Bookish things

Bibliophibian shirt

The shirt one wears while floating in an ocean of books (via Wondermark)

I have an annual ritual of sorting through the to-read lists that spawn on every note-taking and bookmarking tool within my reach, and choosing fifty books to put on hold at the library to maintain the steady drip that feeds my reading addiction.

Or rather, it used to be an annual ritual. The last list of fifty took me two years to read. Leaving the office job eliminated not only the reading-devoted two-hour daily commute, but also the acute desire to escape into more interesting worlds.

Since resolving, a few years ago, to stop bingeing on entire oeuvres of newly discovered favorite authors and switch to a more balanced diet of fiction genres, non-fiction and classics, I’d started keeping notes of everything I’d read, which eventually turned into spreadsheets and… is this post getting too obsessive for general consumption? Want to see my pie charts?

Anyway, ahem… since I’m in the list-sorting phase now, I figured I’d share some stuff. Here’s a medley of bookish links:

My one unfailing source of book reviews and reliable recommendations. Expect to find the best new releases in science, technology, science fiction & comics here.

CoverSpyTOSince I usually peek at what people are reading in public anyway, I joined the new Toronto chapter of a shadowy book-lovin’ spy agency that reports on what people are reading in public places. You can follow us on Tumblr or Twitter. (There are also NYC, San Francisco and DC branches of CoverSpy which – depending on where you are of course – you may find more geographically appropriate.)

Goodreads is a book-centric social network. You share what you’re reading with your friends and get book recommendations based on “people who like this book also like these books” principle. It was bought by Amazon last spring, so you know they’re harvesting your data, but fortunately it doesn’t seem to be pushing sales. You can even set a library catalogue as your preferred place to get books when you discover new ones you want to read.

In the interests of science, I joined Goodreads and added everything I’ve read in the last five years, plus most of the books I own. (This took three days, btw – the sacrifices we make in search of better reading material.) It did recommend a bunch of books that look interesting, but, in the end, the main outcome of this exercise was to make me realize that the hundreds of books I’ve already read are just a tiny drop in the ocean of books I still want to read. If you’re on Goodreads, come friend me there, so we can float on the ocean of books together.

The Story of a Piece of Paper

Free PDF download

You can now download the story that I illustrated for my kids as a PDF.

I hope that you know a kid or two that you can share it with, and that they enjoy it as much as our girls did.

The download is available in English and Russian.

Edited to add: The Story of a Piece of Paper was featured on Boing Boing. As I have no words to express just how ridiculously thrilling this is, I present it here as a bare statement of fact.

 

 

In progress: Door

The latest mosaic in my Favourite Books series is based on Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. If you haven’t read it, you may find it odd that a picture of a brick wall and a bleeding girl is called Door. Explanation is forthcoming – once the mosaic is finished.

For now, here’s the sketch for the piece:

Pencil sketch of a girl collapsed beside a brick wall

I did end up toning down the curve of that hip and the extra-long thigh when I transferred this to the board. It’s bad enough to depict a figure that is recognizably a girl – when in the book she appears in this scene as a shapeless bundle of rags – driven by the reasoning that a vague dark mass would be a much less compelling image than a collapsed girl. Making her an improbably shaped fantasy-book-cover girl would be inexcusable.

Unless you have a healthy obsession with putting complex things together out of tiny pieces, you’re probably looking at those bricks going, “No way she’s going to make that wall brick by brick.” Oh, but I am.

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Favourite books series: Neuromancer

In 1984, William Gibson’s Neuromancer became the defining novel of the emerging cyberpunk genre. It also gave the world one of science fiction’s most often quoted, referenced and spoofed opening sentences:

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Set in a dystopian, technologically advanced, darkly urban future, Neuromancer was one of the earliest works of fiction to portray an edgy world of cyber criminals, virtual realities of globally networked data and neural computer implants. It introduced the term “cyberspace” into popular use.

Yet, like all futuristic science fiction, it was not really about the future but about its own time.

In the early 1980s, personal computers were beginning their ingress into regular people’s homes, running basic book-keeping programs and low-res games. Sharing information over a globally interconnected network of computers was still a decade away for the average user, though government and financial institutions have been sending data using packet switch networks since the 60’s.

Rapid technological change was happening just far enough on the margins of everyday lives to be glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. To the techie types and to many readers of science fiction, the implications of this were mind-blowing and cool. Also cool was black leather and mirror shades.

And so the novel sets the scene for the technologically advanced seedy future underworld by comparing the sky above the Sprawl megapolis to the static noise of analogue television. The current generation of kids reading Neuromancer for the first time is most likely to interpret this to mean that the sky was a bright flat expanse of blue. The next generation may be confused by the “dead channel” reference: does that mean its content hasn’t been updated for a while? The evocative impact of “television” itself will lose all semblance to a pertinent metaphor for the latest technology invading our homes, and will instead become part of the lore of a quaint society that had no control over the timing, structure and content of its own entertainment.

It is unfairly limiting to talk about this novel (or any other novel) in terms of its opening sentence alone, though that sentence may highlight its groundbreaking prescience at the same time as rooting it in its own technological era. No matter. This mosaic is about that sentence.

The Sprawl urban landscape mosaic

It grew around the sky the color of television tuned to a dead channel. Around that sky, I wanted to give just a hint of the Sprawl – the urban metropolis stretching along most of the east coast of US from Boston to Atlanta.

I struggled with this mosaic and laid it aside for a long time after filling in the sky. I didn’t really have a clear idea of what the Sprawl should look like.

Now that I finally forced myself to finish it, I am much happier with the result than I ever thought possible. The Sprawl looks like an 80’s idea of a futuristic city. It looks like a low-res graphic on the coolest gaming console you wish you owned. As visions of the future interpreted in an archaic medium of mosaic go, it looks just right.

Playlist Friday: For lovers of similes and metaphors

I can’t promise to do this every Friday, so some Fridays will be more special than others.

This Friday’s playlist was inspired by the lyrics of the Tom Waits song “After You Die,” which are composed entirely of similes. Similes and metaphors, as you know, are the basic literary trope much abused by poets and songwriters of all ages. So it’s pretty impressive that some of them are still managing to cram songs full of really good ones.

“After You Die” – Tom Waits

What is it like after you die? Pretty surreal, according to this bonus track on Tom Waits’ latest album, Bad as Me. A few great suggestions as to what the afterlife may be like include “Like a rich guy clapping” and “Like a wild-ass painting.” At least that’s how I always heard this line – “a wild-ass painting,” as in “a painting that blows your mind.” But I just saw this written on a lyrics site as “a wild ass painting,” as in “an undomesticated donkey creating a piece of visual art.” I think this interpretation rift may turn into a breakaway religious movement one day.

Rain On the Midway - Single, Kevin Quain“Rain on the Midway” – Kevin Quain

A haunting love song from my favorite Toronto goth blues songwriter is a gripping answer to that age-old question once tackled in a Victorian sonnet – “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”:
   I love you like tornadoes in spring,
   Like old guitar strings,
   Like Nina Simone sings…
Listen to it on iTunes and see if it doesn’t send shivers up your spine.

“Turn Me On” – Nina Simone

As for how Nina Simone sings – here she is, waiting to be turned on “like a light bulb in a dark room.” Gorgeous, heartbreaking song pleading for the return of a lover who left, which ends – appropriately enough – with a request for some fresh ice-cubes in her drink.

“Wild is the Wind” – David Bowie

It was Nina Simone’s cover of “Wild is the Wind” that inspired David Bowie to record his own version of this song. It compares the intensity of his love to the wildness of wind, which is as romantic as the wildness of the painting ass we encountered earlier is not. Incidentally, did you know David Bowie’s new album The Next Day is coming out in a couple of weeks and that he recently released a new wild-ass video for it, starring Tilda Swinton?

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In progress: Illustrations for The Story of a Piece of Paper

Apropos of nothing, here are some of the illustrations I’ve been drawing for a children’s book called The Story of a Piece of Paper.

Story of a Piece of Paper, page 3

As you can see, this story has a paper rabbit in it. So I’ve gotten quite good at rabbits. Here’s another one.

The Story of a Piece of Paper, page 4

The reason I’m drawing these right now instead of, say, finishing the Sprawl mosaic, is that our kids’ birthdays are coming up in just over a month. And this is a story we made up together.

Our older daughter Katya, who is almost five, asked me a few months ago to make up a story about a piece of paper. Yes, that was her chosen theme: “Mommy, can you tell me a new story? Make one up yourself. What about? Oh, just a piece of paper.”

So I made up a story on the spot – with the girls’ help, of course – and they were quite pleased with it. So pleased, in fact, that they kept requesting that same story again and again. I personally didn’t think the story was all that great. But clearly I have a poor grasp on what literature appeals to children.

Since then, I have had to make up several different stories about a piece of paper. Variations on the theme of a piece of paper are now our family storytelling tradition. If we decide to get a family crest one day, we will have to put a piece of paper on the escutcheon. A4 rampant.

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Favourite books series: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Beautifully evocative and captivatingly strange imagery is densely woven throughout the poetic and complex narrative of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel that won its author a Nobel Prize and defined the genre of magical realism, this book has had a firm and lasting grip on my imagination since I first read it in Russian translation in my early teens.

The lives and deaths of the generations of the Buendía family in the fictional town of Macondo are full of wonders that are taken in stride and miracles that are commonplace. The mundane and the magical intertwine, passions rise and dampen, children are born and die, girls of unspeakable beauty ascend into the sky amid laundered sheets, young men elope with gypsies, prophesies come true, time is fluid, history is forgotten and repeats itself inescapably.

One of the novel’s most vivid and visually expressive episodes for me has always been the story of the deluge – the period in Macondo’s history during which it rains “for four years, eleven months, and two days.”  The continuous rainfall interrupts the normal order of life, uproots banana groves, kills the crops and the animals, rusts all machinery. Houses sag and walls cave in from the damp and rot, clothing sprouts moss, and people turn a greenish hue from algae growing on their skin.

The image of the swampy streets in which abandoned furniture and animal skeletons lie covered with red lilies was particularly evocative for me, echoing both the devastation and tenacity of life that characterize this part of the story.

Stained glass mosaic of a cow skeleton from which red lilies are growing lying in the rain in a flooded street

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Favourite books series: The Master & Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a richly multilayered novel that includes elements of fantasy, historical fiction and social satire in one gorgeously wrought whole. A favorite of mine since early adolescence, it is a book I keep re-reading every few years in its original Russian, and recommend and often gift to all new friends who haven’t yet read it.

The Devil, with a retinue of imps and demons, visits 1930’s Moscow. He leaves mayhem, bureaucratic confusion, terror and comedy in his wake. He takes over a centrally located apartment by variously dispersing with its occupants via internment in a mental institution, instantaneous transport to a seaside resort, or death. He holds a magic show in a prestigious concert hall from which the distinguished audience members emerge shaken, ridiculed and mostly undressed. He is cruelly honest with the hypocrites, serious with the philosophers, he is playful, powerful, profound and complex, and so is the novel as a whole.

In parallel with the Devil’s story, runs the plotline of the Master – a talented and tormented writer working on a historical novel about Pontius Pilate and Christ. He meets and falls in love with Margarita, a beautiful and deeply unhappy wife of a wealthy official, and their affair enriches them both with happiness in the midst of a gray and dismal Soviet existence until the day the Master despairs, burns his manuscript and disappears from Margarita’s life.

For the sake of finding him again, and restoring his masterpiece from the ashes, Margarita accepts the Devil’s invitation to act the Queen at his side during the annual Satan’s gala ball of murderers, ghosts, witches, and all manner of tormented evil souls.

Margarita’s flight to this gathering is one of the most vivid scenes in the book. Alone in her large Moscow apartment, she is melancholy, apprehensive, and worn down by life when she begins to apply the ointment given to her by the Devil. As its magic infuses her skin, the worries of the everyday world start to fade away and a lightness and a feeling of freedom take over. Rejuvenated, awakened, nude, giddy and reckless, she flies on a floor brush out of the window of her building and into the warm spring night.

Mosaic in blue, black and gold of a nude witch's back flying up towards the moon on a broom.

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In progress: Flight

Flight, the mosaic inspired by The Master and Margarita, and the first in my new Favourite Books series is almost complete! The tiling is done and only grouting remains.

Of course grouting is the part that is most likely to mess things up. As usual, I am deciding on colours and then second-guessing myself. Light brown, I think. Unless cold blue would be better? What sense does warm brown make sense amid the black smalti of the night sky? I might attempt multiple grout colours or I might not bother.

While I’m deciding, here’s a progress slideshow for your amusement. As you can see towards the end, some dark tiles in the background around the hair had the be scraped off and replaced with gold. Looks much better this way. Thanks to my husband for frowning at it so intensely that I realized just how serious the need to fix that section was!

Starting a new mosaic series

Over the past couple of weeks I have been sketching an rejecting ideas for the first few mosaics in the new series I’ve been planning for a while – one inspired by my favourite books.

I was antsy to start making a new piece, and have known for a while which books and which scenes in those books I wanted to do, but it was taking a long while to figure out the style and the feel that this series would take.

Everything that I sketched at first was turning out to be too literal, realistic, full of figures. I would consider these sketches and feel not at all excited about the prospect of tiling them.

It all came down to the fact that I don’t really like tiling figures. I feel no joy in trying to create realistic representations of things. And I get bored tiling straight lines. What I really really like tiling are curves. Lavish, aesthetic, art nouveau-ish curves. So I had to figure out a way of illustrating my favourite books in a semi-abstract, curvaceous way.

Yesterday I finally hit upon the right combination of abstract-curvilinear and illustrative-representative, and completed two sketches that I actually liked. Which makes me very happy, because it means I can get started!

Here’s one for Flight, inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita:

Pencil sketch of stylized nude flying

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