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I love a quiet book.

Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is one of my favorites. I haven’t read it in years and actually don’t know that I remember the plot very well. But what I do know for sure is what it felt like to be inside the world of the book, Ruth and Lucy’s world. It was blue and cold, flat and covered in untouched snow. A few images stand out—the train high up on a bridge—and the characters, of course, do, too. But overall, what made the book so memorable for me was that it was experiential—slow and subtle, mimicking the frozen Idaho landscape, the girls’ aloneness. It’s what I think of when I think of quiet.

Hearing Ms. Robinson read from Gilead a few years ago, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. It was not Housekeeping Part II. The narrator wasn’t a tragic, strong little girl but an old Midwestern preacher. Rather than get lost in the story,  I got lost in thought…thinking about pizza, new shoes, a haircut… I figured I’d skip Gilead and wait however long it took for Ms. Robinson to write her next book before I tried her out again.

Alas, the next book, Home, proves to be not Housekeeping Part II, but Gilead Part II. Or, from what I’ve read, not really a sequel but a concurrent, parallel story. Finding this out, I realized I had better get over my one bad experience and read the book. Perhaps I was bored because it was quiet, and read aloud, didn’t match up to the atmosphere–Central Park–that I heard it in.

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This spring, I was lucky enough to sit in on a memoir unit taught by Sean Wilsey, author of Oh the Glory of it All. It was a ridiculously fun four weeks, filled with unpublished essays by some of our best contemporary writers, hilarious anecdotes and lots of trying to figure out just what makes a memoir a memoir. Luckily, this all landed me a spot on Mr. Wilsey’s email list, so I got a heads-up about some pretty exciting upcoming events in support of his new book, an anthology called State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. It’s a collection of essays by some very stellar writers, writing on the states they’re from, or live in, or were visiting for the first time. Anthony Bourdain did my home state of NJ! (Yes,  I love him, I can’t help it). Joshua Ferris wrote Florida (I love him MORE). Jonathan Franzen wrote New York (I’ll reserve judgment…). Jhumpa Lahiri did Rhode Island, you get the idea. Powell’s, the bookstore in Portland, made a film to go along with the book. It’s being screened (for free) at NYU’s Cantor Film Center at 36 E. 8th St., theater 102, tomorrow night Sept. 18th at 7:00pm. Sean and his co-editor Matt Weiland will be there, as will several of the chapter writers, including Joshua Ferris, Will Blythe, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Rick Moody, Charles Bock, Ellery Washington, and Myla Goldberg.

And me–I’ll be there.

Here’s the website with all the many other events, some of which are also in New York: http://www.statebystate.us

UPDATE: This event was awesome. If you get a chance to see the film, you definitely should–it was wonderful on a lot of levels. You get to see a lot of the writers from the book who undoubtedly won’t all be at the readings, and seeing them interact is really interesting. Dan and I were struck most by moments showing how much writers strive for community and lack in confidence. Some of them fretted that others had been funnier, some of them seemed to thrive being up on stage, some seemed terrified. Truly entertaining. The conversation after was pretty good, too. The assortment of writers was slightly different than the email promised, but it was a great assortment regardless.

Also, I was brave and talked to not only Sean but Matt Weiland, Myla Goldberg, Charles Bock, Rick Moody and Joshua Ferris and got them to sign my book. (AND JOSHUA FERRIS. Did you see that part? JOSHUA FERRIS.)

It it 2am and I am in a state of questionable sobriety, but I didn’t want to go to sleep without putting on the record that I am very sorry I made so much fun of David Foster Wallace for the past few years. I learned of his apparent suicide through text message this evening and confirmed it here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/14/books/14wallace.html?hp

Although his writing was not to my taste, I remember each work I read of his quite vividly. From “The Depressed Person” to “The Girl with the Curious Hair,” even his footnotes have stayed with me. He had a singular voice and style, and a level of success and acclaim that is truly admirable. I’m sure people will have many more elequent tributes to pay to him in the next few days, for sure tomorrow at the Brooklyn Book Festival–I hope you’ll join me in reading and listening.

One of the most surreal moments of my life involved calling the Brooklyn College MFA program long after I should have heard from them to inquire about my admissions status, only to be told that there was a conflict in the department over my application. It was in limbo–some people were fighting for me, some were not, and there wasn’t enough room in the class to take me anyway. In fact, the secretary said, Michael Cunningham had my stories sitting in front of him on his desk at that very moment. (In the end I was 12th on the list and they took ten, or something. I’m sure it was for the best).

Anyway, despite the shrieking I did after hanging up knowing that Mr. Cunningham had actually, personally read words I put onto paper, despite completely loving The Hours, I’ve had A Home at the End of the World sitting unread on my bookshelf for years. I felt like I wouldn’t like it. Not because I was bitter at being rejected (although I’m not above hating certain places and people for that reason), but because the cover of the copy I picked up looks like this:

and I figured that any book that was made into a movie with Colin Farrell in it couldn’t be good. Read the rest of this entry »

The Brooklyn Book Festival is taking place this Sunday, the 14th, in Brooklyn Heights. Here’s the website: http://www.brooklynbookfestival.org. There are excellent readings, panel discussions and a maze of vendors from small presses to magazines to literary associations. There are also chances to run into not only Brooklyn’s, but some of the world’s best writers, as well as everyone with whom you’ve ever had an English class or an awkward date.

Unfortunately, I have preexisting brunch plans that I can’t change, so I will be showing up a little late. Hopefully, I will still be able to get tickets (which based on my experience last year, are free, but need to be picked up that day for the bigger events) to this event:

4:00 p.m. Titans Talk. Fiction readings by trailblazers Jonathan Lethem (You Don’t Love Me Yet), George Pelecanos (The Turnaround), and Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina). Followed by Q&A. At St. Francis Auditorium (180 Remsen St.)

Three guesses which one I’m most excited to see!Duh, Dorothy Allison!!!

This very blog is named after a quote of hers. Her novel, Bastard Out of Carolina (photos are of my embroidered version), her short stories and her essays are not only brilliant and engaging on the story and sentence levels, but opened my eyes to a certain “white-trash feminism” that I hadn’t known anything about before. She’s a brave, talented, trail-blazing woman and everyone should go see her speak!

UPDATE:
So I just missed getting tickets to this, which was slightly devastating, but Lindsay and I prevailed and had a nice time anyway. I saw plenty of people I’ve had English classes with, but thankfully no one I went on an awkward date with. I mustered the courage to introduce myself to Hannah Tinti (One Story), whose new novel The Good Thief is on my to-read list (she was super sweet and gracious; we talked about Moby).
The one reading we caught was a trio of first-time novelists: Chuck Klosterman (surprisingly funny), Charles Bock (surprisingly angry at Chuck Klosterman), and Ed Park (lovely! can’t wait to get his book–he was really endearing). It was a strange dynamic–Mr. Bock’s reading was good–I’ve been curious about his novel ever since I studied all the reviews it got for a book review unit in a class, but he was putting strange energy out. At one point, he gave Mr. Klosterman a double-middle finger sort of gesture and then put on dark sunglasses. Weirdly, that only made me want to read his book more.

They were young, educated and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.

Upon reading this, the first paragraph of On Chesil Beach, I felt my brain click out of fiction-reader mode and into queer/fem-theorist mode. There was a bit of a hitch when I hit the “But it is never easy,” an interesting literary turn that implies a narrator with an opinion and a different stance in time than his (yes, his, for sure) characters. Mostly, though, I felt a spark of outrage and a weight around my waist—my old theoretical tool belt at the ready.

(Don’t worry, though—my old papers are nearly incomprehensible even to me at this point, so in this post I won’t be referencing Butler or Foucault or using any words that the spellcheck doesn’t recognize).

But let’s do a historical analysis, shall we? The “time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible” to which McEwan refers was…wait for it… Read the rest of this entry »

Ethnic literature is hot.

This is what a “literary” agent told me (verbatim) after flipping through my “unsellable” work and zeroing in on the one story I have set in Iran. (“If you ever write the Iranian Kite Runner, let me know! Or a family saga about Iranian women!”)

This is what a professor admitted when an Asian classmate said, “If I want to get published, I need to give all my characters Asian names, right? Find and replace?”

This is what the character in “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” is told in his writing workshop at Iowa. Blocked and unable to finish the last story of his degree, his classmates encourage him to delve into his Vietnamese-ness for material, particularly his father’s war experiences. He’s done this only once before with a story about Vietnamese boat people, preferring in general to mine his imagination rather than his ethnicity. When his father visits, though, the writer asks for his painful stories, records them, and the idea of writing one’s family comes to a head.

Nam Le, the author, is a Vietnamese-Australian writer who attended Iowa and was encouraged to write about being Vietnamese. This all could have been a too-cute, too-confusing, too-post-modern nightmare.

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