Saturday, January 30, 2010

German World

At a German restaurant last night, there was a copy of "German World" Magazine on the table in the waiting area where you could enjoy a German beer or glass of German wine while waiting to be seated at a table under portraits of Marx and Lenin.  I hadn't known that this magazine existed, nor did I know that Sandra Bullock (featured on its cover) is half-German and (according to the interview) actively seeking German citizenship, to honor her mother.  The interview (like everything else in the magazine) was printed in German on one half of the page, and in English on the other.  The English had clearly been translated from German, and while this makes sense (apparently Sandy B is fluent and no doubt answered the questions in German) the English translations of her answers had a hilarious stilted quality.  "I love my husband because he accepts me as I am, even when I awaken in the morning looking as if the dog had gnawed on my hair."  There was also a great review of Inglorious Basterds in which the author commented on how the Germans in the film were amazingly well-educated and eloquent, while the Americans were "ignorant dolts."  It almost seemed like a parody of German-ness, like Sprockets, circa SNL 1989, and I was sure that something had been lost in translation.  But then, after we were finally seated, Matt asked the waiter whether he liked the sea bass special featured on the menu, and the waiter replied, "Sea bass has a good texture."  Yes, but is it good? 

Bye-bye Kindle?

Agents don't like the Kindle.  This has become clear, based on the current wrangling between Amazon and agents over rights and costs, monopolies and so forth.  Before this news broke, I was talking to an agent who said that she would never buy a Kindle, because it's bound to be replaced by something better and faster.  "It's going to look like a beta-max in six months," she said.  "Don't waste your two hundred bucks."

I didn't admit that I had already--in fact, just--done exactly that.

I am not a trendsetter.  In fact, if this word had an antonym, that would be me.

A month after I finally accept that it's time to join the legions of folks who swear by their Kindles, and get one for Matt for Christmas ("Thanks for the present," he jokes every time he comes into bed and sees me reading on it) Apple announces its i-pad.  It's twice the price but a million times cooler and better designed than the beige (beta-max-y) Kindle--able to hold pictures, books, movies.  "Bye bye, Kindle," said my friend Dana.  Granted, she works at Apple so she has reason to believe that the i-pad is going to corner the market, but I'm inclined to believe too, if only because I bought a Kindle, so it must be on the way out.

This is not the first time I've purchased some digital gadget only to have it almost immediately rendered obsolete by the next generation device.  A mini-disc player purchased right before the advent of the MP3 comes to mind.  It was cute.  Smaller than a sandwich, and apple green.  They were all the rage in Japan, where you could rent CD's and then copy them in just a few minutes onto cheap mini-discs.  But I returned to the US and found mini-discs hard to come by here.  I was stuck with an extensive collection of J-pop by Puffy and Kiroro.  If you haven't heard of these bands, there's a reason.    

One of my adult students, a woman in her mid-fifties (I'm guessing based on the ages of her children--I teach her online, so we've never actually met) recently wrote a piece for class about how brokenhearted she felt when she stopped being able to buy cassettes, and again when she had to box up her old CD's, and how she's almost unwilling to form an attachment to a new device only to have her heart broken her again.  I liked her ardor.  It is certainly discouraging, if not quite heartbreaking, to have a prized collection of tapes, CDs' (or possibly books, in the not so distant future) suddenly lose its value, become bulky and kitschy.  For a while at least, holding onto these relics just shows your age and how uncool you are. 

All of this has made me remember a humiliating and humbling experience of my early twenties.  A friend in publishing (OK--I babysat her kids) helped get me an interview with the head of HR for Conde Nast: Bucky Keady.  How could I forget that name?  Or the way the wiry little thing wore a cowboy hat and a business suit?  Bucky Keady seemed to see some glimmer of potential in me (or she was just trying to be nice to our mutual friend) and so she "forwarded" me to an interview at one of the Conde Nast magazines: Details for Men.  I think they may have dropped the "for Men" part since then, but as a newly minted Barnard graduate, that detail stuck out and made me wonder why, of all of their publications, this was the one where I was being funneled for my second interview.

For four months prior to this, I had been traveling around South East Asia.  I went abroad having secured via mail (yes, the actual post office) a teaching job for the coming year at a Catholic university in Semarang, Indonesia.  I got there and learned that the position had fallen through.  I also got desperately homesick, and when a friend told me about an apartment for rent in New York--all I had to do was bribe the super $500 and it could be mine--I begged my mom to send a check and returned to the city with no job.  As a stop-gap measure, I worked as a kindergarten teacher's aid at a private school where the kids brought lunches with detailed prep instructions like, "grate asiago on the penne after heating." 

So I was excited for my Details interview.  Bucky Keady hadn't told me much about the position, except that it would entail "attention to detail" work at first, with the possibility of future writing assignments.  It sounded good to me, and a lot better than pitting olives for a five year-old's nicoise salad.

I was already sweating when I went into the interview--it was an Indian summer day, and I was wearing a ridiculous tweed skirt suit, a button-down shirt, stockings and heels, like I was auditioning for Mad Men--but I started sweating even harder after the editor asked me his first question: "What trends have you noticed lately?" 

My mind went blank. 

"OK," he said.  "Let's start simpler.  What new music has been catching your attention lately?" 

All summer, in Indonesia, it seemed like the only album I'd heard (everywhere, all the time) was Bob Marley's Legend.  I'd brought a half dozen tapes and a Walkman (yes, that's how old I am) but somehow I didn't think that Paul Simon's greatest hits or Sarah McLaughlan were going to impress this slick Details editor. 

"What's the last CD you bought?" he asked. 

"Joni Mitchell?" I said, not admitting that it hadn't been a CD.  His next question was about trends I'd noticed in fashion, and the only answer I could come up with was that I'd seen a lot of guys around the city wearing stockings on their heads. 

"Are you talking about doo-rags?" he asked, sounding incredulous. 

It turned out that the position for which Details for Men was hiring was "Trendspotter."

He all but pushed me out the door.  And he was right to.  But I can't help but think that there must be a practical use for someone who spots trends right before they expire.  I could save people a lot of money.  If you've been thinking of buying a Kindle, maybe you should hold back.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


So often the truth really is better than fiction.  Or if not "better," at least full of coincidences, ironies and unlikelihoods that, were they to appear in a novel, would have savvy readers rolling their eyes with good reason.

While I must resist the urge to spend too much time here writing about Max, since I'm well aware that my two year old is fascinating to exactly 6 people on the planet, I can't resist sharing the ending to the story about his twitchy eyes; it's just too good.

Upon his pediatrician's suggestion, we took him to an opthamologist.  "If the opthamologist doesn't find anything," she said, "then you'll go to a neurologist."  She gave me a list of things that pediatric neurologists treat, including tumors and Tourettes. 

Coke bottle lensed eyeglasses suddenly seemed like something to hope for.

But it turns out that he doesn't need glasses.  What he has--probably--is a mild case of blufferitis. 

This, according to the opthamologist, who was sweet but didn't seem to have a sense of humor, is a build-up of dust in the eyelashes.  I guess "bluffer" is the Latin root for eyelash.  Who knew?  The "disease" is treated with a washcloth.  ie: wash the kid's damn face.  But lest we seem slovenly, she assured us that there wasn't too much build-up. 

"He might just be copying other kids in his class," she said.  "If they're blinking too."

"You mean he's bluffing," we joked, but she just squinted at us--not unlike Max.  "Get it?"

She smiled wanly.  Maybe she got it and didn't think it was all that funny.  And it is pretty corny.

Still, blufferitis is the perfect affliction for the child of a fiction writer who more or less had to become one because she couldn't resist bending the truth, to make a better story.  But not here, of course. 

Friday, January 15, 2010


When I lived in Japan, I collected funny things with "Japlish" on them, including this postcard which I found today in a drawer while looking for something else.  It always amazed me that corporations printed things on all sorts of products without running them by native English speaking fact checkers or proofreaders. But I was glad that they didn't.  A friend in Japan spotted the prize: a girl wearing a Tshirt that read, "Crap Your Hands."  She had no idea.  But I'm sure that most of the Americans who wear T-shirts festooned with Kanji (not to mention those who get the characters tattooed onto their flesh) only think that what they're sporting means "Peace" or "Sex God" or whatever, and are just as often wrong.  For more excellent examples, check out

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Goodreaders each and every one of us

I'm new to Goodreads. I feel a bit embarrassed admitting this, especially since I recently wrote a post about being new to the Kindle. (My grandmother has a Kindle, for the love of god! It's hardly cutting edge technology!) This is also my first foray into blogging. Apparently I am trying to catapault myself into the new decade by overcoming a fear of technology. I should have called this blog Confessions of a Luddite.

As for Goodreads, clearly I'm late to that game as well. I've been slow to join, partly because I write reviews for a living--it's not my bread and butter, but at least the butter--and so I felt like I shouldn't give it away for free. I also felt like I was already participating in the cultural conversation about books, and didn't have much more to add. Or that I might actually undermine my credibility if I admitted to liking a lowbrow book, or to not having enjoyed or admired one that others in high places touted. But then I got curious.

Okay, in true blogging confession mode, let me admit that my curiosity was piqued when I started peeking at Goodreads reviews of my own forthcoming book. (Thanks, Kater! "R. Czarny," I know who you are. Nice (if recognizable) alias). The book isn't even out yet, but already I can read a half dozen people's impressions of and opinions on it. For the critic, it's karmic payback time. I'm also reminded of that question kids ask each other: would you rather be able to fly or be invisible? Apparently people say that they want to be able to fly, but everyone secretly wants to be invisible. Well, Goodreads (and other consumer review sites) let you be invisible while other people--all strangers, except for R. Czarny--talk frankly and not always flatteringly about you (well, your book--but to the author, it can seem like the same thing).

Okay. But after I read my half-dozen early Goodreads reviews dozens of time, memorized each word (savoring the praise, wincing over the criticism) etc..., I started clicking onto more books reviewed by these folks and others, and before long I'd signed up, still wondering what I was signing up for exactly. Needing support, I encouraged my friend Nick to sign up too. Nick lives in Colorado, but whenever we get together or shoot emails back and forth, our conversations are dominated by discussions of what we've been reading lately, what we want to read, reviews we've read and agree or disagree with, and so forth. I don't really believe in "soulmates," but if I did, Nick would be my book soulmate, which isn't to say that our taste overlaps entirely, but it's close enough that we can definitely share recommendations, and divergent enough to be interesting. I love to talk with him about books more than anyone (and just about anything) else. My husband has joked that Nick and I should have a books show on cable, where we could be the Siskel and Ebert of the reading world. This always seemed like a great and hilarious fantasy. If only people cared that much about books!

Which is one of the most heartening things about Goodreads. It's hard to believe, clicking and scrolling through the site, that the book is doomed. Even the much maligned novel, even the "verge of extinction" short story collection, seem to be gathering more readers than dust. It's hard to believe how much so many people apparently do care about books, and about contributing to the conversation on books.

Nick got hooked before I did. A day or two after he signed up, I learned via email that he'd posted reviews of many pages worth of books he'd read recently. I started reading his reviews, and couldn't resist posting comments (much like we do in real life) under his little blurbs, where I'd second or (affectionately) challenge his positions. And soon I started wanting to post little reviews of my own. Whereas I might spend weeks figuring out what to say in a review destined for print, a Goodreads review is an impression, an off-the-cuff summation of what worked or didn't for a given reader. But just because they might not be art doesn't mean they're not smart.

Nick and I recently discussed a published (in a high place) review we both read, of a novel we both recently finished, in which the reviewer fixated on the milieu (90's bubble economy) in which the book took place and argued that it was about excessive consumerism. It wasn't. Sure, the novel was grounded in that time period, and the narrator was grandiose in a way that reflected his privilege. But the book was about other things, deeper things, and the reviewer was missing the proverbial forest, not even for the trees but for their leaves. It can be easy to do this when you're a "professional" reviewer. You want to seem smarter than the "average" reader, to notice more and different things. The problem is, writers are writing for readers. When I was working on my novel, I found after a certain point that I needed non-writers (and people who weren't "professional" critics, too) to read and help me with my book. Their impressions were often clearer and better articulated than those who "read like writers," more attuned to nuances of craft than clarity of content.

Now I'm not here to "diss" professional reviewers. Again, reviewing puts the butter on my bread, and while I sometimes torment myself over countless drafts of a 700-word piece, I love to do it and feel honored whenever I get an assignment. But I am also excited about Goodreads, and glad that I overcame my initial (slightly snobby) reluctance to chime in.

As for the Kindle, I just finished my first digital novel yesterday. I was reading it over lunch, and loving the fact that I didn't have to pull the old trick of splaying the book under the edge of my plate, or turning pages with mustard-splattered fingers, when it suddenly and rudely ran out of batteries and shut off--right (I kid you not) before the mystery was divulged--and I had no idea where my husband had stashed the power cord. I'm still on the fence about that one.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Our own plague of tics

I have always loved the essay by David Sedaris in which he describes the way that, every year, his elementary school teachers would come to his house to talk to his mother about his tics, and she would say something like, "Oh you mean this?" and imitate his way of twitching and banging his head and licking his desk, and they'd laugh and drink cocktails while he cowered in the hall, mortified to see his mom imitating him so perfectly, when he believed that his behaviors were private, even secret.

I loved his depiction of his mother, so very different from my own, a chronic worrier with her own case of OCD about which I tease her mercilessly. Hers takes a more obsessive than compulsive form. "I had you bloody on the street," she used to say to me when I was little and I came home ten minutes late, meaning that she'd envisioned me hit by a car. She obsesses still about car crashes, especially if I'm visiting her home, or if she knows I'm going to be driving somewhere. "How will you get to the mountains?" she asked recently, upon learning that I was going skiing. "Will someone else drive?" she said hopefully. I found this mildly offensive, as it suggested that my own driving skills leave something to be desired. (Okay, so I did go through five cars over the two years I lived in Japan. It was hard to learn to look right and left at intersections!) Her worry about car crashes extends to my husband now. Upon learning that he'd gotten into graduate school at Berkeley for composition, her first comment (after a rapid congratulations) was, "Will he be riding Bart?" Because I know her too well, I knew that her mind had immediately spun out into scenarios in which he was "bloody on the street" (or behind the wheel) on the Bay Bridge. With her car phobia, she's a big fan of public transportation.

I tease her, but I'm not a stranger to the "sickness," if you will, although I'm pretty sure that everyone is afflicted with some form or manifestation of OCD. I tend to obsess about food. I often wake up at dawn and lie there in bed making grocery lists and planning upcoming meals, figuring out when in my crowded day I'm going to do whatever prepping the meal requires. I don't think it's normal to be planning ordinary dinners at four in the morning, and I'm sure there are more productive or creative ways that I could be spending that time. Last night, my obsessing had a soundtrack. We live on street level, and the street happens to be a busy one. A 24 hour laundromat is right across the street, and the machines go fifty percent off after midnight, which believe it or not means that the place is bustling at 2, 3, 4 am. Well, last night, someone who'd come to do a load had a car that wouldn't start, and every half hour they would get back behind the wheel just to make sure that the engine really wasn't going to turn over. There is perhaps nothing as annoying as the sound of an engine that won't turn over. If that persistence--the engine grinding and churning at regular intervals--isn't the sign of OCD then I don't know what is. I was tempted to call AAA myself.

In the last week, my two and a half year old son has developed a tic. Well, we think it's a tic. We hope it's a tic. (I think we hope it's a tic). He blinks his eyes hard and often, especially when he's tired, especially when he's getting in trouble, as he did this morning after opening the refrigerator (yet again) and ignoring me (yet again) when I told him to ask before attempting to help himself to a gallon of milk. He scrunches up his eyes and his long lashes flutter and it's hard to say whether he's doing it on purpose or involuntarily. After a day or two, I Googled the words "toddler blinking a lot" and proved true Anna Deveare Smith's assertion that there's nothing more dangerous than a thirty-something year old woman with access to the internet. It could be a tumor! It could be Tourette's! Or...OCD! I am not making light of the situation or my concern (okay maybe I am just a little) but of the way that the internet feeds fears with Too Much Unfiltered Information. Still, the worrying had set in. I booked a doctor's appointment, and the first thing that this new pediatrician said, (it was our first visit) was, "So I see that you have a tic in your hands... the way they shake."

It has been a long time since I thought about my shaky hands. I don't remember when they started shaking, or when I first noticed that they shook, but I was in the fourth grade, a new student at a snobby all-girls school, when one of my new classmates said, "What's wrong with you?" in a very judgmental tone. "It" was my own tic, according to my father, a medical student at the time, who assured me that it was involuntary, nothing I could control, and nothing to worry about. I didn't, much, except when kids asked me about it, as they continued to do whenever I went to a new school. Much later, when I was a TA in graduate school, it took a few semesters of course evaluations in which my own students commented, "I'm not sure why she's so nervous!" before I realized that they were mistaking my tic--my shaky hands--for a sign of profound tremble, and I learned to tell classes early on that this wasn't the case. But in truth my hands do shake more when I'm nervous, which I generally am at the start of a new class. Just like my son seems to blink harder when he knows that he's about to get in trouble. "Are you happy?" he asks in a high-pitched voice, after spitting food on the floor. And when I say no, he says, "Can I kiss it make it better?" Two and a half years old and already he's manifesting signs of anxiety, causing his father and me to worry in return. He's only a toddler! He shouldn't have anything to worry about yet! Have I/we passed on our manageable cases of OCD? Or do we live in a culture where everything gets pathologized (see Google), our desire to slap diagnoses on emotions a way of controlling our fear about things (like tics) that can't be controlled?

OCD. I'm pretty sure that everyone obsesses about things. Right? Right?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Kindle for the new year

So I have been torn between Kindle resistance and Kindle curiosity for a while now, and I decided to have it both ways by buying one for Matt for Christmas. (He rides the Bart to Berkeley almost every day, and can use the device to read PDF's rather than having to carry a ridiculously heavy bag on his commute). Partly I'm a luddite (albeit an online writing teacher who would be out of work without the internet) and like many others I still love the feeling of a book in hand, cover art, reading in the bath, and most especially browsing at bookstores. Also, one of my job perks is that I get a lot of the books I want to read for free. But there is something alluring about click-and-buy bookshopping too, reading a review of a book that sounds good and being able to start it within minutes--and for a third the cost of the hardback. Which is what I just did two nights ago, purchasing Joanna Grodstein's A Friend of the Family upon the recommendation of my friend Nick, with whom fifty percent of our conversations center around what we've been reading lately. I'm now a quarter of the way into it, and I still can't decide if I'm getting the same experience reading on the Kindle that I would in a "real" book. While a bar at the bottom of the screen tells you what percent of the book you've read (26%, to be exact) it's weird not being able to flip the pages to the end of a chapter, to know exactly how much more you'll be reading before turning off the lights for bed. I also find the way that one page vanishes and the print of the next appears in its place to be disconcerting. Still, I am aware that I am late on this Kindle bandwagon, and lots of other people have clearly gotten used to reading in this new form, and so should I probably. I have this strong suspicion that with the actual paper and ink novel that I have coming out in March might be my last paper and ink novel, that by the time I have another one finished and ready (knock on...wood? Screen?) books as we know them might be books as we knew them. But I can't help but feel that the ephemeral nature of the digital novel rather than the printed novel is going to translate less literally to the reader's experience, that I will not remember this book as vividly and viscerally as I would have if I'd been flipping actual pages.

Two months to go

With two months to the birth--I mean pub--date of my first novel, If You Follow Me, I am feeling not unlike a woman in her last trimester, eager for this bulky thing to be out in the world already, but also slightly protective and uncertain what this imminent release will mean or feel like. I also have a young (2.4 year old) child, and am currently recovering from two holiday weeks without preschool, a pleasurable time, but also one in which I could feel my mind growing soft, the brain folds relaxing. An ambitious day for us was going to the museum of natural history to watch the penguins get fed. Anyhow, I have decided to start this space to post updates about upcoming readings and events, but also the occasional book review, link to something I think might be of interest, and whatever else strikes my fancy on a given day. I'm feeling guardedly optimistic about my ability to keep up a blog. Let's just say that the last one I started had a first entry that came in at three single spaced pages, a second entry that was a single page long, and that was it for the next two years until I finally deleted it, embarrassed by this public evidence of my inability to keep a blog going. (I also have a box packed with journals that are half-written, discarded after I got sick of their covers, or of the sight of my own handwriting). But here's to 2010, a new decade, a new book, a new chance to get past two blog entries...