Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Is it true that Ireland and Maine are the only places in the world that have no venomous snakes?

Who's asking: James Lamb, Virginia Beach, VA

My brother James says he remembers Mom or Dad telling him this when he was about 12, preparing for a Boy Scouts trip to Maine (this might have been the trip on which he got caught in a Native American border war, or it might have been a different one -- I was no longer living at home then).

Anyway, it's one of those fun facts that I wish were true, but it's not -- quite. It is true that Maine has no native venomous snakes, and Ireland (famously) has no snakes at all. But Alaska and Hawaii don't have poisonous snakes, either, and Iceland and New Zealand are both snake-free.

Because snakes are cold-blooded, you find them mainly in temperate and tropical zones; the closer you get to the poles, the rarer they become. In cold climates, they survive the winter by burrowing and brumating.

Snakes don't bother me much. In fact, since snakes eat rats, which do bother me, I feel rather kindly toward them; I wouldn't have one as a pet, though.

Happy Halloween, y'all. Dizzy has a snazzy Halloween bandanna, and I am sallying forth in my usual costume as a normal human being.

Monday, October 30, 2006

What does the name Ellen mean?

Who's asking: An anonymous Googler from Columbus, OH

The name "Ellen" is one of almost 80 variants of "Helen," from a Greek word meaning "shining light." Clair, my middle name, means "clear or shining," and is also the French word for light. My twin sister's name, Kathleen Ann, comes from Greek and Hebrew words that mean "pure grace of God."

No comments are welcome on whether these names are appropriate for us, thank you very much -- but I've always liked having a name that means "light." Not to get too high-falutin, but I think about my favorite passage from Ulysses, from the section known as "Ithaca":

His mood?
He had not risked, he did not expect, he had not been disappointed, he was satisfied.

What satisfied him?
To have sustained no positive loss. To have brought a positive gain to others. Light to the gentiles.

You can put that on my tombstone, when the time comes.

You might have seen on the news that we've had some major winds up here in the Northeast; almost 40,000 people in Maine still didn't have power this morning. My electricity's working, thank goodness, but flying into the Portland Jetport yesterday morning was pretty harrowing.

The pilot had been flying fairly high, to avoid the winds, and came in to the runway too fast. We had to do a touch-and-go and fly around the airport for another try, which meant passing through the winds on the way down, on the way up, and then on the way down again. I've never been airsick, but yesterday was a close call.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

How long have you lived in this neighborhood?

Who's asking: Yesterday's cab driver, a native Eritrean who's been in Washington since the early 1980s

The cabdriver was bringing me from Dupont Circle to Ashton's place on Johnson Avenue, about seven blocks east. I usually walk from the Metro, but it was pouring rain and the cab was right there.

He asked me this question, and rather than explain that I don't live here any more -- I just visit from time to time -- I said, "Since 1995," because that reply seemed to me to be as true as any other.

Realtors call this area Dupont East; technically, I think it's Shaw. When I moved into the house at 15th and S, a block away, in 1995, the neighborhood was marginal. Ashton, Joseph, Anna and I used to sit on the front stoop and studiously ignore the comings and goings at the crack house across the street. The week I moved out of that house, Ashton & Joseph had to come over to help me dispose of a rat that had died under my kitchen sink (Joseph will be my hero forever, for this reason among many).

What a difference a decade makes. This neighborhood is now one of the coolest in town, with great restaurants, funky shops, and a Whole Foods in walking distance (we used to have to shop at the Soviet Safeway on 17th Street, which at the time was small, dark and not very clean. The presence of Whole Foods has made them clean up their act, too.)

I love coming back here, but it always makes me a little sad. I couldn't afford to live here any more, but some part of me will always call this neighborhood home.

This afternoon we're celebrating the connubials of our friends Brian & Scott. I'm just hoping any of us remember the event in the morning.

Friday, October 27, 2006

What do you think about NANOWRIMO, and will you be particpating?

Who's asking: Chandra, from somewhere in Maine (but I don't know where -- are you still in the bus?)

Easy part of the question first: no, I won't be participating. I'm too busy cleaning up other people's novels, and November is going to be crazy for me (in a good way).

For the uninitiated, NANOWRIMO is National Novel Writing Month, a national program that encourages participants to produce a 175-page novel (50,000 words) between November 1 and November 30.

As the NANOWRIMO website says, "It's all about quantity, not quality," but the founders say that's a good thing: "By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes."

Can you tell I have mixed feelings about this? On the one hand, it's great to get people writing. I absolutely agree that the crucial part of writing anything is getting the crummy first draft out of the way, so you can start fixing it.

A best-selling novelist I admire tremendously said to me recently, "Writing books is the one thing everyone thinks they can do. I never meet anyone who wants to be an amateur computer technician, or an amateur brain surgeon. But everybody's a writer."

I sympathize with that point of view (boy, do I), but I think the more valid comparison is to cooking, or to music. People who are enthusiastic cooks would never dream of claiming to be chefs; they limit their enthusiasm to experimenting at home and cooking for friends, and only the most obnoxious expect every effort to be applauded.

In the same way, I say that if you like to write, write for yourself and your friends -- but don't force unsuspecting people to read it and don't expect to be taken seriously as a professional, unless you're willing to pay some dues and learn the craft. That means multiple drafts and serious, sustained effort, not a gimmicky sprint like NANOWRIMO.

If NANOWRIMO helps you kickstart a book that's been lingering too long in your imagination, terrific. But if you're participating in NANOWRIMO, please do not assume that what you have at the end of the month is publishable, or worth attention from anyone but your family and closest friends.

Oh, and one more word on amateurs vs. professionals. The gifted amateur quite often does better work than the professional; what distinguishes the professional is 1) sustained effort over time and 2) someone pays them. If you're considering publishing your own book, please keep this in mind.

What I Read This Week

Martin Edwards, The Arsenic Labyrinth. A classic British mystery about a long-missing woman whose body is found inside an old arsenic mine. DCI Hannah Scarlett, responsible for cold cases, hopes to resolve this one quickly -- but next to the woman's skeleton is an even older one, and a fresh corpse soon joins them. The book incorporates several intertwining narratives, with varying degrees of success; a profile of a con man is terrific, but the memoir of a long-past murderer is just confusing. This book will be out next January.

Stuart Woods, Short Straw. This sequel to Santa Fe Rules is considerably better than that book (which I consider Woods' weakest). Santa Fe lawyer Ed Eagle wakes up one morning to find his beautiful wife gone, with a few million dollars of his money. He tracks her down, but soon discovers that she's hired people to kill him. Nastily entertaining, unapologetically misogynistic, and sharply satirical about the idea of civilized divorce.

Bill Buford, Heat. This book is what made me think of the connection between writers and cooks. New Yorker editor Bill Buford fell in love with the idea of learning to cook professionally, and apprenticed himself in the kitchen of Mario Batali's restaurant Babbo. After a year, he needed more, and went to Tuscany to learn to be a butcher. I carried this book around with me for three days, reading it at stoplights, while waiting in lines, and during pauses in rehearsals. Must-reading for any serious student of food (and aren't we all?).

Thursday, October 26, 2006

When and how did the word "cheesy" come to mean something not about cheese?

Who's asking: Tom Ehrenfeld

Ah, cheese. Like Wallace, I love it in all its forms. Edible cheese is something I've only learned to like as an adult; as a child, I wouldn't touch it.

Cultural cheese, though, I've always loved. The Oxford English Dictionary has included the word "cheesy" since its Second Edition, meaning "inferior, second-rate, cheap or nasty;" the metaphor is of something that looks pretty but smells bad. The Third Edition adds our more common usage, of meaning something "hackneyed, unsubtle but neverthless appealing in a sneaky, wish-it-wasn't kind of way, and usually applied to entertainment." The OED credits this meaning to American English, and dates it back to at least the 1950s.

For something to be truly cheesy -- as opposed to campy -- it must be entirely sincere and free from irony. A good example would be the Eccles Dinosaur Park in Ogden, Utah, which supplements its perfectly respectable fossil exhibits with lurid plastic replicas of dinosaurs that kids can climb on.

I am something of a connoisseur of these cheesy tourist attractions, and would really like to be able to quit working altogether and just spend my time visiting them. If you'd like to subsidize me in this effort, please get in touch.

Since I didn't list the Five Random Songs yesterday, here's this morning's edition:

"Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy," The Tams. The all-time classic beach music anthem. Suddenly, it's not late fall in Maine; it's early summer in Virginia Beach.

"From Me to You," The Beatles. I just watched A Hard Day's Night again, after getting it from Netflix. What a joyful movie, and this song has that same kind of joyful optimism.

"Rhythm of the Blues," Mary Chapin Carpenter. I wish Mary Chapin Carpenter was my sister, or maybe just a really good friend. We could hang out. She could give me advice.

"Knock on Wood," Eddie Floyd. The original version of a song that's been covered too many times.

"This Room," The Notwist. The first time I heard this song -- German electronica about doomed love -- it stopped me cold. It still gives me chills.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

What exactly is writing "talent"?

Who's asking: Paul Tomme, Arlington, TX

Paul's full question was: "What exactly is writing 'talent'? Is it pure imagination? Is it skill with language? Is it having something to say based on life experience?"

The question came up in response to my saying that I have trouble with the industry that's sprung up to support and encourage aspiring writers. I can't help but feel that truly talented writers don't need the gadgets and seminars, and the gadgets and seminars don't help writers who don't have any talent.

I'll stand by that -- in general -- although, in much the same way that my pal David Baerwald says that anyone who can speak can sing, I will say that anyone who can speak can write. Not everyone can write well, but everyone can write adequately. It's just a matter of keeping it simple. If you're not confident about your writing skills, keep your sentences short and your words shorter. Subject, verb, object.

Description is never as important as character and action: who's your hero, and what is she/he doing? If you're writing nonfiction, stick to what your senses tell you; don't speculate about what anyone's thinking or feeling, about what happened earlier or what might happen later.

A story starts with a main character who wants something or needs something, or needs to react to an external event. What happens next is the body of your story. How your hero solves his problem or achieves his desire is the story's end.

"Talent" is being able to translate large amounts of information, whether it's narrative or emotional, into a story that entertains or enlightens people. The greatest writers translate universal truths into humdrum details: how to flense a whale, for example, or what the streets of Dublin smell like.

Although I'm wary of many writing programs, the discipline and feedback of a good writers' workshop or writers' group are invaluable to writers who are still experimenting with voice and technique. Finding a good workshop or a good writers' group is like finding a therapist; you click or you don't. If you find yourself in a bad one, you need to cut your losses and get out fast. But "bad" does not mean "critical", and too many writers quit workshops because they're not willing to learn from criticism. (A bad writers' group is one where criticism is given or taken personally, where members are not working on a similar level, where one or more members take up a disproportionate amount of the group's time, or where people feel obligated to give each other only "support.")

I suppose all of this is a long way of saying that "talent" in writing, as in anything else, is a determination to improve your skills. You do that by writing and asking for feedback, not by reading a how-to book. It comes easier to some people than to others, but even "talented" writers have to keep working at it.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Why do television shows have so many producers?

Who's asking: Kathy Miller, Jacksonville, FL

As I've said before, the secret of Answer Girl's success is knowing the people who have the answers. I passed this question on to my old friend Gary Fleder, currently shooting a mid-season replacement series ("October Road") for ABC.

"Producer" is a catch-all title that can mean anything from the creator of the show to the person responsible for hiring guest directors. Except for distinctions like "executive producers" (the show's creators) and "associate producers" (possibly the network personnel responsible for supervising the show), you can't tell whether a "producer" is someone who hires and fires, a staff writer, or something else.

If a series has a permanent writing staff, as most series do, those writers are usually credited as "producers" for each show, with individual writing credits going to whoever took the lead in drafting a particular script.

A long-term contract may specify that someone receives a producer credit for a given period of time, whether or not that person remains involved in the show. Thus, a long-running show like "The Simpsons" includes producer credits for people the current writing staff have probably never even met.

Today's post was late due to yet another computer emergency -- the sudden inability of my new laptop to read my external hard drive. As it turned out, the problem was just that the hard drive had a screw loose. Keep your comments to yourself.

Monday, October 23, 2006

What is the median household income of Kennebec County, Maine?

Who's asking: A market-research firm I choose not to identify, one of my clients

The most recent Census data (2003) gives the median household income in Kennebec County as $38,458, with an average household size of 2.38 people. This is a good bit less than the US median household income of $43,318, but the average US household is slightly bigger (2.59 people). Any way you count it, however, Kennebec County is poorer than average, even for Maine.

That's yet another reason I can't object to deer hunting season, which opened yesterday. People hunt for food here, and the hunters who have too much venison donate the excess to local food banks. Venison makes good stew and even better chili. And there's no denying that the deer are overpopulated; a large doe crossed the road just in front of me on Friday night, and you can't drive I-95 this time of year without seeing carcasses along the highway.

A friend said the other day that what he objects to about deer hunting is not the killing, but the suffering: the idea that a deer might only be wounded instead of killed outright. That troubles me, too, but that suffering can't be worse than starving to death, or bleeding out in a ditch.

Sorry to be so morbid this morning, but the weather's dreadful, and my lingering cold has turned into a rattling cough. Tis the season to be morbid.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Is it beautiful in Maine right now?

Who's asking: Pat Marshall, New York, NY

Right here, right now, yes, it's beautiful: the sun is shining, the sky is clear. I think Pat was actually asking about the leaves, which peaked a couple of weekends ago. Yesterday's weather was dire (temperatures in the 40s, wind, rain, even some lightning) and today has been very windy, so most of the leaves are gone.

It was so windy this morning that my side of town lost power for a couple of hours, which is why this post is late. Not knowing how long the power would be out -- and not getting anything but a busy signal from Central Maine Power -- I took off to run errands for a while.

It was a relief to get home and find the power restored, but now I have to reset all my clocks -- and since I never remember how, that means digging out all my small appliance manuals. I wish this could have happened next weekend, when we have to reset the clocks anyway.

Friday, October 20, 2006

How did "hello" become our standard greeting?

Who's asking: JJ MacMillan, Austin, TX

"Hello" is a great word, if you think about it. It can hold an entire spectrum of human emotions; take a minute and, in your mind, hear it said by Mae West, Greta Garbo, Jerry Seinfeld, Ben Stein, Mike Myers. Now go and listen to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" a few times. (I recommend the Tori Amos cover, in addition to the Nirvana original.)

But the origins of "hello" are a mystery, and all answers are speculative at best. The American Heritage Dictionary says it comes from hallo, which in turn comes from the old English holla, which means "stop" -- or from the old French hola, "hey there." Other theories believe it's some corruption of words for "hail," "health," or "how are you."

Shakespeare uses "halloo," as a hunting call; Dickens used "hullo" as a greeting. Instances of "hello" in print date back to 1826, and Mark Twain used the word in his travel journals.

Thomas Edison gets the credit for instituting "hello" as our telephone greeting; apparently, Alexander Graham Bell thought we should say "Ahoy." (In Russian they say, "Slushayu," which means, "I'm listening.") "Hello" on the telephone caught on so fast that telephone operators were known as "hello girls" even before the turn of the last century.

I've done a lot of reading this week, but the vast majority of it has been clients' manuscripts. I only finished one published book this week, but it was good.

What I Read This Week

Craig Johnson, The Cold Dish. Linda Brown and I spent a good chunk of Bouchercon hanging out with Craig and his fabulous wife, Judy; the man has good taste in rental cars, cowboy hats, and women. I felt ashamed that I hadn't read his first novel, especially since it was one of The Mystery Bookstore's bestsellers of last year, and got raves from everyone else on staff.

It's such a relief when authors I like in person turn out to be good writers. The Cold Dish introduces the aging sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, Walt Longmire, a widower who's letting himself disengage from his life and his work. The efforts of his friends and colleagues don't do as much to wake him up as the murder of a young man. The victim had been convicted of a horrifying sexual assault a couple of years earlier, and Walt's own best friend is one of many with a motive for revenge. The Cold Dish is not only a good crime novel, it's also a classic Western, set in modern times, and a darn fine book in any genre. I've already ordered the sequel, Death Without Company.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

How many people died in Katrina? And should they rebuild the Ninth Ward?

Who's asking: Anna Bragdon

Anna and Tarren just got back from New Orleans, where they were flabbergasted by the devastation. It's the kind of thing you can't really get your mind around until you see it in person, and I haven't; Anna took photos, which you can see on her blog.

The official death toll from Katrina, according to the National Hurricane Center, stood at 1,833 earlier this year. It may continue to creep up, as several hundred people remain missing. The vast majority of the dead -- 1,577 -- came from Louisiana, and most died not in the storm itself but in the surge that followed.

The storm surge that broke the levee wiped out New Orleans' Ninth Ward, and more than half a million people are still displaced. I won't even try to say whether the Ninth Ward should rebuild; whether or not the levee's repaired, doesn't it seem insane to rebuild below sea level?

The FDIC and NeighborWorks America will hold a three-day summit next week to discuss the challenges of rebuilding housing in the Gulf Coast region. Maybe they'll have some answers; for more information, click here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

What are 15 verbs to be found in the word "congratulations"?

Who's asking: An anonymous Googler from Burnaby, British Columbia

Look at that, I just turned the verb "to Google" into a noun. English is a fantastically resilient language. The strangest things bring people to my blog; two people in the last week have landed here by searching for "Kilmarnock stripper named Paris." I'll never do the research on that one, so those folks will need to get used to disappointment.

I strongly suspect that today's question was a homework assignment, but since it caught my imagination, I'll lift my usual rule about not doing people's schoolwork. (More than one person has tried to hire me to write their master's thesis. In case you're wondering, no, I won't take those jobs, not even to get my poor dog the hip surgery he needs.)

Without spending much time on this, I found 21 verbs in the word "congratulations," and you guys can probably find a few more. Leave them in the comments section. Mine are: cart, clout, coast, count, cut, grant, grout, grunt, last, long, lust, nag, scan, scar, scout, scorn, star, stun, tail, tour, and turn.

First five songs off the iPod Shuffle this morning:

"Oh Happy Day," Edwin Hawkins. When I lived in Alexandria, Blessed Sacrament's choir used to do a great version of this song. On the grayest day, it lifts me up.

"Rikki Don't Lose that Number," Steely Dan. Steely Dan is one of those bands that people should be able to agree on, no matter what their musical taste. They just sound great.

"I Got You," Split Enz. Another automatic mood enhancer, the perfect description for that first nervous, slightly nauseated in-love feeling. (If memory serves.)

"Grady's Song," Francine Reed. Straight-ahead, old school R&B. I love the horns on this song. Horns in popular music are always good (see: Steely Dan).

"Dry River," The Knitters. The Knitters are John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Dave Alvin and bassist Johnny Ray Bartel, and they play rockabilly versions of country music standards. It's nothing but a good time.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Under what circumstances are you cranky?

Who's asking: Matt Prager, New York, NY

Among other things, car trouble makes me cranky, and I am rushing out the door to the dealership right now. (Yes, again. Quiet back there. This car is paid for, dammit!) Therefore, instead of putting up a regular post of my own, I invite you to participate in my friend Matt's research project.

He is trying to chart the times and circumstances of bad moods through a new blog, The Mood Clock. You can participate by leaving the particulars of your own latest bad mood in the comment sections of his posts. (He might be changing the format, but for now, that's how it works.)

Matt is one of the smartest people I know, and you need have no fear about putting yourself in his hands. Click and play.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Why do Boston Red Sox fans sing "Sweet Caroline" at home games?

Who's asking: Rebekah Giannini, Richmond, VA

As Rebekah notes, the Red Sox are not the only team whose fans sing this song, but the song has become associated with them, in particular. The movie "Fever Pitch" showed Fenway Park fans singing along, and we minor-league fans at Hadlock Field sing it, too.

The "Sweet Caroline" phenomenon is a good example of how new customs can be created so quickly that no one even remembers a time before they existed. "Sweet Caroline" has only been a staple at Fenway Park since 1998, when the stadium's music director, Amy Tobey, started to play it at random times between the seventh and ninth innings -- but only when the Sox were ahead. In 2002, the team's new management asked her to play it every game, in the eighth inning. It's been an official tradition ever since.

What's great about "Sweet Caroline" is that everyone can sing along even if they don't know the words; the words are dumb, but even so, everyone can sing "Ba ba BA!" between the lines of the chorus.

I don't really care about this year's World Series. Many, many years ago, I rooted for the Detroit Tigers because my then-boyfriend did, and I rooted for the Mets because the Tidewater Tides (as they were then known) were the Mets' AAA affiliate. But now the Orioles have acquired the Norfolk Tides, and I haven't heard from that old boyfriend in a very long time, so I have no stake in these games. Bring on college basketball.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Is it possible to overdose on Vitamin C?

Who's asking: Me

Well, yes and no. Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, so the body excretes what it doesn't use; nevertheless, an acute overdose can cause various stomach and intestinal discomforts.

Because Vitamin C affects the absorption of other vitamins and minerals, chronic overdoses of Vitamin C can deplete the body of stored calcium and copper, and cause over-absorption of a particular type of iron. Pregnant women who take massive doses of Vitamin C can actually cause "rebound scurvy" in their babies, once the babies are born and suddenly deprived of those vitamin levels.

All that said, however, the four doses of Emergen-C I took yesterday (a total of 4,000 mg, vastly above the recommended daily allowance of 75 mg) have brought me back to the land of the living. The Theraflu might have helped, too, or maybe the cold has just run its course; but at least today I've been able to keep my eyes open and get a couple of things done. Hurray for Vitamin C!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

How's your cold?

Who's asking: My Aunt Kit

Bad. Or rather, my cold is flourishing; I am miserable. Going back to bed with a bottle of Robitussin and my box of Kleenex. I just read that Lester Bangs died of a cold -- sort of -- it might have been the cold, or it might have been the combination of Darvon and Valium he treated himself with.

I have no Darvon and no Valium, but I'm taking no chances with the cold. If I feel better, I might put up a bonus post tomorrow.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Is "Googleable" a word?

Who's asking: Scott Lavinder

In a similar vein, Anna Bragdon asks whether she can use "overnight" as a verb, as in "I'm overnighting this package to Boston," and someone (maybe Jen Lechner?) asked about the use of "RSVP" as a verb.

I used to be pretty fierce in my opposition to using nouns or adjectives as verbs, and to creating new words from brand names. I still don't like to use "contact" as a verb, although that definition is now in the dictionary.

But English is the Jabba the Hutt of world languages; it devours everything in its path, sucking in words from every other culture and making things up if it can't find anything to serve.

I believe that "Google" is now in some dictionaries as a verb. Nevertheless, I'm ruling against "Googleable," because "to Google" means "to research something online, using the Google search engine," and you wouldn't say something was "researchable," or (even worse) "investigatible."

"Overnight" as a verb is marginally okay, I think, in the sense that we already use "summer" as a verb -- "Are you summering in Maine this year?" "Yes, and wintering there too."

But I draw the line at "RSVP" as a verb. RSVP is an abbreviation for the French phrase Répondez s’il vous plaît -- respond, if you please -- and so, if you want to say that you've responded, say you've responded, not that you've "RSVP'd." Two syllables instead of four, and you're correct, to boot.

Nothing is more disgusting than a head cold, and I am sitting here surrounded by Kleenex and Theraflu and glasses of ginger ale. I disgust myself so profoundly I may just have to throw a blanket over my head and pass out for a few hours. Talk amongst yourselves. In the meantime, here's

What I Read This Week

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw. After Regina of The Toadstool Bookshop said this was her favorite book of all time, I thought I'd go back to it, so I borrowed the audiobook from the Gardiner Library. I must have been 13 or 14 the first time I read it, and could not possibly have appreciated how deeply sinister this story is. Whether or not one believes the governess, something is very, very wrong here, and the implications in every direction are horrifying. Henry James is no more compassionate toward his characters here than in any of his other works, but in this setting, that's appropriate.

J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan. While I was checking out audiobooks, I took this one, too; I hadn't read the book since seventh grade. I had forgotten, or maybe never realized, how much of this book is social satire, as well as adventure for children and for the young at heart. It's hard to overstate how influential this story has been on our popular culture, and it's surprising to think that the story is only about 100 years old.

Peter Behrens, The Law of Dreams. This beautiful first novel is the story of how Fergus escapes the famine that left his family dead in County Clare and makes his way to Dublin, London, Liverpool and finally Canada. The novel encompasses only a year, but Fergus seems to live his whole life in that year, as he finds and loses love and finally realizes that nothing can interfere with his overwhelming need to live. Gorgeous, sad, triumphant.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Do earthquakes happen more frequently in any particular weather?

Who's asking: Anna Bragdon

You may have seen something in the news about a small earthquake off the Maine coast last week. I didn't feel it in Gardiner, but Anna felt it in Bangor, and things fell off shelves as far west as Waterville.

It's the second small earthquake since I moved to Maine, and I must say it's a little exasperating. In Los Angeles, I used museum wax to keep glass bowls from falling off shelves, and my bookcases were anchored to the walls; it never occurred to me that I might need those things in Maine.

Anyway, Anna asked whether earthquakes were more likely to occur in any particular sort of weather. The official answer to that is no; geologists say there's no such thing as "earthquake weather."

People in southern California, however, will tell you that they associate a certain heaviness in the air -- a sort of flat, stagnant heat -- with earthquakes. T.L. Lankford describes it well in his excellent crime novel, Earthquake Weather.

They say animals can feel ultrasound waves before an earthquake, and my stomach felt sour and hollow just before the one real earthquake I experienced (a 4.2 shaker centered in Westwood, in September 2001). Then again, that earthquake happened on a Sunday, and I don't really remember what I'd been doing the night before...

The question that remains open is whether earthquakes affect weather patterns after the event. Last week's earthquake caused a major drop in the water table in some parts of the state, and you have to figure that has some slight effect on the weather. I don't know how you'd go about quantifying that, but maybe someone who knows more will stumble on this post and elaborate in the comments section.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Why would The Baltimore Sun want to interview you?

Who's asking: Various family members and friends

Your guess is as good as mine, but John Lindner of The Baltimore Sun interviewed me last week for their online "Blography" feature, and the podcast is up this morning. You can listen to it here. Feel free to heckle in the comments section.

If you listen to that interview, that's really as much as anyone needs of me for one day -- so I'll just post today's Five Random Songs, and call it good.

"A New England," Too Much Joy. This cover turns Billy Bragg's sad song into something angry and even a little bratty. I like it.

"This Mountain," Kasey Chambers. I like Kasey Chambers, but her voice gets a little whiny sometimes, and this is a whiny song.

"I'll Stand Up for You," X. Overall, this album (Ain't Love Grand) is one of the all-time great break-up records, but this is a straightforward love song.

"Dance Away," Roxy Music. Classic. "You're dressed to kill, and guess who's dying..." We've all been there.

"My Funny Valentine," Chet Baker. This is the instrumental version, not the vocal one. I have four different versions of this song in my iTunes library, and probably a few more on my CD shelves. I once sang this in public, in the dessert room of Bern's Steak House, in Tampa. Coincidentally or not, it's the only time I've been to Tampa...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

How expensive was long-distance, back when our parents used to complain about it?

Who's asking: Bill Walsh

An entire generation is growing up unaware that it used to cost a lot of money to make a long-distance phone call, and that it used to cost more money to call from, say, New York to California than from New York to New Jersey.

So how much did it really cost? I'd meant to ask Dad, when I saw him on Saturday, how much it cost him to call New York from Hong Kong after Kathy and I were born (he was on a ship in the South China Sea when we were born, and didn't even know we were twins until the ship arrived in Hong Kong a day or two later). Dad, if you remember, post it in the comments section.

What we consider "long distance" has changed dramatically over the past century. In 1915, it was a long-distance call from Atlanta, GA to Forest Park, GA, about 12 miles away. A five-minute phone call cost 15 cents, the equivalent of $287.25 in today's currency.

In constant 1996 currency, a three-minute phone call from London to New York cost £486.98 in 1927, £62.80 in 1945, £12.46 in 1970 and 52 pence in 1996.

It wasn't possible to call from New York to California until 1915, and completing a phone call required connections from one station to another (the "station to station" calls). A network of physical phone cables connected one city to another, and operators at each station connected calls by hand. Connections faded out and got lost, and depending on how far away you were calling, you might have to schedule a phone call in advance, or place the call and then wait several minutes for the operator to call you back with a connection.

Direct long-distance dialing in the U.S. began in 1951, with the introduction of area codes. The U.S. originally had 90 area codes; now it has more than 250. Being able to dial person-to-person was a major advance, but calls were still priced according to the distance between callers. Bell Telephone was a natural monopoly whose rates were governed by a federal commission; an anti-trust judge broke the monopoly in 1984, and rates were deregulated. The advent of wireless technology made the old telephone cable networks obsolete, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I now pay one flat rate that includes unlimited long distance within the United States. Cell phones don't distinguish between local and long-distance calls, and Claire's Canadian cell phone is on a program that doesn't distinguish between calls in or to the U.S. or Canada.

Matthew and Henry have just memorized their phone number, which impressed me very much this weekend.

"Somebody doesn't have a phone number," Henry told me, after he rattled off his number.

"Who doesn't have a phone number?" I asked.

"Dogs," he said. "Dogs don't have phones. Only people do."

That explains why Dizzy is so lousy with messages...

Monday, October 09, 2006

Bride or groom?

Who's asking: an usher at Melissa and Wayne's wedding, yesterday

I was tempted to use the line from Four Weddings and a Funeral: "It should be perfectly obvious I'm neither." But the answer was "Bride," of course, and yesterday could not have been a happier, more beautiful occasion.

It was sobering to sit in the pew and calculate exactly how long I've known Melissa. We met in the fall of 1978. We were both 12 years old and starting ninth grade, though Melissa was even younger than I was: she'd just turned 12, while I'd be turning 13 (which seemed so grown-up) in a couple of months. Now she's a physician and professor and working to improve health care around the world, and I'm doing... this. (Not that I feel like an underachiever.)

Weddings are the most hopeful, life-affirming events I know -- even more than baptisms, because weddings are all about creation. Two families become one, two groups of friends become one extended community. The best weddings pour all of two people's lives into one big pot, in hopes that what comes out will be something marvelous and new and permanent, or as permanent as human things get.

I'm so grateful for Melissa's enduring friendship, and would not have missed yesterday for the world. Congratulations, guys, and thanks for inviting me to be present at the creation of your new life together.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Is it true that unmarried women aren't supposed to wear tiaras?

Who's asking: Michelle, the "Get a Life" girl

The origin of this question was last week's Miss Manners column, in which a young woman on her way to England asked what opportunities she would have to wear her prom tiara, because "I know they use them a lot there." Miss Manners' response was remarkably gracious -- she said that no, tiaras aren't really appropriate for anything but the most formal state dinners or royal weddings -- but she mentioned that "tiaras are not supposed to be worn by unmarried women, with the exception of those who are being married within an hour of placing them carefully in their hair."

So Michelle wants to know: is that true, and if so, where did that custom come from?

It goes without saying that I'm not exactly the tiara sort; maybe 30 years from now, I can carry it off in a Margaret Rutherford-ish sort of way. But some secret part of my soul has always longed to be a little girlier, so for the next life, in which I might be a more girly girl (or possibly a drag queen) I decided to do some investigation.

Tiaras or diadems go back to Egyptian times, and have traditionally been an ornament of royalty. They seem to have come into more widespread use in France, during the reign of Napoleon, and they hit their height of popularity in Victorian and Edwardian England. Somewhere in that time, they came to symbolize the loss of innocence and the crowning triumph of love; Queen Victoria was a superstitious soul, particularly where marriage was concerned, and liked these rituals and symbols.

Now, of course, every sweet-16 celebrant seems to feel she deserves a tiara, but that's a rant for another time.

This weekend, ironically enough, is all about weddings.

I'm posting this morning from the sleaziest motel in Elkton, MD (not saying which one, as I don't want to get sued). Dizzy and I got a late start yesterday, so I just decided to drive until I got tired, then find a place to spend the night. This place theoretically does not allow pets, but they don't call these places "no tell" for nothing.

Anyway, Elkton's claim to fame is that it was, at one time, the elopement capital of the East Coast. Elkton is just across the Maryland state line, and does not require a blood test or a waiting period to get married. In the 1920s and 1930s, couples from all over the Northeast dashed to Elkton to get married in one of dozens of wedding chapels -- because, while Maryland didn't require a blood test, it did require a church wedding.

I'm actually on my way to my old friend Melissa's wedding, which is not in Elkton (though it is in Maryland) and is a little better planned-out than Elkton weddings used to be.

But before tomorrow's wedding, I'm headed down to Richmond today for the Dean family's annual Apple Butter Festival. Check Peggy & Scott's blog for photos in a day or two.

Friday, October 06, 2006

What's the difference between a mystery and a thriller?

Who's asking: John Schramm

Crime writers can talk about this question forever, and an entire association has formed to clarify and promote the difference.

Joe Finder gave as good an answer to this question as I've heard, at a Bouchercon panel last week. I'm paraphrasing, but he said that mysteries are intellectual puzzles about the solution of a crime, where the criminal's identity is not revealed until the end. Thrillers are stories of sensation, where the question is whether the hero survives. The protagonist of a thriller is at risk throughout the book, while the protagonist of a mystery is at risk only because of his or her role in the investigation.

That said, I agree with Joe -- and with his co-panelist, Jay Bonansinga -- that these distinctions are academic, and perhaps not very useful for readers or even for booksellers. I'd like to see fewer genre distinctions, rather than the Balkanization that seems to be happening within crime writing. I don't want to read "a yoga mystery," I just want to read a good book.

A handful of authors are challenging these genre lines, maybe not on purpose but just by writing the books they want to write. They're meeting with mixed success. My client Kent Harrington's Red Jungle never did find a mainstream publisher, because the publishers couldn't pigeonhole it: was it an adventure novel, a thriller, historical fiction, romance, magical realism? Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. It was a fantastic book, and if you can track down one of the 2,000 copies that were printed, you'll be lucky.

I have high hopes for John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things, another book that is fantasy/adventure/literature/historical fiction, and an absolute jewel. People have asked John which shelf booksellers will put The Book of Lost Things on, and he doesn't know; frustratingly, this is something that could keep people who should read the book (i.e., everyone) from finding it.

It's tempting to imagine a bookstore of my own, in which I'd classify things a little differently. My categories would probably be something like "Contributions to Humanity," "Entertainment without Insult," and "Total Crap."

** I posted this before reading Sarah Weinman's excellent musings on a similar subject, here.**

This week's reading list is a special double issue, since I didn't post the list last week, and all of these books fall into the first two categories.

What I Read These Weeks:

Steve Ettlinger, Twinkie, Deconstructed. It's been at least 20 years since I've eaten a Twinkie, and after this book, it'll be at least 20 more. This is no Fast Food Nation, though; it's not Ettlinger's mission to turn you off Twinkies, but to explore the complex processes of making a uniform, tasty snack food that has an almost-indefinite shelf life. He uses the Twinkies ingredients list as his table of contents, and explains (among other things) exactly what "Polysorbate 60" is, and where baking powder comes from (it's mined, at least in part). Fascinating. It'll be out next March.

Susan Cheever, American Bloomsbury. Between 1840 and 1882, the greatest minds in American literature lived on one corner in Concord, Massachusetts. Ralph Waldo Emerson served as landlord and mentor, at various times, to the Alcott family, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. Their friends and correspondents included the James brothers, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson. Cheever gives us a social history of their lives and works, illuminating subtexts and dishing great literary gossip. This book will be out in December.

Lise McClendon, Blue Wolf. Art dealer Alix Thorssen, responsible for coordinating a wildlife-benefit auction, agrees to do some research on a long-ago hunting accident for one of her artists, a controversial recluse who turns out to be the mother of the boy who was killed. The book does a nice job of presenting all sides of the wolf debate, as one of the major subplots involves the investigation of a wolf shooting.

Linda Barnes, The Big Dig. Boston PI Carlotta Carlyle goes undercover as a temp on a building site responsible for part of the construction of Boston's notorious underpass, and discovers corruption, kidnapping, and murder. My admiration for Linda Barnes was high before last week, and now knows no bounds.

Dana Cameron, Ashes and Bones. Archaeologist Emma Fielding is convinced that Tony Markham, a deranged colleague who supposedly died years before, is stalking her, her family and her friends. Emma's friends and relatives, caught in the crossfire, respond by questioning her sanity and then -- as they become targets -- by shutting her off to protect themselves. This series has taken tremendous strides, and I'm looking forward to Dana's next book, a standalone.

Mike Harrison, All Shook Up. Mike was a last-minute substitution on my Bouchercon panel, and I'm glad of it; he's a fascinating guy, and writes a good detective novel. Canadian PI Eddie Dancer goes to England to help his psychiatrist clear himself of murder charges. The real murderer is a man who's convinced himself that he's the reincarnation of a serial killer who lived centuries earlier -- but is he?

William Landay, Mission Flats. Ben Truman, the young police chief of Versailles, Maine, goes to Boston to help investigate the murder of a Boston D.A. whose body was found in a Versailles tourist cabin. This first novel is an ambitious exercise in unreliable narration, and didn't completely work for me; I admired it, and kept reading, but the ending didn't shake me as much as it should have.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

How long could you survive without a computer?

Who's asking: Jen Lechner

I sense some mockery behind this question, but I'm answering it anyway just to prove that I'm above being baited.

Obviously, I could survive indefinitely without a computer. My great-aunt Agnes, who passed away this week at the age of 101, never used a computer, as far as I know -- though she was a telephone operator, back in the days of manual connections. (Dad has a very nice tribute to Aunt Agnes on his blog). Her mother, the legendary Annie K., lived well into her 90s without the benefit of computers.

If someone took my computer away for good, I'd get a job at McDonald's or Wal-Mart, where I'd get better health benefits than I currently have and be forced to deal with live human beings. Then again, I'd probably have to take up serious drinking (and possibly more serious mood-enhancers), so I might well end up dying before my time.

But no, my current lifestyle would be impossible without a computer. It would have been impossible even ten years ago, before everyone was on e-mail and high-speed Internet allowed for the electronic transfer of giant files. Alvin Toffler predicted this in a book called The Third Wave, published in the early 1980s; he foresaw a time when people would all work at home, and only congregate for social purposes. As a society-wide prediction that's probably an overstatement, but it's certainly how I live now.

Which is why I bought a new laptop yesterday. It's not a significant upgrade over the last one, except for having an internal wireless modem, but it cost approximately half of what I paid for my last machine, and weighs about half as much. The nice people at Capitol Computers were able to remove my old hard drive, so I lost nothing (I was particularly concerned about my iTunes library, which is now safely loaded on the new machine).

So the answer to this question is that I could survive indefinitely, but I couldn't live very long.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What is the difference between a rabbit and a hare?

Who's asking: Kaethe Schulz, Bavaria

If you have a pet bunny -- as Kaethe does -- it's a rabbit, not a hare. All pet breeds of rabbit are varieties of one species, the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus).

Hares and rabbits are both members of the genus Lepus. Hares are larger and faster than rabbits, and usually have black markings on their fur. They live alone or in pairs, unlike rabbits, who live in groups. Hares live in nests above the ground, rather than in burrows, and the babies are born with fur, unlike baby rabbits, who are born hairless and blind. Hares generally have longer ears and larger feet than rabbits. Species called “jackrabbit” are hares, not rabbits.

In folklore, hares are generally tricksters, while rabbits tend to be victims. Hunters say that hare has a much stronger, gamier flavor than rabbit (which actually does taste like a milder version of chicken).

Not that I'm suggesting your pet bunny is a source of food, but Michael Moore did make a documentary about a Michigan rabbit-keeper called Pets or Meat. In event of catastrophic disaster, it might be handy to have a rabbit around.

Bad news on the laptop: it would cost as much to fix it as to replace it. I hate that, I hate that something that cost more than $1,000 is ultimately disposable -- but at least they can pull my hard drive, so I'll just switch it over, and pick up the new machine later today. Sigh.

First five songs off the iPod Shuffle this morning:

"Dead or Alive," Van Morrison, Lonnie Donegan & Chris Barber. Most of Van Morrison's best work in the past couple of decades has been collaborations with other artists; this album (The Skiffle Sessions) is terrific beginning to end.

"All You Need is Love," The Beatles. In one episode of "The Simpsons," Bart and Milhouse discover Flanders' secret stash of Beatles memorabilia; "Oh yeah," Bart says. "Those are the guys on Maggie's baby records." A kid could do worse than to grow up on Beatles tunes.

"Sodomy," from the Hair soundtrack. What was I saying yesterday about the hippie culture? Never mind, I love this soundtrack.

"I'm in the Mood for Love," Bryan Ferry. From his collection of 1930s standards, As Time Goes By.

"I'm Not Sleeping," Counting Crows. The rising guitars on this song are a little loud for me so early in the morning.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

If you're going to San Francisco, should you wear a flower in your hair?

Who's asking: Tod Goldberg, La Quinta, CA

I'm tempted to say "Yes" to this question only because I'd like to see what Tod looks like with a flower in his hair.

Nevertheless, the correct answer is "No" -- unless you are a teenaged girl with an elaborate MySpace page and a running narration of "The Story of My Noble, Misunderstood Life" in her head.

Sorry if that sounds harsh. I was one of those girls myself, once, in the days before MySpace. The internal narration goes away with appropriate medication and the development of a sense of humor. The photo of yourself with a flower in your hair survives to embarrass you well into middle age.

I could give you a full-scale rant about the misguidedness of nostalgia for hippie days -- a time of petulance, sexual irresponsibility, and poor personal hygiene -- but it's too nice a day, and I'm in too good a mood. My car is fixed, and it only cost me $46; my laptop seems to be fixable, and in the meantime I have a nice little loaner.

Happy birthday today to my Uncle John McLaughlin, in whose honor I am listening, once again, to "Uncle John's Band."

Monday, October 02, 2006

Why won't my VW Beetle shift out of "park"?

Who's asking: Me

The dateline on this morning's post is Augusta rather than Gardiner, because I'm posting from the Maine State Library. Just down the hill, the fine technicians at O'Connor Volkswagen are replacing the brake light switch in my car; its demise is the reason my car won't go.

As repairs go, it's pretty minor. When I couldn't shift the car out of park this morning, I had visions of transmission replacements, weeks without the car, etc., etc... on top of whatever needs to be done to make my laptop functional again. As Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, it's always something.

Got home last night around midnight, picked up Dizzy this morning, and have spent the rest of the day dealing with the car. I'll cut this post short except to say Happy Birthday and Many Happy Returns to Dad, who does not want me to say anything about which birthday this is.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Why is it called Bouchercon?

Who's asking: Various friends and family

Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, is named after the novelist and critic Anthony Boucher, who wrote for the New York Times (among other places) and was the first mainstream critic to insist that crime fiction be taken seriously as literature. Marv Lachman won yesterday's Anthony Award for non-fiction for his book The Heirs of Anthony Boucher, a history of mystery fandom.

The other Anthony winners were Barbara Seranella, for Best Short Story -- Linda Brown and I nearly wept, as Barbara has been such a good friend to the store and survived so much in the last year -- Crimespree Magazine for Best Fan Publication; Chris Grabenstein for Best First Novel; Reed Farrel Coleman (yay Reed!) for Best Paperback Original; William Kent Krueger for Best Novel; and Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers International, for Special Service to the Genre.

It was a good weekend for my clients. Not only did Reed win the Anthony, he also won the Private Eye Writers of America's Shamus Award for the same book, The James Deans. Joe Finder won Deadly Pleasures' Barry Award for Company Man, and Theresa Schwegel, who was nominated for the Anthony, wore fabulous shoes and still has her Edgar. (I should probably state here for the record that none of these wins has anything to do with me -- Reed and Joe wrote their books before I started working with them, and anyway I have nothing to do with their writing.)

My panel on Friday went well, thanks to four great panelists: Bob Dugoni, Mike Harrison, Lise McClendon and the incomparable Linda Barnes. All of them are thoughtful, insightful people whose books deserve the widest possible audience.

I'm so tired -- even after a full night's sleep -- that my vision is blurring, but I felt bad about not posting for a few days. I'll be home again tomorrow with a longer post, if I can find a working computer (mine suffered its final blow on this trip, and I'm writing this post on Linda's laptop). In the immortal words of Nelson Muntz, smell ya later.