Sunday, February 28, 2010

february reading

The Double Helix
by: James D. Watson

I started reading this because I wanted to know more about DNA, and I found it interesting, though less for the science (which made me feel like I was eavesdropping on a conversation about people I didn't know) than for the gossipy and unexpectedly sassy tone. You can almost hear the glee when he drops this sentence in at the beginning of chapter 20: "I was preoccupied with sex, but not of a type that needed encouragement." Have the mating habits of bacteria ever gotten such a titillating introduction?

The book is a description of a race as well as a discovery, but it manages to fit in some of the bizarre rivalry and secretiveness and sheer messiness of the people involved. And, of course, the thrill of winning. (It also makes me feel incredibly unexceptional, having not upturned the world of science and won a Nobel Prize by the age of 24.)


by: Ian McEwan

I loved Atonement so utterly and completely that my expectations for a McEwan novel are always unfairly high. I assume that it will move me to tears, keep me on my toes with shifting sympathies, and be a wickedly good story told on the edge of old-fashioned suspense.

This book made me sad. It's about a Nobel Prize winning scientist, but all the thrill of science has gone out of him and he shuffles along through middle age, cocooned in placid, depressing selfishness. There is nothing to like about him. Nothing. He is pitiable, cruel, frustrating, and sometimes disgusting. He is absolutely unsympathetic, and the entire novel felt like I was watching a piano getting winched higher and higher over his head while cringing in anticipation of the inevitable, messy crash. There are some sly and funny moments, but it's mostly a depressing portrait.

The Discreet Pleasures of Rejection
by: Martin Page

This is a bizarre little novel. It's about a young Parisian named Virgil whose girlfriend dumps him through a message on his answering machine, which is sad and ordinary, except that he doesn't remember her at all. The oddity carries on from there. Virgil's parents are in a circus. His best friend tells fortunes. He lives in an apartment building that is entirely occupied by prostitutes, who ask him to buy them cigarettes and items from the drugstore. It's absurd and completely unbelievable, but for some reason, this doesn't matter. Nothing seems real, but there are some moments that use all the weird and impossible details to hit, exactly on the nose, the feeling of being afraid that you've lost something that really matters, but you aren't sure whether you're making it up.

It didn't always work, but I enjoyed it. Except for the ending, which felt like the second of two and unnecessary clutter.

The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To
by: D. C. Pierson

I only picked up this book because of its cover. I am a shallow person. Let me find a picture of it.
Funny, right? I definitely remember drawing stories on binder paper while in school, though my monsters looked less like aliens and more like escapees from a rogue taxidermist's shop.

Back to the book. It was incredibly fun. I haven't been a teenage boy, but I imagine that this is just what it's like, aside from having a best friend who has somehow escaped the biological need for sleep. It manages to hit that balance between obsessive self-examination and awkward enthusiasm to make me remember how it felt to be a shy person in the crazy zoo that is high school, and how, even though it was a hundred times more intense then (at least, in my memory), some things still feel exactly the same now. And, best of all, instead of dwelling on adolescent angst, the novel delivers an adventure complete with unabashed passion for Science Fiction (and I capitalize those words on purpose: we're talking ray guns and monsters from outer space here), surging right past the point of ridiculous and not caring at all.

Monday, February 22, 2010

things that make me laugh (though they probably shouldn't)

Tonight, we did inventory at the bookstore. Which means that we spent hours counting books and little whatnots, including this particular treasure:
A nice little tin that will, apparently, gird your loins (quite literally) for the big event. Except that it seems to have a glaring hole in the list of contents:
Unless, of course, you're looking for the Safe and Effective Way to Lose Your Virginity (And Get Pregnant and/or Something Nastier). I was tempted to hunt down a couple of the Darwin Award condoms (which we also sell sometimes... hey, bookstores can be sassy too) and duct tape them on.

Also, I think I missed the boat on seeing Shatner as any kind of sexy. My first introduction to him was Boston Legal, so the immediate image that arises to his name is the stubby-fingered, rather bumbling, and most certainly mad, Denny Crane.


We counted an obscene number of Twilight books. It made me imagine what sort of place I might spend eternity in if I were a horrible person and offered no redeeming qualities to the world. It would be a library, one of those magnificent ones housed in a building so beautiful that it makes you sigh multiple times because you keep forgetting to breathe. And every single book in that library would be something like Twilight, in ranks and ranks of shiny black jackets. To complete the torture, the movie theater across the street would only show films like Michael Clayton.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

a reason to write two stories

About two years ago, I was limping around grumpily after having surgery to replace a ligament in my knee. I was going to physical therapy for endless hours of twitching my quadriceps or attempting to ride a bicycle, making close acquaintance with my sofa, and generally feeling sorry for myself.

One day (while sitting on the sofa), I read the following on Neil Gaiman's blog:

I'll also be teaching a week at Clarion -- more properly The Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop at UCSD -- this July (rather nervously, I suspect, as I've never taught before, and have no idea if I'll be any good at it). But you've got people like Geoff Ryman and Kelly Link and Nalo Hopkinson who know what they're doing teaching as well, so even if I'm rubbish it'll be okay.(You have four days left to apply for Clarion, if you've been putting it off.)

I had never heard of Clarion before, but Neil had written some of my very favourite books, some of the ones that I reread during my many hours on the sofa because they were comforting (not necessarily comforting in the warm and fuzzy way of comfort, but because they're the kind of stories that convince you that nothing else matters while you're reading them). That sounds like it could be fun, I thought. And I was getting tired of feeling sorry for myself, so I wandered over to the Clarion website, in a vague sort of way, and then wrote two short stories, thinking that it was at least something to do, even if there was hardly a chance I would get in.

At the end of June, I went to San Diego for six weeks. It was an experience that rearranged the furniture inside my head. It made me want to tell stories. It introduced me to some of the kindest, most intelligent, brilliant, strange, and wonderful people I have ever met.

The 1st of March is the deadline for applications for this year's class. Write those two stories, send them out, and open the door for a crazy adventure.

don't be a wallflower

I have many friends who dance at the drop of the hat. They dance in clubs and at parties; they skip and hop in the street; they bobble their heads and slide their heels to a rocking tune in the aisles of a grocery store. They dance because that is what they do. If you said, "Quick! Tell me something!" they would probably move before they managed to organize a word for their lips.

I have some friends who don't dance. Dance is an alien planet. Dance is something watched from afar, like the inexplicable behavior of some exotic creature revealed to the world only through meticulously edited nature documentaries.

I once had a friend (one from the second camp) tell me that the most frightening thing about dancing was the way you couldn't not be yourself while doing it. No fading behind shyness. It strips you of all the usual techniques that are so useful in deflecting attention from the things you want nobody to see.

That's the point, really. It's hard to remember sometimes, when you go into a studio and consciously make dance, but I think it's sobering, in a good way.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

not being shy

My friend wants people to show their book stacks. Mine is messy, guilt-inducing, and terribly large, so instead I'm showing a stack of books I'm particularly excited to read.

glass and hearts

I am in the middle of revising a story I wrote some time ago, about a dancer who has a glass leg (I thought that this was a terribly clever idea when I came up with it, but some time later I realized I took a hint from Anderson's "The Snow Queen" -- "Some people even got a little piece of mirror in their heart, and then it was quite dreadful. The heart would turn into a lump of ice.").

In any case, I'm trying to say, in a way that makes sense to someone who is not a dancer, how silenced you feel when your body (which is your voice and your brain all at once) abandons you. And then there's all the usual wondering about stories... Do the levers and strings all pull on the right parts? When I look at a story for too long, it starts to blur into a Rube Goldberg machine, with all these clanking, whirring, shiny parts that I want, so badly, to strike a match at the end and ignite a fuse to explode some sort of empathy in an unsuspecting head. But sometimes things don't quite line up and I end up with damp and disappointment...

I've always liked the idea of Valentine's Day. The idea of one day, even among all the ridiculous candy and fluffy cards and pink, frilly pieces of junk, that is devoted to love -- unabashed romantic, make room in the cramped space of your life for another soul, kind of love -- is sort of fantastic. I've never understood why I should feel sad for not having a valentine when it's so wonderfully incredible that anyone bothers to celebrate it at all.

My friend, Kat, says it smartly here.

It's late. All that morning wisdom that I hear about in Russian fairytales seems much too far off. I think it's time to put the story to bed for the night.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

things that make you prettier (to me)

There are certain things that, when they come together, create that particular collision that makes someone irresistible. Or, at least, attractive.

I like fellows who are light on their feet. There's something satisfying about a walk that is swingy and clear and unadorned. Free from fumbling. Bulls in china shops make me uncomfortable.

I like eyes that focus, the kind that look brimming with interest and responsive to varying degrees of shade. There is nothing so attractive as honest enthusiasm, and the eyes have it, if you do.

Now, the reason I was thinking about this is because a very handsome guy came into the bookstore the other night and I caught myself very unsubtly peering at the books in his hands; and I realised that I was revising my opinion on his handsome-ness based entirely on what he was about to read. I'm horrified at my own snobbery, but if you're bookish, it seems that your taste in reading will actually make you prettier. Or uglier. If you have a Cussler novel tucked into your pocket, you might as well be sporting a mullet.

He was reading Hammett, by the way. I thought: how quirky, and, what a nice looking guy.

I'm starting to think I spend too much time around books.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

if I were more musical

Mix me that cocktail of ice and water, won't you.
Won't you?
Won't you swizzle it up with a runcible spoon.
Don't add anything else to make it taste sweeter.

Don't let's play let's play pretend.

I would force this into a song.

Friday, February 5, 2010

different species and/or things about which I know nothing

Recently, I was talking to a friend about other friends who are not voracious, inveterate readers.

(I keep books in my bags, in my car, under my bed. I can't imagine a day without a book. I can't imagine the world without all the stories I've read stacked up against it. I imagine my friend is much the same.)

He asked me if knowing these people had expanded my horizons. Or something like that. He was joking, I think, but the answer is a serious shout of YES. Most of my friends speak the same languages as me. We speak fluent dance to each other. We speak books and writing. We talk about other things, of course, poaching the whole entire world for our conversation, but we're the same species and we understand each other. This is wonderful.

But sometimes I meet someone who is intelligent and articulate in a language that I've never bothered to try. Or didn't know existed. The conversation is awkward at first (sometimes it even dies and all is lost) because we don't have any common crutches to lean on. We don't understand each other, and this thrills me because I'm suddenly standing on the very edge of a different country where everything comes in different colors and smells are shifted ninety degrees... and the best part is when I start to see that this exotic, glorious wilderness is actually my own, ordinary world, just beneath an unfamiliar light.

The lovely Heather W., once told me that cyclists suffer more flats in the rain. I asked her why, and she said it was probably because the rain dislodged debris from the cracks in the road and lifted it up to attack the tires. I had never considered that. It was like bursting a piece of caviar in my mind.

Eric once showed me a particular kind of tree whose bark is smooth and red and astonishingly, strangely cold. For him, it was obvious and recognizable. For me, it was a miniature explosion. The world is suddenly not what I expected, and it's absolutely fantastic.

This is not to say that I don't love my friends who are cut from the same cloth as me (or at least similar: velvet/velveteen, dupioni/charmeuse, linen/poplin). They surprise, delight, warm, and challenge me. They are some of the most important people in my world and I love them. It's just that, sometimes, it's nice to get to know someone about whose world I know absolutely nothing.

Monday, February 1, 2010

things I still see, even after repeated viewing

1. Eadweard Muybridge was a 19th C. photographer who dissected motion with multiple cameras. He proved that a horse galloping experiences a moment when all four of its hooves have escaped the ground. He shot his wife's lover to death. He created the zoopraxiscope.

2. Roman Signer is a Swiss artist. His work happens. Explosions of paper. Water animated boots. The photographs catch him in the act.

3. I have never liked tentacles. Octopus, especially when served on a plate, makes me feel like my own skin is puckering and extruding suction cups. It's similar to the crawl I feel when I catch sight of the underside of a fern. After meeting my friends from Clarion though, I have a fondness for the idea of tentacles, if not the reality.

4. At the sockhop, there was applejuice and Coca-Cola. Chubby Checker sang "The Twist." There were clean white tennis shoes, pink poodle skirts, and buttoned up blouses with crisp scallops around the neck. Fathers danced. Daughters didn't even realise yet that this was unusual.

5. Remembrance Day is on the 11th of November. In England, they pin red paper poppies to coat lapels. They hand them out in the tube stations, and everyone looks like they are going to or emerging from the same place.

6. The Museum of Russian Art is at 5500 Stevens Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. It is the only non-profit museum in the United States that is dedicated to Russian art. If you visit when it is -20 degrees and white with snow, the trip across the street from parking lot to museum will make you feel like your lungs are paper thin sheets of ice that are liable to crack.