Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kitty Kupcake and a recommendation

We've had a busy week and weekend, so I haven't had time for a real post. But in the meantime, I'll post a cute picture of our boy kitty. (Previously referred to in this blog as K2.) He loves baked goods. Who doesn't?

A quick reading/writing note - I finished reading Granta's Issue 113, The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists. I had mixed feelings about the selection, but man did it end with a bang. I definitely recommend checking it out, if only for the last story by Patricio Pron. Beautiful.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Frontier Blues

Today we walked down to the Mall to see Frontier Blues, an Iranian film shown by the Freer Art Gallery as a part of its Iranian Film Festival. Babak Jalali directed and shot this film in northern Iran, near Turkmenistan, the flat, desperate land of his childhood. The absurdist comedy throws together a number of strange characters, each lost in his own dreams and struggles: a young man who eats only dried apricots and whose only companion is an unnamed donkey; his uncle who owns a barely-stocked clothing store; and a traditional Turkmen musician whose wife was stolen years ago by a man from Tehran in a green Mercedes Bendz, among others. There is precious little dialogue in the movie -- most of the comedic moments come when the characters are staring awkwardly at each other, or in the sparse absurdities that sprinkle their speech.

I mention the film here because it's an interesting example of a story relying heavily on place and with practically no plot. The flat, windy, poor land dominates the lives of these characters and seems to have a flattening effect on their dreams. I'm not sure that it was a great movie, but it was intriguing. I know that the three traditional focuses of stories are either plot, characters, or place, but I've had trouble thinking of a book that relies primarily on place. Frontier Blues seems to fit the bill.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Leaving Rock Harbor, by Rebecca Chace

Life is a choice. It is filled with decisions about how we live and, even, the decision to live. The characters in Rebecca Chace's sweet Leaving Rock Harbor rarely forget that the choice to live is in their hands, for death haunts them closely. The story takes place in the first decades of the twentieth century, when young Frances Ross, or Frankie as she prefers to be known, grows up. We meet Frankie when she is an insecure but charming 14-year-old and she meets the two young men who will come to define her life.

Joe Barros is the son of Portuguese immigrants, a marginalized community in New England Rock Harbor, but thanks to his winning smile and basketball skills, he manages to rise above the racism. Winston Curtis is the youngest son of the richest family in Rock Harbor, but his easy grace and lighthearted attitude make it easy for those around him to forget that is father runs the town. Frankie falls in with Joe and Winston, at first hesitantly in her tight-laced corset, but then with more and more abandon, as her friendship with the two young men parallels the changing social mores of the era.

The war and the subsequent labor disputes threaten Frankie and all those she loves, and the choices each of them makes ricochet amongst the tight group of family and friends. Rebecca Chace writes with a confident hand and Frankie is an interesting, complicated woman. The historical setting here is drawn with a light touch, so those looking for a richly atmospheric piece on WWI and the Depression are likely to be disappointed. But readers seeking a compelling story about memorable characters will enjoy Leaving Rock Harbor.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Especially When Buzzed on Coffee

At first, I was predisposed not to like Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. The cover made it look like chick lit, the sort of fluffy stories about friends and family that I don't find very satisfying. The title mentions cake, which while delicious, is not especially enlightening. And then the first sentence fell flat: "It happened for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon, a warm spring day in the flatlands near Hollywood, a light breaze moving east from the ocean and stirring the black-eyed pansy petals newly planted in our flower boxes."

What's "it"? She doesn't tell us there, nor for the next six pages. That doesn't build suspense, in my book, that builds irritation. And then we find out that "it" has to do with the emotions people bake into food. I think Like Water for Chocolate had that storyline down two decades ago.

But. But. I kept reading. And, as it turns out, Bender is a beguiling author, and this story is not run-of-the-mill, and it's not light fluff either. It's a quick read, but it merits thought and savoring (like fine wine! ha! gag.). So, in the end, I enjoyed it.

Which had me excited about picking up the next book in my to-read pile. That turned out to be Granta's Best Young Spanish Language Novelists edition. I read a few stories, enjoyed them, and then bam, hit a huge speed bump with a seriously unimpressive entry. This guy gets to be the best? ... jealousy creeps in ... That's not a good, or productive, feeling for a young writer. But I know I'm not the only one who sometimes feels like that.

Take the Washington writer featured in this Post Magazine article, for example. It sounds like he's had his share of disappointments. I like that he takes issue with critic Jonathan Yardley's assertion that there is no indigenous Washington literary culture. I'm a huge fan of Yardley, but we can't just take that accusation lying down! So last night I went to my favorite cafe, overdosed on coffee, and poured out a story about local people. It felt good to write, and exciting to focus on home, particularly since so much of my fiction is about places and times far distant.

What about you, to the other writers out there? Are you writing about home?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Even Clint Eastwood Doesn't Always Do It Right

A quick note on "show vs. tell": This weekend, we watched "Gran Torino," Clint Eastwood's take on a grumpy, old, white man's journey as he comes to terms with a changing world. It's a pretty good flick, visually rich and morally compelling. But I was a little worried after the first few minutes, when the movie opens at the funeral of Walt Kowalski's (Eastwood) wife. Walt snarls like a badger as a gaggle of giggling, sloppily dressed pre-teens and teenagers slide into a front aisle. Clearly, his grandkids, particularly when we see their parents sit behind them and glance worriedly at Walt. Great - we see Walt's character (uncompromising) and his family's indifference. But then, the movie goes and tells us all the things it just showed us so well. One of Walt's sons leans over to the other and grumbles how nothing is ever good enough for Dad, and did you see how he looked at Ashley. Um, thanks Mr. Eastwood, but I think we got you the first time.

The movie snagged in that way a few more times in the beginning, but eventually it took off and let the acting and the camera show us what the story was about. Phew! I mention this here just as a reminder to all of us that even the greats, in great pieces of work, can hit the wrong notes.

A brief example of masterful "showing," from Alan Furst's amazing Night Soldiers:
He found it an hour later. There was old wainscoting by the door, poor-quality wood with the varnish flaking off, and as he moved the lamp the shift of angle in the light revealed the marks. He moved his fingers across the wood, confirming what he saw. She had, after all, left him a message. He sat down heavily and cried into his hands for a long time. He didn't want anyone to hear him. Time and again he touched the wall, traced, with agonizing slowness, the faintly marked outlines of the four scratches her fingernails had made as she'd been taken through the door.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Literary Night Out

Last night I went with a couple of ladies from my writing group to the posh, elite Cosmos Club for what promised to be a charming engagement and ended up being a giddy, inspiring trip. The literary journal One Story was hosting a wine and nosh night in hopes of earning some cash while also kicking off a sort of book club. We downed glasses of pinot noir, mobbed the servers holding the trays of mushroom tarts, and chatted up fellow One Story readers - many of whom were also aspiring writers. Fun, right? Yes, but it got oh so much better.

The focus of the night, in addition to the wine, was Hannah Tinti and her book, The Good Thief. My friends and I had read the book in advance and were anxious to hear what Ms. Tinti had to say about it. So when summoned away from the hors d'oevres, we took our seats and listened. The publisher of One Story explained how they started off with a lot of heart and only $3,000, and moved to expand their readership to 10,000 and their staff from two people to, well, a proper staff. Ms. Tinti took the floor. She explained the joy inherent in observing and writing, a way of, as she put it, shoving the grains of sand back up into life's hourglass. She read from her book. This was all very nice, but I was a little distracted. Because, while watching the speakers, I had noticed someone across the room who I *adore.*

Yes, you guessed it. It was Ron Charles, the Fiction Editor for the Washington Post! He writes fabulous, insightful reviews, and does the amazing (really) "Totally Hip Video Book Review." After the formal event was over, I snagged Mr. Charles and told him I had to fawn over him for a moment. I did and it was lovely! A local book blogger was there too, Bethanne Patrick from The Book Studio, and all in all I was quite star struck. So fun to see such wonderful writers and book advocates!

We also had a chance to chat with some charming gentlemen, one of whom delivered a telegram to Lena Horne's house in 1945, and to talk with Ms. Tinti in person. My writers' group ladies and I all concurred that it was a lovely night out. And even the blustery wind had mellowed by the time I walked home, grinning all the way.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma