Tag Archives: kyle thomas smith

Attention Reader-Shoppers!

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul serves up some Whole Foods value to capture the attention of reader-guests at a book party for 85A.

It’s official—Michael Cunningham is my Writer-Boyfriend.  In our house, Chef and I use “boyfriend” to designate someone on whom we have an enormous crush of respect.  Cheyenne Jackson is Chef’s Broadway-Boyfriend, while Raúl Esparaza is mine.  Secretly, I’ve harbored a thing for Michael, best known as author of The Hours, since I started reading his treatise on the pleasures of Provincetown called Land’s End.  I read it every summer—and nearly came unglued when I spotted the author just two doors down from the house we’d rented in P-town at a Fourth of July party he’d detailed in the book.  At that time, I couldn’t bring myself to even way at him I was so starstruck.

But after Michael’s column in yesterday’s New York Times, if I saw him now, I’d give him a hug and a kiss.  His take on writers and their readers should be required reading for every author.  He explains that in his writing classes at university, he asks his students whom they are writing for?  When they invariably answer, “themselves,” he gives them this lecture:

I tell them that I understand—that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself.  By which I meant that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others.  And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers, albeit separated by time and space.

I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories.  There are a lot of other stories out there, and by now, in the 21st century, there’s been such an accumulation of literature that few of us will live long enough to read all the great stories and novels, never mind the pretty good ones.  Not to mention the fact that we, as readers, are busy.

We have large difficult lives.  We have, variously, jobs to do, spouses and children to attend to, errands to run, friends to see; we need to keep up with current events; we have gophers in our gardens; we are taking extension courses in French or wine tasting or art appreciation; we are looking for evidence that our lovers are cheating on us; we are wondering why in the world we agreed to have 40 people over on Saturday night; we are worried about global warming; we are TiVo-ing five or six of our favorite shows.

What the writer is saying, essentially, is this: Make room in all that for this.  Stop what you’re doing and read this.  It had better be apparent, from the opening line, that we’re offering readers something worth their while.

Amen, Boyfriend Michael.  Which is why I was so gratified that yesterday afternoon friends took time to come to our house and meet writer Kyle Thomas Smith, author of the new book 85A.  My full review appeared on the blog yesterday, but suffice it to say that I believe this is a book deserving of our busy attention, and that to Michael’s point grabs the reader from the opening line, “Every detention, every chip of glass piercing my forearm from the inside, every minute the 85A is late drives me that much closer to London.  I repeat: London, London…”

To help hold the attention—and palettes—of our guests, Chef and I worked to theme the food we served at the party to plotlines in the book.  Whole Foods Market Upper West Side offered to help us out, but threw out another challenge—could we do it on a budget of $100?  Please, as a frequent Whole Foods shopper, and a team-member-by-marriage, I know all about navigating my shopping cart to find the best values for entertaining on a budget!  Here are my tips and menu:

  1. The Whole Deal.  On your way into the store, pick up a copy of this newsletter with recipes and coupons inside.  It will point out some items you might overlook—for my cheese platter I got a 350g wheel of imported Isigny  Ste. Mere French Brie for just $6.99.  Always a crowd pleaser—and I would have totally overlooked at the cheese counter had it not been for the write-up.  I also selected a NY State Toma Pepato cheese (Seamus, the main character, winds up in NYC) and a Cotswold cheese from Britain (Seamus dreams of London).  Serve with some WFM 365 brand Organic Water Crackers.
  2. Hummus.  One of my first Big Apple roommates Shannon told me, “It’s not a NYC party without hummus.”  And I’ve always lived by those words.  In Dallas, we never had hummus—but here, I’m addicted to it.  We decided that Seamus, the main character in 85A, probably had never tasted hummus either until he walked into the hippie bistro in the book.  While you can buy Whole Foods Market’s 365 brand hummus which I found delicious, Chef told me an even better value was making it from scratch.  You can find chickpeas in the bulk section of the store—the night before the party cook for several hours in a crockpot, cool overnight.  Day of party put in Vita-Mix or professional grade blender add in olive oil, fresh lemon juice, garlic powder—really whatever flavors float your boat.  Voila, it’s a party.
  3. Chips & Dip & Veggies.  I like to mix the 365 brand Blue Corn and Yellow Corn chips together.  Slicing veggies yourself cuts down on the pre-packaged costs—some zucchini and carrots and peppers will do.  The WFM brand Artichoke Jalapeno dip has a nice kick to it.
  4. Cucumber Sandwiches.  Funny, but these things fly off the platter.  And perfect for a book starring a kid dreaming of England.  Buy white bread (yes, they have it at Whole Foods), cut off the edges, butter the bread, and place small slices of cucumbers (take out the seeds).
  5. Dessert.  I always like to serve a little something special about 30 minutes before the party is scheduled to end—it’s a sweet reminder to guests that the soiree should be winding down.  I wanted to do something apple related since Seamus ends up in the Big Apple, and they were stacking up on my counter from our weekly CSA.  Mark Bittman to the rescue.  Core the apples, stuff with brown sugar, dates, raisins and walnuts.  Top each with a slab of butter.  If you have some dessert wine around, pour a little over the top.  Place in dish and microwave for 5 minutes or so.  Turn and baste in their juices—add more everything if you desire.  Cut up and serve in a big bowl.
  6. Sodas.  In addition to seltzer, I like to spice up the drinks display with a  few of WFM 365 Italian Sodas.  My favorites are Blood Orange and Lemon—very refreshing, and a festive alternative for guests who don’t drink alcohol.
  7. Wine.  The Whole Foods Market Upper West Side has a Wine Store next door that has a tremendous selection for terrific value—my selections are all under $10.  My go-to afternoon event wine is the Opala Vinho Verde from Portugal—it’s fruity, not too sweet, and has some light bubbles giving it a party feel.  For red, try the Vida Organica Malbec from Argentina—just enough punch to hold its own with the spicy dip.

So grab some Whole Deals at Whole Foods and eat up—and read up—on 85A.  Trust me, it will grab your attention and never let go.

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Catcher in the Wind

Today on Alphabet City: A query on Jon Paul’s blog leads to a new friendship, an intro to a phenomenal new book 85A, and a party.

Sometimes I imagine how Mary Tyler Moore would get along in the age of the Internet—instead of a job as Associate Producer in a TV newsroom, she’d probably be creating online content.  But I like to think Mary would resist the all-too-easy temptation to be bitter in the blogosphere.  Hopefully, she’d remember her Sonny Curtis theme song, continue to “turn the world on with a smile” and remember that with “each glance and every movement” she shows it.  Of course, for the web world you’d replace “movement” with “keystroke.”  Which is why I take reader questions and comments so seriously—the response sends a message to the world.

Back in June, I received a simple question from fellow first time novelist Kyle Thomas Smith.  He’d read an article about me in EDGE, and wrote for some advice on book tour publicity—and I took the reply very seriously.  Writers are all in this together—we need each other.  What I got out of posting a thorough reply would have made Mary proud—I gained a new friend and an introduction to his captivating book 85A.

By the time I secured and cracked open my copy of 85A in late August, Kyle and I had already hung out together a few times.  The most I knew about the book was some of the promotional material on the back cover that opens with this line, “What do you get when you cross Holden Caulfield with Johnny Rotten?”  Honestly, I cringed when I read that—thinking it was a bold claim to make a comparison to one of America’s most enduring narrators from Catcher in the Rye.  So I was a little nervous when I started the book a few days before going to Kyle and his partner Julius’ home for dinner—what would I say if I didn’t think the book lived up to the hype?  That’s a set-up for an awkward MTM episode if ever there was one.

Boy, I shouldn’t have worried.  Instead, from the moment I began my journey across late 1980s Chicago with narrator Seamus O’Grady, I couldn’t put this book down.  To me, Kyle has created one of the most captivating, riveting and engaging narrators in modern fiction—it’s not a stretch at all to compare Kyle’s character to Holden.  As Seamus tells his story while he rides the 85A bus across various suburbs neighborhoods of the Windy City, I bonded with his disaffected, punk rock persona in ways I hadn’t expected.  [NOTE: both here and in my Amazon review, I called Seamus’ route across “suburbs” when in fact, as the author notes, “he lives in the city but in a part of the city that’s in the most wretched fear that minorities will move in. That’s one of Seamus’ big gripes is that the neighborhood is a segregationists last stand in the changing city.” An important distinction–one that adds immeasurably to the layers of this story]

According to the book’s time period, Seamus and I are pretty much contemporaries—except that Seamus is the kind of kid I wouldn’t have necessarily understood or appreciated at my fancy prep school.  Failing out of school and ostracized because of his interest in the punk scene, Seamus feels like the world doesn’t understand him.  It takes a skilled author like Kyle to make me want to get inside Seamus’ head—and moreover, feel sympathy for him.  When Seamus isn’t allowed to do the one thing he most loves in school—my heart breaks for him.  And when he finally discovers the hipster coffee shop where he might just fit in—I cried.  It took me back to the first time I was able to walk into Dallas’ gay bookstore—hoping I found others like me.

The deck seems hopelessly stacked against Seamus, including a horrific home life filled with abuse from a homophobic father and brother, and a mother unwilling to do what it takes to protect her son.  The two people in his corner—a sassy best friend Tressa who opens his world to other possibilities, and his therapist Dr. Stryeroth, both reveal themselves to have much more complicated agendas than originally presented.

But through it all, Seamus’ dream of moving to London keep him moving forward at all costs.  Anyone who has ever experienced being an outsider, being different, not fitting in for any reason, will connect with Seamus’ desperate struggle to find a way to escape and be accepted.

Some reviewers have objected to Seamus’ colorful language—and to that I say phewey.  His use of expletives is completely in character, especially for a kid who feels like the world is against him.  Sadly, the world in which Seamus is bullied and abused is still very much alive 20+ years later as recent current events about suicidal teenagers can attest.  Thankfully, Seamus’ dream of a better life in London is able to keep him alive.

Little did I know it, but Kyle delivered a gift when he first emailed me for advice.  Today, I hope to repay the generosity and take a cue from the folks across the country who opened their homes to me on my book tour this summer.  Chef and I have invited our friends around for an 85A book party gathering at our home featuring the author Kyle.  It’s the kind of thing I imagine Mary would do—yesterday and today.

Tomorrow on ABCityblog: Tips and recipes for throwing a book party for under $100 by taking advantage of Whole Deals at Whole Foods Market Upper West Side.

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40, Love: Paws for Reflection

Today on Alphabet City: JP rediscovers Maybe the Moon on an end-of-season Fire Island getaway with Frida and Chef.

A walk with Frida on the beaches of Fire Island has become one of my life’s greatest pleasures.  Although we have now been lucky enough to prance on those sands dozens of times, each time for her is almost like the first—her puppy dog eyes lit up with excitement, a smile on her snout a mile wide, and a kick her in back legs like a rodeo bronco.  She runs the length of her extendable leash until it pops its limit, then she rushes back to me with a look of amazement, “What’s better than this?” she seems to bark.  Frida is unencumbered by the stress of the commute from the city—do we change in Babylon or Jamaica and will we make the ferry?  Unlike me, she’s not saddened by the thought that this may be the last bath of sunshine on our exposed skin until next May, at the earliest.  Her antics on the beach are a reminder of the unexpected joy that can come with living life in the moment, in the here and now.

Chef and I are blessed with friends like Chris and Tom who willingly open their beautiful home to us on Fire Island’s Cherry Grove.  While it’s fun to visit them in the height of the summer, especially this year when they hosted an Alphabet City book party, I do enjoy an end-of-the-season getaway.  At that time, like this past weekend, the island is filled with folks trying to squeeze out every last bit of pleasure—they aren’t taking anything for granted.  Flyers around “town” announce everything as the “last of the season”—the final Middle Tea dance extravaganza, the final Underwear Party.  Even venerable Cherry’s gets creative with a “Christmas Party”—why not celebrate the holiday with your island friends?

One of my little pleasures at a vacation home is perusing the bookshelf.  I enjoy perusing and commenting upon books left behind.  I was guessing the same gay boy who read Eat, Pray, Love probably didn’t also enjoy Larry Kramer’s Faggots.  Since I’ve visited the house many times, I’ve developed pretty good command of the in-house library, but this weekend, for the first time I noticed on the shelf a book I adored when I initially read it, Armistead Maupin’s Maybe the Moon.  At first, I recommended the book to Chef, but he was too busy enjoying Kyle Thomas Smith’s 85A—the debut book by my friend that is fantastic—a full review later.

I go so excited telling Chef about my love of Maybe the Moon, that I put aside Anthony Bourdain’s latest and cracked it open myself.  Within moments, I was once again mesmerized by Maupin’s flowing, storytelling genius about the struggles of being a dwarf in Hollywood who played an ET-like character.  The book was based on the life of his friend Tamara de Treaux who played the actual ET, and Maupin claims it might have been the last book that Jackie Kennedy Onassis ever read.  What I love about Maupin is ability to create captivating characters and seamlessly situate them in a specific time and place—this one resonating with me as it is set firmly in the recession of the late ‘80s.  The 31-inch tall main character Cadence Roth has an outsized personality and work ethic that carries her far—certainly into my heart.

Normally, the trip back to the city exhausts me listening to the unfortunate conversations of jaded queens.  Case in point, overheard on the shuttle to the train, “You know how when you play with a pretty dog, and an ugly dog, and you reach down to pet the pretty dog, but the ugly dog lays its head on your lap, and you’re like, gross.  That’s how it is with Randy and Elliott.  I just want to party with pretty Randy, but ugly Elliott is always around.”  Thankfully, I had convinced myself it was okay to temporarily borrow Maybe the Moon, so Maupin carried me away from all that.

Frida slept in her carrying case all the way home, only rousing herself once we were back on land in Washington Heights.  While Chef and I dragged our feet a little, sad that we couldn’t linger in the sun a few more days, Frida had the same spring in her step that she had on the beach.  She was living in the now—and now was good.  We were home.

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