Friday, May 13, 2011

Book reviews

Unconventional books for the unconventional mom
 Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, May , 2011

Mother’s Day will be a time of adjustment for me this year.  My mom, who is 83, and her siter, 85, don’t live near each other, but they travel o my house every other year for a reunion on Mother’s Day.

However, my aunt has had severe back problems lately and my mother had major surgery just last month—so there won’t be any traveling for awhile.  In lieu of the reunion, I’ll be spending the day with my two teenage daughters—both of who have plans to be another state or country by next May.  So Mother’s Day this year will be transitional and bittersweet—missing my mom, and enjoying my daughters before they fly away.

I have stumbled upon three books recently—with bittersweet aspects themselves—that I just have to recommend.  They wouldn’t make conventional Mother’s Day gifts; they’re not about great, self-sacrificing moms (although all three were created by incredibly talented women), and there’s no sentimental storyline.  But, speaking as a mom myself, I wouldn’t want to miss their visual wit and dazzling inventiveness.

Book #1: “infinite City—A San Francisco Atlas” by Rebecca Solnit

You may associate the word “atlas” with an over-sized reference book filled with a variety of detailed maps, which, before GPS and Google Maps, you may have grabbed when looking for the location a particular street, city or region. A good world atlas will give you a sense of perspective as it shows you the relationship of different country’s land areas, elevations, climates, resources and vegetation.

“Infinite City—a San Francisco Atlas” is a whole new kind of atlas—one with inventive maps and well-researched text that makes unexpected connections, and thereby rewrites the history and reshapes the character of this famous city and the surrounding area. Various cartographers, artists and writers have contributed the 22 maps and accompanying text, although Solnit’s writing is some of the best. Two of my favorite maps are:

  • “Poison/Palate—the Bay Area in Your Body” in which Bay Area culinary venues are juxtaposed against potentially poisonous ones. Boudin Bakery, Ghirardelli Square and Anchor Brewing are pinpointed on the SF map, while, just across the Bay are the former Dutch Boy Paint factory, Mount Diablo mercury mine and Shell’s Martinez refinery. In the South Bay, artichoke fields, a Gizdich pies, and farm stands, are identified along with surrounding cement plants, nuclear waste disposal sites (in the Pacific), and semiconductor factories. To drive the point home, the map is also graced by “exuberantly mutant” mermaids, swimming off the coast.

  • In the chapter “Cinema City—Muybridge Inventing Movies, Hitchcock Making ‘Vertigo,’” Solnit makes the case that San Francisco was the birthplace of moving pictures, since photographer Eadweard Muybridge laid the foundation for this new technology while living intermittently in the city during the 1870s. The map shows sites related to Muybridge’s history-making sequential photographs, as well as his wife's extramarital exploits. On the same map, Alfred Hitchcock is also featured, having filmed “Vertigo” in various locations throughout the city in 1957.

Solnit has expanded the definition of what a book can be and how a story can be told in mesmerizing, revolutionary new way.

Book #2: “Regretsy: Where DIY Meets WT*” by April Winchell

“Regretsy” has the potential to offend perhaps every segment of society in a variety of ways. For one, the language is so coarse, even the title needs some cleaning up. For another, folks who earnestly handcraft to the best of their ability probably don’t deserve to be subjected to Winchell are biting criticism in such a public way. And lastly, who is this April Winchell anyway, and why is she the self-proclaimed arbiter of artistic value and good taste?

These are all valid objections, and yet “Regretsy” is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read about art—or any subject for that matter. Winchell’s book is an extension of her blog, in which she plucks e-commerce listings from Etsy (“ugly crap” as she calls it) and then shares her snarky commentary.

Log Purse,” Lynn Cyr Art
April Winchell’s commentary: “If you don’t mind
 carrying a piece of wood around at social functions
, this is a great purse. Oh, you’ll still have to find
 matching shoes, but as long as you’re Dutch,
 it shouldn’t be a problem.”

In her defense, Winchell claims that ultimately became a powerful selling tool for these Etsy merchants, linking their unconventional products with an audience of unusual tastes. As Winchell explains in her book, “When you make coats for farm animals…people aren’t going to find you with a keyword search.”

You will gasp at the photos (like “Glow in the dark zombie brain cameo” or “Obama toilet seat and tank lid cover” or “Jesus was a Yankee fan”), cringe at the prices, and then laugh guiltily over Winchell’s acerbic commentary. If Mom is okay with salty language and a little mean-spirited fun (and doesn’t crochet toilet roll covers), this is the book for her.

Double Hummingbird Feeder Hat,” Roy Road Fish Company
April Winchell’s commentary: “I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw this. And then I saw the YouTube video of this thing in action, and it was all over. The double hummingbird feeder hat immediately rocketed to my top 5 finds, ever.”

Book #3: “Radioactive—Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout” by Lauren Redniss

Lauren Redniss and other writers/artists like her are going to save the book-printing industry. She creates biographies that are an extraordinary pairing of words and pictures, with a gravity and sophistication that may launch a whole new genre. “Radioactive” is Redniss’s second book and it’s even better than her first, “Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies” (2006), which was also ground-breaking.

“Radioactive” is hard to categorize. It’s part biography, part history, part science textbook, and part love story—all immeasurably enhanced by the author’s imaginative illustrations. There’s something impressively all-encompassing about Redniss’s montage-like approach to storytelling—right down to the invented type font and phosphorescent cover art. The picture-book style and haunting imagery are absolutely essential to telling this eye-opening, heart-breaking, history-altering story. As one reviewer puts it, “Like radium itself, [this book] glows with energy.”

The Curie’s lives, faceted with episodes of passion, scandal, Nobel Prize-winning brilliance, and untimely death, would be story enough. But Redniss also weaves in the history of radioactivity itself, and how its discovery by the Curies shook the very foundation of modern chemistry and physics, which ultimately led to a greater understanding of atomic structure and energy.

“Radioactive” was released in March, uncannily coincident with the devastating tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis in Japan—and will have you pondering your proximity to the nearest nuclear power plant all over again. Of course the Curies realized that radioactivity had the potential to be both lethal and life-saving, and so Redniss also explores the medical benefits in addition to the long-term hazards of radiation exposure, through poignant personal narratives.

I’ve never seen a book quite like “Radioactive” before, and I’m hoping its artistic genius will spark a string of books like in the future.

Project: Repainting a kitchen chair

Five myths about house paint
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, April 9, 2011

My kitchen chairs are old, purchased when my family was young, along with a matching table. They are natural pine, coated with clear varnish, and—after 15 plus years—an additional layer of grime and wear. Rather than strip and refinish, I decided to paint my chairs using lots of color; and, in the process, I learned a lot about paint. 

Myth #1:  You don’t need to apply primer before painting wood furniture

The problem with painting over old varnish is that paint won’t stick to a shiny surface. If the varnish is so old that it’s lost its shine, painting directly over the varnish might work. But it’s a better bet to give the surface some “teeth” by sanding the varnish first with fine grit sandpaper, and then applying a coat of white primer before painting.

Myth #2:  You should always use oil-based paint on furniture, and in kitchens and bathrooms

In California, all house paint sold today is water-based (commonly called latex), since oil-based house paints were banned because they contain toxic solvents. (The only exception is paint designed for special purposes, like RustOleum for metal.) Water-based products are less hazardous, clean up easily with warm water and soap, and perform well in high-use or damp environments like kitchens and bathrooms. They dry quickly, but take about one week to really cure to a final hardness.

Primer, on the other hand, comes in water-based and oil-based versions. Oil-based primer dries slower but harder and is typically more resistant to moisture and wear. It will also adhere more reliably to an oil-based surface like varnish. Oil-based primer contains strong-smelling solvents and preservatives such as formaldehyde and benzene, which are flammable and carcinogenic, and require more solvents for clean-up. If you use oil-based primer, work safely and do all your painting and clean-up outdoors or in the garage with all the doors and windows open.

My daughter, Quin, started painting her kitchen chair
with a more intricate design.

Myth #3:  Paint can labels will help you choose the right paint

Go to three different paint stores and try to compare paints just by reading labels. It can’t be done. Labels on paint cans can be inconsistent, incomplete and misleading. Here are two examples:

Enamel, which used to mean oil-based, now means water-based paint with some amount of sheen. The greater the sheen, the more scrubbable the surface. There is no industry standard for paint sheens, so one company’s eggshell can be another company’s satin, matte or low gloss. The confusing array of enamel finishes includes matte, velvet flat, pearl, low luster, eggshell, satin, mid-luster, low gloss, semi-gloss, gloss and hi-gloss.

Acrylic is a synthetic polymer (plastic) found in most water-based paints. Acrylics improve paint quality because they are more resistant to staining, mildew, cracking, peeling, and blistering. Latex house paints tend to be a “co-polymer” blend of binders (acrylic, vinyl, PVA and others), filler, pigment and water. Paint labels typically will not reveal the percentage of acrylic (or any other ingredient) used in a latex paint. Some do not list the ingredients at all.

Myth #4: Latex paints contain latex, oil-based paints contain oil

Natural latex comes from the sap of tropical trees, and is used to make rubber gloves, swim caps and condoms. Latex paint is a synthetic version of natural latex. There is no natural latex in latex paints. Oil-based paint is an alkyd resin base thinned with mineral spirits (paint thinner) and contains no oil.

Myth #5:  Only oil-based paints are hazardous

VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound. The VOC rating shows the level of emissions generated by the product over time and at the time of application. Oil-based paints, which have the highest level of VODs, can trigger asthma attacks, create throat and eye irritation, nausea and headaches. Long term exposure can lead to cancer, kidney and liver disease. However, most latex paints also contain VOCs, so take warnings such as “USE ONLY WITH ADEQUATE VENTILATION” seriously. In general, flat, pastel paints have lower VOC levels than bright, high-gloss paints. Large paint companies such as Sherwin Williams and Benjamin Moore carry a line of zero VOC paints.

Milk paints are a re-creation of a very old paint formula which are made from natural ingredients such as curdled milk, lime and pigment, and have no VOCs. You can mix your own milk paints, or buy them in a powdered form, but once mixed, they need to be used quickly before they spoil. Frequently used on furniture, milk paint is valued for its saturated colors, durability and antique look, as well as its environmental friendliness. Don’t be fooled by cans of pre-mixed paint labeled “milk paint” which are actually a synthetic version of the traditional milk paint colors, but not the safe formula. Greenspace on Soquel Avenue in Santa Cruz carries powdered milk paints and other paints that are low-odor and low or zero VOC.

To transform an inexpensive plastic chair
local artist Linda Levy teaches decoupaging.
Experience is the best teacher

Local artist Linda Levy teaches workshops on decorating outdoor plastic chairs, but has also painted many wooden chairs in her time. “For any surface,” she says, “you have to prepare it first.” The best preparation is to remove any dirt with steel wool and then sand with a fine-grit sandpaper. “For a hard, smooth finish, the finer the (grit) size, the smoother the surface.”

She suggests using white primer because it seals the wood, adheres better and, as a base coat, makes the paint colors brighter. She says it’s always best to work outdoors so you won’t breathe the vapors. She usually uses acrylics (they’re more “artful”), extended with a gel medium, which keeps the paint from drying immediately. If the chair is going to be outdoors or in the sun, she suggests a final coat of polyurethane, for moisture and fade protection.

What is Steampunk?

Steampunk Style: Mad Max meets Jane Austen
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel March 2011 

   2011 Nova Albion Exhibition moves to the South Bay

Photo by Gar Travis/

Photo by Gar Travis/
If you’ve ever been to a Renaissance or Dickens fair, you know the feeling of being almost transported back in time. There are always those anachronistic incongruities: patrons in jeans, vendors accepting Jacksons, paper plates and plastic forks at the food court. But for the most part, it’s a fun chance to pretend.

For those who love Victoriana, the upcoming Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition (March 25-27, Santa Clara Hyatt Regency) will attempt to transport you to that period from 1839 to 1901 when industry was redefining the work world and Queen Victoria reigned over much of the planet. Or at the very least, it will give you a taste of 19th century style under 20th century conference room lighting.

Photo by Gar Travis/
Perhaps the Silicon Valley hotel venue is oddly appropriate, though, because Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition isn’t trying to be a quaint Dickens Christmas fair. Steampunk is not about quaint. It’s more of a 19th century time machine to the future—a fantasy of technology to come, as viewed through vintage brass goggles.

For those unfamiliar with steampunk, it’s a sci-fi subculture that offers a fresh, romanticized view on technology by making it retro. Steampunk style has been around for more than 20 years and takes its inspiration from the science fiction of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne (the fathers of science fiction) and cyberpunk. It’s a unique combination of romance and technology, fantasy and history, or as writer/crafter Jean Campbell puts it, “Mad Max meets Jane Austen.”

Neverwas Haul entertains crowds with their fabricated
 steam-powered art pieces at the 2010Bay Area Maker Faire

Steampunk has influenced all aspects of pop culture, including fashion, films, literature, bands, music videos, video games and comics. Notable steampunk bands include Rasputina, Dresden Dolls and Gogol Bordello. Movies with a distinct steampunk style include “Steamboy,” “The Prestige,” “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “Wild Wild West.” Annual creative gatherings like Burning Man, Maker Fair, and Dragon Con are showcases for amazing steam-powered machines and other retro contrivances.

Nova Albion draws steampunk fans with differing passions. Santa Cruzan Savi Savinovitch was attracted to the costuming at the Renaissance and Dickens Fairs. “My wife and I both worked the Renaissance Fair and there was a [steampunk] theme party at my booth,” says Savinovitch, who leads the Volunteer Security Team at Nova Albion. In 2007 he and his wife also attended a New Years Eve steampunk-themed party in Santa Cruz. “We jumped right into it after that,” says Savinovitch. He’s also “heavily into Star Wars,” and says he loves to tinker and use his imagination.

Vanessa Applegate, also from Santa Cruz, is likewise a fan of bay area costume fairs, but is even more drawn to the aesthetic and crafting opportunities of steampunk. “I’ve always been interested in things made of metal, and more solid construction.” To her, the steampunk aesthetic abhors the built-in obsolescence of modern products. “I like making things that are solid, built to last and that draws me towards the whole steampunk thing,” says Applegate, who is Director of Operations for this year’s exhibition. “It’s both hard and expensive making things out of good materials,” adds Applegate.

Photo by Gar Travis/
Modifiers of gadgetry and other steampunk artisans typically create their wares from uncommon materials. In the forward to “Steampunk Style Jewelry” by Jean Campbell (a great DIY introduction to all things steampunk), writer Paul Di Filippo says that the steampunk artist instinctively seeks materials for which the modern day counterparts are often “inferior or ugly”: cast-iron and wood instead of aluminum; silk and linen instead of polyester; brass, glass and rubber instead of plastic; welding instead of superglue; buckles, buttons and laces instead of Velcro; decoration instead of utilitarianism.

When searching for found objects for steampunk jewelry, Campbell suggests bead shops, hardware and thrift stores, flea markets, Ebay and Etsy. Large craft stores sell suitable charms and findings under the names “Industrial Chic,” “Altered Art” and “Lost & Found.” Some antique stores have baskets of dismembered dolls, dismantled clocks or small toys.

Classic steampunk bling uses watch parts, skeleton keys, gears, compasses, and vintage charms made from copper, brass, pewter or tarnished silver. Steampunk fashion sticks to a muted palette of browns, blacks, grays, purples and reds—reminiscent of the Queen’s dark mourning attire after the death of her beloved Prince Albert.

Photo by Gar Travis/
Ariane Wolfe, co-chair of Nova Albion, says that when the event started in October 2008, it was the first of its kind. “There had never been a steampunk exhibition anywhere in the U.S.,” says Wolfe. “Since then, there have been 10-12 opening up across the U.S.” Besides conventions, other steampunk gathering places include nightclubs and tea houses.

Last year’s attendance was about 1,200, and “80% got dressed up which is really phenomenal for that kind of event,” says Wolfe. “We had all ages, from infants to very elderly people.” The event has moved from Emeryville to Santa Clara this year to accommodate a larger crowd. Wolfe attributes the exhibition’s growing attendance to the wide appeal of Steampunk. “It has a literary following, who show up to see their favorite authors, which is something you don’t usually find in sci-fi fandom,” says Wolfe. “Then there is the DIY contingent and the alt history folks, into things like Civil War reenactments.”

To keep everyone’s creative juices flowing, the theme for the 2011 Exhibition is “Wild Wild East.” Savi Savinovitch admits coming up an Asian-flavored steampunk costume has been a challenge. “I’ve been thrown for an absolute loop,” he says, but has been searching through books for ideas. Motifs to avoid? Savinovitch says goggles have been overdone. “I stopped wearing mine completely,” he says. Vanessa Applegate says the quintessential steampunk cliché is clothing covered with gears. “If it’s covered in gears, I want them to do something,” she says. “I like functionality.”

The term “Nova Albion” comes from an early name for northern California, bestowed on the region by the explorer Sir Francis Drake after he landed somewhere north of San Francisco in 1579. (Albion, literally “the white,” was an archaic name for Great Britain, referencing the white cliffs along the English Channel.)

The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition is a regional event, moving closer to Santa Cruz this year (from Emeryville) for a larger venue at the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara, March 25-27. The three-day event will feature hands-on workshops, music, a museum of curiosities, venders, speakers, outdoor kinetic and steam-powered device demonstrations, featured artists/makers/mad scientists, and a Victorian ball. For tickets and information go to

Steampunk style films (from “Steampunk Style Jewelry”)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
Around the World in 80 Days (1956, 2004)
The Great Race (1965)
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
The City of Lost Children (1995)
Dark City (1998)
Wild Wild West (1999)
League of Extraordinary Gentleman (2003)
Hellboy (2004)
Van Helsing (2004)
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
The Prestige (2006)
Stardust (2007)
The Golden Compass (2007)