Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Papermaker's Daughter

As a kid, I found a visit to my father’s paper mill a terrifying but awe-inspiring experience. The factory was located in Shawano, Wisconsin, on the banks of the Wolf River at the edge of the Menominee Indian Reservation. The roar of the gargantuan, whirring machinery that covered acres of the hundred-year old mill was deafening. The wooden floor rumbled and shook. The place smelled of wood pulp and noxious chemicals then unknown to me—maybe hydrogen chlorine and sulfur dioxide. Paper rolls were the size of cement trucks.

I was especially impressed by the man who swiftly bound sheets of matted pulp into bundles, cutting the binding twine with the edge of his little finger.

More than fifty years later it was my turn to make paper. I found myself with a group of fellow travelers in Echizen, part of Takefu Imadate town, one of perhaps a half-dozen places in Japan where kozo/ mulberry trees are used to make paper—washi—by hand, using simple techniques that date to the 8th century.

This means that a thousand years ago, when Murasaki Shikibu was writing The Tale of Genji, which is considered to be the world’s first novel, the washi industry was already thriving here. She lived for a time in this lovely mountainous area that is said to have been one of the settings for her book. Now that I’ve been there, I must re-read her amazing work.

In our day-long workshop, we learned that mulberry trees are stripped of bark, boiled, shredded, boiled again with ash/lye, pounded, and washed in the cold clear flowing water that abounds in this area. Sometimes neri, a mucilaginous material made from the tororo plant, is added to the mix. In the workshop we visited, a woman sat on a stool in front of a tub of this raw glop, picking impurities out of the fibers hour after hour with ungloved hands.

Not my father’s paper making operation!

Yamada-san, a lively women at least in her seventies, had us don rubber boots and aprons, then took us one by one to a wooden tank filled with the cottony fluff in water. A wooden frame about 33” wide by 24” across and maybe 6” deep was suspended over the vat with ropes and flexible rubber tubing. The bottom was a tightly woven screen of straw or bamboo. Yamada-san and her colleague guided us in Japanese, assuming we’d understand what to do next—and with a little help from Japanese speakers in the peanut gallery—we did. 
We dipped the frame into the chilly water, scooped up several inches of slush, then gently sloshed it back and forth, and side to side as the water dripped out, leaving a residue behind. We repeated the process five or six times, trying to fill the bottom of the screen evenly and completely, doing our best not to get wrinkles in the resulting film. When the bottom of the screen was sufficiently covered and the coating was thick enough, we detached the screen from the frame and took it to a table where, with a balletic twirl, we gently inverted it and carefully rolled out a sheet of paper.

If we were lucky/skilled enough, the washi unfurled beautifully, with no tears or crumpled lines. If it had bubbles in it, Yamada-san carefully inserted a hollowed bamboo stick into the bubble, blew lightly, and popped it.

We each made a sheet with the two master craftsmen. The man was more shy than Yamada-san, but both clearly had fun showing us the ropes.

Yamada-san was thrilled when I told her my father was a paper-maker. A colleague! She shook my hand and patted me on the back. Her co-worker told me I had very strong hands, surely imagining that as a child I had participated in the family business, washing ash out of the kozo and pounding it on rocks in the Wolf River.

When we finished, Yamada-san lustily sang us the papermakers’ song and did a dance that included motions imitating the stirring of the vat of water and pulp with a long pole.

Another master washi maker told us more about the craft and the superior qualities of mulberry paper over that made from other trees. Mulberries are farmed and mature in a year unlike pines or other soft woods, which can take thirty years. Mulberry paper has a positive ph balance, it’s sturdy enough to use in clothing, and because it’s acid-free, it’s an excellent long-lasting medium for art and book-making. There are many different types of washi and ways of making it.

Later, with a local artist as mentor, we each used a more textured hand-made paper as the base for an art project. We decorated it with strands of colored or natural washi. I did my best—in ten minutes—to make something that I hoped would evoke the flame-colored maples we saw everywhere. If it looked like a kindergartner’s squiggles, is that my fault? But of course it is!

While waiting for the others to finish their projects, I wandered the town—charming, immaculate, with tidy shops and homes, beautiful gardens. A swift-flowing stream dotted with koi ponds and red maples constituted a linear park flowing through Echizen.

The town’s paper museum displayed different types of washi and the things people made from it—clothing, Shinto shrine and festival decorations, mobiles, artworks. Walking on, I visited the lichen covered Otaki shrine, dedicated to the goddess of paper. The handsome eight-hundred year old wooden building was set in a clearing of immense Japanese cedars. Strips of folded paper in the form of lightning bolts hung from the eves of the shrine, marking it as a sacred place. The building reminded me of a traditional Danish stave kirk/church (such as the one on Washington Island in Wisconsin) that was similarly constructed in wood with no nails or braces.

 Days later, our dried washi projects arrived at our farmhouse quarters in another town. My paper was beautiful—smooth and shiny—if I do say so myself! The wrinkles in it…only added interest.  
Photos by Martha Egan with photo of Martha by Gail Rieke 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Readers Favorite Books of 2010

Greetings, Fellow Readers!

This month, the few remaining magazines, reviews, online sites, and newspapers that report on books are putting out their annual list of The Best Books of 2010. That’s all well and good, but these are the professional reviewers’ favorites, generally chosen from among the books publishers sent them this past year.

I’m curious about what actual READERS like YOU thought were the best titles you read in 2010. The great books you picked up in a garage sale, in a dumpster, at a used book store, at an indie bookstore (bravo!) or—perish the thought—that you bought from Amazon (shame on you) and read on a Kindling.

Trust me, I am not fishing for compliments about MY books. In fact, should you mention them, I’ll suspect you’re about to hit me up for a donation, like to your local Police Department Doughnut Fund.

It’s a mad time of the year for everyone. Me—I just fell down a flight of stairs while practicing my ballet steps in the dark, under the influence of melatonin and valerian—and a not yet full moon. I look like Frankenstein or the cover girl for Wife Beaters’ Monthly Magazine.

If you’re game for this, please post a line or two about yourself—e.g. what you do for a living, where you live. You can also post yourself as A. Non, and in the case of certain pals, A. Nun. Give us a few lines about the best book you read this past year—memoir, biography, politics, gardening, novel, a kid’s book—even something written years ago. Dickens is certainly as eligible as Danielle Steele. If writing makes you break out in hives, just list title and author. Top ten? Top three? Also rans?

We’d like your input before the New Year, if possible. Just click comments at the bottom of the Readers Favorite Books of 2010 post & write you heart out. It will magically appear on the blog.

Thank you! And hope you have the happiest, healthiest and best holidays ever. I will as soon as the head cast comes off.

Yours—Martha Egan and Carol Eastes, Papalote Press

Stellar Holidays!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A New Mexican Experiences Japan

Imagine a country …

Where taxi drivers are polite, wear white gloves, drive shiny undented cars, cover seats in lacy white doilies.

Where there is no litter! Although public garbage cans are not common. You’re responsible for your own garbage; pack it in; pack it out.

Where vending machines are everywhere, outside, inside, providing everything from hot coffee in a can to Asahi beer to a soda called Pocari Sweat to canned pancakes.

Where toilet seats are heated, even in outdoor facilities. If desired, they’ll also wash your bottom and play music!

Where nearly every square inch of land not devoted to housing, shops, transportation, or industry is planted with vegetables, rice, fruit trees.

Where there are no farm animals in sight, at least not in the rural areas we visited;few cats and dogs.

Where old cars are rare. They’ve been shipped to third-world countries.

Where supermarkets are filled with a wide variety of mysterious, unidentifiable foods. Everything wrapped in plastic, even single bananas and squashes;

Where coffee is excellent, even in hotel restaurants. Coffee shops abound.

Where men still smoke a lot. Most restaurants have no smoking areas. A no smoking room in a hotel means you don’t smoke in it, although previous guests certainly have.

Where public transportation works! Trains and busses run on time! Train stations are clean, trains are clean, even the loos.

Where there are no homeless people in sight; few drunks or crazies; low unemployment, a work ethic that is often stressful, especially for salaried people.

Where people are well-dressed. The teeny-bopper girls’ outfits—short dresses, high boots, cutesy dingle-dangles, fake fur, and stuffed animals—are sometimes hilarious, even a little kinky.

Where thievery and other crimes are rare; women are not hassled, and can walk around at night; you can ship jewelry and valuables in your luggage with no worries.

Where you eat salad greens for breakfast! Fresh and tasty! Probably from the garden out back.

Where people are honest, well-paid, helpful, welcoming, trustworthy, and eager to try out their English with you.

Where there is no tipping!

Where fat people are a rarity. Even very elderly people walk, take busses and trains, ride bicycles. Older women, bent at right angles from osteoporosis, are numerous; this may possibly as a result of wartime and postwar food shortages.

Except for a two-year sojourn in western Europe, much of my overseas touristing has been in third-world countries. My folk art import business has taken me to Central and South America. I’ve studied and worked in Mexico City, rural Venezuela, and western Germany. I’ve been to Tibet and Timbuktu, Kansas and Kenya, Cambodia and Canada. I haven’t been everywhere, but then, I’m not dead yet!

Thanks to the careful planning and experience of Nancy Craft of Esprit Travel and Gail Rieke from Santa Fe, and the outstanding tour guiding of Steve Beimel (a paragon of patience), my trip this fall was one of the most fascinating of my life. It was also an easy trip, with time to wander, wonder, ponder.

The sophistication and futuristic architecture of Tokyo were mind-blowing, but I was especially pleased to spend time in rural areas, staying in cozy traditional minka farmhouses in tidy mountain villages, eating delish home-cooking, enjoying fall colors everywhere, taking long walks, photographing everything in sight.

People were surprised to see us in areas rarely visited by foreigners—the ancient Nakasendo pilgrims’ Road, Omoricho town, other small villages. 

The knowledge Gail and Steve imparted throughout our trip about Japanese aesthetics, history, and customs constituted an intensive seminar in a culture of which I was completely ignorant. The time we spent with ordinary people, musicians, artisans, was fascinating.  Our visits to museums, shrines, textile designers, a monastery, artist’s studios, and shops were delightful. As the daughter of a paper manufacturer, it was a treat to make washi (mulberry)paper in the time-honored manner with guidance from skilled artisans using the most basic of methods. My teacher shook my hand when she learned I was from a paper-making family, then sang the papermakers’ song and did a folk dance related to the craft.

I didn’t think there would be anything affordable to buy in Japan, especially with the dollar at an all-time low versus the yen. Hah! Beautiful used silk kimono in perfect shape for $12? Colorful washi paper goods, scraps of old textiles, whacky toys, handmade pottery, kitchen knives, antique baskets—my luggage bulged.

The group of fellow travelers put together by Gail was a delightful crew. We shared lots of laughs, enthusiasm, openness, a spirit of adventure, and plenty of local sake.

So…where do I sign up for my next trip to Japan?

photos 2010 © Martha Egan

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Newsweek Ranks Intel as Green?!?

To: Newsweek

Dear Editor,
Intel a "Green" Company? (Newsweek, 10-25-2010). Newsweek has swallowed pap issued by Intel's PR department. A 727-page report of an EPA Clean Air Act Investigation released to the public last week, is a scathing indictment of Intel and its state regulators. The company underreports or fails to report emissions of highly toxic air pollutants, including hydrogen fluoride, ethyl lactate, crystalline silica, possibly carbon tetrachloride, and other carcinogens.
In the interests of journalistic accuracy, Newsweek should withdraw this unmerited award.

Martha Egan

Intel & the EPA

To: The Albuquerque Journal

Dear Editors,
Far be it for me to tell you how to run your newspaper, but does The Albuquerque Journal really have nothing to say about  the National Enforcement Investigation Center/EPA's 727-page scathing indictment of Intel's Rio Rancho plant's air pollution and NMED's failure to regulate the company?
See the following from a small newspaper, The Rio Rancho Observer, in Intel's own company town. SOMEBODY is paying attention to an issue that impacts the entire Albuquerque metropolitan area.
Martha Egan

See also Jeff Radford's excellent article in the Corrales Comment.


Dear Editor,

The country is in financial trouble. Many are jobless, many have lost their homes and livelihoods. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan, have left hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians dead, millions homeless, and those countries’ infrastructure decimated. Most of this devastation, caused by US might, is surely drawing many fundamentalists to the jihadist movement. We will be paying for our soldiers’ deaths and crippling injuries, as well as their families’ welfare, for decades to come. By invading Iraq, we squandered the goodwill extended to us after 9/11 by Muslims and others worldwide horrified by the violence of nineteen crazies.

Barack Obama has been in office for eighteen months. Did his government cause the mess our country’s in? The health care bill, while not perfect, is a vast improvement over the status quo for millions. Even knowledgeable conservatives believe the stimulus efforts are working, if slowly. The BP oil spill was handled better than Katrina.

Throw the bastards out? And then what? Bring back the free-market Republicans who over the course of eight years facilitated greedy brokers’ and bankers’ theft of people’s hard-earned savings, jobs, and homes? The officials who handcuffed regulators and inspectors in favor of polluters and suppliers of unsafe food and drugs? The immoral creeps who lied to the public about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction? The Republican leadership that approved of kidnapping, torture, murder and endless imprisonment of people convicted of no crimes? The Katrina mess?

Vote Republican and you’ll get more of the same chaos, corruption, embarrassment, and stupidity we saw during the Bush years. Vote for the Tea Party and you’ll get an even more clueless, self-centered lot of primarily white men making over $200,000 only looking out for themselves.

Obama is not perfect; Diane Denish is not perfect, nor are any of our Democrat representatives. But before you vote experienced, highly qualified, ethical Democrats out of office, THINK--for yourself and for the good of us all.


Martha Egan

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Literary Food Fight!

Indie booksellers duked it out with indie publishers at the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Trade Show in Denver, September 24, 2010. The panel was entitled “Independent Publishers & Independent Booksellers, Can We Talk?”

Apparently not.

The panel consisted of a self published moderator, one independently published author, and three independent booksellers. If the reaction of most of the booksellers present is any indication, independent readers--those interested in books other than those selected for us by the Big Boys in New York—stand to lose out.

We who publish independent of Bertelsmann, Murdoch, and other multinational “media” giants, already know the difficulties of getting bookstores, whether indie or chain store, to handle our books. What was painfully obvious at the panel was the blatant scorn some sellers have for any and all works independently published.

James Joyce, Mark Twain, Beatrix Potter, and John Grisham are but a few authors who initially published their own books. Last year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Paul Harding, first published Tinkers with a tiny independent press, as did New York Times best selling author (and featured guest at Mountains & Plains) Karl Marlantes. Did indie booksellers fall all over themselves when Marlantes published Matterhorn with El León Literary Arts in Berkeley? No, they probably waited until his work received an imprimatur from the Atlantic Monthly Press in New York.

Because established publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts, the only way to get your work even considered for publication by them is via cronyism: to wit, whom do you know at Simon & Schuster? Many writers are turning to either self-publishing or publishing with small presses, following the example of garage bands. This is where the book biz is heading. Indie booksellers need to get on board and support new authors--quickly, before authors figure out that it’s possible now to release a book directly to Kindle, with or without the help of booksellers other than Amazon.

Those booksellers who look down on indie authors from their lofty perches cited as reasons for dismissing our books: uninteresting topics, poor writing, ugly covers, typos, grammatical errors, and lack of professionalism. To be sure some indie books may be all or part of that. So? Tell the author or the person trying to sell those books to your store in the nicest way possible that they’re not something you can sell. You don’t have to be rude or arrogant about it.

Books published by The Biggies are too often knock-offs of others’ books. They’re poorly written, the covers are ugly (especially featuring photos of headless women—what’s that all about?), and they’re rife with grammatical errors, typos, and an obvious lack of editing. The James Patterson phenomenon is particularly revolting; he doesn’t even write his New York Times best-selling books. He’s a brand, not an author.

Booksellers complained that indie authors take their valuable time. They’d have to do paperwork if they handled indie books, deal with invoices, talk to those people. An idea booksellers tossed around at the panel was that of stores charging $25 to put these (obviously inferior) books on their shelves.

What? All retailers have to do paperwork, get to know suppliers, and yes, pay bills. Charge for putting a book on their shelves? This sounds like grocery store 101 to me. Are you selling books or are you selling book products foisted on you by book manufacturers? Are you truly independents? Or are you a conduit for more of the same?

As a retailer who takes great pride in offering my customers something they won’t find elsewhere, I enjoy discovering the undiscovered. If indie booksellers want to help their customers find and enjoy books new to them, they have to dedicate some time and effort to providing books people might not find at Borders, Barnes & Noble or even on Amazon.

I stifled myself as long as I could while self-important booksnots hurled insults at the likes of me, then raised my hand to state the following.

I’ve been an avid reader since the age of three. My book habit costs me hundreds of dollars each month. I read everything from 16th century Jesuit missionary chronicles en español to the latest trashy mystery.

I have been selling books, albeit as a sideline to my regular inventory, for thirty-seven years. I like to handle books others don’t carry. I deal with small indie publishers all the time. Every day, people try to sell me things I don’t want to carry in my store, which is centered on Latin American Folk Art & Antiques. I am always polite to them, and suggest where else they might try to sell their things. Sometimes, however, people who walk in the door have fabulous things to sell.

I am also a small publisher. I created my own imprint, Papalote Press, in 2004. I knew New York wouldn’t dream of publishing my first fiction book, Clearing Customs (2005), given my anonymity/lack of cronies, and its touchy nature, a scurrilous, entertaining indictment of overreaching federal law enforcement. The book was named Book of the Year for Fiction by the OnLine Review of Books and Current Affairs. My next book, Coyota (2007), earned an IPPY. My short story collection, La Ranfla & Other New Mexico Stories (2009), has been a finalist in five contests—Eric Hoffer, ForeWord, NM Book Awards, and has so far won two: a bronze IPPY and a Southwest Book Design Award.

As a small business owner, I prefer to support independent bookstores. But I am certainly not going to support those regional stores, some of which participated in the panel, that refuse to carry my award-winning titles and have been rude to my professional representatives.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Who in The World is Tortilla Marta?

It’s me—Martha Egan: gardener, bicyclist, sometime chile cook and bread baker, all time Green Bay Packer fan, storekeeper, museum volunteer, publisher, traveler, Big Sister for over thirty years, environmental nuisance, avid reader, author of two books on Latin American devotional art and three award-winning fiction titles, skier, swimmer, sworn enemy of ground squirrels, etc.

I am also Auntie Mame to a total of forty-four nieces and nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. One of them, Gabby, at age four, greeted me as “Tia Marta!”—her usual salutation. Then she thought for a minute and revised my name to “Tortilla Marta!”

I guess it fits. I’m white, I’m round, I can be a little flaky, and I have a few scorch marks on me. 

That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


This is Tia Martha bringing it all to you. All the news that's fit to print about Pachamama and Papalote Press. Latin American Folk Art finds. Book world gossip. Shameless self-promotion. And, as a special bonus, sporadic random rants.