Drive-in Theaters in the States vs movie-going in 80s China

My neighbors recently took their five children to a drive-in in San Jose to watch the movie, “Sing.” I asked them how they liked it and they said it was great. I suggested to my husband that we go there with our kids as I’d  never been to a drive-in theater and always had a romantic idea about it. But my husband was not keen on the idea as he thought it would be hard to watch a movie in such a place. He and I would probably fall asleep in the car (we both could use more sleep, with the kids climbing up to our bed every night and sleeping with their limbs spread out)…not to mention that it was pretty cold at night these days. So in the end, we watched the movie in a small theater in Cupertino. It was fun and the kids loved the pig wearing a sparkly golden hoodie.

When I was little, still living on a state farm called Red Harbor, watching a movie was celebrated like a holiday. To this day, I have a vivid memory of it.

Red Harbor didn’t have a theater, so we watched movies on the Headquarters’ basketball court. Of course, there weren’t any seats there so you had to bring your own.

On the movie day, you could smell something like a war in the air. Though the movie wouldn’t start until seven or eight, by three the basketball court already saw its first batch of visitors—grandmas, grandpas, those who didn’t have to work or go to school. They brought with them wicker chairs, stools, straw mats, bamboo fans, thermos, mugs, tea pots, slippers, food and snacks, and of course, their tottering, whimpering grandchildren, occupying the center space facing the imagined movie screen. Seeing how well equipped they were, you’d think they might as well bring their beds.

These grandmas and grandpas didn’t take space just for themselves; they also marked territory for families and friends who had asked them to. So after they settled, you saw stools, mats, and other objects lying around, marking their borders.

By the time my friends and I got off school and ran to the court at four thirty, half the court had been taken. We hadn’t even gone home! When I said it “had been taken,” it was not that it was full of people, but full of stools, chairs, benches, mats and odd stuff such as pillows, a piece of clothing, even stacked bricks, all with a name attached; on the ground were all kinds of markings and writings in chalk or charcoal.

By six, most people had arrived. The basketball court was as crowded and noisy as a honeycomb full of bees. Some people were quarreling because of a border dispute, each surrounded and cheered on by bored bystanders.

As if to play up the drama, the vendors chanted in their local dialects.

“Twenty cents a bag! My sunflower seeds are crispy and tasty!”

“Plums, apricots, fresh dates! The yellow ones are very yellow, the red ones are very red. Come and try!”

“Honeydew! Golden-skinned honeydew! Don’t pay if it’s not sweet.”

“Tea eggs! Big tea eggs! Very big tea eggs!”

The movie didn’t arrive until eight, a delay that neither surprised nor saddened us. We watched a team of people set up the projector and secure the big canvas screen.

With a silver light tube illuminating the screen and the projector creaking, the movie started.

A breeze came and the screen fluttered.

Babies felt asleep against their mothers’ chests.

Grandmas and grandpas poured tea into their mugs and sipped it.

A dog barked but soon whimpered—someone had thrown a stone at it.

I felt asleep before the movie ended. When I woke up, I was on my father’s back, and we were on our way home.

Dry leaves crunched under our feet, sounding as if coming from the center of the earth.

High in the sky, millions of stars twinkled.

“Did you like the movie?” My father asked me when he saw that I was awake.

“Yes,” I mumbled, before plummeting back into a sweet dream.

(Do you know that more than 90% of drive-in theaters in the U.S. have disappeared?)

Featured image: Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen

Pajamas-wearing in Public in China–a battle between “appropriate” and “comfy”

Wearing pajamas in public has a long-standing tradition in Shanghai, famously penned by many Shanghainese writers such as Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang). It’s part of the cityscape, people of all different ages and genders in pajamas with varied patterns and colors and fabrics eat or shop or bike or chat or get a haircut or dump garage or just relax under a tree. Pajamas can go with just about anything. Leather shoes and colorful socks, a sun-shading umbrella, a Louis Vuitton purse (knock-off or not), or mirrored aviator sunglasses. Sometimes, people wear pajamas outside because they only need to run a quick errand and don’t want to bother to change clothes; sometimes, it’s just more comfortable to wear them if they don’t need to go to work.

In my hometown Nanchang, you see pajamas wearers everywhere, too. Whenever I go back, I love the sight of them. It gives me a warm feeling. The government says that pajamas-wearing in public must go because it affects the city’s image. “The foreigners and tourists would look down on us if we wear pajamas outside,” a district community manager said when interviewed, echoing the government. As an effort to reduce the number of pajamas-wearers, special volunteer teams, so-called Wen Ming Zhao Zhuang Quan Dao Dui (Civilized Attire Persuasion Teams) patrol the streets and communities before and during important events and conferences, discouraging people from wearing pajamas in public.

Such patrolling reminds me of the Top Ten Campus Campaign when I was a college student in China. I wrote about it in “February Flowers.”

“I listened. It was a male voice: ‘…leaders from the Education Ministry. We welcome and look forward to their inspection. To make our university a first-rate university nationally and internationally, it’s critical to build a healthy and positive environment for our students. For a university student, it’s as important to achieve excellence in your major as it is to have the correct attitude towards life and the world. Studying science and arts should be combined with cultivating socialistic ideology…’

……

The inspector from the Education Ministry arrived a week later. By now not only was the lawn closed but a guard post had been set up at the main entrance–visitors had to register when they came in and sign out when they left. Street sweeping had increased from once to twice a day. The day before the inspectors arrived, the cleaners even came to West Five to wash the hallways and stairs with detergent. The Student Association checked the dorms frequently, so we had to keep our rooms tidy at all times. During the day we took down our mosquito nets and folded our blankets into a square, as soldiers do. We also bought a few bottles of air freshener to make the room smell better….A group of uniformed workers from the Security Department patrolled the campus and would stop students who were smoking, or wore makeup, or broke any of the other new rules. They would threaten to report these students to their departments…”

Sounds all too familiar.

Back to the pajamas-donning issue, I wonder if “the foreigners and tourists” really care; they actually might like seeing people in pajamas in the streets because it’s fun and unique.

(Featured image: street view, Nanchang.)

Do you start a book from the beginning or the middle?

My 8-year-old loves books and whenever we visit the library, she borrows a big pile of them, some thick as a brick. She’s quick at deciding what books to read. I asked her how she picks her reading list the other day and she replied, “I start with the middle of the book because that’s where action is. If I like what I’ve read, then I’ll get the book and read from the beginning.”

A lot of novels used to be written this way. First stage: you introduce your main character and his everyday life. Second stage: something happens to the main character and he has to do something about it. Last stage is about him overcoming challenges and achieving some kind of goal or solution.

These days, more and more novels seem to begin “in medias res,” a Latin phrase that means in the middle of the things. Something happens right away in the beginning, then you backtrack to offer explanation and background. I can see TV series and movies’ influence on such a trend, also that of social media consumption–people are so distracted and occupied that they have little patience these days. If something doesn’t grab their attention right away, then they move on to other things that are more appealing to them.

Some writers argue that the second approach is better because it hooks readers and makes them want to read more. There’s truth in it, but I think it’s more important to establish a strong voice in the beginning.

When you correspond with literary agents, if they’re interested in your pitch, they usually ask you to send the synopsis and a sample–often the beginning chapters. Sure, they want to see the promise of action and conflicts in these pages, but what they want to see the most is your ability to make them care about your main character and the story you’re about to unfold.

As a writer, you decide what beginning fits your story the best. There’s no right or wrong.

Different from my daughter, when I choose what books to read, I always start from the beginning pages. There’s so much you can discover about the writer and her style from even just the first page.

Featured image: street view in my hometown, Nanchang.

 

 

A Powerful Movie: Blind Mountain

A friend asked me to recommend some Chinese movies. I mentioned “In the Mood for Love,” “In the Heat of the Sun,” “Center Stage,” “Peacock,” and “Blind Mountain.” I once reviewed “Blind Mountain” for Ploughshares. Please see below the slightly revised version. It’s such a powerful movie that I still remember a lot of details.


Ploughshares magazine

When you tell people you are a writer, they often say that they’d love to read your books but just cannot find the time. “But,” they continue, “If they’re made into movies someday, I’ll check them out.”

Maybe it’s just a polite way to say, “I’m not interested in your books.” Or maybe busy people tend to watch movies rather than read books for entertainment or enlightenment. Once or twice I overheard people saying that movies and widely popular TV series might totally replace books. It doesn’t sound likely, in my opinion–at least not in our generation’s lifetime.

I like movies but if I must choose between a good movie and a good book, I usually pick the book (unless the director is a favorite). If I have already read a book and liked it, I usually don’t watch its movie adaptation: More often than not, the book is much better than the movie. Over the years I have re-read many books but I rarely watch the same movie twice. Blind Mountain, a Chinese movie directed by Li Yang, is an exception.

Blind Mountain is one of the saddest movies, also the best, I’ve seen in years. Bai Xuemei, a college graduate, is kidnapped and sold to a peasant in a remote village as a bride. Repeatedly beaten and raped, she tries to escape and refuses to give up even after she bears the man’s child. When hope finally arrives, she finds herself trapped in the idyllic mountain village and its corrupt social and legal system.

Though the cast’s only professional is the lead actress, Huang Lu, the overall acting is wonderful and entirely credible. The cinematographer, Lin Jong, also creates a stunning visual experience.

The story is disturbing. Being based on true events makes it even more so. It touches me profoundly not only because it is tragic but also because it reminds me of my roots, a country burdened with injustice and oppressive traditions, especially in the rural areas, despite its economic boom.

The movie’s ending is perfect, leaving a lot to imagine. When the movie was released in China in 2007, it had a different, more upbeat and ironic ending, in an attempt to satisfy the censors.

The West’s reaction has been mixed. The movie received a standing ovation at Cannes but some critics gave lukewarm comments. “There’s little emotional underpinning to the rote story,” one said. Rote? How many movies about human trafficking are made each year? I don’t think it’s many. Also, a story can never be called “rote” if it provides new perspectives and cultural substances, as Blind Mountain does. (When I read that comment, I somehow thought of what an American once said to me: “I’m familiar with Asian literature.” Later, I found out that all the Asian literature he had read were several novels by an American-born Chinese writer.)

And “little emotional underpinning”? I could not disagree more. The emotion in the movie runs so thick and deep that I could barely breathe normally while watching it. The villagers’ matter-of-fact and unsympathetic attitude towards Bai’s suffering sends out a powerful message. Could this critic’s negative feedback result from his personal preference for being explicit as opposed to being implicit, and melodramatic as opposed to realistic? I don’t know. But to me, real life is implicit, subtle and nuanced much of the time, often not explicit when one might wish it to be.

Featured image: Inside Guitar Showcase, a guitar store in my neighborhood.  I’ve been teaching myself guitar, thanks to Youtube, but finding time to practice is a challenge.

The Hen and Her Eggs – About balance, also who you are.

In my recent conversations with other writers, the topic of self marketing and promotion frequently came up. I’m no expert in this area, but I’ve been published long enough to know how important it is for writers to be actively involved in marketing and selling their books even if they are signed by a Big 5 publisher.

There has been gazillions of articles about how writers and artists can embrace social media and establish an effective commutation channel with their followers or potential audience. I’ve read some and found them helpful. On the other hand, I think it’s a mistake for writers to put all their energy into marketing themselves. Your time and energy is limited, and your creativity needs to be nurtured. You’re respected because of your work, not because how well you can promote yourself.

It’s about balance. Also about who you are.

Here is something I wrote for Ploughshares years ago entitled “The Hen and Her Eggs.” Though the digital space is increasingly crowded in the past several years,  this piece is still very much relevant.


Ploughshares magazine

The Hen and Her Eggs 

An acquaintance recently e-mailed me to announce her upcoming book launch party, to be held in an expensive restaurant, with free food and drinks and a near-celebrity’s attendance. Each guest will pay a small entrance fee and receive a signed copy of the book. Other than the e-mail announcement, this acquaintance has promoted her book diligently through Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, has blogged about the book, and distributed newsletters. For a while, her e-mails flooded my inbox. As far as I know, she’s contacted many media for possible interviews, features, or reviews.

Several writers I know have invested much time and effort in marketing their books. Other than social media presences, traditional bookstores and library readings, they arranged book signings in the homes of friends and relatives, mailed postcards and bookmarks featuring their books, and offered their books as prizes at parties.

When my first book came out, a colleague at the company I worked for, a former Hollywood PR consultant, said I should wear a funky hat or sunglasses at signings to give people a strong first impression. “It’s not about the book, but about getting the buzz going for you,” she said. (Luckily or unluckily, I didn’t follow her advice.) Her words reminded me of the late Chinese poet, Gu Cheng, who often wore a leg cut from a pair of jeans as a hat. I don’t think Gu wore the hat to get attention; it was probably just because he was eccentric (he later killed himself and his wife in New Zealand). I also thought of Dali’s flamboyant moustache and Truman Capote’s seductive photo on the dustjacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948).

Writers today are expected to promote their own books whether working with a big or small publisher, but how much self-promotion is enough? After all, you’re a writer, not a salesperson. Of course, you’d be foolish to think you can sell your book without publicity. Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998), a recluse and a favorite writer of mine, once said that it is unnecessary for one to meet the hen if one loves the eggs she lays. It’s only half true: The hen must first tell people that the eggs are available.

Little- or lesser-known writers need publicity. So do well-known writers. It matters if your book sells or not and it’s certainly important for you to talk about it and to hear feedback–not to mention the satisfaction of contributing to world literature and inspiring others. In his 1992 interview with The Washington Post, novelist Don Delillo said, “I’ve been called ‘reclusive’ a hundred times and I’m not even remotely in that category. But people want to believe this because it satisfies some romantic conception of what a dedicated writer is and how he ought to live. ‘I know you never do interviews.’ They say that to me all the time. ‘But here I am’ is my stock reply.”

Ideally, your publisher or publicist will arrange all the nice events for you. Ideally, Michiko Kakutani will eagerly write you a stellar review. And Ideally, Oprah’s Book Club will welcome you as their latest favorite. But in reality, you probably have to do a lot yourself to market your book. So is there a limit to self-promotion? I guess not. Do what you feel comfortable with. If you are like Capote, enjoy parties and talk shows (but don’t forget that he maintained a rigid writing schedule most of his life); if you are like William Trevor, you probably prefer gardening and afternoon tea to a reading at Shakespeare and Company. It’s your judgment. If your book sells because of your hard work in self-promotion, give yourself a big congratulation.

(Featured image: a noodle restaurant in a Beijing 胡同hutong.)

Pure and intense – an insightful review on FEBRUARY FLOWERS

A friend shared with me a review on FEBRUARY FLOWERS by an Amazon reader named “Pacific Wave.” I was impressed by it as it describes exactly what was going through my mind when I was writing the book.

Here is Pacific Wave’s review. I hope he or she doesn’t mind my including it here.

‘Set in a quiet university in the early 90s when China was in the midst of transitioning from communism to “capitalism” and reopening itself to the world, “February Flowers” is a poem about our youth, our innocence, our wonder to the world, our budding yearning to romance. Somewhere sometime in our lives, we all might have been drawn to something beautiful, pure, intense, romantic, just like the February flowers, nothing really to do with anything physical, beyond intimacy, gender, convention, social boundaries; and only have lost it in the reality forced on us, maybe alone in a raining February night, suddenly the memories rushing back, nostalgia, melancholy.’

Yes, my memories did rush back, with nostalgia, with melancholy, one evening after I’d had a long work day at Yahoo!. It was 2002, the year when I began to write.

FEBRUARY FLOWERS is my first attempt at fiction of any kind. It was supposedly to be a short story, a start for me to learn how to write fiction, and how to write creatively in English. I had no idea when I started that it would expand into a novel, and eventually found its way to publication.

Pure and intense, that’s what FEBRUARY FLOWERS is.

(Featured image: these brilliant flowers caught my attention when I was passing by an antique store on my way to beach in Santa Cruz.)

The murder of a Chinese student in the UK and “Parachute kids”

Several months ago, a 24-year-old Chinese female student named Xixi Bi was beaten to death by her British boyfriend, Jordan Matthews. The pathologist who did the postmortem examination found 41 injuries on her body. Before her death, Bi was studying for a master’s degree in international business management in the UK.

The court report said that while Bi was dating this boyfriend, she had been repeatedly beaten by him and he had been controlling and manipulative to her.

While mourning Bi’s tragic death, I cannot help but notice that she was merely 15 years old when she was sent to the UK to study. She was one of those “parachute kids,” a term used to describe underaged children who are sent to foreign countries to study without their parents being around.

In recent years, a growing number of Chinese youngsters have traveled far to the United States, the UK, Australia, and many other Western countries to study in college (undergraduate studies) and high schools.  About 1/3 of international students enrolled in the United States are now from China. A decade ago, fewer than 1000 Chinese students studied in secondary schools in the U.S., and now the number has surpassed 30,000.

As someone who traveled overseas to study, I feel for these young people. I was 23 when I left China for graduate studies at Stanford University. Though I had finished 4-year college in China and had even worked for three years after college, it was not an easy journey. I remember those days when I felt defeated because I didn’t understand what my professors were saying in the class. I remember those days when I stayed at the library until 3 or 4am to finish school projects and then biked back to my dorm to get several hours’ sleep. I remember those holidays when I was by myself, and the days when I was sick with no one to comfort me. One evening, I stayed at my dorm room and cried for quite a while because I missed home so much.

These parachute kids are not even 20, some as young as 13 or 14, and I doubt they’ve had any summer jobs or internship in China for them to gain worldly knowledge and experience. They’re alone, lonely, far from home, surrounded by people who speak a different language and value a different culture. How easy it must be for them to feel homesick and lost.

I don’t want to go deep into the analysis of this phenomenon of young Chinese students studying overseas here, though I intend to write more about it in my future posts, to answer questions such as 1) who are these students? Why do they study overseas? How do they deal with cultural clashes? What do they want to achieve in their new country? How do they influence local schools, culture, commerce, etc.? The list is long.

If Bi had her family close by she would most likely have turned to them for help before the tragedy happened. If she was older, more mature when she was first sent to the UK, she would most likely have handled things differently, being less tolerant to her boyfriend’s abusive behaviors, being more confident in seeking support. If she didn’t feel that she had to live up to her parents’ expectation and succeed in a foreign land, she might have chosen to return to China when her relationship with her boyfriend turned bitter. If her university provided more attention and counseling to international students…….

These are all speculations, of course. But I wonder if there isn’t truth in them.

A young, beautiful life has ended way too soon.

 

 

 

 

Slow down…and read a book

Heard about Slow Television in Norway? Basically it features hours and hours of train rides, knitting, fishing, etc. The first broadcast debuted in 2009 and was a 7.5-hour train ride from Bergen to Oslo. The train just went on and on. In the knitting show, a group of people discussed knitting for hours then knitted for 7.5 hours. These slow shows are wildly popular in their home country, and some of them became available on Netflix last year.

I haven’t watched any of these shows yet, but I totally understand why people like them. In today’s fast-paced digital era, aren’t we all overwhelmed with information and our digital lives and we long for “slowing down” and returning to “real life”?

Though I like the concept of slow TV shows, I have to admit that I have no desire to watch one. But I would certainly want to read more books.  Before I became a mother, I used to read 2-3 books a week, but now it’s more like 2-3 a month.

Time is a key factor here, of course, but age may have played a role too. I find myself getting pickier and more impatient nowadays when I choose what to read. In the past several months, I abandoned several books, all with rave reviews, before I was even one third through them, deciding that I had given them a fair chance and enough time had been wasted.

Another change in my reading behavior is that if I love a book, I would reread it, at lease a good potion of it, over and again. Sometimes, I would reread a book two or three times within the same month, savoring my favorite pages as if an addict on drugs. ( It’s like I’m watching a variation of “slow TV.” )

Such books are rare. But in the past several months, I did score twice. John Williams “Stoner” and Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I’ve read Stoners three times, and am about to reread Remarque’s masterpiece as I cannot seem to let it go off my mind.

Here are two brief passages from the above mentioned books. The first one one of the most insightful interpretations of love I have read. The second one…it simply makes you want to cry. Sad yet grateful tears.

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”

– “Stoner” by John Williams

“We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don’t talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.

We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death. We sit on the edge of it crouching in danger, the grease drips from our hands, in our hearts we are close to one another, and the hour is like the room: flecked over with the lights and shadows of our feelings cast by a quiet fire. What does he know of me or I of him? Formerly we should not have had a single thought in common — now we sit with a goose between us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak.”

– “All Quiet on The Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque

If you don’t find the excerpts impressive, then you’ll have to get these two books and read them from cover to cover. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.

(Featured image: morning exercise in a park in my hometown, Nanchang. The second woman from left on the first row is my mother, who’s a better writer than I am, but has decided not to write.) 

 

 

 

Repetition – The Holy Grail of persuasive selling

I’ve been working on a nonfiction book (not a memoir) for a while. When it comes to submission, nonfiction works differently from fiction. For fiction, agents and publishers typically want to see the full manuscript before they make a decision about it. But for nonfiction, a proposal with a summary, chapter outlines and a sample chapter sometimes can land you a deal.

Usually I read more fiction than nonfiction, but because of this nonfiction project I’m working on, I read more nonfiction these days, if only to be inspired in my new endeavor. After reading several bestsellers, I’ve found a pattern, which is that they’re very repetitive in making a point. They say something on, say, page 11, then on page 13, they remind you of what they’ve said on page 11, and on page 15, the end of the chapter, they say something to the effect of “I hope you remember that on page 11 and page 13 I’ve said something similar.”

To some readers, maybe it’s nice to be reminded again and again, but to me, I just want to skip pages and even put down the book.

After talking to a writer friend I realized that this repetitive style has its roots in rhetoric and is considered the Holy Grail of presentation training and persuasive selling.

When it comes to winning an audience, supposedly, Aristotle, or Dale Carnegie, or Winston Churchill has said, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”

Considering that our attention span, thanks to all the portable devices, is now less than that of a goldfish, considering that the average person spends five hours/day surfing the web and using apps, I guess what I deem as unnecessary repetition is not all that annoying to some people after all.

I have to admit that I even welcomed such “memory reinforcement” from time to time. Life is busy, work, kids, house chores, friends, endless errands…..and all the worries and anxieties caused by President Trump. The last time I had the luxury of finishing a book at one setting (or maybe two settings) was probably before I had become a mother.

So, dear authors, please do remind me in Chapter 2 what you’ve said in Chapter 1.

(Featured image: I took the photo several years ago when I visited the Beijing 798 Art Zone, a landmark of urban art and culture in Beijing. It reminds me of when I was little, slurping the soup noodles my grandma made for me.) 

‘Know’ or ‘Don’t Know’

Here is another blog post I wrote for Ploughshares years ago, which is still a hot topic that writers debate about. I’m currently working on a new novel set in the present-day San Francisco Bay Area, about three women at crossroads in life. There’s a lot I don’t know about these women, yet I feel I’m growing with them and learning about them every day. One of them just made a decision that surprised me. This morning I found myself awake around 5am thinking about it.
——————————————————
Ploughshares magazine I once overheard a discussion between two MFA students. I was at a café in Palo Alto–near Stanford–and they were sitting at a nearby table.
One said the best writing advice he’d gotten was to “write what you know.” He said that having lived through the events and known the people and locations would allow one to write with authority and credibility. He used the examples of writing by Hemingway and V.S. Naipaul to back his claim.
The other disagreed, embracing “write what you don’t know” as the ultimate writing rule, because, he said, “That’s how you can let your imagination fly, let your subconscious and unconscious take charge.” The examples he gave were the more imaginative works of Haruki Murakami and Cormac McCarthy.
I don’t have an MFA, but I assume this kind of debate happens frequently in those classrooms.
I don’t see these two rules as contradictory. The difference between ‘what you know’ or ‘what you don’t know’ shouldn’t be about specific plot, setting or characters; it should be about understanding life and the human condition. In that sense, if you write ‘what you don’t know,’ your writing will likely be false and evasive.


I recently read two books: The Things We Carried by Tim O’Brien and Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Storiesby Steven Millhauser. They could not be more different in theme, style, setting, or characterization–but they are equally powerful and thought-provoking.

The power of The Things We Carried has a lot to do with the author’s first-hand experience and knowledge of the Vietnam War, but has even more to do with his profound grasp of the human heart and emotions: love, longing, fear, grief, terror, sympathy, compassion, etc.
Dangerous Laughter is allegorical, surreal, and labyrinthine–like a strange dream where you cannot see anyone’s face clearly. But the book’s fantastic element is firmly rooted in reality, in Millhauser’s acute observation of history and human civilization.
When Raymond Carver talked about his own writing with the French journalist Claude Grimal, he said, “Yes, there’s a little autobiography and, I hope, a lot of imagination.” I believe his ‘imagination’ doesn’t equate to ‘what you don’t know,’ but to mean to transcend the constraints of the writer’s own life, helped by deep comprehension of human emotions and behaviors.
(Feature image: I saw this flower outside Prison Street Pizza, Lahaina, HI.)