Sunday, February 28, 2010

Returns and Firsts

I am finally, after a long day of airplane travel, back in Iowa City, where I went to graduate school, and where I will be giving the first reading for my novel, this coming Tuesday.  My old friend Jane Monson kindly picked me up at the airport in Cedar Rapids and brought me into town, and as we walked to the Atlas Cafe for dinner--an old favorite haunt--we passed Praire Lights bookstore, where I will be reading with Sabrina Mark, and where my book was on display in the window.  This was the first time I saw it for sale at a bookstore (it's not technically released until 3/9) and Jane obliged me by posing with her copy in front of the window.  Self-indulgent?  Absolutely.  But it seemed like seeing your first book for the first time in a bookstore was worth a commemorative picture.

It's fun to be back here, doing my first reading in Iowa City, where I wrote the first draft of the story that eventually became this novel.  A lot of the material was inspired by my first year here in Iowa City, where I lived in a house with landlords who monitored my coming and going, and would leave angry notes when I left a light on (costing them electricity).  That house, which was split down the middle--one half painted white, the other half left red brick--got demolished in a tornado (!) the year after I moved away.  Jane drove us down Iowa Avenue, to see the vacant lot where it had stood.

Packing for this trip, I grabbed the first small suitcase that I found under the bed.  It wasn't until I was at the San Francisco airport that I realized that this happened to be the same suitcase I'd had since graduate school.  I knew this because the plastic handle had been gnawed by the squirrels that lived in the attic that stretched around the room where my roommate and good friend, Cathy Park Hong, slept.  We used to hear them galloping around, and when we'd open the door to the storage area they would freeze, and we'd see dozens of pairs of glowing green eyes in the darkness.  They were too numerous and terrifying to take on, and so we let them sharpen their teeth on our stored possessions--hence my masticated suitcase, which now seems like the perfect thing to pack for this particular trip, my first time back in 8 years. 

Tonight I learned from Jane, who also lived in the building (in the same lot as a double-wide trailer-turned bar) that the landlord, Bill Winkle, died last year.  He used to make rather shoddy (RIP Bill Winkle) pine furniture in a wood shop on the first floor, so we'd interact with him whenever we entered or left the building.  He had about three remaining teeth, and liked to eat tortilla chips that he would leave to wilt on a cookie sheet.  He bragged that when his daughter got married, he gave her an option: he'd either wear a tux or his false teeth, which he hated.  She chose the tux.   

Planning this trip, I had thought that March meant spring--having lived so long now in California.  I forgot that this is not the case in Iowa City, where it can be (and is) 7 degrees in March.  I won't be spending the next few days strolling around quite as idly as I'd fantasized.  The streets are narrowed by dirty snowbanks.  There's nothing green in sight.  Still, it's nice to be back in this place I once called home, and the bed and breakfast where I'm staying seems squirrel-free.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hot sashimi

For the last few months, I thought I had lost my photo album from Japan.  I worried that I might have thrown it away in a fit of housekeeping.  I get way too much pleasure out of throwing things away.  It's so much easier than actually organizing them.  Our apartment has so little space.  But it does have a garbage chute that makes throwing things out almost fun.  It's like a slide at a playground, for trash.  I get giddy with the sense of lightness that comes from throwing things away, the suddenly clear surfaces and cleaned out drawers, but often suffer from disposal remorse after dumping more than I actually wanted to part with.  This is pretty much the subject of my novel.

My two and a half year old son, Max, also loves to throw things away.  At his preschool, the teachers tell me that he will often ask for a cup of milk, claiming to be thirsty, then take just a few sips, only for the pleasure of walking over to the garbage can and dumping it.  He also likes to throw things out of his car window while I'm driving.  It's hard to explain to a toddler why it's okay to spit a cherry pit out the window but it's not okay to throw a crumpled potato chip bag out the window.  So I finally had to tell him not to throw *anything* out the window, a line he likes to repeat in a testy way.

The other day, he was sitting in the backseat with his window open, wearing a pair of Spiderman sunglasses, and then suddenly they were gone from his face.  I asked where they went and he said, "I don't know, Mommy," in a tone that suggested he did know.  I asked again and he shrugged.  "Did you throw them out the window?" I asked, and after a little more prodding, he finally admitted that he had.  We were driving fast down a four lane street that fed onto the Bay Bridge.  He started crying as he said that he wanted his sunglasses back, and I explained rather tersely that after he threw something out the car window, he could never get it back.  I was stern, hoping to get my point across.  When we got to our destination, and I went to get him out of the backseat, there were the sunglasses on the floor of the car.  I was relieved that he hadn't thrown them out the window, but a little disturbed by how readily he accepted the blame.  He seemed to believe that he was guilty, as surprised as I was to see the glasses. 

I wonder if there is a genetic predisposition towards feeling guilty when you've done nothing wrong.  My mother has admitted to me that one of her greatest fears is accidentally committing a hit-and-run.  How could you accidentally drive away from a car crash? 

The last time I cleaned out my closet, Max had a ball watching me dump hangers and clothes on the floor, much of which made its way down the chute.  Within an hour, we'd filled the apartment building's trashcan.  I was cleaning my closet in the hopes that my photo album would turn up, and to my relief, it did.  Looking through the photos, I came across this one, taken at the Bonenkai or New Year's party for the first high school where I taught English.  After staying up half the night with my fellow teachers, drinking way too much and singing karaoke, we slept on futons on the floor in two luxury hotel rooms (men in one, women in the other) and then met up again for a banquet hall breakfast featuring this sashimi.  A man brought the fish, still alive, to the breakfast table, filleted it as you can see while we watched, then served the slices of sashimi in the bowl of its own carcass. 

Looking at the photo, I remembered how, the next day, I told this story to a friend, embellishing it slightly to say that the fish had been killed so freshly that its flesh was still warm when we ate it. 

At first she seemed duly horrified.  But then she said, "Wait.  Aren't fish cold-blooded?"

Yes.  Okay.  If you're going to be literal about it.  But it made a better story my way. 

Which is just one of the reasons why I didn't write a memoir.  Like Max, I can't seem to stick to the truth, and have a hard time knowing the difference, but at least I don't have to feel guilty about it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Anne Frank Gets Bad Reviews

One of my Goodreads friends (the people whose capsule reviews of the books they've read recently get emailed to me), a former undergraduate at Stanford, now finishing her MFA at Iowa, just gave The Diary of Anne Frank four out of five possible stars.  This woman is consistently harsher on her Goodreads reviews than I am, seldom dispensing the top five-star rating, I guess saving it for books that she deems truly special, not just close to perfect.  I get this.  I respect this, even if I follow a different model with my own Goodread ratings.  But The Diary of Anne Frank?

"Why'd you hold back from giving Anne Frank that fifth star?" I joked in my comment to her.  "Was the language not restrained enough?  Too nakedly adolescent?  Or was the story simply melodramatic?"

I admit that it has been a while since I've read Anne Frank's diary--"a while" being a euphemism for the decades since middle school--but what I remember feeling at the end of the book was an aching sense of double loss, that this real girl had died (her death standing in for so many) and also that the world had lost an incredible writer, already so talented in her adolescence, who would undoubtedly have given us many more beautiful books.  I know that I'm not the only one to feel or express this.  Francine Prose has a critical book out on Anne Frank that I'm curious to read.  But apparently--I learned after scanning Anne Frank's Goodreads ratings--that Iowa MFA student is not the only person who thinks that Ms. Frank's writing is a bit...overrated.  In fact, her four star review was one of Frank's highest ratings.  Many of the Goodreads reviewers begrudge Anne her full corona of stars, and don't hold back in their capsule reviews explaining why.

A sampling of Goodreads reviews of The Diary of Anne Frank:

"It was so tedious, barely about the war itself, which supposed to make this book special."

Really?  I wonder why the diary of someone who was pent up with her family in an attic for many years might be tedious?  

"I just read it, to assume it is fake or not. I`m not sure yet, but I assume it is real , nobody would be bothered to write such tedious babbling."
I didn't know that Anne Frank's diary was suspect, a la James Frey of A Million Little Pieces infamy.  Does this person believe that she might be part of the whole holocaust hoax?  A "document" from that "genocide"?  

"i was recently at her house and was SHOCKED that it's HUGE. i mean, the diary makes it sound like they're living in a matchbox when even the hideaway part is two stories and far bigger than anywhere i've ever lived."

Well, I certainly hope you have written books about your experiences in those claustrophobic studios.  I'm sure they would be riveting.  I too have visited Anne Frank's house and don't recall being SHOCKED by the palatial size.  I mean the fact that there were two entire families living there, and that they COULD NEVER LEAVE might contribute to Anne's rendering of the space as small and confining...  Or maybe that was just more of her tedious adolescent babbling... 

"The time period is great, everything should set up for a good story, but Anne flunks out. Her book seems to have chapters of dialog between people that we don't even know - People she hasn't introduced properly."
This came with a one-star rating to go with Anne's "F."  Could it be that she's not introducing characters properly because she is writing in her own personal diary and not crafting a novel for people to read five decades later?   

"By the end I was rooting for the Nazis."

I thought I had a dark sense of humor, but this crosses a line that find beyond cringe-worthy.
"recommended for: people who like depressing or boring books"  

That's me, I guess. 

Frankly, I was SHOCKED (to borrow one critic's technique of making sure no emphasis is missed via the subtle art of ALL CAPS) by the number of negative reviews posted on this book, and by how few people held back from their less than humble opinions, regardless of the author--indeed, they seemed to relish heaping criticism upon this book.  Should Anne Frank's diary be sacred because she was a real person who did not write her book to be subject to public scrutiny or judgment, a real person who died in a camp before reaching adulthood?  I will leave that up to the individual person and Goodreader.  I personally would not feel comfortable writing a negative review of Anne's prose (or assigning her fewer than the five possible stars which I do believe she deserves).  

I've been having semi-frequent conversations recently with different friends--many of them writers, some fellow book reviewers, all avid readers--about whether there should be negative reviews of fiction at all.  The subject has been coming up a lot, in part I'm sure, because my own novel is about to be released, so it's a bone I'm gnawing.  I've been publishing book reviews for the last decade, and am now forced to recognize (what an epiphany) how much easier it is to dole out the judgment than to be on its receiving end.  It is also a hell of a lot easier to judge a book (via Goodreads, in particular, where all you have to do is hit "submit") than to write one.  

This is one of the arguments behind the school of thought holding that with so little space to review books in print, and so few people buying books, especially fiction, why not reserve this coveted review space for recommendations?  The Believer upholds this model.  Heidi Julavitz wrote a manifesto against "snarkiness" in the opening issue, which set the standard for "giving books the benefit of the doubt."  As a new and somewhat nervous novelist, I'm all for it.  But it also seems to me that taking fiction off the critical table altogether suggests that it is too weak and anemic as a form to hold up to the slightest prodding, that it will collapse like a heap of ashes and scatter to the winds.  A friend who writes both poetry and fiction argues that this is what happened to poetry--she says that it's virtually impossible to find a negative review of a book of poems in print--and that poetry is in fact a form on the brink of extinction, in the sense that no one can make money off their poetry alone, and very few people buy it.  She sees the increase in positive reviews for fiction (perhaps influenced by The Believer) as a sign that novels might be headed down that same slope.  

The same Iowa MFA student who gave Anne Frank's diary a four star rating gave Faulkner's As I Lay Dying only three stars.  I admire her rigor, her refusal to grade inflate.  I was about to say that if she ever gives a book five stars, I'll order it immediately with the highest expectations.  But then I saw that she gave a fellow acquaintance five stars on his newly released novel.  Hmm...  I'm guilty of this too, and I admit it.  I give five stars for friends' books.  This is Goodreads we're talking about, not print journalism, where I wouldn't review a friend's book to begin with.  
After having spent the better part of the afternoon cruising around Goodreads--which was good fun, make no mistake; I still love the site--I am newly glad that print journalism and vetted "professional" book reviews still exist.  Whether a book critic is worrying about sounding too "snarky" or not, at least there is some worry motivating the critic, whose name will appear beneath a published opinion.  I don't think that only positive reviews should see the light of day.  I think fiction can and should hold up to honest scrutiny, and as a reader, seeing a spectrum of reviews (on one particular book, or on different books released at the same time) helps me to appreciate what reviews (and possibly what novels) are going to be truly exceptional and what I want to buy and read.  But even when criticism is earned, I also think it's important for the critic to remember how much work goes into creating and finishing a book.  IMHO.

I'm always fascinated by how very different two readers' opinions of the same book can be, or even by how different my own opinion of a book can be when I reread it years following a first reading.  Every book is imperfect.  They are the work of people.  They are built of sentences and scenes, images and thoughts, all creating an illusion of wholeness--the magical part. 

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Straight Man

Matt resents playing the straight man in my writing--the Cheryl to my Larry David--claiming (with some validity) that whenever I write anecdotes from our real life, he gets saddled with the boring lines, and the thankless task of reining me in, keeping me from crossing lines that I like to cross, just to see what I can get away with. 

"You can't do that kind of thing anymore," he said to me not long after we got married, when I showed him how I'd stuffed my jacket pockets full of tea bags from the Stanford business school cafeteria.  In my mind, this very minor transgression was justified, since A) the business school is richer than many solvent nations, and B) I had bought an expensive cup of tea, which I felt entitled me to extra tea bags--like a dozen at least.   "I like my tea strong!" I argued.

"Fine," he said, rolling his eyes at my lame justifications, "just don't do that kind of thing when I'm around, Blondie.  I can't get away with it like you can."

I was recently watching Wanda Sykes' hilarious one-woman show where she made the same point, telling the story of how she watched with incredulity as a white friend of hers walked out of the supermarket, openly chugging a bottle of water that hadn't been rung up, utterly unconcerned that she might get arrested.  Sykes told her never to do this again in her company--and then ordered her to go back into the store to shoplift something for her, too.

The other evening, I was coming home from picking Max up at preschool when two cars collided in the intersection in front of our apartment.  There is something seriously wrong with this intersection, because every few weeks we hear the squeal of brakes, followed by a riot of metal crushing metal, and we rush to the windows to assess the damage.  This time, the hood of one of the cars (a black 80's low rider sedan with amber tinted windows) was pleated like an accordion and flapping up over the windshield.  As I watched the wrecked car careen around the corner, cruising past the spot where Max and I had just parked, at first I thought the driver was pulling over to trade information with the other party, but instead he zoomed by: a hit-and-run.

By the time Max and I got upstairs, both of our upstairs neighbors (and friends) were still peering out the window, having jotted down the license plate and called it in to the cops.  We were rubbernecking, but no one was visibly injured, and the perk of living on a street as grimy and crime-ridden as South Van Ness is getting to witness the colorful street life.  Every Saturday, when the bars let out at 2 AM, we're awakened by telenovelas playing out at our doorstep, lovers throwing each other up against the front gate, making the whole building rattle; a particular drunkard who likes to sing, "I'm washing windows in the rain" while doing just that.  

When Matt got home from work a few hours later, I eagerly dispatched the story of the hit-and-run, slightly exaggerating our parked car's proximity to the accident to make a more exciting story.   I also claimed to have gotten a good look at the driver's face, when it was more of a fleeting glance: a dark form, a black stocking cap.

"Great," Matt said flatly.  "No wonder that woman on the corner looked at me funny."

"What are you talking about?" I said, and he pointed--with an expression that said, duh--to his black polar fleece hat, borrowed from his dad to conceal his overgrown curls.  I thought that this was one of his funniest jokes ever, until I realized that he wasn't kidding at all.  Matt--in his ironed, white Brooks Brothers oxford, computer bag slung over one shoulder--was positive beyond convincing that this woman had mistaken him for the kid speeding away in the wrecked sedan with its tinted windows, the guy responsible for the hit-and-run.

I still think he was being paranoid, but at least I understand why he won't steal so much as a tea bag.  He's the straight guy by default, or by no fault of his own, but he's funny too, for sure.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Inspiration: a dirty word

At Denis Johnson's colloquium last week at Stanford, he announced that he hasn't written in years, that he doesn't really miss it or care if he ever writes again.  This followed a reading the night before that was such a flop that some people who'd attended both events might have thought: I hope you mean it.  

He knew that the reading was a flop.  It almost seemed like he was deliberately making fun of his last published novel, a noir that seemed more like dishwater read aloud.  He stopped halfway through a scene, in mid-sentence, to say that he'd forgotten to read a key scene leading up to that one, then went back and read the skipped scene (which didn't seem all that key) before starting over from the top of the scene we'd already heard the bulk of, pausing every few sentences to Tourettishly pre-read the coming swear words (apparently he'd been told not to swear much, for the touchy donors' sakes), pausing to take a glug of water every time there was white space on the page (informing us that this was what he was doing), and rapping his knuckles on the lectern when characters in the story knocked on doors (commenting, "Did I really just do that?")  Singly, any of these tics could have been charming, and in fact he did come across as charming in a devilish way, but he was also strangely aware of the rotten performance he was delivering, yet seemingly unable to deliver anything better. 

"I should just stop and start over," he said about twenty minutes into the reading, and you could hear the audience shift in collective discomfort--nervous that he was going to read all of those "key" scenes over again, from the top.  No one wanted to hear it a second time, even if he ironed out the creases.

Maybe it feels strange to him to read from his fiction now that he's (apparently) not writing it anymore and has no forseeable plans to do so again--or so he says.  The colloquium at which he made this announcement is a regular and favorite Stanford event.  Every quarter they bring a big writer to campus, and the day after the writer's big reading, students and members of the community attend a kind of informal, lunch-hour chat where they can grill and schmooze with that visiting writer.  People were especially excited for Denis Johnson's visit.  I was too. 

Practically every fiction anthology that I know of features one of the stories from from Jesus' Son, usually "Emergency," which means that his work gets read in nearly every undergraduate creative writing class, where it inevitably inspires students to track down the slim and almost perfect novel-in-stories, which is unlike any other book really, utterly inimitable, yet impossibly tempting as a model for college students dying to write about their own experiences getting drunk and stoned and falling in love and messing it up.  (The student versions usually feature red cups and frat parties--only one of the reasons why they fail to live up to the prototype).  At the colloquium (before the big announcement) Denis Johnson answered what must be the inevitable and identical run of questions on Jesus' Son, telling the audience that the book was built of anecdotes, things he'd heard tossed around in bars, things he'd lived through when he was drinking, saying that people kept telling him that he should write those stories down, and he'd strung it all together without really knowing how the parts fit or what it meant.  There again was the self-deprecating self-awareness that had been part of his reading the night before, a kind of fuck it bravado assuring you that any flaw you might spot, he could point out first.  But I also appreciated the honesty--it seemed sincere, not a cop out--behind his admission that he isn't really sure how a lot of the stories in Jesus' Son work, or even if they work. 

Although I've read the book many times--for pleasure, and with envy, knowing I couldn't copy it if I tried, and to teach from, just like everyone else--the meaning and mechanics of some of those stories continues to elude me, which is one of the reasons I think that they're brilliant.  They can't be pinned down; they are too full of life; they wriggle out from under any attempt to nail them.  And they are so beautiful too, finding luminescence in the gutters, bringing the tragic right up against the comic like sandpaper rubbing against silk.  Some books, you find at the right moment, they intersect with who you are at that age and that time, but rereading them later, you're not entirely sure why you loved them as much as you did.  Jesus' Son is not one of those books.  It will never wind up in the bag of books destined for the used bookstore.  It won't grow dated, I don't think, just better with time.

This is why it was hard to hear his lackluster reading the night before, and then hard again to hear him confess (with that same fuck you/fuck it tone) that he's not writing anymore, and doesn't really care if he ever writes again.  Again the collective shift was audible, the discomfort palpable.  We are not used to hearing writers (especially ones as celebrated as Johnson) talk (gleefully no less) about giving it up, or giving up on it, or whatever he was saying exactly.  It had the same effect as if someone barely middle aged had announced to a room full of people that she was tired of sex, didn't miss it and didn't care if she ever had it again.  Really?  You mean that?  Don't you need it to feel alive?  The people in the audience were almost all writers or would-be-writers, from the hopeful undergraduates imitating Johnson's stories in their specially designated writing notebooks, to the peninsula professionals taking adult writing classes at Stanford in the evenings, meeting in writing groups in their precious spare time, reading how-to books on writing that invariably stress process over product and push the idea that you must put in the time, write every day even when you don't feel like it.  Perspiration over inspiration, etc...  And here was this award-winning author who has filled a shelf with his books (some better than others, but still) admitting that he's lost the inspiration, for now at least. 

I thought of a radio interview with Nick Hornby, who apparently struggled to get his first novel published, and didn't break into print until he had been writing for quite some time.  He said that a woman contacted him, complaining that her first novel was still unpublished, and asking how long she should keep at it before she gave up.  I can't give the exact quote, but he said something to the effect of: honestly, if you can ask that question, then you probably should.  He wasn't being harsh.  He meant that you should write if you feel a pressure to write, and if not then why not do something more immediately gratifying, less liable to lead to rejection?

Maybe Denis Johnson is doing something hard and necessary by "lying fallow" for a while.  Maybe there is something facile in the conventional writing book wisdom that we should all be writing, all the time, rather than waiting for inspiration.  Inspiration, these books suggest, is a cliche, an illusion, a trick of the id, that would rather be out shopping or drinking or seeing a movie, than sitting in a hard chair applying word after word to the page.  But how many Jesus' Sons is any one writer expected to have in him?  And what is that book if not inspired and inspiring?

Denis Johnson wasn't being completely honest either, when he said that he hasn't written in years.  In fact, he admitted with that same devilish glint in his eyes, he has been working around the clock on a TV show, which he described as "MASH meets In Treatment," which he said has had him up at four in the morning most days, dying to get back to the characters he is developing, to see what's going to happen to them next.  It sounds like it's coming from some kind of pressure point.  Jesus' Son was inspired by anecdotes traded by drunks at bars.  Who is to say where this might end up?