Monday, November 28, 2011

Book Review: The City, Not Long After

After a virus decimates the United States, San Francisco becomes a haven for artistic misfits.

Read enough post-apocalyptic fiction, and you’ll start to tire of the tropes. Some of them will even make your memories of plots start to blend together: the lone walkers of the highways, the department store foraging, roadside bandits, the almost-cozy beginnings of new, hopeful communities.

The City, Not Long After by Pat Murphy (1989, reprinted 2006) relies on a few of the expected post-apocalyptic themes, but with some notable --and refreshing-- differences.

The most compelling of those differences is the way the city itself is an art project. The ragtag folks who find themselves still breathing in San Francisco when everyone else is gone aren’t nearly as concerned with commerce or organizing a government as some neighboring cities’ survivors are.

The tattoo artists, graffiti painters, robotics designers and other artists, mechanics and general tinkerers join forces for projects like painting the Golden Gate Bridge blue. Solo projects are all over the city, too.

A glittering suncatcher made of  jewelry store diamond necklaces hangs in a window. A church is filled with plants and flowers that sprout from the baptismal font and cover the altar. Plans are made to string wires from the top of a building to the ground, so the wind can play them like an instrument.

Not all of the projects are aesthetic. Just like in the real world of art, some of them are bizarre head-scratchers: polished human skulls juxtaposed with random objects, hundreds of pairs of shoes climbing a staircase, sculptures made of doll heads or museum animal bones.

Among these altered parts of the city rabbits scamper, as do whole gangs of roving monkeys, while buffalo graze in yards and parks. Mechanical creations that seem like metal spiders clank through the streets. Others seem to fly of their own will.

The mechanical creatures are the inventions, and the children, in a way, of a young man who calls himself The Machine, or T.M. for short. His backstory is one of the most touching, and could be a short story in its own right.

After his parents die of the virus, T.M., who is still a boy, doesn’t understand why he is still alive when everyone else around him has died. Considering the fact that his father was a robotics engineer, he comes to the sad and childlike conclusion that he himself must be a machine.

The wild card in the mix is Jax, who doesn’t quite fit in with the artists and inventors, or with anyone. She arrives in San Francisco to find out more about her mother, who had fled the city to raise Jax in the solitude of the country. Jax isn’t exactly an artist, but she’s a bit of a blank canvas, starting a new life that the city will quickly influence.

The bohemian life the group leads in San Francisco is endangered by a military group from Sacramento, who want to revive the United States and feel threatened by the laissez-faire attitudes and disorganization of the artists. Outsiders see them as sinners (another post-apocalyptic trope you might know well.)

It’s clear from the get-go that some sort of confrontation will happen, but it’s the way the battle is waged that is unlike any other post-apocalyptic turf war in fiction. (I won’t give away the main plot points, but balloons filled with jasmine perfume make an appearance as weaponry.)

While there are plenty of novel ideas in The City, Not Long After, the ending is not near as satisfying. In fact, the whole last quarter of the book seems rushed. A gorgeous opportunity for The Machine to realize his humanity is missed completely, and the ubiquitous post-apocalyptic battle between the good guys and the bad guys ultimately settles into cliche.

Murphy’s prose is vivid and often stunningly visual, but occasionally lapses into the florid (“At night the fog embraced the city like a lover.”) Jax’s character can be annoyingly inconsistent, browsing alone among stalls and unknown people at a busy marketplace, but cowering and afraid of strangers once she gets to the city.

For fans of post-collapse fiction, this is a nice one to shake up your reading a bit. It’s no Parable of the Sower or Mara and Dann (to cite some of the most brilliant examples), but its unique city imagery will stick with you a while. 

Do you have a favorite post-apocalyptic novel? Does it follow the conventions of the genre or break them?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Secret Lives of Fortune Cookie Writers

All about the first professional fortune cookie writer, why a lottery scam investigation led to a fortune cookie, and the banned “dreadful day” fortune.

There are varying opinions about who invented the fortune cookie as we know it, though everyone seems to agree that it happened in America. (There is a somewhat similar cookie in Japan --not China-- that is older.) My favored contender is David Jung, founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company in L.A., for the biased reason that Jung seems to have hired the first fortune cookie writer.

His idea for fortune cookies stemmed from his desire to give impatient guests something to do while waiting for their food, so he served them as an appetizer of sorts (which explains their lack of sweetness), with the fortunes serving as both an activity and a conversation starter.

Jung’s first fortune cookie writer was a Presbyterian minister, who wrote condensed versions of Bible verses. He was later approached by Russell Raine, who was selling printing services. Jung told him that he would agree to use his printing if he could also provide the fortunes.

Old-school fortune cookies (called "Tea cakes") from the original Hong Kong Noodle Company.

Raine agreed, remembering that his wife had done some work writing lines for greeting cards. Marie Raines then became the woman that Robert Hendrickson in The Literary Life calls “The Shakespeare of fortune cookies,” crafting thousands of lines in a career that spanned decades.

In a 1970 newspaper interview, Raines said she jotted down ideas as she thought of them, “presumably while doing housework” speculated the somewhat sexist reporter. Many of the fortunes she penned reflect a certain domesticity, though, such as “Orderliness is the quality you most need” and “Are you taking your loved ones too much for granted?”

More recently, the New York Times interviewed David Lau, veep of Wonton Foods, Inc. in New York.  Lau performs the tasks you’d normally associate with being the vice-president of a large manufacturing company, but with one unusual addition: he also writes cookie fortunes.

A lottery investigation led to one of Lau’s creations in March 2005, when 110 people came forward with the same sequence of winning numbers for a 100,000 prize. The reason turned out to be the lucky numbers on one of Wonton Foods’ fortune cookies. The sequence “22-28-32-33-39-40” was backed with Lau’s fortune: “All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off.”

“We’ve had winners before, but never this many,” said Lau, who admitted that it’s a computer and not himself who picks the numbers. The fortunes, though, are pure Lau. He writes 3 or 4 fortunes a day, influenced by everything from ancient Chinese wisdom (“True gold fears no fire”) to smells on the subway (“Beware of odors from unfamiliar sources.”)

A few years after the interview with Lau, Wonton Foods’ marketing director Bernard Chow had to do a little damage control due to a negative fortune that ended up being pulled from circulation.  "Today is a disastrous day,” read the fortune. “If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.”

There’s no word on whether or not Mr. Lau wrote that one in particular, but Chow said that Wonton has over 10,000 fortunes in its catalogue. After several bloggers and other customers complained --including one who received the “disastrous day” fortune cookie at her engagement party-- the “disastrous day” fortune was retired.

While the unfortunate fortune cookie was an oversight, some modern cookies contain mean fortunes on purpose. Think Geek now sells Cookie Misfortune Evil Fortune Cookies, which contain phrases such as “You will die alone and poorly dressed.” Made to resemble traditional fortune cookies, the opportunities for pranks abound.

Evil fortune from Think Geek.

With more and more Chinese restaurants popping up every year, fortune cookie writing could prove to be a profitable, yet largely untapped, freelance market. If you find Twitter too wordy, hone your aphorisms down to about ten words or less and --who knows? You could be the next Marie Raines.

Try your hand at fortune cookie writing. Leave your own clever prediction in ten words or less.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Forget the Edgars: Which mystery author will win a morgue?

There’s a veritable slew of awards for crime writers of excellence, from the Edgars and the Agathas to the Neros and the Hammetts.

But the latest prize to be offered to a notable mystery writer will require a little more space than a bookshelf or trophy case will allow: It’s a new morgue. (Note: You have to imagine this in Bob Barkers’s voice, i.e. “It’s a newwwwww morgue!”)

Dundee University has come up with a revolutionary way to raise funds for the new addition to its Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification. Ten crime writers are competing in the Million for a Morgue competition for the chance to have the morgue named for them, with fans contributing a pound (or more) to vote.

The mystery mavens competing for the eponym are: Tess Gerritsen, Kathy Reichs, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Mark Billingham, Jeffrey Deaver, Jeff Lindsay, Stuart MacBride, Peter James and Val McDermid.

Tess Gerritsen is in the lead as of this writing, so fans of Val McDermid’s likeable weirdo Tony Hill or Jeffrey Deaver’s quadriplegic Lincoln Rhyme should think about coughing up some coin.

The method of fundraising isn’t the only revolutionary thing about the project. The BBC reports that the newly built morgue “will adopt a "revolutionary" way of embalming - called the Thiel method - which keeps bodies flexible for longer.”

Which mystery writer are you pulling for? Or what would you like to see named for your favorite writer? (My answers are a. McDermid, and b. Martin Amis BBQ sauce, for no reason other than a larf.)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

How to Get $500 Worth of Chronicle Books Without Spending a Dime

I’m not the hugest fan of blog giveaways. They frequently seem to require that the reader jump through several blazing hoops, register for this and that, spam their Facebook friends, and all for an advance copy of a tepid-looking paperback that will be on the 2/$1.00 table at the used book store faster than you can say “Nicholas Sparks.”

That’s why this one made me sit up and take notice.

Chronicle Books is running the 2011 Happy Haul-idays Giveaway, with one lucky blogger winning $500 worth of books from the publisher’s impressive collection. Don’t have a blog? All you have to do is comment. That’s it. The winning blog, chosen at random by Chronicle books, will get to award one commenter the same haul of books.

To top it off, the winning blog will also get to award $500 worth of books to a charity, with the charity choosing their own books from the Chronicle catalog. (I’m choosing Prospect Elementary School in Tennessee. The librarian there frequently buys books at the used bookstore where I work to supplement a library with extreme need. She says their shelves are about 90% empty.)

All I have to do is list the books I would spend $500 on, and I’m a fan of book lists. (See the sidebar to the right for some of my most popular lists.)

These are the books I would choose if I win, and I’ve chosen them as a book lover. I have access to plenty of fiction and paperbacks, so the ones I’m drawn to are flat-out lovely books that speak to my interests and would be harder to find or out of my budget.

If you like them too, leave a comment, and if I win, you have a chance to win all the books I’ve chosen.

Bird's Eye Views by John W. Reps and Atlas of Rare City Maps by Melville C. Branch
What is it about old maps? It may be that book collectors are just drawn to anything beautiful on old paper. Or maybe, for me, it's tied in with my love for this Etsy craftsman, who does gorgeously irreverent things with vintage maps. Almost 200 maps total with these two volumes. ($70 each)

Once Upon a Time by Amy Weinstein

Old nursery rhymes and fairy tales represent some of the most compelling forms of nostalgia in existence. (And some of the most gruesome. See some of the most disturbing here.) This big, fat book is full of them, plus 325 Victorian illustrations --some with moving parts. ($65)

Ghostly Ruins by Harry Skrdla

Ruined buildings have an innate beauty as well as a sadness. Some of the most compelling examples are gathered here in 250 photographs, juxtaposing amusement parks, homes and more in their heyday with photos of them in decay. ($30)

Art Deco Bookbindings  by Yves Peyre and H. George Fletcher

What's almost as good as owning lots of beautiful books? Pictures of beautiful books. This book features the work of The Work of Pierre Legrain and Rose Adler, whose Art Deco bindings in exotic materials bound custom editions of works by Colette, Paul Verlaine, Andre Gide and others. ($35)

The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium by Bernd Brunner

The Victorians, with their mania for collecting natural history, popularized the aquarium, and this hardcover book documents the obsession --from ornate versions for the home to the first public aquaria. ($25)

Bunker Archaeology by Paul Virilio and Extreme Architecture by Ruth Slavid

Both of these architecture books tie in to my interest in things post-apocalyptic. The first, a collection of photos of abandoned German bunkers in France, takes a look at war and destruction. The second is more hopeful, showing how humans can survive well in the most challenging landscapes (deserts, underwater, outer space). ($40 each)

Fifty Nests and the Birds That Built Them by Sharon Beals

This title makes me squeal with delight. I love the randomness combined with design that comes together in the making of a nest. How great is it that the artists (the birds) are featured along with their own works? ($30)

The Book As Art: Artists' Books from the National Museum of Women in the Arts by Krystyna Wasserman with essays by Johanna Drucker and Audrey Niffenegger

Collected from more than 800 books in the museum's collection, this heavily-illustrated book focuses on 100 of the most unique handmade book specimens, many of them multi-media, by an array of visual artists. ($35)

Pictorial Webster's: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities by John M. Carrera

Culled from old dictionaries, more than 1,500 Victorian engravings are contained in this book's pages. That's the equivalent of a whole pile of Dover clip art books. "From Acorns to Zebras, Bell Jars to Velocipedes" says Chronicle. ($35)

Cartes Postales

I don't think it's cheating to include a book that's essentially blank, especially when it's this pretty, and it gives you a place to stash your post cards, therein creating an heirloom unique to you. ($19)

Chronicle Books Tote Bag designed by Julia Rothman

Because we have $3 left to spend, and you have to carry your books in something.

Like these books? Any in particular? Each commenter is eligible to win them too, if Chronicle Books picks me.  Every book!  Quite a haul.