Wednesday, November 09, 2005

reading the reading

I've lived in New York since 1998 but have never stopped being amazed by what you can see through windows. It reminds me of having a dollhouse, split open so you see Father in the living room with the bookshelf wallpaper and Mother in the bath and Sister and Brother playing hide and seek (he's on top of the refrigerator). Right now, I am watching the woman directly across the courtyard pour two glasses of red wine and pull up her bra strap and then she disappears from view. Two floors down, there's a black cat standing above the air conditioning unit, standing so still that if I hadn't already seen his ears twitch I'd wonder if he'd been taxidermied.

Last night Suzie invited me to join her at Cooper Union’s Great Hall for the PEN American Center’s second State of Emergency reading, in support of their efforts to end torture and arbitrary detention. Readers included Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, Dave Eggers, Heidi Julavits, Walter Mosley, Rick Moody, Edward Albee, Don DeLillo, Philip Gourevitch, Sandra Cisneros. Each of them took the stage long enough to read a poem or excerpt from a story or essay about torture and I spent most of that time with one hand on my forehead, eyes closed, trying to block out the descriptions of pain. What I will remember about last night, above all the details of excrutiating loss, is what they looked like, these writers, and not what their voices said but what they sounded like and the way they walked across the stage.

I have read books by all of them and it is impossible to remember them without also remembering myself at those times, my own life --

The House on Mango Street was on my ninth grade summer reading list and we went on a family trip somewhere and I was sprawled out in the back of our old green minivan, marveling at what a good choice it was because the chapters were so short.

In the winter of 2002, I lived alone on 15th Street and 7th Avenue, in a fifth-floor walk-up, and I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius leaning back against my wooden headboard, my feet balanced on the radiator, and I kept putting the book down to call Lauren in D.C. and say, "Listen to this part..." while I darted into the cold kitchen for halved walnuts.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was assigned in a playwriting class my freshman year of college, when I lived in a dorm on University Place, and I took it with me to the cafeteria in the basement and ate yogurt with granola and honey and thought as I read it, This is the sort of homework I've been waiting my whole life for.

And it was in my childhood bedroom in Nashville that I read The Ice Storm and Purple America and Garden State, and where I flipped to the book jacket photograph of Rick Moody and wondered what it would be like if we met and was he too old for me and what if he was already in love with someone else?

Last night, Rick Moody wore black Converse sneakers and a tiny porkpie hat and he slumped over the podium while he read part of a story about Americans in Italy, being served a girl on a plate for dinner. "It is a siren," their host says. "This fish is a great delicacy."
"But it's not a fish!" the American woman squawks.
After much protracted argument, the Italians agree to bury the "siren" in the garden.
It was a relief for him to break the seriousness of multiple readings about smashed kneecaps and dislocated shoulders with some humor. He was a good reader, he didn't stumble and he used different voices for the characters, the way my father used to do when he read aloud to me and my sister before we went to sleep.

Dave Eggers drank a Diet Coke.
Walter Mosley wore reading glasses with plastic purple frames.
The actress Lili Taylor sat three rows ahead of us and everytime I saw her, I thought about Say Anything -- the scene where John Cusack is standing in the dark with a boombox held above his head, and Ione Skye is alone in her bedroom, between the sheets, knowing that Peter Gabriel's words are being played only so that she will hear them.


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