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Happy Festivus

If you just glanced at the article on Festivus in last Sunday’s New York Times, you probably thought it was just a cutesy little Styles piece on how real people are actually celebrating the holiday invented on “Seinfeld,” and you wouldn’t know that the actual origins of the holiday are far, far stranger and more wonderful than Frank Costanza’s tale of a pre-Christmas fistfight over a doll. Herewith, I reproduce the salient excerpts:

The actual inventor of Festivus is Dan O’Keefe, 76, whose son Daniel, a writer on “Seinfeld,” appropriated a family tradition for the episode. The elder Mr. O’Keefe was stunned to hear that the holiday, which he minted in 1966, is catching on…
“It was entirely more peculiar than on the show,” the younger Mr. O’Keefe said from the set of the sitcom “Listen Up,” where he is now a writer. There was never a pole, but there were airings of grievances into a tape recorder and wrestling matches between Daniel and his two brothers, among other rites.
“There was a clock in a bag,” said Mr. O’Keefe, 36, adding that he does not know what it symbolized.
“Most of the Festivi had a theme,” he said. “One was, `Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?’ Another was, `Too easily made glad?’”
His father, a former editor at Reader’s Digest, said the first Festivus took place in February 1966, before any of his children were born, as a celebration of the anniversary of his first date with his wife, Deborah. The word “Festivus” just popped into his head, he said from his home in Chappaqua, N.Y.
The holiday evolved during the 1970’s, when the elder Mr. O’Keefe began doing research for his book Stolen Lightning, a work of sociology that explores the ways people use cults, astrology and the paranormal as a defense against social pressures.
Festivus, with classic rituals like familial gatherings, totemic-but-mysterious objects and respect for ancestors, slouched forth from this milieu. “In the background was Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life,” Mr. O’Keefe recalled, “saying that religion is the unconscious projection of the group. And then the American philosopher Josiah Royce: religion is the worship of the beloved community.”

December 23, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

My Favorite Lip Glosses of 2004: Stila VIP Party Lip Glaze Set

Stila VIP Party SetI luv a set. It’s just so exciting to get a lot of something, especially when that something is as nice as Stila Lip Glaze. I like Stila because they get grown-up fun just right. Their products have a little pizzazz, but not too much glitter, and they are, in my experience, of excellent quality.

The VIP Party Lip Glaze Set includes just about every shade of gloss a normal woman might need, and enough variety to enchant even those of us who need more—drag queens, beauty pageant constestants, glamorous housewives, beauty addicts, etc. And, each gloss is paired with a similar color, so that you can prepare for a change of cosmetic mood and still travel light. This set contains two of my all-time favorite pinks, Watermelon. It also introduced me to a couple of new favorites: Black Cherry is a rich, deep, dark magenta; and Cinnamon is a lovely warm beige with just a hint of pink shimmer. Stila Lip Glaze is smooth, moisturizing, and long-wearing, and all the shades I mentioned are available by themselves.

December 22, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

My Favorite Books of 2004: The Courage Consort by Michel Faber

The Courage ConsortWhen I first compiled a list of my favorite books of 2004, Michel Faber’s The Courage Consort wasn’t on it. I had two reasons—one of them solid, one of them dubious. The first was that, although I thoroughly enjoyed the title novella, I was less enamored of the other two stories that make up this collection. The second reason was that, when I interviewed him a couple of months ago, I kind of felt like he gave me the bum’s rush.

Nevertheless, my thoughts kept returning to “The Courage Consort,” and I decided I had better read it again before I left the book off my list. So, I just finished reading it for the second time, and, man, it really is an exquisite piece of fiction: clever, wise, tender, eerie, hilarious, and uplifting. I just love this story.

The Courage Consort is a vocal ensemble, and Faber has some good-natured fun depicting the arcane sensibilities and outré personalities of contemporary avant-garde music. Faber is a master of the telling detail, and he is able to craft vivid, perfectly limned creations with very little fuss. For example, he introduces us to his eponymous quintent with this:

Roger Courage’s Courage Consort were, arguably, the seventh most-renowned serious vocal ensemble in the world. Certainly, they were more uncompromising than some of the more famous groups: they’d never sunk so low as to chant Renaissance accompaniment to New Age saxophone players, or to warble Lennon/McCartney chestnuts at the Proms.

We meet the discordant collection of personalities who are the Courage Consort when they are on their way to Belgian chateau, where they’ll spend two weeks rehearsing a new piece of music, Partitum Mutante. The chateau is a storybook cottage, deep in a northern wood haunted by wild animals and ghosts. We quickly realize that we are in fairy-tale country, and that this is where Catherine Courage—soprano, and the wife of the ensemble’s leader—will experience a long-delayed rite de passage. This childlike middle-aged woman will finally grow up.

None of this is to say that Faber’s story becomes formulaic or predictable. It does not. Rather, because he gives us the sense that we have arrived somewhere familiar, he is able to deliver an extra little jolt when he ultimately takes us somewhere else entirely. Which, now that I think about it, is exactly what he said he tries to achieve in his writing when I interviewed him:

I like to keep readers a little bit off-balance, to prevent them settling comfortably into a predictable narrative world. Most writers, whether they’re “literary” or “genre,” promise they’re going to give you something surprising and off-beat, but end up giving you something pretty close to what you’ve consumed lots of times before. A standard narrative experience is tweaked slightly to disguise the well-negotiated familiarity of it. I try to achieve the opposite. To lure people in with hints that I’m going to supply a predictable narrative—thriller, Gothic ghost story, fable, romance, sci-fi, historical, whatever—and then take them somewhere they haven’t been before.

I guess he wasn’t giving me the bum’s rush after all. Or, at least, not entirely.

December 21, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

My Favorite Lip Glosses of 2004: Smashbox PCH & Malibu Set

Smashbox PCH & Malibu Lip Gloss SetI am quite fond of Smashbox lip glosses. They have a nice, smooth, emollient consistency; they come in rich, interesting colors; and they’re long-lasting. That said, the Smashbox PCH & Malibu Lip Gloss Set is really a triumph of packaging as much as content. Three tiny tubes of gloss are nestled in the red-satin lining of a very smart little black-patent case. There’s a mirror on the inside of the lid. Really, it’s just so chic and snappy that it practically demands lip-gloss application at the dinner table or barstool. The colors are nice, too: there’s a delicate beige, a true red, a sparkly sheer.

I got this as a gift for my mom. She likes things that are tiny, and she loves stuff that comes with its own, customized containers. I don’t expect this to be something she uses every day, but I do expect that, on those special occasions when she does, she’ll really enjoy it.

December 20, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

My Favorite Books of 2004: Firethorn by Sarah Micklem

FirethornI seem to have lost patience with fantasy, and that’s too bad. It’s pretty much all I read growing up, and, although I still like the idea of fantasy, I seem to find many of its common features exasperating. For example, when I encounter a character with a name like “Tiriki”, I think to myself, “Yes, I know she’s an Atlantean priestess, but couldn’t she just be called ‘Anne’?”

It’s possible that I started to become disenchanted with fantasy when I began to learn how many of its artifacts are copped from mythology, folklore, and history. Many of my favorite works of fantasy—the ones that I still enjoy reading, like The Once and Future King and The Chronicles of Prydain—hew pretty faithfully and forthrightly to their source materials. Rather than throw together a bunch of newly-contrived heroes and tiresome neologisms, the authors of these books excavate the inherent richness of, say, Arthurian legend or Welsh epic. They add the psychological depth that’s one of the great inventions of the modern novel to figures that already have powerful poetic resonance.

It’s possible, too, that I’ve lost my capacity for wonder, my willingness to suspend disbelief. I’ll allow that. But it’s also quite simply true that a lot of fantasy fiction just isn’t very good. This is, of course, the case for all fiction, but I think genre fiction in particular can easily become all about form—about getting the tropes right and little else. I am able to admire a fully-formed imaginary world, but some authors seem to get so involved in the details of their universe that there’s nothing much else there but gewgaws. I considered that to be the case with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: Arch footnotes are no substitute for story, and I found the story rough going.

I do keep trying, though. I decided to give Sarah Micklem’s Firethorn a go when I wrote a blurb singing its praises for one of my freelance gigs. (Such is the power of my copywriting kung-fu that I often end up believing what I’ve just written.) More than one review I read when researching this book mentioned its feminist viewpoint. Not only does this situate the book in good company—The Mists of Avalon, Monica Furlong’s Wise Child and Juniper—but the presence of a strong, fiery female protagonist is a welcome change from the bumbling simps who people the chick lit I’ve been reading for another freelance gig. The fact that Micklem chose a poem by Adrienne Rich as her foreword suggests that she has ambitions beyond sword and sorcery. Finally, the cover illustration is totally hot.

Firethorn, the eponymous heroine of this saga, is a young woman who chooses to become a warrior’s “sheath”—kind of a personal camp-follower—rather than live as a servant to a cruel lord and lady or suffer the deprivations of life alone in the wilderness. (Her options, obviously, are rather circumscribed.) She’s a sort of whore, yes, but adventure is more appealing to her than the drudgery of the known, and, given her special gifts as a healer, she is able to make a little money as she creates an independent existence. Also, she and her armor-clad loverman, Galan, have the crazy chemistry.

The action in this book takes place in a military camp where soldiers are waiting to go to war, which is an interesting departure from the type of fantasy novel that trudges from battle to battle to battle. Micklem uses this setting to create a sense of building tension, in which the violence that erupts is focused internally, rather than externally. This static environment also gives her the chance to explore the social and even domestic culture that surrounds an army, rather than just report on its martial exploits. This is a story about brave women and resourceful children, not just bellicose men.

Micklem has created a believable caste system here, one that distinguishes between “the Blood” and “mudpeople”, one in which the animistic religion of the poor is suppressed by the priests of the powerful. Micklem has also devised a complete pantheon of gods and avatars, of cosmic forces and their subtly different incarnations. Firethorn’s choices—the decisions that determine the plot—are informed by her status, by divination, by her own uncanny insight, and by a strong sense of fate.

Firethorn is a compelling character, and her author was wise to make her the teller of her own tale. Micklem does indulge in the high-flown language that is one of the trademarks of fantasy—and one of its most potentially grating features—but, with a first-person narrator, this linguistic style feels like a character trait rather than pretension.

This book does have some of the same elements that tend to annoy me in fantasy. For example, Micklem substitutes an invented botanical system for the herbs and flowers we all know and love; thus, foxglove becomes “dead-men’s bells”, which doesn’t give me the sense of being in a world other than my own so much as it makes me think, “Oh, she’s talking about foxglove.” And, unfortunately, the author tries to incorporate comedy, which, for reasons that I have yet to work out, seldom works in this genre. In my experience, the jokes told by fantasy characters are almost never funny. Indeed, we only know they are jokes because we are informed that another character laughs.

This novel also suffers, interestingly enough, from one of the endemic diseases of Regency romance. Firethorn and Galan spend most of the novel fighting, and most of their disputes are based in misunderstanding and miscommunication. And, as is the case with Regency romances, the only thing that keeps the reader from feeling that these conflicts are completely artificial is the sense that, perhaps, the rigidly gendered social universe in which these lovers exist precludes total honesty and trust.

These are fairly minor criticisms, though. Firethorn has the distinction of being the only fantasy novel I actually finished this year, and I did enjoy it. It’s an impressive debut, and I look forward to reading the next installments in Micklem’s planned trilogy.

December 17, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

My Favorite Books of 2004: History of Beauty, edited by Umberto Eco

History of BeautyAnyone who has read my incredibly famous interview with Bill Murray knows that my personal pantheon of heroes includes the actor himself, Marcel Duchamp, and Elvis Presley. One figure I forgot to mention when I was talking to Mr. Murray—or left out because three is always more elegant than four—was Umberto Eco. The Name of the Rose is one of my favorite books ever, his Travels in Hyperreality fundamentally rewired my brain, and I have long sought to emulate his fabulous hi-lo style. Indeed, the highest highlight of my tenure with a major bookstore chain was a telephonic chat with Professor Eco, which resulted in this interview.

Eco’s latest book is History of Beauty, and I bought it as soon as it was available. Beauty has not, previously, been an intellectual concern of mine, but I’m interested to learn what Professor Eco has to say on the subject; that is, I trust the scholar regardless of his topic, and I am not disappointed.

I haven’t finished this book yet—it demands savoring—but I have already experienced moments that make me glad I have pursued the life of the mind over, say, body-building or bungee-jumping.

For example, when discussing the technological developments that distinguish Greek art from Egyptian, Eco has this to say about perspective: “Greek painters invented foreshortening, which does not respect the objective precision of beautiful forms: the perfect circularity of a shield can be adapted to the point of view of the observer, who sees it in flattened perspective.”

Before I read that, my appreciation of foreshortening was mostly technical—that is, how to do it—and, as far as art history goes, drawn more or less verbatim from the textbook we used in “The World of Art,” a class I took as a high-school sophomore. Now I can see it as the product of a particular way of thinking and perceiving and creating, a way that privileges the viewer of a representation over the object being represented, a way that suggests that meaning is not intrinsic, but contingent. That’s just the sort of little epiphany that stays tucked away in my brain until someday, somewhere, it radically alters or essentially shapes my understanding of something or other.

I’m only at page 45, and already I’ve been transformed.

This isn’t a book to read quickly. I find that I often have to pause and consider what I’ve just read; but, even if that wasn’t the case, this book just isn’t designed for fast consumption: the text is full of sidebars (illuminating excerpts from critical, philosophical, and literary sources), and the images command attention. This is, instead, the best of all possible coffee-table books: it’s full of big, glossy pictures that are either gorgeous or fascinating or both; it presents accessible-but-fascinating text in easy-to-browse chunks; and you’re sure to get something out of it every time you pick it up, whether it’s for a quick flip or a sustained read. History of Beauty is an idiosyncratic tour through Western civilization, one that captivates and challenges as it educates.

December 16, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

My Favorite Books of 2004: Madeleine Is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Madeleine Is SleepingOne of this year’s finalists for the National Book Award, Madeleine Is Sleeping is a wonder—hypnotic, graceful, carnivalesque, and cruel. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum blends magical realism and fairy-tale tropes to craft a powerfully strange coming-of-age story, one in which the fanciful easily becomes the monstrous, the monstrous becomes beautiful, and violence is often indistinguishable from love.

Bynum is not the first contemporary writer to reinvent the fairy tale, but her approach is markedly different from that of authors like Angela Carter and Francesca Lia Block, authors whose fairy tales are a form of redress, an attempt to overturn the injustices found in the old, familiar stories. Bynum does not seem to have such a political agenda. Indeed, she writes as if there are no fairy tales except the one she’s telling.

When Bynum borrows from tradition, she borrows more from the folkloric than the literary. She sends her sleeping girl on a hero’s journey, during which she is tested and transformed. While Bynum’s language is elegant, it is also spare. In a story full of sex and violence, she maintains an imperturbable candor that is not found in the Brothers Grimm or the tales of Charles Perrault, but which is often present in their sources. Bynum reproduces the peasant’s blunt awareness that life is hard more often than it is easy, that cruelty and kindness can be commingled, and that beauty and filth exist side-by-side.

December 15, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

I Wish I Had Watched Bell, Book, and Candle on Turner Classic Movies Instead

Yesterday, I was worried that the Sci-Fi Channel’s Earthsea movie would suck. Today, I know that it does.

Oh, it’s not the suckiest thing I’ve ever seen (that is—and, I hope, ever shall be—Airheads). It certainly looked lovely—cool costumes, gorgeous scenery, some nice effects—but, mostly, it fluctuated between boring and bad. The dialogue, in particular, was often cringe-inducing. It was full of jarring—well, “anachronisms” isn’t the right word, because the movie wasn’t set in the past but in a fantasy world—I don’t think there’s a word for what I’m trying to describe: All I’m saying is, hearing Isabella Rossellini, all dressed up in medieval-inspired priestess robes, tell a novitiate to come see her in her “office” was just odd. And the less said about the film’s attempts at humor, the better.

I know that movies are not the same thing as books, and I realize that language or imagery or action that works in one medium might not translate well to the other. I do feel, though, that if a filmmaker is going to work from a book, he should be faithful to that book, by which I mean not that he should reproduce it line-by-line, but that he should strive to reproduce whatever it is that makes that book great. Judging from comments they’ve made in interviews, the people who created this movie apparently did try to engage with Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels, but, while I am loath to suggest that someone else’s interpretation of a literary work is wrong, some of the things they said were just kind of nutty (the author herself reproduces some of her least favorite comments on her website). It’s also fairly easy for me to imagine that the whole project didn’t originate from love of the books so much as someone somewhere saying, “Hey! It’s Lord of the Rings meets Harry Potter—with dragons! We can’t lose!”

The Earthsea books are good, though, not because they happen to have a school for wizards and an epic quest, but because Le Guin retained the familiar power and poetry of mythology and infused it with an intense interiority, because she was able to turn a tale about magic and heroism into a compellingly realistic story about growing up. And these books are great because they are not—despite what the filmmakers seem to believe—about anything so unsubtle as a cosmic struggle between good and evil. They are, rather, about balance and responsibility. I think it would be almost—but not quite—impossible to translate all that to film, and I think it would be very easy to get all that up on the screen and produce a very boring movie. Nevertheless, I don’t think the answer to that challenge is to jazz up the story with a megalomaniacal king, a slutty priestess, and half-baked dualistic mysticism.

December 14, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Archival Interview: Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books are some of my favorite books ever, and they have been since I was a kid. Learning that the first two volumes in the series—A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan—had been turned into a TV movie filled me with a desperate hope that it wouldn’t suck and the dread awareness it almost certainly will. (Anybody remember the wretched Mists of Avalon miniseries? Anybody else horrified to learn that Tom Stoppard has been dropped from the His Dark Materials project and that God will not appear in the film? Am I the only one who detects a feel-good vibe in the commercials for A Series of Unfortunate Events?)

It seems that the author—who was not involved in this Sci-Fi Channel production—isn’t really looking forward to it, and, as she explains on her website, she’s found the experience of having Hollywood-types interpret her work and put words in her mouth rather trying. She was particularly cranky about the idea that her books are about any kind of duality. Apparently, though, she made some kind of peace with the folks at the Sci-Fi Channel, as they have an interview with her on their Earthsea website. Based on the clips they used to illustrate some of her points, however, I’m not entirely sure they understood what she was talking about.

I interviewed Le Guin a few years ago, when The Other Wind came out. We talked about some of the themes that run through all the Earthsea books—some of the same themes that appear to have mystified the Sci-Fi film’s creators—so now seems like a good time to pull that interview out of the archives.

Interview conducted in 2001

After reading The Other Wind, I read A Wizard of Earthsea for the first time in a long time. I was struck by how much you seemed to know, right from the beginning, about Ged’s future and the whole history of Earthsea.

Ursula K. Le Guin: If I knew it all, I didn’t know I knew it. I was not thinking of that story as the beginning of a series. It was the first book for young adults I ever wrote, and the first heroic fantasy that I had written. I thought I would write it and go back to other things, yet I built into it an obvious lead-in to the next book… My unconscious mind is much smarter than I am sometimes.

Your style has changed over time. Your voice changes from the slightly distant style of myth to something much more familiar.

UKL: The first three books are written in that traditional, epic style, which is the way the great fantasies were being written at the time, or had been written. With Tehanu, I stopped writing from the point of view of the people in power and started writing from the point of view of the people who are not in power. I couldn’t keep up that high style. I needed to get a little quieter, a little plainer.

What made you decide to go back to Earthsea?

UKL: Well, the big long gap was actually between The Farthest Shore and Tehanu… I always knew there needed to be a fourth book, but I couldn’t write it until… I guess I had to grow up. After Tehanu… I had called it "The Last Book of Earthsea," because I really thought that was where the story ended. That came out in 89… after a couple of years in the 90s, I realized things were going on in Earthsea, that I had to catch up with it. I began asking some questions about why things were the way they were. I was thinking about it’s history, and that led me to the various stories. And then, when the stories were done, I went straight to the Other Wind, because there was the rest of Ged and Tenar’s story to be told, all this stuff about who the dragons are…

One thing that struck me while reading The Other Wind—and as I re-read the other Earthsea books—was the way you talk about good and evil, which are not popular concepts outside of fantasy. Do you have any idea why fantasy is such a popular medium for discussing good and evil.

UKL: Well, I do think a lot of novels handle good and evil, but, of course, the more realistic they are, the more embedded those concepts are. In fantasy, they can come out clearer, because things are more transparent in fantasy. The world is an invented world, and therefore, it is not as thick and dense and confusingly rich as the real world.

I think a lot of people think that fantasy oversimplifies the battle between good and evil… These guys have white hats, and these guys have black hats, but they are equally violent, and neither of them is really better than the other, and that is just a cop-out to me.

My master here, of course, is Tolkien. His bad people are pretty bad, all right, but you understand how they got that way. And his good people have a lot of trouble staying good. They’re really human, and that’s much more interesting.

In my books, there really aren’t any villains. There are difficult choices and there are moral dilemmas. I’m not particularly interested in violence, which I guess is why evil to me is a failure to do something you ought to do, rather than a malicious act. Not doing what you know you ought to do… Evil comes into you and you go along. Big battles with good people and bad people—that oversimplifies life immensely.

I don’t write about good and evil so much as I write about balance, about the idea that acts have repercussions. As one of the old wizards explains, the more power you have, the less you can do. You can’t do just what you want, but only what you must.

Tolkien’s name often comes up when your books are discussed. I’ve read that he didn’t see himself as a writer of fantasy so much as someone who was writing a history of a real place that had been lost…

UKL: Earthsea—as far as I’m concerned, it’s there. I can’t make what happens there. I have to find it out. I have to wait for it to happen, and then I can tell it.

December 13, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Shirley Hazzard Guest Stars on The O.C.

When it comes to men of The O.C., my heart belongs to Seth Cohen. This will come as a surprise to no one familiar with the assortment of eggheads and fanboys that makes up my dating history. It’s true, I’ve taken a bit of a shine to Summer’s new fella. He’s a total sweetie pie, and I luv his prematurely-deep voice. Also, he likes comics, which takes the edge off the fact that he looks like a J. Crew model.

While I understand the allure of the melancholic outsider—no woman who has read Wuthering Heights as often as I have could claim otherwise—Ryan has never really done it for me. But, as of last night, I feel I must reconsider this enigmatic young man. How many high-school boys, having just left the winter formal, having just been shot down—for the second time, no less—by his cute lab partner would choose to spend the evening reading the 2003 National Book Award-winner in fiction?

RyanThe Great FireYes, that’s right: Ryan was curled up in the poolhouse, soothing his wounded heart with Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. I can’t help but wonder, what will this novel of forbidden love and impossible moral dilemmas set in postwar Hiroshima say to this brash, brooding, violence-prone adolescent? Will it cause him to put down his fists for good? Will it teach him how to open his heart to others? Will he decide to major in English, thereby damning himself to a life of perpetual under-employment? Will he be my new celebrity boyfriend?

Anything is possible. Such is the power of literature.

December 10, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack