Sunday, June 18, 2017

Leaving San Francisco, Keeping the Poems

China Beach

I knew it was going to happen eventually: getting priced out of San Francisco. For the past few years, the SF housing crisis and its astronomical rents have been international news, and I don't live in a rent-controlled unit. Friends and co-workers, especially those starting families, have left the city in droves to find slightly more affordable housing. Others have been subject to suspect "owner move-in" evictions. In 2015, quintessential San Franciscan cartoonist Paul Madonna was evicted from his Mission apartment and studio. When my roommate and I got notice that our rent (which has gone up annually for years) would be increasing by $600 a month, it was time to leave.

I'm not a lifelong SF resident. I moved to the city in January 2009 with my copy of Broke-Ass Stuart's Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco (I can't imagine what the most current edition recommends). However, I am a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, and I wonder if eventually I won't be able to afford to live within a three-hour radius of San Jose, the city where I was born.

I spent a lot of time on the 38 Geary

In the meantime, however, I've signed the lease for a tiny but lovely Oakland studio (where I'll be able to have a cat!), and look forward to exploring a new city. And I'm not completely leaving San Francisco - like scores of other East Bay residents, I'll be crossing the bay every weekday morning to the Financial District, where I work as an administrative assistant. But I will miss the Richmond District, the "uncool" but formerly affordable neighborhood I've inhabited in three different apartments since first arriving in the city.

This weekend I hauled two large bags of books to sell to Green Apple Books, the Inner Richmond landmark and my favorite bookstore in the world. Afterwards, I stopped by 6th Ave. Aquarium, the crowded, sketchy store where a shark for sale inspired my poem "Wobbygong Shark $299.99." While saying a mental goodbye to the area, I thought of how San Francisco, and especially the Richmond District, has shaped my writing. Perhaps because of "write what you know" and the city's own varieties of beauty and ugliness, San Francisco is the setting for two of my (unpublished) novels and various poems.

Sharks and stingrays for sale at 6th Ave. Aquarium

When I first moved to the city, the places I explored on the weekends were mostly tourist hotspots. One favorite place to go was North Beach. There, I would eat cannoli at Stella's and browse at City Lights Books. A disturbing incident there became my poem "City Lights, Dirty Window." Looking back, I think of how differently I would have handled the situation as an early-thirty-something instead of an early-twenty-something (of course, the creep probably knew better than to target someone who would break his nose). I can now see the statues mentioned from my office building, where they stand as a reminder that art and darkness exist side-by-side in this city.

Corona Heights Park

Long before I moved to the city, the Richmond District was important to me. It was a family tradition to meet my late maternal grandparents for lunch at Louis', the little clifftop diner overlooking Seal Rocks and the ruins of Sutro Baths. My mom shares memories of outings to the long-gone Playland-at-the-Beach, where now stands the Safeway I go to for seaside grocery shopping.

One thing I love about the Richmond District is this proximity to the ocean. I live close to China and Baker Beaches, but sometimes I also visit Ocean Beach, which is the western border of the Richmond and Sunset Districts (and San Francisco itself).  In February, I joined thousands at Ocean Beach for a protest of the Trump administration. I tried to capture the feeling of this popular - but still wild and dangerous - beach in my poem "Ocean Beach, Late November."

Ocean Beach (in July)

The Richmond District is also known for its fog. While a bane to some, the fog, known as Karl to many, is generally beloved. I love and will miss the way light halos through it. The often repeated experience of going to a movie at the 100+ years old 4 Star Theatre and then walking home through the fog led me to write "The 4 Star Theatre." When the poem was published, I was touched to get an email from someone who had used to live in the neighborhood and had recognized the little theater.

With the fog comes the foghorn. The plaintive, demanding sound can be difficult for new residents to sleep with, but you soon get used to it. My most distinct memory of the foghorn comes from September 2009. A few weeks earlier I had undergone a thyroidectomy at UCSF due to papillary thyroid carcinoma (a type of thyroid cancer). I was back at my then-apartment at Clement and 16th Avenue, and was looking in the mirror, getting ready to peel off the final bandage from my neck. The foghorn made for a spooky soundtrack as I slowly revealed my scar.

The 4 Star Theatre

I'll miss my neighborhood. I'll miss the fog, the foghorn, the cold beaches, the views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Sutro Tower. I'll miss walking to the Legion of Honor, one of my favorite museums. I'll miss my apartment's bay windows. I'll wonder about the future of the city, which at the moment only seems interested in welcoming those making six figures. But I'll always have my San Francisco writings, and for that, I am thankful.

Sutro Tower

All photos mine.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Time Binge and Purge: A Gluttony of Fun

It's hard to think up images to illustrate book review posts, so here's my hand
holding the most recent book on the balcony of my hotel room in Amsterdam's
beautiful Museum Quarter. Sorry, did this caption turn into a humblebrag? I
really just took this as a fun pic to show the author. It wasn't mean to be a dick
move. Sorry. (But I was totally just in Amsterdam.)

Disclaimer first: I "know" Martina Fetzer, the author of the books I'm about to write about. I put "know" in quotation marks because our only contact has been through Twitter, and she could actually be a loosely organized group of serial killers pretending to be a single author. It happens.

But assuming she is Martina, I "met" her when she wrote, via tweets, an extremely stomach-churning and yet hilarious pornographic story involving a mutual friend (Starfall webcomic creator Adam Blackhat) and Donald Trump. I was in a long line at the post office while she was tweeting this opus, and it was the only time (thus far) I almost wet myself trying to hold back laughter while waiting for a certified mail postmark. So I bought her book Time Binge.

The book in question

Time Binge is a time-traveling comedy starring supernatural-investigating secret agents (and lovers) Eddie Smith and Arturo Brooks; Patience Cloyce, a Puritan teenage girl executed for witchcraft in the 17th Century; Lemon Jones, a teenage girl from a 23rd Century hipster colony on the moon; and Hudson Marrow, an eccentric and immortal renaissance man.

Hudson invented the time machine, and, as tends to happen, things got out of control. Now Agents Smith and Brooks need to save the world - or at least Manhattan - while also dealing with the past and future traumas that complicate their relationship. Meanwhile, Patience dutifully tries to adjust to her new surroundings and early-21st-Century-history buff Lemon delights in vintage Brooklyn.

Slight spoilers ahead as the sequel is discussed after the next "damn it, what am I going to use to illustrate this book review post?" image.

I told Martina I kept picturing Agent Smith as Agent Smith from The Matrix,
but she told me he looks more like Wash from Firefly. (My car is also named
Agent Smith, but I don't picture Agent Smith as my car.)

Fetzer's skill in balancing a Rube Goldberg machine of a plot, compelling characters, Airplane!-style zany humor, and sincere human drama returns in Time Purge. This sequel, released March 21, finds the make-shift family of Smith, Brooks, Lemon, and Patience alive in contemporary Manhattan. Smith, however, is not adjusting well to happily-ever-after. He and Brooks spent their entire relationship knowing Brooks would die, and now that they have a reprieve as a cyborg and an immortal with also-immortal teen daughters, he flounders.

After Smith's emotional instability results in an international, televised incident, the couple finds a maybe-enemy, maybe-ally in Godwin Zane, an obnoxious actor/would-be Elon Musk-ish CEO/actionless superhero (his powers are lava and being gray). Also there's a vampire problem, the return of the universe-threatening rift, and (at last!) Fetzer's specialty: a scene of off-putting, disappointing sex.

For Lemon and Patience I'm picturing something along the lines of Amandla
Stenberg and, despite the too-modern 1872 clothing, Victorine Meurent in
Manet's The Railway. (Obviously not Victorine Meurent in Manet's Olympia.
Patience would be mortified.)  

Fetzer's books are a fun, moving delight - and there are at least three more planned! I'm impressed by her bravery in self-publishing (and by her doing it so well), and I hope her cast of characters find the audience they deserve. You can buy the books (in various formats) here, and her author website is here.

Image info:
Time Binge and Time Purge covers: J. Caleb Design
Amandla Stenberg: Ben Toms for Teen Vogue

Monday, March 13, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Although I love George Saunders's short story collection Tenth of December and his pre-election essay on Trump's followers, I wasn't sure I was going to read his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The book is about the death of Abraham Lincoln's eleven-year-old son Willie, who died of typhoid in the early days of the Civil War, and reading historical fiction about actual people always feels weird to me. But when I saw the rave reviews (Caitlin PenzeyMoog of the A.V. Club called it "a postmodern masterpiece"), I knew I had to get it.

Lincoln in the Bardo is no ordinary piece of historical fiction, and its unusual format can take some getting used to. The story, which spans the night after Willie Lincoln's funeral, is mainly told through statements from the ghosts/spirits that are Willie's new neighbors. ("Bardo" is a Tibetan word referring to the concept of a transitional state after death.) The spirits are numerous, but there are three main characters who immediately take stranded soul Willie under their wing: Hans Vollman, a middle-aged printer who died in a freak accident; Roger Bevins III, a young gay man who committed suicide; and Reverend Everly Thomas, who died of old age. They finish each other's sentences, cut each other off, and elaborate on each other's points, as if all three were sitting in front of you, telling you what happened. This example should give you a feel for the style:

"Then it happened.
roger bevins iii

An extraordinary occurrence.
hans vollman

Unprecedented, really.
the reverend everly thomas"

As with the rest of the ghosts in the Oak Hill Cemetery, these three are staying behind on Earth voluntarily for their own reasons. Vollman's death happened just before he finally consummated his marriage to his beloved young wife, and he can't accept that he isn't simply sick and won't recover. As a manifestation of his sexual frustration, his ghost appears as naked and cartoonishly erect. Moments before dying, Bevins regretted leaving the world, with all its beauty, behind, and his ghost has many eyes and arms, trying to see and touch all nature has to offer. (The bond between kind Vollman and aesthete Bevins is now one of my favorite literary friendships.) Reverend Thomas's reasons are more elusive, but eventually revealed.

Despite their own desire to not move on, they are united in their determination to get Willie to leave Earth. In the book's universe, children's souls who don't move on are sentenced to eternal torment near their graves. The ghosts have already witnessed this happening to one young teenager, Elise Traynor, who is welded to the cemetery fence and writhes, full of rage, from one horrible form to the next. But Willie is delayed by his father, the President himself, who returns to the dead boy's side multiple times throughout the night (which Lincoln, an involved and loving father who had already lost his three-year-old son Eddie over a decade earlier, apparently did in real life).

Saunders frequently cites Keckley's Behind the Scenes
or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House

There are also narratives told through quotations from various cited sources. "Are the nonfiction excerpts - from presidential historians, Lincoln biographers, Civil War chroniclers - real or fake? Who cares? Keep going, read the novel, Google later," wisely advises author Colson Whitehead in his New York Times review. I mostly read on the bus anyway, which makes pausing to look up references cumbersome, so I indeed Googled later. As Saunders has confirmed, the citations are for a mix of actual and invented sources. Those quoted include Elizabeth Keckley (a former slave who was later Mary Todd Lincoln's stylist), bereaved parents who lost their own sons to the ongoing Civil War, contemporary op-ed writers, and later historians. As with the ghosts, these various narrators' voices come together as in an oral history. Here the sources "talk" about Lincoln's face:

"In repose, it was the saddest face I ever knew. There were days when I could scarcely look at it without crying.
In 'Six Months in the White House: The Story of a Picture,' by F.B. Carpenter.

But when he smiled or laughed...
In 'Lincoln's Photographs: A Complete Album,' by Lloyd Ostendorf, account of James Miner.

It brightened, like a lit lantern, when animated.
In 'Lincoln the Man,' by Donn Piatt, account of a journalist."

Willie Lincoln, age 5

I would be remiss in not pointing out what I felt was the book's weakness, which is its portrayal of black characters. While many of the white ghosts are quirky, different characters we haven't seen before, the black ghosts of the segregated cemetery are mostly archetypes, and we learn comparatively little about them besides their plights. I was also ambivalent about the ending, which I'm sure will be controversial among readers. In his review in the Guardian, author Hari Kunzru describes this ending as, "a move that seems glib and reductive, a blemish on a book that otherwise largely manages to avoid sentiment and cliche." Like Kunzru I found it cloying, but I can see how others might see it as transcendent.

Lincoln and his son Tad, who would die at 18

Ultimately, through many voices both created and curated by Saunders we get a story about the griefs and joys of life and a man and a country in turmoil. We get a story about familial love, deep friendship, and second chances. This is a novel I'll treasure for years and one that has already been a comfort.

Elizabeth Keckley: Documenting the American South
Willie Lincoln: Wikimedia
Lincoln and Tad: Wikimedia