Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"She harbors no illusions and she's worldly-wise."

The Song: "Cynical Girl," Marshall Crenshaw. Words & music by Marshall Crenshaw. Track 4 of This is Easy: The Best of Marshall Crenshaw, 2000.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, 2000.
Listen/watch here.

Recent work obligations have required me to go out into a wider Internet community than I usually frequent, and it has dismayed me. Anyone who wants to feel bad about their fellow human beings need only pull up the comments section of any major news site, but even communities of the like-minded seem full of people just looking for opportunities to feel slighted, insulted, disrespected, undervalued and outraged.

After a day or two among these people, the only conclusion I've been able to reach is that people just like to feel that way. I don't know why it's taken me so long to figure this out. It explains so much, everything from Glenn Beck to Keith Olbermann. It explains the Crusades. It explains the Church Lady, though I feel obligated to remind people that the Church Lady is supposed to be funny.

Here's my theory about this (as usual, I have a theory). Outrage and offense require doubt. If people were truly comfortable and confident in their own beliefs, what would it matter what anyone else thinks? Why would they need to attack anyone else's beliefs? Why couldn't they just proceed, wrapped in the comfort of their own self-righteousness?

The people shouting loudest are the people who secretly suspect they're wrong, or feel guilty about their actions or positions, and are terrified about their uncertainty.

I want to live in a world where everyone starts the day by accepting the possibilities that they are wrong, and that other people mean well. I think this will require spending much less time online.

I don't want to be worldly-wise. I'd like to keep a few illusions. I don't want to be a Cynical Girl.

Friday, March 25, 2011

"Just remember that the wrong things aren't supposed to last."

The Song: "This is Love," Mary Chapin Carpenter. Words & music by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Track 13 of Stones in the Road, 1994.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, 1994.
Listen/watch here.

The talk at last week's Virginia Festival of the Book, and online this week, is the move to exclusive e-publishing by some pretty major names in genre fiction. The handsome, witty and delightful Lee Goldberg and I had a long conversation about this last Thursday night, and his blog is one of the best sources for thoughtful commentary on this topic.

Yesterday, however, I got an email that helped crystallize my thoughts on the subject, and it wasn't about books at all. My friend Anna, in a frenzy of spring cleaning, found a VHS tape of my 1999 appearance on "Jeopardy!" Did I want it? she asked.

I have not owned a VCR in ten years or more, but have a box of VHS tapes that has made two cross-country moves with me. Why? I have no idea. I'll never own a VCR again. I'll never watch these tapes again. I need to get rid of them, but it pains me to throw them in a landfill, so there they sit, in that box in my spare room.

And yes, I told Anna that I would like my "Jeopardy!" tape, because I don't own any recording of that appearance, and Chris and Claire might like to see it sometime. How I will show it to them, I don't know. I'll have to find some place that transfers VHS to DVD, and hope the copyright laws don't prohibit that.

The moral of this story, though, is that state-of-the-art data storage has become inaccessible to the casual user in just over a decade. It's not just video; I have a box of unreadable floppy disks, too.

As I see more and more authors move exclusively to electronic publishing, what I see is the acknowledgment that their work is ephemeral. Pulp fiction always was, of course; only the very best of it has survived, and even then the original books crumble to the touch. It makes sense to publish Harlequin romances and men's adventure fiction in e-format, because those books were always meant to be read once, passed on, forgotten. (They'll no longer be left in hospital waiting rooms or on trains, though, and I feel a certain sentimental regret about that.)

My shelves hold books that are almost 100 years old, books I've owned since childhood, books that belonged to my parents and in a couple of cases to their parents. I have books I expect to leave to my heirs, inscribed by friends with messages that I hope will mystify and intrigue my great-grandchildren.

No one will inherit my first-generation Kindle.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"And I'll meet you further on up the road."

The Song: "Further On (Up the Road)," Bruce Springsteen. Words & music by Bruce Springsteen. Track 9 of The Rising, 2002.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, 2002.
Listen here.

Greetings from East Windsor, NJ, which is only two towns over from Bruce Springsteen's hometown of Freehold. Dizzy and I stopped here overnight to see my dad, who's in Military Sealift Command training here. Now I'm catching up on email and getting a few things done, waiting out rush hour before I head north again. With luck we'll be home before dark, although I hear today's weather in New England is lousy. Dizzy will be disoriented and sad to see the ground covered in snow again, and so will I.

The Rising was exactly the album I needed in 2002, when we were all still trying to process the events of September 11, 2001. I rarely listen to it now. Maybe it's too closely associated with that unhappy time. Maybe it just doesn't feel particularly relevant to my life anymore, although I still listen to the earlier albums a lot. (Nebraska, in particular, is a record that never got old for me.)

As we approach the 10-year anniversary of those attacks, I expect we'll be hearing a lot more of this album again.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

"I'll do this/and I'll do that/I'll be burning canyons for you"

The Song: "This and That," Michael Penn. Words & music by Michael Penn. Track 3 of March, 1989.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, 1990.
Listen/watch here (it's a bad video transfer, and the sound has some weird interference but is otherwise clear).

I didn't bring any business cards with me to the Virginia Festival of the Book, which was a mistake. But I'm not actively looking for work, and the truth is that I've run out of business cards and am not sure what to do about reprinting them.

I had great "Answer Girl" business cards, designed by my cousin Sheila (who is auctioning off some of her gorgeous artwork for Japan disaster relief on her blog). The easy, logical thing to do would be to reprint those, and I'm not sure why I haven't. Maybe because the whole "Answer Girl" persona feels more and more like hubris; maybe because it still doesn't answer the question, "What it is that you do?"

The question is easy here at the Festival, because I am here as a reader but also as John Connolly's US publicist and all-purpose minion (minus the beatings that minions get in his book The Gates - we had to be clear on that before I took this gig). But this is only one of many things I do. In the past week, I've finished developmental and copy edits on two manuscripts, written and edited copy for two very different corporations, done publicity support work for another author, interviewed a principal for a ghostwriting project, and started some quick research for yet another author. I also finished reading a book that's a candidate for a literary prize I'm a judge for (and no, those books don't show up on the blog reading lists until well after the fact). This week was unusually productive; spring is here, and with it I feel recalled to life, like the crocuses that are finally up in central Maine.

So I tell people who ask that I provide "broad-spectrum author support," because rattling off the various projects gets confusing and tedious, even to me.

But I realized a couple of weeks ago, when I started fretting about this question of business cards, is that my work is not so far from my great-great-grandmother McLaughlin's - not the one on my mother's side, who was born in Ireland and whom I know nothing about, but the one on my father's side (yes, my gene pool is thick). She was the housekeeper at that young ladies' finishing school. I'm a 21st century servant, and I like that idea maybe more than I should. There's honor and grace in doing service well, and I'm far more comfortable downstairs than upstairs. I don't need to be a star, but am happy to shine up the people who do — provided, of course, that I decide they deserve it.

Putting "star polisher" on my business card would just confuse matters even more.

Friday, March 18, 2011

"I'm proud to be a glutton, and I don't have time for sloth."

The Song: "Mr. Bad Example," Warren Zevon. Words & music by Warren Zevon & Jorge Calderon. Track 5 of Mr. Bad Example, 1991.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, 1991.
Listen/watch here.

That link goes to a live performance of the song on "Late Night with David Letterman" that sounds almost like a mariachi cover. The song was a standard in Zevon's concerts, and my favorite version was an acoustic one, with Zevon alone on guitar.

This CD may be my favorite Warren Zevon album, and was the theme music for the deeply strange summer of 1992, when (among other things) I took my first solo vacation — a long weekend in Bethany Beach, DE — and had back surgery. No, those things were not related.

I'm in Charlottesville for the Virginia Festival of the Book. It's officially work, but feels more like a vacation. One key to a happy life, as a friend wrote in a book that will be out later this year, is having a job that feels more like a hobby.

Which reminds me that it has been a shockingly long time since I posted a reading list. Sorry about that. I've been doing a lot of manuscript work, and my pleasure reading has been catch-as-catch-can. But here are some highlights of the past couple of months:

Good Books I've Read Lately

Jodi Compton, HAILEY'S WAR. I was a big fan of Compton's two Sarah Pribek novels, THE 37TH HOUR and SYMPATHY BETWEEN HUMANS, but this book took me by surprise. Hailey Cain is a truly fresh protagonist, and this thriller reveals new secrets almost to the last page. Hailey works as a San Francisco bike messenger after dropping out of West Point under mysterious circumstances. An old friend asks for an unreasonable favor: drive an undocumented Mexican-American teenager south across the border, so she can take care of her dying grandmother. The trip ends in disaster, with Hailey nearly killed and the girl missing. Hailey's determined to find out what happened and why, and make things right if she can.

Rosanne Cash, COMPOSED. I listened to this on audiobook, rather than read it. Cash herself reads it, and it felt like a gift — a lovely, extraordinary book that reports the gains and losses of her life, but makes no attempt to settle scores. I liked her and her music before I listened to the book, and I like her even more now. She's also my favorite follow on Twitter — @rosannecash.

Gillian Flynn, DARK PLACES. Libby Day, now in her early 30s, is the only survivor of a notorious massacre. Her brother Ben is serving multiple life sentences for murdering Libby's mother and sisters. Libby managed to run from the house, and her testimony helped convict her brother. Short on cash, Libby agrees to sell her personal information to a group of true-crime fanatics, and must confront some truths she's never admitted to anyone. Flynn's first novel, SHARP OBJECTS, blew me away, and this book is just as good. I'd like to read it in a book group, because I need to talk to someone about the ending, which felt abrupt and not fully justified.

Lisa Gardner, LOVE YOU MORE. I read this at the recommendation of Joseph Finder, who raved about it. The praise was justified. Gardner keeps her D.D. Warren series fresh by giving equal time to other characters, and in this book, the other character is a Massachusetts state trooper who's found standing over her husband's dead body with a gun in her hand. The trooper, Tessa Leoni, tells us her story in the first person, alternating with the third-person account of Warren's investigation. Twists keep coming, to an ending that is both plausible and deeply satisfying. A virtuoso performance.

John Connolly, HELL'S BELLS. This book will not be out in the US until October, when it will be called THE INFERNALS (but it's coming out in May in the UK), and my minion status earned me an early copy. I am John's paid minion, and he's a good friend besides, but this is one of those pieces of the job that feels like a hobby, because this book is simply wonderful. In this more-than-worthy sequel to THE GATES, young Samuel Johnson and his faithful Dachshund, Boswell, are sucked into the depths of Hell, along with a couple of policemen, some very unpleasant dwarfs, and an ice cream truck. HELL'S BELLS manages to be both very funny and truly frightening, a rollercoaster that is fierce and wise and smart and kind.

A Conversation with Henry

I stopped off in Mechanicsville yesterday, and had this conversation with my seven-year-old nephew.

Henry: What's your least favorite food?

Me: Fish, probably. I don't really like fish.

Henry: I like fish, with lots of lemon juice on it.

Me: Lemon juice is good. Lemon juice makes almost anything better.

Henry: Well — not everything. Lemon juice isn't good on cereal.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Where e'er we go, we celebrate/The land that makes us refugees."

The Song: "Thousands are Sailing," The Pogues. Words & music by Philip Chevron. Track 6 of If I Should Fall From Grace with God, 1988.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, 1989; purchased CD, c. 1992
Listen/watch here.

The nation of Ireland has always been more powerful in diaspora than at home. I'd give you my theory about why that is, but W.B. Yeats put it better than I could: "Great hatred, little room." I grew up in a house where six children shared one bathroom. Apply that principle to nine million on a rocky island the size of Indiana, and you can imagine what the place was like in 1845, before the Famine.

I don't know a lot about my own family's arrival dates, but a couple of branches came over before the Famine, and as far as I know, no one passed through Ellis Island. They came through Castle Clinton, they came through Philadelphia, they might have landed directly in Charleston, SC. They worked hard and married people from their own part of Ireland, mostly Clare and Cork. The memorial plaque at Dysert O'Dea, in Clare, bears half a dozen of my own family names.

Generations away from Ireland, they lived in Irish neighborhoods and went to Irish churches and distrusted all things non-Irish. My great-grandmother Hogan, at the turn of the last century, ran an employment service that sponsored young Irish women to come over as domestic help for New York's wealthy families. (Her own mother had been the housekeeper for a girls' boarding school; my great-grandmother went to classes with the daughters of the Gilded Age, who became her clients.)

Friends of mine who are Irish are understandably annoyed sometimes by the foolish, sentimental, sloppy ways Irish Americans celebrate their heritage. But the whole culture is based on this longing for home, and I have always thought of homesickness as the human condition.

I first heard this album on a snowy weekend in February 1989, visiting my friends Scott and Nancy in Williamsburg. We played board games, drank at the Greene Turtle, and listened to this album almost non-stop, in rotation with John Hiatt's Drive South. As it happens, I am driving south today - first to Mechanicsville, then to Charlottesville for the Virginia Festival of the Book - and will make both these albums the soundtrack for the drive.

If you are lucky enough to be in New York today, the Irish Arts Center is handing out free books by Irish authors all day throughout the five boroughs. Somewhere in the city, they're giving away a few dozen copies of my friend and client John Connolly's magical novel The Gates; if you haven't read it, see if you can snag one for yourself. Details about the giveaway are here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Jesus rides beside me/He never buys any smokes."

The Song: "Can't Hardly Wait," The Replacements. Words & music by Paul Westerberg. Track 11 from Pleased to Meet Me, 1987.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1987.
Listen/watch here. (Also check out this demo version, which is missing the horns I love but has an amazing guitar track.)

The car is back, after a sum of money too large to post here. If I posted the repair cost, people would tell me the car isn't worth it, and I don't feel like having that argument. As my vision continues to narrow and my night vision continues to fade, I don't expect to be driving more than another year or two. This will be the last car I own, and it needs to last.

But it took time and attention I couldn't spare yesterday, and this morning I'm behind again. I have promised to do things and be places today that may not be possible, and it makes me want to drop my head and weep. I'm working as hard and as fast as I can, and I apologize for everything that's falling off the back of the truck.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Think I'll flip a coin, I'm a winner either way/Mmmm, I feel lucky today."

The Song: "I Feel Lucky," Mary Chapin Carpenter. Words & music by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Track 4 of Come On Come On, 1992.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, 1992.
Listen/watch here.

My car stopped on Route 1 South last night, and all I can think about this morning is how lucky I am.

It was after rush hour, barely. I wasn't traveling any faster than 35 miles an hour, and was able to coast over to a small shoulder that got me out of the flow of traffic. Our Chris was already on his way to meet me, but came to the rescue with his mother. The AAA guy was able to tow the car to Volkswagen of Alexandria, right around the corner. The car actually started once we got it to the lot (of course), but I'll hear from the dealership this morning about what needs to be done. I'm guessing/hoping it's the alternator, which is not a small thing but no disaster.

All in all, a minor inconvenience in a life of ridiculous abundance, and I'm so grateful for it I can't even worry about the car. I have clothes and shoes and food, I have cable TV and a dog. I have a family I love who put up with me. I have extraordinarily generous friends. I have books and music and none of this is wrecked or underwater or under threat of nuclear disaster. And for once, I have enough money in my checking account to pay for car repairs. Within reason.

I feel lucky today.

Mary Chapin Carpenter used to play coffeehouses and afternoon concerts at Georgetown when she was first starting out. I saw her at least once in Red Square, the brick amphitheater outside Georgetown's School of Foreign Service building, when my friend Scott booked her for a summer music event. I wanted to be her friend then, and still do. I think we'd agree on just about everything.

Monday, March 14, 2011

"Confidentially, between these walls/I'm on top of it all."

The Song: "Quiet Life," The Kinks. Words & music by Ray Davies. Track 4 of the Absolute Beginners soundtrack, 1986.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1987.
I have not been able to find any version of this song, audio or video, online. If you have a link, please share.

I say yes to things, if I can. On balance, I think it's a good way to live one's life. It's gotten me into considerable trouble and has caused me a great deal of pain, but it's also taken me on adventures I didn't have the imagination to want. You never know, is what I say, and since my primary goal has always been to learn as much as I can about as many things as I can, everything is grist to the mill.

The problem with this approach is that it can get a little overwhelming, and is not always fair to the people I've said yes to, or to myself. Last week's blog break was an effort to catch up on some of the things I've said yes to, combined with a trip to Washington that had already been delayed by more than a week. I'm still not caught up, but I am not as desperately behind as I was, and feel good about the sheer volume of work I've gotten done in the last ten days or so. It must be spring.

I'm surprised and dismayed that this soundtrack isn't on iTunes. The movie came out at a time when I wasn't seeing much in theaters, so I had to wait to watch it on VHS about a year later. I needed the soundtrack as soon as I saw the movie, and probably bought it the next day. It dazzled me. I have no idea whether it's a good movie, in the same way I have no idea whether any of the men I've fallen in love with were handsome. It was the right movie at the right time, and it can still make me feel 19.

Monday, March 07, 2011

"And it's a hard/And it's a hard/And it's a hard, hard, hard/It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall."

The Song: "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," Bryan Ferry. Words & music by Bob Dylan. Track 1 of These Foolish Things, 1973; track 2 of Street Life, 1986.
When/how acquired: Gift bootleg cassette, c. 1987; gift MP3, 2004.
Listen/watch here.

I do not currently own a copy of These Foolish Things, a situation I must address immediately. This is one of my all-time favorite covers, a version that reinvents the song while reminding us of what makes it great.

It's a mix of snow and rain that's falling right now, but when I woke up, it was ice pellets. I was supposed to drive south today, but am pushing it until tomorrow in hopes of better weather. Quite a lot of snow melted over the weekend, so the roads have standing water as well as ice, and everything is coated in mud. Dizzy and I went for a lunchtime walk; my coat has a hood, but the rain stung his snout, and he was not sorry to cut things short.

The weather report says the sun is shining in Washington, DC, and temperatures will reach the 50s today. I badly need something other than gray in my life right now.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

"That what you fear the most could meet you halfway."

The Song: "Crazy Mary," Pearl Jam. Words & music by Victoria Williams. Track 3 of Sweet Relief, 1993.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, 1993
Listen/watch here.

It's obvious to me that we attract what we fear, though it's a dynamic I don't pretend to understand. I'm a hypochondriac (most writers are, if they'll admit it) who never goes to the doctor because I'm afraid of what I might find out, which means that if something really were wrong with me I probably wouldn't know about it until it was too late to do much. See how that works?

Not so with Dizzy, however. I am vigilant about Dizzy's health and changes in his behavior, which is why we went to the vet this morning. He's been slowing down considerably over the past few months, as his age catches up with him. I read in a book last week that 11-year-old dogs his size (about 75 lbs.) are about as old as humans in their mid-70s. He gets confused sometimes, and his sleeping and eating patterns have changed. I know he doesn't see as well as he used to, especially at night (though I don't, either).

The other day I noticed his ear was infected, and this morning he threw up and wouldn't eat his breakfast. Off to the vet we went, so that they could tell me he has an ear infection but is otherwise pretty healthy for a dog of his age. He has cataracts, and he needs some oral surgery to remove a growth on his gum, but otherwise, he's doing okay.

I have said before in this space that Dizzy makes the whole structure of my life possible. Without him I would be too weird, too lonely, too idle, too isolated. He needs to hang in there for as long as he can.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

"Never take any pictures/Just try to remember"

The Song: "Half Life," Too Much Joy. Words & music by Too Much Joy (Jay Blumenfield, Tim Quirk, Tommy Vinton & William Wittman). Track 9 of ...Finally, 1996.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, 1996.
Listen here.

This may be my favorite song by one of my all-time favorite bands, a group that never got the attention they deserved. They're all about the same age as I am, so this album would have come out when we were all about 30. Thirty used to be the beginning of middle age; now it's more like the end of adolescence. I will say that the years from 15 to 30 passed a lot more slowly than 30-45 went.

I did some cleaning this weekend (and still have a lot more to go), and came across several envelopes of photos from a client's book tour, a few years ago. I need to ask the client what I should do with them, but this is one reason I don't take many pictures myself. When I see people with video cameras at major life events, I always want to ask: are you going to watch that? When, and why? To remind yourself of an event that you didn't fully experience when it happened, because you were too busy fiddling with the camera?

A great photograph is a work of art. I do love having photos of events I missed, or people who have gone, but I don't particularly like to see myself in old photographs. It feels like time travel, and I'd rather stay here.