Yes, I know…

…quite a few meme posts recently. Forgive me: after a long downtime, I still have my blog training wheels back on, and any writing is better than no writing.

So I was tagged by Isis with this book meme:

  1. Find the nearest book.
  2. Name the book & the author.
  3. Turn to page 123.
  4. Go to the fifth sentence on the page. Copy out the next three sentences and post to your blog.
  5. Tag three more folks.

And boy, you’re going to regret asking me this, because I’m at work and the nearest book is … well, it could have been worse:

Book: The Tipping Point (Back Bay Books, 2002)
Author: Malcolm Gladwell

p. 123, 5th sentence and ff.:

“Something that stuck in my mind was when Kermit would hold his finger to the screen and draw an animated letter, you’d see kids holding their fingers up and drawing a letter along with him. Or occasionally, when a Sesame Street character would ask a question, you’d hear kids answer out loud. But Sesame Street just somehow never took that idea and ran with it.”

Now in my defense: this is a serious book about what makes innovations and products “sticky” – keeping customers interested in the product offering. But still a kind of random connection…

Tagging: Chris, Zalm, Tin Man.

RIP, William Styron

New York Times: William Styron, Novelist, Dies at 81. While others will remember him for Sophie’s Choice, Lie Down in Darkness, or The Confessions of Nat Turner, I will of necessity remember this writer from my hometown of Newport News for Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, which he wrote in 1990 about his struggles with depression and which proved (aside from a short story collection) to be his last published work.

When I read Darkness Visible in the early 90s, there were few writers who had addressed the sufferings of depression in a public, accessible, direct way—and virtually no successful ones. Styron’s writing gave me pause as I reflected on its parallels with my own experiences. In retrospect, it has given me hope that depression need not always marginalize the sufferer.

Other encomia to Styron via Technorati.

Chris Baldwin hits the Big(ger) Times

Bruno artist Chris Baldwin reported on Friday (sorry no permalink) that his should-be-in-every-newspaper comic strip, Little Dee, will be available through Comics.com, United Features Syndicate’s online comics portal, where it can be read alongside Peanuts, Doonesbury, and other greats. It’s not syndication but it’s a huge step. Wired picked up the news yesterday, so I think Chris has more friends in places of greatness than he realizes. Stop by Chris’s page and buy his book to show your support.

Tomorrow’s Children

It’s been one of those serendipitious days. A link on Boing Boing about a secret “cornfield” where misbehaving players inside the MMPORG Second Life get banished sent me on a search for the original story. The game makers credit the Twilight Zone, but I remembered reading a short story with the same premise as a kid in elementary school. “It’s a Good Life,” by Jerome Bixby, always scared the hell out of me, but it’s the sort of story that sticks with me to the present day.

Remembering the title of another story in the anthology, “Gonna Roll Them Bones,” I found a pointer to the anthology. Tomorrow’s Children, edited by Isaac Asimov, was full of extraordinarily creepy stories and hit me, as I was busy reading my way through the entire elementary school library, like a ton of bricks. From that point on I was hooked on science fiction, and remember being disappointed that Asimov’s own works didn’t have anywhere near the eerie resonance that these stories did. Based on the reviews in Amazon, it would appear that I’m not the only one who was warped for life by the book—and based on the prices for it on Alibris, it will be a good long time before I can get my hands on it again.

Review: Little Lulu Vol. 6, Letters to Santa

little lulu vol. 6

There was an odd comics book ad that stuck in my head as a young comics geek in the 1970s. I still remember three things about the ad: it was a sweepstakes sponsored bythe Clark candy company; it had a big picture of a bunch of Marvel superheroes in the middle; and it promised the chance to meet anyMarvel or DC superhero… or “even Little Lulu.” As a comics reader in the 1970s, I had no idea what Little Lulu was, but I knew it didn’t sound as cool as Spider-Man, so I ignored it. What a pity: had I done a little exploring, I might have been exposed to a piece of graphic brilliance.

Little Lulu stands alongside the Carl Barks Donald Duck stories for sheer comic genius told through simple formulas. Where Barks’s drawings were highly detailed and every episode featured a different, highly imagined setting for his cast to explore, Little Lulu, in the hands of writer/layout artist John Stanley and finish artist Irving Tripp, had simple, clean drawings, and only about four storylines: Lulu would get revenge on the boys for something; her friend Tubby would investigate a “crime,” usually perpetrated by Lulu’s dad; Lulu would tell the little neighborhood brat Alvin a story in which a girl would triumph over all odds; and “wild card” stories where Lulu might get into some unspecified trouble with her friends. Within those limits, the comic was brilliant. Lulu serenely sailed above all troubles, got the best of all the boys, and gleefully dealt vengeance on the neighborhood boys. And the art, simple though it is, is a touchstone alongside 50s era Peanuts and Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy for clean, stylized grace.

Now, thanks to Dark Horse, the original Little Lulu comics are being reprinted in chronological order. (Again, Little Lulu seems like the odd man out in a line-up for me, since Dark Horse is known primarily for gritty indie titles like Concrete, Sin City, and Hellboy, as well as for licensed comics like the massively popular Alien vs. Predator and the Star Wars titles.) The Little Lulu series is now up to Volume 6, and all the elements are in place. All the classic story tropes are in evidence here, with Lulu ad Tubby creating chaos for a truant officer, a ghost, a customer at the butcher shop, and of course Lulu’s long suffering parents.

But the best and probably most poignant story in the collection is the title story (which bears no title in the collection itself), featuring Lulu asking for a new doll so she can give her beloved old doll to the poor girl down the street. It’s an old story, but effectively told here, and a nice counterpoint to the commercialism ofthe season.

One minor quibble: as with Dark Horse’s other Little Lulu compilations, all the art is black and white, which detracts a little from the charm of the drawings; otherwise the collection is impeccably done, and will be enjoyed by fans of classic comics and young new readers alike.

This post originally appeared on Blogcritics.

Splendid Sundays in Slumberland

New York Times: Restoring Slumberland. There’s an eerie synchronicity about reading this article at the same time as Cory Doctorow’s Themepunks serial in Salon. Peter Maresca’s painstaking restoration of Winsor McCay’s century old comic strips, which still stretch the limits of the form in both imagination and quality, and his subsequent decision to self-publish the results seems as brilliantly quixotic as the creation of garden gnomes with face-recognition for providing context-sensitive household memos.

What’s best about the new book is that it’s about a passion for something that was itself insanely passionate. No hack working in syndicated comics today could pull off anything like the imagination and brilliance of a page from this book. Unfortunately, what’s worst about the book is the infrastructure: the book’s website, sundaypressbooks.com, is was pretty much unreachable (it’s back now).

Update: Nice post at BoingBoing citing Glenn Fleishman on the copyright issues involved: “100 years later, the public that granted the limited exclusivity of copyright gets to reap in the greater benefit of cultural heritage being shared more widely.” The ironies abound in this case. Prior to the Dover reprints that surfaced a few years ago, I’m unaware of any collections that appeared while the work was still in copyright. It’s only now that the right audience has appeared to create a work that might spark new interest in McCay’s work.

Julie & Julia

julie and julia

Yesterday morning, in a fit of serendipity, my iPod shuffled its way over to Christopher Lydon’s 2003 proto-podcast interview of Julie Powell, the Julie of the Julie/Julia Project. By that same fit of serendipity, Julie’s new (first) book, Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, had arrived from Amazon a week or so before. I had been waiting for the right moment to read it; the shuffle play of the interview felt like an invitation.

The title is somewhat misleading. The claimed premise for the book, as for the Julie/Julia Project, is The Project: cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s landmark Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 in a year. In the book, however, the focus is more on how a frustrated writer and temp administrative assistant in New York City came to start the project, and the lessons she learned from Julia Child’s towering example. The shift in focus was welcome, frankly: as much as I would have loved to have a hardcover copy of every blog post that Julie made in the course of that year, getting the perspective on Julie’s life effectively shifts the focus to the wonder of food and cooking and how it can rescue otherwise lost souls.

Interesting, too, that in this book the “Julia” of the project is revealed to be essentially a literary construct, born straight from Julie’s reading of MTAOFC. Julie and Julia never met, and the eventual revelation of the Grande Dame’s position on The Project is a traumatic anticlimax to the Project. But Julie’s constructed Julia is a genius, in the Greek sense: a guiding household spirit who takes Julie’s agonizingly unfulfilling life and turns it into something rich and wonderful through the medium of sauce veloute and calf’s liver and bone marrow.

This, I think, is the genius (in the modern sense) of The Project and of Julie’s book. We all could use a Julia to steer us in the direction of joie de vivre and fulfillment. In the meantime, I’m going to have to go back to our copy of MTAOFC and dive into some of the more ambitious chapters. Kidneys, anyone?

I become a case study: Business Blogs

I keep forgetting to mention that I have two case studies in Bill Ives and Amanda Watlington’s new Business Blogs: A Practical Guide, one about me as a general blogger and one about the work we did at Microsoft on the Blog Portal. The book is full of practical advice about using blogs in the enterprise for reasons ranging from knowledge management to product management. Thanks to Bill and Amanda for including my experiences. (It’s kind of funny being in the same book, in the same section, as Robert Scoble.)

Intruders in the dust

New York Times: Reviving His Works, on Paper and Plaster. With William Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, newly restored to the somewhat eccentric condition in which its owner left it (houseblogger beware! “haphazardly laid pine floors” and “brick patios like wings” that “fostered rot” and “diluted the whole Greek Revival vibe” lurk within), it seems an appropriate time for a confession.

A fleuron is a typographical symbol that looks like a flower.

Thirteen years and change ago, I was with the Glee Club on what seemed like a never-ending Tour of the South. We had left Charlottesville, opened in Chapel Hill, proceeded to Athens and Atlanta, and made a stop in Jackson, MI before pulling into Oxford for the night. At that point we were all a little disconcerted to find that Oxford buttoned up its sidewalks at 8:30 at night—and since we had been on a bus for a Very Long Time, we wanted to get out and find something to do. So, while some of the group went off in search of house parties at Ole Miss, a few more literary-minded individuals (I’m not naming names, but I’ve talked about one of them before, and another is now a minister) piled into a car in search of Faulkner’s home.

It was after 10 when we walked up the front drive and found the house. We had joked and laughed in the car, which we left parked at the top of the drive; now we were soberer. I remember it was a moonlit night and we seemed awfully exposed. But it was quiet and still except for the crunch of gravel underfoot; and luminous around us except for the small cloud of dust raised by our feet. We stood at the base of the steps leading up to the back porch—that porch that the writer, between novels, added along with his office, that office on the walls of which was scrawled in graphite and grease pencil the skeleton of a novel; that office in which rests the typewriter that crackled and popped with the writer’s thoughts, now silent.

– It’s a sad house, said the future minister. – It feels as though it’s incomplete and is waiting for someone.

And then there was a pop from inside, a crack as though someone had trod on the floors—those same rough pine floors haphazardly laid by the writer during one renovation or other. We held our breath.

But no ghosts arrived, no night watchman shining suspicious flashlights. And no bleary eyed writer clutching a glass invited us up on the porch.

A fleuron is a typographical symbol that looks like a flower.

Now, if Faulkner could read Oprah’s tips on how to get through The Sound and the Fury, I think the house would be doing more than crackling. Probably it would be making sounds more like the advice at the end of Tod Goldberg’s post on the same subject.

First editions

I have succumbed to that illness to which bibliophiles are most vulnerable: first-edition mania. I used to be perfectly happy to go into a bookstore and find a clean well-designed paperback. Now nothing will do but older editions, the closer to a first the better.

Pictured in the Current Reading spot is the latest manifestation of this illness: a 1943 hardback edition of Eliot’s Four Quartets complete with (slightly torn) dustjacket, found in Richmond during a time when Esta and I were supposed to be keeping each other from buying anything. (We were both unsuccessful at that, by the way.) In my defense, my existing copies of the poem were either (a) tattered (paperback edition) or (b) cramped (in the Collected Poems), so of course that excuses getting another copy.

What is it that causes me to go out and do this? This isn’t even my first Eliot first edition; I have a clean Murder in the Cathedral that I found years ago in Georgetown. I think the attraction has to do with several things. First, the typography. There is usually no comparison between the work of a metal press from fifty or seventy-five years ago and modern offset printing. The physicalness of the slight indentations in the paper and the even color are generally far superior. Too, many paperbacks are reproduced in photo offset from the original hardcover settings but with tighter margins, making the page both less legible and more cramped.

And there is a sense of history that often speaks directly to the work. One thing I noticed in this 1943 edition was the color of the paper. Unlike some of my books from the 1920s and 1930s, the paper of this edition had browned like a paperback—because during World War II the only paper that was available had a high acid content (the necessary materials to produce better paper were needed elsewhere for the war effort). Knowing this and holding it in your hands lends an entirely new perspective to Eliot’s poems of loss, time, and redemption, particularly “Little Gidding,” which takes on a terrible concreteness when you situate it in wartime England in 1943:

Ash on and old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house—
The walls, the wainscot and the mouse,
The death of hope and despair,
    This is the death of air.

(Thanks to Tristan for an excellent online text and notes on the poems.)

For a better discussion of the semantic interplay between text and book, check out Jerome McGann’s Black Riders: The Visual Language of Modernism.