Jacket Copy

Books, authors and all things bookish

Category: holiday

A singular tribute to a father


In the small photo book "Days with My Father," we learn only a few facts about Edward Toledano -- he was briefly an actor in the 1930s, he married, and, late in life, had a son, Phillip. After Phillip's mother died, he began spending time with his father, already in his 90s. Phillip took photographs -- beautiful, funny, haunting -- of his dad; he was trying to capture his father's personality, and to express his love for him. He originally did this on a blog, quietly chronicling those days; the book is a quality production that allows the striking photos and minimal text move in a rhythm developed online.

Phillip soon learned that his mother had shielded his father's memory loss from him. The opening pages of the book describe his state:

He doesn't have Alzheimer's, but he has no short-term memory, and is often lost.

I took him to the funeral, but when we got home, he kept asking me where my mother was. I had to explain over and over again that she died.

This was shocking news to him.

Why had no one told him?
Why hadn't I taken him to the funeral?
Why hadn't he visited her in the hospital?

He had no memory of these events.

After a while I realized I couldn't keep telling him that his wife had died. Constantly re-living her death was destroying us both.

So I decided to say that she'd gone to Paris, to care for her sick brother.

It is an act of kindness, of generosity rather than exasperation, and it is echoed over and over again in the book. Toledano looks for the moments of connection and grace, not always serious -- he captures his father's joking with meringue cookies. Yet his camera is achingly honest: his father's gnarled fingers, the spareness of his surroundings.  This is a book of quiet beauty, filled with sentiment that is true.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Phillip Toleando / Chronicle Books

For precocious kids: Santa Claus and wormholes


Santa has a thriving holiday subgenre: As Web columnist Sonja Bolle wrote in last Sunday’s Word Play column, many new books are devoted not just to retelling old, familiar tales but also to telling about his “secret life” — where he lives, what his workshop is like, what happens when Mrs. Claus takes a vacation. (And don't forget that NORAD is tracking Santa now as he makes his way across the globe.)

Bolle also mentions those youngsters who want to keep believing in spite of their suspicions about the whole thing — and the efforts some parents make to keep it all going for a few more years.
OK, but what do you do if your child is extremely precocious ... and has a strong scientific bent?

The answer is: physics.

As Gregory Mone writes in “The Truth About Santa,” if a kid starts pointing out the improbabilities of Santa attending to every child, everywhere, in a single night, tell him or her two things:

First, Santa can’t do it all himself: He has a phalanx of elf lieutenants who help him out. Second, these pointy-shoed little helpers are able to get around quickly because of wormholes. As Mone explains:

There are some things we still don’t know, but it is fairly clear that the mode of transport/time-travel they use is based on astrophysical oddities called wormholes. ... If one of Santa’s lieutenants wants to exit a home, he simply jumps through the wormhole mouth in the fireplace or the frame. A moment later he pops out of a window at his next destination. ...

The true beauty of Santa’s wormhole-based travel technique, though, is that it enables his lieutenants to recover the time they lose dropping off gifts in a given house. Each wormhole deposits a lieutenant in the next living room on his schedule a few hundredths or tenths of a second after he arrived in the previous one. As a result, at any moment, a given lieutenant may actually be working in thousands of different homes at once. ...

Got all that? Other sections of Mone’s book explain “why Santa can’t use FedEx,” “reindeer and public relations,” “how Santa knows what you want” and how the North Pole operation depends on eugenics — all those elves are clones! — to maintain efficiency.

Science hand in hand with holiday tradition? Incredible! Mone's book is a perfect stocking stuffer for either Stephen Hawking or those science-minded kids who believe in Santa.

-- Nick Owchar

Image: Wormhole diagram. Credit: Matthew Zimet

Photo: The big guy. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times


Last-minute lit gift: The Unlimited Story Deck

Tait JohnsonUnlimited Story Deck


Whether you're stuck for a last-minute literary gift or for the next turn in your novel-in-progress, the Unlimited Story Deck may be the answer. Developed by Pennsylvania college student Tait Johnson, the Unlimited Story Deck is a card game that takes classic storytelling elements, like character and setting, and melds them with the interactivity of multiplayer games and the serendipity of Tarot. And he's made the game available online for free download with a Creative Commons license: just print the cards, cut and you're ready to wrap your last-minute gift.

"I have been writing stories since I was a child and with a serious intent since 2000," said Johnson, 29, now a creative-writing student at the University of Pittsburgh. He created the Unlimited Story Deck for a class on narrative and technology, but its scope is larger than the classroom. "I'm somewhat of an autodidact," he said. "In all the years I wasn't in school, I never stopped teaching myself and reading everything I could."

The volume and breadth of the storytelling elements in the deck are exhilarating. The 90 characters include a dandy/hipster/fop, an athlete, an artist, a doctor and a robot, a spy, a superhero, a troubled teen, a thief and an undead/zombie/mummy/ghoul. Of course -- you can't have a story game in this millennium without zombies.

But that's just the beginning. To build the stories, there are cards in four other categories: setting, events, objects and dynamics. There are lots of choices -- but like any story, the first choice you make begins to give it shape. And here, the shape -- and the fun -- comes from playing the game.

Any number of people can play. Seven cards are dealt, and the first player begins the story by telling it to the group -- one, the scribe, writes it all down. The cards serve as prompts for the story that the group tells, player by player. Unlike the absurdist storytelling game Exquisite Corpse -- in which people only know a little bit of the story when it's their turn to add to it -- the challenge here is to get multiple storytellers to create something together that makes sense yet has all the best parts of story: character, conflict, resolution.

Those familiar with Tarot will recognize some of the rules of play, which are fairly simple. A character can be given an attribute by playing one card on top of another. An inverted card means its opposite -- the marriage card, played upside-down, would mean divorce. Cards set perpendicularly mean ongoing action in order to keep track of complex stories. Dynamics cards set in a prominent place can set the mood or the genre of the story -- watch out, postmodernism is in there.

The narrative connections are made in the story as it's told -- and parallel narratives can be built out on different parts of the table. With seemingly endless possibilities, what's interesting is how the narrative choices will force the story to narrow and bend. Maybe you hope to play your celebration card, but someone has put the character in a swamp. Can you make it work?

In bringing the deck to classes to test its play, Johnson sometimes worried that it had too many choices, that it was too big. But he also noticed that the players sometimes moved in similar directions, as if responding to some burbling cultural meme. For example, when playing the character card genie/djin/leprechaun -- "This spirit may grant a wish or three, but watch out what you ask for!" -- people always chose the leprechaun. Maybe "djin" is too hard to pronounce, and genies aren't hip these days. Or maybe it's that tricky leprechauns seemed to have the most narrative potential.

As for future plans, Johnson hopes to find an artist to create "nonprescriptive" illustrations; he knows words aren't the only way we tell stories and, he said, "people like to look at pictures on cards." And he's considering splitting the deck -- making one that's kid-friendly (no sex or drugs), or one that doesn't include fantastical elements. Although he's noticed that it's the fantastical bits that open up players' imaginations the most. 

"It would be great to find a larger range of people for beta-testing, including already established authors," he said, "but with another semester coming up, moving forward on this might have to go on hold for a couple months." He's also hoping to get back to his novel, which he set aside to create the Unlimited Story Deck.

If he finds the novel-writing difficult, he can always return to his cards. Like any decent card deck, this one can be used for solitaire. A lone storyteller could use the cards as a prompt, or a challenge. Stuck on your plot line? Pick a card, any card.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Images courtesy Tait Johnson

Last chance to sign up to be indie lit secret santa

indie litsecret santa

Feel like bringing independent literature joy to a complete stranger? HTMLGIANT, the literary blog with attitude, is holding its second annual indie lit Secret Santa gift exchange. And today is the last day to sign up.

Participants are asked to spend $10 to $20 on independent literature -- a book or chapbook from an independent press, at an independent bookstore, even a literary magazine subscription. Think Hobart over Better Homes & Gardens magazine, or a short story collection such as "Rasskazy: New Fiction from Russia" from Tin House over the new book of short stories from John Grisham.

I frequently find myself searching for the right book for a person whose tastes I know well. In this case, it's kind of the opposite: You don't know anything about the person you're shopping for, except a general sensibility. Any kind of independent literature goes: You might get a pile of $2 poetry chapbooks or a brand new hardcover. And the project supports those writing and publishing literature outside of the big New York houses.

Of course, after you buy your gift, you need to mail it away; HTMLGIANT will have e-mailed you the name and address of your recipient. Make sure to add your address on the sign-up site (follow the directions from HTMLGIANT), so your independent press Santa knows where to find you.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Los Angeles SantaCon 2009. Credit: Christina House / Los Angeles Times

Serving poetry with your pumpkin pie



Many of our Thanksgiving traditions are slightly twisted versions of what really happened. There wasn't any turkey served; the first one was probably in Texas, not Massachusetts; Pilgrims didn't dress in black or wear tall hats. But if our myths aren't really based in history, we might as well invent some new ones -- and, for example, bring poetry home for the holidays

The Poetry Foundation has collected 21 poems just right for Thanksgiving. There are those that celebrate fall -- "To Autumn" by John Keats, "The Garden of Proserpine" by Algernon Charles Swinburne -- but aren't particularly American. But there are also Americans like Robert Frost ("The Gift Outright") and Paul Laurence Dunbar ("Signs of the Times") if you'd rather keep your holiday poetry close to home.

Other poems are focused on food and its legacies: "Yam" by Bruce Guernsey, "Perhaps the World Ends Here" by Joy Harjo and "Butter" by Elizabeth Alexander, who read at Barack Obama's inauguration.

And there are a few that give thanks. Like Robert Herrick's "A Thanksgiving to God, for His House" the call-to-action "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" by James Weldon Johnson and "Thanksgiving" by Edgar Albert Guest, which begins:

Gettin’ together to smile an’ rejoice,
An’ eatin’ an’ laughin’ with folks of your choice;
An’ kissin’ the girls an’ declarin’ that they
Are growin’ more beautiful day after day;
Chattin’ an’ braggin’ a bit with the men,
Buildin’ the old family circle again;
Livin’ the wholesome an’ old-fashioned cheer,
Just for awhile at the end of the year.

Best time for reciting your Thanksgiving poem of choice: after the wine has been served yet before the food coma kicks in.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: "The First Thanksgiving," by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Argh, it's Talk Like a Pirate Day again, mateys

Talk Like a Pirate Day


It's rolled around once again, like a stray cannonball on the deck of a sailing ship. Sept. 19 is the annual Talk Like a Pirate Day, for no particular reason whatsoever.

Thank John "OI' Chumbucket" Bauer and Mark "Cap'n Slappy" Summers, the two ne'er-do-wells with pirattitude for starting the tradition, and writer Dave Barry for popularizing it seven years ago. Bauer and Summers have two books available from publishers and three others they've self-published, including the children's book "A Li'l Pirate's A-B-Seas."

Not all pirate talk is fit for kids. Suggested pirate pickup lines include "Have ya ever met a man with a real yardarm?" and "How'd you like to scrape the barnacles off of me rudder?" As for "booty" and "treasure chest"... well keep those double meanings to yourself, you swarthy knave.

Los Angeles is home to a bounty of pirate-related events today, including sexy pirate talk and a costume contest at the R Bar in Koreatown, a pirate-themed murder mystery geocache hunt, and a weekend's worth of pirates and steampunk at the Queen Mary. Shiver me timbers.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: from the Lake Forest 2008 Fourth of July Parade. Credit: tinyfroglet via Flickr

Roses are red, violets are blue: Love poem tips for you

love poemslove poetryPoetry FoundationValentine's Day


Love poetry is as much of an old Valentine's Day standby as chocolates and red roses; delivering a classic to your beloved is a pretty safe bet. The Poetry Foundation has prepared a long list of love poetry's greatest hits. If your mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun or your love is like a red red rose, you'll find a poem there that hits the spot.

But poetry is a living art, and poetry didn't stop a century ago. Is there anything new or fresh to say about love? In an effort to counter "reams of gushy, heartfelt doggerel," Jeremy Richards talked to several young poets for the Poetry Foundation. These poets, he says, "reinvent the subject not as lace and violets but as a shattered display window, 'an ache and a kink,' 'the black pulse of dominoes,' or 'a bird/trapped in the terminal' — anything but what we’ve come to expect." An excerpt:

Craig Arnold: Let’s face it, nobody in love is original. We all feel and do pretty much the same things, make fools of ourselves in the same ways, and hopefully come through it alive and well and happily in bed with someone else. But that’s also precisely the appeal of love poetry, the intensely humbling nature of the experience it tries to describe.

Cyrus Cassels: The most pressing concern is conveying intimacy without shutting the reader out of the ecstatic feelings limned in a love poem.

Rebecca Hoogs: If there’s no tension in the love, there’s no tension in the poem. “I love you, you’re perfect,” no matter how prettily said, is boring.

Adrian Blevins: The problem with love poetry is that it must be felt and written by humans, who never feel one feeling at a time. I mean, love has fear in it. And guilt and misery and a special kind of hallucinating loneliness.... The problem for the poet is how to get such a hodgepodge into one coherent space.

A few complicated love poems made the classic list, but when I went looking for E.E. Cummings and "The Flea" by John Donne I discovered they hadn't made the cut. But they are lurking there, deeper in the archives: the Poetry Foundation has 1,233 poems about love and desire on its website.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Christina Rutz via Flickr

Happy new year!


This illustration by J.C. Leyendecker appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in late 1908. It was one of his earliest New Year's babies; his first -- the first -- was in 1906.
Leyendecker had a gift for creating holiday icons as well as portraying impossibly handsome men for advertisements and magazine covers (one was his life partner, model Charles Beach). At the top of his game, Leyendecker was America's top illustrator, throwing high society parties and renting a studio in Texas Guinan's building, where he had a dumbwaiter that ran to her speakeasy. Young Norman Rockwell so wanted to learn from Leyendecker that he moved to a home near his in a New York suburb. Leyendecker's story, along with a vast showcase of his work, can be found in the book "J.C. Leyendecker: American Imagist," reviewed this Sunday.

Today is Wednesday, and the New Year is knocking at the door. May your 2009 be rosy-cheeked and carrying a big sack of books.

Happy new year from Jacket Copy!

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: American Illustrators Gallery NYC / 2008 © by National Museum of American Illustration, Newport, R.I.

Elmo, Jon Stewart, Dan Brown and more plug books as gifts

The Assn. of American Publishers has shot video of some of publishing's biggest names to tell all of us, this holiday season, to give books. Almost all the participating authors begin with "Books make great gifts, because... " Oddly, it's Elmo who kicks the whole thing off -- isn't he supposed to be three and a half? Is he telling little kids to go shopping? Anyway, there are plenty of adults authors, I suppose: Mary Higgins Clark, Dean Koontz, Dan Brown, Frank McCourt, Maya Angelou, Julie Andrews, Jim Cramer. And there is some irony from the reliably dry Jon Stewart -- "they are an amazing way to kill time while your website is buffering."

If you like the idea of giving books but don't know where to start -- in which case, you're probably new to the Jacket Copy blog, because we've been rife with book recommendations lately -- there is a website with books-as-gifts ideas from the AAP.

But truly puzzling is Alec Baldwin. He says, "Book make great gifts, because you don't have to plug them in." What does that mean?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Be an indie lit Secret Santa


The independent literary blog HTMLGIANT has set up a Secret Santa literary gift exchange. It's a small operation that hopes to spread the cheer of small presses and independent literary magazines.

You send them an e-mail with your name, address and the subject line SECRET SANTA between now and Dec. 5. Then they send you the name and address of someone else who's signed up (and send yours to someone else). You purchase a literary gift and send it off, then send an e-mail to the HTMLGIANT folks telling them about your gift.

Why do that? Because on Christmas, they'll post a big list revealing who got what from whom.

You may be concerned that if you give "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," your gift recipient will already have gotten three other copies. Well, regifting would be in the spirit of the project. But they suggest that you try for something your recipient might not have, like a new book from an independent press, a subscription to a literary magazine or journal, or a work in translation.

Don't worry too much about having different taste than your recipient -- if you give a collection of poetry and your recipient likes manga (or vice versa), maybe this will be the reason they give poetry a try. The people who sign up for this like books and stories and are probably happy to read whatever arrives on their doorstep.

I know this is true because I've signed up. And I'm game.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by Caleb Jacobs via Flickr


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