Tuesday, December 22, 2009

from the far edge of a puddle

Do you remember that game we used to play? The one where we lay on our stomachs at the edge of a pool, or a pond, or a puddle.

The point of the game is to identify the things that slide by, on top of the water. What kind of dragonfly? What brand of airplane? Is that a bee, or is it only a fly?

The rules of the game go like this: Don't get distracted by things above or things below. Don't look up. Don't look through. If you, even for a moment, remove your eyes from the upside-down, flattened world, then it is my duty to dip my thumb in cold mud and mark the score on your forehead.

I'm pretty sure you remember the rules. I'm pretty sure since there was that time you told me the story about the millionaire. The guy who thought that, if he could only get on the right plane, he would catch up with the ghost of his mother, perpetually caught on the route between San Francisco and Sarasota. He would wake up from the reclining seat's fake leather embrace, and she would be there, curled up as small as a loaf of bread, on the foldaway table beside him. He would ask her the secret to his favorite cake, which had figs and chocolate in it, both of which now made him cry in a loud and embarrassing way, and which she had never taught him how to make.

How many planes would he have to take? I asked. We counted two upside-down in the puddle, one American and one Japanese, but we were near the airport and everything flew too low to be considered a challenge.

At least a hundred, you said. But after that, it would be easy. I rolled over to see if you were kidding, because it didn't seem easy at all. The sky was just as blue over your shoulder and the planes were just as low, and then you laughed so hard that your thumb slipped and drew a stripe of slime right into my hair.

Games are really only fun if you remember the rules. Otherwise you could do anything. You could turn away from where you're supposed to look. You could see me curled up right here, the size of an apricot or the size of a trombone; and there would be no translation, no embarrassing linguistic mistakes, even though your country, where things are alive, and my country, where things are dead, have never been able to understand each other, except as a losing game of charades.

If you ever get to meet that millionaire, if you haven't just made him up, please tell him this: Ten words. Fifteen syllables. Three actions and three objects. One negative. Close, but keep guessing. You aren't getting it, so work on something else.

The correct answer is broil the figs; grate the chocolate; don't forget the lemon.

It's a message from his mother, not from me. I just said I would deliver it, if I ever had the chance. Now, don't look away or it will be your responsibility too. You'll have mud on your face and nothing to show for it, except the shorthand for a particularly difficult recipe that belongs to someone else.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

the way a december morning looks from a bench dedicated to wallace stegner.

A crow says "blaurk!" I think -- at least there's something of a "b" in there, though how they say "be" with that sort of pointed mouth I do not know.

"Blaurk!" means nothing to me, even though I'm sure that if I swallowed my b's and spat my k's, I might get just the gist of it for the grist and the grimmo.

There'd surely be something in there about the sullen blonde hair that crumples the hills. About that time when all the souls in the world decided they'd rather be birds, and they seeped out of their skins and put on coats of feathers, some of them white for ocean flying and some of them brown for hiding behind leaves. And they all ran fast to the edge of cliffs and ran straight off, expecting the wind to fling up their wings and carry them someplace else. Except they never learned how to fly, so they kept on falling, right into the sea, and their feathers were wet, dripping, and cold.

They took off their wings, and they took off their tails, and they abandoned their porous, tightly sprung bones. They wrapped themselves in coats of long grass, lined with dirt-thick roots and worn from the sun. They told each other they looked more handsome, like animals, or maybe like beasts. But, grass gets caught in fingers. It gets tangled in hair. It sticks in your armpits and itches your neck and if you're especially unlucky it swells up your throat. It never stays as green as you'd like it, or as short as you'd like it, or as lush and long and grey as you always wished it would be.

So they cut it off.

They cut it down to velvety fuzz, and then to nothing at all, and everyone was naked again. They had to put on their underwear, fasten their shirts, pull up their pants, button their coats. They did their best to forget the foolishness that happened. Everyone was almost successful.

The crows have no manners though. They go on saying "blaurk! blaurk!" and sometimes croaking to make the point. They know it's impolite to talk about someone in a language that someone has failed to understand. They know it's very rude. They keep on with it still, like those people at a party who laugh and laugh about something they said while you were in the next room.

Monday, November 23, 2009

climbing and heights

On Saturday, the lovely Eric and I went rock climbing. Rock climbing is not something I normally do. To be precise, it's not something that I'd ever done before Saturday morning. But, Eric makes everything sound like fun. He doesn't gloss over the difficulties, not exactly, but there is a definite gleam in the eye to urge you toward the conclusion that your day will be better for having done whatever it is than not.

So, climbing.

There is something incredibly strange about watching a person cling to a vertical wall and locomote across it with thoughtful pauses every now and then to consider the next perch for hand or foot. It's not a pattern of movement that my eye understands. The arcs and levers are much flatter; things pull in instead of stretching out. It all feels contained and taut, and there's a sort of thrill in the practicality of it as someone creeps higher and higher.

I felt like I was trying to speak another language, and failing to understand how it worked. It was fun to mumble the sounds though, and I have always enjoyed heights. When I was young, I used to go to the park with my friend. We would climb trees, and edge out along the branches, and jump out of them, falling through our arms and legs and folding into the grass. It was one of my favorite feelings to fall along this unchangeable route where nothing but gravity had a firm grip on me, and then to hit the ground with the satisfying jolt of reacquaintance.

Hello, here we are again.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

october reading

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
by: Jonathan Howard

This book was incredible fun, except for when it wasn't. I'm partial to stories about deals with the devil, and partial to stories about circuses and carnivals, and this is a novel about both. There were so many compelling, gory, sly, and touching fragments (yes, touching; it's not quite the word I'm looking for, but I can't think of one that's less generic... something that hits you in the back of the throat, anyway, or the bottom of your stomach), but they didn't stick together for me. I didn't feel the locomotive bearing down; didn't feel compelled to read at inconvenient hours. It felt like a box of shiny trinkets and, no matter how hard I shook it, it never sorted itself out into the wonderful device that I wanted it to be.

Lux the Poet
by: Martin Millar

I like Martin Millar. I like how briskly his stories move, and I like how they remain somehow stripped of padding despite the way they veer through a totally bizarre mash-up of things: ghosts and fairies and Led Zeppelin and drug addicts and sex and poems. He is very funny. But not funny in a slapstick sort of way. He lays out the absurdity of being a person, the way we can be so incredibly good and surprising right next to the way we can be downright hideous. I do think that I would be much more obsessed with Millar though if I had been a young person in the 70s, as opposed to not having existed yet. There's a flavor in his books that I feel I don't have under my skin. I can appreciate it, but I can't revel in it.

by: Neil Gaiman

is one of my favourite books. I find it utterly terrifying and comforting, and also the kind of book that is dangerous for me to read before bed because it invades my dreams. I read it again because it was the selection for the YA bookclub that my sister and I host at work. I had forgotten how much it feels like the stories I liked best when I was younger, the ones that turned corners of the world inside out so I could see that the shadowy things that I almost saw were actually real. It's a small-ish book, but it wraps around your head completely and lodges there, like there were bits of it that you already knew.

The Ghost in Love
by: Jonathan Carroll

I thought I didn't like Jonathan Carroll's novels. I really enjoyed some of his short stories, but disliked The Marriage of Sticks so much that it persuaded me to leave all of his other novels on the shelf. I only broke down and read this one because I was tired of everyone telling me that it was "my sort of thing, you know, beautiful and sad and full of weird stuff." I was secretly hoping that it wouldn't be my sort of thing at all. But there is a ghost in it who loves to cook, and talking dogs, and little pieces that really are beautiful, sad, weird, &etc. that made me want to thump the book's cover and say, "that's exactly right!"

The Wild Things
by: Dave Eggers

I thought that I would love this book, but it annoyed me so much that I wanted to yell at it every night when I read it before bed. I recently read an Eggers short story that knocked my socks off with its merciless wittiness and odd perspective. I was prepared to be similarly blown away by this incarnation of a picture book that I always found vaguely upsetting. I thought it would be like one of those weird little branches that people sometimes force into bloom by keeping them in vases -- extremely artificial and somehow fascinating because of how out of context it is. The novel grated on me though. It made the Wild Things into giant personifications of issues. It made Max into a child with issues. It made the story into one of those contemporary allegories about dealing with issues, which I guess might be what so many books that I do like boil down to, but here it was so obvious that I felt like I was drowning in it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

from a park bench on a november afternoon

The old man came toward us, assisted by a cane and wearing a yellow parka that hung, in modest and neon swags, over his shuffling posterior. He did not give in to the temptation to look away, but his eyes wobbled on the edge of sliding somewhere else.

"I remember then," he told himself. "Sitting on a bench like there was all the time in the world spilling, like fat and endless cats, into our laps."

He had started looking by accident, and now he had to keep going or risk looking shifty or embarrassed when he meant to be neither. His eyes held firm, and so did his face; and he was proud of himself until he discovered the noticeable pause that had developed between each of his steps.

Then had been fine, he thought. Back then, he had imagined he knew all sorts of things. Things that let him sit on a bench and pretend that he could say one honest story about the person with their shoulder pressed close into his. Not that he had dared to ask, in case he got it wrong. It was enough to have the gold and the blue and the green of an afternoon, a satisfaction to wallow in the thin sun with the knowledge that, if he tilted his head the slightest degree to the side, his cheek would bend the cool curve of her ear.

He put his feet down with care now, humming a little rhythm, just to himself. He could have closed his eyes if he had headphones, made believe that whatever song happened to be on was worth blotting out the world for; but he never walked with headphones on principle, so he kept his eyes open and shuffled past us, until all we saw was his back draped in yellow, and then even that faded around a corner, and he was gone.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

helpful hints for bookstore customers, part 8

Best beloved bookstore customers,

While I love books, and love talking about books, and even love spirited and lively debate over books, it really is not necessary for you to call the bookstore and tell me -- for a lengthy and dreary ten minutes -- exactly why a particular book did not plant an undying love in your own reader's heart.

I don't need for you to tell me that you think the author is not "the right sort of person." Or for you to describe exactly how disappointed you are that the bookstore gave him the time and space for an author event. I don't need for you to describe your astonishment that such a person, with such differing views from your illustrious self, ever had a book published at all.

Please remember: We are a bookstore. We mostly like you. We are not, however, your friends. Those ten minutes that you spent with the perforated plastic of your phone pressed to the folds of your ear are now irretrievably lost. They would have been so much better, so much more satisfying, if they had been shared with a friend. Over coffee maybe. Or tea. And in the forgiving company of someone who might actually say how your displeasure makes them feel.

With warmest regards,

Saturday, October 24, 2009

september reading, part 2

I forgot about this bit...

Poe's Children
edited by: Peter Straub

This is the first book I've ever picked up from the horror section of a bookstore. It has a terrifying cover: some sort of shadow box filled with dolls in pieces and eyeballs, shadowy and gruesome and one of those covers that I actually make sure to turn the book facedown on the bedside table because I can't stand the thought of it looking at me while I sleep. The stories themselves were mostly not the kind of horror that keeps me awake at night, but the kind of insidious, creeping unease that stuck in my head and invaded my dreams. This is an anthology of what Straub calls "new horror," and also, "beautiful, disturbing, and fearless." (His introduction is an interesting essay on genres, and the excitement of work that blurs or ignores the boundaries between them.) The stories are exceptionally well written. Some of them seem more effective than others, though I think that's to be expected with any stories that make a point of titillating fear... fear being such a personal thing, after all. They all excited me though, and I think it's because they all got around to the fear in such different, elegant ways.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

by: Haruki Murakami

Basically, Murakami makes me feel like I am an underachieving, lazy, lump of a human being. He does this by talking about his odd, obsessive, extremely effective routines in the most straightforward and everyday manner. At the end of the book, I had started to think that, of course, strapping on a pair of running shoes and training for an ultramarathon was the most obvious thing in the world to do. I should just start right now. Not to mention the writing of strange and brilliant novels. One just needs to start such projects and then finish them, and that is that. I still can't decide if I find this inspiring or disheartening.

Going Bovine
by: Libba Bray

There were parts of this novel that I LOVED (capital letters and all), and parts that I did not like at all. The first category is filled with the insane, wildly disparate bits that only stick together because of the solidity and energy of the main character. I believe in him, because he is rude and real and has problems that aren't laid out in soppy, vague issues, so I believe in the stuff that he tells me, even if it veers from the luscious desirability of his sister's friends to angels in combat boots and graffitied wings. The second category is for things that I found silly, or flimsy, or obvious ... the sort of things that made me feel like someone was whacking me over the head and yelling, "Have you got it? Have you got it? Are you sure?" It didn't entirely connect up for me; the lines didn't quite come together, so I ended up not being sure about the whole thing.

by: Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro is the kind of writer who peels your heart with thin, gentle, almost surgical strokes, laying it bare while hardly leaving even a fingerprint on it. And then he drops it into a vat of salt water. The shock is so huge that you can't remember the moment when it first hit you. The Remains of the Day is one of my very favourite novels, and these short stories don't come close to touching the huge, brain-breaking effect that it had on me, but they are still good in a understated way. "Quietly devastating" is a cliche that is probably tailored precisely for any description of Ishiguro's work. He somehow manages to present a story in such a clear, stripped down, disciplined way that you fill the space around and through it with all of your own experience. They're not opaque or vague in the way that kind of story can be. They just encourage you to slide your life into them, so when the devastating part comes along, it usually beats your breath out of you.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

unexpected consequences of reading C. S. Lewis as a child

It dawned on me yesterday that one of the most stubborn and lasting side effects of reading C. S. Lewis as a child, at least for me, has to do with LEFT and RIGHT.

My mom read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to me, a chapter at a time, as one of our bed time stories. I remember staring at the little illustrations. In particular, I remember how Mr. Tumnus with his skinny scarf was both sad and frightening, and how the celebrating animals that were turned to stone made my skin twitch. Still, I liked the book enough that my mom (a firm believer in the necessity of a book read aloud) bought a dramatization of The Magician's Nephew on audio cassette.

My sister and I listened to those cassettes over and over again. The tape stretched out sometimes and made Aslan's voice sound wobbly and strange. There is a part in The Magician's Nephew when the creepy Uncle Andrew puts two magical rings in Digory's pocket. The rings are green, and Uncle Andrew puts them in Digory's right-hand pocket. "Remember very carefully which pocket the Greens are in," he says. "G for Green and R for right. G. R., you see, which are the first two letters of Green."

I thought this made very good sense.

I have a contact lens case with two lids, one blue and one orange. In my mind, because of Uncle Andrew and C. S. Lewis, the blue lid should be for the left eye because "blue" has an L in it. "Orange" has an R in it, so, obviously it should stand for "right." The contact lens case makers must not have read The Magician's Nephew though, because they put the wrong letters with the wrong colors. Every time I use the case, I grumble at it. R! I think. L! Is it so difficult?

There are certain details in stories that I never forget. Sometimes these are grand, or creepy, or gorgeous. And sometimes they are incredibly mundane. Like a permanent attachment to the proper colors for left and right.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

books and pizza

So, my amazing sister, Shannon, and I are hosting a bookclub for young people at the bookstore (this bookstore being Kepler's, a place that both infuriates and tickles me on a daily basis). Our very first meeting is on the 13th of October at 5:30 PM. Our very first book will be Coraline by the lovely Neil Gaiman. There will be pizza. (Why will there be pizza? Our cohorts at the bookstore thought that this would mollify any fears of conflict with suppertime. It's all quite incomprehensible to us, who have always thought that dinner is not really dinner unless it's dark outside.)

Normally, I would be slightly mortified to tack up a verbal brochure for the infuriating/amusing bookstore here, but so far I've only received one lonely RSVP for a pair of brothers with names that really should be in a Lemony Snicket book, and the 13th is less than ten days away. This makes me feel faintly blue. Coraline is one of my favourite books. This is my poorly veiled attempt to bring shadowy edges with button eyes to the imagination of young people who have hitherto not experienced the delightful shivers of encountering the Other Mother. My sister and I are very much against the force feeding of books, even good ones, to unwilling young minds, but very much in favor of leaving the books out to be discovered.

And then my sister goes and quotes Roald Dahl, ususally something Oompa Loompa-ish.

So, please, if you live in the area and know any young people who would like to read Coraline and discuss it over pizza with a pair of only slightly book-crazed sisters, the information is here. RSVPs go to my work email, which is: megan(at)keplers.com (yes, I have a work email. I find this just as bemusing as you.)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

september reading, part 1

Two parts to this batch of books. I'm feeling talkative.

The Children's Book
by: A. S. Byatt

When it comes to Byatt, I'm torn. I hated Possession, found it dusty and dully irritating, though I probably read it when I was too young to let it get a grip on my imagination. The Little Black Book of Stories thrilled me, but in that infectious, chilling way where something lodges in your imagination and lingers despite any attempts to not think about it. There's a streak of cruelty through Byatt's work that disturbs me and fascinates me at the same time.

I read The Children's Book for work. I wouldn't usually volunteer to read a 700 page ARC, but I was curious. The novel is, in part, about stories and storytelling. It's about people who hurt each other, mostly from selfishness and claustrophobic self absorption, rather than focussed malice. It's also about England just before the first World War, and how that particular world crumbled and was lost. It's an epic, and I don't usually read epics because I find it difficult to care about characters when there is a legion of them I have to remember. Byatt throws in pages and pages of historical ballast, and sometimes I felt like I was getting a history lesson instead of reading a story, but her characters managed to latch onto my imagination through all the padding, and I couldn't stop reading.

There are fragments of fairy tales in there, stories within the story, that made me wish I could read the fictional book that contained the rest of them. I think that, in another life, Byatt could have been a stunning, creepily effective writer of doorstop fantasy novels.

It's lovely, old-fashioned writing, with a Narrator who feeds you the world and who knows more than you or anyone else. It bogs down in places, but that cruelty is in there to prick and shock.

The Ask and the Answer

by: Patrick Ness

I was madly obsessed with The Knife of Never Letting Go, so I was practically counting the days down until this came out (my hints to the kid's department at work being woefully ineffective in producing an ARC). I still think that Ness is a genius when it comes to the breathless, galloping pace of these books. I don't know how he manages it. Even when the story happens in an enclosed space, it feels like its rushing at high speed across vast distances.

I didn't like this one as much as the first one though, and I think it's because the story has less of the collisions and astonishment that comes from running away into an entirely unfamiliar world. I still want to know what happens next, and I still love the characters, but there's less of that desperate shine of strangeness that was so thrilling in the first book.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

why yes, Virginia, there really is still censorship

At my bookstore, we have a display up in honor of Banned Books Week (which is this week, the 26th of September through the 3rd of October). Personally, I think it's a rather silly looking display because "flames" made out of sparkly mesh fabric just don't seem very threatening, or even interesting to look at. But such unfortunate decorations are important if they're meant to remind us about our glorious, magnificent, essential right of freedom of expression, and the First Amendment that protects it. It's especially important when people don't know that books are still banned, that censorship does still happen, that there are still people out there who will try to put boundaries on your choices of what to read, and how to think, and what to say.

A woman and her son were looking at some of the books on our sparkly, unconvincingly inflammable table, and the son said, "Oh! Mommy, look at these penguins. What does 'banned' mean?"

The woman said, "That means people didn't want other people to read them. They took them away. But, that happened a long time ago." Then she turned to me and said, "Right? These books were banned a long time ago, weren't they? That doesn't happen now."

It kind of broke my heart to tell her that, yes, actually it does still happen now. There were five hundred and thirteen challenges against books that were reported in 2008. And Tango Makes Three, which is a charming picture book about two male penguins who adopt a baby penguin, was the most challenged book of last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.

There is a fascinating map that shows where books have been banned and challenged between 2007 and 2009, with little bubbles that show the reasons.

There are also ALA piecharts that show what sort of people try to get books banned, and why. I find it shocking and unsettling that the majority of challenges come from parents.

When I was younger, I hated it when someone suggested that I shouldn't read something. I would see it on the shelf, and it always seemed more tantalizing, more thrilling and exciting, because it had been deemed not quite right for me. No one ever told me that I could not read a book. But imagine if they had. Imagine if they had taken the book away, taken other ones as well, one by one, and put them somewhere tidied away and safe where I couldn't find them, where I wouldn't even know that they had ever existed. What a way to shrink the world.

So, in honor of Banned Books Week, read a book that some people think you shouldn't. Read it, and enjoy it, and take enormous, delighted pleasure in the fact that you can.

Friday, September 25, 2009

gently, but firmly

I saw my first Hitchcock film last week. It was Notorious, and it was pretty much what I expected: stylish black and white, wit and gleam and melodramatic music. Nothing that I particularly loved, but enjoyable, and I saw it at the Stanford Theatre, which makes most movies into a pleasant occasion.

I went with a friend who had never been before, so I got to introduce him to the gilded carvings and painted ceilings and plush red curtain. I got to see the helpless delight hit his face when the Wurlitzer organ rose from its trapdoor in the stage with the little Japanese organist perched on the bench and playing the closing music before he was even level with the stage.

We went to see Rope last night, because the lovely Heather said that we should. It was absolutely delicious. I loved it from the moment when the dreadful Brandon says that the man they just murdered will soon be resting "gently, but firmly" at the bottom of a lake. Gently, but firmly. Such off-handed and stylish cruelty. The story is quite thin, but it's told in such an interesting way, with these placid, long shots that actually move from place to place rather than cutting in and dropping out, that my imagination went into overdrive during the eighty or so minutes. It's the first film that I've felt such an intrusive sense of narration in. It made me think that I was watching events through the eyes of another character, someone silent and invisible and incapable of touching anything in the room. Which made me think of ghosts, which made me decide that we were watching the sadistic dinner party in the company of the murdered man's ghost. Which made the movie entirely more interesting.

And now I want to write a story told by a ghost about his murderers, though it has been done to excess and will soon explode across too many screens in the form of The Lovely Bones.

helpful hints for bookstore customers, part 7

Best beloved bookstore customers,

Please do not ask me how to say thank you in "my language." Not even if you are a dapper elderly man who I assume is only trying to be charming in a rather misguided way. I think that you will be disappointed to discover that thank you in my language is mostly similar to thank you in yours, with maybe a few small variations along the lines of thanks, or even thanks so very much.

This would be because I speak English, like you, and nothing else, except for a small grab bag of forgotten French.

So, merci bien! And, if it will make you happy, I suppose I could throw in an arigato or two.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

street date

I really like it when books come in ever so plain cardboard boxes with big strips of tape that forbid you from opening them until the precise, approved moment. It seems like something special. Maybe dangerous. Definitely exciting.

I even like it when it's a book that I have no intention of ever reading. At least it's an occasion.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

august reading

Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd
edited by: Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci

I couldn't resist this book. The title and cover and the fact that it contains stories by Kelly Link and M. T. Anderson, both of which I had never read before... Resistance was utterly, spectacularly non-existent. There are many things in this book that I don't have any personal experience with: RPGs and MMORPGs and The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Klingons, for instance. But there was so much that was and is familiar: the awkwardness of people understanding each other and the blinding joy of a singular enthusiasm.

According to good old Webster, a geek is an enthusiast or expert (or, a carnival performer who bites off the heads of live chickens or snakes, no doubt with both enthusiasm and expertise).

These are short stories for young people. All of them are, at the least, enjoyable. Some were wonderful and bizarre, and my favourites were "The King of Pelinesse" by M. T. Anderson, "Secret Identity" by Kelly Link, and "It's Just a Jump to the Left" by Libba Bray.

American Chinatown
by: Bonnie Tsui

I am so not into the whole Asian American heritage thing. My family has been here for so long that any connection I ever had to Asia is extremely thin and buried beneath a large mountain of ignorance. I would never have picked up this book except that I was asked to read it for work.

I've lately been fascinated with neighborhoods and how they develop into certain kinds of places with personalities and texture and tendencies toward setting particular interactions in motion. Chinatown is one of those weird uber-neighborhoods that appear in cities all over the world, and that is fascinating. The book itself though was a little flat. There was such possibility for pungent, overwhelming specifics, but instead it was informative, smooth. I kept putting it down.

By: Catherynne M. Valente

I wanted to love this book. I was prepared to love it because many people told me that I would, and because I've read some of Ms. Valente's other things that have left me feeling slavish admiration. Instead, I thought it was interesting. There was such lush, extravagance, and it was all shockingly beautiful, but for some reason, I never understood the story with the part of me that needs to understand it to make it something I'll cry over and rage about. Maybe I read it at an unfortunate time (I'm impatient with poetic things lately... I want inelegant, messy things that explode and stab you with their rough edges). I got parts of it. Parts of it felt like pieces taken straight from a dream that I had forgotten. And it's built on such a brilliant idea.

I did discover that sex scenes -- even very beautifully written ones -- begin to bore me after too many of them go past.

Save the Deli

By: David Sax

Another book read for work. I write reviews for work, but in them I say only the nice things. Everything that I like about a book goes in there, and their sole point is to make someone else think, oh maybe I should have a look at that. I said that this book was interesting, and that it made me hungry. I didn't say that it failed to convince me that Jewish delis are worthy of passionate, particular obsession or fascination, which I think should be the point of these quirky nonfiction books.

something to read on a stormy afternoon

So, it's not actually storming right at this very moment, but thunder did wake me up, along with flashes of lightning (though not much rain), so I hold onto hope that there will be more of it later.

At Clarion, the magnificent Keffy shared a story about advertising and robots and a dead world that surprised me into loving it to the point of minor obsession. It's now up at Apex Magazine. It's called "Advertising at the End of the World," and I am still obsessed with it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

excursions to neighboring countries

There is a cafe next to my bookstore that I go to almost every time I'm at work. There's something about a hot drink or a shot of sugar that is the perfect antidote to the dusty hedgehog-ness that I tend to lapse into while surrounded by books.

Today, in the cafe, I saw:

1. Four young men carefully sorting decks of cards around a chessboard with a tournament style timer off to the side. The cards were mostly black, with whooshing, swirly pictures and the words KNIGHTMARE CHESS emblazoned across the backs.

2. A middle-aged couple playing Scrabble. The woman was biting her lip and gripping a piece of hair in her fist while staring at her little regiment of tiles. The man was staring at her. He had a three-letter word down on the board, and his hands were folded in his lap.

3. An elderly man who picked up a cup of coffee from the counter and took a long handled spoon, which he examined, and then put into his shirt pocket, next to a small bouquet of pens.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

helpful hints for bookstore customers, part 6

Please, best beloved customers, please do not ask if we know the difference between abridged and unabridged. Just don't.

And seeing the movie version of something does not make someone unfit to read the book. Eyeballs can be used in different ways, you know, and watching a movie does not instantly negate your brain.

And referring to people who see movie adaptations of books as "those sort of people" is not, actually, a helpful thing to say. "Those sort of people"? What does that even mean? People who like movies? People who like stories? I don't think it means what you think it means, or even what you want it to mean. Do you only imbibe your fiction in unadulterated prose? Have you never seen "Breakfast at Tiffany's" or "The English Patient" or "Fight Club" or "The Graduate"? You poor, poor thing.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


On Thursday, I took a yoga class.

I like yoga, sometimes, as long as it doesn't stray too far into the pseudo-spiritual realm where people think that clogging the room with incense and chanting will somehow make you feel not only good, but miraculous. Enlightened. I like exercise that makes you focus your brain in your body. I like it when you have to think really hard about what you're doing and not much else. It's a relief. I get that.

What I don't understand is when people gush about how relaxing yoga is, how energizing, how serene and centered and peaceful it makes them feel. Every time that I've taken a decent yoga class, I emerge spectacularly exhausted. It's like all these alien muscles are forced to quiver for ninety minutes and then they barely have the strength to prevent me from falling on my nose when I roll up my mat. My shoulders think that I dropped a brick on them, multiple times. My hamstrings feel like they got stretched away from their bones, and then let go so they smacked their dear little selves into them.

This doesn't make me dislike yoga. Getting sore fools me into thinking I'm accomplishing something.

It does, however, make me wonder if I am doing something wrong when I'm teetering in some pose with a thrillingly polysyllabic name, dripping sweat everywhere, and pondering whether I might just not make it through this one, if my muscles might actually all fail at once and throw me on the floor.

Monday, August 31, 2009

why, yes, I am that ridiculous

I have a typewriter. It's an Olivetti rescued from the neglected depths of one of my grandma's closets. It came with a red and black ribbon that (astonishingly) still worked, despite having lived in the machine, unmolested, since whenever it was last used (30 years ago? 40?). It's a charming shade of blue and has hearty keys that make industrious banging noises, with the added excitement of flashing, tilting, springing movable parts that you can see by just taking off the lid.

I've been writing first sentences on it, the kind of ridiculous, diving board sentences that tear small holes in my imagination so light can get inside. I've been trying for 50. I don't write them very often. It takes me long enough to finish a single piece of paper, even in well-spaced and chunky typewriter letters, that it achieves a permanent curl.

There are many brilliant first sentences in the world. One of my favourites is:

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."

Which is from I Capture the Castle.

My typewriter ran out of ribbon the other day. It stopped moving, and it took me a little while to figure out why. I had to get new ribbon from the typewriter store (yes, there are still such things), and lift off the lid, and unscrew the tops from the little spools. I had to pull out the old ribbon and thread on the new, squeezing it into the narrow metal loops that hold it taut, and then I had to put it all back together with black ink on my fingers.

Fun. No, really, it was. So much more exciting than popping a new ink cartridge into my printer.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

sheer, unadulturated greed

Today, in a fit of ravenous desire to possess, I bought a stack of reading material. I really should not be allowed into places that sell used books, or really, books in general. But... the first three are from a library book sale and I bought them for the princely sum of a dollar each. A dollar! Three dollars for several hours, possibly even days, of entertainment. How could I turn up my nose at that?

It wouldn't be so bad if I didn't already have a massive stack of books to read. I counted them recently, hoping that a solid number would encourage me to rescue one from its neglected state of uncracked pages. Instead, I foolishly chase the shiny and new, and these languish. Some of them even have bookmarks ten or twenty pages through, but most have yet to be touched. There are seventy of them. Poor things.
It occurs to me that this habit of compulsive acquisition may say something about my personality. And also why libraries and curios and museums have such dusty, magnetic charm for my easily distracted heart.

Friday, August 21, 2009

july reading

I do realise that I've almost lost the entire month of August by now, but I did read some things in July and this, briefly, is what I thought of them:

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
This book glued itself to my fingers. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough, I couldn't read it fast enough. The speed of the story, the intensity of it, throttled me so that the only thing I could do was stay up long into the night and cram myself through the pages. Ness captures voices so finely and particularly that the characters burst out of them, and any extra description is just the layering of small detail because you've already heard them speak and you know, immediately, who they are.
It's not a subtle book, but it takes on a great deal of fear, anger, and violence, and the difference between running away from those things and facing them. It's the kind of story that needs the space that stripped down, broad strokes can give, and the characters are compelling enough so that you never feel like you are being dragged along behind them. You are inside the story with them, and you feel their world cracking open, and then closing in on them again. It's the most thrilling book I've read in a long time, as all the other ones that are meant to cause suspense and thrills have been distressingly tame lately. Not that they're necessarily bad, they just haven't been compelling enough for me to sacrifice my entire allotment of sleep to them.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
This is (as one bookstore customer described this sort of book to me) "a cozy mystery despite the killing." I love the conceit of a very young, very brilliant, and very spoiled girl, who is also obsessed with chemistry, as the unofficial detective investigating a murder. I didn't find any of it believable, and the weird thing is that once I got over that, it didn't bother me very much. Flavia de Luce is only supposed to be eleven, but she doesn't sound like any eleven-year old I can imagine, not even the most prodigious or precocious. It's an easily consumed book, sprinkled with quirky details about chemistry and postage stamps, and every now and then Bradley manages these elegant, shiny turns of phrase that satisfy completely, but I didn't find the mystery of it very compelling.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
I had been meaning to read this for several months. I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to it. It's a well put together story, and potentially a very important book because of the way it shows the world, and where it could be going, and what anyone with a decent amount of independent thought and desire can do about it. I liked the directness of it, the way it takes the plain honesty that some YA books can have and uses it as a way to deliver both a story about people and a story about technology and politics. It made me think, and it made me notice things. The characters feel like real people: they sound like teenagers and they do things that teenagers would do, and there's this whole mess of feelings and confusion and ideals that makes them seem more defined instead of less. I also couldn't put this one down.

Things I learned this week:

It's "Google-plex," not "Google-land."

We do not have any serious books on Opus Dei in our store. (however, I did meet a man who told me that he was a member of Opus Dei for 25 years. I had to tell him that the only thing I know about the organization is that Dan Brown makes use of it in The Da Vinci Code.)

Taxidermied horse heads are disturbing, even if they do have jolly looking smiles. They remind me of poor Falada in "The Goose Girl."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

confessions of a bookstore rat: awkward encounters

A guy came up to me tonight, holding Elizabeth Bear's novel, Dust. "Are you a science fiction reader then?" I asked. He stared at me for a little while, and then he said, "Yes." And, because I was feeling relatively friendly, I said, "Oh, what kind of science fiction do you like to read?" (I like to establish that I won't make a fool of myself by leaping blind into a conversation at the deep, unfamiliar end of the spectrum where real science fiction fans reside and where I feel like an imposter.)

The guy was a nice-looking, ordinary-seeming guy, but after considering the question for a little while, he told me that "it's hard to put into words." Then he wandered off while I was still trying to decide what to add to, "oh."

A little while later, when I had forgotten about him and the limping scrap of failed of conversation, he returned with his (I assume) girlfriend who was buying Cormac McCarthy's The Road. We were talking about McCarthy when, suddenly, he said, "Dark ones."

There are times when I fall off the edge of a conversation. Falling through nonsense, Alice-in-Wonderland-style, without anything in sight to grab onto. My eyebrows tend to make funny shapes when this happens.

"Dark ones, where people die."

Eyebrows. Eyebrows. Eyebrows. It was very quiet.

Eventually, the girlfriend said, "Uhm. I think he's answering your question. That one, from before. That one about science fiction?"


Five minutes before the store closed, a small man hurried up to me and said he needed a book. And that was it. He didn't blink very much, just looked at me and waited.

"A book?" I said. It's at times like this that you notice the thickly populated shelves looming at the corners of your eyes. "What kind of book?"

"Just a book. I need a book."


"Yes, fiction works." He waited, and I felt like he wanted me to produce The Book--the perfect and longed for without knowing you longed for it, but if you read it, it would complete your happiness--(that Book) by waving my hands and tugging it from a silk handkerchief.

When there are thousands of books in easy reach, it helps to plead for the winnowing power of specifics. "Mystery? Suspense? Funny? Sad?"

He shrugged, actually shrugged, and said: "Funny is good. I like suspense. Not too sad. Anything. I only have five minutes."

It was an opportunity to change someone's life, or at least their night, by picking that one perfect book that would explode in their head and make them fall madly in love with all the glittering, luscious shrapnel.

In the face of that crippling possibility, I turned away and picked up the most ridiculous book I could see. It was called My Goat Ate Its Own Legs. It has a violently yellow cover with two halves of a red goat.

He bought it.

My favourite quote of the day, from an interview with the fantastic Lev Grossman on Flavorwire:

"I do think people in cities need fantasy more. I have a pet theory about this, which is that the modern fantasy tradition started out as a response to the mass urbanization of the early 20th century. Cars replaced horses. Electric light replaced gaslight. Everything, at least in cities, abruptly became crap. A longing for something that was not crap sprang up, and expressed itself in the form of fantasy. I think that longing is still very much alive."

Fantasy as a longing for things not crap. Awesome.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


My sister, the lovely Shannon (aforementioned crafty genius), has started a blog. It is called "Ream of Zebras," which is a slightly geeky play on paper terms. So far, she has discussed tacky spin-off fairy tale books, the sleaze factor of American Apparel advertisements, and her current obsession: hunting down beautifully illustrated picture books (if you ask her about the newer edition of Thurber's Many Moons, you will see steam rising from her ears).

And, because it's a Sunday and Sundays call for happy music: Dr. Dog . Their album, Fate, (the only one I've explored properly) is full of folksy, blues and bluegrass-tinged, songs that make me want to run around in the sun and roll down grassy hills. (also, their website is bizarrely cute and full of things to click-click-clicky.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

fairytales and making things

My sister likes to make things. She always has. She also loves fairytales, and the two often collide. I remember coming home one evening when she was very small to find that she had made a wig from a plastic hotel showercap and yards and yards of yellow yarn. "I'm Rapunzel," she told me.

When I was away from home, she'd send me cards with tiny paper dolls stuck to them, all of them dressed in bits of ribbon and scraps from our mom's sewing pile (my mom occasionally makes costumes, so her sewing scraps tend to be glittery, or shiny, or furry). They bulged through their envelopes, and when I opened them, they appeared in only slightly battered glory: princesses, geishas, characters from ballets, caricatures of people we knew.

I told her she could do something with them. What, I wasn't sure. But she was busy with boarding school (she went off to North Carolina to study dance), and then university.

Now she's making things again. She has pulled out her stacks of fairytale books, examining Arthur Rackham and Kinuko Y. Craft and Edmund Dulac for clues as to what magic might look like. You can find her creations on Etsy now, under the rather mouth twisting name "Glackenschpack."

The mermaid is very sparkly.
My favourites though are the Harlequin and Columbine.

Here is Shannon, making things. Please go take a look at her site. She still gets excited to see the number of times a picture gets clicked on.

worldcon, part 2

One of the best things about being relatively ignorant when it comes to the world of science fiction is that I get to enjoy so many bursting caviar splashes of newness. A sampling:

My first time listening to a panel where Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Star Trek, Fijian hospitality, medieval Japanese diaries, and cultural appropriation are discussed, argued over, and connected together in a single hour.

My first time hearing the extraordinary Greer Gilman read, with boisterous, juicy enthusiasm, from her new book, Cloud and Ashes.

My first time seeing a Klingon dance to "Dancing Queen." (No, I do not have photos. Nor video. Yes, I know. Chance of a lifetime and all that.)

My first time hearing a Nobel Prize-winning economist (Paul Krugman) and a science fiction writer (Charles Stross) discuss the intersections between economics, science, speculation, and stories.

My first time hearing Neil read a Cory Doctorow story, and then enjoying both of them discuss the good reasons to give things away for free. (How many of you paid money to discover your favourite author? Neil asked. Not many. Loans and gifts, books pressed into hands by friends saying, you MUST read this.)

My first time being surrounded by several thousand people who love a certain kind of story, or at least a certain range of flavors, enough to spend five days celebrating them and enjoying the related trimmings.

And then there were the newly familiar bits that come from reuniting with dear friends, some of whom I haven't seen for an entire year. My five partners in crime: Kat Howard, Emily Jiang, Keffy Kehrli, E. J. Fischer, and Paul Berger. This is where I share some photos.
Blurred beyond redemption, but there's something I love about this one. Geoff Ryman wrestles Keffy while an almost invisible E. J. looks on.
My beautiful friends, basking in the multi-colored glow from the windows of the Palais de Congres.
At the bar in the Intercontinental. I LOVE this bar. They keep silver absinthe spoons on the wall and hourglass-shaped contraptions that drip water from miniature faucets onto sugarcubes on the bar. The bartender reminded me of Juliette Binoche. "Try this. Bite the ginger, then sip the drink. You'll love me forever." That sort of confidence might seem a little ridiculous when we're talking cocktails, but... they were pretty delicious. (If you find yourself in Montreal and happen to wander there, may I suggest either the "mojita" or the "litchik"? Girly, yes, but one is spicy and one is tropical, and both are filled with excessive deliciousness.) They even have chandeliers.
The other nice thing about being a convention amateur is that you get to meet an astonishing number of fascinating people. Sometimes this can take on the sort of desperate, nervous, jigging pressure that comes from people who are new in a field interacting with established figures who they admire, or covet, or want something from. I've been told it's called networking, and I don't like it, never have, not in dance and not here.

Neil says that the most fun part of a convention is the conversations, and he's absolutely right. Talking to people because they're interesting, or because they're warm and funny, or because they're saying something that you want to listen to, and not because you expect something from them, is fun. It's easy and you learn so much, without even realising. We met John Picacio on the first evening and he told us that the most interesting things happen at one in the morning when you least expect it.

After the Hugo Awards, Kat and I ran away from the hustle-bustle of congratulations and sweaty parties (the sheer number of parties going on every night turned two floors of our hotel into a fug of sweat-damp air). We sat in the Intercontinental's bar and planned to spend the evening quietly sipping our cocktails and nibbling on deep-fried goat cheese. And then people began to drift in (no doubt escaping the previously mentioned warmth of the parties). We talked to the beautiful, phenomenally articulate, lusciously smart Catherynne Valente. We watched Lev Grossman (whose novel, The Magicians, came out today--go buy it--and who wrote a very funny blog entry about WorldCon) get shriven by Larry Niven. Paolo Bacigalupi told us about the benefits of keeping at least a little of an internal filter.

Later, we had a long talk with John and Lou Anders, who are both kind and welcoming and (again) devastatingly smart, and they said that this was what meeting people at conventions should be like. Kat and I had been thinking that we wouldn't be going to any more conventions soon because neither of us like the nervous jigging about of "networking," and even if you try to avoid it, it seems to permeate the air. But this was fun. Talking to interesting people. Listening to them tell stories.

Lou gave me recommendations, which I wrote on my arm because I had no paper.
He also asked me why I was at a science fiction convention. And, it turns out, it's because of the conversations.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

worldcon, part 1

Just a little over a year ago, I had never been to a science fiction convention. I had never been to any sort of convention at all, and my one trip to a convention center was a single confused and amusing experience as the unbelieving guest of a friend at a very large Easter service. (Who knew that church services included laser light shows, hip hop music, and meticulously edited video? I’m afraid that, when the pastor invited all us disbelievers to raise their hands and wave them in the air while divinity made a stab at our hearts, I felt the sudden urge to giggle.)

Just a little over a year ago, the two things that popped into my head when I heard the words, “science fiction convention,” were:

Diana Wynne Jones’s Deep Secret.

Galaxy Quest

And then, almost a year ago exactly, I was at the end of my Clarion workshop and I knew a little bit more about speculative fiction, and my 17 fellow students (by then 17 friends who I couldn’t contemplate never seeing again) were talking about conventions. They sounded like an excuse for visiting each other, and for partying, with some lectures and the giddy bits of meeting really interesting people thrown in.

But, I said, will there be people in costumes? Possibly speaking languages that don’t actually exist? Will there be some extravagant, bloody, eyeball-bursting murders of fashion? Will the bizarre be flaunted? Will we feel like a too large school of fish running through a too narrow sluice, flapping and bumping and knocking? And what, exactly, are the Hugo Awards?

And now I’ve just arrived home from the 67th WorldCon in Montreal. Here is a picture of me and five of my Clarion friends after the Hugo Awards ceremony. Please admire the beauteous Emily Jiang and Kat Howard, and the handsome Paul Berger, Keffy Kehrli, and E. J. Fischer:

The Graveyard Book won the award for Best Novel, which made me happy because I love it, and love all of the joyous, sad, beautiful adventure of it, and because Neil is a wonderful and generous person, as well as being one of my favourite storytellers in the world. Many other excellent people won silver spaceships balanced on a rock and a collage of maple leaves, and many other just as excellent people did not, but were graceful nevertheless.

I was going to write about the things I really liked about the convention, and the things I really did not like, about the odd goodness of spending five days with people you knew very well for six weeks and then didn't see for an entire year, and about the late night party that has almost convinced Kat and me that we may go to another con after all.

But my eyes are wilting. So, I'll save that for later.

Instead, here is a short story from the Guardian website. "The Massive Rat" by David Mitchell. When I started reading, I thought, oh no this seems dull. It isn't though. And the end is like the deaf aftereffect of something breaking.

And then, "A Fork Brought Along" by Dave Eggers, just because it's so blackly funny.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

something new

I love getting my hair cut. I love when you ignore it for a while and it becomes hopelessly uninspired and the only thing you can do with it is wear it in a ponytail or look like a tumbleweed.

And then one visit to the mad, wonderful Wendy at Posh and it's sleek and effortless and you need so much less shampoo.

on the good and bad of being a bookstore rat

When I was little, I read a book about Degas and the Paris Opera Ballet. The only thing about it that I remember (aside from the reproductions of pastels, which I found boring... I've always preferred Degas when he plunges things into shadows or sketchy charcoal rather than his diaphanous, light-filled ballerinas.) is that they call the students of the ballet school "les petits rats." I don't remember why they call them that, but assume that it's because the little dancer children sometimes resemble rats scuttling down corridors.

Which is sometimes how I feel when I'm at the bookstore. (and the fact that I got started on that rat thing is just evidence of how dance entrenches itself in your brain if you let it, ready to spring into action at the most barely tangible suggestion.) I scuttle back and forth between the shelves, ferrying books to their respective sections, climbing ladders into corners, sometimes (but less frequently than you might imagine) answering questions for customers ready to admit that they can't find what they want, and rarely, but most happily, doing my best to produce the book that will satisfy someone's heart's desire.

A friend of mine recently asked how working at a bookstore affects me as a writer and a dancer, and I have to say that it's really not much different from any other not-too-ornerous part time job. There are very nice things about it. Being around people who believe in books, listening to authors talk about books, being forced to look at books on subjects and in flavours that you would never glance at otherwise. There are not so very nice things about it as well. Extricating yourself from awkward conversations, getting scolded by customers for your failure to remember every book mentioned on NPR in the last six months, interpreting the usual lapses in organization and communication, waiting, waiting, waiting.

It's interesting to be surrounded by books, and particularly interesting to see the ones that are new, or suddenly remembered, or strange but inexplicably popular. I've had a more varied reading diet since working at the bookstore, mad veering from Ogden Nash to Ian McEwan to men who play out their mid-life crisis in stamp collecting. But you also have the usual mix of fun and unpleasantness that comes with helping people spend their money. It's retail (though admirable, worthwhile retail), and I can't say that it contributes to either the dancing or the writing (except that I stay up too late too often and am often tired), unless you count the experiences that always come along with interacting with other people.

Though I think the scuttling has improved. I may soon develop a stoop and misshapen pockets from trying to squish too many bits of paper into them, and then I'll really feel like I belong in The Wind in the Willows.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

something nice

So, to make up for the grumpiness of last post, let me share with you some things that have made me happy in the last 24 hours:

Fabulous interview with Shaun Tan (glorious creator of The Arrival and Tales From Outer Suburbia) on Bookslut.

Story from the Guardian that Yann Martel will have a new book coming out next year. The story (holocaust allegory with donkey and monkey in tow) sounds a bit improbable, but I so enjoyed Life of Pi that I don't care and will look forward to it with glee.

A short film that reminds me of some picture books that I used to read.

A dance film that is sexy and gorgeous and not lame.

So, a small quartet of things nice and pleasant and not grumpy at all (except maybe the black snake, but snakes can't help being hungry).

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

helpful hints for bookstore customers, part 5

If you see a girl standing at the register, please know that this is not an invitation for you to approach her with conversation that insults both the event that the store is hosting and the girl herself.

Please do not imagine that you should say things like:

"These women, they are telling lies. Lies. I am a perceptive kind of guy, real perceptive, you know? And I can tell you that these women are lying. I can tell when people are the sincere sort and when they're liars. You're too young to know this sort of thing. You just don't know. How old are you? Huh. When I was your age, I was travelling India. You should travel. You don't know anything about the world, you just got your eye closed and they need to be opened. You may think you've got them open, but you can't see anything."

And then, when the girl, rather tight-lipped, says that, actually, she has travelled, please don't say:

"Well, you're only talking the western world. That's not going to help. Your eyes are still closed. You don't know anything still. You don't know anything about Asia."

And then, when the girl points out the (rather obvious) fact that she is, in fact, Asian don't then say:

"Well, it's not like you know anything about it. There's that culture and that history and that language, and you're just ignorant of it all. You need to learn something about the world."

And then, when the girl tells you that she really can't stay there and talk to you any longer, and that you might have your opinions, but she really doesn't agree with them or want to hear them anymore, please do not say:

"God bless you. You'll learn."

So much rage. Also, disbelief.

Many thanks.

different kinds of books

So, my friend, the lovely Damien Walter, has written some strong words about the Booker Prize longlist. And, while I can see his point, I can't say that I agree with them. I think the demarcations between genres (literary fiction, mysteries, speculative fiction... and the broader ones that run throughout: quest, romance, swashbuckling adventure, creeping psychological horror, and etc.) are crumbling and porous. They always have been, and lately they seem to be so faint and so fine that you wouldn't know where to place them.

There is a spectrum, of course, and I have to admit to a certain prejudice that usually keeps me from picking up any book with a spaceship on the cover, or the words "fantasy epic" on the back, or anything that mentions Fifth Avenue in close proximity to an illustration of a woman with heels and shopping bags. I don't think I'm unusual though in having literary crushes on Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan and Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link and Patrick Ness and Angela Carter and Peter Carey and P. D. James all at the same time. I like to read different kinds of things (Because who wants to read the same thing all the time? How boring is that?), and what I like best of all is a story that explodes into your head with the need to exist, full of everything that matters and an irreverence for the things it uses to get there.

I haven't read A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book. I read Possession and was bored by it, but thought that most of her Little Black Book of Stories was creepily effective. Her work is permeated with fairy tales, ghosts, magic, monsters, and a streak of sly cruelty that I find unsettling. In my head, I think of her as a fantasist (along with Margaret Atwood, who won the Booker in 2000 for The Blind Assassin).

I'm reading Sarah's Waters's The Little Stranger right now, and it's a story about a haunted house. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (shortlisted for the Booker in 2005) can definitely be called science fiction (it made me cry and I thought it was good, though I am really still in love with The Remains of the Day).

At my bookstore, we have tables of new fiction, much of it the kind that comes out in classy trade paperback form, with matte covers and decent paper and elegant cover design. Many of them have little round seals that indicate their award-winning credentials. Granta Best Young American Novelist. National Book Award. Pulitzer Prize. Booker Prize. More and more of them sound truly weird and wonderful, and when you turn them over to peruse the backs, words like "surreal" and "genre-bending" and "imaginative" pepper their descriptions.

I have met people who say the "Science Fiction" section makes them nervous, but they clutch armfuls of Borges and Calvino and Saramago. "Where can I get more of this?" they say, and I'm more than happy to take their hand and introduce them to M. John Harrison and Ms. Link and Jonathan Carroll. I might also lead them over to the display we'll no doubt put up for the Booker Prize books, both past and present, and help them pick out a ghost story, or a story about clones in love, or a story about a boy and tiger lost at sea who discover a magical island.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

june reading

You would think that a trip to Hawaii is the perfect time to swallow down a great stack of books. I assure you that it isn't. Not, at least, if you are hauling several thousand pounds of copper wire to the recycling center, chopping down banana trees, and going camping with 60-something members of your extended family. I usually read in bed before going to sleep, but in Hawaii, I skipped all that and just clunked straight into unconciousness. Still, these are the books I read.

The City and the City
by China Mieville
This book hurt my head while I was reading it. It is set in two cities, somewhere like Eastern Europe probably, that exist on top of each other, in the same place, only kept separate by the insistence that the residents of each meticulously unsee the other. It's a wonderful idea, a totally bizarre and crazy one, and it makes your brain have to twist around corners to picture it. It felt like looking at those drawings that are two things at once--a goblet and two faces; an old lady and a young one--but your brain can't see them both, so it flips them back and forth, back and forth. The actual story is a murder mystery, an investigation with the quiet, grey desperation of the hardboiled type, and I didn't find those aspects as tense and dangerous, or as satisfying, as I wanted them to be. But there's this scene of a shooting across the two cities that explodes with weirdness and frustration and it's absolutely fantastic.

A Natural History of the Senses
by Diane Ackerman
Love this book. It is crammed with thoughts and facts and descriptions about the senses, and about how what people sense shapes their interaction with each other, with the world, with themselves. Reading it was like wallowing in the glory of being a physical creature. It suddenly felt so intensely luxurious to be human.
I bought it as research for the novel about perfume that my friend, the lovely Kat, and I are going to write someday. But the thing is dripping with tidbits and ideas: psychological dwarfism, a museum in Japan that has human skin tattooed by master tattoo artists in its collection, the untranslatable specificity of music...

Jitterbug Perfume
by Tom Robbins
There is so much about this book that made me giddy.
There is so much about this book that made me impatient.
It's a romp. It's ridiculous, over-the-top, completely strange, and distractingly beautiful. It is also tiresome (at points and briefly) and repetitive when it bangs certain things against your head in slightly different shapes in case you didn't receive the proper bruises the first time. It starts with an ode to beets. It includes a mad perfumer who wears a whale mask when contemplating scent and believes the dinosaurs were wiped out by the sensuous overkill of flowers. There is quite a lot of sex. There is also an extraordinary sentence which goes: "The highest function of love is that it makes the loved one a unique and irreplaceable being."

The Angel's Game
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
This book disappointed me. Maybe I was looking forward to it with too much slobbery excitement. I adored The Shadow of the Wind and wanted to read this one in the same rush, staying up all night to devour the wonderful, odd version of Spain where stories bleed out of all the shadows.
The characters irritated me. There was blood, but it was boring blood without any weight behind it, and the ending folded everything up in a way that made the rest of the book seem silly. I skimmed the last hundred pages.

I also read the 55th/56th issue of the Sonora Review, which has two of the most disturbing covers that I've ever seen on a magazine. Highlights: tributes to David Foster Wallace and a story by the man himself ("/Solomon Silverfish/") that made me wish I had read him before so I could have appreciated his work while he was still in the world. Also, Etgat Keret is interesting, spiky, and loud on the imagination.

Monday, July 13, 2009

helpful hints for bookstore customers, part 4

Please do not say that you are looking for a book called "Metamorphosis or something" and send me dashing happily off to Kafka and then to Ovid, full of delight that oh here is a request I don't even have to look up on the computer how lovely, only to have you say, sometime later, that it's actually a business book you're looking for.

The quickest way to find a book: ISBN number. Saying that you read about it in the NY Times a few months back, that it had the word "red" in the title, and that it may have had something to do with murder is not quick. It can be fun. It can be a treasure hunt. It may turn up all kinds of excellent books you and I would never have glanced at otherwise. But it's not quick. Just so you know.

Your children have good taste. I don't care whether they're clutching piles of Rainbow Fairies books or hanging onto D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. They're reading, figuring things out, standing at the shallow edge of a crazy, wonderful ocean and deciding that they want to get wet. There are so many incredible books for kids and I would love to offer up my own favourites, but please, please don't say "no, you can't read this." It will only make them want to read it more anyway.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

yet more of the story in the library

So, that story that the lovely Kat and I are working on? That one we've been writing on Twitter because we are possibly mad? We finally realized (or, were informed of the fact by perceptive people like my sister) that it's actually quite difficult to read a story on Twitter. So we made a "Vampires in the Library" blog (do you notice how I sidestepped the italics? not quite ready to commit to something long enough to require italics.) and are collecting it there in chunks that are comfortable shapes for reading. I typed up the first chunk and took the liberty of smoothing out transitions (sometimes the 140-character bits sounded something like Hah! Well, HAH! HAH! HAH! POW! BOOM!), adding names where we left them off, and removing ampersands (as much as I enjoy their bulky curve) in favor of "and". I didn't make any large changes though, as tempting as it was when seeing the whole thing and wanting to run off after all the interesting bits hanging from the edges.
The blog is here.
I also went to see a performance this evening... I so miss dancing for people. I mean, I believe, utterly, that everyone can dance, should dance, even if you only ever do it alone where nobody can see you. But... There's something about dancing for people that drags you out of yourself in an entirely different way, and I have to think about it more to say exactly why that is, but I really, really miss it.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

sparkling trees and flights of stars

Fireworks make me happy. The glittering blast of color falling in fragments on black, black dark. Such extravagance. Explosives and chemicals and bright, cheap packaging all in the service of something so pretty that lasts no time at all.

Though I have to say, seeing boxes and boxes of them piled on top of each other in busy stores is a little strange.

At least a small fire extinguisher stands ready to avert disaster. (I wonder though, how much can one brave red canister do against three aisles of pyrotechnics?) We resisted greed and only took a single box.

Oh, the anticipation. I can't wait for it to be dark.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

in which we have much fun

My friend, the lovely Kathleen Howard, and I have strange conversations. If anyone overheard us, they would think that we were either mad or irretrievably unmoored from reality. This evening, we discussed linguistics. Which somehow led to us discussing elderly vampires in the British Library (a picture of the Library here, from The Nonist). Which, somehow, led us to discussing resurrections.

We decided to write a story about it all. And, for some reason, we decided to write it on Twitter. 140 characters is a challenging allotment for two people fond of long sentences. It isn't finished yet, and I don't have any idea where it will head (we alternate passages and we haven't planned anything), but this is how it starts:

Russell Malconperry had a certain arrangement with the janitors who cleaned the British Library. They would stay out of his reading room, and he'd help with the vermin control.

I think the rest can be found here. At least, the rest that we've written so far. I'm not sure how the Twitter tag thing works, but I think that's the right link.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

a goodbye

Sometimes, the words I need to use seem to be worn out from too much use. They aren't thick enough anymore; they don't have the breadth or the depth or the bottomless echoes that they should.

I'm sorry, for instance. What does that say? I am so sorry. Better? No, not really.

My insides are stripped out, hollow, stringy, and pithed. The ribs crumble, the lungs unexpectedly deflate. This lack, which I never expected, stretches out the skin and fills it with something heavy and hard to move.

No, better off with keeping I am so sorry and leaving the rest.


Ashley Taylor was a woman of magnificence. When she danced, she swung her arms and threw back her head, and she was a mad, glorious creature who ate the world with abandon. Her hands sliced up space and lavished it on everyone. She was beautiful and smart and full of warm, golden humour. The corners of her eyes squeezed into charming points when she smiled, and she always looked like she was about to say something either wicked, or delightful, or both.

She gave the kind of hugs that make you feel the entire day just got better. I will miss her.