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October 2011

A Consolation Grant

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Here is a Grant for when you don’t get a grant. I recommend
sending it to any friends in need. (My husband sent it to me.)

My grant rejection won a world speed record. (I applied last
Tuesday and was rejected last Thursday, all by surface mail.)

p.s. I love Ed Asner.

The Seed of a Book Designer

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I love biographies where the seed of the grown-up can be found in the child. (i.e. The architect who used to spend all his time making fantastic things with Lego. The famous undersea explorer who spent his sickly childhood recuperating by the ocean learning the names of fish.)

I came across this bio for graphic designer Derek Birdsall the other day: “As a child, DEREK BIRDSALL (1934-) loved stationery shops: infinite stacks and reams of paper, pads, notebooks and ledgers; instruments for writing, duplicating and erasing; virgin ink and paper in endless configurations of possibility. He speculates that this feeling was inherited from his grandfather, a clerk in a chemical works, and by Birdsall’s admission, a fountain-pen fetishist.”

As a child, I, too, spent countless hours in stationery shops—most of them in Tokyo (otherwise known as the Mecca of Paper Things)—so I took particular pleasure in reading about Derek Birdsall’s childhood. To my mind, there is still nothing more inviting than a fresh notebook and perfect fine-tipped pen, the former a repository and the latter an instrument of dreams. I am still ineluctably drawn to stationery shops. (I love how every country has it’s own unique stationery.) I never leave a shop without using the test pad for pens. My own practice runs tend to be loopy and abstract but I like to decipher other people’s hidden messages.

(Book Design by Derek Birdsall)

Derek Birdsall, for those unfamiliar with his name, is probably best known for his book design, notably his jacket designs for Penguin in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Never showy, his work has a disarming simplicity and clarity. His emphasis is the beauty and personality of typefaces, the weight and feel of paper, the balance of positive and negative space, and how all these things contribute to the expression of a book’s intrinsic identity. He is a writer’s designer.

The preface to his 2004 Notes on Book Design (a hybrid of reflective musings and technical advice) states that the function of design is: “simply the decent setting of type and the intelligent layout of pictures based on a rigorous study of content.”

Some may disagree but I find that sexy.

p.s. While my own formative years as a stationery fanatic did not lead me to become a world-class graphic designer, I did spend four years working for one and, to this day, I remain partial to Pilot G-Tec Gel Pens.

Three Things About Water

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I can’t stop thinking about water. I have been writing about the ocean all week. Then, last night, the skies opened and the rain came down.

Very early this morning the rain was still lashing the streets. When I opened the door to get the newspaper, the water was bouncing back up off the pavement. I saw a woman sloshing through puddles like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain.

So here are three things related to water:

#1. A Book.

“But when we sit together, close,’ said Bernard, ‘we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory.”
― Virginia Woolf, The Waves

#2. A Playlist.
Waterfall, Jimi Hendrix
Deep Water, old spiritual
Wade in the Water, old spiritual
The Water is Wide, old spiritual
Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads
I Can’t Stand the Rain, Ann Peebles
Cool Cool Water, Beach Boys
(Courtesy of David Wall.)

#3. A Film.

Ann Marie Fleming’s “Waving” (1987). An aquatic elegy and debut short for Fleming’s grandmother.

Looking Down, Rising Up

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“We are not dreamers, we are the awakening from a dream which is turning into a nightmare. We are not destroying anything, we are merely witness to how the system is gradually destroying itself. We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice, but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. What we are doing is just reminding those in power to look down…”

—Slavoj Zizek speaks to Occupy Wall Street, October 9, 2011

For more on this preoccupying moment:

Absurdity for Kids

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Our family has been having a love affair with the absurd. Monty Python. Yellow Submarine. Fluxus. The Marx Brothers. (Note my recent posts on absurdity.) What I like about the absurd is how it thumbs its nose at what André Breton once called our “reign of logic.” In fact, it subverts the very idea that being realistic is a desirable way of being in the world. Instead, the absurd unfurls our imaginations, responds to the status quo with a gag or poetry. It puts a flower inside the barrel of a gun, eats an old leather boot for dinner.

In my opinion, no one uses the absurd as well as George Saunders. Saunders writes about strange characters and strange things in a hilariously deadpan tone. As a satirist, he inflates reality (whether is be consumerism or corporate culture) to such bizarre proportions that he allows us to see things better.

His brilliant book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, is a fable for children or a fairy tale for grown-ups. It is wonderfully and weirdly illustrated by the ever-spectacular Lane Smith.

A quick summary: Three families live in the tiny seaside village of Frip—the Romos, the Ronsens, and a little girl named Capable and her widower father who is obsessed with the past. The townspeople of Frip make their living raising goats, but they must fight off a daily scourge of gappers. (In case you were wondering, gappers are baseball-sized, burr-shaped orange creatures that creep up out of the sea and fasten themselves to goats and stop them from producing milk.) Since Frip survives by selling goat milk, the children must brush gappers off the herd eight times daily and dump them into the ocean. When the gappers target Capable’s goats, the Romos and the Ronsens turn their backs on the gapper-ridden Capable.

As a modern morality tale, the story weaves in lessons about how the misfortunate are disparaged, how the rich make excuses for why the poor are poor and why they can’t help, how some girls try to make themselves look pretty by standing very still.

(Imagine if 99% of the population was dealing with a scourge of gappers that caused their share of the economy to dry up. What would the 1% do? Surely it would not greet the 99% with a cold shoulder!)

In Saunders’ story, the plot hinges on whether the neighboring families will overcome their own selfishness, hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Do they? Well I don’t want to spoil the story, but I can tell you this much: everything ends unusually well.

p.s. This week I also read and loved My Name is Mina (prequel to Skellig.) When I finished it, I wanted to thank David Almond personally for the believable and tender way he expresses things. And, yes, Almond definitely has his surreal moments.

Anything is Possible

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“This extraordinary nonsense hierarchy (we had in South Africa) made one understand the absurd not as a peripheral mistake at the edge of a society but as a central point of construction, so that the absurd for me is always a species of realism rather than a species of joke or fun.”

—William Kentridge