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Friday, January 22, 2010

Handmade science books

  The New York Public Library has a full set of scans up of its copy of Anna Atkins' masterpiece! NYPL Digital Gallery | Ocean Flowers: Anna Atkins' Cyanotypes of British Algae ( fills the search results you can peform if you search for "cyanotype." The NYPL's summary:
Photographs of British Algae is a landmark in the histories both of photography and of publishing: the first photographic work by a woman, and the first book produced entirely by photographic means. Instantly recognizable today as the blueprint process, the cyanotypes lend themselves beautifully to illustrate objects found in the sea. The Library's copy of British Algae originally belonged to Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), inventor of the blueprint process, among his many other photographic as well as scientific advances.
My favorite single image may be Dictyota dichotoma, but I've been known to change my mind.

I love the idea of producing small editions of hand-bound books of unique prints. In my spare time. While I'm resting.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Friday, August 28, 2009

Zombie literature: oral histories

  World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks is so well written that it will have you re-evaluating your plans for natural and unnatural disasters in both fictional and non-fiction contexts.

The book is set in a future in which the entire world has been devastated by a plague that transforms its victims into the living dead. The living dead are slow and noisy, as you would hope, but they also infect their victims with alarming speed, and are extremely difficult to eliminate. Sure they can freeze, but they also revive upon the spring thaw; they can function on the bottom of the sea or as floaters for indefinite periods of time without being broken down by salt water; they can be locked into prisons without fresh victims, and remain dangerous indefinitely... The global outbreak has devastating, world-wide consequences. Nowhere on land or sea is safe.

The book documents the stories of survivors from around the globe as the tide is turning, and the living are reclaiming the planet. Reports from many nations, many types of civilians and specialists, soldiers and doctors, are included. The documentary nature of the project is very broad, and very compelling. The book jacket jokingly calls the author "the Studs Terkel of zombie journalism," and it is a funny and fitting description.

I blame Pride & Prejudice & Zombies for making me reconsider books on the subject of zombie plagues generally. World War Z was a natural follow-up choice: it has been out a few years, it was a NY Times bestseller, and it takes a very different, documentary, first person, oral-history approach to tell the story.

I especially was interested in the use of this approach: one of my NaNoWriMo novels was written entirely as a transcript of a Fresh Air-style interview of a person whose experiences included the political and economic collapse of the U.S., an internal civil war, the division of the territories into many separate countries, and the burden of recovering with sharply limited natural resources. I wanted to see if there were any natural parallels that the oral history approach would lead to on the disaster recovery topic. The short answer is: just a few, mostly due to the natural resource issues. The zombie plague is so devastating, and so treacherous, that merely recovering from being bombed by your own government without the risk of being eaten by your neighbors and relatives seemed leisurely in comparison.


As a San Franciscan, I'm pretty aware of basic disaster preparedness tactics. I own flashlights, candles, wrenches to turn off gas, bottles to port water from my water heater if the water goes out, tablets to purify water if the supply stays on but is compromised, weatherproof gear, and so on. One of my friends has multiple survival kits of lights, crowbars, blankets, energy bars, and goodness knows what else in multiple locations. He lives in a flat neighborhood built on landfill, so I won't be visiting him during either an earthquake or a zombie apocalypse. My place is on a hill, but on sandy soil; the main part of the house could be accessible to zombies if I don't block the front windows and destroy the rear steps, though I imagine the zombies could easily fall off my neighbor's roof onto my patio to make my life difficult. I've been bargaining with a friend in a third story apartment for safe haven in exchange for augmenting his survival supplies with good wine, but I'm not sure his building is as safe as he believes, and I don't trust him with the case of wine in the meantime...

There are so many things to consider, and good fiction inspires you to look at the world in new ways. I'm not paranoid as a result of reading this... what was that noise? Did you hear that? No? Sorry. I was saying, it makes me think a little differently, expands my creative thinking just a bit, and that is a good thing.

I'm really bummed about the sea not being safe, however. That had seemed like such a lovely idea. But it was a hope without a logical basis, beyond a theory that swimming is too complicated for zombies. Floating can still be treacherous.


I bought this book at a used bookstore on Valencia. A block away, I received an exclamation about how great the book is, and word of the movie coming out next year, both unbidden from a stranger.

I love this town.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)11:30 PM

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Pasta love

  Cookbooks often tempt me with a few mouth-watering descriptions, but when I have been separated from my money and have time to really review every recipe, I sometimes realize that the ONLY things I'd really want to cook are the few items that got my attention initially. (This sounds like some sort of analogy about relationships, but it's not, I assure you. Well, not intentionally.) Libraries provide a great workaround for this: you get to spend enough time with a cookbook (2 weeks plus) to decide if it is something you should own.

sliced fennel bulb frying in olive oil [Image: sliced fennel bulbs frying in olive oil.]

Six or seven years ago, I checked out Cooking from an Italian Garden by Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen from the San Bruno Public Library. And every single thing I made from the cookbook was hailed as one of the best homemade Italian dishes ever. But the book, dating from 1984, is out of print, and at the time, on-line booksellers wanted seven times the cover price. I mourned my separation from the cookbook, but vowed that someday, I would own it.

There are a lot more on-line booksellers now, and I have acquired a copy for a mere doubling of the cover price. And it is worth it. This book is a collection of over 300 recipes, each and every one of which is vegetarian. It is an encyclopedia of cooking: how to make homemade pasta, and how to use different shapes to make fancy items like tortellini or ravioli; how to make gnocchi; lasagna techniques; how to make pickled veggies; how to make risotto; and an absolutely stunning selection of vegetable side dishes that goes on and on...

There is a catch: I am much more vegan-leaning than I was six or seven years ago. Back then, I was regularly buying cheese, and could occasionally be imposed upon to cook with eggs. This cookbook has many, many recipes involving eggs and cheese, which is a surprise: I mainly remember the vegan dishes. Nevertheless, there are many dishes I am trying with great success, with minimal modifications.

Star dishes so far include:

-fusilli ai capperi: pasta spirals in a sauce of basil, garlic, prepared mustard (!!), capers, and olive oil

-rigatoni puttanesca: firm tubes in a raw sauce of tomatoes, garlic, black olives, capers, and basil

-melanzane al forno: eggplant baked with olive oil, fresh oregano, and garlic, topped with fresh tomato sauce

-finocchio fritto: sliced fresh fennel bulbs, blanched, dusted with flour, and fried in olive oil.

This is the sort of cookbook that inspires you to rush out and buy a tomato crushing machine, so you can make a full year's supply of tomato sauce to can while tomatoes are still at their peak; or a pasta machine, so you can dedicate your every evening to the production of delicate, homemade fettuccine...

Warning: you will spend more time cooking and will buy alarming volumes of capers, but you will be very happy. Just so you know.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Sunday, June 28, 2009


  Tears of laughter ran down my face from the very idea that customers at the pirate supply store were offended by the 'kitten plank' - a plank for use when making a disloyal kitten "walk the plank" to depart your pirate ship...

I'm getting ahead of myself.

It is a gorgeous, sunny, hot weekend in San Francisco. Today, in between my favorite, distant, Chinese supermarket and my favorite inner Richmond cafe, I was violently sucked into Green Apple Books (, my favorite bookstore in San Francisco. Among other purchases (oh, how they torment me with books I want!), I acquired Essentially Odd: A Catalog of Products Created For and Sold At the 826 National Stores ( It is the best, and funniest, catalog I have ever owned.826 Valencia peg leg oil

826 National is the umbrella organization behind the tutoring centers that Dave Eggers set up, starting with 826 Valencia ( Yes, you've been past it. If you're walking north on Valencia on the west side of the street, you pass a park, an alley with a cool mural, a restaurant, a cooperative art gallery, a pirate supply store, a natural history shop... Yes, it is the pirate supply store.

Of course it is the pirate supply store.

That's just the front of the building: there is a tutoring store in the back. But, for various reasons explained in the book, they needed to sell things up front, and they decided the building looked a bit like a ship interior, and the pirate supply shop was born.

Early on, the 826 founders decided that the shop should serve working pirates, as opposed to being a kitschy shop about pirates.
Medicine for scurvy, mermaid repellent/bait, cannon fuses, peg leg oil, beard extensions...

I know, I know, you are wondering how you have lived without having visited this shop. And I'm saying: go! Go now! Well, okay, wait until it's open. But definitely go.

But this catalog does not MERELY contain images and descriptions of the items available in SF's shop. Oh no. There are other 826 tutoring centers. And they each have a shop. A different kind of shop. One, for example, sells only super hero supplies. Another: time travel necessities. Another: robot repair & maintenance supplies.

Yes, they really SELL these things. They do! And all of the sales go to support the tutoring centers.

You'll see me sporting a Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair hoodie as soon as I get my long, tapering, alien hands on one. Once you have the catalog, you can visit the appropriate 826 center's website to order their cool merchandise. (It looks like the 826 National Store will eventually be able to centralize sales inquiries.)

Creative people who love reading, good design, and ambient wackiness ROCK.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:23 PM

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Classics of Zombie Literature

  Yes, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith is all I had hoped for. It is literature. It is gory. It is romantic. It involves ninjas. And it provides social commentary about the place of women in society in new ways. I quote:
My sisters and I cannot spend any substantial time searching for [my sister's boyfriend/captor], as we are each commanded by His Majesty to defend Hertfordshire from all enemies until such time as we are dead, rendered lame, or married.
Yes, as you might expect, it is unseemly for ladies to slay legions of the undead, and even more unseemly to do so WELL. No matter how one's country might need one's help during periods of shambling, brain-eating unpleasantness, a respectable lady, especially a married one, must retire from her violent, gory, life-saving service. (Oh, the stupidity of patriarchy.)

I love this book. I recommend it. If you're near me, I might even be willing to loan it to you.

I'm not saying I want the undead versions of all enjoyable works of literature... although, come to think of it, Wuthering Heights would be even more joyously overwrought if... If... NO. Wait. Stop right there! Don't! Well... Hmmmmm.....

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posted by Arlene (Beth)8:28 PM

Friday, June 12, 2009

More good reads

  I was entirely too aware when I last posted a list of books I had recently written that all three of the books I listed where by white men. This is the sort of thing white men themselves tend not to notice, but it struck me as strange. The odds that a multi-racial-yet-pale SF gal like me would read THREE consecutive books by white guys is quickly explained by the fact that I was on a sci-fi bender, and that I have white guys recommending books to me. But still. It seemed odd.

Of course, this only makes me think of the website, which is thoroughly entertaining. Currently on display is item 126, Vespas. A sample of why I like this site:
Within white culture, your choice of transportation method says a lot about you. For example a Prius says you care about the Earth, a bicycle shows you REALLY care about the earth, and a bus shows that you are probably not white.
[Those of us who are not (completely) white and who ride the bus must pause to finish laughing before reading on, because it continues to get funnier.]

Anyway, I have three more books to report on, and this time around the mix of influences upon me is more apparent.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer is an absolutely stellar collection of short stories. It is the sort of collection that makes you stay up far past your bedtime, because you cannot put the book down, or even pass your stop by several train stations. Each story is about a different character: coincidental with the theme of this blog post, each primary character is a black woman.

The collection is a pleasure to read, and has deservedly won a ton of awards. She now lives in the SF Bay Area, because that is what writers do.

Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine is a graphic novel set primarily in the SF Bay Area. I had seen it in every bookstore I have visited recently, likely because it is a NYTimes "notable book," and finally caved in and bought it. It is a slice of life drama about an increasingly negative, 30-something Asian guy, who can't figure out why he is alienating everyone around him.

You know this guy.

I'm not asking you to name names, here: I'm just saying that you know someone like him.

The entire work is very well observed - the gestures, the expressions, the dialogue... it is as true to life as the melodrama you heard on BART this morning. And that look that Miko gives Ben after she tries to get him to come to bed, and he says he is watching a movie and isn't tired, and she clarifies that she isn't talking about sleep, and he insists he wants to watch the movie... I have lived this exchange. I didn't even know guys were capable of SEEING that look, let alone understanding it and drawing it this well.

I recommend this highly.

Locas: The Maggie and Hopey Stories (Love & Rockets) by Jaime Hernandez is a massive, hardcover collection of Love & Rockets comics centering on best friends Maggie & Hopey. It has some of my favorite episodes (like Music For Mechanics), but so much more... It is an amazing collection. It will take me weeks to finish reading it, largely because I love to really look at Jaime's drawing style in detail: the way he models people, especially in low lighting, is just amazing. The story telling is great, the characters are lovable, and the drawings are so engaging... This is a treasure.

The thing that these books have in common with most books I recommend, including those written by white guys, is appealing, substantial female characters. It is a secret ingredient that makes books rock.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:10 PM

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Merry Christmas! Happy Saturnalia! Happy Merry Whatever!

Christmas tree with lights and villageI hope this day has been beautiful for you. Though I actually hope that for you every day.


The thing that has made me laugh out loud most often today: Milk Eggs Vodka: Grocery Lists Lost and Found by Bill Keaggy (, organizer of, a collection of... what you'd guess it is. It is hysterical. It really is. I know it's just grocery lists, but as a somewhat obsessive person with a mania for food who appreciates snide comments, it is grand.

Thing that did not make me laugh: my inability to digest solid food properly for the last four days. I have no idea what started it, but it's darned difficult to feast if you can't eat anything more solid than a banana. (Which, per the previously cited book, is one of the most misspelled shopping list words. Seriously. Popular: "Banna." Ach, du lieber Himmel...)

The joke that keeps coming up about my current situation, and those similarly situated: the line from The Devil Wears Prada, in which the senior assistant notes that she is one stomach flu away from her target/ideal weight. Ha ha ha. (It is funny. It is just not funny at this particular moment.)

Between the lack of successful digestion and its attendant complexities (which I bravely challenged yesterday by purchasing and eating more than half of a proper Mission District spicy vegan burrito, an act of bravado that was NOT rewarded 12 hours later), the resulting dizziness and headaches, and the cold I still haven't completely beaten (now in day 25)... It's been a unique holiday weekend. I hope to forget how I've felt for most of it and only remember the festive parts.


Yes, there is a comma shortage today. They'll be in stock again tomorrow. You'll live.


Xmas lessons heard from the in-laws:

(1) It is generally unwise to give your spouse anti-wrinkle cream as an Xmas gift.

(2) It is DEFINITELY unwise to give your spouse anti-cellulite cream as an Xmas gift. For several reasons. Which should not have to be explained to you. Unless you're having memory problems because your wife accidentally hit you with something very heavy (an anvil, a rotary telephone, the bread machine you bought her last year when she was on a low-carb diet), in which case I'll tell you now: (a) those creams don't work (duh), and (b) even if they did work (which they obviously do not, or you wouldn't even know what cellulite was, and certainly wouldn't be subject to viewings of it every single time you are in a high volume chain store of any type), it is not your place to provide products to treat the deficiencies you perceive with the texture of your wife's lower body. Work with me on this. The life you save may be your own.

I would like to thank my partner for being more outraged by hearing about these items than I was.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:30 PM

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