Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas got better

I've earned enough credentials in the past week to qualify me as a self-help writer. For the book on weight loss, my advice will be, "Eat less, and exercise more. Try not to gorge yourself, unless you need comforting after a breakup, or it's Christmas, in which case it is okay to pig out, because that is the nature of that holiday." For the book on relationships, my advice will be, "Never ever date a super religious person. He will say he loves you, and then dump you because he thinks you're a heathen. If he prays as obsessively as you check your e-mail, it's probably not a good match."

Another area of my expertise is being hospitable to a Southern guest. "Don't ever serve your Southern guest potatoes. Only serve him grits . . . 24 hours a day. Serving Southerners potatoes is deeply insulting for some reason. And don't introduce your Southern guest to any of your condescending friends who think all Southerners are stupid, racist hicks. Your Southern guest may threaten to throw your friend out the window. And once your Southern guest leaves, you may start speaking with a Southern accent. This is normal. Your accent will fade and go back to normal as you adjust to life without your Southern guest."

This Christmas was fun, despite me being sick and sleep-deprived. My mom, our friend Richard, and I went to see "Avatar." I liked the political and environmental messages. The whole movie was thrilling and stunning, although I detected rape symbolism in the scene when Jake chooses his dragon. I'm curious to know if anybody else was disturbed by that, or if it's just me.

And I have to write about my presents because this was the most literary Christmas ever. I got the books "Naming the World" and "Stephen Fry in America." And I now have a subscription to "The Paris Review." One present of everlasting coolness, which will come in very handy, is "A Working Writer's Daily Planner." Every writer should own one. It lists writing contests and residencies, gives writing prompts, encouragement, and it also includes a submissions tracker.

I think I will read Stephen Fry's book before bed, and then wake up to my Stephen Fry alarm clock in the morning. Jolly good plan, I say.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Melancholy Christmas

'Tis the season for heartbreak, brain damage, and reading about Nazi moms. Today I went shopping for stocking stuffers, a healthy alternative to stalking someone, particularly a certain heartbreaker, and while browsing dvds, pungent fumes assailed my nostrils and I felt woozy. I looked and saw some employees sweeping up some red dust and they just smiled at me like they weren't bothered by the smell. I think that red dust on the floor, whatever it was, is what gave me nightmarish nausea. I had to seek refuge in cosmetics, where my brain began throbbing and I seriously thought I would have permanent brain damage. I tried to focus on bottles of foundation, praying for my headache to go away. I imagined myself a human vegetable lying on a hospital bed, my mom saying, "She wanted to be a novelist, but after that fateful trip to Fred Meyer that will never happen."

Well, a couple hours later my headache left. My years working out in a boxing gym and getting punched in the face probably caused more brain damage than those fumes, but still,  it was no fun at all. I admit I am a grouch this Christmas. Today, on Facebook I made my status update, "Meriwether Falk wishes everyone a plague of frogs this joyous holiday. Ribbit." I added the ribbit so I would sound slightly less grouchy. Rather than having mistletoe on my mind, I'm thinking about the movie "Magnolia," in which a plague of frogs falls from the sky.

Perhaps my brain damage was kismet because I ate two packages of German cookies that were supposed to be shared by everyone tomorrow. I thought I'd be able to replace them, and not have to own up to eating them, but when I went to Trader Joes today, they were sold out! I had to buy pfeffernusse instead. Hopefully no one will yell, "Pfeffernusse!!?" in a fit of rage when I have to confess my cookie greed.

A Charlie Brown Christmas is playing and macaroni and cheese is in the oven, so things are not all bad. And my venomous relatives did not invite me to celebrate Christmas with them, so really I should count my blessings. I bought myself books at Powell's today, even though I should only buy things for other people. I bought "Shakespeare: The world as Stage" by Bill Bryson, "Livability" by Jon Raymond, and "Adverbs" by Daniel Handler. "Adverbs" looks especially fun. Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, named each chapter after an adverb. I had a writing teacher once who acted like the adverb police, circling every adverb with red ink. She encouraged her minions in the class to mirror the same prejudice.

Anyway, moving right along. I need a funny book to read next, because the last book I read was profound and disturbing. "Let Me Go," by Helga Shneider is a memoir about a mother daughter relationship delayed by the mother's job at Auschwitz. The mother is practically the antichrist, and yet through Shneider's relaying of their relationship, the reader can pity her, despite knowing the atrocities of her past. This book will make everybody wonder about the true nature of evil. I believe in sociopaths, but I also wonder if everyone is capable of committing evil acts. If people had the power to get away with whatever they pleased, what would the world be like? This memoir is absolutely amazing. I couldn't sleep last night because it was so good. I want to meet the author and shake her hand. I want to express my deepest admiration and respect to her for being so brave and honest while writing this book.

I sometimes get embarrassed when my mom makes animal noises in public but I have my lucky stars to thank that my mom doesn't brag about performing experiments on people. And thank God she doesn't beat me with a baton, although she did whack me with a tube of wrapping paper when I accidentally walked in on her wrapping one of my presents today. :)

Everyone should read "Let Me Go." It will depress the hell out of you, but it's totally worth it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Two modern fairy tales

For a class I had to read "The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction." Some of these stories, like "The School," by Donald Barthelme, and "Girl," by Jamaica Kincaid, I have read so many times for classes that although they're very short, I find reading them comparable to sucking on a sweet-centered sour candy. I just want to get to the end.

With that complaint out of the way, I should mention that most of the stories in here are wonderful. T.C. Boyle, Mary Gaitskill, Amy Bloom, ZZ Packer, Edward P. Jones, and George Saunders are not to be missed. But the two stories that blew my mind were "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story," by Russell Banks, and "The Disappeared," by Charles Baxter.

In "The Disappeared," a Swedish engineer named Anders is visiting Detroit on business. He asks the doorman at the hotel for some recommendations on how to spend his free time. The dialogue is so exact, capturing city dialect, that the reader can tell how confused Anders must be, although he tries to play along like he understands the American expressions hurled at him. Anders doesn't want to trouble people by asking them to be clearer. Eschewing the doorman's recommendation that he drink in bars for the duration of his trip, Anders goes to a park where he meets Lauren, and quickly falls in love. He can't figure out Lauren's ethnicity and thinks it would be rude to ask, so the reader never finds out either.

There is something intriguing about an outsider trying to find his way around a foreign place. Anders is one of those genuinely nice characters who gets dealt a bad hand. Walking around Detroit, he notices signs with missing letters. Fire imagery and smells waft through the story, symbolizing the fling with Lauren that flared passionately and died down.

In "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story," the narrator is a lawyer, wallowing in embarrassment over an affair he had with an ugly woman, Sarah Cole. He is so vague, saying it doesn't matter where the story takes place. He sounds like a crime suspect changing his story while being questioned, and yet having such an unreliable narrator gives this story a strong essence of truth. In the second sentence he reveals that Sarah Cole is dead, and like a good investigator following a trail of clues, the reader needs to learn how she died. They meet in a bar, after the narrator gets off work. (Perhaps if Anders, from "The Disappeared," had taken the doorman's advice to go to a bar, he would have wound up with a woman like Sarah Cole, instead of Lauren, that is, if this were one of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books.) The descriptions of Sarah Cole's appearance, voice, and mannerisms make her one of the most lifelike characters I've ever come across.

If anyone is familiar with the true story of how the biologist Herbert Spencer broke the heart of the novelist George Eliot,
that is what this story reminded me of. But at least George Eliot had brains and money and could get her revenge with words. Sarah Cole has neither brains, nor bank, nor dignity. She is like a hapless toad some witch has cast a spell on.

Both of these stories are rich in details, complexity and human emotion. They remind me of the most tragic of fairy tales, and attest that romantic tragedies don't need to end like Romeo and Juliet to have a heart-wrenching finish.