Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Nobody Was Quite Sure Where She Came From: The Man With the Dancing Eyes by Sophie Dahl

She spent her childhood in a tall imposing house in Belgravia--alone, but for a host of homely nannies who adored her. Her summers were spent in a crumbling palazzo outside Rome named the Villa Splendida, and her youth passed sweetly, solitary and uninterrupted, until either parent, filled with remorse or longing, would arrive to bewildering fanfare and sweep her off to exotic climes for a week or two.

Mostly she was happiest sitting on top of the Aga, her small nose firmly buried in a book.

Sophie Dahl's The Man With the Dancing Eyes shares a gangly, self aware but wholly appealing quality with its heroine, Pierre. A self-proclaimed modern fairy tale, Pierre finds love with the title character (who remains a fill-in-the-blank, quite on purpose I'd imagine), and loses it, and goes off to find herself before attempting to find it again. Illustrated throughout by Annie Morris with loose, surreally beautiful ink-and-watercolor drawings of Pierre and her love and their quirky supporting cast in a lively meld of text and pictures, it's a unique little reading experience with quite a lot to offer. A number of readers have compared it to a grown-up Eloise at the Plaza, and I'm inclined to agree:

When she was not posing for Mr Chin she would pace the streets of Manhattan, often finding herself in the Mummy Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This became one of her favorite haunts. (She wondered what Ernest, the Freudian, would make of her attachment to mummies.)

Short in length but not in whimsy, The Man With the Dancing Eyes is lovely. Read, as Ms. Dahl herself suggests, "on a melancholic Sunday afternoon swaddled in blankets."

The Man With the Dancing Eyes
by Sophie Dahl, illustrated by Annie Morris
Official Website (with excerpts, animations, computer wallpaper and e-cards)
Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell's

Monday, February 26, 2007

Whatever Wild Idea Suits You: Going Going by Naomi Nye

Ah, youth. A time of figuring yourself out, finding first love, and...taking up causes?

So goes the plot of Going Going by Naomi Nye. Sixteen year old Florrie has a pechant for grey clothes, old postcards, good Mexican food, and her pet project; as the button of a fellow protestor says, she is out to Keep San Antonio Weird.

After blowing out the candles on her pineapple-topped, smiley-faced sixteenth birthday cake, Florrie encourages her family to join her in patronizing only small, local businesses. She implores them to keep away from larger corporations that threaten the character of her beloved city--not to mention her Lebanese family's Mexican restaurant, which has been open for several decades. Her mother and father accede easily, noting that it would be something their parents would have encouraged; her brother True is skeptical. All agree to give up big business for sixteen weeks, the remainder of the year. From there, Florrie goes on to encourage the rest of her city to join her--starting with her neighborhood, which is more than happy to take up the cause. However, hurdles come in the form of an apathetic public, laws nobody even thought about, and Ramsey, the handsome young son of the owner of the Marriot with a taste for adventure to match Florrie's own:

Ramsey wanted to see everything: the toilet seat museum, the Shrine of the Black Madonna. He wanted to see the wolf-dog spirit that supposedly haunted the grounds of the Mission Espada. Florrie had never heard of it, despite her specialization in Weird Things.

Nye's language is fluid and fun, with a gift for simple but beautiful images:

Pasquale de Leon would be wearing his bright blue overalls, arranging crates of fresh tomatoes and zucchini around his battered green truck in the parking lot down the street. He was the one that caused Florrie to fall in love with turtles when she was a little girl. He would give her chunks of mango and papaya to pitch into the river and all the mysterious turtles would rise.

Florrie has a rather unique voice, comfortable in her skin and sure of what she believes in. The supporting characters are a bit weak (I would have liked to get to know them better--especially Ram), but her family shines; they are loving and functional and it truly is a pity they're too busy to spend much time with each other. If the descriptions of unique places and people run away with themselves, Florrie is an engaging enough narrator to put the story back on track. The conclusion is open-ended but hopeful.

This is one for your idealistic younger friends, or those wishing to relive those wild carefree days of culture jamming. Going Going is a suitable primer for the youthful starry-eyed protester, as Florrie's actions are commendably non-violent (Be positive, support local and independent business, research the law, dress up, leave a false name, be legendary...wait, those last three are Hakim Bey), so never fear.

Enjoy with some low-key 60s folk and an avocado chalupa.

Going Going by Naomi Shihab Nye
Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell's

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Before you know it, you're all tangled up in purple and turquoise: Follow the Blue by Brigid Lowry

Stories are mysterious things. Beginning, middle and end, that's what they tell you at school, but life isn't actually actually neat and tidy like that. It's more like a funny old muddle of weird threads that sometimes has boring bits, and sometimes has tricky bits, and sometimes has just-right bits...

Bec, collage artist, gardener, and narrator of Follow The Blue, succinctly sums up the whole of the novel on the first page. The line of blue that she chooses to follow winds through dealing with her father's nervous breakdown and recovery, coping with a naff housekeeper with an interesting past, and figuring out the best way to spend unexpected money.

Lowry's characters, whether small children or middle-aged office workers, always hold a bohemian bent which is quite charming. Bec's family holds a number of interesting members: her sister Bing, who shears her own hair and dresses up her guinea pig; her brother Josh, with a room full of specimens and a predilection for making up email addresses; mother Vera, a famous chef who "eats and dreams food;" and father Lewis, a thoughtful architect who "is more interested in the essence of things."

This is a character-driven novel; those looking for a thrilling plot may do better elsewhere, but for a gentle but realistic coming-of-age story, Brigid Lowry's your woman. Bec's a teenager through and through, which means a little awkwardness and a bit of whinging, but she is creative and generous and the sort of girl I'd befriend in no time. The descriptions of life in Australia, especially the food and gardens and art, are absolutely delicious, such as this passage narrating a visit to Bec's father in the institution:

Bing spent ages checking out the pig's nether regions, and when she absolutely sure that she owned a girl pig she chose the name Begonia...Vera made up a song to celebrate. 'Begonia, Begonia, the fabulous creature from Patagonia,' she sang. Usually I feel embarrassed when my mother sings, and wish she didn't try so hard to be young and funky, but that day her singing felt just right. Josh made Begonia a daisy-chain necklace and we all sat around lazily in the sun and finished off the chocolate mud cake. Begonia ended up with a tiny sticky brown moustache and Josh found a two-dollar coin that someone had dropped in the grass.

Hand it off to younger teens craving the sun and surf and a group of arty friends, or keep it for yourself if the winter's got you down and you wish your family's eccentricities were this interesting (but I'll bet you ten to one that they are).

Best enjoyed with All Girl Summer Fun Band and fresh fruit.

Follow the Blue by Brigid Lowry
(Her website features a lively biography and prose poems, check it out!)
Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell's

Friday, February 23, 2007

All the Writer Needed To Know: The Van Gogh Cafe by Cynthia Rylant

Magic is a powerful word and often misused. Some say magic comes from heaven, and others say it comes from hell, but anyone who has ever visited the Van Gogh Cafe knows that magic comes from a building that was once a theater; from a sign above a cash register that reads BLESS ALL DOGS; from a smiling porcelain hen on top of a pie carousel; from purple hydrangeas painted all over a ladies' bathroom; from a small brown phonograph that plays "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." Magic is in the Van Gogh Cafe in Flowers, Kansas, and sometimes the magic wakes itself up, and people and animals and things notice it. They notice it and are affected by it and pretty soon word spreads that there is a cafe -- the Van Gogh Cafe -- that is wonderful, like a dream, like a mystery, like a painting...

Simply one of the most elegant children's books I've read. The Van Gogh Cafe has the extraordinary habit of attracting magical happenings, such as the time the possum came for a visit and healed a number of hearts, or the curious incident with the magic muffins, or that time with the Star and his lost love. A wisp of a read, Rylant never misplaces a word and has a gift for breathing life into a scene with only a sentence or two, such as:

The daughter fascinates the writer...She reminds him of a moon, or an owl

or, after lightning strikes the cafe,

Since then, things have been a little tipped, a little to one side, here at the cafe...People come in and their hats fall off.

A wonderful introduction to magical realism. Give this one to your younger sisters and cousins who aren't ready to cut their teeth on Stargirl, or a friend who needs a comforting read on a lonely summer night.

Read accompanied by Dar Williams and a plate of mini-muffins.

The Van Gogh Cafe, by Cynthia Rylant
Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell's

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Arrivederci, Shangri-L.A.

Why the blog title, you're probably wondering, when I'm a fan of Ms. Block?

Because when I first devoured her ouvre, I wondered where to go from there, because one needs new themes to explore, and there are so many wonderful authors out there that need the exposure.

Also? Writing's fun.

What to expect from Leaving Shangri-L.A.? Book reviews, of course. Movies too. Links to interesting arty things that Weetzie Bat would approve of, and localish (NYC tristate area) events of an odd or charming nature. Comments are more than welcome; flames will be fed to the fairies so we can watch them explode.

In short, "Loved Weetzie Bat? Here's what to read next."


Zine Queens and Wannabes, or The Girl in the Cupboard: Part One

I suppose Hillary Carlip is all to blame.

Way back in the wee hours of the last century, I was a very different Rie than the one barely standing before you. Remember the Queen Bee-and-Wannabe scare of a few years back? I was a full-fledged Wannabe-with-Extra-Wanna, so afraid of having an opinion that I begged a friend to come clothes shopping with me so we’d buy exactly the same things.

Scary, isn’t it?

Locking my old biology-loving, dinosaur obssessed and endlessly crafty side in the closet and tossing the key, I devoured Clueless tie-in novels, Sweet Valley Twins and Sleepover Friends and Ellen Conford and Cherie Bennet. Vain hope to glean that elusive something that would make me the darling of the schoolyard set had me outlining, note taking, even writing I will be popular in my notebooks a hundred times over to show my intent. Enter Girl Power, by the lovely lady mentioned above. A thick book with an enticing name to those of us obsessed with the newly-famous Spice Girls, or those who pretended to be (namely me), I snatched up a copy, eager to learn something from the chapters about sorority girls and beauty queens. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t, I don’t remember much about it at all until the second time I took it out and somehow turned to the chapter on Riot Grrls, a subculture still young and kicky at the 1996 publication date.

That’s where I fell in love.

Not with any of the Grrls in particular, per se, but the movement. My worldview at the time was quite tiny. I went to school, I went home, every few months I’d have a social event. I listened to the music my friends approved of, watched their favorite movies and drew lots of pretty girls in marble composition books and watched my friends’ collections of Beanie Babies and Spice Girls stickers grow. Along came this chapter: girls fed up with the status quo and making their own media. Girls from sheltered backgrounds. Girls who were recovering from eating disorders. Girls, in short, like the one I’d stuffed in the cupboard and run away from a year before.

I was still a wee thing of twelve, and couldn’t do much about this new little hearth that The Girl in the Cupboard had lit for warmth. In the back of my head, I dreamed of writing a zine, speaking my mind, and wearing a 50s dress with combat boots, all things verboten by the playground dictatorship my friends and I were subject to. A year or so later, things had changed. I’d transferred to a new school, joined a tiny clique and played the wallflower. I was myself, I was happy after a fashion, but locked into a social group and lacking many essential social skills and, worst of all, I’d lost touch with my personality.

For my 8th Grade Graduation, my mother let me order a nice stack of books from the newly launched Barnes and Noble online bookstore. While gleefully pursuing books that had eluded me for years, ones that I knew only by their brief descriptions in the backs of other books or from monthly book club pamphlets, I came across a new book by Hillary Carlip, co-authored by a vaguely familiar author named Francesca Lia Block, on those enticing things called zines. Added at last minute to the shopping cart, I waited for my order, giddy with my impending graduation and the promise of a stack of brand new books.

What happened after they arrived? Well, that’s for part two.

Zine Queens and Wannabes, or The Girl in The Cupboard: Part Two

Some bright summery spring day in 1999 (I remember it being a rather lovely warm spring), a big box of books arrived on my doorstep for the first time. There were more books than I’d ever seen in one place since my mom’s former student, who worked at Scholastic, sent her a big box of books in gratitude for all she’d taught him/her. Mom kept the letter; I got the reading material. Anywhoodle, I put them all in a circle, spun around, and picked one. The chosen tome?
e Zine Scene.

I’d done a smidge of research on my own: zines were self-published and pasted up by hand, they featured art and writing and observations and occasionally something screen printed or embroidered, and the creators were so much cooler than I am. The Zine Scene was printed up in the rough, na├»ve fashion of the day, illustrated with vintage ephemera and beauty queens and random words in a much messier, grittier style than you’d see amongst collage artists and zinesters today. The writing was inviting, real, and full of description bombs of the sort I never knew I’d been in love with.

I fangirled excerpts from Sweetheart and The Catbox Room the hardest; the former was a sweet fantasy life ditty turned volcanic eruption by Robin Crane, the latter a quirky little comic by Lisa Maslowe. Indeed, I took their style to heart, adding interesting details to my own drawings (which I’d started working on improving at around the same time) and writing bits and pieces here and there, purpling my prose a wee bit, That didn’t hurt it much in the long run, since I’d always had an…odd…sense of humor, to balance it out—not to mention that for the most part, the Girl in the Cupboard remained there, terrified of her peers because of her refusal to play by their rules. If you weren’t going to play the right way, she reasoned, you might as well not bring attention to it.

Later that year, two things happened that turned my steady if boring course into strange seas full of phosphorescent jellyfish and blue-haired sirens—and no, they weren’t transferring schools and accidentally happening upon the love of my life kissing another girl. I bought a copy of Girl Goddess #9, and joined the Witchbaby mailing list. The book was the best thing that happened to me that year; here was a little pocket-sized paperback with heart-shaped hands on the cover, and between the covers were stories that felt like they were written just for me. These tiny, purple-y fairytales started their own tiny, purple-y revolution. I created more, saw more, experienced things instead of just walking by them and waiting for the day to end. Things that I thought were weird or evil, like being gay, became just another human characteristic. Once I became a lurker on Witchbaby, these horizons stretched even further. Here were dozens of girls—mostly, D.an and Mookie were the only males I knew of—just like me, creating and living and loving and loosing and writing about it, with more flair than I had, but that would come in time.

Eight years later, Witchbaby is gone, but I’m friends with the former mod (who scared the hell out of me at the time, it’s really a funny story) and a few of its members. I still create and live and love on a daily basis, around searching for an internship and helping run a household. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened without this book and those dozens of posts per day, maybe they would have. Either way, I’m happy with how they turned out.

Sometimes, I even let the Girl out of the cupboard to play in the sunshine.

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