Wednesday, March 31, 2010

nerissa's notebook

I first met Nerissa when I was an assistant A&E editor at the UCLA Daily Bruin and she was a new writer. She was also in one of my American lit classes, which should have been a tipoff that we had a lot in common. But her clothes were so cute and trendy that I decided she must be a sorority girl. I believed sorority girls and publicists were at the worst end of the respectability spectrum (at the top: Stephen Sondheim, my gay RA, my radicalized American lit professor).

But soon Nerissa and I were making study dates to work on our senior theses (these took the form of eating chocolate cake at Anastasia’s Asylum and complaining) and doing a lot of shopping on Melrose. She gravitated toward size two outfits suitable for hip hop clubs. I gravitated toward clothes that the chorus of homeless people in Rent might wear. On Melrose, both were widely available. Once our friend Stan came with us and convinced some trashy shop to give us a big discount. I can’t remember what his hustle was, just that it involved him and Nerissa being married, which struck us all as hilarious. We were 21! Stan was possibly gay though he never said so!

Then we graduated and Nerissa went to Berkeley for journalism school and started writing about fashion for all sorts of fabulous publications. I went on to dress ever so slightly less like a homeless person. But I could still use some help, which is where Nerissa’s new blog, Nerissa’s Notebook, comes in. It’s a blog by a real journalist, with interviews and correct spelling and everything. And there are clothes. Check it out.

Monday, March 29, 2010

high art, low pressure

Friday night I read at the Ideal Art Event, also known as the Interstates exhibit at TempoRoyale, a gallery on the first floor of a MacArthur Park-adjacent apartment building. “We’re not really sure what goes on in this building,” said curator Miah. But I can testify that the building holds at least one other art gallery (AK and I saw Sergio’s work there a few months ago) and one very drunk/high girl (she put her arms around us and told us we were beautiful).

Okay, so maybe it’s not sounding ideal so far. But Miah had this brilliant idea to ask all his writer friends to send him a story/poem/essay directly or indirectly about L.A. He distributed the writings among his art students, who produced photos/paintings/sculptures in response. Presto: a multimedia exhibit that proves L.A. is more intertwined than isolating.

Jeff Weber, the photographer who was given my not-so-short story, was not only kind enough to read all twenty pages, but he produced five uncannily beautiful photos: warped panoramas of human-less suburban landscapes in the Santa Clarita Valley, from a playground paved with red rubber to a fast food joint patio where the tables cast shadows like stained glass next to the oil-stained parking lot.

Then I got to read with a few of my favorite people (Jamie read a taco truck poem; Alanna performed as a human earthquake) and some new writers who were fun to discover (Pacoima native Trina Calderon wrote, “You say I’m stuck, but I bet you moved here” and I was all, “Hell yeah”). We read from a balcony—Evita-style, said AK—where the temperature was like Santa Clarita in August, but otherwise everything was perfect: art, writing, lots of new people, good college-student energy, none of the pressure that comes with a solo reading, not too much palm tree imagery.

Friday, March 26, 2010

why library budget cuts are bad

Because then, when you take the day off work to take your car to the mechanic, and you diligently spend the first part of your wait writing at the coffee shop across the street, you still have another half hour to kill* before the library opens so you can go there to grade student work and pick up a new audio book.

So you go to Fashion 21, the apparent Forever 21 knockoff/outlet (all the clothes it carries are Forever 21 brand) on Figueroa. You buy a pair of blue pants that are a sort of a hybrid between jeans and slacks, but not as god-awful as that sounds. And a camel-colored sweater that was made from the softest synthetic rabbit ever. And a slouchy gray T-shirt and a blue-and-white baseball shirt. NONE of which you need. Except maybe the pants, because it’s hard for you to buy non-jeans, and this was a step in a grownup direction.

But in general, free books are better than not-free clothes. See what’s happening to our city?

*Note: This post is sort of a lie. I actually didn’t find out that the library didn’t open till 1:30 until after I shopped. Which makes me worse. But it’s still sad about library hours: I overheard one of the library pages say to another, “When I was getting coffee this morning, all these little kids were like, ‘Hey, Miss! Why aren’t you at the library, Miss?’” And the other page said, “Well? Did you tell them?”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

i'm a good time

Since my plane landed on Friday, I’ve managed to:
  • Catch some kind of bug that I mistook as motion sickness, but I guess motion sickness doesn’t usually last five days, does it?
  • Whine a lot about how big New York publishers will never love me the way I clearly deserve to be loved.
  • Simultaneously be all “Who do they think they are, publishing select works of excellent literary fiction? Sistas/Californians/grassroots presses are doin’ for themselves, okay?”
  • Conclude that the world is full of parental surrogates that you simultaneously long to please and try to rebel against.
  • Critique fifty student critiques.
  • Scream as if being stabbed slowly in the eye when, post grading of fifty critiques, I read some complicated (yet legit) question from a student re: our ever-confounding syllabus. Didn’t he know I COULD NOT DEAL WITH LOGISTICS RIGHT NOW?

  • Go to bed—when AK marched into the kitchen, snapped my laptop shut and declared, “You have a fever. You’re going to bed.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

happy birthday to my favorite honorary irish ladies

It's St. Patrick's Day, which in New York means green-frosted donuts, redheaded babies on the subway and "I [shamrock] New York" T-shirts. Back home, it's the birthday of my grandma (1911-1982) and AK's mom, who decks her halls with more Irish flair than any Mexican woman you're likely to meet. (AK's sister and my dad also have the same birthday. Does this mean we're somehow astrologically connected?)

Here's my grandma, courtesy of my cousin and Facebook historian, Maria. She's a knockout, no?

just trying to sound interesting

We just finished the super busy part of our New York week, during which I ate farro porridge, citrus-cured anchovies, wheat puffs with yogurt and tamarind sauce, and an Oreo donut; and felt alternately inspired and intimidated by the publishing industry.

I did have some free time on Saturday, which gave me plenty of opportunity to get rained on. On every corner there were mangled umbrellas apparently abandoned in fits of angry futility: Umbrellas don’t help when it’s raining sideways.

But a quick fix for anyone feeling sorry for herself because she’s soggy and under-published is a trip to the Tenement Museum on the Lower Eastside. An actual pre-building-codes-of-any-sort tenement building from 1863, the museum offers tours of several apartments restored to the way they looked when specific families lived there: German immigrants in the 1870s, Italian immigrants in the 1930s, etc. The apartments are cute and not so small by New York standards. But then you look around and think, Wait, where’s the bathroom? And the fridge? And the place where the four kids sleep?

(Answers: Outside. Not invented. On a fold-up bed inside that big sack.)

But it’s not all poverty porn. The tour I went on was called “Getting By: Past and Present” and it reflected the latest in museum-education trends (hot!) in that our guide encouraged us all to share our own family immigration stories.

(Answers: Ireland. Germany. Latvia by way of England. Mississippi.)

The woman who said “Mississippi” was from Arkansas, and when our guide asked her a follow-up question, she said, “Oh, I don’t know. We’ve been in Arkansas for as long as I can remember. I was just trying to sound interesting.”

We talked about current immigrant populations, gentrification and other intentionally touchy subjects. But things didn’t heat up much, perhaps because we were a fairly homogenous group: all white, all American-born, all seemingly educated. We were the kind of group that asked things like, “So, are most of your tours made up of educated American white people?”

(Answer: White and educated, yes. American, no. Now, let’s get back to talking about immigration, what do you say?)

The girl in me who never threw away her AP US history textbook lapped it all up, then reluctantly returned to the 21st century. Now I’m curled up in my amazing hotel, with its 20th-century movie posters and indoor plumbing. Charlie the cat is at my feet. If we can invent toilets, we can save literature, right? Or will it go the way of the icebox and the outhouse—things we are happy to do without?

(Answer: Uh…blowing in the wind?)

Friday, March 12, 2010

how to be a very, very popular hotel

I’m in New York for work right now, and so far every meeting we’ve had has begun with someone saying, “You just missed the great weather!”

It’s rainy and windy, and the weekend is supposed to be worse. I’m spending my days working and my evenings working some more (teaching my online class). So I’m not exactly living the Sex and the City life, or, more lamentably, the Cheryl and AK Fall 2009 life.

(Although I have eaten some delicious and fascinating food at some of our meetings—I have new-found respect for snow fungus, ginko nuts, quinoa and winter squash. Not that it ever occurred to me to disrespect ginko nuts previously.)

But if I’m going to be trapped inside, I’m trapped inside the right place: Our Chelsea “guest house” is the cutest, queeniest place ever. (So much so that they have a completely different pricing and cancellation policy during Pride season.) The theme is classic movies, and every room has a different star’s name. I’m in the Sheree North room.

You know, Sheree North? Star of The Way to the Gold and No Down Payment and How to Be Very, Very Popular?

Yeah, I didn’t know either. But the posters around my room are educating me quickly. There’s a resident black-and-white cat named Charlie Chaplin (don’t call it a Hitler mustache), and the password for the wireless is Judy Garland’s real name. When the super hospitable guy at the front desk gave it to me, I was like, “Hey, that’s Judy Garland’s real name!” Which I knew from Geoff Ryman’s incredible work of speculative fiction, Was. But I momentarily flashed back to my undergrad years, when I prided myself on being a sixty-year-old gay man.

There are thick towels in the room, LOGO on TV and free chocolate at the front desk 24 hours a day. I’m not going anywhere on Saturday.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

nothing is certain except details and taxes

In my perpetual attempt to Be A Good Citizen, I did my taxes today. And by “did my taxes,” I mean, “sat in the waiting room reading Details Magazine and watching CNN while Erick Caro, licensed tax preparer, did my taxes.”

The top story of the day was a 33-year-old female teacher* who had sex with one of her male students. The newscaster shook his head and talked about how speechless he was. Then he read emails from insightful viewers who said things like, “What is the world coming to? Can we even send our kids to school anymore?”

And not to discount the teacher’s seriously bad behavior, but I kind of thought the world was coming to the exact same place it’s always been. Judging by the incredibly bored looks on the faces of my fellow Good Citizens in the waiting room, they agreed. I can think of at least two girls from my high school who (allegedly) slept with teachers. Teachers: bad. Students: victims, but probably not innocent ones. Sixteen-year-olds aren’t eight-year-olds, you know?

Here’s what else I learned, from Details:

  • A small-town Oregon mayor named Stu got breast implants and wears lipstic, but everyone’s cool with it.
  • Some guy is living off the grid in a cave in Utah. Not participating in capitalism makes you stinky.
  • Hayden Panetierre is hot. And I don’t say that in a 33-year-old teacher kind of way. I just mean that Details makes it very, very clear that, if you consider yourself a red-blooded American male, you do not have the option of thinking otherwise.

*Okay, I wrote this whole post thinking the kid was in high school. It turns out he was a 14-year-old middle schooler. Even though Juliette was 14, I'm willing to side a little more with the whats-the-world-coming-to camp. But whatever. I'm still hitting publish post.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

what i read in february

What I read today in my inbox was a form rejection email from an agent I queried. Hardly the first, but the first in a while. I’ve been out of the rejection biz not because it’s all two-book deals or anything but because I haven’t been submitting much. So my skin had time to get all pasty and thin again, and I felt really bummed out.

But, I thought, I’ll always have reading.

My recent escapes:

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez: This novel looks at the strata of slave society from nearly every angle: What, exactly, is the rank of a child born to a plantation owner and a house slave? When a girl is bumped up to the status of master's mistress, what sorts of favors does she owe her friends back in the slave quarters? Lizzie, the "privileged" "wench" of a "kind" master (this story necessitates many quotation marks as it problematizes many notions), has to ask herself these questions and more when she stays at an Ohio resort that caters to Southern slave owners and their black mistresses. It's a well-crafted story that steers clear of cliches but never complexity. Still, the prose were uneven and I never quite forgot that I was reading a book by a first-time novelist. I'll be picking up her next one, though.

When She Was Good by Philip Roth: My new infatuation with 1950s and '60s lit continues. This novel (the first Philip Roth I've read) is like 85 percent interior monologue, so it's good that Roth writes interior monologue well. In some ways, it's a traditional family saga about the legacy of dysfunction (although maybe that wasn't so traditional in 1967), but the structure is more wily. Roth's depiction of Lucy, a stubborn young woman determined not to relive her softhearted mother's marriage to an alcoholic, shows how being right can lead to being self-righteous, which can make you so crazy you do things that are wrong. A good lesson, although the "weak" characters don't come out much better. I was sort of left thinking, Well, I guess life's just hard. (Which makes this book sound like a giant bummer, but it was actually a page-turner.)

Wit’s End by Karen Joy Fowler: Reading this book made me wonder why Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz and the other fan boys get all the credit for playing with genre. Karen Joy Fowler's meta-mystery, about a woman trying to decipher the relationships between her family and a famous murder mystery writer, has just as many layers and asks just as many big philosophical questions. Set in a Santa Cruz populated by cults and clowns and 12-stepper housekeepers, the book is as colorful as any traditional mystery. By adding plot lines that take place online (but which have real-world repercussions), Fowler gets nearly sci fi while playing with ideas about doubling, wish fulfillment and even the future of publishing. But it's probably her wit and warmth toward her characters that I like the most.

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem: Just when I thought my patience for near-future fiction was waning, Jonathan Lethem comes along and shows how it should be done: with warmth, with humor, with space-age technology that sometimes chugs along at dial-up pace, with three-legged pit bulls. As the title would imply, Chronic City meanders like a (grad student) dorm room conversation among stoners. There are conspiracy theories relating to city politics, virtual worlds, experimental art and an escaped tiger. Lethem's genius (besides quite possibly being one of the most knowledgeable, well-rounded fan boys out there) is in tying it all together. He ties it all together AND he offers glimmers of life after postmodernism without reverting to retro-ism. To Lethem, and to his deceptively dopey narrator, the point is not to dismantle the matrix and bunker down in Zion. It's to live happily IN the matrix, knowing it's a matrix, and inject all the wormy, scrappy, unpredictable, lovable reality you can.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

a movie to see, a review to read, a date to save—dude, you are so busy!

AK and I saw Shutter Island Friday night at the Landmark Westwood, partly as an excuse to eat sugar donuts with lemon custard* at the Westside Tavern downstairs afterward. It was a great old-fashioned melodrama, complete with weather that mirrored Leonardo DiCaprio’s character arc, Patricia Clarkson as a fugitive in a cave (I’m happy to see her wherever she’s hanging out) and some Hitchcockian twists.

Well, one Hitchcockian twist, which required you to completely suspend any contemporary knowledge of how psychology actually works. Apparently people sometimes just snap out of mental illness? And apparently mental illness amounts to one generic brand of crazy, which can involve hallucinations, amnesia, violent outbursts and whatever else is necessary to support the plot?

Whatever. I loved it. It reminded me a little of Changeling, another retro mystery. But Shutter Island also enabled me to put my finger on a new movie pet peeve I have, which is that whenever the story revolves around a child in trouble, ninety percent of that time the child is a girl. (Changeling is in the minority, maybe because it’s based on a true story.) Leo’s character (semi spoiler alert-->) had three kids, but the only one who gets any face time is his daughter. He has to save her! Because girls are so much more victim-y and helpless! A six-year-old boy should just man up and defend himself.

See, this is why feminism is for girls and boys.

Speaking of feminism, sort of, Lambda Literary just posted a lovely review of Lilac Mines written by Lara Zelinsky.

Speaking of writing, I’ll be reading—not from Lilac Mines, believe it or not, but entirely new stuff—March 26 at the TempoRoyale gallery as part of a very cool multi-media project curated by my friend Miah Jeffra. Seven p.m., 2619 Wilshire Blvd. More info later, but save that date now.

*I love a dessert that feels the need to include “sugar” in its name. You know it’s not going to be the normal amount of sweet, but rather a Cheryl-pleasing amount of sweet.

Monday, March 01, 2010

gently read literature, or: why it pays to be nerdy

A few months ago, a nice man named Daniel Casey found one of my Goodreads reviews and asked if I'd expand it into a full-length review for his blog, Gently Read Literature. I've since learned that, besides having an acronym that evokes girl punk rockers in knee socks, GRL is a rare old-fashioned/new-fashioned beast that only the internet has room for: a venue for long meditations on books published by indie presses. If you're looking for People-style "bottom lines" and a number of stars to indicate whether you should read something, you probably wouldn't like the books this blog reviews anyway. But if you like to stretch out a bit, take a visit.

It was fun to put my critic hat on, and it's nice to know that all my dorky, obsessive reviewing on Goodreads has not entirely been an exercise in critical masturbation. Not that there's anything wrong with that.