Saturday, June 30, 2007

What is the plural of quiche?

Who's asking: Jennifer Lechner, Freeport, ME

Quiches. This did not sound right to Jen, but it is.

The weather's cooled down enough for me to do some baking, so I'm making a couple for Wyatt Bragdon's welcoming ceremony, tomorrow.

It's a beautiful day, though, so Dizzy and I will take a walk first. It would have been a good day for gardening, but that didn't really work out... maybe next year I'll find a better place for it.

Friday, June 29, 2007

What are the symptoms of heat exhaustion?

Who's asking: Me and others in New England

The good news is that the heat wave has broken, and today is a gorgeous 60F.

Last night, though, one of our Lucky Stiff cast members collapsed with heat exhaustion during the show. She is fine, because another of our cast members is a registered nurse (hurrah for community theater!) and recognized what was happening.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke happen when the body loses its ability to regulate its core temperature. An average of 371 people a year died of heat stroke in the United States between 1979 and 1997. This number spiked during extreme heat waves; heat killed 1,700 people during the record-breaking summer of 1980.

As with hypothermia, the body tries to cope with temperature extremes by overcompensating, then loses the battle unless someone intervenes. People suffering from heat exhaustion often feel cold and clammy to the touch; they may shiver, and they sweat a lot.

Headaches, dizziness and nausea set in as heat exhaustion turns into something more serious. As the body loses its battle against the heat, the victim's temperature starts to rise, and the skin becomes hot and dry. Heat stroke victims get confused and disoriented, and may even start to hallucinate.

While heat exhaustion needs speedy attention -- in the form of water, salts, shade and cooler clothing -- heat stroke is an emergency. It is essential to lower the victim's body temperature: get them into the shade, remove clothing, give water, bathe the victim in cool water and fan them to speed evaporation.

Here in Maine we are back to The Way Life Should Be, with high temperatures in the 70s for the week ahead.

What I Read This Week

Nothing. I'm at various points in four different client manuscripts (if you're waiting for something from me, look for it this afternoon or tomorrow -- and please forgive the delay). I set aside a book by an author whose works I usually enjoy, because it felt tedious. That probably says more about my own frame of mind than the book.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

How old are Matthew and Henry?

Who's asking: Me

Of course this is a silly question, because I already know the answer: Matthew and Henry Lavinder are four years old today! Happy birthday, guys.

Swamped and melting today, and if the weather doesn't break I am going to have to kill someone, most likely myself. Sorry about the failure to post something real, but my brain's not working the way it's supposed to. My ancestors were Northern people ...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

"Kids don't like eating at school, but if they have a 'Remains of the Day' lunchbox, they're a lot happier."

The Movie: Waiting for Guffman, 1996 (Christopher Guest & Eugene Levy, screenwriters; Christopher Guest, dir.)
Who says it: Christopher Guest as director, actor and collector Corky St. Clair
The context: Corky shows off some of the best pieces in his new show-biz memorabilia store.
How you can use it: To mock your own arts geekiness.

Auditions for Crimes of the Heart concluded last night, and I'm so grateful to everyone who came out -- it was a luxury and a challenge to have so many hard choices to make. I'll be calling everyone later today, and rehearsals will start next week. Comparisons with Corky St. Clair are inevitable, so I'm embracing him as my patron saint for the duration of the show.

Temperatures got to 92F here yesterday. I don't have air conditioning. Dizzy lay in front of the fan in the living room window and cried, and I felt like doing the same. Today doesn't promise to be much better, so we're taking refuge at the Lechners', where they have climate control.

Five Random Songs

"Someday, Someway," Marshall Crenshaw. The fact that Marshall Crenshaw never became a huge star is one of pop music's enduring mysteries. This song is as close to perfect as anything gets.

"Love is Teasin'," Marianne Faithfull & The Chieftains. Marianne Faithfull makes my short list of famous people I'd invite to a dinner party. Have I said that before? I think I've said that before.

"When You're Good to Mama," Marcia Lewis. From the Chicago soundtrack -- the Broadway revival, not the movie. Though I liked the movie.

"Eva's Final Broadcast," Mandy Patinkin, Patti LuPone and Bob Gunton. Weirdly appropriate -- show tunes morning on the iPod Shuffle! From the Evita soundtrack, of course.

"Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," They Might Be Giants. "Even Old New York/Was once New Amsterdam/Why they changed it, I can't say/People just liked it better that way..." The accordion makes this song. Accordions are the bacon of popular music, as far as I'm concerned; they make almost everything better...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What were your favorite Saturday morning cartoons as a child?

Who's asking: Karen Olson, New Haven, CT

Today's question is a complete rip-off because it's the subject of Karen's post over at First Offenders, but I'm past deadline on a few things and don't have time to be original. Anyway, I love this question. Leave your own responses below.

My favorite Saturday morning shows in childhood weren't the cartoons, but the Sid & Marty Krofft live-action shows: "H.R. Pufnstuf," "Sigmund & the Sea Monsters," "Lidsville," and most of all, "The Bugaloos," which was only on for one season, I think. A friend of mine who acquired a Krofft box set last year says that these shows are not as good as we remember them; that's bound to be true, but I suspect they are still surreal and marvelous in their own sinister ways.

On the cartoon side, I did love the original "Scooby Doo," but my twin sister and I were special fans of a show called "Mission: Magic," which featured a young Rick Springfield as a rock musician who toured with a magical schoolteacher and her students. I mentioned this show at dinner not long ago, but couldn't remember the name of the show; my friends were skeptical, but the show ran for two seasons, and you can watch the opening credits here.

And while you're surfing YouTube, check out the trailer for Joseph Finder's next book, POWER PLAY, here.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Explain the phrase "keep your eyes peeled."

Who's asking: Jennifer Jordan, Milwaukee, WI

Jen is grossed out by this expression, but I am sorry to say that it's a kinder, gentler version of the earlier "Keep your eyes skinned." Both phrases turned up in American popular fiction and news reports in the mid-1800s; "eyes skinned" dates back to 1833, while "eyes peeled" shows up in the 1850s. Both expressions suggest that a watcher should physically hold his eyelids open, in order to stay alert.

It is possible to sleep with one's eyes open, though usually not with one's eyes wide open. Some people's eyes don't close completely during sleep, which is a sign of a neurological problem. Sleeping with one's eyes open is called lagophthalmos, which means incomplete eyelid closure. It can happen when you're intoxicated or on a powerful sedative, or in people with thyroid disorders. It's not normal and it's not good for your eyes, so if you find yourself sleeping with your eyes open, consult a doctor.

Earlier this year I did a good bit of research for a client who is writing a series of poems with the central image of a glass eye, so I now know more about the anatomy of the eye and the mechanics of vision than any lay person should. Eyes do have their own transparent skin, the conjunctiva; peeling the conjunctiva off one's eyes is not a good idea. I'd go into detail, but is that necessary?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Can I audition privately for "Crimes of the Heart"?

Who's asking: Several people, including some who don't even live in Maine

Auditions for Gaslight Theater's production of Crimes of the Heart, by Beth Henley, continue on Tuesday, June 26 at 7:00 p.m. at Hallowell City Hall, One Winthrop Street, Hallowell, Maine. Performance dates are August 16, 17, 18, 23, 24 and 25, also at City Hall.

Thanks to everyone who came to auditions today. I was delighted with the turnout, and look forward to seeing who comes out on Tuesday.

I'm sorry, but I won't be meeting with people for individual auditions. That's partly because turnout's been so good, but it's mostly because I see the show as an ensemble production, not an acting showcase.

Seeing an individual monologue, no matter how impressive, would not give me any idea of how that actor might fit with the other five members of the cast. I'm looking for individual talent, but I'm also looking for a generosity of spirit and a desire to be part of something larger than one person's performance. That's what community theater is all about, and I'm excited to help put it together.

So please, if you're interested, come to auditions on Tuesday -- and if you have any questions, send me an e-mail at LambLetters - at -

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Are you going to Bouchercon?

Who's asking: Judy Clemens and others

Not unless I win the lottery, or a client pays my way.

Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, happens in a different place every year. This year it's in Anchorage, Alaska, September 27-30. It's always a good time, and I would dearly like to go -- but it's too far, and it's too expensive.

ATA is now flying in and out of Portland, which lowers the price of airfare to Alaska considerably, but round trip tickets still start at $541. Add to that $200/day for room and board (conservatively speaking, and depending on my bar tab), and we're already over $1,500. Plus $30/day to board Dizzy ... plus parking at the airport ... plus, plus, plus ... and I can't justify it, as much as I'd like to go. My dog needs hip replacement surgery, and I probably ought to think about replacing my car before another winter. I don't have $2,000 for a vacation (much as I might like to justify it as professional development and networking).

This morning started with Dizzy rolling on a dead eel down by the Cobbosseecontee, so I'm off to give him a bath. He does not understand what I'm so upset about -- HE thinks he smells terrific.

One more bit of blatant self-promotion first, though. Auditions for Gaslight's next production, Crimes of the Heart, start tomorrow afternoon at 1:00 p.m. at Hallowell City Hall. I'm directing, and looking for a cast of four women and two men to play roles between the ages of 20 and 30. I'll be asking actors to read from the script, and to participate in a few small-group improvisations; no preparation is necessary, and actors need not be able to speak with a Southern accent. For more information, drop me an e-mail at LambLetters -at-

Friday, June 22, 2007

Where does the expression "break a leg" come from?

Who's asking: Various Lucky Stiff cast members

It's a theatrical tradition not to wish actors "good luck" on opening night, but to say, "Break a leg," instead. This proved a little too appropriate during rehearsals for Lucky Stiff; one of our company did, in fact, trip and tear his knee, and had surgery yesterday instead of singing and dancing in the opening night performance. (Get well soon, Andy. Nobody meant it literally...)

Anyway, no one knows where or why actors started telling each other to "break a leg" instead of saying, "Good luck," but theories abound. One theory takes the wish back to Elizabethan times, when an actor might hook or bend (or "break") his leg to take a bow before an applauding audience.

Another traces it to John Wilkes Booth, who did break his leg when he jumped to the stage of Ford's Theater after shooting Abraham Lincoln. (That one baffles me. Why would anyone suggest that an actor take John Wilkes Booth as a role model?)

What makes the most sense to me is the idea that actors say it because it's bad luck to say "good luck" -- actors are notoriously superstitious -- although this still doesn't explain why we say "break a leg" rather than "lose all your money," or "get a zit."

Lucky Stiff opened last night to an excellent audience, and continues this weekend and next at Hallowell City Hall. Visit the Gaslight website for details, and come see us if you can. Break a leg to all involved -- and to the cast members of ACAT's Laura, which closes this weekend.

What I Read This Week

John Burdett, Bangkok Haunts. John Burdett spoke with me last weekend for a Mystery Bookstore podcast, but I hadn't read any of his books before I started preparing for the interview. Now I'll have to go back and read the earlier two books in this series. Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep investigates the murder of a former lover in a snuff film. Nothing is as it seems, and Sonchai must deal with his department's corruption and the interference of the victim's ghost in order to find the truth. Bangkok Haunts is a fascinating window into a culture with radically different ideas about life, death, and justice, and Sonchai's is a unique voice in crime fiction.

Ian Sansom, Mr. Dixon Disappears: A Mobile Library Mystery. This cheerfully subversive book is a tongue-in-cheek cozy about Israel Armstrong, an Anglo-Jewish librarian who runs the bookmobile in a tiny Northern Ireland coastal town. He's out of his element in every way, and when he stumbles on the scene of a theft and apparent kidnapping, he's a handy suspect. Clearing his name means blundering around until he figures out what happened to Mr. Dixon, owner of the town's largest department store and a member in bad standing of the Ulster Society of Magicians. Absolutely delightful.

Joseph Finder, Power Play. I manage Joe's online marketing, so read this book months ago in manuscript, but went back to it this week for work-related purposes. Jake Landry is a mid-level manager at a large aerospace company who, because of a last-minute complication, winds up having to stand in for his boss at his corporation's executive retreat. The new CEO's executive assistant is Jake's ex-girlfriend, which makes the situation even more uncomfortable -- but then the entire gathering is hijacked by a group of violent woodsmen who may be more than they seem. Hundreds of miles from civilization, out of cell phone range, cut off from the outside world -- and it's up to Jake to save the day. Tight, compelling, great fun for a summer afternoon. Check out the book trailer, which should be online later today.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

What should I do with five free hours in Washington, DC?

Who's asking: Chandra Leister, Maine

Chandra, I'm hoping this is still useful for you -- even if it isn't, it's fun for me to think about, and I could write a full-length article about it.

You don't say which five hours it is. My recommendations for 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. would be different from those for noon to 5:00 p.m., and different again for 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

But let's say you've got an afternoon -- 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. -- and the weather is a typical June afternoon in Washington, hot and muggy with a chance of thunderstorms.

You could be paralyzed by choice, but what I would do is hop the Metro to Dupont Circle. If you're tired, you can sit for a couple of hours in one of the small movie theaters on 19th Street; if you want to play tourist, take the Q Street exit and head to the Phillips Collection.

The building itself soothes the soul, and the collection is beautiful: it's modern art, meaning that it starts with Impressionism and moves to the present day. Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" is one of the showpieces of the collection, but I love the later stuff: Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, Braque, Matisse, Klee.

Unless you're a serious student, you can do justice to The Phillips Collection in two hours -- two hours is about my limit for museums, anyway. Then I'd start working my way southeast.

Walk back toward Dupont Circle and stop at Kramerbooks on Connecticut Avenue, just north of the Circle on the far side of the Q Street Metro entrance. It's a great, generous independent bookstore with a cafe attached, so if you want a cup of coffee, take a break and hang out. I can easily spend an hour there.

Stop off in the Circle, and if you have time, walk around it. Washington was designed to be a city of vistas for horse carriages; if you walk around Dupont Circle, stop to look up each of the streets that spoke off it. They're beautiful views, especially at this time of year. Do not kick any pigeons by accident (I did this once).

And then cut over to M Street, and walk down to 16th, to the Jefferson Hotel. If you arrive before 4:00, you can have tea in the bar; if you're there after 4:00, have a cocktail. The Jefferson bar is one of my favorite places in the world, cool and quiet and tucked away.

On a different day I'd give you an entirely different set of recommendations -- it's the perfect time of year for the rooftop bar on the Hotel Washington, and I love the National Portrait Gallery, and I could spend at least an hour just sitting in the Peacock Room of the Freer -- and there's the baby panda up at the Zoo, though he doesn't come out in the heat.

But just for today, that's what I wish I was doing.

Lucky Stiff opens tonight at Hallowell City Hall, and although I am the producer I would not steer you wrong: it's a darn good show. Come see us this weekend or next; visit the Gaslight Theater website for reservation information.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

I thought you were home for a while...

Who's asking: Linda Brown, Sherman Oaks, CA

I am, except I'm going to Boston today. Just for the day. Yes, it's a 300-mile round trip, but God willing I won't be doing the driving myself, at least not from Portland; a nice Concord Trailways driver will take care of that. And maybe I'll be able to get a little work done.

Five Random Songs

"Into the Light," X. Listening to this CD (Hey Zeus) is a trip back to the summer of 1993 -- which, when I'm not listening to this CD, I'd tell you I don't remember anything about. It was the first year of the first Clinton administration, and I felt optimistic. I was traveling a lot then, too, but saw X (and a bunch of other bands) at that year's HFStival, at RFK Stadium. That was the 3rd of July, which I remember because they sang a customized version of "4th of July."

"Jesus, Etc.," Wilco. See, I listen to music produced in this decade.

"I Get Along Without You Very Well," Chet Baker. Of course I do.

"Strike Up the Band," The Bob Cooper Octet. I love a good saxophone.

"Procession," Toronto Consort. Instrumental music by Mychael Danna, from the soundtrack to The Sweet Hereafter. Beautiful and stately, as the title suggests, but what I like best about it is that it stops abruptly, as if it had been cut off.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Are the leaves of pepper plants edible?

Who's asking: Matt Prager, Brooklyn, NY

Let us discuss, for a moment, this notion of "edible." My American Heritage Dictionary defines "edible" as "fit to be eaten," thus making the term more a matter of opinion than of fact. Things I don't consider edible include mushrooms, hearts of palm, and most forms of seafood. I once dated a man who believed that celery was a practical joke.

So let's break this question down into component parts, the first being, "Will it kill you?" and the second being, "Can you stand the taste?"

The leaves of pepper plants are not poisonous. I found a Thai recipe that used them as a base for something made of shaved coconut, sugar syrup and nuts; I'd eat almost anything as a base for shaved coconut, sugar syrup and nuts, but Anna would not consider that edible.

On the second question, I happen to have three small capiscum plants on my deck, so I tried one of the leaves this morning. It tasted like a leaf. Kind of like grass, really, or like anything you'd pull off a bush (if childhood memories serve). Not something I'd put in a salad, unless I was starving. An interesting, kind of nutty aftertaste, but downright nasty while I was chewing it.

Tomorrow's question: how did curiosity kill the cat, anyway?

Monday, June 18, 2007

What's the next blog theme going to be?

Who's asking: Various people

I have no idea. We're six weeks out from the end of July, and my annual month-long hiatus. I do plan to bring the blog back in September -- frankly, I don't know what I'd do without it -- but I don't know what the new format will be.

I've thought about going back to the movie quotes, since I've given it a two-year break, but I kind of hate to revisit old territory. I've also thought about music quotes or quotations from books, but those don't have the same resonance, and the temptation would be great to get really esoteric and pseudo-intellectual. Also, the music quotes would probably be heavily weighted toward 1980s New Wave, serving only to remind me and everyone else of just how old I'm getting.

Suggestions, anyone?

Oh, and a bit of blatant self-promotion: the transcript of my Mystery Bookstore interview with John Connolly is now online here. The podcast should be live sometime soon, but I'm going to go back and transcribe my earlier author interviews as well, and eventually they'll all live on The Mystery Bookstore's website. At some point, we might collect them in a special edition for the store's loyal customers...

Friday, June 15, 2007

Why is St. Anthony the patron of lost things?

Who's asking: Me

This week I have been foundering in the worst kind of disorder, as often happens when I'm home after a long stretch of traveling. Looking at the calendar I see that I've been on the road a ridiculous amount of time this year, and more or less nonstop since the end of April.

So this week I've been digging out from under a mountain of laundry and paperwork, none of which has anything to do with five or six client projects that require immediate attention, or the fact that Lucky Stiff opens in less than a week. (Make your reservations now. The show will sell out, particularly during the second weekend, and we hate, hate, hate to turn people away.)

Anyway, all of this is to explain why I can't find my phone. I have two cordless phones. One rings, one doesn't. The one that rings resides in my living room, but I set it down somewhere the other night, and now I can't find it. The battery's died, so I can't find it by calling myself. It's somewhere in the apartment, it has to be -- and my apartment only has four rooms -- but I haven't found it yet, despite asking St. Anthony for help.

St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) was a Lisbon-born monk of the order of St. Augustine who joined the Franciscans to become a missionary to Morocco. His health forced him to sail for home, but a storm diverted him to a Franciscan priory on the coast of Sicily. He became a hermit, and lived in seclusion and contemplation until 1222, when he gave an impromptu sermon at a gathering of Franciscans and Dominicans. Francis of Assisi sent Anthony to northern Italy to preach a gospel of holy poverty. As you might expect, this wasn't a popular message; the legend has it that since Anthony could find no people to listen to him, he preached to the fishes. Anthony became a teacher of monks and a friend of Pope Gregory IX. He preached to crowds that numbered in the tens of thousands, and worked himself to death at the age of only 36.

Anthony's role as finder of lost things comes from a legend about his own life. A novice leaving Anthony's monastery on bad terms took Anthony's psalter with him. Anthony prayed for its return, and the thief not only brought the book back, but re-entered the order.

In that foggy region between faith and superstition, I ask St. Anthony for help all the time. It's almost a Zen exercise; I take a deep breath, clear my mind, think, "Please, St. Anthony," and lo and behold, there it is -- whatever it is.

I'm sure the phone is right in front of me. I'm not sitting on it -- I checked -- but I'm sure it's someplace obvious.

What I Read This Week

Mary Ann Tirone Smith, Girls of Tender Age. I heard Karen Olson rave about this book more than a year ago, and was delighted to snag a signed paperback at BEA. It's a memoir of Tirone Smith's working-class childhood in Hartford, during which a serial killer molested and strangled one of her classmates. Tirone Smith pulls off the virtuoso stunt of narrating her own memoir in the present tense, while telling the killer's story in the past tense; it should not work, but she's such a good writer that it does. (Don't try this at home.)

Judy Clemens, The Day Will Come. I don't read many amateur detective series, because it becomes so hard for them to be plausible after a few installments. How many people can get killed around one amateur sleuth before that person gets a reputation as the grim reaper? (If you were planning a vacation in Maine, you wouldn't go to Cabot Cove.) Four books into her series about dairy farmer Stella Crown, Judy Clemens is still managing to bring this off... but just barely. This time around, Stella gets involved in the investigation of the death of a rock singer who was secretly engaged to one of her closest friends. It's always a pleasure to hang out with Stella, but I wonder what she'll do for an encore.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Can parking your SUV on a pile of leaves really cause it to go up in flames?

Who's asking: Kathleen McLaughlin Jacobson, Los Angeles, CA

Kathleen asks this in response to the "Sopranos" series finale, during which this happened to AJ's vehicle.

But it's an example of how popular entertainment can save lives, because this can and does happen. I've seen it -- not with an SUV, but a sporty little European roadster. Parked in a Middleburg hayfield on a dry October afternoon, it went up in flames before anyone even realized it was smoking.

It was a steeplechase race meeting. My friends and I were sitting around on a blanket in the midfield, drinking wine and passing a hat for dollar bets, when we saw the black cloud rising from the parking lot. It was between races, so the whole crowd moved over to see what was going on: the two-seater was burning merrily away, and everyone who'd parked anywhere nearby rushed to move their cars before the fire could spread. The fire department responded quickly, and no other cars burned, although the five or six surrounding the burning car were probably totaled by smoke and water damage.

What causes this is the catalytic converter, a portion of the car's exhaust system that forces the car's exhaust through platinum-rhodium and platinum-palladium catalysts in order to remove carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. This process turns toxic gases into carbon dioxide and water, and as with any process that compresses gases, it gets hot. Really hot. 1800F hot.

This is why you shouldn't drive your car through a pile of dry leaves, and you shouldn't park any vehicle over something that might be a fire hazard. Most of us know instinctively that parking in a pile of dry leaves isn't a great idea -- but SUV drivers don't always know they're parking over flammable materials, because the cars are so much higher off the ground. Also, some SUV drivers seem to think that "off-road" means "nature-proof," as if these vehicles were somehow exempt from the normal rules of physics.

I'm not a fan of SUVs ... unless you're a park ranger. Some people in Maine genuinely need them. No one in Los Angeles does, and certainly -- as he discovered -- AJ Soprano didn't.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What happened at the end of "The Sopranos"?

STOP right here if you haven't seen the last episode of "The Sopranos," and don't want to know what happens. This entire post is one big spoiler.

Who's asking: Moira McLaughlin, Los Angeles, CA

My cousin Moira quit watching "The Sopranos" early on. She did not watch the series finale, and is taking a certain evil pleasure in watching her friends and relations agonize over that final cut to black. Her sister, my cousin Sheila, is working out her frustrations with a few clever t-shirts; I like this one, for obvious reasons.

I probably shouldn't admit this, but I've watched the finale three times now -- and while I object to the ending, I also think it was brilliant.

So for Moira, who didn't watch it, here's what happened. Agent Harris, the FBI agent who had been assigned for Tony for years, let Tony know how to find his rival, Phil Leotardo. One of Tony's operatives blew Phil away in front of his wife and grandchildren, and an SUV ran over his skull. Carmela made plans to renovate a new property, an estate sale with a mysterious, deep-seated (and possibly toxic) stench. Meadow made plans to go to law school and marry Patrick Parise, the son of one of Tony's captains. AJ, recovering from depression, made a half-hearted attempt to declare his independence after his SUV caught fire in the Pine Barrens, but ultimately agreed to take a development job with another capo's porn studio.

Tony's Uncle Junior, who shot him (accidentally?) in the last season, faded so far into senility that he no longer remembered his life as a wiseguy. Tony's sister Janice started planning her new life as a black widow. Tony's consigliere, Silvio, clung to life in a coma, while Tony's lawyer told him a grand jury was getting ready to indict him. And at the end of the show, the four immediate members of the Soprano family gathered at a diner for dinner -- and the screen cut to black.

Much as I don't want it to be true, that cut to black was Tony getting killed. The last 10 minutes of the show gave us the world from Tony's point of view: menace everywhere, something as mundane as parallel parking turned into a life-threatening challenge. The guy in the Members Only jacket at the bar, the two guys in big coats who came into the restaurant -- I was almost sweating by the end of the show, and David Chase's point was that this is what Tony's life is like all the time. Under those circumstances, who wouldn't need therapy?

People are angry about all the loose plot threads. Those don't bother me, and in fact I was amazed by how many themes Chase managed to revisit. A cat that appeared out of nowhere was Big Pussy and all he represented, or all the people who had been sacrificed for the Family. Tony embraced the cat because (as we know) sociopaths can be sentimental about animals. The cat fixated on Paulie because Paulie is a rat at heart; whether or not he's already testifying before the grand jury, it's a matter of time before he sells out for a little appreciation.

AJ said he felt cleansed by the explosion of his SUV; wasn't that the SUV that Tony had extorted from The Happy Wanderer, in partial payment for the guy's gambling debts? For about five minutes, it looked as if AJ might have gotten the message, and he made a half-hearted effort to seek a meaningful life -- but his parents beat him down and bribed him, and put him on a track to become just like Dad.

Tony Soprano corrupted everyone who came in contact with him -- even, David Chase seemed to be saying, us who watched the show.

My problem with the cut to black at the end was that it took us out of the story to look at its creator, in the same way that we look at the projectionist when a movie at the theater breaks. With rare exception, I don't want to watch the artist making art (yeah, I know I do this for a living -- allow me this inconsistency). Tell me a story, don't show me the mechanics of it while the story's in motion. If I want to know what's in the writer's head, I'll ask later. I wanted to spend that last minute with Tony, and instead I spent it being aware of all the time I'd spent in David Chase's head. I object.

Five Random Songs

"Evaporated," Ben Folds Five. I never got tired of this CD (Whatever and Ever Amen), because it's such a great combination of funny, angry and sad. This is one of the sad songs.

"Her Voice is Beyond Her Years," Mew. The newest addition to my collection, a gift from a friend last week. Great late-70s style pop, somewhere along the spectrum between the Pet Shop Boys and the Scissor Sisters.

"Requiem for Evita/Oh What a Circus," Mandy Patinkin, Patti LuPone and Company. From the Evita soundtrack. I do not apologize for having this in my iTunes.

"Ethylene," John Hiatt. And this is the great thing about the shuffle feature -- you really couldn't find two more disparate songs. We go from a hymn to the first lady of Argentina, to a white trash love song. Excellent.

"Kind & Generous," Natalie Merchant. Something about this song brings tears to my eyes almost every time I hear it. I want it played at my funeral.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Why are rubber chickens funny?

Who's asking: Matt Prager, Brooklyn, NY

Matt asked me this question a long time ago -- before this incarnation of the blog even started -- and reminded me of it again last week, when he put it out to two other friends we'd met for dinner.

"They're not," was the obvious answer, but that does not explain why rubber chickens have become a universal, immediately recognizable symbol of bad comedy. "The rubber chicken is the pinnacle of humor," says one website that sells them, but why?

In honor of Matt's birthday -- today, so happy birthday -- I've done some real research into this. It's been harder than I'd expected. In fact, the history of humor is a field that could use a lot more work, and might even be worthy of a book proposal of my own.

It's not clear where the rubber chicken originated, but they've been around for quite some time. One source suggests that rubber chickens were props during the French Revolution, when soldiers tied them to their muskets for luck -- this is baffling for a host of reasons, and it's hard to imagine any way the guerrillas of the French Revolution could have been funny. The legendary British clown Joseph Grimaldi (1779-1837), whose biography Charles Dickens wrote, pulled a rubber chicken from his pocket as part of a routine mocking the excessive feasting of the time.

A child psychologist once told me that babies find humor in things that are surprising but not scary, and the rubber chicken might fall into this category. Those of us who don't live on farms or in Chinatown never see dead chickens with their heads on any more, so we no longer connect the rubber chicken to anything in our daily experience.

Back when people had to clean their own chickens, though, it must have been one of the nastier chores of the day. The idea of carrying a plucked dead chicken around in one's pocket, just in case, would have been both disgusting and funny. Of course you wouldn't take its head off, because how gross would that be? But you'd take the feathers off to save space. The initial view of the dead chicken -- an 18th century version of fast food -- would have been shocking and disgusting, but once you found out it was a fake, you'd laugh.

What's funny now that will baffle future generations?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Why is it called Battery Park?

Who's asking: Matthew Lavinder, Mechanicsville, VA

Matthew's asking about Battery Park in New York City, the southern tip of Manhattan island -- but I used to ask the same question about the Battery in Charleston, at the end of Meeting Street, where my grandparents lived. Where, I wanted to know, were the batteries, and why would you name a park after them?

"Battery" in this case has nothing to do with electricity. It's a military term that means a group of guns, cannons or rockets designed to be fired as a unit. The Charleston Battery is full of antique cannons, which Kathy and I used to climb on. New York's Battery Park served as the primary defense point for the Port of New York until after the American Revolution, and subway workers in 2005 found a 200-year-old gun wall.

Battery Park is also the site of Castle Clinton, which was the point of entry (the "Emigrant Landing Depot") for New York's immigrants before the opening of Ellis Island, from 1855 to 1892. Several of my own ancestors (and Matthew's) probably passed through there.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Picture of the week

The groundhog that ate my garden, nibbling on a sapling for dessert. Thanks to Mike for the photo -- though if it had been a .22 instead of a camera...

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Why do they call it "commencement" if you're finishing school?

Who's asking: Paul Tomme, Arlington, TX

Because school's just training for the rest of your life. The end of school is the beginning of Everything Else -- my mental image is of ships being launched onto the open sea, the great voyage ahead.

I met some friends last night for early drinks and dinner at the Lone Star Steakhouse in Augusta, which is a perfectly fine chain restaurant -- on a level with Outback, say -- and drove around a white stretch limousine in the parking lot. A group of middle school students on the way to the Gardiner Regional Middle School's spring formal were having dinner at the Lone Star as well. They looked shiny and pretty and nervous, rehearsing for proms and bigger things to come.

"I wouldn't come here for my prom," Jen said, but that raised the question: in Augusta, where would you go? If you want fine dining in the greater Augusta area, your choices are the Senator Inn, or driving to Waterville or Brunswick. I can imagine that the idea of driving to Waterville or Brunswick for dinner -- 20-30 miles, depending -- would be pretty daunting to the average 13-year-old, even if you did have a stretch limousine to take you.

In Hallowell today, taking a break from set construction and light-hanging for LUCKY STIFF, which opens in a mere 12 days. Performances will sell out, so if you want to see it, make your reservations now by calling 207-626-3698.

Friday, June 08, 2007

What was the first U.S. product to be sold with a bar code?

Who's asking: The trivia board at the Starbucks in Davis Square, Cambridge, MA

Of course I had to go look this up: the answer is a 10-pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum, in 1974.

Bar coding may be soulless and dehumanizing, but it's made retail so much simpler than it used to be. It took a while to catch on, though; when I first worked for The Mystery Bookstore in 2000, one of my first projects was helping to automate our sales system, which included entering the bar codes of every book that had one into a database, using a hand-held scanner.

Kate's Mystery Books still does things the old-fashioned way, with Kate writing up tickets by hand. It's time-consuming, but part of the store's charm; it feels less like a retail outlet than like a crime fiction clubhouse.

Last night's clubhouse included John Connolly, there to sign The Unquiet; William Landay; Chris Mooney; Joe Finder; and my dear friend Tom Ehrenfeld. Good to see everyone, and worth the 300-mile round trip.

I'll be glad to be home for a while, though. After this afternoon, I don't leave town again for at least six weeks, I think. Thank goodness.

On the other hand, all this travel's given me lots of time to read...

What I Read This Week

Megan Abbott, Queenpin. No one today is writing noir better than Megan Abbott. A young woman apprentices herself to Gloria, a legendary mob operative -- not a moll, but a player in her own right -- but a fast-talking gambler challenges her loyalties, with deadly results. Queenpin is like a shot of rye: short, quick and bone-shaking.

Richard Aleas, Songs of Innocence. "It's dark," said Charles Ardai (a.k.a. Richard Aleas) as he signed the advance copy of this book for me. "I should warn you." No kidding. This sequel to Little Girl Lost is as dark as it gets. Former PI John Blake investigates the apparent suicide of his friend and writing classmate Dorrie, who supported herself as a sex worker, and the investigation reveals things Blake never wanted to know. Devastating.

Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. One big trend at BEA was the continued growth of young adult fiction as its own genre, with many established authors hopping on the bandwagon. I have misgivings about this trend, which I'll discuss in another post, and it seems to me that many authors assume anyone can write for kids, which isn't true. This book tells a pretty compelling story about a charming protagonist -- Junior, a Spokane Indian who challenges expectations by going off the reservation for high school -- but the point of view is not consistent and the voice is not believable. It's supposed to be a diary -- sort of -- but it's told at a remove, though we don't know whether it's from the adult Junior's point of view or the end-of-the-school-year Junior's point of view. A more rigorous edit could have turned this book into something really good; as it is, it's just okay.

Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, Slide. This sequel to Bust is just as gleefully nasty, as the Irish-Greek-American Angela returns to the United States with a new boyfriend -- who, unbeknownst to her, has ambitions to become the world's greatest serial killer.

Mark Bowden, ed. The Best American Crime Writing 2006. This collection of magazine and newspaper pieces is perfect travel reading. It includes, among other pieces, a Texas Monthly article about a sweet middle-aged lady who was the state's most successful bank robber; a New Yorker piece about an over-aggressive prosecutor who may have put the wrong man on death row; and Deanne Stillman's Rolling Stone article about the death of a sheriff's deputy and an outlaw hermit in the Mojave Desert. Fascinating.

Tom Perrotta, The Abstinence Teacher. The problem with reading books about people like me, I told Joe Finder yesterday, is that it makes me uncomfortably aware of aspects of my life I'd rather ignore. Maybe that's a good thing, but all things considered, I'd rather read about monsters. No monsters here, in this compassionate, bitterly funny book about Ruth Ramsey, a sex education teacher being forced to teach a new abstinence curriculum, and Tim Mason, a recovering addict who's wrestling with the demands his new born-again faith makes on his daily life. The characters get a happy ending -- sort of -- but the book's message is just how hard-won and transient those happy endings are. I read an advance copy; the book will be out in October.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Why are so many novels being written in the present tense these days?

Who's asking: Peter Johnson, London

Elvis Costello sings it in "Brilliant Mistake": "I wish that I could write a book/And talk in the past and not the present tense..." but more and more novels these days are being written in the present tense.

I've mentioned before that I have trouble with this. Present tense works for short stories and magazine articles, but it's very difficult to pull off over an extended narrative. It's probably the single biggest piece of advice I give to my first-novel clients who bring me present-tense novels: don't.

The problem with present-tense narration is how you convey information that happened in the past, particularly if you're writing from something broader than a narrow first or third-person point of view. Past tense? Past perfect? Pluperfect conditional?

I can't point to a single reason we're seeing so much more of this, but I have a few theories. First, present-tense narration feels immediate and emotionally engaging, which is why it does work well for short stories -- action's moving, the reader's with the narrator from the beginning, experiencing what the narrator experiences in the literary equivalent of real time.

Second, people read more magazines than books these days, and magazine articles are often written in the present tense. When people who don't read many books sit down to write books themselves, they model their prose on what they read or watch -- which, all too often, are magazine articles and intrusive voiceovers from cheesy movies.

In rare cases where an author's a good enough writer to sustain present-tense narration over the length of an entire novel -- as in Theresa Schwegel's books, for example -- the best the author can hope for is that the reader stops noticing the present tense after reading a page or two. Thus, the writer's setting himself or herself an unnecessary challenge before the reader even begins.

So I'll say it again: if what you want to do is engage your readers, why make it harder for yourself and them?

If you're a writer working in the present tense, tell us why you do it.

Five Random Songs

"Can't You See," Marshall Tucker Band. Six minutes of classic Southern rock, and the flute makes all the difference.

"(Don't Go Back to) Rockville," R.E.M. The practice of putting portions of song titles in parentheses is something else that's always baffled me. Insights into this phenomenon are welcome.

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," The Beatles. This album came out 40 years ago last week, and I read a bunch of articles suggesting that it hasn't aged well, or that it might not be as iconic as people thought, or that Pet Sounds is a better album. To all of these articles I say: I beg to differ.

"Creeps Like Me," Lyle Lovett. One of his grimmest, funniest songs. "Look around and you will see/This world is full of creeps like me/You look surprised, you shouldn't be..."

"If I Had My Way," Peter, Paul and Mary. Paul, I think, was signing copies of his new book at BEA, but I never saw him in person.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Why do they call it "Hell's Kitchen"?

Who's asking: A bookseller in a bar at 48th St. and 9th Ave., on Sunday night

"Hell's Kitchen," also known as Clinton or Midtown West, is a Manhattan neighborhood that runs roughly from 34th Street to 57th Street, and from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River. It was a desperately poor Irish neighborhood from the mid-19th century to about the mid-20th century, and the influx of Puerto Rican immigrants into the area helped inspire West Side Story, which is set there. Early residents of Hell's Kitchen were dockworkers, smugglers, prostitutes and the other fine upstanding citizens one usually found around commercial ports.

The name's origins are obscure. Davy Crockett allegedly said of the Irish immigrants in New York City, "These are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab Hell's Kitchen." "Hell's Kitchen" was a name for a London tenement district, so the name may have come from there. It may also have referred to individual buildings on 54th or 39th. It became the name of a gang that was based in the area, too.

Here in Gardiner everything is green and lovely, though it's about to thunderstorm. Dizzy is happy to be home, and so am I. I'm home for two whole days, in fact, before I head back to Boston overnight...

Monday, June 04, 2007

Do witches wear bras?

Who's asking: Lilly Dean, Mechanicsville, VA

Lilly, I should say, is still quite small and at least seven or eight years away from any practical knowledge of bras. But this question stumped her mother, so I'm happy to take a crack at it.

Yes, witches wear bras, and if they don't, they should. Proper support is important for looking and feeling one's best. Even if someone has magic powers that might render a bra unnecessary, why waste those powers on doing something that a piece of clothing can?

This afternoon I'm in Westchester County, visiting my Uncle Eddie and Aunt Marie. Last night I made fun of a friend for whining about getting caught in the rain, so this morning instant karma sent me trudging through the streets of Ditmas Park in a tropical storm, dragging two rolling cases and two bookbags to the Q train. It makes me wonder whether my friend has some magical powers of his own -- because really, if I had them, that's exactly the sort of thing I'd do.

Which is why it's best for everyone that I don't...

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Where is Tim Gunn?

Who's asking: Jane Cleland, Margery Flax, Alison Janssen, Jennifer Jordan, and me

Being a well-balanced person requires a diversity of interests, so yesterday afternoon a few of us crime-fiction types headed to the far side of BookExpo's upper exhibit floor in hopes of seeing the one and only Tim Gunn signing his new book.

Getting there meant passing a signing line for James Patterson that was -- I'm not exaggerating -- at least a quarter of a mile long. I was nervous, because if James Patterson could attract so many people, how many would be waiting to see the man whose approval is one of my most-cherished fantasies? (If I have to explain that, you don't get the Tim Gunn phenomenon and I can't explain it to you.)

It seemed wrong when we got to the publisher's booth and found no line at all. "Where is Tim Gunn?" we asked.

"The book [i.e., the BEA program schedule] was wrong," the publisher's rep said. "He was here yesterday."

It felt like being told the birthday party had just run out of cake. We were so dismayed that we stood around for 15 minutes in front of the booth and told Tim Gunn stories to each other, as if it were a wake.

On the way back to our regularly-scheduled BEA adventures, Jen Jordan and I stopped to watch a Sufi whirler for a few minutes. It wasn't the most unusual thing on an exhibit floor that included people impersonating God, Santa Claus, Elton John and Albus Dumbledore, but it was the coolest thing I saw all day.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

"We must find another brain."

The Movie: Frankenstein, 1931 (Francis Edward Faragoh & Garrett Fort, screenwriters, from an adaptation by John L. Balderston of a play by Peggy Webling based on the novel by Mary W. Shelley; James Whale, dir.)
Who says it: Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein
The context: Dr. Frankenstein discovers that the man he proposed to reanimate has a broken neck, making his original brain useless.
How you can use it: When the one you have just won't do.

I'm a little overstimulated. Sorry for not posting yesterday, but I'm just distracted, like a puppy in a pet store window. Book, there! Friend, there! Client, there! Oh, did you want something? Was I supposed to send you something -- call you -- figure something out? Sorry, sorry, sorry. Normal service will resume Monday night, when I retreat to my mountain (okay, piedmont) solitude.

In the meantime, New York's a darn good time. BookExpo's a good time, though overwhelming. The Javits Center is an annoying place for a conference -- it is convenient to nothing, blocks away from the subway, and the concessionaires should die of shame for charging $3.00 for a 16-ounce bottle of water.

What I Read This Week

James Lee Burke, The Tin Roof Blowdown. Burke tackles Hurricane Katrina in his next Dave Robicheaux novel (coming in July), and this is his most ambitious book in a long time. Dave and his colleagues from the New Iberia Sheriff's Department are called in as relief in Katrina's aftermath, and Dave's investigation of the shooting of some looters comes much too close to home. I have a feeling that this book is far from the last Burke will say on the subject, but this is an impressive start, and the book's last paragraph is a heart-stopping piece of writing.

Tobias Wolff, Old School. At a boys' boarding school in early 1960s New England, the students compete to meet with visiting famous writers -- Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and others. A visit from Ernest Hemingway leads the narrator to some choices that change his life permanently. This small gem of a novel, less than 200 pages, says so much about youth's passionate desires, the ideas of honor and literature, and the things we do to preserve other people's ideas of us. Thanks to Scott Phillips for recommending it.

Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End. This first novel is narrated in the first-person plural, which felt like a stunt for the first three pages, then felt normal, and paid off like a skyrocket in the final line. It's the story of the slow collapse of a Chicago ad agency in the wake of the dot-com boom, and I'm not sure I've ever read a better description of this peculiar period of our history, the year or so immediately before September 11 when we all realized that new technology hadn't repealed the business cycle after all. Dazzling.