Inspired by Stephen King Interview in Vanity Fair, October 2013

Today, self lugged around the huge September 2013 issue of Vanity Fair, the one with Kate Upton and her magnificent, hydraulic chest on the cover.  She had to remind herself to turn it over so that it wouldn’t cause anyone to do a double-take.

The Proust Questionnaire is with Stephen King, one of her absolute faves.  One of the questions was:

Who are your favorite writers?

King responded:  Cormac McCarthy, John Le Carré, John Sandford, Margaret Atwood, Michael Connolly, Lee Child, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Highsmith, Larry McMurtry . . .

The list causes self to think back.  Specifically, to the books she read in 2012.  Which ones stood out in her memory?

  • Caesar:  Life of a Colossus, by Adrian Goldsworthy
  • Atonement, by Ian McEwan
  • The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, by Jennifer 8. Lee
  • Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker
  • The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker
  • How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman, M.D.
  • The Beautiful and The Damned, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Finder, by Colin Harrison (This one she read in, of all places, PARIS)
  • I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Essays About Being a Woman, by Nora Ephron
  • The Last Empress, by Anchee Min
  • A Voyage Long and Strange:  Rediscovering the New World, by Tony Horwitz
  • Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama
  • Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Janzen
  • Loot:  The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World, by Sharon Waxman

So far this year, the most memorable books self has read are:

  • The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin
  • Fiasco:  The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas E. Ricks
  • La’s Orchestra Saves the World, by Alexander McCall Smith
  • A Passage to India, by E. M. Forster
  • Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
  • The Quiet American, by Graham Greene
  • The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
  • Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser
  • Little Heathens:  Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, by Mildred Armstrong Kalish
  • Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson
  • Don Quijote, by Miguel de Cervantes, in a translation by Burton Raffel
  • Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Human Factor, by Graham Greene
  • In Praise of Messy Lives, by Katie Roiphe

Perusing the two lists, the authors self might describe as her favorites are:  Nicholson Baker, Jerome Groopman, Anchee Min, Tony Horwitz, Gretchen Rubin, E. M. Forster, Hilary Mantel, Graham Greene, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Theodore Dreiser, Miguel de Cervantes, Leo Tolstoy, and Katie Roiphe.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Recalling the Dave Sedaris Mouse

There have been a few times in self’s reading life when she encounters a book that she never wants to end.  In 2012, those times have been powerfully scarce.

Let’s see which books — of the ones self read in 2012 — can fit into this category?  Here are a few:

  • Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (the first 3/4 of it), by Rhoda Janzen.
  • Dreams From My Father:  A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama.
  • Three Cups of Tea (even though this book has been discredited, and poor Dave Relin, the guy who co-wrote it with Greg Mortenson, seemed to feel humiliated by the project)
  • A Voyage Long and Strange:  Rediscovering the New World, by Tony Horwitz, one of self’s favorite writers.
  • The Last Empress, a novel by Anchee Min.

And –

Self!  Will you never get over your infernal lists ???

Back to the ostensible reason for this post, which is this:

Self has now stumbled on a story about killing an animal that is almost as hysterically funny as the previous Champion of All Funny Animal Killing Stories, Dave Sedaris’s piece about killing a mouse (A herculean task.  As, the mouse Dave encountered really wanted to live.  But —  don’t we all?  Want to live, that is?  Which reminds self of that Morag Joss mystery, the one about the old lady who’s hired to house-sit a castle  —  aaargh!  No, self no!  Back to the topic!).

The one self is reading is in Jeannette Walls’ (very wrenching) memoir, The Glass Castle, whose pages self has been doling out in miserly fashion, so that she can ensure she will still be reading it when the New Year rolls around.

The animal in question is a huge, icky rat, a rat that dived headlong into a punch bowl filled with sugar left on the kitchen counter (Let’s just put it this way:  Walls’ mother is not going to receive any awards for Good Housekeeping).  Walls describes the terribly fraught encounter in this way:

This rat was not just eating the sugar.  He was bathing in it, wallowing in it, positively luxuriating in it, his flickering tail hanging over the side of the bowl, flinging sugar across the table.  When I saw him, I froze, then backed out of the kitchen.

Next thing you know, this intrepid creature leaps onto the stove, then onto a pile of potatoes, then hisses ferociously at the narrator’s brother when he attempts to kill it with a cast-iron skillet, then establishes sole mastery of the kitchen when the children run out the door.

That night, the youngest in the family, a poor lass named Maureen, is whimpering because she is afraid the rat will come to her bed and bite her.

She tells the narrator she can hear the rat “creeping nearer and nearer.”  The narrator calls her sister a wuss and, just to prove it, switches on the light.

There, right next to the sister’s face, is a HUGE NASTY RAT.

After all was said and done, the children did triumph over the rat.  But if they expected any praise from their mother, think again:

“Mom said she felt sorry for the rat.  Rats need to eat, too,” she pointed out.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

The Fascination of the Story

It’s amazing but, in between bouts of family melodrama, self has actually found the time to crack open a few of the literary journals she toted along to Bacolod.

One of these is a very old issue of Manoa:  “The Mystified Boat: Postmodern Stories From China.”

Self doesn’t know why, but in addition to the fictional Greg Mortenson memoir Three Cups of Tea,  about whether Mortenson really did or did not build xx number of schools for young women in the farthest reaches of Afghanistan and/ or Pakistan, she also had the good luck to bring along fantastic books like the Obama memoir, Dreams From My Father:  A Story of Race and Inheritance (Five Stars!), a book which made her feel truly involved in the Obama win, and the Valerie Trueblood collection Marry or Burn.  She also brought along volume 28 of New Writing From Scotland, and this issue of Manoa, which appeared in the positively anti-deluvian period of 2003.

She took along the Manoa issue when she went to the bank to change dollars to pesos.  It’s a good thing she did, because she got passed along from one bank officer to another, and the whole process of changing $200 took almost an hour.  Self didn’t mind a bit, though, because she was able to finish the first story in Manoa, Ge Fei’s “A Date in Purple Bamboo Park.” She finished the whole story while seated in front of the desk for New Accounts, and she never looked up until she’d read the very last sentence.  And that story was simply stunning.

Today, she began the second story, Ma Yuan’s engrossing and deeply moving “The Master.”  She hasn’t finished reading the story yet, but here’s a paragraph towards the end:

I’ve saved the solution of the murder of the old man for the end.  I recall there was a yellow notebook, and a self-styled writer who tried to lead readers down the wrong road, who was even crazy enough to delve into his friend’s secret for the sake of writing a half-baked detective story.  Let’s get rid of that egotist.  He won’t appear in what follows.  Let’s just go back to where they discover the old man’s body.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Romney-pocalypse!

This was self in 2004:

She was a Visiting Writer in Miami University in Ohio.  The day of the elections, she had to teach.  Afterwards, she couldn’t wait to get back to her lodgings, only to watch as Jon Stewart announced state-by-state tallies for Bush, watch in total despair as Stewart finally tore up his cue cards in mock frustration.  At some point, she remembers Stewart saying, “Am I dreaming?”

Her brother-in-law in New York said, about Bacolod:  “Sad.  This is how it is going to end.”

And that was almost two years ago!  Self thought he was joking!

Brother-in-law, you are positively prescient!

So, yesterday, self kept listening to the news from America.  And when she finally saw the tallies at the bottom of the TV screen (Obama:  303 electoral votes, Romney much less), she was utterly amazed.  Amazed and joyful.

You did it, O!  You did it!

Self watched Obama’s acceptance speech and he extolled Biden.

Who would have thought?  It sometimes seemed as if the President spent the last four years hiding Biden, the vice president was prone to such terrible gaffes.

But when the chips were down, and the results were on the line, after Obama sleep-walked through the first presidential debate and everyone declared him down and out for the count, Biden picked up the cudgels, stepped to the plate, and killed during his debate with his vice presidential opponent, Ryan.  And that was enough to swing the polls the other way, back again to Obama.

Ladies and gentlemen, this was a very hard-fought race, perhaps the closest presidential election in history, and self watched it all from Bacolod, in the midst of her own private family melodrama.

During the past month, she spent most of her blogging time on her responses to a book by Obama called Dreams From My Father:  A Story of Race and Inheritance.  She could never have predicted the intensity of her response.  She was glad she read it because, until then, self wasn’t sure she even liked Obama.  She thought of him as Mr. Detached.

Here is an abbreviated list of today’s headline articles from Salon.com:

  • Nate Silver Nails It (While votes were “still being tallied . . . the New York Times poll guru . . .  predicted every state correctly.”  You rock, Nate!)
  • Why Losing Is Good for Mitt (” . . .  his defeat will actually improve his place in history”)
  • The 20 Biggest Sore Losers of Election Night
  • Fox News’ Dark Night of the Soul (“Karl Rove Tries to Undo Ohio”!)

And the biggest winner of all:  self’s confused family back there in California!

Dear blog readers, did self rock this island, or what?

Stay tuned.

More On the Subject of Diaspora/ Journey

Like a galloping horse sensing the imminence of the finish line, self is racing through the last 50 or so pages of Dreams From My Father.  She may even be able to finish reading by tomorrow!  And then she will be back to reading fiction.  The next book on her reading list is Typhoon, a novel by the Scottish writer Charles Cumming.

p. 388:

“He says that many young men have been lost to . . .  the white man’s country.  He says his own son is in America and has not come home for many years.  Such men are like ghosts, he says.  When they die, no one will be there to mourn them.  No ancestors will be there to welcome them.  So . . .  he says it is good that you have returned.”

The old man raised his hand and I shook it gently.  As we got up to leave, the old man said something else, and Roy nodded his head before closing the door behind us.

“He says that if you hear of his son,” Roy explained, “you should tell him that he should come home.”

Self is particularly struck by the description of men who do not come home as “ghosts.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Barack’s Journey, Cont.

Self called home about an hour ago.  She wondered why The Man wasn’t picking up.  Suddenly, he got on the line, sounding very harassed:  “I can’t skype now,” he said, hurriedly.  “I have to hand out candy.”

OMG!  Self completely forgot!  It is Halloween in the States!  Self’s favorite holiday (next to Christmas)!  She usually buys pumpkins and sets them on the front steps, and puts lighted witches in the bushes, and strings ghoulish faces across the picture window in the living room.

Last Halloween, a Yeti sprang up from the bushes, and self actually screamed, she was so surprised.  Naturally, the kid laughed his head off.  But it is all in good fun (For the life of her, she can’t figure out how someone that tall —  the kid looked to be about six feet —  could crouch behind the bushes without her noticing)

“How many kids have come already?” self asked.

“32,” The Man said.

“You’re going to run out of candy,” self said.

The Man said he thought that would happen.

“You’ve got to turn off the lights when that happens,” self said.  A darkened house signals any other trick-or-treaters that it is no use coming to the door; there is no more candy.  She was about to say “Hope you don’t get TP’ed,” but decided that it might produce in The Man even more nervousness than he already seemed to be exhibiting.

Self is quite satisfied that The Man has risen to the occasion and done a yeoman’s job of keeping up the Halloween spirit.

Not only that, The Ancient One is still alive.

YAY!

Self decides not to ask about the state of the garden.

The last third of Dreams From My Father, by President Obama (she hopes she can keep referring to him this way, for the next four years) is about a trip Obama took to Kenya, his father’s native land.  His observations so closely parallel self’s own, it’s almost eerie.  Here’s an excerpt:

It wasn’t simply joy that I felt in each of these moments.  Rather, it was a sense that everything I was doing, every touch and breath and word, carried the full weight of my life; that a circle was beginning to close, so that I might finally recognize myself as I was, here, now, in one place.  Only once that afternoon would I feel that mood broken, when, on our way back from the market, Auma ran ahead to get her camera, leaving Granny and me alone in the middle of the road.  After a long pause, Granny looked at me and smiled.  “Halo!” she said.  “Muuwa!”  I said.  Our mutual vocabulary exhausted, we stared ruefully down at the dirt until Auma finally returned.  And Granny then turned to Auma and said, in a tone I could understand, that it pained her not to be able to speak to the son of her son.

“Tell her I’d like to learn Luo, but it’s hard to find time in the States,” I said.  “Tell her how busy I am.”

“She understands that,” Auma said.  “But she also says that a man can never be too busy to know his own people.”

If dear blog readers care to, they can search the archives of this blog for self’s December 2010 and January 2011 postings from Bacolod.  You will note that self was reading Jose Saramago’s The Cave, and then Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Sepharad.  You will find in those posts almost exactly the same tone of wonder, amazement and gratitude that Obama displays, in the passage above.

She is so moved by Obama’s book, so incredibly moved.

Stay tuned.

More of Barack

from pp. 344 – 345:  Barack meets with his half-brother, Mark.

“Other things move me.  Beethoven’s symphonies.  Shakespeare’s sonnets.  I know —  it’s not what an African is supposed to care about.  But who’s to tell me what I should and shouldn’t care about?  Understand, I’m not ashamed of being half Kenyan.  I just don’t ask myself a lot of questions about what it all means.  About who I really am.”  He shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Maybe I should.  I can acknowledge the possibility that if I looked more carefully at myself, I would . . . “

For the briefest moment I sensed Mark hesitate, like a rock climber losing his footing.  Then, almost immediately, he regained his composure and waved for the check.

“Who knows?” he said.  “What’s certain is that I don’t need the stress.  Life’s hard enough without all that excess baggage.”

We stood up to leave, and I insisted on paying the bill.  Outside we exchanged addresses and promised to write, with a dishonesty that made my heart ache.  When I got home, I told Auma how the meeting had gone.  She looked away for a moment, then broke out with a short, bitter laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“I was just thinking about how life is so strange.  You know, as soon as the Old Man died, the lawyers contacted all those who might have a claim to the inheritance.  Unlike my mum, Ruth has all the documents needed to prove who Mark’s father was.  So of all of the Old Man’s kids, Mark’s claim is the only one that is uncontested.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

The Discovery of Self

“You’ll miss the elections,” The Man told her.

Yeah, she knows.  She knows!  She would have given anything to be able to cast her vote for Obama.  Now she can only pray.

The only other time she missed the election was in 2004.  She was a visiting writer in Miami University in Ohio.  The campus was alive with trees in autumn splendor.  Football games were in full swing.

Self would return from teaching her class and watch The Daily Show.  The night of the elections, she watched in stupefaction as Jon Stewart called state after state for Bush.  In the end, there were only two little smears of blue on the whole map of the United States.  They enclosed the red heart of American states like two parentheses:  one on the East Coast, one on the West.  There might have been little blobs of blue here and there, self can’t be sure. “If it makes you feel any better,” one of her students told her the next day, “it was close.”

Self is still enthralled by the Obama book.  She’s just begun Part III (It’s taken her weeks to get here).  Obama, on his way to visit Kenya, his father’s native land, is “a Westerner not entirely at home in the West, an African on his way to a land full of strangers.”  Self feels she and Obama have similar journeys.

On the way to Kenya, he stops over in Europe.  All through his European sojourn, he is “edgy, defensive, hesitant with strangers.”  He writes:

I hadn’t planned it that way.  I had thought of the layover there as nothing more than a whimsical detour, an opportunity to visit places I had never been before.  For three weeks I had traveled alone, down one side of the continent and up the other, by bus and by train mostly, a guidebook in hand.  I took tea by the Thames and watched children chase each other through the chestnut groves of Luxembourg Garden.  I crossed the Plaza Mejor at high noon, with its De Chirico shadows and sparrows swirling across cobalt skies; and watched night fall over the Palatine, waiting for the first stars to appear, listening to the wind and its whispers of mortality.

And by the end of that first week or so, I realized that I made a mistake.  It wasn’t that Europe wasn’t beautiful; everything was just as I’d imagined it.  It just wasn’t mine.  I felt as if I were living out someone else’s romance; the incompleteness of my own history stood between me and the sites I saw like a hard pane of glass.  I began to suspect that my European stop was just one more means of delay; one more attempt to avoid coming to terms with the Old Man.  Stripped of language, stripped of work and routine —  stripped even of the racial obsessions to which I’d become so accustomed and which I had taken (perversely) as a sign of my own maturation —  I had been forced to look inside myself and had found only a great emptiness there.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Still More of Self’s Adventures in Bacolod

Self looks at her books, all the ones she brought from California, and is suddenly filled with regret.  She brought a lot of them.  She brought a lot of literary journals, too:  The Tampa Review, Salamander, Manoa.  She’s barely made any inroads into this wealth of reading material.  Heck, she hasn’t even been able to watch much TV!  Soon it will be time to pack them all up and go home.  Perhaps she’ll be luckier, next time she visits.

Sheesh, it is super-hot today.  Self doesn’t feel like opening the blinds, not even a crack.

Wednesday, she returned to the Daku Balay.  She knows she distracts the secretaries from their work, with her chatter, but she can’t seem to stop.  Finally, out popped the million-dollar question:  ” ‘Day, how old are you?”

Self was speechless for a few moments, then responded, “How old do you think I am?”

And one of the ladies, it might even have been Edalyn, said:  “Late 50s?”

AAACH!!!

Self was so completely mortified.

Today, self encountered one of those taxi drivers who claims to know her father, Oso.  He ran for Congress back in the 80s, everyone seems to remember him for that.  Some taxi drivers even go so far as to maintain that they voted for him.  Well, self’s Dear Departed Dad ended up seventh place out of a field of eight, so she’s not sure how much to trust these drivers’ memories.  She knows her Dad made it a point of honor not to issue a single bribe, and this might have partially accounted for his poor showing.  People probably thought:  Swapang!  They might have thought:  Oso lives in that big white house, and he doesn’t want to share his wealth, he wants to keep it all for himself.

The taxi driver said he used to work as a security guard in the family resort, “the one that’s owned by the Parreños now,” he said.  And what resort is that, self asked.  “Santa Fe,” the driver said.

“That resort is not owned by the Parreños,” self tartly informed the taxi driver.  “It’s owned by the family corporation of the Villanuevas”  (of which, self might have added, “I am a shareholder, equal to every single one of my cousins.”)

“Didn’t your lolo also own a taxi service?” the man said.

Yes, self replied, he did.  She remembers summers, being told by the relatives to ride only in the cabs that said “GV & Sons.”  And when she did take one of those GV & Sons cabs, they would take her and her siblings anywhere they wanted to go, for free.

The city of Bacolod was like Disneyland.  No, better than Disneyland!  It was hers, theirs, everyone’s.  No one got angry at self, no one tried to take advantage of self, she felt Bacolod was a place where she belonged, truly belonged.

Now she knows what Obama means when he writes how he felt after his first miserable attempt to organize a political rally.  Thirteen people showed up, and Obama “sat there, roasting like a pig on a spit.”  That was when he realized that “in politics, like religion, power lay in certainty —  and that one man’s certainty always threatened another’s.”

Chapter Eight ends with this:

I realized then, standing in an empty McDonald’s parking lot in the South Side of Chicago, that I was a heretic.  Or worse —  for even a heretic must believe in something, if nothing more than the truth of his own doubt.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

The U.S. Presidential Race (Seen From an Island)

Self is a Democrat, and the proud mother of another Democrat.

She never told son which way to go, never discussed politics with him.  Not really.

But just before she left for Bacolod, while waiting to board her flight, she texted son, “Hope Obama wins.”  And he texted back right away, “I do, too.”

(She’s pretty sure Niece G would say the same.)

The elections are two weeks away, and the race is very tight.  In the chaos of things happening “over there” (The World Series, Lance Armstrong, the opening of “Paranormal 4,” Halloween, and so forth), self didn’t get to think much about who she wanted to win:  Obama or Romney.

She had a very cynical attitude about the presidential debates (which she caught here in Bacolod) and watched them mostly for theater.  Of course, they were hugely enjoyable, but she could have killed Obama for flubbing the first one.

In the meantime, things were happening to her in Bacolod, too:  Self diligently read her Visayan Daily Star, went to Daku Balay, saw cousins, experienced her first Masskara festival.  Dearest Mum and Dear Bros came to Bacolod, and even though self was moving around all over the city, she never bumped into them.

She learned how to make do without a driver.

She consumed all kinds of Bacolod delicacies:  piaya, dulce gatas, fresh lumpia.

Her neck flared with pain, as it always does when she is under stress.  But massages here are bargains compared to “over there,” so she has them every day.

She finished reading Three Cups of Tea, googled updates on Greg Mortenson and the controversy over the facts in his book.

She began Obama’s Dreams From My Father.

She began to love Dreams From My Father.

Truthfully, she’d always found Obama a bit too aloof, too intellectually abstract, too detached.  Obama as President is very different from Obama the Campaigner.  But, damn if she doesn’t find in his book the validation of her own beliefs about herself, about identity, about family.

Here’s a section from pp. 110 – 111:

Look at yourself before you pass judgment.  Don’t make someone else clean up your mess.  It’s not about you . . .  I had stopped listening at a certain point, I now realized, so wrapped up had I been in my own perceived injuries, so eager was I to escape the imagined traps that white authority had set for me.  To that white world, I had been willing to cede the values of my childhood, as if those values were somehow irreversibly soiled by the endless falsehoods that white spoke about black.

*     *     *

Who told you that being honest was a white thing?  Who sold you this bill of goods, that your situation exempted you from being thoughtful or diligent or kind, or that morality had a color?  You’ve lost your way, brother.  Your ideas about yourself —  about who you are and who you might become — have grown stunted and narrow and small . . .  How had that happened?  I started to ask myself, but before the question had even formed in my mind, I already knew the answer.  Fear . . .  The constant, crippling fear that I didn’t belong somehow, that unless I dodged and hid and pretended to be something I wasn’t I would forever remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing judgment . . .  it had been just about me.  My fear.  My needs.  And now?  . . .  I saw that what bound us together went beyond anger or despair or pity.

*     *     *

My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t end there.

Okay, Obama, your book kills me.  Whoever wants to know the kind of man you are should read this book.  Pull off the win, please.

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