Saturday, April 30, 2016


My friend Stuart Bousel has been writing observational short stories as Facebook status updates, based on people he sees and conversations he overhears in airports or restaurants.

I have been sitting around Heathrow airport for the last two hours waiting to learn whether I'll get a seat or not on the overbooked flight back to SF; to distract myself from my anxieties, I did as Stuart would, and observed my neighbors, and wrote this.


They ask if the seats near me – the bucket-shaped orange tweed chair, the squashy black leather couch – are taken. I say “No,” and “No problem,” knowing I sound like a slightly vulgar American whenever I say that, and cringing internally at how my speech betrays me.

They are a party of three, presumably a family, but an unusual one: three Eurojetsetters. The daughter has long, lush, rich-girl brown hair, and a lush pouting mouth, and lush olive skin, and wears a black miniskirt and black tights that probably cost forty euros. The mother is very bon chic bon genre: bottle blonde, grey cashmere sweater, navy blue knit jacket with big gold buttons, skinny cropped beige pants, and Prada wedge sneakers. The father has wavy gray hair that all must call “distinguished,” and a fine light-blue shirt that’s unbuttoned slightly too much, and designer jeans, and black loafers.

They have Longchamp bags and snakeskin bags and pebbled-leather bags.

They all have untraceable accents.

The man takes the chair; the women sink into the squashy couch.

I think of being friendly and offering them my free chocolate. The coffee shop gave me three free morsels of gianduja because my voucher was for five pounds’ worth of food and by golly, they were going to give me my money’s worth.

I am held back from the fear that my gianduja is of insufficient quality for such sophisticates. They seem like people who have strong opinions on gianduja.

Mother and daughter hold their phones two-handed in front of their faces, click through Instagram photos, chatter softly in their untraceable murmuring voices, compare notes on what they see.

“That’s what childhood should be like. Free,” says the woman. “It makes my heart hurt.”

She strokes her daughter’s long, lush, rich-girl hair.

The father reads Den of Thieves, pen in hand. He furrows his brow and pushes back his distinguished hair from his forehead, a studied gesture.

“They take the nicest photos, don’t they? This is a beautiful picture of the chateau. I want to go there; I want to be a child there. If that school was an English school in the country, a boarding school, would you go there?”

They offer their phones to Daddy so he can look at the photos. He strokes his chin with his left hand, and I notice he doesn’t wear a wedding ring, but the woman does. I try to puzzle out whether or not they’re married.

“Looks lovely, ja? The French way of life. I would like to go.”

The woman strokes the girl’s hair again. One primate grooming another. They would like to groom her for a good marriage, in the Milan cathedral I think, and a honeymoon in Tahiti.

“Stef, have you canceled with your brother? Because I think they think that we’re coming over on Monday.”

He furrows his brow and strokes his upper lip with his thumb as he texts his brother. They don’t have a good relationship. There is resentment and ill-feeling on both sides: my distinguished friend here thinks that his brother, who lives an average middle-class life in some suburb, is boring and basic; the brother regards this Eurojetsetter with a mix of schadenfreude and envy. He’s probably glad to know that their flight has been delayed and none of their money or style or sophisticated unplaceable accents can help them now.

“Next weekend, what do we do?”


The mother continues to groom the daughter’s hair, the family’s pride and joy. Oh, all the Prada sneakers in the world cannot compare with the glory of that hair, which cannot be bought or sold, which grows entirely free!

The father still strokes his lip, finishes the onerous duty of texting his brother, then returns to his book with a still more furrowed brow.

Mother is trying to get set up on Instagram; she peppers the girl with soft, barely audible questions and opinions. “I’m just going to post interior pictures. Just let me post interior pictures, gardens, sunsets, pretty ones. Who am I now following? Three people. Nobody’s following me back; oh that’s marvelous. Will you follow me back, so I have one follower?”

“Stop asking me these questions,” says the girl. Even when she is irritated with her mother, she talks in a voice that I have to strain my ears to hear. The clicking of my computer keys almost drowns out the dialogue.

“Shall we go and eat something?”

“What time is it?”


“We go now. By the time we’re there… By the time we’re served…”

They do not move.

“Oh, that’s beautiful,” says the mother, still on Instagram.

The women scroll on their phones, the man strokes his forehead as though he were performing an auto-phrenological examination.

“Look, look! She was invited to the palace! Their Royal Highnesses request the pleasure of Madame M— at the reception for the launch of Pledge on Thursday. I don’t know what that is,” says the mother, still on Instagram.

“Oh, there you are. We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars,” she says, dreamily, still on Instagram.

“I’m a very bad dresser,” she says, two minutes later. I don’t know how much irony is intended by that statement but I do think that wedge sneakers are an abomination.

Another two minutes go by. “You know the girl who I’m staying with, the guy has the coolest house in Notting Hill. Blenheim Crescent, so cool.”

“How d’you know it’s cool?”

“Because it was up on the Internet, the house and garden.”

The girl lightly taps the man on the knee with her phone.

“We’re going?”

“Yeah. Don’t forget your charger.”

“Let’s go to Carluccio’s.”

“Thank you,” they say to me, gathering their pebbled-leather bags.

“No problem,” I say again, and hope that my eyes do not betray me as a spy, a gawker, an envious observer even more to be feared and hated than that bothersome brother, because the ties of familial love do not bind me to these people, and I have a laptop computer and two hours to kill in the airport.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Coldwater" and Charlotte Brontë's 200th Birthday

Earlier this year, I read an unusual novel, Coldwater, which re-imagined the Brontë sisters' lives in a different context -- one more sign of the hold they still have on the imaginations of modern-day bookish women. Posting my review of Coldwater today in honor of the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë's birth (April 21, 1816).

 ColdwaterColdwater by Mardi McConnochie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with a premise quite like that of Coldwater, a book that takes real-life historical figures and reimagines them in a different setting. (I know there’s such a thing as “alternate-universe fan fiction,” which is basically what this is, but I’ve never seen that done in a serious literary novel.) The intriguing idea behind Mardi McConnochie’s book is: what if Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, daughters of a Yorkshire clergyman in the mid-1800s, were instead Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Wolf, daughters of the governor of a penal colony on a remote Australian island in the mid-1800s?

McConnochie’s Wolf sisters are even more isolated and alone than the Brontë sisters, who at least got to study in Brussels. Their widowed father derives his sense of self-worth from the strict control he keeps over his family and the prisoners in his charge. But when Emily (of course) falls in love with a sexy Irish prisoner (of course), the girls begin to taste freedom and the father starts to lose control.

Coldwater is told from the perspectives of all three sisters and their father, alternately. Charlotte serves as the main narrator: she is practical and straightforward, but has a tendency to believe she’s the only person on the island with any common sense. (In her self-righteousness, she is more like her father than she realizes.) Emily’s sections are written in breathless prose that sometimes recalls Emily Dickinson more than Emily Brontë: “Yet it is impossible that we could have known each other—except in a Dream—Yet his Visage is imprinted on my Soul—” Anne’s story is told in third-person, perhaps because she is the least famous of the three Brontë sisters and therefore feels the most “distant.” At first Anne just seems like a confidante for Emily, but in the second half of Coldwater she comes into her own, to satisfying effect.

It’s impossible to read Coldwater without comparing it to the Brontës' novels, which doesn’t always work to its advantage; it is shorter and less richly textured than Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Maybe that’s understandable, because the Brontës wrote about things that were rooted in their own experiences of nineteenth-century Northern England, while McConnochie is writing about a time and place not her own. She's able to imagine and describe her characters’ emotional states quite well, but is less convincing when describing events. The climax of Coldwater is very busy (there’s a prison riot and a few competing escape attempts) but I didn’t quite buy it; it didn’t feel vivid enough.

I often find it hard to enjoy movie adaptations of my favorite novels (even if they're well-done), because I am constantly evaluating the filmmakers’ choices in comparison to the novel and thus cannot fully sink into the story. That’s kind of how I feel about Coldwater: I enjoyed parts of it as a guilty pleasure, and parts of it because I found it interesting to contemplate the choices that McConnochie made when reimagining the Brontës, but it never escapes from the shadows of the stories that inspired it.

View all my reviews

Monday, April 18, 2016

Things You Find on the Upper East Side That You Don't Find in San Francisco

  • Tulips
  • Men who hold the door for you 
  • Twenty-something guys who wear loafers and tucked-in polo shirts
  • Preppy nicknames (I went to brunch yesterday with a Scottie and a Wooley, among others)
  • Hipster-looking men who make the sign of the cross in public
  • Conversations about having to take Latin in school
  • Drugstores where everything except the (exorbitant) prices seems to have been frozen in time in the 1980s or earlier
  • Lots of off-leash, purebred dogs
  • Park benches that you can lie down on
  • Women in black pencil skirts and stilettos, smoking cigarettes as they stride down the sidewalk
  • A man in a double-breasted blazer, carrying a bowler hat and a trench coat and a little white lapdog in a dog carrier, who stops by your brunch table and informs you that the dog is named "Ellie" after a prep-school classmate of his daughter's, who also happens to be at your brunch table (this is probably the most surreally UES thing to happen to me yesterday, especially as I was jetlagged)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Things You Should Do in SF This April, Because I Can't

Here's a first-world problem for you: living in a vibrant city and being reluctant to take a vacation to visit other vibrant cities, because there are so many fun artsy events in your home city that you'll miss out on when you go away.

I'm going to be on vacation the last 2 weeks of April (3 days in NYC, 7 days in Paris, 3 days in Oxford), and I'm really excited about it, but that doesn't prevent me from wishing that I could somehow also experience all of these other things that are happening in San Francisco while I'm gone.

1. Independent Bookstore Day -- This started in California two years ago and has expanded nationwide: 400+ indie bookstores host special community events and sell exclusive merchandise. Last year, I went to my local indie bookstore, Green Apple Books on the Park, and bought some tea towels with a quote from San Francisco's own Lemony Snicket: "It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read." (Truth.) A hopeful, optimistic, literary-themed event, Independent Bookstore Day makes me feel a little better about my community and about the world. Happening this year on Saturday, April 30.

2. 826 + KML = BFFs -- This is another thing I did last year and would repeat if I were in town. Sketch-comedy troupe Killing My Lobster (KML) teams up with the kids'-literacy organization 826 Valencia, teaches some adorable children how to write sketches, and then stages their work. The kids' sketches are absurd, hilarious, bizarre, and proof that comedy doesn't require sex, cursing, or antisocial behavior to be funny. I saw this show last year with my friend Sam Bertken, who loved it so much that he's acting in it this year, and I wish I could see that, because it promises to be delightful. Happening at Pianofight, April 28, 29, and 30.

3. Love & Friendship -- Whit Stillman's new film, a Jane Austen adaptation, is the opening-night attraction at the SF International Film Festival on April 21. I'll be seeing it when it's released in mid-May, of course, but how cool would it be to see it at the Castro Theater with an audience of film buffs, in the presence of Stillman and his leading lady Kate Beckinsale? If you go and mingle with the stars, be sure to tell me so that I can be jealous.

4. t. gondii presents the lovesickness circus -- For the first time in 5+ years, I have to miss a Theater Pub show! This is a world premiere by Katharine Sherman, starring Soren Shane Santos as a rat who takes a cat (Marlene Yarosh) to a circus hosted by a parasite (Jeunee Simon). It sounds like one of the more off-kilter things Theater Pub has ever done and I wish I could spend a night at the Lovesickness Circus for myself! Happening at PianoFight, April 18, 19, 25, and 26. $10 suggested donation.

5. Colossal -- I have heard nothing but good things about San Francisco Playhouse's latest show, a 60-minute, hybrid dance/theater piece about football, fathers and sons, and toxic masculinity. Yeah, there's a part of me that thinks "This is so short, I could still find time to see it in the next few days," but I'm so busy running around town preparing for my trip that I don't think I can make that happen. But it runs through April 30, so you still have time to get tickets and see it!

6. The bunnies at Civic Center -- This is another thing that's already around, but I probably will not have time to experience before I leave. A new public art installation, at Civic Center Plaza through April 25, consists of giant inflatable white rabbits. Pagan symbols of springtime fertility? Postmodern kitsch geared toward Instagram selfies? An allusion to the song "White Rabbit" by classic S.F. band Jefferson Airplane? I wish I could see and decide for myself.

7. ShortLived Championship Round -- A play of mine competed in Round 3 of ShortLived but narrowly lost to "Goodsell, Good Life" by Tommy Lazer and Suzil Von -- now the 6 winning plays of the last 6 weeks will compete against one another for the $5000 grand prize. I'm kind of rooting for Tommy and Suzil, because there is more dignity and prestige in losing to a play that goes on to win the grand prize, right? Another event that I probably won't be able to squeeze in before I go, this is happening at PianoFight on April 14, 15, and 16, and I hear tickets are going fast.

8. What Rhymes With America -- The Bay Area premiere of this Melissa James Gibson play, directed by my friend and fellow Theater Pub writer Robert Estes, is playing in Berkeley through April 24. I am way overdue to see Robert's work as a director and feel bad that, once more, I must decline his invitation! As a "painfully funny portrayal of everyday people working through what it means to be human in America today," it sounds like it might make a good companion piece for Will Eno's Middletown, which I DID manage to catch last week, and is at the Custom Made Theatre through April 30.

9. The Lion -- Why you gotta play me like this, ACT? You open a new theater in 2015, you emphasize that all the shows there will have longer runs (2-3 months) than the typical ACT show, and just when we all get used to that idea, you book a show there for only two weeks? I want to see The Lion as part of my burgeoning fascination with the genre that my friend Stuart has dubbed "the hipster musical," and also because the pull-quote they're using, "Only the hardest-hearted could resist!" makes me feel like I must go if I don't want to be considered an unfeeling Scrooge. Unfortunately, it closes May 1.

10. Home Invasion -- The first production by 6NewPlays, a collective of playwright-producers, is by the prolific local writer Christopher Chen, and it sounds very cool: a Hitchcock-inspired surreal murder mystery play that is being staged in living rooms around the Bay Area. Check out the interview my friend Barbara did with Chris Chen for the Theater Pub blog. Most of the performances are sold out, so I really hope they might choose to revive it at a later date! For more:

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Frida Kahlo, Disney Princesses, & Toxic Love

Warning: rant ahead contra a certain strain of modern feminism.

I saw this meme on Facebook today, and it really pissed me off. I understand the desire for female role models who aren't Disney Princesses, but goddamn it, whoever slapped this together seems mind-bogglingly unaware that Frida Kahlo was all about Toxic Love. To a much greater extent, I would argue, than Snow White or Belle or Cinderella.

This is not to belittle Kahlo or attempt to devalue her as an artist. On the contrary, I think her value comes from how powerfully she was able to transform her suffering, romantic and otherwise, into art. But she and Diego Rivera had an extraordinarily tempestuous relationship that pretty much epitomizes Toxic Love, and this attempt to portray Kahlo as a Strong Female Artist Who Don't Need No Man does no one any favors. 

Truth be told, it is easier for me to relate to Kahlo knowing that she loved not wisely but too well,  that she was incredibly strong in many ways and yet incredibly vulnerable at the same time -- that she was a complex human being, in other words, not an invincible and perfect superwoman.