Archive for September, 2011

mess with her at your peril

Tail thrash by yatima
Tail thrash, a photo by yatima on Flickr.

Pictures of cats is what the Internet is for.

here come(s) (the abcs, the 123s, science), they might be giants

Finally picked these up for long summer camp commutes, worried I had already missed the girls’ developmental window for them. Indeed, even Julia deemed them “kinda babyish” on first listening.

They’ve been on constant rotation for three months. Beautiful, intelligent earworms that make endaughtered car trips nigh-fun.

the tempering of men, by sarah monette and elizabeth bear

Just finished this and am feeling all schmoopy about it. Even better than its prequel, A Companion to Wolves.

This is one of two collaborations that I think add up to more than the sum of their parts (the other one being Freedom & Necessity, which is pretty much an annual reread.) I inhaled Monette’s books about Felix and Mildmay (indeed I was carrying one of them, with a lurid cover, in the Bernal Heights playground when I was introduced to an English professor who reeled back from it and urged me to: “Read better books.” I should have said: “I’ll get right on that.”) but I find Bear’s kinaesthetic writing – every body always located in space and on a trajectory somewhere – distracting and sometimes difficult to follow. My connectedness to my body improved dramatically in my thirties and forties, thanks to two pregnancies, several 5K runs and some excellent riding instruction, but I still tend towards the brain-in-a-jar end of the embodiment spectrum. I don’t find it very helpful to know how characters are physically positioned with respect to each other and the furniture, and it certainly doesn’t shed any light for me on their interior worlds. Hand me smelling salts and the Henry James!

Here both Monette’s luridness and Bear’s tendency to gesture frenetically rather than show are, well, tempered. See what I did there? These books are excellent on the Love Is Complicated But Let’s Not Be Dicks About It front. They’re less reliable guides to Not Racefailing: it didn’t thrill me that the only named black human character is the enemy. (“But,” defenders will say, “there are also dark-skinned elves!” Yes there are, but elves aten’t real.) At least said enemy was depicted with sympathy and imagination. ANYWAY. With that caveat, this wolf stuff is all the good bits from Pern with far less of the stupid: a fun and sexy read.

life on mars

My last trip to Vegas was miserable, because my narrative about it was “Introvert in Introvert Hell,” which, while true, was not useful. This time I have decided to try “Introvert Who Is Capable Of Perkiness In A Higher Cause, Or For Work,” and in pursuit of this I am determinedly pretending that Vegas is a poorly-terraformed Mars (as Jeremy points out, they did it in the fifties, with nukes; these days they wouldn’t be allowed.)

The Martians (Vegans?) have been making me laugh. I had a particularly good cab driver:

“In town for a conference?”



“Yep. I have the look, do I?”


I’m sure he meant that I look exactly like he imagines Lisbeth Salander: see attached.

Lisbeth by yatima
Lisbeth, a photo by yatima on Flickr.

The woman who checked me in was also a hoot:

“What brings you to Las Vegas?”


“Oh! No pleasure at all?”

“Not really. I live in San Francisco.”

“Oh! I see!”

Big smiles all round. She was very sweet, and my life support pod is modern and comfortable and immaculate and surprisingly easy on the eye. I hung all my Calvin Klein dresses and power suits on coathangers, and I am hardened for two days of meetings. Yes! I can totally do this! Only 58 hours till I get back to San Francisco!

nerdcore parenting

Julia vigorously requests They Might Be Giants’ Here Comes Science every time we get in the car. So we’re all singing along to “Meet the Elements”, and I say:

“Ooh, ooh, huge science news yesterday. You know the Super Proton Synchrotron?”

Claire: “Maybe?”

Julia: “No.”

Me: “It’s a particle accelerator, like the one at Stanford, but way bigger. Well, yesterday they announced they think they observed neutrinos travelling faster than light! It’s almost certainly a mistake but if it’s true, it’s the biggest science news of our lifetimes! We’ll have to throw out a hundred years of science and start again!”

Claire: “Wow, really? I can’t wait to tell everyone at school!”

i present the children with posters for colouring in

Me: “Do you know who she is?”

Claire: “She was the first woman computer programmer.”

Me: “Nuh-uh. She was the first computer programmer.”

Claire, wide-eyed: “Wow!”

Julia, reading: “A-da Love-lace.”

i listen to history books in my car

This post on Cool Tools changed my life. I drive more than I should. I drive to the barn two or three times a week. I drive the kids to swim class and piano class and summer camp. I used to suffer grievously from road rage, on account of California drivers zomg! But since I started listening to audiobooks while I drive, my driving has become serene and Zen.

As KK says in his Cool Tools post, fiction and history are ideal. Well, as those of you with even a fleeting acquaintance with me will have gleaned, reading enough fiction is not my problem. My problem may indeed be reading too much fiction. But history is harder. It’s hard to read history after a long day at work and with the kids, with your head heavy on the pillow. I thought I’d test-drive audio books with some history I had tried and failed to get through in print. That’s how I managed to race through Georgiana and, even more dauntingly, Paris 1919. I got both from the San Francisco public library, on CASSETTE TAPES HOW STEAMPUNK. Then I had a vicious slapfight with the SFPL’s bitterly disappointing audiobook reserves (foul proprietary software with almost nothing available for Android.)

So I signed up for Audible and listened to Bloodlands and Postwar streaming off my phone. They are both beautifully read by Ralph Cosham, who sounds almost exactly like Kerr Avon. Which was odd, but compelling. The books are twins in so many other ways that I suspected Timothy Snyder and Tony Judt of knowing one another’s work even before I Googled them to learn how intimately they were connected. Both books consider Eastern and Western Europe as parts of a whole. Bloodlands considers state-sponsored mass killing by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as two distinct expressions of a single totalitarian impulse. Postwar examines the aftermath. I was very lucky with the order in which I tackled them. Bloodlands picks up where Paris 1919 leaves off, and Postwar does the same for Bloodlands.

Postwar is one of the best and wisest and most useful books I have ever read in my life, and I am a Judtist now. I’ve been praising it as the missing manual for the world in which I grew up, but it’s more than that. Judt – a reformed Marxist – takes pains to distinguish between Soviet communism, which succumbed to its genocidal totalitarian impulses, and Scandinavian-style social democracy, which didn’t. He is also clear-eyed yet hopeful on Europe itself as a model for organizing human beings that is neither coercive in the Chinese model or cynical and corrupt in the American way. Judt, who died of ALS last year, would not have been the least bit surprised about Greece and Portugal and the peril in which the Euro finds itself: he read the writing on the wall. But in spite of much of the evidence of his own eyes he argues for the continuing usefulness and relevance of social contracts that don’t inherently fuck people over, or arrange to have them killed. So that’s nice.

By contrast, my latest project is Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower. It’s a history of Al Qaeda, beginning in aftermath of World War Two. Narrator Alan Sklar is no Ralph Cosham, and until I cast him in my mind as my friend Bob Foster the genius Koreanist from Michigan, his flat Midwestern vowels seemed set to drive me up the wall. I am glad I persisted, because The Looming Tower is an Iain Banks Culture novel, with the West standing in for the Culture. Specifically, it is Consider Phlebas, because it concerns itself with the point of view of the enemies of the Culture.

The big question of the last century appears to be: “Why do you want me dead?”, for various values of “you” and “me”. All the answers are depressing. The Looming Tower follows Sayyid Qutb, the father of Islamism, as he studies education in Greeley, Colorado: founded as a Western utopia. Qutb is so horrified by people tending their gardens and women talking about free love that he turns against America altogether. It is as compelling and awful as a car accident. As Jeremy remarked: “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

The more I read history the more I hope to stay as far the fuck away from it as I possibly can.


I think this was the most terrible thing that has happened in the last ten years, with this being almost equally terrible. Give generously and keep the survivors in your hearts.

satellite fall

During a 20-minute escape from the conference I found the only bookshop in Vegas, I think. Certainly the only one in the Venetian: Bauman Rare Books. Some lovely really old stuff, seventeenth and eighteenth century, and whole walls of Folio editions, which, eyeroll, and a wall of slightly obvious modern firsts, things like Franzen and Amis.

And a case of children’s classics, which included a clothbound Kipling and The Ship That Sailed To Mars.

The thought of that book usually makes me miss my father, who read it to me when I was small and ill, but this time it made me miss his mother, my grandmother, who died before I was born. She was the bookish one in the family, and for the first time I realized what a loss her death was, not only to me and my Dad, but to her. She was younger when she died than I am now. I bet she would have been as interested in me as I am in her.

The Solar System is a perilous place, is what I’m saying. Case in point: apparently this thing is about to land on our heads. More ruefulness: if I had realized deputy chief of the U.S. Strategic Command’s space situational awareness division was an actual job, I might have tried harder in physics.

the man

DSC_7756.JPG by Goop on the lens
DSC_7756.JPG, a photo by Goop on the lens on Flickr.

balsa man was awesome, again

DSC_7708.JPG by Goop on the lens
DSC_7708.JPG, a photo by Goop on the lens on Flickr.

about a mountain, by john d’agato

“Well of course people are paranoid about suicide here,” Ron Flud explained in the County Coroner’s Office. “I mean, it’s in business, it needs tourists. Every resident’s bread and butter is based on this city’s image. And suicide doesn’t sell.”

Spoiler: it’s not actually about a mountain.

Imagine if Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion had a lovechild who became fascinated with the disposal of nuclear waste by way of Martin Amis’s Night Train.

“I think everyone’s a lot more comfortable,” Ron said, “if we keep a low profile here. Suicide is the most threatening thing we can encounter as a culture. It’s a manifestation of doubt, the ultimate unknowable. A suicide by someone we know – or even by someone we don’t know – is a reminder that none of us has the answers. So apply that to a city with the nation’s most frequent suicides and you might start to understand this city’s reluctance to talk about it.”