Sunday, September 27, 2009

Readings in the Rain

Yesterday I trudged through the mist on the National Mall to go to several readings at the National Book Festival. I hadn't been before--in fact, I'd avoided it on the suspicion that it would be a zoo. Which it was. Hordes of people toting their purple bags, looking at layout maps, moving from one pavilion to the next. It was certainly enough to make me feel happily skeptical about all the death knells that have been ringing for the publishing industry, but on some level the whole idea is odd: Bringing thousands of people together to celebrate publicly the intensely private experience of reading.

But readings are always different than reading; that is part of their charm.

The difficult thing is watching people cram themselves under the enormous tent set up to hold James Patterson--there were folks standing outside the tent in the rain, bonking against each other like so many gumballs--when, 50 feet away, Jane Hirshfield is reading and there are empty seats.

I don't have anything against Patterson. I've read and (kind of) enjoyed several of his books. I'm sure he's probably a nice guy and it's great that he's trying to turn kids into readers. But so many people gathered for his wisdom? It's not, surely, because he's the voice of our generation ... so the crowd read, to me, like they were there to get a sniff of his millions and the celebrity that's accompanied them. Sheesh, Patterson's got a team of people writing his books now, and that whole notion seems odd to me. It reminds me a bit of some of the celebrity chefs who haven't set foot in a kitchen in years. Maybe I'm too naive about writing, still too wedded to that obsolete notion that authors are instrumental to their own work. Maybe only some authors are instrumental to their own work.

All I know is that I have a hard time imagining Jane Hirshfield waking up, doing her morning Zen meditations, and then handing off her pen to a lackey and saying, "Hey, do me one like 'Each Moment a White Bull,' only with more explosions."

Hirshfield read that lovely poem, along with some of my other favorites. I've written before about how much I love "The Envoy," and hearing her read it was a real pleasure.

I also got to hear Patricia Smith, which was the reason I came down. I loved her book about Hurricane Katrina, Blood Dazzler, and had heard that she was an amazing reader. This was proved yesterday. There are some poets that I think you can fully appreciate based on the writing on the page alone. Smith's work is great on paper, but it takes on a rawer and more vibrant quality when you hear it in her voice; she brings a power and heart and wit to her performance that the page doesn't capture.

Between Hirshfield and Smith, Ana Menendez read. I haven't read any of her books yet, though In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd is one of my favorite titles of the past ten years. Menendez read from her most recent novel, The Last War, but it was her off-script musings that I found most insightful. My favorite tidbits below.

"There is a kind of magic in writing. In my writing classes, I always have my students tell a story orally and then write the same story. They always discover something new about it when they write it down."

On the trend of ethnic fiction: "At it's best, it's beautiful and illuminating; at it's worst, it's just a way of exoticizing a culture and playing cultural anthropologist for the white people."

On the time she spent in India: "They would at first think I was Indian, and then when I opened my mouth, they would just think, 'Westerner.'" [As opposed to the States, where people always first see her as Cuban-American]. "One of the beauties of travel is that you see how fungible identity is."

Monday, September 14, 2009

What I Read on My Summer Vacation

In August, I went to Mexico for two weeks, where my husband and I climbed the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan, ate at various street vendors without incurring digestive distress, snorkeled the Great Maya Reef, and drank far too many lagers with lime. (Normally, I am a Dogfish Head loyalist, and mostly loyal to their brews of 7% alcohol or better. After those heady, nutty, malty, hoppy brews, Mexican lagers really just don’t cut it … but if we’d had access to Dogfish beers in Mexico, it’s entirely possible we’d never have left.) Above is me, wandering the streets of Izamal, a really strange little town where all the buildings are painted gold. I felt like I was walking through a de Chirico painting--specifically, this one.

The first few days of the trip didn’t allow much time for reading (too busy snorkeling and trying to get into relaxed zone after mad cram to finish up work), but by day three I’d started into Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I don’t know how I managed to miss this book until now, as its blurbings were effusive and compared it to great poli-sci-fi like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. It is a fascinating read, depicting a post-nuclear war world in which all scientific materials have been destroyed by people convinced that science was responsible for “the Flame Deluge.” Only fragments remain, and these are preserved by Catholic monks laboring in the desert to illuminate manuscripts that may be no more important than someone’s shopping list, but may be the blueprints for nuclear reactors. They are preserving materials they don’t really comprehend and have worked the material into an evolving "Catholic" literature. It’s funny, scary, and totally bizarre. I had heard of the book before, but never read it. I’m convinced that the only reason it doesn’t get more attention now is because the threat of nuclear oblivion that was the chief cultural fear during the Cold War (the book was published in 1960) now seems charmingly simple; the world is no longer split into two behemoths bent on destroying each other, but into a thousand factions that want to do the same. Between our changed thinking on nuclear stand-off and the scandals that have hit the Catholic Church, it’s hard to read the book in a 1960s mindset—but it’s still a great read.

Once I was done with Canticle, between sunburns and reef visits, I perused the lending library at the little beach house where we stayed in Mexico. It was like every beach house lending library, in that it was composed of bad thrillers and pirate-themed bodice rippers in which terms like “velvety orbs” and “downy mound” stand in for body parts. It is fun to do dramatic, out-loud readings of these books (especially if you add piratical “Arrrs” to the euphemism-laden love scenes), but they are not good reading. Not even good beach reading.

Granted, I think Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is great beach reading, so maybe my tastes run darker than most.

I actually got so desperate for reading material that I perused a few of the books at the beach house (Jeffrey Deaver’s The Sleeping Doll and Harlan Coben’s Gone for Good). The Deaver book was not my thing: all plot, zero characterization and subtlety; I could actually see the credits for the bad TV movie playing as the first scene went along. Harlan Coben, on the other hand, is a good writer; the book was funny, had a good voice; lots of thriller-standard plot twists but some real emotion humming underneath the surface. (Then, later, I read Coben’s Tell No One and was amused to discover the movie adaptation was way better than the book—more tender, more believable. The movie leaves out the book’s final plot twist and is much the better for it.)

I left my own copy of E.L. Doctorov’s Loon Lake at the beach house. Partially to improve the offerings there, but really because I had stuck with it for 200 pages and kept thinking it was brilliant and then annoying and then brilliant and then annoying and finally the annoyance won out and I stopped reading it. Normally I like Doctorov and like experiments with form, but in this case, the moves between the narrative and the modern poetry kept losing me. Perhaps my brain had been turned to goo by the sun. Maybe the next beach bum will have more luck.

Speaking of experiments in form, I discovered Anne Carson. Whoo boy. A few pages into her book, Autobiography of Red and I am cursing myself for not having found her earlier. Talk about exciting experiments with form.

I owe at least four people comments on their manuscripts and/or poems. I am sorry; I swear, I will read them. I’m hoping they’ll jog me loose from this writer’s freeze I’m in … got diverted from the novel by vacation, and am trying to dig back in now … mostly via painting, which is often a great way for me to refocus creatively.

That’s all the news that’s fit to blog. Will poke my head up again when there’s something worthy on the radar.