Sunday, April 17, 2005

When authors read 

One of the assignments for the memoir-writing class I'm taking is that each student attend an author reading, and report back to the class about it. After weeks of finding nothing on bookstore event schedules that interested me, in this week I found four authors whose readings I wanted to attend. I've been to two so far; the other two readings are this afternoon and tomorrow evening.

On Thursday evening, I went out to Third Place Books, where Ruth Reichl was reading from her new book, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of A Critic in Disguise. I thoroughly enjoyed the first of Ms. Reichl's memoirs, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, in which she described the development of her appreciation for and understanding of food. In this new book, she writes about being the restaurant critic for the New York Times.

Yesterday, Pam Houston was at Queen Anne Books reading from her semi-autobiographical novel, Sight Hound. I fell in love with Pam Houston's writing several years ago, when my sister gave me a copy of her book of (also semi-autobiographical) short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness. The female narrators in Ms. Houston's short stories are tough, funny, and insecure; each of them loves, and inevitably loses, a man whose favorite song might well be Desperado. Her new book, her first novel, is the story of a woman and the dog that she loves and loses.

Both women wore black. (They are, after all, writers.) However, New York City black and California academician black are so different as to be almost unrecognizable as the same color. Ms. Reichl, in sleek black suit with crimson blouse, fully made-up, dark, wavy hair cascading artfully over her shoulders, looked ready for an evening out at an elegant restaurant. Ms. Houston could have been meeting a close friend at their neighborhood coffee house; her loose black pants and sweater over a printed t-shirt, funky red clogs, and clean-scrubbed face screamed West Coast intelligentsia, and fit right in with the QA Books crowd.

Ms. Reichl is a charming and engaging storyteller; her onstage persona is sparkling and witty. She read several passages from Garlic and Sapphires that described the disguises and associated alter-egos she created to avoid being recognized when dining at restaurants she intended to review. To put it bluntly, her writing is much better than her reading of it (at least on this occasion). When reading dialog, she takes on the voices of her characters. Speaking in a voice much different than one's own is a tricky thing, one that actors spend years practicing. Some in the audience were clearly amused by her breathy femme fatale reading of one of her characters; I found it overwrought and distracting. Ms. Reichl spent more time speaking extemporaneously about the stories in the book and answering audience questions than she did reading; this worked to her considerable strengths.

Ms. Houston's onstage persona is much like the voices of her characters: a little tough and matter of fact even when speaking of the most tender subjects, and peppered with subtle, often ironic, always intelligent humor. When she read from Sight Hound, she slipped into a different voice, a fluid, non-inflected, near monotone. I've heard other writers read in this sort of voice; it is, I'm guessing, an attempt to focus the listeners' attention on the words themselves, rather than on the person reading them. While it works for the first-person internal narrative that Ms. Houston read, it is deadly to dialog, the reading of which calls for the cadences of speech.

Why, you may wonder, am I dissecting the readings, rather than discussing the writing? I'm thinking about readings because the final project, as it were, for my memoir-writing class is to give a reading. The evening of May 31, the eighteen of us in the memoir class will be reading from our work at the University Bookstore in Seattle. We will each have about 5 minutes to read. This amount of time seems like a mere instant to some of us, and an eternity in hell to others. Having spent a lot of time on stage, I'm not particularly anxious. I am aware, however, that every type of performance is different, so I'm studying this particular form. I hate giving a bad performance.

And yes, I'll say a little something about the books, too. I think that Garlic and Sapphires will be a delightful read, especially for those who appreciate descriptions of meals so exquisite and nuanced that one can almost taste the food. This is a book for the head, and for the palate. I bought Sight Hound yesterday, and have begun reading it. Ms. Houston's use of several first-person narrators gives the reader close-up views of her dog's long battle with cancer, the vets who tried to save him, and the other people and animals who were part of their lives. This is a book for the heart. Be prepared to be very much aware of your own when you read it.