The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s weekly events

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled by Lauren Cerand, that usually appears Mondays at 12:30pm and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please send details to lauren [at] by the Thursday prior to publication, with the date in the subject line.

Per usual the city is calling my name, but the teeming metropolis of my dreams isn’t New York this week. To wit, the LA-LA-LA-LONDON edition for your enjoyment:

MONDAY, 4.30: At the Institute of Contemporary Arts, “A discussion between David Dawson and Christine Binnie of the Neo-Naturists… whose work features in The Secret Public. The group had the structure of an open network and performances during the 1980s were presented not only in galleries but in night clubs as cabaret and public spaces.” 7PM.

TUESDAY, 5.1: “Central Saint Martins and The Look present: CLASH CULTURE: A NIGHT OF TREASON. Paul Gorman, Michon & Kolowska and special guests. Central Saint Martins celebrates the most visually exciting rock ‘n’ roll band of all time THE CLASH, with contributions from key collaborators, plus special guests.” 7PM, FREE.

WEDNESDAY, 5.2: “Focusing on key moments in art, sculpture, architecture and philosophy in relation to body measures, and on the development of scientific thought that led to the metric system, Robert Tavernor in his inaugural lecture will look beyond the notion that measuring is strictly a scientific activity, divorced from human concerns. Instead, he will set measures and measuring in cultural context to show how deeply they are connected to human experience and history. Robert Tavernor is professor of architecture and urban design, and director of the Cities Programme at LSE. His book, Smoot’s Ear, will be published in May 2007.” 6:30PM, FREE.

THURSDAY, 5.3: Retail therapy: Topshop, the London Review of Books bookshop, and the no longer bricks and mortar (how will I know for sure if I’m getting advice from left-handed staffers if I order online?) “Anything Left-Handed” shop.

FRIDAY, 5.4: Literary pub crawls are always an excellent idea (in New York, both Lolita and Verlaine do a blissfully cheap happy hour, and the exotic house cocktails at Les Enfants Terribles are divine).

SATURDAY, 5.5: That darling boy from Harry Potter is trying to establish his credentials as a serious actor the old-fashioned way, by working blue, bless his heart. The reviews are mixed on Equus but it’s good fodder for cocktail party chatter.

SUNDAY, 5.6: Penguin UK did this “My Penguin” thing where readers can design their own cover. I attempted to have a go conceptually with Dorian Grey and a few ripped out pages from my fave glossies, but never got it right. It wouldn’t have been as good as this one, anyway. Sunday’s toss-up: re-imagine a book cover, or mount a protest against the use of joylessly quotidian stock photos and slapped together fonts that everyone has seen on a menu already. Don’t cut corners on the sign, though.

On the radar aka “What I’m dying to do for my birthday”: The Puppini Sisters at the Algonquin’s Oak Room in New York next month…Heathcliff, don’t you know that it’s me, it’s Cathy… (from “Wuthering Heights“).

P.S., genius:

Warming his hands in the bone-picking room

Reading Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s “Letter from a Japanese Crematorium,” written after a visit to Japan for her grandmother’s funeral, feels like eavesdropping on the deepest and most spellbinding of secrets.

My cousin Takahagi, a Buddhist priest, does not want me to go to the crematorium. It is not a place for visitors. When I press him, he explains: the crematorium is a gateway to the next world and is potentially dangerous. In Japan, cremation is avoided on certain days of the week, known as tomobiki, or “friend-pulling” days. If you cremate a body on tomobiki, the soul that is finally and forcibly removed from the flesh might snatch along a family member or friend for company.

Despite the impression you might have from certain Hollywood films, most Buddhist priests do not contentedly live on remote mountaintops waiting to dispense spiritual advice to depressed sons of millionaires who secretly long to be superheroes. The priests I know are busy with paperwork, scheduling, and appointments. Their job is to oversee everything related to death and rebirth, which, in Japan, is an elaborate, continuous, and expensive process.

I know something about temples and priests because my Japanese family owns a Buddhist temple, which my great-grandfather took over in the late nineteenth century. Our temple is part of the Sōtō sect, which Americans know of as Zen. My grandfather, once slated to inherit the complex, rebelled, leaving the temple in the hands of his sister, whose son has run it successfully for the past thirty years. Now his 25-year-old son, Takahagi (technically my second cousin, but to simplify things, I’ll refer to him as my cousin), is poised to continue the family tradition.

Takahagi has come to pick me up from Iwaki train station, which is located north of Tokyo and not far from Sendai city. He cuts an elegant figure on the other side of the exit gate with his black fedora, black narrow ankle jeans, and gossamer black T-shirt bearing a print of a skull. . . .

I can’t help but wonder if Takahagi’s early and constant exposure to death hasn’t colored his sensibilities in some way. His older brother has become that Japanese social pariah, the otaku, who hides away in his room playing video games and conversing with characters in comic books. As the oldest son, my otaku cousin was supposed to take over the temple, but his extreme antisocial behavior makes this transition unlikely. . . .

When we reach the temple, where his parents live and the rest of the family is waiting, Takahagi slips into a side room and changes into his official “casual priest clothing,” which looks like a pair of pajamas with elastic around the wrists and ankles. Outfits like these are ordered from a Buddhist catalogue that sells, among other things, incense, new sutras, and gongs.

I’ve been visiting the temple over many years, but this trip is significant because I have come for my grandmother’s funeral. . . .

Photos, with explanations, are up at Marie’s site.

The house moving professionals

My great-great-grandfather, Allen Alexander Johnston*, was born in Kentucky in 1854. He moved to Dallas before the turn of the century and founded A.A. Johnston Contracting & House Moving sometime prior to his death in 1916.

Many early house-moving platforms of the kind depicted in his ad were pulled by teams of horses. How Johnston powered his rig I don’t know. In the 1900 census he was listed as a carpenter. My great-granddad, Zone, reputed in family lore to have identified as a communist, followed in his footsteps.

For the best in home relocation (and construction) folly, watch Buster Keaton’s One Week.

* Pictured here, far left, next to his wife, the not-so-grandmotherly “Mammy”

When the work’s not going well

Stephen Elliott kicked his “addiction to continual bursts of small information” by spending a month offline. In the current Poets & Writers, he’s got some suggestions for those of us who pass whole days cruising the so-called information superhighway in search of our next fix.

Divide your day into online and offline. Studies have consistently shown that people with more screens open get less done. Multitasking slows down productivity. As long as you read your e-mail and respond once every twenty-four hours, nobody is likely to notice. Dedicate at least half of your day to handling non-Internet tasks exclusively. Write a list of things you need to do when you do get online so your Internet time will be more productive. If the main thing I was doing in my life was writing a novel, I would resolve not to be online at all. I know people who have moved “off the grid,” to rural areas to escape any distractions to their work. But the reality is you don’t need to go anywhere, you just need a computer without a Wi-Fi hookup. The urge to screw around is always strongest when the work’s not going well. And if you work at a computer, screwing around is only a click away. But when the work’s not going well is exactly the time to turn the Internet off.

(Thanks to Marlon James for the pointer. Image taken from Horizons Unlimited.)

Didn’t make the party? Take the quiz.

Thanks to everyone who came out to the When I Was a Loser party last night, and especially to those who shushed the throng of investment bankers until they were shamed into relocating their networking/backrub party outside the reading zone.

Kelly Braffet and Owen King dug out plaid shirts, concert tees, and baggy pants from high school, while I wore an ’80s gold-lamé-with-black-flowers prom dress that I bought at a Goodwill on Miami Beach four years ago. It looks every penny of the three bucks I paid for it. Jim Othmer got in the spirit with a corduroy jacket. And Maxx Klaxon played everything from “How Soon Is Now?” to “No Action,” “Tom Sawyer,” and “Loser.”

A gentleman named Norm won the trivia quiz, which I assembled Wednesday night with a little help from some friends. (By the way, Jessa, nobody got the Reznor/Amos question right. Well done.)

With 17 correct answers, he won four DVDs: This is Spinal Tap, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Wet Hot American Summer, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. How would you have done?

1. How many sides are on the D&D die with the largest number of sides?

A. 5
B. 7
C. 10
D. 20


2. What became Chuck Woolery’s trademark commercial break gesture on Love Connection?

A. The two minutes, two seconds sign
B. A “V” for “victory”
C. Two thumbs-up
D. A high-five


3. When, in Freaks & Geeks, Lindsay’s father tells her a cautionary tale about his first sexual experience (which happened while he was serving in the armed forces), which of these lines does he say?

A. Condoms just don’t last long in that kind of heat.
B. I wish I could get that five dollars back.
C. Marching is a lot harder when you have to keep stopping to scratch yourself.
D. And remember, they didn’t have “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” then.


4. Walker Percy called which cult novel centered on a misfit protagonist a “gargantuan tumultuous human tragicomedy”?

A. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
B. The Sot-Weed Factor
C. A Confederacy of Dunces
D. The Catcher in the Rye

Continue reading…

Belated notes from the tribute to Roberto Bolaño

Francisco Goldman recently acknowledged that potential converts to the work of Roberto Bolaño might be turned off by the media “hype assault.”

Yet he argued, at a National Arts Club tribute to the late writer, that the praise being heaped on Bolaño originates not with newspaper editors moving in lockstep, nor with the publisher’s publicity department, but with readers themselves.

“It reminds me of what happened in Mexico,” said Goldman. “The passion is coming from the readers up.”

Bolaño fever spread across the Spanish-speaking world even more swiftly than it has overtaken the States. Less than a year before his reputation skyrocketed at home, Bolaño meandered unmolested and unrecognized around the Paris Book Fair. He eventually approached the table devoted to Latin American literature.

“Are you interested in Latin American writers?” asked the earnest table attendant.

“You could say so,” Bolaño said. At the attendant’s suggestion he wrote down his name, which didn’t spark the slightest flicker of recognition, to receive future mailings.

This anecdote surfaced at the tribute, where The Savage Detectives was as engagingly riotous and bizarre read aloud as it is when savored — and cackled over — in private. As James Wood wrote recently:

A novel all about poetry and poets, one of whose heroes is a lightly disguised version of the author himself: how easily this could be nothing more than a precious lattice of ludic narcissism and unbearably “literary” adventures! Again, Bolaño skirts danger and then gleefully accelerates away from it. The novel is wildly enjoyable (as well as, finally, full of lament), in part because Bolaño, despite all the game-playing, has a worldly, literal sensibility. His atmospheres are solidly imagined, but the tone is breezy and colloquial and amazingly unliterary.


Among the readers and speakers at the National Arts Club event was Carmen Boullosa, Bolaño’s friend who recently remembered him in The Nation. She maintains that The Savage Detectives is mere juvenilia in comparison with 2666 (the English translation doesn’t appear until next year), which she believes to be Bolaño’s finest work.

Her high opinion of the later novel was seconded over drinks after the reading by both Goldman and Jose Prieto. The liquor was flowing freely by then, so I can’t say for sure, but I believe it was Goldman who made the impassioned case that 2666 is a stronger work of postmodern fiction than anything Pynchon or DeLillo has written.

Bolaño wrote the final book in a mad rush, when he knew he was dying. There were to be five parts — the last of which was left partly unfinished — and he asked a friend to have them published in separate installments, as discrete books, so that his children could live off of the proceeds.

Ultimately, though, the friend disobeyed Bolaño’s instructions. He concluded that the power of 2666 is cumulative, and indivisible.

See also Aura Estrada’s Borges, Bolaño and the Return of the Epic.