Two in Particular

April 26, 2010

Somehow more than a month slid past me, a pollen-hazy blur of work and fits-and-starts socializing and half-assed parenting, so the dear blog fell by the wayside. Is this how blogs go defunct? I won’t leave you to the Internet graveyard just yet, old blog, just because the novelty of clicking on a “Publish” button has lost its luster. And to have ended it all on a book I bashed and wouldn’t name?  That would have been shameful.

Too, I’ve read many fine books of late, in those drowsy late-night moments before oblivion. Two in particular stand out, similar only in that they’re each made up of brief, almost fleeting autobiographical snapshots that gradually accrete into an experience, a life.

Mark Salzman’s Iron & Silk chronicles his two years teaching English in China as a young man in the early 1980s, when Westerners were still uncommon and Socialism still the rule of the day. What makes this such a welcome departure from the expected fish-out-of-water tale is that Salzman speaks the language and studies wushu (martial arts), both of which open doors that would otherwise have been firmly closed to him. The novelty of not only encountering but actually being able to converse with a foreigner prompts many strangers to invite him to their homes, where he is alternately gawped at and warmly welcomed. It also leads him to various wushu masters, who offer him instruction and friendship. Originally published in 1986, it may be that it simply predated the fashion of narcissism plaguing so many memoirs, but there’s something so open-spirited and outward-gazing in his depictions of the experience, it makes me long to travel—and read more travelogues. Hence I picked up Bruce Chatwin again, but that’s for another post.

Kevin Sampsell’s A Common Pornography is made up of individually titled vignettes, some no more than half a page long, brief snatches of growing up outside of Portland in the 80s, evoking an excruciating adolescence and uncovering a horrible family secret in the wake of his father’s death. I reread a good bit of it on Vicadin following a back strain (my malady is informally known by the medical community as “mom back”), and that was the nearly perfect vibe for it, especially during passages of teenage postpunk excess. Though presented in this chunked-up format, the book has, strangely, the aftereffect of a fluid and continuous narrative, and I’m inspired to try it out in future blog posts to see if I can make them add up to anything at all.

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