Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Best L.A. Novel Ever: Karen Tei Yamashita's Tropic of Orange vs. Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, Round 1


L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading check out:
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament Brackets
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: More Matchups
In the opening pages of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, a British literature professor named George wakes up, washes, shaves, brushes his hair, gets dressed and eats breakfast. It's standard stuff, but Isherwood traces each step of the process with such startlingly minute intensity that we come gradually to understand George is building himself up from scratch, donning an unfamiliar body and willing this new jumble of synapse and meat to transform from "it" to "he":
"Fear tweaks the vagus nerve...But meanwhile the cortex, that grim disciplinarian has taken its place at the central controls...The legs stretch, the lower back is arched, the fingers clench and relax. An now, over the entire intercommunication system, is issued the first general order of the day: UP."
The source of the grief dissembling George so completely is the recent accidental death of his partner, Jim, and while Isherwood's sympathetic portrait of a relationship between two men was what propelled this novel into popular consciousness in 1964, it's worth noting that the book's power lies not in its unorthodox-for-its-time treatment of gay partnership, but in Isherwood's capacity for rendering loss. Over the course of the day, as George teaches, drinks and enters into a brief flirtation with a young student, his every action comes weighted by his desire to retreat back into nothing. It's this, Isherwood's grasp of what the relentlessness onslaught of the present in Los Angeles means for someone attempting to grieve the past, that makes A Single Man an essential L.A. novel.
Through George's eyes, L.A. comes in fragments: a sterile freeway, an empty beach, a ragged university campus, a steep set of stone steps into the hills, a mostly empty bar. These images combine to form a kind of eulogy, both for George, who by this point is little more than ghost haunting his own body, and for a city he can't quite reach. To understand the muted ache that pervades Isherwood's prose, it helps to also understand the pain of being stuck in traffic by yourself on the 405 at 6 pm, or reading alone at a Los Feliz café for too many hours on a Sunday afternoon, or sitting on your couch on a Friday night as the sun sets and the sky turns pink. A kind of loneliness that sometimes feels unique to this city is vital to George's entire way of being.
When Tom Ford's film adapation of A Single Man came out in 2009, some critics complained that, while the visuals were rich and heartfelt, the narrative was empty, an impressive feat of art direction arranged around a core of negative space. This is a facile critique of a film directed by a fashion designer, and it's also entirely off base: that negative space already existed in the book, placed at the heart of the story by Isherwood, not Ford. George is man whose most fervent desire is not to exist, and the book is a chronicle of his coming closer and closer to that goal. It was that tension between the nothingness George wants to become and Isherwood's vivid, visceral writing that drew readers to Isherwood's novel in the first place.

If you prefer your novels loud, ambitious, far-flung and manic instead of quietly devastating, it seems, on the surface at least, that Karen Yamashita's Tropic of Orange ought to be more to your liking. Stretching from Rosarito to West Hollywood and all along the Harbor freeway, Yamashita's narrative tasks itself with rendering the barely controlled chaos of the California/Mexico border into prose. The author writes with the kind of headlong fury James Wood might have called hysterically realist and PhD candidates tend to call Postmodern. This kind of expansive, all-encompassing concept-driven book could have made for a virtuouso examination of L.A. on par with, say, Zadie Smith's White Teeth or Don DeLillo's Underworld, but what we get instead is a lightly-veiled academic critique of several dozen of the kinds of "isms" -- multiculturalism, classism, racism and magical realism chief among them -- that tend to turn up in undergraduate ethnic and social studies classes.
If you Google Tropic of Orange what you'll get, mostly, are services offering up critical essays for pay, and postings by desperate-seeming high school students asking if someone won't please tell them what this book is about. This is a shame considering the awesome potential for mass appeal of Yamashita's many-tentacled story. Told in 49 chapters through the voices of seven different characters, Yamashita's novel tracks the seven days leading up to what might turn out to be the utter destruction of California. In one subplot, an old laborer who may be immortal transports an orange out of Mazatlan, Mexico. The orange drags with it the Tropic of Cancer, distorting the borders of California and causing apocalyptic traffic jams. As commuter yuppies flee their cars, the homeless move in, transforming the 405 into a kind of revitalized tent city.
Meanwhile, Emi, a Japanese-American newscaster and Gabriel, her Mexican-American reporter boyfriend, investigate the seemingly random poisoning deaths of several Los Angeles citizens. Caught up in the whirl are a black social reformer named Buzzworm, a shapeshifting thug who trafficks infant organs, and a Japanese veteran who conducts the city like an orchestra from his spot on a freeway overpass. That's a lot to cram into one novel -- too much, probably, and in Yamashita's hands, it all falls together into a gloopy mess, a kind of critical/analytical hyper-literary version of Paul Haggis' 2004 movie Crash.
It's hard to criticize a book written whose motivations for existing are so obviously legitimate, but the line has to be drawn somewhere. For me, it was around the time the old man borrowed from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story showed up and began communicating solely in lines of very bad activist poetry:
Doom! Doom!
Look to the past and know the doom awaits you!
The doom of discovery!
The doom of conquest!
And worse yet,
Who among the discoverers
Did not plant their seed in this land of discovery?
Now all is lost! We will pay dearly!

I, Chilam Quetzal, the soothsayer, have spoken.
The director Paul Schraeder once wrote that a good story is about something, but it's also about something else. Yamashita's lines here are, for the most part, only about themselves. As a result, the book fails on the level of the sentence; too often, the language reads like automatic writing, all the onus put on the reader to supply meaning:
"Now, it was Monday, and he awoke. He awoke to all the metaphors that come from the land. He had followed a path across the continent that was crooked, but always heading north. Now he was in Mazatlan. He could hear the waves lapping at the edges of the sand, feel the already heating breezes flowing from the Sea of Cortes."
Here, a reference to the city of Mazatlan may be working to call up the Spanish word "Aztlan," the Nahautl word for the mythical place of the origin of the Aztec peoples, while the mention of the Sea of Cortes brings conquering whiteness to mind. Too much of the novel is like this -- signifying prose designed to provoke a specific response, and deployed with single-minded political intent. There's a difference between the magical realism Yamashita may have been attempting (or attempting to satirize) and lazy allegory, and the border between the two is one this novel crosses all too often.
Too, Yamashita tends to commit the same essentialist crimes she seems to be railing against. As a black female reader, I was put off by the pat imitations of African-American dialect and the presence of the ever-ubiquitous Magical Negro savior figure in Buzzworm. When Tropic of Orange does bring up problems relevant to life as a person of color in in L.A, the solutions the novel proposes ultimately don't make sense: The novel climaxes, for example, in a heavily symbolic wrestling match between the Very Old Man With Enormous Wings and NAFTA.
Isherwood, for his part, explores L.A.'s marginalized communities with fewer words and less fanfare. And while his approach to multiculturalism leaves a lot to be desired (the non-white characters in this novel tend to exist primarily via interactions with white characters) each individual remain memorable because Isherwood allows them to be people, rather than symbols. With A Single Man, Isherwood created a book that, like all novels that stick around, uses fiction to tell the truth. Meanwhile, as the borders of Los Angeles threaten to collapse in Tropic of Orange, the drama falls flat. Yamashita's L.A. never felt like mine.
Winner: A Single Man

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

My Life: A Book By Bill Clinton Plus Other Profound Books...Happy March!

Book Excerpt from Chapter One

Early on the morning of August 19, 1946, I was born under a clear sky after a violent summer storm to a widowed mother in the Julia Chester Hospital in Hope, a town of about six thousand in southwest Arkansas, thirty-three miles east of the Texas border at Texarkana. My mother named me William Jefferson Blythe III after my father, William Jefferson Blythe Jr., one of nine children of a poor farmer in Sherman, Texas, who died when my father was seventeen. According to his sisters, my father always tried to take care of them, and he grew up tobe a handsome, hardworking, fun-loving man. He met my mother at Tri-State Hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1943, when she was training to be a nurse. Many times when I was growing up, I asked Mother to tell me the story of their meeting, courting, and marriage. He brought a date with some kind of medical emergency into the ward where she was working, and they talked and flirted while the other woman was being treated. On his way out of the hospital, he touched the finger on which she was wearing her boyfriend's ring and asked her if she was married. She stammered no, she was single. The next day he sent the other woman flowers and her heart sank. Then he called Mother for a date, explaining that he always sent flowers when he ended a relationship. Read More

Timeline and Commentary
Clinton wins his first political race to become Attorney General of Arkansas.
Elected Governor of Arkansas, making him the youngest state governor in the U.S. at that time. He is defeated after just one term.
Elected governor again, where he remained for five more consecutive terms.
Clinton wins the presidential election after defeating George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot, running on a platform that stressed domestic issues, notably a sagging economy.

"No wonder Americans hate politics when, year in and year out, they hear politicians make promises that won't come true because they don't even mean them--campaign fantasies that win elections but don't get nations moving again." --Candidate Clinton, Detroit Economic Club, August 21, 1992
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is ratified, allowing freer trade between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

"Being president is a job for just one person. And for the next four years that person is Hillary." --Dan Rather, Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 15, 1993

"Thomas Jefferson believed that to preserve the very foundations of our nation, we would need dramatic change from time to time. Well, my fellow citizens, this is our time. Let us embrace it." --President Bill Clinton Inaugural Address, January 21, 1993
The midterm elections give the Republicans control of both the Senate and the House for the first time in 40 years, causing a fierce fight over the budget and resulting in a series of brief governmental shutdowns.

"Clinton means what he says when he says it, but tomorrow he will mean what he says when he says the opposite. He is the existential President, living with absolute sincerity in the passing moment."
--Michael Kelly, The New York Times Magazine, July 31, 1994
Clinton organizes the Dayton Peace Accords in Ohio, bringing a temporary cease-fire to the Balkan States. "For the quickest descent into the ethical quagmire, the Clinton administration has set a new indoor record." --Howard Kurtz column, The Washington Post, March 26, 1995
Clinton is elected to a second term after defeating Bob Dole and Ralph Nader. "America demands and deserves big things from us--and nothing big ever came from being small. Let us remember the timeless wisdom of Cardinal Bernardin, when facing the end of his own life. He said: 'It is wrong to waste the precious gift of time, on acrimony and division.'" --Second Inaugural Address of President Bill Clinton, January 20, 1997
On December 19, Clinton is impeached by the House of Representatives on the grounds of perjury, abuse of powers, and obstruction of justice regarding matters related to his affair with White House aide Monica Lewinsky.

Number of U.S. households that chose watching professional wrestling over the president's televised apology in August: 6,379,000. --Harper's
Index, November 1998
In February, in a Senate vote basically along party lines, Clinton is spared impeachment.

In conjunction with a Republican-controlled Congress, Clinton balances the U.S. federal budget for the first time since 1969.

"Whether you like him or not like him, this is one of the great, get up, political fighters of all time."
--Dan Rather to Geraldo Rivera on CNBC's Rivera Live, July 8, 1999

"The light may be fading on the 20th century, but the sun is still rising on America."
--President Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan International Trade facility, December 31, 1999
After protracted political wrangling by Clinton, China is accepted into the World Trade Organization, opening that vast market to goods from the U.S. and around the world.
The William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation is created to help people around the world meet the challenges of global interdependence.

"I am confident that we have the knowledge and the means to make the 21st century the most peaceful, prosperous, interesting time in all human history. The question is whether we have the wisdom and the will." --President Bill Clinton, from the Dimbleby Memorial Lecture given by the former U.S. President at the Institute of Education in London, December 18, 2001

Editorial Reviews Review

An exhaustive, soul-searching memoir, Bill Clinton's My Life is a refreshingly candid look at the former president as a son, brother, teacher, father, husband, and public figure. Clinton painstakingly outlines the history behind his greatest successes and failures, including his dedication to educational and economic reform, his war against a "vast right-wing operation" determined to destroy him, and the "morally indefensible" acts for which he was nearly impeached. My Life is autobiography as therapy--a personal history written by a man trying to face and banish his private demons. Clinton approaches the story of his youth with gusto, sharing tales of giant watermelons, nine-pound tumors, a charging ram, famous mobsters and jazz musicians, and a BB gun standoff. He offers an equally energetic portrait of American history, pop culture, and the evolving political landscape, covering the historical events that shaped his early years (namely the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK) and the events that shaped his presidency (Waco, Bosnia, Somalia). What makes My Life remarkable as a political memoir is how thoroughly it is infused with Clinton's unassuming, charmingly pithy voice:
I learned a lot from the stories my uncle, aunts, and grandparents told me: that no one is perfect but most people are good; that people can't be judged only by their worst or weakest moments; that harsh judgments can make hypocrites of us all; that a lot of life is just showing up and hanging on; that laughter is often the best, and sometimes the only, response to pain.
However, that same voice might tire readers as Clinton applies his penchant for minute details to a distractible laundry list of events, from his youth through the years of his presidency. Not wanting to forget a single detail that might help account for his actions, Clinton overdoes it--do we really need to know the name of his childhood barber? But when Clinton sticks to the meat of his story--
recollections about Mother, his abusive stepfather, Hillary, the campaign trail, and Kenneth Starr--the veracity of emotion and Kitchen Confidential-type revelations about "what it is like to be President" make My Life impossible to put down.

To Clinton, "politics is a contact sport," and while he claims that My Life is not intended to make excuses or assign blame, it does portray him as a fighter whose strategy is to "take the first hit, then counter punch as hard as I could." While My Life is primarily a stroll through Clinton's memories, it is also a scathing rebuke--a retaliation against his detractors, including Kenneth Starr, whose "mindless search for scandal" protected the guilty while "persecuting the innocent" and distracted his Administration from pressing international matters (including strikes on al Qaeda). Counter-punch indeed.

At its core, My Life is a charming and intriguing if flawed book by an equally intriguing and flawed man who had his worst failures and humiliations made public. Ultimately, the man who left office in the shadow of scandal offers an honest and open account of his life, allowing readers to witness his struggle to "drain the most out of every moment" while maintaining the character with which he was raised. It is a remarkably intimate, persuasive look at the boy he was, the President he became, and man he is today. --Daphne Durham 

Friday, January 31, 2014

Real Dogs Don’t Whisper – Interview with Kelly Preston

About Real Dogs Don’t Whisper

Real Dogs Don't Whisper
The award winning book, Real Dogs Don't Whisper (, which highlights my life journey caring for four special needs dogs and the life lessons they taught me along the way.  The overall message within Real Dogs Don’t Whisper is about giving those with special needs a second chance.  The book touches on integrity, unconditional love, leadership, trust, stopping abuse and opening your heart to receive and give both unconditional love and friendship.  To lighten the message, I developed a co-author, Mr MaGoo; Mr MaGoo is my Lhasa Apso and he is larger than life.  He adds humor within the book; sharing with the reader how life is so tough for him being the only male in the house and living with a crazy lady, me.

Mr. MaGoo is a nine-year-old Lhasa Apso and the book’s co-creator and co-writer. He is, in his own words, “the alpha and omega of all dogs – in the cutest and sparkiest, most fun-loving package ever.” Ignoring Kelly’s persistent eye-rolling, Mr. MaGoo has forged ahead with this project in an attempt to, as he puts it, “present the facts from a dog’s perspective. In other words, the correct, most accurate, most interesting, only-one-that-matters perspective,” to which he adds, simply, “Woof!”


Q:  Can you tell us why you took in two more dogs, and tell us about the severe trust issues and the problems that come with it?
I just rescued two new dogs; one with severe trust issues, Mini Me and a blind Cocker Spaniel, Driving Miss Fancy.  Just like the rest of my pack, was not prepared for these two new additions,  Betty Boop and Buffy went on to Rainbow Bridge, after a year I was ready to add two new family members.  Mini Me came first, he was in my home for only 30 minutes and he quickly found the toy basket and proceeded to take each and every toy out.  I knew from that point, he was going to be a handful and I have not been wrong.  While he is very playful (he is only 3yrs old), quickly became apparent he has severe trust issues with strangers, being a fear biter.  I have gotten him past the biting, still working with him to stop the excessive barking; every day is a training session with him. Plus, taking him the groomers on a regular basis helps him understand that strangers will not hurt him.   Driving Miss Fancy just came into my life several months ago, when I first saw her; I fell in love with her as she reminded me of my beloved Buffy.  She is blind and that doesn’t slow her down; in fact, Mini Me and her have become BFF.  He has been teaching her how to play, helping her find her way around the yard chasing toys.  It is very interesting to watch the relationship they have formed; talk about trust, each and every day they display endless amount of trust towards each other. 

About Kelly Preston

Kelly Preston is, first and foremost, an animal lover. Raised on a ten-acre property in a small town in Pennsylvania, she grew up with horses, rabbits, and – of course – dogs. When she left home after college, she acquired Gizmo, an irresistible Lhasa Apso that started her on a journey full of joys and sorrows, hopes and tribulations, frustrations, endless lessons in patience, and above all else, love. All of this has come at the hands (more precisely the paws) of Gizmo, Betty Boop, Buffy, Carla Mae, and the inimitable Mr. MaGoo.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

President Obama Accepts Nobel Peace Prize : News and Honors of the Past and Present


US President Barack Obama says his 'accomplishments are slight' compared to other Nobel laureates such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize during a ceremony at the Oslo City Hall in Oslo, 10 Dec 2009
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize during a ceremony at the Oslo City Hall in Oslo, 10 Dec 2009
U.S. President Barack Obama has formally accepted the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway.  The president spoke at length about the circumstances that push nations to war, and prompt them to seek peace.

President Obama says he accepts the peace prize with humility, well aware of the controversy that surrounded the choice of the Nobel Committee.

"In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage.  Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize - Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela - my accomplishments are slight," he said.

But he says the most profound issue surrounding the award is the fact that he is the leader of a nation in the midst of two wars.

"We are at war, and I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land.  Some will kill.  Some will be killed," he said.  "And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict - filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other."

He says there is nothing weak in the path of non-violence championed by the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet Mr. Obama says it cannot be the only path. He says he cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.

"A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaida's leaders to lay down their arms," he said.  "To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."

His speech to a crowd of dignitaries in Oslo's city hall came just nine days after he ordered another 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan.  Well aware of the juxtaposition of events, the president focused on the notion of "just war", and the concept of sustainable peace.

"We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes," said Mr. Obama.  "There will be times when nations - acting individually or in concert - will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified."

He echoed the words of former U.S. President John Kennedy, who five decades ago spoke of a realistic, more attainable peace.

President Obama said rules and institutions are needed to keep military action in check.  He made specific mention of the need to adhere to strict codes of conduct, and to see that countries live up to their international obligations.

"Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted. Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia," he said.  "Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war."

President Obama went on to speak about nations that abuse their own people.  He said peace must be more than the absence of military conflict.

"So even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal," added Mr. Obama.  "We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers like Aung Sang Suu Kyi; to the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran."

He said the search for peace must entail support for strong institutions, human rights and freedom from want.  But he said there is one other key ingredient for a more peaceful world.

" I do not believe that we will have the will, or the staying power, to complete this work without something more - and that is the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share," he said.

In announcing its choice for the 2009 Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee cited the president's efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation.  It said he has captured the imagination of the world with his message of hope.

All the same, the award has been criticized as premature by some, and public opinion polls in the United States indicate many Americans believe the honor is coming far too early.

As the president began his Oslo visit, a group of Norwegians made the same point.   They gathered outside the Nobel Institute while the president was inside signing the guest book.   They chanted and cheered and held up a yellow banner that said "Obama you won it, now earn it!"