Friday, October 28, 2005
Willie our dog would probably prefer to eat from the real cat box, but for the rest of us, this is the shit!
Thursday, October 27, 2005
So I actually read my snail mail a couple weeks ago and saw the announcement for compost give-back from the NYC Sanitation Department. They have a compost facility way the heck out in Canarsie, and I drove out there with a bunch of bags in the back of the Subaru Wagon.
It was one of those cool cross-sections of NYC, like the subway. People of all shapes, sizes, colors, and languages, shoveling the free compost into bags. A guy from New York's Strongest helped me load a half a dozen bags. Here's how it looks in our garden! The lasagna bed is coming along: a layer of newspaper, then peat moss, then topsoil, then fireplace ashes (I'm improvising now) and now compost. Maybe we'll be able to grow some great heirloom veggies next year!
Wilbur chimed in with his opinion. WOOF! Translation: "I LOVE DIRT!"
Today I listened to her wonderful 10/17 interview with TC Boyle. A great focus on process and the writing life, including Boyle reading an excerpt of a story. Boyle downplays his prolific writing life, makes it sound like the most fun job in the world. He also speaks frankly about talent, and about how the lucky folks are the ones who figure out what their talents are.
(I have no idea what my talents are. I only know I enjoy writing, even though it may prove to be more hobby than vocation. All I know is I'm having fun. And struggling, too, but mostly having fun.)
If you haven't heard her shows yet, Rosenfeld is an insightful interviewer, focusing not only on the work, but on the day-to-day of writing, nuts and bolts stuff that we writers crave. This writer anyway.
Here's how to get it into iTunes (and you techies, don't laugh at me):
1. go to http://krcb.podgram.net/
2. in iTunes, the Advanced menu, click Subsribe to Podcast.
3. copy or drag the url next to Jordan's beautiful picture into the iTunes dialog box.
I don't recommend using KRCB's application Personal Translator (please, no offense). I tried it, and it didn't work well with my other applications open. This is necessary if you're going to listen to internet radio at work.
Thank god for public radio, and thanks to Jordan Rosenfeld for a great program.
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
This is Teabag speaking to his principal, Mr. Fontana: "Some nights I picture myself naked, covered in napalm, running down the street. But then it's not napalm. It's apple butter. And it's not a street. It's my mother."
It's the jarring nonsequiturs and mother-love that makes Teabag, and other Lipsyte protags, win my heart. I went all over NYC looking for VENUS DRIVE, and where do I find it? In Istanbul, Turkey. Groovy UK edition. I know I'm not alone in my Cult of Lipsyte, and if you're not onboard, please, get with the program.
And Shteyngart, he's no slouch either, a pioneer (and probably the funniest) in the new milennium's Russian-American literary movement. My favorite moment in RUSSIAN DEBUTANTE:
"Vladimir, how can I say this? Please, don't be cross with me. I know you'll be cross with me, you're such a soft young man. But if I don't tell you the truth, will I be fulfilling my motherly duties? No, I will not. The truth then..." She sighed deeply, an alarming sigh, the sigh of exhaling the last doubt, the sigh of preparing for battle. "Vladimir," she said, "you walk like a Jew."
Another mom moment. And they do discuss Jewish fiction in the interview, the "done" American version, and the newer, immigrant version. I'm not a Jew, I'm not qualified to rehash or analyze. Only to recommend.
Sunday, October 23, 2005
Well, I just finished the first of my literary birthday gifts, this one from a friend visiting from Mumbai. He said, "This really captures the feeling of Bombay," then handed me the 935 page, 2lb-11oz paperback UK edition of Gregory David Roberts' SHANTARAM. Unbeknownst to me, it is an international bestseller. My friend noticed my discomfort at the size of the book: "Just read the first 100 pages, it's worth it."
I trust this friend, and I am curious about Bombay. But more than that, I'm curious about what makes this material warrant the book's absurd scale. My first novel, which at a mere 120 thousand words (about 350 print pages) has been called "big" and "sprawling" in the nicest and most helpful ways by those rejecting it, will probably never see print in its current configuration. So what does SHANTARAM have that made publishers ignore its violation of the cardinal rule of debut fiction: keep it simple?
In a word: PLATFORM. This is an autobiographical novel with one of the best author platforms I have ever seen. Roberts was a reformed heroin addict in an Australia prison, doing a hefty sentence for armed robbery. He escaped prison, went to India on a fake New Zealand passport, toured India and learned to speak Marathi, Hindi, and Urdu like a native, lived in a Bombay slum where he opened a free clinic, joined the Bombay mafia and worked in black market currency and passports, dabbled in the Bollywood movie biz, went on a gunrunning mission in Afghanistan during the war with Russia, eventually got caught in Europe, and then served out his remaining sentence for the Australia crimes. In the book's acknowledgements, he notes that 600 pages of his original manuscript, penned in prison, were lost.
(Meaning the story was supposed to be 1500 pages?)
I'll try not to bitch about the length, especially since it's what kept me reading. That nagging question: why is it so big? I concluded that it simply suffers from the problem that many autobiographical first novels suffer, the need to include every good idea, every insight, every interesting character, as if there will be no more novels after this one. And while I did find myself wishing Roberts had saved some of the material for his next opus, I must concede that it feels well-researched, and it REALLY makes me want to go to Bombay. The book's architecture is meandering, but so are the slums of Bombay, and so I'll cut him some slack.
Some critics have complained about Roberts' "larger than life" characters, which is a term I'm struggling with now. As in too colorful, too implausible? If so, I disagree. I, like Roberts, am a person who is drawn to weirdos. They do exist. There is no need to write bland characters, or to be bland in life.
But if "larger than life" means cliche, then maybe I see critics' point. One does get tired of hearing about the winning smile of Prabaker, the protag's first friend in India, or the liquid green eyes of Karla, the aloof love interest. But so what. This book is a ride. A long, long, ride, like a Bollywood movie, complete with bad guys and a dancing bear. So maybe the movie could be edited. Maybe the hero wins too many battles or has too much flowery, good sex. (I mean really, no fumbling or bumbling? No icky fluids?) So what if it falls into that story paradigm of cross-cultural searching and assimilation. My Indian friend wasn't offended. It's a little like Roberts' take on visiting India: you just gotta trust and ride.
Aside: while I was reading this book, I noticed Vikram Chandra sold a 1200-page novel about the Bombay crime and movie underworld. Is this becoming a genre? The Bombay supernovel?
Friday, October 21, 2005
What's this German Shepherd doing on top of Nathan's Famous in Coney Island? What else? BEGGING.
We had a great visit with my folks, just now getting through the pics. The boardwalk, Turkish dinner at Sahara, Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Hey, we even went into Manhattan a little, to check out the Russia show at the Guggenheim.
HEY, YOU GONNA EAT THAT?
My husband happened to catch this critter hanging out on top of our garage. He's absolutely fearless. He menaces the feral cats. One night recently I was walking home and he was coming the other way. At first I thought it was Vince. Then I realized this guy was rounder, with a bushier tail and a pointier nose. And then he walked right past me on the sidewalk as if I didn't exist. I thought, OK, you are a real New York raccoon, you even have the street etiquette down.
I am very glad all our feral kitties have their rabies shots.
Is this really Brooklyn? We've seen squirrels, possum, and raccoon in our yard...what's next? Please don't say skunk.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
I take it as a dare. How else can I?
Mine's not as pride-worthy as hers, but it's still fun to dig through the mothballs of my memory. (Since this is seriously four computers ago and my brain's the only place it is stored.) Drumroll...here's my old pathetic lust-poem, practically old enough to vote. And I'm NOT reading this tonight at KGB.
i want to get under your skin
like your needle
fat with ink
in and again and again
and when you wipe your blood away you find
those pricks have intercoursed to lines
you and I are Celtic
carved in flesh of your bicep
arms and legs woven
under or over
or around or
arms and legs that don't fit
but fall square in their own design
a labyrinth of sins
where your skin ends
an mine begins
Friday, October 14, 2005
RETURN OF (SOME OF) THE PUSSY POETS!
with your hostess, Kathleen Warnock
Thursday, October 20, 7pm.
KGB Bar85 E. 4th St.NYC
THE PUSSY POETS were a gang of five loudmouth women out to prove feminists didn't have to be puritans. They got together in 1992, made a big splash, performed throughout the city, got their pictures in a few magazines, and then, having used up their 15 minutes of notoriety, imploded in 1993.
Three of the former members will be reading Oct 20th: Gloria, now vocalist for the band Kanipchen-Fit; Janice Erlbaum, author of Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir (forthcoming from Villard!); and Anne Elliott, now ukulelist, fiction writer, and publisher of Big Fat Press.
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Sunday, October 09, 2005
When one is at a loss for blog content, the easiest thing to do is just put clothes on the animals and take their picture.
This new rain slicker proved very useful in the big downpour we had on Saturday. No more wet dog trying to jump on the bed!
I was hoping to use the weekend to make the garden prettier in advance of my folks visit, but Mother Nature told me to stay indoors. For the most part, I obeyed, and the plants outside are looking pretty happy from the rain.
Friday, October 07, 2005
Me, I think it feels good to teeter on the precipice of adulthood. Almost there. Perpetually.
Here’s the planned celebration (just me and hubby): a nice Japanese dinner in Far Brooklyn, and playing with my new electric ukulele, if it arrives on time. And my folks are coming to visit next week too! Life is good.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
The subject is Saunders' new novella, THE BRIEF AND FRIGHTENING REIGN OF PHIL, and the discussion turns (how can it not?) to Saunders' interest in the institutional language that accompanies lying. From corporate cover-ups to ethnic cleansing.
Silverblatt observes that Saunders' "laughter language" always is "characterized by profuse overadequacy to its situation." But that the "tear language"--which is the same language--is inadequate to its situation. Here's a snippet:
The stories are engineered so that the things that made you laugh suddenly have a second side, an ulterior motive...
As they say in Chicago they come back to bite you in the ass.
That's what they say. And suddenly you feel guilty for having laughed so easily. The stories are meant, I think, to let the reader feel an uncomfortable guilt at how much is assumed by easy language.
I was thinking about the fact that I am a very sentimental person. I mean, Kahlil Gibran was a tough guy, compared to me. And I am also very conscious that I want to be liked all the time. That's my number one thing. Also I'm not all that crazy about myself. I'm very anxious about myself. So when you put those things together, it kinda makes sense--and I can feel myself doing it--that you're going to keep a "happy face," that language-attentiveness-to-style as a form of a "happy face" thing, and I think that when those "tear" moments come they always surprise me. It's not planned, but I think it's the inevitable outcome of somebody who is keeping too stiff a back.
Very humbling to hear Saunders talk like this. Also to hear his spot-on impersonation of Valley-speak, to illustrate the kind of real-world language he has grown to value, following, in a way, the American tradition of Mark Twain.
I won't rehash more. But do listen.
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
But each time I sit down to write about this book, I get stuck on this paragraph:
"Good evening, gentlemen. No ladies here? Good evening, gentlemen. We going to have a little music? Some of you gentlemen going to play for me this evening?" It was the soft, amiable Negro voice, like those I remembered from early childhood, with the note of docile subservience in it. He had the Negro head, too; almost no head at all, nothing behind the ears but folds of neck under close-clipped wool. He would have been repulsive if his face had not been so kindly and happy. It was the happiest face I had seen since I left Virginia.
Oh my. It's hard to keep from flinging the book across the subway car and grabbing the bible of the lady next to me, just to rinse out my brain. Cather has broken almost every modern rule of sensitive depiction: from the love-our-darkies Southern nostalgia to the farm-animal comparison. ("Wool?") Okay. Deep breath. Read on. It's an old book, remember?
Cather's Jim goes on to describe how this black man became a pianist, and the story is compelling and fairly sensitive. As a little boy, this servant's son, blind, eavesdrops on the piano lesson of this young rich (white) girl. When he hears everyone leave the room, he sneaks in through the window and imitates what he has just heard on the keyboard. The teacher and the student both recognize the boy's talent, and nurture it through advanced classical schooling. The poor maid's son becomes a piano-playing star.
Cather was as PC liberal as it got back her day. Butch, almost-out lesbian, always striving for diversity in her fiction, depicting Latinos, Eastern Europeans, and Scandinavians, both poor and wealthy, with a level of sensitivity we expect even in today's literature. So how on earth did this one sickening paragraph make it into print?
Truth is--and this is what I fear--the most earnest among us cannot see our prejudice. We can't predict the evolution of language. (Look what's happened to "queer" and "nigga" in the last 20 years.) What is provacative in one way today will likely be provocative in another way tomorrow. What's harmless background music today will become tomorrow's hurtful cliche. Our words outlive us. Can we trust future literary historians to cut us some slack?
And what other solution is there for writers? Should we avoid writing about diverse populations for fear of accidentally offensive language? If we believe in diversity and tolerance, isn't this kind of segregation a scarier solution? If it's "write what you know," are we only allowed to "know" people who are exactly like us? (Which is pretty near impossible in my neighborhood?)
Or, do we do like Cather and dive into the work, and make peace with the fact that we will probably offend some day? Isn't clumsy writing about race better than none at all?
I've decided to cut MY ANTONIA a little slack--maybe my white skin makes it easier--after all, HUCKLEBERRY FINN has been cut slack for years. And I've decided to cut myself some slack too. Ethnically diverse characters carry specific risks for writers of any race, primarily the big narrative cliches: fascination with "other," the collecter/colonialist/Jungle Fever syndrome. Or the opposite: the story of triumphant assimilation--How I Became a Real American Too--LOOK! ALL HUMANS ARE THE SAME!
For me, the truth is somewhere in the middle, in the awkward, painful moments when characters notice their own prejudices. Like this one, from MY ANTONIA:
Mr. Shimerda rose, crossed himself, and quietly knelt down before the [Christmas] tree, his head sunk forward. His long body formed a letter "S." I saw grandmother look apprehensively at grandfather. He was rather narrow in religious matters, and sometimes spoke out and hurt people's feelings. There had been nothing strange about the tree before, but now, with some one kneeling before it--images, candles...grandfather merely put his finger-tips to his brow and bowed his venerable head, thus Protestantizing the atmosphere.
and after Shimerda leaves Jim's house:
As we turned back to the sitting-room, grandfather looked at me searchingly. "The prayers of all good people are good," he said quietly.
This is overwhelmingly the message of the novel, that the immigrants teach as much as they need teaching, and that the learning is humbling for all involved. I heartily recommend MY ANTONIA, for the history lesson, for the voice, and for the fleshy primary characters. But you might want to skip page 118.
(Depending on your edition, of course...)
Sunday, October 02, 2005
A/P/A Studies' 2005-06 Artist-in-Residence, Regie Cabico, presents his latest comedic spoken word and poetry featuring works developed for The NY Neo-Futurist Production of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind including “Godiva Dates” and “A One Night Stand,” “Lucifer Does Standup Comedy in the Garden of Paradise” and “If I Write a Play About This Dildo It Will Be a Tax Write Off Plus a Political Shot In 1 Act.”
More info here.