Monday, February 1, 2010
Sunday, July 6, 2008
It's not a short story, I know. I'm late to the game, I know that too. But I'm so glad I finally read it. Once I picked up this book, I couldn't put it down.
Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis is a graphic memoir about growing up during the Iranian Revolution. It's everything the critics have said: poignant, funny, sad etc. But for me, and a I'm sure a lot of other Iranians, it goes beyond that. Everything came back to me when I read this book: school, "brother," "sister," the lies, the filth of everyone with a beard and a chador, the HYPOCRISY!
Satrapi's memoir begins in 1979, the year before I was born, and ends in 1994 a few years after I left Iran. Though she is 11 years older than me, I relate to all of her experiences, from Michael Jackson and "punk" to smashing grapes for home-made wine (that was my grandmother's job) to detesting the hejab and the excessive limitations placed on women. I realized, after a long time of forgetting, that this was a collective experience. Being here, in New York, without any Iranian friends who have actually lived in Iran, it's easy for me to forget that other people hid in bomb shelters and taped their windows. It's easy to forget that everyone had someone in jail or at war or both.
It's good to remember all of that: the airport, the streets, the black-market, the parties and the fun we continued to have along with the worry that the wrong person would hear us say the wrong thing. All of it. But it's hard, too. I think I dreamt about my dad, and Tehran last night. I probably will continue to do so for some nights to come.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Mother by Grace Paley
One day I was listening to the AM radio. I heard a song: "Oh, I Long to See My Mother in the Doorway." By God! I said, I understand that song. I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway. As a matter of fact, she did stand frequently in various doorways looking at me. She stood one day, just so, at the front door, the darkness of the hallway behind her. It was New Year's Day. She said sadly, If you come home at 4 a.m. when you're seventeen, what time will you come home when you're twenty? She asked this question without humor or meanness. She had begun her worried preparations for death. She would not be present, she thought, when I was twenty. So she wondered.
Another time she stood in the doorway of my room. I had just issued a political manifesto attacking the family's position on the Soviet Union. She said, Go to sleep for godsakes, you damn fool, you and your Communist ideas. We saw them already, Papa and me, in 1905. We guessed it all.
At the door of the kitchen she said, You never finish your lunch. You run around senselessly. What will become of you?
Then she died.
Naturally for the rest of my life I longed to see her, not only in doorways, in a great number of places—in the dining room with my aunts, at the window looking up and down the block, in the country garden among zinnias and marigolds, in the living room with my father.
They sat in comfortable leather chairs. They were listening to Mozart. They looked at one another amazed. It seemed to them that they'd just come over on the boat. They'd just learned the first English words. It seemed to them that he had just proudly handed in a 100 percent correct exam to the American anatomy professor. It seemed as though shed just quit the shop for the kitchen.
I wish I could see her in the doorway of the living room.
She stood there a minute. Then she sat beside him. They owned an expensive record player. They were listening to Bach. She said to him, Talk to me a little. We don't talk so much anymore.
I'm tired, he said. Can't you see? I saw maybe thirty people today. All sick, all talk talk talk talk. Listen to the music, he said. I believe you once had perfect pitch. I'm tired, he said.
Then she died.
Saturday, June 14, 2008
In this week's issue of The New Yorker (the summer fiction issue) I read an essay by Haruki Murakami about his start as a writer and his parallel life as a runner. The essay was lovely and
informative and I'm happy to have read it. But even though I was inspired, I was also envious, a feeling I rarely experience.
informative and I'm happy to have read it. But even though I was inspired, I was also envious, a feeling I rarely experience.
Murakami never wanted to be a writer. He was operating a successful Jazz club in Tokyo in his late 20s when, at a baseball game, he thought to himself, I'll write a novel. He submitted his only copy of the novel, which he hand-wrote in half a year, to a literary competition. Forgot all about it. And won. How could he have possibly sent his only copy? How could he have forgotten about it? He is one of the most successful contemporary writers and when he began to write, it had meant nothing to him.
Despite my envy, I continue to love his work. The sparse strangeness, the curious events, the unreal reality, the quirky playfulness and all of the other elements of his work that are truly unique to Murakami, enthrall me. His stories and novels are always challenging and entertaining. However, he is not a writer who's sentences I like to pull out and highlight. (I often wonder how much of this has to do with various translators. For example there is noticeable difference between the translation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, which is lovely on every level and Kafka on the Shore, which didn't have the same fluidity). It's the work as a whole and always its magic that stands out.
Sleep is a longish (35 pages) story in The Elephant Vanishes, his first collection of short stories. Murakami often writes strong, interesting women. Even though sometimes he assigns them stereotypical roles, such as prostitutes and emotional wrecks, they are always fighting something and struggling to survive. They are multi-dimensional, and usually smarter than the men. Though of course, there are plenty of victims, as well.
In Sleep, Murakami writes from the perspective of a 30-year-old housewife with insomnia. The story begins on her 17th day without sleep and backtracks to the beginning of how it started. She recalls a period in college during which she experienced a month without sleep and tells of how life was when she could sleep.
Prior to the Insomnia everything was normal. There were routines. She always said the same things to her husband and son and they always replied with the same answers. She cooked and cleaned and ate and swam and spent each day, filling hours full of nothing until night.
When the insomnia kicks in, the narrator begins to spend her nights reading, drinking and eating chocolate. Things she hasn't done in years. No one notices that she hasn't slept. No one notices anything.
The interesting aspect of this story, is that after a while, the reader begins to wonder who is really awake. Is it the narrator who is finally experiencing emotions she hasn't previously felt or everyone else who goes through their day, through their routines without noticing a thing.
The story skirts around life and death, wakefulness and sleeplessness. Murakami's magic and the perfection of his craft come through in that he is able to say one thing, to tell a linear story (for the most part) and have the reader completely flipped upside down by the end.
Friday, May 9, 2008
The last few weeks have been busy as I've been working hard to warp up my thesis and finish graduate school. I turned in the thesis on Monday and had my thesis reading last night. That's it. I'm done. The reading went well. A few of my friends came out to support me which was fantastic. I was a nervous wreck. (Maybe I should have taken the public reading class.) The best part was that during intermission and after the reading several people (people I didn't know!) came up to me to say that they liked the piece I read.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Saturday, April 19, 2008
I first met Jim Shepard at the Tin House Writers workshop, last July. I had no idea who he was, though his name sounded vaguely familiar. On the day that he gave his craft seminar, I was tempted to skip and explore Portland, but I went because he was doing a close reading of "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love" by Raymond Carver, one of my favorite writers. Jim's lesson was about leaving out and dialogue. The power of not saying or talking around an issue. It was one of the best craft seminars I've attended.
In the instant when he began his lecture I felt a longing to have been in one of his classes. He is that kind of a teacher.
Later on in the week he gave a reading of a story from his new short story collection Like You'd Understand, Anyway. And then I couldn't believe that I hadn't heard of him. I couldn't understand why he wasn't hugely famous.
A few months later I saw him at a reading in the City and he joked that, and it went something like this, "Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers, had both said to their audience, if you listen to me about one thing it should be this: go out and buy Jim Shepard's new book. And that was the only thing that the audience decided not to listen to."
Courtesy for Beginners is a story in Like You'd Understand, Anyway. It's about a 12-year-old boy's miserable experience at summer camp. The unnamed narrator begins, "Summer camp. Here' s how bad summer camp was."
There are all the things you would expect: the fat boy, the horny boy, the skinny boy, the nasty counselors of whom he says, "the kind of guys who seem like nice boys to moms." (And doesn't that really tell you exactly what kind of boys they are, without having to spell out?) There is bullying, there is sexual tension, there is a piece of metal in the meat and so on.
But what makes this story different is that every incident in summer camp reveals something from the home life of the narrator which is falling apart, due to his younger brother's anger issues and emotional deterioration, and his parents' struggle with sending him away.
What makes this story so powerful is that it's neither a straight forward camp story, nor a straight forward, hard-times-at-home story. The reader quickly finds out that the narrator is depressed, he has a list of the deadliest poisons that he updates regularly, his friends no longer come around to his home, he barely notices anyone or anything at camp, he can't sleep at night.
What the camp story tells us is that many of the other boys experience some variation of this misery. Life is hard from the beginning and some people move on and survive and some don't. There are also many moments of guilt--hidden and revealed, of whys and why nots, of the things we think and the things we say, the things we should do and the things we do.
When the narrator loses his father's flashlight, to Chris the counselor, he's worried. He talks himself out of it by saying that maybe it was a good thing. That his parents will notice his failure to comply with what they expected. But then he says, "But I also wanted to be the kid who stayed up when everybody else went under."
In the beginning, Chris "he looked dangerously bored," kicks the fat boy in the face. "The sound was like when I whacked the sheet on our line with my wiffle bat."
Shepard's observations are astute. His voice is strong. His descriptions are vivid and refreshing. I found myself underlining so may passages and lines in this story that the entire thing has pencil marks over it.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried is a short story that I go back to time and again. With each read, a new layer, a new element, something very subtle is revealed.
Amy Hempel is one of my favorite writers. This story comes from her first collection, Reason to Live and is also anthologized in The Collected Stories.
She has said that it is the very first short story she wrote. It was written in a Columbia workshop with the legendary Gordon Lish.
Hempel's stories are often a glimpse into a moment of life. Her narrators are nameless faceless women and the major conflict they face is internal--man against himself, which always makes for the most compelling and devastating story. Often, she dismantles the traditional structure of beginning, middle and end, and in doing so, throws the reader directly into a scene--an event or conversation--without a setup. She is a minimalist writer who is often compared to Raymond Carver.
At the Cemetery begins lightly.
"Tell me things I won't mind forgetting," she said. "Make it useless stuff or skip it."
The narrator proceeds to tell her best friend some "useless" trivia. And then a few lines down the reader learns about the camera above them. An uneasy feeling attacks the reader as it has the narrator and we find out that they are in the Intensive Care unit of a hospital. Little facts about the unit and the friend's illness and her slow death are revealed in glimpses, between breaks for "useless" facts and the narrators recollection of her friend's steady presence in her life.
We learn that it has taken the narrator more than two months to arrive at this bed side. Slowly Hempel reveals the narrator's fear and the story begins to take shape in her guilt. She says she doesn't understand the giddyness of her ill friend. This is where the reader sees what the narrator refuses to accept, the narrator's denial that her friend is ecstatic that she's come and forgiving but the narrator doesn't think she deserves that.
She says of her dying best friend:
She laughs, and I cling to the sound the way someone dangling above a ravine holds fast to the thrown rope.
The narrator reminisces specific moments of their friendship, each revealing something more about the narrator's fears and their relationship. An earthquake theme threads through the story as another one of the narrator's fears along with flying and death. In this story, dreams and reality are weaved together just as true facts and made-up facts blend. Yet it is very much a realist story. In doing this, Hempel evokes an airy mood that reminds of the arbitrariness of life against something as big as fear and the fear of loss and death.
There is such a great sense of uncertainty and flight, that throughout the piece the reader wonders if the narrator will stay or go.
At one point a doctor comes in to examine the ill friend and at his suggestion, the narrator goes for a walk on the beach, just outside the hospital--"off camera". When I haven't read this story for a while, this is where I think it ends. I think she goes for her walk and doesn't come back. The decision to so willingly go for a walk is what does it for me. But, in fact, she does come back. She stays long enough to watch a movie and eat ice cream and candy and to take a nap in the extra bed that her friend has requested for her. But eventually she does leave without any intention of coming back.
So where is the change in this story? For me, it's an emotional change that comes with the narrator leaving more guilty than she came and running away, still afraid, after looking. She's in a more miserable place now, because she's come and she's seen and she's left, but her ill friend doesn't have any of those choices. She must endure her death alone. Although the narrator is still afraid and miserable, perhaps she's in a better place because now she understands her fear and has faced it.
When she tells her friend that she's leaving the narrator says:
I was supposed to offer something. The Best Friend. I could not even offer to come back.
I felt weak and small and failed.