Thursday, May 31, 2007

Why are red bell peppers so much more expensive than green ones?

Who's asking: Peggy Lavinder, Mechanicsville, VA

Most varieties of bell pepper (sweet pepper) start out as green. Depending on their variety, they may ripen into colors ranging from yellow to chocolate brown. Peppers can be harvested when they're green, but leaving them on the plant to ripen to their final color takes time. The fully-ripened peppers don't keep as long as the immature green ones, and are more fragile to handle.

In Tribeca for the weekend, and my garden feels like a different planet. I don't expect much of it to be left when I get home on Monday night, but on Tuesday I'll re-trench (literally) and start over. Because, as a friend said to me, gardening is an existential exercise. The point is to keep trying in the face of certain failure, to learn to be a knight (a dame?) of faith.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Paper or plastic?

Who's asking: The checkout clerk at Hannaford

Plastic. I'm an apartment-dweller with a large dog. I hoard plastic bags, and never seem to have enough.

Off to New York today for BookExpo America -- feeling a little frantic and more tired than I should be at the beginning of such a big adventure. I have become a complete country mouse, I realized the last time I was in New York, and have lost whatever city skills I had. It's humbling. Sad, even.

Saw a bumper sticker in Augusta this morning that said, "Some Days All I Want to Be is a Missing Person."

Five Random Songs

"Rambling Boy," The Weavers. Classic, and the refrain makes a good impromptu mantra. "Fare thee well, my rambling boy/May all your rambling bring you joy..."

"M-O-N-E-Y," Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. From the Live in Texas CD. "No finance, no romance..." Whoever said that did not live in central Maine.

"So Many Little Lies," Peter Himmelman. I like Peter Himmelman a lot. This song is off a Trampoline Records sampler collection that my sister Susan gave me.

"These Blues is Killing Me," A.C. Reed. The words are grim, but the tune is bouncy and cheerful, and the chorus ("Say what? Say what?") makes me laugh. From the Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Collection.

"Andy's Chest," Lou Reed. The perfect soundtrack for a trip to New York.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What do groundhogs eat?

Who's asking: Me

In West Gardiner, they eat my garden.

Dizzy and I went over to water the patch yesterday afternoon (I don't have a yard; a friend lent me an unused piece of his yard. This friend is British and refers to his entire yard as the garden, which makes conversations about it confusing).

The first thing I noticed, approaching the vegetable patch, was that things didn't look as tall as they had when I left on Saturday. It rained a little on Sunday, and we'd had some wind; could everything have been knocked down?

A closer look found that weather had nothing to do with it. The six lettuce plants were entirely gone. Most of the tomato plants had lost their leaves, and several of the stems were bitten down to the ground. The only plants left mostly intact were the peppers and the marigolds I'd planted to keep the aphids away.

My first instinct was to blame rabbits (too much Beatrix Potter!), but my friend said he'd seen a large woodchuck waddling across the yard, away from the garden. He'd even pointed it out to his visiting nephew as a cute representative of the wonders of nature.

Wonders of nature, my foot. It turns out that woodchucks (or groundhogs, they're the same thing) are the gluttons of the vegetable world. They're herbivores, and how much do you figure they have to eat to keep those doughy body shapes? A lot.

Beginner's mistake on my part, obviously, and I'm considering my options. Deer fencing or chicken wire, to start, but my Organic Gardening book and some websites I've found suggest more exotic remedies. Did you know, for example, that you can buy fox urine in a bottle?

The next time I whine about my workload, please remind me that somewhere, someone has the job of collecting and bottling fox urine for the organic gardening market. If this happens to be your job, please write and tell me about it. I really, really want to know how this works.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Are you really taking the long weekend off?

Who's asking: One of my clients

No. No, I'm not. I tried, and failed. I am incapable of taking meaningful time off unless I physically remove myself from all the tools of my work: no computer, no telephone, no books.

On Saturday I managed to spend a few hours digging a garden. It's a small garden, but with luck it will produce tomatoes and peppers and green leaf lettuce, and something "yellow" that I thought was peppers but may be beans. (The tag on the seedling said "yellow." I assumed the plants were peppers, so didn't ask; now I look at my Organic Gardening book and think they're probably beans. I like beans.)

The fact that I'm working today speaks to some fundamental issues in my life at the moment, things that will require hard decisions and possibly some big changes -- but from those issues, at least, I'm taking a holiday.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

What does the "grip" on a movie do?

Who's asking: Steve Lechner, Freeport, ME

The grip is responsible for moving and setting up the physical equipment of filmmaking: lights and reflectors, Steadicam tracks, pipes and scaffolding, etc. The "key grip" is the leader of a group of grips (say that fast), and can also work as the on-set construction coordinator.

Don't make the mistake of thinking this is unskilled labor. Good grips can make all the difference to a day's shooting. If you've never been on a movie set, you would not believe how long it can take to set things up -- and if it takes too long, depending on the shot, the light has changed and you have to set it up all over again.

Since this was Steve's follow-up question, the "best boy" is the key grip's chief assistant, sometimes called the assistant chief lighting technician. It's the best boy's responsibility to figure out how many men and how much equipment is required for each day's shooting.

I'm off to Agway to look at seedlings. It's a gorgeous day, and Dizzy and I have already spent an hour down at the Cobbosseecontee, reading and chewing on sticks. (Well, each of us did one of those things.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

What do you DO?

Who's asking: My neighbor Monte

Too damn much, is what, and I need to raise my rates. But this is one of those questions that people never really want the answer to, because it's too hard to explain and their eyes glaze over.

I am a writer, researcher and editor for a wide range of clients. This week my projects included a market research report, a couple of newsletters, a draft of Congressional testimony for a nonprofit organization, and website maintenance and strategy for a bestselling author. Still on my to-do list for the week are a proposal to draft marketing materials for a corporate training program and the editing of an author's work-in-progress.

Not all of these things will get done between now and 4:00 p.m., when I plan to meet Mrs. Lechner for margaritas on the deck at Gritty's in Freeport. But I'm working as hard as I can.

What I Read This Week (and now you know why this list is short)

Christopher Buckley, Boomsday. At a dinner in Washington last week, four of us (age range 36-41) were ranting about the fact that our society is starting to look like ancient Egypt, putting a disproportionate and unsustainable (and growing) percentage of resources into its least productive citizens. My friend Megan said, "Hey, have you read Boomsday?" Christopher Buckley's latest satire is about this very issue, and is so angry and brilliant and funny that I want to require every Presidential candidate to read it. 30ish PR executive and blogger Cassandra Devine is obsessed with the fact that her generation is being forced to pay for the excesses of the baby boomers, and offers a simple proposal: Voluntary Transitioning, which would save Social Security by offering massive tax breaks to those who choose suicide at age 70. She's not serious -- not really -- but the proposal takes on a life of its own, and Buckley plays it out with a story that's only too plausible.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

How did "actually" become the most-used word in the United States?

Who's asking: Larry Willis, St. Louis, MO

Verbal tics come and go. I notice that people don't say "You know" as much as they used to, or maybe I've culled those people from my circle of acquaintances. Someone I worked for used to end every sentence with, "You know what I mean?" I assumed it was just a bad conversational habit until I realized that he did, in fact, expect me to acknowledge the wisdom of each of his observations.

I haven't noticed an increase in the use of "actually," but I tend to filter those words out when I'm listening to someone. I'll take Larry's word for it, and it doesn't surprise me if it's true.

One of the reasons I pound my clients so hard about adverbs is that the presence of an adverb makes the reader stop and wonder why it's necessary. A reader sees the tag, "she said coyly," and wonders: why is she coy? What's she got to be coy about? The reader's thoughts wander down that path and away from the conversation on the page, and the writer has lost him. Leave "coyly" out and the reader keeps reading, thinking, "Oh, boy, she wants something."

The very presence of an adverb suggests a need to reassure the reader about something, and creates doubt and distraction where none existed.

Likewise, words such as "actually," "really," "honestly," and "frankly" suggest that you might otherwise lie to the person you're talking to -- and imply that you might be lying now, so need that intensifier to convince your listener of your sincerity.

I actually think (no, really) that people are using the word "actually" more these days because we all feel so uncertain and anxious. We can't believe the people running the government; our sports heroes are mercenary bullies and drug abusers; our movie stars are narcissistic neurotics; and God, as always, works in mysterious ways. When we say "actually," we are saying, "I want to believe this -- if you believe it too, that will help."

But you're right, Larry, it's still annoying.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

How were root beer floats invented?

Who's asking: Carolyn Bea, Alexandria, VA

It's hard to believe someone had to "invent" a root beer float, but the man who gets credit for it is Frank J. Wisner of Cripple Creek, Colorado, who dropped a scoop of vanilla ice cream into a glass of his Myers Avenue Red root beer in 1893. Locals called the drink a "Black Cow" after nearby (snow-capped) Cow Mountain.

Root beer, it turns out, is a literal name -- it's a fermented beverage made from root extracts, and the ambitious can make it at home. Although it's fermented, it's not alcoholic, for reasons I don't really understand. Fermentation is what causes the carbonation, as the interaction of yeast and sugar creates carbon dioxide and sugar alcohol. In a root beer float, the air bubbles in the ice cream act as "nucleation sites" for the carbon dioxide molecules to congregate and form giant bubbles -- which is why the root beer at the bottom of the glass is flat, after the ice cream is gone.

Root beer and sarsaparilla are essentially the same thing: carbonated beverages flavored with sassafras root and other natural flavors (including, depending on the recipe, everything from cinnamon to wintergreen). Root beer is not the same as birch beer, which is flavored with the bark of a birch tree (really). Birch beer is usually red, while root beer is usually brown.

Sassafras oil, found in roots, bark and fruit of the sassafras tree, is powerful stuff. Native Americans brewed it as a medicinal tea and used it as insect repellent. Ground sassafras leaves are a major ingredient in filé, the thickener Creole cooks use for gumbo. Concentrated sassafras oil is sometimes used in moonshine, and can have hallucinogenic properties. It's also now on the list of things that can give you cancer, so commercial root beer brewers use a synthetic sassafras flavor substitute.

Five Random Songs

"Road," Nick Drake. I whine a lot about classic music being used for TV commercials, but VW's use of "Pink Moon" for one of its ads led to a minor Nick Drake revival. That was a good thing.

"Rikki Don't Lose that Number," Steely Dan. Somewhere I read that this song was about a drug dealer, but if that's true, I don't want to know it.

"Corpus Christi Carol (for Roy)," Jeff Buckley. Tragic singer-songwriter morning on the iPod Shuffle. Jeff Buckley sings like an angel. I can only listen to this album (Grace) when I'm in a really good mood. Next...

"A Classic Arts Showcase," ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. A friend of mine said he felt this album (Worlds Apart) wasn't loud enough, and on this song I almost know what he meant. You do need to turn it up, but the guitars sound tinny. Midway through the song it breaks and becomes something almost operatic, which I love.

"Ruined in a Day," New Order. I bought this CD (The Best of New Order) at the going-out-of-business sale of Washington's Serenade Record Store, which used to be at 1800 M Street NW. The stock was pretty well picked-over by the time I got there, but I managed to get this CD along with a Debussy collection, a good recording of Carmina Burana, and Jimmy Cliff Live in Concert. The clerk asked me, "Are all of these for you?" "Yes," I said.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

When are auditions for Crimes of the Heart?

Who's asking: Various Lucky Stiff cast members and others

I think I've mentioned that I'll be directing Gaslight Theater's production of Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley this summer. Show dates are August 16-18 and August 23-25; performances are at Hallowell City Hall.

Auditions are now scheduled for Sunday, June 24 at 1:00 p.m. and Tuesday, June 26 at 7:00 p.m. The cast is four women and two men, playing characters between the ages of 20 and 30.

Crimes of the Heart, if you've never seen the play or the movie, is the story of one bad weekend in the lives of the Magrath sisters. Lenny, a spinster turning 30, has spent her life taking care of their grandfather, who's about to die. Babe, the youngest, has just shot her abusive husband in the stomach after he discovered that she was having an affair with a teenager. Meg, the middle sister, has come home from Los Angeles, where her dreams of stardom have failed. The play is a comedy, but a black one, in the way you have to laugh because -- as the play explains -- it's really not fair to kill yourself.

The play's full of challenges, but the three I worry about most are 1) whether I'll even allow the actors to try Southern accents; 2) where I'm going to get Coca-Cola in glass bottles, a key prop; and 3) how I'm going to create the illusion of flaming birthday candles in a building that doesn't allow any kind of fire. I've already ordered the appropriate Acting with an Accent CD, but suggestions are welcome.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Can sugar-free gum make me fat?

Who's asking: An anonymous Googler from somewhere in Pennsylvania

No. What makes people fat is consuming more calories than they use. Period. No one food makes people fat, and certainly a five-calorie stick of gum doesn't make anyone fat. You can burn five calories in one trip up and down a flight of stairs.

I've never been a gum-chewer, although I'll take a piece if someone offers it. Many years ago, someone gave me a piece of gum before I went to meet the guy I was dating at the time. Before he even said hello, he stepped back and said, "You don't chew gum." Funny how we classify people in those terms.

Dad thought it was an ugly habit, so we never had much of it around in my childhood. Three years of braces made it impossible for me to chew gum between the ages of 11 and 14. Now I grind my teeth when I'm sleep-deprived or stressed, so why would I want to do something that would make my jaw hurt more?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Picture of the week

Megan's bulldogs Sammie and Brindle -- like the Teletubbies -- love each other very much.

Dizzy and I got home last night a little after 11:00. He's passed out, I'm on my way to a Gaslight rehearsal for our summer musical, Lucky Stiff. A producer must wear many hats; today, I'm serving as stand-in for an absent actress in the role of "Drunken Hotel Maid."

The director suggested I might be overqualified for this role. Damn straight: I should at least be a Drunken Housekeeper. Maybe even a Drunken Chatelaine.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A few questions of my own

I am operating on a massive sleep deficit -- six hours last night didn't put me any further behind, but it didn't catch me up, either -- and tired of myself, my voice, and my general insufferableness. Thank God for friends and family who'll put up with it.

So today, rather than pretending I have any answers for anyone, a few questions of my own. If you have answers, please leave them below.

1. Why does everything break down at once? It's never just one major appliance, vehicle, or piece of electronic equipment; it's always at least three in the space of a single week. Why is this?

2. As a corollary question, why do socks all wear out at once?

3. But then, why does only one car headlight blow at a time, even if you replace them both at the same time?

4. Why do people act like such monsters around free stuff? Whether it's food, labor, advance reading copies, or gifts-with-purchase, the idea that someone's entitled to a free whatever disgusts me. I'm damn grateful for free stuff, and it would never occur to me to write or accost someone to ask where my free whatever is or why that favor wasn't done more quickly.

5. What happened to the idea of personal sacrifice for the greater good among our public servants? Where is Sydney Carton when we need him?

All right, that's enough to keep you busy. In Washington one last day, then home again tomorrow. Life would be easier with a jetpack, but then Dizzy couldn't travel with me.

What I Read This Week

Lee Child, Bad Luck and Trouble. Jack Reacher, always the loner, reunites with the members of his former MP Special Investigators' Unit to avenge the deaths of four of their comrades. For the first time, Reacher seems to be counting the cost of his peculiar lifestyle (no possessions but a folding toothbrush, which actually gets destroyed in this book, and no permanent address). Lee Child is speaking and signing at The Mystery Bookstore today, and I'll be interviewing him for a podcast later this afternoon. I feel nervous about that, and he's the first author I've felt nervous about interviewing. If you have any questions you'd like me to ask (Sue...), e-mail them to me.

Harlan Coben (ed.), Death Do Us Part. A collection of short stories of "love, lust, and murder," published by the Mystery Writers of America. It's been on my shelf for at least a year, but it's perfect reading for travel. Tim Maleeny's title story is gleeful and diabolical; Charles Ardai's "The Home Front" deserved its Edgar; and Lee Child's "Safe Enough" has an ingenious twist. Laura Lippman's "One True Love" is my favorite here, though.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Any thoughts on Ouija boards?

Who's asking: Kathleen McLaughlin Jacobson, Los Angeles, CA

Ouija, by Parker Brothers, is officially a game that allows participants to try (or pretend) to communicate with intelligences outside their own. Mom never allowed us to have one, and I inherited her deep distrust -- not to say superstition -- about them.

Everyone's familiar with the set-up. People place two fingers, or a finger and a thumb, on a planchette -- a flat, tripod piece of sliding plastic -- that glides over a board decorated with letters, numbers, and the words "Yes," "No," and "Good Bye." Someone asks a question, and the planchette moves around the board to provide an answer. Someone's usually pushing the planchette, consciously or unconsciously, and hilarity or chills may ensue.

The idea of fortune-telling through automated writing, or through a board, dates back over 3,000 years. Automated writing became a craze throughout the United States and Europe in the 19th century, and people used planchettes on sheets of paper to try to communicate with the spirit world. The Ouija board itself was patented in 1891.

Do I believe that Ouija boards allow communication with the spirit world? Not really. Do I think they're weird and dangerous? Yes.

No good can come from any use of a Ouija board, and people ought to leave them alone. First off, the whole idea is that people using them should surrender their conscious will in order to make themselves available for communications from the Outside. In extreme cases -- e.g., any situation involving preteen girls -- this leaves people vulnerable to delusions and mass hysteria, and encourages people's worst impulses. The Ouija board lets people send messages to each other anonymously, which can be fun or funny, but can also be cruel.

Someone I trust once told me about a group of college friends who became obsessed with a Ouija board. The board seemed to be communicating with one girl in particular, who became convinced that she was the target of some sinister supernatural force. She stopped going to class, stopped leaving her dorm room, and ultimately withdrew from school. Did the spirits drive her out of college? I don't believe that, but I do think that the Ouija board became an instrument for her pre-existing mental instability to grow -- and, my friend thought, for at least one of the other people in the group to experiment with manipulating the girl.

So those are my thoughts on Ouija boards. As I mentioned in a comment on Tuesday, friends of mine have had some pretty disturbing Ouija board experiences; if you have, tell us about them below.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

What's Jerry Falwell doing right now?

Who's asking: Ashton LeBourgeois, Washington, DC

I'm staying with Ashton, so he gets to ask the questions, but this is one I too would like the answer to. In the absence of a HeavenCam, all we can do is speculate.

My own theory is that Jerry Falwell's last thought as he approached that white light was, "I was wrong." In the face of that recognition -- with, I hope, the accompanying instantaneous remorse -- the infinite mercy of God laughed, took him in, and said, "I'd like you to meet my friends Oscar (Wilde) and Gertrude (Stein). Maybe later, you can get a glass of wine with the Apostle Paul."

The God I believe in -- omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinite in mercy and love but ultimately unknowable to us on Earth -- is so far beyond the scope of any human religion that I can only think God must find it all kind of endearing, like a parent watching kids play cops and robbers. "It's not good, what you did," I can imagine God saying. "You didn't get it. But everyone ends up with me in the end anyway, so now that you're here, we'll just move on. Do you get it now?"

Some folks, I imagine, don't get it. And if they don't, they have to stay separate and alone forever. Flames and brimstone are nothing compared to an eternity trapped alone inside one's own mind.

Five Random Songs

Dwight Yoakam, "If There Was a Way." As close to perfect as a country song can get -- a diffident, sad plea for the singer's love to take him back. "I was just wondering/If there was a way..."

Billy Bragg, "Love Gets Dangerous." Sometimes I wonder whether romantic love is just a handy excuse for bad behavior. As an excuse, it's right up there with religion.

The Beatles, "The Long and Winding Road." This song is a river of chocolate, and Paul McCartney's voice is the candy boat that rides it. (Sorry, was that too much? But it's true, just listen.)

Enya, "Marble Halls." This song -- not Enya's version, but the song itself -- features prominently in "Clay," from James Joyce's Dubliners, when a group of people at a party must stop and pay attention to a spinster whose feelings they had never regarded. This version of it is on the "Age of Innocence" soundtrack. "I also dreamt, which charmed me most/That you loved me still the same."

Mary Chapin Carpenter, "A Keeper for Every Flame." Wow, it's Unrequited Love Day on the iPod Shuffle. But as Lily Tomlin says in Shadows & Fog, "Unrequited love is the only love that lasts." Flame on.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Does "Light as a feather, stiff as a board" actually work?

Who's asking: Ashton LeBourgeois, Washington, DC

This question came up last night when Ashton and I were watching that seminal 1990s cheesefest -- er, piece of pop culture -- The Craft. A group of high school girls (Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True, Robin Tunney) dabbles in witchcraft, and they first discover their true powers when three of them raise Rachel True several feet off the floor, using only their fingers.

It's a staple of preteen slumber parties, or at least it was when I was that age. One girl lies rigid on the floor, arms by her sides. The rest of the group sits around her, with the leader at the head. The leader massages the subject's temple while telling a story in a soothing tone of voice -- usually, a story about how the person on the floor came to be there, dead or unconscious. The rest of the group puts two fingers of each hand under the victim. At the end of the story, the leader puts two fingers under each of the victim's shoulders and says, "She is light as a feather, and stiff as a board."

"She is light as a feather, and stiff as a board," everyone repeats, and the group chants this several times as they begin to lift the victim on their fingers. If it works, the victim rises easily from the floor, with almost no effort from each of the people in the group.

That's the theory, anyway. In practice, my fifth-grade classmates and I could never get it to work; nor could we get any results with a similar game, in which one person sits in a chair, the group piles hands atop that person's head, and when everyone removes their hands the person in the chair rises like magic from the seat.

Beth Shapiro swore that she had been at a party where it had worked, or maybe it was one of her sisters; at every slumber party, Girl Scout camp or CYO retreat, someone insisted they knew someone who had done it, or had seen it themselves. But I never did -- and therefore, based on my own field research, I'm saying it doesn't work.

If anyone has any experience to the contrary -- or even a good story about trying it -- leave it in the comments section.

It's one of those things I'd be tempted to try even now, though I suspect that any adult gathering where this became a good idea would involve too much alcohol for safety.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Do you take PayPal?

Who's asking: A potential client who lives outside the United States

I don't, sorry. It would be convenient for clients who live abroad, but few of my clients do.

Today's a slower, lazier day than it should be, but after yesterday and the past week, I needed a day to catch up with myself. It's a beautiful day here in Alexandria, it's good to be with my family, and I am so grateful for my life that I wonder whether I might just disappear. Isn't that what happens when you reach Nirvana?

The Mystery Bookstore has posted a whole new crop of podcast interviews. Click on one of the four boxes in the right-hand corner of the page and you can listen to me talking with Mary Higgins Clark, Carol Higgins Clark, Harlan Coben, Jennifer Colt, Michael Connelly, and Laura Lippman. The interview with Laura is my favorite (ignore the telephone that rings twice about halfway through), although everyone was fascinating. Michael Connelly was honest and insightful about Harry Bosch's future, and his own adventures in the screen trade; Mary Higgins Clark was both hilarious and suspenseful-on-command; Harlan Coben was an incredibly good sport, as I misunderstood his schedule and wound up interviewing him during his signing at Mysterious Galaxy's Festival of Books booth.

Things will be back to normal tomorrow, but in the meantime, here's another picture. That's Chris and this three sisters -- Claire, Celeste, and Carolyn -- at brunch yesterday.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Picture of the week

Congratulations to Christopher Joseph Bea, Bachelor of Arts, St. John's class of 2007. Next to him is his sister Claire, who will receive her degree from McGill in October.

Happy Mother's Day, Vikki.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Did you want any ARCs?

Who's asking: Joseph Finder, Boston, MA

It's still three months from publication, but Joseph Finder, his assistant Sarah and I (and a cast of dozens at Joe's publishing house and elsewhere) have already started the promotional campaign for Joe's next book, POWER PLAY.

The first shipment of advance reading copies reached Joe's office this week. Sarah and I have spent a fair amount of time over the past several months putting together a mailing list of people who should get them -- reviewers, bloggers, opinion-makers, contest winners -- but I hadn't thought to ask for any of my own, until Joe asked me.

So now I have a small box of advance copies of Power Play. Some are already spoken for, but to celebrate the launch of Joe's website redesign, I'll give the rest away to the first people who write and ask me for them. My e-mail address is on my profile, you'll see it if you click on my photo in the right-hand corner. Give me about a week to get them out, since I'll be traveling for the next few days.

Oh, and did I mention that Joe's new website is up? It is, and it looks darn cool if I do say so myself. I am responsible only for content; the design comes from Joe Rivera and the fine folks at the Book Reporter Network. And I've already found a mistake in the text, but such is life. If everything were perfect, I'd be out of a job.

In fact, if you find the error, I'll send you an ARC just for that. Just e-mail it to me, okay? Don't embarrass me by leaving it in the comments section...

Friday, May 11, 2007

Is the French word légume masculine or feminine?

Who's asking: An anonymous Google searcher

Masculine; it's le légume, though one usually sees this noun in the plural (vegetables). People do come here looking for the oddest things.

Driving south tomorrow rather than today, as I'm still catching up on work and taking the car in for repairs this afternoon. The weather's lousy, so I'm better off driving tomorrow, anyway.

This week's major reading has been a 600+ page manuscript clean-up, plus a couple of smaller jobs. I also read some things that were not to my taste, which I'll skip over. But I read two books I liked:

What I Read This Week

Chris Mooney, The Missing. Darby McCormick becomes a criminalist with the Boston police after surviving an attack as a teenager that resulted in the disappearance of one of her best friends. Twenty years later, another young woman goes missing, and a woman is found -- the two events are related, and may even be connected to Darby's own attack. Lots of twists and turns, in the tradition of Kiss the Girls and Silence of the Lambs, though not as graphic. Darby's an excellent character, and I always admire male writers who write believable female protagonists.

Kerry Greenwood, The Green Mill Murder. I was talking about Australian writers earlier this week; here's a good one. Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series features an independent woman in 1920s and 1930s Australia, who flies her own plane and does what she likes. This time out, she's investigating a murder at a dance hall, which leads to a hunt for a long-missing Great War veteran. The murder becomes almost irrelevant to the story, but the plots of these books are so much less important than the chance to hang out with Phryne.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

What happened?

Who's asking: Kit McLaughlin, Upper St. Clair, PA

I knew yesterday's posting was probably too cryptic. Things are fine, it's just the usual exasperating maintenance of a life that sometimes bears too much resemblance to an episode of "I Love Lucy." ("I Love Lucy" is fun to watch, but Lucy Ricardo would have been an annoying person to know in real life.)

In a perfect world I would have a secretary, a business manager, and a handyman, who would all work for peanut butter sandwiches, live in my kitchen drawers and come out only when I need them. In this world I live alone with a dog who'd like to be helpful but is not especially handy, and I rely on an income stream that does not necessarily flow at the same rate as my expenses.

I also drive a seven-year-old car that needs two new tires and a new set of rear brakes -- routine replacements, just expensive.

And the washing machine mishap was just my own incompetence. I'm not bad at routine handyman work, and I'm good with hammers and screwdrivers. I did, after a couple of tries, manage to replace the three-pronged electric cord on my new dryer with a four-pronged one, and the dryer runs without blowing any fuses, starting fires or electrocuting me.

Plumbing, however, is another story. All I'll say is that pipe connections need to be really, really tight before anyone turns the water on.

I'm still behind, and need to head south again this weekend for Chris's graduation from St. John's. Today and tomorrow will be exercises in triage.

Five Random Songs (since I skipped them yesterday)

Lou Reed, "Satellite of Love." I don't care if he made TV commercials for scooters and American Express. Lou Reed will always be an icon of Cool.

Delbert McClinton, "Why Me?" Funny honky-tonk about being picked up by a woman the singer knows will break his heart.

The Delgados, "The Weaker Argument Defeats the Stronger." The Delgados, now broken up, are a band I should have paid more attention to when they were together. This cut is from The Complete BBC Peel Sessions, which I got for Christmas last year. It's cool to listen to this two-CD set in order, because they sound like completely different bands at different stages in their career.

X, "My Goodness." Another good song about an encounter that's nothing but bad news. "My goodness/Just left to make room for you..."

Wonderlick, "Never Let You Go." Wonderlick is one of the successor bands to Too Much Joy, but don't sound much like them; their sound is much more electronic and the perspective is an adult one, though the sense of humor shines through.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Can you...

Who's asking: Anybody

Just for today, the answer is no. Sorry. I'm past deadline on a couple of things, my car needs $400+ worth of repairs to be street legal, and a mishap with a washing machine that I was responsible for apparently wrecked a bunch of my neighbor's stuff.

It's not a good week. It'll be better tomorrow. I hope.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

What is the Australian equivalent of the Edgar Awards?

Who's asking: Since the person asking this question needed to know in order to impress someone, I'd better not say

Australia's awards for excellence in crime fiction are called the Ned Kelly Awards. Ned Kelly (1855-1880) is Australia's national folk hero, the outlaw son of a transported Irish convict. Ned Kelly became the man of his family after his father's death, when Ned was only 11, and he robbed and stole to support his mother and seven siblings. He started to run with a bad crowd -- including his mother's second husband -- and faced constant prosecution (or persecution, depending on whom you ask). He turned to bank robbery and was eventually captured in a homemade suit of armor, in a confrontation with police that is now the stuff of legend.

He might have been forgotten -- or never particularly famous at all -- if not for a letter he dictated for publication to his comrade Joe Byrne in 1879. The Jerilderie Letter, as it is known, is considered a seminal piece of Australian literature; it lays out the injustices done to the Kelly family and, more broadly, to the Irish in Australia. It includes vivid descriptions of the crimes Kelly committed and the crimes he chose not to commit -- "I could have shot them without speaking but their lives was no good to me." The letter orders Kelly's enemies to "sell out and give P10 out of every hundred to the widow and orphan fund ... I am a widow's son orphaned and my orders must be obeyed."

Ned Kelly was hanged in November 1880, after a trial that received worldwide attention.

It's supposed to be a global marketplace, but it's hard to find Australian writers' works in American bookstores. For that matter, it's hard to find any non-American writers' works in American bookstores. Kevin Wignall discussed this at some length in a recent blog post, but I'll ask the question here: why is this?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Why is it "two shakes of a lamb's tail"? Wouldn't "one shake" be faster?

Who's asking: Paul Guyot, St. Louis, MO

This question revealed a major gap in my circle of acquaintances: I don't know any sheep farmers. I was going to seek some out, but that will take a while, and I'm traveling too much this month.

So here's my usual combination of online research and making stuff up.

First off, some people say "three shakes" instead of "two shakes." Three shakes? That's just silly. Avoid these people, along with people who say "between you and I," "utilize," and "to be honest with you..."

No one seems to know where the phrase comes from, but people generally agree that lambs can shake their tails pretty fast, making two shakes almost as fast as one shake -- so perhaps the implication is that the listener needs to be a little patient, but not very. The tone of it is always vaguely apologetic; we use it to refer to ourselves, and you'd never hear anyone ask for something to be done in two shakes of a lamb's tail.

What's very cool and unexpected is that "shake" has become an official time measurement in nuclear science. Nuclear engineers and astrophysicists use "shake" to mean 10 nanoseconds. (A nanosecond is 10 to the power of negative nine; 10 nanoseconds is ten to the power of negative eight. Admiral Grace Hopper, whom I had the honor to meet on two occasions, used to hand out lengths of wire just under a foot long, which demonstrated the distance light travels in a nanosecond.)

As for how fast I can shake my tail -- well, never mind. Momentum can be a frightening phenomenon.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Picture of the week

I wish this photo had turned out better. It's a little-known fact that some dog toys have superpowers. This karate-playing stuffed animal not only makes realistic kung-fu noises, but can fly.

Actually, one of Gary's dogs dropped it off his back deck, and now it's caught in the bougainvillea thorns until the squirrels dislodge it. Archaeologists may one day find scraps of it and wonder what deity it was an offering to.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

How many of the situations in the Alanis Morissette song are actually "ironic"?

Who's asking: Paul Tomme, Arlington, TX

Irony, for those of you who never saw "Reality Bites," is the use of words to express something different from (and often opposite to) the apparent meaning. It's also an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.

I overuse it, mostly as a crutch to hold myself aloof and pretend I don't care about things I care deeply about -- so much so, that friends don't always recognize it when I am being sincere, and take offense when I really do mean to compliment them.

9/11 was supposed to be the end of irony, but turns out to have been only a temporary interruption.

Anyway, the Alanis Morissette song is full of things that are disappointments, but not ironies:

A black fly in your Chardonnay (not ironic)
A death-row pardon two minutes too late (maybe, but only if the person being executed was a hanging judge)
Rain on your wedding day (not ironic -- in fact, good luck in many cultures)
A free ride when you've already paid (possibly ironic)
Good advice that you just didn't take (not ironic, without additional information)
Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife (not ironic)
Meeting the man of your dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife (story of my life, but not ironic)

Two situations in the song do meet the criteria for irony, I think: the man who won the lottery and died the next day, and the man who was afraid to fly whose plane crashed.

It's another beautiful day, and I might go look at seedlings this afternoon. Someone has offered me garden space, and hope springs eternal.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Who won last night's Republican presidential debate?

Who's asking: Talking heads everywhere

Truly, I don't know and I don't care. I watched most of last night's debates, flipping back and forth between that and the Thursday night shows on NBC -- I clicked away every time a candidate mentioned Ronald Reagan, and clicked back at commercials.

Political reporters seem to think Mitt Romney won last night's debate, but I could hardly stand to watch him; I get no sense of him as anything but a carefully-constructed persona. The only person who seemed to be speaking honestly and rationally, without an eye to the camera, was Ron Paul, whom no one's taking seriously as a candidate.

Come the summertime, I plan to spend a fair amount of time at rallies in New Hampshire, just for the curiosity value. This stuff is too important to let television tell us what to think.

What I Read This Week

Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone. Finally read this book, after meeting the man last weekend; I should have read it last year, when it came out. In an Ozark winter, 16-year-old Ree Dolly goes looking for her father, because if he's jumped bail, they'll lose their house. This spare, concentrated novel distills all the bleakness of poverty and all the resilience of youth -- its violence is not gratuitous and its ending is not unrealistically happy, but I finished it feeling I'd known Ree Dolly all my life.

Stef Penney, The Tenderness of Wolves. I wish I hadn't read so much about this book, which won the 2006 UK Costa (formerly Whitbread) Award for Book of the Year. Simon & Schuster seems to be marketing its US release (in July) as a thriller, but that may be inviting disappointment. The Tenderness of Wolves is a wildly ambitious, sprawling epic set in northern Canada in 1867. A teenaged boy disappears after the murder of a French-Canadian trapper; his mother, who narrates much of the book, follows him into the wilderness. Along the way, other men are looking for two long-missing English girls, a mysterious native carving, a priceless cache of furs, and the trapper's killer. It's Dickensian in scope, and the writing is beautiful -- but parts of it do drag, and some of the subplots can't help but be underdeveloped. It's an impressive first novel, but not as good as I'd hoped and expected.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Did you still want to go to the movies today or tomorrow?

Who's asking: One of my neighbors; last week we'd talked about catching a matinee when I got back to town

I always want to go to the movies, but not today and not tomorrow. Movers are delivering a shipment of furniture and other stuff -- including a washer and dryer, unimaginable luxury -- from my parents' old house this afternoon, a week earlier than expected. (Crazy, huh? Any minute now, it'll start raining dollar bills.)

It'll take me at least a couple of days to figure out where to put it all. I don't even know exactly what's coming, but I'm pretty sure I'm getting a couple of bookcases, which I desperately need.

The timing on this is good. I'm not exactly caught up with all my projects -- if I'm not overcommitted, I'm not working hard enough -- but I've finished everything that doesn't require major time and attention. A little furniture-rearranging and organizing will give the right side of my brain a break.

In the meantime, though, "Fracture" will have to wait. Sorry...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

How long does it take to go from Portland to Washington, DC by train?

Who's asking: Richard Bostwick, Hallowell, ME

The train from Portland to Boston only runs a few times a day, and doesn't go directly through to Washington. You have to transfer at Back Bay in Boston, which isn't difficult; you can also take the express bus from Portland to Boston's South Station, and switch to Amtrak there. Either way, it takes about 12 hours; travel time's a little shorter if you catch the Acela from Boston, but waiting time between transfers is longer.

Prices for the trip range from $100 to $216 each way -- about the same as it would cost to drive, figuring in gas and tolls for a 600-mile trip -- and travel time is about the same. I love train travel, and since I have to go back to Washington next week, I considered this -- but it would mean leaving Dizzy behind again, which I don't really want to do. I'd much rather ride than drive for 12 hours (I could read three books in that time, depending on the books), but it wouldn't be fair to leave Dizzy behind again for a week, especially since I'll have to leave him for a Montreal - New York trip at the end of the month.

After that, thank God, I'll be home for a while.

Five Random Songs

"Country Death Song," Violent Femmes. A tragic story of child-killing, set to a cheerful bluegrass tune. A good soundtrack for a book I read yesterday, but more about that on Friday.

"The Good Intent," Roseanne Cash. This song begins with an old recording of Johnny Cash talking to his daughter as an infant, getting her to speak into a microphone. This album (Black Cadillac) still comforts me tremendously; Jen Lechner gave it to me, and I gave copies to all my siblings for Mom's birthday last year.

"I Have the Touch," Peter Gabriel. I'd be excited about the Genesis reunion if he were going to be part of it. Otherwise, not so much.

"On the Rise," Meat Puppets. This was a recent download; I think (and hope) it's a cut off a forthcoming album. These guys are touring again this summer, and if I get a chance to see them, I'll be there.

"It's All in Your Mind," Beck. Ooh, music to slit one's wrists by. Too early in the morning for this. Next...

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Do you miss Los Angeles?

Who's asking: Almost everyone I've seen, Los Angeles, CA

Sure I do, sometimes. Lots of things I don't miss: the traffic, the self-absorption, the relentless sexualization of everything, the assumption that only youth matters.

But I miss my friends, I miss the weather, I miss the ability to go from beach to mountains in half an hour. I miss being able to see any movie I want to see at almost any time of day. I miss the variety of produce in the supermarkets, and I miss Trader Joe's so much I didn't even go into one while I was here, for fear that I'd start to cry.

That's not to say I don't love Maine. Maine's home in a way I can't explain, and never expected it to be. It is cold and rocky and isolated, hiding great beauty and the ability to explode into growth with only a little bit of sunshine and warmth. Draw your own metaphor.

Today, especially, I also miss my mom, who would have been 66 today. No place is really home without her.

Back to Maine today... thanks to everyone who offered hospitality on this trip, especially Lori, Pete and Frankie (my dog nephews), Sheila and Greg, Ann Marie, and everyone at The Mystery Bookstore. I wish I could have stayed a little longer, as I'm leaving without seeing too many of the people I wanted to see. Next time.