Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Year in Lit: Four Favorite Books of 2010

No doubt about it, 2010 was a wonderful year for travel. We MONKEYS got to go to Australia, Hong Kong, China, Ireland, and India, as well as the less exotic locales of Atlanta, Vancouver B.C., Austin, Portland (Oregon), Tallahassee, D.C., Seattle, Dallas, Chicago . . . and let's not forget New Jersey.

As I was reflecting on the year, I thought about the extraordinary number of fantastic reading experiences I had, most of which were derived not just from the content but from the situation of reading about a foreign land while in a foreign land. I thought I'd share some of the highlights with you.

I should point out--you needn't actually go to any of these places to enjoy any of these gems. So should you find yourself longing for escape in the coming year, but not the means or the time to actually get away, consider picking up one of these volumes.

And count yourself lucky that being homebound means you can still experience it in the form of a physical book--with our touring schedule and the need to travel light, more and more of my books are coming to me via e-reader.

Though it's interesting to note: Every single one of these most memorable reads of 2010 were with physical books. Coincidence?

"The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor"
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This book was actually read at the tail end of 2009, but I'm going to include it because it was such a highlight.

The book had been sent to my brother by our bio-dad when we were kids, and I'd always wanted to read it. When I moved out of my parents' home, I brought it with me to all the shared housing of college, to the three apartments I shared with M, then into a box and shipped across the country with all our other necessities when we moved from Seattle to New York. Once nestled onto our Brooklyn book shelf, it remained there, unperturbed, for almost a decade, though I glanced at it often and wondered when I would finally read it.

We booked a trip to Mexico right after finishing our show at the Public last December and I thought, Aha! Perfect! (I'm always drawn to the slim volumes when packing.)

We were staying on a hut on stilts, right beside the ocean on the Yucatan Peninsula. The walls were all slatted, as though the hut had gills, and a storm began to rage almost as soon as we'd arrived, which filled the hut with wind no matter how we tried to manipulate the louvers. It wasn't entirely unpleasant; I had the sensation of being super-oxygenated.

This was an eco-hut: as soon as the sun went down, we had no light. So by the glow of the cheap candle I'd purchased at the store--one of those tall glass cylinders with a religious decal slapped on the glass's exterior--and sitting on the bed with mosquito netting whipping around me like an anxious bride's tulle, my husband snoring beside me, I at last read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's record of a young Colombian sailor's account of being shipwrecked and surviving on the open sea for ten days.

It's a simple tale, simply told, and absolutely gripping. Man versus nature at its most basic: circling sharks, relentless sun, dehydration, hunger . . . and one very memorable encounter with a sea gull.

If this were Hollywood, we'd flash back and forth between this man on the raft struggling to survive and the story of the girl at home, the one who'd betrayed him, the one he was surviving for . . . something daring would happen at the end, some feat of strength or cunning that would cause us in the audience to gasp with either envy (I wish I could do that) or disbelief (No one could do that). Not this story.

Towards the end he writes, "It never occurred to me that a man could become a hero for being on a raft for ten days and enduring hunger and thirst." That's all this story is, and because of that, it's great.

"Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen"
Marilyn Chin

I picked this up at a bookstore in Hong Kong. It's the tale of two Southern California Chinese-American girls who deliver Chinese food from their family's "Double Happiness" restaurant. Their axe-wielding grandmother is an awesome matriarch, and the whole story is told in a loose, vivid, fantastical way. It's crude and violent, poetic in the most super-sized, essential sense of that word. The whole thing is sharp angles and pokes and absurdity that captures the bigger truths. It feels almost like a cartoon. And the author, Marilyn Chin, isn't afraid to change the voices or storytelling techniques frequently, so you can never get too comfortable. The ground is always shifting beneath you.

Here's an excerpt from one of my favorite chapters, a monologue written in the voice of Grandmother Wong:

"They good girls, do homework, get straight As. But I have to teach respect. Only I do, because their mother and father too busy make money. They open restaurant at 4 a.m. Go to sleep at one. They get three-hour sleep. All my son do is swear . . . fuck this, fuck that . . . and Mei Ling mother, all she do is cry . . . She say, I go back to Hong Kong! I go back to Hong Kong! In Hong Kong she used to ride rickshaw to teahouse. Now, in America, she work like slave. her hand use to be white and soft. Now rough like sea cucumber. I say, don't you know? This what you suppose to do in America? Work day and night. You think Jesus or Buddha give you free money? All they do work for money then fight fight about money. Money never enough. They always keep big eyes on cash register. I say, your daughters grow breasts! You can't see? You don't care, grow breasts or snakes!

Little peapods, I say, you don't want to be like that. You get straight As, go work high in glass building, be king of office. Lawyer, doctor, president, I don't care, close restaurant if you want, just don't dance at Pink Pussycat. I don't want you cook if you don't want cook. My Moonie hates to cook. And I say that's okay. She won't get husband, but who need husband, end up like my son, useless, spit in wok, hate this, hate that."

"A Star Called Henry"
Roddy Doyle

I purchased this in Cork, Ireland, and then read most of it while in a bathtub in Dingle on a day in June when the rain was coming down so thick and cold that we decided to cancel our planned drive around the peninsula.

It's the story of a fellow named Henry Smart, born in 1901 in a Dublin slum, and he lives through some of the most pivotal events in Ireland's history, including the Easter Rising in 1916
and the War of Independence that followed.

If that sounds like a history lesson, fear not! It's such a beautiful read, pulling you right into the life of this boy, son of a one-legged whorehouse bouncer, a clever child who grows into a man as we follow along. Doyle's voice is so compelling, you'd follow it anywhere. Here's how he describes Henry's grandmother, right on page two:

"Wrapped in her sweating black shawl, she could have crept out of any century. She might have walked from Roscommon or Clare, pushed on by the stench of the blight, walked across the county till she saw the stone-eating smoke that lay over the piled, sagging fever-nests that made our beautiful city, walked in along the river, deeper and deeper, into the filth and shit, the noise and the money. A young country girl, never kissed, never touched, she was scared, she was thrilled. She turned around and back around and saw the four corners of hell. Her heart cried for Leitrem but her tits sang for Dublin. She got down on her back and yelled at the sailors to form a queue."

I loved this book so much, I secretly resented the sun for coming out and forcing me out of the tub and back onto the road.

"The White Tiger"
Aravind Adiga

We were on a five-city tour of India in August, and I picked up this book at an airport in Hyderabad on the advice of my friend Maureen.

I could not put it down.

It's written as a series of seven letters over seven nights from a young Indian entrepreneur to the Premier of China, Wen Jiabao, and in his first letter he says this:

"Only three nations have never let themselves be ruled by foreigners: China, Afghanistan, and Abyssinia. These are the only three nations I admire.

Out of respect for the love of liberty shown by the Chinese people, and also in the belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, cell phone usage, and drug abuse, I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about Bangalore."

You may not always agree with him, but you always want to hear more about his take on the world, and the plot thickens most rivetingly. It would make for an excellent monologue, the voice is so great. Go to Amazon and read the first few pages to see more.

Having just traveled in China researching manufacturing there and conditions of workers, then being in India performing a show about technology and being very aware of the competition between the two countries--and what that competition has done to the lives of the workers in both places--I couldn't have asked for a more perfect book. It's hilarious and heartbreaking and smart and touching, and really, just so, so funny.

But listen! Even if you don't know Wen Jibao from Chairman Mao, even if you've never been to India, pick up this book! It's extraordinary! It sucks you in from page one and you'll be sorry to turn the final page.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

What I Want Right Now

Mmmm. Irish breakfast. Would you believe I ate this every single morning I was in Ireland?

Love me that white pudding.

Sheila and Soph, come back to Brooklyn soon so we can all go get some Irish breakfast, please.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

Taj Ma-Kiss

Boy, I sure do love this guy.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Many more posts from India yet to come! But life! She keeps me busy!

We're in Portland, Oregon now, as part of the TBA Festival, an annual explosion of weird and wonderful that we're extremely fond of.

In addition to the monologue(s) we brought to the festival, we got asked to participate in this year's "Ten Tiny Dances," and participate we did! Above is a still from our dance, which involved an orange, an art appreciator, and a statue that comes to life in a very juicy way.

Performed for 700 people in the round, it was great fun.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Friday, August 27, 2010

Delhi (No Belly)

As soon as we learned we'd be going to India, we wrote to our dear friend Rishi, a former student of ours who hails from outside of Mumbai. He immediately wrote back with wonderfully detailed advice about each of the cities we'd be visiting, and told us some good news: He'd actually be in Delhi at the same time we were there, so we'd get to meet up!

That was the good news. But here was his unvarnished take on the city:

New Delhi - Hot and really really disgusting, in almost every way. I'm actually sad that I'll be seeing you in this truly terrible place. The Commonwealth Games - the Olympics for the "we used to be part of the empire" world, are beginning in October in Delhi. The city is scrambling to make all sorts of deadlines, including construction of a whole lot of crap. The Delhi Metro (which everyone will tell you about) is also under construction, and it means that the shortest driving distance will take hours.

Now, Rishi is a champion complainer. He has the comic's gift for complaining about everything, big and small, but being so entertaining about it that you would never ever say he has a bad attitude.

So we took his condemnation of the city with a grain of salt. And thus, with our expectations properly in check, we arrived in Delhi late one hot and rainy afternoon, and met up with Rishi, who whisked us around the city on a whirlwind tour.

Aside from the day we landed, our duties with the Consulate had us scheduled to within an inch of our life, so we really didn't get a chance to see many of the monuments the city is famous for.

But on that first evening, Rishi ushered us into the Jantar Mantar ten minutes before closing. It's a huge astronomical observatory built in the early 1700s that today feels like it was made for amazing photo ops.

And then we saw the Gate of India, both a memorial to Indians who died fighting for the British in both World War I and Afghanistan, and a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Turns out it's also not a bad place to buy postcards.

We concluded the night with a leisurely meal at Veda, a very hip, newish restaurant from the fashion designer Rohit Bal. It feels like a hangout for sexy Indian vampires, as envisioned by Moghuls who dabble in time travel and have a penchant for perfectly cooked kebabs.

We would have liked to see the Red Fort, but alas, time did not permit. Rishi described it so vividly, I'm going to share his description with you anyhow:

I would really recommend seeing the Red Fort, it was built by the same emperor who built the Taj Mahal, and it is absolutely beautiful. The ceilings in some of the outdoor rooms were once studded with gold, diamonds and rubies - incomparable. Its also deeply depressing as, when the British invaded, they built their barracks in front of the fort, ousting the emperor. The gold and diamonds essentially became their personal piggy bank in the backyard, and they plundered like it was their job (which it was).

We got to see Rishi once more, following our performance. He and Prabh (another Colby alum, though not one of our students) took us out to a private club that Prabh is a fourth-generation member of.

These clubs are a big deal in India. In no small part because alcohol is heavily taxed all over India, except at these private clubs, which the government treats as non-profits. It's quite a loophole. Prabh's parents put him on the waiting list the day he was born. (Ok, maybe the day after.)

Afterwards, Prabh gave us a ride back to our hotel. He was driving his mother's car, and the amusing thing about this car was that it had both a Colby sticker on the back, and a stuffed lobster within, which Prabh say have been there ever since he was accepted into Colby.

So though we didn't get to see too much of India's capital city, we thoroughly enjoyed our time with Rishi and Prabh, who gave a very human and personal touch to our time in Delhi.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hyderabad? Hyderagood!

This lush, fascinating city was a wonderful surprise, a real high point in our time in India thus far. Of the five cities we are visiting on this tour, it was the only one neither of us had heard of prior to the invitation, but now that we've visited, we can't wait to go back.

Here are four highlights of our time in Hyderabad:

1. Attending the Night Markets around Charminar during Ramadan

...and then going to the famous Irani hotel, Medina, and ordering haleem, a dish they only make during Ramadan. It's made of mutton and wheat and ghee, and lots of spices, and it's all boiled together for at least 12 hours.

And how was it? Well, both Mike and I really liked the flavor, but the texture takes some getting used to. Basically, the meat is boiled until it disintegrates into long stringy pieces, so you can't tell the meat apart from anything else. A kind of meaty pudding, if you will.

It reminded me of the recent season of Top Chef Masters, in which Marcus Samuelsson showed off his African cooking skills, and the judges were like, "These flavors rock, but, um, is the texture supposed to be this way?"

And he was like, "Yeah. Totally."

And they were like, "Oh. Ok. You win."

2. Conducting a workshop with up-and-coming young theater artists

These are some of the participants, having coffee and cookies with us in the courtyard of one of the buildings of the famous Nizam who once ruled all of Hyderabad, and whom Time magazine put on their cover in 1937 as being the richest man in the world.

Also there was one of those incredibly sharp Indian mutts, whom Mike and I have taken to calling "The Great Indian Street Dog." Smart little guys, navigating busy streets at just a few weeks old when I can barely do the same at 33. This one was particularly charismatic, and managed to cajole at least a dozen cookies out of the participants (and none from us, the dog-worshiping Americans!).

3. Walking barefoot across the white marble of a Hindu temple

After Mike launched the workshop, I walked up the hill to this all-white, glowing marble temple, one of many throughout India built by the wealthy Birla family.

Sadly for this post, no cameras were allowed inside, but I can tell you that it made the whole experience like a peaceful dream.

We checked our shoes at the door, and it's true that there's a connection you feel with the ground when barefoot. You become so much more aware of your every step.

The path through the temple wound us round and round the marble edifice, until it led us to its heart, where holy men laid their hands on people.

I had no clue what the customs were; I just watched everyone else and they were tolerant of me, the only white face in the bunch. As people left they marked each other's foreheads and laid pieces of rock sugar on their tongues.

I noticed that some of the mothers holding young children also had markings on the side of their necks and cheeks--from where the foreheads of their little ones had rubbed against them, I realized.

The whole temple sits at the top of a hill, so a welcome cool breeze blows throughout. Overhead, falcons circled, and incense seemed to be wafting from the surrounding green treetops.

It was absolutely wonderful.

4. Performing our show about technology and lust and consequences for a packed house of IT workers and business students

The thing about theater is that you can't distribute it as easily as you can a movie or even a book. Mike has to be there each and every time the thing is shown, and he's only got 365 days in his year, just like the rest of us.

So it really was an awesome treat to get to perform this show for a crowd of young IT workers and future business leaders. It was probably worth the whole trip to India, just having this time with these people, for whom China is not a far-away place, and for whom the implications of the shifting market are very, very real. It was a gift.

Hyderabad is a huge IT hub, rivaling Bangalore, and the hall where we performed was just down the street from a huge Microsoft campus--the first one built outside of my home state.

And sure enough, we had lots of Microsoft employees there, iPhones in hand, eager to discuss the piece afterward.

Monday, August 23, 2010

News From Home

Awesome email from my mom, who's taking care of this dude while we're in India:

Hello Gigi:

Baci is very disappointed because the squirrels took the ripe plums and peaches leaving nothing to pick or drop to his level. He is a perfect gentleman. Andy took his chew toy and went to work on it--he gently tried to get her attention, gently squeaked, circled her a few times, finally licked her, then lay down in front of her so she wouldn't forget that it really was his toy. She continued to chew and ignore him until she finally went to bed and he got his chance to enjoy the chewy. I have never seen such a gentle patient dog.

You should be proud of him.

Love, Mom

And here they are, Baci and Andy together. I call them "Salt & Pepper."

(What's that you say? This is much less interesting than India? You want pictures of the Taj Mahal and sadhus and IT workers and night markets and bangles? Ok, ok, jeez...back to work.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Chennai was our very first stop in India, and I thought I'd take a moment to list some quick impressions and surprises. Also, there will be some photos, because Tarina has asked for them.

--ornamentation: On cars, on humans, on doorways, folks here are really good at adding color and character to the everyday. I particularly like the designs made of flour that are drawn out on the sidewalk in front of a home to protect it through the day. I think someone told me they are called kolom, but I have no idea if I've remembered that right.

--jasmine: Many women wear jasmine garlands in their hair, and drivers sometimes hang jasmine garlands from their windshield. Pushed up against someone on the bus yesterday, I found it a welcome scent.

--dress: Before I got here I thought that saris would be more for dress-up rather than everyday. Not so! Almost every woman I see is dressed in a sari, and a few in salwar kameez, and all in very bright, vivid colors. I am struck by how plain and colorless my garb is by contrast. Even the women cleaning the theater and sweeping the floors with long twig brooms were wearing beautiful saris.

--hair: I also feel like the only woman in all of India with short hair. Will this change when I get to Mumbai and Delhi?

--markings: I expected bindhis and red dots on the foreheads of married women, but I didn't expect the metallic markings some men wear, including a man I saw on the street with three lines radiating out from his third eye, or the gold smudge that glowed from the forehead of the man in charge of lighting at our theater.

--bobble heads: It took me a while to get used to this very Indian head movement, a kind of side-to-side wobble of the head that indicates the listener is hearing you, but that I first took as a kind of annoyance or signifier that what I was asking for was impossible.

--language: My ignorance of the diversity of India was pretty astounding. (I still know very little, but I'm learning.) There are so many languages here! In Chennai the theater technicians all spoke Tamil, with someone there to help translate for me, and here in Hyderabad it's Telugu and Urdu. But even that makes it sound more streamlined than it actually is. Most Indians speak two or three tongues in addition to Hindi or English.

And now, some pictures, accompanied by guest commentary from Mike!:

View from our hotel room. I feel like this illustrates the nature of luxury in India--when it exists, it exists in islands, and the state of one's surroundings makes it clear the vast differences that exist right next to each other. Perhaps this is why the hotels try to be more like fortresses, locking the luxury in and the squalor out.

A roadside shrine. These are everywhere, and the colors are intense--the ones with huge Ganeshes are my favorites.

A comparatively calm street scene in Chennai. I love the retro seventies filter on this, achieved accidentally by the polarization on the US Consulate vehicles we were riding in.

The 1200 seat venue is fascinating. Filled with mosquitoes during the performance, it was a great space nonetheless. The outside is dominated by corporate sponsors and food stalls that makes the event of the show have some of the feel of a street fair and a car show combined.

Me posing next to an image of myself. This started a furious round of picture-taking.

Talking with folks after the show. The performance was extremely well received--Indians, it turns out, love to hear someone who knows very little about their culture provide insights into their fundamental natures. The fact that Foxconn has factories in Chennai doesn't hurt, either--it really makes globalism feel like a real presence, instead of just a dry business concept.