Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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The midwest farmers’ daughters

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It’s impossible for me to think about California, at this point in my life, without thinking about Joan Didion. I came to Didion recently-ish—I think it must have been just a little over a year ago, I was on the verge of moving to New York and Conor told me to read Didion’s famous moving to and moving away from New York essay, “Goodbye to All That,” to which I responded:

I adored it. But I wonder—did you feel that way, when you moved to New York? I don’t. I worry I am too old, or too stubborn …

Which just shows you what a pretentious, dramatic twit I can be sometimes, because of course I got swept up in loving it here (and also just, Gawd, you know?). It’s been about one year and one month since I moved here, and I may or may not be as bad as when my then-boyfriend first moved here, moved into the McKibben lofts, and called me at my apartment in DC at 2 in the morning to tell me that the loft building across the street had started blaring and singing “Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel, and then the residents of his building started doing it back at them, and then they were all having a Holland 1945 sing-a-long and wasn’t that just magical and New York the best? Shoot me if I ever become one of those people, I told my DC friends.

And now I live in a house with 13 other members of my creative collective, Goddamn Cobras, and make raw pies and have housemates who play in a band called Zebros in our basement.

So, there’s that.

What all of this has to do with California is that, on the official one-year anniversary of my move to New York, I was not in New York but in Ojai, California, shooting a movie and/or camping out in dried out riverbeds and forests and lagoons and farms and mountaintops and beaches. That land is incredible, let me tell you; as a lifelong midwesterner with a splash of east coast, I had no idea how beautiful California could actually be.

But what a weird little place, that state. How can a land so built on frontierism, on lone rangers and outcasts and outlaws (you see, I not so long ago finished both Didion’s first novel, Run River, and her book about California, Where I Was From, and also spent last fall and winter watching John Wayne and Sergio Leone movies, so I have these grand sort of notions about California’s founding) be so … progressive, in all the most negative senses of the word? And why doesn’t someone advertise a medical marijuana shop without using the old tropes of psychedelia? Why do the lemons in California get so big? And how the hell did Los Angeles even happen? Why are there so many car dealerships on the strip between L.A. and Santa Barbara? And how does anyone ever get anything done what with the beaches and the sunsets and the palm trees and all of that? Why did I want so badly to feel some sort of connection to a silly place that was once a different place (in my case, the first studio warehouse and lot, for Keystone Studios, opened by Mac Sennett, in what’s now Echo Park, but what does it matter—I wanted to see a Celebrity House, you know; I went looking for Mabel Normand’s Alvarado Street bungalow, I had to visit Haight-Ashbury)? And why do people in San Francisco pretend like they don’t have the worst weather? Why does California, the Idea of California, draw people, like the Idea of New York City, even still, even now—a highway not just a highway but a California Highway; a sunset a California Sunset … A weird little place, that state.

I hope to visit again sometime.


* I am now reading Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the first Robbins book I’ve even attempted—I tend to lump him in that group of Overhyped Gen X Male Authors I Have No Interest In, like David Foster Wallace and Dave Edgars and I think Thomas Pynchon, though he is probably much older, isn’t he?—because when I was driving down the Pacific Coast Highway on my own, no radio signal, no music of any kind, no visibility much beyond my headlights, all fog and endless bridges—to be saved only by the prospect of Guadalupe, because Jables said I would Love It, only to find the most dismal, empty town, Mexican track housing, and suddenly 56 degrees when I fill up my gas a few towns later—or even during the filming of our goddamn western, when Fanny’s house was all slightly-off-key vintage upright pianos, Bearclaw banging on the keys theatrically (in his full Sheriff costume), and fresh mulberries sunshine outside bathtubs wine and toasts—which of course all made me sad because somehow nostalgia and enjoyment always hit me in reverse, well—I don’t know where it came from, didn’t know the phrase referenced a book, a song, anything at all, all the same it became a bit of a mantra, just a little bit, which is silly–it’s silly, right, okay? I know—but nonetheless it became a bit of a mantra, “even cowgirls get the blues,” that somehow cheered me up (I had been wearing these amazing cowgirl boots as a part of my film costume and now refused to take the boots, or my turquoise jewelry, or my ragged jean shorts, off, you see), so when I saw this old Tom Robbins’ paperback copy in a used bookstore in San Francisco with Rachel for four dollars and 50 cents, I had to pick it up. Even cowgirls get the blues. Only by now, I have owned the book for over two weeks, and I’ve only read ten pages.

It’s hard to like a woman with giant thumbs, and it’s hard to feel like a cowgirl in Brooklyn …


High-brow & low-brow gentrification defenses …

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I happened to read both this review from the June issue of the Atlantic (“Gentrification and It’s Discontents”) and this op-ed on BushwickBK.com (“In Defense of ‘Hipsters’ and the Controversial Practice of Moving to a City Not of One’s Birth”) last weekend, and found the parallels kind of interesting & amusing.

Atlantic editor Benjamin Schwarz reviews two recent urban-ecology books—Michael Sorkin’s Twenty Minutes in Manhattan and Sharon Zukin’s Naked Cityin what more or less amounts to a takedown of Jane Jacobs acolytes, and one that had me chuckling out loud a few times at that (which may be more of a reflection on my sense of humor than profound hilarity). Schwarz writes:

Even if Zukin and Sorkin bemoan the city’s deindustrialization and are wistful for the higgledy-piggledy way manufacturing was scattered throughout New York (diversity! mixed use!), they’re compelled to make clear that they don’t miss the sweatshops and the exploitative, horrible life that went with them. And recall that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in the heart of the Village on a block fronting Washington Square, burned in the second decade of the 20th century […] Which means that even hazy melancholy for the New York of regular Joes with lunch pails returning after a good day’s work to their neighborhoods of kids playing stickball and corner drugstores dispensing egg creams can only evoke scenes pretty much limited to the years of the LaGuardia administration.


Thanks to the profound influence that The Death and Life of Great American Cities has exerted, the West Village circa 1960 has come to epitomize—really to be the blueprint for—the urban good life. But in its mix of the new and the left over, in its alchemy of authenticity, grit, seedy glamour, and intellectual and cultural sophistication, this was a neighborhood in a transitional and unsustainable, if golden, moment.

He goes on to explain how the same cycle—industrial to bohemian to yuppie (or insert whatever adjectives make sense to you)—played out in SoHo, Tribeca and the East Village, and is currently playing out in parts of Brooklyn, and he mocks the authors’ romanticizing the precise moment on that spectrum that confers the most benefits on people like themselves:

… it’s clear that they pine for—and mistake as susceptible to preservation—the same sort of transitional moment Jacobs evokes in Death and Life, when an architecturally interesting enclave holds in ephemeral balance the emerging and the residual. Such neighborhoods still contain a sprinkling of light industry and raffish characters, for urban grit, and a dash of what Zukin calls “people of color,” for exotic diversity. Added to the mélange are lots and lots of experimental artists (for that boho frisson) and a generous but not overwhelming portion of right-thinking designers, publishing types, architects, and academics, and the one-of-a kind boutiques and innovative restaurants that will give them places to shop and brunch.

Zukin declares that she “resent[s] everything Starbucks represents,” which really means that her urban ideal is the cool neighborhood at the moment before the first Starbucks moves in, an ever-more-fleeting moment.

Bushwick (a neighborhood in north Brooklyn butting up against both Williamsburg and Greenpoint, along with Bed Stuy and Ridgewood, Queens) is at that fleeting moment, or is at least as close to that fleeting moment as the city has right now, as far as I know (do any people in Queens or Harlem dispute me?); Greenpoint already has one Starbucks, and Williamsburg has just kind of lost the PR battle. In a column on BushwickBK.com, Barrett Brown complains:

… we have some great number of more irregular readers who really, really, enjoy our Bushwick Chic feature because they spend literally hours each week obsessing over “hipsters,” a catch-all term that has come to refer to anyone who moves to Brooklyn from somewhere other than Puerto Rico or some awful Balkan country. Most such commenters come to BushwickBK by way of Die Hipster, the increasingly popular website with an editorial stance to the effect that hipsters should strongly consider dying.

So, this article also made me chuckle out loud. But that’s not where the similarities end! Because Barrett also demonstrates how silly it is when “gentrification’s discontents” idealize any particular point in the urban neighborhood life-cycle:

Certainly there are some great number of douchebags, pseudo-intellectuals, and no-talent “artists” among the many over-educated young people who have moved to Bushwick over the past decade. Certainly there are a number of locals who are fine, capable people — but whatever that number is, it’s not so high that Bushwick natives are able to fill the various creative jobs that always need filling, which is why Bushwick, like all of New York, must continually import talent to fill them, even in such cases as nativity would provide a significant edge in the carrying out of such work.

In a subsequent response, Barrett defends himself against commenters who call him racist:

Although the stereotypical characteristics of the “hipster” don’t apply to many Puerto Ricans, the objections based on the simple of act of moving to Brooklyn from somewhere else and the real and imagined effects this has on those who already lived here would seem to apply, yet such objections are only made against a subset of those who move here: whites in general and youngish whites in particular. Somewhat related is the bizarre belief that non-whites are somehow more “genuine” than whites, and thereby entitled to live in certain places that whites are not. Ironically, many whites of the sort that the anti-hipster crowd like to mock — and rightfully so — also hold this belief, which is not only unfair to whites, but also patronizing of non-whites, who are regarded thereby as somehow above the criticism reserved for other “transplants.”

I think we all fall victim to our own skewed ideas about “authenticity” from time to time; everyone has their Jane Jacobs utopia in some form or other. A few months ago, I was talking to a friend who had grown up in Greenpoint. He mentioned that, at one point, there was talk the neighborhood was getting a Wal-Mart. Wouldn’t that have been terrible?, I immediately thought

“I was really excited,” he said. For a boy who’d grown up with “mom-&-pop” corner stores and cramped, catch-all home goods outlets run or staffed by the area’s Polish, Hispanic or Italian residents, the bright, cheap, convenient plasticity of a local Wal-Mart sounded like a good deal.

Written by ENB

June 8, 2010 at 11:46 pm

The Dumbest Generation?

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Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein thinks “digital culture” has made Millennials “the dumbest generation.” AARP the Magazine lets me—a humble, dumb Millennial—respond:

The Dumbest Generation misinterprets shifting cultural tastes as evidence of irreparable decay. Bauerlein bemoans the lack of youth attendance at ballets and classical-music concerts, but neglects to say why these art forms should be any more conducive to artistic development or appreciation than indie rock or step-dancing. Besides, how many prior generations actually favored ballet and classical music as forms of youth entertainment?

Today’s teens and 20-somethings will invariably fall short of Bauerlein’s opera-loving, book-devouring, TV-phobic archetype of young persons past. But what if we look at generational measures that can be compared using cold, hard data—standardized test scores, for instance? “On some measures,” Bauerlein concedes, “today’s teenagers and 20-year-olds perform no worse than yesterday’s.” But he quickly brushes this aside, insisting that it “doesn’t mean that today’s shouldn’t do better…with such drastic changes in U.S. culture and education in the last half-century.” Maybe it doesn’t—but neither does it support the contention that today’s young folks are dumber than ever before.

Whole thing here.

Written by ENB

July 30, 2009 at 11:45 am

Posted in Books, Self-Promotion

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Lousy News

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“Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad anyway.”-H. Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye

Ah, but it is possible, Holden Caulfield! It is possible with you. Because a  judge has ruled that the unauthorized Catcher in the Rye sequel, 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, “fails to meet standards for fair use and usurps derivative rights to the 1950 original”—i.e., we can’t buy/read it here in the U.S. Which I think is, to use one of your expressions, just lousy.

Written by ENB

July 7, 2009 at 11:25 am

Italians take categorizing flirting very seriously …

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From La Bella Lingua:

Flirting … translates into fare la civetta, or “make like an owl.” Only Italian distinguishes between a civettino, a precocious boy flattering a pretty woman; a civettone, a boorish lout doing the same; a civettina, an innocent coquette; and a civettuola, a brazen hussy. A giovanotto di prima barba (a boy who starts flirting even before growing a beard) may turn out to be a damerino (dandy), a zerbino (doormat), a zerbinetto (lady-killer) or a zerbinotto (a fop too old for such foolishness). If he becomes a cicisbeo, he joins a long line of Italian men who flagrantly courted married women.

Written by ENB

January 14, 2009 at 1:05 am

Posted in Books, Ephemera

Gladwell on the Politics of Outliers

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My interview with Malcolm Gladwell/write-up of Outliers went up on the AARP Bulletin site yesterday (clearly, we’re not really so big on the whole timeliness thing). If you’re at all interested in Outliers, I’m sure you’ve already read all there is to read about it, and my article has little new to recommend it (clearly, I’m not really so big on the whole self-promotion thing, either). Regardless, a little passage that might be of interest:

“There were brilliant people who just never made it in the world because they hit the Depression at the wrong time and they hit the Second World War at the wrong time,” Gladwell says. “Let’s be clear: The world is not fair. It’s always going to provide more opportunities for some than others.”

“The reason we have government and institutions that create policy is to try and even that up,” he continues. “The world sets up these inherent advantages for some and these enormous disadvantages for others. You’ve got to level the playing field.”

For someone who started his career at the conservative American Spectator and counted William F. Buckley among his heroes during adolescence, Gladwell professes what may seem a surprising faith in government intervention.

“I used to be a conservative, and I am no longer,” Gladwell says. “But I don’t think of this book as being political one way or the other. It’s a defense of collective action. When I think of the proper role of government, it is to provide opportunities for people to help themselves.”

Written by ENB

December 17, 2008 at 6:28 pm

What I am obsessed with at this very moment—

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—aside from drinking red wine in my very-comfortable parlor-esque living room and manically posting things on the Internet when I really should at this moment be doing more productive things:

Helen Dewitt—whose yet-unpublished novel, Your Name Here, is excerpted in the old n+1 I am also obsessed with right now and from which reading you will learn at least six letters in Arabic and fall down an evil spiral/rabbit hole of meta

Alyosha Het—who may or may not be a kid I briefly studied playwriting with circa 2003, who disappeared, and who regardless if he is or isn’t posts totally awesome elliott-smith/kinks-esque music-videos-esque things on MySpace

Written by ENB

November 23, 2008 at 11:12 pm

Posted in Books

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‘If obscure books start raining down …’

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I just got around to beginning reading the Winter 2008 volume of n+1, which I picked up circa last February, promptly placed on my bookshelf, and ignored (it was just post-Christmas! I had so many new books to read!). I came back to it this week, as some combination of hearing about Megan O’Rourke, reading about Bellevue in NYMag, again trying to write fiction, and watching Gossip Girl this week has inspired this resurged interest in Reviews! and Lit Journals! with me (I subscribed to both Paris Review and n+1 last week). Anyway, anyway, an interesting bit from the “intellectual situation” section of winter 2008 n+1:

Canons in daily life, however, just demarcate the books you can count on other people feeling comfortable about in conversation. And these books are often capable of substitution—you don’t have to have read a particular one, if you know the rough feeling. You have read Kerouac. Unless you haven’t; in which case you can substitute Bukowski, Tom Robbins, or even Sylvia Plath. If someone else wants to read the newly republished complete original scroll of On the Road in hardcover, that’s really their problem, and it doesn’t affect your ability to talk—you served your time, you’re available for conversation. You’ve read The Great Gatsby, if you went through high school English. And you probably read Beloved, if you went through college in the last twenty-five years. If you’re in a book group, you’ve read The Kite Runner; or The Tipping Point; or Fast Food Nation. The point is, all of informal reading life works by points of safety which exist because of canons. All of these canons are pretty clear, if rarely discussed: the teen angst, high school English, college English, and short-term educational bestseller canons. There’s a “major prize” canon, too: if it won a Nobel, a National Book Award, or a Pulitzer, you put it on a mental list of books you either will read or talk about meaning to, een if you still can’t pronounce the author’s name, a decade after the Nobel went to Wislawa Szymborska.

These canons are like sturdy umbrellas you can hide under if obscure books start raining down.

Written by ENB

November 23, 2008 at 10:53 pm

Posted in Books

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AP Rebellion!

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Wow. NYTimes reports that The Columbus Dispatch—the Ohio state capitol’s major daily—announced last week that it would drop its Associated Press service. The Tribune Company had announced the same thing the day before.

The papers, contractually required by AP to give 2 years notice of termination of service, still have some time to figure out how to get by without wire stories and photos, so no concrete plans have been made yet. But the NYT article hints at some interesting experiments:

This summer, dissatisfied with the way The A.P. handles local news, eight papers in Ohio formed a cooperative to share articles, and some of those papers say they might drop the wire service. Newspapers in Pennsylvania are exploring a similar arrangement.

I have nothing against AP, but if the AP backlash leads to greater localism in newspapers, I’m all for it. It will be interesting to see, though, how the medium-size papers would end up covering national and international news without a wire service? My co-worker just wondered aloud if perhaps they’ll give up on even more of that coverage, figuring they’ve been beat by CNN, etc. and that’s that. But—as another co-worker pointed out—cutting back on national/international coverage could seriously limit national ad revenue.

[The perverse part of my reaction to all this: Being a newspaper reporter is probably the only job more precarious than being an investment banker right now, but every time I read stories like this I really miss being a daily newspaper reporter. I felt the same way reading this NYMag article about the folding of the New York Sun.

I also just finished reading A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion, which takes place in the fictional Central American country of Boca Grande. This makes me want to expatriate to a fictional Central American country and be a hard-living, tanned, American-newspaper stringer reporting on international affairs from the (wi-fi enabled, of course) patio of the one tourist hotel in town while drinking strong coffee and listening to an old radio playing muffled traditional music in the background, regarding the locals warmly but mostly keeping to myself (save a few love affairs), and eventually returning to the states— when revolution breaks out and gets too dangerous—hardened and wise. But then isn’t that every would-be journalist’s dream?]