In with the New, In with the Old: New California Writing 2013, Part I

Of all the many ways to read the eclectic, surprising, affirming and resonating pieces in New California Writing 2013, I fell into the perhaps easiest and undisciplined, picking and choosing from those I hadn't already read elsewhere over the past year, then starting over from the back of the collection. Fiction, nonfiction and poems from some of the best journals as chosen by the publisher, Heyday, and its editor, Gayle Wattawa, I am stopping this morning before I'm even done reading to take the measure of what's there so far. Boy, you think you know what's up, and then this volume in the series arrives to reliably tell you the difference between knew and new.  


So, yes, I'd already some of the obvious, strong, necessary choices: excerpts from some books I've even written about here ('cuz I've got good taste, too!), including Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic, Ismet Prcic's Shards and Dana Johnson's Elsewhere, California. And I was more than happily familiar with my editor's nonfiction instant classic, Taco, USA. He's a food, culture and politics writer named Gustavo “Ask a Mexican” Arellano.

Starting from the back of the book introduced me to Jodi Angel, whose visceral, tough-

gal prose speaks to futility of grief and its dark limits. Her “A Good Deuce,” which appeared in Tin House, has caused me to just now order a copy of her collection, The History of Vegas. I am in love with the long, elegant sentence which, if you will indulge me the So Cal metaphor, is like dropping in on a wave and riding the rail, possibly falling off except not, and beating your way out the other side on the energy and force of sheer expectation.

“Let's roll,” Phillip said, and he dropped the stick on the tree to drive, and when we pulled away from the curb, the wheels caught the wet leaves in the gutter and we spun in place for a minute, the back end trying to fishtail, and then the tires gripped the street and we put the neighborhood behind us, and in twenty minutes we put the town behind us, and if Phillip kept the car pointed east, we could put the state behind us, too, but east kept bending north, and then we finally turned west and the thought of escaping faded from a spark to an ash.

Because, friends, that is one big damn beautiful sentence. And, as an aside, can I confess that one pleasure of writing this blog (thanks for reading) is that because Editor Arellano lets me write whatever I want, I can share an excerpt as above, which was just plain extreme fun to type? And to pretend that I had written myself. And then read again?

And that's just the first story, by which of course I mean the last one in the book. There follows (precedes) a poem by one Mark Cox, “Palm Springs,” which begins, “Imploding casket of leisure and skin cancer/Bobsled of vanity, autopsy table/Of the dead marriage and midlife crisis—”

Just sayin!

Next, one of two entries culled from the amazing record of publishing over at the website and reading series Zócalo, this one by pal Michael Jaime-Becerra, a meditational personal essay about his visit to a local attraction, Pio Pico State Historic Park, this piece a kind of autopsy too. “Losing Don Pio's Place” is an appreciation and a lament, not to mention a history lesson on the life of the Californio governor who means so much and ended up with so little, his once iconic rancho now struggling with the budget cuts as history succumbs to greed once again.

Elizabeth C. Creely's “Daire Nua: The New Oak Grove” inspired the photograph of the California Live Oak above, and back bay, here. As Jaime-Becerra's essay, this is an ambitious and carefully, self-consciously constructed argument. Much longer, and even closer to home as it includes a moment of memory-making at the Newport Beach “Back Bay.” Or just a moment? “False memory may shape you, just as surely as the geography of the place you live in shapes you.” Creely tries to reconcile with the past, once covered in groves of oaks.

And how could you not stop to read “In the Long Run: How the Battle of the Sexes Changed Portola Junior High School,” by Kevin Hearle? He's a local, obviously, who turns out to have had his worldview changed by a little girl who could run a whole lot faster than the boys. Her name was, yup, Mary Decker, and the change her pre-championship junior high victory brought to the politics of gender and sport back then makes the personal, as they say, way political. And, if you are keeping track, this is the third of many writers in the collection to whom I have been introduced for the first time. Hearle is a poet, with a collection called Each Thing We Know Is Changed Because We Know It, which seems just right to me after reading this essay.

I've got maybe 150 pages still to read. So more New California next week, just because I am having so much fun.

New California Writing 2013, Gayle Wattawa and Kirk Glaser, eds., Heyday, 353 pgs., $16.95

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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