Saturday, October 29, 2011

Stories I Only Tell My Friends, by Rob Lowe

Now and again I crave fluff. Literary fluff. In a literary sense, a steady diet of fiction and creative nonfiction provides nourishment the same way three-squares and green leafies do. Still, we all need a treat now and then. When one of those days hit, what I look for is the literary equivalent of a bowl of Cap'n Crunch.

Enter the celebrity memoir. Celebrity stories are a great way to yummify your reading. Who better to immerse you in drama, and distract you from the tedium of your life than a celeb? Has anyone in Hollywood not fallen from grace? These juicy stories drip with drugs, politics and sex. Not to mention the name-dropping. My list of 'Stars I Pine Over' has never included Rob Lowe -- that chiseled jaw is just too perfect -- but from the moment I saw "Stories I Only Tell My Friends" I was hooked. A Rob Lowe memoir -- what could be juicier? After all, if it's literary fluff you're looking for, you might as well go "all the way."

So, you ask, what did I think? I liked it! I really did! SIOTMF was a fun, rollicking read. Lowe doesn't disappoint, gives us everything we're looking for: insider notes on the Sheen family; encounters with royalty; the sex tape scandal. Lowe tells all. My only complaints were the name-dropping, which was so prevalent it became tad wearisome, and the way Lowe sometimes let himself off the hook too easily, rationalizing away his outrageous behavior.

Even while engaged in the story, though, I burned with curiosity What I really wanted to know was whether Lowe worked with a ghost writer. Celebrity memoirs are a dime a dozen, and not many credit a professional writer. C'mon. But Lowe claims he wrote this alone. And who knows -- it's obvious from reading SIOTMF that Lowe's no dummy; maybe he did pen it hemself.

In the end, "Stories I Only Tell My Friends" is the literary equivalent of a huge sugar high. So if you find yourself smack in the middle of a bad morning unable to tackle one more egg white omelet, pour yourself a bowl of literary Cap'n Crunch, and cozy up to a copy of SIOTMF. It's delicious.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Richard Rodriguez

Okay, I'll admit it: I went to Monday night's Richard Rodriguez reading AMA (against medical advice). Since the Thursday before I had been roasting with fever, keeping my husband up at night with my barking seal cough, and I was done, DONE, HEAR ME?, with illness causing me to miss out on life. No matter that the doc, who sent me for a chest x-ray, had that very Monday afternoon slapped me with a diagnosis of pneumonia. I had already missed my Thursday hair appointment, Friday writing group and the entire weekend. I knew I couldn't go to dinner before the reading with Mr. Rodriguez and the Butler group -- who would want to sit next to me? Besides, I was afraid of infecting our visiting author. But the reading? My physician husband looked at me and shook his head. " Do whatever you want," he said. This really meant 'I know you're going to do what you want so I'm washing my hands of the entire matter.' My physician friend tsk-tsked, said oh, no. But, when pressed, she acquiesced and said that if I sat alone, suppressed my cough, and didn't touch anything, I could probably live without the gnawing guilt that comes with infecting a crowd of undergraduates with pneumonia.

So Monday night I slugged back an antibiotic, two Tylenol, half a dose of cough syrup and headed off. (I know this isn't SOP. I certainly don't recommend anyone else ever do this. Because I know how my body reacts to all these medication, though, I knew I could pull it off.) Purposefully waiting until the crowd was seated, I slid into Butler's Reilly room and sat on the floor, slumped against the back wall. No matter, I was there. Rodriguez didn't disappoint.

Richard Rodriguez is an intriguing man: an academic who, because he felt affirmative action gave him an unfair advantage, eschewed an academic career. A Hispanic who is outspoken about his belief that immigrants should learn their new country's language. A homosexual who doesn't want to be labeled gay. A nonfiction writer with three memoirs, who writes essays for some of the countries most prestigious publications.

Rodriguez focused on "Brown," his most recent memoir. Despite that he's now working on a book about the Abrahamic religions and their connection to the desert, he still has plenty of fire for "Brown," and its thesis, that increasingly, few of us can claim pure heritage, and that's a good thing. He began by telling us that he wants us to feel that "Brown" is about us, and not him. Then he raised his hands to his head, smoothed back his silver hair and demanded, "I want to know, what is brown? Once I decided to write about 'brown,' it was everywhere I looked."

Mr. Rodriguez spoke in measured, precise words. Following his thoughts was a little like watching a paint-by-numbers canvas fill in magically. Here are some on Rodriguez's thoughts about 'brown': Hispanic is not a racial category, but an ethnic one; Mexico came about as a result of the love story between Indians and Spaniards; some day our kids will all look mixed, like Keanu Reeves; Many people have blood that is so mixed they no longer know what to call themselves.

Rodriguez shared a story: He corresponded for a long time with a prisoner, incarcerated for bank robbery. The man described his road away from the law. He wrote that he had a brother, and their mother died when they were young. Their father despised them, and once held the head of one underwater while the other slashed at the father's neck with a kitchen knife, trying to free the other. The prisoner wrote that the reason he never became completely evil is that he was taken to Chinese restaurants and saw chopsticks. The chopsticks showed him there was another world, one that extended beyond the confines of the horrible one in which he was stuck.

One fascinating question posed by the audience: If all people are blending, won't we lose our specific, rich cultures? Rodriguez answered Yes. Maybe. But then he added that there is a biological notion that will keep reinventing separateness. And then he added a touching statement, saying that he wants to know that others are part of him.

I'm sure my husband, who I know had only my best interests at heart, thought I'd regret going out Monday night. But I don't. Four days later and, yes, I'm still sick, but I don't think Monday night's outing impacted the length of my illness one bit. Look, how many times am I going to get the chance to hear a speaker as unique, insightful and articulate as Richard Rodriguez? And it was better than being at the dinner, where I would have been trying to figure out how to politely suck up Pad Thai noodles without making slurping sounds. Not that I'm bitter.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Indy's author scene: Hass and McElmurray

This season's Butler's Visiting Writers series began with a reading from poet and essayist, Robert Hass. It's not that Hass and I have nothing in common --both of us from the Bay Area, from childhoods spotlit by emotionally friable mothers. Still, I had a hard time connecting to his work. I'll be the first to admit it: I know nothing about poetry. Sure, Hass was genial, but I don't think anyone in the auditorium that night left invigorated.

Next on the docket was novelist and memoirist Karen McElmurray. McElmurray's memoir, "Surrendered Child," was haunting. Lyrical. 'Dark Memoir,' with a capital 'D.' McElmurray grew up with a punishing, mentally ill mother. When the mother leaves home McElmurray, finally free, rebels, gets pregnant and married at 16 -- in that order -- and then gives her baby up for adoption.

There were whispers. Some thought McElmurray should have employed a more traditional structure for her memoir. Me? I think stories can be many things, can be told many ways. They don't have to follow the standard 'start at point A, end at point B, add conflict along the way' recipe. (Thanks, Michael Martone.) Can't valid writing include mosaics, portraits, or even slices of life? Words strung together illuminate. The light may have different qualities, but the prose still shines.

You might write "potato" and I might write "potahto," They're both spuds. Maybe there's space in the literary potato bin for every type of writing. As long as it's done well.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Left Neglected, by Lisa Genova

The brain is mysterious, endlessly fascinating. Oliver Sacks enthralled us with "Awakening" and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." Lisa Genova first entered the neuroscientist-as-author arena in 2009 with "Still Alice," the story of a woman who succumbs to early onset Alzheimer's disease. With "Left Neglected," Genova tells the story of Sarah Nickerson, a high powered VP, wife of Bob, and mother of three young children.

As she did in "Still Alice," Genova picked a great story to tell. The neurological disorder, in this case Left Neglect, serves as the novel's foundation. Around this foundation Genova crafted a narrative that's compelling and relatable. Sarah's conflicts -- efforts to balance children and career, worries about keeping up with the Joneses -- although ratcheted up from the level many of us experience, are universal. So when Sarah looks away for a moment, crashes her car and ends up in the hospital with a brain injury, we're right there with her. She's forced out of the hamster wheel of every day life -- she couldn't move quickly if she tried. Her superwoman cape gone, Sarah has no choice but to accept help --from her mother, no less.

The lessons Sarah learns in her new life, which has been transformed and is ostensibly less-than, are ones we could all benefit from: Slow down. Appreciate small gifts. Live in the present. "Left Neglected" paints a picture of acceptance and gratitude. My wish for the New Year is that --without any tragedy involved -- we'll all hear these lessons.

Shana Tova, U'Metukah!