Archive | Literature RSS feed for this section

To Hell and Back with Hotel Honolulu

21 Oct
Hotel Honolulu

Hotel Honolulu

Last year I was particularly proud of myself for having read 11 books, although I came just shy of reaching my ultimate goal of reading 12 books in 12 months. But for having relocated to a new country during the year, it’s not bad at all. This year has not been as rewarding, either in terms of quantity or quality. Quantity: I just read my second book of the year. Quality: I haven’t liked both books I’ve read this year. This has got to change.

I very much wanted to like “Hotel Honolulu” by Paul Theroux. I asked a friend whose advice on books I value for a recommendation- I specifically said, anything you can recommend is fine, since I’ll just download it on iBooks and read it on my upcoming trip. So he recommended this book which in its print edition is just over 4oo pages, but in its electronic form is over 1000 “pages”. When I saw that length on my blinking iPhone screen, I gasped. Nevertheless, I began reading my first e-book.

Early on, it became clear to me that the vignette style of the book was not going to hold my attention. The story is narrated by a nameless, successful writer who has fled to Hawaii to remake himself as the manager of the Hotel Honolulu. Reading on the back of the book cover that Paul Theroux splits his time between Cape Cod and Hawaii, I figured the narrator of the book may as well be named Thaul Peroux. But the narrator recedes into the background of the story, as we hear more and more about the people that stay at the hotel, the employees, and mostly, the owner of the hotel who hired our narrator to run the place. With no narrative thread to pull the whole thing together, just stories of people who come and go from the hotel, the reader isn’t given a chance to connect with a character beyond the cipher who narrates the story. For this reason, the book was not a page turner. Rather than turning the page because I was eager to follow the story, I simply pressed on for the sake of it.

But there was another reason I not only didn’t get into the story, but was often turned off by it. One common theme I found in “Hotel Honolulu” was men having their hopes and dreams crushed by the shrewish women in their life. Benno Nevermann and Vera Shihab, Royce Lionberg and Rain Conroy, and most significantly, as it takes up much of the second half of the novel, Buddy Hamstra and Pinky. In all of these pairings, you have otherwise happy, successful older men who become entangled with beautiful, wide-eyed young women. They were happy before and yet these women sucked the life out of them. The owner of the hotel, Buddy, goes to the Philippines to find a young, compliant bride, and spends the last years of his life in a contentious relationship with his foreign wife, Pinky. If there were only one relationship like this portrayed in the novel, it wouldn’t be noteworthy. But reading page after page of this dynamic left me feeling icky. The women were an unwelcome intrusion on the boys club of Honolulu. All of this left me reading the book just to finish it, and not enjoy it. Ironically, I always tell friends that life is too short for bad books. Unfortunately, I should have listened to my own advice in this case.


24 Aug

A croak, a chirp

The rubbing of skinny legs together

Like bow on violin

Marks the steady rhythm of the night.

All around all is black, velveteen

Punctured by a thousand frosty dots

Just night, cricket song,

The moon and the stars

Peaceful evening far removed from the city

Emily Dickinson: Hope

9 Sep

Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops-at all.
And sweetest–in the Gale–is heard,
And sore must be the storm,
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest Sea.
Yet, never, in Extremity
It asked a crumb–of me.

The First Writer Who Moved Me

8 Sep
Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Linda Gregerson at the Poetry Society recently wrote about her literarty first love, John Donne. She claims to have encountered Donne at age sixteen, a rather young age to come upon the poet, as I found him difficult when I read him at age twenty in college; specifically, Reading the Traditional British Canon Part I. I certainly appreciate Donne and has vivid imagery. Gregerson’s post made me wonder, who would I consider a literary first love?

The one name that comes to mind is Emily Dickinson. I was given a pocket sized edition of her best poems, I believe as a gift from an aunt who fed my reading habit early on. Perhaps the gift was a throwaway, as it was so tiny- you could only hold it with two fingers. And yet I came to love the immediacy of Dickinson’s language. All of those dashes! The beats were quick- the language syncopated, like music. And the content- the content! Dickinson’s romantic longings echoed my own adolescent yearnings and drama. She wanted so badly to experience the world around her, and it resonated with my thirteen year old self. And yet what got me through difficult adolesclent years was the idea of hope as a bird that flaps its wings uncontrollably within ones’ chest. Hope has never been captured better.

Over the years, Dickinson’s poetry has had less of an impact on me, and yet she was the first poet to truly make an impact on me.

Ode to a Burrito

27 Aug
Taqueria Cancun

Taqueria Cancun

With respect to Robbie Burns.

Fair and full is your tortilla
Great bearer of rice and bean and avocado!
Above them all you take your place,
Taco, torta, tostadita:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my brazo derecho.

Soft pinto, warm rice, crispy onion
Dotted with green hillsides of avocado and bright red tomato
I undress your foil layer by layer
Simple, filling meal.

A Haiku for Friday

23 Aug
Red wine

Red wine

Red wine I sip slowly

Sweet, spicy, rich on my lips

Thus I end the week

Writing a fourth of a novel in one month!

3 Dec


It is December 3rd, so it has been 3 days since I wrote the 46th page of my novel. I have since added one paragraph. I wrote a little bit every day, except for maybe two or three days, although often this only amounted to one page per day. To what am I referring? National Novel Writing Month, of course.

I had always wanted to try it, and actually did try two years ago. I had the brilliant idea to write a semi-autobiographical story retelling the story of my recent breakup. Yikes. I made it 13 pages. Finally, this year, the project gestated over several months. I had an idea, and it would bear enough fruit to become not just a short story, or a novella, but a real novel.

Well, like Kristin Claes Matthews, I got embarrassed to tell strangers what the story is about (some friends knew). I will be as cryptic now as I was with them: it’s based on the true life story of a real woman who is really alive and who has an unusual life story that always fascinated me. It infuriated me, so I thought I would explore that. When I saw a special about her legal troubles on 60 Minutes ages ago, it stuck with me. How could someone do such a thing? The arrogance! And she probably had no idea she was being so arrogant! I figured I would use a flashback structure to go back and forth between her present day in a foreign prison, and to her past to explore the path her life took to get her to that foreign prison. But enough about my plot.

So in order to successfully complete NanoWrimo (and that is pronounced Nano-reemo, cause originally I had no idea), you have to write 50,000 words, which should come out to approximately 175 pages. So yes, I only wrote a little more than 14,000 words- not even halfway there- and this came to 46 pages. As I mentioned, I wrote every day, but just a little bit. Not enough. I couldn’t help thinking, damnit, is this ANOTHER thing I couldn’t see through to completion? And then I thought, you know what? This is the most I’ve ever written in my life. I like that the purpose of NanoWrimo is to get would-be writers past the roadblock of ‘never good enough’. It is about quantity, not quality. So I got used to the idea of producing a bunch of text that wasn’t necessarily accurate, or good, but it would give me a pulpy mass that I could later go back and revise. Plus, there were a few sentences here and there that are actually kind of good. And who knew there were so many synonyms for “said”?

It was fun, and I hope to continue it. Maybe I’ll finish this thing by my birthday in March. And thank you, folks behind NanoWrimo, for this idea to turn would-be writers into actual writers with no excuses.


A Literary Bucket List

22 Jan
Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary

I was a bit disappointed, while at a friend’s birthday party this afternoon, to admit to not having read anything good in a while when asked if I had any good book recommendations. I majored in literature in college, and people know that I like to read, but my internet addiction has lead me to read more things that end in .ly than “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” lately. I also admit that I have little patience with books I don’t enjoy after the first 20 pages or so. My attitude in this regard is the same one I have for movies: life is too short for bad books AND bad movies. I don’t want to force myself to read something I am not absorbed by. And yes, this means that I have tried unsuccessfully to read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre twice, before abandoning the book with a yawn.

I only made a valiant effort to read Jane Eyre because several friends whose opinion I value had recommended it. When it comes to choosing books to read, there are book reviews/media buzz, like the kind that greets literary blockbusters like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom; there’s the old first page test in the bookstore (that is, read the first page of a book found in a library or bookstore, and if you have an urge to continue, you’ve found yourself a good book). For those of us who studied literature in college and love the written word, there are books that we intend to read, authors we mean to read more of, but whom we’ve never gotten around to reading. In no particular order are the books and writers who I would like to read before I kick the proverbial bucket:

  • anything by William Faulkner. I vaguely remember reading a passage from As I Lay Dying in high school and loving the language and the simple premise: a woman’s last, fevered thoughts on her deathbed. I know the Biblical weight of a title like Absalom, Absalom, though I don’t know what the novel is about; the same is true for The Sound and the Fury and A Light in August. I love the story of the college librarian who wrote masterpieces in secret. The fact that I haven’t read any of Faulkner’s novels needs to be remedied.
  • Russian literature. This one is simple, or should be anyway. I don’t think anyone can claim to know about great literature without having read any of the great Russian writers, like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, or Pushkin. Unfortunately, I don’t have more than a Cliffs Notes understanding of any of these men, or other Russian authors for that matter. I won’t set so high a bar as War and Peace– I’ll settle for reading Ivan the Fool.
  • the Romantic poets. In college I took a course called Reading the Traditional British Canon Part I. It was one of my favorite classes, taught by a brilliant young professor which lead students through an intense 10 weeks of some of the giants of British literature. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the second course in the series, naturally called Reading the Traditional British Canon Part II. And that course introduces students to the Romantic poets. I know what the adjective byronic means, but I have never read Lord Byron. I know that there is a famous poem called “Tiger tiger burning bright”, but I have never read William Blake. This situation is also easily remedied, though I refuse to buy another edition of the Norton Anthology.
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. If I were being really ambitious, I would read it in the original French, but I choose this novel because it is the original feminist tale about a desperate housewife, right? Close runner up: Anna Karenina.
  • Philip Roth. What was Portnoy complaining about? What was in The Human Stain? I know that Roth is one of the most prolific contemporary American writers, and I have a friend who wrote his dissertation about Philip Roth’s work. That’s enough for me.

What do you think? What would you suggest? Is my list too centered on dead white men, and if so, which female authors and writers of color do you recommend? Keep in mind I majored in Spanish Literature- Spanish-language writers are also appreciated. As a matter of fact, a Spanish-language version of this list may be forthcoming.

The Joy of a Good Book Part II

14 May
What I Loved

What I Loved

Just a couple of days ago, I wrote about my absorption in a new book I had received as a gift from a friend, “What I Loved” by Siri Hustvedt. Wouldn’t you know it, I finished it at 4am. Usually, if I am reading a particularly good book, I will put it down at bedtime to get a good night’s sleep. And yet, I didn’t want to go to sleep last night until I had finished the story. There is a sense, and I mentioned it before, when reading a good novel that when the book is finished, the characters will be missed dearly, because they have occupied so much time in our minds. When a gifted writer creates a world and populates it with characters who we come to know and like, they have contributed something to our consciousness.

Although I majored in literature in college and honed my close reading skills there, I admit that that muscle has atrophied over the years.  I don’t follow an insight through to its logical conclusion; I begin to think, “I think that character represents…something…interesting.” There is so much to consider in “What I Loved”: the main characters are artists and academics, and there are strong ideas about visual art, mass hysteria, and abnormal psychology, among other things.  In searching online for interviews with author Siri Hustvedt, I saw that she calls the main preoccupation of the book, “how do we become who we are”? It’s a weighty theme, and the book provides no easy answers.  But it is a real achievement.

I’d also like to mention that, as I stayed up into the wee hours reading, it was not a screen I was holding in my hands; it was a paperback book.  I am old-fashioned in this regard.  I like turning the pages, rather than pushing a button to advance through the story.  You can feel the weight of how much you’ve read, feel the remaining pages as you finish the story.  I look at a screen all day at work.  I don’t need to look at another screen when I am reading a novel in my spare time. Plus, this book was a gift.  It will be a cherished possession because of that.  And I can lend it to friends who also want to read it.  Can you do this with a book on an e-reader? No.

A Singular Woman

11 May
Ann Dunham and Barack Obama

Ann Dunham and Barack Obama

Tonight I attended an author event at Book Passage at the Ferry Building featuring Janny Scott, who spoke about her new biography of the President’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. A Singular Woman is an examination of the woman who was frequently reduced to the “white woman from Kansas” on the campaign trail.

Scott applies a journalist’s rigorous research skills and objectivity to the life of a woman who is very difficult to define.  I couldn’t help but think of the value of this biography to future biographers of President Obama.  Scott has spoken with the man who was the house servant in the home of the Soetoro family in Jakarta.When that man dies, his first person knowledge of the President’s childhood will be lost.  In compiling all of these accounts, she provides a useful resource for better understanding the woman who had the most influence on shaping her son’s outlook and character.

I’ll admit that I often found it hard to understand how a woman could separate herself from her young son and choose finishing her PHD over raising her son. But I’m not a mother, and I can’t even begin to fathom what it took for her to choose a stable environment and quality education for her son over being with him.  Sacrificing is what mothers do.  I am eager to read this book and read of what other qualities this singular woman possessed.