In the first semester of my third year of college, with most of a creative writing degree under my belt, I began to wonder if my liberal arts degree would pay my bills after graduation. An advisor suggested I might find taking on the additional schooling required to become a librarian (a master’s degree) worthwhile. Public librarianship seemed like a practical and dependable career, and the more thought I gave to it, the more exciting this profession started to look to me. It was everything I felt was important: being of service, engaging my community, and, let’s not forget the consummate perk for a book-lover and writer: being surrounded on all sides by reading material.
Ten years after receiving my degree in Library and Information Science, I’m still excited about being a public librarian. It remains everything I’m good at and everything I want for the world wrapped up in one job. I love helping people. I love the resourcefulness and problem-solving skills I have to use daily, and the broad scope of knowledge I acquire as a result of finding the answers to everyone else’s questions. I still get giddy when I walk through the stacks or when a patron thanks me for making their day easier. My only problem is—this steady gig I trained for? It isn’t so steady. And after years of seeking full-time employment, my pipe dream creative writing degree is subsidizing my work as a librarian, instead of the other way around.
The voice on the phone seemed a little too chipper. Tom Sietsema wondered if he’d been made. Or was he being paranoid? Maybe Le Diplomate’s reservationist was always this enthusiastic about hosting a party of eight at the buzzy French restaurant. Either way, as usual, the Washington Post’s lead restaurant critic made his reservation under an alias. This time, it was Dean Cook.
Of course, no mere fake name was enough to fool a top competitor in DC’s dining scene. Back in the manager’s office was a sign listing all of Sietsema’s known aliases and every phone number and e-mail address he’d ever used to make a reservation. If the reservationist were to miss him, a manager checked the books daily. Starr Restaurants’ corporate office in Philadelphia also screened the reservation system. Sietsema’s photo, along with those of dozens of other food writers and editors, was posted in the kitchen.
The Dean Cook reservation was for Super Bowl Sunday 2016—ordinarily a slower night. Not this time. Behind the scenes, Le Diplomate was preparing for its own game day, according to accounts from three staffers. (Like many of the restaurant insiders in this story, they requested anonymity.) The restaurant, known for its fashionable clientele, had been knocked from three stars to two and a half in the Post’s last review, and the team was eager to earn its rating back.
As much as we carp about the increasing digitization of our lives, this isn’t really a new problem. Writing required cord-cutting long before the computer. It’s an act of refusal, of relinquishment, and of retreat, a decision to turn away from the world and its noise of possibilities, to chase instead a signal down the quiet of a page. That work—the deep, sustained kind that yields poems and essays and fiction—can only happen in solitude, and in silence.
And that’s the trouble.
In his long, relentlessly innovative career, he was never tempted by a landscape or still life. The human face was world enough. He produced portraits and only portraits — of Marilyn Monroe and George Wallace, drifters and swamis, his dying father and his dejected wives.
To sit for a portrait by Avedon, however, was risky — “an invitation to a beheading,” in the words of one critic. But few could resist. “Be kind,” Henry Kissinger pleaded. “You’ll make me look handsome?” Avedon’s father asked. In every instance, the photographer refused to flatter. “I looked like I could give the viewer some contagious infection through the photograph,” his friend Renata Adler groused.
Many of those sitters, along with friends and collaborators from Donatella Versace to Twyla Tharp, share their memories in “Avedon: Something Personal,” part oral history and part remembrance by Norma Stevens, Avedon’s longtime studio director, and Steven M. L. Aronson, a former book editor.
“Vacationland” is a pointless little book. That’s a compliment. Pointless little books used to be more of a thing. I have shelves full of them from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, written by the likes of James Thurber, Anita Loos and Bennett Cerf, with titles like “The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “A Girl Like I” and “Try and Stop Me.” These books had no urgent need to exist. They were neither topical nor essential. They were simply an opportunity to spend time with a good storyteller, a droll soul with the skills to turn even the flimsiest bits of real-life anecdotage into pleasurable reading material.
What these Christmas crime stories have in common is the deep humanity at the core of crime — the ugliness, the anxiety, the generosity; all the impulses that move people to action, big and small.