Wednesday, February 25, 2015

That Time I Called Up Barbara Kingsolver

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.”
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

After almost eleven years of blogging I thought I had unpacked alllllllllll my bookworm stories.

When I saw the above quote on Goodreads yesterday, I was reminded of the time I called up Barbara Kingsolver more than a quarter of a century ago. I had just finished reading The Bean Trees for the second time and was seized by an impulse. Raymond Carver had died a few months earlier, shortly after I first discovered him and his short story "A Small, Good Thing".  I had wanted to call up Raymond Carver. I had waited too long.

Well, I wasn't going to make the same mistake. Kingsolver was young and as far as I knew, in good health, but the world was an unpredictable place.

I called Information and gave her name and city. Surprise! She was listed! I dialed the number, heart pounding. A woman answered on the second ring. I asked if I could speak to Barbara Kingsolver.

The woman said, "This is Barbara Kingsolver."

 I gasped and got the conversation off to a fine start by babbling something like, Wow, you answered the phone yourself. (Memory has been kind and not allowed me to remember the exact phrasing I used.)

Kingsolver must have been wondering what kind of ditz she had on the line, but she replied calmly, "Well, of course. Why wouldn't I?"

Pulling myself together, I said that I had read The Bean Trees twice and LOVED it so much. The story. The characters. Everything. I thanked her for writing it. I told her she was a wonderful writer. The praise was interspersed with much hyperventilating and exclamations of disbelief that I was really really REALLY talking to Barbara Kingsolver.

Kingsolver asked me, "Where do you live?"

I actually couldn't remember for a moment. "Oklahoma."

"Oh, Oklahoma. I have a question: Did I describe the landscape accurately for that part of Oklahoma? I've actually never been there."

"Oh yeah, it's fine. It's wonderful. I was convinced you'd been there."

"I'm relieved," said Kingsolver.

It's hard to remember all of the conversation accurately because so much time has passed and I was in such a rapt state of fangirlhood during the call. I remember my face and lips feeling numb. I could barely hold onto the receiver because my hands were slick with sweat.

Here's one bit I remember: "You're not going to let anyone make The Bean Trees into a movie, are you?"

"No one from Hollywood has called me."

"I hope they don't, because ... well, remember The Color Purple?"

Kingsolver laughed. "That's funny. One of my friends had the exact same warning."

I don't remember how the call ended. I do remember that Kingsolver was patient and kind and she didn't hurry me off the phone.  I have the impression that I thanked her about fifty million more times for writing the book and for talking to me. After the call ended, I sat with the phone in my lap for almost an hour staring at it, my pulse still galloping.

Even though the phone call was a success, I've never had the audacity again. I've written a few fan letters and gotten warm responses. I've met a couple of favorite authors face-to-face. In each case, I hope if they remember anything, it would be my warm enthusiasm and not my inane burbling.

Have you ever called up an author or contacted him or her in some other way? What kind of response did you receive?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Even If the Sky Falls Down

I'm excited to announce that my novel Even If the Sky Falls Down is finally complete and available at

Thanks to everyone who left comments of support and encouragment on this blog during the writing and editing process.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Game of Thrones

Winter is coming.

I'm about twenty years late to the party but I started reading A Game of Thrones this week. I'm shocked, astonished, gobsmacked at how much I like it. Not my type of thing at all, but it's so readable! My hands don't even mind that it's a mass-market paperback copy.



Thursday, February 05, 2015

To BEL With Love

One of the things I'll hate about leaving Busan is saying goodbye to the Busan English Library. The BEL has given me so many hours of happiness. I wanted to say thank you by donating some books from the Bybeeary that didn't make the final cut of books sent to the United States.

 I gathered up some serious, yet engaging titles -- pristine beauts with uncracked spines (nothing but the best for my beautiful library!) and made my way BELward.

Bybee: [to woman at the front desk] Hi, I'd like to donate these books to the library.

Front Desk Woman: [looks at books with an oh-God-no expression] Donation?

Bybee: Yes, donation.

FDW: Just a minute. [gathers up books and heads for an office on the other side of the room]

[Bybee wanders off to the "New Books". About 3 minutes pass. FDW comes back with a new woman in tow. Office Woman?]

Office Woman: Excuse me! You want to donate these books? [holds them away from her as if they're radioactive]

Bybee: Yes. Is everything OK? [thinking OMG, they don't want my books. Crap. Now I have to haul them back to the apartment.]

OW: If we have don't have a copy of any of these books, we will add them to our collection. If we have a copy, or they aren't suitable, we will re-donate them to another place. Do you understand? Is that all right?

Bybee: Yes, of course. Sure.

OW: Do you live in Busan?

Bybee: Yes, I come here all the time. I have a library card. [Bybee curses inwardly as she suddenly realizes that she left her BEL card at home on the table]

OW: Where do you work?

[Bybee says the name of her soon-to-be-former workplace]

OW: I studied there. Do you know Professor ____________?

Bybee: No, I'm sorry, I don't.

OW: When did you start working there?

Bybee: March, 2013.

OW: I was there in 2012. You don't know Professor __________? What do you teach?

Bybee: English conversation. To freshmen.

OW: Professor ______________ is English Department.

Bybee: Ah, yes. I see. Well, I don't know him.

OW: How long have you lived in Korea?

Bybee: Ten years. [starting to get that sweaty, interrogated feeling. Looks around for the bright, hot lights and the rubber hose]

OW: You've been here ten years?

[Bybee nods.]

OW: How did you acquire books of this quality?

Bybee: Uh, well, uh...I uh, shopped? And uh, I ordered some online? And when I visited my hometown... [sweat pops out in new places]


OW: [nodding] You bought them.

Bybee: Yes.

[Office woman nods again, finally cracks a slight smile, then turns around and walks back to her office, carrying the books. The high-quality books. Bybee waits a moment to see if she's really dismissed, then staggers over to the magazine section to sit down and recover]

Perhaps the stress of repatriating is getting to me, but that seemed a little over-the-top, even taking cross-culture communication and second-language semantics into consideration.

 I love you to pieces BEL, and I'll be back to visit often before I leave at the end of March, but don't worry. I'm not bringing in any more donations. The next time a foreigner comes waltzing in with an armload, just take the damn books. A thank-you would be nice as well.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

That Was the Slump That Was

A couple of weeks ago, I had a reading slump. I still read, but only fitfully, dipping in and out of books.

These were the only two books I could manage. It's an odd pairing:

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up - Marie Kondo. I understand this choice. I'm moving. My life is all about the tidying process right now. My Korean apartment is similar to her Japanese apartment. I see what she's saying. More importantly, I damn well need to see what she's saying and do likewise. Everything is changing and I could use the magic.

The other book was Taylor Caldwell's 1961 novel A Prologue to Love.

This choice is no surprise, either. A Prologue To Love is a perennial comfort read. When I got to Korea, I realized that I didn't have a copy, so I went on Bookcrossing and played my Poor-Bookworm-in-a-foreign-country card with someone who had a copy.

 99% of my collection is sailing towards the USA, even as I write these words, but APTL is still with me. I'm bringing it on the plane, this battered copy with the $1.25 cover price. I paid .95 for my first copy, back in eighth grade.

I don't know why I love this book so much. I've tried Taylor Caldwell's other novels, but they don't interest me. The Captains and The Kings comes close, but it covers some of the same territory as APTL.

This is one of those books I hardly ever read from start to finish anymore. The last complete read-through was in 2011. Before that was 1996. One year in December, I dipped in and read about Caroline's disastrous Christmas shopping expedition.

During this slump, I opened up the book at the part in which Caroline has become the richest woman in the world, and now she's one of the richest people. It's the early 20th century. She's in her fifties and she's struggling to get her interpersonal relationship stuff together and also deal with her emotional baggage about her father. While she's at it, she's going to ruin her unscrupulous cousin Timothy who is all for a war in Europe because he can profit handsomely from it. It's partly a revenge thing.

Good stuff! I wish this book were back in print so everyone would talk about it.

So anyway, I'm out of the slump, but only just. Maybe once I'm moved out of my apartment I'll feel more like my old bookworm self.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Modern Korean Poetry: Between Sound and Silence - Chang Soo Ko

In keeping with the spirit of surrealism that pervades Chang Soo Ko's poems, I'll start by saying that this book allowed me to find it at just the right time. It hollowed out for itself a space in my life. My relationship with Korean literature is skittish, but Between Sound and Silence was having none of that. Finding me alone at work on a slow day, it held me to my chair. The book was a suitcase whose contents I unpacked slowly and with great delight. Or was I the suitcase, and the book unpacked me, watching my reactions unfold?

Between Sound and Silence, published in 2000, is a handsome volume. A hardcover with delicately textured cream-colored end papers, it is a bilingual offering with the English version on the left-hand page and the poem in Korean on the facing page. The poet (who has also served as an ambassador for Korea) did all of his own translation, which further excited my admiration. This is one of the few times I've wished to be fully fluent in Korean, so I could get the total flavor, the complete experience of what Ko is saying. Perhaps I wouldn't survive the full impact, though. For example, a line like Let some melodies illuminate the words hanging in our trees packs quite a punch just in English.

The first poem in this collection, "At the Art Gallery" starts with a stark imperative sentence, bursting with the energy of a coiled spring upon release: Do not think you are the only one in his perspective. Immediately, my brain began to buzz. Who is the "you" in the poem? Who is the one with the perspective? Reading the poem one way, it seems as if "you" is the spectator. In another reading, I was convinced it was the painted image. And what about the artist? His eyes always reflect the flickering flames from his center. Do not think they miss your stillness. His gaze penetrates far beyond where there is only silence. Drowning in all the pronoun possibilities, I finally had to conclude that it's really a poem about Ko and his reader and the journey they're about to embark. But again, there's shifting and blurring and the uncertainty: Is Ko talking to the reader or talking to himself, or imagining what the reader might say?

The reason I'm going on about poet/poem/reader relationships is because of the poem "To Marc Chagall" in which Ko articulates the feelings that we've all had for painters, poets, writers, actors and directors that have affected us viscerally:

I want to define our relationship more clearly.
Though my human shape never cast any shadow on your life,
my glances often fed the flames of your candelabra.
The bare winter branches in your landscape
sometimes lit up with my pastels.
You sent through my nightmares your silent birds
dripping with burning pain, 
and tempered my emotions.
Our relationship has been a metaphysical one, at least.
But this definition is pointless
like a mountain perspective overlooking human events.

Pointless?  I don't think so.  As for the "mountain perspective", that's definitely not pointless. In Ko-World, static things such as locations are anything but, and the depth of their importance cannot be understated. In "Camera in the Park" when he muses on What happens inside it, on the other side of the lens? We get the point-of-view of the landscape: ...the landscapes that long for light and motion, stir quietly as summer. The landscape appears again as an active participant in a poem that bears its name:

The landscape at times lets a bird fly away, 
shedding blood drops among the foliage,
or lets a calf moo plaintively on a hill.
With its gentle breath
it sends away bright blossoms
and calls in honeybees and birds,
or gently guides sea-bound sailors to their endless voyage.
The landscape attracts things and creatures
with the irresistible force of its gravity,
and absorbs into its essence
laughter or glance, flame or flower.
This is just as sounds gravitate into silence.
The landscape quietly breathes, submerged in the sky.
As if pulled by some force beyond the horizon,
a strange bird draws an inexplicable parabola in the air.

Finally, a landscape melts inside me:
a commonplace and simple landscape;
A childhood landscape with a tree and a rock,
where I desperately called a name,
gradually melts away inside me.

All my life, jaunts into the countryside have been tedious events. With the above poem, Chang Soo Ko has put an end to that. The next time a rural landscape permits me to set foot in it, I'll be a trifle uneasy, but certainly not bored.

Ko can be weird and intense, but he also does weird and cute well, as is evidenced in "Ocean-liner":

Slowly the ocean-liner
Moves in dreamy motion
As if an island were shifting gournd,
Weary of its fixed gravity.

Like a baby whale coming for milk,
The pilot boat comes near,
Snuggles the ship for a while
And then reluctantly moves away,
Leaving the island on the sea.

A little hurt despite its elegance,
The ocean liner struggles over the boundary
Between affection and disowning
And gradually travels into memory.

Sometimes he explodes into fun and rolls around in language like a kid in a big pile of raked leaves ("Joke About Culture"):

Our culture in its broadest sense largely determines:
Whether we practice monogamy, polygamy, or hierogamy
Whether our madness is schizophrenia, spirit-posession or psychedelic
Whether we love monologue, dialogue, or paradox
Whether our viewpoint is bird's-eye-view, fish-eye-view or simply belle-vue
...Whether we consider nature a friend, a foe, or a dump...
Whether our life is dominated by by-laws, in-laws or outlaws.

Then there are his creature poems, in which Ko mimics perfectly the style of movement of subject of the poem. Of course both poems somehow manage to be about the poet/reader relationship. How does he do it? But of course, most great artists have a single theme and they attack it repeatedly in a range of variations.

"What the Spider Said" is divided into seventeen sections (Why seventeen? It's driving me crazy.That can't be arbitrary.). Here are my two favorites:

I seem to grasp the real motives of
The mountain-climbers.

I arrange and rearrange reality
In my fool-proof webs,
Making everything visible from my perspective.
Look, with what authority I order and command
The elements to conform to my grammar!

And a very different creature ("A Cat's Landscape"):

When the cat walks away,
the landscape quivers a little.

Those are my favorite lines, but the whole poem is neat, the way it alternately stalks and undulates.

There's no way I can do justice to the poems of Chang Soo Ko, but I've given it my best shot. I'm a little humbled and freaked-out that I wasn't aware of his work for the whole decade I've been here in Korea, but his poems found me now that I'm within a hairsbreadth of  leaving...forever? Once I step on the plane, the process of this 'landscape gradually melting away inside me' will begin.

I suppose there will be some sort of send-off for me, a leaving party to mark the occasion. Although no one gave it to me and the book is not mine to keep, Between Sound and Silence feels like my going-away gift:

Hey Susan, 

Here's some poems. 

Love Always, 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

What A Strange Non-Reading Week It's Been

He can't read. If he could, page-turning would be a challenge.

Color me crabby. After my terrific reading streak, I went into a slump, and I haven't been able to settle into a book since last Wednesday. The most I've done is dip into a couple of re-reads, skimming and skipping at will.

Here's what I've been doing with my time:

  • Packing
  • Going to the post office
  • Trying to figure out what is deserving of international postage
  • Trying to interest people in my stuff
  • Watching old episodes of Family on YouTube
  • Making stacks of books
  • Eating bungeoppang
  • Working on the Nano project
  • Doing conversation tutoring on Wednesdays

Although my life is full, I still feel the need. The need for read! 

Age 2. I couldn't read yet.