The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I quoted novelist and playwright W. Somerset Maugham in yesterday's post, and I'm going to do so again here, but relative to a different topic.

In his memoir The Summing Up, he explains the need for writers to "cut, cut, cut" their work:

Maughamsmoking"To do so now is more than ever necessary, for audiences are at once quicker-witted and more impatient than ever before in the history of theatre... Audiences in the past seem to have been willing to sit out scenes that were elaborately developed and to listen to speeches in which the characters fully explained themselves. It is very different now, and the difference has been occasioned, I suppose, by the advent of the cinema. Today, audiences... catch the gist of a scene in a few words and having caught it, their attention quickly wanders."

This was published in 1938. Isn't it amazing...he could be describing the shift from traditional broadcast and print media to the Web.

Hills Like White Elephants

Leave it to Urban Daddy to introduce the latest twist on dining in Boston: a semi-secret, Hemingway-themed dinner Southie.

Razor shiny knifeHills Like White Elephants, named after a Hemingway short story, is a supper club that will debut in Boston on June 13th after enjoying previous nights in London, New York, and Panama City. It is hosted by Michael Cirino and friends from a razor, a shiny knife, an "educational, social, and theatrical culinary experience."

Ticket holders are promised a night of intrigue: besides dining with strangers in a room done up like the Hemingway short and access to 7 courses of exotic fare, they'll be treated to "demonstrations of skill" like knife-sharpening or sausage making.

Get more details - plus your [$166!] tickets - here.

Bad Girls Go Everywhere

Jennifer-scanlon-bad-girls-go-everywhere Before Mary Richards and Ann Marie (of That Girl fame), before Gloria Steinem and Candace Bushnell, there was a different sort of champion for the single girl: Helen Gurley Brown.

You may know her as the long-time editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, but as Jennifer Scanlon recounts in her very entertaining biography of HGB, Bad Girls Go Everywhere, she's also a prolific writer, media maven, and feminist (of sorts) that was way ahead of her time.

I picked up Scanlon's book after reading about it in my college alumni newsletter (Scanlon is Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at Bowdoin College), thinking it would be a fun, "Summer" read. What surprised me was that it was much more academic in nature - providing fascinating insights into both gender roles, the media landscape, and pop culture in the 1960s - but still eminently readable, like one of Carrie Bradshaw's columns.

What I found so interesting:

  • The paperback wasn't introduced until 1939. Before that, few people owned books, as hard covers were too expensive. The paperback democratized reading in America! I'm now interested to read another book Scanlon cites in her notes, Two Bit Culture: the Paperbacking of America.
  • Helen Gurley came from humble beginnings in Arkansas, which taught her to live frugally and use her - ahem - feminine wiles to get what she wanted in life. She was (and is) a huge advocate for working, independent women.
  • She spent years as a secretary (one of the few professional roles available to women in the 1950s) before her employer at ad shop Foote Cone Belding noticed her writing skills an made her an advertising copywriter. 
  • She played the field for years, celebrating her singledom and advocating for other women to follow suit. It was not until she was 38 (a dinosaur back in the 60s!) that she decided to find a husband...and she did so, in a very matter-of-fact way, by meeting and marrying successful film producer (and twice-divorced) David Brown.
  • David is another fascinating character - he is the producer behind such hit films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, M.A.S.H., Jaws, Cocoon, A Few Good Men, and Driving Miss Daisy. The idea for Jaws actually came to him via HGB - a Cosmo reader submitted the story idea to her, she passed it on the David, he read Peter Benchley's book and then secured the movie rights.
  • David encouraged HGB's writing, and made all the right introductions for her in Hollywood. In 1962 she published the wildly successful (and controversial) Sex and the Single Girl, the precursor to our modern day Sex and the City. In fact, she wrote a monthly column called Step into my Parlor just as Candace Bushnell would years later.
  • Besides numerous books, HGB also penned several reality TV show ideas that were eerily similar to current-day programming. In one, celebrity chefs face off with a list of ingredients to see who can prepare the best meals; in another, celebrities weigh in on everyday-peoples' marital problems. Sound familiar?? While these sorts of shows are a dime a dozen today, they were considered uncomfortable material for television viewers in the 1960s. Basically, if a show didn't depict a Happy-Days-like nuclear family, it didn't air. There was even some controversy when real-life loves Lucy & Desi Arnaz filed for divorce and would no longer work together on the I Love Lucy show: rather than portray Lucy as a divorcee in later episodes (socially unacceptable!) they chose to make her a widow.

Although HGB no longer mans the helm at Cosmo, she was named the 13th most powerful American over the age of 80 by Slate magazine. Her beloved David died earlier this year at age 93, but Helen is still going strong at 88.

Brimfield Antiques

Last weekend I finally made it to the Brimfield Antique Show, something I have wanted to do for years.

It is the largest outdoor antiques show in the world, covering 23 fields along a one-mile stretch of Route 20 in Brimfield, MA, and takes place three times a year (May, July, September), drawing over 6,000 dealers and 130,000 visitors. 

Here's a nice aerial shot of the show grounds, courtesy of


I wish I had the foresight to take more photos of the trends I saw there, like the girls over at DesignSponge did, but as a first-timer I was utterly overwhelmed. DesignSponge did a fantastic job summarizing the major sights (especially the bird cages - I saw lots of those, too, and commented on how beautiful they were, but sadly I missed Mary Kate Olsen!).

Here are a few things that caught my eye:

Dainty dishes (like all the lovely pieces in my mom's china closet)

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Ornate, cut-glass ashtrays

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Tons of vintage brooches and pocket watches 

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A fair amount of French-influenced furniture (Pam Szori described it on the DesignSponge blog as "Gustavian furniture in grey and white, mixed with nubbly flax grain sacks, rough-hewn linens, French scrolly monograms, and wood.")

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Interesting wall decor: beautiful mirrors and engraved silver trays

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And lots of enthusiastic fair-goers, like us!


I loved the show, and wish we had more time to browse through all the fields (we just did a day trip). Even if you don't buy anything, it is fascinating browsing through the goods (and the food is great, too!).

I did manage to pick up a lovely set of Tiffan glasses, a cast iron chocolate mold, a vintage sweater clasp, and a reclaimed, punched tin mantle piece. Need to go back next time and score a vintage Tole tray.

View the entire Brimfield photo set here

Let the Dead Lie

Girl_dragon_tattooBy now you've probably heard of Stieg Larsson's best-selling novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. It's a fast-paced thriller set in Sweden, the first in a trilogy of books featuring Lisbeth Sanders, a quirky investigator/computer hacker and the "Girl" in the title. In this particular story, she teams up with Mikhail Blomkvist, a once-respected journalist who has fallen on hard times, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young girl forty years ago.

I took this book with me on vacation - the perfect time to sink into a good story, especially one with as many characters and story lines as this one. There's a lot going on in this book, but it's a riveting tale and I could hardly put it down (that is, until the last couple of chapters; the real surprise ending happens in advance of the actual book only complaint). Regardless, I look forward to seeing the movie version and digging into the next book in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire. I was saddened to hear that Larsson died in 2004, and that these three books in his Millenium series were his last.

But I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from my friends at Simon & Schuster recently that read, "If you love Steig Larsson's Mikael Blomkvist you will certainly fall in love with Malla Nunn's enigmatic Emmanuel Cooper." They were referring to the main character in Nunn's second novel, Let the Dead Lie, and I was sold. I requested an advance review copy and devoured it.

Malla nunnThis book is actually a sequel to Nunn's debut novel, A Beautiful Place to Die (now also on my reading list). Both stories feature Emmanuel Cooper, a former soldier and police detective sergeant who is indeed as crafty and tough as Larsson's Blomkvist. And like Blomkvist, the actions of his past haunt his present.

Let the Dead Lie is set in 1950s South Africa, specifically, in the port town of Durban - a melting pot of Indians, Afrikaners, Zulus, English, Russians, Jews, and Greeks - that at this point in history is still subject to the racial separation system of apartheid. The area of focus is the Victory Shipyards, which turn into a hotbed of violence, prostitution, and thievery at night.

Cooper is now working undercover on the docks of Durban Harbor to document police corruption, when he stumbles upon the slain body of an 11-year-old English slum kid that ran errands in the shipyard. Cooper, who grew up in a mixed-race family in the slums of Johannesburg, identifies with the boy. Rather than "letting the dead lie," he gets entangled in the crime scene and becomes the prime suspect in the murder, only to become a pawn in a much larger game of international intrigue.

If you like detective stories, this is a must-read; it's as fast-paced and engaging (with equally colorful characters) as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but also an easier read. Also fascinating is the historic and cultural aspects of the story; Nunn was born in Swaziland, South Africa, and her parents actually grew up in Durban, but later moved the family to Australia to escape the race restrictions imposed on them in their home land. Her fiction is inspired by real people and stories from her relatives, combined with diligent research and good dose of imagination. It's a great murder mystery that will have you reading into the wee hours of the night.


We left Gaiman and headed back to Trelew, home of the Touring Hotel. This place was made famous by Butch Cassidy, the infamous US bank & train robber, who hid out there while running from the law.


The hotel is basically frozen in time. It doesn't look like it's been updated since Butch himself was there. The bottom floor is a large cafeteria and bar; room keys hang on a board behind the bar, along with shelves of liquor bottles from yesteryear. 


A faux Wanted poster keeps the story alive:


(Incidentally, I read Bruce Chatwyn's In Patagonia while on this trip, where he recounts his journey through this region and includes notes on Cassidy's time there.)

Last stop, the Egidio Feruglio Paleontologic Museum, which contains over 1,700 fossil pieces and 30 specimens of dinosaurs from the area. Really quite impressive.

This is a femur (THIGH BONE)!!


This is a fossilized dinosaur egg:

Next, off to the airport for our flight down to Ushuaia, the end of the world.

Here's the full slideshow from Chubut:



Punta Tombo

Puerto Madryn

La Boca

San Telmo

Puerto Madero




While Palermo is edgy, the Recoleta barrio in Buenos Aires is refined: its wide boulevards are lined with affluent residences, upscale shopping and luxury hotels. This is where many of the government buildings are located, and the architecture resembles old world buildings in Paris.

We happened upon a very cool craft market along Avenida del Libertador, full of jewelry, knits, leather goods, paintings, and the famous mate gourds out of which the Argentinians drink their Yerba Mate tea. It's the national drink here, and you see people carrying their gourds, along with thermoses of hot water to refresh the leaves, all over the country. We picked up a cup here (plus another one in Iguazu) to bring the tradition home:

The most famous site in the area is La Recoleta Cemetery, which includes the graves of the most influential/famous Argentinians in history, including Eva Peron ("Evita"). The cemetery is like a walled city - you enter through elaborate, neo-classical gates, and the interior is laid out like city blocks lined with mausoleums. You can look into them and see the coffins, urns, and flowers from recently visiting family members. Lots of marble and's wild.





Walking around the rest of the barrio, we were delighted to see a parrot nesting in the trees near Mitre Plaza:


A palace [who's name escapes me...] Update: I was just informed that below is El Palacio de Las Aguas ("The Water Palace"), which is now a museum. Note that it has a rather interesting history, and it is built with over 300,000 multicolored faience bricks made by Royal Doulton and shipped from Britain! Amazing.


El Obelisk built in 1936 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the city's first founding:


We stopped for coffee and dulce de leche panqueque (caramel crepes...these guys serve caramel with everything - even on the plane! I ate tons of it) at El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookshop, originally opened as a theater named Teatro Gran Splendid in May 1919. It is beautiful, with the original theater design still in tact, but the balconies are now lined with books and the stage is a cafe. Great place to rest your weary feet!


On our last night in Buenos Aires, after returning from Chubut and Ushuaia (which I'll feature in future posts), we also hit this spot in Recoleta: El Cuartito. On that night, we were so exhausted from walking, and so full of heavy, steak meals, that we opted for a casual bite at this famous pizzeria. Like Pizzeria Regina in Boston's North End, this place had a long line of people waiting to get in. The inside was decorated with famous boxing match posters (think Tyson at Caesar's Palace, Merryweather at the MGM Grand), as well as Argentinian cinema and futbol favorites. The pizza was good...heavier on the cheese than we do, and always with green olives.

Next up: Puerto Madero. Stay tuned.



Boston Book Fest

The rain certainly didn't slow down the Boston Book Festival held in Copley Square yesterday, with all sorts of publishers, authors, and producers of various book-related products milling about under tents and in buildings between the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church.

Paris review I headed down specifically to catch Book Worms and Net Crawlers, a panel discussion of "the ubiquitous Internet and the explosion of social media" but in my wanderings beforehand I scored a first-edition, 1958, 5th Anniversary issue of The Paris Review, complete with an interview of Ernest Hemingway by George Plimpton, a story by Philip Roth, drawings by Alberto Giacometti, and fantastic old-school ads for Hennessy cognac, Christian Dior parfum, and Pan American airlines. Can't wait to read through it all.

As for the main event, the Book Fest assembled a fantastic group of authors to discuss how the 'net has impacted modern culture:

  • Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks - a look at the mainstreaming of online gaming. Ethan's work is reminiscent of Second Skin (which I mentioned to him, and he acknowledged having met the creators of the film), delving into the roles of gaming and fantasy in the modern world. In short, participants love online games because they provide opportunities not available in the physical world (e.g., the socially awkward can be "popular" and the wheelchair-bound can run, jump and dance). This desire to escape physical world confines contributes to the wild popularity of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft (13 million players-strong) and perhaps even social networks like Facebook, which allow people to put their "best face forward" by constructing public profiles that make them look their most fascinating, witty, and attractive.
  • Ben Mezrich, author Bringing Down the House and The Accidental Billionaires, among others; the latter has earned him the nickname "the Jackie Collins of Silicon Valley." I actually just read Billionaires, a fun romp through Harvard University with Mark Zuckerberg and friends (now enemies) as they try desperately to overcome their own social anxieties by creating Facebook. The irony of it all is that Mark Z. has remained famously closed off & tight-lipped, despite having created a world-wide phenomenon that encourages people to share the most banal details of their daily lives with anyone & everyone. It's a great story (fast, too) - run out and read it before the film version (starring Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker) hits theaters. Yes, another big-budget production in Boston! Catch Ben Mezrich in person if you can, too - he's wildly entertaining.

  • The insanely high-energy David Pogue - NYTimes tech columnist and author of The World According to Twitter, his own experiment with crowdsourcing leveraging the popular microblogging service to tap into the collective wit and wisdom of his 500+ followers. I actually picked up a copy of this laugh-out-loud little book, which David was kind enough to sign for me. In it, he illustrates how Twitter (like other social apps) can be a great information source: pose a question to a group of trusted peers and you will get near-instantaneous responses to your query. He's a big advocate of Aardvark, the new social search app which identifies "experts" in your social sphere and solicits answers from them on your behalf.

There was also a brief discussion at the end about technology's impact on the book publishing business, including marketing and distribution of new "books" in the age of the Kindle and other e-readers. I'd love to see this topic in a future panel (and I'd love to participate, given my experience with blogger outreach and emarketing). These authors could learn a thing or two from Paolo Coelho.

PS: there were no signs of the SCORPIONS at the book fest, which makes me question their commitment to the written word.

The SCORPIONS: Read. Bleed.

Scorpions They operate in the shadows: in dive bars, back alleys, dog tracks, firing ranges, and the occasional all-you-can-eat buffet. 

Their mission is to motivate, educate, elucidate, and intimidate. They live amongst us, and yet they are a total mystery.

I'm talking, of course, about the SCORPIONS, the toughest book club around. 

Haven't heard of them? Don't worry, you will.

You see, this "hard guy" book club is taking the country - the world, even - by storm. First came coverage in the New Yorker. Then a post on Gawker. Now, Playboy.

Marge simpson Yes, the granddaddy of lad mags actually cited the SCORPS in a short article about the "best hard-guy books of all time" (see page 19 in the Marge Simpson collector's issue). Next up: Cafe, the highest-selling men's magazine in Sweden (watch for the November issue).

The invite-only club is comprised of eight members who meet on a regular basis to discuss "tough guy" books...things like Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridien and Steve Alten's MEG. But like most book clubs, the reading is only part of the fun: each meeting of the SCORPIONS incorporates discussion of selected reading material as well as competition, gambling, tests of strength (mental and/or physical) and trivia. And in some way, the losers always pay. Or as the SCORPS would say, "We read. We bleed. We kick ass."

Scorps2 004So who exactly are these mysterious book lovers and what makes them so tough? The CultureJunkie took it to the streets (and pool halls and back alleys) to find out.

CJ: Why all the interest in the SCORPIONS?

SCORP #8:  As in the insect?  Next question.

CJ: Has the attention distracted from your mission?

Tanaka: No. We still kick a lot of ass and are comfortable with how awesome we are.

CJ: What makes you so tough?

Shakelton: What makes water wet?  What makes birds fly (besides their wings)?  What makes a guy struggle when he is in a choke hold?

CJ: Which is more fun: the books or the physical challenges?

Judge: None of it is fun – it’s a way of life.

CJ: Tell me something we don't already know about your membership.

MC Trouble: We’ve applied to have SCORPIONS headquarters recognized as a sovereign nation.  Status is still pending.

CJ: If you could have any super hero be an honorary member, who would it be?

Scorp #8:  MC Trouble’s Mom.  [members nod their heads in unison]

CJ: What song/artist would be on the SCORPION soundtrack?

Undead:  Scorpions – Winds of change

CJ: If I wanted to take a SCORP-themed vacation, what would you recommend?

The Spaniard:  Travel light and bring fist packs.

CJ: How about best spot for dining out?

Slayer: Medieval Manor.  Ask for Waffles, he knows us and will take care of you.

CJ: Favorite shopping destination?

Undead:  Bangkok Red Light District [I contemplate asking what MC Trouble's honorary-member Mom would say to that, but then fear the answer]

Shakelton:  Hip Zepi in Downtown Crossing

CJ: What's next for the SCORPIONS? Are you hoping for an invitation to the Playboy Mansion?

Tanaka: If invited, Hef should hope we accept.

And Then There's This

Andthentheresthis Continuing with the social media overload theme from my last post, I went ahead and read Bill Wasek's book, And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture.

The book examines the ever-shortening life span of stories in our culture - whether it's news, gossip, or the latest best-seller - among the onslaught of email, RSS feeds, blog posts (sorry, I'm adding to that), and Tweets. He describes a world in which we have become so accustomed to a constant stream of new information, and so wary of always-encroaching boredom, that we tell stories about our society and ourselves, even when there is nothing new to say.

Besides the information glut, shortening attention spans, and overall exhaustion this creates, the really good content gets lost after its fleeting 15 minutes of fame (if that). And despite the broader array of news and opinion available to us, we have not necessarily broadened our horizons, but rather self-segregate ourselves into smaller & smaller niches of like-minded individuals.

Some of my favorite excerpts:

"Breaking news, fresh gossip, tiny scandals, trumped-up crises - every day we are distracted by a culture that rings our doorbell and runs away. Stories spread wildly and die out in mere days, to be replaced by still more stories with ever shorter life spans.

The rapid appearance and disappearance of young writers is a byproduct of niche sensationalism...the young writer comes into the public consciousness like this: he or she becomes the one must read just then, not because his or her work is good, but because it represents something about the moment, or about the youthful cohort from which the writer has sprung.

We like to fill our minds with information that confirms what we already believe; this information in turn doubles down our already existing support of what we think or dismissal of what we disbelieve. It is in this regard that the Internet and confirmation bias are conspiring to erode what remains of reasonable political discourse in this country. The Internet allows the like-minded to find one another so quickly, and with so little exposure to other points of view. Indeed, in this regard, the forward march of search technology threatens to balkanize our politics even further: the ability to ever more agilely find what we are looking for, while excluding the rest, is exactly what a citizen does not need in making his or her political choices.

This is a common meme-maker's lament: viral projects spread through decontextualized blog links and email forwards, and so viewers tend to pay no attention whatsoever to the domains that actually host the material - they never learn anything about the creators who entertain them.

In the Internet circus, a seemingly infinite cast of clowns, daredevils, and freaks each step into the spotlight, enthrall the crowd for thirty seconds or so, and then exit back into the dark with barely a bow.

We love our nanostories, their birth and death thrill us, and yet we know that they are devouring us."

The same themes were picked up in a Financial Times article last week, which noted that for many, social media has become "a more personal filter to the infinite world of the Internet." Where people use to turn to traditional portals like Yahoo! or AOL as their entry point, they are now turning to Facebook or their preferred feed aggregator, reading just the news & information that comes in from friends or other trusted sources. Ray Valdes, a media analyst from Gartner is quoted: “We are moving toward a world of ‘snackable’ news that can be shared like pieces of candy or a pack of gum...Unfortunately, we run the risk of losing substance and nutritive value.” 

Wasik closes his book with a brief look at some of the "solutions" to Internet fatigue. Among them:

  • Writer & editor Jake Silverstein's proposed Internet Ramadan, where people go offline for a month
  • NYTimes writer Mark Bittman's Secular Sabbath, an experiment in going offline for a mere 24 hours
  • Chip maker Intel's Quiet Time, where employees are encouraged to go offline each Tuesday morning in order to think (and work) more deeply

There are countless articles with similar themes:

Should we be concerned? Or is our fast-paced lifestyle just the new norm, and the attention-getting books & headlines just another example of the trumped-up crises we crave?