Friday, January 29, 2010

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Signed First Edition

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
by Jamie Ford

Dear Persons who may have certain ideas about Montana writers: Not all of us write about fishing, horses or ranching. Some of us write scenes that happen (gasp!) indoors. And don’t let the University of Montana fool you — it is entirely possible to be an author in the Big Sky State without first having completed their creative writing program.

Take Jamie Ford, for instance. Although he grew up near Seattle’s Chinatown, he now lives in my hometown of Great Falls with his family. He may not be a native, but can we go ahead and claim him? Yeah? Great Falls authors, represent!

Cheerleading aside, I started this book really wanting to enjoy it, despite historical novels being something to which I’m not usually drawn. Ford tells the story of a first generation Chinese-American, Henry Lee, who we first see standing outside of the Panama Hotel, located in what used to be Seattle’s Japantown. The building’s owner has just discovered the abandoned possessions of Japanese families who were forced into internment camps during World War II, and Henry is certain that the belongings of his long lost love are still in the basement.

The story bounces back and forth between 1986 and 1942, starting when Henry is about to turn thirteen years old. His father is a Chinese nationalist, and after Pearl Harbor, he requires Henry to wear a button reading “I am Chinese,” and to “speak his American.” At school, he is tormented for being different, and the Chinese children tease him for going to a white school. His only friend is a jazz street musician, Sheldon. One day, a new girl arrives to work alongside him in the school lunchroom, a Japanese-American student named Keiko Okabe. The two form a fast friendship that evolves into first love, all while the war progresses and life in Seattle becomes far more dangerous for Japanese families.

If the plot sounds terribly Romeo and Juliet, it does not come off that way. Still, I have a few quibbles with the writing itself. Perhaps it’s a matter of my own taste, but I could have done with a lot less simile and metaphor. 1986 Henry seems more prone to it than his younger self, but some of it felt a bit, “Look, I’m writing!”

Within just two pages near the beginning of the book, I wondered if I’d be continually distracted by passages like these:

“The more Henry thought about the shabby old knickknacks, the forgotten treasures, the more he wondered if his own broken heart might be found there, hidden among the unclaimed possessions of another time. Boarded up in the basement of a condemned hotel. Lost, but never forgotten.”

Regarding his son:

“But college also seemed to keep him out of Henry’s life, which had been acceptable when Ethel was alive, but now it made the hole in Henry’s life that much larger — like standing on one side of a canyon, yelling, and always waiting for the echo that never came.”

Repeatedly, the themes of loneliness and imperfection are overemphasized. I say this as a person who primarily reads and writes within these themes, but I tend to prefer more straightforward, less flowery prose, especially when it comes to an internal monologue. That’s not to disparage anyone who likes a swell of Wordsworth proportions, but I don’t think I would have issues with the writing style overall if the similes and metaphors had not been so extravagant. However, I understand that trying to describe the grandest feelings is endless, imperfect work.

But here’s the thing — I loved the story, I really did. Five days is all it took for me to read the nearly 300 pages, with most of the reading occurring over two. It’s impossible not to empathize with these kids, and there’s genuine suspense to the narrative. I wanted to see how the past informed the present, and of course, how it all ended. Because of that, Hotel succeeds.

And though I may have had issues with some of the writing, let me assure you that there are gems as well:

“Henry was learning that time apart has a way of creating distance — more than the mountains and time zone separating them. Real distance, the kind that makes you ache and stop wondering. Longing so bad that it begins to hurt to care so much.”

I’ll be interested to see what Jamie Ford does next.

Book # 13/52

Photo by me, the signed first edition my mother bought me for Christmas. Thanks, Mom!

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review also appeared on Pajiba on February 17, 2010.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead by Ariel Gore

How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead: Your Words in Print and Your Name in Lights
by Ariel Gore

To prepare for my very first performance at a literary reading, I decided to trot out this book again. I bought it a couple of years ago, based on the title alone. We’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but you’re damn right I’ll be swayed by a catchy title. Ariel Gore offers some helpful tips on writing, starting with the first flickers of inspiration all the way through to publishing and name recognition.

“If I’ve got a huge mess on my desk and I’m convinced it’s time to give up, this must be page 100. Page 100 is not a good day.”

No, page 100 — and its project-specific equivalent — is never a good day. Page 100 is the day you’d set someone on fire if they even glanced at the junk coming out of your fingers. If there’s one thing writers are really good at, it’s believing everything we’ve just written is crap. Pulitzer winners probably still have this problem, and maybe it is crap and maybe it isn’t, but the secret is just carrying on anyway. Either make it better or let it ride.

It’s nice to come back to this book and see that I’ve been doing a lot of things right. I still make zero money from all this rambling that I do, but I’m hopeful that will change. In the time since I purchased this book, I finished writing a book, wrote first drafts of two others, started an online arts and entertainment magazine with my husband, taken on various writing-related challenges (like Cannonball here), and have had a few bizarre moments where people I don’t know recognize me. Not too shabby, considering I don’t leave the house much and brush my hair roughly three times a week.

“Written stories are no different from visual art. When you make a poem and give it to another person, you are providing him with something that has the power to sustain him. You could just as easily be making him a sandwich. It’s a creation of your generous heart, but it is also a product. This frame of mind needn’t change the way you create your written work, but it should be put to use when you bring that work into the marketplace.”

What I like about this book is that while it has certain indie-hippie undertones, it doesn’t make any judgements one way or another about what the ‘best’ way to publish is. Self-publish, find an agent, make your own zines, start a blog, go for the big publishing house deal — do whatever works for you. “Be as crazy as you are,” she says.

Gore stresses meeting your deadlines, even if they are self-imposed. You could be writing the most brilliant prose in the world, but that doesn’t matter so much if your editor needed it yesterday. Somewhat substandard and on time is better than nothing. As a former copy editor who has stared at many an empty-handed writer, I can wholeheartedly agree. No one’s going to want to work with you if they have to hold your hand through the whole process.

Once you’ve written something and found a way to put it out there, the book offers advice on how to master your own publicity, including how to get over the fear of getting up on stage. Not all of us are born performers or teachers, and we don’t necessarily know what to do with ourselves when we can’t write it out first. And even if we’re reading something we’ve already gone over a zillion times, it’s still a little strange to do it out loud. I wouldn’t say I’m introverted, but I definitely come off more collected in print.

“You’re a lit star, dammit. And this is how you will rise. Open your mouth and force the words out. Again and again. Practice. And then practice some more. You don’t have to be Anaïs Nin or Maya Angelou, but you’ve got to be able to get through a reading.”

You know, I did ok. I read four and a half pages from my book, something that I felt like gave a good sense of what the book is about without jumping in at an odd place, and something that I’d revised about a zillion times by now. Though I don’t know how well it held up as a ‘performance piece,’ I do think that with it being my first time out, I needed to err on the side of comfort. People paid attention, I didn’t stumble over my words and next time will be better.

Apart from all the helpful and often funny advice from Ariel Gore herself, she also interviews several other writers, including Dave Barry, Dave Eggers, Michelle Tea and Erika Lopez. Each have their own way of doing things, and each have their own ideas as to how you might try making your way through the literary world.

Though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to people just beginning the writing process — better to get books that concentrate more on craft for that — but for anyone who has waded in a little or anyone who feels they might be stuck in a success-rut, it can’t hurt to give some of this advice a try.

Book # 12/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review also appeared on the RiVerSpeAK blog on January 26th, 2010.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Addendum to the List Below:

No sooner do I post my favorite albums of the Aughts do I realize a glaring omission: Alone With Everybody by Richard Ashcroft. Or maybe Keys to the World. Either way, I forgot to mention him, even though "You on My Mind in My Sleep," "Why Not Nothing," "Music is Power," and "New York" are only a few of his fantastic songs. If I had to bump anyone from the list below? Sorry Damien Rice. You're out.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Why I Aughtta... (hurt you for making bad, outdated puns)

Contrary to popular belief that I help perpetuate, I do not only listen to music that first came about in the 90s. Oh, I may not have much of a disposable income anymore, but I didn’t spend the last decade clutching Definitely Maybe and Deep Dish, dreaming about better days. Not when there are lists to make!

From the year 2000 until the last moments of 2009, I aged from 16 to 26.

Though, yes, there are a lot of artists on these lists who also released albums in the 90s. What can I say? I’m loyal. These aren’t my usual style of reviews. Due to the length of the lists, I think everyone will appreciate me not meandering.

Now then! In no particular order...

15 Favorite Albums of the Aughts:

Cold Roses by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals (2005)
Life without this album is not worth living. I can’t believe I did my entire Alphabet Soup project before hearing it. There is not point in telling you what are stand-out tracks, since they are all stand-out tracks, except to say, life without “Let It Ride” is definitely not worth living. You must buy this album.

Sing the Sorrow by AFI (2003)
If you do not like AFI because they signed with a major label and because they aren’t a hardcore band anymore, I have a few words for you over on SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine. (Summary: You’re insecure.) Sing the Sorrow is a damn near perfect album, right up there with Art of Drowning, which came out in the previous decade. AFI continue to evolve, but I do love this melancholy, lovelorn offering. “Silver and Cold” is one of my all-time favorite songs.

The Swimming Hour by Andrew Bird (2001)
It’s not the album that made him famous, but it’s the one of which I am most fond. Breezy, somewhat silly and with a ode to Greenland, there’s not a song on it that I don’t like. One of these days, I’ll summon the bravery to cover “Too Long” in some form. Anyone who is an Andrew Bird fan that has not investigated anything before The Mysterious Production of Eggs is doing themselves a disservice.

Don’t Believe the Truth by Oasis (2005)
I went back and forth, trying to decide between this album and Dig Out Your Soul. When I already love just about everything they release, I have to get nit-picky. I can’t believe it, but the deciding factor? Andy Bell. Andy’s penned song, “Keep the Dream Alive,” is worlds better than “The Nature of Reality.” However, this is the album where Liam starts to show more promise as a songwriter (“Meaning of Soul” is perfect), and Noel... Well, you already know I like everything he writes.

Glasvegas by Glasvegas (2008)
Back in July, I said of Glasvegas, “If Joe Strummer and the Edge had a baby, and if that baby was raised in Glasgow on a steady diet of Oasis and The Smiths, you might get something like Glasvegas. Never have such sad songs felt so good.” One of the best new bands of the decade, easy. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

More Adventurous by Rilo Kiley (2004)
I like to entertain the thought that if I were a singer, I’d be a bit like Jenny Lewis. When I sing along with her, I feel as though my voice might not be half bad. Every song on this album will make you want to sing along, even when she’s lamenting relationships gone twisted and all the people who disappoint. Rilo Kiley are the best and only band I’ve ever discovered by reading an issue of Entertainment Weekly.

Some Cities by Doves (2005)
Ah, Doves. I have loved you ever since you popped up on my Q Magazine Best of 2000 CD. I figured out how to end my book while listening to “Someday Soon,” and if there are people who don’t like “Walk in Fire,” I’m not sure I want to know them. I’m a sucker for Northern bands, it’s true, and please don’t hold it against me that I haven’t yet bought Kingdom of Rust.

The Invisible Band by Travis (2001)
Travis get some flack, and it’s true that their newer stuff is probably only as good to the die-hards, but I have a great fondness for their first three albums. The Invisible Band is full of gems like “Sing,” “Flowers in the Window,” and “Indefinitely.” This album makes me happy, and I’m content not to complete their catalogue.

Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea by PJ Harvey (2000)
I’d never purchased a PJ Harvey album before buying this one. She always seemed like the sort of artist I should respect, but I’d never gotten around to her. Then “Kamikaze” popped up on that aforementioned Best of 2000 CD, and I had to get what would turn out to be another near-perfect album. I don’t care if it’s different from everything else she’s done, and I don’t care if she’s not “supposed” to write “happy.” I will always sing along.

Golden State by Bush (2001)
Their last album. The roommate I had on the day of its release tried to have a conversation with me when I put it on for the first time. I may have shushed her a little too forcefully, but come on, I’d been waiting 3 years for this thing. While it may not be my favorite Bush album, it’s a million times better than Gavin Rossdale’s last solo album. Seriously, Gavin, I’ll keep saying it — Give the other guys a ring.

Skylarkin' by Mic Christopher (2002)
I only heard of Mic Christopher after his sudden death, by his association with one of my favorite bands, The Frames. A friend sent me this album around my birthday that year, and it’s just beautiful, heart-swelling music. It’s unfortunate this is the last he ever made.

O by Damien Rice (2003)
The man may be a bit of bastard personality-wise, but he makes some great music. In September, I said, “He is a howl of loneliness and introspection, crashing through love lost and love never had at all. The songs are so personal, yet so identifiable — How does one’s chest not seize just a bit while hearing them?”

Morning View by Incubus (2001)
Honestly, this is the last good album they’ve made. Everything following it has been mediocre with flashes of possibility, and it’s too bad. In 2001, they seemed to have finally shed the stoner-surfer vibe and began to really work at what they did. “Warning” is a beautiful song, one of many with good, interesting lyrics. What happened after this that caused dreck like “Love Hurts?”

Robbers and Cowards by Cold War Kids (2006)
When Tyson saw these guys play a tiny opening gig in Seattle, he wondered why they weren’t huge already. Six months later, they were, and he could finally find the album in a store. An indie rock record that isn’t shoe-gazing and ethereal? Imagine that! Crunchy guitar, scratchy vocals, stomping out the melancholy — what a debut.

The Rising by Bruce Springsteen (2002)
Bruuuuuuuce. This is the album that made me a fan, I’ll admit. Sure, I found what I heard by him before enjoyable, and I never minded when one of his songs came on, but this is the one that made me “get it.” Although some songs on here nearly move me to tears, I’m glad I came around. The man knows what he’s doing.

10 Favorite Songs (not included in the above albums) of the Aughts:

“Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
“Handle with Care” by Jenny Lewis and Conor Oberst
“Countenance” by Beth Orton
“Boots of Chinese Plastic” by Pretenders
“Never Forget You” by The Noisettes
“Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley
“Move Your Feet” by Junior Senior
“Newborn” by Elbow
“Very Best Friend” by Proud Mary
“Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” by KT Tunstall

5 Favorite Live Albums of the Aughts:

Dreams We Have As Children by Noel Gallagher (2009)
Set List: Live in Dublin by The Frames (2003)
Live in Boston by Fleetwood Mac (2004)
Collision Course by Jay-Z and Linkin Park (2004)
So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter by Ani DiFranco (2002)

5 Favorite Gigs of the Aughts:

Oasis, Ryan Adams and The Cardinals — Seattle, WaMu Theater, August 2008 (last tour)

Gavin Rossdale, Bush, live in Denver 2002

Bush — Denver, The Fillmore, February 2002 (last tour)

Fleetwood Mac — Spokane Arena, August 2004
Ani DiFranco — Spokane, The Met, August 2006

Lucinda Williams — Spokane, Riverfront Park, September 2008

Man, that’s a lot of lists. I didn’t even trot out my more specific ones, like 10 Favorite Oasis Songs From the Past 10 Years, or the same for Ryan Adams, but you can believe they exist. I’m sure that in about a week, some glaring omission will hit me with these, but as they stand, I think I summed up my listening habits well.

Onwards into the Teens. Get cracking on that solo album, Noel.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith: Mermaids on the Golf Course

What are the degrees of fantasy? When is it merely the willing suspension of disbelief, and when is it delusion on much grander scale, a coping mechanism for day-to-day life? In this collection of short stories, Patricia Highsmith’s characters all deal with self-made fantasy, forcing themselves to believe something that they know, perhaps not so deep down, is not true.

“Craig knew he would have to talk to Richard Prescott as if he believed what he was saying. Craig did. He prepared himself as if he were an actor. He emoted.”
— “Where the Action Is”

A woman has all her dead pets sent to the taxidermist so that she can display them in her garden, as though they have never left her, and is puzzled when her husband does not want them featured in the newspaper. Another woman, after little success in her dating life, gets a thrill out of being the beautiful woman at the bar, waiting for a man who will never come.

A man goes to home of his dying acting mentor, where a non-stop party with all the other “disciples” goes on for weeks. Another man witnesses a boy shot on the streets of Quetzalan, Mexico, and is baffled to find that not only is the boy viewed as “very bad,” but that no one wants him to report it.

Many of the eleven stories made me question what was real and what was a product of the character’s imagination, and all made for interesting character studies. Each person struggles with what they know is true, what they want to be true, and how they are expected to behave around others. Perhaps this is most apparent in the title story:

“Minderquist had been going to indulge in a little fantasy about mermaids on the golf course, but he noticed a murmur among the assembled, as if the journalists were consulting one another. Mermaids who graced the links and flipped their tails to send the balls to a more convenient position for the golfer, Minderquist had been going to say, but suddenly three people put questions to him at once.”

Even while reading the rest of the stories in the collection, I kept going back to the ending of this one, trying to make sense of it. It didn’t hit me until the end of the book, and it’s one of Highsmith’s best psychologic explorations. I thought that maybe The Black House would be my favorite out of these past five books, but Mermaids may just edge out as the winner.

Should you stumble across the entire volume, The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, I would recommend picking it up, even if you’re not sure if all the sections will appeal to you. Graham Greene writes an excellent forward, and each section provides great examples of the different varieties of suspense fiction. However, I’d also suggest that you perhaps not read all 725 pages at once, as I did. I’m used to Highsmith’s macabre sensibility, and even I found it a bit overwhelming at times. The next book I read will need to be a great deal more fluffy.

Book # 11/52
Read as part of a 700+ page collection of stories, but this book was published on its own in 1985.

Photo by Tyson Habein.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Books I Read in 2009:


Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink edited by David Remnick (from p. 165 to 350+ish)


Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain *
Shakespeare Wrote For Money by Nick Hornby
The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (first half)

(nothing but magazines)

The Artful Edit by Susan Bell *

(lots of referring to The Artful Edit)

The Believer Music Issue 2009 (rather book-like)

Maps and Legends - Michael Chabon


The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers edited by Vendela Vida *

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty (re-read)
Devil in the Details by Jennifer Traig (re-read)
Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren't as Scary [...] edited by Ted Thompson with Eli Horowitz
Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis (re-read)

Citizen Vince by Jess Walter *
Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland
The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder by Patricia Highsmith
Little Tales of Misogyny by Patricia Highsmith
Slowly, Slowly in the Wind by Patricia Highsmith
The Black House by Patricia Highsmith *

* Strongly recommended

Magazines include Q, Real Simple, The New Yorker, Wired and for the first part of the year, Vanity Fair. Plus the occasional MOJO, Uncut and Writer's Digest.

Also, can you tell when I started Cannonball Read? ;)

Movies I Watched in 2009:


The Wild Thornburys Movie (rewatch, TV)
Big (rewatch, TV)
The Queen (TV)
The Darjeeling Limited
Adaptation (rewatch, TV) *
Drop Dead Gorgeous (rewatch) *
Road to Perdition (rewatch, TV)
Rocky Horror Picture Show (rewatch, TV) **
North by Northwest (TV) *


Rock n Rolla (most of)
I'm Not There *


The Wackness **
Intolerable Cruelty (TV)
Burn After Reading
Hamlet 2 *
Transporter 3
Monsters vs. Aliens (theater)


North by Northwest (rewatch, TV) *
The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Bedtime Stories (bits and pieces on an airplane)
The Constant Gardener


Torn Curtain (rewatch, TV) *
Kinky Boots (TV, not porn, I promise)


Elegy *
Casino Royale (rewatch, TV)
All Over Me (TV)
Love and Sex (TV, dumb title but ok movie)
Up (theater) *
A Home At the End of the World (rewatch, TV) *
Quantam of Solace
Weeds (Season 4, Disc 1) *


Grace of My Heart (rewatch, TV) *
10 Things I Hate About You (rewatch, TV)
Number Seventeen (most of, TV)
The Music Instinct: Science and Song (TV) *
My Own Private Idaho (TV) *
Weeds (Season 4, Disc 2) *
Moulin Rouge! (most-of rewatch, TV)
Young Frankenstein (TV)
Quinceanera (TV) *
Weeds (Season 4, Disc 3)*


Ghost Town
Watchmen *
The Quiet American (TV)*


Mysteries of Pittsburgh


True Blood (Season 1, Discs 1-3)*


True Blood (Season 1, Disc 4-5) *
The Wizard of Oz (rewatch, TV)


Away We Go *

* A favorite for the year
** Seriously, go watch it right now.
And any rewatch usually means that it's worth watching in general