Sunday, August 29, 2010

Five Famous Ghosts

Last night I spent several hours at a friend's house, watching and listening for word from The Other Side.

I have to be careful about how I discuss this. My friend does not need ghost-hunters showing up at the front door, and last night's proceedings were subject to some kind of confidentiality agreement whose details I don't know. But I went into the evening with an open mind, and nothing that happened last night makes me any less open to the idea that places might be haunted.

What haunting is, I still don't know, but their existence follows logically from the first law of thermodynamics: energy cannot be created or destroyed, but is merely converted from one form to another. Human beings channel a lot of energy, particularly in times of extreme stress. Theaters are almost always haunted, I think, because the energy expended in performance lingers; the ghosts in theaters aren't those of actors, but those of characters.

The question of whether ghosts have consciousness and agency (the ability to act on their desires) is something I'm still agnostic on, though I'm willing to believe they do. The last house I lived in before I left Washington was haunted by a benign female presence who was curious about modern styles, and particularly about modern beauty products. My makeup case was rifled a few times, and I once came in from the backyard to find my blowdryer plugged in and turned on, though no one was in the house.

Tell me about your own experiences of ghosts in the comments section. Here are five well-known ones:

1. Catherine Howard, Hampton Court, England. The fifth wife of Henry VIII was beautiful, young, and foolish. Charged with infidelities she was probably guilty of, she broke away from her guards and ran screaming toward her husband's chambers, begging for mercy. The guards caught her and dragged her away, still screaming, through what is now called the Haunted Gallery. People have reported seeing her and hearing her. I've been to Hampton Court, and found the Haunted Gallery creepy, but that might have been because I already knew this story.

2. Abraham Lincoln, The White House, Washington, DC. President Harry Truman was convinced that Abraham Lincoln haunts the White House, and no less a witness than Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands reported having seen him. Lincoln himself told his aides, not long before his assassination, that he had had a dream of walking the White House after his own death.

3. Ulysses S. Grant, The Willard Hotel, Washington, DC. The Willard Hotel is my least favorite public place in Washington, and I avoid it if I can. Its atmosphere feels thick with rage and frustration and sorrow; whether those belong to the ghosts or the people who frequent it now, I couldn't say. My guess is that most old hotels have more than one ghost, since people check into hotels at times of grief, anger, illicit passion, and despair. Ulysses S. Grant spent most of his business days as President in the Willard's lobby, where the constant flow of people asking him for things led to the coining of the word "lobbyist." They say you can still smell his cigar smoke.

4. Montgomery Clift, The Roosevelt Hotel, Los Angeles. Montgomery Clift lived in Room 928 of the Roosevelt Hotel during the filming of From Here to Eternity (1953). He died 13 years later, in New York City; maybe the Roosevelt Hotel was the time and place he was happiest. People say he still walks the hallways, reciting his lines, and plays the trumpet late at night. Marilyn Monroe's ghost is supposed to haunt the Roosevelt, too.

5. Al Capone, Alcatraz. Alcatraz's most famous inmate lived for eight years after he got out of prison, but his health failed badly while he was in prison, as syphilis started to eat at his brain. He was afraid he'd be killed if he took recreation in the prison yard, so got permission to practice his banjo in the shower room; people have said they still hear a banjo there sometimes. I've never been to Alcatraz, and am not likely to go when I visit San Francisco in October. If any place is likely to be haunted, it's a prison: all that rage, all that sorrow, all those thwarted desires. No thanks.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Five Good Books I've Read or Listened to Lately

Hello again. I've read a lot this month, but it's mostly been manuscripts, or work-related books I didn't like well enough to recommend. I also have more than the usual number of books going at the moment, so am hoping to finish several at once, later this week.

In the meantime, though, these are five worth mentioning.

1. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto. A group of captives in the Vice President's mansion in an unnamed South American country forms its own society with its captors; in the absence of external stimuli, people become who they are. It ends as it must end, but those who survive do so with a more complete understanding of their own nature. This book had come so highly recommended to me (by several friends) that it was almost bound to disappoint. It didn't, exactly, although it was a book I admired more than loved.

2. Stewart O'Nan, Last Night at the Lobster. Karen Olson recommended this book, which I listened to in audio format. It's very short, more a novella than a novel, but it's a gem, about a long, sad day in the lives of some ordinary people — a Red Lobster is closing in suburban Connecticut, and we get almost a minute-by-minute recap of the day. Nothing much happens, yet it feels as if we've learned a lot by the end of the story. Carefully observed, compassionate and kind.

3. Anthony Hyde, The Red Fox. I read this at the recommendation of Joe Finder, who cites it as his favorite Cold War thriller. I understand why; it's a terrifically-paced novel, deeply rooted in the history of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1980. It's also wildly romantic, as the best spy novels should be. Semi-retired journalist and Russia expert Robert Thorne comes to the aid of his old friend and former lover May Brightman after the disappearance of her father, an importer of furs. Harry Brightman is later found dead, an apparent suicide, but it becomes clear that his death has something to do with May's own adoption as a baby. Thorne follows the trail, which becomes littered with dead bodies, to a secret even he can't quite believe.

4. Don Winslow, Savages. Chon and Ben, who run a profitable and strangely ethical marijuana business in southern California, get a hostile takeover notice from the Baja Cartel. When they refuse, cartel operatives kidnap O, the young woman both men love, and start a war. Don Winslow is one of the best crime writers working today, and experiments here with structure, syntax and point-of-view — it's almost thriller-as-free verse, and in the present tense, no less. In the hands of a lesser writer it might feel like a stunt, but Savages feels like a great carnival ride.

5. Tana French, Faithful Place. Frank Mackey and his first love, Rosie Daly, were going to leave their desperate Dublin neighborhood for a new life in London — but Rosie never showed, and Frank spent the rest of his life believing she'd stood him up, and gone off on her own. Twenty-two years later, Frank, an undercover police detective, gets a frantic call from his sister. Rosie's suitcase has turned up, hidden for decades in an abandoned building. It's only a matter of time before Frank finds out what happened to Rosie, and why, although it means the destruction of everything he thought he knew about his life. French gets everything right here: the delirium of young love, the complicated alliances of siblings, the way the things we believed at 19 shape who we are at 40. Gripping, heartbreaking, beautifully observed. Just brilliant.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Five Questions from Last Night's Pub Quiz

Hi there. Did you miss me? I missed you, too — no, really. The blog organizes my day in a way I am not always willing to admit. It is a sort of throat-clearing for the rest of the day, and I suspect I'm more productive when I'm blogging. Between now and the end of the month I'll probably put up a couple more posts, and I'll be back full-time on September 1. Still haven't decided on the new theme, but it will be music-related, since that's something I haven't done yet. I'd say "stay tuned," but that would be an unfortunate pun.

Anyway, last night I served as guest host at The Liberal Cup's weekly Tuesday trivia. It was fun for me, and it seemed to go pretty well — despite the young man who dared, at the first break, to suggest that I speed things up (although that break had come considerably earlier than the break usually does with the regular emcee). None of my regular readers are guilty of this, I feel certain — but men, if you find yourself wanting to coach a woman you don't know, stop yourself and ask whether you'd give similar unsolicited advice to a man. I believe I frightened that young man. At least, I hope so.

If you missed it, here are five of last night's questions. Answers are in the comments section.

1. General Motors is about to return to the ranks of publicly-traded companies, emerging from bankruptcy. The company was founded in 1908 as a holding company for the manufacturer of what make of car, still in production today?

2. What cocktail is made with orange juice, vodka, and Galliano liqueur?

3. According to a recent study of traffic fatalities in New York City, are pedestrians more likely to be hit by male drivers or female drivers?

4. The state of California has reported an epidemic this summer of what childhood illness, which most people think they're immunized against?

5. The official list of hurricane names goes from Alex to Walter, but excludes what two letters from the alphabet in between?