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Books

Annie Choi Survived the San Fernando Valley and She Now Has a Book to Show For It

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Fri, Sep 13, 2013 at 6:00 AM
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We all know that look.

You're at a bar, a barbecue or a bar mitzvah, and you and your new friend are getting along swimmingly. That is, until he drops a bomb.

"Oh...," you say, trying not to let your face betray your disgust. "You live in the Valley?"

Annie Choi knows that look. She lives in Brooklyn now, but she still feels ashamed when she has to admit that she grew up in a place best known for porn and tanning salons.

In her sophomore collection of essays, Shut up, You're Welcome: Thoughts on Life, Death and Other Inconveniences, some of Choi's funniest moments come in her warm, richly detailed tribute to the San Fernando Valley, written in the form of an open letter to the place.

For Choi, the Valley is "a charmless bland area of a flavorful city" featuring "convenience stores that are only convenient if you want to buy bottom-shelf vodka, chewing tobacco and a single lime." She catalogs and revels in the diversity and uncanny juxtapositions of strip malls: personal-injury lawyers, laser tag and Chinese buffets, oh my!

The book features 10 of these open letters, each paired with a related personal essay showcasing Choi's quirky and stubborn Korean family. Most essays take place in Los Angeles, where her parents still live: Her mother forgets to pick her up at LAX one Christmas; her father hoards gold bars in his chemistry lab in Burbank; and her family bickers in the wake of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, "instead of hugging like normal families." The open letters are Choi at her best.

Now 36, Choi first recognized her talent for hyperbolic petulance in 2007, when she jotted a screed to architects about the uselessness of their craft for Pidgin, Princeton's architecture journal. The letter went viral in the architectural world and eventually was republished abroad, translated into Portuguese, Italian and Spanish. The volume of international hate mail she received implied that she'd struck a nerve.

Most of the objects of her scorn in Shut Up, You're Welcome are classic #firstworldproblems, verging on Seinfeld territory — Gosh, aren't sandwiches the worst! And what's the deal with camping being so difficult and gross? — but that's kind of the point. She wants you to roll your eyes and disagree, or at least laugh.

Choi's full-time job is making animated educational videos — teaching kindergartners how to wash their hands, for example — at a company called Brain Pop in New York. She has no plans to quit.

"Money [in writing] is just when your books get optioned," she says self-deprecatingly. "That's not really going to happen with my books [because] Asians aren't on TV, really."

That's unfortunate, because stories like the one about Choi chasing after her mugger to get her purse back, or the one about her father's painfully detailed driving lessons, are ripe for the sitcom treatment. Don't the networks have room for an Asian-American Tina Fey?

Development executives, take note and don't act all surprised. This girl is funny, even if she did grow up in the Valley.


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