July 21, 2008

a totally different story

In her own memoir, Lucy Grealy's voice is so much more lucid than it is in Ann Patchett's account of their friendship. Her overall presence is quieter. Saner. In Truth and Beauty, Grealy is so often a huge spaz - a larger-than-life personality, at times nearly unbearably (though I can't say unjustifiably) self-centered and demanding of her friends' attention and their constant validation of her talent.

On many occasions, Patchett's book provides details that Grealy "spared" (Patchett's word) the reader (or edited out, because her aim was to produce art, not a documentary), and initially I regretted reading Truth before reading Autobiography. I almost lamented finding Patchett's book first. Shouldn't I have begun with Grealy's account - what's closer to the truth than what comes from the horse's mouth? But now that I've finished both, I honestly don't think it matters. Grealy may or may not have been the most unreliable narrator ever, and Patchett may or may not have painted Lucy differently than she saw herself. It doesn't matter. They are not halves of a single story.

In Truth, Patchett portrays herself as the amenable, ever-dependable ant to Grealy's impetuous, wildly irresponsible but more appealing grasshopper; in Truth, Grealy's voice is steady and rational, even in its humor, even when describing moments of despair and high anxiety. Patchett's Lucy is crazy fun, sometimes annoying, always insecure; Grealy's Lucy is insecure but compos mentis, hopeful, philosophical, finding and holding fast to small, meaningful revelations.

The fact that Grealy does not once mention Patchett or the slew of other friends who care for her with such love and devotion in Truth is understandable but still weird. It was of course an account of her suffering and desire for inner peace and outer acceptance in the context of her cancer and subsequent disfigurement, but Patchett's entire book is a testament to their closeness, their love for each other and Lucy's dependency on Ann. This seemingly huge aspect of Lucy Grealy's life is completely absent from her book. In her review, the Seattle Times' Melinda Bargreen writes that "their brilliant friendship ... was the most vital thing in their lives." I think for Patchett it was. For Grealy, her quest for a positive and stable identity, actually, seems to have been all-consuming.

Of course, the two books were not written as supplements to each other. They were written under completely different circumstances and for completely different purposes. But I can't imagine reading one without the other. After reading Truth, I wanted to hear Lucy Grealy tell her own story, in her own voice. Which is what Autobiography is. It is beautiful, funny and sad, a must-read ... but I still felt it was lacking somehow. And I realized what I had been expecting was to read Ann Patchett's story from Grealy's point of view. It's a totally different story.

So yes, I should have read Autobiography of a Face before reading Truth and Beauty. But they are two amazing stories, in any order. Ann Patchett suggests reading Lucy Grealy's twice, and then again so you can appreciate the beauty of her sentences. I shall.

July 19, 2008

i tagged meself

thanks, Amanda.

What kind of book do you love to hate?

Short story collections. I feel like I have to read them all at once.

What was the last book you surprised yourself by liking?

Well, I'm not done with it yet but I am really enjoying The Age of Innocence. Every year my high school sent home Summer Reading lists, and every year I avoided this book. Just as well - I never would have been able to find meaning or relevance in it then. I'm pleasantly surprised by its wit (never judge a book by its cover, I know, but the whole package seemed so stuffy), and surprised by how much I actually care about this soap opera-esque story (basically gaslight-era chick lit.) I love society renegades - Scarlett O'Hara, Elizabeth Swann, Molly Brown - and am looking forward to getting acquainted with the Countess Ellen Olenska.

What was the last book you surprised yourself by disliking?

Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. It was one big headache.

What book would you take with you if you suspected you might be marooned in the near future?

Marooned where? In an elevator, I'd want Ladder of Years or A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler. They're my literary spaghetti and meatballs; they'd keep me from going stir-crazy till the Otis guy arrived. On a desert island I'd want Baby-sitters' Island Adventure, or maybe that Sweet Valley High installment where Jessica and Winston Egbert get stranded on Ancapa Island. On a curbside waiting for a ride, I'd want whatever I'm currently reading, and hopefully it would be nice and thick.

What forces you to read outside your comfort zone?

My kids. They're always trying to get me to read Harry Potter. I can't stand Harry Potter.

July 16, 2008

on love, in sadness

I read the end of Truth and Beauty sitting up in bed, alternating pages of the book with glossy pages of O Magazine. I needed something to regularly pull me out of the graphic downward spiral of Lucy Grealy's death - Ann Patchett's great loss - and there seemed nothing better to bring me back to the surface than recipes for barbecue sauce and tutorials on how to wear last season's skirts.

Even in its sadness, it's a beautiful, wonderful, hilarious book. Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto, The Patron Saint of Liars, The Magician's Assistant, and Taft, writes of "the first half" of her life in this book, and of a friendship that at some points seemed capable of swallowing it. Patchett's relationship with the late poet Lucy Grealy was uniquely rewarding and totally exhausting, even to read about, and I closed the book thinking, half-intrigued and half-horrified, What if I'm called one day to be Ann to someone's Lucy? Ronald Reagan said of the Challenger crew, "They had that special grace, that special spirit that says, Give me a challenge and I'll meet it with joy." Could I meet such a challenge with the joy and all-encompassing generosity of Ann Patchett's spirit?

To compare Lucy in the depths of her depression to an exploding space shuttle is not exactly fair - she was not only a burden, she was a dynamic, generous friend herself, who possessed great wit and endless talent - but the comparison is not terribly off the mark. Like the Challenger, Lucy Grealy carried myriad hopes and dreams - her own, and others' - and like the crew of the ill-fated shuttle, she did what she could to make them come true. For Lucy, however, so many things in her life were out of her control, and the one thing she could control, her attitude, she could not make to rise above her circumstances. In the end, her explosion left hundreds of people reeling.

I devoured every page of Truth and Beauty until I got to the advent of the heroin addiction that eventually killed Lucy Grealy. From the beginning, it was an immediately profound, eccentric friendship between two writers, who aside from their craft had little in common. Patchett: ant. Grealy: grasshopper. The proverbial wind beneath Grealy's wings, Patchett put up with and even loved no shortage of her friend's antics and personality quirks. She fiercely protected her from the cruelty of people whose only way of dealing with Grealy's facial disfiguration (Ewing's sarcoma in her childhood had left her with without part of her lower jaw) was to mock it. It was a love deeper than most loves you read about. Deep enough to lift one high above the everyday joys of life; deep enough to sink one lower than rock bottom. Or so it seemed to me. Though Patchett resents Grealy's accusation that her desire to be saintlike is the source of her devotion, it seems that Patchett is no less than a saint. She does not want to be recognized as such - her voice in the book is straightforward and sincere, and that much is obvious, but page after page, you're left wondering if you could survive not only what Grealy lived through, but what she puts Patchett through.

Somewhere around Lucy's 36th surgery, things fall badly apart. The miniseries of operations that carried the promise to change her life for good, it turns out, will not. No stranger to depression, she falls into a much deeper abyss and eventually can't find her way out. Not with the love of Ann, the help of therapists, the devotion of countless other friends. She finds her solace, and eventually her demise, in heroin.

I went back almost immediately to the barbecue sauce and skirts, because Ann Patchett's pain radiates from the ending and I can't sleep with such emotion rattling around in me. Now, having had some time to think on the book and flip back through the middle and end again, I see part of my anxiety in reading it had to do with my own path as a writer and my path as a generally happy person; my assumption that once you've sold the book, once you've found deep happiness in a trade or a relationship or anything else you've always wanted, that you can't be pushed off the pedestal. Depending on your story, however, you may be extremely pushable. You may even jump. And the devotion of wonderful friends can't stop you. Only you can stop you. But Lucy Grealy, a gifted (and published) writer, surrounded her whole life by people who loved her, couldn't stop herself.

Now, finally, I can read Autobiography of a Face.

Side note: In her profound insecurity, one of Lucy Grealy's favorite questions to ask Ann Patchett (sometimes on a daily basis) was: "Do you love me?" I dreamed last night that I asked S. this question.

- Do you love me?

- Yes, I love you. I adore you so much that I can't believe Ken Gary said such a thing about you.

- Ken Gary? What did Ken Gary say about me?

- He said he can't believe I'm marrying such a dispassionate bibliophile who owns too many shoes.

- Did you punch him in the face?

- Well, he had a point about the shoes, babe.

July 6, 2008

a telephone and a red balloon

SO EXCITED that I got to hit the Friends of the Library Book Sale on its last day. I didn't even care that it was about six thousand degrees in the McKinley cafeteria. The gigantic fans posted in the corners kept the volunteers from heading for the hills, but didn't much help the rabid, eleventh-hour book-buyers whose t-shirts were soaked through with sweat as they rummaged almost frantically through cardboard boxes marked "hobby," "comix," "lit," "horror," "art." It wasn't quite what I'd call crowded (the selection had been picked over for two weekends, after all) but there were plenty of the hawk-eyed, cheap, and desperate last-minute types you'd expect to find at the final four hours of a gargantuan annual book sale. Practically-free reading material is way up there on the list of Things That Make Damned_Cat Happy. Except for National Geographics, which were a quarter apiece, everything was 50 cents, and this was the final nail in the Should I stay or should I go? coffin. I thought long and hard before allowing myself this opportunity because I knew that it would spark - at the very least - some consternation from Scott. Whether it would be voiced or kept silent was not entirely predictable. We have had many brief conversations about my Book Lust and book-buying habits, which usually go something like this:

Him: Could you, ah, maybe stop buying books and start using the library instead?

That's like me asking you to stop fishing and just buy our dinner from Tamashiro Market.

We've gradually expanded our conversations to include promises to install shelving (me) and space-related lamentations like, where in our tiny apartment will we store the children when we start having them? (him), cheerful replies that he can build a large wooden box to house the kids so that the books can roam free (me). Arguments that there is no such thing as too many books (me) and counterarguments that yes there is (him). I only got to go to the Book Sale this year because I promised that if I bought a single volume I'd clear every book that is currently sitting on his side of the desk and make every book I own fit on something that resembles a bookshelf. (I think the kitchen counter is a lovely place to keep reference materials.) <-- This is a prime example of my sense of humor being completely lost on Scott. Anyway, because I'd never been to this sale before and did not know what to wear (not heels) or bring (Pack-n-Roll or a really, really big canvas tote), I only brought home nine treasures:

I was so excited to find the Margaret Wise Brown biography because I am a huge fan of Goodnight Moon - mostly due to the half-year I spent long-term subbing in a preschool resource class with several wonderful autistic children who absolutely loved (and, I'm convinced, began to learn to read with) this classic that begins in a great green room. I sat down right outside the McKinley auditorium with some tea and a chicken walnut sandwich from the Wedding Cafe and started to read Awakened by the Moon, and in a single chapter already find MWB to be a fantastic role model, a kindred spirit, and timeless hero. I am also reading Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty right now and am enjoying the similarities between MWB and Patchett's friend, Lucy Grealy - two smart, unpredictable, individualistically quirky women. Women who love, write, and live such amazing lives - the complexities of which are belied, in Brown's case, by her deceptively simple but universal and enduring words and art for children. I would never have guessed that there was so much life and history behind that great green room. She was a tomboy in childhood, a troublemaker in college, a person who so relished all aspects of life that she could dearly love a pet rabbit while it was alive, but have no qualms about skinning its carcass after its death so as to continue appreciating its enduring sensuality and life-essence.

If the FoTL continues to hold the Book Sale in July, I might make it an annual birthday present to myself. I felt like a kid, taking "birthday money" to the sale of my dreams, and being pleasantly surprised that I spent the sum total of $4.50 for an enormously pleasing (and only slightly sweaty) afternoon of book-hunting, book-lust satiation, and nine take-home treasures. Now I have books for the rest of the month, plus money leftover for hiking boots.

I am giddy.

July 5, 2008

next decade, step right up

I am having, quite possibly, the most pleasurable 30th birthday I could have imagined. Sure, I woke us all up at 5 a.m. (having decided, the night before, that I had to get up before the sun to do the half-hike and get back in enough time to pretty up for lunch with Bon; I actually got up at 6:45) - but that aside, the day so far has been fabulous. Woke up (for real) to some very sweet written words from my love. Put on the clothes I'd laid out the night before. Took my brand-new birthday backpack out and got on the trail at 7:23 a.m. Logged 42 minutes to the tables. That was encouraging, since we had gone very slowly through some ankle-deep mud, meaning we did good time in the dry areas. I brought Princess Academy with me and finished the last third of it on a luxuriously long break at the tables while Kona explored the wet-leaved grounds nearby.

It's much different up there in the damp early morning. It's slower going up and down, of course - unless you're the runner who smoked us on the way up, and again on the way down, and again, on our way down, as he came up a second time. But it also smells, sounds and feels different - got to hear those morning valley sounds and smell the morning valley scents that I miss since I no longer live in Manoa. You're always warned about the Kuliou'ou boars that might get bored with their valley and wander up the trail (so unlikely, but so deliciously fun to freeze in your tracks every time something rustles the dry leaves as you hike. It's probably a foraging mongoose, but that's no fun to imagine.)

If nature's your thing, the halfway point is a great place to write. For some reason, I don't write well in "writerly" places like scenic nature spots or libraries. (I can go for pages at a coffee place, but I think sugary drinks have a lot to do with that.) I write on the go - napkins in the car, notebooks before bed, on my hand just before the lights go down in a movie. My thoughts are everywhere. It works for me - generation of ideas is most fluid when I don't have a specific place or time to write - but I do need a better filing system, and I DO need some sort of discipline that has me writing on a more regular basis.

Add that to a growing, still-pliant list of things this 30-year-old plans to take care of in the next 365 days.

July 3, 2008

time's a-wasting

It took me a few pauses but I finally figured it out.

I have a long wait ahead of me this morning, might as well bring me laptop and my current reading - The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings (ed. Lawrence Sutin).

I feel ... energized.

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