Tuesday, May 26, 2009

damn, we nice and slow

The weekend started at the Aquarium of the Pacific, where AK, her sister Lori and I elbowed small children out of the way so we could feed the lorikeets.

The bait was taken.

But despite their dependence on $3 cups of nectar from tourists, the birds maintained a certain formidable dignity.

As did the sisters Ybarra.

I'm sort of fascinated with museum signage, like how the Body Worlds exhibit took such pains to explain that the dead guy in a top hat was science not (god forbid) art. So I especially liked the "journal excerpts" posted in the lorikeet forest, in which an unnamed 19th century explorer washed up on Australian shores and quickly went native with the local lorikeets, which he and his cook, Finnegan, miraculously knew all sorts of facts about.

AK and I got a couple of the lorikeets he sketched to sit on our arms.

I was going to say that I wish I could have an entire wall of jellyfish in my house because they are like nature's beautiful, moving wallpaper. But in this picture I realize they sort of look like entrails.

The Aquarium of the Pacific asked the hard questions.

Sunday we tried to see Dazed and Confused at Hollywood Forever, but apparently every person in L.A. who wasn't out of town for the weekend had the exact same idea. They sold out early on, so we picnicked outside the cemetery gates and found that the movie itself was not terribly essential to our evening. A woman walked by with a wooden box--like an old-fashioned cigarette girl--asking if we wanted any weed. Then she looked to the locked gates. "I've got to get in there," she said. "Those are my clients. I've got $700 worth of pot to unload." "You could hop the fence," we suggested. She double-knotted her shoes and took off.

Monday we camped out at the corner of 3rd and Rossmore to catch our friend Craig at mile twenty of the L.A. Marathon.

He did not look like a guy who'd just run twenty miles.

Then he took off, and we did too. For Denny's, for hash browns and coffee. Because that's how sane people spend a weekend morning.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

three paragraphs about three stories about ghosts and aliens

There was a time when I posted long, muse-y book reviews on this blog, and while they never garnered as many comments as my bitchy recaps of The L Word, I, for one, liked them. I’ve gotten lazy lately, and just posted short little thumbs-up/thumbs-down blurbs lifted from my Goodreads/Facebook reviews. While there’s arguably something to be said for brevity, especially on the internet, some books are just so damn good they deserve three whole paragraphs. (And perhaps a dissertation or two, but that’s not the business I’m in.)

So here are three paragraphs about Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham:

1. This is the kind of book I like: While Michael Cunningham is such a linguistic genius that he can and has made baking a cake seem like the most beautiful and meaningful experience in the world, in this book he takes crazy-ass risks and writes about ghosts and aliens. More specifically, he tells three stories with recurring motifs and characters set in three different, difficult time periods: the sweatshop-ridden late 19th century, the post-9/11 21st century, and a post-colonization-of-the-planet-Nadia miscellaneous future century. I’ll always take an interesting, flawed book over a predictable, perfect book, but this one is interesting and very close to perfect.

2. This is a book about the triumph of the human spirit, except Cunningham sort of explodes the idea of “human.” Specimen Days is concerned with what happens after we die, and how thoughts about such affect the way we live—as I imagine many New Yorkers were shortly after terrorists blew up pieces of their city as part of a holy crusade. Weaving in bits of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the characters in Specimen Days conclude (or so I interpret) not just that we die and become grass, but that life is death is life. One big, beautiful, scary machine. Hence their actions are alternately/simultaneously life-loving and suicidal. Love is so big that it has no time for silly notions about the difference between life and death or man and machine.

3. In the third story, an android named Simon doesn’t exactly long to be a real boy, but he does hope that his inventor can explain why—despite being human in a zillion ways—he feels a disconnect with the world around him, a sense of always grasping for an idea or emotion he can’t quite wrap his head around. Having heard Michael Cunningham speak a couple of times, I know he’s fond of talking about how all writing is an act of translation—from the big ball of passion and fire in your head to the inadequate little words on the page. What Simon doesn’t realize is that this is what life (and maybe even a relationship with God, God being a sort of abstract Walt Whitman scattered throughout the universe) is like too: always wanting, always grasping, learning to love that process and all its imperfect fallout.

Monday, May 18, 2009

sacramento, panini and other miscellany

I am freshly back from Sacramento, where I did some worky things and gave what I think was sort of a lackluster reading at Luna’s CafĂ©. Luckily I wasn’t the only one on the bill, so other people kept things lively. It was a warm-up for Reading Season, the time when my book comes out and I bombard you constantly with emails and blog posts about where to see me next. For the record, I’m usually a pretty solid reader, so don’t let the aforementioned lackluster-ness scare you away. I’m warmed up now.

More importantly, Sacramento is home to my very good friend Kristi, whom I hadn’t seen in two years. We met freshman year in this ridiculous UCLA class called The Scientific Method and the Search for Life in the Universe, which turned out to be a fancy name for Geology. We bonded over the bummer of that revelation, plus the fact that our class was full of weirdos like the body builder who opened a smelly can of tuna halfway through class every day, plus the fact that we wanted to take ballet at the rec center.

So it’s kinda crazy that Kristi is now a five-months-pregnant grownup with a very nice non-weirdo husband. And despite the different paths our lives have taken (meaning she knows how to do grownup things like grill vegetables), it’s always easy to pick up where we left off. I love those kinds of friends.

Back in L.A., AK and I joined Sara and Dave for a long-postponed panini lunch. Sara had been talking and blogging and Facebooking about panini for months, and while I’m all for any bread-centric food, I have to admit that at one point I thought, It’s just a sandwich, right?

Au contraire. As the proud owner of her own panini grill, Sara ushered us into a world of fresh mozzarella, lightly grilled mushrooms, olive medleys, big basil leaves and crunchy, crispy—but not greasy because you know exactly how much olive oil you sprayed on it yourself and it was not a lot—bread. Special bread with things like rosemary and olives in it.

So I know what I want for Christmas now. (Santa. If you’re listening.) Either that, or I just need to swing by Sara’s place more often.

In other news, if you’re in the market for a free, very cute kitten, I can probably hook you up. Email me.

If you’re in the market for a free trip to New York, and you are a writer, I can’t hook you up, exactly, but you should go here: http://www.pw.org/about-us/california_writers_exchange_award.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

i know whose side i'm on

I just don't buy that they're evil, no matter what action movies tell me. (Thanks to Suzanne for posting this.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

there is no hiking hotline

On Saturday, AK, Bonnie, Jamie and I hiked Hoegee's Loop in the Angeles National Forest just north of Arcadia. Except, because we're not good at reading signs, it was more like Hoegee's Zigzag.

But look how intrepid we are in our cool REI gear. (Seriously, we were like a walking REI ad: The guy at REI told me this is how your shoes are supposed to fit.... I love my new REI water bottle!... I love my new REI pants!... The guy at REI gave me his phone number. At first I thought it was some kind of hiking hotline. Then I realized he was hitting on me, and there is no hiking hotline.)

"I love how misty the hills look," I said. "I think that's smog," someone else said.

The "waterfalls" also kind of reminded us we weren't too far out of the city. But I'm a proud urban hiker, so whatever.

AK was official keeper of the guidebook.

The trail was dotted with cute little cabins that looked like a WPA project. The next day at my grandma's Mother's Day gathering, I found myself yelling at one of her friends, an 80-year-old man who prides himself on telling people to learn English, "How can you tell me to move to Europe if I like socialism so much when the 1930s America you're saying is so great is known for FDR's socialist programs? Huh?"

The Hoegee Four.

The trail crisscrossed back and forth across a stream. Jamie and Bonnie and I made happy mountain goats, but I think AK must have thought, This is the last time I go hiking with a bunch of gymnasts and ballerinas.

Happy hikers.

Friday, May 08, 2009


The biggest highlight of last night’s reading by Brian Castro at the South Pasadena Library was, of course, Brian Castro. He read a lyrical, dreamy (yet kind of action-packed) excerpt from his “fictional autobiography” Shanghai Dancing against a backdrop of old photos, some from his family’s days in China, some he found out in the world. It was lovely, evoking an old black-and-white movie somehow.

My CalArts buddy Colin Dickey interviewed him afterwards, and I decided that Castro might be one of the most dignified and thoughtful writers I’ve met. When talking about the not-so-easy process of getting his work published in the U.S. (despite winning gobs of awards in his native Australia), he said, “I’m quite comfortable and proud to say that I’m a writer who belongs with a small literary press.” I was like, Hey, yeah, me too! I very much wanted to be in the good company of Brian Castro.

Nevertheless, the second biggest highlight of the evening was the drunk and/or schizophrenic gentleman who stood at the back of the room—he was kind of a heckler, but a supportive one. While the 16-year-old Alhambra High School student who opened for Castro played (beautifully) some type of traditional zither instrument, he strummed along on his air guitar. Air zither? At the end of each song, he would clap loudly and yell, “Bravissimo!” or “That’s the Chinese national anthem!” (I’m pretty sure it was a zither arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”)

“Do you think he’ll lip sync along to Brian’s reading?” I whispered to Patricia of Kaya Press, who was ushering Castro around the country on his U.S. tour.

“Maybe a little call and response,” she whispered back.

Which he pretty much delivered on until the cops came and took him away.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

a squared plus b squared equals c squared

I spent a small piece of my afternoon texting with my 16-year-old mentee about math homework.

Her: I have a ? wats a hypotenuse.

Me [Googling “hypotenuse” because, before I realize we’re talking about math homework, all I can think is, A misspelling of hypotension?]: Just looked it up: the longest side of a right triangle. i haven’t done geometry in a LONG time!

Her: Um do u knw how to find it if 1 side is equal 9 & da other 1 to 12?

Me: Pythagorean theorem? i’ll ask my math teacher sister and get back to u!

The world’s most roundabout math tutoring session then ensued, with me texting my sister and then texting my mentee. Someone really needs to work on getting “+” and “=” signs onto the text menu. I understand that the square root sign probably has a limited audience. (Shut up, all you people with iPhones. I know you probably have a “+” and an “=” already. You probably have a fucking math homework application.)

Is it lame that I felt kind of cutting-edge? I was all, Look at me! Texting about math! I live in the future! As if I am now equipped to raise teenagers because I type “u” instead of “you” sometimes.

It is probably the equivalent of the conversation I witnessed on the Facebook wall of my really awesome 60-something Aunt Connee:

Karen: Hey Connee! What is the difference between facebook and e-mail?


Monday, May 04, 2009

improvisational weekend

What a lovely weekend. Relaxation ruled with an iron fist, though it took us a while to submit to it. We got to see Lee-Roy and his beautiful sketches in I Am That Girl, which screened as part of the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival. It’s nice to see truly independent (as in financed by the director’s friends and family, not Miramax) movies get some screen time. This one had some bumps but also great characters and a compelling story.

On Saturday we saw what you can do with an extra $100 million or so, which is: make steel claws grow out Hugh Jackman’s hands. It was a fairly well-spent $100 million, I’ve got to say, as long you don’t get hung up on details like, Wait, why are Wolverine and his brother feuding? And why are Liev Schreiber’s long pointy fingernails a super power? I have funky-looking thumbs—can that be a super power too?

I’m writing about mutants myself right now, and it was instructive to think about the rules stories create for themselves when they break the rules of the universe we know. Also how mutants always seem to lead this tortured—but special—but threatening to the status quo—but kinda sexy—existence.

Sunday AK and I dusted off our bikes and rode to Buster’s in South Pas, where we ate ice cream and sorbet, and I tried to block out the improvisational jazz happy-hour thing they had going on. Sorry, I’m just not smart enough to like improvisational jazz. AK and I decided it was the musical equivalent of language poetry—I can appreciate it, but, if possible, I like to politely excuse myself from it.

But it was a really nice afternoon. I think I could even be more open to language poetry if I had a bowl of ice cream in my hand every time I read it.

Friday, May 01, 2009

a readerly roundup

It’s been a week of literary posts, and this is one more. But I guess you’d be watching a vlog if you didn’t like reading on some level, right?

Sometimes I have a complicated relationship with literary stuff—talking to other writers, reading about other writers and going to events can feel like work. I mean, of course it’s work, but sometimes it starts to feel like a job. Which it also is. That’s the deep dark secret of doing what you love (or something adjacent to what you love) for a living (or something adjacent to a living): It makes work fun, but it also turns fun into work.

But the beauty of fiction is that even if I start out thinking, I really should read this book because it’s for my book club/someone I know wrote it/someone I know published it, I inevitably lose myself in the story a few pages in, and reading becomes the wonderful escapist exercise that got me into this business in the first place.

Can you tell I’m ready for the weekend?

But here are the books I’ve been escaping into recently:

The Big Tent: The Traveling Circus in Georgia, 1820-1930 by Gregory J. Renoff: A little more dissertation-y than you want a circus book to be, but this history of traveling circuses in the South is also a history of pop culture in America--for example, the way art and business interact and the way edgy acts gradually become mainstream, for better and worse.

Beautiful Children by Charles Bock: Charles Bock’s first novel--an epic whirlwind of vignettes surrounding the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy in the desert outside Las Vegas--has some first-novel downfalls: The timeline is murky (perhaps purposely, but I didn’t see the purpose), there are a few too many characters, it’s a little too into its own edginess and profundity at times.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t put the book down. Maybe I just like reading about people on the margins (of which many of the too-many characters are), which means I could be fetishizing them as much as Bock does at times. But tired treatises on porn aside, Bock seems to genuinely care about runaways and gutter punks and comic book geeks and accidental adult film stars, and he captures both the exciting and mundane moments of their lives. He also manages to make the 12-year-old kid seem human but not precious, and his grieving parents both average and particular.

This wasn’t quite a great book, but it was a compelling book by someone with the potential to be a great writer.

Cinnamon Kiss by Walter Mosely: I’m no Easy Rawlins expert (I read most of Devil in a Blue Dress in college, but that’s it), but I was happy to jump into the middle of Easy’s crazy P.I. life. The plot of Cinnamon Kiss is heavy on the busywork (Easy has to talk to this guy who knows this guy who owes this other guy a favor, who...), and I rolled my eyes every time Easy met ANOTHER woman who wanted to have sex with him. But I appreciated how Mosley ties local (and world) history into his career-spanning examination of race relations and wraps it all up in a fun genre romp.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: (Shout-out to my book club for predicting the Pulitzer this year!) I like the-novel-in-stories as a form (I wrote one of those suckers myself), and it’s a great way to paint a portrait of a community. The small town of Crosby, Maine comes across as brutal--there’s no shortage of disease, adultery and suicide--but somehow not bleak, thanks to the kindness of the narrative voice. Although some of the characters run together, Olive herself is unforgettable: a cranky, smart-but-not-always-wise old lady whom the author refrains from cute-ifying. If you’re looking for stories that go beyond coming-of-age, first love and other teen territory, this book is a good place to start.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison: As with most of Toni Morrison’s beautiful, dense books, I could probably benefit from reading this a second time. But here’s what I got from the first read: Living in the 1690s is ROUGH. Women, black people, Native Americans, indentured servants from Europe--all are different varieties of slaves (and even if you’re the master, there’s a good chance you could get small pox and die young).

But seriously, this novel poignantly shows how slavery is not the blunt, uniform system that high school history classes portray it as. It’s layered, and peopled by humans--some of whom do their best to find and create kindness within the system. Which is not to say that Morrison is an apologist by any means--rather, by depicting good people trapped in the web of slavery (sometimes literally, sometimes psychologically), she reveals its power and evil. And as always, she does so with compelling characters and magical prose.

Beyond Definition: New Writing from Gay and Lesbian San Francisco, edited by Marci Blackman and Trebor Healy: Published in 1994, this anthology of queer writing is both a fascinating artifact from a time when AIDS was necessarily a death sentence and many gay writers published under pseudonyms, and a totally-ahead-of-its-time/timeless collection (back when few people knew what "FTM" meant, there was apparently already a bit of a scene in SF).

My favorite pieces included Elissa Perry’s empathic story of a bus ride gone bad, Trac Vu’s prose poem about gum and oral sex, and Sparrow 13 LaughingWand’s truthfully raw poem (and his name).