Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Five Famous (or Notorious) Mental Hospitals

I cannot apologize for the things that catch my interest. I'm about to read not one but two books about 19th-century asylum care for the mentally ill, for a project of my own, and the larger issue of inpatient psychiatric treatment fascinates me.

As a species, humans have never been particularly good at dealing with the mentally ill. For every folk tale you've heard about how this tribe or that one treated its mentally ill as shamans or prophets, the historical record gives us uglier stories: trepanning, exorcism, physical abuse, imprisonment or malign neglect. Even major advances in the treatment of mental illness have come with blunders and abuses, from lobotomies to the overmedication of the unhappy housewife.

Deinstitutionalization began when medications made it possible for many residents of mental hospitals to return to some kind of normal life. It accelerated in the 1960s, as returning patients to their families and communities became an increasingly realistic treatment goal. By the late 1970s this strategy, too, had unintended consequences, as city streets filled with mentally ill people (mostly men) who simply weren't able to take care of themselves.

Now inpatient psychiatric care tends to focus on acute case management, hospitalizing people who are an immediate danger to themselves or others for periods of time that usually last no more than a couple of months. Halfway houses and group homes provide support to the chronically mentally ill, but I still see people on the streets of Augusta and Washington, DC who would be better off in some kind of long-term care facility. Those don't seem to exist any more, at least not in the way they once did, and I don't know whether that's good or bad.

1. Bedlam. Its formal name is the Bethlem Royal Hospital, and it is still in operation, the world's first and oldest institution for the mentally ill. Founded in London near Bishopsgate, It was originally a religious priory, and became a hospital in 1337. Sometime around 1357, it began to take in mentally ill patients. By the end of the 16th century it was primarily a holding facility (you couldn't call it a treatment facility) for the insane. Conditions were horrifying, despite periodic efforts to reform the place and make it more humane. The hospital moved to larger quarters in Moorfields, in outer London, in 1675, and in the 18th century the hospital started admitting spectators, at a penny a visit. Visitors were allowed to bring long sticks to poke at the lunatics, and they came by the thousands. Circumstances improved in 1815, when the hospital moved again, to St. George's Fields, on a site that is now the Imperial War Museum. Bethlem Royal Hospital moved to its current location in an outer suburb of London in 1930. It's now a large complex of buildings on 250 acres, and is part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. It is a postgraduate psychiatric teaching hospital, and welcomes visitors to a museum on the grounds.

2. Broadmoor Hospital. Americans know about Broadmoor from British crime fiction, and BBC mystery series. It is a high-security psychiatric hospital, founded in 1863 as the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. It housed both male and female patients/inmates until 2007, when the remaining female patients were moved to a new facility in Southall and elsewhere. Today it houses approximately 260 male patients, most of whom have been convicted of serious crimes or found unfit to be tried for those crimes by reason of insanity. Broadmoor includes a special unit for patients with "dangerous severe personality disorder," deemed to present a grave and immediate danger to the general public. Daniel M'Naghten, the paranoid Scotsman whose trial established the insanity defense, was one of Broadmoor's first patients, committed there after serving 21 years in Bethlem; he died there in 1865.

3. Danvers State Insane Asylum. Massachusetts' largest and best-known treatment facility for the mentally ill closed in 1992, after 114 years, and is now the site of a controversial apartment complex. Everything good and bad about the American mental health system can be found in the history of Danvers, which was probably the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft's Arkham Asylum. It was built to take in patients who had been in a hospital in South Boston that closed, and to alleviate overcrowding in asylums around the state, but by the late 1930s it held four times the number of patients it had been designed for. It became a training and research facility early on, and was among the first mental hospitals to stop the routine use of mechanical restraints. It was also, according to rumor, the site of the nation's first prefrontal lobotomy.

4. St. Elizabeths Hospital. The official name of the hospital never had an apostrophe, which says something in itself. St. E's, as Washington, D.C. residents call it, was the first federally-funded, large-scale treatment center for the mentally ill, opening in 1855 as the Government Hospital for the Insane. It was the result of a major effort by the social reformer and advocate Dorothea Dix, a Maine native who spent most of her life lobbying for the humane treatment of the mentally ill. It sits on a vast campus (300 acres) bisected by Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. Much of it has fallen into serious disrepair, although it still serves as the District's public psychiatric facility, and construction is just ending on a new hospital building. Over its 155 years as an active mental health facility, St. E's has housed more than 125,000 patients, including Ezra Pound, the actress Mary Fuller, and would-be Presidential assassin John Hinckley, who still lives there. The Department of Homeland Security is in the process of turning the western campus into their consolidated headquarters; the snarky commentary almost writes itself, doesn't it?

5. Weyburn Mental Hospital. Students of the unfortunate consequences of good intentions need look no farther than the history of Weyburn Mental Hospital, a research and treatment facility in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. It was built in 1921, and designed to house 950 patients; by 1946, it held 2,600. Determined to place itself on the "cutting edge" (no pun intended) of psychiatric treatment, it not only made full (and sometimes excessive) use of treatments such as insulin therapy, hydrotherapy, lobotomy and electroshock therapy, but also experimented extensively with the use of LSD, including by staff volunteers who tried it in order to experience the effects of schizophrenia. Weyburn used LSD in the treatment of chronic alcoholism, with a success rate that would demand attention if the side effects hadn't been so disastrous. It officially closed in 1971, though some portion of the site was used as a treatment center until 2005.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Five Valid Scrabble Words I Didn't Know Until Yesterday

Literacy Volunteers of Greater Augusta held its third annual Scrabble tournament fundraiser on Sunday afternoon, and I served as timekeeper at the competition table (most of the participating teams played more relaxed "social" games). Team Weevil won the competition finals, edging out the dominant Blankety-Blanks, who won the tournament when I served as timekeeper two years ago.

Great games all around, in the best possible cause, and I learned a few words to boot. These are five valid words the Weevils and the Blankety-Blanks played yesterday that were new to me.

1. Amido. A chemistry term meaning "containing, or derived from, amidogen," which in turn is "a compound radical, NH2, not yet obtained in a separate state, which may be regarded as ammonia from the molecule of which one of its hydrogen atoms has been removed." I do wish I'd paid closer attention in chemistry class.

2. Bazar. Alternate spelling and also the plural of bazaar, which can be a street (esp. in the Middle East) lined with shops and stalls, or a fair or sale or store that sells miscellaneous goods.

3. Peh. Alternate spelling of pe, the seventeenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

4. Talion. A legal term meaning a system or legal principle of that makes the punishment fit the crime, such as the death penalty for murder; the root is the same as for the word "retaliation."

5. Wawl. A verb meaning "to make high-pitched, whiny noises."

Got any good unusual words for my next round of Scrabble? Leave them in the comments section.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Five Random Songs

Good GRIEF, it's cold outside: 15F when I woke up, and only 19 now. Brutal. I have lots to do before I leave for Washington again on Monday, so here are five random songs for the weekend.

1. "Answer to Yourself," The Soft Pack. See, I listen to new stuff. These guys are a young band from southern California, and I would describe their sound as post-punk. This was a free download from somewhere, but it's enough to make me want the self-titled album. If you're in DC, they happen to be playing tonight at the Black Cat.

2. "Refugee," Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. On a short list of songs I'd consider my personal theme music.

3. "Sempiternal/Amaranth," School of Seven Bells. More new music, but I can't take credit for this; it was a gift from a friend whose musical tastes are way more up-to-date and sophisticated than mine. I like it, though. This particular track is club music, eleven and a half minutes long with a driving electronic beat and incomprehensible lyrics. A good treadmill soundtrack.

4. "Teenage Lobotomy," The Ramones. Last night I played poker at a friend's house, and one of the other guests was complaining about his gray hair. "Don't even start," I said. "Yeah," the young man said, "but you've got 20 years on me." He was exaggerating — only slightly — but it made me want to go home and listen to my Ramones records. Yes, I said records, dammit. On vinyl. (Not that I have a turntable.)

5. "Swingin'," Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Ooh, a double shot of Tom Petty for a Saturday morning, and most appropriate to round out this set. This whole album (Echo) is a brilliant, heartbreaking (no, really), inspiring meditation on mid-life. I think I'll listen to the whole thing from the beginning.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Five Books I've Read or Listened to Recently

It feels like a while since I've posted a reading list. I've been doing a lot of manuscript work lately, which cuts into my pleasure reading, and I've also read a few things lately that disappointed me. But here are five books worth your attention.

1. Markus Zusak, THE BOOK THIEF. I am not sure why I missed this book when it came out a few years ago, but I'm glad that my sister Peggy's book club finally gave me the impetus to read it. Death narrates the story of Liesl, a foster child growing up in a town on the outskirts of Munich during the Second World War. Liesl catches Death's attention not only for surviving her first encounter with him, but for stealing a book from the scene, and Death watches as her passion for books gets her through the horror of war. It's a simple enough book to be marketed to young adults, but it's complex and powerful enough to be a permanent classic, for all ages. I've already given one copy of this book away, and will give away many more.

2. Donna Ball, AT HOME ON LADYBUG FARM. The ladies introduced in A YEAR ON LADYBUG FARM return in this charming sequel, in which they figure out how to put their Shenandoah Valley farm on a paying basis. Not much happens, but it's all engaging. I read so much crime fiction that sometimes it's good to remember the pleasure of reading a nice book about nice people.

3. Tod Goldberg, BURN NOTICE: THE FIX. The last tie-in novel I read was The Partridge Family 4: The Ghost of Graveyard Hill. But Tod's a friend, and I got this book in my registration bag for Left Coast Crime, and I love "Burn Notice." If you're a fan of the show, you'll like this book. Goldberg nails the characters — a veteran spy who's been "burned," tossed out of the service for unknown reason; his wacky mother; his former colleague, an aging frat boy; and his former-and-possibly-future girlfriend, an international assassin. If Plot A comes together a little too coincidentally with Plot B, were you expecting gritty realism?

4. Susan Rebecca White, DOWN SOUTH. A sweet, sharply insightful first novel that gets the modern South dead on (and reminded me of why I left). It's an episodic family drama that covers twenty years in the life of three Southern women — Louise, a wealthy Atlanta housewife; her artistic and emotional daughter Caroline; and Missy, the daughter of Louise's housekeeper. If it has a flaw, I felt it pulled its punches. Its characters deal with almost every conflict imaginable, from infidelity to teen pregnancy to secret homosexuality, but the wounds aren't mortal and the anger and sorrow don't feel permanent. Another reason to prefer fiction to reality . . .

5. Jesse Kellerman, THE EXECUTOR. This gripping psychological thriller is ambitious indeed, a parable about free will that not only explains but illustrates some heavy philosophical ideas. Perpetual graduate student Joseph Geist answers a cryptic ad for a "Conversationalist," and seems to have his entire life solved for him. His patron, an elderly woman named Alma Spielmann (not a coincidence that the name means "game player"), offers him everything he needs and wants — and sets up a situation that plunges Joseph into a nightmare he could not have imagined. This book asks some big questions, and trusts the reader enough not to answer them all.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Five Birds I Saw This Morning

I don't know much about birds, and am not a serious birdwatcher, but it's hard to ignore them at this time of year in Maine. Even the birds that spent the winter here are suddenly louder and busier, and the first birds have already started coming back from warmer climates.

Dizzy's genetic heritage would make him interested in birds, but an unfortunate puppyhood experience trained him to ignore them, mostly. He's more interested in land mammals. The deer we saw in the woods behind the cemetery last week almost gave him an embolism; he wouldn't chase them (I don't think), but he needed to let me know they were there, even after they'd run far away.

1. Chickadees. The Maine state bird, and they're ridiculously cute. They don't fly as much as bounce, and since they nest in cavities, they're here year-round.

2. Blue Jays. Maine Birding calls the blue jay a "noisy opportunist," and there's one that lives in a neighbor's tree and bullies all the smaller birds around a nearby feeder. In the bird world, too, the good-looking ones think they're entitled to everything.

3. Ravens. Ravens look a lot like crows, but are bigger, and can be more than two feet long. They too stay here year-round, as they're famous for eating anything. A colony of feral cats lives in the ruins of the old Gardiner Paperboard factory, and I suspect that the ravens even prey on kittens. They're also famous for their intelligence, and the sounds they make to each other in the mornings sometimes sound a lot like conversations.

4. Bald Eagles. A nesting pair lives along the Kennebec south of Gardiner, but I don't often see them. It's a beautiful morning, the smelt are running, and one of the eagles was cruising above the Cobbossee. Today it didn't come very far down, but I've seen one perch on a tree; they are enormous — bigger than I'd imagined, close to three feet tall. Seriously, I'd be worried if I had a smaller dog, although I think they prefer fish.

5. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Yes, really. Their arrival is an unmistakable sign of spring in Maine. I heard him (or her, I can't tell the difference) before I saw him, in a tree behind the D&H Motors dealership. They too are cute; they're medium-sized birds with long, sharp beaks and distinctive red markings on their heads. This coming weekend is Maine Maple Sunday, but the sapsuckers are equally interested (if not more so) in the insects the sap attracts.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Five Most Common Surnames in the U.S.

This was a question at last night's pub quiz; the quiz master gave us two of the most popular names, and asked for the three others. We only got one of them right.

Numbers are based on the 2000 Census, and it will be interesting to see what changes after this year's count. The 2000 Census included two Hispanic surnames in the top ten for the first time — Garcia, at #8, and Rodriguez, at #9. These five, though, have been in the top ten for a long time.

1. Smith. Almost 2.4 million Americans had the last name "Smith" in 2000, outranking the #2 name by more than half a million people. It was #1 in 1990, too. It is Anglo-Saxon in origin, and is an occupational surname, first belonging to people who worked with metal.

2. Johnson. 1.86 million. A patronymic, meaning it came from the father's name. It's most commonly English, but can come from almost anywhere in northern Europe; spelling variations such as Janssen and Johanssen didn't always make it through immigration. In Gaelic, it's MacShane, and in Welsh, it's Jones. Lots of Johns having lots of children, many years ago.

3. Williams. Another patronymic, "Williams" has roots in Old French, Belgic, and a German dialect of Old French. Its root word means "helmet," and "William" or "Wilhelm" signifies a resolute protector. I have never met a William Williams, but if my surname were Williams, I'd be tempted. 1.5 million Americans had this surname in 2000.

4. Brown. 1.38 million in 2000. A descriptive surname, the kind we used in third grade to distinguish between, say, blonde Karen and red-haired Karen. It too can come from almost anywhere in northern Europe, as the word for "Brown" is similar in English, French, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch . . .

5. Jones. The Welsh form of "Johnson" was almost as common as Brown, with 1.36 million Americans bearing this name in 2000. "Jones" has become such an archetypal American name that we worry about keeping up with them, and it's become a standard name for any generic American family. It begs the question, why don't we hear more about how the Welsh conquered the world?

For the record, "Lamb" ranked 513 in the 2000 Census, with 58,555 Americans counted with that name. "McLaughlin," my mother's maiden name, was #392, belonging to 73,128 people. I'm probably related to most of them.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nothing to say on a rainy day

Too much on my schedule today, and I can't tell whether Dizzy is sick or just sulking because of the rain. Either way, he's looking at me as if he expects me to do something, and I have no idea what that might be.

The documentary I worked on last year, "John Connolly:Of Blood and Lost Things," airs tonight on Irish television (RTÉ 1, for those of you with really good satellite systems). If you're interested, you should be able to watch it online through the RTE Player, starting tomorrow and for the next three weeks or so. In addition to all the John Connolly anyone could want, the documentary features interviews with Declan Hughes, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos and David Simon, and readings by several Maine actors. It's a terrific film, and I'd say that even if I hadn't worked on it, and even if many of the people involved in its production weren't friends of mine. Click here to see a trailer.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Five Favorite Sondheim Songs

You thought I was going to post something about health care reform today, didn't you? Silly. Actually, I probably will, later in the week, but right now I'm still trying to figure out exactly what the new law will mean for me, as a self-employed person in a state where individual coverage is prohibitively expensive.

In the meantime, however, it's Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday, and it would be remiss of me not to mark it. It's impossible to overstate his importance to American musical theater, as not only a creator but an influence. His versatility and inventiveness are mindboggling.

His first professional work wasn't even musical; he wrote 11 episodes for the TV series "Topper," which ran from 1953 to 1955. Has anyone ever seen these episodes? Are they available on DVD anywhere? (I looked on IMDb, but couldn't tell.) Sondheim's always had a unique sense of humor, and I'd love to see this early work.

His professional work in musicals began with the lyrics to West Side Story, in 1957, and continued with the lyrics to Gypsy. He wrote both music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962); my mother loved this show, saw it on Broadway several times, and owned the original cast recording, which my sisters and I probably wrecked as children. Over the next 40 years, he wrote another 15 major shows and contributed to a dozen more, including providing additional lyrics for the 1974 revival of Candide.

Oh, and did you know he won an Edgar Award? I didn't, until I looked it up. With Anthony Perkins, he wrote the screenplay for The Last of Sheila (1973), a dark whodunnit starring James Coburn, James Mason, Dyan Cannon, and — yes — a very young Ian McShane. This one is on DVD, and is available as streaming video on Netflix; I'm watching it tonight.

Among serious musical theater fans, Sondheim can be a polarizing figure. His work is deliberately challenging, and the songs don't lend themselves to the casual singalong. But once they're in your head, they stay, and these are five that regularly rotate in my brain's playlist. The order is chronological, not by preference; on any given day, that order would change. Leave your own favorites in the comments section.

1. "The Ladies Who Lunch," from Company. Elaine Stritch created this role on Broadway, and all other versions pale beside hers. She's not a great singer, and this song is a combination of patter and belting, powered by viciously funny lyrics with razor-sharp rhymes. "Another chance to disapprove/Another brilliant zinger/Another reason not to move/Another vodka stinger . . ." I'll drink to that.

2. "Now/Later/Soon," from A Little Night Music. Forget "Send in the Clowns;" "Now/Later/Soon" is Sondheim for the hardcore. It's three songs in one, coming together in a polyphonic wave of sound that sweeps you away, and it works separately as words (funny) and music (frenzied) to tell you everything you need to know about how things are among these three characters.

3. "Pretty Women," from Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd is my favorite of all of Sondheim's work, and while it's hard to pick only one song from this show, today I'll choose this one. It's a song of seduction where the goal is death, rather than sex, and a brilliant combination of beauty and terror.

4. "Not a Day Goes By," from Merrily We Roll Along. Watch this and don't cry. I dare you.

5. "Children Will Listen," from Into the Woods. Stephen Sondheim has no children of his own, but somehow managed to distill almost everything parents need to know into this one song. "Careful the things you say/Children will listen/Careful the things you do/Children will see and learn/Children may not obey, but children will listen."

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Five Basic Rules of Etiquette for Live Theater

Tonight is the closing performance of Gaslight's first show of 2010, Accomplice by Rupert Holmes. It's a fun show and one of the best productions we've done, with a crackerjack cast well-directed by my friend Richard Bostwick. Even I, knowing the script, gasped aloud at some of the surprises and effects.

Community theater is one of the best entertainment values going. Gaslight charges $12 for an adult ticket, or $10 for seniors and students, and you don't waste extra money on junk food. Last night we had close to a full house, which was great, and I hope we don't have to turn people away tonight.

It's especially gratifying to hear people in the audience say they've never been to a play, or at least not since they left school. But coming to the theater is not the same as going to the movies, or going to see a band, and I offer these five etiquette tips for the inexperienced theatergoer. Several regular visitors to this blog are more experienced in the theater than I am, so I invite them to leave additional comments.

1. Remember that the actors on the stage are live human beings. All other rules follow from this first one. If you can see and hear them, they can see and hear you. Actors on the stage are focused on what they're doing, but they can see it when you yawn, fall asleep, send text messages, whisper to your friends, etc. Please show them the courtesy you'd show any other professional at their place of business.

2. Arrive on time. If the curtain time is 8:00, the play will probably have started by 8:10, even with a house-manager's speech. Walking into a performance after it's started is disruptive to the audience and distracting to the actors, which is why the house manager or usher will often ask latecomers to wait until the first scene break before taking a seat, or even until intermission. Some plays are so intense, and some theaters so small, that latecomers won't be seated at all.

3. Turn off everything that makes a noise or emits light. It used to be enough to say "please silence all cell phones and pagers," but now that everyone has an iPhone or Droid or Razor, things light up when calls or text messages come in. In a dark room, people's eyes seek out light; your device is brighter than you think. Unless you're a doctor on call or the parent of a sick child, turn it off.

4. If you think you will need cough drops during the performance, unwrap them before the show begins. I once saw people nearly come to blows at the opera because a man's wife chose to unwrap a cough drop in the middle of a solo.

5. Standing ovations are not routine. It's a funny thing, but I have noticed a sort of grade inflation in the matter of ovations. People seem to think that enthusiastic applause is the minimum required response for even half-hearted performances, and that anything that's actually good demands a standing ovation. Not so. Live theater is interactive, and as an audience member, you're not obligated to be any more enthusiastic than you feel like being. Didn't like the show? A golf clap is fine. Actors know when shows don't go well. Save standing ovations for the truly excellent — unless it's your kid on the stage.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Five Shocking Changes in the Texas Social Studies Curriculum Standards

The Texas State Board of Education has been the shame of the nation this month as it has publicly debated the adoption of new curriculum standards. This debate has national implications, as Texas is one of the nation's largest markets for textbooks, and the Texas standards have a disproportionate influence over textbook content.

Yes, students have limited time in a classroom, and a lot to learn, and I'm receptive to arguments that state-mandated standards of any kind are a slippery slope. I myself am the product of an old-fashioned classical prep-school education, and willing to admit big gaps in my own knowledge base. But these are five changes that shocked me.

1. Forget Thomas Jefferson. The board voted to remove the mention of Thomas Jefferson as a philosophical influence on the American revolution, replacing him with Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Sir William Blackstone. Jefferson's distillation of European philosophies into a specifically American, humanist set of ideas is the foundation of American democracy. How do you leave him out?

2. Replace the word "capitalism" with "free enterprise." This isn't even academically correct; "free enterprise" and "capitalism," economically speaking, are two different (if similar) things. The Texas School Board felt that "capitalism" had negative connotations, which is a dismaying display of ignorance.

3. Remove references to the women's suffrage movement, including the Declaration of the Seneca Falls Convention. Remember when Susan B. Anthony used to be on the dollar coin? No, the Texas School Board doesn't, either.

4. Remove references to the American trade union movement. Whatever you think of unions now, the rise of the union movement made permanent changes to the American economy and our idea of work. The eight-hour work day, workman's compensation, employee health insurance, retirement benefits and operational safety standards are all products of the union movement. The fact that we all see them as rights instead of privileges is because of the union movement. If some unions have outlived their usefulness or grown corrupt, students should hear about that as well, but don't pretend they didn't exist.

5. Don't worry about map skills. The Texas School Board voted to remove a requirement that third-graders be able to find the Amazon, the Himalayas, and Washington, DC on a map. But you know what? That's okay. If all they learn is this curriculum, those are places they're never likely to see.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Five Irish Saints Other than St. Patrick

Happy St. Patrick's Day. Patrick, although the patron saint of Ireland, was born in Scotland to Roman parents around 385 AD. Around the age of 14, he was captured by raiders and taken in slavery to Ireland, where he worked as a shepherd. He made it back to Britain about six years later, after a dream told him to go to the coast, where he met sailors who took him home. A later dream called him back to Ireland, and after he was ordained a bishop (in France — he was quite a traveler), he sailed back to Slane and started converting pagans. He famously used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the mystery of the Trinity, and spent almost 30 years as Bishop of Ireland before dying in 461 — traditionally, on March 17.

Although Patrick is recognized as a saint, and the Catholic Encyclopedia records his exploits at length, he was never formally canonized. Dozens of other Irish saints have been, though, so here are some you may be less familiar with.

1. St. Brendan the Voyager. Born in County Kerry in 484, died at Annaghdown in 577. According to legend, he spent seven years at sea in a coracle with 17 other monks, in search of the Land of Promise. It's possible that he made it as far as North America; adventurer Tim Severin recreated the voyage in the 1970s. Even if he didn't, he founded dozens of monasteries all over Ireland, most famously one at Clonfert that became a citadel of scholarship and education.

2. St. Brigid of Ireland. Also known as Bridget, Brigid (c. 451-525) founded a convent (and later a monastery) at Kildare that became a major center of religion, learning, and art, and led to the building of Kildare's first cathedral. (Today, the Norman-era St. Brigid's Cathedral stands on what was probably the site of the original shrine.) The histories say she was a great friend of St. Patrick's, but this is hard to imagine, since she would only have been about ten when he died.

3. St. Enda. Born in the sixth century, Enda is recognized as one of the founders of monasticism in Ireland. The legends say he was a warrior whose sister, St. Fanchea, convinced him to lay down his weapons and get married. Returning from the wars, he found his fiancee dead, and decided to become a monk. He studied in Rome, where he was ordained, and returned to Ireland to found churches and ultimately the monastery at Killeany, in the Aran Islands. The monastery at Killeany became the center of a network of ten houses that formed the Monastic School of Aran, a center of sacred learning. Enda was a counselor and mentor to many, including Brendan and all of the so-called "Twelve Apostles of Erin."

4. St. Ita. Also known as Deirdre and Mida; her dates of birth and death are unknown, but she lived sometime in the mid-to-late fifth century. Born of royal blood in Waterford, Ita refused to marry and got her father's permission to move to Limerick and found a community for religious women. She later founded a school for boys, and one of her students was the future St. Brendan. Ita is the heroine of quite a few legends, including one in which she reunited the head and body of a beheaded man, and brought him back to life. It's not a name you see much in the US, but St. Ita's namesake, Sister Ita Ford, was a Maryknoll nun who was martyred at the hands of a military death squad in El Salvador in 1980.

5. St. Kieran, St. Kieran, and St. Kieran. It's a popular name for Irish saints, but the three best-known are Kieran of Clonmacnoise, Kieran of Seir-Kieran and Kieran of Disert-Kieran. Kieran (or Ciaran) of Clonmacnoise (512-544) founded the great abbey and school there, considered the first truly national seminary of Ireland. St. Kieran of Seir-Kieran (late 5th-early 6th century) is the patron saint of Ossory, and according to legend was the mentor of Kieran of Clonmacnoise. St. Kieran of Disert-Kieran (8th century) is also known as "Kieran the Devout," and wrote a popular biography of St. Patrick.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Five Things Authors Should Know about Dealing with Booksellers: a Guest Blog from LINDA BROWN

The days when publishers handled bookstore relations for authors are long gone, if it ever really worked that way to begin with. Publishers, stretched thin and often baffled by new media, now outsource as much they can to the authors themselves, including publicity, promotion and bookseller liaison.

Booksellers get into this business because they love books — obviously — but authors are many and hours are few, so Linda Brown, Assistant Manager and children's book buyer of The Mystery Bookstore (and my personal friend) gave authors and aspiring authors some advice at a panel at Left Coast Crime on Saturday. I've added some of my own thoughts in italics, because this is important information for my clients. Authors and booksellers, if you have more to add, leave your comments below.

1. Recognize the fact that your book is one of thousands of books that come across our desk in a year. Linda and I were trying to guess how many new titles we see in a year, either in catalogs or in real life, and conservatively figured it was somewhere around 2,000. Ha. Bowker, the creator of the Books-in-Print database, says that traditional publishers released 47,541 new adult fiction titles in 2008, and that was down 11% from the previous year. Meanwhile, Bowker estimates that 285,394 print-on-demand (usually, self-published) titles were released in the same year.

2. Do not expect booksellers to recognize your face or automatically connect your name with your book. This is true even for some of the biggest names, especially those who use outdated or super-glamorous author photos. Booksellers are looking at the front of the book, not the back or the inside flap; also, see #1 above. Even if you're a bestselling author, you're probably not on TV or on the cover of People, and no one distributes Famous Author trading cards. (Although, come to think of it, that might be a business opportunity for someone.) Anyway, it's just good manners to introduce yourself, even if they're supposed to know who you are.

3. Do something that makes us glad to see you, and that is tied to your book. Linda says, "If your book has monkeys in it, bring us a laughing monkey toy. We are susceptible to bribes." She's not talking about payola — that would be illegal — but booksellers are underpaid and overworked. If you brighten a bookseller's day with a cookie or a toy or a packet of coffee with your book's cover on it, they'll remember you fondly and look forward to your visits.

4. Do not expect indie booksellers to spend a lot of money promoting your book with ads. An independent bookstore's advertising budget is tiny, and the kind of traditional advertising most independent bookstores can afford probably doesn't have much impact. The Mystery Bookstore reaches most of its constituents electronically; it sends out weekly and monthly electronic newsletters (which I write), and has an excellent, recently overhauled website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter presence.

5. Promote your event and or book yourself — bring warm bodies to an event — but give us a heads-up as to how many! Linda says, "We want to have enough books and cold drinks for your friends, family and fans." Worse than the book event where no one shows up is the event where everyone shows up, and the store runs out of books. When planning an event, treat the bookseller as your partner; if you know your entire office, extended family, sorority, etc. are planning to show up, let the store know ahead of time.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Five Great Songs about Los Angeles

The past few days have been busier than I anticipated, and I still haven't made the time-zone adjustment. Not only am I confused about the time, I haven't gotten the day or the date right in the last three days. I wonder how astronauts deal with this.

But it's bright and sunny in southern California, and Los Angeles is still the place everyone wants to be. Don't believe me? My iTunes library says so. Here are five of my favorite songs celebrating Los Angeles. Leave your own favorites in comments section.

1. "Come a Long Way," Michelle Shocked. This cassette (Arkansas Traveler) never left my car when I lived here. "I've come a long way, I've come a long away/I've come 500 miles today/I've come a long way, I've come a long way/And never even left LA." In Maine, if I drive two and a half hours, I'm in Boston, or at the Canadian border. In Los Angeles, I might have gone from Echo Park to Venice.

2. "LA County," Lyle Lovett. When I lived here, I used to say moving to Los Angeles was the American equivalent of the French Foreign Legion. It's what people do when their hearts are permanently broken, when they've run out of options and can't think what happens next, but are not yet ready to give up all hopes and dreams: I don't have to settle for this life. I could move to Los Angeles. Not everyone comes here for the right reasons, though.

3. "Going to California," Led Zeppelin. Americans aren't the only ones in love with the dream of California. "Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams/Telling myself it's not as hard, hard, hard as it seems." It is, of course, but at least it's sunny here.

4. "California Dreaming," The Mamas and the Papas. Someone I was talking to recently said they'd never be able to listen to The Mamas and the Papas again, given the revelations about John Phillips' depravity. People who do terrible things are capable of making great art, and vice versa, and I always heard something sinister in this song anyway.

6. "LA Woman," The Doors. Los Angeles creates American culture; what we think of as The Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties all started here. People quote that William Blake line "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom" with no understanding of its context. It's a "Proverb of Hell" from Blake's masterwork "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," and part of a dialectic of sin and redemption that's supposed to bring us closer to God . . . but I digress. For me, everything good and bad about Los Angeles, the '60s, and people who misinterpret William Blake is packed into this song.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Five Things I Miss About Los Angeles

Greetings from the West Coast, where I'm helping The Mystery Bookstore sell books at Left Coast Crime this weekend, and catching up with some old friends and clients. I'm not used to Los Angeles anymore; it's bright and crowded and has more cars than the entire state of Maine. I prefer the quiet of Kennebec County, but there are certainly things I miss about living here.

1. Movie theaters. I'm posting this morning from The Mystery Bookstore's back room, in the heart of Westwood Village, and have my choice of three big-screen movie theaters within the block. If I want to walk around the corner or cross Wilshire Boulevard, I can choose from another half-dozen movies. In my old neighborhood, I lived within walking distance of 20 different movie screens. I miss that. I'll probably see "Alice in Wonderland" (in 2-D) tonight.

2. Discount beauty supplies. I think Augusta has one discount beauty supply store; here in Los Angeles, you can't go two blocks without passing one, and they offer a dizzying array of products. I'm not a big cosmetics user, but I miss easy access to Aveda shampoos, which are hard to find in Maine.

3. Cheap manicures and pedicures. Yes, I've seen the local TV news reports about how you can get life-threatening infections at these places. I don't care. If I die of sepsis, I will die with neatly trimmed red toenails.

4. Middle-Eastern food. Now that I have found both good Indian food and good Mexican food in Maine (both in Brunswick), the one thing that's missing is falafel. (Can any of my Maine friends recommend a place?) A visit to Falafel King is in my near future.

5. Iyengar yoga. I didn't go often enough when I lived here, and now I miss it. A few minutes hanging upside down from a rope wall can make a huge difference in one's perspective.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Five Best Picture Winners I Haven't Seen

I haven't seen The Hurt Locker, this year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture. Ordinarily I try to see all the nominees before the Oscars, but this year's expansion of the field to ten films had the counter-productive effect of 1) making the award seem less important and 2) discouraging me from seeing those films, since it's hard enough for me to see five and there was no way I was going to get to ten. (Of the ten nominated films, I did see Avatar, District 9, Up, and Up in the Air; if it had been a five-picture category, seeing the fifth wouldn't have been a big deal. I hope they go back to the old system next year.)

As Alvy Singer says in Annie Hall, "All they do is give out awards: greatest fascist dictator, Adolf Hitler," and it does get a little silly. But part of the fun of looking at past Oscar winners is that they weren't always the best film of the year; they just tapped into something the Oscar voters cared about. They're less an indicator of artistic value than a symbol of contemporary cultural values . . .

Sorry, getting a little pseudointellectual here. These are five past Best Picture winners I haven't seen, and in several cases am not likely to see.

1. The Broadway Melody, 1929. The first musical and the first talkie to win the Best Picture award, which is less impressive when you realize it was only the second winner of the award, period. Directed by Harry Beaumont from a script by Norman Houston and James Gleason, based on a story by Edmond Goulding. Anita Page and Bessie Love play sisters with a vaudeville act who both fall in love with song-and-dance man Charles King. The talkie was released simultaneously with a silent version, in a 1920s version of releasing 2-D and 3-D versions of a movie. (In the early years, many people preferred silent movies for a whole host of reasons; I think about this when I hear complaints about 3-D.) It's also known as The Broadway Melody of 1929, and is available on DVD.

2. Cimarron, 1931. Directed by Wesley Ruggles from a script by Howard Estabrook, based on the novel by Edna Ferber. Richard Dix and Irene Dunne play a husband and wife who stake their claim in the Oklahoma Land Rush. Howard Estabrook's screenplay won an Oscar for Best Writing, Adaptation, but contemporary reviewers criticize the film's casual racism. It's available on DVD.

3. The Life of Emile Zola, 1937. Can you imagine a movie with this title being released today? Even if anyone could talk a studio into funding a biopic about a French novelist, they'd have to call it Zola, or maybe Zola! Anyway, William Dieterle directed this film from an Academy Award-winning screenplay by Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg, and Norman Reilly Raine. Joseph Schildkraut won the Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of Alfred Dreyfus; Paul Muni played Zola, and Vladimir Sokoloff played Paul Cezanne. It too is on DVD.

4. Ordinary People, 1980. I've seen so many clips from this film that it would be easy for me to pretend I have seen it, but I haven't. I did read the book, by Judith Guest; Alvin Sargent won the Oscar for his adaptation. The film was directed by Robert Redford, who also won the Oscar that year, and starred Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch, and Timothy Hutton, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The movie is the story of the Jarretts, a seemingly ideal suburban family that is reeling from the death of one son and the attempted suicide of another (Hutton). I assume this movie is a time capsule of the late-1970s, that time when Americans believed we were actually supposed to talk about our feelings and that psychotherapy could fix us. Ugh, I shudder just thinking about this. I know it's supposed to be enriching and enlightening, but where's the entertainment value here?

5. The English Patient, 1996. It's entirely possible that I have pretended I've seen this, but I've never been able to sit through the whole thing. I read the book, which I found ponderous and unnecessarily complex and obscure. The film adaptation, written and directed by Anthony Minghella, focuses on one major plot thread, the romantic history of a mysterious wartime patient (Ralph Fiennes) who is recovering from terrible burns in an Italian monastery. It looked gorgeous, and I like Ralph Fiennes as much as the next heterosexual woman, but the dang thing is two hours and 42 minutes long, and I've always found better things to do with that time.

Which Best Picture winners have you missed? Got any overpowering arguments for why I should watch any of these movies? Leave them in the comments section.

Friday, March 05, 2010

A Conversation with Meg

Meg is my four-year-old niece. This morning's conversation:

Me: You can read, right, Meg?

Meg: Yeah.

Me: What can you read?

Meg: Well . . . actually . . . I can't read.

Me: But you know some words, right?

Meg: I know all the words.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

In Which Rabbit Has a Busy Day

I often say that most people can be described as a character from Winnie-the-Pooh. I am comfortable with being Rabbit, bossy and judgmental and sometimes cross but basically kind (I hope), with countless friends and relations.

Between now and next Sunday, I am swamped. Beyond swamped. Also, over the next several days, I hope to see a fair percentage of the people who check this blog daily. So I'm off, probably until Monday. If I feel inspired I might post before then, but in the meantime, read this for entertainment. And tell us which Pooh character you are in the comments section.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Five Good Books I've Read or Listened to Lately

I always read/listen more when I travel, which is a little counter-intuitive, because I spend less time alone when I travel. I know I waste a lot of time when I'm home alone, but am not quite sure what I waste that time on. Maybe I need to install a nanny-cam on myself.

1. Karen E. Olson, PRETTY IN INK. Cheating, because I read this book in manuscript last summer; I never know when I should mention the books I read in manuscript, but today is PRETTY IN INK's official publication date, so it seemed appropriate. Las Vegas tattoo artist Brett Kavanaugh and her colleagues are having a great time at the opening night of the city's newest drag queen revue when one of show's stars — the fabulous Britney Brassieres — collapses. It's just a stray champagne cork, but Britney dies soon afterward, and Brett feels obligated to ask some inconvenient questions.

2. Louise Erdrich, THE PLAGUE OF DOVES. I listened to the audiobook on the drive south last week, and recommend the recording. It's a panoramic epic of life in and outside the North Dakota town of Pluto, where a family is massacred one summer day in 1911. Four Ojibwe men discover the slaughter and find the lone survivor, a baby girl; they feed her but leave the house, sure they'll be accused of the crime. Of course, they are, and only one survives a lynching. That man, Mooshum Milk, narrates much of the story, trading off with other members of the community including his granddaughter, the local Indian judge, and the snake-handling wife of a cult leader. The sins of the fathers not only have repercussions for their sons, but are rooted in mistakes and transgressions that go back even further than most of these characters know.

3. Craig Ferguson, AMERICAN ON PURPOSE. If anyone came out of the whole Late Show debacle a winner, it was Craig Ferguson; I'm not the only one who became a dedicated fan of "The Late Late Show" after Conan O'Brien moved to the earlier time slot. He's sharp, funny, kind, and brutally self-aware, with a marvelous sense of the absurd and an unapologetic yearning for self-improvement. (Right now, for example, Craig is learning Spanish, and we all learn a new word with him every night.) All those qualities are on display in this story of his childhood, early career, and path to American citizenship. It's an addiction memoir that doesn't wallow in stories of excess, but is fearless about recounting the damage he did to himself and others. I'd like to know him in person.

4. Declan Hughes, CITY OF LOST GIRLS. Hughes' fifth novel to feature Dublin PI Ed Loy is a tour-de-force, a major evolution in structure and tone. Loy confronts the deepest secrets of his own past when an old friend, charismatic film director Jack Donovan, returns to Dublin to shoot a movie. Ten years ago, Ed and Jack parted ways after an incident both want to forget. Now Jack needs Ed's help again, but his concerns are only a fraction of the real problem. Two young women go missing from the film's set in a disturbing echo of disappearances from other film sets, years before. The mystery, which is fairly straightforward, is only the framework for some dazzling literary pyrotechnics and fierce, fearless insights about film-making, the nature of artists, and the ways the Irish want to be seen by the rest of the world. Stunning. I read an advance copy; look for this book in stores on April 6.

5. Donna Ball, A YEAR ON LADYBUG FARM. A charming book that is so cheerful and sweet it might be classified as fantasy. After Bridget is widowed, she and her two best friends, Cici and Lindsay, leave their lives in Baltimore for a grand but ramshackle farm in the Shenandoah Valley. It's more work and more money than they'd planned, but good things happen to good people, and the ending is never really in doubt. Not much dramatic tension, but wonderful characters and descriptions that might make readers want to try country living for themselves. I've already got the sequel, AT HOME ON LADYBUG FARM.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Five Movie Adaptations that Were Better than the Book

Jennifer Lechner suggested this list well before I saw Shutter Island last week, and although I'll post five suggestions of my own here, this is a topic better suited to a long, wine-enhanced conversation around a dinner table.

For one thing, what makes a good adaptation? Someone who loves a book will reject a movie adaptation that isn't faithful enough, or whose characters don't look the way the reader imagined. Some movies are extremely faithful to their source material, but at the cost of feeling less like a movie than a book-on-video (I'd put most of the Harry Potter films in this category). And of course you can't even have this conversation unless you've read the book the movie comes from, which — if the movie's good enough — people may not have any reason to do.

So for what it's worth, here are five films I found more entertaining than the books they came from. Leave your own opinions in the comments section, or feel free to disagree.

1. Jaws, 1975. Screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, from the novel by Peter Benchley. Jaws has to top this list; in fact, it's almost a classroom example of the relative strengths of film and print. Where the book had to explain and describe, the movie could just show, and that's important for any thriller, especially monster movies. (And yes, although the shark in Jaws is real, it's still a monster movie.)

2. Sideways, 2004. Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, from the novel by Rex Pickett. I was so charmed by the film that I read the book, and wished I hadn't. For better or worse, actors and their directors have to find a way to make viewers care about a movie's characters, while authors can write about rotten human beings and call it satire or social commentary or literature. We might be willing to read a book about a person we dislike, but we're not willing to watch a movie about one. Paul Giamatti and Alexander Payne allow us to identify with the central character of Miles, while Rex Pickett's book only lets us despise him.

3. The Godfather, 1972. Screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, from the novel by Mario Puzo. I'm not sure I've read this entire book. If memory serves, my fifth grade class passed a copy around for the purposes of reading one particularly lurid sex scene; we did the same with Jaws, which I read in its entirety. But my memory of the book of The Godfather is of a narrative that was just too big for a book, with too many characters and too much to keep track of. Coppola's genius was his ability to pull out the central stories and turn them into two epic movies; we're so entertained that we don't even realize how complex the story is.

4. Runaway Jury, 2003. Screenplay by Brian Koppelman & David Levien and Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman, with uncredited material by Caroline Case and Scott Rosenberg, from the novel by John Grisham. The book is about a criminal negligence suit against a tobacco company; the movie transposes it to the gun industry, which was more timely when the movie was made and also somehow feels less self-righteous. The movie does a better job than the book did of concealing the main characters' true motives, and the secondary characters are vivid on screen, while some verge on caricature in the book. At two hours and seven minutes, the movie's also faster-paced than the 560-page book. (Full disclosure: the movie's director, Gary Fleder, is one of my oldest and closest friends. This movie would make my list anyway.)

5. Stand by Me, 1986. Screenplay by Raynold Gideon & Bruce A. Evans, from the novella "The Body" by Stephen King. "The Body" is a fine novella, part of King's excellent collection Different Seasons. Stand by Me takes that material and turns it from entertainment into art. The film compresses and condenses the print narrative, and brings the story an immediacy the print version can't have. "The Body" is told as memoir, but Stand by Me gives us the story as the boys experience it, using a framing device to show us that it's a remembered and possibly idealized version of events.