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Looking for Mrs. Madrigal

I have only started to read the Tales of the City series, which famously describes a skein of characters, native and transplanted, to which Armistead Maupin thoroughly lays claim as an author. The dynamics of his tales and his uniquely etched characters truly up live to an Oscar Wilde’s saying that Maupin himself quotes at the beginning of the book: “It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world.” What amazes me even more is that the main setting of the series is actually in my own neighborhood. Macondray Lane is a small pedestrian lane on the south-eastern side of Russian Hill in San Francisco. A wooded enclave in the heart of the city, and very inconspicuous, it was recast by Armistead Maupin as Barbary Lane. I just had the pleasure to visit this wonderful literary landmark (not known to tourists).

The entrance of Macondray Lane is on taylor Street between Green and Union, up the scaffold of wooden stairs.

At the top of the wooden steps I was able to grace the cobble stone and the lane opened up to have historic buildings on both sides. This is a mythical place, one of those places that make San Francisco the most wonderful place to live. As to Mrs. Madrigal’s house, I cannot really find it since there is no Number 28.

What a beautiful, romantic, out-of-the-way place! While I wouldn’t suggest going too far out of the way for this place, but if you like Tales of the City, you would love what Macondray Lane has to offer. I enjoy the tiny pool and the bench where I can sit and read, and enjoy the quietness.

Warm Furlough Day

Where would I be on a warm furlough day? Bookstore. Just get lost in it, browsing with insouciance, pulling random books whose spines speak to me. After a full morning of reading For Whom the Bell Tolls, I agree Hemingway’s style is strong and detailed, but with so little happening over so many pages, I found myself becoming impatient with the story. Perhaps just a sign of the times and my own personal taste, I put the book down after reading only half of it today. Off I went to Dog Eared Books to see what might catch my attention. On an unseasonably warm day, foot traffic is sparse, let alone the money-spending crowd.

Dog Eared is one of my favorites in town. It’s right in the middle of Mission/Valencia, where good food and delicious coffee are to be had. It’s the perfect place to be stranded in. I was looking a copy of Somerset Maugham’s The Writer’s Notebook, but to no avail. On the tables nearest to the cashier are heavily discounted new books, including selected NYRB titles. Last time I got Evelyn Waugh and John Williams books at heavy discount. Today upon careful probing I have discovered two new authors whom I have never heard of: The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt and A Meaningful Life by L.J. Davis. The former concerns a black family that decides to cross the color line in order to claim their share of the American dream around the turn of 20th century. The latter reads like a comedy of a city dweller’s effort to will himself a meaningful life by purchasing and renovating a collapsing ruin. Two promising books that will accompany me to Asia.

Author in the House

Crouching tiger, hidden dragon among us. Neither does she bare her teeth like a tiger nor is she bestowed with power a dragon in Chinese mythology. She is Ruthanne Lum McCunn, author of God of Luck, a novel about coolie trade in Peru, which was gifted to me by the author herself. Speaking fluent Cantonese with perfect tones (each Cantonese sound has 9 tones that in many cases distinguish the meanings of characters), Ruthanne puts many of us in shame, as we Chinese manage only with some sort of pidgin English with smatterings of Chinese words. For a long time she’s known as the American lady who speaks perfect Chinese and with whom we exchange stories of growing up in Hong Kong. Often a lighthearted question would lead to a very facetious reply. She’s totally amiable and kind. In fragments of conversations over months Ruthanne let on more biographical information than I can imagine.

Ruthanne Lum McCunn is an Eurasian of Chinese and Scottish descent. Born in 1946 in San Francisco’s Chinatown, she grew up in Hong Kong, where she was educated first in Chinese and then British schools. In 1962 she returned to the U.S. to attend college. Her grandmother was Chinese, thus the linguistic and cultural root planted in her. I cherished talking with her, and listening to her reflections on Hong Kong before my time. If you just listen to her talk alone, you would never realize she’s Eurasian. She talks like locals, using colloquial expressions and slang. It’s just wonderful to discover a published author among the coffee shop clientele—who speaks your native language! Is there a better way to start the new year with an autographed book from the author herself?

Valencia – Dog Eared Books

Like yesterday, I took a break from reading The Sound and the Fury and had a walk. I finished Part III of the book (one more to go), which is the easiest installment because the narrative is actually linear. I could have continued the novel but decided to let what I have read thus far gravitate. Off I went to Valencia/Mission where a friend operates a collective boutique on 18th, The Mission Statement. On the way to her shop I stopped by a bookstore I should have shopped more often, Dog Eared Books.

What I like the most about this independent/neighborhood bookstore is their dedicated NYRB classics section. Dog Eared carries both used and new books, and has a very good children’s books selection. Today some of the new NYRB classic titles are marked down to $7.98, and almost all of the new Evelyn Waugh books are $4.98 each.

After much deliberation, the haul contained a variety of titles that are both intent purchases and impulse buys: The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams (I was looking for Watership Down), Love, Etc by Julian Barnes (have never read him but since he recently won the Booker Prize, okay), The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (guilty for not having read this), Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (brand new for third of original price), and Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (a brand new copy but priced as a an used book). The biggest satisfaction (other than the books) is that I support local and indie businesses.

The Master and Margarita: Translations

Taking a break from the dense The Sound and the Fury, I took a walk around the neighborhood. The window of the picture frame shop has this poster of Behemoth the Cat matted in a frame. The print is exactly the same as my t-shirt. It was a prop but the owner let me have it for $20. Now I just have to find the original Signet edition of The Master and Margarita with this cover.

Although I did not find exactly what I wished for, but luck is definitely on my side today. A short walk from the frame shop is Aardvark Books, where the residence orange tabby, Owen, who once out of either boredom or insecurity assaulted me. Today he was oblivious of the activities in the store, for he slept right at the window, soaking up the winter sun. Despite his skittishness, Owen is a cutie. I have to give him credit that some people go into Aardvark because of him.


Among the few copies of The Master and Margarita—Mirra Ginsburg (1967), Burgin & O’Connor (1995), and Pevear & Volokhonsky (1997), I found a copy of Hugh Aplin (2008). This new translation, published by Oneworld Classics, is based on the recently restored, unexpurgated edition, which benefits from over three decades of Bulgakov scholarship. My next reading of the novel would be Aplin translation. The new copy is available online for £8.99 but I bought it at ta bargain of $9. So the search for the Signet edition, translated by Michael Glenny, goes on; but up to this point, I still think Burgin & O’Connor is better, and more carefully done. The standard by which I compare different translations is a passage, a rather awkward one, the demons Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth the Cat, have just escorted the eponymous couple downstairs and are loading them into a car chauffeured by a magical rook (a crow?).

Having returned Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her and asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella exchanged smacking kisses with Margarita, the cat kissed her hand, everyone waved to the master, who collapsed lifelessly and motionlessly in the corner of the seat, waved to the rook, and at once melted into air, considering it unnecessary to take the trouble of climbing the stairs. (Pevear & Volokhonsky translation)

This particular passage made a huge impression in me during the first read because I had to read this paragraph four or five times before I figured out that it was not the master who “waved to the rook, and at once melted into air,”, but rather “everyone” in their company: Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth. From the context and logic, it’s the demons, and not the master, who have demonstrated magical powers. The translators shall have no excuse to confuse the readers, when the muddle can be avoided through taking a little more care with pronouns. Burgin & O’Connor resolve the pronoun issue but the paragraph still feels cluttered:

After returning Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said good-bye to her, asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella enthusiastically smothered Margarita with kisses, the cat kissed her hand, the group waved to the Master, who, lifeless and inert, had sunk into the corner of his seat, then they waved to the rook and immediately melted into thin air, not considering it worth the trouble to climb back up the stairs. (Burgin & O’Connor translation)

As you can see, both Pevear & Volokhonsky and Burgin & O’Connor contrive to express a complicated series of actions in one sprawling but faithful sentence. While translator should try not to break down Bulgakov’s long sentences to preserve his original style, it’s more important not to sacrifice clarity. Now Alpin offers:

Having returned Woland’s present to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her, enquiring if she was comfortably seated; Hella gave her a smacking kiss and the cat pressed itself affectionately to her hand. With a wave to the master as he lowered himself awkwardly into his seat and a wave to the crow, the party vanished into thin air, without bothering to return indoors and walk up the staircase. The crow switched on the headlights and drove out of the courtyard past the man asleep at the entrance.

Alpin also resolves the pronoun issue, but the sentence is still somewhat cluttered. I do have expectation for this new translation, especially it’s coming out of the U. For new readers my advice is to shy away from Pevear & Volokhonsky and read Burgin & O’Connor.

City Lights

Wooden rocking chair at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. This chair, in the poetry room upstairs, is where I usually sit and read when I pay a visit. Students from a spring 2011 anthropology course at Berkeley digitally documented the cultural heritage of City Lights Bookstore to show the cultural and spatial relations between City Lights and Vesuvio Café. Click here to see the entire set of pictures.

Library Sale

The last day of the Friends of San Francisco Public Library book sale had a surprise for book lovers—Everything is $1 each. I wasn’t going ballistic, just keeping an eye on target authors, ones you recommend and ones with whom I fall in love.

Raise the Red Lantern Su Tong
The Painter of Shanghai Jennifer Cody Epstein
Latecomers Anita Brookner
A Shooting Star Wallace Stegner
Two Lives William Trevor
Force of Gravity R.S. Jones
Echo House Ward Just
Death in Summer William Trevor
A Mercy Toni Morrison

Books with the most copies seen: Da Vinci Code (several boxes), The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Plainsong, Tales of the City, and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Also abundant in supply but all of which are in poor condition is The Fountainhead, a book I actually want to read. I saw a couple copies of Crossing to Safety, but had no luck with The Spectator Bird. For a quick two-hour scour, I thought I did well with finding books popping up in my radar.

Cherry Blossoms, Yukio Mishima

The ebullience and conviviality of cherry blossom festival in Japantown takes a darkening tinge this year on the heels of the recent tragedy. In Japan, the flowers have long symbolized the fleeting nature of beauty and life. Japanese poets from early on took this as analogous to the ephemerality of life. The focus, besides cherry blossom viewing, is on relief effort, which is what have brought me to the community this weekend. Short window of the blossoms, made worse by gusty wind in the city that blows off the petals, is perceived with a new layer of meaning.

On top of the benefit booths, Tokyo-based Kinokuniya Bookstore also donates a percentage of the sales to relief effort. San Francisco store has a good selection of Japanese literature in English translation. Yukio Mishima (三島由紀夫 1925-1970) is the purpose of the visit. He is considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century, whose avant-garde work displayed a blending of modern and traditional aesthetics that broke cultural boundaries, with a focus on sexuality, death, and political change.

Although it is known that he visited gay bars in Japan, Mishima’s sexual orientation remains a matter of debate, as his widow wanted that part of his life downplayed after his death. However, several people have claimed to have had homosexual relationships with Mishima, including writer Jiro Fukushima, who published a revealing correspondence between himself and the famed novelist.

I’m interested in reading two of his most controversial novels, which are meant to be autobiographical. Forbidden Colors (禁色 Kinjiki) describes a marriage of a gay man to a young woman. The name kinjiki is a euphemism for homosexuality. The kanji 禁 means “forbidden” and 色 in this case means “erotic love”, although it can also mean “color” or “lust.” The word “kinjiki” also means colors which were forbidden to be worn by people of various ranks in the Japanese court. The title is pun-intended and has multiple meanings. Confessions of a Mask (仮面の告白 Kamen no Kokuhaku) is about a young man who, born with a less-than-ideal body in terms of physical fitness and robustness, struggles to keep his homosexuality to himself. It’s been recognized that Mishima had placed himself in the novel, cast himself as the protagonist.

A Weekend without Reading

Unlike most book bloggers, who participated in the read-a-thon this weekend, I hardly got any reading done. The only book-related activity I engaged in was purchasing a book at the store, and I have an interesting story to tell later. The annual Chinese tomb sweep day mandated a visit to pay tribute to ancestors at the cemetery. Between setting forth offerings in food and flowers, and burning paper money, the whole ceremony took all morning.

I spent Saturday roaming the new Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport. Originally the old international terminal, where I arrived from Asia 23 years ago, the dazzling new terminal that elevates air travel to a new level of comfort, relaxation, beauty and fun, and all with a commitment to sustainability, is the new home of American Airlines and Virgin America. Saturday’s open house gave airline junkies a sneak preview of the new gateway, with sustainable food vendors, two Peet’s Coffee (no Starbucks), sushi restaurants, frozen yogurt bars, organic cafe, as well as a Books Inc.

Entry lobby: Topograph (2011), by Kendall Buster, Richmond, VA. Powder coated steel tubing and greenhouse shade cloth Picture by Rick Weyrich.

SFO is really a museum. All terminals are graced with works of fine arts. The Airport and Arts Commission approved a plan that called for commissioning three large signature artworks for the Terminal 2’s glass façade, entry lobby mezzanine area and the post security recompose area. In addition, two interactive artworks would be commissioned for the children’s play areas.

Post-security recompose area: Every Beating Second (2011) by Janet Echelman, New York. Powder-coated steel, colored fiber, colored light, mechanized air flow, and computer programming. Picture by Rick Weyrich.

Now back to my bookstore story. I was looking for another Lambda gay fiction shortlist, Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. I sought the help of a savvy clerk after browsing the shelves to no avail. It turned out that another customer, a man in his (mid) 40s but with graying temple, was purchasing the very last copy of the book at the cash register. With a wryly grin he offered me one of the most famous pick-up line: “Would you like to read it together?” Maintaining a polite composure, I said, “I’ll wait. But thanks for the thoughtful offer.” It’s a good feeling to know other people are reading literature and that which becomes the ground of a flirtation.

The weekend turned out to be completely sans reading. I managed to almost finish True Enough by Stephen McCauley. Sitting on a bench in the sun, my reading invited approving eyes of women who walked by with grocery bags. “You’re almost done with the book! How wonderful! It must be a pleasant read.” Maybe the sight of a book nearing the end really is a fascination to many who hardly read from cover to cover. Do you think reading in the public encourages others to read?

Shhhhh: Silence is Golden

I enjoy going to the local library. My branch has a special LGBT collection that represents the neighborhood’s demographic and relevant. What used to be comfort and shared silence in an institution of knowledge is no more. Burst in shortly after the library opens is a bevy of SUVs strollers in which sit little human beings that make all kind of noises. The kids, some are toddlers, have barely developed speech, let alone the ability to read. With their nannies chasing after them, these kids roam around the library, screaming to the extent that the sound waves undulate across the building to reach the reading room. I understand the library’s need to integrate the interests of community and foster an atmosphere of an converging ground. The nursery rhyme session is going overboard because some of the behaviors (or the lack of discipline on the part of parents and nannies) breach the library’s code of conduct made known to generations of readers. Silence is golden. Silence is prerequisite to a pleasant library experience in an atmosphere conducive to study, reading and appropriate use of materials and services. I even refrain the use of cellphone within the library lest to breach the silence. Maybe the times are really changing that these values are no longer appreciated. I remember being told when I was a first grader that I should make every effort to preserve that enormous, almost staid, silence that prevailed the library as soon as I walked through the threshold. Gone is time when the purpose of library was primarily on books, as more patrons come to the library to use computers to access the internet (don’t get me started about racy and pornographic materials some of the users are accessing). I still believe that certain ground rules are timeless and therefore should be enforced regardless of the advent of time. How would kids know the proper manner to behave if they are not educated? On a few occasions I even sighted consumption of snacks on the premise. Library is not your living room.