Saturday, October 31, 2009

Five Random Songs

Happy Halloween, everybody. If you're anywhere in the southern half of Maine, check out tonight's final theatrical performance of An American Werewolf in London, a joint production of Freeport Community Players and Gaslight Theater. This is a stage production based on Dirk Maggs' BBC radio adaptation of the film by John Landis. Admission is free with the donation of a nonperishable food item to the Freeport Community Services food pantry. The show starts at 8:00 at Freeport Performing Arts Center, connected to Freeport High School; costumes are encouraged.

1. "Don't Pull it Down," from the Hair soundtrack. A song about how hippies can be patriots too: crazy for the red, blue and white.

2. "Polythene Pam," The Beatles. Hmm, a costume idea. Jackboot and kilt . . . it's weird to listen to this track by itself, because on the album (Abbey Road) it segues seamlessly into "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window."

3. "Loaded Gun in the Closet," Drive-By Truckers. The closing track of the album Decoration Day, a hymn of praise to the simple, quiet life lived by a lot of people city-dwellers never see.

Most women today would say she was a disgrace.
Most men would say she wasn’t much to look at.
And they all would say she’d be a lot better off
if she cared a little more about what they all think.
She could have a life of her own if she had a little pride,
some silicone implants, and another man on the side.
But she’s got a loaded gun in the closet.
And it’s there anytime she wants it.

The people in this song are my neighbors. I'd miss them if I moved.

4. "Rock Island Line," The Knitters. Huh. After the Drive-By Truckers, the Knitters — a roots-country tribute band formed by members of X, plus Dave Alvin — sound self-conscious and even a little precious. Context is everything.

5. "A Hazy Shade of Winter," Simon & Garfunkel. A perfect track for the day. The sky is a hazy shade of winter. If your hopes should pass away, simply pretend that you can build them again — oh, and don't forget to change the clocks tonight.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Five Lame Halloween Giveaways

An old friend who lives in Scotland tells me that her neighbors have berated her for letting her children go trick-or-treating. They say that going from door to door asking for candy is a thuggish American custom that teaches kids to expect something for nothing, and encourages both greed and gluttony.

Well . . . well . . . okay. It's hard to defend trick-or-treating, or even to explain it to people from other cultures, although it goes back much further than American Halloween. The idea of bands of children or teenagers roaming the streets in gangs, knocking on doors and demanding tribute, is scary, no matter how we try to tame it with parents and flashlights and princess costumes. Winter's coming; some of us have, and some have not. Adults are powerful and children are vulnerable. Some evils are visible, and some are not. Trick-or-treating goes back to an ancient genetic instinct that says we need to acknowledge those imbalances and pretend to address them, lest the powerless do something about it themselves.

In that context, giving out something decent at Halloween feels like a societal obligation. Candy is the ticket, people. Chocolate is the gold standard, but little bags of jelly beans and candy corn or fun-sized packets of Twizzlers and Starbursts are also acceptable. These five offerings are just asking to get your trees toilet-papered.

What's the lamest thing you ever got in your Halloween sack?

1. Bit-o-Honeys or Mary Janes. Unless it's chocolate, candy should not be brown, and taffy should not have grit in it. My mother, who was allergic to chocolate, actually liked Bit-o-Honeys and Mary Janes, so she was always glad to see these in our Halloween bags, and we were happy to let her have them.

2. Dum-Dum Lollipops. My pediatrician's name was — I'm not kidding — Dr. Payne. He gave away Dum-Dum lollipops, which came in flavors you don't find in nature. These are permanently associated in my mind with Saturday-morning allergy shots.

3. Nickels. Really? Even when I was a kid, you couldn't buy more than a piece of Bazooka gum with a nickel. If you can't make more of an effort than nickels, turn your lights off and pretend you're not home on Halloween.

4. Raisins. Some neighborhood mother on a health kick would always try to fight the wave of artificial sugar with these little boxes of the natural kind. Those tiny Sun-Maid boxes would get smushed under heavier candy in our bags, and by the time we got home, they'd be sticky cardboard wedges. I like raisins, but they're not Halloween candy, and the kids whose mothers gave out raisins heard about it for the rest of the year.

5. Toothbrushes. We had a dentist on our block who gave away free toothbrushes instead of candy. I've also seen tiny sample boxes of dental floss, which is asking for trouble; seriously, if you give a 13-year-old boy a box of twine, what do you expect him to do with that? Mom was always glad for us to get the free toothbrushes — keeping six kids in toothbrushes ran into money — but it felt sanctimonious to me, even as a child.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Five Scary Movies

It's not Halloween without some scary movies. These are five that still scare me, and I admit that some of the choices are obvious. Leave your own recommendations in the comments section.

1. "Blue Velvet" (1986). I don't know whether this falls into the "horror" category, but it is one of the most disturbing movies I've ever seen. It begins with the discovery of a severed ear in a field, and culminates in Isabella Rossellini humiliated, naked and sobbing on a lawn in the middle of the night. In between we have Dennis Hopper as one of the most frightening villains of all time, and a tragic Dean Stockwell (whom I admit to a major crush on, normally) ruining Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" for me forever.

2. "Carrie" (1976). Sissy Spacek plays a persecuted high school student with powers that unleash themselves at the prom. For me, the scariest parts of this movie happen before the violence of the prom: Carrie's humiliation in the locker room; Carrie's insane mother (Piper Laurie) telling her, "They're all gonna laugh at you;" Betty Buckley as the gym teacher, facing down Nancy Allen's high-school sociopath. If you ever feel nostalgic for your own teenaged years, watch this movie and get over yourself.

3. "The Exorcist" (1973). This remarkably faithful adaptation of the novel is just as scary, if not more so. Someone told me that the theme music, Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells," was originally supposed to be Christmas music, and the whole movie is that way: pleasant things that turn terrifying. Linda Blair is remembered most for her performance as the possessed Regan, but the true stars of the film are Jason Miller, as the doomed Father Damian Karras, and Ellen Burstyn, as Regan's frantic mother.

4. "The Haunting" (1963). The Haunting does several things movies aren't supposed to do — playing with points of view and giving us an extended voiceover from Julie Harris' character, Eleanor Lance, among other things — but it all works. Eleanor (Nell) serves as the film's unreliable narrator; is Hill House haunted, or is it just Nell?

5. "Poltergeist" (1982). The best horror films are about outsiders trying to get in. Five-year-old Carol Anne Freeling, watching TV in the middle of the night, announces, "They're here . . ." and the Freeling home is invaded by malevolent spirits who want everything they have, starting with Carol Anne. Poltergeist is not only a horror film but a social satire and a cautionary tale about everyday suburban isolation and greed. The Freelings battle the forces of hell in their tract mansion, and although their neighbors are close enough to interfere with the TV's remote control, no one even notices.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Five Spooky Songs

In a pre-literate society, people sat around fires while bards sang or recited long narratives to them. Songs were more than something to dance to; they were another form of storytelling.

We still have a tradition of "story songs," but they're unusual enough now that we notice it when a song tells a story, or when lyrics are coherent at all. I had to think a while about which songs in my own iTunes library evoked the same creepy feeling as a book or a movie, and this is the best list I could come up with. Suggest your own creepy songs in the comments.

1. "Angel of Death," Hank Williams. This one's an obvious choice. Hank Williams first recorded it at home, then cut a version of it with the Drifting Cowboys. You can listen to both versions here, and I don't know which is creepier; Hank's doomed solo, or the weirdly lilting single. "In the great book of John, you're warned of the day/When you'll be laid beneath the cold clay/The Angel of Death will come from the sky/And claim your poor soul when the time comes to die."

2. "Gloomy Sunday," Sinead O'Connor. Also known as "the Hungarian Suicide Song," this song comes with a ghost story attached. Its composer, Reszo Seress, did kill himself — in 1968, 35 years after he wrote the song — but the song was blamed for any number of suicides in the 1930s. That seems to be an urban legend, a twisted marketing ploy to sell a sad song in the middle of the Depression, but the song is creepy enough on its own. Billie Holiday's version is the most famous, but it's been covered by everyone from Paul Robeson to The Smithereens.

3. "Long Black Veil," Mick Jagger & The Chieftains. It feels like an old folk song; it's not. Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill wrote it in 1959, and Lefty Frizzell was the first to record it. It's since been covered by dozens, if not hundreds, of singers, from Joan Baez to Johnny Cash to the Dave Matthews Band. It's the story of a man who goes to the gallows rather than give his alibi: he was sleeping with his best friend's wife. I like this version because I believe Mick's voice.

4. "Mercy Street," Peter Gabriel. An idiosyncratic choice, but something about this song has always felt menacing to me. "Let's take the boat out, wait until darkness . . ." The song is inspired by and dedicated to the poet Anne Sexton, who killed herself at the age of 45.

5. "Tomorrow, Wendy," Concrete Blonde. This entire album (Bloodletting) is self-consciously spooky, from the first song, "Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)" to this one, which closes the set. I bought this CD for the single "Joey," but this song is the only one that achieves the feeling of threat they seem to be trying for. "Hey, hey, goodbye/Tomorrow, Wendy's going to die." Yikes, man.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Five Novels that Scared Me

Maine gets serious about Halloween. This time of year feels like a portal from one plane of existence into one that is not only colder and darker, but also more dangerous; snow tires, central heating and halogen lights can't override the real perils of winter. Halloween is the gateway to winter, and this year it's the end of Daylight Savings Time.

It's a time of year for scary stories, because scary stories help us feel brave. They help us imagine what we would do when confronted with evil and danger, whether it comes in the shape of a monster or the H1N1 virus. Parents who don't let their children read scary books are denying them the opportunity to learn something true about the world — it's a dangerous place — and discover their own resources for self-preservation.

In roughly chronological order of when I read them, these are five books that scared me.

1. The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl. Mr. Fox is a suave bandit who supports his family (Mrs. Fox and the little Foxes) by thieving from three evil farmers: Boggis, who raises chickens; Bunce, who raises geese; and Bean, who raises turkeys and apples. The three farmers lay siege to the Foxes' den, nearly starving the family to death before Mr. Fox devises an ingenious plan to defeat the farmers and save the day. My mother read this book to my twin sister Kathy and me (and possibly my younger siblings, too) at the kitchen table in our house in Fairfax, before we went to bed. I was no more than six years old, and this book terrified me: the evil farmers, the starving children, the helpless mother all tapped directly into my own deepest fears. And the farmer Bunce, who stuffs doughnuts with goose liver pate, is one of the most vividly disgusting characters ever written. But Mr. Fox's creativity, hard work and optimism triumph, and he shares the fruits of his work with the whole forest community. It's a lesson I still haven't forgotten.

2. Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin. The summer before we turned nine, Kathy and I had a babysitting job. (Yes, it's hard to believe that eight-year-olds were babysitting, but maybe Mrs. Landon thought that two eight-year-olds were as good as one 16-year-old.) It went fine, especially since our mother was only two doors away across the street, and while the unfortunately-nicknamed Thumper took his afternoon nap, I prowled the Landons' bookshelves. (See Laura Lippman's brilliant short story "The Babysitter's Code" for more information about things babysitters do while parents are out.) I managed to read all of Rosemary's Baby over the course of a week, during Thumper's naps, and it scared me witless. If you somehow missed the book or the movie, it's the story of Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse, young marrieds who move into a fabulous apartment building they shouldn't be able to afford. That they can afford it — and are immediately befriended by their kindly, eccentric neighbors, Minnie and Roman Cassavetes — has to do with the fact that Rosemary longs for a baby, and Guy (an aspiring actor) is willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead. The movie is fantastic; the book is just as good, and an uncanny time capsule of 1965, the year I was born.

3. Salem's Lot by Stephen King. I'm pretty sure I read this book the summer I was 11 (1977), because I read the paperback. It's quite possible that my own babysitter, Evelyn, lent it to me. I later owned a paperback copy, and now have it in hardcover, in an omnibus edition that includes Carrie and The Shining. My exposure to vampire lore before this had been through movies and the occasional horror comic; I read Salem's Lot before I read Dracula or any other vampire novel. It is the story of the destruction of a small Maine town — a town very much like Gardiner, in fact, although Salem's Lot is supposed to be in Cumberland County — by forces beyond its control. In King's novel the force is a vampire, but especially now that I live in Maine, it is easy to read Salem's Lot as a metaphor for the death of New England's small-town industrial economy. Anyone need a Ph.D thesis topic?

4. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. I was already thinking about applying to Georgetown when I picked up this book, the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I was 15, and reread my paperback copy until it fell to pieces. Twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil, daughter of an actress, is possessed by an ancient demon; the only ones who can save her are the troubled priest, Father Damian Karras, and the aging exorcist, Father Lankester Merrin. I can't say why this book mesmerized me so: it might have been that adolescent feeling of being out of control, or it might have been the idea of the forces of good and evil at constant war in the world, whether or not our modern, educated selves believe in them. Terrifying, either way.

5. Dark Hollow by John Connolly. Private investigator Charlie Parker investigates the murder of a young woman and her son; the key to the mystery is the woman's ex-husband, Billy Purdue, but not in the way Parker assumes. Parker's search takes him far north in deep winter, to the coastal town of Lubec, and deep into the history of not only Purdue's family but his own. Everything and everyone is haunted in this book, especially the snowbound Maine landscapes Connolly describes. Dark Hollow is the second novel to feature the tormented detective Charlie Parker, but I read it before I read the first book, Every Dead Thing. It disturbed me very much — so much, in fact, that when I picked it up to reread in preparation for work on a documentary about Connolly and his books, I realized I'd blocked a lot of it out of my memory.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Five Free Pieces of Editorial Advice

Crashing on a deadline today, and distracted by an unusually whiny Dizzy, who wants to be outside while the sun shines.

If you are working on a manuscript and thinking about asking an editor to look at it, you can save the editor time (and yourself money) by following these five principles.

1. If you're writing any form of personal nonfiction, avoid all versions of the phrase "I remember." The narrator's voice is yours; everything you write is something you remember. That phrase "I remember" or "I recall" wastes your readers' time by giving us information we already have. If you're not sure that something happened the way you remember it, confirm it with a third party. Otherwise, trust your memory and trust your reader.

2. Treat adverbs as if they cost money. The subject and verb should be enough to convey the emotion or impact of an action. Reading is an exercise in receiving and deducing information; don't take that pleasure of drawing inferences away from your readers. And it's a paradox, but intensifiers raise doubts. That is, if you say someone is "very pretty," the reader thinks, "well, very pretty but not beautiful," and you've just missed your target. Likewise, if you say something is "truly" or "genuinely" something-or-other, your reader will wonder what's not true or genuine in the rest of your prose.

3. Avoid all words for said except "said." Think about how you speak. Do you ever use the words "stated," "exclaimed," or
"responded," in conversation? Lawyers and law-enforcement officials sometimes use the word "stated," and I'll occasionally use the word "replied" or "shouted" (because sometimes people shout). But if you don't use the word in conversation, don't use it in colloquial writing. (This does not, however, give you permission to write, "And then she went like, 'Ohmigod, that's awesome!'")

4. Longer's not better. Arguments are like punches. Make them fast and sharp. The more important your point, the fewer words you should use.

5. Almost any sentence is stronger without the word "there." The sentence, "There are so many ways I can annoy my clients" is nowhere near as strong as "I can annoy my clients in so many ways."

Not, of course, that I'm trying to annoy my clients . . .

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Five Random Songs

A rainy Saturday, and I'm not going to get to the Boston Book Festival today — too much to do up here. If you're anywhere near Boston, though, you should go, especially to see Joseph Finder in conversation with Stephen L. Carter, Andre Dubus III, and terrorism expert Jessica Stern at the Boston Public Library at 4:00 this afternoon. Wish I could be there.

1. "Go to the Mirror," The Who. The heart of the rock opera Tommy. "Listening to you, I get the music/Gazing at you, I get the heat/Following you, I climb the mountain/I get excitement at your feet."

2. "Lover, You Should Have Come Over," Jeff Buckley. From Grace, an album so beautiful that every time I hear a track from it I don't know why I'm not listening to it constantly.

3. "So Hard (D. Morales Red Zone Mix)," The Pet Shop Boys. That's right. Not only do I have The Pet Shop Boys in my iTunes playlist, I have Pet Shop Boys disco remixes in my iTunes playlist. Deal with it.

4. "Keep Me in Your Heart," Warren Zevon. From his last album, The Wind. My mother loved this song. Too sad for a rainy morning, especially when I have been missing Mom so much lately. Next.

5. "If He Can't Have You," Whiskeytown. Not that Ryan Adams isn't fine as a solo artist, but I cherish hopes of a Whiskeytown reunion. I've heard rumors, and I hope they're true.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Five Random Questions with JOHN CONNOLLY

John Connolly is the Irish author of the bestselling Charlie Parker mystery series, the short story collection NOCTURNES, and the modern classic THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS. He is a friend of mine and an occasional client, but he did not pay me to say this: his latest book for young people, THE GATES, is the most entertaining book I've read this year. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. Read it aloud.

1. What's the best live performance you've ever seen?

Hell, I feel like I have to go through all of my ticket stubs for that one. (Yes, I am one of those guys who holds on to his ticket stubs. I hang my head in shame.) I saw Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile perform at the Barbican in London, which was incredibly beautiful, but that may be due in no small part to my willingness to fight a duel to defend the honor of The Blue Nile against any hint of opprobrium. The first time I saw The Go-Betweens live is right up there too. Oh, and my most recent gig: Wilco. They were superb. And Neil Young earlier this year. And . . .

2. Since your fiction is written mainly in American English, do you find yourself incorporating American terms and idioms into your regular speech? What's your favorite Americanism?

I find that when I return home after a book tour my Irish accent has been flattened considerably, and I tend to use "I guess . . ." more than any Irishman should. Actually, I take great pleasure in pronouncing "basil" as "bay-sil" when I come home, and "oregano" as "ore - egg - an - o," mainly because it irritates the people around me no end. I draw the line at "aluminum," though. It's "aluminium." It just is.

3. You can't get out of going to a Halloween party where costumes are required. What do you wear?

I haven't dressed up for Halloween since I was about nine. I'm not a dressing up box kind of guy. I suffer from acute embarrassment about that kind of public display. I don't even dance. Heck. It would be something British and militaristic from the last century. I like those short jackets with lots of braid. I wish I had the courage to wear one on a daily basis.

4. Do you have any skills that could earn you a place on David Letterman's "Stupid Human Tricks"?

No, none whatsoever. I can recite Shylock's "Mercy Speech" from The Merchant of Venice in its entirety and very, very fast, but that's about it. I am an unskilled laborer.

5. The Doctor says you can borrow the Tardis. Where do you go on the space-time continuum, and which of the Companions do you invite along?

Sarah Jane Smith, aka Elisabeth Sladen. She popped up in Series Three or Four, and she looked very well indeed. I had a massive crush on her as a boy. I met Billie Piper (Rose), though, and she was terribly nice, and very pretty. Still, think it would be Elisabeth, as she was then or as she is now. I'd like to take her somewhere decadent, but reasonably safe. I suspect that I'm not just talking about the time-space continuum either. Sigh.

Thanks, John! If you're in New York, you can see John Connolly tonight at a screening of the documentary John Connolly: Of Blood and Lost Things, at New York University's Glucksman Ireland House at 7:00 p.m. In Maine, John will be at Portland Stage on Monday, October 26 at 7:00 p.m.; details are here. His U.S. tour continues through November 11. Check here to see whether he'll be anywhere near you.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Five Great Film Sequels

I'm not calling this list a "Top Five," because I trust you all to remind me of films I left off this list. I'm deliberately not including Godfather II, although it belongs on a Top Five list, because it's so obvious we'll just take it as read. But please, leave your own suggestions in the comments.

1. Aliens (1986). Fifty-seven years after the events of Alien (1979), Ellen Ripley is found floating in space in a cryogenic coma, the sole survivor of the Nostromo. No one believes her story, and she discovers that the planet LV-426, where her crewmates first encountered the alien, is now the site of a human colony. When the colony disappears, however, Ripley is the only person who understands what's really going on — and leads a team of space marines to stop the aliens once and for all. A lot of people consider Aliens better than its predecessor; I still prefer the terrifying paranoia of Alien, but Aliens is one kick-ass action movie.

2. Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Way better than the original movie, if you ask me: better story and better acting (except for Billy Dee Williams, who looks great but seems excruciatingly self-conscious here). Luke Skywalker trains to be a Jedi under the master Yoda, while Han Solo and Princess Leia walk into a trap in the mining colony of Cloud City. Empire Strikes Back is a relationship movie, moving between the master-apprentice relationship of Luke and Yoda and the budding romance of Han and Leia to a final battle between father and son and the triumph of friendship above all. It's the only one of the "Star Wars" movies I'll watch any time it's on.

3. Ghostbusters II (1989). I'd be hard-pressed to choose between this sequel and the original movie. The sequel might get the edge, although it doesn't work completely if you haven't seen the first movie. Five years after the Ghostbusters saved New York in the first movie, they're still fighting lawsuits over collateral damage, and have been reduced to working as children's birthday clowns and TV psychics. After a series of strange things happen to Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), she consults Ray and Egon, and the Ghostbusters are back in business. This time out, the enemies are the ghost of a Balkan tyrant and a river of pink slime that are threatening to take over New York. Bill Murray has proven himself a great dramatic actor, but his performance in this movie is as good as anything he's done, and Peter McNicol — as the tyrant Vigo's henchman — is brilliant.

4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). I'm sorry, I find the first Star Trek movie (1979) almost unwatchable: ponderous, pompous, way too long. Wrath of Khan is superior in every way, including being more faithful to the spirit and content of the original TV series. Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer builds the story around a character from the classic episode "Space Seed": the charismatic megalomaniac Khan, returned from decades of exile and bent on revenge. As with most of the other films on this list, what makes this sequel so compelling is the focus on relationships over action — and if you can watch the final scene without weeping, I don't think we should be friends anymore.

5. Toy Story 2. A friend of mine had to take her four-year-old son out of the theater during a screening of this movie, because the scene where the toys cross the busy highway was too intense for him. Since jaywalking is one of my own phobias, I totally relate. Everything about this sequel is just a little more intense than the first movie; the stakes are higher, the feelings are sharper, the humor is more sophisticated. A toy collector steals Woody in order to sell him to a Japanese collector, and Buzz Lightyear must organize a rescue operation. Along the way Woody gets a love interest, the cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), whose song "When She Loved Me" is just shattering.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Five 2009 Maine Ballot Questions

I have mixed feelings about ballot questions. In a state the size of Maine (pop. 1.32 million; 824,000 registered voters), we could almost just vote on everything ourselves, without the need for an elected legislature — but we have an elected legislature, and they're supposed to be better-informed and more thoughtful than the rest of us about these big issues. The point of electing a legislature is to avoid the tyranny of the majority and save ourselves from our worse natures, especially under stress. We elect leaders to lead us, and make the decisions that we don't want to make.

Ballot questions subvert this process, although I see the need for them as a final check on legislatures run amok. They're also necessary, in Maine, as a final step before the state increases its debt through bond issues, and they are part of the official process for amending the state Constitution.

On this year's ballot, Question 6 is a bond issue ($71.25 million for highway, bridge and harbor construction, plus funding for the LifeFlight program) and Question 7 is on a constitutional amendment to extend the time period for certifying signatures on voter-initiative petitions. The other five questions are on specific issues, and most involve overturning decisions already made by the legislature.

1. A People's Veto of Maine's law allowing same-sex marriage. Maine passed a law allowing same-sex marriages earlier this year; this initiative would overturn that law. The ballot question itself is a little convoluted: "Do you want to reject the new law that lets same-sex couples marry, and allows individuals and religious groups to refuse to perform these marriages?" Thus, a "yes" vote is one against same sex marriage, and a "no" vote is one for the new law in place. We voted on this issue in 2004, right after I first moved to Maine; the initiative passed, which meant that the marriage-rights bill was repealed. I'm dismayed that this is on the ballot again, and even more dismayed that it seems to be a close race.

2. A Citizen Initiative to lower Maine's municipal excise tax on motor vehicles. "Do you want to cut the rate of the municipal excise tax by an average of 55% on motor vehicles less than six years old, and exempt hybrid and other alternative-energy and highly fuel-efficient motor vehicles from sales tax and three years of excise tax?" Pro: the annual excise tax on cars is one of the most regressive, and tax incentives to buy hybrids are a good idea. Con: Revenue reductions from lowering the excise tax will just be made up in higher property taxes. Then again, I'm not a property owner.

3. A Citizen Initiative to undo school consolidation. "Do you want to repeal the 2007 law on school district consolidation and restore the laws previously in effect?" The Maine legislature voted in 2007 to consolidate school districts around the state, in the face of declining revenues and an aging population. The process of consolidation is already underway, and it's just as painful as everyone knew it would be. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be done, and I can't imagine what kind of mess trying to undo it would create. Then again, I don't have kids in Maine public schools.

4. A Citizen Initiative to give taxpayers more direct control over state and local government spending. Known more commonly as TABOR, the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights. I have friends working both sides of this question: "Do you want to change the existing formulas that limit state and local government spending and require voter approval by referendum for spending over those limits and for increases in state taxes?" This is not a small issue; this is a major philosophical shift in our entire system of self-government. Read both sides of the issue here (pro) and here (con).

5. A Citizen Initiative to increase the availability of medical marijuana. "Do you want to change the medical marijuana laws to allow treatment of more medical conditions and to create a regulated system of distribution?" Maine has had a medical marijuana law since 1998, but federal laws prohibiting its distribution have made the law essentially ineffective. The 1998 law applies to a relatively narrow spectrum of disorders: persistent nausea caused by treatments for AIDS or cancer; glaucoma; seizure disorders; persistent muscle spasms caused by chronic illnesses such as multiple sclerosis. Question 5 would expand that list to include hepatitis C, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Crohn’s disease and other illnesses, and would create a statewide system of nonprofit, board-governed dispensaries to provide regulated access to prescribed marijuana. It's easy to make cracks about this, but I toured a medical marijuana facility in West Hollywood several years ago, and was deeply moved by what I saw. It's a tricky issue, but the people who need it should be able to get it. I feel the same way about heroin for terminal cancer patients.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Five Things That are Funny in Any Language

On Tuesday mornings I work with a student assigned to me through Literacy Volunteers of Augusta. (LVA is having walk-in nights on Tuesdays for the month of October; I'm working this evening, so if you're in the area, drop in and say hi.)

Our reading this morning included this joke:
Q: Why did the pill ask for a blanket?
A: It was a cold tablet.

My student speaks English as a second language. "That makes no sense," she said. I explained that the joke was based on the multiple meanings of "cold." Even once she understood that, she didn't see the humor in it.

Finding common areas of humor is essential to forging any kind of friendship, I think. My closest friends are people who laugh at the same things I do, and a disagreement between strangers about whether something is funny or offensive can get ugly in a hurry.

So here are five things I think are funny for everyone, whether or not they speak English.

1. Roadrunner cartoons. Wile E. Coyote's grandiose schemes end in disaster every time, but he keeps trying. The grandiosity is funny; the disasters are funny; the resilience is funny. And most Roadrunner cartoons have no dialogue at all.

2. The stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera. Groucho agrees to shelter two stowaways (Harpo and Chico) in a cabin that's barely big enough for one. In a sequence of about two and a half minutes, they manage to jam about 15 people into the cabin. Groucho offers a constant stream of one-liners, but the scene is just as funny with the sound off.

3. The Swedish Chef. I don't know what makes the Swedish Chef so funny; I just know that he cracks me up every time. He speaks a pidgin English that could be anything, so he's funny in any language. Watch him try to make turtle soup here.

4. Super Dave Osborne. Super Dave Osborne is the genius creation of comedian Bob Einstein; he bills himself as the Greatest Superstar Daredevil Entertainer of All Time, but the stunts never work the way they're supposed to. Super Dave is funny for many of the same reasons Wile E. Coyote is funny.

5. Monty Python's "Mr. Creosote" sketch. Don't click that link if you're eating. Mr. Creosote is an apocalyptically fat man who spews vomit all over a fancy French restaurant, before and after eating everything on the menu. John Cleese is the hapless maitre d' who does his best to pretend everything is normal. This should not be funny, but even now I can't watch it without laughing so hard I almost hurl myself.

What makes you laugh that doesn't need language? Post your suggestions below.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Five Good Books I've Read this Month

Yesterday morning I had coffee with the fabulous Carol Fitzgerald, marketing genius and compulsive reader. As always when we get together, we traded book recommendations and lamented the fact that we never seem to have enough time to read. Carol ticked off a dismaying list of all the modern technological advances that steal our reading time: email, Facebook, blogs (erk), texting, television, video games, DVRs, On Demand.

I had been only vaguely aware of how much time I spend on electronic distractions, and this brought me up short. I'm home now with a new awareness that I do have time to read more books, and have been choosing to spend that time on other things.

So now I'm choosing to change that. I brought four books home with me from Indianapolis (three I bought, one a gift from an author pal), and found two more waiting for me, to be read on a client's behalf. That's six new books on a to-be-read pile that was already completely out of control, but I know I can get back to my old four-books-a-week pace if I just quit playing online word games.

In the meantime, here are five of the best things I've read this month.

1. Karen Armstrong, BUDDHA. I don't know very much about Buddhism, so was glad to read this short, accessible biography, which is also a primer on the religion. We know little about Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, and the Buddha would say that the details of his personal life were unimportant. Armstrong is always clear, concise, and to the point.

2. Tod Goldberg, OTHER RESORT CITIES. Tod's a friend and a former writing instructor of mine, as I noted when he answered Five Random Questions for the blog earlier this month. He's also one of the best authors of short fiction writing today. The ten stories in this extraordinary collection shine like jewels, showing us the inner lives of people we pass and never think about. They range from the grimly funny ("Mitzvah," about a rabbi with a past, and "Rainmaker," about a professor with a dangerous second career) to the heartbreaking ("Walls," "Palm Springs," and "The Models," which offer very different takes on the many ways parents fail their children). Goldberg never condescends to his characters, and finds things to love in even the most unsympathetic.

3. Lev Grossman, THE MAGICIANS. A friend described this book as "Harry Potter meets THE SECRET HISTORY," and that's not far off, although the book owes just as much to Narnia and generations of British children's adventure novels. Quentin Coldwater and his friends have magic powers, but must still deal with the basic pain of growing up. Late in the book, one character says to another: "Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever." Good advice for all of us.

4. Bryan Gruley, STARVATION LAKE. A solid debut set in northern Michigan, from an author to watch. Small-town newspaper editor Gus Carpenter has returned to his hometown after an incident that ended his big-city career. On a winter night, pieces of snowmobile wash up on the banks of Starvation Lake; the snowmobile appears to have belonged to the town's beloved hockey coach, who drowned in mysterious circumstances 15 years earlier. Characters, the small-town setting, and the gritty reality of working for a small newspaper make this book worthwhile.

5. Joseph Kanon, STARDUST. A sweeping novel that tries to do too many things, but succeeds at most of them. The first half of this book is stunning, a fascinating look at post-war Hollywood and a compelling mystery: why did Daniel Kohler go over the balcony of his Hollywood apartment — and what was he doing there at all, since he had a beautiful house and a beautiful wife? Danny's long-estranged brother Ben, an Army filmmaker, investigates and is drawn deep into the German expatriate film community. The first signs of anti-Communist paranoia are emerging, and Ben discovers that his brother was at its center, but it's unclear on what side.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Five Post-Bouchercon Thoughts

Greetings from the Cincinnati airport, where my flight has been delayed. Bad weather in New York City may strand me there overnight, which would be especially annoying since I had to check a bag through to Portland, and thus have no clothes or toiletries with me. Perils of living in the wilderness.

This year's Bouchercon was another fine meeting, and everyone seemed to have a good time. I managed to get through it without a hangover — a personal first — but I'm so tired now that I'm not sure I'm entirely coherent. What better time to post a blog?

Herewith a few impressions, conclusions and observations about this year's meeting.

1. Fear of the flu hasn't really changed anyone's behavior. Despite signs all over the convention hotel declaring this a "Handshake-Free Bouchercon," the warnings about limiting contact to reduce germ transfer didn't seem to keep people from hugging, kissing and shaking hands as usual — it just made us all feel anxious and guilty about it. Or maybe that was just me. I did see a lot more hand sanitizer this year than in previous years, though.

2. Favorite program innovation: the "speed dating" session with first-time authors, which had new authors hopping from table to table in six-minute intervals, introducing themselves and their books as they went. This was a terrific way to learn about some interesting new titles and authors I might otherwise have missed, and I bought a couple of books as a result.

3. I cannot support the publishing industry all by myself. I didn't buy many books this year — I couldn't afford it, had no storage room in my luggage, and really have no storage room at home — but I did my part, picking up a few new titles. Buying books is part of the Bouchercon experience, and reassured me that the Kindle will never replace the hardcover altogether; authors can't sign a Kindle.

4. Sara Paretsky is one of the coolest people on the planet. I met her at this year's Shamus Awards banquet. "I'm Sara," she said, and I am proud to say that I did not dissolve into a puddle of goo on the sidewalk. Sharp, funny, stylish and very possibly the smartest person in any room she enters; the following day, she read a poem of her own composition in a panel on Poe, and it was excellent. The latest V.I. Warshawski novel, HARDBALL, was one of the books I bought, and I'm already halfway through it. It's hard to believe, but that series continues to evolve and deepen, and so far HARDBALL is one of the best.

5. Although Bouchercon is a conference of authors and fans, it's the authors who hang out in the bar. I'm not sure what the final headcount was at this year's Bouchercon, but it was certainly over 1,000 registrants. The point of the meeting is to bring authors and fans together, but the fans generally don't hang out in the bar, where they'd be most likely to meet the authors. Exceptions (such as myself) apply, but I heard an author last night wonder why the bar at Bouchercon always became the authors' clubhouse. Another case, perhaps, of cliches having their roots in truth . . .

Friday, October 16, 2009

GUEST POST: Five Epic Red Sox Collapses, by Tom Ehrenfeld

I am in Indianapolis, attending Bouchercon (the World Mystery Convention). My longtime friend and occasional co-conspirator Tom Ehrenfeld has kindly agreed to step in for me today. Thanks, Tom!

Yeah, this week's defeat to the Los Angeles (nee California) Angels of Anaheim was pretty dramatic and dispiriting, but, well, for diehard Sox fans, I gotta say, "Feh." We lost. We lost to a good team that's just playing better than us. We lost dramatically and painfully. But it's been a good ride. It takes an enormous amount of skill and fortitude just to MAKE the playoffs. Winning the World Series takes much more; my belief is that the team that has really gelled over the past weeks is the one that will take it all. And over the past month, the Red Sox didn't gel. In fact, they did the very opposite. They melted.

And here's the thing, the real thing here:

We live in a post-2004 world.

For Red Sox fans such as myself (born and raised in New England and a fanatic for 40-plus years), there's a solid, intractable dividing line in time: October 30, 2004. That day we won the World Series, contradicting the lifelong experience of suffering fools like myself, proving that, yes, indeed, the Gods did not conspire against us; that it was okay to hope for it all; that, simply, it was not completely inevitable that fates would conspire to make us lose, and lose in the most improbable and agonizing fashion imaginable. Or unimaginable.

Winning in 2004 showed that we could win. And because of that, Sox fans should understand how to lose as well. Oh yeah, we got beat. Move on. Losing a series, ending a season no longer confirms a gut-wrenching knowledge that the world sucks and always will. Everything is different.

Because prior to ought-four, there was a series of losses so epic, so unimaginable, so painful, that, well — here they are in reverse order from worst to most-worst:

5. Aaron Boone's game-and-playoff-winning home run off Tim Wakefield in 2003. Painful, yes, but only number five overall. Yes, it happened to the Yankees, which gives it extra weight, and yes, the loss was compounded by a baffling act of defiant managerial ignorance (WTF? He's leaving Pedro in the game?).

But despite the walk-off drama of this, I don't know, it was merely bad and painful. And ultimately mitigated by the fact that the Yankees went on to lose the Series. Which brings up one other factor: this took place after 2001, which conversely represented one of the top five Red Sox moments: the epic loss of the Yankees in the final game of the 2001 World Series. Ah Schadenfreude. So wonderful a defeat. Seriously, for Sox fans (and yeah, sure, I admit this is completely Wrong) that was so delicious a moment that years of future failures were buffeted.

4. Losing Rick Burleson and Carlton Fisk in the off-season of (I believe) 1975. This may not have occurred on the field of play, but it stung true Bosox fans to the core nonetheless. This was a colossal failure on the part of ownership and management, and confirmed a vague fear that so many New Englanders had, which was that championships are ultimately won and lost from the very top down. Both the Red Sox and the Patriots became repeat champions only after a change in ownership that took several years to completely change the organization. It was not just the Red Sox players where the problems lay, but the stars above them aligning their actions.

3. Losing the 1975 World Series to the Reds. Truth be told, there was much to love about this World Series (among them the fact that I attended games one and seven!). It featured the best World Series game ever (game six), was played at an extraordinary level all around, and was gripping just about every minute of every game (the final six games were decided by one run.) To come this close and lose was disappointing, though, at this point, not epically so. This more or less framed the beginning of what some folks came to call the Curse. (I never bought the Curse itself.)

2. Bucky F'ing Dent hitting the game-winning home run in the 1978 one-game playoff. This was probably the most intense loss of them all, for so many reasons. It came at the height of Red Sox-Yankees mutual hatred, a season that featured a huge brawl that left Bill Lee injured, a season whose story (Red Sox pull ahead and seem destined to win, Yankees claw back improbably, and ultimately win) was the game writ large. It came at a time when the Yankees were so detestable, with Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson. They had come apart so beautifully in the first half that to watch them overtake us was bad bad bad. (This was the year I became the first person to sell "Yankees Suck" t-shirts, by the way.)

1. 1986's loss to the Mets. Look, there's very little that hasn't been said about this, so I'll just add a few things: Bill Buckner should never have been villainized the way he was. The boot came during a tie game after the Red Sox had had two outs and two strikes more than a dozen times. (Go on, torment yourself here.) So it never should have been even a question of forgiving him in the first place.

By the way, pitchers and catchers report to spring training in 125 days.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Five Favorite State Capitals

This morning I'm off to Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, which moves around the country and this year is in Indianapolis. In the past week or two I have told several people that I'm going to Indianapolis, and almost everyone has made some grimace or offered me sympathy.

But I've been to Indianapolis before, and have had a pretty good time there. It's not Chicago, but it offers plenty to do, including The Slippery Noodle, a great blues bar that will be the site of this year's Shamus Awards banquet.

The job I had in the late 1980s and 1990s took me to a lot of state capitals, and with a few notable exceptions (um, Albany?), they're all worth a visit. Here are five I particularly recommend:

1. Annapolis, Maryland. Home of the Naval Academy and St. John's College as well as the Maryland State Capitol, Annapolis is a port city that has preserved much of its colonial-era architecture. It has some excellent restaurants, a couple of great bars, an independent bookstore and its own downtown boat slip. What more could you want?

2. Austin, Texas. The coolness of Austin is no secret, and in fact the city gets a little smug about it, which almost made me leave it off the list. But in addition to all the usual benefits of the college/statehouse combo, Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in the United States, and you can go watch them come and go at sunset. Can you do that in New York City? I don't think so.

3. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As noted above, the combination of college town and state capital is always a winner. Baton Rouge has much of the charm of New Orleans, without the tacky tourism or the terrible poverty. The presence of Louisiana State University means an abundance of all the quality-of-life essentials: live music, cheap liquor, used bookstores, affordable restaurants. Bring along Randy Newman's Good Old Boys as a soundtrack.

4. Cheyenne, Wyoming. There's not much in Cheyenne except the state government, but few cities have charmed me more. Visiting Cheyenne is a trip in the way-back machine; it's the closest I've ever felt to being back in the days of the Western frontier. Train aficionados should make a point of visiting the Depot Museum, an old railroad station that is small but exquisitely restored. I've never been to the Cheyenne Frontier Days, and would really like to go.

5. Richmond, Virginia. It's not just hometown boosterism; for anyone living on the Eastern seaboard, Richmond is one of the first places I'd recommend for a weekend getaway. Great restaurants, a terrific independent bookstore, fascinating historical sites, a very good art museum (currently mostly closed but reopening next year), and they're getting minor league baseball back next year. Plus, I have family there, so if you visit, say hey from me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Five Cases of Survival Cannibalism

Tuesday's going to be a very busy day, so I'm writing this a few hours in advance, to post early Tuesday morning. Sometime between now and then, the weatherman says, my part of Maine may get the first snow of the season. It's unlikely, but the snow/rain line will be very close to Augusta; we may see some flurries, and they'll have snow to the west.

This news brings a superstitious dread, especially since we barely had a summer this year. My kitchen pantry is full of soup, boxes of oatmeal, and a giant bag of popcorn that I have no idea why I bought (I don't particularly like popcorn, though I'll eat it at the movies). If we're snowed in, Dizzy and I have about a week's worth of food before we start looking for fresh meat.

It's important, and it's all because of the Donner Party. I don't remember how old I was when I first heard the story; it was probably in Girl Scouts, in third or fourth grade. The Donner Party had 87 members when it left Missouri, and only 46 of them made it to California. Some of them were food along the way.

I don't know how far I'm willing to go to stay alive, and I hope I never have to find out. I keep these five stories in mind whenever I start to run low on rice.

1. The Siege of Maarat, 1098. The First Crusade was not very well planned. The Crusaders made it to the Middle East and defeated the infidels at Antioch, but started to run out of supplies. The knight Robert Pilet led a siege against the walled town of Maarat, south of Damascus in what is now Syria. After several defeats, the Crusaders ultimately built a siege tower and made it into the Maarat walls — where they found that the city was not as wealthy or well-stocked as they had hoped. As Bohemond of Antioch and Raymond of Toulouse squabbled over who was entitled to the conquered city, the soldiers inside its walls starved — and started roasting and boiling their enemies. Several contemporary historians reported that the Crusaders dined on the dead bodies of Saracens; the horror of it comes through in the narratives, though the historians hastened to reassure their readers that a) the crusaders only ate pagans and b) those eaten were already dead, not killed for the purpose. Finally the Crusade continued south to Jerusalem, and Maarat was left in ruins.

2. The St. Francis Raid, 1759. During the French and Indian War, New Hampshire ranger Robert Rogers led an attack on the Abenaki village of St. Francis, Canada. Rogers and his band of about 140 men slaughtered the village, including women and children — Rogers estimated the death toll at close to 300, though French accounts reported it as much lower. In retaliation, French forces pursued Rogers' men from Canada down into New York; Rogers broke his group into smaller bands of 10-15 men apiece, which made them all more vulnerable. They lacked supplies, got lost, and many were killed or captured. Lieutenant George Campbell led a group of starving men to a cabin whose inhabitants had been killed by Indians; seeing the scalped bodies, the men ate human flesh without even taking the time to cook it. Separately, Rogers butchered a female Indian captive, and divided her flesh among his men. The survivors of the raid who eventually made it back to Fort Crown Point, NY, were hailed as heroes. Rogers lived another 35 years, dying in 1795 at the age of 64.

3. The wreck of the Medusa, 1810. The subject of an immortal painting by Theodore Gericault, the Medusa was a French Navy frigate that was on its way to Senegal, to receive the port city of Saint-Louis from the British. Its passengers included the newly-appointed governor of Senegal, Colonel Julien-Desire Schmaltz, and his wife. The Medusa ran aground off the coast of Mauritania, thanks to a combination of ignorance and arrogance that continued after the wreck. The sailors built an unwieldy raft, to be towed by the Medusa's boats. It was nowhere near large enough or sturdy enough to carry 147 passengers and crew, and had no room for supplies. Some of the crew stayed with the ship; others rowed away in longboats, without the raft. Those on the raft were left to their fate. They had wine casks instead of water; they had no real food. By the fourth day, only 67 were left alive, and some had already resorted to cannibalism. By the 12th day, when rescue finally came, only 15 survived. Five of those died within a week of rescue.

4. The Donner Party, 1846–47. Eighty-seven people left Missouri in the wagon train led by George Donner, his brother Jacob, and James Reed. They took a new, untested route that had been advertised by a real estate promoter. The snows came early, and by the end of October they were stuck in the Sierra Nevada. A group of 15 settlers — 10 men, five women — decided to try to get to Sutter's Fort on foot, and set off in mid-December wearing homemade snowshoes. They got lost and caught in a blizzard. Two men and five women made it to Sutter's Fort a month later, having resorted to cannibalism along the way. When the First Relief reached Donner Lake in February, they found the survivors weak, but living on boiled ox hides. Sometime during the week before the Second Relief arrived, however, the survivors had begun to eat their dead. The last man rescued alive, Louis Keseberg — in April 1847 — was charged with (but not convicted of) the murders of several of his fellow travelers, mainly because he spoke with such ease of eating human flesh.

5. The Cospatrick fire, 1874. 477 passengers and crew left Gravesend, England for Auckland, New Zealand in September 1874. On November 17, some 400 miles southwest of the Cape of Good Hope, the Cospatrick caught fire. Only two lifeboats made it into the water, though the ship had five. Of the 61 people who made it into those lifeboats, only five men were still alive ten days later, when they were rescued by another ship, about 500 miles northeast of where the Cospatrick had burned. The survivors had lived — barely — by eating the bodies of their companions; two of the five had gone mad, and died within days of being rescued.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Five Songs I'll Stay in the Car to Listen To

Today's topic was suggested by Anna Bragdon, who like me still listens to regular radio stations in the car. (I can't afford satellite radio, and my iPod is broken; I'm not sure what Anna's reasons are.)

Anyway, Anna said she'd kept her car on the other day in order to listen to the end of a song on the radio, and made her own mental list of songs she'd stay in the car for. She said that most of those songs were tracks she doesn't own.

Putting my own list together, I find that I do own most of these tracks, but will still stay to listen to them on the radio — in the same way that I'm watching Broadcast News on TV right now, even though I own the DVD. Leave your own lists in the comments section.

1. "Hey Ya," OutKast. I never got tired of this song. I thought I owned it, but can't find it in my iTunes; is it possible that an electronic music file could just disappear? How?

2. "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)," Bruce Springsteen. "Jungleland" is longer, and I'll stay for that one too, but this is the song I hear more often on the radio.

3. "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," Crosby, Stills & Nash. A song you stay in the car for tends to be longer than average. This one runs 7:25.

4. "Travelin' Man/Beautiful Loser," Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band. Two songs that run together as a set, from the Live Bullet album; sometimes album-oriented radio stations play them as a single track. I love the segue, and "Beautiful Loser" is on a short list of songs that could be my personal theme song. The two tracks together run close to nine minutes.

5. "Under Pressure," Queen. The obvious choice is "Bohemian Rhapsody," but I like this song better.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Five Random Songs

Unexpected sunshine today, which is great on the one hand but bad on the other, because I am crashing on several deadlines before I leave for Bouchercon next Wednesday. The character I play in Doubt, Sister Aloysius, has a line that resonates: "What good is a high IQ if you're staring out the window with your mouth agape? Be hard on the bright ones . . . Don't be charmed by cleverness. Not theirs. And not yours."

Shut up, Sister Aloysius.

1. “Box of Rain,” the Dave Nelson Trio. A cover of the Grateful Dead classic, recorded live; it is dreamier than the original, with a winding strings arrangement. I’m not sure where I got this track.

2. “Lip Lap Louie,” Buddy Guy. A little funk for a Saturday morning, excellent music to clean house by. Which I really ought to do . . .

3. “I Wouldn’t Mind,” Duncan Sheik. A wistful love song in ¾ time. This album (White Limousine) was one I played constantly for about three weeks, and then never listened to again. I haven’t heard this track in almost a year. Maybe it’s time to pull the CD out again.

4. “What a Wonderful World,” Joey Ramone. Possibly — no, probably — my all-time favorite cover version of any song. It’s a shot in the arm on the darkest day, a song to restore your faith in everything good about this planet. I used this iTunes track as an electronic birthday card to friends for a couple of years.

5. “Concrete Walls,” Fever Ray. A track from the solo project by Karin Dreijer Andersson, the female half of the Swedish art-rock group The Knife — in fact, this track’s sound is almost indistinguishable from The Knife’s, although some tracks on this record sound quite different. It’s a powerfully atmospheric sound; close your eyes and this track really does make you feel surrounded by gray concrete walls. Time to look out the window again . . .

Friday, October 09, 2009

Five Random Questions with LIBBY FISCHER HELLMANN

Libby Fischer Hellmann is that rarity, a native of Washington, DC. She now lives in Chicago, where she writes mysteries -- the Ellie Foreman series, featuring a videographer, and now the Georgia Davis series, featuring a PI. Georgia and Ellie join forces in DOUBLEBACK, in bookstores now; Libby will discuss DOUBLEBACK at The Mystery Bookstore with Keith Raffel on October 31. A former speechwriter and current communications professional, Libby is part of The Outfit blog. She is smart and funny and deserves your attention.

1. Do you have a signature fragrance?

I do. I use Donna Karan’s Black Cashmere, which unfortunately isn’t being sold any more, so I’m buying “remainders” on the internet . . . (sigh)

2. What book have you/do you reread most often?

This stumped me. I don’t usually reread fiction, except in little pieces, for research or reference. But in another life, when I was writing corporate speeches, I used to refer to Clifton Fadiman’s Book of Anecdotes a lot.

3. Six of your closest friends are coming to dinner. What are you serving?

Um, are you suggesting I should have a dinner party? I haven’t in a while, so I’m way overdue. Hmmm . . . what to serve? I’m not a great cook, but I do a few dishes well. Cornish hen, glazed with a cranberry sauce, on a bed of spinach leaves and bacon goes over pretty well, along with couscous and a vegetable. For dessert I usually do a chocolate pot de crème, or apple crisp, both of which are delicious and ridiculously easy to prepare. Oh, and since it’s fall, I can do a really good pumpkin soup.

When should I expect you?

4. A major university invites you to teach a semester-long course of your own creation. What's the class, and what are the prerequisites?

Probably the “50 Best Films of All Time” . . . or the evolution of the Beatles’ music. Or the Politics of the Sixties. Or the history of television news. (You know . . . these courses sound pretty cool. Wish I could take them.) As for prerequisites . . . it would help if students and/or their parents lived through the Sixties. It would be even better if they remember them.

5. What superpower would you most want to have?

It’s a toss-up – an invisibility cloak would be nice. But so would x-ray vision. And I’ve always wanted to be the fly on the wall . . .

Thanks, Libby! Libby's in Madison, WI tomorrow, and hosts a launch party for DOUBLEBACK on Sunday afternoon in Northbrook, IL. Find out where she's touring here, and catch her Bouchercon panel: "Issues, Entertainment, or Both? Can mysteries effectively examine social issues or are they mere entertainments?" with Carl Brookins (Moderator), Cara Black, Mark Coggins and Mark T. Sullivan, at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 17.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Five Things Dizzy Knows

A busy, distracted, inconvenient day, and I apologize for the lateness of today's post. Check back tomorrow for a special treat. In the meantime, Dizzy offers these simple truths.

1. Bacon is good. Crispy bacon is best, but raw bacon is also fine. Canadian bacon is chewier than streaky bacon. Beggin' Strips will do in a pinch; turkey bacon is interesting but not as good as regular turkey or regular bacon. Veggie bacon is not food (which is saying something, considering how broadly Dizzy defines "food").

2. Squirrels are bad. All they do is steal stuff and taunt dogs. They chatter away and make no sense; they ransack bird feeders; they run too fast to be caught. Sometimes they're dead on the road, which seems fair. Cats are marginally better than squirrels, but only because they produce tasty snacks (see parenthesis in Item #1).

3. Riding in cars is better with the windows down. You only really know where you are if you can smell it.

4. Getting wet can be fun, but it's way more fun to be toweled off. Getting rubbed down with a towel is seriously one of the most enjoyable sensations life offers. It is worth almost any opportunity to get wet, including baths.

5. All toys eventually lose their squeakers. Few things are more satisfying than a new squeaky toy, but all good things come to an end. Even the best toy will someday stop squeaking, at which point the only thing to do is tear the toy apart, rip out the squeaker, and wait for your owner to buy you a new toy.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Five Odd Facts about Edgar Allan Poe

Today is the 160th anniversary of the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe, who collapsed in Baltimore while on a lecture tour to raise money for a planned magazine.

Poe was a mythic figure in my own childhood, as his restless life took him to most of the same places I visited as a child: Richmond and Tidewater, Virginia; the Bronx; Charleston, South Carolina. Baltimore was the city he kept returning to, however, and although Richmond, Charleston and New York all lay claim to aspects of the Poe legacy, it's Baltimore that makes the biggest deal out of him.

The circumstances of Poe's death will forever be a mystery. He was an unhappy man who, in the last decade or so of his life, seemed to make a point of offending and alienating most of the people willing to help him. He died incoherent in the Washington College Hospital, leaving behind a body of work that is both brilliant and frustrating. My theory about why he continues to fascinate us is that he's the poster child for wasted potential; yes, he produced works of lasting brilliance, but seemed capable of so much more — or was he?

Anyway, here are five things that seldom get mentioned when Edgar Allan Poe's story is told.

1. He was not an only child. Edgar Poe's parents were actors; his father left the family the year after Edgar was born, and his mother died from tuberculosis a year later. But Edgar had an older brother, Henry, and a younger sister, Rosalie. The three children were raised in separate foster homes: Henry in Baltimore, Rosalie and Edgar in Richmond. But Edgar looked up to Henry, who was also a writer; Henry wrote a story called "The Pirate" that was based on Edgar's unhappy love affair with Sarah Elmira Royster, and Edgar used the pen name "Henri le Rennet," apparently in tribute. Henry died (of tuberculosis) in 1831, when he was 24 and Edgar was 22.

2. Edgar Allan Poe's foster father was a slave trader. As a toddler, Edgar Poe was taken into the household of John Allan, a Scottish merchant who dealt in commodities of all kinds — including slaves. Richmond at the time (early 1800s) was a major center of the slave trade. This had to have been a source of moral conflict for John Allan; the British empire abolished the slave trade in 1807, and the Allans (with Edgar) lived in England and Scotland from 1815–1820.

3. The most productive and successful period of Poe's life was, arguably, his time in the Army. The 18-year-old Poe, having dropped out of the University of Virginia and unable to support himself as a writer, lied to Army recruiters about his age and his name, and enlisted. As "Edgar A. Perry," he served in Boston and at Fort Moultrie, SC. During that time he published his first collection of poetry (Tamerlane and Other Poems, by a Bostonian; only 50 copies were printed, and it is the Holy Grail of book collecting). He was so good at his job (artillery) that he was promoted to Sergeant-Major in only two years. But it wasn't enough; bored or restless or just plain self-destructive, he confessed his deception and asked to be released from his enlistment. His commanding officer agreed, if he would be reconciled with his foster father. John Allan was not sympathetic, but eventually agreed to sponsor Poe's enrollment in West Point. That didn't end well; Poe was court-martialed within a year.

4. During his lifetime, Poe was much better-known as a critic than as a writer of original work. This may go to the issue of his making so many enemies; his criticism, now seldom read except by scholars, was not only known but feared by his contemporaries. The poet James Russell Lowell, who admired Poe, once suggested that Poe used prussic acid in place of ink.

5. Poe would understand the dilemma of today's publishing industry better than many current executives. The major reason, or a major reason, Poe had such a hard time supporting himself as a writer was the lack of an international copyright law. His articles, poems, and short stories were copied at will by other publications, both here and abroad, usually without attribution and always without compensation. Before Poe, writing was a gentleman's occupation; the idea that you could or should try to support yourself through writing alone was a novelty, if not an absurdity. But Poe's demand that he be fairly compensated for his work, and his expectation that intelligent people would spend money to be entertained in print, did a great deal to create modern commercial publishing, and the magazine industry in particular. According to some reports, he collected $1,500 toward the creation of a new magazine the week before he died — though he was penniless when he was found, and wearing someone else's clothes. One wonders what advice he'd have for the board of Conde Nast.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Five Great Southern Novels

In New York for about 27 hours, for a luncheon and reception to honor CITY OF REFUGE and Tom Piazza, winner of this year's Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. I was a judge for this award, which recognizes books that reflect "hope for belonging, for belief in people's better nature." CITY OF REFUGE is a marvelous book about two very different families trying to rebuild their lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It's just out in paperback, and you should read it.

Getting here yesterday meant waking up at 3:00 a.m. to make a 6:00 a.m. plane out of Portland, and this morning I'll be taking a train and a bus and a car to get home again. It was worth the effort to spend a day with people who are passionate about books. Yesterday's luncheon included a discussion of "five best" lists (a coincidence; the person who started the conversation had never met me and is unaware of this blog), so it seems appropriate to make today's post a list of my five all-time favorite Southern novels.

1. ALL THE KING'S MEN by Robert Penn Warren. (Louisiana) I've written about this book before. Someone asked Tom Piazza last night whether he thought the state of Louisiana would ever manage to fix its political corruption; he said simply, "No." Then he laughed and elaborated, but the truth is that what we call corruption is simply the polite (and smart) way to do business in Louisiana. ALL THE KINGS MEN explains that in detail. But why would we think this was true only for Louisiana, or only for the South? As Willie Stark says, "There is always something."

2. DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT by Anne Tyler. (Maryland) Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for 1982, this is my favorite Anne Tyler novel. Cody, Jenny and Ezra Tull grow up in Baltimore under the anxious, angry eye of their mother, Pearl, who never admitted to them that their father simply left, years ago, after a business trip. As adults, Cody, Jenny and Ezra all try different ways to get for themselves what they felt they missed as children, with varying degrees of success. Ezra, in particular, creates his own vision of a happy home at a place called the Homesick Restaurant. I can't think of a novel that taught me more about how families work, and Tyler's great love for her characters shines from every page.

3. GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell. (Georgia) Oh, did you think I'd leave this off the list? Heck, no. Being popular doesn't mean it's not good, and GONE WITH THE WIND is an epic novel that illustrates a time and place as well as any book before or since. Scarlett O'Hara's life story is a hero's journey that pre-dated the women's liberation movement by 40 years, and people will still be reading this book 100 years from now.

4. KATE VAIDEN by Reynolds Price. (North Carolina) I've written about this book as well, and might put it on a list of top five novels, period. In many ways it is the opposite of GONE WITH THE WIND, although set in a completely different time and place. While Scarlett O'Hara never questions her right to the things she wants or needs, Kate Vaiden is not sure she has a right to even the smallest of lives. If I taught a course on women in Southern novels, I would ask students to discuss how these two perspectives are actually two sides of one coin. It's a discussion that would require more space than this blog allows.

5. THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy. (Louisiana) If someone asked me to identify the characteristic themes of the greatest southern novels, I might say, "Family, guilt, and the consequences of carelessness." All of these are at play in THE MOVIEGOER, the story of Binx Bolling's Lenten redemption. Binx is a man defined by his family and his social standing who daydreams instead about the magic world offered by movies; ultimately, the movies offer him a way back into the life that seemed meaningless.

Leave your own recommendations for this list below . . .

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Five Random Songs

A rainy Saturday morning, and I'm up early. Lots of things on today's calendar, which the rain may interfere with to varying degrees — but Julia Spencer-Fleming is speaking at the Bridge Academy Public Library in Dresden this evening, and that won't get rained out. See you there?

1. "Win Your Love for Me," Sam Cooke. Everybody cha-cha . . . "If you'd only come to me, this torch I wouldn't have to carry . . ." There's been talk for years about a Sam Cooke biopic, and now it sounds like it might finally be made. I'll pay to see it.

2. "Hey World (Don't Give Up Version)," Michael Franti. This was on a sampler of music from the ANTI- label, and I've been meaning ever since to buy more of Franti's work. It's cool, soulful folk-rock with a gorgeous production sound, both clean and full.

3. "Play the Game," Queen. Speaking of gorgeous production sound . . . no one ever made unrequited love feel so heroic. And are you watching "Glee," by the way? If not, why not?

4. "Shine a Little Love," ELO. A wall-of-sound set on the iTunes shuffle this morning! This collection (Magic: The Best of Electric Light Orchestra) is musical Prozac. Those Glee kids need to sing some ELO.

5. "Knock Loud," Neko Case. Well, and this would be the opposite of high production values: a live recording from a set "At Mojo's, in Columbia, MO, 2002," that sounds as if it were taped inside a coffee can. Being Neko Case, though, of course it works.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Five Random Questions with TOD GOLDBERG

Tod Goldberg is an author and educator whose new collection of short fiction, OTHER RESORT CITIES, is in bookstores now. He also writes the BURN NOTICE novels, and serves us all in a continuing campaign to expose the idiocy of "Walter Scott"'s Personality Parade. He recently agreed to submit to Five Random Questions.

1. What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten that was theoretically food? (Dirt, broken glass, Mexican hookers etc. don't count.)

That's difficult to say definitively. So let me break it down into a few possible answers:

1. I was in a fraternity in college, which means I was forced to eat all sorts of thing under the guise of, you know, becoming a fully vested member of Sigma Phi Epsilon. Since I was blindfolded much of the time, I cannot tell you if what I ate was theoretically food or not.
2. I was educated in public schools in California, which means that I was regularly subjected to something called a Cheeze Zombie, which was made neither of cheese nor the undead.
3. West of the Mississippi there's a chain of fast food restaurants called Del Taco. I understand they have recently expanded east somewhat. This is not a good thing. They serve something called "Del Meat" in their products. I have never seen a Del prancing in the wild, so I'm not sure what Del Meat is precisely, but I've eaten and enjoyed Del Meat on numerous occasions.

2. Which Hollywood star or professional sports figure would you most like to see run for public office?

Mark McGwire. I feel like of all the steroid-era baseball players, he handled himself most like a skilled politician when he was questioned before the Senate. He wasn't exactly Atty. General Gonzalez, but he evaded things fairly effectively and thus clearly shifted blame onto himself while attempting to systematically avoid blame entirely. Plus, I met him once in a mall and he was exceptionally sweet to me, which he didn't have to be since I came off like a fucking moron, I'm sure. Thus, I feel like he's deserving of a decent second act in his life, particularly since it's now pretty clear he wasn't a lone wolf in breaking the rules, he was just one of the most successful, and thus I think he would make a decent Governor of California. He couldn't be any worse than what we have.

3. What would your rapper name be?

I've put a lot of thought into this over the years. It would either be Hebrew Ice or The Gold Standard. Obviously.

4. What classic literary work do you pretend to have read, but actually haven't?

There are many. Anything by Salman Rushdie. The majority of Jane Austen. Moby Dick.

5. What reality TV show would you want to be on?

"The Amazing Race," without a doubt. I'd lose in the first round, for sure, but I feel like I'd become America's darling in the process, provided I was able to get paired up with a midget or a woman missing a foot or knee or something. I'd have my own catch phrases and everything.

You can see Tod this Sunday at the Eighth Annual West Hollywood Book Fair, and he'll be making quite a few appearances around the country to promote OTHER RESORT CITIES. I, for one, would love to see Tod -- and his gorgeous, funny, tall and non-maimed wife, Wendy -- on "The Amazing Race." CBS, make it happen. Thanks, Tod!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Five Medieval Illnesses You Probably Don't Have to Worry About

Sorry for the late posting today. A bout of insomnia kept me up too late last night, which meant I was up too late this morning, and the whole day's been a exercise in catching up.

Earlier this week and for a couple of days last week, I was afraid I'd gotten, or was getting, the flu that's going around. This may be the year I get a flu shot; I might do it next week, before I leave for Bouchercon. I've had several conversations with friends and family this week about shots and vaccinations, though, and it made me think about how much we take our immunities for granted. The things that killed our ancestors don't kill us any more, and it's worth taking a minute to remember what those things were.

1. Childbed Fever. Also called puerperal fever or puerperal sepsis, it killed my great-grandmother Molony as recently as 1916. Alarmingly, it occurred most frequently in births in hospitals, or births attended by male doctors or surgeons. Modern medicine believes the most common cause was Group A Streptococcus, the same bacteria that cause strep throat, and that it was passed from woman to woman in hospital wards simply because doctors didn't wash their hands. Puerperal fever still occurs in up to 8% of all deliveries in the United States, and is a specific risk of Caesarian sections; however, it's treatable with antibiotics.

2. Consumption. They called it consumption, we call it tuberculosis. Either way, it's a horrible way to die. You literally waste away, and your lungs break down, try to repair themselves, scar into fibroids and then break down again, continuing the cycle until they cease functioning altogether. The fact that you don't hear about Westerners dying of it any more doesn't mean it's gone; in fact, a third of the world's population has been infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and a growing percentage of those infected have drug-resistant TB. Tuberculosis has also been known, in different forms and at different points in time, as phthisis, scrofula (when it infected the neck glands), the king's evil, and Pott's disease. It too is treatable with antibiotics, although the disease is evolving to be increasingly drug-resistant.

3. Dropsy. You read about dropsy a lot in medieval histories, but there's no way to know exactly what this was. It was an all-purpose term used to describe any unexplained swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water. In some cases it might have been kidney disease; in others, it was probably congestive heart failure. Queen Mary I of England died of dropsy, which had earlier made her believe, mistakenly, that she was pregnant. Doctors now see dropsy as a symptom rather than as a disease, and can treat the underlying illness before it becomes something you notice on the street.

4. Dysentery. Also called the flux, or the bloody flux. It killed millions, and the fact that we almost never see it in the developed world is a triumph of public hygiene and modern plumbing. It's not gone altogether; it's still a risk in less-developed countries, and we have outbreaks after any natural disaster that disrupts the supply of clean water. It's another disease that gets passed along easily in settings where people don't or can't wash their hands. It can be caused by either a bacterial or an amoebic infection, and is treated with drugs and rehydration therapy. A handy tip, in case you ever need to know: camel feces and sheep feces contain a natural antibiotic against dysentery.

5. Smallpox. Arguments about public vaccination campaigns must begin and end with the story of smallpox. Caused by the variola virus, it too killed millions of people worldwide, and left millions more permanently disfigured or blind. In the 18th century alone, it killed 400,000 people in Europe every year, and was responsible for a third of all cases of blindness. As recently as 1950, there were approximately 50 million new cases of smallpox every year — but the last reported death from smallpox happened in 1978, and the disease was declared formally extinct in 1979. It is still the only infectious disease ever eliminated by humans.

The question of immunizations is a cost-benefit discussion. Google images of smallpox, and you'll see things you wish you hadn't; it's a disease you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus are likewise illnesses that cause horrible suffering before death, and permanent damage among those who survive. Measles can make you blind or sterile, meningitis can leave its survivors brain-damaged or comatose. I've never had to make these decisions, but if I had children, I wouldn't hesitate to vaccinate them against any of these illnesses.