Tuesday, July 31, 2007

J. K. Rowling's Coattails

Hatching Magic is this week's pick for the Washington Post's KidsPost Summer of Magical Reading Book Club.

It's a weird ride, here on the long coattails of J. K. Rowling. On the one hand, it has to feel good to see fantasy books on so many "What to read next" lists. And I personally get a huge lift just being on the same list as such greats as Lloyd Alexander, Ursula LeGuin, Susan Cooper, and Diana Wynne Jones. It's great company to keep. But its discouraging and depressing to read about research that shows that just because a young reader is wild about Harry, it doesn't follow they'll tackle another fantasy writer, or even another book at all.

So I think I'm not alone in wondering how bumpy the landing is going to be.

If you haven't read it, check out Ron Charles's editorial on the Post website, "Harry Potter and the Death of Reading."

I'm looking forward to exploring a used bookstore in Maine, where I can put my hand on a battered paperback, and make my own small, personal rediscovery. Maybe it will be a literary novel, a mystery, some great nature writing...maybe even a fantasy.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Down the Rabbit Hole with Alice

Well, Oxford is under water, so they have their own Pool of Tears right now. But assuming you have a nice summer's day near a river that is not overflowing its banks, and a tree to doze under, you could spend some time with Alice down the rabbit hole with this collection of retold stories set in Wonderland.
Gargoyle Magazine and Paycock Press are the brainchildren of Rick Peabody, who's published previous anthologies featuring Marilyn Monroe, Barbie, and Elvis, among others. Now It's Alice's turn to be reimagined by the likes of

Donya Currie Arias, Beth Bachmann, Bruce Bauman, Jeffrey M. Bockman, Angela Carter, Robert Coover, myself, Kevin Downs, Rikki Ducornet, CM Dupre, Alison Habens, Susan Hankla, Ann Harries, Dorothy Hickson, Alice Johnson, Steven Millhauser, Miles David Moore, Dave Morice, Jeff Noon, Lance Olsen, Victoria Popdan, Doug Rice, Katie Roiphe, Lorraine Schein, Martin Seay, Aurelie Sheehan, Suzan Sherman, David R. Slavitt, MaryAnn Suehle, Ross Taylor, Tom Whalen, and photos by Nancy Taylor.

My own story, "Bread-and-Butterflies," imagines Alice Liddell in India on a train.

Other Alice-y reads for summer: I can heartily recommend Lynne Truss's novel from a while back, Tennyson's Gift, in which Lewis Carroll, Ellen Terry, and some stray American phrenologists descend on Tennyson's summer home on the Isle of Wight, with hysterical consequences. Lewis Carroll + phrenology: it could hardly go wrong.

Also The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor, not to be confused with John Le Carre's Looking Glass War from a number of years ago. I've not read it, but it's certainly got my attention. I gather there's soon to be a movie, and already a graphic novel, so maybe that's my own rabbit-hole reading for August.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Tree Houses, Snail Houses, Summer Living

Got thinking this morning about the wonderful collaboration between Allan Ahlberg (Each Peach Pear Plum, The Jolly Postman) and Gillian Tyler, called THE SNAIL HOUSE (Candlewick 2000). A grandmother is sitting on the porch of a rural house as summer dusk falls, telling a story to two older grandchildren while minding the third, a baby. In a story within the story, the grandma shrinks the children down so they can crawl under the crack under the door, like Alice, into the garden wonderland, where they take up housekeeping inside a very well appointed snail. The drawings are wonderful, and float my boat in all kinds of ways: I always wanted to move in to Badger's house in WIND IN THE WILLOWS, the BOXCAR CHILDREN's boxcar, Bilbo Baggins's HOBBIT hole, and eat a fry-up of sausages in DR. DOLITTLE's kitchen. When we lived in Manila, we had a little nipa hut playhouse, but it was too mosquito-ridden to be much fun. The huge trees over at my friend Eleanor's house were much better quarters for various games.

And speaking of snails, THE VOYAGES OF DR. DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting (1922) was a huge favorite of mine when it was re-released in the late 1960s as a paperback movie tie-in to the Rex Harrison Dr. Dolittle movie. In it, Dr. Dolittle voyages with a young boy and a lot of animals to Spidermonkey Island and rides across the bottom of the ocean under the shell of a Great Sea Snail. So living in and traveling by snail is a longtime fascination of mine, I suppose.

Another wonderful book while we're on this theme of outdoor and alternative housing.

WE WERE TIRED OF LIVING IN A HOUSE by Liesel Moak Skorpen, in which some children decamp to a tree, then a cave, then a castle on the beach, and finally home again.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Stage magic, The Illusionist, and Levitation

[Originally posted on www.MySpace.com/anndowner on June 30]

Went to see Paprika for the second time and at dinner afterwards talk turned to how much we'd liked the recent flurry of movies about stage magic (as opposed to the Harry Potter kind): The Illusionist and The Prestige. I mentioned how much I had liked the novel Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gould, and how sorry I was it had been optioned by Tom Cruise, because if he's in it, well, I might have to give it a skip.

But I'm very, very excited about a new graphic novel release coming from the fine folks at GT Labs (www.gt-labs.com). I first read their comix about the late 19th century "Bone Wars" between fossil hunters Cope and Marsh, Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards. So I'm really looking forward to this one, called Levitation, about the connections between physics and psychics and stage magic.
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Hatching Magic named to WaPo KidsPost Summer Reading List

[Originally posted on www.MySpace.com/anndowner on June 25, 2007]

Hatching Magic has been selected for the Washington Post's 2007 summer reading club.


This summer's theme is magic in all its forms, and HM has been selected as the book for Week 7. I think that should be in Sunday's Post for July 29.

For all you librarians and bookstore owners in the metro DC area, there are free printable bookmarks, etc, and book group guides available at anndowner.com.

Rabbit Hill, Watership Down...Usagi Yojimbo??

[Originally posted on www.MySpace.com/anndowner on Thursday, June 21, 2007]

I love rabbits. I had two as pets growing up, a chocolate brown Havana Rex named Hershey and a little black and white Dutch called Tucker. And I loved books about rabbits: Robert Lawson's Rabbit Hill, Richard Adams's Watership Down. I'm especially looking forward to reading the former to my son. It was a book of many quiet charms that I was drawn to over and over as a child--though I never went on to read any of Lawson's other books.

Today I took my son to Comicaze in Davis Square to get a comic for his summer reading pleasure, and ended up getting a copy of the rabbit samurai comic Usagi Yojimbo for myself. Samurai movies meet Maus. It will keep me occupied until I succeed in getting a copy of the graphic novel The Sandwalk Adventures by Jay Hosler (Clan Apis, published by Active Synapse), in which Darwin explains evolution to two creationist mites living in the follicles of his eyebrows.

Winged Cats, Google, and Serendipity

[originally posted on www.MySpace.com/anndowner on June 16, 2007]

The large marmalade cat mentioned in the back-flap bio on my books has gone to the Big Sink in the Sky (catsinsinks.com). Calvin, also known as Bunny, came to me as a kitten in 1991, graciously adopted the man who would become my husband, and later our son, who turned out to be allergic to cats. With heavy hearts, we re-homed Calvin with friends who weren't intimidated by his age (14) or his health (diabetes) and having to give him insulin injections twice a day and pony up for prescription cat food, insulin,
syringes, and extra vet visits.

So it was something of a miracle that Calvin lived to be 16, and the grief of his two families at his passing is hard to express. I wanted to give his new family a winged balinese cat like the one I'd long had hanging over the kitchen sink. The spitting image of Calvin, orange tigery stripes and green eyes, and wings.

Google returned a lot of fascinating stuff about winged cats, but no wooden winged cat from Bali like the one I had. But it did return news of this collection of three novellas by British writer John Barlow. In one of the novellas, "The Possession of Thomas-Bessie," a winged cat wreaks havoc on a Victorian workhouse. I ordered the book from Porter Square Books, and look forward to the dip into Victoriana tinged with magical realism...one of my favorite things. It feels like a final gift from the Big Red One who gave me so much.

So here's to large marmalade cats, winged or not, and serendipity.

Eating Mammals: 3 Novells
John Barlow

Backyard Ballistics

[originally posted on www.MySpace.com/anndowner on June 14, 2007]

This weekend saw the completion of our bottle-rocket launcher, and successful firing of bottle rockets over the rooftops of Somerville. We also took a ride to World's End in Hingham, MA, and fired REAL rockets, two of which deployed their chutes and caught a ride out to sea, and were not recovered by the M.R.S. (manual recovery system).

This led to some research online into replica siege engines and trbuchets, and I discovered some wonderful video online about the annual Punkin Chunkin event in Delaware: trebuchets, air cannons, and pumpkins, O my!

Check out the video I've posted over on my MySpace page. For now, we will have to settle for a Potato Bazooka, courtesy this little book, on order from the fine folks at Porter Square Books:


Peter Pan in Scarlet

[originally posted on www.MySpace.com/anndowner on June 12, 2007]

We are listening to Peter Pan in Scarlet, read by Tim Curry, in the mornings before school. Am I the only one who thinks Tim Curry WAS a pirate in a previous life? I think I could listen to him read this stuff all day, about "proper swords" and the "sea of Zig-Zag." The producers of Pirates of the Caribbean should have found something for him to do, I think. You can tell he loves his job.

And who is this Geraldine McCaughrean anyway? I'm usually really leery of people trying to write sequels to most anything in the canon, and she has not only written a spectacular successor, but made it her own. A real feat.

The Dangerous Book for Boys

[Originally posted on www.MySpace.com/anndowner on June 10, 2007]

Can't wait to get a copy of this. Heard one of the authors on NPR, and it sounds great. The lost art of getting dirty, Childhood Unplugged. For girls, too, of course.

My husband and son have been making their own bottle-rocket launcher, which has involved trips to the local hardware store and to Home Depot for PVC pipe, toxic glues,
hacksaws, drill bits, etc. We are close to liftoff. We also take our son to Building Nights at MIT, where they pass out screwdrivers to the kids and let them take apart computer printers and small appliances. As the good folks at MAKE magazine say, if you haven't voided the warranty, it isn't yours.

On a recent visit to Great Brook Farm State Park (former dairy farm in eastern Mass., with hiking trails and its own ice cream concession, made from the milk of their own cows) I watched some parents repeatedly cautioning their kids to BE SAFE and STAY CLEAN: Don't climb on the rocks! Stay out of the pond! What is wrong with this picture??

I swear, I am going to found Camp Skinned Knee, where kids are guaranteed to fall out of apple trees, break arms, skin their knees, fall on their heads, and get muddy, grass-stained, mosquito-bitten, and basically be allowed to be kids. There is something wrong when kids have injuries from playing competitive sports, ruining their throwing arms at age 11, but we won't let them explore their own safety zone in real kid pursuits.

The Spectacular Sam Weller Zion Books store

[originally posted on www.MySpace.com.anndowner on June 8, 2007]

ust back from a business meeting in Salt Lake, and wish I had been able to fold a bookstore up very small and bring it back in my suitcase with me...Dashed in, grabbed two books for my son and a used book for my husband. THREE FLOORS of new, used, and RARE books, plus a great newsstand and coffee shop. Why doesn't Boston have one of these?!?!? It's like the late lamented Wordsworth grafted on to the late, lamented Avenue Victor Hugo Books.

I picked up a new Tom Swift book and The Squampkin Patch, by JT Petty, to squirrel away for the fall. It sounds like a hoot.

Tiny Tumbleweed Houses/A Room of One's Own

[Originally posted on www.MySpace.com/anndowner on May 24, 2007]

I am a writer without a place to write. I take my laptop to libraries, cafes, or write on the bed or at the kitchen table. I daydream about a lovely little place to write, or an Airstream trailer parked in the driveway, so I really swooned when I saw these tiny dwellings:


I love the idea of being able to hitch it to a car and take it somewhere if I wanted. Too bad it's forty thou.

Breakfast with Roald Dahl

[first posted in www.MySpace.com/anndowner on May 23, 2007]

Every school morning my son has breakfast and listens to a book on tape. This week we have Roald Dahl's MATILDA out from the public library. We've previously listened to THE WITCHES and Budza has seen the Johnny Depp version of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.

MATILDA is more than usually nasty, even for Dahl. It's a weird book, because at the heart is a fierce love of books, and the special relationship not just between reader and book, but between librarian and readers, and between readers. But the portrait of the family, ay yi yi. It makes the Dursleys from Harry Potter look like a family you'd like to live next to.

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY was a hugely important book to me when I was ten. We were living in Manila, and I first read it on a sleepover at my friend Eleanor's house. I devoured it like a Wonka chocolate bar, and begged for a copy and ended up getting two for Christmas, one from my parents and one from my aunties back in the States. Dahl reined in the misanthropy better in CCF; Wonka and the wonders of the factory carry us along. But here in MATILDA the acid drips from every page.

When we moved to Bangkok when I was in seventh grade, I started reading some of my father's books: Agatha Christie short stories and the like, and I somehow got my hands on a copy of Dahl's adult short stories. "Lamb to the Slaughter" (a woman clubs her husband over the head with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the lamb and serves it to a detective, who can't imagine what blunt instrument the murder weapon was...) made a deep impression, but I put the book away and turned instead to Hercule Poirot.

I think Dahl's misanthropy is more painful and shocking to grown ups than it is for kids. As adults, the acid is directed at US and our failings.

The Drifts of Books Beside the Bed

[Originally posted at www.myspace.com/anndowner on May 22, 2007]

These are the books on my own side: not on top of the dresser (library books and kids' books) or on my husband's side.

These are shelved in a small nightstand, and piled around it on the floor. There are (ulp) 50. I didn't realize it had gotten quite that bad... ..

McCall Smith: two different #1 Ladies Detective Agency mysteries
O'Brien: Four different Master & Commander novels (I got becalmed in Book 4)
Powell: Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipesm 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen
Owen: The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England
Gruen: Water for Elephants
Safran Foer: A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell
Barrett, Voyage of the Narwhal
Horn: Bees in America
Gore: The Travelling Death and Resurrection Show
Pullman: The Tiger in the Well (Sally Lockhart mystery)
Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1
Gordon, The Mystery and Magic of Trees and Flowers
Fisher, MFK Fisher: A Life in Letters
LeGuin, Steering the Craft, on writing
Hone, Dorothy Sayers: A Literary Biography
Ellis, The Inn at the Edge of the World
Purcell, Owl's Head
Flanagan: Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in 12 Fish
Rathbone: The Guyund: A Scottish Journal
LeGuin: The Other Wind
LeGuin: A Wizard of Earthsea (mass market paperback too poorly printed to read)
Tan: The Bonesetter's Daughter
Burridge and Edwards: Opium and the People: Opiate Use in 19th Century England
Barrow: Independent Spirits: Spiritualism and English Plebians, 1850-1910
Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
Lipman: My Latest Grievance
Hillerman: The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century
Wynott: Following the Bloom: Across America with the Migratory Beekeepers
Barber: Wonder Cabinet: Poems
Slavin: The Extra-Large Medium
Burr: The Best Old Movies for Families
Botz: The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
Mackay: An Encyclopedia of Small Antiques

A confession: There are a half dozen or so additional titles I can't bring myself to list. Suffice it to say they fall into the categories of Self Improvement and Parenting. 'Nuf said.

Bookcase in the Dining Room

[Original post date on www.myspace.com/anndowner, May 20, 2007]

Space constraints in apartments past have usually meant there's been a bookcase of some kind squeezed into the eating area wherever I've lived. It houses the Larousse Gastronomique and a Webster's dictionary, good for answering questions that come up during dinner conversation. The rest of the bookcase contains cookbooks, naturally, but also some miscellania: bird and insect field guides, field guides to the life of the seashore, the binoculars, a magnifying glass, some collecting equipment I picked up at the last Entomology meeting I attended. Hey, it works for us.

Cookbooks represent the collision of two of my major obsessions, books and food. Food works its way into my writing a lot (I especially enjoyed inventing Faerie food in the Spellkey series, 1987-1993). I gave my husband a tagine for Christmas, and we've been enjoying Morroccan food ever since...chicken with artichoke hearts, preserved lemon, and olives. So I gave him a copy of Paula Wolfert's classic, COUSCOUS AND OTHER GOOD FOOD FROM MORROCCO. It turns out to be one of those cookbooks that documents a magnificent obsession. Not so practical for actual cooking, but great as an armchair food travelogue and for the gleam of madness in the author's eye. The description of how to make authentic couscous is very intimidating, but there is a recipe for lamb slow cooked in paprika until it dissolves that, well, I just have to make, that's all.

Next: some favorite cookbooks worth tracking down.

Deets for Shire, Speleobooks, Chicken Barn...

My memory deceived me...the chicken barn's in MAINE. Silly me.

The Chicken Barn
21,600 square feet of books
Off Rte. 1 between Bucksport and Ellsworth

Shire Book Shop
6,000 square feet of books
305 Union Street, Franklin, MA 02038

Post Office Box 10
Schoharie, New York 12157-0010

And the "Books You Don't Need in a Place You Can't Find" is the Montague BookMill in Montague, Massachusetts.

Bookstores I've Known and Loved

[first posted on www.myspace.com/anndowner on May 19, 2007]

The ones with resident cats, such as the late, lamented Avenue Victor Hugo on Newbery Street in Boston.
Speleobooks in an octagon barn in Schoharie, NY...books about bats and caves and spelunking, o my.
The ones you stumble on in foreign cities.
The chicken barn--I forget where it is--New York state somewhere. Visible from the highway. I uttered a shriek and my husband slammed on the brakes and said "What?!?"
and I said "Books!"
The Shire in Franklin, Mass, where we'd gone for apples and bread from a nunnery, where the unseen nuns pass the bread to you on a lazy susan. I remember the Shire was musty, cold, but amazing. A trove.
The bookstore whose name eludes me, on Route 2 in Mass, I think? Their slogan is "BOOKS YOU DON'T NEED, IN A PLACE YOU CAN'T FIND." An old mill building on the river, near an old paper mill, I think? Haven't been there in ages.
In Connecticut, just over the Mass line in Union, the place visible from the highway with a huge sign that says "BOOKS, FOOD." The Traveler. Turkey dinners all year, a free book with your meal, and books to pay for downstairs.
The bookstore in Geneva, NY, that was closed with a dead deer out front (!) as a further insult. Great old spiritualist books and old stereoview cards.

What old bookstores have you known and loved, especially any in upstate New York or in New England?

Mirror blog to my blog on MySpace

Welcome to the mirror blog to my blog, Glass Salamander, over on MySpace. Since there seem to be recurring issues there with technical glitches, I'm going to be posting here, too.

Glass Salamander is the blog of me, Ann Downer, fantasy writer. I'm going to start by archiving here blog posts from the MySpace blog.

You can also check out my books at anndowner.com