May 2008 Archives

Don't Panic

Sunday was Towel Day. Every May 25, those who are so inclined carry a towel around with them in honor of the late, great Douglas Adams, whose Hitchhiker's Guide trilog-ish advised readers to always have a towel ready to hand.

I happened to be moving my friend that day, so a towel actually came in handy. Periodically I would dig it out of my bag and use it to mop my face, hoping someone would ask me why I was toting a lavender dishcloth around with me, but no one did. I guess Douglas was right: carrying a towel really is just common sense.


The following day, of course, was Memorial Day. In honor of my dad and all three of my grandfathers, all of whom fought in wars, may I suggest my most favorite war book to you:

The Things They Carried


In the stories collected here, Tim O'Brien uses his experiences in the Vietnam War as a jumping-off point for a series of memories/fantasies that shiver just on the edge of magical realism. They manage to stay on this side of the gap because O'Brien creates a convincing jungle of thick emotion- -- fear, hope, love, rage -- where the realities of war begin to seem as unreal as the legends and myths he weaves into the narrative. (If you are wondering, my dad enjoyed this, but said it didn't really reflect his experiences in Vietnam. Still a good book though.)

The Wood Wife


I've probably read Terri Windling's The Wood Wife twenty times since it was published in 1996, and obviously I love it. Windling's lyrical and imaginative descriptions of desert scenery and culture were the main reason I wanted to move there all through my impressionable teen years.


Just once I would like to read a book where a wise, long-haired Native American makes his sweat lodge out of willow branches and lights the fire and plays the flute and listens for the spirit voices and then DOESN'T hear any mystical voices, and catches a cold from staying outside too long.

Heroine Chic


I just finished Stephanie Meyer's new book, The Host. It's your standard body-snatching alien fare, except that it's mostly told from the POV of one of the female body-snatching aliens. Meyer gets around the challenge of creating a totally foreign consciousness by explaining that once in the human body, aliens become mostly human.

"Mostly human" is a good way to describe Meyer's female characters, actually. They are without exception distinguished by an inclination to fall in love with men who think for them. And the men that these heroines love are invariably uber-competent. The centerpiece of their love affairs seems to be the woman's feeling of relief that she doesn't have to make decisions anymore, because X is so strong and good that he can do all that tedious thinking on her behalf. It's Lois Lane and Superman told over and over, except instead of being capable and curious and independent, Lois Lane in this case just sort of sits on the couch all the time waiting for Superman to do something cool.

As irritated as I am by these women, it took me a long time to notice the resemblance between Meyer's characters and the heroines of Anthony Trollope. Trollope was a nineteenth century English writer, like Dickens but with more romance and less satire. I love his stories for his realistic portrayal of people as neither all good nor all bad, and his creation of characters who are not unduly dramatic. (Not unlike me.) However, for all their realism, once his heroines fall in love they tend to abandon all responsibility for thinking and decision-making to the objects of their affections.

The difference, I think, is that Trollope's characters can snap out of it when snapping out of it is warranted. If the love interest proves to be unworthy, or makes a wrong decision, the heroine hesitates and frets and ultimately makes the right choice on her own. She wants to blindly follow his lead, but her good sense won't let her. For example, in Trollope's Nina Balatka, Nina's lover, Anton, asks her to search her father's things for something belonging to Anton. She is reluctant to spy on her father.

" 'Dear Anton,' she said, appealing to him weakly in her weakness, [Editor's note: heh.] 'if you did but know how I love you!'
'You must prove your love. [...] You must comply in everything with me.'"

However, Nina eventually refuses to spy on her father. (I haven't finished this one yet. Possibly she gets all spineless later. But as of page 132, she's doing well for herself.)

By contrast, Meyer's characters can't ever snap out of it, even when their Supermen start to get abusively controlling, or just plain physically abusive. In Eclipse, the third in the Twilight series, the heroine's vampire boyfriend refuses to "permit" her to see her best friend. When she still tries to see the friend, her boyfriend at various times locks her up, disables her car, and physically restrains her. In The Host, the heroine's lover smacks her around quite a bit. He does it because she's been body-snatched and he thinks she's not herself anymore. Regardless, he's hitting her and she's going on about how dreamy his eyes are when he's mad.

Ok, so why do I continue to read Meyer's books? For all that I think she's misguided when it comes to what is romantic and what calls for a restraining order, her characters do come to life for me and her stories move along at an exciting pace, and, well...Honestly? I'm just a big dumb dog for vampire books. There, I said it.

Read Stephanie Meyer's books if you want something to carry your brain off for an afternoon. If you're not into mindless fun, avoid them like the plague.

Birthday Letters

I've been reading Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters. I picked it up idly last month, remembering that a long-ago friend had mentioned Hughes and wondering what reference I was supposed to take from that. (In this way I can continue a conversation for years after the other person has stopped talking.)


The book is a series of poems that Hughes wrote to Sylvia Plath, famous author and his wife, in the years after she killed herself, and they are lovely, mostly. Except each one takes a little piece of their lives together and crystallizes it and looks at it fondly from all angles and then ends in some variation of "that was a good day, and now you are dead." I haven't lost anyone close to me. Maybe this is how you react after a death -- specifically, a suicide -- re-examining every moment of what came before as you do after a breakup or betrayal. It gets exhausting. I have to read it in bits.

On top of this, I occasionally find his phrasing to be incomprehensible, which is probably because I managed to avoid taking any poetry courses in college except for the Romantics and never tackled Milton at all.

See, for example:

Stupid with confidence, in the playclothes
Of still growing, still reclining
In the cushioned palanquin,
The nursery care of nature's leisurely lift
Toward her fullness, we were careless
Of grave life, three of us, four, five, six --
Playing at friendship.

-Caryatids (2)

I get the gist, but the stuff at the beginning swamps me a little. But as I say, I am stupid about poetry.

Still, it holds my attention. I keep thinking "how nice to be immortalized by a Poet Laureate," forgetting that Plath immortalized herself. And perhaps I should be indignant on her behalf, that her estranged husband mined her madness and sadness to such good effect. But it seems to me that the personal stuff is irrelevant by now, and time has burned away their private betrayals from the art they left.

Which is not to say I will ever get over the shit that Abelard said to Heloise in their letters. Some guys you just can't forgive.

Printer's Fair at Fort Mason

If, like me, you wish you were doing bookish things this weekend but are sort of sick of everything you're reading, you can take a trip to the printer's fair being hosted by the Pacific Center for the Book Arts.

"The fair brings calligraphers, printers, bookbinders, book artists, and dealers together under one roof to display and sell their work," says the website. You can also take workshops on everything from creating your own books to marketing and selling your work.


This is not my book art.

Books in the news

R.L. Stine recently announced that he's letting a bunch of kids bully him into writing more Goosebumps books.


For those of you who missed out on Goosebumps in your youth, this is a series of scary stories for the 7 to 12 year old set. Stine began writing them in 1992, a sweeter decade, when 7 to 12 year old kids still were kids, and didn't have makeup stores geared to their demographic in shopping malls. (Click here to check out that fun bit of trivia. Notice that the store's demographic actually begins with six year olds, meaning you can start using makeup a full year before you start reading Goosebumps.)

If Stine really wants to scare the kids, I recommend tossing out those tired old haunted castles and living corpses and focusing on what's really scary: bad hair days, unreliable meth dealers and STDs. Stuff that will really speak to his demographic.

Stine's new series is called Horrorland and the first four books (Revenge of the Living Dummy, Creep From the Deep, Monster Blood for Breakfast! and The Scream of the Haunted Mask ) are available now.

The Art of Letters at the Maker Faire

My fellow and his dad go to the Maker Faire every year. This is a huge, two day celebration of the DIY spirit, and for my fellow and his family it's kind of like filling a warehouse with an all-you-can-eat buffet of fine, fine chocolate. But chocolate that you made yourself!

This image is from here.

After five and a half years, I finally got curious about this Faire. (My curiosity is as curious as a cat, but it's a cat who sleeps all day on the radiator and has to be forcibly woken up to eat.) As I suspected, the Faire offers some displays related to books, writing and visual storytelling. My little ears perk right up.

Interested? Why not check out some of the following:

Make your own unusual books
"Learn quick, easy bookbinding techniques, such as Japanese stab bound book, and get a peek at SFCB's other book arts, letterpress printing, bookbinding, and papermaking classes."

Make your own calligraphy & suminagashi marbling
"Try your hand at elegant lettering. Expert calligraphers demonstrate using metal pens, quills & reeds. Then, marble paper with bright colors using the Japanese suminagashi technique."

Make your own cartoon characters
"Learn the art of cartooning and visual storytelling while learning the basic skills needed to both draw and create compelling characters."

Make your own simple, single-signature book
"Quickly create books from standard letter-sized paper with a simple bookbinding technique perfect for any small book, such as a journal, zine, or guest book."

Super stenciling
"Learn how to print the easy way using stencils. Print your stencil of choice on a tote bag or wallet to take home with you. All materials and instructions provided."

The Maker Faire is going on this weekend, May 3 and 4, at the San Mateo Fairgrounds. Day tickets are $25 for adults, $15 for students,and $10 for kids 12 and under.

Check out the full list of workshops here.

This image is from here.