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the various and sundry creations of sylvus tarn


A confession: while I certainly thought about making this post on pi day, I didn't manage it till later. But it's π day of the century! (That is, at 3-14-15|9:26:53, you get pi to 9 decimal places.) —I kinda like these non-commercial low-key ‘holidays’, which is why I'm making this post, even if it's a week late.

Another confession: I don't make pie. I like it, (I like anything that involves copious amounts of flour and butter) but it's so fattening that I make it seldom, which means I never really mastered crust.

But without going all out (i.e. cake) I do have some slightly fancier muffins to celebrate.


So last night I went to a presentation of our local history from, say C.E. 1000 to the present, with a focus from the mid 1600s to the mid 1800s. A lot of this stuff might only be of interest to locals, but I learned a couple of things of more general interest. One is that ‘sippy’ or ‘seppy’ means river (as in, Mississippy) in, if my notes can be trusted, (one of) the Huron language. (A note: I do know that tribe name is to be preferred, but when referring to assorted groups, for this post, I will defer to Mr Siegfried's preferred usage, ‘Indian’, which he sees as value-neutral.)

Two, they traded all over the continent—shells from the Gulf of Mexico made it all the way back to the St Lawrence basin, via the network of rivers the people used to travel via canoe. Detroit's founding—in its particular place and time—was very much driven by Indian politics. Our local highway follows an old Indian trail that goes all the way to Chicago.

And three, one of the disputes between the British Crown and the revolutionaries was evidently there was a line, reserving lands to the west of it for the Indian peoples, which the colonists wished to cross (not least because from their point of view the land was being “wasted”). This aspect of the dispute, is, shall we say not so emphasized as the tax thing. (Frex, I can't find the name of it in Wikipedia or other online sources, but finding the list of taxes with which the colonies took issue was easy.)

That last really resonated with me, because I recognized something strikingly similar in Bujold's Wide Green World books, the dispute between the Lakewalkers and Farmers, of ‘the old cleared line’. These books, which are set in an alternate 18–19ca version of the same general area of the Midwest as where I live (and the historian was discussing) revolve around the efforts of a slightly magical group of people, the Lakewalkers, to rid the world of randomly appearing devouring monsters called malices, which feed upon life energy in general and people, especially children and pregnant women, in particular. The ‘old cleared line’ is the region the Lakewalkers deem it safe for farmers to settle; but of course, the farmers can't resist the virgin land to the north.

This angers the Lakewalkers, because if a malice attacks a farmer town, it grows and destroys everyone lakewalker and farmer alike.

In a sense, the malices give the Lakewalkers an advantage the natives they're plainly based upon that the real Indians did not have: an enemy the farmers (colonialists) can not defeat. It was always somewhat obvious that the Lakewalkers, who besides living in a semi-nomadic, longhouse-dwelling, gift culture (and who braid their hair into the bargain) had a lot in common with the so-called ‘Late Woodlands’ the historian discussed. (His problem was that he was trying to cram a semester long course into a 2-1/2 hour talk. Whew.)

But that discussion of that line really drew into sharp, ineradicable focus the origins of this fantasy culture. After I came home I was too tired to research hotels in Miami, and ended up on Yo, is this racist? —for hours. There are only white people in the ‘Wide Green World’, and it pains me deeply. Especially when it could have so easily been otherwise.


That is on top of the various atrocities perpetuated on our region's first peoples, and the ongoing injustices. It brings to mind a boingboing interview with M.T. Anderson, the author of Feed:

People ask me whether I think we’ll ever live in a “dystopian world.”

We already do. It’s just that we happen to live in the shining Capital, so we export the suffering elsewhere.

Yeah, ...like Metropolis. And I'm part of it, and not iconclastic enough to do an Emma Goldman—about the only person I can think of offhand who was really, truly ahead of her time, social-justice wise. Well, I guess one can console oneself with warm muffins.


Happy belated Valentine's Day!

Yeah, I know a lot of people don't like Valentine's Day; and that's just fine. Also that this is dreadfully late, because I didn't start writing the post till the 15th, and it took me till the 18th to get it done (& will take till the 19th to get pushed over. But I've had this thing in the queue, nagging me for the last year & I'm determined to post this ancient object this year.

And I have a nice non-romantic valentine: a book recce!

My fiction reading has dropped off hugely in the past several years, because there just didn't seem to be all that many really good stories to my taste I'm too lazy/busy to find stuff I like, probably because if one has literary pretensions (even at my sub-basement level) then one is assumed to read well-written books with realistic and often not-very-nice people.

Well, I've to look on the inside of my own head to get a heaping plateful of that. Blerghhhhh. I'd rather read about kind, generous souls who do the right thing, or, at least, repent of doing the wrong thing and then get better. And as it happens, I stumbled across just such a book.

Well, actually, I saw it on a bunch of ‘best of’ lists for 2014, much the same way Ann Leckey's Ancillary Sword dominated 2013. —Btw, the second book in the series, Ancillary Justice, is just as good:) But if you're looking for fantasy, rather than sf, then allow me to reccommend Katherine Addison's (Sarah Monette) Goblin Emperor. The author, after being dropped (for dropping sales) for her 4 books Labyrinth series featuring the half brothers Mildmay the Fox, a thief, and Felix Harrowgate, a wizard, moved to a new one with this standalone, which is considerably lighter in tone, despite the fact it starts out with a neglected and abused orphan who is precipitously shot to the throne of his kingdom.

Maia, the goblin son of the emperor's despised fourth wife, has nevertheless absorbed her generosity of spirit and kindness; and despite the harsh conditions he's lived under since his mother's death at eight, has a steady head on his shoulders; which he's going to need if he's to keep it there, after the turmoil the kingdom has been thrown into after the death of the Emperor and his three heirs.

One recommendation: take a moment to read the bit explaining the various titles (which explain relationships) at the back of the book. It will also help to keep track of the many minor characters, as their familial relationships helps to slot them into the story. —Like the Leckie, the author plays with pronouns to give her world a more immersive feel: in this case, formal versus informal is indicated by whether the characters use singular or plural to refer to themselves. It gives the book a nice old-fashioned feel, which, as a big fan of Jane Austen, I appreciated. (Another reviewer notes that if you're the type of reader who wants action! battles! and fast-pacing! this book is not for you. However, I found the political manoeuvering plenty engaging. —Of course, one of my favorite fantasy novels, The Curse of Chalion is nothing but. In fact, I'd say if you liked that one, you probably will enjoy this, for much the same reason: a likeable protagonist, given to self-doubts, bright but rather inexperienced with the more byzantine aspects of court, attempting to do the right thing. (The other book it kind of reminds me of is Georgette Heyer's Civil Contract, though this is not at all a romance in the modern sense, though the term could certainly apply in the traditional way—after all, the recce is for valentine's day haters, though those who like it could certainly also enjoy the book;)

Having been so impressed with this book, I immediately ordered the 4 books of her earlier series from the library. These are also well-written, but the protagonists, Felix in particular, are deeply damaged by their upbringings and they are not very pleasant people. I understood why they weren't, but their environment was so ‘grimdark’ that very few people seemed to be able to be genuinely kind or caring. I liked the labyrinth imagery that is particularly important to the 2nd book (the first one was, to my eye, mostly setup, with —spoilers! one of the characters effectively insane for nearly the whole book).

I'm planning on giving the latter two a chance, but I liked much better the short stories, many of which are available on the web. The author (under her own name, Sarah Monette) has a number of them; most are horror, her favourite genre. Some feature a pair of paranormal detectives, which are great fun. Her short story collection The Bone Key features Kyle Murchison Booth, an introverted, awkward museum curator who is the most frequently recurring character. His stories in particular are typically a brooding, atmospheric horror very like H.P. Lovecraft, but without so much of the racism and misogyny. Monette is also fascinated by true crime, particularly historical true crime from the 1800s, and has many reviews of the genre (which I've always avoided, as it seems rather...sensationalistic) on her lj.

Alas, the heart I'm featuring is neither realistic, nor dripping, nor frightening...but if you're more in the mood for awwww than ewwww, well, there you go.


Happy February, everyone! Here in the midwest we're having our first major snowstorm of the season, and I'm rather enjoying the 10 plus inches we're expected to receive. Of course, I don't have to drive anywhere in it, so there's that.

What I ought to be doing is working up samples for actual commissions (hi customers!) or at the very least, making art of some kind—guild challenges, painting with acrylics, etc—but since I'm not, I figured I could at least come up with a blog post. Not to mention some etsy listings! So here's a couple of sweet little heart-themed wall hangings. I'm featuring them now because Valentine's is coming up, but if you're not into rotating your house furnishings, they could certainly hang around (heh) year around. Both pieces are small, about 8x10.5 inches, with a warm tan and rich pink color scheme, for the very reasonable price of $25 each.

For those of you for whom this blog is all beads all the time, well, I have a post featuring some heart-shaped beads as well:)


Our local libraries annually pick books for the patrons to read, and then in February bring in the author (or somebody related) to talk about the book; along with reading groups in the like. This year's choice is a novel, which is kind of unusual, but it appealed to me because two of the protagonists were Japanese; plus, I like the idea of participating in a community reading program.

Most of the reviews focus on the 16 year old narrator, a Japanese girl who lived in the US long enough to feel very alienated when her folks move back to Japan after the dot-com crash; or her marvellous and delightful 104 year old great grandmother, Juku, a buddhist nun in Ruth Ozeki's For the Time Being. Compelling as their voices are I actually ended identifying with Ruth, who is more of a framing character, and her husband (who are indeed the author and her husband.)

The whole book plays with these blurring boundaries, as you are pretty much informed on the first page, when the narrator, via her diary (cleverly disguised as an old copy of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, which should give you a clue) explains this buddhist concept of a ‘time being’. She herself is such, via the diary she's put in a hello kitty lunchbox; whales are; her great grandmother is...you the reader (and the author who finds this diary) are. The stories—the girl's, and the author's—move in tandem.

The book is chock full of delightful constructions (like the diary); stuff about Buddhism (the author is Buddhist), the great gyres (SN just this month had an article about these giant oceans of trash) the isolated island to which the author has retreated with her ill spouse, who recovers his health amongst nature, even as she comes to feel more isolated, cut off from New York City, and its creative vitality.

The protag, meanwhile, details the joys of being bullied and shunned in Japanese high school, losing her US friends, watching her formerly successful dad try (and fail) to get a job, try (and fail) to commit suicide via train, while referencing the akihibara and harajuku districts of Tokyo (which we visited last summer) not to mention f2tY's high school, in which it was very clear her classmates were thrilled to see their American classmate again. Also, we rode trains all over the country, and yes, one was delayed (probably) because of ‘human intervention’ —the euphemism for suicide or attempted suicide by jumping off the platform. So these synchronicities or not-quite-shared-experiences were kind of disorienting in that sense, because I knew just enough for this to intersect with my reality.

But for all that, it was the middle-aged protagonist with whom I most identified, the author|character who feels herself something of a failure, whose not written any novels for over a decade, and whose memoir of that time, taking care of her dying mother, is a mess. She's spinning her wheels, in effect. Meanwhile, as I was reading this, our comics librarian, who is awesome, had a new book by Inio Asano, Solanin. I was deeply impressed by Nijigahara Holograph (which btw is also about bullying in Japanese schools and possibly the most intricately plotted thing I've ever read) so I was happy to read this straightforward earlier work, about a bunch of rather aimless, artsy 20 somethings, particularly Meiko Inoue, who takes up the guitar to master the eponymous song of the title, as well.

Oddly enough, both the middle-aged Ruth, and 24 year old Meiko, come to much the same conclusion by the end of their books, if not at their stories: that life may not be perfect, but that it is, for the time being, good enough. That, for all its petty frustrations, they—we—I—have it pretty good. I've always understood that some books, some stories, resonate with particular readers; but the cultural milieu—modern Japan—meant that the stories, in a sense, interacted with each other: that whole ‘genre is a series of conversations’ thing Bujold likes to talk about. More: this is what culture is (and why densely packed people, and their X^2 interactions, are so important to it:)

And, oddly enough today's item goes with that pretty well: this gift is nothing special, but it was the best I was able to find.


Went and saw Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery (at a theatre inside an art museum, how appropriate) but at three hours, this thing is way too long. I was able to sit through it, but my companion had to get up and physically stretch her legs; the patron in front of us left, perhaps half or two-thirds of the way through. Part of the problem is that it's really two films: one, the one I (as an artist) was interested in watching about the restoration, installation and other behind-the-scenes technical aspects of running the museum.

The other strand documented people's —curators, docents, assorted museum-goers, including lovers, students, the nearly blind and a lot of middle to elderly aged men—reactions to, and interactions with, the art. Acting as sort of a transition between these two components were the discussions and planning by upper echelon museum staff, with regard to it politics, planning, and finances.

The film starts out with an earnest mid-level board member attempting to convince the director that the museum needs to be more accessible, more relatable to the average citizan, who, she says, doesn't really get why the museum or its contents are so special. The director sits politely, unconvinced, as she goes on and on and on and on. I sympathized with her because an awful lot of people do in fact, regard art museums as something ‘for rich people.’ I also wasn't terribly surprised to note that (so far as I could tell) the top two positions were filled by men; most of the mid-level employees (and all the docents except one) were women. All of the laborers were, of course, men. There were three people of color who could be said to be working; two were menials, the other (a pianist) obviously hired part-time.

At the same time, no, I don't really think art museums need to have banners advertising this or that charity, or corporation (or corp sponsoring a charity, though coming up with cute, potentially viral vids that encourage people to check out their local museum sounds great). Director Penny clearly sees as his job to conserve the museum and its traditions, and preserve the art within. Which I suppose brings me to the heart of the underlying problem: the art shown in this film is a tiny, but famous and recognizable, portion of the collections: paintings, mostly oil paintings, dating from (I wanna say) roughly 1400–1900, with an emphasis on French, Italian and British ‘big names’.

Museums, so I was informed in another quite interesting documentary, are having a difficult time competing with modern collectors with lots of money to spend, and a desire to validate their taste (and wealth) with high-status art—that is, the same big names Wiseman focuses his camera on. This annoys for two reasons: one, of course, is that it's pretty hard for the average person to see art in private collections. But the other is the reinforcing of what is “proper” art: white, western, European. One docent mentions to a group of black youths that it ‘needs to be acknowledged’ that museum was founded with money extracted from the backs of slaves. That's all very well, but the black kids already likely have a sense of that, if not the exact history; it's all the well-to-do whites that really need to be reminded of this.

To be sure, it's encouraging that some major institutions are combatting this; but the fact of the matter is, all those paintings were, for the most part, commercial art made for patrons who could pay for it; just as today, the bulk of art is commercial, one way or another (little as the so-called ‘fine art’ world cares to admit this.) One of the things I love about the internet is that fans of odd little niches can find each other (and also that what I suspect is Impression-equivalent: graffiti and other street art, or comics, are starting to get some recognition.)

The National Gallery deserves plenty of kudos for trying to make art accessible to wider audiences (such as the visually impaired) as well as the making of art (we're shown a number of non-professionals learning to draw from the nude model, which is generally not something encouraged for non-artists). There's no question that looking at really top flight stuff in museums has sharpened my critical faculties. At the same time, there's an awful lot of art made by artists who can't support themselves; and if our culture placed more value on art-making, particularly more kinds of art-making, from the get-go, then I think the need to educate people on the importance of museums would naturally disappear.

The theatre always presents us, the audience, with a review of the film, and I enjoy comparing my reactions to that of the professional reviewer. In this case, we both clearly found the parts of the documentary about restoration (and to a lesser extent interpretation in a historical context) of the paintings to be most riveting. Rembrandt, for example, decided he didn't like/couldn't sell a large canvas, so he rotated it 90 degrees, and started painting anew, without even bothering to put another ground, (probably) incorporating material from the prior piece into the new one. That's the sort of thing I'd do, and that fact, derived from careful scientific analysis, is of far greater interest to me than what a painting means, nor even the silent communion with paintings the film-maker so lovingly depicts, over and over and over.

At first, I resented that most of these admirers seemed to be middle-aged or older white men; women, youths, PoC being more likely to be shown in line, or in groups, or the like; but I finally concluded that these men were standing in for, and representing the creator himself. —Which, to be honest, was the part that really needed to be cut. Wiseman, consciously or not, attempted to direct our sympathies away from the mid-level employee and her argument about accessibility to the average person by opening the documentary with a too-long cut to open the film. But a good portion of his film, to my mind, illustrated the strength of her arguments: art needs to be accessible to everyone, not just rich white guys. And that means, we need to know museums show more than just da Vinci, Rembrandt and Vermeer.

(So, is giftwrapping ‘art’? Most people would say no, or, hell no. Internally, I'm using the same software to create it as stuff that does get labelled art. So, who knows? But that's why I find these distinctions rather baffling.)