Tuesday, December 30, 2008

letters of the alphabet and all

Today, I had a moment of utter delight and astonishment when a customer came up to me and said:

"Hello, I'm looking for a woman author."

There was then a pause, and the customer, a sturdy blonde woman, smiled beatifically.

"She wrote some books."

Another pause. I had to press my tongue really hard against the top of my mouth to keep from laughing. I was nearly choking myself.

"The titles have letters of the alphabet in them."

Oddly enough, this last bit of information led, almost immediately, to Sue Grafton's mysteries. But the monologue that ushered us toward them was so amazing that I kept playing it over in my head for the rest of the evening. "I'm looking for a woman author. She wrote some books..."

Friday, December 26, 2008

a fine frenzy rolling

I find myself writing a poem.

This is a scary thing. Not content with bumbling my way through stories about extraterrestrial plants, grave robbers, and girls who turn into mushrooms, my brain suddenly feels the need to inflict poetry upon the world.

I will blame the holiday sweets currently drenching my system in sugar. Or possibly the excess of sleep. Words are suddenly shiny and irresistible and I want to cram them together into one vivid blur.

Christmas was very gentle, very slow, and very nice. We woke up late, ate French toast and surprisingly delicious berries, and opened presents. The rest of the day was devoted to movies (there's something oddly charming about a family chortle at Goldie Hawn with a hole in her stomach in Death Becomes Her), napping, and playing with the dog, who loves her new toys so much that she keeps picking them up and carrying them to new places of honor on different chairs.

And now it's bed and curling up with the new issue of McSweeney's and being surprised that Christmas is over and it's almost time for a new year.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Recently finished:

The Ransom of Russian Art by John McPhee
Discusses the outrageous smuggling of unofficial Soviet era art, as performed by a professor of economics.

The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson
Self-explanatory. Light and fun to read for the most part, until you get to the end and he tells you, very plainly, about his childhood on an English council estate.

The Newton Letter by John Banville
Absolutely crushing, but some of the most gorgeous writing I've read lately. All kinds of tragedy at work.

Loot by Sharon Waxman
Really wonderful, though I appreciated it more for the quirky facts and dramas than for the effort it makes to decide where iconic artifacts really belong.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

amanda palmer + umbrellas

So, basically, my first concert was made of win because:

Amanda Palmer is a magnificent lady. Her voice is magnificent, her songs are magnificent, and up close she becomes even more magnificent because she's really nice. And enthusiastic, and smart, and obviously very much in love with what she does.

All concerts should have the Danger Ensemble to elevate them to magic. Especially if they are allowed to have umbrellas and do over the top, hilarious reincarnations of certain popular songs about said objects.

All concerts should be held in velvet, jewelry-box, supper clubs where people in bloomers and waistcoats and top hats look more in place than anyone else.

Songs about trout, especially new ones that are rough around the edges, are sad (a good kind of sad).

Violins are irresistible.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

best and worst

I had an absolutely vile customer today. I spent about ten minutes on a telephone searching for a title-less, author-less book about Coco Chanel for someone who told me that I was horrible, rude, unwilling, and a waste of time. This upset me, entirely too much, because I try my best to not be any of those things when at work (well, I try not to be any of those things in general, but especially at work where I think the whole point of working in a bookstore is how nice it is to be around people who are--mostly-- buying books because they genuinely want to).

I also had an absolutely delightful customer, an elderly man who told me about the time he spent two hours in a bar with Ernest Hemingway. He said that they talked about fishing, hunting, flying, and Cuba. He also said the Hemingway was "not as articulate as you would think," but that he was also extremely wonderful, and that he drank a lot.

I've got a new idea in my head. It's something to do with the time my grandpa told me about sailing by the Rock of Gibraltar, about walking across Scotland, and about how horribly the gutters of Morocco smelled. You know, I have a photograph of my grandpa from when he was young, and he looks unexpectedly dashing: handsome and smiling and sepia toned in a slim and fashionable suit. He looks like a character out of one of those witty 1930s movies. It boggles my mind in the most wonderful way.

a small request

Dear Bookstore Customers:

In this delightfully busy, bustling, and bountiful holiday season, there are a few things you can do that will make your book purchasing experience just a little smoother, a little less infuriating, and no doubt a bit more pleasant.

Conversations like the following are not one of them.

"Hello. Can you see if you have a book? I need it for the holidays. I heard about it on the radio sometime... I can't remember when. There was some guy talking about a book he wrote... I don't know the title; it may have had the word 'space' in it? Anyway, it was a paperback."

And yes, we do generally know how to spell the word "analyst"... However, if you believe that giving it to us in the radiotelephony alphabet would be useful, by all means say "Alfa, November, Alfa, Lima, Yankee, Sierra, Tango," but please excuse our expressions of incredulity.

If you own a very large bag of Good Omens books and Graveyard Books that is taking over the entire will call shelf, please come rescue your purchases. They are looking lonely. They also keep threatening to fall on our heads when we climb the ladder to pile more things on top of them.

Please stop trying to convince me to read all four of the Twilight books. Or Nicholas Sparks novels. Or books with titles like The Heart of Christianity, Too Fat To Fish, or the entire canon of Ayn Rand.

With thanks,

letters standing in for other things

Heard, on NPR, today a news story about the Climate Change Conference in Poznan (and no, I don't know how to put an accent over my "n"). Actually, heard several stories about the UNFCCC, but my favourite was the one about climate change acronyms (which you can admire here). And then there are the other languages.

Gobbledegook. Alphabet soup.

Also, Loot by Sharon Waxman is a book that lots of people should read, especially if they delight in knowing things like how a circus strongman named Belzoni became a leading procurer of Egyptian antiquities.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

oh bones

I think I have done something to my neck because I can't turn my head to the left without turning my whole torso, tin soldier style.

Maybe I'll play zombie at work today.
"Excuse me, miss?"
Plod in a circle, creak creak creak. "Yes?"

Thursday, December 4, 2008

looking at things

So, "Brought To Light" was fascinating and I have much to think about now regarding lightning, William H. Mumler, x-rays, and dagguerotypes. There was also (on a placard... I have a small obsession with museum placards) a magnificent story about a farmer who was obsessed with snow. Also, intriguing references to Tesla and an image from "the most anticipated celestial event of the 19th C."

There was also an exhibit of Martin Puryear's sculptures. Some of them are the kind of things that absolutely unfold inside your head, spinning into thoughts that are further and further away from the actual physical object. I LOVED "Brunhilde," which is a very large, airy, blimpy shape made from woven strips of wood. The photograph doesn't do it justice. In person, it is warm, fascinating, and somehow both enveloping and gentle.

And then there is this Rothko, which is magic.

(There are also some pieces which I just don't get. Or which are on the edge between disturbing and very scary. Like the herd of black poodle sculptures arranged in concentric circles around a white baby statue.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

department of lost letters

So, this afternoon I sent a story to an anthology (Interfictions 2... a name that, for some odd reason, I find very funny) because of the open submissions and the rather fascinating guidelines. Sadly, I've just gotten an email telling me that the internet is having trouble delivering my email. I think this means I've missed the deadline (why yes, I do love deadlines, particularly the kind that get really close and breathe down the back of your neck... how can you tell?), which puts a wrinkle into my grand plan of sending things out rather than stuffing them into drawers and forgetting they exist. Ah well. I can always send it somewhere else, preferably in a way that involves postage stamps and an envelope.

The story is a detective story, but not a mystery, and it indulges my fascination with beaches and collecting. The first draft was also incredibly opaque. I feel sorry for my friends who had to slog their way through it. Utterly baffling.

One of the most bizarre things about writing, for me, is how much trouble I sometimes have just saying what I mean. I skim over enormous things like connections and rules, and even bigger ones like desire and consequence, without noticing. At first, it's because I don't actually know what's going on. And then I have it so clear in my head that I forget to write any of it down. (This is when I picture Geoff shaking his head mournfully and asking whether I've thought about turning to poetry... An excellent motivation for trying to tell proper stories because I have never written a poem that was not truly and dreadfully horrible.)

I absolutely lust after story.

On Thursday, I'm going to see this exhibit at the SFMOMA. And because 19th C. science is one of my pet fascinations, I'm excited. Ok, I won't lie. I'm really excited. Excited enough that I hope it doesn't crush my soul with mediocrity. We shall see. If all else fails, there's always the (bizarre?) option of "free beer salons as social artworks."

Saturday, November 29, 2008

the glamour of vampires

My favourite part of tagging along with my cousins and sister to see Twilight on Thanksgiving? Watching my sister pantomime the way the handsome (?) vampire looks like he's about to throw up when he first meets the human girl (who blinks excessively); and hearing her repeat the line, "You're like my own personal brand of heroin," and then crack up.

Dear Twilight, the movie:
What is with all those 360 degree panning shots that so obviously happen with a camera zooming around on a miniature track that traps the actors in a tiny circle? One is nice. Too many make me dizzy.

The lack of continuity in color and details between close ups and the rest of the scenes hurt my eyes.

If you have to resort to a montage to show how much your guy loves your girl in a romance... well, it's a bad sign.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

reacquainting with the kitchen

Since starting at the bookstore, I haven't had much time to cook. I seem to run through the kitchen, stopping long enough to make a cup of tea, or dissolve a packet of miso soup, or throw an apple and a block of cheese in my bag for work. I have become a devotee of the microwave (horror!) and the Japanese appliance that keeps water on the edge of boiling at all times.

However, tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I have to make cranberry sauce. We're having Thanksgiving with friends in southern CA, so the actual cooking is happening down there while I'm in the car, driving one of the most boring freeways in the world. But I have to make cranberry sauce. I always make cranberry sauce. I think only about three people even eat it, but my sister adores it so much that she'll spoon it out straight from the container and eat it like pudding.

So the cranberries are on the stove and I'm feeling proud of myself for finding the zester, for remembering to put in the cloves, and for getting it all started before midnight. I haven't even gotten any cranberry juice on my clothes yet. Yay.


Am cold, am cold, am cold.


It's only 59 degrees F. Never mind.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

music wars

When you walk into a bookshop, the ambient music probably isn't the first thing that enters your mind. It probably straggles in much later, after, "where is that book that I desperately want and must have in my hands in this exact moment?" or, "what direction shall I wander in first?" or maybe even, "what are those strange things that sort of look like Rubik's cubes, but aren't?"... But then, after a little while, the music seeps in. And then, after several hours, even with all those lovely books crowded around you, the music is suddenly pounding through your head and you wonder why everyone hasn't either burst into spontaneous dance, or run away with their hands pressed to their ears.

At the bookshop, we have music wars. The combatants are:

The company sanctioned, nice at first, but easily tiresome CDs that we sell. These have French songs, Spanish songs, "world beats", and other such globally inclusive tasters.

A strange amalgamation of things that reminds me of a fake honky tonk bar. Or, possibly, the parts of the 70s that I'm glad I missed.

Classical music. Mozart, Bach, and all the usual suspects. I'm extremely fond of classical music, so it makes me unreasonably happy when, say, a Bach CD makes it's way into the stereo.

Once, I think someone brought in some French accordian music, the cheerful oom pah pah kind. In small doses, it's actually quite infectious. I felt like doing jigs up and down between the shelves.

Sadly (or maybe fortunately), nobody wins for long. It's all just skirmishes and sometimes your ears bleed and sometimes they don't.
I've just started reading Dali & I by Stan Lauryssens. I have high hopes for this one. Even higher now that I've read the author's bio, which says that he spent time in prison for selling fake Dalis, then "turned to writing crime fiction". This is possibly the most exciting thing I've read on a book flap in a long time.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

sticking points

Worked on some of those small, worrying details that pluck at me while I'm dancing and go, "right, you're really not capable here, but I guess you can just skate over the whole issue and pretend like you didn't notice." My upper back, the bit underneath the shoulder blades, isn't particularly articulate or clever. It moves in a solid, lumpy block until I'm really warmed up, and then class is almost over and there's not much to do about it.

Anyway, stood in the studio for a good twenty minutes with a glazed look on my face, contemplating the space underneath my shoulder blades and making odd shrugging movements and twitches.

Sometimes, I think about the things that I think about while I'm dancing and it all seems so bizarre. The way the front of my shoulders rotate in their sockets. The distribution of weight between first toe and last. Those little muscles that run in between my ribs. It's like someone standing very close to a painting and trying to decide exactly what color the shadow between two cobblestones should be.
Am reading Angela Carter's Nights At The Circus. I'm about half-way through and it's a very strange, very beautiful and twisty, piece of enthusiastic cabaret. Am also reading A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich, which is like history told in bedtime stories.

Monday, November 17, 2008

guitars and magic dragons

Am back, a bit dazed and rather tired, after a very short stint at the bookstore. Peter Yarrow played the guitar and sang for over an hour to a crowd (200-odd) of adoring children and nostalgic parents. It was a nice event--the audience was flooded with enthusiasm and he did sing "Puff The Magic Dragon"-- but my brain feels like it got a little battered. It was a bit surreal to see a large crowd of children and parents and grandparents paddling imaginary boats to a song that talked about being a boat and being a sea. There were parts where everyone was singing along, and I felt like I had been transported to some weird and dangerous universe where life spontaneously morphs into a folk musical.

I've also realised that, sometimes, discussing unconventional narrative techniques while wearing the ebullient and smiling retail voice is difficult for people to swallow. I was gushing about a Grace Paley story to a customer and looked up to see him staring at me as if I had just let him down, rather unforgiveably.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

puccini, plus explosions

I've been thinking about why I love action films so much, and I think it's for the same reason that I love movies about cons and heists: I like watching people who are terribly, terribly, outrageously and delightfully, good at what they do. There is something irresistible about a hero who can shoot a gun and leap off of buildings and drive cars at the speed of insanity, who can make every woman fall in love with him and catch the bad guys while still offering up, now and then, a wry remark that makes everything seem ineffably fine.

Reasons to enjoy Quantum of Solace in particular:

The title comes from a short story by Ian Fleming that is apparently in the style of Maugham.
A scene that cuts between a chase and a production of Tosca.
A big, climactic scene that is like watching a fireworks factory on a particularly unfortunate day.
The massive touch screen table the British Intelligence uses... I'm not anything close to a tech geek, but I was flipping out over that.
The MK12 designed main credits (can one have a crush on a graphics company?).
Anything and everything that comes out of Judi Dench's mouth.

Also finally got to type the words, "THE END", again. I'd forgotten how delicious it is to do that.

Peter Yarrow is coming to Kepler's on Monday. I wasn't too worried about this as I have a soft spot for Peter, Paul, and Mary... But now I'm a feeling a bit of trepidation as I've realised this means many small children crowded together on rugs around someone strumming a guitar and singing "Puff The Magic Dragon".

Friday, November 14, 2008

doctor who

Am feeling very behind the times in only just discovering that David Tennant is leaving Doctor Who. This makes me a little sad. When I first heard someone call Tom Baker, or Peter Davison, or whoever, "their Doctor," I was perplexed. It is only a tv show, I thought, and it's the same tv show, with the same sort of stories, and same blue telephone box, and the same wonderful, ridiculous adventures. Except now I completely understand and I can't imagine the Doctor without the manic energy, absurdly fast soliloquies, and (my favorite thing of all) the enormous and good-natured enthusiasm that Tennant is so good at doing.

However, he's going to be in a movie with Bill Nighy. I adore Billy Nighy. Except as that elderly vampire in Underworld, where he looks like someone who needs extensive dental work very badly and is in a very bad temper because of it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

writing, as an archaeological dig, with pickaxe

I'm really tired. It's not even midnight and I am so ready to drop into bed and sleep like a lump of undreaming rock.

But, somehow, magically, there has been writing. There has been writing every day for nearly a week. Writing on the same story, but not the same beginning over and over. It is going very slowly, glacially even, but I've closed one door and walked into another part of the story and things are still happening. It is even entertaining me.

Now if only I can get to the part that goes, "THE END."

I am now going to read a Michael Moorcock story, because I've never read a Moorcock story before and it seems like an adventurous sort of thing to do when all you have energy for is keeping your head above the blankets on your bed.


Amitav Ghosh read at Kepler's tonight. Sea of Poppies sounds like a swashbuckling, and literary, adventure. The excerpts that he read were intriguing. But what really, really delighted me was when he started discussing the permeability and elasticity of English in the 19th century. He told us that "seersucker" comes from a Hindi word, "sirsakar," which comes from the Persian "shiroshakar".

And because I am an absolute geek about etymology, this made me very happy.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

letters from unregarded scraps of time

My latest enthusiasm is for letters. I am crazy for them, for the writing of them, for the folding into envelopes and marking of addresses and sticking on of stamps (not licking, not anymore... I remember when postage stamps tasted different; some like a bad imitation of sugar, some like a foul and bitter chemical). Receiving letters is fun too. You open them up and read the other half of a conversation that you had days or weeks or months ago. I like letters that wander about, the ones that put in the details to tell me what it was like to be the person sitting there and writing it. Letters are entirely different from emails. I only get to keep the part of the conversation that isn't mine. I send my thoughts and questions, all the little bits and pieces that happen to fall out of my head, off to someone else; and someday I can look through my box of papers and see what they had to say in return, but whatever I said is somewhere else entirely.

This is the long way of saying that I've been writing a great deal of letters.

I've been reading (Michael Chabon's Maps And Legends, a collection of essays about the wonders of genre fiction) and nervously writing. The story that I'm working on is an idea that is almost worn thin from long imagining. It takes up all the space in my head and leaves no room for anything else to grow there, so I am doing my best to pry it out with diligent effort (though I'm beginning to think that an ice pick might be a more effective tool). I've been dancing (do you know how delicious it is to do your first grand jete in an entire year?) and working (my favourite moment of the week: a woman asked me whether Macbeth was a book or a play. The only answer my amazed brain could come up with was, "do you mean the Shakespeare?" To which she said, "oh. I think so.") and discovering that time vanishes very quickly if you don't keep a close watch on it.

I've also been deciphering my notes from Clarion (mostly in search of a useful icepick) and one of the things I've been pondering is something that Geoff told us. He said something along the lines of, "What will telling a story in prose add that no other medium can give? Not film, not theater, not poetry. I suggest that it's interiority and how the characters think and feel. You can salt prose with their thoughts."

That's about it. I'm trying to figure out when I can go admire the California Academy of Sciences and the De Young Museum, when I can take my bike out for a spin, and when I can try that fascinating rowing machine at the gym, but I haven't quite figured out the time thing yet. Soon.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

surrounded by books

So, I've just started a job at Kepler's, which is an excellent, friendly, well-stocked, and independent (gasp!) bookstore. I spent 40 hours this week learning how to sell, find, and shelve books (something that started to frighten me when I had a dream about looking for a book on the history of economics in Europe. Oh please don't let mundane dreams--even mundane dreams about books--hijack my imagination!). I also discovered the joys of advanced reading copies. I feel immensely gleeful about the three ARCs that I've picked up and (greedily) already dipped into:

Descartes' Bones by Russell Shorto comes out this month and is a "skeletal history of the conflict between faith and reason."

The Seance by John Harwood comes out in February and is a Victorian mystery.

Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti comes out in April.

They are joining the immense (and slightly embarrassing ) pile of books next to my bed. They all have bookmarks stuck between the pages partway through, and while I'm happily reading them all, the new ones keep appearing.

I went to Samovar last night with Heather and Miguele. We had the most delicious chai, which tasted of real black tea and nose prickling spices rather than mystery powdered something or other, and wonderful little sweets. The bread pudding was my favourite: a creamy golden circle of buttery pastry with a layer of caramelized sugar on the bottom. The tea menu is a tiny piece of delight, with descriptions that blithely use words like "velutinous" and "viridescent" and "vegetal" to describe their oolongs and whites and blacks. The music, however, somehow reminded me of belly dancing and Christmas carols at the same time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


The interesting thing about looking at a story again, after you haven't looked at it in a couple of months, is how alien it is, how strange and full of unfamiliar people who you can't quite imagine making up.

The nice thing is being able to strike things without too many pangs of regret, to ruthlessly circle things for being too ambiguous, or not thought out, or just clumsily written. It's like getting let loose with a pair of scissors and a red pen and going to town with no compunction.

The slightly less exciting thing is too look at all your gleeful notes ("confusing!" "what?" "unnecessary" "quite silly") and then realize that now you have to actually fix the broken bits. And the question now, in sizes large and small, is "how?"

Thursday, October 9, 2008

trompe l'oeil, butoh, and the similarities between oysters and stories

I'm reading, in bits and pieces, a collection of Rudyard Kipling's short stories as chosen and arranged by W. Somerset Maugham. The story that I'm reading right now is called "The Village That Voted The Earth Was Flat," which is an irresistible title, but so far seems to be a strange story about a wild bunch of newspaper men who are out to discredit an irritating M.P.

Maugham says something very likeable in his introductory essay though. "No one," he says,
is obliged to read stories, and if you don't like them unless there is something in them more than a story, there is nothing to do about it. You may not like oysters, no one can blame you for that, but it is unreasonable to condemn them because they don't possess the emotional quality of a beefsteak and kidney pudding. It is equally unreasonable to find fault with a story because it is only a story."

Tomorrow, well, later today actually, I'm doing a second workshop with Shinichi Iova-Koga. He is teaching us about butoh. Last time, my understanding was that butoh is a dance that is motivated from the interior, ideas bleeding out gradually to the outer layer of your skin, where they become visible to anyone who is watching... but I think that the definition of butoh is a bit liquid, and I'm sure it'll mean something else today.

I may not know what butoh is, but my neck muscles are very sore from it. Mainly from trying to not use my muscles, which my body apparently interpreted as hauling itself upright by the neck.

And I have discovered a new favorite artist. I have a postcard that my friend sent from Belgium many months ago up next to my desk because it has a pair of boots with water fountaining up from them, and it only occurred to me tonight to look up the artist responsible for the mind prickling image. His name is Roman Signer and he does many extraordinary things, often involving explosions. There is a video of his work, "Action With Sheets of Paper," here, but I like the still photograph because it looks like a grove of white trees with people wandering between them, and it's only when you look closely that you realise it's a shower of white paper falling on a crowd.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Monday, October 6, 2008

spiders, gravestones, and the inevitable pizza

On Saturday, I went with three extremely wonderful people (Dana, Emily, and Lauren) to see Neil Gaiman read from The Graveyard Book in Palo Alto. It felt strange, but good, to sit in a theater with about 600 people of all sorts--old and young, alone and in big, cheerful groups-- who were all there to listen to someone read them a story. Everyone leaned forward in their chairs, laughed at the funny bits, and held their breaths at others, and listened as Neil told us about a young boy named Bod who dances with the ghosts and the living, and sees the first of the winter snow. It was a magical kind of thing, the sort that I wish could happen more often.

There's a video of the reading here, though it's more fun to start with the first chapter (we got the fifth, "Danse Macabre"). We also got an interlude, which is called "The Convocation," one of my favorite words. It makes me think of witches and crows, for no good reason, really (I think the proper words are, "coven" or "congeries" and "murder," respectively). And then, as an extra treat, we got some bits from Henry Selick's film of Coraline, and "Blueberry Girl."

The stage was full of gravestones, and Neil had a leather armchair with a funny looking lamp and a fake crow. There was also a spider that drifted down from the rafters and almost landed on a small boy's head.

Before the reading, we had pizza. Not ordinarily something to be boasting about, though I love pizza madly, but this was a delectable pie that introduced me to the thrilling combination of ricotta and lemon zest. Fluffy cream cut with bright yellow sourness. Not something you'd expect on pizza with all the fixings, but astonishingly delicious. Pizza Chicago.

It was a good evening all round, but the very best part was standing around in our little foursome, talking about Clarion friends and writing and books, and enjoying each other's company.

Oh. Have also discovered that Saint-Saens's Danse Macabre is even more infectious than usual when played on a banjo. It sounds mad and a little funny, and it begs you to get up and dance.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Have recently been arguing with myself about art, about dancing in particular, and about what it is that I want most at this very moment. Self-indulgent, circular thoughts. But I ran across a quote, in Gourmet magazine of all places, that translates a Turkish saying as, "What the heart wants most is intimate conversation, the rest is an excuse."

And now that idea has exploded across my head, and I can't stop thinking about it. Sometimes, I think dance doesn't have that capacity, and sometimes I watch things like this and am all wrung out and confused.

I'm obsessed, and thinking round in a circle, and prone to pacing. Maybe I'll wear a hole through my floor and fall on my head, and then, like magic, everything will be clear when I wake up.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

bedtime stories

The Graveyard Book came out today, and reading it at bedtime makes me very, very happy. It is a story by Neil Gaiman, and pictures by Dave McKean, and it is entirely wonderful.

(I actually skipped ahead to the fifth chapter, which is about a strange and intoxicating dance, when I brought the book home this afternoon. But now I'm reading it properly, starting at the beginning.)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

a story is a story is a story

Have you ever been telling someone an anecdote and, in the middle of it, begin to actually listen to what you are saying and find it so strange and unbelievable that you start to think you're making it up?


Right then, that would just be me.

I had to think for awhile afterwards to reassure myself that, yes, strange things do happen in real life, and, yes, I had seen this particular strange thing with my very own eyes and hadn't dreamed it or wished it or really even embellished it at all. Which disappointed me, as I was beginning to think that my imagination had gone round a strange and interesting bend.

Ah well.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

dancing shoes

Am just back from dancing. From an evening of swing dancing with the ever lovely Emily at Forrester's Hall in Redwood City.

I've never done swing dancing before. I've never really done any proper social dancing at all, except for a very little bit of salsa, and then the usual bopping around to loud music in clubs or at parties, which I'm not sure counts as "social dancing". I spent most of the evening staring down at my partners' feet, trying to figure out what was going on. Even so, the dancing was marvelous, exhilarating, and an utter delight. It felt wonderful and strange to be surrounded by so many people who were dancing because there was nothing else they would rather be doing. Sheer fun and delight. Everyone was so friendly. A very kind man named Adam, who is one of those dancers who move so smoothly and casually that you can't help but imagine that he moves under a perpetual summer breeze, taught me one of the basic steps. Someone else taught me part of the Charleston, and someone else showed me how to do triple steps. Most of the time, I just whirled and slid around, and laughed my head off because I was having such a good time.

Am also now inspired to write something about those twelve dancing princesses and their worn out dancing slippers, and about how it feels to dance the night away. Lauren suggested it, and the more I think about, the more I wonder...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

friends and fish

Just back from a very lovely evening with friends. We ate sushi, including the extra-fatty tuna which glistens in pink strips over rice and which I learned is called toro. I didn't have much faith in the idea of extra-fatty tuna, but it turned out to be delicious, in the same way that Brie and very good butter are delicious. I wasn't brave enough to try the fried shrimp heads. "They taste a bit like potato chips," Neil said. But I just couldn't put those round, black, little eyeballs and poky antennae in my mouth.

We talked about fascinating things, like the Chevalier d'Eon, and ruined temples, and mysteries. It was wonderful to have good food and good conversation, and to be wrapped up in the company of incredibly good people who make me happy. It was rather like sitting around a fire in a comfortably shabby and well-loved room, and drinking in the stories that float out into the warm air... only in a rather small Japanese restaurant with whiteboards on the walls and slightly silly music.

We also went to Preston's, which is a place that Willy Wonka would no doubt smile approvingly over. There were chocolates with all sorts of delectable fillings, and ice cream with the most lovely chocolate sauce, and Art Deco stoves.

I'm now too full of sugar and affection to sleep. Will probably go read more of The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar so that I can extend the happiness into the wee hours.

Friday, September 12, 2008


I'm copying a friend and writing down what I'm reading right now, mostly because I've had books scattered everywhere, with little slips of paper, or gum wrappers, or paper napkins, or takeaway menus, marking a spot in their pages. I wasn't sure what I was reading. I'd just pick up whichever partially-read book was nearest and read, and then put it down somewhere, and now that I've gathered them all into a pile on my dresser to finish, I find that it's bigger than I thought, and more haphazard.

1. The 13 Clocks by James Thurber.
Thanks to the lovely Kat, I have this for a bedtime story. It is all kinds of marvelous.

2. The Arabian Nightmare by Robert Irwin
Bizarre and happily mad, and apparently meant for reading in bed.

3. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Reading this again because I am outlining the plot as part of an exercise given to me by Geoff Ryman. It's very interesting, and humbling, and educational.

4. Japanese Fairy Tales by Iwaya Sazanami
Which contains one of my favourites, "The Tea Kettle of Good Luck."

5. V For Vendetta by Alan Moore
Books with pictures in are always good.

6. The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (2007) edited by Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant

7. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
A book that "aims to be factual," about murder and detectives in Victorian England.

8. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Was feeling guilty that I hadn't read anything of hers.

9. Little Kingdoms by Steven Millhauser

current issues of The New Yorker, Harper's, Good, and National Geographic. This isn't my usual magazine diet. Usually, there's quite a bit more fluff, but this is what happens when you get delayed at the airport and have already read the fluffy magazines they have at the newsstand, so you're forced to buy the stuff that has actual columns of text about things that happen in the real world.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

ringing in the ears

If I hear the words, "Thanks, but, no thanks," many more times, I will have to start lip-synching them and making funny faces.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

books with pictures

Had a most excellent and diverting afternoon. Went to class, which was hot and airless and very, very difficult, but also good (even braved the dreaded pointe shoes for a few exercises). Then my sister and I had lunch with the lovely Heather. We ate really delicious Chicago style pizza, and then went for equally delicious ice cream and a walk past a picture book that had been stuck up on a wall with all the other posters advertising albums and movies.

We found the cover on the other side of the wall:

And were wondering what a picture book was doing on a wall anyway, when we saw this:

Also went into a comic book shop that collects illustrated toilet lids and hangs them around the perimeter of the space. The sheer number of stories and pictures was slightly overwhelming, but there was this guy with the most amazing Tim Burton hair and pinstriped suit who seemed to really know his books. Enthusiastic people make me happy.

Monday, September 8, 2008

and tomorrow there will be pain.

So, I've discovered that taking two months off from dancing is good for what ails you, but rather dreadful for the self-esteem. It's like having two bodies: the one that remembers how everything should feel, and the one that acts like a really ignorant lump.

Alex used techno music in rehearsal today. I think my head is still going, boomf boomf boomf boomf.

It was a nice change to think really hard about stuff like muscles and standing up properly. The nice thing about dancing is that, even when it's not working, at least you can keep doing something. I keep moving around, maybe look like a fool and an idiot, but at least I can keep on until I tire myself out. With writing, when it's not working, I seem to spend a great deal of time staring at a wall. And then looking at the paper. And then staring at the wall. So, it felt good to move, even if I'm going to be horribly, dreadfully, stuck-in-a-block-of-concrete sore tomorrow.

Am now going to watch MASH and have a cup of tea.

Friday, September 5, 2008

airport things

Airport delights:

1. Upon emerging from the security checkpoint at Lihue Airport, you come upon two musicians in aloha shirts, one playing the guitar, and the other playing the ukelele. They sing songs in Hawaiian, which has a multitude of euphonious vowels.

2. The newsstand in Lihue Airport sells cookies with chunks of arare (rice crackers seasoned with soy sauce) scattered throughout like chocolate chips.

3. The sensation my new old typewriter made while making its way through security and agricultural inspection: What's in that sturdy plastic case? Oh, just a typewriter. Oh... well, haven't seen one of those in a while.

4. The flight attendant who used the expression: "What the h, blank, double hockey stick, do they think they're doing?" This entertained me entirely too much, and I kept looking up from my magazine and thinking, hah! Double hockey stick.

5. Science fiction exhibit at SFO. Not entirely sure what this was about, because I was on a moving walkway and too tired to go back and look, but there were definitely robots. Big, silver robots. And wonderfully pulpy illustrations in bright colors (I've just looked them up, and they are covers from Weird Science and Weird Fantasy). I love the SFO museum.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

old things

My family is a clan of pack rats. We keep papers and books and photographs and this and that hidden away in closets for years. I have my own horde of aged treasure, but I can't hold a candle to my great-grandparents, who apparently set things aside and then ceased to see them. Their garage, which is more of a shed, really, and which I had never been into while they were alive, yielded these treasures. There were others, but these are my favorites.

A gas pump. Notice that the highest possible price for a sale was $9.99.

An ancient typewriter, in a rather terrifying state of deterioration. I expect that it mutters eldritch stories to itself in the middle of the night.

It has been raining in the early morning here, torrential spills of rain that half wake me up; but then I fall asleep and when I wake up again, it is warm and sunny, and I keep thinking that I only dreamed the rain until I accidentally soak my foot in a puddle.

Friday, August 22, 2008

a good read

Damien G. Walter, who is a teller of odd tales and an Englishman, has a story up at Behind The Wainscot, which is an online magazine of "short forms, of experiments, studies, and the fragments between." The story is called "The Sun," and is part of a collection of short pieces inspired by the images on tarot cards. I suppose that you could read them and be inspired to take up fortune telling. Or, you could just enjoy the ride. I met Damien at Clarion, and he is a lovely person. He also has the strange ability to vanish for long stretches of the day and then come back with incisive observations of the people he left behind. His story made me feel like I was walking through fog on a summer morning, right before it burns away.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

cloaks of invisibility

In fairy tales, the young hero (or, heroine) walks off into a bright morning and meets a crone. Or a poor traveler. Or a talking fox. Or a fairy in disguise. And they generally get some advice, and some magical object that may be useful, or useful and dangerous, on their journey. I always liked the part where the witch, or the peddler, gives the young man a cloak of invisibility so that he can follow the twelve princesses down to the land of enchantments and watch them dance.

Advice is very useful, because you can use it or ignore it as you wish, and either way it gives you a hint of what is up ahead. So, these are the things I'd say to someone who is on the way to Clarion, for what it's worth:

1. If you have the opportunity to go to Clarion, and you can make it work, timewise and moneywise, then snatch it up and run with it. If you aren't sure what Clarion is, then read through the website and just know that it is more wonderful and intense and exciting than they can possibly get across in tidy website language.

2. This worked for me, but may not be the thing for everyone: Don't get too buried in the pre-Clarion internet social madness. It's so much more exciting and delightful to properly meet your fellow travelers when you stumble off the plane, or into the room where you pick up your keys, or wandering around trying to find your apartment. There are the refreshing moments of awkward recognition, the fumbling conversations, the subtle slide into familiarity. You think I'm joking, but these things are wonderful. Or, I may just be internet-challenged.

3. Bring a few story ideas that excite you and creep around at the back of your head. I didn't do this, and each week was a bit like leaping off a high cliff and hoping that there would be a handy rope to catch on the way down. But don't clutch at your ideas. If something new comes along and follows you around, see what it has to say. It might be stranger and more fun to chase after.

4. Bring many pens. Stories and critiques eat pens like you would never believe. Or, be very clever, like Emily and Neil, and bring a fountain pen, with a bottle of ink to refill it.

5. Bring comfortable shoes because there is much walking to be had. Walk down to the beach and see the odd squirrel creatures that live there. Walk out to where the Torrey Pines Paragliding Center launches their customers over a cliff and watch a sunset. Wander around campus at night and look at all the strange sculptures. Try not to get lost while going from classroom to cafeteria, and if you do, just keep walking until you find a friendly looking person and ask them to point the way (likely behind the building that you had just passed three times).

6. Try to write a story each week. This causes sleepless nights, dependence on many cups of strong tea, and possibly panic as the story becomes more and more recalcitrant, but it is entirely worth it. Each instructor helps you to look at your work from a different angle. They stand next to you and focus the lens, just so, and suddenly you see all sorts of things that you can take in for that story, and also for the next. Also, if you write a story each week, your classmates get familiar with your habits. They know the direction you tend to lean, they figure out your weaknesses, and they are not fooled by how you might cover them up with things you are better at. They figure you out as a writer, and then they help you tell stories better.

7. Sunscreen is your friend.

8. You don't need to bring too many books. There is a very well-stocked library that looks like a spaceship and is named after Doctor Seuss.

9. Take copious notes. I've just read over my notes from the first week, and there were a couple pages about sentence structure from a talk with Kelly and Jim that I had already forgotten the details of (then again, I have a really dreadful memory. Notes are my friends).

9. Have enormous fun. In six weeks you will: meet several new best friends, have ideas and realizations explode your head every day, stay up much too late talking about impossible things, write and write and write, examine many stories closely so that your brain is forced to learn a bit about how stories work, and go slightly crazy so that you can see things properly again.

If you want to hear my Clarion mates, who are much more sensible and articulate than my ramblings, give their advice, have a listen to this.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

science fiction invades my life

Yesterday, my sister and I had lunch with a good friend at a favourite cafe. We walked past this on the way there. It towers over a tiny bit of park on an island in the middle of the road.

And then today, while waiting to see Tropic Thunder, we found this:
Which made me wonder how many people feel the burning desire to read about "500 Out-Of-This-World" baby names. I did quite like the green tentacles holding the bottle though. I didn't look up anyone's name though, since, according to the Fortune Teller's Name Book in the same store, my name connotes something along the lines of "an end of tribulations coinciding with the end of a significant relationship." What sort of fortune is that?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

golden boy

I have been completely brainwashed by NBC.

Here I am, sitting eagerly in front of my television, ready to watch the whole, long evening of Olympics coverage just to see Michael Phelps swim for his 8th gold medal.

I swear that it's the Countdown To Michael Phelps that pops up on the right of the screen during any sport. "9 MINUTES TO PHELPS," it flashes. "5 MINUTES TO PHELPS!" Hallelujah, everyone, "2 MINUTES TO PHELPS!!!"

The swimmers look like alien sea-people to me, faintly disturbing in the boneless way that their arms and spines move, but I'm still here, waiting for the countdown. Someone in the NBC marketing department knows their stuff.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

and home again, with appearance by knight in shining armour

So, directly from the airport I went to see my sister dance (beautifully, as always) in a two and a half hour performance. Now, as much as I adore watching dance in general, and watching my sister dance in particular, after the Clarion-induced sleep deprivation, two and a half hours was a struggle. My eyes started to get that glass-eye feeling, that weird sensation when the eyeballs are staring really hard and are incapable of focussing on anything, and the eyelids forget what it's like to blink.

My sister was in this amazing piece of choreography by Ohad Naharin. It's a group dance done in chairs to a Jewish echad. The movement is visceral, explosive, and the sort of thing that makes me lean forward in my chair so I can feel the music vibrate my through my chest a bit. There's a snippet of the choreography in this video of Nederlands Dans Theatre.

Since then, I've been fitting myself back into this other life. For six weeks we were in an odd bubble, a suspended chunk of stretched out time cut off from the rest of the world, and coming back to a land where other things besides writing and story-telling exist is entirely strange. I miss my writing people. I spend too much time online, keeping up with our long email conversations and chatting (chatting! I never chat). I miss having them all there, just through the next door, or upstairs, or in the spaceship library, or ahead of me on one of our mad walks through the night... They're all still there though, just a bit more spread out, and that makes me indescribably happy. I love knowing that if I have the weird desire to talk about stories in the middle of the night, I'll have at least one wonderful somebody to call, no matter the time, because we're scattered across so many time zones.

An adventure:
While driving home from the city this afternoon, the car in front of me swerved and almost took out a car in the next lane. I had time to think, "why in all the world did they do that?" and then I saw that they did it to avoid the very large and flat piece of metal on the road in front of me. A truck prevented me from doing the same, so I just shrunk down into my seat and drove straight over. It was very loud. A few minutes later, I was driving along on a flat, rattling tire. I pulled over to the shoulder and rang up AAA for assistance (yes, I'm one of those lame girls who has absolutely no idea how to change a tire), when, miraculously, what should appear behind my car but a shiny white towtruck.

Apparently, there's a Freeway Service Patrol made up of lovely, helpful people who drive around the freeways in shiny towtrucks, looking for people in vehicular distress. My personal knight, a G. Menendez, put my spare tire on and sent me on my way with reassuring words. Then, he got into his towtruck and drove away. I felt like I had just seen a fairy godmother.

Hurrah for the Freeway Service Patrol.

Saturday, August 9, 2008


Sometimes, goodbyes are really, really hard. Like when you’ve just spent six weeks with some of the most fascinating, intelligent, and wonderful people… and now you’re leaving them, without knowing when and if you’ll see them again. It’s quite distressing.

We were crammed together for six weeks: living together, writing together, reading the stuff that fell out of each other’s heads, eating the same dreadful food, staying up late and having oddball conversations, and just lazing about on the grass to enjoy the sun. It was like being part of a big, eccentric, and slightly unwieldy family, one that leaves their doors open at all times so people can wander in and out, and feel comfortable turning up for a conversation wherever. There was this delicious camaraderie, this feeling that we were a band of scrappy adventurers ready to carry each other across deserts and battle pirates (or just give each other plenty of tea on nights when the reading went on and on and on). It was a comfortable place to throw yourself into all the unmarked spots on the map.

I’m sitting in the airport right now, and I miss them already. I saw them just a couple of hours ago, but the anticipation of not being able to fall asleep on the couch while listening to Dan and Emily discuss humanity, or walking out to the beach with Damien to watch the paragliders, or having tea with Kat when our stories are being lame… the anticipation of not having that makes me miss them incredibly.

Right. The maudlin is happening. Time to get into a book.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

beneath the cliffs of doom

There is this gorgeous beach a short walk from our campus. It's at the bottom of some steep bluffs, so you can either take a very sloped, but paved road, or you can walk out to the para-gliding center and clamber down a crumbling, rocky set of stairs that make you feel like you're Indiana Jones. Obviously, we prefer the stairs. The very last bit disintegrates into a sandy slide that you have to take at a jog. If you try to make measured, careful steps, your feet start slipping out from under you.

Stairs or road, either way you get one of those breathtaking and entirely Californian views:

Though, if you take the stairs, you get to pass the Salk Institute, which looks like nothing so much as a place where mad scientists breed nightmare creatures for nefarious ends. It is a gloriously forbidding building made up of cement blocks and very few windows, with turrets and sad patio furniture and signs that say "NO LAB COATS IN THE CAFETERIA".

We've taken Kelly, Mary Anne, and Nalo to the beach. Other times we've just skipped off there on our own and admired the sunset. It's a nice, sandy beach, but it is at the bottom of some cliffs, and one of my favourite things about it are the signs telling you to beware the cliffs that may fall on top of your head.

We went to the beach this morning (down the stairs this time), and then we had some Mexican food, and then I fell asleep on the couch in the middle of reading a story, and now I'm having a think about what I'm going to write for next week. There are little hints of lycanthropy, Victorian circuses, and fairy tales swimming through my head, but nothing solid enough to start writing on yet. Hopefully, I'll find a trail to follow this evening and pick my way along the messy bits that are my first drafts.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Hullo. I'm just back from getting one of the lovely custodians here to unlock my room. I popped into my room to check on my computer and popped back out to go for a walk, and the second--the very second!--that I shut my door, I realised that my keys were still sitting on my desk, no doubt luxuriating in their uselessness.

My head is all foggy with too little sleep.

I had to turn in a story this afternoon, and because my head was being stubborn and resisting thinking in "story", I couldn't get down to it properly until yesterday afternoon. Then I had to write and write and write. The story came out all lumpy and amorphous, but at least it's on paper (though I had to delete some TRULY awful and maudlin lines that probably occurred to me at three o'clock in the morning), and that makes it easier to think about. Someday, I want to be able to tell a proper story, something with characters to love and a real yarn down the middle. Right now, it's hard for me to think of anything even remotely like that, but once a story is out of my head, it's so much easier to look at it and see where the wobbly bits are.

Neil says that you have to walk a fine line between giving a reader everything and leaving them enough space to make art. I've been thinking about that quite a bit lately. I don't think I've been able to work that balancing act properly yet, but it's a thought that's fascinating to poke at from different directions.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Owls and Cricket

It's entirely because of Neil Gaiman that I'm here at Clarion. Not just because I love his work (which I do), but because I only found out about Clarion through his blog. I had never heard of Clarion before, so when he mentioned that he was teaching, I followed the link and poked around the Clarion website and decided that this was a very cool thing and that I should apply, if only for the excuse to write two stories.

My supply of stories is very thin, and I didn't have any stories at all that fit the word limit for the application. So I wrote two new ones and had much fun. Thank you, Mr. Gaiman.

Neil is lovely, he really is. He is very kind and generous, with his time and thoughts, and he tells fantastic stories. He does these voices that are just hilarious. Some that I remember in particular: Harlan Ellison, William Shatner, and this wonderful, elderly librarian voice that made my stomach hurt from laughing too much.

Random reasons for happiness this week:

1. The cricket players and owls who arrived on Neil's first day.

2. The discussion of story, which broke all sorts of new holes in my head to let in more light.

3. Watching Liam McKean do breakdancing moves... The boy is a miniature Renaissance man and he can dance his feet off. I am such a fan.

4. A Saturday afternoon of NOT going to ComicCon and instead lounging about on the grass and getting lightly roasted while talking about radio plays.

5. Hearing about the Danse Macabre, the Mack-a-bray, in a chapter from The Graveyard Book which says, in a few sentences, what it feels like when you're really dancing, when it's going so well that you forget that you ever had to learn the steps.

6. Dancing until 3:30 in the morning to Neil's odd, and yet wonderfully appropriate, DJ-ing skills.

7. Getting picked up for a huge hug, which I've always felt are the best sort of hugs anyway.

8. Tea. Lots and lots of tea. The only way to survive critiquing SEVEN stories in one evening is to drink copious amounts of tea.

...And this is all on top of insightful and articulate teaching. Neil is very, very good at what he does, and he is able to articulate his thoughts about it, which is what makes for good teaching. He spots out the weaknesses in what you're doing now and points you towards other paths that you might not have noticed, but which you can explore, if you like, and find interesting things.

Some suggestions from Neil:
Angela Carter
Martin Millar
Gene Wolfe (Peace in particular)
"The Gardener" by Rudyard Kipling
Drowning By Numbers, a film by Peter Greenaway

I'll be missing him so much! Next up though are the wonderful Geoff Ryman and Nalo Hopkinson. Geoff has been around and he is very tall and very lovely. Nalo comes in later this evening and I can't wait to meet her.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Clarion, or, why sleep is irrelevant.


I haven't been writing here, mainly because I am very lazy. I am incredibly lazy. Supremely lazy. Extraordinarily and over-the-top lazy. Writing in any kind of journal is one of those projects that are doomed to fall by the wayside for me.

However, right now I'm at the Clarion workshop in San Diego, and since I have been a horrible friend and fallen behind on all phone calls, I thought I'd write a bit here, make it a big letter of sorts. Six weeks is a long time, especially when you're drenching yourself in an unfamiliar world, and I feel like I've crammed in more new thoughts and ideas than could possibly fit.

So. Clarion is kind of fantastic. Right before I left for San Diego, I got really unenthusiastic about the idea of spending six weeks writing instead of dancing. I even thought about pulling out so that I could spend the summer in the studio doing boring physical therapy and moping about (when I look back, I'm not sure why this seemed so tempting, but dancers are crazy). But then I told myself to get it together and go. At least I'd be able to find out whether writing stories was really as fun as I thought it was.

It turns out that, not only are stories fun, they're also fascinating, frustrating, and addictive. The way you can create a version of a truth out of all the loose scraps rattling around in your head is interesting to me. In dance, you can't really stand apart from what you're making, so having something that sits outside of you when you finish working is really odd, but wonderful to me.

A recommendation to all of my bookish friends: try some Kelly Link. Kelly was our instructor for week one and I hadn't read any of her work before I got accepted to the program, but I'm now a solid fan. Her stories are flat out weird, but they're also intensely honest. Sometimes I don't understand what is going on in her stories, but it doesn't matter because, somehow, they slip in and make sense in all the shadowy, dreamy parts of your head. She introduced me to the term "night logic," which is now my favourite way of saying, well, that was weird, but I completely got it.

The people here are wonderful. I won't describe them now because it will take too long and it's so beautiful outside that I want to run out there and take a walk while it's still afternoon. Just take my word for it and know that they're great. Except for when they tempt you into staying up all night and going into workshop the next morning on zero sleep. Just say no. It may be fun, but the words start to come out of your mouth in the wrong order.