Friday, April 30, 2010

sex and violence (for young people)

Why is sex so very, very scary? Why is it that, when a parent is considering which books (or movies, or television shows, etc.) they want to give their children, sex is a corrosive and dangerous bogeyman, but violence is a clean thrill? Violence is exciting, an adventure. It goes: bam!, zoooom, pow!, and makes the sound of pages being turned. Sex, on the other hand, is insidious. It will grow shadows in young people's eyes; leave burn marks on their imaginations.

There is something wrong with this.

There's something wrong when a mother tells me that her 14-year old son could not possibly read Cory Doctorow's Little Brother because the main character loses his virginity to a girl he's fallen in love with, but a minute later tells me how GREAT Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games is for him. Would you like to know what happens in The Hunger Games? Boys and girls fight to the death. They kill each other in an arena. It (and its sequel) is one of the most popular young adult books in the store.

Parents look uncomfortable when the word is mentioned. Say, "sex," and their eyes go sideways, for just a moment. Say, "murder" or "fight scenes" or "guns" or "slashing swords," and they might get a hopeful look on their faces and say, well maybe that will be exciting. Maybe they'll like it.

I shouldn't ignore my own complicity. I never recommend Melvin Burgess's Doing It, which is a novel of enormous heart and empathy, because it is drenched in sex. I feel no guilt in championing The Knife of Never Letting Go, which has moments of shocking and personal violence. I adore action movies, admire the elegant splatter of Tarantino and the absurd slaughter of Shoot 'Em Up. Lucky Number Slevin is one of my favourite movies, and a clever, stylish film that ends with two old men being suffocated in plastic bags and duct tape. And, yet, the sex scenes are what make me feel sheepish. If I'm watching it with someone, I can feel myself very carefully not turning in their direction.

The only excuse I can make for myself (and maybe for those parents too) is that, in my world, sex is more commonplace than violence. It's more real. It exists, with all its pleasure and pain and inevitable awkwardness, more often than stabbings and fights to the death. Think of it that way, and I'm lucky to live in a world where sex is sometimes more dangerous than violence.

Except that it shouldn't be.

Monday, April 26, 2010

for H. Whitney

Because, wherever you end up, you'll be amazing:
the world = your oyster


All of these are for fun, though some of them are for work too. Two of them are to keep my friends company (Fight Club with Carson; Catch-22 with Joy). The Keret is blowing my mind (you've got to taste him: "Fatso" was on This American Life). Just read a mad-fabulous story by Roddy Doyle that edges alongside werewolf territory in Stories. The science book is the perfect thing to read in bed because it makes me happy, except for when it makes me too excited and I have to haul myself out of the blankets to look up something on the internet because it's just too awesome to wait (though I can't love them all: D'Arcy Thompson with his dreadful spirals and profuse footnotes bored me so much I dropped the book on my face when I fell asleep reading him).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

volcano missives, part 1

For H., since your voyage across the Atlantic has been postponed on account of a volcano.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


My friend, the very lovely Kat Howard, has a story in this book, which is edited (in part) by the equally lovely Neil Gaiman. Stories comes out in June and is chock-a-block with authors who will make you swoon with their ability to grab you by the throat and make you say, "what happens next?" Through the magical generosity of Frank (head buyer at our bookstore), I now have an ARC to fill me with early delight.

(haven't you ever loved a book enough to kiss it?)
I immediately flipped to Kat's "A Life in Fictions," and it is as wonderful as it was the first time I read it. It's brief, but it trails behind it a deep shadow full of art, desire, and the fragile confidence that makes up identity. You are going to love this.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

this is my brain on bric and brac

There are very few things that make me feel as silly and immature as car trouble. Today, I managed to require both a AAA roadside assistance man and a tow-truck. Triple A guy was very nice. He explained to me, quite patiently and incomprehensibly, about batteries and fuel pumps. At one point, he lay down on the street and banged on something underneath the car with his fist while I attempted to start the engine. This seemed so absurd that I began to wonder if he was having me on. (Why yes, miss, this is a time-honored technique for curing automotive ailments. You just punch the car in the correct place, and away you go!)

Revelations acquired while walking the three miles between the repair shop and home:

1. These shoes are more comfortable than I gave them credit for.

2. There are multiple instances where someone thought it was a good idea to build an old-folks' home and a funeral parlor next door to each other.

3. There is something automatically mortifying about sitting in a car and waiting for someone outside the office of a psychic. The man was wearing dark glasses and had slouched so far down into his seat that I thought his shoulders were going to swallow his head.

4. I am a suspicious looking character. This poor guy thought I was following him and kept trying to look at me out of the corner of his eye, so he walked into a pole. I thought this was terribly funny, but I don't think he was amused.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

eat me

I really like Greek salad. The summer I spent in Prague, having been rather not thrilled by the Czech cuisine (which is hearty meatiness done to perfection), I practically lived on Greek salad, yogurt, and stracciatella gelato. And beer. Because in Prague, they are really proud of their beer (I just read that... it made me laugh) and the waiters always looked terribly put out if I asked for water.

The combination of flavors -- grassy cucumbers, briny olives, onions, tomatoes, and the pungent creaminess of feta -- is genius. Still, I've never liked how a bad Greek salad arrives at the table: a bowl of massive vegetable chunks, soaked in a pool of bad vinaigrette. What's the point of making a salad when all the components are almost too big to fit in your mouth? You get assaulted by singular explosions of flavor. I AM A TOMATO! I AM AN OLIVE! I AM A PIECE OF ONION SO VAST THAT I WILL POLLUTE YOUR BREATH FOR THE NEXT FIVE HOURS!

Which is why I am obsessed with and addicted to the following recipe. Everything is on a smaller scale and the addition of fresh herbs and lemon cut through the loud flavors with zing and sparkle.

Greek Salad With Orzo
(adapted freely from a recipe in the now sadly deceased Gourmet magazine.)

3/4 cup orzo
1 (15-oz.) can garbanzo beans
1 basket cherry tomatoes (or several normal tomatoes, whatever floats your boat.)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley (or more. I like a huge amount of parsley.)
1 tablespoon chopped oregano (or more.)
1 cucumber, halved lengthwise and chopped
1/2 red onion, minced
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives, slivered
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
1/2 lb. feta
romaine lettuce

Cook orzo according to package directions. Drain in a sieve and rinse under cold water. Drain well.

Chuck garbanzo beans, vegetables, herbs, and olives into a large bowl. Drizzle over the oil and vinegar. Throw in the lemon juice and zest. Add about 1/2 a teaspoon of salt and loads of pepper. Toss everything together. Add the orzo and crumble over the feta. Give everything a good toss and season to taste.

Chop up the lettuce and put it in bowls. Spoon the pasta/vegetable mix over and serve.

Improvise at will. As you can see, I forgot to buy tomatoes.

Friday, April 9, 2010

oh you funny, sunny place!

I moved north at the impressionable age of 14. Wanting to be cooler than I actually was, I adopted the attitude of pitying snobbery that I heard every now and then when I told people I was from Southern California. "Oh," I would say, "southern California." And then I would talk about the smog, how brown and flat it was at the bottom of the sky, and the lack of culture (as if I, at 14, knew anything much about culture, or the lack of it). The dismissal of Southern California became such a habit that I actually started to believe it.

I moved back south when I was 19 to dance with a small ballet company in Orange County. I lived in a bland apartment, but spent glorious hours at the beach, flew down highways late at night with hot air and loud music spilling everywhere, and took for granted the luxury of coming home from work and jumping, five minutes later, into the pool (in November). Still... Oh, southern California, I would say. Vacuous. Land of shopping malls. And the traffic, don't get me started on the traffic.

Last weekend, I drove down to LA with some friends. We went down for an audition (which was interesting, moderately encouraging, and which reminded me exactly how bizarre the world of dance is), and squeezed around the edges of that, we just enjoyed Southern California.

Some of the particular pleasures that I had forgotten:
Gleaming late night diners where the wait staff are all absurdly attractive, the counters are graced with beautiful desserts under glass domes, and the menu includes a ridiculously long list of salad dressings.

Reading the LA Times in the morning. My roommates and I used to save the crossword puzzle for after work, when we would alternate solving them with polishing off a bottle of wine and reading questionably humorous stories in Cosmo.

Wandering a boardwalk, or some other slightly seedy, but generally safe, place late at night, surrounded by cheap thrills. It smells like ocean and people all wear flip flops, like they're the only shoe ever invented.

Days like this.

Southern California has this strange disconnectedness for me now. You have to drive everywhere, so you're forever climbing in and out of the little air-conditioned chamber that is your car. I never used to notice it, but every day is this odd collection of snapshots, interspersed with stretches of temperature controlled air, familiar music, and a blur of speed. It's always possible that you could go anywhere, turn up in a place you've never been before. There might be a thousand reasons why you can't actually go driving off into the sun, but there's so very little that is actually stopping you.

(Except, of course, the traffic. That remains as bad as I remember.)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

march reading

The Varieties of Scientific Experience
by: Carl Sagan

I wasn't entirely certain what to expect from this book. The subtitle, "A Personal View of the Search for God," and the introduction by Ann Druyan (who was his wife and collaborator) gave me the impression that it would somehow be a reconciliation of the idea of God with the rigor of scientific thought. Instead, it is a systematic dismantling of the traditional idea of God. It holds up various pieces of fuzzy logic and unexamined belief and sets out piles of clear, gently expressed, scientific fact alongside them. It's not at all a vicious book. Sagan offers such enthusiasm about the world as it is, such abundant pleasure in the discovery of knowledge, and such absolute faith in both our capacity to understand and the vastness of what we attempt to understand. He's in love with the scientific world, and it's infectious. I get the impression that this was his religion: science, the discovery of understanding, learning what the world is in order to know it better.

Beatrice and Virgil
by: Yann Martel

This book is very strange. It is so filled with disparate, pointedly bizarre elements that I kept thinking, "Oh, man! You really shouldn't work." It's a story within a story (told in the form of a play, with dialogue mostly shared between a donkey and a monkey) and it's about stories -- the ones we make our lives into, or tell about ourselves. Put something into a story and it's easier to judge, to gloss over, to adjust and fine tune until it's closer to the way we wish it were. This should all be too convoluted and meta. I fully expected to remain unmoved.

Admittedly, the book has some personal advantages:
1. taxidermy
2. Yann Martel also wrote Life of Pi. I have read this book once, and I loved it so intensely that I'm nervous of reading it again.
3. talking animals
4. beautiful writing. I don't just mean a wash of gorgeous prose. Martel is precise with his words and his metaphors. He picks the ones that are exactly right, ignoring the easy choices and offering the ones that slice you open and make you bleed recognition (see: the passage about the pear).
5. three sentences that made absolute sense: "Creative block is no laughing matter; or only to those sodden spirits who've never even tried to make their personal mark. It's not just a particular endeavour, a job, that is negated; it's your whole being. It's the dying of a small god within you, a part you thought might have immortality."

It also has one enormous disadvantage: the story it is trying to tell is partially about the Holocaust. I am leery about the Holocaust in fiction. I don't like the taste of the easy manipulation that comes with the bad examples, and the horror of the good ones can temporarily devastate my faith in humanity. Somehow, Martel manages to avoid both. He has a light enough touch that the horror is terrible, shocking, and real, but it doesn't blot out the world.

I still don't know how the book worked. There are formatting and structural tricks, omissions and an ending that would normally annoy me, but I still feel better for reading it.

When You Reach Me
by: Rebecca Stead

I read this for the YA bookclub that I run at the bookstore. The first few pages made me groan because I thought, there's no way that any of the boys are going to like this. Then I read a few more and thought, there's no way that anybody who hasn't read A Wrinkle in Time is going to like this. Then I read a few more and a few more, and got closer to the end (it's a very brief book), and it suddenly became one of those books that I have to finish in one go, or else the real world is just going to be an intrusion.
(As a side note: everybody, boys included, enjoyed it. The discussion was intense. The morality of time travel. How it feels to know ahead of time how you're going to die. The cattiness of relationships. What if crazy people all really have something that they're trying to remember? )