Monday, May 29, 2006

Judging

I haven't been posting these last few weeks because I've been assigned the role of first-round judge in a literary competition. I've spent my evenings reading through manuscripts of varying literary quality. Some were downright crappy, some were overly-ambitious or pointless, others were just plain dull as dirt. One manuscript has finally emerged however, as a clear favorite to send to the second round of judging.
The experience has been an odd one. I was happy at the start when I could confidently eliminate a novel after reading only one chapter. Then I dug a story out that was beautifully written, but just too similar to a memoir I read last year. At this point, I started dreading equally, on the one hand, having nothing from my batch to send on, and on the other, finding a gem that would require me to write a competent defense of its merits.
The gem was found and the defense is written. I feel really good about my choice and am looking forward to seeing how far it goes toward the prize.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Allen Kurzweil

Some years back came across a wonderful novel by Allen Kurzweil called "A Case of Curiosities". The setting: eighteenth century France. The main character, Claude Page, a young boy with a talent for drawing and a fascination for mechanics. The story: a rollicking adventure through Claude's apprenticeships to several questionable benefactors and tradesmen, including a lascivious abbe and a pornographic bookdealer. I found Kurzweil's own passion for minutiae and intricacy as well as silliness made for a great read. (Warning: if you decide to give Case of Curiosities a read, I would strongly suggest having a dictionary handy. The man loves words.)
So, today as I was pricing the new arrivals for the children's section, I found a young adult novel by Kurzweil called "Leon and the Spitting Image". I was really curious to see how Kurzweil's voice translated into the juvenile market. I'm only into the book about 20 pages, but so far it's pretty good. He got off to a slightly shaky start I thought; maybe dumbing things down a bit as he got comfortable with the genre. But as the main character, Leon Zeisel comes to life, the story is taking off. Present are the characteristic puns and love of word play as well as appropriately weird elements. I have no idea where the story is going, but I trust Kurzweil to take me on an enjoyable adventure.

Update: Finished the book and found it really enjoyable. I've even been inspired to take up embroidery again.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Hair

I believe that good hair is the ultimate accessory. Unfortunately I don't have it. Beautiful hair can transform a bad outfit to an "interesting" outfit, can make an unattractive person "stylish" and can subtract years from an aging face. It's an accessory that money can improve upon, but can't necessarily buy.

Which is why most of us women are rabid when it comes to spending way too much time and money on the appearance of our hair. Appearance being the operative word. Like a well-tailored black shirt that slims, good-looking hair is generally an illusion.

I've only met a few people who actually like and have a good relationship with their hair. Most people, regardless of how silky their locks, are more than willing to share with you the details of their daily styling nightmare.
Take the cute blonde I hung out with the other night; perfectly straight, shiny, bright blonde summery hair. I told her I thought her hair was really beautiful and then I learn that it's been colored, exhaustively ironed and then sprayed down to hide the fly-aways. She, on the other hand, admired my frizzy mop, which to even approach "ok", has to be doused with pricey shampoo/rinse-out conditioner/leave-in conditioner/styling gel and a brief stint with a hair dryer. And that's how it goes.

I blame media and advertising. For years we've all been sold on the idea of a magic formula that can fix whatever ails your hair. And it's all just bullshit. Either you were born with it or you have the time and money to make it look that way. That's the bottom line. No amount of "special brunette curl-enhancing, anti-frizz conditioning, color-boosting, shine-intensive serum" is going to put things right with my hair. I'll never be the adventurous cross-country chick who with one tug of her knotted 6-foot ponytail, can disassemble an entire burger stand, then playfully shake it off as she climbs back into the camper with her exquisitely hirsute companions. "We too, would feel your pain if it weren't for this product" is what the advertising companies want us to believe of thier models. Again, bullshit.

I go to an expensive salon every couple of months to get a cut and color. I foolishly get my hopes up each time. This will finally be the stylist who will scientifically factor in the shape of my face, the curl of my hair, my height, the color of my eyes, and the date of my birth in order to create a spectacular low-maintenance style that suits me perfectly. I want our interaction to be an intensive in-depth discussion as if my hair were an unsolved theorum of Einstein's and this young graduate from Beauty School is just the genius to solve it. Alas, I always leave looking pretty much the way I came in minus the gray and a couple of inches of dead-ends. Sometimes worse, because they don't seem to know what to do with my curls. I can see the sense of failure in their eyes as they pretend to admire the final results. "Don't you look pretty?"

I think a true test for beauty might be the reality show "Survivor". A month in the wilderness without proper sleep, showers and primping quickly shows us what we are all an apocalypse or a paycheck away from.

I envy my husband. My nickname for him is "The Cat" because like a cat, he can wake up and look exactly the way he did when he went to sleep. He shaves his head to a barely-there quarter-inch. He can do this himself without having to spend a ton of money on a stylist. He can make a bottle of .99 cent shampoo last for months. Unfortunately, I don't have the bone structure of a Sinead or Portman to pull this dream off.

I fantasize about wigs. Not the cheap "grandma going to church" wigs, but whole wardrobe of them such as they might have at SNL. Black women don't feel any shame for wearing what is obviously fake hair; it's just another accessory. I can't wait until we white women come to the same conclusion. I want about twenty of them; long, short, straight, curly, blonde, red, brunette. How fun would that be?

I like my hair for the most part. It has its merits. And I'm sure that if some other woman were in charge of it, she could make it look pretty rockin'. I'm just not that patient. And even though I know it's a futile farce, I'll still keep spending too much money on styling products and still let myself occasionally believe that everyone around me just came by it naturally.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Clockwork

I haven't used an alarm clock in years, but every morning, despite whatever activities I indulged in the night before, I'm up by 8:00. Why is that? Let me set the scene. Around 7:15, my four cats begin performing their daily, hunger-fueled passion play. Gosalyn, the aging tabby, jumps onto my wobbly nightstand and proceeds to gently rock it back and forth, all the while monitoring my level of somulance. If she decides I'm not sufficiently engaged in her antics, she'll start batting the metal chain switches on the tableside lamp. This is the cue for Nguyendell, our youngest to begin his clumsy patrol of the headboard. Back and forth, back and forth he saunters, generating the sound of claws scrabbling against wood and balance-correcting maneuvers. Now Nippy hops up onto the foot of the bed to see how he can contribute. He's fat and sweet and contents himself to sniff gently at my face, tickling me with his whiskers. He punctuates this with soft, breathy baby mews, right in my ear. The final participant is Lena. She has no particular routine, but somehow manages to incite a WWF cat throw-down. Suddenly there are cats wrestling all over the bed, popping each other with deft rabbitty kicks. Just this month, they've added a new knock-out move to assure I'll get my ass out of bed. Whichever cat can manage it will climb atop the headboard and then leap off, landing square on my chest. At this point I join in with a loud stream of pre-coffee sailor smack and send them flying in all directions.
I'm amazed at their creativity and persistance. Just this morning, Nguyendell discovered that he can actually climb up into the boxsprings through a hole in the netting. I felt like the character from The Princess and the Pea as I felt his head butting up against the underside of my body.
You got cats? You know what I'm talking about.
As annoying as it is, it's reliable and often cracks me up. I haven't been late for work in years.
You can view my little buggery brood here:
CATS

Friday, May 05, 2006

Valley of the Moon

Ever wonder what you could accomplish if you really set your mind to it and devoted all your spare time to one endeavor? When I lived in Tucson, a friend encouraged me to visit The Valley of the Moon. By day, a flat, relatively non-descript, fenced-in lot dotted with a few handmade "buildings". But by night, it is completely transformed into an incredibly magical and unique environment.
George Phar Legler, the creator of the Valley, was a career mailman who spent all his spare time and money on his vision. The vision? Nothing short of a wonderland. Using crude materials such as concrete, glass bottles, coins, and stone, he single-handedly sculpted and dug his way through the property to create paths, grottos, huts, an ampitheater and underground passages.
I arrived, as instructed, at dusk. The guide coralled our small group to a waiting area as the stage was being set for the evening's performance. The surroundings were bleak and unimpressive. As night fell however, twinkling lights sprung up along vague shadowy paths. We were set to begin our journey. The guide carried a torch and led us to the first character in our Alicesque adventure; I believe it was the white rabbit. Here in the Valley, he had his own perch along a crude handmade wall which sparkled as the light hit on bits of colored glass and old coins. The rabbit told his bit of the story then dashed off and we proceeded along down more mysterious winding paths to encounter a cheshire cat, a hookah smoking worm and various other creatures. The details of the "play" have become fuzzy for me over the years, but what remains clear was the sense of magic that infused the whole experience. You don't find that often as an adult, but the Valley postively dripped with it. About midway through our tour, we were settled into a wondrous man-made hut. The building was round with a thatched roof. A large fishpond took up a third of the room, fed by a rocky waterfall. Small white christmas lights strung overhead bathed the room with an intimate warmth. There were about ten of us that sat inside, and I don't think any of us ever wanted to leave.
Another remarkable feature of the Valley are the underground rooms. Mr. Legler was known for his fascination with burrows and interconnected passageways. We entered a little stone house and were led down a stairwell of worn dirt steps. The guide told us that these passageways covered much of the property, but because George wasn't exactly an engineer, they were too unsafe for us to walk through. This particular one was reinforced and took us a short way where we emerged near the ampitheater for the farewell. At every point along this journey, regardless of the story being performed, there are countless details to hold your attention. A folk artist of the highest order, George Legler carved and decorated every surface with whatever bits and pieces he could scavenge.
For years George lived his dream, hosting magical performances for schoolchildren. His age and health took their toll though, and he quietly faded from public view. Sometime during the late 1980's, a few area students began to reminisce about the Valley and took it upon themselves to find out what had happened to George. They went back to the Valley, which was by now much neglected and overgrown. There, they discovered George living in his underground passages, malnourished from his diet of evaporated milk and vitamins. He was transferred to a nursing home and a group of concerned citizens took it upon themselves to restore the Valley for a new generation of children. And there you have it. I highly recommend a visit if you find yourself in Tucson. It's something you and your family will never ever forget.

Links to more info:
Valley of the Moon Homepage
Volunteer Page
News Article

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Worlds Collide

In my post entitled "Memory" I jokingly stated that my knowledge of children's books doesn't serve me outside of work. That I couldn't walk into a bar and have someone eagerly call me over to ask me a kid's book question.
Well, it happened. Last night, as I was having a beer with a friend, one of my customers walked over to excitedly tell me about scoring a rare kids book on ebay. We talked about the book as well as the publishing market for children in the 1930's.
I'll be damned.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Psst...Hey Little Brown, over here

The latest installment from my 10 year old niece, Miss Megan.
The heartbreaking world of lost promotions and high fashion.
Sorry for the length. Hey, girl likes to write.
And if you're like me and had never heard of Bubble Tea, here it is:
Bubble Tea


Five o' clock. It was almost time.
I was about to get my
big promotion in Renee Magazine.
The big time director of Renee Magazine,
Harold Dean, was going to call me to
notify of my promotion.
I would be a model searcher, who searches for new
models for our new clothes.
I would travel the world,
searching for the perfect model, to model our
perfect new outfit. After this
I could be a catwalk model and clothes
designer in Paris My hopes are up.
I just know I'll achieve my dream, someday.
Ring rang the telephone.
I immediately jumped up from the couch,
to see if this was him calling me.
When I got to the telephone,
I paused for a moment. I closed my
eyes, praying that this was him,and I'd
get my promotion.
I could see me modeling on a catwalk and
traveling the world
with new outfits to introduce to the world.
I would be sitting in my office,
counting my millions of dollars.
I couldn't wait any longer.
So I grabbed the telephone
and pulled it up to my ear and said, "Hello?"
"Yes," he said. But before he could say anything else
I said, "Yes, I know who you are And yes,
I'll accept my promotion now"
I smiled and waited for him to say something.
"Yes, I know you've been waiting for your big promotion
but I had just found another model searcher, and
I'm afraid you don't get the promotion," he said.
I stopped smiling and my eyes began to
water. "You don't need me?" I bawled to him.
"You found another person?" I slammed down
the telephone and ran crying up to my room.
I slammed myself, and hid my crying face in a pillow.
I turned myself over. My dream was shattered.
I needed that promotion.
How was I ever going to achieve my dream
if I never got the promotion?
So I took a glance at the clock. Six.
It was time to meet Sarah and Julie at
the Japanese restaurant for dinner.
So I changed into my brand new outfit that I chose
out of the Renee Catalogue, and then took a
look in my pocketbook. Twenty dollars.
Just enough to get a plate of seaweed
wrapped fish cakes.
I collected my car keys and got in my Volkswagen
and drove away.
Sushi wasn't going to cheer me up about my promotion.
Nothing would cheer me up about it. It was my
darkest hour.
Maybe I should just give up my career.
It would be much easier if I had no
silly promotions to worry about.
Or I could start my
own magazine and earn millions without
worrying about Harold Dean.
Right now was not the time to think.
I was too hungry to do so. I had
finally arrived at the restaurant.
I looked around the parking lot, looking
if Sarah and Julie were here. And they were.
I saw Sarah's BMW and Julie's Hummer.
I looked in the mirror and tried to smile
and look happy.
So I locked my
car and walked in the restaurant.
I smiled at the waiter as he led me
to the table where Sarah and Julie sat.
I walked up to them and smiled,
still trying to look happy.
"Hey, girl" said Julie.
I sat down in the booth, smiling.
"So," said Sarah."What did he say?"
I tried my best to look puzzled.
"Who?" I asked like I didn't hear her.
"You know," she said. "Did he say yes?" I still
tried to look puzzled. "What on earth on are
you talking about?"
I said quizzically. Sarah glanced at
Julie, annoyed. "Seriously, Chanel," she said.
"Did you get the promotion or not?"
I quickly went silent. I looked at them.
I didn't say a word.
The waiter suddenly saved me.
He had come to deliver our bubble tea. Then he asked,
"Welcome, may I take your order?" Sarah put down
her menu and said, "Yes, we all would like seaweed
wrapped fish cakes,"
I looked up from my menu and said,
"I'd like mine to go,"
Sarah and Julie looked at me. "Hey," said Julie,
"We came her to have dinner together.
Why do you want to leave so soon?"
"Wait!" said Sarah.
"You still haven't answered my question.
Did you get the promotion or not?"
My eyes began to water.
I pushed my out of the booth and ran to the women's
bathroom, bawling my eyes out.
I pushed the door opened and ran into a
stall and slammed the door.
I sat on the toilet and covered my face.
Sarah and Julie opened the stall door and saw me.
"What happened back there?" asked Julie.
Sarah whispered something into Julie's ear.
Then Julie said, "You didn't get the
promotion, did you?,"
I cried even harder.
They pulled me out of the bathroom and
back to the booth.
Julie handed me my sushi and bubble tea.
Sarah handed me my coat and purse.
"You might want to go home and relax," said Sarah.
"We'll call you in two days to see how you're doing."
I put on my coat and snatched up my sushi
and bubble tea.
I took the keys out of my purse, and drove home.
When I got there I immediately
went up to my room and changed into my pajamas.
Then I went into the bathroom and fixed
my hair into a bun.
I poured my bubble tea into a glass and reached into
the drawer where my chopsticks were.
I dumped my sushi onto a plate and slipped in Gone With
The Wind and sat on the couch with Coco, my Chihuahua.
Half an hour later my seaweed wrapped fish cakes
and bubble tea were gone.
The movie was almost over, and it was ten o' clock.
Coco had left the room and fell asleep.
I turned the television off and went upstairs
to brush my teeth.
I reached the bathroom and brushed my teeth
and washed my face. I climbed in bed and turned on the
lamp and began to read my book.
Coco had awoke and jumped in my bed.
The clock read eleven. It was bed time.
I would awake in the morning
and go to my work and face Harold Dean, and see who
is the new model searcher is. I'd be miserable.
I just hope I don't go bawling into the bathroom.

It took me forever to get to sleep.
I was thinking about the promotion.
I didn't get it. Every new model searcher would
bragging about traveling the world searching for
new models. I was torn apart.
I just hoped it wasn't Kelly Sparks: otherwise known
as my nemesis.
Ever since the "accident" that happened
at her birthday party,
she would never forgive me, and decided to
steal my promotion away from me.

I finally fell asleep. In the morning I felt a
tiny bit happier.
I took a long hot shower and styled my hair.
I put on my best outfit and shoes.
I ate a breakfast of pancakes and sausage
and scrambled eggs with a cappuccino.
I prepared another cappuccino for work.
I grabbed my purse, papers, and sketches and
went out the door. I jumped into my car and drove
to my work building.

When I arrived, I smiled and walked in. I
said 'hello' to the other workers with
their cappuccinos and espressos.
I reached my office door and took out my ID card
and placed it in front of the scanner.
The door opened and I walked in and sat in my
swivel chair.

I suddenly noticed a piece of paper on my desk.
It read:

"Dear Chanel,

At ten o' clock in the morning, I want you to
report to my office and meet my new model searcher.

I'm sure you remember her, vaguely.
We still have to fill in the position
of co model searcher.
You might be the person to do it! But anyway,
I left you a fresh sausage
and egg biscuit for you in the lounge.

Sincerely,

Harold Dean."

I did as I was directed. I immediately went
to the lounge to find a hot
sausage and egg biscuit. I ate it quickly,
then I rushed
off to Harold's office.
I reached the door. I opened it and saw Harold,
sitting in his swivel chair.
"Hello!" he said. I didn't pay attention to
anything else he said. I had my eyes
on the lady with clipboard.
She was the new model searcher.
She had brown hair, green eyes, and a
few freckles on her nose.
She had long legs that were perfectly moisturized,
from her tons of lotions and moisturizers.
Oh my word I thought. It was Kelly Sparks.`

Monday, May 01, 2006

Erasers

Don't you just hate a bad eraser? The ones that crumble or smear an obnoxious orange streak across your paper? What could possibly be the reason for putting a crappy eraser on a pencil? I'd rather have no eraser than one that serves basically as a crayon.

E. Nesbit

I was well into my twenties before I discovered E. Nesbit. Despite ravaging my local libraries as a youngster, it took me that long to come across her books. I have to say, it was worth the wait. She was a phenomenal young adult writer, despite the fact that she never intended to be. My introduction began with the trilogy which starts with "Five Children and It" and it was love at first read. She was imaginative, original and wrote for children without in any way talking down to them. After reading the 'Five children" trilogy, I spent the next few years tracking down other titles by her. I discovered "The Enchanted Castle", "The Wouldbegoods", "The Railway Children" and "The Magic World". I'm a sucker for magical adventure and these books never fail to deliver a sparkling, witty, unique environment in which to lose yourself. I highly recommend them to any parent searching for quality writing in this genre.
And if you already enjoy E. Nesbit, you should try Edward Eager. He supposedly patterned his writing style against that of Nesbit and did quite a good job. His books include "Half Magic, Magic By the Lake, Magic or Not, Seven Day Magic, The Well-Wishers, The Time Garden, and Knight's Castle.

Charlie Bone

A couple of books from a young adult series came into the store recently and the cover art and storyline compelled me to give it a read. I took home the first book in the series entitled "Midnight for Charlie Bone" and settled myself under the covers and began to read. After one chapter, it was clear to me that this author knew next to nothing about the craft of writing. Her premise was good, the timing of creating a new series in the magical adventure genre was good, but the story itself was just plain bad bad bad. I've read thousands of children's books over the years and I honestly can't remember a time when I've been so appalled by poor writing skills. I actually had to turn the book over several times while reading to be absolutely sure I wasn't holding an uncorrected proof. There is zero character development, zero coherence from one scene to the next and bizarre little elements that serve to distract from becoming engaged in the story. For instance, what is the purpose of describing a ten year old female classmate as having trouble with her high heels on some worn stone steps? HIGH HEELS? Excuse me? Not only that, but she has long red painted fingernails and the author goes out of her way to assure the reader that the girl's purple hair dye is spray-on. Is this a trollop or an exclusive private middle-schooler? The kids in this school are under strict instructions to wear their school robes at all times, but apparently that's the extent of the dress code.
The scene changes are increasingly erratic; one minute the characters are having breakfast and two paragraphs later they're navigating the same complex passageways to make it to supper on time. The reader can never really get a sense of the purpose of anything introduced into the story. It seems that the author just wrote from a stream of consciousness mindset. As if she tired of one setting and then hustled us along to the next weird event that is supposed to move the story along. I am despising this book. Without a smidgen of hyperbole, I can attest that my 10 year old niece writes better crafted stories. Granted, hers deal with the world of high fashion, but she's much more in tune with how a story flows.
I'm wondering if the rush to publish popular genre fiction is compromising quality writing these days. And I don't even mean "quality" as in Philip Pullman or E. Nesbit. I mean quality as in a well-written story. A story that has been coached along by a good editor. This book could've been good with the help of a qualified editor, but instead, it's an absolute trainwreck.

Searching

I sell vintage children's books online. Obviously, one of the reasons most people visit my site is because they're searching for a particular book. Sometimes I have it, sometimes I don't. But I'm starting to think that many more people visit because they only partially remember aspects of a beloved book and are using keywords to try to puzzle it out. I get lots and lots of inquiries in which the person can only provide a few images or themes. I've gotten fairly good at tracking down the titles and authors and being able to send the person a link to a copy for sale, but the unsolved mysteries are piling up in my inbox. It's very frustrating to google keyword combinations for an hour and still not be able to nail down the story they're seeking. I hate not having the answer. Loganberry Books has devised a pretty effective "booksleuth" feature on their site. A customer pays 2.00 for a search which is posted online indefinately. Loganberry staff as well as online visitors can then guess at what the book/story might be. I'd really love to come up with a well designed program that could bring all this information together and be the go-to source for matching people with the information they're seeking. We tried a discussion forum briefly, but because of the still slow traffic at my site, there just wasn't enough input to make it successful.
In the meantime, I'll just have to keep doing what I'm doing and enjoy the occasions when I get to send a "book found" reply.