Sunday, May 28, 2006

at the sign of the naked waiter by Amy Herrick: Book Review

At the sign of the naked waiter could have been a really fun novel.

It could have sprinkled its magical-ness into the drone of the everyday; described beauty, love and your place in this world with a poignant sweetness that wrenches at your heart. It could even have asked probing questions about the fine line between madness and enchantment. But it does none of this.

Instead, it is hopelessly mediocre, and often feels abrupt, incomplete and oddly skeletal as if the author wrote parts of it in a rush. In the book’s defense, I don’t really know how to judge this novel because I think this is young adult fiction. Would the teenage me have liked this book? Actually yes, very much. It has the sort of fantastical, magical realism that I was really into as a kid. But does that make it a good, competent book? I honestly can’t say. While it does not claim to be young adult fiction anywhere (I looked), the characters overflow with superficiality and teenage-angst. Even when they grow into adulthood, they have infantile tantrums and display a stunning level of immaturity. There’s an especially inane scene when Sarah, a lawyer and her fiancé, another lawyer, are having dinner when the immigrant waitress asks them for legal advice. “All she can do is marry a citizen”. The legal research for the book was apparently done by watching Perfect Strangers.

We meet the main character, Sarah when she is a teenager, on one pretty night “watching the moon sail high above the treetops”. She is about to spot her first, naked man across the way from her window. He apparently has wings, and he flies off into the night the next time she gazes at him. Who is he? Why does he have wings? We never find out, it ceases to matter once the chapter ends and she grows up some more. She also encounters two sponge-like, round alien balls from out of space that emit odors as a form of communication. Nothing more is said of them as well. The fantastical—while they occur with regular frequency—do not ever really faze the characters involved. They are as inconsequential and as worthy of contemplation as a parking lot—never interrupting the everyday business of growing up.

When we first meet Sarah, she is an awkward, shy teenager who is just beginning to feel the first pangs of love, school, and friends. In every chapter that follows, she grows up a few more years, has had a few more boyfriends and eventually a husband, and has climbed a new rung in her professional career. Oddly, while Sarah spends much of her time brooding about her future soul-mate, we are never really sure if she is even in love with the man she ends up marrying. This is mildly interesting.

At the sign of the naked waiter strives so hard to be pretty, with air that is always “soft” or “clear” or “touched with gold” or some combination there of. Starting with the mostly nonsensical title (there is an obligatory naked waiter at the end), the whole novel has an air of such forced whimsy, that I almost feel sorry for it. Like watching someone be willfully cheerful. It has crappy sentences like this all over. “She had the odd thought that a heavy weight was lifting from her head, a crown maybe, that she had been toting around with her since she was quite a young girl, a dumb gold thing, trimmed with fruit and white veils, little cakes and silver babies.” It’s as if Herrick strung together her creative writing exercises and called it a novel. A quick, forgettable book.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Invisibility in da house!!

India Uncut asked, and I answered by shamelessly stealing a friend's response:)

What would you do if you actually had a foolproof invisible cloak?

I would run around and hold up old ladies' boobs.

Four years ago I asked this question to everyone I knew, inspired then by a fabulous piece on (This American Life) called Superpowers. Back then, my question was two-fold: "Which one would you choose: the power of flight or invisibility? And furthermore, what is the first thing you would do with your chosen power." Most people chose invisibility, and wanted to see naked people unhindered. I had a whole theory about what kind of people chose one or the other. So which one are you? A flyer or an invisibler? :)

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Have you noticed this? If you have a blog idea cooking in your mind, and you don’t post it soon enough, it will go away. They are like cats, you have to pay attention to them or they sulk and brood out of your reach. I had a couple of thoughts I wanted to write about a few days ago, but they’re mostly gone now.

One. The Desmoines airport is actually breezy and pleasant, instead of drab and weary. Strange, no? After spending way too much time at O’Hare and Reagan, I have acquired an appreciation for terminals that aren’t pulsing with furious jostling travelers trying to catch their flights.

It got me thinking of a drive back from Chicago a few years ago, when it occurred to me that those endless, stunningly flat cornfields were beautiful. In contrast to India’s bursting, lush and often cacophonous landscapes, those mid-western cornfields had seemed so hopelessly ordinary, almost aggressively common. Its beauty is not one to stand up and shout hello, instead it waits timidly and patiently for you to gaze out the window on one of those long drives, and let your mind wander along those vast fields. And quite suddenly, that tree standing alone, an unexpected break on the horizon will startle you with its splendor.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

I want to know NOW!!

It's driving me crazy. This waiting.

It is a little itch inside my brain that I cannot reach because it is buried under layers of grey matter and skull bone. I was supposed to find out on Wednesday where in India I might end up and more importantly, what exactly I might be doing. Wednesday was yesterday. Today is another day, and my email account still refuses to display any promisingly bold subject lines. My paranoid streak has started flaring up. And a part of me envisions all funding being pulled for the project--which would be strange indeed. But this is my brain and it likes to keep me on the edge. Impatience is manically clicking the "get new mail" button every two minutes and throwing your hands in the air each time because nothing new has popped up. What is it they say about boiling water? It shouldn't be watched or something? Meh.

Update: Got my placements, yay! It was beginning to drive me a little nuts:) I will probably be either in Bangalore or New Delhi.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Reprezenttt!!! (with a Z)

At a pre-dinner chat-fest last night, a friend of mine used a phrase that I find irresistible. We were talking about first dates, (and first impressions in general) and she said that these times were when you "invoke your representative"— meaning try not to share the raw truth about your soul with the person you are with. In a fit of spiraling, random thought-storm last night walking home, I got to thinking about my own representative.

The following is a performance evaluation for my representative.

  • She only works part-time, specifically during job interviews and committee meetings. And even then, she takes too many breaks, and I find myself blurting out, "that bald guy over there took the document, Dr. XYZ".
  • She does not work on call. I have to schedule her hours weeks in advance.
  • She doesn’t get along with the mother-organization. There are frequent disagreements about public statements that do not in fact represent the views of The Me.

Friday, May 05, 2006

A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer: Book Review

There's a moment fairly late in the book, when events and characters come to an unexpected, and shocking denouement—I remember this passage clearly, I was reading it on the metro, and I gasped out loud (startling the other metro riders). Such are the problems of reading characters that leap out of the pages with such intensity and power that the world around you disappears.

In a small, mostly white town of Leyden, New York, Daniel Emerson—who is himself involved in a serious relationship—is fiercely in love with another woman—a married, black woman named Iris Davenport. After a series of richly detailed, exquisitely written chapters, the two eventually have an affair whose consequences fracture both their lives. There’s nothing really special about this story when laid out in this way, but I am reluctant to say much more. So much of the joy in reading this book, is in discovering each new twist, and waiting for the inevitable which arrives in startling, unpreditable waves.

Deftly and elegantly, Spencer unpacks the racial and sexual implications of the relationship between Daniel and Iris in deliciously ambiguous ways. There’s a beautiful passage early on that describes Daniel’s torture when he imagines telling Iris that he moved back to Leyden from New York City because he has developed a fear of black people (due to being beaten up by a few). Similarly, Daniel’s girlfriend (practically wife), Kate Ellis's privilege and often brash intolerance makes for some palpably uncomfortable racially-tinted moments.

There’s also Hampton, Iris’s husband—a highly successful investment banker—a man whose racial pride and self-regard is so potent, so over-powering that little else matters when he enters the scene. Here’s a passage that describes Hampton’s reaction to a letter in which there’s an implied slight made against his wife, Iris, who has been taking years to finish up her doctoral studies.

Yet. His heart feels queer, as if it is suddenly circulating blood that is a little oily and a little cold. Hampton is vulnerable to the suggestion that Iris might not be in possession of a first-class mind. There is a vagueness to her, a lack of precision. Sometimes, he thinks this is a result of her profoundly feminine nature, yet in his line of work he meets dozens of women whose minds are scientific, logical, calculating, aggressive. Iris’s is not. Both she and Hampton have been explaining her long career in graduate school to themselves and to the world at large as somehow a result of an excess of intellectual curiosity, an unwillingness to be pigeon-holed, and the demands of motherhood, and Hampton is perfectly willing to stay within the confines of this official explanation. What he is not willing to say, except to himself…[is that..] because she is simply too confused to complete her work; that, in other words, the machinery of her mind is not quite up to the task.

In a lot of ways, Ship Made of Paper manages to do what movies like Crash only make half-baked attempts at—relate racial ambiguities without resorting to high-minded, yet cheap messaging and condescension. Instead, it offers up it's racially potent world in startlingly imaginative and sensitive ways.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Stephen Colbert is my New Personal Hero

Every now and again, every once in a blue moon, television will spit out something of such exquisite beauty, that gives me such sheer, absolute joy that I am actually giddy from it. This weekend's White House Correspondent Dinner where Stephen Colbert roasted our president in his scathingly funny, face-slapping monologue to a room full of gasping, nervous-laughing, stone-silent audience is some gorgeous, utterly delicious television. Ah, and our President, our pink-faced President Bush as he tries valiently to hold up that thin, desperate little smile. Beautiful! These are the moments meant to be downloaded, shared, and cherished for generations to come! :)

Please pleeaaasssee watch this if you have not already done so. Click Here. Or Click Here, apparently it has full video plus transcript.

Or click on the video below, which should show up...

Monday, May 01, 2006

Lazy Sunday = Trip to the Eastern Market

I love our eastern market. Especially when it is this beautiful outside, and all the venders seem to be in an especially generous mood. I love the snack and champagne makers who will thrust their sample cups of sugared walnuts or apple wine to taste as you walk by. I love the loud, gaudy jewelry, the vintage photographs, the handmade greeting cards for a $1, the artists' and their splashy canvases carelessly strung up with a $700 price tag. I love my favorite bookstore--Capital Hills Used Bookstore--two tiny rooms bursting at the seams with books stacked high anywhere there is a surface. No eastern market trip is complete without a visit. I even dig the corner store vender with his red-tinted beard, and belly-shaking laugh who will--without fail--ask me to marry him, thoroughly embarassing me, before knocking of a measly five bucks for love.

Today two desi venders--both exclaimed, "For you, I will give for $20, it's normally 30, but you are Indian. I see that." Gosh. When I decided that the skirt I was eyeing was too small for me, the second guy said, "Arre, beti, yay tho moti moti log bhi payinte hai." (child, even fat fat women wear this). Completely amused, I laughed and chose to ignore his obvious irritation when I walked away without buying anything.

I had fun bartering in Hindi, and I realized with a sudden thrill that I will have to learn to haggle better in Hindi over the next few months. Problem areas identified:
  • I don't know all the numbers very well, so I always say, "pacheese" (15), or "beese" (20). Things that cost more than that would be a problem. The minute I slip into English (will you knock off 5$?), I can feel my advantage also slipping quickly.
  • I am way too conditioned to pay the amount asked of me. I am without that killer instinct, that outraged, slightly manic belief that I deserve this item for half the asking price. I fold way too easily, too happily after an initial inquiry, "is there a discount?"
  • I have no real idea of what the actual cost of things are. Everything is expensive here, when compared to everywhere else.
  • I actually have trouble understanding Hindi from different dialects spoken too fast. Shameful, but true. The Pakistani vender was muttering something about shirts to me, which I had to fake "nod and smile" my way through. After spending most of my days speaking English, I have the disturbing sense of Hindi sounding clunky and wrong coming out of my mouth.
Anyway, it was a successful trip. A pretty skirt, and an equally pretty shirt was bought. Six novels have been added to my pile of books. I have a nice shopper's high.