In the morning, in the bathroom, washing my face, I sometimes think about what people want, who they love, how you explain what is going down now, with the family.
I had dinner tonight with Din and a good friend of his. This friend's wife loved my book of stories, Transportation. She's a naturopathic doctor and might help with some superficial stuff that's arisen from [see above paragraph]. I told him, I'll bring her The Bad Mother, though this book, this one is tough. People love it or hate it.
"Like Requiem for a Dream?" Din's friend asked. Yeah. A book of which one reviewer wrote, "This is a bad book," making me want to take the kids in the book under my cloak and hide.
My review of Dave Egger's new novel THE CIRCLE runs in print today in the Sunday Oregonian. Several graphs were cut due to space considerations. Here it is in full. Your comments welcome here and on the O site.
It's been an exceptionally good season for soapbox manufacturers. First we had Ann Patchett expounding in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal that Amazon's algorithm is the enemy of authors and bookstores (while acknowledging that the site "is responsible for a lot of my sales"). Then came Jonathan Franzen's dyspepsia over our present "technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment," citing for especial villainy Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who "may not be the antichrist, but he sure looks like one of the four horsemen."
Now we have Dave Eggers' "The Circle," an indictment in the form of a novel, about what he sees as humanity's enslavement to social media. The book's message — that we are one keystroke away from a world where people lose their desire for and hold on an inner life — is evidently terrifying to some in the chattering class, including an editor at The New York Times who found the book "scary" and "bracing" and "all too real," for which I might suggest a cold shower and, as evidence of true terror regarding the future of the human condition, Terrence Holt's "In the Valley of the Kings."
Or we can just wait for the movie version of "The Circle," which the novel essentially is; it's a screenplay-in-waiting, with the pacing of a thriller, and offering superb opportunity for visual/techno super-saturation, the Circle being the world's most successful Internet company, with a campus to match: a glass dining complex that soars nine stories high, "a stone amphitheater built into a high grassy berm," an aquarium holding sea creatures from the Mariana Trench. I'd like to see this movie.
Perhaps the on-screen characters will have personality beyond stating the various — well, two — platforms Eggers puts in their mouths. Let's meet them here: there's Mae, our blank paper of a protagonist, thrilled to have gotten a job at "the only company that really mattered at all." There's her friend Annie, a platinum blonde higher-up in the Circle. There are the Circle's founders, known as the Three Wise Men, "a strange bouquet of mismatched flowers" drawn so broadly as to be caricatures, and there is Mercer, a former boyfriend of Mae's, whose assignment here is essentially to yell, "Abandon hope all ye who enter the Circle!" and be considered first a rube and then a threat for doing so.
The threat is to the Circle's online hegemony, which starts with the convenient-seeming TruYou account, which harnesses all of a person's online identities, offers more connectivity, more ways to shop, more ways to feel as though your opinion matters. The Circle's market share grows to most of the world's population, participation becomes mandatory, as do bio-readers and surveillance cameras, the kind people wear on their wrists and chests, a bondage presented as the ultimate freedom, the opportunity for total "transparency" and "to go clear." The allusions to Scientology are many. We await the references to totalitarian regimes, and are not disappointed.
Descriptions tend toward the thick and hammy. Mae on Annie's ascension in the Circle: "If she'd grown up in the Siberian tundra, born blind to shepherds, she still would have arrived here, now." Of the Wise Man under whose sway Mae falls: "His eyebrows were Roman arches, his nose like some small sea creature's delicate snout." Of a doctor at the Circle: "With her extravagant curves, her sultry eyes and harmonica voice, she was a volcano onscreen."
Alas, no ripped bodice on the book's cover, but a circular maze whose circumference is almost closed, and once closed, seals our enslavement.
Can Mae save the world? Mae, who is often relegated to interjections like, "So I'm —" and "I think so. But —" in order to offer a little white space during others' speechifying for/against the Circle. Mae, whose engages in the most undercooked sex in recent literary memory, and when asked by her partner to rate the encounter, scores him 100. Mae, whose impressionability makes her the perfect acolyte, and whose true believer status becomes so annoying, and then dangerous, that one of the book's characters puts itself in a coma just to get away.
Eggers has a convenient screen against criticism, in that "The Circle" is meant as satire, so that the book's obvious ironies (that 100) and robotic characterizations may be seen as deliberate and thus illuminating. Black is white and white is black, just like the indoctrination of the Circlers, get it?
Yeah, we get it. And Eggers gets some things right, the echo chamber that can be social media, the addiction to our feeds, our scores, the satisfaction a response brings, the anxiety produced by no response, the self-deprecating status updates, the self-satisfaction that we create change simply by hitting a "like" button. But with the exception of the visuals (irony alert: the most exciting scene in the book involves drones), must the adventure be so predictable? We see everything that is coming, albeit having us see the action is not, in this book, Eggers forte: Annie "arched her eyebrows mischievously"; words go "rattling in [Mae's] head" and "tumbled out" of her mouth. Considering the hullabaloo the book has received (an excerpt ran on the cover of the Times magazine last month), and Eggers stature, one expects more precision.
The Circle's master plan is to make sure "no earthly question would remain unanswered," thus leading to a world where people love and defend and kill for the chains with which they bind themselves. Eggers conceit, that once the circle is closed it cannot be breached, does not take into account teenagers, punk rockers, the Buckminster Fullers of the world, and the fact that all totalitarian regimes end, always badly.
The conceit likewise leaves no room for the grace that social media can give us, for instance, earlier this month, when a young friend died, and Facebook offered several hundred of her friends (flesh friends, myself included) a place to gather, to mourn, to send photos and poetry (a gathering someone called "the digital equivalent of the casserole"), to know where the memorial was, an Irish wake with drinking and dancing and crying and laughing. The Internet did this, too.
At age 21, just starting to see her work published, wanting it so very much while also wanting to please God, to do as He wanted, Flannery O'Connor wrote to Him. From one of her journal entries:
Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing. . . .
The rest in this week's New Yorker.
I've been remiss around these parts and have not been posting links to my new favorite gig: reviewing books for the Wall Street Journal. I have one in this weekend, THE MUSHROOM HUNTERS: On the Trail of an Underground America, by Langdon Cook. The Journal is behind a paywall so if you are not a WSJ subscriber you may not get the whole article. Here's the lede:
Those morels at Whole Foods, the ones that sell for more money than you feel like spending, despite their crenelated conical umami goodness: Ever wonder how they got to the market?
If they came from the Northwest—and there's a good chance they did—they were foraged by circuit pickers who work seasonally in forests from California to Alaska. The crews, often Southeast Asian refugees, sell the morels to a buyer working out of a truck or a tent or other temporary shelter. He pays cash.Once the buyer has got, say, 2,000 pounds, he has to get the morels out of the backcountry fast. Wild mushrooms are highly perishable, their quality easily compromised by rot, heat, bugs, crushing. Which means that after days of haggling, of being cold and damp or hot and sweaty—and, if it is summer in Alaska, fighting swarms of mosquitoes dense as beaded curtains—the buyer suddenly needs to hustle. Maybe it's an all-night drive to a prop plane or floating downriver on a raft or begging a helicopter ride, anything that will get the morels to Los Angeles and New York, where 24 hours after being picked, they are displayed for sale on a bed of froufrou ferns.
Din and I moved, from LA to Portland (where he was born and raised) in 2004. He'd been working as a paitning contractor for the previous six years. This was not something he wanted to continue. And so in the fall, I asked him, "What do you want to do?"
"Roast coffee," he said, which he'd been doing at home for the past four years, small batches that friends snatched up and oohed and aahed over.
Ristretto Roasters was born in 2005.
"Since then, Ristretto has grown from boutique cafe with an on-site vintage roaster into a thriving business with an independent roastery and coffee lab, and three architecturally distinctive and popular cafes in urban Portland." So reads Din's bio, in HOW TO MAKE COFFEE BEFORE YOU'VE HAD COFFEE, Ristretto Roasters' Spectacularly Simple Guide to Brewing at Home, which came out yesterday. As I've told others, the book looks great and shoots straught, just like my husband. You can grab it on Amazon, or, starting next week, at the cafes and Powell's Books. Enjoy xx
I did something I had never done before last night: I went on Goodreads and saw what readers had written about my work. I did not go onto the site with the intention of doing this. I went to see what readers thought of Terrence Holt's In the Valley of the Kings, which I had just reviewed on Amazon, where I was surprised to see, because I think the book so tremendous, how few readers had reviewed it. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it.
But that's me. Seeing what readers wrote about The Bad Mother, I know we all see things differently--and viva for that. (I will, if you will indulge me, point out to reviewer #1 that the title does not refer to any of the novel's human characters, but to Hollywood herself.)
Somewhat earlier in the evening, I had seen a review on Amazon for Transportation. It came from a friend. The generosity of what he wrote caught me up short. I emailed him, trying to say thank you, and wound up writing that what he'd posted had rendered me inarticulate, and hopefully that was termporary, but that the effect was it made me want to write more and write better. He responded with more kindness, including the mention of Roberto Bolano, whose 2666 has been sitting at my bedside for six months. Because I was in that mood, I checked what reviews the book had received on Amazon. They were mixed. I started the book last night...
... and was up at five this morning, reading, with a cup of coffee, then two, it was getting on 7:30, I really should have started my day, but my god, this book, this book! This writing, mind-blowingly great, funny, only its own, so smart, oh for days with no interruption, just this book and me, this book that reviewers find confusing, and which, as I raced through a four-page-with-no-period sentence, as I fell into world after world of this story, I was so joyful at knowing that Bolano had found the editors he did, if finally; that the work could come to us without being squashed, that translators had done their amazing job, at the horizons smashed out between yesterday and today.
Just today found out the names of all four of mine: Maria, Maria, Mae and Cleopatra. Previously knew each except for Mae, which is Tafv's middle name. I was supposed to be named Maria, but as the story goes, my father came into the hospital room to see my mother and said, "I just saw Maria in the nursery -- she's beautiful," upon which my mother burst into tears and said, "I want to name her Nancy!" This, because she said every Nancy she knew in grade school was so nice.
What are the names of yours?
Ten years ago today, Din and I woke up, made coffee, spent the morning with Tafv, my best friend Sarah, and three friends who'd come down from San Francisco. One had rented a Lincoln for the day. We drove to Beverly Hills City Hall, Din wearing a suit of my dad's he'd had tailored to fit, me in a $2 suit I'd bought at Ozzie Dots the year before just because I liked it. I pinned on the gardenia Din had bought me. We walked into the marrying room and, holding hands, were given a sober, lively, very short talking to by a very short judge sitting at her desk. Did we take what we were doing seriously? We did, of course we did, though to characterize marriage as a serious business does not speak to what my experience of marriage is, which all has to do with this man, oh this man. Who I knew six weeks into knowing him was the only one for me.
I woke up today and made coffee. Happy anniversary, my love xx
I woke up last Thursday morning and asked Din, my boyfriend of six years, if he wanted to get married that day.
He laughed. “Can I finish my cup of coffee first?”
While he did that, I went online and found the nearest city hall; Beverly Hills performed marriages on Thursdays, but they didn’t have any openings that day.
“Let’s go get the license, anyway,” I said.
We drove to the big, pretty police station on Santa Monica and Rexford, and parked behind it. On the walk to the registrar, we started a discussion about how women manipulate men, when it comes to marrying.
“All women?” I asked.
“Just about,” said Din, pulling open the heavy door to City Hall. The ceilings were high, the floors marble, the light green and governmental. We passed through the metal detectors and waited near a bank of tellers’ windows, where three couples were filling out paperwork.
“What about her?” I whispered, nodding at a slender woman in pressed jeans, saying something clipped to her groom, who turned to look out the glass doors.
“She’s been busting his balls for 14 months, and now the fun’s really going to begin,” Din whispered back.
I laughed, but I couldn’t keep up the cynicism — the other couples appeared goofy with love. A man in his 50s in ratty sweatpants lunged for a kiss from his bride-to-be as they were handed their license. A very tall man dressed like an East Coast banker could not stop grinning as his fiancée, in a lovely Liberty of London shift, silently moved her lips as she read the questions.
“I’m not a ball-buster,” I told Din.
“Well, I know that,” he said, and kissed my hair.
“Look at all these people getting married. It’s so hopeful,” she said to the room. I responded by telling her she needed to get a form from the center basket.
“Thank you, THANK you,” she said.
Din and I filled out our form and turned it in to a clerk with a Brooklyn accent (“You can make it out to me,” he cracked, when I asked how to make out the $67 check). Then we moved to the waiting area, a gem of 1930s modernism, with one large table and benches along three walls, where waiting couples sat, staring at one another. I felt as though I were filling up with helium.
“Din and Nancy?” called the clerk. We proceeded to the window. “Raise your right hands.”
We complied. “Do you swear the information on this license” — which had been typed and now looked as official and permanent as a birth certificate — “is the truth?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I do,” said Din.
“. . . I do,” I added.
“Okay, that’s it. Are there any questions I can answer for you?”
“Yes, where do we get married?” I asked.
“You can’t do it today,” he said, and then, to the crabby female clerk next to him, “We’re not going to have an angry day, are we?”
“I know, I know,” I said, “but for when we come back.”
He pointed left. “Down the hall, the door where the bell is.”
As Din slid the license into its envelope, I heard head-scarf gal say to the clerk, “You help marry people. It’s SUCH a wonderful thing.”
“Yeah, it’s a wonderful thingamajig. Next!”
Din and I found the marrying room — the bell was made of honeycombed paper. Inside, sweatpants man and his bride stood before a man in a purple-and-magenta satin robe. The room was small, no space for froufrou, and I felt, at that second, as though I had opened a closet and seen a jacket I’d forgotten about, then put it on, and it fit exactly.
Sweatpants caught me peeping. “Come in, come in!” he said, holding open the door. I stammered that I was just looking, for when we get married.
The man in the robe looked puzzled. “You’re not getting married today?”
“No, no,” I said, “but for when we do.”
“Oh,” he said, and grinned. “Well, be sure to call, so I know not to be here.”
This was getting better and better.
I backed into the hall, where Din and a secretary were laughing. What?
“She was just commenting on what he wore to get married in,” said Din.
“I know, but he was so happy,” I said, and then we left City Hall, discussing what we would wear.
I came home from walking Wales two weeks ago today. It was an astounding trip in every way, the landscape -- walking the Pembrokeshire Coast Trail, above and alongside the sea - was so beautiful as to be surreal, the people lovely (I especially like that every Welshman calls every woman, "Love"), and the company, Deborah Reed, the very very best. I do not exaggerate when I say we laughed for hours every day, and have a meeting of the mind and heart in ways seldom found. I adore her forever. Bonus: she introduced to Helen Smith, who was the very best hostess, putting us up in her lovely home in London, where we ate and drank and gabbed and dried our dirty hiking clothes outside on the line, after washing them in Persil, which smells so wonderful I am considering having some shipped from the UK.
When I arrived home, Din said, "I need to get away for a few days." I had barely landed when we were taking off this past Tuesday for Las Vegas, a quick trip bought on Hotwire for a ridiculously low price. The hotel, the Vdara, has no casino and thus is calm and quiet. Perhaps because it was a Tuesday, the gal at the lobby desk upped our room to an executive suite, essentially, an apartment, with a kitchen, a washer/dryer, and two bathrooms, one about as large as a New York City studio. From the bathtub, one can look over the city and to the mountains, which I did, not caring if people in the high-rises next door could see me naked.
"Who cares?" said Din. "People are funny about that stuff."
"Exactly," I said. "It's not like they haven't seen breasts in Vegas."
"Well, not real ones," he said.
We did see many unreal ones, including a pair, on a linebacker-shaped woman, so large they were crowding up into her neck. We saw her on one of our several walks along the strip, walks that are accomplished these days along a series of walkways connecting the casinos and malls, walkways crammed with people taking pictures and other people selling water, with people scavenging for change and other people playing violin for same; people handing out nudie flyers and working girls and girls dressed as working girls and tourists drinking drinks out of 24-inch colored plastic cups shaped like phalluses. There are many languages being spoken as from every wall ads flash for shows and luxury goods and loose slots and big steaks. Every building's surface is plastered with a famous someone's face, 70-feet of Gordon Ramsay, Donnie & Marie, Celine. There were no birds anywhere. There are many homeless, some of the men looking like castaways. And every few yards there is the smell of sewage, drifting up from the sidewalk in hot waves, bathing you, coating you, so that you soon feel you have been rolled in the sweat of others, and even the swimming pool offers little refreshment, because in the pool are dozens of people, drinking the big drinks and farting out the buffet they ate for dinner and the other one they had for breakfast.
We had buffet too, once. It came with the room. I advise against it.
So much for the icky part. There is also the beauty, of downtown Las Vegas, in the process of being revitalized by Zappo's Tony Hsieh. We ate at Eat, and it's wonderful. Ditto, La Comida. We saw my beautiful former sister-in-law Sandra and her husband, and had a very good meal at Lotus of Siam, and yesterday, met Rodney Muirhead and Elizabeth Montes for lunch at Milo's, in the Cosmopolitan. Get the Greek yogurt dessert, which is not like the Greek yogurt you get at the market, it's so extraordinary we all spooned and oohed and aahed and made the waiter tell us where it's from: Four Brothers. This, too, is something I am considering having shipped in.
The best thing about being in Las Vegas was being with Din; that is always the case anywhere and every day. The second best thing were the motels on East Fremont.