Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Five People I Didn't Realize Were Still Alive

In the past week I've seen news items about a couple of people I didn't realize were still walking the planet. I always feel guilty about that, so consider this post a public apology. If you feel the need to apologize to anyone else who isn't dead yet, feel free to do so in the comments section.

1. Manuel Noriega, b. 1934. Military dictator of Panama from 1983 to 1990, he was sentenced in 1992 to 40 years in U.S. federal prison, later reduced to 30 years and then cut to 17 years of time served for good behavior. Although his U.S. sentence ended in 2007, he remained in custody pending extradition to France, where he faces money laundering charges. The extradition to France happened earlier this week, and it was startling to see his face on television again. I hadn't thought about Manuel Noriega in at least 15 years.

2. Jerry Lee Lewis, b. 1935. The man has packed enough living for several lifetimes into his 75 years, and he's still touring. He's been a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1986, and Rolling Stone called his box set one of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Well-publicized health and legal problems in the last decade seem to have been resolved, so I haven't seen him in the news for a while — but he is very much alive.

3. Doris Day, b. 1922. She made her last feature film, With Six You Get Eggroll, in 1968; a TV series called "The Doris Day Show" ended in 1973, and she made her last TV special in 1975. Except for a short-lived talk show in 1985, she has been a private citizen since then, working hard for various animal welfare organizations. "The Doris Day Show" is now available on DVD, and Ms. Day recorded an audio commentary for the fifth season in 2006. Divorced three times and widowed once, she lives outside Carmel, California.

4. Noam Chomsky, b. 1928. Linguist, philosopher, political activist and still a professor emeritus at MIT; I just read an interview in which he compared the rise of the far-right in the U.S. to political developments in Weimar Germany. Yes, it sounds far-fetched, but in the light of the new Arizona immigration law, it's hard to disagree with this: "There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation . . . I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime."

5. Joe Namath, b. 1943. "Broadway Joe" was elected to the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1985, in honor of a spectacular 12-year career with the New York Jets (and one last season with the L.A. Rams). I don't know why I didn't realize he was still with us, but the fact that he got his lifetime achievement award 25 years ago probably has something to do with it. He had short stints in television and sports broadcasting, and was notoriously overserved at a Jets game in 2003, where he propositioned a female sports reporter on live television. He lives in Florida.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Five Things I Don't Understand at All

Greetings from LaGuardia Airport, where I'm waiting to board the last of three flights that will take me back to Portland. From there I will ransom my car and drive an hour, and then I will collapse into a sobbing, Godforsaken mess.

I'm at that dangerous stage of exhaustion where everything is annoying, and LaGuardia makes that worse. It's filthy, it's sprawling, it's disorganized, it's inconvenient and it's a willful mystery to new visitors. Signs are scarce, hidden, confusing and sometimes incorrect. Airport personnel are hard to find, except for security guards, who can't or won't help travelers figure out where they're supposed to go. It's shocking that this is the face that New York presents to the world, and something needs to be done about it.

Small-town Maine will be a relief. The big cities have worn me out and reminded me of all the things about modern culture I just don't understand. Here's a list of five items; feel free to add your own, but I warn you right now that I'll delete political comments. I'm in that kind of mood.

1. Sweatpants with large letters stamped across the butt. Young ladies, pay attention: no one looks good in those. No one. You know what gets stamped across the butt? Beef. Pork. And as for the older women who wear those pants . . . one of these days I will say something to you about it. Yes, I will, and it will only be what everyone else is thinking.

2. Facial tattoos. Visible tattoos of any kind are a statement of the lifestyle you embrace or aspire to, and I'm okay with that. Not everybody is supposed to be a banker. But facial tattoos? Really? Why? And what do you think will happen to those tattoos when gravity starts to change the shape of your face? Are you so very confident that you'll never lose or gain a single pound?

3. Memorial decals in the back of car windows. I am sorry for your loss. I am. Every loss diminishes us. I'm just not clear on the value of turning your automobile into a rolling headstone. Although we should never forget the dear ones we've lost, the kindness of grief is that it becomes less sharp over time, and we no longer need to remind ourselves to mourn every minute. Unless you've got one of these stickers, which reminds you to be sad every time you load groceries into the back of the car. I'm not mocking, and I'm not unsympathetic; I just don't understand this phenomenon.

4. White people's dreadlocks. Almost without exception, they look terrible, and while this may not necessarily be the case, they seem to be an effort to embrace a culture that is not one's own. Empathy is good, but posing is bad, and pretending to a heritage that isn't yours is just kind of . . . icky. Anyway, it too is a lifestyle declaration that says "I expect to work in a record store for the foreseeable future." Which is fine, except that record stores are an endangered species.

5. Authors who treat other authors as competitors rather than colleagues. I'm not naming names, but I saw a couple of instances of this last weekend. Make no mistake, I understand the feeling; a world where more than 42,000 novels get published in a given year is a tough old world. But authors who treat each other as competitors do nothing but piss off editors, agents and booksellers — not to mention other authors — and I doubt it wins them any new readers.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Five More Great Songs about Los Angeles

Another year, another LA Times Festival of Books. I saw a lot of people and got to talk to almost no one for any length of time, and I spent all day Saturday and Sunday with my head bent over a credit card machine and a calculator in The Mystery Bookstore's booth. (I'm sorry, I no longer have any upper peripheral vision; if my head is even slightly down, it is impossible to catch my eye. I don't see anything I'm not looking at.)

But it was a darn good time, and I earned more than I spent, and did get to spend a little time in direct sunlight, which I don't always see in northern New England. Tonight I fly back on a series of flights so ridiculous I can't imagine why I thought they were a good idea; I leave LA at 11:15, and get to Portland around 12:15 tomorrow afternoon. Lucky for me I sleep on planes.

The combination of sleep deprivation and sun poisoning makes my brain fuzzy, though, so in lieu of something more thoughtful, here's a list of five more songs about Los Angeles (a sequel to this list).

1. "Desperadoes Under the Eaves," Warren Zevon. "And if California slides into the ocean/As the mystics and statistics say it will/I predict this motel will be standing/Until I pay my bill." Actually, this song reminds me that I never had a margarita while I was here. I wonder . . . it's past 5:30 on the East Coast . . .

2. "Under the Bridge," Red Hot Chili Peppers. A love song to the city, "my only friend" — "At least I have her love/The city she loves me/Lonely as I am/Together we cry."

3. "A Long December," Counting Crows. A few years ago I spent New Year's Day taking a long walk through Santa Monica with my best friend and our dogs, and could not get this song out of my head. I did see the ocean briefly last night, from that friend's deck.

4. "My Old School," Steely Dan. Steely Dan, I understand, can be a polarizing band. I love them. You should love them too. This is a song about California as the place we all run away to. "California/Tumbles into the sea/That'll be the day I go back to Annandale."

5. "Exquisitely Bored," Pete Townshend. A minor track off what I consider Pete Townshend's masterpiece, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. It's true, the Los Angeles brand of boredom is unique and hard to describe. One night before I moved back east I had drinks in the Buddha Bar in Thousand Oaks, and the similarities among the other women's faces freaked my friends and me out; they all had the same noses, the same eyelids stretched tight, the same shade of artificial tan. It might have been Stepford.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Five Alleged Authors of Shakespeare's Plays

Greetings from Los Angeles. Sorry for the silence of the last couple of days, but a combination of jet lag, overcommitment, severe attention deficit and limited daytime Internet access has meant that something had to give. If you are anywhere in the area, please come to Westwood tonight for the Mystery Bookstore's traditional kick-off party for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, happening on the UCLA campus tomorrow and Sunday. I'd offer to buy you a drink, but the drinks are free. (So actually . . .)

Today is St. George's day and the day traditionally celebrated as the birthday of William Shakespeare. It is also the day William Shakespeare died, in 1616 (although the calendars have changed since then, so it's not really an anniversary, but I'm already having enough trouble with Pacific time, so never mind).

I think it is always a mistake to underestimate the creative or destructive capacity of a single human being. I think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and I think William Shakespeare wrote the plays that bear his name. But over the past 400 years, quite a few people have insisted that Shakespeare was too poor, too uneducated, too untraveled, and generally too common to have written the plays that stand at the heart of English literature. People have also developed elaborate theories about how the plays themselves are an elaborate system of coded messages, because it couldn't possibly have been enough just to entertain the masses.

Here are five candidates for authorship, if you really don't want to believe in the man from Stratford.

1. Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550–1604). He was a poet, playwright, and sponsor of at least two acting companies. He was among the best-educated men of his day, studying at both Cambridge and Oxford, and despite his marriage to Anne Cecil, was a favorite and possible lover of Queen Elizabeth I. At various points in his extraordinary career he killed an unarmed man in a fencing accident (the man, an undercook, was deemed to have committed suicide by running intoxicated onto the point of de Vere's foil); he was kidnapped by pirates; he fought in the Battle of the Spanish Armada; and he sired at least seven children by three different women (two of whom, to be fair, were his wives). The "Oxfordian" theory of authorship says that de Vere wrote Shakespeare's plays but could not take credit for them because of his social standing. Advocates have included Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles, David McCullough, Sir John Gielgud, and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. But how, you ask, could the Earl of Oxford have written Shakespeare's plays when he died in 1604, and 13 of those plays (including Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest) were not performed until 1604 or later? Well, keep reading.

2. Sir Francis Bacon, 1561–1626. Francis Bacon is known to schoolchildren as the inventor of the "scientific method," more accurately known as the Baconian method for identifying the form, nature and cause of a phenomenon. He also developed his own theory of an ideal society, which he called "New Atlantis," and argued that the quest for truth required liberation from the four idols: the tribe, the den, the marketplace, and the theater. I have only recently started reading up on Francis Bacon, for a project of my own, and I have to say he's an enchanting figure; it makes sense that I wouldn't have heard much about him in my own predominantly Catholic education, because he and the Church saw things from very different points of view. Despite his encyclopedic knowledge, wit, energy, etc., the idea that might be responsible for Shakespeare's plays didn't come to the public's attention until a brilliant, troubled American woman named Delia Bacon (no relation) published a massive book laying out the theory in 1857. Few people have actually read Delia Bacon's book — it's not for the faint of heart — but the theory has survived, rooted in elaborate code-breaking games and attracting adherents such as Mark Twain and Friedrich Nietzsche.

3. Christopher Marlowe, 1564-1593. Marlowe, a playwright, courtier, and suspected spy, was stabbed to death at the age of 29 — or was he? Hailed as the greatest tragedian of his time, Marlowe is the credited author of seven plays, including The Jew of Malta and Doctor Faustus, as well as a fair amount of poetry and translations of Latin poetry. To believe that Marlowe was the author of Shakespeare's plays, you'd have to believe that he had some reason for not wanting credit for the Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, and the three-play cycle of Henry VI, all produced more or less contemporaneously with Marlowe's own work, and that he faked his own death but could not quit the theater. It's a fun idea, but it's a stretch.

4. William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, 1561-1642. First cousin three times removed to Queen Elizabeth I; his great-grandmother was Henry VII's sister Mary, making Elizabeth I and his grandmother, Eleanor Clifford, first cousins. He was also the son-in-law of Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford. He traveled extensively, fighting tournaments in France and Spain, and was probably Her Majesty's spy during trips to Italy, Eqypt, Palestine and Turkey. The theory of his responsibility for Shakespeare's plays rests primarily on a couple of letters written by a Jesuit spy in 1599, which referred to the Earl of Derby "penning plays for the common players," which might have been the literal truth, might have been a metaphor, or might have been a code; he did finance at least two groups of players, and his initials, like Shakespeare's, were "W.S."

5. All of the above, and then some. The "group theory" explains how "William Shakespeare" could have continued to write plays after the deaths of Oxford and Marlowe by claiming that the plays were produced by a collective over a period of decades. Some theories postulate that this group used the plays to send secret messages among themselves; Delia Bacon liked this idea, and believed that Francis Bacon headed a cabal that included Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser. Having participated in writers' groups, writing workshops and various collaborations, I find this theory the most unlikely of all. An infinite number of monkeys typing for an infinite period of time might well produce Hamlet, but a committee of human beings? Not a chance.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Five Ways I'd Rather Not Die

I'm not particularly afraid of dying — mainly because I'm not yet convinced that I will, despite the undeniable evidence of human history. I've always been lucky; who's to say I won't beat the odds? (In related news, I didn't win the Powerball on Saturday night, but nobody else did either, so I might buy another ticket for Wednesday.)

Anyway, having once been stranded by snowstorms in central Missouri, I sympathize with the people in Europe who can't travel because of the volcanic ash. But I am puzzled by demands that the planes go back in the air, and damn the consequences. Because seriously: of all the different ways I don't want to die, "in a plane that falls out of the sky" is pretty close to the top of the list.

I'm flying tomorrow, if all goes well, and will hope for the best. In the meantime, here are my top five ways I'd prefer not to die. Yes, it's a morbid way to start a Monday morning, but we manage our fears by mocking them . . . leave your own in the comments section.

1. Burned at the stake. Yeah, I've read that asphyxiation kills you before you actually burn — but who lived to be asked about this? I burned my hand on the coffeemaker this morning, and will whine about it for the next week. Open flames scare me (although, in true pyromaniac fashion, I'm drawn to them). If I believed in reincarnation — which I don't — I might wonder whether I was still traumatized by a past-life experience.

2. Crushed partway by a large object. Did you ever see that "Homicide: Life on the Streets" episode "Subway"? My friend Gary directed it; Vincent D'Onofrio got an Emmy nomination for his role as a man crushed under a subway car, who will die as soon as the train is moved. He's not in any pain, and he doesn't know he's doomed until the very end, but this is still not how I would want to go.

3. Killed in a plane that falls from the sky. The unifying theme to these is simply that I don't want to be afraid before I die. A midair explosion is one thing; one minute you're there, one you're not, and you don't have time to realize what's happening before you're gone. That strikes me as a blessing, if you don't have time to prepare for what Catholics call a "happy death." Even at terminal velocity, you'd have time to realize you were falling, time to brace for impact, time to be afraid and time to be seriously pissed off at whatever airline decided to take the risk of flying through volcanic ash.

4. Buried alive. I used to have nightmares about this as a small child. Years ago I had to have an MRI after a back injury, and still count that as one of the most terrifying experiences of my life (yes, I know how lucky that is). I made the mistake of seeing the original version of The Vanishing (Spoorloos) in the movie theater, and it scared me so badly I don't even remember who was with me. If I saw it with you, I apologize.

5. Mauled by bears. I saw Grizzly Man. Stephen Colbert and I are of one mind on this issue. Fortunately, it's relatively easy to avoid bears, even in central Maine.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Five Active Volcanoes

Volcanoes in Iceland are disrupting air travel all over Europe. Earthquakes and volcanoes go hand-in-hand, with 80% of the planet's earthquakes occurring around the "Ring of Fire," the portion of the Pacific Rim known for volcanic activity.

Humans don't live long enough to be able to declare any volcano truly "extinct," but these five are the opposite; they've been erupting continuously for decades or more. Read more cool stuff about volcanoes here and here.

1. Mt. Etna, Sicily, Italy. The largest active volcano in Europe has been in continuous eruption for more than 3,000 years. Mt. Etna has been the subject of myth and literature since people started writing things down, and its activity played a major role in the early history of the Mediterranean. Virgil gave what was probably an eyewitness description of an eruption in the Aeneid. An eruption in 396 BC defeated the invading Carthaginians. Etna has four active craters and more than 300 vents on its flanks. Major eruptions in 1669 and 1928 destroyed nearby towns, and an eruption of ash in 2002–2003 spewed debris all the way to Libya, in addition to destroying a tourist station on the mountain. Earlier this month the mountain had a series of earthquakes, followed by an eruption of ash from the summit last week. More than five million people live on the island of Sicily, and they are braver than I am.

2. Mt. Stromboli, Italy. Stromboli is a volcanic island off the north coast of Sicily, one of the nine Aeolian Islands immortalized by Homer. Stromboli has been in constant eruption for all of recorded history, and geologists estimate that those eruptions date back at least 20,000 years. Its constant activity made it the "Lighthouse of the Mediterranean" for ancient navigators; brightly-lit explosions of ash and lava exploded from Stromboli's craters. The most recent large eruption, from December 2002 to July 2003, caused lava flows, landslides, and tsunamis. Between 400 and 850 people live on Stromboli.

3. Mt. Yasur, Vanuatu. I first learned about Vanuatu from a stamp collection; do kids collect stamps anymore? Vanuatu is a volcanic island nation in the south Pacific, formerly a British/French colony known as the New Hebrides. Mt. Yasur is on Tanna Island, one of the archipelago's most heavily-populated islands (20,000 residents). The glow from its constant eruptions attracted Captain James Cook in 1774, and today the volcano is a sacred place for the John Frum cargo cult.

4. Piton de la Fournaise, Reunion. This volcano on is on the eastern side of Reunion Island, a French territory in the Indian Ocean. It has three craters, or caldera, and several less active fissures or vents on its flanks. More than 150 eruptions have been recorded since the 17th century; the most recent major eruption lasted for ten days this past January. The top part of this volcano is collapsing, and will eventually collapse into the ocean. When that will happen, and what kind of tsunami that will cause, are not things scientists can predict.

5. Santa Maria, Guatemala. Santa Maria has been erupting more or less constantly since 1922, following a catastrophic explosion in 1902 that destroyed much of southwestern Guatemala. Here's an object lesson in "extinct": before the 1902 eruption, the volcano had been dormant for at least 500 years. A series of earthquakes starting in January 1902 preceded the eruption in October, but people didn't recognize the warning, and more than 5,000 died. The eruption was one of the largest recorded in the 20th century, with volcanic ash reported as far away as San Francisco, California.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Five Famous Victims of the Titanic

Tomorrow is the 99th anniversary of the Titanic sinking, and Geoff, owner and quizmaster at the Liberal Cup, has been asking questions about it at Tuesday night pub trivia for the last couple of weeks.

The story never particularly interested me, although it was one of history's deadliest peacetime maritime disasters. The ship was carrying 2,223 passengers — and had a legal capacity of 3,547 — but had lifeboats for only 1,178 people. Because of the disorganization and confusion of the evacuation, though, only 706 people survived. Most of the rest died of hypothermia in the waters of the North Atlantic, some 370 miles of the coast of Newfoundland.

You've probably seen the movie, and know all this. I've only seen the movie once — on video, not in the theater — so I had to go look all this stuff up. One interesting fact is that while 60% of the passengers in first class survived, those survivors were almost all women; only 20% of the Titanic's male passengers survived.

A first-class ticket on the Titanic cost a fortune — $4,350, which depending on how you calculate it is about $95,860 in 2008 dollars (my team missed this question last night). Many of the first class passengers' bodies were recovered, while most of the third class passengers were buried at sea. These five passengers, all first-class travelers, died in the disaster. I hope their families got refunds; does anyone know?

1. John Jacob Astor IV. He was not only the heir to one of the great American fortunes, but also an author, an inventor, a real estate investor and the founder of the Astoria Hotel (now half of the Waldorf-Astoria). He helped finance the Spanish-American War, where he served as a colonel, and made his yacht, the Nourmahal, available to the U.S. Navy during the conflict. He and his second wife, 19-year-old Madeleine, were returning to New York because she was expecting a child, and they wanted him to be born in the United States. Madeleine, her maid and her nurse survived; John Jacob Astor IV and his faithful Airedale, Kitty, died when the ship went down. His son, John Jacob Astor VI, was born four months later.

2. Jacques Futrelle. Despite his French name, he was a native of Georgia, a newspaperman who launched the sports section of the Atlanta Journal before moving to New York, then to Boston. He gets credit as an early father of the classic detective story, for a serialized mystery called "The Problem of Cell 13" that introduced Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, "The Thinking Machine." Futrelle was only 37 when he died; his wife, the writer Lily May Peel, survived. She said she last saw him with John J. Astor, smoking a cigarette.

3. Francis David Millet. An American painter, sculptor, and writer whose daughter, Kate, was a frequent subject of John Singer Sargent's paintings. Millet was a founder of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and served as secretary of the American Academy in Rome; he was traveling to New York on Academy business. Millet's paintings still hang in many American museums, and he painted the ceiling of the Call Room of the U.S. Custom House in Baltimore, Maryland. He died on the Titanic with his friend Archibald W. Butt, a former journalist and military advisor to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft. Millet and Butt had been traveling together, and a memorial fountain to the two men stands in Washington, DC.

4. and 5. Ida and Isidor Straus. Isidor Straus was co-owner, with his brother Nathan, of Macy's Department Store. He had also served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, elected to serve the unexpired portion of a term from 1894-95. Isidor and Ida married in 1871 and had seven children, one of whom died in infancy. By all accounts they were inseparable, and Ida refused to leave her husband behind to board a lifeboat. They died together, but only Isidor's body was recovered; he is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx. A plaque commemorating them is on the main floor of Macy's flagship store, in Manhattan.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Five Pulitzer-Prize Winning Novels You Should Have Read Already

This year's Pulitzer Prizes will be announced this afternoon at 3:00 p.m. It's easy to be cynical about literary prizes, but the list of Fiction winners since 1947 would make a pretty good survey course on post-World War II American literature. It worries me a little that the last winner I read was 2005's Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (yes, I have still not finished The Road, winner of the 2007 prize, and unless I go back on the antidepressants, I probably never will). But I've read most of the winners up until then, so here are five I particularly recommend.

1. James Agee, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, 1958. James Agee died in 1955, leaving this manuscript not quite finished. His editor, David McDowell, knocked it into shape and published it in 1957; a considerably different version, edited by Michael Lofaro, was published in 2007 as A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author's Text. The book is an autobiographical novel about the death of Agee's own father, who was killed in a car accident when Agee was six. I have not read the Lofaro edition, but the version that won the Pulitzer is a simple, powerful account of a Southern family coping with sudden loss. I read this book the summer after my senior year of college, and it felt like a gift.

2. Harper Lee, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, 1961. If you went to middle school or high school in the United States, you've read this book. If you grew up in Europe and want to understand the history of race relations in the South, you need to read this book. To Kill a Mockingbird was the one and only novel written by Harper Lee, whose childhood friend Truman Capote was the model for the character of Dill. Harper Lee is still alive, and while I might wish she'd written something else, it's hard to imagine how she could have followed this. Six-year-old Scout Finch tells the story of her father's defense of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, oldest daughter of the town's trashiest white man. It is very nearly a perfect book, and I reread it when I need a shot of human decency.

3. Norman Mailer, THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG, 1980. Gary Gilmore was the first person executed after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the national moratorium on the death penalty imposed by its 1972 decision Furman v. Georgia. Gilmore faced a firing squad in Utah on January 17, 1977, after being convicted of the robbery and murder of a gas station employee and a motel manager in July 1976. The Executioner's Song turns Gilmore's history as a small-time thug bent on self-destruction into an epic of the American West, and while we can (and maybe should) argue about whether that was worth doing, the book stands on its own as a masterpiece. An essential companion to this book is SHOT IN THE HEART (1995), a family memoir written by Gary's much-younger brother, Mikal Gilmore, who grew up to become a music critic and journalist.

4. Jane Smiley, A THOUSAND ACRES, 1992. Shakespeare's King Lear is the most challenging of all his tragedies, as it's a story without a hero, whose central character is simply not a good man. A Thousand Acres moves the story to modern-day Iowa and is narrated by the oldest daughter, Ginny (standing in for the play's Goneril). Ginny's father's betrayal of his daughters goes far beyond the question of their inheritance, and A Thousand Acres wrestles with the terrible intersections of love, guilt, rage, and abuse within a family. The film adaptation, starring Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer, should have been much better than it was.

5. Richard Russo, EMPIRE FALLS, 2002. The Pulitzers seem to switch off between small, perfect novels (Gilead, for example) and these sprawling epics, but what an epic this is. EMPIRE FALLS is the story of two families in central Maine over a period of 40 years, as their personal fortunes rise and fall with the fate of the town. I don't own a copy of this book, and I should, so I can bring my piece of Maine wherever I go.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Five Random Songs

First and foremost, a very happy birthday to Miss Claire Bea, and many more. In honor of your birthday, I've bought a Powerball ticket, and if I win, you get a third. So fingers crossed . . .

I'd like to get down to Portland today for at least part of the Maine Festival of the Book, but have a frightening pile of things to do, and the service light's on in my car. The car did make it up to Waterville and back last night, for the opening night of "Camelot" at the Waterville Opera House. Congratulations to the cast and orchestra on excellent performances; the show runs five more performances, through April 18.

1. "Long Distance Runaround," Red House Painters. A terrific, deconstructed cover of the Yes classic. Halfway through it becomes a snarling electric guitar solo that turns the whole song into a kind of sonnet, lazy octet atop a spinning sestet. Thanks to Jon Jordan for recommending this album (Songs for a Blue Guitar).

2. "Desire As," Prefab Sprout. These guys never got the attention they deserved in the United States. I was only vaguely aware of them until a friend gave me the 2-CD reissue of their masterpiece, Steve McQueen, for Christmas a couple of years ago. The album has been near the top of my playlist ever since. This cut is from the second disc; it's an acoustic reinvention of a song that appears on the first disc as a straightforward pop breakup song. The acoustic rearrangement turns it into something both dreamier and more powerful: "I've got six things on my mind/You're no longer one of them."

3. "Ripple," Grateful Dead. One of the best-known tracks off American Beauty. I never liked it much, but it's grown on me over the years. Before you ask, I have never tasted Ripple, the wine. It's not still on the market, is it?

4. "King Porter Stomp [Live]," Louis Armstrong. Man, I love a trumpet. Which reminds me: I need to find a place to watch "Treme" tomorrow night, having given up my HBO more than a year ago. Do you live in central Maine? Do you have HBO? Can I come over to your house to watch TV? I'll bring snacks.

5. "What's a Fella Gotta Do," The Eels. Ooh, it's a Jordan family set this morning; this track was a gift from the astonishing Jennifer. Thanks, Jen! Hombre Lobo is a brilliant album — and perfect house-cleaning music, so I'd better get to it.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Five Books I've Read or Listened to Lately

Time on the road means more audiobooks than real books; of this list, three were audiobooks, one was a book on Kindle, and only one was an actual printed book. My impression of the iPad is that the reading interface is easier on it, which is another reason to want one — but I still prefer the experience of words on paper.

1. Chris Grabenstein, MIND SCRAMBLER. Chris Grabenstein is one of crime fiction's true good guys, and I've been a fan of his John Ceepak/Danny Boyle mysteries since the beginning. The series took a dark turn with the fourth book, HELL HOLE, and goes even darker with this one. John Ceepak is a former MP who is now the best police officer Sea Haven, NJ has ever seen; Danny Boyle is his much younger, occasionally clueless partner, who narrates the books. In MIND SCRAMBLER, Ceepak and Boyle are in Atlantic City to depose a witness when Danny runs into his old girlfriend, Katie, who's now working as a nanny for a world-famous illusionist and his family. Katie is murdered in a particularly lurid and ugly way, and Danny is determined not only to find her murderer, but to clear Katie's name.

2. Zachary Lazar, EVENING'S EMPIRE. In 1975, accountant Edward Lazar was shot to death in a parking garage in Phoenix, Arizona. No one was charged with the crime, but authorities knew Lazar had died because he was about to testify before a grand jury in a massive land fraud and corruption investigation; later evidence identified the shooters as career criminals, working under contract. Lazar's son Zachary, seven at the time of the murder, set out 30 years later to find out what put his father on the path that led to his murder. It's a complex story about a complex network of criminal behavior, not always easy to follow but ultimately rewarding. Zachary goes to great lengths to keep himself out of the story, but the subtext — of a son looking for his father's redemption — is inescapable.

3. Connie Willis, BELLWETHER. Romantic comedy meets chaos theory in this charming and uncannily prescient novel about a fad researcher's efforts to save a colleague's job. Written almost 15 years ago, this book is as timely today as it was in 1996. Along the way, Willis offers fascinating bits of history about fads and some rather profound insights about the madness of crowds.

4. Vivian Hopkins, PRODIGAL PILGRIM, A Life of Delia Bacon. Delia Bacon is the primary subject of my own research these days. She's remembered, if at all, as the originator of the theory that Francis Bacon (no relation) wrote Shakespeare's plays, but before that obsession captured her, she was a bright, energetic, intellectual woman of the generation that included Margaret Fuller, Harriet Beecher Stowe (a classmate) and the Peabody sisters. Emerson backed her research, and she charmed Thomas and Jane Carlyle; Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the preface to her magnum opus, although he could not get through the text itself. This academic biography, written in the 1950s, gives Delia her due but is often tedious. Delia's overdue for a new one.

5. Martha Stout, THE SOCIOPATH NEXT DOOR. Four percent of the general population are sociopaths. Once Stout explains this and tells us how to recognize them, she's still got most of a book to fill, and this book suffers from some padding. That said, the case studies are fascinating, and Stout's history of research such as the Milgram experiment is extremely useful for writers of crime fiction. It also had me checking the condition of my own conscience rather anxiously; if 1 in 25 Americans is a sociopath, I want to be sure that one isn't me.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Five Favorite Poems

April is National Poetry Month, being not only the "cruelest month" (as T.S. Eliot would have it) but also the month of Shakespeare's birthday and — as the Academy of American Poets itself admits — a month that was not already claimed by Black History or Women's History. (In Virginia, this April is Confederate History month, and I have plenty to say about that, but that is a post for another day.)

Few adults I know read poetry for pleasure, although a surprising number secretly write it. I admit to impatience with people who write poetry without reading it; it's like trying to cook something you've never tasted. But it's no wonder, because the way schools teach poetry is deadly. Even I hated "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in middle school, and I couldn't tell you the difference between a trochee and an iamb without looking it up. (For the record, trochee is stressed-unstressed, iamb is unstressed-stressed.)

In pre-electronic times, poetry served the same purpose as song lyrics do for us now. Even now, in societies without mass media, people read poetry, listen to it, and know big chunks of it by heart. These are five poems that have been important to me, of which I know large sections of by heart (don't test me). Click through the links to read the entire texts, and leave your own recommendations in the comments section.

1. "Disobedience," by A. A. Milne. This was one of the very first poems to catch my imagination, and I didn't even know its real title until I was an adult. "James James/Morrison Morrison/Weatherby George Dupree/Took great/Care of his mother/Though he was only three." James warns his mother about going down to the end of the town, but does she listen? No, she doesn't, and she pays the price. It's quite a sinister poem, if you pay attention.

2. "Bereft," by Robert Frost. I read this poem for the first time aloud, on the spot, called on by Mr. Babcock in my junior-year English class. I stumbled over the last lines, and have never forgotten them: "Word I was in the house alone/Somehow must have gotten abroad,/Word I was in my life alone,/Word I had no one left, but God."

3. "Wild Geese," by Mary Oliver. I happened on this poem several years ago, at a time when I needed it most, and go back to it all the time. Mary Oliver's poetry concerns itself with the natural world, and with the close observation of small things. "Wild Geese" is a poem of midlife and learning to forgive oneself that begins, "You do not have to be good./You do not have to walk on your knees/for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting."

4. "Musee des Beaux Arts," by W. H. Auden. In the weeks after the September 11 attacks, Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" circulated widely by email, and felt uncannily appropriate, but this is the poem I kept going back to, and have returned to since after losses large and small. It is a description of Brueghel's painting of the fall of Icarus: "About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters; how well, they understood/its human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along . . ."

5. "Travel," by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The first poem I ever memorized. I found it quoted in a YA novel I read in third grade, and looked it up in one of my parents' books. Something about it called me; I could not have known it would turn out to be my whole life's theme song. It's short, so here it is in its entirety:
The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn't a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn't a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing;
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Five Worst US Mining Disasters

The latest news from the Upper Big Branch mine is all bad, and it now appears likely that this disaster will be the deadliest mining incident since 1970, when an explosion killed 38 men in the Finley Coal Company's Mines No. 15 and No. 16 in Hyden, Kentucky.

Mining is a dangerous business. It's much safer than it used to be, but could and should be even safer. No one is calling the Upper Big Branch explosion an "accident," at least in part because Massey Energy, the company that owns the mine, has been cited for approximately 50 safety violations in that mine in March alone. At some point, the cumulative effect of these violations turns into willful disregard for employee safety, and these questions will come before the courts in short order.

If the death toll in the Upper Big Branch mine hits 29, as now seems probable, the disaster will still represent only a fraction of the total number of men who have died in American mines. (I say "men" advisedly. Women miners exist, but they are a small minority, and are more likely to be engineers or geologists than hands-on miners.)

The US Mine Rescue Association lists these as the five worst mining disasters in American history.

1. Monongah Nos. 6 and 8 Mines, December 6, 1907, Monongah, West Virginia. Death toll: 362. This is still the worst industrial accident in US history, killing almost everyone who was in either mine that day. Four men managed to escape, and one was rescued. One of the dead was a visiting insurance agent, there to sell policies to the miners. It was an explosion that spread through a ventilation connection between the mines; the mines' ventilation systems had been connected as a safety measure. When experts were able to enter the mine six days after the explosion, they theorized that a break in a trip of loaded cars caused some of the cars to break away and crash. The crash tore down some electric cords and created a cloud of coal dust, which ignited.

2. Stag Canyon No. 2, October 22, 1913, Dawson, New Mexico. Death toll: 263. Another explosion, this one caused by an overcharged blasting shot fired into a dusty pillar section of the mine. Again, coal dust throughout the mine ignited. Fourteen men managed to escape, and nine, stunned by the blast at the bottom of an airshaft, were rescued and revived with the use of the recently-invented Pulmotor.

3. Cherry Mine, November 13, 1909, Cherry, Illinois. Death toll: 259. In the early years of the last century, electricity in mines was still pretty primitive. On the day of the Cherry Mine disaster, it wasn't working, but 481 men and boys went to work anyway, using the old-fashioned lighting system: kerosene torches. Open torches. The mine used 40 mules to pull coal cars from the mineshafts to the elevator hoist. These mules were stabled underground, and ate hay. Bales of hay were dropped down the hoist, loaded into cars, and pushed toward the stable. One of these cars wound up too close to an open torch, and the mine caught fire. Heroic rescue efforts saved 222 men and boys; the last group, of 21 men, managed to survive eight days in the mine before a search party reached them.

4. Granite Mountain Copper Mine, June 8, 1917, Butte, Montana. Death toll: 164. The worst non-coal mining disaster in US history was a fire that started when the flame of a carbide lamp caught the uncovered, frayed insulation of a power cable. The fire spread to the mine's timbers, sending smoke and toxic gas throughout the mine. Of the 410 men working when the fire started, most escaped or were rescued. Almost all of those who died were killed by smoke and gas inhalation soon after the fire started. The fire burned for eight days.

5. Orient No. 2, December 21, 1951, West Frankfurt, Illinois. Death toll: 119. If I were writing a magazine article about mining disasters, I would look specifically at the correlation between these disasters and major holidays; too many of them, including Monday's explosion, seem to happen close to Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter. Is this just a coincidence, or a source of distraction and carelessness? This explosion was caused by the build-up of methane in abandoned panels of the mine, and sections of panels called "old ends." The mine's ventilation system carried air past these sections of the mine, bringing unacceptable levels of methane into active sections; the mine had been cited for this as recently as July of that year. 133 miners escaped the explosion and four were rescued, of whom one later died.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Five Random Questions with DECLAN HUGHES

Declan Hughes is a playwright and novelist whose series featuring Dublin-based PI Ed Loy has been nominated for almost every award the world of crime fiction offers. The fifth book in the series, CITY OF LOST GIRLS, is available today in the United States and will be out next month in Ireland and the UK. He's a friend, and graciously consented to Five Random Questions. You can read his own blog here.

1. The Easter Bunny: what’s the point?

Easter Bunny I don't know, is it a chocolate thing? Easter Bonnet I get, with all the frills on it. I could probably write a sonnet, about your Easter Bonnet, but I've got to write a book and walk the dog and drink some beer, so I might not get round to it, do you mind? You're in the rotogravure in any case, and that should be enough for you.

2. What was the best movie you saw last year?

Mesrine: Part 1 - Killer Instinct and Part 2 - Public Enemy Number 1. Epic two parter charting the spectacular criminal career of Jacques Mesrine (an incendiary performance from Vincent Cassel). Amazingly violent, stylish and beautiful. On the basis of this pair and A Prophet this year, the French are making the best gangster movies in the world.

3. Assuming all living creatures are safe, what would you save first if your house were on fire?

There's a picture my wife made from a photograph of our two daughters, then aged three and five, running away through a field toward a large red house in County Galway. It's a hazy summer evening and the image is blown up to a blur and has the insubstantial quality of a dream. That's what I'd take. I email my writing to myself every night, so that'd be safe. And I'm counting on having my iPod in my pocket. Or there'll be sulking.

4. Which word do you overuse most in your writing?

Pint. Or is it glass? No, it's Guinness. Or maybe Jameson. Gin? Oh look, is it that time already? Don't mind if I do.

5. What arcane talent do you covet most?

I would like to acquire the ability to understand how a woman's mind works. I live in a house full of them (even the dog is a girl) and I think it would be good all round if I were less, you know, confused. But in the unlikely event of my becoming an adept in this field, I suspect I might have to keep my knowledge to myself, otherwise I'd more than likely get on their nerves with my knowing how they tick and suddenly being all understanding and so forth. And since I can get on their nerves perfectly well as it is ... being able to fly?

Monday, April 05, 2010

Five Law Enforcement Agencies in the District of Columbia

Leaving Washington this morning, and I'm happy to say that I had no personal encounters with law enforcement during this visit. But the ubiquity of police officers is something any visitor to the nation's capital notices. It was this way even before September 11, 2001. Washington, a Federal city, has complex and confusing rules about who's in charge of what, and it means that several law enforcement agencies — dozens, maybe — share responsibility for protecting and defending. These five are just the most visible.

1. The Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia. You can identify District residents by how they refer to the local police. If you live here, you never say "DCPD," you say "MPD" or "DC Metro Police." The Department, one of the nation's ten largest city police forces, was created in 1861 at the express desire of President Abraham Lincoln. Because Washington has no county or state government, the MPD does many of the things a county sheriff's office or state troopers might do, including maintaining a sex offenders' registry. The current Chief of Police is Cathy Lanier, the first woman to hold that position; an unwed mother at 15, she started her career as a foot patrolman with the MPD, and now holds advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins and the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. Want to feel like an underachiever? She's only 42 years old.

2. The United States Marshals Service. Because Washington doesn't have a sheriff, US Deputy Marshals fill this function by providing security to not only Federal courtrooms but District courtrooms as well.

3. United States Capitol Police. When I first worked around Capitol Hill, popular opinion had it that being a member of the Capitol Police was pretty easy duty, especially compared to being a Metro Police officer. That was probably never fair, and it's certainly changed since 2001, when the Capitol grounds became an armed camp. You can't stop letting citizens into the Capitol, or into the Congressional office buildings; that access is essential to our democracy. But the token ID card I was issued as a registered lobbyist is now something real (though I no longer carry one), and the Capitol Police take their responsibilities very seriously. In addition to protecting the Capitol and its grounds, they are also responsible for the personal security of members of Congress and their families.

4. United States Park Police. Much of Washington, DC is federal land, and the Park Police have primary responsibility for policing it. You'll see them on the grounds at the monuments (although the Smithsonian has its own police force), and they ride horses through Rock Creek Park and during parades. (Horses are supposed to be good for crowd control, not only because they give police officers a better view of the crowd but also because people are less likely to hurt a horse than they are another human being. Think about that.) The Park Police's authority overlaps with the Capitol Police in the area around Capitol Hill.

5. United States Secret Service. In addition to the guys in suits who protect the President, they also have a uniformed service, and their responsibilities include protecting embassies of foreign countries as well as the White House. The Secret Service used to be an agency of the Treasury Department, but has been part of the Department of Homeland Security since 2003. Besides personal protection of the President, Vice President, and other high-ranking federal officials, the Secret Service has primary responsibility for investigating and enforcing laws against counterfeiting and money laundering.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Five Pop Culture Phenomena I Embrace

We're accentuating the positive this morning at the Answer Girl blog, because I've been at my computer for about 90 minutes and I've already made three potentially client-losing mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes, right? I'm just having one of those mornings . . . right? I pay more attention to these things than anyone else does, right? Right? RIGHT?

Ah, well. I was already wondering about seasonal employment at one of central Maine's miniature golf courses or ice cream stands. If you hear about anything, let me know.

Anyway, I started to post another list of five more pop culture phenomena I don't get at all — "Lost," "American Idol," NASCAR, Mafia Wars on Facebook, the Tea Party movement — but then I thought it would be better for my frame of mind to come up with a list of five pop culture phenomena I do like, and consider to have enriched my life. Please leave your own favorites in the comments section.

1. Blogging. Gartner, the business research company, predicted in late 2006 that blogging would peak in 2007, and Technorati reported last year that the number of active bloggers was pretty much level between 2008 and 2009. Last year's "State of the Blogosphere" report found that 72% of active bloggers described themselves as "hobbyists," and that's how I'd describe my own blog, though it serves a limited professional development purpose as well. The Answer Girl blog is now six-and-a-half years old, and its value to me has been immeasurable. I'm not a major reader of other people's blogs, but I do check in with at least a dozen on a weekly-or-more basis. They've largely replaced magazines for me, which I know is not necessarily a good thing.

2. Facebook. Facebook is like crack for people who work at home. It's a virtual break room, and it's also reconnected me to people from almost every aspect of my life. In fact, Facebook shows me how people from different parts of my life know each other, when I'd have no reason to suspect this — a high school friend who works in the same office as a former colleague, a former colleague who turns out to be another friend's cousin, and so on. It's also been incredibly handy for staying in touch with my vast extended family, who are scattered all over the country.

3. The 24-hour news cycle. I watch it. I watch it all. I often keep MSNBC on all day, as background noise, if I'm working on something like a database project. I have the Huffington Post application on my iTouch, my default home screen is Google News, and I have the BBC headlines on my bookmark toolbar. I agree with every criticism; I know it distracts me. I can't help myself.

4. Wireless Internet. How did I live without it? I do, however, need to regulate my time online. I'm online all the time when I'm home alone, because it's company. It's completely unacceptable for me to be online when I'm around people, and it's a habit I need to break.

5. I Can Has Cheezburger. Otherwise known as LOLCats. It is a site that embodies everything I hate separately: anthropomorphizing animals, encouraging adults (and especially women) to behave like children, textspeak, emoticons, artificial online communities based on nothing but irrelevant comments, the glorification of "first" comments, etc., etc. . . . and yet, on a bad day, nothing cheers me up faster. Don't despise me for my weaknesses; surely you have guilty pleasures of your own.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Five Things I Would Buy if I Had a Million Dollars

It's April Fools Day, and I am more distracted than usual. I'm not a big fan of practical jokes, but I do fully endorse the annual offerings of those crazy geniuses at ThinkGeek. I am still waiting for the Squeez Bacon I ordered from them last April 1 . . . seriously, how great would that be?

Anyway, today is also the day the rich and lucky people of this planet get their first iPads. I am not, as a rule, a gadget person; I was late to the iPod, still have a cassette player in my car (!), and am the last person in America with a cell phone that can't take pictures.

But I want an iPad. I have gadget lust for the iPad in a way I've never felt about anything, not even my first new car. I want one. I want to hug it and pet it and squeeze it and call it George. I don't even know what I would do with it; I already feel overwhelmed by power cords and carrying cases and electromagnetic pulses. I just want one. Well played, Apple mind control technicians.

Here are five things I'd buy if I had a million dollars. Since it's in our heads anyway, go ahead and play this video while you read, and tell me what you'd spend a million dollars on.

1. An iPad. Obviously.

2. Leather furniture. I have no moral compunction against leather. It is resistant to pet hair and odor, it looks nice, and it's comfortable. I'd want a recliner, too. And yes, since you mention it, an ottoman.

3. A cottage by the water. Not a big house, because I wouldn't want to clean it. Four rooms and a usable attic (for my office) would suit me just fine.

4. An orange tree. I'd like to have a tree in my house. I'd like it to bear fruit. That would be handy. It really wouldn't suit my current apartment, but if I bought a little cottage, I could decorate around the tree. A peach tree would work just as well, but I suspect they're more fragile.

5. Night-vision goggles. I need some, but the kind they sell to civilians are a feeble imitation of the ones they use in combat. If I had a million dollars, I could afford some real ones.