Monday, April 30, 2007

My glamorous life

It all goes so fast... it was a good Festival, though it passed in the usual blur. (That's Linda Brown in the photo, contemplating the wreckage yesterday afternoon.) Lots of people, lots of books. My face hurts from smiling so much, I'm a little sunburned, and I broke all but one fingernail on my right hand (this always happens). I'm sorry that I didn't get a chance to talk to a couple of people I really wanted to talk to, but glad that I saw so many friends, and delighted that the store sold so many books.

Henry Winkler shopped our booth on Saturday afternoon and shook my hand -- "I'm Henry," he said, and all I could manage was a gasped, "I know who you are." He is a huge fan of Lee Child, who wasn't signing with us this weekend but will be at the store next month -- "Tell Lee Child, I said he writes like a river," Henry Winkler said.

Yeah, I bought a few books. I had to get Laura Lippman to sign a copy of What the Dead Know ; she also gave me a wonderful interview for a Mystery Bookstore podcast that should be live later this week. Daniel Woodrell signed a first edition of Winter's Bone for me, and now I'm afraid to read it for fear of getting fingerprints on it. James Ellroy signed a copy of My Dark Places for me, and was so charming I almost followed him home. Peter Spiegelman gave me a copy of Wall Street Noir signed by most of the contributors, and I bought a copy of D.C. Noir to go with it.

If you're not already subscribing to the Mystery Bookstore podcasts, this would be a good time to sign up -- click one of the buttons in the upper right hand corner of the store's home page. Over the next couple of weeks we'll be streaming the Laura Lippman interview, as well as interviews I conducted this weekend with Michael Connelly and Harlan Coben (there's a story behind that one that I'll report when the interview goes live), and two I'll be doing this afternoon with Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Are Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots really robots?

Who's asking: Tom Ehrenfeld, Cambridge, MA

You'd think that people would agree on the definition of "robot," but it seems to be more of an adjective than a noun. Nevertheless, one prerequisite is that a robot needs to be able to operate, once started, without human manipulation -- and the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots don't do anything, unless humans are operating the controls. In fact, they're not even clockwork automatons; they're just a lever-operated simple machine, with spring-loaded heads.

So no, the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots are not really robots. That is not to say, however, they're not a darn good toy. I never owned one, as Mom objected to toys that glamorized violence.

Last night's party was an excellent time. It was too crowded for karaoke, but we had just enough wine (three bottles left), and everyone seemed happy to see everyone else.

This morning's coming very early, but The Mystery Bookstore will be set up and ready to go when the festival opens at 9:00. Signing panels start at 10:00 a.m. and run all day; check here for the full schedule.

Friday, April 27, 2007

What time does the party start?

Who's asking: A caller to The Mystery Bookstore yesterday

Today's pre-Festival of Books party at The Mystery Bookstore starts at 5:00, when Denise Hamilton, Jim Pascoe, Christopher Rice and possibly a couple of other folks sign Los Angeles Noir, their new collection of short fiction. It'll go until 9:00 p.m., until the food and drink run out, and/or until we kick everyone out.

I'm feeling generous, so here are a couple more questions I fielded yesterday:

Q: Will there be any celebrities at this party?

A: Depends on what you consider a celebrity. Mary Higgins Clark said she'd stop in, we're hoping to see brand-new Edgar winner Naomi Hirahara, and we should have a few other Edgar winners and nominees on hand as well. The whole list is here.

Q: How much wine should we buy?

A: A lot. I'm not going to say exactly how much, but we bought a lot. Also beer, water, soft drinks, and food.

Q: Can you recommend a contemporary mystery set in India?

A: Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games is supposed to be great, but I have not read it yet because it's 928 pages long.

Those of you in Los Angeles should come out to The Mystery Bookstore tonight. If you're in the Washington, DC area, go see The Good Doctor at St. John's College this weekend, directed by the brilliant and hilarious Christopher Bea.

What I Read This Week

Carol Higgins Clark, Laced. Regan and Jack Reilly, married at last, go on honeymoon to Galway and discover that a notorious pair of jewel thieves have arrived just ahead of them. Much lighter reading than my usual, but charming, and a nice break.

Stuart Woods, Fresh Disasters. Midway through this book, the main character sleeps with three different women on consecutive days -- and takes one of them on a date to the scene of another's brutal murder. Strangely, he's supposed to be the hero. I used to defend this series as Walter Mitty fantasies, but I'm done now.

Kat Richardson, Greywalker. A debut novel introducing Seattle PI Harper Blaine, who can see the Grey -- the zone between living and dead -- after a near-death experience. A missing persons case leaves her working for a vampire and fighting to save the community from a dangerous revenant. Interesting, but I think Christopher Moore may have wrecked my ability to take the vampire genre seriously.

Mike Freeman, Jim Brown: The Fierce Life of an American Hero. Someone needs to write a definitive cultural biography of football legend/actor/activist/alleged abuser Jim Brown, but this isn't it. It's a good introduction for a generation that has already (shockingly) forgotten him, but the subtitle gives Freeman's perspective away: he admires Brown too much to give us a truly comprehensive perspective. And it's hard to write a biography of someone who's still alive.

Louise Penny, A Fatal Grace. Somehow I missed Penny's Dilys-winning debut, Still Life; I'm going to have to go back for it now, because this sequel is wonderful. A cold, much-disliked Martha Stewart wannabe is electrocuted at a Christmas curling match. As Inspector Gamache investigates, he finds that almost everyone in the small southern Quebec town of Three Pines had a motive to kill her. A Fatal Grace reminded me -- if I needed reminding -- that "traditional" mysteries can be every bit as emotionally honest and complex as the darker stuff. It's out next week, but already available in Canada as Dead Cold.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

How long does it take to get from Gardiner, ME to Santa Monica, CA?

Who's asking: The Super Shuttle driver at LAX, last night

Yesterday, it took about 13 hours. Left my apartment at 12:00 noon EDT, caught the bus from Portland to Boston's Logan Airport, flew to LAX, climbed into a Super Shuttle van, reached my destination (and two happy dogs!) juat before 10:00 p.m. PDT. Read three books (about which more tomorrow), sort-of watched three movies ("Invincible" on the bus, "The Holiday" and "The Pursuit of Happyness" on the plane).

Land distance between my home and Gary's, where I'm staying: 3,151 miles. My average travel speed yesterday: just over 242 MPH. Google Maps says it would take 27 hours to drive it, without stops. Modern travel is amazing...

Woke up before 4:00 local time this morning. The older I get, the harder I find recalibrating to time zone changes. Maybe I'll catch a nap late this afternoon, but I doubt it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What's the Spanish word for lamb?

Who's asking: An anonymous Google searcher

The Spanish word for lamb is cordero. Noun, masculine, so it's el cordero. Wouldn't I sound so much more exotic if my last name were Cordero? In Maine, anyway.

I don't often talk about specific client projects, but one of the things I've been spending a lot of time on over the past few months is a website redesign for Joseph Finder, internationally-bestselling author of Killer Instinct, Company Man, Paranoia and the forthcoming Power Play (in stores August 21).

"Internationally-bestselling" is the key phrase, because the most challenging and time-consuming piece of this puzzle has been the international pages -- consolidated pages that show all the international covers, plus individual microsites for (so far) the Dutch, Swedish, German, Spanish and Israeli editions. God willing, some or all of these microsites will go live when the big redesign does, in mid-May.

"Gee," I hear you say, "I didn't know you spoke all those languages," and you would be correct. I have basic reading knowledge of German and Spanish. I am theoretically proficient in French, but took that test 20 years ago. I remember the Cyrillic alphabet from college Russian classes, and can figure out the Greek alphabet because it's basically the same. I have no knowledge of Hebrew at all.

Fortunately, Joe's publishers have kindly provided me with images and blocks of text, and all I have to do is assemble them. In doing so, I see how the nature of language is the same, regardless of the words and letters. We name things, we describe them, and we tell what they do. The power to do that makes us human.

I'm off to Los Angeles this afternoon for the L.A. Times Festival of Books. You will find me at The Mystery Bookstore's tent (Booth #411), and at the store's famous pre-Festival party on Friday night. Blogging will continue, but may be erratic.

Five Random Songs

"Still," Macy Gray. This CD (On How Life Is) was 1999's version of Jagged Little Pill, the one record every unmarried woman needed to own. Last year's version was Pink's I'm Not Dead. I got a little tired of Jagged Little Pill, but I'm still not tired of this record, or of Pink's.

"Finale," Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking, from the Chicago soundtrack. The musical, not the AOR band. What could be more appropriate? "Oh, I'm no one's wife, but/Oh, I love my life/And all that jazz..."

"Get Up Stand Up," Bob Marley. Spring is here at last -- it was 84 degrees on Monday! -- and this is the perfect music for it.

"Way to Blue," Nick Drake. Nick Drake is always springtime music to me, too, though more contemplative.

"Tunnel of Love," Bruce Springsteen. Still one of the greatest albums ever about the impossibility of romantic relationships. "There's a room full of shadows that gets so dark, brother/It's easy for two people to lose each other/In this tunnel of love..."

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

If they're legumes, why are they called peaNUTS?

Who's asking: Chris Neely, St. Louis, MO

This is the last peanut question for a while, I think -- although I am very fond of peanuts, alone and as peanut butter. I don't really like peanuts in things, and peanut butter-flavored stuff is usually gross... exceptions to this are Isamax's peanut butter whoopie pie and the peanut-butter filled, chocolate-frosted doughnuts at Stan's in Westwood.

But I digress. Peanuts are called peanuts because they look like peas and taste like nuts. The word "peanut" dates to 1807, approximately; before that, they were called ground nuts and ground peas. The British also called them "monkey nuts."

A nut, botanically, is the hard, one-seeded fruit of a tree. Peanuts grow on vines, not on trees, they're not hard, and they grow two or three to a pod. So they're not nuts.

This begs the next question, "What is a legume?" A legume is a pod that splits into two valves, with the seeds attached to one side of the valve. That describes peanuts, peas and beans. It also describes tamarinds, which I would never have classified as legumes, but actually are.

Peanut butter and tamarind paste might be a pretty good combination, now I think of it.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Who wrote "Me & Bobby McGee"?

Who's asking: The Lechners

I'm allowed to take an easy question once in a while.

Renaissance man Kris Kristofferson (Rhodes scholar, Army officer, helicopter pilot, songwriter, actor) wrote this song with Fred Foster (most famous for being the man who gave Dolly Parton her first record deal). "Bobby McGee" is a woman in Kristofferson's version of the song; the song has also been recorded by Roger Miller, Gordon Lightfoot, Bill Haley & the Comets (!), The Grateful Dead, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and - erk - Jennifer Love Hewitt.

The ultimate version, of course, is Janis Joplin's. I never think of Janis Joplin as a Top 40 musical act, but her cover of "Me & Bobby McGee" was a #1 single.

This week is going to be crazy, and posts are likely to be short. I leave Wednesday afternoon for Los Angeles, and have a lot to do between now and then.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

"Everything you are doing is bad. You should know this."

The Movie: Ghostbusters II, 1989 (Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis, screenwriters; Ivan Reitman, dir.)
Who says it: Peter MacNicol as museum curator Dr. Janosz Poha
The context: Janosz is Managing by Walking Around in the museum's art restoration studio.
How you can use it: What, this isn't Management 101?

Here's a movie quotation, for old times' sake. It's also a line every freelancer can laugh at -- through their pain.

Freelancing is a great life in many ways, but one disadvantage is the nature of feedback. Freelancers are service providers, not employees, and one reason people hire freelancers rather than employees is to avoid the intangible obligations of management. A freelancer provides a service in exchange for a fee, and the freelancer's self-esteem, personal life, professional development and career track are none of the client's concern.

That suits me fine. The "professional development" component of working in my former office used to drive me crazy, and feeling responsible for my own employees' well-being used to keep me awake at night.

But it's true that I tend to hear from my clients only when they're not happy. If they like what I do, they just say thank you, write me a check and hire me again. If they call me, it's usually because whatever I sent them wasn't what they wanted.

This is why all freelancers should own dogs. Dizzy thinks that everything I say is brilliant, that I'm an excellent driver, a world-class cook, and have a lovely singing voice. He just wishes we could work outside more.

Friday, April 20, 2007

How do you live broken-hearted?

Who's asking: Bruce Springsteen, in "Mary's Place"

I still go back to The Rising when I feel bad and baffled about the state of the universe. I've been listening to it a lot this week. I'll turn it off at noon, for the moment of silence to remember the Virginia Tech victims.

Sorrow and hard times get distributed unfairly in this world. The most pointless question in the world is "Why me?", but it doesn't stop any of us from asking it, when we lose the things that are most precious to us. I am far and away the luckiest person I know -- but 10 or 20 years ago, I had no idea that I'd feel this way today. Instead -- if I'd been in a mood to confide, and thought there was a good chance I'd never meet you again -- I might have given you a catalog of everything I'd ever lost.

The thing is, this question has no answer, except, "You just do." Like the singer in "Mary's Place," you gather your friends and your family together and you have a party. You turn it up. You go home and you brush your teeth and you cry yourself to sleep, and you do it all again the next day, and the next, until one day, you forget that you're broken-hearted -- and then one day, you might even forget that you're not supposed to be happy. And then you are happy.

What I Read This Week

Mary Higgins Clark, I Heard That Song Before. Not my usual fare, but I'm interviewing Mrs. Clark and her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark, for Mystery Bookstore podcasts at the beginning of May. Kay Lansing falls in love with the heir to a vast fortune, who was implicated in a debutante's disappearance 20 years earlier.

Jennifer Colt, The Vampire of Venice Beach. Identical red-headed twins Kerry and Terry McAfee hunt a murderer who seems to be at large in Los Angeles's "social vampire" community. Wicked, silly fun, and Kerry McAfee (the good twin) is great company as a narrator.

Jason Starr, The Follower. This book doesn't come out until July; the author sent me an advance copy, with a note saying that Ken Bruen had said this book does for dating what Jaws did for the beach. I have nothing to add to that; this book is the story of 23-year-old New Yorker Katie Porter, who finds herself the target of an old friend's excessive affection. I'm 20 years past this scene, and it made me reconsider the convent option. (The Sisters of St. Joseph are just up the road in Winslow...)

Margo Jefferson, On Michael Jackson. This book-length essay explores Michael Jackson both psychologically and culturally, putting him in a context that includes the Elephant Man, Tom Thumb, Jackie Coogan and Diana Ross. Fascinating.

Reed Farrel Coleman, Soul Patch. The late 1980s finds ex-cop, wine merchant and sometime P.I. Moe Prager wrestling with the issues of midlife: a stalled marriage, dying dreams, and bad decisions come back to haunt him. An old friend, now NYPD Chief of Detectives, asks Moe to look into the facts behind a punk's claim that he knows what really happened to a notorious drug dealer killed a decade earlier. The search threatens Moe's marriage, his life and his very idea of himself. Moving and elegiac, with enough loose ends to guarantee Moe's return (in An Inconvenient Child, next spring).

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Should NBC have aired the video they received from the Virginia Tech killer?

Who's asking: Everyone, especially the Virginia Tech community

No. Not yesterday, not this week, and maybe not at all.

Psychologists and sociologists can debate the existence of a "Werther effect," a theory based on the observation that the suicide rate spikes after a highly-publicized suicide.

But it's just common sense that this young man -- I am not giving him his name, for reasons that will be clear -- was unnoticed even by his suite-mates last week. A couple of his suite-mates weren't even sure he spoke English fluently, he was so quiet and so consumed with his inner world. This week, everyone knows his name and his rage, and almost everyone has now seen him as he wanted to be seen.

The message here is obvious. By killing 32 people, this young man gave himself a world-wide platform. He is finally getting the attention he wanted. We want to understand him, when we ignored him before.

What's hard about the decision to say NO to this? He doesn't deserve our attention or our understanding or our sympathy. News reports now suggest that many people made efforts to help him while he was alive, many people offered him understanding. He lost his right to that when he drew the first gun.

Let's forget his name. Let's stop talking about him, and let's continue to refer to him as a creepy loser.

Let the news media instead spend the next month profiling each of the victims of the massacre, who will never have the opportunity to make one last speech to the public.

The other thing that airing this young man's video has done is turn the media themselves into the story. It's too late to roll back this tide, but it's time for someone to say this again: the reporters are not the story. The TV producer's decision is not the story. They should have sealed up the package, handed it off to the police, and let the police decide whether and how to publicize any of it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Where does the name "Big Apple" come from?

Who's asking: A guy on the train from Boston to New York yesterday

He asked this to no one in particular, but of course I needed to look it up when I got to Maeve's.

New York has been known as the "The Big Apple" only since the 1930s. Jazz musicians -- particularly bandleader Fletcher Henderson -- made it part of their slang, but the term seems to have originated with New York sports columnist John J. FitzGerald. He reported having heard two stableboys at a race track in New Orleans talk about making it to the Big Apple, by which they meant New York. FitzGerald wrote a column for the New York Morning Telegraph called "Around the Big Apple," and the intersection of Broadway and W. 54th is named "Big Apple Corner," in his honor.

It's a quick trip to New York, but I've managed to see a lot of people in a short time, and will see more this morning before getting back on the train. Today's song list is not quite random, because I wanted to start it with the song that's been running through my head for the past 24 hours.

Five Random Songs

"Another Hundred People," Pamela Myers & The Vocal Minority, from the Company soundtrack. "Can we see each other Tuesday if it doesn't rain?/Look, I'll call you in the morning or my service will explain..."

"Strike Like Lightning," Lonnie Mack. From the Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Collection, which any fan of blues or southern rock should own.

"Soul Shadows," Bill Withers. Bill Withers's voice sounds like warm syrup.

"An Cail n Fionn (Natasha)," James Galway & Phil Coulter. Flute and piano, mood music for a rainy day (which this is).

"At the Zoo," Simon & Garfunkel. This version is from the Old Friends live album, and has great violin and drum backing.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Why are they called "Spanish" peanuts?

Who's asking: An anonymous Google searcher from British Columbia

"Spanish" peanuts are one of the four most popular types of peanuts grown for commercial use today; the others are Virginia, Runner, and Valencia. Spanish peanuts are high in oil and flavor, have smaller kernels than Virginia or Runner peanuts, have red skins and are often used to make peanut brittle.

They're called Spanish peanuts because those varieties -- now grown in South Africa and the United States, mostly -- were developed in Spain, in the late 18th century. Peanuts as a species originated in South America (Peru or Argentina), and Spanish and Portuguese explorers took them to Africa, Asia and Europe. Spanish explorers brought the "Virginia" varieties with them from the West Indies to Mexico, and the "Peruvian" variety from Peru to the Philippines and China. The "Spanish" variety actually seems to have originated in Brazil; the "Valencia" varieties, also developed in Spain, first came from Argentina.

Peanuts are an international food staple. They're not nuts at all, but legumes that grow on vines or stalks. They need hot summers, alternating wet and dry weather, and sandy soil -- which is why they do so well in the Virginia and Georgia tidewater regions. One interesting bit of trivia is that peanuts weren't commonly grown in the South until the 1850s, when farmers started planting them in soil that had been exhausted by cotton. Lucky for the Confederate Army, which survived on "goober peas;" they wouldn't have gotten very far eating cotton.

The "historic" storm we were supposed to get yesterday is just a lot of rain, I'm glad to say. I leave very early tomorrow morning for a quick trip to New York, so posting may be late or absent altogether until Thursday.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A public service announcement from Dizzy



Did you hear me? I mean it! Right there!


Saturday, April 14, 2007

What do you want people to say at your funeral?

Who's asking: Anna Bragdon, China, ME

This was the morbid topic of conversation at Anna's birthday dinner last night, inspired by the terrible occasion of Representative Abigail Holman's funeral on Thursday. These conversations are fun in college, when no one actually believes they're going to die; they get more serious in mid-life, when suddenly people we know are dying of natural causes and accidents that could happen to us.

I used to joke that I'd spent more time planning my dream funeral than I ever spent planning my dream wedding, since the funeral is a ceremony I'm guaranteed to have. The older I get, though, the less I think about it. My main concern now is that no one have to spend too much money on it.

What I'd like people to say about me, when I'm gone, is that I was a pleasure to know, usually interesting and sometimes funny. It would be nice if my survivors could gloss over my perpetual difficulties with time and money management, my lack of basic driving and housekeeping skills, and my questionable taste in men. I have no control over this, however, and can only trust in their mercy.

Anna said that her last words about me would be: "She only ever had one cat at a time." I like that. It says, "weird -- but not that weird." And that's about as much as I'd aspire to.

What do you want people to say about you, when the time comes?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Where do you stand on the David Sedaris controversy?

Who's asking: Bill Walsh, Washington, DC

The March 19 issue of The New Republic included an article called "This American Lie," by Alex Heard (the article's restricted to subscribers, but the first page is free content, and that will give you the gist). Heard, a fan of David Sedaris's essays, had gone through each of Sedaris's books and fact-checked them -- and found that not only had Sedaris exaggerated, on several occasions he just made stuff up.

The problem with this is that Sedaris presents his work as autobiographical essays, and his publisher sells the books as nonfiction. Should Sedaris, then, be subject to the same kind of public criticism and publishing retractions that James Frey endured?

My knee-jerk reaction is "Of course not, don't be silly," but it's interesting to look at the broader questions Heard's article raises.

Memoirs are tricky. Translating a series of events into a narrative assigns causation and motive where they may not have existed, and gives the narrator a central role not only in his or her own life, but also in the lives of others -- who might not even have been paying attention to the narrator at the time. We're all the stars of our own life stories, of course, but that turns the people around us into supporting characters, and that always makes me uncomfortable.

David Sedaris walks this line almost as well as anyone could. He's a storyteller and humorist who never tells a story without a point, even if the point is just a punch line. His essays are funny, sad, angry, bitter, and compassionate, sometimes all in the same paragraph. He's mellowed in his tolerance for his own shortcomings, as well as others', but he's still just as hard on himself as he is on anyone else he writes about.

It never occurred to me that Sedaris's essays were the literal truth. I've always assumed that he exaggerates for effect, and riffs on the humdrum to emphasize the absurd. The David Sedaris character in his essays is just that, a character, and I don't have any idea of how closely that character resembles the real man.

So should his books be sold as non-fiction? I assume they wound up there because they're written as essays, rather than as short stories. Essays get filed under non-fiction. Maybe they ought to be classified as poetry, since they serve a similar purpose -- shaping reality to suit the aims of a larger truth.

How is this different from James Frey's transgressions? That's harder to say. I'm afraid my own truth here is that I like David Sedaris's writing, and detest James Frey's; also, David Sedaris seems like someone I'd want to know, while James Frey seems like a few people I have known whose acquaintance I've regretted.

Rationalizations aside, though, it's a matter of degree and a matter of self-presentation. David Sedaris doesn't pretend to have found any answers; his haplessness is his primary subject matter. He doesn't set himself up as a role model, and I've never heard anyone say that a David Sedaris book changed their life. He never made the claims James Frey made, and therefore it matters less that these essays aren't the literal truth.

It worries me a little that I'm so much more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to people I like -- or whose work I like -- but don't we all? This is the nature of our American culture, for better or worse. If we tried to enforce rigid rules about it, we might as well be living in a theocracy.

What I Read This Week

Gregg Hurwitz, The Crime Writer. Hurwitz (who's a friend of mine) takes big risks with this standalone, the story of crime novelist and convicted murderer Andrew Danner. Danner was found guilty but insane in the murder of his ex-fiancee; police caught him standing over her stabbed corpse, having a seizure caused by a brain tumor. Danner has no memory of that night, and feels a desperate need to find out what really happened -- especially when another woman is killed in a similar way, and trace evidence puts Danner at the scene of that crime, too. The Crime Writer does not flinch from uncomfortable questions about cannibalizing one's own life and manipulating characters to create a story. It's a fascinating look at the writing process as well as a compelling thriller, and a major step forward for Gregg, who was doing pretty well already. I read an advance copy; the book comes out in July.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Is it true that the original word for "butterfly" was "flutterby"?

Who's asking: Grace Lechner, Freeport, ME

"Flutterby" is a better name for them, isn't it? But no; English has always called them butterflies (buterflie, in Middle English, and buttorfleoge, in old English).

It's not clear where that name comes from. Some dictionaries speculate that the word comes from the old Dutch word boterschijte, meaning droppings that look like butter -- but butterflies excrete only water, and caterpillar frass looks nothing like butter.

Our word for butterfly is kind of boring, compared to other languages'. In ancient Greek and ancient Latin, the words for butterfly -- psyche and papilio -- were also used to describe the human soul. Our word pavilion comes from the Latin word for butterfly -- the underlying image is of something that spreads out. This website explores different languages' words for butterflies, and their origins.

Wishing Anna Bragdon a very happy birthday today, which is otherwise kind of grim. Another winter storm is coming; soldiers are not coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan; and Kurt Vonnegut is dead. Damn it.

It seems appropriate to close on this quotation, which was in the Times' obituary. It's from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, published the year I was born:

"At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ ”

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What book do you claim to have read that you haven't?

Who's asking: Me, but inspired by Tod Goldberg

Over at Jewcy yesterday, Tod Goldberg discussed his habit of pretending to have read important works of literature.

I'll go out on a limb and say that everyone who lives and works in the world of books has done this about at least one book, so today I'm asking you: what's the book you most often claim to have read, but never actually made it through?

For me, it's Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. In 1996 or 1997, my then-housemate Ashton decided that all of us living at 1800 15th Street NW should read it, and discuss it; he bought four copies, and we all started in.

I carried it around with me for about three months, and made it about halfway through. I was traveling a lot at the time, and what alarmed me was how many people stopped me when I was carrying it -- "Are you reading that? That's my favorite book EVER! That book changed my life!"

The oddest instance of this happened at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I was in Cleveland for a meeting, had a couple of hours off and wandered over to check out the Hall and maybe read in the plaza afterward. The ticket-taker, who was somewhere in my age range (30ish), noticed my book and told me that it was the greatest book he'd ever read.

Sometimes I think that if I'd actually been able to finish Atlas Shrugged, I too could be working at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame -- but in the immortal words of Too Much Joy, all I've got is a few big dreams divided into many small regrets.

Anyway, I want to know what your Big Literary Lie is. Leave it in the comments section.

Five Random Songs

"Suite - Judy Blue Eyes," Crosby, Stills & Nash. So beautiful, still.

"President Gas," Psychedelic Furs. Great workout music.

"Jubilee," Mary Chapin Carpenter. This album (Stones in the Road) is my favorite of all her records, a meditation on mid-life and lost love.

"Troubled Times," Fountains of Wayne. Why aren't these guys huge, huge stars?

"Lullaby of London," The Pogues. "May angels bright watch you tonight/And keep you as you sleep."

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Should Don Imus be forced to resign?

Who's asking: All the talking heads

Don Imus has made a career of being obnoxious. In his private life he seems to be a thoughtful, caring man -- and he wrote a very entertaining novel, God's Other Son -- but his public persona is nothing short of troll-like. He's deliberately offensive, loud-mouthed, and politically incorrect.

I watch him most mornings, at least in part to stoke a sense of righteous indignation that lets me feel smug about my own moral superiority. He and his henchmen say things that allow me to congratulate myself on my own right-thinking ways, and once in a while he says something that makes me laugh or makes me think.

Last week, he and his producer, Bernard McGuirk, referred to the Rutgers' women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." The Rutgers basketball team members are teenaged girls, college students on scholarships with a lifetime of professional achievement ahead of them, and that remark was unconscionably offensive and unkind.

Was it worse, however, than Bernard McGuirk's recurring "Cardinal Egan" character, which often implies that all Catholic priests are child molesters? Was it worse than Imus's frequent guest, Bo Dietl, wondering aloud about whether Barack Obama's ties to the Muslim community made him a disloyal American? Was it worse than the constant derision about any woman carrying an ounce of excess weight?

Hard to say. As a woman who carries some excess weight, I could be offended by Don Imus every day, and I often am -- but I keep listening to him. And I formulate responses to him in my head -- what would I say to Don Imus, given the chance?

This, I think, is the value of characters like Don Imus in public discourse, and the reason he shouldn't be forced to quit. Don Imus says aloud what many ignorant people think, and the fact that he says these things gives other, more enlightened people the opportunity to contradict him. (Of course, the people contradicting him are often as idiotic as he is, but that's the nature of public discourse.)

The public flogging he's enduring now is so much less effective than it would be if the Rutgers' women's basketball team coach and her team captains had gone on the show the next day to ask: "Why did you call us nappy-headed hos? Why did you think that was okay? Are you willing to say that to our faces?"

We have to talk to each other, and stop yelling about each other to people who already agree with us.

But then, who am I kidding? I'm posting this on a blog for people who already visit it, rather than saying it directly to Mr. Imus.

Excuse me, I think I need to go write a letter.

But first, happy, happy, HAPPY birthday to Claire Bea, who is 21 today, and never fears to say exactly what's on her mind.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Is Hungarian related to Russian?

Who's asking: Christian, Budapest

Hungarian, or Magyar, is a mysterious language unrelated to Russian, according to mainstream linguistic theory.

Most linguists believe that Magyar belongs to the Finno-Ugric subfamily of languages, while Russian is a Slavic language that belongs to the Indo-European family. The closest relatives to Magyar are Khanty and Mansi, two languages spoken by people who live along the Ob River in Russia. Hungarian is also related to the Baltic languages of Estonian, Finnish, Karelian, and Sami (the language spoken by Lapps). The Finno-Ugric languages share about 200 word stems, including at least 55 related to fishing. Linguists theorize that the Finno-Ugric languages originated in north central Europe.

The Slavic languages (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Macedonian), on the other hand, branched from the Indo-European root that emerged in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) in the 18th century B.C.E.

Dragging today, I think I'm coming down with something. I'd wonder whether it was allergies, but how can I be allergic to anything when there's still so much snow on the ground?

Saturday, April 07, 2007

What do family restaurants do with used crayons?

Who's asking: John McFetridge, Toronto, ON

John's complete question: "Often, when I take my kids to restuarants (especially chain family places), the server will give us a few brand new crayons in a plastic bag or little cardboard box. We really appreciate this and my kids use the crayons -- usually just a little and we leave them behind. But everytime we get brand new crayons. So, what do these restaurants do with the partly used crayons?"

This is one of those things it never occurred to me to wonder about -- but once it did, the question troubled me a great deal. Growing up in a household of five kids within a four-year range (the sixth came later), I learned to take crayons seriously, and can still tell you the coloring habits of each of my siblings in detail.

Kids today are spoiled in the crayon area. For one thing, Crayola now makes a box of 96 crayons, which Claire has already heard me whine about -- 96! Who needs 96 crayons? Sixty-four were enough for my generation, dammit. (I have it on good authority, however, that the in-box sharpener still doesn't work very well.) The crayons also come in all kinds of metallic, fluorescent and pastel colors that were not available during my childhood, and you can even custom-order boxes with multiple crayons of one color or another. (This would have saved my family a lot of fighting over the black crayon. Then again, we would not have learned those valuable negotiating, bullying, and hair-pulling skills.)

But Crayola also makes something really cool, which gets back to the answer to this question: a crayon maker that allows kids to recycle used crayons into new ones, and combine colors into new shades. (People who might buy me birthday or Christmas presents, take note: I want one.)

Once I discovered this, I was hoping to find that some employee of Friendly's or Denny's or Ricetta's had the happy assignment of recycling used crayons, cranking new ones out of the Crayon Maker in some back room off the kitchen.

But no. Last night at Ricetta's, where we celebrated Grace Lechner's birthday, I continued my informal poll on the fate of the giveaway crayons.

"If they're in good shape, we reuse them," the server said. "But usually we just throw them away. And of course, you're welcome to take them with you."

The green lifestyle, surely, should include recycling crayons... maybe some of those carbon credits can go toward installing Crayon Makers in every IHoP.

And before I forget: happy birthdays today to Maeve and Pam, and many happy returns. Spring is coming any day now.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Why is Billings, Montana called "The Magic City"?

Who's asking: Jen Lechner, Freeport, ME

I was going to give Grace today's question, since she is six years old today, but she didn't have one. (I'm sure she's just saving it for later.)

Jen asks this question because the Lechners have just returned from a trip to Billings. Montana is one of six states I haven't visited; I'll get there one of these days.

Billings, Montana was originally founded in 1877 as a stagecoach stop and trading post called Coulson, in the Yellowstone Valley. The Northern Pacific Railroad surveyed the area in 1882 and renamed the town Billings, after its former president, Frederick Billings.

The railroad made Billings a boom town. People said Billings "grew like magic," which led to the nickname "Magic City." With a population of approximately 90,000 people, it is the largest city in a 500-mile radius. I think of Gardiner as remote, but I'm only 45 miles from Portland; the nearest city to Billings is Sheridan, Wyoming, pop. 16,000, 132 miles away.

What I Read this Week

Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale. Shy, troubled bookseller Margaret Lea agrees to serve as biographer to the legendary novelist Vida Winter, who has never told the public anything true about her background. Miss Winter's story is mysterious and wonderful, and in deciphering it, Margaret learns life-changing truths about her own history. A wonderful, old-fashioned Gothic novel about the power of books, and deserving of all last year's hype.

Mark Haskell Smith, Salty. Mark Haskell Smith's genius is his ability to tell stories about not-very-nice people doing not-very-nice things, and have us like them, root for them, and laugh at their predicaments. Salty is the story of faded rock star Turk Henry, whose wife, Sheila, is kidnapped by pirates in Thailand. Turk's ready to do whatever he has to do to get Sheila back, but a U.S. government functionary forbids him to negotiate with terrorists, and Sheila finds herself more and more fascinated with her captor. Tremendously entertaining, unapologetically outrageous, and surprisingly touching.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Isn't springtime in New England beautiful?

Who's asking: A friend in the Washington, DC area who shall remain nameless for her own good

Oh, yeah. Beautiful.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

What are the rules of cricket?

Who's asking: Jen Lechner, Freeport, ME

When I did that Blography podcast last fall, John Lindner asked whether any questions had stumped me. I was only a month into this version of the blog at that point, so I didn't have a good answer yet. Some questions were going to take a while, I said, and some just didn't have an answer.

This was one of the first questions Jen asked for the blog. Despite a heavy snow falling outside my window, tomorrow is the Portland SeaDogs' home opener, so I thought it might be the right time to compare and contrast baseball and cricket. I've never understood cricket, but how hard could it be? You hit the ball, you run.

Pfft. I found this site, which lays the rules out as clearly as anything I've seen -- and still, something ruptured in the depths of my brain.

Eleven men to a side. One side bats, one fields. On the batting side, one man bats and runs, and one man just runs between two posts. When the two batsmen reach opposite posts, a run is scored.

That's all pretty clear -- but then things get complicated. Cricket has ten different ways of getting a batsman out, and about half a dozen ways to score that don't involve hitting the ball with the bat. Each team gets ten outs to an innings (cricket says "innings" instead of "inning"), which is why the game can sometimes take days to play. (To complicate things even further, a team may decide for strategic reasons not to take all ten outs, but to declare the innings closed earlier.) "Limited duration" cricket sets a time limit for a game, and allows each team only two innings. "Limited overs" cricket is a game of one innings apiece that sets a pre-determined number of overs (set of six pitches, which cricket calls bowls) per side. Oh, and did I mention that fielders take turns bowling (pitching), with each fielder bowling only one over?

A friend who follows cricket says it's easier to understand if someone explains it to you while you're watching a game. Some day when I have six hours to spare and a gallon of Chardonnay on hand, I might take him up on the offer.

Five Random Songs

"A Forest," Nouvelle Vague. Nouvelle Vague is French for "new wave," which is English for "bossa nova." This CD is a set of bossa nova covers of new wave songs -- "A Forest" was originally performed by The Cure -- and I like it a lot.

"That's Right (You're Not from Texas)," Lyle Lovett. The Texas Tourist Board ran a brilliant commercial a few years ago, featuring Lyle Lovett singing this song into a telephone: "That's right, you're not from Texas, but Texas loves you anyway." He hangs up, turns the page of a telephone book and says, "Man, this is going to take forever."

"Baby It's You," The Shirelles. The year was 1962, and I wasn't born yet... hair was big, and girl groups ruled.

"The Letter," Natalie Merchant. Standard break-up song. Been there, done that.

"Angel Band," The Stanley Brothers. From the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Old-timey bluegrass, in 3/4 time like a lullaby.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Which settlement was more significant, Jamestown or Plymouth?

Who's asking: Paul Tomme, Arlington, TX

Mrs. Holmes's fourth-grade class at Baylake Pines Elementary School (1974-75) spent the year studying Virginia history, from the First Landing in 1603 to the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 and up through the Revolutionary War. We all felt indignant that the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock got all the attention, when we Virginians had obviously been here first. (The Algonquians, who were here before us, didn't seem to matter as much.)

It was clear to me even as a nine-year-old that the New Englanders had simply been better at self-promotion. They wrote more books, being religious types; the Virginians were farmers and merchants and indentured servants. Harvard was founded in 1636, while Virginians didn't get around to starting the College of William and Mary until 1693. Sixty years of self-contemplation (not to say self-congratulation) makes a big difference in a country that's only been around a couple of hundred years.

But this year marks the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement, and it's finally getting the attention it deserves.

The story of the Jamestown settlement is mindboggling in its daring, its perseverance, its arrogance and its utter cluelessness. One hundred and five men and boys established a settlement on the James River in 1607. A year later, only 38 members of the original group survived, the rest having died of malaria, starvation, Indian attacks and a host of other ailments.

The settlers had sailed to Virginia looking to make their fortunes, and wasted too much time searching for gold in a region that has none. Captain John Smith saved the survivors by insisting that they "work or starve;" even the gentlemen of the company had to spend four hours a day farming, or else they didn't eat.

A gunpowder burn forced him to go back to England, though, and the colony fell apart in his absence. During "The Starving Time" of 1609-10, settlers resorted to eating rats and even, in one case, each other. Only 60 of the 214 settlers who had started that winter in Jamestown survived. The arrival of another 400 settlers in the spring of 1610 -- without adequate supplies, after a shipwreck off Bermuda -- forced the new governor, Sir Thomas Gates, to declare the colony a failure and order everyone back to England.

By chance, Gates' ships met up with a ship led by Thomas West, Lord de la Warr. De la Warr was bringing more settlers and ample supplies, and was prepared to take over as Governor. He persuaded Gates and his followers to return to Jamestown and wage full-scale war against Powhatan's tribe. De la Warr had led British raids against the Irish, and used the same tactics against the Algonquians: midnight raids, burning down houses, kidnapping children, spoiling whatever food stores couldn't be carried away. Thus he saved the British presence in North America, and grateful colonists later named the northern colony of Delaware in his honor.

Wiping out most of the local population won peace for the Jamestown settlers, and they started farming in earnest. John Rolfe, looking for something that would generate income for the settlement (and for the Virginia Company, which funded it), planted a crop of tobacco, with the idea of selling it in Europe. He sold his first shipment of Virginia tobacco in London in 1614. In 1619 colonists brought the first African slaves to help with cultivation, so that shame, too, belongs to Virginia.

In today's anti-smoking environment, it's hard to imagine the importance of tobacco in 17th-century Europe. Doctors recommended "drinking" the smoke from a bowl of tobacco as a remedy for all kinds of respiratory ailments. Smoking clubs became an essential part of political, literary and social life. Tobacco changed everything, whether we want to remember that or not.

Because of tobacco and slavery, then, the Jamestown settlement was more significant than the Plymouth one. Four hundred years later, we're still dealing with the legacies of those enterprises, and as much as anything else, they've made our country what it is today. I don't mean that to be liberal scolding; it's just a fact.

If our ancestors had not killed, stolen and raped in order to survive and propagate the species, none of us would be here today.

Monday, April 02, 2007

How did auditions go?

Who's asking: Richard Bostwick, Hallowell, ME

Yesterday's auditions for "Lucky Stiff," Gaslight Theater's summer musical, went well -- but the gorgeous weather made for a very small turnout. We're casting at least five men and five women, ages 20-50, and yesterday only seven women and one man came to audition.

So if you're in central Maine and have been fantasizing about stardom, this could be your chance. "Lucky Stiff," by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, is a romantic comedy set mostly in Monte Carlo, featuring a shoe salesman, a protector of lost dogs, and someone's dead uncle in a wheelchair. Lots of singing, lots of laughs, not much dancing. Deb Howard is directing, Brad Howard is the musical director. Performances are the last two weekends in June (June 21-23 and June 28-30).

Auditions continue tonight and Thursday night at 6:30, at Hallowell City Hall. E-mail me if you need more information.

And yes, I know this is a lame post after taking the last couple of days off, but I'm producing this show, so it's theoretically up to me to get people to show up for auditions. Consider this post synergy... normal service will resume tomorrow.