Monthly Archives: August 2012

Reading On Muni: An Instructive Guide

Since I started my internship, I’ve been commuting from 24th and Mission to Berkeley via BART three days a week. In my student days, I cherished my daily commute on public transit as my personal reading time—even if I didn’t make any other time to read in a given week, I could still usually finish a book or two. This was not the case when I lived in Japan, where I had to drive up to an hour one way. I listened to a LOT of Savage Love and Sex with Emily in those days, and lamented the loss of my daily reading time. I was a bit worried about transitioning back to a car-free lifestyle, but so far I’m loving the exercise involved in walking between stops and the extra time I get to read—I’ve finished 3 books just in the past week, and made good progress on another.

(Another side effect of the internship? In Japanese schools, all the students and teachers take 15 minutes every day to pick up brooms and dustpans and clean up the school, and every time I swept my kitchen floor at home I would think “Man, I wish I had a team of junior high school kids to do this right now.” Now I find myself wishing I had a team of interns to post to social media with proper tags and trackable links every time I make a new post here. But I digress.)

If you regularly read on public transit, you’ve probably noticed a few things by now, namely:

  • You tend to choose books that will fit nicely into your purse or bag, and you have to time things just right so you don’t end up stranded without reading material or have to waste precious space on TWO books. (Of course, these concerns don’t apply if you have a well-stocked e-reader, but if you’re taking MUNI chances are you don’t have the $$$ for that. I do see plenty of iPads on BART, though.)
  • To the devoted commute reader, MUNI’s dismal on-time record is both a blessing and a curse. You’ll pray for the ride to last longer so you can keep reading, and that delay might give you just enough time to find out what happens in the next chapter, but it’ll also make you late for work. (Over months or years, though, those extra minutes probably add up to a lot of extra reading time!)
  • People will occasionally comment on what you’re reading, and this can be wonderful (have a nice chat with someone who shares your literary taste! Maybe they’re even an attractive member of the opposite sex!) or awful (creepy hipster won’t stop badgering you to summarize The United States of Arugula for him, despite having no interest in the culinary arts and claiming to have no idea what arugula is!*)

So, keeping these things in mind, here are my tips for reading on MUNI:

  • Be nosy; take a few minutes to glance around at what everyone else is reading. I’ve discovered some great books this way! But for God’s sake, don’t be weird about it, okay?! I know you, dear readers, would never be this guy, but if you’re reading something salacious or controversial and want to protect yourself against the crazy bum who takes a look at your bell hooks and screams “Feminist theory?! The white man needs some hoes! That’s my fuckin’ feminist theory!”*, you can cover your book in paper, or just hold it in your lap (assuming you get a seat). Perfect for erotica!
  • Leave War and Peace at home! Something you can hold in one hand while you grip the rail with the other for balance is ideal. If you don’t have an e-reader, slim paperbacks are easy to handle and tuck nicely into an outside pocket. If you’re almost done with a book and have a long commute, leave it at home and bring along something fresh. You don’t want to get stuck waiting for the 38 without anything to read.
  • This probably depends on your personal taste, but I’ve found that certain genres are a lot easier for me to read on a bus than others. My favorite at the moment is spiritual travel memoirs (à la Lessons from the Monk I Married, which I read last week—it made for a very peaceful commute no matter who was screaming all over the place!), followed by really engrossing fiction. I’ve been trying to get through Imperial San Francisco, which is a great non-fiction book, but I just do not have the concentration required to read it on public transit.
  • Maybe I am just getting old or something but I have been having some serious bouts of motion sickness on public transit lately. Cold fizzy drinks help, forward-facing seats really help,  but if you’re taking the 24-Divisadero, I dunno, maybe just give up and listen to your iPod or something.

Happy reading!

*true stories

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SF Reads: Monstress

Cover of Lysley Tenorio's "Monstress"

I finished reading this last week and got around to posting just in time—Monstress by Lysley Tenorio is the July/August pick for the San Francisco Public Library “On the Same Page” book club, and the library is holding author talks this Wednesday and Thursday evening at the Excelsior and Main libraries. Every single story in this collection was a joy (and a heartbreak) to read, but my favorites were Monstress, Superassassin, and Save the I-Hotel. In the title story, a Filipino woman dreams of being a romantic Hollywood heroine, but is forever consigned to playing the grotesque monsters of her lover’s B-horror films; she finally gets her big break, but at the cost of her relationship. I don’t like reading or hearing about the film industry (a neurotic holdover from my ill-fated stint in L.A.), but I thought this story really captured the sleaze and the pathos of Hollywood. In the final scene, years after her film’s release, the heroine sits anonymously in a theater where her campy film is being played for laughs, lost in her memories.

Superassassin is a darkly hilarious tale of a teenage boy obsessed with comics and supervillains, becoming a supervillain in his mind as a form of empowerment as his life spirals out of control. His plans to destroy schoolyard bullies and his mother’s boyfriends with his evil weapons technology are alternately funny, frightening, and sad, but always pitch-perfect. As a 透明外人, a possessor of a certain kind of invisibility myself, I also appreciate the half-white main character’s thoughts when faced with a shop owner complaining about thieving Filipinos: “My mutant biology hides that part of me he would fear. Ollie continues complaining and accusing, unaware that a shape-shifter stands before him. I tell him I know exactly how he feels, that they really can’t be trusted, that they’re a dangerous and deadly breed, as my hand fingers its way to the mini-rack of candy bars at my side.”

They are probably going to take away my Asian American studies degree for admitting this, but when I saw the title of the story Save the I-Hotel in the table of contents, while my conscious mind thought “All right, a shout out to the Asian American movement in San Francisco!”, a small evil voice in my subconscious said “Geez, the I-Hotel again?” Don’t get me wrong—no matter how much time has passed, the fact of the injustice remains, and I understand the importance of preserving our history. On the other hand, I was shown the documentary The Fall of the I-Hotel at least five times in various classes and at a certain point it started to feel like the professors were just waxing nostalgic for their student activist days. I guess I was expecting something like the ham-handed dramatic production staged by my Fil Am Lit class, but Save the I-Hotel is the real thing—a deeply human history of the Filipino immigrants in America, and a surprising love story that’s rooted in brotherhood and made more poignant by the tragedy of injustice. Save the I-Hotel doesn’t depend on the plight of the manongs to tug at your heartstrings, though; that starts to happen long before the dramatic events of 1977, when the two main characters are young and full of hope.

San Francisco doesn’t appear in every story, but it’s rendered faithfully in the stories that are set there (The Brothers, Felix Starro, and most especially Save the I-Hotel, which tells the story of a part of San Francisco history that, while overexposed in Asian American studies classes, is little-known to almost anyone else). Monstress is full of the human, the tragicomic, the strange and the sad and the wonderful.

SFPL event information:

Excelsior branch
Wednesday, August 29, 7-8:30pm

Main library
Thursday, August 30, 6:30-8pm

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Link roundup: Feature edition

Time for another link roundup! A lot of these are pretty old, but worth seeing if you missed them the first time around; the last two in particular are pretty meaty and essential reading for any booklover.

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SF Reads: Valencia

Cover of Michelle Tea's "Valencia"

I have a confession to make: I was really prepared not to like Valencia. It’s not that I didn’t want to like it—it’s hip, sexy, artistic; it’s about a girl my age living in my district; it has a wonderful title that rolls off the tongue; what’s not to like? Plus, it’s a huge deal in San Francisco. But I’ve been burned before by books that describe themselves in the language that surrounds Valencia (punk-rock, stream-of-consciousness, edgy, rebellious). I’ve read many terrible, terrible novels that are just thinly-veiled accounts of the author’s own experimentation with sex, drugs, and alcohol, and after a while they all start to seem like the same novel, pretentious and repetitive and far too serious in their attempts to find something deeply philosophical about street drugs and sex in dirty bathrooms.

Let me tell you right now: this is not that novel. The content is the same—late nights, cheap alcohol, wanton sexual encounters—but Tea has two things going for her that differentiate her memoir from something like Candy (ugh). The first is a self-deprecating sense of humor. Throughout the book she pokes gentle fun at her and her friends’ political consciousness; during a sexual encounter with a knife-wielding lesbian, she muses, “I was really into processing the knife. Like, was I encouraging violence against women, was I ‘part of the problem,’ was she going to get frenzied and just stick the thing into my ribs?” She never takes herself too seriously, and thus avoids one of the major pitfalls of this kind of writing; quite the opposite, she’s frequently funny and refreshingly artless in the way she perceives the fast-paced, gritty world around her. The second thing working in her favor is simple, but oh-so-important: talent. Tea is not some hack relying on shock value to carry her work; despite her free and casual writing style, you can open the book to any page and find deft metaphors and skillful turns of phrase, not showy, just clear and illuminative.

I focus on what Valencia is not rather than what it is only because, by the book jacket description, it would be so easy to confuse it with all of the other easy-to-dismiss books about youth culture, and that would be a real shame. But it’s also a shame to frame such an original and vital piece of work as “not terrible like all those other books, no, really, I swear!”, so let me tell you what Valencia is. It’s Weetzie Bat meets On the Road; punk sensibilities and girl energy and sparkling, pretty details mixed with a joyful, manic hedonism. It may very well be, like Weetzie Bat or On the Road, one of those things you have to read at a certain developmental stage to enjoy—luckily, I’m just 25 and badly in need of some vicarious wild times. I thought I was totally over fast times and youthful memoirs, but it inspired in me a fangirl literary love that I didn’t know I still had it in me to feel. It’s San Francisco and the Mission District, totally, completely, down to the smallest detail; everything Tea writes in the early chapters about coming to the city for the first time resonates with me, although my experiences were much more tame. It’s often outrageous, and sometimes hilarious—among the many scenes that stick with me are the illicit “zine parties” Tea holds under cover of night at the anarchist labor union office where she used to work, and a great scene towards the end that has Tea and some friends participating in an artsy porno shoot: “Bernadette wanted us to do something with the tripod, which was difficult. All we could think of was to rub our crotches on its legs like a pack of humpy dogs, and that was not sexy. Plus, it was very lightweight and kept falling over.” It’s all this and many other things, so all I can say is read it—you won’t be disappointed.

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Bookmark Monday

Sakura and lotus bookmarks

Aloi over at Guiltless Reading started a Bookmark Monday meme recently. I’m terrible about bookmarks—I’m always using scraps of paper and receipts, and since getting an e-reader I’ve dispensed with them almost completely—but finally I have something to share! These were a gift from one of my favorite teachers I worked with in Japan. She brought them back from a trip with her family to the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, and I guess they (along with a few other goodies) were kind of my going-away gift from her and the school we worked at together (my very favorite—I miss the students every day). The sakura (cherry blossom) one is more typically Japanese, I guess, but I love the lotus one because it reminds me of the summer lotuses in Takada Park. So many fond memories.

Anyway, happy Monday! I’m starting an internship at a local publisher today, which is why I’m posting so early. I’m really looking forward to it… I have a lot to learn!

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Volunteering at the Friends of the SFPL Book Sale

Friends of the SFPL Steps book sale

The sale in full swing

This morning I volunteered at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library’s Steps book sale on the front steps of the main library. Volunteers arrive at 10am to help unload boxes of books off a truck (which they have to do quickly so the driver isn’t ticketed!), then set them out on tables. There’s no rhyme or reason to the order in which books are boxed or set out, and the collection runs the gamut—everything from ARCs (advance reader copies) and galleys from publishers to donated books to old or outdated library books. As soon as all the books are out of the boxes, people can start shopping, and another truck comes a little later with more books that are set out.

On a side note, I am really loving people-watching now that I’m back in San Francisco. The sale got busy really fast, and the customers were your usual Civic Center crowd, meaning just about every type you can imagine—hipsters, students, well-dressed older people, aging hippies, scruffy bums, families. Don’t get me wrong, people-watching in Japan as an outsider to the culture was interesting (especially in the cities, and especially from a fashion standpoint), but for sheer variety and a complete cross-section of every walk of life, you can’t beat San Francisco.

I didn’t really have high expectations for the book selection, but there was some great stuff—lots of ARCs for young adult fiction that isn’t out yet, a fair few classics, bestsellers from a few months or years back, even a few books in Japanese. All of the books are $1 each, but the best thing about volunteering is that you get to pick 5 free books!

Something Under the Bed Is Drooling, Running the Rift, The Diary of Anais Nin Vol. 4, Lessons from the Monk I Married, Anne of Windy Poplars


I’m especially excited about Running the Rift, which I’ve been wanting to read ever since I read about it in Shelf Awareness last year. But my to-read pile is getting out of control and it’s only going to get worse if I keep volunteering, so I think I’m going to take a “reading day” sometime this week and go to Dolores Park or a cafe and just spend the day reading.

Anyway, here’s the information on the sale if you’d like to check it out:

Friends of the SFPL Steps sales
Wednesdays through October, 11am-3pm
Main Library (100 Larkin St.)
For volunteer information click here

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Settling in, or How I stopped worrying and learned to love the Mission District

I moved into my new apartment on August 1, and I’ve been pretty busy since then—unpacking, setting up accounts, exploring my new neighborhood, and just generally getting settled. I’m finding that the reverse culture shock of returning from Japan after two years is a lot stronger than it was when I came home for a visit after my first year—nothing insurmountable, but certainly a strange thing to feel when returning to the city I’ve missed for so long. My new place is right between the Mission and Bernal Heights, and on Thursday I walked up Mission to 18th and then came back down Valencia, passing by 826 Valencia and making a quick stop to browse at Dog Eared Books. It was too hot for the jeans and light jacket I was wearing, and I felt weird seeing the contrast between hipsters eating lunch on the patio at Rosamunde Sausage Grill and the long blocks of dingy discount stores. I was intimidated by the hip, well-stocked bookstore after two years of Toda Books, Amazon, and the JET midyear seminar book swap, and my feet hurt by the time I got home. To be honest, by the end of the day I was mentally composing a confessional blog entry about feeling wrong-footed in my own city. I thought longingly first of the foggy Sunset and Richmond districts on the other side of the hill, then of driving my mini-SUV through the snow-covered Niigata rice fields. I always felt like a self-sufficient badass doing that, even though the commute was a pain, and now I felt like a little country mouse trying to figure out Clipper cards (which didn’t exist when I left the city two and a half years ago).

So what changed? Well, on the way home from an internship interview this morning (which went well, by the way), I accidentally stumbled across the Mission branch library.

The Mission branch library

The reading room at the Mission Branch. Sorry for the crappy cell phone photo!

I popped in to renew my library card, and then went upstairs to the stacks. Suddenly being a country mouse was an advantage—I got to experience the awe of entering a real, healthy library as if for the first time. I also felt at home instantly. It’s dorky and cliche, but true—libraries are a tonic to book nerd types, a way to feel safe and reassured in the face of almost any trouble. I never met an SFPL branch I didn’t like (not so for LAPL, although their main branch is lovely), but the Mission branch is particularly nice.

Bulletin board at the Mission Branch library

The events bulletin board.

Just as exciting was the bulletin board, which was filled with colorful flyers and announcements for all kinds of events. I’ve been digging through the library events pages quite a bit lately (research!), but there were still quite a few that I hadn’t heard about—for example the Mission branch book club (the current selection is Tales of the City), or a workshop on Pinterest at the Bernal Heights branch.

I didn’t stay long—just enough to pick up two books.

"Valencia" and "The Waters & The Wild"


I’ve wanted to read Valencia for a while now, for so many reasons. Author Michelle Tea is one of the main movers and shakers of the San Francisco literary scene, and the book has a fantastic title and sounds so wild and punk rock and fun and will, I imagine, give me even more reasons to love my new neighborhood. As for the Francesca Lia Block, what can I say. I haven’t liked what she’s put out for at least the past six years, but old habits die hard. (I was actually looking for Pink Smog: Becoming Weetzie Bat, which I long and dread to read in equal measure—what if it’s awful?!—but this will do.)

Anyway, even though I drove down Park Presidio in the fog yesterday and felt the little pangs that you feel only when you truly come home, I’m back to loving my new neighborhood and the heady high I get from sitting in my wonderful bedroom looking out the window at Sutro Tower and the houses winding up and down the hills. I’ll explore Bernal Heights and try all the taquerias and read Valencia. I will even smile and pretend to agree when people cite the warm and sunny weather as a positive (although seriously folks, it’s called Fog City for a reason). And as I jokingly-but-not-really told people in Japan, after moving to the other side of the world and back, living on the other side of the hill is the next great adventure.

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