Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Year in Van Nuys by Sandra Tsing Loh

According to my blogging buddy Elisabeth, celebrator of holidays big and small (especially small!), today is Read a Book Day. How fitting that I should post about my latest read today. (Okay, it's not exactly serendipitous timing! I actually finished the book a couple of days ago, but waited until today so as to coincide with Read a Book Day. Sue me!)

Sandra Tsing Loh is writer/performer/humorist/commentator who specializes in observational and self-deprecating humor. Half Chinese, half German, she reminded me a bit of Margaret Cho or perhaps more accurately, Margaret Cho Lite--but I say that with all due respect. Not just because of the Asian descent, but both are self-deprecating (with a tinge of self-loathing) concerned with body image and family dynamics.

Loh, however, is a bit more accessible--and a bit less scatological.I love Margaret Cho, but she's definitely not a mainstream act. Perhaps you have really cool parents that you could take to Cho concert or film and they'd be laughing uproariously right along side you. The thought of either of MY parents watching Margaret Cho with me makes me squeamish.

But enough about Margaret Cho, this is about Sandra Tsing Loh--who I could definitely see watching or listening to with my parents. This isn't to say Loh is some kind of bland, banal comic presence--but instead a sharply witty everywoman. Her book A Year in Van Nuys (the title a satirical reference to Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence--Van Nuys being so NOT Provence!) is a semi-autobiographical recounting of her existential mid-life crisis that starts off with a massive case of writer's block which leads to a session with poetic Malibu therapist, Ruth:

"I see you...." She narrows her eyes, continues to speak as through a dream. "I see you as a toad in a cave, looking out a hole, watching the world outside. But in fact you are looking into a pond, and the hole is a reflection, of something inside...what you think is the cave. Do you follow me?"
...I stare at her slack-jawed.
"Cave paintings," she insists, "Make peace with the cave paintings! Which they aren't really,of course, because it's not truly a cave." She shrugs, waves a turquoise-and-silver hand, dismissive. "It's just wallpaper."
From there, we ride the merry-go-round that is Loh's life--sibling rivalry with her thinner, richer sister Kaitlin, a disastrous short stint writing for a online magazine, the trauma of eye bags, in-law conversational logic and the dreaded family holiday--culminating with her "Scared Straight" guest of honor appearance at friend Jolene's "Right to Write" support group:
I ponder the female marketing executive's situation. The unexplained twenty-year break from writing, the hatred of solitude, the chronic revulsion felt when rereading her own pieces.
"There is another possibility." I hear myself saying.
"Yes?" She and the rest of the group lean in. There is a rustle of Ralph Lauren Leisurewear. Eight pairs of eyes look up at me.
I, the Great Blocked Novelist, give my pronouncement.
"Maybe you're just...not...a writer."
A gasp goes up--particularly from Jolene. She invited me to provide inspiration...
What follows is a scathingly funny rant on writers and writing that ends up unblocking our plucky neurotic heroine.

One would think that after spending Ten Days in the Hills that I would be loathe to spend A Year in Van Nuys, but although Sandra Tsing Loh's prose may not be Pulitzer-worthy in this book, it's an enjoyable read. Loh comes across as that smart, funny friend who can regale everyone with a hysterical story of grocery shopping at WholeFoods and have the whole party in peals of laughter.

Complete with pie charts, comparative tables, bullet-points and swingy hair...

I look forward to hanging out with her reading another one of her books in the future!


  1. I'll have to check it out! She's great on this American Life