Gil Sorrentino/ Stanford Creative Writing

Dear blog readers, creative writing workshop made self very tense because she honestly had never met any American writers until she got into the Creative Writing Program, and they intimidated the heck out of her. One of her (male) classmates got up and danced on the table before the start of the workshop. Self can only say: she had never seen anything like it and was so amazed. Because if any of her college classmates in Manila had done that, they would have been arrested. Banned from campus. Reprimanded. But here, she got to enjoy the man’s dancing. lol

In addition, her classmates wrote about things like going hunting. Or going on road trips. She made herself read Jack Kerouac just so she could understand Americans better. The other writers came from different states: Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, Louisiana. Self was from the Philippines, and she for the life of her could not even open her mouth. Once there was sharp disagreement about one of her stories and self couldn’t even get up the gumption to explain what she was trying to do. Much to her everlasting shame, a fellow writer had to stick up for her and defend her, and then was so overwhelmed by the task that she left the workshop and had to hide in the Women’s Room for a while. And self followed her there but had nothing to say. Self was such a blithering idiot. This woman was kind enough to pick up the cudgels for her and all she could do afterwards was stare helplessly at her? She absolutely had no courage.

Seriously, every time she opened her mouth, she ended up putting her foot in it.

Gil Sorrentino was one of three professors who took turns leading workshop. He was this amazing, experimental writer and before self met him, she didn’t even know what “experimental fiction” was. His most famous book was Mulligan Stew. He led workshop on the day self’s story, Ginseng, was up.

Told from a “we” point of view, and self was so nervous.

After all the discussion, Gil looked at her and said, “What the narrator doesn’t understand is, after everything is said and done, the man still has his pride.”

Self realized that Gil had more sympathy for the old man than for the detached and critical narrator.

She didn’t realize it at the time, but the fact that Gil felt he had to defend the old man was an amazing thing.

Ginseng is narrated by a man whose father is gradually sinking into dementia. The narrator keeps describing all his symptoms while getting more and more amazed: why does the old man insist on putting on a Panama hat before he takes a walk?  Why does he carry around that fancy walking stick? The narrator felt only exasperation.

Self always imagined the narrator as a man because to write about an old person from a woman’s point of view and to be that detached was something self felt she couldn’t pull off.

The story begins:

  • My father is 83. Once he was very handsome, but now he has plump hips and breasts, with dark, pointed nipples on top of two triangles of brown, leathery skin. It is impossible for me to think of him as still a man in the usual sense, in the sense he has wanted me to think of him for so many years.

At VCCA, a long time ago, one of the other writers found this story, she doesn’t know how. He found a copy of the journal that had published it on one of the shelves of the VCCA library and showed it to her. AMAZING!

By now, self has read many, many American writers. She loves Jim Harrison. Part of the reason might be that she loves Yellow Dog and another reason may be that Harrison writes novellas. His stories are set in Michigan’s UP and they are so specific to that place but also so universal. She never got into Kerouac. She adored Cynthia Ozick and Grace Paley.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

First NYTBR Post in Forever: 15 December 2013

Do not look a gift horse in the mouth.  It’s been nearly a year since this issue came into self’s hands. She has since suspended her New York Times Book Review subscription (in case dear blog readers were wondering. It was just too depressing seeing the book review in her mailbox every week, and not being able to read for months and months and months.)

It just so happens that the By the Book interview is with Michael Connelly, and he has many, many interesting book recommendations, which include the following:

  • Act of War:  Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo, by Jack Cheevers
  • The Public Burning, by Robert Coover
  • The Little Sister, by Raymond Chandler

This issue also has the list of Ten Best Books of 2013, and since self is well aware that time is a river, and self is disappearing quick, she has to be choosy about which of the Ten she really really wants to read, and it is these:

In Fiction

  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner
  • Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
  • Tenth of December: Stories, by George Saunders

In Nonfiction

  • Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, by Sheri Fink
  • Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala

One of the highlights of this issue is a review (by Anthony Doerr) of Brown Dog: Novellas, by Jim Harrison.  Self doesn’t know why exactly but she’s loved Jim Harrison for a long long time. His books are violent, they are pungent, they are precise, and they are very, very funny.

And here’s a round-up of a burgeoning sub-genre, the cookbook as memoir:

  • Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland, by Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
  • Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, by Abigail Carroll
  • Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers and Food, by Peggy Wolff

And here’s a sub of a sub-genre, the fate of elephants in America:

  • Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P. T. Barnum, and the American Wizard Thomas Edison, by Michael Daly
  • Behemoth:  The History of the Elephant in America, by Ronald B. Tobias

And one about elephants in Africa:

  • Silent Thunder, by Katy Payne

Finally, much thanks to Rivka Galchen and Pankaj Mishra for recommending (in the end-paper, Bookends) two books by authors self hasn’t yet read:

  • My Struggle, by Norwegian writer Ove Knausgaard
  • Zibaldone, by Giacomo Leopardi

Whew! Finally self has arrived at the end of a monster post. Stay tuned.



Books, San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, 8 December 2013

Of the white American male fiction writers publishing today, there are two who self would gladly read over and over again:  Jim Harrison and George Saunders.

Self has read three books by Jim Harrison.  He is a poet, a poet of violence.  Self will not ruin dear blog readers’ breakfasts by recounting a particularly gruesome episode in one of his novellas.  Let’s just say, it involves a severed hand.

Yesterday, while perusing the Books section of the Chronicle, self discovered that Harrison has a new book out.  It’s called, with poetic simplicity, Brown Dog.  Here is how it begins:

Just before dark at the bottom of the sea I found the Indian.

According to the reviewer, William S. Kowinski, the book is about how the title character (“Brown Dog”) involves himself in “salvaging a dead Indian in full regalia preserved in the cold, deep waters of Lake Superior, and the struggle over ancient burial grounds with some wily and ambitious young anthropologists that drives the narrative . . . ”

Another book reviewed in yesterday’s Chronicle is by a writer self has never read:  Aminatta Forna.  The novel is called The Hired Man, and the plot is this:  A young Englishwoman comes to a Croatian village in the hope of refurbishing a property she owns.  That’s where the “hired man” of the title comes in.

Since the hired man’s name is Duro, and he is the one narrating this novel, self fears for the safety of the Englishwoman.  Duro, after all, was the name of that slave boy in the series “Rome,” the one who tried to murder Atia by slipping poison into her food.

According to the reviewer, Forna was “born in Scotland . . .  moved as a baby with her family to Sierra Leone, where her father worked as a doctor and political activist.  In 1970, he was arrested on trumped up charges of treason.  Five years later, he was hanged.  In her 2003 memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, Forna returned to Sierra Leone to interview the man who testified falsely against his father.”


Self is most interested to read the memoir.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

On Christmas Eve (2009): Quote of the Day

Self had a manicure.  Yes, while self was walking from Gourmet (German) Haus Staudt on Broadway (where she bought bars of Lindt milk chocolate for son’s friends, $3.95 @) to Pho Dong (where she ordered huge bowls of beef pho and four orders of imperial rolls —  all so that she does not feel so guilty about her lack of preparation for the Christmas Eve repast), she looked in on Natalie Nail Salon.  And apparently they were not very busy, because self found that she could actually be fitted in for a manicure.  And she sat down for a half hour and chatted with the manicurist, who of course was Vietnamese and looked 25 though she said she was actually 43.

Son went off with friends, hubby has to stay late at work, so self is home alone, watching “General Hospital” (but so far, no sight of James Franco —  GRRR).  She is also resuming her reading of fantastic Colum McCann interview in AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle.  And the interviewer (who is just so good!) asks him a question which elicits a very candid response.  Self will share it with dear blog readers, below:

Interviewer:  A few years ago, at one of the chain bookstores, I came upon a calendar with photos of Ireland, and you had written the text.  For some time now, you’ve been a full-time writer, but now you’ve started teaching.  What is a typical work week for you?  And how do you balance the many writing tasks you take on?  Do any of these other tasks inform your fiction?

McCann:   Ah, Jesus!  My calendars.  That’s just a job.  “Forty shades of green.”  “Diddly-di-idle.”  “Dear ol’ dirty derelict Dublin.”  That sort of thing. It pays the rent for a month. Hey, it’s a job. I have to earn a few bob.

Jim Harrison again says it best: “Children pry up our rotting bodies with cries of ‘Earn, earn, earn!’ ” I have three kids. They are the scaffolds to my heart, but every now and then I have to pay for their nappies, or their braces, or, God forbid, their college. I don’t mind doing that stuff. I like the people who I work with. I teach, I write screenplays, I do journalism. I’m the least pure fiction writer you’re ever going to meet. But I do it all in the service of fiction. That’s what I love.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Favorite Books So Far, 2009

Has self already drawn up a list of the books she’s enjoyed reading, so far this year? She might have, but perhaps self is experiencing another of her senior moments.  If dear blog readers remember similar post, can someone tell her?

Let’s see, since January 1, self has read:

  • 15 novels (including several that should rightly be called “mysteries”)
  • 12 non-fiction books (a few of which could probably more rightly be referred to as “memoirs”)
  • 1 short story collection (George Saunders’ CivilwarLand in Bad Decline —  excellent!) and 1 novella collection (Jim Harrison’s The Summer He Didn’t Die —  also excellent!)

Let’s see, of the 15 novels self has read so far this year, her favorites have been:

Saturday Morning, Busy

Aaargh, self can’t seem to write when her mind is so chaotic. Still can’t quite wrap her mind around Mauricio accidentally dumping her contac lens yesterday, when he was here cleaning. Last night, dreamt that — Eureka! — she’d found it. The dream Mauricio had helpfully placed it in a little metal receptacle. Unfortunately, the metal had reacted with the lens and the lens was perforated with holes.  No, there was just one big hole (pardon the hyperbole: self knows a hole in a contac can not, truthfully, be big), right in the middle, where one would expect self’s pupil to be.

Rebecca slept in son’s room last night, son slept in self’s office. Self crept around, trying to be quiet for she loves to spend the early morning hours reading (Finished True North yesterday: it took her 10 days to get through this novel, longer even than it took her to finish a book twice as long, 1491. The ending can only be described as devastating. And Harrison waited until almost the last five pages to spring it. Self would like to advise dear blog readers: if you do not have a stomach for extreme violence, then do not read it. Self, however, adores this book: Jim Harrison is latest addition to self’s list of favorite authors.)

Son and Rebecca are here to attend a Psychology Association conference at the Marriott on 4th and Mission. Son woke around 7 and immediately started getting dressed: black pants again, grey long-sleeved shirt. Rebecca tells self they want to make it in time for the first session, which begins at 9. A total of six students and two professors are here from Cal Poly; Rebecca said she’d even met two students who came all the way from London! Self e-mailed Stanford niece: A is here! Let’s get together!

Self and hubby have a concert to go to tonight, in the City. Yuja Wang. But, first, Stelline for dinner, at 5:15. Invited son to join us, but he says he has presentation at 5 p.m.

Now, watching Green Day. They’re on Good Morning America, Weekend Edition. Early, early, around 7:30, self went to Redwood City Farmers Market, vendors weren’t quite finished putting out their produce. Bought purple and yellow string beans (only because self thinks they’d look really nifty mixed together in a salad). Celery. Garlic. Basil. And, on a whim, a bunch of red Watsonia.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers, stay tuned.

Quote of the Day: Writing and Appetite

“We went out to an Old Town bar where I had a calming whiskey and Vernice ate an enormous cheeseburger. She couldn’t eat when she was writing, she said, as digesting food stole her imagination.”

    Vernice, on p. 349 of Jim Harrison’s True North

Sometimes self just has to force it out. Especially on days like today, when Mauricio has turned the whole house upside down, pulled bookcases from the wall, emptied the shelves (He is anal about dusting, which is why hubby complains every time he comes, because he never puts anything back to the place where it was before). Self has one ear cocked to front door, for she expects son and his friend to walk in any moment. At the same time, she’s reading (as usual). Still the Jim Harrison novel. Self is on p. 349, almost to the end! Self found the above quote mucho interesting. She remembers that when she attended Kate Brady’s reading at Booksmith in the Haight, about a month ago, Kate said more or less the same thing, that when she was writing, she couldn’t be bothered with such a thing as eating. Now, why can’t self be the same way? When self is writing, she is ravenous!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers, stay tuned.

Friday Morning, 7:58 a.m.

Son and friend arrive todaaayy!!!

Mauricio didn’t make it to clean yesterday, so he is coming today as well!!!

Self wants to go see “Star Trek” movie again!!!

Self is supposed to see doctor this afternoon for she missed her annual check-up, but who cares, she wants to see “Star Trek” movie again!!!

Self thinks that, since she’s already spent hours roaming the web and getting into all sort of interesting websites, such as CakeTrain and Cafe Irreal, she might as well investigate a Read the rest of this entry »

While Reading Jim Harrison’s “True North”

This passage made me just stop dead.  It starts at the bottom of p. 116.  And I thought of Ying, of course, but it wasn’t sadness that I felt, but a sort of —  confirmation, I guess you’d call it.  Because I wasn’t there when she passed, and I had to get everything second-hand from Dearest Mum, who was going on and on about how Ying in her last moments kept saying she was cold.  And I realize that I’ve completely, in this post, dropped the pose of the “self.”  Perhaps that’s the effect a Jim Harrison novel has on his readers.

The “Laurie” in the passage is an old love of the narrator’s;  she happens to be dying of cancer.  The narrator has visited her in the hospital.

When Laurie touched her daughter’s hand with a forefinger and her mother gathered up the child we looked at each other and I saw the sight disappear from her eyes.  She didn’t so much die as withdraw, and her body under the sheet was still but there was an aura of departure that made me feel cold despite the warm room.  Instead of pressing the button to call a nurse I listened to an aspect of emptiness I hadn’t heard before as if her passing had stopped all other sound.  I’m sure it couldn’t have been more than a few moments but time had collapsed.  When it was over I had nothing left about which to draw conclusions.  My incomprehension was total.

And that, I am sure, is what dying must feel like —  to the person left behind.  No one, absolutely no one, can pierce reality, just pin a moment to a wall, like Jim Harrison.

Mind-Blowing Discoveries of the Day

This morning, self has just made the following interesting discoveries:

  • Clifton Collins is the name of the one-armed guy who was so charming as the diffident cleaning-shop owner who becomes Amy Adams’ only true friend in Sunshine Cleaning. And he is in Star Trek, the new movie. As a Romulan. Say what??? (Just to show you how good Collins’ performance in Sunshine Cleaning is, self actually thought he was a one-armed man!) 
  • Self has read several reviews now, and the consensus seems to be that Angels and Demons is a surprisingly good (or, anyway, not as bad as expected) movie (Once again, self is forced to eat her words — Please reference last week’s post on Star Trek)
  • Jennifer Aniston has made a movie that is opening this weekend. Self has seen not one single preview: poor Jen! In this one, she is stalked by a creepy Steve Zahn (Steve Zahn was perfect playing a creep on Sunshine Cleaning. Apparently, playing creeps is his latest career move! Way to go, Steve!  Self can tell you’ve been putting in some serious hours at the gym!  Exhibit A:  In Sunshine Cleaning, your arms were really, really, really buff!  In fact, from some angles, self forgot you were Steve Zahn and almost confused you with Battlestar Galactica’s Jamie Bamber!)

If dear blog readers would just indulge self in one more “Star Trek” movie review quote —  as it’s so sooo rare for a summer action movie to be so satisfactory on all levels, not since “Ironman” etc etc (Wait a minute, wasn’t that only last year???  But, self digresses)  Anyhoo, this one’s from the Buzzsugar review (whose title, “Move Over Kirk, Spock Is Hot” perfectly captures self’s feeling about the entire movie):

There are moments when seeing these good-looking youngsters in such a well-known uniform feels a little bit like the Trek version of Muppet Babies.

And that’s it!  End of quote!  That wasn’t so bad, was it?

Not all was movie-mania today:  self also went to the library and checked out a copy of Eveyln Waugh’s Vile Bodies (Took a peek at the Preface and the first line went:  “This was a totally unplanned novel.”  Sold!)

Also, she discovered that all five copies of Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way are still checked out.

Also, she started to read another book by Jim Harrison, True North (How can self describe her feelings for this author, whose writing she discovered with The Summer He Didn’t Die, just a few months ago?  Perhaps it’s a little bit like going out on a great blind date, and getting really happy, because it could all have gone so wrong . . . )

Stay tuned, dear blog readers, stay tuned.

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