Five Friday Reads 31.07.2015

Corner in Siena

  • Why everyone should stop calling immigrant food “ethnic”‘ from Washington Post. Labeling a food as ethnic relegates to being outside of regular cuisine, marginalizing it and preventing its integration into the mainstream.
  • A Hundred Cities within Seoul‘ from The New York Times. For a city as diverse as Seoul, you need many guides to show you the different ways to experience the city.
  • Life on the slow track — Italy‘ from Monocle. An overnight train from Milan to Palermo isn’t swish travel, but the long journey invites reflections and views.
  • The Outlaw Ocean: A Renegade Trawler‘ from The New York Times. This fascinating installment in The New York Times‘ investigative series on the high seas explores a ship that attempts to enforce laws when rules disappear.
  • The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits. An amusing reflection on life through seemingly ordinary events, Julavits out-of-order diary is hysterical and intelligent.

Five Friday Reads 24.07.2015

Padova

  • Dispatches from the Silk Road: The Must-Try Uyghur Food of Kashgar‘ from Serious Eats. Influenced by India and central Asia, Kashgar’s cuisine will force you to re-imagine what Chinese food can be.
  • ‘Meditation on a Macchiato’ from Drift. A macchiato is a barista diagnostic: how do they interpret this polemical drink? A bad one is awful, a good one is the best coffee you’ll have.
  • The Quest for the Perfect Pad Thai‘ from BBC Travel. Although pad thai seems more Chinese than Thai and although it’s become a cliche exotic dish in the West, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good versions to be found in Thailand. They just might not be as delicious as you imagine them.
  • In the Swim of Things: Sapporo‘ from Monocle (The Escapist). In norther Japan, Sapporo residents enjoy a laid back lifestyle.
  • The Pros and (Considerable) Cons of Budget Bus Travel‘ from The New York Times.  Megabus is miserable. But overnight? I’d never.

Unreliable Narration

Reading al fresco

Mark’s head drooped on the desk while his teacher discussed the unreliable narrator. Mark had hardly slept the night before. His blinds were broken. They wouldn’t close. He was in his favourite (embarrassing) Superman pyjamas when he realised. He pulled the blinds, yanked them, shoved them. Nothing. He summoned Dan, his roommate. Dan pulled them, yanked them, shoved them. Nothing. The night before, Dan had thrown a party and Mark assumed that one of the guests used the blinds as a xylophone after too many vodka sodas. Mark glared at the purplish-yellow light illuminating his room.

Mr. Bryn dreaded the final week of lessons. Students didn’t listen. They acted as if topics introduced near exams were irrelevant. This outraged Mr. Bryn. A module irrigated your knowledge! And knowledge is a terrarium. The soil should be firm, solid — he hoped that previous professors provided students with a sturdy foundation, but sturdy wasn’t enough. You needed to add trees so ideas could breathe. Then you incorporated plants, animals and insects because even though they disgusted you, a thriving environment required noxious bits. When students arrived at his course, Advanced Literary Structures, they should be climbing the trees. Counting tree rings and uncovering rare flora and fauna — that wasn’t for undergraduates. Though, in his experience, students wanted to leap from the jungle floor to high exotica. In doing so, they toppled from their perch among the trees and ran the risk of getting covered in thorny, ant-like ideas.

Mr. Bryn structured his courses to enhance, week by week, the fertility of the mind’s terrarium. Narration was his favourite. It was his City of Z, his poison dart frog, his bright Rafflesia Flower. He devoted his career to cataloguing the intricacies of narration with the care and precision of a tropical biologist exploring the Amazon.

Mark craved the structure narration provided. He imagined clear essays that told a story, exam papers that unfurled logical points and job applications that squeezed into an ecological niche. The two months until graduation were the only metric guiding his life. Each day was a lesson in university’s most dreaded unit: Advanced Living with Parents. His history degree? It was knowledge without form. That’s what he was reminded by his grandfather and grandmother and aunt and cousin who landed a job straight out of university and bought an Audi within a year. Mark couldn’t convince them with stories of hanging out at the library with Asian engineers, drinking amorphous green drinks at Lizard Lounge and arguing with Dan about Foucault. So he spent his evenings sowing experience into his CV and pruning job applications.

Job applications were the silt you had to sieve for riches that someone else had probably (surely) already found. Mark had applied to and been rejected from internships at every magazine he read. He submitted applications to London museums to sit at a desk and distribute free maps, but they wanted people experienced in handling promotional materials. Not a degree. Three times a day his mother emailed him information about accountancy graduate schemes with late vacancies. He wouldn’t be working at Deloitte — ha! They would have lost his application to avoid wasting time sending him a cut-and-paste rejection letter — but he could spend a year training with Bayden Loading Inc., a logistics company in Nottingham. Mark grudgingly nudged his computer keys inventing answers to inane questions. Where do you see yourself in five years? If you had to choose an animal to describe your management style, which would you choose and why? Lectures were the only respite from the stultifying lead up to graduation.

Gazing at his students, scribbling notes in their too-shiny notebooks, Mr. Bryn no longer believed that he had once sat on that side of the lecture hall. Or rather, he remembered the late nights fuelled by bright clouds of revision and essays that gripped him in a mania of yellow-hued excitement. In class, exhilaration pelted his pen across the page, producing legible notes at a speed now unreachable. Even writing, these students seemed calm, sedate, tranquil. Mr. Bryn contemplated why as students filed in for office hours, but directed his gaze to the potted plant on his windowsill to prevent his face from contorting into a mask of frustrated disappointment. Students didn’t need his perspective.

Mr. Bryn was also careful not to share his views with other faculty. That didn’t stop the other professors, however, and thus the recorded talking points at departmental meetings were all pseudonyms for gossip. After a perfunctory discussion of course structures and funding (of which there was none), Janice began on opinions. She was a medievalist, in love with Chaucer but occasionally flirting with Boccaccio and Italian authors. Janice taught upper-level courses and found 93% of her pupils lacking. Mostly she hated their grammar. Once the word ‘grammar’ was uttered, the meeting was cancelled by default as they chorused the never-ending atrocities that punctuated student papers: the missing semicolon, the non-existent em dash, the pervasive run on sentences and the blatantly misused prepositions. When Janice paused for breath, Robert began. He lamented students’ apathy and reminded everyone that their professors would have punished sloppy syntax with a third. Mr. Bryn nodded and sighed but never joined in. The shadows of his opinions illuminated such emotion that he was apprehensive of the consequences of their release.

On the rare occasions that Mark’s friends discussed their professors, Mark presented the most fully formed opinions. He had his favourites and he’d thought too much about them. His girlfriend and mother insisted this was effeminate. That didn’t matter to Mark. After devoting himself to an issue, he developed intellectual bonds of steel with the professor who assigned him said topic. Gripping a book, taking notes, reading the criticism; these tasks ushered Mark into the mental universe his teachers had stepped into years earlier. To Mark, such shared action meant a shared emotion.

Indeed, this was Mark’s core belief. He was quick to act but not to share. Writing an essay was an exercise in waiting for inspiration to strike. As soon as his understanding blossomed like a tree in the rainforest after a monsoon, he instinctively knew his thesis and could write until his essay was done and fully edited. Others found this illogical, unbelievable. His parents groaned over his single-mindedness. His friends complained when Mark’s attention seemed permanently devoted elsewhere. Even Mark’s professors regarded his work habits as irrational. They wanted to equip him with a schedule when he loathed the waiting. He wanted only action.

Mr. Bryn is behind his desk discussing the unreliable narrator. He has cited several famous examples — examples students should already know or currently be writing down. Mark is at his desk, half-asleep. His pen moves across his the page in his pukka pad that he will later rip out and catalogue into a subject-specific binder. The handwriting resembles gibberish Arabic rather than good, geometric print. Mark hears the words ‘unreliable narrator’ and he writes them down, planning to search for examples later. Reciting these examples, Mr. Bryn feels like he’s betraying a friend for the dubious benefit of apathetic students. They are the friends upon which he has built his life. Mark surveys the room, wondering how he’ll manage to build a life from the sleep-deformed lessons that went into his history degree.

Five Friday Reads 17.07.2015

Ravenna

  • How to Conduct an Auction‘ from The New York Times. Short and descriptive, this article unfurls the seemingly impenetrable process of encouraging people to spend large sums on random goods.
  • Jump In‘ from Afar (June/July 2015). Beyond Sydney’s beaches and Melbourne’s cafes, Australia’s landscape veers from arid desert to humid jungle. Here’s an exploration of the little-explored north coast.
  • History of the Present: Yangon, Myanmar‘ from Places Journal. As Myanmar makes the transition from notorious dictatorship to budding democracy, they have the potential to transform their major non-capital city into a paragon of urban regeneration avoiding China’s artificially planned cities and India’s chaotic metropolises.
  • City Corners‘ The Urbanist (194). Although large plazas and parks are nice, it’s the small areas that make our cities personal.
  • Momofuku Ando and the Invention of Instant Ramen‘ from Lucky Peach. Although instant ramen is now a staple convenience, it was once a luxury that took a bit of scientific ingenuity to bring into existence.

Five Friday Reads 10.07.2015

Siena

  • Letter of Recommendation: Alternative Search Engines‘ from The New York Times. Using a search engine that eschews Google’s well-curated results means freedom to let your curiosity expand into topics you didn’t realize fascinated you.
  • Boswick the Clown Doesn’t Understand Why Adults Are So Scared of Him‘ from New York. More than just a profile of a career clown, this article explores why clowns exist on the cultural margins.
  • ‘They Will Squash You’ from Lucky Peach (15). People work to grow giant vegetables. And enter them in competitions to win prizes. Astonishingly, they all discuss this task as if it was as common as planting a flower box.
  • Timber Towers‘ from Monocle (85). To build cost-effective and sustainable buildings, architects in Stockholm are making their houses from wood, calling to mind the wooden houses that dot the country.
  • Enduring Summer’s Deep Freeze‘ from The New York Times. With the rise of central air conditioning and buildings that retain their temperature well, summer has never been cooler.

Weekend Coffee

Parlor Coffee, Williamsburg

Except for a rumbling taxi or a warbling bird, it’s quiet. The sun is up and has been for a while because it’s mid-July and the days are long. Some parents and retail workers stumble bleary-eyed outside, but mostly people are out buying coffee. Even the joggers and dog walkers will join the queue for a grande with skim milk. They might buy a bagel or a doughnut or a croissant as well. But the particularities can wait for Monday morning. Now, it’s Sunday coffee.

The early-risers project an automatic confidence as they balance their coffee, pastry bags and dog leashes. This is not improv. No one woke up earlier than anticipated. They didn’t lie in bed and, staring at the poster of Vermeer’s View On Delft they bought on sale from allposters.com, exclaim, ‘what the hell! I’m going to get up, go for a run and pick up some coffee and breakfast’. Their pride appears in their distinctive exhausted swagger. They don’t look around; they look ahead. With blinds up and sunglasses on, they navigate Sunday morning inattentive to their powerful performance.

Becoming a member of the Sunday coffee troupe requires practice. No one supplies you with stage directions as you leave your apartment. But you dive through the emptiness to discover a café where regulars dialogue with their barista. This rapport could develop from two rehearsals or years of practice. The man in green spandex biking shorts might be a regular character, coming to the café since its opening day. The woman in sunglasses could be an eager new recruit. Together, they turn Sunday morning into Sunday coffee.

The coffee may be exceptional or it could be dirty water. The alarm clock could ring or the sun could act as a pseudo-alarm. Even the variables unfold according to a predictable selection. All is normal. All is Sunday coff

Five Friday Reads 03.07.2015

Looking up in Tribeca

  • Voltaire Night‘ from The Paris Review (213). This short story explores the limits of sharing misery and what occurs when the worst happens.
  • When did the end begin?‘ from New York. The term ‘anthropocene’ describes a geological era with visible human impact upon land, but while the term has entered popular vernacular, geologists debate its utility.
  • Expo: Sporting Success‘ from Monocle (85). Would you like to run around a gorgeous green track above a mall in the heart of your city? Or would you be enticed by a cycle club that began with coffee and ended with drinks? Yes, you would like both.
  • Jeffrey Eugenides on Liberal Arts Graduates in Love‘ from The New York Times and ‘The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – review‘ from The Guardian. Years later and I’ve finally read The Marriage Plot. I preferred it to Middlesex (as the first review did) but found it disappointingly relied on cliches in creating the characters. Perfect summer read (which is a good thing).
  • Josh “The Fat Jew” Ostrovsky Loves Benihana, Hates Group Birthday Dinners‘ from Grub Street. Sometimes I’m worried for my sense of humor. I laughed for at least five minutes after reading Tuesday, June 30th’s non-breakfast.