Monday, June 28, 2010

Local Event: Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan's latest book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is a collection of stories that revolve around the record industry.  There's even an A side and a B side.

At the Central Library, Egan read the first chapter "Found Objects." Sasha is a kleptomaniac out on a date.  In the hotel restaurant's bathroom, she discovers an open purse on the floor, a green wallet waiting to be taken.  As we follow Sasha through her date and robbery, we travel between this night and sessions with her therapist, Coz.

It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.  Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall.  Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather.  It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman's blind trust had provoked her:  We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back?  It made her want to teach the woman a lesson.  But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had:  that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand -- it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously ("I get it," Coz, her therapist, said), and take the fucking thing.
And that's where the novel began for Egan.  With a wallet in the bathroom.   One evening she was having dinner with her mother at a hotel restaurant in NYC and went into the bathroom to discover a very vulnerable wallet.  Except Egan didn't steal it.  At first, she sympathize with the unknowing woman in the bathroom stall, having been the victim of many such crimes.  It set her to thinking about what kind of person would be tempted to take it.  At this point, Egan was researching a novel about women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but she decided that the next morning she would write about this person.  That led to Sasha who led to Bernie Salazer who led to a cast of characters who move from the background to the foreground in different stories.  (I wonder if we'll ever see that other book.)

Egan sites two inspirations while writing the Goon Squad.  Proust for his obsession with time and "The Sopranos" for two reasons.  The characters are cliches in public, but are nuanced in private, and the characters go from being peripheral characters in one episode to central characters in another.

So she would follow different characters and explore beyond the cliche.  It was an exciting process, complete lawlessness as she hand-wrote story after story.  Then she typed them up, printed them out, and developed some self-defined rules.  In the end she stuck with three:
  1. Each piece had to stand on its own.  They could not lean on each other; they could only enhance each other.
  2. The collection had to have an extreme range of tone.  
  3. There could be no overlap in the stories.  Each piece had to be unique.
I love the way Jennifer Egan's mind works, her layering, her weaving.  As a writer, I find her inspirational.  When The Keep came out I gave it to everyone.  (Although I loaned my copy to someone.  Whoever that is, can I have it back?)  It's one of my favorite books of all time.

Even though I'm excited to read A Visit from the Goon Squad, I'll have to wait to the fall.  Egan's not local, even if she is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and confesses that she occasionally tries to convince her husband to move here--unsuccessfully.

Check out her groovy website.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Local Author Gets a Nod From Oprah

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: StoriesCongratulations to local author Robin Black.  Her debut collection of stories If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This is on O Magazine's Summer Reading List.

I might have to add this to our Read Local Summer Reading List.  Has anyone read it?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Summer Plans: Stay Local, Eat Local, Read Local

This summer I'm planning on staying local.  So I'll be spending a lot of time in the pool with my children climbing all over me.  When I do get some time to enjoy peace under the sun poolside, I'll be reading local Philadelphia writers.  

Perhaps I'll even run into other writers staying local and shopping at the local farmer's market.  I'd like to say that I'm a foodie who cooks with fresh seasonal ingredients, but I'm not.  That's my husband.  I go to the farmers market for the Apple Cider Donuts. Yum.  Although I can tell you that when figs are in season, wrap them in some prosciutto and Viola!  Perfection.  A recipe even I can handle.

So this is the pile of local writers on my nightstand right now:

You'll recognize some of the names from previous post about readings.  Now that school is out and my book tour has slowed down, I have time to catch up on my reading.  Let me know who your favorite Philly writers are.

I'm starting with Broad Street - an all girl band in the early 90s.  Ah, that'll bring back lots of memories.  Look for me by the pool.  And Read Local this summer.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Susan Abulhawa, Mornings in Jenin

Finally, I went to a reading at a coffee house.  Really, it seems like they should happen more often.  The Philadelphia Java Company (518 S. 4th Street) and Head House Books co-hosted a reading by Susan Abulhawa, the author of Mornings in Jenin.

In his introduction, Richard Holmes, owner of Head House Books, said that it was his mother-in-law who first discovered Mornings in Jenin in a London airport.  She loved it and gave it to her daughter to read.  Her daughter gave it to everyone to read including Richard.  The book has been selling twice as many copies as any other book at HHB, because the staff can't stop talking about it.

Susan Abulhawa talked about how she came to write the book.  She spoke about Palestinians leaving their homes in 1948, believing it was temporary, merely packing a bag for a few days away.  Jewish refugees who arrived from Europe, Russia, America, etc. walked into fully furnished homes - family pictures hung on the wall, fruit bowls still overflowed on the kitchen table.

That image hung in my mind.  What could have been going through the Jewish settlers' minds?  They have survived through horror, traveled miles and miles to live in peace.  But when they walked into these homes, didn't they think of who they were replacing?  Did they feel justified because someone had done the same to their homes?

But Mornings in Jenin is not about the Jewish refugees.  It is unapologetically the Palestinian story.

Some have criticized Abulhawa for being biased or unbalanced in her portrayal of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. In her opinion, Palestinians have been made to pay for the sins of the West. Edward Said, she said, believed that the story of the Palestinians isn't heard because they are victims of history’s greatest victims: the Jews.

Abulhawa didn't start out to become a novelist.  A combination of things happened.  First she traveled to Jenin in 2002 following the 9 day massacre.  She arrived just as the camp was opened.  For two weeks, no one including the press and human rights organizations had been allowed entry.  What she saw there and the stories she heard deeply affected her.

Second, shortly after she returned from Jenin, she was laid off from her job.  Her experience inspired her to write create a multi-generational novel about one Palestinian family's experience.  She spent four years writing Mornings in Jenin.  What started out as a story of two brothers separated in 1948, one being raised Palestinian and the other raised Israeli - a story to illustrate a history of a people- became a very personal story of one family. Abulhawa's characters came alive to her and were no longer symbols of a struggle.

She read two passages from her novel.  In this sweet scene, five-year-old Amal sits with her father (Baba).
     I could hear the turbulence inside Baba's chest, the protests of his lungs against each inhalation of honey apple tobacco.
     "Baba, who do you love more, me or Yousef?"
     "Habibti," he began.  I couldn't help but smile when he called me that.  "I love you both the same," he said.
     "How big do you love me?"
     "I love you as big as the ocean and all its fishes.  As big as the sky and all its birds.  As big as the earth and all her trees."
     "What about the universe and all its planets? You forgot that part."
     "I was getting to it. Be patient," he said, puffing on his pipe.  He exhaled, "And I love you bigger than the universe and all its planets."
     "Do you love Yousef that much?"
     "Yes.  As big as the ocean . . . but without all the fishes."
     My heart grew with all the fishes, the idea that Baba loved me just a little more.  "What about the sky and earth?  Do you love him that big but without all the birds and the trees?"
     "Yes.  But don't tell anyone."
     "I won't, Baba, I swear."  My heart swelled with the birds now.  "What about the universe part?"
     "Don't be greedy." He winked at me.  "I have to get to work, habibti.  Tomorrow."
     Habibti. Tomorrow.
Mornings in Jenin: A NovelSusan Abulhawa founded the organization Playgrounds for Palestine. Visit the website if you want to help.