Monday, October 26, 2009

Miscell Any

We've just returned from New Orleans. We had a marvelous time, the first real vacation we've had without the children in, well, ever. I love my kids. They are easy going and fun and all around marvelous, and yet, traveling with kids has its givens. My son would have loved the swamp tour but not the four hours on the roads seeing countryside. My daughter would have loved the trip to the plantations, but not so much the menus that were mostly shrimp and if not shrimp then pork and if not pork then crawdads. It was just easier, you know? I do love New Orleans; its food, its architecture. I don't even mind the humidity that makes you feel deliciously lazy.

Restaurant rec: the Green Goddess in New Orleans on 307 Exchange Place. It's been a long time since I've eaten at a restaurant where the chefs cared so much about the food and were still having fun, just like the chef scene in San Francisco when I was cooking. All about pushing those boundaries. Some of the dishes didn't work quite as well as you would hope, while others knocked my frigging socks off, but it's that experimentation that I adored. And to say they didn't work just means that they were only delicious as opposed to orgasmic. That's what this wee place is trying to do. Get you to gasp when you're eating. Highly recommended. We loved it so much we went back twice. Toques off to Chef Chris DeBarr.

I took two books with me on this trip that ended up having tremendous relevance. One, was a book about Joan Root, the filmmaker and conservationist who was murdered in her Kenyan home in 2006, and the second is Annette Gordon-Reed's history on the Hemingses of Monticello. The first book read like a beefed up Vanity Fair article (which indeed it was), but had its own inevitable sense of tragedy that trumped the sensationalistic tone that haunts those sort of articles. Basically, you have a corrupt government and a bunch of white conservationists who are a holdover from the colonial period and the indigenous population who need work and corporations who don't give a rat's ass about the environment, throw in some hardcore thugs, and, unsurprisingly, people get murdered. She was gunned down in her bedroom by someone wielding an AK-47. I was shocked to read that she was just one of a series of people who'd been killed in the lawlessness that has characterized Kenya in the last twenty years. Joan Root joins Dian Fossey and the Adamsons of Born Free fame, all of them murdered.

I'm winding my way through the Gordon-Reed book. It's a little overwritten, but then again I'm betting it's in reaction to her first book, which pretty much ended the debate on whether Jefferson had fathered children by Sally Hemings. I imagine she is writing to deal with those who can't wrap their minds around the fact that Jefferson would actually sleep with a slave woman. I don't have a problem with that because, hello, brilliant though he was, he was pretty morally bankrupt in my book. Please do not tell me it was the time. He kept slaves even though he knew it was immoral, but he couldn't live his life as he envisioned it without slavery. Aside from the global issue, what about sleeping with your wife's half-sister, fathered by your father-in-law... You get the picture.

Anyway, my little commentary aside, Gordon-Reed makes a lot of leaps here, and I understand why (sources being thin on the ground), but what is more fascinating is how the Virginia ruling class actually applied a different set of laws to slaves so that they could maintain this system (as opposed to laws governing the white and free population). It was a bash to fit solution. General law deemed that your status in life was passed down through your father. That wouldn't do at ALL in a slave-owning culture, therefore, they changed the law so that status was passed down through the mother. A simple, yet effective solution. Of course it also gave complete latitude to white men who wanted to bed black women and not have their bi-racial children actually be legitimate heirs. Even when Jefferson was ambassador to France, he never registered his slaves as dictated by French law, because then if they decided to declare themselves free, he would have had to free them. So he didn't. Another charming bash to fit solution to his little slave problem.

So I'm reading these books while in New Orleans. I have lived through my own natural disasters: an earthquake and a firestorm. You live in California, you're going to face one or the other at some point. Fortunately, I wasn't on a freeway when the earthquake hit, and I lived far enough away from the firestorm that I didn't lose my home. I know lots of people who did, who ended up fighting with insurance companies, and getting FEMA loans to rebuild, and who were genuinely scarred but who survived. Four years later I wouldn't say that New Orleans is surviving. Lots and lots of boarded up buildings, even now, with the telltale watermarks on the roofs. The only places that have full parking lots are the Lowes and the Home Depots, yet we saw block after block of foundations. Just foundations. Even now. Occasionally, you'd see that someone had rebuilt, but you had to ask yourself why? Because to either side of them were the outlines of foundations with nothing on top of them. Generally, the areas that were most devastated by the water were inhabited by the poor. The areas that were devastated by the firestorm here in California were populated by upper middle-class types, who knew that if the insurance company jerked you around, you called a lawyer. Houses were rebuilt and FEMA money came through. People were not living in trailers two years down the road.

I picked up the Times Picayune every day we were in New Orleans. On every page there was an article about someone being indicted. Every day. Every page. Obama came through while we were there and I thought, pick up the paper, dude. It's all there. That's why four years down the road you're in St. Bernard's Parish and the water is gone and the bulldozers have moved in but that's about all you can say. The land grab must be imminent. If you don't rebuild, then the property only loses in value every day it sits vacant. And when you have block after block, then, well. People with the checkbooks are waiting. It's going to be pennies on the dollar.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Book Rec and Whining

I've started my new book. This is a bit of a departure for me, and I'm having a whole hell of a lot of fun with the concept. It's the first idea in a long time that's actually excited me. I'm up to roughly 13,000 words, and I've made a vow to finish this by Christmas, which isn't impossible, although extremely ambitious.

And then I got derailed for a couple of weeks by what Truman Capote called the mean reds. Because I read a book. One of the most marvelous books I've read in ages. I keep haphazard, barely legible lists (I found a napkin the other day with five book titles on it!) squirreled away in odd places, and this book's title kept cropping up: Call Me by Your Name, by Andre Aciman. It is a stunning read. A coming of age story set in Italy, the protagonist is seventeen-year-old boy named Elio and his lover is a twenty-four-year old academic named Oliver. Note I use the word lover; I don't use it lightly. This book is about falling in love. This book is about falling in love so deeply and completely and totally that it ruins your life in a sense. The bar has been set so high that no one else comes close. I'm sounding like the blurb off the back of a cheap romance novel. He doesn't. Trust me on this. This is best book I've read in couple of years and ranks up there with one of the best books I've read period.

So why the mean reds? Because it’s so beautifully written that it sucked all confidence out of me. Even at the top of my game (I use that term lightly), I couldn’t write like this because it’s not my voice. Truthfully, the author whose voice probably most resembles mine is Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love. That’s my voice or what my voice could be and I’m not complaining. But. Mr. Aciman’s voice is one rich sentence after another, evocative yet simple writing, that manages to pack a wow on every page. I will not be that writer. But I can certainly be a better writer. I’m working on that. Even while fully acknowledging that, well, my brain just doesn’t work that way, it still gutted me.

I know a lot of authors who stop reading when they are working on a project. I’ve never been one of them, but, hey, now joining that bandwagon because I’ve lost two weeks here. Frankly, it’s rare when I read a book that silences my own ego. That says quite a lot about me, I know, and another book I would recommend on this subject is Betsy Lerner’s Forest for the Trees. She does a fab job of getting into the writer’s psyche and laying out the ridiculous (and, obviously, as neurotic as hell) pinball mechanism of the writer’s id: rampaging, insufferable egotism going hand in hand with crippling self-doubt. Welcome to my world. Anyway, part of why I’ve never bothered to adhere to that dictum is that I rarely read anything that wows me. And I mean truly wows me. Aciman’s book had me gasping in delight with every page. That just doesn’t happen anymore, so I’ve never felt the need to not read while knee-deep in a book project.

Some of this is because, well, books just aren’t that good anymore. They are rushed through the publishing process, the most important criteria being their sales potential. Being the hot book. Not being the well-written hot book. No, the operative word here is hot. Books aren’t edited anymore, and I’m now convinced they aren’t even copy edited anymore. Spell check and slap a cover on it. That’s about that size of it these days. So books that might have been great with a lot more work are mediocre. I can’t tell you the number of books I’ve read in the last five years that had the bones of great. Another six months of hard work would have propelled that book from okay to decent or from decent to marvelous (and for those who know me, no, I’m not discussing the last Harry Potter book because that’s flat out stroke inducing).

Since mystery is the genre I write in, do we even need to say major plot busts? Do we need to say sloppy construction, contrived endings, half-realized characterizations, and, sigh, on and on. It’s all about sales these days. And while I understand better than most people why book sales are plummeting (I have a fifteen-year-old son and reading is just another word for torture), I also say to you, well, you’re producing schlock. Maybe why your sales are tanking?

Anyway, Mr. Aciman’s book is so far from schlock that I urge you to read it. Other books that wowed me: Feast of Love by Charles Baxter. It’s more accessible than Aciman's book, but if multiple POVs bother you, then this isn’t the book for you (although I thought that part of the power of this book was how well he manipulated the POVs). What a touching, lovely book. Speaking of touching, read Calvin Trilling’s About Alice. This is also about finding true love. He wrote this after his wife had died, so it’s from the other end of the spectrum, at the end of a great love as opposed to the beginning. I loved Alice, too, by the end. Another book that I thought was stunning, certainly along the lines of Aciman’s book, was Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty. I was cooking when AIDS started to devastate the S.F. chef community, so this book packed a punch like you wouldn’t believe, but it doesn’t need that backdrop to be a powerful, gorgeous read. All these books are completely different in style, but they share one thing. They say what they want to say well. Language is a song to them.

Back to writing.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Google and Roman Polanski

I haven't forgotten about the Mysterious Food crossword puzzle. I've been beset with a horrible virus and for some reason (even though I've eliminated the virus), gmail is giving me terrible trouble. So much trouble that to type a single sentence can take me up to five minutes. I keep running virus scans, etc., but to no avail. Ideas, oh wiser ones?

Roman Polanski. No, I wasn't shocked that Woody Allen came out in support of Mr. Polanski given Mr. Allen's history of seducing minors. Other Hollywood luminaries who signed this petition did shock me. Apparently, if you're rich and famous and connected, then rape is okay. I read one more apologia about how he's suffered and I'm going to scream bloody murder. How he's been in exile. How he was a victim of the Holocaust. How he lost his wife. I grew up in California. I know these facts. You know what? Boo fucking hoo. It does not give him a free pass. I repeat. It does not give him a free pass.

And I say to those people who clamour that he's paid for his crime. How? How did he pay for his crime? His victim had to sue him in a civil trial for reparations. Sue him! Did he fund crisis hotlines for rape victims? Did he crusade for victims of violent crime? Did he lecture on the evils of drugs and alcohol to teenagers? No, he did not. He did none of those things. He went to France, made movies, bought a chalet, drank wine, got married, had a couple of kids of his own, and won an Oscar for his work. In fact, he lived the EXACT SAME LIFE he would have lived had he not attacked that girl. Nothing changed for him. Not a thing.

That can't be said for the kid he raped, now can it?