Wednesday, February 27, 2008

An Opportunity for a Little Adventure: Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters by Lesley M. M. Blume

I love reading children's books that should have been around when I was a kid. You know the sort; you curl up with it on the ferry returning home from a book buying expedition and think, "Wow, I would have loved this when I was wee." There's a sense of hope and possibilities in even the shortest children's story that I find reassuring, even inspiring. Even better is coming back to an old story and finding it improved with age--did you know that the Ramona books have an underlying anti-public school theme?

But I digress.

Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters
, Lesley M. M. Blume's debut, is exactly the kind of novel I would have read to pieces as a kid, but enjoy even more as an adult. Our heroine, Cornelia Street Englehart (a name her mother's bohemian friends find charming and Cornelia herself thinks insufferable), long ago retreated into a world of books and words to shield her heart from her ravishing, beautiful pianist mother's unavailability. Words are her first line of defense against snooty classmates and her overbearing French housekeeper, who falls back after a barrage of multisyllables from Mademoiselle Dictionnaire, and the one way she distinguishes herself as more than the daughter of virtuoso Lucy Englehart. She expects that nothing extraordinary would ever happen to her beyond visiting the Biography Book Shop and buying cupcakes from Magnolia, and nothing does, until Virginia Somerset comes into her life.

The famous author, her attentive servant Patel and French bulldog Mister Kinyatta all become fast friends with Cornelia. She, herself, is charmed with Ms. Somerset's open manner and fantastic decorating skills. A palm-groved, lantern-lit Moroccan salon, delicate French drawing room, sturdy English study and lavish Indian bed chamber set the scene for Virginia Somerset's tales of her youth, adventuring around the world with her lively sisters in the early 1950s. The Somersets are wiley and resourceful, whether standing in for a runaway bride in a Moroccan wedding procession, taking painting lessons and modeling for Pablo Picasso, or spying on the ghosts of King Arthur's court. Within all of her tales is a respect for bravery and independence, barely acceptable virtues in a woman of their time.

Cornelia is an appealing heroine, quiet and bookish but with enough spark to howl along with her mother's obnoxious opera diva friend. Her flowering into an open, giving person is lovely to read. I found a scene where she and a group of new playmates act out scenes from Virginia Somerset's adventures especially touching, as it's exactly the sort of thing a girl her age and personality would do. Blume's descriptions of life in Greenwich Village especially appeal:

But Greenwich Village was different, like a world within a world. Its narrow streets wound around in a wonderful maze, and worn-down cobblestones covered many of them instead of plain old asphalt...Cornelia liked exploring alone. She knew every building, nook, and cranny in the area. She loved visiting the Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street. In the front window, the bakers arranged lines of dainty cupcakes covered with pale pink, baby blue, or buttery yellow frosting. Cornelia's mother called them "fairy cakes," and customers stood in long lines down the block just to buy one. When the line was too long, Cornelia sometimes went around the corner to a tiny cafe called Westville instead. She ordered French fires and a root beer and watched people outside rush past the window. She made up stories about the passersby that she never told to anyone else.

While Cornelia helps Virginia complete her magnum opus, Virginia encourages Cornelia to step out of her word fortress, and to begin to understand her mother. Blume delicately handles complex emotions and relationships, one of the reasons that the Audacious Escapades so appealed to me.

Cornelia blinked back a tear. "Bt my mother doesn't understand or speak that language," she said. "Except for last night, she hardly ever talks to me at all. And I already told you that she doesn't even care about words and stories like we do."

Virginia leaned towards the silver tray and poured herself a cup of tea.

"Did it ever occur to you that your mother speaks through music and not words? And that is a very complicated, nuanced language indeed. Every note on every sheet of music is a word on a page to her. If you want her to try to understand your language, you're going to have to start trying to understand hers as well...if you grow to understand both music and words, there will be no stopping you in this world."

Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters is a lovely combination of old-fashioned style and storytelling with modern sensibilities. If you're nostalgic for the literature of your youth, it is a fine new tale to escape into, and dream of having a globetrotting friend with stories to tell, a French bulldog snuffling at your feet and cupcake in hand.

Lesley M. M. Blume's website provides links to explore both Cornelia and the Somerset sisters' worlds, as well as interviews and accolades.
This video interview introduces both the title and the real Mr. Kinyatta, as well as several places featured in the book.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Splendidly Imperfect and Alive: Spilling Open by Sabrina Ward Harrison

If I were sitting next to you with this book in hand, I'd be forever tugging on your sleeve and reading bits aloud.

If I can believe in who I am, what I need, what I deserve and what I must express, then I can let go of the struggle of self-acceptance based on "their" approval of my beauty, boobs, thighs, or sketchbooks. I will dare to do just what I do, be just what I am, and dance whenever I want to.

Between the ages of 18 and 22 Sabrina Ward Harrison wrote Spilling Open, based on her art journaling, chronicling the simple truths and beauty she discovered along the way. It's a difficult book to review, because so much of what makes the experience of reading it has to be done that way, by reading it. No simple memoir, Spilling Open is a full color reproduction of Harrison's journal pages. They are deeply layered and tactile; you feel as if you could reach out and lift the tiny photographs, feel the silky dust of oil pastels and pressed flowers under your fingertips, scratch out a coat of gesso to read the words only hinted at beneath.

While no linear journal, Spilling Open revisits several threads throughout the course of the book: how to heal from a broken heart; how to deal with insecurities regarding your body, self, and art; and how to live freely and joyously while dealing with the trials of everyday life. As the entries progress, Harrison recognizes that the answers she sought were ones she knew from the start, but deeply recognize now as a result of having lived.

The truth is we all ache. We all have growing pains. Really.
Without the silver shoes and the leopard print sheets.
We are enough without all the things we buy to make us
much more than we are or need to be.

We are simple
and complex
and rare
as is.

I only hope that Spilling Open finds you at the right time, as it did me. I read it over and over during the grad school application process, hoping that Harrison's bravery in following her bliss would rub off on my quaking self. What makes this so many times better than the self-help books that surround it (Yes, it's shelved in self-help, which is true in a way, but there's so much to it than that.) are Harrison's raw honesty and universal themes. Is there no twentysomething among us that can't admit that "our bodies make us worry," or that sometimes we'd like to leap from our steady paths to the future and just love, create, and be?

I want sincerity and I want brave loving. I don't want to be making a logo or designing an annual report. I want to make books and take pictures and drink more tea and lie on more couches and listen to Pablo Neruda's poetry and read SARK books and go to bed early and kiss more cheeks and play Heads-Up-7-Up when it rains and giggle more and drive less and dream up funny possibilities and brave endings.

Like Sabrina, Spilling Open is "splendidly imperfect and alive." Read it with an open heart, and it'll inspire and delight you as it did me.

Sabrina Ward Harrison's website is full of her art and writing, as well as information about upcoming workshops, gallery showings, and theatre projects. Her photography is housed on a separate website.
The True Living Project, Sabrina's latest work, is based on these principals:

  1. We must create what we most need to find.
  2. We must identify, connect with, and bring voice to subjects that both deserve and need attention.
  3. True Living is about creating, holding and honoring the space for authentic and meaningful connections with each other and the places we inhabit.

Here is a video of her work, set to a song by Jan Michillini.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Little Dose of Personal Style: Just For the Frill of It by Sonya Nimri

I'm a fiend for fashion. Give me your unloved vintage print tunics, chenille-textured blouses, and brocade Mary Janes, your rhinestone-trimmed chokers and dollar store glass rings. Putting together a great outfit is one of my favorite artistic outlets, but alas, when you are a size twelve, and under five feet tall, finding the appropriate gilded clobber is a wee bit difficult. Lately, I've taken to the idea of reworking what I've got to breathe a bit of life into my post-collegiate wardrobe.

Enter Sonya Nimri, and her DIY fashion guide Just For the Frill of It:

I want to make something that rocks. I want it to be unlike anything I've seen out there--a one-of-a-kind original, Sonya-fied, inspired creation. A piece that comes forth from my brain, which is filled with the influences of street fashion, the runways of Paris, my travels around the world, my latest ideas and notions, and more.

Nimri has an eclectic, colorful style that would be right at home in Shangri-L.A. Intimidated? Don't be. In this book, the focus is on reconstructing pieces you already own or can easily thrift, and adding creative embellishments to the finished piece. A ribby tank plus ribbon and a bit of lace becomes the Laced with Charm top; a little black dress and a handful of costume jewelry can make you a Mademoiselle Coco cocktail frock. Starting with an excellent guide to What You Should Own and How You Can Do It (I especially appreciated the illustrated sewing diagrams, which continue throughout the book), the title progresses through an extravagantly femme collection of shrugs, skirts, purses, and creative miscellany, such as a brocade cummerbund and pansy-covered purse. The pieces featured are young and trendy, but that's the idea of books like this one. Why go out and spend goodness knows how much on something that will fall out of style in just a season, when you can create it from bits and bobs you already own? And, better yet, why not create your own sense of style?

Just for the Frill of It is gorgeously designed; the photography is clear and bright, with a beautiful palette. One of the most charming details is Nimri's list of top ten things to do while wearing this piece; you can "bring your neighbor flowers" or "make a family collage" in your Granny Bolero, or "buy yourself a new antique ring" or "talk to the garden fairies" in the Ruffled Around the Edges Skirt. It's such a personable touch; I hope it carries over into her next book on jewelry-making.

My only caveat is a tiny one: I would have liked to have seen a greater range of body types within the diverse set of models. If I could find what I liked off the rack, I wouldn't have picked up a book like this in the first place, and I know young women of all different shapes and sizes who feel the same way.

Bored with your kit? Freaked out by the relentless ebb and flow of trends and styles? Then pick up a copy of Just for the Frill of It, and start making your own wardrobe fabulous as only you can.

Sonya Style, the author's website, has a plethora of simple recipes, costume ideas, and theme party guides. If you love modern-but-colorful room decor, definitely check out the decorate section for unique bits like the strapping room divider and still life wall flowers.
Her second book, Beadalicious: 25 Fresh , Unforgettable Jewelry Projects for Beads Old and New will be out on April 1st.
You can watch Sonya in action, including some of the pieces featured in the book, in her demo reel (I spotted the Let's Get Physical shrug and Highland Lass cardigan):

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Change the world (one interaction at a time):The Guerilla Art Kit by Keri Smith

Despite serving my undergrad sentence at a painfully normal small liberal arts college, I managed to make the acquaintance of the few eccentrics that dared disturb our universe. One of them was a blithe spirit who wore kitty ears and hula hooped for fun and profit. "Here," I thought, "is the first guerilla artist I've ever had the pleasure of meeting in person." While we never quite carried out our plan to chalk quotes up and down the byways of Central Park, I tried to carry a little of E's nonchalance into the world at large.

Wait, you say. Guerilla art? What's that?

(My father asked if it's when people dressed up like gorillas and let animals loose at the zoo. I told him not to say that too loud, or he'd give people ideas.)

Technically, yes. According to Keri Smith, artist and philosopher, guerilla art is "any anonymous work...installed, performed, or attached in public spaces, with the distinct purpose of affecting the world in a creative or thought-provoking way." Think of that frozen-moment-in-time-at-Grand-Central video that's been making its way around the net. Of course it could be just beautiful, but even adding a beautiful thing to your everyday environment will make people stop and think, and isn't that what art's all about?
The Guerrilla Art Kit has a nice blend of theory and practice. Smith's words on her own experience and research in the world of guerilla art will make you want to get out there and start slapping eyeballs on your neighborhood parking meters and mixing up batches of moss graffiti. There are instructions for making seed balls, wheatpaste, and freezer paper stencils, illustrated in Smith's deceptively naive style. Mindful of ecological issues and the current social climate, she stresses impermanent, eco-friendly work that does not permanently deface the environment you are in. Dozens of exercises encourage the reader to send passers-by on a scavenger hunt in your neighborhood, create wish trees and portable idea dispensers, and leave books and Polaroids for the taking. The last section of the kit (a sturdy little covered spiral-bound book printed on thick paper, the better to stash in your bag) includes stencil templates, stickers, postcards, and quotes for you to copy, cut out, and use.

Though she addresses the political side of guerilla art--some of her own work addresses her strong feelings against pervasive advertising--Smith explains that guerilla art is about expressing your own ideas:

Leave secret messages everywhere you go. Your ideas are interesting. Find yourself through recklessness and freedom. Revel in the idea of impermanence. Create your own world. Give back. Doodle. Listen. Plant. Stroll. Dance. Grow.

Wish Jar Journal is Keri's blog. Her website is also full of good things, like 100 Ideas, paper dolls, and instructions for a magic book.
This past year, she also published Wreck This Journal and The Little Otso Non-Planner Datebook.
There are many, many excellent interviews drifting about the internet. The best are at Craftzine, Arts and Healing Network (this one has an especial focus on guerilla art), and this podcast at Hip Tranquil Chick.
Stories from Space features the work of Helen Nodding (aka Ladybird), who builds tiny worlds and strange insects and leaves them in secret places that only the most observant would find.

Maybe Art Does Save: The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg

Here's a confession: I'm a child of the Eighties. Secret clubs, rebellion against the status quo, and well-dressed protagonists are an easy way into my heart.

The Plain Janes, written by Cecil Castellucci and illustrated by Jim Rugg, has all the tropes of your typical teenage novel at first glance. Main Jane is exiled to suburbia and vows to start over as a new person in this strange land. She falls head over heels in love, fights with her parents, flaunts authority and gets away with it, coming out stronger and a bit wiser in the end.

Trust me, though: it's better than that. Main Jane forgoes the overtures from the right crowd to befriend the freaks: shy blonde Brain Jane, athletic Polly Jane with a magnificent Frida Kahlo eyebrow, and Theatre Jane, with a flair for dramatics and a knack for seeing material in everything. While they are initially skeptical of the friendly girl in gogo boots, she appeals to each in a unique way with her plan for brightening the relentless mundanity of their little town. Her solution? Art attacks--random acts of creativity, such as knitting hats for fire hydrants, turning Main Street into a map of the solar system, and making wish trees. Fans of Amelie, Grapefruit, or glamour bombing will find familiar grounds in this graphic novel. No mere simple acts of beauty, P.L.A.I.N. (People Loving Art in Neighborhoods) use these art attacks to draw attention to injustices against young people in the town, among other issues. It's a big concept for a young adult graphic novel, and I applaud Cecil and Jim for making it accessible, entertaining, and inspiring for the younger set.

One of Cecil Castellucci's greatest draws is her characterization. She has a gift for rounding out a character in just a few lines of dialogue. The Janes are smart, dedicated, and interestingly flawed. Each brings something different to their girl art gang (don't you just love that? I want to be in a girl art gang.), and they work together beautifully. The Janes are a joy to read, especially when carrying out their art attacks, and also in a touching subplot involved Main Jane and a young artist in a coma. Jim Rugg's designs are appealing. Many reviewers cite Daniel Clowes as a parallel, but I see more Sarah Dyer in his clean lines and expressive faces. My only wishes? A list of resources and full-color art throughout, though I can see how the former could be a liability.

It's a fact of life. Hearts are always hurting. And yet they still keep pumping. The best way to fix a broken heart is to do something beautiful. Something P.L.A.I.N. I knew just what to do.

Maybe art can save. Maybe it can save me.

The main Minx website has a short (Flash-enabled) preview of this and other titles.
The jots of a nerdy girl is Cecil Castellucci's website.
The Guerilla Girls fight sexism in art with tactics something like the Janes', but on a much grander scale. Itty Bitty Titty Committee is a movie inspired by the Guerilla Girls, and I'm still kicking myself for missing out when it was screening in NYC.
Oh--and the sequel, Janes in Love, will be out on September 2nd of this year.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Gender is a Choice, Not a Life Sentence: Freak Show by James St. James

Where have I been for the past few months? Where haven't I been is a better question, but there are too many answers to that one--"Budapest," "Salamanca," and "Bluestockings NYC" come to mind. Where I have been is a much easier question to answer, and that would be Library School. Yes, like many greater book bloggers before me, I'm on the path to be a custodian of the cultural record, a grande dame of the general public's right to truth, knowledge, and the best damned Story Hour and Macaroni Picture Workshop in the NYPL.

Here are a few facts about your blogmistress: I live in Outer Borough of NYC, I go to East Coast Library School and love it more than I can stand, and when I'm not reading, I'm teaching myself how to watercolor and play Tori Amos songs on the keyboard. My favorite Outer Borough hangout is the Everything Goes Book Cafe, and if it were possible to marry The Strand, I probably would.

I've also invited my professors to view my oeuvre online; hello professors!

Now, down to business. Today, I have a review of a heartwarming tale about the coming of age of a teenage drag queen, Freak Show by James St. James.

(Goodbye, professors!)

Billy Bloom has accepted his fabulousness. The population of his reform-school-cum-prep-academy is not so keen on letting an all-singing-all-dancing fully costumed review of one flounce confidently through their hallowed halls. The abuse Billy endures is brutal, and culminates in a month-long stay in the hospital after a savage beating. His savior? The untouchable school quarterback, simple but kind-hearted Flip (who, need I mention, Billy is over-the-moon-and-heels-over-head in love with):

Since the day he carried my limp and lifeless body into the emergency room here at Plantation General Hospital, he's been by my side...He's been talking to me nonstop, he says, telling me stories, details about his life and his plans, anything at all, hoping that maybe the sound of his voice would guide me back.
And now his prayers have been answered.

Well! How about THAT!
Of course, I'm WILDLY jealous of myself for spending SO MUCH TIME with him and hearing his stories and GETTING TO KNOW HIM like that. I wish I'D been there. I wish he would tell ME stories. It's not fair!

Upon his triumphant return (wearing flowing white and bestowing blessings on all who did wrong by him), Billy decides to use his new untouchable status for good. How? By running for Homecoming Queen, of course. The opposition, Lynette Franz, has all the wholesome charm of a cupcake laced with arsenic, but Billy perseveres, winning the vote of his school's underground society and sparking a media war. I won't breathe a word about the end, but it's fitting and lovely.

Billy Bloom posesses the most unique voice I've read in young adult literature; if you can't abide capslock speak, you'd best turn back now. He is raunchy and witty and passionate, but with a heartbroken undercurrent sparked by the death of his relationship with his bon vivant mother. One of the only criticisms I have about this book is that this particular thread was not explored in a deeper manner, and it would have been great to see closure to that storyline. However, what is here is so surreal and wonderful. The story particularly picks up when Billy's best friend, Blah Blah Blah (I shan't give away her real name) joins him in a bloodless revolt against the status quo. While she suggests tae kwon do classes and The Art of War, he offers to design a boomerang tiara and hypno-belt-buckle with a compact full of knockout powder.

The art of fashion and makeup is Billy's driving passion:

Suddenly, I was tired of my mewling, tired of feeling powerless, and tired of being traumatized. I burst out of the cupboard and took over my place at the makeup table. Ah! The healing power of creation.

Our hero, a self-proclaimed "gender obscurist" (I love that term!), makes himself over with fierce Kali-inspired warpaint, bubbling wigs, and Spanish-moss draped gowns. You've never read fashion so over-the-top, except maybe in Simon Doonan's work and of course, Ms. Block's own. Billy's use of the healing power of art and transformative qualities of costuming (not always beautiful, mind you--he dresses as Dead Zelda Fitzgerald for an oral report, with strategic use of Grape Nuts and burned finery) brings to mind a line from "Fashion Quest:"

Call me superficial. But when my soul is fully expressed by my body, she can leave her dark room, sing her stories out loud and fearlessly dance.

There is something here in Freak Show that I've rarely seen before in queer teen lit. Despite the horrors that surround Billy, he never internalizes the horrendous things said about him. He realizes that the people out to hurt him are ignorant, cruel, or both, and his place in life is to speak for those who don't possess his bravery, or must keep silent to preserve their own lives.
Another rare theme is that of gender fluidity; sexuality in the Oughties cannot be easily labeled and categorized, and many young queer people are experimenting with all the shades and tones of gender identity. I loved seeing that explored in an exciting, positive manner in Freak Show.

Freak Show is a marvelous revenge-of-the-geek story, smart and sophisticated enough for the adult freak, but lively and snarky enough for its teen audience. I cannot recommend it enough for its fantastic narration, wicked wardrobe, and beautiful message.

You are a drag queen! It's your nature! You provoke. You expose. You arouse and inspire.
You open wounds and push buttons and rattle cages.
You unleash demons. You do! You do! You waken slumbering tigers. You know you do!
It's the path you've chosen. The life you desire.

Freak Show, by James St. James
The author's Myspace
A video on how to make your own tentacle makeup (Cheerios are involved)
"Holden Caulfield in Chanel, Size 4," an amazing interview at the School Library Journal

Clicky Web Analytics