Queen of America

My review of Queen of America by Luis Alberto Urrea appears in The New York Times Book Review today:

Luis Alberto Urrea spent nearly 20 years researching his family history for his enchanting 2005 novel “The Hummingbird’s Daughter.” Out of old letters, historical documents and oral histories emerged the fantastical story of the author’s great-aunt Teresa, a Mexican saint and revolutionary who was the illegitimate daughter of Tomás Urrea, a wealthy landowner, and a Yaqui Indian woman known simply as Cayetana, or the Hummingbird. By the final wrenching pages of that novel, Teresita, as she’s called, has by presidential decree been declared the Most Dangerous Girl in Mexico. Banished from the country, she and her father are put on a train headed north to the United States.

The Artist of Disappearance

I reviewed The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai for Newsweek/The Daily Beast:

Regret, disappointment, and despair color the lives of the characters of The Artist of Disappearance, author Anita Desai’s latest book, which is made up of three novellas. In these stories, Desai casts her gaze backward to conjure a fading era. Though “details of time and place are left deliberately vague” (as Desai notes in a recent interview), the India of this volume is clearly not the “new India” of booming economic growth and rapidly shifting fortunes; it is an older India of fading dynasties and postcolonial habits.

The Best Blurb I Never Had

Making the rounds this week is a wonderful Los Angeles Review of Books essay about the time a young writer named Joan Williams asked William Faulkner for a blurb for her book.  Glen David Gold’s line-read of Faulkner’s grizzly reply touches on many things that interest me, like the life of Faulkner (especially, his UVa writer-in-residence years), the highlights and low-lights of literary friendships and favors, the fine art of blurb-making and ellipses insertion (a craft I learned many years ago as an intern in Granta’s offices), the horror of transactional relationships, the lost art of letter-writing, and (spoiler alert!) what happens when an older, famous writer strikes up a relationship with a young, unestablished one.

Some years ago, a prize-winning writer who you probably have heard of emailed me.  I was in the middle of an onerous task at a corporate job I wasn’t suited for when the message flashed across my screen.  “Please forgive the intrusion,” it began. I almost fell out of my chair.  This writer — who had been assigned reading for me in college a few years before — called my writing “smart” and “interesting.”  He wanted to know what else I was working on.

What followed was not my ticket to fame or the start of a steamy affair (either which would have made a much better story than the one I’m telling now).  To my regret, it was not the start of a lasting literary friendship, either.  We exchanged emails — some earnest, some chatty (his were filled with profanities) — about life and writing, and the writing life, while I got started on a freelance assignment he’d set up for me.  We planned to meet for coffee but he was traveling extensively, and anyway, I didn’t want to meet until I had made some headway on the freelance assignment — or had other “smart” and “interesting” work to show him.

We never did get coffee.  I happened to be visiting my parents in Virginia during the short window he was in New York, but the real problem was that I wasn’t sure if I was exactly who the famous writer hoped I was.  I had just finished graduate school, where I had read things, and developed ideas (a “promiscuous mind” full of them, as the only graduate school professor to give me less than an A put it) but I wasn’t sure, exactly, what it was I was supposed to be writing about — or doing, for that matter — next.  For lack of any better plan, I threw myself into my full-time job and the busy social life of a single girl living in downtown Manhattan.  I hoped things would make more sense eventually.  When they did, maybe I would write about it.

In the meantime, my pen pal’s emails were getting ever-so-slightly more familiar and affectionate — nothing untoward, but there was a shift in tone.  I studied his words with even more scrutiny than I’d given them in college.  I read parts of his messages to my older brother on the phone.  “Sly dog,” my brother said.  I started flinching every time I saw the famous writer’s byline.  Writers:  They’re just like us (this was a concept I mastered when I was an intern at Us Weekly).  They Google strangers.  They don’t know what they’re looking for.  They don’t know what they mean.  Our correspondence tapered off.

A few more years have gone by and to my surprise and relief, things do make more sense, as I’d hoped they would.  I’m happy with my new, different job, my boyfriend and my outer-borough life.   And the writing?  It’s coming along — slowly.  I’m finding my footing.  Maybe I should be in more of a hurry, but I’m not. “How much of a balancing act to determine your real value to another person,” Gold writes.  Let me add: Or indeed, to yourself.

Last Man in Tower

“It’s your society. Keep it clean.”

So reads a sign in the elevator of Tower A of the fictional Vishram Society apartment complex in Mumbai — the “rainwater-stained, fungus-licked grey building” that serves as the focal point of Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga’s new novel. Decades of monsoons and erosion have left the building standing “in reasonable chance of complete collapse.” But, Adiga writes, “no one, either in Vishram Society or in the neighborhood at large, really believes that it will fall. Vishram is a building like the people living in it, middle class to its core.”

I reviewed Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga for The Second Pass — the full review is online here.

Stone Arabia

“Do you need an audience to create work or does not having an audience liberate you and make you a truer artist?” This is the question twenty-something Brooklynite Ada poses on her blog before she leaves Greenpoint to interview her eccentric uncle Nik in Los Angeles for the documentary she’s making. Ada’s film will be called Garageland, she writes, and it “will question what makes a person produce in the face of resounding obscurity.” Turn that question inside-out, and it is just as relevant to Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta’s third novel: How is fame constructed? Do the famous make themselves for us, their fans and consumers, or do we make them? What do their narratives truly represent, and who do their stories belong to?

My review of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia is now up at The Millions.

The Hours

For a little more than a year now, I’ve been working the early early shift.  Most days, I leave my apartment at 3 a.m. to be at my desk by 3:30 a.m.   At least once a week, I’m in an hour before that.  “I don’t know how you do it,” people tell me.  When I think about the fact that the Dalai Lama typically wakes up at least 45 minutes later than I do, I don’t know either.

But secretly, I’ve come to really enjoy the shift. I like slipping out of my apartment building before anyone is awake to greet Carlos, the calm and collected driver who works for the car service contracted by my office.  As he drives his Benz (yes, I ride a Benz to work!) through the deserted streets, we complain about how tired we are.  We talk about politics, money, Moammar Gadhafi, the weather, and our weekends as I scan the latest headlines on my phone.  Sipping my tea and looking out at the Manhattan skyline, I brace myself for the day ahead.

Most days, my shift goes quickly.  A deadline every half-hour keeps me on my toes.  After the show ends, I stumble out into the sunshine, the day entirely open to me. Sometimes I go to a coffee shop and read.  Sometimes I sit in the park.   Sometimes I meet underemployed friends for dawdling, decadent lunches.   Sometimes I go for a run along the West Side Highway, or to an early afternoon yoga class.   There’s hardly anyone at the gym when I get there, and while the lunch rush swells in and out, I take my time.

I take naps. I stay up too late.  I fall asleep on the subway on my way home from work every single day.  I’ve learned to loop my purse around my arms as soon as I sit down so that once I’m asleep it’s not a temptation for anyone else riding a mid-afternoon Queens-bound train.  Once in a while, I oversleep and miss my stop.  I walk the extra avenues home in the bright mid-morning light cursing myself.

Strangely, I haven’t overslept my shift once.

A few weeks after I started this job, my coworker Sitara emailed out a poem called “Four a.m.” by Wislawa Szymborska.  It remains tacked up to the wall of my work-station:

The hour between night and day.
The hour between toss and turn.
The hour of thirty-year-olds.

The hour swept clean for rooster’s crowing.
The hour when the earth takes back its warm embrace.
The hour of cool drafts from extinguished stars.
The hour of do-we-vanish-too-without-a-trace.
Empty hour.
Hollow. Vain.
Rock bottom of all the other hours. No one feels fine at four a.m.
If ants feel fine at four a.m.,
we’re happy for the ants. And let five a.m. come
if we’ve got to go on living.

I won’t dispute it: 4 a.m. is the rock-bottom hour.  But I’ve grown to savor the luxury of the many other free hours my work schedule affords.  Once work is out of the way, the entire day is mine, and there are always more than enough ways to spend it.  After next week, I start a new shift.  I’ll be saying goodbye to my morning crew buddies (hands down, the coolest kids I’ve ever worked with) to take up a new daytime role.   I’ll arrive at the office after the sun’s come up and leave before the sun goes down like most people do.  “Let five a.m. come!” I thought to myself when my boss delivered the news.  We’ve got to go on living.

Please Look After Mom Essay Contest

After I reviewed Please Look After Mom this past spring, I was contacted by the Korean Cultural Service of New York to serve as a judge for an essay contest they’d decided to host based on readers’ responses to the book.

It was both an honor and a pleasure to read the contest entries and experience Kyung-sook Shin’s novel anew through some of her fans.

The Korean Cultural Service announced the winners a few weeks ago, and has now published a collection of selected essays.  You can download a PDF the collection — which includes all the winning essays and a short essay I was asked to write about judging the contest — here.

Ten Years Later

For a week or two now, it’s been inescapable: “Where were you when?”

My own September 11th story is unremarkable.  At the time, I was in my first semester of college at the University of Virginia.  I was in my dorm room, getting ready for class when my roommate’s best friend called.  Her voice was so emotional I could barely understand what she was saying.  Plane? Towers? Even after I turned on the TV, it didn’t make sense. All I really remember about the rest of the day is pressing redial on my phone again and again, trying to reach my brother, who lived in Manhattan at the time, or my mother, who was visiting him that week. My roommate’s parents worked in the Pentagon, and she couldn’t reach them either.  I remember walking around Alderman Road and seeing everyone doing the same thing: dialing their cellphones again and again.

My mom and brother were fine — and so were my roommate’s parents.  Everyone was a bit shaken but slowly, in media coverage and in our conversations with one another, a narrative began to emerge. The next day I attended a teach-in featuring Politics professors like R. K. Ramazani, Peter Ochs, and Michael J. Smith (who would later become my thesis adviser).  The next week, I talked to minority groups on campus.  A few months later, I visited my brother in New York.  He told me about how his law school roommate, a volunteer firefighter (who would later be the best man at his wedding), had gone down to the World Trade Center site on 9/11.  We went to an exhibit of September 11th photos taken by ordinary New Yorkers and hung by clothespins on the small walls of a downtown gallery. As we walked through the city, my brother pointed out which streets had been filled with dust.  I spent too long staring at a makeshift memorial in Grand Central.  It still didn’t make sense.

It surprises me how much September 11th has entered my career. I’ve spoken with the city medical examiner about identifying victim’s remains from the WTC rubble; I’ve spoken with first responders and post-traumatic stress counselors about 9/11 survivors, interviewed the founder of Stop the Islamization of America and spoken with members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. I’ve worked on coverage of the controversial Muslim community center project in lower Manhattan and of Osama bin Laden’s death.  In recent weeks, I resisted the coming tenth anniversary because it felt like over the years, we (and especially those of us who work in the media) haven’t ever paused from remembering that day. Mark Lilla summed it up sharply in New York magazine: “Remembrance became a narcotic that turned a prosperous nation at peace into a debt-ridden wayward giant lumbering around the world, willfully ignorant of its folly, its speech slurred and incomprehensible to anyone but itself.”

Still, seeing the lights this weekend — the two beams where the towers were, reaching into the sky; and the red, white and blue tiers of the Empire State Building — I was moved by the city’s stubborn memory, and the brighter part of “never forget” that represents an affirmation.  As Mayor Bloomberg put it:

We had to show the world that – in everyday lives – terror could not diminish our tolerance.  Hate could not defeat our hope.  And fanaticism could not destroy our freedom. Each of us did that in a million little ways – in the flags we waved and the blood we gave and the donations we made. We did it in time by volunteering – as rescue and recovery workers, social workers and medical professionals, as caterers and caregivers. We did it in the way we treated each other – with a new-found sense of solidarity. People of every color, of every country, speaking every language, practicing every religion, holding every belief, and yet we were all New Yorkers first – proud of our city, and determined to bring it back.

I wasn’t a New Yorker on September 11th, but now that I live in this city too, I’ve seen those little acts of goodwill and humanity — ordinary acts of kindness and courage — day in and day out.  They give me hope.

Guadalajara

Three pages into Quim Monzó’s new short story collection, the opening tale’s seven-year-old protagonist makes a startling discovery: everyone over the age of nine in his family of carpenters is missing the ring finger of his left hand, and it’s not by accident. Welcome to “Family Life,” which fits within the morbid boundaries of Guadalajara—a realm where fables are subverted, where rote tasks lead to existential confrontations, where absurdity masks philosophical heft, and where grim uncertainty and playful possibility coexist.  Armand is terrified, and perhaps the reader should be too: in Monzó’s hands, the possibilities are limitless—and entirely unpredictable.

Head over to Words Without Borders for my full review of Guadalajara, Quim Monzó’s delightfully subversive collection of short stories.

C’mon Irene

Growing up in southeastern Virginia, hurricane season was always a time of excitement for me as a kid.  Hurricane season was summer’s last hurrah before back-to-school season. It was the surging conclusion to countless days of sweltering heat, countless days at the pool and beach, countless Slurpees, and countless mosquito bites.  Hurricane season offered one last chance for real summer drama before it was back to the usual routine.

The backyard of our family home tapered off into a marshy Chesapeake Bay inlet so the prospect of a storm always seemed personal.  Would the waters that provided the backdrop for so many gorgeous sunrises and afternoons outdoors really turn on us? It was hard to imagine.  If the backyard had a personality of its own, it was a benevolent one.  But of course it was clear that the storms (with their quaint, outmoded names like Hugo and Bonnie) had personalities too, and it was arguable that those personalities were not so benevolent. They were certainly fickle and feckless, dying down then speeding back up, making strange last-minute turns, and never quite behaving as predicted.

Disaster preparation is a funny thing.  My parents rarely watched TV, but in hurricane season, the TV was on for hours on end, excited meteorologists waving their arms as swirling neon hurricane clouds danced on loop behind them.   Mom and Dad would stock up on groceries and bring in lawn furniture and potted plants  (my contribution: cutting out pictures of colorful hurricane models from the local paper to paste into a collage), but our preparation usually ended there.  One year, my mother swaddled all our old family photo albums in layers of trash bags while we kids regarded her with skepticism.  We never boarded our windows, or bought bottled water, or extra batteries or canned food.  And we never left.

We were lucky.  More often than not, the Carolinas would absorb the worst of the big storm coming our way, leaving the Hampton Roads area drenched but essentially unscathed.  The photo albums never did get ruined as my mom had worried.  But at the end of every summer, the deadly flirtation would start up again — and as I got older, I started to find the whole ritual of hurricane-watching more and more nerve-wracking.  How long could our good luck hold out? Statistically, we were due for a doozy of a storm. All it would take is one little swerve, and low-lying Poquoson would be a trashed puddle.

I was away at college in 2003 when Hurricane Isabel took that tell-tale swerve we’d been waiting for.  The reported cost of the damage for the city was almost $100 million dollars, and the devastation visibly changed the landscape of the town.   Our backyard alone lost eleven trees, and half our dock washed away.  Afterwards, state and federal grants paid for entire neighborhoods to lift their homes onto cinder blocks.  Eight years later, Hurricane Irene’s trajectory has me thinking about Isabel and worrying about whether it’s my hometown’s turn to take a hit again.  As I write, the two people have already been killed in Virginia by trees falling through windows (one the Hampton Roads area) and 70,000 people are without power on the Peninsula alone.

As for New York City, it’s hard to say what’s in store.  I’m in the camp of unbelievers having trouble picturing a serious impact here, though between the mandatory mass evacuations, the MTA’s historic  shutdown, and a predicted power outage for much of lower Manhattan, it’s apparent city officials (who should know about these things) are bracing for the worst.  Then again, given the strange weather NYC has seen this year — a spree of blizzards, a heat wave, record-breaking rains just a few weeks ago, and last-week’s earthquake — oversized hurricane damage wouldn’t come as a big surprise to me either.  As I packed up for another hotel room for the weekend, courtesy of my office, the rain had stopped in Queens.  The old man across the street who always sits sentry on the steps of his building in his wheelchair was at his usual post, checking his watch.  Storm time yet?

photo: Hurricane Irene as seen from space, via NASA