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  • Catching Up: Santana, Taj Mahal and a déjà vu ‘Blue Christmas’

    Posted by Ben Fong-Torres

    By Ben Fong-Torres It’s short shrift time. I have a life that’s ripe (and slightly wrinkled) for blogs and tweeting; for facebooking and updating. I’m just no good at it. My last column here on AsianConnections was about the memorial in late July for my sister Shirley. My last posting on the authors’ site, Redroom, was about a radio promo tour I did (20 stops, all on the phone...

Steering Toward Rock; Rolling Toward Rats

Ben Fong-Torres

Ben blogs about blurbing a beauty of a book.

Happy New Year, for the second, if not the third time (Oshogatsu, anyone?). It's the Year of the Rat, supplanting the Boar and setting off a debate, in lunar calendar circles, about whether it's 4705 or 4706. Not exactly a Blu-Ray vs. HD DVD war, but a debate, nonetheless. Do let me know how it turns out, as I want to get the year right on my checks.

My Chinese New Year rituals including cleaning my house (that is, making sure our house cleaner is OK on Comet and Windex), paying our bills (that is, sending in some minimum payments), visiting family (which goes OK, until we get into that fierce argument about Blu-Ray or HD), and, of course, co-anchoring the New Year Parade on KTVU ("Fox 2" in the S.F. Bay Area).

It's my twelfth time, and, I think, the eight consecutive year with Julie Haener (and with Robert Handa on the streets below, interviewing dignitaries). Eight, of course, is an auspicious number, so it should be a good one, even with all those rats running around the parade route, from lower Market Street through Union Square (where we will be) and into Chinatown.

Speaking of Chinatown: I just got an advance look at Fae Myenne Ng's new novel, Steer Toward Rock. I got it because the publisher was hoping for a blurb. What's a "blurb?" Good question. In fact, I wrote a blog about it for this new Web site for authors and people who like books and writing. It's called RedRoom.com. Amy Tan 's on there with her first (and quite successful) attempt at blogging.

Here's what I submitted:

I just wrote a blurb. I've done it beforequite a few times, actuallybut this was the first since the grand opening of Redroom.com, so I thought Id share my experience.

As a (cough)er, person who's been lucky enough to get a few books published, I very much appreciate blurbsthose words of praise, usually from celeb-level authors, or just plain celebs, that appear on the back of the dustcover of a book. I hate having to ask for them, but ask I must. It's a tremendous imposition on people. Here you're asking them to find the time to read (or, more likely, skim over) a manuscript of yours, and, if they like it, to come up with a testimonial. As the kids say, OMG! What if they totally hate it?

But you've got to do it. Well, I had to. I struck gold with my memoirs, The Rice Room. I have no way of knowing whether they actually read the manuscriptor even finished my letter to them, but Grace Slick, Steve Martin, Amy Tan, Jann S. Wenner, Fae Myenne Ng , and Philip Kan Gotanda all came through. Slick wrote: "I am a 53 year-old Caucasian woman and I feel as if a 47 year-old Chinese man has just told my storythat of a generation of Americans." And Martin sentwhat else?a one-liner: "The Rice Room is a poignant examination of Ben's life. I couldn't put it downin fact, I'm still holding it."

Good stuff, yes. But it just adds to the pressure when you get a set of uncorrected proofs from a writer or a publisher, asking for just a few words, please.

Being a wild and busy kind of guy, I turn down probably half the requests, mainly for lack of time, and feel horrible. Ive not yet experienced the pain of reading through a book, deciding that I didn't like it, and having to pass on a blurbwhich would probably involve some transparent lie.

That day will come. But before it did, I got a bound galley of Steer Toward Rock , Fae Myenne Ng's first novel since Bone , in 1993. Yep: She'd blurbed my book in 1991, but, I swear, I'd forgotten that when I received her request. In fact, I forgot her request, which arrived in December, along with a lot of other mail. I set her package aside, and it was only in mid-January that I picked it up and leafed through it, only to discover, to my horror, that she'd included a personal letter. With beautiful calligraphy, even. "It's that old storyconfession + confusionall our fathers played the game, and with dignity." (Confession, as in the Chinese Confession Program for illegal immigrants.)

Turned out that her new book doesn't publish until May (from Hyperion), and that I had a couple of weeks to write the blurb, if I chose to. I wrote Fae, employing no calligraphy, to say that I might not get to it. A weekly radio show (which requires writing and producing) and a book (which, oddly enough, also requires writing) have taken over my calendar, leaving barely enough time for little side activities likeoh, life. But I picked up her proofs, bound in festive red, and read the first chapter. I was hooked. The voice, of a man who'd come to America under false pretenses decades before, who'd settled into the rough and tumble of San Francisco's Chinatown, and who'd lived, loved, lost, and still hoped to find, was achingly authentic. Right away, I thought of my father.

Like Steve Martin, I couldn't put it down. Instead, I put writing and editing chores aside for a day or two, lost myself in the story of a man with the purchased name of Jack Moon Szeto.

From the start, I knew I'd be writing a blurb, so I kept a pen nearby, to jot down notes and thoughts. The way Fae sculpted the writing voice of Jack Moon, a Chinatown butcher with romantic dreams and gritty realities, made me think of jazz. She was uncompromising with his speech. You couldn't understand him sometimes. Still, he got you with his descriptions of people, places, and situations. He could soar to poetry. Later on, loved ones would take their turns with the narrative, and you could sense the connections among them, even in the way they talked, and wrote.

This is killer writing. I continued to marvel, and to jot. Finally, I composed the following, and sent it to Fae, noting that (of course) its too long, and to feel free to use Jack Moon's cleaver on it:

Chinese immigration is an oft-told story. But Fae Myenne Ng isn't just telling a story here. She writes like a bebop jazzer, a Miles Davis trumpet solo, tough and trenchant; moody and poetic; erratic and explosive, with surprising lines leading to beauty and to truth. Steer Toward Rock draws you into a family and pulls you into Chinatown behind the glittery facades; beneath the gritty surfaces. Here's how the people there talk, work, fight, and love. I feel as though I've just read a future classic.

I also thanked Fae for a big surprise near the end of the book (don't worry; this is not a spoiler). I'm mentioned in a scene in the Buddha Bar, in reference to my book on Gram Parsons (Hickory Wind ) and my work at Rolling Stone and at a Chinatown paper, East-West .

What was that all about? And then I remembered that, some years ago, Fae had asked me to sign a couple of copies of Hickory Wind as gifts for family members or friends. I'd totally forgotten. (As you can tell, I forget a lot. Good thing I've already written my memoirs.)

But what a way to be reminded, in what will be one of the best books of 2008.

And if that ain't a blurb, then I ain't Uh, who am I, again?

RANDOM NOTES: Kim Wong Keltner has published her third novel. It's I Want Candy , from Avon, and it's all about Candace Ong, a 14 year-old whose family works in a restaurant, Egg Roll Wonderland, where she rolls, deep fries, and itches for a more adventurous life. And, boy, does she get it. This one is not for 14 year-olds. The hilarious Kims previous books are Buddha Baby and The Dim Sum of All Things Ed Jew the embattled San Francisco Supervisor who's been indicted on several alleged crimes, has given up his office, in exchange for the dropping of a couple of lesser charges. He continues to maintain his innocence. Check sfgate.com for the latest on his doingsand undoings I'm doing a half hour on the Chinese New Year on my radio show on KFRC (Sunday, February 17, streaming live at KFRC.com from 7 to 9 a.m. and p.m., Pacific time. A couple days later, it'll be archived under "On Demand" at the site). And, no, I am not playing "Ben" by Michael Jackson

Ben is happy to receive visitors to his home page, at www.benfongtorres.com