Feb. 19, 2013

Dinner Out

by Christopher Howell

We went to either the Canton Grill
or the Chinese Village, both of them
on Eighty-second among the car lots
and discount stores and small nests
of people waiting hopelessly
for the bus. I preferred the Canton
for its black and bright red sign
with the dragon leaping out of it
and sneezing little pillows of smoke.
And inside, the beautiful green
half-shell booths, glittery brass encrusted
lamps swinging above them.

What would I have?
Sweet and sour?
Chow mein with little wagon wheel- shaped
slices of okra and those crinkly noodles
my father called deep fried worms?
Fried rice?

Among such succulence, what did it matter?
We could eat 'til we were glad and full, the whole
family sighing with the pleasure of it.
And then the tea
All of this for about six bucks, total,
my father, for that once-in-a-while, feeling
flush in the glow of our happy faces
and asking me, "How you doing, son?"

Fine, Dad. Great, really, in the light
of that place, almost tasting
the salt and bean paste and molasses, nearly
hearing the sound of the car door
opening before we climbed in together
and drove and drove,
though we hadn't far to go.

"Dinner Out" by Christopher Howell, from Light's Ladder. © University of Washington Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Jonathan Lethem (books by this author), born in New York City (1964). He was raised in Brooklyn by idealistic, radical parents who constantly invited people into their home and had intellectual discussions morning and night. His mother was an activist and his father an avant-garde painter. He went off to Bennington College in Vermont, and he said: "My experience there was overwhelming, mostly having to do with a collision with the realities of class — my parents' bohemian milieu had kept me from understanding, even a little, that we were poor [...] It's an endlessly fascinating subject for me — the oddity of being raised in a hipster fog where intellectualism and cultural access obscured poverty so completely it became a kind of privilege."

So he dropped out and hitchhiked to the West Coast, where he worked in bookstores and started to write. He published short stories and a couple of novels, then moved back to New York and wrote his first big success, Motherless Brooklyn (1999), about a detective named Lionel Essrog with Tourette's syndrome. Then he drew from his own experience growing up in a Bohemian household in a racially diverse neighborhood of Brooklyn, and he endowed his main characters with superhero powers, and he published the novel The Fortress of Solitude (2003), another best-seller.

It's the birthday of Carson McCullers (books by this author), born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia (1917). At the age of 17, she moved to New York City. She was an accomplished classical pianist, and she planned to study at Juilliard, but she somehow lost her tuition money — she told contradictory stories, sometimes that she forgot it on the subway, other times that an acquaintance had taken it. In any case, her dreams of a career in music never materialized. She started writing and publishing short stories. She got married, moved to North Carolina, and worked on a novel, which was published when she was just 23 years old: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). It was a best-seller and she became a literary celebrity.

But her health and marriage were deteriorating. She had had various health problems since she was a child, and she and her husband drank constantly and fought often. Beginning when she was 24, she had a series of strokes — the first one left her partially paralyzed — and over the years she had serious bouts of strep throat and the flu, lung problems, a nervous breakdown, and breast cancer. She and her husband got divorced, then remarried; but in 1953, her husband asked her to take part in a double suicide with him, and she refused but he killed himself anyway.

Through it all, she kept writing short stories, plays, and novels. Her books include Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), The Member of the Wedding (1946), and The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951).

It's the birthday of Amy Tan (books by this author), born to Chinese immigrant parents in Oakland, California (1952). Her mother hoped she would become a concert pianist or a doctor, but instead she became a writer. She began her career by writing business manuals and speeches for executives, and she felt pressured to write under an American-sounding pseudonym, so she chose May Brown — she rearranged Amy to get May, and Brown is a synonym of Tan.

But she had turned into a workaholic, and she realized that she needed a creative balance in her life, so she started jazz piano and also writing fiction. Quickly she got an advance to pen a book of short stories, which Tan wrote in about four months. Those stories worked together like a novel, and the book was published as The Joy Luck Club (1989). She's gone on to write more best-sellers such as The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001) and Saving Fish from Drowning (2005).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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