A moveable feast

Contentville's pseudonymous book-party columnist gives the inside dish on the recent "Little Gray Book Lecture #1" in Brooklyn, and sumptuous book parties thrown for Richard Rayner's "The Cloud Sketcher" and Nell Casey's "Unholy Ghost."

By Katharine Garden
Published April 26, 2001 6:53PM (EDT)

On March 7 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, laugh-starved New Yorkers gathered in the smoky back room of Galapagos to attend "Little Gray Book Lecture #1" -- an evening of readings by local humor writers from their published and unpublished works. Perhaps a hundred people showed up, all of them creatively rummage-clothed and unbarbered -- looking like extras from that Gen-X, off-off-Broadway Scooby Doo remake. So many people came, in fact, that half of the guests had to sit on the floor, scooched among the feet of the seated few. Everyone crowded together in a gentle, beery mood of uncynical expectation -- "Laugh In" meets love-in.

The highlight of the evening was unquestionably the cartoon presentation by a tall, gorgeous young monomaniac named David Rees, who emanated Jolt-Cola-energy as he hovered over the AV projector, narrating the genesis of his two deadpan clip-art comicstrips, "My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable," which lampoons karate fighters, and "My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable," which lampoons office workers. Rees began by putting pages from his mid-eighties junior high school diary on the projector, reading out passages that related to his comic strip (sort of), laughing at himself as he went. Example: "There was a bomb scare at school today. YIKES!?" and "Comic Strip Idea: The Invisible Family." (An empty box of white space is drawn in Rees's diary.) People could not take their eyes off him.

Loud applause also went to a team of writers who are compiling a phony encyclopedia and who read selections from the "M" volume, on such subjects as Mart, K, Motherfuckin' Noam Chomsky and Magnet Schools (by Harper's Associate Editor Bill Wasik: "Should you send your child to a magnet school, where he will not be able to develop the comfortable sense of superiority over his classmates he would in a public school? No. Do not send your child to a magnet school"). The dozen-plus readers were introduced by poet, writer and agent Jon Hodgman, who seemed to channel S.J. Perelman as he expatiated on Little Gray Book Lecture #1's origins, which may have to do with a series of "cheap instructive paperbacks" popular in the Midwest in the early part of the last century, called "Little Blue Books." According to Hodgman, 1,915 different titles made it to the bindery, informing the public on such topics as "How to Make All Kinds of Candy (No. 518)" and "What You Should Know About Poisons (No. 1508)". There will likely not be 1,915 Little Gray Book Lectures. The invitation read, "There may not even be a second." Say it ain't so!

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Have you ever seen a Finn? No? Do you know a single Finno-Ugrik word? Not one? Well, this distressing state of ignorance was remedied on a wind-whipped Monday night in March, when quiet, gigantic, toffee-haired Finnish men, ruddy-cheeked and sleek as seals, threw open the doors of a party suite in the Finnish Consulate to welcome an absolutely typical (except for all the Finns) crowd of writers, publishers and their friends who wanted to celebrate the publication of a book that, miraculously, has to do both with Finns and New Yorkers. The book, "The Cloud Sketcher," by Richard Rayner, (HarperCollins) imagines the arrival in New York, in the early 20th century, of a visionary Finnish architect (suggested, Rayner revealed, by Eliel Saarinen's experiences in Chicago).

"My wife is Finnish," Rayner explained. He confesses in his acknowledgments, "Without her [Pave Soviet] 'The Cloud Sketcher' would not and could not exist. It's as simple as that." Since they met in 1990, Rainer has spent many summer months in a rustic village in northern Finland with Pave, and now they go there with their children. As Rainer talked with well-wishers -- blond, dynamic HarperCollins chief Jane Friedman, shoulders draped in a robin's egg-blue pashmina; mild-mannered HarperCollins book editor Dan Conaway; Julie Grau of Riverhead Books (who worked with Rainer when she was at Random House, editing his sardonic quasi-biography "The Elephant," which was loosely based on the author's father); and New York author, architect, and city mythologizer James Sanders, who brought his ravishing girlfriend Ingrid "Bergman" Bernstein -- guests drank complimentary Finlandia vodka and nibbled on gravlax toasts, savory sweet Karelian pastries and quiches.

Anxious but elated Finnish cultural scouts mingled with the guests, illuminating the ways of Finns to New Yorkers. Ilkka Kalliomaa, the cultural attachi, cleared up the difference between Eero Saarinen and Eliel Saarinen (Eero is the son), while Tuula Yrjvld, consul for press and cultural affairs, cleared up various other confusions. For instance, she confirmed that gravlax is Swedish, not Finnish, and that Ikea is Swedish, not Finnish. What's particularly Finnish? I inquired. She pondered for a moment, then answered, "Probably reindeer." I was thrilled. "I brought some back from Finland, and I'm having a reindeer party tomorrow," she confided. "Would you like to come? It's delicious." I couldn't. What else is Finnish, I pressed. "Jan Sibelius!" she said. And Bila Bartsk? I asked. "No," she frowned. "Bartsk is Hungarian." She brightened. "But we also have the Nokia cell phone. You know it? I have one here." She held up a Nokia that had been cradled in her hand all along. "I think it's the fifth biggest company in the world!" And the Rubik's Cube? Was that Finnish, I asked. "No," she frowned. "Hungarian."

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It may seem perverse to throw a party for a book about depression, but there wasn't a wet eye in the house at City Hall in Tribeca on March 12, the site of a lively fete thrown to toast "Unholy Ghost," a collection of essays on depression edited by Nell Casey (daughter of "Spartina" author John Casey). Nell is well-known about town for her writing and for her lively presence -- both socially and in the energetic riffs she performs at Moth and other reading/talking venues -- and her book includes essays by Nell, her sister Maud, Virginia Heffernan, David Karp, Larry McMurtry, Darcey Steinke, Rose and William Styron, Donald Hall, Ann Beattie, Russell Banks and other acrobats of the mood swing.

The party attracted a cheerful assemblage of Casey friends, relatives, and Morrow cronies; also Ariel Kaminer and David Kirkpatrick from The New York Times; "My Father, Dancing" author Bliss Broyard, Word founder Marisa Bowe, writer-about-town Tom DeKay (who's working on a new design magazine), writers Jesse Drucker (the Wall Street Journal) and Philip Gourevitch (the New Yorker) and novelist Lucinda Rosenfeld, taking a break from writing her new novel (the successor to "What She Saw In..."). Nell greeted her guests in the expensively mellow, glamorous downstairs bar of City Hall, looking splendid in a Marilyn-y halter-necked dress. The only desperation that was visible any place near was in the restaurant upstairs, where Wall Street types perched at the main floor bar, smiling tautly with frantic eyes as they downed martini after martini. After the Black Wednesday stock market plunge, they could use this book.

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Reprinted with the permission of Contentville.

Katharine Garden

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