Wednesday, September 27, 2006

What time does your plane leave this morning?

Who's asking: Jen Lechner, who's giving me a ride to the airport

11:00, so this will be short. I fly from Portland to Newark, from Newark to Madison, for this year's Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention. It should be a good time.

People were incredibly nice everywhere I went yesterday, which I can only ascribe to the beautiful weather. A complete stranger in Famous Footwear gave me a $10 coupon, because we liked the same pair of shoes but they didn't carry her size. The attendant at the Loads o'Fun laundromat folded all my laundry for me -- for free! -- because she said she was bored and wanted something to do. And I got a manicure that still hasn't chipped after almost 24 hours, which is a new record for me (I don't know why I even bother...).

So I'm leaving on a high note. Let's hope it lasts.

First five random songs off the iPod this morning:

“Break So Easy,” The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Isn’t it weird how the ska revival kind of came and went? I still like these guys.

“Hey Now!”, Oasis. A New Music Express poll ranked this album -– (What’s the Story) Morning Glory -- as the 5th greatest of all time. I wouldn’t put it that high, but it’s definitely held up over time.

“Rednecks,” Randy Newman. My mother, who was not at all racist, endorsed the ideas behind this song wholeheartedly: Northerners pretend to be better at race relations than Southerners, but are just as bad, in sneaky, self-righteous ways.

“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” Elvis Costello & the Attractions. Wow, what a perfect segue. I couldn’t have programmed it better myself.

"You're Getting to be a Habit," Frank Sinatra. You can drop a Frank Sinatra song into a set of punk rock, and it sounds just right. He remains the coolest of them all.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Has it ever snowed in Los Angeles?

Who's asking: Gary Fleder

This question came up when I told my friend Gary that we'd already had a frost here. Like me, Gary grew up in the gentle climate of Tidewater Virginia. He doesn't remember his Boston winters fondly; I suspect that he thinks I'll eventually surrender to the Maine temperatures and return to Los Angeles.

But in fact, it has snowed in Los Angeles, though not in our lifetime. The last recorded snowfall in Los Angeles happened on January 22, 1962, when the city got only a trace. The heaviest recorded snowfall was about a third of an inch, in January 1949.

It's inarguable: Los Angeles' climate is better than Maine's. I didn't move here for the climate, and the truth is that I love the snow. The cooler temperatures make Dizzy act like a puppy again, as he chases all the squirrels who still haven't learned to respect his authority.

It's easy to be carefree about winter in the glory of a Maine fall day, but I did feel a pang yesterday when I noticed the sun already low in the sky at 4:45 p.m. The cold and the snow don't bother me as much as the darkness; this may be the year that I buy one of those broad-spectrum lights.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Did Jesus swear?

Who's asking: Once again, Jennifer Lechner

Hell if I know.

No, seriously, this is one of those questions that can't have a definitive answer -- no matter what anyone says -- because none of us were alive when Jesus was around. But I'm willing to tackle this question, not as a theologian but as a close reader of the New Testament.

If we believe that Jesus was God as well as man, then he wasn't a sinner; therefore, he didn't break the third commandment (Exodus 20:7 -- "You shall not utter the name of Yahweh your God to misuse it"). So if we consider swearing to be taking God's name in vain, then no, he didn't swear.

But did he use vulgar language? I'm willing to bet that he did. He was a carpenter, after all, and he hung out with fishermen. Mark, the oldest of the gospels, reports that Jesus cursed a fig tree for being barren (Mark 11:14) and then that he drove the money-changers and pigeon-sellers out of the Temple (Mark 11:15). It seems reasonable to suppose that he spoke in language that would intimidate these people, and that may well have included words polite people considered bad language.

Mom allowed no bad language in her house, and I only remember her using a bad word once -- when she was cleaning Kathy's and my room, and pinched her hand in one of our desks. My language is not as clean as she'd like it to be, but I am always aware of my audience, and try to avoid bad language in front of children and polite company.

But it baffles me that so many people consider bad language to be a worse violation than other, much more serious offenses. I manage the e-mail that comes in to one of my clients' websites, and he gets more e-mail about the bad language in his books than about anything else. These books are thrillers, they're crime novels. They're stories of murder, mayhem, corruption, and all sorts of evildoing.

The readers don't seem to have any problem with that; what they object to is the swearing. Good grief.

Friday, September 22, 2006

What's the difference between apple juice and apple cider?

Who's asking: Jennifer Lechner

Almost everywhere except the United States, this is an easy question: apple cider is alcoholic, apple juice is not. Here, it's a little more complicated, because what's sold as "apple cider" here is generally not alcoholic -- we call the alcoholic stuff "hard cider."

Anyway, both juice and cider are made by pressing liquid out of apples. The distinction arises with what happens next. Apple juice is filtered, pasteurized, and vacuum-sealed in a bottle or can to extend shelf life and prevent fermentation. Apple cider is generally not filtered, may or may not be pasteurized, is sold in non-vacuum sealed jugs, and will ferment or go to vinegar if left too long on the shelf.

It's apple season in Maine, and the cider from the roadside stands is wonderful. Apple cider's often too sweet for me, but I bought a jug of cranberry-apple cider that is just right. We had a frost warning last night, the leaves are turning, and fall is here. Tourists, come on up.

What I Read This Week

Carol O'Connell, Find Me. Kathy Mallory, the street urchin-turned-cop, goes on a mysterious cross-country drive along the old Route 66, and becomes involved along the way with the investigation of a serial killer. Without giving too much away, I finished the book thinking it might be the last in this series; if it is, it's a wonderful and unconventional end to a wonderful and unconventional series.

PJ Tracy, Snow Blind. The fourth book in the Monkeewrench series gives us more of Minneapolis cops Gino Rolseth and Leo Magozzi, but very little of the Monkeewrench crew. The corpses of two Minneapolis policemen are found inside two snowmen, and the trail leads to a compound for battered women in northern Minnesota. Another book whose ending breaks some rules of traditional crime fiction; I'd have liked a little more resolution, but the book is true to itself and its characters.

Christopher Reich, The Patriots Club. A non-stop thriller that finds investment banker Thomas Bolden battling a mysterious group of powers-that-be, whose existence dates back to the American Revolution. Sharply-observed details of the New York financial world and political Washington are a bonus.

Theresa Schwegel, Probable Cause. The follow-up to Theresa's Edgar-winning Officer Down is another standalone, set in the same universe of Chicago police. Rookie cop Ray Weiss must break into a jewelry shop as part of his initiation; when he does, he finds its owner dead. Ray's partner seems to know more about the situation than he should, and Ray must wrestle with the conflicting demands of loyalty and justice. Very, very well done. It'll be out in January.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Are there any countries besides the US where women are referred to by their husbands' names?

Who's asking: Sue Schulz

This question came up because our friend Anna follows the old custom of referring to herself as "Mrs. Tarren Bragdon." Sue, who is German, wanted to know whether this is only an American practice, or something that other cultures do.

I've spent some time researching this question, and it's been hard to come up with any kind of definitive answer. Many cultures, of course, don't use surnames, or use them only for legal documents. Many Asian languages place titles at the end of a name (Nakamura-san) instead of at the beginning, and those titles don't always distinguish between genders.

The best answer I can give is that as far as I know, the practice of referring to women as as "Mrs. [husband's name]," is limited to English-speaking countries, and has fallen into disfavor even in them. That form of address is now considered appropriate only in social settings, never in business ones (imagine calling Senator Clinton "Mrs. William J. Clinton"), and even then, only if the woman prefers it.

Interestingly, the trend of married women keeping their surnames in the United States has reversed itself since the 1990s. More than 90% of women here now routinely change their names when they get married.

I come from a long line of women who changed their first names -- both of my grandmothers chose to be called by their middle names, and Grandma Lamb changed even that (she was christened Margaretta, but changed it to plain Margaret). It confuses people enough that I am both Ellen and Clair; even if I ever did get married, I don't think I'd bother with any more name changes.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Who's your favorite author?

Who's asking: Regina of the Toadstool Bookshop in Milford, NH, at last weekend's New England Booksellers Association convention

I don't think any serious reader can answer this question. I just looked at Regina and shrugged. "I don't know," I said. "It changes."

"I can't answer that question either," she said.

"I mean, if you put a gun to my head and said I could only take one book for the rest of my life, it would probably be House of Mirth by Edith Wharton," I added.

"For me, it's Turn of the Screw by Henry James," she said. "You can talk about it forever."

I found that very interesting, because it -- sort of -- confirmed my theory that every serious reader must ultimately take sides between Henry James and Edith Wharton. I admire Turn of the Screw, but have never felt any need to reread it; I read House of Mirth at least once a year, and I cry every time. I've said here before that I find Edith Wharton compassionate, and Henry James not.

Any Henry James fans out there who want to speak on his behalf?

Congratulations and best wishes to the Bragdons, who got wonderful news yesterday; they received the referral for their new baby boy, Seong-jin Gim, born in Korea in August. With luck, he'll be home by Christmas. He'll have a new American name, but the Bragdons haven't announced that yet.

And a very happy birthday to Miss Kaethe Schulz, who turns ten today.

First five songs off the iPod Shuffle this morning:

“Yesterday’s Men,” Madness. I make no apologies for still loving all the music I loved when I was 18.

“Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song),” Fiona Apple. I like this album (Extraordinary Machine) a lot, and I’d be interested to hear the first, unreleased version of it, which Jon Brion produced.

“There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” The Smiths. I often say that you know you’ve reached adulthood when you can’t listen to Smiths lyrics without snickering. This really is a lovely song, but the words verge on self-parody: “And if a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Is such a heavenly way to die…”

“It’s All in Your Mind,” Beck. This album (Sea Change) is beautiful, and should come with its own bottle of Prozac.

“God Give Me Strength,” Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach. Oh, my goodness – it’s all misery on the iPod today. Another magnificent song about lost love. Time to find a little dance music, here…

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

What's your earliest memory?

Who's asking: Sally Gawne

Memory's a funny thing, and easily manipulated. Stories get told so often that the story becomes the reality, even if it didn't happen exactly that way.

I have memories of images and smells that I suspect predate my ability to put things into words. My earliest memories that I know are mine, rather than something I was told about, come from the house in Norfolk where my family lived from 1967 to 1969.

My twin sister Kathy and I hid from the neighborhood bully in the blackberry hedge behind the house; blackberry bushes are thorny, but there was a space within the bushes where we could crouch and see the sky through the branches.

We got a German Shepherd-Alaskan Husky puppy for Easter, 1968. Mom called him Boyfriend, because his job was to keep her company while Dad was at sea. I don't really remember Boyfriend as a puppy, but I remember the night he got hit by a car, which would have been sometime in 1969, when we were three.

Kathy and I tried to feed Boyfriend once. Mom bought dog food in the 25-lb. bags, and the two of us hauled it out to the kitchen floor, where we spilled most of it. We knew we'd be in trouble -- even though we'd been trying to be helpful -- so decided to hide the evidence by eating the food ourselves. The taste of Purina Dog Chow remains vivid in my mind, and may be my earliest true memory. (Yes, I worry about what that says about me.)

What's your earliest memory? Post it in the comments section...

Monday, September 18, 2006

What are all those cobwebby things on the trees?

Who's asking: Sue Schulz, during last month's visit to Maine

The webs belong to something called -- appropriately enough -- the fall webworm, Hyphrantria cunea. In this part of the country, they prefer maple trees, though they also like fruit trees and nut-bearing trees. Larvae hatch in late summer and weave their webs over the leaves they feed on; as their territory expands, so does the web, until it's time for the larvae to form pupae, become little white moths, and start the cycle all over again.

The good news is that while webworms are ugly and can chew all the leaves off a branch, they rarely do serious or lasting damage to a tree. Coastal Maine also has a pest called the browntail moth, whose larvae weave similar tents; these moths do much more damage to trees, and the caterpillars are poisonous, too.

I started to say that they're all gross, but felt a pang of guilt about prejudice against insects. God forbid I be speciesist. Years ago a friend of mine's sister, an entomologist, wanted to fix me up with one of her colleagues. "He's so nice," she said. "He really loves animals." I declined when I realized that what she meant was that he really loved bugs. My loss, no doubt, and I still feel a little guilty about it -- but there it is. I own my prejudices. Dogs good, gooey caterpillars bad.

My car is fixed again after its latest mishap, and I'm trying to catch up on some long-pending projects. I'd hoped to go to New York tomorrow, but it isn't going to happen. Every so often, I have to say no to something.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Are there rules that crime fiction is supposed to follow?

Who's asking: Claire, a couple of weeks ago

Claire asked this as she was starting to read George Pelecanos' The Night Gardener. I thought it was a fascinating question, and most appropriate for that book in particular. Without giving anything away, I'd say that The Night Gardener is a good example of a crime novel that breaks almost all the theoretical "rules" of the genre.

A traditional mystery has a crime, of course, with a victim, a motive, and a villain. The hero of the traditional mystery tracks the villain down, explains the crime, and brings the villain to justice. Order, disrupted by crime, is restored.

More and more crime fiction, however -- and much of the best crime fiction being written today -- plays with these conventions, ignores them, or contradicts them. While I did read one traditional mystery this week, I also read three crime novels that don't fit the mold -- and one true-crime book that had a more convincing and dramatic villain than I've seen in fiction in quite some time.

What I Read This Week

Linda Barnes, The Heart of the World. Private detective Carlotta Carlyle has been going strong for more than 20 years; remarkably, Barnes has managed to keep the series strong and fresh, and this book's particularly good. Carlyle's young "little sister," Paolina, is kidnapped by strangers who take her back to her father's homeland, Colombia, as part of a long-brewing revenge plot. The crime is serious and compelling, but the villains are people with understandable motives, pushed too far, and the "good guys" are not exactly saints.

Rhys Bowen, Evan Blessed. Rhys Bowen writes traditional mysteries as well as any author working today, and her series featuring Welsh policeman Evan Evans are a consistent pleasure. In this outing, Evan prepares for his wedding to Bronwen while he searches for a young woman who's gone missing on Mount Snowdon.

Joseph Hilldorfer and Robert Dugoni, The Cyanide Canary. This true story of about an environmental accident and its aftermath is as gripping as any fictional thriller. Scott Dominguez went to work one morning, and his boss, Allan Elias, sent him into a holding tank filled with cyanide-laden sludge -- with no breathing apparatus and no safety gear. Elias is now serving a prison sentence on multiple criminal convictions, thanks to the dogged pursuit of EPA investigator Hilldorfer and his colleagues.

Laura Lippman, No Good Deeds. Last night at a New England Booksellers' Association cocktail party, I said I thought women authors were often better at keeping long-running series going than their male counterparts, and I gave this book as an example. Ex-reporter Tess Monaghan investigates the mysterious death of an assistant US attorney, but the central character in this book is actually Tess's boyfriend, Crow, who gets them involved in the mystery and struggles with secrets of his own. I love this series, and am always glad to hang out in Tess's world.

Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men. Like most active readers, I always have more than one book going at once. At the moment, I believe I'm in the process of reading four or five books, depending on whether I count the history of the Catholic Church I started reading two years ago and never got into. (It's still on the pile, though. I'll get back to it. Someday.) Anyway, I started this book last summer, and set it down halfway through because I couldn't give the attention I felt it deserved -- and I finally finished it this week. I think I will have to go back and reread the whole thing, because it's much more than it seems to be. On the surface, it's the story of Llewelyn Moss, who discovers a satchel of money among several dead bodies, and decides to try to keep it for himself; it's also the story of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, an old-time Texas lawman who suffers because he's not the man he's trying to be. Beneath that, it's a fable of good and evil that says some pretty bleak things about the human condition, and I need to read it again to see whether it really is as bleak as it seems.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

What's the difference between second cousins and first cousins once removed?

Who's asking: Various relatives

This question comes up a lot at gatherings of my extended family. My grandfather Lamb was one of (I think) nine children, so when multiple generations get together, things get complicated.

At my cousin Christine's wedding reception last night, I sat at a table with my first cousins Beth, Jean and Sarah; my second cousin Kate; and my first cousins once removed Nick, Chuck, and Jean's son Jackson. Kate is second cousin once removed to Nick, Chuck and Jackson.

The "first" and "second" designation refers to how many generations back you share an ancestor. Only one generation separates Beth, Jean, Sarah and me from our common ancestors, our Grandma and Grandpa Lamb. Two generations separate Kate and me from our common ancestors, our greatgrandparents James and Annie Lamb, so we are second cousins.

"Once removed" and "twice removed" refer to whether or not you and the relative are members of the same generation. Nick and Chuck are sons of my first cousin Marie Louise, so they're once removed from me; they are second cousins to my children, Chris and Claire. When they have children (no time soon, please), their children will be my first cousins twice removed, and Chris and Claire's second cousins once removed.

It was a lovely wedding, by the way, and I wish I could hang out in the Hudson Valley a little longer. Instead, I'm off to Providence this afternoon for the second half of the New England Booksellers Association's conference.

Sorry I missed yesterday's post, but I'll post a bonus list of recently-read books tomorrow.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Why is Dizzy named Dizzy?

Who's asking: Grace Lechner

All right, the morning's not going well. I was halfway through a very long post on an entirely different subject, but lost my connection and the post -- so that question will have to wait until next week.

So here's an easy question, with a short answer. I adopted Dizzy when he was about five months old, from people who had found him by the side of the road. They called him Buddy, which had to change. All of my cousins in Los Angeles had dogs whose first names began with "D" -- Darby, Dudley, Danny -- so I decided that my dog needed a "D" name as well.

My friend Ann Marie and I discussed it during a hike. We considered Dot, because he's spotted; that led to Dash, by association, and then I thought of Dizzy, which seemed to suit his nature. Ann Marie said it was perfect, so Dizzy he became and remains.

I am badly overcommitted through Sunday, so posting will be late and possibly sporadic. If I owe you an e-mail, I'm sorry, and I'll get to it today, I promise.

Oh, and I almost forgot: a very happy birthday today to Miss Margaret Adele Lavinder, known to her friends and admirers as Meg, who is one year old today.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What's that green stuff in the middle of a lobster? Can you eat it?

Who's asking: Thomas Schulz, during last month's visit to Maine

Jerry and Mary Maschino actually provided the answer to this question, as I do not consider any portion of a lobster edible.

The green stuff is called tomalley or lobster paste. It's the liver and pancreas of the lobster. It is theoretically edible, and chefs use tomalley as a flavoring in lobster bisques and stews. Fans of tomalley should remember that the liver filters waste products from an animal's bloodstream, so may contain elevated levels of various nasty things from the ocean, including heavy metals.

Dad and I celebrated his release from the hospital last night with dinner at The Lobster Trap in Winslow. He ate lobster; I ate steak.

"Whoever first ate a lobster must have been awfully hungry," I said. Dad said he thought we were all descended from primates who tried everything to see whether it was edible.

"Yeah, but we've evolved beyond that," I said. "You don't see anyone dipping a wet stick into an anthill anymore, and eating whatever they can pull up."

"People still eat insects," Dad said.

That may be... but I don't.

I almost forgot, it's Wednesday. First five songs off the iPod shuffle this morning:

“Don’t Play that Song (You Lied),” Ben E. King. Classic 1950s doo-wop.

“You’ve Been So Good Up to Now,” Lyle Lovett. A song that sums up all the terror in the heart of any parent of an adolescent. “You can make just one mistake/It can take you to your grave/Honey, one bad move can turn your life upside down/It’s such a shame, ‘cause you’ve been so good up to now.”

“Ten Pins,” The Connells. Excellent folk/pop/rock, in the vein of the Pernice Brothers and Fountains of Wayne. Are The Connells still performing?

“Goodbye Stranger,” Supertramp. This song is on my iTunes because it’s part of the Magnolia soundtrack; it reminds me uncomfortably of middle school.

“There Are Worse Things Than Being Alone,” Willie Nelson. Need to explain to someone why you’re not married? Play them this song.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Do hospitals have a reason for banning cell phones, or is it just to enforce good manners?

Who's asking: My sister Peggy

Most hospitals ban cell phones for the same reason that airplanes ban cell phones: the possibility that signals from the cell phones might cause radio frequency interference (RFI) with the hospital's internal communications and electronic systems. A study conducted in 2001, for example, found that holding a cell phone close to a pacemaker disrupted the pacemaker's function.

As with airplanes, improvements in wireless technology have lowered these risks. It's probably safe to use a cell phone in most hospitals nowadays -- but why take a chance?

If a cell phone does interfere with a building or an aircraft's telemetry, it does so whether or not you're talking on it. What matters is whether or not the phone is switched on. Cell phones in standby mode are still transmitting and receiving signals. When the sign says, "CELL PHONE USE PROHIBITED," turn it off, don't just switch it to vibrate. Take my word for it: you're not that important.

Dad might be getting out of Maine General this afternoon -- hurray! -- and then he can use his cell phone as much as he likes.

And a very happy birthday today to Frau Susanne Schulz, recently returned from her jet-set vacation. We miss you here in Maine, Sue.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Did you move to Maine because of the September 11 attacks?

Who's asking: Someone at the University of Maine, who reached this blog by Googling "Move to Maine September 11;" also, indirectly, my brother James

The short answer to this question is "No." The long answer to this question is, "Well, maybe -- a little -- not really."

The truth is that the events of September 11, 2001 have affected everything any American has done for the past five years, whether consciously or unconsciously. Off the top of my head, I can think of one couple who got divorced, one couple who got married, and one couple who decided to have a second child because September 11 showed them just how short and random life could be. So yeah, I probably moved to Maine in part because of September 11, in the same way that I've done everything else since then in partial response to that morning's horror and grief.

More immediately, I moved to Maine because I'd had enough of Los Angeles (I loved L.A., but five years was enough), and I had a good friend here who had an apartment I could rent. I'd never lived in a small town, and I'd never lived in the real north, and I wanted those experiences. It was more than a whim and less than a plan, as I like to say, and it's turned out better than I could have imagined. Although I will always be From Away, something about Maine's granite heart feels like home.

The day started well, with a bald eagle sighting along the Cobbossee Stream -- appropriate for the day -- and the news that Dad's recovering so well he might be able to leave the hospital tomorrow. Then I went to my tutoring appointment and got into a stupid fender-bender; no one was hurt, thank God, and the damage was minor, but it means getting back on the phone to the insurance company and starting that whole process again. Sigh.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

What is the difference between Salisbury steak and hamburger?

Who's asking: Dad

Dad asked this yesterday, and I said, "I don't know -- Salisbury steak has gravy, and hamburger doesn't?" I got home and looked it up, and sure enough: Salisbury steak is a steak-shaped patty of ground beef (i.e., hamburger) covered with a brown sauce, and sometimes onions. According to H.L. Mencken, the term "Salisbury steak" came into popular use as part of the anti-German reaction during the First World War, a 1917 version of "freedom fries."

Does anyone eat Salisbury steak outside a cafeteria or hospital? If anyone reading this blog has ever deliberately cooked Salisbury steak from scratch and served it to his or her family, I'd like to hear about it -- and also to hear whether that happened in the last 30 years.

The other day I commented about how fashions change in punctuation. Fashions change in food, as well. One of the great pleasures of Megan Abbott's excellent first novel, Die a Little, is the descriptions of the food the main character and her sister-in-law prepare for their cocktail parties and barbecues. Die a Little is set in the 1950s, the golden era of canap├ęs and ambrosia and gelatin-based salads.

I don't believe I've eaten ambrosia (a salad of mandarin oranges and shredded coconut) since a church pot-luck in high school, and I still shudder at the memory of a tomato aspic I once tried at a similar event. Sometimes progress is a good thing.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Would you like to rent a car while you're in Norfolk this weekend?

Who's asking: Priceline.com

Thanks, but no, and I actually need to cancel that plane ticket, if it's possible (it probably isn't).

I was supposed to go to Virginia Beach this weekend for a luncheon in honor of my old friend Melissa, who's getting married next month. Instead, I'll be seeing a lot of I-95 as I drive back and forth to Waterville.

Dad's in Maine General for a few days, getting IV antibiotic treatment for a leg infection. Not exactly how he wanted to spend his time in Maine, and not what the state has in mind when they advertise this place as Vacationland. Sure, he has in-room television and excellent room service, but the decor leaves a little to be desired, and there's no minibar.

What I Read This Week

Lise McClendon, Painted Truth. Lise's going to be on the panel I'm moderating at Bouchercon; I really enjoyed this second Alix Thorssen mystery, set in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Alix, an art dealer, investigates a series of murders connected to a once-brilliant painter who's trying to mount a comeback.

Jasper Fforde, The Fourth Bear. For cheering-up reading in a hospital waiting room, you can't do better than Jasper Fforde's Nursery Crimes mysteries (how's that for a blurb?). This second novel is even better than the first (The Big Over-Easy), and describes the Nursery Crimes Division's hunts for the murderer of a certain blonde journalist and the escaped master criminal the Gingerbreadman. An ongoing discussion of whether the Gingerbreadman is a cake or a cookie proves essential to defeating the fiend.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

What is the difference between an "en" dash and an "em" dash, and what is the correct spacing around them?

Who's asking: E., a potential client

"Em" and "en" are typesetters' references to the space taken up by the letter m and the letter n. An "em" dash takes up two spaces (--) and an "en" dash takes up one (-).

An em dash is what we think of as a dash, and an en dash is a hyphen. Hyphens occur within or between linked words, and do not take a space on either side (e.g., cross-dressing, hara-kiri). Dashes are punctuation marks used to indicate a sharp break, set off a series, provide additional information, or make a side comment. They don't belong in formal writing, and I overuse them myself; a semi-colon, a colon, or a set of parentheses is usually more appropriate.

Traditional typesetting uses no space before or after a dash. AP style, which I prefer, uses spaces before and after a dash. As I told my potential client, many word-processing and publishing programs have their own default settings. What's important is to choose one style, and stick to it.

It's another gray, rainy day here in central Maine. Dad's staying with me for a few days, which makes Dizzy happy; he thinks we should always have company.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

What professional sports team is named after the rarest mammal in the United States?

Who's asking: The quizmaster at The Liberal Cup's weekly pub trivia, last night

Okay, strictly speaking, this question was directed to a room full of people, and not to me personally. Since I couldn't stay to hear the answer, I accosted the Quizmaster during a break in the game, asking him to confirm my guess, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Good guess, he said, but he was looking for a major league team; and even if he hadn't been, the answer was still the Florida Panthers.

I didn't feel bad about not knowing the answer. Who remembers that Florida has a hockey team? What are they doing, trying to play hockey in Florida? Ridiculous.

The endangered status of the Florida panther is no joke, though. According to the state's official panther site, only 50-70 survive in the wild. The Florida Panthers hockey organization probably employs more people.

First five random songs off the iPod this morning:

“Gathering Up My Love,” Francine Reed. Francine Reed is best known as the female singer in Lyle Lovett's large band, but she's a great blues singer in her own right.

“Two Doors Down,” Dwight Yoakam. I may have told this story on the blog before, but I saw Dwight Yoakam once in person -- at the old Mystery Bookstore, in West Hollywood -- and he seemed to glow. He is not conventionally handsome, but he has that star quality -- you can't take your eyes off him.

“Train in Vain,” Annie Lennox. This cover takes itself too seriously.

"Touch, Feel, & Lose," Ryan Adams. I always think of this song as "Cry, Cry, Cry," because that's the chorus. Not exactly cheerful, on a rainy morning.

"Sleep Better," Pete Yorn. It's a morning for moody songwriters, I guess. This is one of my favorite CDs (Music for the Morning After), and I associate it with my friend Meredith, who introduced me to it, and the strange, sad autumn of 2001.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

What happened to the Old Man of the Mountain, and why can't they fix him?

Who's asking: Tom Ehrenfeld

The Old Man of the Mountain was a remarkable geological formation in New Hampshire's White Mountains, right off I-93. Five granite ledges combined to create the illusion of a man's profile. Settlers discovered the formation in 1805; in May 2003, after a series of brutal storms, the formation crumbled, obliterating the Old Man's forehead and nose. At the time, the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation blamed days of high winds, heavy rain, and freezing overnight temperatures.

The combination of rain and freezing temperatures is hard on stone structures of any kind. Water seeps into cracks and freezes overnight, causing breaks. (This is why outdoor statues in cold climates often get boxed up in the winter. When I visited St. Petersburg in December 1992, I couldn't understand why the Russians had chosen to decorate their parks with gray wooden crates.)

Anyway, a fund and task force now exist to explore ways to commemorate the Old Man of the Mountain, rather than try to restore it. Restoring it isn't really possible; the structure crumbled, and carving a statue in the granite wouldn't be the same thing at all. Recommendations for revitalizing the site include building a larger museum at the base of Cannon Mountain, creating a traveling exhibit, and installing high-tech viewers that would show what the formation used to look like.

Those who don't get to New Hampshire often can still see the Old Man of the Mountain on the back of the New Hampshire state quarter.

Dad and I visited the landmark on the back of the Maine quarter, the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, yesterday afternoon. I was hoping to see some seals, but no luck.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Was Leather Tuscadero in the "demolition derby" episode of HAPPY DAYS?

Who's asking: Jennifer Lechner

Jen and Steve spent a rainy day in an Ethiopian hotel room debating this point, because I was not available to provide the answer. In fact, I had to look this one up -- but the answer is no. The "demolition derby" episodes of HAPPY DAYS were a three-part arc called "Fonzie Loves Pinky," and featured not Leather Tuscadero, but her older sister, Pinky, played by Roz Kelly. Leather (Suzi Quatro) didn't show up until several seasons later, by which time the series was already on the decline.

My mother was a fierce opponent of all things "Happy Days," especially Fonzie and the Tuscadero sisters; her word for them was "trashy." "Trashy" was a nebulous concept that included roller rinks, getting one's ears pierced, and chewing gum in public.

As an adult, I too find myself referring to things as "trashy," but I use it more often to mean "disrespectful of the safety and comfort of others." A recent example would be the young woman who was picking her feet at her table the other night at the Azure Cafe in Freeport, right next to the table where Dad and I were eating. I almost said something, but the woman's own boyfriend did; her response was, "What? They're clean, I took a shower."

I'm just speculating, but even Pinky Tuscadero wouldn't have dug under her toenails in public.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Saturday, September 02, 2006

When were the Montreal Olympics?

Who's asking: Me, actually, as well as Dad and Claire

The Montreal Olympics took place in the summer of 1976, and are famous mainly for marking the international debut of Nadia Comaneci. My twin sister Kathy and I were visiting our grandparents in Charleston, SC during the summer Olympics, and practiced vaulting off the banister in their front hallway. It's a wonder we didn't break anything, including ourselves.

Montreal's Olympic Stadium is visible from the bridge into the city, and looks a little shabby these days. Housing built for the Olympics now serves as housing for McGill students, and Claire says it's already falling down, although it's only 30 years old.

It's a sad thing, but Dad, Claire and I all agreed that we just don't get excited about the Olympics any more. I blame the decision to split the Summer and Winter Olympics, instead of having them all in the same year. It was more fun to get excited about all those things once every four years; the current system seems to make people say, "What, Olympics again? Didn't we just have some?"

Friday, September 01, 2006

What's that big Indian next to 295?

Who's asking: My dad and Claire

Just above exit 17 on Maine's 295, at the south end of Freeport, is a giant wooden Indian that seems unconnected to anything around it. Calling it a giant wooden native American would be pointless; this thing is a relic from the days when native Americans in the movies said "How," and Americans believed that all American Indians wore big feather headdresses.

You can see a picture of him here, although the comments on that site are not entirely correct. The Big Freeport Indian ("BFI" or "Bill," to those of us who know him personally) stands more than 50 feet tall, and belongs to a company called Winter People, which sells corporate-branded clothing and accessories.

The Winter People inherited the BFI from a clothing store called Levinsky's, which inherited him from the Casco Bay Trading Company. The Casco Bay Trading Company was a gift shop/general store that catered to tourists, and they put the BFI up in the 1960s as a way of getting people to stop and shop. People still stop to look at the Indian. I'm always glad to see him at the end of a long trip, because it means I'm only 35 miles from home.

My Dad and my daughter, Claire, are both visiting this week, and we're all driving up to Montreal today to deliver Claire back to school. Six hours in a car together will be an adventure. Watch the news for reports of international incidents along the Vermont-Quebec border.

Between the company and other work, I've read very little this week, although I'm working my way through the backlists of four authors whose panel I'll be moderating at Bouchercon: Linda Barnes, Robert Dugoni, Lise McClendon, and Christopher Reich. If you're at B'con and awake at 9:00 on Friday morning, check it out.