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.