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I, California A Memoir Stacey Grenrock Woods Scribner: 244 pp., $24

August 05, 2007|Judith Lewis | Judith Lewis is a staff writer for LA Weekly.

There's a lot to like about Stacey Grenrock Woods' memoirette, "I, California." In a fluid style and with a keen sense of timing, the author writes of growing up among "the original jewelry-in-the-garage-makers, ceramics-class-takers, the bread-dough-shellackers" of Sherman Oaks, of writing insipid fiction as a child (didn't we all?), of test-posing for Playboy as a "barely legal" teen. She even offers an insider's perspective on writing parody news for "The Daily Show."

But as I breezed through Woods' book, often reveling in her resonant details, a scene from Nick Hornby's "About a Boy" kept coming to mind. In it, the layabout bachelor-protagonist Will (Hugh Grant in the movie) asks friends John and Christine why on earth they consider him a suitable godfather for their child.

"We're always thought you had hidden depths," John replies.

"Ah," Will says, "but you see I haven't. I am this shallow."

Time and again as I turned Woods' pages, my heart welled with hope that one vignette, just one, would turn up something to mull or quote.

There's the imaginary Cockney nag who hounds her for her inadequacy: "Salman Rushdie works from ten-thirty to four every day. . . . And 'e 'as a fatwa, 'e does!" Explored a bit, this fragment might have yielded some wisdom about the self-doubt that plagues even the best writers.

Evocative scenes of a preteen and teen Woods studying ballet and reciting Shakespeare ("sometimes with a Southern accent") at a San Fernando Valley performing arts school offer glimmers of adolescent pathos she might have expanded into something thoughtful about young girls bent on fame at age 13.

Then there's her restaurant stint, when the Thai delivery man proposes marriage in an embarrassing broken-English letter. How wonderful it might have been to read one honest insight about this strange and loaded dynamic between immigrant men and middle-class American women. But we get none of that from Woods, who seems to think the delivery man's sad love letter is a mark of her unfailing desirability -- and who seems perfectly at ease with showing contempt.

"So, when did I get so mean?" Woods asks fairly late in the book, as she prepares to exploit an unsuspecting former Ukrainian pop singer, now a hotel busboy in Grand Rapids, Mich., for a "Daily Show" spot.

Prisoner of hope that I am, I half expected an answer. I yearned, in fact, in this era of "Borat" and Stephen Colbert, to read about how people who set up their subjects as fools cope with their trickery, even if it serves to expose hypocrisy -- which Woods, by the way, does not do here.

Instead, she merely serves up more stories about her bratty Valley-girl life, a personal history recounted cavalierly and without any of the hard thinking that makes such stories worth reading. Finally, after 200-some pages, I gave up looking for Woods' hidden depths. She really is that shallow.

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