I kind of got out of the loop when I was out of town last week, only skimming the sites I normally read, which must be how I missed William Grimes’s New York Times article “Volumes to Go Before You Die.” I only saw it because Deirdre Fulton wrote a response on The Phoenix‘s literary blog Word Up. Essentially, British professor Peter Boxall surveyed over a hundred notable literary critics and scholars to determine the 1001 most notable books of all time, and published his findings as 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Now, I love a good list, so there was simply no way that I was going to go through Boxall’s findings and not tally up my score. Like Ms. Fulton, I used this handy-dandy spreadsheet to help me out, courtesy of Arukiyomi, and got some pretty shameful results: I’ve only read 136 of the 1001 books, or 13.59%, and some of them are just flat-out inexplicable. For instance, why is it that I’ve read Interview with the Vampire and not any Joyce whatsoever?

Anyway, here’s my list, though I should add that I never finished The Magic Mountain, mostly because it seemed like it was never going to end.

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  3. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  4. A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham
  5. A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
  6. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  7. A Room With a View by E. M. Forster
  8. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  9. Ada by Vladimir Nabokov
  10. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  11. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  12. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
  13. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  14. Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
  15. Anagrams by Lorrie Moore
  16. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  17. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  18. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  19. Billy Bathgate by E. L. Doctorow
  20. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  21. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  22. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  23. Burmese Days by George Orwell
  24. Candide by Voltaire
  25. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
  26. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  27. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  28. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  29. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
  30. The Cider House Rules by John Irving
  31. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  32. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  33. Crash by J. G. Ballard
  34. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
  35. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
  36. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  37. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  38. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  39. Emma by Jane Austen
  40. Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard
  41. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  42. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
  43. Felicia’s Journey by William Trevor
  44. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  45. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  46. Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard
  47. Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis
  48. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  49. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  50. The Golden Bowl by Henry James
  51. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  52. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  53. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  54. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  55. Hard Times by Charles Dickens
  56. Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud
  57. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  58. The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  59. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  60. The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  61. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  62. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  63. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  64. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
  65. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  66. Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice
  67. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  68. The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells
  69. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
  70. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  71. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  72. Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
  73. Like Life by Lorrie Moore
  74. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
  75. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  76. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  77. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  78. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  79. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  80. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
  81. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
  82. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  83. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
  84. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  85. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  86. Neuromancer by William Gibson
  87. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  88. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  89. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  90. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
  91. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  92. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  93. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
  94. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  95. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
  96. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  97. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  98. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
  99. Rashomon by Akutagawa Ryunosuke
  100. Regeneration by Pat Barker
  101. Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  102. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  103. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  104. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  105. The Shining by Stephen King
  106. The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
  107. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg
  108. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  109. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  110. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
  111. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
  112. Sula by Toni Morrison
  113. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  114. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
  115. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  116. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  117. Them by Joyce Carol Oates
  118. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  119. The Third Man by Graham Greene
  120. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  121. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré
  122. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  123. The Trial by Franz Kafka
  124. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
  125. Underworld by Don DeLillo
  126. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
  127. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
  128. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  129. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
  130. Watchmen by Alan Moore and David Gibbons
  131. White Noise by Don DeLillo
  132. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  133. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  134. The Wings of the Dove by Henry James
  135. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  136. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

LA to Boston.

4.30 pm, PST: In-N-Out before returning the rental car and checking in. I get a cheeseburger (no onions), fries and a strawberry shake to split with Keith that is so thick it is hard work sucking it through the straw. I love In-N-Out. I hate how the closest one to my house is in Arizona.

5.05 – 5.34 pm: Rental return, riding the shuttle to LAX, checking in, security.

5.39 pm: On the phone with my mother, who is flying out of LAX direct to Manila tonight at nine. She’s traveling with her siblings — three brothers and two sisters — as well as some of their spouses, three of my cousins and my grandmother. I think there are thirteen of them total.

5.45 – 6.20 pm: Read Real Simple cover to cover. I’ve always liked their art direction, but is it strange to like a magazine devoted to home and organizing, particularly when your home is not very organized? I’ve got organization envy, I suppose.

6.30 pm: There is a man sitting a seat away from me at the gate, napping. He’s got impossibly small feet, and one ankle propped up on his knee. He’s holding his chin with his left hand, like he’s thinking deep thoughts in his sleep. He’s wearing a belt buckle as big as my palm, and a sizable mother-of-pearl ring on his pinky. And he snores at least as wheezily as my parents’ dog.

6.38 – 6.50 pm: Thumbing through Wizard while I wait for Keith to return from wandering around. I’ve read so many comics (an aunt worked at Marvel when I was growing up) and yet there’s still so many I’ve never even heard of. I love magazines that have list-y issues like this though.

7.00 pm: Boarding. Keith lets me have the window seat, which is nice. I like being able to see were I’m flying out of, if there’s still sunlight.

7.20 pm: Pushing back from the gate. The plane is full, apparently, of noisy kids. I am a lot less Zen about it this time around. If they don’t pass out in flight, I know I’m going to want to scream along with them.

7.23 pm: Listening to a plane powering up makes me think of a cat gearing up to pounce.

7.25 pm: How do planes work? How do they go up? How do they stay up? A plane is nothing more than an engine inside of a tin can with wings. A flying barracuda makes more sense.

7.31 pm: In flight. From my seat, I can see where Keith and I spent Saturday morning with my friend Ben, strolling along the Strand on Manhattan Beach. We walked about three miles out to the Manhattan Beach Pier, from which the million-dollar homes with Pacific views took on a strange appearance. “It looks like a shantytown,” Keith said, “like the slums of Rio.” Ben and I agreed, not that any of us have ever been to Rio.

7.35 pm: Flying over weird, just barely inland canals whose banks are lined with residences. Where is this? The surrounding area looks like a commercial port, and a processing plant.

7.46 pm: The mountains look beautiful in the setting sun, all stark shadows and craggy surfaces.

7.41 pm: Too many clouds. Can’t see anything but a few mountains poking through. They look like islands, and the clouds breaking waves.

7.45 pm: The light, and the fact that we’re flying east into night, makes everything below look like a solarized black-and-white photograph.

8.05 pm: Beginning our descent into Phoenix. Outside my window, it’s all a dull, colorless gray with the occasional freckling of light in the distance, like constellations.

8.11 pm: If this is Phoenix outside, which I suppose it must be, it’s as flat as a pancake. I don’t know anything about Phoenix except The Suns, and hot.

8.15 pm: I really, really, really hope the baby sitting behind me gets off the plane in Arizona.

8.16 pm: There is suddenly a whole cacophony of sympathetic crying going on.

8.23 pm: Landing.

8.30 pm: At the gate, sitting smack-dab in the middle of a row of empty seats. A scarily-slim woman plops herself herself down next to me… in a full-on squat. Her butt hovers a good two or three inches off of the chair. She takes off her shoes, a ridiculously high pair of purple patent leather strappy heels and begins wiping them off with a white athletic sock she pulled out of the beat-up shopping bag serving as her carry-on. When she’s done with the shoes, she starts picking at her toes. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t stop staring.

8.35 – 9.22 pm: Read Lucky from cover-to-cover. I really like Amanda Peet. I think it’s her eyebrows. I also really like how Lucky doesn’t pretend and proudly calls itself “the magazine about shopping and style.”

9.25 pm: There seems to be a lot of small children at the gate. This portents doom.

9.43 pm: What appears to be at least twenty middle school kids in matching kelly green T-shirts just showed up at the gate. It looks like a class trip of some sort. This is going to be terrible.

9.50 pm: In our seats. A flight attendant asks one of the kelly green kids, “Where are you seated?” The kelly green kid replies, “I’m seated here.”

9.57 pm: Realize that we are surrounded on all sides by kelly green kids. I may have to ask them whether or not they plan on sleeping at all during the flight.

10.15 pm: Take off. Keith asks the kelly green kids behind us to please stop using our seatbacks as drum kits. He is much nicer than I would be… which probably crossed his mind.

10.30 – 2.10 am: Sleeping, or trying to. I hate trying to sleep on planes, especially when it feels more like being strapped into an amusement park ride. Each time the plane jostles the tiniest bit, the kelly green kids squeal and gasp. They eventually quiet, possibly because they’ve been knocked out by the bumps.

2.34 am: There aren’t many things prettier than early morning light. From over Keith’s shoulder I’ve lost track of the number of white church steeples rising up amongst the trees and houses.

5.38 am, EST: We’re home.

Breakfast at the North End Café.

I was so excited that my friend Ben was free to meet up for an impromptu breakfast this past Saturday. The only thing hampering our plans was the fact that none of us were remotely familiar with Manhattan Beach. Keith and I hadn’t the time to explore; all we had seen was a very unscenic stretch of Sepulveda dotted with P.F. Chang’s, California Pizza Kitchen, IHOP and Jack in the Box. Determined not to end up at Starbucks, we settled on North End Café on Highland, which we discovered simply by Googling.

The café is quite easy to find; there’s not way anyone could possibly miss its chartreuse-colored building, let alone the line wrapped around the front. The key is most certainly in arriving early, something Ben, Keith and I lucked upon.

Aesthetically, North End Café leans toward industrial chic, with concrete slab floors, stainless counters on casters and fans from the Modern Fan Company. The clear showpiece of the space, though, is the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking 35th Street. Not only do they let in massive amounts of light, but they also open up the café, which is actually very small.

The menu is completely egg-centric; I think there are only a few choices that don’t rely on eggs at all, but avoiding North End’s eggs is just plain silly. Even Keith, who’s not a huge egg-eater, cleared his plate.

I chose the Neapolitan Toast — grilled bread filled with fresh aged mozzarella and checca, with a side of Italian eggs ($8.75). As far as coffee went, I had been engaged in my regular hemming and hawing (Did I want a latte? A cappuccino? An Americano?) when Ben pointed at what is destined to become my caffeinated version of a soulmate: the Medici — a mix of espresso, chocolate, orange zest and milk ($4.75 for a generous medium). Trust me when I say it tasted as amazing as it sounds.

You may not be able to tell from the photograph, but it’s not one, but two sandwiches stacked next to the pile of cheesy, herby, tomato-y eggs. While the flavors were all bright and fresh, I had the following three small issues:

  1. the eggs, though delicious, left vaguely unsavory tracings of oil all over my plate;
  2. the sandwiches would have been leagues more enjoyable had they been toasted just a smidge longer, fully melting the cheese within; and
  3. I wish the bread used had been something heartier, something with greater depth, for these slices made me think a little bit of Wonder Bread.

You know what though? None of that matters; I’m being needlessly nit-picky because, truly, I had a really great time at the café. It was a sunny morning, one of the firsts I had been able to appreciate for a while, and I was eating a tasty breakfast with two people whose company I love. What could possibly make a meal better than that?

North End Café
3421 Highland Avenue
Manhattan Beach, California 90266

North End Cafe on Urbanspoon

Messenger by Lois Lowry.

At this point, I think it’s kind of silly to mention my fondness for Lois Lowry, but c’est la vie, no? In spite of that affection, I had never, for some odd reason, read Messenger, the third and final installment to the The Giver/Gathering Blue/Messenger trilogy. It’s going to be tricky, determining how to provide a synopsis for Messenger without giving away anything related to The Giver and Gathering Blue, but here we go…

While the books all take place in the same unspecific future, each of the three is set in a different village. With The Giver, Lowry introduces us to twelve-year-old Jonas and his perfect, Utopian society; Gathering Blue is centered on handicapped Kira, who is living the exact opposite conditions. Though both Jonas and Kira make appearances in Messenger, the story’s focus is young Matty, a brash boy eager to learn his place in the world. For the moment, his role is that of a message-bearer — hence the novel’s title — ferrying communiqués to nearby communities.

Lowry writes with typical economy of language, covering themes ranging from the desire of material possessions, xenophobia and selflessness. She also refuses to shy away from difficult topics such as pain and death, which is a huge reason why The Giver is on so many banned book lists. In Messenger, Lowry also does something incredibly rare in young adult fiction… and I’m sorry, but I simply can’t say what it is. You’ll just have to read the book, though I suggest starting with The Giver. Though slim, it and its companion novels are wonderful reads.

Dinner at Bistrotek.

Getting last-minute dinner reservations can oftentimes be a drag; such was the case for Keith, my cousin Samantha and me on Friday night. There were so many restaurants to try — in Culver City alone, we wanted to check out Akasha, Father’s Office and Ford’s Filling Station. Since we were looking for a spot to get some dinner after going to the movies, as well as a place where Sam’s underage status wouldn’t be an issue, a lot of places crossed themselves off of the list… which is how we ended up at Bistrotek at the new Custom Hotel. Not only was Bistrotek serving dinner until two in the morning and required no ID, but it was also a short drive from where we were all staying in Manhattan Beach.

The Bristrotek space is pretty cool, obviously influenced by loft living with its distressed concrete floors, exposed ducting and beat-up brick walls. It’s all extremely stylized, but completely expected from a restaurant in a highly designed hotel.

The menu is small, focusing on American comfort food. I was torn between the bistro burger and the ravioli, but since Keith called dibs on the pasta first, I was left with the pancetta- and Gouda-topped burger ($12.00). Our extremely energetic server enthusiastically explained that the restaurant’s “amazing five-star chef” prepared each items “in the Mediterranean style,” and warned us that everything was à la carte, meaning that the dishes came with nothing other than what was listed. Because of this, I also ordered fries ($4.00), but then again, I love fries.

The burger was succulent, and cooked to an absolutely precise medium rare. It was also unbelievably huge. There was no way that I would be able to even come remotely close to finishing it, tasty as it was. The fries were truly superfluous, which made me sad not only because of my great affection for them, but also because they were mediocre at best.

Keith didn’t fare so well with the ravioli (three cheese and bacon, in a cheese sauce, $12.00). He thought it overwhelmingly cheesy, and a gelatinous mess. I’ve got to say I disagree with some of that. While the cheese flavor was undeniably strong, I happen to love cheese; it would take an almost obscene amount for me to find it overpowering. The texture was unfortunate, though; the melty cheese was so similar in feel to the ravioli that it was almost impossible to determine where one ended and the other began.

Sam did well with the grilled shrimp, tomato and cous cous ($15.00) — which was lemony, fresh and light — but if you were to ask her directly, she would tell you her favorite part of the meal was something else altogether. The pre-dinner rolls were picture-perfect, with soft and fluffy insides hiding within firm crusts. What truly made them great, however, was the herbed butter they were served with. I think it was chive and tarragon, but don’t quote me on that. All I know is that Sam ate at least three.

Bistrotek is still trying to find its footing, that much is certain. Of course, I’ve no way of telling which way the restaurant will go, for the better or for the worse, but I can say this: they better keep that burger on the menu.

8639 Lincoln Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90045

Bistrotek on Urbanspoon

An Early Lunch at Café Surfas.

Friday was a completely hectic day, and we knew we would only have the briefest of moments to grab something to eat. Since Keith and I would be meeting up with my family in Culver City, we decided to stop in to the café attached to Surfas, a gourmet food and restaurant supply shop around the corner from my relatives’ house. I have no idea whatsoever as to how Keith found this place, but I do know that I absolutely loved it.

The aesthetic at Café Surfas is reminiscent of an classic European market, with small octagonal tiles on the floor and cheery butter-colored walls. Chalkboards detail the coffee, sandwich and salad options, and glass cases house miscellaneous cheeses, charcuterie and cakes. Sit outside on the patio — the cement floors of which are imprinted with pressings of whisks, spatulas and cookie cutters — or inside at a tall table with freshly-cut flowers.

After taking about ten minutes to deliberate, I opted for the ultimate grilled cheese — housemade blue cheese mayonnaise, raclette, fiscalini and cold white cheddar on pecan raisin bread ($6.95). The sandwiches, paninis mostly, each come with a mixed green salad, and are served in recyclable cardboard boxes.

This sandwich was amazing. The bread simply made it, propelling it from being just a lovely sandwich into being an incredible one. The blue cheese mayo added a nice salty tang, and the other cheeses melted and oozed together in a very indulgent manner. Sweet and reassuring, it was exactly what I needed at that moment. This was comforting, good food.

I also got some fresh-squeezed orange juice, which was bright and sunny, but it actually didn’t compare in refreshment to the lemon-mint iced water the café serves gratis. When the summer rolls around, I know this is what I’ll be drinking nonstop.

If I’m in Culver City at any point in the future, I already know what I’m going to get — the haute dog, the Kurobuta ham panini, the Spanish herbed tuna, and another ultimate grilled cheese. It’s probably the most satisfying quick bite I’ve had in a long time.

Café Surfas
8777 West Washington Boulevard
Culver City, California 90232

Surfas Cafe on Urbanspoon

Dinner at The Del.

I knew ahead of time that Keith and I wouldn’t have too many chances to meet up with my friends while we were in LA, so when Amee told me that she was free for dinner on Thursday night, we immediately started looking around for places to eat. We had arranged to stay in Manhattan Beach, an area that I’m completely unfamiliar with; for that reason we chose The Del in Playa del Rey, pretty much a straight shot from our hotel.

From the outside, The Del looks, as Amee described it, like a lodge, with its ivy covered exterior and chocolate-colored beams. We expected to walk in and see mounted deer heads and moose antlers on the walls; instead in interior is modern and spare. The bar is dark and moody, with crazy wallpaper that made me think that a Jackson Pollack wannabe went a little wild with a paintbrush. The dining rooms are done in gray and cream, with wainscoting and washed wood tables, and for some reason have prints of propeller plans spaced evenly above each banquette.

Keith and I arrived early, so we sat at the bar to have a drink while we waited. The bartender was friendly enough, but looked confused with Keith requested a Sazerac; he quickly switched to a Manhattan on the rocks. Before I ordered, I asked if the bartender could make a Kir Royale, but when she confirmed the components — “Cassis, right?” — I should have taken her crinkled nose as a sign of something… because I ended up with a Chambord and Champagne. I don’t recommend it.

I had higher hopes for the dining room, not that I had any reason to aside from optimism. I decided to make a meal out of appetizers with the sippin’ summer shrimp ceviche ($9.00) with lime juice and avocado wedges, and the caramelized onion tarte tatin ($8.00) with warm goat cheese, a balsamic glaze and Minus 8 vinegar. Our server mentioned that the appetizers would be on the small size, but filling, especially since Amee, Keith and I would be sharing an appetizer of calamari as well. Keith and Amee ordered an entrée each; Keith also got an appetizer of his own.

Once our food started arriving, the weirdness began.

My appetizers — my meal — got to the table before anything else. I didn’t expect my plates to come before our shared appetizer, and I certainly didn’t want to start eating my dinner before Amee and Keith even received theirs.

Next to arrive was Keith’s appetizer; it was several minutes until the calamari was placed before us. At that point, I started picking at my ceviche and my tarte, neither of which were anything to write home about. I’ve never made either, but I’m certain I could have thrown together that tarte, which was pretty much just a mound of goat cheese layered upon a pile of caramelized onions and spooned into a shell. The ceviche tasted like Spicy Hot V8, which shrimp and avocado tossed in, so I bet could’ve whipped that up too… not that I would ever want to.

I was still hungry at this point, so I added to my meal with another appetizer — buttered littleneck clams ($10.00) served with vegetable pearls, chorizo and celery. It also arrived before Keith and Amee’s entrées.

Soon after, their meals came to the table… except Keith hadn’t finished his starter yet. I don’t think he had even gotten a chance to taste the calamari. The runner just set the plate down at Keith’s elbow and walked away.

(A few brief words on the littlenecks: overly salty, and where’s the chorizo?)

Amee had barely taken the first bite of her burger when our server approached the table… to ask if we wanted to take a look at the dessert menu. At first I thought it was a joke, but our server was way too earnest to engage in any sort of fooling around. When we explained that we weren’t even remotely ready for dessert, he said he just wanted to know since he was leaving for the evening. Now, having not worked in a restaurant before, I’ve always wondered how things such as servers’ shifts are handled. However it is done, I doubt it is normally like this. I mean, we were surrounded by empty plates, the wreckage of my clams and Keith’s untouched pork.  Who would be considering dessert at that moment?

All in all, it was a pretty ridiculous evening, from the bartender to the scheduling of the food to the offering of the dessert menu. I don’t know if I’ll be in Playa del Rey any time soon, but I can say for sure that I won’t be making another stop at The Del.

The Del
119 Culver Boulevard
Playa Del Rey, California 90293

Del on Urbanspoon

Boston to LA.

4.45 am, EST: Keith’s brother Brian knocks on our door. He’s come to drive us to the airport. I’m not wearing any pants (I had just pulled my jeans out of the dryer) so I hide in the kitchen while I finish dressing.

5.10 am: Check in, security, etc.

5.23 am: Mm, coffee.

5.39 am: I like airports. I like how here time has both no meaning and all the meaning in the world, simultaneously.

5.50 am: There is a group of three girls at the gate who are dressed identically, from velour tracksuits to flipflops. I’ve never understood these sorts of friendships.

6.05 am: Boarding.

6.10 – 7.21 am: Sleeping, for the first time since I got up twenty-four hours ago. Wake up only because of Mm, coffee. Keith is passed out next to me, his knees pressed up against the tray table in front of him. He practically had to fold himself into the seat. I am so glad to be short.

7.39 am: A few years ago Cathay Pacific lost two pieces of our luggage when Keith and I came back from Asia. The funny thing was that we had had one day of travel with three connections (Phuket to Shanghai, via Bangkok and Hong Kong) and our bags came through perfectly. But when we were on a direct flight to Newark… Cathay accidentally sent our bags to Dubai. In most cases I generally just carry on; for this trip we not only have a connector but we also had to check our bags. I happen to really like the clothes I’ve packed, not to mention my Shu Uemura eyelash curler. Fingers crossed.

7.45 am: The televisions on this plane are all wiggly and tinged orange, so everyone looks like Martians filmed underwater. Right now it’s a tall, lanky Martian Bourdain falling off of an ATV in the desert… underwater.

7.48 – 8.25 am: Read Vogue while the little boy across the aisle sings “Candy candy gumballs and candy” to an unrecognizable tune, which doesn’t bother me at all, strangely, making me wonder if I’m getting soft in my old age. Regardless… For all of its hype, The Sex and the City movie better be good. Not that it matters.

8.30 am: Descent into Charlotte. My feet are so swollen.

8.35 am: Landing, just as I was beginning to fall asleep again.

8.36 am: Taxiing, disembarking, etc.

8.40 – 8.50 am: There are more colorfully-dressed people in Charlotte than I am accustomed to seeing. A lot of turquoises, pinks, greens, oranges… Keith and I are both dressed in shades of gray and black.

9.53 am: We, apparently, are going to be stuck on the runway for twenty minutes or so. Don’t worry, the pilot says. “This being a jet aircraft and all, I gather we can try to make up for some of that lost time en route.”

10.02 am: A passenger is trying to flirt with a flight attendant. He is old enough to be her father. She’s not having it.

10.17 am – 12.12 pm: Asleep. Strange dreams.

12.51 pm: Keith and I switch seats; now I have the window directly to my left. I have no idea where we are flying over, but between the wispy cotton candy clouds are patches of dirt-colored ground dotted with green shrubbery so dark they appear black.

1.00 – 1.52 pm: Sleeping. I didn’t go to bed last night. There didn’t seem to be a point, since I would have had to wake up at 2.45 or 3.00 to be ready. I will be paying for this later.

2.00 pm: The ground has become entirely dirt-colored, sand and steppes as far as I can see. In some areas, the ochre is interrupted by meandering roads snaking through the soil, but in others the roads bisect the ground as neatly as a crossword puzzle. We are flying over some towns whose roofs shine silver-white in the sun. From here I can see the perfect shadows of clouds projected onto the earth. I still don’t know where we are but it looks harsh. We are too far up to discern cars, so it all seems very unreal, like a display at the museum.

2.07 pm: Clouds are funny. Why are they white? Why do they float? Why are some cartoonily puffy and others eerily misty? From here, they look solid, lie something I could reach out and stroke, like a bunny.

2.18 pm: The dirt is now snow-covered. I don’t know how I missed it.

2.24 pm: Sixty-four miles out of LAX. We’re descending and are flying through the clouds in such a way that it is like being suspended in a bowl of milk.

2.30 pm: Flying over a series of planned communities, the ones where every single house is the same as the next, and the next, and the next. These sorts of developments always seem to be so sad and stifling to me. They are the architectural version of controlling parents.

2.35 pm: Freeways, freeways and more freeways. I haven’t been to LA in four or five years, and the sheer amount of highways intersecting the city always amazes me.

12.37 pm, PST: We’re here.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

I mentioned the other day that I like to wait for the buzz around restaurants to quiet before going in and sampling the menu. The same applies to how I feel about books; if everyone is talking about a certain book, I can’t read it. Too much market saturation, I suppose. I’ll happily wait a few months or even years to go to the bookstore.

(Strangely enough, this isn’t how I feel about films. I have to see them before the hype builds, otherwise I end up terribly disappointed.)

Jonathan Franzen‘s third novel, The Corrections, is precisely one of those books. It was absolutely impossible for me to read it during the frenzy of The Oprah Incident, let alone the novel’s winning of the National Book Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. There were just too many people talking about this book, and I didn’t want my opinions to get colored by the reviews, by the prizes or by Oprah.  So I went on my merry little way, and read everything I could get my hands on that wasn’t written by Franzen.  It wasn’t until I saw Franzen speak at Grub Street‘s Muse and the Marketplace writers’ conference last month that I realized it was more than time for me to hunker down with The Corrections.

And hunker down I did. At 576 pages, The Corrections is by no means a light read. This is the kind of reading that, should you read while riding public transit, causes you to almost miss your subway stop and makes you bolt madly for the doors before they zip firmly shut on your foot.  This is the kind of reading that compels you to put off cooking dinner, feign a headache and not feel guilty about ordering in some greasy pizza, as a slice is easily eaten one-handedly as the other turns pages. This is the kind of reading that, at the risk of sounding altogether cheesy, leaves you breathless.

Franzen’s writing is funny; it is clever; it is charming; it is painful.  With almost maddening ease, he tells the story of the five Lamberts: father Albert, mother Enid, older brother Gary, middle child Chip, and little sister Denise.  Each Lambert’s past and present swirl around them like so much mist, but Franzen carefully directs us through their chaotic lives with an assurance that is truly enviable.  Each character, for all their faults and deep flaws, is allowed moments of true likability.  It would have been so easy to turn sensible Gary into a cold-hearted brute and yearning Chip into a pervy academic, but instead, Franzen gives his cast something truly special: humanity.

Dinner at The Beehive.

I remember when The Beehive opened last year — there was so much hype that it almost instantly turned me off. I always like to wait a while until the buzz has cooled down before checking things out. The Beehive is a definitive example of that… though I must admit that I kind of forgot all about it, in a way. Recently though, I started to hear rumblings about the quality of food and murmurs regarding the décor, which made me think that maybe it was time to descend into the subterranean space beneath the BCA.

The menu at The Beehive skims the surface of a few different cuisines. For a taste of England, there’s a mini Beef Wellington appetizer. Satisfy a craving for Greek with a gyro salad. For something Spanish, paella. For North African, a Moroccan stew. But is variety really the spice of life? Is The Beehive’s saffron-tinged rice so wonderful that a trip to Tapeo or Toro is unnecessary?

The answer is no. The paella ($22.00) is passable, but wholly uninspired — a phrase that I think applies to the entire menu. If I were to recommend an item to eat, however, it would be the burger… but not for the regular reasons.

With Gorgonzola cheese and crispy fried onions, the burger ($13.00) is just fine. It’s a generous circle of meat, and though it arrived cooked past the medium-rare I requested, it was still just fine. What made it better than fine, though, were the burger’s platemates: sage and sea salt frites. Not quite fries and not quite chips, these thinly-sliced wedges of potato were crunchy, tasty and quite literally finger-licking good.

Frites notwithstanding, they’re not reason enough to drop by The Beehive. The reason to drop by is the atmosphere. It’s exactly how I would imagine a fin de siècle Parisian salon to look like, if it were to mate with a pirate’s cave. With a few drinks and a bit of a squinty eye, I think it’s easy to picture a tattily-dressed pirate or two strolling amongst the exposed brick walls, crumbly and curved stage and sparkling chandeliers.

Well, maybe more than just a few drinks.

The Beehive
541 Tremont Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116

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