My essay, “Kibun” is out in the 2015 Fish Publishing Anthology!

SF ChinatownMy essay, “Kibun,” on navigating cultural misunderstandings in South Korea is now out in the 2015 Fish Publishing Anthology! It was selected as a runner-up in Fish Publishing’s annual short memoir contest by author-judge Carmen Bugan.

This essay began as a section of my graduate thesis, a memoir on living in South Korea in the 1990s. It morphed many times over and, seven-ish years later, it’s finally in print. Here’s the opening graph from “Kibun”:

When Chung kicks us out we think about returning to the U.S., but to leave now would feel like giving up. Late one evening he announces he’s getting married. “I’m sorry! You are living another home,” he says. English is not his strong point and Korean is not ours. We exist in this ambiguity of language; a riddle of verb tenses. We are living in the home of another; we will soon be living in another home. We are not at home; we will never be at home here. 

I’m thrilled to finally have this piece in print! It’s available in Kindle formats on Amazon here and is just $5, so pick up a copy and enjoy a fine collection of poetry, fiction and memoir from writers worldwide. You can see the table of contents, some notes from the judge, and excerpts from the winning pieces here.

On Sept. 11

When I turned on NPR in the kitchen that morning, Robert Seagall’s voice was somber and uncertain. It lacked the confidence, I soon realized, that comes with knowing what you are going to say. He was reporting off the cuff, and I turned up the sound while my bagel toasted. He repeated the events: a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers in New York, then a second plane, hitting the second tower. I understood that these were grave events, but I remember thinking that I couldn’t understand what he meant, that a plane had crashed into the tower. I couldn’t conceive of it, and for the first time ever I thought that the radio wasn’t conveying what I needed to know. I turned on CNN, and watched, transfixed, as they replayed footage of the burning towers, of the planes hitting them.

At some point I knew I had to leave for work, craved, in fact, the analysis of my current events-obsessed colleagues at the business newspaper where I was as an editor. I felt the loss of information as soon as I turned off the TV. The disconnection made me uneasy. I hurried to the train. I remember studying each of the other passengers and wondering if they had heard the news yet. I remember wanting to tell them, the man reading yesterday’s news in the paper, the other 20-somethings looking dazed and still asleep in the rocking of the train. The cars seemed quieter than normal.

I did not feel scared until I exited Montgomery Station downtown and was immediately engulfed by throngs of workers walking the opposite way — into the station. Everyone was going home, and I was pushing through the crowds to get into the Financial District. We did not know yet what was happening, or why, and all those people were going home because it seemed safer. I felt that I was the only person walking against the tide, though surely I could not have been. I made it to my office and immediately my colleagues and I asked each other, “Did you see?” Some had managed to arrive without having heard news of the events. We began scrounging about the office for a radio. We were a small paper that, unlike many news organizations, did not have CNN going in the office. There wasn’t even a TV. I think eventually one of the editors went to Walgreens and bought a clock radio. We listened all day, heard the emotion in the newscaster’s voice when he announced that the first tower had fallen, then, later, the second.

When enough reporters and editors had arrived, we met in the conference room. Our editor began by saying if any of us felt uncomfortable being there and would rather go home, that we should go. That I should go home had not really occurred to me until then, and I felt a twinge of fear. No one left. It was decided that we’d drop what we’d been working on, and get to work finding out what businesses with offices in the towers had Bay Area ties. We were a local paper, looking for a local angle. Because this is what we did every day, every week, this is what we did that day. We paired up, with editors and researchers feeding leads and information to reporters who made the calls. I remember the adrenaline of it; frantically looking up companies on the web, struggling to figure out what businesses had been in which towers. A reporter might hear something from a contact – speculation that a particular Bay Area businessperson might have been on one of the planes, for example, and then the race was on to find out as much as we could about that person, their business, and what the loss of he or she might mean to the company. The adrenaline carried us through early afternoon; that and perhaps some fear – we as a country still believed there might be other hijacked planes out there and we had heard that at least one had been headed for San Francisco. All of those workers fleeing downtown that morning, that was what they had been avoiding. We in the newsroom had considered possible targets, read these rumors online. The Transamerica Pyramid was two blocks from our building, the Bank of America tower (the tallest tower in San Francisco), three. I imagined these scenarios, as well as the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, that day and for many days and nights following.

By afternoon, the act of trying to spin this loss of life, destruction and fear into news stories began make me feel ill. One of the seasoned reporters noticed my discomfort and reminded me that it was our job to report the news, that people needed information, now more than ever. I understood that, and in some way felt proud of our obligation and yet — I had never felt so revolted by my profession. I suspected I was not cut out for the job, yet I continued to research, dig up phone numbers and plan additional coverage with the other editors.

By mid-afternoon I needed a break. I rode the elevator down to the lobby and walked out into a desolate city. The sun shone cruelly over everything. I walked around the Financial District for 20 or 30 minutes and in that time, I passed not a single person. Restaurants and stores were closed, office buildings locked. Many had makeshift signs in their windows that read “Closed for national tragedy.” The beauty of the day was at odds with events at hand, and with my emotions. I am not a religious person, but I wondered if God was cruel or whether he was mocking us with the sunshine and warmth, or whether, in his kindness, the weather was meant to soothe a grieving people. I remember thinking that the weather was beautiful in New York, too, according to the images I had seen, and that there must be some kind of solidarity in that. In retrospect my thinking about the events of that day was strange and disoriented, I suppose because the events themselves were so disorienting.

Not long after my afternoon walk, I decided to go home to Billy. We had spoken on the phone that morning. Unlike me, when Billy heard the news on the radio, he understood immediately the gravity of the situation, and pulled his car over to listen. His company had sent workers home right away and he’d been in our apartment watching news coverage all afternoon.

By the time I reached our apartment I felt truly ill, sickened by the horrifying deaths of all of those people, and by the daylong attempt to turn tragedy 3,000 miles away into local news.

My instinct was to hide in the apartment for the night, to try to push the news away with some kind of diversion, but our good friends invited us to their house for dinner. I remember thinking I didn’t want to go, that I couldn’t eat — but when I arrived I felt so grateful for the company and the shared discussion and the homemade meal. 

Events of the next weeks and months and years point to our collective jitters as a newspaper, as a city, as a country. Our office was evacuated for bomb scares several times in the weeks after Sept. 11, and we received mail containing fake anthrax powder in the newsroom. The cover of a special publication I had been working on about fast growing companies had to be scrapped because it (not so subtly) depicted a rocket taking off, complete with fireball to indicate speed and power. It was deemed insensitive. Always when I think back to that time, I remember the heart-quickening sound of the helicopters that flew so frequently overhead. There were war protests. I dreamt more than once that terrorists flew a plane into the Golden Gate Bridge, and that I climbed the hill near my apartment to watch it burn. One night I dreamt that I sold a photograph of the bridge engulfed in flames to the Associated Press, and I awoke feeling sick about it. On the way into work I encountered war protests that had turned into riots. One morning a protester flung a newspaper box across an intersection and it skidded to a stop at my feet.

Challenging symbol-hunting in English class

owl in the Petrified Forest, Napa, CA. © 2007-2013 Elizabeth Browne All Rights Reserved

owl in the Petrified Forest, Napa, CA. © 2007-2013 Elizabeth Browne All Rights Reserved

In 1963 a 16-year-old named Bruce McAllister wrote to 150 famous authors to ask if symbolism — or apparent symbolism — in their work was intentional. He was apparently frustrated with the way his English teacher analyzed each novel they read for symbolism McAllister felt wasn’t there, or at least wasn’t a conscious choice on the part of the author.

First of all, what a brilliant reaction to an experience most of us probably had as high school English students. I certainly did, only I went home and complained about it and used it as a reason to procrastinate on my English homework. The over-analyzing of novels even made me sidestep English as a major in college. Going right to the source to challenge one’s English teacher! Bravo, Bruce McAllister, bravo. What’s even more lovely about this story is that McAllister went on to become an English professor and writer.

The survey responses revealed (surprise, surprise!) that most authors did not feel they consciously made use of symbolism in their novels. But the answers young McAllister received were also full of wisdom (Ray Bradbury: “self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act”) and watch-out-young-whippersnapper advice (MacKinlay Kantor: “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.”).

After reading McAllister’s questions and the authors’ responses, I felt strangely relieved —vindicated even, after all these years, that high school English class did contain some level of absurdity. Saul Bellow himself says in his response, “Symbol-hunting is absurd.” But aside from a weird feeling of personal satisfaction that my teenage cynicism had merit — these responses are wonderful and instructive. For example:

McAllister: “Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?… If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”

Jack Kerouac: “No.”

John Updike: “Yes—I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural.”

McAllister: “Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)”

Ralph Ellison: “Yes, readers often infer that there is symbolism in my work, which I do not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humorous. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.”

Ray Bradbury: “If people find beasties and bedbugs in my ink-splotches I cannot prevent it can I? … Still, I wish people … did not try so hard to find the man under the old-maid’s bed. More often than not, as we know, he simply isn’t there.”

McAllister: “Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?”

Richard Hughes: “Have you considered the extent to which subconscious symbol-making is part of the process of reading, quite distinct from its part in writing?”

Ray Bradbury: “There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels…Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.”

Copies of many of the original surveys and responses are in the Paris Review, here. A summarized version of the responses appears here.

on getting a story published

unstuck2My short story “Family Mart” was published in Unstuck Vol. 2 back in December. And though I announced it on Facebook and Twitter, I just realized I never wrote about it here. Ack, social media. Anyway, this was exciting, exciting news for me. Encouraging progress just when it felt like my writing had stalled. Unstuck took a big chance on me – they liked “Family Mart” but wanted changes. I had been receiving a lot of “almost” responses to the story for over a year. That is, personal responses from lit mag editors who said they liked it, but… sorry, no. Some of the almost-but-nos may have had to do with the content – “Family Mart” is fantastical (a woman wakes up with a hoof instead of a hand) and a lot of magazines focused on literary fiction just aren’t quite willing to go there. The story ended up being named a finalist in a couple of contests, but never published. I knew it needed something but I didn’t know what. The editors at Unstuck had a lot of excellent suggestions and were patient as I worked through several revamps of the piece and I am so grateful for that. I hope “Family Mart” is the better for it.

I should back up and say that I began writing “Family Mart” in 2007. Yep, that’s right, from start to publication took five years. I suppose that is one of the biggest reasons I was so thrilled to see it in print. Finally! It’s a now-6,000 word finished, published story that over the past 5 years went through so many rewrites I lost count (50?) and had to create a separate folder on my computer to house them all so I could manage to find the most current one. I felt strongly about this story in a way that I don’t often feel about other pieces – that is, I wasn’t willing to let it go or to gather dust on my hard drive, forgotten, and thus the five years of rewriting, re-plotting, re-thinking, and submitting. I’m glad I stuck with it. I hope my next published story doesn’t take nearly so long.

Unstuck publishes literary fiction with elements of the fantastic, the futuristic, or the surreal, which is, of course, exactly what I was looking for. Its second issue includes work by Steve Almond, Kate Bernheimer, Jedediah Berry, Gabriel Blackwell, Edward Carey, Jonathan Lethem & John Hilgart and Paul Lisicky. I’m honored to be in such company and so impressed with the issue itself — more than 500 (print!) pages of some wonderful, inventive stories. Order yourself a copy! Or download the Kindle version.

The five best books I read in 2012

My reading has been all over the map this year, from gossipy cooking memoirs to hefty literary novels to travel writing and to, well, fluffy, escapist beach reads. But looking back over the 50 or so books I finished, five stand out. Four of them are novels. Two are written by women. Two are slim and novella-esque. Four are recent releases, with 2011-2012 pub dates, but one is 40 years old. After writing up these reviews I realized 4 of the 5 feature the Western U.S. I’ve been drawn to books about the West since realizing my stay in California was more permanent than temporary – I suppose it’s my way of trying to understand what remains, still, a foreign place. Anyway, here they are:

bernadette  1. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? A witty novel by TV script writer Maria Semple (Arrested Development, Mad About You, SNL, etc.) that combines emails, psychiatric documents, police reports and letters. I enjoyed the playful knocks against Seattle and its “Subaru parents.” It’s original, funny and refreshingly different.  Looking forward to seeing more from this writer.

2. The Sense of an Ending My bookclub chose this 2011 Booker Prize barneswinner back in the spring and I admit I was reluctant and expecting stuffiness and/or tedium from British author Julian Barnes. Well. I read this slim novel in one sitting and was blown away. It’s masterful. The writing, the storytelling, the subtle plot twists … it’s so carefully woven, you’ll want to read it more than once to absorb it all of its intricacies.

3. Wild: From Lost to Found on the wildPacific Crest Trail  This one is on everyone’s end-of-year ‘best of’ lists, and with good reason. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking solo on the Pacific Crest Trail while reeling from grief and life missteps manages to be readable, honest and a well-balanced emotional ride. The intimate voice made me feel I’d been told a long, riveting story by a close friend and after I finished I kept retelling bits of the book to everyone I knew. Like all of Strayed’s writing, it sticks with you.

traindreams4. Train Dreams Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke author Denis Johnson has written a lovely meditation on the nature of the West and its development. Johnson’s beautiful writing is crafted with a subtle hand. Train Dreams was nominated for the Pulitzer in 2012.

stegner5. Angle of Repose “It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.” Wallace Stegner’s masterful novel of the American West is not new (it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972) but for some reason, despite numerous recommendations from friends and family, I kept putting off reading it. What a mistake! I now count it among my favorite novels and hope to read it again this year. It’s cinematic and evocative, written as a story within a story. When I read this I was reminded how modern lit has changed and changed our reading habits – there’s no sell-it-quick first chapter to reel you in. Stegner starts slow and expects the reader to follow. But writing like this deserves the slow build and careful pacing it’s given.

The power of editorial suggestion

I have a publication coming up. I’m thrilled about this – thrilled that my short story finally found a home after some 3 years of sending out various versions of it, of getting some finalist mentions, very nice, personal rejections and a lot of flat-out no-ways. And I’m thrilled that the editors of the magazine it will appear in took a chance on me. Because they did: They accepted the piece under the condition that we work together to revise it.

I suspect this is unusual. I wrestled with whether to accept these conditions. On the one hand, my writerly ego wanted desperately to believe that my story was great the way I had decided it should be and other than minor copy-editing, it should be published as is. As a former editor I of course know better than that and told my writerly ego to shut up. I was worried about my own ability to revise a story that I had already revised some 50 times — in the end, a valid worry. (No, sadly, the 50 times are not an exaggeration.) But I decided to go with it. I agreed: You suggest edits, I revise. I revise to your standards, you publish.

A year later the story has been revised several times, drastically, and it will appear in print very soon. The process was an interesting one for me. I have been edited before, mostly as a journalist, but quite possibly I have not been edited before on a piece of writing I felt so strongly about. This story was a pet project of mine for reasons I cannot explain. Changing it so much raised big questions; questions that I have not often seen discussed: How much revision is enough? How much is too much? Who decides? Does editor always know best? Is there a point at which one should stop and listen to that writerly ego? And from a fairly unpublished writer’s standpoint, there’s the power issue: At what point does the need to get published trump ownership of your writing? That is, is editorial compromise for the sake of the work, or for the goal of publication? I’m not sure the two can be separated.

I don’t know that I have answers to a lot of these questions. I was lucky to have some very attentive editors who made a lot of fantastic suggestions. I was lucky to be given the chance to rewrite my story. The story went in a new direction that I might not have chosen without the editorial prodding. It’s going to be published. For now, that’s enough.

Robert Caro’s “painstaking process”

I’m tinkering with a nonfiction book idea. By that I mean, I have a book in mind that I’d like to write, and in fact have written bits and pieces of it and collected some research for it, but I have yet to find the right voice, tone and format to tell the story I’d like to tell. I have a long history of getting overwhelmed when attempting longer work, partly because of the sheer volume of information that one needs to research, sift through, organize, and access while writing. Then there’s the organization of the writing itself; will an outline help, or maybe chapter summaries, or should I just wing it? And then there are the technological and logistical choices: Can I store all of my research within Scrivner, and also write a draft in the same program? Will I like that method? Maybe I should use Word, and keep my background info in PDF files. Maybe I will go old school and print all my research out and organize it into a giant binder that I will lug everywhere I go to reference as I am writing…?

So it was with the utmost respect that I read about Robert Caro’s writing routine in the New York Times last weekend, because Caro seems to have a methodical, precise, and disciplined approach to producing books. Caro is a biographer, and his fourth volume in a series about Lyndon Johnson has just been released. Yep, you read that right: four volumes — 36 years and 3,888 pages. This most recent book is 712 pages. You can imagine how much information Caro has acquired in his research of LBJ to produce four lengthy volumes on the subject. You might not imagine that Caro does not use a computer. That’s right, the man has produced thousands of pages of meticulously researched nonfiction without a computer.

The NYT, along with a Q&A on how Robert Caro spends his days, posted a slideshow titled “Robert Caro’s Painstaking Process.” Caro’s process includes walking to an office he maintains (not in his home). He wears a suit to “work”:

Whenever I go to work I wear a jacket and a tie, because I’m inherently quite lazy, and my books take so long to do, and my publishers don’t bug me, so it’s so easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re working harder than you really are. So I do everything possible to make myself remember this is a job I’m going to, and I have to produce every day.

Caro has written all the drafts of his books longhand, on legal pads. “He doesn’t start typing — on an old Smith Corona Electra 210, not a computer — until he has finished four or five handwritten drafts. And then he rewrites the typescript.”

Caro maintains a “master outline” on a large bulletin board which, from the photos, it appears he marks up with a pen, or perhaps crosses sections out once he’s completed them. He monitors revisions with a proof of the table of contents that he turns into a checklist and posts on the same pinboard. All of his notes/research are in filing cabinets.

I’m impressed by this process in part because of its old-fashioned, computerless nature, but also because of its a) success and b) meticulousness (at least from outward appearances). In our future-is-now technologically advanced times, I suppose it’s easy to view handwritten drafts as romantic in some way, but I have had a fascination with Caro’s type of process for a while now. The fascination stems from the fact that as a person who grew up pre-Internet, this used to be my process. I wrote all of my college papers this way, by hand first, followed by a second or third draft that came about as I was typing my handwritten version into a computer. I sometimes miss that process for the absoluteness of the concentration it generated. There was a lot less mental background noise, and a lot more focus.

It’s hard not to contemplate, as I struggle with whether to use Scrivener or Word, and as I battle my own will to try to refrain from using the Internet in the midst of a writing session, or as I try to figure out (for the 50th time) how any writing program’s outline function works, how much time I spend working on technology rather than working on writing. There is a separation that’s happened, a lot more background noise, that forces more distance between my thoughts and what I write. In any case, Caro’s process is one to think of when you find yourself spending a morning organizing electronic files, or importing documents into Scrivener (or whatever writing program you use) or having to turn on Mac Freedom. Not because anyone’s process is any better than anyone else’s, but because sometimes technology has a way of making certain things seem important, when all that really matters is the writing that gets done every day.

Linktastic Tuesday: writing advice, ms length, and books for the beach

I wrote this post this morning … and then WordPress ate it. I responded by eating 2 pieces of cake slathered in rich chocolate frosting. Take that, lost hour of my life! Not so lost anymore! Ahem. Anyway, the cake was delicious and made me feel better. I did want to share a few links on this lovely, pollen-coated Tuesday*, so now, here they are, version two:

1.
Richard Gilbert has a great review/interview post with author Althea Black on his blog, Narrative. Black is the author of the short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely, and her advice on the writing process was frank and to-the-point, which is the kind of writing advice I most love to hear. Black describes how she put herself through a DIY MFA, reading and learning from writing books, and working hard at what she does (writing I Knew You’d Be Lovely was a 15-year process!) My favorite advice (because it’s true, and because it’s the hardest to do):

Through many hours of revising, I learned that if there’s a section of your story that depresses you to look at, you should cut it. If there’s a word that feels fancy or a character’s action that feels forced, cut. If there’s a paragraph where you can feel how hard you’re trying, cut. Cut anything that feels writerly or show-offy or self-conscious. Cut anything that doesn’t keep the ball moving. That really great metaphor that does nothing to advance your story? Cut.

I love Black’s focus on economy of language — “never say with twenty words what you can say with two.” I will admit I was not familiar with Black or her stories but I am now going to rush out and find a copy of this collection.

2.
Did you know The Great Gatsby is a novella? Me neither. It comes in just short of 50,000 words, which is the possibly arbitrary (and definitely debatable) number separating novel from novella.** Did you know you can find out the word counts of your favorite books on Amazon? Me neither. (Here’s how. You can only do it on “search inside this book” titles.)

I learned all this in “The Secret Lives of Novellas,” a short essay by Daniel Torday on the Glimmer Train site. Torday discusses his earlier obsession with word counts and what they represent, and how he realized that his WIP was long enough when it felt right to him, not because of a number. The WIP was published this spring, as a novella.

3.
Looking for something to read on your summer vacation? Or, like me, just always looking for something to read? Two good lists of new titles for summer:
-Flavorwire: 10 New Must-reads for May
-Bookpage: 20 summer standouts

*I’m having a hell of an allergy attack today and am a sniveling, sneezing mess. Seriously, driving is not a safe activity for me. Too much sneezing.
** In his essay, Torday mentions that E.M. Forster defined the novel as “any fictitious prose work over 50,000 words.” In my MFA program, I was taught that the publishing industry considers 75,000 words a novel, though clearly that’s just a guideline. Nathan Bransford suggests 70,000-80,000 for a debut novel, and no more than 150,000. So, novellas: 35K-70K?

The Best Female Travel Writer You’ve Never Heard Of

I just finished reading a memoir of sorts by the late New Yorker writer Emily Hahn (1905-1997), entitled No Hurry to Get Home. The book is actually a collection of Hahn’s New Yorker articles which she strung together upon encouragement from others who thought she should write a memoir. She herself was less intrigued by the idea (she didn’t like to revisit old ground, according to an introduction in the book by her biographer, Ken Cuthbertson.)

Hahn wrote 54 books and more than 200 articles for the New Yorker over her 68-year association with the magazine. According to Cuthbertson’s intro to No Hurry to Get Home, Hahn had been making a living as a writer from 1929 onward, and by 1970 she was producing at least one book a year. Her books ranged from novels to short stories to biographies, histories, humor and travel writing. Strange then, that few people know her name. Strange too, because she was a woman who pushed the boundaries of the female experience during her time, and attracted attention for it. She describes many of these incidents in No Hurry to Get Home, including the period in which she and her sister wore knickers to school at a time when such dress for women caused an uproar, and how she decided to major in Mining Engineering at the University of Wisconsin because some male students and professors told her it couldn’t be done – no woman had ever majored in Mining Engineering before, and the general consensus (by the male faculty members and students) was that women simply didn’t have the head for it. Whether Hahn was actually interested in Mining Engineering was beside the point; the prevailing attitudes presented a challenge, which she accepted.

Later, her unconventional life led her to live, work and travel in Africa, England and China. She kept pet gibbons. She became addicted to opium for one year, until a hypnotist cured her. She lived in Japanese-occupied China, where she began an affair with a (married) British spy, Charles Boxer, and gave birth to a daughter at the start of World War II. Boxer was interned as a prisoner of war in Hong Kong and Hahn kept both he and their daughter alive with food acquired on the black market.

All of these experiences are chronicled in No Hurry to Get Home, which reads like a childhood memoir-turned travel adventure story. Roger Angell has described Hahn’s tone as “the offhand first-person casual.” Her laid-back response to some of the situations she gets into, for example blundering onto private mining land in the Belgian Congo and being faced with some angry gun-toting Belgians who accuse her of spying, or dodging bombs in China while being seemingly unaware of the danger or urgency of the imminent Japanese takeover add suspense to already-exciting adventures. Her sense of humor, though dry and offhand, is always present.

Some might find Hahn’s writing’s old-fashioned in that these pieces lack some of the emotion and the share-every-detail mentality of modern memoirs. Hahn is not out to detail her emotional responses to her challenges, however, but the experiences themselves, and yet she conveys feeling all the same. She describes her failed attempt at suicide matter-of-factly, with that same casual tone, which perhaps makes the writing more impactful. Only in the last piece in the book does she hint at the lasting traumatic effects the war had on her and her new family, and even that she achieves without becoming maudlin or self-pitying.

It was refreshing to read this book, a memoir that covers sexism, depression, addiction, war and other challenges but never goes over the top to describe every single disturbing event. It made me want to read more by Hahn, and more memoir – a genre I have been turned off from of late, after being overwhelmed by too many books that were far too hard to get through due to their heavy-handedness.

Links:

Emily Hahn’s obituary in the New York Times

Ken Cuthbertson’s biography of Hahn

A incomplete listing of Emily Hahn’s many books

 

I’ve been to the Galapagos and back.

Hello dear bloggy friends,

It’s been a while. All is well, I assure you, despite the four months of blog silence here. I am still here! I hope you are as well. Here’s what’s been happening:

• I went on a trip to the Galapagos Islands! My mom and I had always wanted to visit and this was the year we decided to make it happen. It was absolutely amazing, and seeing so much wildlife in such a pristine landscape was a life-altering experience. Highlights included snorkeling with hammerhead sharks, sea turtles, penguins, sea lions and rays; seeing giant tortoises grazing in the wild; stumbling over land and marine iguanas, and witnessing the mating rituals of all manner of birds. I’ve included a few photos here.

• I’ve been learning Spanish. Or trying to, anyway — I’ve been doing language programs in the car and teaching myself with a textbook. It’s become kind of a hobby, and now it feels strange to drive around town and listen to music when I could be learning Spanish instead. As you may know, I studied both French and Japanese in my high school and college years, but those have become less and less useful. I never anticipated living in California, where I could easily go a whole day speaking Spanish.

• I’ve been reading all kinds of great books this year, both fiction and nonfiction. More on that in another post.

• I’ve started running again, and I’m thinking about signing up for some kind of race. I’m hoping to harness the discipline required by working toward a running/fitness goal and apply it to writing. Also, running clears my head and inspires my writing.

• A story of mine was shortlisted for the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize, judged by David Mitchell, a month or so ago. Not a win, but I was still flattered to get that far. Onward.

I’m attempting to return to regular blogging…but bear with me as I get the kinks out of my schedule!