Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Unaccustomed pleasure

Last week I read a book. For pleasure. That may not sound like a big whoop, but, actually, it's been several MONTHS since I've allowed myself to sink into a book without a pen in my hand. I'd forgotten how deliriously indulgent that is.

The book I read wasn't even one I'd picked out--it was pilfered from my husband's sleeping body: Jhumpa Lahiri's UNACCUSTOMED EARTH. He'd read two or three of the stories (not in order, even, sacrelige!) and when he had fallen asleep in the sun, the book on his chest, I snatched it, and wouldn't give it back. (Don't you HATE when people do that?)

I'd read THE NAMESAKE years ago, and loved it, and anytime she has a piece in the New Yorker, I devour it, but the bliss of following her heart through the trials of the various Bengali families in her pages was nearly as satisfying as swimming with dolphins.

The partial pastiche she created, the negative space, the deft shifts in POV, offered a larger story than NAMESAKE--a mural as opposed to a single painting. In the end, Lahiri's book left me feeling fuller, richer, sadder and wiser. I love when that happens.

Friday, March 26, 2010

the writer on vacation

Many of the stories writers weave--okay, most of them--are mired in a melange of experiences, appropriations and fantasies. So it goes to follow that when a writer goes on vacation, senses are heightened at the same time that blockades to the imagination are freed up, and the result can be a volcanic eruption of story.

I'm at the tail end of my week in Hawaii. First trip anywhere this far West OR South, so a pretty big deal. Tropical Island vacations have never called to me the way they have my husband. The ocean is lovely, but I never pine for it. Swimming, I can take or leave. Hot, sticky air mostly disagrees with me. It's the oddness of leaving so much of my normative world behind that is the seduction here, to be honest. The suspension of disbelief, really. For instance, down the island apiece is the old sacred ground known as Place of Refuge, where for centuries citizens would brave shark-infested waters for possible redemption from the kapu they committed that would otherwise sentence them to death.


Pele, the passionate and capricious Goddess of Fire, shaped the island with her bouts of jealousy by spewing molten lava from Kilauea when betrayed.


King Kamehaha upended the Naha Rock in Hilo (all 7,000 pounds of it)to prove he was worthy Hawaii's greatest king.

But nothing compares to the stories that live in nature here on this amazing young island, and never in my life have I been closer to the natural world than these past six days. Snorkeling with a pod of dolphins, swimming alongside a sea turtle, watching the slow, steady heartbeat of a resting monk seal, following a couple of Moorish Idols as they wave their sickle crest extensions in the surf and kiss the spongey tunicates off the reef rock--this is the raw material for weaving stories.
In regular-real life, it's often easy to forget the basics, and we generally avert any stimulus that takes our attention away from the list that spits us through our days. The best writing happens when we allow the visions, wonders and curiosities to flood us and drag us away from the quotidian tide.

I hope I can remember that when I'm back on the mainland.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

the plot thickened...

but, really, I'm hoping for a quick denouement.

Here's what the book jacket might read, if my recent life were a novel:

After much soul-searching, Kirk and Suzy decide that they should buy their own home, rather than to continue chipping away at the home that once belonged to Suzy and her former husband. They interview a couple of realtors, and decide on an energetic, "get her done," type, even though they realize that their comfort zone, on every level, will be stretched.

It's just after the Christmas holidays when they sign on and agree to a February 15th on market date, and they dive into the mess of dismantling, decluttering, and stripping their bungalow bare. Seven contractors, each one touting a specialty, and many with colorful personalities, dovetail their tasks. The next four weeks will involve myriad chicken-or-egg chronology to arrive at an overall outcome with such a delicate time line.

Things go mildly awry: a deluge floods the basement due to a broken drain pipe; Kirk and Suzy break a window in the front door while moving a sofa; backs go out; temperatures rise; noses run (it's winter after all!); after the floors are scraped the dust is so thick that the shop vac goes on strike and a mucusy cough infiltrates the lungs of everyone involved. Finally, though, on schedule, the house has been transformed, lightened, brightened and divested of all of its crap. A spate of unseasonably mild weather hits just in time for the opening weekend and an SRO open house.

Before the end of February, an offer comes in. "What?!" say Kirk and Suzy, we haven't even identified a house to buy yet! Things proceed quickly. Kirk and Suzy and Carson go house-shopping. They find the perfect counter to the hundred year old house they're leaving: a modern three-story house on a cul-de-sac that has been meticulously maintained. The house is light, bright and new! They are all set to make an offer, when...

the would-be buyers have a change of heart. They hadn't realized in their four visits that one of the bedrooms didn't have a heat source. They question the square footage. They bring in an alarmist inspector who points out potential issues--none of which bear out--but, hey, the would-be buyers wanted an adorable vintage bungalow that was buttoned up like a contemporary townhome, so they pull their offer.

After a week off the market, the bungalow is BOM. Which is sort of poison. As a result of this new twist of events, Kirk and Suzy did not make an offer on the light and bright house. But, another possibility has emerged. A long shot, their realistic, energetic realtor cautions, but the proverbial "tip" has been whispered in her ear. A house in a really hot neighborhood is "not quite on the market." "Let's go see it," invites the realtor.

See it, they do. The house is an "original owner" mid-century and it backs up to a hidden neighborhood park. It has three fireplaces, which, since 1964, have been used a handful of times. Oak floors that were immediately covered by carpet. A family room. A shop. A two-car garage. An office! The house is on the market for exactly the same price Kirk and Suzy are asking for their house. Not only is the house is in the school district that allows Carson to go to the middle school that all his friends will attend, but it's also in the best high school district in the state. The current owner is a lovely 92-year old woman who immediately connects with the energetic realtor, and decides that Kirk and Suzy are ones who will buy her house. If they can sell their house. In two weeks.

The energetic (and realistic) realtor convinces Kirk and Suzy to drop the price of their house. By 20K! This is a leap of faith. If the price is dropped in order to sell in two weeks, but it doesn't, then Kirk and Suzy lose the mid-century, and then have a reduced price house that will impact their ability to buy the next house--which they'd hoped would be a step up.

The energetic realtor has a plan though. She's putting her efforts on all burners. She'll have another open. She'll bake cookies! Two hours before the open house, people are lined up. It's a fire sale, after all! By the end of the day, there are two offers on the table. A tiny bidding war ensues. Initially, there is cash involved in this bidding war. The house is sold to the highest, most "in love with the house" bidder. Kirk and Suzy have a cocktail and pass out.

I know the deal ain't done. The fat lady is warming up her pipes, but she's still in the green room. But this deal will go through. I feel it and know it. It's going to be a happy ending!