was strange and fortuitous timing. An Untamed State aimed for this literary fiction market, which is pretty narrow. I think the audience for Bad Feminist is broader, and once it comes out people will want to disagree with it, which is fine with me.

How did you hit on “bad feminist” as a term?
I started calling myself that in a very tongue-in-cheek way. The first title for the collection was actually What We Hunger For. But I realized that Bad Feminist captured some of what I’m trying to say in the collection. It’s a catchy title, and it’s also indicative of a space in feminism that we have to create for ourselves, a messiness we should claim. The reason that it seems like a rigid institution is that when it began things were so terrible for women that they had no choice but be militant. There was no room for nuance because men were very much trying to keep women from basic civil rights. The hardness of that has really shaped modern feminism.

In your essay on Chris Brown, you talk about how we give passes to artists for bad behavior. How do you resolve liking art by someone who does despicable things?
I don’t think that you can resolve it. We’re human and we’re often weak when it comes to pleasure. We have to separate the art from the man or woman. We get precious about art as something so important that it supersedes human dignity. And I don’t think so any more. I don’t think the world is really a better place if we make those sacrifices. Look at Woody Allen, at Roman Polanski. Look at the cost of that genius. The price we’re willing to pay for art is too high. The reason people can condemn Chris Brown is partially because they don’t value his art, though he has his defenders. There’s snobbery involved, and racism too—he’s a black kid who’s an R&B artist. When people criticize Allen, it’s a different story.

Katie Roiphe wrote in a recent essay that confessional writing when it’s done by a man, like Karl Ove Knausgaard, is celebrated, but rejected when it’s done by women. Do you agree?
I hesitate to say that I agree with Roiphe, because she’s a great writer who I disagree with almost 100 percent of the time. Her book The Morning After, [which questions the prevalence of date rape] was some of the most damaging writing that’s ever been produced. But that essay was great, as was her collection Messy Lives , which helped inspire how I structured Bad Feminist . I’ve been thinking about this idea of Knausgaard as this new literary god for basically publishing his diary. If a woman did that she would be excoriated. Why is one more palatable than another? But to some people it absolutely is.

You also criticize programs like Orange Is the New Black for touting diversity while still giving fairly narrow roles to minorities.
Right. We’re supposed to be like, “Great! A show about prison! Hooray!” I respect [showrunner] Jenji Kohan for what she’s trying to do with the show, but no. People of color are often told to suck it up because it could be worse, that we should be grateful for these scraps thrown our way. No, I’m sorry. White men get to have everything. They just do. And we get to have everything, too. Nobody has a perfect life, and it’s not about striving for perfection. It’s about every person having an equal opportunity to reach for something more.

Your writing tends to use “I” a lot. Why?
For so long, the way I was taught how to write, there was no room for the “I.” It was me responding to that, saying that there is room for the personal in criticism. I wanted to show that it’s me thinking through these issues, that I don’t have all the answers.

You’re also a big Twitter user. How does that influence your writing?
It helps me in that it erodes some of the isolation of writing. Sometimes it’s a place for me to brainstorm the next piece I want to write. I don’t claim Twitter as a distraction or an impediment. People like to, but the real issue is self-control. If it wasn’t Twitter, it would be something else.

Are there current events you wish you could have addressed in the book?
So much. Hobby Lobby, that Supreme Court debacle. What’s going on in the Middle East right now. I wouldn’t presume to understand the complexity of the relationship between Israel and Palestine, but it’s the sort of thing where response is demanded. This wave of pieces against Internet outrage, which are just people trying to dismiss pushback and invalidate opinions. I can’t stand Woody Allen. That’s an essay that I’d love to have in the book. Maybe for my next collection, Badder Feminist. [laughs]

Even though your pieces address a lot of troubling things, you seem to have a sense of optimism about the future.
I try. Pessimism isn’t going to accomplish anything. At least we’re having these conversations. The louder we are, the more that the people in power are going to be forced to listen. I’m optimistic in the ways that feminism can get people talking about things, however fraught those exchanges are.