Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"To Say Nothing of the Dog" -- Catnip in Book Form

Does anyone else find it odd that Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love and Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog -- two works that both make several allusions to Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat -- came out within one year of one another, in 1997 and 1998, respectively? What was going on in the space-time continuum in the late '90s to make that happen?

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my goodness, this book is wonderful. It reads like Tom Stoppard and A.S. Byatt had a love child and then brought that baby up on a diet of classic screwball comedies (including Bringing Up Baby). It’s a time-travel story whose romantic elements are sweet and charming, rather than tragically tear-jerking. It will even appeal to both cat-lovers and dog-lovers.

I read To Say Nothing of the Dog during a difficult and stressful time in my life, and I couldn’t imagine a more congenial companion. The mystery is absorbing, but the overall tone is lighthearted. I could tell that nothing really bad would happen to the characters and that there’d be a happy ending, even if I couldn’t predict how all the threads would come together.

And there are a lot of threads: Victorian decor; literary allusions; discussions of historical causality; the Nazi fire-bombing of Coventry Cathedral; human and animal behavior; the stability, or lack thereof, of the space-time continuum; and plenty of comic hijinks and wry asides. The protagonist, time-traveling historian Ned Henry, is a likable fellow who nonetheless makes for an amusingly unreliable narrator, at least when he’s suffering from “time-lag” in the first part of the book.

To Say Nothing of the Dog tends to be shelved in the sci-fi section of the bookstore, and the paperback boasts ugly, incomprehensible cover art. Which means there’s a chance that readers who don’t consider themselves “sci-fi fans” may overlook this book, and that’s a shame. If you’re a nerdy Anglophile who appreciates obscure history and wishes you had a time machine so you could go back to the past and look around – something that describes many of my friends – you will love this book.

View all my reviews

Sunday, July 27, 2014

If the "Pleiades" Characters were Jane Austen Heroines

Inspired by Lily Janiak's blurb calling Pleiades "the love child of Jane Austen and Wendy Wasserstein," and a conversation I just had with my boyfriend about Mansfield Park*, I give you:

If the Attlee Sisters were Jane Austen Characters: A Study in Correspondences
  • Moira = Elinor Dashwood. Loving, responsible eldest sister who keeps a lot of secret sadness locked up in her heart. 
  • Elaine = Marianne Dashwood. An idealistic romantic determined to follow her heart, despite any warnings or cautions she may receive.
  • Teresa = Lizzy Bennet. Outspoken and lively; she loves her sisters even though they often frustrate her.
  • Alison = Mary Bennet. Awkward middle sister who is usually the odd one out, and whose sisters scorn her musical tastes.
  • Kelly = Emma Woodhouse. A ringleader who feels very secure and contented in her position and her family.
  • Sarah = Catherine Morland. She still believes in fairy tales.
  • Meredith = Margaret Dashwood. The archetypal kid sister.
FYI, I have always identified with Elinor but wished I were more like Lizzy... that's something you might want to keep in mind if you come see Pleiades.

Tickets to the show (August 7 to 30 in San Francisco) are on sale at

*I realize I need to add this to the list of Ways In Which I Am Really a Whit Stillman Character.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

PLEIADES: Website, Indiegogo, and Our First Blurb!

Finally, an explanation for why it's been so quiet around here recently:

I've been readying my play, Pleiades, for its world premiere production at the Phoenix Theater in San Francisco -- and serving as its lead producer. We started rehearsals last week and will open on August 7 for a four-week run. Katja Rivera is directing, we have a wonderful cast of 9 young actors, and you can find out much more about the show at

We've also been running an Indiegogo funding campaign. With four days left to go, we're closing in on our goal (83%) but are still looking for a few more contributions to push us over the top! If you've appreciated my work in the past and want to support independent, female-driven theater in the Bay Area, please consider making a contribution. $35 will score you my eternal gratitude AND a reserved seat at the show!

(And I don't mean to be manipulative, but Saturday is my birthday, and it would make me very happy to wake up on that day to a fully funded Indiegogo campaign, so...)

Fundraising pressures aside, the production process is going well, and we just received our first press attention! Lily Janiak listed Pleiades as an Editor's Pick in the July/August issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine, calling the play "the love child of Jane Austen and Wendy Wasserstein." (I'll take it!)


I'll try to be better about keeping you informed about Pleiades-related news in the weeks to come.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Those Awkward Post-Show Greetings @ SF Theater Pub Blog

I love and respect the English language. I try to say what I mean and mean what I say. I want to wield my words accurately and honestly.

I can also be a rather socially awkward person.

The combination of these two factors means that greeting and congratulating my friends after a theater performance can cause me excruciating anxiety.

I wrote about the problem of knowing what to say -- and some solutions I've tried out -- in my Theater Pub column from May, "After the Show, the Drama Begins."

After I posted this piece, several friends told me on Facebook that they feel the same anxiety and thus, many of them just default to saying "Congratulations." Which is always a lovely thing to say, but if it's your default response, it will eventually become meaningless, won't it? Theater-makers spend so much time and effort trying to create meaning, trying to make you think or feel something new, the least we can do is offer a few unique and heartfelt words to them after the show...

Also, here's something funny I learned recently: according to the strictest rules of etiquette, it is improper to say "congratulations" to a bride, though you may say it to the groom. It all has to do with pesky old gender roles: the man should pursue the woman and propose to her, and it's undignified for a woman to aggressively pursue a man. " 'Congratulations' has the improper implication that the bride has won something in snagging her groom and carries the unfortunate connotation that the bride is social climbing. Congratulations should be extended to the groom, because the groom has accomplished something specific in obtaining his bride's hand in marriage," the explanation goes.

I'm a feminist, so I ought to find this utterly ridiculous, but for some reason I find it oddly charming. I like arcane rules, I collect old etiquette books, and while this little shibboleth is an outgrowth of the patriarchy, it seems like a relatively harmless one. I've attended two weddings in the last six months, and have another three weddings to attend before the year is out (yes, I am in my mid-to-late twenties, how did you guess?) and I have a feeling that I'll be keeping this protocol in mind...

Monday, May 12, 2014

Theater Pub Roundup (Yee-Haw)

It's been a while since I posted any links to my Theater Pub columns here, so it's time to do a big old roundup of the stuff I've written over the last two months.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about racial and gender diversity (and my confused, guilty-white-liberal feelings about them) in A Nice Day for a White Wedding?

In the column before that, Declaration of Independence, I wrote about what I see as a growing anti-corporate sentiment among young people, and whether we makers of indie theater can use that to our advantage.

In App Happy, one of my more lighthearted pieces, I envisioned three theater-related apps that I wish existed in real life, complete with cute app names: Anachorrect, Venuse, and StageSeen!

During the week that my inbox was exploding with actors trying to sign up for audition slots for my show, I wrote a post urging aspiring theater producers to Be Regular and Orderly In Your Inbox.

My piece Truth and Kindness is a response to and endorsement of my fellow blogger Ashley Cowan's exploration of "how to be both honest and kind" when participating in an artistic community.

Finally, in March, the Theater Pub blog published its 500th post. To mark the occasion (and cash in on the March 2014 mania for Silly Buzzfeed Quizzes), we put together a quiz called What Theater Pub Blogger Are You? Admit it, you've always wanted to know...

Friday, May 9, 2014

Welcome to Westeros

Sometimes I do want to be in on that pop-culture thing that everyone's talking about! A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I started reading A Game of Thrones, I joked that I was finally getting back in touch with my childhood self, who devoured fantasy novels by the dozens. However, as you might have heard, this isn't a book for children – and moreover, its plot is driven by political machinations far more than magic or fantasy.

Indeed, I thought the conceit of “a world where the lengths of seasons are unpredictable and summer has lasted ten years” was one of the weakest parts of the book. (Although it does allow House Stark to have a bad-ass motto, “Winter is Coming.”) It just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny: a year in Westeros seems to be about the same length as a year on Earth, but if the seasons are so unpredictable, how do the people there count years? However, I liked many other aspects of George R.R. Martin’s world-building, e.g. his description of an impregnable mountain castle and its terrifying prison cells.

The most impressive thing about this book, though, is its characterization and narrative technique. It's a sprawling, epic tale, but it’s structured as a series of self-contained episodes. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a single character, often as he or she faces great danger or difficulty. I noticed early on that the point-of-view character is often the least powerful person in the room, which effectively heightens the tension. Writers are often encouraged to leave out the boring parts of the story and only keep the good parts; Martin adheres to that advice like a pro.

The eight point-of-view characters manage to be insiders and outsiders at the same time – they are born into noble families, yet they lack true power, or are caught up in events beyond their control. Daenarys Targaryen is a princess with “the blood of the dragon” in her veins – but she is in exile, struggling to adapt to the alien culture of her warlord husband. Tyrion Lannister is one of the smartest characters in the book and is brother to the queen – but he is a dwarf, and thus the subject of mockery and disrespect in a culture that values physical strength. Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark is the right-hand man to King Robert Baratheon – but his principles of honor and righteousness make him an outlier among the crafty politicians of the royal court. The stories of Ned’s wife Catelyn and daughters Arya and Sansa give three different perspectives on how feudal noblewomen deal with the limited roles that their society offers them. Ned’s lovable seven-year-old son Bran becomes crippled in a horrifying accident, and his 14-year-old bastard son Jon Snow undergoes much angst about his illegitimacy.

Though Martin writes about a patriarchal, hierarchical, violent, and unfair world, it’s clear that his sympathies lie with the outsiders and underdogs. (Witness the unexpectedly touching conversations between Jon and Tyrion about the nature of being an outsider.) As such, I can’t agree with the criticism that this book is a work of foul misogyny. Are these the best female characters I’ve ever read (whatever that means)? Perhaps not. But they have credible and varied personalities, their actions influence the plot, and their point-of-view chapters make up nearly half the book. I also like that the book doesn’t fall prey to the fallacy that women are only worth paying attention to if they kick ass or disdain traditionally feminine things. It asks us to sympathize with a feisty sword-wielding tomboy (Arya) and with her obedient goody-two-shoes sister (Sansa) – just one example of the complexity of the world that Martin has created.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Drink With My Doppelganger @ SF Theater Pub Blog

I was drafting a piece for SF Theater Pub tonight when I realized I'd never posted a link to my Theater Pub column of two weeks ago.

This one was "Chestnut Tea with the Other Me" – a reaction to a Theater Pub blog post that local playwright Peter Hsieh had written earlier that week. Peter had imagined taking "Other Peter" out for drinks and discussing playwriting, and he made some good points, but the whole thing was overlaid with an exaggeratedly macho attitude that rubbed me the wrong way. I decided to air my objections in a playful way by imagining a conversation between me and "Other Marissa" about Peter's piece.

Marissa is on the left; Other Marissa is on the right.
It was a fun piece to write! (and represents the most sustained piece of playwriting, or at least dialogue-writing, that I've done in several months.) I tried to characterize Other Marissa as the person I wish I was, while the "original" Marissa is me in all my neuroses. Other Marissa is a little blunter and sassier than I am; she's also compassionate when the original Marissa has a bit of an anxiety attack. I'd like to be that way. I'd like to be honest but compassionate with myself.

I had drinks with an arts-writer friend at House of Shields last night after work and couldn't help thinking about this Theater Pub column. (It didn't hurt that House of Shields is just across the street from the Palace Hotel and that I'd ordered a gin gimlet.) Conversations with friends are even livelier and better than conversations with your imaginary doppelganger; for one thing, the talk, and the drinks, are real.