California dreaming

Writing away the writer's-block blues.


by Sandra Tsing Loh (Crown, $23)

University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400 7 p.m. Wed., May 30

IT AIN'T PROVENCE, it ain't Seattle—with "Microsoft billionaires inflating property values right through the roof"—and it sure as heck ain't Paradise, but Van Nuys is where 36-year-old Sandra, frustrated novelist, and her easygoing musician husband Ben live. Confidently riffing on Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence and ripping herself to shreds in the process of this 200-something page, crisis-ridden rant, Sandra Tsing Loh takes us into her head, the realm of the "Monkey Brain" and her manic, wanna-be personality whose low points involve a really expensive therapist, laser eye-bag surgery, and Koo Koo Roo chicken dinners with all the fixin's.

In chronicling a year in the life of a blocked writer, Loh isn't looking to compete with Mayle's idyll of French farmhouses and olive groves; she uses Van Nuys to contemplate just how much of a speck she is on the surface of the planet—and what an icky speck in an even ickier spot. Each chapter, a narrative that gushes forth in any number of directions (dieting, marriage, success, the Oscars, healthy vs. unhealthy thoughts, those eye bags, and writing), soon plunges into the random, self-deprecating territory of the stand-up comedian (Loh's also known for two one-woman shows, Aliens in America and Bad Sex with Bud Kemp). "The only appealing future involving me and my Eye Bags necessarily hinges on my winning a Nobel Prize of some kind. . . . I mean, the only other professions I can think of where Eye Bags are an actual asset or, at the very least, acceptable, are like President of the United States and, um, Vulcan crew member on the Starship Enterprise."

Punctuated with e-mails, memos, and hand-drawn charts, Loh has strung together not so much a linear story as a series of topics that really get her going and make her reach for a punch line. The whole book, in fact, feels like a series of comedy sketches pasted together: the freelance gig for the women's dot-com; watching her husband leave for five months to play sax on a cruise ship; appearing on a CNN political talk show; pitching a sitcom to FOX; and confronting a blocked-writers group. It's a visit to a state of mind that, like Loh's hometown, is hot, bothered, and ready to burst from its stagnation.

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